Friday, January 30, 2015

Civil liberties, principles and jobs

Contradictions are inevitable in assertions of personal liberties and civil rights. Just as North Carolina legislators seek to carve out an escape hatch for government officials who object, for religious reasons, to participating in same-sex marriage ceremonies, the other side of this issue has also cropped up.

I find myself sympathetic and conflicted on both issues. I believe sincerely held religious doctrines should be respected, although determining how "sincerely held" and "religious" these beliefs are, versus conveniently rationalized or political, may not be simple.

Likewise, I am sympathetic to the cake decorator who wanted no part of hate speech on a cake. Should her job be protected, or is disobeying a boss' order grounds for firing, no matter what the extenuating circumstances?

I once resigned from a job because the bosses overruled my best judgment on a matter I considered a principle of my profession. I didn't sue. I thought it better to simply walk away than to violate a sacred principle and live with my feeling of guilt the rest of my life.

So, while I am sympathetic to those who stand on principle for religious, moral or ethical reasons, I'm not sure that my sympathy for their quandary should be written into law. And I'm not sure that words, even hateful ones, written in icing that will soon disappear, is worth losing a job over.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Conversations and memories

I was an insignificant face in a large crowd at Tuesday's memorial service for Joe Frank Jones at Barton College.

As mourners offered eloquent elegies to the former Barton College philosophy professor, who had died suddenly last week a few years after leaving Barton for Radford College in the Virginia mountains, I thought back to my first long conversation with Joe. We knew each other from Barton events, such as Friends of Hackney Library dinners, where we would talk cordially about all manner of things. Joe was an extrovert who reveled in conversations and discussions and could talk knowledgeably about almost any subject.

One day he called me up and wanted to talk about a column I had written for the newspaper. Unsure what he had in mind or whether this would be another of the haranguing criticisms that anyone who writes for the news media has to face from time to time, I accepted the invitation, and we agreed to meet in the afternoon at the cozy old Starbucks on West Nash Street.

Cordially, with no hint of anger or disrespect, Joe challenged my opinion expressed in the column about the new wave of aggressive atheism that I had seen in newspaper and magazine articles and in popular books. I objected to the implication of some atheists that anyone who believed in God was delusional or scientifically and historically ignorant.

Joe had inferred that I was one of those Christians who look with disdain and condemnation at anyone who is not a devout, in-your-face Christian and who doesn't profess certainty about who is and is not going to heaven. I convinced him that I was not condemning anyone and acknowledged that I had no information about who was and wasn't "right with God." I would not critique someone else's religiosity and would respect their values and moral standards.

Our conversation wandered all over from there. Joe talked about his experience as an irresponsible teenager and his stint in the Air Force and his graduate degrees. I told him about my quandary as I neared college graduation holding a low draft number that virtually guaranteed my induction into the horrors of Vietnam. I told him how I opted for a Coast Guard enlistment and the positive aspects of my time in the service. We discovered we were only months apart in age and had many similar experiences.

At no point was the conversation angry or testy. No one raised his voice. We talked quietly and sipped coffee as we found common ground and greater mutual respect.

That conversation affirmed the tributes in Tuesday's memorial service eulogies. Joe was a man of extraordinarily diverse interests and knowledge who loved thoughtful conversation and debate. He also loved people and had a way of making them love him in return.

I have missed seeing Joe and Polly since they pulled up roots and moved to the Virginia mountains, often posting pictures of their hikes along grand mountain trails. Tuesday's service gave all of us a chance to think back on those wonderful conversations that each of us had, once or often, with Joe.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Yesteryear's nicknames are insensitive now

We live in an era when everyone has a right to feel offended, disrespected or insulted, where one wrong word can get you labeled intolerant, offensive, or worse.

