Tuesday, September 30, 2008

This Day in Schadenfreude History

September 30, 1980
- Seattle pitcher Rick Honeycutt was thrown off the mound after umpires discovered a tack and a piece of sandpaper taped to his index finger. Embarrassed at having been caught, Honeycutt wiped his brow- forgetting for a moment that business about the tack. He left a bright red scratch across his forehead.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Schadenfreude Sighting of the Day

Headline in the Times of London: Critics of U.S. Gloat over Crumbling Capitalism

Some excerpts:

President Barrat Jagdeo of Guyana complained: “There is clear evidence that many of the standards and much of the scrutiny that are applied routinely to smaller countries were not applied to some larger countries which actually pose much greater systemic risk.”...

The financial crisis put actor Michael Douglas, who proclaimed “Greed is Good” the film “Wall Street”, in an awkward spot. Appearing at a press conference on nuclear disarmament, Douglas was asked about his role as Gordon Gekko. “Are you saying, Gordon, that greed is not good?” a reporter asked. “I’m not saying that,” Douglas replied. “And my name is not Gordon. He’s a character I played 20 years ago.”

Friday, September 26, 2008

My Favorite Post Debate Commentary

A one line comment on The Atlantic's web page:

"McCain had no flag pin while Obama wore one."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Those Bunny Ears Get Expensive

As we ponder how the old school celebrity schadenfreude (Paris Hilton, O.J. Simpson!) compares to the new schadenfreude (Morgan Stanley, AIG), finally there is a story that combines both.

A powerful magnate who made a grand show of his wealth is suffering financial losses and has to lay off... his Playboy Bunnies.

Yes, from The Telegraph comes this headline: Hugh Hefner to Sack Playboy Bunnies Amid Financial Crisis.

They couldn't have covered this story a year ago when I was writing Schadenfreude, Baby?

Germany's Dumbest Bank

Conde Nast Portfolio ran a story today with the headline "Credit Crisis Schadenfreude."

It quotes Germany's finance minister, Peer Steinbrück, saying that the credit crisis threatens the United States' status as a financial superpower.

"The United States will lose its status as the superpower in the world financial system," he said. "The world financial system will become more multipolar." (I would argue that this doesn't actually qualify as Schadenfreude, but as simple criticism and prediction, the real Schadenfreude is to come...)

Before you get too worried, I should note that German bankers do not seem to have a great knack for prediction. I remind you of an article I posted here in may.

"German Bundesbankers...are not concerned about any direct fallout from the US mortgage crisis," wrote Ralph Atkins in the Financial Times.

The article's headline was "Schadenfreude stirs in resilient Germany."

Conde Nast's article today noted with a smirk that "Herr Minister has a personal reason to be bitter about the credit crisis. Steinbrück is on the supervisory board of the state-controlled bank KfW, which transferred some $425 million to Lehman Brothers a little more than an hour before the Wall Street firm filed for bankruptcy protection. 'Germany's Dumbest Bank!' screamed the front-page headline in the newspaper Bild."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Past Futures

Back in 1999, I wrote a book called Bad Predictions. It is ironically both my rarest book on the market, and the one I have the most copies of in my basement. Go figure.

The project grew out of a passion of mine-- used book stores. I love ephemera and books that were only intended for their era. I collect out of date etiquette manuals and I find it hard to resist old magazines and newspaper archives that discuss past events and attitudes using the language of their own day.

As we were approaching the year 2000, I began to collect books by past futurists with a view to cataloging their mistakes. Regardless of their correctness or incorrectness I loved their imagination. In fact, I most admired those who had a bold enough vision to risk being utterly wrong.

If you enjoy this kind of thing too, I recomend the blog Paleo-Future. It is full of great scans of the flying cars, household robots and space craft we were supposed to have by now.

Bad Predictions Blow Out! For a limited time, I am selling copies of my 2000 book Bad Predictions, cover price $15.95, for just $5.00. Get a brand new, autographed, hard to find elsewhere book for an incredibly low price by following the link.

Neologism Contest

"If Schadenfreude were a stock, it would have set new highs around the globe Tuesday," wrote Randall Forsyth in Baron's.

