Archive for ‘Culture’

Natural Allies

By , 14 November, 2008, 2 Comments

Like many progressives, I’m thoroughly dismayed by the passage of Proposition 8 and its ilk in this election. And I’ve spent the 10 days since talking with gay and straight friends about the best way to move forward now that the state-level legalization approach is beginning to feel like a giant game of Othello (four tiles flip white, then eight tiles flip black).

It’s understandable when you’re the butt of prejudice to feel like yours is the shortest straw: a lesbian reader at the NYTimes tells Judith Warner that homophobia is the last and only socially-acceptable prejudice in America today. As a young woman in the boys club of business journalism, I beg to differ: sexism is alive and well too. And if anyone doubts it, they need only look to the coverage of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton in this campaign. Like their politics or not, there was an awful lot of gender-biased vitriol spewed at them, and no attempt by news organizations to apologize or correct the behavior. Put this together with Proposition 8 and you see that it’s sexuality itself that is the last acceptable fault line of prejudice.

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The Greatest Thing since…the last greatest thing

By , 12 October, 2008, No Comment

Advertisers have always sold “youth.” Drink this juice, use this lotion, take this little blue pill and stay 17 forever. But this season brings a new twist . Advertisers are reviving old ad campaigns to sell new products: ie buy this and feel like you did when you last heard this jingle.

Exhibit A: “In an Absolut World.” When I was a kid, Absolut had a series of magazine ads with a the tagline Absolut _____. Each ad was a picture of a scene with the Absolut bottle shape embedded somewhere, like a Where’s Waldo. The tagline filled in the blank with a word to describe the scene. “Absolut Brooklyn,” my personal favorite, had the bottles as the arches in the Brooklyn bridge. The photography was pretty stellar, and teens used to collect them like celebrity clippings, but most collectors were underage. Not so good for business. Now we’re all grown up and vodka-drinkers ourselves, so the ads are back: a new series fills in the ____ in the tagline with a place name and gives us a picture that symbolizes the local zeitgeist. In theory, the selling point here is the same as in the old ads, “Drink Absolut and your ____ will be more absolutely ___.” But to me, the ads say “Come have a drink with an old friend, the brand you used to love and can now afford to buy.”

Exhibit B: “Citi Never Sleeps.” Citigroup has this new commercial out “Citi never sleeps.”

If Citi’s agency had invented the line yesterday, it might have worked as a reassuring description of a company watching out for its consumers in a rapidly changing, volatile, even scary business environment. But in actuality, the tagline is a revival of the line “The Citi Never Sleeps,” which Citibank used in the pre-Sandy Weil days to describe itself as financial firm serving Wall Street fat cats and paced to their trading schedule. Hardly the same company. Hardly the same idea. But using the same line today bypasses all the intervening changes to say, “Hey, remember us? We were around when you were getting richer.”

Even deeper down, however, I think the attempt to package nostalgia as a ticket to youth is as much about the ad agencies as it is about the clients they represent. The 1980s, when these campaigns ran, were boom times for the platforms we now deride as “old media.” Revisiting them says “Hey, remember when Madison Avenue mattered?” And whether or not the ads work, dabbling in that nostalgia makes MadAve feel better.

Plus ca change…

By , 26 September, 2008, No Comment

In my history of media course, we had a guest lecture by a young scholar of 18th century European print culture the other day. Dr. Will Slaughter is a protege of pioneering cultural historian Robert Darnton. Darnton basically maintains that there has always been a news media, because any spreading of information counts as news. The transitions from people gossiping in living rooms (c. 1700), to gossiping in streets (c. 1750), to writing down their gossip (c.1800), to videotaping that gossip (c. 1950) are technological superficialities. He denies that there’s any historical moment where mass media is born (and thus, denies any theories that link mass media to the rise of mass/democratic politics in the mid-19th century).

Slaugther applies Darnton’s theory to the present:

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The End of Wall Street?

By , 23 September, 2008, 1 Comment

In a recent column, the International Herald Tribune’s Roger Cohen makes the case that with the financial sector in turmoil, jobs at GoldmanSachs and JPMorgan might lose their appeal for bright young things coming off the Ivy League assembly line, fueling a renewed interest in public service. To Cohen, that “rediscovery of the public sphere” is an end in itself, since he associates periods in American history when the public sector had prestige with prosperity, international prowess and high morale. (I’m somewhat inclined to agree, but that’s beside my present point).

