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Of “Nostalgic Spasms”

May 21, 2014 Leave a comment

In Taming Lust, a brief study of the prosecution of bestiality in early America, Doron S. Ben-Atar uses the phrase “nostalgic spasm” to refer to a sudden shift in social norms that looks back in light of changes. Such “spasms” come in times of social change, he suggests, and demonstrates with his book how in moments of social change an older generation can grasp its power in a last-ditch attempt to stop oncoming change. It is a process we see repeated throughout history: moments of social shift occurring but only after actions of incredible bigotry and cruelty. With each change in social perspective an old view is tossed away.

Critical to these shifts are the individuals involved in making new ideas reality. Too often we look only at the actors involved with the winning side. History is, they say, written by the victors and such limited consideration is evidence of its truth. Who creates the change? Both the actors whose new ideas become enacted and the losers whose old, out-dated ideas are discarded.

In changing our social norms we look away from old ideas. In transitioning to new ideas we discard old views and shift power from those who held these views to those with new ideas. Abstraction may lead us to only view these changes from the perspective of the idea: the women’s right to vote became enacted or civil rights were extended to African-Americans. Changes, yes, but abstract ideas that only become reality when people work (and often die) to make them reality. Human beings move ideas from abstract ideas to actual policy.

Often people claim an “evolution” of thought with new ideas. The right for same-sex couples to marry is a contemporary issue where people often cite an “evolution of perspective” in explaining their delay in drawing conclusions. President Obama is one individual who has cited such evolutions. Herein is the older generation gradually coming to terms with new ideas. For some this evolution is difficult, but for others its simply too much. For those whose perspectives cannot accommodate a change in norms the “nostalgic spasm” might seem critical. Rapid action to block a social change often occur in areas where values are deeply embedded in the community. Severe punishments for crimes typically treated less severely or the creation of new, more strict rules and punishments reveal the spasm in action. Moral panic might explain their actions, but in their works we see both reaction and change. Though their fight to keep things the same hurts many, time cannot control the change. Unfortunately our greatest social changes come with painful baggage. Before we have great change we have the panic of the powerful whose last grasp for power provides them with the ability to instill a brief, painful period of suffering. Such actions are dual symbols: the older power fading and the dawning of the new ideas to come.

 

 

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Learning Leaders Learning

November 25, 2013 Leave a comment

At its very least, effective leadership is a clarity of communication. Great leaders simply express their ideas clearly. It’s a matter of presenting distinct possibilities when they exist. Rare are the situations that possess such distinct choices; though, and it is also the role of the leader to both perceive and take advantage of them. Take, for example, the statement often linked to Benjamin Franklin: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” Whether he actually said this or was capable of such poor use of grammatical parallelism is debatable, but my issue here is this application of distinct choice. Though the situation was complicated, Franklin curated the moment to possess these two choices. “It’s either privacy or security, people. So which one do you want?”

One such moment now arrives in contemporary society. Recent revelations of privacy violations by government agencies has led many to question whether “too much” spying is taking place. What was once thought (and claimed) as an action focused on terrorists and criminals has now been revealed to include trusted allies, celebrities and even the Pope. John Q. Public’s records have also been revealed as material worth saving, but with this collection further excuses regarding the anonymity of supposed metadata work to quash some concerns.

Would you rather trade your personal security for your right to privacy? Are you more comfortable facing the possibility of a terrorist attack than having the data of your private life collected and saved? Ultimately this is the question of our time. As shocking as it may seem, some people would rather have their data kept private and take the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack. We’ve reached this point in a post 9/11 world where our initial actions were inspired in part by our emotional reaction to the attacks. We’re older now, more removed from the initial shock, and capable of re-assessing just how much protection we want.

A great leader will recognize this critical question and pose it to the public. Though posed, we’ll also need extensive time to consider a response. Great leadership plays a role here as well: facilitating communication and creating a community of thinkers will be essential in reaching a response. Perhaps our sense of “great leadership” has changed in our contemporary society. Has technology altered what we need from leaders? Tech has certainly changed our day-to-day existence so why might its effects also extend to those we choose to lead? Perhaps our future is one where our leadership is less a figurehead and more a conduit of thinking. Maybe leadership is less the “out in front” and more the “learning side by side”.

