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?

 

FDR on the Limited Uses of Limited Government

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I visited the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. Down a path from the ancestral Roosevelt home is a Dutch-style building FDR had built to house his library of 22,000 volumes, which became his administrative home during his four terms as President.

It’s now a museum which houses his Oval Office desk, model ship collection, library, and the New York office he used as President, still arranged as it was on the day he died. There’s also an exhibit of many rooms which reconstructs the atmosphere of Roosevelt’s election and presidency.

Far from the triumphalism that has colored our view of the past, every decision of his presidency was made in the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear brought on by economic collapse. Much of what we now think of as inviolable, like Medicare and Social Security, was considered a gamble, even unconstitutional. Nobody had ever made such energetic use of the powers of the Federal Government before.

The Republicans have been trying to tear down what FDR built since the first 100 days of his first term. Trump’s reality show, a smokescreen for the malign neglect of the Federal bureaucracy, is just the latest and most vulgar incarnation of this effort.

And it seems Democrats have forgotten how to argue for the alternative to limited government. They are too busy fighting about Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry or defending Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s wardrobe to reach the same rhetorical heights that FDR scaled without fear.

Perhaps it was the presence of books in every room of FDR’s office and home which helped him find the words that made him so powerful.

In his bedroom, in his office, on surfaces in the hallways, I saw every kind of book: almanacs, mystery novels, editions of the psalms, sermons, dictionaries, ancient and modern classics, indices of the army and the navy. In photos of FDR and Eleanor, they are always surrounded by books, even when sitting on a table outside overlooking the Hudson River.

If we’re looking for the words to combat fascism and an uncaring government this time around, I suspect we won’t find them in the claustrophobic spaces of our little screens, but in the books that surrounded FDR and his cabinet.