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.

Why does Subway persist in telling the old lie about how to lose weight?

Christmas is over and we’re rolling towards the New Year, which means that once again Subway, the fast-food sandwich chain, is running one of the most deceptive television commercials of the past several years.

The background music—The 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky—drives the commercial.  That’s the light classical piece in which the drums sound like cannon fire.  While the lead-up to this highly recognizable moment of explosion plays, we see four or five people getting ready to bite away at a hamburger piled high with sauce, cheese and condiments.  The people represent a variety of types.  As we see a close-up shot of one of the heroes of the commercial chomping down on the big, bad and greasy burger, the cannons start to explode…and so do the people.  We see a succession of buttons popping off the pants of the eaters.  Then we see one person break a chair and another break a bed, all to Tchaikovsky’s battlefield-like explosions.  The actors are a bit chunky but not obese, yet the implication is clear: the fast-food burgers caused the person to gain weight, which has led to the destruction of clothes and furniture.

The tone of the commercial suddenly changes as a narrator starts to tell us that if it’s time to lose some of those unwanted pounds that people should try two Subway sandwiches, both of which have both cheese and meat and one of which has bacon.

And why are these sandwiches great for losing weight?  Subway’s narrator gives us the reason: because they only have seven grams of fat each.

And therein lies the deception.

Cutting down on the fat you eat has nothing to do with weight loss.  Now there are other reasons to cut down on fat—including avoiding heart disease, diabetes and possibly several types of cancer.

But Subway does not talk about anything but losing weight.  And losing weight involves consuming fewer calories than what you burn to live.  In other words, you could eat nothing but fat and lose weight if the number of calories you eat is less than what your body is using.  For example, I’ve read in many places that a typical male adult should consume 2,200 to 2,600 calories a day.  If an adult male eats only 1,500-1,800 calories of fat a day, he can thus lose from one to two pounds a week.  And if an adult male eats nothing but lettuce and blueberries but chows down 3,000-3,500 calories of these very healthy foods per day, he’ll blimp up in no time.

I didn’t even bother trying to find out what the calorie count is for these Subway sandwiches, because it does not matter to my analysis.  If you say that adding peanut butter to your fuel tank will help a car get better mileage, you’re lying.  If you say that toppling Sadam Hussein will hurt alQaeda, you’re lying. 

And when Subway says you can lose weight eating these sandwiches because of low fat content, it is lying.  The music and the good-natured humor of the buttons popping make it a very entertaining lie, but it’s a lie nonetheless, one that many purveyors of processed foods and restaurant cuisine tell often. 

I want to close by wishing all OpEdge readers and their families a joyous, creative and prosperous 2011!  See you next year.

The census report news coverage shows how the media shapes our beliefs by deciding what to cover.

By vote of news coverage, one of the secondary news stories today is the release yesterday of the “5-Year American Community” study by the U.S. Census Bureau.  The way that the news media covered the news is an interesting case study on how the media sifts through facts and decides what’s important and what’s not.

Most news media remain local in orientation, so it’s only natural that most of the stories on the new census report focus on what happened locally.  Some examples include The Detroit Free Press, Deseret News, Newark Star-Ledger, Philadelphia Inquirer, Birmingham News,  and even the usually national-looking Washington Post.

Many focused on local segregation patterns in reaction to a Brookings Institute study that said that the census report showed that the U.S. was less segregated than expected.  Segregation therefore became a focal point for much but not all of the local coverage.  Among national media, only USA Today took the Brookings bait, declaring in its analysis of the census report that there was still a surprising amount of segregation across the country.  Brookings leans left and USA Today is slightly left of center so it’s not surprising that implicit in both the report and the “rebuttal” is the idea that segregation is a bad thing (and I agree that segregation is bad).

The New York Times took another tack in attempting to define the big picture takeaway from the new census findings—the 10 words and one idea that everyone will remember.

Before analyzing the Times enormous three-page coverage of the census report, let’s take a look at what’s in the report.  The U.S. Census Bureau makes that easy in its 10+ page news release about the voluminous report.

The report provides sample topics by which anyone can pull information for 670,000 distinct geographic areas across the nation.  Here are the sample topics:

  • Poverty
  • Value of housing
  • Travel time to work
  • Married couples with children under 18
  • Educational levels
  • Spanish speakers
  • Household income
  • Foreign-born

That’s a lot of data the two New York Times reporters who wrote the article and their researchers must have sifted through.

The Times article consists of one long column on the first page of national news, followed by two complete pages, one of which continues the national story and the other of which focuses on the New York metropolitan area.

The Times created charts for three trends it uncovered—let’s call them three finalists for “news story we remember.”  The lion’s share of the Times coverage revolved around one of these three trends, including headline, first paragraph and about half of the succeeding paragraphs.  The other two trends got very brief mentions.