Nowhere is this more evident than in society's tolerance for nicknames. When I was growing up half a century ago, my older brothers had a friend named "Peanut," an allusion to his short stature. A local business owner in the small town where we lived was called "Shorty," another commentary on his stature. Another was called "Skinney" so often that I never knew his real name. A somewhat overweight classmate was sometimes called "Jumbo."

In the 1920s-1930s Goldsboro, where my father-in-law grew up, there was a man known to all as "Fatty." You don't have to wonder what that nickname said about him. A woman who was a high school classmate was known to everyone as "Stinky," a name she accepted with grace and good humor. I have no idea where the nickname came from.

In olden days, there were people known as "Whitey" and "Blackie" and "Red." Under today's ethical standards, any of these nicknamed people could have filed a complaint with some local, state or federal agency, or perhaps filed a class-action lawsuit against the world. But in those days, they didn't, and if anyone ever gave any thought to the idea that these nicknames were offensive, such reservations were never vocalized. They would have been laughed off the school bus or out of the Lions Club meeting.

We are all so sensitive now. We'd never use an offensive nickname, or if one slipped out, we would live in fear of a knock at the door by the Offensiveness Police. Perhaps we'd be sent to a re-education class to learn that 20th century inconsiderateness just cannot be tolerated any more.

Is the world better off that people are no longer referred to by their height, weight, color or odor? I suppose. But our very sensitivity acts to point out these unspoken differences among us. Long ago, it seems, we were all the same, even those who were acknowledged to be of different height, weight, color or odor.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

American military, despite accolades, has huge problems

James Fallows, whom I've been reading faithfully for nearly 40 years, has an absolutely devastating indictment of America's defense establishment in this month's Atlantic magazine. The long article begins with America's recent adulation of everyone in a U.S. military uniform or anyone who's ever served (i.e., veterans) and goes on to critique the military procurement system and a military hierarchy that takes care of its own.

More than a year ago, I complained that veterans or current military personnel were being hailed as "heroes," regardless of their type of service. I have been offered the same rewards — free meals on Veterans Day, a preferred parking space at the grocery store, and thankful compliments when asked if I was a veteran — as men who faced combat. But my military commitment was fulfilled by sitting behind a desk and answering correspondence from parents, spouses and members of Congress. At no time did I face hostile fire. My most hazardous moment was probably when I was urged by war protesters to take off my uniform and join the anti-war movement on the streets of Washington, D.C. I just walked on by.

More than 50 years ago, President Eisenhower warned America of a "military-industrial complex" that sought not the best military might for America but the best profits for themselves. Fallows documents just how much worse things have gotten since Eisenhower's 1961 farewell address. He makes the point that military weapons procurement has less to do with military weapons and more to do with spreading economic stimulus packages throughout the country. Thus, the ideal weapons system — an aircraft carrier, bomber or fighter jet — is one that has subcontractors in every congressional district in the country, thereby ensuring that Congress will approve the system, regardless of costs, cost overruns, or effectiveness of the weapon.

The F-35 fighter jet is the latest iteration of this economic-stimulus-as-defense package. It will be the most expensive airplane ever, and it can't do what it is supposed to do. An accompanying article in the Atlantic laments the inferiority of the U.S. M-16 combat rifle and its later versions, such as the M-4, compared to the AK-47, which has been used by the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and other countries for more than 50 years. The M-16 is a more complex, harder to maintain and more likely to jam weapon than the AK-47, which is simpler, easier to maintain and is less likely to jam. But America has been using the same basic, inferior rifle for more than 40 years.

Fallows points out that since World War II, American soldiers, the best supplied and most expensive (by far) army in the world, have lost again and again against less-sophisticated, poorly supplied and poorly trained enemies in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The military-industrial complex needs to be shaken up, beginning with Congress and then with the officer corps, before greater damage is done to the nation.

The military's problems need to be part of the presidential debate and congressional campaign issues, but as long as Americans believe everyone in a uniform is a hero and above criticism, that can't happen. A good starting point would be for every member of Congress and every candidate for Congress or the presidency to read Fallow's article.

