Thursday, May 14, 2009

I Want To Be Me

I once wrote a script for a short film titled “The Year Nobody Gave.” It illustrated the tragic outcome if the money stopped coming to the particular charity that paid for the making of the film. It pointed out the terrible tragedy that would result for the recipients of the charity’s largesse. It was meant to scare the bejesus out of the good people who never gave to the charity and to encourage the regular givers to cough up more money.

I am reminded of that film by a number of recent solicitations on the phone, on the Internet and on the street corners to answer survey questions designed to discover my preferences for various products, political leanings and specific attitudes to this or that.

In other words, they want something from me. They want me to give them my personal treasure. I choose not to.

I never respond to these surveys. It is an act of rebellion. I refuse to have my preferences pigeonholed and numbers crunched into some statistical mish mash designed to create a strategy for some advertiser or politician to gain access to the pockets or votes of other people, myself included.

It is the results of these statistical surveys that determine pretty much everything that we buy, watch, listen to and vote for. Our behavior is tracked, parsed, coded, sliced and diced and categorized into every conceivable subset from our age, race, sex, geography, language, down into every personal detail of our daily doings. We are literally stripped naked, externally and internally. Our individuality is broken down into sub-atoms of attitude and preference. Our uniqueness has been erased by the tsunami of the marketers.

If this sounds like high dudgeon, it should. Even though I know that the statisticians have now put people like me into a new category marked rebellious, difficult and non-conforming, I take my stand strictly on the basis that it is nobody’s damned business what I prefer, what I eat, what I think, what I read, what I watch, what I listen to, what sexual preferences and fantasies turn me on, what I love and what I can’t stand. I hate the idea that everything that I am will become a statistic that will determine some mass activation of a product or an idea.

I am well aware that the powerful statistical survey industry will find ways to ridicule my revolutionary tone and come up with a thousand reasons why my attitude is counter productive to the mass culture and somehow destructive to our values and dangerous to our commercial and political system. They will point to the accuracy of their surveys and analysis and cite scientific evidence that underlines their theories.

From their point of view, the accuracy of their statistics proves their worth. They will claim that such statistics are the heart of game strategies. By their surveys and statistical analyses they claim they can predict future outcomes. If that is true, then we must have some built-in instinctual herd instinct gene, much like sheep, who are controlled by a few sheep dogs, who round us up, and lead us to be sheared or slaughtered.

It could be that most people want to be herded, told what to eat, vote, buy, do. It comes under the umbrella of “community.” Many people may really want to be like everyone else within their preset category. Billions of dollars are bet on such statistical outcome predictions. Game theory depends on it. Indeed, they may be right. So what?
I am probably an anomaly, outside the mainstream. Actually, I believe in community and am willing to observe tribal rules. I am not an outlaw, but I prefer being an outsider, a non-participant to these obvious manipulations. There are many people who don’t understand that they are being manipulated. Nor do they care. I do. It violates my sense of self.

There are certain inner boundaries that I consider sacrosanct. There is something inside me that cries out for my individuality. I do everything in my power not to be pigeonholed. I don’t want to tear down the structure, I just want to declare ownership of my secret private place and to keep it locked away from prying eyes and ears.

In another age such an attitude would by symptomatic of the once acclaimed label of “rugged individualism”, a term much derided in our contemporary world.

I keep wondering what would happen if none of us ever answered a single survey or gave away our inner treasuries, the core of ourselves. Indeed, I have often been tempted to answer such surveys by deliberately giving false testimony, but that seems a bit too aggressively sinister and telling deliberate lies goes against my grain.

I do recognize that this lofty ambition to preserve my individuality may be an exercise in futility. In today’s world the computer is the instrument of our personal revelation. Our statistics are being stolen from us. Big brother and sister are watching, listening and slotting us into categories. We are stripped naked, unarmed and undefended from the hucksters who, like ardent obsessive fisherman, troll to land us, strip us, bake and broil us to better consume our essence.

I realize this is a harsh indictment. Any software novice will tell you that we are being parsed and coded every time we power on our computer or land on a website. This means, that despite my highfalutin rebel cry, we are being perpetually monitored, analyzed and categorized.

Perhaps I am baying at the moon and there is no place to hide, although I am forever hopeful that technology will find a way to come up with an automatic blocking mechanism. Maybe they already have.

Which brings me back to the point of this essay. What would happen if nobody “gave”? What would happen if all of our thoughts and actions, our preferences, our yearnings, our hope and fears, our choice of products, politicians and pleasures were magically blocked? Would manufacturers suffer because they would not be able to know what would attract the buyer of the manufacturer’s product? Would politicians be unable to tailor their promises to specific categories of potential voters? Would financiers refuse to gamble on businesses that cannot “prove” their need by research and statistical analysis? Would advertising messages be too scattershot to be effective?

The fact is that even with the aggressive pursuit of profiling potential customers and voters, of researching every nook and cranny of our preferences, businesses still fail at an astounding rate, politicians lose, products come and go, and the laws of unintended consequences happen with remarkable repetitiveness.

