Outside Reading — Canon Fodder edition

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Rethinking the Film Canon by Rich Juzwiak

Earlier this year, I was listening to the Little Gold Men podcast as they discussed the newly announced Academy Award nominations. As they mostly expressed relief about the small signs of voters looking beyond the usual array of white-dudes-with-guns movies, even as they felt obliged to concede appreciation for the usual suspects among the honorees. (As did I.) Almost as an aside, one of the cohosts raised the idea that what was needed to shift away from the constant threat of #OscarsSoWhite controversy was not diversity initiatives mounted by the Academy, but a wholesale reevaluation of what kinds of stories and films are considered important and therefore Oscar-worthy. The recent Gone with the Wind kerfuffle provides the entryway to do exactly that, and Rich Juzwiak makes a good start with this article, written for Jezebel.

 

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You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument by Caroline Randall Williams

In this absolute powerhouse oped, published by The New York Times, Caroline Randall Williams makes the strongest possible argument against statues honoring Confederate soldiers and does so with unflinching candor about her own identity and family history. In particular, the opening sentence is devastating. Any comments I might add are doomed to inadequacy.

 

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Confederate Monuments Getting Removed By Protesters Is a Statement of People Power by Jane’a Johnson

In the city I call home, debate turned to the sanctity of statues this week. Angry protestors responded to the needlessly rough arrest of one of their fellow activists by pulling down two statues near the State Capitol that commemorated progressive causes and an abolitionist, hardly symbols of bigotry and oppression. Those eager to cast aspersions on social justice protestors quickly snarling with satisfaction about the ignorance of the action, ignoring that reasonable explanations behind targeting the statues were offered almost immediately. Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly with invaluable local journalist Scott Gordon, who wrote, “We could spend a whole lot of time here parsing what the statues torn down this week mean or represent, but I also think the fixation on the statues is kind of deranged.” But that thought also brings me to this piece, written by Jane’a Johnson for Teen Vogue, that persuasively argues for the power inherent in citizenry taking it into their own hands to remove these bronzed commemorations of the wrong parts of our past rather than waiting for some sort of political process to grind through its slow work to the same end.

 

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The Rape Kit’s Secret History by Pagan Kennedy

In this corrective to history, published by The New York Times, Pagan Kennedy explores the genesis of the rape kit. Often credited to a Chicago police officer (because he demanded the credit), the investigative tool was actually conceptualized and created by Marty Goddard, an activist dismayed by the lack of attention and effort given to the crime of rape. Kennedy’s story is full of amazing details, most of which reflect very poorly on the systems set up to deliver justice in this country. That the manufacture and distribution of the kits was taken more seriously by Playboy Enterprises than any government or police officials — and that the fact of that isn’t particularly surprising — is one thread in thickly snarled explanation of how we’ve reached the current point of broad disenchantment with law enforcement.

 

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A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) by Marlon James

A colossal, complicated novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings has an assassination attempt against Bob Marley at its core, but puts layers upon layers atop that incident until the sprawling story starts to feel like it’s touching upon every trouble embedded in the human experience. Marlon James has an enviable command of language throughout the book, developing enveloping rhythms to the dialogue and storytelling which remaining fiercely direct, like some implausible hybrid of Stephen King and Don Delillo. It’s one of those books that is exhausting and thrilled in equal measure.

Outside Reading — After the Boys of Summer Have Gone edition

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MLB Is Crumbling. Blame the Owners by Stephanie Apstein

I’ve a fan of baseball since I was a kid, when WGN’s afternoon airings of Chicago Cubs games hooked me. But I’ve also been highly aware for many years that the owners who preside over the various teams making up Major League Baseball are greedy and outright villainous, always willing to sabotage the storied pastime in the interest of sabotaging the players who take the field. Writing for Sports Illustrated, Stephanie Apstein expertly details the simple ways in which MLB owners — and the commissioner who is completely beholden to them — are fomenting an unnecessary existential threat to the entire league in this time of COVID. Sadly, I’m beginning to hope the succeed. Tear it all down and let smaller, semi-pro leagues take its place. Maybe the love of the game and a commitment to community will come to the forefront instead of constant, exhausting greed.

 

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Five Women Veterans Who Deserve to Have Army Bases Named After Them by Erin Blakemore

It is absolutely inexplicable that anyone could make a straight-faced objection to the proposition of no longer having U.S. military installations named after bygone figures who fought against the U.S. Largely bypassing the debate that shouldn’t be a debate, Erin Blakemore opts instead to make suggestions of five women who are more far more deserving of the honor of a installation bearing their name. This article was published by Smithsonian.