I believe a renewal of the public sector as a high prestige career for the nation’s brightest would go a long way to preventing future crises like this one. Unlike the recession after 9/11, or the oil crises of the 1970s, the current collapse is the direct result of human malfeasance, not the consequence of external forces. The nation’s brightest minds went to Wall Street, armed with the Michael Douglas belief that greed is good, and more than enough Ivy League education to find the legal and accounting loopholes that allowed them to make absurdly leveraged deals and endorse Swiss cheese loans. Meanwhile, regulators slept at the switch.

But even if they had tried, what could the regulators have done? John McCain may have spoken out of turn when he trashed Chris Cox, SEC Chairman, this week. But in principle, I sort of agree with him. The people who staff our regulatory agencies mean well, but they are just not as sharp as the people they are meant to regulate. And that’s because smart young people don’t want to take jobs in government.

I sent Cohen’s piece around to friends, and one set of comments from a U.Penn senior really hit home. He’s applying for those finance jobs, despite the current hiring freeze, because 1. it pays more and 2. working for the government is beneath his SAT score. Public service he says “isn’t something the smartest people need to do. It’s something most people can do.” So long as smart kids think that public service is for dummies, we’ll have dumb public policy.

What’s the solution? My mother, a nonprofit activist, had some good ideas. Sweeten the deal for government employees with better pay, subsidized housing or discounted college tuition for their kids. “Even if it meant higher taxes, it would surely be cheaper having smart regulators than a 700 billion dollar bailout later.”

I’m finally old enough to admit it: Mama knows best.

The Postfeminist Myth

By , 17 September, 2008, No Comment

Ever since Sex and the City first combined girl power with expensive shopping, women have been asking whether feminism is over. Does it, some 1970s types asked, undermine feminism to be so excited about feminine clothes and romantic ambitions? If so, responded young tween viewers, does it mean feminism is over because we no longer need it?

Yeah right. Gender inequity is shrinking, but it’s far from gone. Women make 78 cents on the dollar, as compared to 60 cents 4 decades ago. We are equal to men now when it comes to college degrees, but still behind if you’re looking at science and business education. We’re twice as likely as men to fall below the poverty line once we enter the workforce, and poor women are 30% poorer (further below the line) than men. And on the cultural front, just read a few articles about Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin and you’ll see, sexism is alive and well.

As I’ve written before, shows like Sex and the City just reflect a new feminism that says equal opportunities should leave room for women’s individual choices about how feminine and how high powered we want to be. Aisha Sultan’s column seems to suggest that with the Palin candidacy, even the right wing has come around to a new choice feminism, somehow bypassing the possibility that her run is just a big political hoax.

Problematically, many women and men take the new feminism as a sign that feminism itself is irrelevant, that we’re in the “post-feminist” age. And institutions that define themselves as feminist–women’s rights groups, for example–suffer as a result. Today, I learned that Bitch magazine, a publication that along with Ms. was a leader in publicizing women’s lib, is on the verge of bankruptcy. Seems many women don’t want to read that stuff anymore, somehow ignoring all the real economic and cultural signs that we need such voices.

I can’t afford to bail Bitch out, but I can do my best to publicize their cause. If feminism is the belief in equality, then I never want to live in a post-feminist world.

TV for your wallet

By , 10 September, 2008, No Comment

Had a fascinating “aha” moment the other day about my new favorite TV show, AMC’s Mad Men. It’s all about sleezy ad guys in the early ’60s, at the moment when the old black-and-white print ads are about to be turned inside out by edgier copy and the rise of TV. The characters on the show work for an old agency and as they struggle to say afloat in a changing media world, they resort to the dirty and the deceitful.

Wonder why I find it so relevant today…

Compare the show to the last generation of workplace dramas and you’ll notice one key difference. In the 1990s, on shows like ER or West Wing (both of which I loved), there was a ton of misbehavior, BUT the top dog (Drs Carter and Ross at different times, President Bartlet) were good guys we could look up to. Everyone clawed their way to get up there, but the ones who really make it in America, the shows suggested, deserve it.

