Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Post on the Paid-Speaking Circuit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, July 17, 2017

Obama Speaking Fees Redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay now, brace yourself, here it comes:

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Obama Drunk the Speaking Fees Kool-Aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 14, 2017

Post Truth, Alternate Facts, & Fake News

Given my previous post, Information Overload vs. Facts and Truth, and more importantly, given all that's been going on over the past year and more, it is only fitting that I share here on Blog Time Passing a panel discussion that I organized on behalf of the New York Society for General Semantics (which, as you may recall, I have been serving as president of for the past year and more).  

Here's the write-up as it appears over on the NYSGS site:

On February 8th, we held a panel discussion on the theme of post-truth, alternate facts, and fake news, all subjects of great interest within the discipline of general semantics, and issues that general semantics can help to solve. These three relatively recent coinages may be viewed as symptoms of a larger concern that our culture is in crisis, making this particular topic especially vital to try to understand.

Participants on this background hailed from a variety of backgrounds, making for an especially lively and insightful discussion about science, journalism, philosophy, and language. Here is the list of panelists:

Babette Babich, Professor of Philosophy, Fordham University

Peter Brown, Science Writer and former Editor-In-Chief of The Sciences, and Natural History, and member of Scientific American's Editorial Board.

Katherine Fry, Professor of Media Studies and Chair of the Department of Television and Radio, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

Paul Thaler, Professor of Communications, Adelphi University

Moderator: Lance Strate, NYSGS President & Professor of Communication & Media Studies, Fordham University

And here is the description of the program:

Post-Truth, Alternate Facts, & Fake News:

Our Culture in Crisis

On November 8th of last year, Election Day in the United States, Oxford Dictionaries announced its word of the year: post-truth. The selection represents a response to both the American presidential election campaign and Great Britain's Brexit vote.

Over the past year, the phrase fake news has also been frequently invoked, especially in regard to online communications and social media.

On January 22nd of this year, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway used the phrase alternate facts during a Meet the Press interview.

Modern science and journalism both are based on the ideal of objectivity, that we can gather data about our environment, examine the evidence available to us, and evaluate facts and claims regarding reality. General semantics is based on the understanding that scientific method can be applied to human communication, thought, and action, to the benefit of individuals, and humanity as a whole.

There is nothing new, however, about the idea that we have lost all sense of cultural coherence, that we are subject to all manner of Orwellian doublespeak, or that public discourse has been trivialized by an emphasis on sensation and amusement.

But, have we turned a corner over the past year, as the emergence of terminology like post-truth, alternate facts, and fake news might seem to suggest? Have we reached a crisis point in our culture regarding the role of rationality and reality-testing? Are we on the verge of the kind of dystopian society commonly depicted in so many of our recent young adult novels?

Or is there hope? And are there ways of coping and strategies for fighting for the future that can be adopted by writers, journalists, educators, and citizens?

 And yes, the session was recorded, we have the video, it's over on YouTube if you prefer watching it over there, or you can just scroll on down and watch it right here:

A fascinating discussion, if I do say so myself, and one every bit as relevant half a year later, if not more so!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Information Overload vs. Facts and Truth

So, back on April 14th, I was the main guest on Connecticut's public radio program, Where We Live, for an installment entitled Information Overload: Finding The Facts And Knowing The Truth In The Digital Age, hosted by David Desroches and produced by Jeff Tyson. 

I've been on the program several times in the past, courtesy of producer Catie Talarski and former host John Dankowsky, but this was the first time in a while, with David Desroches filling in as host, and with producer Jeff Tyson as my primary contact. It was also the first time that I did my part from the WFDU studio at Fairleigh Dickinson University's Teaneck, NJ campus (where I used to teach courses for their MA program in Media and Professional Communication). 

Here's the write-up on the program from their website:

Ever since the Presidential election we’ve heard the buzzwords—“echo-chamber,” “facts,” “alternative facts.” More than ever our country is divided by how we get our information and what we see as the “truth.” Even reality itself has become debatable.

What’s the difference between a fact and the truth? And if people can’t agree on what a fact is, what does that mean for a democratic society?

This hour, we tackle big questions with big thinkers in the age of digital news.

