Stay Free! magazine


Issue #23 available now!
(Table of Contents)

Update: February 7, 2005

Maybe you've heard the recent story about the guy selling ad space on his forehead on eBay. Or the one the woman who auctioned off space on her pregnant belly.

Since these stories became media sensations, eBay has been flooded with copycats -- people trying to sell space on their faces, bald heads, backs, etc. I guess it's a small consolation that most of these morons haven't found their auctions to be nearly as lucrative as their predecessors, with bidding hovering around a dollar or two, at most... but the fact remains that they remain undeterred.

Therefore, at the risk of my dignity, I've decided to step into the fray and auction off ad space on my colon.

Perhaps this way we'll at least get to see an ad in a space where it belongs. (Thanks to Jonah Peretti for the tip)


A fellow Brooklynite has come up with what is arguably a more innovative solution to the "forehead advertising" problem: special eyeglasses designed to block the ads (though, as a commentator on one blog suggested, a lead pipe to the head would be more effective).


Update: February 2, 2005

Nothing new on the Stay Free! site this week, but elsewhere in the world:

Teenage Millionaire, a company that sells t-shirts with the slogan "Jesus Is My Homeboy," has been using its legal muscle to stop people from parodying its product. The company sent cease-and-desist letters to Dan Sieradski, for instance, who was selling shirts bearing the phrase, "Jesus was a kike." The back-and-forth between the Teenage Millionaire lawyer and Sieradski is certainly worth your while (Sieradski is a bright bulb).

That said, Sieradski is in a poor position to win a legal battle since he used Teenage Millionaire's Jesus pretty much as-is.

Aaron Watson probably has a better case. Like Sieradski, Watson was threated by Teenage Millionaire for selling a parody t-shirt of "Homeboy" via CafePress, one that read, "Arnold is my Homeboy."

But unlike Sieradski, Watson didn't appropriate Teenage Millionaire's imagery; he used a likeness of Mr. Schwarzenegger. Also unlike Sieradski, Watson appears to have the means to fight.

After Teenage Millionaire threatened legal action, CafePress removed both sellers' shirts in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. But Watson told me he has secured a lawyer and plans to have an official response soon. When that happens, there's a decent chance CafePress could reconsider its decision and allow him to keep selling his shirts. I talked to Candice Carr in the CafePress legal department and, though she couldn't comment on the case, she said the company is open to working with sellers who have substantial fair use claims. The company did, after all, back the creators of Jib Jab after they were sent a cease-and-desist from Woody Guthrie's estate for using "This Land Is Your Land."

We'll let you know what happens. In the mean time, it's not too late to pick up Buddha is my homeboy or -- my fave -- Darwin is my homeboy t-shirts (Apparently, Teenage Millionaire hasn't found these guys yet).



A month or so ago I played around with using CafePress myself in order to make an anti-Wal-Mart t-shirt (now available for purchase!).

I can't decide whether to go whole hog and offer various Stay Free t-shirts via my website. If any of you have an opinion on the matter, let me know. (Or you could just let your credit cards to the talking.)



The US Copyright Office is seeking public comments on whether it needs to clear the way for people who want to use copyrighted works that have no identifiable rightsholder (aka "orphan works"). If you know any stories about filmmakers, artists, authors, or archivists who have run into difficulty in identifying rights holders, please please write the Copyright Office and give them your two cents. (Info via Lessig)



I generally avoid mentioning advertising efforts that are clearly designed for shock value, but Volkswagen's new viral campaign really gets my goat.

The blogosphere is afire with word of a commercial for Volkswagen that features a man getting inside his VW, driving to a cafe, and setting off a car bomb; the driver's plans go awry, however, because the bomb doesn't explode the car, which remains intact.

In posts about the spot, several bloggers have simply mouthed Volkswagen's claims that it has nothing to do with it; the company originally said it was filing criminal charges against the creators but quickly settled for a public apology.

The whole brouhaha strikes me as a transparent (albeit clever) effort by Volkswagen to engage in the guerilla-style viral marketing that's all the rage in corporate boardrooms now. The ad team that created the spot -- Lee Ford and Dan Brooks -- have claimed they have no idea how the commercial got on the internet. But Adland found a dead link named "Volkswagen" on the Ford and Brook's website (the site has since been changed and the link is no longer there).

