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“Oh-My-God … Quack, Quack … Oh-My-God”: My Barber’s Wisdom, the American Penchant for Blasphemy, and a Nation Without Infrastructure

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 29, 2010

Much of whatever wisdom I have, like much of  the world”s, comes from the observations of taxi drivers and barbers.  Just like the disfigured First World War veteran barfly in the opening and closing scenes of Edmund Goulding’s 1932 film masterpiece “Grand Hotel,”  taxi drivers and barbers see streams of people come and go and  little if anything surprises them.

My Barber’s Wisdom

The barber I visit  when in Istanbul speaks even less English than I speak Turkish, but he is a keen observer and knows how to score political points across linguistic lines.  His shop is in one of the commercial galleries that line the one-time carriage-ways of  late-Ottoman-era mansions and the grand inner passageways of turn-of-the-twentieth-century commercial structures along Istanbul’s most popular  promenade, Istiklal Caddesi.  The shop itself has been in business for decades, but my barber and his brother took it over only five years ago, thus bringing them to the pinnacle of popular Istiklal from their tightly-packed, religiously-conservative, working-class  neighborhood only a mile northward and downhill towards the Golden Horn — the very part of the city  from which Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s present Prime Minister and driving force behind Turkey’s Islamic AK Party,  hails and the  type of constituency that comprises the backbone of his support.

During my biweekly visits for a haircut and shave, my barber always chooses the most advantageous time to turn the conversation to politics.  “And, so, what do you think of our  Tayyip?”  he asks, always at the exact moment that he quickly and firmly draws his straight razor upward against the grain of the two-week stubble on my neck.  My response is dictated more by context than truth-function:  “One  excellent  prime minister,” I always reply with uncharacteristic speed and momentary fluency in Turkish, “… one very excellent prime minister, indeed.”

The television that blares in the barbershop has brought  both the English language and the words of leaders other than Tayyip — Barack Obama among them — into the lives and speech of my barber and his family.  A few weeks ago, my barber made a slight change the cut of my hair, razoring away some sparse, lonely hairs, hold-outs from the former expanse of my once lush hairline.  “Well, do you like it?”  he asked.  As I contemplated my newly high forehead, my barber’s eight-year-old son, visiting the shop on a day off from school, expressed his judgment before I could form a verdict of my own.  “Number One!,” he shouted in self-consciously American-accented English, “Number One … ‘Yes We  Can’, ‘Yes We Can’, ‘Yes We Can!’.”

Although my barber does not speak English as well as his son does, his ear for the language is no less refined.  On my most  recent visit to his shop,  the voices of a group of  American women enthusiastically eying goods in a third-world market blared  from a Discovery Channel documentary.  Cringing at the sound, my barber raised his voice a few octaves, adopted a nasal tone, and screeched: “Quack,quack, quack,  Oh-My-God … Oh-My-God, quack, quack, quack.”

An American Penchant

My barber’s imitation of American speech was no surprise.  Go anywhere in the world and the nasal screech of  American female (and sometimes male) voices will cut through the softer tones and relatively low murmur of local speech.  Strangely, a third of a century ago, American voices sounded quite different.  In the years since, flat Boston accents and rounded New York ones, crisp mid-western twangs, and lilting southern drawls somehow have all mutated into a uniform high-pitched, high-speed nasal buzz.  And, sometime during the same period,  “Oh-My-God” and the feigned tone of surprise with which it is blurted emerged as even more stereotypical of  the limits of American vocabularies than the overuse of the stop-word “like” and repeated interjections of  “cool” and  “awesome”.

The rise of “Oh-My-God” represents a flattening of emotions as well as of language.  Repeated screams of “Oh-My-God” — as often as not underscored by spastic body movements and flailing  arms — have become Americans’ stock responses, positive and negative, to unexpected  events from the banal, to the awe-inspiring, to the tragic.  Office gossip, sunsets, double-entendres, items on sale, moments of erotic ecstasy, deaths in the family,  unexpected appearances of rock stars, and tragedies as immense as the 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the current disaster and suffering in Haiti all elicit the same response —  “Oh-My-God,” indeed.  Could it be that the biblical prohibition against taking the name of God in vain was offered in part to yield the secular benefit of ensuring that we match our responses and emotions to the significance and worth of what conjures them forth?  And what about the deity or deities that screamers of “Oh-My-God” claim as their own?  Is it not unwise and unkind  to distract him/her/it?them from higher concerns with repeated screams for attention?

