Showing posts with label recommended reading. Show all posts
Showing posts with label recommended reading. Show all posts

Humor and the Cold War: Ben Lewis' "Hammer and Tickle"


The use of satire and humor as forms of political critique is nothing new. In fact, they’re very much key means by which points are made right here in the Blogland, but they have a history that goes well beyond and before yours truly decided to curse the internet with his ramblings.

The book Satire TV, which was recently reviewed on this blogsite, followed the history of political satire on American television. Another good study of the use of political humor to critique and challenge political power can be found in “Hammer and Tickle: The story of Communism, a political system almost laughed out of existence”, by Ben Lewis, a writer for Prospect magazine in London.

Lewis’ book was based upon research conducted for a BBC documentary directed by Lewis in which he traveled the nations of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, studying how private citizens used humor to mock the communist system and challenge the power and competence of ruling Communist figures from the early days of the Soviet Union until the communism imploded in the late 1980s. In this book, he argues that Communism was "the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy".

If you’re like many Blogland readers who want to skip to the good stuff and move on to the next 3-4 paragraph blog article on the web, we’ll tell you this book was a great read. For those who want to learn a little more, keep reading.

Marvin Rogers challenges the GOPs "conspiracy of silence"

Black Republicans, while a smart part of the contemporary GOP, have drawn more than their fair share of attention as many Republicans seek to break the strangehold the Democrats hold over black voters. In South Carolina, two who have drawn considerable attention are RNC committeeman Glenn McCall and First District congressional nominee Tim Scott.


A lot of books written by political VIPs tend to focus on their views and experiences. Books written by Republicans from non-traditional GOP groups usually follow in those footsteps, but Rogers takes a more thoughtful approach in his book, focusing more on the broader issues, political identification in the black community, and the history of voter loyalties among black voters. It's not a terribly long book, but one which is well-written. It runs light on the kind of editorializing which most books of this genre engage in, putting a stronger focus upon "just the facts" so the reader can get the information they need and form their own conclusions. 

"Satire TV": A look at how comedy creates new perspectives about politics

It's no secret that one of the most effective tools bloggers use to make their points is humor. In a political culture where bloggers often seek to undermine power and deconstruct carefully-crafted political spin, we bloggers often "get" the Colberts and Stewarts of the world far better than those who work in traditional news media.

For those who want to get a better idea of how satire can help provide alternative perspectives on politics, as well as its history on the political landscape, the book "Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era" is worth reading. The book is co-edited by Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey Jones, and Ethan Thompson, examinng a wide range of topics related to political satire in mass media by chapter authors wide range of backgrounds mostly in political communication and mass media.

Gray, Jones and Thompson believe satire plays an important role in providing informed commentary on contemporary politics:

Good books on Public Speaking, Part Two

For yesterday’s posting, as well as this one, I owe thanks to my Department Chair, Dr. Brian McGee, who had the misfortune of having me in his graduate Executive Speechwriting class (a level of pain only surpassed by his wife, Deb McGee, and my senior advisor, Dr. Vince Benigni, who both had me for two classes). He’s the one who introduced me to all three of the titles that I’m touting in these postings.

I’ve got two titles that I’d like to share with my readers: “Choosing Powerful Words: Eloquence That Works”, Ronald H. Carpenter (Allyn & Bacon) and “Speak like Churchill, Stand like Lincoln”, by James C. Humes (Three Rivers Press). Both books are a little dated, with Carpenter’s book dating back to 1999 and Humes’ to 2002. But as I said yesterday, the art of public speaking is an ancient one, and one which has been studied across the span of recorded human history, so when compared to 2,500 years, a book that goes back a decade or so can still provide useful insights. Both these books do exactly that.

Good books on Public Speaking, Part One

In teaching public speaking, I’ve come to learn that one often doesn’t need to buy the latest (and often most expensive) books in the field. Since the 2,500 years or so since the study of rhetoric began in the high days of Greek society, one will find that a lot of the basics have been well-covered long before modern book publishing. The most expensive text often doesn’t cover much ground that hasn’t been covered by far less expensive texts, which is one of the reasons I stand by my preferred text: “A Speaker’s Guidebook” by Dan O’Hair, Rob Stewart and Hannah Rubenstein.

