Episode 46: The Gilded Webpage

Episode 46: The Gilded Webpage
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Those voices are discussing big tech, the top companies of today that are working to make our lives better by actively making our lives worse.

A high-profile antitrust investigation into whether some of the United States’ biggest tech companies have become too powerful has raised an important question in Silicon Valley — if tech is becoming too big to fail, does that mean it just needs to buy some more iCloud storage?

On Wednesday, the leaders of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, will appear before the House Judiciary Committee, through which the leaders of today’s most influential companies will take on the role of their children in order to explain how their apps and devices are used to a body of elected officials whose average age is pushing sixty.

Amazon stands accused of unfairly dominating online shopping, swiping sales data from its competitors to create its own Amazon-branded products as casually as those same products are stolen from my vestibule.

Apple is said to charge an unfair commission on apps sold through its App Store, forcing hard-working developers to shell out 30% of the revenue from software essentials like “Rat Hunter,” “Daily Bible Verse,” and “Fart Zone.” For example, for every $1.99 Fart World Premium subscription, which grants members access to 20 Premium Farts, that amounts to an egregious 59 cents and six farts directly into Apple’s pocket. 

That doesn’t smell right, and neither does Google’s sheer dominance in search, which has led many to complain that there’s simply no useful alternative — the very same argument that’s being made to make Joe Biden our next president.

But the biggest target of the inquiry is likely to be Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, a man who’s been spotted slathering his face in gallons of sunscreen to prepare his body to take on excess heat, for running the world’s most reckless, conspiracy-fueled, viral propaganda and misinformation engine for baby boomers, oblivious suburbanites, and unpopular millennials. 

He’s likely to face questions about Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, which turned a charming photo app into a charming stream of ads for therapists, liquor, and personal finance services, because its algorithm clearly thinks something’s up with, uh, you. 

He’s also likely to take questions about the size of Facebook’s ad business, which together, with Google makes up 70% of the digital ad market. They should run some Google and Facebook ads to capture the remaining 30%. 

And above all else, he’s hopefully going to be grilled on Facebook’s corrosive effect on our society, which has grown from a perfectly mediocre website for keeping track of people I don’t want to stay in touch with into a dangerously mediocre website for keeping track of people I definitely don’t want to stay in touch with.

In the late 90s, Microsoft was found to have engaged in anticompetitive behavior and was forced to separate Internet Explorer from Windows, pulling a King Solomon on a bug-ridden, hard-to-use nerd. 

But since then, anti-trust regulation in tech has been about as hands-off as Bill Gates’ personal stylist.

The sheer growth and power of companies like Amazon and Google has ushered in what’s been called an era of “non-innovation,” making the tech industry look less like an Apple Store and more like a Radio Shack.

The creation of fewer tech startups has led to fewer choices, which has led to, among other things, fewer sans-serif logos for misspelled brands, like Lyft with a Y, Qapital with a Q, or Dictionary with an IE. 

And when the only real alternative to something as powerful and wide-reaching as  Facebook and Instagram is a Vine knockoff developed by the Chinese government, it makes Sophie’s Choice seem like an easy decision — just give me the cyanide already.

I’m not going to pretend that I know the ins-and-outs of their controversial business practices, just as I’m not going to pretend that I actually need four cases of La Croix delivered for free within two hours. I need it within one, so I pay six bucks.

But it is clear that, to some extent, these companies are getting away with murder — unless you work at an iPhone factory, where it‘s marked down as a suicide.

Gig workers for Amazon don’t get any benefits, aside from the thrill of running up your odometer to rush some Brooklyn yuppie his LaCroix. 

Companies like Apple evade taxes as if their names were written on tasteless hotels.

And between YouTube, What’s App, Instagram, Apple News, Google Search, and TheFacebook.com, these companies control more access to information than a high school theater director taking his time to put up the cast list for this season’s production of Rent

On a good day, Jeff Bezos is worth 180 billion dollars, which is enough money to give every person on earth a DVD of Johnny Depp’s reboot of The Lone Ranger. But nobody wants that. 

And I, as I’m sure many of you, just want these companies to play by the rules. Amazon shouldn’t pay 1% in taxes, Google shouldn’t list 50 ads for its own products before 10 search results, Apple Music shouldn’t be allowed to charge Spotify for the same access to a better service, and Facebook shouldn’t exist.

Because if we don’t do something to at least reign these companies in and hold them to account, these American brands will continue to represent precisely what’s wrong with America: it’s too big to fail while failing in very big ways.

