Category Archives: Ethics

Politics, Policy & Principles

You’re a member of congress. There’s a contentious  public issue facing you, the congress and the nation.  You know where you stand and what you stand for. But you’re torn.

On the one hand, there’s policy at stake. A bill is up for a vote — a momentous bill, a momentous vote. If the bill passes — and you dearly want it to pass — it will be the economic enfranchisement of millions of citizens. If it doesn’t, it could spell not only their continued disenfranchisement, but the downfall of the administration you support with all your heart and soul.

So why are you torn? Because in order to get to point C — the bill’s passage — you first need to get to point B, which happens to be a fork in the road. Point B calls for you to  cast a vote for or against another bill. And it’s a tricky question. You came to congress as a freshman in 2009. The bill which we’re called Point B asks that the intention of a previous bill be turned topysy-turvy — a complete reversal of principles that were embedded in the previous bill. And the previous bill was deeply principled in that it called for a public issue to be settled in the democratic way — through an election. Vox populi.

But the bill before you and your colleagues now would overturn that principled bill — and for what? For even higher principles, some would argue — for the economic enfranchisement of millions of citizens across the nation.

But you’re torn. If you vote for the bill before you now, you would be casting  vote that could be perceived as being a rebuke to a dearly held principle of democracy: allowing the citizens to vote on a public issue. If you vote for the bill before you now, you are vulnerable to the not unreasonable charge by your political opponents of hypocrisy. Your party supported the previous bill which called for the people to decide through an election.

So if you were  to now cast your vote along with your party to oppose such a free election, you would be seen as someone who doesn’t stand for anything other than partisanship. You could be seen as just one of those politicians who choose principles over politics only when the principles suit your politics. You could be seen as someone without the gumption to stand up to the pressure  of your leadership.

And what would be your defense? That you weren’t yet elected when that previous bill was voted? And thus somehow you feel you’re owed a waiver from principles because you weren’t there back then?

How confident are you that such an argument would cut any ice with the voters? How sure are you that the people who came out for you wouldn’t see your vote as expedient and unprincipled — especially when the opposition media (and even some of the media you have counted on) publish editorial nailing you to the cross of hypocrisy and expediency?

No, you’re going to have to come up with a stronger defense of your vote than that you weren’t around in the not-so-old days when your party supported the democratic principle  of elections to settle a public issue. And looking more closely at the previous bill, your opponents could argue that your party didn’t support it out of respect for democratic principles, but in order to avoid the possibility of an opposition governor simply doing what he and his party wanted to do. So your party would not even get credit for casting a principled vote on the previous bill.

What a conundrum! What can you do? What ought you to do?

You could buck your party’s pressure and vote for the democratic principle of a free election to  decide a public issue. In doing so, you would be showing that you’re not just another pol who caves in to party pressue. In doing so, you would be showing that you had the heart and soul and intellect to stand for what you assert to be the higher principle — democratic election to decide a public issue. And that in casting such a vote, you are acknowledging that you are willing to sacrifice having it both ways — having not to choose between principles. You would be not be voting against the economic enfranchisement of millions of Americans because you deeply believ in that principle. But by casting your vote on the bill before you, you would be publicly stating that you are not willing to game the system.

That’s what you could think, although you wouldn’t put it that way, of course. You  would say that you believe deeply in both principles — enfranchisement of all but also in vox populi, rather than the avoidance of listening to that public voice.

It  isn’t easy to be an elected public official. With every vote, your brand is on the line. The perception of you is at risk. Did you act on the principles you were elected for? Or did you abandon them out of deference to pressure and expediency?

Each year the Kennedy Foundation Library and Museum recognize public officials who demonstrate the virtue JFK held more dearly than any other —  courage. These officials of both parties and neither party have shown that they acted, voted, spoke from positive, pro-social, pro-democratic, ethical and moral principles — and sometimes at terrible political and personal cost to themselves. Each year thousands of  high school students write essays about just such politically courageous public officials — Southern governors who opposed segregation; Liberian women who stood up to terror and rape and refused to be silenced.

I am proud to be a judge in that essay contest.