Today's Schadenfreude spottings: Slate Magazine's article Why Washington hates Wall Street.

"But it's a sign of Brauchli's newbie status in Washington...that he should think reporters at the Washington Post feel anything other than schadenfreude about Wall Street's tumble in fortunes. They can't help it—they're Washingtonians... 'Isn't this exciting?' Rep. Ed Markey enthused to me on Oct. 19, 1987 ('Black Monday')"

And just in case you needed any more proof that the current state of Schadenfreude is dark indeed it's the Hdege Fund Implode-O-Meter.

The kind of Schadenfreude many of us have been feeling in the wake of the financial crisis has a different quality and character than the celebrity downfall gazing of a year ago. It's darker, blacker and angrier. Over at Psych Central John Grohol is talking about his emotions: "I find a strange melancholic amusement to learn that many of these investment banks’ CEOs and boards of directors — people being paid millions of dollars every year to purportedly know what their own companies are doing and how they make money — didn’t have a clue as to how deep their companies were into questionable financial practices."

I'm looking for suggestions for a new word that encapsulates this "melancholic amusement"- Schadenfreude tinged with a touch of sadness and foreboding. Please post your suggestions in the comments. The author of the winning word will get an autographed copy of Schadenfreude, Baby! and just maybe add a new word to our vocabulary. You can also enter by talking about this contest on your own blog. Just send me a link to your article, and I will enter your words into the contest too.

Deadline: October 1.

Irony of the Day

From the Republican Party 2008 Platform:

"We do not support government bailouts of private institutions. Government interference in the markets exacerbates problems in the marketplace and causes the free market to take longer to correct itself. We believe in the free market as the best tool to sustained prosperity and opportunity for all."

Surviving the New Depression: Tip #94 from Steve Delahoyde on Vimeo.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Are You Saying You Don't See the Connection Between Government and Laughing at People?

The term "Schadenfreude" is becomming more and more current. Most often these days it is invoked to describe the feeling of those personal debtors who feel joy at seeing greedy bankers hoist by their own petard.

Today, Conor Friedersdorf, features editor at Culture 11 argues that Schadenfreude has also been the overriding political strategy of the GOP in the last few elections. In an article titled "The Politics of Schadenfreude" he wrote:

"The people who run the GOP are rewarded in prestige and treasure based on election results, not advancing a conservative agenda. So they are quick to realize that they need not do the hard work of finding the best candidate on substance, or running the most honorable campaigns, unless voters demand as much as a requirement for their support. Absent that, the GOP establishment hasn't sufficient incentive to run races, as Ronald Reagan did, that persuade Americans on the issues and create a mandate for governing accordingly. Not when running against the media and “the elites” is easier and as effective."

While you're reflecting on that, enjoy this scene from the Monkees 1968 movie Head for some psychedlic Schadenfreude.

How is that for a rock band name? Psychedelic Schadenfreude...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I'm Changing My Name to AIG

Here's a special tune for all the banks that lobbied to make personal bankrupcy harder with the "Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005," who are now asking the government to give them a second chance. If you, like me, are wondering if AIG has to complete a "mandatory debtor education course" before it is relieved of its bad debt, this is the song for you.

Im Changing My Name To Chrysler - Arlo Guthrie / Pete Seeger

Anonymity Syndrome

People seem to be somehow unaware that their public musings are, well, public. I don’t know that the experts have a name for this disorder. Let’s call it Anonymity Syndrome.

I will share with you the tragic tale of one victim of this dreaded disease which I learned about through the web site of Houston television station KHOU. One day Jacki was living her normal life as a self-described “uninteresting teacher.”

After a hard day grading ungrammatical 9th grade essays, she would come home, feed the dog and fire up the computer. With complete faith in her lack of an audience, Jacki would type out reviews of The Gilmore Girls and Days of Our Lives. She worried that her students might watch The Secret Life of an American Teenager and get the idea that teenage pregnancy was cool. Jacki wasn’t the type of person who was featured in the news. World events happened somewhere else. She watched them on television.

