Monday, February 24, 2014

On Time Magazine's Pope of the Year Pick

In 1927, Time magazine launched its annual "Man of the Year" feature, renamed "Person of the Year" in 1999 to avoid the use of sexist language in the new millennium. Whether man, woman, or person, the feature was by and large, a pseudo-event, to use a term coined by Daniel Boorstin to refer to a news item that is not about any real event that took place in the world, but rather something created specifically for the medium, to provide it with content, such as an interview, a publicity stunt, a press release, and a press conference. Certainly, a large part of the motivation for creating this feature was to sell magazines, and it comes out at a slow news time, right after the Christmas holidays.

The first person selected was Charles Lindbergh, in recognition of his history-making solo trans-Atlantic flight:





Interestingly enough, Boorstin in his classic work in the field of media ecology, The Image, discusses Lindbergh as the primary example of how heroes have been transformed into celebrities, which he referred to as human pseudo-events.

Subsequent years included the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Franklin Roosevelt, and the first Woman of the Year was selected as early as 1936, and it was Wallis Simpson, the American divorcée that King Edward VIII of England fell in love with and abdicated the throne in order to marry. 

The main criterion for selection was that it should be the individual who had the greatest impact on current events over the past year. As a news magazine, Time was naturally interested in the person who made the most news.  But the most newsworthy individual is not the same thing as the most worthy individual, in any kind of moral or ethical sense. As Sidney Hook has pointed out, much of history is made by individuals who might be termed evil, and/or insane, and it follows that Adolph Hitler was Man of the Year in 1938, and Josef Stalin was chosen for the following year, and again in 1942. 

The annual pick was not always a single individual. In 1950, with the outbreak of the Korean War, it was "The American Fighting-Man" that made the cover:





In 1956, with the unsuccessful uprising against Soviet domination in Hungary, the choice was "The Hungarian Freedom Fighter":




And in 1960, it was "U.S. Scientists":




Along with the typical types of political leaders such as Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev in 1957, French Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle in 1958, and American Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959 and John F. Kennedy in 1961, the first Roman Catholic Pope to grace the cover of Time was John XXIII in 1962:




And the first African-American selected was Martin Luther King the following year:





In recognition of the role that youth culture was playing during the sixties, in 1966 baby boomers and their immediate predecessors were given the nod collectively, under the heading of "The Inheritor" (referring to the younger generation of people 25 and under):




So, I don't know about you, but I guess I could say that I was selected for Time magazine's "Person of the Year" in a way, sort of, kinda. And perhaps as a way of evening up the score, 1969 featured "The Middle Americans" who were otherwise known as "The Silent Majority" (as opposed to us noisy boomers who made up a sizable minority of the population):





Although those middle Americans were thought to be a bunch of squares, their cover image made them out to be pretty cool and groovy. And note the reference to "Man and Woman of the Year" on the cover. After Richard Nixon made the cover alone in 1971, and with Henry Kissinger the next year, 1975 was the year of "The American Women":




While choosing villains rather than heroes was a common practice, including King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in 1974 on account of the Arab oil embargo and consequent gasoline shortage in the US, and Deng Xioping in 1978 after taking control of Communist China by overthrowing Mao's successor, Hua Guofeng, a major turning point came in 1979 with the selection of Ayatollah Khomeini:



The trauma of the Iranian Hostage Crisis was too much, it seems, or television had so much eroded the readership of news magazines, and perhaps also the sensibilities of their readers (known to broadcasters as, "the audience"), that this decision cost Time a significant number of subscribers. And that affected their future choices, as never again would they venture into such controversial territory. Apart from the usual type of political leader, the 80s were noteworthy for two offbeat selections. In 1982, it was "The Computer" (aka the microcomputer, home computer, or personal computer) that was selected as "Machine of the Year":





And in 1988 it was "The Endangered Earth" that was identified as "Planet of the Year":







Hey Mars, someday, if you play your cards right, it might just be your turn to make the cover. That is, if Venus doesn't beat you to it. Anyway, 1993 was the year of "The Peacemakers":






And a pope was chosen for the second time in 1994, this time John Paul II:






New media received some recognition, arguably beginning in 1991 with CNN founder Ted Turner, and yeah, I know cable television isn't considered new media exactly, but neither is it a traditional form of broadcasting. Anyway, in 1997 it was Andrew Grove, Chairman and CEO of Intel, in 1999 it was Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, and more recently Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg got the nod in 2010. 

A few more off-beat choices appeared in between, including "The Whistleblowers" in 2002:





And representing our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, harkening back to 1950, there was "The American Soldier" in 2003:





And, wait a minute, you might be saying, what about 2001, and the very reason our soldiers were sent off to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq? Well, the obvious pick for that year would have been Osama bin Laden, as the individual who made the greatest impact on the news in 2001, by far. But commercial considerations won out over more objective evaluation based on the criteria Time uses to make its selections. In lieu of the most newsworthy individual, you might guess that they chose to feature the heroes of 9/11, by which I mean, to honor the firefighters, police, and rescue workers, at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, as well as the passengers on United Flight 93. But instead they went with the single "hero" who served as the spokesperson for the nation in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani:




Anyway, for 2005, the selection was the odd combination of Bill and Melinda Gates, for philanthropy rather than Microsoft computer software, together with U2 lead singer Bono, under the heading of, "The Good Samaritans":




The following year Time made its oddest choice to date:





So, I guess I could say I made the "Person of the Year" twice now. And yes, it's another computer and new media connection. And yes, perhaps it was a bit premature, at least insofar as the claim that we are in control of the "Information Age" is concerned. I kind of think its more the reverse, and I know many would argue that the control lies with large organizations such as the government and the corporations. And anyway, I'm not "You"! I'm only "me" after all...  But some of those "You" people made it to the cover in 2011, as "The Protestor":




I neglected to mention that Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, was the selection back in 1935, and  I did mention that Martin Luther King was chosen in 1963. There wasn't another African-American featured until 2008 with Barack Obama, who also was selected for a second time (and term) in 2012. And this brings us to 2013, and the third leader of the Roman Catholic Church to be picked, Pope Francis:




The fact that Pope Francis, who is also the first Jesuit pope ever in the history of the order, was selected was obviously a big deal for my home institution, Fordham University, New York's Jesuit university, and so it became the subject of a posting over on Fordham Notes, back on December 11, 2011. The post consisted of quotes from four faculty members. Three of them were from the Theology Department, as you might expect, and one of them was from our Department of Communication and Media Studies, namely yours truly, as you might have guessed.

