The Riff - August 2010

Taking Down Fox News

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 4:25 PM EDT

After Glenn Beck blamed Obama for harboring a "deep-seated hatred for white people" during a morning chat on Fox and Friends more than a year ago, ColorofChange.org's director James Rucker decided that enough was enough. "Beck's comments about the president perfectly captured what has been going on at the network for a long time," Rucker told reporter Alexander Zaitchik, who wrote about the incident in our July/August issue this year. Color of Change is an online civil rights group focused on strengthening the political voices of people of color. Under Rucker's direction, it successfully urged several advertisers, including Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and RadioShack, to pull their ads from Beck's show. But Rucker didn't exactly get the outcome he was hoping for. Fox News did nothing to reign Beck in: instead, he's been allowed to blather on with few boundaries ever since. "Nothing has essentially changed," says Rucker. So Color of Change has launched an even larger offensive: convincing local businesses to silence Fox News.

Rucker had been bothered by catching glimpses of figures like Beck on television in the gym or restaurants. True Fox devotees, who see the world through that lens, should be able to watch Fox in their own homes, says Rucker. "But no one else should be subject to that." The Turn Off Fox campaign, which launches today, wants to de-legitimize Fox in public places. The campaign provides anyone with a kit, including instructions on how to persuade store owners to become "Fox-free" and a flyer detailing why.

"Fox's race-baiting and fear mongering is more than just deceptive and offensive," reads the campaign literature. "It's bad for the country, it's dangerous, and it can result in violence." In a letter asking for signatures, Turn Off Fox makes a case for how Fox's divisive reporting has sparked recent acts of violence. For example, when a man open fired at highway cops on an Oakland freeway in July, he told them that he wanted to start a revolution, with planned bloodshed at the Tides Foundation in San Francisco. Tides is a little-known non-profit, argues Turn Off Fox, that Glenn Beck chose to demonize on his show. A report by Media Matters suggests that the trigger-happy man could have drawn inspiration from Beck's proselytizing, and the shooter's mother admitted that her son "watched the news on television and was upset by 'the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

A War Photographer's Journey: Black Passport

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

In the run-up to Obama's August 31 policy speech regarding the drawdown of troops in Iraq, wars continue around the globe—and where there are wars, there are photojournalists. Sometimes their reasons for staying in a war zone are opaque. "What I do not understand is why you [would] rather be in a ditch in Chechnya, freezing, cold and shot at instead of being in bed fucking me." That challenge, posed by one of photojournalist Stanley Greene's many exes, cuts to the heart of his deeply personal, brutally honest retrospective, which spans his early days shooting punk bands to his current career as a decorated war photographer. In images and words, Greene bluntly recounts how war shatters lives—including his own.

See more photos by Stanley Greene here, or check out the Mother Jones daily war photo here.

I Was a Virtual Taliban

| Tue Aug. 24, 2010 6:31 PM EDT

So there are these things that are called video games, see, and one of the most popular types of video games is the first-person shooter, in which you shoot people. Among other things.

There's this other thing called war, see, and America's waging one in Afghanistan in which American soldiers shoot Taliban insurgents. Among other things. And the Taliban shoot back.

You can see where this is going. Or, at least, the gaming company Electronic Arts (EA) can see it: They're in the middle of a roll-out campaign for Medal of Honor, an Afghanistan-based first-person shooter (FPS) game in which you can assume the role of "Tier 1 Operator, an elite warrior and relatively unknown instrument of the US Military that operates under the National Command Authority to take on missions no one else can handle."

Or, in multi-player mode, you can assume the role of a Taliban insurgent.

This isn't treason; it's capitalism run amok.

Part of me wonders why that isn't a huge offense to the same crowd that opposes an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. Sure, it's gotten some play on Fox News, along with the usual mainstream media handwringing. And even a few (foreign) politicians have weighed in against little Johnny getting his cyber-jihad on. But some conservatives love the game's concept. "If millions of Americans are exposed to a platform that accurately defines our enemy as the dregs of the modern world (while allowing a small percentage of sick individuals to actually enjoy the option to become them), conservatives should move on," writes right-leaning pop-culture blogger Douglas Ernst. (He adds: "Any video game company that allows me to put a few 5.56mm rounds into facsimiles of Taliban cavemen is ahead of the power curve in my book.")