Then, in September 2008, Hurricane Ike changed everything. No, not in the way you might think. Jacki was spared by the worst of the weather. Her house was not damaged, she had running water and power. She didn’t even have to go to work because her school was closed, but she was still getting a paycheck. In all, she had fared quite well.

She should have heeded the warning signs. Extra leisure time puts a person at increased risk of Anonymity Syndrome. Jacki was on the edge of a national story with nothing to do but blog. And blog she did.

“Life is great after a hurricane,” she wrote, “when nothing really happened to your house!”

Emboldened by her sense of solitude—she couldn’t even get her best friends to read her reviews of episodes of Big Brother—she went on to describe how she went around town collecting MRE’s, military rations distributed to hurricane victims who were without power and food.

“I think that I am falling in love with MREs,” she wrote, “They are pretty darn good… It’s so cool that you put a little bit of water in the bag with the food and in about a minute, there is hot food. This is great. I don’t have school and I’m getting free food!”

What Jacki hadn’t thought about before she hit “preview” and “post” was that people were going to read it. It would only take a few people with copy and paste functionality on their computers to share her newfound joy in free MREs with an audience she never imagined—people who did not know her, love her or call her a friend.

Some of those people, Texas residents who were an even bigger part of the Hurricane Ike story, did not take Jacki’s narrative in quite the way she intended.

Hundreds of comments started to appear. Some were threatening, harassing, unrepeatable. They threatened to turn her into authorities.

“How do you live with yourself?”

“Hope you choke on those MRE’s.”

Her blog became the stuff of local legend, and the “uninteresting teacher” was suddenly getting calls from reporters asking her to explain herself. She was a story on the television news.

When the blog disappeared, Jacki’s anonymity did not return. The angry posters merely moved to the khou.com story about her site and plotted to send letters of complaint to her employer by the hundreds. Jacki’s online hobby had come crashing into her real life with the force of a hurricane.

The story has a few lessons for us. First, if you’re lucky enough to be spared by a tragedy, and you’re surrounded by those who are not—keep it to yourself. Second, if you forget the first rule, at least keep your crowing to a respectably small circle of friends. Third, if you can’t manage to follow the second rule at least do not literally broadcast your good fortune. Fourth, don’t take food intended for people who just lost their homes and brag about it on a blog about your uninteresting life. Actually, that one should probably go first.

Another example of Anonymity Syndrome was reported by MyFox yesterday. Steven loved to chat with friends on Myspace and blog about his adventures. One of his adventures involved stealing two monkeys from a wildlife compound. The Myspace page was set to public. The authorities investigating the case, being part of the public, found it fairly easy to track him down.

We've said it here a number of times, but it bears repeating. If you're doing something that is not entirely ethical or legal, it behooves to keep it to yourself.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Swiper, No Swiping!

Two Rules.

1. If you are in posession of a $130,000 vehicle, you might not want to leave it running with the keys inside.

It's hard to feel too sorry for Steve Harris Imports who left two custom Ferraris, one worth $130,000 and a second worth $300,000, idling. They were almost daring someone to swipe it.

2. If you aspire to a career as a car thief, you might want to avoid drawing attention to yourself; the sort of attention you might get if, for example, you were driving around in a 2001 burgundy Ferrari 550 Maranello.

Since the car was the only one of its kind in the area, employees watched the theif drive off, shrugged and called the police. When an officer saw the sports car 90 minutes later, he knew exactly where it had come from.

Source: Desert News

Bad Boys (Theme From Cops) - Inner Circle

I Read the News Today. Oh Boy.

You pay the minimum balance on your Master Card bill with a handy Discover Card check. You have just enough to make the minimum on your other Master Card. You're left with so little cash that you need to use your Visa to buy groceries. It can sometimes seem you’re allergic to money. Be grateful that it’s only metaphorical in your case.

There are people who are physically allergic to the stuff. The irritant in question is nickel, which not only shows up in the coin of that name, but also in paper money. A report in the August 1991 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reported that people with nickel allergies can get stubborn rashes from handling legal tender.

So you’re broke. You think you’ve got an original problem here? You’re going to have to try a bit harder. If you’re talking to creditors on the phone on a regular basis, you’re not the exception—you’re the rule! And perhaps it will please you to know that there are people out there who have the same problem as you with quite a few extra zeroes at the end.

