If 2017 already seems a little grim, well, it’s likely because it is a little grim. A lot of the country is miserable over the outcome of the presidential election. Or, more precisely, what is presently happening as a result of that election. Examples of unprecedented behavior include:
- Election Numbers: Donald Trump falsely claiming he won in a landslide.
- Social Media Channels: Donald Trump using Twitter to communicate and manage policy (complete with blocking dissenting citizens).
- Ignoring Data: Donald Trump defiantly and willfully ignoring the sound, studied judgements of scientists.
- Gaslighting: Both Donald Trump and the Republican Party have a tendency to make-up or even outright ignore history – and expect constituents to buy into it.
As a result of the election, we hear how it is important for artists to exercise their responsibility to seek the truth and express themselves against an institutionalized tyranny. We’re told artists have a responsibility to prevent the normalization of outrageous behavior when governing organizations become hostile to standard ethics, transparency, and solution-by-compromise.
Are you unhappy with the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President? Do you want to protest against it effectively? You’re in luck. Theater actors in Los Angeles have some experience fighting a governing body: their union, Actors’ Equity Association, which wanted to eliminate its 99-Seat Plan. Equity won the fight over the Los Angeles actors’ objections. Let’s examine this struggle so artists can avoid making the same mistakes when fighting the Trump Administration. After all, you wouldn’t want the Republican Party ignoring protest marches as easily as Equity did.
1) Election Numbers
For example, you may be upset that Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by her 65,844,954 votes to his 62,979,879. She didn’t win the Electoral College or the majority of votes, only a plurality (her 48% to his 46%). But, doesn’t this plurality of votes tell us something about the mood of the country?
Not if you ask the Republican Party.
Similarly, L.A. Equity members defeated Equity’s referendum to eliminate the 99-Seat Plan. It was by a landslide 2-1 margin: 65.6% against Equity and 34.4% for Equity. However, Equity has deliberately tried to confuse its membership about these straightforward numbers. In April 2015, they forced (likely through threat of advertising dollars) the New York Times to write a needless article “correction” by framing the vote in terms of the people who didn’t vote at all. Who knew you could count non-voters in a vote? Equity again affirmed this nonsensical framing by officially asserting in the waning days of 2016:
Council noted that ballots in the advisory referendum were mailed to 6,990 members in good standing in Los Angeles County, and of those ballots 3,141 ballots were returned. 44.6% of the members who were eligible to vote returned their ballots, and of those, 2,046 voted “no.” Of the 6,990 members who were active and in good standing status and eligible to vote, 29.3% of those members voted against the proposal, rather than the 2/3 majority that was referenced in the resolution.
All but 3 Councillors officially signed onto Equity’s intellectually dishonest framing of making “no-show” votes count against the obvious popular will. If we look at the 2016 Presidential election using Equity’s viewpoint, Hillary Clinton received only 29% of the vote (her 65,844,954 votes out of an eligible 227,019,486 voters). If you agree with Equity’s method of calculating outcomes by including those who did not vote, a plurality of Americans did not accept Hillary Clinton nor did she have a significant impact (only 29%) on the US election.
Of course, Equity’s election calculation method is not normal. General elections always count only the votes of those who show up and never count the assumed votes of those who don’t show up. In fact, the 44.6% of those who voted on the Equity referendum represents three times the percentage of Equity members who voted in the last Equity officer election – and Equity never scrutinizes turnouts in those elections to determine legitimacy. Regardless of Equity’s written statements, the truth is an extraordinarily large number of union members came out and soundly defeated Equity’s referendum in a landslide.
This 2-1 margin of defeat is incredibly lopsided and very rare. So lopsided and rare that this same ratio represents the high bar to do something difficult and extraordinary like override a Presidential veto, which has occurred in fewer than 10% of Presidential vetoes over the entire course of US history. It’s very hard to get these supermajority margins, which is precisely why they are required to overrule vetoes or break filibusters. Yet, Los Angeles actors voted against the Equity referendum by this extraordinary supermajority margin and Equity tried to downplay it using intellectually dishonest statements.