Here are the three trends, and then you try to guess which one the Times covered extensively, the one therefore proposed as the key fact to remember:

  1. Household incomes fell in three-quarters of all counties
  2. The suburbs have seen an explosion in the population of foreign-born
  3. Most of the wealth remains in cities

Now I’ve seen other studies and news items addressing all three of these trends over the past few years, so none is a total “gee whiz.”

So am I living in some weird alternate reality or did everyone else think that the shrinkage of household income was the main story? With unemployment dancing around 10% and daily reports of retirement financial woes, how could it not be?

But it wasn’t for the Times.  The Times put virtually all its reportorial muscle into reporting the increase in the population of foreign born living in the suburbs.  Only, the Times doesn’t call them “foreign-born” as the Census Bureau does.  It calls them “immigrants.”

And the headline writer couldn’t even get the headline right: Immigrants Make Paths to Suburbia, Not Cities.

That’s not what the data or the article say, though:  The data and article focus on the fact that the population of immigrants in the suburbs has grown exponentially.  That does not mean that the new immigrants are coming from outside the U.S., as the words “immigrants make paths to suburbia, not cities” suggests, implies and explicitly states.  The history of all immigration in this country would suggest that many foreign-born move first to cities and then from there to suburbs.

I’m not going to question why the Times focused on “immigration” instead of shrinking incomes, but in tomorrow’s blog entry I want to explore what the impact of that decision could have on the American people and our national dialogue on critical issues.


Another liberal writes the history of the past election and forgets about the progressive rally.

I thought I was done raging about the fact that so many liberal commentators are holding the Comedy Central rally up as the one mass initiative on the liberal side of the aisle during the last election season, especially when comparing liberal mass actions to the Glen Beck rally and other Tea party confabulations.  These liberal writers forget about the other liberal Washington, D.C. rally on October 2nd, which represented a coalition of progressive and labor groups (and not the predilections of TV personalities).  As I have stated before, all three rallies attracted about the same size crowd.

Yes, I thought I had spewed all my angry words about this issue.

But now comes Thomas Frank, the armchair liberal who wrote What’s the Matter with Kansas and The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. Mr. Frank has held up Comedy Central rally as the symbolic liberal act of the 2010 election cycle in his essay titled “The Fatal Center” in this month’s Harper’s

Frank’s point, which has real merit, is that the Democrats rushed to the center in the election, instead of remaining true to their liberal-left heartstrings.  Then he introduces Jon Stewart’s rally (I added the bold):

“I was thinking about all this as I watched the last act of the 2010 election cycle, comedian Jon Stewart’s ‘Rally to Restore Sanity,’ jokingly known as the ‘million moderate march…Here at last was the liberal counterpart to the Tea Party movement.”

Wrong, Mr. Frank: The liberal counterpoint to the Tea Party movement was the progressive-liberal rally, which the mainstream news media practically ignored and which everyone including liberals immediately forgot about.

Frank goes on to say that the Stewart rally was really a centrist move, which proves his point about liberals moving towards the center.  If he had selected the October 2nd  progressive rally as his example, he would not have made his case, since that rally stayed true to long-time progressive and liberal ideals.

I can understand why the mainstream media and the right-wing Foxites would want to replace a progressive initiative symbolically with the actions of pranksters.  But why has the liberal media formulated this inaccurate and in a way offensive conflation?

My only explanation is that it is another in a series of moves by so-called progressives to distance themselves from the labor movement, which was a major organizer of the progressive-labor Washington rally, similar to President Obama’s misguided embrace of union-busting charter schools.   

Et tu, Frank. So dies an accurate history of the last election.

In Shakespeare’s version of the Julius Caesar story, Caesar struggles against his assassins in the Senate chambers until he sees his good friend and protégé Brutus draw his knife, at which point Caesar whimpers, “Et tu, Brute, so fall Caesar.” “Et tu” is Latin for “You, too?!”

The “Et tu, Brutus” moment for a true rendering of what happened in the last election season—the suppression of progressive voices in the mainstream news media—may have come yesterday in Frank Rich’s column in the “Week in Review” section of the Sunday New York Times

Just as The New York Review of Books did in its most recent issue, Rich juxtaposes the Comedy Central Washington rally with the one held by Glen Beck.  And just as the NY Review did, Rich forgets to mention the rally for progressives, which also took place in Washington, D.C. during the election season and drew approximately as many people as these other two rallies.  It seems as if our most consistently liberal voices over the past decades of regression are using the imagery of right-wing rhetoric. 

Details define reality, and over time, those details get frozen into history.  Over time, certain details are always in the histories and media descriptions of an epoch, incident or nation, and some are always forgotten.  For example, Lincoln made a number of speeches during the Civil War, but we always remember the one he gave after the Battle of Gettysburg because that’s the one that journalists, pundits, historians and history professors decided was important.

