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March 14, 2016 episode transcript.
STORIES FROM THIS EPISODE
Listen to the full episode
Host: Anna Maria Tremonti
Or they think it's a cult, they don't really know what to think. It is so outside of the normal frame of reference for how people should live.
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Well, they live as a group and along with kitchen duties, and the upkeep, the car, the financial burden, they do share a profound belief in fiscal survival. United not by a cult leader but by the reality of BC housing prices, a posse of millennials has taken on the lease of a rundown Abbotsford hotel, cleaned it all up and created a new age commune. But they are not emulating their grandparents. These are not the flower power youth of the sixties. The story of the housing hacked, in half an hour. Also today, art imitates life imitates art.
America is a mess. We need someone to clean it up and his name is Bob.
AMT: Over the last several decades Hollywood has released films underlining, warning even, how vulnerable American voters are to being duped by authoritarian leaders seeking office. Even as Hollywood celebrity has shaped presidential candidates. With the rhetoric and now the fists flying in the Republican race for a presidential nominee, two cinephiles offer some insights and viewing tips on what we can learn from the celluloid of the last century. In an hour, please pass the popcorn Mr. Trump. But we are starting with a different kind of politics today. One best brought into focus a few days ago by the outrage of the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power.
Why in the world, when the UN's own peacekeepers are the ones attacking civilians, when peacekeepers commit the sickening crime of raping children, is it someone else's job?
AMT: Allegations of the sexual abuse of civilians by UN peacekeepers have triggered an official response but is it enough? I'm Anna Maria Tremonti, this is The Current.
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UN report on stopping peacekeeper sex crimes fails, say critics
Guest: Emma Phillips
VOICE 1: Their job is to protect civilians. But at times they've done just the opposite. The number of cases of UN peacekeepers accused of raping and sexually abusing civilians is on the rise.
VOICE 2: For decades there have been allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers. It's clear it's still going on.
VOICE 3: UN peacekeepers are facing fresh accusations of child sex abuse in Central African Republic. Such abuse in the country is being described as rampant.
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Well UN peacekeepers may be known for rushing into some of the world's most troubled areas, but as you heard there in recent months the peacekeepers themselves have been at the centre of a troublesome scandal. Friday, for the first time, the UN adopted a resolution tackling sexual abuse by its troops. I asked the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about that scandal when he joined me here on The Current last month.
I have taken very decisive measures. I have fired the Special Representative who was working in Central African Republic and I have immediately launched a high level panel of inquiry.
AMT: Ban Ki-moon did finally address the Security Council about his report into sexual assault by UN peacekeepers last week. However some are already questioning just how effective the new measures proposed by the Secretary General will be in ending sexual abuse by peacekeepers. Emma Phillips was counsel to the independent panel that he talks about. Emma Phillips is a partner at the Toronto law firm, Goldblatt Partners, and she's with me in our Toronto studio. Good morning.
EMMA PHILLIPS: Good morning.
AMT: Well before we talk about the panel, let's talk a little bit about Central African Republic. What were some of the abuses that UN peacekeepers were accused of committing there?
EMMA PHILLIPS: So the allegations were very ugly in nature. They involved mostly French peacekeepers in engaging in exchanges of food, military rations, biscuits, small amounts of food, or money for oral sex, anal sex - I'm sorry to be so explicit but I think it is important to acknowledge the seriousness of the allegations - with young boys between the ages of nine and thirteen. I should explain that these boys were living in a displaced persons camp under very extreme poverty. It's a sort of makeshift camp that sprung up in the context of sectarian violence. They were mostly orphans, essentially homeless, and they were hungry. And so they were approaching peacekeepers at checkpoints to ask for food and as I said they were asked for these sexual acts in exchange.
AMT: Very disturbing allegations. How serious a crisis was this scandal then to the credibility of the UN?
EMMA PHILLIPS: Well it has been a very significant crisis. In part because there have been numerous such scandals over the decades. This isn't the first time or the first place, the first peacekeeping mission where such allegations have arisen or where findings of serious sexual abuse have been made. And so I think when these allegations arose in 2014 and 2015, in part because of the very ugly nature it drew a lot of international attention, but it was also the fact that the UN really seemingly failed to act on the allegations. It took about a year before it came to public attention. And in that year there was a level of inaction that's inexcusable, essentially what the panel found. That failure to act creates a culture of impunity; it allows these kinds of incidents to perpetuate. It goes directly to the credibility of the UN, and the trust of the civilian population in the UN, as well as the trust of the global international community.
AMT: Well let's just talk about the culture of impunity. During a UN debate last Thursday, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, questioned why a Canadian police officer received a mere nine day suspension for having a sexually exploitative relationship during his peacekeeping mission in Haiti. What do you know about those allegations?
EMMA PHILLIPS: Well we don't know very much. We know what the UN has reported, which was there was a Canadian police officer, as you said, who was deployed in the context of a peacekeeping mission in Haiti. We don't know from which home department or police service the individual was posted. And we don't know the specifics of the allegations. The US has described it as sexual exploitation and we know that he fathered a child so we assume that means that he was engaged in some kind of transactional sex prostitution. But we don't know the nature of the context, the number of incidents over time, whether it was consensual or not. Presumably it was consensual in the broad sense in that it wasn't a violent sexual assault because if it had been violent it wouldn’t have been called a sexual exploitation; it would have been termed differently by the UN. But the UN has a zero tolerance policy with respect to any sexual contact with a civilian population for good reason which is can you really say that these kinds of interactions are consensual when people are in dire situations, very vulnerable, and there are armed police officers or soldiers who can take advantage of their vulnerabilities. I think consensual has to be used in quotes.
AMT: We did ask the Department of National Defence to comment on this case, it referred us to the RCMP because it has an internal peace operations function for the UN. The RCMP could not be reached for comment. But what does a nine day suspension say about how seriously Canada takes allegations of this nature.
EMMA PHILLIPS: Well again, it's hard to say without knowing the specific details. It certainly calls into question whether or not the real context and seriousness of the relationship of peacekeeping personnel to civilian population is being recognized by that home department. And again the importance of UN personnel acting in a way that upholds human rights, that preserves freedom rights, that protects human rights; those are incredibly important considerations. The reason why we authorize armed personnel of the member states of the United Nations Security Council to go into other countries is to protect local civilians.
AMT: Samantha Power has said she doubts the transparency of the UN on these matters. Does she have a point?
