Early in Irresistible, a film directed and written by Jon Stewart, we cut from your basic Washington weasel to what is labeled in a caption as “Rural America,” and under that, “Heartland, USA.” This wry joke suggests that ripping off this meaningless, cynical label slapped on the Wisconsin town we’re about to visit will be the film’s purpose. Unfortunately, “Rural America: Heartland, USA” is how the movie sees the town, too. The town is generic, the people are generic, the movie is generic, and its politics are generic. Given how broadly unobjectionable it is designed to be, t’s a little shocking how transparently it’s laboring to be subversive.
Gary (Steve Carell) is a campaign consultant (interestingly, the film’s official synopsis calls him a “Democrat campaign consultant”) who worked for Hillary Clinton and is reeling from the 2016 election when we first meet him. If you watched Carell on The Office, you largely know who Gary is: Think Michael Scott if he’d made his way into political consulting and used his sales skills over there, and also he didn’t have any of the redeeming qualities Michael Scott had.
Gary comes across a viral video of a Wisconsin veteran and farmer named Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) giving a speech about principle at a town meeting in Rural America, Heartland USA. Enthralled by Hastings and seeing an opportunity, Gary descends on the town and becomes the leader of Jack’s campaign for mayor, which he wants to use as a proving ground for a more rural-friendly Democratic party in the wake of losses in several midwestern states in 2016.
Naturally, Jack is a reticent and plain-spoken farmer who resists Gary’s big-city, D.C. insider ways, and the film spends a lot of time guffawing at things like Gary telling his staff he wants to be authentic and stripped down for his trip to Wisconsin and needs a regular rental car, not a fancy one — then popping his head back in to ask for a car with Bose speakers in the kind of sequence you can call out from your couch with ease: “He’s going to pop back in and say he wants a champagne bath or something!”
Back in Rural America, Heartland USA, Gary and a Republican counterpart of his named Faith (played by Rose Byrne, deserving better as she often does) descend into a caricature of politics in which they’re uninterested in the stakes of the mayoral election; they just are interested in winning.
Of course, it’s hard to blame them, because there are no stakes in the election. There is no indication at any point that there is any disagreement among people in this town about anything. They are, as we will eventually learn, literally unified on every issue. There are no dissenters, there are no policies at stake; they are simple, ideologically interchangeable residents of Rural America, Heartland USA, who all just want to build schools and help each other.
This has always been Stewart’s theory, that if the media and national politicians and campaign finance laws would get out of the way, everyone really is basically the same on the inside. I first heard him articulate it at the Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear on the National Mall in 2010, and it seems that his view of American political life has remained stable for the last 10 years. Which is really an accomplishment, of a sort.
Ironically, while castigating Beltway insiders for not really caring about the town, Stewart is also not interested in any of the local politics of the town and doesn’t doesn’t even suggest it has any; he’s only interested in Gary and Faith’s attempted manipulation of these simple good (white) people as a simulacrum of D.C. decay.
What of the fact that local governments actually have enormous influence on issues like zoning, policing, schools, election security, housing, and all manner of regulations? And what of the fact that bitter local battles have been central to issues of race, the safety of LGBTQ people, the economic security of imperiled communities, and the security of the environment? Battles that have played on genuine enmity between neighbors? That stuff, Stewart posits, doesn’t matter. We’d all be getting along fine without those Beltway insiders and their artificial divides.
In fairness, it may help the town avoid at least some common conflicts about race that the only Black people you ever see are specifically used in jokes about Black people. One appears in a scene where the joke is that he’s not part of a focus-group demographic, he’s the one Black guy. Three Black men in Black Lives Matter shirts later walk up to a Republican voter registration table, and the men working the table sloooooowly pull the pens and clipboards back. (Very funny to those in the mood for casual voter suppression humor!) None of these men speak.
Gary has one black co-worker whose job it is to side-eye and mutter at her clueless colleagues (who, led by Debra Messing, hold hands and start chanting “si se puede” in a staff meeting) for a few seconds. And we meet a Black woman at a Washington fundraiser who I think has one line, but she is there as part of what appears to be an interracial lesbian couple wearing paired “Stay Woke” shirts who are trying to urbansplain “farm to table” to Jack the decent and wise Wisconsin farmer. They are part of the mockery of insufferable D.C. liberals, you see.
