An Open Letter to the Media

120604093148-tsr-king-new-electoral-map-00002708-story-topDear Media:

Seems like it’s been a rough week for you. I’ve been reading your mea culpas, and I am pleased to see your soul searching about the effect of the economy on the working class, the amount of coverage you give to rural issues and labor issues. I hope that these post-election realizations lead to real action on your part. And I’m glad to see the issue of fake news circulating on Facebook coming to the fore. It turns out all those “media elite” gatekeepers do perform a needed service, helping us to know what is fiction and what is news. I’m sure you take some comfort in the idea that it is the delivery system and not the coverage that is broken.

Before these narratives get too locked in, I would like to ask you to do a bit of soul searching about another kind of media bias– the bias for drama and suspense. I will admit that by addressing this to “the media” I am being overly broad. What I am responding to mostly is television coverage of this election. While more people may see stories by passing them around social media, television still sets the stage for water cooler talk, and gives certain stories prominence by covering them or not. What did the major news outlets cover? Not policy issues.

In watching TV news coverage of the campaigns, which I did a lot of, I saw two things. Controversy and pundits reactions to it, and predictions of who would win the horse race based on demographic stereotypes of different regions. (I’m a woman from Michigan and I’m kind of tired of being seen as a rust belt, suburban, female, college educated…blah, blah, blah)  This is all exciting, and perhaps it succeeds in getting clicks, in the case of newspapers, and steals viewers from American Idol in the case of TV, but it doesn’t help voters make informed decisions.

I am suddenly seeing lots of coverage of potential conflicts of interest with Trump’s businesses. I recall one news cycle and one well-publicized story about that in the twelve years or so (at least that is how long I think it was) leading up to the election. Suddenly there are lots of stories about it. It is late to start focusing on that now, isn’t it? Was the fact that Trump’s organization did business with an Iranian bank linked to terrorism out there before the election? Because I don’t recall seeing any stories about it, and I watched the news every day.

Perhaps the lack of this scrutiny was due to your original sin of not taking seriously the possibility that Trump could win. If you had believed that, I have to believe, you would have given more thought to the conflicts and issues that would arise if Trump was elected and brought them more to the fore. Wouldn’t you? God, I hope so. Or were they just too boring and not tied enough to the Red/Blue culture wars to generate clicks, likes, shares and viewers?

There must have been some time you could have taken away from the big board speculations to ferret out some of these issues.

Now, I have to say that I am a writer myself and I’ve worked as a journalist and I am writing to you because I respect you so much and value what you do. The “media” is made up of a lot of individuals who are doing great work– many of you agree with all I am saying. Keep fighting the good fight.

Before I let you go, there is another thing I’d like to mention. Election turn out was down this year, contrary to predictions. Democratic turnout especially was down, and this more than anything sealed Clinton’s fate. I know you see your job as explaining the results and creating a narrative. What I am hearing is a lot of analysis on how Clinton failed to speak to voters. But is it possible you might yourselves have played a hand in this? What impact might it have had when, a month or so before the election, when the pussygate bus tape came out, you declared the election over, and said Clinton had a 90% chance of winning? If you like Clinton, but you have a couple of kids you have to get to school, and you work the kind of job where you don’t get paid if you take time off to vote, and you have been told that there is a 90% chance that the candidate you like is going to win anyway, that there is really no chance the other guy can win– how motivated will you be to get to the polls? How much will you believe your individual vote matters?

So yeah, you missed some things. Try to to better next time, won’t you? Because it’s kind of important.

Respectfully yours,

Laura Lee

Save

Age and the Single Story

“The older, wise woman has rarely had a starring role in the American story, beyond grandma and her cookies.”

This line from a Washington Post story on Hillary Clinton struck me. I wanted to share it, even though at the moment I am on a tight deadline on my forthcoming book and won’t have time to comment at great length.

The Karate Kid goes to Mr. Miyagi. Luke Skywalker goes to Yoda. When it comes to mentors, there are all these guys.