We try to understand just how the complex world of information we live in today has evolved. And we explore how critical thinking and news literacy can help us wade through information overload.

Has the internet and social media shaped the way you understand truth? Or, how about your understanding of what’s real or fake?

Unfortunately, I can't embed the sound file here on Blog Time Passing, but you can go on over to their site to listen to the 49 minute program. Some of the content may be familiar to folks who know me, and/or general semantics and media ecology, but this is more of an interactive format, and there's always something new that emerges out of these events.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Fear and Hope on the Fourth of July

Just in time for our Independence Day, I thought I'd share my latest op-ed for the Jewish Standard. The title as it originally appeared in the June 30th issue, is Fear and Mostly Hope on the Fourth of July (the "mostly" having been added by the editor to give my piece a more positive spin). So anyway, here it is, fireworks (metaphorically speaking) and all:

It was the summer of 1974, I had just graduated high school and was looking forward to starting my first year of college in the fall, and I had been accepted into a special summer program called Torah Corps, sponsored by what was then known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism. It was an intensive learning experience for a small group of students, all of whom had just completed 10th, 11th, or 12th grade. Most of us were from the United States, but the group also included several students from Canada.

The program was held at a lodge in Littleton, New Hampshire, and I well recall how we all gathered around the lone television set available to us on the night of August 8 to watch President Richard Nixon deliver a speech to the nation. We knew that he was in trouble over the Watergate scandal, but it still came as a tremendous shock when he uttered the words, “I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.” We vocalized our sense of dismay at this unprecedented development collectively, through gasps and cries and the like. At least those of us who were Americans did so, in response to what we perceived to be a somber and tragic event. But in a somewhat irreverent manner, one of the Canadians started to say, “Yitgadal v’yitkadash…”

Reciting the first few words of our Mourner’s Kaddish did succeed in breaking some of the tension of the situation and injecting a note of humor. But many of us were not amused. There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, and this was a time to shed a tear, not for Nixon himself but for the way in which he had tarnished the institution of the presidency and tried to undermine the democratic process.

And yet, somehow, we survived Watergate and moved forward as a nation. Just as we had survived the assassination of John F. Kennedy 11 years earlier. Apart from the loss of idealism and proliferation of conspiracy theories, some commentators started to point to historical parallels between the United States, characterized at that time by the intensifying social and political unrest of the 1960s, and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. This especially was the case after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 at the hands of a Palestinian immigrant, Sirhan Sirhan, just two months after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white supremacist, James Earl Ray.

The decades that followed certainly were not free from scandal. Ronald Reagan gave us Iran-Contra and Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about the Monica Lewinsky affair, narrowly avoiding a conviction and removal from office. But neither event seemed to threaten the viability of the American republic as a whole, and in between we witnessed the sudden collapse of the Communist bloc, first in Eastern Europe and culminating with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The end of European Communism came about so quickly that it seemed almost unbelievable. We celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the coming of freedom and democracy to Russia, and presumably to the other former Soviet republics (prematurely in some cases). Some wondered what would happen to the United States without its one-time adversary serving as a foil and contrast. And some even wondered if the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union might be followed by an equally sudden collapse of the West at a later date.

But for the most part, we emitted a collective sigh of relief at what some philosophers referred to as the end of history, that is, the triumph of liberal democracy.

But we also live with a historical consciousness that has been rare in human history. As the late Elizabeth Eisenstein explained, the ready availability of books, pamphlets, and periodicals, made possible by the printing revolution that began in the 15th century, eventually resulted in widespread awareness of the chronology of calendar time. (Calendars also were produced by printing.) Especially starting in the 19th century, more and more people came to recognize and understand their place in world history. As limited as the historical knowledge of the average American may be, everyone learns about the years 1492 and 1776. And we study history in grade school, and learn about our Civil War, and other events such as the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, the scandals associated with the Ulysses S. Grant administration, and the Teapot Dome scandal during Warren G. Harding’s presidency.

