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146 Martyrs, Pharaoh, Respecting Labor, and Two-Thirds of a Century of New York City Social Democracy

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 28, 2010

This past Thursday marked the 99th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a now near-forgotten incident that galvanized labor, sparked American trade unionism, and animated the social-democratic, collectivist ethos that characterized New York City and was the backbone of its greatness from the early-twentieth century through to Republican Washington’s fiscal war against New York in the 1970’s and the ascendancy of the financial sector  in  the 1980’s.


On Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire raged through the overcrowded premises of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a sweatshop producing women’s blouses located on the upper floors of the then newly-built Asch Building, just off fashionable Washington Square in lower Manhattan.  Workers trapped in the blaze were unable to flee.  Exit doors had been sealed by the company’s owners to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks.  Ladders on the trucks of the City’s fire department proved too short to reach the factory’s windows.  Passersby stared with horror as workers jumped to escape the flames or were pushed to their deaths by fellow-workers desperately pressing forward in search of air. All told, 146 people perished, almost all of them young immigrant women, the majority Eastern European Jews and most of the rest Italian Catholics.  The outcry, demonstrations, and strikes that followed led to labor reforms, unionization, and the remaking of New York into a place of (comparative) respite and opportunity for working people.  By mid-century, New York was America’s only social democratic city, boasting an infrastructure that included free libraries, museums, water supply, hospital care, and universities, ample green space, adequate welfare benefits, affordable public transport, and a massive supply of publicly subsidized housing (up to the 1950s, New York City accounted for more than 80% of the US’s total public and union-sponsored housing stock).

“No Better Than Pharaoh”

Today, the Asch Building houses part of the science faculty of New York University.  Few of NYU’s 40,000 mostly well-heeled students are likely to have ever heard of the Triangle Fire and fewer still are likely to care.  Sadly, most of the descendants of the worlds from which the victims of the fire came are no better.  The McCarthy era, upward mobility, suburbanization, renewed religious obscurantism, and the Republican years led many American Jews to forget their origins and the martyrdom of those who paved their ways to more comfortable lives. Parallel experiences seduced many Italian-Americans into misanthropic and authoritarian political conservatism.

This year, the anniversary of the Triangle Fire occurred only days prior to the start of Jewish festival of Pesakh (Passover), a springtime holiday of renewal and of recollection of escape from “slavery unto Pharaoh in Egypt.”  Passover and the Triangle Fire coincide in meaning as well as in dates.  One of the watchwords of Passover — “once we were slaves but now we are freemen” —  underscores an obligation to identify with all those who are enslaved and oppressed.  The Triangle Fire, and the opportunities its aftermath brought to all of us who descend from the immigrant workers of a century past, obligates us to respect everyone who toils and never hold ourselves above those who work with us, for us, or on our behalf.  In the words of a recent web-posting  by the young Rabbi of the Stanton Street Shul, one of the few synagogues remaining of the more than seven hundred that once dotted the former Jewish neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side: ” … we should be ever vigilant to remember the human sacrifices of every worker. For once we take other people’s labor for granted, we in turn become no better than Pharaoh.”

Links and Haymarket

For more on the Triangle Fire — including archival photographs and documents — click herehere, and here.  For a link to a Facebook group dedicated to commemorating the Fire and its victims, click here. For those of you who see social conscience and egalitarianism is an inconvenience spread by (secular) Jews alone, click here and here to rediscover Chicago’s Haymarket Affair and the activitism and harsh repression of German-American and Czech- and Slovak-American anarchists, craftsmen, and intellectuals less than a generation prior to the Triangle Fire.  In the age of Sarah Palin and “Tea Party” rabble, conservatives in America’s heartland are pathetically ignorant of the radicalism and ideals of their forebears.

