Pete Seeger: A Personal Reflection on the Life Lesson He Left Behind

this machine surrounds hate and  forces it to surrender

This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender [“Pete’s banjo head.” Photograph of Pete Seeger’s banjo by Tom Davis (tcd123usa), via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons License.]

On July 14, 2013 I went online to the Woody Gurthrie.org website. It was Woody’s birthday after all. I was stunned to see a note of condolence to Pete on the loss of his wife Toshi. She had passed away just days before. I immediately composed a sympathy letter and sent it and less than three months later I received the postcard from Pete thanking me for my thoughtfulness.

He never wrote a memoir or autobiography per se. He did allow Rob and Sam Rosenthal to go through the boxes he kept of his personal papers, letters, and such to publish in 2012 Pete Seeger in His Own Words* in which is a letter from around 1986 to Tim Morris in which he wrote “The mail comes in to our house literally by the bushel, and I hardly have time to read it, much less answer it coherently.” But he did, answered them all, all in due time, as he answered mine.

I mentioned in mine to him a part of the lyric from one of the songs on his last album “A More Perfect Union” it goes: “Deep love, like a bountiful river/Fills the soul, renews the heart.” He said in his reply that those weren’t his words but those written by friend and fellow performer on the album Lorre Wyatt. But if you go to Appleseed Recordings’ notes about the album it clearly states “14 songs newly co-written with Wyatt.” this is just another illustration of Pete practicing humility, of giving not taking credit. His whole life was dedicated to giving, to including, to uniting — binding together, not tearing asunder. In that same letter to Morris he wrote: “there will be no world at all unless we change the directions of our lives.” And, “Pick some little struggles . . . little victories give us the courage to keep on struggling to win some bigger victories later.”

His beloved Hudson River; his beloved America; his beloved folk music; the confluence of all of these reflect the life of a man, reflect his demonstration of how to live a life, a life admired by so many if only practiced by a very few. Still we can strive to do so – live a life worth living – if we listen to the lesson of Pete. In my letter to him I said: “Thank you for continuing to change the world, one person at a time” — and so he shall, through the legacy of his music, his words, and his shining example.

*Quoted from with permission from Paradigm Publishers

Pete’s banjo drawing from postcard, enlarged

Pete’s banjo drawing from postcard, enlarged

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President Obama and the return of the viral email

Well, now I’m getting worried. In reply to a comment regarding the recent post “President Obama and language used stupidly” (https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/07/27/president-obama-and-language-used-stupidly/) I wrote: “I have some concern his communications team may be a little off stride of late: I will continue to monitor this and report appropriately on the C&C blog…and I am hoping these recent missteps are not indicative of a trend, but rather a “slip and fall” in an otherwise stellar tightrope act.” Now I’m not so sure.

Yesterday I, along with millions of others who subscribe to WhiteHouse.gov received the following e-mail:

axelrodemail
Dear Friend,

This is probably one of the longest emails I’ve ever sent, but it could be the most important.

Across the country we are seeing vigorous debate about health insurance reform. Unfortunately, some of the old tactics we know so well are back — even the viral emails that fly unchecked and under the radar, spreading all sorts of lies and distortions.

As President Obama said at the town hall in New Hampshire, “where we do disagree, let’s disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that’s actually been proposed.”

So let’s start a chain email of our own. At the end of my email, you’ll find a lot of information about health insurance reform, distilled into 8 ways reform provides security and stability to those with or without coverage, 8 common myths about reform and 8 reasons we need health insurance reform now.

Right now, someone you know probably has a question about reform that could be answered by what’s below. So what are you waiting for? Forward this email.

Thanks,
David

David Axelrod
Senior Adviser to the President

P.S. We launched http://www.WhiteHouse.gov/realitycheck this week to knock down the rumors and lies that are floating around the internet. You can find the information below, and much more, there. For example, we’ve just added a video of Nancy-Ann DeParle from our Health Reform Office tackling a viral email head on. Check it out:

email_reality_check

http://www.whitehouse.gov/realitycheck/71/?e=11

For my purposes, I have here only reproduced the introductory section of the email, which is what I want to consider. You can read the complete text at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/The-Return-of-the-Viral-Email/

Now, what is my concern? Effective communication, as usual – and therefore, I was more than a bit taken aback by the tone and particular use of language in the email, issued after all by the “Senior Adviser to the President” and bearing both the “imprimatur” and letterhead of the White House. In fact, whitehouse.gov, the internet “face” of this administration has itself changed somewhat in character. For those not familiar with this web site, it was to be  an “open window” for the public to the White House and the current administration. On his first day in office, President Obama issued an executive order, the purpose of which was to ensure that the entire federal government should be more open, transparent, and internet-friendly. It stated that agencies must put information about their operations and decisions online and make them readily available to the public. So far so good. In spite of some “technical” glitches at first, whitehouse.gov has tried up until most recently to  practice what it has preached.