 

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My 11-Year-Old Came Up With a Better Government by Jake Halpern

In The New York Times, Jake Halpern shares the results of an assignment he gave his tween son as part of his impromptu home schooling curriculum. As Halpern, he fully expect the suggestion of conjuring up a society from scratch on an imagined distant planet would result in fanciful science fiction adventures, like an amateur Star Wars galaxy. Instead, Halpern’s son was notably thoughtful, coming up with a social structure and corresponding legal system committed to consistency and fairness. We could do far worse, as the headlines prove on a daily basis.

Outside Reading — The Fire This Time edition

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America, This is Your Chance by Michelle Alexander

Well, this is the article I’ve been waiting for. There are few people more qualified to comment on this particular moment in U.S. history than Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. In characteristic fashion, she brings a measured but point viewpoint to the discussion, backed by accumulated knowledge and bolstered by uncommon moral clarity. As the headline suggests, the nation is at a point of opportunity, thanks in large part to a sudden, overdue surge in understanding among the greater populace that pervasive brutality and repression waged against the citizenry is a form of rot that must be addressed. If we squander the astonishing act of collective self-education happening right now, the opportunity for true, lasting social betterment might not come again. Alexander’s piece is published by The New York Times.

 

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How Apples Go Bad by Helen Rosner

Leave it to a skilled food writer to finally address the fundamental flaw of the tediously pervasive metaphor of “bad apples” to excuse broad organizational failings in law enforcement agencies. The apologists who employ the bad apple defense believe that the presence of a bad apple in a batch is singular problem. Just remove it and everything’s fine. The problem is, as Helen Rosner expresses with deadpan journalistic grace, the agricultural and food storage problem with bad apples is the way their rot spreads to all the other apples around them. Apple farmers are extremely concerned about the presence of bad apples because of the likelihood that entire trees or bushels will become irredeemably corrupted by their presence. So it’s not just the apple that tortures a man to death by kneeling on his neck, it’s the three apples that watch impassively as it happens and all the apples back at the precinct house who remain mute as the crime is concealed fro the public. When considered that way, the bad apple metaphor is apt. It simply doesn’t mean what its most common users believe it does. This article is published by The New Yorker.

 

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The Absolutist Case for Problematic Pop Culture by Mark Harris

In the wake of the predictably phony outrage over the recent decision to briefly remove Gone with the Wind from HBO Max, with plans to affix a contextualizing disclaimer before the storied feature is offered again, Mark Harris pens an earnest article grappling with the dilemma of cinematic art of the past that is out of step with modern considerations. The immense value of this article, published by Vulture, is that Harris doesn’t succumb to the common practice of easy answers fueled by furious personal certainty. The situation is complicated, and Harris works through it on the digital page, coming to a preferred conclusion while simultaneously allowing the imperfections of his stance. The best way to honor classic film — and literature and music and so on — is to meet it with just this sort of open intellectual conflict, allowing for the continuing sweet and the gradually soured to coexist, but also not allowing the contradictions to go passively unexamined.

Outside Reading — Precedented edition

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“Can We Live?” by Tananarive Due

Now that we’re almost halfway through this calendar year that epitomizes the curse of interesting times, it’s useful to remember that the the cataclysms of now have historic precursors that we can learn from. And those past events can also provide a stark reminder that the demands for change are not sudden and new, but have been repeated for a long time. If anything, the extensiveness of the current protests is overdue. Writing for Vanity Fair, Tananarive Due delivers an incredibly powerful remembrance of being a child of activists in Miami during the 1980 riots that took place after the acquittal of four white officers in the police brutality–caused death of Arthur Lee McDuffie. It simply shouldn’t be necessary to still continue crying out for justice forty years later.

 

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I’m a priest. The police forced me off church grounds for Trump’s photo op. by Gini Gerbasi

It is unsurprising and maddening that there remains a contingent of people — out of ignorance, bigotry, pathetic fealty to power, or a toxic combination of all of the above — who remain supportive of the police state in the face of overwhelming evidence of perverse, pervasive cruelty against citizens exercising their first amendment rights. Knock a seventy-five-year-old man to the pavement, cracking his skull open, and there will be a cluster of the proudly hateful prepared to line up and offer their applause. Identifying the most egregious assault against the populace is difficult, but few instances have been more cruelly cynical than deploying chemical agents to disperse a crowd in front of a church so an astoundingly amoral man could get his picture taken brandishing a holy book that means absolutely nothing to him. Gini Gerbasi, the Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church was on the grounds of the church attacked by the authorities in the name of a photo op, and she wrote about her experience for The Washington Post.