Perhaps what makes Irresistible so hard to take at this moment is that it has the swagger of a much smarter movie than it is. It purports to investigate what’s gone wrong in American politics but focuses its idea of good Americans on an all-white town where everyone agrees about everything and nothing matters. Small towns only matter in this story because they are, as a single bloc, being mistreated and manipulated and blown about by Washington. It is in this story, and not in the world, that only Washington matters.
It’s also so utterly toothless as satire, because there’s nothing in it that challenges anyone’s ideas about anything. Who is going to find this provocative? The people who love Beltway insiders? SuperPAC stans? The thesis of the film is that people in the United States have been convinced that they have legitimate policy divisions by a cynical and manipulative media. We only think we have serious disagreements because the pundits are focused on artificial right-left divide, Stewart lectures through a character’s mouth at one point. He probably believes it; there are certainly those who can afford to.
It’s worth noting the “It’s just comedy! It’s not trying to teach anybody anything!” line that has been Jon Stewart’s explanation for every flaw in the impassioned civic arguments he’s been making since he took over The Daily Show in 1999. But — and you won’t believe me when I tell you this — the closing image of Irresistible is someone telling Jon Stewart how he got something exactly right and the two of them having a good laugh about how right he is. People who are just making little comedies don’t need to make special featurettes where they’re told that they’re right.
The funny thing is this: You know who’s really going to love this movie? People who go to D.C. political fundraising dinners, who will say, “Ha ha, that’s so true, we are like that,” and then they will keep doing exactly what they’re doing. They’ll also lament the fact that Jon Stewart ever left The Daily Show and handed the reins to Trevor Noah, because they really miss Jon (who they call Jon), and they’re pretty sure he’d have had a lot to say that’s relevant to our current political moment. Unfortunately, if he does, it won’t be in this movie.
Identity politics in a pandemic: why coronavirus unity disappeared and may not return for the second wave – The Conversation UK
The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic transformed the UK political scene in the blink of an eye. At the start of 2020, the national political discourse had been swerving between being dominated by Brexit, the Labour leadership election and the sudden resignation of Chancellor Sajid Javid. In an instant, this was all overturned and replaced with a sole focus on battling the virus and the disease it causes: COVID-19. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost, whole sectors of the economy frozen or crushed, entire institutions reworked to defeat it.
Any event of this scale and tragedy is going to both draw deeply on a country’s identity and reshape it in some way. Britain’s identity was already deeply fractured by the EU referendum of 2016 and it would not have been unreasonable to imagine that this divide would make its presence felt in this crisis. Given the difficulties of the years since the referendum, in which expertise was challenged at every turn, we may well have expected a large section of the UK public to distrust the initial health message of the government in March of this year.
Yet this is not what happened. Instead, people rallied together. Over 750,000 volunteered to help relieve pressure on the NHS, people volunteered to join the UK’s huge RECOVERY programme at a rate faster than any other clinical trial in history and millions came from their homes every Thursday for nine weeks to applaud key workers. These events were not unique to Britain – but the way they were related to was. The NHS became perhaps even more central to many people’s notions of Britain than it was before. The BBC also saw record TV, radio and online audiences. These two institutions formed central parts of the national response, with people orientating their reasoning for helping around them – especially the NHS.
This matters because the government was successfully able to appeal not just on the basis of an amorphous healthcare system, but on behalf of an institution with a clear and important role to play in people’s identities. It was not the reason people wanted to help; instead, it was what people wanted to help. This was reinforced by the solemn fact that the virus killed and injured without reference to politics or other signifiers that had been driving division. People saw trusted institutions that resonated with their notions of self-leading and rallied to them.
What happened to ‘all in this together’?
However, that was the first phase. The sense of unity has since weakened considerably – and the government’s approval has drifted consistently lower all summer. While this shift pre-dates the most prominent story concerning the universality of the rules – the Dominic Cummings affair – we know that this particular scandal reinforced and strengthened that shifting attitude significantly. Once people saw that top officials were breaking their own rules, the game was up. Suddenly, people weren’t being asked to cleave to a trusted institution any more – they felt they were being taken for a ride by a government more interested in itself than in their wellbeing.
The Cummings story is not necessarily the reason these feelings existed, but it served very clearly as an episode that crystallised existing worries or played into doubts – a shorthand for why people felt distrust of the government.
