The Black Helicopter

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Vox Plebis?

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C is for Cookie...

Next on my list of media annoyances is the extensive use of worthless and usually quite ridiculous vox pop segments in “news” reporting. They’re fine if what you are after are the opinions of the people; why the baggy pants and saggy ass? Did Michael Jackson really die, or is he in Shamballah with Elvis? Who will win the World Cup? (on the last question, we should actually ask Paul the Psychic Octopus, which impressively has his own wikipedia page already). But the value in news reporting and especially analytical journalism seems really limited, and more akin to populist infotainment scared of experts.

The worst vox pop segments are the ones repeating what the journalist just said. “Everybody like ice-cream when it’s hot” – we don’t need three faces confirming that fact. And these segments are increasingly common in analytical journalism, especially on politics. I vaguely remember reading a critical newspaper article stating that reporting today was less about informing the people and more about confirming what the people already know (reference, anyone?). So, less experts and more vox pops. Less demasking of power and more pseudo-democratic “free speech”. Vox Plebis. Cheaper and less valid, but vastly more “entertaining” and “engaging”.

Other types are the “expert” and “illusory eye-witness account” vox pops. Yesterday 3 alledged terrorists were arrested on behalf of the Norwegian Intelligence Services. Apparently they planned something, perhaps even an attack on an oil rig. So the news go ask the people what to make of it… which is of course platitudes, prejudices and uninformed opinions. Next, they ask the neighbors how one of the terrorists acted… which is exactly the same way any serial killer or child pornography mastermind has acted: inconspicuous, everyday, with as little ripples as possible. Nobody expected him to be anything other than a kind father, husband or neighbor. The same thing was said about Rudolf Höss, Josef Fritzl and Ted Bundy. And we wouldn’t really expect the (successful) serial killer or terrorist to act in any other way, would we? While I continuously hope for the one vox pop stating: “yes, he was up at odd hours, the whole block smelled of sulphur and he subscribed to Al Qaeda Illustrated” or just “yes, he looked really crazy“, I understand that that is never going to happen, because he would have been caught!

Please – in nine out of ten cases, vox pops are just a waste of valuable media time. Pollution. Not proof of anything but selective news casting. If anything, replace stupid old women and confused shoppers with Paul the Octopus. The betting pool is getting really high.

Written by Jesper

July 10, 2010 at 16:40

Buzzword-based Leadership

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Leaders and managers subscribing to Value(s)-based Leadership are a recent annoying trend in Scandinavian media. While the philosophy itself probably has old roots – my guess is Humanistic Psychology, Human Potential groups and a variety of self-help and human resource approaches (I have absolutely no knowledge of management theory, and Wikipedia  doesn’t help) – it is a newly discovered disturbing presence on my TV-screen. Here hordes of nice people blur the distinction between work, life and (secularized) spirituality with buzzwords chosen to represent the core values of their corporation: respect, competence, creativity… here is a list from

(…) ambition, competency, individuality, equality, integrity, service, responsibility, accuracy, respect, dedication, diversity, improvement, enjoyment/fun, loyalty, credibility, honesty, innovativeness, teamwork, excellence, accountability, empowerment, quality, efficiency, dignity, collaboration, stewardship, empathy, accomplishment, courage, wisdom, independence, security, challenge, influence, learning, compassion, friendliness, discipline/order, generosity, persistency,optimism, dependability, flexibility (…) 

The problem with this approach is two-fold. First of all, they are platitudes, the very essence of bullshit bingo: Nobody in their right mind would disagree with courage, wisdom and independence? Or loyalty, credibility and honesty? I understand the motivating intentions behind this use of words; positive thinking is an optimistic and at times working approach. But looking at most of the internet websites I googled, values seem to be filled with power, transforming lazy peoploids into capitalist übermensch and leaders into visionary bodhisattvas. 

