Saturday, November 21, 2015

Exploring 'mulatto' and the mixed-race disconnect

EFFORTS HAVE been made to wipe the word “illegal” from the everyday narrative on undocumented immigrants. For a group of mixed-race intellectuals and academics, the word “mulatto” isn’t any better — no less inadequate to address the complexities of modern identity.

That word and the binary view of race in America were the subjects of “Evoking the Mulatto,” a panel discussion held Thursday night at YouTube Space NY. The panelists evoked their own experiences as mixed-race Americans, addressing the question of what it means to be of mixed heritage in a 21st century nation seduced by the duochromatic convenience of black and white, a legacy of the last two centuries.

The discussion itself, sponsored by the National Black Programming Consortium and live-streamed over You Tube, reflected the “Rashomon” aspect of discussing one of the more loaded words in the American racial lexicon. The panelists brought their different viewpoints on this anachronistic misnomer used to describe a growing segment of the American population.

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For Lindsay C. Harris, the multimedia artist whose four short films preceded the panel and were its catalyst, the “Evoking” project had different reasons for being. “Part of it was how to talk about race and identity now in an age of a lot of glossing over,” she said. “For me, it was a way to talk about mixed-race identity while involving that very violent and pungent past. We’re evoking what ‘mulatto’ means.”

“I identify as black and Mexican,” said Judy Pryor-Ramirez, who directs civic engagement for The New School and whose parents are from Texas and Virginia. “The word I heard is ‘mulatta,’ an older generational word to describe a mixed-race person. The word that I knew growing up and [which] my mother used to describe us was ‘trigueña,’ a word basically derived from the word ‘trigo,’ which is [Spanish for] wheat. It’s about the coloring of the skin, about the gradations of skin tones that we use in Spanish to describe people.

“That’s how I came to understand some language I heard used to describe my sisters and myself,” she said. “That’s how I became aware of language to describe who we were.”

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GIOVANNA FISCHER, an early childhood educator who grew up in Los Angeles and Venice, Calif., recalled when she first encountered the word “mulatto” -- ”I remember I was playing with a friend of a friend’s daughter when I was like 8 or 9. She saw my mom and said, ‘you’re a mulatto.’ I went to my mom and said ‘what’s this word?’ My mom ... I remember she didn’t like the word and I remember knowing immediately that that’s not a word we were gonna use.”

The panel pushed back against the trope of “the tragic mulatto,” a 19th-century stock persona applied to mixed-race persons presumptively assumed to be absent of clear ethnic identities.

“For me the issue of the term ‘tragic mulatto’ is more that it’s placed upon us than we place it upon ourselves,” said Lise Funderburg, the author of “Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity.” “The larger question of how do we have larger conversations about race ... we have to be willing to allow for differences of opinion. I think there’s a real sense of regimentation about this thing race, which most people now agree doesn’t exist. And yet ... we’re so invested.

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“For me, growing up the way I did, what became really clear was my lived experience was distinct from the way people saw me,’ Funderburg said. “There’s that complication. Conversations that are gonna get anywhere and operate on any kind of a sophisticated level have to allow for that multiplicity of factors in everybody’s situation. And it’s really hard, because it’s also human nature to look for your tribe, whatever that tribe may be, and also decide whether people are friend or foe, and how do we recognize that? We stereotype people a lot.”

For Pryor-Ramirez, what’s necessary is “a willingness to fail and make mistakes and trying to understand. It’s very difficult ... our schools don’t allow for these kinds of critical conversations.”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A case against 'The Decay of Twitter'

There’s a kind of deathwatch for Twitter going on. With successive lackluster quarters in user growth, some are suggesting the social networking site is truly in decline. In an exhaustive Nov. 2 essay, Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic posits just that in “The Decay of Twitter.”

Carving out a specious distinction between “Twitter the Network” and “Twitter the Company,” Meyer, an associate editor at The Atlantic, asserts that the relative stasis of the microblogging social network, vis-à-vis its stock price and other metrics sacred to Wall Street, has a parallel with Twitter’s diminishing performance as a growing concern in the online space.

The marketplace of ideas and the marketplace of money, he seems to say, are of one mind: Twitter may be on its last legs of influence. This active Twitter user begs to differ.

Read the rest at Medium

Image credit: Twitter logo: © 2015 Twitter Inc.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

‘How we should be doing the people’s business’:
Speaker Paul Ryan, Week 1

BY ALMOST any measure, it was a very good week for Paul Davis Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican congressman just elected Speaker of the House. Two B.F. Deals have come to pass in the last eight days, events that could be a promising sign of things to come for anyone hoping for a Congress committed to getting things done on the eve of an election year (when Congress probably won’t get things done).

