You want to do *what*!?

By now the series of indictments and convictions of Trump’s hangers-on are old news, but there are some things about these stories that I am finding really mystifying, and/or confirmatory of the suspicions I have always had about super rich people. Trump’s hangers-on give the appearance of being super-rich, and they’re all attached to the “conservative” (i.e. religious radical) side of US politics, but some of the things we learn about them have been, shall we say, disappointing? I’m not sure if there is a word for how you feel when you learn what these people have been up to, especially now that “WTF” is about to be patented by Proctor and Gamble. Some things that have particularly amused (and surprised) me include …

  1. None of them seem to have any money: Cohen seems to have been sucking in vast quantities of cash, but none of it ended up in his pockets, and he was constantly lying to banks about his money in order to get loans to have more money, which promptly seems to have been blown paying off past loans. The Hunters were basically up to their necks in debt, and one assumes using their entire salary to pay off their overdraft fees, and then financing their lifestyle with campaign money, but refusing to tone down the business class rabbit seats despite being in hock. Pruitt was trying to use his position in the EPA to score his wife a chik-a-fila franchise to pay their debts. And of course Donald Trump, supposedly a billionaire, couldn’t manage to find 130k to pay off a porn star in order to smooth his path to becoming the president – instead Cohen did it, and did it by fraudulently leveraging his house because none of these people have any money. And of course Broidy – the only one who seems to have had any money, probably from Russian sources – paid for Trump’s girlfriend’s abortion, and was repaid not with money but with political favours. Beyond the question about whether any of these people have even a basic sense of public ethics, do any of them have any actual money?
  2. These people have no taste: Ostrich jackets, really? Golf? Who goes on vacation to Boise Idaho? Did you really need to fly your rabbit on holiday with you?[1] And we all know about the Donald’s penchant for ridiculously tasteless furniture and fittings (that family photo really is a gem). I used to joke that rich people had no taste, but I mostly made that joke on the basis that I don’t like Foix Gras, champagne or cognac. I didn’t realize that they actually really are this tasteless! Looking at the reports of their personal extravagancies, one is inclined to believe the theory that the super rich really are lizard people wearing skin masks. Surely no human could be this prurient? But apparently they are.
  3. They’re all having affairs: Manafort, Gates, Hunter, they all had a bit going on on the side, and this was part of the reason they were up to their neck in campaign expense violations. Trump of course is most egregious in this regard, and the really cynically ironic thing is that the one person in this little coterie of corrupt fuckwits who appears to have been genuinely devoted to his wife, Broidy, was the one who took the public fall for Trump fucking Shera Bechard and impregnating her and paying her for an abortion. It’s also telling that even then – when these people are caught fucking someone not their wife – they won’t (or can’t) buy their way out of it with their own money, but need to use Russian money (or Broidy’s Emirati money). These people are dirty, soulless losers.
  4. They don’t believe a word of their politics: The Hunters’ indictment is particularly merciless reading on the topic of these peoples’ abject hypocrisy. They used campaign funds to pay for golf shorts[2] and passed it off as a donation of golf balls to a veterans’ organization; they bought haberdashery and pass it off as an event for teachers; they tried to use the navy as an excuse for an international trip and then when the navy wouldn’t comply they said “fuck the navy”. These people have absolutely zero respect for the politics they espouse. They’re traitors, liars, economic wreckers and leeches, and the only time they make a pretense of caring about the politics they supposedly believe in is when they’re trying to cover up illegal spending on their fucking bunny. It’s not unusual in politics to find people who are hypocrites to the cause they believe in, who don’t always toe in private the clear line they maintain in public, but these people obviously don’t give a flying fuck about any principles of any kind at all. They are empty, soulless consumers. The only reason they are Republicans is because – as Trump himself so memorably stated on national TV – Republicans are easy to fool.

I guess it’s reassuring in a sense to see all my prejudices about the tastes and peccadilloes of the super rich confirmed, but it’s also kind of disturbing that people could be such caricatures of themselves. What is less amusing and certainly less satisfying is the clear evidence that these lying fucks are traitors, economic wreckers, and arseholes of the worst kind. Once they’ve been thrown out of office in November I do not want the Democrats to spare them the rod. I want to see them all nailed to the wall for what they have done.

fn1: I can appreciate wanting to buy your rabbit a seat if you do. On an American airline it’ll die in cargo. And I sympathize with the problem of having to find accommodation for your pet when you’re on work travel … except this wasn’t work!

fn2: Seriously what is with these people’s obsession with golf? It’s fucking golf, people. They spend all their time publicly complaining about how the NFL is being ruined, but good luck finding even a cent of their expenses spent on an actual sport!

Advertisements

Recently I had the opportunity to watch three movies in quick succession: Solo, Death Wish and Pacific Rim: Uprising. Solo was kind of fun but overall these three movies were pretty ordinary, and none of them is really worth its own separate review. I thought I’d put reviews of all three in one post, as exemplars of how America’s cultural industries are falling apart before our eyes. It’s worth noting that all three of these movies are either remakes, sequels or part of a “franchise”, so there’s nothing truly original in any of them. In many ways they’re also movies that are designed to appeal, well, not even to the worst elements of our nature, but to the most banal elements of our nature. Is this how western civilization ends: not with a bang or a whimper, but a long drawn-out sigh of boredom?

Pacific Rim: Uprising

I want to start this review by pointing out that just a few years ago, when the Lord of the Rings, was first made (or was it the Hobbit? I forget and don’t care) a bunch of LoTR fanboys were ruing the fact that Guillermo del Toro didn’t get the gig as Director. Surely he, more than Jackson, would have been able to make these movies soar? Well now, having watched him royally fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, are you still sad that he didn’t get to make a movie with dragons and elves? A man who can fuck up a formula as invincibly, trivially easy as giant robots would surely have made an absolute dogs breakfast of something as subtle and culturally significant as LoTR. Thank God Jackson pipped him to that one, because this movie – even more than the shit sandwich that was the first one – was an absolute disaster. The worst thing about it obviously is the two people operating the one machine, in the bullshit “neural mesh” setup, who despite being neurally enmeshed have to operate their stupid giant robot by physically doing whatever it does. Watching the scenes of the soldiers in the brainpod (or whatever stupid name it has) I could only think of those ‘90s comedy skits in which terribly earnest acting school students pretend to be trees or ducks or something. What a fucking joke. Don’t get me wrong, if some idiot paid me a million bucks (or a fraction thereof!) to pretend to be running inside a giant robot I would be all in on that shit, but let’s not pretend it’s a contribution to western civilization. God no, burn that crap down. Also is it just me or is there some new phenomenon in action movies, let’s call it jockburn, where the lead characters are first introduced into the mess hall/ bunk room/ shower room where the other soldiers eat/ reside / fuck and your heart sinks when you realize that you are now going to have to sit through several minutes of macho posturing that is obviously meant to be in the vein of Aliens, but you know before it starts that it isn’t going to come close? And then there is the related experience where the leader is about to make a big speech, and suddenly you know the big speech is coming and you’re going to have to sit through about 20-30 seconds of “stirring” speech about how everyone has to fight and die for glory / the glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child / a sack of French porn and you know it’s going to be a disappointing and shamelessly unselfconscious pile of cliches that will just make you squirm? What do we call that feeling? I think it’s an identifiable and common experience in modern action movies. Occasionally you get a good one (the one at the Gates of Mordor, the speech about taking chances in Rogue One) but mostly they’re just shit. And they aren’ t improved when, as in this movie, they refer to the speech in the previous movie (because that’s how low we have sunk) and try to pretend that this one won’t even be trying. Look, Guillermo (or whoever else squatted out this pile of shit), if your work is so bad that you know ahead of time that it isn’t going to compare to even the last steaming turd you dumped on us, please don’t insult us further by pointing out that you aren’t even phoning it in. Just fuck off home and don’t make this waste of pixels. Oh, and while you’re listening to tips from me, can you please please please drop the daddy issues? They weren’t constant and overwhelming in this movie like they were in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (thank the gods of shit movies that that arsehole had some trouble buried in his twitter feed! Now if we could just kill off the cast we can all go home happy!) but right at the peak of the movie, when they’re about to save the world, someone manages to make the resoundingly important point that the lead character is going to make daddy proud. Really? He’s going to risk his life saving the world and all those billions of people are going to be looking up at him as the dude who saved the world but his real single only concern is that his dead daddy will finally love him? He’s an adult, right? What is wrong with Americans and their daddy issues? Also what is wrong with the Chinese people in this movie? I can’t figure out if they’re meant to be the bad guys or patsies, if there’s a message about copying technology in there, or something else, but why did they have to be such arseholes? Also, when you choose to portray America’s current Big Trade Enemy as arseholes in an action movie, can I suggest that you perhaps go and check on how the Japanese were portrayed in the 1980s and ask yourself if perhaps, just perhaps, you’re just repeating a massive flyblown cliche? Because at this point in the cultural cycle of the west, any opportunity to do something original would be appreciated kthxbai. This movie also suffers from another weird problem of action movies that needs a name, perhaps something like self-referential SNAFU, in which there is a central problem or barrier that they have to overcome through some special means, but at some other point in the movie they immediately do exactly the thing they said they can’t do. In this case we’re told that you can’t make the giant robots (I refuse to call them Jaegers, fuck off) fly because there is no fuel that powerful, but in the very first action scene the stupidly named giant robot with the enormously stupid flail (fuck off already I cannot believe how stupid that flail is) jets out of the ocean and onto land using just the rockets in its feet which is exactly what they said these things can’t do. Also we’re told that they had to build these giant robots to fight the giant monsters because the giant monsters are invincible, presumably cannot be beaten with say a rail gun from space or a missile, but then their solution to the final massive, extra super powerful monster, is to drop a disabled giant robot on it from space. Now I don’t know how much these giant robots weigh but right now the Falcon Heavy rocket can put 64 tons of material in space, so it seems pretty easy and cheap to me to hoist say 600 tons of material into space, stick it all together, and drop it on your annoying giant monster. Why build stupid giant robots that need two terribly earnest method actors to neurally mesh (impossible – method actors don’t have brains) when you could just use your reusable rocket to build a makeshift rail gun at a fraction of the cost? This is the self-referential SNAFU I mentioned earlier. To be clear I don’t care if the pretext of the movie is that we need to build giant robots that can only be driven by method actors but I want the movie to stick to the pretext throughout. Failure to do so bursts me out of the bubble and just leaves me disappointed and feeling ripped off. Which is probably the best description for how this movie leaves you feeling. In conclusion: this movie was a joke of a reheated disaster, and if you can fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, you should fold up your director’s chair and go home.

