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Call Me Hussein: The Language of the Third Reich and the Politics of Middle Names

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 12, 2008

Years ago, when I worked in the field of so-called “marketing communications,” I used to tell colleagues that there were two fathers of modern advertising: St. Paul and Dr. Goebbels. Paul was a true believer who knew how to craft the message of a small sectarian movement and convey it throughout the Roman world. Nazi propaganda chief Goebbels was a hate-driven man who was a master of twentieth-century communications media and who knew how to use the power of the big lie to manipulate individuals and nations. Goebbels also understood the subtle power of contrived language to reshape people’s perceptions, emotions, and behavior and turn their ideals on their heads.

The classic, and possibly the only, study of the language of Nazi Germany is Viktor Klemperer’s brilliant Lingua Tertii Imperii (“The Languague of the Third Reich”). Klemperer, best known in the West for his posthumously published pre-war and wartime diaries (issued in the US in a two-volume abridgment entitled “I Will Bear Witness”), was a Jewish-born convert to Christianity and professor of French literature in Dresden. Klemperer’s background was as rich as his interests; his father was an orthodox Jew turned reformed rabbi and his uncle was orchestral conductor Otto Klemperer. Klemperer was saved from war-time deportation by being partner to a childless “mixed” marriage and later by the disappearing into the chaos that followed the fire-bombing of Dresden. After the war, Klemperer chose to remain in Dresden — in East Germany, thus — proudly clinging to his German identity. He also joined the Communist Party, a decision he chronicled in his book “The Lesser of Two Evils” and that later, in the aftermath of Stalin’s Anti-Cosmopolitan campaign and Doctors’ Trials, caused him no small inner anguish.

That “Lingua Tertii Imperii” remained relatively unknown in the west during the cold war was in part due to its East Bloc pedigree and also to the embarrassing applicability of its insights to the language of post-war denazification and the reinvention of national identity and political discourse in West Germany. This was a shame, not least because the language and style that Goebbels perfected and Klemperer documented survived the denouement of Nazism to manifest themselves in what on the surface seem the least likely of places — including the present US presidential campaign.

Two of the most oft-quoted, albeit simplest, examples of Klemperer’s treatment of Nazi reshaping of the German language refer to the words fanatisch and aufziehen. Under the Nazis fanatisch (fanatical) was transformed from something negative into something worthy of emulation, an exhortation to over-the-top true-believer-ship and transcendence of reason; aufziehen was transformed from a word whose meanings included the act of winding clocks to an approving term for the staging of manipulative events on a grand scale.

Both these words came to my mind during the recent Republican convention, especially during Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s speech accepting her party’s vice presidential nomination. The choice of Palin and her contrived stance as an establishment-hating populist were case studies in aufziehen. In her acceptance speech, Palin made good use of the Nazi’s big lie technique, repeating over and again, amongst other exaggerated claims, the absurd and easily disproved contention that the Democrats are responsible for America’s staggering national debt. Palin’s tone of voice and body language were also classic Goebbels, her references to Democratic candidate Barack Obama were laced with sarcasm and dismissive gestures. On the television screen, the facial expressions of many of the Republican delegates cheering Palin’s comments appeared stereotypically fanatisch, betraying mixtures of rage and near-ecstasy, the stuff that street brawls and civil wars are made of. As a coda, during the vice-presidential debate, Palin described how, if elected, she would expand the role and power of the vice presidency in the American congress, this redolent not only of current US vice-president Dick Cheney but also of the Nazis’ bullying tactics in the German parliament following their rise to power in 1933.

The Politics of Middle Names

Goebbels’s fellow Nazis understood the power of names as well as words. Raul Hilberg, the pioneer historian of the administrative workings of the wartime murder of six million European Jews, described the underlying method of the Nazi’s war against the Jews as identification, concentration, and extermination. Part and parcel of this process was the compulsory assignment to all Jews of identical middle names, “Israel” for men and “Sarah” for women. The desired effects were to make Jews visible, portray them as caricatures, rob them of their individuality, and break their spirits. Given the minority position of Jews and the scope of the power turned against them, such stigmatization invariably accomplished at least the first two of these goals and more often than not the last two as well.

Over the past week, a vicious undertone in the Republican campaign rose to a crescendo as Palin and McCain used Obama’s passing acquaintance with a long-ago member of the one-time Weather Underground in a manner worthy of the Nazis’ heavy-handed attempts to incriminate their opponents in the 1933 burning of the Reichstag. During the same week, supporters of the Republican ticket increasingly and ever-more-archly referred to Barack Obama as Barack HUSSEIN Obama — this not as a paean to Democratic candidate’s mixed heritage but as an ad hominem slur and questioning of his “Americanism” and professed Christianity. By the end of the week, the flood of hatred proved too great even for John McCain to control and he was heckled and booed by his own supporters while trying to speak up for the “decency” of his opponent. The Republicans’ emulation of Goebbels, it seems, has created a Frankenstein.

