Helplessness and War

January 13, 2007

In her book “Self-Therories,” Carol Dweck describes two broad categories of students – those who display helpless responses in the face of difficulty, and those who display mastery-oriented responses. They are roughly equal in their prevalence and overall intelligence and performance, and together account for 85% of students – these are, it seems, the two basic typologies of self among students and learners. She writes,

“…the helpless response is not just an accurate appraisal of the situation. It is a reaction to failure that carries negative implications for the self and that impairs students’ ability to use their minds effectively.”

It’s not difficult to see the parallels to contemporary political discourse in this statement. On any range of issues – and on either and both side of many debates – we see the helplessness response pop up, time and again. Many committed environmentalists regard global warming as “too big” a problem to possibly even address; many Democratic activists before last November’s elections invented scenarios grand and small for why they would never be able to regain power; many social conservatives regard American culture as “too sick” to possibly survive; etc., ad infinitum.

But the blade cuts both ways, and the helpless response can also result in tremendous obstinancy, as Dweck demonstrates with an historical example:

“Richard Nixon, in the wake of the Watergate hearings, was facing almost certain impeachment and conviction. Yet for a long time he refused to give up his presidency, saying, “You’re never a failure until you give up. He was equating giving up not simply with failure but with being a failure.”

The parallels from this particular obstinancy to the present day are also obvious – as Atrios has been saying for a long time (at least a year):

We will never leave Iraq while George Bush is president, because they’ve decided that leaving is losing.

Is all politics really this simple – is it possible to explain the most important, life-and-death, war-and-peace issues based on a simple typology of childhood learning styles? I’m coming around to the belief that perhaps this is the case.


Soup Bowl for a Square Peg

October 23, 2006

Anyone interested in issues of identity and discourse owes it to themselves to visit HOTSOUP! [their exclamation point, not mine] There are so many things going on there that I could write a ten-thousand word post and not even get to the meat of it.

Instead, I’ll focus on several different elements of the site which are particularly noteworthy over the course of several posts this week.  Broadly, these are the important elements for further examination:

  • Credibility
  • Identity
  • Content
  • Language
  • Audience and Usability

But first, a little bit of background.

HOTSOUP! is a…well, it’s a bit difficult to say exactly what it is. I’ll let them try: is the first online community that joins Opinion Drivers from across the spectrum. The community connects well-known influencers from the worlds of politics, business, religion, and popular culture with influencers who drive opinion at the grassroots and community levels. Harnessing the power of social networking technology, levels the playing field by giving anyone and everyone a voice in how America’s institutions can work better.

Better? No?


Opinion Drivers are the individuals who, every day, influence their friends, colleagues, and peers. They fall into two categories:

  • A relatively small group of Opinion Drivers is the famous personalities whom we read about in newspapers and see on television. They help shape opinion by virtue of their elected offices, access to media, or leadership roles in business and industry. What sets these people apart is their ability to affect public opinion on a grand scale.
  • A larger group of Opinion Drivers is the roughly 30 million grassroots influencers we know through our communities: friends, neighbors, PTA members, firefighters, homemakers, small business owners, and non-profit directors to name a few.

Collectively, grassroots Opinion Drivers are an enormous and growing force because Americans place decreasing trust in old-line opinion leaders such as network anchors and politicians; they’re turning to each other for advice and guidance in these fast-changing times. Where is a good place to eat out? What’s the best car to buy? Who’s the best candidate for school board and for president? More and more, Americans are turning to trusted friends and neighbors to answer such questions and manage the crush of information at their fingertips in the info-tech age. If you’ve ever been asked, “Hey, what do you think about…,” then you are probably an Opinion Driver. Welcome to the community. …CONNECTED BY ONE PLATFORM

That’s right – people have friends, and talk to them about things, because of the “info-tech age.” If your friends talk to you, apparently, you’re an “Opinion Driver,” and in that way you’re just like famous people. The math here is a little weird – what are the other 270,000,000 Americans doing out there, friendless and mute? – but let’s work with that.

Opinion Drivers across the country are losing patience with party lines and PR spin.

I don’t know that I agree with this, but…

Opinion Drivers want access to the personalities who set the national agenda, and conversely, those leaders want direct access to the people who can help them shape public opinion. is that venue.

So the people who are losing patience with party lines and PR spin want access to…politicians and PR professionals? offers Opinion Drivers:


  • “Hot Issues,” an area where well-known and grassroots personalities share their opinions on weekly/bi-weekly issues. Community members can engage in interactive discussions on these opinions through discussion boards, and by scoring presentations and posting their own content on the subject via video, text, and imagery.
  • “Loops,” which community members can create around any issue or interest. These are micro-communities within that allow Opinion Drivers to engage in thoughtful and interactive conversations with people from all over the country. Smart, civil debate is encouraged.
  • “Lifestyle & Entertainment,” which is our phrase for the areas on the site where we offer entertainment-driven content including Book Reviews, Breaking News, Polls & Opinions, and Networking with other members. All of these areas support full-motion video and full interactivity including discussion and voting.

