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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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Zappos: Low Brow Genius

Here’s the longitude/latitude of PR now:


Naked runner guy viral video marketing PR social media campaign.

(1) Convergence of PR/marketing and social media.
(2) Demotic (downward and out-there) cultural styling:

(a) sexual
(b) snarky
(c) adolescent
(d) slapstick (Monty Python/Bennie Hill)

Zappos succeeds in hitting the sweet spot of pop culture at this cultural turning moment.

In the postwar fedora-wearing, bullet bra era depicted in “Mad Men”,US cultural style was middle brow — the  creative fallout of Princeton-educated Eng lit types who ruled Madison Avenue.

In the Milennial Internet era observed online, US cultural style has gone Zappos: low brow emo, snarky, sexy, “Animal House.”  The web comes across as the collective expression of adolescent Id & ego mashed up with engineer geekiness.

Soundtrack: Jonathan  Coulton.

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Death and Life of Advertising III

In the first of my most recent three rants, I speculated that the free web, combined with the nonpaid freedom of public relations, may have sounded the death knell to that old hidden persuader, advertising. In the wake of social media and guerilla marketing, the asymmetric had at last overcome what the Euro pomos have been calling the hegemonic, the demonic  — the American!

Fredric Jameson, JP Lyotard, Guy DeBord, M Foucault, P Virilio — children of structuralism, poststructuralism, phenomenology and existentialism. Advertising: At the foul heart of what my onetime instructor Philip Roth liked to call “the American crap,” after a class discussion of Lolita and Genet.

But I digress, which if you’ve read Cather in the Rye you’d know is how the prep school masters permitted Holden Caulfield to be humiliated — as soon as his class participation went off topic his craven classmates were supposed to call out Digression! (the bastards!).

Holden’s dream: To catch the sweet little kids before they fell off the edge of the cliff of innocence.


For the Euro pomos and other, less articulate cadres, advertising the American crap was the horrid mission of the United States in its muscular, strutting post-World War II triumphalism. Worse, even, after the Marshall Plan to rebuild its enemies, the obnoxious Americans had not only put a lock on economic and military dominance — they had also cornered the market in international charity and forebearance.

Little holier-than-thou Fauntleroys! How the Euro pomos loathed the barbaric, unlettered, Bible-thumping rubes! It was so nauseating, at least for the most discontented of the European literati. And even Sartre’s exposure of antisemitism would be  eventually turned upside down by the Lyotards and Saids, as well as by the American, Noam Chomsky.

Today, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is “sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust,” at least according to a rightwing talkshow host who regularly rants on AM radio.


But segue!

Advertising: That evil institution was the snake in the garden of consumerism. Advertising in the post-WW II era of American muscle-flexing. The pure products of America go crazy — isn’t that a close paraphrase of WC Williams? ee cummings hated consumerism, advertising. A generation or two later, Warhol embraced it, adored it, and as St Paul had grasped the message of the Sermon on the Mount, in I Corinthians 13, Warhol’s love unpacked the seriality and eliptical nature of American consumerist ideology, with its soup cans and Marilyn Monroes and Roger Marises. There was a certain gorgeousness in all that overdoing, all that redundancy, all that contentless passage of time, as in the 8-hour film he made about sleep.

For Guy DeBord, America was — is — the “society of the spectacle,” a lustful but not slothful gluttonous demon proseletyzing through TV commercials, brochures, billboards, movies (but oh how Truffaut and his pals loved the American movies!) sitcoms, kiss-kiss and bang-bang, as Pauline Kael would so vividly explicate.

Two of my wonky colleagues in the communication world took exception to my advertising-is-dead posts. In their comments, they point out that advertising isn’t dead — it’s simply one of the tools of influential mass communication, on the same team as public relations.

Well, of course. Advertising isn’t dead. Just ask your stooped-over primary care physician whether advertising is dead. Consumer demand for prescription drugs went through the roof when the packaged-goods brand managers and advertising geniuses realized that if TV commercials could sell underarm deodorant and laxatives, then why couldn’t it sell Rx drugs to remediate new-fangled-sounded conditions like erectile dysfunction and fibromyalgia and restless leg syndrome.

