Category Archives: Culture

2017-When Powerful Predators Pay the Price

HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” opened its 2017 season on an interesting note. While the popular Emmy-winning news comedy show has never shied away from delivering scathing political commentary, its first main piece of the year was about how the newly-installed Commander-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump, is a dangerous machine of lies.  It’s a hefty and bold accusation for an entertainment show to make, even when you consider “Last Week Tonight” has affected some actual change (notably in net neutrality). Towards the end of the segment, Oliver pleaded with the media and the viewers to hold Trump and his team accountable for any misinformation they may spread and for the actions they commit. And if enough people push this position, real consequences might come.

Looking back, that segment almost feels like a foretelling of a theme of 2017: holding powerful men accountable for terrible deeds. Over the course of the past eleven months, we have seen many prominent and powerful men in many industries forced to face consequences for reportedly bad behavior — Travis Kalanick stepped down as UBER’s CEO, Harvey Weinstein was ousted from his film production company and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Warner Brothers studio has severed ties with director Brett Ratner, Fox News fired Bill O’Reilly, and just recently NPR’s Vice President of news and editorial director Michael Oreskes was placed on indefinite leave. All of these cases stem from one commonality: all the men ousted had been accused of sexual harassment and/or assault.

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Taylor Swift tries to silence Popfront with cease and desist letter

A few weeks ago, PopFront published a piece about Taylor Swift and her alt-right, white supremacist fans. The piece dove into a history of white supremacy and eugenics and how those ideologies have played a role in the political discourse of this country. It compared the lyrics of Swift’s song “Look What You Made Me Do” and the chants at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville Virginia.

The end of the piece offered the following call to action:

“And while pop musicians are not respected world leaders, they have a huge audience and their music often reflects their values. So, Taylor’s silence is not innocent, it is calculated. And if that is not true, she needs to state her beliefs out loud for the world- no matter what fan base she might lose because in America 2017 silence in the face of injustice means support for the oppressor.”

PopFront is far from the first outlet that has noticed the connection between Taylor Swift and the alt-right. Vice, Konbini, and Complex are just a few news outlets that have written about Swift and the alt-right. Swift has very vocal alt-right fans that make public statements about their fandom and assign their ideology to hers on social media. There have been many stories about this connection in the past 18 months and our piece was an attempt to continue the discussion, as well as call on Swift to denounce this hateful group. The rise of the alt-right must be examined critically. It is unsettling to see Americans openly expressing racism. Celebrities are not obligated to voice their political beliefs, but it is not a stretch to assume that Swift would want to issue a statement even if it could be controversial.

We could not have imagined this article would result in Swift’s lawyer sending us a cease and desist letter. Taylor Swift is no doubt loved around the world and has many millions of dollars to show for her success. She is in a position of privilege that most people will never experience. She is also probably aware of the different social movements and issues that rocked America in the past year. And while it is unnecessary to expect all celebrities to be political commentators, many of her peers with similar influence have lent their voices to these affairs. Swift’s silence on the alt-right is especially notable because her white supremacist fans have taken the time to politicize her image. Taylor has historically demonstrated a concerted interest in how she is perceived by the public, so it would be in her interest to make a statement denouncing these groups or at least against racism and bigotry in general.

But instead of publicly making such a statement or publicly addressing her critics for failing to do so, Swift chose to privately employ legal threats and demand PopFront’s criticism disappear.  In a threatening letter, Swift and her lawyer demanded the story be immediately removed. This tactic can set a dangerous precedent because it would mean any public figure could chill any criticism levied at them. At a time when the press is under constant attack from the highest branches of government, this cease and desist letter is far more insidious than Swift and her lawyer may understand. The press should not be bullied by legal action nor frightened into submission from covering any subject it chooses. Swift’s scare tactics may have worked in the past, but PopFront refuses to back down because we believe the First Amendment is more important than preserving a celebrity’s public image.

PopFront has sought the help of the ACLU to address the demands made by Swift and her lawyer. The cease and desist letter, the ACLU response, and the original article that sparked this action are here.

We will not be silenced.

