Eleven weeks into my blogging sojourn, this seemed to be an appropriate time to look back and take stock. Usually my blog posts are critical responses to others’ comments – from the asinine to the amazing – but today I’ll be doing something a little different. Today I’ll be responding to me. No big block quotes from The New York Times or opinion pieces on the changing Southeast Asian geopolitical landscape, just an open window into my often shuddered digital mind.  

The title of my blog captured my initial attitude toward this new media (and medium) of communication – I wasn’t terribly pleased with putting my ideas “out there.” My image of the blogger recalled a disaffected youth in the basement armed with a Birkenstocks, socks and a hot pocket. While I’m sure those “Ma! The meatloaf!” individuals exist, what I’ve come to discover is that bloggers are a pretty sharp bunch regardless of what they wear and their dietary choices (although I will never condone hot pocket consumption). Sure there are plenty of bad blogs – and, in turn, bad bloggers out there – but for every dud there are at least two doozies that engage the reader in thought provoking content. I’m still troubled by the absence of the editorial process and the general lack of oversight, but I appreciate the democratizing nature of the blog. It levels the literary playing field. 

I stand by my initial criticism of blogs and bloggers – good content demands discipline. Too many writers fail to engage in that essential process of critical thinking, and that usually spells mediocrity, if not disaster. I hate it when blogs assume the role of twitter without the word limit; before Obama has even finished his speech a digital verdict has already been rendered. Patience, dear Brutus. A good blogger should go about a posting the same way they approach buying furniture – thoughtfully and with a fine eye toward detail. This is the point raised by David Brooks in The Social Animal and Richard Neustadt and Ernest May in Thinking in Time: human beings have a natural tendency to “plunge toward action.” A good blogger resists the plunge and, after letting the story come to him, seeks out the analysis on his own. 

I suspect I’ll maintain this blog as the upkeep and overheads are very low. There’s something liberating about being able to share one’s writing without having to dilute one’s work to acquiesce some hapless editor. The “blogosphere” today may be the real heartbeat of the public intellectual sphere; there is no drought of individuals willing to stir the pot on issues that demand our attention. What the Third Plenum Report means for the future of US-China relations – that’s important. How good the teppanyaki is at a new restaurant – that’s important too. How long your toenails were prior to that liberating trim – please spare us the details. In sum, I’m excited to see how deep the emergent blogging medium is able to guide the volkgeist. It’s a brave new world, and this Hapless Blogger is happy to see it make forays into digital galaxies we never could have dreamed of exploring.


I never thought I’d say this, but American deserves better. This past week, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) settled an anti-trust lawsuit against the proposed merger of American Airlines and US Airways clearing the way for the merger. The merger deal is remarkably bad for both the travelling public and American Airlines, and only comes as good news to a beleaguered US Airways. The last decade has seen massive consolidation within the airline industry as two (now three) mega-carriers emerged when Northwest folded into Delta in 2008 and Continental into United in 2010. As a result of these mergers, the travelling public now has fewer options in the sky and is forced to shell out more money for less space. The hits just keep on coming.

My first grievance with the American-US Airways merger is the change in leadership; American CEO Tom Horton will step down and US Airways CEO Doug Parker will assume leadership of the new behemoth. In an industry filled with terrible CEOs, Parker is one of the worst. Parker orchestrated what can only be described as the worst – bar none, hands down – merger in airline history when US Air joined forced with America West in 2005 (he was CEO of the latter). Nearly a decade after the merger, US Airways is still coping with the effects of the merger as it has failed to merge seniority lists and forge long-term union contracts merging the two employee bases into one unified whole. And he wonders why Delta in 2007 and United in 2010 turned down his efforts to merge with US Airways. The core takeaway from Parker’s tenure in the airline industry is that he doesn’t know how to manage resources and grow an airline organically and not through mergers.

