Saturday, January 19, 2013


Where is an editor when you need one?

Perusing the San Francisco Chronicle over breakfast this morning, I lit upon an article on the insistence of Tea Partiers that they had no intention of going away, reports of their death supposedly greatly exaggerated. It was amusing to see that astroturf specialist Sal Russo was quoted: “Of course, the brand has been hammered, but the ideas haven't been hammered—and that's why they will always come back.”

The unrepentant Russo is described by the Chronicle reporter as “the Sacramento GOP political consultant who founded Tea Party Express, a network that since it began in early 2009 has connected millions of conservative activists, raised millions of dollars, and used its clout to back once-unknown political figures such as Sarah Palin.” That's half right. Russo is indeed one of the political promoters who reaped a rich reward by running out in front of a horde of disgruntled anti-Obama right-wingers and became a “grassroots leader” willing to collect names and spam those people with incessant appeals for money to fight against the Kenyan-Marxist-Socialist threat in the White House. Whether you account him successful or not depends on your choice of metric. Fleecing the flock? Brilliant success! Defeating Obama? Miserable failure!

But I come neither to bury Russo nor to praise him. He is what he is and his political operation will undoubtedly continue to seek willing victims to feed its appetites. My theme is taken from journalist Alan Barth, who in a 1943 book review penned the phrase, “News is only the rough first draft of history.” (The catchy line was later taken up by Philip L. Graham and others.) If the San Francisco Chronicle's news article on the so-called Tea Party is a “rough first draft” of history, I think the emphasis must be on “rough.” Did you spot the same anachronism that I did?

Yeah. It's the bit about Sarah Palin: “used its clout to back once-unknown political figures such as Sarah Palin.” While Palinistas abound in the ranks of the various Tea Parties, carts and horses are getting pretty badly mixed up in the Chronicle reporter's notebook. Palin was a political unknown only until John McCain disqualified himself from the presidency by tapping her as his running mate in the summer of 2008. That's several months before Rick Santelli blew his stack and called on live television in February 2009 for a “Chicago Tea Party” from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Right-wing interests were quick to exploit the opportunity to create various Tea Party organizations (like Russo's Tea Party Express), aided and abetted by constant promotional exposure on Fox News.

Today the Tea Party ranks are full of broken-hearted activists who grudgingly backed Mitt Romney as the only viable vehicle to oppose Antichrist Obama. Many of them pine for Sarah Palin to return from her frozen exile to lead them on a crusade (where “crusade” is indeed le mot juste) to save the nation from various ill-defined fates worse than death. But the Tea Party, as such, postdates Palin's over-extended fifteen minutes of fame. It had nothing to do with turning her from a “once-unknown political figure” into the wet dream of deranged right-wingers.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

A failure of imagination

Non carpe diem

If it weren't Saturday, my reaction would have been different. Cartoonists like Stephan Pastis have confessed that Saturday is where weak comic strips go to die—or at least to be overlooked. If Scott Adams had scheduled the Dilbert strip to run on a Monday, I would have perceived it as the first installment in a promising new story arc, with four sequels to anticipate. Since, however, it appeared in Saturday's newspaper, the strip was evidently considered a dud, or at best a squib with a small pop. Here's the key panel:

Dilbert replies that his pointy-haired boss should not have high expectations for Dilbert's first draft. The reader can now emit a short, dry chuckle and move on. Unless Adams surprises me on Monday, however, this is a missed opportunity. Isn't the creation of content-free responses to awkward questions a significant corporate survival skill? Consider the following hypothetical question, which we can anticipate in general form if not in specific:
Q: What are your plans for NOUN? We can't afford to let our competition get ahead of us on NOUN.
Really, now. How difficult could it be to answer that question? Try this on for size (and impenetrability):
A: I'm glad you asked that. Our planning task force has a subgroup specifically devoted to NOUN and will be rolling out a timeframe for NOUN implementation that will maintain our competitive edge. We have been aware of the importance of NOUN for quite some time and have allocated resources for appraisal of NOUN options from our future projects initiative. We feel that we are ahead of the curve on NOUN and will be able to respond quickly to rival NOUN implementations.
You can't go too far wrong with that, can you?
Q: Are you ready to VERB? Your master plan does not address VERBing anywhere.
You already have the idea now. The answers write themselves:
A: Actually, the master plan has provisions for seizing opportunities for creative departures in new directions, implicitly including VERBing. You may be unaware that [random name] has specialized training in how to VERB and can bring those skills on-line in the near-term to establish our presence in VERBing in a high-profile and significant way. This is especially true because [repeat name] is the nexus of an inter-departmental strategy team that can facilitate cross-division implementation of VERBing options where those options are most appropriately tailored to enhance high achievement relative to our success metrics.
That speaks volumes, no? (No.)

With all of his experience in corporate bureaucracy, Scott Adams could easily have cobbled together a sequence of four superficially responsive non-responses for a series of strips. Alas, it looks like a missed opportunity.

I suppose it would be fun to add a couple of examples with more of an educational orientation, but I used all of those up in our latest accreditation report.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Comics crushed on the wheel of time

Déjà vu with Lucy Van Pelt

In place of the “eternal feminine,” Lucy from the Peanuts comic strip provides us with the “eternal fussbudget.” This week she spoke a truth laden with irony from the funny pages of the newspaper. The irony was new, generated by the fact that Lucy's words were not. Here is the installment from January 2, 2013, where Lucy is fussing about the supposedly “new” year.

The year, of course, is not the only thing that was “used.” For the uninitiated, the giveaway could be found in the label Classic Peanuts, the sign that Charles Schulz may be long gone but his undead comic has been sucked into the endless time-vortex of the modern comics page. Classic Peanuts had plenty of company. Lynn Johnston's For Better or Worse was shocked back into life with a brisk slap of the defibrillator paddles. The rebooted strip went into reruns, recycling the original strips (ostensibly with some modest editorial oversight and emendations by Johnson.)

At least these recycled comic strips are the actual products of the bylined cartoonists. The late Schulz and the retired Johnston really did write those gags and create those drawings. If you're fortunate(?) enough to have The Wizard of Id in your local paper, you'll see that it still carries the bylines of its late creators, Brant Parker and Johnny Hart, although it has long been in the hands of the uncredited Jeff Parker. It's not really a secret, of course, but it's still a little weird that the current Parker prefers to work without attribution. Perhaps he prefers that today's readers blame the original creators for today's pallid and deracinated version.

Johnny Hart's other brain-child, B.C. is similarly being kept alive by a distribution syndicate willing to settle for the imitative work of the creator's descendants. It works, right? Otherwise, we would not be seeing the cavalcade of strips that will not die: Dick Tracy has outlived Chester Gould, Blondie lives forever although Chic Young is gone, Mark Trail continues his trail-blazing without the help of Ed Dodd, Dennis the Menace still bothers Mr. Wilson in the absence of Hank Ketcham, and Frank and Ernest were inherited by the son of Bob Thaves. This is by no means an exhaustive list, even if it is a bit exhausting.

I admit that I usually smile when I see Classic Peanuts, even though I often recall having seen the strip before. The work of Charles Schulz holds up to repeated readings. In fact, it's usually better than the “new” strips cobbled together from the remnants of the work of the original creators. These latter offerings are often vigorless revenants that stalk the comics pages, their Frankensteinian stitches showing. If you listen closely, you can hear their sad pleas: “Brains! Brains!” But those brains are long gone.