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The Morning Dispatch: Netflix Employees to Stage Walkout
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The Morning Dispatch: Netflix Employees to Stage Walkout

Plus: Remembering Colin Powell.

Happy Tuesday! In accordance with Kanye West formally changing his full legal name to “Ye” on Monday, this morning’s TMD is brought to you by An, Te, and Ve.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported Monday that the country’s year-over-year economic growth slowed to 4.9 percent in the third quarter from 18.3 percent in Q1 and 7.9 percent in Q2. The deceleration comes amid the Communist Party’s crackdown on the technology and real estate sectors, as well as continued supply-chain disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • The State Department announced Monday that Zalmay Khalilzad—a longtime diplomat who helped negotiate both the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban and the Biden administration’s exit from Afghanistan—is stepping down as envoy for Afghanistan. Thomas West, Khalilzad’s deputy, will take his place. Politico reported yesterday that the State Department’s inspector general is launching a “series of investigations into the end of the Biden administration’s diplomatic operations in Afghanistan.”

  • In two unsigned decisions released Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of several police officers alleged to have used excessive force, referencing the officers’ qualified immunity protections in overturning the 9th and 10th Circuits’ decisions to allow the respective lawsuits to proceed.

  • A new paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco estimates that the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan President Biden signed into law in March could “raise the [job] vacancy-to-unemployment ratio close to its historical peak in 1968” while temporarily increasing inflation by 0.3 percentage points per year through 2022.

  • A new Centers for Disease Control tool based on data from 16 states’ health departments shows that, in August, unvaccinated people were about six times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 and 11 times more likely to die from it.

  • Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania and Rep. David Price of North Carolina both said on Monday that they will not seek reelection in 2022, becoming the sixth and seventh House Democrats to announce their retirements ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

  • Gen. Colin Powell—former national security adviser, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and secretary of state—died of COVID-19 complications on Monday at the age of 84.

Netflix Stands By Dave Chappelle

(Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images.)

Tomorrow morning, the transgender employee resource group (ERG) at Netflix will participate in a walkout following the release of comedian Dave Chappelle’s latest special, which activists—and some of Netflix’s own employees—have slammed as “harmful” to the transgender community. The group of employees—backed by a handful of Netflix’s on-screen stars—plans to present co-CEO and Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos with a list of demands, including an “increase[d] investment in trans and non-binary content,” the implementation of a “disclaimer before transphobic titles that specifically flag transphobic language, misogyny, homophobia, [and] hate speech,” and the creation of “a new fund to specifically develop trans and non-binary talent.”

The transgender ERG itself is not explicitly calling for Netflix to remove The Closer from its platform, but many other groups—including the LGBTQ advocacy organizations GLAAD and National Black Justice Coalition—are. 

“With 2021 on track to be the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the United States—the majority of whom are Black transgender people—Netflix should know better,” NBJC Executive Director David Johns said in a statement. “Perpetuating transphobia perpetuates violence. Netflix should immediately pull The Closer from its platform and directly apologize to the transgender community.”

It’s become a familiar story at this point: A public figure says something that offends a segment of an organization’s customers, employees, or members, and the entity, almost in a panic, takes the path of least resistance and severs ties with the individual. Disney fired actress Gina Carano from The Mandalorian earlier this year after she shared a post that compared being a Republican today to being Jewish during the Holocaust. Evangelical author Daniel Darling was let go from his role as spokesman for National Religious Broadcasters after he publicly promoted the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccines. Progressive consulting firm Civis Analytics cut ties with data analyst David Shor because he tweeted out a study in May 2020 showing that violent race riots decreased Democratic vote share in the 1968 election.

Last week, it looked like Chappelle would meet a similar fate; although the comedian—worth tens of millions of dollars—would be fine, the Overton window of acceptable speech in corporate America would shrink ever smaller. But Sarandos went against the grain, sending a memo to leadership-level staff making clear Netflix would not remove the special from its platform.

“We don’t allow titles [on] Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don’t believe The Closer crosses that line,” Sarandos wrote. “I recognize, however, that distinguishing between commentary and harm is hard, especially with stand-up comedy which exists to push boundaries. Some people find the art of stand-up to be mean-spirited but our members enjoy it, and it’s an important part of our content offering.” Likely also factors in Netflix’s decision: The streaming service has invested over $60 million in Chappelle content over the years, and one of the comedian’s previous offerings remains the company’s “most watched, stickiest, and most award winning stand-up special to date.”

