It’s a disgrace that the mainstream news media don’t consider John Yoo to be a disgraced figure.

John Yoo is torturing the public with a campaign to deny Elena Kagan confirmation to the Supreme Court.  First he came out with a piece that appeared on Op/Ed pages all over the country last weekend castigating Kagan for actions regarding military recruiters while dean of the Harvard Law School.   I saw the article in both the Pittsburgh/Greensburg Tribune Review and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Then earlier this week, Yoo put Kagan through the verbal equivalent of a waterboarding session for what he said was her propensity to weaken the power of the executive branch, an absurd claim considering her past experience and statements.

With these articles, not only does Yoo want to make a case against Kagan, he also wants to set the terms of the debate over her confirmation. 

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time analyzing the specious rhetoric Yoo employs in both these articles.  Instead I want to put his campaign to discredit Kagan into a historical perspective.

Yoo is an old hand at using the pen to promulgate lies.  Remember, he is the author of the Justice Department memo that said, among other things, that:

  • Waterboarding is not torture
  • Torture does not begin until injury to a vital organ
  • If the President of the United States orders it, it isn’t torture
  • The President is not bound by any international agreements regarding torture.

Now Yoo and the right-wing foundations and associations that pay him are entitled to their opinion, and the news media are certainly free to publish whoever’s views on whatever issues they like.

But I ask, with so many possible opponents to Kagan’s nomination out there, why publish Yoo?  Shouldn’t he be a disgraced figure who hangs his head in shame somewhere?  As one of the prime facilitators of the torture operation that has embarrassed our country around the world, shouldn’t he be hiding in a corner someplace for about a decade?  Don’t editors realize that by giving him a major say on another issue that they are in a profound sense giving credence to his views on torture, because they have not acted as if these views do not invalidate him in other areas?

Wouldn’t we be outraged if we learned that after World War II, Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, was routinely chiming in his opinion on who Prime Minister Adenauer should be appointing to key ministerial posts?  Closer to home, didn’t President Nixon go through a long period after resigning from the presidency before his opinions about politics and world events showed up in the media again?

While I despise Yoo for his lack of humanity and legal ethics, I do not begrudge him his attempt to redeem himself by being useful once more to the autocratic part of the right wing, that is, those like Dick Cheney who conceive of the role of president as more of a King with unfettered rights.

But as far as the news media goes, for shame for allowing Mr. Yoo’s opinion into your newspaper for any other purpose than to defend himself and his torture lawyer buddies. 

I’d like to close this entry with an anti-torture poem I wrote a few years back that’s in my book, Music from Words.  The poem takes the form of a dream within a dream, but I assure you, everything that happens in the poem has been well-documented to have occurred to prisoners in Bush’s worldwide torture gulag.


Dreaming, soldiers lug me from the plane
despite my claims, American citizen,
blinded, neck between my knees,
ankles cuffed to wrists
motors whining, grumbling,
cars and planes and cars again.
Where am I? What did I do?
Why can’t I call my wife?

I wake to driving my taxi.
Rocks explode the windshield.
I’m probing for damage
when soldiers engulf me,
sic leashed dogs, at my buttocks nipping,
cell me, strip me, chain me to a bed.
Booming trumpets ram my eardrums,
scorching flood lights detonate
dissolving eyelids, aching pupils.

I wake, moved to another cell,
wake again and moved again,
wake again and moved again,
wake and moved, wake and moved.

I wake to sear of burning cigarette
milled in ear, pushed to ground,
log-rolled over steaming excrement,
try to focus, pleasant memories,
wife and children, figs and coffee.

I wake hooded, naked
above another naked man
whose penis touches my rectum
below another naked man
whose rectum touches my penis
whose body’s warmness teases me
to shameful reluctant erection.
Pulled from the pile, hood punched off,
I see a dozen hooded naked men
heaped to squalid pyramid of flesh
and a large gun pointed
by a soldier yelling, Jerk off, hajji
while a woman in soldier’s garb
tapes my performance,
other soldiers laughing.

I wake submerged,
head held firmly underwater
by muscular ropes to boards,
ever louder squall of heart,
gasping, heaving, frenzied gurgles,
ever hotter burning crush of chest,
maiming claws at guts and lungs,
tingles creeping, penetrating every limb,
growing weary, fading, watery, confused …

I wake to tranquil breathing: my wife,
gentle whir: the dryer downstairs,
muffled roar: an SUV rumbles past our window.
The heavy pounding in my chest
gradually calms to regular beat
as I tell myself it was only a dream.