A well-organized text, it covers the basic elements of planning and presenting a speech.

What if Operation Valkyrie succeeded in killing Hitler?

One of the biggest "what if" scenarios historians ask about World War II relate to the final - and most dramatic - assasination attempt on Adolf Hitler. The recent movie by Tom Cruise examines the Stauffenberg plot in some depth, showing a plot which was on the cusp of succeeding, but was foiled at the last minute when Hitler survived.

While some may assume a plot would have led to a best-case scenario of the Nazi Party folding in the wake of Hitler's death, alternative history authors Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson consider a very different outcome of a successful assasination effort. They consider the possibility that Hitler's death would have allowed more rational and ambitious Nazi Party officials, such as Himmler, to outmanuever Stauffenberg's plotters and seize power, overturning some of Hitler's irrational policies in an attempt to allow Germany to attempt to salvage a rapidly-deteriorating strategic picture.

In two books - "Fox on the Rhine" and "Fox at the Front", Niles and Dobson look at how a Himmler regime might have sought to reverse its decline by rationalizing Germany military decision-making and unleashing its best generals to make the best use of what is left. These two books examine the role which might have been played by General Erwin Rommel, pitting him in a series of battles in the West, including a military historial dream match of a Battle of the Bulge between Rommel and George Patton.

In addition to considering the potential for Stauffenberg to become a victim of his own success, they also consider the possibility that, no matter what deals are cut and undersupported high-tech weapons programs are accelerated, Germany may already be past the point of no return.

There are a lot of plot twists and turns that make these books rather enjoyable summer reading - but you'll have to look these titles up on Amazon to get them.

Christianity and Western Civilization - Faith and Human Liberty

Jurgen Habermas is a well-noted scholar in the field of communication and the last of the philosophers of the renowned Frankfurt School in Germany. Joseph Ratzinger, also a noted German philosopher, formerly the head theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, is presently employed as the Roman Catholic Bishop of Rome. But most know him as Pope Benedict.

In
"The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion", these two scholars present parallel essays which discuss the roles of reason and faith in contemporary Western democratic societies.

In the last two centuries, philosophers have been eager to proclaim that God is dead and that He has no role in contemporary society. Not surprisingly, this has gone hand-in-an attack on the belief in natural law - the guiding principles of democratic reforms which argue that rights are God-given and that governments exist to serve people, not to control and distribute power and money. Eager radicals such as Hitler and Lenin rushed in to fill the void with totalitarian societies in which the killing of millions in their quests for what they saw as the ideal. It was interesting to see even Habermas, a self-described "methodical atheist", who argued that "philosophy has good reasons to be willing to learn from religious traditions", admit that the trend of secularization reversing course:


There is an increasing consensus that certain phases of the "modernization of the public consciousness" involve the assimilation and the reflexive transformation of both religious and secular mentalities.

While Habermas recognized that Christian philosophical outlooks have a valuable role in contemporary society, he failed to explain how the guarantees of human liberty which are central to the beliefs of natural law can be replaced with equally-effective secular safeguards.

In response, Benedict's essay makes a number of points, beginning by pointing out that a free society had room for those without faith, but that a free society could not exist without faith and the philosophical foundations of natural law. In other words, Christians may not need athetists, but atheists need Christians.

The book is under 100 pages so it's something you can easily cover over a weekend, but packed with some very deep thinking that can make for some profound reading. It's well worth a read.

Beyond Election Day 2008: Declaring a winner

Regardless of who wins the White House next Tuesday night, the biggest winner of Election 2008 won’t be John McCain or Barack Obama, nor the party which controls Congress. The biggest winners of the 2008 election will be those whose pioneering efforts shifted political campaigning on the Internet from the fringes of American political culture into its mainstream.

