The Reality of Class Society in the US

People Like Us: Social Class in America

Directed by Andrew Kolker and Louis Alvarez (1999)

Film Review

Produced in 1999, this video long predates the systematic destruction of the middle class that began following the 2008 global economic crash. Thus many of the observations it makes about social class are no longer strictly accurate.

Nevertheless the claim that that bias against working class people is the last acceptable prejudice* still rings true – as does the filmmakers’ premise that separation into social classes (eg preppies and dorks, nerds, goths, ghetto and other losers) begins in high school. The assertion that the vast majority of working class Americans consider themselves “middle class” seems less relevant with the galloping poverty the US has experienced over the last 12 years.

I am also skeptical of the filmmakers’ claim that all Americans feel more comfortable surrounded by members of their own social class. After 32 years of working professionally with people across all social classes, I’ve always agreed with sociological studies describing a district working class culture** placing high value on community, extended family, loyalty and emotionally intimate relationships. I’ve also found that working class people tend to have better social skills – owing in part to childhoods spent playing in the street (while rich children attend piano, dancing and soccer lessons) and in part to greater ease expressing strong feelings.

In contrast, I’ve found that competitiveness, status seeking and difficulty expressing strong emotions turn social relationships in society’s upper echelons into somewhat of a mine field.

I’m also leery about the way filmmakers emphasize style of dress (with rich people wearing more expensive designer labels) in distinguishing rich from low income Americans. For some reason they totally fail to acknowledge the current trend (starting in the mid-80s) for wealthy Americans to affect a grunge/punk dress style.

For me, the most interesting part of the film concerns a battle in Burlington Vermont over a city council decision to favor a locally owned food coop over a Shaw’s chain supermarket. It was interesting to see the city’s working class residents express their lifelong frustration with their more well-to-do counterparts trying to impose their tofu-oriented lifestyle on them. In the end, the coop won the permit but began stocking white bread to appease Burlington’s working class.

I also found the section on social class in the Black community extremely enlightening.


*Eg, Hillary Clinton referring to them as “deplorables.”

**See Working Class Culture

Anyone with a public library card can view the film free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine.

 

 

Facebook Follies

Facebook Follies

Directed by Geoff D’eon

Film Review

This gushy 10-year-old film is essentially a Facebook informational. The narrator is a breathless female filled with adolescent awe at the the thought of connecting millions of global strangers at the click of a mouse.

While this so-called documentary is clearly geared to adolescent Facebook users (who have since migrated to Instagram, Whatsapp, and Tik Tok), it also features a 60-year-old Welsh farmer who was banned from Facebook six times (and kept coming back with new identities) for arranging sexual encounters with 350 women.

To its credit, the film provides clear warnings (mainly addressed to young adult users) about Facebook posts becoming a permanent record hindering your future ability to run for office and even your employability. It also warns about the high potential for identify theft (based on all the personal information people post on Facebook), as well as for your fabulous vacation pics advertising to thieves that your home is vacant. In addition, according to filmmakers, a number of users have been duped by the Facebook version of the Spanish Prisoner* scam.

Surprisingly (given its 2011 release), the film also features a warning about the dangers of allowing any corporation to collect massive amounts of data about your life. It presciently warns that Facebook only gives the illusion of being free – that every Facebook user pays for the service with the vast amount of personal data they provide Mark Zuckerberg.


*The Spanish Prisoner is a confidence trick originating in the late 19th century. In its original form, the confidence trickster writes to his victim informing him that he is a wealthy person of high estate who has been imprisoned in Spain under a false identity.

Anyone with a public library card can view the film free via Kanopy. Type Kanopy and the name of your library into your search engine.

 

Growing Old Under British Austerity

Old

Directed by Kate Blewitt and Brian Woods (2017)

Film Review

This documentary, released three years ago, profiles the sad desperation experienced by 2.5 million British seniors living below the poverty. It would appear that this vulnerable population is also at special risk to die of COVID-19, owing to clinical protocols likely to deem them unsuitable for hospitalization, difficulty spatially isolating healthy residents from those with coronavirus infection, and failure to provide care home staff with adequate PPE (personal protective equipment).