The company further angered activists when it fired one of the organizers of the transgender ERG walkout for leaking internal company data to Bloomberg, and suspended three employees—including a transgender woman—for attending a leadership-level meeting to which they were not invited (the latter three were reinstated after Netflix determined there was “no ill intent” on their part). 

Terra Field—one of the temporarily suspended Netflix employees—argued that her critics were misrepresenting her points about the Chappelle special. “We aren’t complaining about ‘being offended’ and we don’t have ‘thin skin,’” she wrote. “What we object to is the harm that content like this does to the trans community (especially trans people of color) and VERY specifically Black trans women.” According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 40 “transgender or gender non-conforming people” have been killed thus far in 2021.

Sarandos responded to that point in a second, all-staff memo last Monday, noting that comedy is by nature provocative. “While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” he wrote. “The strongest evidence to support this is that violence on screens has grown hugely over the last thirty years, especially with first party shooter games, and yet violent crime has fallen significantly in many countries. Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse—or enjoy shocking stand-up comedy—without it causing them to harm others.”

It’s worth pausing here to dig into the content of Chappelle’s 75-minute special—which Netflix reportedly paid $24.1 million to acquire—because it’s more nuanced than most headlines would have you believe. After ticking through a handful of pandemic, vaccine, and Jewish jokes, he arrives at the crux of the show. 

“This is my last special, because I have an objective tonight,” he tells the Detroit audience. “I came here tonight because this body of work that I’ve done on Netflix, I’m going to complete. All the questions you might have had about all these jokes I’d said in the last few years, I hope to answer tonight. And I would like to start by addressing the LBGTQ community.”

Chappelle faced similar accusations of transphobia following his 2019 special, Sticks & Stones, in which he said the transgender community needs to “take some responsibility for [his] jokes” because “this idea that a person can be born in the wrong body … [is] a f—ing hilarious predicament.” Two years later, he’s clearly still frustrated by the backlash he received, devoting about three-quarters of his “final” Netflix special to addressing it.

At the heart of the show is what Chappelle sees as the tension between black America and LGBTQ America. Pointing out that rapper DaBaby was “canceled” for homophobic comments this summer but not for killing someone in a Walmart a few years ago, Chappelle jokes that, “in our country, you can shoot and kill a n—-, but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.” Recounting a story of a gay man calling the police on him in a bar, the comedian argues that “gay people are minorities, until they need to be white again.”

The special closes with Chappelle telling the story of his friendship with transgender comedian Daphne Dorman, who took her own life in October 2019 just weeks after publicly supporting Chappelle’s Sticks & Stones special. “It took a lot of heart to defend me like that, and when she did that the trans community dragged that b—- all over Twitter,” he said, noting that he had since set up a trust fund for Dorman’s daughter. “Empathy is not gay. Empathy is not black. Empathy is bisexual. It must go both ways.” Dorman’s surviving family defended Chappelle against further accusations of transphobia following the release of The Closer.

This conclusion—and Chappelle’s plea for a truce with the transgender community—conflicts with the line of thinking being advanced by many of Chappelle’s (and Netflix’s) loudest critics. “This is not an argument with two sides,” Field—the suspended Netflix employee—wrote in a viral Twitter thread. “It is an argument with trans people who want to be alive and people who don’t want us to be.”

Chappelle did his best to preempt such criticism. “Apparently they dragged me on Twitter,” he said at one point during his latest special, referring to condemnation of his earlier work. “I don’t give a f—, ’cause Twitter is not a real place.” Netflix—whose stock price has remained more or less steady at its all-time high in the two weeks since The Closer was released—is banking on it.

Washington Reflects on the Legacy of Gen. Colin Powell

Flags at government buildings, military bases, and naval stations will be flown at half-staff this week as the country mourns the death of Gen. Colin Powell. The U.S.’ first black national security adviser, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, and secretary of state—who died on Monday at age 84 after contracting COVID-19—is remembered by his family as a “remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American.”

Perhaps best known nowadays for his role in shaping former President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 foreign policy, Powell’s career in public service began more than four decades earlier when he joined the City College of New York’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. An Army second lieutenant upon graduation, the son of Jamaican immigrants swiftly rose through the ranks of the U.S. military, serving two tours of duty in Vietnam, leading the U.S. Army Forces Command, and eventually serving as chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It was in this role where the Powell Doctrine—do not enter foreign entanglements without popular support and a clear exit strategy—began to truly take shape through the U.S.’ expeditious operations in Panama and the Persian Gulf.

