Pointless Metaphor and Facial Stitches: A Confession

A confession:

I still laugh when I remember asking my mom if she would consider giving me credit for thinking of some inappropriate act and not doing it or starting to utter some offensive statement and not saying it.

Of course, my mom being my mom – and having lived through so many of my inappropriate acts and statements — was quick to congratulate me on the “thank goodness I won’t have to get called to school again” thing I didn’t do or the “it better not have been your sister who you heard using that word” thing I didn’t say.

That’s why I wanted to share something that I just chose not to do. It reminded me of a particularly trite and unimaginative corner of the world of news and commentary.

Today, President Obama was playing basketball in a gym at Fort McNair in Washington DC, and ended up needing 12 stitches on his lip. It’s beyond a little embarrassing to admit, but when I first heard about the president’s injury, I immediately slipped into metaphor mode, imagining that 12 stitches on the president’s face could either immediately begin or neatly end a commentary of some sort. And before I knew it I was captured by the writer’s demon – you know, the lazy and simplistic and trite demon – the one who whispers in your ear:

“Okay, look what you’ve got. A president struggling to persuade citizens to do difficult things, an opposition elbowing him and trying to make sure that he doesn’t do those things, and 12 stitches on his face from an elbow in a basketball game. Go for it. Connect them all, use the stitches as some sort of metaphor, and you’ll end up with a…..”

End up with what, Steve? Exactly what even minimally significant thing did you think you would end up with?

I knew.

The result would be a pointless piece intended to show off a metaphor (and a trite and sophomoric one at that) rather than words or ideas that ever needed to be said, whispered, muttered or even imagined.

How many words are written and columns composed that begin, not with a compelling idea, but with some cuteness or gimmick in search of an idea? I know that I have written more than a few of them. So here’s what I promise: Whenever an unusual event like a president getting stitches presents itself, along with the inevitable temptation to draw some lame comparison or write some probably unfunny opening sentence, I will immediately turn off my computer and permanently delete anything that somehow made it on to the page. Cuteness arriving unaccompanied by any even minimally important idea will be presumed pointless.

So here I am, nervy enough to ask you to be grateful that I didn’t write something that, at best, would’ve wasted your time and the time of anyone who read it.

Obviously, you’re smart enough not to feel any gratitude, and are probably feeling no small amount of resentment that you even had to read this blog post.

My wonderful mom, on the other hand, will almost certainly congratulate me for the metaphor I didn’t use, the piece I didn’t write, and the facile and pointless connection I didn’t make between 12 stitches and the complexities of presidential politics.

Rhetorical Combat Fought at the Highest Level: The President and the House Republicans

My personal political beliefs are not a big secret. They are firmly and passionately held.

As a Professor, though,  I have always done my best to create a classroom in which students are comfortable expressing diverse views.  I am not sure I have always succeeded. Talking about fairness is one thing, but body language and tone of voice can tell quite a different story. I try.

Media and Mayhem, though, is not primarily a political blog. That does not mean it does not deal frequently with politics. It is that imparting my political views is not its main purpose.  It  has always been primarily for my students and other students of media and culture. But I am fully aware that nothing can really be extricated from the political. 

All of this is to say, in a much too windy way, that when I watch an event like today’s face-off between President Obama and House Republicans, it would be a little dishonest  for me to claim neutrality. I am a Democrat, probably left of President  Obama, who admires the president enormously.  Having worked in politics, though, and having thought a lot about political and communications strategy, I can generally watch a politician appear before an   audience and give a pretty fair evaluation of who won a particular skirmish. I am more than willing to concede that a politician I admire may have performed horrendously.   And I have often had the uneasy experience of watching debates in which people with whom I disagree perform infinitely better than those representing my point of view.

Having said that, and with full awareness that that the president faces close to impossible challenges, I would like to suggest that this week’s State of the Union address by President Obama, followed by today’s face-off with the group of hostile House Republicans, was as good as political communications gets.

