HPR writers respond to the recent controversy surrounding the rapper TYGA’s invitation to perform at Yardfest.
David Freed '16 is a columnist for the Harvard Political Review.
The debate regarding the petition preventing Tyga from performing at Yardfest misses several important points necessary for rigorous discussion. First, the Tyga scheduled to perform at Yardfest will most likely perform his tamer music that is similar to music performed by recent Yardfest artists. And second, contrary to what those opposed to Tyga think, defendants of Tyga performing at Yardfest do not support his misogyny and are not anti-activist.
Tyga receives some unfair criticism. The Tyga who may appear at Yardfest will probably not perform songs on his mixtapes which contain the most offensive lyrics. Also, the comments attributed to Tyga’s music in collaboration with other artists are often incorrectly cited to the rapper himself.
The sentiments of those in favor of keeping Tyga have also been unfairly characterized. Harvard freshman Colin Diersing argued in an article for the Harvard Political Review that supporters have a “personal prerogative to attack any activist or cause they rate less important or valuable than their own work.” Such is a misappropriation of a more laissez-faire style of protest. As Diersing calls it, the #wehavebiggerproblems argument refers to the line of thinking that worrying about the essentially harmless Tyga takes time away from other activist causes.
The contention of the pro-Tyga faction is: if you don’t like, don’t come. The “voting with your feet” idea has its roots in common economic principles of which N. Gregory Mankiw would be proud. The artist is enabled by popular support for his music that demonstrates a demand for his supply. By accepting his music without raising objections to its contents, consumers are sending the artist a message that they accept and tacitly condone his work.
By not showing up, those who resent the rapper send a larger scale message by encouraging a small turnout or even a large walkout than forming a petulant petition with little chance of success; having already been signed to a $30,000 contract, the University is likely recalcitrant to cancel and eat the cost.
Such arguments allow us to refocus our discussion on more important topics about the role of music in our society in transforming the opinions of our culture. Talib Kwell and Lupe Fiasco recently took to Twitter, arguing over the notion that these lyrics simply represent the poor socioeconomic realities and cultural mores of the rapper’s communities. This argument wouldn’t seem to explain the entire problem, but it would explain in part the preponderance of this kind of language among rap artists.
Artists that have performed at previous Yardfests and other Ivy League spring festivals (Cornell’s Slope Day, Penn’s Spring Fling, etc.), such as Wu-Tang Clan, Common, and Snoop Dogg, are also guilty of misogynistic lyrics. As a post in the Harvard Class of 2016 Facebook group illustrated, the three previous years Harvard has invited artists to Yardfest with similar lyrics and less protest. Whether that was because the music was simply better—another relevant Tyga protest is the incredibly poor quality of his music—or because it was less explicit still raises questions of whether the University condones these sentiments by inviting these artists to play at Harvard.
I tend to side with those who see little value in protesting the Tyga concert. While I find his lyrics horribly offensive, I recognize that his more popular music is tamer and along the lines of things performed by recent Yardfest artists. A more relevant discussion, I believe, is about the purpose of the concert and the transparency of the College Events Board, the organization that chooses the artists to invite. The CEB chooses artists it believes students will like, and Tyga’s popularity is large enough they chose him, cycling back to the basic argument about supply and demand. In the present, the libertarian argument of “if you don’t like it, don’t go” is not incompatible with the anti-Tyga assents. Demonstrating virulent dissatisfaction with these kinds of artists has likely made it enough that the CEB will monitor its choices more closely in the future. Banning him serves little practical or symbolic purpose; discussions should center on productive conversations about the role of music in our society and where these misogynistic lyrics came from in the first place.
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In the fallout of the 2012 presidential election, the American media has continually discussed the nature of the GOP’s alleged “race” problem. The Republican Party, which lost in the election black, Hispanic, and Asian votes by 89, 47, and 51 percent, respectively, began to deliver rhetoric of reform. Apologies gave way to admissions of guilt and to pledges of turnaround in both message and policy within the GOP. Florida Senator Marco Rubio commented that, “Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to [minorities],” and even Al Cardenas, the head of the American Conservative Union, was quoted in Politico as saying that the GOP “needs to realize that it’s too old and too white and too male.”
Cardenas, who went on to say that the party “needs to figure out how to catch up with the demographics of the country before it’s too late,” has been part of efforts to cultivate a new party image. His message rests on the argument that because the top public faces of the GOP, including Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner, are primarily white males, the party’s struggles among minority voter blocs can be attributed to the identities of its top representatives.
However, this discussion of issues of race in the GOP is derived from the tacitly incorrect assumption that minority candidates best represent “minority issues.” It similarly incorrectly characterizes the party’s views and history with race, while ignoring the larger, more immediate problems facing the GOP: communication and accessibility.
Who Are the Best Representatives?
Timothy Johnson is the founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a public policy organization that, according to Johnson in an interview with the Harvard Political Review, attempts to “raise awareness about a variety of different issues that affect the black community” and assert that specific “black issues” such as unemployment, incarceration, and education, disproportionately affect the black community.
Interestingly, Johnson denies that black candidates are inherently better at representing these issues than representatives of other ethnicities. More important, according to Johnson, is how a representative chooses to stand for those issues.
Former Alabama congressman Artur Davis, the only African-American congressman to vote against the Affordable Care Act, agrees. Davis, who represented a community that was sixty percent black, says that for most of the black community, the most important issues to voters deal with policy and not skin color. Davis pointed to Rep. Steve Cohen’s Memphis district as an example of a white congressman in a majority African-American district who was able to defeat black challengers. Cohen has retained his seat through numerous races, including a challenge from former black Memphis mayor Willie Herenton. Davis told the HPR that, “For the overwhelming majority of the African-American voters there… is no special affinity for a candidate because he is black,” particularly given that recent history has shown that these voters “prefer white liberal Democrats to a more conservative black Democrats.”
Republican National Hispanic Assembly Chair Alci Maldonado, whose grass-roots organization seeks to bridge the barriers between the GOP and the Hispanic-American community, expressed sentiments similar to those of Johnson and Davis. Maldonado said Hispanics largely share the same concerns as other Americans—the economy, education, and national security—and he asserted that although diversity is important in politics, it is not the driving factor behind Latino political votes. “As long as the politician advocates and articulates these issues with clarity and sincerity,” Maldonado told the HPR, “voters will respond accordingly, irrespective of their ethnic background.”
