The Kids are All Right is a step forward, but maybe also a step backwards for gays.

I finally saw The Kids are All Right the other night, thanks to Netflix, and I thought it was a good, but not great movie: a nice evening’s entertainment for adults with a message to convey, but not necessarily a work of art. As usual, Annette Benning was wonderful—I have long thought her America’s best film actress. Including The Grifters, Mars Attacks, Guilty by Suspicion, American Beauty, Bugsy, Regarding Henry and Being Julia, among others, she is almost always only in good to great movies and she’s usually the most watchable person or thing on the screen.  That was also the case in The Kids are All Right.


The politics of the movie is muddled, conveying a wonderfully positive message in favor of gay rights on the surface, but relying on a hoary and smarmy myth about gay women as the major device to move the plot along.

First the good news: the portrayal of the family of the two major characters really advanced the cause of gay marriage and gay adoption (even though the children are not adopted).  The parents are middle-aged gay women with two teenaged children, one born to each by the same anonymous sperm donor (who turns out to be a California-dreamin’, happy-go-lucky, skirt-chasing guy who, against all personality traits he displays, runs a successful restaurant.)  The family is completely normal and sane, upper middle class.  The two solid (and straight) teens are doing a good but not perfect job of working out their problems.  The two gay women project self-awareness and an understanding and acceptance of the other’s foibles, none of which is horrific or pathological.  In other words, happy but challenged at times.

It’s not a perfect family, it’s a normal family, and it may mark the first time in the history of cinema that we have seen a normal family consisting of two lesbian parents. And it’s about time, because lots of these families exist.   Besides creating some people that the audience can care about—an important factor in any domestic drama (unless the writer goes the other route and tries to make us hate everyone)—the writer/director is making an important message, especially to those ignorant and benighted people who are still opposed to gay marriage and gay adoption.

But why did the film have to make the central plot device a heterosexual affair that one of the women has with the sperm donor?  Doesn’t the writer/director know that many men still believe that myth that lesbians are just women who have never found a man who can satisfy them sexually?  I have heard many, many misguided men repeat this garbage to me—in locker rooms and bars, at card games and sporting events, hanging out listening to loud rock music, on the couch watching the World Series or Final Four.  

I’m not saying that this plot twist is unrealistic.  A 2002 National Center for Health Statistics survey found that about 2.8% of all women say they are bisexual and it’s therefore possible for there to be a long-term marriage between a gay woman and a bisexual woman.  It’s also possible that a straight or gay man or woman could become curious about other options, for any number of reasons.

But why go there?   Why play into the myths of ignorant homophobes?  Couldn’t the plot have thickened just as easily if the woman had her affair with the girlfriend of the sperm donor?  Or if the sperm donor had an affair with the daughter’s best friend, whose character definitely demonstrated she would be susceptible?

My point is that by selecting the plot device of an affair between the happily-married-if-stressed gay woman and her sperm donor, the writer/director plays into a stupid myth.  The portrayal of the family is a major step forward.  The portrayal of the stupid myth is at least a medium step backwards.

Do the attitudes on TV drama reflect or create public opinion? Let’s compare a scene in Kojak and Law and Order.

While riding my exercise bicycle the other day, channel surfing brought me to Kojak, a police series starring Telly Savalas popular in the early 70s.  A very short scene employed a standard convention of police dramas, the lineup, and the dramatic moment focused on the reaction of a witness to the lineup process.  Coincidentally, one of the shows from which I had clicked away was a Law and Order episode circa 2002-2005, and it had the same scene with the same approach.

Being able to see these two scenes side by side reminded me of how much writers/artists/creators use details to express ideology in a piece of art, entertainment or propaganda (and much art and entertainment is propaganda, from Virgil’s Aeneid to “Sarah Palin’s Alaska”).

In the Kojak lineup scene, the foreign-accented witness says (and I may not have the words exactly right), “I can recognize the guy who did it and I’m ready to help get this killer off the streets,” with a kind of earnestness and enthusiasm whose subtext is, “I’m meeting my responsibility to my community.”

In the Law & Order lineup scene, the witness first expresses reluctance, makes a tentative ID of the one who turns out to be the killer and then backs down because he fears for his safety despite police assurances.

As it turns out, we see neither witness again and neither is crucial to the narrative.  Both flesh out the story with detail and attitude.  So in both, the handling is completely arbitrary. 

