Observations on the Newtown Tragedy and its Larger Societal Implications

Shady Hook School, Newtown, CTI’m going to take a step away from the usual focus of my blog posts to address the larger cultural factors that really need to be on everyone’s radar screen as we “process” the horrific actions in Newtown, CT. The school massacre has left a community reeling and I’m sure many are re-examining their thinking about what this all means in the “larger context” of our society and culture.

A good friend of mine I’ve known since college, Wesley Green, is someone whose opinion I value highly. He’s been a “media person” for decades and always has interesting observations to share about the “bigger meaning” of events as they occur.

Wes sent me his observations about Newtown, meant for my eyes only, but I found them thought-provoking and compelling enough to want to share with my blog audience. With his permission, here is what Wes shared with me:

We all wonder how something like this could happen …

The natural disposition of humans is to be compassionate and outward looking. We are by nature people of community—predisposed to love and take care of each other. But … when afflicted by a psychological or neurological injury, humans lurch towards some form of narcissism.

Common in small children whose frontal lobes are not fully developed, narcissism re-emerges, sometimes with a vengeance, in adults as an unconscious reaction to neurological/psychological disequilibrium. As far as I can tell, all mental illness is accompanied by some form of narcissism in that one’s capacity for empathy is somehow impaired.

How narcissistic tendencies are enabled …

The modern world unfortunately gives people novel opportunities to indulge any narcissistic tendencies. Video games allow people to be the heroes of their own virtual worlds – worlds in which they have power and prestige.

Websites, including social sites, also allow people to feel more … consequential.

But I think the most insidious modern innovation remains television. Not only does TV blur the lines between fantasy and reality, it can actually turn fantasy into reality.

Why TV may be a linchpin …

More than any other media, television has the power to take “nobodies” and transform them into “somebodies” almost overnight. We see it on American Idol, The X-Factor, and a host of reality TV shows (Jersey Shore, anyone?). So much celebrity is doled out, it becomes an achievable goal to many – including people with weapons.

TV also has power no other media have to legitimize formerly illegitimate behavior. The Brady Bunch did more than people realize to legitimize blended families. Years later, shows like Modern Family and Glee helped change our attitudes about gays.

But … there is a flip side: Behaviors once considered not just off-limits but barbaric also have gained some legitimacy when those behaviors are seen to bring global attention to a “worthy” cause and thus advance it. For years now, violent demonstrations and terrorist attacks have been scripted to maximize broadcast exposure.

It doesn’t take much imagination for a narcissist to connect dots and suffuse his/her own personal fantasies with the same import. “Round-the-clock international newsfeeds” and “deadly impulses” make for a combustible mixture.

Newtown TragedySo, what does this mean?

It seems to me that the problem isn’t that these “suburban terrorists” see too much violence on television and in the news. It’s that they yearn to see themselves on television and in the news.

While they may have an impulse to vent their rage, what they really covet is the immortality that comes with a leading role in some sort of Götterdämmerung—in prime time.

Regulating automatic weapons may help, but when glory beckons a twisted ego, I suspect that ego will find a way to answer the call.

Alas, ironically, as we become increasingly connected to each other through technology, we’re being forced to put up new barricades to protect ourselves from those who want to use that “connectedness” to advertise their own perverse agendas and/or raise their own humiliatingly low profiles.

Is it something particular about America and our culture?

It’s too pat a response to contend that more restrictive gun control laws are all that stand in the way of solving the problems of mass shooting in the United States. I think that answer is deceptively easy – and insufficient.

The more I think about this, I suspect there may be one more important ingredient in the toxic brew: the central place of “aspiration” in the American psyche.

In the U.S., self-worth is largely defined by achievement. We are what we manage to accomplish in life. (Not so much in most other countries/cultures. At least, not historically.) All of us — except African-Americans and Native Americans — are descended from people who came here chasing dreams.

Even today, we measure ourselves by milestones along similar personal journeys. In fact, so important is “accomplishment” in our culture that we now have a website that purports to be able to quantify it: Klout.

It is instructive, I think, that all the young gunmen who have perpetrated these awful acts are males of European or Asian descent. They come out of middle-class, strongly aspirational cultures. It leaves one to wonder if the same ethos that drives innovation in Silicon Valley and entrepreneurial activity coast to coast also factors heavily into the narcissistic fantasies of disturbed young men. Mass murder is simply the shadow side of headline personal success: headline personal failure.

