Spreading the Good Word

Until Sunday afternoon, I had never heard of Fred Roed. Then another complete stranger re-tweeted a link to something Roed had written on his blog, Ideate, along with the item’s title: Eight Reasons Why It’s Great to Be South African.  The re-tweet showed up in the stream of tweets containing the phrase “South Africa” I have running as a ticker in my Firefox browser. Clear?
It sounded interesting, so I clicked on the link and read what Roed had to say. He was funny and engaging, so I too re-tweeted him, then added Ideate’s RSS feed to my Google Reader and Roed to the list of people I follow on Twitter. For good measure, I bookmarked Roed’s post on my del.ici.ous account, which automatically sent it to my Friendfeed, my Facebook page and, potentially (I haven’t made installed the necessary plug-ins yet) members of my Ning and Linked-In networks. Still with me?

If none of that makes sense to you and you are in the marketing or PR business, you may be in danger of going the way of the buggy whip maker. This process is at the very heart of how memes – and you had better get used to that word, too — are made in the age of social media. Continue reading “Spreading the Good Word”


The Curious Pedigree of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize

The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award its annual peace prize to President Barack Obama has left a lot of people, even his admirers, slack-jawed. Some perspective might help. The use of flattery as a means of nudging the powerful has a long history. “Praise and counsel have a common aspect,” said Aristotle.

A notorious example was the attempt by the Roman politician and intellectual are Lucius Annaeus Seneca to set Nero on the straight and narrow when the latter became emperor at age 16. Seneca addressed an extended essay to his former pupil entitled On Clemency in which he obsequiously invested Nero with all the qualities of a great leader in hopes that the young autocrat might take the hint. It may have worked for a time. The first five years of Nero’s reign were generally remembered as something of a golden age. Things went downhill after he murdered his mother.

Former president Thabo Mbeki often attempted to use much the same technique (or so it seemed to me), congratulating not terribly deserving people — Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, for example — as a way of rebuking them or at least of suggesting how they ought to behave. Whether he had any more success than Seneca is open to debate. On occasion, possibly. The way he applauded Namibian President Sam Nujoma into respecting his country’s constitutional term limits – when Nujoma quite clearly had other ideas — was masterful. Continue reading “The Curious Pedigree of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize”


South Africans are master improvisers.  Give them a challenge, and they will, as the saying goes, make a plan.  It’s a great strength. One sometimes worries, though, that this strength may be the artifact of an underlying weakness. Maybe South Africans would not be such terrific problem solvers if they did not so often make things so difficult for themselves to begin with.

This past week, Washington, largely unbeknownst to itself, was host to a delegation of some 15 South African entrepreneurs, designers and artists, mostly from the Johannesburg area. They came to exhibit their wares at the 39th annual Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference at the Washington Convention Centre, with support from the Department of Trade and Industry, the city of Johannesburg, the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Gauteng Economic Development Agency.

Much of what the exhibitors brought with them constituted splendid examples of South Africans inventively turning not much into quite a lot. There were Maevis Taole’s striking amulets woven from aluminium soft drink cans and Bethuel Mapheto’s brooches based on plastic bottle tops. Nina Sedumedi offered necklaces made from discarded fabric remnants by women in Orange Farm. Erika Tempel and Lizelle Steenkamp came with one-of-a-kind papier mache statues of Nelson Mandela sculpted by a former security guard, Victor Nkuna, in Potgeitersrus, along with jewelry created by women in Limpopo with beads and metalwork collected from around the continent. Continue reading “Improv”

Hot air

We are nine months into President Barack Obama’s first term and the barbs are flying. By some accounts he’s a Nazi, by others he’s a Communist, by still others he sees George Orwell’s 1984 as an instruction manual rather than a cautionary tale. In the midst of his nationally televised address to Congress on health care reform, a congressman from South Carolina, a famously intemperate state which started the American Civil War in 1861 to keep its slaves, yelled “You lie!”

Former President Jimmy Carter sees the barbs as racially charged: “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country is an African-American should not be president.”

Many? Some, certainly. Broadcaster Rush Limbaugh, who speaks for and to what might be thought of as the Republican Party’s id, spoke last week about “Obama’s America” as a place where “white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering “right on, right on, right on”.” The reference was to an incident in which a couple of black teenagers were caught on video punching a white schoolmate on a bus in what police have determined was a bout of common or garden bullying. Limbaugh’s distortion of the facts to stoke antipathy against Obama, and black people generally, was pure Goebbels. Continue reading “Hot air”