Working With Words
A weblog devoted to spurring a conversation among those who use words to varying degrees in their daily work. Hosted by John Ettorre, a Cleveland-based writer and editor. Please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. "There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real." --James Salter
Monday, February 26, 2007
Sunday, February 25, 2007
New Ralph Nader Documentary Charts
The Life Of A Most Unreasonable Man
A new documentary on the life of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, entitled An Unreasonable Man, is now beginning to work its way inward from the coasts. Look for it to soon appear at the Cedar-Lee Theatre, our town's leading movie hall for the thinking person. In a recent New Yorker, David Denby observes that "the long interview with Nader that is dispersed throughout the film suggests that he became, in later years, a thoughtless man who believes only in himself."
Some of that bitterness toward him is no doubt a residue from his decision to run for president in 2000, which split the progressive vote and helped put Bush in the White House, to disastrous consequence. But plenty of it arises from his downright dyspeptic, even misanthropic, personality. Ralph may have earned the right to be called St. Ralph by millions of Americans for his relentless advocacy of consumer protection, but the guy, in all his gloomy joylessness, is still no day at the beach.
I'll never forget my lone brush with him. I was in college at the time, waiting tables at a reasonably upscale restaurant on weekends. One day he walked in with a couple of ladies, who were no doubt his local hosts on a speaking tour. Everyone recognized him instantly, but no one bothered him. As I approached to take the trio's order, he didn't defer to his female companions, but went right ahead and ordered first, in full mumble, without ever making eye contact with me. In the oddest twist of all, he ordered his dessert right along with his entree (I believe it was apple pie a la mode, if memory serves). His social skills, in other words, were non-existent.
Of course, he's not the first social reformer to have been accused of caring about humanity in the aggregate more than about particular individuals. And judged on the whole of his life, you'd have to say that this country would certainly be a much poorer place without his contributions. I've learned to forgive him for his lack of social graces, but I'm not so sure I'll ever forgive him for helping to put Bush in the Oval Office.
Friday, February 23, 2007
Best Lead of the Month
From a recent back-page column in Fortune by Stanley Bing, a pen name for a CBS public relations executive:
Word comes from a psychologist at the University of Cardiff, which is to be found in Wales, I believe, that this time of the year is empirically proven to be the unhappiest. Factors for misery include: the weather, debt from the holiday season, the length of time until next Christmas, the fact that many of those who were stupid enough to make new year's resolutions have already failed them, and a low level of motivation in general, exacerbated by the conviction that we should be doing someting about our malaise but just, you know, aren't.
For those among you who are sharp-eyed and attentive enough to realize that this is actually the second time this month I've run this feature, you receive an A and get to sit at the front of the class. To view past best leads of the month, you can go here.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
More On Dennis the Menace, Or
How Dennis Can't Get No Respect
Are you sick of how half of the lazy headline writers in America seem to be using this now-tiresome device to try to drum up some interest in reading yet another article about the man who would be prez--Dennis Kucinich--by likening him to a cartoon character? I know I am. But there were two Dennis moments in the national media that caught my interest recently. This piece from the lefty magazine In These Times takes a fresh look at the guy and his movement, if you can call it that. It seemed fresh in part because the magazine had the presence of mind to invite a German journalist (now based in Ohio) to do the interview. And Kucinich proceeds to make a good point, observing: "Everything I said four years ago (about the Iraq war) has become mainstream. I’m not speaking from the margins." He also chafes at being read yet another jab at him about his diminuitive stature and large ego, this time by the Toledo Blade.
But the real surprise came in a New Republic piece (not online) on fellow presidential contender Tom Vilsack. After the dateline--"somewhere along U.S. Route 20, Iowa," it begins this way:
'I think I'm making political history,' Tom Vilsack tells me. It's a frigid January night, and we're in an SUV barrelling down a lonely stretch of highway amid the fallow cornfields of eastern Iowa. With the speedometer nudging 70 miles an hour, we're headed to the tiny city of Independence, where a restaurant is hosting an event for Vilsack's presidential campaign. In a Democratic primary field packed to the gills with candidates whose election would represent a monumental political first--Hillary Clinton would be the first woman elected president, Barack Obama the first African-American, Bill Richardson the first Latino, Dennis Kucinich the first elf...
