Well, it looks like NPR is rolling up its half-assed attempt to establish West Coast operations. The two programs produced here, News and Notes (N&N) and Day to Day (D2D) are getting axed. Surprise, surprise.
Well, it looks like NPR is rolling up its half-assed attempt to establish West Coast operations. The two programs produced here, News and Notes (N&N) and Day to Day (D2D) are getting axed. Surprise, surprise.
Want to see some major corporate twaddle? Check this out. It's the fake blog of a fake persona, along with fake profiles littering the web from Facebook to Twitter. All brought to you from the company headed by this guy.
In case you'd rather keep reading than clicking for the reference points, what I'm referring to is an online Microsoft "campaign" that's nothing less than a sterling waste of dollars on drivel.
That’s Capital Topic: Media Economics
has become an increasingly complicated media market. Television, especially news coverage, spans a broadcasting market for too motley and sprawled to communicate a coherent message. Radio continues to shine; with all that time spent in cars, people would gnaw their left arms off if we didn’t have something to listen to. And print… *sigh*… print has fallen on truly hard times.
Let’s start at the top or the center if you will: The Los Angeles Times. Since scooping up a clutch of Pulitzers in
2004, the paper seems hell-bent-for-leather to show that defeat really can be
snatched from the jaws of victory.
Here's a quick overview of the latest mishandled and misconceived gambit at the Times: the guest editorial turn with the Sunday Op-Ed Section. Given the importance of Hollywood in LA, it seemed like a pretty good idea to have well known director Brian Glazer on board as the Guest Editor... until it turned out that the gig was lined up through romantic connections. You can check out the sordid details here and here.
And it’s not just a matter of tabloid-sheet scandal that’s damaged the paper. Some of the problem is good-ol’-fashioned incompetence.
Exhibit Number Two: Michael Kinsley messed up the Op-Ed pages with ill-conceived experiments like “Wikitorials.”
Exhibit Number Three: Dean Baquet, who took over as
Editor in July of 2005, got kicked to the curb by November of the following
year. During his time “in charge,” he and his
overseers with the Tribune Company haggled and bickered, but as far as I could
tell, very little real editing got done. When he left the LA Times he
took over as The New York Times Washington Bureau Chief. Talk about falling upward.
For Exhibit Number Four I simply direct the reader’s attention to the paper itself. Or at least, what is left of it.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
You can follow more on the disintegration of the LA Times at LA Observed, written and edited by Kevin Roderick. This blog’s mix of dish and analysis on LA’s media has made it one of the more indispensable news outlets in town.
Sam Zell bought Tribune, which owns the paper, in March of this year. Given that he put over $8 billion dollars into the deal, many of us see his purchase as a sign that new energy will come to the paper. (Many others see more cost-cutting; read: further disintegration.)
We’ve also heard that he might sell off the paper as a standalone operation to a local buyer. Perhaps this person or group will revitalize the paper. But I’m not holding my breath. The most likely candidates, Eli Broad and David Geffen, may well make the right moves, but I do not consider either one a saint. Furthermore, neither has an especially broad vision of LA’s identity. More than anything else, LA needs a media outlet that embraces the full-on, sometimes-hard-to-like, surprising messiness of the city.
In this regard, The Times has fallen short. This is hardly a new trend. It certainly predates 2000, when the Tribune Company bought the paper. In spite of The Times’ shortcomings, though, we had alternatives: I know many folks who are about ten or fifteen years older than I am who still lament the closing of the Herald Examiner, which had a particularly strong City Desk (at least according to those who wax nostalgic for the paper).
By the time I started reading the news in the 1980s, the LA Weekly and The LA Reader provided real alternatives to The Times. A few other alternative rags have come and gone since including New Times, and most recently, The LA Alternative Press, which included a solid column on local politics by Marc Haefele. LA City Beat (along with the Valley Beat and the Pasadena Weekly, which are pretty much the same operation) continues to roll along by serving the San Fernando Valley suburbs more intensively than the other weeklies. It seems to work for the paper.
A number of outlets serve the Black market, including The Wave, Our Weekly , The LA Watts Times, and The Los Angeles Sentinel. And LA is also home to a rich group of non-English papers, most visibly La Opinion.
And then there are all the suburban papers like The LA Daily News, The Pasadena Star Tribune, The Daily Breeze, The Press Telegram, and others, which focus on particular suburban zones. In this case, The San Fernando Valley, The San Gabriel Valley, The South Bay, and Long Beach and the Mid-Cities.
For the most part, though, these papers – focused as
they are on the “alternative” segment, a particular language or ethnic group,
or a particular clutch of suburbs – do not provide the wide-angle view of LA by
their very nature.
Even though the LA
Weekly is technically in business, it has fallen on especially hard times
since being sold to New Times out of
In fairness, though, the Weekly scored its first
Pulitzer for the magnificent food columns of Jonathan Gold. BTW, Gold’s columns go way beyond food
criticism: they serve as the best guide to exploring and understanding
Granted, LA isn’t known for its great publications. But this combination of scandal, incompetence, and unimaginative management only makes a bad situation that much worse.
So what to do? Well, the founder of the LA Weekly,
Jay Levin jumps into the fray with a new glossy, RealTalk LA,
aimed at the cosmopolitan part of LA’s culture.
Who knows if this will work. It’s a tall order for a few reasons: this audience hasn’t developed the habit of reading about itself (mostly because LA publications summarily ignore this slice of the local culture). This, in turn, means that this audience is hard to define and may well be off the radar of advertisers and market research firms. As we say in the social sciences: if you aren’t counted, you don’t count. And I don’t see much evidence that market analysis has figured out how to count this motley, hard-to-pigeonhole subculture.
I picked up the first issue of the mag and enjoyed the style of it. Articles on Ozomotli and local radio/public affairs hostess Dominique DiPrima give it a decidedly local flavor, while trying to take the reader beyond what one already knows about LA. In essence, the magazine tries to help the reader “connect the dots,” which is something that other media do so little of. But will the audience be large enough to sustain the expenses? Ozo is great, but still a bit “nichy”; Dominique DiPrima may well have the best talk radio program in LA, but it comes on at 4:00 AM on KJLH, which is dominated by the other Urban Stations in the area, Power 106 and The Beat.
Mr. Levin’s efforts attracted the attention of the Christian Science Monitor, which seems to be as skeptical as I am about the whole affair.
But what I feel that the Monitor does not is hope. In spite of the advertisers being a step behind in how they view LA, and how Angelenos view themselves, I hope that the media market here will support a publication that looks on the diverse, hard-to-get-a-handle-on nature of LA with affection rather than confusion, suspicion, or even derision. LA badly needs a voice – either popular or professional – that does what seems to come naturally in other towns where roots run deeper and the citizens have more of a stake and an understanding of what happens in their backyards and beyond.
After all, what are the media really worth? It’s a tough question, largely because the media refer to the environment around them, and because they don’t produce tangible outputs. But media which build a sense of identity, connection, and understanding can transform a place.
Realizing these goals can be thwarted by the drive to maximize profits. A handful of news operations have managed to yoke what can be done with good editorial to attracting the kinds of readers that advertisers want to reach, but we’ve seen very little of this in LA.
This goes way beyond simple economic analysis; it cuts right to the quick of how to edit the media, how to connect what the media do to a coherent audience, how to explain this to advertisers, and how to manage the operations day-to-day functions. That’s a serious bit of juggling.
Alas, here in LA, so many balls have hit the floor that it will take years to repair the damage. The blogosphere provides life-support in the meantime, including the aforementioned LA Observed, Metroblogging LA , Media Bistro, LA Voice, LA Indy Media, City Watch LA (which includes Marc Haefele's insightful contributions to political reportage) now , and others. But none of these can pull people together as well as a mainstream media outlet that does its job the right way. In the meantime, we blog, we observe the city, and pay attention. And hope that the worm will turn.
That’s Capital Topic: Media Economics
So Rupert Murdoch has his eye on Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal and the WSJ’s staff ain’t havin’ it. So they walk out. My oh my, the irony and the righteousness are so thick you’d need a good samurai sword to cut both.
Don’t get me wrong: the WSJ writers have plenty to worry about. Murdoch’s political views aren’t so much of a concern – after all, it’s not like the WSJ is a leftwing rag – but his views go beyond just plain Conservativism. Seriously, when he was asked about his Conservativism by an interviewer, he corrected the chap by describing himself as “an arch-conservative.” Even that isn’t the greatest concern here; it’s Mr. Murdoch’s management style that worries WSJ staffers.