EMMA PHILLIPS: Yes, I would agree with that, although I think it's a little bit more complicated than that. The UN is making efforts to become more transparent, so in the most recent report, the Secretary General to the United Nations a week ago, they have tried to take steps to be more transparent by for example releasing the countries of origin of alleged perpetrators, that's why we know that there was a Canadian involved. In previous reports we didn't know that, so that's a step forward that the UN has taken in terms of trying to become more transparent about what's occurring. On the other hand, we think that probably the rate of reporting is very, very, very low. So just because the UN now tells us that there are 99 alleged incidents that were reported in 2015, it’s probably nowhere near the number of actual incidents. In the meantime what we know from the investigation in Central African Republic is that incidents get reported informally and may never make it to a formal complaint or to the kind of public inquiry that really should occur. And that's because of this culture of impunity and lack of accountability.
AMT: You were counsel to the independent panel looking into abuse by peacekeepers in Central African Republic. How did that panel come into existence?
EMMA PHILLIPS: Well as I said these allegations came out with respect to these very serious abuses. They came out in the public eye in 2015 but they had come to the attention of the UN in 2014. So there was a real question about what the UN had done or it failed to do to address in a very meaningful and concrete way, these allegations in that intervening year. And so the Secretary General appointed an independent panel in June 2015 - it was chaired by the retired Canadian Supreme Court judge, Justice Maria Deschamps - to investigate the UN's response to the allegations and the adequacy of that response.
AMT: What were some of the recommendations of this panel?
EMMA PHILLIPS: Well there were a number of recommendations. I think the kind of overarching recommendation is that it's really important for the UN to recognize that these are serious human rights violations. Not just disciplinary matters or misconduct or even crimes because when they put it into that kind of misconduct box, either they view it as something that may result in an administrative sanction like a nine day suspension that you referred to earlier, or it's something that they just refer back to the country of origin of these troops. But they don't take responsibility themselves; the UN doesn't take responsibility itself for addressing these serious incidents. But when you view these and understand these incidents as serious human rights violations that triggers the UN's own obligation to investigate, to report both internally and potentially publicly, to hold the perpetrators accountable or do their best to facilitate holding them accountable by the domestic country and to care and support for the victims. The UN has a very rigorous mandate with respect to human rights violations but if they put blinkers on and fail to see these incidents in that light, then they ignore that whole set of responsibilities.
AMT: Well let's just talk about that phrase, “human rights violations,” because when I interviewed the Secretary General last month we spoke about this scandal. Listen to how he uses that word.
Since day one of my mandate, I have been putting a high priority on preventing sexual violence. This is a human rights issue.
AMT: So he says it's a human rights issue. What did the UN say the abuse was?
EMMA PHILLIPS: There's a real disjunction between the rhetoric that's used publicly and by the senior leadership and the actions of staff on the ground and agencies on the ground. That's not necessarily to blame individual staff; I think they are taking their cues. So for example, the situation in Cairo was a little bit more complicated than how we've described it today because the French soldiers weren’t actually UN peacekeepers under UN command. What we would think of typically as blue helmets. The French peacekeepers were there under the mandate of the Security Council in a peacekeeping capacity but they were under French command. Now because they weren't blue helmets they don't fall under the UN's own policies around sexual exploitation and abuse, what the UN refers to as their SEA policies. So what the panel heard, essentially, from UN staff and agencies was we don't have jurisdiction. Yes, there may have been serious allegations, maybe the French did these things maybe they didn't, but we don't have any jurisdiction. It's not up to us, we don't have any responsibility. Well again if you view these acts as serious human rights violations, which I think under international law they likely are, then it doesn't matter what the particular nationality…
AMT: It doesn't matter but the makeup of the panel, once it's a human rights violation the UN can kick in.
EMMA PHILLIPS: That's right. It doesn't matter if it's a local combatant who has committed these crimes or a UN peacekeeper with a blue helmet or without a blue helmet.
AMT: So they don't use the word violation, in other words. Did they call it a human rights violation?
EMMA PHILLIPS: Well they did in response to the panel's report. And then once the panel came out with its report, and I believe your interview with the Secretary General was subsequent to that report, the Secretary General has accepted the kind of broad findings of the report in the sense that these were serious human rights violations and the UN failed to respond in an inappropriate way.
AMT: You raise the jurisdictional issue. This is a real touchy point for the countries that actually provide soldiers in these situations, is it not?
EMMA PHILLIPS: Yes. It goes, I think, probably to the heart of the problem: who has jurisdiction to discipline or to prosecute soldiers who perpetrate these kinds of crimes. And if those countries fail to take action, then does anybody else have any jurisdiction, is there anything that anybody else can do? The problem is if nobody is actually either investigating or prosecuting appropriately or the ultimate sanctions are too weak, too lax. Then it again creates this culture of impunity where other soldiers, other personnel who may have predatory tendencies are under the impression, probably rightly, that there aren't any consequences to taking these kinds of actions and it just perpetuates.
AMT: The resolution that was approved on Friday with a vote of 14-0 with Egypt abstaining after a last minute amendment that the proposal would weaken text. Egypt didn't like this because of some of its own peacekeepers, am I right?
EMMA PHILLIPS: Yes. My understanding is that Egypt very specifically endorses zero tolerance policy and agrees that these are egregious acts that shouldn't occur. It's not that Egypt wasn't in support of trying to combat these kinds of incidents but my understanding is that Egypt had a concern with respect to whether or not the Security Council was the appropriate forum for this kind of resolution. Now whether or not that had to do with some other politics and that was just that the surface superficial reason that was given, I couldn't say. I will note that Egypt is not one of the countries from which perpetrators have been named in this most recent report. So I don't think that Egypt was trying to cover up or protect its own.
AMT: The Secretary General has been naming and shaming essentially. What do you think of that strategy?
EMMA PHILLIPS: I don't think there's anything wrong with that strategy. It can be constructive in some very limited way but I don't think it's an adequate, effective response; it's just one part of a response. And how effective it will be depends on the particular interests of the country involved. Some countries may really be affected and motivated by not wanting to be named as a country from which sexual abusers come. Other countries are probably much less concerning. You have to remember that a number of the countries that provide troops to peacekeeping operations are themselves countries with dubious human rights histories where their own governments have been accused of serious human rights violations. Whether or not they are sensitive to that kind of naming and shaming strategy is questionable.
AMT: Now let's go back to the Central African Republic with the French troops. Some of these findings also showed that children who were allegedly abused, were never removed from those camps, or removed from the area around those peacekeepers. They kept them there even when they knew.
EMMA PHILLIPS: This is really one of the most egregious failings that the panel found. A number of children had reported internally to an NGO within the camp that these incidents were occurring and this representative of the NGO himself, a displaced person, brought it to the attention of the UN. So the UN immediately dispatched a UN staff member, a human rights officer to interview some of the children. They interviewed six of the children, but those were by no means all of the children who were involved. And those six children, after the interviews took about six weeks, at the end of the six weeks, UNICEF referred the children for some care and support to a local NGO. So first of all it's not clear why UNICEF didn't refer these children immediately after the interviews given that these abuses were very serious, were ongoing in some cases, and the children clearly needed medical care and support. And then the full extent of the services that they ultimately receive from the NGO was a two hour listening session with a social worker and legal counsel. They weren't referred for medical care, they weren’t referred for food aid - again remember that these children were essentially starving - they weren’t referred for housing, and they weren't relocated. As you say, that’s significant given that the French troops were still on site, the perpetrators were on site. And now these children have made a complaint to the UN and that could have really created a serious security threat to the children.
