I finally got around to seeing the “Black Panther” movie Tuesday. I’ve been black nearly seven decades. My blackness does not require affirmation from the Disney/Marvel Comics Universe, where Tony Stark is a greedy Pentagon contractor, where Captain America is a genetically modified organism, where the Wakandan king and the wannabe king both work with/for the CIA, and where Daredevil’s pals (season 1 episode 4) note that investigative reporting on “teachers union scandals” is as personally perilous as crossing the Mafia.
For those of us aiming to build a better world, this movie is nothing short of enemy propaganda.
In the “Black Panther” movie, all the Wakandan players are royalty, their counselors, their advisers or their rivals. All the strikingly beautiful and capable Wakandan women take orders from men. The only unambiguous good guy is the Frodo-looking CIA agent. The homicidal Killmonger character is calculated to sully the very notion of black rebellion against unjust authority, while Pan Africanism and humanism are defecated upon from multiple angles. Cinematic bar fights, car chases and battle scenes are a dime a dozen, and worst of all, Wakanda isn’t even rendered in any visually inspiring way.
The movie disrespects its audience and is a standing insult to science fiction and afro-futurism. As Dr. Jared Ball points out, we can’t just go make and market another movie to compete with this one. Disney/Marvel Studios put tens of millions into the promotion of this thing alone, and for now, millions of people are buying their message. That’s called cultural hegemony.
Those who would drink from this nasty water for “affirmation” and “black joy” must be deeply, desperately thirsty. And evidently, thirst confuses before it kills.
The only good thing I got from this movie was the motivation to look for and find some real, respectful, challenging and innovative science fiction and afro-futurism, preferably written by some black women to wash the rancid taste of Marvel’s superhero-industrial complex from the inside of my head.
I wasn’t going to record this commentary for Black Agenda Radio. Originally it was a Facebook post, but it generated such a response that it deserved a life outside of corporate social media.
Because Black Agenda Report is equally critical of Republicans and Democrats, because as black leftists we consistently oppose capital, patriarchy, empire, the black political class and the bipartisan war machine we are the only black-oriented media outfit alleged by The Washington Post and Prop Or Not to be under the evil influence of the Russians. Google and other corporate social media have targeted Black Agenda Report in order to restrict your access to our content. If I, Glen Ford or Margaret Kimberley or Ajamu Baraka or Black Agenda Report was temporarily or permanently banned from Facebook, all our posts and their comments would disappear. Facebook claims all posts as its private property. And even if they don’t ban us, it can be extremely difficult to find a Facebook post or a tweet more than a day or two old.
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“Crisis actor” conspiracy theories claim that various mass shootings and other public tragedies are staged by the powers that be, and that you can tell this because some of the same faces keep coming up when the media cover the crime scenes. The idea has taken off yet again in the wake of the Parkland massacre, with assorted yo-yos declaring that the survivors who have been all over TV for the last week are actually paid actors. As always, some of those yo-yos hold more prominent positions than you’d guess from the common but misleading stereotype of the conspiracy theorist as an unemployable crackpot in his mom’s basement. Notably, an aide to a Florida state representative lost his job this week after claiming that two of the Parkland teens “are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis [sic] when they happen.”
For some pundits, this isn’t merely a reminder that people are capable of believing bizarre stories that are based on only the thinnest alleged evidence. The pundits worry that the rumor represents a breakdown in the media ecosystem. ThinkProgress‘ story, to pick one representative example, announces in its lede that these crisis-actor tales “have spread like wildfire across social media platforms—despite the repeated promises of Big Tech to crack down on fake news.” The author circles back to that idea at the end, arguing that “the viral spread of the ‘crisis actor’ theory, along with other recent examples of highly-shared fake content, shows that [Facebook] is still ripe for misinformation and exploitation.”
How ripe? The piece notes that one Facebook post touting the theory has gotten more than 110,000 shares, and that some of the videos promoting the idea have been “viewed tens of thousands of times.”