For its part, EA claims to be interested in occupying a view from nowhere, ideologically. "We do stir up some feelings, although it's not about the war, it’s about the soldiers," game producer Patrick Liu told a gaming magazine. "We can't get away from what the setting is and who the factions are but, in the end, it's a game, so we're not pushing or provoking too hard."

No. They're pushing just hard enough to make ungodly sums of money. This isn't treason; it's capitalism run amok. Video game producers court controversy in their designs; every group with a political-moral axe to grind pumps out its press-release condemnations; the media outlets dutifully report the controversy and see a bump in traffic; the video games see a bump in sales; the anti-game groups see a bump in donations.

Then, a sequel!

Flickr/ diametrik (Creative Commons)Flickr/ diametrik (Creative Commons)EA routinely nets $4 billion annually in revenues. A large share of that comes from the Medal of Honor franchise: The series' website lists 14 previous games, most of which were World War II-based scenarios that enabled players to be Nazis, trying to improve on the 1,000-year reich's real-life batting record. (The series is the brainchild of filmmaker and war-porn obsessive Steven Spielberg.) And what does the new title represent to EA? Just "another step towards our goal of regaining leadership in the FPS segment," CEO John Riccitiello told shareholders on an earnings conference call in early August. EA has already lined up pop-rockers Linkin Park to provide a No. 1 single for Medal of Honor's soundtrack, and the company's also cut a product-placement deal with Jeep.

Translation: Medal of Honor is war profiteering of the first order, up there with the likes of KBR and Erik Prince's House o' Premium Trigger-Pullers.

Not that we should be surprised at EA's chutzpah. The company shows its loyalty to fans of the "shooter genre" with a rewards program known as the "Gun Club," where perks include early access to virtual weapons like the M24 sniper rifle. "Using their existing EA profile as their Gun Club membership profile, gamers will access content that just might give them an edge in battle," the firm writes in a characteristically breathless press release.

EA also has a peculiar notion of a diversified product inventory. Its lineup of other games includes Shank, "a bloody story of revenge...through a violent, pulp-fiction lens," and my favorite, DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue, wherein you "explore the North Pole and the high seas to locate six mystical thongs to bring peace and harmony to the universe." A co-creator of the Thongs franchise says, "Bigger, longer, harder—these were the words that drove us while we created the follow up to our introduction to the DeathSpank universe."

Indeed. What does the DeathSpank/Shank/Medal of Honor universe tell us about the folks at Electronic Arts? Just that they're good capitalists. But what does that universe, and its profitability, tell us about ourselves? That we're virtually screwed.

UPDATE: RIP $pread?

| Tue Aug. 24, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

This week the country's only sex worker-operated trade magazine, $pread, announced that it needs $30,000 or the magazine gets it:

After all these years, five all-volunteer years to be exact, we have come to the conclusion that an all-volunteer magazine is simply unsustainable in the current publishing climate. Short of a donation of $30,000, we will be unable to sustain the magazine past January.

Last week, I interviewed Will Rockwell, the editor-in-chief of the New York-based publication, to get his take on industry myths, decriminalizing prostitution, and more. Some highlights:

MJ: How does $pread tackle myths [about sex workers]?

WR: $pread publishes a range of experiences in the sex industry. For some people it's all a field of roses; for some of us, it was our best option among limited options, and others experienced violence at the hands of the police and a stigmatizing culture. In all cases, $pread provides a forum for sex workers to speak for themselves.

MJ: Have you ever been in a scary or dangerous situation while working that you think could have been prevented or helped if prostitution was decriminalized?

WR: I was once shorted out of an entire night's pay by a client who told me he was going to call security on me if I didn't leave. I decided against calling the police, because every case I heard of involved the police arresting the sex worker. Instead, I had to let a rape go unpunished.

MJ: Why do you think prostitution has yet to be decriminalized in this country?

WR: Sex work has yet to decriminalized in the US because people fear what is most familiar: We know our fathers and husbands are clients of sex workers, and our sisters, cousins, and friends find a way to pay the rent when two or three jobs aren't enough to make ends meet.

Read the full interview here.

$pread's Crime and Punishment Issue as well as its Race Issue are slated for publication by January, before the mag closes its doors indefinitely.

VIDEO: Iran, Mel Brooks Parodies, and GOP Pandering

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 3:20 PM EDT

Like most people named Weinstein, I was born into a (secular) Jewish family. Whether or not you stay in the faith, being born or raised Jewish imbues you with a host of idiosyncrasies. For example, like me, you're probably pretty sensitive to anti-Semitism, and you love Mel Brooks.

