How the New Yorker stays on top of the humor news cycle: “My No. 1 news source these days is my submission pile. Sometimes it beats the Times”

New Yorker Daily Shouts

(Credit: newyorker.com/Screen Montage by Salon)

Over the last several years, the Daily Shouts & Murmurs section of The New Yorker website has fostered and cultivated a wide array of voices and humor styles that manage to seamlessly connect to the magazine proper while still distinguishing the online daily section as something unique and experimental. At the helm of this endeavor is editor Emma Allen, whose eye for talent and appreciation for both the absurd and the satirical help Daily Shouts stand out.

Although she’s constantly swamped with submissions (often from me, possibly from you), Allen recently took the time to respond to some questions about how digital platforms relate to comedy, how to edit humor and the value of taste in written pieces.

What was your interest in comedy before you got the Daily Shouts position? Did you write or produce humor before, or did you have other interests and the transition happened organically?

I’ve always been interested in comedy (as diversion, coping mechanism, etc.) and growing up in New York City was lucky enough to see lot of live comedy at a young age. In fact, my best friend in high school did standup, so I attended more than my share of horrifying open-mic nights before I could legally buy a beer. I remember there was one frequent open-mic performer who would bend over a stool and narrate the experience of getting an enema, which was pretty enlightening.

Then in college, I was an editor of the Arts & Living section of the Yale Daily News and edited a humor page there, with a stable of incredible writers that included Ethan Kuperberg and Will Stephen, now of “Transparent” and “SNL” respectively, who’ve gone on to contribute fabulous stuff to The New Yorker.

After graduation, I worked as a visual arts writer and editor, which sounds unfunny, but as the rookie, a lot of what I was assigned had comedic potential. (For instance, I covered the “animal artist” beat, which is a rich one, pun-wise.)

When I was hired by The New Yorker it was by the all-time great humor editor Susan Morrison, of SPY magazine fame, among many other things. She taught me so much about tightening jokes and honing writers’ voices without causing them too much anxiety, or having them feel like I’ve robbed their work of anything essential.

In a position like this, how do you compromise between keeping the voice consistent and bringing in new writers? Is there ever a situation where something is undeniably funny, but you can’t let it through because the tone or structure isn’t in line with the needs of the publication? 

One of the wonderful things about Daily Shouts, which we launched about three years ago, and I took over about two years ago, is that there’s never been any pressure to have any sort of tonal consistency. I think it’s sort of fantastically all over the place. And it’s become a venue for introducing new and different types of writers with different styles and voices. It’s also become a springboard for them — a place to strengthen their writing, and maybe then get a piece in the magazine.

I’m trying to recall if there’s ever been anything that I’ve felt I had to reject — I guess there are things that are so graphically lewd that I might hesitate to post them, lest I cause some of our readers to have heart attacks — but if it’s good enough . . . I usually find a way to make it work.

With Daily Shouts, you’ve been able to give voice to more female writers, as well as have a mix of absurdist pieces and more topical ones. Were these part of your vision for Daily Shouts, or did they just happen as the site gained a certain amount of popularity?

I definitely didn’t have an agenda going in, although I do believe that there’s no reason why white men should have any sort of corner on the comedy market. I think the diversity of voices has had more to do with just having a platform where I get to promote things that I believe are good. There are so many awesome comedians out there that I see at readings, and whose work I admire on other Web sites, and I’m in the incredibly privileged position of being able to reach out to them and encourage them to try their hand at Shouts-writing.

It is true that as Daily Shouts has gained more visibility, more and more people from all over, with crazily divergent styles, have started submitting on their own, which is a huge boon for me. Things are wending their way to my inbox and the general submission inbox (which I also read) that are just superb, by people I maybe wouldn’t have found on my own. It makes my job easier, except that at all times I now have like a thousand pieces to read.

Publishing more timely stuff is just a basic benefit of the medium — I can turn things around for the web much faster than we can for a magazine that’s on a weekly production schedule.

Do you think that the rise of the Internet helped in any way to either reinvigorate humor writing, or allow new formats to emerge and find popularity? If so, what role do you think The New Yorker’s digital platform has been in that?

Yes! I’d say the Internet has been hugely beneficial for humor writers. There just weren’t that many platforms for written humorous fiction before and now there are so many flourishing ones — Reductress, Clickhole, Splitsider, College Humor, McSweeney’s. I’m so pleased that Daily Shouts gets to be a part of that dynamic landscape. (The New Yorker was founded as a humor publication, after all.)

Format-wise, sure: there’s room for more interactive and multimedia and illustrated stuff; for pieces that are much shorter (maybe too slight for the print publication); or much longer (too many print pages), etc.

One unique thing the site is able to do is feature content that responds directly to a recent news item or cultural conversation. “Behold Your Newest Silver-Screen Sex Goddess, Jane Neighbor” comes to mind as a piece that managed to sharply respond to a conversation that was maybe a week old, if that. In this way, do you see digital platforms as having more power or ability to stay current and engage culture in ways a physical publication might not be able to?

Definitely — as I said above, the medium is such that I can turn things around very quickly, which is not always possible with a weekly print publication, although we have also crashed great timely Shouts & Murmurs into the magazine at the last minute. (Susanna Wolff’s “To Fall Out of Love, Do This,” for instance, which lampooned a viral New York Times article that had just come out.)

And, yes, it’s always satisfying to really nail the timing on something. With Daily Shouts, sometimes that means seeing some news item and immediately reaching out to writers in our stable (by which I just mean frequent contributors whom I trust to turn something clean around quickly). More often, though, I don’t even see the breaking news before I get an influx of pieces satirizing it. My No. 1 news source these days is my submission pile. Sometimes it beats the Times.

Two fairly frequent contributors you have to Daily Shouts are Jesse Eisenberg and Colin Nissan. Both have fairly different voices, but they always work their way to the joke. Do you think it takes a certain kind of brain or set of experiences to write things that are funny?

I’m sure there are plenty of graduate theses that have lots to say about what makes a person funny. But I don’t know that I would dare analyze what makes Colin or Jesse or any of our other frequent contributors funnier than your average human. Both Jesse and Colin are very talented prose writers, as well as joke-makers, which is one of the reasons they end up on the site with some frequency.

The one thing I can say is that whatever it is that makes a humor piece work doesn’t follow any obvious pattern. You just have to have an original conceit and execute it well, in a surprising way. (Helpful advice, right?) But you don’t need any special degree, or special training to do it. I think it’s one of the best things about humor at The New Yorker — in a publication where you generally have to be an expert in your field, a well-established writer or scholar to be published, I get to take random submissions from college kids and first-time writers and people from, like, rural Canada and get them onto newyorker.com.

In your experience, how much influence or reworking should the editor engage in?

I think it varies from piece to piece. Beyond grammatical fixes and reformatting, though, I usually aim for minimal intervention, unless it significantly sharpens a joke or clarifies the conceit. And it’s always a give and take with the writer, too. But my writing for the magazine goes through the editing wringer, so I know first-hand the gut-wrenching pain that comes from seeing a new draft of your story that doesn’t feel like the thing you wrote. First and foremost, I aim not to cause people too much pain.

