High on Hal

You can buy the witty detective novel, Stein Stoned, by Hal Ackerman, UCLA  screenwriting prof, at Amazon.com

Full disclosure: I’ve known the old author ever since he was a young author.

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Twitter for the Worker Bee

Just passing along a nice service piece for the emerging social media generation of undergrads and the scads of unbelievers and cynics. It’s a NY Times article on using Twitter as a work and networking tool, not just for status updates.

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For me, life’s a dash

to the final parenthesis:

(You’re born, you grow, you ebb –

& OMG! it’s curtains.)

Hypothetically to Albert E.,

universal relativity:

spacetime’s bent, no end,

the climax ellipsis. . .

For Bohr, the quantum


mechanically uncertain:

Life’s sentence is a run-on, a splice.

Or maybe a fragment?

Maybe a fragment?

— Robert E. Brown

March  1, 2010

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Here Comes the Protocol University

Today’s sermon is inspired by NY Times columnist David Brooks’ case that what was an economy based on making “stuff” is now an economy based on sets of instructions. The Protocol Economy, as he’s calling it, has its iconic source in software, that set of instructions embedded in our stuff — cars, appliances and, of course, computers.

The implication for college professors — and for the entire K-through-post-doc education — is that education is already a crucial part of the protocol economy. My job teaching undergraduate and graduate students is now not only driven by emerged and emerging technologies — web sites, social media; what I do is now judged according to a set of instructions called “outcomes assessment,” which is itself a protocol based on a logical, data-driven system that spells out (the scientific term is “operationalizes”) the “objectives” of a course in such a way that what and whether a student actually learns can be measured.

The big idea is to eliminate wiggle room. No longer will students be required to learn “the material” because such a instruction is amorphous, ambiguous and therefore not measurable. That approach to teaching  is now regarded disdainfully as merely a bad piece of software. It’s Old School,  shot through with contingency, and in the protocol  university contingency is unacceptably nostalgic, vague and inefficient — its inefficiency impotent to generate the quantifiable, comparative, competitive results which are now the basis of life support for educational institutions: government support, corporate donations, grants and other forms of economic and financial  transfusion.

As a professor whose expertise includes public relations — relationship creation, reputation management, branding, ranking, visibility, credibility — I see how the  public relations industry  has shrewdly embraced the industrial protocol and assessment strategies enabled by search engine optimization, social media, and all forms of user-generated content. Mass communications have been de-massified, a process that has been in the works for a generation. The demassification has all but killed mass advertising, and with it mass media. The world of communication is now parsed one-at-a-time — one irate consumer, one pissed-off voter, one beetrayed celebrity spouse — and then the one’s get aggregated to the millions. (Hello there, Susan Boyle.

We live now day to day, awaiting the next new thing and  its Schumpeteresque creative destruction of the sweet and sour old things (bye, bye Seattle Intelligencer, professorial lectures, and human bodies cheek to jowl in a classroom; bye bye textbook divisions of big publishing companies; bye bye publishing companies).

All of which is to say that we now live in age of agitation and even crisis. Of what a friend of mine calls Continual Partial Attention. An age where continual monitoring is no match for slander and libel that goes viral in a heartbeat. In a way, a fabulous age full of fables: Make your own, see it fly. But that’s another matter for another time.

In the protocol economy, the winners will know how to create, live by and be judged according to rigorous sets of instructions. The losers will recuse themselves, wax nostalgic and wane into irrelevancy.

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The “Avatar” Blues: Not Buying It

The critics love it. The fannies are sitting in the movie seats. It cost half a billion dollars. So what’s wrong with me? (Don’t answer, please.) The day it opened, I purchased a ticket to “Avatar.” But I’m just not buying it.

It has its moments. So much about the blockbuster movie is derivative. The dreaming blue creature in soy sauce recall the precogs of “Minority Report.” The space ship battles are a cross between “Star Wars” and Custer’s last stand — big blue Commanches shooting arrows against White Eyes Colonialists. Even  the sound track is derivative — director James Cameron quotes his “Titanic” score.