Yet we have few narratives about women beyond beautiful object of longing and desire, and parent. Even that second role is limited. We have stories about perfect mothers, and occasionally villainous wicked step-mothers, but few dramatic parenting narratives.

What struck me in the Washington Post story is how deeply ingrained these assumptions about the role of women are. Because the very next sentence, after the one I quoted is this:

“Plenty has been said about the way American women feel invisible once they reach 60, or 50, or — gack — even 40 today. We live in a culture where gorgeous Maggie Gyllenhaal is being told she’s invisible before she’s out of her 30s.”

Note how Maggie Gyllenhaal’s relevance in her 30s is defended. She is “gorgeous.” Even while making the case that women can be sages, the author resorts to a “still sexy at sixty” framework. She should not be dismissed, because she is still attractive. These ideas run very deep.

 

See also: The Happy End: Male vs. Female.

 

“That Makes Me Smart”

“Mr. Trump is a highly-skilled businessman who has a fiduciary responsibility to his business, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required.”-Statement by the Trump campaign.

I have not been posting here as much as usual because I have been hard at work completing a book about a circle of friends who lived in the Victorian and Edwardian era. Their culture was still much more focused on “honor” than “success.” (This sent them to the libel courts in foolish attempts to preserve their reputations on a regular basis.)

Aristocrats were, of course, entitled and out of touch with the needs of the working class. Yet they did have an ideal of “noblesse oblige,” that is to say, if God favored you by allowing you to be born Lord Wibblebottom of Wembley then this fortune came with a responsibility to society and to those who were less fortunate. The sense of duty and honor was positively fatal to the aristocracy during World War I when so many sons were killed in battle. There was no question that a man had a duty to defend his country. Nobles did not always live up to this ideal, nor were they always aware of their class assumptions, but at least the ideal existed.

In the rarefied air of today’s super rich this ideal is not even present. People like Donald Trump use the language of duty and honor, as in the Trump campaign’s “fiduciary duty,” but “duty” includes no obligation to the larger society whatsoever.

A couple of points, there is no “fiduciary duty” to avoid paying taxes. A 2013 article in The Guardian notes:

Farrer & Co was commissioned to look at the issue by tax justice commissioners who fear executives are trying to justify tax avoidance on the grounds that their priority is to enhance shareholder returns.

The legal assessment from Farrer & Co, which numbers the Queen among its clients, states: “It is not possible to construe a director’s duty to promote the success of the company as constituting a positive duty to avoid tax.”

Farrer says company directors have a wide discretion when calculating the social impact of their decisions. If they choose to pay tax responsibly, they would in fact be protected by the applicable law rather than at risk of liability, it explains.

It seems amazing that this should even be a question. What is fascinating about the 2013 article is that it quotes a representative who says executives “are being told by their tax advisers that they have a duty to adopt anti-social tax measures.”

Think about this for a moment. A duty– a moral obligation– not to contribute to your country.

The idea that it is a moral obligation to avoid taxes is related to another myth that has taken hold of our discourse, the idea that the CEO of a company is morally bound to focus on nothing but maximizing shareholder value.  Yves Smith wrote in Naked Capitalism:

…that board and managements are somehow obligated to “maximize shareholder value” is patently false. Legally, shareholders’ equity is a residual claim, inferior to all other obligations. Boards and management are required to satisfy all of the company’s commitments, which include payments to vendors (including employees), satisfying product warranties, paying various creditors, paying taxes, and meeting various regulatory requirements (including workplace and product safety rules and environmental regulations)…

this idea did not come out of legal analysis, changes in regulation, or court decisions. It was simply an academic theory that went mainstream. And to add insult to injury, the version of the Jensen formula that became popular was its worst possible embodiment.

And as John Kay has stressed, when companies try to “maximize shareholder value,” they don’t succeed

the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented…In their 2002 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras compared outstanding companies with adequate but less remarkable companies with similar operations…in each case: the company that put more emphasis on profit in its declaration of objectives was the less profitable in its financial statements….When a corporation becomes financialized in this way, the top executives no longer concern themselves with investing in the productive capabilities of employees, the foundation for rising living standards. Instead they become focused on generating financial profits that can justify ever higher stock prices – in large part because, through their stock-based compensation, high stock prices translate into megabucks for these corporate executives themselves.

