The Kiddies Get Played Again

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The Duck Dynasty brouhaha is over, and for that we can be thankful. Many of those who got excited over it are somewhat embarrassed now. At least they should be. The way it ended — with the show’s resumption just as A&E was almost out of reruns — reveals it to have been a PR stunt and largely a sham. As a commenter on one of my favorite blogs put it, “Merry Christmas! We’ve been played!”

I wasn’t as entertained, or as exercised, as a lot of people. I was watching not the media-manufactured drama, but America’s reaction to it. Those on both the political Left and the political Right who usually get taken in by such nonsense were sucked in yet again. What I found reassuring was that so many others weren’t.

Americans may be waking up from their long, hypnotic daze. They now hear the show’s star, Phil Robertson, pontificating about the virtues of menmarrying 15-year-old girls, and even those who rah-rahed his anatomically-explicit anti-gay tirade in GQ magazine are revolted. This may be another Terri Schiavo moment, when the social right overplays its hand so grossly that its fraudulence is exposed for all to see. That people who’ve expended so much effort trying to get the government to censor others are now rushing to the barricades to defend their “religious freedom,” and that they’re so confused about what censorship is or isn’t that they think a business has no right to suspend an employee, is rich indeed.

It is high time we woke up. Those who blur the line between free speech and censorship most likely do so because they intend to cross it themselves. This is a sorry crowd to be lecturing anybody about the freedom of anything. Not that their political adversaries conducted themselves any more nobly. To their credit, many in the public recognized this, too.

Those who fancy they’ve “taught A&E a lesson” are apparently too dull-witted to realize that they did exactly what the network wanted them to do.

All the predictable people did all the predictable things, and a good portion of the audience is getting bored with the act. GLAAD, which fancies itself something of a gay Anti-Defamation League, leapt in immediately after the GQ article came out, demanding that Robertson be punished. If they could have called in the troopers to kick in the door to the family mansion and drag the entire clan off to jail, they probably would have. I got emails from several gay rights groups, telling me how outraged I should be — and shilling for donations.

Though I’m reassured that many people were sensible enough to see the mummery for what it was, I’m worried that so many others weren’t. Activist organizations on both sides of the controversy raked in piles of money. Several politicians — some of whom I would have expected to behave with more restraint — seized the chance to grandstand. There is no one I would vote for now that I wouldn’t have before, but there are about a handful I might have supported, but now, as a matter of principle, would vote against.

What is wrong with those who permitted themselves to be so cynically played? Are they really so hollow inside, and do they truly have so little sense of themselves, that they can be trained to salivate, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, at the ding-ding of a bell? Those who fancy they’ve “taught A&E a lesson” are apparently too dull-witted to realize that they did exactly what the network wanted them to do.

I would feel sorry for them, if I weren’t rather frightened. I don’t think that Jefferson, or Adams, or Franklin ever envisioned the possibility that 230-odd years into the future, so many Americans would be so childish, shallow, gullible, and grasping. They probably wouldn’t fall for the charms of a bellowing little man with a funny mustache and a swastika armband, but anybody who makes them feel like godly patriots, or evolved progressives — depending on their illusion of choice — could seduce them into following him (or her) anywhere.

Are there enough grownups left in this country to run it? Liberty presupposes that citizens who have reached the age of majority are capable of functioning as adults. A media-manufactured controversy like the Duck Dynasty blowup demonstrates, with stark clarity, who belongs at the big table and who should be sitting with the kiddies.

Perhaps Duck Dynasty should become a watchword — a shorthand warning — for every time the bell again goes ding-ding-ding. It may be enough to jerk some people into adulthood, or at the very least to jerk them awake.




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Office Complex

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Recently, I missed a flight and ended up in a vast airport-adjacent suburb with a few hours to kill. My first stop was at a Starbucks to do some quick work. (Although I don’t drink coffee, I travel enough to know that Starbucks outlets almost always have clean bathrooms and reliable wireless Internet connections.)

One appeared quickly, at the corner of a big box shopping center. It was larger than most of the shops in the Pacific Northwest, so I figured there’d be plenty of room near noon on a weekday. But I was mistaken. The place was packed.

It took a few minutes to find an empty table where I could set down my tea and set up my laptop. In the meantime, I noticed dozens of commercial conversations, negotiations, and meetings going on in this semi-public space. It had the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar.

A youngish man with a carefully cultivated scraggly beard and black apparel was plugged into his laptop via elaborate headgear. He was facing me, so I couldn’t see the screen of his computer; but, from the cadence of his talk, it was evident that he was participating in some sort of video conference. He made direct eye contact with me for a few moments — which I thought might be a reproach for looking at him — but then he changed his gaze to another person and spoke into his mic.

I noticed dozens of commercial conversations, negotiations, and meetings going on in this semi-public space. It had the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar.

Something I’d read somewhere came back to me: videoconferencing veterans suggest choosing people or things in the room around you to represent the other participants in a conference call. On video, this creates the impression that you’re responding to specific others in the “meeting,” as if they were in a real room with you. He was just using me as an eye-contact avatar.

I couldn’t make out everything the fashionable man said. He was too far away and the Starbucks had too much background noise. But a few phrases made it across the space. “Elevations.” “Build-out.” “Retrofit.” “Improvements.” Because my wife is an architect, I recognized these as terms from a construction project — and, specifically, the expansion of an existing building.

Other snippets of words he used conveyed a certain fastidiousness; he constantly asked others what they thought and if they understood what someone else had said. Sounded like he was the construction manager or coordinator on the project.

I noticed that he’d chosen a seat with a blond panel wall behind it. The small video camera atop his computer screen would frame him in a background that could be from some fashionable office. And the elaborate headgear probably filtered out the background noise. Smart. His clients would have no idea he was sitting in a coffee shop.