Murdoch has earned a reputation as a micromanager. He’s been known to call newsrooms to find out who wrote, edited, and produced stories (especially those that ruffled his feathers). For a staff of writers known for their professionalism and skill, this kind of second-guessing will not go down well.
Then there’s the whole problem of where and how the WSJ will fit into the Newscorp empire. Anything I say about this is speculative so I won’t dwell on it, but I’d expect his purchase of the WSJ to be about expanding the scope and diversity of his media holdings, rather than trying to integrate the WSJ into what, say, FOX News does or says. There may be some interplay, but if there is, I’d expect that the WSJ would be the source of stories and investigative work. In the long run this may well improve the quality of reporting at FOX News and with newsrooms at Fox’s owned and operated (O&O) stations.
Even though Murdoch has a well-earned reputation as a micromanager, he has also earned a reputation as being one of the shrewdest and most forward-looking of all executives in media over the last twenty years. It seems apt that he owns FOX; he certainly qualifies as being crazy/clever like one. And because he is clever, he may not subject the WSJ to his usual meddling. Don’t get me wrong; Murdoch hasn’t suddenly become a Buddha and let go of his ego. Rather, he’s loyal to his bottom line and even he can see that tampering with the WSJ will destroy the paper’s credibility, its brand, and ultimately, lead to an exodus of writers. Without those three things the paper will not be worth much and it will not be able to command the premium ad rates and almost unique position in the online news world that it currently enjoys. This latter point is especially important; with readership for print declining, and with more readers using online access for their news, Murdoch will want to maintain and nurture WSJ.com. It’s ability to charge for subscribers online, as well as downloads, means it has developed an exceedingly high-value and almost unique online user base. Advertisers cover this kind of truly committed, high-end, and verifiable audience. I don’t think Mr. Murdoch will want to kill the goose that is laying golden eggs. (Although if he did, he would not be the first executive to shoot himself in the foot.)
Through all this I’ve felt more than a bit bemused. Don’t get me wrong; I care deeply about maintaining well written, well edited papers like the WSJ. Moreover, the WSJ reports on business and economics, something most other media outlets don’t do nearly as well. I’m glad they are standing up and protesting. It’s their right and prerogative. It’s also the right thing to do in the situation. But given their fierce defense of the prerogatives of management and rather tepid support for labor, there is a certain “chickens coming home to roost” aspect to all this. And now that the shoe is on the other foot – or rather, now that the shoe is on their feet – what will they say about the impact of mergers and acquisitions on rank-and-file workers? Will they use their bully pulpit to question the rationale of liberal policies of ownership accumulation even in media, where having multiple voices and points of view acts on society in important and special ways?
Clearly, the staff at the Journal has two things that most rank-and-file workers lack and these two weapons may allow them to defend themselves more successfully than most workers can. First, they have considerable information (and informational access) on their situation. Being informed means they can better assess where and how to push back. Second, they have voice. In fact, they have voice and a bullhorn attached to it. And by making noise they may be able to get Murdoch to change his mind, or at least, change his behavior from what it has been in the past.
But beyond all this, I wonder if the WSJ writers might begin to identify a bit more closely with the laborers they write about when they cover the story of a company that is on the block or when a corporate raider swoops in to grab desired assets. I hope they do, not because I’m a big fan of labor (but I’m even less of a fan of management), but rather, so that one of our foremost voices on business and business decision-making might take on a more “fair and balanced” (oops, did I just say that?) view of business and the impact of executive decisions, especially in merger and acquisition negotiations. I hope that this happens, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for the WSJ’s writers to beat the drum for anyone beside themselves.
That’s Capital Topic: Media Economics
The trends regarding online selling being more flat, open, and personal seem to mirror well developed trends in music and porn. This isn’t said to make light of how broad these trends have become. Porn has a long history of being at the forefront of innovation in the use of media technology; this goes all the way back to using early printing press technology to make “adult” storybooks. And the widespread distribution of music by “amateurs” through digital aggregators such as CD Baby and conduits such as Kazaa foreshadowed how other media (like movies and television) could be accessed. For that matter, blogging as a way of creating, distributing, and consuming news and information fits right in the mix with these other evolving markets.
Two elements that seem important, but which the Times article didn’t address completely: the importance of “authenticity” and trust. That is, getting a face-to-face experience with someone who is “just like you” may make more sense than going for something that is slicker, but more glib, and possibly, more vacuous. This is an important aspect of the popularity of amateur porn as well as music made by a guy you can see in a bar or a church down the street. Especially when it comes to music, we think that amateurs focus on music and connecting with the audience; “making it big” and all the accoutrements that comes with it don’t matter as much as they do for big stars who have to keep record companies and an army of lawyers happy. And because we believe that this amateurs or small-time professional make something more authentic, we trust it more deeply.
There’s something else that the Times, and a lot of other writers in the popular media, missed over the last ten years as online selling has taken hold in our economy: it was never going to replace bricks-and-mortar retail. The best of the writers following this story focused on market segmentation: which persons, under which circumstances, will use online retail? I think we’re finally coming around to answering this question. Dell has finally figured out that for all the cost advantages of online-only retailing and distribution, they will never reach anything close to the masses of people that they can reach by going through bricks-and-mortar product distribution in addition to the online environment. Borders, REI, Sears, Best Buy, and others have rightly figured out that it’s better to be wherever a given consumer might find you: online or in-person. That is, make it easy for the customer to find you and your product and you’re more likely to make the sale.
Distributors of media (music, movies, television) take note: make your work available in a number of different channels. Make it easy to find, easy to access, and easy to recommend and you will see popularity grow to heretofore unknown heights.
So what part of the market will online marketing
dominate? A clue comes from one of
persons profiled in the NY Times article who wears large shoes. In other words,
hard to find items. This is something I
can tell you all about because my tastes in music run toward the obscure. Since
this is the case, I am much more likely to find the music I want to buy online
than in a store. (The exception here is the truly amazing
Amoeba Music outlet in
Because photography gives you an end product just as good and useful as what you get in-person (the picture), it shares some characteristics with porn and music. And as we’ve seen in those to media businesses, the top end of the market is being whittled away at (quickly) and the lower and middle segments of the make have grown prodigiously. So while the times focuses on the latter point, it might be useful to note what has happened at the upper end of the market, including the overhaul produced by such services as Getty Images and Pictopia. These sites use a totally different model from what works in bricks-and-clicks: they don’t go to wherever the consumer is looking; rather, they create a one-stop-shop clearinghouse that allows consumers – mostly media outlets – to find what they need in quickly and reliably in one place. Either way, though, it’s about convenience.
In both cases, photographers need to adopt new models for distribution. A few established photographers will; many will not. However, among budding photographers or those who are still learning the trade, using these tools will be as ordinary as a teenager using the computer to listen to music before using a turntable.
And as these technologies and the content they gather, distribute, and warehouse proliferate, we’ll need more sophisticated, simple, flexible, and intuitive tools for accessing just what we want when we want it. Online environments do this well in some cases (the microstock Photography companies mentioned in the Times article are one example), but are a total failure in others. (Classical music searches on Amazon are beyond a mess.) Mahalo Guides seems like a promising approach – combining the brute force power of machine-based search tools with human intuition and judgment. Further development of the approach seems love overdue, especially in the music and movies realm. As these tools improve, and become more widespread, more of us will be able to fulfill our consuming desires in whatever environment (online, in-person, or bricks-and-clicks) we prefer.
Curious about the strategy behind Mark Perry's meetings with Hezbollah, I sent him some follow-up emails. My basic query was whether in talking to Hezbollah, they may want to include some Israelis in the process, precisely because the Lebanese Shiites' actual enemy is their neighbor, not the United States. It seems to me that until Lebanese political figures are not just willing, but interested in speaking to Israelis who consider themselves Zionists, they are simply doing the same thing Israelis did to Palestinian groups for far too long (and are still doing with Hamas) which is basically live by denial. Which leads not just nowhere, but to self-righteous and self-perpetuating violence upon each other, and everyone in the way.
Anyway, Perry took some time to respond thoughtfully. I'll wait to respond with similar thought next post. But what he offers seems important to me, not at all superficial, and something even Zionist-friendly thinkers like me need to take seriously in positive ways. Here it is:
From Mark Perry:
I very much appreciate your recent emails and your thoughts. I have been turning over what you have said in those emails. At the same moment, I have been thinking through a coherent response to a number of your points. I find your views reflective of the kind of language that we use: "simply trading ideas is not enough to lead to peace," " a great deal of latent resources sit waiting to be liberated by both sides," and " the inequitible sharing of resources comes from the stagnant dynamics that drive all bureaucracies." All of that is true, and is resonant with our views, but leaves undetermined what tactics should be adopted that constitutes doing more than "trading ideas," "liberating resources" or reinvigorating "stagnant bureaucracies."