Poor old family physician: She works nights, pays extortionate malpractice premiums and gets a salary not worth writing home about. She is beseiged by her patients who, following the drug companies’ call-to-action, ask her about Cialis and Lipitor.

Advertising — dead? Not for the healthcare economy, which we are told these days is one-fifth of the U.S. GDP.

Sure, it’s dead for the Mom and Pop enterprises, crushed under the heel of Wal-Mart Nation. For Ma and Pa Kettle and their little startup business, the free web is the only way to go. They have no marketing budget, for crimminy sakes. Hey –you. Girls. Get over here. Want to make some money in the marketing business? Slip into these wolf costumes and do some running and tumbling in Harvard Square. When people ask you what the hell you’re up to, show them these — our products, these organic  frozen pizzas with our web site stamped in red.

Guerilla Nation! Perusasion Nation

That’s our  cultural emotional zipcode.

Advertising moribund? Think again. We are all “Mad Men” now.

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Digital Immigrant/Intolerance

I am not a digital native. I’ve come from the world of books. Charles Dickens. William Faulkner. You know what  I mean.

There it is: the “you”.Who are you? Almost 50 years ago, I began writing in a diary. I didn’t call it that. It sounded too girlish, which was intolerable for  a l6-year-old boy then — and, I suspect, now. The 3×4 pad on which I began writing was something I called a journal.

On April 17, 1961 I wrote my first entry. I remember that date for no other reason than that it marked the beginning of a new relationship I was undertaking with myself — what communication theorists call “intrapersonal communication.” In graduate school I wrote a paper about the way in which Saul Bellow’s character Herzog, in the eponymous novel, was actually engaging in a self-to-self conversation when he wrote letters to Nietzsche, God and other correspondents who couldn’t or didn’t and weren’t expected to reply.

This is how I  live my life: engaged in wondering about such oddly framed esoterica, and this is why I have always been drawn to writers who think in this way, if not about the same things I  think about. For example, Erving Goffman’s “microsociological” observations about the marvelous strategies  we have for acting in such a way as to protect our “face,” our identity, from perceived and real threats. Another example: Roland Barthes concise and imaginative analyses of the cultural, unconscious, hidden meanings of things and people and events — Marlon Brando, butter, and so forth. Freud’s fabulously imaginative interpretations of human behavior — dreams, slips of the tongue. I love this stuff.

I have a friend I see only on special occasions such as the birthday of a mutual friend. At a recent birthday dinner, this fellow launched into a familiar rant of his about how psychoanalysis isn’t science because it isn’t testable. It’s witch doctoring, astrology — unlike cognitive therapy, which is actually “scientific.” Another rant of his is that rock and pop and country and all other forms of music except classical, opera and jazz aren’t music at all. (Reason: His ear hears that the so-called musicians arew out of tune(!).

I know. This is one very rigid guy, at least when it comes to opinions. If you looked up “opinionated” in the dictionary, you’d find this man’s name. It also so happens that when it comes to his opinions about how people do or should behave, he appears to be tolerant — I say “appears” because he claims to accept a very wide range of behavior. But that’s another post. My point  — and I actually have one — is that this fellow’s rigidity of taste and opinions comes across to me as a kind of poverty of imagination.

This is not the sort of individual you’d seek out if you wanted to have a conversation because sooner or later the conversation would  be bound to veer into an area of his opinionated  intolerance. In other words, his rigidity disables him socially because it makes him unable to hold a civil conversation. The social rules for conversation, which prevent discourse from going off the rails into the unpleasantness of unwanted argument, advocacy and debate, include the practice of conversational compromise — the building on another’s observation, opinion or idea, rather than the destruction of it or the deconstruction of it or the holding it up to ridicule. Almost no one finds that sort of behavior desirable or even tolerable.

But I digress — which is the beauty of a blog. I have no editor but myself, and unlike my friend, Mr. Rigid, I am tolerant of my digressions and opinions and feel free to change my mind halfway through an argument with myself. I wonder whether Herzog does the same — but although I haven’t read the novel in decades I suspect that Herzog doesn’t switch opinions in mid-letter because he’s just too animated, too obsessed, too focused on articulating, venting to God and Nietzsche and any other person, living or dead, whose name he can affix to his sub-self, his othered self.