AMT: Has France prosecuted its own soldiers?
EMMA PHILLIPS: It's very unclear what steps the French have taken. They do have an ongoing legal proceeding but it's a secret proceeding and so we don't have any details of what occurred. They did announce shortly before the panel's report came out in December that they had identified four individuals. But again we don't know where they are in the legal proceedings and whether or not any of those four will be found culpable. I should note that the children, when they were interviewed, gave very specific information to the human rights investigator about some of the perpetrators, in some cases they knew names or nicknames. The children were able to report identifying features like tattoos and piercings. These incidents all occurred at UN checkpoints, at peacekeeping checkpoints where the soldiers were on duty so it would have been very easy or at least relatively easy to determine who was on guard at that particular moment.
AMT: Okay so now this US drafted resolution endorsed by Ban Ki-moon’s plan for reform has been approved. Are you hopeful that there will be a more robust action from the UN?
EMMA PHILLIPS: I think it's a step in the right direction. I can't say that I'm hopeful because there's been such a long history of rhetoric without subsequent action. But it's certainly a step in the right direction. Some of the recommendations or measures adopted in that Security Council resolution have been in effect already and yet they've never been used effectively. For example one of the key measures is repatriation. Its taken months and months and months of allegations for the UN to even repatriate some of the troops that were involved in in these incidents.
AMT: So lots more questions to ask of the Secretary General as we go forward on this.
EMMA PHILLIPS: That’s right.
AMT: Okay. Thank you for coming in.
EMMA PHILLIPS: Thank you.
AMT: Emma Phillips, counsel for the independent panel on sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic. She is a lawyer, a partner with Goldblatt Partners in Toronto and she joined me here in our Toronto studio.
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Are millennials hacking housing with community homes?
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Hello, I’m Anna Maria Tremonti and you’re listening to The Current.
AMT: Still to come, the rise of Donald Trump. The politician may seem stranger than fiction but there’s actually a long tradition of Hollywood films predicting larger than life populist political figures in America. We’ll find out if there’s a happy ending in about half an hour from now. But first, when there’s really no place like home…
[ripple effect is spoken and the words have a ripple effect]
AMT: Well every generation faces its own challenges and for the so-called millennial generation coming of age in Canada right now, the challenge could not be more stark. As real estate in the country's major urban centers becomes astronomically more expensive, simply finding a place to live, a roof over one's head, is getting harder than ever. But these same young people are proving themselves to be ingenious problem solvers in the face of a housing crunch. Today as part of The Current’s season-long project, Ripple Effect, we're tracking some of the more creative approaches this generation is taking, including a solution that harkens to a different and perhaps groovier generations approach. This is it Willow Yamauchi’s documentary, The Housing Hack.
WILLOW YAMAUCHI: My daughter just turned 19. She's an adult, a millennial and understandably, she'd like to have a place of her own. The problem is…we live in Vancouver.
WY: Housing in this city is ridiculously expensive. It is, after all, home of the #Don’tHave1Million Twitter campaign. About a year ago a local woman tried to get people to take notice that millennials can't afford to buy a home here. For many, rent is also prohibitively expensive.
VITA ANTONIO SPINELLI: I saw this like crazy little story that happened with myself being born in Vancouver… I was actually born here and went through a period of time where I was like… oh my god how am I going to live in the city that I was born in. And that's quite an issue for so many people it's like okay, this is my home but how am I ever going to buy a house here.
WY: Vita Antonio Spinelli is a little older than my daughter, he's 22. Raised in a traditional Italian family, sharing a bedroom with his twin brother, he figured he was looking at some stark choices… move away or…
VAS: …or just living at home and then that's a whole other story. A lot of my friends and my age group are forced to stay at home which I believe isn't a bad thing. But it definitely changes your ability to express your life in some ways.
WY: Renting a place on his own was not appealing and not realistic. I know because I've been scrolling through the ads…
[ads blending into one another]
-$1795 / 460ft2 - Studio APARTMENT in downtown Vancouver
-$1600 / 1br - 620ft2 - BRIGHT, RENOVATED, BEAUTIFUL 1 BEDROOM
-$1645 / 550ft2 - Studio in Olympic Village
-$1550 / 500ft2 - newly Renovated Bachelor Suite
WY: But then... sandwiched between rental ads for these tiny suites was something quite different. Rental notices distinctive, first because of their lower rents and second for … well…
[different people speaking]
-We are vegetarian except for human breast-milk, Mondays and oysters
-We like to play ukulele and sing together
-We also made our own cider this year, and next season we’re planning on making jam from the grapes that grow on our property!
-We are a collective house of 6 humans and four animals
WY: Let's call them eye-catching living arrangements. And when Vita caught wind of them, he had one burning question.
VAS: What is this magical space where people are coming together and creating these amazing events?
WY: And then another… how could he be part of it?
-Veggie, plant loving natural house on the drive needs a new homie!
-Our house is communal, meaning we share food, meals, and chores.
WY: Reading closely I notice there's an interesting pattern to the ads for these magical spaces as Vita calls them, they all seem to contain the same key phrases: collective, intentional, community, communal… Wait…Communes? I know all about communes. My hippie childhood included a brief flirtation with a commune on Valdez Island, as well as various shared homes, but I guess I assumed that communal living was a relic of the ancient past and certainly of no interest to modern day tech-savvy millennials. But evidence would suggest otherwise. A couple of years ago Vita was invited to visit an open mic night at a community home.
VAS: That was my first little introduction into the community living and seeing how nurturing it could be for people for--especially in places like the city where we feel so separated. Finding homes, not just houses, but homes where it's like we're gathering like we did years ago, thousands of years ago. In the true way that humans are supposed to live.
WY: Vita was hooked.
VAS: And I was just pulled directly into the centre of this vortex…
WY: After experimenting with a few different homes...
VAS: The stars lined up and my buddy and I found this space and were like yes, it's time to start our own home like this.
WY: Vita now lives in a stately Tudor-style mansion in Vancouver's posh Southlands neighbourhood. He and the six other millennials he shares it with call it the Merkaba Community Collective. Merkaba sits mid-block on a quiet dead end street. The only sign of life is a gardener with a gas leaf blower in the neighbouring yard…
[door knocker hitting a door]
WY: But inside, it's another story.
