PR – “Making the Sell”
Written by: 
Joe Morris Doss

Americans feel that we, as individual citizens, lack agency – a sense that we have too little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

Scene: a bar in Chelsea, New York City
Date: Spring, 1970
Event: A Seminary Class on Issues of Moral Theology in American Society
Guest: CEO of a major Madison Avenue PR Firm

Student Question: What is the strength of modern advertising?
CEO: The ability to sell anything, anything at all.

Student Question: What is the weakness of modern advertising?
CEO: The ability to sell anything, anything at all.

Student Question: What is the most vexing moral issue in the field of advertising?
CEO: The ability to sell anything, anything at all.

Student Question: Please explain.
CEO: Let me put it this way. Our firm refuses to advertise for the sale of cigarettes, because we know enough to know that they kill. They cause cancer. Someday that will become accepted public knowledge, and in that day we so not wish to find ourselves explaining to our children why we chose to convince people to kill themselves. That’s the deal. We have a moral responsibility to choose what to sell, because we can convince people to buy anything.

Student Question: You are saying that you can convince people to kill themselves.
CEO: Oh yes. We can make people want what is dangerous enough to kill them – probably even if they know it will. So we don’t advertise cigarettes.

Student Question: What else do you avoid selling?
CEO: God help our democracy, which may not survive our ability to sell candidates.

Americans know they are being manipulated by advertising, and except for those who use it, most people claim to hate it. But they embrace it.

Americans claim that they are sick and tired of the way campaigns come down to raising money for TV, sound bites, and negative campaign spots. But watching them over and over is how they make up their mind.

Americans claim to hate the way candidates are “handled,” the way they rely on an invented persona instead of genuine individuality, the way they “stay on message” instead of opening up to offer honest and creative ideas, the way they say what is safe and contrived instead of stating personal beliefs. But these are the very campaign techniques that work to convince American votes.

We claim to hate the selling of our political leaders, yet we force our candidates into the “PR product-for-sell” roles because advertising sells. We just keep making the empty content of PR work, for buying commodities and for the democratic election of political leadership.

In so many ways, while lamenting our lack of agency due to the manipulative ability of PR to sell us, we choose to go along with the shaping of the political market and the marketing process. We not only go along, we rely on it.

No single group has been worse about all of this than the parts of the church that have entered into the process of elective politics. Ever since Reagan gave an important role to the moral majority, churches Catholic and Protestant and non-denominational Christians have bowed to PR marketing and jumped into “the game.” The result is that the church has been wounded and weakened, in sharp decline institutionally in membership and moral authority. It is time for this to cease.

Masses have turned to the candidacy of Donald Trump as a reaction against “the sell,” seeming to overlook how this, in so many ways, is the very climax of political salesmanship – using every technique, going from old standard theories like the “big lie” to new lessons learned with reality TV. He has been sufficiently discovered and cannot be elected, but we know there are creatures lurking in the background darkness, taking notes and learning.

On the other hand, surely there must be smart and well intentioned people who see new opportunities for the political process, new ways to offer themselves or to find and bring forward candidates in whom they can believe and offer them to an American public that is genuinely at rope’s end with “the sell.”

One of the leading “mad men” of the 60’s, a Madison Avenue PR giant who saw what was developing raised the issue: God help our democracy, which may not survive our ability to sell candidates.

The question seems wildly radical and the negative answer seems unimaginable. But in fact the question remains an open one. Pray sisters and brothers of the church, pray and prayerfully decide to do something about it.

(Disclaimer: Your reporter was not present at the class, but the accuracy of what was communicated is certainly verifiable.)


Group Think
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

All good people agree,
     And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We,
     And everyone else is They.

          Rudyard Kipling

We perceive a lack of personal agency when we feel certain about our point of view, find that decisions and actions taken on behalf of the whole contradict it or fail to satisfy it, and are imposed on us.

We may begin to address our frustration by considering why we feel so sure about the matter. Very likely, the reason will have little to do with reason or information; instead it usually will turn out to be due to the agreement within our social circle and within the culture with which we identify. If the great majority of people we associate with regularly, and with whom we feel we belong, think the same way, contrary political and social imposition is likely to feel like insufferable wrongheadedness, or even a matter of moral right and wrong. This comes from something termed, accurately enough in the language of the street (if not in textbooks): “group think.”

Today “group think” is a prevailing concern for a nation that is deeply divided along just such lines. That whole communities and segments of society are so segmented is painfully experienced. Yet we find ourselves as participants in the divisions. As individuals we all know the tendency to pick among the plethora of information sources now available to use those that can be relied upon for agreement and reinforcement of the social, political, and religious perspectives of our circles.

The open conversations and comments about issues at controversy today, say in a locker room, invariably are going to sound like there is agreement that goes so far beyond the point of mere consensus that the points of view are being offered as assumptions. But depending on where they are being propounded, (e.g. small town exercise club, basket ball gym, country club, college faculty club) such opinions will express the exact opposite points of view, falling on the contrary ends of respective spectrums.

