Sacha Baron Cohen Links the Decline of Democracy to the Rise of Social Media, “the Greatest Propaganda Machine in History”

Presenting a keynote address at an ADL conference, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen wasn't kidding around when he painted a bleak picture of our emerging world: "Today ... demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. It’s as if the Age of Reason—the era of evidential argument—is ending, and now knowledge is delegitimized and scientific consensus is dismissed. Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat, and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Hate crimes are surging, as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities."

What's leading to these destabilizing changes? Baron Cohen could cite many reasons. But if pushed, he'll emphasize one:

But one thing is pretty clear to me. All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.

The greatest propaganda machine in history.

Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others—they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged—stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth. And it’s no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history—the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. As one headline put it, “Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.”

On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel Prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.

You can watch his sobering talk above, or read the transcript here.

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Trump’s Denials Turned into a Ramones Song: “I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO.”

Yesterday Gordon D. Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, had this to say to Congress: “I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?” “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

It was damning testimony. And it left the president with little choice but to try and exonerate himself. So he walked onto the South Lawn of the White House, and read some notes, written with a sharpie in CAPS, all supposedly documenting the real content of a call he had with Sondland several months ago: “I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NOTHING. I WANT NO QUID PRO QUO." “TELL ZELLINSKY TO DO THE RIGHT THING. THIS IS THE FINAL WORD FROM THE PRES OF THE U.S.”

Hours later, someone on Twitter turned the denial into a Ramones song. Punk comic relief. Listen above.

Improv Comedy (Live and Otherwise) Examined on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #20

 

What role does improv comedy play in popular culture? It shows up in the work of certain film directors (like Christopher Guest, Adam McKay, and Robert Altman) and has surfaced in some of the TV work of Larry David, Robin Williams, et al. But only in the rare case of a show like Whose Line Is It Anyway? is the presence of improvisation obvious. So is this art form doomed to live on the fringes of entertainment? Is it maybe of more apparent benefit to its practitioners than to audiences?

Mark, Erica, and Brian are joined by Tim Sniffen, announcer on the popular Hello From the Magic Tavern podcast, and a member of the Improvised Shakespeare Company and Baby Wants Candy (improvised musicals). He’s also written for Live From Here and other things. We discuss different types of improv, a bit of the history and structure of Second City, improv’s alleged self-help benefits, how improvisation relates to regular acting, writing, podcasting, and other arts, and more.

Here are a few improv productions to check out:

For further reading, check out:

For musical improv, try Nakedly Examined Music #30 with Paul Wertico and David Cain, and also #55 with Don Preston (Zappa’s keyboardist) whom Mark quoted in this discussion.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

 

John Cleese’s Eulogy for Monty Python’s Graham Chapman: ‘Good Riddance, the Free-Loading Bastard, I Hope He Fries’

The British comedian Graham Chapman delighted in offending people. As a writer and actor with the legendary Monty Python troupe, he pushed against the boundaries of propriety and good taste. When his writing partner John Cleese proposed doing a sketch on a disgruntled man returning a defective toaster to a shop, Chapman thought: Broken toaster? Why not a dead parrot? And in one particularly outrageous sketch written by Chapman and Cleese in 1970,  Chapman plays an undertaker and Cleese plays a customer who has just rung a bell at the front desk:

"What can I do for you, squire?" says Chapman.

"Um, well, I wonder if you can help me," says Cleese. "You see, my mother has just died."

"Ah, well, we can 'elp you. We deal with stiffs," says Chapman. "There are three things we can do with your mother. We can burn her, bury her, or dump her."

"Dump her?"

"Dump her in the Thames."

"What?"

"Oh, did you like her?"

"Yes!"

"Oh well, we won't dump her, then," says Chapman. "Well, what do you think? We can bury her or burn her."

"Which would you recommend?"

"Well, they're both nasty."