Now it’s only a detail, but doesn’t idealistically wanting to help the community sound like the 60’s and early 70’s?  And isn’t being so concerned about the self that one forgets or neglects community a basic premise of the current era?  I have often labeled our current epoch, “The Age of Reagan,” because Reagan was the earliest national leader to symbolize the turn from public concerns to selfish ones, from building up public assets such as schools and mass transit to privatization, from tax and economic policies that equalized wealth to those that lead to a nation of rich and poor.

The question is, of course, do these scenes promote ideas about our role in society or do they merely reflect the actual situation? 

One of my basic theories of communications is that it is in the arbitrary detail that ideology is revealed.  While all art, even of the abstract variety, reflects reality to some degree (as Aristotle, Stendhal and others have noted throughout the ages), art never conveys every detail of a reality, not even those tedious Warhol movies of mundane activity like sleeping or the “Sekundestyl” German prose writers of the late 19th century who tried to capture every detail of a second.  Artists consciously select the details they will use and those they will not; or to close this paragraph of critical allusions, “what to leave in, what to leave out,” as Bob Seger puts it in his rock anthem, “Against the Wind.”

My point is that while the character traits of a minor character may reflect our current attitudes towards civic duties, they also help to create and promote those values.  Since the action of the narrative did not pivot on witnesses not coming forward, the writer and director had the option of giving any number of salient traits to a minor character, whose only purpose in the narrative is to provide a moment of “local color” to the proceedings.  They could have created a character with some interesting twitch or used the character to reference current events.  They could have created a character that did not understand the lineup procedure.  They could have, as Kojak used to do, use the opportunity to gently and lovingly make fun of a New York type.  They could have even created two characters—one who was too frightened to make an ID and one who recognized that we all must stand up to criminals and bullies.  Or the characters could be a husband and wife who argue like cats and dogs.  All of these would have deepened the narrative and provided audiences with entertainment, while maintaining the serious dramatic tone.

What the Law and Order writer and director chose, however, was to make the character self-centered and frightened enough by the world to forget his social responsibility.  In doing so, they gratuitously presented a model for irresponsibly selfish behavior. 

In the propaganda of National School Choice Week, remember that the real meaning of “school choice” is lower teacher salaries.

How can a word convey a wonderfully positive sense in one context but mean something immoral and hateful in another?  If you’re an archetypal right-winger, it can happen if the word is “choice,” which for some reason means a good thing to people on the right when it comes to education, but not when it comes to a woman’s right to control her own body.

I’ll postpone my consideration of what choice means in the area of reproductive rights until a later OpEdge column.  I want to focus instead on “choice” in education, since this week,  January 23-29, 2011,  is National School Choice Week, a collection of local events under a national public relations rubric sponsored by an ad hoc organization representing and funded by a large number of right-wing and Republic organizations, plus business associations of charter schools (AKA for-profit or non-profit-run-like-a-business private schools operating with public money), religious school organizations and some right-leaning religious organizations. 

National School Choice Week proclaims itself for a wide tent of objectives that include, as the organizers put it, “charter school growth and success, universal vouchers and tuition tax credits, corralling out-of-control spending, or union accountability…” saying that “each is equally important and all should plan to be a part of this special week.”

What all these initiatives have in common is they take money from public school districts and give it to private entities.  Now while I support the right of people to select private schools, I don’t see why taxpayers should pay for it.

When you hear what will likely be an endless barrage of local and national publicity about “National School Choice Week” or learn about the laws now being proposed in many states to give parents school vouchers, keep these facts in mind:

  • Virtually all studies show that the charter school movement has yielded disappointing results in the area of student performance in school and standardized tests (which don’t test all skills, but do test a lot of skills such as reading and math that are needed to get through life and hold down a job).  For example, a recent Stanford University study found that the math performance of 46% of charter schools is indistinguishable from public schools, 17% had substantially higher scores and 37% of charter schools had substantially lower scores than their public school equivalents.
  • Private schools are able to kick out or not accept disruptive students, underperforming students or those with disabilities, whereas the public schools must try to educate these students.  The fact that we ask public schools to educate these “hard cases,” leads to a lower overall performance record of public schools.  Net out these “hard cases,” and I think we’ll find that most public school districts do a good job of educating their students.  But voucher programs and charter schools take funds from the public school system and so make it much harder for public schools to meet the higher standards and more rigorous goals that our society places on them by making public schools educate these “hard cases.”
  • Public schools are large organizations that have the resources to address a wide range of challenges.  Only a public system can have magnet programs and schools for languages, performing arts, math and science, vocational training (which means training in skills needed for some of the more than 70% of all jobs that do not require a traditional college education) and gifted children.   The ability to offer a program for the kid who is great at shop and the one who can get a perfect score on the math SATs at the age of 12—now that’s real choice.
  • A recent study showed that better-performing schools spend more money on the classroom and teachers than do underperforming schools, which tend to spend more on administration.  Private schools create additional administration, except for those for-profit charter school chains that follow the fast-food model of complete standardization, which makes a mockery of the concept of “choice.”  The key to improving childhood performance is more teachers in classrooms with more resources, so the way to make education more efficient is to reduce administration, not increase it which is the natural result of charter schools and voucher programs.
  • Teachers in private and charter schools get paid less money, primarily because they are not unionized.  In virtually every field I have encountered over my years, the best people always tend to get paid the best money (without quibbling over whether Lady Gaga should make more than the great classical music conductor Simon Rattle, let’s admit that they both make more than the average drummer in a local bar band).  While there are many great private and charter school teachers, almost by definition in this country the overall quality of teaching must be higher in schools that pay more money, i.e., public schools. Of course, one central objective of many supporting charter schools and vouchers is to kill teacher unions.

