Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Kennedy Exposes Talk Radio Hypocrisy and Triviality

Driving across town today, I caught a segment of Michael Medved’s radio show. Medved, the conservative critic, decided that it was important to attack Caroline Kennedy’s first media appearance. While it wasn’t hard to critique her style of 140 plus “you know” statements, it was interesting to hear him call the left’s defense of her “hypocritical” because of their attacking Sarah Palin’s interview quality. Medved just doesn’t seem to understand the great irony of his own criticism.

Substance vs. Style: Palin vs. Kennedy

While Medved insists that Palin never had an interview as bad as Kennedy’s because she said “you know” over 140 times, he misses a key distinction: Palin simply didn’t know the information, whereas Kennedy simply showed a lack of polish in her speaking style by including “you know” in her answers. While it is awkward and certainly undermines her points, it is in no way comparable to Palin’s interviews.

Sarah Palin was simply not ready for prime time on the national stage and it showed. From my teaching of college debate, I find the best example of this that I can think of in levels of debate. A person new to debate sees their first arguments and writes answers to them. Most often, they are repeating the arguments of the varsity debaters but they don’t understand the arguments and often don’t understand how they apply well.

Sarah Palin’s interviews showed something similar. When asked about the economy, she answered with a very generic health care and tax cut argument that didn’t really answer the question. When Katie Couric asked specific questions and she had her answer down, it sounded acceptable until Katie asked a follow up question where Sarah simply repeated her previous answer. Both indicate the same behavior as the novice debater trying to learn the pre-written answers and where they apply. Bottom line: Sarah didn’t have the substance; she didn’t know the information and was trying to learn pre-scripted answers. Kennedy simply had a problem with style considering that none of the conservatives are attacking what she said, only how she said it.

Medved’s Hypocrisy

Talk radio hosts say so much that they don’t expect people to remember what they said way back when or to have it on tape to expose them. I certainly don’t have any of them on tape. However, I do remember listening to Medved and others on the right defend President Bush’s lack of speaking polish and called the left elitist for attacking then candidate George W. Bush’s rough speech and making up of words. They spent countless hours talking about how Bush spoke like an American, not a polished speaker. They proclaimed he had substance, just not the substance that liberals wanted.

Today, they rant about polish. Today, they rant about “you know” counts. And yet, they don’t rant about what she actually said. The very same thing they defended President Bush about for eight years is the very same thing that they attack Caroline Kennedy for: being an unpolished speaker.

One has to wonder when the right wing radio hosts will figure out that their audience grip may be firm over 25% of the political world, but it is events like this that undermine their hold on the other 25% of the right as they start to see their hypocrisy exposed and they start to see that their constructed reality doesn’t match the reality of the average American.

Caroline Kennedy had speaking problems that any speaker who has taken a decent speech class or been to toastmasters wouldn’t have problems with. However, Medved’s, and right wing talk radio hosts criticism of Kennedy is hypocritical to say the least. It is also a nitpicking distraction to change headlines from the beating they took in November as they try to stop the momentum. They might be better served to actually address the problems of their parties instead of these petty attacks that make them look trivial in a time for big ideas.

Individualism Versus Societal Responsibility?

The other day, I was in Wal-mart at customer service and I noticed something. A customer was bringing back food where there was nothing wrong with it, they simply changed their mind about what they wanted to eat apparently. The customer service person told them that they would have to throw the food away and asked them to be more careful in the future. I found myself shocked to hear the customer answer with "at least I won't lose my money."

While this incident was isolated, the pattern of shortsighted self-interest continued as others brought back things like once used make-up and shoes, a toaster that was used but was just too hard for the people to figure out (how complicated can a toaster really be?), and other various things that I couldn't imagine that people actually could bring back without feeling ashamed of themselves. It is one thing to return a defective product, but quite another to turn a purchase into a rental.

What none of them seemed to realize was that Wal-mart would continue to profit as would the companies that probably gave Wal-mart credit by raising the prices on what you and I pay for their goods. They simply didn't seem to understand that they were raising their own prices by abusing return policies.

More significantly, this is part of a larger pattern I have noticed since moving to Texas last year where people are so focused on themselves that they have lost their relation to others. In the cases above, they lost the whole notion that they were hurting others around them (and I don't mean Wal-mart).

In the last year, I was in the car with a friend (I won't use his name to save him embarassment) who at one point complained about others parking in the fire lane in front of a store and how it made it difficult for him; and about two hours later pronounced his ability to do the very same thing because he had a big truck and everyone else could go around. Apparently, there had been a disconnect between his actions and its impact, and what had happened only a short time before.

