Category Archives: rhetoric

Big Money: Robert Mercer and Trump

Jane Mayer is a national treasure.  A thoughtful investigative journalist for the New Yorker, Mayer has authored books on torture (The Dark Side) and on the Koch brothers funding the Tea Party uprising (Dark Money).  Mayer is scholarly, relentless and enthusiastic for details.

Her new essay in the New Yorker is a great write up on Robert Mercer, a hedge-fund financier (and his family) who helped to create and sustain Donald Trump.  The essay has a number of vital arguments to archive:

  1.  The Mercer family has been the money behind the rise of Breitbart and Steve Bannon.

“In 2011, Bannon drafted a business plan for the Mercers that called for them to invest ten million dollars in Breitbart News, in exchange for a large stake. At the time, the Breitbart site was little more than a collection of blogs. The Mercers signed the deal that June, and one of its provisions placed Bannon on the company’s board.

Nine months later, Andrew Breitbart died, at forty-three, of a heart attack, and Bannon became the site’s executive chairman, overseeing its content. The Mercers, meanwhile, became Bannon’s principal patrons. The Washington Post recently published a house-rental lease that Bannon signed in 2013, on which he said that his salary at Breitbart News was seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

Under Bannon’s leadership, the Web site expanded dramatically, adding a fleet of full-time writers. It became a new force on the right, boosting extreme insurgents against the G.O.P. establishment, such as David Brat, who, in 2014, took the seat of Eric Cantor, the Virginia congressman. But it also provided a public forum for previously shunned white-nationalist, sexist, and racist voices.”

Source: The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency – The New Yorker

2.  Those seemingly innocent “personality tests” on Facebook may have been part of the data-mining and political work of Cambridge Analytics.

“In 2012, one area in which the Republicans had lagged badly behind the Democrats was in the use of digital analytics. The Mercers decided to finance their own big-data project. In 2014, Michal Kosinski, a researcher in the psychology department at the University of Cambridge, was working in the emerging field of psychometrics, the quantitative study of human characteristics. He learned from a colleague that a British company, Strategic Communication Laboratories, wanted to hire academics to pursue similar research, for commercial purposes. Kosinski had circulated personality tests on Facebook and, in the process, obtained huge amounts of information about users. From this data, algorithms could be fashioned that would predict people’s behavior and anticipate their reactions to other online prompts. Those who took the Facebook quizzes, however, had been promised that the information would be used strictly for academic purposes. Kosinski felt that repurposing it for commercial use was unethical, and possibly illegal. His concerns deepened when he researched S.C.L. He was disturbed to learn that the company specialized in psychological warfare, and in influencing elections. He spurned the chance to work with S.C.L., although his colleague signed a contract with the company.

Kosinski was further disconcerted when he learned that a new American affiliate of S.C.L., Cambridge Analytica—owned principally by an American hedge-fund tycoon named Robert Mercer—was attempting to influence elections in the U.S. Kosinski, who is now an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s business school, supports the idea of using psychometric data to “nudge” people toward socially positive behavior, such as voting. But, he told me, “there’s a thin line between convincing people and manipulating them.”

It is unclear if the Mercers have pushed Cambridge Analytica to cross that line. A company spokesman declined to comment for this story. What is clear is that Mercer, having revolutionized the use of data on Wall Street, was eager to accomplish the same feat in the political realm.”

Source: The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency – The New Yorker

The rest of Mayer’s article is a great read.  Useful to keep a list of the right-wing funded “research” organizations that are thinly-veiled research firms designed to dig up (or create) dirt on an opponent.   It is also interesting how small the circle of funders, activists and decision-makers appears to be from this essay.

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Life of refinement endorses Bernie Sanders

Life of refinement endorses Bernie Sanders for President of the United States in 2016.  I agree with most of his politics, I think he will listen to constituents if elected and he hasn’t taken big money from large corporations.

As I follow the campaign I can see opinions about my home state of Vermont reflected in the political analysis of Sanders.  Take this quote from Edward Mccelland in Salon:

Also, he’s from Vermont, which vies with Utah for Least Typical State. Vermont is America’s version of The Shire, the Hobbit-populated land in “The Lord of the Rings”: a green liberal Zion with no cities, no minorities and no urban problems.