Footnote: Call Me Hussein

I am particularly sensitive to the politics of names. My own family changed its name in the early-1950s in the shadow of the social and political pressures in America at the time. This said, this morning I decided — out of solidarity with Barack Obama and disgust with Republican stigmatization of his “un-American” names and origins — that from now until election day in November I will adopt “Hussein” as my own middle name and introduce myself on all occassions, informal and official, as “Stephen HUSSEIN Lewis.” Bigotry, innuendo, and the legacy of 1930s Germany call for protest and satire. Care to join me?

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Posted in Commentary, Communications, History, Identity, Language, Media, Politics | 1 Comment »

Links: Confused of Calcutta Considers YouTube; Brian Lehrer Interviews “Internets Celebrities”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 12, 2008

On Confused of Calcutta, JP Rangaswami writes of an upcoming lecture on the anthropology of YouTube and muses on YouTube’s volume of programming having surpassed that of network television. JP’s words lead me to refer again to the work of my favorite YouTube contributors, the self-created “Internets Celebrities” Dallas Penn and Rafi Kam (for links to their blogs and their films go to the next-to-last paragraph of my post of May 25). The Internets Celebrities’s combination of humor and economic and social insight have created a new genre of commentary-meets-comedy-meets-NYC-street-sensibilities and of making young (and old — witness this writer) people aware of the workings of the systems and situations in which they live — this while bypassing television broadcasting and movie-houses. Via YouTube, each of the Internets Celebrities short videos have logged up to 1,000,000 views each. For insight into what they’ve done, how they do it, and the place of YouTube in the process, view this recent broadcast (“Ghetto Economics”) on New York’s Brian Lehrer Live.

Posted in Communications, Economy, Internet, Media, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

Neglected Infrastructure: On the Wrong Side of the Broadband Gap and Four Humorous Takes on Why Broadband is Important and How

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 31, 2008

In Cities Start Own Efforts To Speed Up Broadband on the front page of the May 19, 2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal (full article available to WSJ subscribers only), Christopher Rhoads reports how many smaller cities in the US have fallen on the wrong side of a domestic broadband gap and how some are taking on huge financial risks to vault themselves onto the right side. He also details how the US at large is slipping to the bottom rungs of a growing international broadband gap. The essence of the story:

“Some 60 towns and small cities, including Bristol, Va., Barnsville, Minn., and Sallisaw, Okla., have built state-of-the-art fiber networks, capable of speeds many times faster than most existing connections from cable and telecom companies. An additional two dozen municipalities, including Chattanooga, have launched or are considering similar initiatives.

The efforts highlight a battle over Internet policy in the U.S. Once the undisputed leader in the technological revolution, the U.S. now lags a growing number of countries in the speed, cost and availability of high-speed Internet. While cable and telecom companies are spending billions to upgrade their service, they’re focusing their efforts mostly on larger U.S. cities for now.

Smaller ones such as Chattanooga say they need to fill the vacuum themselves or risk falling further behind and losing highly-paid jobs. Chattanooga’s city-owned electric utility began offering ultrafast Internet service to downtown business customers five years ago. Now it plans to roll out a fiber network to deliver TV, high-speed Internet and phone service to some 170,000 customers. The city has no choice but to foot the bill itself for a high-speed network — expected to cost $230 million — if it wants to remain competitive in today’s global economy, says Harold DePriest, the utility’s chief executive officer.

It’s a risky bet. Some municipal Internet efforts, including wireless projects known as Wi-Fi, have failed in recent months. EarthLink Inc. confirmed last week it was pulling the plug on its wireless partnership with Philadelphia. A number of towns have abandoned a municipal fiber initiative in Utah, called Utopia, amid financial difficulties.

The latest efforts have aroused intense opposition from private-sector providers… “

As to the situation in the US compared with that in other developed countries: Charts in the WSJ article show to US to rank “…10th amongst the top 30 industrialized countries in terms of broadband penetration and 11th in terms of affordability.” The US also ranks well below the international average in terms of download speed.

My take: The domestic and international broadband gaps are further evidence of the inability of “markets,” and the unwillingness of profit-based private companies, to provide essential infrastructure on which economic competitiveness and security on based. In the past, great leaps forward in US domestic infrastructure were made through massive public sector investments and programs that bridged distance and disparities and enabled high capacity flows of goods and services: rural free postal delivery, rural electrification, WWII Liberty Ships, and even the post-war federal highways programs (despite their disastrous consequences ecologically and in terms of fossil-fuel and “SUV” dependence). The same goes for the infrastructure required for the US to ensure its competitiveness and integration into the global economy.