But as I  began this post, I am a person of the book — not a digital native. Video streaming and attaching and disseminating links and YouTubes are not activities that come naturally to me — or even that enthuse me. I like words. I’m a wordsmith and have made my living that way, one way or another. Other than my ability to make people laugh, writing is my only more or less marketable skill. I say more or less because my income comes from teaching, not writing — although I made a living ghostwriting, which isn’t writing in its purest sense. I also write poems, which of course are hardly marketable except to earn a reputation and a sinecure such as a teaching post or a grant.

When Holden Caulfield digressed during one of his English teacher, Mr. Antonelli’s public speaking classes, his classmates were encouraged to call out, “Digression!” This was one of J.D. Salinger’s ways of making a point about the evils of coercion and conformity and cowardice. The  point has not been lost on me all these long years since I read Cather in the Rye when I was in junior high. I, too, digress. But when I have to, I can command the strike zone.

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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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Making It Up

It may not be truthiness, but when we write about ourselves we’re making it up. Put another way, we’re making more of something and less of something else.

At least, that’s what I do.

I don’t invent facts like the Million Little Pieces fraud. But when I write about myself, it’s an act of self-creation. Maybe that’s why I’ve long been a fan of Erving Goffman, the great sociologist (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, l959). For Goffman, the humblest daily gestures reveal a fundamental truth about social life: We are continually engaged in performances of who we want others to believe we are. A man drops his keys in the gutter and as he scrambles around for them on this knees, he mutters that — Damn! he’s got to find those keys!

It’s a performance. The bumbling fellow may have dropped his keys, but he wants to be sure that passersby won’t believe that he’s lost his marbles. That’s because, for Goffman, everyone’s on the stage. Everyone’s in on the act.  Unlike the rather more romantic and idealistic notions about “authenticity,” Goffman’s vision of humanity and society is about as idealistic and romantic as what we find in Freud,  Genet, Kafka, Doestoevsky and Nietzsche.

Like Darwin, Goffman sees life as a struggle for survival, which the sociologist portrays in his penetrating studies of the “mental patient,” and  individuals in so-called total institutions like prisons and hospitals.  At the most tragic and comic levels, the social world can make us feel like inmates and in-patients — our identity either already “spoiled” or at risk. Goffman shows the creative and strategic ways in which his subjects seek to salvage their spoiled identities in words, gestures and orchestrated performances for prison guards, prospective employers, and anyone who happens to be occupying the social stage with them.

So where does this leave the matter of authenticity and the “authentic self,” that noble ideal more honored in the breach than the observance? For a generation or more, we have been propagandized about authenticity. We’ve been fed that pablum to “just be yourself” when that advice is platitudinous, paradoxical and tautological, all at once.  Who else can you be? But perhaps it’s possible to attempt to play another self beside your own?

Let me get down to cases. The Boston Globe has published l4 mini essays of mine on it op-ed page. I wrote all of them a tiny memoirs in the first-person — from my perspective. But in Goffmanesque terms, each of those l4 — which have appeared over the past 23 years — is a strategic performance of myself, as follows:

l986.I am mugged in a tunnel that runs from the Arlington station on the Green Line to Berkeley Street. Four guys surround me. Punch me in the face. Knock out a tooth. Eleven stitches. Half my coat is cut away by a razor blade. The only way I can think to respond is to write about it — knowing that crimes tend to be newsworthy. It’s my first byline on the op-ed page. I don’t see myself as a helpless victim. I bring a law suit against the MBTA, with the intention of serving the public interest by having the tunnel closed. The Globe sends a photographer to snap a photo of the long, dark tunnel, and the photo runs with my piece on the op-ed page. Shortly thereafter, the tunnel is chained shut. I’m a crusader. I’m a college professor. I want to protect my students from getting their teeth knocked out.

l987. I read about a fellow named Bernard Goetz, who, like me, was mugged. Four guys accost him on a New York subway train. It wasn’t the first time. This time he’s carrying a concealed pistol, and quite unsurprisingly, he shoots one of the thugs. Very controversial. Is he a heroic angry white man or a nutcase? It was the age of Dirty Harry (“Do you feel lucky, punk? Well — do you?”) Then-President Ronald Reagan made that line an ironic expression of a newly truculent, anti-Soviet foreign policy. I see an opening to hitch my story to Goetz’s, and I write a piece for the op-ed page.