[sounds of Willow walking in Merkaba, hugs, pets barking]
WY: As I step inside I'm greeted by two dogs, their tails wagging. A cat eyes me suspiciously from across the room. Inside, Merkaba is warm and inviting with art and homey touches. The remnants of wood smoke hang in the air. It smells nice in here.
VAS: Yeah, we have two fireplaces here so…
WY: From a hammock in the living room there's a good view of a koi pond and hot tub in the back yard.
VAS: For what we're getting for that price in competitive of what people are paying for shoe boxes in the sky, it's an amazing deal. So the house came with five bedrooms, and then we converted the second living room into a bedroom as well, just so like create—there is so much space that we didn’t need.
WY: This is nice, very nice, all for a cost of about $700 per person.
VAS: There is such a tension building in the city until this idea took flight.
WY: The idea to pool resources and live communally, if millennials can share cars, why not mansions, and their lives?
VAS: Over the past year community homes are springing up like mushrooms. It's happening everywhere and the idea is growing—and I believe all down—actually the whole Western Coast of—I went down to Burning Man and yeah I did a road trip down there. Portland, Northern California, the idea is there and the idea is spreading. Even in New Zealand, I know I was there earlier too, Australia… It's definitely a growing trend.
[friends having dinner, laughing and chatting]SFX dinner
WY: In the city of Abbotsford, 12 millennials sit around a long wooden table illuminated by a large green chandelier. Two of them have just fixed dinner. Tonight it's their turn to feed the house. Everyone here prepares a meal twice a month. Living communally in this… old hotel, their experiment is known as The Atangard Community Project. The group extended an invitation for me to see their home… and eat some stir fry
SOPHIA SUDERMAN: My name is Sophia Suderman, I am 32 and I am a current resident at the Atangard Community Project.
WY: Before dinner she gave me a tour of the hotel.
SS: We have two hallways, and there’s…
WY: Sophia walks with purpose down the long polished wooden floors of Atangard. It still looks like a hotel, but what strikes me is how many of the bedroom doors are open and as we pass we get a glimpse into how people are living here, including one resident bent over an old record player trying to coax it to life.
RESIDENT: It’s not behaving. I just got it a week ago so…[laughing]
WY: Next we enter a darkened lounge area, the only light coming from the glow of a Macbook Air held by a young man and from the gleam of a headlamp worn by a woman wordlessly knitting.
[Sophia greets the other residents]
WY: Sophia's not sure how many people have lived here over the last 6 years, at last count it was over 100. I asked Sophia, how this communal home came about, and it turns out, it was kind of happenstance. Sophia was looking for a house to rent with a group of friends when...
SS: We noticed there was a for lease sign on the old hotel and so we started looking at it to kind of see if it was even possible. And as we took a better look at it we started to form a plan.
WY: A plan to transform a boarded up hotel into a so-called "intentional community."
SS: So this building was built in 1927. I hear that back in its day it was the place to be. It was one of the first biggest buildings in downtown Abbotsford and then over the years it kind of deteriorated and then up until it was closed down a few years before we got in here it was running as a SRO, which is a single room occupancy hotel. So it was very low cost housing and a lot of the people that were in here were kind of causing problems in the area which is why the city came in and shut it down.
WY: The Atangard crew made some unsavoury discoveries during the renovations.
SS: There was a blow up doll I think actually was hidden in one of the ceiling tiles and there was like a bag of old needles that fell out. There was a lot of red splattered on the walls and I'd like to think that maybe it was just jam or paint or something like that but it probably wasn't.
WY: It took a lot of elbow grease, but once it was done each member had their own bedroom and bath, with plenty of shared space to roam.
SS: Everyone that lives here puts in $10 a month towards staples…
WY: Sharing is a big part of the story for the Atangard Community.
SS: One of the aspects of the sharing economy would just be affordability and then also like being aware of the environment, so wanting to make less of an environmental footprint. I think it just makes sense on so many levels and if you grow up doing that it doesn't seem so inconvenient if that's what you're used to. And then there is some camaraderie in sharing...people become closer they become more like family. We do have an auto share here and we have an old station wagon, we have an online sign out sheet and I can see if someone has it for the day and if they're just taking it to work, I'll call them and say hey, can I drop you off? So even in that way it's like a brother sister thing, like I'll pick you up, or have fun at school.
WY: And being millennials, you know social media has to have a role here.
SS: Well with each other we have--we actually have a secret Facebook group. So that's anything that's going on the house like, hey have you seen my jacket, I left it out the other day or why does the new teflon pan have a scratch on it, or don't forget about the House meeting coming up and then there's also inside jokes and all that.
[typing on a computer]
VAS: Yeah so this is the—we have an internal group…
WY: Vita's home also uses social media to connect with house members.
VAS: We have an internal Facebook communication page. It's the easiest way because we do all live different lives and if there's an issue that comes up in the house or just like a question we want to ask, like hey, can this person stay here this evening? We have an internal page to communicate that way and we also have a public community house page, the Merkaba collective which is almost at 1000 members right now…
WY: To be clear, this 6 month old house has almost 1000 fans.
VAS: We post our different events. We have different individuals posting their projects that they're working on which is really cool. So it's like a way for other members to be like hey, this is what I'm working on, check out this event, or does anyone need massage or like anything like that.
WY: Are these millennials hacking housing? It sure sounds like it.
VAS: I remember speaking to somebody and they're like, well isn't that just roommates living together? And I believe the main difference between roommates living together and a community home is when there is a focus put on doing things together and creating a space together rather than just inhabiting a space, sharing a space with people, really coming together as more of a family.
SS: There is always someone who can help you when your computer has an issue and there is someone else that can help you put up shelves in your room. There’s so much back and forth that way, it’s really nice to have...
VAS: A couple weeks ago we all woke up and the house just smelled horrible and we're like, what is this smell? And we discovered that the fridge--the back of the fridge had the freon or whatever gas was in there, had leaked and exploded all through the night. So we were all just like, what the hell is happening, and one of our roommates is an engineer. So he just went there and fixed the problem and it was all done...
WY: It makes me wonder how I might curate my own communal home. A plumber, a doctor and a gardener would be a good start, and it just may come to that. Communal living isn't just for the young.
VAS: There are community members who have been living in that way, that are of all ages. And in that sense I see it's a generation of the mind, a generation of the heart.
WY: And that generation of the heart has a long history and a knack for getting media attention.
To many outsiders this was just another hippie convention, but there was more to it than that...
WY: In 1971, the CBC visited a hippie commune in BC.
Most of these people are well educated. There are now about 300 of these communes in BC, this is a glimpse of one of them and preconceptions are not in order. Some of the commune's members are artists.
Some of the dozen or so people living here deny they are living in a commune, they say it's their village.
WY: Sophia doesn't deny they're living in a commune. But she doesn't really confirm it either.
