Friday, October 30, 2009

Media Rants: A Socratic Dialogue

The November Media Rant for the The Scene reveals that the great philosopher Socrates anticipated the schlock that today we call corporate media. --TP

MAD Media: A Socratic Dialogue

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

Classical Greek scholars were shocked recently when an Athenian farmer tilling soil in his olive grove accidently stumbled across a manuscript dating back to the 4th century BCE. Believed to be a lost dialogue of Plato, the manuscript features the great philosopher Socrates in conversation with a dimwitted character called Hannityus. The best scholarly guess is that Hannityus was a disciple of Euthydemus, a popular public speaker in 380 BCE known to practice what Socrates called the “eristic” mode of communication. For Socrates, eristic wasn’t a form of argument designed to educate, but rather a method of humiliating opponents by showering them with verbal abuse. In the newly discovered manuscript, Socrates warns of a future world featuring eristic as the dominant mode of public discourse, with partisan verbal bullies presented to the masses as patriots. In what might be the earliest critique of media corporations, Socrates says that that “in a distant future, those organizations making profit by polluting the public discourse will be guided by the values of Mediocrity, Anti-intellectualism, and Disrespect. They will be truly MAD.” Media Rants is pleased to present an excerpt of the lost dialogue.

Hannityus: Good day Socrates. I noticed you in attendance at my debate with Democritus. You were impressed by my performance, yes?

Socrates: Good day Hannityus. Well, I heard Democritus arguing that the State ought to guarantee equality for all. To great applause, you mocked him, questioned his integrity and loyalty to Athens, and continually interrupted his attempts to substantiate his claim. Your performance . . .

Hannityus (interrupts): Certainly one as wise you does not sympathize with Democritus’ nonsense?

Socrates: As I was saying, your performance entertained the crowd with much ridicule and vivid condemnation of your opponent.

Hannityus: Much deserved ridicule and condemnation, good sir.

Socrates: And I must say that I was quite impressed by how you turned the tables and made into an enemy of the people a man who from his perspective was arguing in support of expanded rights and benefits for the people. You are quite clever Hannityus.

Hannityus: Euthydemus says that turning the tables is the height of communicative excellence.

Socrates: No, it is one of the many forms of communicative mediocrity. Like your calling Democritus an “idiot.”

Hannityus: A tactic I learned from Glennbeckus.

Socrates: Whatever. The point is that communicative excellence requires an honest attempt to discover the truth. I heard none of that in your so-called debate with Democritus.

Hannityus: Surely you are not saying that there could be any truth in Democritus’ claim that the State should guarantee equality for all?

Socrates: I do not know, as he was never allowed to elaborate. Does he mean the State should guarantee equal opportunity for all? Or does he mean the State should guarantee equality under the law? Does he mean the State should guarantee equal compensation for all regardless of effort? Or does he mean equal pay for equal work? These questions are all worth asking and thinking about, yet with all due respect your eristic approach to debate urges participants not to think. Or at least not to think very critically.

Hannityus: Euthydemus warned me that you are nothing but an elitist intellectual snob, Socrates. I must say that your comments validate his judgment of your character.

Socrates: As you wish. I am sorry to have sparked your antagonism, but the problem is not that you, Euthydemus, and Glennbeckus are anti-Socrates or anti-Democritus or anti-anyone else.

Hannityus: Pray tell oh wise one, what is the problem?

Socrates: The problem is anti-intellectualism. The refusal to take anything other than a black and white, good and evil, us and them approach to serious issues. Positions are taken not on the basis of principle or rigorous analysis, but on the basis of whether or not such positions support whatever particular team you happen to be on. It’s quite pathetic.

Hannityus: Are the so-called intellectuals any better? I’ve seen them in debates. Your student Plato, for example, and others in his Academy succeed only in putting people to sleep or leaving them in utter confusion.

Socrates: I would hardly hold up the academic intellectuals as role-models of how to debate in public. They too can be boorish, disrespectful, and willing to serve the team instead of search for the truth. In fact I can imagine a future in which intellectuals become a professional class that uses its brain power to aid and abet extremely abusive governments, businesses, and other institutions. They’ll create lies instead of expose them. Such “intellectuals” will be worthy of contempt.

Hannityus: You enjoy forecasting the future. Tell me, what will be the future of my brand of public debate? Surely it will someday rule the world?

Socrates: Those who can profit by polluting the water and air will do so. They can be stopped only when people acting collectively decide they no longer will tolerate drinking dirty water and breathing toxic air.