Revising National Stereotypes
To be sure, the issue for the GOP, then, is not primarily one involving the ethnic makeup of its leadership, but rather one of public perception. Maldonado recalled how the party’s long history of supporting abolition, feminism, and civil rights legislation has often been forgotten.
Johnson similarly expressed that the GOP does a “terrible job” of promoting ethnic candidates and diversity within the party, even though this is an important part of the GOP’s future going forward, given that the share of Caucasians in the overall electorate has been steadily decreasing. Johnson argues that, in particular within the GOP, “There is a need for more positive promotions of black Republicans to understand that skin color does not dictate party affiliation.”
Within the history of his party, Johnson has plenty to point to. The first twenty-one black congressmen were Republican, four of the first five Hispanic senators identified with the GOP, and an African-American, Michael Steele, has even chaired the Republican National Committee. The only two current Hispanic senators, Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, are also both Republican.
Both Johnson and Davis discussed the stigmas associated with being a black Republican, something that Johnson said he sees as a larger problem within the Republican Party. According to Johnson, “When you talk to blacks who say that all blacks who are Republican are in some way token, that’s where the party fails,” because such comments actually encourage a larger and undue stereotype of homogeneity within the African-American demographic overall.
In the Deep South, Davis said, there is also still a history of racially tinged campaigns that has made the Republican Party unelectable to many black voters who still remember campaigns waged by Republican candidates like Barry Goldwater, who voted against the Civil Rights Act.
Communicating a Message
The presence of stereotypes and stigmas afflicting both the GOP and conservative minority candidates illustrates the biggest issues within the Republican Party. According to Hispanic Leadership Network Executive Director Jennifer Korn, the GOP struggles with outreach into minority communities and with targeting specific blocs of voters with different backgrounds. Korn explains that while Democrats have few qualms about targeting specific groups, Republicans see the electorate as much more unified and “don’t do as much coalition building because they view Americans as Americans.” Korn also points to mischaracterization of the party message in the media as a problem hindering outreach efforts, particularly when it involves topics such as immigration.
When extremist voices like Richard Mourdock drive the GOP’s larger message, Korn explains, they not only ignore the feelings of the majority of the party, but also open the door for political foes to exploit their comments for political gain. For example, most Republicans, according to Korn, take a fairly moderate stance on immigration, however a few loud voices in the media dominate the discussion for the Republicans, which allows Democrats to campaign on these issues and paint the party with a broad brush.
Unlike Korn, Johnson blames party officials for the problems with misconceptions with the Republican Party. He cites the 2012 Republican National Convention as an example, given that the speaking lineup reflected homogeneous Caucasian faces of the party, instead of minority party officials. Johnson points out that at the Convention, the most senior black Republican in the country, Jennifer Carroll, did not have a speaking position.
Johnson also noted how several other prominent black Republicans were also denied a chance to speak at the Convention and how this impacted the blacks in the election. In particular, Michael Steele and Herman Cain did not have national speaking roles, which gave the impression, according to Johnson, “that the Republican Party does not appreciate its blacks, especially those trailblazers who have sacrificed a lot.”
Where to Go From Here?
Moving forward, Korn believes that the GOP needs to regain the focus it had during the years of President George W. Bush. Korn, who ran the Hispanic outreach for Bush, notes that while the party currently lacks direction, it need only look at the templates for success it already created.
Issues of communication and accessibility that currently plague the party were not as problematic in 2004, when Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic voting bloc. Similarly, Bush’s brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, routinely won a larger percentage of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote than current senator and Cuban-American Rubio. As such, Korn emphasizes that the GOP does in fact have the ability to compete in diverse demographic groups, and that the answer to how to do so resides not so much in policy as in effort. She prioritized redefining the GOP as more moderate and centrist in its message.
Maldonado believes that much of the Hispanic demographic holds conservative values similar to those of the GOP, including those of “limited but responsible government, fewer taxes, more individual freedom, and equality of opportunity.”
Although Maldonado expressed satisfaction with the efforts of the GOP, Johnson said that he has not seen enough urgency among the party about its future among African-American voters, because, in his view, “It is uncomfortable for some people to talk about black issues [even as] we have no problem talking about women’s issues.” He stresses that change will be gradual but that the focus for the future needs to go beyond two-year election cycles and towards the broader goals of developing new perceptions and discussing issues that matter to African-Americans.
These sentiments reflect a reconciliation of differing opinions in the GOP. While the media incorrectly blames political homogeneity for the GOP’s faults, problems with accessibility and communication resonate more loudly as the party moves forward. The problems they face are not easily solved; to improve, the party must mix policy moderation with a rededication to outreach into minority communities. Overcoming a history of racist campaigns in the South and harsh rhetoric on issues of women’s rights and immigration requires a party-wide commitment to reverting to the GOP’s roots—to Lincoln and Roosevelt, and other Republican civil rights pioneers. If this is done, the future of American politics could change quite dramatically.
John Kerry brings a wealth of experience to his new position as Secretary of State. A decorated Vietnam veteran and the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, Kerry had represented Massachusetts in the Senate for 28 years when President Obama nominated him to succeed Hillary Clinton at Foggy Bottom. As a senator, Kerry chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, playing a key role in foreign policy and national security debates. Under his direction, the committee tackled issues ranging from Afghanistan and Pakistan to nuclear proliferation and global climate change. Kerry will need little “on-the-job” training.
The Senate confirmed Kerry as Secretary of State on January 30 by a 94-3 vote. Unlike fellow Obama appointee Chuck Hagel, he met almost no resistance in his confirmation.
Kerry first rose to fame in 1971 when he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—the very committee he would go on to chair—about the atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnam. Kerry testified: “At times [the soldiers] had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephone to human genitals and turned up the power … razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan … and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.”