SS: I joke about the commune for sure…or they think it's a cult, they think it's--they don't really know what to think. It is just so outside of the normal frame of reference for how people should live. Because actually this place has had such a bad reputation in the past, if you tell them that you live in the Fraser Valley Inn they don't know what to think, they go oh wow, oh okay.
WY: So, are these just new age hippies, because I've got to say, I'm picking up the vibe…
SS: I wouldn't say that we never play guitars or hang around. I definitely say that it's fitting for our culture but I definitely think there are some very strong parallels. Maybe one of the maybe one of the big differences is that people here a lot of people here have a place where they're going. I would associate maybe those past communes with people that were just content to be there. Here a lot of people are pretty motivated...
VAS: We had an event here. It was actually a two day compassionate communication workshop here. So we had around 20 people…
WY: Perhaps not so surprisingly, one source of tension for some communal homes is what we used to call, "the establishment."
VAS: Yeah it's an interesting thing because there is a bylaw in Vancouver that was an old bylaw saying that there could be no more than certain amount of people living in a house that weren't family and blood related.
WY: Which for Vita, begs the question...
VAS: What defines a family? Do we really need to stick to those old ideas of blood relations being a family?
GEOFF MEGGS: Well the city of Vancouver has a bylaw that goes back a long way that restricts the number of adults that can share the same dwelling. There was good reason for it back in the day. It was to stop the proliferation of unlicensed rooming houses so it provided for basic safety and that kind of thing once they got above a certain number.
WY: Geoff Meggs is a Vancouver city councillor. He was invited to a gathering at a community home.
GM: There was a festive kind of feeling. It was a summer day, there was a huge front lawn with some performances going on and art happening and things like that. But the building itself was really pretty spectacular, although I don't think they will think badly if I say a little bit down on the heels in some respects. It was a very, very expensive mansion obviously in the 60's or 70's but hasn't been updated since then. It's a beautiful living space but not modern at all.
WY: The people at the gathering were concerned about the bylaw limiting the number of unrelated adults in a single family home to five.
GM: Given that we had virtually no complaints or none, I haven't actually heard of any, we just decided to leave it alone. As far as I know people are still doing this but I haven't heard of any problems.
WY: Ironically, after he left the event, someone made a noise complaint. When I mentioned this to Geoff Meggs he agreed that there had been a lot of drumming. Councillor Meggs doesn't seem overly concerned about homes like Vita's, he's even supportive. But he acknowledges such collectives could be vulnerable given the bylaw still on the books and the possibility of insurance problems. He stresses we do still need to regulate how we live, because it is changing and becoming more complicated.
GM: I think people would agree that there should be a number. It's still a legitimate thing to regulate and in a period of the so-called sharing economy with airbnb and things like that, the use of buildings by people in an unregulated way is a greater and greater concern
WY: In the meantime, collective and community homes continue to organize and advertise...
[different advertisements blending into each other]
-We are a group of late 20's to mid 30’s humans, working, playing and doing great things in the world.
-Our interests and hobbies include climbing, yoga, burning man stuff, sex-positivity, anti-oppression politics, biking, cooking, electronic music, dance, programming, and the list goes on
-We enjoy making healthy food, keeping a generally tidy environment, practice yoga, meditation, paint, photography, sewing, mind expanding conversation, fun in nature, gratitude and honesty.
-We like to do many things together, so this is not a home for someone who just needs a crash/sleep space.
WY: So don't think that just because you want in, it will be easy. For some collectives the interview process can be vigorous.
VAS: We all kind of sit down in an interview with the individual and we all talk to them kind of see what they're about and after we've decided on somebody to come in there's a 60 day period where we just see what the flow is like and after those 60 days it’s like are you a true fit to this container, a true fit to this house or is something else better suited to you.
WY: Because as you heard they aren't just looking for a roommate, they are…
VAS: Looking for individuals who are inspired, motivated and heart centred.
WY: Sophia Suderman admits that there have been challenges in bringing together so many people under one roof...
SS: One of the big ones in the beginning was just managing people's expectations on what we all think is normal…
WY: And what is normal?
SS: Clean for some people is not clean to another person, so it's outlining what cleanliness means to you and why it's important and even just letting some people know if cleanliness isn't important to you, these people that you care about, care about it, so it's something you are going to have to start to care about.
VAS: Worst part, when things don't get cleaned. But, we're pretty good for that, but there are still moments of like why is that dirty? And the blender in the morning, for sure I get the blender in the morning. This is the bane of my existence every morning.
VAS: One downside of communal living, but the rest is great I promise. I promise!
WY: For Vita, Mercaba is just the beginning...
VAS: So we have land in Costa Rica, 60 acres which are starting a community project. So, really this model is kind of like the practice round for the bigger scale.
WY: Because, let's face it, the times are changing.
GM: As the city changes and evolves we are going to need a lot of patience with each other and a lot of tolerance about living together and being closer together. What we don't have an option about, is just separating everybody and getting back to where it was say in the 1950's or in some ideal world where everybody had their own single family house.
WY: Millennials are often maligned as being the Peter Pan generation, perpetual youth who delay starting a family, a career, who share instead of own, but whose fault is that?
VAS: Our generation grew up in a world where we knew there were problems and where we knew that the way individuals and other generations were living with the entitlement to things. With I need my own house, I need my own car, where that couldn't work anymore. And there was a generation before us that grew up in a world where it was all golden, you could have everything you wanted, you could have the biggest engine, the biggest car and there would be no implications for that. Where we truly saw that something was wrong and even in our education system, grew up being like yeah, the world's kind of screwed up and it's falling on you. So we grew up with that message and through that we shed that need for, for the most part—I don’t want to blanket everyone but I see a very high trend in less of a self-entitlement, less of a need for I have, and more we have and we share.
WY: Maybe living communally isn't so radical, after all.
VAS: If anything, it's kind of like when you see the bigger picture of things, so when challenges you're faced with are all there to kind of help you grow into a better person and that's kind of what happened in Vancouver. It's like rent got so high that people were forced to come together and that coming together I believe, is a truly a blessing.
WY: It's hard to say if this is a phase, or something more permanent, but Vita is pretty clear.
VAS: I plan to live in community my whole life. I'm not going back.
WY: As for my daughter, she's decided to move to England in the fall, where she hopes to find a millennial commune of her own.
AMT: We've been listening to The Housing Hack produced by Vancouver's Willow Yamauchi and The Current’s documentary editor, Joan Webber. Just a note as part of a new CBC pilot project this documentary has been interpreted in American Sign Language. You can find the video on our website cbc.ca/thecurrent. With the help of the Broadcasting Accessability Fund, one documentary from The Current every month is translated into American. Sign language, as well transcripts of our entire program can be found on our website on a daily basis. Let us know what you think of what you heard. You can reach us on the website. Go to the website and then click on contact. You can tweet us, we are @thecurrent cbc, and like us on Facebook.