On Mad Men, the most notable feature is that the guys on top are often the worst of the batch. The head creative, and the protagonist, Don Draper, is guilty of identity theft, cheats on his wife and sexually assaults his mistress, Bobbie. If Mad Men had been made in 1998 instead of 2008, I’m convinced Draper would have been a nicer guy. The key is the state of the American economy:

In the 1990s, when the economy was doing well, workplace shows made the boss look good because people wanted to absolve any guilt about their greed or their success. Go back to the late ‘70s/1980s, however, when the economy was in a crunch, and shows like Dallas were all about sleezy power players, because people in economic distress want to feel justified in resenting those at the top.

Media like television are entertainment and big business, but they are also about tapping into a broader emotional zeitgeist, about turning what we believe into something aspirational, allowing us to reaffirm the values we already have. Advertisers do the same thing, which means Mad Men’s content and storyline function as an interesting commentary on the role played by the show itself. That kind of meta-narrative, the rich opportunities for analysis and debate, are my favorite part of the show. For a taste, check out the opening episode of Season 2, here.

Call me old-fashioned

By , 27 August, 2008, No Comment

I know we’re in the age of Web 2.0 now, where the pursuit of information gives way to the pursuit of links, ways to connect and think about information.

Call me old-fashioned, hungover from Web 1.0, but I still get a kick out of raw information troves like this project to digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls. One may wonder why, 10 years into the Internet Age, we still haven’t scanned and uploaded all the pre-web written material. Well, obviously, there’s a lot of it. But more importantly, most old documents can’t handle radiation and bright light. Which is why this project is so exciting. If this Israeli venture works out, and we apply the same technology to other ancient tomes of wisdom, we might finally get that universal library, the digital Alexandria, webheads have been heralding since 1995.


By , 5 August, 2008, No Comment

An all-too-true criticism of bloggers is that we get caught up in whatever is the hot news story of the minute, but can’t follow through or stick around long enough to see the full picture. To correct that, I’m revisiting two previous posts today.

1. Way back in May, I ranted about America’s atrocious decision to rescind some Fulbright awards to Palestinians at Israel’s request. To summarize my previous argument, even if you believe that Palestine should be denied a seat at the negotiating table till it solves its internal problems, isn’t helping responsible, social-service oriented Palestinians (ex. academics) a key way to facilitate that precondition? For a few weeks after the Fulbright scandal broke, the U.S. appeared to see that logic and re-granted the grants. Today, we found out that of the 7 grants that were taken away and given back, 3 have been taken away AGAIN. For the details of the Kafka-esque legal proceedings, see the NYTimes coverage. But suffice it to say, this blog’s snapshot judgment earlier this year was sadly right.

2. Yesterday, I indulged in a little gloating at spotting some errors in a David Brooks column. Those errors still hold, but today, Brooks pretty much smacked me in the face for doubting his intelligence: his column on Barack Obama was spot-on, and as usual focused on the cultural side of politics, looking for social and cultural forces that might turn voters off him. No, that doesn’t mean racism. It means that Obama’s post-partisan, post-racial, trans-national ideology is a problem not because of the specific groups he transcends, but because he’s so determined to be transcendant. It’s okay, says Brooks, to have your feet in a few communities; that’s good. But it’s not okay when it starts to feel as though you have no community at all. Accusing Barack of being sort of antisocial has nothing to do with challenging his patriotism, his blackness or his whiteness; it has to do with the fact that humans of all political stripes are social beings.

On one point, I do disagree with the almighty DB. He makes the point that this uber-individualism Barack exhibits is something of a generational shift and alludes to the notion that the rising hyperlinked generation, whose reality is all about being in multiple places, viewing multiple tabs at once, are his core constituents. True. But even the techiest of GenYers has a community or two–no one I know is on EVERY SINGLE social network or wants to be. And no one views their various online communities with the aloof dispassion that Obama seems to have for the whole notion of belonging to a group.

Deresiewicz: Halfway There

By , 3 August, 2008, No Comment

The current issue of American Scholar (aka Geek Magazine) has this fascinating essay by William Deresiewicz about “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” Read the whole thing if you have time on your hands, but here’s the cliff notes version.