Still, “Oh-My-God,” represents but a humorous sideshow in the misuse of the divine name.  During World War I, Allied propaganda made grist of German artillery shells  stamped with the words “Gott ist mit Uns,” (God is with Us). (And, by the way, look at how far Imperial Germany’s divinely sanctioned munitions got them.) . To use another example from the same conflict, those who know theater history (New York’s “Group Theatre,” specifically) might remember the haunting scene from the Kurt Weil musical  Johnny Johnson (an absurdist take-off on Jaroslav Hasek”s satire of war Good Soldier Schweik) in which identically dressed priests simultaneously bless and invoke God’s name in English and German on behalf of the troops massed for battle on their respective sides of the front lines.  Even in the course of my my own lifetime, I remember, from the hottest days of the Cold War,  the mandatory insertion, as a talisman against the specter of nuclear attack, of the words “(one nation) under God”  into the compulsory Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States once recited each morning by public school students throughout the country.

To return to the present, all US currency, paper and coin, bears the words “In God We Trust,”  an apt statement of the hiving off of human responsibility and avoidance of  intervention that could have staved off fiscal and economic calamity and prevented the dollar’s nose-dive fall against the non-divinely-protected Euro.  During American political campaigns, candidates from  “both sides of the aisle” refer to and invoke God just about as often as do the leaders of countries that America  labels “fundamentalist.”  Could it be that the mealy-mouthed piety of American politicians and the collective din of millions upon millions of needless “Oh-My-Gods” constituted a sufficient violation of “…not taking the name of God in vain” as to prompt a divinely-afflicted plague of financial disasters, mortgage defaults, and unemployment? Sound absurd? It is no less absurd than what follows …

A Nation Without Infrastructure

A recent “Op Ed” article in the New York Times by author James Wood described the patent danger of Pat Robertson’s idiotic pronouncement that the recent  earthquake in Haiti was divine retribution for its people’s history of “idolatry.” However, the article also treats the less obvious dangers of Americans’ smug pronouncements of “… there but for the grace of God go we.”   Better to leave the deity alone and to look first at tectonics and geophysics and then, as odd as it may first sound, turn to a topic I’ve posted on extensively in the past on this site  and hope to return to in the weeks to come:  Infrastructure.   Stronger earthquakes than the one in Haiti have struck locales in the “developed” world and occasioned far less destruction, carnage,and suffering.  In such cases, the infrastructure of urban and regional life could far better withstand the shock, and the infrastructures of  transportation, medical, and social service could were sufficient to handle the aftermath.  As a poor country in the shadow of a rich neighbor, Haiti is infrastructurally weak on all counts.  Where could the money come from to finally begin to boost Haiti’s economy and bring its infrastructure  up to snuff?  In a recent Facebook post, Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer noted that the annual gross national product of Haiti is but 20% of the bonus pool of one of the major investment banks!  And to that even I, albeit with an old-fashioned Lower East Side accented growl rather than a nasal whine, am almost tempted to say:  “O-My-God!”  But, rather than “take the name in vain,” I’ll simply quote the words of an old-fashioned Harlem heavy in Gordon Parks’s original version of “Shaft” as he described his partner having been tossed out of a window by the film’s hero. “That’s some cold s*#@,” he said slowly; some very cold s*#@, indeed.

Posted in Infrastructure, Istanbul, Language, Religion | 3 Comments »

In Bulgaria – In Principle

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 25, 2009

Another country, another language, other realities …

I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria this past Sunday night and quickly made the transition back to the Bulgarian language and to looking at the world through its constructs.