 

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The Remaking of Steve Buscemi by Gabriella Paiella

Gabriella Paiella writes an exceptional profile of Steve Buscemi, an actors who been around for so long, and done such good work so consistently, that he’s easy to take for granted. Paiella gets at why Buscemi is appealing on screen, but she performs the more valuable service of exploring his fundamental decency as a human being. Published by GQ, this article pass the most basic test of piece about an actor; it makes me want to go back and rewatch all my favorite Buscemi performances.

 

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The Joy of Having Plans Cancel Themselves by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

There have already been plenty of humorous rumination about COVID-19 shutdowns being a boon for introverts, but I’m especially partial to this piece by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, published a couple weeks back in the book review section of the Sunday edition of The New York Times. With her typical wry specificity, Brodesser-Akner perfectly captures the sense of relief when reluctantly accepted social engagements fall away.

 

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The Fifth Risk (2018) by Michael Lewis

Expanding on reporting he did for Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis details the drastically (and perhaps deliberately) bungled transition process undertaken by the current presidential administration after the improbable outcome of the 2016 election. Straight lines can be drawn from the current executive branch’s vicious disinterest in public service to the flagrantly inept response to the COVID-19 virus that has killed over — likely well over, given the challenges of tracking — one hundred thousand U.S. citizens. In its educated shock, The Fifth Risk also provides an invaluable primer to how much the federal government actually does for people, especially those living in small, rural communities who, by their voting tendencies, are most likely to oppose the very programs that benefit them. The massive damage sustained by the U.S. in recent years isn’t caused by governors imposing public health measures or people marching in the streets. The culprits, Lewis’s book makes abundantly clear, reside in White House offices, proud of their oblivious ineptitude.

Outside Reading — Scar Tissue edition

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This Week Has Happened Before by Julia Craven

I call it scar tissue that you walk around with, and scar tissue never allows you to fully function like you functioned. You always got to work around it. You always got to do this therapy, once the scar tissue is there, to get back some range of motion that allows you to be fully who you are. So whether you experienced it as a child in a store being followed or riding down the road and having a police cruiser follow you—and you know they’re checking you out in a certain way—that presents a different day-to-day for you. — J. Drew Lanham, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Master Teacher, and Certified Wildlife Biologist, Clemson University

 

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No More Money for the Police by Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris

The solution to ending police violence and cultivating a safer country lies in reducing the power of the police and their contact with the public. We can do that by reinvesting the $100 billion spent on policing nationwide in alternative emergency response programs, as protesters in Minneapolis have called for. City, state and federal grants can also fund these programs.

 

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James Baldwin: How to Cool It

It’s a very serious question in my mind whether or not the people of this country, the bulk of population of this country, have enough sense of what is really happening to their black co-citizens to understand why they’re in the streets. I know of this moment they maybe don’t know it, and this is proved by the reaction to the civil disorders.It came as no revelation to me or to any other black cat that white racism is at the bottom of the civil disorders. It came as a great shock apparently to a great many other people, including the President of the United States. — James Baldwin, in 1968. And that’s just the beginning of the discussion.

Outside Reading — Paku-Paku-Paku edition

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Pac-Man, The Japanese Game That Took Over The World, Turns 40 by Matt Alt

On the occasion of the fortieth birthday of the yellow fellow originally known as Puck-Man, Matt Alt writes a brief history of the arcade game sensation. It’s filled with fascinating details about the game’s genesis, including the stealthy ways some Japanese cultural touchstones slipped in with the chomping hero and his ghostly adversaries. I remember well how thoroughly Pac-Man took over in the nineteen-eighties, and Alt captures the scene incredibly well.

 

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To Compare an Apple to a Submarine by Caity Weaver

Among the many reasons to value The New York Times, there is the wonderful circumstance that the nation’s most important and venerable newspaper allows some goofball genius writers to run with whatever cockamamie idea pops into their head. Case in point: Caity Weaver takes a doltish comment spat out by Jeffrey Katzenberg in defense of the laughably soft launch if his Quibi endeavor and uses it as a prompt for a meticulous examination of whether there is an acceptable methodology to use in comparing apples and submarines. Consistently amusing without ever reducing the journalistic endeavor to a mere joke, Weaver’s article is a happy relief amidst the steady thrum of dreadful news.