Episode 45: Police Secretion

Episode 45: Police Secretion
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Those voices are discussing Portland, the hip west coast destination that’s home some of the country’s hottest up-and-coming trends, such as craft brew coffee, sustainable infrastructure, and fascism.

Given the circumstances over the past few weeks, clashes between protesters and unidentifiable federal authorities are demonstrating that the Beaver State is in a lot of dam trouble.  

Federal agents have been taking extreme measures to clamp down on protests under the president’s “Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues,” through which the president has assured his supporters that he won’t be taking down any of this nation’s beloved bigots, revered racists, and sacred slaveholders — unless they’re running for re-election and named Jeff Sessions. 

One protestor was seriously injured after being shot in the face with a non-lethal round after standing across the street from federal authorities while holding a speaker above his head. It was a scene straight out of “Don’t Say Anything.” (Did you know that the song “In Your Eyes” is about tear gas?)

Camouflaged officials have also been throwing protesters into unmarked vans, some of which appear to be rental cars from Enterprise, explaining the company’s new slogan, “Enterprise — we’ll pick you up, with or without probable cause.”

Authorities have even rounded up volunteers at Riot Ribs, a kitchen in the middle of the protest that passes out free ribs, tacos, and Beyond Sausages. You know things have really taken a turn for the worse in Portland when you take away their plant-based meats.

The governor of Oregon has called the use of Federal force a blatant abuse of power, the same phrase found on the Trump family crest beneath the Big Mac, klansman hood, and syringe filled with bleach. 

But allies of the president are defending his so-called secret police; after all, if they’re secret, you can nazi them.

Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf says the feds are just trying to help, like the Red Cross organizing a blood drive for Dracula. 

And Mr. Trump himself has vowed to dominate protesters, just as he dominates the Junior Jumble after an aide fills in the first few words. 

But Mr. Trump is believed to be using Portland as a staging ground to further his political agenda, sort of how Taco Bell will test out its new cheesy potato and raccoon burrito in select markets before nauseating the rest of the country.

Indeed, Mr. Trump has said that he’s preparing to deploy camouflaged officials to cities such as Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit, under the auspices of law and order in which the special victims unit is comprised of peaceful protesters.

Now, on the surface, it’s a cheap ploy, using crackdowns to cast Democratic-led cities as out of control hotbeds of unrest, in contrast to the idyllic and peaceful country landscapes of Racist, Indiana, Thrift Store, West Virginia, and No Manufacturing, Pennsylvania

But there’s also the possibility that he’s using this opportunity as a dress rehearsal, of sorts, for the upcoming election, getting goons ready for “inspecting” polling sites or “managing” crowds that take to the streets should the man lose and barricade himself once again in the basement.

Either way, I agree with Oregon’s governor, who believes that Mr. Trump was a confrontation to distract from the coronavirus pandemic, like a magician who steals your wallet while he saws your girlfriend in half.

And just as we shouldn’t believe that the man can organize contract tracing, produce his tax returns, or read at a third-grade level, we shouldn’t believe that he’s just trying to marshal in law and order, when he appears to be preparing to order martial law.  

Episode 44: Our Collective Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Episode 44: Our Collective Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
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Those voices are discussing President Kanye West, three words more off-putting than cruise ship buffet, Bari Weiss editorial, and “starring John Travolta.” 

The Grammy winner’s Late Registration to run for the nation’s highest office despite a lack of experience and history of public service once again demonstrates that, best intentions aside, no one man should have all that power.

Neither a Democrat nor a Republican, Mr. West claims to be a member of the Birthday Party, a fitting alliance for the guy who’s been dogged by rumors that he once kicked 60 kids out of a Chuck E Cheese, where he grabbed the mic from Jasper T. Jowls to inform the rest of Munch’s Make Believe Band that the Tooth Fairy Award should have gone to Pasqually Pieplate.

In a wide-ranging interview with Forbes, itself a publication named for a guy who barely ran for president, Mr. West laid out the details of his policy platform in carefully-curated drops that reminded the world that some of his best work came from the time in which his jaw was wired shut. 

Among Mr. West’s many concerns, he’s worried that “they want to put chips inside us,” presumably referring to Bill Gates or the shadowy Soros-controlled Pringles lobby, and he expressed the belief that Planned Parenthood has been placed inside cities by white supremicists to to the devils work, such as cervical cancer screenings that act as a front for Satanists to release smoke monsters out of their crotch, like that red lady in Game of Thrones. 

