- What a defense ministry shake-up may say about Ukraine’s corruption problemby Jen Kirby on September 19, 2023 at 8:15 pm
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy attends the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on September 19, 2023 in New York City. World heads of state and representatives of government will attend amid multiple global crises such as Russia’s war against Ukraine and the climate emergency. | Adam Gray/Getty Images The removals come two weeks after the removal of the defense ministry and as Ukraine seeks to shore up global support. Ukraine is shaking up its defense ministry, removing all six deputy ministers, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy travels to the United Nations and Washington to shore up support and aid. The purge comes after Zelenskyy replaced Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikov earlier this month. That was a very visible upheaval, arriving in the middle of Kyiv’s ongoing counteroffensive, and came amid ongoing allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement within the military. The latest Ministry of Defense dismissals are likely a continuation of that attempt to clean house, although the ministry did not give a reason for the removals, nor did it directly connect it back to Reznikov’s dismissal. (Reznikov himself was not directly implicated in any scandals.) Some outlets have pointed out that staff changeovers are not unusual when a top official leaves; the new Minister of Defense was likely going to put in his own team anyway. Still, these latest shake-ups are likely a message that Ukraine is taking any hint of corruption or mismanagement seriously and wants to signal renewed leadership at the defense ministry. The removal also comes at an inauspicious time: as Zelenskyy seeks to assure partners, including in the United States, that Kyiv is responsibly managing billions in military, security, and economic assistance. The graft allegations previously swirling around the defense ministry shake-up haven’t directly implicated misuse of Western aid, and past oversight hasn’t found any evidence of misuse. But Ukraine has previously struggled to root out high-level corruption and bolster the rule of law, despite Zelenskyy promising to do so when he was elected in 2019. Ukraine’s backers in the United States and Europe had put pressure on Kyiv for nearly a decade to deal with these issues, especially as a condition for Ukraine’s invitation into Western institutions. Russia’s full-scale attack last year shunted some of those corruption concerns aside as the urgency of Ukraine’s war effort consumed Zelenskyy’s government, its Western backers, and even some of Ukraine’s watchdog organizations. The problem of systemic graft, however, never fully dissipated. And as the war goes on — and it may go on much, much longer — it is a reputation that Ukraine is very much trying to avoid, especially as it relies on uninterrupted Western aid and as it continues to make the case that it belongs in institutions like the EU and maybe even NATO. This shake-up sends a message, but Ukraine’s corruption issues are still a challenge This is not the first major personnel change since the war began, and graft accusations had lingered around the defense department for some time before the departure of Minister Reznikov earlier in September. Back in January, allegations that the Ministry of Defense had overseen inflated prices for food contracts led to a major personnel shake-up and arrests. In August, Zelenskyy fired the heads of the military recruitment offices over allegations that these officials had taken bribes to enable draft dodgers. Ukrainian media and anti-corruption activists have continued to expose scandals related to the military procurement processes, including a recent investigation from ZN.UA that the Ministry of Defense ordered overpriced jackets for the troops from a company tied to a member of parliament’s nephew. But the departure of these deputy defense ministers comes as Ukraine is at a bit of a crossroads militarily and diplomatically. Ukraine is waging its counteroffensive, which is making slow progress. Kyiv has made some key gains in recent days, though the operation is largely still an attritional battle. A breakthrough could still happen, but Ukraine will continue to need sustained military, security, economic, and humanitarian support. The United States and many of its Western partners have continued to provide, but there are some quiet cracks in that assistance. The US has maintained bipartisan backing from Ukraine, but a very vocal wing of the Republican Party — including some running for president — has questioned that level of aid and investment in Ukraine. Some US Republicans have used examples of past corruption to challenge the Biden administration’s support for Kyiv. European support for Kyiv is very strong, but divisions over things like the transport of Ukrainian grain could also threaten its solidarity. This is why President Zelenskyy is making the rounds at the United Nations — and making an essential pit stop in Congress. Along the way, Kyiv wants to make it very clear that aid is being allocated effectively, responsibly, and appropriately. It wants to make the case that as countries continue to invest in Ukraine — including putting resources into ramping up production for weapons and artillery — this is also a long-term downpayment on a democratic Ukraine. This is a case to make to outsiders but also to those within Ukraine. Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine, said that across Ukrainian society, support is high to expose corruption, even if it poses a risk of breaking trust with Ukraine’s partners. “People believe in and [are] encouraging the exposing of corruption even during wartime. People have very low tolerance to corruption. People see Ukraine as an EU and NATO member — and this is what we’re fighting for.” As Kaleniuk pointed out, the Ministry of Defense will oversee the procurement of lethal and nonlethal aid as this war continues, and it needs to be able to make effective and sound decisions. The military operations run through Zelenskyy, so any personnel changes shouldn’t affect the day-to-day operations of the counteroffensive, but ministry responsibilities — like buying food and supplies and equipment — can influence the battle. Those jackets for Ukrainian troops did not just have inflated prices, they were also apparently supposed to be for cold-weather wear, but ended up being lightweight coats, according to Ukrainian media reports. So yes, Ukraine wants to make it clear that it is stamping out corruption. But there are still a lot of questions about exactly how Ukraine is approaching its anti-corruption campaign. Firing or replacing officials is one thing, but Zelenskyy has proposed making wartime corruption a treasonous offense. This would put more power in Ukraine’s security forces, which some critics and watchdogs fear will diminish the authority of the independent investigative bodies. This could potentially backfire, undermining the rule of law and independent judiciary, and create lasting damage to the institutions that Ukraine (and the West) sought to build up. The president’s office also oversees the security services, which could lead to Zelenskyy consolidating power, with the security services potentially used to shield the president’s allies and tamp down scandals that may be embarrassing for Zelenskyy. War, no matter who is doing the fighting, tends to be fertile ground for corruption. The chaos of conflict — lots of rapid procurements, an influx of funds, and supplies moving through many hands — increases the potential for graft. Ukraine is no exception, but it faces the additional challenge that corruption permeated its government institutions even before Russia’s invasion. There’s still a lot unclear from these shake-ups, but it does hint that Ukraine’s corruption problem — and the perception of that corruption problem — still threatens to undermine Kyiv’s war efforts, within Ukraine and without.
- Drew Barrymore tried to live, laugh, scab her way across the picket line. It didn’t work.by Alex Abad-Santos on September 19, 2023 at 7:30 pm
Drew Barrymore’s (now-deleted) apology video. | via Instagram After much hand-wringing, America’s talk show sweetheart is sorry she tried to violate the writers’ strike. After facing widespread disgust over her decision to bring back her show in the midst of an entertainment industry writers’ strike, Drew Barrymore will keep The Drew Barrymore Show off the air indefinitely. Well, at least until the strike ends. A week ago, America’s talk show sweetheart was at the center of the biggest flare-up (so far) of the four-month, ongoing Hollywood writers’ strike. On September 10, Barrymore announced on social media that her show was coming back, despite being struck by the Writers Guild of America. That did not go over well. After facing a WGA picket and a mountain of criticism online, Barrymore issued an apology six days later for hurting feelings, but said the show would still continue, specifying that this was her decision. “I know there is just nothing I can do that will make this okay to those that it is not okay with. I fully accept that. I fully understand that,” she said in a now-deleted video. That went over even worse. The backlash — not only from writers and guild members strike, but from fans — was vociferous. Barrymore was charged with being out of touch and disloyal. That’s a sharp turn for Barrymore who has spent the last year or so lauded for being one of the kindest and nurturing people on television. The Drew Barrymore we know from TV is not the same person who would violate the strike. This past Sunday, after weathering a storm of criticism, Barrymore announced that she would respect the strike and stand in solidarity with her writers. “I am making the decision to pause the show’s premiere until the strike is over,” Barrymore wrote on Instagram. “I have no words to express my deepest apologies to anyone I have hurt and, of course, to our incredible team who works on the show and has made it what it is today.” With support for unions at the highest it’s been in 58 years, and the public being more cognizant of numbers like Disney CEO Bob Iger’s salary, Barrymore’s scabbing was never going to go over well. But the backlash was huge, especially when compared to similarly struck shows (and hosts) that have or were scheduled to return, like The View. It got to the point where the National Book Awards dropped Barrymore as its host. Was everyone aware that Drew Barrymore was going to host the National Book Awards? Did you know people feel this deeply about Drew Barrymore? Rosalind O’Connor/NBC via Getty Images Both these talk show hosts have had better months. On the surface, the backlash against Barrymore is about the ongoing Hollywood strikes. So was the relief that most experienced when she announced she was going to finally respect her writers. But the strong feelings people have towards Barrymore have deeper roots: They’re a reflection of people’s expectations, what it means to be a “scab” in 2023 Hollywood, and just how effective Barrymore has been at being who we think she is supposed to be. Drew Barrymore crossed the picket line and walked it back Earlier this month, CBS and Barrymore announced that the show would return on September 18. In a now-deleted Instagram post, Barrymore initially said that coming to the decision to cross the picket line transcended herself. “Our show was built for sensitive times and has only functioned through what the real world is going through in real time,” Barrymore posted on the social media platform, stating that she was “making the choice to come back for the first time in this strike for our show, that may have my name on it but this is bigger than just me.” It is clear that Barrymore’s somewhat confusing statement was not written by guild writers. It seems that Barrymore was trying to say that the decision to resume shooting was taken seriously, and that there are a tremendous number of people working on the show who would be affected by its hiatus. Theoretically, the show without writers would include more improv and less structured segments. Barrymore added, “I own this choice. We are in compliance with not discussing or promoting film and television that is struck of any kind.” Despite the language (“compliance”) that makes it seem like The Drew Barrymore Show was following the Writers Guild of America’s rules, the guild pointed out that same day that the program “is a WGA covered, struck show that is planning to return without its writers.” The Writers Guild said that it would begin picketing the show that week (the week of September 11) and added, “The Guild has, and will continue to, picket struck shows that are in production during the strike. Any writing on The Drew Barrymore Show is in violation of WGA rules.” Barrymore’s word salad statement and the WGA’s clear reply whipped up negative responses to Barrymore’s decision to return her show to the air. Prominent writers and guild members pointed out that Barrymore, who is a multi-generation nepo baby and Hollywood star, could cover her staff’s expenses and stand in solidarity with the writers’ strike. Others suggested that Barrymore and the show’s team were trying to obfuscate some very obvious scabbing with some tricky wording. There was also chatter about how this was an about-face for Barrymore, who had previously stepped down as the host of the MTV Movie Awards in May as an act of solidarity with writers. In response to Barrymore’s decision, the National Book Foundation said she would no longer host the National Book Awards on November 15. “The National Book Awards is an evening dedicated to celebrating the power of literature, and the incomparable contributions of writers to our culture,” the organization wrote in a statement. “In light of the announcement that The Drew Barrymore Show will resume production, the National Book Foundation has rescinded Ms. Barrymore’s invitation to host the 74th National Book Awards Ceremony.” Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images The picket line last week in front of The Drew Barrymore Show. Facing mounting criticism, Barrymore — barefaced with hair undone, not unlike Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis in their own recent mea culpa video — posted an apology video on Instagram stating that she was sorry for the hurt she had caused, but was going to own the decision to continue the show. “I didn’t want to hide behind people. So I won’t. I won’t polish this with bells and whistles and publicists and corporate rhetoric. I’ll just stand out there and accept and be responsible,” Barrymore said in the video. She added, “This is bigger than me. And there are other people’s jobs on the line.” That Barrymore has since deleted the apology video speaks to how ineffective it was at quelling the backlash. By saying that she heard people’s valid complaints about inequity and treating writers fairly, and then telling people that she was going to push the show through regardless, Barrymore threw gasoline on an open flame. The chorus about her scabbing, not standing up for workers’ rights, and betraying the writers that work for her grew even louder — so loud that it’s now very difficult to find the video on the internet. On Sunday night, September 17, one week after Barrymore announced her show would begin shooting, the host posted on social media that she had reconsidered and would be pushing back her show’s return. “I have listened to everyone, and I am making the decision to pause the show’s premiere until the strike is over,” she wrote, apologizing to her team. “We really tried to find our way forward. And I truly hope for a resolution for the entire industry very soon.” As of this week, it’s the only message about the strike that appears on Barrymore’s Instagram that hasn’t been deleted. Why it’s worse for Drew Barrymore While the general public’s reaction to Barrymore’s initial decision to bring back her show was something like the digital equivalent of rotten tomato-throwing, hers wasn’t the only show crossing the picket line. The View is continuing without WGA writers, and shortly after the Barrymore announcement, sentient smirk Bill Maher said he was also going to break the strike and get back to work (Maher, seemingly following all of Barrymore’s moves, on Monday announced that he would instead honor the strike and postpone his show). Non-WGA talk shows like Live with Kelly and Mark and Sherri have also resumed shooting. None of those shows got the pushback or scrutiny that Barrymore got. To be fair, none of those shows employed Barrymore’s ornate live-laugh-scab strategy of trying to soften and sentimentalize the decision to break the strike. They just went back to work. That raises the question of why there was so much throat-clearing by the movie star, and gets at the real issue: that Drew Barrymore has built an extremely successful brand for herself and central to that brand is her being a very good person. Her talk show and the way she speaks to her guests, many of whom are her famous acquaintances, is crucial to that. Over the course of her show, Barrymore has developed a no-bullshit, extremely human way of interviewing her celebrity guests. You can see it when she talks to Machine Gun Kelly about anxiety, vulnerability, and mental health. It’s there when she speaks to Brooke Shields about their complicated relationships with their mothers and growing up. And it happens again in Barrymore’s interview with Melanie Lynskey and her husband Jason Ritter, who spoke about his alcoholism and how it affected their relationship. Noam Galai/Getty Images for SiriusXM Drew Barrymore’s daytime TV show has been compared to therapy (positively). What makes Barrymore so good in these moments isn’t just that she has the ability to make her guests feel comfortable, extends genuine empathy, and guides conversation gracefully, it’s that Barrymore also isn’t afraid to acknowledge her own vulnerability — whether it be substance abuse or her rough childhood. She implicitly asks us to see her as a person who is also working to be better every day. Each episode you tune into, the more you get a sense that this talk show is part of Drew’s self-improvement, that it’s something she loves to do, and it brings her immense joy. Because Barrymore’s talk show has done such a good job of showing how good Barrymore is, it makes it harder to square with the act of crossing a picket line. This person who extends radical empathy in every moment of her life can’t seem to do the same for writers, who are grossly underpaid and undervalued? Something doesn’t compute. Barrymore’s image might be the reason why we didn’t get the full picture behind the scenes. What’s gone unspoken in the back and forth about the show is that Barrymore is under contractual obligations to produce episodes of her show. That is the nature of syndicated TV. “Hosts like Barrymore are under contract with major media production companies to perform their hosting duties, and like any regular job, they eventually have to show up to work,” Variety reported, explaining that local stations are paying licensing fees to carry The Drew Barrymore Show and daytime talk shows like it. “Syndicated talk shows are typically required to deliver 35 to 40 weeks of new episodes to their station partners. If they don’t, they can lose their show.” Therein is the problem for Drew Barrymore and a couple of other daytime television hosts that preceded her: There’s a gulf between the image of Drew Barrymore as a good person and the business of making The Drew Barrymore Show. People want to root for a good person, especially when they’re famous. The success of Barrymore’s show is evident of that. However, when a celebrity’s supposed goodness is the business (see: DeGeneres, Ellen), it sets a difficult expectation — one that is often revealed to be a lie. Good business decisions and good moral decisions are rarely going to be one and the same. It seems, though, that Barrymore has found herself a way out of this seemingly no-win situation. In the wake of Barrymore’s apology and promise to stand in solidarity with her writers, critics are now lauding Barrymore for recognizing her mistake and doing the right thing. She’s being praised for apologizing and setting an example. If you can’t always be good, I guess, the next best thing you can do is be sorry and be Drew Barrymore.
- Maren Morris distancing herself from country music underscores its existential crisisby Li Zhou on September 19, 2023 at 7:00 pm
Maren Morris performs during MerleFest at Wilkes Community College on April 29, 2023 in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. | Jeff Hahne/Getty Images “After the Trump years, people’s biases were on full display,” she told the Los Angeles Times. Maren Morris, a progressive chart-topping country and pop singer known for hits like “The Middle” and “The Bones,” has announced that she’s distancing herself from the genre of country music. Morris, an artist who’s been outspoken about her support of trans rights and abortion rights, said that her decision was driven by the fact that country music has refused to reckon with the sexism and racism that’s rampant among some artists and songs in the genre. “After the Trump years, people’s biases were on full display,” she told the Los Angeles Times in an interview. “It just revealed who people really were and that they were proud to be misogynistic and racist and homophobic and transphobic.” Morris’s announcement comes as a number of country singers have recently released hits with clear far-right and racist messages. Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town,” for example, was criticized for a music video and lyrics featuring racist dog whistling that slammed protests of police violence, and obliquely alluded to lynchings of Black people. [Related: What’s going on with these viral, right-wing country music hits?] The song briefly topped the Billboard Hot 100, a feat matched by Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which contained QAnon references, derision for the poor, and also seemed to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Ahead of each song’s debut, Morgan Wallen, one of country’s biggest stars, enjoyed 16 weeks in the top Billboard spot thanks to “Last Night,” a single from his third album and the first to chart since he was caught on video casually using the n-word. Aldean’s and Anthony’s songs in particular were celebrated by the right, with the latter even becoming the first topic discussed at the first GOP presidential debate. Both songs contain conservative themes and make implicit endorsements of right-wing policy, from the anti-Black Lives Matter, MAGA-esque messaging of Aldean’s song, to the limited government, fiscal conservatism of Oliver’s. Increasingly, country artists’ sympathy with far-right politics has been evident outside of lyrics as well: Morris previously got into a Twitter feud with Aldean and his wife, Brittany Aldean, after Brittany posted transphobic statements. Morris is one of a handful of high-profile female country artists who’ve taken very public political stances that aim to counter some of the racist, sexist, and homophobic biases that are increasingly associated with the genre. Others, including singers Kacey Musgraves and Kelsea Ballerini, have also spoken out in favor of issues like LGBTQ rights through their music as well as in performances. Mickey Guyton, the only Black woman to ever be nominated for a country Grammy as a solo act, has been vocal, too, about her experiences with racism growing up. Morris’s decision highlights the existential questions that country music continues to face: In the past, there’s been significant scrutiny regarding how the genre treats women artists and artists of color, including when it comes to how much radio play and institutional support they get. Such disparities — combined with the misogynistic and racially coded messages in certain country songs — have raised the question of whether the genre is actually willing to grapple with its problems and make room for everyone. Now, the success of Wallen, Aldean, and Oliver has made that question even more pointed. Country music is at a crossroads Even prior to the recent culture wars, country music has long been criticized for the genre’s unwillingness to fully confront its flaws on race and gender. Enduring points of tension include the lack of radio play that women and Black artists receive from country music radio stations, misogynist and racist lyrics, and a dearth of institutional support minority and women artists have received from awards shows and record labels. The imbalance in radio play has persisted for years and reduces the amount of exposure that women artists and people of color have, as well as their ability to have chart-topping hits. As The 19th reported, women artists made up just 11 percent of airplay in 2022 on the 156 country stations that report their data to Mediabase, according to a study from musicologist Jada Watson. That same study also found that Black women comprised just 0.03 percent of country airplay that year. A number of country artists have spoken out about this disparity before, as well as about problematic lyrics that are openly misogynistic or racist. In 2014, the country duo Maddie & Tae released “Girl in a Country Song,” a huge hit that confronted a number of these tropes including the idea that women were best suited to simply wear short skirts while riding along in pickup trucks. The genre’s problems with racism are also deep-seated. Early recorded country music saw music played by white people and Black people segregated by the color of the artist, despite being the same genre. And country music as a genre is founded on the appropriation of Black artists’ contributions by white artists. These issues have more recently manifested themselves in the treatment of Lil Nas X’s blockbuster hit, “Old Town Road,” which was removed from Billboard’s country chart for not being country enough, and which fueled outrage among some country fans who saw it as too much of a departure from the genre to be a part of it. Guyton, who openly spoke about racism in her single “Black Like Me,” has also been the target of abuse and harassment — including from people who say she doesn’t belong in country. Although country music has made some strides in dealing with these problems, and has seen a new generation of outspoken artists emerge like Musgraves and Guyton, these issues have also burst into full view with no clear path forward. And while recent hits have directed attention to systemic issues, much of the action taken in response to the songs’ dominance has been focused on the songs themselves, rather than a broader reflection on the genre itself. In response to the outcry that followed its rise in popularity, Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” music video was pulled by Country Music Television, for instance. For her part, Morris has been vocal about the need for country, as a genre, to firmly confront its promotion of bigotry and complacency to it. A new EP she released this past weekend alludes to these concerns: “[I’m] done filling a cup with a hole in the bottom,” she sings. “Music is supposed to be the voice of the oppressed — the actual oppressed,” Morris said in her LA Times interview. “And now it’s being used as this really toxic weapon in culture wars.”