Is there anything out there that you feel hurts the medium of humor writing? I think there’s a notion for some that written humor isn’t for everyone in the same way that Will Ferrell vehicles or the soft punch lines of a Jimmy Fallon monologue might be, but I’m not entirely sure that’s the case.

People have very different tastes when it comes to comedy. And I try to publish well-written things that I think will appeal to sensibilities other than my own, even if they are not my favorite pieces ever. But I wouldn’t say that some types of humor are inherently bad (other than just like patently racist, sexist, bigoted stuff).

The only thing I really see potentially hurting the medium is the vitriol of commenters on social media who, sometimes going off only a headline, or an out-of-context quote that’s making the rounds, will say horrible and abusive things about a writer or a piece of writing. The democratic potential of online criticism is so theoretically heartening, and I take sane concerns and complaints to heart, but if someone doesn’t like your humor piece that makes gentle fun of, I don’t know, cheese, it’s crazy that then feel entitled to say that you deserve to die.

Do you think humor needs to be tasteful in order to work? What do you think the compromise is between relevancy and intent? Humor and culture at the moment?

I sometimes worry that a quest for “tasteful” humor can push people to publish stuff that’s safe or soft, which is dangerous because inflammatory humor can serve a really productive and progressive purpose — where would we be without Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks?

That said, I think one of the most important job of an editor is to try to anticipate various possible readings of, and responses to, the things you’re going to publish, and to try to only publish things that will do more good than bad, once they’re unleashed on the world. (Sorry if that sounds too Aaron Sorkinian — blech.) But honestly, I am constantly misgauging how pieces will be received. And I just have to move on to the next one and keep trying to make informed, empathetic decisions.

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the Neu  Jorker parody that lovingly skewered the quirks and signature aspects of The New Yorker. While obviously an homage, the apparently one-shot magazine did tear into the humor section a bit. I’m curious if outside criticism like this — no matter how loving or well-intentioned — penetrates a publication with such renown. Either way, what do you do to help keep the Daily Shouts sharp, engaged, and varied week to week? 

I loved The Neu Jorker! And a number of its writers, including Blythe, who wrote the mock Shouts & Murmurs, are contributors to Daily Shouts, which I thought made it even better. There is no greater honor than such a specific and on-the-nose parody. I haven’t heard anyone here complain about it. Mostly, our exhausted editors are just amazed that anyone would tackle the task of producing a whole issue, albeit a parody, for fun.

And I’m flattered that you describe Daily Shouts as “sharp, engaged, and varied” — really the writers just keep churning out sharp, engaged, and varied stuff and I wade through a lot of it and try not to edit it in a way that makes them want to kill me/never submit again.

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Watching scary movies in the dark: The success of “Don’t Breathe” and the resurgence of horror

Don't Breathe

Jane Levy in “Don’t Breathe” (Credit: Screen Gems)

This is the worst summer for Hollywood in more than two decades.

As of the time of writing, the 2016 summer box office stands at $4.12 billion, according to Box Office Mojo. At face value, that doesn’t seem so bad. The legendarily abysmal summer of 2014, in which “Despicable Me 2” topped a dreary season, fared worse in total dollars, topping out at just over $4 billion. But adjusting for inflation, you have to go back 24 years to find a summer this anemic — to 1992, which saw the release of summer movies like “Batman Returns,” “Honey I Blew Up the Kid,” “Alien 3,” and “Pet Sematary II.”

The hottest months of the year are reliably big business for Hollywood, but 2016 has been notable for a series of big-budget failures. Sequels and franchise reboots like “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Ben-Hur,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” all flopped, while “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Suicide Squad” underperformed to their billion-dollar expectations. The decent $125 million haul of “Ghostbusters” would have been an unqualified success for any other comedy, but not an expensive studio tentpole that reportedly had to earn $400 million globally just to break even.

But amidst Hollywood’s sea of troubles, the horror genre continues to prove itself recession-proof. Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe” made twice what it was expected to earn over the weekend, taking in $26.4 million. The film, in which a group of teenage burglars attempt to rob the wrong blind guy, was boosted by stellar critical reviews — earning an 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a rarity for a mainstream horror release.

As I’ve previously written, 2016 has been a banner year for horror — both in terms of box-office success and overall quality. Sundance breakout “The Witch,” one of the best movies of the year so far, earned $40 million dollars, 13 times its slim $3 million budget. “Suicide Squad” and “The Legend of Tarzan,” both of which struggled to break even against massive budgets, would kill for those dividends. Fellow horror hits like “The Conjuring 2” ($319 million worldwide), “Lights Out” ($110 million), “10 Cloverfield Lane” ($108.3 million) “The Purge: Election Year” ($102.3 million), “The Shallows” ($84.5 million) each made back between five to 10 times their modest budgets.

The lower financial risk associated with horror releases makes them the “best investment in Hollywood,” as FiveThirtyEight points out. But why are audiences lining up to get their pants scared off at the theater when so many other properties have been abandoned by moviegoers?

In recent years, studios have tried to entice potential patrons to leave their living rooms by turning filmgoing into a Super Bowl-like event, a unique experience that can’t be recreated via “Netflix and chill.” But more than any other genre, horror needs to be experienced in the dark of a movie theater. It thrives on that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs as we cling to the arm of the person next to us, nervously awaiting that unexpected “boo!” moment. The communal experience of having the daylights scared out of us reminds audiences why we go to the movies in the first place.

How horror gave us what 3D didn’t

The success of horror movies in 2016 has frequently been chalked up to viewers’ desires for fresh ideas during a year where everything feels like a retread. Did we really need another “Independence Day” movie, or a “Zoolander” follow-up more than a decade too late?

That’s a nice sentiment, except that it isn’t entirely true. Of the year’s 10 highest grossing films so far, just two are original properties: “Zootopia” and “The Secret Life of Pets.” (“Deadpool” is technically a spinoff from the poorly received “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”) Of this year’s movies officially classified as financial failures on Box Office Flops, just 24 percent were sequels or reboots. The list of bombs includes critical darlings like “The Nice Guys,” “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” and “Midnight Special,” the kinds of idiosyncratic, original concepts frustrated filmgoers say they want.

Audiences do want those movies, but they don’t want to pay $15 for them — especially when something like “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” “A Hologram for the King,” or “Florence Foster Jenkins” will just be available on iTunes in three months.

The latter is a fine example of the issue at hand. Starring Meryl Streep as a famously terrible opera singer, the Stephen Frears-directed comedy is the kind of well-crafted adult entertainment that — at one time — proved a reliable sleeper hit in the dog days of August, when students abandon the theaters for the classroom. That strategy worked wonders for Streep’s “Julie and Julia” in 2009. Co-starring Amy Adams, the frothy Julia Child biopic earned $94 million domestically.

Despite warm reviews and strong Oscar buzz, “Florence Foster Jenkins” has earned just $20 million in the U.S. at this point in its run. The film will likely finish with less than half of what fellow August release “Hope Springs,” in which Streep and Tommy Lee Jones played an aging couple struggling with intimacy, earned four years ago.

This isn’t a Meryl Streep problem, of course. It’s a Hollywood problem.