It is an artist’s responsibility to understand this. In fact, when one sees what Equity did in just this instance, the artist – who is, after all, a truth-seeker – should be quite wary of other statements made by the Union and its officials.
2) Social Media Channels
Equity uses social media in a manner similar to Trump: as both a communication tool and debate pipeline. Equity can immediately control the conversation by limiting a specific Union member’s access to discussion groups. Arbitrary tone-policing allows for the removal of undesirable viewpoints under the guise of “keeping the discussion civil.” And, as Trump discovered, social media provides an effective means of blocking people with differing opinions. In fact, there are instances where Equity Councillors blocked other Equity Councillors! Moreover, blocking can efficiently remove dissenters from key discussions giving the illusion of consensus.
Q: How does this behavior promote debate and discussion? A: It doesn’t. It’s probably obvious to nearly all Equity members that Trump should not be blocking constituents on social media. Why don’t these same Equity members also frown upon the similar behavior from their own elected Union representatives?
3) Ignoring Data
Before the referendum election, Equity Executive Director Mary McColl claimed that there was a “silent majority” (a phrase Richard Nixon coined) of actors in Los Angeles supporting the Union position. She claimed actors were intimidated to agree with the Union openly for fear of reprisals from the community at large. The landslide defeat of Equity’s position, of course, made her claim nonsense. Yet, Equity members outside Los Angeles rarely question Mary McColl about why she thought the “silent majority” existed or why it never materialized.
In fact, the Los Angles actors who side with the Union’s position have been anything but silent. A core group even sent a letter-of-record to the judge who was officiating the lawsuit between the L.A. actors and Equity – and while the judge was deliberating a motion to dismiss the case. (The Court rejected the letter as being inappropriate.) By the referendum vote tally, this small (but vocal) group obviously doesn’t represent the vast majority of Los Angeles but that doesn’t stop Equity from using them as “proof” of support in L.A. for the Union’s position just as the GOP uses Ben Carson or Michael Steele as “proof” of Republican support in the black community.
If one it going to protest the Trump Administration, part of your job will be to convince Trump supporters of the logic of your position. Unfortunately, many Trump supporters, such as this Muslim woman, use logic that makes sense only to themselves and no one else. Their support of Trump and the Republican Party seems to arise from private feelings of inadequacy, a desire to connect with institutional authority, or payback for some perceived insult but it is certainly not rooted in self-interest. These people are very difficult to reach. They stubbornly resist arguments that prove their reasoning is simply wrong.
Trump supporters will casually dismiss mathematically- or scientifically-based truth. They can ignore scientists and other experts outright. Here, too, there are analogies to the Equity situation in Los Angeles. For example, a scientist (i.e. me) wrote extensively on the many objective errors Equity has made over the past 2 years including:
- Equity’s statistical misinterpretation of its own survey
- The aforementioned “not normal” interpretation Equity projected onto the landslide defeat of its referendum
- Discrepancies in basic membership numbers between what Equity tells its members versus what it reports to the Federal government
- How Equity’s own data reveals the 99-Seat Plan was a minor, not major, force in the employment dynamics for actors in Los Angeles.
- The disastrously misleading website Equity constructed to “explain” the situation in Los Angeles to its members. The website contained multiple errors, both small (using a picture of Singapore for L.A.) and large (literally making up numerical relationships and plotting bizarre pie charts that weren’t even wrong).
- Equity’s disinterest in getting the facts straight. Days after its website was critiqued, Equity quietly tweaked tiny bits of it (though never acknowledged these changes). Nevertheless, the largest errors on the site, including the unintelligible graphs, remained for weeks. And then Executive Director Mary McColl made a statement that contradicted the information presented on her organization’s own website.
These items are just the highlights. The criticisms addressed in these articles are objective, not subjective. They are based on information released by Equity. They represent simple fact-checking, cross-referencing, and basic arithmetic.
Yet those outside of Los Angeles are unmoved by the fact-based arguments presented. There are some social media comments trying to push back on the mathematics but it is at the sophistication of a climate denier stating “it’s cold in the winter therefore there’s no such thing as global warming.” Most members outside of Los Angeles simply do not question Equity despite the raised issues of transparency, honesty, and professionalism.