- AI that’s smarter than humans? Americans say a firm “no thank you.”by Sigal Samuel on September 19, 2023 at 5:20 pm
Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the company that made ChatGPT. For Altman, the chatbot is just a stepping stone on the way to artificial general intelligence. | SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images Exclusive: 63 percent of Americans want regulation to actively prevent superintelligent AI, a new poll reveals. Major AI companies are racing to build superintelligent AI — for the benefit of you and me, they say. But did they ever pause to ask whether we actually want that? Americans, by and large, don’t want it. That’s the upshot of a new poll shared exclusively with Vox. The poll, commissioned by the think tank AI Policy Institute and conducted by YouGov, surveyed 1,118 Americans from across the age, gender, race, and political spectrums in early September. It reveals that 63 percent of voters say regulation should aim to actively prevent AI superintelligence. Companies like OpenAI have made it clear that superintelligent AI — a system that is smarter than humans — is exactly what they’re trying to build. They call it artificial general intelligence (AGI) and they take it for granted that AGI should exist. “Our mission,” OpenAI’s website says, “is to ensure that artificial general intelligence benefits all of humanity.” But there’s a deeply weird and seldom remarked upon fact here: It’s not at all obvious that we should want to create AGI — which, as OpenAI CEO Sam Altman will be the first to tell you, comes with major risks, including the risk that all of humanity gets wiped out. And yet a handful of CEOs have decided, on behalf of everyone else, that AGI should exist. Now, the only thing that gets discussed in public debate is how to control a hypothetical superhuman intelligence — not whether we actually want it. A premise has been ceded here that arguably never should have been. “It’s so strange to me to say, ‘We have to be really careful with AGI,’ rather than saying, ‘We don’t need AGI, this is not on the table,’” Elke Schwarz, a political theorist who studies AI ethics at Queen Mary University of London, told me earlier this year. “But we’re already at a point when power is consolidated in a way that doesn’t even give us the option to collectively suggest that AGI should not be pursued.” Building AGI is a deeply political move. Why aren’t we treating it that way? Technological solutionism — the ideology that says we can trust technologists to engineer the way out of humanity’s greatest problems — has played a major role in consolidating power in the hands of the tech sector. Although this may sound like a modern ideology, it actually goes all the way back to the medieval period, when religious thinkers began to teach that technology is a means of bringing about humanity’s salvation. Since then, Western society has largely bought the notion that tech progress is synonymous with moral progress. In modern America, where the profit motives of capitalism have combined with geopolitical narratives about needing to “race” against foreign military powers, tech accelerationism has reached fever pitch. And Silicon Valley has been only too happy to run with it. AGI enthusiasts promise that the coming superintelligence will bring radical improvements. It could develop everything from cures for diseases to better clean energy technologies. It could turbocharge productivity, leading to windfall profits that may alleviate global poverty. And getting to it first could help the US maintain an edge over China; in a logic reminiscent of a nuclear weapons race, it’s better for “us” to have it than “them,” the argument goes. But Americans have learned a thing or two from the past decade in tech, and especially from the disastrous consequences of social media. They increasingly distrust tech executives and the idea that tech progress is positive by default. And they’re questioning whether the potential benefits of AGI justify the potential costs of developing it. After all, CEOs like Altman readily proclaim that AGI may well usher in mass unemployment, break the economic system, and change the entire world order. That’s if it doesn’t render us all extinct. In the new AI Policy Institute/YouGov poll, the “better us than China” argument was presented five different ways in five different questions. Strikingly, each time, the majority of respondents rejected the argument. For example, 67 percent of voters said we should restrict how powerful AI models can become, even though that risks making American companies fall behind China. Only 14 percent disagreed. Naturally, with any poll about a technology that doesn’t yet exist, there’s a bit of a challenge in interpreting the responses. But what a strong majority of the American public seems to be saying here is: just because we’re worried about a foreign power getting ahead, doesn’t mean that it makes sense to unleash upon ourselves a technology we think will severely harm us. AGI, it turns out, is just not a popular idea in America. “As we’re asking these poll questions and getting such lopsided results, it’s honestly a little bit surprising to me to see how lopsided it is,” Daniel Colson, the executive director of the AI Policy Institute, told me. “There’s actually quite a large disconnect between a lot of the elite discourse or discourse in the labs and what the American public wants.” And yet, Colson pointed out, “most of the direction of society is set by the technologists and by the technologies that are being released … There’s an important way in which that’s extremely undemocratic.” He expressed consternation that when tech billionaires recently descended on Washington to opine on AI policy at Sen. Chuck Schumer’s invitation, they did so behind closed doors. The public didn’t get to watch, never mind participate in, a discussion that will shape its future. According to Schwarz, we shouldn’t let technologists depict the development of AGI as if it’s some natural law, as inevitable as gravity. It’s a choice — a deeply political one. “The desire for societal change is not merely a technological aim, it is a fully political aim,” she said. “If the publicly stated aim is to ‘change everything about society,’ then this alone should be a prompt to trigger some level of democratic input and oversight.” AI companies are radically changing our world. Should they be getting our permission first? AI stands to be so transformative that even its developers are expressing unease about how undemocratic its development has been. Jack Clark, the co-founder of AI safety and research company Anthropic, recently wrote an unusually vulnerable newsletter. He confessed that there were several key things he’s “confused and uneasy” about when it comes to AI. Here is one of the questions he articulated: “How much permission do AI developers need to get from society before irrevocably changing society?” Clark continued: Technologists have always had something of a libertarian streak and this is perhaps best epitomized by the ‘social media’ and Uber et al era of the 2010s — vast, society-altering systems ranging from social networks to rideshare systems were deployed into the world and aggressively scaled with little regard to the societies they were influencing. This form of permissionless invention is basically the implicitly preferred form of development as epitomized by Silicon Valley and the general ‘move fast and break things’ philosophy of tech. Should the same be true of AI? That more people, including tech CEOs, are starting to question the norm of “permissionless invention” is a very healthy development. It also raises some tricky questions. When does it make sense for technologists to seek buy-in from those who’ll be affected by a given product? And when the product will affect the entirety of human civilization, how can you even go about seeking consensus? Many of the great technological innovations in history happened because a few individuals decided by fiat that they had a great way to change things for everyone. Just think of the invention of the printing press or the telegraph. The inventors didn’t ask society for its permission to release them. That may be partly because of technological solutionism and partly because, well, it would have been pretty hard to consult broad swaths of society in an era before mass communications — before things like a printing press or a telegraph! And while those inventions did come with perceived risks, they didn’t pose the threat of wiping out humanity altogether or making us subservient to a different species. For the few technologies we’ve invented so far that meet that bar, seeking democratic input and establishing mechanisms for global oversight have been attempted, and rightly so. It’s the reason we have a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and a Biological Weapons Convention — treaties that, though they’re struggling, matter a lot for keeping our world safe. While those treaties came after the use of such weapons, another example — the 1967 Outer Space Treaty — shows that it’s possible to create such mechanisms in advance. Ratified by dozens of countries and adopted by the United Nations against the backdrop of the Cold War, it laid out a framework for international space law. Among other things, it stipulated that the moon and other celestial bodies can only be used for peaceful purposes, and that states can’t store their nuclear weapons in space. Nowadays, the treaty comes up in debates about whether we should send messages into space with the hope of reaching extraterrestrials. Some argue that’s very dangerous because an alien species, once aware of us, might oppress us. Others argue it’s more likely to be a boon — maybe the aliens will gift us their knowledge in the form of an Encyclopedia Galactica. Either way, it’s clear that the stakes are incredibly high and all of human civilization would be affected, prompting some to make the case for democratic deliberation before any more intentional transmissions are sent into space. As Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist who studies the ethics of space exploration, put it in an interview with the New York Times, “Why should my opinion matter more than that of a 6-year-old girl in Namibia? We both have exactly the same amount at stake.” Or, as the old Roman proverb goes: what touches all should be decided by all. That is as true of superintelligent AI as it is of nukes, chemical weapons, or interstellar broadcasts. And though some might argue that the American public only knows as much about AI as a 6-year-old, that doesn’t mean it’s legitimate to ignore or override the public’s general wishes for technology. “Policymakers shouldn’t take the specifics of how to solve these problems from voters or the contents of polls,” Colson acknowledged. “The place where I think voters are the right people to ask, though, is: What do you want out of policy? And what direction do you want society to go in?”
