The Great Gatsby Soundtrack for the Me Me Me Generation

004 Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby came out this weekend, and critics have been unkind. I actually kind of liked it, but the social commentary fell flat. A common knock on the movie is that it depicts the ostentatious parties so masterfully that it seems more homage than critique. It’s a shame, really. With its 2013 release, this production of one of America’s greatest novels had a chance to shed light on one of its greatest crises: the Great Recession of 2008. Instead, its blatant pandering to millennials — the “Me Me Me Generation” — dooms its anti-materialist message. (Here’s a telling trailer.)

To his credit, Luhrmann said of his production of Gatsby coming out in the context of the Great Recession: “If you wanted to show a mirror to people that says, ‘You’ve been drunk on money,’ they’re not going to want to see it. But if you reflected it on another time, I think they’d be willing to see it.” The box office numbers will no doubt back him up. But whether people are willing to accept its message is another question. Perhaps the greatest flaw of the movie — at least as far as its social critique — is its featuring of Jay-Z as musical producer. One scene has Leonardo DiCaprio walking into a speakeasy with Nick Carraway in a slow-motion sequence P Diddy would envy. In another scene, Nick and Tom Buchanan are crossing into Manhattan and see this while Jay-Z megahit “Izzo” is playing, a clear nod to the worst of vapid hip-hop excess:

Who's driving this thing?

Who’s driving this thing?

(Full disclosure, I hate Jay-Z. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of hip-hop, but in keeping with the Debbie Downer tone of this post, I often want it to be politically conscious, a la Talib Kweli.)

I’m not saying millennials will fail to see the intended critique of materialism, even if it’s poorly executed. I’m asking, will we care? For one, we’re willing participants in the superficial culture — BuzzFeed, True Blood, Ryan Gosling Won’t Eat His Cereal — all great. But in terms of depth?

Meanwhile, this week Generation Y had to circle its social wagons against charges of narcissism leveled by Joel Stein, a writer for Time (and apparent left-fielder). The piece really is galling. With wages stagnating and with recent graduates struggling to find work, what are we supposed to do? All we can do, apparently — write a a pithy tumblr. Here’s my favorite, from samfetamine, which is at the same time genius and fatalistic:

courtesy of samfetamine

courtesy of samfetamine


It speaks volumes. We’re guiltless inheritors of an economy based on unfunded wars and phantom Wall Street transactions, and we’re powerless to do anything about it. And though our post-9/11 cynicism allows us to recognize the bullshit, we’re shackled to 20th century perceptions of prosperity that force us to ante into a stacked game. Consumer confidence is rising — we spend because that’s what we know and hope for. And if you protest the system like the Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoots, you’re counterculture, weird.

There’s a party of Gatsby-like proportions going on, and you’re not invited. But you damn well better wait outside for the velvet rope to move aside.

Sadly, Baz Luhrmann & Co. showed us too much party, not enough rope.

Washington Miscellanist, raining on parades since March 2013.


Gays Forbidden, Perchance, to DREAM?

With Congress considering immigration reform to grant amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants, Erwin de Leon of the OP-e blog speculates that a provision protecting binational gay couples could be scuttled to ensure wider support among Republicans and religious groups. John Aravosis of the noted AMERICAblog resents that. Top gay rights groups, he says,  have supported immigration reform only to be abandoned when the political calculus doesn’t add up. If he’s right, gay rights groups are indeed getting a raw deal.  The bill’s title is a dead giveaway. A reform once focused around the DREAM Act — with its focus on undocumented children — has become the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, a title with a conservative ring if there ever was one.

A Do-Nothing Congress, and Everyone for Themselves?

Immigration reform and gay rights should ideally fit comfortably within the Democratic Party platform. Hell, the two issues provided some of the most crowd-pleasing lines at the Democratic National Convention. Who could be against children and love? But the Senate’s recent failure to pass a gun control bill with 90% public support reveals how cutthroat the environment is to achieve any meaningful legislation. For De Leon the scuttling of the gay rights measure to help pass immigration reform is part of the usual wheeling and dealing: “Compromises are made and deals brokered whenever legislation is crafted.” But this do-nothing Congress, and obstructionist Republican legislators, have placed such a premium on legislation actually passing that these two movements are in conflict when they should be complementary.