You’re surely better off than Mr. William Stern who filed the largest bankruptcy in British history in 1978. Before he went bust, the property mogul bragged that banks competed to loan him money. (This was in the 1970s, before those Lending Tree commercials hit the airwaves.)

At age 43, Stern had managed to rack up liabilities in excess of 100,000,000 pounds against assets of 10,070. Hearing the case in London Bankruptcy Court, Mr. Alan Sales was unfazed. “This bankruptcy has been described as the world’s biggest,” he said, “but really it is a very ordinary bankruptcy with noughts at the end.” It might not impress the collections department, but you’ll feel better.

Speaking of the collections department, if you are late on your payments to five creditors and they call you every day, count yourself blessed. In their book The Best, Worst and Most Unusual, Bruce Felton and Mark Fowler list one Yosjiyuki Yonei, a salesman for a Tokyo tool company, as the “Worst Creditor.” Yonei was arrested after he harassed a delinquent customer to the point that his wife had a nervous breakdown. Yonei called the customer 4,190 times—340 in a single day!

Given all that debt stress, it’s easy to see how a cash-strapped person can make choices that they later regret. In 1890, a Swede named Albert Vystroem signed a contract with the Royal Swedish Institute of Anatomy. In exchange for some cash in hand, he gave them the right to use his body for scientific study after his death. In the intervening years, Vystroem came into a small fortune and decided he wanted his body back. So in 1910, he suded the organization. Not only did the Institute successfully defend its position, it was awarded damages for two teeth Vystroem had had extracted with its permission.

A Day in the Life (Beatles Cover) - Beck

P.S. Separated at birth? Sean Lennon and Project Runway's Daniel Franco?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Less Taxes [sic], More War!

There is something about a Republican delegate being robbed by a girl he picked up in a bar after advocating "less taxes, more war" as a government policy that makes the corners of the mouth reflexively turn up.

"I Guess He Wasn't Listening to the Speech About Family Values" gushed a headline in the Dallas Morning News's religion blog.

To be fair to Gabriel Schwartz, a lawyer from Denver, we don't know if he is a "values" voter or if he is a social conservative. So the story lacks the irony of, say, a Larry Craig. The delegate did, however, give this interview with Link TV. His "Bomb Iran" stance was so extreme that it made this reporter wonder if he wasn't a plant from The Daily Show.

After this performance, Schwartz told police he picked up a woman in the bar of a swanky Minneapolis hotel and brought her up to his room. She poured him a drink and when he woke she was gone, and so were up to $50,000 in jewelry, cash and other items.

P.S. The correct way to say that is "Fewer taxes, more war." (See the post on Worsplosion.) And grammar purists will note that since there is no signature in this posting that "p.s." isn't really appropriate either. I know. But I don't care.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Schandenfreude Alert Goes Bonkers

As I've noted here before, I have a Google alert set to the word "Schadenfreude." Usually there are one or two stories featuring the word each day, but yesterday it suddently went crazy. The collapse of Lehman Brothers, and other bank woes, are apparently giving people a sense of... glee.

"Is it me or is Schadenfreude on the march?" wrote Guy Dressler in Reuters.

It's not you, Guy.

The New York Times put "Schadenfreude" in its headline: "As Europe Watches Wall Street Fall, Schadenfreude Gives Way to Worry."

"I only watched the news last night to have a good laugh at the bankers carrying out their belongings," wrote someone basking in the anonymity of the Internet. "Naturally I feel sorry for the admin and IT staff who weren't subject to the bonuses that the bankers get. I'd love to listen in to one of their conversations when they got home. 'Sorry Tarquin, we're going to have to put you in a state school from now on because daddy spent his disgustingly huge bonus on a Ferrari which he can't sell because of the Credit Crunch.' Welcome to our level. Merry Christmas."

This was one of many such items posted in response to a story in The Guardian which posed the question:"Investment banking: one of the most reviled professions?"

Over at DailyComedy.com, Ricardo Aleman of "America's Got Talent" fame, writes: "...they are all out of a job, but need to find a way to pay their next month's bills fast. I eagerly await the Women Of Lehman Bothers Playboy issue."