Ford and Brooks told the Guardian that the spot cost 40,000 pounds but wouldn't say who footed the bill; the spot's director, however, disputed that claim and said it only cost 400 pounds (extremely unlikely given the high production values).

Keep in mind that Ford Motors did a similar campaign last year for its SportKa. One viral spot showed the car squashing a small bird; another had the car's sunroof decapitating a cat. Ford tried to distance itself from the spots but, according to the Guardian, they were made by Ford's advertising agency.

So if Volkswagen did indeed sanction the commercial, it is far from the first megacorp to bank on plausible deniability. And since the internet is increasingly the media of choice for reaching coveted young adult males, you can bet it won't be the last.

Update: January 19, 2005

I hope you'll pardon me while I rant for a minute. New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point) has a new book out, BLINK, that has become the talk of the town, even prompting one reviewer -- Farhad Manjoo of Salon -- to state that, "You won't find a reader who doesn't at least like Gladwell" and "There's just no arguing with Gladwell."

I'd like to know what planet Mr. Manjoo is living on; Gladwell's work ALWAYS makes people want to argue. As I've written here before, his writing follows a simple formula: put forth a counterintuitive argument, then cleverly select points that advance this claim while ignoring and obscuring those that don't.

I haven't read the book in question, so you can take this all with a grain of salt, but the premise alone is preposterous: Gladwell claims that "rapid cognition"--"the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye"--is underappreciated. As Gladwell writes, "I think the Rapid Cognition Model needs to be taken far more seriously--that it's smarter and more sophisticated and certainly more influential than we generally give it credit for."

Oh, really? What about the advertising industry, which does nothing if not appreciate humanity's ability to make unconscious, split-second decisions (and profit from them). Every year, marketers pour billions of dollars into researching and exploiting "blink."

What about the recent election of a president who acted on "gut instinct" over a man noted for careful deliberation? What about the widespread assumption that it's important to make a good first impression... or, for that matter, the belief in love at first sight?

Gladwell devotes a chunk of his book to the work of the John Gottman, who videotapes couples and says that within 15 minutes he can tell with 90 percent accuracy whether the couple will be married 15 years later. According to Gladwell, Gottman's abilities illustrate the power of blink. But Gottman's work could just as well illustrate the power of careful, deliberative analysis. I first heard about the Gottman Institute on NPR's This American Life; in that story, Gottman discussed how he acquired his ability to read couples through extensive trial and error. It took him over a decade of watching and analyzing to get to a point where he figured things out quickly. It seems to me that this gets to the heart of the problem with touting blink: at least a solid part of its strength is dependent on the kind of analysis that Gladwell suggests is overrated.

The very reason that Gottman's work interests us in the first place is because it's so unusual, the exception to the rule. The truth is that most of us aren't very good at knowing whether our own relationships will last, let alone those of our peers. Yet Gladwell maintains that the power of blink is democratic, as useful for lay persons as experts. If that's the case, why is the divorce rate for people who fall in love at first sight no better than those who trod a slow-moving path?

It's also really hard to swallow Gladwell's love of blink in light of its role in the social stereotypes that play against the female, dark-skinned, disabled, or physically unattractive among us. Gladwell and his New Yorker colleague James Surowiecki debate this point in an enlightening Slate article. )

To make his case, Gladwell discusses the hiring practices of top orchestras. For years, such orchestras, which conducted open auditions, overwhelmingly selected male performers. But in the 1980s, as Gladwell writes, orchestras "started putting up screens in audition rooms, so that the committee could no longer see the person auditioning. And immediately -- immediately! -- orchestras started hiring women."

Might this indicate that relying on quick impressions isn't such a good thing? After all, it suggests that committee members who had relied on first impressions were likely to assume a female player wasn't very good. Gladwell's retort: people rely on their biases regardless of how quickly they make a decision. The problem, he suggests, is bias, not the style (or speed) of decision-making. To bolster his point, he sites the overwhelming presence of tall men heading up corporations. Even very deliberate decisions, he points out, reflect bias.

But this reasoning is ridiculous. The fact that reasoned decisions often reflect bias doesn't mean that reasoning can't help minimize it. When you eliminate reasoning and deliberation, you eliminate even the chance of countering biased first impressions.

Gladwell's solution is no solution at all: "We can put up the equivalent of screens. We can find ways of editing out nonessential information." When you consider that we form prejudices based on a person's name, skin color, voice, height, gender, medical history, and appearance, the equivalent of screens would be a soundproof, windowless blackbox.