The British government is predicting that as many as 30% of their care home residents could die of coronavirus.

After watching this film, I’m inclined to agree with this prediction. In my mind, however, the true culprit is austerity-induced poverty – not the loss of immunity allegedly experienced in everyone over 70.

In the film, viewers meet a victim of physical and financial abuse by family members; a woman battling (in court and in street protests) local council efforts to close her nursing home; an elderly man housed in a homeless shelter, a council staffer responsible for organizing funerals for poor seniors who die in total isolation from family members or friends; an elderly male repeatedly robbed and terrorize by teenage residents of his council estate, and an elderly woman who sleeps on the street in her wheelchair.

In the UK:

  • Over 180,000 seniors are abused every year in their homes.
  • One British senior is victimized by crime every 24 seconds.
  • Ten nursing homes close every week – in 2016 these closures affected over 12,000 care home residents.
  • 21,000 elderly live in homeless hostels.

The Red Cross Secondhand Clothes Racket

The Dirty Business of Old Clothes

Directed by Michael Höft and Christian Jantzch (2019)

Film Review

This documentary is about a racket involving the German Red Cross and other charities that sells 700,000 tonnes of donated secondhand clothes to a for-profit company called Soex. Soex, in turn, sells the clothes to Eastern Europe, Middle East, and sub-Saharan markets.

This particular scheme is similar to those operating in other European countries and the US. The Red Cross receives five cents per kilo for donated clothing that is resold for €1.20 per kilo.

Filmmakers follow one shipment of secondhand clothing to Tanzania, where most people live on less than one euro a day. The flood of cheap second hand clothing into the port of Dar es Salaam has shut down a local clothing factory that formerly employed 9,000 workers. No textile manufacturer in the world could compete with an industry selling clothes they source for free.

The film features heartbreaking interviews with unemployed workers who often go days at a time without eating.

The filmmakers attempt to interview the chairman of the German Red Cross about the program, but he declines to speak to them.

 

 

Surveillance Capitalism: How Google and Facebook Use Your Data to Exploit Your Inner Demons

Soshona Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism

VPRO (2019)

Film Review

This documentary features Harvard Business School Professor Shoshona Zuboff, author of the popular book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Zuboff begins by emphasizing that most of the data tech behemoths like Facebook and Google collect on us is unrelated to what we actively post on their sites. They and the companies they sell our data to are far more interested in the information we reveal inadvertently (ie our online contacts and purchases, the games we play, our geographic location, and the time we spend on specific sites).

By making their Android operating system available free to smartphone manufacturers, Google successfully captured 90% of the mobile phone market. This, in turn, enables them to capture phenomenal amounts of location-based data (linked to the phone’s GPS function) from Android-based smartphones. Google also collects personal information from the hidden microphones (that were never disclosed to users) on Google Nest, an Internet-based security system.

Collecting this type of metadata on hundreds of thousands of individuals enables complex algorithms to make surprisingly accurate predictions about our psychological state. Tech companies use these predictions to create what Zuboff refers to as “lure modules” – which they sell to a range of online and offline businesses. Their purpose is to increase “click-throughs” for on-line merchants and “footfalls” for brick and mortar outlets.

The Pokemon Go game is the best known experiment using a popular game to lure players to offline locations to spend money. Although marketed by a so-called startup called Niantic, Pokemon Go was developed over many years using Keyhole, a software program created by the CIA that Google purchased to create Google Earth.

Employing similar algorithms, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg flaunts his company’s capacity to monitor-moment to-moment mood shifts in more than six million Australian teenagers. This, in turn, enables advertisers to predict when they need a confidence boost (eg by buying your product).

