WGN America cancels “Underground”

Underground

Aldis Hodge in “Underground” (Credit: WGN)

On Tuesday WGN America officially announced that it would not renew “Underground” for a third season, definitively turning out the lights in the cable channel’s high-end scripted originals department.

Though fans of the acclaimed series may be heartbroken, those who have been keeping up with current events may not be particularly shocked. The cancellation of “Underground” comes weeks after Sinclair Broadcast Group’s purchase of Tribune Media for a cool $3.9 billion. Tribune Media owns WGN America and co-produced the first season of “Underground” along with Sony Pictures Television.

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Though rumors have circulated that Sinclair may be planning to launch a conservative-leaning news network to compete with Fox News Channel, Sinclair Broadcast Group CEO Chris Ripley announced that his company’s focus for WGN America will be to bring it into a position of profitability, meaning that the channel is likely to stick with lower-cost original programming (read unscripted shows) and repeats for the time being. Evidently, investing in expensive scripted originals does not fit into that framework.

“Despite ‘Underground’ being a terrific and important series, it no longer fits with our new direction and we have reached the difficult decision not to renew it for a third season,” Peter Kern, the president and CEO of Tribune Media Company, said in a press release. “We are tremendously proud of this landmark series that captured the zeitgeist and made an impact on television in a way never before seen on the medium.”

Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, and starring Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Christopher Meloni, “Underground” follows a group of men and women who escaped a Macon, Georgia, plantation, where they had been enslaved, in the hopes of finding freedom in the North. For its second season the writers introduced Harriet Tubman (played by Aisha Hinds), whose story provided the basis for a critically acclaimed extended episode titled “Minty.”

Executive produced in part by John Legend (who appeared in the second season as Frederick Douglass), the series also incorporates a modern pop soundtrack, using singles from hip-hop and soul artists as well as compositions from the show’s composer Raphael Saadiq.

WGN America has canceled other well-received scripted shows recently, including the acclaimed drama “Outsiders,” dropped in April. Both “Outsiders” and “Underground” were top performers for WGN; shortly before cancelling “Outsiders,” the network announced that it and “Underground” gave WGN its best monthly prime-time ratings in history in total audience, averaging 446,000 viewers in “live + 3″ ratings,  a measurement of how many people watched the show live and, on DVR, in the three days following.

“Underground” enjoyed widespread acclaim: It had a high profile on social media and made history as WGN America’s highest-rated original series in its first season. It also was selected to be part of the inaugural public program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and was screened at its theater.

Hope may not be lost for “Underground”: With Sony as its co-producer, the show may yet find a home with another distribution service such as Hulu. According to an industry report, OWN may be considering picking up “Underground” for its third season. The show’s relatively steep price tag, however, may prove to be an obstacle in its finding a new home.

Before “Underground” and “Outsiders,” WGN America made an initial foray into scripted programming with the genre-themed period piece “Salem” and the critically acclaimed drama “Manhattan,” which earned the channel a prime-time Emmy award for outstanding main title design in 2015.

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What Hollywood needs right now is this film about flawed women

Amber Tamblyn

Amber Tamblyn (Credit: AP/Christopher Smith)

The film “Paint It Black” is a tribute to real women and the real emotions that overtake us when we are dealing with grief.

I’m not talking about tears in the pillow. I’m talking about binge drinking, wild outbursts, violent rampages and stealing. Women, of course, know that depression and suffering can express itself in these ugly ways, but it’s rare that we talk about them, and even rarer that we see them in movies and on television.

Actress Amber Tamblyn has been working on “Paint It Black,” her directorial debut, for nearly a decade and has strong thoughts about why this film shatters the stereotypes around how women’s emotions are handled on screen.

“I just hope to tell stories about women who are fucked up,” Tamblyn shared with me in the Salon studio during a recent edition of “Salon Talks.” “There are not enough movies about us that are truly about us,” she said, referring to the depiction of women and girls in Hollywood films.

“Paint It Black,” which Tamblyn also wrote and produced, centers on a twisted relationship that develops after a young man, Michael, played by Rhys Wakefield, commits suicide. Michael’s girlfriend Josie, played by Alia Shawkat, is a punk artist in her 20s; in stark contrast his mother Meredith, played by Oscar-nominated Janet McTeer, is a wealthy, accomplished pianist whom Tamblyn described as a “real Cruella de Vil.”

While they grieve Michael’s death, Josie and Meredith find themselves constantly at odds. Their relationship becomes equal parts distrust and blind need as they struggle to make sense of Michael’s unexpected death. They compete, argue and shame each other and, despite their differences, ultimately seek comfort in one another.

“I wanted to show women who were vicious,” Tamblyn said. “They were violent towards each other. Their intentions and their actions were unmerited. They became feral and wild and raw.”

The complex cocktail of emotions that coalesce around death is what drew Tamblyn’s directorial eye. “If death isn’t fascinating to everybody, then I don’t know what is,” she said.  

“When we see women grieving or being sad or being depressed in any film, it’s so kind of one-dimensional,” Tamblyn said.

“Paint It Black” completely blasts this convention, offering more than just a single explanation of grief. Under Tamblyn’s direction, the process becomes a dark, tonal habitation of loss for both characters. Tamblyn wrote about some of her directorial choices in a recent edition of Lenny Letter and how those choices were borne out by listening to her gut and fighting for scenes, even when others said no. She intended the film to present as “if David Lynch directed ‘Grey Gardens.’” 

Shawkat and McTeer’s raw performances, coupled with cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard’s surrealist cinematography, brings a dreamlike perspective to Tamblyn’s adaptation of the novel “Paint It Black,” by Janet Finch, the New York Times best-selling author of “White Oleander.”

“It was sort of a summer reading situation,” Tamblyn said, describing how in 2007, her long-time friend Amy Poehler gave her the book when she was still an actor best known for playing Tibby in the 2005 teenage hit movie “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” A few years later she toyed with the idea of adapting “Paint It Black” for film. “I thought what a cool movie that would make about these two women that are blind with grief and drunk and totally violent towards each other. I hadn’t seen a movie like that . . . so I wanted to give it a try.”