The health care reform initiative, characterized most recently as health insurance reform as hopefully more “palatable”, confronted by the opposition – including a barrage of TV ads opposing such reform, the town hall meeting protests (see my post regarding this:https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/11/town-hall-protesters-communicate-effectively-not/), etc. have moved the administration’s communications approach into attack mode. The tactics being employed have been called “push back”. Basically there’s nothing wrong with a good old battle of words, depending on what the words are – the overall strategy may be OK at this juncture, it’s the methodology which is in question. The idea seems to be,  “fight fire with fire” – the only problem is the administration is starting to appear as if it is mud slinging instead of mud wrestling. 

There is a stridency to the email which was sent (stri-dent, adj. making or having a harsh sound; grating; to make a harsh noise) which could backfire.  The use of terminology  such as “spreading…lies” is akin to the use of terminology such as “acted stupidly” – remember the reaction to that.

The overriding consideration in any fight of competing ideas must be to ensure that the party that is in the leadership position by virtue of standing (such as a President) always  is seen as such; that doesn’t mean you can’t “take the gloves off” and strongly defend your position, or point up the fallacies in the argument of the opponent, but don’t resort to anything resembling an ad hominem attack – don’t use language which may be taken to suggest the other player is a liar for example. We’ll have to wait to see who lands the next punch!

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/08/14/president-obama-and-the-return-of-the-viral-email/

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President Obama and language used stupidly

This is “a teachable moment” according to President Barack Obama.  I agree. This blog is devoted to advancing the art and science of communications, not politics,  so I won’t dwell on the rhyme or reason of the President’s statement made during his nationally televised prime time press conference this past Wednesday which opened Pandora’s box regarding the issue of racial profiling in this country. Suffice it to say that strictly rhetorically speaking, he either knew what he was doing or he didn’t. Given the context, a press conference convened principally to push his health insurance reform agenda – the latest nomenclature chosen in lieu of “health care reform”, as hopefully more effective – this same President who usually measures his  words, certainly should have considered  that his comment would be a pot boiler  and a distraction in terms of staying on message. Giving credit to the President as an astute public speaker, which few would deny, at the time, this was very possibly a “slip of the tongue”; Speaking extemporaneously, even with advance preparation and briefing, does not give much time for reflection ahead of utterance –  so, this public speaking “incident” becomes an excellent example to demonstrate that indeed  communication – particularly verbal communication – is most certainly in many respects an art as much as anything.

The particulars are that in response to a reporter’s question posed late in the press conference asking for the President’s reaction to an occurrence involving the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who happens to be African-American and who happens to be a renowned African-American scholar and who happens to own the home and the property where he was hand-cuffed and charged  with disorderly conduct (the charges were subsequently dropped), the President used the following language – among other language used: he stated that the police officers “acted stupidly”.

There are a number of words which in any language are “charged” with emotion – “stupid” and its variations are in such a lexicon. The word was used as an adverb, a form which modifies the verb “acted” and tells us in what manner someone acted. Like an adjective modifies a noun, like a rose becomes a red rose, an action becomes “stupid”. Now what was attempted to be qualified was the action, not the actor. Unfortunately the word chosen was also in the category of what I call “splatter” words – a word that “paints with a broad brush” so that everything in sight becomes “splattered” by it; so what was imputed by the media, the public in general, and the Cambridge Police Department in particular? Was  the President of the United States suggesting –  that the police officers involved were stupid! “Strong” language –  “stupid” qualifies as “strong” language – is to be used judiciously when warranted. When warranted? When circumstances require such a term for emphasis.

The latest “Special Features” section of this blog, “The Lens”, showcases the pronouncements of none other than the great Mark Twain addressing specifically all matters germane to communications, written and oral – Twain knew a thing or two about public speaking and his work as presented in this section is recommended to you; I want to quote one pithy point here. Twain said: “An adjective habit…once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” He cautioned about using adjectives, and by extension their cousins, adverbs, sparingly – which would then strengthen their impact when they were used. Well President Obama normally heeds Twain’s advice, not peppering his speaking with such words, and therefore his use of the word “stupidly” was reacted to vigorously (whoops there I go as well, you can see how easy it is to fall into the trap).