Which is what makes this political ad so hard to swallow:

Mattie Fein is running against incumbent Jane Harman for Congress. Fein was a strategist for the Moonie-owned conservative magazine Insight, which is credited with coining the term "Islamophobia" and spreading the unsubstantiated rumor in 2007 that Barack Obama attended a Muslim madrassa.

Fein is also reportedly a GOP political communications consultant. But notwithstanding the fact that she got me to repost this thing, she's not very politically astute. Beating up on Iran's nuclear ambitions with a Brooks-ian parody is meant as a not-so-subtle signal that she's a friend of the tribe. Yet Fein doesn't know her punim from a pupik. To wit:

  • The scene parodied here also happens to be the movie's most sympathetic moment toward Frau Blucher, the Jane Harman character. ("He...vas...my...BOYFRIEND!") Anybody who knows anything about Young Frankenstein knows that. Fein does not know anything about Young Frankenstein.
  • Mel Brooks is funny most of the time. But even when he's not, he's ridiculous, especially when it comes to politics. (Brooksian analogy: American racism : flatulence :: torture of Jews : variety gameshow.) Point is, he typifies a type of Jewish humor that goes for the absurd joke, not the biting political critique, paradoxically delivering both. Fein delivers neither.
  • Black and white political ads nowadays are typically reserved for very serious messages. Makes sense if you think about it. Young Frankenstein was in black and white to poke fun at the camp of old horror flicks: It's funny because they were silly films with corny premises that took themselves oh so seriously. Somewhere in all this, Fein's message gets lost. Does this please anyone that actually takes the Iranian nuclear threat seriously, or does it just show the bedrock silliness of turning Ahmadinejad into America's Next Top Dictator©?

Here's the real problem with this ad, though: A token nod to anti-Iranian fears and Jewish film comedy...A total misunderstanding of both, to serve a conservative end...This isn't a pro-Jewish gag so much as a cynical pander, and in not giving viewers much credit for intelligence or humor, it hits me as anti-Semitism of a low order. I have a feeling I know where Fein's next campaign ad is going to go, since her name is a homophone for one of the most cynical "funny" Jewish stereotypes in American sitcom history.

Fein would have you believe that she's lighting a candle for American security and the Chosen People of California's 36th District. But maybe she should stick to the voting issues and put the candle back.

How to Avoid Being Crushed to Death at a Concert

| Mon Aug. 23, 2010 7:03 AM EDT

Back in 2003, a nightclub fire in Providence, Rhode Island broke out when the pyrotechnics of the ‘80s metal band Great White malfunctioned and ignited the ceiling. At first, patrons thought it was just part of the show. But within 90 seconds, what are known as “crush conditions” began to develop in the crowd—that is, the force of compression inside the panicked mass became so great that people started to suffocate.

This death by compressive asphyxia was undoubtedly what killed many of the 96 victims who never escaped the club that night, as it is thought to be responsible for almost all deaths that occur in out-of-control crowds. One of the reasons compressive asphyxia is so common is that crush conditions develop too quickly for anyone of authority to respond. The only way to stop them is to detect them before they happen.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

"Fact Checkers Unit": NBC and Samsung's Spin on My Job

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 4:00 PM EDT

Fact checkers: the perpetually under-appreciated employees at any publication. We're responsible for confirming the veracity of every statement the magazine publishes, both in print and online. We become resident experts in the articles slung our way, upholding our employers's reputation for factual accuracy and serving as a first line of defense against lawsuits. See the Jared Diamond-New Yorker debacle as an example of what can happen when articles are disputed. And remember Jayson Blair? Few sing our praises (although John McPhee once did. Thanks, John). It is thankless work, with long hours and little pay.

Or, at least, that's the job's reputation. It's actually wonderful work, filled with intellectual excitement. Mother Jones is supportive of us beyond measure. I'm serious. See Lori Fradkin's piece on her time as a copy editor at New York Magazine to give a sense of the stratum in which we lie. And that's why NBC's digital show "FCU: Fact Checkers Unit", premiering today with three 6-minute episodes and slated for an 8-episode run, is so disappointing. It omits the thrilling aspects of the work in order to crack a joke.