Death Wish

This movie is a straight remake which has the single redeeming feature of having Bruce Willis in it. Bruce Willis is a legend, and anything he touches is made better (although I note that he was not in either Pacific Rim movie and I think we all know why). I haven’t seen the original but I remember when I was a kid it was hugely controversial because of its ultra violent story and the perhaps morally neutral approach towards vigilantism. Now, 40 years later, as militias roam the landscape and Sasha Baron Cohen can convince American politicians to advertise gun self defense schools for four year olds, we can look back to that time of controversy as a purer, more moral era. Now we can watch as the movie-maker postures through the issue by having talk radio hosts debate whether vigilantism is right or wrong without ever making a decision one way or the other, because heaven knows it would be terrible for someone’s career if they made an actual moral judgment on something as grey and uncertain as whether vigilantism is okay. So it is that Bruce (let’s not waste our time pretending his character has any other name) wanders this morally free and pure space murdering random criminals and getting his own back on the people who refrigerated his wife. Unfortunately for the pretext of this movie, the dudes who refrigerated his wife didn’t really even want to, and they’re just small time criminals, and two of them didn’t really even come across as especially bullying, and we didn’t see their faces, so it’s really really hard to get any strong feeling of revenge when he murders them. In fact it seems pretty clear that two of the criminals, at least, were strong candidates for rehabilitation – they were clearly intending just to rob him, they wanted as little trouble as possible, they didn’t want to hurt anyone, they clearly knew that rape and murder are wrong and should not be done, and they were just trying to make a buck. This isn’t to say they were nice people or anything but here’s the thing: this is a vengeance movie. I absolutely love watching bullies get murdered, beaten up, humiliated and destroyed, it’s pretty much the only reason I am still sitting through Game of Thrones. But for my bullies to deserve brutal murder instead of say 10 years to life, they need to actually appeal to my baser instincts. They need to be real arseholes. Not participants in an armed robbery that went wrong. This is why the only really truly satisfying murder is the death of the Ice Cream Man, who steals children’s money when they walk to school and shoots them in the foot if they don’t pay up. His death – and the subsequent looting, essentially, of his still warm corpse by the residents of the block – was the only satisfying death in this bland flick. The deaths might have been slightly more appealing but there was this additional subtext in this movie that made it really hard to fully get behind our hero Bruce – America’s ridiculous and unsustainable levels of inequality, and rich people’s fear of what will happen when America’s poor decide to do something about it. Bruce is a doctor, he’s obviously super rich, and he works in a hospital – a US hospital. We all know that hospitals in the US are key drivers of inequality, and the doctors who work in them get rich working in institutions that refuse healthcare to people who can’t pay, and bankrupt people who come to them for healthcare with bullshit emergency services like charging $500 for an aspirin. So some poor people break into Bruce the emergency doctor’s house to steal some of his ill-gotten gains, and their theft goes wrong because they’re idiots, so they kill his wife, and then this man goes on a spree, murdering poor people across the city. Additionally, at one point he goes into a gun shop and a smily second amendment girl called “Bethany” tries to sell him some guns and makes it really really fucking clear that she doesn’t care who he is and will sell guns to anyone (though she makes the weak sauce excuse that she doesn’t sell them to criminals haha). This entire fucking movie wouldn’t happen if the gun shop was closed down, “Bethany” was put out of a job (sorry Beth!) and everyone got access to universal health coverage. Bruce wouldn’t have got robbed, nobody would have been able to shoot Bruce’s wife and daughter, and Bruce would be able to go home from his job satisfied that he had spent all day saving lives rather than worried deep down inside that he actually spends all day saving only wealthy lives. And we wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the (only very partial) thrill of watching a rich man hunt down and murder poor people for doing whatever they can to make ends meet in a world with no universal health coverage, no minimum wage, no gun laws and no sense. Now I guess someone is going to come on here and make some stupid point that I’m making excuses for murderers but I hardly need point out that anyone who defends Bruce is also making excuses for murderers. You can’t watch this movie and not make excuses for murderers (well, I guess you could tut!tut! at everything but where’s the fun in that). And if you live in Japan (as I do) you can be confident that nobody’s going to murder you for your watch, certainly not with a gun, and everyone can afford healthcare at Bruce’s swanky hospital, so Bruce’s riches are genuinely morally deserved, and he can be confident that his valet isn’t going to take a screenshot of his navi (except perhaps to steal his daughter’s underwear from the washing line). Call me a sad-arsed SJW if you will, but a movie where Bruce hunts down some people who brutally murdered his family for shits and giggles is slightly more engaging than a movie where Bruce the rich doctor hunts down and murders a bunch of poor people because they tried to rob his wife and daughter in a society where they can afford guns but can’t afford healthcare. (And don’t even get me started on how the cops are underfunded and overworked!) It’s not like these movies can’t be made! Korea makes awesome gangster movies, and Korea has gun control and universal health coverage. When a rich doctor goes on a murder spree in a Korean gangster movie I’m all in. Not so much when it’s against a backdrop of a crumbling empire with a huge inequality and gun problem, the contradictions of its own oligopolic order now so apparent that you simply can’t squint past them anymore. It steals some of the thrill, and it also makes the whole thing just … boring. In crime movie genre terms, making a boring revenge flick is like making a bad giant robot/monster movie. It should be impossible, but somehow whatever loser made this reboot managed to do it. Thanks for your efforts Bruce, but this wasn’t your best showing.

