Sunday, February 1, 2009

My Presidencies Past

So, on Friday January 31st, I stepped down from a position I held for over a decade, president of the Media Ecology Association. This makes for an occasion for reflection, and I thought I would take the occasion to reflect upon the idea of presidency, as a symbol and office.

I'm not going to get all political on you, don't worry about that, I'll just state the obvious point that American culture makes something of a fetish of the idea of being president, as a consequence of it being the highest office in our government, and the most powerful political position in the land (and when the U.S. became the most powerful nation in the world, that made the President the most powerful person of all, it seems). Moreover, it's a commonplace that the balance between the branches of the government has shifted since the founding of our republic, with the executive gaining increasingly more power, leading to a kind of regal presidency.

But of course, as general semantics makes clear, the map is not the territory, and the meaning people ascribe to the word President may not match up with the reality of the situation. In one sense, a president is one who presides, and in countries with parliamentary governments, the president is a ceremonial office, while the real power lies with the Prime Minister (this system does not have the same separation of legislative and executive branches that we do). Prime Minister sounds somewhat weaker than president to me, perhaps because historically the prime and less than prime ministers were the king's ministers, meaning they ministered to the king. And there's a bureaucratic quality to it, as in ad-minister, as distinguished from authority. But the synonym for Prime Minister, Premier, which I assume comes from the French, sounds much stronger to me. In fact, it comes across as ominous, since that was what the leader of the old Soviet Union was called. As such, Premier strikes me as akin to führer, which was what they used to refer to Hitler, enough said about that. But old Adolf's title was Chancellor, which has a more mixed resonance, being at times another alternative to Prime Minister or Premier, at other times something more like President. Of course, dictator is a time-honored term, going back to ancient Rome, and in one sense what's so terrible about dictating or taking dictation? Ah, the power of the word, spoken and written.

Of course, I'm not covering all the terms, especially not those undemocratic ones like king, emporer, baron, duke, etc. Yes, dictator, führer, and the like are democratic in that the presuppose that the people have consented to authoritarian rule. Fascism, communism, socialism, national socialism aka nazism, all are movements of the people, all derive legitimacy from the reality or illusion of popular support.

Also, I remember learning about the United Nations as a child in elementary school, we even took a class trip there (I was especially impressed with the Chagall window, which I wrote about in a blog post entitled Art and Memory), and I can recall how odd it seemed when I learned that the head of the UN was called the Secretary General--wasn't secretary a girl's position?, I wondered at that time, as it typically was the office that was held by a girl, as opposed to Vice-President, Treasurer, or President, in clubs and such). Girls took dictation, they didn't dictate. Hey, I'm just reporting, not condoning.

We do learn about politics in grade school by electing class and or school officers, who in the lower grades don't do very much, but it does teach a lesson about democracy, and the basic offices that we all know, President, Vice-President, Secretary, and Treasurer. But even with this experience, there still is a child-like fascination with the symbolic value of president. Several years ago, the fact that I was president of the MEA came up in conversation with my son, and he responded, You're the President??? The expression of surprise, astonishment, and incredulity, was matched by the sense that he was impressed if not awestruck by this fact.

By the same token, it's been argued that television presents a skewed, and childlike view of our federal government, by reporting mostly about the President's activities, as opposed to the Cabinet or Congress. Simply put, images of a single individual or two individuals work best on TV, larger groups simply don't play well. So television feeds the trend in politics and popular culture of an imperial presidency in the US.

I should add that I did try to tell my son that it was no big deal to be president of an organization, it's pretty commonplace, after all. In the business world, in the age of massive multinational conglomerates, being president of a company is no great shakes, doesn't mean you're the boss, which is why for years now all the talk is about CEOs, the acronym for Chief Executive Officers, who in effect are the president of all of the presidents of all the companies that the corporation owns. And in most organizations, we typically use president as an office and not a title. I would be referred to as president of MEA, but never as President Lance Strate. For the most part, it is only heads of state, notably the President of the United States, who are referred to by the title President, as in President Obama, or Mr. President. Otherwise, the only other example I am aware of would be the presidents of colleges and universities, so that the head of Fordham University is President Joseph M. McShane, SJ (SJ indicates that he is a Jesuit). So, President McShane, yes, President Strate, no. And while serving as president, I consciously tried to avoid putting on airs, so to speak, often not capitalizing president, for example, and referring to the talk I would give at our annual convention as the President's Address, rather that the Presidential Address, which sounds too hoity-toity to my ears.