So what is the lesson to be learned? Choose your words carefully.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/07/27/president-obama-and-language-used-stupidly/

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President Obama’s scorecard as Communicator-in-chief

How do you determine whether you’re communicating effectively? By evaluating results. You set objectives, sometimes referred to as goals in the blogosphere, for your effort, be it a blog, a presentation, etc. and then you use some appropriate means to measure effect. Now your objectives need to be realistic and attainable, and there are short-term, medium-term, and long-term objectives as well so be sure you know which you are assessing. The process of goal-setting must be carefully done. It’s easy to confuse your primary goal with secondary objectives necessary to reach the primary goal. In other words, there can be a hierarchy of goals to consider.

For example, take my recent post about Earth Hour: https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/29/earth-hour-nonverbal-and-symbolic-communication/ The sponsoring organization earthhour.org clearly has as its primary medium-term objective:  to influence the up-coming Global Climate Change Conference in  December, 2009 to move governments around the world to take action against global warming. The means which they have devised to achieve this end is to present a billion “votes for earth” evidenced by the symbolic act of turning off lights in one’s home, business, municipality, wherever. This is the secondary objective.  As another example, increasing traffic to a blog could be construed as a primary objective, but in and of itself number of hits and views is not consequential. What happens because of the increased visits to the site is what ought to be the basis for defining the primary goal. 

Goal setting deserves and will eventually receive its own attention on this blog, but for right now, I just needed to set forth some generalities before launching into an appraisal of how our new president is doing in regards to his communication efforts to date. I have raised the matter of  the administration’s developing “communications strategy” in at least two previous posts. Now might be a good time to pause and have a look at this one: https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/26/president-obama-and-communication-experimentation/  and this one as well: https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/20/president-obama-on-late-night-tv/

Come on back when your done, I’ll wait…waiting…waiting…waiting. OK, let’s assume the administration’s primary goal is to get this economy moving again. Fair assumption I think as it has been stated as “job one” about one thousand times. From a communications standpoint the means to this end is to pump confidence back into an abjectly deflated populace, ergo, enter our secondary objective.

Now enter the New York Times/CBS News Poll just released. The headline in the New York Times is: “Poll Finds New Optimism on Economy Since Inauguration”; so the combination of late night TV, virtual town halls, prime time news conferences, et al. just might be paying off.  The number of people who think the country is going in the right direction has moved from 15% in January, pre-Obama, to 39% now. The number who believe it’s going in the wrong direction dropped to 53% vs. 79% in prior polling. The percentage feeling that the economy is getting worse has gone from 54%, pre-Obama, to 34% at this point in time.

One person, in a follow up interview conducted in conjunction with the poll, said “It’s psychology more than anything else,” It’s effective communications more than anything else, and if you’re keeping score, the strategy seems to be working.

For the Complete New York Times Article on the recent poll go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/07/us/politics/07poll.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/04/08/president-obamas-scorecard-as-communicator-in-chief/

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Pope Benedict XVI as a communicator

Yes, he is infallible in regards to communicating religious doctrine per the dictums of the Catholic Church, but on a purely public level, as a major world figure who by the very nature of the role spends much of his time communicating ideas I assume he expects will  have some  impact, by all reports, including one issued by the AP today, he is without question having some communication problems. http://www.grandforksherald.com/event/article/id/112288/group/home/

This may be largely irrelevant to the faithful, but it is fair to assess the record of public figures including the Pope in this regard, strictly from the context of world culture if nothing else. So here goes.

We have a number of controversies that the papacy has encountered, one of which has been documented in a previous post (see sidebar tags). We have an approach to the media which by all accounts can be characterized as aloof at best, and this runs counter to his predecessor Pope John Paul II, to whom the title of “Great Communicator” has been attached by many.

All of this in spite of some obvious efforts to connect in a 21st century communications “style” including going on YouTube, and Chinese translations of his speeches carried on the Vatican web site.

With his up-coming first time trip to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories in May, his communication skills will be stringently tested.

The Rev. Thomas Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center has been quoted as saying that as a church and world leader, the pope has to communicate in an understandable and persuasive way. I agree.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/27/pope-benedict-xvi-as-a-communicator/

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President Obama and Communication Experimentation

OK. What’s the latest. The lastest is the “online town hall” today – another first. Q&A of the people, by the people, and for the people. How many people? White House estimates indicated some 67,000 watching online towards the end. How many questions? More than 100,000, with over 3.6 million “votes” in cyberspace to help rank the questions of most interest. CNN.com characterized the event as a kind of virtual meeting and a new twist on President Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats. In an earlier post I wrote about the need to re-invent the fireside chat (see sidebar tag).  http://edition.cnn.com/2009/TECH/03/26/online.obama/index.html#cnnSTCText

The comments I looked at to try and assess John Q. Public’s reaction fell into two categories: opinions about the content of the event, and opinions about the nature of the event. Because this is a blog dedicated to matters relating to communicators and communications I’ll reserve judgment on the content and stick with issues related to format.