I am also proud to be a friend of an elected official who is so deeply motivated by principle — and so mature and sophisticated and unselfish and aware — that her votes emerge from a profoundly  moral and ethical space, but never a reckless or foolish or self-subverting place.

This is the rare politician the people are rewarded for electing and re-electing. Not because all  her votes are “perfect” because there is not perfection on this earth. We can never be utterly free of self-interest, nor ought we to be. Politics, like literary translation is, in some sense, impossible. It is an art, not a science. A conversation and a compromise — at least, up to a point. And the location of that point is what a politician must, unlike the rest of us — decide over and over again in public. And it is this continual pressure to declare, decide and reveal which is why politics is so bound up with courage.


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Filed under Ethics, Political Communication, Politics, Public Relations

The Rules of Bragging

The following post could have been written by Polonius.

What’s more rewarding than being understood? Something we all  want.  Simple, right? Not so fast.

La Rouchefoucauld’s maxims have phrased these ideas — and many others — far more gracefully than I have in this quick post. But I have him in mind — the penetrating analyst of vanity.

The great aphorist lived in a milieu of vanity, the French court. But vanity — Catholic theology calls it Pride, that tree trunk from which grow the other deadly sins — knows no single court or season or person. It is fundamental to our nature — a weakness, a flaw. It is not self-esteem that’s in question. Not the “good” sort of pride of craftsmanship or ethical choice or professionalism. Vanity is blindness. It is Lear blind to the evil sisters’ perfidy and Cordelia’s love. (“He never knew himself but slenderly.” It is shallowness. It is meanness. And it’s transparent and detestable and ridiculous. Mostly, it’s farce. But it can be tragic, as with Achilles. But in polite society it’s merely regrettable, cringe-worthy, graceless, awkward and off-putting. It’s Malvolio.

Take a guy I’ll call Jerry. An academic who teaches, writes, publishes and brags. (Don’t we all brag, especially in the digital age when it’s as easy as posting, tweeting — the sound of blowing your own horn?)

But there’s bragging and there’s bragging. Some people do it better than others. Some folks can’t seem to do it without sounding, well, like braggarts. Mine’s bigger than yours. Abrasive. Contentious. Invidiously comparative.

Bragging’s an art. It can be done so gracefully that it doesn’t seem like bragging at all. To know how to do, it’s useful to understand how poorly it can be done — and do otherwise.

Here are the rules of bragging. Or marketing. Or PR. So much in common.

1. Be modest. After all, if the point is to show off, drop magisterial feats, do it with a wink. Not false modesty (Dickensian character’s “umble” obnoxiousness). But don’t brag in capital letters. Unless you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize, we’re not going to be bowled over. And Pulitzer Prize winners really don’t have to brag, do they? Others — family, friends, syncophants — do it for them, inserting themselves into the limelight. Modesty is, after all, a matter of realistic self-assessment — and realistic self-assessment is a matter of realistic comparisons with other baggarts and Pulitizer Prize winners.

2. Show self-irony. Bragging is so unsubtle, like a pitcher who can only throw fastballs. Feature a curve, a knuckleball. Some wit. A steady diet of fastball bragging is witless. It diminishes your reputation, not contributes to it. Self-irony (is this my own neologism?) navigates a path between false modesty and braggadocio. Self-irony requires a kind of metaphysical thinking about oneself — an expressed public recognition of the self-within-the-self that we admit, recognize, monitor and supervise. Self-irony is intra-personal communication. We are in perpetual conversaton with ourselves. We hear voices — or we ought to — which makes us sane, not crazy. Not to hear voices is to be a self without a history — which is both absurdity and poverty.

3. Credit others.  Sure you earned that doctorate, published that novel. But didn’t you have teachers, mentors, editors, agents? Listen to a few award acceptance speeches. Download the Academy Awards show. It’s the Team Thing. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and so forth. It’s all true, all those cliches. Failing to recognize them is merely simple arrogance. What Samuel Johnson called ‘blockheadedness.’ Don’t be that person.

