Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for October, 2008

Obama vs the Military-Industrial Complex

Posted by metaphorical on 31 October 2008

At a lunchtime discussion of the impending election, I mentioned that while of course I was excited by the prospect of a Democratic administration, and thrilled by the idea of a black president, I didn’t have much enthusiasm for the candidate himself. I’ll try to write more about that this weekend.

I’m also concerned by the prospect of the Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress. (Wow, as he dizzily floats through a sea of red herrings, McCain stumbled into a real issue.) What are they going to do about the military budget, for example?

A special report in the new issue of my magazine, “What’s Wrong With Weapons Acquisitions?”, by Bob Charette, couldn’t present the scary question of military procurement more starkly.

The report’s thesis is that while the acquisitions process has been troubled for decades, it is now reaching a crisis point. The amount of money being wasted is staggering: the Pentagon spends $21 million every hour to develop and procure new weapons. The U.S. defense budget for fiscal 2009 is $488 billion, the largest in real terms since World War II and 6% higher than this year’s. And that doesn’t cover combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are presented separately in the federal budge.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the vast majority of major acquisition programs in the pipeline are either enormously over-budget or well behind schedule — or both. Even if we weren’t in the middle of a global economic meltdown, throwing away many billions of taxpayers’ dollars would be unacceptable, stupid, and now, completely unsustainable.

As the report notes, with a new administration coming to office in January, we may finally have the chance to make much-needed changes. “Reform will have to come,” Charette writes. “Each day that the acquisition process continues to operate ineffectively and inefficiently is another day that the troops are not getting what they need, the country is less secure, and much-needed programs, both civilian and military, don’t get funded.”

Bob Charette spent two years putting this report together. He interviewed dozens of current and former acquisitions experts at the Pentagon as well as defense analysts, historians, and academics. He read scores of books, hundreds of reports, and countless newspaper, magazine, and journal articles. His extensive research and depth of understanding really show in his writing. Bob’s report is comprehensive, compelling, and a good read.

The question is, will the new Obama administration read it? And will they act on it? We’ve seen the Democrats in Congress feast off the fat underbelly of the budgetary hog with the same gusto as the Republicans. They all have military contractors in their districts, other companies whose projects can be funded through the trading of porkbarrel chits, and hungry reelection mouths to feed.

We’ve already been given a taste of Obama the Realist, whose not-nearly-universal medical care proposal doesn’t redesign the healthcare system but rather shores up a few of its most obvious weaknesses. One is reminded of the Army Corps of Engineers doing touch-up work on the New Orleans levee system in the early 2000s. If Obama can’t really take on Aetna and Cigna, how will he he fare against the combined forces of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Halliburton, BAE, SAIC, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the entire VFW?

We’ve seen, for better and for worse, presidents pulled across the political divide, their very weaknesses turning into strengths, their strengths needing to be shored up as if they were weaknesses. A Texan integrated the South, red-baiter Nixon went to China, Carter sent out helicopters on fool’s errands in Iran, Clinton yielded to the DMCA. And it was a five-star general who warned us about the military-industrial complex. Can Obama, already afraid to appear weak on defense, be strong on the question of procurement? The need, as Charette eloquently shows, is dire.

Posted in Orwell, politics, technology | 2 Comments »

Too Clever By Half

Posted by metaphorical on 10 October 2008

THE BRANDING
OF A RESTAURANT
POWERHOUSE

When Triarc Companies Inc., the parent company of sandwich chain Arby’s Restaurant Group, Inc. acquired Wendy’s International, the move created the third largest fast-food company. The company was renamed as Wendy’s/Arby’s Group and required a new brand identity to embody the innovative spirit of both restaurant brands. The new brand identity also needed to illustrate the collective strength of the organization to its employees, franchisees and shareholders.

Wendy’s and Arby’s merged?

KCSA Strategic Communications worked closely with Wendy’s/Arby’s Group management to define the shared, core brand values of both Wendy’s and Arby’s, and articulate the company’s unique value proposition and intangible qualities that surround the Wendy’s/Arby’s name.

“Value proposition” – heh.

“Intangible qualities” – heh-heh.

“Each company’s brand is a valuable strategic asset,” said Joshua Altman, Managing Director at KCSA. “The challenge in this type of situation is to develop a symbolic, clear new brand language that creates new meaning to audiences without losing the tradition, legacy, and the already important values established by the previously separate entities.”

Tradition? Legacy? This is fast food we’re talking about, right?

