Category Archives: Current Affairs

President of the World: Eyes on Obama’s Prize

Yes, I know. The Nobel Prize committee got it wrong.

A couple of days ago, the Nobel Prize committee once again snubbed Philip Roth, an American author whose body of work is prize-worthy. I was honored to be a student in a small class he taught on world literature more than 40 years ago at the University of Pennsylavania.  This morning, the backwards committee awarded the peace prize to a leader whose major, if not only, accomplishment was to get himself elected.

Full disclosure: I voted for him. Also full disclosure: I’m sorry the Nobel folks hung this albatross around Mr. Obama’s neck. Iran — whose ancestors invested chess –issued a statement of approval. Finally, after American invasions and torture and exceptionalism under the mean old President Bush, there’s a nice, peaceful fellow America picked as its leader.

The selection of Obama does him no or the U.S. no good. His selection, based apparently on nomination papers submitted just weeks into his presidency, appears to be for his having been elected. No kinetic energy — just potential.

In a way, it’s understandable. On one level, it’s really not about Obama the man, but Obama the symbol. The multicultural, African-American, history-making, narrative-changing, citizen of the world.

If Bill Clinton had been what Toni Morrison called ‘the first black president,’ then Obama is the first global president. (Let’s leave aside the fact that he’s commander-in-chief of the US military now waging two wars.)

Awarding the prize to Obama reminds me of that misguided self-esteem movement in education, which awarded all children A’s just for existing,rather than for accomplishment. That approach soon was recognized for the well-intended foolishness it is, and as a result we have had the 20-year pendulum swing to 24/7 testing the Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama no-child-left-untested. As usual,after a policy failure comes an over-correction.

The rightwing has won the conservative Exacta: first, the embarrassment for the Obamas that their efforts to lobby the Olympic committee for Chicago failed. And now this Peace Prize awkward moment.

Obama’s domestic enemies are chuckling. But Obama may yet get the last laugh. The very “poison” so feared by the Ronald Reagan-led conservative movement, and now echoed by the radical right (Beck, Limbaugh, Malkin and O’Reilly, Inc.): socialized medicine. The all-but-certain passage of significant healthcare reform is exactly the sort of accomplishment that prize committees generally use as a criterion. And I suspect that over this first term there may well be other significant accomplishments that could well turn out to make the obviously premature award appear not idiotic and naive but prescient.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Political Communication, Politics, Public Relations

Fake News & Public Relations

I’ve worked both sides of the street — journalist and PR guy. Actually, three sides — teacher. So perhaps there aren’t only two sides to this story.

But it’s less of a story than an disagreement as to what counts as news. Take today, for example. It’s President Obama’s 48th birthday. Is that news? Well, sort of. As the McCain presidential campaign liked to remind us, Obama is a celebrity, and from a certain perspective celebrities are news. What they say, what they do, and what happens to them, including their birthdays.

True, some of the press coverage of Obama’s birthday offered another kind of numerical angle. The president bowled a 144, which in itself could be cause for celebration following the cringe-worthy 37 he rolled during the campaign. President Cool didn’t look comfortable throwing out the first pitch in the recent baseball All Star game. In the era before sensitivity training, gender neutrality and political correctness, it would have been thought — if not reported — that the president threw like a girl.

Not that girls —  I mean, women — don’t show up on cable TV winging softballs from the pitcher’s mound at lightning speed in softball games —  the equivalent of 95 mph heat from Josh Beckett.

There. I think I’ve avoided slipping on the gendered banana peel that helped finish off the brief, unhappy Harvard University presidential tenure of Larry Summers.

But I digress. Obama’s birthday is news. So is his bowling score. All birthdays are equal, but some are more equal than others.

All right, here’s example 2. This week marks the 40th “anniversary” (shouldn’t the word be in quotes?) of the Manson gang’s murders of the actress, Sharon Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski, the movie director. The kill-the-pigs, helter-skelter homicides — Tate was very pregnant — was certainly front-page news at the tail end of the tie-dyed, acid-dropping, anti-establishment Sixties. Shortly after the Tate murders, the Manson gang, starring several young females whom Manson had somehow turned into the cast of Saw 5, there  was more murderous news — this time the killings of someone the tabloids called “a wealthy grocer” and his wife.