This environment helps explain (if it doesn’t justify) the Human Rights Campaign’s reluctance to share the stage with immigration and transgender rights advocates when the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act, a topic I posted about recently. I asked Aravosis about that incident, in the context of his recent post titled “Immigration advocates to gays: We’re just not that into you”:

I think he’s right. Public attention only lasts so long, and it’s a valuable commodity when so many worthy causes are vying for attention from an indifferent Congress. If binational gays are victims of the immigration compromise, will they nevertheless be protected if the Supreme Court rules against DOMA?


The Boston Marathon Bombings and the Stages of Social Media Grief

bostonAfter a great pain, many conflicting feelings come. The attacks at the Boston Marathon were horrific, and our responses of intense grief and anger are understandable. What I don’t understand is the vindictiveness since displayed by many who don’t know any of the victims personally. Nor do I understand those who claim to take the moral high ground by refusing to “politicize” such tragedies — we owe it to the victims to learn from this.

When the explosions at the Boston Marathon occurred, I frantically tried to contact my brother, who ran the race, and my family and friends who were there to cheer him on. With cellphone service failing due to high call volume, my only recourse was Twitter, which game me an eerie hyper-awareness of events on a large scale, all while I was helpless in finding out whether my family was safe. I later discovered they had left the site of the explosions only minutes before.

During that in-between period of knowing and not knowing, I eventually had to turn Twitter off – with a personal stake in things, it was too much for me to watch. So I get it when people argue that we shouldn’t dishonor the victims of such a tragedy with petty political squabbling. Matt Honan of Wired makes a compelling case for why Twitter is a particularly inappropriate forum for such arguments: Even a well-meaning tweet can be misconstrued, and using victims to prove a point looks callous.

But I’d argue that Honan is at times guilty of what he warns against. He says using a tragedy to “prove a worldview right as people take to Twitter to transform dead and mangled bodies into scaffolding under a preexisting belief” is “execrable.” Such graphic language is itself “scaffolding” in a larger body of opinion that would shame into silence anyone who attempts to use these tragedies as learning experiences or instruments for positive change. “Now is not the time for politics” is a platitude that follows any major shooting — Aurora, Tuscon, Virginia Tech — Newtown being a notable exception. In those agonizing moments on Monday scanning Twitter and not knowing whether my family was safe, at one point I thought to myself that this could be what innocent people feel in the moment a U.S. drone strike occurs. To some that’s politicizing, but for me it was a moral feeling.

Making moral considerations is especially important after tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombings, when calls for an even more violent revenge on real or imagined perpetrators are polluting social media. A Facebook post from Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children — which I don’t post in full because it is represents the worst of the tendency Honan correctly denounces — is telling:

“Our own government weather [sic] intentionally or lack of responsibility has made this happen and we are the victims. Is [sic] time to come together and wake the FUCK up and remove the domestic enemies from our house so we can secure our boarders, [sic] secure our people and start being AMERICANS once again!”

I’m not using this as a straw argument. This post received over 36,000 likes.

Of course, perpetrators of such atrocities as the Boston bombings must be brought to justice, and our law enforcement and military must be equipped to prevent future acts of terror. But why don’t the rest of us focus on reflection instead of revenge, lest we turn a blind eye to another misguided Iraq-type war, enabled partly by Americans’ understandable but at times irrational post-9/11 casting about for justice? Much of the public response to Boston has been eerily similar to that following 9/11 — a kind of “don’t get mad, get even,” “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” justice. But with our hand already showing waterboarding and a drone program potentially responsible for over a hundred civilian deaths, I’d hate to see the ace up our sleeve.

In a recent press conference, President Obama praised those who courageously aided others following the attacks: “If you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil, that’s it: selflessly, compassionately, unafraid.” Let’s live up to their example as much as we can. I’m not naive that self-defense requires hard decisions. But as citizens shouldn’t we be thinking about those decisions, too? I ask this as a proud Massachusetts home-stater.

UPDATE: As law enforcement closes in on the other suspect, I hope those officers remain safe, along with any innocent bystanders. Too many have been hurt in these events. As I said above, I’m hoping for as peaceful a resolution to things as possible. Where things go from there, though, remains to be seen.