My favorite expression in Bulgarian is “po printsip,” literally “in principle” but actually the foundation for a separate reality in which all is as it should or at least could be. The positing of a parallel realm makes the imperfections of the more immediate world seem illusory and unworthy of thought or attention.

On Monday morning, I ventured out onto the iced-over streets of Sofia (note: Sofiotes do not clear sidewalks of ice; winter is winter and ice is part of it) for chores, a stroll, and an early lunch. My first stop was the dry-cleaner. A sign posted over its entry promised two-hour cleaning but when I asked when my trousers would be ready for pick-up I was told to come back Wednesday. When I mentioned the sign outside, the clerk replied, “Yes, po printsip everything could be ready in two hours but we haven’t done two-hour cleaning in years.” My next stop was an academic bookstore to track down a title on the history and geography of medieval Thrace. “Do you have the book?” I asked the clerk. The response: “Po printsip we do, but we don’t.” “Well, will you have it sometime soon?” “Po printsip we will, but it is out-of-stock and out-of-print.”

Unencumbered by purchases and free of the obligation of reading the book, I walked to a familiar non-fashionable neighborhood restaurant famed amongst local television and radio types for its grilled spiced meat patties and accompanying cabbage and carrot salad, baked beans, and reliably pure grape brandy. I had stopped at the restaurant at 8:30 the night before but had found it empty and closed. I asked the waiter if the restaurant still worked on Sundays. “Yes,” he answered, “we’re open every day from eleven in the morning until eleven at night, po printsip.” “Po printsip,” I affirmed, “but you were closed last night. “Yes, we were but, po printsip, we are always open.” I remembered a conversation I had in the same restaurant many years ago with a very beautiful colleague who worked at a nearby film studio. “Well,” I said, observing her wedding-ring, “you are married.” “Yes.” “And,” I added with obligatory Balkan flirtatiousness, “you are faithful to your husband?” “Yes,” she replied,“… po printsip.”

Enough said. It is 4pm and I should finish up the day’s work, po printsip.

Posted in Bulgaria, Language | 13 Comments »

Investigating the Presidential Crisis: Bush, Obama, Ford, and H.G. Wells

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 18, 2009

Further to my last post on investigating the financial crisis, Paul Krugman wrote these words in the New York Times last week on the dangers of President Obama’s not investigating or prosecuting the Bush administration’s abuses of office.  Ala investigating the financial crisis, investigating the “presidential crisis” is part and parcel of going forward.  Not doing so, even in interest of national unity or of not looking backward, as Obama would have it, is reminiscent of Gerald Ford’s all-too-quick, all-too-blanket pardon of Nixon.  Krugman:

“… if we don’t have an inquest into what happened during the Bush years — and nearly everyone has taken Mr. Obama’s remarks to mean that we won’t — this means that those who hold power are indeed above the law because they don’t face any consequences if they abuse their power.  Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. It’s not just torture and illegal wiretapping, whose perpetrators claim, however implausibly, that they were patriots acting to defend the nation’s security. The fact is that the Bush administration’s abuses extended from environmental policy to voting rights. And most of the abuses involved using the power of government to reward political friends and punish political enemies.”

Also last week, by coincidence, Anu Garg, the creator of the magnificent site wordsmith.org, shipped out this quote from H.G. Wells along with his a.word.a.day mailing:

“A time will come when a politician who has willfully made war and promoted international dissension will be as sure of the dock and much surer of the noose than a private homicide. It is not reasonable that those who gamble with men’s lives should not stake their own.” -H.G. Wells, (1866-1946)

Other recent timely quotes on Garg’s daily mailings:

“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” -John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006)

and

“Corporation: n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” – Ambrose Bierce 1842-1914

In honor of President Obama’s inauguration, Anu Garg announced that all this week a.word.a.day will feature unusual words taken from Obama’s writings.  For unlike most US politicians, Garg reminds us, Obama is literate and energetic enough to write his own books and not resort to ghostwriters.