The words generated a backlash as early as 1971 and resurfaced during the 2004 campaign. Following Kerry’s nomination for President, John O’Neill—one of the first public critics of Kerry’s depiction of the war—created the now-infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to air advertisements disparaging Kerry’s military record. SBVT received over $25 million dollars from Republican donors and fueled attacks that undermined Kerry’s credibility on foreign policy and military issues.
After completing his tour of duty in Vietnam, Kerry immediately went to Boston College Law School. Following his graduation in 1976, he worked as a prosecutor in Massachusetts’ Middlesex County. In 1982, he was elected Lieutenant Governor. Two years later, voters elected him to the Senate seat he held for the next 28 years. In the Senate, Kerry, who ranked tenth in seniority when nominated for State, chaired the Senate Select Committee on Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Affairs. Later, as Foreign Relations Chair, he pursued more diplomatic relations with Vietnam and North Korea and attempted to influence international policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel.
During his time in the Senate, Kerry was noted for calling for more aggressive involvement with isolated North Korea. Kerry listed objectives such as ending the country’s nuclear weapon development and resuming the donation of humanitarian aid as necessary steps. Writing in June 2011 in the editorial section of the Los Angeles Times, Kerry observed, “[The] current approach of strong sanctions and intense coordination with South Korea and Japan does not provide sufficient leverage to stabilize the situation.”
In dealing with other contemporary problems, Kerry has shown a similar desire to increase America’s diplomatic presence. On Syria, Kerry argued, “If we could advance the peace process with the Middle East … Syria then has a different set of options other than hedging bets or sticking with the status quo.” This highlights his belief in the necessity of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an area to which any Secretary of State must devote attention. Kerry advocates continued promotion of democracy and fundamental liberties, such as freedoms of the press and speech, in the Middle East. However, he stresses that America should exhaust all possible forms of diplomatic engagement before resorting to violence, a philosophy likely influenced by his experience in Vietnam.
In his first press conference, Kerry made no mention of Syria, focusing instead on economic issues. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has yet to take military action in Syria. This fits with Kerry’s belief that violence is a last resort. Still, as the Syrian conflict rages on, the world will eagerly watch how he addresses conflict in the Arab world. His past statements indicate a strong commitment to resolving these tensions.
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Jack Lew has come a long way. As a teenager, the Orthodox Jew from New York was “known for his long hair, faded jeans and boots.” Today, he is President Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury, after the Senate confirmed him on a bipartisan, 71-26 vote. Lew’s term as Treasury Secretary has begun with little controversy. He completed his first foreign trip as secretary last week, heading to China shortly after the formal transfer of power to Xi Jinping. Despite a low-key and rather ordinary start, Lew brings change to the department in terms of experience and ideology.
The appointment of Lew’s predecessor, Timothy Geithner, was widely hailed for breaking the grip of Wall Street on Washington policymaking. Geithner came closest to Wall Street when he ran the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, but he never worked at a bank or hedge fund. (Of course, Geithner did not ultimately remain immune from charges of protecting Wall Street.) By contrast, Lew worked at Citigroup and faced criticism for taking a $900,000 bonus as the COO of the organization after it received over $45 billion in taxpayer dollars during the TARP bailout. During the 2010 confirmation hearings following his appointment as Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Lew disputed the notion that regulation would have solved the problems that caused the recession. Left-leaning journalist Robert Scheer characterized Lew’s position as a “myopic view of the origins of the economic meltdown.”
However, with the exception of his time at Citigroup, Lew has spent much of his life working with Democratic politicians, another distinction between Lew and Geithner. His first foray into politics came at age 12, when he canvassed for Minnesota politician Eugene McCarthy. Lew later served as a Special Assistant to the President under Bill Clinton and then as the Associate Director of the OMB before being named its director in 1998. When George W. Bush became president, Lew left the public sector to work at New York University and Citigroup until reentering politics with a post at the State Department under Hillary Clinton. In November 2010, the Senate unanimously confirmed Lew’s appointment to his previous post as OMB Director after President Obama nominated him for the job. Subsequently, in January 2012, he replaced William Daley as the White House Chief of Staff and became a key negotiator and liaison between the President and Republican congressional leadership in the coming months.
Aside from jokes about Lew’s almost-cartoonish signature appearing on U.S. currency, real questions have arisen about what he will emphasize as Treasury Secretary. Lew, whose Carleton College advisor was famous liberal senator Paul Wellstone and who worked for noted Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), has made clear his political agenda. Speaker of the House John Boehner remarked that during debt negotiations, Lew refused to consider cuts to entitlements, and—despite his ties to Wall Street—The Atlantic described him as “closely aligned with the class-warrior image that Obama adopted during the election campaign.”
Joshua Green, a Bloomberg columnist, noted that the selection of Lew signified Obama’s intention to “drive a hard bargain with Republicans, on tax, spending and entitlement issues” and to use Lew as the focal point in “ongoing budget and entitlement reform negotiations.” As a proclaimed ideologue and hardened veteran of the constant debt negotiations of Obama’s first term, Lew differs from Geithner, who was known as anything but a ‘yes’ man for Obama. He will bring a new perspective to the Treasury Department.
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President Obama’s most controversial Cabinet appointee to date, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, was confirmed as Secretary of Defense by the Senate on Feb. 27. After overcoming an initial filibuster by Senate Republicans—unprecedented for a Defense Secretary nominee—the Senate confirmed Hagel by a simple majority vote, 58-41. Hagel faced opposition from his former allies in Congress, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Hagel’s Republican opponents primarily cited concerns regarding his commitment to Israel. Hagel once called the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon a “sickening slaughter on both sides,” a comment that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) equated to accusing Israel of slaughter. Most notably, his comment that that the “Jewish lobby intimidated lawmakers”—one he later revised to specify the Israeli lobby—drew charges of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, some on the left and in the national media derided as homophobic Hagel’s 1996 reference to a future ambassador to Luxembourg as “aggressively gay.” Hagel’s poor performance during the confirmation hearings did little to assuage concerns.
Ultimately, however, a united Democratic front, joined by some Republicans, approved Hagel as secretary of Defense. In his first month, Hagel traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan. He has described the situation in Afghanistan as a war that demands his full attention. Hagel is firmly in line with President Obama’s view on bringing the troops home, noting that the United States never intended to “stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.”