1988. A week before my wife and I are scheduled to fly to the Bahamas for a “second honeymoon,” I tear the tendons in my ankle and wind up on crutches. The trip is canceled. No one is sorrier for me than I am. But somehow this self-pity gets transformed into a kind of elegiac nostalgia. A whiff of James Agee. Memories of the helpless of a little boy coming home from summer camp — but more about the gorgeousness of the end of August, the final days of summer and how the lovely and different the sunlight looks. So Hopperesque. The Globe publishes the op-ed and Readers Digest excerpts it. I’m no longer a crusading mugging victim. I’m a writer of lyrical prose. I’ve got a touch of the poet. But this self, too, is admirable. Sensitive.

1989. The president of the college at which I’m teaching decides that to make his mark he’ll move it kit and caboodle to Lawrence, Mass. The faculty are so incensed that they force his resignation. But I see an opportunity to write about it. I write that I teach in a college that’s dreaming. I’m all for dreams. Dreamer, poet, professor — remote from mugging victim.

1990. The over-35 men’s softball team I’m playing third base for gets into the playoffs. It’s early August. Far from the leafy suburban ballfields, Saddam Hussein decides he’ll occupy Kuwait: the beginning of the Gulf War. The manager of our softball team — my son’s dentist — tells us he won’t be able to play centerfield in the playoffs because he’ll be at a military base in Chicopee. He’s in the Reserves. I see an opportunity to write about what the cruel world is doing to our little field of dreams (the movie was making the rounds around that time). I’m a suburban Dad, playing third base for a team suddenly affected most profondly by matters far from the suburbs.

1991. The English department of a college where I’m teaching goes on an early September retreat to do some curriculum planning. The setting: A monastery an hour from Boston. Perfect: I channel Thoreau and write about solitude and contemplation. I’m a contemplative fellow, an appreciator of the great tradition of American transcendentalism. There’s nothing wrong with that self. Who could disapprove?

1994.  I hear that a sex offender has taken an apartment in the general vicinity of the home occupied by my 12-year-old son and his mother. We’re separated. I’m now a weekend Dad. It’s a week before Thanksgiving and I’m driving my son over to the supermarket to pick up a turkey for our two-guy Thanksgiving dinner. On the way there, I try telling him about sex offenders — hardly the conversation you’d want to have with your son at Thanksgiving time. I see the ironic and touching possibilities in it, though, and my story appears on the Globe’s op-ed page. Not your typical Thanksgiving story. But that’s me: I don’t have what could be called a typical take on holidays or torn tendons or organizational retreats. I was a recognizably comic-pathetic character — a Weekend Dad — playing out a scene full of comic-pathetic possibility. Certainly a sympathetic character.  A loser — sure — but the kind of guy you could feel for, what with all that awkwardness. Loves his son. Can’t be all that bad.

1995.  Self-pity, again. I’m going to be spending Christmas alone. I will go jogging on Christmas Day through the empty streets of my town. But who over the age of 10 is wildly happy at Christmas? Don’t we all share some pretty sad memories? My Dad died three days after Christmastwenty years before my solitary holiday ruminations. And one of my students went to her death when a terrorist bomb exploded on Pan Am 103 in l988. I called it “December’s Light,” and I was glad that the piece could bring tears.  This was a self who had managed to see beyond the limitations of his own, rather constricted misery. This was a guy who was aware of — even personally connected to — not only public affairs but the tragic  consequences of the world. I’m not trying to be cynical. I’m just trying to make clear how a writer can do what Goffman says: Create a frame for the self — a positive, sympathetic one. Some writers prefer to do quite the opposite, such as V.S. Naipul, who permitted his biographer to know the darkest, meanest, cruelest, grossest, pettiest side of him. But Naipul inhabits the pantheon of English literature. He may have felt powerful enough, or guilty enough to dispense with the strategic creation of a sympathetic self. He’s already such a powerful, established presence that he may have had little to lose — and perhaps something to gain by what some critics regarded as the moral courage to show what a rotten bastard he was, while being such a divine, inspired author. (Which I believe he is.)

1996. More Bernard Goetz. Poor angry bastard was sued by one of his muggers, who was paralyzed by a bullet or two that Goetz pumped into him. Goetz declared bankruptcy, after a $50 million judgment against him, and moved to Boston. I saw my opportunity to return to the scene of my own mugging — this time as an expert on being a mugging victim. The Globe published the piece.

1997.   The first of three pieces came on Fathers Day. My wife had remarried. Her new husband — my son’s stepfather — had kids of his own. He was a good fellow, I was immensely relieved to learn. Successful, kind and from all evidence, good to my son. In fact, I saw a pattern: My son had many fathers on that Fathers Day — chief among them (aside from me, of course) his music teacher who recognized and nurtured his talent and predicted accurately that my talented son would get into Berklee College of Music, where the teacher himself had been a student. It was another step-back piece I wrote. It was about that splendid, kind, talented teacher and his inspirational impact on my son. It was also about my son’s other Dads for whom I was grateful — as a divorced Dad sharing his son with other fathers. That was a self one could respect and admire — drawn from what Abe Lincoln famously called “the better angels of our nature.”

One hot day in July I looked out my window and saw that half the garages and driveways were empty. I imagined they’d gone to the Cape or New Hampshire. It was a gorgeous day, and I was in the mood to enjoy it — as well as the night. I remembered reading an essay by Camus about how he adored the sun and the sea and the sky and the men and women dancing on the pier in Algiers. I took myself to a jazz club that evening. I was in a capital mood, like a character in a Forties movie. It was July itself that inspired that mood, and my op-ed was published in the Globe. This was no self-pittying, loser, elegiac, sensitive guy. I was channeling a self-sufficient private eye from a Bogie flick — the kind of guy I imagined I’d grow up to me when I was a kid listening to Miles Davis on the radio. Out half the night at a jazz club, tapping a cigarette on my dinner plate, throwing back a shot glass of rye, and eyeing the femme fatale chanteuse on the stage, orchid in her hair. I liked this guy, this self. I could live with this guy. I could live being this guy.

October l3 it was 113 in L.A — the day Liz died. She was my wife then (I know — it’s hard keeping count). We were young. She was 28. It was a brain tumor. Never knew what hit her. Long before MRI’s. Headaches, but the Cat Scan detected nothing. Then one morning she collapsed and, went into a coma that day — Wednesday — and the life support was removed on Sunday, that awful day of the broiling Santa Ana winds.  She was a published poet, an editor, a talented, lovely young woman. And here I had lived into middle age. No justice in it. In her memory, I wrote about her life and her poetry. Certainly, this was a very different self from the divorced loser guy. It was around Yom Kippur when the Globe published that piece. Liz and I had been married by an orthodox rabbi in Chicago, her home town.

2000. It was December and I read the news that General Motors had decided to stop making Oldsmobiles. I thought of the l948 Olds sedan my Dad had driven — and the lime and gray l956 Olds 98 I got to drive. My Dad was one of those self-made men whose family emigrated to America from a shtetl. Raised on the Lower East Side. Little schooling. Moved pianos. A tough, smart guy who eventually became a successful wholesale furrier. I knew I could tell the story of his life through the Oldsmobiles he drove us around in. We were an Olds family. What would he ever have thought of GM on the brink of collapse. As a moody, secretive pain-in-the-ass adolescent, I never got along very well with my father. It would be a good thing to honor his memory with a 600-word piece about his Oldsmobiles. That would be a self I preferred: A grown man who has come to recognize and celebrate a father who loved him and drove him around in a couple of Oldsmobiles.

2008.  Ten years with the sweet, smart and talented woman I have taken to calling The Twitter Queen. Six months ago she got herself a Twitter account, and now she’s got hundreds of “followers.” She has reunions with friends who find her online. I decided that I would write about how I’d thought I’d married one person, but found I had married a crowd. The story appeared in last Friday’s Globe’s op-ed page.

What came as a revelation was what happened as soon the piece appeared. Commentators weighed in. One anonymous commenter took me and the Twitter Queen to task for a long list of offense: self-absorption, lust for fame and a shallow obsession with “celebrity”.

That comment got me thinking in a whole new way about celebrity. Here was this anonymous, genderless, bodiless individual out there who not only claimed to know me and my wife, but was able to draw conclusions about the kinds of people we must be — and what we represented (nothing very inspiring!). Shallow, superficial pair of goofballs.

Suddenly, I could see Brangelina and Tom and Giselle with at least a little more sympathy. What, after all, did I know of these pixels, these magazine metaphors? Nothing more than what has come to be called “mediated reality.” Not more than my faceless critic knows me. Of course I would rather my anonymous commenters express admiration. But when they do, who exactly are they admiring? My “real” self?  Which one? The latest avatar?

Lord help those actual celebrities whose fans adore them, stalk them, leave hateful voice messages and posts.

And after all, how is it I know myself? And what is the nature of the self — myself —  if not that chronological collection of selves I have published for 20-plus years?

Yes, I know. It gets silly, doesn’t it? A paraphased line from a Beckett play: Ah, the old questions! From the existential to the silly to the Absurb: The questions devolve, or they rise — depending on who you think you are.

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What’s Behind Public Diplomacy’s Uncritical Dismissal of Public Relations?

It’s hard to think of a more despised social institution than public relations.

So it’s not at all surprising to see the explicit rejection of public relations by some prominent public diplomats. Joseph Duffey, the director of the USIA (United States Information Agency) under Bill Clinton, dismissed the idea that public diplomacy had anything to do with with public relations:

Let me just say a word about public diplomacy. It is not public relations. It is not flakking for a Government agency or even flakking for America. It Is trying to relate beyond government-to-government relationships the private Institutions, the individuals, the long-term contact, the accurate understanding, the full range of perceptions of America to the rest of the world. (Quoted in N. Snow, Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy. London & NY: Routledge, 2009.

Mr. Duffey is not the first or most virulent critic of public relations. Noam Chomsky, one of the most widely read critics of public relations and U.S. foreign policy, has written reams about “media control” and “the engineering of consent,” a term coined by Edward Bernays, a pioneer of modern public relations. In l961, Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress during the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, wrote a withering deconstruction of public relations as the dark art of staging “pseudo events”. But perhaps the most effective critics of PR do so unwittingly. They’re the public relations scholars and professors who continue to report that public relations began with P.T. Barnum, the charlatan and circus showman whose summed up his philosophy with the oft-quoted line that there’s a sucker born every minute.

At the risk of going overboard with an apologia for public relations, I should point out that its theorists, scholars and practitioners have included Aristotle, St. Paul and the popes who created the Congregation de Propaganda fide (Organization to propagate the faith) during the Catholic Reformation, when the new-new thing was insurgent Protestantism. In truth, it is impossible to sever public relations from Aristotelian rhetoric, Pauline Christianity, the papal patronage of Michelangelo and Bernini, the ecstacy of St Teresa, the fugues of Bach, and the architecture of the Sistine Chapel. Whatever other associations public relations has, it is most certainly in league with the beautiful and the visceral.

Of course, it is also impossible to sever public relations from the propaganda machines of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, not to mention the propaganda techniques of their enemies. In this sense, then, public relations must be regarded as paradoxical as well as amoral. Paradoxical because it is so closely allied not only with what we may approve of — argument, debate and persuasion, all of which has been shown to flourish in in democracies but perish under tyranny. Public relations is amoral because it can and has been used for good and evil, which motivated Hiter’s Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, to make an unsuccessful attempt to hire Bernays, a founder of modern public relations, to help engineer consent for Nazism among the German masses of the l920s. Despite Bernays changing the name of his agency from a propaganda bureau to a public relations counsel at the end of the l920s, he was never able to rebrand PR as some sort of pro-democratic, innovative engineering. And during the decades that followed, PR’s propaganda problem grew immeasurably worse with the blood-soaked propaganda of twentieth century totalitarian regimes. But what of public diplomacy?