Posted in Commentary, Language, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Viktor Klemperer, Values-Based Identity, German and Dutch Perspectives Online, and Two Glorious Mistranslations

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 19, 2008

Links to my recent piece on The Language of the Third Reich and the Politics of Middle Names led me to two articles in the English-language online edition of the German news magazine Der Spiegel treating German-Jewish wartime diarist and analyst of totalitarian language, Viktor Klemperer.  The first article contains an excerpt from an entry in Klemperer’s diary written in the aftermath of the firebombing of Dresden.  The second article refers to a diary entry written earlier in the war in which Klemperer poses the conundrum that, based on enlightenment values, it is he who is German and the Nazis and their supporters — the very people who exclude him from German identity and, in the end, the very right to live — who are un-German and destroyers of all that is German.  Klemperer’s entry poses the opposition of values-based communities to contrived 19th and 20th century concepts of race-, ethnicity-, and language-based nation states having exclusive title to present and promised geographic territories.

Both articles appeared in Spiegel Online International which, despite its somewhat Time magazine-like style, is an excellent window though which monolingual Anglophones can observe European affairs and opinions up close, as well as US affairs through European eyes.  Americans often hold forth about the arrogance and condescension of Europeans towards them but, quite oddly, few if any Americans ever read the European press.

Spiegel Online International appears on the web in association with nrc.nl, the English-language web presence of the NRC Handelsblad, the erudite albeit sometimes pompous paper-of-record of the Netherlands.  The realization of a combined Dutch-German news presence online says much about the efforts Western Europe has made to transcend national differences and wartime scars.  It also says much about the power of the internet to erode artificial distinctions of national mindsets. (Note to Blackberry and iPhone users: Spiegel Online is also available in a mobile edition).

Glorious Mistranslations

Among the features of nrc.nl is its Denglish blog, a regularly updated compendium of malapropism-like mistranslations.  The editor of Denglish asks readers to submit their favorite Dutch-English linguistic confusions.  Here, thus, are two of mine:

1. Supporting the Undertaker

At a meeting of the World Economic Forum during the 1970s, Joop Den Uyl, leader of the Netherlands’ Labor Party (PvdA) spoke on the role of labor-private sector rapprochement in strengthening his country’s economy.  Den Uyl proudly announced: “In Holland we social-democrats always support the undertaker!” (The Dutch word for entrepreneur is ondernemer, literally under-taker.)

2. Equine Sex

Some years later, the Netherlands’ conservative Christian Democrat Premier Dries van Agt, when asked by Margeret Thatcher what he planned to do in his upcoming retirement, confided: “Madame, I plan to fuck horses.”  (Fokken is the Dutch verb meaning  “to breed.”)  Legend has it that the Iron Lady replied without missing a beat: “I wish you success!”

Posted in History, Identity, Internet, Language, Links, Media, National Identity | 5 Comments »

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 »

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?

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

Palin and Language, McCain and Strategy, “Supporting Our Troops,” and Alfred E. Newman Redux

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 6, 2008

Like half of the population of the United States (i.e. the half that opposes the Republicans) I had intended to write about vice-presidential candidate Palin’s misuse of language and deformation of facts and logic during the televised debate with Democrat Joe Biden last Thursday.  However, better and brighter people beat me to the punch.  And, as often as not, the best and the brightest is Bob Herbert of the New York Times.  Click here for Herbert’s incisive Palin’s Alternate Universe.

McCain and Strategy

Equally worthy of merit, but far less known, are the reflections of Jan Searls, a retired career naval officer and sister of my long-time friend and colleague Doc Searls.  In a short piece buried deep in the comments section of Doc’s weblog — so deep, in fact, that I won’t post a customary link — Jan debunked Palin’s snide aside that Biden did not know the difference between “strategy and tactics.”

Tactics without strategy, Jan notes, is what enmeshed America in the Vietnam War.  She adds that it has also been the hallmark of the Bush Administration in Iraq, in its so-called “War on Terror,” and, by extension, in its domestic policy.  On the basis of her decades in the military, Jan Searls deflates John McCain’s supposed mastery of strategy and tactics by pointing out that: “… McCain never was a leader in the well-honed military sense. He went from playboy plebe to pilot to POW to politician.”

