Previous month:
March 2012
Next month:
May 2012

Just the words fit to Tweet

Twitter-bird-pic-follow-me"Message discipline" is one of the firmest tenets of politics. But to really work, it has to be in pursuit of the right message.

So operatives in both parties probe voters to find just the right issue hot button, then they turn the results over to message meisters who are skilled in distilling just the right combination of words to set people off.

Those words get worked into speeches, interviews, and Tweets until everyone is in a froth. Then they move on to the next set of magic words. Watch enough MSNBC and Fox News and the words are obvious.

The current set is "Obama is the most divisive president in history." Ed Gillespie wheeled those words out on behalf of the Romney campaign just yesterday on "Meet the Press." He made the comment in reaction to an Obama campaign ad praising the president's action in tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden.

But other members of the GOP have been using the identical words for months. Mitch McConnell in February; Judd Gregg in January. It has even been showing up in my email.

Now, to be honest, I could quote similar message management on the Democratic side, though they tend to be a far less disciplined lot. But this all smacks of a futile exercise in figuring out "who started it" and I gave that up when my kids reached adulthood.

While it's true that few politicians have yet to reach that level of maturity, the exercise still seemed futile. But now  two accomplished political observers on the right and left sides of the political aisle have come to our rescue.

In a Washington Post article well worth your time, Thomas E. Mann, of the leftish Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein of the rightish American Enterprise Institute convincingly pin the blame on Republicans.

"We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional," they write. "In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.

"The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

There's lots more. Take a look.

The winner isn't...

BooksAuthor and budding bookstore owner Ann Patchett was understandably bummed that the Pulitzer Board didn't grant any awards for best fiction this year.

There are lots of reasons to share her disappointment, whether you are an author or a reader. (I doubt I'll ever have a book make even the preliminary list, but I've read a lot of books that deserve consideration.)

But Patchett hit on the best reason -- awards like the Pulitzer give good books more exposure, which leads to their being more widely read, and that's good for society not just publishers and booksellers.

"Reading fiction is important," she wrote in the New York Times. "It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings."

Indeed, surveys show that empathy is declining among college students. Many tie that to a similar decline in their reading habits. All of which is a real problem.  

As primatologist Franz DeWaal noted in The Age of Empathy, "Empathy for ‘other people’is the one commodity the world is lacking more than oil.”


Bias under the hood

Trayvon_martinYou couldn't find a better endorsement for OtherWise than what's been going on down in Florida.

Whatever the full circumstances turn out to be, Trayvon Martin's killing was clearly instigated by one man's inability to see beyond race and hoodie.

As Brent Staples noted in the Sunday New York Times, "Young black men know that in far too many settings they will be seen not as individuals, but as the 'other,' and given no benefit of the doubt."

They know -- and studies have confirmed -- that they suffer from negative associations embedded in popular culture and folk wisdom for centuries. We are all more biased towards young black men than we'd like to admit. 

As a result, young black men are less likely to land a job than young white men with similar educations, less likely to get married, more likely to be stopped for a "record check" when driving, and more likely to be frisked by the police. 

Many of those who marched for justice in this case carried signs saying "I am Trayvon Martin."

Sadly, too many of us could also carry signs saying "I'm George Zimmerman."


Job progression

LumberjackYou can take a longer view of life in semi-retirement.

For example, I used to think of job progression in terms of my own career, i.e., moving from AV specialist to something more significant and satisfying.

Now, I view it in terms of my kids and grandkids. I'd like them to have even happier lives. And, since a good part of their lives will be spent at work, I'd like them have even more satisfying careers.

According to, a job-search web site, public relations -- in which I spent most of my career -- ranks #70 on a list of best and worst jobs.  That's right between industrial machine repairer (#69) and medical laboratory technician (#71), but way better than lumberjack, #200.

Some of my ancestors were lumberjacks so it's nice to know that eleven generations later I moved the family up the list.

Number 1 is software engineer, and I have high hopes that one of my three grandsons will dream up the next Google or Facebook.  

Meanwhile, I'm doing my bit. Since retiring, I have slid back on the list of best and worst jobs.  

Author ranks only 113. That leaves plenty of head room for my kids and grandkids.

Pink Slime

Pink-slimeI missed all the pink slime oozing through the news media recently.

(If you have been living under the same rock as me, "pink slime" is the name given to the small shreds of meat that are separated from the discarded fat and viscera of slaughtered cows in giant centrifuges. It's then passed through gases that kill harmful bacteria and mixed with other ground meat. The USDA approved the process, but a disenting inspector dubbed it "pink slime," and when the practice became public, great controversy ensued.)  

A friend brought all this to my attention because she is using it in a communications class she teaches.

As she described the situation, it did seem to have all the elements of a classic case in crisis communications.

An industry is caught trying to hide its practices behind the veil of obfuscating euphemisms (call it "lean finely textured beef" or, better yet, "LFTB").

Politicians rush to the industry's defense (the governors of the beef-raising and slaughtering states of Texas, Kansas, and Iowa toured one of the LFTB factories and ate an LFTB hamburger for the media's benefit).

Social media generate a level of attention the lamestream media couldn't (the New York Times ran articles on the practice as long ago as 2009, but it didn't capture anyone's attention until some angry consumer Tweets went viral).

In self-defense, the industry has been buying up Google ad words to direct anyone searching "pink slime" to their own web site

I can see how this could fill classes in everything from rhetoric to ethics and politics, not to mention the culinary arts.

But to me the real lesson is more basic -- it's amazing what you can accomplish when you appeal to people's most basic instincts. In this case, that would be our natural feelings of disgust when confronted with something disagreeable, like viscera.

It's in the same category as Jonathan Haidt's masters thesis on eating the family dog, which kicked off his prolific career studying the sources of human morality.

The USDA has declared pink slime "safe to eat." It seems to me that it's fine to question that finding, using as much scientific data as one can muster.

And I don't blame vegetarians for objecting to the consumption of animals on ethical grounds. They are at least consistent in not seeing much difference between eating pink slime and a porterhouse steak.   

Nor do I have much of an argument with the likes of PETA and other activists who object to the way some animals are treated in stock yards and food factories. They at least are concerned with the treatment of animals while they are senient beings, not simply at the final stages of processing.

But much of this controversy seems to rest of the exploitation of people's basest instincts.

That in itself is kind of slimy.


Your caste or mine?

Castes.001Interesting op ed in the New York Times' "Sunday Review." 

It resurrects a 2006 Duke University study that asked people in Durham, N.C., about their racial attitudes.

The researchers basically asked the respondents -- 160 whites, 151 blacks, and 167 Hispanics -- which racial group they felt they had the most in common with. 

Blacks and whites were just about as likely to pick each other's group. Nearly half of whites said they had more in common with blacks than with other racial groups. Blacks felt pretty much the same way, although about as many felt they had more in common with Hispanics.  

But Hispanics were nearly five times as likely to say they had more in common with whites than with blacks. In fact, more than half of Hispanics (53%) said they felt they had the least in common with blacks. 

The six year-old study assumed new relevance in light of the recent killing of Trayvon Martin. The victim, of course, was a young black man. Less well publicized is that his accused killer is Hispanic. George Zimmerman's mother is Peruvian. 

Indeed, so many Hispanics immigrants have moved into central Florida they are now the area's dominant minority group.  The author of the Times' op ed suggests that they, like past immigrants, "may feel pressed to identify with the dominant caste and distance themselves from blacks, in order to survive."

That may be the social context of this tragedy. Or it may simply be another example of what the Washington Post's DeNeen Brown termed "the crazy aunt in the attic of racism" -- colorism, a deep-seated preference for lighter colored skin that seems to afflict all cultures, even within communities of color.

For example, many Hispanic women remember their mother shouting, “Ya salte del sol, te vas a poner muy negra” (“Get out of the sun, you will get too dark”).

Mamá seemed to intuitively know what studies have conclusively shown – light-skinned Latinas are twice as likely to marry as their darker-complexioned sisters.

And Harvard’s test of implicit bias indicates that Indians and Indian Americans are even more prejudiced than Whites on issues of skin tone.

All of which may help explain why more than half of skin care sales in India are for whitening. And why, worldwide, sales of skin lightening products are projected to reach $10 billon by 2015.  

It's that crazy aunt whispering in all our ears. And perpetuating an ancient caste system in the process.