Overall filmgoing has notably declined in recent years, reaching a 20-year low point in 2014. Following the massive success of “Avatar,” the resurgence of 3D was intended to stem the tide of audience ennui. The James Cameron-directed film was an unprecedented global phenomenon, one that managed to get $2.7 billion dollars worth of viewers to buy a movie ticket at a time when people don’t buy movie tickets. Suddenly, everything was in 3D, even if it didn’t need to be. Baz Luhrmann’s unnecessary “The Great Gatsby” remake reimagined the Roaring Twenties as an era where the glamour and wanton excess of the idle rich literally reached out and touched audiences.

Through fourth-wall-breaking spectacle, the 3D revolution was intended to reclaim the theater’s rightful place as the center of the moviegoing universe. It was a faulty gamble. The public’s interest in 3D has drastically waned since the technology’s heyday, when the glitzy gimmick was supposed to “save” cinema. In 2014, just 6.6 percent of films were released in 3D, down from a peak of 45 percent just three years earlier.

Why horror audiences keep coming back

If 3D failed to give audiences a compelling reason to come back to the multiplex, horror has done what it did not.

“Don’t Breathe,” which relies on a tightly-wound coil of tension to build its unbearable atmosphere of suspense, needs to be seen in the largest, most crowded theater imaginable. The film was produced by Sam Raimi, cinema’s reigning grand maestro of funhouse horror. Movies like “Drag Me to Hell” and “Evil Dead 2” are designed to push the audience’s buttons, so giddily inventive that they border on cartoonish. In the former, a mousy banker (Alison Lohman) fights off the forces of the underworld after a scorned client puts a demonic curse on her. In the film’s most cringe-inducing sequence, the heroine jams a ruler down her tormentor’s throat.

“Don’t Breathe” pays tribute to that scene in what amounts to the most egregious use of a turkey baster in cinema history, a moment so deliriously tasteless that it elicits paroxysms of shock and delight. You’ll gasp. You’ll be disgusted. You might also clap for joy.

There’s a certain call-and-response aspect that’s unique to the experience of horror, which needs an active, engaged viewership to effectively get under our skin. For instance, you might roll your eyes at the crying, hysterical theatergoer next to you in “Don’t Breathe” — that is, until you are that person. In an interview with The Wrap, Alexandra West of the Faculty of Horror podcast explained that these extreme, often vocal reactions are caused by the “physical sensation” that horror elicits, one she compares to pornography.

“It provokes people in so many different ways,” West argues. “There’s a huge amount of participation. At ‘Lights Out,’ for example, it was a packed crowd and people were losing their minds.”

This communal experience is not totally exclusive to horror. Being in a standing-room-only theater filled with people laughing hysterically can make the most middling of comedies funnier (e.g. “Meet the Fockers”). No genre, however, has the ability to use mass hysteria to tap into the audience’s collective unconscious like horror does — the buried, primordial fears unearthed through public catharsis.

On a surface level, “Don’t Breathe” and “Lights Out” deal with our respective fears of silence and darkness. But Alvarez’ film also uses the landscape of contemporary Detroit — the parts that look abandoned and post-apocalyptic — as an allegory about the failed economy. “Don’t Breathe” is about our fear of getting trapped, whether that’s in a basement or a rundown neighborhood few have the opportunity to leave. Rocky (Jane Levy) robs a blind Gulf War vet (Stephen Lang) not out of greed but to buy a better life for her younger sister, whom she plans to move to California. The botched heist ends in a violent, terrifying standoff, but it’s less scary than the everyday reality of living in Detroit.

The breakout success of “Don’t Breathe” and its peers will continue to be tested in the fall with the release of a string of horror sequels: “Rings,” which trades the deadly videotapes of the 2002 original for a haunted iPad; “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” a “Conjuring”-like take on the popular board game; and “Blair Witch,” a reimagining of the 1999 cult phenomenon. Sixteen years ago, its shaky-cam forebear nabbed an unbelievable 4,143x return in its $60,000 budget, a harbinger of the decades to come. What once seemed like an outlier now looks like the future of cinema.

In “Danse Macabre,” a 1981 non-fiction book on the evolution of popular horror, Stephen King describes terror as the “finest emotion.” When it comes to the movies, it’s also the one that keeps us coming back.

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Colin Kaepernick’s brave decision: An open letter to the 49ers quarterback

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick (Credit: Reuters/Jake Roth)

Dear Brother Kaepernick,

I could only imagine the repetitive thump of vomitous noise you are hearing from the racist parasites that hinder American growth. So much that maybe you questioned your decision — I hope not, but if you did, I’d like to say that we are proud you chose to sit out again and that the people are with you.

I don’t speak for every person of color, nor do I try to; however, as a community activist, professor, and writer, I have a firsthand experience in dealing with some of the victims you sided with when you sat the anthem out — through dealing with police brutality, struggling to navigate through this racist system, and drying the tears of Baltimore residents who had to watch Freddie Gray’s murderers go free. Often the fight feels like a hopeless nightmare, but the work so many of us activists are doing in an effort to enhance social relations has just been elevated by your brave decision. My time in modern activism has taught me not to rely on professional athletes or entertainers in general, and you changed that.

Don’t get it twisted, we will certainly welcome any high profile help that we can get, but I understand that over 95% of these predominantly black-stacked teams have white owners who don’t understand what its like to be black in America, probably don’t care, and have benefited from the racist legacy attached to the American flag. They have a vested interest in patriotism and nationalism, as it has played a key role in their businesses, their families, the billions of dollars they make. Anything against the ideologies that are directly connected to the money is criminal, and no endorsement-seeking athlete wants to be seen as a criminal or traitor, they just want to get paid for their talents, as they should.

I also respect the professional athletes who understand these issues, but don’t want to ruffle any feathers because they use their money to bring about systemic change in a different way, which is also valuable. Either way, your decision is monumental and you will now be mentioned in the ranks with other courageous athletes like the late great Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Craig Hodges, John Carlos, and Tommy Smith. All of you are honorable and took huge gambles just to be on the right side of history, regarding morality and representing the plight of your people. And Colin, you are also on the right side of history by boycotting the anthem, as it wasn’t intended for black people when it was created by Francis Scott Key, a slave owner in 1814.

I explained his role in the toxic legacy of the song in my book, “The Beast Side,” published last year: “Francis Scott Key sang for freedom while enslaving blacks. His hatred even bled into the lyrics of the elongated version of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ you won’t hear at a sporting event. The third stanza reads, ‘No refuge could save the hireling and slave, From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.’

That line was basically a shot at the slaves who agreed to fight with the British in exchange for their freedom. Who wouldn’t want freedom, and how could he not understand them opting out for a better life?

A life free of mass whippings, rape and unpaid labor. Andrew Jackson caught wind of slaves agreeing to fight with the British in exchange for freedom and made a similar promise to thousands of slaves in Louisiana. He told them if they protected Louisiana, they could be free after the war. Well, we won the war, and then Jackson reneged on the deal. He went on to be president while the brave Africans who fought with honor went back into servitude.

Jackson’s lie was followed by generation after generation of broken promises. It’s 200 years later and America still enslaves a tremendous amount of its population through poverty, lack of opportunity, false hopes of social mobility, unfair educational practices and the prison industrial complex.”

