Monday, November 17, 2008

Cool to the Korzybski

So, this past weekend's 56th Annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture and Creating the Future Symposium was quite a success, with over 200 individuals present for all or part of the proceedings, and lots and lots of happy, intellectually stimulated folks. And it was marvelous to see so many old friends, especially the alumni of the dearly departed media ecology program at New York University. This was a great occasion to see the old tribe, especially those who aren't active in the Media Ecology Association, and who have a strong connection to general semantics.

While we're on the subject, I want to mention my friend Robert Francos, who has been MEA's photographer extraordinaire for the past ten years, and was taking pictures all weekend long. Rob has a blog that's mostly about rock, having been a music critic back in the days of CBGSs, the blogs name is FFanzeen: Rock 'n' Roll With Integrity. And he just put up a post inspired by this past weekend, Remembering Neil Postman, and I want you to go read it. Go now, I'll wait here, and we can pick up where we left off when you're done.

Back now? Worth the read, right? Very good, now on with the blog, this is it:

It no doubt was flattering that the Institute of General Semantics website was hacked on Saturday, as it shows that people are actually paying attention to us; this was the second time that the site was hacked, the first being after the AKML speaker Douglas Rushkoff made a big deal about us on his blog. He hangs out with a tough crowd, virtually speaking, but that's cool. It's nice that people care enough to hack the site, but of course there is too much of a good thing, so we've had our fill now, thank you very much.

I'm still exhausted and in the process of processing all that went on, so I'll no doubt have more to say about the weekend in later posts. And anyway, we'll be publishing some of the talks in the General Semantics Bulletin, which you'll get if you're a member, and also making video of the talks available on DVD.

But for now, I want to mention that I had a lot of nice compliments on the events, and on how I was doing as Executive Director of the IGS, and one unexpected compliment that I received was that I was likened to President-Elect Barrack Obama in exhibiting a kind of calm serenity while making sure that everything was running smoothly.

Now, I have to say that the outer calm does not necessarily reflect the inner nervousness, and sometimes outright panic, that I might be feeling. But that's besides the point, which is that we have a new point of comparison in Obama, and of course it is very flattering indeed to have been the subject of such a simile.

And this brings me back to a post I put up last week, Triumph of the Cool, where I wrote about the contest for the coolest televisual image between Obama and McCain, which Obama won. Being compared to Obama means that folks think that I'm cool. And being a baby-boomer, a late baby-boomer in fact, being cool has been a lifelong goal for me, in some ways an obsession.

In a comment on Triumph of the Cool, my friend Bob Blechman, who participated at the Symposium, and has a very cool blog of his own, A Model Media Ecologist, said that he didn't think that McCain ever had a chance. I thought I'd take this opportunity to correct my good friend, and note that right before the economic meltdown, McCain was leading in the polls. Of course, we don't know what would have happened if the economy had not faltered, and we'll never know.

But I think the closest analogy to what happened to McCain can be found in Jimmy Carter's re-election campaign. When Carter defeated the appointed incumbent president, Gerald Ford, in 1976, he was hailed as a master of the cool, of media, television, and symbolism. He wore a sweater, for God's sake, and before you knew it Dan Rather followed suit on the CBS Evening News. But as the economy got worse, Carter became increasingly more strident, turning hotter and hotter. And the meltdown came in the form of the Iranian hostage crisis, which continued into the election campaign in 1980. In response, Carter suspended his campaigning and remained at the White House, the Rose Garden strategy it was called. And some say that if our forces had not wilted in Iran's dessert heat, if not for the helicopter crash, or if we had had one more helicopter to spare, the hostages would have been rescued, allowing Carter to cool down and win the election. After all, Reagan was seen as a right-wing kook before his election, and a perennial loser. I kid you not, kids.

It's truly amazing how fortunes can rise and fall in politics.

But getting back to Obama's coolness, being cool means that you are providing an incomplete image, a less that hi-fidelity soundtrack, that there are gaps and intervals, there's missing information, and that invites the audience to participate by filling in what's missing. That Obama is a bit of a cipher is part of being cool, just as Joe Cool wearing shades is inscrutable, keeps his thoughts to himself, his feelings under wraps, and plays his cards close to the vest. Marshall McLuhan said that charisma is looking like a lot of other people, as opposed to looking like an individual, and this sort of cool charisma fosters identification (which Kenneth Burke said was the key to success in rhetoric and persuasion), as we project ourselves into the other person to complete the image (this idea is also presented in Scott McCloud's wonderful work, Understanding Comics).

So, this point about Obama was interestingly reinforced in an article in Sunday's Week in Review Section of the New York Times (November 16, 2008), entitled, Whose President Is He Anyway? written by Peter Baker. The article begins by making the point about Obama's ability to foster identification:

It did not go unnoticed among the paisans that Barack Obama loves a four-star Italian restaurant on the Magnificent Mile near the lakefront. Not some pizza joint, but “the Ferrari of Italian cooking,” as Spiaggia’s chef and co-owner, Tony Mantuano, puts it. Appreciation for fine Italian culture, he said, has earned Mr. Obama a strong following in the community. “He’s the pride of the Italians,” Mr. Mantuano said.

