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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Archive for February, 2008

Books and Beer, Soft-Soap and a Wooden Leg, Content and Clients, and ‘Cluetrain’+10

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 12, 2008

During the years that I lived in the Netherlands, a few hours free from work in Amsterdam meant an opportunity for lunch at Solly Meier’s sandwich shop on the Nieuwemarkt — split-pea soup and pekelvlees (homemade corned beef) on a roll — followed by a canal-side stroll across town to browse in the bookstores clustered near the Spui and Nieuwezijdsvoorburgwaal, inner-city streets that were once the center of the Holland’s newspaper publishing industry. Afterwards, I’d retreat to the IJsbreker Cafe, with its magnificent view of the Amstel river, to skim through my purchases over a glass of beer.

Browsing

My method for bookstore browsing involved turning off all preconceptions of what I might want to read or felt I should read and opening myself to the associative logic and randomly arranged contents of shelves and bins. The resulting finds ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, some introduced me to authors and insights I would not have discovered otherwise and a few changed the course of my life.

At the sublime end of the spectrum was a paperback copy of Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities,” an historical study of the artificiality of present-day national identities and the roles of printing, publishing, and the standardization of languages in their creation. Anderson’s book helped to begin to understand the origins and pathology of the hysterical rage towards the remaining signs of Turkish and Muslim life in the Balkans that I had encountered during my involvement in documenting the remaining infrastructure of Ottoman and Islamic society in the region. “Imagined Communities” — together with other works that followed in its wake, most notably Patrick Geary’s excellent “The Myth of Nations: the Medieval Origins of Europe” — are the underpinnings of my present research and writing on the dynamics of national identities and their reflection in the ways minorities are accepted or marginalized and their architectural monuments remembered or wiped away.

At the ridiculous end was a remaindered hardback copy of “The Aggravations of Minnie Ashe” by Cyril Kersh, a British journalist’s stylized humorous reminiscences of his childhood in the East End of London during the 1930s. The book opens with a description of the run-down East End streets and and dusty lots that served as his playgrounds: “… for me a splendid place for games and make-believes, for my mother yet further proof (not that any was needed) that life was a vast and cunning plot aimed at the humiliation and ultimate destruction of herself and her family.” It proceeds to relate Kersh’s widowed mother’s desperate struggles to raise her children and realize her lifelong dream of one day returning to the place where she had spent her honeymoon, the working-class beach resort of Westcliff-on-Sea.

Soft Soap and a Wooden Leg, Content and Clients

Spanning both the sublime and the ridiculous was a single-volume hardback reprint of a 1923 Belgian novel “Lijmen” (“Soft-Soap”) and its 1938 sequel “Het Been” (“The Wooden Leg”) both by Flemish-language writer Willem Elsschot. I had first read “Lijmen” and “Het Been” in English-language translation over thirty years ago. Had I read a better translation or been a more careful reader at the time, the books might have spared me the agony of decades of work in the communications field or at least sharpened my sense of humor while doing so. Last month, I reread “Lijmen” and “Het Been” in the original Dutch/Flemish and realized to my shock how delightfully and accurately they captured the absurdity of much of the content of my work life and portrayed the pomposity and dubious worth of business communications and the cynicism of client-supplier “relations.” The two books remain as much to the point in the age of the internet as they were in the age of print.

The plot of “Lijmen” is simple enough. Indeed, many who have worked in the murky worlds where advertising and journalism mix will recognize it immediately. Laarmans, a fiery young activist in the struggle for Flemish independence, disillusioned and depressed at the realization that both he and the movement are headed nowhere, goes out for a night of serious drinking. In a bar, he meets Boorman, a portly, elegantly dressed man, obviously wealthy, who makes him a tempting offer. If Laarmans will shave his beard, trade his bohemian clothes for a conservative suit and agree to go by the patrician-sounding Portuguese Marrano name of Teixera de Mattos, Boorman will make him his secretary and groom him as his successor at his two prestigious-sounding enterprises: The International Illustrated Journal of Finance, Trade, Industry, Art, and Science and The Museum of Domestic and Foreign Production and Trade.

The Journal, Boorman boasts, has print runs in the millions despite its paid circulation of zero and a full-time staff of nobody. In fact, the publication is an archetypal promotional magazine. Customers can place glowing written and visual portraits of their companies and products in the journal merely by committing themselves to purchasing tens or hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies of off-prints which they pay for in cash or in kind. Boorman’s technique for closing deals is lijmen, literally “to glue” but figurative “soft-soap,” the knack of playing on potential victims’ dreams or vanities or, if their enterprises are fraudulent or products substandard, their guilt or desire to stay clear of the law.