Very recently we have been working diligently to codify our views on human conflict and political engagement. Our Asia Times pieces are an attempt at that codification. The process of articulating what we mean and what we do has been difficult but has its rewards. We are in the process, I believe, of articulating a better understanding of successful political engagement, a more accurate comprehension of recent history, and a more substantive knowledge of the causes, conduct and consequences of violence and conflict.
At the same moment, we are attempting to translate those views into a program that will successfully transfer human action from the military to the political sphere. I do not know that I would now be prepared to go beyond what we say on our website: we aim to identify and understand the different strands in political Islam, correct misperceptions about them, and create a better language that can pull this conflict between Islam and the West out of the military sphere and place it in the political sphere.
That said, it is easier to talk about what we are not, than to delineate exactly what we are. We are not peaceniks, we are not a group dedicated to reconciliation, we are not even a forum for an exchange of ideas on conflict resolution. Each of these semi-disciplines begin with a premise that violent conflict is immoral or counter-productive or can be subverted through "people-to-people" exchanges. We do not believe this. " Our goal is not to end violence, but to circumscribe it within well-defined limits," we noted in our Asia Times piece.
As I would not go beyond the description given on our website of who we are, so I wouldnot go beyond this simple explanation of our philosophy as contained in our Asia Times pieces: "Talking and listening are more than a metaphorical construct, a repetition of the Sermon on the Mount, or a faith-based reconciliation program by another name; it is, rather, an attempt to palliate fears, put the individual back at the center of history, and negate the intellectual apartheid that robs words of their content." In the current conflict, we seek to "deny the efficacy of those in the West who would refuse Islam the richness of its diversity at the same time that it rejects Islam's rhetoric of the West's collective guilt."
In your communications with me, you have asked specific questions, and so I would answer them. You may find them, in some instances, particularly dissatisfying.
You have noted: "Compared to Al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah are perhaps moderates. From your interaction that may be absolutely clear to you, given that you have met with their leadership and heard more than the bulk of the world. But if you compare them to the PLO from even as far back as the 1970s, they strike me as fairly extreme. Or at least that which they repeatedly share with the foreign world, especially their primary enemy, Israel."
We believe the West has misread the political spectrum of the Muslim world. It is not simply that Hamas and Hezbollah are moderates compared to al-Qaeda, they are moderates compared to the almost all of the rulers of the Middle East. Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan, President Ben Ali of Tunisia -- and many others -- are not moderate. They are autocrats. They have gained their offices in service to the United States and they retain their offices through alliances with the police and security services trained, maintained and supported by the United States. We call these rulers moderates because they support our interests, we call their opponents terrorists because they oppose our interests.
We understand that this position is viewed as extreme -- our answer is that the critique of our position results from a superficial understanding of what constitutes "legitimacy." Legitimacy cannot be conferred, it must be earned. Democratically elected governments have legitimacy: the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia (and many others) were not elected. They have no legitimacy; that is to say, they do not have the support of their people. We believe that an accurate reading of history shows that governments that lack legitimacy are eventually and inevitably swept aside. Mubarak, Abdullah, Ben Ali (and many others) owe their position to our patronage and not to the support of their own people. They should pack their bags. They're finished.
So too, governments and officials who are elected have legitimacy. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, Hezb-a Tarir in the Gulf (and elsewhere), and Jamaat e-Islami in Pakistan are strong parties whose officials have stood for election and won. They have more legitimacy in their societies than the rulers of those societies. If there is one thing that we agree on with the neo-Conservative philosophy it is that democracy should be spread through the region. There should be elections in all of the nations of the region, today, now, and the United States should live with the results. The pain that will come with this transition will be severe. The parties that are elected will not always agree with us, many of them will cut relations between their nation and ours. It may well be that such elections will be attended by violence, by the defense of the old order by force of arms. Even so, the triumph of political Islam is assured whether or not these elections take place. The triumph and rootedness of Hezbollah in Lebanon is a case in point: their victory in the recent conflict happened because of their legitimacy in Lebanese society -- not in spite of it. It is a terrible and perhaps fatal mistake for the United States to work to undermine this legitimacy and to describe such parties as part of an al-Qaeda inspired global intifada against our "values" and "freedoms." These parties do not oppose our values and freedoms, they oppose our policies.
As you note: "So why aren't members of Hamas and Hezbollah, as similar parties within the PLO in the late 1970s did, talking to Israelis? The rhetoric emanating from Iran's leadership about Israelis heading out somewhere else like Alaska, just reinforces the sense of existential threat. Within the context that it comes from a nation that seems intent not just on building a nuclear weapon but training neighbors and supporting highly aggressive attitudes, if not actions, against Israel, obviously creates a huge climate of fear in Israel."
Large numbers of Americans are seemingly obsessed with the fate of Israel. I have never quite understood why. Israel is a vibrant and sophisticated modern society that is perfectly capable of defending itself. To say that we have a moral requirement to defend Israel is to deny its people their history: they fought for their country without our help. We lifted not one finger in 1947 or 1948 to help Israel. To claim that, as some have, that Israel is conpensation for the Holocaust is to do violence to the tragedy the Jewish people suffered in World War II. There can be no compensation -- and if Israel is that compensation it is not big enough. But then, the whole world is not big enough. In 1954, Menachem Begin opposed the acceptance of reparations payments from Germany for the Holocaust. He was right to do so.
I mention all of this because I have found we Americans often conflate the history of Christian anti-Semitism with the fate of Israel. I find it particularly hard to accept that Israeli Jews would argue vociferously (as I heard them do on a number of interview news programs recently) that they stand with us in a "defense of Western values." What values, exactly, are they talking about? Are we defending our century's old traditions of religious tolerance? We need to be clear on this: the civilization that gave us Bach and Brahms and Beethoven also gave us Auschwitz. The great Reformation of Christianity that provided a protest against Papal authority was attended by countless pogroms led by the followers of that great anti-Semite, Martin Luther. There is no doubt that there is anti-Semitism amongst Arab and Muslim leaders. Some of it is virulent. It must be opposed, rejected, expunged from Arab societies. It must not be tolerated. But it cannot be bombed out of existence. And, for the record, I have heard (as recently as last week -- in an interview with Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman), the most virulent anti-Arabism ever express in public. It is common amongst rightwing parties in the Knesset.
That said, I believe that I can speak for all of those associated with Conflicts Forum: we do not seek, support and will not condone discussions with those who would advocate the destruction of Israel. We have, in fact, spoken many times and continue to maintain strong communications with Israel's political leaders and they understand full well who we are and what we are doing. Many of them are our most ardent critics. They certainly have that right -- as they believe the future of their country is at stake. We understand and appreciate their concern. Even so, our advice to them has been consistent: take a look at the map and then understand -- you should not view your nation as an American outpost but should conduct your foreign policy as if we did not exist. To do otherwise would be criminally negligent. The continued obsessive worries about Israel expressed by our leaders and people should not lull you into a sense of security. Our concern is focused on ourselves. We are fair weather friends. We have good friends in Israel, we visit them often, and we listen closely to their views. I am not at liberty to discuss those contacts, except to say that they are continuing, substantive, and quite hopeful. We would note, also, that members of the American Jewish community consult with us on our dialogues and serve on our board of advisors. Israel is capable of conducting talks with its enemies -- and have little need of our services for doing so.
I am an American, and more concerned with the future of my society and its relationship with political Islam than I am with Israel's. The founder of our organization, Alastair Crooke has the same feelings when it comes to Great Britain. We have found it far more useful for us to engage our own societies than to intrude, or advise, the leaders of Israel. In fact, we believe the most recent interplay between Israel and Hezbollah bespeaks the violence that American intrusion in Israeli politics can play: our neo-Conservatives believe that Israel is "the front line" in the global war on terrorism. But it is not their children in Haifa and I wonder whether the most conservative supporters of the Hezbollah war truly love Israel -- or simply hate Arabs. I will never forget the outrage of the American Jewish community when Yitzhak Rabin, with whom I had a personal relationship, signed the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat. And I will not forget his speech before a group of conservative Jews here in Washington (and I believe this quote is nearly verbatim) -- "if you want to criticise our policies then come in serve in our armies. Otherwise, shut up."