The real zinger that comes with this merger is the pinch next time we go to buy a ticket – sticker shock. First there were 5, then 4 and now 3 legacy carriers (plus Southwest) accounting for over 80% of all domestic air travel. In pushing for the merger, Horton and Parker argued that a leaner, meaner, more competitive airline would emerge (maybe), and travellers would see more travel options and lower fairs (that’s a stretch). We may be dumb to expect a free meal on a 5-hour transcontinental coach ticket, but really – lower fares following a merger – that just smells like manure. Small community airports are going to see decreased service, and tier-2 hubs such as Phoenix and Charlotte will likely see decreased traffic as the two airlines consolidate. The one upside, which came out of the merger settlement, was that American and US Airways must divest over 50 slot pairs at highly constrained Reagan National, LaGuardia and Boston Logan airports. These slots, Eric Holder claims, will be made available to low-cost carriers such as Spirit, JetBlue and Allegiant. This is great news for the commuter air traveller crowd on the East Coast, but for the other nine-tenths of America this means squat.

The American-US merger was a missed opportunity for American Airlines; rather than seeking out a get big quick scheme by joining with US Airways, American should have pursued an organic growth strategy. US Airways brings nothing to the table except old planes, redundant routes, mediocre hubs and – worst of all – terrible management. What American needs most is directed expansion into route areas they are lacking, namely Asia. At present, American has only 4 destinations in Asia while United and Delta count more than twice that number and are constantly expanding their regional foothold. It’s not too late for American to turn down US Air, but after a year of hard lobbying to get this flying turd of a merger deal passed, I doubt the complementary toothpaste found in the “Premier Amenity Bag” will be put back into the tube.

Whatever happened to camaraderie? This Hapless Blogger is a realist and recognizes that NFL locker rooms may not be where unused dialogue from this week’s issue of The New Yorker gets recycled, but the revelations coming out of the Miami Dolphins are beyond comprehension. A quick recap: Miami Dolphin’s offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin are both on leave following allegations of bullying (that’s a conservative way of putting it) by the former on the latter. I’m not going to repeat all of the verbal attacks Incognito has levied on Martin – they’re just too vulgar and disturbing – but the aggressor’s comments can be found at various links attached to this piece.

The NFL is no stranger to hazing. A recent New York Times piece on the Dolphins scandal touched on various hazing tactics – from older members of the team giving haircuts to rookies, to coaches encouraging players to “toughen up” newbies like Martin. I get it – it’s “man’s sport,” “boys will be boys,” and hazing is just the nature of the beast. That doesn’t mean the beast shouldn’t change. In the same way that Edward Snowden laid it all down on the line when he released the files and fled the US, Jonathon Martin has put his entire career on the line by calling out Incognito. That takes guts and should earn our respect. But respect for Martin has been far from universal with many critics defending Incognito arguing that if Martin had a problem the two should have settled it on the field. Yeah – that’s a stupid rebuttal.

In an amazing article on the sports commentary site Grantland this week, Brian Phillips defended Martin’s decision to blow the whistle on Incognito and take a leave of absence. Playing off the NFL’s inability to tackle the neurodegenerative brain condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy borne out of hard hits, Phillip’s notes:

The brain is a part of the body. It’s an organ. It’s a physical thing. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it breaks because you beat it against the inside of your skull so hard playing football, and sometimes — because it’s unimaginably intricate, the brain, way more intricate than even a modified read-option — it breaks for reasons that are harder to see. Your ability to chortle “boys will be boys” doesn’t mean that psychological abuse of the sort that Martin apparently endured can’t widen that kind of fracture.

There will always be locker-room assholes. They should be curtailed. And when a player says he needs time off for mental reasons — again: in a sport with a suicide problem — it shouldn’t spark a national conversation on whether he’s soft.

Phillips is on the money. Why is it even acceptable for one person to begin to justify Incognito’s attacks on Martin? Football-heads have called Martin “a weak person” for his actions. A weak person? Martin’s the only class in the act that is the Miami Dolphins. And in case you’re wondering, there was a locker room full of fellow teammates who stood by and let Incognito’s attacks on Martin persist. That’s disgusting. I can’t blame Martin for saying “enough” and wanting to walk away from the whole thing. And how about Dolphins coach Joe Philbin who may have been the one to urge Incognito to toughen up Martin? While I applaud Philbin’s openness to the media since this scandal blew, any rational human being can only wonder how long Philbin has turned a blind eye to this sort of thing. Going forward, I hope the NFL takes a stronger stand against locker room bullies, and I’d be really happy to see a legal case taken up against Incognito. I stand with Martin and all those who have been, are being, or will be bullied.