But even then he director role wasn’t an obvious or immediate choice for Tamblyn. She said over her 20 years of performing in TV shows such as “General Hospital” and “Joan of Arcadia” and films like “127 Hours,” “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “Django Unchained,” she never saw herself in the director’s chair.

She more or less fell into directing “Paint It Black” after a female director previously attached to the film encouraged her to take the reins. Tamblyn has owned the rights to it ever since. “The thing that scares you the most is usually the thing that you should be doing,” she said speaking of the fear she has associated with directing.

Being an actor proved to be the best pre-game move before directing.

“I really enjoyed being able to steer that ship,” Tamblyn said. “It’s something that when I think about it and look back, I kind of always did it on set, probably much to the chagrin of a lot of directors that I worked with, not knowing that that’s what would eventually make me a real director.”

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Remembering Denis Johnson: A struggle with fate, faith, America and imagination

Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson (Credit: Macmillan)

For a small but devoted following, the generation of postwar white American dudes that produced so many professed or self-professed Great Writers — roughly speaking, from Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo to David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen — had one major unsung hero. His name was Denis Johnson, and he died last week of liver cancer at his home in Gualala, California, a community on the Sonoma County coast whose particular brand of madness was brilliantly captured in Johnson’s 1997 novel “Already Dead.”

On the first page of that book, Johnson describes “the small isolated towns along U.S. 101 in Northern California” — places like Gualala, in other words — as “places a person could disappear into.”

They felt like little naps you might never wake up from — you might throw a tire and hike to a gas station and stumble unexpectedly onto the rest of your life, the people who would finally mean something to you, a woman, an immortal friend, a saving fellowship in the religion of some obscure church.

The novel’s protagonist has encounters much like that, which compel him to “acknowledge the reality of fate, and the truth inherent in things of the imagination.”

That was the contradictory truth Denis Johnson always sought. Like so many of his books, “Already Dead” would have won awards and been recognized as a masterpiece in a slightly different, less stereotype-encrusted world. If there’s a funnier, more exciting and more deeply penetrating novel about how and why the California dream went off the rails, I haven’t read it.

Johnson was only 67 years old, and while his health had been perilous for some years — thanks in part to his acknowledged history of alcohol and drug abuse as a young man — his fans and followers (which include me, obviously) have been dealt a crushing blow. He leaves behind 10 novels — none of them a best-seller or even an unqualified success — a handful of poetry collections, a couple of plays, some scathing, unforgettable nonfiction essays and journalism and one famous short story collection. That latter book, for better or worse, defined his career.

That collection was called “Jesus’ Son” and was published in 1992, although several of the individual stories had appeared in The New Yorker over the preceding decade. It was a series of semi-autobiographical vignettes about a drifter, drug addict and petty criminal moving across the underbelly of Reagan-era America with no apparent purpose. Its first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” begins with a famous oracular passage:

A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping. . . . A Cherokee filled with bourbon. . . . A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student. . . .

And a family from Marshalltown who headonned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri

If the first-person yarns of “Jesus’ Son” struck some readers as documentary realism, they were anything but. Johnson was self-consciously writing in the lyrical-minimal tradition of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, who had been Johnson’s teacher at the famous Iowa Writers Workshop. Johnson himself said he had borrowed both structure and theme from Isaac Babel’s “Red Cavalry,” a legendary work of early Soviet fiction that on the surface seems like an entirely different kind of collection.

“Jesus’ Son” is a memorable and striking book, which for some years was passed around in creative-writing classes as a sort of secret gospel. But the problem it created for Johnson’s career was one that he never entirely overcame. He was widely understood as a literary expert in drugs, crime and debauchery, when in fact he was only interested in those phenomena as symptoms of other, deeper disorders that could not be seen. Any significant reading of his work makes clear that he was more concerned with the spiritual and moral narratives he perceived beneath the surface of American life — with “the truth inherent in things of the imagination” — than with its superficial details, much as he relished depicting those in grotesque or hilarious detail.

Later in life Johnson defined himself as a Christian writer, but he didn’t mean that term the way Americans are most likely to receive it. To use a reference he would have appreciated, Johnson understood the American story largely in terms of William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience.” He perceived a fundamental unity, for example, between the supposedly nihilistic drug culture of the ’60s and ’70s and the supposed patriotic idealism that drove the disastrous war in Vietnam. Both were aspects of a visionary, transcendental and/or delusional sensibility that had defined Americans’ sense of themselves and their nation clear back to the Puritans’ “City on a Hill.”

Those themes came together most visibly in “Tree of Smoke,” Johnson’s National Book Award-winning Vietnam War novel, published in 2007. Full of wit, brutality and imagination, the book is fueled by Johnson’s refusal to default to easy political formulas and his remarkable ability to render warring states of mind and states of myth. But “Tree of Smoke” is also maybe a bit hemmed in by the lugubrious tradition of the “Vietnam novel” and an aspiration to DeLillo-like bigness.

I love or at least admire all of Johnson’s work, and more than anything I admire his Joan Didion-like or Joseph Conrad-like ability to see connections and correspondences other people can’t and to not care whether he is “on message” or “capturing the Zeitgeist” or whatever other cliché is translated as “stating the obvious.” I largely agree with my former Salon colleague Laura Miller’s contention that Johnson was at his best — and his most profound — when he used genre fiction as a container, as in the aforementioned, masterful “Already Dead” (a crime novel and a “California gothic”) or the purposefully pulpy late thrillers “Nobody Move” and “The Laughing Monsters.”

We will never get to read Denis Johnson’s novel about the Donald Trump era, but in a sense he’s been forecasting it for decades. Trump feels like a construct imagined by one of Johnson’s drunken or drug-fueled characters, either in fear or longing or both — what if we could have a president who was absolutely nothing like a goddamn president? — who clung on somehow into the realm of so-called sobriety. Johnson would have insisted that even such a person as that possessed identifiable human passions and longings, an inner life, and even those of us who claimed to not be responsible had collaborated in willing him or dreaming him onto the national stage. He would also have understood that we weren’t ready to listen and why.