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The rise of the great American dictator, coming to a theatre near you
Guests: Robert Thompson, Kathryn Cramer Brownell
AMT: Coming up next, it's hard to take your eyes off the dizzying rise of Donald Trump as a Republican presidential hopeful, but you do you ever get the feeling that you've seen this one before? Hollywood history of populist politicians onscreen and communists and comedies and tragedies. Hello, I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and this is The Current.
[Movie: Meet John Doe]
DB NORTON: All right, practical Annie, here it is. Tomorrow night, before a crowd of 15,000 people, and talking over a nation-wide radio hook-up, John Doe will announce the formation of a third party.
ANN: A third party?
DB NORTON: Yes. The John Doe Party, devoted entirely to the interests of all the John Does all over the country, which practically means 90 per cent of the voters. He will also announce the third party's candidate for the presidency. A man whom he, personally, recommends. A great humanitarian; the best friend the John Does have.
ANN: Mr. DB Norton.
DB NORTON: Yes.
AMT: Well, from way back in 1941, that's the Hollywood movie Meet John Doe. As you heard there, it's a political story, one that might have seemed far-fetched, about an artificially cooked up popular movement supposedly representing ordinary Americans who feel betrayed by Washington elites. And behind that movement there lurk wealthy and powerful undemocratic forces out to dupe America. Meet John Doe is one early example of a long line of Hollywood movies about such fearsome scenarios. There have been many similar films about a charismatic leader who would rise up and lead the US down a totalitarian road. Fast forward to today and some might say that the rise of a reality TV show host who uses racial scapegoating and fear mongering in his quest for the presidency could just be Hollywood's fears coming true.
DONALD TRUMP: People love me. And you know what? I've been very successful. Everybody loves me.
AMT: Well, I'm joined by two guests to travel back in movie history and revisit some of Hollywood's on screen warnings of a fascist America. Robert Thompson is director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. He joins us from Syracuse, New York. Kathryn Cramer Brownell is a professor in the History Department at Purdue University where she teaches media, politics, and popular culture, with an emphasis on the American presidency. He’s also the author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life. And Kathryn Cramer Brownell is in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Hello to you both.
ROBERT THOMPSON: Hello.
KATHRYN CRAMER BROWNELL: Hello, thank for having us.
AMT: Kathryn, let's begin with you. Describe the America that director Frank Capra was trying to reach with that film we just heard from, Meet John Doe.
KATHRYN CRAMER BROWNELL: Well, the year is 1941 and that's significant because in this film he's really capturing a world in transition. That same year, there was a heightened political debate about the role of publicity, advertising, entertainment, and the mass media as an institution, more generally, in American politics and the electoral process in particular. It's after a decade where new technologies, especially radio and motion pictures, offered alternative opportunities to gain political powers. And, again, this idea of transition, the era of party bosses and urban machines that dominated the political process from the end of the 19th and into the 20th century. They were declining in influence as those who had expertise and knowledge of the mass media were gaining authority.
AMT: How good a job did Hollywood—
KATHRYN CRAMER BROWNELL: --and significance—
AMT: Oh, sorry. I was just going to say how good a job did Hollywood do then and sounding the alarm about fascism in the lead up to the Second World War?
KATHRYN CRAMER BROWNELL: Well, Hollywood did get on the anti-fascist train. There's a historical debate about whether or not Hollywood championed awareness of fascism and Nazis and if they waited too long, in terms of trying to take advantage of the international box office, or if they were willing to go out and risk losing money at the box office to make a political statement about the international scene. But from what I've seen in my research, figures like Jack Warner did sacrifice box office dollars to articulate an anti-fascist message with his 1939 film Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Others worked off the screen. Warner and people like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. did work with the Roosevelt administration to raise awareness by traveling and giving speeches in support of Britain and trying to get public opinion on guard to support this idea of intervention in the European conflict.
AMT: Robert Thompson, radio played a role in making John Doe into the front for fascism. Was the scenario based on a real situation in the US?
ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, what’s interesting about Meet John Doe and I think a lot of these films is that yes, we're talking about the rise of these really questionable people into power, but in so many of these films, the media is implicated very early on. Meet John Doe opens before there's any dialogue and there's this old building and it's a newspaper building – The Bulletin, I think it is - and written in stone, literally, etched in stone is the motto: A free press means a free people - something I think all of us would probably subscribe to - and just after we get a chance to read that a jackhammer goes at it and starts taking it off the wall of this building and we get a big close-up of the word free being jack hammered off. And then it's replaced by a sign that says, a streamlined newspaper for a streamlined era. And then still before any dialogue, we see all the old guys, presumably these Free Press reporters, being fired and the whole thing that leads to the creation of John Doe is actually a run for circulation numbers, to sell more newspapers, which we could also read as selling more-- getting more box office or now, today, better ratings in television.
AMT: Not very subtle, huh.
ROBERT THOMPSON: No. And what’s so interesting is this is 1941. We know how everybody was suspicious of the media and all of that back then, but so many of these movies about the rise of populist candidates who turn out to be bad guys are also movies about implicating the media in these things, which sounds very, very modern.
AMT: Well, and Gary Cooper, in the film, becomes a celebrity, right.
ROBERT THOMPSON: Right. He does and he's a celebrity that, in fact, gets created by, literally, created by the newspaper. John Doe is a fictional character created by one of the people at the paper who doesn't want to get fired. They say you want fireworks, I'll give you fireworks. He makes up the story of John Doe and then they actually audition candidates in the office - all these people on economic hard times come into the office to, essentially, claim to be John Doe. And they pick the one that they think will be the most appealing in their papers and they ultimately cast him. And then he gets exploited, in that clip that you talked about, so there's this whole idea of a totally media-created, fictional character that becomes, then, a political leader. If that doesn't sound familiar, I don't know what does.
AMT: Well, that says stay with this idea of fame and fascism. We have a clip from another movie. This is Andy Griffith as 'Lonesome' Rhodes in the 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd.
[Movie: A Face in the Crowd]
LONESOME RHODES: This whole country's just like my flock of sheep!
MARCIA JEFFRIES: Sheep?
LONESOME RHODES: Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. [laughs] They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be 'Fighters for Fuller'. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. [laughs] Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the president - and you'll be the power behind me!
AMT: Oh my. Okay, Robert Thompson, briefly, what's the plot of A Face in the Crowd?