This past week, a blog post on a site entitled “Merritt’s” caught my attention. The post in question is titled “USC Department of Public Safety ‘Gestapo.’” This post rubbed me the wrong way, and the title certainly didn’t help. Before I launch into my blitzkrieg on this piece, let me start by saying that I appreciate the author’s candor, and that my ability to launch a full on assault is a testament to the author’s ability to craft a juicy commentary. With that being said, onward.

The author’s thesis is fairly straightforward, and I do not believe I am doing the piece a disservice by distilling the core point into three words: DPS is incompetent. I do not entirely agree with this point, although I would concede that for every positive inroad made by DPS they have their fair share of public relations screw-ups. I agree with “Merrit’s” claim that “DPS should exist to prevent actual crimes and investigate criminal behavior.” But I’m not writing this response to talk about the good, bad and ugly that has come to define USC’s Department of Public Safety. Rather, I’m writing this commentary to attack what I believe are some troubling claims and observations made in “Merrit’s” commentary. Two particular points stand out: the author’s link to the Gestapo as well as his commentary on DPS officers’ weight.

Commenting on the author’s piece, I criticized the decision to use the “Gestapo” reference to which the author replied:

‘Gestapo’ isn’t meant to be a direct comparison here. Many people use ‘Gestapo’ to mean overly strict in an unnecessary fashion.

Wrong and wrong again. First, the author is drawing a direct comparison here. As the old adage goes, the “title says it all,” and boy does “Merritt’s” title draw a fairly conclusive link between the DPS and the Gestapo. Again, the title is “USC Department of Public Safety ‘Gestapo.’” The author’s decision to place Gestapo in quotes is interesting as it would seem to suggest it is an established quote often linked to USC’s DPS, however a quick internet search of the Daily Trojan and Neon Tommy seem to suggest that no such link has previously been drawn between the two armed groups (yes, DPS is in-part armed). If the author doesn’t intend for the Gestapo reference to come off as a direct comparison, then I would suggest changing the title and canning the sentence “Unfortunately, as long as the big guns, shiny badges, $6,000 segways, and siren equipped suvs are handed out in droves, the DPS ‘Gestapo’ is unlikely to part ways with it’s antics.” I come out of this sentence scratching my head at both the general logic and the relevance of the “Gestapo” citation.

Additionally, the claim that “many people use ‘Gestapo’ to mean overly strict in an unnecessary fashion” is news to me. Sure we’ve all heard the “Nazi” reference thrown around, most notably in the infamous, and hilarious, Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” skit. I love that skit because it’s funny and doesn’t cross the tastefulness line. “Merritt’s” DPS reference does. While Nazi-quips are often tolerated when deftly delivered, Gestapo references NEVER get off the ground. As a reminder, the Gestapo was the secret police of Nazi Germany and their Office of Jewish Affairs, led by Adolf Eichmann, was directly responsible for the implementation of “The Final Solution.” If somebody is making a Gestapo reference, it better be with respect to Nazi Germany or as a comparison to Iran’s SAVAK, Mubarak’s SSIS, or Stalin’s Cheka. The DPS? That’s a downright thoughtless comparison. “Merritt’s” is not the first person to make this mistake. In July of last year, Maine’s Governor Paul LePage found himself in hot water after comparing the IRS to the Gestapo. LePage got his fair share of flack and was quick to apologize noting that it was “never my intent to insult or to be hurtful to anyone, but rather express what can happen by overreaching government.” And then again in April of this year, one of Mitch McConnell’s lead campaign aides talked about Gestapo tactics that led to an audio tape on opposition research going public. As with LePage, McConnell’s aide was quick to backtrack. The moral of the story: Gestapo references are sure to offend and distract from the issue being discussed.