Mr. West is also skeptical of a coronavirus vaccine, believing it’s the mark of the beast itself — so if you’re willing to take a gamble on it, be sure to inject no more than 665 milligrams. 

Presidential publicity stunts are nothing new, like that time Gerald Ford broke his pelvis trying to jump Snake River Canyon. 

Howard Stern, Cher, Kid Rock Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — they’ve all entertained the notion that the nation should be led by entertainers. 

Which is, of course, a common career path in the USA — a professional wrestler became the professional governor of Minnesota, a comedian became the hands-on senator of Minnesota. A movie cowboy became governor and President because he could remember his lines and, unfortunately, not much else. 

Just a few weeks ago on this program, I took issue with the US obsession with celebrity culture, and the byproduct of Mr. West switching his medication has already given him 2% in the polls — certainly not a path to 270, but a strong enough showing to make Lincoln Chaffee jealous of his deep, bedrock support.

Is Yeezy serious? It doesn’t matter, because the entire enterprise has become a god damned joke. And even though we already know the punchline, we’ve decided we want to keep slamming shots at the bar we walked into with the priest, the rabbi, and the minister. 

Running for any office is a popularity contest, I get that, but this country is addicted to the idea that popularity actually means anything — just because I saw Mark Cuban buy an ass wipe company on ABC prime time doesn’t mean he’s the one who should be balancing the federal budget. 

This country has a serious problem with civic duty, and our politics-as-sports-and-entertainment, making a rundown of Congressional hearings and trade negotiations resemble a Tony Kornheiser segment, means the loudest voice in the room always has to win. 

But to me, it’s the quiet voices that should be demanding our attention. The scientists, the economists, the city planners, the public policy data nerds — the people who closed down the library while the rest of the campus was huffing bags of glue after a football game. 

A blue checkmark should be seen as a bug, not a feature, and we should be led by people who have led actual lives rather than the lives a brand manager decided had the strongest A-B tested filter and caption on Instagram. 

Bartender Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran for office to address, among other things, income inequality, something you tend to experience when someone leaves a $1 tip on a $65 shot of Johnny Walker Blue to demonstrate two entirely different levels of bad taste.

When Stacy Abrams ran for governor, she personalized her own struggles with student loan debt after law school and credit card debt following Hurricane Katrina.  

Unlike Johnny Depp’s $30,000 a month wine habit, which should really be spent towards getting people drunk enough to enjoy one of his films, these public servants sought to tackle relatable issues that people struggle with.

Back around 2007, Barack Obama’s popularity led many to assert that he was the first celebrity president — but by the time he was elected, he had been, among other things, a U.S. Senator, State senator, civil rights attorney, law professor, and community organizer.

Maybe I’ll stump for Representative Kardashian once she finishes law school, litigates civil rights cases for a decade, and avenges her father’s death by finally tracking down the real killer. 

Like Oscar Pistorius forgetting to grab his carbon fiber blades before fleeing a murder scene, the United States is not currently running very well.

And if we really want to be guided by a mentally unstable grifter who sleeps with pornstars, peddles tasteless, expensive apparel, and profits off of his tenuous grasp on the Bible, it’s easy enough to re-elect the one we’ve already got.

Episode 43: Monumental Waste of Time

Episode 43: Monumental Waste of Time
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Those voices are discussing confederate statues, clear symbols that remind the world at large that you’re a loser more explicitly than owning an Android phone, getting a Harry Potter tattoo, or having a bathroom counter lined with a wide array of Amway products.

The removal of these and other monuments have prompted outrage in small circles throughout America who are worried about preserving the country’s heritage: after all, if someone takes down a statue of George Washington, how will we ever remember that he was president? 

In the wake of the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, activists have called for the removal of icons that glorify the worst aspects of our society, dragging a folder marked “Roseanne” from the desktop into the trash.

Protesters and politicians alike have toppled or removed statues of confederate leaders, such as Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, the Snap, Crackle, and Pop of Racist Krispies who remain honored for losing a war 41 years before Kellogg’s began manufacturing cereal.

Memorials to segregationists, slaveholders, and other lousy dinner party guests have also been targeted, including more than three dozen different statues of Christopher Columbus over his genocidal tendencies, a Theodore Roosevelt sculpture at the Museum of Natural History that emblemizes colonization, and Philadelphia’s shameful bronze Sylvester Stallone that celebrates the atrocity known as Rocky V

And because outdated iconography faces no statute of limitations, collected action has not been limited to statues. 