That day you shoveled snow or the report of a scientific agency. Which do you believe in the global warming debate?

Perhaps my favorite weekly feature in the news media is “Earthweek: A Diary of the Planet,” which I read on page two of the Saturday Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Earthweek is a compendium of five or six small stories about weather or geology related events that occurred in the prior week, for example, monsoons, tornadoes, plagues, discoveries of new species or earthquakes. Each story has a little circular icon by it, which is also placed on a map of the world which comes with the feature. 

This past weekend, Earthweek’s lead story was about the latest analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  (NOAA) that found that so far, 2010 is the hottest year in the record books, which started in the late 1800’s.  And believe it or not, the extent of snow cover in North America was the smallest since those records have been kept in 1967.

I’d like to go beyond the obvious question of why this NOAA release of data was so little publicized in the mainstream media.  I think it’s clear by now that high on the agenda of virtually all the news media is keeping the controversy about the validity of global warming alive, despite the overwhelming evidence and acceptance by the scientific community that global warming is occurring. 

Instead, I want to use this analysis of the first four months of the year to talk about the power of anecdotal evidence.  When I first read about the NOAA data, I immediately thought of all those right-wing lie-mongers like Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh scoffing at global warming in the dead of winter with 30 inches of snow on the ground.  They expected that their audience would place more credence in what they are feeling at the moment than on the mountain of studies about warmest years on record and retreating snow lines that has accumulated over the past two decades.

That’s the emotional power of the anecdote.  Each cold day is an anecdote of weather, just as Willie Horton and Reagan’s imagined welfare queens were anecdotes of grave threats to civil society;  just as the weak and powerless people that presidents since Reagan have taken to parading before the nation during State of the Union speeches are anecdotes of inspiration.

Anecdotal evidence is always based on a story, whether it’s the time you saw a dark-faced youth rob someone on the subway to the slow growing throb of cold pain in your hands when you’re into the second hour of shoveling out your car.

Anecdotal evidence works best when the anecdote symbolizes the message of the speaker, and it seems to be most powerful when it runs counter to facts but with the flow of belief.  For that reason, anecdotal thinking thrives wherever there is a clash between faith and science, with the side of faith more prone to making the anecdotal argument.

I believe that the best argument is one that is based on the facts but uses anecdotes to serve as examples of those facts.  In this way, you appeal to both the head with facts and the heart with stories that bring the facts to life.  But beware anybody who tells you the story, but doesn’t give you the facts. 

By the way, in the vast scheme of things, four months is also anecdotal, in that the warmest four months in recorded history could occur as an aberration during an extended cold spell.  But in fact, as NOAA and other statistics have proven, the earth has been rapidly warming over the past two centuries to the point that it is changing environments and weather patterns.

Why did the mainstream news media wait until after the primary to begin dumping on Rand Paul?

The news media unleashed a tsunami of stories about comments Rand Paul’s made on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, with almost 2,700 stories coming up on Google news within 48 hours.  Adam Nagourney and Carl Hulse wrote the base story for the front page of the May 21 edition of the New York Times.

Pundits from across the spectrum of opinion weighed in. Some rightfully excoriated R-Paul for making absurd statements such as his belief that private businesses have the right to refuse to serve African-Americans; for example David Gans on The Huffington Post.  Others offered principled explanations, such as the attempt of the Wall Street Journal to put R-Paul’s offensive remarks in the context of a libertarian movement that the Journal’s writer Jonathan Weisman claims began as a reaction to FDR’s New Deal.

Before speculating on the broader significance of what looks on the surface to be a sudden outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease, I want to analyze a part of the first Times article in which R-Paul demonstrates that he is completely stone deaf not only to minorities, but to his own Tea Party supporters:

Mr. Paul also found himself on the defensive on Thursday when he sought to justify his decision to hold his election night celebration at a country club in Bowling Green, arguing that was not in any way at variance with the grass-roots movement he has come to epitomize.

I think at one time, people used to think of golf and golf clubs and golf courses as being exclusive,” Mr. Paul said in an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” adding, “Tiger Woods has helped to broaden that, in the sense that he’s brought golf to a lot of the cities and to city youth.”