Posted in Change, Cities, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Jewish History, New York, Politics, Work | 3 Comments »

Pulchritude, Passion, and Some Marketing Tips for Crisis-time Entrepreneurship

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 31, 2009

My friend Abu Cihan (out of respect for his cultivated anonymity I am using his honorific rather than his real name) is a great historian of Ottoman and Turkish identity and an almost equally great admirer of ladies both big and bigger.  He also is treasure trove of American pop culture trivia.  Still,  Abu Cihan was surprised recently when I told him that the great Jewish-American singer and vaudevillian Sophie Tucker was not only a very big woman but a very passionate one as well, with a string of husbands and a very liberated lifestyle long before the late-20th century idea of  “liberated” was ever articulated (Note: Tucker was also a union activist and a generous giver to charities).

Like all moderately emotional one-time Lower East Siders, I still unashamedly weep at Tucker’s over-the-top Yiddish-language tribute to the ur-Lower-East-Side stereotype of  “Mayn Yiddische Mammeh” but I love even more the tough and resilient acceptance of the fleeting nature of sexual and emotional attachment that radiates from her theme song “Some of These Days” (a powerful tonic, by the way,  for any readers emerging from broken relationships).  For the story of “Some of These Days” in Sophie’s own words click here.  For a terse time-line of the life of its unsung, and most likely under-compensated, composer, African-American songwriter Shelton Brooks, click here. Better yet, to listen to a 1920s recording of  Tucker performing  “Some of These Days” (with the Ted Lewis Orchestra) click here.

Thinking in an East Side way often sets me to thinking of Joe and Paul.  Joe and Paul, in fact, were really just Paul, Paul Kofsky.  The short version of the story (for a longer one click here) is this: Early in the twentieth century Paul Kofsky opened a clothing store in Brooklyn.  Times were tough and most one-person operations were doomed to failure.  So, to add substance and repute to his ailing venture, Paul invented an imaginary senior partner, Joe, changed the name over the door to Joe and Paul, and business soon boomed.

During the Great Depression, Kofsky turned to advertising.  He paid legendary Yiddish music hall composer Sholem Secunda (who wrote the original “Bei Mir Bist Shayn” only to make the mistake of selling it to a promoter for $25.00) to compose a radio advertisement jingle for Joe and Paul.  Kofsky, who had always dreamed of  a life on the stage, performed the jingle live himself, dashing from one Yiddish- and English-language New York radio station to another to sing it.  The tune soon became a hit and remained ubiquitous into the 1950s, when Cuban-born band leader Pupi Campo even recorded a cross-over Latin version of it, more likely than not with a young Tito Puente in the background.

To listen to Kofsky singing his original ode to Joe and Paul click here and click here for Pupi Campo’s cover.  For those who do not understand the vanished interim wandelsprache of NYC Yiddish, my own bland translation (minus Kofsky’s Yiddish-language scat-like embellishments) is: “Joe and Paul, a store, a pleasure; there you can cheaply buy a suit, a coat, a caftan, all perfect, so be sure to buy only at Joe and Paul.”

Why do I tell these stories?  Simple, because in the midst of the present “crisis” it is important for all of us to look for the imaginary senior partner within, to be confident enough to sing our own praises, and never to bemoan what or who we have lost.  And now … will someone please point me to the nearest radio station!

Posted in Broadcasting, Change, Eclectic, Identity, Music, Popular Culture | 1 Comment »

Obama Victory: “Get Thee Out,” Mayakovsky and the Dust on My Blue Passport, and In Praise of a Skinny President

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 9, 2008

I’ve waited before posting a post-Obama-victory entry.  Wiser people and better writers have already have had much to say.  Just a few peripheral observations, thus …

“Get Thee Out”

President-elect Obama used church cadences in his acceptance speech (i.e. the responsive chanting of the phrase “yes, we can!”), so forgive me if I step out of character and get biblical.

A week or so ago, I was examining the facade of a synagogue in Brooklyn and noticed on its bulletin board that the Torah-portion to be read on the upcoming Sabbath was Lekh L’KhoLekh L’Kho is translated in the King James version of the bible as “Get thee out.”  In the original Hebrew, Lekh L’Kho has a crisper sound more akin to “Walk!”, “Get Moving,” or, even more simply, “Go!  Lekh L’Kho is the portion of the Pentateuch in which God tells Abraham to leave his father’s house and head to a new land, to depart Harran for Palestine.  Figuratively, Lekh L’Kho also refers to Abraham’s departure from a place of idolatry to the domain of a monotheistic deity.  How apt in the week of the American presidential election.  Think of the false gods of the Republican years: Deregulation and “free markets,” “trickle-down” economics, the equating of individual greed with the public good, “pro-life” anti-abortion agitation, patriotism and “vets” “WMDs” and “War on Terror,” “the surge,” martial and mercenary definitions of “freedom,” and more.  Together, they form a pantheon of idols sufficient to occupy a score of Abrahams in smashing.