Perils in Pursuits

November 12, 2013 Leave a comment

For a select category of products, consumer trust defines the relationship. Mary buys kosher beef with the confidence that her religious beliefs are not contradicted in her use of the product. In a sense, her need for the product stems not from solely her desire; instead, she purchases the item because it allows her to meet religious expectations and deliver pleasure. There is a dual role for products in many transactions- situations in which consumer desire involves multiple needs and expectations.

Consider violations of this trust. Vegans are shocked to hear of animal by-products in Chipotle’s beans. Jewish consumers are stunned to find that their supposedly kosher beef contains horse. The examples are numerous and spread throughout time; though, what remains common with each is this common violation of consumer trust and expectation.

Product failure happens all the time. A battery dies or a pixel fades to black. Consumers have come to understand planned obsolescence and regularly buy new phones, devices and toys despite having working models. Capitalism benefits from this system as innovation drives progress for both consumer and manufacturer. Perhaps the ideal economy is a world in which this dance is perfectly balanced and paced.

Despite this sense of what defines ideal, a world of competition creates benefits to cheat. To cut corners means to reduce costs and severe competition leads to a world where all cuts are on the table. The recent horse meat scandal in Europe is a prime example of the dangers of complicated networks and expected low costs. Expand the network out and more links become involved.

As we work towards greater levels of global competition we will see more violations of this consumer trust. Despite a greater concern for public health, as seen in America’s Affordable Care Act, the networks from which our health and society function grow increasingly less concerned with users who consume. When price becomes priority and reducing it the most valuable accomplishment there are no limitations to the means to reduce cuts. What today may shock us as appalling will likely pale as we demand more for less and blind ourselves with complex networks.

Speaker Smarts

November 1, 2013 Leave a comment

In his essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction personifies a collective population sitting at home alone watching television. His essay is a novel consideration of mass viewing which, among its many points, works to suggest that television viewing is a paradoxical experience where advertising wishes to draw the viewer out from an existence of passive viewing to one of consumerism. Wallace’s presented paradox lies here, tucked snugly with these figures locked at home, as the marketer’s work to attract customers, perhaps literally birth them from their ignorance, occurs while they remain alone at home. Ads exist in the private sphere to draw us outward and yet depend on us to be at home to take them in.

Wallace coins a term for this collected mass. He refers to them as “Joe Briefcase” and carries the character through consumerist experiences. He explicitly uses Pepsi to demonstrate the means of television advertising and presents a situation now well-considered in media studies. Beyond an exposure to branding which suggests the perks of drinking Pepsi: fun lifestyles, social populaity, etc…, Wallace also suggests that Joe’s interpretation of the advertisement is also well-crafted. For Wallace the best ad and one most reflective of our contemporary zeitgeist (mid-1990’s for Wallace), is one most richly bathed in irony. The ideal ad is one whose vapidity and stupidity make Joe question its validity. Joe feels good because he is capable of critically evaluating the ad. He breaks down the ad, he tears apart its rhetorical attempt by identifying its failures. Joe Briefcase enjoys this experience; it gives him a sense of intellectual pleasure as his critical skills give him the ability to not only recognize but tear apart its aims and goals. In essence, the ad is so dumb that Joe can break it down. He feels good because he does this and Pepsi accomplishes it’s intended goal: grab the viewer’s attention, plant the seeds of brand awareness and wait for him to shop. Wallace ends the example with a sense of personal awareness that it works- suggesting his own purchase patterns to be influenced by a daft use of irony.

Much can be taken from this observation. One might simplify the observation as nothing too profound: after all we all know that complimenting a listener is the fastest way to win them over. The best conversationalists are those who do the least amount of talking; instead, they are the one who asks the questions and sits back as the listener starts to speak. Irony rules again: our  greatest speakers, like our ads, are never those that speak the most; instead we listen most those who let us ramble on.