CNN, Steubenville and Covering Rape in the Media

People who pilloried CNN over its misguided sympathy for the two convicted rapists in Steubenville would do well to also consider two other men. Brian Banks signed with the Atlanta Falcons this week after having served six years’ imprisonment and probation for  a rape he didn’t commit. And in 2003, current Kansas City Chief Marcus Dixon was sentenced for 10 years — and ended up serving 15 months — for having consensual sex with a high-school classmate. It’s true that in the Steubenville case, CNN paid little attention to the victim and showed too much sympathy for perpetrators Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, who clearly committed reprehensible acts. Make no mistake: society’s complicity in the rape culture is shameful. But if we go too far in our criticism of media outlets for being soft on rape, we risk railroading people falsely accused in the future, perpetuating some other social ills in the name of women’s rights. Both the legal and public opinion courts should guarantee justice for all.

In Dixon’s case, there were questions of racial inequality in the criminal justice system — that a Georgia court was dispensing “Old South justice” on Dixon, who is black, for what the jury determined was consensual sex with a classmate, who is white. Given a technicality in Georgia law, the judge sentenced Dixon to a maximum 10 years because the act was deemed statutory rape; Dixon was 18, the victim just under 16. Thanks largely to pressure from media outlets, particularly HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, the state supreme court released Dixon after 15 months.

And yet for some, the desire for equality under the law — and objectivity in media coverage — is a swear word in the coverage of Steubenville. In a piece far more irresponsible than CNN’s, the Atlantic’s Adam Clark Estes completely mischaracterizes ABC’s pre-trial coverage as siding with the perpetrators. In reality the report is comprehensive and objective. If anything, it’s more critical of the perpetrators, as 20/20’s Elizabeth Vargas challenges Richmond’s lawyer: “You don’t think that [photo of the victim drunk, being carried by the perpetrators] looks like substantial impairment?!” (2:03 in the video). But to Estes, ABC wrongly gives “plenty of attention … to the ‘honors student’ Mays and wrong-side-of-the-tracks Richmond.” Apparently that equates to ABC assigning the perpetrators a type, and being part of the wrong-side-of-the-tracks narrative grants you special consideration as the U.S. tries to correct the past biases of the criminal justice system.

But by lumping in an objective report with CNN’s coverage, Estes is just as guilty of  viewing the Steubenville case as part of a larger narrative, which for him is our society’s failure to protect women or prosecute those who victimize them. In the Steubenville case, with the evidence clearly showing wrongdoing, the public’s lack of sympathy for the convicted rapists is understandable. But what happens the next time someone is falsely accused? Ideally we would treat each case as it comes, based on its own facts. But it’s admirable to want to prevent the next _______: the next Steubenville, the next Brian Banks, the next Penn State, the next Notre Dame football, or the next Sean Lanigan (a Va. teacher falsely accused of molestation). Seeing every case as part of a narrative can be a good thing, as we seek to improve on the mistakes of our past. But it’s important to remember that we’ve made mistakes both ways, helping to swing public opinion too far for some accusers and some accused, creating our own victims along the way.

I also urge you to check out the following two posts from Women Under Siege to see why CNN’s coverage was so disappointing. What I argue above is only part of the story, and there are many who can make a better case than I can on the rape problem:

“How media can help stop rape”

“A crime upon a crime: Rape, victim-blaming, and stigma”

HRC, Obama, and Social Media Manipulation


Last week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the marriage equality issue, and many commentators speculated that five out of the nine justices would rule against the Defense of Marriage Act. Whenever the U.S. guarantees marriage equality, the use of social media over the last couple weeks will end up being a major reason for it. The Human Rights Campaign’s masterful promotion of its red equal sign at the very least drove home the increasing numbers who support gay marriage, and at best helped sway public opinion. Meanwhile, since the Pew Center released its report on the state of the media last week, many have weighed in on whether the changing industry represents a democratizing force of citizen journalists or amateurs who lack the resources for journalistic depth. I’m intrigued about the democratic possibilities of social media, if people use it wisely. But there are major drawbacks: social media can be illusory and superficial.

Not making many headlines last week was HRC’s apology for silencing transgender and immigration rights activists who were protesting DOMA at the Supreme Court. This is a major slip-up for an organization that bills itself as supporting transgender rights, especially with transgender issues historically getting even shorter shrift than gay rights. You can’t call yourself LGBT just because it’s a nice hashtag. So why did this gaffe not receive greater media attention? Because HRC had already established the social media narrative. With its ubiquitous social media campaign, HRC was the one leading the charge for marriage equality. Admittedly, HRC’s mistreatment of protesters first appeared on Tumblr and YouTube, but its earlier exposure on Facebook clearly trumped its negative coverage elsewhere. It’s likely that only a fraction of those aware of HRC’s red “=” are also aware of its red “X” last week on transgender and immigrant rights.