- Google’s free AI isn’t just for search anymoreby Sara Morrison on September 19, 2023 at 4:31 pm
Google’s new Bard extensions might get more eyes on its generative AI offerings. | Leon Neal/Getty Images Microsoft was first to AI search, but Google’s Bard can now pull stuff in from Gmail, Docs, Maps, and more. The buzz around consumer generative AI has died down since its early 2023 peak, but Google and Microsoft’s battle for AI supremacy may be heating up again. Both companies are releasing updates to their AI products this week. Google’s additions to Bard, its generative AI tool, are live now (but just for English speakers for the time being). They include the ability to integrate Bard into Google apps and use it across any or all of them. Microsoft is set to announce AI innovations on Thursday, though it hasn’t said much more than that. The updates may give us a better idea of how we’re most likely to use generative AI in our daily lives. Instead of assisting us with searching the internet and generating blocks of text based on the results, they’ll be embedded in apps we use all the time, combing through our lives to assist us with our various tasks. That is, they’ll be less of a party trick and more of a party planner. “What we’ve learned over the first six months led us to this moment,” Jack Krawczyk, product lead for Bard, told Vox. “A pretty profound and pivotal moment in the very, very short history of consumer language models.” One of the biggest new Bard features is Bard Extensions, which lets users add Bard to Google tools and apps, including Gmail, Drive, YouTube, Maps, Flights, and Hotels. “We’re allowing people, as they’re collaborating with Bard, to bring in content from their Gmail, from Docs, from Google Drive,” Krawczyk said. Google’s examples of how this might work include planning a trip across Gmail, Flights, Hotel, and YouTube (travel planning seems to be everyone’s favorite use case, though results may vary), as well as pulling information from a résumé stored on Google Drive and summarizing it to help write a cover letter in Docs or Gmail. Google’s enterprise product, Workspace, had some generative AI integrations already with its Duet AI, but not across all of these apps and not available to the general public, as Bard’s now are. To access Bard’s new features, go to Bard’s dedicated site. If you don’t get a prompt notifying you about the extensions, click on the puzzle piece icon in the top right corner. Click “continue” and then “connect” and you’ll be taken to a set of toggles that lets you turn the extensions on or off. If you’re not comfortable giving Bard access to your emails, for instance, you can turn “Google Workspace” off. Google screenshot Bard’s extensions control panel. What’s coming from Microsoft is less clear, but the company has already integrated generative AI into various Microsoft products. Those tools are for its enterprise customers, though, and they come at a cost: Generative AI-enhanced LinkedIn is available for premium subscribers; users have to pay to add Copilot to Microsoft 365 (which is itself a paid service), and there’s even an “enterprise” version of Bing Chat. If the goal is widespread adoption by consumers, free is going to reel in a lot more of them than something that costs money. This also assumes that Microsoft, which is very much an enterprise software company, is even going for the general consumer beyond its Bing ambitions. Taken in tandem and depending on what Microsoft has to say on Thursday, these can also be seen as the second wave of major AI announcements from those companies since the big unveiling of internet search integration early this year that kicked off the AI Search Race. Google, and especially Microsoft, hailed AI search as the future of internet search, but it doesn’t seem to have set the world on fire. Microsoft’s Bing saw only a tiny traffic bump. Google’s Bard isn’t as integrated into Google search as Bing’s chatbot is into Bing, and it’s still labeled “experimental.” It feels more like something Google is offering to people who already know it’s there and just want to give it a try, while Bing is pushing Bing Chat as a feature of its search that it wants as many people as possible to use. It’s understandable why Microsoft pushed the new Bing so hard: It had a partnership with the hottest company in the field, OpenAI, and, with Google dominating so much of the search market, Microsoft had very little to lose if Bing Chat flopped and a lot to gain if it caught on. But Google’s more reserved approach might’ve been the right one in the end. Generative AI continues to struggle with hallucinations that make it an unreliable source of information. It’s also not clear how many people really want their internet search engines to come up with text responses that attempt to summarize the whole of the internet rather than links pointing to the outside authorities from which chatbots scrape their data. Another new Bard feature seems to take the last several months of chatbot foibles into account: The “Google it” button under Bard responses can now be used to help double-check its accuracy. Statements it can verify are highlighted in green if Bard finds links that back them up and orange if it finds links that say something different. “People are much more willing to interact and collaborate when they know someone is willing to admit ‘I’m not confident about this’ or ‘I made a mistake,’” Krawczyk said. It is, if nothing else, a nod to the significant accuracy issues that chatbots have demonstrated, which makes them difficult to trust as the collective knowledge summarizers they were touted as, especially when it came to searching the internet. Perhaps when the source data is users’ own emails and docs, and the requests are for writing based on summaries of those things, users will be more willing to integrate them into their daily lives and tasks. Then again, we’ve seen AI personal assistants before — including from Google — and they never really caught on the way their developers hoped they would. Generative AI assistants might go the same way. Or they might fulfill the promise that old-school AI assistants never did. “A language model is going to be able to integrate in with your personal life,” Krawczyk said. “We’re used to technology doing things for us … Bard is doing things with us.” Now we’ll see who wants that integration and what they use it for. Update, September 19, 12:30 pm: This story now includes instructions for how to turn Bard extensions on.
- The US hired a leading economist to fix how it allocates foreign aid. Here’s his plan.by Dylan Matthews on September 19, 2023 at 11:00 am
New USAID chief economist Dean Karlan. | Yale/ Michael Marsland Dean Karlan explains his plan to get USAID to take evidence more seriously. The US spends more, in absolute dollars, on foreign aid than any other rich nation. But a lot of development experts question whether the primary American aid institution, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is spending its budget in a way that helps the most people, most effectively. USAID relies heavily on a small number of well-connected contractors to deliver most aid, while other groups are often deterred from even applying by the process’s complexity. Use of rigorous evaluation methods like randomized controlled trials — where development programs are tested on a random subset of the target population to see if they work — are the exception, not the norm. If the goal is for the vast majority of USAID’s $41 billion-odd annual budget to go to proven, evidence-based programs implemented in a cost-effective way, a goal that its administrators have shared for decades, there’s still a long way to go. One of the agency’s current leaders tasked with changing this status quo is its chief economist, Dean Karlan. At the time of his appointment last year, Karlan was already a giant in the field of development economics. He founded Innovations for Poverty Action, one of the most influential research groups conducting rigorous evaluations of anti-poverty interventions in the developing world, and has taught at Princeton, Yale, and most recently Northwestern. His papers have touched on everything from efforts to increase household savings in the Philippines to agricultural insurance in Ghana to entrepreneurship classes in Peru. His appointment was perceived as a major victory for people in and around USAID who want its programs to rely more on rigorous evidence, and Karlan reached out to Future Perfect for his first public interview on his approach to the job. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows. Dylan Matthews I’m curious about how one goes about integrating evidence into the USAID spending process. What’s your model of how that works? How does the agency budget go from unallocated to allocated to specific projects? And where are the points where you can inject evidence into that? Dean Karlan There’s one punchline philosophy, which is to apply a bit of behavioral economics to the process. The mantra of applied behavioral economics is to make it easy. Make it easy for people to do the thing that they would say they want to do in a moment of deep reflection and full information. That doesn’t actually tell you much, but it does tell you that we’re trying to understand the processes that are in place, and how to get information in the right way to the right people at that right point in time. I was really overwhelmed with welcome emails, welcome notes, welcome sentiments. There’s a lot of like-minded people in USAID. I’m not saying it’s been perfect, but there’s been a lot of welcoming people who say, “I want to make these changes, here’s where the challenges have been.” We have not produced in academia the kinds of “how-to” guides dialed into the kinds of things USAID does. It’s not the nature of what academics do. Some of what we need to do is more meta-analysis, more and more synthesizing of the existing research to the specific kinds of programs that USAID does. It’s not just a collection of interesting papers, but more prescriptive. That’s part of what I mean by “make it easy.” Say you’re a really enterprising person in a [USAID country] mission, and said, “I’m going to go read Dean’s paper on financial inclusion.” My paper was not really dialed in to them in a way that would lend itself to saying, “What exactly do I stick in this request for proposals as an activity design?” That’s one set of work. Some of it is about is about culture change and some of it is about education. It’s taking people who are super eager, but just not as exposed to what constitutes strong evidence and what’s weak evidence. One of the most important shifts is recognizing that when we talk about using evidence, we’re not talking about using USAID evidence. We’re talking about using the global evidentiary base. There’s a kind of a cultural instinct, when you ask, “What’s the evidence we have on X,” to look inside USAID and what USAID has produced. In fact, evidence is evidence. Who cares who paid for it? The cash studies are a perfect example of this. Sure, USAID has some landmark projects, which are super exciting. But the fact is, that’s something like 5 or 10 percent of the evidentiary base of the impact of cash transfer programs. So if you want to know what to expect from giving out cash to people, you don’t just look at the things that USAID paid for. Dylan Matthews Sometimes what people mean by “effectiveness” versus “cost-effectiveness” versus “evaluation” versus “impact evaluations” can get a little muddled. There are subtle but very important distinctions between these things. What’s the bar you’re setting? What kinds of evidence and information do you want and what are some examples of of evidence or information that would fall short of that standard? Dean Karlan So let’s take programs at the household or the community delivery level, where there’s some service — could be in-kind, could be cash, could be a training, could be a community meeting — but there’s some delivery of a service. Dylan Matthews Can you give an example of that kind of evaluation? Examples of “does it work” evaluations are easier to think of, at least for me. You imagine a graduation program, say, where recipients get cash or other assets and some training in hopes they “graduate” out of extreme poverty. We’ve had randomized trials testing if that works. What’s a trial that estimates how best to set up a given program? Dean Karlan One example you just named: graduation programs. Inside the evaluation, there was a test of group versus individual high-frequency meetings with households, to help with the income-generating activities that the program was trying to promote. Say I have three goats. I want to someday have seven goats and then 10 goats. I’m building a plan to get there and having regular check-ins to help deal with issues that might be arising and help these households think about how to stay on track. There were two competing ways of doing that. One is to hold individual meetings. The other is as a community. One thinking on individual meetings is that the households might get more customized, tailored information. They might also have things that are private that they don’t want to share publicly. On the other hand, the group meeting might help build social capital. It might help people learn from each other’s issues. On the cost side, group meetings are cheaper because one field agent goes and has one meeting with many people at once. So there’s a clear trade-off, and we didn’t know the answer. We’ve now seen this tested in two different instances on the same program. In both instances, it made absolutely no difference, which means “do groups” because those are cheaper to do. Dylan Matthews What are some of the biggest barriers to integrating evidence that USAID staff have brought up to you? What makes it not easy? Dean Karlan One answer is a lack of good synthesis. One of the biggest bottleneck issues is that there isn’t a step in the process for [evidence]. In the process of issuing an award, there’s no step that says, “And now check and see, of the proposed activities, what’s the cost-effectiveness estimate that we have?” That’s not an explicit step. There’s are also bandwidth issues; there’s a lot of competing demands. Some of these demands relate to important issues on gender, environment, fairness in the procurement process. These add steps to the process that need to be adhered to. What you end up with is a lot of overworked people, and then you’re saying, “Here’s one more thing to do.” It’s really important that we make that step, ideally, a negative cost step. Dylan Matthews A recent internal review suggested not just that the share of USAID projects getting a formal impact evaluation is low, but the share of impact evaluations rated high quality is very low — about 3 percent. What’s your diagnosis there? Is it a lack of training? Is it unclear expectations about what makes an evaluation high quality? Dean Karlan I think there’s some misinformation about what makes something high quality. But I also don’t think that’s the core problem we face. I do expect and want to see more impact evaluations done at USAID. Don’t get me wrong. That is a goal. I don’t care what proportion of our awards get impact evaluations. That’s not a metric that’s important to me. What’s important to me is, are there evidence gaps where we, USAID, could help fill them? If we are in a good position to learn more, then that is a great opportunity for us to have an even bigger impact than our award, by helping to produce knowledge in that area. That’s not measured by what proportion of our awards are we doing impact evaluations on. Let’s take teaching at the right level in education as an example, or cash transfers would be another one. Cash transfers had 50, 100 or so randomized trials done on them. Teaching at the right level, not as many, but maybe a dozen. There are cases where we might be doing those, and there’s not a good argument for why we should do an impact evaluation. We should do a process check to make sure that we’re delivering what was delivered. But asking the big picture question about what the impact is, is just adding a drop in an already fairly full bucket of information about the impact of those activities. So that’s a good example of where, you know, 3 percent is too high. I’m not saying three percent is high globally for USAID. I do think the number should be higher. But the point is, it should be guided by where we can be learning something that helps the world, not by just counting our awards and saying what proportion of them have impact evaluations.
