Tension, anxiety, then relief

Felix Baumgartner safe at home

The shot that’s destined to become the iconic photo of the space jump

I was 23 years old when man first walked on the moon, and I’d forgotten the emotions of that event until Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped today from a capsule 128,000 feet in the air. My heart rate was way up, as I sat in front of my computer watching it unfold live via YouTube. I was almost gasping for air as he went into a spin during the free fall and pure adrenaline was controlling every system of my body. And finally, there was the flush of a great chemical release that replaced it all the moment his feet met his shadow right here on planet Earth. There are so many winners here that it’s hard to state them all.

Baumgartner, of course, for becoming the latest in a long line of space heroes. As @lukepeters Tweeted: “I’m amazed Felix managed to get out of that capsule considering how big his balls are.” We love heroes, and it will be fun to watch the coming media glom.

Science for what it provided and what it gained from this historical first. @jeffjarvis and others engaged in a discussion of whether this kind of free fall could have saved the astronauts from the shuttle Columbia when it exploded upon re-entry in 2003. Jeff Tweeted: “Consensus of answers: This would not have helped shuttle victims as their vehicle was going too fast & no time.” Science learns from science, and this mission will doubtless provide important data for tomorrow.

Red Bull for sponsoring the event. Will this be the start of commercial space missions? Will we see a competition, of sorts. @dansinker Tweeted: “And thus began the energy-drink arms race that culminated in the Brawndo Sun-Jump tragedy of 2174.”

YouTube for blowing away its previous record in providing flawless 1080p live streaming to more than 8 million viewers, an “audience” 16 times bigger than anything it had done before. Kudos, and call me amazed. This will likely be the first time a streaming event beat a television (one-to-many) event.

And then there’s the sheer magnitude of sharing this historical event with friends via Twitter. Somebody asked if Evel Knievel would have been bigger in the YouTube era. Good question, and I’m not sure. This was the real deal of second screen sharing, and I can’t wait until the numbers come in. It may not have been the Oscars or the MTV awards, but for utter drama, it was amazing.

But the drama of the event tops my list. Baumgartner’s contact back at Mission Control was 84-year old Joe Kittinger, the retired Air Force colonel whose record Baumgartner was trying to break. I doubt NASA would have permitted such, but the emotional bond between the two was evident, especially as Kittinger turned Baumgartner over to “the guardian angels.”

I’m betting on this for the next Bond movie in four years.

Damn those knowledgeable customers!

Regular readers here know my views about marketing over the past 100 years. The word took on pejorative tones with the Creel Committee, and reached its one-to-many pinnacle with the era of Mad Men. Edward Bernays was a part of the committee and widely regarded as the father of professional public relations. In his 1947 essay The Engineering of Consent, Bernays described how to manipulate the public (that’s you and me) with clever tactics. Here’s my favorite line:

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”

This remarkable, narcissistic and cynical statement has crumbled before our eyes today, although most marketers secretly maintain that it’s still applicable. Why is it problematic today? Because people now are beginning to know the extent of the manipulation and are increasingly able to detect it when it’s happening. Hence, Bernays’ “without their knowing it” is problematic today when it wasn’t when Bernays first had the thought.

Thanks to the wonder of YouTube, here’s Bernays himself telling the story of how he advanced the interests of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Bernays’ “torches of freedom” campaign advanced the women’s rights issue for profit, something that continues even today.

Here’s another view of the growing sense that customers are aware of being manipulated. It comes via Doc Searls and his work with Project VRM (Vendor Rights Management). This is a graph comparing the use of the words “consumer” and “customer” in books written since 1780. Notice that the Mad Men era has a clear beginning and a clear end, and it all starts at roughly the same time as the Creel Committee and its work, including that of Edward Bernays. The word “customer” has skyrocketed in recent years, as writers have become increasingly convinced of the pejorative and manipulative reality of the word “consumer.”

books containing the words 'consumer' or 'customer'

This big cultural shift — along with many others brought about by disruptive innovations — signals the dawn of a whole new world with which businesses and people must deal in the years ahead. “Power to the people” has always been a revolutionary theme, and what we’re living is certainly that.

We live in interesting times.

Warning, soul search underway

soul searchingThe GOP must do an immediate about-face on its position on gay marriage. That’s not some liberal shouting at some conservative; it’s an official position from a top-ranking GOP pollster. Go read Andrew Sullivan’s post today on a remarkable memo circulating among Republican Party thought leaders from Jan van Lohuizen, a highly respected Republican pollster and strategist. It basically says the party needs to shift its position on gay marriage and gay rights and do so quickly. Otherwise, van Lohuizen writes, the GOP risks marginalization, irrelevance or worse. Wow!

Go read it, and when you come back, I have some things to say.