Remember this line from Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman:

“I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have — to come out Number One man.”

Interesting, no?

When you understand the strong impulse middle-class Americans have to make a splash in life — our fascination with the BIG statement … and then factor in the disorientation of mental illness and the opportunities for really big statements afforded by the modern media, maybe the questions “Why in America?” and “Why these middle-class young men?” begin to answer themselves a little more easily.

What’s ahead?

It’s chilling to contemplate, but the future may look a lot like this:

We’ll increasingly live in gated communities.
 We’ll increasingly shop in malls with airport-like security.
 We’ll increasingly worship behind doors outfitted with metal detectors.
 We’ll increasingly send our kids to schools that look like Fort Knox.
 Our physical connectedness will dissipate even as our virtual connectedness expands.

A horrific thought. What’s worse, I suspect there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it – gun control regulations or no.

In addition to Wesley’s observations above, I’d be interested in your own views about Newtown and what it says about our society and culture. Please share your thoughts below if you feel so inclined.

Celebrity Appeal: The More Things Change …

Betty White, 90 years old and America's favorite celeb.
90-year-old Betty White, America’s most appealing celebrity for three years running.

In today’s world, it seems a new celebrity emerges every minute. But in surveys of ~1,100 Americans conducted weekly by E-Poll Market Research, the same old names keep popping up as the celebrities that are the most appealing.

And I do mean “the same old“:  For the third year in a row, E-Poll Market Research reports that the most appealing celebrity is … Betty White. She’s the nonagenarian who’s been gracing the TV screens of America ever since the 1960s.

Who are the other celebrities who top the list of “most admired?” Reading the list is like taking a trip down Memory Lane:

  • Sandra Bullock
  • Carol Burnett
  • Clint Eastwood
  • Michael J. Fox
  • Morgan Freeman
  • Tom Hanks
  • Robin Williams

You might wonder which celebrity is gaining most in appeal when compared to the previous year’s surveys. That would be Aziz Ansari, the Parks and Recreation star who has also had quite a successful run in stand-up comedy.

Several other “up and comers” include Andy Samberg, Aaron Rogers and Melissa McCarthy.  Clearly though, it’s the “old bulls” that maintain their sway over the American public.

The big takeaway from the research is this: However difficult it may be to accomplish, for those who do manage to break into the top ranks of celebrity appeal, it’s likely they’ll stay there for years to come.

Oh, S#\@*!! Facebook’s Not for Prudes

Profanity on Facebook:  More than you might imagine.In the “anything goes” world of social media, it stands to reason that the language we find there isn’t exactly reserved for polite company.

And now we have some quantifiable data that confirms those suspicions. Reppler, a Palo Alto, CA-based social media monitoring service, recently scanned some 30,000 Facebook members’ walls … and what they found wassn’t exactly the language of choirboys.

Here are two interesting stats from what Reppler discovered:

 Nearly half of the Facebook walls contain some form of profanity.

 Four out of five users with profanity on their Facebook wall have at least one comment or post from a friend that contains profanity.

What’s the most common profane terms used? Not surprisingly, the “f-word” comes out on top. That’s followed by various derivations of the word the French know as merde. Runner-up among the top three is the “b-word.”

It’s important to note that people don’t have complete control over the language their Facebook friends use. But the prevalence of profanity on Facebook walls comes at a time when many employers are increasingly looking at the online presence of their prospective hires and noting the degree of professionalism – or lack thereof – that they see.

And there’s a related issue that’s becoming increasingly significant as well. With more companies and brands creating Facebook pages and other social networking sites, monitoring the discussion that takes place on them takes on even more importance.

It’s critical for brands not to offend even a small percentage of their customers. But with the general “race to the bottom” in what’s deemed acceptable language, there are real differences in what some people think is legitimate expression … and what others would consider to be gross indecency.

These differences are a factor of not only of age, but of acculturation.

Third-party tools from Reppler and others that automatically flag certain language or phrases can alleviate some of the problem, but there’s really no substitute for good, old-fashioned site monitoring. Which is why so many companies are finding the whole social media thing to be pretty labor-intensive, when done properly.

America’s Symphony Orchestras Taking it on the Chin?

JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Getting it right: Music Director JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
The news this past weekend that the Philadelphia Orchestra’s board of directors has voted to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy is just the latest in a string of ugly news items about the precarious financial state of professional symphony orchestras in America.

That the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, 111 years old and one of the best-known, best-loved ensembles in the classical music field, should be facing bankruptcy proceedings comes as a surprise to most people. This orchestra, with its stellar roster of past music directors including Eugene Ormandy, Ricardo Muti, and Leopold Stokowski of Disney’s Fantasia fame, would seem to be nearly immune to financial stresses.

But the fallout from the economic recession has affected private and public funding alike, with corporate donors snapping their wallets shut … and many well-heeled retirees and other donors looking at their financial and real estate portfolios and feeling much poorer.

In the new economic reality, the prognosis for the Philadelphia Orchestra and other professional classical music ensembles is grim unless severe cuts are made to operating expenses. But those steps can also be risky. Just a week before the Philadelphia announcement, the Detroit Symphony, another well-established body whose list of past music directors including Antal Dorati, Paul Paray and Neeme Järvi is almost as impressive as Philadelphia’s, nearly went under after proposing more than a 15% reduction in player salaries, plus other concessions.

Rather than agree to their base pay dropping from ~$104,000 to ~$88,000, the musicians went on strike in the Fall of 2010. It was only when the board of the DSO was ready to pull the plug on the orchestra’s existence that the players agreed to come back to work.

On Saturday, April 9, the DSO performed for the first time in over five months, and the musicians are now committed to completing the current orchestral season. After nearly two years of wrangling, it’s the best outcome anyone could have hoped for.

Looking out across the country, it’s difficult to find much good news in the orchestral field; the Honolulu Symphony was recently liquidated and the Louisville Orchestra has also filed for bankruptcy.

But one bright spot is in Buffalo, where the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, under the inspired 11-year leadership of music director JoAnn Falletta and a pragmatic, forward-looking Board led by Cindy Abbott Letro, is weathering the economic stresses with better success. Another venerable orchestral institution, the BPO is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and its roster of past music directories includes such luminaries as William Steinberg, Michael Tilson Thomas and the composer-conductor Lukas Foss.

Considering that the Buffalo urban community is much smaller than many other metropolitan markets like Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco that support professional symphony orchestras, what the BPO has been able to accomplish is nothing short of amazing.

In 2008, the BPO concluded a capital campaign that added more than $32 million to the orchestra’s endowment, and posted a balanced budget in the 2009-10 season. In 2010, it went on tour for the first time in ~20 years. The BPO’s symphony programs are some of the most interesting and inventive being performed by any orchestra in America (I know: I’ve attended several of them). And the orchestra is continuing to release new CDs of fascinating orchestral repertoire on Naxos, the world’s largest classical music label.

Key to the BPO’s success goes beyond public monies, or support from foundations plus a few wealthy individuals. It’s about creating a strong link between the orchestra and the wider community – something easy to talk about, but challenging to accomplish without building strong chemistry and a sense of shared destiny. And in that regard, the attitude, approachability and personality of the music director cannot be overstated.

Richard Morrison, esteemed music critic of The Times of London, writes in the pages of BBC Music Magazine of “the existential crisis that could soon devour orchestras across the world with exemplary management, hard-working musicians, high standards and realistic attitudes.” He can “easily envisage a future in which dozens of ailing cities across Europe and America lose their orchestras forever.”

Not that Morrison is happy about his prognosis: “Some might argue that, in this age of universally-available Internet concerts, the physical presence of an orchestra in any particular region no longer matters. I can’t agree. It would be a tragedy if the opportunity to hear live classical concerts was bestowed only on people living in the wealthiest cities,” he opines.

If the example set by the Buffalo Philharmonic is one that could be replicated in other urban areas, Morrison’s grim prediction could turn out to be wrong. Let’s hope so.

Franz Göll: Witness to History

The Turbulent World of Franz GollAn old saying goes like this: “There are three types of people in the world: Those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who wonder what happened.”

The implicit meaning is that only the first set of people are consequential in life.

But sometimes those who watch from the sidelines make their mark in surprising ways.

I think a good example of this is a person who is the subject of a new book. The Turbulent World of Franz Göll, by Peter Fritzsche [Harvard University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0674055315], is a fascinating read. It chronicles the tumultuous events of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of a lower-level administrative manager, a lifetime resident of Berlin.