In a distant future, those organizations making profit by polluting the public discourse will be guided by the values of Mediocrity, Anti-intellectualism, and Disrespect. They will be truly MAD. They will be stopped only when people acting collectively decide they no longer will tolerate madness.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Mercury Marine and Media: The Low Road

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

The nonpartisan think tank Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) distinguishes between “low road” and “high road” business strategies. The low road “is associated with downward pressure on wages, increasing job insecurity, more outsourcing of work to low-wage regions, greater environmental damage, underinvestment in productive public goods, and resistance to public standards on private firm behavior.” The [unfortunately] less common high road “is associated with higher and more equal wages, better labor relations, more environmentally sustainable practice, greater investment in productive public goods, and affirmative support for public standards on the private economy.”

Sadly, low road management conduct has become a badger state occurrence every bit as common as beer and brats at a Packer tailgate bash. In just the recent past, corporate cunning ended GM’s 100 year history in Janesville, Chrysler moved its engine work from Kenosha to Saltillo, Mexico, and we all know about private equity firm Cerberus’ contemptible closing of Kimberly Papers’ profitable mill.

In terms of sheer guile and gross bullying, it would be hard to find an example of low road posturing more outrageous than Mercury Marine’s recent extraction of huge concessions from International Association of Machinists (IAM) workers at the company’s Fond du Lac plant.

Let’s review the facts: in July, management of the boat engine maker Mercury Marine announced that unless union workers agreed to reopen a recently negotiated contract and accept concessions, the company would close operations and move manufacturing jobs and the corporate offices to Stillwater, Oklahoma. The proposed concessions, which union officials claim were non-negotiable, included 170 changes to the contract, most notably a seven year wage freeze, 30% pay cuts for new hires, and equal cuts for laid off workers brought back. The IAM, for its part, offered to accept pay cuts until the easing of the recession, on the condition that the company provide a written commitment to keep the jobs in Fond du Lac. Mercury rejected the offer without giving it any serious consideration.

On August 23, IAM workers voted to reject Mercury’s demands. Mercury immediately announced an intention to move to Stillwater, but left open the door for the union to vote again for the same package of concessions. On August 29, after intense pressure from the general public and media, the union voted again but failed to get the results in by Mercury’s deadline. A third vote finally yielded acceptance of the concessions. Mercury subsequently received $53 million in incentives from the city and county of Fond du Lac to keep jobs in the area. The county’s incentive package will be financed by a half-cent increase in the sales tax. The company also received an “aggressive” aid package from the state, part of which is designed to assist Mercury in moving jobs from Stillwater to Fond du Lac.

The most charitable thing that could be said of corporate media coverage of the Mercury affair is that it was worthless. Print and broadcast media enabled Mercury’s low road strategy by minimizing or flat out ignoring the very blatant labor violations taking place.

Indeed, sane commentary and reporting on the Mercury situation could only be found in the blogosphere. Writing in his Fighting Bob blog, Ed Garvey wrote that, “It used to be illegal for a company to threaten to close or move jobs as a bargaining tactic . . . They (Mercury) were not negotiating. They were the third grade bullies threatening to take their ball and bat and go home. ‘My way or the highway.’”

By far the best reporting on Mercury was done by freelance Wisconsin writer Roger Bybee in the “Workers’ Rights” blog on the progressive magazine In These Times website. In the Mercury situation Bybee finds a typical and disturbing pattern:

Mercury officials are congratulating themselves for carrying out what has become a standard corporate game plan when shutting down a major plant. The two key elements of this plan typically include: (1) Inciting the public against the union by continually asserting that it is the workers, not the corporation, that are making the decision to close the plant. The workers' refusal of utterly unacceptable concessions is equated with stubbornness and a selfish unwillingness to consider the overall impact on the community--as if the workers themselves will have a bright future after the shutdown . . . (2) Portraying the workers' wages as astronomically high by comparing them with the regional average, conveniently limiting the frame to exclude the standards of skill and pay in the particular industry.

The Fox Valley Gannett papers were, as to be expected, uniformly awful in reporting and editorializing about Mercury. Gannett’s Fond du Lac Reporter, to its credit, did allow UW Oshkosh Human Resource Management Professor Barbara Rau to state the obvious: "Unions are being blamed for the economy, but how is that possible, when only 7.6 percent of the workers are unionized?"

Corporate media enabled Mercury’s low road strategy via shoddy and incomplete reporting and cowardly editorializing. Are more Merc-like messes on the way? Roger Bybee says it well: “Until we put an end to this race to the bottom, we will see many more bottom-feeders like Mercury Marine manipulating states and even nations against each other.”

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Week in Review on Friday

I'll be on WPR's Week in Review on Friday (8-9 a.m.) opposite Ann Althouse. You can join the conversation live by calling in at 1-800-642-1234. You can also email