Boorman’s glowing superlative-filled articles are written to order for each client by cutting-and-pasting sentences and paragraphs from a half-dozen articles he plagiarized and filed away years before, one describing a shipyard, the second a cement factory, the third a piano maker’s atelier, and so on. Editing consists of double-checking that all instances of the words “piano” or “cement” or “shipyard” are excised from articles treating, say, a clothing factory or a printing plant. The articles are lavishly illustrated with photographs taken with the glass-plate view-camera of Boorman’s budget-rate freelance photographer, Piepers. Boorman’s museum, visitable by appointment only, is little more than a warehouse of goods he has received as payment-in-kind from hard-pressed customers who no longer have the cash to pay their contractual obligations. Exhibitions at the museum range from canned fruit to mass-produced busts of the King of Belgium. The museum’s most frequent visitor is Mme. Boorman who occasionally restocks her kitchen from the museum’s shelves.

Boorman’s favorite clients are those who, in his flamboyant speech, “… behoort tot een zeldzaam geslacht, dat slechts te lijmen is met eenvoud en oprechtheid,” i.e. “… who belong to that rare species that can be ‘taken-to-the-cleaners’ simply and justly.” But not all clients merit a fleecing. Boorman’s sale of 100,000 off-prints to the gullible Mme. Lauwereyssen of the Lauwereyssen Artistic Iron Foundry, down-at-the-heels manufacturers of wrought-iron dumbwaiters, leads to a crisis of conscience that is resolved in the sequel novel “Het Been.”

Early in the course of “Lijmen”, Boorman lectures Laarmans on the nature of clients and the ethics and tactics of dealing with them. His observations cut to a sad truth that underlies most commercial relationships and the ever-enduring propensity to manipulate and hedge rather than add value or be willing to pay for it. Boorman’s soliloquy ends with these words (my translation):

“Above all, be courageous, even if things are going against you for weeks at a time. Never trust in God, de Mattos. And, be polite to your clients. They are your enemies, never forget this. They’ll give you only what you wrench from them and will hold back all that you do not fight for with your life.”

Some of us sincerely wish there were other ways … and stubbornly live our lives behaving as if there were.

Apropos: ‘Cluetrain’+10

Apropos of the subject matter of “Lijmen” and “Het Been,” tomorrow I will be joining my friend and colleague Doc Searls for a conference on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the conception of the business best-seller “Cluetrain Manifesto,” a prognosis of the changes Doc and his co-authors expected the internet to effect. It was in “Cluetrain” that Doc coined the chestnut “Markets are Conversations” and called for a Copernican revolution in which individuals would cease to be mere “consumers” controlled by corporate marketing and would realize their power to influence and control markets themselves instead. Whether Doc still thinks markets were, have become, or ever will be conversations, and whether the present substance of such conversations is worthy or deceptive, are subjects I look forward to hearing him address. Has the internet effected a change in the nature of our personal and commercial interactions — or has it just brought us more of the same old “soft-soap” but hyperlinked and faster? Whatever the answer… happy “10th” and continued success to the “Cluetrain” authors!

 

Posted in Cities, Client Relations, Content, History, Internet, Language, Literature, Media, National Identity, Work | 1 Comment »

Dizzy Gillespie, Ignacz Paderewski, Sonny Rollins, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Vito Marcantonio, and the Benjamin Franklin High School Riots of 1946

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 6, 2008

Further to “Vote for Jordan for President!”

Dizzy for President

During the 1964 US presidential election, I spent a few days handing out leaflets urging voters to bypass Democratic and Republican candidates Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater and write in the name of be-bop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie as their choice for president instead. Promoting “Dizzy for President” was a late-beat-era fringe protest against the the dryness of mainstream politics but, as I look back, Dizzy’s beret-in-the-ring might well have augmented the political field. A brilliant innovator, a disciplined and inspiring orchestra leader, and an African -American whose adopted Baha’i faith strengthened his inherent humanism, Dizzy had much to offer.

Should musicians run for president? Legendary classical pianist Ignacz Paderewski, the only musician I am aware of ever having been a head-of-state, served only a single year, 1919, as the premier of newly-independent Poland before he was pressured to resign — but Paderewski was a soloist and not a seasoned band leader like Dizzy.