First, R-Paul ignores the question completely because his answer focuses on minorities and the question concerned his movement, which has been well-documented to consist of fairly well-off whites living in far suburbs and rural areas.  What R-Paul is trying to do is bring minorities into his lily white tent, which consists of a lot of people who feel right at home in country clubs.  But R-Paul shows his finger is on nobody’s pulse when he hails Tiger Woods, who is currently still in semi-disgrace, as proof that minorities go to country clubs, which then for mysterious reasons justifies having his election night celebration in a country club.  Minority admissions to historically segregated country clubs may or may not be up, but the greatest golfer in the world certainly doesn’t prove it, since he gets a free pass as a celebrity.  And isn’t it a bit insulting to both African-Americans and his own constituency of middle aged, money white suburbanites to hold up as an example someone who has never really done anything for civil rights and has now scandalized himself with his bad behavior (which I still think was nobody’s business but his family’s and his).

In fact like his comments on the Civil Rights Act, holding his party at a country club was a subtle but easy-to-understand message to his core constituency.  It’s an ugly racist message at heart, no matter how much he pretties it up with libertarian abstractions.  And it’s obvious it’s been part of R-Paul’s bag of campaign tricks all along. Frank Rich dates 2002 as the earliest point one can start tracking R-Paul’s anti-Civil Rights Act rap.

So why didn’t the news media say anything about R-Paul’s obnoxious views regarding civil rights before the election?  The media should have been salivating over R-Paul’s incendiary comments, as they represent the very type of detail from which reporters can build a campaign narrative about a “horse race” and not the issues.

There is a long history of the news media building up candidates in the primaries only to tear them down during the election, or of building up candidates during the election only to tear them down once they have won.  The classic example is the Watergate burglary, which was downplayed until Nixon had trounced McGovern.  But think of the case of Michael Dukakis, who could do no wrong in the news media until he was nominated, giving the Democrats perhaps their weakest candidate ever in a presidential election in which there was no incumbent.  Kerry, too, was a much weaker, and more centrist, candidate than other 2004 choices among Democrats.  As I remember it, the media didn’t start dumping on him for his gaffes, his policy turnarounds and his privileged background until the fall campaign.  (Of course, Kerry’s smarmy and immature salute at the convention did make him a very easy target.)

I can’t tell you why the news media protects one candidate and goes after another, or protects a candidate until after the election, except to say that at the end of the day, newspapers represent the people who own them.

Why does MSNBC’s Alan Boyle feel he has to pander to creationists when talking about the science of evolution?

Earlier this week, MSNBC’s science editor, Alan Boyle, posted an article on the MSNBC website showing how plant and animal life on Mt. St. Helens has responded vigorously and positively to the volcanic eruption 30 years ago.  For example, most of the area’s amphibian species survived the blast and are thriving.  As Boyle puts it, the wake of the eruption serves as a prime example of how life adapts to changing conditions.

Using the anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption as a platform for imparting some basic concepts of evolution is a good thing, for which Boyle should be applauded.  But why did he also have to provide publicity to creationists by repeating one of their more absurd ideas, that the Earth is only as old as the bible says that it is?

Here is an excerpt from Boyle’s article:

“… Speaking of unexpected consequences, Mount St. Helens has become something of a poster child for “creation geologists” – the folks who argue that Earth was created in accordance with the chronology they say the Bible lays out.

If the floods sparked by the 1980 eruption could cut new canyons through the surrounding countryside, couldn’t a global flood have done the same for the Grand Canyon a few thousand years ago? If the lava dome that has built up inside St. Helens’ crater can produce anomalous radioisotope results, doesn’t that imply that radioactive dating techniques could be way off? Questions like this are raised at places such as the Mount Saint Helens Creation Information Center, not far from the mountain itself.”

In the next paragraph, Boyle gives links which go to footnotes in other articles that, if you know the arguments, refute some creation ideas about Mt. St. Helens, e.g., St. Helens does not serve as an example for what happened to the Grand Canyon because the material that formed the Grand Canyon is much harder than the material from which the post-eruption St. Helens canyons were formed.  But you have to go to the footnote and know the argument, plus these refutations are embedded in the weasel-like obtuseness you might find in a corporate apology for laying off workers while the CEO gets a bonus:

“My colleague at, Alex Johnson, wrote about the St. Helens creationism connection five years ago. The TalkOrigins Archive addressed questions about the canyons, the claims about lava dating and Mount St. Helens’ “coal” formation even longer ago. Nevertheless, today’s 30th anniversary has sparked a revival of the creationist claims.”