We do not know how many of those 110,000 shares were trolls or bots, those crisis actors of the online world. Nor do we know how many people watched one of those videos because they were inclined to believe it, how many watched because they were inclined to laugh at it, and how many just turned it off after 30 seconds. Most importantly, ThinkProgress doesn’t do anything to contextualize those numbers. MSNBC posted a video yesterday of one of the Parkland students reacting disdainfully to the idea that he’s an imposter; as I type this, that’s been viewed 94,000 times. That is also in the “tens of thousands,” though I suppose we don’t know how many of those viewers believe what they’re hearing either. (The student himself suggests that the conspiracy theorists are just trolls, and that they’re ultimately helping rather than hurting his anti-gun cause.)
I probably follow more weirdos on Twitter than most people do, and in my feed the overwhelming majority of tweets mentioning crisis actors have denounced, debunked, or just made fun of the theories. Of course it’s possible that I just follow a better class of weirdo, so I did a Twitter search for “crisis actors” to see what sort of cross-section of opinion would appear. Of the first 30 tweets that came up, two-thirds were putting down the idea. I did the same on Facebook both Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, and I got roughly the same results, with a slightly higher percentage knocking or mocking the idea on the second day.
I also noticed that several (though not all) of the Facebook posts promoting the idea were getting pushback in the comments. So this isn’t just a matter of conversations taking place in separate bubbles. Actual arguments were underway.
Now, I know very well that those are not scientific samples. I’m not going to make any grand claims here about how many people have embraced or rejected the rumor. But what I saw does at least reinforce what common sense would suggest: that widespread discussion of a bizarre belief is not the same as widespread support for a bizarre belief. That is especially true when you remember three more things:
1. Many of the people who believe the crisis-actor theory—I suspect almost all of them—are already predisposed to believe tales like this. In an earlier era, with an earlier weird rumor, they may well have whispered the story to each other in person.
2. Social media tend to make marginal ideas more visible. But this increased visibility does not always go hand in hand with increased popularity, and you should not mistake one for the other.
3. Most people still get more news from TV than from social media, and TV coverage of the crisis-actor thesis has been overwhelmingly critical of the concept. Indeed, just about all the mainstream coverage has been overwhelmingly critical of the idea. With that extra boost, there’s a strong chance in this case that criticisms of the rumor have been more viral than the original rumor.
The idea that the crisis-actor story is replicating unchallenged in some endless cancerous pattern may play to people’s anxieties about social media. For some, it may also play to the pleasures of highlighting the most idiotic arguments on the other side. (Debating whether a vast conspiracy is hiring kids to pose as crime victims is probably more fun than debating whether the assault weapon ban worked.) But out there in the actual internet, people are knocking these crisis-actor stories down. And the process of knocking it down is probably happening much more quickly now than in the days when such rumors unfolded in more private spaces.
Chadwick Boseman (left) and Lupita Nyong’o star in “Black Panther,” the Marvel film about a monarch and superhero who hails from the fictional country Wakanda, an African tech-utopia that has never been conquered and is uniquely rich.
A certain socially conscious apprehension can come with popular art that’s expected to be groundbreaking or revolutionary. Black Panther arrives freighted with the highest of expectations. Here’s the Marvel movie even non-Marvel fans are prepared to root for, the rare black superhero film, one boasting not only an almost all-black cast but helmed by a black director as well. The stakes are higher, here, than just the fate of the Marvel Universe: What if it sucks? What if it flops? What would that mean for the future of diversity studio tent poles?
It’s a great relief to confirm that Black Panther is genuinely worth rooting for, a clear standout on Marvel’s roster — and certainly on track for box-office success. It’s only Ryan Coogler’s third feature — and an ambitious leap from his impressive 2013 debut, Fruitvale Station, and his critically acclaimed Rocky franchise entry, Creed (2015) — but Black Panther is executed with the confidence of a far more experienced filmmaker. Coogler and his team have conjured a universe and fleshed out its players, one existing (honestly, thriving) in the even bigger cinematic universe that is Marvel. It’s a case of the right story landing in the right hands. As with Creed, Coogler again freshens up a stale formula, making something familiar not just relevant but urgent. (Case in point: When Black Panther’s sister roasts his traditional sandals with a three-years-late joke based on the “What are those?” meme, before gifting him with high-tech sneakers, the line is delivered with such earnest glee that it doesn’t even feel out of touch.)