One of the techniques that general semantics suggests to improve critical thinking and consciousness of abstracting is to turn singular terms into plural ones, and therefore, to understand that there is no one thing called president, but many different kinds of presidents and presidencies. As noted above, president in our political system is quite different from president in a parliamentary system.

With this in mind, I actually served as three different kinds of presidents of the MEA. When we founded the organization on September 4, 1998, there were only five of us present, and we decided that four of us would be provisional officers. So I was actually a provisional president at first. Then, at our inaugural convention in June of the year 2000, the members present approved our first constitution, and based on it, I was directly elected to a three-year term. But that fall we held a meeting to discuss and consider the was our organization was organized. We had input from Neil Postman, Christine Nystrom, Paul Levinson, Joshua Meyrowitz, Susan Drucker, Gary Gumpert, and especially James W. Carey, and decided on a new structure, in which the membership would elect members of a Board of Directors, twelve in all, with staggered three-year terms, so four seats would be decided upon in a general election each year. And the board would meet every January and at that meeting elect the officers, starting with President. So we drew up the necessary changes to the constitution, they were passed at our 2001 convention, the elections were held that fall, and the first board meeting occurred in January of 2002. I was then elected by the board to a one-year term as President, and re-elected every subsequent year through 2008, the year I told the board would be my last. So that was 7 one-year terms where I was the MEA Board of Directors' president.

So, this was not my first presidency. I have also served as president of the New York State Communication Association. This started with me being elected Vice-President Elect in 1996. That was the only election I took part in, the rest was a matter of automatic succession. At the annual meeting in 1997, I became Vice-President which, under this kind of set-up, is the most important and labor intensive, as you are in charge of running the annual conference. And that's exactly what I did in 1998, and at that point I became President. Being president amounted to little more than running executive council meetings, nothing very strenuous, and quite the opposite from my MEA presidency where I was involved in just about everything we were doing. NYSCA also considered Immediate Past President, the year after serving as president, as an official office. And there used to be a extra year in there, starting with Vice-President Elect Elect, which some organizations still have. This is a system that is marked by lots of turnover, which if fine for labor intensive work like running a conference, but not always the best thing for running the organization itself. It's a system that's necessary when it's hard to find leadership, when people are reluctant to serve, when there isn't a whole lot of enthusiasm and commitment. It works fine for large, national or regional organizations, especially when they can employ an Executive Director to insure stability and continuity. For small organizations like NYSCA, it can be a prescription for disaster, as a string of bad leadership can ruin the organization, and I've seen it come close to that twice. That was our concern when we opted for a more conservative model for MEA.

So, this was not my first presidency. My first presidency was when I was in college, at Fordham University. I was a member of the Cornell Drinking Club. It's official name was Majura Nolanda Bethel Lamed or something like that, we were never quite sure, it was supposed to mean something like Nothing but the finest in the house of learning. The club was euphemistically known as a social activity honorary. But it was best known by its nickname, The Mummies. We met every Wednesday evening at a bar called The Chapter House, where we had our own private keg, and had members only meetings in a special room downstairs. The agenda consisted mostly of chugging contests, which was also the main initiation ceremony. I admit to not being great at chugging, but I was good enough to get in. And being elected president of the Mummies was not a matter of being the best drinker--it was an administrative position. My main duty was to drop the keys that signaled the start of the chugging contests.

So, three presidencies, each one different and distinct. Will there be a fourth? I wouldn't rule it out, but not just yet...

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