From there, Chapman goes on to explain in the most graphic detail the unpleasant aspects of either choice before offering another option: cannibalism. At that point (in keeping with the script) outraged members of the studio audience rush onto the stage and put a stop to the sketch.




Chapman and Cleese had been close friends since their student days at Cambridge University, and when Chapman died of cancer at the age of 48 on October 4, 1989, Cleese was at his bedside. Out of respect for Chapman's family, the members of Monty Python decided to stay away from his private funeral and avoid a media circus. Instead, they gathered for a memorial service on October 6, 1989 in the Great Hall at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. When Cleese delivered his eulogy for Chapman, he recalled his friend's irreverence: "Anything for him, but mindless good taste." So Cleese did his best to make his old friend proud. His off-color but heartfelt eulogy that evening has become a part of Monty Python lore, and you can watch it above. To see a longer clip, with moving words from Michael Palin and a sing-along of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" led by Eric Idle, watch below:

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in February 2013.

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The Time When Charlie Chaplin Entered a Chaplin Look-Alike Contest & Came in 20th Place

chaplin contest

Charlie Chaplin started appearing in his first films in 1914---40 films, to be precise---and, by 1915, the United States had a major case of "Chaplinitis." Chaplin mustaches were suddenly popping up everywhere--as were Chaplin imitators and Chaplin look-alike contests. A young Bob Hope apparently won one such contest in Cleveland. Chaplin Fever continued burning hot through 1921, the year when the Chaplin look-alike contest, shown above, was held outside the Liberty Theatre in Bellingham, Washington.

According to legend, somewhere between 1915 and 1921, Chaplin decided to enter a Chaplin look-alike contest, and lost, badly.




A short article called "How Charlie Chaplin Failed," appearing in The Straits Times of Singapore in August of 1920, read like this:

Lord Desborough, presiding at a dinner of the Anglo-Saxon club told a story which will have an enduring life. It comes from Miss Mary Pickford who told it to Lady Desborough, “Charlie Chaplin was one day at a fair in the United States, where a principal attraction was a competition as to who could best imitate the Charlie Chaplin walk. The real Charlie Chaplin thought there might be a chance for him so he entered for the performance, minus his celebrated moustache and his boots. He was a frightful failure and came in twentieth.

A variation on the same story appeared in a New Zealand newspaper, the Poverty Bay Herald, again in 1920. As did another story in the Australian newspaper, the Albany Advertiser, in March, 1921.

A competition in Charlie Chaplin impersonations was held in California recently. There was something like 40 competitors, and Charlie Chaplin, as a joke, entered the contest under an assumed name. He impersonated his well known film self. But he did not win; he was 27th in the competition.

Did Chaplin come in 20th place? 27th place? Did he enter a contest at all? It's fun to imagine that he did. But, a century later, many consider the story the stuff of urban legend. When one researcher asked the Association Chaplin to weigh in, they apparently had this to say: "This anecdote told by Lord Desborough, whoever he may have been, was quite widely reported in the British press at the time. There are no other references to such a competition in any other press clipping albums that I have seen so I can only assume that this is the source of that rumour, urban myth, whatever it is. However, it may be true."

I'd like to believe it is.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in early 2016.

via France Culture/Stack Exchange

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Are Stand-Up Comedians Our Modern Day Philosophers? Pretty Much Pop #17 Considers

In an age where the average person can't name a living academic philosopher, it's been claimed that the social role of an individual orating to the masses and getting them to think about fundamental questions is actually not performed by academics at all, and certainly not by politicians and religious figures who need to keep on message in one way or other, but by stand-up comedians.

This is the premise of the Modern Day Philosophers podcast, where comedian Daniel Lobell interviews some of our best known and loved comics. However, as Daniel has discovered in the course of that show, only some comedians are trying to express original views on the world. Many are just trying to tell good jokes. So do the routines of those more idea-based comedians count as philosophy? Or does telling the whole truth (instead of a funny one-side or exaggerated take on truth) rule out being funny? 