Due to his well-documented racist history, Woodrow Wilson’s name will be stricken from the record at Princeton University and his buildings will be renamed to something more appropriate, like “The I’m Having My Legacy Hedge Fund Manager Father Pay 50 Grand A Semester During A Pandemic For An Online School of Public and International Affairs.”

Last week, Mississippi voted to remove the confederate battle emblem from its state flag, which will presumably be replaced with a picture of a guy on a tractor struggling to read the Bible. 

And to remove any lingering associations with racial insensitivity, the musical group Lady Antebellum rebranded itself “Lady A,” and the Dixie Chicks have become chicks without Dixie and are now simply known as “The Chicks,” signifying a willingness to make powerful steps towards, hopefully, someday, eradicating country music altogether.

Erasing the shameful elements of the country’s history seems like a fast and easy solution, just as clearing your browser history can make it seem like you don’t know the URL to pornhub.com.

But even if you rename Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” to just “Margaritaville,” it’s not like you’re fooling anyone — you’re still going to end up with a migraine and a stomach ache.

There are many painful strands in this country’s DNA that simply can’t be edited out using CRISPR, and we can’t just sequence away bacteria by pretending it no longer exists.

Don’t get me wrong — confederate statues need to be taken down because they, like a community theater production of Hamilton, never should have been put up in the first place. 

But truly important historical figures that have undeniably complicated legacies, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, shouldn’t be dumped in the river overnight like a Sopranos extra — they should be remembered precisely for their complex histories, the fact that things are not always black and white, and that seemingly good people can actually be terrible people.

Besides, this is the country of Breaking Bad, The Godfather, and Grand Theft Auto — since when did we start rooting for the good guy? 

The president, himself a wax figure, signed an executive order on Monday demanding the creation of a “National Garden of Heroes,” featuring historically significant Americans such as Davy Crockett, Antonin Scalia, and Amelia Earhart — if anyone can find her. 

But if we truly want to create a lasting monument that truly honors this country’s citizens, perhaps we should spend our energy on ending qualified immunity for police officers, eliminating weapons of war from our streets, and convincing Karen at the Macaroni Grill that she needs to wear a mask if she wants to pick up her 5,000 calories to go, before we start pouring cement that we’ll try to take down again in another hundred years. 

Episode 42: Grande Mocha Sweetened Land of Liberty

Episode 42: Grande Mocha Sweetened Land of Liberty
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Those voices are discussing the Fourth of July, the date on which Americans commemorate political revolution by competitively eating hundreds of hot dogs dipped in water.

Independence Day marks 244 years of a nation where every heart beats true beneath the red, white, and blue, after importing cardiac medication from Canada to avoid medical bankruptcy.

Centuries before Brexit and Megxit, thirteen British colonies performed their own “Amerigexit” to form the United States.

Taxation without representation in parliament, unfair business monopolies, and orders rendering British forces immune to prosecution were among the many reasons the founding fathers sought to build a more just nation that’s since given birth to Washington D.C., Google, and police departments. 

While independence is officially celebrated on July 4, the actual date that independence from Britain was declared is July 2 — so if you’re trying to figure out why so many people are lighting off fireworks in the streets ahead of the 4th, it’s probably because our nation’s teenagers are hyper-literate history buffs. 

Like a drunk driver who plowed his or her car into an empty T-Mobile store instead of oncoming traffic, the USA has good reason to celebrate. 

As the world’s longest-standing modern democracy, the country’s durable constitution has served as a model document for other nations that seek to live by precise guidelines established before the advent of penicillin, Instagram live, and AR-15s.

The multicultural melting pot of the United States has welcomed in generations of immigrants, providing poor and huddled masses with equal opportunities to assimilate and achieve the American dream just as soon as its citizens have grown tired of discriminating against them and moved onto the next group.

The country’s best and brightest have also landed on the moon, brought an end to the Second World War, and enshrined universal principles of free speech that allow citizens to question whether or not those events actually took place. 

But while the US’s resume looks pretty good on paper, things become a bit more questionable when you start to check its references and realize that most of its LinkedIn contacts are arms dealers in Saudi Arabia. 

According to the “Best Countries” index published by US News and World Report, which assess things like cultural influence and quality of life, the U.S. ranks #7 — so while it’s no gold, silver, or bronze, it’s still nonetheless a pretty respectable zinc.