You can read all four comments and get the whole context over on the Fordham blog post,  Fordham Faculty Weigh in on Time’s ‘Person of the Year’. I'll just share my own quote here on my little old Blog Time Passing:

Time's choice sometimes involves a conflict between their criterion of choosing the individual who had the greatest impact on world events and the potential negative response of their readership. In 1979 they chose the Ayatollah Khomeini and lost subscribers and sales. In 2001 they decided against the obvious choice, Osama bin Laden, knowing how negative the reaction would be. The editors must truly be in heaven to have before them such a clear-cut candidate who is not only a very positive figure, but an exceptionally inspirational one, not to mention someone who transcends nationality and even religious affiliation. 

 And I do mean that last bit, as Pope Francis has been received in very positive ways in Jewish circles as well as among many Catholics. And as for me, it's not very likely that I'll ever be pope, but there's always a chance I may make it to the "Person of the Year" another time or two. I'll keep you posted...

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Giant Speaking Fees-Fi-Fo-Fum

So, back on December 18th, Palash Ghosh published an article over on the International Business Times entitled, Talk Is Not Cheap: Why Do Ex-Politicians Earn Huge Money From Making Speeches? And as you might have guessed, I'm bringing this up here on my blog of record because I'm quoted therein.

Here's how the piece begins:

Former Secretary of State, Senator, first lady (and potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton may currently be “unemployed,” but that doesn't mean she isn't raking in big bucks. Following a long tradition of ex-lawmakers, Clinton earns hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars annually by the simple act of delivering speeches in front of adoring audiences across the nation and the world. As a high-profile global figure and a potentially history-making first female president of the U.S., Clinton commands handsome fees on the speaker circuit.

The Washington Post reported that she has received as much as $200,000 for lecturing a group of real estate developers in Dallas, adding another lucrative check from a crowd of deep-pocketed private equity managers in Los Angeles. The New York Times (usually a big supporter of liberal Democrats) slammed Hilary not only for taking big money for her speaking engagements but also for the lame quality of her canned deliveries. “For about $200,000, Mrs. Clinton will offer pithy reflections and Mitch Albom-style lessons from her time as the nation’s top diplomat,” the Times scoffed, adding examples of her bon mots: “leadership is a team sport,” “you can’t win if you don’t show up,” and the immortal “a whisper can be louder than a shout.”

But Hillary Clinton is a minor-leaguer compared to her husband–ex-President Bill Clinton has received as much as $750,000 for one speech (before an audience of executives and employees of telecom firm Ericsson in Hong Kong) and has raked in at least $89 million (and perhaps more than $100 million) from similar appearances around the world since he left the White House 12 years ago. The New York Daily News recently reported that Clinton snagged a cool half-a-million dollars for a 45-minute speech at a 90th birthday party for Israeli President Shimon Peres. That comes out to about $11,000 per minute–a princely sum paid out by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, the Jewish National Fund in Israel.

In addition, a newspaper publishing firm in impoverished Nigeria even coughed up $700,000 for the privilege of listening to the former president’s dulcet tones. Moreover, Clinton pocketed $550,000 for a speech given at a business conference in Shanghai. To be fair, it is unclear how much of this cash goes directly into his hands – since some of these earnings are transferred to his William J. Clinton Foundation and are subject to complex tax and income-reporting rules and laws.

At this point, I just want to note that this practice first became controversial when Ronald Reagan received $2 million for a speaking gig in Japan less than a year after leaving the presidency, so it's not exactly a Clintonian phenomenon. Anyway, not that there's anything wrong with it...  Or is there?

It is important to remember that ex-politicians who earn money from speeches are not violating any laws–although questions of ethics and integrity may abound. In addition, post-career politicians making speeches is nothing new–what has changed is the amount of money being paid out, and their relative lack of scruples about whom they accept fees from, said Dr. Lance Strate, professor of communication and media studies and associate chair for undergraduate studies at Fordham University in New York, in an interview. “Many believe that stricter regulation is needed to rein in such activities, and there is no question that the potential for conflict of interest exists,” said Strate.

So, there I go again. Ethics, you know? And maybe, propriety? The dignity and respect of the office? I know, I know, silly of me. Anyway, let's hear more about Clinton:

In any case, CNN reported that Bill Clinton averages about $189,000 per speech–somewhat less than his annual salary as president in the 1990s. In 2011 alone, the 42nd president took home about $13.4 million from 54 speeches (averaging out to almost a quarter-million dollars per event). His earning capacity has been escalating ever upwards–he made $10.7 million in 2010, and $7.5 million in 2009. The magnitude of Clinton’s enormous wealth came to light only because his wife’s status as a federal official required her to disclose her family's income statements.

Bill Clinton himself addressed his sudden newfound riches. "I never had any money until I got out of the White House, you know, but I've done reasonably well since then," he said in 2010 during a forum in Cape Town, South Africa. “Reasonably well” means tens of millions of dollars in earnings (and counting).