Chadwick Boseman plays King T’Challa, a/k/a the Black Panther, a monarch and superhero who hails from the fictional country Wakanda, an African tech-utopia that has never been conquered and is uniquely rich. The source of its material wealth is a Marvel-magic resource called vibranium. This Edenic world is fully realized onscreen thanks to Hannah Beachler’s paradisiacal production design and Ruth E. Carter’s traditional-meets-futuristic costume design. And it’s captured by Coogler’s Fruitvale Station director of photography, Rachel Morrison, who just made history by becoming the first woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for her work on Dee Rees’s Mudbound. Morrison is adept not just at superhero spectacle but at illuminating and photographing, for clarity and beauty, the skin tones of a cast full of actors of color that includes rising newcomers and veterans like Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker.
At first, thanks to a cleverly deceptive storyline, Black Panther may lead you to believe the big battle will involve defeating the caricature-like evil white guy, Ulysses Klaue, played by Andy Serkis, appearing in his human form rather than through motion capture, with a good dash of Eurotrash. Klaue is an arms dealer whose trickster ways lead T’Challa and his squad of women on an undercover mission to a Busan, South Korea, casino — and a fight sequence more 007 than Marvel. Watching the female warriors fight together — the general Okoye (Danai Gurira), spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and T’Challa’s tech-savvy younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) — I couldn’t help but think how the three would justify a Charlie’s Angels reboot. Black Panther goes full Fast and Furious in the car chase that follows, on the streets of the practically undrivable Busan, where the alleys are narrow and the foot traffic busy. As T’Challa ditches his exquisitely tailored jacket for his Black Panther suit and starts climbing neon-coated buildings with feline ease, the women, clad in fancy gowns and barefoot-driving at electric speed, step up to the spotlight.
Their screen time marks the best parts of the film. At times, the actresses’ charisma overwhelms Boseman’s. That’s partly in character, as T’Challa is a king who thinks of and serves his people, the kind of monarch who puts the kingdom first. In that regard, Black Panther is smart to give equally exhilarating fighting scenes for the Dora Milaje (Wakanda’s female bodyguards) as it does for Black Panther himself. Newcomer Wright, especially, is a revelation — she’s got the spunk, the punch lines, the outfits, and the heart.
Boseman’s star power is further tested when Serkis’s storyline is cast aside to make room for the actual villain — Klaue’s sycophant Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who not only nearly steals the throne, but also steals the show. Jordan, who has starred in all of Coogler’s features, is a magnetic presence, and is portrayed with such a refreshing departure from the cartoonish Klaue. Like all the best antagonists, Killmonger has an agenda we can empathize with (he wants to avenge his father’s death), and his arrival in Wakanda inspires the nation to question how they’ve been so private with their riches, living comfortably without helping other oppressed black people throughout history. Coogler gives the villain’s backstory as much thought as the protagonists’; at one point, I even wondered if the big twist was that Jordan’s Killmonger would actually prove to be the rightful heir to the throne. Because the character has depth, the big fight at the end — as Wakandans face off against one another — never feels senseless or trivial.
Still, Boseman is an actor with a lived wisdom on his face, fit for the role of this king-slash-superhero. Written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther brings grounded history — in Black History Month, no less — to a fantastical story, carefully considering the world in which the characters reside. There are generations of consequences at play here, and T’Challa must make weighted political decisions — for his people, for other black people outside Wakanda, for the world. Just as Spider-Man’s uncle famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” T’Challa, too, is told by his father: “It’s hard for a good man to be king.”
