Saturday, July 29, 2017

Systems, Contexts, Frames and Patterns

So, let me continue to update you on my activities as president of the New York Society for General Semantics with this post about an event we held on March 29th that featured an interview I conducted with Nora Bateson, along with readings from the book of essays she published last year, Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns. And let me add that the book is a marvelous collection that is written for a general audience on topics relating to ecology, systems, relationships, psychology, education, and much more.

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Nora joined us in New York City, journeying all the way from Sweden, for our conversation and discussion, and book signing. We were honored to be able to host this very special event, and here is more of the description of that evening's program:

Systems, Contexts, Frames, and Patterns

A Reading and Conversation With Nora Bateson

Nora Bateson brings an ecological and cybernetic approach to the problems we face, individually and globally, in the ways that we understand and interact with our world. Drawing on the famous map and territory metaphor that is central to general semantics, she emphasizes the need to to change our ways of thinking, and perceiving, and engaging with each other, and the environment we share.

Her award-winning documentary, An Ecology of Mind, focuses on the life and thought of her father, Gregory Bateson, a pioneer in systems theory, information theory, and complexity, as it relates to culture, psychology, and biology (his father, William Bateson, coined the term genetics). Carrying on in this tradition, Nora Bateson gives lectures and workshops worldwide, and founded the International Bateson Institute, based in Sweden, which she serves as President.

Joy E. Stocke, in Wild River Review, states that, "Bateson brings her gifts of language and storytelling to fruition in her new book of essays and poems... as she explores her father's and grandfather's work in the context of her life as a writer and researcher, as well as the world each of us navigates as part of a larger whole."

David Lorimer, in Network Review, describes Small Arcs of Larger Circles as, "a rich feast with poetry, short reflections and more extended pieces introducing the terms transcontextuality and symmathesy," and concludes that "this seminal book will give you a new relational lens on life."

It was by all accounts an evening that was thought-provoking, enlightening, and inspiring.

Of course, you don't have to take my word for it, you can decide for yourself:

It was a unique session, and one that many found altogether inspiring!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

An Amusing Interview

So, maybe, in all that surfing of the internet that you've been doing over the years, you've come across the Vox website? It's a web-based news source, the equivalent of a news magazine, or in their own words:

Vox explains the news.

We live in a world of too much information and too little context. Too much noise and too little insight. And so Vox's journalists candidly shepherd audiences through politics and policy, business and pop culture, food, science, and everything else that matters. You can find our work wherever you live on the internet—Facebook, YouTube, email, iTunes, Snapchat, Instagram, and more.

Vox was launched at Vox Media in 2014 by founders Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and Matthew Yglesias.

An altogether commendable mission statement, wouldn't you say? And maybe the biases of the electronic media they are working with overpower the messages they are trying to deliver, but you still have to give them credit for making the effort, don't you agree?

So anyway, back in May I was contacted by Sean Illing, who interviewed me for a piece he was writing for Vox on the effects of the electronic media on politics. A familiar topic, after all, and in light of Trump's candidacy and presidency, more and more people have been searching for explanations by turning to media ecology in general, and Neil Postman in particular. And the relevance of Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death was the main focus of his interview, which was published online on May 14th.

The title of the article, How This 30-Year-Old Book Predicted Todays’ Politics, was followed by the subtitle, How TV Has Trivialized Our Culture and Politics, and you have the links to the article as it appears on Vox, should you care to go check it out. Of course, I'll also discuss it here, so you can also stick around, or do both, after all.

Illing begins the piece by introducing a quote from Postman:

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death was written in 1985, but it reads like prophecy today. On the first page, just a few paragraphs in, is the following passage:
What George Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Aldous Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture ... As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction.”
This 30-year-old book, written by a relatively unknown media critic who died in 2003, captures our cultural and political moment with terrifying precision, and helps explain how we ended up with a reality TV charlatan as president. “We’re a culture whose information, ideas and epistemology,” Postman wrote, “are now given form by TV, not by the printed word.” All of reality is a show, in other words, and has to be seen and experienced as such. This is especially true of politics, which, in the age of TV, is almost entirely about optics and entertainment.

He then goes on to reference an earlier essay that pointed to Postman's relevance, Are We Having Too Much Fun?, written by Megan Garber and published in The Atlantic magazine, and subtitled, In 1985, Neil Postman observed an America imprisoned by its own need for amusement. He was, it turns out, extremely prescient. You have the links, so you can read that article now, or later, if you care to, but now I want to return to Vox:

The questions Postman raises in Amusing Ourselves to Death are jarring. The Atlantic’s Megan Garber addresses some of them in a superb essay about the social and political costs we’ve paid for prizing entertainment above everything else. Our entire culture, she notes, is built on cosmetics and performance, as the internal logic of television demands.