A book every month, delivered to your door

The Book of the Month Club is still around. I just checked. It has merged, it looks like, with the Literary Guild, a former low-rent competitor, and both are, let us say, not as ostentatious a they once were.

My wife and/or I had belonged to BOMC and to Literary Guild a few times in the now-distant past. We would take advantage of the special invitation, pick out five books (or however many it was they were offering) (histories for me, novels for her), try to remember to send back the card saying no thanks to 10 or 11 of the next 12 offerings and eventually either get dismissed from the club for lack of participation or leave voluntarily. Then we'd see another enticing offer and pick out a few books for a measly dollar, and we'd be back in it again.

We still have some of those books on our shelves, but we probably have ten times as many books that we had purchased in book stores. As intriguing as the book club summaries were, they were never as enticing as finding a book in a book store, where you can hold it, smell, flip through it, and get pulled into the excitement. Of course, now we live in a town that does not have a book store. (What kind of self-respecting town is that?) But we're still not tempted to join another book club.

In its day, Book of the Month Club was a literary status symbol, proof that you were a bibliophile, a book lover, a reader, a supporter of great writing and great authors — or even of so-so writers who struck it rich when their novels were picked as a BOMC monthly selection. The Literary Guild was founded as lower-class BOMC. Same procedure, same strategy, just not quite as many big-name authors, and the book club editions were not as substantial as the publisher's main run. Big ads featuring great books kept the excitement going. We subscribed to magazines that included long reads, and the book clubs ran their ads there, keeping the membership afloat.

There must have been huge "churn," in membership. Churn is the term used in the newspaper business to describe folks who subscribe for the special 90-day cut rate but then drop the paper. Six months later, they might sign up again, but they never stay for the long haul. Newspapers spent fortunes trying to reduce churn and keep readers. Book club memberships were like that. We were among the churn. We'd join, leave and join again.

Now my wife reads books on her Kindle and we order books from Amazon occasionally when we see one that sounds intriguing, but it's not in the public library. All that expense of mailing monthly newsletters and selection forms and then mailing the books made for a huge overhead in the book clubs. It's a wonder to me that they are still in business — barely. Most of the big chain bookstores, which had run the small-town book shops out of business 20 years ago, are gone now, too. They just couldn't compete with the unending selection and the overnight delivery of the online stores.

And what has replaced the prestige and savoir-faire of Book of the Month Club? Maybe a library card? A Friends of the Library membership? An e-reader? A Netflix subscription?

None of the above.

Monday, January 19, 2015

State of the Union is just another campaign speech

When President Obama delivers his State of the Union speech tomorrow night, he will have something to prove. It's something he has proven again and again over the course of his presidency: Obama is a campaigner, not a legislator.

Already leaked to the press are his initiatives to raise taxes on the wealthy and cut tax rates for lower-income and establish new federal programs for higher education and early childhood education. He will make the point that these are good and needed programs, that the lower and middle classes have missed out on the economic recovery of the past couple of years. It's their turn now, he might say (but won't, not in those words).

The problem is that he will be speaking to a Congress dominated by Republicans. The GOP hold large majorities on both sides of the Capitol, and they are unlikely to be persuaded by rhetoric extolling Democratic Party priorities. In fact, it can be argued that Obama knows these initiatives stand no chance in Congress and his announcements are aimed at getting the GOP majority on the record opposing these programs. Democrats expect these proposals to play well in the 2016 elections.

The State of the Union (surprise, surprise) is nothing more than a campaign speech, as it has been for at least 30 years. The way to get ambitious new programs into law is not by embarrassing congressional opponents into voting against your ideas. The way to get legislation passed is to work with Congress, to convince skeptics of the correctness of your ideas and the practicality of your programs.