It seems to me that this decorated man of science is going out of his way to be friendly to the creationist view.  In the first place, creationism has no business in a legitimate discussion of the lessons of evolution to be learned from a natural occurrence. Creationism has nothing to do with science, and belongs in a discussion of philosophy (even one about the philosophy of science, which is different from science itself).

Now if a man or woman of science were to include a discussion of creationist views in an article on the anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption, I would expect to see an outright condemnation of creationism that explicitly refutes point by point all the major beliefs that these moronic and oxymoronic “creationist geologists” are spewing.

Instead what we get is a dynamic science reporter suddenly writing in a mealy-mouthed tone of devious objectivity, that is, an objectivity that intends to conceal a greater truth, (such as the fact that one side is clearly wrong or lying).  Boyle’s expression “the folks who argue that Earth was created in…” make the creationists seem like those good and caring neighbors from next door who just happen to be voting for a different candidate than we are.  But in fact, creationists are dangerously trying to undermine our education system by substituting their religious beliefs for real science, and in the process making people more susceptible to some destructive associated beliefs, such as the denial of global warming.

It’s another shameful example of mainstream media pandering to the religious right instead of speaking an obvious truth. 

How many children do booze-makers think they keep off their website by asking people to first provide their date of birth?

In yesterday’s blog, I wrote about a Jim Beam ad meant to sell hard liquor to young men.  I wanted to share what happened when I tried to get on the Jim Beam website.  Before letting you on its website, Jim Beam asks you to input your date of birth.  If you are old enough to drink legally, you are allowed to go to the site.  If you are under age, you go to an anti-underage drinking website by “The Century Council,” an organization of distillers (AKA booze-makers).

As it turns out, virtually every booze-maker asks for your age before letting you on the website, although some, like Johnny Walker don’t redirect you to an anti-drinking site, but merely tells you you’re too young to visit the site.

Let’s first consider the impracticality of this way of keeping the underage off the website.  Anyone can lie about his or her date of birth on the registration page of the Jim Beam website.  I haven’t done a survey, but I’m willing to bet that a large majority of underage boys who have some fetishist interest in trolling whiskey advertisements have in the past lied about their age to gain entry to a porno site.

What is the hard liquor industry trying to accomplish with this inept attempt at censorship?  Last time I checked it was illegal for those under age to drink, but that it was still okay to read about booze.  If Jim Beam were truly interested in preventing underage drinking, it would have more about it on the website, which is strangely devoid of any warnings about drinking.

Jim Beam and its competitors are stuck in a conundrum of post-Industrial consumerism.  The demographic group to which the booze-hawker wants to appeal has the very same characteristics as the group it is trying to keep out.  One of the odd side effects of our post-Industrial society has been an extension of childhood and adolescence deep into adulthood.  Some of my past blogs have talked about colleges that compare themselves to the imaginary school in a children’s book, adults who spend a lot of free time playing video games and adult attendance at Disney and other children’s theme parks.

In this case, its buddies getting together to watch sports and do some heavy-weight nonsexual male-bonding.  When teenage boys do it, it’s supposed to be without booze, but other than that, it’s the same experience for both the teens and 20- and 30- somethings.  Goaded by the commercial exhortations and distorted imagery of normalcy of the news media and mass entertainment, the older demographic group—target for Jim Beam, Captain Morgan and every single beer ad you see on TV—has never grown beyond the immature years of teenaged male herding. 

By keeping them boys even as we cultivate new and more expensive products for them, the many individual players in our economic system collectively ensnare these young men in the trap of our consumerist economy.  Moreover, by softening the differences between youth and adulthood, we undermine the rationale for having a minimum drinking age, which is usually one of our civilization’s most important milestones in youth’s traditional rite of passage to the full responsibilities and freedoms of adulthood.

Were the ad mavens and mavenesses at Jim Beam tipsy when they did some wishful thinking about men and cocktails?

Jim Beam, maker of bourbon, has been doing a lot of wishful thinking in public.  In an ad that Jim Beam has been blasting on ESPN sports talk radio for several months now, the deep-throated announcer describes how great it feels when “men get together for a cocktail, to talk sports…..”

Doesn’t it seem a little weird to the eye to read about men getting “together for a cocktail?”  It sounds even weirder to the ear, and for a reason.  The narrator in the commercial is speaking a language sometimes called conversational English, and in conversational English men do not get together “for cocktails.”  Even when they’re having mixed drinks, virtually everyone will say they are getting together “for a drink” or more often, “for a beer.”  The exception would be to get together for a “cocktail party,” which is understood as an event for couples, not men interested in talking about sports, as is the situation described in the ad.

