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All content © 2002-2005 Anne Zook

May 21, 2004
The Body And The Boys

It would seem that Pec-tacular is what's in.

I'm not hypocritical enough to sit here and pretend that a well-muscled body isn't attractive to me, but as soon as my eyes uncross, I'm going to be really concerned at the news that men are, in increasing numbers, resorting to implants to create the profile of the physique they want.

And I'm concerned that they're developing destructive eating disorders in increasing numbers.

Moving on, I approve of exercise for good health but I've always been divided on the 'cult' of bodybuilding that calls for hours in a gym when getting into shape by playing sports, jogging, or doing a little volunteer manual labor around your community is cheaper, more interesting, and more fulfilling.

Moving on again, I don't know if it's the result of maxing out the market for women's "beauty" products or what causes it, but the media has, in the last few years, taken to encouraging men to develop the same body image and self-esteem problems that girls are encouraged to develop. And now, of course, it's leading into the next, natural stage. Beauty for boys.

This isn't the first time I've read of make-up for men. Makeup for men. Type it into Google and the phrase gets 4,670 hits.

Several of the articles I turned up "blamed" the trend on metrosexuals, but I think it may be a chicken-and-egg question. Are their beauty products for men because men are more body-conscious or are men more body-conscious because of an advertising barrage telling them they're supposed to be?

It's possible that now that men are being targeted the way women always have been, enough social pressure will develop to finally put the brakes on the insanity.

Or are we looking at it wrong? (Let's be clear before we move on that I oppose surgical "improvements" for non-health-related reasons, so this is a discussion of externally applied "beauty" products only.)

Should we, in fact, be hailing the advent of cosmetics for boys as another step in gender-bending? Are we erasing the confines of traditional sex roles and allowing humanity to redefine itself as "people" where gender is a facet of the person but not the overriding, controlling factor?

There are moral and ethical quandaries. As we discussed in the comments of a post about women, feminism, and Abu Ghraib, it's dangerous to remove one set of governing rules for behavior without implementing a different set.

Idealistically, I approve of the idea of people being "free" to act as they wish (short of harming another) and to express themselves as individuals.

Realistically, we're not to be trusted with that kind of freedom and, in fact, most of us wouldn't be at all happy that way. Not only are most people herd animals, happiest within the confines of a society where they understand the rules and feel accepted and secure, but most of us wouldn't have the faintest idea what to do with that kind of freedom. It would cause untold stress for most of us to be nearly required to act differently than those around us.

That's why most "movements" are generational. From the 60s "free love" theme to the mosh pits and safety-pins through the nostrils of kids in the 90s, these are "movements" that gained traction only after a "safe" number of pioneers and rebels publicized such behavior and made it seem to be the norm.

(These are gross generalizations. The vast majority of kids in the 60s weren't involved in the heart of the "free love" debate any more than most kids in the 90s stuck safety-pins in their faces. Some did it for a reason, others joined in because it was the latest trend, and the majority of kids either stayed outside the 'movement' or copied it in some subtler, safer fashion. This is how a society evolves. Radical or pioneering elements step outside the bounds and others copy them. A "movement" with what's perceived to be long-term benefits or attractions to the majority survives and is integrated in some fashion into the pre-existing society which adapts to accommodate the new "rules." Other trends simply disappear.) (Lecture courtesy of someone with one sociology class twenty-odd years ago under her belt, which is a wordier way of saying, "in my opinion, of course.")

So…gender-bending, which really started in the 60s. What about it?

After close to four decades, has this moved from "trend" to something that's becoming a new social norm and is what we're seeing today the natural "adjustments" a society makes to accomodate a new and (originally) radical idea?

If a woman without lipstick is no less a woman, then is a man with lipstick any less a man?

Posted by AnneZook at 11:04 AM


Comments

Oh, great post!

I don't think we can have this discussion without also bringing in the role of the marketplace. Encouraging male vanity -- and the concomitant expenditures -- is a huge and still largely untapped source of revenue. I'm always wary of having "progress" marketed to me!

Posted by: Hugo at May 21, 2004 03:25 PM

Heh. Thank you.

I started to get into the male vanity issue but deleted it before I got too far in favor of the gender-bending tangent.

It would be an interesting aspect to explore. After all, men are the ones who believe that buying a red convertible actually makes them sexy. ;) And male vanity.....

(Which reminds me that I was going to rant about "sex symbols" and what it says about our culture that many of our most admired figures are "sex" "symbols." Maybe another day.)

In any case, it's almost impossible to discuss any of this without considering the role of the marketplace, especially the role of advertising, the psychosocial propaganda most responsible for the crass commercialization of our society.

It's an odd topic, because there is no one to "blame." It would be absurd to "blame" the advertising agency hired by a cosmetics firm or a political campaign for putting together a winning strategy.

It would be absurd to "blame" the corporation or committee doing the hiring for wanting their product or candidate to be successful.

At the same time, the power of advertising to "sell" not only products but ideas, and sometimes stupid, dishonest, dangerous, or outright untrue ideas, worries me.

Humanity is shockingly vulnerable to manipulation through contemporary advertising techniques. Sometimes I wonder if advertising should maybe be regulated differently than other fields.


Posted by: Anne at May 21, 2004 04:24 PM

I swung down here to make points that I see have already been covered largely by the two of you. Everyone seems intent on spoiling things for me this week...

Expansions of markets - be they for direct beautification products, exercise clubs, Atkins-compliant rations, cosmetic surgery, etc. - are all primarily behind the push. Like a mage's glamours, the products can't help but hold an attraction for a culture so focused on appearances.

Whenever I think about truly manipulative, culture-shaping advertising campaigns, I always think of how diamonds - and the diamond engagement ring in particular - has been sold to the public. The average person on the street probably thinks its an ancient practice, rich in tradition, while instead it's anything but, being something sold to the popular culture in the 20th century, with a fiendishly brilliant expansion of the plan 1938, when they began to sell the public on issues of quality, size, and the general notion that a diamond was an essential sign of love and committment -- and the larger and better the stone, the more ardent the sentiment. Nearly everything about the popular perception of diamonds is a sham, including any sense of scarcity (something sewn up back in the late 1870's with the formation of the DeBeers Company)... but I see that I'm not only digressing but starting on a rant. ::sigh::

As for me, the destructive eating habit du jour is this 2 liter bottle of off-brand cola and a bag of potato chips. ..

Posted by: MJ Norton at May 21, 2004 09:43 PM

Good thoughts, MJ, but what I'm arguing is that we're so fixated on appearance because decades of advertising has convinced us all it's a supremely important factor in individual personal happiness.

It's a case of markets run mad. What started as a market of limited appeal to those few women with the leisure and the money to indulge in artifical enhancements to their appearance has become the emblem of our consumption-mad society. And that's because it's a never-ending cycle, short of death.

Diamonds? Heh. I've ranted about them before.

Posted by: Anne at May 23, 2004 09:18 AM

We're all metrosexuals now. . .

I have been reading some interesting things on the evolution of our sexual dimorphism. When times are really good, the sexes become more and more alike - there's little need for the differences. When times are bad, the dimorphism provides a handy splitting of services which has major advantages for our species. Perhaps what we're seeing is just simply the result of times being really, really good here in the USA.

But then I think back to Egypt and other ancient cultures, where makeup and such were just as much a part of the male persona as it was part of the female's.

It doesn't seem that shocking in retrospect.

Posted by: Hal at May 24, 2004 10:49 AM

Anne: Your write in your comments:

At the same time, the power of advertising to "sell" not only products but ideas, and sometimes stupid, dishonest, dangerous, or outright untrue ideas, worries me.

Humanity is shockingly vulnerable to manipulation through contemporary advertising techniques. Sometimes I wonder if advertising should maybe be regulated differently than other fields.

but write in your post:

It would cause untold stress for most of us to be nearly required to act differently than those around us.