ROBERT THOMPSON: This is one of the creepiest movies I've ever seen and every time I watch it, it creeps me out. And I suppose part of that is that I grew up knowing Andy Griffith as Sheriff Taylor, this wonderful figure in Mayberry, a good populist figure. This movie was done before The Andy Griffith Show, but basically it's about this folksy guy. He plays the guitar. He's from Arkansas. And he first gets a radio show locally and everybody loves him so they turn it into a TV show. And this whole thing is an indictment of the emerging medium of television in 1957. And he becomes more and more powerful, more and more megalomania about that power. And that clip we heard is when somebody tries to bring him down, they open the mic. This is like a YouTube era sort of story. And he's not supposed to--people aren’t supposed to hear that - everybody does - and then of course his power collapses. But this whole thing, once again, is about first, the medium of radio, and then the medium of television being able to create this guy and get all these people to love him and scream for him and everything else. And, again, this was released in 1957. We've got scenes where all these girls are screaming for Lonesome Rhodes that remind me so much of what we would see with The Beatles later and I guess what we had just seen with Elvis.
AMT: And Kathryn Cramer Brownell, in 1957, television was relatively new. And these movies show the blurring between the media and politics. Some people might say that's exactly what we're seeing now in US cable networks.
KATHRYN CRAMER BROWNELL: Absolutely. And it was really controversial in the 1940s and the 1950s and I think one of the questions that both of these movies gets at is who should have political power? Who should speak for the people? Should it be the most popular personality, or perhaps someone who has more of a political pedigree, in terms of working within a party and having certain educational achievements? And the concern is what happens when flair wins out against experience and what the search for ratings dominates. This is a concern that you see Hollywood grappling with both on the screen and off the screen. And so it's also significant that Elia Kazan was the director of this particular film as he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his political activism. He and others were brought to Washington, DC to testify about their previous activity within the Communist Party and, unlike some of his colleagues who did not name names of other people who were involved in this radical political activity in the thirties or perhaps in the forties, he did name names. And that became very controversial. So I think A Face in the Crowd actually captures another legacy of the HUAC hearings. And that's the concern about entertainers being politically active in shaping public opinion.
AMT: Okay. Well, let's talk a little bit more about HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, because I have another clip about Hollywood and the Cold War. And this is the classic 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate
[Movie: The Manchurian Candidate]
SENATOR ISELIN: I am United States Senator John Yerkes Iselin and I have here a list of the names of 207 persons who are known by the Secretary of Defense as being members of the Communist Party...
DEFENSE SECRETARY: What?!
SENATOR ISELIN: ....who are still nevertheless [voices yelling] …working in and shaping the policy of the Defense Department!
DEFENSE SECRETARY: Senator who?
SENATOR ISELIN: I demand an answer, Mr. Secretary!
DEFENSE SECRETARY: What the hell did you say your name was? Huh?
SENATOR ISELIN: There will be no covering up, sir!
AMT: Okay. Well, Kathryn, Senator Iselin there was obviously based on Senator Joseph McCarthy who made a similar accusation about communists in the State Department. How sensitive was Hollywood to the rise of a fascist leader using anti-communist smears as a pathway to power?
KATHRYN CRAMER BROWNELL: They were very sensitive to that. You know, having undergone this inquisition, those people who had been affiliated, perhaps loosely, with the Communist Party during the 1930s and many people who had simply just been more progressive on political causes, they underwent a lot of inquisition into their political activities and how they tried to translate them to screen. Many, many people lost their jobs and really lost their livelihoods in Hollywood because of this political activism. So especially the Hollywood Left had really splintered in the 1950s because they had been on trial for using the silver screen to articulate, what was called, message movies in the 1940s. And this became a liability for them in the 1950s, so many of them turned her out and tried to promote anti-communism and to get on board with the Cold War.
AMT: Robert Thompson, in the story the fascist leader is actually a stooge of foreign communist leaders. What was the message the film was trying to send to Americans?
ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, yeah, I mean, there was a lot going on in this. First of all, in that clip that you just played sounds like it comes right out of the transcripts of things that Joseph McCarthy had said, I mean, and the way he was delivering and all of that. And in 1962, that would have still been very much in the memory of a lot of people. But then there was this other felicitous scheduling - if I'm not mistaken The Manchurian Candidate gets released right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cuban missile crisis goes from, what, middle of October, 14th or 15th, till the end of the month when it finally is resolved. And Manchurian Candidate gets released right smack in the middle of that, when we went through this very, very real rehearsal about what a Cold War disaster could it actually mean. And then of course Manchurian Candidate has all this other – the hypnotism, which, I guess, the metaphor for Communist propaganda and all of the rest of it. It's really, really a complicated film.
AMT: Now, The Manchurian Candidate wasn't the only Cold War movie warning of the rise of a fascist strongman. Two years after that movie came out there was the release of Seven Days in May. Listen to this confrontation between US president Jordan Lyman and General James Scott.
[Movie: Seven Days in May]
GENERAL JAMES MATTOON SCOTT: And if you want to talk about your oath of office, I'm here to tell you face to face, President Lyman, that you violated that oath when you stripped this country of its muscles - when you deliberately played upon the fear and fatigue of the people and told them they could remove that fear by the stroke of a pen. And then when this nation rejected you, lost its faith in you, and began militantly to oppose you, you violated that oath by simply not resigning from office and turning this country over to someone who could represent the people of the United States.
PRESIDENT JORDAN LYMAN: And that would be General James Mattoon Scott, would it? I don't know whether to laugh at that kind of megalomania, or simply cry.
GENERAL JAMES MATTOON SCOTT: James Mattoon Scott, as you put it, hasn't the slightest interest in his own glorification. But he does have an abiding concern about the survival of this country.
PRESIDENT JORDAN LYMAN: Then, by God, run for office. You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical affection for your country - why in the name of God don't you have any faith in the system of government you're so hell-bent to protect?
AMT: Okay, Robert Thompson, give us a brief rundown of what that movie is about.
ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, this has not nearly as much to do with the rise of a populist leader as so much as an attempted military coup. Basically, what's happened, it takes place sometime in the future - I think 1974 was the date that it was - and the president of the United States, who in this film looks an awful lot like Lyndon Johnson, has managed to get a nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union. So we're going to start taking apart nuclear weapons. Needless to say, this general is not happy with this as most of the population isn’t. I think the president at this point has 29 percent approval rating which, by today's standards, might not sound so bad. Anyway, the General has got this whole other system going whereby he's going to keep this treaty from happening and, presumably, take over the government. Media is involved here. He's got this whole way in which he's going to be able to infiltrate the media to get his message out according to his own power, but it's a lot less obvious than it is in things like Face in the Crowd and Meet John Doe.
AMT: Okay. And this movie comes out shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Berlin Wall going up. Kathryn Cramer Brownell, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower had warned of the dangers of the military industrial complex. In that sense, does Seven Days in May speak to a fear that was in both Republican and Democratic parties?