The charter school movement makes no sense to me except as a political vehicle for killing unions, but there are many reasons to send a child to private school, among them religion, need for after-school care, social pressure, desire to segregate your children from certain groups or family tradition.  I see all of these as private reasons.  If people want to pay for it, fine, but it’s not society’s responsibility. 

Someone is going to say that not giving parents vouchers gives the children of the wealthy extra edges because they can send their kids to fancy private schools but the poor can’t.  But rather than give poor parents $20,000 or $25,000 a year in vouchers for a fancy private school, why not take advantage of the economy of scale of public schools to level the playing field.  In fact that’s what well-funded public schools have done for decades in this country: level the playing field.  If we destroy their ability to continue doing so by denying them funds, we will create an even less equitable society than we currently have.   

NY Times floats the balloon of state bankruptcies to rip off workers of hard-earned pensions.

The lead story on the front page of today’s New York Times floats the idea that states enter bankruptcy as a means to avoid paying retired state workers the pensions that the states promised them.  Currently, states are not permitted to seek bankruptcy protection from their creditors. 

As is usual for Times articles that float inherently absurd trial balloons such as invading Iran, breaking up the Euro or privatizing Social Security, the publication takes a squeamish approach to the topic that avoids naming names. 

Take the headline for example, “A Path is Sought for States To Escape Debt Burdens.”  This cowardly use of the passive tense, “a path is sought,” enables the headline writer to avoid telling us who is seeking this seismic change in our laws. It’s a classic use of the passive tense to avoid attribution, which by the way, is a significant and often necessary arrow in the rhetorical quiver of both attorneys and accountants.    

The entire article distances real people from the proposed law change.  Some examples:

  • “Policy makers are working behind the scenes…”
  • “…fear of destabilizing municipal bond markets…has proponents in Congress going about their work on tiptoes…”
  • “…and no member of Congress has stepped forward…”

The writer, Mary Williams Walsh, makes it explicitly clear what’s really going on: the article is part of a campaign to intimidate public unions: “Still, discussions about something as far-reaching as bankruptcy could give governors and others more leverage in bargaining with unionized public workers.”

As the article points out, the idea of a state going into a traditional bankruptcy will have a hard time gaining traction unless the powers-that-be can figure out a way to stop paying pensions but keep paying interest on state bonds.  A bankruptcy under current law would force the bankrupt state to stop paying the bond interest, and that of course would hurt rich people, the major benefactors of any move to cut or end the pensions promised to state workers.

Why do I say that?  Let’s review how we got to this situation: For years, states negotiated contracts that promised state workers pensions in the future in lieu of current salary.  The states all decided to underfund these pensions rather than raise taxes to a sustainable level; some of the strategies that gave lawmakers the intellectual cover to underfund included floating bonds and using overly rosy projections of future stock market performance in their investment models.

If the states had decided to fund the pensions appropriately on a sustainable basis, they would have had to raise taxes and likely gone to a progressive tax, which means charging people with more income a higher rate (like the federal tax system does).  The choice to underfunding therefore saved middle class and poor people a little money, but it saved rich people lots of money.

Now it’s time to pay the piper and, instead of raising taxes, lawmakers everywhere are declaring war on public workers and their pensions. The mainstream chattering class is supporting this effort by attempting to make public workers into enemies of other middle and working class people.  It’s classic Marxist theory: divide the classes.