Now there is divergence again. On the one hand, people still identify strongly with the institutions that led the response to the first wave – and will again in the second. They saw how well people came together, and they value that greater sense of community. It resonated well with them, and informed their self-view – it was possible to bring people together, and for them to all act in a common cause. On the other hand, they see a government that considers itself above the rules. Further policy bungling over the summer – such as on A-levels and COVID testing – will have reinforced that scepticism.
The result of this is a public who feel a desire to trust politicians again, to keep the increased community spirit of early lockdown, and to overcome the pandemic to restore normality – but who also feel that the government isn’t in a position to effectively help them do it. And this is before the expected wave of high unemployment, whole economic sectors closing down for perhaps years to come, and the full impact of the winter on the NHS.
The government’s failure to capitalise on the activated parts of people’s identities – the institutions they cleaved to, the desires they express –has already cost it dear. It is not unreasonable to be deeply concerned about the cost for all of us in the months ahead.
How the super rich and dark money influence politics : The Indicator from Planet Money – NPR
We all know people with lots of money can gain special political access, but we don’t typically get an up-close look. Today, The Indicator explores the world of big donors and the millions they give openly as well as behind the scenes through dark money. Dark money is a largely unregulated channel of shadowy non-profit organizations that can spend unlimited amounts on political ads, and has enormous influence over the policies and laws that get enacted in this country.
Today on the show, The Center for Public Integrity shares an excerpt from its new podcast, The Heist, which talks to one rich donor about how the system works.
Ukrainian Politics Again Get the Better of a Would-Be Reformer – Bloomberg
A reformer is stepping aside in Ukraine for the second time in less than five years — and with a similar feeling of unease.
Aivaras Abromavicius, who quit the previous administration complaining about corruption, is awaiting President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s approval to resign as head of state-controlled arms producer Ukroboronprom. While this time his exit is planned, there are parallels — namely what he deems waning appetite to tackle graft and overhaul the economy.
Zelenskiy, 42, was elected in 2019 as an untainted newcomer who could clean up Ukraine’s murky politics, which have been dogged by corruption and influence from big business since the Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago. But after selecting a reformist government, the president dismantled it on the grounds it wasn’t delivering results, turning instead to old hands. Some were even part of the administration of disgraced former leader Viktor Yanukovych.
The reshuffle disappointed investors and voters alike, with changes at the top of the central bank and complaints by foreign directors serving on the boards of state-run enterprises adding to the gloom. Zelenskiy’s popularity is the lowest since he took office.
“Progressive people are replaced with conservative ones — this is the biggest risk,” Abromavicius said in a phone interview. “This staff policy may lead to corruption, for sure.”
Lithuanian-born Abromavicius, 44, took Ukrainian citizenship to become economy minister after protesters ousted Kremlin-backed Yanukovych in 2014. But he resigned in 2016, saying he faced pressure over appointments at government-run companies and accusing a lawmaker close to then-President Petro Poroshenko of graft.
He arrived at Ukroboronprom in 2019 to oversee an audit, and boost transparency, corporate governance and efficiency. While he waived a salary, the issue of pay for foreigners working at Ukraine’s state-owned companies is concerning creditors abroad.
Foreign nationals appointed to supervisory boards to lift governance standards have seen theirmonthly wages capped at $1,660 — part of measures to mitigate the financial hit from the Covid-19 pandemic. While the limit applied to all public officials, many others have now had their full pay restored.
The International Monetary Fund urges an end to the ceiling, which risks halting further disbursements from a $5 billion aid program. Some directors have quit in protest — including Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist who’d worked at Ukraine’s state railway.
“The president and his loud MPs don’t believe in good corporate governance,” Aslund wrote last week in a column. Foreign board members “have been working hard to try to improve Ukraine’s state companies. From the president (the only Ukrainian president that I’ve never met), we only receive insults and obstacles.”
At Ukroboronprom, a comprehensive revamp is under way but politics are acting as a brake, according to Abromavicius. “Everything slows down bit by bit with every political change.”
But with Ukraine’s lowly ranking in Transparency International’s annual corruption perceptions index barely improving since 2015, the reformers are struggling to make headway.
“A fight is underway for which vector development of Ukraine will take, western or eastern,” Abromavicius said.
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