At a time when we are witnessing an unprecedented number of scandals and improprieties associated with the White House, and the election of Donald J. Trump has been described by some as an extinction level event for American democracy, history may offer some solace by reminding us that our republic has weathered many storms in the past. And on this Fourth of July, at a time when many of us fear for the future of our country, I think it only fitting to recall the fact that we have survived the legal, moral, and ethical failings of more than a few of our elected officials, and that we have done so while expanding civil liberties, human rights, and the rule of law.

Taking the long view of American history gives us cause to be optimistic. At the same time, taking the much longer view of Jewish history can provide a somewhat different perspective, as we have seen the great nations and empires of the past come and go over the millennia. We, the Jewish people, have seen the rise and fall of great powers, and from that deep historical consciousness we know that nothing in the temporal realm lasts forever, not even the American republic that we love so much. And so, we cannot so easily dismiss the possibility that the end is nigh. Or the understanding that we just don’t know when the end might come, or if it might come as suddenly as it did for the Communist bloc and the USSR.

Once, long ago, I attended a lecture given by a major scholar and intellectual, and during the question and answer session, he was asked if he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future. His answer stuck with me, because it expresses my own sense of ambivalence. He said that on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays he was an optimist, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays he was a pessimist. Or was it the other way around?

Either way, for this Fourth of July, I think it only fitting to be an optimist, and to underscore the resilience of our republic. We have seen dark times in the past, and survived, and if we the people are willing and able, and with the help of divine providence, our great Enlightenment experiment will continue for generations to come.

May it be so.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Media Literacy and Media Ancestry

So, last year media literacy maven Renee Hobbs published an anthology she edited entitled, Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy Through Personal Narrative through Temple University Press. The volume includes a chapter I wrote for Renee on Marshall McLuhan, in case you were wondering. Here's the write-up for the volume:

Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative provides a wide-ranging look at the origins, concepts, theories, and practices of the field. This unique, exciting collection of essays by a range of distinguished scholars and practitioners offers insights into the scholars and thinkers who fertilized the minds of those who helped shape the theory and practice of digital and media literacy education.

Each chapter describes an individual whom the author considers to be a type of "grandparent." By weaving together two sets of personal stories⏤that of the contributing author and that of the key ideas and life history of the historical figure under their scrutinymajor concepts of digital media and learning emerge.

And here is the Table of Contents:

Introduction ■ Renee Hobbs

1 Historical Roots of Media Literacy ■ Renee Hobbs
2 David Weinberger on Martin Heidegger ■ David Weinberger
3 Lance Strate on Marshall McLuhan ■ Lance Strate
4 Dana Polan on Roland Barthes ■ Dana Polan
5 Cynthia Lewis on Mikhail Bakhtin ■ Cynthia Lewis
6 Srividya Ramasubramanian on Gordon Allport ■ Srividya Ramasubramanian
7 Michael RobbGrieco on Michel Foucault ■ Michael RobbGrieco
8 Gianna Cappello on Theodor Adorno ■ Gianna Cappello
9 Douglas Kellner on Herbert Marcuse ■ Douglas Kellner
10 Henry Jenkins on John Fiske ■ Henry Jenkins
11 Amy Petersen Jensen on Bertolt Brecht ■ Amy Petersen Jensen
12 Donna E. Alvermann on Simone de Beauvoir ■ Donna E. Alvermann
13 Jeremiah Dyehouse on John Dewey ■ Jeremiah Dyehouse
14 Renee Hobbs on Jerome Bruner ■ Renee Hobbs
15 Vanessa Domine on Neil Postman ■ Vanessa Domine
16 Peter Gutierrez on Scott McCloud ■ Peter Gutierrez
17 Susan Moeller on Roland Barthes ■ Susan Moeller

Epilogue ■ Renee Hobbs

And you may notice that the title of each chapter follows a strict formula, so I want to stress that this was not a bit of narcissism on my part. In fact, the title I had given for my essay, not knowing that it would take this final form, was, "The Medium, the Message, and Me: Marshall McLuhan and Media Education" (just so you know).