Hamas, Hezbollah, Jamaat e-Islami, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezb-a Tarir are not anti-Semitic organizations. While Hamas's charter calls for the destruction of Israel, Hamas leaders have made it clear that "our charter is not the Koran, it can be changed." The PLO Charter called for the destruction of Israel. Changing it was not a precondition for talks with Israel. There were no preconditions. Furthermore, the leadership of each of these organizations has made it clear to us that opposition to Israeli policies should not be confused with anti-Semitism. Khaled Meshal has said, publicly, on three separate occasions that "a recognition of fundamental Palestinian rights constitutes a necessary first step on the road to our organization's recognition of Israel." This message has been transmitted successively to the Israeli leadership. Their (Israel's) recognition that Palestinians have just grievances that derive from the establishment of their (the Israeli) state and their statement of that fact will move both parties into a dialogue that, given increased Hamas strength inside of Palestinian society, seems fated.
The position of Hezbollah is quite exact: they realize that they cannot throw Israel into the sea and they have been very careful to not conflate their political program with a program that undergirds anti-semitism. In my three years in speaking with these groups I have never heard, once, any anti-Semitic comment. I will note that the issue of Hezbollah as an anti-Semitic organization became an issue, most recently, when it was clear that the IDF was not doing well in its war. While we do not have contact with Iran, I would make the same claim: the anti-Semitism that seems apparent in the words of their leader does not reflect the view of their government. And if it does then we must ask ourselves whether conducting a military operation against them will shift their views, or reinforce them. Our problem with Iran is political, not religious. If we oppose their enrichment of uranium then we must renounce the NPT, if we are not willing to do that, then we must find a way to allow them to enrich uranium without its translation into a nuclear device. The only way to do that is to engage them diplomatically.
I would say this (and I do not speak here for all of Conflicts Forum): Israel's future is not only not my business, they're probably better off because of that. Israel's future is not our business either, and my bet is that they also realize that. The problem that we face is not Zionism, for that largely political and revolutionary movement (one of the first transnational movements in history) has run its course. Zionism produced a growing and viable society. The problem now, most especially for Israelis, is the growth of militant Judaism in the United States -- a political movement peculiar (that is to say, common) -- amongst diaspora communities. Many of the most conservative pro-Israel American Jews believe they know what is better for Israel than Israelis do. This is a great danger for Israel that, I have been told, is being wrestled with at the highest levels of the Israeli government. In light of recent events, I assume the wrestling match is not going well. I find it ironic, indeed, that American conservatives who are Jews are now evincing disappointment that Israel did not do well in the recent war. I have only one question for them:
Who the hell do you think you are?
As you note: "Also, it seems to me what has been missing from this whole 'peace dialogue' on all sides is the attention of economists and anthropologists who can untangle the weave of societal needs required to bring an enduring peace to these peoples. There is too much talk about politics which are a bit like the icing on a cake. The first thing people may discuss, but rarely the last thing. Deeper cultural and economic dynamics (that support culture) are simply too often missing from the table in thinking about this area."
Our experience is that economic, cultural, religious and social exchanges can never be successful without a substantive and parallel political process whose goal is the resolution of political problems. On the eve of Ariel Sharon's march on the Temple Mount, I was in Bethlehem . There was no room at the Inn -- every hotel room in the city was occupied. (I fortunately ran across a friend who rented me a room in his family quarters.) GDP growth was pegged at 14.5 percent. The West Bank and Gaza were booming. The next morning, as a result of the Sharon initiative, the intifada began. I have noted since that the Palestinian people have been quite willing to sacrifice their economic well-being to continue their resistance to the Israeli occupation. They have done so for fifty years -- and they will not stop just to fill their bellies. They are not alone in that view. Peoples who feel unjustly oppressed (whether justly oppressed or not) will cede their most basic way of life for the dream of nationhood. That is as true today in Palestine as it was in 1962 in Vietnam, or 1948 in China.
I hope that this helps you to understand some of our views. You should not thank me for expressing them, as writing our views out in forums like this helps us to document and perfect our thinking. Those who are a part of Conflicts Forum -- about one dozen people -- are like-minded in their views. We are not motivated by money, nor ideology, and certainly not by religion. We have few ideals and hold few views in common. But those that are held in common are axiomatic: we believe the grounding of political action comes in empathy for the suffering of others, an understanding of their culture, an abandonment of simple formulas and the adoption of engagement as a fit substitute for conflict. We are universally convinced, I believe, that the common notion that violence follows from the failure of diplomacy has, in our time, been sadly and tragically reversed: diplomacy today is the likely result of the failure of violence. Our goal is to set aright that formula. More specifically, Mr. Bush has said that sending young men and women into battle to give their lives for their country is the most difficult thing a leader can do. That's a lie. The most difficult thing a leader can do is to sit across a table from a person who disagrees with him for the avowed purpose of finding a means to forego violence.
I wish you well and appreciate your time.
In my last piece I mentioned Mark Perry, someone who co-directs Conflicts Forum, an organization of former diplomats and foreign service professionals that has been talking with groups like Hezbollah and Hamas to, in their words, "increase understanding between western policymakers and leaders of political Islam," working by principle of increased "understanding between western policymakers and the leaders of political Islam through a series of dialogues and exercises of 'mutual listening.'"
It's a powerful mandate, though honestly, it seems to me that until it expands the dialogue to include the actual neighbors of Hezbollah and Hamas, specifically Zionist Israelis, Conflicts Forum will be suspect among many folks genuinely committed to co-existence in the region as well as the world.
Just as the Israeli political establishment wasted years trying to deny a Palestinian people even existed, groups like Hamas and Hezbollah (as well as their supporters) seem to be doing the same today. At a time when fve minutes, nevermind years, are too painfully precious to waste.
Regardless, Perry is no naive idealist. Indeed, he and his co-director, Alastair Crooke, have an awful lot of experience in this area. They are also substantial thinkers. Read the link Mark Perry offered me below. Their reflections are thought provoking.
As mentioned above, while I think they're doing something worthwhile, my hesitance in mailing in a check to support them (so to speak) is that I don't yet understand where a Zionist Israel fits into the maps Conflicts Forum is trying to explore in emergence.
Nevertheless, Perry is a generous man, writing back quickly and taking the time to actually read what I'd sent him. I hope someday he allows That's Capital to interview him, specifically to explore what he senses are the economic infrastructure possibilities Hamas and Hezbollah might be considering in their desire to remake their region. But more I hope Conflicts Forum, in its creation of "mutual listening" manages to bring some mainstream Zionists to the same table.
In the meantime, below are his thoughts. One final comment. In my own post, I criticized media narratives that seem less like analysis and more like rabble rousing. I should have included Bernard-Henri Levy's NYTimes article about Israel at war last weekend.
Though Levy's book on the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl was, for much of it, rivetting, in Sunday's piece the French Jewish essayist committed every pathetic instinct that his anti-Israel enemies too often indulge. Namely romanticizing their heroes.
Describing Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Levi writes "I have never seen... a defense minister answering so exactly to the famous saying by Malraux about those miraculous commanders who 'wage war without loving it' and who, for this very reason, always end up winning."
You could imagine a sophisticated publicist writing similar sentiments about Hezbollah military chiefs operating in bunkers from Beirut. It's not just overwrought. Rather it's intelligence in the service of pandering, the type of dubious lionization that too many fans of the Palestinians have done "for the cause," the type of exploitive cheering that more often serve the outsider's own angels or demons more than any of the players actually impacted by those causes.
Anyway, here's Hezbollah in Perry's words, which I don't find overwrought, even if he still hasn't convinced me that peace between them and Israelis is possible.
FROM MARK PERRY
Thanks for your email and your questions. I have been quite consistent in my view that the US, and particularly the Bush Administration, has regularly misconceived the political spectrum in the Middle East. They continue to talk of empowering moderates -- but by this they mean pro-US forces that are largely secular, that have no legitimacy in the region. These forces are secular and Westernized and willing to make peace with Israel. This latter is a requirement put forward by the Bush Administration as a litmus test of moderation.
By conflating and failing to differentiate among political movements, the Bush Administration has placed the five truly moderate movements in the region -- Hizb a-tuira, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Pakistan's Jamaat e-Islami -- in the same category as al-Qaeda. This is wrong-headed, superficial, potentially fatal to our political efforts in the region and designed to undermine our promotion of democracy. Jamaat e-Islami is the largest political party in Pakistan and promotes democracy, the Muslim Brotherhood would have swept the elections in Egypt had it not been for the "moderate" forces of Hosni Mubarak (who regularly tortures his opponents) Hamas won the elections in the Palestinian Authority (we immediately initiated a program to starve them out of office -- which will fail) and Hezbollah which stood for and won parliamentary seats in Lebanon.
