Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Prize


Here, free of charge, a premise for the next big dystopian YA novel:
In a country deeply divided, love for The Show is the chief unifying force, a work of genuine artistic merit bringing together people from every ideological walk and every side political, social, and religious spectrum. Most will never get to see The Show in person, as tickets are prohibitively expensive for all but elites, and it plays only in a few coastal venues. However, most people have heard the soundtrack and know at least a bit about its charismatic creator, Mr. Charisma, one of the few celebrities who seems genuinely nice and accessible.  
One day a promotion is offered. The prize: a chance to see The Show, not once, not twice, but three different times, as a guest of Mr. Charisma himself. The cost of entry: a mere $10 donation. For that price, you might as well buy 2, 5, 10 chances -- it's less than you'd spend on the cost of a single ticket, if one were ever available. The donation money goes to support the foundation of which Mr. Charisma's nice mother is a board member. This foundation stresses the social work it does on behalf of women, with special emphasis on women in poverty who have few chances. Its mission is to prevent suffering. What reasonable person could object? 
Some people don't like the foundation. Its core business, underneath the glossy exterior of women's health care, is a highly controversial Procedure -- the dismemberment of inconvenient children. Unwanted children, of course. Defective children. Children who might not survive anyway. There are people who hate what the foundation does, who work tirelessly in opposition to it, but some of them are weird and seem extreme, whereas the supporters of the foundation seem so nice and reasonable. People like Mr. Charisma and his nice mom. You've seen videos of them, and they seem so pleasant. How could people like that support something that's bad? 
And you want so badly to see The Show. This promotion buys you hope, the hope that despite the odds you might get to be a part of this beloved cultural phenomenon. Mr. Charisma is everywhere, on TV, in your social media feeds, pushing the promotion, touting the good The Foundation does. You feel a little conflicted about The Procedure, but lots of nice normal people like Mother Charisma support it. And what harm can donating $10 do? 
Not so fictional, of course. In an essay in Vogue, Dr. Luz Towns-Miranda, mother of Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda and member of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund National Board (the political advocacy arm of PP), breathlessly announces The Prize:
With the increased threat to women’s reproductive rights and access to health care for all under the incoming administration, my family and I are not standing idle. Lin-Manuel, my genius son and supporter, partnered with Prizeo, a celebrity digital fundraising platform, to run a spectacular sweepstakes that will allow a lucky winner to attend Hamilton in each location it is running—NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco—in 2017. (My husband, Luis Miranda, was instrumental in helping to shape the prize, recognizing the appeal of the trifecta!) The funds raised will be donated to Planned Parenthood in an effort to keep its health care clinics open, particularly in rural and underserved areas—where this is a life-or-death issue, to be sure. The winner will have fun, but the many who are participating should be forever proud that their support helped Planned Parenthood continue to thrive.

Many celebrities trade on their popular appeal to promote pet causes. The Gary Sinise Foundation provides support for wounded vets. Tom Hanks serves on the Board of Governors for the National Space Society. Angelina Jolie is affiliated with The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and her foundation has made large donations to Doctors Without Borders. Each of these popular stars has used their celebrity platform to advocate for these causes which are not only directly reflected in the movie projects they've chosen, but are also extremely unlikely to needlessly alienate the portions of their base that don't share the actors' political convictions. Of course, aligning your brand explicitly with the nation's largest abortion provider is not unheard of. Lena Dunham, vocal PP advocate, recently said that she hadn't had an abortion, but she wished she'd had so she could reduce the stigma around the issue. Dunham, however, trades in pushing the envelope, and chooses her projects with that in mind. Miranda's most famous work is about Alexander Hamilton, born to an unwed mother, a man who had eight children, and who destroyed his political career and damaged his personal life with his reckless sexual behavior. There is nothing in the work itself that advances the agenda of Planned Parenthood. There is no link between the themes of Hamilton and abortion, except for Miranda trading on his personal appeal to push fans to the next step of thinking that PP is cool because a cool guy supports it.

We needn't quibble over whether Miranda thinks his cause is righteous. It's clear that he believes that Planned Parenthood is a powerful force for good in the fight for women's health and empowerment. But the man is no cultural naïf. His father is a longtime Democratic politico in NYC. Someone raised in this atmosphere may firmly believe that abortion is a human right and a tool for good. But it's no secret, no matter how liberal your bubble, that half of Americans see the core business of PP as abhorrent. Miranda is well aware that his work has spanned a great cultural divide, on the other side of which are those people who consider abortion murder. His calculation here seems to be that the people who are alienated by this promotion are worth offending. And those people are taking notice. A frustrated friend said, "I am so angry about this ongoing promotion. The very idea that he would take the goodwill created by the most bipartisan and cross-cultural phenomenon in twenty years and squander it to shill for Planned Parenthood. It's just perverse."