But despite the United States’ unquestionable global reach, stagnation and indifference has led many to believe that the country is regressing into something that resembles a developing nation — a knockoff Canada Goose jacket that looks expensive on the outside but is stuffed on the inside with chicken feathers, Big Mac wrappers, and pages taken out of James Patterson novels that were left behind in airplane seats. 

When you consider that the USA, the wealthiest nation on earth, spends more money than any other rich country on healthcare but has the lowest life expectancy, and responded to the COVID-19 pandemic like a third-world country with little-to-no public social safety net, the phrase “American exceptionalism” might as well mean that you’re better off being anything except American.

No country on earth is without its problems, but when you compare the USA’s widespread poverty and inequality, broken criminal justice system, and extreme gun violence to that of other rich nations, it’s almost a relief to find out the country also has the world’s highest suicide rate. 

I’m not trying to trash the USA on its birthday — like any good friend, I should be trashing it behind its back in a separate group thread. 

One of the core beliefs of the United States is this idea of the American dream, a set of ideals by which equality of opportunity is available to any citizen.

But when the CEO of Amazon makes more money in one second than the median U.S. worker makes in one week, when the rate at which black Americans are killed by police officers is more than twice as high as white Americans, and when two of the country’s last three leaders were elected president despite losing the popular vote, it’s easy to forget that you even had a dream in the first place the moment you wake up. 

To me, the United States is a lot like The Simpsons: there are seven or eight really solid seasons, and 23 others that are disappointing, shameful, and downright embarrassing. 

But I love those eight seasons so much, it’s worth remembering the good episodes and holding out hope that they’ll make more like those one day, even though we all know they won’t and now Flanders is Bart’s teacher or something.

And even though the show is obviously showing its age, the fact that they’re no longer going to have white actors voice nonwhite characters shows that they’re not immune to change — even though it took decades to do the right thing.

Change, perseverance and reinvention are embedded in this country’s DNA, and if we can slowly but surely start to make better choices about how we treat our neighbors and who gets to represent us in government, maybe season 245 of America will be a serious improvement over season 244.  

I don’t know, but I hope so. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck cycling through the reruns until the grownups cancel Disney+.

Episode 41: The Mask Flinger

Episode 41: The Mask Flinger
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Those voices are discussing the novel coronavirus, the March sensation that Americans have already moved on from faster than Tiger King.

With the death toll passing 120,000 in the United States, citizens have grown sick and tired of getting sick and tired, pining for the simpler times of managing a constitutional crisis rather than a public health crisis. 

As South Korea has begun to open its baseball stadiums and Germany has begun to open its tourism industry, the United States has begun to open its lungs to thousands upon thousands of new infections.

The concept of our “Phase Two” reopening has signaled that instead of microwaving TGI Fridays frozen potato skins from the confines of your self-quarantined home, it’s time to return to the actual TGI Fridays in your strip mall parking lot, where an essential employee will microwave those frozen potato skins at your behest. 

Depending on your state, you may be allowed to return to tattoo parlors, tanning salons, and TJ Maxx dressing rooms — so even if you catch the virus, at least you’ll die doing what you love: looking bad. 

Like a college theater student dropping his lines during the first act of A Midsummer NIght’s Dream, things are likely to keep getting worse and we’ve still got a long way to go. 

Over the weekend, states like Florida, Nevada, and South Carolina hit record-breaking infection rates, earning rave reviews on TripAdvisor as The Best Vacation Spots to Get the Most Use Out of Your Ventilator.  

In Texas, 12 re-opened bars have lost their alcohol permits for violating health protocols, such as ignoring social distancing, exceeding capacity limits, and serving Blue Moon Mango Wheat on tap. 

And since Mr. Trump’s Oklahoma campaign event over the weekend, which didn’t require masks, social distancing, or attendance, apparently, at least eight of the president’s staff members have contracted the virus — the first time anything positive has emerged from one of his rallies. 

Earlier today, the head of the World Health Organization claimed that the greatest threat we face is not the virus itself, it’s the lack of global solidarity and global leadership

And indeed, from the USA hijacking supplies meant for other countries to the president himself declaring that he ordered testing to be slowed down to make it seem like we have fewer cases, the world’s most indispensable nation has dispensed with the notion that it’s indispensable. 

One astonished expert in New Zealand, which has only had three new cases in three weeks, has said that it feels like the U.S. has given up, which rings true — why bother to continue telling its people to stay at home when the country itself has already put on its sweatpants and ordered Seamless?