In the 2004 elections, those who waged politics in the virtual world, such as Howard Dean and the blogger that debunked Dan Rather’s now-infamous Bush memo were like the Phil Sheridans and J.E.B. Stuart of the American Civil War - raiders who struck at the vulnerable flanks and rear of the battlefield, sometimes affecting the larger picture, sometimes not. This year, they are now among the Shermans and Stonewall Jacksons of the American political landscape – the leaders and orchestrators of powerful forces whose ranks and operations played key roles in the overall plans of the war.

We should not be surprised those who campaign via the Internet become the Grants and Lees of the 2010 and 2012 elections – the overall commanders of all the forces fighting for their cause. As with any profession, those who are successful at the lower levels – who often pioneer new tactics and approaches – ascend to the higher ranks. Someone who started as a blogger become a national campaign manager, or someone who started out organizing via MySpace or Facebook chair the DNC or RNC.

In his book
“Being Digital”, penned in the mid-1990s, Nicholas Negroponte described the early years of the Internet explosion, in which he predicted that these changes were inevitable and that radical changes upon how people communicate were soon to come:

The change from atoms to bits is irrevocable … Why now? Because the change is also exponential - small differences of yesterday can have suddenly shocking consequences tomorrow.


The difference between the electronic world and traditional campaign methodologies is stark – television ads and direct mail pieces which take days to produce and distribute to audiences are losing their influence upon voters, as web-delivered content, which can be rolled out in a matter of hours, wields increasing amounts of influence. While television campaigns have gradually shrunk from minutes in length to thirty seconds or even less, web videos on campaign websites are often one to three minutes long. This suggests that voters who skim newspapers, toss the direct mail pieces after a cursory glane, and won’t sit still for a 60 second tv spot will go online and spend several minutes watching an online video or reading a blog posting. This shift represents a profound change in the landscape of political communication.

The other effects of political activity on the Internet have also matured: the ability to recruit, organize and rally supporters of candidates, serve as primary sources of fundraising, and to influence the agendas of both traditional and new media outlets. It’s now difficult to imagine how today’s political candidates for offices higher than county dogcatcher can wage successful campaigns without incorporating internet tactics and tools into their campaigns.

In looking at the South Carolina political landscape, few will likely remember when yours truly authored the now-forgotten Evacuate Hodges website. While that website represented something new to South Carolina politics in its time – the use of the internet as a primary source of information dissemination – blogs, aggregator websites, comment sections in the web-posted new stories of traditional media websites are now commonplace, wielding considerable influences upon electioneering and public policy in South Carolina.

When you think about it, this rapid evolution and growth of influence sounds a lot like the changes Negroponte predicted. Today, Palmetto State politicians, strategists, lobbyists, and interest group leaders routinely seek the support of online political activists, and seldom a day goes by without some traditional news media outlet quoting (often without due credit) some website author or blogger.

The consequences of these changes are not just important for our own nation. American political tactics and strategies have both direct involvement and indirect influences upon campaigns waged in many of the world’s democracies, as what is proven effective in American campaigns is quickly exported elsewhere to win elections. Those who change how campaigns are waged here will end up influencing how democracy is practiced on a global scale.

Whether you’re talking about South Carolina, or the national political scene, this is the year the change from atoms to bits produced fundamental changes upon how we campaign for public office, as well as how we govern. These profound and lasting effects which will reach farther and last longer than the tenure of the next President. While John McCain or Barack Obama may shape the course of a nation, netroots culture will shape the future of democratic governance on a global scale. In doing so, those who have moved internet-based politics from the fringes to the mainstream have won the greatest victory of the 2008 elections.

Beyond Election Day 2008: A tough act to follow

In modern times, same-party Presidential succession has been a difficult task. Since FDR, no American President has succeeded a President of his party and went on to serve two full terms.

While Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and George Bush were able to follow Presidents of their own party, all of them struggled in their administrations: after ascending to the White House after the death of FDR, Truman barely won election for his full term, Johnson was soon mired in Vietnam and dropped out of the 1968 election, Ford lost his bid for a full term, and Bush struggled through a wildly-swinging ’88 campaign, only to lose re-election. Adalai Stevenson, Richard Nixon (1960), Herbert Humphrey, and Al Gore all lost their efforts to keep the White House in the hands of their party.

That’s not a very good record, but there’s may be a good reason. In his book “Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics”, James A. Stimson looks at American attitudes on issues, as indicated by research data obtained from decades of American voter opinion surveys. His findings show a clear cyclical pattern in the mindsets of the American public, showing the presence of a political center in which a bloc of voters oscillate between the parties in sufficient number to sway Presidential elections between the two major parties. 

Based upon overall identification on issues, his research indicated that voters shifted towards the left on positions by just under 15% during the Eisenhower administration, 12% during the Reagan-Bush tenure, and towards the right by about 8% during the Clinton years. While it suggests voter opinions shift gradually under GOP administrations, they shift more quickly under Democratic administrations – which might help to explain the electoral romps of the GOP in the 1978 and 1994 elections, both presidential first mid-terms.

In looking at the average of polling data on public support for spending for education, health care, urban programs, and welfare programs, as well as increased taxes, voter support for these positions dropped to an average in the low 40s in the latter days of the Carter administration, then peaked near sixty percent when Clinton took office, only to shift back below the fifty percent mark at the end of the Clinton administration.

Stimson’s findings point out a major reason for these shifts: when a Presidential administration acts on an issue, voter opinions on that issue begin to shift away from that position. Stimson provides plenty of data to back up this position. We can see wide swings over a number of issues, typically shifting only when the party in the White House changes or significant actions like the 1982 tax cuts or 1996 welfare reform take place. Typically once an action is taken to address an issue where voter support has soured, or an administration has been seated which promises action on those issues, voters feel less averse to that issue.

While the Bush administration was often not very conservative, it was perceived as that. Domestic spending, long a concern of fiscal conservatives, skyrocketed, swelling the national debt and annual deficits and souring voters on the GOP brand name. But Stimson's data shows the same shift away from the Presidential party post-Watergate for Republicans and during the Carter and Clinton years for Democrats.

Those who argue the best thing for the GOP would be for McCain to lose may be right. The GOP quickly recovered from the post-Watergate years thanks to Carter’s blunders, but its party ranks withered and it lost considerable ground between the second Reagan mid-term and the election of Bill Clinton. If McCain pulls off a small win, a battered GOP may not be of much help to him, or be able to regain ground lost in recent years.

However, there is not a single Democratic President since FDR whose administrations went smoothly – Truman lost Congress and struggled to resolve the Korean War, JFK dealt with the Bay of Pigs, a growing Vietnam War and divides in his party over civil rights, Johnson with Vietnam, civil rights and widespread urban violence, Carter with foreign and energy policies and a massive recession, Clinton with his bungled first two years and the Monica Lewinsky affair. This doesn’t bode well for an Obama administration. Not only that, but history usually dictates that a party’s upswing will not last for long – typically two election cycles before stagnation sets in or the course reverses itself.

This should give both candidates, and their parties, much to think about and watch out for over the next two and four years.

My thesis, in print

For those of you who don't know what nine months of hell looks like when it's over ... several printed and bound copies of my thesis arrived yesterday. *



"This is the kind of spontaneous publicity I need! My name in print! That really makes somebody! Things are going to start happening to me now."

- Steve Martin, The Jerk



*For those of you who don't know, one is generally required to submit bound copies to their school after the thesis has passed the review panel. Archived copies will be kept by the college/university as reference materials, as well as to help guide future thesis projects.

Presidential Speechwriting: A look at Presidential speechmaking

Since the advent of broadcast news media, beginning with radio, Presidential speechmaking has become a tool of mass discourse. Beginning with the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and continuing to the present, Presidents use this form of discourse to outline policies, sway millions to support their causes, and defend nations.