By using the term “getting together for cocktails” Jim Beam endeavors to recreate reality, or perhaps better, to create a new reality.  On the surface it seems to be corporate wishful thinking at its worse: an attempt to use words to paint the picture of reality that you want to see: in this case, men hanging around the TV room throwing some BS around and downing some cocktails.

Corporations and governments often substitute or create new language in an attempt to change reality or our perception of reality.  Typically, though, the method is to create a new word to describe a product, service, event or experience, for example, “pre-owned cars” or “police actions” (which is how the Korean War was described for years).

In Jim Beam’s case, the ad is using language to recreate the situation in which the product is used.  “Let’s have a cocktail” replaces “Let’s get a beer” in the mythical interchange between real men ready to kick back and relax with some alcohol.

Once I decided to write a blog entry about this ad, I went to the Jim Beam website.  The website seems to be designed to appeal to young men, specifically to young men who drink beer.  The home page features Kid Rock, a musician one associates more with a football game or the meeting of a motorcycle club than with sipping a Manhattan on the Upper East Side.  One of the menu links takes you to its sports tie-in with ESPN called “The Next Round.”  The theme of the TV ads you see on the website is “Guys Never Change. Neither Do We.”

Jim Beam’s strategy is clearly to change the behavior of the youthful pack male who swills beer by encouraging them to have a bourbon-based drink instead.  Jim-B has selected the audience that marketers have been chasing with a vengeance on sports programming for decades.  I won’t question the decision of Jim Beam’s ad mavens and mavenesses to pursue this strategy.  I haven’t seen the consumer research (although I do remember seeing a survey several years ago that showed that in good times drinkers trade up to more expensive stuff and in bad times they trade down.) 

But in general, I think ads like the Jim Beam radio spot that attempt to deform reality are less successful than those that try to reform it, e.g., an ad in which a group of guys decide to get together for a cocktail instead of a beer for a change of pace, and then decide they like it.

What is missing in the new movie version of Robin Hood other than the original myth and lead character?

I won’t be seeing the new Robin Hood until I can get it on Netflix, but people are talking about it now and I do want to get my three cents worth in.  I will refrain from comment on the quality of this new Robin Hood, except to note that for my money, the Errol Flynn version is the greatest adventure film of all time.  But I do want to comment on its historical place, and I mean beyond movies but in the history of myths.

Before anything else, Robin Hood is a myth.

Generations and societies reanimate specific myths when the myth reflects its current ideology and concerns.  Some myths are so powerful that all societies expropriate them, sometimes changing them completely.  The longer a myth is around the more likely it will mutate beyond recognition. 

But every myth will have a classic retelling.  For example, the classic retelling of the Trojan War is Homer.  In the variation by Stesichorus of Sicily, the gods secretly transfer Helen to Egypt and send a dream version to Paris at Troy.  But in every version, a woman causes a war.  

Let’s enumerate the central elements of the Robin Hood myth:

  • Steals from the rich and gives to the poor
  • Revolt against oppression
  • Loyal to the King, but not to the King’s ministers  
  • Involves an interesting group of fighters, each of whom represents a different class in society, and in most retellings, different archetypal caricatures, e.g., the strong man or the man of the cloth who takes to action  

Before moving on, I want to note that in one way or another, this enumeration of themes reveals how myths borrow from each other.  These four elements are central to the Chinese classic novel—and my nominee as the greatest novel of all time—Outlaws of the Marsh (also known as The Water Margin, Marsh Chronicles and All Men are Brothers.  In it, there are 108 finely etched Robin, Little John and Friar Tuck type characters.  Under their charismatic leader, Song Jiang, this ragtag gang remains loyal always to the Emperor while waging ruthless (and brilliant) war against his armies, which are controlled by corrupt and oppressing ministers.  Remember that Robin Hood and his men never waiver in their loyalty to King Richard the Lion Hearted.  The myths of Song Jiang and his bandits and of Robin Hood and his merry men emerged roughly around the same time, 1,000-1,400 of the common era. 

Now some might say that another element of the Robin Hood myth (again shared with the myth of the Chinese outlaws of the marsh) are the episodes that define its episodic quality—it is told as a series of “set pieces,” each one elaborating a different lesson or personality: Robin meets the Friar; Robin meets Little John; Robin wins the archery competition in disguise; Robin feeds the poor; Robin demonstrates allegiance to the King.  Another aside: demonstration of allegiance to the King is what makes the story palatable to the ruling elites: it’s not the system that’s corrupt, just a couple of bad apples.