Source: My day with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton: Two Iowa rallies explain why Hillary may be about to blow a sure thing – Salon.com

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Best arguments from the supreme court hip hop brief

I grew up with the notion that hip hop was opposition to mainstream culture.  Regardless of lyrical content, hip hop (and hip hop fans) were deeply mocked and policed for years.  Rappers might have been saying mundane things but if you rhymed over beats, you carried the weight of the genre.

You could get in trouble for playing hip hop lyrics.  Radio stations would proudly broadcast that they played everything “except rap.”  There was a kind of stigma that stuck with hip hop artists and fans.   Hip hop concerts weren’t booked at Madison Square Garden until Jay-Z broke through with the Black Album.

It seems so clearly racist from my current perspective.

We might add in capitalism.  The nineties saw a rush to absorb, market and exploit hip hop culture by advertisers.  The stereotypes and old discourse lingered as hip hop became mainstream culture.

It doesn’t surprise me that the choice of hip hop as a medium stigmatizes the participant.  (It saddens me).

Taylor Bell, a thoughtful high school senior was informed that two PE coaches were commenting and touching female students, Bell wrote a rap song.  Instead of praising this whistle blower, Bell was kicked out of school and had to go to an alternative school for his senior year.

His eventual lawsuit hinges on the ability of a high school student to express their political views outside of school.  This seems like a first amendment no-brainer to me . . . so of course it is before the Supreme Court.

Killer Mike (Michael Render), Erik Nielson, Travis Gosa and Charis E. Kubrin submitted an supporting brief to the court.  Here are my favorite parts:

  1.  It is actually the bad words that disturb administrators, not the report of sexual harassment.

Following a lengthy decision-making process, Bell was suspended and sent to an “alternative school” by the school’s Disciplinary Committee. A Committee member suggested that Bell’s use of profanity in the song was the reason for his suspension: “Censor that stuff. Don’t put all those bad words in it . . . The bad words ain’t making it better.”

Source: Microsoft Word – 151206 Taylor Bell amicus 12-17-15.docx – Taylor-Bell-Amicus.pdf

2.  Hip hop is an alternative to fighting.

Hip hop—a cultural movement comprised of performance arts such as MCing (“rapping”), DJing (“spinning”), breakdancing (“b-boying”), and graffiti (“writing”)—began as a response to these dire conditions. Pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa (once a gang leader himself) used spiritual and political consciousness (“knowledge of self”) to develop hip hop as a tool for ending gang violence by providing an outlet that transformed the inherent competitiveness and territoriality of gang life into something artistic and productive. Dance competitions, rap battles, and other competitive performances replaced actual fighting , and rap in particular eventually became an alternative, legal source of income for blacks and Latinos otherwise cut off from labor market opportunities. Travis L. Gosa, The Fifth Element: Knowledge , in T HE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO H IP -H OP 56, 58-61 (Justin A. Williams ed., 2015).

Source: Microsoft Word – 151206 Taylor Bell amicus 12-17-15.docx – Taylor-Bell-Amicus.pdf

3.  Bell was intending to spread the word via hop hop.

Like Tupac Shakur, Taylor Bell was using his music to effect changes . In the final portion of the video for his song PSK da Truth , Bell says that in rapping about sexual misconduct at his high school, he is trying to raise awareness about similar injustices around the world: “It’s something that’s been going on, you know, worldwide for a long time that I just felt like, you kn ow, I needed to address.”