And hey, we all love a rags-to-riches story here in the USA, but many of us think that the presidential salary alone is pretty darn nice. And anyway, the question suggested by the article is a good one, what exactly is reasonable, when it comes to speaking fees, and more generally to earnings?

A Canadian-based communication executive defended Clinton’s huge income. "The work [Clinton] does around the world has given him a very unique perspective. Not just a former president's perspective, but also the very unique perspective from his philanthropic work," Norman Stowe, who arranged an economic conference with both Clinton and his successor George W. Bush, told CNN. "[Clinton is] really a gifted speaker. He speaks in a language that everyone can understand."

No question about it, Bill Clinton is good. A regular rock star of public speaking. But is there a difference between being a rock star or movie star or TV star, and being an ex-president or public official?

Even political luminaries who failed in their presidential bids ride this very green gravy train for all it’s worth. Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, who ascended to global fame in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, attracts fees of up to $270,000 per speech. In 2007, during his failed run for the Republican presidential nomination, Giuliani revealed that he had earned $9.2 million over the past 13 months in speaking fees alone, or about $700,000 per month. Former Vice President Al Gore has also maintained an extremely busy and profitable “retirement” from politics. Among his many endeavors, the ultra-environmentalist makes as much as $156,000 per speaking engagement.

Former President George W. Bush is no slouch either. Generating as much as $110,000 per talk, Bush has reeled in at least $15 million from making speeches since he left office, according to the Center for Public Integrity. In some instances, Clinton and Bush–despite their different politics–have even made joint appearances, including dual speeches in New York before the wealth management subsidiary of Swiss bank UBS.

And now, another question: Is it at all reasonable to expect that if a former president or public official is making big bucks from public speaking, that their remarks be made, well, public? After all, after leaving office, they continue to be paid and subsidized by the American people.

CPI reported that most of Bush's speeches are closed to the media–as such, he has been criticized for undertaking such projects. “I find it puzzling,” Stanford University presidential historian Robert Dallek told iWatch News. “[Bush] says he wants to keep a low profile. What is he doing except enriching himself? It sounds like it’s self-serving. It’s following the good old American adage to make as much as you can.”

Another presidential historian, Julian Zelizer at Princeton University, also blasted Bush. “It’s one thing to stay out of the public realm, which George Bush has said he wants to do,” he said. “But then he goes on the speaking circuit and makes enormous amounts of money giving lectures mostly to corporate groups and other select audiences. Some Americans can find this distasteful.” Zelizer added that the mixture of political influence and big money presents some dangers. “We’re in an era where there are countless fears about money and politics,” he said. “I think former presidents have to be careful about what they’re doing with their speeches. For some people it’s another version of the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street," the hive of Washington's lobbyists.

And as previously noted in the article, this phenomenon is not limited to ex-presidents alone. Here are some more examples:

As you go down the hierarchy of former political bigwigs, you will find even more people eager to make speeches with their hands out–although the income they demand is typically proportional to how much power and influence they once enjoyed.

Bush's former second-in-command, Dick Cheney–who, ironically, was once represented by the same speakers’ agency as his predecessor, Gore–gets $75,000 a pop, according to Politico. Other former big-time politicians, including billionaire (and failed Republican presidential candidate) Mitt Romney and his ideological opposite, Democrat Howard Dean, also score big bucks on the speakers circuit. Even a relative nobody like former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has made $2 million from speeches since he quit Barack Obama's administration in 2011.

But what's the real significance of all this? Well, here's my take on it:

But why would anyone pay such huge amounts of money for what is typically a canned speech written by others? Strate explained that a variety of institutions and organizations, both foreign and domestic, are willing and able to pay the very high speaking fees of leading American politicians and former officeholders. “For some, there is the basic interest in being associated with a celebrity, the prestige that comes with the presence and participation of a famous and influential individual,” Strate said. “This is the case for universities, for example.”

For other groups, those with political or commercial agendas, or those outside of the United States, the mere presence of a well-known political leader amounts to a tacit endorsement of the organization or nation, a sign of approval, Strate added. “And while there may not be any quid pro quo, there is a certain reciprocity that may be gained when a political figure is paid a large amount of money for giving a talk,” he noted.

Certain ethics rules bar officeholders in various parts of government from accepting speaking fees, but nothing prevents them becoming walking cash registers after they return to private life. Bill Clinton, despite his various personal deficiencies and scandals, remains a highly popular and admired global figure – thus, many corporations and other organizations eagerly seek him out. Strate suggests that any links to Clinton might impart to organizations “some benefit from connections that are made” as well as gaining the ability “to make other connections through introductions–this is the ultimate in networking.”

Another attraction of inviting former presidents to speak at major events is that the people who pay premiums, say, via sponsorship, get VIP access to the former politicians. “And that offers a range of mutually beneficial opportunities where both parties make contacts to advance their agendas,” said Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York.

With respect to Hillary Clinton, she must make a sharp separation between personal income drawn from making speeches and funds raised for her (likely) 2016 presidential run. “Wealthy candidates may use their personal finances for their campaigns, but right now Hilary is campaigning without actually being a candidate, while separate exploratory committees would be doing the fund-raising,” Strate explained. Chandler further noted that for potential 2016 candidates like Hillary Clinton and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, speaking events build their name recognition even higher and also help connect them to big donors.

There are more issues that come up for anyone who might consider running for office or other subsequent public service:

However, in the event Clinton takes money from lobbyists during her time as a "private citizen"–and then enters the White House in 2017, questions could be raised if she subsequently were to push for any legislation favorable to said lobby groups.