In “Presidential Speechwriting: From the New Deal to the Reagan Revolution and Beyond”, editors Kurt Ritter and Martin Medhurst assembled chapters written by those who studied the political rhetoric of the Presidents from FDR to Ronald Reagan in great detail. Each author examines the speechwriting and speaking approaches of an administration. In their examinations, we find that each President had a different approach to speechmaking and these approaches are looked at in great detail.

First, the editors poke holes in ten major fallacies about Presidential speechwriting:

1) Before broadcast media, Presidents always wrote their own speeches,
2) Franklin Roosevelt was the first President to use speechwriters regularly,
3) Presidential speechwriters have always been called speechwriters,
4) Presidential speechwriters have always been employed as White House staff,
5) Speechwriters simply represent the President’s policies,
6) Speechwriting reduces Presidents to marionettes who speak the words of others,
7) The most successful speechwriters are those who seek anonymity,
8) Presidential discourse would improve if the wrote their own speeches,
9) It is hard understand what Presidents believe because their words are not their own,
10) Speechwriting is a very small part of the policy-making process.

In the first chapter, these myths are challenged in brief, but throughout the book, we find them challenged with many examples presented by the authors.

Of the many critiques made throughout the book, the harshest judgment was reserved for Lyndon Johnson, whose 1968 speech announcing he would not seek re-election began with an appeal to “speak to you of peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia”. The speech was described as “instead of withdrawing U.S. troops, President Lyndon B. Johnson withdrew himself”.

Other in-depth looks are made by the authors. including the Carter administration, where President Carter, who had little use for speechwriters or speechwriting, began his Presidency offering idealism and change from the cynicism of Watergate and Vietnam, only to stumble through crisis after crisis. The role of Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s main speechwriter, in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis, is discussed as an example where the process of speechwriting produced persuasive options to resolve critical situations.

Presidential speechwriting isn’t just applicable to the rhetoric of Presidents. Those wanting to make their own speeches more persuasive, better understand high-pressure group dynamics, how important messages are put together and presented, as well as those who are interested in studying Presidential administrations, would all find this book a great read and a permanent addition to their library.

You can find this on Amazon for a pretty cheap price, so go get it – it’s well worth it.

Eloquence in an Electronic Age: Understanding what makes good political speeches work

In my graduate speechwriting course, one of the books we had to read was Eloquence in an Electronic Age, a work by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, my favorite researcher in the field of political communication. I’ve talked about one of her books previously, and one can find a whole slew of works that she’s authored or co-authored.

Eloquence looks at the evolution of political speechmaking in the twentieth-century. While the twentieth-century’s two greatest Presidents - Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan – receive much of the attention of her research, we find her work looking at many moments in American political oratory, including Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, Gary Hart, and Joseph Welch, whose live broadcast challenge of Joe McCarthy’s ruthlessness did considerable damage to McCarthy’s credibility.

In her book, she looks at various tactics used by American political speakers to convey their messages, including the use of “effeminate” styles, storytelling, symbolism, and self-revelation by speakers. She also notes the shrinking role of public speechmaking and its transformation through the medium of television. In this, she notes how Reagan’s use of symbolism was often ready-made for the visual medium and therefore well-received by television audiences.

There is much about this book worth your time, and these days, you can get copies off Amazon for a couple of bucks, so if you want to understand what makes one a great speaker, as well as improve your own speaking skills, it’s a smart investment that we recommend highly. But to date, she's never written anything that I didn't find insightful and eye-opening.




"Communication Currents": Communication research online

The National Communication Association, the big academic association in my field, now has an online journal for researchers to publish their work. This issue is pretty good, with discussion of a number of issues, including:

  • How Employees Fight Back Against Workplace Bullying
  • On the Social Implications of Invisibility: The iMac G5 and the Effacement of the Technological Object
  • Mediated Interactivity: Tools for Democracy or Tools for Control?
  • Conflict and Communication: The Good Will Hunting Technique
  • Cross Current: Long-distance relationships
It's worth a look, if you're in this field, or just curious about a subject. Go check it out.