I'm just glad I wasn't drinking anything hot when I read that, because I would have been wearing it.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Monday, February 19, 2007
When White America
Catches a Cold, Blacks
Catch a Pneumonia
Yesterday, I sent my friend Mansfield Frazier word of the BET study of which I wrote yesterday, which pegged Cleveland as the worst city among 22 for black people to live. Within hours, he sent me back one of his characteristically eloquent essays on the topic, which brought the issue to life in ways I could never hope to do. Mansfield is an accomplished writer, activist and thinker. A couple of years ago, I wrote about him here. With his permission, I'm publishing his essay in its entirety.
Rock bottom — once again
By Mansfield B. Frazier
The last time BET.com conducted a study on the "Best Cities for Black Families" was six years ago. That is until February 15 when it released another study of 22 cities around the nation with significant Black populations. Cleveland was on the list, albeit at the bottom of it — which should surprise no one. We’ve consistently brought up the rear when comparisons of relative wealth and quality of life are made between cities around the country, so why should it be any different when a Black newsgathering organization looks at the statistics?
The new study “looked at 25 categories, such as income, home ownership, unemployment poverty rates, single-parent homes, education levels, illiteracy, crime rates, per-pupil spending, in-state college tuition costs, teen pregnancy rates, AIDS rates, infant mortality, low birth weight, home values, cost of living and Black-owned businesses.” The statisticians then attached a value to each category, weighting some more heavily than others. They also interviewed “residents and other experts in those cities.” Reading the survey I wondered why statistics such as the incidence of police brutality and the probability of dying as a result of a confrontation with a Cleveland police officer weren’t included, since these figures certainly impact on the quality of life for Blacks in a major way. Interestingly, at the end of each of the articles about the cities at the top of the list a prescriptive was put forth in regards to what those locales needed to do to improve their quality of life; buy no such suggestions were made for Cleveland. Are we that bad ... so far gone no one even has one single idea in regards to how we can get better?
Charlotte, NC came in first in the study, and Columbus, which came in first in the study done six years ago, came in at number two this time. So, obviously if we want to find our own solutions we should look at what made those two locations rank one and two and then try to emulate what city fathers there did, right? If only it were so easy, so pat. It’s not.
It’s been said that when White America catches a financial cold, Black America catches pneumonia. Well, Greater Cleveland, along with most other rustbelt cities that relied heavily on industries such as steel and autos, has had economic sniffles for decades, or so it seems. However, it would be interesting to see where Cleveland (or the region for that matter) would rank on the wealth scale if African-Americans were removed from the statistics. In other words, what would the area poverty picture look like if only Whites were considered? No one wants to do that study simply because of its potential to tell us some things about ourselves and our region that we really don’t want to know. Simply put (and it doesn’t take much of a study), poverty in Cleveland by-and-large has a Black or Brown face. And, with that being the case, how much of a part does institutionalized racism play in the equation? And, further, what do we do about it?
There is a connection between the cancers of poverty and racism. If a person has cancer but their doctor makes a misdiagnoses and prescribes medication that is designed to treat some other aliment that person will, in all probability, succumb to the ravages of the disease. This is analogous to the situation we are currently faced with in Cleveland.
When we were designated the poorest city in the country a few years ago a summit on poverty was hastily convened, fingers were pointed at the suspected causes of our lowly ranking, lofty and impassioned speeches were made, and subcommittees were formed to study the issues and report back with solutions. However, the imitative soon lost the head of steam generated by the headlines and things went back to normal... normal, in the case of poverty, being benign neglect.