The Wendy’s/Arby’s Group brand identity references identifiable visual characteristics from both Wendy’s and Arby’s, structured as a form reflective of the “W” and “A” in Wendy’s/Arby’s Group. The icon and the tagline, “Serving Fresh Ideas Daily”, support Wendy’s/Arby’s Group’s commitment to innovation and high level of quality.

Wendy’s has a new logo?

“The Wendy’s/Arby’s Group brand identity is designed not only as an acronym, but as a spiral continuum, maintaining the idea of continuous, flexible movement forward,” said Margaret Wiatrowski, Creative Director at KCSA. “The overall visual direction remains neutral by introducing entirely new elements to the combined entity, both formalistically and typographically. Symbolically, the two entities are combined through a mutual sense of innovation, authenticity and tradition.”

Innovation? Authenticity? Tradition (again!)? This is fast food we’re talking about, right?

Wendy’s/Arby’s Group unveiled its new brand to key stakeholders the first week of October, 2008.

Oh, it will have a new logo.

To learn more about this project or how we may serve you, please contact Joshua Altman at jaltman@kcsa.com.

Who wouldn’t want to learn more about this “project?

KCSA, a public-relations firms I’ve worked with, is better than this. Is there anything more inauthentic than saying that you have authenticity?

It’s time to return to the words of the master.

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basis, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.

– George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

“Key stakeholders,” “valuable strategic asset,” “overall visual direction,” “formalistically,” “value proposition,” “intangible qualities,” “innovation,” “tradition,” and “legacy” are all words that are used to dress up simple statements, give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments, and, as the master would be quick to say, are almost completely lacking in meaning.

Since only “key stakeholders” have seen the changes, it’s too soon to say whether this rebranding effort will be a success or a failure. And there’s no denying that brands are important. GM is trying to sell its Hummer brand, and according to today’s N.Y. Times, hopes to get a few billion for it. Since, in a era of $4/gallon gas, no one is buying Hummers (or cars at all; GM’s and Ford’s stocks jumped out the window yesterday, and even Toyota is going the zero-percent financing route), Hummer’s entire value is that it’s a name that is universally recognized (albeit often mocked).

What KCSA needs to remember, though, is that rebranding isn’t a sexy runway show. Rebranding is a little bit of backoffice sketching, and a lot of sweatshop work – cutting, sewing, ironing, fitting, and resewing. It can’t be dressed up with meaningless words. In fact, for a PR agency to talk of value propositions and strategic assets is like the designer showing up at the runway in a bathrobe.

Come on guys, you’re better than this.

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, pop culture, writing | 2 Comments »

Gender, power, and the presidency

Posted by metaphorical on 5 October 2008

It’s impossible to understand John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin in political terms, so we’re forced to turn to psychology – just as we are when trying to understand the presidency of George Bush.

If you think about it, in traditional gender-role terms, the vice presidency is a kind of feminized version of the presidency – its external functions are largely ceremonial, while its only power is internal and domestic – almost literally inside the House. For a misogynist like John McCain, Sarah Palin is the perfect personification of this role – as was Al Gore, who, with his concern for the environment was never manly enough for the American voter; as was the castrated Bush 41, who was bullied into endorsing Reagonomics soon after calling it “voodoo economics”; as was Bush’s own tow-haired boy-toy, Dan Quayle. (One of Dukakis’s many, many problems was that Lloyd Bensen was far more presidential – more masculine – than he was.)

The current Bush’s main failings – the events for which he will go down in history as America’s worst president ever – stem from his own late-to-light feminine submissiveness. In Freudian terms, Bush, like most men, was forced to symbolically kill his father in order to complete his own maturation. He did so only imperfectly, however, in the process replacing Pere Bush with other powerful men who mentored him. These are the men who bailed Bush out of one bad business after another, set him up at the Texas Rangers and then stuffed money into his pockets by subsequently overpaying him for his share. Dick Cheney – the most powerful vice president in history and the most atypical one ever – is the latest in a long line of older, powerful men to whom Bush cannot say no.

Is it a coincidence that Carol McCain is a former model, Cindy McCain a former rodeo queen, and Sarah Palin is a former beauty pageant contestant? It’s a commonplace that womanizers are misogynists, and McCain the womanizer – a man who could dump his first wife, saying that after her car accident she was no longer the woman he had married, a man who could call Wife # 2 a cunt – would obviously feel most comfortable with a vice president modeled after the feminine women he has surrounded himself with his whole life.

Posted in language, politics, pop culture | 2 Comments »

 
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