The speaker got an early break. On Oct. 27, a day before the confirming vote, Ryan was set to start his new position with a kind of House-warming gift: the House’s approval of a budget deal that staves off a federal government shutdown and doesn’t end until after next year’s election. The 16-month deal that the Senate approved on Oct. 30 (64-35) sunsets in March 2017. President Obama signed it on Monday.

With that divisive, potentially ruinous disaster now off the table until well after the election, Ryan got himself a short-term get-out-of-gridlock card that let him focus on the other big job that his new congressional role demands: making things happen in the House in a way his predecessor, John Boehner of Ohio, could not.

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Things got better fast. Fast forward a week. On Thursday the House gave the newly-minted speaker a resounding win when it overwhelmingly (363-64) passed a highway funding bill intended to kick-start mass transit and infrastructure projects for six years. The $339 billion House plan would provide funding for such projects for three of those years; some of that money would come from surplus funds from the Federal Reserve.

The Senate passed its own version of the measure, and a conference committee will try to resolve any remaining differences before the current highway funding runs out on Nov. 20, Bloomberg reported Thursday. If, as expected, the details get ironed out, it would lead to the first multi-year transportation law from Congress since 2012.

“It cuts waste, it prioritizes good infrastructure, it will help create good-paying jobs. And it is the result of a more open process,” Ryan said at a post-vote news conference, as reported by Bloomberg. “It’s a good start. It’s a glimpse of how we should be doing the people’s business.”

The new Speaker of the House of Representatives has moved into new responsibilities as big as the new office he’s entitled to (if he ever moves out of his digs in the Longworth House Office Building). He still faces an unruly Republican caucus, a White House spoiling for big things in its last 14 months, and a need for real leadership in this transitional period. But Ryan — already making history as the youngest house speaker in about 150 years — begins his tenure well, with two solid legislative victories achieved swiftly without rancor, threats or a drop of blood on the floor.

Nice. Let’s see how long this lasts.

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THAT LAST sentence wasn’t written in the context of a dare. The idea that a Republican-led House could find a way to advance the agendas of the party, the nation and the Obama White House is terra incognita. We haven’t been here before, not like this anyway. With two legislative actions that keep the government moving and start the process that (literally) keeps the country moving, there’s hope that this kind of bipartisan progress keeps happening.

Because it won’t be enough for Ryan to sit on his hands for a year and change. The next 14 months won’t just be the period of twilight of the Obama White House; it’s also a time when Ryan himself will be tested, pushed and provoked as speaker, not least if all by members of his own party ... some of whom thought, and still think, he was the wrong choice.

Ryan has his blind spots, none as glaring or as unnecessary as his stand on immigration reform. That much was obvious last weekend on the Sunday-morning talk shows, when the new speaker said he would not be talking to the president about immigration reform. Ryan’s apparent reasoning is that the matter needs revisiting without the white-hot media glare of numerous presidential campaigns. But at the very least, it’s optically problematic. It looks like Ryan’s not just kicking that can down the proverbial road but (legislatively speaking) kicking that can off the road altogether.

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“The House of Representatives will not vote on comprehensive immigration legislation as long as President Obama is in office,” he wrote Tuesday in USA Today.

“And the reason is simple: The American people can’t trust him to uphold the law. ...

“Instead of working to build trust, he has destroyed it. Last November, after his party lost control of the Senate, the president decided to circumvent the legislative process by unilaterally granting legal status to 5 million people. He has already demonstrated he is not serious about enforcing the law. Passing comprehensive reform during his presidency would merely render it meaningless.”

Pew Research Center: Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Growth and Change Through 2065

But that rationale is specious. Faced with a Congress that more or less panoramically refused to move the ball on many major reformative pieces of legislation for years, the Obama White House has since made good use of recess appointments, executive orders and the inattention of his various political opponents. These were the only avenues left open to him to advance the important components of his agenda — one of them being immigration reform.

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THERE’S A YEAR between now and the presidential election. For millions of Latino Americans, immigration reform is important right now. It should be important for Republicans too. (It is for Rep. Raul Labrador.)

Waiting until after January 2017 to move meaningfully on the issue is to throw away an opportunity to make serious inroads into the Latino vote before the election — an election that, with an estimated 66,000 Latino Americans turning old enough to vote every month, may well turn on that same Latino voting bloc historically alienated by the Republicans at every opportunity.

Adopting a gradualist approach to immigration reform, Ryan almost certainly ushers this pivotal demographic into the Democratic fold, and maybe for good. There’s nothing “meaningless” about that.