Garber’s piece sums up Postman’s thesis quite well, but I wanted to dive a little deeper into the media theory behind it. How, exactly, has television transformed American life, and how has the shift from a print-based culture to an image-based culture changed the nature of our minds?

So, how does Illing dive deeper and answer these questions? That's where our interview comes in:

To get some answers to these and other questions, I reached out to Lance Strate, a professor of communications at Fordham University and perhaps the leading media ecologist in the country.

The author of Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World, Strate has written extensively about Postman’s legacy, and about the cultural impact of television. He argues that our desire for entertainment has become “positively toxic” and in this new world defined by TV, the power of the image has overwhelmed our capacity to think and reason carefully.

In this interview, I ask Strate what Postman meant when he wrote that our culture had “descended into a vast triviality.” I also ask him if TV has trivialized our politics and made us all dumber as a result.

And what follows is the interview:

Sean Illing: What did Postman mean by the phrase “amusing ourselves to death”?

Lance Strate: He meant that we’re having a very good time, surrounded in every moment by distractions and entertainment, and that while that could normally be considered a good thing, something we’d like to have in our lives, we were starting to overdose on it. We had reached the point where the impulse for entertainment had become positively toxic.

Sean Illing: What, exactly, was Postman’s argument? Why was the shift from a text-based culture to an image-based culture so consequential?

Lance Strate: His argument rested on two main issues. One is image culture. Television, being image-based, is not conducive to rationality or really any kind of logical discourse. It's good for evoking emotional responses but not for deep thought and reflection.

One of the reasons people thought that digital media and computers were different was that so much of it was actually text-based. But what we see is that as the technology has evolved and progressed more and more, we have the graphical user interface, we have the use of icons, emojis, and of course a tremendous amount of video that now dominates the web. So all of that really indicates that contemporary technologies have amplified the image orientation that was present with television.

The other part of it was the immediacy. All forms of electronic communication move very quickly. We have instantaneous communication which gives us a kind of telegraphic discourse. And Twitter is just the latest form of this telegraphic discourse.

To the extent that we use language, we use it in this very abbreviated way, and that again is not conducive to logical or extended discourse. It's very good for slogans and jokes, and for trivial matters. But it feeds this tendency to turn things over quickly. We don’t stay on a subject for very long. Like, say, the news cycle itself, we just shift mindlessly from one story or subject to another.

Ultimately, we’ve overwhelmed with a flood of information and imagery. There is no time for reflection, for careful thought, for serious study.

At this point, Sean brings up the name of another major media ecologist who also wrote about the effect of television on politics, Marshall McLuhan, and we get into the subject of language, and what Walter Ong referred to as the technologizing of the word:

Sean Illing: Like Marshall McLuhan, Postman is convinced that the surest way to see to the core of a culture is to look at its tools of conversation. Why is this the defining feature of a culture?

Lance Strate: What is a culture except for its conversation or its use of language? I mean, without that we're kind of on the level of primates, really. What sets us apart from any other species is our use of language and symbols. And what is it that sets us apart from the kind of tribal cultures that were the only form of culture for something on the order of 100,000 years or more? As compared to the civilizations that only started to pop up somewhere between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago.

And that's writing. That's what we see in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, later in India and China, and of course in Greece and ancient Israel. You know we see the writing systems pop up that make all of those extraordinary cultures that possible, that's the greatest revolution in human history, and as we progress forward what is it that put an end to the medieval world and brought us into the modern world? And, along the same lines, what is it that made the West preeminent because it wasn't preeminent in the middle ages? And that was the printing press.

Sean Illing: But the age of the printing press is over now. This is the point that Postman drives home. Our communication is now electronic and image-based, and that has had profound consequences.

Lance Strate: That’s right. This was Marshall McLuhan’s point as well. We’ve had what he called an alphabetic civilization for more than 2 millennia. Well over 2 millennia. And we've come to the end of that road. It's over. And it was over in his time, and he kind of sensed that. And that is the electronic media. And it's really with television that it fully came into its own as a dominant medium.

And then digital media, the internet and all of that, that's really further development, further progression. But all of the characteristics we associate with digital media were pretty much there in the 19th century with the telegraph and the telephone.

Time now to get into the topic at hand, politics, don't you think?

Sean Illing: I’m trying to connect all of this to politics. The world that TV has built is precisely the world in which someone like Donald Trump can become president. When Postman writes, “We may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control,” it’s hard not to see how depressingly accurate he was. Is there any doubt politics is now about the artifice of display and not the content of ideas?

Lance Strate: Well, you can go back to Reagan, who was elected a few years before Postman wrote this book, and the shocking event of an actor being elected president. In that case, you can see that there was, like, one foot in the old world and one in the new world. Reagan at least had some prior political experience, but his acting experience is what got him elected.