When Abraham left his father’s house, he abandoned the old, cut with the past, and stepped into the unknown.  This took courage.  Those who voted for Obama have the shown the same courage (see Bob Herbert’s Take a Bow, America).  The irony is that the mean-spirited, bible-thumping Evangelical Christian right and the majority of residents of the Old South and the still largely homogeneous Anglo-Saxon and Germanic mid-western states who voted for McCain/Palin would never have had the faith or the courage to abandon idolatry or go forth from their father’s house.  When the Old Testament god said: “Lekh L’Kho” they would have cowered in fright and hid like Cain once did.  Hand me my walking shoes!

Mayakovsky and the Dust on My Blue Passport

I have two passports: a red one (The Netherlands) and a blue one (USA).  The red passport is well worn and the blue one is pristine but for a layer of dust.  Throughout the Republican years it has been far more congenial to move around the world as a Dutchman (which I am by passport only) than as an American (which I am by birth).  On a Dutch passport one travels with anonymity, never upsetting fellow passengers, border police, or hotel clerks.  (How short people’s memories are.  Who today remembers the brutalities of Dutch colonialism or the venality of Dutch collaboration with the Nazis?)  Traveling on the American passport, on the other hand, awakens the condescension of Western Europeans and the envy of Eastern Europeans.  During the Bush years, it made the bearer personally accountable for corporate misdeeds, misuse of the world’s resources, and violence in the Middle East and Central Asia.  Worse still, it often attracted the unwanted good fellowship of fascists, racists, and professional “anti-communists” worldwide who love America for being “white” (66% and falling!) and for rejecting all pretenses of supporting its citizenry (see this post-election editorial in the New York Times).  The enthusiastic international reaction to the election of Obama and the courage of Americans in electing him has lead me to do do something I haven’t done in a long time.  This week, I will blow the dust off of my American passport and, later this month, I’ll hand it to police and clerks in Istanbul, Sofia, and Amsterdam and look into their eyes with pride.

(Pride in passports brings to mind Mayakovsky’s 1920’s poem about traveling abroad on a Soviet passport.  A serviceable but somewhat flat English-language translation can be found here and a bilingual version — Russian original followed by English-language translation — here.)

In Praise of a Skinny President

In years past, I sometimes antagonized Israeli friends by telling them that I had lost faith in Israel and its politics because of the girth of its leadership.  Ariel Sharon was grotesquely obese as was opposition figure Tommy Lapid.  So were the leadership of the religious parties and the membership of the politically influential “Chabad” sect.  During the 1960s, African-American comedian and political activist Dick Gregory used to do a routine that involved asking the women in the audience who they would rather go to bed with … Lyndon Johnson or Che Guevara?  Without waiting for the answer, Gregory would archly say: “… and that is how you judge the vitality of a nation.”  Click here for Finally a Thin President, an “Op-Ed” piece from the New York Times.

Posted in Change, Commentary, Identity, Language, Politics, Religion | Leave a Comment »

In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 31, 2008


A few days ago, I resumed posting to my alter-ego photographic and (art/urban) historical weblog, Bubkes.Org.  The title of the latest entry: In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing.” Taking a photograph of a wrought-iron gate in Sofia, Bulgaria (above) as its point of departure, the new post considers the merits of a classic film-based pocket camera, the origins of the decorative iron work that was once characteristic of Balkan cities, and the changing circumstances of Balkan Roma (Gypsies).