In the late 1970s, evangelical Christian leaders looked around and proclaimed life in the United States to be a mess. They had happily helped elect a Georgia farmer-turned-governor as President, in part, because he professed to be “born-again.” One of theirs in the White House held out so much hope, but it quickly turned disastrous as Jimmy Carter became their national embarrassment. There was budget balancing by gutting the military, and blaming the “malaise” of the American people for a sliding economy. Then there was the Iran hostage crisis, a failed rescue attempt, and, well, hurry 1980.

At about that time, Pat Robertson hired George Gallup to do a study of American attitudes about evangelical Christians. He found that people viewed Christians as illiterate and uneducated, bigoted, overweight, wearers of ill-fitting polyester suits, Bible-thumpers, self-righteous hypocrites, rural and Southern. Dr. Robertson then made a brilliant, mad-men-esque marketing decision: he would use his television program, The 700 Club, to depict Christians as exactly the opposite.

I began working for Pat in 1981. Being a TV magazine show guy (12 Magazine, PM Magazine, Louisville Tonight), I had some of the knowledge he needed to help build his program into a news magazine “with a different spirit.” I witnessed the rise of the Christian Right as a participant and an observer. Above all, Pat wanted to change the view of Evangelicals in the country, because he felt anti-Christian attitudes were bigoted, anti-intellectual, self-serving, and mostly, bad for the country.

We had unwritten policies in place at The 700 Club, for example, that denied access to overweight people. We required people who wrote to us to report a “miracle” to include a photograph, so that we could filter people out based on how they looked. We wanted youngish, intelligent, attractive and articulate people to counter the view that Christians are all stupid Bible-thumpers. We very rarely, if ever, invited guests on the show that were overweight or fit the stereotypes discovered in the Gallup study. When crowd shots were taken in the studio, the camera operators were advised to zoom in on the most attractive people in the audience. None of this was written down, of course; it was just understood.

Reagan was now President, and a conservative shift was underway in the U.S. In 1984, we did $248 million in contributions, and the clout of the Evangelicals was gaining. When Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert went down in scandals, Pat’s stature increased, because his was the voice of intelligent Christians. In 1985, The Saturday Evening Post ran a cover feature on Pat, raising the possibility of a run for President. We were later summoned to a retreat, where Pat told us that “God has told me to run for President and that I will win.” It split the ministry as the plan unfolded. Contributions crashed, as donors responded by closing their checkbooks.

And so it went. Pat lost. His ministry never recovered completely. The Christian Right evolved and eventually morphed into the Tea Party, and the gap between the Evangelicals and others widened, all of which leads us to this week, and President Obama’s historic support of giving the gay and lesbian community the same legal rights to marry that are enjoyed by heterosexual couples. In the same week, North Carolinians did the opposite ratified Amendment One, which outlawed gay marriage at the constitutional level. The usual suspects are saying the usual things in the usual “he said/she said” way, but beneath all that, I sense a great soul searching underway, one that I think is long overdue and will have lasting consequences for our culture. Jan van Lohuizen’s memo is a part of that, and so is what follows.

A young Christian writer, Rachel Evans, published a moving and personal piece this week that speaks to all of this. How to win a culture war and lose a generation is a heartfelt cry to anyone who will listen that “my generation is tired of the culture wars.”

We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.

And when it comes to homosexuality, we no longer think in the black-and-white categories of the generations before ours. We know too many wonderful people from the LGBT community to consider homosexuality a mere “issue.” These are people, and they are our friends. When they tell us that something hurts them, we listen. And Amendment One hurts like hell.

…it should be clear that amendments like these needlessly offend gays and lesbians, damage the reputation of Christians, and further alienate young adults—both Christians and non-Christian—from the Church.

I like what Rachel has written and think she speaks for the vast majority of younger Christians in the country today. Her plea reminds me of something Kathie Lee Gifford once said on The 700 Club. Kathie Lee was the darling of the Evangelicals in the late 70s and early 80s until her very public divorce in 1983. Many people turned against her, and she talked about it on the show. “It’s easy to walk in black and white,” she said, “until life forces you into shades of gray.”

I have strong feelings about civil rights for gays and lesbians, and I think if what Rachel calls “The Church” wants an honest confrontation with God on the matter, it needs to take a deep and thoughtful look in the mirror first. Will it see the youthful, intelligent, slim and successful people of the old 700 Club, or will it see the bigoted, self-righteous sheep who deny the Gospel of Grace in favor of the very “Law” that Christ died to overcome? Take a look at this remarkable diagram from The Guardian for at least part of the answer.

And finally, hasn’t history noted that the prophets of the day were always the most different of all? People of the arts — those whose sensitivity puts them in contact with worlds beyond the flesh — have always been those who carried the message of the moment to others. Why? Because the others have a tendency to get too comfortable within the status quo.