New Yorker critic David Denby joined the others in critic Jonestown in drinking the Kool-Aid. The most beautiful movie he ever saw. A NY Times critic gushed that “Avatar” was the future of movie making. I don’t think so. I think it’s more like the past. It’s rather retro, actually. Those  3 D glasses. What else? Mike Todd’s Smell-o-vision?

Where “WALL-E” is utterly lovely and movingly romantic, idealistic and even profound in its story, simplicity and silent movie-like silence, “Avatar” is preachy, obvious, corny and heavy-handed. The big bad villain is a egregiously written character — and light years from the cool black breathy majesterial iconic brilliance of Darth Vader. The big  blue ingenue love interest is much too skinny to inspire lust; she’s a kind of quasi-Native American cum rainforest Hiawatha, full of sententious self-righteousness. The good/evil dynamic is supremely uncompelling.

Besides all that, the movie’s premise — invading, rapacious, materialistic, heartless, clueless Americans up against an innocent, spiritual, indigenous people — struck me as Hollywood’s narrative of American history.

I have a feeling that Rush Limbaugh & the right wing noise machine is going to be unhappy wit a movie about how a wheelchair-bound Marine is propagandized by our nation’s enemy and sells out to become a kind of Taliban sympathizer, fighting on the side of the insurgents.

Frank Rich’s op ed in the Sunday NY Times advanced the very reasonable, if Swiftian argument that instead of Ben Bernanke being Time’s Man of  the  Year, the real man of the year should have been Tiger Woods. That’s because after a decade of humongous phoniness worthy of Mark Twain’s Duke and Dauphin — Enron, Bernie Madoff, “reality” TV — the sheer ballsy moxie of Mr. Woods social construction as a family man counts as kind of fabulous hole in one.

Sure, I could be sadly mistaken. “Avatar” is a masterpiece, as the critics declare. This is my minority report. (I was wrong about “Bonnie and Clyde,” which is surely a masterpiece.) But “Avatar?”

Uh-uh. I’m not buying it.

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Redemption for Tiger

Tiger prefers not to.  He won’t dance/Don’t ask him (Madam, with you.)

Well, good for Tiger. He’s channeling Barleby the Scivener, Melville’s passive aggressive office rebel. He’s in that raggedy line of existential figures who’ve just said No. No mas. They won’t come out for the boxing round just to be beaten to a pulp. They won’t cross the finish line just to spite the sadistic coach of the juvenile prison track team in “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” that gritty B & W Brit film from the 60s.

So, the hell with Gillette and its marketing campaign. Same to you, PGA tour.

My wife told me that Dr. Drew, the priest B-list celebrity sex addicts, and Dr. Phil, the homespun TV therapist, are working their shamanistic magic with Tiger right now on the golfer’s yacht, Privacy. I fell for it –it isn’t happening, yet. But it’s perfect.

We all know that Tiger’s life has plunged down the rathole. But notwithstanding that aphorism that there are no second acts in American lives, we know there are.  There’s Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Mike Tyson (wonderful can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him in the film documentary of his extraordinary, scarifying intermittently triumphant and scabrous life). And there’s my man Augstine who turned his sorry life around and wrote that tell-almost-all classic.

There are, too, second acts because as Augustine’s Confessions indicate, you can play the first half of the game as a lecher fornicator blasphemer — as long as you fall on your knees and recant. The poet Eliot did it — turned Catholic, churchly, devout and, from Grouch Marx’s account in Groucho’s letters, rather chipper and very happily married. Make that re-married. The first one didn’t pan out. Crazy  Viv. Fornicating with Bertrand Russell and wearing those goofy Flapper gear — at least that’s the impression we have. Half crazy, then all crazy, then institutionalized. Poor cuckolded bastard Eliot — motives late revealed (and all that). But he found it, at last, down on his knees — his conversion. His redemption.

Redeem. DEMAN in the Old England — the judge. We want to be judged anew, what with our spiritual rebranding. Cleaned-up resume. And isn’t that what education’s about –redeeming our ignorance. Isn’t that the purpose of experience — the redemption of our missteps. All that apple-biting in the garden. How many bites did Adam take? And when God kicked A & A out of the garden, wasn’t it all about the second chance. East of Eden. (Go East, young man and woman.)’