Additional photograph-based postings treating small cameras, transformation of cities, and the urban experiences of Roma will follow on Bubkes.Org.  I hope to accompany them with parallel postings here on HakPakSak.  Indeed, In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing” touches on matters of the sort treated within the present “pages.”  Consideration of contemporary small-camera digital photography raises issues as to whether companies’ marketing or users’ actual wants and needs are the drivers behind product design, manufacture, and distribution.  It aslo raises issues as to how technology and taste interact.  Examination of the history and circumstance of Roma in Balkan cities casts light on the interplay of infrastructural shifts and transformations of identity within the urban context.  (Much) more to follow, thus.

Posted in Architecture, Bulgaria, Change, Cities, Economy, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Markets, National Identity, Photography, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure of Work and Society: Five Failed American Axioms

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 9, 2008

Both sides in the US presidential campaign and debates — albeit one side far more than the other — use language and cling to axioms that obscure reality, make “change” unlikely, and keep America out of sync with the rest of the world. Five examples follow:

1. “American workers are the best in the world”

Nonsense. Americans may be decent sprinters but Western Europeans win the race. Good health care, regular vacations, job security, employee participation in management, lower stress, and no necessity to work two or three jobs to pay the kids’ educations makes Western European workers the world’s most productive. The growth of Asian economies speaks volumes about the quality of Asian workers just as does America’s outsourcing of its most exacting tasks to them. The diligence of Central and South American workers now bolsters America’s productivity through immigration. Turkish workers spend their lives laboring at highly segmented tasks. Even Eastern European workers are on their way to surpassing Americans. In alcohol-sodden Bulgaria, for example, workers tend to be “jacks of all trades and masters of none,” the upside of which is the ability to improvise and to more-or-less fix and keep running all things in their environment regardless of scarcities or systemic collapse.

2. “The Middle Class”

Both presidential candidates talks of helping the “middle class” but neither say a word about helping the working class or the poor. Avoidance of the term “working-class” is part-and-parcel of America’s pathological fear of “socialism.” It also belies the harsh reality that social mobility in America has been on the downturn since the 1950s. Not speaking of the poor is either callousness, blindness, or the abandonment of the tradition of the party of FDR and LBJ (let alone the party of Debs and or even that of LaFollette).

3. “Families”

Candidates speak of needs, opinions, and values of “families.” This in a country where the number of single and divorced adults rivals that of married ones and in which a good proportion of those nuclear families that are intact are dysfunctional. Since World War II, housing policies, suburbanization, and westward and southeastward migration have compromised multigenerational families (except amongst the poor and marginalized ethnic minorities), as has the Americanisation of immigrants. Eastern Europe and the “third world” have far stronger family values and structures. In fact, America may have proved itself to be a family-breaker and, through this, a compromiser of its own social infrastructure.

4. “We Honor Your Service”

Both candidates become Uriah-Heep-like in their obsequiousness when talking about the military or when speaking with present- or ex-servicemen. Obsequiousness toward the military was a hallmark of Franco’s Spain, Peron’s Argentina, and other tinpot dictatorships. It is also a matter-of-fact reality in countries such as Turkey, where, in an unusual balance of power, the military, with its proven willingness and ability to stage coups, is the guarantor of the survival of a secular state in a predominantly religious country. I would like to hear the candidates also “honor” America’s war and draft resisters for their sacrifices. A few words of “honor” and thanks for “service” to America’s lowest paid workers wouldn’t hurt either.

5. “Business is better than government”

This is the mother-of-all failed axioms, especially in the month when America’s iconic financial sector turns to the government for bailouts. During the last debate McCain trotted out this worn chestnut to denigrate Obama’s modest health-care proposals.

This brings us full circle. Universal health care is one of the features of European social infrastructure that ensures productivity by keeping health high and stress low. An important question for Americans is whether health insurance should be viewed as a luxury as it is now, a commodity as McCain proposes, or an essential aspect of social infrastructure as Obama proposes in part. The answer is not just a function of one’s morality but of one’s method of accounting. If one takes a longer and broader view, money invested in infrastructure — i.e. those physical and intangible systems and processes on which the social and economic life depend — pays off in macro terms even if initially developed or delivered at a short-term loss. The consensual nature of government and its operation beyond enterprise-level constraints of profit and loss make it the ideal provider or prime-mover when it comes to infrastructure. In fact, the provision and maintenance of infrastructure might be at the very essence of what government always has been, is, and should be.