The lottery is called a "tax on stupidity", and yet statistically, nearly half of Americans bought a lottery ticket within the past year. These people are buying hope, the hope of the only chance they'll ever have of seeing the exalted sums of money promised by the Powerball jackpot. The cost of a ticket is negligible, especially considered next to the potential reward, and the money is supposed to be going to good causes like education. Do most people buying tickets think about where their two bucks will end up? Or it is a case of eyes on the prize, two bucks gets you a shot at $63 million? If you win, you've got $63 million. If you lose, you're out two bucks. The cause it supports is irrelevant, because the stakes are so low and the prize so desirable.

This Prizeo promotion is more insidious than the state lottery. Hamilton is rightly celebrated as a modern artistic triumph. Darwin and I were fortunate enough to be able to afford tickets, and I don't regret that. Besides purchasing an enjoyable evening of theater for ourselves, the money we shelled out went to supporting the theater, the actors, the musicians, and the creative team that made Hamilton possible. It's more than possible that any of the people who received some share of our ticket price contributed to causes I find repulsive, just as it's possible that your Rogue One ticket money, parceled out among theater owners, theater employees, the movie studio, the actors, directors, producers, etc., went to causes that were personally significant to the individuals getting a cut. That doesn't imply your endorsement of anything but Rogue One. In this case the $10 donation, insignificant as it may seem for such an outsized potential reward, goes directly to Planned Parenthood.  People who otherwise would never have considered donating to Planned Parenthood will figure that $10 doesn't matter because of the potential benefits of winning, and anyway, doesn't Planned Parenthood do other stuff besides abortions? Only $10, and Miranda will hand you that tempting prize apple off Planned Parenthood's tree. That's selling your soul cheap.


MrsDarwin and I were both deeply frustrated to find constant spam showing up in our Facebook feeds: You like Lin-Manuel Miranda, here's his video about a contest where you can win a chance to watch all three Hamilton productions (NY, Chicago, and San Francisco) personally with Lin-Manuel just for donating to Planned Parenthood. It wasn't till we were discussing it in more detail today that we realized that we had somewhat different reasons for finding the situation so offensive.

I think MrsDarwin lays out the general situation well above, and I don't disagree with any of her points. Several, however, did not occur to me because of my particular viewpoint, and other points, as I'll outline briefly, impressed themselves on me more strongly.

I didn't recognize the temptation aspect, and this is because of the particular way that I react to drawings and lotteries of all kinds. Being someone who trade in probabilities, I gave very little thought to the idea that people who would not otherwise donate to Planned Parenthood -- as in, people who were actually ambivalent or somewhat opposed to it -- would be tempted to donate to get into the drawing. If anything, I often find myself reluctant to buy raffle tickets even for causes that I believe in because I consider buying a raffle ticket to be such a bad deal. (A bad deal how? Say you had the $500-$800 that it would take to buy a Hamilton ticket from a scalper. Would you stand a better chance of seeing Hamilton if you just bought the ticket or if you invested in 50-80 chances in LMM's Planned Parenthood raffle? I'd need to know the number of entires made, but you're probably at least several thousand times better off investing in a ticket than you are investing in his raffle. It's almost an offensively bad deal, less than cents of the dollar in terms of value.) Thus, when there's a raffle at our parish, an institution to which I give thousands of dollars a year, my very strong instinct is to refuse to buy even a one dollar ticket. Ask me to donate a hundred dollars and I'll do it, but ask me to buy a ten-dollar raffle ticket and I start making rational calculations.

This isn't to say that I didn't think the fundraiser would net Planned Parenthood money. I figured that it was a promotion like the ones that I analyze at work. My thought was, if you're the sort of person who might be open to donating to Planned Parenthood anyway (and I've seen plenty of left-leaning friends announcing in their social media feeds lately that they're donating in order to stave off the repression they imagine is ahead), then this type of offer would likely get you to go ahead and make a donation. Many people have un-actualized intentions of making donations or purchases for long periods without acting on them, and once they've made a purchase it often makes them more likely (not less likely) to repeat the purchase later. So a promotion which activated a lot of tepid Planned Parenthood supporters would doubtless bring them money, but it didn't really occur to me that someone who didn't already like Planned Parenthood would be tempted to donate because of this offer, because it seemed obvious that your chances of actually scoring a Hamilton ticket as a result were near to zero.

What did upset me a great deal, however, was the way that the ad was being thrust upon Hamilton fans of all descriptions, not based on any affinity for Planned Parenthood, but simply as a result of having liked one of the social media feed relating to the show. Not only was I constantly seeing the Planned Parenthood fundraising adds featuring Lin-Manuel, but I know that due to Facebook's marketing algorithms it was showing my friends these same adds with the unwilling recommendations "Your Friend [Darwin] Likes Lin-Manuel Miranda" or "Your Friend [Darwin] Follows Hamilton".

I take it as a given that celebrities don't agree with my morals, and thus that they use the millions they make when I and others watch their movies, buy their books, or listen to their music and they donate some of that money to causes I find abhorrent. I am not surprised when artists I otherwise like show up at fundraisers for groups I oppose. This, however, seemed different. Here was Miranda using his control of the Hamilton brand to force endorsements for a cause I hate into my feed, and with a claimed endorsement by me into the feeds of my friends. He wasn't just using my liking of his musical to force ads for his controversial opinions into my social media feed, he was without my permission using my name to force it into the feeds of my friends. (I actually had one friend post a complaint back to me as seeing these false endorsements, which is what prompted me to finally remove myself from all Hamilton related pages and lists.)