This essay alone brought me hundreds of death threats and cost me money, and some employment opportunities that I really needed at the time it was published, but it was the right thing to do and I wouldn’t change a word. Hopefully your boycott will be followed by more public figures taking a stand and pushing to truly make this country a better place. The other day I saw a funny meme with a picture of that clown Donald Trump spewing hate about America not being great and receiving love from the same people ripping you for being brave, in our nation of double standards — and that’s the problem.

Too many Americans act like loving this country means never criticizing this country and that’s just stupid. Blindly praising a flag and not acknowledging the problems that exist is the most un-American thing a person can do. When did challenging our country to be better become anti American? That same mentality is responsible for our country lagging in education, healthcare, life expectancy — we are just claiming to be the greatest without doing the work.

James Baldwin once wrote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” We change flat tires and put cast on broken arms in this country — we fix problems. So why are so many of our citizens suffering without notice? If you truly love America, you’d challenge it and all it’s flaws until it was a place where equality truly exists, that’s what you are doing and that’s what being great is all about.

Thank you again for choosing the people, we salute you.

One Love,

D. Watkins

Below, watch D. Watkins chat with activist Tariq Toure about Colin Kaepernick and police brutality

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The job crisis we must not ignore: Employment for young Americans remains staggeringly low

hire_me_graduate

(Credit: AP/Matt Rourke)

In the surreal kabuki theater that is  “Choice 2016″ the entire focus by the corporate news media is on Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It is all about the major party candidates latest gaffe, facial tick, or how much money they have, or haven’t raised.

Missed in this over priced electoral carnival is a crisis that has been brewing in plain sight for decades, a growing cohort of disconnected teens and young adults who are neither in school nor working. By some estimates there is  between 5.5 million to  6.7 million of these idle young souls whose inability to actualize will have profound lifelong implications for them and for the nation as a whole.

As older teens age into young adults, with no job and no direction, that failure to launch means failure to individuate from their parents, delaying marriage or even their own household formation. That lack of what psychologists call ‘agency over their lives’ hobbles them for life in terms of depressed lifetime earnings and the increasing likelihood they’ll end up incarcerated or bleeding out as a gun violence victim.

Dr. Harriet Fraad, a New York City mental health counselor who specializes in helping families cope with economic dislocation, said there’s an alienation that can set in the longer the young person is disconnected.

“They are told no one wants or needs you,” Fraad told Salon. “Their respites are to join others and fight for change, or become criminal to fight back, or get high and escape as rural youth can attest.”

Fraad thinks the emergence of this out of work-not in school young adult age cohort has prompted these  young people to question the legitimacy of capitalism.

“That is why now a majority prefer socialism to capitalism even though they are nor certain what either means,”  Fraad said. “They know we have capitalism and they are hurting.”

“Disconnected youth are white and black, Hispanic and Asian,” according to Opportunity Nation, a non-profit advocacy group’s website. “They are middle-class and poor, native born and immigrants. They live in rural, suburban and urban areas. Some struggled in school and lacked adequate supports to make it to graduation day. They include in their number the estimated one million students who drop out of high school each year, and fall through the cracks.”

Just last week, an insightful analysis by the Chicago Tribune reported that in Chicago there were 45,000 20 to 24 year olds not in school and not working. When they looked at data for the greater Chicago metro region they found that there were 150,000 idle 16 to 24 year olds.

The Chicago Tribune observed that from January to July of this year 55 percent of the shooting victims and 59 percent of the arrests related to shootings in Chicago were of young people in the  15-to-24 age cohort.

“The two trends are tragically intertwined, where youth unemployment contributes to the incidence of violence, and violence in our communities contributes to many barriers to employment, both because of the violence itself and because of the criminal justice system’s response to that violence,” Matt Bruce, executive director of the Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance told the Chicago Tribune.

The trend was first flagged by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as starting to manifest in the early 2000s and has only accelerated over time. With post Great Recession structural shifts, like the spike in returning senior citizens back into the workforce, the bar is even higher today for kids to get that first job. The longer they go without that first employment experience the more depressed their lifetime earnings.

A BLS analysis noted that some of the summer youth employment drop off  was the result of more kids opting for summer school or some other form of academic enrichment over working but also concluded that for kids looking for work jobs were harder to come by.

“There is evidence as well that the types of jobs that teens would normally fill have become scarcer: not only is there increased competition for such jobs from other groups, but also, fewer summer jobs are funded through government programs,” wrote Teresa Morisi, a BLS economist in a 2010 white paper. “Finally, the decade has experienced two recessions, which no doubt have diminished employment opportunities for teens as well as other age groups.

The research is clear that it is that first summer job that often acts as the catalyst for a career.  While higher education, no doubt has its value, life is not always about just improving yourself, but bringing value to the broader community in the humility of service  to others that we find in work.

In his last State of the Union Address, President Obama raised the issue of “disconnected youth” and he asked Congress for $5.5 billion to help fund programs to increase employment and career opportunities for this cohort in an era where globalization and automation were making jobs increasingly harder to come by. Since 2010, when that Bureau of Labor research first surfaced about the deteriorating youth employment picture, Congress’s response has been to cut this programs by hundreds of millions of dollars in the years since.

But it’s not just about Republican of Democrats. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a self-proclaimed progressive, celebrated his “historic” boost of summer youth employment slots to 60,000. Yet, sadly close to 140,000 kids applied to the lottery-based program, meaning close to 80,000 kids were sent away empty handed. Since when was 43 percent a passing grade and what does the use of a lottery affirm?

What we have here is not a failure of just the Democrats or the Republicans, but of those of us who are middle-aged and older, who control stuff,  to make the fate of every one of our nation’s kids something we care about and that informs our voting. If we saw one of our own kids just hanging out for years,  aging into young adulthood idle, you can bet we’d take action.

It would be very much about the urgency of now.

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“Dekalog”: The legendary Communist-era Polish miniseries that shaped the TV we watch today

Dekalog

A still from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s TV series “Dekalog” (Credit: Janus Films)

Did an obscure TV miniseries made in Poland at the tail end of the Communist era — and seen in the West only by art-film devotees — pave the way for the explosion of quality TV drama that produced “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and so many other memorable shows? No doubt about it: Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Dekalog,” a hypnotic, interlocking and often devastating series of 10 hour-long episodes set in the same Warsaw apartment complex and loosely inspired by the Ten Commandments, was something of a curiosity in the late 1980s.

The series was largely understood by American critics and elite audiences as a cinematic work that had arrived by way of the small screen for eccentric reasons: Things were different in Europe and even more different on the other side of the corroding Iron Curtain. An expanded version of “Dekalog Five,” titled “A Short Film About Killing,” won a prize at Cannes in 1988 and played as a theatrical release in Western nations, months before Kieslowski’s series even reached the air. Now a digital restoration of the entire series is opening theatrically in New York this week, with home-video release from the Criterion Collection to follow in late September.

After creating this series, Kieslowski went on to a brief career as a name-brand director of art-house films in the vein of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky (to cite two obvious influences) before his untimely death in 1996, at age 54. He is best remembered in such circles today for the “Three Colors” trilogy, starring Juliette Binoche, that he made in France in the early ’90s. Those are beautiful films, but in retrospect I would argue that “Dekalog,” produced as it was under the restricted budget of Polish state TV and under the threat of official censorship, is a more important work and a better work with a much longer cultural tail.