I think I’ve said me peace on the Gestapo point. Now let me weigh in on “Merritt’s” discussion of DPS officers’ weight. He comments that some DPS officers are “well over 300 pounds, [leading one to question] if they are really there to confront criminals.” Since when is there a weight requirement to catch criminals? And since when is 300 pounds the cutoff for a physically fit officer? I’m not going to waste readers’ valuable time replying to these rhetorical questions beyond saying there is no relationship between the weight of an officer and the ability to confront a criminal. “And then G-d said let there be a Taser. And it was good.” And for the record, the Los Angeles Police Department recruitment manual dedicates a section to the topic of weight and notes that  “There is no minimum or maximum height or weight limit. However, your weight must be appropriate for your height and build.”

I would have liked to engage “Merritt’s” in a constructive discussion of USC DPS’ strengths and weaknesses, however this is not possible as the author provides no actual solutions for the ails described. Additionally, I cannot overlook what strikes me as an inappropriate comparison, or at the very least reference, to the Gestapo along with a debilitatingly incorrect comment on the relationship between weight and job performance.  The DPS does not need to fight a Battle of the [Stomach] Bulge.

The rushed 11th hour deal brokered in the Senate ending the 16-day government shutdown and extending the nation’s borrowing authority was far from the US’ “finest hour.” (Please note, I will not be taking a political side as there would be no point.) Any rational human being can come to the conclusion – on their own – that this shutdown was a colossal screw-up and that both parties have the blood of lost jobs and a tick or two off quarterly GDP growth on their hands. And to look at the effects of the debt ceiling showdown as being strictly domestic would be nearsighted; international markets suffered seizures as the US inched toward default. To add insult to injury, China’s state run Xinhua news service ran an op-ed urging “the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.” Ouch. But there’s a silver lining, and the optimist inside this Hapless Blogger wants to believe that a lesson has been learned, and, for the time being, Republicans and Democrats will be able to move forward and work together to pass a meaningful and balanced budget resolution in the coming months.

Why was this budget showdown different? Well, it was the first budget shutdown in 17 years and came at a particularly critical moment in the nation’s slow but steady economic recovery. Additionally, the budget debate was tethered to Obama’s centerpiece healthcare legislation – the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – where certain Republicans demanded a structured defunding of the Act. Regardless of how one feels about the Affordable Care Act, there is a time and place for de-fanging troubling legislation, and that is not when the country is on the brink of default. Karl Rove emphasized this very point a day after the October 16 bipartisan deal was passed in a sharply-worded Wall Street Journal op-ed reminding Republicans:

The way to undo ObamaCare is to patiently and deliberately pull at its threads with measures that will gain Democratic votes—or at a minimum highlight Democratic opposition to changes that Americans support.

What is most frustrating about the GOP’s mishandling of the government shutdown is the opportunity cost. Consider where things might be if a minority of House Republicans had not stayed wedded to the defund tactic once its authors admitted they couldn’t get it through the Senate.

Going forward, that will likely be the tactic of conservatives in Congress – and that is perfectly fair and reflects good politics. But will the oft-discussed “Grand Bargain” be possible? Congress has already moved to lay the groundwork for a coming government budget, and as reported by the New York Times, increased tax revenues and entitled cuts – the two big ticket items for each party – are off the table. That leaves “more modest, confidence-building measures.” I can only speak for myself here, but my Congressional confidence needs a little building. Seeing a bipartisan budget pass Congress and get signed by the President would signal the kind of compromise that has been absent from Washington for the last several years. In many ways, a divided Congress is a good thing indicating that passion – which is often mistaken as ignorance – is coursing through politicians’ veins. Coming out of this debacle, everybody has been humbled, and I hope this humility will manifest itself in the form of a humble, bipartisan budget. In my book, that’s a grand bargain, and I’m sure the passionate many in Congress can make it a reality.

This past Thursday I saw “Gravity.” It turns out that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating around in space, under the direction of film genius Alfonso Cuaron and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, is the combination audiences have been waiting for. The one sentence plot summary is as follows: two astronauts, played by Bullock and Clooney, are caught in a debris field of orbiting space junk that necessitates what one might label “A Hitchhikers Guide to Low Earth Orbit.” That brief summary doesn’t even begin to do the movie justice, but Laura Hudson at Wired makes a more convincing argument:

But rarely has that nightmare been so gorgeous to behold, or so unexpectedly life-affirming. I left the theater feeling like I’d witnessed something so incredible that I wanted to tug on the sleeve of the person next to me and say, “Did you see that?!”