Closer to me, a middle-aged salesman and saleswoman huddled at a smaller café-style table and swapped office gossip. The man did most of the talking — an overweight man with an overbearing voice: “The guy is so clueless that he has no idea Everett actually hates him. And he’ll never figure that out.” “I tried to give him some advice. Live on your draw and save your commissions. Don’t count on commissions for paying bills. But he doesn’t listen.” “I told him, ‘Look, it’s not my fault it’s like this. I mean, times are hard. We’re all cutting back.’”

The woman listened and nodded agreement with most of this. But she looked tired and clearly wished she were somewhere else.

As they reached the bottoms of their lattes, the salespeople plotted their afternoon. They were sharing one rental car but had separate appointments before their flight home that evening. He sketched out a plan for dropping her off at her next call while he made his and then switching driving chores, so that she’d drop him off at his last call while she made hers.

If times were better, they’d each have rented their own car.

Just behind me, two women — one older and very sharply dressed, one younger and casually dressed — talked about graphic design work. Their conversation was more about practical matters than aesthetics. The older woman opened a nice leather portfolio and showed the younger various business forms: letterhead, contracts, purchase orders and invoices.

It wasn’t clear whether the business forms were the product of the older woman’s practice or the forms that she used to deal with clients. And the younger woman’s questions were so elementary that they didn’t make matters any more clear.

This meeting seemed to be a “Can I pick your brain?” session. Perhaps the younger woman was the daughter of one of the older woman’s friends. The younger may have read somewhere that asking an established person for “advice” is the best way to get intelligence on employment.

Corporate America can’t afford to be the babysitter that it was for most of the last century. Working people understand this.

I’ve been on the older woman’s side of the table for a few of these meetings myself. I caught a glimpse of her face. She was in her late 40s or early 50s, quite attractive and carefully appointed. But her eyes looked sad. They squinted a lot — in contempt, I think — at the younger woman, whose childish questions and cadence made her sound simple-minded.

If the meeting behind me was a job interview, the younger woman wasn’t going to be hired. As the older woman folded up her portfolio, the younger asked her about any contract work that might be available. “It would be subcontract work,” the older said ruefully. “Give me a couple of business cards. I’ll keep them handy.”

Nearly finished with my emails, I took a break to use the men’s room. There were a couple of men ahead of me. While waiting, we listened to a white-haired man pitch four or five other older men and one woman on an investment scheme.

He’d handed each of his marks letters and information printed on heavy-stock paper which had a Baroque-style firm name ending in “Capital” at the top.

“ . . . our record speaks for itself, of course. But, like everyone, we are always looking for more business. And advertising on radio or television, frankly, isn’t something that interests us.”

The others nodded eagerly. This was a job interview. The white-haired man was selling them on becoming sales representatives for his firm — which was involved in some capacity with reverse mortgages. But my turn to use the bathroom came before I could hear the details.

Reverse mortgages are, essentially, the subprime loans of the coming decade. They are legal but unwise financial vehicles that are most effective at separating gullible people from their wealth. The gullible people, in this case, are seniors with real estate that they own outright or nearly outright; with a reverse mortgage, they get a monthly stipend in exchange for leaving their property to the mortgage company when they die.

If they die after just a few years of payments, the gullible old people have effectively sold their property for a fraction of its value.

Although he had the cheap sophistication of a game-show host, the white-haired man couldn’t have been very high up on the food chain of his shady industry. Multilevel marketing schemes are usually desperate to seem established, so they aren’t usually run out of coffee shops. But, hey, times are hard. And we’re all cutting back.

Back from the bathroom, I packed up my computer and scanned the place one last time on my way out. There were at least a dozen intense conversations going on; and another dozen or so people working intensely on computers or other devices. Did any of these people have “jobs” in the sense that the Department of Labor defines them?

Statist hacks like Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, and Barack Obama think of “jobs” as compliant proles lining up at the gates of General Motors for hourly-wage work, performing clearly defined tasks in clearly defined places. But this thinking is antiquated and wrong. Corporate America can’t afford to be the babysitter that it was for most of the last century. Working people understand this.

For most people, a “job” means — and will mean, for the foreseeable future — hustling for freelance work. Contracts and subcontracts. Commission sales. Multilevel marketing. There’s money in it, but that money doesn’t come easily. And, sometimes, it doesn’t come reliably.

That’s what I saw at the suburban Starbucks freelance labor bazaar.




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A Surprise Hit

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Last week I attended a screening of Atlas Shrugged, Part I, and was amazed to see that the theater was literally sold out and packed full. I cannot ever recall seeing that before. After all, this is not your usual fluffy romantic farce, comic book superhero movie, or action flick. It is an honest effort to put Ayn Rand’s extremely long novel into movie format.

Producers Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro are expanding the release from the initial 299 theaters to 425 by this weekend, and as many as 1,000 by the end of April. This is stunning, considering that the marketing plan was considered lame by Hollywood insiders, because it used the internet rather than more traditional venues, such as TV and radio, for running ads.

Not only are ticket sales doing well, but film-related merchandise — including replicas of the bracelet Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) wears in the movie (made out of “Rearden metal”) — are flying off the shelves.

Aglialoro, a businessman who put $10 million of his personal capital into the flick, as well as co-writing and co-producing it, attributes its success in great measure to fortunate timing. I think that in this he is absolutely right. Obama’s leftist regime, with its bash-the-rich and blame-the-businesses rhetoric, massive new regulations, crony capitalism, and redistributionist mindset, has created a ready market for the movie.

Ironically, Obama may prove to be the cause of a whole new wave of Rand mania. That is well worth a chuckle or two, no?




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