Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Newtown shooting and the NRA


However, what I found telling was the NRA’s failure to consider what it means to provide children with a psychological sense of safety. Armed guns will protect their physical security, but they threaten to bring into the child’s view and experience the belief and fear that the world is dangerous, filled with bad people who can harm them. Why else have armed guards in the school building in the first place? In other words, what the NRA did not recognize is our shared hope that we can protect a child’s innocence; that is, an experience of the world as a loving place, where strangers are friendly, authority is dependable, optimism is realistic, curiosity is rewarded, and of course armed guards are unnecessary.

But having noted this lapse, I can also ask, whether or not we adults, as bearers of our culture, any longer believe that children are entitled to their innocence. There is a sizeable literature, think of Neal Postman’s prescient, “The Disappearance of Childhood,” published in 1982, which argues that we have created a social world that undermines the experience of childhood innocence. Children are told to be wary of adults who touch them, lest they be abusers, and they are exposed to sexual stimuli as well as fantasies of violence throughout their childhood. In our anxiety for their future we overschedule their lives with programmed activities, and test preparation sessions, so that they experience little spontaneous play. Many children are also exposed to our psychological conflicts when, as parents, we divorce one another and then fight over their custody. The television series, “The Wire,” a story of Baltimore as a decaying postindustrial city, and widely regarded as realistic, highlights how some African-American children are far too soon introduced to the world of adult violence, ineptitude and corruption.

The list could go on, but do we care?  In others word are we committed to sustaining the experience of childhood innocence? One reason we might not be is because as adults we no longer feel psychologically, financially or physically safe ourselves. As a result we are pulled toward protecting ourselves rather than our children.  The psychologist David Bakan, argues in The Slaughter of Innocents,” that throughout history adults abandoned infants when faced with food shortages. Children in other words, potentially distract us from our own struggle for survival.  While in the developed world we have ample food, the anxieties associated with securing an adult role that confers dignity, purpose and a livelihood, have grown substantially. This may be one reason why birth rates are falling throughout much of the West. Perhaps the NRA's conviction that monsters threaten us and our children, represents, in an exaggerated form, a widely held belief that the world has become more dangerous for adults.  

If this is true, one question then is how one makes sense of danger? I want to suggest that the NRA’s philosophy, or perhaps theology, is based on the idea of an evil presence in the world, which, if and when acknowledged, makes innocence seem delusional. Harlon Carter, who helped “overthrow” the NRA’s “old guard” in 1977,  attacked it using the discourse of good and evil. “The latest news release from the NRA,” he said, "embraces a disastrous concept, that evil is imputed to the sale and delivery, the possession of a certain kind of firearm, entirely apart from the good or evil intent of the man who uses it.” This discourse of evil is also why LaPierre referred in the press conference to “predators and monsters,” rather than, for example, to mentally disturbed people. In this sense, the discourse of evil stands in contrast to the discourse of disease and health. The idea that Adam Lanza, was mentally disturbed, in other words, he had a diseased mind, can be usefully challenged by the idea that he, or much more likely, his mother and first victim, was evil.

Does the idea of evil have standing? Scott Peck, the psychiatrist and religious thinker, wrote a widely read book, “The People of the Lie,” based on the idea that evil people are hidden, their impacts insidious, and that through their failure to tolerate imperfection in themselves and others, they often drive others, particularly children, into acts of desperation. The book, published in 1978, in this sense might be read as a précis of the Newtown shooting.

The idea of evil is not compatible with the belief, that if social conditions are right, fair and just, people can be perfected. This belief has been the basis for much modern social policy as well as the foundation for tolerance and for a commitment to pluralism. My own sense however is that idea of evil remains unsettled within us, we are so to speak “bedeviled” by it, as we contemplate not simply the Holocaust, but more recently, the slaughters in Rwanda, in Bosnia, and the attack on women in parts of the Muslim world. Certainly, the psychoanalytic conception of character holds that loving and destructive feelings are comingled in our most intimate relationships. This is one basis for domestic violence. In other words, one hypothesis is that we are dishonest when we project our own struggle with the idea of evil onto people and groups, like the NRA, whose view of it we then label as extreme.

The belief that evil is real and insidious can certainly give rise to the conviction that we must defend ourselves against evil at all costs. But one question is why we can’t rely on the state. the government, to protect us against evil. Certainly, in the NRA’s worldview, the state cannot be counted on, and in fact may become the enemy. This is why its leaders put such great store on one interpretation of the U.S. constitution’s second amendment; namely that it protects the right of people, “to keep and bear arms.”