That was my reaction upon exiting “Gravity.” I was viewing it with a friend, and we both walked out of the theatre slack-jawed. Why? That’s a good question I don’t necessarily have an answer to, but it’s been nagging me for the last week or so. “Gravity,” for me at least, wasn’t about the quick action sequences but rather the moments of intense human emotion. It was impossible for me to overlook Cuaron’s proclivity for including the sound of a babying crying; this was a major plot point in his earlier film Children of Men. Cuaron is a master of speaking to human emotion, and in space – where “life is impossible” – he succeeds in showing us the intrinsic value and worth in all life. His film isn’t as campy as “Forest Gump” or “Hugo,” two films I love. Rather, the viewer gets cinematic sashimi – a simple film that is not simplistic.

In a Variety review, film critic Justin Chang comments:

Of the many sights to behold in this white-knuckle space odyssey, a work of great narrative simplicity and visual complexity, it’s this image that speaks most eloquently to Cuaron’s gifts as a filmmaker: He’s the rare virtuoso capable of steering us through vividly imagined worlds and into deep recesses of human feeling.

I’m not going to even begin to get specific in discussing the film – no spoilers here – but suffice it to say that “Gravity” is the rare film you will remember seeing. It’s going to get you to think again about wanting to become an astronaut – the only moment of levity in the movie comes when Bullock remarks, “I hate space.” More importantly, the movie brings the audience up to altitude and asks them to look down. Everybody sees something different, but it’s impossible to avert your eyes.

Air travel, especially in the United States, is not what it used to be. A dramatic turning point came on September 11th, a date which has since come to carry different meanings to different individuals and institutions. To domestic air carriers, 9/11 marked the beginning of a steady decline in travel yields causing most airlines to bleed red – hemorrhage cash – throughout the decade. By all accounts, the 2003-2006 period was a time of great wealth creation as the country bounced back from an economic slump following the terrorist attacks, but domestic air carriers caught none of this economic windfall. And then the Great Recession hit. The bottom line is that until recently the airline industry had failed to capture any real returns since September 10, 2001. That is one long fiscal shellacking.

Which brings us to today. The aviation landscape in the United States has been dramatically altered as a result of severe budget constraints – the ultimate display of “survival of the fittest.” In 2001, American merged with an ailing TWA. In 2005, US Air merged with America West forming US Airways, which today is in the process of merging with American Airlines, which – wait for it – is exiting bankruptcy. In 2008, both Delta and Northwest merged to form a “mega-carrier” as both airlines exited bankruptcy. A similar process was repeated in 2010 when United Airlines merged with Continental to form another aviation behemoth while budget carrier Southwest acquired Air Tran. Along the way, Air Trans America (ATA), MaxJet, Eos, Aloha, Skybus and Independence Air failed. And by the way, and that was just 2008.

In 2013, Americans should be grateful to have any air carriers left; the only reason American, United and Delta – the Big Three – air alive today is because of debt restructuring (i.e. erasing) in bankruptcy and an onslaught of mergers eliminating competition. And the travelling public is left bemoaning the sorry state of air travel today. In truth, it really is not all that sorry. The Big Three air carriers are ordering hundreds of new planes and refurbishing existing equipment previously labeled as tired; those 1990s seats which have been to a hot place and back are finally being replaced. Evidence of this commitment to enhancing the passenger experience came this week when United Airlines unveiled their most ambitious ad campaign in over two decades. The campaign, which resurrected United’s historic “fly the friendly skies” tagline (this ran originally from 1965-1996), is an overt attempt to win over a beleaguered travelling public by reminding them of the former grandeur of air travel.

Justifying the lavish ad campaign, the New York Times writes that the marketing strategy is an attempt to “re-establish United’s position as the world’s leading customer-focused airline.” Sounds good, but will they be bringing back free meals in coach, free checked baggage or free upgrades? The answer is a resounding “no,” and one would be foolish to waste time hoping for such things. The times change – fuel prices go up, airplane leasing terms become less favorable, budget constraints shift – and it would be wrong to expect the airlines not to adapt along with the times. And as a corollary, we – the travelling public – must adapt as well. Put gently, this is a dissenting opinion. Tim Winship, a publisher of frequentflier.com, was disturbed by United’s new ad campaign and was quoted in the New York Times commenting that the tagline was:

“so last century. In 2013, the skies are anything but friendly, and to suggest otherwise is to insult the intelligence of consumers and invite their scorn.”