Solo: A star wars movie

This movie was actually fun! The train heist was a gas, and although the Mad Max elements were a bit obvious and overdone it was enjoyable watching the marauders having their fun. Han Solo was kind of forgettable and the less said about Amelia Clark’s acting the better, plus the betrayals and double-crossings were predictable and the bad guys were not exciting. But otherwise the movie kind of hung together, and although the whole thing in the maelstrom was sort of tedious bullshit, at least there was a tenuous effort at explaining the Kessel run, and given they took a short cut it made sense to refer to doing the kessel run in 12 parsecs (also I like that Han rounds it down and it actually took 13 parsecs, nice touch). That fixed a minor issue in the original movie that had always bothered me. Apparently – my friend tells me, because I won’t go into any cesspit of star wars fanboys – lots of people are pissed off with the director for fucking up a few parts of the original canon, because (spoiler alert!) at the end Darth Maul makes an appearance. Apparently the same fan boys who were pissed off that he died 12 years ago are now pissed off that he’s not dead, which doesn’t bother me at all because about the only thing that was good about the three prequels was Darth Maul’s fighting style (which I guess we won’t see him repeat since the stunt actor who did it must have retired). Also Jar Jar Binks, whose contribution to star wars lore by setting up a plausible theory that he was a Sith Lord is probably the only good cultural contribution of the three prequels. But I digress! One aspect of this movie that pissed me off was the way it implies Han started the rebellion by giving the hyperfuel to the tween girl in the groovy mask. In a universe of trillions of people over billions of planets, why does every single thing that affects the history of the universe have to hang on the actions of just four people? Can things be maybe slightly less incestuous? (And on a related note, the idea that Rey’s parents are nobodies is a ridiculous joke. There’s no way an American franchise is going to let that happen). So overall this movie was light, bearable fun. But I think it says something about Disney and modern American entertainment culture that a movie written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard, set in a classic science fiction setting like this, would be just “light, bearable fun,” and that we are satisfied with this because at least he didn’t massively fuck it up.

Which brings me to my conclusion about these three documentaries on America’s cultural decline. What has happened to the production of cultural stuff in America that three movies set in three basically failsafe genres can be so shit that “bearably not fucked up” is our new standard of excellence? And why is it that they can’t make anything original anymore? Almost every action sci-fi now is a super hero movie from the same dumb universe, with no original thought put into any of them. I think the only original movie I have seen in the past three years was Atomic Blonde, and almost everything else has been either a remake, a fixture in an existing franchise or setting, or a sequel. What has happened in the past 30 years that the industry that produced Star Wars, Rambo, Aliens, Robocop, Last of the Mohicans, and that insanely cool Charles Bronson movie about the dude whose dog dies, cannot now produce a single original or interesting movie, and can’t make even half-decent movies in the genres and franchises it already has at its disposal? What’s going on in America now that what was once its powerhouse of cultural production has become so incredibly lame? And what will replace it?

Yesterday a group of US politicians who cannot control guns threatened to regulate Facebook.

During his testimony, representatives showed Mark Zuckerberg a picture of one of the fake news items that had been circulated on Facebook during the election, and asked him what he was going to do to stop this kind of material being circulated. Now, I may be a little wet behind the ears but I had always been led to believe that America valued free speech – that the country even had some kind of thing in its constitution protecting free speech – but apparently this idea goes out of the window where Facebook is concerned.

Organizations that have not yet been held accountable in the way Facebook was yesterday include Twitter, Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting, or the New York Times. And somehow the leaders of Cambridge Analytica have also escaped harsh questioning by these sudden defenders of democracy. Why only Facebook? Presumably if Rupert Murdoch took the stand he could be shown a picture of some of the bullshit his channel broadcasts daily, and asked what he was going to do to stop it. Alex Jones, obviously, constantly broadcasts bullshit and yet hasn’t been told to stop it or face regulation. So why Facebook?

Facebook is at its heart a form of content provider that enables ordinary citizens to present their opinions to all their friends and associates at once, without anyone outside those groups being able to see or know. Twitter, Fox News, the Young Turks, all these organizations are publicly viewable, so that if they say something bad about someone or broadcast lies everyone sees it. But with Facebook, only your friends and the people you choose to address get to see it. Sure Mark Zuckerberg and his evil wizards see it but they don’t care. One important group of people who do not get to see it are our political representatives and leaders. They don’t know what’s going on out there in the wilds of Facebook, they can’t monitor it. Sure, they can pay a company like Cambridge Analytica to use that to their advantage but fundamentally Facebook removes content provision and debate from the grip of organizations like Fox News, CNN, or any organizations connected to any political donors. In the 2016 election it may have helped Republicans (and Russia), but there’s no guarantee that it will always be a powerful tool just for evil. And there’s no guarantee that only Russia will stay out of future elections. What if China decides to weigh in on the Democratic side in the next elections? Facebook is a wild card precisely because it liberates our voices from mass media. It also offers another powerful tool that scares governments – the power of spontaneous organization. This power is already being deployed by left wing organizations in America, and it’s not something that politicians will ever be comfortable.

China has a version of Facebook called Wechat, and the Chinese government is terrified of it. They maintain tight controls over it – one could say they regulate it, to use a term that America’s representatives understand – to ensure it can’t be used for wildcat demonstrations, to spread dissent, or to provide information the government doesn’t control. Of course the Chinese government got in at the development stage and now see it as a useful tool for monitoring public dissent and keeping track of public opinion, but they also keep a careful eye on everything that goes on there, because they don’t want it being used in the way that Facebook could be – to spread information the government can’t see and can’t address.

It’s probably a safe rule for life that if Republicans decide they want to regulate something, they’re not doing it in the best interests of ordinary people. Seeing these politicians rounding on Zuckerberg, you have to think that they aren’t attacking Facebook because they’re concerned about our privacy, but because they realize this tool is out of their control, and they’re scared of its huge potential to break the stranglehold of a few rich donors on the dissemination of information in America. Yes, Facebook needs to tighten up its privacy rules and be more responsible about how it handles data. But the election wasn’t stolen by Facebook alone, and censorship and regulation of Facebook is not the solution to this problem. It’s a rare occasion when a politician wants to censor things out of a genuine sense of social responsibility – they have too much skin in the game. What we saw yesterday was not a group of brave politicians taking on a huge monopoly to protect our privacy. It was a bunch of tyrants who want to shut down our freedom to disseminate information in an uncontrolled and unmonitored way.

Don’t let them!

The media this week are exploding with news that a company called Cambridge Analytica used shadily-obtained Facebook data to influence the US elections. The data was harvested by some other shady company using an app that legally exploited Facebook’s privacy rules at the time, and then handed over to Cambridge Analytica, who then used the data to micro-target adverts over Facebook during the election, mostly aimed at getting Trump elected. The news is still growing, and it appears that Cambridge Analytica was up to a bunch of other shady stuff too – swinging elections in developing countries through fraud and honey-traps, getting Facebook data from other sources and possibly colluding illegally with the Trump campaign against campaign funding laws – and it certainly looks like a lot of trouble is deservedly coming their way.

In response to this a lot of people have been discussing Facebook itself as if it is responsible for this problem, is itself a shady operator, or somehow represents a new and unique problem in the relationship between citizens, the media and politics. Elon Musk has deleted his company’s Facebook accounts, there is a #deleteFacebook campaign running around, and lots of people are suggesting that the Facebook model of social networking is fundamentally bad (see e.g. this Vox article about how Facebook is simply a bad idea).

I think a lot of this reaction against Facebook is misguided, does not see the real problem, and falls into the standard mistake of thinking a new technology must necessarily come with new and unique threats. I think it misses the real problem underlying Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to micro-target ads during the election and to manipulate public opinion: the people reading the ads.

We use Facebook precisely because of the unique benefits of its social and sharing model. We want to see our friends’ lives and opinions shared amongst ourselves, we want to be able to share along things we like or approve of, and we want to be able to engage with what our friends are thinking and saying. Some people using Facebook may do so as I do, carefully curating content providers we allow on our feed to ensure they aren’t offensive or upsetting, and avoiding allowing any political opinions we disagree with; others may use it for the opposite purpose, to engage with our friends’ opinions, see how they are thinking, and openly debate and disagree about a wide range of topics in a social forum. Many of us treat it as an aggregator for cat videos and cute viral shit; some of us only use it to keep track of friends. But in all cases the ability of the platform to share and engage is why we use it. It’s the one thing that separates it from traditional mass consumption media. This is its revolutionary aspect.