“Supporting Our Troops”

In the jingoistic language of US political discourse the phrase “supporting our troops” has become confused and conflated with presidential requests to — and Republican candidates’ conviction that we should — send more troops and materiel to Iraq.  The real support to the troops is taking place at the grassroots level and in the Obama camp.  Examples: Retired naval officer Jan Searls is out this weekend knocking on doors in rural North Carolina on behalf of the Obama campaign.  My good friend and neighbor Eric Werthman, a psychotherapist, filmmaker, and life-long political activist, is doing the same in the depressed small towns of southeastern Pennsylvania.  Eric, by the way, provides free-of-charge therapy and counseling to Iraq War veterans with problems of adjustment, rage, and what is now called “PTSD” (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the “Shell Shock” of past generations).  In his own private time, thus, Eric does what the Republicans refuse to do, provide Americans, veterans in this case, with the support they need but often cannot access or afford.

Footnote 1: Twisted Language and Twisted Logic, Afghanistan-style

Late last year, I met up with a long-time acquaintance who is a high-ranking US diplomat in Afghanistan.  When I asked him the state of the pursuit of Bin Laden and the subduing of the Taliban, he answered: “The Taliban is finished.”  How did he know this, I asked.  “Simple,” he replied, “they are committing more attacks on civilians in urban areas … a definite sign that they are desperate and on their last legs.”  Hopefully, in the time since, he has spoken with the general whose name Palin cannot remember.

Footnote 2: “What, Me Worry?”

I’ve tried to keep a somewhat professional tone in posts to this site, so forgive me the following lapse (although few things I would say could match the obscenity of the Republican opposition to ensuring Americans with the health care that is considered matter of course in other “first world” nations*).

For the last months, I’ve had a nagging feeling that I’d seen Governor Palin before.  And then, I remembered.  (Note: to understand this, one must have wasted a portion of one’s youth reading Mad Magazine in its golden years.)  Palin is the spitting image of … Mad’s signature idiot Alfred E. Newman (alias Melvin Coznowski).  But in drag!  And in heat!  Note the protruding ears, the shining eyes, the wrinkle-fee brow, and the smile masking … absolutely nothing.  Mad afficianados will not be surprised if in a future malapropism Palin refers to the US commander in Afghanistan ala Mad as  “General Potrzebezi.” Palin’s motor-mouth presentation and seeming lack of logic struck another familiar note … the onstage persona of American comedienne Kathy Griffin, whose non-stop patter and unexpected mid-sentence swerves in subject matter turn her appearances on CNN’s Larry King Live into a dadaist comeuppance.

*For a concise comparison of the consequences of McCain’s and Obama’s approaches to health care, go to Paul Krugman’s Health Care Destruction in today’s New York Times

Posted in Commentary, Language, Politics | 2 Comments »

“Selamat Hari Raya” Indeed!: Eid and Roshashoneh and the Infrastructure of the Internet

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 30, 2008

In a post this morning, Doc Searls pointed to the number-four-ranking thread on Twitter being Selamat Hari Raya.  My comment on Doc’s post:

Selamat Hari Raya, indeed! If my memory serves me well: “A great good morning (dawn?),” somewhat ala have-a-nice-day, but far less banal.* It is nostalgic for me to read Malay/”Indonesian”. Lovely sentiments on a day that is both Eid and Roshashoneh. To Muslim and Jewish friends both, a sweet holiday and healthy year. To Christian friends similar wishes and the hope that they — as peoples of all religious backgrounds — will grow in their knowledge and appreciation of the “others” in their midst.

PS. Bravo for showing this small but important bit of proof that the net and web and social networking are no longer exclusively American or Western.