After describing his intial sensations of Schadenfreude, Will Self of the Evening Standard concludes that it isn't really the right emotion at all:

"No, schadenfreude isn't really called for here, not when people are posting their house keys through the door and going on the run because they can't keep up interest payments. What's required is a far stronger emotion: anger. Anger towards those at the top of the heap who went on gambling with other people's futures, and anger towards those in government who were seriously comfortable with the seriously rich — no matter how they made their money."

Incidentally, September 18 is the anniversary of the "Panic of 1873" when 37 banks and brokerage firm Jay Cooke & Company went under. Shortly afterwards, the New York Stock Exchange temporarily shut down, further damaging faith in the economy. The federal government's efforts to stem the panic were fruitless and the depression lasted through 1879. Happy Anniversary, Baby!

[Cartoon from Geraldgee.]

You Never Give Me Your Money - Sarah Vaughan

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Picture of the Day

This image was originally posted on Wordsplosion, a site dedicated to images of grammatical errors. If you're annoyed by signs that say "Twelve items or less" you'll find it addictive browsing.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Welcome Back, Geraldo

A special brand of cartoonish accident is the one that begins with someone saying, “Here, I’ll show you...”

Geraldo Rivera took time away from finding Al Capone's vault to travel into the path of a hurricane. "Look, I want to show you something," he says.

As he predicted, he has become a star on Schadenfreude Central, Youtube.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sweeping it Under the Rug: CNN Style.

U.S. Sen. Larry Craig was so humiliated by his conviction for disorderly conduct in a Minnesota bathroom stall that he is fighting to keep the story alive forever.

His attorney was in court yesterday arguing to have his disorderly conduct conviction thrown out for lack of evidence during arguments Wednesday before the state Court of Appeals.

Now I would never be caught taking glee at an anti-gay rights politician's ironic legal woes. I'll leave that to a You Tube artist:

And to Roy Zimmerman, seen here performing "Larry Craig is Completely Heterosexual."

And the Capitol Steps.

And... well, you get the idea.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Failures are Unforgettable

Back in April, I wrote about Geraldo and his spectacular failure at finding anything remotely dramatic in Al Capone's secret vault. I quoted Neil Steinberg the author of Complete and Utter Failure who said, “the definition of real failure is the presence of true consequences—a fall, as opposed to a neglect to climb.”

Today I came across a poem that explores just that concept, but in a far more personal way. Philip Schultz' latest book of poetry is named Failure and the on-line journal Failure Magazine recently printed an interview with the poet. (The links in the preceeding text are respectively to buy the book and to read the interview) The entire text of the title poem is reprinted at Failure Magazine, and you can read it there. I wanted to share one stanza with you that helps to sum up my fascination with the losers of history, the people who never quite got it together.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Political Dementia, The Narrative and Public Policy

Do you have an opinion about Sarah Palin? Does it have to do with her voting record or do you think she's a spunky conservative powerhouse? Do you find yourself chanting "Yes, we can!" without really knowing what we can do?

After hearing hours of coverage of the conventions and candidates, are you familiar with their budget proposals? Do you agree with their positions on media consolidation? Do you know their records on agriculture issues? You probably know this-- there's been a big surge in enthusiasm over Sarah Palin, Obama has struck back over mocking of "community organizers," Hillary Clinton is plugging Obama while carefully trying not to slam Palin. McCain is a war hero and Obama is a rock star. One represents experience the other change.

Brian Unger, on NPR, did a feature today on Political Dementia, an invented mental disorder with symptoms like being unable to tell the difference between the experienced between the inexperienced, good experience from bad experience and worthless experience from valuable inexperience.

Maybe we can just stop all this political nonsense now and choose our candidate reality show style as this clip, aired today on CNN, suggests.

This feature on a Mad TV segment is listed as one of the top stories right now on CNN.com. As is often the case, the comedian manages to point out something that we've barely noticed. Our brand of news as info-tainment lends itself well to storytelling. We like stories about characters and so we debate politicians rather than politics.

A few days ago I sounded in on the Peggy Noonan open mic viral video and its commentary. I did not include a link to her original Wall Street Journal article and its attached response to her unintended moment of public candor.

