Month: November 2018

Even with Merkel’s Leadership Coming to an End, the EU is the Moral Leader of the West

The Associated Press is providing hour-by-hour updates of the meeting of the G20. It’s politics meets social awkwardness, as the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin hang out in close quarters with world leaders from the EU and other regions.

Back before November 2016, when grown-ups still ran U.S. foreign policy, it would’ve been a no-brainer that the U.S. would have issued a joint statement with other G20 leaders condemning the murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi and also punishing Russia for stepping right over the edge of legality with their recent seizure of Ukrainian ships, part of their ongoing effort to claim the territory as their own, which has been an on-again-off-again Russian territory since at least the days of the British Empire.

But in the bizarro world we’re living in, the EU faction is writing its own statements upholding a rules-based international order and democratic norms, while Trump, Putin, and Mohammed bin Salman gad about in their own morally vacant, transactional, no-man’s-land.

Thank God for Old Europe, keeping it together for anybody who cares about making sure the Enlightenment project doesn’t collapse.

Copy Critique: How to Tell a Complex Story In Just a Few Words

More from the exhibit on WWII propaganda currently up at the FDR Presidential Library.

Apart from the gorgeous imagery here, this is an incredible example of economy and power in storytelling. The narrative told is a complicated one: Don’t talk about what you’re working on for the war effort, because spies are listening, and if they learn about shipping or attacks in advance, they might relay those orders to Berlin, who would then attack, costing lives or resources. And don’t buy into the idea that just one person mentioning something isn’t important. What one person says or doesn’t say can cost or save lives.

Got all that?

Well, you could get the same from two words of headline copy plus nine words of optional copy and an image composed of two well-balanced elements.

Everything on this poster is doing work: the size of the hand, the movement from left to right, the use of color, the choice of civilian clothes for the figure, and the transformation of the newspaper into an accusatory pointing finger.

As a copywriter, I’m normally annoyed when clients or designers ask me to use fewer words. “But the words are doing all the *work*” I often think. The images are just there to grab people’s attention to get them to think.

With this little masterpiece from the golden age of print advertising, I’m inspired to think otherwise.

From the Commonplace Book: Dickens on Whimsy and National Security

Well, not quite national security, but national strength anway.

It is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales be respected. A nation without fancy, without some romance, never did, never can, never will, hold a great place under the sun.

-Charles Dickens, from Frauds on the Fairies

The wage premium for liberal arts grads, the continuing technological edge that the U.S. still enjoys over China (despite our comparative lack of investment in research), the inventiveness of our defense programs, and the appeal of our pop culture abroad are all built on our imagination, not our efficiency.

Hat tip to The Week, November 16, 2018 for pointing out the quote.

Copy Critique: U.S. War Propaganda from 1942

Advertising has at least one thing in common with the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. It is a vast collective creative project undertaken in anonymity. Nobody cared, least of all the stonemasons, who built the pillars and spires of a church as long as they stood upright. And nobody cares who makes the art and copy of great ads, as long as they get the message across.

But unlike the cathedrals, advertising is ephemeral. Beyond annual award shows, we don’t stop to appreciate and learn from classic work. That’s why it was a rare thing to see a collection of World War II propaganda posters at the FDR Presidential Library this weekend. Many of them are a perfect union of words and visuals, made with brevity and power that would put social media mavens to shame.

Example number one is this beauty from 1942. It conveys with three words and one symbol what a long-form copywriter like myself would take at least 300 words to get across. I was humbled by it, and pass it along to you.

Get the message?

Punctuation & Civilization

As Kenneth Clark said, “Manners are small morals.” I’d say the same about punctuation.

The part of the mind that remembers the rules for capitalization after a semicolon or whether to use “who” or “whom” is also the part of the mind that strives to think clearly about the matter in front of it. Punctuation guides our grammar and through our grammar it guides our consciousness.

Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s “comma Queen,” says as much in her latest piece. If you think of yourself as a member of The Resistance against the immorality and incompetence of those in power at the moment, she says that a good place to start is with a clean, beautiful statement of the truth. To speak truth to power, in other words, it is essential to first know how to speak.

Some Gratitudes

Before the last Thanksgiving leftovers are eaten, I want to get down a few lines about what I’m grateful for this year.

Friends and Family. There were many years when this wouldn’t have made my list, not because I didn’t value the relationships in my life, but because I didn’t know how to value them. They were simply there, like the rain in autumn or the snow in winter. Now that I’m roughly halfway through the journey of life, I know how important it is to have people with you along the way. They show you what’s possible. They define you. They give and receive love, without which it is not possible to be fully human. And to all my favorite humans, you know who you are: all love and affection to you.