I'm not saying Gladwell is a bad writer, or that none of his points have merit. I think his skills lie precisely where Farhad Manjoo denies them: in getting readers to argue and discuss. He's also good at weaving engaging narratives. But, for me, his penchant for overselling arguments--and for concealing significant counterpoints--overshadows his obvious talents.

Gladwell's thesis would be more accurate in stating that split-second decision-making isn't worthless -- that it can at times be channeled effectively, and that knowing when to do so is key. But that argument sounds a lot less sexy. At any rate, it wouldn't make for a Malcolm Gladwell book. --CM


The first article of Gladwell's that I remember was his profile of Paco Underhill, which you can read on his website: The Science of Shopping

This article pissed me off so much that I did my own interview with Underhill for the Village Voice (later reprinted in Stay Free!): Shopping Spies: Why is that man staring at me?

Update: January 13, 2005

New Yorkers, Don't miss:

Stay Free! presents:
at Southpaw in Park Slope, Brooklyn
Tuesday, January 25, 8 pm, $6

Films feature: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Charlie Parker & Buddy Rich, Django Reinhardt, The Delta Rhythm Boys, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan, George Jones, and many more. With DJ Dave the Spazz from WFMU. Proceeds benefit Stay Free!



From issue #22: The Great White Way: An Interview with Daniel Kevles

Long before Adolf Hitler hit his stride, American scholars and politicians worked to breed a better, whiter race. Historian Daniel Kevles discusses the United States eugenics movement, Fitter Families, and efforts to segregate, sterilize, and castrate the "unfit."


Young Prospective Artist Finds Herself in a 'No Sketch' Zone
Unbelievable. A museum guard apprehended a six-year-old from sketching the museum's paintings, telling her they were copyright-protected. (via


Clear Channel stations gave breast enlargement surgeries to women with best essays
You can't make this stuff up....


In the early 1980s, you may or may not recall the music industry campaign to prevent people from making mixtapes. Whether you remember or not, the campaign slogan should sound familiar: "Home Taping Is Killing Music - and it's illegal."

Yes, the same crap the music industry is peddling today about file sharing, it peddled in the early 1980s, a period that saw the flowering of punk, alternative rock, and hiphop -- not to mention the enormous growth of the music industry.

Now the guys at Downhill Battle, who have down some great work fighting the copyright cartel, are selling t-shirts poking fun at industry fear-mongering: "Home taping is killing the music industry.... and it's fun."


Update: December 21, 2004

This week, two important links for fans of documentary films (and "illegal art"):

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University has selected eight short films as finalists in its Moving Image Contest and posted them online. The films aim to show "some of the tensions between art and intellectual property law," focusing either on music or documentary film.

My vote goes to Christopher Sims' "An Army, One by One" for its simplicity and clarity of message. In fact, this short makes the perfect lead-in for Untold Stories: Creative Consequences of the Rights Clearance Culture for Documentary Filmmakers, a report from the Center for Social Media on how our ever-expanding "culture of ownership" is handicapping documentary filmmakers.

Authors Pat Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi interviewed 45 filmmakers about the problems they've encountered in securing rights to music, historical footage, and other so-called intellectual property. The discussion includes some revealing anecdotes:

  • Any time people featured in a film start singing a song, documentarians should open their wallets. The makers of THE PERFECT CANDIDATE (a documentary about Oliver North's run for Senate) had to pay $3,000 to include a scene where a woman sang "God Bless America" at a campaign rally. And that's nothing. AOL Time Warner, which owns the rights to "Happy Birthday," charges $15,000-$20,000 for one verse of the song. Filmmakers who can't afford to pay or risk legal conflicts end up cutting out scenes altogether, as Linda Goode Bryant did when the principal subject in FLAG WARS (a documentary about the clash in a gentrifying area between African Americans and newly arrived gays and lesbians) starting singing along with the radio.
  • Sometimes rights owners require a "most favored nation clause" in the licensing agreements, which guarantees the rights owner the highest price the filmmaker can pay. In other words, if Capitol quotes the filmmaker $3,000 to use an old Johnny Mercer song, and the filmmaker also licenses a Looney Tunes clip from Warner Brothers for $5,000, then the filmmaker will automatically have to pay Capitol $5,000, too. As Jeff Tuchman describes it, "It's like going to go the grocery store and pinching your pennies and using your coupons, and then the last thing you buy is a steak for $20, and then every soda and bag of M&Ms you bought suddenly costs $20."
  • Directors often avoid shooting in places where background music is playing so that they don't have to worry about clearing the rights. For example: when making her film LITTLE PEOPLE, Jan Krawitz stopped shooting dwarf children exercising in gym class when the instructor played "YMCA."