- Sound of Freedom wants to raise awareness about child trafficking. Here’s what it’s really doing.by Aja Romano on September 18, 2023 at 9:40 pm
A promotional image for Sound of Freedom. The movie has been an unexpected box office hit thanks to word of mouth from conservatives. | Angel Studios Is a movie still just a movie if it becomes a culture war battleground? Usually when the culture war comes to the movies, it’s in the form of conservative backlash to films they perceive as too liberal. Increasingly, however, conservative filmmakers, often working outside of Hollywood’s studio system, are grabbing the spotlight with unexpected hits, some packed with ideology and tinged with hallmarks of the modern right-wing worldview: moral panic, hints of vast leftist conspiracies, and a sense of persecution. The latest surprise right-wing hit to tick these bingo squares is Sound of Freedom. The film stars Jim Caviezel in the very (very) loosely true story of Tim Ballard, who founded the controversial anti-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad, or OUR. Coasting on word of mouth and a mountain of free publicity from influential supporters like Elon Musk and Mel Gibson, Sound of Freedom went head to head against Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny in its July 4 opening weekend and wound up reportedly out-earning the Harrison Ford-led sequel by several million on opening day (if its maker Angel Studios’ on-site accounting is to be believed). It’s since gone on to earn nearly $50 million. Not bad for an indie outsider. But Sound of Freedom has also generated a considerable amount of scathing left-wing backlash, aimed at both the movie itself, with its QAnon-adjacent rhetoric, and the film’s target audience. Multiple left-wing critics have spent parts of their reviews of the film itself denigrating the way its fans are watching it, with one critic seemingly appalled that audiences “acted like they were at Top Gun.” For their part, those audiences have flocked to the theater with the zeal of parishioners. Some fans have described attending the movie as a “duty,” while others have spun conspiracy theories that movie theaters are trying to prevent them from seeing the film — which, of course, just generates more determination to watch the film to spite the libs. Yet the patriotic zeal behind Sound of Freedom might mask more than murky political agendas: According to a report by Newsweek and the police report, one of the film’s financial backers was recently charged with accessory to felony kidnapping. And even more disturbing, well into the film’s theatrical run, Vice reported that Ballard had suddenly “stepped away” from his position as head of OUR for unknown reasons, despite still continuing to promote and do press for Sound of Freedom. In September, Vice ultimately confirmed with OUR representatives that Ballard had resigned from OUR on June 22, 2023, and was no longer affiliated with OUR in any way. The details come from an anonymous letter, first reported on by Vice and then made public by independent Utah journalist Lynn Packer on Packer’s YouTube channel on September 17. According to the letter, Ballard’s departure was prompted by an investigation into a sexual harassment complaint involving seven women filed against him by an OUR employee. The letter contains horrific allegations against Ballard, including that he used the aims of OUR — saving sex trafficking victims — to “deceitfully and extensively groom” female employees into role-playing as his “wife” during rescue trips. He would then use the ruse of being husband and wife to allegedly coerce them into performing sexual acts with him, including showering together, sharing a bed, and “doing ‘whatever it takes’ to save a child.” Clearly, there’s a lot happening around this film — and while Sound of Freedom ostensibly wants to create awareness about child trafficking, that theme has mostly gotten lost in all the noise. Sound of Freedom is its own, highly effective, hype machine Sound of Freedom was filmed in 2018 by director Alejandro Gómez Monteverde, but its release was delayed after Disney acquired its original distributor, Fox — a fact that has led to false rumors that Hollywood tried to shut the film down. When the film languished in Disney limbo, Angel Studios, a small independent film company based in Utah, stepped in. Angel has had a string of recent Christian hits like the 2019 streaming series The Chosen, which landed on Netflix, and His Only Son, 2023’s other Christian box office success. Angel partly crowdfunded the film’s $5 million distribution budget from “angel investors”, i.e., studio superfans like Tony Robbins. With all that indie outsider energy combined with the long delay in release, Sound of Freedom was primed to feed a meta-narrative about the right’s sense of oppression at the hands of the left. Still, while most mainstream media reviewers have either been dismissive of the film or ignored it altogether, Sound of Freedom has its unexpected champions. Variety called it a “solid,” “disquieting” thriller and praised Caviezel’s performance as his finest since The Passion of the Christ. At the root of the film’s power seems to be its “urgency” toward its subject matter; fans apparently leave the theater galvanized to proselytize on its behalf, spreading the word about the dangers and rampant devastation of child trafficking — and, most of all, about OUR and its all-important rescue missions. It’s a hype machine that’s not just a hype machine, but a patriotic, perhaps even divinely mandated, responsibility That evangelism plays right into film studio Angel’s marketing strategy, which encourages moviegoers to buy tickets for other would-be converts — in fact, after the film’s end credits, Caviezel himself urges fans to buy more tickets at the studio’s website in order to “make Sound of Freedom the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of 21st century slavery.” In the lead-up to its release, Angel anecdotally piggy-backed on a long tradition of Christian film marketing by targeting churches and encouraging block ticket sales in order to engage entire communities and spread word of mouth. (Some of the film’s detractors have disputed the movie’s box office success, noting that some theaters appear to be sold out when they aren’t, that user reviews on websites like IMDb read like bot spam, and that the online ticketing system Angel encourages fans to use may be vulnerable to manipulation.) In June, for the film’s July 4 release, Elon Musk offered the production free publicity; on July 1, Mel Gibson went viral for promoting the film. “The first step in eradicating this crime is awareness,” he intoned solemnly. “Go see Sound of Freedom.” It’s easy to see how emotionally charged all of this is — it’s a hype machine that’s not just a hype machine, but a patriotic, perhaps even divinely mandated, responsibility. Adjacent to this urgent, awareness-raising narrative, however, sits QAnon — the baseless extremist conspiracy theory that high-powered liberals and elites are trafficking children and harvesting their adrenalin in order to attain eternal life. Sound of Freedom doesn’t explicitly reference QAnon or any of its most common narratives, and Ballard has brushed off the connection — but in the same breath he speaks of liberals “running interference” for traffickers by creating such rumors. Arguably more damning: Caviezel’s open embrace of QAnon. The actor has repeatedly referenced QAnon rhetoric; he recently promoted Sound of Freedom on former Trump-admin and extremist Steve Bannon’s podcast by referencing the aforementioned (false) adrenalin harvesting, a.k.a. “adrenochroming.” He also recently defended QAnon by comparing its detractors to Nazi and Klan apologists. None of this directly links the film to QAnon. But it doesn’t help that reviewers who’ve been less than charitable about the film have been deluged with harassment from people calling them pedophiles and groomers. Rolling Stone’s Miles Klee, who, in his review, highlighted numerous examples of Sound of Freedom fans linking themselves to QAnon, told journalist Marisa Kabas that “the intensity of the death threats and pedophile smears outstripped any previous hate campaign I’ve experienced in my career.” (Disclaimer: Both Klee and Kabas are former colleagues and friends.) Still, Klee also noted that to the film’s fans he was just “a convenient embodiment” of evil for “a demographic that thinks child abusers and groomers make up the entire government, entertainment industry, and media, and all run cover for each other.” These two competing meta-narratives about the film have overshadowed the film itself. But if the primary objection to Sound of Freedom is that it’s a giant dog whistle for QAnon recruitment, then, the counterargument from its supporters usually goes that the film’s subject matter ought to transcend politics, despite how politically charged it is. After all, everyone should want to protect children, right? Well, not everyone. One of the film’s apparent financial backers, Fabian Marta, was arrested on July 23 on felony charges of accessory to child kidnapping in Missouri. If convicted, Marta could face a lengthy sentence, with a minimum of 10 years in prison. So the question then becomes: Is protecting children what Sound of Freedom is really valorizing? The real organization behind Sound of Freedom is also its own hype machine Sound of Freedom heavily fictionalizes the real-life figure of Ballard, a Mormon with a self-reported history of work with the CIA (unconfirmed per a Vice investigation) and Homeland Security, who founded OUR in 2013 out of a desire to do more to fight human trafficking. The group quickly made a splash via dramatic self-promotion, including producing a movie, The Abolitionist (2016), and a podcast, In the Trenches. In 2017, MAGA whisperer Jon McNaughton produced an infamous painting which depicts Ballard and a bevy of white people as modern-day Harriet Tubmans, carrying trafficked victims to freedom while Abraham Lincoln and a crowd of American patriots look on approvingly. OUR filmed at least one of its early sting operations, a faux house party which reporters actually attended and which Ballard has used to bolster his claims to expertise. This is one of the glitzier heroic moments that Sound of Freedom depicts onscreen. Calls to protect children are really about attacking left-wing ideology In reality, however, OUR has come under repeated scrutiny for making false claims about its exploits, including taking credit for missions and rescues it had no part in, failing to give adequate support to rescued survivors, falsely claiming partnerships with other rescue organizations, and being vague and obfuscatory about what its missions are and where its sizeable donor funds are going. (The organization claims this is to protect the safety of victims.) One Utah prosecutor spent years pursuing criminal charges against the group, though without ultimately bringing a case. In 2014, Ballard, then the CEO of OUR, allegedly used a psychic medium as his “source” for trying to locate a missing child. “He’s not making decisions tactically,” an anonymous source told Vice in 2021 about their experiences with Ballard. “He’s making decisions like a reality TV producer.” With the news emerging that Ballard has spent years using OUR as a grooming ground for women, it’s possible the project served as less of a public service and more like his personal vanity RPG; indeed, part of his alleged grooming strategy was to literally role-play husband-and-wife with various women while on rescue missions. That doesn’t mean, however, that Ballard’s crusade hasn’t been influential. In fact, it’s perfect for capitalizing on a cultural moment in which public concern about trafficked children is arguably at an all-time high. The ongoing spread of QAnon as well as the recent reappearance of classic anti-LGBTQ “groomer” rhetoric have given conservatives the ultimate perfect excuse to demonize liberalism. Just as Ballard’s real goal seems to be less about protecting children and more about promoting Tim Ballard, calls to protect children are really about attacking left-wing ideology, no matter how bizarrely unfounded such attacks are. Ballard himself has leaned all the way into these murky elisions; in 2020, he described QAnon to the New York Times as a positive development, helping people to “open their eyes” to the reality of human trafficking. That same year, he seemed to affirm a false conspiracy theory, created in QAnon communities, that the furniture retailer Wayfair was facilitating child trafficking. More recently, while promoting Sound of Freedom on Fox & Friends, Ballard claimed that allowing trans teens to transition would somehow lead to lowered ages of consent and implied that American immigration policies were leading to increased child trafficking. It is true that reports of illegal labor exploitation of migrant children have increased dramatically since the pandemic; however, reports of a widespread child sex trafficking phenomenon are false, a straightforward, old-school “think of the children” moral panic. Like all moral panics, this one gets used to justify hatred against perceived outsiders, in this case immigrants and queer and trans people. Can any of this just be about going to the movies? (Alas, probably not.) None of