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Monopoly vs. the Nazis: How British intelligence used board games to thwart the Germans

monopoly map

(Credit: Getty/Alex Wong/Wikimedia/Salon)

“I would like to have some visiting cards printed, please,” said the stocky man with the heavy eyebrows.

It was 1940 and the man making the request had arrived unexpectedly at the factory of the British printer and game publisher Waddingtons on 40 Wakefield Road, Leeds.

The company’s workers thought it was an unusual request. The man said he was a businessman but he didn’t want business cards. Instead he wanted visiting cards, the calling cards of high-society types who regarded the presence of contact details on their cards as common and rude. A visiting card would state a person’s name and, at the very most, name the gentlemen’s club they belonged to.

It's All A Game coverBut business was business and it wasn’t Waddingtons’ place to second-guess a customer’s needs, so they took the job. What name shall we put on the card? the employee taking the order asked. “E. D. Alston,” the man replied.

When the visiting cards were ready, Alston returned, paid what he owed, and left. It seemed like just another printing job.

A few days later Alston returned and, with an air of authority, asked to meet Norman Watson, the head of the company, in private. Once alone, Alston told Watson that he was about to discuss a matter of national security and so the Official Secrets Act applied. Discussing what I am about to tell you with others can result in fines and imprisonment, Alston informed the shocked company chairman.

Alston was no businessman. Officially he was a civil servant handling the procurement of textiles at the Ministry of Supply offices in central Leeds, but that was just a cover. In reality he was a British intelligence agent working on behalf of MI9, a new branch of the British secret service founded on December 23, 1939, as the nation prepared for the imminent Nazi invasion of Western Europe. Its mission was to help combat personnel evade capture and help those taken prisoner escape.

MI9 was not the typical gathering of spooks. It was more of an ideas laboratory that invented new gizmos and schemes to get the troops out of enemy clutches. At the center of it all was technical director Christopher Clayton Hutton, an eccentric former movie publicist who was MI9’s answer to James Bond’s gadget guru Q.

He and his team designed pocket radios, made bars of soap with tiny compasses hidden inside, and constructed bicycle pumps that doubled as torches. They stitched together air force uniforms that could be turned into civilian clothing with ease and created waterproof provision tins filled with boiled sweets, water purification tablets, and slabs of brown, sticky “liver toffee,” a combination of malt and cod liver oil that apparently tasted better than it sounds, which wouldn’t be difficult.

Another idea to emerge from the secret think-tank in Room 242 of London’s Metropole Hotel, which the British government had turned into offices in the run up to the war, was to smuggle silk escape maps into prisoner of war camps.

And that’s where Waddingtons came in. For as well as being the publisher of Monopoly in the UK, Waddingtons was pretty much the only printer in the country who knew how to print on silk. Before the war, Waddingtons would print silk programs for the royals who attended the annual Royal Variety Command Performance, an evening of comedy, music, magic, and theater held in the name of charity.

Yet even for Waddingtons, printing on silk was a challenge. First the rayon, the artificial silk the company used, had to be treated with barium tungstate in order to make it opaque and enable double-sided printing. The process had to be done just right. Use too little barium tungstate and the silk wouldn’t absorb the ink but use too much and the material would stick to the parts in the printing press.

After treatment the silk had to be mounted on the press. Again it had to be done carefully because even the slightest slackness in the material would cause the print to misalign. The ink also had to be specially mixed and, finally, the printed silk had to be oiled using special equipment to make it watertight.

Tricky as silk was to use, MI9 knew it was the perfect material for escape maps. Unlike paper, silk can be scrunched up and hidden in tiny spaces without incurring damage, making it easier to smuggle into prison camps and easier for servicemen to conceal. Silk doesn’t rustle either so escapees could use the maps without the risk of giving away their position. On top of that silk maps are hard to tear, do not disintegrate in water, and, thanks to the oiling, the ink does not run or smudge in the rain.

MI9, Alston explained to Watson, wanted Waddingtons to print the hundreds of thousands of silk maps of Europe and Asia it planned to issue to British Commonwealth troops during the war. They also wanted the company to make Monopoly sets that doubled as escape kits that they could then send to British servicemen in the prisoner of war camps.

The Monopoly plan was typical of Clayton Hutton’s maverick imagination. The cardboard base of the game board would have thin compartments cut into them so that a small compass, two files, and a silk map could be deposited inside. Then the paper with the playing area would be glued on top to conceal the equipment hidden in the board.

Specific property names on the board would be marked with a period so that officers inside the camps would know it contained escape equipment and MI9 would know which map it contained. A period on Mayfair, Monopoly’s UK equivalent of Boardwalk, for example, signaled the inclusion of a map of Norway, Sweden, and northern Germany. One on Free Parking meant the game concealed a map of northern France and its borders with Germany.

Monopoly’s bounty of paper money, meanwhile, would become a hiding place for Reichsmark bills and other Axis power currencies for prisoners to use as bribes or to aid their escape attempts.

Keen to support the war effort, Watson readily agreed to help and assigned three of the company’s most trusted employees to the task. MI9 offered to provide armed guards to keep prying eyes away but Watson declined. It would only raise suspicion and frighten employees, he explained.

To maintain secrecy, Waddingtons put nothing down in writing about its MI9 work and began referring to Alston as Mr. A in case anyone not in the know overheard anything.

In the years that followed, Waddingtons produced hundreds of doctored Monopoly sets. In each one they secreted metal instruments supplied by MI9 and their own silk reproductions of the maps provided by the intelligence agency. Every so often, Watson would travel by train from Leeds to London and deliver the games to the lost luggage office in King’s Cross railroad station. Later an MI9 agent would arrive at the office to reclaim the package.

Waddingtons was not the only game maker MI9 enlisted. Another recruit was John Jaques & Sons, the London company behind the Staunton chess set, which was tasked with producing chess sets and Snakes & Ladders games with hidden compartments for escape equipment.