Yes,  I know that success is usually measured by how many minds you are able to change. Sadly, this does not seem to be an era in which any minds are changed very easily, regardless of argument or evidence. But simply as a strategic attempt to increase his advantage in the battle for public opinion, and as an attempt to speak to a larger audience of citizens whose  support he will continue to need,  these were two memorable days in the history of the presidency. They also illustrate many principles of persuasion and argument that we should all keep in mind as we make our cases for how we wish the world would work.

The president was neither apologetic nor defensive about his views. At the same time, though, he used words and tone and body language to make clear that he was clearly aware of, and had been chastened by, his failure to enact some of his key initiatives. He conveyed a sense of urgency, but did it without the kind of intensity that suggested fear or panic.  He seemed to say: “I’m here. You’re going to have to deal with me. I have deeply held principles that guide my actions. But we are all in this together and I’m not going to be a jerk about it.”

He also used what appeared to be spontaneous humor to disarm opponents who  looked more than a little strange when, at first straining to keep poker faces,  they sat on their hands and almost refused  to acknowledge that the president was in the room. I respect their right to disagree and to employ whatever political strategy they think is best, but I’m not sure they realized  how strange it looked to be stubbornly refusing to acknowledge anything positive about the president.

The president saw those poker faces, but looked them straight in the eye,  suggesting that he had just made a proposal that they certainly should be able to applaud.

Come on, he seemed to ask, you can give me a little bit of applause, can’t you?  

One of the House leaders did applaud, and then laughed. This is rhetorical combat fought at its highest level, and at that moment the president at least temporarily snatched their weapons away, as if in an old Errol Flynn sword fight.

Then, even more shrewdly, he proceeded to list a series of proposals that the House Republicans simply could not have afforded to ignore. They had to applaud. Even when he proposed something for which there is a reasonable counter argument, he stated it in a way that virtually forced the audience to register at least some enthusiasm.

These events, even at their best, are more combat than careful discussion. Each side’s views are inevitably caricatured by the other side, and impressions  matter more than intellect.

But even judged this way, I think it’s fair to say that the State of the Union was a tour de force, and that the president resuscitated and revitalized his presidency as well as any political leader I have ever seen. Of course, in our current frenzied news cycle, this will probably be quickly forgotten. This, though, was a night when many were watching to see whether his recent defeats would make him a little more defensive and a little less bold. He wasn’t.  

It is one thing to be tough and unwavering. It is quite another to be warm and humorous.  I have known politicians who were superb doing one or the other. But to do both at the same time,  and to do it when the stakes are high and when millions of people are watching, is an extraordinary accomplishment.

What is BREAKING News?

This morning, I received the following news bulletin from Fox News. I subscribe to the breaking news alerts of every major network. Fox was the only network that sent this alert:


Now, take a look at this story from today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It’s not that the Fox bulletin was blatantly inaccurate,   but it certainly was very  misleading.  Shouldn’t the term “breaking news” be reserved for urgent events that are in the process of taking place?

“We will not walk in fear, one of another”


A lot of my political side – especially the passion and anger that I feel about issues and candidates — never makes it on to this blog. And I thought I would explain.

I am not without strongly held political beliefs.  Neither am I at all covert about them.  I will often share my basic opinions so students can have some sense of who I am as a political and social being. Feigned neutrality, I have always thought, would be its own form of dishonesty.

But anyone who has taken my classes (or who ever will in the future) knows of my special concern for the feelings and attitudes of students who I either suspect or know might disagree with me. As much as anything, I want my classes to be safe places for the expression of political views from anyplace on the political spectrum, and even for views so marginalized that they might not have even made it on to the mainstream spectrum!  The joy of clashing ideas, especially when marked by both passion and civility – is a special thrill of teaching at a university. If we can’t do it in a university, where can we do it?

Having said that, I did start this blog especially for my students at Hunter College.  Media Studies is a rapidly evolving field and is being defined and redefined in public discourse every single day. The main purpose of my blog — Media and Mayhem — is to share this ongoing change with students as it unfolds. Last week, for example, a historic moment occurred in the evolution of the Internet: More people saw Tina Fey’s impressions of Governor Palin on-line than saw them when they were originally broadcast on NBC.