Experts have disputed the notion that we’re entering a second wave of the coronavirus and are instead still dealing with the effects of the first — after all, how can we be expected to watch another Ghostbusters sequel when we haven’t finished suffering through the reboot?

Rather than going through waves of new virus infections, it’s said that COVID-19 will simply continue to spread across the USA like a forest fire. But I doubt we’ll be seeing Smoky the Bear wearing a face mask — for one thing, the guy can’t even be bothered to put on a shirt. 

The nation’s newfound doctrine of America First has translated into Americans first, which is proving to be as constructive as writing “first” as the first comment on a YouTube video.

The notion of wearing a mask to keep your neighbors from getting sick has morphed into a declaration of individual liberty, like that Punisher decal on the back of your F150 that’s lowering its resale value.

The very notion that the government is looking out for our best interests is seen as an affront to our personal freedom, and glorious patriots shouldn’t have to put up with masks, seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, or smoking bans. You’re damned if you do, dead if you don’t. 

Back in March, I wondered what things were going to be like after people got sick of playing Heads Up over Houseparty during their extended snow day. 

And when you see the pictures of crowded beaches between the east and west coasts, it’s clear that our answer has been to pretend that we’ve gone back to normal even though we’ve committed to digging holes and sticking our heads in the sand.

Make no mistake: I’m not against things reopening or trying to find ways of getting back to normal, but there’s nothing normal about live-streamed Karens demanding to enter a Red Lobster without a mask. I mean, it’s normal for us; it’s just not normal in general. 

As governors in virus-stricken states like Florida and Texas begin coming around to the reality that the virus still needs to be taken seriously, I hope that people who desperately need that $12 haircut to look better on Zoom sales calls will also try to take this pandemic seriously again.

Otherwise, we’ll carry on as the Home of the Free to Land in the Grave.

Episode 40: I Fake Responsibility

Episode 40: I Fake Responsibility
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Those voices are discussing celebrities, the stars of stage and screen whose delicate portrayal of the human condition might just convince you to lease a Lincoln MKZ

As the United States wrestles with massive social and structural changes unseen in generations, citizens across the country are paying attention, taking action, and pondering to themselves, “I wonder what Tom Arnold thinks about all this.”

This week’s manufactured viral video, which had the efficacy of a placebo, featured Sarah Paulson, Mark Duplass, and a handful of other straight-to-Netflix stars combating systemic racism by earnestly declaring, “I take responsibility”, with the same level of gravitas they usually reserve for revealing this year’s nominees for Best Sound Editing.

Aaron Paul clasps his hands, Julianne Moore pauses dramatically, and Stanley Tucci reads his lines off of cue cards with the subtlety of Larry “Bud” Melman.

The two minute YouTube video, comments curiously disabled, was as breathlessly tone-deaf as Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” video, which featured the likes of Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo pining for world peace after struggling to suffer through six horrifying days of self-quarantine from the confines of their multimillion-dollar estates.

For a group of individuals so well-versed in filmmaking, it’s hard to tell if they’re aware that the cell phones they’re speaking into are also capturing video. 

Celebrity activism is nothing new — after all, if it wasn’t for Ben Affleck, we never would have taken down Joseph Kony — but we’re living in an age in which famous faces can’t resist the urge to insert themselves into any and every conversation, like that acquaintance who never misses an opportunity to remind you that they attended Wellesley. 

What bothers me about stunts like these is that when these household names apply their self-important Snapchat filter to their self-taped callback, they end up distracting from the actual point they’re trying to make. 

Nobody ends up talking about the organization’s actual purpose — ITakeResponsibility seems like a good group advocating of behalf anti-racism, police accountability, and voting rights, but when I see Jesse Pinkman acting his ass off in black and white, all it makes me wonder is, why didn’t he try doing that during the last season of Westworld?

Many of these celebrities seem well-intentioned, but it’s important to remember that we’re also living in an age of careful brand management and social media curation with lots of money on the line. 

Gweneth Paltrow doesn’t just want you to buy her movies; she wants you to buy into her “conversation changing” lifestyle brand — and after you shove an egg into your genitals while watching The Avengers, you’ll definitely have something to talk about. 

Or take something like Some Good News with John Krasinski, which seemed like a fun, genuine, and uplifting quarantine byproduct, until it was sold as a hot property to CBSViacom in order to free up time for its busy former host to find a third Quiet Place to stash his paycheck.