What would happen if we kept our mouths zipped to any survey taker that crosses our path and managed to escape all surveillance methods on the Internet or wherever? Would the fragile pole which holds up the consuming tent collapse?

I offer no panaceas, no hopeful strategic hints. Maybe I’m just throwing pennies into a bottomless wishing well. Call me selfish, egocentric, delusionary.
Fire up Google and ask for “I want to be me…” lyrics. There are nearly fifty eight million hits in the index.

Nice to know I’m not alone.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How I Got The Idea For Banquet Before Dawn

This was my second novel. During my early years in Washington when I was in the Public Relations business, I ran a campaign for a man seeking to fill a Congressional Seat in Maryland. This was back in the early seventies. The country was in ferment. Neighborhoods were changing radically. Race riots had occurred in the late sixties in Washington and Baltimore. I witnessed them at first hand. At the time I owned a radio station in Baltimore.

The station studios were in the Penthouse of a building directly across the street from the Armory. From my window I could see National Guardsmen in uniform and armed. In the parking lot was an assortment of military vehicles. One had the sense that law and order was breaking down and the politicians could not control the government.

Not long before I had attended a veterans convention in Boston and an incident occurred that added to those elements that together triggered the idea for this novel. My wife and I entered a restaurant in downtown Boston with two friends, both representatives of the government, a state department official and military officer. There weren’t many patrons in the restaurant and we were enjoying a few rounds of drinks before dinner.

One of my friends began a conversation about Mayor Curley who had run Boston with an iron hand and had been recently convicted of corruption and was serving time in prison. Curley was an icon, especially to the Irish community, which at the time was the power elite that ran the city. Loyalty to Curley, despite the corruption scandal was still endemic. The Boston Irish loved Curley with an emotional fierceness that brooked no criticism.

My friend, buoyed by the booze was particularly virulent in his distaste for Curley and voiced his criticism loud enough to attract attention in the nearly empty restaurant.

As we talked, a policeman arrived and sat down in a conspicuous spot directly in our site line. He proceeded to unbutton the leather holster at his side displaying the handle of his firearm. We interpreted this action as a direct attempt at intimidation to answer the insult my friend had apparently made to his political hero.

The policeman sat there, staring at us throughout the meal. I recall being reminded of the book by Frank O’Connor titled “The Last Hurrah” a fictional account of Mayor Curley’s last campaign, a brilliant book that was made into an equally brilliant movie with Spencer Tracy playing the Mayor. Although it is hard to pinpoint the exact eureka moment when the germ of the idea for Banquet Before Dawn popped into my mind, but I am certain that it was these elements and memories that became the ingredients for the stew that nourished my imagination and created the story.

After all, the book is about an aging Irish politician from a Brooklyn district that was once predominantly Irish and the Congressman had always been a shoo-in for re-election. His district has undergone a swift and radical change, from Irish to Black. Not only had the racial content changed radically, his Irish base had disintegrated and he was suddenly confronted by the realization of his irrelevance. Although brilliant in his social skills and political savvy, he cannot relate to the new people and the new alliances. His political appearance at a traditional event in a Brooklyn hotel results in disastrous consequences and closes the coffin on his political career.

It was never optioned for a film, but one of my acquaintances the late Jason Robards, a superb actor of Irish ancestry read the book, loved it, related to and wanted to star in it if it was ever sold the movies. One day, perhaps, it may make it to the silver screen.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Next New Thing

Remember the title of that play “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off”? Sorry folks, its too late. The Internet has made our planet spin too fast. If you let go, you’re a dead duck and if you manage to hold on you never know where you are.

The days of leisurely contemplating and observing our world through the morning and evening newspapers is long gone. Even the broadcast media, at their fastest cannot keep up.

It is only on the Internet that we can be, for a nanosecond, slightly ahead of what is coming next. Turn away for a nanosecond and we are behind. That is the true definition of spin.

I am talking about what is commonly known as “news”, which means new information. News happens all the time. It is pervasive and ubiquitous. It has always been thus.

Once it was doled out through the strainer of agencies like newspapers, wire services, broadcast and other media who employed a vast network of truth checkers. Soon no one will be checking. Few are checking now. All strainers are being junked. There is no time. Attention must be squeezed into the nanosecond. Can the human brain move that fast? One wonders.

If I’ve lost you, try below.

Something momentous occurs on the planet, Antarctica, Saigon, Baghdad, Cleveland, Washington, wherever. It is instantly reported by somebody somewhere. It travels around the world in nanoseconds. It sets off an avalanche of opinions, analysis, by a vast army, uncounted millions, who crowd the blogosphere and social networking sites convinced that others are entitled to their opinions.

But before they can finish typing the first letter of their blogs and postings another event occurs, travels at warp speed around the world, making their thoughts instantly obsolete. The mortality of their opinions is instant. A happening is barely a blink.

The accuracy of this fast moving information is impossible to assess as to its truth or validity. There is no longer any mechanism to find out. Only opinions, conjecture, and words, words, words spinning relentlessly.
A case in point.