A Vietnam veteran, Hagel is deeply suspicious of long military occupations. While he voted to authorize military action against Iraq, he later supported withdrawing the troops and became a vocal critic of the war and the Bush Administration’s “surge.” In 2005, he compared the Iraq War to the Vietnam War. His criticism drew the ire of fellow Republicans, but he argued, “to not question your government is unpatriotic.”
Hagel was born in North Platte, Nebraska, the oldest of four children. His father passed away when he was only 16. Hagel volunteered for duty in the Vietnam War five years later and was awarded two Purple Hearts. When he returned from the war, the future Defense Secretary finished his education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha with assistance from the GI Bill. He graduated with a degree in history in 1961 and was hired as a staffer on Capitol Hill soon after. Hagel would later work for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, and Reagan appointed him deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. After leaving the public sector in 1982, he made millions as the founder of Vanguard Cellular, a service provider for mobile phones.
Fourteen years later, Hagel ran for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska, beating then-Gov. Ben Nelson to become the first Republican to win a Nebraska Senate seat in 24 years. He was re-elected in 2002 and stepped down at the end of that term. After he left the Senate, Hagel co-chaired the Intelligence Advisory Board for President Obama and served as a professor at Georgetown University.
Hagel steps onto the world stage at a precarious time for the United States. The continuing threats of North Korea and Iran hang over the American government, while actions in Syria have human rights groups crying for an intervention. Hagel has already demonstrated a commitment to bringing troops home from Afghanistan but has adopted his commander-in-chief’s policy of vagueness on details. In addition to challenges abroad, Hagel will face difficult domestic hurdles as he attempts to trim the Defense Department’s budget following sequestration. The confirmation process left Hagel bruised and politically spent, but he emerged as the United States Secretary of Defense. The next chapter of his story is one he himself will pen.
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The Bureau of Labor and Statistics defines the unemployment rate as the total number of unemployed as a fraction of the civilian labor force. How one defines ‘unemployed,” however, completely changes the statistic. In fact, the BLS releases six unemployment statistics a month — ranging from U1, which uses the most stringent definition of unemployed, to U6, where a larger swath of the population falls under the ‘unemployed’ header. The range between the two is typically in the double-digits; in February, it was 10.1 percent.
BLS statistics indicate the trends the executive branch harps on in every press release. Over the past year, unemployment is down a point in almost every category. Although we are still experiencing a historically slow recovery from the recession, it has been steady, if nothing else. Yet, looking closely at metrics besides the unemployment rate tells a much larger economic story.
The hazy definition of ‘unemployed’ makes unemployment a deceiving statistic. In most cases, unemployment is defined as those still looking for labor — another ambiguous title usually assigned to those receiving unemployment benefits and filing job petitions. The rate does not cover, however, myriad other factors. An underemployed laborer will not be covered in the unemployment rate; part-time workers are only covered in U-5 and U-6. To workers struggling to pay the bills, part-time and full-time employment are defined very differently. For the purposes of the unemployment rate, they are the same.
The problems with this metric are immense. If a series of people stop receiving benefits and fall out of the labor force, the unemployed and labor force drop by the same amount. It takes only simple arithmetic to realize the drop in the individuals looking for labor will lower the unemployment rate — giving political leadership ammunition to use against their opposition, preaching a recovery that does not exist.
Press releases by the BLS are frequently misinterpreted by the media. Cherry-picking the unemployment rate sells headlines, but misinterprets the story at hand. For all the jobs the economy has gained in the past year — 1.8 million according to CBS — the civilian labor force has increased by less than 700,000 individuals. The labor force participation rate, the percentage of the adult working population out of the total adult population, has actually dropped by nearly half a percent. For all the talk about a drop in unemployment, the raw numbers indicate the number of adults not in the labor force (an increase in 2,000,000 since last February) has increased by nearly three times as much as the change in the unemployed (dropping by 800,000).
The news is not all bad, however. Another factor not measured in the unemployment rate is length of unemployment, and the shift over the past year has been away from long-term unemployment towards short-term employment. Short-term employment, typically frictional unemployment from when people change jobs, is less hazardous than long-term unemployment. The number of individuals unemployed for more than 27 weeks has dropped by more than 500,000, with a similar drop in those unemployed for 15 to 26 weeks. Although the number of people unemployed has increased by 100,000, it does not offset the net benefit accorded to the economy.
The larger lesson from the classic unemployment press release is the insufficient nature of the unemployment statistic. Former governor Mitt Romney noted this during the presidential debates, pointing out that President Obama’s cited unemployment statistics rarely measured real changes in labor in the economy. Nevertheless, in addition to its vague definition of unemployment, the unemployment rate fails to measure the current state of unemployed workers. The number of weeks they have been unemployed, as well as the change in pay for part-time employees in the recession, are both key factors in measuring the health of the economy.
With the supposed growth of Big Data, the government must revise the way it evaluates the economy. Metrics like unemployment rate and labor participation rate illustrate individual segments of the economy, but none give a full picture. Distinctions between part-time and full-time labor, as well as those between employment and underemployment, are key for public policy. A proper way to define ‘looking for a job’ will not only reduce bureaucratic inertia in distributing unemployment benefits but will give policymakers realistic data on which to make regulation decisions. Much like nominal tax estimates — namely, those based on pre-tax income — rarely reflect tax payments, such statistics give a false picture of fiscal health.
Growth in this area is achievable; paths of research to regionally define unemployment and identify concentrated centers that produce self-perpetuating poverty cycles could become invaluable. More accessible data has completely changed, among others, weather forecasting, baseball analytics, stock trading, and even how we take stock of political races, courtesy of Nate Silver. The time is ripe to apply that insight to our nation’s most pressing concern: its economic health.
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After the recent Crimson editorial that came out last week, students at the school have been assaulted with a barrage of criticism directed at the administration and its mental services. Caustic comments assert that UHS is to blame for the student’s struggles alone, leaving few to look introspectively at the problem.
Harvard does not have a problem accepting those who admit problems; Harvard has a problem accepting those who admit failure. The disincentives for coming forward and admitting mental illness are not only well described in the Friday piece but also the “I am Fine” editorial, published in February 2010, which caused a similar stir. An overly competitive student body portrays paradigms of mental and physical health and at a school where workload burdens are used as bragging points, admitting that you need help is tantamount to the implicit assertion that you cannot ‘cut it’.