Don’t understand broadband and its importance? These four magnificent short advertising clips provide a thorough and humorous first lesson:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOceE7j–Oc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNzesOW2QG8

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iT0T4N-Hagk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaCNvONAlzs

Posted in Cities, Communications, Digitization, Economy, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

Value Where No Value Exists: Links to a “Brands Diary” and Nostalgia for a World Without Brands

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 30, 2008

Just as much of our economy is based on the sale and resale of dubious financial paper ala the recent US mortgage fiasco, another part is based on the sale and marketing of redundant products that have little or no meaningful or useful differences other than “brand” identities. Brands obscure not only what products are but also what they are used for. In Jane’s Brand Time-Line Portrait the absurdity of elevating contrived brand identities to objective reality is conveyed by listing the tasks and pleasures of a full day as practitioners of marketing would have us see them, i.e. as a progression of brands. The day ends with the most absurd extreme in a life as mirrored in brands, with sex becoming Durex.

Several minutes into Big Wide World, a recent broadcast of Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life, Valentina, a new immigrant to the US from the Ukraine, describes her first trip to a mammoth American drugstore just two weeks after her arrival in the country. Searching for tampons, Valentina encounters shelves upon shelves of tampons, in every conceivable (and inconceivable) shape, size, and touted level of absorbency. The redundancy and irrelevant distinctions between tampon brands first caused Valentina to laugh and then to become sad and homesick … for a world without brands. Choice is ballyhooed as a core value of so-called market economies — but choice between what, and determined by whom? And why waste a moment of one’s time or a drop of one’s concentration chosing amongst products the distinctions between which fit the schemes of hucksters rather than the shapes, interests, and needs of our individual lives let alone the wise allocation of natural and economic resources?

Posted in Commentary, Communications, Markets, Media | Leave a Comment »

Articulation and Activism: In Praise of Screenwriters … and “Hackwriters” Too

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 8, 2007

As the US entertainment writers’ strike continues, I can’t avoid weighing in with a few words of support for the striking members of the Writers’ Guild. Their long drawn-out strike is proving that without the creativity, concentration, and plain old sweat of professional writers there would be no cinema nor television, whether for better or for worse. Yet, most writers labor silently in the background with neither the celebrity, earnings continuity, nor stellar recompense that goes to many headlining actors and directors.

I could quibble about the quality of present-day Hollywood films and American television — their cliche-ridden humor, fascination with murder, and justification of authoritarian police behavior and Mafia violence — but the central issue of the present strike is business-like and central to concepts of intellectual property and the rights of labor, i.e. residuals, the ongoing payments to writers for the rebroadcasting and reuse of creative works they have conceived and shaped and their right to share in the fruits of the long-term popularity and earnings of productions they have penned.

The strikers’ demands focus on residuals from new and emerging distribution channels — especially the internet. Over the last decades, writers time and again missed the boat on gaining a fair share of earnings from the recycling of their work via new media, including videocassettes and DVDs. Now, they are determined not to repeat this mistake with internet distribution. All of us who who are paid job-by-job for our labor and/or creative abilities should back the strikers in whatever ways we can. The same goes for those of us who believe in the future of internet as the primary distribution channel for news, opinion, knowledge, and entertainment and who understand that media are just what the word implies, i.e. “dark fiber” and “empty pipes”, vehicles for conveying content and no more. In the end, backing the strike means willingness to pay for internet content, directly or indirectly, and to pressure those who charge for content, i.e. the owners of networks and other marketing shells, to ensure that a fair share of the life-long earnings of productions goes those who create them.

Some Strike-Related Links

The writer’s strike is explained and tracked in detail at United Hollywood. The United Hollywood site also contains links to a number of YouTube pieces in support of the strike. My favorite is a testimonial by nonagenarian Writers’ Guild member Irv Brecher who wrote for the Marx Brothers in the late-1930s and for television (“The Life of Riley”) in the early-1950s. Also on target is this report (ABC Executive Now Writing All Their Shows Himself) from my favorite source of news as it could or should be, Doyle Redland of the Onion Radio News. Last, hose who are not afraid of Brooklyn-size dollops of political incorrectness might want to look at this characteristically unsparing (but smiling) piece from Dallas Penn, the point of which is that openness in terms of personal identity does not necessarily equal progressiveness or compassion when it comes to political and economic issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of others.