Winship’s point is manure. The most important factor for the passenger is making it to the destination on time and in one piece, and new advancements throughout the plane have made travel both safer and faster. Additionally, the Big Three carriers are installing new seats in all classes of service, so whether you’re in the “pointy end” in a First Class sleeper suite or in coach/a human sardine can, get excited because new memory foam seats and hundreds of hours of on demand video await. And if you’re hungry, pack a lunch. Chances are it will be better – and healthier – than that free omelet that was a hallmark of “last century” and served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Winship is wrong; this century is looking pretty good.

There is one glaring problem which the New York Times covered in an opinion piece a month and a half before United’s new ad campaign announcement. The piece, authored by Anand Giridharadas, makes the astute point that air travel resembles a class system. Giridharadas writes:

What is changing today is the erosion of the idea of a common minimum experience — in air travel, to be sure, but not only there.

The aviation experience is being chopped these days into a series of discrete moments, and each moment becomes an opportunity to upsell: You can stick with the dismal base model, or you can upgrade. The result is that American air travel has become a class system as intricate as some in the ancient world.

Taken alongside United’s campaign and industry-wide product upgrades, it is clear that the travel experience is improving, but more resources are being put toward pleasing the select few in premium cabins.

Without leaving the ground, today’s traveler gets a cross-sectional view of America. You walk down the jet way and wait in a conga line to get into the shiny metal tube. You cross the threshold (mind the step) and off to your left a bottle of Dom is uncorked and poured into a series of fluted glasses to keep the parched “flying elite” hydrated. That’s just a fleeting glimpse though, and you turn to the right and make your way toward the end of the line: coach. Along the way you pass the premium economy section and think “that’s what coach used to look like.” You go through two full sections of coach before you sit down at 84J between a toddler and Chris Farley’s long lost brother. You wish you were in a van down by the river. The new United ad kicks on before the safety video and you chuckle at the reminder that you’re “flying the friendly skies.” Maybe it’s when you look at your wrinkled hands, or when you go for a run later in the week and think “I used to be faster than this,” but at some point you will recognize that nothing is immutable, and that the airline industry is no exception. Times changes, and some would even say fly.

If you opened up one of the major national newspapers this past Thursday, chances are a full-page Starbucks advertisement caught your eye. Unlike typical Starbucks ads marketing a refreshed loyalty program or new seasonal products, this advertisement contained no mouth-watering graphics. Rather, the spread featured an open letter authored by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Addressing the American people and clarifying Starbucks’ open carry gun policy, Schultz wrote:

Recently, however, we’ve seen the “open carry” debate become increasingly uncivil and, in some cases, even threatening. Pro-gun activists have used our stores as a political stage for media events misleadingly called “Starbucks Appreciation Days” that disingenuously portray Starbucks as a champion of “open carry.” To be clear: we do not want these events in our stores. Some anti-gun activists have also played a role in ratcheting up the rhetoric and friction, including soliciting and confronting our customers and partners.

For these reasons, today we are respectfully requesting that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas—even in states where “open carry” is permitted—unless they are authorized law enforcement personnel.

The leadership displayed by Schultz in this letter should not be ignored. Regardless of one’s political tendencies or their understanding of the Second Amendment, Schultz’s motive is clear: he hopes to see Starbucks be a place “where people can come together to enjoy the peace and pleasure of coffee and community.” Guns have no place in that vision, and repeatedly that vision has come under attack. This past August, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League hoped to stage one of the aforementioned “Starbucks Appreciation Days” at a Newtown location. Newtown, for those who are not familiar or have forgotten, is the home of Sandy Hook Elementary School where 27 students and teachers were murdered during a December 2012 shooting rampage. To assure that the disturbing Starbucks gun rally would not go forward, the location was shuttered for the day. Protestors decided to instead take the rally to a nearby Dunkin Donuts. Lucky Dunkin.

