Sunday, February 8, 2015

Charlie Hebdo / Disasters and Optics

Je Suis NOT Charlie…My father, whose ultimate lot in his life was to keep alive and functioning some very sick people, sometimes would, out of the blue, assert, ‘The most powerful of all instincts is the instinct of self preservation.’ I thought of those words immediately after I learned of the horrific murders of those cartoonists and journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.

Why, of all words, were those evoked? Because, I think, self preservation was not, regrettably and tragically, a motivation of those journalists. They made some very elementary, grievous mistakes. In a fashion, they engineered their own deaths.

Mr. Gripes can only wonder, ‘What on earth were they thinking?” They couldn’t have been surprised, in the sense that September 11 2001 stunned all of us. After all, they were rather shockingly forewarned: their offices were firebombed by terrorists in 2011, causing severe damage. The firebombing should have set off all kinds of alarms. Apparently, though, it did not. That’s hard to believe.

Now, I don’t know a thing about Mohammed and Islam, and don’t care to know, but I do know this: if I were to draw a caricature of a naked Mohammed, which is absolute anathema to Islamists, and publish it in a magazine for millions of people to see, I would have to assume I may provoke and inflame some very dangerous, crazy, determined people, who would attempt very assiduously to kill me….and consequently I would take the necessary precautions to prevent that.

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m a strong advocate of the press: a critical press and freedom of speech are the linchpins of democracy. Shackled and intimidated journalists in any country are the death knell of a free people [see Putin, Russia]. But, none of us live in a utopia – far from it, in fact – and common sense must rule; there’s a very good reason why yelling ‘Fire’ in a crowded movie theatre is against the law.

So, I can’t sit here and write that these dead cartoonists deserve all the posthumous praise coming their way for their ‘bravery’ and ‘courage.’ ‘Brave,’ yes, but they were also brazen and reckless; they couldn’t have been that na├»ve as to not comprehend the gravity of what they were doing.

A basic precept of defensive military strategy is that the leadership-command tier must be preserved; the dispersal of top-echelon leadership is essential. The same strategy should have held for the Charlie Hebdo editorial staff, but that was not done: week after week, on the identical day and time, in the same conference room, there was an editorial meeting of the magazine’s writers and staff. There was absolutely no need to congregate like that: just have everyone call in from their own residences, and conduct the meeting via teleconferencing.  

All together in that one room meant they were sitting ducks when the attack occurred; the terrorists had discovered the precise details of the weekly editorial gathering. It was no coincidence that the two terrorists showed up on precisely the day and time of the meeting. Also, why was there only one bodyguard protecting the office, and, additionally, in possession of inferior firepower? He probably was blown away by an AK-47 in about 3 seconds.

No, I can’t just declare the dead cartoonists deserve all the honoraria for their bravery and courage. Yes, they were certainly ‘courageous’ in the face of all the threats that must have come their way. That doesn’t really suffice, though. They did not take the proper precautions. Perhaps they were all in denial.

One victim left a wife and four young children, the youngest of which is five years old. On television two days afterwards, she insisted she was very ‘proud’ of her husband. ‘Proud’? With some rudimentary precautions, her husband would still be alive.  Six months from now, after the shock has worn off, as she sits at the dining room table late one Sunday night, alone, with the children finally asleep, and their father gone, I suspect her sentiments may be entirely different. 

Oh, My Kingdom for Some Visuals --Huge blizzards, destructive floods, terrible train crashes, frightening plane crashes – the professional politicians love what these  ‘visuals’ will provide. Of course, they’ll manage to look concerned, or aggrieved, or empathetic, but don’t let that fool you for a moment: they’re cold-bloodedly calculating the risk/reward of the optics. After all, disasters, the bigger the better, give our selfless public servants a golden opportunity to pose and strut: ‘I’m a take-charge guy, I’ll pull all the levers of power to take care of and protect all of you, my fellow citizens’. It’s a professional secret, of course, but politicians of all stripes welcome disaster events. Success, to these low-lifers, is getting that photo-op broadcast on television. In reality, though, it’s all a rehearsed show, and has nothing to do with actual competence.

