Category: Culture

What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House

In the era of Kindles, tweets, Facebook and instant celebrity how should presidents act? “Are we really better off with a president who knows who Snooki is?”, asks Tevi Troy in his insightful book What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted.

Do (presidents) wish to be men of the people or men of higher understanding? Which trait is more helpful for getting elected? Which trait is more helpful for governing? Or can the president simultaneously master both qualities? If he can, how does a president communicate his connection to a partially shared popular culture while also communicating that he has the character to hold the highest office in the land?

Responses to this question are as varied as the personalities of the people who get elected and the times in which they lived.

How he conceives of himself and popular culture reveals something about the president’s intellectual interests, mental discipline, and preparation for the presidency. How a president engages popular culture also tell us about the people who elected him, the changing nature of American politics and society, and the tension between high-, low-, and middle-brow pursuits.

The man who seemingly kept the right distance between himself and the people—that is, not too far and not too close—was Abraham Lincoln.

He wanted to connect, and he wanted to achieve. Obsessed with books and himself the author of some of the noblest rhetoric in the English language, he never lost sight of the need to appeal to the common man in his earnest work.

The first presidents had few options. Cultural pursuits were limited to books and theater.

Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were among the best-read men on the entire continent. Jefferson, whose personal collection of books became the foundation of the Library of Congress, famously said “I cannot live without books.”

Today presidents have more cultural options than ever before—books, magazines, movies, television, music, Internet, radio, video-games, and brands.

Whether it is Jimmy Carter watching more than four hundred movies in the White House cinema or Barack Obama telling people that the flamboyant killer Omar on HBO’s The Wire is his favorite character, it is clear that presidents are taking advantage of cultural reference points to communicate to the American public. And (in so doing) they occasionally reveal something important about themselves.

Not all cultural pursuits are the same — there is a difference between entertainment and intellectual pursuits. “The lines between them,” Tory writes, “are not always easily drawn—the most successful presidents have been at home in both worlds.”

Technology has multiplied both how we communicate and how we consume. If a president is too forward-leaning he risks being viewed as out of touch. The same with being too far behind. And there is nothing a politician wants less than to be seen as out of touch.

Electing someone requires that we believe they are ready for the times.

The leader of a free and democratic nation must appear to be engaged in his country’s culture, but he must do so without letting the coarseness and vulgarity of that culture diminish himself or his office. A further problem is that it becomes difficult to form good leaders in a culture of the sensational, the outrageous, and the vulgar. Too many of today’s leaders make us wistful for the generation of the Founding Fathers. Although they lived on the farthest outposts of Western civilization, their formation in the classics, history, and Enlightenment philosophy ensured that they had studied the great questions of human freedom and the just society.

The intellectual pursuits of today’s presidents are arguably more difficult than ever. Earlier presidents weren’t exposed to as many forms of popular culture. Nor did they exist in a world that demanded they were always on camera with soundbites at the ready. Yet the presidency has become culturally more important than ever because it is now one of the few cultural touchstones we all share.

What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted explores how presidents have consumed culture—from the theater-going Lincoln to the movie-making Reagan—and “how those pursuits have in turn shaped them and the nation.”

Henry Singleton on Strategic Planning — Stay Flexible

Henry Singleton has the best operating and capital deployment record in American business . .  . if one took the 100 top business school graduates and made a composite of their triumphs, their record would not be as good as Singleton’s. —Warren Buffett, 1980

Henry Singleton eschewed detailed strategic plans, preferring to remain flexible.

“I know a lot of people have very strong and definite plans that they’ve worked out on all kinds of things, but we’re subject to a tremendous number of outside influences and the vast majority of them cannot be predicted. So my idea is to stay flexible.”

In a rare interview with a BusinessWeek reporter, he explained himself more simply:

My only plan is to keep coming to work. … I like to steer the boat each day rather than plan ahead way into the future.

Henry Singleton as quoted in The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success

Still curious? If you want to learn more about Singleton read the excellent Distant Force: A Memoir of the Teledyne Corporation and the Man Who Created It. You can learn more about strategy here.

Extraordinary is the New Ordinary

Kevin Kelly, in The Improbable is the New Normal, an article on how the internet increasingly exposes us to massive quantities of impossible and improbable events, explores how that may affect our culture.

Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we’ll see or hear about today. The internet is like a lens which focuses the extraordinary into a beam, and that beam has become our illumination. It compresses the unlikely into a small viewable band of everyday-ness. As long as we are online – which is almost all day many days — we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.

When we get bored of our ordinary lives, consuming stories about the extraordinary can be an addictive, if temporary, remedy for all the mundanity we experience.

That light of super-ness changes us. We no longer want mere presentations, we want the best, greatest, the most extraordinary presenters alive, as in TED. We don’t want to watch people playing games, we want to watch the highlights of the highlights, the most amazing moves, catches, runs, shots, and kicks, each one more remarkable and improbable than the other.

We are also exposed to the greatest range of human experience, the heaviest person, shortest midgets, longest mustache — the entire universe of superlatives! Superlatives were once rare — by definition — but now we see multiple videos of superlatives all day long, and they seem normal. Humans have always treasured drawings and photos of the weird extremes of humanity (early National Geographics), but there is an intimacy about watching these extremities on video on our phones while we wait at the dentist. They are now much realer, and they fill our heads.

This reminds me of walking through the Louvre Museum. Because there are so many amazing things to see, amazing becomes ordinary. Context is everything. In another environment, some of the less amazing pieces in the Louvre become the extraordinary ones. Yet in the Louvre they are ordinary.

When everything is amazing you get overwhelmed at first. After a prolonged exposure, you become desensitized to it.

Needless to say, to stand out, you need to be extraordinary. But the definition of extraordinary depends on your environment, context, individual characteristics and the amount of exposure to the remarkable or amazing.

Charlie Munger: Bad Morals Drive Out The Good

Charlie Munger on applying Gresham’s Law.

The idiotic ideas are all from the social science department and I would put economics in the social sciences department although it has some tinges of reality that remind you of arts and science.

In economics textbooks they teach you Gresham’s Law: Bad money drives out good. But we don’t have any bad money that amounts to anything. We don’t have any coins that are worth a lot, that have precious metals that you can melt down. Nobody cares what the melt-down value of the quarter is in relationship to the dime, so Gresham’s Law is a non-starter in the modern world. Bad money drives out good. But the new form of Gresham’s Law is ungodly important. The new form of Gresham’s Law is brought into play – in economic thought, anyway – in the savings and loans crisis, when it was perfectly obvious that bad lending drives out good. Think of how powerful that model is. Think of the disaster that it creates for everybody. You sit there in your little institution. All of the builders [are not good credits anymore], and you are in the business of lending money to builders. Unless you do the same idiotic thing [as] Joe Blow is doing down the street. Pete Johnson up the street wants to do something a little dumber and the thing just goes to a mighty tide. You’ve got to shrink the business that you love and maybe lay off the employees who have trusted you their careers and so forth or [make] a lot of dumb loans. At Berkshire Hathaway we try and let the place shrink. We never fire anybody, we tell them to go out and play golf. We sure as hell don’t want to make any dumb loans. But that is very hard to do if you sit in a leadership position in society with people you helped recruit, you meet their wives and children and so forth. The bad loans drive out the good.

It isn’t just bad loans. Bad morals drive out the good. If you want to run a check-cashing agency in [a] downtown big city, more than 100 percent of all the profit you could possibly earn can only be earned by flim-flamming people on the finance contracts. So if you aren’t willing to cheat people – basically minorities – more than 100 percent of the profit can’t be earned. Well, if you inherited the business or your idiot son-in-law is in it, you don’t know what else to do. This is what I would call an adult problem and most people solve it in the adult fashion: They learn to tolerate the cheating. But that is not the right answer to people who want to live a larger and better life. But it is a form of Greshem’s Law, the new Gresham’s Law. One that is not taught in economics courses and should be. It is a really serious problem and, of course, it relates deeply to what happened to create the economic crisis. All kinds of people who you would be glad to have marry into your family compared to what you are otherwise going to get did things that were very regrettable under these pressures from the new Gresham’s Law.

The Filter Bubble — What the Internet is Hiding From You

In case you’re interested, we have another article on The Filter Bubble here.

Just “googling it” might not be such a great idea after all

The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser, puts forth an argument that we’re increasingly trapped inside an algorithm that filters our news based on what it thinks is best for us. In this case, IT is an algorithm.