Jurassic Dreams

October 1, 2013 Leave a comment

The United States government’s shutdown allows one to consider perks and perils of privatization. Privatize a National Park and get Jurassic Park? A private company is the only way that a fantasy land like that displayed in Jurassic Park could exist. The Federal government functions to “protect and preserve” the nation’s interior. While possible, a private company might think otherwise and function instead with the goal of customer desire.

What if the market demands a more exciting use of national landscapes? Do we need another waterfall to photograph? Might we benefit more from some white water rafting parks? Maybe that beautiful field is just perfect for a roller coaster. For some the goal of “preserving and protecting” is the most important role of the government. Save those sacred places for the future. Such glad handing strikes one as insulting- are we truly unable to resist some latest desires to destroy the landscape? Do such suggestions and goals underpin a belief that greedy capitalists will seek out any and all square inches for monopolization opportunities? Some seem convinced that Walmarts on every corner could actually happen.

A government that goes away allows us a moment to consider its value. Might some areas of government be reduced or eliminated? How might a world of less government work? Let’s consider areas where government might trade its role to industry. No, we still need some regulations as in meat inspection and the countless other areas of consumer protection. We do not need no government; but let us muse on where we might adjust. A little tweaking never hurt anyone.

When In Abscence

October 1, 2013 Leave a comment

A daily norm of behavior brings one into a routine of appearance and performance. You arrive at your job, do your work and leave for home. This cycle of function works to justify one’s existence. Don’t appear and the cycle is broken.  Suddenly one’s absence provides an opportunity to think again. Don’t appear and a new paradigm opens in your absence. “If he’s never here then do we need him?”

Adjustments take hold and suddenly the adjustments made to accommodate one’s absence become routine. A great hazard comes in simply not showing up. It’s often claimed that “showing up is half the battle” and indeed we can learn quite a bit from this simple phrase. People put a lot of value in the physical appearance of another. While one might be completely useless or even damaging to a situation, the sheer fact that one appears has a power to it. The act of “making an appearance” is one of the most useless, but viable evaluation on our society.

We might consider the very construction of this “making an appearance” phrase. Unpack it to see this verb of “making”. What are we creating when we appear? It is merely a physical existence in an organization? Is it merely a presence or actor playing a role that is developed.

Don’t appear and we learn to question your value. If you go away for a day we learn to work without you. Time’s progression creates a snowball of conundrum when one is not around. Oddly one’s best defense against dismissal is to simply show up. Even if one’s work is completely trivial the mere physical presence allows one to appear to be important. One may be an unused gear or even a detrimental part the machine but simply being part of the engine provides a basis to exist.

Slippery Words

September 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Political skill revolves around a slippery use of language. When “civilian casualties” becomes “collateral damage” we double dilute our meaning by turning the death of innocent human beings into vague, fuzzy notions. What is collateral or citizens for that matter? The blood on the pavement is horror realized and the only way to come to terms with its existence is to muddle and hide. For those tasked with maintaining order or whose actions lead to such situations, a distortion of language might be less about the audience and more the interior of the speaker.

How do evildoers come to terms with what they do? Is evil a quality of being able to disregard disgusting acts? Kant’s categorical imperative can be simplified to ask, “If everyone else does what I do, can society function?” It expands the actions of one to the group as a whole. Doing so reveals how certain things that occur on a small-scale can only occur without damage at the small-scale. If we all disregard the speed limit the roads will be chaos, but a few speeders can be tolerated.

Likewise a manipulation of language can only occur on the small-scale. When leaders distort language there must be figures who correct them. Not all will be capable of this action and those who cannot are likely to fall victim to the distortion. The strength of society lies in those who refuse to be manipulated and utilize critical thinking to respond to what occurs. One can think but action is required. Extending beyond the ivory tower is the real act of heroism. Your papers may be published and thousands may re-tweet, like and favor but all is naught is nothing is done.

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