Reading this stuff, you get the idea that producer Katy Chevigny is right when she tells aspiring filmmakers that "the only film you can make for cheap and not have to worry about rights clearance is about your grandma, yourself, or your dog."

But then there are people like Jeff Krulik (Heavy Metal Parking Lot series) who aggressively exercise "fair use" and use many short clips in their films without licensing. On the downside, they can't get distribution. Krulik, for example, is limited to posting his film HITLER'S HAT online and screening it at festivals and independent venues. But I can't help rooting for this route, for a number of reasons: it strengthens fair use, results in much better films, and ultimately encourages people to find new ways to get their films out (Keep in mind that there's no law saying it's wrong.)...which reminds me:

Though the report includes many fine recommendations for solving some of the documentarians' problems, it could use a positive word about alternative distribution methods. MoveOn's success in distributing Robert Greenwald's UNCOVERED and OUTFOXED through house parties is one example of films finding an audience with the mass media machine. And, of course, there's always the internet. So on that note:

(Thanks to David Glenn.)


In other news, this man has a good idea:

("Defending artist's rights through preemptive litigation prevention")

Update: December 13, 2004

"The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders"
From the New York Times Magazine, 12/5/04

Excellent cover story by Rob Walker about agencies that enlist everyday joes to buzz products. By now most Stay Free! readers know about viral marketing, but what makes this piece so good is Walker's attention to the social relationships involved. The agencies Walker profiles have been able to get people to work essentially for free, with only product samples and the promise of bolstered egos as payment.

The one thing missing from this piece is an acknowledgment that the companies' claims are no doubt exaggerated. Marketers routinely inflate their numbers, and these guys are already on record as encouraging their charges to lie (asking agents to call book stores pretending to be customers searching for a desired book, etc.). Besides, anyone who has worked with volunteers before (especially volunteers operating independently from a distance) knows that 95 percent of them aren't doing much of anything; thus, you can forget BzzAgent's claims of 60,000 and Tremor's 240,000 -- my guess is that they each have a few hundred active agents. Still, the success of their business model is no less terrifying; and this quibble shouldn't detract from an otherwise solid article. (Thanks to Salim Virji)


This week's announcement that Wal-Mart plans on opening a store in Queens brought mixed response from local residents, including aches, pains, and vomiting. Yeah, yeah we realize that Queens already has its share of retail giants, but when it comes to driving down local wages and gutting local businesses, no one beats Wal-Mart. We'll keep you posted as the opposition gains steam.


A few weeks ago I mentioned my fantasy for an independent resource that compared prescription drugs, a la Consumer Reports. Turns out that the Consumers Union (which publishes Consumer Reports) has launched a website for this very purpose. At the moment, it only has reports on three categories of drugs--cholesterol/statins, arthritus & pain/NSAIDs, and heartburn/PPIs--but a new report will be appearing every month.

Also: Help the Consumers Union make drug trial info public.

Update: December 1, 2004

New to the website, from issue #22:

Subliminal Seduction: Did the controversy surrounding subliminals help the ad industry more than it harmed it? Carrie McLaren discusses the paradox of advertising criticism.


If you read the New York Times this weekend, you know about the next big thing in cosmetic surgery: vaginal "rejuvenation." That is, excising fleshy labia and tightening vaginal muscles to make one's genitals more "youthful" and "normal-looking." The Times doesn't give much space to examining *why* vaginal surgery is taking off, but the increasing reach of pornography--facilitated by the internet--is no doubt a big part of it. When women with asymmetrical labia say they want to look "normal," what they're really talking about is looking more porn models. Women's eNews is much less shy about pinpointing a cause, quoting one gynecologist who says, "I can't tell you how many pages and pages of pornographic material woman have brought in to me saying 'I want to look like this.'"