In each case we have opposed these movements -- though the evidence is clear that al-Qaeda and other takfiri groups hate them and have told them that the US and its allies will never let them participate in reshaping the region. Al-Qaeda has even called for the assassination of the leaders of these groups because they have followed "the colonialist-Zionist program" of democratization. Yet, we continue to treat them all alike. It is as if we viewed socialist parties in Europe in 1950 as the same as the communists of Moscow. That would have been fatal to our efforts to hold Europe.
Hezbollah leaders have made it clear that they do not like Israel, they view Israel as a threat (they seem to be right on that score, wouldn't you think), but that they would be willing to live peaceably with Israel if, and only if, the Palestinian issue could be resolved. They have said this again and again. Proxies for Iran? There is no doubt that Hezbollah is a strategic ally of Iran, but it is a mistake to believe that the Hezbollah leadership takes orders from Iran. It is simply not true -- and akin to my own generation's mistake of assuming that Ho Chi Minh took orders from Moscow. It is an over-simplification, matched on the Arab side by assuming that the US ordered Israel's attack on Lebanon.
To get a fuller understanding you may wish to read this:
August 11th 2006
TC News Desk
May 2, 2006
New York, NY
Jonathan Field, co-founder of That's Capital, says he was eating his breakfast when the phone rang. He thought it was his landlord.
"It's that time of the month when they normally figure it's time to start hounding me for last month's rent," Field recalled.
But it wasn't someone asking for rent money. They were asking Field for something much more important.
"All of a sudden, someone's telling me to hold the phone, as they had a speaker from Congress who wanted to talk to me. They even knew my first as well as last name. I was so surprised I dropped my bowl of oatmeal. Luckily I was pretty much done, anyway."
What happened next is hazy, according to Field, but nevertheless important. Because in the next 20 seconds Field found himself invited to dinner with President Bush, along with other carefully chosen members of this country's great business community, asked to head as a headliner to Washington D.C.
The point of this journey? To act as Honorary Chair of something official-sounding called The Business Advisors Council, a group supporting apparently much-needed tax cuts for business. This personal invite coming courtesy of Representative Thomas M. Reynolds, congressman of the New York's sterling 26th District and a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, according to his Honorable's very honorable web page," one of the most powerful in the House, with legislative authority over economic policy, trade, Social Security, welfare, and health care policy."
And indeed it is. And so Field, never someone to turn down an offer to act as an Honorary Chair (or dishonorary Chair) so long as it includes a decent meal, says he felt a sense of urgency. Or maybe it was ecstasy. Whatever, because...
"You know, I lose a lot of sleep about That's Capital, wondering whether my audience is with me... or against me," Field said sadly. "Sometimes I even wonder if I have an audience, outside of my teenage nephew who I pay to correct my spelling and offer up tips on pop culture so I don't sound uncool. Suddenly, I was being recognized for the peerless... well, I wasn't sure. But they wanted me. Who was I to say no? You know."
Field remembers a sense of shock and, yup, awe at being singled out, one among millions of New Yorkers (and podcasters, too), to sit on an exclusive panel of American business leaders joining Congressman Reynolds and President Bush charting the course of the economy, and hopefully, a nice fluffy desert.
At the end of the Congressman's recorded announcement, a live speaker came on to the phone.
"Sooooo... as part of this package, we'd like to invite you to donate a figure between $300 to $500 to this cause," the speaker said.
"I better get a really fluffy desert for those amounts," Field says he told the guy. "Right downstairs from me, steps away, there's a Krispy Kreme, a Ben & Jerry's, AND a Papaya King Hot Dog joint. Fancy award ceremonies are fine but if you're gonna make me fly real miles as well as pay real dollars, you better put on a real good spread. You know?"
"We know," said the speaker. "So if you pay the full $500 dollars today, not only do you get a big fluffy desert, but you get a roast beef dinner and we send you home with your own personal gavel. With signatures of the Congressman or the President. All this for fighting the spread of high taxes."
"Five hundred bucks. Hmmm. Dinner and a gavel," Field said, trying to calibrate. "But tell me, do I get to choose which signature I get, the President or the Congressman, and, secondly, is it an authentic signature?" Field asked.
"Can you just stop with the detailed questions and think of the issues," the speaker said defensively.
"Every single issue in my life always comes with at least five questions," Field answered equally defensively. "Five just to start. Just ask all of my former girlfriends."
"We didn't call you about your love life," the speaker snapped back.
"What's that got to do with the price of mud?" snapped back Field.
"Because if everyone asked President Bush or Representative Reynolds to personally sign these gavels, don't you think it might give these great leaders carpal tunnel and other syndromes?" the speaker declared triumphantly.
Suddenly Field remembers feeling the slight sense he was being scammed, but also a simultaneous thrill that he might be able to put the House speaker on the defensive.
"Tell me something, if you would. What exactly is the exact number of winners and gavels being given out here?" Field says he said, fighting his confused emotion of attack and defend, and vice-versa. "Numbers would help my decision."
"My computer screen for those numbers is temporarily down, but the important thing is you have been chosen as a leader, and for our leaders we have promised signatures that always look authentic. All of our past winners have agreed that they do, I assure you," the speaker said, probably mistaking ambivalence for doubt in the respondent's voice.
"Really?" Field half asked, half said, an odd telemarketing logic now leading him to buy into his dutiful role as a respondent, doubt taking a nose dive into helpless shame for any instinct to even imagine question marks, nevermind full questions.
"Give me your credit card number immediately," said the speaker, according to Field, "and I will personally guarantee that the good Congressman will give his up-most commitment to getting a personal signature on your personal gavel."
At that firm promise, That's Capital's publisher Field finally (and shamelessly) agreed, giving up this month's rent to join others at the White House. Now if only his credit card hadn't expired just this past weekend, for which he does feel a wee bit embarrassed.
All that said, Field says he is relieved that one of New York's great politicians with the stature of sitting on a government body that commands the future of taxation of our great country is finally looking out for taxpayers, current as well as future.
"Not only is this visionary guy not just looking to cut taxes," Field told us. "He's actually spending the public's budget on something worthwhile. Telemarketing campaigns. And they say Republicans are antagonistic to real science. Hah, I say. Hah!"
Asked to explain what he meant, and the tone of his "hah!," Field uttered another "hah."
"Efficiencies. Market efficiencies. Hire marketers to lead a telemarketing campaigns to raise money by calling America's top business leadership, along with anyone else in the phone book, to get their credit card dollars, and then he earns big buy-in for big buck donations from these big buck CEOs and other big vision leaders with a promise of a three course, five dollar roast beef dinner and a two dollar gavel. Just do the math. I mean if that's not an example of smart Republicans doing government, I can't wait to see what they think of next. How about a Labor Day telethon to raise morale for the Iraqis and money to buy American soldiers their own vests? How about that, mister fix the handicapped, Jerry Lewis!"
Field says his only regret is that he won't make it to the dinner for the fluffy desert. On the other hand, he's delighted to have been chosen by Congressman Thomas M. Reynold's in such a brilliantly effective delineation of who's who in leading American business to raise funding to... cut funding.
If you want to ask why Congressman Reynold's hasn't invited you for your own award dinner, call or write him here.
Field believes there's at least a 200 percent chance that Reynolds will be delighted to get your credit card number, too. Hopefully yours won't have been expired.
And in between getting to talk to Congressman Reynolds, check out the bravest political commentator since Jon Stewart, speaking on America's best reality television channel, C-Span. Namely Stephen Colbert at the White House Press Dinner. Blog sites like Crooks and Liars, as well as web zines like Salon have done an excellent job at both offering it up, and pointing out how gutsy it was.
Watch it and then think about Reynold's dialing for dollars. Confirms my sense that the clowns running Washington are a lot less funny but much more insidious than any comics on television, even such violent novelist Bozos like Bill "bust 'em up" O'Reilly.
For a quick download, go to Crooks and Liars.
Or... Video Dog - Salon.com.
For my money, the best reality television the past few weeks was on C-SPAN. Namely, coverage of the immigration issues erupting all of a sudden. America's donor free/commercial free network has been much better than other television media in following the surprisingly robust rallies that seemed to erupt spontaneously across the nation.
Two weeks ago, 500,000 people marched in Los Angeles. Two weeks later, another 500,000 showed up to march in Dallas. Yesterday hundreds of thousands showed up for rallies in Washington DC, Seattle and New York, slowing down a range of industries depending on low paid labor across the nation.