I suppose I mention all this because we now face the last ten days of a long, hard-fought campaign for the presidency. And because I support one of the candidates, Senator Obama, I wanted to make absolutely sure that all of you who are Hunter students feel absolutely free to either publicly or privately express views that might be to the contrary. You are welcome to raise them in class, to come see me, or to be in touch via email.  Some of you already have, and this touches me very deeply.

Keep it coming. And if in the next week I blurt out something in my excitement or enthusiasm – or in my anger and frustration – know that your contrary expression of  excitement or anger will be even more welcome, and will be met with civility and respect.

We are living through an extraordinarily historic election, taking place amidst economic chaos and wars on several fronts. Now is not the time to be shy, silent or reticent, whether you support Senator McCain, Senator Obama, Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, or any one of a number of other candidates.  As Edward R. Murrow once said in a broadcast that many of my students have seen:

 “We will not walk in fear, one of another, we will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason. If we dig deep into our history and our doctrine, we will remember we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular…. There is no way for a citizen of the republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom where ever it still exists in the world. But we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”

Andrew Malcolm of The LA Times May Need to Do Some Deep Breathing Exercises

Andrew Malcolm does a blog on politics for the Los Angeles Times. It is called “Top of the Ticket.”

I need someone to do a reality check for me.

In the last hour Malcolm posted what is either a pretty nifty prank or an astoundingly dumb column suggesting that today in Pennsylvania Barack Obama gave Hilary Clinton the finger during a speech.  Now I think Malcolm may be joking as a way of satirizing last night’s nit-picking, issue-free debate.  I have seen Obama scratch his cheek this way countless times.

But what do you think?

I think that if he is serious, and that if he really believes he sees Obama flipping the bird, Malcolm may truly be coming undone. And the LA Times may have posted the single strangest column thus far in the election season. Am I hopelessly old-fashioned or am I right to think that it is beyond weird for the LA Times to use any of their space for nuttiness like this?

Check out Malcolm’s post and the Youtube video below. Somebody please tell me if you think Malcolm is joking or if you think he did give the middle finger.

The Piety Test

Are any of you watching tonight’s “Compassion Forum” live from Messiah College in Pennsylvania? One after the other, Senators Clinton and Obama are answering questions about religion, faith, and compassion.


I’ll share something that I rarely talk about: My religious beliefs are central to who I am, especially what Jews call Tikkun Olam, or “repairing the world” through selflessness, good works and charity.  No big surprise that I don’t always act in according to those principles, but I do try.


So why does a “Compassion Forum” give me the willies? Why do I find myself interested in the questions being asked of each candidate and the answers being given, yet still profoundly uneasy about the whole thing?


I had the privilege of growing up with a close friend whose father was the sage and compassionate leader of a major Protestant denomination. Not the typical friend of a Jewish kid from Southern California, but – hey — how often do you get a best friend with whom you can simultaneously act out adolescent nuttiness and contemplate profound matters of faith.


What I am leading to was a view of church-state relations I learned from my friend  that has been basic to who I am: The temptation to mix and confuse the unique roles of government and religion, especially in fearful and uncertain times, is understandably great. This impulse makes perfect sense given that religion offers beliefs and ideas that can enrich so many areas of human endeavor, especially the political realm where, shall we say, truth seems to be a pretty slippery concept.


But I also learned that the separation of the two realms protects both: Government in a democracy needs to protect the free expression of diverse and even unpopular takes on religious faith. Religion needs the freedom to proclaim ideas and beliefs without having to answer to government institutions that seem pretty inept when it comes to the realm of the spiritual.


So again: The sight I am watching of two presidential candidates being grilled about their beliefs, however fascinating, is not something with which I will ever be comfortable. It simply has too much of the feel of a public test, in which each candidate’s views will be judged for adequate piety and purity; in which the candidates can easily slip into a “faith-competition.”