And the exact same thing will most probably occur despite the BET study. The headlines will soon just be distant memories that once disturbed us ... but not quite enough to actually do anything in terms of confronting the problem. That, you see, would take a critical examination of the society that has spawned the poverty and lowly ranking in question — and critical self-examination is something we Americans really don’t have much stomach for; it’s too painful and dredges up issues we would prefer left undisturbed. So, we will continue in our failure to successfully address the problem of poverty because, as in the case of the mistreated cancer, we will fail to accurately diagnose one of the root causes of that poverty.
By way of example: I have a couple of fairly well educated, progressive, young white acquaintances who continually move from job to job in Greater Cleveland as they try to find themselves ... along with their “dream” job. Firstly, they note that their similarly educated black friends do not have the same mobility as they do, and, secondly, that the reason for this is there are a great many companies in the area that they have worked at that have never hired a black person — not one ... and by all indications never intend to do so. Institutionalized racism is the culprit, with the thinking being ... “we’ve never done it in the past, so why should we begin to do it now?”
Another tale: I ran into a friend of mine the other day and he sadly informed me that he had recently sold the very expensive new dump truck that he had purchased upon his early retirement as a bus driver for RTA a few years ago. He had been so proud of the fact that he had become a small businessman and was providing part-time employment for a couple of his nephews. “They just wouldn’t treat the black drivers fairly,” he lamented, with tears almost coming into his eyes he was so angry, referring to the dispatchers and jobbers. “They always gave us the worse runs, where we had to drive the longest distances, which burned up all of our profits in diesel fuel. They kept all of the best short runs for the white boys. If they would have just switched off a quarter of the time, just given me a fair shake a couple of times a week I could have made a go of it and stayed in business.” My friend is O.K. financially but his two young nephews just joined the ranks of the unemployed, perhaps soon to be in the ranks of the impoverished, and then, God forbid, maybe in the ranks of the criminal. How does that old hamburger commercial go? “You gotta eat!”
One last example of institutionalized racism is what has become known in Black circles as “The Princeton Study.” A. June 17, 2005 article in the New York Times, entitled “Race a Factor in Job Offers for Ex-Convicts,” also came to another conclusion: Not only did white men with prison records receive far more offers for entry-level jobs in New York City than black men with identical records, they even received more job offers than black men who have never in their entire lives been arrested. Go figure. The double-blind study, which was done by a pair of Princeton University professors, has been replicated in Milwaukee with the same results, and I suspect that it could be replicated here in Cleveland if we were not so afraid of uncomfortable truths it would present us with.
Sure, lack of education, goals and motivation — along with a myriad of other factors — on the part of poor people plays a significant role in the poverty paradigm, but I submit that if more real, genuine opportunities existed, then more minorities would get themselves qualified to fill the slots. So, while we attempt to attack the beast of poverty with education and other remedies, let us also — without the finger pointing of revisiting who did what to whose ancestor — attack one of poverty’s other significant root causes: Institutionalized racism in the job market. If we as a city and region fail to do so then we will wind up as dead as the patient I cited earlier, for racism truly is a cancer on all of society ... not just on black Americans. If we take action now perhaps the next time BET does a survey Cleveland won’t be at the bottom of the list. Failure to take action will guarantee that we will remain mired on the economic killing floor.
Frazier is a freelance writer and journalist who resides in the Cleveland community of Hough with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Columbus is Best, Cleveland the Worst
In BET's Best Cities for Blacks Rankings
The BET minority network recently surveyed American cities and ranked them for how good they are as places for black people to live. Cleveland came in dead last among 22 cities. "The Lake Erie city has high poverty, especially among its youth. Salaries lag the nation, and the unemployment picture for blacks is off the chain," it noted. The best place, according to BET? Why, that would be Columbus, which even beat out Washington, D.C. (at #2), a veritable mecca for blacks.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Friday, February 16, 2007
Even Lebron Can't Help Microsoft's New Vista
Remember when a Microsoft rollout of a new operating system really meant something? It was back in the day when Bill Gates ruled the computer world, with his patented me-too brand of innovation (basically copying Apple and other more creative competitors). Back then, the software giant left nothing to chance, even famously buying an entire edition of the London Times to hype its Windows XP product launch. But that was before Google overtook Microsoft as the primary driver of web and software innovations.