It is leaving me to wonder if some have become so self-absorbed that they don't even perceive the world around them as anything other than an obstruction to anything they want to do, instead of understanding that we are all interlinked in our world. When someone abuses a return policy, it is accounted for in a company's pricing, which means you and I pay more for that product. When someone decides to obstruct traffic, it impacts you and I because of the ripple it sends through traffic that we are in.

I understand that people don't want to be told what to do or that times are tough, but at some point, it appears that we have lost track of our relationship to the world around us. Do we not have a responsibility to those around us also? Have we really lost all ethics or morals?

I realize that this is probably only a small percentage in our society, but it is potentially concerning as it spreads and worsens. I half expect to see someone bring in a bag of feces and proclaim the food was bad, demanding their money back on their Christmas Dinner.

It is important that we maintain our individual liberties, but it is also important that we understand that with liberty comes responsibility. It seems that we have embraced our individual liberty but ignored the responsibility. Could it be that same kind of ignoring of responsibility that has gotten us into this economic mess too? Hopefully President Elect Obama can bring us a dose of responsibility.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Gift Registries for Christmas?

Today, I was skimming channels when I caught a promo for a news show that spoke of Christmas gift registries. I have to admit, I skipped it and really didn't go back. However, it started to catch up with me later: why would we need Christmas gift registries?

Sure, we have wedding and baby shower registries, but those are generally big events with a lot of people giving gifts and the registry attempts to organize them so they don't get 4 toasters and 3 blenders as things are checked off. It also let's people coordinate colors of things so things match. But... this is Christmas. There isn't some huge limiting event to give a gift for. There probably aren't 25 people giving separate gifts to coordinate. There isn't some major life change that requires whole new sets of decisions that may not be predictable. This is Christmas.

So I thought about it some more.

As I date myself, I was raised on the notion that Christmas was about the thought of giving, not the gift itself. Sure, as a kid, I always wanted the coolest thing of the time. But whether I got it or not, my grandmother and mother always told me "at least they cared enough and thought enough of you to give you a gift."

I was raised under the notion that "it is the thought that counts." From that, you could look at a gift and realize how much someone thought about you and how well they thought about you. To this day, my mother calls a book of pictures she got from her brother "the best gift she ever got." No, it wasn't family pictures or anything. When she was a child, she wanted to go to a camp in the snow for winter but got sick and couldn't go. Her brother went and brought her back a picture of everything he saw, from the snowmen to the mountains. She said "it was like being there without the cold." It was thoughtful.

In the last decade, gift cards and gift certificates have grown as the currency of choice for the holidays and even birthdays. My wife's friend and I have a birthday a few days apart. At a birthday party, we both happen to have gotten each other gift cards for the same amount at the same store. I guess the thought I was worth money was nice, but it made me realize how little thought both of us had put into the gift. It was merely part of the formality of a gift and something we thought we needed to give.

It seems like we may have lost something in terms of our sense of community. It may be more than that too. After all, we talk all the time with people. Probably more than most times in our history. Heck, we tell people all about ourselves all the time. Haven't you ever had a complete stranger tell you their whole life story while waiting in a long holiday line at the store? We post blogs, myspace pages, facebook pages, personal websites. We send emails that detail the answers to 50 questions about ourselves to each other. We text like there is no tomorrow.

It seems like we communicate all about ourselves all the time. So why can't people figure out what kind of gift to give us? Why do they just give us gift cards or money, or need a registry that is so impersonal that an executive could simply send an assistant to the store to pick off of everyone's registry for gifts and never even have to interact with a person at the holidays?

Are we so self-absorbed that we are always talking but never listening? Could it be that we care but just not enough to figure out the puzzle of what to give people? We spend hours on sudoku, crossword puzzles or the next mind game craze, yet we can't find the time to figure out what to give each other? Is it really that hard?

I guess I am being a little cynical. So in the spirit of Christmas, I am hoping that registries are merely the first step in actually telling people that we want gifts, not money; that we want to feel like someone cares about who we are and what we like instead of feeling like a beggar on the street that you grab a five to hand to; that we want people to make choices and decide what kind of gift to give us; that we want people to take that risk because it shows they care enough to put themselves and their choices out there where they can find the greatest gift or just another gift, but that we will appreciate the effort and thought either way.

It is the thought that counts, not the money. No gift cards this year. Expect actual gifts.