The Women’s March Is More About Trump Than About Women

This wasn’t a march for women — this was a march against Trump, marketed toward women.

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Author: Erielle Davidson

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Joker’s Success and the Success of Postmodern Liberalism

Months after the film’s release, we are now enduring Round 2 of the left-elite’s handwringing over Joker, the brilliant origin story of Batman’s arch-nemesis starring Joaquin Phoenix. When the movie came out, there were innumerable columns and tweets lamenting another cinematic glorification of “white male rage,” “toxic masculinity,” and alt-right incel culture. Of course, as more people saw Joker (it grossed over a billion dollars), it quickly became apparent that the film didn’t “glorify” any of those things. Nor was it a defense of Trumpism. Contrary to the suggestions of some critics, there was no misogyny or racism — in fact, one of the only humane characters in the film is a non-white woman who lives down the hall from madman-in-the-making Arthur Fleck.

So why is the legacy media again abuzz about Joker? Only to bemoan the fact that it earned 11 Oscar nominations — more than any film of last year. Personally, I don’t know why anyone gives a damn about the Oscars, which is just one more of the myriad events that Hollywood throws to celebrate itself, usually for making movies that comparatively few people viewed. But for elite figures on the left, the Oscars are especially important. Those people expect that the movies that are nominated and awarded will explicitly or implicitly affirm the woke values and secular progressive commitments that define celebrity culture. The televised broadcast of the awards show is perhaps the central annual advertisement of those values to the broader public. Thus, the media’s satisfaction with the nominees depends mainly on how many of the nominees are women and minorities and whether the films nominated extol the virtues of a globalist progressivism and caution against the dangers of traditional Western mores.

We see this phenomenon in the by-line to Mark Harris’s Vanity Fair piece that disparages the nominees: “Academy voters are more internationally minded now (Go, Parasite! Congrats, Antonio!), but that’s the only thing that feels like progress.” Is that the purpose of the Oscars? To signal a kind of political “progress”? Apparently so, because Harris goes on to lament the tragedy that “Three of the four most-nominated movies — The Irishman, Joker, and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood — are stories about white men who feel culturally imperiled.” Historically, the Oscars have awarded films that depict some aspect of the current cultural moment. Justified or not, the increasingly explicit attacks on white masculinity have made a number of white men feel culturally imperiled. Odd, then, that Harris sees it as the “Academy’s” task to ensure that the depiction of this reality is not rewarded.

Over at Bezos’ Washington Post, Kyle Turner expresses his dismay by griping about how “Joker has nothing to say; seemingly beginning and ending with the idea that edginess is an end in itself. Look past the spectacle, and you’ll get little more than a nonsensical diatribe about … something?” The smart set at Salon agrees: “Joker doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about comic book origin tales or the people who gravitate toward becoming outlandish characters.” Over at Slate, they don’t even ask whether the film means anything. It’s too stupid to bother: “From its dumb yellow title card to its antihero’s dumb delusions of grandeur to its dumb absolute belief in its own transgressiveness, Joker is just as stupid as can be.” Turner’s conclusion is that the movie is sound and fury signifying nothing: “Joker is a dumb enough movie with politics nonspecific enough that by indicting, with skinny wide-open arms, everyone in society, the film basically indicts no one at all, so Oscar voters don’t have to feel implicated.”

There’s only one problem here: usually, journalists don’t usually spend a lot of time writing attack pieces on pointless, meaningless movies that indict no one. Make no mistake: the people complaining about Joker’s Oscar nominations (of all things) are deeply scandalized by this film. And this isn’t because the movie sucks and has nothing to say. On the contrary, there are two groups of critics waging the campaign against Joker: those who viscerally understand Joker’s message and yet deny those themes in the hope that they won’t register with its viewers, and those who cannot grasp the message of the film because they are so used to seeing great films that affirm their worldview that they literally cannot see the message of movies that don’t.