By the way, Renee's Introduction to the volume can be read online on the Temple University Press's website. And of course the book itself is available for purchase there, and on Amazon:


And just recently, Renee launched a website entitled Grandparents of Media Literacy that you might want to go check out. Here's the welcome message:

Welcome to the Grandparents of Media Literacy website! You can explore the many people who have influenced the field of media literacy through their work, ideas and creative contributions. These intellectual grandparents may come from fields including philosophy, sociology, literature and more. You can contribute to the website by uploading information about an author, scholar or creative individual whose work influenced your own. You can also share your own story of how an intellectual grandparent influenced your work in media literacy.

And here is some further explanation of the site:


Reflect on your experience with media, technology, society and culture and think about the writers, artists, filmmakers and others who have influenced your work in media literacy. People with interests in media literacy come from a variety of fields, including writing and composition, media psychology, literacy education, technology in society, sociology, cultural studies, media studies, and communication arts. As an transdisciplinary topic, media literacy scholars and practitioners do not all share the same foundational knowledge. We do not all rely on the same canonical texts that "tell the story" of our shared values and beliefs.

Personal storytelling can help people discover how we have been influenced by the generation of scholars and thinkers who came before us. Anyone can upload an intellectual grandparent, providing information about their work that will enable readers to understand their key ideas and contributions. Anyone can share a story about any grandparent, explaining "how they influenced you." Through this website, we aim to discover threads of previously overlooked connection to understand the subjectively-experienced history of media literacy education around the world.

So, anyone can sign up, log in, and leave their comments and stories. As one of the contributors to the anthology, there's a page already set up for me. Not the best photo of me, but what can you do? And there's an excerpt from my chapter that can be found under the profile set up for McLuhan, along with any other comments left by others (as of this writing, there's one other comment on McLuhan). It can also be found on my page, under "Stories" and, why not, right here as well:

The experience of suddenly getting McLuhan has been described as akin to a religious experience by some or in more general terms as an epiphany; to use a term popular during the sixties, I was able to grok McLuhan (grok was coined by the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land to refer to an extreme form of understanding and empathy). In visual terms, it was the kind of experience depicted in comic strips of a light bulb being switched on over a character’s head, which would certainly be fitting, given that McLuhan argued that electric technology and electronic media constituted the basis of a revolution that was reversing the course of some three millennia of Western civilization.

Television was the specific electronic medium that had pushed our culture over the edge, he argued, and one of the characteristics of television was its low resolution image, which McLuhan compared to that of the printed cartoon, which elevated the comics medium in importance (see Scott McCloud’s insightful, McLuhan-inspired graphic nonfiction, Understanding Comics [1993]).

This idea had no small significance for me because I had been reading comics since before I could read (my parents read them to me), despite the fact that the hybrid medium was often disparaged by teachers and others arguing in defense of elitist literary culture. The fact that comics crossed—or, if you like, transgressed—the boundary between literate and pictorial media contributed to my own developing awareness of differences among media, differences in their biases towards different types of content, differences in their effects on the ways we think, feel, act, perceive, and organize ourselves, differences that McLuhan famously summed up by saying, “The medium is the message” (1964, p. 7).

The image of a light bulb turning on is a visual metaphor for an idea (the word is derived from the Greek term for seeing) and perhaps the most basic way of describing the effect of my reading The Medium Is the Massage was that I was suddenly able to see the world from an entirely new perspective (in addition to being a field or intellectual tradition, media ecology has often been referred to as a perspective, although I prefer to use approach in order to avoid the visual metaphor). Or, to invoke Aldous Huxley’s well-known phrase, used to describe his experiments with hallucinogens, the “doors of perception” suddenly opened for me. The reference to perception is particularly significant because McLuhan’s specific approach to media ecology emphasized the primary role that sensory organs play in our thought processes.

Although there are differences between media literacy and media ecology, there is some significant overlap, as can be seen by the inclusion of Neil Postman as well as Marshall McLuhan in the anthology, as well as comics creator and theorist Scott McCloud. And depending on who you ask, other "grandparents" such as Heidegger, Barthes, Bakhtin, Foucault, Brecht, Dewey, and Bruner would also be characterized as media ecologists (not that anyone on that list would necessarily be excluded). 

The Grandparents website itself is an interesting experiment in fostering participation in this project, and perhaps exploring possibilities for a second edition or volume of the anthology. So I would certainly recommend it to you, to at least go take a look, and maybe even sign up, log on, and share your stories.