And why not? Practically everyone wants to claim Mr. Obama these days. African-Americans, obviously, but also Hispanic-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Muslim-Americans and even white Americans purging feelings of racial guilt. The youth, the netroots, the bipartisan consensus builders, the East Coast elites, the Hollywood crowd. Liberals, centrists and even some conservatives who see Reaganesque qualities. The British, the Germans and other foreigners disaffected with Bush’s America.

“I am like a Rorschach test,” Mr. Obama noted at one point during the campaign. “Even if people find me disappointing ultimately, they might gain something.”

A Rorschach test is about as cool as a cool medium can get. Of course, if that's the case, there's nowhere to go from there but to get hotter as your image becomes clearer and more distinct:

The Rorschach part may fade with the end of the campaign but the test part is here. Reconciling all those different impressions of who Mr. Obama is and what he stands for may prove as defining a challenge as fixing the economy.

Whose president is he? The standard line from his advisers would naturally be that he’s the president of all Americans. But it rarely works out that simply. Ultimately, the gauzy picture of the campaign trail sharpens in the act of governing. Ultimately, choices are made and illusions shattered. And so many of Mr. Obama’s supporters invested so much passion in him that the potential for let-down seems considerable.

The president-elect’s first few actions and statements since the election have provided some initial clues that are already being scrutinized for larger meaning. His first appointment, for instance, was to make his friend Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois his White House chief of staff.

Some critics saw that as a betrayal of Mr. Obama’s campaign pledge to foster a “new politics” reaching across the aisle in Washington since Mr. Emanuel is such a skilled specialist in the razor-edged old politics of slicing up the opposition. But others saw ideological significance in the fact that Mr. Emanuel has been an advocate for more centrist policies when it comes to issues like trade, crime and welfare.

The selection of Mr. Emanuel and other veterans of President Bill Clinton’s administration to run the transition stood in contrast to Mr. Obama’s message about finally moving beyond the Clinton era. All the more striking was his decision last week to sound out Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton herself as a possible secretary of state. The Clinton faction is pleased, but those who saw Mr. Obama as a clean break may wonder what it means.
Now, the matter of Joe Lieberman comes up next in the article, a case that has got some Democrats really heated up. In my opinion, Lieberman was badly betrayed by the left wing of the Democratic party, and abandoned by his friends, as he lost the primary campaign when he was running for reelection to his Senate seat, and having won election as an Independent anyway, came to his party's aid when they needed him to form a majority in the Senate. He has every right to take a stand as a centrist Democrat, and even to support the opposition's candidate for President. And Obama is right to take the cool stand and not look for revenge, and perhaps should put a leash on some of the hotheads in his party. As the article goes on to say:

Similarly, many inside the Beltway sat up and paid attention when Mr. Obama, through a spokeswoman, said he did not hold any grudges against Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who calls himself an independent Democrat but barnstormed for Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee. Mr. Obama said he would not get involved in deciding whether Mr. Lieberman should keep his committee chairmanship and would welcome his staying in the Democratic caucus.

Republicans and some Democrats were relieved at what they viewed as an act of statesmanship, but some liberals intent on punishing Mr. Lieberman for his heresy were disappointed. Yet interestingly, even among critics of Mr. Lieberman, the statement was interpreted differently.

Greg Sargent, writing on TPM Election Central, argued that the statement “risks giving cover to senators who want to do nothing about Lieberman.” Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, writing on the Daily Kos Web site, said, “Greg Sargent seems to take this as pro-Lieberman. I see it exactly the opposite,” because Mr. Obama did not take a position on the committee chairmanship, which Mr. Moulitsas considers the issue. Even now, Mr. Obama remains what he is in the eye of the beholder.

Cool, cool, cool. No wonder there are constant comparisons to John F. Kennedy, the first president who was cool enough for TV:

“He reminds me of John Kennedy in this respect,” said Peter H. Wehner, a former Bush White House official now at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “If you read the books on Kennedy, intellectuals who spoke to Kennedy felt like he was an intellectual; politicians who spoke with him felt like he was a politician. He had the ability to make people think he was what they wanted and what they were looking for. I get the sense that Obama is a little like that and everyone is going to lay claim to him.”

Mr. Obama has an advantage that some other presidents did not, in that he has been a singular political phenomenon who probably does not owe his election primarily to any particular group. If Ronald Reagan leaned heavily on the support of the religious conservatives and Mr. Clinton tried to move his party to the center in search of independents, Mr. Obama did not define himself in strongly ideological terms, even if his record and program are largely left of center.

But it was Mr. Obama who set the expectations so high among so many different constituency groups. His advertising during the primaries urged Democrats to vote for him because he would do nothing less than “save the planet,” which as campaign promises go certainly beats a chicken in every pot.

