Category Archives: Politics

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

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

Heckles and F-bombs

A public radio piece suggested that America is defining  civility down. After Congressman Joe Wilson (“You lie!”) and Serena Williams (F#$%!!!) lost their respective tempers in a single week, their outbursts have set the agenda for another visit to civility country.

What speech is socially acceptable now — and where and when? After years of watching John McEnroe get his freak on at line judges who thought his balls were out when they should have been in, it’s hard to be shocked (shocked!) by Serena’s salty sailor’s tongue — except that it turned out to be her US Open swan song.

Context, context, context: The real estate principle of speech. It’s the location, stupid! Should Serena have been called out for calling out? Sure. She had it coming. Sociologist Erving Goffman (I miss him now that I’ve never met him and he’s passed into social science heaven) would have called those outbursts a “lack of dramaturgical discipline.”  In nonacademic jargon, it’s a failiure to “maintain.”

As for the You Lie Guy, I’m not buying his excuse that his emo got the best of him — or the worst of him. Yes, he was seen to be chewing his cheeks during the president’s scolding speech. But when he spit out his imprecation, Wilson seemed more like a fellow who had calculated just when to let ‘er rip. After all, with the 1,000-page bill full of communist lies, he could have picked any of them — like Tom Brady looking downfield to see a whole heap of receivers. Wilson played the Illegal Immigrant card. But there was Death Panels, all alone in the end zone.

Homo ludens — man the game player. That was Huizinga’s definitive take on our human nature. We play, therefore we exist. Politics, like tennis, is a very engaging game, and at the highest level —  the US congress, the US Tennis Open– the professional play to win.

Unlike tennis — a game with short-term winners and losers — politics tends to be a longterm contest with clear-cut wins and losses mostly at primary and election time. True, the perpetual news cycle is full of folks calling winners and losers every hour on the  hour. But it’s not hard to see that winning and losing in tennis is a different ball of fuzz with a different spin.

Not that winning isn’t what politics can be about. It is now, as the nation turns its lonely and glazed eyes to health care whatever — reform, socialism, Nazism, Euro-ism, liberalism. It doesn’t take a genius to know that there’s a lot more at stake in the health care game than in the women’s final in Queens. After all, when Serena lost, she could walk away and say she’d been a naughty girl. But half the country seems to believe that if one of the zillion Obama-driven health care bills are passed, we’ll be offing grandma.

But back to the topic at hand — the civil  or uncivil  tongue. A half hour  of watching Brit prime minister Gordon Brown get loudly dissed by backbenchers in parliament and it’s apparent that Americans are  — depending on your perspective — uptight, priggish or far more decorous. But one man’s decorum is another’s outburst. Culture rules in these matters.  Say It Ain’t So, Joe broke the rules, as did potty-mouthed Serena.

If you want to be a homo ludens in good standing, you’ve got to play by the rules. Or you lose.

Whether Wilson’s wildness got his side a W remains to be seen. I doubt that his mouth has legs, so to speak.  It doesn’t even rate a beer summit. But I do suspect that, unlike Serena,  he crossed a line in political communication.

I’ll be perking up my ears for more outbursts from both teams in this political season.

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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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THE “SKIP” GATES DRAMA – A THEATER REVIEW

The handcuffing, perp walk and arrest of Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. is one of those can’t-believe-it news stories. It’s also irresisible grist for PR blogging heads like me.

That a prominent citizen could be arrested for trying to get into his own (OK, rented) home is a source of wonder. Sort of the opposite of evolution: In the Skipgate Breakin, so many things had to go south for the bizarre tableau to have occured. As of today, the story’s legs have grown legs. After President Obama launched into the middle of the whole mess — racial profiling, racism, “stupid” Cambridge, Mass., police, etc. — the White House tried spinning a retreat: The president didn’t actually mean that he thought the local police were stupid, but only that cooler heads should have prevailed).

But “stupid”was the word that the president, a wordsmith, used. One of the cooler heads that should have prevailed was the president’ — particularly in the  context of the press conference he summoned to lobby the nation to support his health care reform.

But Mr. Obama shot himself in the media with his improvisatory sniping at the Cambridge police department. By identifying himself with Professor Gates (‘it could have been someone like me!), he pushed his agenda off the front pages of the Washington Post and Boston Globe whose editors headlined Obama’s bashing of a local police force.  Points off for media relations.