I have seen nothing so far in Obama's proposal that will appeal to Republicans. He proposes paying for these programs by raising taxes on the wealthy, and part of those higher taxes will go to reduce taxes on low-income taxpayers. But already, many Americans pay little or no federal income tax, and the GOP has made tax cuts its all-powerful Excalibur. Good arguments can be made for some of Obama's taxation proposals — a higher tax on capital gains is unlikely to harm economic activity, and the estate tax (which opponents disingenuously call a "death tax" — the tax is on inheritance, not on death, and applies only to the largest of estates) is a realistic assurance against the stratifying influence of inherited wealth.

But Obama is not making an effort to persuade his opponents, as Lyndon Johnson would have done; he is only creating talking points for the next electoral campaign. He is campaigning, not leading the nation. This strategy is what we deserve as a country that expects presidential candidates to spend two or three arduous years seeking the presidency, honing skills of false empathy and subtle (or not so subtle) vile attacks on opponents' character. We have created this monster, or have allowed political consultants to create it.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Freedom, civility and responsibility

Millions marched across Europe and elsewhere in support of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine whose staff was brutally murdered by Islamic extremists. Millions, in solidarity, declared themselves, "I am Charlie."

Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. These ideals are all precious and must be defended. But was the massacre at Charlie Hebdo the result of free expression or flawed judgment? Make no mistake: The culprits here are the Islamist gunmen who murder in the name of religion; they alone are responsible.

But the satirical magazine flouted its offensiveness toward Muslims — and other religions. The magazine's humor was based in part on its atheist principles. They knew that millions of Muslims considered any depiction of the prophet Mohammed to be a sacrilege. That made them all the more eager to draw caricatures of the prophet. Their cartoons were the equivalent of poking a complainant in the eye.

Pope Francis, who is no defender of religious violence, suggested this week that Charlie Hebdo should have shown more respect for the religious beliefs of Muslims. Respect for another person's religion should be a principle as precious as freedom of the press. That is not to say that blasphemy should be a criminal offense or that respect for religion should be written into law. It should be a matter of good manners and social grace.

We are in an age when people are too easily offended. It seems difficult sometimes to say anything without offending someone. But respect for others' religion or politics should come easily and would certainly avoid disagreements and fights. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, many people have quoted Voltaire: "I don't agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Perhaps we should add, "I find what you say offensive and disrespectful of others, and I wish you would reconsider the way you make your point."

We are in an age when disrespect has become respectable. Political leaders shout at each other and say cruel things. Comedians base their humor on tearing down the walls of civility. Many "jokes" make us cringe.

Charlie Hebdo, a magazine I've never read, pushed the envelope of disrespect, particularly of religion. While it had every right to these expressions, the magazine did not promote civil discussion, mutual respect or cross-cultural understanding.

No one should be executed for exercising their freedoms, but everyone should be more cautious about offensive behavior and more respectful of other people. Freedom carries with it an obligation to exercise that freedom responsibility. With great freedom comes great responsibility.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Religious tolerance can go too far

In its determination to be tolerant and liberal (in the best sense of the word), Duke University announced that a Muslim call to prayer would be amplified and broadcast from the Duke Chapel bell tower, beginning Friday. The uproar over that announcement forced the university to back down.

For some critics, the prayer call from Duke Chapel was another indication that we would all soon be wearing burquas and following Sharia law. Others were less angry but still upset over the use of a Christian church's bell tower as a minaret.

Freedom of religion and religious tolerance do not require one religion's sacred worship space to be taken over by another faith's adherents. "Buck" Duke was a staunch Methodist who affiliated the university that bears his name with the Methodist church. Duke Chapel is a United Methodist worship space (although it more closely resembles the great European cathedrals built for Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Anglican services). Most Methodist churches are less ornate.

Duke counts several hundred Islamic faithful among its university community. They should have a place to worship, and their religious beliefs should be respected and accommodated if possible. But the university's decision to have Islamic prayers announced weekly from the sacred Methodist bell tower goes far beyond respect and accommodation. It amounts to thievery or invasion, a takeover by another religion.