Postman was trying to make sense of the fact that if you look at what was going on at that time, the early ’80s, all the opinion polls were showing that Reagan had enormous popular appeal. And yet when people were asked about the issues, their views on the issues, they were diametrically opposed to them. And yet they voted for him anyway.

And this is the major disconnect between political issues and ideology. And really even if you look at the word ideology, you'll see that it's a system of ideas, which is what party platforms argue about. That made a lot of sense when print was the dominant medium, but it means nothing today.

Today, it’s all about the power of the image, of entertainment, of spectacle.

Sean Illing: Let’s talk about the medium of TV and why it matters so much. For Postman, there was a clear relationship between a medium and the level of ideas it can sustain or communicate. TV, by virtue of what it is, seems to reduce everything to entertainment.

Lance Strate: Well, I think we can qualify that. I don't think you can say it can only be a form of entertainment. But in his time he wrote about PBS News Hour, which, compared to network news, was more in depth, spent more time on a story. And he actually said, the words were, "Their audience is minuscule."

So let's fast forward to today. And you can have CSPAN. And you can actually watch Congress at work. But how many people are watching?

Sean Illing: Practically no one.

Lance Strate:I think the word minuscule applies even more so in that instance. And why? If you think about television news, and really at the time that Postman wrote this, people were saying, "Well, we only have half an hour, and that's with commercials, to do the news. If we had more time we could go in-depth."

But now we've got three major cable news networks, and where's the depth? It's not there. Why? Because it doesn't look good on television. It doesn’t play well, it’s not entertaining. Television exists to show us compelling images in a dramatic format—that’s it. And this is what we all come to expect the more we watch it.

CNN has all this time on their hands. What do they do? They show us the music of the ’60s. And Anthony Bourdain eating in exotic places. TLC used to be the learning channel and now it’s the Honey Boo Boo channel. You see a similar trajectory with almost every network—it’s always from more to less depth.

This is what we mean when we talk about the bias of the medium. And we mean bias not in the sense of prejudice, but bias as in tendency. The tendency for things to roll down a hill rather than up a hill. And downhill on TV is toward exciting images, dramatic performance, compelling personalities, and triviality.

Now, in a post I published here last month, entitled Trump, McCarthy, and the Art of the Pseudo-Event, I wrote about Daniel Boorstin's important media ecological study, The Image, and his discussion of Joseph McCarthy's use of pseudo-events in service to his anti-Communist witch hunt, and noted how McCarthy's manipulation of the press bears a striking resemblance to Trump's ability to dominate the news media. At the time, I had not taken note of the connection between the two, the link being Roy Cohen, the attorney who served as McCarthy's chief counsel during his reign of terror, who also became something of a mentor to Trump.

In any event, it's at this point in the interview that I bring up Boorstin's book as one of the influence on Postman:

Sean Illing: Has TV made us dumb? Has it permanently trivialized our politics?

Lance Strate: Well, it short-circuits our ability to think clearly and in depth. It's a constant stream of distractions that interfere with any kind of rational response to the world. I've been thinking about this because Daniel Boorstin wrote a wonderful book called The Image that Amusing Ourselves to Death draws on along with Marshall McLuhan. And I've been thinking about this regarding Trump because Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-events."

He coined this term to describe how Joseph McCarthy was incredibly skillful at manipulating the press. For example, how he would call a press conference in the morning to announce that he would hold a press conference in the afternoon with new revelations about communists and government. And then whether he actually did call the press conference in the afternoon or not didn't matter. The aim was to dominate the newspapers, which, at that time, came out in multiple editions a day.

This was an early example of how the image-based media transformed our politics, and in almost universally unproductive ways.

Sean Illing: One of the more interesting aspects of the book is about how TV has altered our epistemology, how we know things. We respond to images, not words, and that leaves us more open to manipulation.

Lance Strate: Epistemology is how we know the world, how we learn about aspects of our environment. In large part, what we take in from our environment is mediated. I’ve never been Russia. I’ve never met Putin. I have to rely on information I get through the media that is available to me. But their biases also color the way I understand the world.

In an earlier age, someone like Putin would just be a name I read. Now there's a face and a voice and I make a judgment based on how that person looks and sounds. And this is true of nearly everything and everyone these days: We make judgments based on imagery, not the printed word.

I think this means we’re much more emotionally connected to the rest of the world. That can be good in times, but it also means that we’re much more open to being manipulated.

And now it's back to language, and specifically the topic of facts and truth that has come up numerous times in my posts here over the past months:

Sean Illing: Can we draw a straight line between TV and post-factuality? Surely it’s no accident that facts have become less important as more and more of reality gets reduced to a TV show.

Lance Strate: Facts are the magic matter of rational discourse. A fact is a statement, it's language. People use the word in different ways, but it really takes a statement to make a fact. And in technical terms, a fact is something that you can check out.

So if I tell you it's raining outside right now, then it's something that you can check out and determine whether it's true or false. And technically a statement of fact can be false. But the point is that you can see that it's false, you can check it out.