For me, a musician in the White House would be no less unthinkable than an aging B-movie actor as president or a one-tine professional body-builder as governor of California. In contemporary Russia, even former chess grandmasters entertain political careers. Musicianship, like other endeavors, can generate requisite empathy and responsibility. My friend Ben Salzano — himself one of the generation of young Italian-American jazz musicians that flourished in the 1950s in the Rochester, New York — relates the following anecdote about how jazz saxophone great Sonny Rollins discovered the social responsibility of musicianship while a high school student in New York in 1946.

East Harlem 1946

1946 saw the opening of an immense new high school building in working-class Italian East Harlem just north of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The school, Benjamin Franklin High School, like much of the infrastructure and services of East Harlem, was a product of the perspicacity and idealism of the neighborhood’s long-time congressman, Vito Marcantonio. Marcantonio’s power-base was rooted in East Harlem’s insular Italian-American community and also in the neighborhood’s growing Puerto Rican and African American populations. A socialist, an egalitarian, and a political realist, Marcantonio ensured that Benjamin Franklin High would admit both local white students and black and Hispanic students from throughout Harlem, in the process accelerating racial integration of schools city-wide. Residents of Italian East Harlem, however, thought otherwise. When the first black students (Sonny Rollins among them) showed up at Benjamin Franklin for the start of the school year they were greeted with catcalls and a rain of bricks, bottles, and garbage thrown from the roofs of neighborhood tenements. Fracases erupted between Italian and black teenagers and the atmosphere remained tense for weeks. To calm the situation, Marcantonio and the principal of Benjamin Franklin High invited Frank Sinatra to perform at the school.

Sinatra and Nat King Cole

In 1946, Frank Sinatra was not yet the cynical rat-packer and Nixon hanger-on of later decades. He still had the crystal-clear voice and dark good looks of a young working-class urban crooner. He also had ideals and didn’t hesitate to express them. He had just recorded and performed in a film short of him singing “The House I live In,” New York City leftist school teacher Abel Meeropool’s ode to an egalitarian vision of post-war America, a country-wide hit that came to be an unofficial second US national anthem in the years between the defeat of fascism in Europe and the chill of the McCarthy era back home. From the stage of the auditorium at Benjamin Franklin High, Sinatra told the students, white and black, to knock off the violence and learn to live together, advising, as Sonny recalled it: “… you don’t have to love everybody but you don’t have to kill them either.” A few days later, according to Rollins, Nat King Cole showed up at the school to give a concert of his own and make the same appeal for peace. The violence soon ended and integration of Benjamin Franklin High School was underway. This, Rollins claims, taught him what musicians can and should accomplish.

Coda

Recently, Ben Salzano told me that he had recounted Sonny Rollins’s tale to a fellow musician, a native of Italian East Harlem who attended Benjamin Franklin High School at the same time as Sonny and who remembered the 1946 disturbances clearly. Was Sonny Rollin’s narrative accurate? Salzano asked. His colleague answered in an accent and tone once characteristic of the neighborhood: “Sonny? Nah! Sonny’s full-a-shit; Sinatra and Nat played Benjamin Franklin on the same day.”

More…

Additional entries on Vito Marcantonio and on the social, economic, and ideological roots of the ethos and infrastructure of New York will follow in subsequent postings.

For more on the life and music of Sonny Rollins including, I am told, a tighter retelling of his recollections of Benjamin Franklin High School anno 1946, see Eric Nisenson’s “Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation”, St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

For a timely posting by my friend and colleague Doc Searls, a long-time independent-voter, on his decision to support Barack Obama in the present primary elections click here.

Posted in Books, Cities, History, Infrastructure, Music, Politics | 6 Comments »

An Obama Endorsement and … “Vote for Jordan for President!”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 2, 2008

(Warning: Partisanship Ahead!)

For the last six weeks or so, the pressure of finalizing new commercial projects had kept me from posting to this site. Now that the crunch is past, I’ll try to get back to posting more regularly. For the moment I’ll begin with the US presidential primaries….

As an unabashed leftist, I’ve followed the Republican primaries with detachment and schadenfreude, breathing a sigh of relief that the authoritarian and divisive former mayor of New York, the self-styled hero of “9/11”, has logged a poor showing and left the race and that the proposed candidacy of Mike Huckabee has hinted at the collapse of the axiomatic live-poor-vote-rich behavior of America’s Evangelical Christians.