Even the snake’s punishment —  going forever legless and having to slither around on the ground — was a kind of redemption, if you spin the story a certain way, hold it at a particularly glass-half-full pt of view.

Life is nothing but a long series of mulligans, isn’t it? Do-0vers.  And what’s wrong with that? All those cliches about life as journey. It’s a journey, and with or without GPS we are bound to get lost. We are all losers in the end — I mean, in the Big Sense. Shuffling off the coil. But there it is — that message of redemption. Nor is it restricted to St Paul’s Unique Selling Proposition: Just accept Jesus and we’ll send you the gift of eternal life.Get to see God.

The whole Christian message (do I oversimplify?  Very well, I oversimplify! I am large. I contain oversimplifications) is about second chances. Just believe, accept, change your ways because this earthly existence is not the final inning. The Super Bowl is what comes after. The Afterlife. The second chance.

For Tiger, just saying No Mas to Jamie and Rachel and the porn star twins is the ticket. And it’s just a warmup for the Big Redemption that follows the l8th hole.

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Tiger’s Twisted Tale a Simple Story

Now that a dozen women have publicly announced their Me too’s, what appears to be a story about big numbers and high complexity may not be complex at all. Shorn of the billion-dollar net worth, the prancing porn stars, the Vegas angle, the pancake waitress, what it all may amount to is not something off the charts but utterly average.

Truth be told, for all its sadness, Tiger’s tale is common and banal. It only looks exotic, and why wouldn’t it? All that money, fame and pulchritude. All our surprise, curiosity and amusement.

All that flash blinds us to the real story, stripped of the strippers. It’s the tale of another unhappily married man who was looking for love in all the wrong places. Apparently having been unacquainted with Aristotle’s extremely practical distinction between pleasure and happiness, Tiger opted for the former at the expense of the latter.

Few hells are more hellish than a bad marriage, as half the U.S. population can attest. (That’s right — me, too.)

Perusing the rapidly mounting Tiger Mistress files, I was struck by the plaintiff and confused (others would say whiney and pathetic) tone of his declarations of need, if not love, for at least one of the mistresses. And while the unambiguous beauty of some of those women suggest that the tiger eye was trained on certain body parts, our prurience makes us miss the point again. Shakespeare’s king cries out, A kingdom for a horse!  Tiger was willing to sell his kingdom for an ear — a sympathetic one, and a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, and yes — cynical reader! — a heart.

No, no, no! I am not exculpating him for being just another cheating heart, himself. As for his own body, we all know that he did his thinking with the wrong part — hardly a novel failing among men and, if much research on infidelity indicates, women, too.

Tiger is lost in the woods, and he won’t be out of them for quite a long purgatorial stretch.Think: The Divine Comedy. In the middle of his unhappily married life, Tiger found himself in a dark wood and confused and miserable, he descended into hell. Only unlike Dante’s journeyman, Tiger had no Beatrice – no Divine Reason — to guide him down through the increasingly piteous circles of hell. And if memory serves, lust itself was one of the least offensive sins, and lustful lovers were housed in one of hell’s upper circles as they were buffeted with the winds of lust and forever chasing each other around with no hope of capture or embrace — as opposed to the likes of the political and religious betrayers who were way down in the 9th circle.

In Dante’s Comedy, all does end well. Having descended to the depths of hell, Dante is guided upward into purgatory — where he does the Oprah and Letterman shows and cries on “Barbara Walters.”  But having paid his debt and witnessed the worst, Dante — guided by Divine Reason — ascends into heaven in the “Paradise.”

I have Tiger beginning the descent, with quite a long way to drop before he begins what I suspect — even hope– will be that blessed turnaround that begins the sweetest of gifts to the sinner.

It’s called redemption.

My advice to Mr. Woods: Dump those caddies and go looking for Beatrice. You’re going to need reason — the more divine the better.

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Chapter 16 Corporate Communication

Chapter 16                        Corporate Communications

What you’ve read in the textbook up to this point has been about how organizations think about and use the principles, strategies and tactics of public relations to accomplish specified objectives and generate positive relationships with opinion leaders and stakeholders. Many, if  not most, of those organizations are for-profit corporations: organizations in business to produce a profit for their owners or, if the corporation is public, for the shareholders.