Black Panther Directed by Ryan Coogler Walt Disney Pictures Opens February 16
Last fall, Katherine Mangu-Ward and I participated in a widely attended and watched debate about “capitalism” with the socialist editors of Jacobin magazine (you can watch it right here and you can listen as a podcast). Actually, to be fully accurate, I should say the Jacobin folks thought we were debating latecapitalism.
That’s the preferred term to describe what the hard left believes are the final days of private property, free enterprise, wage labor, and all the epiphenomena related to what Marx called capitalism. I first encountered late capitalism (the phrase, not the supposed objective reality) when I started graduate school for literary studies in 1988. Almost everyone assumed that the Cold War would be resolved in favor of the Soviets and communism. When that turned out to be way off, many academics switched to using advanced capitalism, which got most of the opprobrium across without betraying too much teleological optimism.
When the Great Recession hit, late capitalism came back into vogue. Finally, markets and economies were collapsing all around the globe, comrades! And yet…here we are, a decade or so later and capitalism is still doing pretty well. To be sure, it’s nowhere near perfect, but what economic historian (and Reason contributing editor) Deirdre McCloskey calls “the Great Enrichment” proceeds apace, with fewer and fewer people living in what the U.N. calls “extreme poverty.” As everyone except Pope Francis will tell you, that’s because of free-er trade and more (not fewer) markets. As Ronald Bailey has documented, higher levels of economic freedom correlate strongly with longer lives, less disease, better environmental indicators, and even higher rates of life satisfaction.
Communists, socialists, progressives, and critics ranging from Fredric Jameson to Bernie Sanders to Thomas Frank to Naomi Klein to Hans Magnus Enzenberger continue to marvel at and grouse about the ways in which capitalism “absorbs” economic and philosophical challenges, “commodifies” them, and then keeps on truckin’. Capitalism’s genius, it turns out, is a form of repressive tolerance that, as economist Joseph Schumpeter observed, brought more and more stuff to more and more people. “The capitalist achievement,” he wrote, “does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls.”
Or, to put it in slightly different terms, capitalism allows more people to express themselves through work and live relatively high on the hog. Which brings to me three examples torn from today’s headlines that show why capitalism persists—and why that’s not a bad thing at all.
1. Sports Illustrated’s #MeToo Swimsuit issue. What do you do with a classically sexist excresence of capitalism such as Sports Illustrated‘s annual “swimsuit issue” in an era of heightened sensitivity? You commodify your dissent (“SI swimsuit models celebrate more than just their bodies”), even if that means devoting pages to women wearing no bathing suits at all:
2. “Girl Scout sells 300 boxes of cookies outside pot dispensary.” Well, of course she did! The nine-year-old entrepreneur, who isn’t being named, sold about 50 boxes an hour by showing up outside a San Diego pot store, according to her father. And to its credit, the Girl Scouts organization is cool with it all.
FFS, even communists are getting with the program: Young Pioneer Tours, a company that takes its name from (mandatory) youth groups in Russia, China, Cuba, and elsewhere, markets its trips to the former Soviet Union, North Korea, and elsewhere as “group tours for people who hate groups.”
Wikipedia3. Awful musician Jimmy Buffett is not only not living hand-to-mouth, but is insanely wealthy. If you’re lucky, you only know one song by the bard of “parrotheads,” 1977’s ode to alcoholism, “Margaritaville.” Better yet, you know no songs by Buffett, whom, as Eric Cartman observes in a South Park episode, “nobody likes…except frat boys and alcoholic chicks from the South.” As The New York Times reports, though, Buffett is worth around $550 million and presides over a growing empire of bars and casinos, has a Broadway show based on his music, and owns more houses than he can keep track of (though it goes unmentioned, Buffett is also a prolific author). Under what other economic system could something like this happen without pillage and plunder? Although I call him an “awful musician” (hey, I’ve listened to Last Mango in Paris) one of the things that is great about capitalism is that my tastes (or yours, for that matter) don’t get to dictate anything other than what I consume. Capitalism is the application of classical liberal principles to economics, so pluralism and diversity are the rule, not the exception. People who like Jimmy Buffett can dine at Margaritaville restaurants, catch his show on Broadway, and read his books. And the rest of can avoid him like the plague. That’s an outcome all of us should be able and willing to live with.