This is not to say Harvard is without fault; remember that this is the same school at which—just fifteen years ago—ten percent of the students considered committing suicide. In that article, a former graduate talks about how the university encourages students to leave campus to protect its own liability. However, this must be mitigated with a concern for selection bias. Those who talk to the media are the most extreme cases; in most cases by sending people home Harvard will send a student home to mental services that are likely more effective than those provided in Cambridge, to a less stressful environment where people are more conscious of their needs. At Harvard, the epidemic of stress creates a ‘me-first’ mentality appropriate for a slew of individuals for whom success seems to run in the blood. Surrounded by a bevy of prodigies and geniuses, intimidated students often feel troubled coming forward. Hectic schedules leave less time for others to expend energy on caring for others and, more importantly, self-care. Although the university is not innocent, this culture—more than anything else—is complicit in this tragedy and the first thing we should look to fix.
Fisher v. Texas, a recent Supreme Court case, has brought the topic of affirmative action once again to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Plaintiff Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas-Austin in 2008, claiming that racial preferences in the admissions process led to her rejection.
As a leading actor on the issue, Harvard College has been continuously entangled with the politics of affirmative action. In the first university affirmative action Supreme Court case, Regents of California v. Bakke, Justice Lewis Powell opined that other universities should attempt to follow the Harvard College model in weighing race as one among many factors. In the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor reaffirmed that admissions processes may favor “underrepresented minority groups” but could not use explicit quota systems as struck down in Gratz v. Bollinger. Yet, with affirmative action hanging in the balance, the new ‘Harvard College model’ remains a progressive leader in the field, creating comprehensive socioeconomic and racial diversity in the classroom and offering a pathway for future affirmative action.
A Long History in the Courts
The 1996 Hopwood v. Texas case marked the first major victory for affirmative action opponents. With eerily similar facts to the Fisher case, a group of four white University of Texas School of Law applicants sued the university after being rejected despite having better test scores than many admitted minority students. Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe unsuccessfully argued the case pro-bono in the Fifth Circuit for UT Austin. At the time, University President Robert Berdahl called the decision “the virtual re-segregation of higher education.”
The state of Texas quickly made legislative amends with the enactment of the “top 10 percent” policy. The law now requires public state universities to accept all applicants in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. Although recently revised down to the eight percent mark, the policy uses the de-facto segregation of Texas society to ensure racial diversity in higher education.
A UT Austin professor who requested anonymity told the HPR, “it was a remedy for a situation in which we had been forbidden to consider race in admissions. In private schools like Harvard, they are not barred from doing that but our hands were tied by the Fifth Circuit. The main virtue of it was in that a situation where we were forbidden to consider race, the law allowed us to have a very diverse campus.”
After the Court handed down the Grutter decision in 2003, the university began to consider race in its evaluation of non-top 10 percent applicants. Although top 10 percent applicants made up 81 percent of admitted students in 2008, the year Fisher was rejected, UT Austin admissions director Kendra Ishop reiterated the need to use a holistic process of admissions.
“Race and cultural background has a part in the process of character review,” Ishop told the HPR. “Automatic admissions rules have been in place since Grutter, but it’s only a tool in the toolbox, not the entire toolbox.”
Reparative or Educational?
Ishop argues that “all diversity has a role in racial education” and says in the applicant pool, “students represent a variety of diverse situations, and we want all of those to be represented at our school.” She defends the policy on the more conventional basis of promoting racial diversity in the classroom. Ever since the Supreme Court upgraded the standard of scrutiny for affirmative action, forcing defendants to give a “compelling state interest” for justifying their policy instead of just a “rational basis,” a legally crucial distinction, arguments defending the policy have shifted from repairing past wrongs to its benefits for campus diversity.
Richard Kahlenberg, a senior member at the Century Foundation, a non-profit think tank, told the HPR that he thinks “most universities view affirmative action as a way of promoting a more racially and ethnically diverse student body, which translates into a better learning environment for students.” However, Kahlenberg acknowledged that the idea of the college application process as anything less than a full meritocracy bothered Americans who feel discriminated against by the policy, particularly poor whites who are seen as undesirable applicants by universities.
“I think the American public sees institutions of higher education as a gateway to the American dream and therefore would put a big premium on [an] admission system that they see as fair and genuinely meritocratic,” Kahlenberg said. Kahlenberg, who advocates reform of the system to produce both greater socioeconomic and racial equality, says that “the complete focus on racial and ethnic diversity has allowed selective colleges and universities to avoid large issues of class and equality.”
Kahlenberg cites a recent book by UCLA law professor Richard Sander, Mismatch, which details the harmful consequences of affirmative action. The book argues that through race-based affirmative action, blacks from lower-income brackets are more likely to enter college than their white socioeconomic counterparts, but are far more likely to earn lower grades, “rank towards the bottom of their class, and drop out.” Kahlenberg says that when students are mismatched with an institution because of affirmative action, “studies show that they are more likely to steer away from math and science and fail the bar exam.”
Kahlenberg is not alone in his desire for substantial reform. Nine states have already struck down affirmative action through voter initiative or action by state legislatures, and a January Rasmussen poll reported that 55 percent of Americans oppose the policy.
Moving to the Future
The Century Foundation recently released a paper titled “A Better Affirmative Action: State Universities That Created Alternatives to Racial Preferences.” The paper, co-written by Kahlenberg, argues against the need for racial consideration in admissions decisions and in favor of holistic socioeconomic models. The approach is similar to those taken by Sander and other intellectuals in the field, who support alternative policies that incorporate other measures of diversity.
Kahlenberg, himself a graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School, thinks that the contemporary Harvard College model of admissions offers a blueprint for the future of affirmative action. He says, “Under the leadership of Larry Summers and Bill Fitzsimmons in the admission office, Harvard has made a concerted effort to bring in low-income students of all races [along with] students of color, and in my mind that’s a big step forward in making affirmative action more inclusive of socioeconomic status.”