All that terrifying stuff was news back then. But is it news now? Apparently, yes — at least it made it to CNN. But doesn’t everything? Didn’t those wild and crazy Raelians — the Word of Rael! — manage to make it onto CNN some years ago?

This is the age of marketing, of the visual, of the spectacle, of the amateur, of YouTube.  Every day, it seems, someone or something goes viral, and to go viral is to make news. My 3-year-old Siamese cats, Sadie and Clara, went viral a few months ago, when my wife posted their photo on Twitpic. All of a sudden, tens, hundreds, and then 5,000 unique viewers got wind of the adorable creatures who appeared to be attempting to articulate their thoughts on Twitter. Their insta-fame merited an email from Biz Stone, the cofounder of Twitter, who said he was sending out Sadie and Clara’s picture to his l65,000 twitter followers.

When your cats make news, it’s a clue that there’s something going on, something up in the news world.

If news is what people are talking about, then with 200 million of us talking and pixing and texting and tweeting and writing on each other’s walls, it’s time for a broader, if not deeper, definition of news.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Public Relations

What Obama Should Say Over the Beers

SCENE:  THREE MEN SEATED AT A PICNIC TABLE IN A REASONABLY PRIVATE SPOT ON THE WHITE HOUSE GROUNDS.  PRESIDENT OBAMA,  PROFESSOR GATES AND SERGEANT CROWLEY.

OBAMA:  I know. I know. This is the biggest fishbowl in the nation. I’m almost used to it. There isn’t a whole lot of privacy.

What I want to tell both of you right off is how much I appreciate your coming here today. Skip, we’ve known each other for a long time, and you already know how much respect I have for you — what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve done with your life, what you’ve done as a teacher, a scholar, and a leader and friend of black and white communities in this country and around the world.  Had you not been the man you are, we very likely wouldn’t be about to drink this beer today. And, by the way, you know that we’ve got a selection of brands made right here in the U.S. — in fact, a couple of them are from New England. I know you like that foreign brand, Sergeant Crowley. But I’m just a tenant in this house — I’ve got to follow the rules on beer selection!

Sergeant Crowley — OK, that’s a little formal, but we’re just meeting each other for the first time — I am so pleased that you accepted my invitation to come to my house — the nation’s house. And as I’ve already told you, everything that’s been said about you by folks who evidently know you well professionally as an officer and personally as an outstanding leader and teacher in New England communities — everything I’ve heard makes me proud to welcome you to the White House.

Look. A whole lot’s been said about what happened back in Cambridge.  But I really do believe that this can’t help but be a teachable moment. All three of us have been teachers. Are teachers. In a way, not only has the nation become a classroom — so has  the world, judging by the media from everywhere.

I’ll say one more thing before I offer a toast and we all get to drink our beer on this hot and humid typical July day in D.C. And, really,  it’s a hell of lot  better to be drinking our beer than crying in it.

One more thing. My chief of staff — you know  about him — Rahm Emmanuel — got a little famous for saying “Never let a crisis go to waste.” So to the extent that what we’re doing here started out as a crisis, I wanted to make damn sure we didn’t let it go to waste.

So, all right. Here’s that toast. Let’s raise our glasses of this fine New England brew and drink to understanding and respect and peace and friendship — and to the very best lessons our meeting can teach the communities of this nation and the world — and what we still have to learn from each other!

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Current Affairs, Political Communication, Public Relations

From Crisis to Poetry

Lead piece in this week’s New York Review of Books — crisis in the financial markets. a review of  a book called A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of ’08 and the Descent into Depression.

Failure: the father of crisis. The failed state of Somalia launches the crisis of twenty-first century piracy.

The familiar crises of our time are the children of failed states, failed negotiations, failed systems, failed corporations, failed policies, failed leaders.

The anti-immigrationist right wing is blaming the breakout of swine flu (school children sickened in Texas and New York City) on the failure to wall out Mexicans from the porous borders of the U.S.

Has the world come down with a bad case of the vapors?  So it would appear.

Writing about the financial meltdown, Robert Solow blames the crisis, in part, on “the inevitability of market imperfections.”  Crisis is built into the capitalist market system. Crisis is pre-determined, like death and taxes. We should have learned to expect the next sucker punch.