I’m watching. And listening raptly. And wishing they never felt this necessary.  

A Thunderbolt from William Faulkner

My friend and colleague Mick Hurbis-Cherrier sent me this extraordinary and completely unexpected example of a speech of transcendent eloquence.  It was a timely and embarrassing reminder of how instinctively I still sometimes think of speeches as something that politicians do.  Thanks, Mick. 

Steve, I can’t thank you enough for the compendium of moving speeches you’ve posted here.  It reminds us that there was, and still is, nobility among our political leaders, and therefore in the voters and supporters who gave them these platforms to begin with.  These speeches also remind us of how much work there is to be done in confronting  racism and sexism (which has also reared its ugly head in this primary) despair and cynicism. 

In any case, I too was moved by Obama’s speech like I have never been moved by a political speech since before I was able to vote: honest, personal, complex, important and dead on.  I’ve heard writers, professors, friends, community leaders, colleagues, etc. talk like this, but never someone who was seeking a critical mass of votes to win national office.  You see, my political consciousness began with Watergate and late Vietnam (the American embassy in Saigon was evacuated on my 11th birthday, which made it a solemn occasion).  I cast my first presidential vote for Jimmy Carter when he lost to Ronald Reagan.  B. Clinton’s presidency was the only bright spot in an otherwise depressing experience for me as a voter in presidential elections (Reagan x2, Bush x3) and even that ended in a severe disappointment. 

And along with everyone else, I’ve witnessed the near total erosion of eloquence, substance and inspiration in political speech making.  So much have presidential hopefuls learned over these years to be more careful and less substantive with their speeches, that I was beginning to feel that anyone who held profound or complex ideas, and a desire to speak truthfully, was essentially ill equipped to be elected president in this country after so much Reagan and Bush can you blame me for thinking this?  (BTW, I never understood why Regan was dubbed “the great communicator” and I never understood people who said that George W. Bush is a guy they’d like to have a beer with, talk about dull company!)  

Anyway, I wanted to share a speech which “struck this kid like a thunderbolt” when I discovered it browsing the public library shelves as a 13 year-old, which I did a lot (like you, I was a weird kid in some ways).  This speech, which addresses being a writer (artist in general) in a cold war era on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, continues to be inspirational and influential for me, as only something which tags your consciousness at a tender age can be.  It’s not a speech made in my lifetime and it’s not a speech by a political figure, but it shares, with all the speeches you’ve posted, a fervent appeal to our collective humanity which, one hopes, remains a greater force on one’s actions than the specific crises of the day.  It is through our humanity (the recognition of ourselves in others and the recognition of the best we can be in ourselves) that we can move toward progress rather than slide back into bitterness, hatred and revenge (as RFK says in his MLK speech).  

In his speech on race, Obama quoted William Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past,”  (btw. Faulkner’s actual line is: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”). This reference reminded me of William Faulkner’s speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, the text of which I am submitting here.  Nikki Giovanni’s fiercely healing poem to Virginia Tech, which you posted, stands as a perfect example of what Faulkner is talking about.


Acceptance Speech by William Faulkner, Nobel Prize in Literature, December 10, 1950

Eloquence That Struck a Kid Like a Thunderbolt Part #1

I have been thinking a lot about political speeches this week. Because, while many of you at the age of nine were doing cool kid stuff, I was often hidden away following politics and watching or listening to speeches. I ate them up. I loved the high drama, the displays of courage, the revelations of cowardice, and the occasional moments of eloquence. Yes, I was a little weird.

(Don’t feel too bad for me. I also loved skateboarding, tree-climbing, Leave it to Beaver, Mighty Mouse, Chef Boyardee, and had a crush on a girl in my 6th grade class that was a killer!)

Seriously, Senator Obama’s speech on race is what got me thinking. I almost choked when I heard him opening up the darkest places where our society’s secret and hidden and subtle racism still festers.  He opened a discussion that — if we join in, regardless of the candidate we support — will mean going toward the ugliness rather than away from it. It will mean examining what James Ellroy, referring not to race but to family trauma, has  called “My Dark Places.” We may or may not be ready. But out of the hurt just might come healing.  