The crowds have been overwhelming Latino, and in yesterday’s Washington D.C. event, the speakers were always bi-lingual. Sometimes English came first, other times second. But when Senator Ted Kennedy got up to speak, his Spanish translator was drowned out by crowds cheering without any need for the translation.
And when a nine-year old girl was featured on the podium to lead everyone in a “Pledge of Allegiance,” with all the American flags raised, it could have been a particularly emotional Fourth of July. But a weird one. Because even while they were holding up this nation's flag, there was a palpable connection to other countries.
A friend of mine in Seattle accidentally came upon her city’s rally, and told me how she found herself “thrilled,” more from the energy of the crowds as from the cause.
“I just start to think we’re all so apathetic and then you see this,” she told me. “I am not quite clear what we should do about open borders but the feeling in the crowd was great.”
C-SPAN doesn’t analyze news so much as show its formation. And so far I’ve yet to see much media analysis of the momentum of these crowds and insights about what, beyond the obvious, it might mean. It deserves more attention, specifically about mobilization in America today.
To me there was something clearly absent from the rallies: the voices of immigrants from outside of Latin America. Today I checked The New York Times for coverage, and found a front page photograph of a political rally full of folks who were clearly Asian. Then I read the caption and realized it was shot at an anti-government demonstration in Thailand.
While Mexicans dominate immigrant populations in the United States (approximately 49 percent of America’s 11 million “illegals”), where were the masses of non-Latino immigrants, whether originally from South America or South Asia?
In Minnesota, for example, the fastest growing group of foreign born are not from any Latin American country. They’re from Africa. In California, Spanish may be the second largest spoken language, but Mandarin, Korean and Farsi have their own substantial number of speakers.
But in the last few days, these rallies have been primarily Latino. Washington D.C. has over 70,000 Ethiopians. What would have happened had the speeches been in English and Amharic? How might that have impacted the cause? What does it suggest about the cause that Spanish is so overwhelming its language?
More about that in the near future. This post will focus less on the “cause” than how it’s been waged. I have spent the last six posts wrestling with issues
around developing infrastructure, specifically how collectives of
people can commit to something together, and how other parts of their lives (their rituals) play a part in that process.
The entire immigrant issue is a great reflection of
the limits and opportunities of mass action. And also how, in our modern
world, identity gets played out among a public collective. The ability of Latin Americans to organize so quickly seems so relevant - especially the activism from a particular demographic among them, the Mexicans.
In the last 15 years, Mexicans have been building populations in states ranging from North Carolina to Wisconsin to New York. But except in border states like Texas and California, up till now they were awfully quiet politically and socially. These past two weeks they have emerged with an intensity which demonstrates equal measures of longing and ambition. That emergant-type energy has implications for all of us.
Think of the crowds. Half a million people at a time. These were folks for whom a day off means losing critical wages. Demonstrating for them was no lark. I guess you could say that these rallies are proof that fear can be a great force to galvanize action. But I bet fear also prevented a lot of African, Chinese, and South Asians from joining the protests.
In fact, the pride with which people spoke their native Spanish suggested that while feeling vulnerable, these are not a group who feel marginalized to the shadows. Or, more accurately, perhaps they had suddenly caught the full extent of their potential power.
What did they have that helped them? Three things seemed apparent. First, they had the memories of where they came from, expressed in the passion and pleasure with which they chanted together in Spanish. Secondly, they had affiliation with a church, Catholic or born-again Christian.
Finally, they hold the threads of a emerging sense of what they want. Not the entire fabric. Rather, they have a vision in the making. Something about opportunity and home which is expressed in the form of a green card. Together, these shared institutions of language, church and legal document gave them the generative DNA of meaning, ritual, and place.
Collective meaning is the first step in creating infrastructure. It allows the building of trust, which in turn lead to rituals centered around place. These two pieces, ritual and place, then work together to reaffirm meaning and trust. And perhaps the tensions around yearning, the act of working towards something, then takes on a creative force of its own.
The immigrants who came to Washington may not have organized previously, but their lives lend themselves to organically building a cultural infrastructure which is transforming into a political force. They gather for work together, they room together, they spend a lot of time together.
They also have a model to base themselves on. It's called the Christian Right. Whether or not you're a fan, that is a group who have turned cultural concerns into a political infrastructure that's been amazingly resilient. For the last two decades, they have been brilliantly leveraging place and ritual. It is a lack of place and ritual that eludes liberals. Outside of visiting Starbucks, what do they have? Not much.
In New York, for instance, the middle class move to private schools (when they can afford it) has robbed the city of its most potent advocates for better public education. Against the war in Iraq? Well, the military is primarily composed of a population of Southern and Mid-Western white recruits. As the brilliant (and ignorantly criticized) Robert D. Kaplan writes, they are forming an unacknowledged caste.
Because of a decreasing lack of regular attachments in the public sphere, moderates, liberals and even elites in this country, however “well educated” are effectively voiceless politically. Every four years many of us start arguing who will make a better president, but between elections that process is dead.
It's not multiple identities that weaken political action. It's lack of regular, conscious and, very important, public ways to partake in those identities. And to wrestle with them.
For the last few weeks, I have been writing about a gaming mentality that has impacted this country, and perhaps the world. I wonder whether living in game spaces can lead people to question power and then impact it. Perhaps these immigrants are proving you can.
Certainly people play in games. But part of that play is "trying on" identities. Then they adopt pieces of them or they move on. Sometimes such a process can remind us where our most resonant sympathies live.
Look at sport. As a friend told me about visiting East Germany before the destruction of the wall, outside any local soccer games you would always see at least half a dozen tanks. Soldiers would follow the departing crowd till it would disperse. For good reason.
British soccer crowds, fueled by class-based aggression and too much beer, can be furiously destructive at home and abroad. Fired up, they are an identity in drunken emergence, expressing themselves with careless abandon.
For a haunting example of another type of crowd in emergence, remember the figure whose lone actions nearly caused a revolution in China. Nicknamed Tankman in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government have spent the last 20 years doing their best to vanquish his memory. Give a group of people a place sense to learn (or be reminded of) its power and... well, watch out.
The Mexican "illegals" demonstrating yesterday were so interesting to me because they seemed as they as much in the midst of an internal as well as an external struggle. You could see it and hear it as they momentarily looked proud, then uneasy, then excited.
It was as if, in those moments of joining a demonstratin, they were coalescing as a collective, navigating their way into "becoming" something other than what they had been. Illegals to citizens. Mexicans to Americans. But also fighting to retain something else that they could not leave behind.
I'm not sure they are yet clear what they ultimately want. But their willingness to dive into figuring it out makes them a force. Those rallies were game spaces to claim a complex identity. And it's that conflicting journey, a process that they travel with passion but also discipline, traversing "the system" into prominence, balancing who they have been, are, and want to be... that can make them particularly effective players in the modern public sphere.
Because if these marches are a series of game spaces for them, for now they are using each space wisely. Taking each seriously. And for now they are managing it without the rootless violence of soccer fans from Liverpool, or frustrated Muslims around the world, whose institutions right now serve them no further than theirs bars, mosques or privacy of their homes.
We native born-Americans have our own rootlessness. Which is not a problem until we ignore it. Why? Because as fewer of us share rituals connected to "public space," we have fewer connections to the "public good." Such rituals and spaces don't need to be heavy. Or serious. Think of national holidays. The one day a year that the mass of us share with real joy is Thanksgiving.
That may be unfair. People interact with their neighbors. Parents around the country certainly socialize with other parents, looking after their children. And America has always had a transitory "moving on" attitude which provides oxygen to the national psyche.
But any existing (or even healthy) restlessness is probably amplified by fears around globalization. We are, to increasing degrees, creating gated communities. Which reinforce the ability to personalize private space at the expense of the public.
Here. Let me take a leap: however heavily accented their English, anyone in yesterday’s crowd of Latin Americans was probably more capable of shaping the direction of this country than many of us who were born here, especially a non-married, childless blogger like me.
Without strong emotional ties to larger real world collectives, a person is an individual in the most negative sense. Alone. It’s why the buying power of straight, single Americans as a demographic will never translate into political power. Especially single straight men.
Gay men and single women don't have the rich social ties generated by children but, so long as they face perceived discrimination, they do have cause. They are actively navigating roles. Even that is fading as they rise in status.
Those "illegals" marching belong to larger communities which are actively in emergence. They have a cause that's not simply about discrimination. It's a shared identity about a journey that was visible (and audible) watching them on C-SPAN.