This reminds me of a documentary that Chyng Sun, a friend of mine who teaches at New York University, is working on. Chyng has been interviewing consumers of pornography and told me at lunch a couple of weeks ago that many of the women she has talked to report that their partners are always asking them to imitate sex acts that they've seen in porn. (Chyng is looking for more people willing to talk about their use of porn for her video documentary. Any takers? Email

Hmmm. Maybe we should add this phenomenon to our stories of people imitating things they see in the media.

Since I have no clue what constitutes a fabulous vagina (it's been years since I've seen my own), I turned to the web and found these photos...and now I can report that the ideal vagina is--surprise, surprise--tall and skinny.


No major injuries or deaths were reported among the crowds shopping at Wal-Mart this weekend, but on Buy Nothing Day in Lafayette, Louisiana, pranksters glued the locks on about 30 stores in and near the Mall of Acadiana, forcing store managers to summon locksmiths. "Several retailers reported hundreds of customers waiting in long lines and thousands of dollars in lost sales as workers drilled through the locks and removed them."


Update: November 16, 2004

Stay Free! is pleased to announce our annual holiday fund-raiser. No need to hit the malls this year -- just give all your people Stay Free!

For $29.95, we'll send a subscription to Stay Free!, a back issue, a personalized holiday card, and this year's homemade CD mix of weird and wonderful holiday (novelty) music:

Now you can irritate your relatives with Stay Free! Xmess II, featuring music spanning the 1940s to the 1960s and beyond, including:

  • Sammy Davis Jr.- Christmas Time all over the World
  • Lorin Swelk - We'll Be Bombing Iraq in Time for Christmas
  • James Brown - Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto
  • Booker T & the MG's - Jingle Bells
  • Spike Jones - I Want the South to Win the War for Christmas
  • Hasil Adkins - Santa Claus Boogie
  • Culturcide - Depressed Christmas
  • Patton Oswalt - My Christmas Memory
  • Irwin Chusid- Santa Claus is Coming to Town
  • Jerry Nutter - 12 Days of Christmas
  • Ben Light - Christmas Balls
  • Dubya Cut and Paste Project - Christmas Bush

...and more tracks TBA!

Thanks to KBC Radio and Gaylord Fields for helping put this together


Update: November 10, 2004

Hello, I'm finally getting around to adding material from Issue #22 to the website, beginning with the World View newsbytes. (Sorry, no photos. I'm lazy.)

Meanwhile, outside the Stay Free! web universe, there's:

How to Think about Prescription Drugs
From The New Yorker | By Malcolm Gladwell

Let me preface this by saying that I think Malcolm Gladwell is a bit of a charlatan. His modus operandi is to put forth a counterintuitive argument, then cleverly select points that advance his thesis while ignoring and obscuring those that don't. Still, he raises a good point here: one reason prescription drugs costs are skyrocketing in America is because Americans are taking a lot more drugs. The rest of his argument is, however, pure hokum.

"The emphasis of the prescription-drug debate is all wrong," Gladwell writes. "We've been focused on the drug manufacturers. But decisions about prevalence, therapeutic mix, and intensity aren't made by the producers of drugs. They're made by the consumers of drugs."

See, friends, it's not the drug company's fault that your colitis medication is almost $600, it's YOURS. What's especially weird is that Gladwell himself acknowledges the power of deceptive marketing and patent-law abuses--practices that the average consumer has no real control over. But in Gladwell's fantasy world, doctors, health insurers, and consumers should take responsibility for drug company shenanigans. In making his case, Gladwell conveniently ignores the fact that drug companies have done everything they can to prevent studies comparing competing drugs to one another, and to prevent the reporting of negative data from clinical trials.

How come, when I'm prescribed a drug, there is no way for me to report the drug's effectiveness: did it help? did it hurt? If there were some reliable, independent resource that collected this data--a sort of Consumer Reports for pharmaceuticals--then maybe patients would have a tool to balance corporations' marketing muscle. (Such a resource would also help in filling out the shortcomings of clinical trials.) But with nothing of a kind, and with only flashy--and often misleading--advertisements to fill the gap, neither the little old lady in Omaha nor the hyperinformed New York journalist has much to go on.

----------------- ADVERTISEMENT -------------------

Serious, noncommercial, online journalism. Get the real scoop on labor, environment, health, civics, & more.



This week I got bored with myself and posted a few links about electronic voting up at (a domain I registered a while back). One noteworthy item is a video excerpt of MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," which does a hard-hitting roundup of voting inaccuracies in last week's election. Several counties in Florida and Ohio, for example, had more votes than registered voters!