Posted in Change, Commentary, Economy, Health Care, Infrastructure, Language, Markets, Work | Leave a Comment »

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.


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 »

Hiatus — A few words and a few links re: articulation, organizational change, the GOP, the 1960s, mysterious and enticing doorways, the forgotten wooden mosques of the eastern Balkans, and a bodega in the Bronx

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 28, 2007

These weeks I have been a bit busy with work proposals and ongoing research projects. One of the results: Somewhat of a hiatus in substantive postings to HakPakSak. For the moment, however, the following links should each be worthy of at least a peek…

Re: my “core business” of articulation, communication, and change, look at this comment I posted some weeks ago on JP Rangaswami’s weblog Confused Of Calcutta and a worthy comment-on-the-comment as posted by Stephen Smoliar at his weblog Rehearsal Studio.

Re: Politics in America look at Bob Herbert‘s recent Ugly Side of the GOP. Now that the New York Times has opened up its former “premium” internet content to all readers, Hebert’s hard-hitting to-the-point columns can once again be read online free of charge.

Re: The 1960s and the reunion of two former philosophy students and friends, look at these kind words from North Carolina writer, thinker, and convinced Quaker Tom Brown.

Last, for a look into my parallel avocational worlds of photography, architectural history, and Balkan and Ottoman history, go to this new posting on my alter-ego weblog site Bubkes.Org.

Oh yes … not to forget … Oh Word. My recent two-fold posting on Paul Lafargue’s manifesto The Right to Be Lazy and the photocopy shops of Istanbul gained mention on Rafi Kam’s hip-hop weblog Oh Word‘s Around the Horn links. I am a long-time fan of Rafi’s and Dallas Penns humorous and very insightful minimalist video Bronx Bodega (click here to watch it on YouTube). I’m a jazz fan, not a hip-hop fan — but I am born in the Bronx!

More to follow…

Posted in Architecture, Articulation, Bulgaria, Change, Links, Media, Photography, Work | 2 Comments »

“Sense of the Meeting:” Quakers, Communications, Organizational Change, and the Blogosphere

Posted by Stephen Lewis on July 9, 2007

Over at my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org, I recently posted an entry centered on a photo I took in 1994 of a group of young people standing in front of a Mennonite church in New York’s Harlem. The church had been founded by a group of Korean War era conscientious objectors and, so, the weblog entry jumped to my own response to the specter of military service in Vietnam and my Vietnam-War-Civil-Rights-Movement-era years of part-time study at a small Quaker school in the American south. During those years, I was often at loggerheads with what I saw as the caution and conservatism of local Quakers in the face of the issues and conflicts of the time. It was only years later that I realized that Quakers had also taught me lessons that illuminated my work and personal lives both.

Sense of the Streets

Growing up in Lower Manhattan I learned that discourse was argument, something to be won. One could win by being “smarter” or more humorous than others, by playing facts like trump cards, by talking louder or faster, or by being more insulting or better with one’s fists. Or, if one was in a more peaceful or democratic mood, one could settle debates or decide on courses of action by gangıng-up and enforcing “majority rule.”

Sense of the Meeting

In the company of Quakers I learned a different approach. Discourse was a way to higher truths and to commonalities that could unite people linked together by commitment or even by mere circumstance. Agreement was never beyond the reach of people dedicating to achieving it. In their worship and worldly gatherings, Quakers achieved unanimity of action by perceiving and subscribing to the “sense of the meeting.” Similar to the way Socrates sought truth through dialogue, Quakers felt that receptivity to silence and to open expression at meetings could lead to consensus acceptable to all present and well worth putting aside one’s individual reservations in the face of.

Consensus, Communications, and Organizational Change

Oddly, I first realized the value of the “sense of the meeting” in a commercial context. In the years in which I made my living writing for business and governmental clients, I came to understand that if I interviewed enough people within a fractious organization I could articulate what that organization was about and wanted to achieve in a manner that all parties could assent to and buy into. Later, when I consulted on proposals for major industrial and service-related projects I found I could pre-envision and articulate many projects in manners equally compelling to buyer and seller alike. When I worked in interim management and organizational change, I found it was possible to gain commitment and motivate people by openly articulating where organizations stood and were migrating to, why and how.

