Features Political Competence

Stop the Ride: Politically Correct Playland

Yesterday, at Playland Park in Rye, N.Y. an argument turned physical after a group of Muslims were denied access to several rides due to safety concerns surrounding their head scarves or hijabs. The NY Times, among other news outlets, has the story and it’s certainly a must read that’s emblematic of our times where religious anxiety constantly flirts with political correctness. That the events unfolded on the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, only increase their consequence. While the disagreement, fight, and subsequent arrests are not novel, they provide fertile ground for us to revisit this taxing relationship between politics and sacred ritual.

Over here in Chicagoland, I celebrated Id al-Fitr with a digestive bike ride up to the city’s Desi corridor on Devon Avenue. Dripping with exertional and anticipatory sweat I proceeded into a Pakistani banquet with two coworkers/culinary concierges. While there were certainly more Muslims than Jews celebrating the end of the fast, I guiltlessly glutted myself on my favorite delicacies of Desi culture. Between the Chicken Makhani, Lamb Biryani, and Saag Paneer, the restaurant became my Playland and I giddily leaped into each roller coaster dish. My largest safety concern was a stomach ache but the waiters let me proceed at my own risk.

At Playland Park, the park employees were certainly justified in enforcing their “headgear policy” due to safety concerns like choking and potential equipment damage. They correctly attempted to rectify the situation by offering refunds to upset customers. While the source and progression of the fight remains clouded, the events are nevertheless sure to incite contentious public debate.

While I’d rather animate this debate than dive into it like I did the Lamb Biryani, I think it’s important to juxtapose my Chicago Id al-Fitr Playland with the Rye Playland. Divisive cultural clashes crop up continuously but so do harmonious happenings. I undoubtedly breached various cultural norms during a half hour dinner; yet these mistakes were swept under the table or buried in decadent saffron and ghee.

So even as political correct conflict erupts like the spices in my meal, let’s just pause to remember delicious Devon and scrumptious synergy.

Pic Credit: Express Monorail

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Beating the Boss

Imagine you want your boss’s job. It’s potentially an awkward and thorny pursuit that requires sharp political competence. The first step is probably to quit your job. It’s impossible to both serve and challenge your superior at the same time. The challenge then is campaigning for the position while defending your previous service for the boss. Jon Huntsman, President Obama’s former ambassador to China and current challenger for reelection, finds himself in this precise position.

Consider his past support for the President:

“I applaud the President’s handling of the [bin Laden] mission” (RealClearPolitics)

“You are a remarkable leader. It has been a great honor getting to know you” (Yahoo! News)

Then, in abrupt fashion, Huntsman quit his ambassadorship, returned to the United States, and entered a campaign built on a foundation of “civility, humanity, and respect” (NY Times). Now he attempts to persuade a conservative GOP primary electorate that he has the credentials and credibility to defeat a “remarkable leader”.

To avoid being branded as a calculating hypocrite, Huntsman has to defend his past service while aggressively criticizing Obama’s current policies. Here, “civility” emerges as the key to sustaining this delicate balancing act.

Civility allows a leader to assert maturity and confidence while challenging a close friend or former superior. A respectful campaign tone becomes a strategic political tool that allows the challenger to define the terms of debate. Huntsman, by refusing to go negative, prevents Obama from credibly disparaging his campaign.

He can offer an “insider’s perspective” on the weaknesses of the current administration while insulating himself from outside attack. After all, Obama implicitly endorsed Huntsman by originally hiring him for the ambassadorship.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen if the GOP electorate will endorse Huntsman’s moderate platform. In the meantime, we’ll see if Huntsman has the superior political chops to defeat his former superior.

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Pragmatism Over Personality: NBC’s New Head Honcho Isn’t Exactly The Hollywood “Love You, Babe” Type

The entertainment business has long been filled with larger-than-life charismatic figures, both on-camera and behind the scenes. There’s a commonly-held belief that the players calling the shots are as charismatic as the characters portrayed on-screen (a belief perpetuated by entertainments like the long-running HBO series, Entourage.)  However, even in show business, effective leadership is not the result of some sort of intangible, other-worldy , mystical charismatic quality but rather on a set of real-world, nuts-and-bolts pragmatic skills of execution.

New NBC Universal chief executive Stephen B. Burke is of the school of thought that one need not be showy to effectively lead in the business we call show. According to an article by Tim Arango and Bill Carter published in The New York Times entitled “A Little Less Drama at NBC,” Burke isn’t exactly known as your typical Hollywood, “Love ya’, babe” schmoozer.  In an industry known for double talk and lip service, Burke is known for his direct, no-nonsense approach. Former employee at Disney, Michael Lynton told the Times, “He’s very direct. There’s very little beating around the bush.”  Tellingly, Burke was uninterested in being interviewed for the piece.