As I’ve demonstrated several times in OpEdge, it’s all part of the 30-year class war that the rich have waged against the middle class and poor.  A major part of that war has been the destruction of unions, which raise the income of all workers (because employers have to remain wage competitive—at least when we have near to full employment or the work requires a skill).

So by hurting the pensions of unionized public workers, the wealthy get a break in two ways:  Fewer taxes to pay and lower wages for their employees.

The fly in the ointment, again, is the fact that one of the things that the wealthy tend to do with all that extra money they have is to invest in tax-free and up-to-now extremely safe municipal and state bonds.  So the idea of state bankruptcies will sink into the deep sea of other outlandish ideas unless lawmakers figure out a way to pass a bill that enables states to walk away from their obligation to workers without requiring them to walk away from their obligation to investors.

Mythmaking at its best: We hollow the contents out of MLK, then turn him into a “Smokey Bear” of volunteerism.

Once we have established an individual or event as an American myth, marketers, the news media, politicians and others slowly hollow out the person or event of its content, so that it can come to represent anything—and everything.

I analyzed how the hollowed-out myth can be used as a symbol of anything when the new Robin Hood movie came out about six months ago.   The original Robin Hood was a kind of medieval version of an autocratic socialist, with the King replacing the state.  Hollowed out by frequent mutation, the Robin Hood myth bends to the will of the makers of the new movie, who reform Robin into a proto-Tea partier. 

But how do we hollow out the myth in the first place?  Let’s take the example of Martin Luther King, certainly our greatest civil rights leader, although those who make a claim for Malcolm X are entitled to their opinions.  We currently celebrate his day without really knowing what he stood for.  We know that he stands for civil rights, but civil rights means different things to different people. If you check out what politicians and writers have said about King these past few days, you’ll see most refer to his legend without defining it or attempt to morph that legend into the beliefs of the speaker or writer.  That’s the great thing about big empty words such as civil rights.  They can contain so many ideas!

This expatiation on myth-making leads to my encounter with the mainstream news media celebration of MLK Day this year: a short quiz titled “Martin Luther King Day: How much do you know about MLK? Take our quiz.”

This Christian Science Monitor online quiz comes one question at a time online and each question is immediately answered, which means that to learn what all 10 questions are or complete the multiple-choice survey you have to click through 20 screens, which gives you 20 chances to see (and click-through to) all of the advertising on each of these 20 pages. Very irritating, but hey, without the ads, there wouldn’t be a survey!  And then we wouldn’t know how much we do and do not know about Dr. King.

We’ll be more user-friendly and give you all 10 questions, sometimes with the wording slightly different.  Each question comes with four possible answers:

  1. Where was he raised?
  2. Why did Attorney general Robert Kennedy order MLK’s phones tapped in 1963?
  3. What early event established MLK as an important civil rights leader?
  4. MLK earned his doctorate from Boston University in what field?
  5. What action by MLK angered President Johnson?
  6. MLK served as leader of what organization?
  7. Which of the four listed awards did MLK not receive?
  8. The name of MLK’s final speech?
  9. True or False: Malcolm X teamed up with MLK to organize the March on Washington in 1963?
  10. When was MLK Day declared a federal holiday?

Even with the answer to these questions, one knows very little about what MLK believed in, except that it had to do with civil rights. The last question, “When was MLK Day declared a federal holiday?,” is merely the most extreme example of the irrelevance of all the questions and their one-fact answers to who Dr. King was and what he believed in.

We can infer a little extraneous information from the answers, e.g., that King may have been in contact with communists (question 2) and that it was under President Ronald Reagan that his birthday became a federal holiday (question 10).  In other words, while we learn nothing of his beliefs, we do get subtle reinforcement of right-wing cant.

In our minds, the factoids that Christian Science Monitor presents as knowledge about Dr. King come to replace the ideas that made MLK one of the greatest of 20th-century Americans.  Let’s recall some of them:

  • A complete belief in non-violence as the most appropriate way to change society; Dr. King was profoundly Gandhi’s most important disciple.
  • An understanding that overcoming the great divide between rich and poor (which shrank in the 60s and early 70s and has been increasing ever since) is at least as important as overcoming racism; the two in fact are closely intertwined as social objectives.
  • A belief that the government should intervene to improve social ills, to equitably distribute wealth and to manage the economy.
  • An opposition to all warfare.
  • A belief that it was a central mission of organized religions to advocate and work to end the illnesses and inequities of the world.

We do come away from the survey knowing that Dr. King was important and deserves to be honored.  But the price tag for allowing Dr.  King into the pantheon of Great Americans is to homogenize his beliefs. 