Sense of the Blogosphere

In a PBS broadcast some months ago (link unavailable) veteran journalists Bill Moyers and Bob Edwards discussed why the Knight-Ridder chain of newspaper had reported more penetratingly and accurately on the build-up to and consequences of Bush & Co.’s Iraq War. The main reason was that the star reporters at the “papers of record” such as the Washington Post and the New York Times were far too close to the White House to gain perspective or far too vain to avoid being seduced by the center of power. Knight-Ridder reporters, on the other hand, gathered their facts and opinions from middle-ranking bureaucrats and members of the military, people with a focus on realities rather than on “spin” and the selling of an ill-conceived war.

The work that the Knight-Ridder papers have done in recent years – or of the type of pioneering investigative reporting that the Washington Post allowed Woodward and Bernstein to do following the Watergate burglary – is a long-lead-time, costly task requiring weighty expense budgets and full-time research and fact-checking staff. In the early days of webloging, enthusiastic bloggers sometimes exclaimed that weblogs would soon replace newspapers – but most blogs are one-person affairs without the funding or staff or business models to sustain news gathering or investigative reporting. As a result, blogging has emerged more as a vehicle for opinion and comment. At first, the tone was intentionally brash and self-promoting, not unlike the Lower Manhattan model of discourse described above. As time goes on and the numbers of blogs grow into the tens of millions, the blogosphere brings with it the possibility of being a cyberspace-wide virtual equivalent of a Quaker meeting that in its silences and testimonies reveals patterns of commonalities and generates consensuses that can unite people into actions worthy of their beliefs and needs.

Posted in Articulation, Change, Commentary, Communications, Philosophy | 1 Comment »

Perception Trumps Reality: “Getting It,” Spin, Branding, and Reputation Management

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 30, 2007

I smiled when I read Dean Landsman’s recent short post on “Who Gets What?” Phrases such as “he gets it” or “you just don’t get it” seem to be a new refuge for people who cannot explain what they mean or who push partially-formed ideas. The thrust: “If you don’t understand what I’m saying, it’s your fault not mine.” And, thanks, Dean, for coining the word “Get-itude.”

Low on “Get-itude”

It is no coincidence that “getting it” peppers the speech of supporters of the Bush administration and its policies. Like many other ordinary people who had devoted some time to reading Middle Eastern history or who had worked or traveled in the region, I was opposed to the Iraq War from the start and quite easily foresaw the chaos, destruction, and human and financial calamities the war would bring to Iraq, the entire Middle East, and the economy and world standing of the US. Back in 2003, some months into the war, I ran into an acquaintance who is a senior US diplomat. When I told him I was against the war he replied that he supported it and ended our conversation with a smug: “You just don’t get it, do you?” No arguments, no facts, no persuasion, just a few condescending words of dismissal.

“Getting It,” John Calvin, and the Revival Tent

The rise of “getting it” is symptomatic of the conflation of politics, discourse, and fundamentalist religion in the US over the past three decades. Partisans divide the world into those who “get it” and those who don’t with a self-satisfaction not unlike that of Calvinists who assumed themselves to be amongst the “elect” or the “saved” and others amongst the damned. Epistemologically, “getting it” conjures up nineteenth-century revival tents, fictional Elmer Gantrys, and real-life Amy Sempel McPhersons. “Getting” or “not getting” implies that knowledge is revealed and that belief, conversion, prophetic vision and the ineffable are more important than understanding or dialogue. Saint Augustine, by the way, wrote that faith precedes understanding; he never wrote that faith replaces it.

From Snake Oil to Soft Focus to Spin

19th-century country-fair hucksterism entered the American mainstream long-ago, as did the unreality of Hollywood. In the realm of public affairs this meant, in essence: Don’t change what is, tinker with perceptions instead!