So, it appears you have conflicting thoughts.

The ideal you cite "approve of the idea of people being "free" to act as they wish (short of harming another) and to express themselves as individuals." should allow people if they choose to ignore advertising and break free from the herd mentality, but you don't trust people with that freedom - "Realistically, we're not to be trusted with that kind of freedom". But that means the masses are vulnerable to the kind of advertising you then complain about as manipulating the culture.

I agree advertisers should be held liable and brought to task for false facts and claims (outright untrue as you write), but the notion of "dangerous" and "stupid" starts to put you in a grey area. I may think contraception and abortion advertising is dangerous for my daughter, while others may disagree and say it is up to me to educate her so she can make up her own mind given all the facts on legal products and services. The kind of mentality that blames the "advertisers" for all one's problems has in my opinion contributed to this litigious society where the individual cannot be at fault for personal weakness (I'm obese because McDonalds has too good advertising?).

I'm a little wary of jumping down the "more regulation" bandwagon. There is enough controversary on the principle-agent problems with government bureaucracies (ie. The FDA and drugs). And let's not forget about the old 1st amendment issues as well.

Before we start to blame "markets", let's remember the market is nothing more than an organized collection of buyers and sellers. Yes, ideal (perfect) markets require perfect information so agree advertising should be truthful. But like the remote on your tv, individuals can control at least their own choices and as you note, if that starts a trend, then the market will correct.


Finally (and using CAPS just to distinguish your post from my comments), you write:

Moving on, I approve of exercise for good health but I've always been divided on the 'cult' of bodybuilding that calls for hours in a gym when getting into shape by playing sports (WHICH CAN TAKE HOURS, COST MONEY and TAKE ON A CULT MENTALITY (I've been in a rugby league and soccer league in Europe), jogging (HOURS IF YOU ARE ANY KIND OF SERIOUS DISTANCE RUNNER), or doing a little volunteer manual labor around your community is cheaper, more interesting, and more fulfilling. (I agree but all three are all Qualified MAYBEs based on individual and community circumstances)


Posted by: Steve at May 24, 2004 11:28 AM

"What started as a market of limited appeal to those few women with the leisure and the money to indulge in artifical enhancements to their appearance has become the emblem of our consumption-mad society. And that's because it's a never-ending cycle, short of death."

What is a consumption mad society? I see the complaint often but I rarely see it defined. The complaint seems to have broad appeal across the political spectrum, as intellectuals, artists, writers, Christians, activists and others of both the Left and Right complain that Americans are not properly focused on the important stuff, but are instead focused on consumption.

These are some questions I'd like to see answered:

What is the opposite of a consumption mad society (a producer society? If so, why is that bad?) What is it about the act of consumption that is bad? When the complaint is made, are we being critical of our own consumption, or that of other people, or both? Is it possible to criticise consumption without also criticizing production? If no, why isn't the complaint against production more often made? Is there any vestige of the old Puritan ethic hiding behind the complaint against consumption? Do the citizens of Japan (the world's only non-Western affluent society) make the same complaint, and if not, why not? What cultural factors teach us that this is legitimate complaint? Does the complaint against consumption represent a discomfort with modern affluence, or is it possibly a complaint about the disparities of affluence that haunt the world? If the latter, would it be consistent to complain of disparities of production as well? Is it possible to reconcile an anti-consumption message with the liberal belief in the individual, or is any anti-consumption message also a critique of the failings of liberalism?

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at May 24, 2004 10:59 PM

"Humanity is shockingly vulnerable to manipulation through contemporary advertising techniques. Sometimes I wonder if advertising should maybe be regulated differently than other fields. "

And yet, if you take a class on marketing, the first thing they teach is that the overwhelming majority of advertising campaigns fail - they do not increase market share, profits, awareness, or positive attitudes towards a product. The only form of advertising that has consistently been shown to work is the yellow pages in the phone book. The vast majority of all television ads fail dismally, by any test. David Ogilvy (founder of the advertising firm Ogivily and Mather) emphasized in both of his books that a successful televsion ad was a rare thing.

The truth about advertising (its high rate of failure) needs to be reconciled with our awareness of the ease of brainwashing. I think these things can be easily reconciled if you recall the origins of the phrase "brain-washing." During the Korean War, many American soldiers were captured and many were taught to hate America. Many of them bought into the anti-American propaganda they were fed, some at a deep level, and many were willing to be film giving vent to their anti-American sentiments. The American military was stunned and alarmed by this.

I can't repeat the whole story here in the comments box, but if you want to use Google to look up this history, it is fairly easy. The short version is that years of study by psychologists lead to the conclusion that if you have "mileu control" you can get about 90% of the people you control to believe what you want. When they are released, about 80% give up the beliefs you instilled, and about 10% continue to believe what you taught. "Mileu control" means you've total control over a person, where they sleep, what they eat, what their access to information is, and the ability to inflict pain for disobediance, as the North Koreans had over our POWs during the war.

Advertising agencies don't have mileu control, which explains why advertising campaigns face such a high failure rate.

On a personal note, I recall myself and my friends being teenagers and, for sport, tearing up and making mock of televsion commercials when they interrupted our shows. We were profoundly and proudly ironic, and formed our fashion sense around each other's recomendations, rather than the ads. Study after study confirms that we were hardly unique in this - word of mouth remains the most effective form of influence, according to every study. Two issues ago the Harvard Business Review had an interesting article that said that companies could quite accurately gauge their short term growth prospects using just a single metric - the percent of customers that were willing to recommend their product to a friend. This is as strong a comment on the failures of advertising as any I can think of.

Nowadays, of course, affluent teenagers no longer need to do make a mockery of ads as we did - they can record their shows on their Tivos and skip over the ads.

When it comes to political advertising (as opposed to product advertising) I think we can all agree that every free society runs a constant risk in regards to propaganda. But, at the same time, we need to be careful not to put the "propaganda" label on everything we disagree with. Views we find hateful are also views that someone else believes in passionately, and sometimes good friends disagree strongly over an issue - the Iraq war being an example.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at May 24, 2004 11:20 PM

Steve -

As to your first point, I don't think I'm demonstrating any conflicting thoughts unless you're arguing that people won't know how to act unless advertising tells them. :) I think I'm missing where you see the conflict.

The ideal you cite "approve of the idea of people being "free" to act as they wish (short of harming another) and to express themselves as individuals." should allow people if they choose to ignore advertising and break free from the herd mentality, but you don't trust people with that freedom - "Realistically, we're not to be trusted with that kind of freedom". But that means the masses are vulnerable to the kind of advertising you then complain about as manipulating the culture.

I don't see where the "but" comes in at the beginning of your last sentence. (Actually, I've read this several times and can't figure out what you were trying to say in this paragraph.)

As to your last point, yes, I know that sports (team or individual) are open to becoming cult-like which can be bad, and people can spend hours a week at them (which I don't see as bad at all) but there does seem to me to be something less...insular? Narcissistic? in playing team sports or, in fact, doing anything that does not involve watching your own every move in a mirror.

Posted by: Anne at May 26, 2004 08:28 AM

Lawrence -

What is the opposite of a consumption mad society (a producer society? If so, why is that bad?)

I don't see there's a need to find an "opposite" kind of society, but maybe I don't follow your reasoning.

I don't see a need to define the excess that lies on the scale opposite consumption. Why not just aim for moderation, which is sensible, rationable, and identifiable?

What is it about the act of consumption that is bad?

Consumption isn't inherently bad, of course. Like most other things, it's bad in excess.

When the complaint is made, are we being critical of our own consumption, or that of other people, or both?

I can't speak for anyone else, but I certainly do include myself in the complaints when I make them.

Is it possible to criticise consumption without also criticizing production? If no, why isn't the complaint against production more often made?

Because I don't believe corporations are people, okay? It's pointless to rail against a "company" for creating things.