So I thought I would share with you some of the other speeches or examples of improvised public rhetoric that have moved me over the years. They are seared in my memory. And for this go-round, I am limiting myself to speeches by Americans. More to come soon from many places around the world.  

Attorney Joseph Welch Confronts Senator Joseph McCarthy at the Senate “Army-McCarthy Hearings. June 9, 1954 

At the height of Senator McCarthy’s reign of terror, he launched a particularly vicious attack on a young lawyer named Fred Fisher unfairly accused of communist sympathies.  Rising to Fisher’s defense with barely contained rage — surrounded by hundreds or reporters and legislators with in a crowded Senate room — Fisher’s law partner Joseph Welch of the Boston law firm of Hale and Dorr essentially destroyed Senator McCarthy with a thundering statement that included the famous “Have you no sense of decency?” 


“I Have a Dream” Martin Luther King, March on Washington, August 28, 1963   

I include this not as a formality, but because it shook me to my core for a very special and still embarrassing reason: I lived in a completely white community and had never had any personal contact with an African American. None. I was 12 years old. Never even a shake of the hand or a nod in the street. No contact. I didn’t know the world King was describing. In some ways, northern suburbs were as segregated as the deep south. And then the floodgates, then this speech. 

Stump speech by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Summer, 1964. Downey, California. 

When my Dad took me to see an LBJ campaign rally, I only knew the deadly boring television speeches LBJ gave and the mounting Viet Nam war dead. No one I recall was more awkward and less eloquent on television. What I didn’t know then was that, when the topic was the humiliation of poverty that had marked his youth and haunted him his whole life, and when he was speaking without a script, he was one of the greatest and most inspiring stump speakers ever.  

RFK Announcement of MLK Assassination, April 4, 1968 This is the greatest speech I have ever heard. Period. RFK had nothing less than the task of announcing  MLK’s assassination to a largely African American crowd in Indianapolis. My eyes moisten just typing these words. All I can say is: Please listen to it. In fact, file it away after you have listened to it and have it ready to play any time you have to deal with some grief or loss.  

 Part #2 coming soon

Winning Presents Problems

The most skilled and smart politicians I have observed and known generally follow an election result by asking one of two questions: If they won, they want to figure out any tactics or words they used in the campaign that might that cause them problems down the line. “What wounds did I inflict to win that I now have to heal?”If they lost, they want to figure out every opportunity that the loss might have created any new doors that might have been opened when the others closed. “Is there something new I can try?”

So if Hillary wins any combination of primaries and ultimately the nomination, she’ll have to assess the damage done by the negative campaigning that exit polls show many people resented. Hillary will ask: “Who did I alienate and how do I fix that? How do I get Obama supporters?

If Obama wins, he’ll need to come to terms with how and why his strategy did well with white males and African Americans, yet was largely unable to attract older white women, a fairly large demographic group. Barack will ask: “Did sexism drive the votes of some of my supporters and what do I have to do about that? How do I get Clinton supporters?

McCain, now the nominee, has to come to terms with the extent to which his courting of the extreme right might have alienated centrists and how much his courting of the centrists might have alienated conservatives. McCain will ask: How do I move back toward the center without alienating people.

Winning a nomination creates as many problems as it solves.

High Drama and a Strange Nine Year-Old Kid

There is nothing more boring than an old guy who starts babbling about the old days.

Gimme just a second for babbling.

I grew up just long enough ago to be able to watch, in between episodes of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, absolutely vicious and contested televised fights for presidential nominations. Many candidates were not nominated until messy fights on the floors of conventions. You really had to see it to believe it. I’m talking about politics that sometimes resembled the World Wrestling Federation.