Yet we are restive. Unprepared.  The world seems out of joint, foreclosing all around us, taking our homes, our jobs, our retirement funds, our sleep.

The age of crisis is at once the age of uncertainty, failure and the expectation of failure.

It has been often observed that there is no tragedy in America. We don’t have a taste for it. We prefer musical comedy, technology millionaires, American Idol and the Super Bowl.  This is an optimistic culture — the culture of Emerson’s self-reliance, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick and FDR’s outing of fear, in the end, as nothing to fear. We like scary movies because they’re movies.

The lack of a tragedy makes us a statistical outlier in the history of civilization. Rome had the entertaining brutality of the circus maximus, the gladiators eviserated by lions. Ancient Christianity had the crucifixion. Modern Christianity has Mel Gibson’s movies.

Joyce Carol Oates exaggerates in a useful way in saying that America’s only tragedy — in the sense of literary, dramatic nobility — is boxing. Real fear, real pain, real blood splattered on the fans in the expensive seats. Hemingway had to stoke his taste for tragedy elsewhere — in the European theater of World War I, the Spanish Civil War and the bull ring. Melville found his far from the New Bedford whaling industry, many miles out at sea in the hunt for the white whale.

Compared with the tragedies of literature and the countless horrors of modernity, mere failure seems rather bland. We are easily upset. We are what Freud says we are: the neurotic animal. We repeat mistakes with tragic and sometimes comic results. Comic, like the clownish characters in Beckett plays.

I know. None of this is new. But what feels different, if not exactly new, is the nonstop series of crises. As for apocalyptic thinking, that’s hardly new. Waiting for the eschatological denouement in the desert was trendy in the first century after Jesus, and in the years immediately preceding the end of the  first and the second millennia.  We await the curtain call, even as we engage in the denial of death, as Ernest Becker theorized as he himself waited out his own death.

All this prattle about death can be tedious.  Fortunately, these desert stretches of gloom are dotted with oases. I read again about one of those green and fertile places this morning in — of all places — the Wall Street Journal.  The subject was one of the finest poems by William Butler Yeats: “Among School Children.”  (” O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?”)

What I learned from reading Yeats and in conversations about poetry and poets, and in seminars,  and in the act of writing a doctoral dissertation, and in the slow descent into emotional paralysis and the slow ascent into the light again, was said movingly by another poet, William Carlos Willams:

				It is difficult
to get the news from poems
		yet men die miserably every day
				for lack
of what is found there.

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Current Affairs, Literary Criticism, Poetry, Uncategorized

Animal Spirits

My sermon for today is taken from Animal Spirits,  the title of a new book about the rising science of behavioral economics.  A review of the book appears in the New York Times Book Review.

What attracts me to the book — and why I will read it– is its argument with the conventional wisdom of economics that human beings can be expected to make rational decisions. Not so, said J. M. Keynes. What market bubbles demonstrate — the Great Depression in Keynes’ era — is that people make decisions based on what he called “animal spirits” — over-confidence, greed an the naive belief that what goes up will never come down, and even an irrational belief in fairness.

The economics I was taught at The Wharton School of Economics was based on the concept of — but really the belief in and ideology of — human rationality.  Had I been smarter and quicker back then, I might have realized that all the reading I had been doing on my own in high school — Freud, Nietzsche, Doestoevsky, Henry Miller — was either utterly absurd, aberrant and shallow, or that it flew in the face of the rational-choice foundation of conventional economic theory.

What I believe today isn’t that human beings are essentially irrational and thus prone to irrational exhuberance, in the phrase made popular by Alan Greenspan, that fallen idol of economics. What I believe today is what Jonathan Swift said about human beings, which is that we are capax rationis, or capable of reason. Which is what I learned in a graduate literature seminar taught by J. W. Johnson, a brilliant scholar of Eighteenth Century literature.  That lesson was reinforced in a class with Norman O. Brown, whose Life Against Death made instructive use of Dean Swift and Dr. Freud. Man, Freud believed, is the neurotic animal. Human history, which Brown (no relation) puts on the couch, shows a clear tendency to do what neurotics do: repeat unsuccessful behaviors. For example, war.