Powell also molded the country’s geopolitical engagement through his various civilian posts. During his tenure as former President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, he helped guide the U.S. through the latter stages of the Cold War, softening relations with the crippled Soviet Union under former President Mikhail Gorbachev. As secretary of state under the younger Bush, Powell oversaw the outset of the country’s missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Powell’s role in the latter conflict plagued him for the rest of his life, as his February 2003 speech before the United Nations Security Council—later revealed to be based on faulty intelligence regarding Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s possession of dangerous biological agents and weapons of mass destruction—built momentum for a war that would ultimately violate many tenets of his own doctrine. Two years later, Powell would describe the speech as a “blot” on his record, saying he felt “terrible” about the intelligence turning out to be inaccurate. 

“I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” he told ABC News’ Barbara Walters in September 2005, several months after leaving the administration. “It was painful. It’s painful now.” But he maintained that he supported the war, saying he was “glad that Saddam Hussein is gone.”

Despite that self-proclaimed misjudgment, Powell and his decades of service commanded bipartisan respect throughout his career. The general formally registered as a Republican in the mid-1990s and—with a +67 percent net approval rating—seriously contemplated a 1996 presidential bid before ultimately opting against it. He drifted toward Democratic candidates later in life, endorsing Barack Obama in 2008 (after being rumored as a potential running mate for John McCain), Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Joe Biden in 2020.

In his later years, Powell suffered from early stage Parkinson’s disease and multiple myeloma. The latter, a form of blood cancer that weakens the immune system, rendered Powell—who was fully vaccinated—uniquely at risk for breakthrough coronavirus infection. “Don’t feel sorry for me, for God’s sake!” Powell told reporter Bob Woodward in a July interview. “I’m 85 years old, I’ve got to have something. I haven’t lost a day of life fighting these two diseases.”

The general’s death evoked an outpouring of support on both sides of the political aisle, with Democrats and Republicans alike reflecting fondly on his legacy of shattering racial barriers and navigating the country through various global challenges.

“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat,” President Biden said Monday. “Above all, Colin was my friend. Easy to share a laugh with. A trusted confidant in good and hard times. He could drive his Corvette Stingray like nobody’s business—something I learned firsthand on the race track when I was Vice President.”

Former President George W. Bush noted that Powell was “such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom twice,” and former President Obama commemorated Powell’s commitment to “help[ing] a generation of young people set their sights higher.”

“Colin Powell dedicated his extraordinary life to public service because he never stopped believing in America,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said yesterday. “And we believe in America in no small part because it helped produce someone like Colin Powell.”

Worth Your Time

  • There were too many thoughtful reflections on Colin Powell’s legacy yesterday for us to include just one. In The Atlantic, Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute remembers how he “made hard work fun.” For Bloomberg, retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis recalled Powell’s relentless optimism. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius wrote about Powell’s “reluctant warrior” doctrine, and The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins homed in on his fateful speech before the United Nations’ Security Council. “Colin loved soldiers and always held them to the highest standards,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote. “Yet he also took time to understand their struggles—personal and professional—and to comfort them when they suffered. The U.S. military was his second family, and he cherished the opportunities that it had given him and many others.”

  • In a piece for Commentary, David Zucker—one of the writers of the cult classic Airplane!—expresses disappointment that comedy seems to be in a state of “hiding” at a time when we need it most. “Humor happens when you go against what’s expected and surprise people with something they’re not anticipating, like the New York Jets winning a game,” he writes. “But to find this surprise funny, people have to be willing to suppress the literal interpretations of jokes. … The truth is, I still don’t fully understand why there’s a problem with making a joke that gets a laugh from an audience, even if it is mildly offensive. Why cater to the minority who are outraged when most people still seem to have a desire to laugh?”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On Monday’s Advisory Opinions, Sarah and David break down the latest developments from President Biden’s Supreme Court commission before turning to the legal issues roiling the nation’s most controversial school district.

  • On the website today, Audrey checks in on the Virginia gubernatorial race and finds Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe attempting to tie his opponent Glenn Youngkin to Donald Trump.

  • Reports emerged over the weekend that China had tested hypersonic missiles in August. Klon Kitchen analyzes what that means for the state of our relations with China.

Let Us Know

Do you think Dave Chappelle accomplished what he set out to with his latest special? Would you have done anything differently if you were in Ted Sarandos’ shoes?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).