Books. There isn’t a year I wouldn’t have included these magical objects on my list. They are an escape from the prison of the moment and of the present time, a solace in tough times, a celebration in the best of times, and a source of wisdom and amusement, often both at once. Without them, I would not know who I am or what anything means. They think thoughts for me that are bigger than I’d ever be able to arrive at on my own. They keep the whole picture of the world in mind, seen in understanding and compassion and fascination, so I don’t have to bear that burden.

My Body. Just about everybody who knows me knows that I used to weigh over 40% more than I do now. There isn’t a day that I don’t get up and take a moment of thanks that I’m no longer beset by the physical and emotional suffering that came with that body. I don’t want anybody to feel body shamed by this post. But for me, being heavier than I am now didn’t work out. Let’s hope I can keep up the physical recovery, one day at a time.

My Job. Just about everybody who knows me also knows how much my job rules my life. It spills over into vacation time, sleeping time, weekends, evenings, and even my dreams and the stray thoughts of the odd hours. For all the anxiety it brings, it has made me smarter, more creative, braver, and more financially secure than I’ve ever been. I’ve got a long journey before I’ll be satisfied with my progress on any of those fronts, but without the whetstone of my job, I’d be much duller than I am now. Plus, in a mean, cold world, it’s nice to have a place to go every day where my talents, such as they are, are put to use.

Dungeons & Dragons. For the past two years, I’ve been getting together with a mad crew of friends to create real, shared memories of imaginary places and people. I’ve learned more about my imagination than I have in a lifetime of writing and even some things about myself I’d never have otherwise. (How *would* I respond to the chance to sell my soul, speak with the dead, steal a treasure, or defend the innocent?). This thanks extends this to all tabletop games that you play with other people — it’s a sure path to the kind of knowledge of yourself and others you’d normally get from real life, but you get to have fun and suffer only the mildest of consequences when you find it on the game board.

That seems like a fairly basic list, but there you have it. It’s what showed up when I asked my mind for a list of what mattered.

Now, back to the grind.

What are you grateful for?

 

Meet My New Family Member, Rowdy III

He is a miniature long hair Dachshund, black and english cream, twenty two weeks old. So far, he’s a big fan of chasing his own tail, chewing on the ends of shoelaces and zipper pulls, and passing out in front of radiators.

UPDATE: I should clarify that the wonderful Rowdy III lives with my mom and step-dad in the Hudson Valley. He’s not mine. We’re just siblings.

(Photo credit: Andrew Yang)

Abraham Lincoln on Thanksgiving: Gratitude in Times of “National Perverseness”

A time to give thanks? Check.

A time of “national perverseness”? Check.

And who better than the near-mythological figure Abraham Lincoln to remind us that even when things seem to be falling apart–the Civil War gets more points on that score than our own–it’s important to make time to give it all a rest and be thankful for what the earth has provided and for all of us who are still here in good health to enjoy it together.

We are not engaged in Civil War, but it has been a year of catastrophe. Many Americans who were alive last Thanksgiving aren’t alive today, whether from natural disaster like the California fires, or manmade disaster, like the 35,000 Americans who die from gun violence every year.

So take a deep breath and savor the day.

From Abe’s proclamation of Thanksgiving as an official holiday, which appeared in The Atlantic in 1863.

It has seemed to be fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people; I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

If you don’t pray to God, Abe’s rumbling, periodic sentence still works–give thanks to whatever forces at work in the universe remind you that you’re just a small part of things, but a small part capable of gratitude.

Have a great day, everybody!

Today, We Know Who We Are

J.G. Ballard said somewhere that travel gives us purpose, however transiently. While we travel through airport terminals, train stations, waiting rooms, while we wait in lines or in traffic, our boredom or frustration is elevated by knowing exactly who we are.

Today, many of us are people on our way home for Thanksgiving. Have a safe journey, everybody, and enjoy that precious sense of purpose.

The Creeping Loss of History

There are two great horrors in 1984, the violence done to the narrator by the thugs of the thought police, similar to the actual crimes of repressive regimes in Orwell’s time and ours, and then there is the creeping loss of history, the more subtle of the two horrors, and the one that makes the violence possible.

I would argue that Orwell’s book is preoccupied with the erosion of history more so than violence.

The main character’s experience of the loss of history takes up far more pages than his brainwashing and physical abuse. When we see him broken at the end of the story, it is the loss of memory which makes him less than human. Without memory, there can be no ward against unreality. Without memory, whatever the screens around him say is truth and always has been.

Apart from reports of violence against migrants and the U.S. prison population in Guantanamo and at home, I am not exposed to physical brutality, but I am exposed every day to the creeping loss of history.

I recently ghost wrote a book on the future of the workplace for an executive. In discussions of economics or of the future, it is commonplace to talk about history. Economics is a science without a laboratory. The only way to test out theories about how the economy might work in the future is to look at how it has worked in the past. The most important work of economics in the last decade, Tomas Piketty’s Capital, was notable for its analysis of wealth inequality in the past. Because of new methods, Piketty could be more precise than Marx.

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