Making MLK a day for volunteering also distorts the good Dr. King’s views.  While spending the day collecting for the poor, performing a charity show, reading to the elderly, cleaning up city parks and doing all the other things that people did yesterday are all admirable, this volunteering relates only in the most nebulous of ways to the hundreds of thousands of volunteers whom King enraptured and engaged 50 and 60 years ago.  Those volunteers did two things and two things only: Walk for peace and justice and sit for peace and justice.  Just as the news and marketing media transform King the social revolutionary into a nebulous civil rights leader, so volunteering for social action morphs into volunteering in ways that attend to social ills without addressing how to cure them.  King becomes a fatherly figure who reminds us to help out others, a kind of Smokey the Bear of volunteerism.

Why is the American Legion spending money to lobby for harsher treatment of illegal immigrants?

It seems as if no matter what time of day it is, whenever I turn on my local ESPN AM radio station, I hear an ad from the American Legion chiding us about the dangers illegal immigration poses to our economy and society.  The stern announcer imbues each word with ominous notes of fear, as he lists the supposed ills caused by undocumented immigrants.  The call to action, issued with an authoritarian sense of urgency, sends us online to an American Legion report which details its plan for curtailing illegal immigration. 

There is a back story to the report touted by the radio ad.  The report originally appeared in 2004 containing a number of truly scurrilous assertions about immigrants and immigration, such as “non-citizens make up 30% of the American prison population” and “more Americans are killed by undocumented aliens than die in the Iraq War.”  Several people noted these factual misstatements, in particular Sonia Scherr of the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

Thankfully, the American Legion has sanitized the version of the report mentioned in the ad and currently available online.  The result, of course, is that its case against undocumented immigrants is now very weak, built mostly on unbacked assertions, old statistics and irrelevant tidbits of information. 

The economic assertions in the American Legion report are nothing more than myths and falsehoods.  Take it’s claim that our economy suffers from illegal immigration. A few months back, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco released a study that uses advanced statistical analysis to measure the short and long-term impact of immigration, both undocumented and legal, on jobs, wages, productivity and business investment in the United States over the past few decades.  The results of this extensive quantitative analysis support the contention that immigrants are good for the economy:

  • Immigration has no impact on the employment of U.S.-born workers.  In other words, immigrants do not take jobs away from “real Americans.”
  • When immigration increases, the wages of the average U.S. worker increases a little; in fact the study estimates that the gain in wages from additional immigration between 1990 and 2007 was about 20-25% of the total real increase in average annual income per worker.
  • The productivity of the entire economy also improves as a result of increased immigration.

In reading the sanitized American Legion report, my view of the American Legion shifted a little.  I have always thought of the group as similar to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an organization that has been hijacked by its right-wing to support causes that either don’t matter to its members or are not in the best interests of a majority of its members. 

But right there on the first of more than 20 pages of harsh recommendations to stem the flow of undocumented aliens into the country and make life miserable for those undocumented aliens now in the country, right there in the first bullet of Step One, the American Legion inserts a shill for jobs for its members: “Hire and train a sufficient number of U.S. Border Patrol agents to meet assigned objectives.  It is the American Legion position that employment preference be afforded former members of the U.S. Armed Forces.”    How’s that for tying a political agenda to an economic one!

My own view of immigration and undocumented immigrants is diametrically opposed to that of the American Legion.  I would propose amnesty for current undocumenteds (and their families) who hold jobs and pay taxes into our system and I would increase opportunities for legal immigration at all levels, especially from Mexico.  Additionally, I would tax foreign imports from countries that do not hew to our labor rates and environmental standards.  My assumption is that these countries would much rather give the money to their workers and their companies than to the U.S. government, and so gradually wage rates from exporting countries would equalize at our higher level and there would be less incentive for the workers to immigrate to the U.S.  As with most of my views, the net effect would be to transfer money down the economic ladder, from the wealthy and very wealthy to the middle and working classes of several countries, including our own.

Apart from the difference of opinion I have with the organization, I dislike the American Legion’s manipulative use of fear tactics in the ads.  Fear is a great motivator, but to instill it in a population without reason is a frequent tool of demagogues and authoritarian regimes.

The American Legion evidently has the money to mount a full-fledged national radio advertising campaign to express uninformed opinions about immigration.  I’m thinking that it would serve its members better if that money went to further enlightening the public and Congress on post-traumatic stress disorder, the need for job training programs for vets and the challenges facing caregivers of disabled vets.    

In interpreting the mass murder in Tucson, the chattering classes point us in the wrong direction, as usual.