I might have only been nine years-old, but I was a truly strange nine year-old, and to this day I remember skipping my Popeye cartoons and being mesmerized as I watched the 1960 Democratic convention on television and seeing Bobby Kennedy running around the floor rounding up votes to seal the deal for his brother John. And I recall the 1964 Democratic convention when a group of heroic African American delegates from Mississippi, the Freedom Democrats led by 20th century civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, fought to be recognized. So what’s my point?

You may be understandably sick of the whole business. No matter who you support, you might be looking at the other candidate and feeling that enough is enough. Fair enough.But let’s not let our fatigue divert our attention from the fact that, with a woman and an African American candidate, we are watching the kind of high political drama that all of us will remember for years. I envy those seeing it for the first time. Watch and learn.The old guy has babbled.

After This Post, I Am Going to See if My Sleeping Daughter is Safe

Well, I’ve learned my lesson. If I try to show some restraint, I inevitably allow a festering resentment to continue to – well – fester. So let be more direct and say it for the last time.

The first Clinton “sleeping children” ad crossed a line.  

I detest the use of children in any advertisement or media content to foster or encourage fear. Children face so many less-visible and legitimate threats — everything from reckless drivers to substandard schools to hunger to racism and sexism — that to even give the impression that your opponent is a threat to the safety of sleeping children is ridiculous. Check out Joel Best’s brilliant “Threatened Children for the history of how fear and children have been a volatile and incendiary mix in American culture. 

And that’s what I think was in that ad. If you show children sleeping in a dark, creepy room, you imply – on some level — that someone is coming who will scare them or wake then up or hurt them. Just look at that ad and see the worried face of the mother who checks to see if they are alright. 

I know how flacks defend ads like this: “The ad was not intended to scare anyone but to call attention to the differences in experience between the candidates. Crises do occur and the voters blah blah blah blah blah and another blah. 

Please stop.

If you want to bring kids up, show us how you are going to treasure them and nurture them with sound public policy, not how your presidency will keep creepy people out of their bedrooms.

The Mother of All Fear-Based Political Advertisements

Alright, I am ready to get off my ”kids and fear in political advertising” kick, but thought I should end by sharing the famous daisy commercial.

Take a look at the classic  “vote for me or your kids might be in danger” ad.   The almost unbearable irony of watching this now is the realization that the candidate in this ad who in 1964 was promising to keep kids like me safe, President Lyndon Johnson, proceeded to escalate a war in Viet Nam that killed thousands upon thousands of those same kids.  

Truth in advertising: Barack Obama is my candidate. But I know that some of you who see this blog are my students and it is important to me that you feel free to make your own political choices.

But neither did it seem to make much sense to hide my choice.

Obama Strikes Back With His Sleeping Kids

Now the Obama campaign has struck back with their own sleeping kids.

Is this a presidential campaign or a remake of “When a Stranger Calls?”

The next commercial will probably have a voice saying: “We’ve traced the call. It’s the next President and it’s coming from inside the house.”

Kids As “The Nuclear Option” in Political Advertising

 I just saw a television commercial being used by the Clinton campaign, and wanted to share it. This is not about my own political preferences, but about a moment in the current campaign that should be noted by those interested in politics and media.  

Children have long been a “nuclear weapon” in political campaign advertising.  You can go on and on about how your opponent will muck up the world, accuse them of everything from unpaid debts to adulterating the food supply, but suggest that they might put your kids in jeopardy and you just may start a firestorm. Raising this specter has always been controversial. In fact, in the larger culture – advertisements, news coverage, popular culture – the endangered child has long been familiar and highly charged icon.  

One of the most notorious examples was the so-called daisy commercial created by President Lyndon Johnson’s re-election campaign in 1964. Broadcast only once, the commercial depicted a little girl pulling the buds off a daisy who was about to be annihilated by a nuclear explosion. The implication was that Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, might recklessly start a nuclear war. The use of the little girl was immensely controversial and the ad was pulled. So check out this ad now being run by the Clinton campaign.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, controversy ensues. I would love to know if children have been “cast” in the recent commercials of any other candidates. And I’d love to know what you think.