Reagan was famous for false facts. Many of them turned out to be things he saw in movies. But they were statements that could be checked out. Where we've gone beyond that is the fact that it doesn't seem to matter anymore when people point out that statements are false, or that whole thing of alternate facts and post-truth. It's like true and false really doesn't matter. And it's sort of interesting how they use the word “believe” now.

I hear people say, "Well, Trump believes this to be true." That belief is the source of truth does signal a reversal of a literate, typographic epistemology in which you make a clearly defined statement that we can go and test in the world, and that's the basis of science, as opposed to an older epistemology, like the oral tradition, where we believe to be true what we sing in our songs, what we've passed on from generations.

But now belief is about feeling, emotion—it’s about the person. It's no longer whether you believe that the world is round or flat, which is a belief that can be checked out. It's now: Do you believe in Trump? Or, do you believe in Hillary Clinton? Or, do you believe in whoever. But that's a different kind of belief. It's all about the person, and how we feel about the person is shaped by TV.

And finally, the question of whether there is any way out of this fine mess that we find ourselves in:

Sean Illing: How do we course-correct? Because there is no going back. For better or worse, the written word will always be secondary. So is it a matter of media literacy or what?

Lance Strate: Well, I think Postman held out great hope for education as a way of addressing these problems. Which also means really emphasizing the enlightenment tradition of rational discourse and just plain literacy and not giving in to the latest and trying to make a school compete with television or the internet. So that is certainly part of the solution.

I think we have to talk and to read. It may well be that the only way we ever get things done is locally, and through personal connections and trying to work that way. I just don't see any top down solution to this. But I think that we can certainly try to improve things. If everyone did that or if enough people did that on a personal level, that's one way that this could be countered.

And there you have it, an amusing interview, after a fashion, on an altogether serious topic.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Science Fiction and Language

So, in my previous post I mentioned my online Writing for Online Media class that I'm in the midst of teaching as part of Fordham's summer session, and I also want to note that I'm doing what's called a hybrid class, mostly online with occasional in-class meetings. And the hybrid is class is a new version of a class I've been doing during the regular school year in a regular way for many, many years. It's a class on Science Fiction Film and TV, formerly called The Science Fiction Genre, and originally called Science Fiction Film.

So, anyway, given that I'm in the midst of that class as well, I thought it was about time to post about the panel discussion I organized for the New York Society for General Semantics back on March 1st on the topic of science fiction. Here's the description of the session:

Science Fiction, Language, and General Semantics

Science fiction has long been associated with spaceships, alien beings, futuristic technologies, and the like. But the genre has also provided an opportunity to speculate about the future of human consciousness, about modes of perception and communication, and about language and symbols.

Not surprisingly, general semantics, as a discipline based on applying a scientific approach to thought and action, has influenced science fiction in a number of ways. Science fiction writers such as A.E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, and Frank Herbert were familiar with general semantics and incorporated concepts learned from Alfred Korzybski and S.I. Hayakawa into their novels and short stories. Through them, the influence of general semantics spread to the fiction of Philip K. Dick, and the films of George Lucas. Moreover, novelists William S. Burroughs and L. Ron Hubbard were students of general semantics, while a fictional (and less than flattering) version of the Institute of General Semantics appears in the Jean Luc-Godard film, Alphaville.

More generally, questions concerning language, meaning, and consciousness have been incorporated into science fiction narratives, for example the presence of Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation in The Matrix, references to Julian Jaynes in HBO's remake of Westworld, and in the problematic nature of translation in stories such as Samuel R. Delaney's Babel-17, Stanslaw Lem's His Master's Voice, and the recent film, Arrival.

Clearly, this is a topic for discussion that is, in many ways, out of this world.

As for the participants on this program, well, here's the listing:

Marleen S. Barr, Science Fiction Critic and Novelist

Paul Levinson, Past President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and Novelist

Lance Strate, NYSGS President and Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Fordham University

Ed Tywoniak, Editor of ETC: A Review of General Semantics and Professor of Communication, Saint Mary's College of California

All right now, enough of the preliminaries, let's move on to the program itself, or rather, the video recording of the panel discussion:

Science fiction may not have the greatest reputation in literary circles, but when it comes to the exploration of not only outer space, intellectual space, no other genre or type of narrative can quite do what science fiction does, whether it's about language, thought and action, or media and technology, or society and culture, or simply the nature of the universe, life, and time bound and unbounded.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

An Inspirational Video

So, for a number of summers now, I've been teaching an online class at Fordham, on Writing for Online Media, mainly about blogging. The students get to create and write for their own blogs, on themes and topics of their own choosing. And one of my students this summer has been blogging about art, including galleries museums, and special exhibitions. A recent post on her blog, which is called Mona Lisa by the way, was on A Blog that Inspires: Colossal, which in turn directed me to check out another blog on art and design called Colossal, and specifically a post entitled Where Do Ideas Come From? A Short Film by Andrew Norton Tackles the Nature of Inspiration.