Not that the president has been the only hot head. Professor Gates wasn’t what you’d call a model of civility, either. Furious at the gall of a local cop to continue to disbelieve Gates’ insistence on his very identity as a home owner, not to mention Harvard professor with an international reputation and a PBS documentary series, Gates head practically exploded. Who in his own best interests tells addressed a clealry agitated cop seeking an I.D. by dishing him with streetish disrespect ( “I’m gonna show my ID to your Mama”)?  Certainly not me.  Whenever a police officer has asked for my I.D., I am quick to hand it over — as well as I can from a fetal position.

As for the Cambridge cop  — from whom Gates has demanded an on-your-knees apolology for being a racist– it didn’t turn out to have been his best day, either. (The both-sides-can-share-blame interpretation was nicely said by a spokesperson for the Cambridge police.)  Yes, the police offier was only doing his job. But once he was able to determine that the angry gray-haired fellow was the rightful owner of the home, he would have done himself and Gates a big favor by hopping back in his  squad car and allowing the outraged professor to rage and fume.

But, Nooooo!, as they used to say on “Saturday Night Live”. The professor boiled over and his “tumultuous behavior” indicated a “disorderly person” charge — at least until the story hit the wires and the Cambridge Police saw the wisdom of dropping the charge.Boston Globe columnist Joan Venocchi framed the incident as a machismo moment — two tough guys facing off, one powerfully connected, the other one with handcuffs and a pistol.

In no time the tempest-in-a-teapot story went viral. Naturally, every public official and talking head had to weigh in — Massachusetts’ governor, an African American, identified with the outrage of a prominent citizen of color being racially profiled and harrassed in his own home; and Al Sharpton — whose wit is highly underrated — allowed that he’d heard of Black folks being arrested for driving while black, but until now he’d never heard of being arrested for being in your own home while black.

Whether Professor Gates carries through with his promise to sue the Cambridge police department is a matter for additional speculation. It has been said that tragedy is close to farce, but in this case the farce has it all over the tragedy. Of course, from a PR perspective — and an interpersonal one — there’s no greater tragedy than a damaged reputation. More than anything — race relations included — reputation seems to be all the rage here.

While this is an awful moment for the two principal players — professor and cop — it is a rewarding opportunity for a communications professor like me with no skin in the game. I think of sociologist Erving Goffman’s theory of dramaturgy  — that all the world’s a stage and we are but poor players upon  it. From that perspective, this was compelling theater as well as wildly inept mismanagement of what Goffman called “dramaturgical discipline,” an individual’s ability to manage his (or her) “face,” even when the sky is falling.  The sociologist was fascinated with the many strategies we all have for navigating potentially identity-damaging situations just like the one under scrutiny today.

More often than not, we are successful at deflecting the other guy’s suspicion and even hostility — a skill set that makes civil society functional in the end. But sometimes one or both parties fail to discipline their act, so to speak, which results in the melodrama that makes for great tabloid news and photos. The famous professor in handcuffs on his porch, mouth agape as if screaming nasty things about the cop and his mama. A public spectacle!  Fabulous!

While Gates has a good shot at collecting a fat settlement from the embarrassaed Cambridge Police — already dressed down by their governor and president — he may well take the high road and cool his rhetorical jets. It’s pretty clear that by appearing of the “Today Show” and hearing powerful people publicly take his side, he’s already perceived to be the winner in the face-off.

As for Officer Crowley — whose history of vicious racism includes attempting to save the life of Boston Celtics basketball star Regggie Lewis who went down in practice with a heart attack — it’s his reputation that has been cuffed and perp walked.

From my perspective, this is not a crisis but an incident which has the potential to become a crisis if either or both sides escalate it with bad language and law suits and more taunts of ‘yo mama’.  But I’m betting that, to quote another president, both parties to the dispute will, over time, get back in touch with the better angels of their nature.

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Filed under Academia, Crisis Communication, Politics, Public Relations

Crisis Communication and Culture

I’ll be in Bogota next week teaching a three-day workshop on crisis communication and management at Externado, a private university. The invitation from Gustavo Yepes Lopez, a management professor I met last year at a PR conference in Scotland, reciprocated my invitation to him. I arranged a series of lectures for him here in the Boston/Cambridge area.
At the “radical PR” (www.radicalpr.org) conference at Stirling University, Scotland, last July, Gustavo’s presentation was about the extent of corporate social responsibility in Latin American companies. Not surprisingly, there’s not overly much, as the majority of companies are too small to be able to afford the kind of big ticket philanthropic and community relations efforts of the Addidas and BPs and IBMs and Apples of the corporate world.