To add a few more words: Allow me to be possibly the only person on the entire Web to offer appropriate, albeit secularized, Muslim and Jewish holiday wishes to all in the the unlikely combination of Turkish and Yiddish.  Thus, from my heart: “Iyi Bayramlar!” and “Ah Gezunt Yohr!”  (Note: This seemingly odd linguistic mix will make sense to those familiar with the name and subject matter of my alter-ego weblog, Bubkes.Org)

To clarify my above-mentioned nostalgia, Malay and “Bahasa Indonesia” (the language of the Republic of Indonesia) are important to me for several reasons.  When I worked in Israel almost four decades ago, amongst my dearest friends were Dutch Jews with family connections to Surabaya.  During the 1970s, I worked on-and-off in Indonesia and spent months at a time in Jakarta and in rural Sumatra, as well as in Kalimantan (Borneo) and out on the Java Sea.  Most important, my dear step-daughter Floor has roots in Java, her mother having been born and raised in Surabaya.  And, not to forget, Floor’s grandmother and plethora of widowed great-aunts regularly fed me with excellent Javanese home cooking during a number of the years I lived in the The Hague.

The Infrastructure of the Internet

As I frequently mention on this site, Doc Searls and I are involved in a number of initiatives pertaining to “framing” the nature of — and influencing the future of — the infrastructure of the Internet.  As Doc regularly points out, many people confuse the Web with the Internet, the non-physical infrastructure that enables the Web.  The Internet, Doc notes, is an incorporeal aggregation of protocols and agreements and, as such, is fundamentally different from all past forms of infrastructure.  I invariably chime in that the Internet and its ability to host an emergent “giant brain” of information and processes are carried in turn by an underlying infrastructure that is indeed physical and quite traditional.  And, increasingly, this infrastructure is located outside of the US, thus raising issues of security, use, and governance that are not identical with issues faced or perceived by Americans.  For the latest addition to world’s internet/telephony infrastructure see Six Telecom Firms Finish Cable Across the Pacific in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. (Disclaimer: My apologies if the link to this article expires after seven days.  The Wall Street Journal not only charges a substantial fee for subscriptions to its on-line edition, it is also niggardly to the extreme in its provision of permalinks.  As solid and professional as the Journal’s news content may be, its commercial policies reflect the mercenary profit-oriented and conservative stance of its editorial page.)

Footnote: Friends have let me know that my translation is too literal.  In use, Selamat Hari Raya is the traditional salutation used at Eid.

Posted in Food, Infrastructure, Internet, Language, Religion, Telecommunications | Leave a Comment »

The Etymology of Infrastructure and the Infrastructure of the Internet

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 22, 2008

Last week, I received a query from Doc Searls, who was working on an article on the infrastructure of the internet for the Publius Papers, a series of short internet-related think-pieces published by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law.

Doc’s question: What did I know about the etymology and history of the word: “infrastructure”?  — a simple matter on the surface but one that cuts to the heart, not only of Doc’s subject, i.e. how the internet functions and what is required to sustain it, but also to the core of how polities enable their economies and serve their citizens, a matter at the crux of the present financial disasters and economic instability in the US.

Dictionary

A quick internet search (Merriam-Webster online) brought this crisp, near-tautological definition plus tantalizing reference to the word’s relatively recent origin:

Pronunciation: \ˈin-frə-ˌstrək-chər, -(ˌ)frä-\ Function: noun. Date:1927

1: the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of a system or organization)
2: the permanent installations required for military purposes
3: the system of public works of a country, state, or region ; also : the resources (as personnel, buildings, or equipment) required for an activity
— in·fra·struc·tur·al -ˌstrək-chə-rəl, -ˌstrək-shrəl\ adjective

Americanism?

A look at my bookshelves brought more surprising results.  “Infrastructure” does not appear in my 1970s Concise Oxford Dictionary and in my Oxford Thesaurus of the same period it is listed only as a synonym for “base.”  But, “infrastructure” is listed in a run-of-the-mill American dictionary of the time (Grollier) which defines it as a “foundation” and as “… the permanent structures of a military organization, esp. those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

The absence of “infrastructure” in the Oxford and its presence in the Grollier suggest that the word had been an Americanism at the time.  But what about the tantalizing reference in Merriam Webster to the 1927 debut of the word?  A trip to the New York Public Library and some rummaging within the microfilm collection of the Library’s business division (located in the magnificent neo-Renaissance pallace-like building on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue that once housed B. Altman’s department store, a mainstay of New York’s 19th- and 20th-century retail sector) began to bring clarity.