PopFront is a small online publication created in 2013 to discuss critical social, cultural, and political issues. We regularly critique and analyze the media with opinion-based pieces. PopFront fundamentally cares about intellectual integrity, facts, and truth. And most importantly, every PopFront piece serves to elicit discussion and hopefully inspire action. We will continue to provide high-quality critical pieces touching on social and political issues and build a diverse platform for people of all races, sexualities, genders, or neuroclassifications.

Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor subtly gets the lower case kkk in formation

Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor Swift subtly gets the lower case “kkk” in formation with “Look What You Made me Do”
An anti–Marxist Mixtape review.

A little over a decade after her musical debut, Taylor Swift has made a career out of being portrayed as a good girl unjustly wronged. Her song catalog is stocked with tunes about how innocent she is, and how men seem to wrong her. But the most notable moment of the Taylor-as-an-innocent-victim narrative may have come when Kanye West interrupted her Best Female Video acceptance speech at the 2009 Video Music Awards to drunkenly ramble about how Beyoncé should have won.

Kanye upstaging Taylor in that moment not only gave that narrative merit in a lot of people’s eyes, it also looked like the personification of many a long-standing white fear: a black man taking away a white woman’s power. And Taylor has been playing off that narrative ever since, while America has embraced the notion of white victimhood — despite the reality. Kanye West is still hated for that moment, and the media has documented further fights between Taylor Swift and other pop stars such as Katy Perry, Calvin Harris, and Kim Kardashian. There is no shortage of media details about these “feuds”, whatever their purpose may be.

On the other hand, the idea that Taylor Swift is an icon of white supremacist, nationalists, and other fringe groups, seems to finally be getting mainstream attention. But the dog whistles to white supremacy in the lyrics of her latest single are not the first time that some have connected the (subtle) dots. A white supremacist blogger from neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer was quoted in a Broadly article in May 2016 as saying, “it is also an established fact that Taylor Swift is secretly a Nazi and is simply waiting for the time when Donald Trump makes it safe for her to come out and announce her Aryan agenda to the world.” What “facts” the blogger is pointing to are unclear (and likely invented); still, his statement exemplifies how neo-Nazis and white supremacists look to her as their pop icon.

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Entertainingly “Atypical”: The Current State of Autism in Media

 This piece is the first of the ongoing series “Neurowrites” – where disabled writers comment on politics, society, and media.

When I was young and was unaware of my autism diagnosis,I did not have a reference point for autistic people because there was no representation of Autism in the media. I only knew about autism through a Baby-sitters Club book. The book, entitled Kristy and the Secret of Susan, was about one of the titular “baby-sitters” taking on a non-verbal autistic charge and I honestly don’t remember much about it, except that the main character Kristy decides to leave her autistic charge Susan alone after unsuccessfully trying to force her to integrate with other kids. I didn’t much care much for the book at the time despite being a big Baby-sitters Club fan, and I’m sure if I read it now I’d be appalled at how the characters were written and treated. Either way, I didn’t have a reference point as to what autism was because I didn’t really have that much exposure to it in media. I had characters that I liked and related to, but none that felt especially representative of me as an autistic girl.

I think it’s safe to say that the days of autism being a non-entity in pop culture are coming to an end. Since diagnoses have risen in the last twenty years, movies and television have slowly come to recognize and insert autistic people as characters. Various television shows like Girl Meets World, Sesame Street, Parenthood, and Community have featured characters explicitly stated or implied to be on the autism spectrum. The 2016 crime thriller “The Accountant“, starring Ben Affleck as an autistic accountant was a unexpected box office hit and is green-lighted for a sequel. And this August, Netflix premiered a dramedy series about an autistic teenager looking for love called “Atypical”: Trailer:

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The Gig Economy is Rigged: Struggles of Working Musicians in Seattle

Companies like Spotify have promised to “create real value for the music industry” and to support artists and creators, but if the path to cultural democracy is anything like their pay-per-stream rates, we’re only .0084% there.*

Gig Economy Image

In her book “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age”, Astra Taylor challenges cyber-utopian notions of the emancipatory power of the Internet to democratize culture, music, art, and film. Certainly, the openness of the Internet gives artists and creators the tools to produce and distribute their work in a DIY fashion. Yet the laissez-faire nature of the net can also magnify the persisting inegalitarian features of the creative economy.