Along with the much reported criticism of Palin, Noonan and Mike Murphy criticized a whole system which she referred to later in the introduction to her article as "The Narrative."

"It was just after the 1988 Republican convention ended," she wrote. "I was on the plane, as a speechwriter, that took Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, and the new vice presidential nominee, Dan Quayle, from New Orleans, the site of the convention, to Indiana. Sitting next to Mr. Quayle was the other senator from that state, Richard Lugar. As we chatted, I thought, 'Why him and not him?' Why Mr. Quayle as the choice, and not the more experienced Mr. Lugar? I came to think, in following years, that some of the reason came down to what is now called The Narrative. The story the campaign wishes to tell about itself, and communicate to others. I don't like the idea of The Narrative."

But we have become conditioned to The Narrative. The Narrative tells us which character to root for on Dancing with the Stars or Top Chef. The Narrative lets us choose Santino Rice as a Project Runway villian. It helps us to form an opinion as to whether Randal or Rebecca should be The Apprentice. And The Narrative will help us choose a president.

Don't believe that we don't know the difference between celebrity gossip and politics that affect our lives? The moment that illustrated our political dementia best to me did not come during this election cycle, but last winter when the actor, Owen Wilson, attempted suicide.

An announcer on a television network call in show (I'm sorry, I don't remember the program at this point) was asking his viewers to weigh in on whether the Santa Monica attorney's office was correct in withholding the 911 tapes of the incident from the news media. The announcer in question was making the argument that it was in the public interest-- that the public had a right to know because the actor is a public figure.

Owen Wilson is a publicized figure, but he is not going to make any policy that changes my life or yours. That a journalist would even make the argument that the public had the right to hear these tapes shows the extremes to which political dementia reaches. A reporter should understand that the fact that the public is interested does not constitute public interest.

Gawking, gossip and engaging in Schadenfreude are thought of as negative emotions, but they universal enough that we have to assume they fulfill important social functions. The biggest problem with them is when they drown out other, more important discourse.

Dirty Laundry

Here is the Schadenfreude story of the day, or more accurately, the Schadenfreude story of two days ago, because that is how cutting edge we are around here.

The UPI, which apparently spends as much time surfing random blogs on the Internet as you do, reports that the operator of a Web site that publishes photos of people making fools of themselves gave himself the same treatment after admitting drunk driving in Arizona.

Now I have visited the "Dirty" web site, and I'm having a little trouble entirely understanding its theme. Guess it's an Arizona thing. But what I gather is that the public nominates "douchebags" for bad, off color, or generally embarassing behavior and administer a virtual public lashing by their peers in the comments section. Recent postings include a guy who decorated his car with messages referring to his love of women's breasts, a woman with a Michael Phelps racing sperm t-shirt, and a pregnant Hooters waitress.

The UPI reports that Hooman Karamian, 29, admitted publicly for the first time that he is the operator of The Dirty, under his nom de plume (nom de keyboard?) Nik Richie.

"It's still hard for me to comprehend what happened yesterday," he told reporters. "People are going to the comments and shredding me and it's weird to see what it's like, but it helps me understand the site better and it's only going to help the growth of the site."

When someone who is known for revelling in other's stupidity is caught doing something stupid, there is very little chance it will fail to attract attention. And don't think I wasn't aware of this when writing Schadenfreude, Baby.

"I have to admit," I wrote, "I have a vague fear that I'll be involved in a terrible accident involving a kitchen appliance and the newspaper report will jump on the fabulous irony of finding Schadenfreude in the misfortune of the Schadenfreude author."

Of course it didn't stop me from reveling a bit in the legal troubles of Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis (it couldn't happen to a nicer guy), or in the rancorous divorce of one of the co-authors of The Rules. The irony is just too inviting.

But there's something a little odd about this "Dirty" story. Is someone really hoisted by their own petard if they do the hoisting themselves and then send out a press release about it? Hmmm.

Oh gee, did I forget to post the URL of the "Dirty" web site? How did that happen?

Dirty Laundry - Don Henley

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Gestation Period for Eskimos

I may be the only person in America with a Google alert set to "Schadenfreude."