I read today in the Boston Globe that local colleges including Boston College are now offering courses in philanthropy, which are reported to be attracting student interest. The reason? Perhaps the queasy state of the economy and the widely publicized stories of human, family, social misery — the foreclosures, the anxiety, the debt burden. Existential dread meets financial meltdown. The solution? Youthful idealism, which builds on the phenomenon of corporate social responsibility, a trend that began as a corporate reaction to the fear of government regulation and stakeholder discontent — particularly in the anti-establishment Sixties.

In the wake of the Union Oil spill of January 1969, in the pristine Santa Barbara, Calif., channel, high-profile, high-impact oil, chemical and other manufacturing giants came in for some serious abuse. Richard Nixon signed an executive order establishing the EPA, which took the reins of environmental stewardship from the clueless Department of the Interior. (Interior just didn’t get it.) Corporate America was as popular then as it is now, what with folks beating like a pinata Wall Street banks and The Insurance Company That Shall Not Utter Its Name. If the Sixties reduced the credibility of establishment companies, the Seventies made things even worse, particularly for the oil companies, what with the OPEC-driven gasoline price spikes and gasoline rationing lines that generated a few fist fights at gas stations, as seen on TV.

Companies fought back with money and rhetoric and publicity. They hired TV producers, magazined editors and writers like me. Atlantic Richfield, among other companies, launched “social reports” and started half-tithing their net income willy-nilly to innumerably outstretched hands in the health care, education, and even environmentalist communities. I worked on ARCO’s (today absorbed into BP) first social reports — stories of how ARCO helped raise funds to rebuild the Los Angeles library after a fire; how the company hired women biologists (women! what an idea!) to worry about flora and fauna. I was sent to a humongous surface (better known as “strip”) coal mining operation in Wyoming, where ARCO was engaged in a good deal  of replanting, and had even built a brand-new town. Little League baseball fields. Sunday picnics. Church socials. American deus ex machina.

ARCO sponsored the undersea pro-environmental televised explorations of the then-iconic Jacques Cousteau. ARCO funded the popular astronomer, Carl Sagan’s, cosmological ruminations — televised, as well. CEO Thonton Bradshaw, for whom I toiled in ghostly silence, saw fit to rescue Harper’s Magazine from the financial precipice, and fund the Aspen Institute — that idealistic, utopian think tank — and kick off Harvard University’s ARCO forum.

So was this all just corporate America’s terrified reaction (the company also fought the dreaded “excess profits tax” and made nice with President Carter as well as with his successor, Ronald Reagan)? Well, yes, to some extent. But to some other extent it can be argued that Big Think CEOs like Bradshaw and Walter Wriston, then CEO of Citibank, may have had a conversion on the road to Damascus. They may have ushered in what European critical, leftwing thinkers like to call Late Stage Capitalism, with its endorsing echoes of Marx’s predictions of capitalism’s End of Days.

What has followed in the footsteps of the ARCOs and Dayton-Hudsons and Kodaks and other late-twentieth century socially conscious companies have been hundreds of big and small coreligionists like Starbucks, which brands itself as a Good Guy, with the appealing persona of its oft-times CEO, Howard Schulz.

So it’s off to Bogota, Colombia, where my colleague, Professor Yepes Lopez, will perhaps help me avoid my inevitable cross-cultural barbarisms and gaffes. What I’ll be sharing with 100 graduate students is what I’ve experienced on crisis communication teams, and what I’ve learned from scholarly researchers into crisis from academics like William Benoit, Ian Mitroff, Tim Coombs, Bob Heath and from in-the-trenches crisis managers like Lynn Kettleson and Larry Barton.

When a couple of Domino’s Pizza employees stuff a piece of cheese up their nostrils and YouTube it — that’s the kind of crisis du jour. Of course, so are the bizarre backstories to the public infidelities of U.S. politicians Spitzer, Ensign and Sanford.

In the preface to Richard Johnson’s book on healthcare crises (Case Studies in Healthcare Image Restoration: HC Pro Publishers), I wrote that we seem to be living in an age of crisis — or perhaps we always have been and never called it that. The poet Auden called the post-WWII, post-atomic era, “the age of anxiety,” the title of his collection published in the late l940s.

The conventional wisdom on public relations these days — from tech-savvy types in the twitterverse — is that PR is dead. Surely, the old newspaper-driven PR has gone the way of the horse and buggy. But what I find more interesting about PR are two phenomena that have moved from the PR industry;s periphery toward its center: crisis communication and public diplomacy. I imagine, as I deplane in Bogota next week, that I’ll be talking about the former  and doing a bit of the latter.

I also recognize what an utter cross-cultural novice I am, what with my tourista Spanish and my Harry Truman linen trousers. But how much damage can an obscure college professor do in week?

I’ll let you know, whoever you are.

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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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