Despite the unfamiliar Soviet-bloc setting and the distant historical epoch, these are highly accessible human stories with an enormous emotional range, from dark comedy to reckless romance to unbearable tragedy. As Kieslowski put it, “Dekalog” is an attempt to address fundamental questions that go beyond capitalism and socialism: Is there a point to human life? Why do we bother to get out of bed in the morning?

By the time Kieslowski left Poland and the Berlin Wall came down, the auteurist tradition of European art cinema — essentially a branch of high culture, closer in spirit to modernist drama than to Hollywood — was already in steep decline. It would be virtually swept into the cultural dustbin by the rise of Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and other, more pop-oriented indie filmmakers. Another tradition, the prestigious HBO-style television drama, was just being born. From the perspective of 2016, that’s the genre on which “Dekalog” had its most significant impact. Along with a few other seminal influences from the same period, like Dennis Potter’s classic BBC miniseries “The Singing Detective” and David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” Kieslowski’s TV experiment helped mold the future.

Nothing like “Dekalog” had ever been attempted on TV before, in Poland or the United States or anywhere else, and its narrative and thematic ambition is still impressive almost 30 years later.  “Dekalog” is not a miniseries in the customary sense, meaning that it doesn’t tell a single overarching story about the same set of characters. But the 10 episodes (all written by Kieslowski with his longtime collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz) are increasingly interdependent and interconnected, and are best understood as sequential elements of a single work, to be viewed in order.

Characters from one episode frequently appear in another, usually in bit parts or cameo roles, and it would take several viewings to catch all these interactions. An intense father-daughter conversation in “Dekalog Four” — one of the riskiest of the episodes, and one of my personal favorites — is interrupted by a fellow elevator passenger, an eminent doctor who was entrusted with far too much power over life and death in “Dekalog Two.” But the real interaction between people and episodes is more a question of the way Kieslowski’s themes — love and marriage, life and death, religious faith and religious doubt — reflect and refract each other, gradually building toward something that feels like a grand theory about human existence, created entirely from the lives of the residents in one nondescript middle-class housing development.

When it comes to the relationship between the Ten Commandments to individual episodes of “Dekalog,” sometimes it appears clear enough — as with the wrenching and brutal “Dekalog Five,” which became “A Short Film About Killing,” and “Dekalog Six,” a tale of erotic obsession similarly expanded into “A Short Film About Love.” But that’s not always the case. Kieslowski and Piesiewicz were presumably working from the Roman Catholic version of the commandments, which would be familiar to almost every Polish person. But they never exactly intended each episode to serve as a linear illustration of a particular divine edict, and their attitude toward the meaning of the Mosaic text is deliberately ambiguous.

A few minutes into “Dekalog One,” a science-obsessed boy and his father (who owns a personal computer, surely an unusual possession in 1988 Warsaw) discuss the existence of God and the human soul, which the dad describes as metaphorical notions that people use to deal with death. By the end of the episode, that topic will assume a terrible new significance, and one might well read into it the admonition, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

But “Dekalog Two,” the story of a doctor confronting the relentless and unfair demands of a patient’s wife — who has urgent personal reasons for wanting to know whether her husband will live or die — seems to be about several things but not necessarily taking the Lord’s name in vain. It’s about adultery, which is a running theme throughout “Dekalog.” It might be about bearing false witness (the eighth commandment) and coveting what other people have (the ninth and 10th). It might be about human pride and vanity and arrogance, qualities evident in both characters but not specifically mentioned in the list provided by the Almighty on Mount Sinai.

Sometimes the relevant commandment is no more than a jumping-off point, as with the marvelous, funny and sad tale of “Dekalog Three,” in which a woman invents a threadbare excuse to spend Christmas Eve with her married former lover. They visit abandoned train stations and desolate emergency rooms, file multiple false police reports and stage a car chase and knock over the Christmas tree in the local public plaza. Is that a story about the commandment to observe the Lord’s Day? OK, sure, but it’s about a lot of other things, too, and whether we think this Warsaw Bonnie and Clyde and their mini-getaway from normal life are honoring the Christmas spirit or violating, it is left up to us.

For most viewers, the dramatic heart of “Dekalog” arrives in Episodes 5 through 8, which broach the most overtly serious themes: murder and capital punishment; female sexuality and female relationships; Polish collaboration in the Nazi Holocaust. Once you get that deep, you’re hooked and are likely to binge-watch right through the dark madcap comedy of the final installment. On repeat viewings, I appreciated the supposedly lighter episodes more, and Kieslowski is always at his best in less self-conscious moments that mean more than they say — the small interludes of connection or miscommunication between lovers or strangers or parents and children.

That’s where I see the connection between this landmark of TV history and so much that came later. You can see the influence of “Dekalog” all over the place, but perhaps first and foremost in David Chase’s “Sopranos,” which brought a similar spirit of religious and existential inquiry to a different narrative universe, using the story of a New Jersey mob boss as a way to explore American family life and the decaying social contract of the 21st century. “Dekalog” was much more than a series of short movies accidentally jammed into television and more than a peculiar cultural artifact of late communism. It was the beginning of a process that set television free.

“Dekalog” is now playing at the IFC Center in New York and opens Sept. 17 at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow. Home video release will be on Sept. 27.

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BREAKING: “I have found and befriended a lower-middle class white family”: The Greatest Living American Writer

Trump House

(Credit: Shutterstock/Salon)

In the many uninterrupted decades that I’ve claimed the title of The Greatest Living American Writer, I’ve endlessly fought for social change via literary nonfiction. No one can forget my epic study of 1970s ghetto life, “Leon: A Man of the Streets,” which caused Cornel West to call me a “righteous brother of the revolution.” I wrote the groundbreaking trilogy about the early days of the gay rights movement, “Just Before Stonewall,” “During Stonewall” and “Slightly After Stonewall, and the Pulitzer-sweeping 1983 book on living with Southeast Asian refugees, “Among The Hmong.” As the beautiful Isabel Allende once said to me as we made love in a hammock at our Uruguayan costal retreat, “No one understands the forgotten like you do.”

That said, there remains one group that, until now, I have neglected: lower-middle-class white people, the people’s people, the first people. They have been abandoned by modernity, swept away by an economic reality that doesn’t care about them or their children or anything else, for that matter. They rot in their moldy hovels while we sip Kir Royale cocktails and laugh. It isn’t right.

I vowed to correct this grievous, gaping wound in the corpus of American journalism, and to do a better job chronicling them than pretenders like George Saunders, Dave Eggers and everyone else who purports to write an elegy for America’s hillbillies. Who, I’ve often wondered, will smell the people? The answer is me, and only me.

To prepare for my journey into real America, I drove a camouflaged truck through 6-inch-deep mud. I wore an anti-Hillary muscle shirt that read “This Bitch Don’t Hunt.” I shot a kerosene-filled barbecue smoker with an assault rifle and arm wrestled a Iraq War veteran forklift operator while eating a fried pork chop. Only then was I ready to meet a real lower-middle-class white American family.