Dr. Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., noted that there have been cases in which former officials have gone on to earn lucrative speaking fees only to find later that such activities posed difficulties when they hoped to re-enter public life. Case in point – in 2009 it was reported Obama’s choice for secretary of health and human services was former Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. But Daschle eventually withdrew his name from consideration as a result of controversy regarding his payment of taxes. “But in the context of that appointment it was also revealed that he had received almost $400,000 in speaking fees from health-related groups,” Zaino stated. “The revelation raised questions regarding a potential conflict of interest for someone who might be in charge of the president’s efforts regarding health care reform.”

Look, there is no question that ex-presidents and other former public officials are free to seek new forms of employment after leaving office, to make money, earn a living, etc. It's just that, having served as a public official, which is a privilege after all, there is some responsibility to uphold the dignity of that office even once it is vacated, and some responsibility to be mindful of the person's public image.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both of whom are 67, have many years left to keep fattening their already overstuffed bank accounts–not only from making speeches, but from a pension, income from consulting, book deals, being associated with a law firm, corporation, or university, and in many other ways, Strate noted.

Barack Obama presents an interesting case–wildly popular with a segment of the U.S. (and foreign) population, the first non-white U.S. president has already ascended to the lofty status of super-celebrity and historical figure. Thus, potentially, he could earn untold millions from speaking fees for the next two or three decades. But Strate doesn't think Obama will embark on that route to guaranteed riches. “Given his own self-consciousness about his place in history, and what he means to so many people, he may show more restraint than others have, and that may limit his earnings,” Strate proposed.

Of course, not everyone agrees, and only time will tell:

But Chandler thinks Obama could potentially break the bank after he departs the Oval Office. “I expect given the historical nature of his elections, many will clamor for his appearances,” he said. “But ultimately this depends on how much speaking [Obama] wants to do. George W. Bush, for example, is not as active as Clinton in this area because he chose to take a lower profile in his post-presidency."

And putting things into a historical context is always helpful:

Speaking of past presidents, Chandler explained that Harry Truman gave speeches after his term in office, but he did not accept money for such efforts. “He wouldn’t endorse any products or accept positions on boards,” Chandler noted. “He did take fees for consulting, but not lobbying.”

The interesting thing is that Truman left office without the benefit of the lucrative pensions that current former presidents pull in, Chandler added. Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Past Presidents Act in 1958, which established the presidential pensions system. Eisenhower himself made some money from speaking fees, and he also spoke at major political events, including the 1964 Republican National Convention.

What remains clear is that big-name politicians will continue to draw huge fees from speaking engagements.
That's how the article concludes, and it's probably true. It seems that the big speaking fees have gone hand-in-hand with the rise of television. Perhaps this is a response to electronic mediation, so that the value of actual physical presence increases dramatically once we become so inundated with parasocial interaction? No doubt, it is a facet of television's culture of celebrity, as it has been extended into realms previously off limits to it, like politics and religion. And at least so far, the further evolution of the electronic media environment via the internet, mobile technologies, cable and satellite, seems to have only intensified the trend.

Now, to get a better sense of what I had to say on the topic and the larger context out of which my comments were taken, as well as to get some insight on how journalists pick out a few quotes from a larger interview, here is the original Q & A conducted by email with Ghosh's questions and the answers I provided:

Ghosh: Prominent former US politicians, including Bill Clinton, Hilary Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore, and others, are raking in huge amounts of cash in speaking fees. Generally speaking, who is paying out this money and why? What do they get in exchange for these people making their canned speeches?

Me: A variety of institutions and organizations, both foreign and domestic, are willing and able to pay the very high speaking fees of leading American politicians and former office holders. For some, there is the basic interest in being associated with a celebrity, the prestige that comes with the presence and participation of a famous and influential individual. This is the case for universities, for example. For other groups, those with political or commercial agendas, or those outside of the United States, the mere presence of a well known political leader amounts to a tacit endorsement of the organization or nation, a sign of approval. And while there may not be any quid pro quo, there is a certain reciprocity that may be gained when a political figure is paid a large amount of money for giving a talk.

Ghosh: Are US politicians banned from making money from outside sources while they’re in office?

Me: There are ethics rules for office holders in various parts of government that do not allow them to accept speaking fees, and even private citizens who are running for office tend to avoid earning personal income in this way because of the potential harm to the candidate's image. Of course, fundraising for campaign contributions is another story altogether.

Ghosh: Bill Clinton has reportedly made at least $89 million in speaking fees since he left office in 1999. When he talks in front of a corporation, is he working behind the scenes to make deals with foreign companies through his international business contacts?

Me: Probably not, because as he learned all too well, there are no secrets in our contemporary media environment, at least none that can be kept for very long. But it may be enough for the corporation to obtain the prestige of association, the implicit approval that comes with his presence, and perhaps some benefit from connections that are made, and the ability to make other connections through introductions—this is the ultimate in networking.

Ghosh: With respect to Hilary Clinton – if she runs for president in 2016 (which many are saying she will), is the money she’s making now from speeches tantamount to “future campaign contributions”?

Me: There is a clear separation between personal income and campaign monies, in some way similar to the distinction between personal and corporate assets. Wealthy candidates may use their personal finances for their campaigns, but right now Hilary is campaigning without actually being a candidate, while separate exploratory committees would be doing the fundraising.

Ghosh: Can an ex-politician or future politician take money from lobbyist groups?

Me: There are all sorts of ways that lobbyist groups can provide funding and benefits for politicians, former, present, and future, and it is not unheard of for someone leaving government to work on behalf of an interest group or lobby.

Ghosh: Are these former (or future) politicians breaking any ethics rules or even laws by taking money for making speeches?