Zuboff also cites the case of Cambridge Analytica, which purchased Facebook data depicting the “the inner demons” of 80 million Americans in 2016. The British company would use this data to develop targeted messaging to trigger Facebook users, where to click, what to read, and who to vote for.

Will Japan Cancel the Summer Olympics?

Back to Fukushima

RT (Dec 2019)

Film Review

I don’t get it. Why doesn’t Japan cancel the Olympics? The Coronavirus gives them the perfect excuse to do so, without losing face over the ongoing disaster at Fukushima.

This eerie documentary follows a half dozen or so elderly Fukushima residents as they return home. The Japanese government is slowly reopening decontaminated* areas as “safe” for returning residents.

Most returnees carry hand held Geiger counters, and there are ubiquitous digital road signs that display ambient radiation levels (in microsieverts).

It’s primarily elderly retired residents who are returning, given there are no schools or work opportunities in Fukushima. The government has reassured returnees that the elderly are more “resistant” to radiation, as most radiation-related cancers take decades to develop.

The government has built a 50 unit public housing facility, of which 30 units have been occupied. Most returning residents have been warned to remain indoors as winds flowing in from contaminated areas can increase radiation levels unpredictably.

At present visitors to Fukushima stop at checkpoints to be given protective clothing and dose meters at checkpoints. They are also scanned for radioactivity on their departure.

After watching the video, I still find it mind boggling the Japanese government still plans to hold the Olympic baseball and softball events in Fukushima in July. I can’t see how they can do so safely without providing protective clothing and masks for all the athletes and spectators.


*The main decontamination that has occurred is the wiping down of contaminated buildings and the remove of contaminated topsoil (to be stored in mountains of plastic bags in decontamination areas) and its replacement with new uncontaminated soil.

The film can be viewed free at Back to Fukushima

New Film Exonerates Michael Jackson

Square One: New Witness in Michael Jackson Case

Directed by Danny Wu (2019)

Film Review

This documentary concerns the mainstream media’s misportrayal of the late Michael Jackson as a Caucasian wannabe and pedophile. The new witness is a New York acquaintance of Jordan Chandler, the alleged victim in a civil lawsuit Jackson settled in 1993. The woman reveals Chandler, still a major Jackson fan, considered him incapable of the predatory behavior he was accused of.

It was only in viewing this film I learned that Jackson suffered from lupus, a serious autoimmune disease responsible, not only for his vitiligo,* but for the complete erosion of his nasal cartilage, requiring numerous reconstructive surgeries.

The video also details the extensive police and FBI investigations of the star’s alleged pedophilia. He was totally exonerated of all criminal charges against him in 2005.

Despite these facts, a quirk in California law forced Jackson to settle a civil lawsuit pertaining to the same victim a year earlier. In 1994, an unconstitutional judicial ruling allowed the civil lawsuit to proceed before the criminal case was resolved. Concerned Jackson’s deposition in the civil case would give criminal prosecutors an unfair advantage (by revealing the defense strategy), Jackson’s lawyers advised him to settle.

The documentary also reveals the blackmail/extortion scheme Jordan Chandler’s father subjected Jackson to prior to going to the police (and filing the lawsuit). Chandlers’ parents were divorced, and his dentist father Evan illegally took custody of Jordan and gave him to sodium amytal  injections, presumably to pressure him to incriminate Jackson. The full amount of the settlement was (subject to a non-disclosure agreement) was covered by Jackson’s insurance.

Following his acquittal, Jackson successfully defended a second lawsuit (for child sexual abuse) in 1995. He also won a $2.7 million defamation suit against Victor Gutierrez, for his 2007 Michael Jackson Was My Lover.

Following his death in 2009, there would be two further lawsuits filed against his estate. They were dismissed in 2017.

 

 

We’re All Guinea Pigs: The Hidden Experiments of Corporate Websites

What Makes You Click

VPRO (2016)

Film Review

This is a documentary about the vast amount of A/B design testing* that websites subject us to without our knowledge.