My subjects are the Golicksons, Steve and Susie and their three sons, Tyler, Taylor and Tucker. They live in a wretchedly bland split-level home in a suburb of Savitt, Ohio, a small town on the border of Kentucky, but also near Indiana and maybe rural Illinois or a couple of other states. I’m not quite sure; I’d have to look at the map.

Susie toils nearly 45 hours a week, an inhuman schedule, as an assistant administrator of human resources, personnel distribution management and digital transportation systems at a health care-industry supply and management firm, which sounds heart-wrenchingly awful. Steve works in oil, coal and toxic waste. When I ask him about his job, he says, “I wouldn’t mind quitting to open an ice cream store. I’ve always wanted to do that. But who has the time?”

There is no more ice cream in Steve’s America, and there are no more stores. What will be left for Tyler, Taylor, and Tucker?

Whither America?

Whither?

Whither?

I go to the Golicksons’ house for dinner. They look at me shyly, not knowing exactly what to do with the reporter wearing a flat-brimmed “Git R Done” baseball cap. But the hat is my way of letting them know that I understand how they’ve been left behind by the American Dream’s false promise of inexpensive dentistry for all. These are people who’ve never eaten sushi that’s not from a grocery store. That is, to me, a fate unbearable.

“Hey, kids!” I say to the three boys. “Do you like guns, trucks and football? I sure do!”

As we sit down to a platter of a disgusting casserole, the conversation quickly turns to politics.

“That Trump sure does speak his mind,” Susie says. “And I like it!”

“Are you voting for Trump?” I say.

“Well, sure!” she says.

“Why the fuck would you do that?” I ask. “He hates women! Are you an idiot or something?”

“We try not to curse around our children,” Steve says. “And we try not to insult my wife.”

“Shit, sorry,” I say.

“It’s OK,” Susie says. “I just think it’s time we got somebody who’s going to make America great again.”

This comment scares, fascinates and repels me. But it makes me pause and take stock. I write, “Hmmm, very interesting” in my notebook. Is this how real Americans think?

“My daddy says that Trump is the guy who will get the blacks to know their place!” Tyler, age 9, says.

“Now now, Tyler,” says Steve. “I didn’t put it quite that way.”

“Yes you did,” Tucker, age 11, adds, helpfully. “You said that black people only know how to kill.”

“Kids mishear things,” Steve says. “I’m not racist or anything.”

“Of course not,” I say. “I understand. In these times of globalization and free trade, it can be hard for simple folk who’ve been left behind. America has broken its promises to those who need it most.”

“My daddy thinks gay people should go to jail if they get married!” says Taylor, age 8.

Already I feel a deep bond with this lower-middle-class small-town white family. We look at one another in recognition of our mutual humanity. My heart is warm and full. This, I realize, is immersive journalism at its finest.

“I admire you lower-middle-class white people so much,” I say to Steve.

“We aren’t lower middle class,” Steve says. “We’re just plain middle class.”

“Sure you are,” I say.

“We went on vacation to Hawaii two summers ago,” he says.

“You keep telling yourself that, pal,” I say.

I marvel at the strength and resilience of these true Americans. We cannot be afraid of them just because they support Donald Trump. They are just like you and like their neighbors and also, to some extent, like me. As Steve Golickson says when I leave his house for the first and final time, “Remember to write about the Mexican rapists who are coming across the border to take our jobs.”

“You bet,” I say.

He winces when I give him a man hug. As I drive away in my rented GMC Sierra Denali Acadia Wrangler “These Colors Don’t Run” Florida-Georgia Line Special Edition All Terrain 4X4, I take one last gaze at my new friends, this lower-middle-class white family. My eyes fill with tears. At last, I’ve told their story. Once again, I’ve succeeded in penetrating deep into the moist core of an American subculture. And that’s the only thing that matters.

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We’re all living in the “Upside Down”: “Stranger Things” is a show about the internet’s dark sides

Stranger Things

Winona Ryder in “Stranger Things” (Credit: Netflix/Screen Montage by Salon)

“Stranger Things” is hotter than Kayne’s Twitter feed right now and Netflix just announced that a second season is on its way. A trailer recently posted online reveals that when 2017 arrives, fans pining for more ’80s pop culture references will be returning to Hawkins, Indiana, in the fall of 1984 as the town faces the aftermath of its first contact with the alternate universe known as “the Upside Down” and the predatory “Demogorgons” that dwell therein. [Note: Spoilers ahead.]

Right now most reviews and discussions about “Stranger Things” focus on its aesthetics: how the Duffer brothers crafted such an eloquent piece of pastiche that takes the best elements of 1980s pop culture and reassembles them into something fresh and entertaining. Of course, that’s worthy of discussion in and of itself. Who wouldn’t jump at a chance to spot a “Goonies,” “Evil Dead” or “Stand By Me” reference and gush adoringly to their friends about it? But then again, there’s a lot of TV, music and film doing the same thing these days. So it’s worth asking — especially while we wait for the next season to arrive — if there is something more to “Stranger Things” that accounts for its popularity and the mass amounts of speculation surrounding its mysterious aura. I think the answer is yes, and I think that’s worth talking about, too.

Even by the end of the first episode, one gets the sense that the Duffer brothers are more than just writers and directors who have an extensive knowledge of ’80s gold. They seem to be filmic philosophers who emerged out of the shadows with this series to deliver an intriguing commentary about a world like ours, a world rife with communication technologies that can harm us just as much as they can help us.

“Stranger Things” is set in small-town America in the 1980s. On the fringes of this town is a mysterious Department of Energy compound conducting weird experiments somehow related to the U.S. military and espionage. People are not really worried about this organization, though, until they have to start worrying about it because technology, espionage, militarism, fear, surveillance and such things were all staples of the Cold War era. (But, in fact, without the Cold War, much of the technology we have today — like the internet and personal computers — simply wouldn’t exist.)

But then all of a sudden the worst thing happens that could possibly happen to a mother, older brother and a small community. A young boy is stolen away in the night to . . . where exactly? Will Byers, like other characters both major and minor in the show — #TeamBarb! — have been kidnapped and possibly eaten by a predatory creature that his friends have dubbed the Demogorgon, after a monster in their Dungeons & Dragons game. The Demogorgon travels through numerous gates between our world and another dimension — the Upside Down — that is sort of like our world but way darker and scarier. The alternate dimension and the Demogorgon are somehow connected to electricity, wires, appliances and communication devices. Ao they all go nuts whenever the monster lurks about in the real world.

Likewise, people trapped in the Upside Down can reach the real world only through electronic devices like telephones and radios, and the bigger the device, the better the contact. We see this clearly when Will’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) creates a primitive codex-like thing by painting a wall with the alphabet and assigning a light to each letter, which allows her to use it as a keyboard to communicate between dimensions with her missing son. She asks questions and Will spells out answers by flashing lights above the appropriate letters. It seems like magic, but it’s just primitive computing technology.

All of this sounds like the foundations of the internet, doesn’t it? A network of electricity, phone lines, communication devices and flashing lights that work together to connect distant worlds so that disconnected people can meet and dialogue with each other. I would wager that this intriguing little detail represents a key theme in “Stranger Things.” It also explains why the show has become so popular. Just like now, the ’80s was a paradoxical time of both hope in technology and fear of it. Deep into the Cold War by 1983, both the East and West knew that technological development was both their biggest threat and their biggest hope.