Obama

As to the Democratic primaries, I’m for … Obama! The logic is simple. Two fault lines of inequality continue to divide and poison America: Poverty and income disparity on the one hand, and race and the unattended legacy of the three centuries of slavery on the other. The candidacy of John Edwards attempted to address economic inequality while the candidacy of Barack Obama, at least symbolically, addresses the issue of race. Now that Edwards has stepped aside, for me the choice is clear.

As to the third democratic candidate: Hillary Clinton is half of a duo that helped push the Democratic Party to the right, more distant than ever from its New Deal-era commitments to egalitarianism, security, and opportunity. Hillary attacks Obama for his lack of experience, awkwardly rhyming that Obama offers “inspiration and not perspiration.” What hypocrisy! Hillary’s current campaign hatchet-man and prospective “first-laddie,” ex-president Bill Clinton was no less inexperienced and displayed no less of a reliance on “inspiration” and charisma when he stood for his first campaign. Under the veil of gender politics, Hillary is a mainstream politician, and not just in her initial support for the misadventure in Iraq. Throughout her first-lady-ship as throughout her career, she has dedicated a good portion of her “perspiration” to the good of corporate interests. Both her “inspiration” and her “perspiration” flagged miserably in her loudly-publicized but ineffectual short-lived campaign to provide Americans with health insurance coverage worthy of citizens of an economically developed nation.

This said, I truly hope that Obama indeed proves to have the integrity and wherewithal to confront in words, policy, and deeds the evils of the economic and racial divides that handicap America and compromise its quality of life, potential, and image in the eyes of the rest of the world.

“Vote for Jordan for President!”

To US citizens who work or reside abroad, the American electoral process appears increasingly and appallingly sophomoric and ineffectual at shaping the informed electorate on which a well-functioning democracy rests. Candidates’ positions are pushed in 30-second-length self-serving television advertisements and in so-called “debates” that are really little more than TV-talk-show-like trades of one-line platitudes and limp barbs. Candidates in both parties — Obama included, unfortunately — tout themselves as agents of “change” without clarifying what they want us to change to or how. Most US journalistic coverage focuses more on the “horse-race” spectacle of who’s ahead rather than on analysis of candidate’s programs, approaches, and qualifications. Worse, “horse-race” coverage has also enabled the press to arbitrarily isolate and derail candidates that it feels will not sell papers or boost broadcast ratings.

A depressing scenario? I have my own panacea for election-induced blues. To keep my humor and my objectivity tip-top during US primary and election seasons, I blow the dust off of my scratched copy of Louis Jordan’s ever-timely 1952 hit “Vote for Jordan for President!”

Louis Jordan was a band leader, saxophone virtuoso, rich-voiced crooner, lyricist, and, for a short time, cinema cowboy. He was also the father of rock and roll and a great-grandfather of hip-hop as well. From the 1930s to 1950s Jordan recorded a steady stream of hit songs that kept black feet and white feet tapping and fans of all races memorizing complexly rhyming humorous lines from his “Choo-Choo-Cha-Boogie”, “Caldonia”, “Peckin’ and Pokin'”, Beware”, “Coleslaw” and other hits. At one time in the late-1940s, several of Jordan’s tunes simultaneously competed against one another for the top place on the charts.

In “Vote for Jordan for President!” Louis Jordan satirized the vapidity of campaign rhetoric. After announcing that he is ready to move “… from the phonograph record to the ‘Congressional Record'”, Jordan promises to help listeners “… get straight on all the candidates” and “… make the proper selection in the coming election.” His generous characterization of competing candidates anno-1952: “… if you want a man with an offer, vote for Kefauver … if you want the man of the hour, vote for Eisenhower … if you want no graft, vote for Taft … if you want a hipster who takes no sassin’, vote for Stassin … if you want to hustle with Russel, go ahead … but don’t sob, ’cause Truman don’t want the job.” The alternative? “For an administration that’ll move you, groove you, and keep you fit” and “… to walk on the sunny side of the street with the candidate with the beat … vote for Jordan for President!” Jordan’s electoral promises: “Every American will get his portion — after I get mine” and “… we’ll all serve — time!”

Underlying Jordan’s light-tongued satire was a crueler humor. In 1952, only a half-century ago — even with the emergence of Negro local and congressional office holders in a number of northern cities and states, not least my native New York — it was laughably absurd to even think of a black man as candidate for the highest national office in the US. An Obama candidacy and presidency will render this one-time shameful reality as dead and buried as Louis Jordan’s lyrics, humor, and music are alive and timely. It may also prove to Americans and the world that this country is the inclusive democracy it purports to be.

Posted in Change, Commentary, Media, Music, Politics | 2 Comments »