If we don't buy, companies won't produce. But to expect an artifical construct that exists for no purpose but to produce revenue to voluntarily cut down on the revenue it produces is absurd.

Is there any vestige of the old Puritan ethic hiding behind the complaint against consumption?

In my own case? Probably unconsiously, yes. My father was very much raised in that tradition and I'm sure there was more of it than I'm aware in my own upbringing.

At the same time, I've done some cursory reading on the byproducts of such consumption, from the problem of waste generation, environmental pollution, and resource management and I think I'm logically convinced that massive consumerism (25 different products that keep your shower clean without cleaning it?) is unsustainable and adds little or nothing to the quality of our life.

It's a question of balance.

Do the citizens of Japan (the world's only non-Western affluent society) make the same complaint, and if not, why not?

Don"t know.

What cultural factors teach us that this is legitimate complaint?

Possibly this is because you've clearly run into this complaint more often than I have, but I don't see that many cultural factors teaching us this is legitimate. What I see is a concerted effort to convince us this is "good" and, indeed, our "birthright" in some respects.

Does the complaint against consumption represent a discomfort with modern affluence, or is it possibly a complaint about the disparities of affluence that haunt the world?

In my case, it's the latter.

If the latter, would it be consistent to complain of disparities of production as well?

I'm not sure I understand what you mean.

Is it possible to reconcile an anti-consumption message with the liberal belief in the individual, or is any anti-consumption message also a critique of the failings of liberalism?

Well, I wouldn't argue that anything labelled "liberal" is necessarily sacrosanct. Or that it's without failings. I think liberalism, like anything else, can be overdone.

Moderation, erring just a trifle on the side of liberalism, that's what I'm aiming for.

Posted by: Anne at May 26, 2004 08:45 AM

Lawrence -

In reference to your last comment above, the one about the efficacy of advertising, I should make it clear that I'm not discussing advertising campaigns that try to convince us to buy a John Deere lawnmower or to choose Jif for our kids.

I'm talking about what I privately call "ideas-based advertising".

(Besides, a catchy advertising slogan may not lead directly to a sale, but it does raise product recognition which is the first step toward making a sale. "Nothing runs like a Deere!" "Choosy mothers choose Jif!")

It's the ideas being used to sell products that I'm referring to.

Using sex to sell cars may and or may not sell cars, but it certainly makes the viewer think of sex.

Using sex to sell a television show may or may not convince a viewer to change the channel, but it certainly does make them think about sex.

Using sex to sell booze may or may not convince someone to take a drink, but it certainly does make them think about sex.

Voila! Long after that model of car has disappeared from the viewer's mind, the idea of sex is still there. That's what I meant when I argued before that advertising sells sex more than it does products. If the advertisers can imprint in just a small fraction of the viewer's minds that buying the car just might lead to more sex, then the campaign is successful.

Most advertising campaigns are failures, yes, but since we probably each see 1,000 examples of advertising a day, how many need to be successful to influence which way a culture is going?

Also? Always remember and never forget that it's a lot easier to "brainwash" someone into liking or believing something they're inclined to like, or believe, already. You don't need a completely controlled environment to convince a new mother that germs are harmful to her baby and that it's her responsibility to keep her baby safe. The "idea" that a mother is responsible for her child's welfare is one that our Western culture already accepts, so by building on that idea, advertisers can sell products.

Moving from their into politics...that's a whole different kind of brainwashing, propaganda, and consumerism and outside the scope of my current rant. :) But it's certainly an example of almost purely "ideas-based" advertising.

At the moment, though, conscience insists that I go back to work.

Posted by: Anne at May 26, 2004 09:00 AM

Anne -
I apologize for the lack of clarity. What I was trying to say was the following:

1. You say "Idealistically, I approve of the idea of people being "free" to act as they wish (short of harming another) and to express themselves as individuals.:

You then qualify that by

2. Realistically, we're not to be trusted with that kind of freedom and, in fact, most of us wouldn't be at all happy that way. Not only are most people herd animals, happiest within the confines of a society where they understand the rules and feel accepted and secure, but most of us wouldn't have the faintest idea what to do with that kind of freedom. It would cause untold stress for most of us to be nearly required to act differently than those around us.

But, then bemoan the fact that

3. At the same time, the power of advertising to "sell" not only products but ideas, and sometimes stupid, dishonest, dangerous, or outright untrue ideas, worries me.

Humanity is shockingly vulnerable to manipulation through contemporary advertising techniques. Sometimes I wonder if advertising should maybe be regulated differently than other fields.


Maybe I should have asked which is the greater fear to you - People having this freedom and thus far less suspectible to herd mentality/influence by advertising or People being shockingly manipulated by advertising?

Or does it make a difference on which wizards are behind the emerald curtain?

Posted by: Steve at May 28, 2004 03:54 PM

"Because I don't believe corporations are people, okay? It's pointless to rail against a "company" for creating things. "

I feel that I was misunderstood. I wasn't associating production with "companies." I associate it with what I do (and what you do) while at work. If, after work, I go to the mall and buy stuff, that is consumption. But I'm only able to consume to the extent that I produce. When I asked why a "consumption mad society" was bad, I was wondering if a "work-crazed society" is also bad. Because if we continue to produce (work) at the same level, while cutting back our consumption, where will the money go?

There are a lot of good answers to this question but I wanted to know how you personally felt about it.

My own feeling is that less consumption and more savings would be a good thing, as it would close America's trade deficit. I was wondering if you were, however, going to make a response that involved leisure which, if so, would very much tie in with the question of liberalism.

I've been thinking about this issue these last few days, and I'm leaning toward the idea that any criticism of consumption is also a criticism of liberalism. I'm making the assumption that any criticism of consumption is made on moral rather than utilitarian grounds. There is a good quote in Adam Smith about this, I'll try to track it down. If I'm wrong, I'd like to hear the liberal anti-consumption argument.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at May 28, 2004 10:33 PM

Anne wrote: "I don't see there's a need to find an "opposite" kind of society, but maybe I don't follow your reasoning. I don't see a need to define the excess that lies on the scale opposite consumption. Why not just aim for moderation, which is sensible, rationable, and identifiable?"

Moderation often means finding a middle path between two or more competing goals or ideals. That is why I asked what the opposite of a consumption-mad society is. Because how you define that opposite will shape what you think you are the options you are finding moderation or balance among.

These are some possible opposites of a consumption-mad society (hardly an exhaustive list):

1.) a production oriented society

2.) an anti-materialist society

3.) a non-monetary society

4.) a non-market society

5.) a spiritual society

6.) an anorexic society

7.) a healthy society

8.) a true Christian society

9.) a socialist society

You could write more but I'm sure you already get my point. You and I, I'm sure, both know people who disagree about these two main points:

a.) a consumption oriented society is bad

b.) what is the opposite of a consumption oriented society?

Virginia Postrel is clearly a woman who thinks that a consumption oriented society is a good thing. Jeremy Rifkin, on the other hand, is clearly a person who regards it as a bad thing. However, and this is an important part of my point, even within these two camps, the pro and the con, you'll find vast differences in the answer to point "b", what is the opposite? A Socialist who hates consumption and libertarian like Postrel might both define the opposite of a "consumption mad society" as "socialism", with the Socialist regarding that as a good think and Postrel regarding it as a bad thing. The variations among people in their response to this issue tend to be complex and varied. I know an environmentalist (a friend with whom I've discussed this issue many times) who thinks the opposite of a consumption mad society is a "healthy" society. He uses the word healthy because, in his mind, it is the only word broad enough to include everything that he thinks of when he thinks of the opposite of consumption. Personally, I tend to think (but only for the intellectual convenience of it) that the opposite of consumption is production.

But what I was asking is how you feel about point "b". I'd also like to hear more of why you feel the way you do about point "a".