It is tempting to dismiss this as paranoid thinking, but surely one trend in the wider world is the apparent decline of states and the rise of non-state actors, such as terrorist organizations and criminal networks fully capable of attacking and defeating police forces and armies. In the U.S. we need only look southward to our neighbor, Mexico, to envision a scenario of how criminal gangs, wealthy and armed, might defeat the state. Moreover the conspiratorial idea that the United Nations is the first step toward global domination by hidden powers, an idea that attracts some NRA members, bears a family resemblance to the idea that the global corporation, which under certain conditions can equip private armies, is growing more powerful than the states that regulate them. Truth be told, in the United States, outlaws have often successfully challenged, defeated and corrupted the state. Think of outlaws on the western frontier, the Mafia in Chicago, whose leaders undermined judges and policemen with bribes and threats, or local urban police who, in decaying industrial cities, abandoned high crime areas to criminals.

I am reminded here – of all things! – of J.D. Salinger’s classic novel, “The Catcher in the Rye.”  It shows how young people lose their innocence, and potentially their sanity, when they come to grips with adult hypocrisy, or what Holden Caulfield, its hero, called its “phoniness.” I think the book had such enormous resonance for two reasons,  First,  it raised the question of whether we could sustain the innocence of childhood long enough in the life of each child so that children could become optimistic adults, even as they had to confront, in their adolescence, the dirty secrets of the adult world. Second, it had resonance because, published in 1949, it was anticipatory, foreshadowing young people's loss of trust in the adult world some fifteen years later.  Some thirty years after its publication, Neil Postman argued in his own book that the idea of childhood innocence in the United States, had a hundred year run, from 1850 to 1950, suggesting, once again, that an artist’s antenna, in this case Salinger's, picks up signals from the future.

“The Catcher in the Rye,” is both the book’s title and Holden Caulfield’s fantasy of his life’s work. As he tells his younger sister Phoebe, “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around- nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff- I mean they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Perhaps the Newtown shooting and the NRA’s response both raise questions we all face. Who, if anyone, will do the work of “child-catching” in a post-industrial world, how should they do it and how do we help them? 

Friday, December 7, 2012

J.C. Penny as the Post-Modern Department Store.

The “street” is punishing J.C. Penny, the department store, for its poor performance over the last year. It reported a $123 million loss in the last quarter, same store sales fell by 26% in that same period, and the stock price is down by 50% for the year. This, despite the fact that the relatively new CEO, Ron Johnson, who built Apple’s retail juggernaut, is bent upon transforming the chain, by drawing on his experience at Apple.  Once focused on offering discounts and coupons to low-income shoppers, Johnson hopes to re-stage J.C. Penney, which he now calls JCP, as an upscale aggregator of boutiques, where there are  “stores within a store.” Brand name manufacturers like Levis, Izod and Liz Claiborne would have outposts in J.C. Penney outlets. 

In a toughly worded article, Andrew Sorkin of the New York Times takes Johnson to task for being grossly unrealistic. How else to explain the company’s poor performance? Apple’s retail stores, he argues, are appealing because the products on offer are unique. While the Apple store concept and layout are terrific, these retail outlets would fail without the iPads, iPhones and Macs. But what can J.C. Penney offer? Jeans? Sweaters? Where is the thrill in that?

Sorkin’s critique poses the question of what being “realistic” means in the world of business. After all, we honor entrepreneurs who have “vision.” But doesn’t vision mean seeing beyond what is presently available or experienced? Doesn’t this mean being imaginative and therefore “unrealistic.” Steve Jobs, once Ron Johnson’s boss, and one of the great modern business visionaries, argued that customer focus groups were useless. Customers could not express desires or wants for products that did not yet exist.

But if a vision is not realistic, in the plain meaning of the word, if it is the product of imagination, how do we evaluate it before seeing if it can be fully implemented? This is not simply a matter of curiosity. Venture capitalists make judgments about ideas that have yet to be substantiated all the time. One conception of a fruitful business vision is that it needs to be simple. Think of Sam Walton’s vision for Wal-Mart, “bring large stores to small towns,” or Invagar Kamprad’s simple concept for building Ikea, “sell styled but low-cost knock-down furniture.” Simplicity signals that the business leader has not hedged his bets with provisos and exceptions. The leader has made an uncompromising commitment. Johnson’s business vision, “we are a store of stores,” certainly meets this test.

Fruitful visions are also linked to a social context that the business leader has personally experienced, but then interprets. This link strengthens the business’ leader’s conviction in what may appear to be at first too simple an idea. Sam Walton identified with small town America’s friendliness and frugality, but he also saw how the post-world-war two-highway system would link small towns together in a shopping region. Invagar Kamprad connected his experience of growing up in a poor region of Sweden with the country’s status as an international symbol of grace and design. He then saw how he could profit from the open world economy that emerged after the destruction of World War Two.  As these two examples suggest, business visionaries gain conviction because they link their personal experience to the context that gave it shape. It is not just about them, but about the social world that surrounds them.