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“Do it harder”: The right-wing backlash behind the brutal lashing of gay men in Indonesia

Public Caning

An Indonesian man being publicly caned. (Credit: Getty/Chaideer Mahyuddin)

As two men were flogged in the Indonesian province of Aceh, the crowd chanted for more.

Around 1,000 people gathered at the Syuhada mosque in Banda Aceh, the regional capital located at the northern tip of the Sumatran peninsula. The event was a major one for the city. Families brought their daughters and sons, young children crowding close to the stage to get a front row seat. The accused, dressed in white, were caned 83 times. The men were originally sentenced to 85 lashes, but seeing as they had already spent two months in prison, authorities were lenient. The “executioners,” as they are known, removed a blow for each month served.

“Do it harder,” an onlooker screamed, even though the lashings were so severe that aides had to bring water to ensure the men didn’t pass out from the overwhelming pain. “Let this be a lesson to you,” another yelled.

This brutal punishment is retribution for one of Aceh’s most shameful crimes: being gay.

Aceh, a Muslim district of Indonesia governed under Sharia law, expanded its criminal code in 2015 to stipulate that men found guilty of homosexual activity be subject to 100 lashes. That law, as human rights advocates explain, has made vigilantes out of ordinary citizens. The two men publicly flogged on May 23 were discovered naked in bed together after neighbors — who suspected them of being gay — broke into their hotel room to videotape their encounter. The couple was subsequently beaten and dragged to a local police station.

Although Human Rights Watch estimates that authorities in Aceh caned 339 people convicted of morality crimes in 2016 — which include gambling, drinking alcohol, adultery, and wearing revealing clothing — gay men have been increasingly targeted by a country once known for a fairly moderate stance on human rights. After government leaders began demonizing and scapegoating the country’s LGBT population last year, right-wing backlash forced queer and trans people underground. Some have fled to more accepting areas, but most live in hiding, in fear that they could be the next to face the vicious lash of extremism.

It’s an ugly, miserable time to be LGBT in Indonesia, and it’s only getting worse.

* * *

Although homosexuality is legal in Indonesia, Aceh is a special case. The conservative district, which counts more than five million residents, has long lobbied for its independence from the rest of the archipelago. In 2006, the federal government struck a deal with Aceh to keep it from seceding. The tiny province would be ruled by sharia law, although any local guidelines that conflicted with national policies would be overruled. But because the Indonesian government doesn’t have laws on the books preventing discrimination LGBT people, anti-gay policies aren’t technically illegal.

Aceh’s new sharia ordinances, which went into effect in September 2015, had an immediate impact on the province’s LGBT population — or even anyone suspected of violating morality standards. Kyle Knight, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that two women were apprehended for hugging just hours after the laws went into effect.

“Police accused them of being a lesbian couple, detained them for four days, and shipped them off to religious education camps,” Knight said.

Knight claimed that these events were the start of an “unprecedented crackdown” on LGBT lives in the Muslim-majority nation, even outside the Aceh province. Months after Sharia law was imposed, Indonesia’s education minister, Muhammad Nasir, advocated that queer student groups be banned from college campuses. That January 2016 declaration triggered a wave of anti-gay attacks in just a matter of weeks. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu claimed the following month that LGBT rights is akin to “modern warfare.” The Indonesian Psychiatric Association responded to Ryacudu’s remarks by claiming transgender people are mentally ill.

The situation further deteriorated from there. Musni Umar, a well-known sociologist, likened homosexuality to “terrorism” and “Armageddon.” Zulkifli Hasan, who is currently the highest-ranking official in the national legislature, even called for same-sex activity to be banned. Most bizarrely, Tangerang mayor Arief Wismansyah claimed that instant noodles would turn the city’s children gay.

“These comments immediately started trickling down into people’s actual lives,” Knight said. “I met people in their 60s who had lived their entire lives in relative peace, and all of a sudden their family members and neighbors started harassing them in the streets. This delicate social fabric they had come to take for granted started crumbling before them.”

Prior to 2016, LGBT rights groups in Indonesia were able to operate openly, but many of these organizations could no longer publicize their events. Of the more than 120 advocacy groups, many shut down. Knight said that gay government officials often picked up and left, afraid that they would be discovered and outed. An Islamic school opened in 2008 to give transgender Muslims a safe space to worship closed last February following demonstrations by the Islamic Jihad Front, an extremist group that has also targeted Christian minorities.

President Joko Widodo has repeatedly failed to condemn the anti-LGBT vitriol, sending an extremely mixed message. Although Widodo declared last October that “there should be no discrimination against anyone,” the president’s spokesperson has also said that there’s “no room” for queer and trans people in Indonesia.

Although a 2013 poll from the Pew Research Center found that 93 percent of Indonesians believe that homosexuality is immoral, advocates claim that the country has  historically had a very different relationship with its LGBT population than neighboring countries like Malaysia and Singapore. In these nations, gay men are routinely targeted and jailed for engaging in consensual sexual activity, but some trans Indonesians have long lived openly in their communities without reprisal. Indonesia holds an annual “Miss Waria” pageant, the colloquial term for transgender women.

“There are LGBT civil society groups that had been gaining footholds in Asia and had been gaining increased visibility and normativity,” said Tarah Demant, the Senior Director of the Identity and Discrimination Unit at Amnesty International. “This past year was a really sharp repudiation of that.”

Maria Sjödin, Executive Director of OutRight Action International, said that the backlash largely resulted from the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States. She claimed that the “social media attention . . . is part of what got people riled up.”

But another factor is the growing influence of hard-line groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (IDF) and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the latter of which claims over 40 million members. Nahdlatul Ulama, an organization that believes that LGBT people are “deviant,” “a form of perversion,” and “a desecration of human dignity,” called for an anti-gay propaganda law strikingly similar to Russia’s in February 2016. The conservative Muslim organization has since built strong ties with the Jokowi government. The president, who meets frequently with NU members, once called the group the “vanguard” of Indonesia.

“The government has to take positive steps to make sure that LGBT people have their rights,” Demant said. “That’s certainly not happening across Indonesia.”