I’m not sure if these set pieces are inherent to the myth or not.  What after all do we remember about Oedipus except that he killed his father and slept with his mother? What do we remember about Prometheus or Sisyphus other than their punishments?  Over time, most myths lose the messy details of the first or classic tellings and reduce, like a fine sauce, to one or a few symbolic themes.  The fact that any given retelling of Robin Hood does not hew to the episodes of the classic Errol Flynn version doesn’t  mean that the creators are not being true to the myth.

But it does do a great violence to the original myth by turning Robin Hood from proto-socialist to libertarian as the current Russell Crowe version does according to virtually every review (New York Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviews).  It makes you wonder why they bother to deface the Robin Hood myth instead of selecting another myth more in keeping with the ideology of the creators and financial backers?  Or why not create a brand new story of a rag-tag group of citizens rebelling against steep taxation? 

I think the answer is in the commercial need to keep cranking out new narrative art that can serve as a platform for selling a multitude of ancillary products.  The economics of the entertainment system return more to investors through creating a new Robin Hood—even one in which the character does not resemble the myth—than in rereleasing the Errol Flynn version.

The myth machine in our post-Industrial leisure society is voracious and takes everything, but remakes it into its own image.  The myth is sent through the Hollywood homogenization machine which involves:

  • Updating the ideology, which in this case Reaganizing it—the demons are not corrupt officials of the King who steal from the poor but an unfair taxation system
  • Expanding the market by using techniques of other genres, e.g., adding a strong woman warrior
  • Showing more explicit violence
  • Creating sequences that resemble video games.

The reviews tell us that the new version of Robin Hood has gone through this homogenization process.  The result of course is that the details of all these contemporary sci fi and adventure movies tend to resemble each other, just as the menus at Outback, Damon’s, Chili’s and other casual upscale dining chains tend to look alike despite the fact that one is vaguely Australian in its visual presentation, one Mexican, one “classic ribs,” etc.  The brand is nothing more than a name that conjures weak associations with myths that people associate with one sentence or one theme, or in the case of the restaurants, an ethnic cuisine.

There really should be a national “Let’s Celebrate Nothing” Day, except there are no days free for it anymore.

I wonder if there is a single day left during the year in which we are not as a nation officially celebrating something. 

First we start with our national holidays such as Christmas, Independence Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving, to which we add the holidays that were created to stimulate the retail economy, such as Mother’s and Father’s Day and the less popular Grandparents’ Day.  

Think about how much feature news coverage revolves around these days: Thanksgiving in homeless shelter stories; school classes visiting seniors in retirement homes to perform Christmas pageants; reunions of old battalions on Memorial Day.

It’s more than the news, though: How many regular TV programs air holiday-themed shows?  Most series; even “Married with Children” and “The Sopranos” had a Christmas story or two. 

What’s the theme of the stuff on sale in stores during each major holiday?  What shapes the enrichment activities at schools?  What are the special menu features in restaurants?  The Pops concert?  The major holiday at hand typically imbues all of these cultural phenomena.

More than people realize, a major holiday determines the rhythm by which we live during its annual ascendancy.

But the calendar is also cluttered with lesser events, days and months that industries, organizations and governmental bodies have created as part of educational or propaganda campaigns.  None of these special days and months claim the undivided attention of our society as Christmas or Mother’s Day do, but each takes a piece, be it as coverage in a newspaper story, a parade downtown, a plug by the local weather personality, a school project, a display in the supermarket or mall, a platform for releasing a study or holding a news conference, a recognition sign on the big electronic board at a football game, or a march for which you are asked to walk or contribute.