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at May 28, 2004 10:48 PM

"Well, I wouldn't argue that anything labelled "liberal" is necessarily sacrosanct. Or that it's without failings. I think liberalism, like anything else, can be overdone."

In that case, I don't understand you very well. Do you ever think that liberalism is a good thing? If so, why? Do you believe Bentham's dictum that laws should be passed with an aim toward doing "the greatest good for the greatest number." Do you believe in Smith's assertion that an individual following their own selfish motives often does good for all of society? Do you believe in Locke's assertion that a social contract binds us all and protects us from Hobbes state of nature? Or how about Jefferson's assertion that each of us are endowed by our creator with certain rights that are inalienable and therefore can never be given away or legitimately taken away? Do you believe that each of us has rights and that to secure these rights, government is instituted among the people? Do you believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people?

I'm not actually interested in your reaction to each of these individual questions, what I'm interested in is the philosophy with which you approach the questions.

I may be misreading you, but from your tone it seems that you approach liberalism, and politics, in a piecemeal fashion, picking up each issue and seeing how you feel about it, observing it in isolation. My own feeling (you may disagree) is that liberalism is a comprehensive philosophy (like monarchism or marxism) and you either accept or reject it largely in full, with some possible fundamental variations on the underlying theme.

If you regard yourself as a liberal, when do you make exceptions to that liberalism? Again, I'm not so much interested in an issue-by-issue list of exceptions as I am interested in what basic, fundamental point of liberalism you disagree with. I assume what exceptions you make to your liberalism all spring from one or two basic philosophical disagreements with the fundamentals of liberalism.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at May 28, 2004 11:02 PM

"(Besides, a catchy advertising slogan may not lead directly to a sale, but it does raise product recognition which is the first step toward making a sale. "Nothing runs like a Deere!" "Choosy mothers choose Jif!")"

Everything I've read on advertising suggests that this is wrong. Most advertising campaigns fail on every metric. Those metrics include the one you mention here: product recognition. Some advertising campaings have even been shown to do more harm that good: people feel worse about the product than before the campaign started.

As to the catchy jingles, ask yourself, how many ads have you seen in your life? And how many jingles can you remember?

However, the above two paragraphs are a little beside the point. I agree with what I assume is your underlying point here: there is a lot of advertising in America and some of it sometimes influences us.

I think you want to imply that this is a bad thing, yes? This is the point that I have trouble going along with. I haven't made up my mind on the subject, but my own sense of liberalism holds that the individual is wise enough to seek what is in their own best interest. My faith in the individual leaves me unable to take a stand against advertising - I assume the spirit that animates us as individuals can evaluate attempts at influence for what they are. If we end up agreeing with an ad, or agreeing with any other attempt made to influence us, then our act of agreement represents our true self, and not a manipulated self. It's possible I'm romanticizing the strength of the individual, but the alternatives all lead to a deeply problematic politics - "The people are weak, so they must be protected."

At the risk of being a bit of a bore, I'd like to take issue with these other two things you wrote:

"Using sex to sell cars may and or may not sell cars, but it certainly makes the viewer think of sex."

This clearly qualifies as a failed advertising campaign. After seeing an ad, you are supposed to think about the product, not sex. David Ogilvy makes a related point in his 1962 book, Confessions of an Advertising Man. He suggests that ad writers should avoid writing the kinds of ad campaigns that win awards, for these campaigns never work. Many ad campaigns that are clever enough that people remark on their cleverness, ads artful enough that they win the Clio award, these are rarely the same ads that motivate people to buy stuff, he argues. He quotes a bit about two famous Greek rhetorictitians - one who spoke beautifully, the other who talked people into going to war. After the first one spoke people would remark, "Wasn't that brilliantly said? How well he speaks!" After the second one spoke the people went to war. Since the goal of advertising is to move people to action, rather than win their admiration, it's best to emulate the second Greek speaker, rather than the first.

In his follow up book, written 20 years later, Ogilvy lamented that his advice had been completely ignored, and ad writers were still making the same mistakes as they'd made 20 years before.


You also wrote:
"If the advertisers can imprint in just a small fraction of the viewer's minds that buying the car just might lead to more sex, then the campaign is successful."

Again, everything I've read suggests that most advertising campaigns fail on every metric, including this one.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at May 28, 2004 11:26 PM

Errata:

This:

"Because how you define that opposite will shape what you think you are the options you are finding moderation or balance among. "

should be this:

"Because how you define that opposite will shape what you think are the options you are finding moderation or balance among. "

And this:

"Virginia Postrel is clearly a woman who thinks that a consumption oriented society is a good thing. Jeremy Rifkin, on the other hand, is clearly a person who regards it as a bad thing"

should be rewritten so either both people have a specified gender, or neither does.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at May 28, 2004 11:38 PM

"Idealistically, I approve of the idea of people being "free" to act as they wish (short of harming another) and to express themselves as individuals.

Realistically, we're not to be trusted with that kind of freedom and, in fact, most of us wouldn't be at all happy that way. Not only are most people herd animals, happiest within the confines of a society where they understand the rules and feel accepted and secure, but most of us wouldn't have the faintest idea what to do with that kind of freedom. It would cause untold stress for most of us to be nearly required to act differently than those around us."

This is deeply and disturbingly reactionary. Unless you simply mis-typed and misrepresented yourself, I'd have to agree with Steve when he writes "So, it appears you have conflicting thoughts".

It's possible you mean this second paragraph as sarcasm, rather than an honest statement of how you really feel. If so, you should clarify that. It's possible that you want to be read as saying, sarcastically, "Can't you lemmings get your act together and behave like individuals?"

What it sounds like, however, is that you distrust the people and feel they need to be protected. If you honestly feel that the vast majority of people are herd animals waiting for a shepard, then you must admit there is a lot in your philosophy that mirrors the fascist argument that the people are simply waiting to be lead and are unable of leading themselves.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at May 28, 2004 11:47 PM

I just noticed this over at Avendon Carol's weblog. I offer it as another example of an ad campaign that doesn't work. Can anyone reconcile the belief that we are "shockingly vulnerable to manipulation" with the fact that the government has spent billions on anti-drug ads with no discernible effect on drug consumption?

" The Government plans to spend $145 million this year on anti-drug ads. A new study shows they don't work. They may even prompt some kids to start experimenting with drugs.
[...]

Three of every four students reported the ads sparked thoughts that ran counter to the ads' message, the study showed. "For example, in response to ads linking drug use to the war on terror, the most frequent unanticipated thoughts were that marijuana should be legalized, the war on drugs has been ineffective, and that marijuana users should grow their own," said Czyzewska."

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at May 29, 2004 10:51 AM

Steve, it looks as though I'm the one guilty of sloppy writing.

"Realistically, we're not to be trusted with that freedom" was me switching topics without signaling. I was thinking about crime. People "can't be trusted" with complete freedom because the rules ("laws") are civilization. They provide safety and security for us.

"Most of us wouldn't be happy with complete freedom" is probably the thought I should have started with. Most of us wouldn't be happy with "complete freedom" to be an individual. The truth is that most people only want to be an individual in a limited sense. They don't want to be so "individual" that they stand out, too much, from the crowd. Most people want to be distinguishable, but not conspicuous.

And I still can't make out why bemoaning how susceptible people are to advertising is a contradiction in your eyes, unless, as I suggested before, you think people need advertising to tell them what the norm is for the "herd." People find their own comfort level within their own social groups. Advertising is an attempt to influence those people and their groups. I'd err on the side of freedom, given the choice.

People having freedom aren't going to be less inclined to a herd mentality. That's not what I said. I said that being practically required to act differently than those around them would cause stress for most people.

In retrospect, it wasn't a well-written post. My thoughts were actually going a lot of places that I didn't discuss.

Posted by: Anne at June 1, 2004 09:26 AM

Lawrence, I misunderstood what you were saying. When you talked about "companies" I was thinking more generally.