Daniel joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer (of The Partially Examined Life philosophy podcast), actor Erica Spyres, and sci-fi author/linguist Brian Hirt to consider questions of authenticity and offensive humor.  We look at how philosophers and comics can use some of the same communicative tools like inventing new words, irony, and autobiography. We touch on Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, Hannah Gadsby, George Carlin, Emo Phillips, Rodney Dangerfield, Louis CK, Between Two Ferns, Berkeley, Socrates, Kierkegaard, and more.

A few sources:

Find out about Danny's podcasts, graphic novel, album, and videos at dannylobell.com.

This episode includes bonus discussion (including some out-takes from the interview where we got too off-topic) that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

 

Imagined Medieval Comics Illuminate the Absurdities of Modern Life

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revised its famous food pyramid, jettisoning the familiar hierarchical graphic in favor of vertical rainbow stripes representing the various nutritional groups. A stick figure bounded up a staircase built into one side, to reinforce the idea of adding regular physical activity to all those whole grains and veggies.

The dietary information it promoted was an improvement on the original, but nutritional scientists were skeptical that the public would be able to parse the confusing graphic, and by and large this proved to be the case.




Artist Tyler Gunther, however, was inspired:

I started thinking about the messaging school children in 1308 were force fed to believe was part of a heart healthy diet, only to have the rug pulled out from under them 15 years later when some monk rearranged the whole thing.

In other words, you’d better dig into that annual goose pie, kids, while you’ve still got 6 glasses of ale to wash it down.

The imagined overlap between the modern and the medieval is a fertile vein for Gunter, whose MFA in Costume Design is often put to good use in his hilarious historical comics:

Modern men’s fashion is so incredibly boring. A guy wears a pattered shirt with a suit and he gets lauded as though he won the super bowl of fashion. But back in the Middle Ages men made bold, brave fashion choices and I admire them greatly for this. It’s so exciting to me to think of these inventive, strange, fantastic creations being a part of the everyday masculine aesthetic.

The shapes and structures of women’s headwear in the dark ages are truly inspiring. Where were these milliners drawing inspiration from? How were they engineered? How comfortable were they to wear? How did they fit through the majority of doorways? What was it like to sit behind a particularly large one in church? I’m still scrolling through many an internet history blog to find the answers. 

Kathryn Warner’s Edward II blog has proved a helpful resource, as has Anne H. van Buren’s book Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands.

The Brooklyn-based, Arkansas-born artist also makes periodic pilgrimages to the Cloisters, where the Metropolitan Museum houses a vast number illuminated manuscripts, panel paintings, altar pieces, and the famed Unicorn Tapestries:

On my first trip to The Cloisters I saw a painting of St. Michael and the devil almost immediately. I don’t think my life or art has been the same since. None of us know what the devil looks like. But you wouldn’t know that based on how confidently this artist portrays his likeness. After gazing at this painting for an extended period of time I wanted so badly to understand the imagination of whoever could imagine an alligator arms/face crotch/dragon ponytail combo. I don’t think I’ve come close to scratching the surface.

Every time I go to that museum I think, “Wow it’s like I’m on Game of Thrones” and then I have to remind myself kindly that this was real life. Almost everything there was an object that people interacted with as part of their average daily life and that fascinates me as someone who lives in a world filled with mass produced, plastic objects. 

Gunther’s drawings and comics are created (and aged) on that most modern of conveniences—the iPad.

The British monarchy and the First Ladies are also sources of fascination, but the middle ages are his primary passion, to the point where he recently costumed himself as a page to tell the story of Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall and Edward II’s darling, aided by a garment rack he’d retooled as a medieval pageant cart-cum-puppet theater.

See the rest of Tyler Gunther’s Medieval Comics on his website and don’t forget to surprise your favorite hygienist or oral surgeon with his Medieval Dentist print this holiday season.

All images used with permission of artist Tyler Gunther

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, October 7 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates the art of Aubrey Beardsley, with a special appearance by Tyler Gunther. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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