Gates' crew is back at it again, this time wanly going through the motions, though with less conviction, of a launch of its Vista operating system. This time, even the experts and nerds are mostly yawning. The near-universal thrust of their advice: you can safely wait to upgrade. Sales in the first week were less than half of what Windows XP produced. I missed the commercials, but happened to catch this Sports Illustrated mention of Lebron's appearance in a cameo role to support the Vista launch. It's just one more piece of his homeboy handlers' vision of turning the Lebron brand into an international juggernaut by the time the Beijing Olympics hit in 2008.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
The State of VC Activity in the Region
I spent the better part of January and into early February working on an unusually stimulating project, helping write and edit a first-ever comprehensive report on the state of venture capital activity in Northeast Ohio. Commissioned by Jumpstart, Bioenterprise and NorTech and partly modeled on a report issued by the St. Louis Capital Alliance, it's just been released. I'll post the full report when it's online (it's now up, here). Today's Plain Dealer covers it here, the Akron Beacon Journal here and Crain's Cleveland Business here. Nortech's always-astute Chris Varley discusses it here, on his fine Tech Futures blog. Ironically, a new client website (for which I wrote the copy, working with a great design team) just launched a few days ago. As it happens, it's for a small, locally based venture capital group.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
The Prospect on Strickland:
In 1942, the economist Joseph Schumpeter introduced the concept of 'creative destruction,' capitalism's chaotic process of crushing established companies and replacing them with nimbler, more temporally attuned competitors. In Ohio, however, Schumpeter's logic has broken down. As the Toledo Blade reported, since 2000, Ohio's 'businesses eliminated 216,000 manufacturing jobs, 21% of its base. But they hatched a mere 40,000 jobs for a net loss of 176,000.' Destruction has eclipsed the creativity.
Into this sad story strides Governor-elect Ted Strickland. A steelworker's son from one of the state's poorest counties, Strickland speaks slowly, in plodding prose peppered by 'ums' and 'ahs.' He evinces no fear of cliches, and is refreshingly uninterested in impressing outside reporters. In a state that voted for 25 of the last 27 presidents, decided the 2004 election, and will be critical in 2008, Strickland proved the sort of edgeless candidate who compelled political journalists to profile...his opponent. Last July, the New Yorker spent 6,140 words on the Ohio gubernatorial race and the Republican nominee, Ken Blackwell. The paragraph--there's only one--focusing on Strickland begins at word 5,776. He went on to crush Blackwell by 25 points.
But Strickland's genial blandness obscures a fairly surprising agenda for Ohio: he wants to restore its mojo. Ohio's economic annihalator has harmed more than its economy: it's torn apart the Buckeye state's self-esteem. And for Strickland, recovery is partly mental. Ohio, after all, is where John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil was based; where the founders of Firestone, Goodrich and Goodyear tires made their discoveries and ran their factories; where the Wright Brothers labored. But what was once the engine of industrial America is now a relic of it. Ohio ranks 50 out of 51 states (including the District of Columbia) in its ability to retain educated individuals between 19 and 24 years of age. On an average day, 45 more people leave the state than move into it. Which may be why Strickland's policy platform seems as targetted to restoring Ohio's confidence as much as its economy.
To the new governor, the two are inseperably linked. 'I don't think a single thing needs to be done or can be done to bring about the confidence that you rightly describe has been lost by Ohioans,' he says. Instead, there are a lot of things. Almost all of them revolve around education and technology. 'As a candidate,' he says, 'I visited what I would call some cutting-edge efforts to develop new jobs through new industries. I visited a nanotechnology facility started by a Case Western researcher'--and here his voice quickened and lifted for the first, and only, time in our interview--'another was an advanced-materials facility creating parts for heavy equipment but, when you lift them, it's like lifting styrofoam. And I was told the lighter material was stronger, more durable, more resistant to corrosion! those are just two examples of where I think Ohio may be seeing manufacturing going, without just trying to recapture what has been.