The race to space known as Star Wars — Reagan’s missile defense program, not the films — and the mass ramping up of innovations in personal computing, information technologies, communication devices and consumer entertainment systems, all combined to simultaneously strike people dumb with awe and cower in fear. Sure, an atomic bomb could hit a town at any moment and a commie spy could be running a local grocery store, but at least people had some newfangled digital devices and entertainment while they waited for all that horrible stuff to go down. Meanwhile, the military would be using all this technology to gain the upper hand on the enemy.

All of this explains why the Demogorgon and the sinister Department of Energy lab are secondary issues in “Stranger Things.” The primary issue is the Upside Down, the alternate dimension that the Department of Energy accidentally discovers. If this gate had not been opened up by Eleven, a mysterious child with telepathic and kinetic gifts who is forced to go into that world and inadvertently make contact with the Demogorgon, the monster would have never shown up in Hawkins to kidnap people in the first place. So it’s the Demogorgon’s network, the world it lives in and connects to, that enables the monster to be anywhere at any time to snatch poor Will and Barb away to the Upside Down. That is the real threat to everyone in Hawkins.

Which is to say, the Upside Down starts looking very much like an analog for the internet. Yes, the internet allows people to connect everywhere at every time, but this is not always a good thing. Just look at Kayne’s Twitter feed. Or, on a more serious note, consider the devastating social-media harassment campaign that has targeted actress Leslie Jones. Or reflect on the degree to which even our most banal online activities and conversations are being watched and collected by government agencies.

This explains why there are more seasons to come because by the end of the first season, it appears that the Demogorgon is dead. But the network itself, as well as its effects, remains. Will Byers might be back in the real world to go on D&D quests with his buddies and be bullied at school, yet the network has made an impression on him that he can’t shed. Now he is a part of the Upside Down network and he’s brought it back to Hawkins. We see this when he coughs up a little Demogorgon slug in the concluding episode. The network and its demons are taking root and growing. Pikachu is in our world now and we’d better watch out.

Once you start pulling at these thematic threads, you begin to see a deeper philosophical discussion at play in “Stranger Things.” Of course, some fans love this show because it captures several of their favorite memories of the ’80s. But at the same time, and perhaps more important, we’re intrigued by the experience of watching characters in “Stranger Things” encounter the consequences of rapid technological advancement.

There’s no better example of this than the scene when Joyce Byers finally makes semi-physical contact with Will through an opaque window that appears behind the wallpaper in the Byers’ living room. For a glimmering moment Joyce is able to reach out to Will through a translucent screen to see that he’s alive. And Will reaches back. But that window evaporates as quickly as it appeared. So Joyce takes an ax to the wall to break through to the young Will trapped in the Upside Down. She chops right through the wall and finds . . . nothing — just the world outside. Will is gone. The network escapes Joyce’s grasp, her son is still kidnapped and her life is still in shambles.

It turns out that technology can’t bring Will back, only humans can. And humans eventually do. This draws out a key thesis of the show: We don’t need more or better technology to solve our greatest problems. What we need is more courageous people — like Joyce and Sheriff Hopper; Elle; Will’s friends Mike, Lucas and Dustin; Will’s brother Jonathan, Mike’s sister Nancy and (eventually) her boyfriend Steve.

It may be difficult for some younger viewers to think about what the world was like before digital technology and the internet arrived on the scene and developed into what it is and does to us today. But artistically and philosophically “Stranger Things” helps fans get to (or back to, depending on the viewers’ age) that place. And once we’re there, we’re pressed to explore ethical questions similar to those encountered by the kids and adults of Hawkins. Will we or won’t we make contact with the Upside Down and dimensions and technologies of that kind? And if we do, how will we act when things get strange, volatile and perhaps even violent?

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A 10-year-old boy? An 84-year-old grandmother? Police brutality will not end in America until cops stop perceiving blacks as monsters

Legend Preston

Legend Preston (Credit: ABC7)

I am a black man. I am an American. I am not a monster.

Like so many other black people in America, I have been followed around department stores by security guards, harassed by police, and encountered racial discrimination in the workplace. These are not minor inconveniences: to be made to feel unwelcome in one’s own country is no petty insult.

It is a reflection of a society where some groups are viewed as full and equal citizens because of their skin color and others are denied the same rights and privileges. In all, this is racism and white supremacy as quotidian life experience. It can kill a person because of the cumulative effects of stress and anxiety; it can also kill a person in a moment of punctuated violence.

Tamir Rice was 12-years-old. He was a black child. He was not a monster. The Cleveland police street executed him in less than two seconds while he played in a park with a toy gun — in a state where the “open carry” of real firearms is allowed.

Michael Brown was 18-years-old. He was a black teenager. He was not a monster. Darren Wilson, a member of the Ferguson, Missouri police department shot him at least six times. Wilson would later say about Brown that, “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again with his hands up.” According to Wilson, Brown could also run through bullets unharmed and had the amazing strength of Hulk Hogan. These are racist, fantastical, and bizarre comments more fit for a drug induced hallucination than sane observations that were accepted as reasonable facts in testimony to a grand jury. Nevertheless, Darren Wilson succeeded in transforming Brown into the white racist archetype of the “giant negro” and “black brute” (or its modern day equivalent “thug”).

Legend Preston is 10-years-old. He is a black child. He is not a monster. Newark police claimed that he “fit the description” of a 20-year-old adult suspect in an armed robbery. The Newark police then proceeded to point their guns in his face. Legend Preston committed no crime. He was left psychologically traumatized. No apology can repair the damage — and the Newark police have offered none. In that moment, Preston learned that black children in America are not allowed the luxury of innocence. Adultification is a feature of black life along the color line — especially when dealing with police or other representatives of the state. As researchers have demonstrated, adultification also means that white people consistently judge black children to be much older than their actual age. Once and again, the White Gaze distorts black humanity.

Geneva Smith is 84-years-old. She is a black woman. She is also a grandmother. Geneva Smith is not a monster. In the early morning hours of Aug. 7, Muskogee, Oklahoma police pursued her son into their home. Frightened by the commotion, Smith asked the police what was happening. As shown by their body cameras, the Muskogee police then proceeded to pepper-spray her in the face for refusing to comply with their orders. Geneva Smith was arrested and brought to jail. Given her age, she could have suffered serious and permanent injury, or even death, from such a powerful irritant. Fortunately, Geneva Smith survived. She is pursuing legal action against the Muskogee police. To be black, 84-years-old, and a grandmother in America is still to be a threat to the United States’ militarized police.

These are but a few recent examples of how America’s police show little restraint in how they treat black and brown people. They confront “monstrous blackness” with extreme prejudice. Consequently, black men who are unarmed are three times more likely to be shot than white men who are unarmed. Police are also faster to use lethal violence against black men than they are white men. Even when allowing for racial disparities in crime, police are also much more likely to beat, club, throw to the ground, and use other types of physical violence against black people than they are white people.

This is part of a long and ugly history that begins with the origins of modern American policing in the slave patrols of the antebellum South and continues through to the present in the form of racial profiling, “stop and frisk,” and a general culture of police thuggery and abuse towards people of color. These are not bugs or outliers but rather fixtures of the American legal system.