You could see it in their complex ability to juggle English and Spanish. You could sense the memories of what they left but also what they seek. It was in their eyes as well as the words from their mouth and heart.
They may not have deep roots in this country, but they have connections to institutions whose roots run very deep, are rooted in place, yet extend beyond simple concepts of geography: church, ancestral home and... seeking to create someplace they can someday claim as home.
As useful as the web can be to create collectives like “My Space,” we still live in an atom based world. Gravity matters. Nothing is more proof of that than seeing the gathering of these crowds of immigrants. In today's world, if you're not religious (even if its the religion of the secular), and can't collectively share a sense of memory as well as longing, you will find yourself more and more isolated.
Advice to moderates and liberals, find your own offline institutions with places and rituals that support and nuture things you hold dear. The conservatives have them. Radicals (right or left) tend to be utopian and create their own. The only other adult group I'd say are the haplessly deluded who believe they need neither, outside of holding on to avoiding any commitment which may end in loss.
Finally, while my comment about Starbucks may have seemed flippant, the truth is I think potential rituals and places will (or can be) inevitably be rooted in brands. Businesses with whom we form conscious and unconscious relationships. Markets exist as much as to reflect as to reinforce values. Those brands operate in markets that can impact their success or failure.
There’s an email making the rounds right now, for instance, about fighting high oil prices. It suggests a focused boycott of ExxonMobil, action which would ask drivers to spend several months actively avoiding purchases from this business' gas stations. It points out a “don’t buy gas day" would be of limited impact. Rather, target this powerful brand with behavior which takes a cumulative toll over a period of months rather than one day.
It would certain transform a weekly (daily?) chore of "filling up" from a drag to a statement. It would, in fact, ritualize it. Give it meaning. And if you don't think gas stations can offer rituals around a place, come to New York City's Houston and Lafayette, where cabbies hang out at the car wash.
Can your local ExxonMobil-alternative help you create such a ritual by creating a relationship with you? Do you have a relationship with the folks where you buy fuel? Can you convince the franchisees who pay their money to headquarters to threaten to make their own switch? Worth a try.
For my money, I say the boycott should be less about prices and more about energy choices: pushing Exxon to invest a healthy portion of its profits in R&D on alternative fuels. And lobbying the government to use our tax dollars to do the same. Cheaper gas to me is just... cheaper gas. It further extends our willful ignorance about how disconnected we are to our resources.
Regardless, an e-mail generated boycott is an interesting outgrowth. Perhaps America’s politically charged and multi-lingual immigrants are teaching the rest of us a lesson. It pays to speaks to a few languages, be flexible in one’s identity, and, not least, be ready to join with others to commit to something you believe in. To put a stake in the ground that says, I am here with you. We belong.
by Jonathan Field
A friend of mine called last week. He hadn’t been in touch for a bit. Apparently, he had fallen in love with a woman he only sees on weekends. He's in New York. She's in Chicago. When he's not with her, all he does is think about her.
“It’s amazing how powerful a hold she has,” he told me. “I’m out having beer with friends and all I can do is wonder what she’s doing when I’m not around. I catch a scent of a perfume that reminds me of her and I’m completely undone.”
A magazine sales guy whose one marriage ended quickly almost 15 years ago, he’s fairly sophisticated but also fairly cynical. Now he is walking around considering that phrases like “true love” might not be hype.
“When she’s here, we stay in bed, like it seems for hours," he said. "But it’s not the sex. It’s something bigger. I hate to use this word but it’s “deep” but then she goes back to Chicago and doesn’t call and I feel like a… like a woman. It makes me want to hit someone. Or hide underneath the bed. This is insane.”
In poet’s terms, my friend has momentarily gone mad. In evolutionary psychology’s terms, he is experiencing limerance. A state of being which mixes sexual and emotional longing, it’s what makes being around obsessed lovers so annoying.
When not in each other’s arms, they’re “neither here nor there.” Visible to the eyes, such lovers are emotionally unavailable outside their “couplet.” Not simply blind to all around them, they actually demand an exhausting type of attention – intense periodic acknowledgments about the heights of their state of being. Or, equally annoying, the lows.
According to evolutionary psychologists, limerance is composed of equal measures of pain and pleasure – the balance creating a sense of the sublime. The pleasure is the promise of feeling as if you are merging with another being, becoming one. The pain is the dread of rejection, humiliation not just in another’s eyes but those of the community. The merging is not quite there, and perpetually in threat of coming to completion.
It’s an intoxicating brew, and anyone within its orbit will either feel a sense of transcendence or as if they’d fallen into a black hole. Regardless, in both cases there’s a sense of losing agency. The gods of passion guide you.
It's as if romance has a life of its own. And though we don't admit it, that's often that what makes it so thrilling. Whether you’re a participant or simply concerned friend, entering limerance gives the sense of being in thrall to powers beyond individual control.
After repeated reminders to my friend that he lives a charmed life, and that if it doesn’t work out that he was fine before he met this woman, I ended up hanging up on him during a long harangue from him that “nobody understands.” I felt bad but limerance is a game space where if you’re not a player, don’t step into the ring.
The way to “get a grip” over limerance? Send them emails. Buy flowers. Or tough it out... go to the gym and sweat it out. As with all difficult or powerful human emotions, people control it through creating rituals. Behaviors that can give shape to shapeless feelings. Limerance, like any strong emotion, has spawned its own markets around particular rituals, from reading love stories to romantic get-aways.
Humans create rituals, in general, to create order from chaos. Think of a family’s Sunday meal, where everyone sits together to break bread. That meal is the flag that family flies to say, “this dinner together is who we are,” even if the rest of the week they rush around as if they barely know each other.
Rituals are particularly fertile in areas like romance, where conditions are apt to change at any moment, leaving a lot of vulnerability in its wake. Markets depend on ritual behavior, feeding needs that are constant yet always susceptible to the threat of unstable forces (i.e. energy supplies, hurricanes, war, etc.).
Indeed, markets serve rituals. They exist to create stability in an unstable world, whether around food, education, whatever. Commerce allows us to survive, not simply in the short run for day to day supplies, but psychically, delivering us the emotional security that there are others who share our needs and can help us serve them.
Money is the DNA of commerce, providing the symbols of stability. But at core, money itself is a bit like romance, something that is in perpetual and uncontrollable formation. Mark Taylor, who we interviewed here at That’s Capital, writes in his book Confidence Games that money is, itself, liminal, a state of being “betwixt and between.”
If that seems abstract, consider the whirl of emotions around getting a monetary gift, the lovely imagined possibilities it inspires along with the accompanying tensions of wanting to maximize its value.
Money may seem fixed in coin or paper, but within it swim a set of “in between” forces whose shapelessness (and perpetual movement) give them a power that will influence all those who come in to contact. Like romance, it too seems to have a life of its own. Which again, like romance, makes it attractive and dangerous.
The liminal space around money is geography that resounds with contradictions. There's a perpetual sense that money can either deliver cause for dread… or cheer. Booyah! Whether winning or losing, a small object like a coin or a bill has so much power over the course of our lives. An object whose value can go up or down, the logic not always clear.
Facilitating commerce, money allows us to transcend limitations of time and space, literally and figuratively. It both symbolizes (reflects back to us) and generates (storing it for later use) different types of value – moral, social and physical. As much as we want these values to be permanent, they are by their nature temporary. Always in flux. Reflecting a world that is similarly unstable.
As all relationships are a constant series of overt or less overt negotiations, even while we use money to create stability, its stability is constantly undercut by the ongoing negotiation within these relationships, a bit like the value of flowers within romance. Think of week old roses looming there after a lover's quarrel. The stability that money creates is always temporary. Its direction can always turn.
Taylor’s Confidence Games is named for the trickster aspects of money and commerce. But reading the book you don’t get the sense that Taylor feels betrayed by money. Rather, for him the delusions of stability that money feeds may nurture fundamental spiritual as well as physical needs.
A currency’s value hides forces that are as powerful as they are abstract. Within solid-looking paper bills flow forces that are eternally liquid and often impossible to understand, mirroring the mystery of life.
It's not only that we can't always understand things such as why or when it's going to rain; neither can we fathom all the reasons people do things that impact us. As in romance, where we are rarely clear
about why we are in love or why someone loves us, the forces that
determine monetary value are often terrifyingly incomprehensible.
While humans may fear such mystery, we also probably cherish a vessel like money to contain it. Money captures the mystery which we don't want to acknowledge as basic to life. And yet it also exists, to some extent, to remind us of that mystery. It's a safe space to consider creative forces that impact us and almost seem to have their own intelligence.