Kahlenberg adds that Harvard and Amherst are the only two universities that have done this for admissions, stating, “universities normally do not care about socioeconomic diversity for its own sake.” He views the UT situation with Hopwood as a perfect example of what must happen to bring change: a legal impetus that forces universities to consider other options. “The only way to get universities interested is to ban the use of race,” Kahlenberg said. “It’s only once you ban the use of race for universities that they push for using socioeconomic affirmative action as a way of indirectly achieving racial diversity.”
Recent history supports Kahlenberg’s thesis, with Florida and California both adopting similar policies after voter initiatives banning affirmative action were passed. The Century Foundation report also details how socioeconomic diversity promotes a larger variety of individuals in the classroom.
A similar study by Georgetown University professors Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose argues that a merit-based system that considers socioeconomic disadvantages would boost the percentage of students from the bottom socioeconomic half without lowering graduation rates. Both reports cite polls that demonstrate while public support for traditional affirmative action is waning, support for the socioeconomic admissions model is increasing.
“If the value of diversity from an education standpoint is based in large measure on the different life experiences that students bring to the classroom, then a white student growing up in a trailer home, a black student growing up in the ghetto, or a Latino studen[t] growing up in a barrio is likely to bring as much diversity as the son of a doctor or lawyer, no matter his race,” the report says.
Regardless of what happens in the high court, affirmative action appears to be taking a different turn. While not every school has the ability to provide the financial aid required for a policy like the one Kahlenberg advocates, modern policy trends towards Kahlenberg’s vision. Once again, Harvard College is trailblazing a path for other universities to follow.
Silver Linings Playbook won’t win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Maybe the award goes to Lincoln—the iconic cinematic masterpiece of noted method-acting savant Daniel-Day Lewis and brilliant director Steven Spielberg. Maybe it goes to Django Unchained, the latest in Quentin Tarantino’s perverse attempts to rewrite history and empower historical minorities in vigilante crusades against their oppressors. But it won’t go to Playbook. Playbook doesn’t have the inherent moral quandaries on display when white American audiences confront the uncomfortable realities of the Civil War; Playbook lacks the ability of Argo and Zero Dark Thirty to not-so-secretly tap into the American patriotic spirit at a time where the Great Recession and rising anti-Islamic sentiment make it easiest to do so. Playbook is a simple story of the human existence. Playbook is a tale of inherent imperfection and lives gone astray. Playbook is the personification of a city in struggle with itself. As it happens, Playbook is also the best movie of 2012.
The movie begins in a mental institution, with protagonist Pat Solitano (Cooper) on the way out. Cooper is better known for pushing the limits of debauchery in the Hangover films but delivers a phenomenal performance as the out-of-sorts Pat. Tripping over his own words, Pat’s eyes dart everywhere as he talks with an unfiltered tendency to speak his mind bluntly, almost always at the wrong time. His body jitters as he speaks, his mouth barely able to keep up with his mind on the ride home. Words spill out of his mouth slower than he can think of them as he articulates to his mother (Jackie Weaver) how he plans to win back his wife, Nikki (Bretta Bee) after eight months of separation.
Upon arriving home, the audience is given its first look at Pat Senior, an obsessive-compulsive Robert De Niro whose bond with the Philadelphia Eagles has long been his only connection to his son. A lifetime bookie, Senior’s neurotic superstitions have the real-life feel of serial gamblers. Constantly adjusting TV remotes and fastidiously dictates game-day outfits and viewing locations for the rest of the family, De Niro’s past—he was banned from Lincoln Financial Field for participation in too many brawls—sets the scene for the on-edge Senior, whose idea of parenting alternates between verbal castigation of Junior and vulgar mutterings about the ‘juju’ Pat upsets when he doesn’t adhere to Senior’s game-day rituals.
By contrast, Cooper’s bipolar Pat, institutionalized after discovering Nikki carrying out an affair with a fellow teacher and bludgeoning the man to the point of death, is the pinnacle of unabashed optimism. Repeating his institutional motto, excelsior (“ever upward”), under his breath, Pat tries to stave off his violent mood swings with a commitment to self-betterment on which he hangs his hope of reuniting with Nikki. Pat dons trash bags in his incessant jogging around his neighborhood in an effort to perfect his physique, reading through the contents of Nikki’s English syllabus to better his mind.
However, the movie’s most compelling character is an in-form Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence, already an Academy Award nominee for her performance in Winter’s Bone, plays Tiffany, a neurotic twenty-something whose husband’s death prompted both mental issues and promiscuity, throwing her into both prescription drugs and her coworkers. Tiffany and Pat meet over dinner at a friend’s house and their edgy relationship is what makes Playbook tick. Lawrence’s brusque comfort with her sexuality stuns Pat, who is simultaneously taken aback and drawn in by her frankness about sex. He probes and probes about her sex life, a perverse vicarious enjoyment of her thrills becoming the early foundation for the friendship. Both are quick with the tongue and blessed with a shared tendency to say the wrong things at the wrong times—while eating at a diner, Pat calls Tiffany that “married-to-a-dead-guy slut”—but, with a series of F-bombs in tow, they share in their discomfort, partners in pulling each other up out of the gloom.
Lawrence dominates every scene she plays, mixing a brute sexuality with an in-your-face persona that is the perfect complement to Cooper’s desperate optimism. Tiffany is the girl who walks all over you but who knows at the end of the day, you’ll still be waiting on her. She walks the careful line between exposed emotion and guarded rage; as likely to open her arms as to slug you in the face. Director David O. Russell does his part here too, flying her in from off the screen as she violently almost slams into Pat multiple times on his runs.
The core of the movie’s plot is Tiffany exploiting Pat’s desire to get back with Nikki to convince him to help her with a dance performance. She promises to give Nikki Pat’s handwritten notes if he works with her to prepare and perform. As the movie progresses, the performance is added to the outcome of an Eagles game in one of Senior’s gambles during a misplaced wager that ends up with Senior’s life savings on the line.