1. elite schools breed smart people who will go on to be successful but not be able to converse with or show compassion for those less smart/successful than them, i.e. their own plumber
2. elite schools breed smart people who think intelligence is the only virtue in life
3. elite schools train smart people to think they (and their children) deserve success, i.e. grade inflation and the inherited meritocracy
4. elite schools encourage smart people to take safe paths in life, where they know they will succeed, rather than to take risks
5. elite schools are hotbeds of social conformity

I’ll dismiss the first and last points right off the bat. If Deresiewicz feels socially inept and unoriginal, I assure you that no single educational institution is to blame for making him that way. But points 2-4 struck me as dead on, faults that I myself plead guilty to sometimes and consider among my chief weaknesses.

I discussed the essay with several friends, and found that most of them hated it. Not always, however, because they thought he was wrong about the existence of grade inflation or the pressure to choose the straight and narrow career. Rather, after much long debate, my conversations with friends wound up with them saying “So what?” As in, so what if we expect success in exchange for our intelligence–don’t we deserve that?

The problem with this essay is that Deresiewicz exposed all these qualities of an elite education but didn’t really explain why they are disadvantages.

My own answer to friends is that you deserve success when you achieve it–you proved it by getting there. That’s not a particular nice or fair worldview, I realize, but societally, it’s the kind of ethic you have to have to innovate. Leaders are intelligent people who kept proving themselves even after a solid SAT score and an Ivy degree “entitled” them to sit on their laurels. If our best and brightest get complacent, this country’s leadership days are numbered. Somewhere in the midst of his overdone prose, I think that’s what Prof. Deresiewicz meant to say.

I Just Don’t Get It

By , 28 July, 2008, 5 Comments

Obamamania, that is. I’m about 90% sure I’m voting for him, because at the end of the day I’m (moderately) left of center, but I’ll be voting for him the way most liberals voted for John Kerry in 2004: with a shrug, and a total lack of emotion.

I’m trying very hard to at least comprehend what has everyone else so jazzed up, but so much pro-Obama coverage confuses me. For example, I hear that he promises some new kind of politics that is cleaner and more honest than what we’ve got now. I may not like that, but that’s something I can get my head around. But as soon as I start to process that, I see this piece in the Sunday Times about how he and McCain represent “new” politicians because they come from the Senate, which is a change from an “old” model of governors (Carter, Clinton, Bush) and generals (Eisenhower).

Wrong. If we take the longview, we’ll realize that for most of US history, senators were the most likely presidential candidates. The 20C examples of presidents with executive, not legislative, experience was the change. Electing senators is old news: Abe Lincoln was a one-term Congressman, and from Illinois too. The contradictions go further–the article opens with a long lede about Lyndon Johnson and the kind of bargain politics he mastered as a senator, then used to pass a ton of legislation as President. But Johnson’s bargain politics was manifestly un-clean: it was the backroom dealing and verbal arm twisting of a DC insider. I kind of like Johnson, even if I think his policies were flawed, BECAUSE of that willingness to be forceful. The analogy might fit McCain, but using a HISTORICAL comparison to say Obama is a new politician, however, is just mind-boggling.

Then there’s the contradictions in the coverage of his recent international tour. Arguably, Obama’s biggest strength is that electing him would be a great PR move for America. That seems to be the gist of this blog post from Kevin Xu at Brown’s Watson Institute. But then, in the same post, titled “Obamamania around the world” Kevin reminds us that Obama has no foreign policy experience, so he should focus on the economy in this campaign. With all due respect to Kevin, who’s a good friend of mine, “Huh?”

That’s my biggest problem with Barack: not simply that it’s still unclear to me why I should vote for him, but that no one in his campaign or among his supporters is trying to bring his vision into focus. To ask for focus is an insult, a sign that I’m just an old fogey (keep in mind, I’m 21.) Instead, I’m asked to believe, to feel, to vote for some intangible inspiration–Kevin says Obama’s best foreign policy asset is that he “cares about people’s feelings.”

“Change we can believe in” just doesn’t get my political juices running, because I’ve never seen politics as an act of faith. If I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be seeing in the tea leaves, I have no way to evaluate if it’s there or not. Can anyone decipher?