Typically, either commenters felt the “online town hall” was a kind of staged event, or they considered that representing the event as a real face to face was inaccurate at best.

If we look at this “communication experiment” from a strictly numbers standpoint, to give this some basis for comparison, there were 131.2 million voters in the 2008 presidential election compared with 3.6 million voters for favored questions to ask during the online forum; by my calculation that’s 2.7% online votes relative to election votes. I’m using “election votes” for comparison purposes because this reflects the voting population, actively engaged enough to cast a ballot in 2008, and therefore this is the “universe” one might expect to pull from for an event like this. In my opinion, that’s a solid expression of general interest for a first time attempt at something never tried before. The 67,000 viewers tally seems a miniscule number granted, but remember the president himself characterized this event this way: “This is an experiment,” he said, “but it’s also an exciting opportunity for me to look at a computer and get a snapshot of what Americans across the country care about.” Remember, this is the same president who refused to be parted from his Blackberry.

What I want to emphasize as regards this “communication experiment” is the legitimacy of trying it out. One requirement for an effective communicator is to gain a sense of his or her audience. This may turn out to be a valuable way to “stay connected”, and if so, justifies the idea – from a communications strategy standpoint, given the reaction as I have gauged it, much of which is predictable and based on built in biases, as a communication vehicle it may not have much sway with the general populace, but as this blog always takes the effort to point out, it is the impact on the intended audience which really counts. The intended audience here? Those confortable in cyberspace, the very cadre enlisted by the Obama campaign team so effectively. I intend to do a separate post after more thorough assessment as to how the “online town hall” concept might be fitting into the further development of an overall communications strategy for the president, that being something I have addressed in previous posts as well.

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/26/president-obama-and-communication-experimentation/

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President Obama on late night TV

I raised this issue in a previous post: https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/12/franklin-roosevelt-invents-the-fireside-chat/


namely, what is the most effective means President Barack Obama can use to communicate with and to the American public in this present crisis environment? I’m not talking here about the usual and customary. These are not usual and customary circumstances we face as a nation. What’s needed is a creative solution to the urgent requirement for the President, as “Communicator in Chief” as I have previously referred to the role, to garner the confidence of the citizenry that we will prevail against the economic travail we have encountered; granting the content of the message is of utmost importance, the “packaging” of that message, is almost equally important as every Marshall Mcluhan fan knows, for indeed the medium is the message. (See previous relevant post ) https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/07/marshall-mcluhan-revisited/

So what’s the right setting? We have the townhall meeting format – that’s been tried; we have the primetime televised press conference – that’s been tried; and now we have the late night talk show – chalk up that one.

Last night’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” featured President Obama, and there were a number of “firsts”: First time a sitting president has appeared on a TV Program like The Tonight Show, first time as a sitting president Barack Obama makes an unseemly comment about “special olympics” (more about that later). This is all very serious. What the President’s team is obviously doing is experimenting. I don’t believe this is trial and error – not for a minute. Each “media decision” is carefully considered beforehand and carefully analyzed afterwards.

I reject the notion suggested by some that putting President Obama on late night television is primarily an attempt to pump up poll numbers.

I think ultimately, a combination of “outlets” will emerge that serve the communications strategy at hand.

Is it beneath the dignity of the office of president to appear on a late night talk show, and joke around at that? This is a Twitter and Facebook absorbed society. It is important to put a “human face” on the person who holds the highest office in the land. In fact, because we live in a Twitter and Facebook culture, President Obama needs to establish this kind of closer personal connection with his fellow Americans in order to communicate convincingly – an essential goal in order to move us forward as a nation. In an earlier post I wrote: “What is needed is to re-invent the “fireside chat” circa 2009.” That is what I believe the Obama communications team is attempting to concoct.

On the matter of the gaffe involving “special olympics”, now apologized for, I have personally spent a great deal of energy in community service on behalf of those with disabilities over the years, and I was indeed truly disappointed by the President’s remark. Let’s hope that errant comment will be turned into an opportunity to advance the cause of those with special needs. In any case, we need to move on with this larger “experiment” which is, advancing the State of the Union.

 

https://communicatorsandcommunications.com/2009/03/20/president-obama-on-late-night-tv/ 

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