But how do you create an Ohio defined by futuristic materials rather than anachronistic industries? To pick through the detailed policy proposals released by the Strickland campaign, it's a combination of educational incentives, targeted investments in advanced industries--and sefl-affirmations. 'Because of the changing nature of our economy, we've got to have a continuous system of education,' Strickland insists. The gateway to this educational system will be a credit-card-sized piece of paper given to every adult learner. 'Because nothing opens doors in life like a quality education,' his campaign literature enthuses, 'a Strickland administration will issue an 'Ohio Open Door Card' to every adult learner. The card will show in one place all their learning accomplishments, while opening the door to every funding source each individual qualifies for.
It's an odd idea. Businesses, after all, can easily access an applicant's educational background, laid out in clean bullet points across their resume. This card, rather, reminds the individual that he or she is educated, skilled, trained in tomorrow's industries. One imagines dispirited job-seekers pulling it out in moments of doubt to bear witness to their self-worth. The next policy on the page, 'Accelerate Ohio,' promises 'a free, entry-level certificate that will certify to employers that Ohioans have the skills to get a keep a good job, and help give adult learners confidence in their ability to get a promotion, complete college or certification or move into another track.' Ted Strickland may not feel your pain, but he senses your insecurity.
Even confident, cutting-edge workers need an economy able to utilize their talents, though, lest they emigrate from the state. And Strickland's agenda includes a prominent focus on renewable energy investment--to the tune of $250 million a year. When I asked Strickland what single policy he'd keep if forced to jettison all but one, he answered that he was unequivocally 'committed to building a new energy industry in Ohio.'
Ohio, however, will scarcely be alone in seeking a renewable energy sector: such plans were a dime a dozen in 2006. But Strickland thinks his state has an edge: 'I believe Ohio, because of its geographic location, resources, manufacturing history and workforce, is particularly well-positioned to pursue clean-coal technologies, wind power, significantly expanded production of alternative fuels...It is possible for us to realize some fairly early success in this area, and we are going to make the strongest possible effort to do that.' Add in his promise to construct a broadband backbone across Ohio, and he's fulfilled, at the least, the atmospherics and priorities of a 21st-century economy.
But will it work? Reinventing the economy of a Rust Belt state is no small order, as Michigan Governor Jennifer Granhold can attest. A recent study out of the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank spelled out Ohio's challenge. Analyzing 75 years of comparative state data, the authors found that 'the largest factor underlying relative income difference in 2004 were patents, followed by education, then industry specialization.' Patents, here, serve as a rough approximation of a state's technological innovation. In 1954, Ohio ranked sixth in patents generated. In 2001, it was 20th. As for college education, in 1940 Ohio ranked 27th. In 2002, Ohio was 39th.
Technology, education and a bit of confidence in the state's innovative abilities may be just the right prescription for Ohio. Whether Strickland's combination of statewide self-esteem building and targeted investment will stimulate such sectors remains to be seen. But if they do, future political reporters may find him a little less gray than they thought.
Saturday, February 10, 2007
It Does Have a Way of Keeping You Focused
'A man is seldom more innocently occupied than when he is engaged in making money.'
Friday, February 09, 2007
Thursday, February 08, 2007
Trying to Parse the Inscrutable Bush
New York Magazine put George Bush on the couch in a recent cover story, asking a number of celebrities and other notables for their thoughts on what makes our Village Idiot president tick. Here's a sampling of their reactions, but I'd also recommend you read the entire piece.
Andrew Solomon, author of a harrowing memoir on his own bout with depression, says Bush is "narcissistically unable to grasp that he is not the world." NYU psychology prof Susan Anderson thinks he shows signs of having an authoritarian personality. The New Republic's Frank Foer jokes that "if you put Bush on the couch, I'm afraid he'd still take a nap." Former JFK speechwriter Ted Soronsen offers only pity: "I feel sorry for him. I think he must know that he's going to go down in history as the most incompetent president since Buchanan." (editor's note: he was Lincoln's immediate predecessor, and a towering icon of presidential incompetence).