And “Hackwriters” Too

For most of my life, I’ve been cursed with the ability to write. In many of the places I’ve worked, the task of writing has fallen on my shoulders. My strengths as a writer have been neither my style nor even my knowledge, but simply my ability to muscle my way through half-thought-out or poorly-expressed ideas — whether my own or those of others — and sharpen and express the thinking, motives, facts, and logic behind them and leave no essential point unarticulated. This dubious ability led me for years to make my living bouncing back and forth between writing/translating and management, organizational, and project consultancy. Put simply, when asked by mayors or marketing execs or “CEO”s to write articles or commercial, legal, or technical documents presenting their strategies, policies, or activities, I had to clarify and tighten-up not only their syntax but their thinking, intents, and understandings of their own organizations and the world-at-large By writing, I created a mirror by which strategies could be tested and implemented, organizations changed and motivated, projects realized, and markets and populations reached and influenced. This was not always appreciated.

Corporate and technical “hackwriters” are on the bottom of the organizational totem pole in both the public and private sectors and in academia and science as well. In all fields, they are anonymous cogs in the wheel, this regardless of their communications skills being the medium of exchange that enable organizations to function. The situation is most extreme with the proposals and grants writers who debug the thinking and craft the documents that bring in multi-million dollar grants and multi-billion dollar projects for others. Like most corporate and tech writers, they receive no bonus shares of the projects they land nor any residuals from the worth of the companies and institutions they help enrich build. It is time for business and techwriters to follow the lead of striking entertainment writers and claim their fair share. As the “Wobblies” of the old IWW would have had it: “One Big Union!”

(This post is written with the support and approval of Naomi Yoder-Harris, a fine institutional writer who for two decades has been an important sounding board for the quality and content of my own work.)

Posted in Articulation, Communications, Internet, Media, 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 »

Michael Polanyi, Articulation, and Marx’s Fatal Flaw

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 10, 2007

The obscure Hungarian philosopher Michael (Mihaly) Polanyi surfaced this week on Doc Searls’s Weblog. Referring to our years together as philosophy undergraduates, Doc supposes that Polanyi might still influence my thinking. After reactivating my philosophy “chops,” I realize Doc is right, Polanyi does continue to influence my thinking … and my work and personal life as well.

I remember two things from Polanyi. The first is his succinct summation of his investigations into epistemology and the role of intuition in scientific discovery, as expressed in his simple dictum: “We know more than we can tell.” The second is his concise critique of some streams of Marxist thought. In his examination of the personal nature of knowing, Polanyi seems to have stumbled onto Marx’s Achilles heel.

In Polanyi’s view, what we are able to put into words is only a part of what we actually know; indeed, there are many things that we know and learn viscerally and intuitively in ways that defy articulation. A mystic Slavo-Semitic side of me likes this idea, as does the side of me that photographs, for it leaves room for wonder and for the ineffable. But a more Anglo-Saxon side of me (a tip of the hat to the logical positivists), takes Polanyi’s dictum not as a description but as prescription, a challenge to spend a lifetime trying to articulate all that I see, sense, and feel. This is been the driver of my life-long obsession with multidisciplinary learning that is my real “core business.” It also has been the basis of my decades of work in strategic consultancy, policy analysis, organizational change, and corporate communications and public information.

In the work world, I’ve found that strategy and policy can be successfully formulated, applied, and refined only when articulated over and again until all ambiguities and all misrepresentations of external realities disappear. Likewise, organizations achieve successful change only when they can fully articulate what they do, and why and how, and in what environment. In the same way, project management is dependent on continuously articulating where one stands and should stand. Successful marketing communications, in turn, is dependent on clear articulation of who one is addressing and what one really has to say. It sometimes takes an irritating gadfly like me to help companies and institutions achieve this, but I believe in the mission and even enjoy it. Maybe this is what has enchanted me about the internet, i.e. the theoretical possibility it affords for ultimately articulating all that is from every perspective possible.

To close, a few words about Polanyi and Marx. In his book Personal Knowledge, Polanyi examines what may be Marxism’s tragic flaw, the key to its self-destruction, this being its futile attempt to clothe moral rage in the guise of scientific objectivity and historical necessity. By abandoning the language of morality some streams of Marxism lost their moral rudders and became sidetracked, preoccupied with their own rectitude and the illegitimacy of all who questioned it, rather than with the wrongs and inequities Marxism was conceived in response to in the first place. This also poses a lesson for all of us in our personal lives — and not just to moderate our Marxism! – but never to forget that all that we seek, desire, approve of, or work toward is not necessarily what is right or what should be. (In this light, another tip of the hat to G.E. Moore.)

Posted in Articulation, Communications, Marx, Philosophy | 3 Comments »