So three cheers for capitalism, which enables free expression, social and commercial innovation, and generally rising standards of living. It’s not perfect, but it beats the alternatives.
Taxpayers got soaked again when the National Football League (NFL) picked Minneapolis to host this year’s Super Bowl. The city had to negotiate against the NFL’s 153 pages of specifications, which include 35,000 free parking spaces within one mile of the stadium, shouldering the cost of providing police and emergency services, and priority over all other city snow removal in case of a major storm.
No matter who wins the Super Bowl, the 2017-2018 football season will be remembered for headlines about off-field issues, from how it treats concussed players to whether those players stand or kneel for the national anthem. Yet public subsidies for the sport and its annual championship game are often glossed over. That should change.
People who care about the NFL’s role in society—and taxpayers who care where their money is spent—should question the generous government support lavished on the NFL and its teams. Money that is spent on football stadiums could instead provide safer neighborhoods, better schools, improved infrastructure, or enhanced access to health care in their local communities.
The NFL and team owners often shakedown taxpayers by threatening to relocate a beloved team. By design, these threats create bidding wars between municipalities fighting over limited franchises. Faced with the threat of being remembered as the hapless losers who cost a city its beloved hometown team, mayors, city councils, governors and state legislatures all too often respond by offering lucrative “inducement payments.” That’s exactly what happened in Minnesota, where NFL commissioner Roger Goodell personally warned state lawmakers in 2012 that the Vikings could skip town if the team didn’t get a new stadium.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated, “I know [Chargers owner] Dean Spanos and his family did everything they could to try to find a viable solution in San Diego.” Forbesestimates that the Spanos Family is worth $2.4 billion, which should raise questions about whether they actually did “do everything they could.”
The stadium deal has been a financial disaster for the county. In 2011, 16.4 percent of Hamilton County’s expenditures were related to the Bengals’ stadium. That is money that could have been spent on police, schools, roads, hospitals, parks, trash collection, and other city services. Inevitably, the Bengals have already started talking about leaving Cincinnati when their stadium lease ends in 2026.
Glendale, Arizona, finds itself in a similar bind. Local taxpayers paid $308 million towards the $455 million cost of The University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. Today, 40 percent of the city’s budget goes towards retiring stadium debt. Glendale, meanwhile, has trouble hiring police officers and EMTs.
When cities borrow to build stadiums, the interest on those municipal bonds is deductible on investor’s federal income taxes. What is intended as a federal subsidy for local development of long-term infrastructure instead becomes a massive taxpayer gift for team owners. A study from the Brookings Institution showed that since 1990, tax-free municipal bonds have funded 36 NFL stadiums, costing federal taxpayers $1.1 billion, and that federal taxpayers spent a further 2.1 billion to subsidize tax-free municipal bond issuances for other professional sports stadiums.
Outrage over this is a growing bipartisan issue. Republicans and Democrats alike should be disgusted by this corporate welfare that diverts tax money from needed services and taxpayers. In 2017, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) introduced a bill to remove the municipal bond interest deduction for professional sports stadiums; this measure was part of initial GOP tax reform proposals, but was not included in the final law.
NFL owners have far too much power over their local communities, and the primary cause is clear. Since the NFL merged with the American Football League in 1966, the NFL has had federal permission to flaunt anti-trust laws that apply to almost every other industry. Like any other cartel, the NFL maximizes profits by keeping the number of franchises artificially low. With fewer franchises than there are major cities in the US, the NFL can force cities and states into a never-ending cycle of moving and threatening to move, and profit off the response.
Pretend you are the lead detective on a hit new show, “CSI: Terrible Stuff on the Internet.” In the first episode, you set up one of those crazy walls plastered with headlines and headshots, looking for hidden connections between everything awful that’s been happening online recently.