One question then is; what is the context that gives Johnson's business vision its social character? His prototype or model store in Plano, Texas provides some clues. Divided into boutiques, the store aisles are uncluttered and shoppers have clear lines of sight to the far ends of the store. The cash registers are gone replaced by sales clerks with smart phones.  As the store architect said in an interview, the design theme is "square" so that people experience orderly right angles everywhere. This fits with the store's new pricing policy as well. There will be no more discount coupons. Instead the store posts "fair and square" prices everyday.

One hypothesis is that the "meaning" of the store is "transparency." There is no distance between surface and depth. What you see is what you get, but as a result what you see is entirely up to you. The store is a blank slate and you can project onto it whatever fantasy or meaning your shopping experience stimulates. The shopper's conversation is with the boutiques and their brands, the store is a container. Of course Apple stores have just this quality as well, the shopper's focus is entirely on the product.  Moreover, Apple computers were famously sealed, the hardware disappeared, while the user focused entirely on the screen.

This conception is strengthened in light of Johnson’s decision to change the store's appellation from “JCPenney” to “JCP.” The former is the name of a founder, and prompts recollections of an almost a century of experience. JCP, (actually the stock ticker), is by contrast an abstraction. Separated from its roots -- imagine a foreign tourist encountering the new appellation for the first time, it signifies that it signifies nothing in particular. Instead, as the company’s new logo below also suggests, JCP is a boundary marker and you are invited to fill in the blank.


The new name, the new logo and the store design together suggest that Johnson is drawing on what we might call a "post-modern" sensibility. In this way of experiencing the world, reality is a blank slate, there is no script and it is up to us to invent who we are in conversation with one another.
This hypothesis gains some credence when considering the company’s selection of Ellen DeGeneres, a publicly gay celebrity, to be its spokesperson. In response, the “million-moms network,” founded by the American Family Association- -a Christian conservative group opposed to homosexuality--announced a boycott of the stores that met with little success.

I have no knowledge of the decision process that led to DeGeneres’ selection. But it seems reasonable to suppose that J.C. Penney’s executives understood the risk they were taking with this choice, but believed on balance that they could benefit from it. If this is right it suggests that that they wanted to communicate their post-modernity, in the sense that in a post-modern setting sexual preference and even gender are matters of choice.

I was drawn in this regard to a shopper’s complaint posted on a web site. “I used to do most of my shopping at J.C, Penney,” the shopper writes. “But since their new fair and square program started, I have not bought much of anything. It is getting kind of scary when I walk in there. The store is half-empty. (Cash) registers are disappearing. There are more employees in the store than customers.”  If I may speculate for a moment, one reason the disappearing registers are scary is that they once marked out a boundary between the shopper and the store. They created a space of privacy in which the individual shopper, discount coupons in hand, could advance through the clutter to find a bargain. One feature of post-modern settings is just this loss of privacy, which as we know from the people who have been hurt by their own Facebook postings, can be risky. In this sense, the Christian conservative’s unsettled feelings in response to the world of modern media, particularly its sexualization, is understandable.  It is intrusive, preemptory and can undermine parental authority.  

So the question of whether or not Ron Johnson’s vision is realistic is linked partly to the question of whether a department store shaped by a post-modern sensibility is realistic. Interestingly, while only 11% of the company’s total retail space has been remodeled, the fully remodeled store returns $269 per square foot in sales, double the  $134 per square foot of the older store model.

This suggests that Johnson’s concept may in fact be right. But it does not means that his strategy will succeed. Reality is not simply a particular store, a design, or a prototype. Instead, it expresses itself everyday in the delays associated with any project, in the race between losing old customers and winning new ones, in the patience of investors as they watch a share price fall, and in people’s inertia.

Indeed, it seems likely that Johnson and his top team anticipated losing some of their old time customers as they transformed the stores. This may be one reason why Johnson has been sanguine about the decline in same store sales. But to ask Sorkin’s question again, where does “sanguine” stop and “wishful thinking” begin.

I don’t doubt that Johnson has what Abraham Zalenkik has called the “marketing imagination.” The Apple retail store network is a tour de force. But I don’t know if he or those around him also have the “logistical imagination,” a capacity to imagine the movement of materials, people, efforts and results through time. In the military this kind of imagination is critical. It ensures that troops never advance too far beyond their supply lines.

Ironically should Johnson fail in his transformation, we won’t know why. Was the concept grossly unrealistic, was the execution faulty, or did his new upscale competitors respond by offering shoppers a better experience or lower prices? This not knowing, really does mean that reality is to some degree, beyond our grasp.