If you're following me so far, well then, that blog post featured a video by a filmmaker named Andrew Norton on the nature of creativity, inspiration, and the source of original ideas. The video, Where Do Ideas Come From?, can be found over on Vimeo, the YouTube alternative favored by many serious and professional videographers. And it's also embedded over on the Colossal blog, so why not include it here on Blog Time Passing, I thought to myself. And so, here it is:

Where Do Ideas Come From? from Andrew Norton on Vimeo.

And you can rightly infer from the fact that I've included it here that I think it's pretty nifty, and worth a look-see. Oh, and here is the write-up from the Vimeo page:

A short film about the mysteries of inspiration.

Featuring thoughts on the subject by:
David Lynch
Robert Krulwich
Chuck Close
Tracy Clayton & Heben Nigatu
Ray Barbee
Lulu Miller
Susan Orlean
and a couple of kids named Mason and Ursula

Presented by
With funding from The National Endowment for the Arts
For more about this video, visit:

The Transom site is run by Atlanta Public Media, and identified as "A Showcase and Workshop for New Public Radio" in case you were wondering. It's based on an idea by author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, whose work is well-recognized in media ecology circles. And it looks to be an excellent resource for anyone interested in public radio and media, podcasting, audio production, and creative endeavors more generally. If you have those sort of interests, I think it's worth checking out.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Post on the Paid-Speaking Circuit

So, okay, okay, I need to wrap up this three part story that began with my two previous posts, Obama Drunk the Speaking Fees Kool-Aid and Obama Speaking Fees Redux. And please keep in mind that this isn't just about the question of whether ex-presidents should get paid for giving speeches, and whether some of the venues and audiences might be questionable. No, much more importantly, this is about various appearances of my double re-quoted quote, itself based on previous quotes and re-quotes.

So, on the same day that that double re-quote appeared online, April 25th, I was contacted by a reporter from the Washington Post, Krissah Thompson, and she did a phone interview with me on this subject. The article she wrote on the topic was published in the April 27th issue of the paper, as the lead article at the top of Section C:

And here's a closer look, but don't worry, I'll also post the text in easy to read form:

And of course you can also read the article, entitled The Obamas Face The Paid-Speaking Circuit—And All the Questions That Come With It, over on the Post's site, just by clicking on the old link. But should you decide to stick around, here's how the piece opens:

When Barack and Michelle Obama left the White House, they both spoke longingly of a break from life in the public eye. But following a months-long vacation, they have started to tap into the lucrative paid-speaking circuit that has enriched so many other former presidents and first ladies—with the potential to quickly net millions of dollars.

On Thursday, both made their first appearances as speakers-for-hire.

“Hi, everybody, it’s good to get out of the house,” said Michelle Obama, visibly relaxed, as she sat for a wide-ranging—but free of partisan politics—question-and-answer session before the American Institute of Architecture’s annual conference. Her husband, meanwhile, joined historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in New York for a closed-door address to employees of the A&E cable network.

It was not divulged how much they were paid for these first appearances. But the former president will collect $400,000 for a September speech to a health-care conference sponsored by investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, Fox Business reported this week.

And after all, speaking at an American Institute of Architecture conference and to the A&E channel is not terribly controversial, but getting a big payoff from Wall Street investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald is another story altogether.

As newly minted high-dollar speakers, the Obamas follow a well-worn path from the White House—but one that poses risks to a personal and political brand rooted in their middle-class backgrounds.

Aides to the Obamas would not comment on how much they are charging for other private speaking engagements, but they defended the speaking schedule and pointed out that the president’s first public meeting was a conversation with college students in Chicago earlier this week.

“President Obama will deliver speeches from time to time. Some of those speeches will be paid, some will be unpaid, and regardless of venue or sponsor, President Obama will be true to his values, his vision and his record,” his senior adviser, Eric Schultz, said in a statement issued after the Cantor Fitzgerald speech drew a wave of criticism—including a New York Post headline that dubbed Obama “Wall Street’s new fat cat.”

The New York Post being a conservative paper, this shows how Obama's choice could be seen as playing into the right wing's hands, while on the left, critics would note the fact that as president, Obama failed to prosecute any of the banking executives whose greed led to the great recession that began in 2008, and that he spent his entire two terms trying to deal with.

But let's get back to the article, which provides a defense of Obama both in arguing that he's entitled to make some money, and that there's plenty of precedent for presidents doing so:

Schultz argued that Obama’s appearance at the health-care conference made sense: “As a president who successfully passed health insurance reform, it’s an issue of great importance to him.” As for a six-figure check signed by an investment bank, “I’d just point out that in 2008, Barack Obama raised more money from Wall Street than any candidate in history—and still went on to successfully pass and implement the toughest reforms on Wall Street since FDR.”