One day long ago, the prophet Jeremiah took a message to the recently enthroned King Shallum, son of King Josiah. Josiah was a righteous king and the land and its people had prospered under his rule, but Shallum was in it for himself. He let the people do as they wished and built himself an incredible mansion. Jeremiah warned of trouble ahead as a result, and then said these powerful words about Shallum’s father: “He pleaded the cause of the poor and the afflicted. Then it was well with him. Is this not what it means to know me, saith the Lord?”

Altering history, one word at a time

When I see things of an historic nature with my own eyes, I try to step back and think for a moment. Such an event occurred with me this week, and I hope you read on and consider the truth of what’s said here.

I need to preface this with a little history of my own. Most of you already know this, but I was the Producer and Executive Producer of The 700 Club in the early and mid-80s. I’m terribly proud of the work I did there, but you would be mistaken to judge my personal views as associated in any way with that program. It was a job. I was certainly involved in the life on campus, but I was also able to maintain a certain distance, and I think it made me a better producer. I may write a book about it some day.

That said, I’m keenly aware of how the Christian right thinks and behaves, and my observations of life include that knowledge. The biggest complaint that Christians — and I’m talking on a broader scale than just the right, but of them especially — have today is that “the culture” is denying Christ, something they honestly feel will land people in hell. I’m not here to discuss the truth of such a belief, only to insist that it’s sincere. The evangelical spirit of Christianity — just as it is with Islam, for example — is a sincere belief that unless one behaves a certain way, they risk eternal damnation. It doesn’t matter if you believe that; they believe that, and so this idea of “denying Christ” is extremely critical.

Lt Rice with the sister of a hostage victimSo last week, in a boring evening of television, I flipped to the program Memphis Beat on TNT. It’s not bad, and it really tries to imitate life in the South, including occasional references to religion. This particular episode was called “Flesh and Blood” and dealt with finding the parents of a baby that had apparently been abandoned in a car.

In the scene that got my attention, Memphis Police Lt. Tanya Rice, played by Alfre Woodard, was trying to talk a young woman into helping police get everybody out alive in a hostage situation. The hostage-taker was the woman’s father; his hostage was her sister.

I can’t do that,” the woman says, suggesting she isn’t strong enough. Lt. Rice responds warmly, “I can do all things through God who strengthens me.”

It’s the key scene in the whole episode, for it turns the whole case. Ultimately, the girl helps and talks her father down. Happy ending.

The problem, of course, that Lt. Rice’s wise quote is incorrect. It’s “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Semantic hair splitting? No, because it’s evidence of something much deeper that’s taking place in our culture. The writers of this show had to come to a stop here and make a decision about which word to use. Is it God or Christ? Hollywood both leads and follows the flows of American thought, and they decided to go with the much safer, more politically correct route of the term “God.” Nice try.

The truth is that you’d be hard pressed to find ANYBODY in Memphis, Tennessee who would substitute the word “God” for “Christ” in that Bible quote, so while the writers are trying to duplicate life in the South, they can only allow themselves to go so far.

When well-intentioned, decent Christian people start talking about how their faith is being persecuted in public these days, listeners often close their ears. That’s the talk of the lunatic fringe, the fundamentalist right. Cultural observers and pundits ridicule the notion as nonsense and go on to mock those who make such statements. Apparently, every group on earth is off-limits for ridicule except certain Christians, and that has permanently, I think, cast aspersions on the entire faith itself.

It is not politically correct nor expedient to speak the name Jesus or use the term Christ in public anymore. This has had a dramatic chilling effect on people of the Christian faith, to the point where only the radicals seem to speak anymore. They are the ones quoted by others, because it fits the common public mold of Christianity and further drives believers into silence, ‘lest they, too, become a mockery in the public sphere.

So to the Hollywood community and people in general, let me say this. You are entitled to your own opinion about religion — and you certainly are free to worship as you please — but you are not entitled to your own quotes from the Book. It’s false, a lie. It’s not just that it’s sinister or intellectual dishonesty. It’s not just that it’s offensive, and I’m sure it is to many. It’s mostly that you’re altering culture and our history in the process, and that is unacceptable, because that carries with it unintended consequences.

A word here. A word there. Soon, nobody will truly understand the many roles of Christianity in our history, because we will have watered down its cultural influence and, in so doing, altered our own history. Do we really want that to happen? People may not like the way certain Christians behave, but throwing the baby out with the bath water has consequences for everything we hold dear in America, especially our freedoms. Our Republic makes little sense without the role of religion in its establishment, and I know there are people who’ve dedicated their lives to trying to prove otherwise. Webster’s 1828 dictionary, however, contains all the evidence anyone needs, for the words used by the founders of the country had different meanings than they do today, especially the word “religion.”

It’s unconscious, what we’re doing, but it’s sloppy thinking just the same, and we should know better. To me, it isn’t about saving souls, whatever that means. It’s about disrespecting the truth of our own history, and it has happened during my lifetime.

I shudder to think where it’s all going.