Burke’s record at Comcast, where since 1998, he has held the number two position behind Brian L. Roberts (the son of Comcast founder, Ralph J. Roberts) speaks for itself. Under Burke, Comcast’s revenues jumped from $6 billion in 1999 to $36 billion in 2009. Stocks went from $8.19 a share in ’99 to $15 in 2009.

Burke’s early dealings at NBC already suggest a push away from a culture of personality, characterized by politics and internal struggle, and into a more open culture. Rather than holding meetings with executives in his lush office in Rockefeller Center, he’s been holding them at a chain coffee shop in Midtown Manhattan. In a year in which the company suffered brand depreciation in the midst of the Jay Leno-Conan O’ Brien fiasco, perhaps a more pragmatic, less personality based brand of leadership is essential to put NBC Universal back on top.


Creating Intimacy with Labels [Video]

American’s love their slang. I’m not talking about the four-letter words that get bleeped if they are mistakenly uttered on TV (though we do love that as well). I’m talking about things like “Beemer” (BMW), “Mickey D’s” (McDonalds) and, of course, “Chevy” (Chevrolet). In some ways this kind of slang is a badge of honor. It says: “I love this product so much; I feel comfortable enough to be causal and informal with it.”

We don’t use these terms to deride, we use them to celebrate. Unfortunately, Chevrolet no longer feels comfortable with the nickname, “Chevy” any longer. Richard Chang of the New York Times reports that GM has circulated a memo suggesting  that Chevrolet employees refrain from saying “Chevy” in order to promote brand “consistency.”

The last time I heard the word “Chevrolet” I was 10 years old living with my parents in a very small apartment. The place was so small that whenever my parents turned on the giant 13″ Black and White TV it was loud and clear in my bed room. I was kept up late into the night by Ed Sullivan claiming they were going have “a really big shooow,” or Dinah Shore singing that I should “See The U.S.A in your Chevrolet.” Years later, hearing “Chevrolet” doesn’t make me want to buy a wonderful new car, it makes me want to buy a Dinah Shore CD.

From the point of view of leadership the issue is not about labeling, but about the creation of intimacy through labeling. When we try to sell a brand the message is important, but the tone, the creation of intimacy, is even more important. Certain things, certain labels, have not simply become icons, but they have become intimate reflections of our culture.

The word “Chevy” bridges the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. It’s a communal expression doesn’t belong to the corporation, but it belongs to the culture at large. There is no reason to throw away such a level of hard earned intimacy. Most companies would pay any amount of money to find their products enmeshed in all parts of the popular culture.

If gas prices ever come down or if we ever find a way to make our cars more fuel efficient, I hope we will still have the chance to see the U.S.A in our Chevys.


The Amazing Rise of Social Media Manners

Today’s most popular NY Times story is called, The Tell-All Generation Learns to Keep Things Off-Line by Laura M. Holson. Its point is simple: college students are slowly starting to realize that it might not be in their best interest to daily inform their Facebook network of their most intimate and banal thoughts. Min Liu, one of the students profiled in the piece, says, “I want people to take me seriously.” Whether you can or not is your call, but Liu’s anxiety is shared by a growing percentage of young adults.

Social media might have gotten a little too social. In a world where your boss, distant relatives, and old-flames can track your daily activities the temptation to go off the grid becomes increasingly more reasonable. People are starting to itch for the old, face-to-face, way of sharing stories and news. Already projects like Diaspora are starting to crop up that offer people a way to connect with privacy and security. New sites that can promise the advantages of social media without all the privacy worries will begin to emerge and grow.

That social media is developing a shy side is ironic. The sum total of Facebook user uploads, links, pictures, and updates is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 billion unique pieces of content. That’s an overwhelmingly large number, but the fact remains that the content you upload is no longer yours, no longer private, and can be seen by people you don’t really like. It’s no surprise that college students who are starting to get internships and jobs are thinking twice before they post their party pictures or blog about their “favorite pizza” toppings.

What’s shocking about these new privacy concerns and the fresh outcrop of online manners is that they didn’t appear sooner. One worried student in the NY Times reported, “I have to look out for me.” The revelation, while appropriate, seems delayed. Why wouldn’t someone look out for their reputation online? The obvious answer is no-one expected social media to become embraced by future employers, in-laws, and friends. Who would have guessed that social media would saturate every level of a person’s social world? Now that social media looks like it’s going to stick around, people are going to have to take it more seriously. Think twice before you tell the enduring social media world about your private affairs.

Picture Credit: / CC BY-NC 2.0