But what we engage with on Facebook is still media. If your friend shares a Fox and Friends video of John Bolton claiming that Hilary Clinton is actually a lizard person, when you watch that video you are engaging with it just as if you were engaging with Fox and Friends itself. The fact that it’s on Facebook instead of TV doesn’t suddenly exonerate you of the responsibility and the ability to identify that John Bolton is full of shit. If Cambridge Analytica micro target you with an ad that features John Bolton claiming that Hilary Clinton is a lizard person, that means Cambridge Analytica have evidence that you are susceptible to that line of reasoning, but the fundamental problem here remains that you are susceptible to that line of reasoning. Their ad doesn’t become extra brain-washy because it was on Facebook. Yes, it’s possible that your friend shared it and we all know that people trust their friends’ judgment. But if your friends think that shit is reasonable, and you still trust your friend’s judgement, then you and your friend have a problem. That’s not Facebook’s problem, it’s yours.

This problem existed before Facebook, and it exists now outside of Facebook. Something like 40% of American adults think that Fox News is a reliable and trustworthy source of news, and many of those people think that anything outside of Fox News is lying and untrustworthy “liberal media”. The US President apparently spends a lot of his “executive time” watching Fox and Friends and live tweeting his rage spasms. No one forces him to watch Fox and Friends, he has a remote control and fingers, he could choose to watch the BBC. It’s not Facebook’s fault, or even Fox News’s fault, that the president is a dimwit who believes anything John Bolton says.

This is a much bigger problem than Facebook, and it’s a problem in the American electorate and population. Sure, we could all be more media savvy, we could all benefit from better understanding how Facebook abuses privacy settings, shares our data for profit, and enables micro-targeting. But once that media gets to you it’s still media and you still have a responsibility to see if it’s true or not, to assess it against other independent sources of media, to engage intellectually with it in a way that ensures you don’t just believe any old junk. If you trust your friends’ views on vaccinations or organic food or Seth Rich’s death more than you trust a doctor or a police prosecutor then you have a problem. Sure, Facebook might improve the reach of people wanting to take advantage of that problem, but let’s not overdo it here: In the 1990s you would have been at a bbq party or a bar, nodding along as your friend told you that vaccines cause autism and believing every word of it. The problem then was you, and the problem now is you. In fact it is much easier now for you to not be the problem. Back in the 1990s at that bbq you couldn’t have surreptitiously whipped our your iPhone and googled “Andrew Wakefield” and discovered that he’s a fraud who has been disbarred by the GMA. Now you can, and if you choose not to because you think everything your paranoid conspiracy theorist friend says is true, the problem is you. If you’re watching some bullshit Cambridge Analytica ad about how Hilary Clinton killed Seth Rich, you’re on the internet, so you have the ability to cross reference that information and find out what the truth might actually be. If you didn’t do that, you’re lazy or you already believe it or you don’t care or you’re deeply stupid. It’s not Facebook’s fault, or Cambridge Analytica’s fault. It’s yours.

Facebook offers shady operatives like Robert Mercer the ability to micro-target their conspiracy theories and lies, and deeper and more effective reach of their lies through efficient use of advertising money and the multiplicative effect of the social network feature. It also gives them a little bit of a trust boost because people believe their friends are trustworthy. But in the end the people consuming the media this shady group produce are still people with an education, judgment, a sense of identity and a perspective on the world. They are still able to look at junk like this and decide that it is in fact junk. If you sat through the 2016 election campaign thinking that this con-artist oligarch was going to drain the swamp, the problem is you. If you thought that Clinton’s email practices were the worst security issue in the election, the problem is you. If you honestly believed The Young Turks or Jacobin mag when they told you Clinton was more militarist than Trump, the problem is you. If you believed Glenn Greenwald when he told you the real threat to American security was Clinton’s surveillance and security policies, the problem is you. If you believed that Trump cared more about working people than Hilary Clinton, then the problem is you. This stuff was all obvious and objectively checkable and easy to read, and you didn’t bother. The problem is not that Facebook was used by a shady right wing mob to manipulate your opinions into thinking Clinton was going to start world war 3 and hand everyone’s money to the bankers. The problem is that when this utter bullshit landed in your feed, you believed it.

Of course the problem doesn’t stop with the consumers of media but with the creators. Chris Cillizza is a journalist who hounded Clinton about her emails and her security issues before the election, and to this day continues to hound her, and he worked for reputable media organizations who thought his single-minded obsession with Clinton was responsible journalism. The NY Times was all over the email issues, and plenty of NY Times columnists like Maureen Dowd were sure Trump was less militarist than Clinton. Fox carefully curated their news feed to ensure the pussy-grabbing scandal was never covered, so more Americans knew about the emails than the pussy-grabbing. Obviously if no one is creating content about how terrible Trump is then we on Facebook are not able to share it with each other. But again the problem here is not Facebook – it’s the American media. Just this week we learn that the Atlantic, a supposedly centrist publication, is hiring Kevin D Williamson – a man who believes women who get abortions should be hanged – to provide “balance” to its opinion section. This isn’t Facebook’s fault. The utter failure of the US media to hold their government even vaguely accountable for its actions over the past 30 years, or to inquire with any depth or intelligence into the utter corruption of the Republican party, is not Facebook’s fault or ours, it’s theirs. But it is our job as citizens to look elsewhere, to try to understand the flaws in the reporting, to deploy our education to the benefit of ourselves and the civic society of which we are a part. That’s not Facebook’s job, it’s ours. Voting is a responsibility as well as a right, and when you prepare to vote you have the responsibility to understand the information available about the people you are going to vote for. If you decide that you would rather believe Clinton killed Seth Rich to cover up a paedophile scandal, rather than reading the Democratic Party platform and realizing that strategic voting for Clinton will benefit you and your class, then the problem is you. You live in a free society with free speech, and you chose to believe bullshit without checking it.

Deleting Facebook won’t solve the bigger problem, which is that many people in America are not able to tell lies from truth. The problem is not Facebook, it’s you.

 

Not what you remember

There’s a moment in Netflix’s The Mist that I think summarizes the rot at the core of modern American TV and cinema. The main characters are Eve and Kevin Copeland, a preposterously young couple with a teenage child, who seem like a nice enough couple though they are struggling with the conflict between Eve and her daughter. At one point near the beginning of the series Kevin’s brother visits them, and we discover something about Eve. It turns out Eve used to be a slut – the town bike, as it were – and Kevin’s rough older brother was a member of the group that she used to hang with. Nothing is made clear, but it is implied pretty strongly that she has slept with Kevin’s older brother. After the brother leaves Eve is unsettled, and so when Eve and Kevin are having sex she demands that he fucks her as roughly as he can. This is funny because the sex they’re having before then is super gentle, and his “hard” fucking is pretty average, but we’re meant to believe that he’s being super rough. Anyway when it’s done there is an air of dissatisfaction, and he asks her “what was that about”, and she does that stupid thing that girls in American movies do where she’s obviously upset about something but pretends everything’s okay.

The upshot of this scene is very clear: that women who sleep around a lot are bad people with problems; that these problems never really go away; that women who like being fucked hard must be sluts with problems; and that to want to be fucked hard is bad.

The executive producer of The Mist was Harvey Weinstein. It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that a TV show produced by a serial rapist and sexual harasser would have a scene that carefully boils down every misogynist idea about women who enjoy sexual freedom into a mess of accusations, but some people seem to be surprised that the kind of movie world that could produce this scene would be occupied by people like Harvey Weinstein. At the time that his predations became public knowledge and the #metoo movement started there was a general upsurge of shock at both the banality of predatory behavior in Hollywood, and the extent to which that predatory behavior was enabled and supported by so many people. For people on the right this manifested as a kind of jaded relief, a sense of “oh look these liberal Hollywood types don’t believe in any of this equality stuff, it’s just a pose they adopt to appear cool to each other.” For the rest of us, and especially for mainstream media critics, there was an atmosphere of surprise at how “liberal” Hollywood was actually a nasty network of sexual predators and bullies, its supposedly famous values of liberal tolerance and equality betrayed by its own members.

I wasn’t surprised by any of this, because I’ve never seen Hollywood as “Liberal”, and I’ve always thought a lot of its politics was pretty dire, most especially its sexual politics.