Here is the Schadenfreude quote of the day from the Sunday Times of London in a review of the Republican National Convention:

"Sarah Palin is making the keynote speech. She has flown in from Alaska with her family. The announcement that this obscure governor is going to be the vice-presidential nominee has propelled the convention into the biggest, kitschest reality show in the world. The relations and the speculation about paternity, maternity, fecundity, mendacity and the gestation period for Eskimos has led to a Gustav of schadenfreude that has overwhelmed the shallow blogs on the web."

Hey! Who are you calling shallow?

The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo) - Manfred Mann

Friday, September 5, 2008

Poo Poos of Patriotism

Have you ever tried to use the "next blog" link at the top of a Blogger page? I maintain two blogs. This one, dedicated to Schadenfreude and my various writing projects, and Valery Lantratov's Ballet Blog. (Sing along: One of these things is not like the others...) I clicked on the "next blog" link thinking it would take me to my other blog, but it took me instead to a post on "Kate's First Hard Poo-Poo".

Speaking of poo-poo... (I'm a professional writer, don't try these transitions at home.) I have been slowly building up a library of books from the "What They Said In" reference series by editors Alan and Jason Prater. From 1969-1996 they published annual editions compiling spoken quotes by politicians and people of note in the news. They're great records of the issues of the day. As I go through them I become alternately comforted and discouraged to see that we've been having essentially the same cultural and political conversations for years. What is a patriot? Is it patriotic or unpatriotic to question a war? Should we embrace change or preserve our sense of community and continuity? These were some of the big questions of 1970.

One of the quotes from the 1970 edition-- and I am getting back to poo-poo-- seemed to have special resonance in light of the current discussion of community organizing we've been seeing on the news. It comes from Saul Alinsky, a pioneer of community organizing, who said, "Civil rights is a movement, and a movement without organization is nothing more than a bowel movement."

Power to the people, right on!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Curse of the Open Mic

When I worked in radio we had a maxim. You should treat every microphone as though it were on. That didn't prevent one of my co-workers from accidentally airing a personal conversation with his girlfriend after he failed to turn off the telephone link after a call in show.

There are few political faux pas that inspire such glee-- to the other political party-- as the open mic gaffe. This is when a nomally polished public speaker is caught in an unguarded moment on a microphone he or she did not know was on.

Former John McCain advisor Mike Murphy and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan have joined the ranks of public figures whose "off camera" views and speaking styles were accidentally exposed. If they are feeling a bit red faced about the whole thing, they can take comfort in the fact that the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, himself was caught in a hot mic scandlette back in the 1980s.

(Before making a radio broadcast at the height of the Cold War in 1984, he quipped: "I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever - the bombing begins in five minutes.'" the joke went out over the airwaves. The Russians weren't amused.)

Open mic embarasments almost always inspire mirth because they unintentionally reveal the differences between people's public and private personas. Democrats have had extra reasons to wallow in Schadenfreude because this conversation, immortalized for the next day or two on Youtube, reveals two talking heads doubting the credentials of Vice Presidental candidate Sarah Palin.

Of course this would be most ripe for humor of one of the speakers were found to contradict their earlier public statements. For example if Peggy Noonan had written an article just that morning in the Wall Street Journal that called Palin "powerful" and "transformative."

She did? Great! Of course, you have to take her praise of Palin a bit out of context to create the most effective and Schadenfreude-worthy flipflop. The gist of her article was that the Palin choice might work or might backfire.

"The Sarah Palin choice is really going to work, or really not going to work," Noonan wrote. "It's not going to be a little successful or a little not; it's not going to be a wash. She is either going to be magic or one of history's accidents. She is either going to be brilliant and groundbreaking, or will soon be the target of
unattributed quotes by bitter staffers shifting blame in all 'The Making of the President 2008' books."

With a little tweaking, like they do with the film reviews, that paragraph can be pared down to "The Sarah Palin choice is... brilliant and groundbreaking."

There's the pay off! Let's not let the text of the article get in the way of a great story.

Of course the Democrats have had their open mic moments too. Do you remember this summer when Jesse Jackson was caught whispering a threat to "cut Obama's nuts off" before a televised interview with Fox News?