If blackness is perceived as something monstrous by America’s police, then whiteness is perceived as a type of innocence, an identity that is inherently benign and harmless. To that end, white people are (almost always) treated with restraint.

There are numerous examples of this type of white privilege in action. White men have committed mass shootings and been arrested unharmed; white men have shot at (and killed) police and have been arrested unharmed; white people have pointed guns at police and federal agents and have either escaped or been arrested unharmed; white people often brandish firearms in public without being arrested, harmed, or interfered with by police.

And in one of the most powerful and bizarre examples of white privilege in action, several weeks ago Austin Harrouff attacked three people in a Florida, and then proceeded to eat the face of one of his victims. The police eventually arrived while Harrouff was engaging in his cannibalistic smorgasbord. Miraculously—unlike a mentally ill black man by the name of Rudy Eugene, who in a much-publicized incident in 2012 was shot and killed by Miami police as he ate a person—Andrew Harrouff was taken into police custody unharmed.

Why is there such a difference in how America’s police treat white people as compared to people of color?

There are many reasons for this outcome. Racism is a learned behavior. America’s schools, media, and other social and political institutions reproduce and circulate social values and norms which emphasize that the lives of white people are to be valued and those of non-whites are to be devalued. Police, like other (white) Americans, have internalized these values. Moreover, the mainstream corporate news media is especially powerful in how it reinforces negative racial stereotypes: social scientists have documented how crime committed by blacks is grossly over-reported by the news media while crime by whites is under-reported.

Anti-black and brown racial animus also operates on a subconscious level as well. Social psychologists and other researchers have repeatedly documented how “implicit bias” impacts cognition, creativity, and decision-making. Racial animus and (white) anxieties about black people are so powerful that they even have the ability to distort a given (white) person’s sense of time. A recent article published by the American Psychological Association explains:

Time may appear to slow down for white Americans who feel threatened by an approaching black person, raising questions about the pervasive effects of racial bias or anxiety in the United States, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

In a series of experiments, white adults viewed faces of white and black people who appeared to be moving toward them on a computer screen. Participants rated the apparent speed or approximate time that each face was on the screen and completed a survey that measured their anxiety when around people of a different race.

White participants who reported more racial anxiety perceived the approaching black faces as moving more slowly or appearing longer on the computer screen than the white faces. Although participants saw both male and female faces, there was no difference in observed effects based on gender. The same effects weren’t found when the black faces appeared to be moving farther away, possibly because they weren’t perceived as a threat, the study noted.

The consequences are wide-ranging:

The study findings may have important practical implications, including inaccurate eyewitness identification and the misinterpretation of innocent actions by black people as threatening, Kenrick said. “If you perceive time as slowing down, then you may feel overconfident about identifying the approaching person later or interpreting their actions,” she said. “However, more research is needed to reach firm conclusions.”

That some white Americans are so anxiety fueled and fearful of their fellow citizens is a profound indictment of the country’s civic and social culture. It is white racial paranoiac thinking that on an individual level interferes with forming meaningful relationships across lines of race, and on a mass scale fuels the proto-fascism and bigotry of Donald Trump and the American right wing.

Psychologists have also shown that many white Americans view black people as somehow being supernatural, superhuman, and less sensitive to physical pain. This locates black people as somehow different and apart from the human family, thus making it far easier to identify them as some type of monstrous Other.

As I suggested in an earlier piece here at Salon, police brutality and thuggery against black people will not stop until white Americans look at children such as Tamir Rice and Legend Preston and see the faces of their own children. On the other end of the generational spectrum, police brutality and thuggery against black and brown people will not stop until white Americans can look at the face of an 84-year-old black grandmother who is being assaulted in her own home by the police and see their own honored elders and kin.

America loves it black athletes, entertainers and first black president. Unfortunately, White America all too often does not love black and brown people as individuals. It most certainly does not love the black or brown stranger. This enables a type of emotional distance that contributes to racial injustice and makes the United States a less than fully democratic and fair society. It is only when White America and its police cease to see black people as some type of monstrous Other that they will be able to finally embrace their own full humanity. Racism does not just harm black and brown people. It hurts white folks too.

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Got to give it up for Robin Thicke: Siding with “Blurred Lines” feels wrong, but it’s the right thing to do

Marvin Gaye; Robin Thicke

Marvin Gaye; Robin Thicke (Credit: AP/Nancy Kaye/Chris Pizzello)

If you were polling artists and fans on their feeling about a certain opposing pair of musicians — Marvin Gaye on one hand, Robin Thicke on the other — the contest would not last long. Gaye was not only one of the most brilliant musicians in the history of R&B, he made both joyful music and, especially later on, songs that addressed issues from urban poverty to the degradation of the environment to his own divorce. Thicke, by contrast, is well-known as a weasel and musical mediocrity whose career has been derivative at best.

So if the fight over “Blurred Lines” — the 2013 hit single written by Thicke alongside Pharrell Willams, featuring T.I. — had been simply about the relative talents of the musicians and the good will toward them in musical circles, this would be simple. But instead what we’re seeing is the boiling over of long-brewing frustration with the plagiarism decision that awarded the Gaye estate $5.3 million, thanks to the argument that the song stole from Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”

Now, more than 200 musicians have filed a brief with a circuit court in Los Angeles decrying the original decision in favor of Gaye’s heirs: R. Kelly, members of the Go-Gos and Black Crowes, composer Hans Zimmer, producer Danger Mouse, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, and others are arguing that the decision will stifle musical creativity.

This is from the brief:

The verdict in this case threatens to punish songwriters for creating new music that is inspired by prior works. All music shares inspiration from prior musical works, especially within a particular musical genre. By eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgment is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process.

…One can only imagine what our music would have sounded like if David Bowie would have been afraid to draw from Shirley Bassie, or if the Beatles would have been afraid to draw from Chuck Berry, or if Elton John would have been afraid to draw from the Beatles, or if Elvis Presley would have been afraid to draw from his many influences.

While musical plagiarism standards exist, at least in theory, to protect musicians, this court decision has seen opposition from musicians from the beginning. Questlove from the Roots, for instance, told Vulture that he thinks “Blurred Lines” was not stolen: “It’s not the same chord progression. It’s a feeling. Because there’s a cowbell in it and a Fender Rhodes as the main instrumentation — that still doesn’t make it plagiarized. We all know it’s derivative. That’s how Pharrell works. Everything that Pharrell produces is derivative of another song — but it’s a homage.”

It’s not the same chord sequence, not the same melody, and not the same key. Most plagiarism cases — including the recent lawsuit over Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” — have turned on these elements. Others have been provoked by stolen samples, especially when bits of James Brown songs were taken by rappers. De La Soul’s masterpiece “3 Feet High and Rising” was caught in an important suit with the band the Turtles; De La Soul lost.

But what’s disturbing about the “Blurred Lines” case is the way the feel and vibe of the song caused the legal trouble. The song’s lyrics and video may be sexist, and the racial subtext of the song — what Questlove called “Elvising” — is at least moderately troubling. But if the “Blurred Lines” decision isn’t reeled in, it could create a lasting precedent in which everyone — listener and musicians alike — loses.

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