We see the same thing in the reactions to fan disappointment over the Last Jedi. I have read many articles now in Vox, the Guardian and the Washington Post about how this reaction is partly due to fanboys being disappointed in the “diversity” on display in the movie (i.e. there are two female leaders and a couple of non-white characters), and the idea that this focus on diversity distracted from the production values of the movie (or something – I can’t quite figure out how these points are supposed to link together). This has been a controversy since The Force Awakens and Rogue One, both of which featured strong female leads, and we also saw it with the Ghostbusters remake and the latest Mad Max. I think these debates, rather than being a sign of how “liberal” Hollywood is, are really a sign of how incredibly conservative it is and has been. Consider movies and tv shows like Ghost in the Shell, Gunnm, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Appleseed, Bubblegum Crisis, and pretty much any early work from Studio Ghibli. These are all movies from the 1980s and 1990s in Japan, and female leads were a routine part of that world. Nobody questioned whether Major Kusanagi, Alita, Nausicaa or Deunan had a right to be where they were, and nobody thought diversity killed those movies – female leads in Japanese sci fi and fantasy are a pretty standard part of the picture (and this isn’t limited to anime – consider Library Wars, the recent excellent live action Gintama, or Attack on Titan as examples of live action movies with important female characters in main parts). But in America in 2017 the decision to cast a single woman in a lead role, or to have a team of women doing a job, is controversial and a sign of political correctness gone mad. If Hollywood is being castigated for finally doing something Japan was doing in the 1980s, I think we can say it’s not very forward thinking.

Hollywood’s diversity problem is not the only example of its persistent inability to be anything except thoroughly reactionary. Here are some others.

  • The lesbian always dies: It’s pretty reliable that if there is a lesbian character in a major movie or drama, she’s either a fucked up person or she dies, or both. Usually she’s in a couple and the other one survives to suffer the grief, but one has to die. This fate also often befalls the fat chick, or the gay dude (it will probably not come as a surprise that the “gay” dude in the Mist is a psychopath, or that I guessed this in the first episode simply because of his implied sexuality)
  • Black dudes are always a stereotype: The dragon in Mulan, the black dude who briefly surfaced in Angel, almost every character Eddie Murphy has ever played … they’re almost always a stereotype, either a gangster or a magical negro. Despite the fact that a sizable proportion of American people are black, and they have been clamouring for better representation forever, it is impossible for an American movie maker to portray one in a sensitive way, except perhaps in a character piece about slavery or oppression
  • Sluts are always bad: If you are a woman who has lots of sex for fun, you are either psychopathic or severely emotionally damaged. Eventually you’ll grow out of it but you’ll never forget it
  • The goth secretly wants to be normal: See for example the horrible betrayal at the end of The Breakfast Club, which is a model for how alternative sub-cultures are treated in Hollywood
  • All women come by being fucked: And it would be completely impossible to show a woman getting licked. True love means that two people can come together and instantly have perfect sex just by fucking, and no man wants to lick a woman, and no woman cares to be; though women love to suck dick, usually on their knees. This is particularly infuriating because there’s a whole branch of American feminist criticism of porn that says it’s an unrealistic depiction of sex, but at least in porn the women actually get licked and the men actually enjoy doing it! It’s also really frustrating in Sex and the City, which is supposed to be about how the main female characters are completely empowered, but every sex scene I saw in the one episode I watched was them selflessly sucking cock
  • America’s latest geopolitical concern is your enemy: Something really jarring in Blade Runner 2049 was the casual insertion of Russian into everyday scenes. There was no Russian in the original, and no hint that Russia was relevant. Why? Because now Russia is a big geopolitical issue for America. It’s not only pathetically insecure, and it doesn’t just make every movie dated, but it also shows really obviously that Hollywood serves primarily to manufacture propaganda for the US as a whole, not to tell interesting independent stories. You can see this in so many action movies, that the enemy du jour is simply whoever happens to be in the American political consciousness at the time. Pathetic.
  • They cannot cover Global Warming: In Blade Runner 2049 it was snowing in Los Angeles. How can it be snowing in California in 2049? We know that is not going to happen! In almost every movie set in the near future in America, global warming is not depicted – it doesn’t form the theme of the movie but it doesn’t figure in the backdrop either. Florida is unchanging despite global warming, and if the weather enters into it it will be weird but it won’t be warmer. This wasn’t always the case – Soylent Green is set in a warmer world – but it is now. Hollywood will not touch the political realities of the future or of America now, only the fantasies Americans have about themselves. America produces a bunch of disaster movies every year, and none of them ever cover anything caused by global warming. Of course global warming is politically controversial in America (and only in America) – so Hollywood simply won’t touch it.
  • Guns are wonderful: Every American movie with even a hint of action has a gun fetish. There is a very simple truism of previews at movies in Japan: If it’s a live action Japanese movie, someone in the preview cries; if it’s a live action American movie that isn’t a rom-com or a human drama, everyone pulls a gun. This wasn’t always the case – watch old episodes of Knight Rider (haha) or CHIPS (hahaha) and you won’t see anyone – even the cops! – wield a gun. But now guns are fetishized. Top tip for people considering whether this is good or bad: guns are not cool, and you can enjoy action without them. See e.g. anything made in the UK, and Jackie Chan.
  • Violence against women is casual, brutal, and full frontal: There are so many crime movies on American TV, and in so many of them women get treated horribly. There is even a very long-running show about a team of cops that only deal with sex crimes (featuring Ice T as a cop, haha show us your principles Ice T!). And in recent movies especially killing women in horrible ways that are shown fully for our viewing pleasure is a real thing. If you look back at the original Blade Runner, for example, the sex scene between Deckard and Rachel is very very rapey, and it really didn’t have to be. This kind of thing is a feature of Hollywood movies
  • The criminal is often a woman: In a lot of the crime shows the murderer often turns out to be a woman, which is likely way above the actual probability that a murderer would be a woman (they’re almost always men). I think this happens because the directors want a twist, and the obvious twist in a crime show is that the killer wasn’t the dude you thought he was. But it’s interesting that when violence against women is too excessive the film makers will argue they’re being honest; but when they could be honest about how almost all murderers and sex criminals are men, they suddenly plead fantasy. It’s as if every single aspect of the film making process is set up to make women look bad!
  • Workplace sexual harassment: This is especially common (though not limited to) TV shows, where women in the workplace routinely get subjected to comments about their gender and their sexuality, jokes about dating co-workers, and suggestive comments about what they should be doing. The really disturbing thing about this is that the jokes are not presented as transgressive, or risque – they’re just facts of the workplace. Is this what it’s like to work as a woman in America? Or is Hollywood just trying to remind women they shouldn’t really be there?
  • Everyone’s home is perfect: Even people on minimum wage have perfect houses. While you, you peon, live in shit. Do you feel like a loser now?
  • Whitewashing: Do I even need to say anything on this topic?

This isn’t even the whole of it. But when you put all of these things together what you are really seeing when you watch material from Hollywood is often an intense barrage of reactionary ideas, combined with a wilful resistance to some of the core challenges facing modern society, and a stubborn refusal to look at the ways that the world has changed. For example, Hollywood in general absolutely will not allow any ideas from pornography into its sex scenes. Sex scenes in major movies in Hollywood have not changed since Sarah Connor and Kyle Rees came together in sudden intense love in Terminator (though that scene was way more consensual than some others I guess). Thirty years later and still it is simply impossible for Hollywood to update its love scenes. We all know that everyone’s watching porn, but nobody in Hollywood will admit to the fact that sex is about more than dicks in cunts. This is just one example of the many ways in which this image factory is still stuck in the 1850s.

We in the rest of the world put up with this, and of course we watch our own cinema which has its own problems and its own reactionary issues, its own humour and its own misogyny, so it’s not like anyone is perfect. But the difference is that nobody in Australia wastes time claiming Australia’s movie scene is relentlessly liberal, then feigns shock when it turns out that the dudes making all these rapey creepy shows were actually sexual harassers. It’s a uniquely American problem that everyone thinks Hollywood is liberal, when it’s really really not.

So don’t be surprised when the people who make this destructive shit turn out to be destructive shits; and don’t buy into all this hype about representation and diversity. Hollywood is not your liberal friend, and because Hollywood is not liberal and not feminist and not interested in equality at all, it has attracted power hungry shits like the Weinsteins. That doesn’t mean we have to credit this industry with being a force for good, even as we pay to watch what it produces. It produces images of America for America, and I really hope America is not as conservative and reactionary as the images it produces, but one thing you can be certain of is that those images are not intended to support any radical ideals – quite the opposite.

Hollywood is not your liberal friend.