Source: Microsoft Word – 151206 Taylor Bell amicus 12-17-15.docx – Taylor-Bell-Amicus.pdf

4.  Threatening gun metaphors are widely used in hip hop.

When Bell raps, “fucking with the wrong one gon’ get a pistol down your mouth (Boww!),” he is channeling well-worn phrases used by popular and established artists like Lil Wayne (“Pistol in your mouth, I can not make out what you tryin’ to say”), Gucci Mane (“Put the pistol in ya mouth like dentures”), Waka Flocka Flame (“Niggas know I got a pistol in his mouth”), E-40 (“Put the pistol in his mouth and make it hurt, ooh”), and Scarface (“Put a pistol in his mouth, and blow his fucking brains out”). L IL WAYNE , Bill Gates, on I A M  NOT A HUMAN BEING (Young Money, Cash Money & Universal Motown 2010); GUCCI MANE , Texas Margarita, on BRICK FACTORY : VOLUME I (available for download from http://www.livemixtapes.com 2014); WAKA FLOCKA FLAME , Where It At, on DU FLOCKA RANT : HALF -TIME S HOW (available for download on http://www.livemixtapes.com 2013); SCARFACE , Diary of a Madman, on M R . SCARFACE IS BACK (Rap-A-Lot Records 1991); E-40, It’s On, On Sight, on T HE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE (Jive & Sick Wid It Records 1998).

Source: Microsoft Word – 151206 Taylor Bell amicus 12-17-15.docx – Taylor-Bell-Amicus.pdf

5.  Discourse influences stereotypes about hip hop: experimental studies

A handful of studies have examined the direct impact of these stereotypes. In these studies, people who are given identical sets of lyrics—but who are told these lyrics come from different musical genres—are asked about their perceptions of the lyrics. One study, for example, presented respondents with sexually explicit rap lyrics or sexually explicit non-rap lyrics. Importantly, the researchers discovered that the sexually explicit music was considered more offensive and less artistic when it was rap compared to when it was non-rap. Dixon & Linz, supra , at 234-35.

In a related study, participants read a set of lyrics from folk group Kingston Trio’s 1960 song, Bad Man’s Blunder , and were told that the lyrics were either from a rap or country music song. After reading the lyrics, participants evaluated them and responded to questions about the offensiveness of the song, the threatening nature of the song, the need for regulation of the song, and if the song would incite violence. The responses were significantly more negative when the lyrics were represented as 24 rap, revealing that the same lyrical passage viewed as acceptable in a country song is considered dangerous and offensive when identified as a rap song. Carrie B. Fried, Who’s Afraid of Rap: Differential Reactions to Music Lyrics , 29 J. A PPLIED SOC . PSYCH . 705, 711 (1999).

All of this research reveals that stereotypical assumptions play a far greater role in our decision- making than we may realize. And some of this stereotyping may account for what happened in this case. If we don’t work to acknowledge and, when necessary, combat these stereotypes, the consequences can be serious and life altering— particularly for a young man like Taylor Bell.

Source: Microsoft Word – 151206 Taylor Bell amicus 12-17-15.docx – Taylor-Bell-Amicus.pdf

***

I think this brief is a strong set of arguments.  It also makes several key arguments about hip hop and metaphoric violence that need further discussion.  Good opportunity for amplification and discussion.

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Sexism and corporate beef riding: Drake vs. Meek Mill

I have the faint sense that the Drake / Meek Mill ‘beef’ is a pre-planned public relations stunt.  Meek is dating Nikki Minaj a long time collaborator of Drake (via Young Money / Cash Money).   Both rappers have gained massive media attention and tons of new social media followers.  But I don’t know, it’s possible it started as a funny joke and then turned into a fight.  It’s also possible that this is a real scrap.

Given that the daily beef updates are worldwide news (CNN, New York Times, and dozens of ‘serious’ news outlets grabbed the story and have been breathlessly posting gossip and re-posting tweets).   It is worth checking out some of the themes that make this scrap significant.

  1.  Everyone sort of expected Meek Mill to do better against Drake.  It’s no secret that Drake is respected among hip hop folks, but seen as a johnny-come-lately former actor who sings his hooks.  He is a pop rapper, with the sales numbers and teenage fans to prove it.   This isn’t to take anything away from Drake, because in that formula has been a world dominating path to rap success.  In some ways beating Meek has been vital for his image.   His previous meme struggles had been the unerring connections of his rap career with his acting career.  Witness the Degrassi memes which swim around online Drake discussions.