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Ryan can break with his predecessor in other ways. His place in the line of presidential succession is important in ways that go beyond his more quotidian role in the House: whip counts or votes or procedural matters. Being in the line of presidential succession presupposes a willingness to pursue at least the optics of statesmanship.

If you’re in line to be president, and even if you’re not, you shouldn’t skip encounters with world leaders. Boehner did that between November 2009 and May 2010, when he rebuffed invitations to receptions for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mexican President Felipe Calderon. And later, with no reason offered, he failed to show in January 2011 at a White House state dinner for Chinese president Hu Jintao. It would have been Boehner’s first such formal dinner as House speaker.

Never mind the snub of a president he apparently didn’t like or respect much; with the no-shows at the receptions, Boehner lost an opportunity to widen the strike zone on being a national leader. And by missing a state dinner with the leader of only the second largest economy on the planet, he ducked out on one of the more inescapable perceptual responsibilities of the job of Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Ryan needs to rise above any such temptations. He is second in line to the presidency for a reason.

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THE EARLY report card is good for the new speaker. He’s made some of the right gestures, the ones that suggest the possibility of bipartisan accomplishment and a willingness of lawmakers to reach across the aisle (holding their noses if necessary) in order to get something done. And he’s the beneficiary of two potentially monumental hurdles eliminated before the ink was dry on his new stationery.

But we can count on it: Like Boehner before him, Ryan will have chances to advance the GOP’s objectives at the expense of the nation’s. Sooner or later, facing the warring factions in the House he now presides over, he’ll be forced to make hard choices — choices that will offer a clear contrast between how Congress “should be doing the people’s business” and how they’ve done that business, or failed to, in the past.

Ryan’s actions could make the difference between his speakership being transitional and being consequential. For his party, it’s the difference between standing athwart the future — sighing and wistfully gazing in the rear-view mirror — and looking forward, facing the unyielding, enlivening, emerging demographic realities that neither he nor his party nor our nation can evade.

Image credits: Ryan: Bloomberg. U.S. foreign-born forecast chart: © 2015 Pew Research Center.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 6):
Night of Sharp Elbows

NOBODY FIGHTS like somebody cornered. What Johnson observed to Boswell in the 18th century is just as true, in a political context, now as it has been in any other: Much like an impending execution, the specter of political embarrassment on the national stage concentrates the mind wonderfully.

The latest evidence of that was Wednesday’s Republican candidates’ debate at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a debate-stage experiment in the fight-or-flight phenomenon. The stakes were higher for everyone; unlike the four candidates in the undercard status by way of poor polling, this was the varsity squad. But even the varsity has its stars and its ... lesser lights.

So everyone know the third debate was likely to be the pivotal one, the make-or-break event at which public perceptions and political fortunes start to turn into cement, for better or worse. That said, everyone loves a sudden hero, the scrappy little horse that comes from the back of the field to win at the wire (at least once). It’s presidential politics. Anything could happen.

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Well, pretty much everything did happen. It was a very good night — maybe even a breakout night — for Sen. Marco Rubio of Texas and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, two social-conservative darlings who’ve been dwelling near the bottom of the remaining Republican field. It was a fairly good night for Ben Carson, with a caveat; he wasn’t much more voluble on Wednesday than he was in the previous debates; sooner or later Carson needs to take over a room, assert his personality and his message in a bigger way. Christie was Christie, Huckabee was Huckabee, Fiorina was spoiling for a debate with Hillary Clinton ... the usual suspects did their part.

But the biggest surprise might be just how bad a night it was for John Ellis Bush, the former Florida governor. In exchange after exchange with Bush, Rubio clearly brought his A game, staying on target, on message, on the attack. And with no water bottles visible.

Example: Bush tried hard to make a big deal out of Rubio's tendency to miss important Senate votes while campaigning for president. “Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work,” Bush said. “I mean, literally, the Senate – what is it, like a French workweek? You get, like, three days where you have to show up? You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job.”

Rubio, 18 years younger than Bush, schooled his fellow Floridian. “I don’t remember you ever complaining about John McCain’s vote record,” Rubio said, referencing Bush's self-comparison to McCain, Arizona GOP senator, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, and another candidate who missed Senate votes. “The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you," Rubio said amid cheers from the audience.

Even when Bush scored a few rhetorical jabs, Rubio deflected and responded. MJ Lee of CNN put it pretty well: “Bush's decision to go after Rubio for his work ethic in the Senate showed that he believes Rubio is blocking his lane. Bush, struggling to break through to the top of the GOP pack, was clearly trying to deliver the attack of the evening -- but Rubio quickly and effectively counterpunched.”