So who is the central villain in this story, the driving force behind much of the chaos and disrepute online?
This isn’t that hard. You don’t need a crazy wall to figure it out, because the force to blame has been quietly shaping the contours of life online since just about the beginning of life online: It’s the advertising business, stupid.
Ads are the lifeblood of the internet, the source of funding for just about everything you read, watch and hear online. The digital ad business is in many ways a miracle machine — it corrals and transforms latent attention into real money that pays for many truly useful inventions, from search to instant translation to video hosting to global mapping.
But the online ad machine is also a vast, opaque and dizzyingly complex contraption with underappreciated capacity for misuse — one that collects and constantly profiles data about our behavior, creates incentives to monetize our most private desires, and frequently unleashes loopholes that the shadiest of people are only too happy to exploit.
And for all its power, the digital ad business has long been under-regulated and under-policed, both by the companies who run it and by the world’s governments. In the United States, the industry has been almost untouched by oversight, even though it forms the primary revenue stream of two of the planet’s most valuable companies, Google and Facebook.
“In the early days of online media, the choice was essentially made — give it away for free, and advertising would produce the revenue,” said Randall Rothenberg, the chief executive of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade association that represents companies in the digital ad business. “A lot of the things we see now flow out from that decision.”
Mr. Rothenberg’s organization has long pushed for stronger standards for online advertising. In a speech last year, he implored the industry to “take civic responsibility for our effect on the world.” But he conceded the business was growing and changing too quickly for many to comprehend its excesses and externalities — let alone to fix them.
“Technology has largely been outpacing the ability of individual companies to understand what is actually going on,” he said. “There’s really an unregulated stock market effect to the whole thing.”
Facebook, which reports its earnings on Wednesday, said its advertising principles hold that ads should “be safe and civil,” and it pointed to several steps it has taken to achieve that goal. “We’ve tightened our ad policies, hired more ad reviewers, and created a new team to help detect and prevent abuses,” said Rob Goldman, the company’s vice president of advertising. “We’re also testing a tool that will bring more transparency to ads running on our platform. We know there is more work to do, but our goal is to keep people safe.”
A spokesman for Google, whose parent company, Alphabet, reports earnings on Thursday, said that it is constantly policing its ad system, pointing out recent steps it has taken to address problems arising from the ad business, including several changes to YouTube.
The role of the ad business in much of what’s terrible online was highlighted in a recent report by two think tanks, New America and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
“The central problem of disinformation corrupting American political culture is not Russian spies or a particular social media platform,” two researchers, Dipayan Ghosh and Ben Scott, wrote in the report, titled “Digital Deceit.” “The central problem is that the entire industry is built to leverage sophisticated technology to aggregate user attention and sell advertising.”
The report chronicles just how efficient the online ad business has become at profiling, targeting, and persuading people. That’s good news for the companies that want to market to you — as the online ad machine gets better, marketing gets more efficient and effective, letting companies understand and influence consumer sentiment at a huge scale for little money.
But the same cheap and effective persuasion machine is also available to anyone with nefarious ends. The Internet Research Agency, the troll group at the center of Russian efforts to influence American politics, spent $46,000 on Facebook ads before the 2016 election. That’s not very much — Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump’s campaigns spent tens of millions online. And yet the Russian campaign seems to have had enormous reach; Facebook has said the I.R.A.’s messages — both its ads and its unpaid posts — were seen by nearly 150 million Americans.
How the I.R.A. achieved this mass reach likely has something to do with the dynamics of the ad business, which lets advertisers run many experimental posts to hone their messages, and tends to reward posts that spark outrage and engagement — exactly the sort that the Russians were pushing.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Mr. Scott said. “Either you have a brilliant technology that permits microtargeting to exactly the people you want to influence at exactly the right time with exactly the right message — or you’re only reaching a small number of people and therefore it couldn’t be influential.”