Other former first couples have been challenged on their paid speeches, which began in earnest when former president Gerald R. Ford hit the lecture circuit: He needed to make a living somehow, he said. Former president Ronald Reagan was roundly criticized when he followed suit, taking heat for accepting $2 million for two speeches in Japan.

So now it's time to hear from yours truly, and my comment refers to Reagan's speeches in Japan, not Obama, in case that's not clear:

“He was seen as a gung-ho patriotic American, and then the first thing he does is go speak to another country that was, in a sense, an economic rival,” said Lance Strate, a professor of communication at Fordham University. “They are entitled to make money, and nobody really bats an eyelash over the book deals they might get. But there’s something about speaking fees because it involves personal presence. As a former president, you’re still representing the country.”

So there I go again, and once again, let me emphasize the point about personal presence, and how that is much more significant than the specific speech itself, personal presence being on the level of relationship or medium, as opposed to content, in media ecological terms.

But anyway, I do get a little more in later, but at this point it's, and now this:

Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who was chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, said that “as private citizens [the Obamas] are pretty much free to give speeches in their personal capacity,” but at a potential cost to their popularity and future political influence.

And let me interject here that this is in keeping with some of the balance theories of attitude change, which suggest, based on behavioral research, that when you have a source about whom folks have generally positive attitudes towards, and that source promotes something, a product, cause, or person, about whom folks have a negative or neutral attitude towards, the source will tend to succeed in improving their attitude towards whatever it is the source is promoting, which is the whole point of doing it, and what you would expect. But this comes at a cost, because doing so will reduce the positive attitude folks have towards the source, often as a delayed reaction, the effect being a kind of transfer of good will and feelings (or in effect selling a bit of the person's positive image).

So, anyway, back to the article now, as Thompson continues to refer to Painter:

His old boss did it, too. According to Robert Draper’s book “Dead Certain,” Bush said the lecture circuit would “replenish the ol’ coffers.” He was reportedly paid between $100,000 and $175,000 for each appearance.

Bill and Hillary Clinton similarly came under heavy criticism for their private speeches, which earned them more than $25 million for delivering 104 speeches over 15 months, and became an issue in her presidential campaigns.

“It’s not a question of whether it’s legal,” Painter said. “It’s a question of whether someone in a political environment can make an argument that it was unethical.”

And the consequences go beyond attitudes folks hold in regard to the former president and first lady:
Though neither of the Obamas seem to want to run for political office in the future, their calculations are complicated by the tenuous state of the Democratic Party, said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

“In a party that doesn’t really have especially captivating personalities right now, he remains a figure­head,” Zelizer said. “If he goes down the road of speaking for a lot of money, that has the potential to hurt the party.”

Julian is absolutely right on this point, and as I've said, it also makes it harder for Democrats to take the high moral ground in criticizing Republicans, although the Republicans have sunk so low over the past year that anything the Democrats do right now looks like up to most of us.

So, what now? Can there really be such a thing as a balance in respect to this sort of thing?

Obama seems to be attempting a balance between community-minded appearances and lucrative ones. His first paid event followed a public one Monday at the University of Chicago on civic engagement—typical, his spokesman said, of the topics he wants to discuss in the future.

“He wants to get together with young people and other community leaders who are front of mind to him and get ideas from them on how to create solutions for their communities and also partnering with other organizations that are making it a priority to bring resources to communities in need,” said his press secretary, Kevin Lewis.

Up next: a speech next month in Boston, where he will receive the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, and trips to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italy for the Global Food Innovation Summit.

As for Michelle Obama, she will speak next month at the Partnership for a Healthier America, which supported her White House anti-obesity initiatives, and join MTV for a “College Signing Day” encouraging high school students to pursue higher education.

Both Obamas are represented on the speaking circuit by the Harry Walker Agency, which also reps Richard B. Cheney, Al Gore and former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan.

So, anyway, I did get another comment included in the article, this one in reference to Michelle Obama, whose choices I believe were much more prudent than her husband's:

Strate said Michelle Obama’s first appearance seemed like a shrewd choice. Architecture “is not terribly controversial. It is something that has both a practical and an artistic element to it,” he said.

By the way, I believe that over across the Atlantic, in Great Britain, Prince Charles made architecture one of this main interests many years ago. Of course, there are some significant differences in motivation:

Onstage in Orlando, the former first lady said she chose the AIA gathering in part because of her early-career work in economic development for the city of Chicago.

“I got to know how important architects are in the lifeblood and beauty of any city, particularly a city like Chicago. . . . So [this] seemed like a good place to get started,” she said. “It’s like coming almost full circle for me.”