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Stand Your Ground Laws in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

warning: some mild Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers follow.

Even before its release, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the subject of both critical praise (and racist hate) for its multicultural cast. But while the seventh chapter of Star Wars has been lauded for appearing more inclusive, the film ultimately suffers from some of the deeply conservative, even subtly racist tropes inherent to most big budget action movies—the same kinds of flimsy hero logic that provide the moral justification for racist “Stand your Ground” laws across many US states.

Stormtrooper image

Do stormtroopers have humanity behind the mask, or can they be murdered without mercy?

To understand this connection, let’s start with a recent article about Star Wars written by Aaron Bady in The New Inquiry. Bady writes:

[Finn the Stormtrooper’s] psychology makes no sense at all if you think even a little bit […] there’s something extremely unsettling about how easily he shrugs off a lifetime of indoctrination into a fascist death-cult, how quickly and painlessly he becomes one of the guys, just basically a good dude. […] Where is the ideological indoctrination (and psychological scar tissue) that would have accompanied being crassly made into biopower and canon-fodder?

Bady doesn’t quite go so far as to touch on the allegory of Finn-as-slave, though it seems like the filmmakers are rubbing it in our face. Finn (John Boyega) is a “rebel” stormtrooper who describes having been stolen from his family as a child to serve in the despotic First Order—a series of events that, in our own galaxy, we’d be apt to call “slavery.” The Star Wars movies have touched on slavery before—recall Darth Vader (formerly Anakin Skywalker) was a child slave, although as a white character serving an alien master, his character lacked the symbolic thrust held by a black character like Finn. (“Do race and racism exist in the Star Wars universe as they do in ours?” is a wholly different question, and one that is never really examined with any satisfaction). Continue reading

Rewriting Autism: An Interview with Steve Silberman

Autism may be one of the most misunderstood disorders in the world. As a developmental disorder affecting social and life skills development, it has been long been subject to misinformation as to why it occurs, how it affects people, and especially why diagnoses are on the rise. Even though diagnostic criteria for autism has changed two times in the last twenty years, panic has set in since the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 1 in 68 people are diagnosed with autism as of 2014 (opposed to 1 in 150 in 2000). Everything from vaccines to genetics has been scrutinized to try to explain why autism occurs and has prompted a push to find a way to “prevent” or “cure” the disorder. And this quest to “fix” or “cure” autism has pushed autistic people to face a world at best not accessible to them and at worst outright hostile.

NeuroTribes book cover

Science reporter Steve Silberman argues that there might not be anything to panic over. Expanding on his 2001 Wired article “The Geek Syndrome”, his new book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity explores the history of autism—from simultaneous “discoveries” in Austria and Maryland, to “refrigerator mothers,” to the modern autism advocacy movement. And through all of this, Silberman shows how autism has been plagued by narrow interpretations and how the modern era is changing them. The New York Times Bestselling book is being touted as changing how we see autism from a “disease” to a different way of life. PopFront interviewed Silberman to discuss his book in detail.

PopFront: Can you explain what neurotribes are?

Silberman: I invented that word based on an idea by Irwin Lazar, the founder of the Children’s Hospital in Vienna where Hans Asperger worked. Lazar tended to think of humanity as “clans” or “tribes,” based on inborn skills and aptitudes that each person had. So instead of seeing the children in his clinic as patients, Lazar saw them as future engineers or future farmers or future bakers. What he saw the job of the people working in the clinic as determining each “tribe” each child was in, and helping them express their maximum potential by developing methods of teaching them that would suit their particular learning style. Hans Asperger developed this idea and ended up discovering the autism spectrum because he was prepared to look for natural groups of people within the population of children at the clinic. Continue reading

The Great Santa Cruz Craigslist Rent Strike

Santa Cruz Rent Strike

Santa Cruz County has taken quite a bruising in terms of housing costs. Despite being an ill-advised commute to Silicon Valley and having a much more working-class constituency, Santa Cruz County is the fifth most expensive in the US for renters. This is even more remarkable considering that the southern parts of the county are primarily farmland, that at least 20,000 residents are university and community college students, and that there are few high-paying industries besides higher education.