UPDATE: Dr. Monnat has left a comment pointing out that I made a major error in reading her methods (I assumed she used non-standardized rates but in the methods she specifies that she did). So I have removed one criticism of her paper and modified another about regression. This doesn’t change the thrust of my argument (though if Dr. Monnat is patient enough to engage with more of my criticisms, maybe it will!)

Since late 2016 a theory has been circulating that Donald Trump’s election victory can be related to the opioid epidemic in rust belt America. Under this theory, parts of mid-West America with high levels of unemployment and economic dislocation that are experiencing high levels of opioid addiction switched votes from Democrat to Republican and elected Trump. This is part of a broader idea that America is suffering an epidemic of “deaths of despair” – deaths due to opioids, suicide and alcohol abuse – that are part of a newfound social problem primarily afflicting working class white people, and the recent rapid growth in the rate of these “deaths of despair” drove a rebellion against the Democrats, and towards Trump.

This theory is bullshit, for a lot of reasons, and in this post I want to talk about why. To be clear, it’s not just a bit wrong: it’s wrong in all of its particulars. The data doesn’t support the idea of a growing death rate amongst white working class people; the data does not support a link between “deaths of despair” and Trump voting; there is no such thing as a “death of despair”; and there is no viable explanation for why an epidemic of “deaths of despair” should drive votes for Trump. The theory is attractive to a certain kind of theorist because it enables them to pretend that the Trump phenomenon doesn’t represent a deep problem of racism in American society, but it doesn’t work. Let’s look at why.

The myth of rising white mortality

First let’s consider the central framework of this story, which is the idea that mortality rates have been rising rapidly among middle-aged whites in America over the past 20 years, popularized by two economists (Case and Deaton) in a paper in PNAS. This paper is deeply flawed because it does not adjust for age, which has been increasing rapidly among white Americans but not non-white Americans (due to differential birth and migration patterns in earlier eras). Case and Deaton studied mortality in 45-54 year old Americans, differentiating by race, but failed to adjust for age. This is important for surprising reasons, which perhaps only epidemiologists understand, and we’re only figuring this out recently and slowly: ageing is happening so fast in high-income countries that even when we look at relatively narrow age categories we need to take into account the possibility that the older parts of the age category have a lot more people than the younger parts, and this means that even the small differences in mortality between say 53 year olds and 45 year olds can make a difference to mortality rates in the age category as a whole. If this seems shocking, consider the case of Japan, where ageing is so advanced that even five year age categories (the finest band of age that most statistical organizations will present publicly) are vulnerable to differences in the population. In Japan, the difference in the size of the 84 year old population to the 80 year old population is so great that we may need to adjust for age even when looking at narrow age categories like 80-84 years. This problem is a new challenge for epidemiologists – we used to assume that if you reduce an analysis to a 10 or 15 year age category you don’t need to standardize, because the population within such a band is relatively stable, but this is no longer true.

In the case of the Case and Deaton study the effect of ageing in non-hispanic white populations is so great that failure to adjust for it completely biases their results. Andrew Gelman describes the problem  on his blog and presents age-adjusted data and data for individual years of age, showing fairly convincingly that the entire driver of the “problem” identified by Case and Deaton is age, not ill health. After adjustment it does appear that some categories of white women are seeing an increasing mortality rate, but this is a) likely due to the recent growth of smoking in this population and b) not a likely explanation for Trump’s success, since he was more popular with men than women.

White people are dying more in America because they’re getting older, not because they have a problem. I happen to think that getting older is a problem, but it’s not a problem that Trump or anyone else can fix.

The myth of “deaths of despair” and Trump voting

Case and Deaton followed up their paper on white mortality with further research on “deaths of despair” – deaths due to opioid abuse, suicide and alcohol use that are supposedly due to “despair”. This paper is a better, more exhaustive analysis of the problem but it is vulnerable to a lot of basic epidemiological errors, and the overall theory is ignorant of basic principles in drug and alcohol theory and suicide research. This new research does not properly adjust for age in narrow age groups, and it does not take into account socioeconomic influences on mortality due to these conditions. But on this topic Case and Deaton are not the main offenders – they did not posit a link between “deaths of despair” and Trump voting, which was added by a researcher called Shannon Monnat at Pennsylvania State University in late 2016. In her paper, Monnat argues for a direct link between rates of “deaths of despair” and voting for Trump at the county level, suggesting that voting for Trump was somehow a response to the specific pressures affecting white Americans. There are huge flaws in this paper, which I list here, approximately in their order of importance.

  • It includes suicide: Obviously a county with high suicide mortality is in a horrible situation, which should be dealt with, but there is a big problem with using suicide as a predictor of Trump voting. This problem is guns. Uniquely among rich countries, the US has a very high prevalence of gun ownership and guns account for a much larger proportion of suicides in America than elsewhere – more than half, according to reputable studies. And unfortunately for rural Americans, the single biggest determinant of whether you commit suicide by gun is owning a gun – and gun ownership rates are much higher in counties that vote Republican. In America suicide is a proxy for gun ownership, not “despair”, and because gun-related suicide depends heavily on rates of gun ownership, inclusion of this mortality rate in the study heavily biases the total mortality rate being used towards a measure of gun ownership rather than despair.
  • It uses voting changes rather than voting odds: Like most studies of voting rates, Monnat compared the percentage voting for Trump with the percentage voting for Romney in 2012. This is a big flaw, because percentages do not vary evenly across their range. In Monnat’s study a county that increased its Republican voting proportion from 1% to 2% is treated exactly the same as a county that went from 50% to 51%. In one of these counties the vote doubled and Trump didn’t get elected; in the other it increased by 2% but Trump got elected. It’s important to account for this non linearity in analysis, but Monnat did not. Which leads to another problem …
  • It did not measure Trump’s success directly: In a first past the post electoral system, who wins is more important than by how much. Monnat used an ordinary least squares model of proportions voting Trump rather than a binomial model of Trump winning or losing, which means that meaningless small gains in “blue” states[1] had the same importance as small gains in “red” states that flipped them “blue”. This might not be important except that we know Trump lost the popular vote (which differences in proportions measure) but won the electoral college (which more closely resembles binary measures of win/lose). Not analyzing binary outcomes in a binomial model suggests you don’t understand the relationship between statistics and the political system you live in, i.e. your analysis is wrong.
  • It did not incorporate turnout: A 52% win for Trump can reflect two things – a change in attitude by 2% of the voters, or a non-proportionate increase in the number of people who chose to turn out and vote. If you analyze proportions (or differences in proportions) you don’t account for this problem. In addition, you don’t adjust for the overall size of the electorate. If you analyze proportions, an electorate where 52 people voted Trump and 48 people voted Clinton is given the same weight as an electorate where 5200 people voted Clinton and 4800 people voted Trump. If you use a proper binomial model, however, the latter electorate gets more weight and is implicitly treated as more meaningful in the assessment of results. A reminder of what is fast becoming a faustusnotes rule: the cool kids do not use ordinary least squares regression to analyze probabilities, we always use logistic regression.
  • It did not present the regression results: Although Monnat reports regression results in a footnote, the main results in the text are all unadjusted, even though in at least some states the impact of economic factors appears to eliminate the relationship with mortality rates. Given that people who own guns are much much more likely to vote Republican, and the main predictor variable here incorporated suicide, adjustment for gun ownership might have eliminated the effect of “deaths of despair” entirely. But it wasn’t done as far as I can tell, and wasn’t shown.
  • It did not adjust for trends: Monnat openly states in the beginning of the paper that “deaths of despair” have been rising over time but when she conducts the analysis she uses the average rate for the period 2006-2014. This means that she does not consider the possibility that mortality has been dropping in some counties and rising in others. A mortality rate of 100 per 100,000 could reflect a decline over the period 2006-2014 from 150 to 50 (a huge decrease) or an increase from 25 to 175. We don’t know, but it seems likely that if “deaths of despair” is an issue, it will have had more influence on electoral decisions in 2016 in counties where the rate has risen over that time than where it has declined. There are lots of policy reasons why the death rate might have increased or decreased, but whether these reflect issues relevant to Republican or Democrat policy is impossible to know without seeing the distribution of trends – which Monnat did not analyze[2].

So in summary the study that found this “relationship” between “deaths of despair” and voting Trump was deeply flawed. There is no such relationship in the data[3].