Personally, then, yes, I was thinking of leisure. Given a choice between fifteen window cleaners and thirty dish soaps, all competing madly for a few consumer dollars, I'd prefer to live in a society that offered less product-oriented "choice" and more leisure.

Don't ask me how I plan to achieve this. I'm aware that economic prosperity and economic growth are tied together and that an economy that isn't expanding is dying.

And yet, exhaustion of finite resources worries me. We use more than our country's share of the world's resources and a lot of it winds up in landfills and as environmental pollutants.

Crowded markets lead to the development of "new" markets to increase profits and that worries me. Do we honestly need a new way to clean our toilets? Do we need disposable clothes, pre-saturated with Pledge to speed our dusting? No, these are just attempts to create "new markets" for products in fields where the competition is fierce and profits are shrinking.

I find myself thinking that a society mad to produce ever more products to be consumed is in danger of consuming itself in the end.

Sustainable prosperity requires consuming more and more. At the same time, this mad consumption not only keeps most of us working, contributing our bit toward the overall GDP, but it enriches the upper classes to a disproportionate extent. "Wealth" is being created, but it's not being fairly distributed.

I'm getting dangerously close to political isms, I know, but that's my own fault. I lack the vocabulary to explain what I mean.

It seems to me we should be able to find a new balance, where more of the wealth created by business goes back to the actual workers. A cap on executive pay, for instance, with excess revenues either going to shareholders or to employees.

It's…it's a question of balance. Pay those at the top a bit less and you can pay those at the bottom quite a lot (in their terms) more.

I'm sorry…as I said, I just lack the vocabulary to explain myself clearly.

Posted by: Anne at June 1, 2004 09:57 AM

Lawrence, okay, now I'm moving on to "Point A" and "Point B."

Point A:

Let's be clear. I have nothing against consumption. I do rather a lot of it. What I object to is making consumption the measure of our society.

The measure of our happiness or of the quality of our lives should not be how much we can buy, or how much is available to buy.

Point B:

Argh. I'd have answered this three days ago if I could have found an answer for this bit.

I'd say, "spiritual" but I don't want the religious folks jumping up and down and shouting hooray because I don't mean religion. I think a religion-centered society would be ghastly.

I'd say, "healthy" but that feels like a cop-out. I'm trying to define what I mean and "healthy" is too nebulous and too subjective.

There's something...I almost had it yesterday but the words wouldn't gel...there's something about a people-oriented society that I wish I had words for.

More green parks, fewer office parks. More sidewalks, fewer expressways. (Fewer television channels, more to watch. Heh.) Fewer $350,000,000 a year CEOs, more janitors able to pay their rent and also afford regular meals.

Posted by: Anne at June 1, 2004 10:07 AM

Anne, I agree with your points about people wanting to have the freedom to be individuals, and also wanting the freedom to fit in with others. I agree with you, too, about the environmental stresses our current lifestyle places on the planet. I think you put it very well when you write "What I object to is making consumption the measure of our society." I do suspect that some of the worst miscarriages of environmental justice arise from what might be considered skewed accounting - that we count the wrong things, that we refuse to measure things like parks as part of the GNP. But that is such a huge topic I'm afraid I don't have time to go into it today.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at June 1, 2004 11:00 AM

Lawrence, you said: "Do you ever think that liberalism is a good thing? "

Now that's just silly. Me saying that something labeled "liberal" isn't necessarily sacrosanct is a long way from saying "liberalism is never good." It's a long way from even implying that.

Besides. It depends. What do you mean by "liberalism"? You quote a number of opinions from different people from different periods of history, most of whom approach the question from a specific perspective. Put all of those people in a room and do you think they'd agree on what "liberalism" is?

I don't necessarily agree with the Bentham quote but have to admit I haven't read him and am not really qualified to have an opinion. (I think laws to protect minority opinions are as critical as those passed to protect the majority. Maybe more critical. I'd have to think about it.) I think any time Smith's assertion comes true, it's probably coincidental and don't necessarily agree with his writings. Locke…yes, I've read him and I find myself nodding in agreement. Most of the time. Jefferson is a pleasure to read and he wrote movingly and eloquently. But how relevant are his specific beliefs in today's world?

I am, in fact, currently approaching liberalism piecemeal.

I've said before that I think it's time we re-examine both the "liberal" and "conservative" philosophies in this country. We need to look at where each of these started, and figure out how each of them got where it is today. We need to figure out what the words mean to us when we use them today. We need to examine the underlying precepts and see if they're still relevant, if they need to be reinterpreted or even changed.

To that end, and from no organized, scholarly, or expert perspective, I'm taking a look at my own beliefs and trying to figure out what it is, precisely, that I do believe.

I spent a lot of my life calling myself "liberal" without thinking about it very deeply. Now I'm thinking about it (a process probably destined to produce more half-schizophrenic posts before I'm done).

I'm thinking about it not only from a "philosophical" perspective" but from a practical one. It's all very well to envision a world where everyone works whenever they want at whatever they want and has all the leisure and resources they need to live a full, rewarding life, but if you can't come up with a plan to get there, then it's not practical.

It's nice to quote Jefferson, I do it myself from time to time, but what do his words mean in today's world?

Posted by: Anne at June 1, 2004 11:22 AM
This is the point that I have trouble going along with. I haven't made up my mind on the subject, but my own sense of liberalism holds that the individual is wise enough to seek what is in their own best interest. My faith in the individual leaves me unable to take a stand against advertising - I assume the spirit that animates us as individuals can evaluate attempts at influence for what they are. If we end up agreeing with an ad, or agreeing with any other attempt made to influence us, then our act of agreement represents our true self, and not a manipulated self. It's possible I'm romanticizing the strength of the individual, but the alternatives all lead to a deeply problematic politics - "The people are weak, so they must be protected."

Okay, two points.

#1 - I used to share your faith in the individual. Maybe it's just that the internet invites extremism but after almost fifteen years of reading and discussing opinions on almost every subject under the sun in an environment where people can choose to be anonymous and therefore have no reason to censor their opinions, my optimism in that area is fading.

The last two years of very casual research into recent political history . . . what people done and why they done it . . . has further eroded my faith in the basic decency of humanity. (Of course, it could just be that the kind of person who seeks to hold office, or work with those in high office, are susceptible to abusing the power they gain, but I'm not sure I believe that. I don't think politicians are in some way fundamentally different from the rest of us.)

And I've lost faith in most people's willingness to think. People don't seem, by and large, interested in researching issues and considering consequences. Given the 'easy out' of picking a political party and slapping a partisan bumper sticker on their car, they take it. It doesn't matter that the party isn't what it was 30 or 40 years ago when they selected it. They've "always been Democrat" so they keep voting for any candidate that party fields. They've "always voted Republican" so even if they disliked Nixon, distrusted Reagan, and found Bush I a disappointment, they vote for any Republican candidate the party puts in front of them.

They don't understand the issues, they don't understand the consequences of their opinions. They vote for a candidate like they're hiring a gardener. If things don't work out in a year or so, they'll just change to a new guy.

#2 - "my own sense of liberalism holds that the individual is wise enough to seek what is in their own best interest" - I think that depends on how your define "best interest."

Again, everything I've read suggests that most advertising campaigns fail on every metric, including this one.

Cynicism leads me to suggest that if advertising was that big of a waste of time, we wouldn't be faced with advertising on every billboard, tee shirt, park bench, and city bus we see.

There's a difference between "wildly successful" and the kind of advertising that makes an impact based on repetition over time.

(Switching, briefly, to politics, it's the constant repetition of "the message" that works, not the message itself. Repeat a lie often enough and some people will believe it. Just this weekend I read an editorial in a small, regional publication that lauded the "re-opening" of hospitals in Iraq as a benefit of our invasion of that country, completely ignoring the fact that the hospitals were open before we got there and all through the invasion. )

Posted by: Anne at June 1, 2004 11:55 AM

Still annoying Lawrence today.