These would be excellent services to offer, were they not available already to Opinion Drivers (remember: that means your friends talk to you). But, unfortunately, HOTSOUP! has been beaten to that particular punch by…the Internet.


Carter, Chip, Joe and Mike, prominent Democratic strategists, and Mark and Matthew, Republican heavyweights, had successful private sector practices that specialized in helping corporate clients find Opinion Drivers. It was frustrating; the rise of the Internet and other societal trends made Opinion Drivers both more important and harder to reach.

And Ron, one of the country’s most respected journalists, was observing his readers’ behavior change and co-authoring a book, Applebee’s America, about this audience and the community-building potential of the Internet.

Despite representing both sides of the political aisle, Internet media and journalism, we all reached the same conclusion: There is no single place for Opinion Drivers to gather online. That was the day we set out to build

So HOTSOUP! utilizes the “community-building potential [potential?] of the Internet” for people with friends who are sick of PR spin and politicians.  The folks behind this site adivse Presidents and CEOs in their day jobs.

Carter, Joe, Mike and Chip are Carter Eskew, Joe Lockhart, Michael Feldman and Chip Smith, the founding partners and managing partner of the Glover Park Group, one of Washington, D.C.’s largest consultancies and were all leading advisers to Al Gore and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns;  Mark and Matthew are Mark McKinnon and Matthew Dowd, who were in charge of advertising and message development for George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. Ron is Ron Fournier, who covered all of the above campaigns for the Associated Press.
But because you’re an Opinion Driver, they want you.

Tomorrow, I’ll get into just what ways they want you. And yeah, it’s actually even dirtier than it sounds.

Chrisitan Conservatives, Evangelicals – and Mormons

August 21, 2006

I’m’a’gonna try not to talk altogether too much about the horse-race aspect of contemporary politics, as it’s a black sucking hole that consumes my brain, given too much encouragement.

But. A story in this morning’s New York Times deserves comment. John M. Broder, writing about John McCain’s early efforts to recruit supporters and advisers for his 2008 GOP presidential nomination bid, says the following:

He is reaching out to Christian conservatives, who helped sink his 2000 presidential bid, by enlisting the aid of figures like Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah and former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, both of whom have strong evangelical followings.

There’s actually a lot going on there, in that one sentence. Bullet points!

  • While it’s certainly true that “Christian conservatives” helped sink McCain’s 2000 bid for the GOP presidential nomination, it would be hard for them not to have done so. Most Americans, and nearly all Republicans, are Christians; most Republicans are conservatives (nearly all conservatives are Republican), and this is especially true of primary voters in the party. Ergo – nearly all Republicans can be fairly described as “Christian conservatives” – be they Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, or what have you. It’s just not particularly descriptive – or accurate, but more on that below.
  • The use of “…strong evangelical followings” at the end of the same sentence indicates that Broder is using the term “evangelical” interchangably with “Christian conservative,” and that is, at best, highly misleading. “Evangelical” is a very particular stripe of American Christianity, and in the contemporary political context, almost always refers to a very particular kind of political activist. While almost all “evangelicals” are “Christian conservatives,” the reverse is most decidedly not true, because…
  • Until recently, many evangelicals considered Catholics – Papists, as they called them derisively – to be rather heretical, what with that Pope-and-saint-worship, to say nothing of the Latin and the incense. And it’s still the case that many evangelicals consider Mormons to not really be Christians at all, what with the Jesus-coming-to-Americ-after-crucifixion and so on. This is important, because…
  • John Huntsman, Jr. is Governor of Utah and, unsurprisingly given that office, a devout Mormon.
  • Do you see where I’m going with this?

Okay. so while it’s certainly not impossible that Huntsman has a “strong evangelical following” (I’ll admit to not knowing all the ins and outs of Republican Christian conservative evangelical politics), it’s my strong, strong suspicion that he, in fact, has almost zero evangelical following – what with being Mormon and all – and having, instead, a strong Mormon following. And Mormons are quite often Christian (depending who you ask – being Jewish I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt) conservatives – but they’re just not evangelicals.

As Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post pointed out when Huntsman made his support for McCain public,

Huntsman’s support for McCain strikes deep into the political base of [Mormon] Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, another of the potential contenders for the Republican nomination.

Huntsman is a member of one of Utah’s most prominent Mormon families.

So, my criticism of Broder might seem nit-picky, but it’s not. These are distinctions with a difference, and change the meaning of things, just as a reporter covering Iraq would change the meaning ofthings by conflating and using interchangably “Muslim,” “Shi’a” and “Sunni.”

And, finally – I will return to this issue in greater detail later, but Broder’s mischaracterizations are exactly the sort of cultural ignorance and miscommunication that leads to charges of the NYT and others having “liberal bias.” That’s wrong, at least if you’re talking about a liberal political bias, but it’s dead right if you’re talking about the separation between the identities of cultural liberalism (present at the NYT, and NYC generally) and cultural conservatism (present, among other places, in Utah, Indiana, and elsewhere).