Swine flu. It is a new strain. Someone on the Internet says it has jumped from pigs to humans. Someone suggests pandemic. Someone blogs about the 1918 flu which killed millions. The Internet is flooded with opinions, suggestions, and dire predictions. A Vice-President warns people not to take public transportation. People become uneasy, frightened, demand government intervention. Governments intervene. It may or may not be the right thing to do. I am not taking sides, since I am also uneasy. The point I am making is that the speed of the information comes in nanoseconds.

Hard on its heels is other news. The Chrysler bankruptcy and its implications, the dire news from Afghanistan, the economy, a supreme court justice resigns, a senator changes parties, the Taliban threat in Pakistan, the crisis in Darfur, the crisis in Sri Lanka, the nuclear threat from North Korea and Iran, bombings in Baghdad, and ever onward. All these events are followed by battalions of bloggers, squadrons from the Huffington Post, (huffing and puffing) from Politico, from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and its ancillary opiners, and the twitterers and their related herd, millions of them, pontificating, arguing, hating, insulting, approving.

Tell me you know who to believe and I’ll call you a liar. No one knows. Few, if any have checked. Gossip rules. Rumors swirl. Many insist they know for sure. We are all buried under an ever-growing mountain of bullshit.

Things happen so fast, that one can barely remember what has gone before. And even if the bloggers, the posters, the talking heads, the politicians, the pundits, anyone who who is plugged into the Internet, of every age, sex, race, religion or whatnot is shouting his or her words on the fast spinning planet, they will all be quickly deleted and everyone will begin again, shoveling you know what against the tide.

Indeed, we are living in a totally new paradigm. Master that perpetually spinning paradigm for your own personal ends and you are a genius.

The best example of this genius is our President Barack Obama. I mean no disrespect. I am in awe of his achievement. He is the essence of the truly successful modern man. Nor is this in any way a political judgment. Whatever he advocates is irrelevant to his navigational skills.

In his two memoirs, he has envisioned himself. With extraordinary talent, he created the way he wanted to be perceived. Comfortable with his natural gifts for charm and oratory, his story and his natural persona, he found his niche and with astonishing speed convinced people that he had the right skills and intellectual muscle, the best tone, the greatest story, to become the man he had envisioned himself. His timing was pristine. He had found the perfect moment.

He pushed all the right levers. He understood the essence of the Internet and its touchstone, the next new thing. He embodied it.

Think of this. With the exception of his two extraordinary books, he wrote nothing more of note. He didn’t have to. We knew little about him except what he told us. Aside from that he had no record to speak of, no other writing, no long career in politics, no foreign experience.

His life story as he has told it is an anomaly. It touches every experience that social scientists point to as the prime cause for failure in life. Despite his white mother, he is perceived as racially black. He comes from a broken home. His father abandoned him when he was an infant. His mother died early in his life. He was raised by grandparents. His name suggests foreignness. Such a background is common in the impoverished population.

He is absolutely correct as recorded in the new book by the majority leader of the Senate Harry Reid who quotes Obama as saying. “I have a gift.” Indeed, above all else, he has the gift of self-awareness and believes in his soul that he is worthy of his role and qualified to pursue it. Without such confidence nothing is achieved. He has single handedly convinced others who he believes he is and has climbed the pinnacle of world politics. It is an extraordinary achievement.

Having found the secret of getting there, he must now discover the secret of staying there. Will the same Internet model work? Can he continue to be the next new thing again and again? Like the rest of us he can’t stop the world. And he can’t get off. Besides I don’t think he wants to do either. He knows how to live in the environment of spin. He is at home.

He is in sync with the vast pool of people who have mastered the relentless spin of the Internet. He knows the secrets of multi-tasking and the limits of attention span. He is addicted to his blackberry. He knows his audience and they know him. They are his people. They are in the multi-millions. Like the Internet, they cross borders. That is why you see vast crowds cheering him overseas.

When you are multi-tasked, agile minded, and have trained yourself to live with spin, you can believe that all things are possible. Hope never runs out. You know that there will always be the next new thing.

In the midst of the primary campaign, I met a journalist who adamantly predicted that Obama would win the presidency. I asked him why he was so dead certain.
“Because Obama is the next new thing,” he told me.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he said.
I saw.

There are those who say that as President he is overexposing himself. No way. He is using the Internet model exactly the right way, presenting himself as new every chance he gets. Before the bloggers can blog one thing he is on to another.

Actually, I believe these multiple burdens and crises afflicting the country and the world, will, in the long run, be a boon to his presidency. He will be able to thrust and parry, act and react, proceed to the next new thing, relentlessly, cautiously, cool and purposefully. The new next thing is the essence of optimism.

As we go forward in time, he will offer the next new thing over and over again. If the next new thing is faulty, there will be yet another next new thing and people will not remember the once new thing because it will be supplanted by the new next new thing.

I’m sure you’re confused. Not the President. He is an expert in the next new thing.
It sure works for him. Will it work for the rest of us?
I hope so.