There is no such thing as a “death of despair”

This study has got a fair bit of attention on the internet, as have the prior Case and Deaton studies. For example here we see a Medium report on the “Oxy electorate” that repeats all these sour talking points, and in this blog post some dude who fancies himself a spokesperson for ordinary America talks up the same issue. The latter blog post has some comments by people taking oxycontin for pain relief, who make some important points that the “deaths of despair” crew have overlooked. To quote one commenter[4]:

I too am a long time chronic pain sufferer and until I was put on opiate medications my quality of life was ZERO. I’ve heard horror stories of people actually being suicidal because they can no longer deal with the constant pain. It took me two years before I realized I could no longer work as an account manager with a major telecom company. I was making decent money but leaving work everyday in pain. I finally started going to a pain management doctor who diagnosed me with degenerative disc disease. I had to go on medical leave and now am on SSDI. My doctor prescribed me opiates in the fall of 2006 and I’ve been on them ever since. I have to say, I totally AGREE with you. I don’t know how I would be able to manage without these medications. At least I’m able to clean my house now and now without being in horrible pain. I don’t know what I would do if suddenly I was told I could no longer be prescribed opiates.
Who is someone that will champion those of us who legitametly need these medications? Do we write to our senators?? I sure hope Trump takes into consideration our cases before kicking us all to the curb!

This person (and others) make the valid point that they are taking pain medication for a reason, and that they were in despair before they got hooked on opioids, not after. Unfortunately for these commenters, we now have fairly good evidence that opioids are not the best treatment for chronic pain and that they are very, very dangerous, but regardless of whether this treatment is exactly the best one for these patients they make the valid point that it is the treatment they got and it works for them. To use an Americanism, you can take the opioids from their cold dead hands. In stark contrast to other countries, a very large proportion of America’s opioid deaths are due to prescription drugs, not heroin, reflecting an epidemic of overdose due to legally accessible painkillers. It’s my suspicion that these painkillers were prescribed to people like the above commenter because they could not afford the treatment for the underlying cause of their pain, because America’s healthcare system sucks, and these people then became addicted to a very dangerous substance – but in the absence of proper health insurance these people cannot get the specialist opioid management they deserve. America’s opioid epidemic is a consequence of poor health system access, not “despair”, and if Americans had the same health system as, say, Frenchies or Britons they would not be taking these drugs for more than 6 months, because the underlying cause of their condition would have been treated – and for that small minority of pain patients with chronic pain, in any other rich country they would have regular affordable access to a specialist who could calibrate their dose and manage their risks.

The opioid death problem in America is a problem of access to healthcare, which should have been fixed by Obamacare. Which brings us to the last issue …

There is no theory linking opioid addiction to voting Trump

What exactly is the theory by which people hooked on oxycontin are more likely to vote Trump? On its face there are only two realistic explanations for this theory: 1) the areas where oxycontin is a huge problem are facing social devastation with no solution in sight, so vote for change (even Trump!) in hopes of a solution; or 2) people who use drugs are arseholes and losers. Putting aside the obvious ecological fallacy in Monnat’s study (it could be that everyone in the area who votes for Trump is a non-opiate user, and they voted Trump in hopes of getting the druggies killed Duterte-style, but the data doesn’t tell us who voted Trump, just what proportion of each area did), there are big problems with these two explanations even at the individual level. Let’s deal with each in turn.

If areas facing social devastation due to oxycontin are more likely to vote Trump, why didn’t they also vote Romney? Some of these areas were stronger Obama voters in 2012, according to Monnat’s data, but opioid use has been skyrocketing in these areas since 2006 (remember Monnat used averages from 2006-2014). The mortality data covers two election cycles where they voted Obama even though opioid deaths were rising, and suddenly they voted Trump? Why now? Why Trump and not Romney, or McCain? It’s as if there is something else about Trump …

Of course it’s possible that oxycontin users are racist arseholes – I have certainly seen this in my time working in clinics providing healthcare to injecting drug users – but even if we accept such a bleak view of drug users (and it’s not true!) the problem with this theory is that even as opioid use increases, it remains a tiny proportion of the total population of these areas. The opioid users directly cannot swing the election – it has to be their neighbours, friends and family. Now it’s possible that a high prevalence of opioid use and suicide drives people seeing this phenomenon to vote Trump but this is a strange outcome – in general people vote for Democrats/Labour in times of social catastrophe, which is why they voted Obama to start with – because he promised to fix the financial crisis and health care. There has to be some other explanation for why non-opioid using people switched vote in droves to Trump but not Romney. I wonder what it could be?

American liberals’ desperate desire to believe their country is not deeply racist

The problem is, of course, that Trump had a single distinguishing feature that no one before him in the GOP had – he was uniquely, floridly racist. Since the election this has become abundantly clear, but for Donnat writing in late 2016 I guess it still seemed vaguely plausibly deniable. But the reality is that his single distinction from all other GOP candidates was his florid racism. Lots of people in America want to believe that the country they live in – the country that just 150 years ago went to war over slavery, and just 50 years ago had explicit laws to drive black people out of the economic life of the nation – is not racist. I have even recently seen news reports that America is “losing its leadership in the movement for racial equality.” No, dudes, you never showed any leadership on that front. America is a deeply racist nation. It’s racist in a way that other countries can’t even begin to understand. The reason Trump won is that he energized a racist base, and the reason his approval remains greater than 30% despite the shitshow he is presiding over is that a large number of Americans are out-and-out fascists, for whom trolling “liberals” and crushing non-whites is a good thing. That’s why rural, gun-owning Americans voted for Trump, and if the data were analyzed properly that fact would be very clear. Lots of people in America want to believe second- or third-order causes like the rustbelt or opioids, but the reality is staring them in the face: it’s racism. Don’t blame people with chronic pain, blame people with chronic racism. And fix it, before the entire world has to pay for the vainglorious passions of a narrow swathe of white America.


fn1: I refuse to take the American use of “blue” and “red” seriously – they get scare quotes until they decide that Republicans are blue and Democrats are red. Sorry, but you guys need to sort your shit out. Get proper political colours and get rid of American Football, then you’ll be taken seriously on the world stage. Also learn to spell color with a “u”.

fn2: I’m joshing you here. Everyone knows that Republicans don’t give a flying fuck if an electorate is dying of opioid overdoses at a skyrocketing rate, and everyone knows that the idea that Republicans would offer people dying of “deaths of despair” any policy solutions to their problem except “be born rich” is a hilarious joke. The only possible policy intervention that could have helped counties seeing an increasing opioid death rate was Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and we know republicans rejected that in states they controlled because they’re evil.

fn3: Well, there might be, but no one has shown it with a robust method.

fn4: I’m such a cynic about everything American that I really hope this commenter isn’t a drug company plant…

I have just finished reading Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, by John Pfaff. This book describes the growth of mass incarceration in the United States and describes a set of reform policies to reduce the prison population. In itself this is not unusual – the book takes as its launching point the political consensus in the USA that there is a need to “decarcerate” a large number of people – but this book presents a completely different set of causes of mass incarceration to the accepted story, and lays out a very different strategy for achieving real change. It also argues that the existing reform effort, while valuable, may actually sow the seeds of a long term failure to decarcerate, and risks normalizing a political framework that will be disastrous if crime rises again in America.

Pfaff defines the accepted causes of mass incarceration as the “Standard Story,” which argues that mass incarceration is driven primarily by three factors: the war on drugs[1], excessively long sentences, and private prisons. In the first few chapters he demolishes this story succinctly and using detailed statistics. Only 16% of all prisoners are in prison for drug crimes, and of these a large proportion probably were charged on drug crimes as an easier alternative to conviction for violent crimes; and releasing all of these prisoners would do almost nothing to shift the racial disparities in incarceration, because these disparities are universal. Indeed, since 1990 only 14% of new prison admissions were due to drug use, while 60% were for violent crimes. He then presents a wide range of evidence that prison sentences have not actually increased in length over the past 30 years in the USA: Increased prisoner numbers are due to increased admissions, not larger number of prisoners hanging around longer. Finally, Pfaff drags out the statistics on private prisons, to show that only 8% of US prisoners are in private prisons; and he argues that the lobbying efforts of private prisons are tiny compared to the lobbying efforts of prison guard associations, and from other interests that have greater influence in the zero-sum funding environment of state financing decisions in the USA (most private prison lobbying happens at the state level, where a dollar given to one interest is necessarily a dollar not given to another). In fact, throughout this book Pfaff regularly revisits the power of prison guard associations and lobby groups for prosecutors, and regularly makes the point that the USA’s mass incarceration problem is a catastrophe entirely wrought by public agencies on the public purse. Private prisons in the US might suck, and you might think it’s a bad or a weird idea, or that profiting from human misery is nasty, but they aren’t the cause of the problem.