Now, don’t get me wrong — Oprah Winfrey, Rob Reiner, Chance the Rapper, Barbara Streisand, John Legend, LeBron James — there are countless examples of celebrities using their power, wealth, and influence for good.

George Clooney funnels the money he makes from Nespresso commercials into satellites to monitor Sudanese human rights violations, whereas I can barely be bothered to recycle my capsules

But dramatically inserting oneself into a trending topic doesn’t make one come across as an authentic advocate for a cause — it makes one feel like an opportunist. 

And I know I’m getting worked up over a stupid video, but the commander-in-chief of the USA is the star of The Celebrity Apprentice, who some people take seriously despite the fact that he possesses no apparent expertise in anything other than generating attention in the media and clogging the toilets of Air Force One with the Colonel’s Secret Blend of eleven herbs and spices.

This country is addicted to celebrities, just as it’s addicted to beef, iPhones, and automatic weapons, and it’d be nice to start trying to cut some of that stuff out of our diet. 

Lots of TV shows and movies are “inspired by true events,” and guess what? A lot of those true events are a hell of a lot more interesting in real life.

And even when know that’s true, we still turn Robert Mueller into a candle or Dr. Fauci into a t-shirt because we want them to be famous for simply doing their jobs with competence. 

If we stopped placing so much weight on what The Real Housewives of Orange County have to say and started talking more to our family, our friends, our neighbors, and our colleagues, we wouldn’t have to rely on the star of The Lego Ninjago Movie to remind us that Black Lives Matter.

Episode 39: High Enragement

Episode 39: High Enragement
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Those voices are discussing Mark Zuckerberg, the Stick Stickly-lookalike whose backbone was also crafted out of a popsicle.

The Facebook founder’s laissez-faire approach to political speech has triggered yet another round of serious backlash against the social media company, joining rampant disinformation, a lack of data privacy, and the pervasively negative psychological effects of using the platform as another symptom you choose to ignore because you want to follow a high school acquaintance’s divorce unfold in real-time. 

On May 29, in response to the growing Minneapolis protests against police brutality, Mr. Trump attempted to heal the anguish by suggesting that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” finally answering the question of what David Duke would have sounded like if he followed in the footsteps of Dr. Seuss.

Social media companies swiftly took action on the post: Twitter flagged the message for “glorifying violence” and restricted its sharing, Snapchat announced it would stop promoting president’s account under its Discover tab to curb voices that incite racial violence. 

Even LinkedIn said they would restrict the President’s speech if necessary — in case the leader of the free world needs to starts searching for a job in November, he may need to tap tap into LinkedIn’s professional network of deadbeat salesmen, former actors over-enthusiastically pursuing their backup in content marketing, and self-described thought-leaders sharing quotes about the power of software to account for the loss of power in their own lives.

But just like the guy at the beach who won’t stop blasting Margaritaville at full volume on his Android speakerphone because it’s his country, too, Facebook leadership sees the broad reach of incendiary speech as a feature, not a bug. 

At a Facebook employee town hall, Zuckerberg himself claimed that the “looting and shooting” reference “has no history of being read as a dog whistle,” which, despite the phrase’s well-documented racist history, is correct in the literal sense in that dogs can’t read. 

Facebook’s inaction has led at least three “ashamed” employees to resign in protest, and an estimated 400 employees have staged a virtual walkout, shutting the lids of their laptops en masse like a bunch of grad students getting shooed out of a Starbucks at closing time.

An open letter from 33 of Facebook’s early employees also trashed Zuckerberg’s stance, as well as another one from 140 scientists funded by Zuckerberg’s philanthropic organization, and third from a group of active Facebook moderators.

If only there was some sort of social network where open letters like these could thrive and spark civil debate, but alas, perhaps they’d need more thinly-veiled racist threats in order to achieve the kind of engagement they’d desire. 

Zuckerberg has long maintained that his platform, a public photo album with neo-Nazi literature tuckpointed between pictures of the new baby, is not the “arbiter of truth:” It’s up for you to decide whether or not you “like” or “love” the insinuation that heavily militarized police beat down a 75-year-old Antifa member who was paid by George Soros to jam police radio waves so that Bill Gates’ 5G networks can get back to broadcasting the coronavirus. 