KATHRYN CRAMER BROWNELL: Yes. Absolutely. I think the broader message is this concern about the military industrial complex. It had become too powerful. Because here while the president at times is a weaker figure being overrun by the military generals, the presidency as an office and an institution is incredibly strong, perhaps too strong. And over the next decade the theme of the film - what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. would call the imperial presidency - became not part not just part of popular culture, but part of political protest and intellectual critiques of the presidency. And so I really think that this film gets at a growing belief that the presidency is starting to become imperial and that the institutional power, it's amassed through the National Security State, threatened rather than protected democracy.
AMT: Okay. We've got another movie here. None of these movies explicitly say which party is becoming fascist. But the 1992 satire Bob Roberts starring Tim Robbins comes pretty close. Like Lonesome Rhodes, Robert Roberts is a singer and has some sinister political ideas. Listen to this clip.
[Movie: Bob Roberts]
BOB ROBERTS: Well, the sixties are, let’s face it, a dark stain on American history. At no other time has lawlessness and immorality been so wide spread.
NEWS HOST: You're talking of Watergate and our invasion of Cambodia.
BOB ROBERTS: No, I'm not. I'm speaking of you. I'm speaking of lawlessness and immorality with regards to drug use and sexual practice.
NEWS HOST: Excuse me?
BOB ROBERTS: Disregard in the press for the sacred institutions that has made this country what it is today.
NEWS HOST: Is social protest disregard for our laws and institutions?
BOB ROBERTS: Certainly it is.
NEWS HOST: And yet it is a guaranteed right in our constitution.
BOB ROBERTS: So is burning the flag. Need I say more?
NEWS HOST: Yes, you need say more. Or are we to believe that what Bob Roberts wants to see in America is a compliant and silent public which respects the wishes and actions of its presidents no matter how immoral or illegal?
BOB ROBERTS: Are you a Communist?
AMT: Okay. Robert Johnson, remind us of what Bob Roberts was about.
ROBERT THOMPSON: Well, it's, I think -- It's been a while since I've seen that, but I believe he is a Republican. I think they do mention party in that film, though I could be wrong about that. And he's another one of these, like A Face in the Crowd, he's a singer. And he is going around getting an awful lot of power by talking about family values over all this sixties hippie stuff that ruined the country, by his estimation. What I find so fascinating about that clip that you just played, however, is number one, the rhetoric on the side of Bob Roberts which sounds so much like what we hear every day in certain places on 24-hour cable news channels, but, secondly, here is a film where you've got a journalist who's really asking good questions, who's really pursuing a noble cause and as I hear that journalist talking to Bob Roberts I keep thinking, wow, I wish he worked for CNN or Fox News.
AMT: And then she’d be asked, are you a communist.
ROBERT THOMPSON: That’s exactly right.
AMT: Kathryn, Bob Roberts came out 24 years ago. Was it successful as a cautionary tale for America?
KATHRYN CRAMER BROWNELL: Well, I think that the similarities between this film, which is a mockumentary, and the actual documentary about the 1992 election and Clinton's war room, that there are a lot of similarities in terms of the style of politics. That Bob Roberts picks up this story and kind of shows what happens when the line between entertainment and politics disappears. What happens when the line between the personnel and the private disappears with the rise of tabloid-style coverage of politics. And Bob Roberts, as a candidate in this film, takes advantage of the idea of the 24/7 news cycle, just like Bill Clinton and Ross Perot also ran campaigns that look very similar in style. Again, the message was very different, but the style - they also took to the 24/7 news cycle, CNN, Larry King, Arsenio Hall, and MTV to connect with voters.
AMT: Okay. So, I guess, let's talk about the elephant politician in the room here - pop culture celebrity trying to get the presidency through 24-hour cable. When you look at what's happening today in the race for the White House, is there a movie we should be looking at?
KATHRYN CRAMER BROWNELL: Well, you know, when I was looking at some of these movies over the weekend it seemed that there are parts of Donald Trump are in all of them. You know, the narcissism of Trump's campaign reflects the same narcissism of Andy Griffith's character in A Face in the Crowd. There's that search for ratings and that need to have the audience approval for that particular character to continue. And how you know that kind of selfish factor that's at play there as well in terms of the candidate searching for audience approval. Bob Roberts really highlights media innovation, this idea of the 24/7 reality TV show. And in that capacity I think the Trump campaign is reflective of the ways in which the Bob Roberts film is going behind the scenes and showing that this campaign can be a product, a political production that you consume not just in a sound bite, but the entire process of running and what happens on and off the camera is fodder for entertainment.
AMT: Robert Thompson, what do you think?
ROBERT THOMPSON: I agree. I think one can see contemporary politics this season in all of these films. And I guess the depressing thing is that all of these films seem to have done nothing to really give us enough insight to be able to handle this when it finally came along in real life. I guess my biggest observation with the Trump campaign is one wonders if he feels about all these people that are supporting him the way Lonesome Rhodes did in A Face in the Crowd. Lonesome Rhodes at one point says, how do you get these monkeys to vote for you? And he goes on to that clip you played saying these horrible things about how stupid they are. Trump has never had that Lonesome Rhodes moment yet and that's what makes this life different from that art.
AMT: Go ahead, Kathryn. You want to add something?
KATHRYN CRAMER BROWNELL: I was going to say, I think Trump is a culmination of the historical convergence between politics and Hollywood. But also he's unprecedented in terms of his political entertainment production. The fact that it has captured so many people and he's innovated in terms of using this reality TV format to articulate his message and dominate to add to the media narrative of this particular campaign.
AMT: Do you think any of Trump's people have watched these movies?
KATHRYN CRAMER BROWNELL: I don't think so, because in many ways, they’re movies that talk about charismatic leaders and they show the problem with these charismatic leaders. But they are not the top Hollywood films in terms of what people think of the most popular films. And so, again, they have a really compelling message, but they themselves, many of them were more controversial.
AMT: Okay. Well, we have to leave it there thank you both.
KATHRYN CRAMER BROWNELL: Thank you very much for having me.
ROBERT THOMPSON: Thank you.
AMT: That is Robert Thompson, Director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at the Syracuse University. He’s in Syracuse, New York. Kathryn Cramer Brownell is a professor in the History Department at Purdue University, where she teaches media, politics, and popular culture, with an emphasis on the American presidency. Her latest book is Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life. She joined us from Nantucket, Massachusetts. That's our program for today. One of the eerily prescient Hollywood movies we were just discussing was the 1992 film Bob Roberts, about a wealthy and charismatic politician. Bob Roberts in that movie is a singer and musician, so we’re going to leave you with a musical number from that film. Bob Roberts, portrayed by Tim Robbins, with the song Complain. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. Thanks for listening to The Current.
This little ditty is dedicated to you! One, two, three four!
[people screaming and shouting in background]
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