Earth Day — A Non-Environmental Recollection

April 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Today is Julian Koenig’s birthday. He would have been 98. It’s also Earth Day.

The rhyme is not a coincidence.

Koenig was an ad-man. The word “creative” gets tossed around pretty loosely in the ad world, but Koenig truly was. When environmentalists were planning their first big  national event in 1970, Koenig offered to help. Surely he could come up with something better than the name they already had – “Environmental Teach-in.” The day of the event just happened to be his birthday, and the rhyme was a natura.  As the national director recalls,

He offered a bunch of possible names — Earth Day, Ecology Day, Environment Day, E Day — but he made it quite clear that we would be idiots if we didn’t choose Earth Day.

It worked for them. It worked for him.
Our paths crossed a few years later, in the early seventies. How that happened is a story I told in brief in this blog years ago (here).    

Then, in 2013, the American Sociological Association gave its Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues Award to Ira Glass and the staff of “This American Life.”  The awards ceremony was a panel discussion. Ira was the with three producers from the show. One of them was Sarah Koenig, Julian’s daughter. David Newman, one of the sociologists on the panel, said that what he liked bes about the show was that he could use it to give his students the larger picture of social issues.

But Ira Glass, when it was his turn to speak, said that what the show thrived on was not issues but people. “Don’t pitch us a story about some issue; you have to have a character – a character who has an interesting story . . . and who comes across on tape.” (Not an exact quote, but that was the idea.)

After the panel ended and people were still milling about, I went up to Sarah Koenig, still sitting on the podium. “I have a character,” I said. “It’s an advertising guy I met when we worked together on this project in Florida. He had retired but he was just getting back into the business.” I looked at her to see if she was catching on. I couldn’t tell.

“We discovered that we both liked the track. But he really liked it. He’d buy the Racing Form every day, even days he didn’t go to the track.” I thought I detected a hint of interest in her expression.

“And he didn’t throw them out,” I continued.  “He had the back issues stacked up in the closets of his house.”

“I think I know this man,” she said smiling.

She said she’d ask her father if he’d remember me. She was sure he would. I was sure he wouldn’t. In any case, I never heard from her. But then, I never pitched any stories, and she got busy with other projects, like “Serial.”

What Have You Got Against Progress?

April 14, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s hard to find a liberal politician these days. Hillary? Nope. Bernie? Not him either.
Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and others of their generation used to be Liberals. No longer. They’re Progressives. And of course, so are newer faces like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

Is there a difference? In a NY Times op-ed today, “When Liberals Become Progressives,” Greg Weiner of Assumption College says Yes there is. He’s wrong. Or rather, if he’s right, he’s right only in his own particular definition of these words.

“Progressivism is inherently hostile to moderation because progress is an unmitigated good. There cannot be too much of it.” He sees Progressives as uncompromising, almost totalitarian. Progressivism is a steamroller flattening anyone and anything in its path to social improvements – tradition, the Constitution, individual rights; nothing is safe. “It supersedes the rights of its opponents. This is evident in progressive indifference to the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.”

I’m sure that Chuck and Nancy, Hillary and Bernie, Cory and Kamala and the rest would be surprised and delighted to learn that their power was so awesome.

Of course, Prof. Weiner knows what’s really going on. It’s a change of name, not of policy.* “In recent decades, the label ‘progressive’ has been resurrected to replace ‘liberal,’ a once vaunted term so successfully maligned by Republicans that it fell out of use.” Even as a name change, Weiner says, it “augurs poorly for Democrats.” He’s wrong. It was a brilliant bit of renaming and rebranding. It trades a label that was at best peripheral to American ideas and ideals for one that has a more central place in American culture.

The pantheon of American values includes ideals like Freedom, Equality, Success/Achievement, Democracy, Patriotism, and others. But no observer of American culture has ever seen Liberal as one of these terms that have such deep resonance in the hearts of Americans. That may have made it even easier for Republicans to turn “Liberal” into a slur.

But Americans do believe in Progress. Politicians can rail about ideas and policies that are liberal. But who will speak out against Progress? Back in the 20th century, the term was so unassailably positive that General Electric made it the core of their brand.** Progress was their most important product.

Yes, that’s conservative saint Ronald Reagan pitching progress. The idea of progress may have lost some of the sanctity it had in the 1950s, but it’s still highly positive. Not to Prof. Weiner. He still loves the “liberal” label. He says that those on the left “would do well, politically as well as philosophically, to revive it. I wonder how many politicians (and their brand consultants) who are trying to win elections would agree with him?

* Weiner does not mention any actual policies. Nor does he specify what he means by “the rights of those who oppose progressive policies in areas like sexual liberation.” Presumably, he means the right to discriminate against LBGTQ people.

** Back then, we spoke of “image” rather than “brand.” It’s really the same thing – how the public perceives the company. The main difference is that the word “image” suggests that the whole thing is a fake, an imaginary facade that PR guys have created to manipulate the public. “Brand,” by contrast, is as honest and unpretentious as a cowboy on a cattle ranch. This change from “image-mongers” to “brand consultants” is itself one of the great examples of rebranding.

Couch and Context

April 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s nothing unusual about a girl sitting on a couch, backpack beside her, writing in a notebook. But this was in a bus shelter on Columbus Avenue.

I crossed the street to make sure that it was an actual bus stop and not some temporary prop. It was the real thing.

But why would the MTA put a couch at a bus stop – besides the obvious reason so that people can sit on it and write in their notebooks. It took me a few seconds to catch on. I had seen this couch before, but in a different context, which is why I didn't recognize it immediately. Maybe you have seen it  too.

Bad News – This Kid Got Accepted at Lots of Colleges

April 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you’re a Republican, you probably think that Whites suffer more from racial discrimination than do Blacks.* One of the ways that Black people make things harder for Whites is by applying to college.

You have probably seen this video of the Black kid in Houston, on his computer, reading his acceptance from Stanford. Full scholarship. Family and friends scream in delight. He breaks down crying. It’s touching. He applied to 19 other schools with similar results.

The DC local Fox News program could not let the moment go without some criticism He had, the anchors complained, applied to too many schools. At each of those schools, they said, his acceptance meant that some other applicant was put on the wait list.**

The Fox reaction had nothing to do with race, right? That kid in the video  – that kid who jumped the line and displaced “someone else who worked really hard” –  just happened to be Black.

Still, there was something hauntingly familiar about the Fox take on college acceptances. Then I remembered it – the “Hands” ad. That was the TV spot Jesse Helms ran in his 1990 campaign for Senate in North Carolina. The ad showed a man’s hands opening a letter (no computer acceptances back then). The voice-over was explicit in playing the race card.

Affirmative action in 1990, college applications in 2018. In Republicanland, everyone knows that a White person just doesn’t have a chance any more.


* A Public Religion Research Institute poll (WaPo summary here) asked voters if Whites were “under attack.” Sixty-three percent agreed.  Is there “a lot of discrimination” against Whites? Forty-three percent of Republicans agreed. Against Blacks? Only 27% of Republicans agreed.

** Colleges send out more acceptances than they have places for. They make fairly good estimates of how many of those accepted students will choose another school. I would imagine that those estimates take into account the average number of schools that high schoolers apply to.