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WHEN ASKED by CNBC moderator Becky Quick a question about his checkered financial past, Rubio, who has admitted having troubles managing money (his own and the Republican party’s) in the past, pushed back by not answering Quick’s question directly but by making backhanded swipes at Jeb Bush and Trump for benefiting from family fortunes. It’s a classic debate-stage tactic and Rubio did it as well as anyone.

“I didn’t inherit any money — my dad was a bartender and my mother was a maid,” said Rubio, retreating to the safe harbor of his familiar up-by-the-bootstraps theme. “I’m not worried about my finances; I’m worried about the finances of everyday Americans who today are struggling in an economy that is not producing good-paying jobs.”

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The hunting of the presidency 2016 (Part 5):
Biden, Clinton and the Democrats’ vacuum

TIME, TIDE and presidential politics wait for no man. Vice President Joe Biden was both the victim of that lesson and the one who communicated that lesson with force and eloquence, when he announced his decision not to seek the presidency from the Rose Garden of the White House he will apparently never call home.

“As my family and I have worked through the grieving process,” Biden said, “I’ve said all along what I’ve said time and again to others, that it may very well be that that process, by the time we get through it, closes the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president, that it might close. I’ve concluded it has closed.

“Unfortunately, I believe we're out of time, the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination,” the vice president said Oct. 21. “But while I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent. I intend to speak out clearly and forcefully, to influence as much as I can where we stand as a party and where we need to go as a nation.”

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Some seers came to this conclusion well before Biden did. “He’s a truly wonderful man universally loved by NH Democrats, but I can’t imagine him undertaking such a monumental underdog effort at such a difficult time for his family and with the massive monetary, people and campaign advantages of the Clinton campaign,” a New Hampshire Democrat told Politico ... in August.

“An objective reading of VP Biden’s chances of winning the nomination will force him to accept the reality that he should not enter the race for the Democratic nomination,” an Iowa Democrat told that publication that same month.

Russell Berman, writing in The Atlantic on Oct. 21, broke down how close we seemed to come to a third Biden bid for the Oval Office:

“The speculation persisted, reaching an almost-comical fever pitch in recent days as Biden’s camp repeatedly left allies and reporters alike with the impression that he would make a dramatic entrance into the race. The head of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Harold Schaitberger, told reporters his union was preparing as if Biden was going to announce his candidacy. A backbench Democratic congressman tweeted that Biden was in. Reports circulated that Biden’s advisers were scouting office space in Washington.”

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IT WASN’T to be. But Biden went down swinging hard, defending the record of his administration as he would have if he’d been in the campaign to come.

“This party, our nation, will be making a tragic mistake if we walk away or attempt to undo the Obama legacy,” Biden said. “The American people have worked too hard, and we have come too far for that. Democrats should not only defend this record and protect this record. They should run on the record.”

The vice president offered a tantalizing sample of what might have been, a campaign valedictory that had all the barn-burning elements of a stump speech.

“I believe that we have to end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country apart,” Biden said. “And I think we can. It’s mean spirited, it’s petty, and it’s gone on for much too long. ...”

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“I don’t think we should look at Republicans as our enemies,” he said. “They are our opposition. They’re not our enemies. And for the sake of the country, we have to work together. ...”

“There are too many people in America — there are too many parents who don’t believe they can look their kid in the eye and say with certitude, ‘Honey, it’s gonna be okay.’”

“That’s what we need to change. It’s not complicated. That will be the true measure of our success, and we’ll not have met it until every parent out there can look at their kid in tough times and say, ‘Honey, it’s gonna be okay,’ and mean it.”

You have to take the man at his word. Still processing the death of son Beau, by brain cancer in May at the heartbreakingly young age of 47, the vice president is well within his rights as a grieving human being to take a time out in order to assess his life options after January 20, 2017.

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IN THE SHORT term, this has implications for the Democrats both clarifying and problematic. For now, and in a nation whose emerging demographic profile would suggest otherwise, the Democrats are left with a small and clearly defined group of monochromatic candidates who have been, with one notable exception, profoundly uninspiring.

That field of hopefuls has decreased by two in recent days. On Oct. 23, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee dropped out of a race he was never really in to start with. And former Virginia senator Jim Webb quit the Democratic race three days before that.

Webb’s opted instead to pursue a bid as an independent, but it’s hard to imagine him getting any more traction running as an indy than he got as a Democrat. To do so, in some vestigial shadow campaign,  would merely make Webb look opportunistic and, well, desperate. And with independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders laying out his own bona fides, Webb would have to carve out territory where, frankly, there isn’t any.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Ladies and gentlemen, the next John Boehner?

WISCONSIN Republican Rep. Paul Ryan has had a change of heart and mind. The congressman whom congressional Republicans have been all but begging to seek the post occupied til month’s end by Ohio Rep. John Boehner has decided to formally seek the position of Speaker of the House, the lightning-rod perch in the Republican-majority body.