this should erase the horrifying reality of human trafficking or its impact on victims and survivors. Director Monteverde’s father and brother were both murdered by drug traffickers in 2015, so if anyone has a personal interest in making a film about the dangers of trafficking and the elite corruption that enables it, it’s him. Yet all of this debate erases another quirk surrounding Sound of Freedom — that without the film’s meta-narratives, it’s just a passably entertaining action thriller, a la Taken. If you don’t think too hard about it (why does Caviezel’s Ballard, as Klee observes, spend the whole movie talking about protecting children while fully ignoring his own?), it’s just a good time at the movies. But is that allowed? Are conservatives allowed to simply have fun at the movies, even if they’re having fun watching a film that reifies the extremist rhetoric in which they are steeped? Are liberals allowed to have fun at the movies if the dumb action flick they’re watching is also doubling as a conspiracy theory recruitment tool? Can the answer to both of these questions just be “yes,” simply because it’s summer and we’re all very tired, without some vital existential fight being lost? Can faith-based cultural products exist without also fomenting extremism — and would their target audiences even want them? Uncertainty over these concerns might be why some reviewers have been so harsh on audiences at Sound of Freedom for merely watching the film. Slate lowkey fat-shamed the audience (“The audience toted jumbo buckets of popcorn and trash can–sized sodas”) while Rolling Stone high-key age-shamed them. (“Nonetheless, the mostly white-haired audience around me could be relied on to gasp, moan in pity, mutter condemnations, applaud, and bellow ‘Amen!’ at moments of righteous fury … not even the occasional nasty coughing fit — and we had no shortage of those — could break the spell.”) Meanwhile, the audience can’t decide if they’re being oppressed because the theater is too hot or because the theater is too cold — but many of them seem convinced they’re being oppressed. And if, as one analyst told Variety, “The strong response to faith-based films reflects a demand by an underserved audience who are hungry for entertainment that reflects their values and beliefs,” then the question becomes one that many people of faith have grappled with: Can such faith-based cultural products even exist at this point, let alone serve their specific malnourished target audience, without also fomenting extremist rhetoric, bigotry, and attacks on progressive ideals? If such works can somehow manifest, would their target audiences even want them? It’s arguable that for many evangelicals and other conservatives, the answer would be no. The controversy and the sense of persecution that accompany these films only increases the dopamine high many get from rebelling against the evil mainstream media by … watching this fairly mainstream movie. These are conservatives, after all, whose worldview frames patriarchal norms as synonymous with strength and leadership, which is again synonymous with patriotism. The rugged individualism and masculine rogue operatives on display in Sound of Freedom are precisely tailored to cater to their views of idealized America; it must be profoundly validating to see such a fully formed conservative image of masculinity draped in the trappings of a typical glossy blockbuster. Still, that masculine heroism is by no means unique to Sound of Freedom; it’s not as though Hollywood has ever missed the opportunity to cater to conservative audiences with a strong male archetype. And it’s hard to feel too much pity for an “underserved” faith-based populace, given that conservative ideology, from Yellowstone to Green Book, still permeates mainstream Hollywood narratives. If audiences acted like they were at Top Gun, that’s arguably because they basically were. Just as films like Top Gun serve to keep us from criticizing America’s military-industrial complex, Sound of Freedom aims to keep us from scrutinizing hyperbolic, alarmist cries about child trafficking too closely. That, ironically, helps shut down useful conversation about the best way to effectively help curb trafficking. The point of such myths, after all, isn’t really to save children, but to create shrill narratives with which to demonize the left and other perceived outsiders. Just as OUR itself is something of a smokescreen, Sound of Freedom is ultimately a form of extremist propaganda — and that extremism is at least as dark and dangerous as the very thing Sound of Freedom wants to combat. Clarification, August 29, 12:30 pm ET: This story was originally published on July 14 and has been updated to clarify that investor Fabian Marta faces accessory to kidnapping charges. Update, September 18, 5:40 pm ET: This story has been updated to include allegations of sexual misconduct against Tim Ballard.
- The sexual assault allegations against Russell Brand, explainedby Li Zhou on September 18, 2023 at 7:30 pm
Russell Brand leaves the Troubabour Wembley Park theatre in northwest London after performing a comedy set on September 16. | James Manning/PA Images/Getty Images Four women have accused Brand of rape and sexual assault, all of which he denies. Comedian Russell Brand has been accused of rape and sexual assault by four women who detail incidents that took place over seven years, according to an investigation by the UK’s Sunday Times, the Times, and Channel 4’s Dispatches. Brand denied all allegations in a social media video he posted on Saturday, during which he claimed that these encounters were consensual. Brand is the latest high-profile figure to face such allegations as more and more people have spoken out about sexual abuse following the rise of the Me Too movement, which shined a light on sexual misconduct by powerful individuals, including film producer Harvey Weinstein. Following the release of the investigation, additional people have come forward with undisclosed allegations about Brand, claims the Times has said they are working to verify. In the original report, the three publications documented one allegation of rape and three allegations of sexual assault against Brand. These incidents allegedly took place between 2006 and 2013, and occurred while he was working for the BBC, on Channel 4, and in different films as an actor. The BBC and Channel 4 have since said they will be conducting internal investigations. Historically, Brand has been known for embracing a hedonistic, dirtbag persona as both a comedian and an actor. He’s perhaps most associated with starring in films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, formerly being married to pop star Katy Perry, and performing candid standup comedy in which he spoke about his drug addiction and sexual promiscuity. The allegations and additional context provided in the investigation underscore what appears to be a pattern of sexual misconduct by Brand as well as recurring abuses of power in his role as a media personality and comedian. The report also comes at a moment in which the enduring effects of the #MeToo movement are evident, as is the backlash it faces. The allegations against Brand, briefly explained There were four allegations in the initial report, which uses pseudonyms for all four women to protect their privacy. Nadia, a woman who had been intimate with Brand, describes being raped by him in his home after rejecting his suggestions of a threesome. She was treated by a rape crisis center following the alleged attack but declined to file a police report at the time due to concerns about her reputation and the backlash she could face. Nadia provided reporters with screenshots of text messages written after the incident, during which she wrote “when a girl says no, it means no,” and Brand replied that he was “very sorry.” Investigators also reviewed her medical records from the crisis center and subsequent counseling sessions to corroborate her account. Alice was 16, the age of consent in the UK, when she dated Brand, who was 31 at the time, and says that he once forced his penis down her throat. Alice said that she dated Brand for three months, during which she alleges that he “groomed” her and told her how to frame the relationship to her parents. In one sexual encounter at the end of their relationship, Alice said Brand sexually assaulted her when he shoved his penis in her mouth, even as she was pushing him away. She says she had to punch him in the stomach to get him off of her. Phoebe had previously had a sexual relationship with Brand, and described a sexual assault that occurred after it had ended. She says that she was working on a project at Brand’s house, during which he removed his clothes, pinned her down on his bed, and put his hand down her pants as she screamed for him to get off of her. She also says she encountered people outside Brand’s home as she was leaving, including one person who later said he heard screaming and apologized for not helping. A fourth person in the article described allegations of being sexually assaulted, as well as physical and emotional abuse. In addition to the reporting on the allegations, the investigation included hundreds of interviews with people who knew Brand or had previously worked with him. This reporting also included descriptions from other women of abuses by Brand, including that he flashed his penis at a person on the BBC set and that he threatened and shouted at women who refused to have sex with him. Additionally, it stated that Brand’s approach toward women was an “open secret” among those who worked with him in the industry and that past colleagues at Channel 4 felt their role was to help Brand meet young women. Only one comedian, Daniel Sloss, spoke on the record about his knowledge of the allegations against Brand. He discussed hearing rumors about Brand and said female comedians warned each other about his predatory behavior. Me Too has made key inroads but also faces significant backlash After the movement took off in the wake of a 2017 New York Times investigation, which documented decades of sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein — and led to him being convicted of third-degree rape and a first-degree criminal sexual act — it had a significant impact. In the years since, it’s helped raise awareness of sexual misconduct and emboldened more people to come forward. The movement, however, has faced backlash in recent months. Actor Johnny Depp, for example, saw a wellspring of public support during his defamation case against actress Amber Heard after she accused him of domestic abuse. He ultimately won that case. Actor Kevin Spacey was cleared of all charges in a high-profile abuse case in the UK in July. And comedian Louis CK, who was alleged to be a serial sexual harasser, is in the midst of a comeback. The right has also seized on the Brand allegations as what they say is an example of overreach by mainstream media. The comedian has been boosted by right-wing commentators like Tucker Carlson, Elon Musk, and Alex Jones, who have argued that he’s being attacked because he promotes so-called “alternative views” on his YouTube channel. Currently, Brand is a wellness influencer on YouTube and has previously elevated conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and Ukraine. There are also lingering questions about how the movement has fallen short in other ways, including whether it’s focused too much on sexual misconduct by individual celebrities versus the impact that such abuses have had on more vulnerable groups, particularly low-income women of color. As CNN noted, over 70 percent of female restaurant workers say they have been sexually harassed in the workplace, an issue that points to systemic and institutional problems that need to change. These issues have led to concern about the state of Me Too, as my colleague Constance Grady explained. In response to the Depp case, Me Too founder Tarana Burke emphasized that the “movement is very much ALIVE” and should be recognized for how many survivors it has helped come forward, rather than being measured by the outcome of specific cases. There are indications of its broader success as well. According to a 2022 Pew poll, 70 percent of people believe that perpetrators of sexual harassment or assault in the workplace are more likely to be held accountable now compared to five years prior. And per a 2021 AP/NORC poll, 54 percent of Americans are more likely to come forward about facing an act of sexual misconduct following the Me Too movement. The Me Too movement’s momentum has been apparent in high-profile cases, too. It was central to the push calling out the actions of Spanish soccer president Luis Rubiales, who forcibly kissed a female player after the team won the Women’s World Cup. Additionally, as the New York Times reported, it has helped bolster the passage of 22 state laws aimed at improving workplace safety and some that extend the statute of limitations for reporting sexual assault. This past year, writer E. Jean Carroll was able to bring a case accusing Trump of rape due to a Me Too-era change in New York state’s law, which allows people to temporarily bring some civil cases even if the statute of limitations has expired on an allegation. Now, the allegations against Brand appear to be a continuation of this impact.