2.  The key argument which seems to have ‘won’ Drake the battle against Meek Mill was just sexism.   Witness the lines from “Back to back:”

Is that a world tour or your girl’s tour?/ I know that you gotta be a thug for her/ This ain’t what she meant when she told you to open up more/ Yeah, trigger fingers turn to twitter fingers/ Yeah, you gettin’ bodied by a singin’ nigga/ I’m not the type of nigga that’ll type to niggas/ And shout-out to all my boss bitches wifin’ niggas/ Make sure you hit him with the prenup

via Drake – Back to Back Lyrics | Genius.

Cheap sexism — the idea that opening up for Nikki Minaj’s Pink print tour is too feminine to be legit for a real tough guy rapper.   Add in the suggestion in “Charged up” that Drake had sex (or never could) with Nikki Minaj and you’ve got perhaps the most over-used trope in rap.

I also think it is a clear insult to Nikki Minaj who is a phenomenal rapper and a stunning internet strategist.   That her success is an insult to Meek is also sexist.   The result was some ugly photo shop work to create images like this:

To mark the bodies as distinctly female and male with roles associated.  It is gender policing to suggest that any violation of these roles is unmanly or unfeminine.

3.  For some pitiful corporate social media coordinators, this beef has been an opportunity to interject their product.  Crappy corporate fast food chains have posted snarky jokes about beef and attempted to connect their brand to something current and edgy.   It seems trite to me, but the re-posts by passionate fans suggest that this branding strategy of riding the coattails has some significance.

I would call it trolling.  Corporations mock either Drake (usually Meek Mill) in a semi-related tweet hoping that fans will respond.  But that isn’t that far away from the origins of this beef — Meek attacking a target that seemed vulnerable at the time.

Much of the enthusiasm for the beef might come from the comeuppance of traditionalist rap sources (MMG, tough-guy rappers, Funk Master Flex (who has failed to emerge with much promoted Meek Mill responses) in favor of the new power in hip hop (pop media, savvy social media stars and mockery memes).   In some ways the internet makes this an accessible fight — one that encourages a certain amount of piling on.

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Fighting the trolls: Lindy West engages

I like Lindy West’s pop culture analysis.  She writes for a few online spots like Jezebel.  Feministing noted that she had been harassed by a troll who opened a twitter account in the name of her deceased father.  This is the feministing quote:

Lindy, who you might know from her writing at Jezebel and GQ, was trolled by someone who set up a Twitter account in the name of her dead father. She wrote about how awful that made her feel, and to her surprise, he wrote to her again – but this time, to apologize.

Then, she called him and interviewed him about what had gone through his mind when he decided to do what he did. And recorded it all. “It felt like if I could just get the specifics,” she says, “gather them up and hold them in my hands — then maybe I could start to understand all the people who were still trolling me.”

They talked for two hours, and by the end, she’d forgiven him for the terrible things he’d done – the meanest thing anyone has ever done to her. She understood what his life looked like at the time that he was trolling (he’s since stopped, he says) and she felt sorry for him. Still, she says, it’s disturbing to know that there was nothing wrong with him per se. “It’s frightening that he’s so normal,” she says. He’s not your idea of a monster, and unlike a fairy tale troll, he certainly doesn’t live alone under a bridge. He has women coworkers, and a girlfriend, and women friends. “They have no idea that he used to go online and traumatize women for fun.”

via “It’s frightening that he’s so normal.”.

In a Jezebel essay, West notes her reasoning to humanize and engage with trolls:

I feed trolls. Not always, not every troll, but when I feel like it—when I think it will make me feel better—I talk back. I talk back because the expectation is that when you tell a woman to shut up, she should shut up. I reject that. I talk back because it’s fun, sometimes, to rip an abusive dummy to shreds with my friends. I talk back because my mental health is my priority—not some troll’s personal satisfaction. I talk back because it emboldens other women to talk back online and in real life, and I talk back because women have told me that my responses give them a script for dealing with monsters in their own lives. And, most importantly, I talk back because internet trolls are not, in fact, monsters. They are human beings—and I don’t believe that their attempts to dehumanize me can be counteracted by dehumanizing them. The only thing that fights dehumanization is increased humanization—of me, of them, of marginalized groups in general, of the internet as a whole.

via Don’t Ignore the Trolls. Feed Them Until They Explode..