This would be tolerable if the jokes were funny. But FCU's first episode (below), guest-starring a ghost-fearing Luke Perry, is a tired retread of lackluster "CSI" and "Paranormal Activity" parodies. Future cameos by rocker Dave Navarro and Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite fame give the impression that the show is merely a venue for creators Peter Karinen and Brian Sacca to tap their celebrity cadre.

No Political Punch Lines for Brazil?

| Tue Aug. 17, 2010 3:31 PM EDT

When Brazil's political candidates stump with nicknames like "King of the Cuckolds," "DJ Saddam," "Jorge Bushi," and "Kung Fu Fatty," it seems a special kind of torture to say you can't publically ridicule them.

Unfortunately, a decades-old law bans political satire on Brazilian TV and radio in the three months before the country's October 3 elections: "Trickery montages" and other such "features of audio or video" are punishable by up to $112,000 in fines and the suspension of a show's broadcast license. Supporters of the law say it keeps politicians from being portrayed unfairly. Everyone else calls it a relic of the country's dictatorship era and a "threat to the intelligence of the Brazilian people." Or, as Brazilian TV comedian Marcelo Tas puts it, the law is "a very particular Brazilian type of madness."  

Similar criticisms occasionally surface about the role of humor in US elections.  In 2008, some worried about the "Tina Fey effect" on Sarah Palin's reputation. Fey, in turn, wondered if Will Ferrell's charming, bumbling caricature of George W. Bush came off as a little too likable to voters. 

Whatever the case, the last 10 years may have been too much to bear without a daily dose of Colbert or Stewart, particularly during election seasons. Hopefully, the protest that Brazilian comedians and satirists have planned for Sunday has some effect. Or at least it will generate some hilarious signs. 

Here's a few great moments in political humor to wish them luck:  

1) "2000 Presidential Debates," SNL 

2) "Sarah Palin and Katie Couric," SNL

3) "Barack Obama: He Completes Us," The Daily Show

4) "Governor Alert - The Search for Mark Sanford," The Colbert Report

5) "Fool Me Once," a trickery montage of Bushisms  

 

Music Monday: My Chat With Cornel West

| Mon Aug. 16, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Cornel West is a busy guy: Prince, Talib Kweli, and Jill Scott are just a few of the musical revolutionaries with whom the Princeton professor of religion and African American studies has collaborated. You may recognize 57-year-old West's bearded, sage-like face from Tavis Smiley's recently discontinued State of the Black Union conferences or his annual appearances on The Colbert Report. He was also in both Matrix sequels, playing the Zion Elder, Councillor West. On his albums, of which there are three, West holds forth against a backdrop of great beats and soulful grooves, with lyrics that speak to his vision of creating a nation that works for everyday people. Currently he's preparing for next month's paperback release of his 2009 memoir Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. In our interview, West spoke about politics, his various forms activism, and why he believes music has the potential to close the widening divide between intellectuals and the public at large.

Mother Jones: Could you talk about why having a black president doesn't necessarily mean that change isn't needed anymore or that we've entered a post-racial era?

Cornel West: On the one hand, [Obama's election is] a sign of tremendous progress in terms of struggling against racism. It means we are less racist. It doesn't mean we're post-racial. And less racist is fine, but we've still got various forms of institutional racism operating, covert forms of racism operating, and of course we've got a white backlash against brother Barack himself, which is why we've got to protect, respect, and correct it. In that sense the idea of congratulating ourselves perennially because we have elected a black man is inappropriate. We celebrated in January when he was inaugurated then we went to work. And in going to work, what did we find? Structural racism, unacceptable levels of social misery, unemployment, infant mortality, poor access to health care, low-quality education, just right across the board. And all of that work that needs to be done is not helped by saying that we're in a post-racial era. There's no such thing as post-racial in that sense. On the ground people are still suffering. We've still got a lot of things to do.

MJ: I received a comment from one of our readers who said that there are many people who have lifted themselves out of horrible situations without waiting for the government to help them. I'm sure you've encountered this criticism in your work. How would you respond?