In the present political climate defined by paralysis and brinksmanship, Schultz’s letter – however minor – is refreshing. While Starbucks still lags behind peers such as Peet’s Coffee and Tea and California Pizza Kitchen who prohibit all firearms in their stores, Schultz’s letter signals a very deliberate first step urging for moderation from all people on all sides of the gun debate. To cynics the letter is meaningless as it merely “respectfully requests” customers to behave a certain way, but to others it stands for the kind of bipartisan consensus many hope to see in Congress. And even more immediately, this letter comes a mere three days after the Navy Yard shooting which claimed 12 lives – an increasingly common event that has led the national psyche to become sensitized to outbreaks of gun violence. Howard Schultz has not become sensitized, and for his candor and courage we raise a Frappuccino toast in his honor. Thank you for your letter, Mr. Schultz.

Aaron Sorkin has made a living out of writing to be read, watched and heard. A perennial polarizer who pushes the viewers’ buttons through what Edward R. Murrow once described as “wires and lights in a box” – the television – Sorkin has been a consistent media force for the last two decades. Parlaying his early writing success that birthed A Few Good Men (both the play and film), Sorkin moved to more actively engage the politics of the day with The West Wing and, more recently, HBO’s The Newsroom. Along the way, he accumulated countless accolades including an Academy Award for his work on the 2010 film chronicling the birth of Facebook, The Social Network. As described by the New Yorker’s entertainment correspondent Emily Nussbaum, “Sorkin is often presented as one of the auteurs of modern television, an innovator and an original voice.” In sum, Sorkin is an intellectual, and a very public one at that.

But is Aaron Sorkin a public intellectual? In a piece authored by Stephen Mack entitled “The ‘Decline’ of the Public Intellectual (?),” Mack argues that the role of a public intellectual in a democracy is to “keep the pot boiling.” Additionally, he observes, “The measure of public intellectual work is not whether the people are listening, but whether they’re hearing things worth talking about.” For Sorkin, these “things” worth talking about – the chunks of meat swirling in the cauldron – boil down to issues of patriotism. Explaining what drives his writing, Sorkin commented in a June 2011 interview with Interview Magazine:

Just the whole idea of patriotism and democracy and the struggles that we have in this country…I find those things very emotional. As a dramatist, you’re looking for points of friction, and there are all kinds of points of friction in those areas. So that’s why I write about that stuff.

Sorkin does not bleed blue, but rather red, white and blue. Independent of political affiliation, Sorkin’s work speaks to America’s volksgeist and the issues of the day. The series The West Wing stands as a prime example; in a special episode following the September 11 attacks, Sorkin explored the differences between a devout individual and a religious extremist. In many episodes he explored the ongoing challenges of a politically divided government, and what made the series so successful was his earnest effort to include voices from across the political spectrum. With The West Wing, Sorkin was stirring the pot with multiple spoons – simultaneously – where each spoon represented a different political ideology.

The public intellectual term exists as a construct, a simplified high order abstraction drawing upon a variety of figures across a multitude of disciplines. The fact that the late conservative political commentator William F. Buckley Jr. and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre can occupy the same public intellectual sphere is a testament to this fact. Along the public intellectual spectrum, Sorkin stands firmly planted as an artist. Not weighed down by hard qualitative data tests or the need to develop and defend a new theory explaining the origins of the universe, Sorkin’s primary constraints are Neilson ratings and the court of public opinion. And therein lies his public intellectual rub; Sorkin’s ability to capture and hold an audience for years has cemented his status as a public intellectual. In the introduction of “Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline,” renowned jurist Richard A. Posner draws on an quote by Edward Said contending:

The role of an intellectual is not to tell others what they have to do…it is to question over and over again what is postulated as self-evident, to disturb people’s mental habits, the way they do and think things, to dissipate what is familiar and excepted, to reexamine rules and institutions.

Sound familiar? It should. Aaron Sorkin has made a living out of challenging conventional wisdom. The contention that this contrarian approach has been limited to diatribes aimed at right wing reactionaries is downright fallacious; Sorkin is an equal opportunity critic.