So, when you tell Trump supporters to heed scientists and abide arithmetic, remember how easily Equity representatives and members ignored similar arguments. These people, members of a Union of Truth-Seeking Artists, remained unpersuaded by verifiable statements simply because the statements express inconvenient truths. Why this rigid mindset? I don’t know. But some of the same people who want Trump supporters to listen to scientists have no problem ignoring my PhD-based analysis when it suits them.
I’d start by querying those folks.
Gaslighting is the common vernacular for the type of PSYOPS described by George Orwell in his book 1984. It derives from the fact that humans are social animals and can be persuaded to trust their group over their own perceptions. Gaslighting is easy to implement. You invent narratives and provide talking points designed to be repeated rather than pondered. And, if repeated enough by people or institutions with authority, the invented narratives become the perceived reality.
Examples are obvious in today’s political world: the Federal government funds abortions (it can’t by current law), Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks (he wasn’t), and Barack Obama isn’t a US-born citizen (he is). The effectiveness of gaslighting should be apparent from this list. It is easy to prove each of these statements wrong and yet people want to believe them, so they do.
Over time, it’s becoming easier to gaslight. In principle, the Internet has provided more readily available information. In fact, it’s provided more readily available unvetted information. However, the longer people in isolated social media bubbles discuss unvetted information, the more the information looks credible. Add the fact that people can become overwhelmed by media causing them to forget yesterday’s news in light of today’s and you have the makings of powerful perception manipulation.
How to combat gaslighting? The simple answer is to maintain a focus on the Truth. And that’s a central doctrine for the Artist anyway.
But consider this: Equity was able to gaslight the majority of its membership over its elimination of the 99-Seat Plan.
For example, Equity invented the narrative that “L.A. actors don’t want to get paid.” This is patently false. If actors, who are so good at understanding character motivation, had applied their craft on the invented narrative, it would have withered quickly. Instead, most actors outside Los Angeles accepted Equity’s line despite the constant and consistent claim from L.A. actors that “We are for change, just not this change” – from their first town hall meeting with Equity back in January 2015 through a town hall meeting in August 2016 and right to the present.
Another Equity meme is “The 99-Seat Plan allowed producers to take advantage of actors.” This convenient line neglected two inconvenient facts: (1) the majority of L.A. intimate theater productions are actor-produced (the producers are actors) and (2) Equity created the 99-Seat plan, specifically to ensure it would be difficult to take advantage of actors. Mary McColl (and those supporting the Equity position) would justify the “evil producer” meme by first pointing to some theater budgets that were large and then implying all theaters had plenty of money to pay actors. According to Equity’s false narrative, the theaters were simply holding back.
Those people actually familiar with 99-seat theater knew better. For example, one theater cited with a large budget had, over the years, repeatedly tried, unsuccessfully, to engage Equity on a new contract. Another theater cited had an unusually large bank account due to an impending company move that was not yet publicly announced. (In fact, much of the money in the bank account was from company members supporting the move and new theater construction.)
Were there abuses in the system? Possibly. But they weren’t the norm or the overwhelming number of cases. News travels fast in Los Angeles and bad practices can only thrive under the cloak of secrecy. Equity’s position is much like that of the Republicans who point to the small percentage of welfare abuse cases as reason to wipe out the social service programs entirely.
Nevertheless, most Equity members accepted the “evil producer” meme from the Union without question. Why?
There’s this: The AFL-CIO, of which Equity now is directly part, went out of its way to officially attack 99-Seat Plan advocate Tim Robbins of the Actors’ Gang. The Union, which knew of Robbin’s extensive activism including laborer rights, painted him as against “fair play.”
Or this: Local L.A. actors who supported the Union position loudly worried about backlash against them and blacklisting. Yet a prestigious 99-seat theater hired one of them.
Significantly, Equity generated all of these provably false narratives before L.A. actors served it with a lawsuit. None of these provably false narratives were broadly challenged outside the City of Angels.
