Asawin Suebsaeng

Asawin Suebsaeng

Reporter

Asawin Suebsaeng is a reporter at the Washington, DC, bureau of Mother Jones. He has also written for The American Prospect, the Bangkok Post, and Shoecomics.com.

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A graduate of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn., Asawin came back to DC with hopes of putting his flimsy Creative Writing major, student newspaper tenure, and interest in human rights and political chicanery to some use. He started cutting his teeth at F&M's student-run weekly, The College Reporter, serving as editor in chief. He has interned at The American Prospect, been a reporter for the Bangkok Post, and scribbled for ShoeComics.com. His favorite movie is either Apocalypse Now or Pirahna 3D, depending on the day or mood.

Season Four of "Boardwalk Empire": More Great Characters, Sleazy Politics, and Racial Tensions

| Sun Sep. 8, 2013 5:11 PM EDT

As much critical acclaim as Boardwalk Empire has garnered over the last three years, there's an argument to be made that the HBO drama remains underrated. The series dialogue is consistently some of the sharpest and memorable on television, almost on a casual basis. The casting, production values, music, and 1920s gangland confrontations are superb. The effortlessness with which the Boardwalk crew juggles seemingly dozens of intersecting storylines is admirable. And the creative involvement of Martin Scorsese (who executive-produced and directed the $18-million pilot episode), author Dennis Lehane, and Terence Winter certainly doesn't hurt.

It's all too easy to take the show's greatness for granted at this point. The fourth season (premiering Sunday, September 8 at 9 p.m. ET/PT) shrewdly advances and improves upon the rich character development and Prohibition-era power struggles of the excellent third season. Nucky (Steve Buscemi), "Chalky" (Michael Kenneth Williams), Capone (Stephen Graham), Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Gillian (Gretchen Mol), and company are back performing another act of their seedy opera of money, sex, booze, and spilled blood. The first five episodes of the new season are as stirring in the hushed violence of tense conversation as they are in the decidedly louder violence of slain mobsters. The season's fifth episode includes one of the most riveting, jaw-dropping death scenes in the history of television.

And Boardwalk Empire has always featured a healthy serving of political content, inspired by true stories of Jazz Age corruption and presidential, federal, and local politics. James Cromwell guest-starred last season as an exceedingly grumpy Andrew Mellon, who was Treasury Secretary under presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. The series also depicts Gaston Means (Stephen Root), a real-life con artist who was tied to crooked politicos during the Harding era.

Season four draws from a similarly shady political history. Al Capone is shown subverting democracy before he becomes the infamous Chicago boss—Capone and his brother Frank (Morgan Spector) harass working-class residents of Cicero, Illinois, to ensure the election of a Republican mayor. It's an exciting subplot based on something that actually happened in the mid-'20s. From History.com:

In 1923, when Chicago elected a reformist mayor who announced that he planned to rid the city of corruption, [Johnny] Torrio and Capone moved their base beyond the city limits to suburban Cicero. But a 1924 mayoral election in Cicero threatened their operations. To ensure they could continue doing business, Torrio and Capone initiated an intimidation effort on the day of the election, March 31, 1924, to guarantee their candidate would get elected. Some voters were even shot and killed.

Even Chicago's tongue-in-cheek political saying, "vote early and vote often," has been attributed to Capone.

This season also introduces Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright, a terrific actor who played Colin Powell in W. and blues legend Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records), a Trinidad-born, Harlem-based crime lord who is as ruthless as he is cultured and sophisticated. Narcisse refers to black Americans as "Libyans" and white Americans as "Nordic." He works at the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a once-influential fraternal organization founded by the black nationalist Marcus Garvey. Narcisse is a charismatic criminal with "well-formed, proto-black-power politics," as Slate notes. Here's Wright talking to GQ about his character, and the racial politics that come with the territory:

Dr. Narcisse is a doctor of divinity, vice, and chaos. So, he walks into the room and he stirs things up but he's an equal opportunity troublemaker...But his relationship to Chalky is one that's based in the intra-racial relations of the time to a wonderfully detailed extent—at that time, there was something of a great debate within African-American society, among the great thinkers of the past: W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and within the Harlem Renaissance, about what was the way forward. Within that debate were some pretty vicious personal attacks over complexion, politics, between urbane and rural—a lot of those dynamics are fleshed out within the relationship between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky. It even further immerses the storyline in real history.

I'll leave you with the season-four "Kings" trailer, which features Narcisse prominently:

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The Guy Behind "The Fox"—The Summer's Funniest Music Video—Talks About Going Viral

| Thu Sep. 5, 2013 6:33 PM EDT

That's the music video for "The Fox," an infectious, wacky, and exuberantly funny new song by Norwegian entertainment duo Ylvis. It was posted to YouTube on Tuesday and is already a hit. Gawker hails it as the true "Song of the Summer," beating Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" and Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." BuzzFeed praises it as perhaps the greatest music video on the internet. The Week thinks it might be the "'Gangnam Style' of 2013." USA Today has weighed in, proclaiming it "the next viral music-video sensation."

The video (directed by Ole Martin Hafsmo) depicts a man in an orange fox costume who dances and belts out noises a fox might make, including "gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!" and "fraka-kaka-kaka-kaka-kow!" As you can tell, the lyrics (posted below) get creative and sort of insane with its answers.

For the vast majority of Americans, "The Fox" will be their introduction to Ylvis, a musical-comedy act inspired by artists such as The Lonely Island, Tenacious D, and Flight of the Conchords. But the duo (brothers Bård and Vegard Ylvisåker) is an established act in Norway, where they have their own talk show. The music video was meant to promote the show's new season, but to the shock of its creators, it's taken on a life of its own.