If one were faced with the challenge of assigning Aaron Sorkin an epitaph capturing his central thesis, the most appropriate sound bite would be lifted from The West Wing episode entitled “Manchester, Part Two” at the start of the show’s third season. The fictional president at the center of the drama, Josiah Bartlet (a functional equivalent of Sorkin), reminds his staff that: “It’s not our job to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It’s our job to raise it. If you’re going to be the ‘Education President,’ it’d be nice not to hide that you have an education.” In this moment, Sorkin is not only speaking to politicians but also viewers; he wants to remind the audience that intelligence is virtue and something to be respected and revered. This notion that politicians distill complex issues into bite-size form for the voting public is disturbing and reinforces a vicious circle of ignorance. Phrased differently by Tim Goodman at the Hollywood Reporter, “Sorkin would like to take on the plague of anti-intellectualism that runs amok in political circles and thus the country at large.”

Sorkin’s main strength as a public intellectual, that being his indefatigable desire to engage the audience in elevated discourse, is also his main weakness; there is a tendency for his writing to be more condescending than constructive. Public intellectuals exist to engage an audience and motivate them to rethink an existing assumption, and if an audience is talked down on and alienated the market for a change in opinion quickly dries up. As put forth by Stephen Mack, the “assumption that common citizens are forever childlike and must be led by a class of experts is politically corrosive and historically dangerous.” And it is on this front that Sorkin loses some ground as a public intellectual. Making Professor Sorkin’s proclivity for lecturing the audience more disturbing is his admission that he is no expert at all but rather a concerned citizen with a penchant for writing and the credentials to get the show made.

And then there is The Newsroom, Sorkin’s latest foray into television with the premium entertainment channel HBO. Unlike The West Wing which received near universal acclaim, The Newsroom – from the first episode – has been subject to an onslaught of criticism. The show tells the story of a fictional news team – this would never happen in real life – who vow to forget ratings and tell the news as it happens without public interest distractions. Not unlike fictional President Bartlet in The West Wing, “News Night’s” Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) has become Sorkin’s mouthpiece. Some of the zingers that come out of McAvoy’s mouth are downright condescending to any audience with any education level, or what Hank Stuever at the Washington Post calls a “Sorkinesque logorrhea of righteous self-importance.” In an early episode of The Newsroom, McAvoy – during one of his frequent diatribes – shouts to a colleague that he is “on a mission to civilize.” While the line made for great television and was the sound bite of the evening, it reflected the supreme air of condescension that has come to define The Newsroom. Rather than stopping at reporting the news, McAvoy often enters into heated debates cutting down his equally worthy opponents with the argument that his position is based on fact, and thus correct. It is his way or the highway, which leaves the viewer in want of car.

Aaron’s Sorkin’s saving grace is his honesty. Returning to the Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman, “Sorkin is always true to himself and doesn’t try to cover his tendencies or be embarrassed by them.” The net effect is that sometimes the viewer gets turned off, and then turns off the television, but at other times he can “make the politically jaded feel patriotic and the cynical see hope in any situation.” That is precisely what makes Sorkin a public intellectual; having the ability to steer opinion through words read by actors appearing on an impersonal screen is a reflection of his talent as both a writer and as a shaper of public opinion.

Public intellectuals place the burden on us – the public – when it comes to figuring out how to join them in discussion, and Aaron Sorkin is no different. When one tunes in to watch Sorkin’s work, a Hobbesian social contract binds the viewer to screen – an agreement stating that for the next forty-seven minutes one should expect to be engaged in timely debate and, on occasion, talked down to in an effort to motivate and educate. Sorkin stirs the pot to a boil, and occasionally raises the viewers’ temperature as well. He is quick on the trigger and never afraid to lace “things worth talking about” with his own opinions only to quickly submerge the viewers’ thoughts in a Sorkinesque soliloquy. Yet his work reflects a rise in stature as a public intellectual; in 1992 he had Jack Nicholson shout “You can’t handle the truth” only by 2012 to reverse course and have Jeff Daniels enter into “a mission to civilize.” The change in tone is dramatic, but even amidst the abuse that comes with any campaign to civilize, the viewer is left wanting more of Sorkin’s one-liners and lofty speeches. While it may often be difficult to agree with Sorkin’s arguments, he remains an incubator for elevated discourse and a public intellectual ready to make a case for the facts.


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