In the wake of the Presidential election, our friends in Canada have stepped in to lend a hand by offering "desperate" single Americans a pathway to freedom:

Neato photo archive of overworked Japnese business men sleeping (or passed out) on trains, sidewalks, and even staircases. (via


News: November 5, 2004

Howdy, I'm pleased to report that Stay Free! issue #23 is now available for purchase. A few highlights in this issue:

Pricing the Priceless. How much would you pay for a case of chronic bronchitis? How much are hunchback whales worth? Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling discuss the sordid world of cost-benefit analysis. Plus: A cost-benefit analysis of setting yourself on fire.

The Trouble with Wal-mart. Whatever you've heard about the retail giant, it's a lot worse than you think. Interview with journalist Liza Featherstone.

Eugene Mirman. The Brooklyn comic talks about his native Russia, temping, and surviving the comedy biz.

Reel People. The founders of Home Movie Day talk about amateur films and what they can teach us.

...and, naturally, more. Subscribe now for a measily $10.95 (only $6.95 for a digital subscription) and we'll send you it to you now.


If you haven't seen Brad Neely's awesome Harry Potter parody yet, you have another chance. By popular request, I've put together a double-CD package, which you can get for a $35 donation to Stay Free! Or, if you're somewhat tech savvy, you can download the audio files gratis from the Illegal Art Exhibit. (Though I had to remove the mp3s from our server to save bandwidth, they're now available via BitTorrent.)

Order Wizard People here
Or Paypal $35 to

If you're in Austin, TX, you can even witness a LIVE screening of the movie at the downtown Alamo Drafthouse on Sat., Nov. 13 and Sun., Nov. 14.


I was down in Florida for the election. When I got back, still numb, I put on a Tom T. Hall record and had a good cry. (If anyone has any more innovative strategies for coping, write back and let me know!) I'm not sure which is worse: the prospect of four more years under Bush or the knowledge that so many Americans could actually vote for him.

There's a lot of speculation about the electronic voting machines so prevalent in Florida and Ohio, speculation fueled in part by the fact that exit polls in those states showed Kerry ahead.

For example:

Then again, the same exit polls offered some other info that should give the Democrats pause:

  • 40% of members of union households voted for Bush, as did 38% of union members.
  • 41% of those "very concerned" about the availability and cost of health care voted for Bush.
  • 25% of those who think abortion should be always legal, and 38% of those who thought it should be mostly legal voted for Bush.
  • 23% of gays/lesbians/bisexuals voted for Bush.
  • 35% of those who'd recently lost a job voted for Bush.
    (via Doug Henwood)
I must say I find the idea of a conspiracy comforting, since it's hard to fathom the election results otherwise. But I wish people would stop lightly tossing around claims about a "stolen" election and do some serious investigating before racing to conclusions. They're making it difficult for very genuine concerns about the new voting technologies to be taken seriously.

Black Box Voting is guilty of this to some degree, but the group's effort to file Freedom of Information Act requests for voting machine computer logs deserves your full support. They need money and volunteer help to pull it off, so check out blackboxvoting.organd give 'em a hand if you can. --CM

News: August 9, 2004

Anyone remember how, after September 11, everyone in the news media seemed to be touting the line that irony is dead?

Ok, well, maybe you don't, and maybe you also don't remember the series of Advertising Council public service announcements (PSAs) that launched just before Independence Day, in July 2002. So I'll refresh your memory.

The PSAs portrayed short vignettes all geared to inspire pride in America, with the theme: "Freedom. Appreciate it. Cherish it. Protect it." One spot, called "Library," (RealMedia video) featured a young man who goes up to a library info desk and inquires about books that appear to be missing. "Those are no longer available," the librarian replies, then plies him for his name. When he declines to give it and turns to leave, scary secret-service types mysteriously appear, and we fade in to the 1984-ish clincher: "What if America Wasn't America?"

I was reminded of the America That Wasn't when I came across a press release by the American Library Association last week, via

    Ashcroft orders public libraries to destroy law books

    The Justice Department is ordering public libraries to destroy certain books it has deemed not "appropriate for external use."

    The Department of Justice has called for these five public documents, two of which are texts of federal statutes, to be removed from depository libraries and destroyed, making their content available only to those with access to a law office or law library.