Me: Not necessarily, but there are ethical questions that can, have, and should be raised, for former politicians about the harm done to the dignity of the office they once held, for future ones about the harm done to their chances of being elected.

Ghosh: Are these lucrative speeches immune from any regulation or campaign finance laws? How about the possibility of potential conflict of interest?

Me: Many believe that stricter regulation is needed to reign in such activities, and there is no question that the potential for conflict of interest exists.

Ghosh: Do these politicians list their speaking fees on their tax statements as income – or do they find some clever way of hiding their true earnings?

Me: Only the IRS knows for sure, I imagine. If the individual has a foundation, trust, nonprofit organization, or business where the funds can be channeled, they might avoid having the fees listed on their returns, yes.

Ghosh: For people like Clinton and Bush, are speeches their sole source of income in “retirement” or do they generate additional dollars from elsewhere?

Me: The pension that former presidents receive would be more than adequate for the vast majority of Americans, they can receive income for consulting, being associated with a law firm, corporation, or university, and in many other ways.

Ghosh: Even lower profile political figures like former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs make millions from speeches. What influence or importance can such marginal figures like him possibly have?

Me: It's all a matter of degrees of separation. Unlike the six degrees most of us have on average, someone like Gibbs has direct contact with many high profile figures, and at one degree of separation with many more. Networking yields access.

Ghosh: Given that Barack Obama is a historic figure, once he leaves office, do you expect him to break Bill Clinton’s record of huge earnings on the lecture circuit? Will companies and other clamor for his appearances?

Me: He certainly has the potential to do so, because of his symbolic value as the first African-American president, beyond his status having held the highest office in the nation. But given his own self-consciousness about his place in history, and what he means to so many people, he may show more restraint than others have, and that may limit his earnings.

Ghosh: Did old-time politicians like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower also make money from speeches after their terms were over? Or is this a relatively recent development?

Me: Speeches and lectures are nothing new, and in the 19th century were a major form of entertainment. What is new is the amount of money being paid, and the relative lack of restraint on the part of former politicians about whom they accept fees from. A variety of institutions and organizations, both foreign and domestic, are willing and able to pay the very high speaking fees of leading American politicians and former office holders. For some, there is the basic interest in being associated with a celebrity, the prestige that comes with the presence and participation of a famous and influential individual. This is the case for universities, for example. For other groups, those with political or commercial agendas, or those outside of the United States, the mere presence of a well known political leader amounts to a tacit endorsement of the organization or nation, a sign of approval. And while there may not be any quid pro quo, there is a certain reciprocity that may be gained when a political figure is paid a large amount of money for giving a talk.

Ghosh: Are US politicians banned from making money from outside sources while they’re in office?

Me: There are ethics rules for office holders in various parts of government that do not allow them to accept speaking fees, and even private citizens who are running for office tend to avoid earning personal income in this way because of the potential harm to the candidate's image. Of course, fundraising for campaign contributions is another story altogether.

Ghosh: Bill Clinton has reportedly made at least $89 million in speaking fees since he left office in 1999. When he talks in front of a corporation, is he working behind the scenes to make deals with foreign companies through his international business contacts?

Me: Probably not, because as he learned all too well, there are no secrets in our contemporary media environment, at least none that can be kept for very long. But it may be enough for the corporation to obtain the prestige of association, the implicit approval that comes with his presence, and perhaps some benefit from connections that are made, and the ability to make other connections through introductions—this is the ultimate in networking.

Ghosh: With respect to Hilary Clinton – if she runs for president in 2016 (which many are saying she will), is the money she’s making now from speeches tantamount to “future campaign contributions”?

Me: There is a clear separation between personal income and campaign monies, in some way similar to the distinction between personal and corporate assets. Wealthy candidates may use their personal finances for their campaigns, but right now Hilary is campaigning without actually being a candidate, while separate exploratory committees would be doing the fundraising.

Ghosh: Can an ex-politician or future politician take money from lobbyist groups?

Me: There are all sorts of ways that lobbyist groups can provide funding and benefits for politicians, former, present, and future, and it is not unheard of for someone leaving government to work on behalf of an interest group or lobby.

Ghosh: Are these former (or future) politicians breaking any ethics rules or even laws by taking money for making speeches?

Me: Not necessarily, but there are ethical questions that can, have, and should be raised, for former politicians about the harm done to the dignity of the office they once held, for future ones about the harm done to their chances of being elected.

Ghosh: Are these lucrative speeches immune from any regulation or campaign finance laws? How about the possibility of potential conflict of interest?

Me: Many believe that stricter regulation is needed to reign in such activities, and there is no question that the potential for conflict of interest exists.

Ghosh: Do these politicians list their speaking fees on their tax statements as income – or do they find some clever way of hiding their true earnings?

Me: Only the IRS knows for sure, I imagine. If the individual has a foundation, trust, nonprofit organization, or business where the funds can be channeled, they might avoid having the fees listed on their returns, yes.

Ghosh: For people like Clinton and Bush, are speeches their sole source of income in “retirement” or do they generate additional dollars from elsewhere?

Me: The pension that former presidents receive would be more than adequate for the vast majority of Americans, they can receive income for consulting, being associated with a law firm, corporation, or university, and in many other ways.

Ghosh: Even lower profile political figures like former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs make millions from speeches. What influence or importance can such marginal figures like him possibly have?

Me: It's all a matter of degrees of separation. Unlike the six degrees most of us have on average, someone like Gibbs has direct contact with many high profile figures, and at one degree of separation with many more. Networking yields access.

Ghosh: Given that Barack Obama is a historic figure, once he leaves office, do you expect him to break Bill Clinton’s record of huge earnings on the lecture circuit? Will companies and other clamor for his appearances?

