Category Archives: Culture

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

By Zoey Giesberg

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’s Zoey Giesberg 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

Illustration by Naomi Rosenberg.

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

Writing in Jacobin, Managing Editor Keith Spencer 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.

Read the full piece over at Jacobin.

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

Politicians debating

Photo courtesy Beto O’Rourke.

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

Fear of a Capitalist Planet

Martian Canals

A map of the so-called Martian canals, an optical illusion witnessed by astronomers in the late 19th century. Image courtesy NASA.

Managing Editor Keith A. Spencer writes in Jacobin how scientists and businessmen project our economic system onto the stars:

Have you ever seen an alien? Scientists haven’t, but that hasn’t stopped them from speculating that imperialist extraterrestrials could be on the way.

With the exception of one inconclusive blip in 1977, we haven’t detected signs of alien intelligence. Having scoured our solar system with probes and turned up empty, extraterrestrial (ET) signal searchers now survey the galaxy on the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, where photons can traverse interstellar distances and arrive on Earth unscathed.

The most prominent and well-funded organized effort to search radio bands is led by the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, a private nonprofit foundation that borrows time on radio telescopes or scans the skies using their own arrays.

While the SETI Institute has been actively searching for forty years, there have been few attempts to send out focused radio signals of our own towards presumptive inhabited worlds. This poses a conundrum: why should humans expect aliens to send out focused “hello” signals of their own, if we do not do it ourselves? This idea, that we should send out messages in addition to listen for them, is known as “Active SETI.” Continue reading

The Way Out is Through: Class Conflict in Bogota

 by Julia Raskin

For many in Colombia, the election of Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro represents a step forward for democracy and the fight against poverty. The former leader of the revolutionary-socialist guerrilla faction M-19, Petro’s policies in office have explicitly recognized class tensions in the city and work to transform them. For the city’s wealthy, however, the election of an extreme left-wing politician threatens Colombia’s newfound security—or at least that of its monied neighborhoods. A recent proposal to build affordable housing in a wealthy enclave, isolated in the north of Bogotá, reveals the class conflict that defines life in the city. Continue reading

Art Made of Trash is Anything but Trashy

Jeremey Rourke video still.

By Kristin Jensen

While San Francisco prides itself on being one of the most environmentally conscious cities in America, a lot of unnecessary materials still end up in the landfill because we either don’t know how to sort or we fail to see the real value in what we toss. According to Recology San Francisco, the city’s primary resource recovery company (which is also worker-owned), 1,400 tons of landfill-destined waste are collected daily from San Francisco residents in Recology’s well-known green, white, and blue trucks that sport “Sunset Scavengers” on the sides. Additionally, 600 tons of compostable materials (green bin) and 600-700 tons of recyclables (blue bin) are collected daily. Continue reading

The Liberal Line

Why do privileged liberals care more about property damage than black lives?

By Keith Spencer with Teddy Roland and Shaimaa A.

“Riots,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr., “are the language of the unheard.” King is one of many civil rights radicals whose politics have been rewritten, his memory whittled into a sanitized, non-threatening corporate version fit for a Google Doodle. Liberals remember that he had a dream, even if they forget his sermons on sanitation worker strikes. Continue reading