Joker, Self-Interest, and the Social Trust Deficit

What, then, is the message of Joker that has everyone so riled up? Having seen the movie a few times now, I’ve come to view it as something of a companion piece to Patrick Deneen’s recent book, Why Liberalism Failed. Given that Hollywood films are one of the most powerful ways that modern liberal ideology is sustained and reproduced, this may seem an unlikely comparison. Before fleshing out the connection, some summary of Joker is required (spoilers follow).

Arthur Fleck is a slight, gentle man living in an overcrowded, overtrashed Gotham City. He is mentally ill: he has uncontrollable fits of laughter, often untimely ones that occur in highly stressful situations. Arthur attends government-funded mental health counselling and has a government subsidy for the many prescription drugs that help him cope. Most of Arthur’s activity is directed toward bringing joy to others, a mission that his neurotic mother tells him he was born to fulfill. In an effort to fulfill this mission, he works as a party clown — he enjoys making people laugh. His selflessness is also reflected in his willingness to live in a small flat with his mother, working to assuage her own mental difficulties. He is also dipping his toes into the stand-up comedy scene.

In essence, Fleck is a man who feels a deep need for community. But he can’t find it — anywhere. Working as a clown advertising a going-out-of-business sale on the street, Arthur has his sign stolen by street kids, who break it on his face before beating him viciously. In response to this event, a co-worker feigning friendliness gives Arthur a gun “for protection” — a gift that the co-worker later uses to imperil Arthur’s situation at work, ultimately leading to his termination. Cutbacks in public funding result in Arthur losing his access to mental health services: at a final meeting, he comes close to articulating the major cause of his turmoil to his counselor. She interrupts him to tell him about the funding cuts. Pointing out that she never listens to him, he continues to unburden himself. She interrupts again to talk about the cuts, and after telling him that “no one cares” about people like him, she cuts him loose.

Arthur observes a group of young professional men harassing a woman on the train. He diverts their attention from her, and when they begin beating him, he shoots them with the gun from his co-worker. It turns out these men worked for Bruce Wayne’s father, a business magnate who also happens to be running for mayor. As the news media pushes Wayne’s candidacy, citing him as the only man who can clean up Gotham, the media turns the young men into innocent victims of a seething resentment on the part of the lower classes.

The media framing of the killings as an act of class rebellion fuels a popular movement resembling Occupy Wall Street, in which people attend public demonstrations wearing clown masks (as the unidentified killer was said to wear) and carrying signs that say things like “Eat the Rich.” As the film continues, Arthur learns that his mother had lied extensively about his parentage and childhood. Fleck’s comedic hero — a talk show host named Murray Franklin — sees a terribly unfunny video of Arthur doing stand-up and mocks him on his late-night show. After viewers respond positively, Franklin invites Fleck to appear on his program. This leads to the film’s climax when Fleck debuts as “Joker” on television.

The message here — the one that left-wing commentators can’t see or won’t acknowledge — is that the carnage that fills the film’s final minutes is a logical consequence of a social order that actively undermines communal bonds and obligations. Fleck’s mental illness seems to stem from the fact that he needs community and he is punished every time he seeks it. He is the victim of a radical deficit of societal trust. He can’t trust people on the street and he can’t trust co-workers. He can’t trust his counselor whose obligations to care only extend as far as the city budget. He can’t trust the media who make martyrs out of the men who attacked him and misrepresent his motives in lashing out. And further, the media foments class outrage at the same time as it openly promotes the political prospects of a man who embodies class privilege. He learns he can’t trust his mother. Finally, he learns he can’t even trust his own fantasies of camaraderie when his hero mocks him on national television.

As he is interviewed by Murray Franklin, Joker confesses that he killed the men on the train. As they discuss this on live television, Murray attempts to understand the act as a part of the class riot raging in the streets outside: “I think I might understand that you … did this to start a movement? To become a symbol?” Joker’s response is compelling: “Come on, Murray. Do I look like the kind of clown who could start a movement? I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.” These lines on their own are enough to stoke the ire of any critic on the left: not only does Joker dismiss and diminish the class rage animating the public protests, he subtly suggests that anyone who could start such a mass movement is a “clown.” One is left to wonder: if the film endorsed the boilerplate criticism of the “1%” and the inherent virtue of the “99%,” would the critics have been able to find a theme here?