Legal immigrants in upstate New York taking a class to help them prepare for the test to become U.S. citizens…

Senior citizens in rural North Carolina in the middle of an exercise class at a rehab center…  

A loving extended family celebrating a housewarming in Santa Clara, California…

32 students at a major university in Virginia…

What do all these people have in common with Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords plus U.S. District Judge John Roll and the five other innocent people slaughtered this past weekend in Tucson?

All have been gunned down in mass murders by mentally unstable individuals over the past few years. And that’s just a partial list.

And how do the news media  and politicians react to this latest demonstration that it’s too easy for nuts to get guns in America nowadays?

Most media and many politicians are blaming the overheated rhetoric in the political environment today.  Some media that have blamed violent words for this violent deed include CNN, CBS, The Washington Post,  The New York Times and the Associated Press. Now while it’s true that Sarah Palin, Carl Paladino and others have used inherently violent weapons analogies in their speeches and comments, I believe that by focusing on “words” instead of “actions” our politicians and columnists are silent about the real problem. 

Words did not shoot and kill these people and the many more victims of mass murders over the past few years.  Nuts with easy access to guns killed them.   And while most reporters seem to assiduously refrain from telling if the shooters got their guns legally, we know that many of them did. 

And even if they did not get the guns legally, they had them because of the ease with which anyone can buy a gun in the United States.  Over the past 10 years, many state legislatures have loosened guns laws, always the most permissive in the industrialized world (which goes a long way to explaining why the rate of violent crime is so much higher in the U.S. than virtually all other democratic industrialized nations).

Make no mistake about it: our gun laws are too liberal in every area: requirements and testing for gun ownership; identification needed to purchase a gun; waiting period before purchase; number of guns allowed; number of ways that guns can be purchased; types of guns permitted to be owned; places where guns can be carried; recertification requirements.  In all these areas, we should add new restrictions.  The result would be fewer guns in the street and fewer guns in the hands of irresponsible and mentally unstable people.

Those who spout the hoary and false adage that “when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns” ignore the large number of deaths from friendly fire that occur each year.  One study reveals that a gun in the home is four times more likely to be used in an unintentional shooting than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.

The millions of responsible hunters, some of them friends of mine, should willingly submit to the hassle of greater regulations and limits to protect society, just as all of us submit to the hassle of greater airport security and the requirement to get and renew a driver’s license and hold automobile insurance.

Focusing on the violence of language as the cause for the latest mass shooting is a convenient way to ignore the real problem, to be sure.  Toning down language is also an implicit part of any “healing process,” and after a mass murder, especially of prominent people, society in general wants to heal.  For these reasons, it’s understandable why so many are connecting this latest mass violence to heightened political rhetoric.

But if, in addition to or instead of healing, you want to prevent more mass murders by nuts with guns, you’ll start clamoring for stronger gun control laws.  You’ll write all your elected officials supporting gun control.  You’ll donate to organizations and associations fighting to strengthen gun controls.  And you’ll support candidates vocally in favor of more control and vote against candidates who want to loosen controls even more.

This latest mass murder really shook up our household because, as usual, it was so senseless.  It made me think of Yoshimatsu’s “While an Angel Falls into a Doze…,” a wonderfully moving musical evocation of a momentary rent in the fabric of existence that makes everyone and everything seem to drip with sorrow.  A poem I wrote more than 25 years ago that appeared in the last issue of Yawp! in 2003 tried to express that idea, too.  Here it is:


Villains and heroes die often, in many ways,

in text, in song, in film and theatre.


On monuments to war, innocents and soldiers

die together, their causes dying with them.


Presidents and martyrs die one time each year,

while every night the news displays the incoherent death


of many, some by name, some by implication,

all dying twice, once at six, once in recap.


A friend may die on several days each week,

another every time a certain song is heard.


A favorite aunt will die in prayer.

A brother dies in every mirror.


A father’s death occurs in boozy dream,

while in a trembling moment after sleep,


a mother dies, again and again.  A wife, a child,

who can count the times they die each day?


in shrieking brake, in distant slam,

with every ringing phone, on every turning page.


The rain falls twice upon this pall of earth,

once so hard, droplets bounce


from bricks, from cars, from glass,

flicker candle-like, and fall a second time.

Maybe if the media ignores this survey long enough, the opinions of Americans will just go away.

About six months ago, I defined 15 specific propaganda techniques routinely used by the mainstream news media to distort the coverage of news.  Staring in my face—or perhaps hiding in plain sight is a more appropriate phrase—all this time has been a 16th technique. 