I said: "Idealistically, I approve of the idea of people being "free" to act as they wish (short of harming another) and to express themselves as individuals.

Realistically, we're not to be trusted with that kind of freedom and, in fact, most of us wouldn't be at all happy that way. Not only are most people herd animals, happiest within the confines of a society where they understand the rules and feel accepted and secure, but most of us wouldn't have the faintest idea what to do with that kind of freedom. It would cause untold stress for most of us to be nearly required to act differently than those around us."

Lawrence - This is deeply and disturbingly reactionary.

I get that way.

In any case, no matter how badly I phrased it, I think the truth remains that people are basically conservative and herd-minded. Maybe the difference between us is that I don't think these are necessarily evil…either as qualities to possess or as truths to admit.

They aren't necessarily weaknesses.

What it sounds like, however, is that you distrust the people and feel they need to be protected. If you honestly feel that the vast majority of people are herd animals waiting for a shepard, then you must admit there is a lot in your philosophy that mirrors the fascist argument that the people are simply waiting to be lead and are unable of leading themselves.

I don't, in fact, think people are "unable" to lead themselves. I think they're unwilling and unprepared to do so.

I don't think they're weak. I think they're lazy.

I would strongly, even violently, resist any kind of fascist regime. What I'm looking for (here we go again) is a society of people educated to the responsibilities of living in a democracy. It's not a free ride, but many people in this country seem to treat it as if it were.

Posted by: Anne at June 1, 2004 12:08 PM

I don't think an ad campaign that encouraged us to save 15% of our take home pay right off the top would be effective either. We're shockingly vulnerable to doing things we want to do anyway. That's why it's easy to get people to go to war. Until they go to war and remember that it only sounds like fun.

Posted by: eRobin at June 1, 2004 07:21 PM

Ok Anne, I'm going to call you to task on your use of the word "democracy"

I would strongly, even violently, resist any kind of fascist regime. What I'm looking for (here we go again) is a society of people educated to the responsibilities of living in a democracy. It's not a free ride, but many people in this country seem to treat it as if it were.

Do you mean the democracy in its literal sense of majority rule either by the people directly or through a representative government?

Madison wrote in one of the Federalist papers, "Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species (democracy - my clarification) of government, have erroneously supposed, that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions."

Perhaps they were echoing Kant's assertion -
"Democracy is necessarily despotism"?

Or do you mean a Constitutional Republic with forms of checks and balances to preserve the rights of individuals who may be in the minority?

But the semantics aside, if you mean that in our form of government, the vast majority of the citizens have become lazy and apathetic to the point of generally elected incumbents and voting for President often along party lines without regard to issues, then I would argue it's partly a response to the continuing centralization of power at higher levels.

I'm from Vermont - you get great town hall meetings about whether the town should spend more or less for a new backhoe and you'd better have your facts straight if you stand up and get into that discussion. There are great knock down drag-out discussions in local communities about schools and zoning laws. But the more we ask of (or default to) the state and federal governments to solve our problems (or take resources from someone else to solve mine), the more money and power flow to those institutions. Given the inherent principal-agent problem that these folks are often the same ones who make the rules (draw the boundaries, decide how to spend and raise the money, etc.), it's no wonder that people grow cynical or apathetic (or comfortable if the system is working for them)..or seek remedies through non-legislative or executive means.

Look at the platforms for either candidates. The have to have positions on everything, regardless of whether they can actually do anything about some issues or whether we should even want them to do anything about those issues. So, people often default to the one or two issues that most interest them and often those are issues that differentiate the two main political parties.

I'd be happy if we want back to the preamble of the Constitution and ask the federal government to stick to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty."...though I'm sure many politicians would rename their pork as "general welfare promotion" or "domestic tranquility insurance."

Perhaps we could start by changing the electoral process to go by congressional districts as opposed to winner take all states in the vast majority of cases..at least candidates might visit some states both of them write off..and why don't we have some national referendums (non-binding because well, we're not a democracy) - wouldn't it be great if the Nov ballot also had a question on whether the US should have troops in Iraq? Or on gay marriage? Or abortion? or social security reform?

It would also be nice to get back to the X amendment and letting states and the people (communities) decide things for themselves as opposed to the Supreme Court continuing to find all kinds of rights that were meant to be decided by states and communities (and wouldn't that get more people energized about the process - if all politics is local, then why aren't more of the solutions local?

Posted by: Col Steve at June 2, 2004 12:16 AM

"What do you mean by "liberalism"? You quote a number of opinions from different people from different periods of history, most of whom approach the question from a specific perspective. Put all of those people in a room and do you think they'd agree on what "liberalism" is?"

Your argument then, as I understand it, is that there really is no such thing as "liberalism", it is wrong of us to take such diverse writers as Locke, Bentham, Smith, Jefferson, Mill and treat them as a group. You're suggesting, I think, that in some cases their differences might have been as great as their similarities. You're suggesting, I think, that there was nothing cohesive about the philosophies they developed, there were no underlying unifying themes? It is pointless, you suggest, you label all these writers "liberal", as if they agreed on some basic things. As you ask, if you got them all together in a room, what would they agree on?

That's an interesting argument, and I'm sure there is probably something to it. They were a group of diverse thinkers. I'll have to think about it.

Wish I had time to write today, but I'm super busy. I'll be back tomorrow.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at June 2, 2004 11:24 AM

"I don't think an ad campaign that encouraged us to save 15% of our take home pay right off the top would be effective either."

And yet in the 1950's the personal savings rate in America was 17%. That slowly sunk over the next few decades, till in 2000 it actually touched 0%. So, within living memory, Americans were saving as much as Europeans and Japanese (the middle class in Japan now saves 15%). We were a normal country back then, in the sense that we matched international norms more closely. The question, then, is what changed in America after 1960, and why were the other advanced economies (who also have large advertising industries) not affected?

I've heard several theories, including the rising percent federal taxes paid by the middle class (as opposed to the rich) and the rise of two income families (the greater security of two incomes seems to have the psychological effect of removing a main incentive to save, which is possible disaster in the future).

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at June 3, 2004 10:12 AM

"But the semantics aside, if you mean that in our form of government, the vast majority of the citizens have become lazy and apathetic to the point of generally elected incumbents and voting for President often along party lines without regard to issues, then I would argue it's partly a response to the continuing centralization of power at higher levels."

That's exactly what I was trying to say in the earlier thread on this topic. And I, too, quoted the same bit from the Federalist Papers.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at June 6, 2004 11:04 AM

"And I've lost faith in most people's willingness to think. People don't seem, by and large, interested in researching issues and considering consequences. Given the 'easy out' of picking a political party and slapping a partisan bumper sticker on their car, they take it. "

Do you mean that people don't think, or do you mean that people don't think about politics? Surely people put some thought into what car they want to buy, what house they want to buy, and who they want to sleep with?

You're probably aware of the concept of "rational ignorance" as political scientists use the term? Virginia Postrel spelled it out in reaction to a letter I sent her here:

http://www.dynamist.com/weblog/archives/2002/may20.html

Scroll down to the headline "RATIONAL IGNORANCE". As Postrel says:

"Rational ignorance, which is to say having better things to do with your time than bone up on every public issue, also explains why those who do pay attention to what's going on, either because they have a large stake or because they're just weirdly interested, have a disproportionate influence on both particular policies and the general climate of opinion. "

The email I sent her which she quotes also sums my views - my friends are tuning out 99% of the news because they've come to the wholly rational view that there time is better spent doing something else.