Although many queer and transgender Acehnese have fled to more accepting areas of the country, finding a safe haven can be difficult when the rest of Indonesia is following Aceh’s lead. Refugees have nowhere to go. Even though homosexuality is not a crime in Jakarta, police arrested 141 men in a sauna well-known to be a gay hotspot in the nation’s capital. Detainees will be charged for allegedly violating “pornography laws.” Meanwhile, police in West Java, the most populous province in Indonesia, have announced that they will be launching a task force to investigate gay activity.

For those who cannot leave, it can be difficult to get them the resources or support they need. Indonesia’s 260 million population is spread out between more than 15,000 islands, many of which are difficult to access.

“There’s not going to be enough organizing to reach all of them,” Sjodin said. “It’s a pretty challenging situation to say the least.”

Demant, who said that caning is considered “torture” by the United Nations, believes that other world leaders should speak out against the anti-LGBT backlash in Indonesia, including the United States. President Trump failed to take a stand against the imprisonment and killing of gay men in Chechnya, where over 20 men have reportedly been murdered by government officials. (U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley did, however, speak out.) Demant said that Indonesia could be a chance for a president with a mixed record on LGBT rights to be a force for good.

“Our president must make it clear that this type of discrimination is not tolerated,” Demant said. “There’s no excuse for this type of legalized discrimination and violence, and these laws must be stripped.”

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There’s a 20-year-old child murder case that continues to grip Sweden

A temporary fence is erected between domestic and international tracks at Hyllie train station in southern Malmo, Sweden

The sun sets over the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark, seen from Lernacken, Sweden, on Sunday Jan. 3, 2016 On upcoming Monday Jan. 4, 2016, new travel restrictions are set to be imposed by Sweden to stem a record flow of migrants, transforming the Oresund bridge between Sweden and Denmark into a striking example of how national boundaries are re-emerging in Europe. (Erland Vinberg /TT via AP, File) SWEDEN OUT (Credit: AP)

A child murder case from 20 years ago is once again getting enormous attention in Sweden. Two young brothers – aged five and seven – were believed at the time to be responsible for the death of four-year-old Kevin Hjalmarsson in 1998. But concerns over the way the investigation into the so-called “Kevin case” was conducted led the police to reopen the case in May. This has highlighted serious questions about the way children are treated in the country’s legal system. The Conversation

The Kevin case was one of the most high-profile murder investigations of the 1990s in Sweden – and the first in modern Swedish history where such young children were accused of having murdered another child.

The little boy was found dead by the shoreline of a lake outside the small town of Arvika in northern Sweden on August 16, 1998 – the last day of the school summer holidays. He had been strangled and had bruises on his body. After being killed, he was dragged 30m from the seaside to a raft, where his grandfather later found him.

Two brothers accused

Initially announced as a drowning accident, the police soon changed their minds and said they suspected it was a paedophile case. But they were then to reach another conclusion: Kevin had been murdered by two brothers, Robin and Christian, aged five and seven years old.

The younger brother had initially been interrogated by the police as a witness, along with 120 other children in the town. But the boy soon became the head suspect together with his brother.

At a press conference in November 1998, the police announced the conclusion of their investigation: the boys had killed Kevin. The police said they had confessed to the crime, but would not be prosecuted nor formally convicted because children younger than 15-years-old cannot be convicted for crimes in Sweden. This meant that the case was never passed on to the district court. The boys were subsequently taken into institutional care for a while. Social services later tried to find a foster home for one of the boys but no family wanted to have him and he was finally allowed to return home. The boys both still live in Sweden.

Case file reopened

During the autumn of 1998, the case was in the news almost every day. It is now making national news again. In late April, the main Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter and the Swedish public television, SVT, began to reveal possibly serious flaws with the old murder investigation in a series of documentaries.

This was sparked by a neuroscientist, Rickard Sjöberg at Umeå University, who contacted the media because he found the interview techniques used in this, and other cases, to be unscientific.

Since then, parts of the police investigation have been made public, including police interrogations of the youngest boy. The material reveals that there were no documented confessions or technical evidence that supported the police opinion at the time. And no one can explain how young Kevin was dragged from the scene of the crime to the place he was found.

The boys’ confessions came after more than 30 long interrogations, sometimes without a parent – and with methods that have been criticised as unprofessional. The new material also reveals that the boys may not have been around the crime scene at the time of the murder. Due to the new circumstances, the prosecutor decided to reopen the case on May 8.

SVT interviewed the two boys in its documentary series. Neither of them say they have any memory of the incident today, but they think they did not do it. Now in their late 20s, they have grown up in the eyes of society as “child murderers”. Robin, the younger brother, said on the documentary: “There is no person in the whole world that will ever understand what we have been through, how we have felt and how terrible it has been.” In a press conference on May 19, the two men – whose full names Robin Dalén and Christian Karlsson have now been released – said the SVT investigation was a big relief and thanked the media for helping them.

The right to the truth

In a painful way, the Kevin case highlights the challenges of involving children in crime investigations. Even if a child under a certain age cannot be convicted in a legal sense, the consequences are still very drastic for the child.

There could have been a possible way to avoid this outcome. In Sweden, it is possible to raise the question of guilt in court without pursuing a formal conviction, a process known as “bevistalan”. But this was never used in the Kevin case. Instead, the prosecutor decided not to continue the investigation, thereby concluding the case without a trial.

Bevistalan is rarely used: to my knowledge there have only been two cases in Sweden since Kevin’s murder when a court has assessed a case involving children without delivering a formal sentence. But I think the Kevin case should have been treated in this way – allowing for a trial of sorts for the minors suspected of the crime, but without the threat of conviction or punishment. This would have meant a higher burden of proof was needed from the police, which could have changed the outcome of the investigation. Instead, the case remained at the police level and was never brought to court, meaning nobody really assessed the evidence except for the police themselves.

The Kevin case shows that there is need for a repeated discussion of how to uphold children’s rights in the legal system. The general legal principle that a person is always considered innocent until he or she is convicted of a crime must also apply to young children.