Just as those Trump supporters who voted against their own interests, Equity members were successfully gaslighted.
The Responsibility of the Artist
But Equity is a Union of Artists and Artists are Truth-Seekers. Artists’ work can change the world. Several elected representatives from Equity came to Los Angeles looking for votes. And, on a platform of “transparency” and “better communication,” they received them. And won office.
These same people then found reasons to vote down a modest proposal from membership to achieve this transparency and better communication. There are always good reasons to vote down measures. No one is ever moved by less than honorable intent, right? These are elected officers whom people trust. Just like Senator Cory Booker who will take the unusual step of testifying against a colleague one day to aid in the fight against oppression and, on the very next day, vote down a measure that could have provided people with cheaper drugs.
But he is a Democrat. One of the good guys, right? Yet those that want to believe his passionate words are suddenly stuck living with his self-serving actions.
Have we seen the same thing from Equity representatives? The same sense of oligarchy? Watched elected individuals jealously guard their position inside the institution? Sure, there are the occasional versions of Senator Bernie Sanders elected to the Council. Unfortunately, they are in a minority and therefore easily kept in line by the group.
Republicans are quick to label people who disagree with them as hating America. Equity actors who support the elimination of the 99-Seat Plan have been quick to label actors who don’t as union-busters. Republicans hide behind the word “patriotism.” Equity hides behind the word “solidarity.” Both words represent noble concepts – but only when used for noble purposes. Gaslighting isn’t one of them.
The Republicans are eliminating Obamacare, a program that has broadened the availability of insurance for millions of people. They are doing this in a piecemeal fashion to divide people into smaller groups and hence divide the protest against these actions. The Republicans are eliminating Obamacare by moving quickly through the required Congressional procedures. The speed of their actions will prevent citizens from making meaningful challenges to these actions. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The Republicans figure they can exhaust people into inaction and, at worse, wait for a court decision to say their actions were illegal.
What is an Artist to do?
Equity is eliminating the 99-Seat Plan that broadened the availability of intimate theater opportunities for hundreds of actors. They are doing this in a piecemeal fashion to divide people into smaller groups and hence divide the protest against these actions. For example, the exemptions Equity made for membership theater companies will likely be short-lived. Equity eliminated the 99-Seat Plan by moving quickly through the process required by a previous Court Settlement. The speed of Equity’s actions prevented members from making meaningful challenges to these actions. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Sure, Equity checked off the boxes of obtaining membership feedback through town halls, surveys, and a required advisory vote but Equity never inputted that feedback into their actions except in the most superficial of ways. A mere 4 days after the landslide rejection of Equity’s new plan, the Council speedily voted to implement a version of it anyway. Equity figured it could exhaust people into inaction and, at worse, wait for a court decision to say its actions were illegal.
A court case did come. And Equity won.
What was an Artist to do?
Most Equity actors outside Los Angeles did nothing. They preferred to ally themselves with a power structure that, despite all its words, did not safeguard the potential for the growth of the theater arts in the United States. Of course, it sounded good that the elimination of the 99-Seat Plan in Los Angeles would benefit the national membership with more and better-paid work. Just as it sounds good that the elimination of Obamacare will provide more flexible and cheaper healthcare.
It was clear that Equity had no plan to preserve the theater-infrastructure in Los Angeles. They did not want to evolve the 99-Seat Plan. They wanted it gone.
The Republicans, of course, have no plan to replace Obamacare. They could evolve it, but they want it gone.
And now Equity is promoting the idea to its members of speaking truth to power. Of protesting and resisting. Of using art to change thought. Of being a responsible artist.
The Artist cannot ignore truth in one instance and then fight for it in another. The Artist’s responsibility is about truth untempered by institutional influence. If you abdicate your responsibility to fight for truth in one area, you’ve enabled the truth to fall elsewhere.
And when you wonder how the promise of America has been corroded to its present state and why more isn’t being done to prevent its corrosion, you may also wonder how the promise of actor solidarity has been similarly corroded. And why the actors involved didn’t do more to prevent it.
Want to save the Country? Start by saving the Union.
Originally published January 13, 2017 in Footlights.