Liberal Freedom and the Dissolution of Community

This brings us back to Deneen’s book. Conservatives may feel some enthusiasm at the mere title: Why Liberalism Failed. But it is important to understand that Deneen doesn’t use the term liberalism in the same way that it gets used on Fox News. He refers to both the mainstream American left and the mainstream American right as successors to the tradition of classical liberalism: in short, liberalism (in its modern iteration) is the only game in town: both the left and the right agree that the major objective of the political order is to secure individual freedom. They only differ in how they envision the fully liberated citizen.

In practice, Deneen suggests that the liberal order seeks to free the individual by dissolving any of the obligatory duties and associations that might otherwise constrain him from living whatever type of life he chooses to live. People’s lives, liberal ideology contends, cannot be determined by the desires or interests of family, their options cannot be circumscribed by poverty or childcare, and the satisfaction of their desires cannot be restricted by collective norms or values. Deneen further observes that this “depersonalization” is primarily achieved via two means: the state and the market.

Interestingly, the total lack of human connection observed in Joker in intricately connected to the state and the marketplace. The state-funded health care system seeks to make Fleck self-sufficient — able to live independently, so that he isn’t a burden to others. Of course, this “independent living” is understood largely as one’s fitness for the labor market, and participation in that market is a validation of the economic order. “Freeing” Arthur from dependence on caregivers beyond the state apparatus ensures that when the state defaults on its commitment to care for Arthur, he has no one else he can depend on. And it’s important to note that this default is caused by the susceptibility of the state to the vicissitudes of the market: they run out of money. Of course, his situation wasn’t much better when he still had his counselor: as a representative of the state, her willingness to provide care is contingent upon her personal compensation. She understands her public work simply as a means to private economic gain.

These contradictions are again evident in the public protests against the rich: the protest itself is an expression of a communal bond — a mass consciousness. But the basis of the protesters’ communal sensibility is the shared sense that market inequities have rendered them incapable of maximizing their personal autonomy. Thus, they (together) push for economic adjustments that will provide a greater self-sufficiency, which in turn will ensure that they don’t have to depend on any communal ties for their well-being. They all wear the same clown mask that liquidates each protester’s personal identity and fuses them as a collective. Ironically, the goal of their protest is to ensure that the market will enable them to exist independently as individuals, freed from the obligations that community requires.

Deneen goes on to explain that “Liberalism begins a project by which the legitimacy of all human relationships […] becomes increasingly dependent on whether those relationships have been chosen, and chosen on the basis of their service to rational self-interest.” Such an order ensures that “personal relationships become dominated by considerations of individual choice based on the calculation of individual self-interest, and without broader consideration of the impact of one’s choices upon the community, one’s obligations to the created order, and ultimately to God.”

Joker’s achievement lies in its imagining of the man produced by a society that successfully annihilates any obligation the individual has to anyone else and any obligation that anyone else might have to the individual. Thus, the film is a kind of prophecy — it shows liberals a portrait of liberalism’s culmination. A world that is, in a word, de-humanized. As Deneen states repeatedly in his book, liberalism failed because it was too successful: true freedom requires a community that limits the sphere of individual action. But the amazing success of liberalism in dissolving every kind of personal obligation to something beyond the self ensures that the very preconditions for a liberal society are demolished. Joker is the story of a gentle man who finally learns the key lesson of liberalism and is broken by it: that total autonomy to pursue self-interest not only frees one from obligations to others, it frees others from any obligation to you. Arthur Fleck’s conversion to Joker is a chronicling of his path to becoming the man that liberalism ultimately calls for him to be. In the end, the film is a rejection of the idea that radical autonomy and “freedom” (as jointly articulated by the state and the “free” market) is a desirable outcome.