Titti Mattsson, Professor in the Department of Law, Lund University

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WATCH: Epic documentary about the Grateful Dead an “American Beauty” after 14 years in the making

COVER_PHOTO-LongStrangeTrip

“There are very few people who are indifferent to the Grateful Dead,” said “Long Strange Trip” director Amir Bar-Lev, who stopped by Salon’s studio to talk about his new documentary on the iconic American band. He spent a total of 14 years making this labor-of-love film, which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese. It is the first full-length film made about the polarizing American band and it chronicles in spectacular detail the 30 years the performers spent together.

The publicity-averse music group, which was famously led by the late Jerry Garcia, eschewed typical fame and became tremendously successful in spite of its inability to produce music that would sell widely through typical music industry channels, like radio. The Dead became one of the highest-grossing concert acts in America, drawing on word-of-mouth among its scores of followers.

“Those of us who are fans are notoriously bad at explaining what’s so great about our favorite band, and that’s because it’s an experiential thing,” noted Bar-Lev. “It’s not impossible to describe [like] food or music or sex, but it’s something like ‘you gotta check it out yourself!’ So I was aware that there was a gulf between people who love the band and people who were kind of turned off by the inarticulateness of most of us” who find the band’s allure hard to explain, he added.

“We felt like music documentaries are not very musical a lot of the time .  .  .  so we wanted to make a musical film so that by the end of it you’d feel like you understood on a tangible level” why people are so enamored of the Grateful Dead. Although Bar-Lev set out to make a 90-minute film, it evolved over many years into a fulsome tribute — with the support of a single investor — that runs long, “Grateful Dead style,” according to Bar-Lev. Clocking in at four hours, “Long Strange Trip” is shown with an intermission.

The film includes candid interviews with the band and its road crew, family members and notable Deadheads and serves as an exploration of psychedelic counter- and subculture that continues to surround the legacy of the Dead to this day.

Watch more of our conversation from this episode of “Salon Talks.”

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Hard-hitting climate ads target Trump and Washington lawmakers

partnership for responsible growth

(Credit: The Partnership for Responsible Growth/Youtube)

AlterNet

With fossil fuel-loving climate deniers in the White House, Congress, the president’s cabinet and federal agencies like the EPA, the swamp Trump promised to drain has become an environmental disaster zone. But a new series of television ads will begin running in the nation’s capital Tuesday to make the case to policymakers that not only is the climate threat real, there’s a market-driven, pro-growth solution to the crisis that could get bipartisan support.

Sponsored by the Partnership for Responsible Growth, which according to its website, “advocates for pro-growth tax policy addressing the challenge of climate change with carbon-funded tax cuts,” the initial series of five ads makes a general call to both parties in Congress to protect the country from the impacts of climate change. Undescoring that time is of the essence, the ads come on the heels of an alarming new report by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental scientific policy forum, that concludes the Arctic could be free of sea ice by 2040 — three decades earlier than previously thought.

During a press call Monday, David Fenton, the founder of Fenton, the social change communications agency that produced the ads, said the new campaign is meant “to bring the truth about climate change to the Washington bubble . . . where pretty much all you ever see on television are ads from the fossil fuel industry about how great fossil fuels are for the country. That leaves out the impact of using them.” He added that the ads are an effort to “redress the balance.”

The first two ads in the series focus on how 97 percent of climate scientists are in agreement that global warming is caused by human activity, and how climate change is not some future problem, but is impacting Americans right now. Each ad will run about 50 times during the week on Fox News, CNN and on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC — stations and programs President Trump is known to watch along with his staff.

The ads aren’t simply urging policymakers to make the transition from fossil fuels to a low-carbon energy system based on renewables, as many environmentalists want to do. The underlying argument is one Trump might be more likely to understand: Fighting climate change can be done through a market-based strategy that could also be used to help pay for the president’s massive tax reform scheme: carbon pricing. The ads urge viewers to learn more about this “free market solution to climate change” by visiting pricecarbon.org.

“Both the White House and House Republican leadership have promised to advance a massive tax reform plan which could add anywhere from $4-7 trillion over 10 years to an already mushrooming debt, with absolutely no proposals for how to pay for it,” said George T. Frampton, Jr., co-founder of the Partnership for Responsible Growth, the ads’ sponsoring organization, during the press call.

“Revenue from a carbon excise fee on carbon fuels could provide $2 trillion or more as a pay-for for tax reform,” he said, noting that “there’s a real appetite among Republicans in the House and Senate to try to do some sort of a major deal on tax reform that would address the climate challenge through a market-based, pro-growth solution.” Frampton, who served as Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) under Bill Clinton, pointed out that one of the things holding back this solution is the climate denial that is running rampant throughout GOP leadership and that “it will cost a lot more to address it every year we wait.”

The ads have garnered support from conservative and evangelical groups that advocate a free-market carbon pricing approach to address the climate challenge. This method, favored by many economists for reducing global-warming emissions — including Harvard climate economist Martin Weitzman and American Economic Association president William Nordhaus — charges carbon dioxide emitters with a carbon price, an amount that must be paid for the right to emit a ton of the greenhouse gas, usually in the form either of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade, a system that imposes a requirement to purchase permits to emit CO2.

While carbon pricing may sound like a good idea, it has its detractors. Kenneth P. Green, an environmental scientist and director at the Fraser Institute, a conservative/libertarian public policy think tank based in Vancouver, outlines six reasons why a carbon tax is a bad idea, one being a negative impact on the poor:

Poorer people spend a higher portion of their household budget on energy than do the better off. If you were to posit redistributing the tax to the poor, you could deal with this, but if your tax is just a new revenue stream for government (which it will become sooner or later regardless of the initial design), higher energy costs and higher costs for goods and services are going to slap the lower-end of the income spectrum hard.

Green also argues that “new carbon taxes would represent double-taxation. You’re already paying carbon taxes in the additional costs of new vehicles with higher fuel emission standards, more expensive appliances that aim to conserve energy, renewable energy standards that raise your cost of electricity, etc. … Carbon taxes may look good as an abstract exercise in economics, but in the real world, like other eco-taxes, they would quickly morph into just another form of taxation that feeds the ever-hungry maw of big government.”