    The topics addressed in the named documents include information on how citizens can retrieve items that may have been confiscated by the government during an investigation. The documents to be removed and destroyed include: Civil and Criminal Forfeiture Procedure; Select Criminal Forfeiture Forms; Select Federal Asset Forfeiture Statutes; Asset forfeiture and money laundering resource directory; and Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA).

This is just more evidence that Ad Council's embarrassing attempt to promote patriotism praised the government for NOT doing exactly what it WAS and still is doing -- restricting citizens' basic civil rights. In fact, looking back at the other spots in the "Freedom" campaign, it is all but impossible to deny that the fictional "Big Brother" portrayed there is precisely the America we've inherited under Bush.

Ad Council spot: "Library" (RealMedia video)
The key fiction: The American government doesn't monitor libraries and arrest people based on what they read.
The reality:
San Francisco Chronicle: Santa Cruz libraries warn patrons that the government may monitor borrowing practices. (read story)
CBS News: Statistics on how many libraries the FBI has contacted since the Patriot Act went into effect. (read story)

Ad Council spot: "Church" (RealMedia video)
The key fiction: America isn't a place where people have to hold their religious services in secret.
The reality:
Working for Change: After a Saudi man creates a website for the Islamic Assembly of North America and links to other Muslim sites, he is arrested by the FBI and charged with "three counts of terrorism, four counts of making false statements, and seven counts of visa fraud." (read story)
Associated Press: Americans attack Muslims, post-9/11. (read story)

Ad Council spot: "Diner" (RealMedia video)
The key fiction:
In America, people don't have to worry about criticizing the government
The reality:
San Francisco Chronicle: The FBI investigates a man after fellow gym members report him for critizing Bush and the U.S. government (read story)
Popular Mechanics: The U.S. Government is developing new technolgies to spy on its citizens (read story)

Ad Council spot: "Arrest" (RealMedia video)
The key fiction:
American are free to read whatever they like, without government interference
The reality: Army officials question the mother of a peace activist, who was seen wearing a t-shirt that read: 'Unfuck the world' on the front, and 'Dethrone the Bushes' on the back. (read story)
City Paper: Security at Philadelphia International Airport refuse to let a man fly after he is spotted carrying the book Hayduke Lives! by the radical environmental activist Edward Abbey. (read story)

The irony here is so sharp, it's painful. You can almost imagine the ACLU producing the very same spots to CRITICIZE our government... so it's no wonder that this first round of "Freedom" PSAs wasn't around for long. The Ad Council continues to promote its Campaign for Freedom, to be sure, but these days the PSAs have take a decidedly different approach. Gone are the scary portraits of an over-reaching government, which must have too closely resembled the real-life scenarios made possible by the PATRIOT ACT. Now, instead of portraying the threat of a sinister government, the Ad Council characterizes the threat as one of clueless, couch-potato Americans.

"Youth," "Ummmm," and "Deaf Ears" are all pretty much the same: faux-documentary-style clips of Americans naming issues they care about -- segregation, racism, homelessness -- while saying they are "not really doing anything." Or "I get angry about it, but in my own apartment."

The one actor who does hint at a real social critique -- a woman who says, "I don't vote. I refuse to vote..." -- is cut off before she finishes the sentence.

The spots, one could argue, contain more than a germ of truth. (I'm often frustrated by the political apathies of friends or family.) But it is difficult to take homiles like "The first step toward making a difference is believing that we can," from the Advertising Council, which is essentially a front group for the mutual interests of multinational advertising agencies and the US government. The glossing-over of the public's legitimate grievances with our government makes me want to punch someone. Hard.

It gets worse. A radio ad, "The Biggest Threat," features an African-American man informing us that:

    The biggest threat to freedom isn't the next corporation involved in a scandal. It's not covert government operations, or even politicians. The most immediate, persistent, avoidable threat to your freedom is you.

The only good thing about these PSAs is that they're so badly executed, it's hard to imagine them having much of an impact. While they may inspire some of us to swear and throw things, many people will simply find them pointless.

If you are politically active at all, you know what happens when real, everyday, concerned people try to do good in America: they are silenced, harrassed, spied on, and portrayed by the media as window-breaking, SUV-exploding lunatics. Michael Moore did a fine job portraying what happens when an honest, anti-war group tries to organize in Farenheit 9/11, but I've seen this happen to people I know personally.