What makes the book so interesting is that everything is taken from the meticulous diaries and notes written down by Herr Göll over the course of his adult life. And his 85 years of life happened to span the entire sweep of the consequential events in Germany and Europe during the 20th century (1899-1984).

This isn’t the first book that deals with private diaries kept by people living in Berlin during World War II. About 25 years ago, the diaries of Marie Vassiltchikov, a young Russian/Lithuanian princess who moved to the German capital city after the Soviets had occupied her country in 1940, were published by her son after her death. In Berlin Diaries: 1940-1945 [Vintage, ISBN-13: 978-0394757773], we get a blow-by-blow description of life as an aristocrat in Berlin … a city full of nervous energy that quickly becomes an inferno. As an adrenaline rush, it’s hard to top that book. (In fact, I’m surprised Mlle. Vassiltchikov’s story hasn’t been made into a movie.)

But this volume on Franz Göll is quite different. Peter Fritzsche, the book’s author, is a professor at the University of Illinois who specializes in German history. In researching the book, Fritzsche had a veritable treasure trove of material to work with. That’s because Göll bequeathed his entire set of diaries plus other ephemera to the Berlin State Archives upon his death in 1984.

There they remained, essentially untouched, until Professor Fritzsche came across them and realized what he had found: some 23 volumes of diaries meticulously chronicling one man’s life in Berlin from the era of World War I all the way up to the modern day.

… And more. Not only was Göll a writer, he was an obsessive collector as well – so much so, he’d probably be a prime specimen for a psychoanalyst.

Göll kept copious notes on his voracious reading … created poems … collected postcards (more than 8,000 of them!) … clipped and saved countless newspaper and magazine articles. A lifelong bachelor who would live in the same two-room Berlin apartment his entire adult life, he was a loner who likely felt out of place in his working class surroundings despite being of working-class rank himself.

He was largely self-taught in his knowledge, and his entertainments were solitary pursuits like going to the movies.

Surely a “sad sack” case if there ever was one.

But author Fritzsche has gleaned all sorts of interesting material from Göll’s diaries — and in the process helps us understand that, far from being “in the dark” about the conditions of Jews and other minorities during the era of the Third Reich, Göll was aware of what was happening. Maybe not the details, but certainly in a broader sense.

In a diary posting from 1941, he wrote: “It is an open secret that they are proceeding against the Jews in the most rigorous way with sterilization [and] removal to the Eastern territories.”

An early supporter of the Nazi party, as early as 1935 Göll had became disillusioned with conditions under Hitler, his diary postings reveal.

Some of Göll’s diary entries from earlier decades of Germany’s turbulent history are equally interesting. He wrote of the hungry Berlin winters at the end of World War I, and during Germany’s period of hyperinflation in the early 1920s, took note of what he saw all around him.

Later in life, as a resident of West Berlin, Göll saw his younger countrymen shake off their “German-ness” and embrace a generalized Western materialism that he found difficult to understand or accept. (In this regard, he was probably no different from many people of the older generation – in Germany or elsewhere.)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that it shows how an obscure person with no claim to fame — a loner with virtually no friends or relatives — can accomplish something important for posterity. As “obsessive-compulsive” as Göll may have been, even he seemed to think what he was doing was for naught. Writing in 1954 at the age of 55:

“I used to take myself very seriously: my diaries, my collections, my readings, my poems, and not least, my ‘self.’ Today, I have to admit it: It would have been important to have acquired a trade, to have become a man, and to have founded a family … Nothing I did ever bore any fruit; it was all an idle wasting of time.”

Readers of this book will disagree. In “watching things happen,” Herr Göll actually accomplished a great deal — for historians and for us.

Marshall McLuhan: The Great Prognosticator

Marshall McLuhan, scholar, writer and social theorist
Marshall McLuhan: The Great Prognosticator
I’ve been reading a new biography on Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian educator, scholar and social theorist who is notable for having predicted the rise of the Internet years before Al Gore or anyone else took credit for inventing it.

The succinct biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland [ISBN-10: 1935633163 … also available in a Kindle edition], is quite interesting and I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in mass communications and popular culture.