Given that radical personal autonomy remains the ultimate end of contemporary leftism, it’s no wonder that Joker’s Oscar nominations have brought howls from observers of the “Academy.” It is an attack on the entire worldview of Western secular elites. In the face of such a powerful statement, it makes sense that the objects of the critique insist that film has nothing to say. Joke’s on them.

Adam Ellwanger is a professor at the University of Houston – Downtown, where he studies rhetoric and public discourse. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released by Penn State University Press in the spring. Contact him at adamellwanger@gmail.com

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Author: Adam Ellwanger

ICANN Needs To Ask More Questions About the Sale of .ORG

Over 21,000 people, 660 organizations, and now six Members of Congress have asked ICANN, the organization that regulates the Internet’s domain name system, to halt the $1.135 billion deal that would hand control over PIR, the .ORG domain registry, to private equity. There are crucial reasons this sale is facing significant backlash from the nonprofit and NGO communities who make the .ORG domain their online home, and perhaps none of them are more concerning than the speed of the deal and the dangerous lack of transparency that’s accompanied it. 

Less than three months have passed from the announcement of the sale—which took the nonprofit community by surprise—to the final weeks in which ICANN is expected to make its decision, giving those affected almost no chance to have a voice, much less stop it. The process so far, including information that the buyer, Ethos Capital, provided to ICANN in late December, raises more questions than it answers. U.S. lawmakers are correct that “the Ethos Capital takeover of the .ORG domain fails the public interest test in numerous ways.”

Before any change in who operates the .ORG registry can take place, ICANN, which oversees the domain name system, needs to answer important questions about the deal from those who use .ORG domain names as the foundation of their online identity. Working with the nonprofit community, we’re asking ICANN to ask more questions to confirm how the deal will protect .ORG users—questions that are still unanswered. And next week, on January 24th, nonprofits and supporters will protest at ICANN’s headquarters in Los Angeles. You can join us to tell ICANN that it must be more than a rubber stamp.

RSVP

Tell ICANN: Nonprofits Are Not For Sale

A Dangerous Deal

The Internet Society (ISOC)—which has controlled .ORG for the past 16 years—and Ethos Capital are treating the .ORG registry as an asset that can be bought and sold at will. But ISOC didn’t pay to acquire the .ORG registry—indeed, PIR, the organization that was founded by ISOC to run .ORG was given $5 million to help it do so. Now, ISOC plans to profit off of the value of the registry by converting PIR into a for-profit LLC in the hands of Ethos Capital.

ICANN delegated the task of running .ORG to ISOC in 2002 because ISOC was best positioned to run the domain for the benefit of nonprofit users. The excess funds from .ORG registration fees that have supported the work of ISOC for the past 16 years were a side benefit, not a sacred entitlement. Rather than an asset, like a building, the registry should be thought of as a public function—like the assigning of street addresses. It should be (and has been) administered in the public interest. But in the hands of private equity, the registry will become something altogether different from what it’s been in the past: a tool for making profits from nonprofits.

After the sale, Ethos Capital, having paid $1.135 billion for .ORG to ISOC, will have to recoup that investment on a scale that’s expected of a private equity firm. This week, Ethos revealed for the first time that some $360 million of the purchase price will be financed with a loan. The payments on that loan will have to come out of Ethos’s profits, so they will probably need to raise more money per year than ISOC currently does. While Ethos could try to simply increase the number of its “customers” for .ORGs, PIR has tried this in the past, and the demand for the domains has remained largely flat. This is no surprise; the nonprofit sector just doesn’t grow at exponential rates.

That brings us to the myriad reasons nonprofits have criticized the deal: every other way that Ethos might increase profits is bad news for .ORG users. And these tactics aren’t farfetched: every one of them is already delivering profits in other sectors, often while harming domain registrants and their visitors.