Here is a short list of days and months I came up with, many from projects on which my public relations agency is currently working for clients, others the results of my two-minute one-person brainstorm:  

  • “Light Up” Night
  • “First Night”
  • “Take Child to Work” Day
  • Black History Month
  • Chemical Day
  • Earth Day
  • Gay Pride Day
  • Mental Health Month
  • National Asthma and Allergy Month
  • National Bike Month
  • National Cancer Awareness Day
  • National Cat Day
  • National Dog Day
  • National Day of Prayer
  • National Day of Service
  • National Day of Silence
  • National Diabetes Awareness Month
  • National Poetry Month
  • National Senior Health & Fitness Day
  • National Stroke Awareness Month
  • United Nations Day
  • World AIDS Awareness Day
  • World Autism Awareness Day
  • World Diabetes Day

Every disease, every industry and every cause has its own day.  And for each of these days and months, a group of pretty talented marketing people are coming up with ideas to promote the ideals of the day or to use the day as a platform for promoting their product or name.  And so the spinmeisters spin off stories in the news media, press conferences, special videos, product introductions, concerts, walks, parades, readings, marathons, street fairs, races, bake sales, service learning projects (short projects in which children learn to volunteer) and other special events that fill the time of the people who participate.  Everyone, even Jews and Moslems, find their lives structured by Christmas or Thanksgiving.  While only a sliver of the population will finds its daily rhythm in Gay Pride Day or United Nations Day, between all of these days upon days upon days, virtually everyone will be affected by several of them on an annual basis, certainly everyone who has children or works with people who do.

This accumulation of annual structuring of time lends a Reaganistic rigidity and formality to society similar to the move to the right in religious practice for virtually all religions in the United States.  It also gives each day and month a special symbolic meaning, a brand, similar to what saint days traditionally did in Catholic countries.  Of course, this being 21st century America, the mission of the branded day is not to bring the people closer to their god or aid in their self-perfection, but to make them open their wallets and buy something useless, like an Earth Day tee-shirt or a little plastic poodle that says National Dog Day 2008.

If someone can identify a day that hasn’t been taken yet, let me know and we’ll declare it National “Let’s Celebrate Nothing” Day.

Even in a contentless article, there’s still room for ideological brainwashing in the subtext.

Every week at least one article in the “Week in Review” section of the Sunday New York Times is completely devoid of content.  These articles usually use a chatty tone to babble irrelevancies about one aspect of a news story that is supposed to reflect a trend or epitomize an idea.

Yesterday, it was Roberta Smith’s article titled “The Coy Art of the Mystery Bidder,” which was a series of cleverly stated observations on the social significance when a buyer of an expensive work of art remains anonymous, such as the person who anonymously purchased a Picasso this past week for more than a $100 million.

Smith, who is described as an art critic for the Times, has nothing of import to say, but prattles some not-so-sharp but coyly phrased observations about the super-rich; conjectures on which ethnic caricature might have done the buying; imagines a fantasy in which the $100 million is given to the New York Public Library; and concludes with the assertion that when blowing millions on a work of art, it’s much more admirable if you tell people who you are.  Threading together these disparate thoughts is a gossipy tone and the idea that we all inherently have a high interest level in seeing rich folk spend money. 

The article is nothing but contentless filler, a pleasant way to read for a few minutes without having to actually think about what you’re reading.  We see this kind of writing all over the news media and the fact that the Times has been cluttering “The Week in Review” section is not very amazing, just a little pathetic for a publication vying to be our national prestige newspaper.

What I find most fascinating, however, is how even in these contentless fluff pieces that the writer is able to employ propaganda techniques to instill a set of values, some unstated but present in the assumptions or the subtext.

Let’s start with the first few sentences of Smith’s piece: “If you follow art auctions even peripherally, you know that each one leaves a trail of question marks. Who bought the van Gogh? Who bought the Johns?”

It seems like a harmless if slightly gossipy opening, a kind of a trivialization of both the business of art auctions and the evolving history of which artists society esteems most.  But why Jasper Johns?  His name is not mentioned elsewhere is the article as an artist whose works are frequently at auction or breaking sales records.  So why Johns?  Why not Rauschenberg?  Or Rivers or Motherwell?  Or one of the all-time biggies like Monet and Giacometti whose works are shown elsewhere in the story as examples of those bought anonymously for record or near record amounts.

Van Gogh makes sense because he’s the one artist whom everyone will have heard of.  (50 years ago it might have been Renoir, or perhaps Michelangelo.)  So if the other artist that the writer selects as an example is not another Babe Ruth like Rembrandt or Picasso, her selection is her statement that this artist is very important.  Smith selected Johns, for I don’t know what reason.  But it clearly is a great piece of propaganda because without telling us that she thinks Johns is important, she conveys it in the subtext of the grammar.  He gains stature on the subliminal level merely by being the fill for the blank of “other great artist” in the sentence, “Who bought the ____?”

Now let’s look at this little tidbit:  “Strictly enforcing one’s privacy — at a time when so much goes public as fast as it happens — may be the ultimate public display of power, and thus the most erotic.”