“There’s going to be enormous pressure on him to produce, to meet these expectations,” said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine who is now national director of the activist group Win Without War.

And among those exerting that pressure will be Mr. Andrews’s fellow opponents of the Iraq war. An early test will be whom Mr. Obama picks for secretary of defense. Advisers have said he is thinking about asking the current Pentagon chief, Robert M. Gates, to stay on, at least for a while, in a show of bipartisanship. But Mr. Andrews said that would undermine the founding ideal of Mr. Obama’s campaign to end the war.

“Clearly when you compare Gates and Rumsfeld it’s night and day; everybody recognizes that,” Mr. Andrews said, referring to Mr. Gates’s predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld. “But still, we need to turn the page and have a new direction and deliver clear and strong messages including who is going to be our secretary of defense. The strongest message would be to put in a new team with a new vision.”

Possibly in no area will this tension be more fraught than in race relations. As the first African-American president in a nation long divided over race, Mr. Obama will face crosscurrents that none of his predecessors ever did, embodying as he does the hopes of a long-disenfranchised segment of the population yet determined not to be locked into old paradigms. Many of his actions will be viewed through the lens of race, from the composition of his cabinet to the priority he places on issues historically important to black Americans.

Mr. Obama managed to balance those pressures through nearly two years of campaigning and now will have to do it again. “He’ll still have to be a master manipulator, in a sense, and know how to navigate all those different forces,” said Representative Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. “He has shown himself to be a very cool-under-fire kind of guy.”

Very cool under fire, eh? Sorry, the words just jumped out at me. Let's get back to the article:

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the House majority whip and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, said Mr. Obama would show that he can be bold without being radical and that most black supporters would recognize the limits the economy has placed on what he can do.

“He knows he has to be careful not to make any lurches left or right,” Mr. Clyburn said. “He plays the game inside the hash marks. Anything too far left or too far right would make it a very rocky presidency for him. Most people understand that. Not all people, and I’ve heard from people when I say that, but most people.”

Perhaps, but African-Americans are not the only ones to see in him a unique champion, and the demands for action could be considerable. Two out every three Hispanic voters supported Mr. Obama, an increase of 13 percentage points from four years ago, according to exit polls, and turnout in that demographic shot up by more than 30 percent. Hispanic leaders said they provided the margin of victory in Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.

“We feel like we had a big stake in the election and that’s what prompted this historic turnout,” said Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza. The advocacy group did wait long to begin publicly pushing the new president-elect to recognize this support with key White House and Cabinet positions.

“At some point in the first term we would definitely expect to see an effort to move responsible immigration reform,” Ms. Murguía said. “It would be a big mistake not to act on this important priority.”

Or all of the other important priorities that the president-elect’s believers assume he will tackle. After all, he’s got a planet to save.

We can only wish him the best of luck in saving the planet--godspeed Mr. President-Elect! In the meantime, I'll be tackling the more modest job of saving the Institute of General Semantics, and nurturing its growth for the 21st century. That's a pretty big responsibility in and of itself, and the first step is readily apparent--be cool, man, be cool!

PS, that also means have a sense of humor, as can be seen in this video in which the newly elected Senator Obama takes part in a roast of Representative Rahm Emanuel, his pick for White House Chief of Staff:

So, as we used to say when we were kids, maintain your coolness! Maintain!


Robert Barry Francos said...

I just wanted to say thanks for the kind words about my blog, and about me. Was I supposed to have a photo card in my camera this weekend? Just kidding. As a comedian in all seriousness, it truly was an inspiring weekend! I apologize beforehand for this pun, but of course you are as "cool" as Obama, for you have been to the mountain top...okay, pyramid top (in Mexico).

Robert K. Blechman said...

Thank you Lance for mentioning me and my blog. I'd like to add that anyone can purchase copies of my symposium talk "Things Come In Fours" by contacting me. In the spirit of Douglas Rushkoff's Friday night call to abandon central banking and a unitary currency, I am willing to barter copies for other goods and services.

I am also greatful to Lance for discussing the election at length and citing my correct prediction that Obama would win. It's not easy being wrong, and I feel that Lance is a big person for admitting it.

Its not easy always being right either, as it puts a lot of pressure on you to continue being right. Its also unfair to my audience as it relieves them of the obligation of thinking things through and arriving at a conclusion themselves.

So here's what I'm going to do. I will make no more predictions about anything, thus giving everyone else a chance. I predict that this will go a long way to improving the general level of discourse in our society...


ConnectingTheDots said...

A related issue is Obama’s membership in Generation Jones (between the Boomers and Generation X). I’ve seen numerous very credible experts emphatically insist that Obama is part of GenJones; if Obama’s generational identity is of interest to you, click this link…it goes to a page filled with lots of articles and videos of famous people discussing Obama’s identity as a GenJoneser, and the many implications of this for his Presidency: