or this absurd. Just when you think you've seen bizarre things, along comes The Nietzsche Family Circus, a site that uses random Nietzsche quotes as captions for random "Family Circus" cartoons. The laff riot starts here. (Thanks to a Facebook friend for pointing to the site.)
the sea life and human livelihoods of the Gulf of Mexico. It is affecting the political ecosystem as well.
Biologists say the ecological damage we are now seeing in dead animals and ruined habitats is just the beginning (WaPo 5/27). As things get worse, greater human consequences will follow (think seafood and tourism, huge factors in the Gulf economy). Not to mention the unknown ripple effects of such an environmental catastrophe on human health, globally migrating sea animal populations, and the national and international economy. Having surpassed the Exxon Valdez disaster now that BP's fig-leaf estimates have been yanked aside, the BP spill is taking on biblical proportions.
And the tide of oil is further undercutting the credibility of President Obama.
To be sure, the administration of Dick Cheney (and that sidekick what's-his-name) ran a legal payola scheme in the Minerals Management Service (MMS) that was second to none. But Obama -- who inherited an MMS whose officials legally collected bonuses from oil and gas leases while allegedly regulating those very leases(!!) -- still showed little interest in "change" until a publicly-visible disaster changed the PR landscape.
Now, suddenly, Obama's administration calls for separating MMS's leasing and enforcement arms, the President talks tough about clamping down on industry's disregard for safety and its cozy relationship with government regulators, and MMS head S. Elizabeth Birnbaum "resigns" after ugly details of her agency's corrupt culture come to light. But here is what her boss, Bold Reformer Obama, had to say about oil industry practices just 18 days before the BP spill, when he confidently called for expansion of offshore drilling: "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced." (WaPo, 5/27)
Obama has already, deservedly, lost trust and gained contempt for failing to lead on both meaningful health care reform and fair resolution of the Wall Street bank job. His quisling tolerance of the brazen tryst between government and big oil, and his shyness in using his powers except that of on-camera eloquence since the spill, have now earned him more of the same. That is something he cannot blame on George W. Bush. As Maureen Dowd put it in her NYT piece this week, "The laconic president is once more giving too much deference and trust to rapacious corporate scoundrels and failing to swiftly grasp and articulate the alarm of Americans."
This is not Change We Can Believe In, nor, seemingly, is it a president who can be believed. We will hear plenty of artful bluster from Obama in the coming weeks as the casualties of the BP spill become clearer. But left to his own devices, I think, Obama will ultimately spearhead little change that matters beyond the slam-dunk compulsion to divide the MMS. If he musters the will to do much more, it will be as a result of, tragically, having a massive Gulf spill kill to use as political cover.
My friend and ex-ad-agency-boss Drew Babb has put together a packaged reel (and a talk) that he calls The 100 Greatest TV Spots of All Time. He recently showed it to me. It's killer. It includes the classic Volkswagen Bug "funeral procession" spot; the Alka Seltzer "Mama mia, thatsa spicy meatball" spot; one of the outrageous Isuzu "liar" spots; and a ton more, both vintage and recent, that you may or may not fondly remember. I'd put up links to them, but YouTube won't talk to my computer until I've finished replacing my Flintstones-era operating system. Drew's site, though, has great capsules of each of the 100 spots here.
In addition to dropping me to the floor with laughter (and sometimes moving me), this greatest-hits reel got me to thinking about what separates the ads we like from those we ignore or even hate.
To me, the best ads give a believable reason (whether it's true or not is another question) for us to like, or look at, the product, and they also leave us feeling something that makes us remember what they said. The worst ads do neither, and are usually driven by the egos of clients or ad agencies (or both) who stupidly presume that their chosen message is irresistibly captivating just because it's what they want to say. In my years at ad agencies I was in too many of those meetings, and, sadly, I made some of those bad ads.
My all-time favorite commercials to watch -- the ones that I think really worked -- include the old Lite Beer spots (they were funny, they sold beer, and the tag line, "Everything you always wanted in a beer. And less," was everything you wanted in a slogan); the more recent Budweiser "Wassup" spot (a perfect pitch to the brotherhood of Bud drinkers); the timeless spoken "Double-A (BEEP-BEEP!) M-C-O" slogan for AAMCO car servicing, which might be the best mnemonic ad device I have ever heard; and the Centrum vitamins tag line, "From A to Zinc," which pretty much says it all.
I don't think it's fair to claim that commercials today are worse than they used to be. In a lot of ways, the ad sharpies doing the creative today are more clever, and are for certain better-informed, than ever. With a long and painful history of TV spots like the old Geritol commercial where a smug husband intoned, "My wife. I think I'll keep her," and the Imperial margarine commercials where shining crowns suddenly appeared on people's heads at the dinner table, it is hard to argue that there were ever any Good Old Days. What I think is true, though, is that today's mega-financed cable and satellite and Internet media have so crammed our space with jabbering messages that exhausted marketers have begun to run out of language. An anonymous blur of meaningless corporate incantations has ensued, largely accepted by marketing directors as the lingo of "positioning," and largely ignored by an overloaded and under-inspired public.
One stinky example among many is the current tag line for the computer company Oracle: "Software. Hardware. Complete." Ugh. Okay, yeah, we get it that software firm Oracle, having just bought hardware company Sun Microsystems, wants people to know that it now sells everything. But what in that limping slogan is supposed to convey to us that this newly expanded company is smart, that it knows what customers need, and that it does the job better than anybody else? Sounds to me as if a sleepwalking copywriter (or worse, the Oracle marketing director him or herself) knocked out this puppy before lunch.
To be fair, the Oracle line, in its stupor, at least tells us what it sells. Contrastingly, take a look at this list of current or recent ad slogans -- courtesy of a cool database of ad tag lines -- and see if you have any clue what they are selling, who the company is, and why you should care. The answers follow.
and this is a big deal because it goes against some strong social conventions. In comments released on Vibe.com, King, who is black, said in part:
Of all groups of people, Black women are the least likely group of women that will date outside of their race. When you have everyone else who is willing to explore but a Black woman is like, “I want me a brother,” well, if the brothers are out and they’re open to date everybody and the majority of Black women aren’t willing to look twice when a man outside of their race is sending them messages, then that makes our percentage rate lower and the chances of finding love, because we’re only looking in one specific place for finding love—with Black men.
King is right, of course, and her advice is sound. Further, the ways in which black American women have long been spurned by racist white-centered standards of beauty, and cheated by the shortage (and sometimes the preferences) of available black men, make King's point even more self-evidently sensible. And beyond that, there is the simple truth that good partners come in all colors.
But the fact that we live in a society where a celebrity needs to implore anyone to consider the bold step of "dating outside of their race" is depressing as all hell.
The next person who claims to me that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow are "ancient history" is going to get pushed into a big chair and force-fed Chapter 7 of Cornel West's Race Matters and Chapter 4 of bell hooks' Outlaw Culture.
is a firestorm of an issue nationally right now. Like most issues, it has more than two sides. But there are two main, and incendiary, points of view on mayoral control.
One view, held (not surprisingly) by many mayors and city administrators, is that broken school systems call for drastic measures. Elected school boards, the argument goes, have had their chance and blown it: they have become hotbeds of cronyism, inept educational decision-making by elected amateurs, and outright corruption. Public schools are busted beyond the point where existing methods of governance can fix them, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. It is time, say these advocates of mayoral control, to try another way and put control of children's educations in the hands of appointed professionals.
The other major view, held by many community activists and educational policymakers, is that mayoral control of schools is inherently anti-democratic. It disenfranchises voters, strips parents of their direct power over educational leadership, and exerts a presumptively racist authority over largely black and Hispanic low-income communities served by urban school systems. The underlying message of mayoral school control, say many of its opponents, is that black and brown students and their communities can be treated as peons by well-connected and -monied political and corporate leaders who decide, on their own, what public schools need to do.
This struggle has played out in such places as New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and it is now unfolding in Rochester, New York, where I was born and raised. As an expatriate Rochesterian who visits often, I take both a native's and an outsider's interest in Rochester's role in the national mayoral school control wars.
Rochester Mayor and former police chief Bob Duffy -- a seemingly nice enough guy who appears to me to be a pretty dim bulb if you know what I mean -- is pulling out all the stops to put City Hall in control of the public schools, where the graduation rate is below 50 percent and parents are desperate for their kids to not become casualties. In a town that has traditionally had an elected school board, Duffy is on the stump, preaching the gospel of we have to try something different because we can't afford to lose any more kids. He is working this angle hard, appealing to the frustration of taxpayers (including parents) who are sick and tired of schools being in perpetual crisis. Part of the underlying but unspoken sentiment is, WTF, how much worse can it be if we try something else? Duffy appears to have the town's business and higher education leaders supporting him in his quest (or in this case maybe it's more accurate to say that they have Duffy speaking for them).
Trouble is, as with all desperate moves, trying something different can not only fail to make things better; it can make them worse. That is what community activists and many parents in Rochester, and other cities, are afraid of: a power grab by the Invisible Government (read: the local elite) that uses public panic over failing schools as a smokescreen for installing an educational monarchy. There is good reason for this fear. New York City's and Chicago's mayor-controlled school regimes look a lot to me like autocracies where the outcomes do not justify the means. Washington, D.C.'s now-mayor-controlled school system, on the other hand, appears to have empowered a supercharged school superintendent, Michelle Rhee, to passionately if imperfectly confront a broken and corrupt system out of a genuine concern for kids, parents, and results.
I don't have an either/or opinion about this. I can see how dissolving or disempowering an elected school board and allowing an elected mayor to choose who runs the schools can register as flagrantly anti-democratic, although one could point to appointed police and fire chiefs as precedents, and one could argue as well that voters ultimately get to keep or oust a mayor on the basis of his or her choices. I can also see, though, how a "democratically" elected school board system rife with favoritism and chaotic incompetence can be functionally anti-democratic in the sense that it cannot and will not deliver what voters and their children want and need.
It seems to me that in the national mayoral-control debate the most important questions about schools are still too often left unasked. I'd argue that turning failing schools around is less about the structure of governance than it is about how schools are run, period. A strong, dedicated school superintendent with the city administration behind him or her can improve schools, work with teachers and answer to parents. So can a school system overseen by an informed and principled school board. And, conversely, a school system can be betrayed and left for dead by an elected school board or a mayor-appointed school executive. Any entrenched power can shred the public interest. I've seen it happen, and so, no doubt, have you.
And let's not forget the nasty five-letter word lurking beneath this conflict: class. As in which communities within a city have the money to garner the respectful attention of the public school pooh-bahs. And which ones don't. I'll wager that a big chunk of citizens' rage over the looming loss of "democracy" has to do with the fact that an elected school board -- even a lousy, ineffective or dishonest one -- represents their best shot at feeling represented in a school system where middle-class professional parents are much likelier to get their calls to downtown returned or their requests granted than poor parents.
The real questions we need to be asking are: Why are public schools perpetually under-resourced while the so-called "growth" private sector sucks up huge tax breaks and other public giveaways for its assembly plants and hotels and office towers? And when are we going to truly address steady shortages in drug treatment, vanishing urban jobs, the over-criminalization of nonviolent offenses by the for-profit incarceration industry, the lack of a living wage, and other chronic problems that send hungry, traumatized children to public schools to be "taught" how not to be poor and angry?
In a town like Rochester, big enough to have all of these problems but too politically small-minded to date to face them squarely, I am not betting on a Mayor Bob Duffy for any such vision and leadership, any more than I am betting on any given school board in any given year. Let's hope that such leadership will soon emerge from those who see the true problems and recognize the radically necessary solutions. Until then, much of the arguing will be over flavors of failure.