She spoke with authority about her experience as a lawyer and executive—topics she often seemed reluctant to address in her husband’s administration. She also seemed to be keeping up with the political news, making indirect comments, in a discussion of the challenges facing cities, that seemed to address President Trump’s proposal for overhauling the nation’s tax code.

“We have to invest,” she said, “which means we have to pay taxes.”

In another oblique reference, she shared a story about her emotional final day at the White House. Her daughters were in tears as they said goodbye to the staff, and she felt herself choke up, too — but she resolved to keep her emotions hidden before the Inauguration Day cameras.

“I didn’t want to have tears in my eyes because people would swear I was crying because of the new president,” she said, as the crowd laughed.

And who could blame her? Anyway, as I indicated, the article began on the front page of section C, and it continued on the third page:

And that's how the article ends, not with a bang, but with a bit of laughter. As I mentioned earlier, my interview with Thompson, who by the way was delightful to talk to, was by way of a telephone conversation (remember those?), so I don't have a record of all that I said, but I think you've got the main talking points here, and in my previous posts on the subject. 

And in bringing my 3-part series to a close, let me end by noting that, much like the web and hypertext more generally, I think you can see how following this trail of quotes, re-quotes, and new quotes represents a pattern of networked connections, which is the shape of much of our interactions, especially in the electronic media environment.


Monday, July 17, 2017

Obama Speaking Fees Redux

So, to follow up on my last post, Obama Drunk the Speaking Fees Kool-Aid, which was on my quote that keeps on re-quoting, about a day or so after my double re-quoted quote appeared, it made another appearance, this time on Romper. The piece, by Kenza Moller, isn't dated, so I'm not sure if it appeared on the same day as the others, April 25th, or the next day, April 26th, or on the day it came to my attention, April 27th, but in any event, the title of the article is Why Is Obama Getting Paid For His Speeches? It's Common Practice For Former Presidents.

Okay now, so let's get to it. Here's how the article begins:

President Barack Obama is back from his post-administration vacation visits to Hawaii and French Polynesia, and he's already been busy. He spoke at the University of Chicago on Monday, and he's headed to an awards ceremony in Boston next, followed by a string of private paid speeches both at home and abroad. The former president's new—and reportedly impressive—payroll for these speeches has already drawn criticism from some, and several people are asking why Obama is now getting paid for his speeches.

According to Fox, one of Obama's upcoming speeches, which will reportedly take place at a Wall Street conference put on by Cantor Fitzgerald LP, will earn him a reported $400,000—which is roughly the amount that he would make in an entire year as president. Obama is also intending to give paid speeches in both Europe and the United States, and all of those talks are likely to earn him a pretty penny.

Now, you may remember from my last post that I don't believe that Obama's decision to take a big payday from this major Wall Street firm was the best move, given all that is happening with his successor, and that it tarnishes Obama's own image, which for some is near saintly. So, I give Moller credit for bringing up the fact that Obama's choice is open to criticism:

Some people criticize the idea of former presidents earning money for speaking engagements after vacating the White House, while others see it as their own personal business. According to Politico, Harry Truman once said he had "a very strong feeling about any man, who has the honor of being an occupant of the White House in the greatest job in the history of the world, who would exploit that situation in any way, shape or form."

Still, all in all, Moller takes the same position as Shaw did in my last post, excusing Obama by saying that others have done it before him (which, to my mind, is no excuse at all):

Both Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, however, have responded to questions about their speech circuits with a more laissez-faire—and practical—approach, with each citing their needs to "make a living" and "pay the bills." So why not turn their global fame into a speaking gig? As private citizens who are no longer on the presidential payroll (except for receiving an annual pension), it's really their own prerogative.

Obama's new role as a funded speaker is also hardly new territory for anyone who has made waves in politics, either: Obama joins both George H.W. and George W. Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and others in collecting fees for speeches. And according to Fortune, past presidents' inflated prices make perfect sense, economically, since they bring a level of influence to the event that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.

Okay now, brace yourself, here it comes:

"The speech is kind of secondary to ... just being able to have a big name at your event," Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University, told Fortune in 2015. "It might get reported on some form of TV or cable news, which further adds to the prestige and the publicity of the event."

So, there I go again. And now, for the concluding paragraph, and while I don't quite agree with Moller's conclusion, at least there's some acknowledgement that there is cause for criticism regarding this practice:

Just like other former presidents have, Obama is likely to keep drawing criticism for charging for his speeches. However, now that he's no longer tied to politics, there's really no reason he shouldn't be using his private time and expertise in order to craft a new career as a public speaker.