The Trump campaign has gone even a step further with this, making the case that Trump has a duty to avoid paying personal taxes. This is framed as a responsibility to his family. Imagine if you were to try to make the case that you were not going to pay your income tax because you have a duty to your family to provide them with more money?

My interest in this is in how language is used. We use a different standard for middle class and upper class individuals when we talk about income. Trump has profits. Profits are good because they fuel the economy and create jobs. You have savings. Savings are bad because they show a lack of consumer confidence. In both cases the words refer to money that is being hoarded for future personal use.

Then there is the word “responsibility.” I would like to go back to something I said on this subject in 2013 (you can read the full article via the link above):

…Asked what “Thatcherism” was he said, and I’m paraphrasing, Thatcherism was not a political philosophy, it was a way of thinking.  Thatcher, he said, stood for “responsibility.”

I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that this is not a completed concept.  You can’t stand for “responsibility” you have to finish the sentence.  Responsibility to what?

I got to thinking about classical literature and all of those tales about duty and honor.  I thought of something David Denby wrote about the Iliad in Great Books, “Accepting death in battle as inevitable, the Greek and Trojan aristocrats of the Iliad experience the world not as pleasant or unpleasant, not as good and evil, but as glorious or shameful.”

sing the world “responsibility” without saying “to what” calls these types of commitments to mind.  It calls to mind the responsibility of a parent to child.

Yet when I think of Thatcher and Reagan it is a different kind of “responsibility” that comes to mind.  This is often phrased as “personal responsibility.”  It means that each person should take control of his own life, pull himself up by his bootstraps and make his own way. As the name suggests “personal responsibility” is actually a limiting of responsibility from society as a whole to one person.  I am responsible for myself, you are responsible for yourself…

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is empowering when it means you have the opportunity to break out of rigid social hierarchies.  It is less empowering when it is used to explain why your boss does not have any responsibility to you.  “It is my responsibility to reduce costs and make the largest profits possible so that I can do my duty and create jobs.  It is not my responsibility to ensure that those jobs have living wages.”

Many of the super-wealthy got that way and remain that way by shielding themselves from personal responsibility while at the same time using the language of personal responsibility to justify not participating in the social contact that binds the rest of us.

The article linked above talks about and Wake Forest Law Review by Brent T. White of the University of Arizona that discusses how middle class borrowers were disadvantaged in the crash of 2008 because we held on to old concepts of honor and duty, which included paying mortgages even when underwater. “Norms governing homeowner behavior stand in sharp contrast to norms governing lenders, who seek to maximize profits or minimize losses irrespective of concerns of morality or social responsibility.”

White called this, in his academic parlance, “norm asymmetry.” What it means in layman’s terms is that most of us feel honor bound to pay our bills, and to avoid taking advantage of the system. (For example millions of people who are eligible for food stamps do not take them as a point of pride and a belief in the virtue of self-reliance.)

If using every advantage the system can provide is, as Trump suggests, “smart,” then those proud people are, it seems, “stupid.”

We, every day Americans, are proud of these virtues. We are proud that we respect the system, work hard and “play by the rules.” Words like “duty” and “responsibility” are meaningful to us.

But if “responsibility” when I use it means I have a responsibility to be contributing citizen, and “responsibility” when you use it means “every man for himself,” then we are not having the same conversation.

In an era when most members of congress are millionaires, and most of us are not, I think it is worth stopping and asking, when a politician uses a word like “responsibility” if he is really speaking the same language.

Cheeky and Informative

9781577151340The publisher Murdoch Books is describing my latest book as “cheeky and informative.” I’m happy with that. Just got my author’s copies today.