From French Railroads to NATO and the Cold War

Infrastructure indeed entered the English language as a loan word from French in which it had been a railroad engineering term.  A 1927 edition of the Oxford indeed mentioned the word in the context of “… the tunnels, bridges, culverts, and ‘infrastructure work’ of the French railroads.”  After World War II, “infrastructure” reemerged as in-house jargon within NATO, this time referring to fixed installations necessary for the operations of armed forces and to capital investments considered necessary to secure the security of Europe.

From Socially-Financed Prerequisites to Ideological Weapon

Within my own memory the use of the word “infrastructure” had spilled into the contexts of urban management and regions national development and into the private sector.  During my stint as a graduate student at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School for Social Research during the early 1970s, “infrastructure” was used to refer to those massive capital investments (water, subways, roads, bridges, tunnels, schools, hospitals, etc.) necessary to city’s economy and the lives of its inhabitants and businesses enterprises but too massive and too critical to be conceived, implemented, and run at a profit or to be trusted to the private sector.

Around the same time, the word had spread to the world of international development agencies where it took on a distinctly cold war ideological slant.  The best way to fight the spread of communism, it was argued, was to ensure local prosperity and economic stability (but, sadly, not the equitable distribution of wealth!) which could most quickly and effectively take place if all underlying necessities (water, power, roads, public transportation, etc.) were put in place through massive capital development projects whether financed by donations or by loans that would ensure the fealty of recipient nations for decades.

From Engineering to Abandonment

By the mid1970s, the word “infrastructure” took yet another turn, this time within the private sector.  From 1974-1982 I worked in Europe and Asia for one of the larger engineering and construction companies of the time.  At the time, in the world of oil refining, petrochemicals, and “process” plants, “infrastructure,” referred to those social or governmental capital investments — roads, sewerage, water sources, electrical power, and other “utilities” — that were necessary for manufacturing but the provision of which did not fall within the scope of a single project, the “battery limits” of an industrial facility, or the commercial “feedstocks” that were are the raw materials for industrial processes.

During the 1990’s, I worked on a number of investment attraction agencies and local projects in the Netherlands in which the provision of infrastructure was used both as a chip and bargaining point in the Dutch government’s and local authorities’ repeatably successful attempts to lure companies to locate their European operations in the country.

In recent years, in the United States at least, infrastructure is a word widely used but an aspect of economic life and social cohesion known more by its collapse and abandonment and raffling off to the private sector than by its implementation, well-functioning, and expansion.

Further Investigation

At the moment, I am involved in research in a number of aspects of what infrastructure is and what its provision entails.

With Doc Searls and Kevin Barron (Institute for Theoritcal Physics, University of California at Santa Barbara), JP Rangaswami (British Telecom) and others, I am investigating what the infrastructure of the internet now is, could/should be, and how to best implement this.

Within the concept of urban studies and the contemporary home ownership and loan flim-flam, defaults, and financial disaster in the US, I am looking at the tension between two historical approaches, i.e. housing as infrastructure and housing as commodity.  As an analogue, I am also looking at the paradigmatic abandonment of socially financed public transport to privately-owned automobiles.

Further afield but surprisingly germane, I am digging into the effects of infrastructural change on the fabric of historical cities (Istanbul specifically) and the means and institutions that enabled the former Ottoman Empire to maintain the infrastructure of cities and trade for the better part of a millennium.

More to follow on each of these subjects …

Posted in Cities, Economy, History, Infrastructure, Internet, Language, Libraries | 3 Comments »

Ancestors Up-the-River, Soundex Databases, and George Bernard Shaw Spells “Fish”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 6, 2008

Further to my post a few days ago on Meyer Lansky‘s slogan “keep your business under your hat,” I offer the following link (via researcher and writer Ron Arons): a Soundex-based database of Jewish inmates at New York State’s legendary Sing-Sing prison, the waterside location of which may have given to American slang the phrase “up-the-river” as a synonym for incarceration. The database can clear up family mysteries and dispel illusions of familial or ethno-religious rectitude. For me, it may have clarified a childhood memory of my mother confiding that one of my paternal uncles — who I remember as a gentle-faced, soft-spoken and hardworking Brooklyn “cabbie” — had been “sent-up-the-river” for burglary during the Great Depression.