This is Philly Fandom
At its core, Playbook is a hybrid glorified romantic comedy and drama that takes itself none too seriously. Much like in The Fighter—where Russell brought together characters that personified the town of Lowell, Massachusetts—the director creates a set of personas that masterfully reflect this suburb of Philadelphia. The movie is gritty and safely middle-class, cast with a set of struggling characters for whom the tale is one of incomplete redemption. The Eagles obsession is perfectly scripted and Russell does a tremendous job in bringing the “dedicated fan” persona to life; the subtle subplots of the movie, while lost on many non-sports fans, reinforce a narrative of struggle in the face of adversity.
Pat is pictured multiple times in a DeSean Jackson jersey—a not-so-subtle comparison to one of the NFL’s most talented players whose struggles to live up to his potential and questionable mental commitment are his two most notorious traits. In the midst of a rant against Junior, De Niro’s character brings up the comparison, citing Jackson’s most famous failure—dropping the ball right before crossing the goal line. The reference conjures up the common Playbook motif (and, coincidentally, one of Philadelphia sports as well) of falling short at the final, crucial moment. The characters’ emotions revolve around the Eagles, with Senior’s moody castigations of his son revolving around the football team’s collapse. The struggles of his fandom are impeccably illustrated; the superstitions and game day traditions are genuine and realistic.
Tiffany’s confrontation with Senior after he accuses her of bringing bad karma to the household is the best scene of the movie. In the words of Grantland’s Zach Baron: “What is the delicate way to say this? Jennifer Lawrence angrily rattling off select Eagles victories and highlights from the Phillies’ 2008 championship run, score after score, game after game? If you perhaps happen to be from Philly you might have a heart attack right there in the theater.”
The Case for Silver Linings Playbook
What makes Playbook truly special is simply how real the movie feels. Pat’s unabashed optimism is balanced out by fits of rage and sadness—his struggles with bipolarity manifest themselves in violent altercations with his mother and sobbing breakdowns on his bed. Jacki Weaver is spectacular as the loving mother; her pain at watching her beloved son struggle with misplaced affection for a woman that made a cuckold out of him is palpable.
The dialogue is constantly spot-on. Senior’s frustrations to understand the mental issues his son faces are a clear manifest of repressed sadness. The axis the movie revolves around, Pat’s relationship with Tiffany, is carefully scripted as the growing relationship of reluctant friends thrown together by shared circumstances. Pat’s almost childish blindness to his dance partner’s affection for him is the simultaneously most endearing and frustrating part of his character. The two are joined in by their combined effort to better themselves, to—much like Wahlberg in The Fighter—take themselves off the mat and restart a life they thought had already ended.
The problems that the characters face don’t feel forced or illegitimate. Playbook lacks the classic Hollywood dichotomy of rich characters facing petty marital strife while raising iPhones to their ears and opening MacBooks on their knees. It’s frustration on Pat’s face when—much like jersey-sake Jackson—he tries to do the right thing but falls short once again. It’s the way Tiffany hangs on to the dance performance as her self-described only connection to real life. It’s Pat’s perverse interest in Tiffany’s promiscuity, his curiosity giving way to earnest judgment that meshes well with his puerile inability to grasp the complex dynamics of situations. It’s the way Tiffany runs from Pat when she grows conscious of her deception, throwing herself back into alcohol in search of solace. It’s the tirade Pat throws in the waiting room of his psychologist (Anupam Kher) when he hears the song that reminds him of his wife, a release of pent-up emotion that takes him from toppling over a bookcase to sobbing in the corner in a span of less than a minute.
Supporting characters like Kher’s and Chris Tucker’s (playing Pat’s friend Danny) give the movie flavor with spirited performances. In their own way, each character is held afloat by the others—their frayed and exposed nerves supported by a growing network of characters that rises and falls (as the movie does) with the Eagles. Perfectly playing the temperament of Philadelphia, Russell’s casting is excellent.
The last scene of the movie, where Tiffany and Pat finally compete in their dance competition, is an iconic summation of what Playbook represents. Beautiful cinematography characterizes a dynamic performance by the two dancers, who fall down in the middle but regroup in nailing the final move that had eluded them during practice. Needing only a combined 5.0 score to win Senior’s bet, the Solitanos gather around in anticipation. As the scores are read off, centered around the necessary margin, a fellow dancer leans over and offers a consoling “I’m sorry” to Pat and Tiffany, who explode in ecstasy as the final score—a 5.2 giving them a 5.0 average—is revealed. As the two celebrate, joined by friends and family in almost a cast-wide embrace while the rest of the room awkwardly stays silent, we see the iconic moment of Playbook. They aren’t perfect—judging by the hostile looks of the audience, they aren’t even decent—but in progress has come redemption for a desperate group of characters whose faults, trivial the aphorism may be, have made them stronger. The feel-good overtones are pure Hollywood, but the genuine feel is not. Many popular movies in 2012 (Prometheus, the Avengers, the Dark Knight Rises) found a lot of success telling stories about the supernatural but Playbook is a different kind of spectacle. It is a story about what it means to be human and the struggles of companionship. A story that won’t win the Oscar but is as deserving as those that will.
Argo is a movie about three things. Argo is a movie about why we love movies. Argo is a movie about what movies are supposed to be. Argo is, lastly, a movie about the redemption of Ben Affleck.
Argo tells the story of a CIA rescue operation carried out during the Iran hostage crisis in which, to rescue six Americans who had found their way out of the burning embassy and were hiding in the house of the Canadian ambassador, the CIA created a fake movie agency and smuggled them outside of the country as foreign filmmakers.
Affleck plays the lead role, CIA extraction expert Tony Mendez, an affable character who expertly straddles the line between emotion and professionalism. The audience is quickly introduced to Mendez in his office, where he is tasked with rescuing the agents and struggles to find an idea to do so. The agency throws around cover stories—in one memorable exchange, Mendez addresses a fellow official and asks him if he truly expects the hostages to bike hundreds of miles through the desert across the border to another country—but is stuck.
While home and talking to his child on the phone, Mendez is hit with a bolt of inspiration. Affleck gets the ear of his superior, played by Bryan Cranston, and begins describing the idea: using a fake movie production of a sci-fi script called Argo as cover to extract the hostages. After getting support—Cranston pitches it to the organization as “the best bad idea we’ve got”—Affleck goes to Hollywood and works with a Hollywood makeup artist (John Goodman) and longtime producer (Alan Arkin) to make the fake film.