"I believe we are ready to move forward as a one, united team. And I am ready and eager to be our speaker," Ryan wrote late Thursday in a letter to fellow Republicans. Expect the GOP House members to move quickly to prevent any gaps in leadership by electing Ryan to be speaker. The Washington Post reported on Oct. 21 that the House Freedom Caucus will do its part to usher Ryan in with a “supermajority” of its members set to vote for the Wisconsin congressman.

Republicans will nominate a new speaker on Wednesday; a vote’s expected in the full House on Thursday. If Ryan wins and becomes speaker ... his brand will be crisis. From the moment the gavel comes down.

Because once he’s formally selected, after all the celebratory hoopla passes, Ryan will find himself in a whole new world of political horse-trading and intrigue. The man who will be second in the line of presidential succession will find that striving for consensus between the House and an Obama White House eager to put a defining stamp on its final 14 months is not an option. The game-changer for House Republicans will be a game-changer for the new man in charge too.

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One of Ryan’s first tasks will be to address the situation that led to Boehner’s resignation/ouster in the first place. In his three terms as Speaker, Boehner was beset at every turn by the querulous backbenchers from the dregs of the Tea Party, the crew that helped frustrate Boehner’s efforts to find common ground with moderate Republicans and the White House.

Those Pantone-red conservatives, now largely under the House Freedom Caucus banner, haven’t gone away, and they’re not going anywhere. Placating them, moderating their intensity, hearing their demands and concerns will be among Ryan’s more immediate challenges.

He seemed to sense this in his Thursday letter. “I know many of you want to show the country how to fix our tax code, how to rebuild our military, how to strengthen the safety net, and how to lift people out of poverty. And we can show the country what a commonsense conservative agenda looks like.”

But there’s a good chance — pledges of party unity behind Ryan aside — that those same Republicans may now feel bolder than usual. Having effectively run one Speaker out of the House, the more avowedly conservative Republicans may smell blood in the water, and seize an opportunity to impose their partisan will on the new speaker right from the jump.

Ryan has the advantage of experience and name recognition. Of all the House members at least passively considered for the post — Jason Chaffetz, Daniel Webster, Pete Sessions, Tom Cole — only Ryan has both the time served and the stature required to be a serious contender. Being in charge at the House Ways and Means Committee and being on the Romney-Ryan 2012 ticket doesn’t hurt either. Those bullet points in the Ryan resume give him a visibility and cred that other challengers can’t match.

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BUT STILL, if he is named speaker, the expectations for Ryan couldn’t be higher — and neither could the risk of abuse. David Wasserman at Five Thirty Eight put it well: “Once, the office of speaker was a noble aspiration or a slowly plotted lifelong ambition, achieved by clever parliamentary tacticians like Sam Rayburn, Tip O’Neill, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi. These days, the job pretty much requires its occupant to wear a ‘kick me’ sign.”

For some, Ryan can do no wrong. "He can heal all these factional differences," said Florida Representative Carlos Curbelo told Reuters on Thursday. But before Curbelo and others start measuring Ryan for a garment they can touch the hem of, there’s reality to contend with.

There’s the reality Ryan’s promised if he wins election as speaker. David Sirota of International Business Times reported on Sunday that, if Ryan prevails, he intends to name corporate lobbyist-on-steroids J. David Hoppe as his chief of staff.

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Sirota reports: “Federal records show since 2010, Hoppe has lobbied for major financial industry interests such as insurance giant MetLife, the National Venture Capital Association and Zurich Financial Services. He has also lobbied for investment firm BlackRock, which could be affected by efforts to change federal financial regulations and which could benefit from a recent proposal to shift military pension money into a federal savings plan managed in part by the Wall Street giant.

“And Hoppe has lobbied for Cayman Finance, whose business ‘promot[ing] the development of the Cayman Islands financial services industry’ could be affected by legislation to crack down on offshore tax havens.”

That’s not exactly the signal a new Speaker of the House wants to send — to the White House or the nation as a whole — if he wants to reinforce the idea of being his own man and turning a page on the past. You don’t heal factional differences with a K Street lobbyist at your elbow. And in charge of your office.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Nightmare on Grace Avenue

IT WAS the end of April and new things were beginning for Andre Bauth. The Colombian-born actor and film producer was a man in play. Bauth was attending the 42nd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank on April 26. He was basking in the glory of his Emmy nomination for his role as a producer of “The Bay: The Series,” an online soap opera. He did the red-carpet gavotte, posing for pictures, smiling and prepping for what he hoped would be the triumph to come: his first Emmy.