The consequences of the ad business don’t end at foreign propaganda. Consider all the nutty content recently found on YouTube Kids — not just the child-exploitation clips but also videos that seem to be created in whole or in part by algorithms that are mining the system for what’s popular, then creating endless variations.
Why would anyone do such a thing? For the ad money. One producer of videos that show antics including his children being scared by clowns told BuzzFeed that he had made more than $100,000 in two months from ads on his videos.
YouTube, which is owned by Google, has since pulled down thousands of such disturbing videos; the company said late last year that it’s hiring numerous moderators to police the platform. It also tightened the rules for which producers can make money from its ad system.
Facebook, too, has made several recent fixes. The company has built a new tool — currently being tested in Canada and slated to be rolled out more widely this year — that lets people see the different ads being placed by political pages, a move meant to address I.R.A.-like influence campaigns. It has also fixed holes that allowed advertisers to target campaigns by race and religion. And it recently unveiled a new version of its News Feed that is meant to cut down on passively scrolling through posts — part of Mark Zuckerberg’s professed effort to improve the network even, he has said, at the cost of advertising revenue.
The tinkering continued on Tuesday, when Facebook also said it would ban ads promoting crypto currency schemes, some of which have fallen into scammy territory.
Yet these are all piecemeal efforts. They don’t address the underlying logic of the ad business, which produces endless incentives for gaming the system in ways that Google and Facebook often only discover after the fact. Mr. Rothenberg said this is how regulating advertising is likely to go — a lot of fixes resembling “whack-a-mole.”
Of course, there is the government. You could imagine some regulator imposing stricter standards for who has access to the online ad system, who makes money from it, how it uses private information, and how transparent tech companies must be about it all. But that also seems unlikely; the Honest Ads Act, a proposal to regulate online political ads, has gone nowhere in CongressOne final note: In 2015, Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, warned about the dangers of the online ad business, especially its inherent threat to privacy. I wrote a column in which I took Mr. Cook to task — I argued that he had not acknowledged how ad-supported services improved his own company’s devices.
I stand by that view, but now I also regret dismissing his warning so cavalierly. Socially, politically and culturally, the online ad business is far more dangerous than I appreciated. Mr. Cook was right, and we should have listened to him.
In November, the Washington Post reported on an unexpected outcome of the Kevin Spacey sexual harassment scandal: a textbook example of a man being paid more than a woman for doing the same job. Following Stacey’s firing from the movie All the Money in the World, lead actress Michelle Williams received roughly $1,000 to reshoot scenes, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the $1.5 million paid to supporting actor Mark Wahlberg. Williams and Wahlberg are both represented by the William Morris Endeavor agency, though they have different agents, and director Ridley Scott had previously told USA Today that “everyone did [the reshoots] for nothing,” informational bits that seem to add to the situation’s overall shadiness. For all the exculpatory arguments being floated around the internet (Wahlberg’s agent is the real-life Ari Gold; Williams had a bum contract), a pay difference of 1,500 times remains laughably difficult to justify. Wahlberg donated his reshoot fee to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, along with a statement expressing the kind of sudden interest in gender pay parity frequently sparked by bad press.
The story stands in contrast to Tuesday’s news that actress Jessica Chastain, who is white, used her privilege to help ensure that actress Octavia Spencer, who is black, would receive the pay she deserves but is consistently denied due to racism and sexism. During a panel titled Women Breaking Barriers at the Sundance Film Festival, Spencer described how a conversation about the gender pay gap led to an exchange about the salary advantages white actresses have compared to actresses of color.
“We were dropping F-bombs and getting it all out there,” Spencer joked. “And then I said, but here’s the thing, women of color on that spectrum, we make far less than white women. So if we’re gonna have that conversation about pay equity, we gotta bring the women of color to the table. And I told her my story, and we talked numbers, and she was quiet, and she had no idea that’s what it was like for women of color.”
Chastain suggested they take a “favored nations” approach to salary negotiations on an upcoming comedy project the two will be starring in together. By tying their pay together, the actresses would take home the same paycheck. “Fast-forward to last week,” Spencer said. “We’re making five times what we asked for.”