After September 11, the FBI listed Reclaim the Streets (RTS), an activist group here in New York, on its website as an example of a "left-wing terrorist" organization--a ludicrous claim.

That the Advertising Council and its in-house Bushies dare to point the finger at us -- us! -- is but another sign of the unbearable, reality-defying hypocrisy that makes citizens feel defeated and powerless in the first place. With it's grossly misleading rhetoric, the Ad Council is itself the Big Brother it portrayed two years ago.

And to think that September 11 was once thought to be the death of irony -- now THAT's ironic!


News: June 27, 2004

Stay Free! is delighted to report that one of the artists from our Illegal Art Exhibit, Tom Forsythe, has won a major victory in his case against Mattel.

Mattel, you may recall, sued Forsythe over his "Food Chain Barbie" photographs. (See this page and scroll down a bit.) Forsythe won in the federal district court, then again on appeal in the circuit court.

Now the district court has gone the extra mile. Calling Mattel's case "objectively unreasonable" and "frivolous," the court has ruled that Mattel must pay Forsythe's team over $1.8 million to cover legal fees and court costs!

Major congrats to Tom and his (until now) pro-bono lawyers... but perhaps the real winners are the rest of us. This case sets a precedent, and, with luck, it'll discourage corporations from using copyright law to bring frivolous cases against artists.

Read the court decision


In other Illegal Art Exhibit news, here's a nice write-up about Wizard People by Daniel Radosh:

Harry Potter: The digital remix: How one artist turned a kids movie into a poetic masterpiece J.K. Rowling never could've imagined.

(Requires watching an ad or subscribing)


EPA Energy-Saving Spots Give Cars Short Shrift (from The New York Times)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- the agency responsible for increasing the fuel efficiency of cars -- has produced a series of commercials that MOCKS attempts to increase the fuel efficiency of cars. Apparently, spots feature an overweight, nerdy man devising silly, quixotic schemes (think: sails and a helium tank) to save gas with his vehicle. His wife, by contrast, is the voice of reason: "The E.P.A. says the energy we use in our home can cause twice the greenhouse gases of a car," she says. The responsible consumer, she suggests, needn't worry about cars; she simply needs to buy energy-saving household products!

Nevermind that the commercials suggest that the solution to earth's energy crisis is for people to buy more new stuff -- that the onus rests on the consumer rather than government agencies or auto manufacturers. In the tradition of public service announcements, that's a given. What really gets my goat is the portrayal of plans to cut fuel use as ludicrous when they are, in fact, quite mundane. By carpooling, using public transportation, or walking to the store instead of getting in the damn car to go a few blocks people could cut their fuel usage by half. As an analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists points out in the NYT article, "You're not likely to cut your electricity use in half by using more efficient appliances." People who really want to buy something could buy a hybrid car -- that'll also cut fuel use in half.

That said, it wouldn't be all that difficult to convert the spots into something that seriously promotes energy conservation -- if only they'd show people driving their cars off cliffs... or perhaps throwing them in the ocean (after all, they do it with subway trains)...or just blowing them up. Sure, there'd probably be some environmental damage but certainly no worse than daily car use...and at least they'd save fuel!


Re: Pressed to Raise Test Scores, Principals are Resorting to New Gross-Out Stunts (from the WALL STREET JOURNAL)

After reading this, I'm not sure who we should be more worried about: the kids who get ideas from watching reality TV or their teachers. According to the WSJ, public school educators across the country -- terrified of losing funding -- are offering to humiliate themselves in front of their schools if enough students raise test scores. School officials are eating worms, kissing pigs, even letting children shave them with dog shears. Maybe the Bush administration should change the name of its high-stakes testing plan from "No Child Left Behind" to "Fear Factor" - ?

News: June 7, 2004

Now that I've finally finished the Stay Free! issue #22, I'm starting to update the woefully neglected web archives:

Articles from #20 (Copyright issue) now online:

How Copyright Law Changed Hip Hop: Interview with Public Enemy's Chuck D and Hank Shocklee

Why Defenders and Critics of Media Violence Get it All Wrong

The Media Made Them Do it
Just a few examples of the sick things people have done in imitation of their heroes on television and film

The Media Made ME Do it
Stay Free! asked readers: have you ever imitated something you've seen on TV or in the movies? Here's what they had to say.

Copyrights and Copywrongs
Interview with Siva Vaidhyanathan on the "rise of intellectual property and how it threatens creativity."