Not Just A Pretty Face

Posted on February 17, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , |

All too often, actors and actresses try and chime in on political issues or current events from an uninformed perspective, relying only on their name fame for celebrity credibility.

Back in 2005, as the execution date for Crips co-founder and convicted multiple-murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams approached, actor Jamie Foxx said the only thing he wanted for his birthday (the same date as Williams’ scheduled execution) was clemency for Tookie.

Williams used a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun to kill four people in two robberies that netted less than $300. He infamously mocked the gurgling sounds his first victim, a convenience store clerk, made after being shot while prone on the ground. During his 24-year stint on death row, more than 40 courts and legal entities scoured and reconsidered his case, with unanimous conclusions: He was guilty as charged, and deserving of his death sentence.

That avalanche of evidentiary and scholarly scrutiny was lost on the likes of Hollywood types such as Susan Sarandon, Ted Danson, Ed Asner, Richard Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh and others who put their signature to a “Save Tookie” petition. That’s why there’s almost a negative reflex any time a movie star takes a microphone in hand in advocacy of this plight or that.

So when I happened across a video link featuring actor Ashton Kutcher testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, I first thought, “oh boy.”

But I watched the 15-minute video, and oh boy! Was I glad I did.

The baby-faced Kutcher (it’s hard to believe the That ’70s Show star is almost 40) with his boyish, tousled haircut was anything but uninformed as he laid out a plea for assistance in the fight against human trafficking, which he likened to modern slavery. Within the first few minutes, he separated himself from the mere megaphone crowd peddling only their own hot air.

When celebrities like him start talking about politics, he acknowledged, that’s when people usually tell him to stick to his day job.

“So I’d like to talk about my day job,” he said as he introduced the panel to the organization he co-founded and chairs. Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children uses technology to combat sexual predators, pornographers and traffickers. “We build software to fight human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children,” he said.

Kutcher’s success as an actor is indisputable. He has had a consistent record of being the highest-paid television star, earning in excess of $20 million per season in sitcom work.

His success as a venture capitalist investor in high-tech industries is less well-known, though many of his investments are popular names: Uber, Spotify, Shazam, Foursquare, Pinterest and Airbnb, to name a few. Together, his acting and investing have produced a net worth of around $150 million.

He didn’t waste time citing his credentials to senators, however. Instead he stayed focused on the harrowing and heartbreaking issue of sexual human trafficking that pervades the Internet—and particularly the shadowy world of the Dark Web.

That’s the part of the Internet content that is only accessible through use of specific software, configurations or authorizations. It’s not indexed by search engines, and though it was born of noble causes—Kutcher told the panel it was designed for practical uses such as sharing U.S. intelligence information anonymously and protecting political dissenters in oppressive regimes—it’s also constantly used for illegal trafficking of drugs, weapons and humans.

A 2014 University of Portsmouth study found that the most common content found in Darknet encrypted sites was child pornography, followed by black markets.

Kutcher called it “the warehouse for some of the most offensive child-abuse images in the world.” Thorn programmers have “taken the investigation times for Dark Web material from three years to down to what we believe will be three weeks,” he said.

His voice breaking at times, Kutcher described his personal involvement with the issue and some of its victims, saying he’d seen things “no person should ever see.”

Discovery of victims is an intersection point, he noted, between the pipeline in and out of child exploitation victims, and he highlighted one in particular: the foster-care system.

His supporting statistics were aggregated from various state studies, not national research, but shocking nonetheless. He said 70 percent of prison inmates, and 80 percent of death-row occupants, had touched the foster-care system. Half of foster-care kids won’t graduate high school, he said, and 95 percent won’t get a college degree.

Most astonishing, he said, was that foster-care children were four times more likely to be abused. “That’s a breeding ground for trafficking,” he said.

Foster care is a challenge for many states, Arkansas included, where children in our system are at record highs.

I know from personal acquaintance people who lovingly take in foster kids, but I also know from reading and research that many foster children never find such caring households.

The statistics Kutcher cited must be improved, and a study done here spawned several suggestions on doing just that. Public awareness is always key to social improvement. For inspiration, Kutcher’s testimony video is a great start.

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