Capturing those forces, money generates responses that are in a dance of constant opposition. First, again like romance, money demands enormous faith. A trust in the permanence of its existence. A suspension of disbelief, precisely because its operating in a place that suggest rules even as it subverts them.
But second, as in any area of liminality, money also breeds lots of obsessive thought. Thinking (like this post), which sometimes lead to profound intellectual breakthroughs (can't promise that here, but think of figures from Calvin to Karl Marx), that give us new takes on life and how we should live it.
Okay, let’s back up. My last post explored the way recent social and economic changes are reflected in entertainment shifts, specifically the ritual of "going to the movies" has been eclipsed by playing games, at least so far as revenues and involvement.
The game space is far from liminal. In fact, it’s rule and structure bound. Actually, so are movies. But the difference between the two suggests something to do with limerance and the liminal, as well as our present and future.
Movies focus on emotional catharsis. The pleasure is about watching a hero move towards forming some new psychic or emotional state. Heroes transform fixed situations (places, people, things), and in the process are transformed and elevated themselves.
The pleasure of games has little to do with the emotional catharsis of watching someone else’s journey. The joy is found in the pleasure and obsession of identifying patterns, leveraging them, and creating new ones. And unlike the movie space, where the stories are seamless and big, the game space is about perpetually short-term engagements.
To win means a momentary transformation. Nobody wins forever. And this is where the liminal emerges as a cloudy presence. Games demand a sense of liminality, because they focus so much on rules. By telling us what we need to do, they suggest a lack of rules (or changing rules) outside their boundaries.
Here's a thought. The popularity of games may reflect a deep philosophic shift within our culture. Namely this: the millennial world has moved beyond beliefs in the absolute reality posed by most religions. The rise of religious fundamentalism, itself, acknowledges a terror of this shift, a desire for a return to stable values. Which probably were never all that stable.
But humans can't live without values. Meaning is what makes us human. For the past century, modernism and faith in scientific progress propelled the development of government institutions, but also the organization of business (things like brands). Then very briefly, and to a much lesser extent, post-modernism emerged, a sense that reality is inherently corrupt because all meaning is tightly controlled by those in power.
Gaming reflects a world-view that is simultaneously less trusting in ultimate answers but also less gloomy about their absence. The gaming attitude suggests that life is best lived by provisional truths. And lived within a reality that, like games, take place in shaped spaces. These spaces may periodically change, but participants within the space can agree upon provisional rules to change them.
And it’s here that games share similar qualities with romance and money, at least around the “liminal.” Because, while humans may act as if they have control in these spheres, there’s an unspoken acceptance that these spaces will morph.
Unlike a movie world, where we sign off with an ominipotent “the end” (as if God has signaled it) a game world is a series of humanly-shaped rules and spaces. The rules may seem fixed, but we can change them, play differently, or we can always move on.
Encouraging immersive as opposed to voyeuristic experiences, games assume an experience is only provisionally real. Outside of the territory of the game’s space, its rules are irrelevant. You either stay in one game space, enter others, or accept chaos.
Not surprisingly, games are a place where faith is almost as important as skill, at least in those where “lady luck” has a hand. As opposed to a movie era where stability focused on the promise of something eternal (like a job that lasted one’s life, or a community that stood strong), what it takes to win is frequently shaky. Difficult to decipher.
At the same time, games are more accepting of failure. If you lose, you go on to another game. Recently, a column by Maureen Dowd satirized Harvard students flocking to classes about happiness. But in a game world, happiness is a critical value. Because if you’re not happy on the journey, the destination promises no ultimate reward. The joy is brief, taking up time than it took to get there.
This post, like the previous four others, is part of a longer examination of infrastructure, exploring how things like national transportation systems or business organizations like brands are impacted by technological and social shifts. Ultimately, I’m looking at how we live impacts… how we live.
Well, honestly, I’m both near the end and far from it. Before I reconnect this back let me return to exploring the liminal aspects of money and commerce, or the patterns of which they're composed and, in turn, inspire.
History, in Taylor’s book Confidence Games, is an ongoing tango between man, money and commerce, the process binding us inextricably (and eternally) to a set of higher powers – whether “the gods,” “God,” or in modern times, things like “market forces” or “corporate capitalism.”
Taylor’s focus is on how we, at various points in history, have found ways to navigate our role in the dance. It follows how, in such navigation, we created powerful belief systems reflected in religion, art, and science. He looks at everything from Calvin’s liberation of bourgeoisie merchants to conduct business while remaining true to God, to modern arts’ impact on Wall Street.
The book points to the way commerce and money, and by extension technology, have always played an enormous part in evolving belief systems, for science as well as religion. In fact, reading this book, you get the sense that the most important belief systems are as frequently generated as tested within the sphere of commerce, money and technology.
In Taylor’s view, they create arenas that have historically been viewed as simultaneously liberating and dangerous. Tracing the emergence of markets, he points out that they were initially viewed not so much as neutral as special spaces, arenas to be approached with a sense of awe.
Set off at the edges of towns, they were accorded their own particular sets of rules and regulations. Market participants were required to express vows or prayers on entrance, and they were centers of ritual, both serious and festive.
Today markets and commerce have their own rituals vows and mystery. Think of trying to figure out real estate prices. Or the stock market. Money, as Taylor suggests, is becoming ever more ethereal or abstract.
Look at Wall Street, where so-called “traders” make a living “playing” stocks and derivatives based on anything from biotechnology companies making no profit to taking hedges on weather patterns like hurricanes.
In millennial America it would be more accurate than flippant to say that the only difference between an illegal and legal bookie is the different authorities who tax them, the former paying up to other mobsters and the latter to the IRS.
And regardless of which authority to whom you bow, the rules of transparency are cover for processes that are deeply opaque. Where once we depended upon the gods for guidance, today we have digital technology, capable of crunching numbers but also perpetually evaluating future scenarios.
Regardless, both the gods and our computers require the filtering of human mediation in whom we desperately want accountability but on whom we more usually simply ascribe faith. Equally important, as with romance and money, digital technology is itself in constant emergence. Like them, it has a generative power that suggests possessing a life force of its own.
At the moment when we think we have the ability to customize our lives through the seeming ability to personalize everything from how we shop to how we work (our constellation of "bytes), digital technology only reinforces our perception that there are forces much bigger us with whom we must co-exist.
The sense of mystery continues to surround us. Because the technology upon which we depend is doing great things, but we don't know how it does them. And even if you don't believe in evolution, as long as you use anything digital you live in a world that is evolving before your eyes.
Since infrastructure is the human effort to build stable systems, and our current technology as well as our belief systems are not just subject to liminal conditions, but reinforce them, well... pray there are no hurricanes in your neighborhood. Big government, a sector many of us once depended upon to save us, may be as much a relic of the 20th century as the movies. Or just irrelevant.
Rather than looking for leaders to lead us, it may be smarter to find collectives creating rituals that serve things in which you believe. From religious or political groups to your local book club to folks who play poker or Everquest. It won't solve the big problems like education or energy policy, but it may offer access to like-minded parties with whom to face shaky times.
And then again, can networks of mophing collectives really confront things like depletions of oil or global warming? More to come.
END OF FORMAL POST
by Jonathan Field
A few more notes: Thinking about rituals, movies from the beginning were immediately ritualistic. You went to a theater. You were part of a crowd. The ritual included a range of broader things (buying popcorn) to things that were personalized (sitting in a certain part of the theater, getting there for the previews, avoiding the previews, etc.). In times when we watch more movies via DVD, the mass ritual is disappearing. The game space has its own rituals, but because there are many more types of games, they are less easy to identify the patterns en masse.
For books on emergence, read Steven Johnson’s book by that name, or John H. Hollands'. More immediately, think of the way Amazon makes recommendations based upon past sales. This is bottom-up technology, constantly taking in algorithms to calibrate the way incremental movements will end up creating a new structure or pattern. A universe of real-time data is interesting, and very valuable to business or political organizations. But as individuals, without interface mediation, it's awfully difficult for humans to make sense of. Steven Johnson's book on the importance of interface design today is something anybody interested in business or politics should read. It's brilliant.
Finally, my phrase "provisional reality," and its importance were inspired by conversations with my brother-in-law Philip Simmons, who fought Lou Gehrig's disease for nine years before he died in 2002, beating odds that said he'd be dead within two. He also managed to write three books in that time, one of them - Learning to Fall - managed to win some critical acclaim. His book Deep Surfaces, which I believe is out of print, is worth grabbing if you ever find it.