Hence, there’s a deep question as to why housing is so expensive in Santa Cruz. One theory touted is that despite the more working-class constituency, housing is subject to inelastic demand. Since shelter is a requirement to merely survive, demand for it is divorced from market price changes. Yet “inelastic demand” feels like a free-market euphemism. Landlords do not have to explicitly collude, but know that they will be paid when they raise rents. Working people have no choice but to pay them—or, as both students and farmworkers often do, live 2 or even 3 to a bedroom.

Housing, unlike tea, pineapples or manicures, is not an optional expense, nor a commodity. Yet it is treated as such by investors and financiers. It is not recognized as a right. The need for housing can mean life or death, shelter or homelessness, for many people. So it is unsurprising that renters have strong feelings. But, how can renters, the large majority of us, fight back against a system that tells us housing is not a right?

One piece of evidence that the housing kettle has boiled over? Craigslist. Continue reading

Why the Rich Love Burning Man

The author discusses why Burning Man became a festival that rich libertarians love:

In principle the annual Burning Man festival sounds a bit like a socialist utopia: bring thousands of people to an empty desert to create an alternative society. Ban money and advertisements and make it a gift economy. Encourage members to bring the necessary ingredients of this new world with them, according to their ability.

So why do rich libertarians love it unironically? Perhaps because the way that the city is created charitably allows them to build the world that they desire, unimpeded by the pesky democratic process or the protestations of the proletariat; in other words, it provides a model for the sort of laissez-faire, top-down economy they want to live in: .

This is the dark heart of Burning Man, the reason that high-powered capitalists — and especially capitalist libertarians — love Burning Man so much. It heralds their ideal world: one where vague notions of participation replace real democracy, and the only form of taxation is self-imposed charity. Recall Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s op-ed, in the wake of the Obamacare announcement, in which he proposed a healthcare system reliant on “voluntary, tax-deductible donations.”

This is the dream of libertarians and the 1 percent, and it reifies itself at Burning Man — the lower caste of Burners who want to partake in the festival are dependent on the whims and fantasies of the wealthy to create Black Rock City.

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Fictional Politics and Politicized Fictions: “House of Cards” and “Scandal”

Politicians debating

Since 2013, critics have been comparing and contrasting the hit shows House of Cards and Scandal. Both deal with the seedy, often immoral world of Washington politics, and the ambitions and passions of those playing the game. But aside from these surface similarities, critics have often dismissed them as radically different shows. House of Cards is a sleek, efficient portrayal of Democrat Frank Underwood’s rise to the presidency. Scandal tells the passionate, if trashy, tale of how Olivia Pope and a cabal of players made Republican Fitzgerald Grant president, and the fallout (both personal and political) of their machinations. With their differing tones, visual styles, and intended audiences, critics can often overlook what connects these two shows at their hearts: their fictional depictions of American liberalism in action.

Liberalism in the United States is difficult to define, but can be broadly summarized as service to the individual, encapsulated in America’s self-appointed nickname “Land of Opportunity.” Individuals in America have the opportunity to vote for their elected officials, to speak freely without fear of government censorship, to advance within the class system through education or hard work. The liberal narrative is Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches archetype retold: Frank Underwood can go from Gaffney, South Carolina to the White House, simply by being more clever and ruthless than those around him; Olivia Pope can become the most powerful woman in Washington by working twice as hard and being twice as good as her white contemporaries. The writers imply that America is a meritocracy, because if anyone else was as devious as Underwood, or worked as hard as Olivia, they would be in the same positions of power.

In both cases, the characters gain their social and political power through their actions, rather than the legacies left to them by their parents or the class boundaries inherent in capitalism. Frank Underwood’s father was an abusive alcoholic, but he overcame; Olivia’s mother died when she was young, and her father was manipulative and controlling, but she overcame. In overcoming, both characters choose success over morality. House of Card’s Frank Underwood knows that he can lead the United States better than Garrett Walker, the man he helped get elected, so he resorts to extreme measures and careful gambles throughout season two to ensure his place as Walker’s replacement. Scandal’s Olivia knows that Fitz is the man that America needs as president, so she rigs voting machines to ensure his place in the election. Continue reading