 

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Ninth Street Women (2018) by Mary Gabriel

This hefty tome is a corrective to the history of mid–twentieth century U.S. art history that overwhelmingly favors male painters while ignoring the women who were creating equally revolutionary works. Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler are the primary subjects of Mary Gabriel’s artful shared biography, but the book generously expands to cover almost the entirety of the New York art scene in the years before, during, and after World War II. Gabriel is exhaustive in her details, providing a tactile sense of what is was like to be in the midst of this astonishing eddy of artistic invention. Much as Gabriel wants to keep the focus on the artists who align with the third word of the title Ninth Street Women, the dudes can’t help but intrude. Most notably, Krasner’s spouse, Jackson Pollock, dominates at times, proving just as unavoidable an axis point for the book as he was for the booming art field at the time and ever since.

Outside Reading — Essential edition

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Legalize All Essential Workers by Alfredo Corchado

Don’t Blame Econ 101 for the Plight of Essential Workers by Annie Lowery

 Tuition-Free College For Workers by Michelle Miller-Adams

A UW System crisis a decade in the making by Nicholas Fleisher and Donald Moynihan

This week, there’s a through line to all of the articles I’ve decided to share, so I’ll group them together rather than reflect on them individually. It has been, to put it bluntly, very rough this week watching selfish idiots do their level best to undo the public health gains made during the weeks of lockdown. We are on the merge of a major social failure. The sacrifice made was meant to buy the federal government time to develop a plan, and the marauders in the White House didn’t basically nothing except frantically try to shore up their image, treating the preventable deaths of tens of thousands in the U.S. as nothing more than a public relations crisis. By now, there should be plans for testing, tracking, containment, and continuing fiscal support of workers and systems. Executive branch officials instead hold up their bloodied hands and gloat about red is one of the most prominent colors on the nation’s flag, so aren’t they great.

I remain convinced — because I must, or the anger and depression will be overwhelming — that we can emerge from this a better, stronger country, recognizing the economic and social structure flaws exposed by the pandemic and working to fix them. We can insist on better treatment — in wages, in benefits, in personal safety, in job protection, in respect — for the workers who now have the word “essential” tagged onto them. As Michelle Miller-Adams argues in the article noted above, we can create the modern equivalent of the G.I. Bill, of the greatest drivers of individual and national economic prosperity in the nation’s history, which in turn would go a long way towards repairing the unconscionable damage inflicted on higher education by Republicans who want nothing more than to keep poor people poor and therefore dependent on the stingy and strategically withheld benevolence of the rich.

There are people in this country who work hard. And there are people in this country who benefit immensely. It’s time to shift our paradigm to make those groups one and the same. They deserve it.

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Outside Reading — Hers and Only Hers Masks

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Toxic Masculinity Is Going to Get Us All Killed by Jessica Valenti

Today at the grocery store, I saw two different couples comprised of a woman wearing a mask and a man opting against it. “Make no mistake: This is macho bullshit at its most lethal,” Jessica Valenti writes in regard to this sort of behavior, in an article published by GEN. As she’s wont to do, Valenti doesn’t just lay out a complaint. She goes into the deeper research to back up her argument, testing her theories against research and history. Over a century ago, during the flu pandemic that killed as many as fifty million people worldwide, U.S. health officials had to come up with specific campaigns targeted at men and boys to get them to take up the simplest measures to protect the public health.

 

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A Young Doctor, Fighting for His Life by Nicholas Kristof

As a reminder of what precisely is at stake here, this article from last Sunday’s New York Times recounts the experience of a Bronx physician — with a main base of operations in the emergency department — who contracted COVID-19. The story is harrowing, which is precisely why it’s important to share it. Online, there’s a supplemental video that provides additional details about his experience and the way it impacted the people who care about him.

 

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The Facts on Herd Immunity by Carl T. Bergstrom and Natalie Dean

Also from last week’s Times, two professors — one of biology and one of biostatistics — explain the concept of herd immunity, employing a welcome just-the-facts approach common in academia. One of the chief failings of the media in this vital moment is that they’ve persisted in giving airtime and column inches to politicians, pundits, and protestors well after the point those individuals have proven themselves incapable of meeting the moment with knowledge and care. We should be looking to experts, not selfish pontificators.