When “The Bay: The Series” won later for Outstanding Drama Series New Approaches, it was, for Bauth, a vindication of his efforts and hard work in the entertainment field. Now, it seemed, anything was possible. In spite of various challenges, life could be sweet.

Fast-forward four months and two weeks, to the night of Sept. 10. CBS Los Angeles reported near the top of its 11 p.m. newscast that Bauth was wanted by Los Angeles police on suspicion of stabbing a fellow actor, his roommate, in the chest two nights earlier, leaving the man in critical condition. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office filed an attempted murder charge against Bauth and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Bauth surrendered a week later.

This is a story of the swift and stunning downward spiral of an actor and producer whose vision of being a promoter and educator of artists and the arts, a Hollywood Medici, confronted the realities of life, law and economics in modern America, and the same realities according to L.A. It’s a story of how overreaching, ego, blinding ambition and possibly a dash of violence combined to short-circuit a promising Hollywood career.

This is a story of real estate, power, the pursuit of power, and life imitating art imitating life. This is the story of Andre Bauth’s world, how it fell apart and how that process of collapse almost brought others with him.

Read the rest at Medium

Image credit: Bauth with Emmy:

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

‘Beasts of No Nation,’ captive of no platform

AS ITS subject matter and visual intensity have been laid out in critics’ descriptions, the Cary Joji Fukunaga film “Beasts of No Nation,” a tale of childhood and war, is harrowing and groundbreaking enough on its own.

What movie exhibitors and the various Nostradami of the motion picture industry are concerned about has less to do with the film itself and everything to do with how you get to watch it — and other equally daring projects in the future.

When it opened theatrically on Oct. 16, “Beasts” grossed $50,699 for a theater average of $1,635, according to The Hollywood Reporter. But the movie moguls, chieftains of a business model that’s seen more unchallenging days, seem to feel that regardless of how well it did, “Beasts” may be a problematic symbol, signaling as it does a tipping point for movies: the point when the legacy studios heard unavoidable footsteps ... the footsteps of technology they finally couldn’t get away from.

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Writing Oct. 16 in The Daily Beast, New York film critic and journalist Nick Schager knows the size and impact of what’s at stake, calling it “[a] risky proposition ... a dual-platform approach that functions as the biggest salvo so far in a burgeoning battle between the old world and the new.”

“Beasts,” Fukunaga’s acclaimed adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of a young boy caught up in a civil war in West Africa, breaks new ground for Netflix, the company that bought worldwide rights to the film in March for a reported $12 million. When the film — Netflix’s first foray into movies — opened, it was made available both theatrically and through Netflix’s streaming service ... on the same day.

“In theory,” Schager says, “this sounds like a win-win for consumers, who will have multiple venues through which to access eagerly anticipated big-budget movies. But for Netflix, it remains unclear if this path leads to a brighter future, or a dead end.”

BUT SCHAGER overstates the risk for Netflix’s bold gambit, overlooks the evolution of the consumer, and underplays the existing and historical conditions that made taking that risk necessary. He writes: “The company purchased the rights to Beasts ... assuming that it could recoup such a cost from a combination of ticket sales and new subscriptions. Yet that assumption was immediately complicated by the country’s four biggest theater chains (AMC, Regal, Cinemark, and Carmike), which in May uniformly decided that they wouldn’t show Beasts.”

Schager continues: “With theaters coveting their exclusive windows to show first-run films before they hit home video platforms — a brief period of time that shrinks with every passing year — it’s no surprise that exhibitor conglomerates would balk at Netflix’s tactic, given that it will inevitably help render going out to the movies a superfluous (and experience-wise, superior) luxury.”

That’s nothing new. The deathbed status of theatrical movies has been alleged before, in the dawn of the VCR era, and again with the coming of DVDs and the increasingly sophisticated players and increasingly larger screens on which to watch them. It’s understandable that the Big Four movie exhibitors would balk at jeopardizing their own short-term self-interests. But let’s be clear, their Chicken Little, sky-is-falling act is one we’ve heard before.

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The argument that streaming technology renders the traditional movie experience a “superfluous luxury” is tired and unconvincing, partly because of what the traditional movie experience has incrementally done, over the years, to endanger itself. When tickets are $10 a pop, popcorn and concessions are $10 more, and the costs of parking and gas are in their own realms of the astronomical, the magic of first-run movies is already priced like a luxury — and has been for years.

The very fact that, as Schager mentions, exhibitors’ first-run exclusivity is “a brief period of time that shrinks with every passing year” should tell us, like nothing else can, exactly where this is going in the future.