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Americans are vampires: Ebola edition

I ran across a Boing Boing post where they point out that two American missionaries who contracted Ebola appear to have saved by an experimental treatment.  CNN describes the situation:

Its a story that could have come from a cinematic medical thriller: Two American missionary workers contract Ebola. Their situation is dire. Three vials containing a highly experimental drug are flown into Liberia in a last-ditch effort to save them. And the drug flown in last week appears to have worked, according to a source familiar with details of the treatment.Dr. Kent Brantlys and Nancy Writebols conditions significantly improved after receiving the medication, sources say. Brantly was able to walk into Emory University Hospital in Atlanta after being evacuated to the United States last week, and Writebol is expected to arrive in Atlanta on Tuesday.

via Ebola drug likely saved American patients – CNN.com.

1.   Starting in March 2014, Ebola started to be seen in West Africa.  More than 1600 Africans have shown up sick with more than half of those infected dying.  None of these people got a last-minute salvation.

2.  Everyone in the world has to be terrified of Ebola.  It is one of the most scary diseases I’ve ever heard about.  The notion that a pharmaceutical company in San Diego had a treatment that seems to have worked that was never shared with dying African people is offensive.

3.  I can only imagine what this looks like to people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

4.  The cure had to be pried out of the hands of a for-profit pharmaceutical corporation.  Turns out the months of Africans dying wasn’t sufficient incentive to release the treatment.   So how did these two white American missionaries find out about this miracle treatment?  CNN explains that the missionary charity (Samaritans Purse) made the connection:

As the Americans conditions worsened, Samaritans Purse reached out to a National Institutes of Health scientist who was on the ground in West Africa, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.”The scientist was able to informally answer some questions and referred them to appropriate company contacts to pursue their interest in obtaining the experimental product,” NIAID said.The experimental drug, known as ZMapp, was developed by the biotech firm Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., which is based in San Diego. The patients were told that the treatment had never been tried before in a human being but had shown promise in small experiments with monkeys.

via Ebola drug likely saved American patients – CNN.com.

5.  You might call these Americans vampires.  Back from the dead saved by the magical blood of the sacrifices of those who came before them:

The medicine is a three-mouse monoclonal antibody, meaning that mice were exposed to fragments of the Ebola virus and then the antibodies generated within the mices blood were harvested to create the medicine. It works by preventing the virus from entering and infecting new cells.

via Ebola drug likely saved American patients – CNN.com.

The rush of resources and last-minute miracle part of this narrative is worth talking more about.  But also the sacrifices of the mice, monkeys and the dead Africans have to be considered when thinking about these two saved missionaries.

I think this makes visible the hierarchy of human bodies — the idea that some people count more than others.

Worth noting that the Wall Street Journal reports that one of the Americans was also given a blood transfusion from an African Ebola survivor.

Dr. Brantly and Ms. Writebol began receiving supportive care as soon as they were diagnosed, according to their respective charities. Dr. Brantly also got a blood transfusion from a 14-year-old boy who survived Ebola under Dr. Brantlys care, in the hope that antibodies would help him, too, fight off the virus. Both Dr. Brantly and Ms. Writebol received an experimental serum, the charities said, though they didnt specify what the treatment was.

via U.S. Ebola Virus Patient Being Treated in Atlanta Faces Crucial Days – WSJ.

6.  Some people might ask: ‘don’t you think it’s worth it? Having a potential cure for Ebola is more important than any of these complaints about how the drug got made or released?

I would respond that the harm is done.  Any attempt to justify this kind of hierarchical violence is probably worth noting in itself as evidence of a pernicious desire in the questioner to defend the pharmaceutical company.

Of course I wish for a cure for Ebola and am glad that a treatment seems to be in the works.  I hope for an immediate and full distribution of this new treatment to everyone who has Ebola.

I haven’t seen any leader or press report advocating that the drug should be shared with other dying people.

It is always worth thinking about how we do things.   Few would deny that injustices are done in the name of best intentions.   And we should examine how CNN and the Wall Street Journal write about a phenomenon.