I recently had a friend come back from Europe and she was enamoured of the fact that some countries have laws which force you to vote - they use the coercive power of the state to maximize participation in the political process. She thought this was wonderful but my own sense was that those countries were crippling themselves by priviledging an activity that didn't deserve such special treatment. Politics, in my view, represents a very particular way of looking at the world, a very particular way of judging what issues are important. Religion and literature also suggest particular ways of looking at the world, but these are quite different from each other and from politics. And what is healthy is appreciating all these many ways of looking at the world. What is unhealthy is saying that one of these ways of looking at the world is special and deserves more attention than any of the others.

Let me tell you a story, an incident that had a big impact on me:

I've a good friend named R_. We went to visit his mom back in 1998. His step-father was there. His mom and step-father are odd people and over the last 20 years their politics have drifted further and further to the right, but also further and further from the mainstream. His step-father is convinced that the government has a large body of evidence that space aliens really do exist. His step-father is also willing to consider the possibility that the aliens are in active communication with the government, and possibly even influencing its decisions. His step-father is very, very angry that the media doesn't do more to bring this story out, to get more information out of the government. And why isn't the government honest about the influence of aliens? And, damn it, why aren't people more concerned about the way the aliens are stealing our freedom?

After we left his mom's house we talked about why his step-dad was so angry. It was surreal - here was a man living in a nice house, eating good food, watching television or reading a book at his leisure, earning a decent income, driving into town in an old but running pick-up truck, completely free to pursue his happiness as he saw fit, yet consumed with rage about how the government was lying to the people about the aliens. Rational ignorance would have been very rational here - I kept wondering why R_'s step-dad was unable to look around the room and see that his own life was good, that he had everything he needed or wanted.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at June 9, 2004 02:15 AM

eRobin - In that case, we should honor anti-war activists as being more enlightened than the rest of us. They clearly don't suffer from that weakness.

Posted by: Anne at June 9, 2004 08:30 AM

Col Steve -

Ok Anne, I'm going to call you to task on your use of the word "democracy" … Do you mean the democracy in its literal sense of majority rule either by the people directly or through a representative government?

I could quibble right back and you and point out that any definition requires an educated, aware, active population in order to be effective.

Just to make it clear, though, I mean a "democratic society" like any of the varieties you might see around the globe today. They're not all carbon copies of the USofA's system and "democracy" is the umbrella word I'm using to cover all of them.

Madison wrote in one of the Federalist papers, "Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species (democracy - my clarification) of government, have erroneously supposed, that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions."

Madison adequately lays out the problem…that of assuming that being "democratic" is the same as being "equal" is the same as being "the same" none of which assumptions are true.

However, since we're talking about me, let me stress that all I ask is for everyone to be given a reasonable shot at being a responsible citizen. That means education, voting privileges, and reasonable honesty in government.

But the semantics aside, if you mean that in our form of government, the vast majority of the citizens have become lazy and apathetic to the point of generally elected incumbents and voting for President often along party lines without regard to issues, then I would argue it's partly a response to the continuing centralization of power at higher levels.

You see? I disagree. I think some power gets centralized because people abdicate their individual responsibilities and just aren't paying attention, so various Administrations (in the blocal, state, and federal senses) gather in the power left unexercised.

Of course, I also think that a certain amount of centralization is a good thing. A large, inefficient, centralized bureaucracy promotes individual freedom more than a small, efficient bureaucracy that can keep an eye on everyone under its authority.

Less facetiously, part of the mandate of the federal government is to smooth out inequalities that are (or should be) considered unjust according to our ideals. As I've said before, the wealth of California has to be taxed to try and alleviate Mississippi's poverty.

[…] the more we ask of (or default to) the state and federal governments to solve our problems (or take resources from someone else to solve mine), the more money and power flow to those institutions. Given the inherent principal-agent problem that these folks are often the same ones who make the rules (draw the boundaries, decide how to spend and raise the money, etc.), it's no wonder that people grow cynical or apathetic (or comfortable if the system is working for them)..or seek remedies through non-legislative or executive means.

Money and power do flow to those institutions allocated responsibility, yes. But an alert population should also be able to watch the activities of those institutions, through transparency in government, to insure that there's not an abuse of power.

It's not the ingathering of power to any government or government agency that's the problem. It's the population's perception that "the government" is handling it so they can abdicate responsibility. It's the population's perception that "the government" is some entity completely separate from themselves.

I'd be happy if we want back to the preamble of the Constitution and ask the federal government to stick to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty."...though I'm sure many politicians would rename their pork as "general welfare promotion" or "domestic tranquility insurance."

We're using the preamble. Establishing justice, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty are why California is taxed and the money given as a helping hand to Mississippi.

Perhaps we could start by changing the electoral process to go by congressional districts as opposed to winner take all states in the vast majority of cases..at least candidates might visit some states both of them write off..and why don't we have some national referendums (non-binding because well, we're not a democracy) - wouldn't it be great if the Nov ballot also had a question on whether the US should have troops in Iraq? Or on gay marriage? Or abortion? or social security reform?

I can just imagine the district gerrymandering that would take place if presidential (I assume that's what you mean) elections went by Congressional district.

It would also be nice to get back to the X amendment and letting states and the people (communities) decide things for themselves as opposed to the Supreme Court continuing to find all kinds of rights that were meant to be decided by states and communities (and wouldn't that get more people energized about the process - if all politics is local, then why aren't more of the solutions local?

Because people locally stopped paying attention to purely local matters.

Posted by: Anne at June 9, 2004 12:17 PM

Lawrence -

Your argument then, as I understand it, is that there really is no such thing as "liberalism", it is wrong of us to take such diverse writers as Locke, Bentham, Smith, Jefferson, Mill and treat them as a group. You're suggesting, I think, that in some cases their differences might have been as great as their similarities. You're suggesting, I think, that there was nothing cohesive about the philosophies they developed, there were no underlying unifying themes? It is pointless, you suggest, you label all these writers "liberal", as if they agreed on some basic things. As you ask, if you got them all together in a room, what would they agree on?

Well, that's a lot more than I was saying.

I was saying there is no one, single, definition of "liberalism" because it's a fluid concept that has changed through the years, as you'd see if you chose four or five historical figures and asked them to define the concept.

I'm not saying there's nothing cohesive about their theories - I'm saying we need to look at what the word "liberalism" means to us today, see if it's still relevant to what we want to accomplish, and if it is (and I assume it is, of course), then define what it means in the early 21st century and what we need to do to achieve whatever goals our 21st century liberalism stands for.

I don't advocate abandoning the definitions of the past, I'm just suggesting that, from time to time, it's good to re-evaluate.

Posted by: Anne at June 9, 2004 12:23 PM

Lawrence

You're probably aware of the concept of "rational ignorance" as political scientists use the term?

I am…and for just a moment I was excited to think that paying attention to what's going on is giving me a disproportionate influence on politics…until I realized it wasn't true.

I can pay attention all day long, and even blog about things all day long, and never have the slightest impact on what happens. As I've said repeatedly, you need to know what's happening, yes, but you need to take action to affect outcomes.

I recently had a friend come back from Europe and she was enamoured of the fact that some countries have laws which force you to vote - they use the coercive power of the state to maximize participation in the political process. She thought this was wonderful but my own sense was that those countries were crippling themselves by priviledging an activity that didn't deserve such special treatment. Politics, in my view, represents a very particular way of looking at the world, a very particular way of judging what issues are important. Religion and literature also suggest particular ways of looking at the world, but these are quite different from each other and from politics. And what is healthy is appreciating all these many ways of looking at the world. What is unhealthy is saying that one of these ways of looking at the world is special and deserves more attention than any of the others.

I suppose, considered dispassionately, politics is just another way of viewing the world, but I don't think you can dismiss it, or class it with religion or literature quite so casually. In the past, religion has made a huge impact on the direction of societies. Literature has and will continue to have an impact. But politics differs. It's the only activity that has no other purpose than to influence the direction of a specific society. Both of your examples, religion and literature, have multiple purposes, of which influencing the larger world is just one instance.