Duke had allowed Muslim students to use the chapel's basement for Friday prayers. This falls under the rubric of reasonable accommodation, providing a space for worship without interfering with another religion's sacred space upstairs. It is similar to public  schools' allowing start-up churches to use school classrooms on Sunday for their worship services. That does not mean the school is endorsing the church or its beliefs; it is merely allowing members to use available, unused space.

What Duke did in its determination to be tolerant is reminiscent of another religious controversy a few years ago at the College of William and Mary. Gene Nichols, who had recently taken the venerable Virginia college's presidency, decided that the Christian cross should be removed from the college's Wren Chapel. Nichols said he did not want to offend anyone who was not a Christian and wanted the college to be welcoming to everyone. The short-sighted, anti-Christian action cost Nichols his job.

The United States is justifiably proud of its history of religious tolerance, although the record is not spotless. Ours is a pluralistic society that accepts refugees from religious persecution, defends off-the-wall religious practices, and tolerates religious zealots as well as hard-line atheists. Part of that tradition should be the protection of worship space built and supported by one sect against squatting by another sect.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Penney's closing is last nail in mall's coffin

The News & Observer is reporting this morning that the J.C. Penney store in Wilson is closing. Is anyone surprised?

The demise of the Penney's store, the last of the original anchor stores in Parkwood Mall, was inevitable when the mall owners made a series of blunders in managing the retail space that once dominated Wilson sales. The mall allowed Belk to jump ship and move to the new Heritage Crossing. That was a disabling blow to the mall because Belk generated traffic that other tenants could use. Belk moved for a new location but no more space. The mall would have been wise to give Belk free rent, if necessary, to keep the department store in the mall. 

It was all downhill after that. Sears closed. Empty storefronts outnumbered open stores. Mall owners built a big new cinema complex, which drew viewers but not shoppers and hid the mall stores. A huge monstrosity of a sign went up in two locations by the mall, with Wilson City Council revising sign laws to appease the mall owners. Then the mall owners, in their infinite wisdom, closed the interior common areas of the mall. Not only was there no incentive to go to the mall; you were barred from entering the mall.

If there has been a greater series of blunders in commercial management, I can't think of it.

With Penney's closing, the bulk of the former mall's retail revenue is going away. Mall owners have talked of bulldozing the remaining vacant portions of the mall. Demolition will be expensive, and the owners don't seem to be in any hurry. The once vibrant expanse of acreage will soon be an eyesore, an open wound in Wilson's commercial landscape.

 It didn't have to happen.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Military fails in fights against non-state combatants

Wednesday's massacre in Paris is a reminder of the dilemma western civilization faces in combating non-state enemies. Basically since the end of the Cold War, the United States has faced military challengers who do not belong to an established government. They go by the names of Viet Cong, al-Qaida, al-Shabaab, Sandinista, and others. While many of these groups are linked by Arabic names and Islamist theology, they are separate organizations with no central leadership, legislature and capital city.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has struggled against insurgencies around the globe in Africa, Central America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The strongest military force in the world has been stymied by these non-state organizations. The World War II strategy of invading and holding territory while destroying any opposition has not worked since 1945.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq worked in its initial phase of conquering territory but failed in its efforts to wipe out the insurgents who ambushed, bombed and blew up American soldiers. There was no post-war stability because there was no post-war.

Now the insurgents, or terrorists if you prefer, are not just in Africa or the Middle East. They are in America, in Britain and in France. They perceive western democracy as evil and view it as their responsibility to destroy that evil. Murderous attacks, such as Wednesday's on a defenseless newspaper office, can easily multiply and escalate.