The newly identified technique is the complete disregard of a fact, incident, study or opinion. 

We’ve discussed instances of the news media ignoring studies or events with some frequency over the past 18 months. Here’s the latest example:  On Monday, January 3, “60 Minutes” and Vanity Fair released the results of a survey they conducted together that revealed that 61% of all Americans think that we should solve our budget deficit problem by taxing the wealthy.  Cutting military spending was the next most popular solution for closing the gap between how much our government spends and how much it collects, but it clocked in with a mere 20% support among Americans.

A Google News search reveals that as of today a mere 36 news media and blogs had covered the survey, although it was 44 when I checked yesterday.  Among those who did not cover this story are The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

Let’s take a look at how this compares to Google News numbers on the Internet media, including newspapers, broadcast news and blogs, coverage of other feature news today.   By feature news, I mean stories that the news media are under no obligation to carry.  They are obligated to cover hard news, which would include election results or a marriage involving British royalty. 

I’ll let my dear readers serve as judges as to how many of these stories are more important than knowing that most people want to address a pressing economic problem by taxing the wealthy.  In considering your response, remember that most of the publicity and talk of closing the deficit involves cutting programs and benefits.  Also remember that what the media discusses extensively in stories and blogs typically is a key determinant in the decision-making process in Congress and the Executive branch of government:

  • 1,711 stories on the winning of a lottery.
  • 1,566 stories on a trade fair for computer manufacturers.
  • 2,395 stories on a college football bowl game.
  • 2,277 stories on the pretrial hearing of Michael Jackson’s physician.
  • 244 stories on Kellie Pickler (who???) getting married.

Maybe those who control the mass media think that if they ignore the study and hammer us with right-wing cant that the opinions of the American people will change…or perhaps just go away.

They give us fast food and circuses.  And after a while, we see so many circuses that we think that only the clowns and acrobats matter. 


Leftovers from the New Year’s weekend: slipping in the propaganda and guess who turns to pay-for-play?

The New York Times rang in the New Year by trying to connect a few statements in a paragraph and create a greater meaning that runs counter to reality.  It was buried on the page A3 continuation of the first page story, “Boomers Hit Another Milestone of Self-Absorption: Turning 65.”

Read the following paragraph very carefully while thinking of two men, John Kerry (the war hero who came back and led opposition to the war) and Dick Cheney (who used three exemptions to avoid service while calling for others to make the supreme sacrifice):

“…the never-ending celebration of the hippie contingent of boomers tends to overshadow the Young Americans for Freedom contingent. After all, while some boomers were trying to “levitate” the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, other boomers were fighting in that war.”

Note how the YAFers morph into those who fought in the Viet Nam war, when in fact, as Mr. Cheney exemplifies, that was not always the case.  Also note how once again, anti-Viet Nam protesters are slurred by equating them completely with “hippies,” those free-spirited devotees of recreational drugs and free love in the mythology of the right.  In fact, the anti-War movement comprised a mix of types, including hippies, feminists, buttoned-down professors, pacifists, business students and business people, minorities, housewives, parents and former soldiers.

Now let’s turn to the ostensible New Year’s resolution of Parade, perhaps the most well-read periodical in North America by virtue of its insertion into the Sunday coupon page of a preponderance of Sunday newspapers. 

Parade’s New Year’s resolution: We will make more money by prostituting our magazine to advertisers.

It’s called pay-for-play and it’s when a magazine offers to run a story on a company or its products if the company buys an ad or a series of ads.  The most common and crude of the pay-for-plays has the ad facing the story, so that everyone knows that the company paid for the story.  A classier variation, one that I believe Parade followed in its January 2, 2011 edition, is to have the ad someplace else in the magazine.

The ad is a full-page color ad for the Queen Latifah collection of lipsticks by Cover Girl on the third page.  The article included the cover and a story on Queen Latifah’s advice on New Year’s resolutions that starts on page 10 and spills onto parts of five other pages.  Now I don’t know for a fact that Cover Girl paid specifically for an ad and a cover story, but judging on my 26 years of experience in public relations and advertising, I would say it’s almost a dead lock certainty that a pay-for-play agreement was arranged between the two parties.

The pay-for-play typically characterizes a lower form of journalism, certainly lower than what we traditionally expect from either Parade or a reputable daily newspaper. I’ve been reading Parade for some 50 years, and I am fairly certain that the Latifah ad-and-article represents the very first time that it has so blatantly favored an advertiser.

It symbolizes a new low for one of the most influential arbiters of mass culture in America.