You'd best believe Reed Hastings knows. The founder and CEO of Netflix understands two things: one, that the entertainment future will accommodate both first-run theatrical releases and simultaneous streaming of those releases; and, two (as much as the gatekeeper exhibitors wish it weren’t true), the 24/7, devices-everywhere consumer has been made entitled to expect nothing less.

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AND WHY NOT? The demands of a workplace culture that kicked 9-to-5 to the curb years ago; the convenience of time-shifters like TiVo; the steady improvement of TV receiver technology (make way for 4K, the new high-def gold standard) and the enormity of available options and price points are combining to put the consumer in the power position like never before. And keep her there.

And the choice of seeing a first-run film in a movie theater or at home — and possibly in a setting that amounts to being a private movie theater — is one that speaks to the ubiquity of entertainment experience the public’s been conditioned to expect.

That’s what Hastings gets and what the double-barreled, theatrical-streaming rollout of “Beasts of No Nation” means: To the public, ultimately, it’s not an either/or proposition, it’s a both/and proposition. Or it will be.

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The Big Four’s decision not to show “Beasts of No Nation” in their theaters indicates a reflexive nod toward self-preservation. That much is obvious. It also shows something else: Fear. The boycotting exhibitors showed solidarity, of course, but they must have also been more than a little afraid of what might have happened if “Beasts” opened wide — say on 1,000 or 1,200 screens and on Netflix ... and consumers actually liked having that moviegoing choice. It would have turned a treasured, proven business model inside out. And they know it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Boehner, Ryan and the next Speaker

JOHN BOEHNER’s resignation from the Speaker’s post in the House of Representatives was a long time coming. The exploits of the beleaguered movement conservative and closet pragmatist re-elected to the post in January have been a painful thing to watch. Like a Willy Loman of the People’s House, Boehner is a man who was finally frustrated by the same politics that once animated him, at the mercy of the Tea Party mob that once, however half-heartedly, shouted his name, but who have since told him: You can go now. Your services are no longer required.

Boehner’s fate has been sealed for some time. In many ways, Boehner, now a 13-term veteran of Congress, was doomed by his own political longevity. I wrote in October 2013 that:

“His long status as a Washington pol has aroused a deep distrust on the part of Tea Partiers, the very people whose water Boehner carries ... As a consequence of that mistrust, Boehner's reluctance to engage the yahoo winglet of his party reveals a House Speaker animated by fear of political retribution more than anything else.”

It caught up to him. On Sept. 25, when Boehner announced his intention to step down sometime this month, it was the last aria in the final act of an opera that’s been playing out for too long, the former hero of the GOP left on the stage, alone, his body invisible, only his face lit with a lonely spotlight that slowly dims — a metaphor for his three-term tenure in the leadership post of a body that had less and less use and patience for his brand of pragmatism with every passing year.

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Now, the Republicans’ long scramble for credibility before the American voting public has been complicated with a fresh search for a credible leader within the ranks of the House leadership. The early hunt for Boehner’s replacement hasn’t gone well.

Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Leader, passed on seeking the post, nobly claiming that it was “For us to unite, we probably need a fresh face.” But Talking Points Memo and The Huffington Post reported that a shadowy major GOP donor had previously confronted McCarthy via email threatening to expose an extramarital affair ... shortly before the magnanimous McCarthy walked away from a gig that might otherwise have been his for the asking.

And so the GOP in the House has been considering — some in the media have called it “begging” — Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to seek the Speaker’s position, a job Ryan has said he doesn’t want, more than once. The irony couldn’t be more obvious: The party that would pick someone to lead the nation can’t find someone to lead the party in a Republican-majority House.

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RYAN HAS good reason to dodge this leadership bullet. In his current position as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, As one of Boehner’s periodic congressional tormentors not so long ago, Ryan well knows the Speaker’s post is as much hot seat as it is catbird seat, and maybe more.

More importantly, and as Ryan’s reluctance to pursue the job suggests, the job of Speaker of the House calls for bridge-building, or at the very least the optics of bridge-building. It calls for standing for more than bellicose rhetorical showdowns with the other side. It requires somebody willing to reach across the aisle for the purpose of achieving consensus in the People’s House, or working to get as close to that as possible.

And in today’s politics, that by definition means setting your personal political objectives — and those of the more reliably obstreperous members of your caucus — on the back burner. And Ryan doesn’t have a great track record of doing that.

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And oh yeah — The New York Times reported on Oct. 10 that hardline conservatives are angling to make changes — infrastructural, institutional changes — in the scope and authority of the House Speaker. To effectively turn down the Speaker’s volume.