While admiring the irony of a private act becoming a public act, let’s quickly move to the real meaning of the sentence: that power is the most erotic attribute one can have.

Her way of expression takes it for granted that everyone agrees that power is more erotic than say good looks, athletic prowess, knowledge of teen dance styles, intelligence, resemblance to nuclear family members or artistic talent. 

And this power that Smith finds so erotic, what is it and how does it manifest itself? One word: money.  Smith slyly proffers “powerful” as an appropriate synonym for “moneyed,” especially when it comes to erotic matters, and because she puts it into the subtext as a series of assumptions (and because we read it so often in other subtext), we get the message without stopping to consider if it’s true or not.  The message of course is that all things including the measurement of power and sexual appeal reduce to the common denominator of money. 

The handling of the topic is also a matter of ideology, in this case, the trivialization of public discourse, the turning of all news into gossip and all gossip into news.  Her topic is the anonymous buyer, which is the current events hook.  Instead of doing a chatty gossipy contentless piece of fluff, Smith could have analyzed if there is some difference in the makeup of the anonymous (whose names eventually do comes out in most cases) and the non-anonymous buyer.  She could have reported their true reasons for wanting to remain anonymous (instead of her almost-racist hypothetical about an imaginary Russian oligarch).  She could have traced what happens to art bought anonymously and if that differs significantly from art bought by a publicly-revealed person or company.  Of course taking any of these approaches would have required Smith to do a little research.  Heaving chatty tidbits of myth, assertion and ideology probably takes less time.

Facebook is what its name says it is: a book of (public) faces looking out at the world.

Dan Yoder has a very insightful blog detailing the 10 reasons he plans to delete his Facebook account.  I agree with every one of his rationales for abandoning Facebook, all of which have something to do with Facebook’s cavalier and entrepreneurial attitudes concerning privacy. 

But while I agree with everything Yoder says, I nevertheless do not recommend that anyone get off Facebook.  Rather, I suggest that my readers understand what Facebook is and for what ends it should be used.

I see four broad ways that people and organizations are currently using Facebook:

  1. As their electronic face to the world, a formal portrait of what they’re doing, similar to that annual letter you copy and send to distant relatives and high school buds, or the two-minute state-of-the-family-or-firm spiel you give at parties or meetings to people you’ve just met or hardly know.  As a formal “face,” Facebook is remarkable because it is so easy to update and enables you to communicate in a variety of media by attaching photos, music, videos and other links.  It also enables you to keep up with the goings-on of all those people with whom you want to have a casual, “I wonder where their daughter ended up going to graduate school” relationship.  In a sense, Facebook automates the occasional letter or phone call, although it does so in a way that can potentially merge your public (business) and private lives.
  2. To express their daily thoughts and actions, another version of Twitter.
  3. To manage their emails.
  4. As portal to a wide array of online games, entertainments and services.

My belief is that there is only one proper and appropriate use for Facebook: the first one I mentioned, to serve as your electronic formal face to the world, a kind of ever-morphing multi-media resume.  To a great extent the other three uses all fall under the category of management of one’s life, or at least one’s life on-line.  It’s in these life management functions that people convey information the confidentiality of which is at risk by virtue of putting it anywhere on Facebook.

I sometimes tell my public relations clients that there are three types of information.  Here they are, with some non-business examples:

  • Information you want people to know and that you’re happy to volunteer, e.g., your son just won another scholarship or you’re giving a lecture before a prestigious professional association.
  • Information that you would share with others, but often only if asked by certain people, such as a cell phone number to a new acquaintance or your health records to a new primary care physician.
  • Information that you would never tell anyone, e.g., the fact that you would cheat on your spouse to be with Michelle Obama.

As with any other “public face,” a Facebook page should include only that information you want everyone to know, or, stated in the negative, only information about which you don’t care who knows.  Keep all other information off Facebook, and that should include all email messages you want to send or receive. 

In other words, don’t use Facebook to manage your life, because when you run your life through Facebook, as many people seem to be doing, you are putting at risk the confidentiality of information which when pieced together define how you live.  As Yoder points out, you are playing by Facebook’s rules, and what’s good for Facebook definitely is not good for your privacy!

At heart, I don’t believe anyone wants to run their life in public or have its details available for analysis.  Instead, I think most of us just want our occasional five minutes of applause—and Facebook is a great advance over former technologies for making sure we all can bask in these Warholian moments.