Me: He certainly has the potential to do so, because of his symbolic value as the first African-American president, beyond his status having held the highest office in the nation. But given his own self-consciousness about his place in history, and what he means to so many people, he may show more restraint than others have, and that may limit his earnings.

Ghosh: Did old-time politicians like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower also make money from speeches after their terms were over? Or is this a relatively recent development?

Me: Speeches and lectures are nothing new, and in the 19th century were a major form of entertainment. What is new is the amount of money being paid, and the relative lack of restraint on the part of former politicians about whom they accept fees from.

As you can see, it was quite an extended exchange that we had, and something significantly different from the article that was eventually published. What both underscore is that this is an issue worthy of our attention, and in many ways, our concern, and that's not all hot air...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Laboratory as Anti-Environment

In case you missed, or even if you didn't, here's a repost of my essay published on the Hannah Arendt Center blog on back on December 16th, entitled The Laboratory as Anti-Environment. Once again, I am grateful to Bridget Hollenback for providing the images to go with the words.


"Seen from the perspective of the "real" world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment."
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind
I find this quote intriguing in that its reference to environments and environmental change speak to the fact that Arendt's philosophy was essentially an ecological one, indeed one that is profoundly media ecological. The quote appears in a section of The Life of the Mind entitled "Science and Common Sense," in which Arendt argues that the practice of science is quite distinct from thinking as a philosophical activity.
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As she explains:
Thinking, no doubt, plays an enormous role in every scientific enterprise, but it is a role of a means to an end; the end is determined by a decision about what is worthwhile knowing, and this decision cannot be scientific.
Here Arendt invokes a variation on Gödel's incompleteness theorem in mathematics, noting that science cannot justify itself on scientific grounds, but rather must somehow depend on something outside of and beyond itself. Perhaps more to the point, science, especially as associated with empiricism, cannot be divorced from concrete reality, and does not function only in the abstract realm of ideas that Plato insisted was the only true reality.
The transformation of truth into mere verity results primarily from the fact that the scientist remains bound to the common sense by which we find our bearings in a world of appearances. Thinking withdraws radically and for its own sake from this world and its evidential nature, whereas science profits from a possible withdrawal for the sake of specific results.
It is certainly the case that scientific truth is always contingent, tentative, open to refutation, as Karl Popper explained.  Scientific truth is never absolute, never anything more than a map of some other territory, a map that needs to be continually tested and reviewed, updated and revised, as Alfred Korzybski explained by way of establishing his discipline of general semantics. Even the so-called laws of nature and physics need not be considered immutable, but may be subject to change and evolution, as Lee Smolin argues in his insightful book, Time Reborn.
Scientists are engaged in the process of abstracting, insofar as they take the data gained by empirical investigation and make generalizations in the form of theories and hypotheses, but this process of induction cannot be divorced from concrete reality, from the world of appearances. Science may be used to test, challenge, and displace common sense, but it operates on the same level, as a distilled form of common sense, rather than something qualitatively different, a status Arendt reserves for the special activity of thinking associated with philosophy.
Arendt goes on to argue that both common sense and scientific speculation lack "the safeguards inherent in sheer thinking, namely thinking's critical capacity."  This includes the capacity for moral judgment, which became horrifically evident by the ways in which Nazi Germany used science to justify its genocidal policies and actions. Auschwitz did not represent a retrieval of tribal violence, but one of the ultimate expressions of the scientific enterprise in action. And the same might be said of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, holding aside whatever might be said to justify the use of the atomic bomb to bring the Second World War to a speedy conclusion. In remaining close to the human lifeworld, science abandons the very capacity that makes us human, that makes human life and human consciousness unique.
The story of modern science is in fact a story of shifting alliances. Science begins as a branch of philosophy, as natural philosophy. Indeed, philosophy itself is generally understood to begin with the pre-Socratics sometimes referred to as Ionian physicists, i.e., Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, who first posited the concept of elements and atoms. Both science and philosophy therefore coalesce during the first century that followed the introduction of the Greek alphabet and the emergence of a literate culture in the ancient Greek colonies in Asia Minor.
And just as ancient science is alphabetic in its origins, modern science begins with typography, as the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein explains in her exhaustive study, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change in Early Modern Europe. Simply by making the writings of natural philosophers easily available through the distribution of printed books, scholars were able to compare and contrast what different philosophers had to say about the natural world, and uncover their differences of opinion and contradictions. And this in turn spurned them on to find out for themselves which of various competing explanations are correct, where the truthlies, so that more reading led to even more empirical research, which in turn would have to bepublished, that is made public, via printing, for the purposes of testing and confirmation. And publication encouraged the formation of a scientific republic of letters, a typographically mediated virtual community.
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Eisenstein notes that during the first century following Gutenberg, printed books gave Copernicus access to centuries of recorded observations of the movements of celestial objects, access not easily available to his predecessors. What is remarkable to consider is that the telescope was not invented in his lifetime, that the Polish astronomer arrived at his heliocentric view based only on what could be observed by the naked eye, by gazing up at the heavens, and down at the printed page. The typographic revolution that began in the 15th century was the necessary technological precondition for the Copernican revolution of the 16th century.  The telescope as a tool to extend vision beyond its natural capabilities had not yet been invented, and was not required, although soon after its introduction Galileo was able to confirm the theory that Copernicus had put forth a century earlier.