These attacks cannot be stopped until the West becomes alarmed enough to set aside its trendy embrace of "diversity" and accept the fact that some people, or some groups, will never be assimilated into a democratic society. They will take advantage of Western freedoms, then use that freedom to destroy the freedoms of everyone else.  
I was asked to respond to a series of questions about philanthropic and investment needs in my area. Here are the questions, followed by my answers:

1.       What are the top Lending, Investing and Giving opportunities?
2.       What are the pressing issues in the community? What has changed from last year and how can we be more responsive?
3.       What are the emerging needs/trends within the broad issue areas: such as Affordable Housing, Workforce Development, Education, Neighborhood Preservation, Health/Human Services – Critical Needs?
4.       Are there certain issues [survey sponsor] is or can be addressing through volunteerism? Please give examples. 
5.       Are  Nonprofit Board memberships, VITA, Financial Literacy in Schools (youth) and for Adults important needs in your community. Please specify which ones.
6.       Do the Bank of America Nonprofit Impact Series webinars and Connect to Own webinars (which provides nonprofit capacity building training to assist nonprofits) address community needs? If you are unaware of these webinars, do you see a need/added benefit for them in your community? How can [survey sponsor] complement these efforts?

My answers:

1.       Downtowns are making a comeback, and that trend presents some investing and lending opportunities. The city of Wilson, with some private investment partners, has recently rehabbed two downtown commercial buildings into residential lofts. These projects are rentals, but similar projects could be created with owner-occupied condominiums. Similarly, older residences in the downtown perimeter could be a good investment for lenders willing to be flexible with buyers interested in renovating older homes. By doing this, neighborhoods could be stabilized and residential decay could be stanched. Giving opportunities abound in this same downtown area. Historic preservation organizations and low-income housing nonprofits, such as Habitat for Humanity, can encourage redevelopment of older neighborhoods. Donations to these nonprofits can create a symbiotic relationship with investment strategies in the same area.
2.       The largest impediment to economic growth and success, in my opinion, is the low level of education in too many eastern North Carolina counties. Lack of education and social skills present an insurmountable barrier to good jobs. Too many eastern North Carolina families suffer from multi-generational aversion to education. Parents who did not have a good public school experience will not encourage their children to study and work hard. They will not push their children to learn; the parents may even harbor hostility toward teachers and other authority figures, and this hostility is passed down to the children. Single-parent families tend to exacerbate these problems because of the lack of a loving authority figure and the inconsistencies and uncertainties related to coming and going of adult males in the home. Bringing stability to children can be a first step in breaking this cycle, but greater efforts are needed to improve parenting skills and raise the priority for education. Since last year, home construction and renovations have picked up. If this activity can be routed to help low-income families through lower-cost home ownership, the impact can be long-lasting.
3.        The trendiest concern in the community seems to be hunger in children, but I question the validity or at least the urgency of this issue. Advocates cite statistics about “food insecurity,” a term too vague to track with any certainty. Federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps) provides food assistance to millions. Some surely slip through the cracks, but I do not think the need is as great as the publicity this issue receives would imply. Education and affordable housing, it seems to me, are more urgent and carry the possibility of long-term solutions rather than just supplying the next meal. Historic preservation can work in conjunction with affordable housing efforts if underused or abandoned structures are renovated as affordable housing. I don’t question the need for crisis assistance of various types, but I think the best philanthropic investment will be in long-term solutions to deeply rooted problems.
4.       Every nonprofit needs volunteers. [Survey sponsor] can create a culture of volunteerism and encourage employees to volunteer in a variety of different ways, getting employees (who may already volunteer) to work outside their comfort zone. Any volunteering is valuable. Volunteering that alters the lives of the volunteers and the clients is the best of all.
5.       Our community is fortunate to have many committed nonprofit board members, but it can always use others with different skills and ideas. Financial literacy education is needed in schools and among adults as well. In my career, I hired many young college graduates who had a degree and good skills but had little concept of what it meant to live on a budget, pay taxes and save for the future. Financial literacy is a needed course of study in both elementary and secondary education. Financial literacy is also a crying need in the adult population, especially the lower-income population. An example: an applicant for low-cost housing explained that her biweekly paycheck is electronically deposited into her bank account. The day the money hits the bank, she goes to the bank, takes out all the money in cash and carries it around in her purse, paying bills in cash until the next paycheck. She saw nothing wrong with her system, which is not uncommon. Many adults do not understand interest rates, savings accounts, or how to keep track of their money. Smarter financial decision-making could boost the entire economy.
6.       Frankly, I have not found the [survey sponsor] webinars particularly valuable. Because they are aimed at such a broad audience, and my situation is somewhat unusual because our nonprofit is so small.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


