Monday, February 27, 2006

"Brokeback Moment" and America's next Oprah moment

The Oscars are coming and I, along with everyone, is predicting the same thing: "Brokeback Mountain" will walk away with most of the major prizes. I thought the film was beautiful, brilliantly made, and moving but this is only part of the story. "Brokeback Mountain" is going to clean up because the movie happens to be at the right place at the right time to express a much bigger cultural phenomenon: America's Oprah moment regarding gay rights and acceptance.

What do I mean by this? Let me start by briefly reviewing our cultural history.

Two decades ago, Oprah Winfrey burst onto the national scene. An Oscar-nominated turn in "The Color Purple" more or less coincided with the national broadcast of her talk show, which previously was local to Chicago. About five seconds later, she became anchored to the national consciousness and we haven't let go since. It's hard to imagine an America without Oprah Winfrey--who else would we aspire to be friends with?

While Oprah is great (love her!), her success isn't really about her. It is about what she represents to an entire culture, and what that culture needed at the time she showed up. Media may influence the culture but often it lags behind it. This was the case in terms of race in the mid-1980s. Before Oprah came along, African-Americans had a limited presence in the media. To the extent they were included in television shows or movies, they were mostly tokens. They were people to look at, not people to connect with. (How easy to forget that MTV for years was essentially all-white, and that it was Michael Jackson who integrated it!)

By the time Oprah came around, people--meaning the white majority as well as other minority groups--were yearning for more authentic connection across race that they didn't find in the media. They wanted, on some level, a more real expression of certain basic principles of our society--justice, equality, acceptance regardless of race. The culture needed someone to be Oprah, and she stepped up to the plate. Tens of millions of people greeted her with open arms. Most American still live in racially segregated neighborhoods and attend racially segregated skills, but in this limited way we now connect across race.

What does this have to do with "Brokeback Mountain?" This year is the Oprah moment for gay acceptance. For twenty years, Americans have steadily become more comfortable with homosexuality and bisexuality, and the idea that different people are just different, not evil. At the same time, gay people themselves have become more out and more proud, and focused more on living our lives rather than fitting into someone else's image of what we are supposed to be. This is the state of the culture as a tearfully romantic movie about two super-attractive cowboys has coming riding into town.

"Brokeback Mountain" is a colossal hit because it's the country's stand-up-and-be-counted moment. It's a cultural touchstone, a chance for people to define themselves as for or against, as with the program or against it, as part of the solution or part of the problem. And as it turns out, tens of millions of people are quite comfortable saying where they stand.

It's not at all paradoxical that all this is occurring a year after Republican (and some Democrat) politicians stoked fears of gay marriage to rustle up election victories in Ohio and therefore the nation, and in the same year that the president tried to write discrimination into the Constitution. The political world came up with one result, but the culture has come up with another.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Why everyone needs a personal assistant

Nothing has quite so captured the imagination of my public than my recent hiring of a personal assistant. “How very Hollywood!” people think. “How indulgent!” and of course, “Is Michael pioneering the next big thing? With his finger constantly on the pulse, as it were? Do I need to get in on this before it’s too late?”

The correct answer is, of course, the last one. Personal assistanthood is not new to me; it’s just that I was usually on the other end of the pay-stub. With the hoary benefit of hindsight, I realize now that I have been a personal assistant numerous times in my life, such as my college “research assistant” job working for Prof. Catherine Clinton, where I spent a fair number of delightful hours picking up photos from the film store and reselling complimentary publishers’ copies of books to used bookstores for big bucks. And certainly, being a first- or second-year corporate attorney at an elite, white-shoe law firm is much like being a personal assistant.

Why is there so much personal assistanthood in the world? Well, because hiring a personal assistant can really change your life. Everyone imagines how freeing it would be to have someone go to the post-office on your behalf or pick up the dry-cleaning, but those are merely the most pedestrian, unimaginative value-adds.

Here are some of the things that my personal-assistant-to-the-Star, Jennifer Tuttle, has recently done for me:

--Gone to the bank to pick up two rolls of quarters (laundry money)
--Made FedEx refund me $132 for a package sent to Tasmania that arrived five days late
--Helped me figure out my 2006 corporate workshop pricing (“Go higher!” she insisted.)
--Updated my contacts and filed my filing (n.b. this takes several hours a week, which explains why for years I put off and dreaded these tasks. Now my business SINGS with efficiency!)
--Did secret competitive research into how much other coaches charge, by posing as a PriceWaterhouseCoopers consultant with an MBA and CPA
--Had a lively discussion with me on the merits--nay, the necessity!--of my purchasing a Hugo Boss suit
--Discussed with me the merits--nay, the necessity!--of creating a “reel” of me in action to share with agents, television bookers and high-end speakers bureaux, which—conveniently—she and her talented boyfriend Ryan can put together for a reasonable fee.

It is no surprise that Jennifer herself has an extremely busy, productive life as an actor, singer, film producer and now reel-creator-for-self-employed-people. She needs a personal assistant herself.

I would go so far as to say that personal-assistantness is a core economic principle for our age, much like the Keynesian “money multiplier” that I learned about in college. Forget your Razr V3 phones and myspace.com accounts—this is the hot new thing!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Bill Clinton, global superstar!

(Photo: my mom, following the Clinton trail)

Here’s a truism of contemporary travel: wherever you go, Bill Clinton has already been there.

On my recent trip to India, this maxim held true. On a quick visit to the sumptuous Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra, a palace of a hotel that is the spitting image of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, my mom and I ran into Bill’s smiling photo in the lobby. Bill’s photo also greeted us in Jaipur, Delhi and Bombay.

I’ve seen Bill Clinton’s photo in Hanoi, Shanghai and Istanbul. I’ve seen it in Moscow, Buenos Aires and Paris. He traveled a lot as president and he continues to do so, and wherever he goes the paparazzi are snapping away. He’s the global It-Boy.

Foreigners love Bill Clinton. From Amman to Zanzibar, mention his name and the locals smile. I have never heard a single person oversees say anything negative about him. Ever! He's basically our Gorbachev--revered abroad but not at home as a historic, powerful figure. What gives?

Why foreigners love Bill

People overseas like Clinton because he’s the face of a positive America. He's considered brilliant and powerful but also someone who actually cares about foreign people and foreign countries. He’s remembered in numerous countries (e.g. Ireland) as a peacemaker. And he knows his stuff—his view of the world marries business, economics, government, diplomacy and a clear understanding of global problems. He’s able to help businesspeople understand and contribute to the resolution of social problems, and he’s able to help government and nonprofit people understand the value of free-market economic growth. His speeches are filled with substance, rather than the tedious and often dangerous clich├ęs of our current president.

From their somewhat distant vantage point, foreigners see the legacy and gifts of Bill Clinton a lot more clearly than most Americans do. Across the world, Bill Clinton lives!

An aside

A skinny teenager working at a tourist shop in Kerala inquired, “I must ask you one question: what do you think of George W. Bush?”

“I loathe him!” I responded, my arms flailing to convey my angst and frustration. “I can’t stand him. He’s awful.” I shuddered involuntarily, as we liberals often do nowadays.

The salesman’s eyes twinkled and he bobbed his head left and right. “Every American people coming here is saying same. Why then is he president?”

Why indeed. “Because all the people who vote for George W. Bush are the kind who never leave the country! Just as he never did before he was president!”

This just in...

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