Reading this biography, one gets the impression that McLuhan was a man who correctly predicted a good deal of the world of communications in which we live today. Not only did he forecast the rise of the web 30 years before it came about, he was the one who coined the expression “the medium is the message” … and who spoke about the “global village” long before Hilary Clinton came on the scene.

It turns out that this extraordinary thinker led a pretty conventional life, actually. Born in Edmonton, AB, he spent the better part of his career in Canada, although it was as a visiting professor at St. Louis University where he met his future wife, with whom he would have six children. (Born an Anglican, McLuhan was influenced by the writings of G. K. Chesterton and had converted to Roman Catholicism by his late 20s.)

Although trained as an academician in Canada and at Cambridge – and being on the faculty at prestigious educational institutions like the University of Toronto where he eventually had his own research center – the demands of raising a large family drove McLuhan to more financially lucrative work in the advertising field as well. He also had consulting stints at large corporations like AT&T and IBM.

Although passionate about and partial to his teaching and academic work, it was as an ad industry personality that McLuhan probably made his biggest mark.

As early as 1951, McLuhan published a book of essays called The Mechanical Bride, which analyzed various examples of “persuasion” in contemporary popular culture.

In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” as he wrote of the influence of communications media independent of their content. He contended that media affect society in which they play a role not by the content they deliver, but by the characteristics of the media themselves. True enough.

And how did McLuhan come to predict the rise of the Internet? It was right there in his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, which attempted to reveal how communications technology – alphabetic writing, printing presses, electronic media — affects cognitive organization and, in turn, social organization. Here’s what he had to say:

“The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its environment, and it will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.”

Remember, this was written in 1962!

McLuhan also used the term “surfing” in a way that seems uncannily similar to its meaning today – in his case, using the word “surfing” to refer to rapid, irregular and multidimensional movement through a body of knowledge.

More books would come from McLuhan’s pen in subsequent years, including:

 The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (McLuhan’s best seller)
War and Peace in the Global Village
From Cliché to Archetype

All of these volumes sound pretty fascinating – definitely ones to explore in the future, although the biography provides good synopses of their contents.

It is difficult to think of someone that has had more influence over the world of media and advertising than Marshall McLuhan. Sure, there are people like David Ogilvy, but his influence has been confined almost exclusively to the advertising industry alone.

By contrast, the McLuhan’s biographer contends that McLuhan influenced scads of writers and critical thinkers – I was pleased to see Camille Paglia among them – along with politicians like Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jerry Brown. McLuhan was even named a “patron saint” of Wired Magazine, and a quote of his appeared on the publication’s masthead during the first decade of its publication.

And finally, it’s nice to discover that McLuhan’s years in academia have been given their due as well: The University of Toronto has continued his work by running a center at the school named, appropriately, the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology.

Signs of the Times

Divine, aka Harris Glenn MilsteadIt absolutely had to happen.

Reports from Japan are that facial-recognition technology is now being incorporated into mall signage wherein the age and gender of passersby are discerned before displaying “demographic appropriate” advertisements to them as they walk by.

NEC, a multinational electronics firm, is experimenting with biometric technology. the ability to scan faces to detect gender and age within a range of 10 years. Not only is the technology being tested in mall signage, but also in vending machinery where “helpful suggestions” will be made to consumers based on their presumed age and gender.

And of course, Japan today means the U.S. tomorrow. In fact, other companies are already testing “gender-aware” technology for outdoor billboards and mall signage here in the United States. Intel has partnered with Microsoft in such an endeavor to design the Intel Intelligent Digital Signage Concept.

Joe Jensen, a manager at Intel’s Embedded Computing Division, sums it up like this: “As stores seek more competitive advantages over online retailers, digital signage has become a valuable technology for dispersing targeted and interactive content to shoppers.”

If gender-aware technology proves to be effective, does this mean that gin & tonics will be now offered to older consumers? At the end of a long day at the office, that could be a tantalizing option for businesspeople hitting Grand Central Station to catch the Long Island Railway home.

Or consider this picture: Legions of “Divine” impersonators (see above) descending upon malls or food kiosks, just to test how well the signage and vending machines can determine true age and gender!

Kidding aside, it’s really no surprise that digital technology with its ability to serve highly targeted, relevant content would eventually work its way into billboards and signage, historically the most “mass” of mass communications. Marketers crave statistical results, and they’re naturally going to gravitate to anything that provides those metrics – no matter how imprecise they might be.