During the 1970s, I was a graduate student and researcher in public policy at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School for Social Research (today the Milano Center). The Center and its students were dedicated to reality and to change — be it shepherding New York City into economic revival and fiscal stability or, as Lower East Side leftist novelist Mike Gold (“Jews Without Money”) once put it, to make New York “… into a garden for the human spirit.” In fact, it was one of our fellow graduates — Alan Brouwer, if I remember correctly — whose discovery and analysis of the misuse of New York’s capital budget to cover deficits in its expense budget first brought to the public eye the City’s legendary impending bankruptcy.

The 1970s, however, also saw the rise of the word “Spin” (as in political PR, not as in the French acronym for AIDS) and the associated appearance of professional (Gott hilf uns!) “Spinmeisters.” In the end, Spin won out over policy analysis and set a method and tone that are with us until today, with the discredited Bush administration still pushing fairy-tales of victory in Iraq and economic growth in America in the face of patent disasters on both fronts.

By the way, for a passionate take on politics in the days when government meant providing real solutions to real problems, read John Updike’s cautionary comments on revisionist takes on FDR and the New Deal in this week’s New Yorker. Also, for a powerful analysis of the use of spin by the Bush administration to fabricate grounds and conjure up support for the war in Iraq — and for the sad tale of the gullibility and connivance of much of the US press in the face of such heavy-handed cynicism and betrayal of the public trust — watch this recent broadcast from Bill Moyers (also available as a podcast).

Branding vs. Content

The ultimate substitution of perception for reality was “branding,” the private-sector equivalent of spin. The concept of branding was simple: to create differing images for products and organizations between which there were no real differences at all. I had the dubious fortune of being present at what may have been the birth of modern branding. This occurred during the so-called “accountancy wars” of the 1980s when the internationalism of business and the rise of uniform auditing and reporting requirements in the European Community led US “Big Eight” accountancy practices to build multinational partnerships and to seek to differentiate themselves through advertising, something that accountants (and doctors, lawyers, and engineers too) once considered a crass betrayal of professionalism.

In fact, there were no differences between any of the top accounting companies at the time. Partners and clients jumped from one company to another and international member firms switched alliances regularly. A Peat Marwick audit was little different from an Arthur Anderson audit, just as Price Waterhouse tax advice was the same as advice from Grant Thornton. The only real differences were in personal relationships and the prices and approaches to specific engagements. But, in the end, accountancy firms squandered fortunes trying to create the same ephemeral advertising-based identities as brands of soap and cigarettes. Sour grapes on my part? Maybe. At the time I was a “hired-gun” proposals-management specialist for KMG (the European-based ancestor of present-day KPMG) charged with crafting real, project-based, individualized responses to actual needs of clients operating in specific real world environments — a task and approach irrelevant to branding and to identities based on manipulation of perception.

Reputation Management: Flim-Flam or Foundation for Change?

For the last several years, I’d kept a distance from the world of marketing communications and PR. As a result, my shock was all the greater when I recently became aware of the new game of “Reputation Management” — branding and spin tidily spruced-up and repackaged under a new name. Reputation Management has all the pitfalls of its predecessors, i.e. a focus on manipulation of perception rather than on development and improvement of products and services. But … maybe the idea of Reputation Management is not completely a sham after all. Maybe reputations could be created and managed in ways other than spinning and branding. My own approach might sound a bit medieval and redolent of craftsmanship and guilds, i.e. to provide goods and services of the highest quality and to gear them to what customers actually require and demand. Doing so would require that companies, institutions, and governments make a 180° shift in their approach to communications, i.e. to be willing to be party to communication from without as much or more as the communicate from within.  The challenge: To carefully and accurately listen to and articulate the wishes and needs of the individuals that comprise the market place and to form missions and strategies, develop and implement products and services, and shape, staff and motivate organizations accordingly. Doing so just might do away with the need to manipulate and in the end might create reputations far more powerful than those based on perception alone.

Footnote and disclaimer: Could my irritation at some of the glib phrases mentioned in this post partly be a function of my advancing age? Maybe. I’ll admit that I’m old enough to associate “cool” with early Miles Davis and to describe some of the things I like best as being, well … “Boss”!!!

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