The central question of this chapter, if not of the entire text, is this: How does corporate communications differ from other kinds of public relations – nonprofit PR, marketing PR, crisis communication, investor relations, consumer relations, media relations, advocacy PR, lobbying, international/global PR and any other kind of public  relations?

Understanding the difference between corporate communications and other kinds of public relations is no simple matter, but it’s even more difficult to understand for anyone without real-world corporate experience.

And it’s really more than a matter of understanding what a famous manufacturing or service corporation – MicroSoft, Google, Procter & Gamble, General Motors, AIG, Bank of America, Exxon/Mobil – does for its PR activities. It’s critical to understand corporate communications at a deeper, more fundamental level— the level at which we understand what value a corporation like Google or Ford or General Mills offers for sale, of course, not only to consumers but to society itself – to stakeholders including government, to philanthropies (charities), to healthcare, education, to sports and entertainment, to media, and across the board of the economic, productive sectors of society.

What would this country – any country – be without the products and services generated by  the corporations in the paragraph above? You couldn’t listen to your iPod, fill your gas tank or even have a car in the first place. Governments depend on the payment of taxes by corporations, but also largely from consumers like you and me who are taxed on the iPhones, Big Macs and Sox tickets we buy. Yes, some of the revenue isn’t in the form of direct taxes – some of it comes indirectly. But you and I would not enjoy the quality of life we do without corporations  — yes, profit-seeking corporations – producing the X-boxes and Wii’s and putting winning Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots teams on the field to attract our patronage, our dollars.

Just as “It’s a Wonderful Life” demonstrates each  Christmas that what’s bad isn’t banks or bankers – it’s liars and cheaters and thieves and heartlessness. The savings and loan association operated by the Jimmy Stewart character is the heart and soul of the community itself – the money the depositors trust the bank with is repaid to the community in terms of affordable mortgages and affordable loans that are  the  seedbed of new businesses which without money would remain only dreams.

But of course corporations are rarely adored. We may love the Whopper but hardly think about the corporation that cooks it up. Yes, we may think Apple and BMW and Zappos are cool. But how do we feel about Texaco, CitiBank and Dow Chemical? Yet we don’t want to  live – at least most of us don’t – without iPhones, Beemers and affordable shoes.

Does this seem obvious to you? Perhaps. But then ask yourself why so many, if not most corporations are loathed when the breach the surface of our consciousness via the media – newspapers, films, TV. How are corporations and CEOs portrayed on “The Simpsons,” or in feature films like “Up in the Air,” just released starring George Clooney?

So why is that? What does it say about you and me that we can love the product but despise the producer? Are we hypocrites? Self-righteous phonies? Or are we coolly able to compartmentalize our feelings and actions, thumbing our nose at Wal-Mart while benefiting from Wal-Mart’s low-priced items?

So what does this have to do with corporate communications? Why do corporations engage in “reputation management,” stage big, fancy events to demo new products, send out news releases about their contributions to the Jimmy Fund, hold press conferences when they hire a new CEO, prepare for terrible things like assassins and arsonists, require employees to attend sexual harassment training, create glitzy web sites with advertainment geared to appeal to young consumers of snack food?

Also ask yourselves whether nonprofit corporations are not also business organizations not so very different from famous brand-name companies? What kind of competition and pressure is part of the lives of the employees of Oxfam, MassPirg and other issue-advocacy nonprofits? Are these nonprofits not competing for a share of mind, a share of dollars? Are not the fundraisers at our College courting wealthy donors such as Jack Welch to pony up $1 million for a new dorm, a new dining common, a new library to replace the collapsing one?

Ask yourself whether you could live without the service provided by Visa or Master Charge or Discover Ask yourself what you want for yourself in this life – and to what extent your getting it will require you to enter into relationships with for-profit corporations.

You already know that it’s not hard to call out the deceptive mortgage company, the oil company  charging $4 for a gallon of gasoline, the  electric utility that is raising its rates – or the  College that sends you a letter informing you your fees will increase by a $100 next semester, the textbook company that charges $150 for a book you hardly crack all semester and which you are dying to sell back – to the bookstore that will  only give  you $30 for it.