- What’s the state of the Hollywood strikes?by Alissa Wilkinson on September 18, 2023 at 5:40 pm
Members of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA picket outside The Drew Barrymore Show on September 12, 2023. The show began taping new episodes on September 11, but on September 17, Barrymore announced that the show would not air and would shut down production. | Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images On the AMPTP’s identity crisis, Drew Barrymore, the fall TV calendar, and whether this will ever end. Trying to figure out what’s going on with the Hollywood double strike — both writers and actors are still on the picket lines — can feel like peering into a particularly muddled crystal ball. On the one hand, the unions have exhibited extraordinary solidarity; on the other, the AMPTP fired one crisis PR firm and hired another, and has denied rumors of division in its ranks. But onlookers are likely to have plenty of questions. Here are four of the most relevant, with what we know about the answers. So where are the Hollywood strikes at now, exactly? As of publication, both the WGA (the writers’ union) and SAG-AFTRA (the actors’ union) are on strike over a labor dispute with the AMPTP (the collective bargaining representative for Hollywood’s major studios and production companies). The WGA’s strike began May 2 and is its longest on record by a sizable margin. SAG-AFTRA has been on strike since July 14; its longest strike on record lasted six months, in 2000. The lengthy strikes have had serious economic repercussions, particularly on workers in Hollywood — not just those on strike — as well as those affected in one way or another. The studios are also feeling the pinch; in early September, for instance, Warner Bros. Discovery (helmed by the now-infamous David Zaslav) announced it expected a $300 million–$500 million hit to its 2023 earnings, despite its blockbuster Barbie becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Late last week, the AMPTP and the WGA announced that they were planning to resume talks this week. On Monday, September 18, they announced that talks would begin on Wednesday, September 20. Should the writers and the studios reach an agreement, it would likely form a template for the actors as well, and thus the strikes could end. Or they might keep going. What’s been going on with Drew Barrymore? In brief: On September 10, Barrymore announced that her very popular talk show would be returning to air, without its writers and “in compliance” with strike rules. She was roundly criticized for the move, and on September 15 she posted an emotional video response to the criticism without backing down. (It was later deleted.) Then on September 17, a day before the show was set to return, she announced that she’d changed course, and the show would not return until the WGA strike ends. The Jennifer Hudson Show and The Talk, both set to resume on September 18 as well, announced they wouldn’t return either. Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images Drew Barrymore in April 2023. To untangle what happened here, it’s worth getting the facts straight: while Barrymore is a member of SAG-AFTRA, her show (and others like it) is not part of the contract that SAG-AFTRA is striking over. So her mere appearance on the show would not itself be scabbing. In fact, by refusing to appear on the show, the network (the show airs on CBS and Paramount+) could technically sue her for refusing to fulfill her contract. (She’s a huge star, and they probably won’t, because they probably want her back when the strikes end.) However, her show is covered by the WGA contract. Her plan was to “not have writers,” which seems to mean that there would be no scripted segments and everything would be ad-libbed, including interviews. But as our colleagues over at Vulture point out, a big question here involves what “writing” actually means – and whether doing a show at all involves de facto scabbing. Barrymore seems to have come around to that idea. In any case, Drew Barrymore is hardly the only talk show host who thought about going back on the air. The View’s two writers covered by the WGA have been on strike, but the show has been airing, and thus it’s been picketed. Over at HBO, Bill Maher announced the return of his show, to considerably less hubbub than Barrymore – perhaps a testament to the difference in cultural perception of the two. But pressure, it seems, works: On September 18, Maher too announced that he’d delay the return of his show until the strike resolved. There’s precedent for all of this in the 2007-08 strike, when Ellen DeGeneres returned to air the day after the strike began, claiming her monologue was improvised. David Letterman’s production company cut a side deal with the WGA, which allowed his show and Craig Ferguson’s to return, while The Daily Show (hosted then by Jon Stewart) and The Colbert Report returned without writers as well, their hosts purportedly improvising everything on the spot. It’s safe to assume that the particular ire directed at Barrymore is a testament to her previously beloved status. As such, staying off the air is both an act of solidarity and an attempt not to completely tank her reputation. But the kerfuffle has had the effect of drawing the strikes back into public attention, at a moment that could prove crucial to the negotiations. Why doesn’t the AMPTP just give everybody what they want? That’s a great question, and one that everyone is asking. The easiest way to understand this, still, is what I wrote back when SAG-AFTRA joined the WGA on the picket lines in July: “The reality is that studios and production companies are increasingly embedded in larger corporations and tech companies that are beholden to shareholders, and the way they think and talk about profit and revenue is different from the way the people who take home a paycheck do.” Since then, I’ve thought a lot about another factor that may be in play here. It’s worth remembering that the AMPTP is not a union, the way the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are. In a union, members act in solidarity with one another. But the AMPTP is an association of directly competitive companies (like Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, Netflix, Apple, and many more studios and production companies), formed for the purpose of negotiating contracts with the unions. Allison Zaucha for the Washington Post via Getty Images SAG-AFTRA picketers in front of a Barbie poster in July. That is important to remember, largely because these companies have wildly different business models. If you’re in charge of movies and TV at Apple, your business is the teensiest slice of an enormous pie, and nobody’s counting on you to keep the business afloat; that’s what the AirPods are for. The stuff you make exists partly for prestige (Apple, for instance, was the first streamer to clinch a Best Picture win at the Oscars, and its TV shows like Ted Lasso have raked in the acclaim) and partly as a fun extra for people to watch on their new Apple gadgets. If you’re at a more traditional studio, though — say, Disney — then while movies and TV aren’t your only revenue source, they are the basis for everything else. You need to show profit to your investors to keep them interested, and the thing you make is what people most closely associate with your brand. If the strike were to wear on for a very long time, it would hurt both the Silicon Valley companies and the more traditional studios. But it’s pretty clear who would hurt more. I’ve never been asked to run a giant media company, but if I was the head of, I don’t know, Amazon Studios right now, I might be seeing an opportunity to hurt my competition. I cannot possibly claim that this is definitely happening, though the WGA certainly has made the case to the traditional studios that they should think about it, and observers have suggested it may be inevitable. In any case, it’s hardly out of the realm of possibility, and could be part of why there’s so much weird messaging coming from the AMPTP: the interests within the organization are divided. When will I be affected by the strike? You already have been affected by the strikes, though you might not have noticed. For instance, the Emmys, which were originally scheduled for September 18, were postponed and are now set for January 15, 2024. Not only does an awards show need writers, but people tune in to watch actors, who are prohibited from promoting struck work. Most people are counting on the strike having ended by then, but if it hasn’t, that may endanger the Oscars, which are currently set for March 10. Similarly, some movie release dates have been pushed forward, with their studios claiming they can’t adequately promote the films without the participation of their stars. Perhaps the biggest example is Dune 2, starring Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya; on August 24, Warner Bros. announced the film would be bumped from its late 2023 date and rescheduled for March 15, 2024. Similarly, Challengers (which also, oddly enough, stars Zendaya alongside Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor) was yanked out of its scheduled opening night berth at the Venice Film Festival, since its stars wouldn’t walk the red carpet in support of the film. Greg Doherty/WireImage Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya promoting Dune: Part Two at a red-carpet event during CinemaCon in April 2023, before the strikes began. The movie’s release date has since been postponed. But most movies are hanging onto their original slots, at least for now — and that includes everything from Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon (out October 20) to Wonka (out December 15). Furthermore, while the fall festivals in Venice and Toronto were a little anemic with most stars avoiding the red carpet, they weren’t entirely devoid of buzz. A24, for instance — which isn’t a member of the AMPTP — has managed to get waivers for its own productions, and its stars showed up to promote A24 films. That could have a huge effect on awards season if the strikes continue, since hand-shaking and post-screening panels can go a long way toward landing awards. And in all likelihood, you’re going to notice the strikes’ effects most in the fall TV season. A handful of previously shot scripted shows (like The Other Black Girl and The Morning Show) remain on the schedule, while others (such as Grey’s Anatomy or Abbott Elementary) won’t be back, for now. The late-night talk shows aren’t coming back yet, either. Instead, it’s mostly game shows and reality shows, neither of which are covered by the contracts the guilds are striking over. Documentary series may also premiere, and there are some shows in the can, like the newest season of American Horror Story, for which star Kim Kardashian crossed the picket line. (The work stoppage did eventually shut down AHS production, and this “season” will be part 1 of 2.) Of course, if you’re like me, your TV diet is mostly made up of shows you know you should have watched by now. You may stream them from some app, and you have very little idea when new shows premiere, or even what’s currently airing. So who knows if you’re going to see the difference — and if the strikes end soon, it may only register as a blip. But if the talks with the unions and the AMPTP break down, then the strikes seem likely to keep going. That content’s going to dry up. And what that means for Hollywood is still a big, glaring open question.