CW: Yes, it's true that there's going to be Michael Jordans, Oprah Winfreys, Curtis Mayfields and Smokey Robinsons, Aretha Franklins. Ain't no doubt about that. That's called genius. But generally speaking, most people don't have that level of genius. And in a democracy you gotta keep track of everybody. You don't just keep track of the geniuses. And we should also keep in mind that even the geniuses who make it, they had help. Stevie Wonder couldn't have made it without his mother. He couldn't have made it without Berry Gordy. He couldn't have made it without Diana Ross. He couldn't have made it without Marvin Gaye. He couldn't have made it without a lot friends who encouraged him and didn't give him both psychic support and economic opportunity. His genius allowed him to seize those opportunities, to build on that support. But not one of us ever, ever, ever pulled ourselves up by ourselves. The very notion of being self-made is nothing but an American myth and a vicious lie.

MJ: What motivates you to use music as a form of activism, and what other kinds of activism do you do?

CW: I think that anytime you love people you hate the fact that they are being treated unjustly. And therefore you have to express the fire for justice that you have inside you by speaking out, by working with, by marching with, by being in solidarity with people who are suffering. It takes different forms. It can take the form of music, but The Wachowski Brothers are right on the same progressive page, trying to get people to think fearlessly on The Matrix. Same is true in the speeches that I give. Same is true in the various sermons I give in churches, in mosques and trade union centers, and prisons. As a Christian I work closely with prophetic churches, but I also do ecumenical work. I work with my Jewish brothers and sisters. I’m spending a lot of time now with my Muslim brothers and sisters, all of whom are concerned with justice. What I try to be is a multi-contextual progressive.

MJ: Do you think music is an effective way of bridging the gap between intellectuals and the public at large? Because the music you're coming out with seems really contrary to the predominant big-pimpin' hip-hop that's taken over the airwaves.

CW: It's true. But for me it's primarily more transgenerational, trying to speak to the younger generation because most of the folk from my generation are old-school. They're not really listening to the hip-hop artists.

MJ: I was just listening to the mix you put out with Prince, and it reminded me a little bit of Gil Scott-Heron.

CW: Well Gil Scott is something. He's a giant. But Gil Scott's a real artist. I'm just a brother out there trying to have some fun and maybe educate too. Cause I have a lot of fun, you know.

MJ: Besides music and reading, what else do you like to do for fun?

CW: Read more [laughs]. I like to dance.

Listen to West's collaboration with Talib Kweli (from the album Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations):

 

Click here for more Music Monday features from Mother Jones.

 

"It's Not Selling Your Body, It's More Like Controlled-Access Rental"

| Sat Aug. 14, 2010 7:04 PM EDT

Asked if he’s ever felt exploited as a sex worker, Will Rockwell—the 24-year-old editor-in-chief of the sex worker-operated magazine $pread—replies, "Yes, by the media. Every interview we do is twisted for the purposes of sensationalistic propaganda, whether it's the conservative New York Post jerking itself off over the Spitzer scandal or Ms. Magazine fantasizing about female victimhood and applying it in broad strokes to people they never really cared to know, and certainly never offered a helping hand free of judgment and surveillance." He says the sensationalist and often stereotype-ridden depictions of sex workers—prostitutes, exotic dancers, dominatrices, phone-sex operators, and people who engage in informal forms of transactional sex—by media outlets sparked the 2005 creation of $pread, the country’s only magazine developed by and for sex workers.

With a circulation of about 3,000 ("Each copy is passed between 4 or 5 people on average, according to a readers' survey," Rockwell asserts), the quarterly magazine includes anything from "product reviews (from false eyelashes to anal lube), to personal essays about weird clients, to news reports on international public policy and events affecting sex worker communities around the globe," according to its website. $pread's current "Aging" issue, which is sold online and available in a few independent bookstores, grapples with maturity in a profession seemingly absorbed with youthful appearance ("Strippers in their 40s are hardly uncommon," Kristen Casey writes in one article).

Rockwell, a male sex worker who's serviced men for almost a decade, has been the head honcho at the New York-based publication for more than a year; he's volunteered for the magazine for three years. "I took the [unpaid] job because the first article I read in $pread was in Issue 2.4, named 'I killed a client in self-defense,'" Rockwell told Mother Jones via email. "It is an entirely matter-of-fact story about a woman working an outcall who was stabbed by her client before she took the knife from him and killed him in self-defense. When the police arrived, they arrested her for the murder of a married military officer, but she was later proven innocent. I was impressed that she described her experience without one iota of judgment for sex work in general—in other words, it wasn't the job that was wrong, but the world that surrounds it."

Rockwell answered more questions from Mother Jones about $pread, whether feminists should favor or fight the decriminalization of prostitution, and what he thinks about the Craigslist scandal.