4. Know you’re lucky.  Listen to that famous speech by a guy you wouldn’t think of as particularly lucky — Lou  Gehrig. Standing in the middle of Yankee Stadium in front of 50,000  fans who knew he was dying, he told them he was the luckiest man alive. Do you know why they cried? Of course you do. Because they were knocked over by his brave lie. And because his lie contained a great truth: He was a lucky man — in the face of the awful wasting disease. And they knew in that moment that  for all his athletic greatness, this was his greatest moment of all — the one we remember him for. If Gehrig could make the theme of his fall, his illness, his imminent death less important than his great good luck, then so can the rest of us.

5. Be kind. Kindness, some say, is the greatest wisdom. The world can seem a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers. So your good fortune, trophy wife, BMW, honorary Ph.D., American Idolatry may well be — and often is — someone else’s rotten break, harridan, clunker, flunkout. Don’t be a lunkhead (not in the Johnson Dictionary but probably in Webster’s). Know that when you announcing what you’ve won, you may be laughing at what someone else has lost.

Yes,  I know. It sounds trite and platitudinous. But ignore these platitudes at your peril, you self-important, pompous fool. Laugh sarcastically. Earn the enmity of the world. We will be laughing at you behind your back, just out of your hearing. And sometimes right in your face.

Who are my heroes of irony? Swift showing the absurdity of a ridiculous scientific experiment that so impressed Gulliver: (“Yesterday I saw a woman flayed alive — and you can hardly imagine how it altered her appearance for the worse.”).

Dickens. Gogol. Kafka. Sid Caesar. Lucille Ball. Woody Allen. Henny Youngman. Degas. Warhol. (I’m not talking role models.)

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Filed under Ethics, Persuasion, Public Relations

Beer Diplomacy

One of my earliest posts to this blog about something I called ‘twitter diplomacy’. Last winter, amid the Israeli-Hamas skirmish over Israel’s retalliation over captured soldiers, an item appeared in the New York Times about social media. It seems that Israel’s communication managers were engaging the criticism of the nation’s allegedly “disproportionate” reaction (bombs away; civilians killed) to what Israel saw as Hamas’ aggression.

The very look of tweets — “Is” for Israel and far more bizarre and unintentionally ironic or absurdist verbal truncations to describe the fog of war –struck me as a blend of Orwell and Beckett. It looked like the language of diplomacy had been taken over by adolescents engaged in a game of “Doom” on X-box.

But at the same time I could see the sense of it. After all, it wasn’t what it resembled — tweens texting. The conversation — stacatto ping-pong — may have looked lightweight, but it certainly wasn’t. The back-and-forth was about life and death issues — ancient, modern, complex and profound. But on reflection, there was nothing inherently wrong or wrong-headed about conducting a conversation about those issues in tweets than in paragraphed op eds and communiques.

The issue of the moment happens to be the dueling accusations over the brief but well publicized arrest of Henry Gates by a Cambridge, Mass. police officer.  The prominence of the Professor Gates — a Harvard professor, acclaimed scholar, media personality and influential friend of the most powerful public officials in the U.S. including the president– led rapidly to the issue’s escalation to the top of the issues food chain: a presidential press conference intended to lobby the nation on universal, public health care.

Every plot element in this story has seemed unlikely. A famous African-American Harvard professor’s arrest in his own home. The arresting officer accused of racial profiling, but revealed to be nothing less than a sensitivity trainer, himself. The president of the United States characterizing the Cambridge police’s arrest of Gates as ‘stupid’ — but within 24 hours marching into the White House press secretary’s press briefing to offer a quasi apology for having used language that had made a bad situation worse.

Then it was time to pop open a cold one — or, that is, surface the trial balloon of a beer diplomacy moment (as opposed to a teachable moment).  Rather than unsheath their swords in rhetorical and legal combat, the principal Montague and Capulet would quaff a hearty brew in the neutral corner office of Mr. Obama. There, more manageable issues could be discussed, including the matter of the beer, itself (domestic, in this case, because the White House doesn’t stock the police officer’s favorite because it’s foreign-made).
That’s a issue that even a hot-head can wrap his fingers around.  That’s a controversy that doesn’t require a Nobel Peace Prize winner for the engineering of a compromise.

What if, on closer inspection, and with the aid of a cold one and a bowl of peanuts, race relations were found to be no harder to resolve than multi-lateral agreement on the brand of a beer? Didn’t Forest Gump make it abundantly clear that life is just a box of chocolates?