The Wall Street Journal  reports that the death rate of those who get Ebola is one reason why researching a cure isn’t a priority:

There are several vaccines and drug treatments in development and testing for Ebola, but none have been approved by regulators. Commercializing them is a challenge given that Ebola is a rare disease, said Thomas Geisbert, who works on potential Ebola vaccine platforms as a researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.”Ebola is very rare—there is not a financial incentive for large pharmaceutical companies to make vaccines for Ebola,” he said. “Its really going to require government agencies or a foundation.”

via U.S. Ebola Virus Patient Being Treated in Atlanta Faces Crucial Days – WSJ.

7.  I’m glad that someone helped to save these two people’s lives.  Here is hoping that same impulse counts for everyone else in the world.

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Juxtaposition: Weird Al and strategic use of the interwebs

Robinson Meyer notes some of the interesting ways Weird Al uses the interwebs to promote his work.  Writing in The Atlantic, Meyer observes:

No wonder, then, that this week Al has mimicked the tactics of the preeminent Knowles. From last Monday to this upcoming one, he released a new music video every day, eight videos in total. There are few songs on his new album that will lack a video, meaning that, in medium and marketing, he’s pulling a sort of time-extended Yoncé.

But not all eight videos are going straight to YouTube. Weird Al is spreading that goodness around.

His parody of Pharrell’s “Happy” is hosted by Nerdist, a sprawling online entertainment empire that achieved fame through its eponymous podcast but which now encompasses a news website, a network of audio and video shows, and a television program on BBC America. Al’s Lorde spoof, meanwhile, went to competing digital content factory, CollegeHumor. It did go to YouTube, but is marked “Exclusive” and a “CollegeHumor ORIGINAL.” A “Blurred Lines” send-up sits on Yancovic’s Vevo page.

via The Surprisingly Savvy Weird Al Internet Machine – Robinson Meyer – The Atlantic.

I also liked the reflection about Weird Al’s mockery driven art.  Since the idea of juxtaposition comes up so much on Life of Refinement, it seems worthwhile to think about Weird Al laying a mocking interpretation on top of something already widely marketed.  Adbusters-style mock advertisements do the same thing.  Borrowing the millions of dollars of advertising money that preceded to simultaneously undercut the original message and build a counter-brand.

The situationists would call this détournement — to turn something against itself.  A media concept articulated by Debord, but well understood by any Weird Al fan.  Here Meyer describes this process as “disruptive innovation:”

The phenomenon Weird Al describes here is actually well described by a genre of scholarly literature—by business scholarship, of all things. It’s disruptive innovation, the buzzword so buzzwordy that the New Yorker devoted a thinkpiece to it in print!. Disruptive innovation describes what happens when new products create a new market for that type of product, which winds up challenging the existing one.

via The Surprisingly Savvy Weird Al Internet Machine – Robinson Meyer – The Atlantic.

I also appreciate the documentation of the Lady Gaga incident.  Yankovic created a parody of a Gaga song and when he checked in with her to get her blessing to release the tune on an upcoming album Gaga’s people refused.  Weird Al released the song on youtube with an explanation and Gaga quickly relented.

It’s worth noting something more about the substance of Weird Al’s mockery.

Not only is “Tacky” a review of a number of bad fashion moves, it is also a conservative morality rant.  This tune marks as “tacky” oversharing on instagram, forcing others to pay, reminding people you’ve done them favors, insulting people, dropping names, leaving bad yelp reviews, and having no shame.

At points Weird Al references particular low-points of recent toxic internet culture such as: “I’m a live-tweet a funeral and take selfies with the deceased.” This could be a Fox “news” commentary.

I happen to agree with Weird Al on most of these morality points.  But given that Pharrell’s “Happy” is a sort of liberation utopian expression of pop-oneness, the grounded grumpy juxtaposed retort is interesting.  [Let’s note that the use of the Odd Future crew in “Happy” is a juxtaposition in itself.]

If you add in the English-teacher favorite “Word Crimes” you can start to map a particular perspective to Weird Al.

I get the sense that Al is frustrated with some of the changes in this new-fangled world.  His juxtaposition is intended to bring down and anchor some of the worst behaviors of the current era.

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