"To be honest I am quite surprised!" Bård tells Mother Jones. "This song is made for a TV show and is supposed to entertain a few Norwegians for three minutes—and that's all. It was done just a few days ago and we recently had a screening in our office. About 10 people watched—nobody laughed."

Alyssa Milano Weighs In on Her "Sex Tape" About the Bloodshed in Syria

| Wed Sep. 4, 2013 4:48 PM EDT

No, you don't get to see actress Alyssa Milano have sex. Yes, you get to hear some depressing bullet points on the bloodshed in Syria.

Early Wednesday morning, Funny or Die—Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's comedy website—posted a "leaked!" sex tape of the 40-year-old Milano (who's famous for her roles on the TV shows Who's the Boss? and Charmed). The video is, of course, a staged comic bit. Milano and a handsome man start getting it on right as their camera "accidentally" swivels to a TV broadcasting an evening news report on the crisis in Syria, and the Obama administration's push for military intervention. The TV set is mounted next to a mirror, in which the viewers can see limbs flopping and a bed sheet moving.

"I think it was a really fun way to get people to realize that there are important issues our country is dealing with right now," Milano tells Mother Jones. "If people end up learning something about the crisis in Syria that's a good thing—even if I had to do a sex tape to lure them in."

The video ends with Milano saying to her lover, "This is boring, change the channel, put it on the Swamp People," referring to the History channel's reality TV series that documents the lives of alligator hunters.

To promote the "Syrian sex tape," Milano tweeted out the following on Wednesday:

Funny or Die's Nick Corirossi, one of the writers and directors of the "sex tape," is keeping up a similar act. "I was the tape's finder," Corirossi says. "Funny or Die every once in a while tries to purchase sex tapes...[but] this time it was more boring than ever. It was all about all this Syrian stuff. It's the most boring sex tape debacle I've ever been involved in." (Corirossi did say that he does not believe the video takes a political position on intervention, but does serve as "an update" on Syria news.)

Milano has dabbled in political fare before. Since 2003, she has been (along with a bunch of other celebs) a UNICEF ambassador, and has traveled with the UN program to Kosovo, India, and Angola. She's voiced her support for same-sex marriage. And she starred in a 2010 Funny or Die video (Ron Livingston, Gillian Jacobs, and many more) urging Americans to vote. Funny or Die posts a lot of political satire and content—and has done fake celebrity sex tapes before, as well.

Kanye West Performs for a Dictator's Family, and Human Rights Activists Are Livid

| Tue Sep. 3, 2013 5:58 PM EDT

Trying to steal Taylor Swift's thunder is no longer the most cringeworthy thing Kanye West has ever done.

Over the weekend, the hip-hop artist performed for a dictator's kin. On Saturday, West was in Almaty (Kazakhstan's largest city) performing at the wedding reception of Aisultan Nazarbayev, the 23-year-old grandson of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Nazarbayev has ruled the central Asian country for 23 years since its independence from the dissolved Soviet Union, and has come under fire by human rights organizations for his authoritarian tactics, including attacks on a free press, torture, torpedoing workers' rights, and jailing the political opposition. (In 2011, Sting canceled a gig in Kazakhstan after Amnesty International got in touch with him about the human rights abuses.)

For his performance (which included a rendition of  "Can't Tell Me Nothing"), West reportedly received $3 million. Here's a brief clip from the event:

A news agency in Kazakhstan reported that West was a personal guest of the controversial strongman. As you can imagine, human rights advocates aren't thrilled about any of this.

"Someone like Kanye, who makes a living expressing his views, would find himself in a prison under Nazarbayev’s rule."

"Kazakhstan is a human rights wasteland," Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), said in a statement sent to Mother Jones. "The regime crushes freedom of speech and association; someone like Kanye, who makes a living expressing his views, would find himself in a prison under Nazarbayev’s rule."

"The millions of dollars paid to West came from the loot stolen from the Kazakhstan treasury," said Garry Kasparov, a noted critic of Vladimir Putin and chairman of HRF. "West has supported numerous charities throughout his career, including a few specifically focused on international human rights work. Kanye has entertained a brutal killer and his entourage...It's up to the public to hold [him] accountable."

West is now in the growing club of celebrities caught getting chummy with despots. In 2012, Kim Kardashian, the reality-TV socialite and mother of West's child, is in it, too. In 2012, she traveled to Bahrain and generated positive press for a regime that was still taking heat for its bloody crackdown on political dissidents. (Following her arrival, Bahrain police were deployed to control "hard-line" Islamic protesters enraged at her presence.)

Earlier this summer, Jennifer Lopez was slammed by human rights groups for her paid performance at the lavish birthday bash of 56-year-old Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the human-rights-quashing dictator of Turkmenistan. Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Lionel Richie, and Usher had all danced and sung for relatives of the deceased Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi. Godfather of Soul James Brown and blues guitar legend B.B. King performed for Zaire president Mobutu Sese Seko, a vicious anti-communist tyrant. British supermodel Naomi Campbell was caught hanging out with Charles Taylor, a convicted war criminal and ex-president of Liberia. And the list goes on.

The human rights violations and internationally denounced actions of all the above can be found in five seconds on Google. Maybe famous people who don't need the money—and the people they hire to vet their appearances—should use it more.

West's publicist did not respond to Mother Jones' request for comment.

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