OpEdge gives out the first (and maybe last) annual Ketchup Awards for misapplication of labels.

Words or phrases often acquire values that most people or a specific group of people find attractive or dislike.  When the word or phrase is associated with a number of sharply distinguishing values it enters the lexicon of labels and brands.  One of the tricks of propaganda and marketing is to label an idea, product or service with a word or phrase, which, by implication, imbues the product or service with the values associated with it. 

The result of this process can lead to some of the most devious statements ever perpetrated on the public, as when Ronald Reagan’s Department of Agriculture tried to get ketchup relabeled as a vegetable for the purpose of the federal school lunch program.  By making ketchup a “vegetable,” the hard-hearted Reaganites thought they could cut the school lunch program.  On a “values” level, it meant the transformation of ketchup from something you could easily avoid if you wanted to lose a few pounds to something considered important for all diets.

It is in the spirit of Reagan’s ketchup gambit—or against that spirit, perhaps I should say—that OpEdge announced the creation of the Ketchup Awards earlier in the year.  The Ketchup Awards honor the most egregiously deceptive bending of language, and in particular in the application of labels. 

You know, like the restaurant that says the fish is local because it buys from a local distributor of fish caught thousands of miles away.

Or the prominent priest who compared the bad press the Catholic Church has suffered because of its abuse of children to what Jews have suffered through the centuries from anti-Semites.

I asked for nominations three times, but only received one, from a gentleman named Paul Anater.  I added Paul’s to the 11 mislabelings I nominated and then selected five finalists.  Because I didn’t get many responses, I may not continue to give the award, although I will continue to collect examples of deception by mislabeling and share them with OpEdge readers.

Here then are the Five 2010 Ketchup Award Winners, in reverse order to build the suspense…

Fifth Place: Quality Withdrawal

The Girl Scouts issued a quality withdrawal in February when batches of the Lemon Chalet Crème cookies its girls were selling started tasting funny because the oils in them were decomposing rapidly.  Trying to pretend that it was related to a quality initiative and not a full-fledged recall of low-quality cookies stank worse than the cookies themselves because deviousness in communications is not a good role model for young girls.

Fourth Place: Class Warfare

We’re not talking about the 30-year class war that has led to a redistribution of wealth up the ladder from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy by means of low taxation, union-busting and privatization.  No we’re talking about the use of class warfare by two mainstream print columnists last August, Los Angeles Times Tony Petruno and New York Times’ Ron Lieber, to describe the new battle between those who have great public pensions which our politicians forgot to fund and the rest of us with lousy pensions because we’ve worked in the private sector. These reporters want to divide and conquer two parts of the same social class that should work together (and in the Western Europe of lifetime medical, unemployment and other benefits they do work together). 

Third Place: The Jamestown Socialists

Dick Armey always starts with the premise that anything bad in society must result from socialism and that the fount of all good is free-market capitalism.  No wonder then that in March this Armey of one Dick called the early example of industrial capitalism we know as Jamestown an example of socialism.  It failed, and therefore it must be socialistic, as were, we can presume, the 1962 Mets and the bridge that collapsed in the Minneapolis area a few years back.

Second Place: Vessels of Opportunity

In June, Paul Anater pointed out that BP’s program to employ Louisiana fishing and shrimp boats—put out of business at least on a temporary basis by BP’s reckless oil spill—was called Vessels of Opportunity.  The opportunity for these vessels was temporary work as oil skimmers.  We can suppose that BP executives sincerely believe that when a door closes—such as the destruction of your livelihood by an oil spill—a window really does open.

Grand Ketchup Award Prize Winner: The Self-Made Multi-Millionaire

It is the American tradition to admire the self-made millionaire and to look slightly askance at the achievements of someone born with a silver iPhone in his or her hand tricked out with every app and a packed address book.  And so when The Economist was doing one of its many encomiums to Mitt Romney, whose father was both a Governor and a multi-millionaire car-company CEO, the writers described Mitt as a self-made multi-millionaire, hoping that the self-made part would make the multi part admirable or more admirable.  Despite the fact that Mittman was born on third base, The Economist wants us to think he hit a triple.  We are ideologically programmed, almost from first grade, to admire the self-made person like Andrew Carnegie who started in poverty with no social connections and rose to riches and fame.  The Economist wants to extend that admiration to Mittman, but it’s a rank distortion, because even though Romney made hundreds of millions through the purchase and sales of corporate assets, he is in no way, shape or form “self-made.”

That’s it for the 2010 Ketchup Awards.