It’s easy to call out thieves and frauds like Bernie Madoff.  But do you really suppose that Bernie Madoff and Countrywide Financial and AIG are representative of for-profit corporations? And if you do, ask yourself why you think so – all the while looking forward to one day owning a home, driving a spiffy car and watching your monster Mac load huge web sites in a flash.

Yes, we’re a little schizo when it comes to our perceptions and behavior in the marketplace. But is that so odd, when we look closely, look in the  mirror and examine our choices coolly and honestly?

Unless and until you really think through  these questions, you won’t be ready to  begin to understand corporate communications. And even then, I doubt you  will be able to grasp it until you have some real-world experience not merely as a consumer of corporate products but as an employee of one of those famous but faceless, stereotyped and media-washed corporations.

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The Anthropology of Tiger Woods

A generation ago, a group of anthropologists and sociologists engaged in a flurry of research and publication that changed, enhanced and, in some instances, revised their disciplines. Their work could enrich the growing scholarship of public relations. But so far it hasn’t.

I am thinking about the work of Erving Goffman, who approach sociology and anthropology from a literary and dramaturgical perspective, beginning famously with the publication of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in 1959. That public relations scholars have not considered Shakespeare’s views on perception and reality particularly relevant to their concerns doesn’t surprise me, although as a Eng lit Ph.D. I can’t help seeing the missed opportunity — the disconnection between applied social science and humanistic literature. But for PR scholarship to have missed seeing and developing the connections between Goffman’s work on perception strikes me as a much larger and less rationalizable failure on the part of PR scholarship.

To these gaps and failures in the scholarship of public relations I should add all the work of the generation of cultural and literary-minded anthropologists, perhaps starting with Clifford Geertz.

And so I’ve buried the lede down here in paragraph 4 — that the crisis du jour, served up Tiger Woods and his cuckolded, five-iron-wielding spouse — would be far better interpreted through the scholarship of Goffman’s dramaturgy, Richard Schechner’s performance theory, Clifford Geertz’s literary anthropology and Victor Turner’s theories of ritualism and liminality than by the knee-jerk crisis communication monologues that have been seen on cable TV, the Internet, talk radio, and in the tabloid, mainstream and magazine press.

Not that it’s not a guilty pleasure — the obsessive and generally salacious attention to the visual, sexual, marital and financial angles. But after the crisis com experts utter the simplistic mantra (and I’m among the muttering utterers): Tell it now, tell it all, tell the truth — what’s there left to say? We can blather on about the possible deterioration of Tiger’s brand — more or less a moot point best left to the judgment of short-term and medium-term history. But in the final analysis, what have the crisis experts told us that we haven’t known since God knows when? Very little.

The most important thing we may know about Tiger’s infidelities, his spouse’s anger and society’s outrage, support and obsessive attention is that it’s what the anthropologist Turner long ago recognized, observed, analyzed, theorized and interpreted as a breach — an incident of expectation reversal which, if it is unchecked, widens into a crisis that can destabilize the social structure and even lead to the disintegration of the community. For this reason, as Turner observed in the field of certain African villages, the community had at its disposal a series of rituals that were performed prescriptively to remediate, negotiate and arbitrate the social threat. When a handsome young warrior committed a sexual indiscretion with a high-ranking village elder, the prescription called for the performance of a drama in which the high-status elder got to inflict some physical damage on the offending young man who knew better than not to accept the punishment, lest his social offense be deemed worthy of a far harsher punishment. But a spear in the leg, some blood — thankfully, that could be regarded as sufficient recompense for the offense. As a result, the community could avert the disruption and even violence and chaos that such an offense could generate.

For Tiger Woods and his countless offenders, the parallels are obvious and apparent. Public and publicized apologies. Renegotiations of prenuptial agreements that enrich the offended spouse. Rounds of mildly or moderately humiliating appearances on television talk shows. Grudging acceptance of the continuing series of unflattering profiles in the media. Two weeks at an addiction clinic.