In the restricted literate culture of medieval Europe, the idea took hold that there are two books to be studied in an effort to discern the divine will, and mind: the book of scripture and the book of nature. Both books were seen as sources of knowledge that can be unlocked by a process of reading and interpretation. It was grammar, the ancient study of language, which became one third of the trivium, the foundational curriculum of the medieval university, that became the basis of modern science, and not dialectic or logic, that is, pure thinking, which is the source of the philosophic tradition, as Marshall McLuhan noted in The Classical Trivium. The medieval schoolmen of course placed scripture in the primary position, whereas modern science situates truth in the book of nature alone.
The publication of Francis Bacon's Novum Organum in 1620 first formalized the separation of science from philosophy within print culture, but the divorce was finalized during the 19th century, coinciding with the industrial revolution, as researchers became known as scientistsrather than natural philosophers. In place of the alliance with philosophy, science came to be associated with technology; before this time, technology, and engineering, often referred to asmechanics, represented entirely different lines of inquiry, utterly practical, often intuitive rather than systematic. Mechanics was part of the world of work rather than that of action, to use the terms Arendt introduced in The Human Condition, which is to say that it was seen as the work of the hand rather than the mind. By the end of 19th century, scientific discovery emerged as the main the source of major technological breakthroughs, rather than innovation springing fully formed from the tinkering of inventors, and it became necessary to distinguish between applied science and theoretical science, the latter nonetheless still tied to the world of appearances.
Today, the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, has become a major buzzword in education, a major emphasis in particular for higher education, and a major concern in regards to economic competitiveness. We might well take note of how recent this combination of fields and disciplines really is, insofar as mathematics represents pure logic and highly abstract forms of thought, and science once was a purely philosophical enterprise, both aspects of the life of the mind. Technology and engineering, on the other hand, for most of our history took the form of arts and crafts, part of the world of appearances.
The convergence of science and technology also had much to do with scientists' increasing reliance on scientific instruments for their investigations, a trend increasingly prevalent following the introduction of both the telescope and the microscope in the early 17th century, a trend even more apparent from the 19th century on. The laboratory is in fact another such instrument, a technology whose function is to provide precisely controlled conditions, beyond its role as a facility for the storage and use of other scientific instruments. Scientific instruments are media that extend our senses and allow us to see the world in new ways, therefore altering our experience of our environment, while the discoveries they lead to provide us with the means of altering our environments physically. And the laboratory is an instrument that provides us with a total environment, enclosed, controlled, isolated from the world to become in effect the world. It is a micro-environment where experimental changes can be made that anticipate changes that can be made to the macro-environment we regularly inhabit.
The split between science and philosophy can also be characterized as a division between the eye and the ear. Modern science, as intimately bound up in typography, is associated with visualism, the idea that seeing is believing, that truth is based on vision, that knowledge can be displayed visually as an organized set of facts, rather than the product of ongoing dialogue, and debate. McLuhan noted the importance of the fixed point of view as a by-product of training the eye to read, and Walter Ong studied the paradigm-shift in education attributed to Peter Ramus, who introduced pedagogical methods we would today associated with textbooks, outlining, and the visual display of information. Philosophy has not been immune to this influence, but retains a connection to the oral-aural mode through the method of Socratic dialogue, and by way of an understanding of the history of ideas as an ongoing conversation. Arendt, in The Human Condition, explained action, the realm of words, as a social phenomenon, one based on dialogic exchanges of ideas and opinions, not a solitary matter of looking things up. And thinking, which she elevates above the scientific enterprise in The Life of the Mind, is mostly a matter of an inner dialogue, or monologue if you prefer, of hearing oneself think, of silent speech, and not of a mental form of writing out words or imaginary reading. We talk things out, to others and/or to ourselves.
Science, on the other hand, is all about visible representations, as words, numbers, illustrations, tables, graphs, charts, diagrams, etc. And it is the investigation of visible phenomena, or otherwise of phenomena that can be rendered visible through scientific instruments. Acoustic phenomena can only be dealt with scientifically by being turned into a visual measurement, either of numbers or of lines going up and down to depict sound waves.  The same is true for the other senses; smell, taste, and touch can only be dealt with scientifically though visual representation. Science cannot deal with any sense other than sight on its own terms, but always requires an act of translation into visual form. Thus, Arendt notes that modern science, being so intimately bound up in the world of appearances, is often concerned with making the invisible visible:
That modern science, always hunting for manifestations of the invisible—atoms, molecules, particles, cells, genes—should have added to the world a spectacular, unprecedented quantity of new perceptible things is only seemingly paradoxical.
Arendt might well have noted the continuity between the modern activity of making the invisible visible as an act of translation, and the medieval alchemist's search for methods of achieving material transformation, the translation of one substance into another. She does note that the use of scientific instruments are a means of extending natural functions, paralleling McLuhan's characterization of media as extensions of body and biology:
In order to prove or disprove its hypotheses… and to discover what makes things work, it [modern science] began to imitate the working processes of nature. For that purpose it produced the countless and enormously complex implements with which to force the non-appearing to appear (if only as an instrument-reading in the laboratory), as that was the sole means the scientist had to persuade himself of its reality. Modern technology was born in the laboratory, but this was not because scientists wanted to produce appliances or change the world. No matter how far their theories leave common-sense experience and common-sense reasoning behind, they must finally come back to some form of it or lose all sense of realness in the object of their investigation.
Note here the close connection between reality, that is, our conception of reality, and what lends someone the aura of authenticity, as Walter Benjamin would put it, is dependent on the visual sense, on the phenomenon being translated into the world of appearances (the aura as opposed to the aural). It is no accident then that there is a close connection in biblical literature and the Hebrew language between the words for spirit and soul, and the words for invisible but audible phenomena such as wind and breath, breath in turn being the basis of speech (and this is not unique to Hebraic culture or vocabulary). It is at this point that Arendt resumes her commentary on the function of the controlled environment:
And this return is possible only via the man-made, artificial world of the laboratory, where that which does not appear of its own accord is forced to appear and to disclose itself. Technology, the "plumber's" work held in some contempt by the scientist, who sees practical applicability as a mere by-product of his own efforts, introduces scientific findings, made in "unparalleled insulation… from the demands of the laity and of everyday life," into the everyday world of appearances and renders them accessible to common-sense experience; but this is possible only because the scientists themselves are ultimately dependent on that experience.
We now reach the point in the text where the quote I began this essay with appears, as Arendt writes:
Seen from the perspective of the "real" world, the laboratory is the anticipation of a changed environment; and the cognitive processes using the human abilities of thinking and fabricating as means to their end are indeed the most refined modes of common-sense reasoning. The activity of knowing is no less related to our sense of reality and no less a world-building activity than the building of houses.
Again, for Arendt, science and common sense both are distinct in this way from the activity of pure thinking, which can provide a sorely needed critical function. But her insight as to the function of the laboratory as an environment in which the invisible is made visible is important in that this helps us to understand that the laboratory is, in fact, what McLuhan referred to as a counter-environment or anti-environment.
In our everyday environment, the environment itself tends to be invisible, if not literally so, then functionally insofar as whatever fades into the background tends to fall out of our perceptual awareness or is otherwise ignored. Anything that becomes part of our routine falls into this category, becoming environmental, and therefore subliminal. And this includes our media, technology, and symbol systems, insofar as they are part of our everyday world. We do pay attention to them when they are brand new and unfamiliar, but once their novelty wears off they become part of the background, unless they malfunction or breakdown. In the absence of such conditions, we need an anti-environment to provide a contrast through which we can recognize the things we take for granted in our world, to provide a place to stand from which we can observe our situation from the outside in, from a relatively objective stance. We are, in effect, sleepwalkers in our everyday environment, and entering into an anti-environment is a way to wake us up, to enhance awareness and consciousness of our surroundings. This occurs, in a haphazard way, when we return home after spending time experiencing another culture, as for a brief time much of what was once routinized about own culture suddenly seems strange and arbitrary to us. The effect wears off relatively quickly, however, although the after-effects of broadening our minds in this way can be significant.
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The controlled environment of the laboratory helps to focus our attention on phenomena that are otherwise invisible to us, either because they are taken for granted, or because they require specialized instrumentation to be rendered visible. It is not just that such phenomena are brought into the world of appearances, however, but also that they are made into objects of concerted study, to be recorded, described, measured, experimented upon, etc.
McLuhan emphasized the role of art as an anti-environment. The art museum, for example, is a controlled environment, and the painting that we encounter there has the potential to make us see things we had never seen before, by which I mean not just objects depicted that are unfamiliar to us, but familiar objects depicted in unfamiliar ways. In this way, works of art are instruments that can help us to see the world in new and different ways, help us to see, to use our senses and perceive in new and different ways. McLuhan believed that artists served as a kind of distant early warning system, borrowing cold war terminology to refer to their ability to anticipate changes occurring in the present that most others are not aware of. He was fond of the Ezra Pound quote that the artist is the antenna of the race, and Kurt Vonnegut expressed a similar sentiment in describing the writer as a canary in a coal mine. We may further consider the art museum or gallery or library as a controlled environment, a laboratory of sorts, and note the parallel in the idea of art as the anticipation of a changed environment.
There are other anti-environments as well. Houses of worship function in this way, often because they are based on earlier eras and different cultures, and otherwise are constructed to remove us out of our everyday environment, and help us to see the world in a different light. They are in some way dedicated to making the invisible world of the spirit visible to us through the use of sacred symbols and objects, even for religions whose concept of God is one that is entirely outside of the world of appearances. Sanctuaries might therefore be considered laboratories used for moral, ethical, and sacred discovery, experimentation, and development, and places where changed environments are also anticipated, in the form of spiritual enlightenment and the pursuit of social justice. This also suggests that the scientific laboratory might be viewed, in a certain sense, as a sacred space, along the lines that Mircea Eliade discusses in The Sacred and the Profane.
The school and the classroom are also anti-environments, or at least ought to be, as Neil Postman argued in Teaching as a Conserving Activity.  Students are sequestered away from the everyday environment, into a controlled situation where the world they live in can be studied and understood, and phenomena that are taken for granted can be brought into conscious awareness. It is indeed a place where the invisible can be made visible. In this sense, the school and the classroom are laboratories for learning, although the metaphor can be problematic when it used to imply that the school is only about the world of appearances, and all that is needed is to let students discover that world for themselves. Exploration is indeed essential, and discovery is an important component of learning. But the school is also a place where we may engage in the critical activity of pure thinking, of critical reasoning, of dialogue and disputation.
The classroom is more than a laboratory, or at least it must become more than a laboratory, or the educational enterprise will be incomplete. The school ought to be an anti-environment, not only in regard to the everyday world of appearances and common sense, but also to that special world dominated by STEM, by science, technology, engineering and math.  We need the classroom to be an anti-environment for a world subject to a flood of entertainment and information, we need it to be a language-based anti-environment for a world increasingly overwhelmed by images and numbers. We need an anti-environment where words can take precedence, where reading and writing can be balanced by speech and conversation, where reason, thinking, and thinking about thinking can allow for critical evaluation of common sense and common science alike. Only then can schools be engaged in something more than just adjusting students to take their place in a changed and changing environment, integrating them within the technological system, as components of that system, as Jacques Ellul observed in The Technological Society. Only then can schools help students to change the environment itself, not just through scientific and technological innovation, but through the exercise of values other than the technological imperative of efficiency, to make things better, more human, more life-affirming.
The anti-environment that we so desperately need is what Hannah Arendt might well have called a laboratory of the mind.