This is a story that could be horribly misconstrued as a “love see no color” moment in the media, and if it is ever made into a film, Hollywood will surely insist that Sandra Bullock play Chastain. But get beyond whiteness’s reflexive tendency to applaud itself for every millimeter of power willingly given, and there are reasons it’s genuinely noteworthy. Chastain deserves recognition for doing the right thing, and for being the exception that proves the sad rule, unwittingly showing how rarely that happens. As Spencer noted, “People say a lot of things,” but doing is a lot harder. “She’s walking the walk and she’s actually talking the talk,” Spencer said of Chastain. “When it came down to it, she was right there and shoulder to shoulder.”
Performative allyship is always more abundant than action. Whenever a longstanding issue of inequality rises to the level of widespread visibility—meaning the groundswell of horrific stories forces the powerful to recognize what the disempowered have long told them existed—the country enters a period of “national conversation” that rarely goes much beyond words. The trickle-down effect, in terms of substantive corrective actions, can be hard to locate, because all too frequently there’s no there there. What passes for activism is often just virtue theatrics that play well in a society obsessed with optics, but aren’t necessarily aimed at leveling unbalanced playing fields.
It’s been noted again and again that the MeToo movement has overwhelmingly focused on the sexual bullying of white women who have fame and money, while ignoring the daily struggles of the most vulnerable women and non-binary folks. If the women who are calling men out keep failing to call themselves out—or asking men to push for equality while refusing to cede some of their influence—nothing changes. White women’s feminism and advocacy should look like what Chastain did, but it rarely does. We’re left with meaningless hot takes, pussy hats, and Facebook filters. The questions for people who say they want real equity are: what power do you wield and what are you giving up to make that happen? Solidarity is often a top-down matter. Folks on the lower rungs are often overlooked until their fates are linked to those whose presence is given greater value.
In her 2016 memoir, Taraji P. Henson wrote about how she was paid the “equivalent of sofa change” for her Oscar-nominated supporting role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, while Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt received millions. Henson didn’t have the name recognition of her costars at the time, nor the fame she has now, but even with those factors taken into account, the pay disparity seems outlandish given she was a “solid up-and-coming actress with a decent amount of critical acclaim for her work.” She got a low-six-figure deal, the smallest of fractions of her co-stars’ salaries, and was told she’d have to pay for her own hotel accommodations for the three-month shoot.
Henson spells out in her book why the onus is on those with power to speak up:
The math really is pretty simple: there are way more talented black actresses than there are intelligent, meaningful roles for them, and we’re consistently charged with diving for the crumbs of the scraps, lest we starve. I knew the stakes: no matter how talented, no matter how many accolades my prior work had received, if I pushed for more money, I’d be replaced and no one would so much as blink.
Last year, during an interview with Variety, Chastain said she was done “getting paid a quarter of what the male co-star is being paid. I’m not allowing that in my life.” Clearly, she realized it was a declaration that required a concurrent commitment to all the other women in the field to make sure they aren’t subject to starvation economy survival methods. Spencer—who for the record, beat out Chastain in the Oscar’s Best Actress Category—will hopefully receive a pay bump on every film from here on out, though Hollywood’s commitment to sexism and racism make that unlikely. On Twitter, Chastain suggested truly supportive male stars put their money where their mouths are to achieve gender pay fairness. “[Octavia] had been underpaid for so long,” she wrote in the message. “When I discovered that, I realized that I could tie her deal to mine to bring up her quote. Men should start doing this with their female costars.”
Actress Jada Pinkett Smith, speaking at another Sundance talk, drove the point further home. “It’s nice to go out and march. We can do that. It’s nice to wear black at the Golden Globes—it’s nice to do that. But what are we doing behind closed doors? And I’ve got to give our sister Jessica Chastain her props because she stood up for Octavia and put it down. And that’s how we all need to do it for each other.”