Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Adventures in Chicanthropy, or a Pound of Flash

As some of you know, I work as a photographer in a fairly large public art museum, one which was founded with public money as part of an implicit social contract which held that one of the requirements of a civilized society is a at least a modest provision of culture to its citizens. A dying sentiment, to be sure.

Today my place of work was besieged by employees of a Giant Corporation, to fulfill the yearly commitment by said Corporation of a "community service workday", in which employees put on gloves, pick up brooms and paint brushes, and do some hard labor on behalf of a needy/deserving organization. So they came this year to the museum, to spread mulch, paint bathrooms, clear brush, polish bannisters, wash windows, etc. Sounds great, right?

Except that we already have people who do that. Granted, as an underfunded state institution in a "balanced budget or else" state, such things don't get done as frequently as would be ideal, but still, it seemed a little weird for a bunch of white collars to come around to clean our toilets. It made me wonder about the utility and motivation of the project. And it didn't take long to figure it out.

The main reason is PR. Being able to promote itself as a "good corporate citizen". To project an image of caring and a willingness to "give back to the community". As with any business decision, however, corporate philanthropy is subject to the same cost/benefit calculus which demands that any action undertaken must yield more benefit than cost. What is played up by the PR department as altruism is really a very cheap and effective advertising buy. Here's how this particular game worked: By having its employees do labor, the company doesn't spend any cash, and to have 100 or so workers out for a day doesn't really affect long term productivity in any appreciable way. So the calculated value of the labor (assuming they weren't required to take unpaid leave), along with the nominal expense of materials gets entered in the "tax-deductible" ledger. But the real payoff comes when the local news stations show up to do the uplifting human interest story, or when the pictures by the hired photographer (not me) show up in the next annual report, video news release, or ad campaign.

This same sort of sketchy bullshit self-promotion masquerading as charity happens all the time where I work. An example: The very rich founder of a local software company offered to host a fundraiser for the museum at his fabulous estate, knowing that a big draw would be the insatiable curiousity of the lumpen for the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous. And it was fabulous: giant Out of Africa tents with parquet floors and antique furniture, floral arrangements costing roughly the same as a new Toyota, outdoor bathrooms housed in doublewide trailers with mahogony trim and attendants, glass dancefloor over the swimming pool, the full monty. But it was fraudulent as well: the whole shebang was the leftover getup from the previous day's wedding reception for Mr. Big's daughter. The museum got sloppy seconds in order to provide the rationale for a tax writeoff.

Another example: upscale restaurant chain offers to host--you guessed it--a fundraiser. A decent crowd in a passable venue, as yours truly was there to document. A few days later the chain--let's call them Shinola Steakhouse--arranges to present the proceeds to the museum. The museum stages a fairly elaborate photo-op to show the museum director engaged in an appreciative handshake with Mr. Shinola. So the day arrives and with it a shit-grinning Mr. Shinola carrying a fucking giant prop check like he was Ed McMahon stepping onto our front porch with the answer to our prayers. Except that this check was for a hair over $2500. An amount that in the real world wouldn't have paid for the photo shoot that we had constructed. Not to mention the fact that not a penny had come from the company's pockets. The money was the net take from ticket sales to patrons. To add insult to injury, in the following weeks I was instructed to provide, as a "courtesy", the museum's own images from the event to Shinola's PR firm. It is only my assumption that they were used for something other than snapshots for the company bulletin board. So let's review: for hosting a fundraiser, Shinola Steakhouse got a beautiful PR photo in the museum's magazine plus free unlimited PR usage from the museum's photography of the event, all for the price of a '92 Accord. With no money down. Brilliant.

And on and on and on. There is no shortage of such offers of largesse from the local captains of industry. For while we don't have enough money, we do have an enormous amount of cultural capital. To the business community, such cachet is in their eyes a seemingly endless vein of raw material to be converted into the lucrative dross of a branding campaign. But it is finite, and it dwindles all the more under each successive dollop of corporate "generosity".

EDIT: I don't mean to denigrate the good employees of Giant Corporation, who to a person were fun and nice and swell people genuinely committed to helping out.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Tipping Point

Assertion: tip jars anywhere one must stand in line to give one's order (such as the "taqueria" where K and I went today) are an abomination, a form of remote buggery. Any questions?

Wow. That's pretty harsh. What's wrong with tipping?

Well, the whole custom is pretty weird.* I think in general it denigrates the service profession. It also is symptomatic of a very ambivalent relationship between tipper and tippee--the implication that the server is at the mercy of the served. This establishes a definite power imbalance and a resulting cognitive dissonance with our belief in a classless society. In Europe, waiting is a fairly esteemed profession, while here it is considered something one does while waiting to sell a screenplay. To a large extent, this is due to the way in which each are paid, and by extension, how each are valued.

When I lived in Detroit, there was a very good restaurant that initially attempted a no-tipping policy: the waitstaff was paid a good hourly wage and an 18% service charge was added to all checks. The experiment flopped. Customers were loathe to relinquish that power. So they went back to the old way.

So, what is the difference between tips for waiters and tips for baristas or tacoistas?

Well, there's not so fine a line between someone who comes to you and who is charged with overseeing your experience, and someone who is essentially a cashier. Do you tip the checkout girl at Kroger?

What about tipping bartenders, then? They stand there, you come to them, and they don't do any more than a skilled coffeeshop jockey.