Even a cursory examination of the history of public diplomacy reveals that it, too, has a propaganda problem, although some public diplomats prefer to frame it as a public relations problem. Are they then not sisters under the skin, PR and public diplomacy? They do appear to share a common problem: They’re misunderstood. But why should this be?

History – even fairly recent history –  furnishes a clue. For one thing, both public relations and public diplomacy claim to have “evolved,” which means both PR and public diplomacy claims to have shed their dark side and improved upon themselves. In the case of public relations, its so-called “evolution” is reported in PR textbooks to have “evolved” not only beyond fakery, but even persuasion. (I prefer to call the apparent changes in public relations “adjustments,” a more common sensical, less pretentiously pseudo-scientific term.)

For the previous generation, the dominant theory of public relations, propounded by its leading scholars, is that “excellent” public relations is “ethical” public relations. Numerous quantitative studies have been published in peer-reviewed journals, which purport to demonstrate the statistical reliability of this dubious equation. A score of PR textbooks advances this dubious correlation of excellence and ethics, despite its seriously flawed historiography and its soothing reassurance that, like some single-celled creature, public relations has managed to “evolve” from something bad to something good —  from an unethical morass to a sophisticated, pro-social institution. The term for PR’s evolved, enlightened ethical condition is “symmetrical,” an attempt to apply an anciently rooted theory of ethics mentioned by Epicurus and Cicero. The uncritical belief of academic PR is that it has “evolved” from a-symmetrical to symmetrical. It isn’t a scientifically testable proposition,but rather a political belief akin to liberal progressivism, the notion common in nineteenth century America that mankind and society were moving ever forward, like the stunning innovations of the industrial revolution.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment of PR’s history, me included. (See Jacquie L’etang, Public Relations. Los Angeles, London: 2008, Sage, p. 257). For one thing, the theory of symmetry is rooted in a strangely unhistorical concept of history – one which argues that public relations sprang into existence in mid-nineteenth century America. It just isn’t so. Even PR pioneer Ed Bernays traced PR’s roots back to antiquity. And the defense of that argument – that what is meant by “public relations” is only modern public relations – is simply unpersuasive on many levels. What is “modern” and why should modernity begin in the American Midwest with a circus showman named Barnum? However, if you felt ambivalent about public relations and were attempting to construct  a straw man in order to knock him down in the name of “symmetry”, then you could do worse than tap that old rogue, P.T. Barnum.

Among the legions who dismiss the symmetry theory of public relations are pragmatic, results-driven practitioners of public relations whose job it is to launch campaigns that influence, persuade and motivate.

Little wonder, then, that public relations has been characterized by critically minded historians such as Ray Hiebert, the biographer of Ivy Lee, a twentieth century “father” of public relations,  as a divided institution.

Lately, however, something has happened to shake up the stale PR argument over ethics vs. manipulation: the explosion of social media. The digital age has utterly altered the shape of the argument. What matters most in the era of Facebook and Twitter is now not so much persuasion, excellence or ethics. What counts now is what is commonly called “the conversation” that digitization permits to occur  between anyone and everyone. In the l920s, the model of influence ran downhill from the elite cognoscenti to the ignorant masses. Today, it appears that this model has been turned on its head: In the age of user-generated content, influence, unlike water, can run uphill. Public Relations has entered the age of Me. Traditional tactics of influence — broadcasting, pitching and selling — are increasingly scorned as hopelessly Old School by the new gurus of public relations such as Brian Solis, author of a popular blog called PR 2.0

The literati are dead! Long live the technorati!

At least, that is the newly emerged paradigm of public relations in the age of digital influence. IBM has launched a TV campaign whose theme is Stop talking!

Listening and looking have achieved hegemony with iPod, Google, Photoshop and YouTube. We have entered a new Visual Age, an era which tallies up “eyeballs” and  seduces us with video streams.  And while in some quarters, the word has gone out that PR is dead, I would have to disagree. PR isn’t dead — it’s in love. In love with unique views and links, and it can’t wait to unwrap Web 3.0.