But the reason Facebook isn’t interested in orbiting the truth is because it’s interested in keeping you engaged. Its algorithms serve up content that is more emotionally resonant that will lead to high levels of engagement and relevance. In English, polarizing content is good for business

I’m not necessarily saying that incendiary comments like Mr. Trump’s should get taken down and that people shouldn’t be allowed to judge for themselves, 

but it’s pretty disingenuous for Zuckerberg to pretend that he could never tinker with the sacred notion of free speech when Facebook’s algorithms are built around the very notion of tinkering with what people speak. 

And it’s even more galling when you remember that last October, Zuckerberg told Congress that if a politician, quote, “posts something that is calling for violence or could risk imminent physical harm…. we will take that content down,” end quote. 

Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach, and the world’s most powerful microphone being used in bad faith to gin up violence in the streets deserves to have its batteries taken out, not get handed an extension cord and list of people who are more susceptible to believing lies and deceit. And yes, I’m talking about your aunt — and mine, too.

The 36-year-old 85-billionaire claims he’s carefully reviewing Facebook’s stance on this, just like I carefully review a credit card offer in my mailbox before dropping it in the trash.

But until something changes, Facebook won’t just remain the premier destination for baby boomers, oblivious suburbanites, and unpopular millennials: it’ll be the place where people can yell “fire” in a crowded room, and encourage others to check in. 

Episode 38: One Nation, Indefensible

Episode 38: One Nation, Indefensible
Season 2

 
 
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Those voices are discussing George Floyd, a 46-year-old father of two murdered in police custody for the crime of being a black man in America. 

To paraphrase a famous quote, there are decades where nothing happens, there are weeks where decades happen, and there are weeks where decades happen because nothing has happened for decades.

George Floyd’s egregious murder is only the latest example of a black life being casually discarded in the streets of the United States as if it were a Starbucks cup. 

In this instance, Mr. Floyd was pinned down under the knee of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, whose casually placed his hands in pockets during the suffocation, in case he needed to reach for his everyday carry essentials like his keys, his wallet, or his indifference to the breath of an unarmed black man. 

As Mr. Floyd lost his pulse over a matter of twenty dollars beneath the leg of a public servant who took an oath to protect, two other officers helped keep him pinned down while another served as lookout, each earning their five-dollar cut of what ultimately amounted to their value of his humanity.

As protests spread across the United States, calling attention to a different virus that’s been lingering since the very founding of this nation, police have responded with the types of kindness, empathy, and restraint you’d typically associate with the peacekeepers patrolling District 11 of The Hunger Games.

Decked out in the same types of surplus warzone equipment found in a Call of Duty expansion pack, everything from armored vehicles to flash bang grenades have been put to use by police departments trying to stop people that believe that police departments need to be stopped.

NYPD and LAPD police cruisers plowed into crowds of peaceful demonstrators; police in Louisville destroyed caches of milk left out to counter the effects of tear gas; even credentialed journalists were zip-tied like the back of a computer.

If Kendall Jenner wanted to cross the line to hand an officer another peaceful can Pepsi, she’d likely lose an eye to a rubber bullet — which no amount of her sister’s $18 mascara can conceal.

Getting justice for George Floyd alone isn’t enough, just as coating a building with fresh paint doesn’t amount to foundation repair.

Whether it’s Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, or any of the other countless names spanning decades and predating hashtags, we the people have failed, once again, to right the wrongs of denied justice, deliver accountable public safety, and address racist violence and racial disparities brought forth by a trigger-happy nation hell-bent on ignoring its toughest questions, like a high school student who takes a few guesses when it’s multiple choice but doesn’t even try to fill out the essay.

To those who are just joining us, the United States has long been a deeply broken country. 

And after the children opened fire on their classmates, the nurses wore garbage bags to care for their patients, and Universal released fourteen Fast and Furious movies, 

Its citizens once again took to the streets over the obvious, simple, and yet unrealized notion that black lives matter, only for military police to beat crowds into submission so that an obese racist, a hundred and seven years to the day after his late father was arrested at a KKK rally, could awkwardly hoist a bible above his shoulder like a waiter balancing a tray of entrees that he’s been spitting in since the beginning of his shift.

It’s going to take more than a podcast episode from people like me to help communities of color live without fear and enjoy a fair shot at an ordinary life.

But until we all demand that our voices are heard, by protesting, donating, and voting to send the message that we’ve had far more than enough of this incredibly disgusting, all-American buffet, looking at birds, going for a jog, or buying a pack of cigarettes still won’t be aspects of an ordinary life. 

They’ll be matters of life and death. 

Episode 37: A Conspiracy of Dunces

Episode 37: A Conspiracy of Dunces
Season 2

 
 
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