- The impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, explainedby Nicole Narea on September 18, 2023 at 4:01 pm
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaking at the “Save America” rally on October 22, 2022, in Robstown, Texas. | Brandon Bell/Getty Images The right-wing warrior may soon see his legal issues catch up with him. It could shape the future of the Texas GOP. Editor’s note, September 18, 2023: Ken Paxton was acquitted of all 16 articles of impeachment against him in the Texas Senate on Saturday, with only two Republicans joining Democrats in voting to convict on any single article. Our original September 5 piece on the charges Paxton faced is below. Ken Paxton, Texas’s Republican attorney general and an ally of former President Donald Trump, may soon see his long-running legal problems catch up with him. The Texas House voted to impeach Paxton in May, and on Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Texas Senate began Paxton’s impeachment trial, which focuses on allegations including dereliction of duty, bribery, and disregard of official duty. The trial represents an opportunity for moderate state Republicans to neutralize the powerful far-right wing that Paxton represents, and the result could help decide the state party’s trajectory in one of the nation’s biggest GOP trifectas. Paxton, who made his name filing high-profile lawsuits against the Obama and Biden administrations, has rallied some prominent Republicans behind him, including US Sen. Ted Cruz, former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon, and the former president’s son, Donald Trump Jr. “Today marks another milestone in Ken Paxton’s career of fighting the Austin Swamp and Establishment,” Trump Jr. tweeted Tuesday. “Ken will survive and will continue to combat the Swamp in Texas to put America First.” Many of Paxton’s right-wing allies have sought to cast his impeachment in the same light as the prosecution of Trump, and while Paxton himself has not been so direct, he has warned about “the weaponization of state power” — against the former president and, implicitly, himself. In that sense, the trial could become a microcosm of the national discourse around Trump’s presidential candidacy and reveal just what it might take for Republicans to break with a leader plagued with legal and political problems. While Paxton has his supporters, other Republicans — including former Bush administration adviser Karl Rove and former Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry — have supported the impeachment trial given the evidence that has piled up against Paxton. For years, the state party appeared willing to overlook Paxton’s legal problems so long as he was winning elections. That seems to have changed after he sought to use taxpayer funds to pay out a whistleblower settlement to his former deputies, respected Federalist Society lawyers who accused him of corruption. There have also been new revelations about Paxton’s alleged misdeeds that are difficult to defend: Lawmakers investigating him found that he took great pains to hide his mutually beneficial relationship with real estate investor Nate Paul, whom he allegedly helped shield from an FBI investigation using the powers of his office. Paxton has denied any wrongdoing and unsuccessfully petitioned the Texas Senate to dismiss all of the impeachment charges. Paxton was suspended from his duties back in May after winning a third four-year term. Lawmakers (excluding his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton) will decide whether to convict and permanently remove him from office in the coming weeks. They need a two-thirds majority in both chambers to do so following the trial. But this is Texas, where there is an enthusiastic Republican base, and the impeachment trial is an inherently political proceeding. The outcome of the trial may therefore hinge more on Republican senators’ political calculus than on justice. “Legislators are thinking about their electoral prospects, which is essentially their self-interest, and that is part of the process,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Who is Ken Paxton? Paxton is among the most prolific state attorneys general in the country, known for leading splashy, multi-state lawsuits against policies of the Obama and Biden administrations and wading into culture war battles. That includes lawsuits seeking to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and challenging the Affordable Care Act, as well as an investigation he spearheaded into a hospital that provided gender-affirming care to trans youth for unspecified “potential illegal activity.” Those lawsuits — some of which were successful — allowed him to rise to a level of national prominence that most state attorneys general do not have, earning him powerful allies. Last year, he won Trump’s coveted endorsement in his reelection fight, and also addressed a crowd of Trump’s supporters just before the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol. In June, Cruz told KETK that he thought the Texas House’s vote to impeach Paxton was a “travesty” and that the legal issues at stake should have been resolved in court instead: “We have a system in the court of law that can resolve those issues but every bit as importantly, these allegations were before the voters.” Bannon also told listeners on his podcast that the impeachment trial was just another witch hunt akin to what he believes Trump is facing with the four criminal indictments against him. “We want the entire MAGA movement to understand that what’s going on in Texas is not just about Texas,” he said earlier this month. These kinds of figures have long cocooned Paxton from the consequences of his alleged misdeeds, which span more than a decade. Indeed, the basic contours of the misconduct alleged by the Texas House panel that investigated him were already known to the public, well before any murmurs of impeachment. Voters still twice reelected him, albeit after a hard-fought primary last year. The question is whether the impeachment trial will change their minds. Why was Paxton impeached? The impeachment charges center on Paxton’s improper quid pro quo with Paul, an Austin real estate mogul who was indicted in June on eight felony counts of making false statements to financial institutions to obtain billions of dollars in loans. Paxton allegedly issued a last-minute legal opinion to help Paul avoid foreclosure sales on several of his properties during the pandemic and ordered his staff not to help law enforcement in investigating Paul’s business. He is also accused of sharing confidential records about a 2019 FBI raid on Paul’s properties with him. In return, Paxton allegedly got Paul’s help with a home remodel and with finding Paxton’s alleged mistress a job. Paxton, meanwhile, allegedly sought to hide his relationship with his alleged mistress and with Paul, leaving behind his security detail and using a burner phone, secret email accounts, and an alias on his Uber account. Those sordid details could prove particularly damaging for Paxton among the religious conservative voters he has long relied on. Lawmakers investigating Paxton have amassed almost 4,000 pages of evidence and promised additional revelations during the trial. Nominally, Paxton’s trial is about corruption. But behind the scenes, it’s also a showdown between warring factions of the Texas GOP. House Speaker Dade Phelan led more traditional Republicans in pursuing Paxton’s impeachment, perhaps perceiving that he could strike the state attorney general at a moment of weakness and reclaim power for himself and like-minded colleagues. How that power struggle plays out could determine whether the state party, which seems likely to maintain control in Texas for the foreseeable future, embraces the more moderate conservatism championed by the Texas speaker of the House, or Paxton’s far-right style of politics. Paxton has many other legal troubles The impeachment trial is only the latest episode in Paxton’s long list of legal troubles. Perhaps the most pressing case against him involves a 2015 accusation leveled by Byron Cook, a former Republican state legislator, and Florida businessman Joel Hochberg. They claim Paxton encouraged them to invest $100,000 or more in a technology company called Servergy Inc., without notifying them that he would earn a commission if they did so. This is alleged to have happened in 2011, while Paxton was a member of the Texas House. The indictment in that case alleges that Paxton “intentionally fail[ed] to disclose” that he had been given compensation in the form of 100,000 shares of Servergy stock, charging him with two counts of securities fraud. He was also charged with a failure to register with the state securities board. Paxton has denied the allegations in the case, which is still making its way through the courts all these years later. In 2020, the FBI opened a criminal investigation into the whistleblower claims that are the subject of the settlement that Paxton has pushed in the legislature. Paxton has said that he’s done nothing wrong and has accused the FBI of infiltrating his office. No criminal charges have been filed yet, but a federal grand jury in San Antonio called witnesses close to Paxton earlier this month. What the trial reveals about the Republican Party Paxton’s approval ratings have fallen in recent months, though less so among Republicans, who are still on the fence about the impeachment trial, according to the latest August polling by the Texas Politics Project: 47 percent said investigations of Paxton were based “mostly on the facts,” 28 percent said they were based “mostly on politics,” and a quarter offered no opinion. As far as the Republican state senators charged with deciding Paxton’s fate are concerned, those numbers create a problem: They don’t provide a slam-dunk political case for either removing him from or keeping him in office. “Those calculations are very hard to make,” Henson said. “It would be one thing if you could say, ‘70 to 80 percent of Republicans in the state love Ken Paxton and say it was wrong to impeach him and would be wrong to remove him.’ That’s not what the data is telling them.” That’s left state senators facing a conundrum in terms of determining what Republican voters actually want from the trial. Choosing wrong could mean facing an unwelcome primary challenger in the next election. Complicating matters is Republicans’ broader “fundamental distrust of institutions,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist in Texas. “Republican voters and activists don’t trust the media that is covering the stories around Trump and Paxton. They don’t trust the investigative bodies, the Department of Justice, the FBI. They don’t trust the prosecutors or judges, even if some of those were appointed by Republican presidents or got elected in Texas.” While Trump has been able to use that distrust to increase his base of support in the GOP primary, Paxton’s support hasn’t proved as durable in the leadup to the impeachment trial, Henson said. But the choices that Republicans, nationally and in Texas, make with respect to Trump and Paxton will reveal the extent to which the party is capable of holding its own to account.
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