PR has done what it has always done, since long before P.T. Barnum and America and the Catholic propagandio and the persuasive letters of St Paul to the first century Ephesians.  PR has has adjusted and emerged as PR 2.0.  So much for public relations as a simple matter of flakking and spinmeisters. Those days are waning, if not ended. The U.S. has elected its first digitally sophisticated president, addicted to his Blackberry and proud of his l3 million Facebook friends.

But what of public diplomacy? Has it undergone its own adjustment? Apparently so.

Not only has public diplomacy changed, it has adjusted in ways that bear a striking similarity to the adjustments of public relations. For one thing, public diplomacy and public relations are, in the words of the apostle of “soft power,” Joseph Nye, “linked to power”. Soft power – among the most quoted phrases in contemporary diplomacy – is “based on intangible or indirect influences such as culture, values, and ideology,” according to Nye. (http:; quoted in Snow (2009), p. 3). Those attributes could describe much of the soft power of public relations. For another thing, public diplomacy – like public relations – is beset by a fundamental disagreement about how to frame its definition, strategies and purpose. One side holds that the whole point of public diplomacy has always been, and should always be, to sell the story of the U.S. to foreign allies and adversaries. This was the philosophy of Charlotte Beers, undersecretary of public diplomacy and public affairs in the G.W. Bush administration during the period immediately follow 9-11. An apostle of Old School advertising and marketing, Beers’ claim to fame included success as the brand manager of Uncle Ben’s Rice. She had much less success selling America to the Muslim world.

Following Beers’ brief tenure in public diplomacy came Karen Hughes, a fierce partisan of then-President G.W. Bush. Hughes’ strategy was widely was reported as “listening,” an apparently softer sell than the Beers approach, but nevertheless, a sell. Hughes launched a series of “listening tours” throughout the Middle East, where the reputation of the United States had plunged to perilously low levels after the Bush administration’s engagement in preemptive war, prisoner torture and adamant bellicosity. For Nancy Snow, once a professional public diplomat and now a scholar of public diplomacy, the U.S. must shift public diplomacy from “telling America’s story to the world” to “sharing values, hopes, dreams, and comment respect.” (Snow, p. 5).

And yet, “shared values” was the term used to describe the strategy of brand-conscious Charlotte Beers. It would appear that no matter whether the approach was framed as “listening” or “sharing values,” it was generally perceived as propaganda. It is worth noting that one of the oldest adages in public relations is that perception is reality – a supremely asymmetrical concept.

Today, there’s a sharp division of opinion in the public diplomacy community, according to Snow. She identifies two schools, reminiscent of William James’ taxonomy of people as either “tender minded” or “tough minded”. In public diplomacy, tender minded public diplomacy focuses on “people 2 people” and “government 2 people”. The tough minded strategy emphasizes “insight and influence, anywhere, anytime” (Snow, p. 9).

Just as the public relations world has been divided by the tough and tender minds of persuasion and symmetrical fairness, so the public diplomacy universe is riven by a similar clash of sensibilities. Yet few public diplomats on either side of the divide would openly embrace public relations. “Public diplomacy is not PR,” wrote Price Floyd, a public diplomacy specialist with the U.S. State Department. (Quoted by Snow, Los Angeles Times, op ed, Nov. l7, 2007).

But is that really so? Is public diplomacy all that different from public relations? After all, strategically speaking, both are historically and philosophically traceable to rhetorical foundations. Both are concerned with power.

Snow lands on the slippery slope of the PR symmetry theorists when she argues that “poor public diplomacy sells more than tells”.  Her distinction begs the question of public diplomacy, as it  frames public diplomacy as PR symmetry theorists have framed: as progressive and evolutionary. It is difficult not to see such a conclusion as self-serving.

From the perspective of a critical-thinking intellectual historian, public relations and public diplomacy appear to have a lot more in common than they have differences. Furthermore, while their similarities are substantial, their differences are more stylistic, if not trivial. In the endm, what makes for effective public relations is, after all, what makes for effective public diplomacy: a finely tuned ear to public opinion and the communication skills to frame issues so clearly, cogently and sensitively that it results in a significant shift in public opinion.; Member, Editorial Board, Public Relations Review (Elsevier Publishers)


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