Outside Reading — Stronger Where It Healed edition

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Restoring the Economy Is the Last Thing We Should Want by Douglas Rushkoff

Writing for GEN, Douglas Rushkoff is the latest to make the persuasive case that getting “back to normal” should not be our national goal, especially in the case of our fiscal operations. There are flatly better ways to approach the work and investment that undergirds the economy, and the pain being felt right now exposes what’s fundamentally ill-conceived about the modern version of U.S. capitalism, warped into thinly disguised feudalism by forty-plus years of pernicious assaults on the institutions that redress ills and preserve fairness in society. It’s time to start ignoring the greedy corporate fiends on their ad hoc battalion of proudly subservient. rifle-brandishing buffoons screaming at state houses. Their voices can and should be replaced by sensible people who believe in tested policies and approaches for improving the lives of working people.

 

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Hotelier’s Push for $126 Million in Small-Business Aid Draws Scrutiny by Jeanna Smialek and Kenneth P. Vogel

And the front page of today’s New York Times, in an article written by Jeanna Smialek and Kenneth P. Vogel, identifies one of the culprits behind our current woes: a grotesquely, unduly rich hotel chain chairman who has made a side career of whining about taxes and used a deliberate loophole — that he himself lobbied for, of course, to suck up relief funds meant for small businesses and has unashamedly implied that he has no particular intention to use the money for its intended purpose, which is to keep his employees solvent. Monty Bennett isn’t a villain for what he’s done in recent weeks. His immorality precedes and, left unchecked, will well outlast the pandemic. Building a better economy for everyone begins with halting the influence of people like Bennett. If he had to actually work for a living in one of his hotels, he wouldn’t last a week.

 

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Beer Baron: Ale Asylum has some choice words for COVID-19 by Chris Drosner

I offered my humble reflections about the colorfully named new beer from Ale Asylum, a favorite local brewery, just a couple weeks ago. The person on the beer beat for the local newspaper goes deeper, offering genuine reportage from the brewers and others behind the delectable libation. The skirting-the-profane name of the product is delightful, of course, but it’s no mere novelty; the beer is also a pleasure to drink. And Chris Drosner’s article informatively touches on the genuine challenges current being faced by craft brewers, many of them highly dependent on tasting room business.

Outside Reading — Is Our Children Learning? edition

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A National Death Wish: How Science, Education, and the Future Were Sacrificed For Profit and Power by Jared Yates Sexton

As Jared Yates Sexton meticulously argues in his new essay, published by The Muckrake, where we are at now is where the devolving Republican philosophy has been leading for at least the last forty years. The party’s political leadership has been in an ever-escalating war against all manner of knowledge and expertise for decades, all because shared conclusions of scientists, physicians, and economists commonly run counter to their greed-first legislative preferences. Republicans are mishandling the duty of governance during the global pandemic because that is what they have been expertly training themselves to do all along.

 

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Milan announces ambitious scheme to reduce car use after lockdown by Laura Laker

Elsewhere, there are heartening signs of people and places coming together to set a better path into the future, one based on lessons learned during the current health crisis. This isn’t unique. Much the same thing happened after the flu pandemic of 1918, including in the Unites States, where leaders took seriously the exposed flaws in the social structure. This news article from The Guardian, written by Lauren Laker,  provides insight into the ways in which the Italian city of Milan is working strategically now to make sure the metropolitan area works better for citizens after the pandemic.

 

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Thirty Years Ago, Hollywood Won the Battle Against the X Rating. But It Lost the War. by Keith Phipps

Writing for The Ringer, Keith Phipps delves into a topic I find absolutely irresistible: the creation of the NC-17 movie rating. My fascination stems in large part from the fact that rating replaced the previous adults-only designator, X, during the time when I was co-producer and co-host of a weekly movie review show at my college radio station, and our program-opening news segment covered NC-17 developments many, many times. I also appreciate it a prime example of unintended consequences. The stigma that developed around the X rating, prompting the need for a change, can be attributed an early choice made by the MPAA, the entertainment industry organization that doles out the rating, to copyright all of the ratings at the time of their original creation, in the late nineteen-sixties, except for the X. By trying to spare the ratings board the chore of sitting through an onslaught of pornographic movies, the MPAA allows the X rating to become a marketing tool for smut peddlers, essentially losing control of it. Phipps doesn’t really get into that history, but the article does a dandy job of recounting the last gasp attempt at restoring legitimacy to an adults-only rating.