From The Times: “The changes would include stripping the speaker of his outsize power over the Republican steering committee, which appoints the chairmen for all committees as well as for Appropriations subcommittees. The changes would also reduce the leadership’s tight control over what bills and amendments reach the House floor.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

How to get away with making history

THE NIGHT OF Sept. 20 was Earthquake Night in Hollywood, and it had nothing to do with seismographs and fault lines. At least the literal kind. It was a night for rattling the cages of expectation. The epicenter of this temblor was the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles, and the shock waves could resonate permanently, a Richter-scale event in society. Or not.

“This is the most diverse group of nominees in Emmy history,” said host Andy Samberg. “Yeah. Racism is over! Don’t fact-check that.” Right. Don’t bother; you already know the answer. But still, given the impressive roster of Emmy nominees going in to the evening ... well, the potential for there for a lot of history being made.

Which is exactly what happened. Reg E. Cathey won the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his role as Frank Underwood’s barbecue homeboy Freddy Hayes in “House of Cards.” Regina King won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie for her role in John Ridley’s “American Crime.” Uzo Aduba was named Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her work as Crazy Eyes in “Orange Is the New Black.”

And oh yes, the big one: Viola Davis won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, for her role as the tough, seductive, ethically panoramic law professor Annalise Keating in ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” a first for an African American actress. Nights like Sunday are exceedingly rare.

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Everyone was eloquent in accepting their awards, but Davis, whose win of an Emmy moved her into rarified air (she’s garnered two Oscar nominations and won two Tony awards, among others) was especially so. Davis quoted Harriet Tubman on Sept. 20, reaching back into American history in the process of making her own.

“’In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’

“That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.

“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”

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SOME PEOPLE will be tempted to look at the tsunami of Emmy winners of color on Sept. 20 and think that all of this is a recent phenomenon — like it just happened in the last year or three. They don’t think about the trailblazers who were working and winning (or trying to) when their detractors and bitter observers of today were still images in an ultrasound.

They can’t remember Bill Cosby, who won best actor in a drama for three years straight in “I Spy.” Or Robert Guillaume, who won an Emmy for best actor in a comedy series (“Benson”).

Or Isabel Sanford, who won for best actress in a comedy series (“The Jeffersons”). Or Diahann Carroll, whose portrayal of a widowed nurse in the groundbreaking sitcom “Julia” (1968-1971) won her an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globes win for Best TV Star-Female in 1969.

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Nancy Lee Grahn initially took exception to Davis’ victory. The “General Hospital” star said in her Twitter account: "Im a f--king actress for 40 yrs. None of us get respect or opportunity we deserve," she tweeted at the time. "Emmys not venue 4 racial opportunity. ALL women belittled."

That’s not nice to see ya. The gist of her complaint had a lot in common with the people who responded to the BLACK LIVES MATTER meme with the reflexive rejoinder that “all lives matter,” reaching for the anodyne generality while blowing right past the damage done to the particular.

After the Twitterverse weighed in and embarrassed Grahn, the actress admitted that she “got schooled” by the response to her butthurt tweet. But her initial reaction revealed the soft underbelly of a current of discontent from Neanderthals among us.

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WHAT GRAHN touched on briefly, and what others have intimated themselves in the recent past, is an abiding sense of pop-cultural superiority, a barely disguised entitlement about who our pop culture icons should be, and what they should look like.

Since late last year, the pop-culture isolationists represented by Grahn’s first-blush reaction to Davis’ Emmy win have vehemently opposed “Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens,” the forthcoming J.J. Abrams restart of the legendary movie franchise, for having the nerve to cast the black British actor John Boyega in a leading role.

Their unspoken but obvious assumption is that “Star Wars” is a white sci-fi fantasy. Nonwhites need not apply, ever. Never mind the fact that the “Star Wars” canon has already included Lando Calrissian, a character in two “Star Wars” films played by the African American actor Billy Dee Williams; Mace Windu, a character in two other “Star Wars” films played by the African American actor Samuel L. Jackson; and intergalactic archetype of evil Darth Vader, played in voiceover by the African American actor James Earl Jones, a mainstay of the franchise.

A sad thing, selective memory is.

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At least some of the cultural evolution deniers have a problem with the ways that Davis’ Emmy coronation and Boyega’s status in a sure-fire hit film are making history. But that’s necessary; it always makes history when you’re the first to ever do something.

And that’s what Viola Davis and John Boyega have in common: making history in spite of those determined to live in the past. You can’t drive around their two landmark accomplishments in television and the movies. The only option is to live with what’s happening. If there was any more to be said, Boyega said it himself late last year, on social media — not with a throwdown or a fight, but a simple declarative bombshell.

“To whom it may concern: Get used to it.:)”

Image credits: Davis:  Getty Images via  Guillaume: Corbis via Butthurt Yoda: Arewehavingsexwithyourmomyet (Imgur).
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