Mr. Gripes chooses to comment on this American phenomenon [though Vladimir Putin, I admit, was the creator of the ultimate visual, puffing out his bare chest for all to see] after observing the two major political figures in New York – Andrew Cuomo and Bill DeBlasio – acting like children, all in an effort to look good on TV.

Despite DeBlasio’s prediction – and maybe his hope, I might add – that New York City would be hit by an ‘historic’ blizzard, perhaps two or three feet, we ended up getting a measly six inches. Prior to the snow, DeBlasio appeared on TV and began ordering New Yorkers to get off the streets, insisting they  don’t go to work, even shutting down the subway system, a drastic move for a city that never sleeps.

The next day, when the storm wimped out, Governor Cuomo couldn’t let DeBlasio steal the stage – oh no, if that happened, Cuomo, the alpha male, would look like he wasn’t in control; so he pulled an old chestnut out of his pocket: he leapfrogged the scheduled DeBlasio press conference, starting a half hour prior, and, quickly, after donning a de rigeur working-men’s union windbreaker with the logo on the chest – that’s a visual, baby – he emerged triumphant, throwing out orders left and right to all his sappy lieutenants to get the city and state moving again. 

Mr. Gripes, watching this, could just sense the tension between the governor and mayor. You see, it’s always a question of who gets that photo-op, and in this case, Cuomo ‘won.’ He probably doesn’t realize just how disturbingly ambitious he appeared, yakking away, in that windbreaker, managing to suck all the oxygen out of the room. Every one of these politicians is obsessively ambitious, but God forbid you look like it on TV – that’s bad optics.

A more egregious instance of staged optics is when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ‘lucked out’ the day superstorm Sandy hit the Jersey shore.  That event, to a superb practitioner of political stagecraft, like Christie, was equivalent to hitting the jackpot.  When he embraced President Obama, who visited to observe for himself the devastation along the Jersey coast, he wasn’t concerned so much with the welfare and safety of his constituents.

Nope. He figured by hugging the President, the No. #1 Democrat devil, he would look like the great unifier – prospective national voters would think, ‘Wow, here’s someone who will work with his Democratic opponents and get things done.’ Mr. Christie, even as he toured the damage, knew the image of him and Obama embracing would catapult him onto the national stage. 

As for Christie the unifier? Obsolete baloney, of course. Not a year later, when the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee refused to endorse Mr. Christie for re-election, the George Washington Bridge, which both originates from and empties into Fort Lee, was mysteriously pinched to only one working lane, causing absolute chaos and gridlock. The ‘Great Unifier’ turns out to be the ‘Great Divider.’ 

Talk about bad optics -- Mr. Gripes concludes this piece with a couple of observations regarding President Obama and his golf game. Let’s face it:  golf is terrible optics for any president. Vacationing for two weeks in Hawaii, while 80% of his constituency is freezing their buns off on the mainland, is bad enough [maybe he gets a pass for this, because it is his home state], but watching him saunter down a beautifully groomed fairway, gentle breezes wafting through the palm trees, exotic birds chattering joyously against an impossibly blue and cloudless sky in the background, just another perfect day in paradise is, I’m afraid, a horrible visual for this President. As the rest of us watch this, we suffer at that moment from a terminal case of envy. Green-with-envy doesn’t properly describe the depth of our distress – it’s more like raging with debilitating jealousy. 

One more thing, Mr. President:  get rid of those white golf shoes, will you? For the candidate who promised us hope and change a million years ago, those white shoes say one thing: ‘I now identify with the very rich: the hedge fund guys, the Wall Street manipulators and bongo-artists, the Silicon Valley billionaires, George Clooney and other Hollywood glitterati. As for the increasingly marginalized working class? That’s so over for me and Michelle.’

A word of advice: You can’t espouse caring about the struggles of the middle class when you’re wearing shoes that even Jay Gatsby would love to have in his closet. The visuals clash.

Jim Israel                                                                    
Mr. Gripes
February 8, 2015