I don't say that politics deserves more attention than literature, but I think it requires a different kind of attention.

Let me tell you a story, an incident that had a big impact on me:

The only response I have to that is to suggest the man has an unexamined psychological issue (not necessarily a problem) and I don't see that it's relevant to the question at hand?

Posted by: Anne at June 9, 2004 12:34 PM

"The only response I have to that is to suggest the man has an unexamined psychological issue (not necessarily a problem) and I don't see that it's relevant to the question at hand? "

He's an extreme case of something I run into all the time - the person living a quiet, decent, undisturbed life who, nevertheless, is full of rage about how their life is being ruined by the government. I run into both right-wingers and left-wingers who fit this description.

Back when I was more of a door-to-door activist, I recall being puzzled, more than once, by middle class people (in the South, where I was living) who expressed anger about how their lives being ruined by the government. They seemed to be leading quiet, affluent, decent, and undisturbed lives, but they were quite angry. They lived in big houses in nice neighborhoods, and drove shiny new cars, and seemed to mostly have the lives they wanted, but instead they felt they'd been cheated, and that the government had done the cheating. I'm thinking mostly of people I talked with in 1991 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and in 1992 in Louisiana (that was my most activist period). Most of the people I'm thinking of from this period were white and conservative, and they were both male and female.

On the left-wing, especially during the run-up to the current Iraq war, I recall my friends being angry about the government suppressing their free speech rights - though they went to several protests and never were harrassed by the police.

I'm of two minds about this kind of anger when I run into. Part of me thinks it is good that people are angry and willing to take out that anger on the goverment - such rage is a check against the over-extension of government power. But then, part of me thinks this kind of rage is a kind of sickness. I recall in 1996 going to a rally at Judson Church (just off Washington Square in New York, famous for its support of progressive social causes) where the people were very, very angry about the policies of Rudolph Gullianni. Everyone there refered to him as a "fascist." Most of the speakers warned that the era of democracy in America was coming to an end. The tone seemed overdone to me. 8 years later and I'm still living in a free country where I can pretty much do what I want. I recall being disappointed that no debate was allowed, at least not there at that time. I felt the Left needed to have a discussion about how to bring down crime rates, and whether there was anything good to be imitated in Gulianni's policies, but there was no room for that kind of discussion at that time, among that crowd.

I've no monopoly on wisdom and it's possible that the era of democracy in America is, in fact, coming to an end. But personally, I'd prefer that people, when discussing politics, use the cool voice of reason that Doris Lessing advocated. She wrote:

"

    Looking back over my life, which has now lasted 66 years, what I see is a succession of great mass events, boilings up of emotion, of wild partisan passion, that pass, but while they last it is not possible to do more than think: “These slogans, or these accusations, these claims, these trumpetings, quite soon they will seem to everyone ridiculous and even shameful.” Meanwhile, it is not possible to say so...

One mass movement, each a set of mass opinions, succeeds another: for war, against war; against nuclear war; for technology, against technology. And each breeds a certain frame of mind: violent, emotional, partisan, always suppressing facts that don’t suit it, lying, and making it impossible to talk in the cool, quiet, sensible low-keyed tone of voice which, it seems to me, is the only one that can produce truth."

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at June 13, 2004 01:54 PM

"I'm saying we need to look at what the word "liberalism" means to us today, see if it's still relevant to what we want to accomplish"

What a remarkable thing to say. I might, jokingly, ask you:

If it is no longer relevant then we will do what? Abandon liberalism? Abandon specific policies, or liberalism itself?

but that would lose the thread.

I'm sorry if I sound pedantic, it's just that when I read your posts (which I almost always find interesting) I'm reminded how people can reach a similar politics while traveling different roads. If I read you correctly, you basically say to yourself, "What is the best way to achieve what we are trying to accomplish?" and so for you it, apparently, makes sense to ask "Does liberalism help us achieve our goals?" But, I'm curious, how do you know what you are trying to accomplish in the first place? Even if you can't articulate them, you must have some underlying beliefs or assumptions that inform your first, implicit, question - "What are we trying to accomplish?" I realize this ties back in with the earlier conversation, and I realize you are thinking about it and you've promised to report back at some point about what you really believe. Those of us who read your weblog and find it interesting will, I'm sure, be interested to hear what conclusions you come to in the end, about what you believe.

The way you've written the sentence above you make liberalism sound like a tool, to be used or not used depending on whether its useful toward achieving our goals. But I tend to think of it as a set of beliefs that tell me what my goals should be. I tend to ask myself, "What values do I believe in?" and then "What actions are allowed or encouraged by such values?" I believe in individual freedom, I believe that all people are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Such beliefs help tell inform me of what my goals should be. I can then ask what tools or policies might help achieve my goals, but I don't think of liberalism as a tool or a set of policies, I instead think of it as a set of beliefs that guides what goals I might want to pursue.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at June 13, 2004 02:34 PM

"I think some power gets centralized because people abdicate their individual responsibilities and just aren't paying attention, so various Administrations (in the blocal, state, and federal senses) gather in the power left unexercised."

It seems to me that history shows power concentrating because of governmental mismanagement at lower levels. During the Great Depression a third of all the cities in North Carolina declared bankruptcy, and had to be rescued and reorganized by the state government. Many cities lost their original charters at that time, and thus lost their power. In Virginia, the cities have almost no independent power, but rather, the state government doles it out in small doses.

There is also abuse. Many liberal people who normally fear an increase of government power were willing to see the power of the Federal government increased so as to bring about the end of Jim Crow. Dozens of times during the 1950s and 1960s soldiers were sent into the South to enforce Federal law against the wishes of the governments of the southern states. Since States-Rights was historically used by the racists to defend racist polices, the war against racism automatically became a war against States-Rights. Nowadays, of course, things are different - liberals would be horrorfied if President Bush sent troops into Massachucetts to stop gay weddings. The dangers of centralizing all power become apparent when you've a lunatic reactionary running the country.

There is also risk reduction. From at least 1890 onwards progressive social reformers have sought to distribute individual risk over the widest possible pool of participants (rate payers). The hopes of Progressive Era reformers met a late victory when FDR finally passed the Social Security act. That law was meant to end poverty among the elderly, and it was overwhelmingly successful at achieving that goal.

There is also economic efficiency. Corporations have repeatedly tried to sidestep state law by appealing to Federal law. After 1935, looking for expanded markets, many businessmen were willing to go along with liberals on this one aspect of economic policy - that if the Federal government could overturn contradictory state regulations, then the American market would become a much more cohesive, smoother, and therefore more efficient market to service. Thus, after 1935, you see the historic expansion of the Constitution's commerce clause, pushed by the liberals, but with some support from business. The business community has often found this expansion of Federal power useful, especially when a liberal state tries to push legislation that is more favorable to (say for instance) the environment than what the Federal government calls for. Thus, whenever California tries to push through a tough new environmental law, that law gets challenged in court as being a violation of the post-1935 understanding of the commerce clause. This is one of the downsides of the war against States-Rights: limiting the power of states like Alabama to do evil also limits the power of states like California to do good. Recently, with gay marriage being legalized in Massachucetts, social reformers have been given a reason to remember some of the possible benefits of a federated, de-centralized system.

"It's not the ingathering of power to any government or government agency that's the problem. It's the population's perception that "the government" is handling it so they can abdicate responsibility."

What are you thinking of when you write this?

"It's the population's perception that "the government" is some entity completely separate from themselves."

The government is an entity completely separate from the public. Let's not romanticize the government. The average citizen has as much hope of influencing the government as they do of influencing IBM. Both government and IBM listen (hopefully) to their customers, but their customers are not them.

"Because people locally stopped paying attention to purely local matters."

There clearly is an unresolved issue of cause here, a chicken-or-egg question about which came first - loss of local power or loss of interest in local politics.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner at June 13, 2004 02:35 PM