Yes, well, he can craft a new career while showing some discretion and discrimination about who he accepts speaking fees from. Anyway, that my view on what is, after all, a minor matter in the grand scheme of things. And you might think that the story of all this ends here, but not quite, there's still room for one more post, a very significant post indeed, coming up next time!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Obama Drunk the Speaking Fees Kool-Aid

So, here we go again. What, specifically, I'm referring to is me being quoted, or rather re-quoted, about speaking fees and ex-presidents, and ex-presidential candidates. This one came to my attention as it appeared on the I Drunk website, dated April 25, 2017, under the heading of Barack Obama’s New “Job” Will Pay Nearly as Much as His POTUS Salary… In One Hour. And actually, at the bottom of the post, there is a note that this news item first appeared on the Hot Air website, on the same day, and with that same title: Barack Obama’s New “Job” Will Pay Nearly As Much As His POTUS Salary… In One Hour.

So, what's the story behind this double re-quoted quote, you may ask. Well, here's how the article begins:

The Obama family has certainly been busy since departing the West Wing. The past couple months have been filled with golfing trips to southern California, extended stays in the South Pacific and cruises on David Geffen’s super yacht in the Caribbean. But just like anyone else, the former leader of the free world needs to get back to paying the bills sooner or later. Good news is on the way for those of you who were worried about Obama’s future financial security, however. He’s going to be following the proud tradition of other past presidents and prominent elected officials, striking out on the paid speaking circuit. And his first gig is going to pull down more money in a single hour than 99% of Americans earn all year. (Washington Examiner)

What follows appears to be a block quote, but I am not entirely certain what the source of the quote may be, assuming it is a quote and not just some highlighted text, but here it is:

Former President Barack Obama will be paid $400,000 to speak at Cantor Fitzgerald’s healthcare conference this September, according to a new report.

Obama, whose legacy item was the Affordable Care Act, will deliver the keynote address at the organization’s lunch in what will be one of his first paid speeches, Fox Business’ Charlie Gasparino reported Monday. Cantor Fitzgerald is a New York City-based financial services firm that specializes in fix incomes sales, institutional equity and trading.

This is where the block quote ends, and what follows returns to the regular format for the article:

Just to be clear, I’m not here to criticize Obama for this. Quite the contrary, in fact. As I’ve done with all other private citizens who follow any such path I encourage it. Obama made his way through the political world to a position of prominence and now, as a retired, private citizen, he should be free to cash in to the best of his ability and live the American dream just like anyone else.

I felt the same way about the Clintons, for example. As CNN reported early last year, Bill and Hillary made an estimated $153M from more than 700 appearances on the speaking circuit between 2001 and 2015. (That’s an average of more than $200K per speech.) Granted, when you decide to swing back into the elected political scene (or attempt to in Hillary’s case) you may have to be prepared to be held accountable for where the money came from and what influence those paying you might have been seeking, but you’re still free to take the jobs.

The Clintons weren’t the only ones. George W. Bush did the same thing starting in 2009. According to Politico, Bush gave more than 200 such speeches commanding between $100K and $175K each. It’s added up to tens of millions of dollars for the former POTUS.

So far you may be wondering, so what? And who could blame you, but your patience is about to be rewarded, as we get to the part of the piece that makes it worthy of Blog Time Passing:

If, like me, you’re wondering why people would pay so much money for a lecture from somebody who is no longer in power, Lance Strate, communications professor at Fordham University, offered an explanation in this 2015 piece for Fortune Magazine.

Hurray! And now for the quote, which like the passage above, appears in block quote format in the article:

“The speech is kind of secondary to … just being able to have a big name at your event,” Strate said. “It might get reported on some form of TV or cable news, which further adds to the prestige and the publicity of the event.”And even if it doesn’t end up on the evening news, almost every conference will put their speeches on YouTube, where there is always a chance it will go viral.

If, like me, you're cognizant of format style, you might question the way the block quote format is being used here, so let me quickly add that I'm just reproducing what was on these two sites, okay? Anyway, the main point is how my Fortune magazine quote is being recycled. And now let's get to the end of the article, where the author, whose name, by the way, is Jazz Shaw, essentially comes to the conclusion, based on my comments, that the medium is the message:

So it’s not about the actual content of the speech. These former officials don’t have some secret wisdom or recipe for success that nobody else is privy to. They’re just the very expensive bait which will hopefully attract a lot of attention to the event. There’s an interesting anecdote in that article about how Bush was hired to speak to one sports related association and delivered the sage observation that, “bowling is fun.”

So you get on out there and cash in, Mr. Obama. If you can find anyone willing to pay you, grab what you can. You can probably land another book deal for millions and the publisher won’t even care if they sell any copies. It’s the American dream and you should grab onto as much as you can get just like anybody else.

Now, I will say that I disagree with this conclusion, and believe that, especially given the current political climate, this particular venue for a speech was not helpful and in fact tarnishes Obama's image and legacy, but sure, he was entitled to get that payoff, and it's all in the past now.

The funny thing for me, though, is that this wasn't the end of the story, but I'll leave that for another post. Instead, let me fill you in on the beginning of the story by directing you to the following series of blog posts:  

And as for the rest of the story so far, to be continued...