It seems inconceivably dense that economics has for so long denied, ridiculed or marginalized such insights into human nature which drives marketplace decision-making.  When I interviewed Milton Friedman in l978, he told me that psychoanalysis isn’t a science like economics. For rational-choice-based economics, Freud is mumbo-jumbo and Swift is for Eng Lit departments.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedman, I wrote 30 years ago in The Best of Business (Esquire), is smarter than you are. And he was. But history — modern history, included — has shown us that the smartest guys in the room can and do get it wrong. The geniuses who advised JFK about a war in Vietnam War were tragically off the mark. So were the best and brightest economists and Wall Streeters, econ professors and government types who wrote the computer models for credit default swaps and other animal-spirit investment innovations.

A bit of modesty would be in order — would it not? — for the smartest guys in the room.

For we are what Swift says we are — merely capable of reason. The final book of Gullivers Travels gives us the vulgar, shite-throwing animals of our nature, the Yahoos — as well as the depressingly, chillingly overly rationalized animals of our nature, the houyhnhnms.

And we are what Shakespeare’s Lear says we are, “poor, bare, fork’d” animals.

And thus we would be well advised to follow Aristotle’s urging to behave with moderation and regard the golden mean.

Such wisdom goes down well in the humanities — but it needs to go up on the walls of the S.E.C. and in the nation’s economics departments and in the Blackberries of the best and brightest across the fruited plain.

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Filed under Business, Current Affairs, Economics

Newspapers Die, but Not Graceful News Writing

To answer those who continue to make the silly claim that graceful writing has somehow been obviated by the Internet or by streaming video; and to rebut those who argue that news writing somehow lacks the creativity of other kinds of prose, here is Exhibit A: The lede from “After Splash, Nerves, Heroics and Even Comedy” by M. Wilson & R. Buettner in The New York Times, January 17, 2009:

“Some passengers screamed, others tucked their heads between their knees, and several prayed over and over, ‘Lord, forgive me for my sins.’  But a man named Josh who was sitting in the exit row did exactly what everybody is supposed to do but few ever do: He pulled out the safety card and read the instructions on how to open the exit door.”

US Airways Flight 1549 —  which a four-year-old girl said had turned into a boat —  never sank, unlike most of the nation’s daily newspapers. And if the Times itself goes under, in the words of an old folk song, it will be sad when that great ship goes down.

As for another prose winner, there’s Peggy Noonan’s moving column in today’s Wall Street Journal about the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Media, On Writing

Samuel Huntington Tribute

The resurgent violence in Gaza makes the recent death of Samuel Huntington particularly timely.

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An elegantly written opinion piece (“Samuel Hungtington’s Warning” by Fouad Ajami in today’s Wall Street Journal) contradicts the simplistic rejection of the author of The Clash of Civilizations as a super-patriot. He wasn’t. As Ajami modestly — in fact, humbly — explains, Huntington’s vision of the clashing multi-polar geopolitical world was prescient. Ajami had dismissed Huntington’s “clash” concept in a piece for Foreign Affairs in 1993, shortly after Hungtington’s “clash” hit the stands. But 15 years later, the tide of events turned:

“Fifteen years later, I was given a chance in the pages of The New York Times Book Review to acknowledge that I had erred and that Huntington had been right all along.”

As Bret Stephens in today’s WSJ wrote in “Hamas Knows One Big Thing,” citing the Greek poet Archilochus, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Stephens continues, and I paraphrase:  Prior to Israeli’s statehood in 1948, the Zionists were the hedgehog, and what the Zionists knew was that their destiny was statehood in Palestine. But now it’s the Palestinians who are the hedgehog, and the one thing they know is that Israel will never be able to defeat them. Why? Disastrous PR and impossible branding.

Israel’s brand as holocaust surviving, anti-British imperialist David battling Arab enemies on all sides has been destroyed over the last few decades. And today Israel has been rebranded in the perception of multitudes around the globe as the brutal, evil occupier. Israel’s the fox who knows many things, but the Palestinians are the hedgehog who knows the one essential thing: First-world powers  may engage in wars — but they can no longer win them. And while Israel is not exactly a first-world power like the U.S., its intimate association with the U.S. makes it one.

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Filed under Current Affairs, History, Politics