In a New York Times opinion piece, Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank admits that “if such a tax were phased in, the prices of goods would rise gradually in proportion to the amount of carbon dioxide their production or use entailed. The price of gasoline, for example, would slowly rise by somewhat less than $3 a gallon.” But this might help get drivers into cars that are not as carbon-intensive. “Motorists in many countries already pay . . . much more than Americans do, and they seem to have adapted by driving substantially more efficient vehicles,” he says.

In a U.S. News & World Report op-ed, Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, also admitted that a carbon tax “raises the price of energy and other goods and services that compose a disproportionately large share of low-income households’ budgets.” But, he also noted that it “raises revenues that policymakers can use to offset that hit to the budgets of those low-income households.” Of course, whether or not the revenue raised by a carbon tax is redistributed to the poor would remain to be seen.

Cap-and-trade, the other common carbon pricing scheme, also has its doubters. “Restricting carbon emissions by cap and trade is probably not a good idea even in a booming economy,” writes Sergey V. Mityakov, an economist at Clemson University. “On the one hand, consumers are going to suffer directly from the increased prices of the energy and energy-intensive goods they buy. On the other hand, higher energy prices will increase the production costs of American producers, making American-produced goods less competitive in the world market.”

Still, for some environmentalists, just getting Trump and the rest of the head-in-the-oil-sands GOP to start facing the harsh reality of climate change could be a good thing. Putting a price tag on carbon emissions has its pros and cons, and if Congress were to contemplate some form of carbon pricing legislation, its ultimate ramifications beyond reducing emissions could be properly hashed out in a public forum. In the end, it’s not about the tool, but how one uses it. As Stone points out, carbon pricing’s “net impact depends as well on how policymakers use the revenue.”

During Monday’s press call, Jerry Taylor, a former CATO Institute climate skeptic who now campaigns for carbon pricing through his Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, underscored the importance of paying attention to the climate science, such as paleo-climate records, present-day climate metrics, thermostatic records and just “basic physics.”

“The case for climate action . . . global warming . . . industrial emissions being the main driver — they come through multiple lines of evidence; it’s not just computer modeling that suggests these things are true,” argued Taylor. “If global warming isn’t happening, then virtually everyhing we know about physics is wrong. These ads do a valuable service in establishing some really basic degrees of knowledge that we have to work from to have an intelligent conversation.”

A discussion about climate policy based on science, facts and evidence? Now that’s something anyone concerned about the climate can agree on.

Watch the first two ads, “Gone Fishin‘” and “Dentists“:

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Notes from a trailing spouse: Drunk in Ireland and fearing for fabulists everywhere

Irish Pub

(Credit: Getty/Shutterstock/Salon)

I was in a pub last night in Dingle, Ireland, where my husband and I have pitched up en route back to New York for the summer. You can’t just leave a city as other to me as Abu Dhabi and set foot in Trump America for the first time since he stole into office without stopping in the perfect place to get blind drunk. Anyhow, with a pint in hand, I had one of those staggering revelations that only the stupidly inebriated have, which was: Of all the terrible things Trump has done, the worst, for me personally, is he has ruined the art of exaggeration and the harmless white lie.

It seems every time he opens his mouth he mangles the time-honored tradition of taking a flat reality and giving it a tiny boost. How ridiculous was his Muslims dancing in the streets of Jersey after 9/11? His Mexico sending over all its rapists and killers? His inauguration claim about the numbers in attendance? They go on and on, too many to count, and each one more absurd than the next.

Everyone lies. To themselves. To others. Scientists of the brain have even figured out it is part of the biological imperative, a way for us to battle and control the onslaught of being conscious. In fact, it is what makes us human — that and opposable thumbs.

I know any sort of lying is considered one of the deadly sins; at least, people behave as if it is. But to condemn all lying is about as productive as calling kids out for “playing with themselves.” It isn’t evil if there’s an understanding of why you’re doing it, if it is to protect feelings and be kind to others as opposed to just being self-serving.

I have to admit my harmless lies took on a weird turn when I moved to the Middle East. Things I would never have lied about, like why I have no children, for instance, or why it is that I don’t believe in God, now needed an excuse because if you’re godless and childless in Abu Dhabi you’ve upset a deep-seated order. Faith and family, without them you might as well be walking around naked with a drink in one hand and a dildo in the other.

I don’t want anyone to feel bad that I never had any interest in children, or God for that matter. So now I’m the poor woman born without a uterus. As for God, I blame my misguided parents and their commie past, something, now that I am surrounded by God-knowing people, I am striving to overcome.

And I felt okay about those lies. Then came Trump. What a fucking buffoon! Who lies like that? No finesse. No art.

At this point, I slammed down my pint and, this being Ireland, everyone turned. It was obvious I had something to say. “You great citizens of the land of blarney! Are you going to let some pampered rich kid, some moron of the highest order, a ‘Cheeto Apocalypse’ as my friend Deb calls him, shit all over what is our birthright?” (I’m of Irish decent, if you hadn’t already guessed.)

“No!” the crowd roared.

“Get her another drink,” someone called, “She’s onto something big, need I say HUGE?”

I waited, my thoughts gathering, taking shape, while the barman pulled me another pint. The crowd was now hushed in anticipation.

“What if Donald Trump and his bald-faced lies not only kills America’s standing in the world?”

Truth be told, no one gave a shit about that except for one kid from Milwaukee who was backpacking through Europe.

“But,” I continued, “ what if he also becomes omnipresent? Hear me out. Just imagine for one second that you are, say, Saint Patrick. Good trick to claim you got rid of something that was never here in the first place, and it made people feel safe knowing the nonexistent snakes had been banished. But if Trump had been alive then, his brand of lying would have wormed his way in; you would have stumbled in the telling, your confidence undercut. You’d hear his high-pitched whiny voice. You’d hear his blatant boring narcissistic boasts: I’m the best, I’m the greatest, I’m the hugest.”