Back in 2001, The BBC did an entire feature on the curse of the open mic. But drawing attention to gaffes by Tony Blair (in 1993) and by George W. Bush (in 2000) didn't prevent them having a converstion in a room full of every imaginable type of recording equipment at the G8 summit in 2006. The infamous "Yo Blair" conversation revealed the U.S. president's cowboy speaking style and his in depth analysis "China is big and so is Russia." Blair, for his part, refers to international economics as "this trade thingy."

With the increased presence of 24 hour television news media, call in talk shows, and video on cell phones, expect more delightful unguarded moments in the future.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Obama with my Mama

On Labor Day, presidential candidate Barack Obama came to Hart Plaza in Detroit and my mother and I decided to go see him. His speech was slated to begin at 11 AM and seating began at 8:30. We left our house, about 45 minutes from Detroit, in the vain hope that there would be room in Hart Plaza for us when we got there.

It turns out that Obama is kind of popular.

When we arrived on the perimeter of Hart Plaza, around 9AM, the police told us if we wanted to see Obama we'd have to go stand in the line.

The Detroit Free Press today reports that there were 20,000 people in Hart Plaza and another 10,000 on Jefferson on the plaza's perimeter.

I don't know if you're familiar with lines of 20,000 people, but they're pretty long. This one stretched four city blocks, turned a corner and snaked around another 2 blocks then turned in and around itself heading back the direction in which it had come.

We wondered if there was any chance of getting from the end of that line into Hart Plaza or if we should stay where we were near a giant viewing screen erected on Jefferson. We had a couple of hours and decided to take our chance in the line.

(That's me in the line) It was an orderly line. No one was pushing or shoving. People were resigned and curious. They'd make it to the front or they wouldn't. The Obama campaign had asked people not to bring signs or banners, but there were plenty of sales people with Obama badges and t-shirts pacing up and down along the crowd. Oh, and there were these guys.

The tall buildings of downtown Detroit shielded us from the rays of the sun and the 86 degree heat for most of our journey. We doubted there was much chance that we'd end up in Hart Plaza, but we did have some gratification seeing the line stretch out longer and longer behind us as we wound back around our old path. The members of the crowd were collectively photographing the each other. If they wouldn't get to see Obama at least they could record that they saw a lot of other people.

As 11 AM approached we had finally gotten to the end of the line in perfect time to find ourselves... right back at the video screen where we had started.

These guys had made it too.

The disorganized, but not unruly, throng gazed hopefully at the blackened video screen. Since we'd been told not to bring beverages, a few people were lying on the ground swooning in the heat. We heard a buzz of folks wondering if this video screen was actually going to show anything at all. One woman called a friend inside Hart Plaza to ask if Obama was in there speaking already. Meanwhile, we were trying to guess if the 6'4" guy in front of us was going to lean to the left or the right so we could position ourselves for the best view.

Finally at around 11:15 the screen came to life. At first there was no sound, but then the speakers began to cackle and a loud cheer erupted from the audience and after our long journey we finally caught our first glimpse of... this lady.

I have no idea who she is, and neither did anyone else, but for some reason the camera person decided not to focus on the introductory speaker, or even on the sign language interpreter (on the far left) but on the woman in the blue dress.

The enthusiastic crowd of Obama supporters was overcome with emotion and began to chant in unison: "Move-the-camera! Move-the-camera!"

And then came a change we could believe in. A new focus... for the camera. Just in time to avoid an outright mutiny, it was the candidate himself!

And yes, he looked just like he does on TV.

As for the speech itself. I leave that reporting up to the Detroit Free Press:

Obama said he planned to give a speech extolling organized labor, but said, “There is a time to argue politics and there’s a time to come together as Americans.”

Obama then asked the crowd of more than 10,000 to donate to the Red Cross, as Hurricane Gustav bore down on Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

He said showing solidarity with those who are evacuated or facing displacement shows the spirit of togetherness that his campaign has sought to inspire.

He then called for a brief, silent prayer, and ended an appearance that lasted less than 10 minutes.

Yes We Can - Barack Obama & WIll-I-Am