Whether cliches get under your skin or make you laugh, this dictionary of cliches goes the extra mile to provide an essential resource for students, teachers, writers, and anyone with a keen interest in language. Excellent reference for casual browsing or an in depth read. And that’s food for thought.

Cheeky and informative, each cliche is presented in such a way that is guaranteed to entertain. Know where your cliche comes from, so you won’t be afraid to use it.

Ask for it in a bookstore near you.

Quote of the Day: Interconnected Lives

The book on Gill had been my first full-length biography. I began it in a state of naivety, imagining my only loyalty lay with Gill himself and the truth relating to the bizarre contradictions of this single human life. What I had not been prepared for was the fact that in searching out the truth, especially the truth of a near contemporary, you impinge on other interconnected lives as well, stirring emotions, resurrecting memories. In the dangerous complexities of writing a biography, the book on Gill was my baptism of fire.-Fiona MacCarthy, The Guardian

Conditioned Like a Lab Animal

“To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”-Catherine Nichols.

This quote, by author Catherine Nichols sums up in a more concise and personal way what I took hundreds of words to say in an essay about the different “happy ends” for stories aimed at men and women.

(Actually, I was tempted to shorten the quote so it read “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition,” but I decided that the hedging, equivocal version demonstrated its own point.)

The Guardian yesterday ran an article on Nichols essay for Jezebel in which she reported on the different level of success she had sending queries with a male pen name over her own name. Spoiler alert: George was taken much more seriously than Catherine.

What is particularly insidious, however, is how differently writing is perceived when it comes from the pen of a man or a woman and what story we–and men and women are equally guilty–expect the writer to tell.

Responses from agents to Catherine Nichols included comments such as “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”; responses to her male pseudonym, whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work”, were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”.

I ran into this wall of expectation a couple of years ago when I was trying to find an agent for my novel Identity Theft and later when I was trying to get reviews for it. Identity Theft opens essentially like a romantic comedy in which you have a woman who longs for romance with an exciting and glamorous man and you have an unglamorous man who comes into her life through fate and a bit of deception.

A potential agent read the opening chapters, which introduce the characters, and felt that he knew exactly where the book would go. He was ready to represent what he viewed as a well-written version of the female story. The agent did not like my ending, which he had encountered only in the synopsis and outline. He did not realize that the book actually subverts the “love through deception” romantic comedy trope and turns into more of a thriller than a romantic comedy at its midpoint.

The agent was convinced based on the opening that there was only one right ending and that the female protagonist should end up living happily ever after with the unglamorous man. In the end I did make some changes to my original concept to make the work more in line with audience expectations, although I did not simply turn it into the romantic comedy the agent assumed it to be. Thus this quote from the Guardian article resonated with me:

“A small series of constraints can stop the writer before she’s ever worth writing about. Women in particular seem vulnerable in that middle stretch to having our work pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover,” she believes.

After Identity Theft was published I booked a “virtual book tour” to promote it and one of the potential reviewers read about as far as the agent had and gave up on it because she deemed the book to be “predictable.” That is to say, she had guessed at where it was going, deemed the book “one of those” and decided she didn’t have to read any further. Reviewers who finished the book, whether they liked it or not, universally found the ending surprising.

This experience led me to think about reader expectations and gender and to conclude that there is a different happy end for “male” stories and for “female” stories and that there is a much larger social effect to this. Boys and men are being primed to do things in the world where as women are, as Nichols said, conditioned against ambition. In my essay two years ago, I used The Devil Wears Prada as an example.

In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.

This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.

Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.

The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.

No one ever taught me this in so many words, but I learned it all the same. When I looked back at my own writing, I found that my early fiction, written when I was in high school and college, almost all fit the female happy end model. The female protagonist faced a difficult challenge and reached a resolution not by overcoming the odds and succeeding but by learning to accept herself just as she is. Success through self-esteem! In the real world, this leads to a culture in which we try to “empower” girls by making them feel good about themselves, whether they actually achieve anything or not.

As women, we are all “conditioned like lab animals against ambition.” There is no “to some degree” about it.