Sunday, March 18, 2012

Maryland Juice Talks Policy w/ Top Chef Tom Collichio, Harry Reid's Brain, Ben Huh & Bob Marley Film Producer at SXSW

#OccupyLife + Subversive Art

BACKGROUND: Last week, Maryland Juice had the privilege of attending this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. The annual gathering brings thousands of people together to showcase the latest technology, screen award-winning films, and listen to the next wave of innovative musical acts. The gathering has the feel of a World's Fair reboot, and I was psyched to be able to represent Demand Progress at the festival.

I arrived in Austin, Texas with little to no formal agenda; rather I was there with a vague goal of meeting up with techno-activists from the SOPA/PIPA battle. Indeed, I had never met most of the key figures with whom I had worked in a loose coalition with for the past year. Many of them were planning on attending the technology-focused portion of the SXSW festival, and so I decided to join them.

To be sure, I had many robust and productive conversations about future activist experiments with many sage minds and next-generation figures in the movement for Internet freedom. But more intriguing to me were the unexpected conversations I had with people about policy -- both tech-related and more conventional. My SXSW experience included policy ranting with Top Chef Tom Collichio, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's former Chief of Staff Susan McCue, CEO Ben Huh, film producer Steve Bing and more!

JUICE TALKS SHOP WITH BEN HUH, KING OF LOL CATS - I didn't expect that my final formal meeting in Austin would involve plotting political strategy with the guy responsible for inflicting "lol cats" on the world. His name is Ben Huh, and he is the founder and CEO of the meme and "cute cat photo"-based website It (and he) are responsible for facilitating the creation of horrifying viral photos like the one below:
Maryland Juice now has a Cheezburger site. DOH!

Last January, Ben put some claws into his "lol cats" by having them join in the historic Internet "blackout" to protest the SOPA/PIPA Internet censorship legislation that Congress was trying to ram down our throats:

ARE MEME'S THE DOMINANT POLITICAL CARTOONS OF OUR DAY? - The process of defeating SOPA & PIPA politicized an entire generation of Internet users and radicalized website operators on the need to protect themselves from undue government and corporate control. Indeed, every day as more Internet users are exposed to these new modes of activism, they are themselves encouraged to take matters into their own hands -- ie: did you see the rapid success of the #JSA movement

You may have also noticed, for example, that Internet memes used to be mostly stupid jokes forwarded by friends -- but increasingly meme creators are using humor to carry a political message. This to me spells a transition of political satire from the newspaper/cartoon format to the digital "meme" world. In essence, political satire has become democratized as production and publication are increasingly user-generated.

STOP: Are you confused? Are you curious what I mean by "Internet meme?" Below, I provide an example of a "meme" that is directed at Sam Arora. I also provide an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry:
WIKIPEDIA: An Internet meme is an idea that is propagated through the World Wide Web. The idea may take the form of a hyperlink, video, picture, website, hashtag, or just a word or phrase, such as intentionally misspelling the word "more" as "moar" or "the" as "teh". The meme may spread from person to person via social networks, blogs, direct email, news sources, or other web-based services. An Internet meme may stay the same or may evolve over time, by chance or through commentary, imitations, parody, or by incorporating news accounts about itself. Internet memes can evolve and spread extremely rapidly, sometimes reaching world-wide popularity within a few days.
See one example of a satirized "meme" below:

But in spite of the rapid success of meme-driven political causes, Ben Huh (arguably the King of Memes), isn't just going to be dropping meme-bombs on politicians in the future.... Oh no, he's getting downright political, because the politicians have pissed off the Internet. You'll just have to wait and see the results of The Great Lol Cat Revolt in the future. Stay tuned!

JUICE PUSHES NET FREEDOM & CIVIL LIBERTIES W/  HARRY REID AIDE - After strategizing on a range of new activities to build a political voice for the Internet, I had an opportunity to chat with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's former Chief of Staff. How's that for quick turnaround? (Just kidding). Susan McCue, the Majority Leader's former top aide, was sitting next to me at the one and only film screening I had time to attend during SXSW. Ever in citizen-lobbyist mode, I put a bug in her ear about the Democrats' seemingly flagging resolve on civil liberties and Internet freedom over the past few years. Thankfully, she didn't disagree that Democrats ought to re-double efforts to burnish their brand as the Party "that got" the Internet.

On civil liberties, however, she did describe some interesting behind-the-scenes work by Harry Reid to finally get rid of the military's infamous "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy this year. Fair enough -- but we'll still have to check back in on the Internet freedom bit in the future though. There are many anti-Internet user efforts percolating right now, and it sounds like the Dems may be willing to hear us out. Time for Internet users to bulk up our political muscle!