Perhaps the most vivid indictment is served up by the creepy New Age guru Deepak Chopra: "One of the most unnerving things about George Bush is his smile. As the situation in Iraq has grown more calamitous, the smile hasn’t disappeared. It’s become markedly patronizing, saying, 'I’m right on this. The rest of you just don’t understand.' A pitying smile...Have we seen a more inappropriate smile from any politician since Nixon? I doubt it."
If the title of this article sounds vaguely familiar, it may be that you've heard about a book (published in 2004) with that same title, written by a Washington-based psychoanalyst, Dr. Justin Frank. From everything I've read and heard about it, it sounds like a powerfully written indictment of his upbringing, and the effect it's had on his disastrous presidency. No wonder Barbara and George, Sr. have been so touchy about criticism of their boy.
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Metaphors: 'A Prism of New Perspectives'
'The rewards of learning how to handle metaphor go beyond a style that is merely a bit more mannered than usual. Metaphor is a way of exploring a subject, a way of seeing a subject through a prism of new perspectives.'
--Joseph M. Williams, from his book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Kucinich on the
Radar Magazine, the on-again/off-again pub whose founder labored as the #2 editor under buzz diva Tina Brown at the late and mostly unlamented Talk Magazine, seems to be hitting its stride of late. It recently published this interesting take on Dennis Kucinich, the peevish congressman who has imagined himself as president since he was a boy mayor. The mag rightly notes that "at five feet seven inches and 140 pounds, he looks more like a jockey than a head of state," and absolutely nails his quixotic political style, calling it "a mix of '60s-style pacifism and Depression-era populism."
You may have noticed I'm not a fan of Kucinich. While I respect the take of people like Bill Callahan, who recently offered this spirited contrarian defense of the guy, I've also been turned off for years by Kucinich's humorless, self-righteous, hyper-argumentative style. It was on display again in mid-December, shortly after he announced his latest presidential campaign, when he was being interviewed by WCPN's Dan Moulthroup, who's not exactly the most aggressive inquisitor in the media. Nevertheless, Kucinich managed to ignore the fact that he was being served up mostly softball questions and instead proceeded to argumentatively nitpick them, making an enemy out of Moulthroup (you could hear the rising anger in his voice), and propably winning few friends among listeners. Not exactly a recipe for winning the White House, I'd say.
Monday, February 05, 2007
Acts of Creation as a Form of Recovery
'Illness was no doubt the final cause of the whole urge to create. By creating, I could recover; by creating I became healthy.'
--German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)
Sunday, February 04, 2007
Our Own Self-Creations
'Whoever undertakes to create soon finds himself engaged in creating himself.'
--the late writer and art critic Harold Rosenberg
Saturday, February 03, 2007
On Venturing Past Our Comfort Zone
'A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.'
--former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who, as the first female head of state of a post-colonial Muslim country, presumably learned a thing or two about calculating risk.
Friday, February 02, 2007
Thursday, February 01, 2007
Best Lead of the Month
'Back when I was young and broke and back when the girls I liked were broke as well, I used to steal gas from the service station I worked for and try to convince my little princesses that driving around in circles in the dark, sharing hits from a papery weak joint and glugs from a screw-top bottle of warm peach wine constituted a lavish big night out. The cost of those dates was rarely more than five dollars, but my favorite dates were even cheaper. I'd appear after school at one of the two Dairy Queens where my tawny foxes worked and pepper them with doltish jokes and stories while they pumped sludgy hot fudge onto sundaes or spritzed Fantastik into linty cracks where the freezers met the floors. If I hung around long enough, my girls would pitch me a Peanut Buster Parfait, the most expensive item on the board, and banish me to my parked Chevy until quitting time.'
--from The Price of Love, by the Montana-based novelist Walter Kirn, in the February issue of the fashion magazine Elle. Which proves, once again, that great writing can be found in some surprising places, and that you should give those stray mags the benefit of the doubt upon encountering them in the doctor's office. They just might surprise you. For earlier leads of the month, click here, here, here and here.