“He’s the biggest fecking prat, that’s what he is,” the man next to me said, his turn now to slam down his pint.

“Exactly,” I said. “Isn’t it our right to live by narratives of our own making, not for nefarious reasons, not to hurt people, but to lift up the ordinary, to make poetry, to make life a work of art? Now, my friends, there is a terrible threat that that fecking prat will infect all of us, he will get in our heads, our stories, our exaggerated beings and, I gotta tell you, to me? That feels like the end of the world.”

There was a general rumpus of agreement and the crowd at the bar broke up into small groups, the mood now a bit dour.

My husband and I left soon after. We walked home in silence; the only sound was the grunts the two of us made as we violently flung ourselves up against the hedgerow whenever a car hurtled past. Safely back in the sweet cottage we had rented, we lit a fire and, because of the time difference and work commitments, we each retreated into our computers.

As coincidence, or luck, would have it, just as I left the Middle East, Trump and his family arrived in Saudi Arabia for his first foreign trip since becoming president. Watching him disembark onto the tarmac, I had this terrible feeling. “Oh my god,” I thought, “he’s out there! He’s like a virus gone rogue.”

Right then, I wanted to open the window and cry out into the night, “Take heed all you storytellers, white liars, you artful exaggerators, you must fight, fight to protect yourselves.”

But when I saw him start to dance with that sword in his hand I feared it was too late. The future is set. There is no truth, and soon there will be no good lies either.

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Trump’s trade policy is unlikely to deliver big wins for U.S. workers

Donald Trump, Haider al-Abadi

(Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The Trump administration recently notched two wins for its international trade strategy, hailing both as big gains for U.S. workers. The Conversation

The first was the confirmation of Robert Lighthizer on May 11 as U.S. trade representative (USTR). This was a key step toward President Donald Trump’s vow to renegotiate NAFTA.

That same day, the White House announced progress in opening up the Chinese market for U.S. card payment service companies, such as Visa, as well as American beef producers.

While both of these events represent positive if small steps forward, they also symbolize the administration’s problematic approach to trade: The U.S. will pursue bilateral deals, like the one with China, at the expense of multilateral pacts such as NAFTA.

As an economist studying international trade, I’m skeptical that incremental, bilateral negotiations will reap significant rewards for American workers, particularly the kind Trump has promised.

A push for bilateralism

One of Lighthizer’s first duties as USTR will be to renegotiate NAFTA with the aim of delivering the president’s “better deal.”

Senators confirmed Lighthizer by an 82-14 vote, suggesting that there is bipartisan support for Trump’s preference for bilateral deals over multilateral ones. And Lighthizer is in many ways the ideal candidate for the job.

As deputy U.S. trade representative under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, he helped negotiate bilateral agreements to restrict Japanese imports and open up their markets to U.S. businesses. These deals were seen at the time as important victories for U.S. manufacturers, demonstrating the value of a USTR committed to bilateral negotiations in order to secure strong protections for American businesses.

Today, China is the new Japan: a rapidly growing, manufacturing-oriented economy that threatens the global economic status quo. As a battle-tested free-trade skeptic, Lighthizer should be an effective advocate for the protectionist policies that the Trump administration has championed and is likely to do so following the bilateral blueprint he used under Reagan.

Reasons for skepticism

But whether a revised NAFTA or any new bilateral agreement negotiated by Lighthizer ends up being good for U.S. workers remains to be seen, and we should be skeptical.

The China deal consisted of a reaffirmation of a September agreement to allow U.S. beef producers access to Chinese markets, which Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross hailed as “very big news.”

But while the news was big in terms of how much beef may be sold to China in coming years, it is unlikely to do much for U.S. workers. U.S. beef production directly employs fewer than 4,000 workers and indirectly employs perhaps upward of 65,000, numbers so small as to be irrelevant.

In addition, the administration completed a deal that will allow U.S. payment transaction companies to operate in China. But again, these companies employ merely 130,000 U.S. workers. To put that into perspective, the net number of jobs created every month in the U.S. (the difference between jobs created and jobs destroyed) is around 200,000.

Not an ideal negotiating strategy

The irony is that, despite the Trump administration’s focus on the jobs impact of trade agreements, bilateral deals are less likely to have a big impact on workers. This is because these agreements tend to be a boon for some businesses — those for whom the new market is important – while having only indirect effects on others.

As a result, powerful companies with influential lobbying arms are better able to promote their interests within this type of setting, and the limited scale of the negotiations means that these businesses’ interests often come at the expense of others. Thus, less influential industries, and their workers, lose out. For instance, the U.S. still faces high Chinese trade barriers on insurance products, a sector that employs over 2.3 million U.S. workers.

In fact, this is one of the primary arguments for wide-ranging, multilateral trade negotiations of the type that the Trump administration dislikes. Though such negotiations also have downsides, when deal-making involves multiple countries and many industries, it becomes less likely that any single interest group will prevail at the expense of others.

In other words, agreements such as those that led to the World Trade Organization, which Trump derides, were specifically designed to overcome this kind of corruption of the political process that allows narrow, powerful corporate interests to buy their way into the negotiation process.

Eye on the ball

There is also a large cost to abandoning or significantly revising multilateral trade accords like NAFTA.

While NAFTA has undoubtedly led to the availability of cheaper products for U.S. consumers, it has simultaneously been bad for many U.S. workers. However, in this case the harm has already been done and any significant disruption of the existing agreement would be costly, both economically and politically.

For instance, about 60 percent of NAFTA trade goes by truck, a sector that employs 3.5 million U.S. workers. So a disruption to NAFTA supply chains would clearly have severe economic consequences for truck drivers.

It is undeniably good for the U.S. to sell more beef and payment transaction services to the Chinese. And renegotiating NAFTA could be welfare improving for all involved if done right. But attempts to negotiate specific deals that impact narrow interest groups rarely lead to large overall gains for workers.

The key will be whether this populist president can keep his eye on the ball and what really matters — the American worker — and not get distracted by the lure of corporate rent-seekers.

Greg Wright, Assistant Professor of Economics, University of California, Merced

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