Soundex, by the way, is a venerable attempt to impose an overlay of logic on the wonderful non-standardized accretion that is English-language orthography. Not only does Soundex offer a way to conjoin disparate spellings and similar names (e.g. “Liebowitz” and “Leibowitz” and “Leibourtz,” as in the case on the paternal side of my own family), it also offers a way around George Bernard Shaw’s classic critique that in English “fish” could just as well be spelled “ghiti” (i.e. using the “gh” of “tough” and the “ti” of “condition”).

Posted in Books, History, Language, Links, Popular Culture, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

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 »

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”!!!

Posted in Change, Commentary, Identity, Language, Media, Popular Culture | Leave a Comment »

Identity and Open Space, Privacy and “Gezelligheid”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 16, 2007

Almost three weeks have passed since the Open Space Conference on Internet Identity held in Brussels under the aegis of the Liberty Alliance and deftly organized and facilitated by Kaliya Hamlin. For me, the conference was a revelation, a multidisciplinary exchange of ideas and accomplishment that brought me up-to-date on web identity issues and technology and in touch with a score of intelligent, energetic specialists on both the tech and visionary sides.

Flemish and Dutch

The siting of the conference in Brussels also gave me a chance to exercise not only my French but also my Dutch or, more accurately, my Nederlands Nederlands being the common language of both the Netherlands (Holland to many English-speakers) and the Flemish population of contiguous Belgium. Once an amalgam of dialects, Nederlands was standardized a little more than a century ago and is still watched over by an official academic commission that periodically updates and streamlines the language and symbolically guards it against foreign intrusions. Indeed, unlike English, which has evolved and mutated for a millennium on a foundation of mutual consent, many continental European languages have been artificially shaped by fiats from above. (More on the relation between languages and group identities in future postings).

Gezelligheid

One of the most stereotypical and possibly overused words in Nederlands is gezelligheid — literally “sociability” but better understood as a combination of coziness and conviviality. Despite its over-use, however, the word remains far from banal. Gezelligheid refers to the warmth one feels in the comfort of one’s own space and the company of close friends and acquaintances — a flush feeling of trust, security, and safety in the midst of a teeming larger society. Indeed, the Netherlands and Belgium are among the most densely populated states in the developed world and periodic enjoyment of gezelligheid is a key to sanity and survival. As distinct from the rugged individualism that many Americans claim to aspire to, Gezelligheid involves a retreat into immediate community rather than into monadic self-sufficiency. In gezelligheid, one transcends self by momentarily being part of a group of one’s choosing. Because the Netherlands is not only communal society but also a very successful commercial one as well, most Dutch-speakers know that all things have a price. The price of gezelligheid is continuous compromise, avoidance of conflict, and the acceptance of the presence and manifest self-interest of others.

On the surface, gezelligheid describes a number of features of the Brussels conference. The method of the conference, Open Space — the on-the-spot generation of an agenda by allowing each and every participant to post their interests — embodied gezelligheid at its best. A delicious, relaxed, laughter-filled, post-conference dinner at a street-side-cafe-restaurant arranged by Philippe Borremans and joined by Doc Searls, Adriana Lukas, Kaliya Hamlin, Ben Laurie, and this writer was a memorable case-study in leisure-time gezelligheid.

On a deeper level, the concept of gezelligheid lends insight into a number of identity-related issues, not least the debate over web privacy. At the conference, I noticed a distinct difference between the viewpoints and concerns of many US and Dutch attendees. At the risk of over simplifying, the Dutch seemed more relaxed about balancing societal and individual needs and less concerned than Americans about the potential malevolence of prying institutions, marketers and advertisers, and other data miners. The Dutch also seemed as much attendant to the the obligations of manifesting an online identity as to the benefits of creating one. A few examples follow …

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