Having demolished the “Standard Story”, Pfaff then goes on to explain what he thinks are the real causes of incarceration in the USA, which is a complex mish-mash of bad design, lack of political accountability, and public choices, against a backdrop of rapidly increasing crime rates. At the core of his story is the prosecutor. Prosecutors in the USA are the equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service in the Westminster system, but they are radically different from the CPS. They are generally elected in county (local) elections, and funded at this level, so they are answerable to only local political forces. They have complete discretion as to who to charge, how and with what crime, and they typically are supported by a police force that is funded at the county level. Prosecutors typically are always re-elected, and no incumbent ever suffers from being too harsh on crime. But the real problem is in two aspects of the deployment of their considerable discretion: Whether to charge for misdemeanour or felony, and what plea bargain to make. If a prosecutor charges someone with a felony, that person goes to prison (not jail! The US has some kind of weird distinction!) – but prisons are funded by the state, not the county. This means that there is no financial pressure on them not to send people to prison. But it is the state that makes the laws, and at the state level there is often political pressure to create new laws and increase maximum penalties for those laws. So in recent times the prosecutor has been gifted with a wide range of potential felonies that they can threaten suspects with, that carry very large maximum penalties that are unlikely to be enacted by the judge but sound terrifying to the suspect. This means that it is very easy for prosecutors to get suspects to make plea deals for low level felonies, and there is no local pressure for them not to, but at the next election they are most likely to be judged for successfully putting felons away. This increasing freedom and power has occurred at a time when numbers of prosecutors have increased rapidly, and public defenders – the service that the government supplies to suspects – are massively underfunded and often barely have the time to meet their clients, let alone to help them defend their case. Prosecutors are also notoriously defensive about their work, there is almost no data on what they do, and their representative organizations have enormous clout. These are almost always the people whose perspective you see on shows like Law and Order, Major Crimes, etc.: they are the completely unconstrained and unmonitored heroes of the judicial system, and in the past 30 years the proportion of all cases that they decide to recommend for felony charges has doubled, at the same time as the number of prosecutors has doubled, and crime rates have risen. This, Pfaff argues, is the root cause of the growth of mass incarceration.

But beyond this, Pfaff identifies a much more challenging and much more politically challenging aspect of the growth of mass incarceration, which is going to be very difficult to reverse. Most people in US prisons are in prison for real, serious crimes: 60% of the growth in prisoner numbers since 1990 was due to people imprisoned for violent crimes, and people convicted of the most serious violent crimes (murder, manslaughter, forcible sexual assault, aggravated assault and robbery) take up a disproportionately large amount of prison space and prison time. Seriously reducing the US prison population is going to require that the US voter be comfortable with releasing these prisoners, and being less harsh on violent criminals in future. This is a very politically challenging project, and lies at the core of the reform process: If the US criminal justice system doesn’t find a way to deal differently with violent criminals, the prison population will never significantly decline. To his credit Pfaff makes a powerful and clear argument that from a human rights and a law enforcement perspective, more lenient sentences and better policing are the key to reducing crime and mass incarceration. I find his argument persuasive, but then I would, wouldn’t I? And if you don’t, then you have to accept that the US is going to have a very large number of prisoners, much larger than most other countries, and there is no solution to this problem.

Pfaff goes further, to point out that much of the rhetoric of the prison reform movement is antithetical to this ultimate goal. Many prison reform efforts are pushed as efforts to release low-level prisoners to make space for those who “truly deserve prison”, and even if this balance is not stated explicitly it is implicit in the argument that prison should be for violent crime. America is experiencing a period of declining violent crime at present, but if that should reverse then this logic of reform will be hard to reverse, and it will be hard to argue for more lenient sentences for violent criminals after years of arguing that prison is what these people deserve. Pfaff also points out that the last 10 years of prison reform efforts – which he argues have been supported by all sides of politics in the US – have shown very limited effect, and that this is primarily because they are focusing on a very small proportion of the US prison population (first time drug offenders) and that they need to move from these “low hanging fruit” to the real drivers of prison growth – and those who really suffer in this system – violent offenders.

Within this story there is a lot of other material to consider – this book is a short and well written work with a rich vein of material to consider. It certainly changed my view of the drivers of mass incarceration in the USA and the real reforms it needs. It also shocked me with how callous the US criminal justice system is, and how shambolic. In contrast to the UK, Japan or Australia, where the prison, police and legal systems are all relatively well organized around a single structure that coordinates well, the US system is fragmented and full of perverse incentives, all corrupted by the horrors of having public servants like prosecutors elected at the county level (shudder!) Pfaff also consistently returns to a discussion of how damaging prison is for inmates, their families and the communities they are drawn from, reminding the reader regularly that prison is a destructive experience for everyone involved, and he also reminds the reader regularly of the US electorates’ appetite for punishment. But the real challenge of this book is his focus on the need to treat violent offenders differently. He even challenges the concept of “violent offenders”, arguing that we should refer to them as “people who committed violent crimes”, and argues compellingly that our attitude to violent crime is completely wrong. This struck me because although I’m generally in favour of not sending people to prison for all the reasons Pfaff describes, I am just as prone as anyone else to demanding people be locked up (e.g. that was my first response to the Grenfell Tower fire) or to thinking a sentence isn’t harsh enough (as if I, someone who has never been to prison or spent any time as a free adult anywhere I didn’t want to be, could possibly comprehend whether a three year sentence is any less harsh than a five year sentence!). And Pfaff’s argument is pretty clearly that probably I, and most of the rest of us, have got it completely wrong on prison sentences – that a suspended sentence or a year or two is probably just as good a deterrent as five or ten years, but has significantly less social and economic cost.

If I had any complaints about this book it would be that although he talks about race a little he doesn’t go into a discussion of race in depth, a problem in the American context. Also, although he repeatedly describes the lack of financial disincentives to county prosecutors sending prisoners to state prisons, Pfaff doesn’t seem to draw the obvious extra lesson here – that county prosecutors might have strong disincentives to send people to county jails, which have much less serious ramifications for their inmates than state prisons. In avoiding a full confrontation with the issue of race, and not fully drawing out all the implied pressures on prosecutors, Pfaff manages to miss the obvious possible extension argument underlying the points he makes: that a lot of prosecutors may well be cruel, racist arseholes, and that a root-and-branch reform of the entire prosecutorial system may be in order. But this is a common problem when confronting Americans’ assessments of their own problems, whether its Bernie Sanders or the gun control movement or Black Lives Matter: The American political system is rotten to its core, and it is going to take a lot more than a few piecemeal changes to parts of it to fix the huge problems lurking at its base. We’ve just passed the 4th July, so it’s probably worth reminding my American reader(s): you could ask the UK to take you back, you know. For all its flaws, the UK’s democracy is vastly superior to yours. You’ll have to give up your guns and you may have to learn to shut up occasionally, but in exchange you’ll get a functioning democracy. Think about it!

Anyway, jokes aside, this is a great book, a truly enlightening exposition of one of America’s great problems. If you are interested in drug decriminalization and have always assumed that this issue is at the heart of America’s prison problems, or if you are generally concerned about the way America needs to reform its criminal justice system to become a better country, then this book is a must read. It’s well written, well argued, dry but not exhausting, and compassionate towards the people at the core of the story: the prisoners, who by now are a large proportion of America’s population. If you care about the human rights of all people, regardless of what you might think of their worth as individuals, then this book is a compelling read. I recommend it to anyone interested in this important topic.


fn1: this is often characterized on the left and by libertarians as “the war on (some classes of people) who use (some classes of) drugs” but this book makes it very clear that the prejudice in the criminal justice system extends across the board, and that singling out one class of crimes (drug crimes) as a cause of racial disparities in incarceration won’t work, because the same racial disparities exist across all laws.