Maybe we’ve all been over-thinking this whole thing.

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Ethics, Media, Politics, Public Relations, Sociology

Kill the Messenger

One of my outstanding Harvard Extension School students sent me the video that’s linked above. It’s a tale of skulduggery — how a powerful company can pressure, bully and threaten a news organization when the company’s neck is on the line. Monsanto Chemical Company vs. Fox News.

Lots of undergraduates want to study public relations. Armed with my unlikely set of credentials and skills — a Ph.D. in English lit with dissertation on American poetry,  followed by freelance writing, magazine editing and then speech writing for corporations the size of Monsanto — I launched a career teaching PR. I’ve been at it for nearly 25 years.

I come from a business family, not an academic one. My father, a Russian immigrant from the Polish pale, was one of the legion of children who spent their childhood on the Lower East Side in the first decades of the twentieth century. He was a tough guy. Got his nose broken in a fight. Moved pianos. Hung with a rough crowd. Even after he grew to maturity, and became a success in the rough and tumble wholesale fur business in NYC’s shmata district, this toughness remained. His suits were silk, his nails lacquered, his wheels an Olds and later a Caddy. But that toughness was learned in the streets and tenements and probably embedded in his DNA. He faced down his share of rough characters, and hung with a couple of mink stole, Caddy-driving gangsters –relationships which eventually soured. The mobsters pulled an armed robbery caper in Bobby Brown Furs on 28th Street, which as a 12-year old kid I was quite excited to read about in the New York Daily Mirror.  But that’s another story for another time.

Dad was what’s commonly called a self-made man, if that’s what we do — make ourselves. Whether we do or not, he was one of the few who gave that name to their generation — the ones who made it out of the streets and uptown. Literally. To where I was raised, on West 15th, East 89th, Central Park West and the Upper East Side. Up and up. His success indemnified me against having to survive as he had, in the streets. But to me growing up, Dad’s success was just the background to my own story. I had no idea of my good fortune. Just the opposite. I was full of self-pity and resentment. But that, too, is another story for another time. In a way, of course, it’s a rather common and tedious story.

What’s more interesting to me is what I see looking back on my childhood from the perspective of a 64-year old. There is really nothing that self-made about me, other than my educational and scholarly interests. What I teach isn’t English, much less poetry. It’s business — business communication. It’s rhetoric. Persuasion. Writing. That’s because in my youthful alienation, I found in the voices of great writers — Doestoevsky, Turgenev, Dickens, Thackeray, Twain, Salinger, Henry Miller, Keats, and curiously enough, in Freud –the clarity and courage that felt like truth. I never imagined I was one of them, or would ever be. But reading them was like listening to musical instruments. It was enough to listen and try out a few notes on my own.

My career as a teacher is a fortunate accident, something I fell into because I wanted to be in the company of authors and, to some extent, of readers and writers. I was and still am a plugger, grateful that I landed in a profession with the liberality to tolerate someone with my combination of focus and eccentricity, and my belief that much inchoate feeling can be translated into articulate communication — writing, speech, conversation.

Unlike English lit, public relations is not revered, nor does it need to be. What public relations may be about isn’t so much persuasion (the fancier term is ‘rhetoric’), but survival. When I’ve suffered a grievous loss — the sudden death of a wife, the loss of a career (so I thought) — in my anguish and my need to survive I’ve turned to writing and speaking and conversation. At least, those are the healthy turns. So in a way, when I teach whatever it is that I teach, I’m really teaching all I know about how to use language to survive. I’m told I can do that pretty well — well enough to have made a career of it. Well enough to have made a living doing it. Well enough to have survived my own callowness and cruelty and ignorance, and to have to learned a little about listening and compassion.

I’m a teacher because I was lucky enough to have so many good teachers. These things I’ve said before. But they’re worth repeating, in a diary, a blog, on a streetcorner. To everybody or anybody or nobody in particular. Just to keep talking, keep writing, keep surviving — and pass along what’s been learned from all that work.

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Filed under Crisis Communication, Ethics, Media, Politics, Public Relations