The psychological science behind “conversion optimization” (ie increasing the money we spend online) is becoming increasingly advanced. As “online persuaders” explain to filmmakers, most of us are totally unaware of specific design features that lead us to stay longer and spend more money on specific websites.

For example, most of us find pop-ads extremely irritating. Nevertheless studies show they consistently increase on-line sales by 10-15%.

Facebook constantly reconfigures the design of their newsfeed to increase dopamine surges (dopamine is the main neurotransmitter associated with stimulant addiction) in the brains of their users. Theoretically the pleasurable feelings this produces helps keep visitors on their site longer.  In fact, one psychologist compares the effect Facebook and Twitter invoke to the feeling gambling addicts describe of “being in the zone .”

The film, produced before the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica** scandal erupted in early 2018, also discusses the on-line behavioral research the Obama campaign used in 2012 to influence voter behavior.

Several researchers seriously question the ethics of using hidden techniques to persuade Internet users to act against their own best interests. Some have joined together in the Time Well Spent movement to press for stronger government regulation. They worry that wide uptake of artificial intelligence technology could make it virtually impossible to audit persuasion strategems that operate below the level of human consciousness.


*A/B testing relies on randomized experiments with two variants, A and B. It serves to test a subject’s response to variant A against variant B to determine which of the two variants is more effective.

**In early 2018, we learned that Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal data from millions of Facebook profiles without users’ consent and used it to target them for 2016 election advertising.

Black Lives: Addiction – Insiders Speak Out About the Murky Drug Trading World in the US

Black Lives: Addiction – Insiders Speak Out About the Murky Drug Trading World in the US

RT (2019)

Film Review

This episode consists of interviews with an ex-cop, a former gang leader and various drug dealers and ex-drug dealers. It also features a debate between a Black pastor and a drug dealer whether whether the latter can earn as much money doing a “legal” hustle. The dealer, who deals drugs mainly to pay child support, highlights his genuine lack of legal options. As Michelle Alexander documents so vividly in The New Jim Crow, his criminal record disqualifies him for student aid, public housing and most employment.

In my view, the main weakness of this episode is its failure to examine the CIA role in international drug trafficking or their role (first exposed by late investigative journalist Gary Webb and subsequently admitted by the CIA Inspector General) in supplying crack cocaine to California gangs. See

CIA’s Drug Trade Essential to Geopolitics

The CIA and the Drug Trade

CIA Drug Trafficking on Prime Time TV

 

Charlottesville: Frontline/ProPublica Investigation Leads to Arrests

This documentary concerns an investigation by a Frontline/ProPublica reporter into the Nazi and White Supremacist groups responsible for the Unite the Right riots in Charlottesville Virginia in 2017. There has been wide concern across the political spectrum that Charlottesville police stood by as hundreds of white supremacists punched, beat and kicked counter demonstrators – also that the police allowed perpetrators to walk away.

In all, Charlottesville police only made ten arrests.

Most of the footage concerns the Frontline/ProPublica investigation into individual white supremacists leaders who instigated the assault. Robert Rundo, whose image was captured in much of the Charlottesville video coverage, turns out to be a former gang member from Queens. Following a two year stint in prison for a gang assault, he moved to Orange County California, where he started the Rise Above Movement. The latter conducts regular training in street fighting to prepare for attacks on minorities and antifascists.

A second individual involved in the Charlottesville riot was found to hold a federal security clearance to work at Northup Grumman in Orange County.

A third was discovered to be on active duty in the Marines. The Front Line/ProPublica investigation uncovered evidence that Private First Class Pistoles has been active in the Nazi group Atomswaffen for years. The US military allegedly has a ban on membership in racist organizations.

The Marines initially took no action against Pistoles, even after Congressman Keith Ellison shared ProPublica’s evidence with Secretary of Defense James Mathis.

Once investigative journalist A.C. Thompson published his investigation online, nine additional perpetrators were indicted for hate crimes in Charlottesville and Orange County. Pistoles was court-martialed and dismissed from the Marines.