Epiphany. The end of Christmas. It's time to begin the undecorating. Although many a Christmas tree already lies by the gutter, awaiting grinding into mulch, hours is still up, still decorated, still lighted.

In our eagerness for the arrival for Christmas — an eagerness that begins these days in October with store displays and Christmas-themed merchandise — we wear out Christmas' welcome by the time Dec. 25 arrives.

Properly celebrated, Christmas begins on Dec. 25, after four Sundays of Advent, as we prepare for the arrival of Christmas, and continues until Jan. 5, the 12th day of Christmas. Then comes Epiphany, celebrating the revelation and recognition of the Messiah. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word meaning "reveal." Scripture for today celebrates the arrival of the magi, gentiles who would recognize the Christ child as the Jewish messiah.

We all have epiphanies, moments of sudden recognition or insight. These may be "Ah ha" moments or a classic "dope slap" when new insight banishes the former way of thinking.

On this festival of Epiphany, celebrate the recognition of Christ, as Simeon did, as "a light for the gentiles," and also celebrate all of our epiphany moments throughout our lives when we suddenly understand or recognize those things that should have been obvious before.

Today's epiphany for me is that I must begin taking down a month's worth of Christmas decorations and begin those other maintenance tasks that darkness and cold have prevented. The days are getting longer, slowly but surely, and the light grows stronger every day.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

This commercial is about more than trucks

I should not let the little things bug me so. But this pickup truck commercial, which I would not have even seen if it were not for all the bowl games I've watched in the past week, has gotten under my skin.

The video opens with a conservatively attired young man parking an older model Honda Civic and going into an office building. As he enters, another young man, less formally dressed — this one has on jeans with a sport coat and sports a three-day growth of whiskers — instead of the suit and clean-shaven look of the Civic driver. As the second man walks out, a good-looking young woman turns her head to stare at him. As the first man entered the building, a string band played a soft melody, a continuation of the tune played as he parked his car. 

As the second man, obviously the hero of this parable, leaves, he gets into a new, black Chevrolet Colorado pickup. When he turns the key, the truck's stereo blares an AC/DC tune (I had to look this up, of course) "Back in Black." The whiskered man roars away with a smirking smile on his face. The first, earnest young man is never seen again.

The message of this commercial seems to go beyond just "buy a Chevrolet pickup" to pass judgment on young men who abide by traditional clothing styles and drive economical, older (paid-for?) sedans. The pickup guy is obviously more sexually appealing, obviously more modern, obviously more "with it." So he drives a pickup and listens to very loud rock music. Women turn their heads to watch him walk. He's rebellious, dungareed, unshaven, cocky, successful. He's already been on the inside and has come away with a smile on his face. Sedan drivers who wear suits don't stand a chance because he's already got the job or the contract or whatever it was the sedan driver walked into the building after.

I dislike that messaging, and not just because I don't drive a pickup or because the commercial is aimed at a target audience that is 40 years younger than I. The message implies that conformity is bad and rebellion is good, that swagger counts for more than respect, that this insouciance leads to success. I'm sure a lot of market research went into this commercial, but I doubt that a lot of thought went into the implications or the residual impact of this messaging.

Sell your trucks, but don't imply that seriousness, traditional tastes and earnestness mark a person a loser.