Squeezing Profits from Nonprofits Harms Civil Society

  1. The most obvious way to profit from the registry is for Ethos to raise the annual registration fees on .ORG names. Under pressure, Ethos has promised to keep fee increases to 10% per year “on average.” But they haven’t made that promise legally binding. There won’t be any way for .ORG users to challenge future fee increases without changing domain names, an expensive and risky process well-known to any organization or which has had to shift away from a trusted domain. And even more worrisome, Ethos could begin charging different rates for different domains. Other registries already charge considerably higher fees for names they designate as “premium.” Ethos could base fees entirely on an organization’s ability to pay, essentially holding nonprofits’ domain names for ransom.
  2. Ethos could also engage in censorship-for-profit. As we’ve described before, other domain registries have made deals with powerful corporate interests, like movie studios and pharmaceutical interests, to suspend the domains of websites, even if that means suppressing truthful information. But .ORGs don’t just have corporate interests hoping to control their voices: the world over, including within authoritarian regimes, .ORGs are the home of important critical speech on the Internet. Ethos would have a clear incentive to take down domains at the request of repressive governments, just as governments often demand takedowns of speech on social networks, in exchange for tax or other financial benefits.
  3. Ethos could sell the browsing data of users who visit .ORGs. The operator of a domain registry can, if it chooses, track every look-up of an address within that domain. Ethos could track visits to nonprofit organizations around the world, perhaps to target advertising on behalf of Vidmob, the advertising company they also own, invading the privacy of everyone who visits .ORG websites.
  4. Ethos could cut back on the important technical upkeep of the domains. Domain name lookups must be available worldwide, and quickly. Technical failures can mean being unable to connect to a website, or to send and receive email. This doesn’t just mean 404s: because the .ORG registry is home to relief agencies, news media, and other groups that provide life-saving services, technical failures could result in actual harm. Aid might not reach people in need during a crisis; news and information could be stopped dead during an emergency. The .ORG registry has had no downtime in over a decade. If that changes, it’s not just websites that would be in danger.

Not Enough Safeguards

In response to public pressure, Ethos has made a loose commitment about future pricing. It has also proposed adding text about acting in the public benefit into the “Certificate of Formation” for the new holding company they’re creating. And it’s promised to create a “Stewardship Council” to “help guide” the company’s management.

But there’s no force behind these words. Under corporate law, only the company itself has the power to decide whether it’s acting for the public benefit. Putting vague commitments into a “Certificate of Formation” doesn’t give the users of .ORG domains any mechanism of enforcement. And a “Stewardship Council” will not be able to override the decisions of the company’s owners and management. There’s no guarantee that the council will even be informed about what the company is doing. In fact, PIR already has an advisory council—and it wasn’t even told that the sale to Ethos was going to happen.

Luckily, there are other options on the table. If the .ORG registry needs to change hands, ICANN must take the time to consider all the alternatives, such as the Cooperative Corporation of dot-org Registrants, and determine which organization will best uphold the commitments that were made when .ORG was last re-assigned, in 2002. Instead of a rushed and secretive vote, ICANN should engage in a careful decision-making process that gives all .ORG registrants a voice in decisions around the registry in the future.

The Benefits Are Vague, At Best

In defending the deal, ISOC’s leadership has talked about the good they can do with a $1.1 billion endowment. Those good works, though, don’t excuse breaking trust with thousands of nonprofits. Several proponents of the deal, echoing Ethos’s talking points, claim that turning .ORG into a for-profit registry will lead to “new products and services” for the .ORG community. No one explains what those would be, though, or what they have to do with maintaining a reliable database of domain names. And there is no benefit at all if these vague opportunities in the future come at the cost of functional, censorship-free websites for millions of nonprofits, associations, and clubs around the world. 

ICANN Needs To Ask More Questions

As the group that controls the top level of the domain name system, ICANN has the power to stop .ORG from changing hands, and to name a new organization to steward that important resource. Before the deal goes any further, ICANN needs to ask more questions of ISOC and Ethos. We’ve compiled a handy list.