What threatens society is not necessarily social and political chaos — at least, not in the short term. We are more concerned about threats to the heroic and triumphalist narratives that underpin public opinion which, in turn, supports the consumption of products, services, brands, polilticians, leaders, experts that comprise the better part of our belief system.

And for this reason — our concern lest we lose our heroes and beliefs — society has established the ritual of redemption under which formerly tarnished leaders such as former governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, are after a relatively brief media purgatory and exile, back in public favor, their sins and crimes generously attributed to the unarguable fact that they’re only human.

Yet for what this ritualistic consciousness may have to tell us about the way we communicate, persuade, negotiate and form opinions and beliefs, public relations scholarship has said precious little, preferring to drill down into the life of organizations, out into the bright and edgy world marketing. PR’s obsessions aren’t sociological or anthropological or even sexual; they’re economic, organizational, technological, ethical and statistical.

Which, come to think of it, matches up very nicely with the explosively growing industries of sports and education — both of which consume a larger and larger share of the national mind.

In this piece I have had nothing to say about the rich potential for PR scholarship that might accrue from closer attention to our sister disciplines in the social sciences, not to mention the all-but-ignored treasury of thousands of years of literature.  But in future pieces, I will begin to explore that treasury with a view toward the possible enhancement of what we think about when we think about PR.

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It’s the Apocalyse, Stupid!

Funnyman composer nerdy mathematician Tom Lehrer had it about right — when it came to things going south.
“Hello Mom

I’m off to drop the bomb

So send me a salami

And try to smile somehow

I’ll see you soon when the war is over

About an hour and a half from nowwwwww.!”

(OK. That’s from memory, quotes used as a “more or less” accurate. But that’s the gist.)
We love to ‘imagine distaster,’ as Susan Sontag  observed in a famous essay written in the good old days of US-Soviet Mutually Assured Destruction. We in the multipolar, asymmetric, post-9-11, jihadi war on terror world are rather nostalgic for the era of bomb shelters and civil defense siren warnings and hiding under our school desks during A-bomb drills (and making sure to face away from the windows, lest the nukes send shards of glass to slice up our homework assignments).

We love to get off on getting off. In the first couple of centuries after Jesus, literalists headed into the desert, ready for the end of days. The gospel of John is quite colorful about all the bad stuff that will go down  — you know, sooner or later.

Marxist history has its own end-of-days (for capitalism).  Freud theorized that we’ve got a death wish, before he trashed that theory. Ernest Becker, dying of cancer, talked about the “denial of death.” More recently, Sam Huntington coined the “clash of civilizations,” which is no day in the park.

(There will be a test on all this name dropping. Please read Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body and Life Against Death for next week.)

In these battles — us versus cancer, Christians versus Muslims, the Pleasure Principle versus the Reality Principles, the fat cats versus the proletariat — there are winners and losers. For the winners, the prize is life everlasting, God in the clouds, a World Series ring, utopian socialism, cancer-free remission. For the losers, it’s the booby prize. Upside down in a bucket of shit (where Dante dumps the corrupt popes), or a one-way ticket to palookaville.

Back in the Sixties, when culture went on an extended acid trip, Bob Dylan sang about folks wanting to get you down in the hole where they are. There’s nothing so tonic for the blues than learning that an giant asteroid is cruising Earthward at the speed of extinction.

Hollywood loves that plotline, and has given us “The Day the Earth Caught Fire,” and a long stream of end-of-the-world flicks. Opening soon, it’ll be “2012” and “The Road.”  A few years ago I took my son to “The Day After Tomorrow,”  a climate-change spectacular, with hurricanes the size of Jupiter that scoop up waves that wash over New York City, followed by the dawn on an Ice Age.

It’s the kind of story Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert cook up when they’re in the apocalyptic zone.

So we’ve got competing cultural-political narratives: The  Jesus Is Coming With a Sword millennarianism of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, and The Polar Bears are Drowning With You and Me meteorological fantasies of McKibben & Co.

Neither story — from the firebrand right or the rogue-wave left — has a happy ending, as they frame the old war between religion and science.

For Carville-Clinton in the Nineties, it was The Economy, Stupid.

These days: It’s the Apocalypse, Stupid!






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