This behavior seemed to violate the basic social principles for getting along in a divided world which have ruled -- perhaps as I think about the strength of my anger, ruled too much -- both my professional life (wholly) and my online life (partially). One of these basic principles is that before sounding off, one should take into account the feelings of the people likely to read one. Want to riff on gay marriage? As you decide whether to do so, or how to do so, think first about the people you know who are gay or feel strongly about gay issues. You don't have to lie to them about your feelings, but don't say anything about the topic you're not prepared for them to see. Want to talk about the cool new rifle you just bought? Consider that the nation was just convulsed that week with news of a mass shooting, and consider whether people who feel differently than you do about guns will see your post as threatening or upsetting.

I'm sure there are still plenty of people who find my posting on various topics upsetting, but even in the online world I actually hedge away from talking about a lot of things, or modify the way that I talk about them, out of consideration for the way that my small readership would likely react to my comments.  Indeed, at times I think that one of the reasons that the blog history in our sidebar shows fewer posts with each passing year is that as I get to now more people more deeply, there are fewer and fewer topics on which I feel comfortable sounding off quickly.  And that's the online world, in which I give myself relatively free reign. At work, I obey a nearly absolute policy of never discussing politics or religion unless directly asked, and sometimes not even then. (I also make it a point not to be connected with anyone from work on Facebook.) Not that this means there's no friction. You don't get to have six kids (I haven't even told coworkers about the one on the way yet) without becoming a walking punchline. But there's only so much one can cover up in order to remain marginally acceptable in a hostile world.

Why is it that we curtail what we talk about in certain settings and the ways we talk about hot topics when we do discuss them? We do so out of consideration for the feelings of others. We do so out of politeness. We do so because we don't want to hurt or offend people unnecessarily even when we disagree with them.

Except that apparently Lin-Manuel Miranda does not believe that such strictures apply when it comes to fundraising for Planned Parenthood using the Hamilton brand. No, if you're on "the right side of history" you can take one of the country's most divisive topics and shove it into all your fans' social media feeds. You can even use their names to advertise your views to your fans' friends. I can't imagine that someone whose mother works for Planned Parenthood's political action arm is unaware that there are plenty of people in the country who don't like Planned Parenthood. It seems a stretch to imagine he thinks no one among his fans falls into that group. No, the clear message here seems to be: Who cares about any Hamilton fans who find Planned Parenthood offensive? I'll rub it in their faces and use their own fandom to promote my views to their friends without so much as a by your leave. If we show respect for the feelings of others by not shoving things which may offend them into  their faces in neutral places (at the dinner table, at the office, etc.) then this shows the opposite of such: that those who disagree with Planned Parenthood are either so distasteful as not to be worth consideration, or so beneath regard that it never even occurred to Miranda to consider what those who might disagree with him might think.

The fundraiser thus becomes not only a venue to raise money for evil, it's also a sign of raw power: He has the cultural power to ignore politeness and decorum and stamp the boot good and hard in the faces of those he disagrees with. Those of us who spend our lives keeping our heads down in order to hold a job and get along in a hostile society are reminded of the tenuous condition in which we live.


Foxfier said...

Miranda's most famous work is about Alexander Hamilton, born to an unwed mother, a man who had eight children, and who destroyed his political career and damaged his personal life with his reckless sexual behavior. There is nothing in the work itself that advances the agenda of Planned Parenthood.
It's just perverse.
That looks like the connection to me.
If evil is good in the case of being a literal baby killer, why wouldn't evil be good in the case of using a guy who would've been a targeted customer if his mother wasn't successfully persuaded to be a customer?

It is perverse.

Foxfier said...

I also make it a point not to be connected with anyone from work on Facebook.

Very, very, VERY good idea.
Akin to the "don't go into business with a relative" concept of good idea.

Agnes said...

"Those of us who spend our lives keeping our heads down in order to hold a job and get along in a hostile society are reminded of the tenuous condition in which we live. "

This sounds pretty ugly. It really reminds me of my youth's Communist era experience. Interestingly enough, the common opinion in real life Hungarian people (not the world of social media and internet forums) seems to me more tolerant than what you describe. Not many are right side conservatives, not many are devoted Christians, but most of them don't openly ridicule or humiliate them, and most of them keep the unspoken agreement you mention - live and let live, don't confront unnecessarily etc. At least in real life, if not necessarily in social media, forums and blogs, of course.

Foxfier said...

:( We only have four, and I've had people walk up and confront me about wanting them to die off to make room.

I know some of the relatives that are nasty about it are just feeling guilty, or are upset that their "sensible" number of children have not had the perfect lives that the theory held they would have with all that bounty from not having "too many" siblings, but I don't know how to explain the guys who flip from "oh, what a cute baby!" to "YOU WANT ME DEAD!!!"

Joseph said...

If someone wrote a musical set in a world in which Hamilton was aborted and the US disintegrated...