Anyone who’s concerned about selling a public trust for private profit can sign the petition to #SaveDotOrg, which we’ll be presenting along with other nonprofits to ICANN in person next week. And if you’ll be in the Los Angeles area on Friday, January 24th, come join us at the protest at ICANN’s headquarters, organized by EFF, NTEN, and Fight for the Future. Help us tell ICANN: .ORG is not for sale.

RSVP

Tell ICANN: Nonprofits Are Not For Sale

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Author: Mitch Stoltz

Tuesday Hearing: EFF Argues in New Jersey Supreme Court That Defendant Can’t Be Forced to Turn Over Password to Encrypted iPhone

Trenton, New Jersey—On Tuesday, January 21, at 1 pm, EFF Senior Staff Attorney Andrew Crocker will ask the New Jersey Supreme Court to rule that the state can’t force a defendant to turn over the passcode for his encrypted iPhone under the Fifth Amendment, which protects American’s rights against self-incrimination.

The Fifth Amendment states that people cannot be forced to incriminate themselves, and it’s well settled that this privilege against self-incrimination covers compelled “testimonial” communications, including physical acts. However, courts have split over how to apply the Fifth Amendment to compelled decryption of encrypted devices.

EFF, ACLU, and ACLU of New Jersey filed a brief in the case State v. Andrews arguing that the state can’t compel a suspect to recall and use information that exists only in his memory to aid law enforcement’s prosecution of him.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Crocker will tell the court that reciting, writing, typing or otherwise reproducing a password from memory is testimony protected by the Fifth Amendment.

Read the amicus brief EFF filed in the Andrews case:
https://www.eff.org/document/effaclu-amicus-us-v-andrews

WHO: EFF Senior Staff Attorney Andrew Crocker

WHAT: New Jersey v. Andrews

WHERE:
Supreme Court of New Jersey
25 Market St.
Trenton, NJ 08611
The argument will also be live-streamed.

WHEN:
Tuesday
January 21
1 pm

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Author: Karen Gullo

EFF Asks the Supreme Court to Put a Stop to Dangerously Broad Interpretations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

At EFF, we have spent years fighting the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The law was aimed at computer crime, but it is both vague and draconian—putting people at risk for prison sentences for ordinary Internet behavior. Now, we are asking the Supreme Court to step in and stop dangerous overbroad interpretations of the CFAA.

The CFAA was passed more than 30 years ago, before the invention of the World Wide Web. Consequently, the law is hard to make sense of in our increasingly digital world. Some courts have rightly interpreted the law narrowly, focusing on hacking and other illegal computer intrusions. But other courts have bought into tactics used by creative prosecutors, who argue that when the statute outlaws “exceeding authorized access” to a computer, it also covers violating the “terms of service” of websites and other apps.

Let’s be clear: violating a website’s “terms of service” is very easy to do. You’ve probably done it repeatedly. It can include things like logging into your spouse’s bank account, checking your personal email on your work computer, or sharing a social media password—all behavior that companies may not like, but should not result in criminal penalties. If violating terms of use is a crime, then private companies across the country get to decide who goes to prison for what, instead of lawmakers. That’s a dangerous result that puts us all at risk.

Now, a former Georgia police officer who was wrongly convicted under the CFAA is asking the Supreme Court to take his case. In Van Buren v. United States, Van Buren was accused of taking money in exchange for looking up a license plate in a law enforcement database. This was a database he was otherwise entitled to access, meaning the CFAA is the wrong law to use when prosecuting his alleged behavior. In our amicus brief filed today with the Center for Democracy and Technology and New America’s Open Technology Institute, EFF argues that Congress intended to outlaw computer break-ins that disrupted or destroyed computer functionality, not anything that the service provider simply didn’t want to have happen.

It’s time we got some clarity about the CFAA. We hope the Supreme Court takes Van Buren and agrees on a narrow interpretation of this messy and confusing law.

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Author: Rebecca Jeschke