You don't drink much, do you? Let me put it this way: I can consistently not tip the guy at Starbucks** and yet get roughly the same service. He may not like me, but when it's my turn at the counter, he's gotta serve me. Try stiffing a bartender and tell me how strong your next vodka and tonic is. Bartenders actually enjoy a more or less equal relationship with patrons, because they control the booze--and whether you'll get any. And good bartenders are skilled at an array of nuanced social transactions that are irrelevant to cappucinists. Finally, don't even try to tell me that making a good cafe au lait demands the deft touch required for, say, a perfect Sazerac.

You sound like a total snob. I'm surprised, given all your previous egalitarian invective.

Look, I'm in strong solidarity with anyone who's underpaid. But why should I be goaded into supplementing the wages of someone who is doing what previously required no such expectation of subsidy? In the "true" service professions, for better or for worse, the practice of tipping is entrenched. For a whole host of superficially similar occupations, however, such a custom is an affront and a guilt-trip. The fact that one must set out a container with instructions is an indication that there is something untoward about it. It smells like a racket. And we here at the JoDI don't play tennis.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I spent a good portion of my adult life as a waiter/bartender, and made good money. As a vocation, waiting tables is to be commended for flexibility and the excellent money/time spent at work ratio.

**I don't go to Starbucks and I often leave a nominal tip at [preferred coffee place]. For rhetorical purposes only.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

You Had To Being There

Writing in the New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch offers a not-so novel appraisal of GWB's, um, underestimated verbal skills and the danger of dismissing his allegedly formidable political intelligence. This is a variation on a hypothesis initially suggested by Mark Crispin Miller in his book, The Bush Dyslexicon. But where Miller claims that the public perception of Bush as a genial cretin is a fatal "misunderestimation" of the man which actually serves as camoflage for a ruthless political adroitness, Gourevitch takes a more literary tack: Bush as the master of a peculiar but brilliantly effective political vernacular.

...He is grossly underestimated as an orator by those who presume that good grammar, rigorous logic, and a solid command of the facts are the essential ingredients of political persuasion, and that the absence of these skills indicates a lack of intelligence. Although Bush is no intellectual, and proud of it, he is quick and clever, and, for all his notorious malapropisms, abuses of syntax, and manglings or reinventions of vocabulary, his intelligence is—if not especially literate—acutely verbal.
But here is my favorite bit:
...Bush has created a language of his own—as austere and strange as that of David Mamet or Samuel Beckett, with whom he shares a taste for speaking in spare absolutes that can sound simultaneously profound and absurd.
Yes, that's just who Bush reminds me of--Samuel Beckett!

If Gourevitch offers evidence of a compelling, if coarse, intelligence in the stupefying and robotic repetition of his "message"--Will Not Waver, Tough Decisions, Smoke 'Em Out, We Will Prevail--I humbly offer in response a depressingly typical Bush moment: his prepared speech on May 24, 2004. Fast forward to about the 20 minute mark, where he addresses the then-breaking Iraqi prison scandal. When he tries and fails three times (this after practicing, ferchrissakes) to pronounce "Abu-Ghraib"--a word that would roll effortlessly off the tongue of any imbecile in the country who'd seen a television newscast in the preceeding month--he looks and sounds as if the words on the teleprompter have been mysteriously rendered into Slovak. He couldn't have appeared more moronic if he'd drooled. But what propels this moment from a bad actor flubbing his lines into genuine theater of the absurd is the ovation he gets from the War College audience once he gets past the "Abooga...Rrrraip"s and finally chugs to the end of the paragraph. Hearing that applause--applause!--cosseting Bush's look of vacuous, blinking relief was more chilling than the breathtaking idiocy of his remarks. But I digress.

All such interpretations strike me as supremely overstated or overly politic ways of saying that George Bush is an effective speaker. In the most limited sense he is, as evidenced by an approval rating that by all accounts should be in the single digits yet fails to go much below the halfway notch. Further complicating such theories of "effectiveness" is Bush's well-documented penchant for eschewing any unscripted appearances in favor of hand-picked and friendly crowds (no one since Stalin or Castro, it seems, has appeared more times in front of a military backdrop). Like his putative idol Reagan, he is a salesman, pitching Brand America, and salesmanship is the language that Americans most understand. He is a useful idiot, selected as the paid spokesman for an ad campaign to put the face of Everyman on the corrupt and imperial business plan of his masters. But what bothers me most is that, now that BushCo has been shown to have tanked the company stock by peddling a faulty and lethal product, so many shareholders still refuse to examine the annual reports.

While it's clear that Bush is skilled politically--in a backroom good-ol'-boy sort of way--we should not mistake raw cunning for intelligence. I suspect that such qualified assessments of his hidden depth are not a reflection of any such reality but rather defense mechanisms against the only other possibility: that such a complete and utter moron, such a spoiled and petulant embarrassment could become a real-life Chauncey Gardener. Really, I think people like Gourevitch are constructing elaborate denial schema in an understandable and subconscious bid to explain what needs no explanation--indeed, what is as plainly apparent as it is terrifying: The leader of the Free World is fucking idiot.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

A Prarie Home Conundrum

I'm giving up on the news. Not going anywhere near a radio or television. And limiting my internet travels to the personal, not the political. Close to 50% of my demographically significant countrymen still swallow with mind-numbing servility the idea that the Worst President Ever is somehow a "man of conviction, willing to make the tough decisions".

What, pray tell, is their threshold for failure? What besides a blowjob would elicit the slightest perturbation, let alone a demand for impeachment, in the flag-addled minds of these red state imbeciles?

I mean, how far do things have to go to get Garrison Keillor pissed off?