Skim-Milk Journalism

Even accepting HRC’s campaign as an important win for gay rights, I can’t help but think some of its offshoots are superficial and detrimental to the larger cause. HRC encouraged people to post their own versions of the red logo, and it’s a fun read, with bacon and Grumpy Cat making appearances. But there’s a point where the original message becomes lost. The New York Times Lede blog reported on someone protesting at the Supreme Court using a SpongeBob sign, and quoted him as saying jokingly, “I wanted to think of something funny so I could get on BuzzFeed. I also support gay marriage. But that’s secondary.”  Social media often encourages us to insinuate ourselves in the greater moment, and I wonder if as citizen journalists we’re capable of inheriting the Fourth Estate when we’re always breaking the fourth wall.

The Obama Administration and Social Dictating

Social media manipulation poses a greater threat in the hands of public officials, let alone the president. It’s more than President Obama denying press access to a golf game with Tiger Woods — his administration is spoon-feeding unprecedented amounts of press releases of its own manufacture, which a starved media industry is forced to accept. Nancy Benac provides a revealing look at what she calls the Obama “image machine” that uses press releases and social media to cultivate an image immune to criticism. I’d agree: occasional appearances by Obama and Vice President Biden on Reddit and Facebook town halls give the illusion of social listening, when the administration is actually engaging in social dictating. I tweeted Reuters social media editor Anthony De Rosa on Benac’s article, and he agreed there’s a lack of reciprocity in the Obama-public exchange:

So if what we are getting is Obama’s personal brand, is it incumbent on us as citizen journalists to call for greater accountability? If so, how do we accomplish that? These questions will be more and more pressing as traditional media outlets adapt, or fail to adapt, to the new industry.

New Civil Rights Movement, Same as the Old?


Equal rights achieved? (photo: Politic365)

The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart hosted a Google Hangout March 21 that asked whether gay marriage is the “New Civil Rights Movement,” itself the title of a pro-gay-marriage news organization. What happened to the old Civil Rights movement? I believe in the right to gay marriage, but gay rights advocates are doing a major disservice to minority rights by claiming to have accepted the mantle of the old civil rights movement. Racial inequality exists on too large a scale to casually assert that the old era is over. And many are making gay marriage the cause célèbre at the expense of the cause that it claims to be heir to.

The two movements should coexist, and to a great extent they do. In the Post Hangout, Winnie Stachelberg of the Center for American Progress credits “icons” of the Civil Rights movement “embracing the work of marriage equality,” and says that marriage equality is one of many civil rights issues of our time. Sharon Lettman-Hicks of the National Black Justice coalition says that “discrimination is discrimination,” and praises President Obama for coming out in support of gay marriage. Of course many African-Americans, like those in any other group, oppose gay marriage; Lettman-Hicks admits that some left her church when her pastors came out in support of it. But Capehart says that there are African-Americans who “bristle” at the idea of the “new civil rights movement,” a notion that the Hangout participants fail to explore adequately as the conversation turns to the inevitability of gay marriage.

And therein lies the problem. People don’t often have room for more than one cause, and marriage equality is a more concrete and Facebook-friendly goal than, say, reducing unemployment among African-Americans (13.8 percent in 2012 compared with 7.2 among whites). The emotional appeal of marriage equality is profound. Particularly memorable was Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention when she described “proud Americans … who boldly stand at the altar with who they love.” This has the pathos of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail when he describes having to tell his 6-year-old daughter, “with tears welling up in her eyes,” why she can’t go an amusement park closed to black children.

The yea or nay of gay marriage also makes the issue shareable. The president recently tweeted:

Meanwhile, many African-Americans rightly ask what Obama is doing to address black unemployment.  And a genuine threat to minority rights like gentrification finds little traction among casual activists, and for some analysts has even become passé. Last summer, Garance-Franke Ruta of the Atlantic wondered, “Is bemoaning the gentrification of Washington, D.C. a genre past its prime?” Some gay-rights advocates seem to have assumed the same thing about the Civil Rights movement.