By deleting the progressives rally from the narrative, Rich and everyone else drives the dialogue rightward in these ways:

  • Trivializes the left, by making as its symbol a TV network dedicated to amusing people (and which also broadcasts the Reaganistic “South Park”).
  • Cooks the numbers, since two left-looking rallies with from 75,000-100,000 participants beats one rightwing rally with from 75,000-100,000 participants.
  • Leaves unions completely out of the media image of the left coalition, since unions were a central focal point of the now-forgotten progressives rally but were not highly visible at the Comedy Central rally.

As I have stated a number of times in OpEdge over the past year, the real story of this year’s election is the mainstream news media helping the Republicans, for example, by:

  • Framing the healthcare debate in Republican terms
  • Overestimating the importance of the Tea Party early on
  • Focusing all attention on Republican primary races and none on Democratic primary races
  • Ignoring signs of progressive political activity or shows of strength, such as the progressives’ rally.

One central theme in the continuing post-election autopsy is the idea that the Obama Administration could not articulate strong messages.  I disagree: the messages were strong enough, but in the contemporary world, between most message givers and their audience is a messenger ruthlessly selecting what it will deliver and often distorting the message. 

American Express steps into the deep fertilizer big-time by making outrageous claims for a savings account.

Yesterday, I analyzed an ad in which, by selecting the value to attach to its product, Home Depot communicates the ideological American imperative of mindless over-consumption.

Let’s turn now to a print ad by American Express that tries to fit the round peg of a set of values into the square hole of its product/service.  The product/service is a savings account that American Express advertised in the national edition of the New York Times earlier this week, which means that there is a good chance that it was also in the Wall Street Journal, and perhaps USA Today as well.

In this full-page ad, American Express digs deeply into the world of symbols, using gardening as a metaphor for growing net assets for the future.  The top half of the ad is a photo of a person’s lower legs and feet, probably a woman judging from the stylish boots and workpants that cover what we see of the person.  The person stands in a little patch of dirt surrounded by what looks like a field of young ground cover: a crowded bunch of small plants each consisting of five or six small but very vibrant-looking green leaves.   The headline over the boot tops reads: “My reason for saving: To help my dreams take root.”

Doesn’t the image carry you into a pleasant daydream of future happiness? 

American Express hammers home the message with a terse but poignant bit of copy: “EVERYONE HAS A REASON. SAVE FOR YOURS. Earning your money takes work.  But helping it grow for the future doesn’t have to.  Take advantage of our High-Yield Savings account and ensure that your future has a strong foundation to build on.”

In the current environment, we’re all worried about having enough money for future goals, typically retirement and paying for our children’s post-secondary education.  We all want to do a little digging in the garden today and have the confidence that with time, we’ll have a nice big harvest. 

We would all like to “ensure that your future has a strong foundation.”

One big catch, though.  According to the ad, the American Express high-yield savings account currently earns 1.3%.  This ridiculously low amount may be the best you can get in the current market for simple savings accounts (or maybe not, I didn’t check), but it most certainly is not a foundation for future growth.

To show you how absurd it is for American Express to try to attach the metaphor of mending your garden to ensure a plentiful future harvest to a 1.3% interest payment, let’s take a look at Yahoo’s retirement planning calculator.

I plugged the following middle-of-the-road assumptions into the calculator: Married couple; age 35 with zero current savings; retiring at age 65; wanting 20 years of retirement income equal to 75% of their current $100,000 in combined income; assume 3% inflation.  I ran the calculations twice, and here’s the results:

  • Earn 1.3% on your savings and assume you get no Social Security: Must save 75.4% of income every year until turning 65.
  • Earn 1.3% on your savings and assume Social Security at current benefit levels: Must save 30.5% of income every year until turning 65.

In other words, earning 1.3 % just doesn’t hack it.  American Express knows it.  Anyone who has had a savings account knows it.  Anyone who can do simple math knows it.

In simple fact, American Express embarrasses itself because it tries to connect 1.3% with building a future.  Better it should take another approach, e.g., earn as much as you can on the money that you have to keep liquid.

Whether it was in the age when savings accounts made 4% or 5%, or the current no-interest environment, most people have always opened a simple savings account where they currently have other accounts or close to their home or business, or they comparison shop for rates.  American Express might win the comparison with other savings accounts, but because it has connected its product/service to future growth, it now has to compete with corporate bonds, municipal bonds, mutual funds, exchange traded funds, common stocks, preferred stock and a bunch of other investments that all tend to do a lot better than 1.3% over a long time frame.

In other words, except to the completely inexperienced rube, instead of building a case for opening its so-called high yield savings account, American Express has actually hurt its cause in this ad.  Somebody misread or misapplied the research big time.