In any case, these conversations happened in the lead-up to the screening of an inspiring new documentary about the life and political evolution of the late music legend Bob Marley. The film is called simply "Marley," and it debuts 4/20 on Facebook, On Demand and in theaters. But putting the cute release date aside, this is a very weighty 2.5 hour film that traces the political evolution of Bob Marley -- starting with his early life as a socially outcast multi-racial boy in Trenchtown, Jamaica, and ending with his death at the young age of 36. The narrative construction of the film allows for interspersed moments of tension -- such as candid comments from family figures about Marley's relationship with women -- but it manages to keep an uplifting tone and a focus on the musician's social commentary.

The film was directed by Kevin MacDonald -- who also produced the brilliant "crowd-sourced" YouTube movie "Life in a Day" [ Watch "Life in a Day" Online for FREE ]. You can watch the Marley trailer below, but note that Maryland Juice believes it doesn't do justice to the passion of the film:


To be honest, I have always been a fan of Bob Marley but didn't really know much about this life. I cannot be alone in having these characteristics, and that's why I think this movie is sure to be a hit. Marley walks you through key events and periods of his life -- as told by his family members, wife, girlfriends, bandmates and more -- using current interviews, loads of archival footage, concert clips and more. But the story is really about his political evolution and the types of social changes he was trying to trigger through music.

AN EXPERIMENT IN FILM DISTRIBUTION: Equally as fascinating as the film itself, is that the creators are also experimenting in new content distribution methods. After the film, I had a chance to discuss innovation in content distribution with the film's producer Steve Bing. He mentioned that along with a theatrical release, the film will be released to view directly on Facebook. Notably, Bob Marley currently has one of the top Facebook followings in the world with over 37 million fans. That's not too shabby for a distribution point. We shall see how this experiment goes, but I encourage you to be a part of it. The 2.5 hour feature-length documentary is really an exceptional viewing experience!

"Marley" Director Kevin Macdonald (with mic) introduces Ziggy Marley (far right) & family.

MARYLAND JUICE TALKS FOOD POLICY W/ TOM COLLICHIO - After the "Marley" film screening, I somehow ended up at a reception with the filmmakers. Note: I don't usually even leave my house (except to travel). Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Tom Collichio, the host of Bravo TV's Top Chef. Admittedly, I am a fan of his show -- but as I saw him getting ready to leave, I made a quick attempt to corner him and lobby him on a couple points about food policy and television content distribution. Collichio was also at SXSW with a floating agenda, but he mentioned that he and his wife had just put the finishing touches on a new feature-length documentary exposing the harsh reality of hunger in America. His film is called, "Finding North" -- and you can watch the trailer below:

CONGRESS: EPIC FAILURE ON ADDRESSING HUNGER - Before I had given Collichio the opportunity to say two words, I started spouting off about how politicians are failing to address hunger and nutrition in a meaningful way. I discussed the public disgust over Congress' recent decision to classify frozen pizza and french fries as vegetables in our school lunches. I also raised the issue of the explosion of hunger as an issue -- even in wealthy places like Montgomery County -- where nearly half of all students have been eligible for "Free and Reduced Meals." It turns out, all of  this is old news to Collichio. The man is down. As he described to me, he has become extremely frustrated, after years of helping the food pantry effort -- because now the numbers of hungry people are too great for charity alone to meet the demand. He also thinks this is a solvable problem, but that the scale of America's hunger crisis requires Congressional action: $20 billion a year, in his estimation. But, he counters that the preemptive health effects would total $120 billion a year in savings.

COLLICHIO: "RAISE THE POVERTY LINE" - Collichio also suggested that one of the obvious failures of political will that contributes to the hunger problem, is that politicians are unwilling to raise the poverty line. After all, who wants to reveal that there are more poor people in America than we are admitting? And yet the consequence is that fewer people are deemed eligible for food assistance, but many may actually need help. A new study just showed that an adult with two children in Montgomery County, needs to earn $77,933, in order to avoid public assistance. That's why Collichio is leading the growing clamor for a re-dedication to solving the hunger and nutrition crises in America. His film has not yet been picked up for distribution, but it is apparently close to a done deal. Stay tuned!

CONCLUSION: Back to the issue of civil liberties and social justice -- not counting the measurable progress on some civil rights issues -- we still have a long way to go on defending against the broader assault on the Constitution and human rights.

Right now, too many Democrats at all levels of government are shamefully silent about the miserable state of civil liberties in America. Others yet sympathize but don't see a public clamor for action. I say -- look all around you -- the clamor is there. Perhaps the clamor is just not registering in the places you are looking for policy guidance.... If so, whose fault is that? At least watch the movie version!

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