Computers and the algorithms they run are increasingly aware of the things we seem to like. They learn from what we click on and tailor results so we get more of what we like and less of what we don’t like. The equivalent would be parents giving their kids only sugar because that’s what they seem to like. Only parents know better, so they feed their kids what they need first with a sprinkling of what they want. Algorithms don’t. This means that two people googling the same thing are likely to see different results.

The problem with this, Pariser argues, is that you’re not making a conscious choice to have your results filtered — it happens without your knowledge or consent. And that causes a whole host of issues, of which Pariser is primarily concerned with the social and political implications.

When technology’s job is to show you the world, it ends up sitting between you and reality, like a camera lens.

“If we want to know what the world really looks like,” Pariser writes, “we have to understand how filters shape and skew our view of it.” It’s useful to borrow from nutrition to illustrate this point:

Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature. Thus, when they come around, we should grab them. In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.

Consider for a moment where we are headed. If Google knows that I’m a democrat or republican they could now add a filter to my news to show me only the stories I’m predisposed to agree with. Based on their guess as to my education level, they may then tailor the article’s words and language to maximize its impact on me. In this world, I only see things I agree with and writing that I easily comprehend and that’s a problem. Google might know that I don’t read anything about Republican tax cuts or democratic spending so they might just filter those articles out. Reality, as I see it, becomes what the lens shows me.

“If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

— Andrew Lewis

When asked about the prospects for important but unpopular news, Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte smiled. On one end of the spectrum, he said is sycophantic personalization — “you’re so great and wonderful, and I’m going to tell you exactly what you want to hear.” On the other end is the parental approach: “I’m going to tell you this whether you want to hear this or not, because you need to know.” Currently, he argues, we’re headed in sycophantic direction.

Whether you believe the book’s conclusions are wholly convincing or not, it is worth thinking about. If nothing else, it is thought-provoking.

(If you want a search engine that won’t “track you” try

David Foster Wallace: SNOOTlet

David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster:

A SNOOTlet is a little kid who’s wildly, precociously fluent in SWE—Standard Written English—(he is often, recall, the offspring of SNOOTs). Just about every class has a SNOOTlet, so I know you’ve seen them — these are the sorts of six-to-twelve-year-olds who use whom correctly and whose response to striking out in T-ball is to shout “How incalculably dreadful!” The elementary-school SNOOTlet is one of the earliest identifiable species of academic geekoid and is duly despised by his peers and praised by his teachers. These teachers usually don’t see the incredible amounts of punishment the SNOOTlet is receiving from his classmates, or if they do see it they blame the classmates and shake their heads sadly at the vicious and aribtrary cruelty of which children are capable.

Teachers who do this are dumb. The truth is that his peers’ punishment of the SNOOTlet is not arbitrary at all. There are important things at stake. Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion. They’re learning about Discourse Communities. Little kids learn this stuff not in Language Arts or Social Studies but on the playgroun and the bus and at lunch. When his peers are ostracizing the SNOOTlet or giving him monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there’s serious learning going on. Everybody here is learning except the little SNOOT—in fact, what the SNOOTlet is being punished for is precisely his failure to learn. And his Language Arts teacher — whose own Elementary Education training prizes “linguistic facility” as one of the “social skills” that ensure children’s “developmentally appropriate peer repport,” but who does not or cannot consider the possibility that linguistic facility might involve more than lapirdary SWE — is unable to see that her beloved SNOOTlet is actually deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammer, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it’s these abilities that are really required for “peer rapport,” which is just a fancy academic term for being accepted by the second-most-important Group in the little kids life. If he is sufficiently clueless, it may take years and unbelievable amounts of punishment before the SNOOTlet learns that you need more than one dialect to get along in school.

The point is a little A+ SNOOTlet is actually in the same dialectal position as the class’s “slow” kid who can’t learn to stop using ain’t or bringed. Exactly the same position. One is punished in class, the other on the playground, but both are deficient in the same linguistic skill — viz., the ability to move between carious dialects and levels of “correctness,” the ability to communicate one way with peers and another way with teachers and another with family and another with T-ball coaches and so on.

Still curious? David Foster Wallace is the author of Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, and The Pale King.