The Emoji Movie Is Deaf, but Not Blind

To go see The Emoji Movie when you know it’s hovering around the 5-7% level of approval on Rotten Tomatoes is a little like booking passage on The Titanic when you’re clairvoyant enough to know it’s soon going to sink. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Gene is the super-expressive emoji who headlines the plot. All in all, The Emoji Movie is as meh as Gene’s listless, indifferent parents are meant to be. When the plot kicks into high gear—Gene heading for the cloud to be reprogrammed to become a one-dimensional, single emotion like the other conforming emojis—the movie paradoxically dies. The great adventure of Gene and his two sidekicks (the emojis Hi-5 and Jailbreak) proves to be a great bore instead. Frenetic, animated action can’t hide the fact that a movie about feelings lacks any itself.

Yet the movie is selling well, so what’s going on? Beyond Sony’s marketing stunts like a flood of movie posters, billboards, and even the dispatching of actors wearing emoji costumes, why could The Emoji Movie have actually been good if not great? The script is deaf in terms of making us care that emojis really could matter in the life of a teenager like Alex, on whose phone Gene and the other cast members “live.” But the premise and promise of this movie aren’t blind to what’s happening in our society at large.

Emoji Small (resize)

On my phone, on which I only half-smartly leverage the tools it offers, 21 emojis are readily available to supplement any text message I send. Of those 21, 18 are variations of a smiling face.  That means 86% of my options involve positive feelings—nearly the opposite of how I and others have felt about The Emoji Movie, according to those who have declared their reactions to it on Rotten Tomatoes. Now I admit to being like others, maybe even more so. I use those emojis all the time in texting my tennis buddies, with whom I’m often a little annoyed. It’s not much fun “herding cats” as I try to align four schedules in order to play a doubles match after work or on the weekends.

In other words, emojis are helping me lie. They’re a stand-in, masking frustration, cajoling the others to fall into place and play despite a nagging injury or a busy day. Writ large, emojis provide a way not to write, not to figure out how best to express your own feelings in words. Or again, emojis serve to shade the truth. The truth is The Emoji Movie stinks. Emojis are easy to use, hence a large part of their popularity. And now The Emoji Movie has taken the easy way out. It’s not a movie so much as it is, at times, a walking, talking exercise in branding. App and game references abound, including: Spotify, the Twitter bird, Just Dance Now, Dropbox, Instagram, and Candy Crush. Did I leave out anyone? Are there any other corporate sponsors or product placements Sony sought to build into the movie’s script?

Today, the sweep of human history from the use of hieroglyphs to emojis, which began late in the 1990s, has brought us to the point where, in the new digital era, face-to-face conversations or even a phone call have obviously become withering options. I’ve joined the parade, but not without a twinge of guilt. Emojis can clearly democratize communication. Almost anyone at any age (four-year-olds, pestering their parents to see the movie?) can use an emoji.  And there are the pseudo-customized, “intimate” emojis we can use (a taco, or whatever) to “reinforce” our unique, personal identity.

Emoji Big (resize)

Or is it that our selfhood is becoming merely a brand association, a small planet pulled into the gravitational pull of a universe cluttered with company logos, products and services? In effect, The Emoji Movie could be “celebrating” the opportunity to further commercialize communication, if only there was enough joy on screen to justify that verb choice. A relentlessly happy-faced emoji, named Smiler, is cast as the movie’s anti-hero, the falsely-grinning enforcer who rules the city of Textopolis hidden inside the smartphone of Alex: The dumb-ass teenager struggling to send appropriate text messages to a cute girl. But what if Smiler is actually, most of all, the embodiment of fake (emotional) news to which we all lazily succumb? In the end, I found that a far more compelling, albeit worrisome, prospect than the movie on the screen in front of me.

I’m Lovin’ It: Donald Trump Jr. & Russian Collusion

When your father often behaves like a child, the enfant terrible of the family, it’s got to do a number on your psyche. Then throw in for extra measure this same father all but publicly lusting after your striking sister (“If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father . . . .” being but one of many vulgar examples). Now you’re really in trouble. So it goes with Donald Trump Jr. in what has to be a fruitless attempt to secure the admiration and affection of a father mostly obsessed with himself. On a daily basis, Donald Trump Jr. shares with his father, Donald Trump, and his sister, Ivanka Trump, the family trait of scoring relatively high on disgust. (“It’s disgusting, it’s so phony” Donald Trump Jr. told CNN when asked about allegations that Russia was trying to help his father’s campaign.) But whereas the mostly confident, even cocky Ivanka also scores high on contempt, her older brother Donald Trump Jr. wavers instead in another direction emotionally speaking. Along with disgust, sadness is the other most distinct feeling he displays – though not to the extreme, endlessly-disappointed-in-failing-to-secure-universal-acclaim level of his dad, the president.

Trump Family Blog Photo 071217 (resize)

Father and son often share the chin-raising version of disgust, but Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump are likewise prone to the flared upper lip version of that same emotion.

All of this brings us around to the overshadowed son trying to bring home some sizzling bacon two months before CNN asked him about the Russia allegations. I’m talking of course about the now disclosed email trail that shows Donald Trump Jr.’s eagerness to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer in hopes of getting some compromising dirt on Hillary Clinton back in June 2016.

June 3, 2016, 10:35 a.m. email to Donald Trump Jr. from go-between Rob Goldstone

“[There’s an offer] to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary . . . . This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russian and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

June 3, 2016, 10:53 a.m., email reply from Donald Trump Jr.

“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

I include the timing here for the simple reason that simple isn’t always better, despite McDonald’s augmenting its long-running slogan, I’m Lovin’ It, with the newer The Simpler the Better over the last two years. Sometimes simpler actually isn’t very smart, as is the case here. Being eager to meet with an emissary from a generally hostile foreign government eager to meddle in your country’s most important political contest? Then holding the meeting in your office, one floor below the office of your father in Trump Tower, no less? Neither move strikes me as well thought out. What ever happened to stopping to reflect? Nor is this rapid-fire decision-making either very ethical or patriotic in an old-fashioned, Jimmy Stewart Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sort of way.

First, the longing-to-matter son says the newly disclosed meeting was to discuss resuming the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans. Then by degrees the truth comes out, excluding of course an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox. There the emoting by Donald Trump Jr. was a blizzard of downward eye-castings suggestive of sad disappointment in himself for getting embroiled in such a mess, along with a mouth tightened and occasionally, fleetingly stretched in expressions of grimacing fear.

Trump Jr Hannity Photo 071217 (resize)

As for the president, he’s applauding his “high-quality” son for his “transparency” in releasing the email trail just ahead of a New York Times deadline for soliciting Donald Trump Jr.’s input on the soon-to-be published, newly more complete story of the Trump Tower meeting. Remember candidate Trump boasting in Iowa in January 2016 that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Well, Trump Tower is on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and now we have the spectacle of Donald Trump Jr. having in effect shot himself by holding an ill-advised, possibly illegal meeting, followed by a clumsy cover-up. What we won’t do in search of love.

Police Shootings: Black and Blue (Yet Again)

Here’s a quick quiz for you to take. On average across three sources (two national polls, and a keyword research tool study of people’s most common online search terms), what are supposedly the biggest fears of your fellow Americans? Put the following list of 10 options into the correct order, ranking them from first to tenth:

  • Rejection
  • Clowns
  • Public Speaking
  • Terrorists
  • Spiders
  • Failure
  • Intimacy
  • Heights
  • Death
  • Flying

Notice anything odd about the list? I do. Among the possible top 10 choices, other people only explicitly appear twice: as terrorists and, improbably enough, as clowns! But how strong is people’s fear of being socially embarrassed? Pretty strong I’d say, considering that everything from rejection to public speaking to intimacy and maybe even (being judged a) failure make the list of possibilities; and clowns could I suppose fit there, too, assuming that what a clown found or made funny might include aspects of one’s own behavior.

Seriously, though, I think the list is crucially devoid of honesty in one key aspect because it doesn’t include people who don’t look like us (skin color) or believe in what we believe in (religion, politics, and social customs). Let’s just call this category: others. The 10 options I gave you appear in inverse order, which means that “flying” is #1 and “rejection” is #10, with “people” and “criminals” being options that might fit “others” but didn’t get strong, consistent enough results across these three particular sources to qualify for the overall, composite top 10 list.

Under “others” could be DWB, the acronym ruefully used by African-Americans to describe the dangers of Driving While Black. And what a huge risk it is. In a suburb of my city, St. Paul, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of the trial of police officer Jeronimo Yanez for shooting Philando Castile. In short, what began as a seemingly routine traffic stop because a brake light was out on the car being driven by Mr. Castile quickly turned deadly.

A dashboard camera video from the police car shows the exchange that resulted in Officer Yanez firing seven shots. In less than five seconds from the moment Castile finishes telling Yanez that he’s carrying a registered firearm, the shooting has begun, after a panicked Yanez repeats: “Don’t pull it out.” There’s no doubt that Yanez is scared, even “afraid for his life” as he testified in court. On the cop car video, Yanez’s rigid, frozen stance as he fires his gun, his hoarse voice, his panicked breathing, and his traumatized screams of easily a dozen instances of “fuck” after the shooting are fully evident.

As for the facial expressions of either Yanez or Castile, however, the cop car video is captured from too far away to tell us anything. But the victim’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was livestreaming the aftermath on Facebook, and from that video what’s remarkable is both her presence of mind to be able to record her summation of what she believes actually happened as well as her degree of calm. Yes, her eyes are wide and her mouth initially distorted with fear.  But otherwise she’s remarkably unflappable, reassuring Yanez that she’ll cooperate with his requests (“I will, sir. No worries, I will”), not giving in to anger, not yet experiencing much sadness (her eyes do close momentarily when she says, “Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that”), and only once showing disgust (a raised upper lip when she says, “I’ll keep my hands where they are”). It’s not until she’s handcuffed in the squad car that a whimpering cry from her causes her preschool age daughter to comfort her by saying, “It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”

In Milwaukee, Tulsa, Cincinnati and elsewhere, the police shootings involving DWB go on and the trials that mostly lead to acquittals do, too. I have a brother-in-law who’s now retired from being a traffic cop in Seattle. From hearing him recount his experiences, there’s no doubt that fear exists on both side, for black motorists and blue-uniformed officers. Body cam video rarely if ever reveals people’s facial expressions, but the abruptness of the shootings is unmistakably evident. Two, maybe three seconds and somebody else is suddenly blood-stained and dying or dead.

With fear, it’s a matter of fight, flight or freeze. Sometimes the motorists freeze. Other times, they engage in attempted flight (running off or trying to drive away). For the cops, flight isn’t an option because it means they’re not doing their jobs and to freeze would be a greater risk to themselves than to fight by shooting a gun they’ve been trained to use.

Fear isn’t very conducive to either party hearing—much less understanding—what the other side is saying or intends to do.

The bottom line is that fear isn’t very conducive to either party hearing—much less understanding—what the other side is saying or intends to do. The fear that leads to abrupt shootings results in quick action, but the fear itself is long-standing and deep-rooted of course. The officers are scrambling to help maintain the status quo, the law of the land. They often live in dread while pledging to serve and protect the general public. Meanwhile, for their part it’s doubtful any black motorists would be surprised to know that when black veterans returned from World War One nearly a century ago, their newly acquired marksmanship frightened many whites. The resulting race riots of 1919 earned the nickname Red Summer, given the bloody and wrenchingly unfair outcome.

Gut Check: Federer, Nadal & Williams

A couple of years ago, I met Chris Evert at her tennis academy in Florida when I was there to address her student athletes on the topic of what it takes, emotionally, to be a champion player. Evert quietly joined the meeting and before long piped up to ask: “How about anger?” Yes, anger matters I answered: grit, determination—the urge to fight through tough patches and control your destiny. Yes, certainly anger matters. But where I lost Evert (I could read it on her face that she checked out) is when I added that after everything was said and done, anger was nevertheless but a part of the picture. For instance, to take the example Evert then raised—Serena Williams—disgust matters, too.

It’s hardly a complete list of the all-time greats who have won multiple grand slam events (the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open). But here are how some of the best-ever players have fared, and which of the negative core emotions they score especially high or low on compared to what’s typical over a range of hundreds of famous people, sports stars and non-sports stars alike. (As to happiness, by the way, Venus Williams and Billie Jean King distinguish themselves by feeling intense happiness much more often than is usual across the pool of celebrities I have facially coded over the years.)

Tennis Grand Slam Emo Comparison (resize)

Because the Wimbledon tournament has begun, and Williams is on the cover of Vanity Fair profoundly pregnant, instead of on Wimbledon’s grass courts, let start with this year’s two resurgent great male players: Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Just as Williams holds the Open Era record with 23 grand slam event titles, so do Federer and Nadal sit atop the men’s rankings as the greatest male grand slam event titleholders with 18 and 15 victories apiece.

Federer Nadal & Serena Blog Photo (resize)

Federer shows the highest amount of anger of any of the 12 players in my chart, just ahead of Billie Jean King. Score a nod to Evert’s belief that anger is the key to success in tennis, but then add an asterisk that I would like to believe Evert herself would endorse. And it’s this: over-indulge in anger and you endanger success. Given Federer’s graciousness on court these days, many tennis fans might be shocked to learn that early in his career Federer was by his own admission a “hothead.” Racquets got hurled or broken, and the Swiss maestro would argue with his dad (though not with umpires or opponents). In a 2009 match against Novak Djokovic in Miami, Federer mangled a racquet while losing. But in general, after his mentor and coach Peter Carter died during a safari in South Africa in 2002, Federer has been able to honor Carter’s advice to stop wasting energy on court with temper tantrums. “I just tried to find ways to calm myself down on the court,” Federer has said of his transformation to becoming the epitome of sportsmanship on and off the court.

Yes, anger matters in terms of fighting spirit and equilibrium alike. But as my chart illustrates, don’t overlook disgust. Federer’s arch rival Rafa Nadal isn’t just the King of Clay. Nadal is also the most given to disgust of any of the players here that score high on disgust—a pattern that distinguishes the very best grand-slam winners covered here. Look at how Nadal’s upper lip curls in disgust as he goes up into his service motion or after he prevails in a long rally. Like the way Federer’s anger is self-directed, often a reminder to himself to avoid “dumb shots,” Nadal’s disgust is mostly inner-focused. It’s a matter of an almost neurotically ritualistic Nadal willing himself to rise above the stench of mediocrity.

“Nadal’s disgust is mostly inner-focused, willing himself to rise above the stench of mediocrity.”

For Serena Williams, feelings of disgust serve a similar purpose I believe: it’s inner-directed and reflects her compulsion to win. But unlike Nadal, Williams disgust often emerges in the way she wrinkles her nose accompanying a triumphant exclamation upon hitting a winner.  As any parent knows, siblings aren’t likely to be emotionally identical; and Serena shows twice as much disgust as does her older sister Venus Williams. As to Serena Williams’ amount of anger, it’s not the volume but the intensity of the anger that the younger Williams tennis sibling shows that’s noteworthy. Case in point remains the vehement outrage Serena Williams displayed when called for a foot fault during the semi-finals of the 2009 U.S. Open. Williams’ obscenity-laced rebuke of the lines judge led to a further point penalization, awarding the match to Williams’ opponent in a move you’d never see from the new, more restrained version of Federer. “An apology? How many people yell at lines people? I see it happening all the time,” an unrepentant Williams declared afterwards.

Not famous for apologies himself, John McEnroe calls Williams “the greatest female tennis player, no question,” despite Steffi Graff’s 22 grand slams or Evert’s own 18 grand slams  to go with her incredible 90% match winning percentage across all surfaces and all tournaments Evert played in. But McEnroe claims Williams would rank maybe “like 700” on the men’s pro tour. What is he overlooking? I’d start by noting Williams’ indomitable will power. When it comes to a gut-check, it’s actually Williams’ disgust combined with her fear (of losing) that is most striking emotionally about her game.  Overall, my chart suggests that disgust should join anger in being a key predictor of tennis dominance. They’re both strong, visceral emotions: it’s just that in terms of mental toughness, anger and  therefore “anger management” usually attract most of the attention.

From Wells Fargo to Uber, Anger Rides Roughshod

The saying “The buck stops here” has certainly taken on new meaning in an era of enormous executive pay. But in focusing in this case on a pair of CEO’s, let’s not overlook the fate of their less-well compensated employees and abused customers.

Two companies stand as cautionary tales. The first is Wells Fargo, with its brand image of a stage coach heralding the San Francisco-based bank’s heritage in the Wild West. The other is the ride-sharing service Uber, also based in the Bay area, a start-up already valued at nearly $70 billion. While Wells Fargo and Uber represent the old versus the new economy and are in different sectors, ultimately they share one problem in common: newly departed leaders that have run roughshod over others.

The founder and now former CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, has gotten more media ink, making him the juicer target to start with. Should the company’s backers have known there was going to be trouble before it erupted into public view? Absolutely, if an emotional read of Kalanick’s temperament has any bearing. I’ve facially coded dozens of company leaders and Kalanick is way out of the normal range on a key barometer: anger. That emotion constitutes nearly half of Kalanick’s emoting – a level I’ve seen in only one other executive, Mark Parker of Nike, who has the saving grace of also showing three times more sadness as Kalanick. (By the way, in 2015 Parker was named Businessperson of the Year by Fortune magazine.)

What makes anger so dangerous, and why might sadness be an offsetting benefit (at least in Parker’s case)? In the now infamous Uber ride caught on camera on Super Bowl Sunday earlier this year, Kalanick is heard telling one of his fellow passengers regarding Uber’s corporate culture and future goals: “If it’s easy, I’m not pushing hard enough.” Anger can be about assertiveness and trying to take control of your circumstances in order to make progress, as befits any entrepreneur like Kalanick. But excessive anger brings us back to the underlying reality that anger causes people to hit out or even demolish whatever presents itself as a barrier to progress and control.

Sometimes that “barrier” was the few women at Uber, generally ignored, except when being  sexually harassed in one of Silicon Valley’s ultimate “bro culture” firms. Sometimes it was the regulators that Uber was seeking to hoodwink and bully. Sometimes it might have even been Google, whose driverless car designs Uber may have pilfered illegally. In contrast, the offsetting advantage of sadness is that it is often an empathetic, caring emotion. Paired with anger, sadness can soften anger’s rough edges. Whereas anger wants to race ahead, sadness in effect puts on the brakes and helps us ponder the consequences of our actions.

Whereas anger wants to race ahead, sadness in effect puts on the brakes

“Bullshit,” says Kalanick on that Super Bowl evening to the driver who complains that changes in Uber’s business model have devastated him financially. Now leaning forward inside the car to refute and berate the driver, Kalanick comes out of the shadows and is clearly angry. His lips are compressed, and they stay tight as he calls the driver one of those people who “blame everything in their life on somebody else.” The driver’s retort, as Kalanick leaves the car in a huff, is to tell him: “I know you won’t go far.” How prophetic that remark proved to be given Kalanick’s recent, forced resignation!

The Wells Fargo situation was another mess long in the making. As it turns out, for up to half a decade the company’s very modestly paid tellers and other employees were being told to pursue a total of eight separate accounts per household.  Why such a high standard for cross-selling, when the industry average was maybe half of that? “Eight rhymes with great” was always the answer of the now-departed CEO John Stumpf. Forged signatures, stolen social security numbers: those were among the tactics that beleaguered employees resorted to, hoping to fulfill their inflated, arbitrary, cross-selling quotas. And in instances where they didn’t get there, over 5,000 “team members” were terminated.

Uber WF Blog Photo (resize)

A couple of years ago, Stumpf was caught on camera talking about how “You can’t teach caring.” I guess Stumpf was right, at least in his own case. When he next was memorable on camera it was to testify before Congress this past September, with a hand conspicuously bandaged because apparently he hurt it the weekend before “playing with his grandchildren.” Really, that was the cause?  I’d lay 5 to 1 odds on that excuse as opposed to actually slamming his hand into a wall, or something else, while boiling over with anger knowing his goose was cooked.

Before Congress, Stumpf was his usual self. His right eyebrow raised repeatedly in a clear sign of fear, accompanied by eyes wide open and a mouth that pulled wide. Is fear endemic to Stumpf’s personality? Or does all that fearful emoting, over the years, reflect the emotional toll of enforcing results by whatever means necessary? Who wouldn’t be uneasy when you’re being asked for the number of senior leaders at Wells Fargo who got fired for the cross-selling fraud, and the answer is exactly zero?  It must be hard to talk about “deepening relationships” with customers when actually cross-selling is all you mean. Moreover, an uneasy Stumpf must have known the mess he ended up leaving his former colleagues at the bank.

Always look for the repeat patterns in people’s behavior. They tell the truth more than words ever will. The latest news involving Wells Fargo is a lawsuit accusing the bank of making improper changes to people’s mortgages, changes that would extend the loans for decades, changes that would net the bank far more in earnings over the course of the elongated loans. What was that sanctimonious observation, again? Oh, yeah: “You can’t teach caring.” What Stumpf was actually good at was selling off $13 million worth of Wells Fargo stock just prior to heading to Washington, D.C. to dodge the bad news as best he could.

Two Quagmires: Greece and Afghanistan

Afghanistan & Greece Blog Photo (resize)

“Viet Nam is our great adventure—and a wonderful one it is!”

-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey (1967)

In a single, 24-hour news cycle, I caught two stories that left me wondering whether to laugh or cry. What’s the underlying similarity of the European Union (EU) agreeing to unlock loans of 8.5 billion euros for Greece, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordering as many as 5,000 troops to Afghanistan?  They’re both manifestations of the all too human tendency to be susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy.

For all of us, here’s a quick refresher:  the sunk cost fallacy describes how people justify increasing their investment of money, time, and lives into what are, quite frankly, hopeless situations. Prior costs won’t pay off. Behind this escalation of commitment lies another term: loss aversion. Human nature is to ignore or downplay the prospect of losses because then you have to admit to lapses of judgment, both to yourself and others. It’s far easier to maintain (false) optimism and a belief that you can still will a positive outcome.

Let’s start with Afghanistan, and Mattis’s latest testimony before Congress.  “We’re not winning in Afghanistan right now and we will correct this as soon as possible,” the General told the Armed Services Committee. Sounds plausible, right? But that’s not true if you’re watching the facial expressions that accompany Mattis’s statement. After “right now,” the General’s glance lowers and stays low in an unmistakable sign of sadness. He’s on-emotion, faithfully conveying emotionally what his message is: I’m disappointed in events there.

What’s off-emotion, however, is when Mattis adds: “And we will correct this as soon as possible.” After “correct this,” Mattis smirks. After “as soon as possible,” the sad look-away returns. Therein emerges reality. A smirk is a sign of contempt, of distrust and disrespect—in this case, I believe, Mattis disrespecting himself for his assertion that things will get better in Afghanistan. Mattis knows better. America doesn’t have control over what will happen. Between Afghan tribalism and corruption, and Pakistani self-interest, the Taliban can’t and won’t be effectively sidelined.

The situation in Greece is only better in that nobody is outright dying. Grinding poverty and loss of hope are more the issues of the day. The Greek debt crisis has now been going on since 2010. In fact, it began on the very day I was leaving Athens after speaking at a sales conference. At the airport, the newspaper headlines were blaring the Greek government’s first admission that the scope of the country’s EU debt (to German and French bankers, among others) vastly exceeded prior admissions.

I don’t deny that the Greek crisis has its tragic-comedic aspects.  Remember the 2012 quarterfinals match between Greece and Germany in the run-up to deciding that year’s European soccer champion? Prior to losing 4-1, Greece momentarily tied the score at 1-1. In response its fans unleashed the chant, “We’ll never pay you back,” taunting in particular the most notable German fan in attendance, chancellor Angela Merkel.

But buried within the EU/Greek dynamic, you’ll find the same emotional cocktail of sad misgivings, fear of exposure to risk, blind optimism, and abiding anger—as if the situation really can be brought under control—that is evident in Afghanistan. “Overall, I think this is a major step forward,” said Jeroen Dijsselbloem of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of the latest loans to Greece. The loans will supposedly “enable Greece to stand on its own feet again over the course of the next year,” he added.

Never mind that Greece’s economy has shrunk by nearly a fifth since 2010, that unemployment stands at nearly 25%, or that some of the Greek debt now has due dates stretching out to mid-century. Everything will be fine, of course. Egos and pocketbooks won’t allow for any other forecast. Loss aversion rules. At least as the saying goes, “throwing good money after bad,” isn’t as reprehensible as trying to apply that cliché to Afghanistan. In that case, we would all properly shudder at the notion that there have been “bad” lives lost, for which more good U.S. soldiers will now get thrown into the fray.

Who’s the Real “Nut Job”: Comey or Trump?

Comey Trump Blog Photo (resize)

“The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might.”

Mark Twain

If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big lie. How better to stun your rivals. It’s awfully rich irony to hear Donald Trump accuse the now-fired FBI Director, James B. Comey, of being “a grandstander” and a “showboat.” That anybody, anywhere on earth could qualify as more ego-centric and media-attention hungry than Donald Trump is, frankly, close to impossible to imagine.

But let’s leave those two audacious epitaphs alone in favor of one with more importance to the drama playing out in Washington, D.C.  Was there collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia? Has there now been some degree of obstruction of justice by the Trump administration in seeking to lift “the cloud” of doubt hanging over The White House? In the he-said, he-said battle of credibility between Trump’s and Comey’s  differing accounts of their private interactions, the epitaph of greatest relevancy is Trump calling Comey “crazy” and “a real nut job” (during a meeting with his Russian visitors to the White House, no less).

To those of us who seriously study personality traits, neuroticism equates most closely to being “crazy” and four emotions matter most. Being neurotic equates most readily to large, frequent displays of anger, fear and sadness, while the opposite of being neurotic (being emotionally stable) is aided by being happy instead. Using Comey’s sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee versus Trump’s daily emotional patterns, who’s most likely to be “crazy”?

Using Comey’s sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee versus Trump’s daily emotional patterns, who’s most likely to be “crazy”?

Let’s go emotion by emotion. Did Comey show anger last week during his testimony? A muted, purposeful degree of anger (mostly in how Comey’s lower eyelids stayed tight) was evident. Granted, Comey was a man on a mission to air his concerns. But the only three times where Comey’s mouth also tightened in anger involved, first, being asked to call the Hillary email server a “matter” by the former attorney general Loretta Lynch; second, in wondering  aloud “What am I going to do?” after the current attorney general Jeff Sessions, didn’t act on Comey’s request not to ever again be left alone with Trump; and third and very understandably, in trying to be patient during John McCain’s befuddled series of questions for Comey, all of which came down to basically why not keep pursuing the email scandal?

In comparison, Trump is angry every day, more often, and with more vehemence. Who’s the most crazy when it comes to frequent, strong displays of anger? Verdict: Trump.

Fear, yes, Comey showed a little of it in testifying before Congress.  When asked if he had been directly requested to go easy on former national security adviser Mike Flynn, Comey’s eyes went wide with alarm at the prospect that the Senators might not take seriously the import of the President telling Comey in the Oval Office that he hoped Comey might “let Flynn go.” But the strongest instance of fear came when Comey was recalling the moment that Trump was shooing both Sessions and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, out of the Oval Office so he could make his Flynn request in private. Then his mouth went wide in fear and his inner eyebrows shot upwards.

In comparison, Trump almost never shows fear. By his own admission, Comey didn’t manage to be “Captain Courageous” in confronting Trump’s wheedling. So who’s the most “crazy” when it comes to frequent, strong displays of fear? Verdict: Comey.

As to sadness, that emotion was evident more commonly during Comey’s testimony than fear was. Comey visibly winced on being asked why he was fired. Raised inner eyebrows created a puddle of wrinkles across Comey’s forehead when discussing a range of topics, from the “salacious materials” alleging Trump cavorted with Russian prostitutes, to Session’s refusal to intervene to help him avoid Trump’s entreaties, to closing his eyes when asked if he might have also been fired if Hillary Clinton had won the election instead of Trump.

Nevertheless, the verdict here favors Comey over Trump because in Trump’s endless search for affirmation, the president shows more sadness than any major American politicians since Richard Nixon.  Verdict: Trump.

Finally, there’s the matter of happiness as a stabilizing emotion. Not only is Trump frequently sad, he’s also rarely ebullient and hardly ever smiles. From “Lordy, I hope there are tapes” to comparing reporters to “sea gulls at the beach,” Comey managed a wry version of happiness repeatedly amid the tough circumstances of testifying before Congress after being called a “nut job.” While “between opportunities,” as he said of his career, Comey firmly took the opportunity to affirm his own credibility while leaving the president’s credibility shred even more. Who’s more “crazy”? Why, it’s not even a close call.

 

Roger Ailes: The Maestro of Shock & Rage

Roger Ailes Blog Photo (resize)

Who and what killed Roger Ailes? In a USA Today tribute to his long-time mentor, Bill O’Reilly writes that the “hatred” now “almost celebrated in some quarters” is what “killed him.” Loyal to the end, O’Reilly doesn’t name names. Instead, he writes of Ailes being “convicted of bad behavior in the court of public opinion” and “stunned” by a sudden exile from which Ailes “never really recovered.”

Meanwhile, detractors may vengefully rejoice over the death of Ailes. And in doing so, note the irony that Ailes’ fatal, head-banging fall at home in Palm Beach, Florida, followed on the heels of his fall from power at the Fox News channel he founded with Rupert Murdoch’s money. If so, those detractors will still have to come face-to-face with Ailes’ success and legacy.

The easy way out would be to regard Ailes as more or less the equivalent of Batman’s foe, The Penguin. Certainly, the aging, ever more corpulent Ailes looked the part.  Forget the top hat, the tuxedo, the white gloves, the cigarette holder, and even the umbrella. The key to the Penguin’s hold on our imaginations is that he’s wickedly smart and flush with belief in himself.

Might Ailes really be The Penguin, however? The answer is no, twice over. First, the Penguin is from an aristocratic family and Ailes hailed from blue-collar Warren, Ohio, and even when wealthy still saw himself as a working-class bruiser. Second, Ailes was no comic book character. His impact on America may be as profound as anybody in this country over the past half-century, and for many, many years to come.

The problem with family values is when in practice it means my family, not yours.

Let’s start with family values. Vice President Dan Quayle made the term famous in 1992, seeking votes. But leave it to Roger Ailes to make money from it by launching Fox in 1996. Now I for one have no issues with the term family values in theory. The support of a nurturing family while growing up is as emotionally healthy as enjoying a good, solid marriage or partnership in adulthood. The problem with family values is when in practice it means my family, not yours. When family values devolves into divisiveness – an issue of who is and isn’t worthy of respect and compassion – that’s when darkness descends.

Under Ailes, Fox was diabolically clever. While CNN aimed for the head, Fox went for the heart and the wallet and purse and cleaned up, big-time. In barely half a decade, the upstart Fox surpassed CNN, becoming the most-watched cable news network and staying No. 1 with a simple, grizzly emotional formula: anger compels. Once upon a time psychologists believed that venting enables the rage to pass. Now they know that stoking anger tends instead to keep it burning red hot. Ailes didn’t need professors and scientific research to uncover that fundamental truth about human nature.

Ailes was no fool. Yes, he displayed anger to a degree that exceeds what’s normal. Yes, he apparently once put his fist through a control room wall at Fox. (Somebody put a frame around the hole and wrote, “Don’t mess with Roger Ailes.”) But Ailes’ signature expression was crouched, lowering-the-boom eyebrows: a look of concentration and focus. In short, Ailes had the pulse of how TV can be exploited as a medium and was for the longest time a man on a mission.

In 1968, Ailes was at age 28 the executive producer of “The Mike Douglas Show” when Richard Nixon put in an appearance. In an off-camera conversation, Nixon mocked the medium as a “gimmick,” provoking Ailes to tell the candidate: “Television is not a gimmick and if you think it is, you’ll lose again.”

Soon, Ailes was producing Nixon’s presidential campaign commercials, leading to The White House and Nixon’s own opportunity to invoke family values in an exchange with gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Told that Thompson’s mother, son and himself all hated Nixon, and that “this hatred has brought us together,” Nixon laughs and replies, “Don’t worry. I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.”

While Disney sought to make Disneyland the happiest place on earth, Ailes sought to showcase a version of traditional America under siege.

From Nixon to Donald Trump, Ailes helped to orchestrate Republican campaigns with the knowledge that the twigs of the bonfire you’re stoking are the latest incidences in the daily news cycle. The logs come in two forms: personalities caught or showcased on camera, and the beliefs or value systems of news anchors and especially the audience at home viewing the show.

Ailes once described his audience as TV “for people from 55 to dead,” putting on its ear the conventional wisdom that you strive for a viewership between the ages of 18 and 49 or some such demographic slice of America. A recently deceased aunt of mine fit Ailes’ model perfectly. Everyday my retired aunt would turn on the TV to learn about the latest indignities heaped on her sense of how the world should be and, transfixed by smoldering resentment, she would keep the TV on Fox all the way from breakfast to bedtime. Ailes gave her sunset years structure and meaning: witness more enemies and threats to be indignant about.

Ailes had only a passing resemblance to The Penguin. How about instead Alfred Hitchcock? As the maestro of shock and anger, wasn’t Ailes Fox’s equivalent to the famous director known as the master of suspense? Perhaps, but I prefer to think of Ailes as the antithesis of Walt Disney. While Disney sought to make Disneyland the happiest place on earth, Ailes sought to showcase a version of traditional America under siege. Think in terms of Main Street, U.S.A. with its storefronts figuratively lapped by flames.

O’Reilly was the perfect vehicle for Ailes’ version of current events. As angry as Ailes but more expressive of surprise than the sadness Ailes revealed when not angry, O’Reilly beat the drums for years and was equally, phenomenally successful. Ultimately, sex scandals involving Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly and others would force out both the mentor and his signature on-air talent, exposing the reality that “fair and balanced” didn’t extend to gender issues within the newsroom. It’s a new era now at Fox, and in O’Reilly’s place is Tucker Carlson. He’s the stepson of an heiress and somebody given to the smiles and smirks that put him closer, temperamentally, to The Penguin than to Ailes.

Carlson O'Reilly Ailes Blog Photo (2)(resize)

A new era it may be, but Ailes’ legacy will linger for some time to come. Perhaps it’s because tomorrow I leave on vacation to visit parts of disembodied Yugoslavia that the Balkans, namely the Balkanization, the fragmentation of America into ever fiercer, nonstop partisan bickering, so worries me.

I’ve been reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts and re-reading Rebeccca West’s older classic travelogue, The Black Lamb and the Grey Falcon, with its take on the former Ottoman and Hapsburg dynasties: “I hate the corpses of empires, they stink as nothing else.” There, people write memoirs with titles like Land Without Justice. Here at home, those who cast opposing votes now see each new White House administration not as victor but conqueror, without merit. And for that hard-nosed viewpoint, we have to thank Ailes in no small part.

Obamacare Repeal: Callousness as a Pre-existing Condition

Paul Ryan Blog Photo (resize)

The numbers loom large, and so do the emotions involved.  The numbers first:  America’s annual national health care expenditures have reached $3.2 trillion or 17.8% of our gross domestic product. No wonder Warren Buffett is calling medical costs “the tapeworm of American economic competitiveness.” At the same time, about 25% of Americans have a medical history that means they have a pre-existing condition that has previously and may now again make them vulnerable to higher costs or even potentially no insurance coverage whatsoever.  As for the emotions involved in whether to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) with a Republican plan, they range from alarm, distress and despair to claims of “pride” and cries of “shame.”

What might cause such negative feelings should be obvious enough, even if not to the Idaho Congressman who told protesting constituents that “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” What stands out instead is Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, saying on ABC’s “This Week” program, “We’re proud of this effort.”

Pride is a combination of anger and happiness, and results from a feeling that you’ve taken control of circumstances (anger) and achieved success in doing so (happiness).  For Ryan, overturning Obamacare is a “rescue mission” to save a “collapsing” system. In a world full of half-truths or less, I’ll leave both those characterizations and the who-knew-it-could-be-so-complicated pros and cons of health care policy aside to focus here on one specific question: what if pride is really window dressing for callousness somehow justified?

Ryan is a long-time fan of the novelist Ayn Rand, who wrote: “Selfishness is a virtue.” Ryan has credited Rand as “the reason I got involved in public service” to weigh in on the “fight of individualism versus collectivism.” As both a devotee of Rand and a self-professed “devout, practicing Catholic,” Ryan is in a conflicted position as he helps to decide the fate of health care legislation in America. To go with Rand means self-interest defined as good when it leads to being productive (versus engaging in robbery).  To go with the writings of the apostle Paul in Philippians 2 means to “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit.”

what if pride is really window dressing for callousness somehow justified?

How can Ryan reconcile those two opposing perspectives? Rand’s invoking of “robbery” as a point of reference is no coincidence. For her as for Ryan, I believe, the dynamic is between those who are “makers” and those who are “takers” in society.  Barack Obama referred to some countries that benefit from America’s efforts as “free riders” and supported Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms. So note that the maker/taker debate isn’t necessarily a partisan debate. But it’s true that Republicans invoke the debate as to who’s “deserving” of help more often than Democrats typically do.

In Ryan’s case, to hew too closely to Rand would mean endorsing her notion of “rational selfishness,” which rejects making sacrifices for others in favor of productivity, independence, integrity and pride. But what if pride is really contempt, an emotion that blends anger with disgust? The two emotions share anger but otherwise part ways. Pride also involves happiness, an emotion about embracing yourself as well as perhaps others who got you to the success. Disgust is in contrast an empathy-killing emotion about distancing yourself from that which you find poisonous.

What are the odds that Ryan considers himself to be a “maker,” not a “taker”? What are the odds that Ryan considers those who require health care assistance to a degree greater than their means to be “takers” and perhaps even “robbers”? Does seeing the “freeloaders” as robbers free him from the teachings of the apostle Paul to “not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others”? To put it bluntly: does callousness become for Ryan philosophical bedrock, a pre-existing condition that he chooses to take pride in?

Who Really Is Ivanka Trump, Anyway?

Ivanka Trump Blog Photo (Resized)

Well, it’s out – not the latest, 140-character tweet from her dad, but a full-length book from Ivanka instead. In Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success, we learn that after a year and a half spent on the campaign trail, the news from from Ivanka is that “I have grown tremendously as a person.”  Perhaps so, but what’s the personality, the emotional base, that Ivanka is starting from?

There are now photographs of Ivanka Trump sitting beside the Donald in the Oval Office, and of Ivanka as “first daughter” attending a women’s leadership conference in Berlin, to go along with photos stretching back to childhood and a first career as a teenage model. The person who emerges from the photos displays most of all a sense of superiority and distance. Contempt is Ivanka’s signature emotion, the one that distinguishes her from the other celebrities I’ve been studying lately. Contempt conveys a sense that others aren’t worthy of respect, which makes Women Who Work a dodgy exercise. How sincerely can you be empowering those you disdain? That leads to another question: who exactly are these women who work if they’re not to be condescended to, even if inadvertently? As it turns out, this book about self-actualization is first and foremost for the actualization of women like the one Ivanka sees in a mirror: wealthy and powerful, with “your team” at work to support their efforts.

How sincerely can you be empowering those you disdain?

Now, contempt actually isn’t an emotion the Donald shows very much. It’s too reflective an emotion for him. So there’s a father/daughter gap there. But alongside the Donald in emotional terms is the other emotion that most distinguishes Ivanka: disgust. Like contempt, it’s an aversive, rejection emotion – only more visceral than contempt. Something “stinks” or tastes bad. Like contempt, disgust is an intimacy and empathy-killing emotion. Women Who Work not surprisingly therefore works as a plug for glambition fully accessorized with Ivanka Trump jewelry.

In Berlin, the conference moderator served up a minor dizzy of a question for Ivanka: “I’d like to ask you, what is your role, and who are you representing: your father as president of the United States, the American people, or your business?” The poised answer: “Well, certainly not the latter.” Plenty of people are hoping Ivanka proves to be a moderating voice that might, if not advance women’s interests, then at least keep them from getting frayed by the Donald’s policies. Those people might take heart from Ivanka’s current reading of Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography and her reaching out to Mary Barra and Ginni Rometty, the CEO’s of General Motors and IBM respectively.

Roosevelt, however, exceeded the happiness Ivanka feels while feeling only half as much fear as the First Daughter does. Will Ivanka eagerly fight for what she feels is right? Does she have the guts to hang in there when a very grumpy dad won’t change his mind, readily if at all? His amount of anger shown is over one-third greater than her own.  Ivanka’s brand of feminism is less about any sweeping societal changes than individual self-realization. By her own account, Ivanka liked her life in New York City before the election as much as her dad is wistful about his his pre-administration life. What are the odds that if frustrated , she fires herself from her White House role?