The movie is a testament to the evolution of Ben Affleck as a director. A brilliantly directed opening sequence in Tehran, where quickly moving shots capture the raging incoherence of mob protest, conveys the dystopia faced by the fleeing diplomatic corps. Forced to be the faces of a President harboring the shah, a detested despot in Iran, the group of six is a picture of frayed nerves the entire time, fearing for their lives. Chris Terrio’s brilliant script moves fluidly back across the Atlantic Ocean, first to Washington and then to California, where the Hollywood personas of Goodman and Arkin give the movie its true comedic delight.
Affleck and Terrio strike a balance between humor and gravity in the movie; the Arkin and Goodman characters provide a balance of levity and urgency in their approaches to the rescue. As they sort through bad scripts, Arkin rejects idea after idea, asserting facetiously “if I make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit!” In the town of Hollywood glitz and glamor, Arkin and Goodman introduce Mendez to how to get things done, a comedic process that involves preying on Arkin’s inside knowledge of everyone’s personal lives to coerce them into paying him back favor after favor. The entire “this is so crazy is might work” motif hangs over the middle section of the film, as scrambling executives move to make the agency in less than a week to satisfy Mendez’s superiors back at the CIA, who threaten to “move ahead with the bikes” if the idea doesn’t work.
During this time, flashbacks to Tehran keep the movie grounded in reality and cuts to the embassy—where rebels are putting together images that had been put through the paper shredder in order to try and account for all the hostages—maintain a dramatic undertone to the oft-whimsical proceedings in California.
The voyage of Mendez to Tehran is the weakest part of the film. The drama is slightly overplayed, with the images of child workers putting together paper strips to identify the missing six slightly ridiculous. When interviewed about the movie, Mendez mentioned that the airport extraction went without a hitch but, with the typical Hollywood flair that turns the mundane in each story into the dramatic, it is nearly a thirty minute process that culminates with the plane taking off with Iranian security officials chasing it down the runway.
At its core, however, Argo’s distinguishing characteristic is its stark simplicity. Affleck makes no attempt to get the audience emotionally attached to any one character and leaves no onerous subplots to drag the film astray. The movie attempts to do no more than tell a story and insofar as it achieves its goal, it is, perhaps, the best move of the year. Slight satirizing of Hollywood only brings to the forefront the idea of Argo as a throwback to previous, utopian cinematic times. Nowhere do computer-generated images dominate action and reduce the onus on the human actors to, well, act. Nowhere are scantily clad women (or men, looking at you Steven Soderberg) used to attract denizens to the theater for their beauty instead of their performance.
The financial motives that form a significant motif in Arkin and Goodman’s interactions with Hollywood mainstays are as much an indicator as any about what moves images on scripts to the big screens now: profitability, not ingenuity. In the words of Katey Rich, “Argo is a spy thriller of a buttoned-up old school variety; we’re not given a lot of emotional attachments to these characters, and the reward for a job well done is a pay on the back, not an explosion of grateful tears.” Argo is a movie that aims to entertain and use the cinema as a medium of storytelling instead of embellishment and creation. The drama is rarely burdensome, the attention to detail in casting and costuming meticulous, and the emotion of the moment captured without being oversaturated. There are no side plots, and the movie’s happy endings and overarching motifs (international cooperation and goodwill, the power of innovation, etc.) are benign without being intrusive (à la Tarantino’s attempts at forced catharsis). It is, inauspiciously, a movie that tries to be no more. It is a throwback to the novel conception of movies and is in its simplicity, simply beautiful.
The story of Ben Affleck begins here in Cambridge. Not with the set of Good Will Hunting but when he, at the age of eight, met a 10-year old Matt Damon. The two are tenth cousins and went to the same schools together before going off to different colleges. When their education was over, they teamed up for Hunting, a movie with Damon in the lead and Affleck as his big brother, hidden in the shadow but notable nonetheless. The two shared an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year and the next three years Affleck starred in three Hollywood blockbusters (Armageddon, Forces of Nature, and Pearl Harbor). At this point in his career, he was reportedly earning $15 million dollars a year and was one of Hollywood’s rising young stars. A handsome thirty-something, Affleck was dating Jennifer Lopez—another young Los Angles starlet—and looked to be heading to the top of the film world. The utopian career peak was never realized, however. In fact, it was never close.
After starring in several box office successes and critically lauded films, Affleck struggled to find a script that he didn’t like during the mid-2000s. Producing films like Daredevil, Surviving Christmas, and Gigli—the last film had him nominated for ‘Worst Actor’ for his role by an independent comic organization—Affleck’s career went sour. In the meantime, his tabloid recognition eclipsed his mediocre work. He broke up with Lopez as he was caught getting lap dances while they were engaged. They called off the wedding, citing both personal reasons and excessive media attention. This occurred right before the premiere of Gigli, where Lopez and Affleck starred together in a film that IMDB summarized as “the violent story about how a criminal lesbian, a tough-guy hit-man with a heart of gold, and a retarded man came to be best friends through a hostage.”
Since his nadir, Affleck has struggled to turn it around in front of the camera. While he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role in Hollywoodland, he was featured in a number of forgetful romantic comedies and continued a worrisome trend after the promising beginning to a career. However, Affleck—who did a lot of the work for Good Will Hunting that went on behind the scenes—transitioned to work as a director and immediately demonstrated talent considerably more vast than his as an actor. Gone Baby Gone and The Town, his first two features, were tremendous and received a lot of media attention for his directing. Argo is the culmination of this transition and while it is, coincidentally, Ben Affleck’s best job in front of the camera, it is also an epitome of his renaissance.
Affleck’s most notable facial expression is the slight smirk, the look of confidence that comes from inner belief among a torrent of media slander. From Good Will Hunting to Dazed and Confused, the superior look that simultaneously manages to appear self-satisfied and strained is an iconic Affleck expression. He flashes it early in Argo, a quiet acknowledgement of the film that should shut up his critics for good. While not quite an “Argo f— yourself,” a comedic mantra used over and over in the movie, Affleck’s look at the audience is an indication of something deceivingly simple: he’s back, and he knows it.