Secondly, as some academic studies have shown, there is a fine line between motivating values and repressive corporate ideology masked as empowering leadership – this is what Frank Zappa beautifully grasped with his fine line between “kneeling down and bending over”. Thus egalitarian leadership ideology becomes a powerful neo-liberal force, a paradox of total individualization (competence, accomplishment) and total instrumentalization (corporate mobilization or you’re out). The same smell of totalitarian exclusion can be found in other well-meaning initiatives, such as corporate excercise programmes (no fat employees!).
I have a suggestion for a corporation who wants my money: Choose some surprising values, like Confusion, Bureaucracy and Laziness. Or even Hostility, Chaos and Indecision. At least I know you have proper humour rather than the insipid value of “enjoyment/fun”.
[For academic critique, see J. Carette & R. King: Selling Spirituality, 2005; K. L. Salamon: “No Borders in Business”, in Bewes and Gilbert (ed.): Cultural Capitalism,  2000; and for Scandinavian readers, J. Haviv (ed): Medarbejder eller modarbejder, 2007; books by K. L. Salamon, K. M. Bovbjerg. A more positive treatment can be found in P. Heelas: The New Age Movement, 1996, The Spiritual Revolution (w. L. Woodhead), 2005, Spiritualities of Life, 2008]

Written by Jesper

July 9, 2010 at 02:07

The use of discourse analysis, part 1

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I could have called this post “voluntary chemical castration”, but alas… it is about other words.

A few days ago, my partner Tale reminded me of the importance of discourse analysis; after reading an interview with a convicted sex offender undergoing voluntary chemical castration (!), the following phrases stuck:  “I was convicted of having sex with my daughter, and I was convicted of having sex with my stepdaughter. One time I was drunk, one time I was not” (quoted from memory; the interview is in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten’s weekend supplement A-magasinet from a week ago). Several questions immediately spring to mind: “having sex”?  “was convicted”? – isn’t it rather a question of being guilty of incestuous rape?

Now, I have no problem with the convict as such; this is not a blog entry screaming for justice. He is in prison, undergoing chemical castration – the system seems to work. Our discussion rather reminded me of many good classroom discussions on the rhetorics of politicians, lawyers, celebrities and scientists, occluding realities with a simple choice of words. I have analysed texts with students in high school, college and university for ten years now, touting the virtues of discourse analysis with its pragmatic mesh of theory and practice. In this approach, the close attention to choice of words, phrases and combinations are combined with a contextual awareness, making ideological choices and positions visible in semantics and language use. Hence language (even minute choices) has a large role in constituting social reality – we can change perceptions of and interactions with this reality by changing our nomenclature (this is a moderate relativism; regarding reality “as such”, I am a critical realist).

My usual example has been “milk” and “ecological milk” – in Danish discourse on dairy products, the second is usually valorized as “good”, it is considered  healthier or at least better for the cow than the first one (which is then “bad”). It is also more expensive (making it bad for people more attentive to price). Both are involved in battles over what is best for us, if we are cheated by clever farmers selling “bad” milk as ecological etc. The same value dynamics are seen with eggs and free-range chickens, for example. But the funny things is: the neutral, non-adjectival position is invariably inhabited by the cheaper, non-ecological product. This of course has historical roots: farming has been industrialized and ecological alternatives are new and counter-cultural to the regular industry. Thus value systems of “naturalness” and “artificiality” and a host of ideological positions determine one’s decisions on these matters.

If we really wanted to impose ecology in Danish farming, we should invert the choices available to the customer (and the producer, by the way): Call the cheaper milk “poison milk”, the eggs “industrial eggs” and the chickens “abrasion chicken” or something, reserving the neutral position of milk, egg and chicken for the ecological variant. Even though “bad” alternatives are still cheaper, they are now associated with bad adjectives, making the price not a neutral facet of choice, but an active part of choosing the “bad” product. (As an aside: I actually suggested the same inversion tactics at the high school I worked at; instead of speaking of “allowed leave of absence” of 15 percent, “punishing” the ones exceeding this number with “larger examination requirements”, we should talk about “required presence” of 85 percent, “rewarding” good students with “reduced curriculum”. No actual changes have to be made but linguistic ones, but perhaps the students would stop striving for 14,9 percent absence).

While I won’t be updating my favorite classroom and lecture examples with discussions of “sex” and “rape” anytime soon, the interview supplies a very clear example of these very language dynamics. As far as I can see, the choice of words reveal some basic uncertainties regarding acknowledgement of the crimes themselves. “Having sex”?! Was these sexual encounters really voluntary? “Was convicted”?! The passive voice indicates a miscarriage of justice, or at least a distance between the convict and the sentence. Drunk? That doesn’t do any good either way, does it? I understand the psychological difficulties in “owning” a crime, and I understand the inherent problems in an interview situation, but until he voluntarily speaks of being guilty of raping young girls, I would keep using chemical castration.

Written by Jesper

March 12, 2010 at 22:19

Pink Powder Puffs

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After a huge intake of strong coffee during writing binges, I have to read something before lying down to sleep. In the past week, I have had the pleasure of re-reading the x-gossip of Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon (1975, 1959). While the usual stories entertained once again (Fatty Arbuckle, Erich von Stroheim and Mary Astor especially), I noticed something else this time around, namely the quoted article on “Pink Powder Puffs” in the chapter on Rudy Valentino.

This July 18, 1926 editorial in the Chicago Tribune rages against powder vending machines in the washrooms of a public ballroom. For men. And they are used. By men. Another attack on masculinity is a public display of hair combing – with pomade – in the office elevator. Young men are obviously degenerate. The article continues: “It is time for a matriarchy if the male of the species allows such things to persist. Better a rule by masculine women than by effeminate men. Man began to slip, we are beginning to believe, when he discarded the straight razor for the safety pattern.” (p. 157) The effeminate style is linked to masculine cosmetics, sheiks, floppy pants and slave bracelets and has Rudy Valentino as the prime model of American masculinity. Opposite this horrible youth culture is the real man; as the article rhetorically asks: “What has become of the old “caveman” line?” (p. 158).

Although Anger describes the style as that of “a bunch of Clark Street faggots”, I am reminded of the metrosexuality debate of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now, the content is straight out of the gay twenties: masculine cosmetics, sheiks, floppy pants and slave bracelets –  as well as Valentino’s gold jewelry, “heavy perfumes, chinchilla-lined coats and pronounced Italian coquetry” (p. 163). Today, the sleek style of David Beckham (the current Valentino poster boy) has more tattoos, kimonos and nudity. But it seems to me there are some interesting structural similarities, as the masculine ideal is tweaked to promote not only to promote a new kind of man, but also the products to get there. Valentino had Valvoline Face Cream, Beckham has Instinct. In both cases, “metrosexuality—do I really have to spell it out?—is mediated masculinity”, as Mark Simpson writes (

In essence, what I thought was rather new, namely the focus on both liberating and commodifying masculinity over the past 15 years or so (seemingly as a reaction (in part) on the heavy focus on liberating-and-commodifying femininity in the post-war West) has older roots. The same can be said about the intense hatred of these pink poofs in older generations and more conservative segments. Now, the scale of it all is of course magnified immensely: the Beckham’s work with “clothing designers, health and fitness specialists, fashion magazines, perfume and cosmetics manufacturers, hair stylists, exercise promoters, and spa and recreation companies” ( In the same vein, I think more men follow these new masculine ideals today – elite culture is democratized (or “proletarized”), just like cocaine. But the basic description of the young urban male with money to spend on personal grooming and style, lead by a core of beautiful movie and sports stars, seems to mirror the twenties rather well. As does the fact that these new males are invariably associated with homosexuality.

So perhaps we should stop discussing the “culture war” of the caveman vs. the metrosexual (or the spread of “gay” in popular culture) as something without history. Valentino did it. Chicago Tribune did it too. And it didn’t start in 1994. It definitely didn’t start in the twenties either, but at least we have a hundred years of effeminacy to analyse.

Written by Jesper

March 7, 2010 at 23:47