When your point of view is supported on the rigidly solid ground of “group think” and yet you find yourself on the losing end of a decision, the frustrating sense of a lack of agency is going to be inevitable and probably accompanied by the feeling that you and yours are being awfully wronged.

Perhaps the largest grouping in which thinking seems to be fixed in agreement, with no acceptable room for disagreement, is – and has long been – within regions. How else can it be that white Southerners in the U. S. always vote as a single party block – as Democrats from the Civil War up to the Civil Rights Movement and since then as Republicans? How else is there to explain that an engulfing number of white Southerners identify as conservatives and seem to feel that being a conservative is morally correct while anything else is relatively immoral? How is it that racial prejudice and injustice can remain so much more prevalent in the South than anywhere else?

I do not believe the questions can be answered in a way that identifies most people in a whole region as inherently conservative, or inherently right, or inherently wrong, or inherently evil. It is due to cultural “group think.”

One last word, and it is absolutely central to the whole, and ongoing, story of Christianity. It is central to the good news of God in Christ; it is Gospel. Giving into “group think” is really, painfully, stupid. No other word will do. We all do it, and that stands as evidence that we all can be pretty stupid. When we free ourselves from “group think,” we are going to experience a most humanizing freedom, shockingly refreshing. There is a social price to be paid, for sure. One will be accused of being a bad citizen of one’s own society – and very probably made to feel like that indeed is so. One may even have to pick up a bit of the cross. But such a citizen will discover that truth and freedom are worth the price.

It is the truth that will set us free, not “group think” conformity.


The Dominance of Politics by One Sphere of Society
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Americans report a lack of personal agency, that most seem to feel that we have very little say in what is going on and that we are relatively helpless to do anything about what bothers or concerns us. At the Threshold is offering a series that is intended to examine the causes of that frustration.

Following the line of theological insight in David Tracy’s work, The Analogical Imagination, we may picture society in three distinctive spheres of activity, however much they may overlap and interrelate: that of the cultural, of the polis, and of the technological-economic-bureaucratic.

The cultural realm of society is that which examines the tradition that has been handed down, offers values, fosters ideas, contributes its own creativity, and so passes on the cumulative tradition to the next generation. This realm of activity includes the academy, the arts, religion, and so forth.

The polis is concerned with governance and decision-making within society. In mature democracies are found structures and institutions that provide checks and balances to safeguard against the ability of one part of government to dominate others.

The technological-economic-bureaucratic sphere is composed of those structures and stratification systems designed to determine the most effective and efficient means to carry out all the economic and technical development of society. This includes everything from factories to scientific labs to Wall Street.

One reason most Americans feel a lack of agency is that there is one sector of society whose specialist seem to be much more in charge than those of who specialize in the other two spheres. The techno-economic realm seems to feel that it’s leaders and experts should be the decisive agents of political control, and in fact that they were handed the lead as a feature establishing the conservative movement. Others have increasingly awaken to the reality that they have less and less say, pretty much in inverse proportion to the extent that those with enough money have taken charge of the elective politics. Ironically, even those within the inner workings of the techno-economic realm feel that they too lack agency. This is due to the fact that they are working against the way the system is set up, and while they can dominate, they can’t take over. Instead, what is happening is that the system has slowly but surely been breaking down and simply not working. Even though a businessman with the reputation as one of the most successful ever is the nominee of one of our two major parties to be elected President, it should be apparent that the business community has itself lost control – almost totally.

Let’s start with the theory of how different spheres of society are designed to work together in a democracy, over against the political system in which one of them takes over.

There should be no room to value any one realm of society over against the others, or to think that one is more important, more pure, or more humanistic – or more of a response to the call of God. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or essentially flawed in any of the spheres of activity within and on behalf of society. The working cooperation between the three, all gears interlocking, is paramount.

However, there is indeed an inherent dynamic of competition between the three spheres. Part of this arises out of the conviction of those primarily engaged in each, that what they are doing is of crucial importance. But this virtuous and highly motivating perspective can become problematic when it is becomes one of superiority, when people dedicated to their sphere of activity begin to think that their expertise and judgment is so superior that they should be able to make decisions about the other two spheres, and protect the self interest of their realm of society over and above the others. It can also happen when one realm begins to think that the other two should leave it alone to function as it sees best, without the checks and balances of things like regulations. This has, in fact, occurred in many societies, and we know the results well.

When the polis absolutely dominates we term it a dictatorship. For example, it often is the military that emerges from within the sphere of the polis to take over and run all sectors of society. When the cultural realm takes over, as Plato dreamed in his desire for philosopher kings, it is usually a theocracy that succeeds. That is, it is usually the religious sphere taking over to dominate all parts of society. When the techno-economic-bureaucratic sector is running the whole show we have a plutocracy – or it has sometimes come to be termed an oligarchy. None of these forms of totalitarian government have ever been something North Americans want.

There is a strong tendency today to be dazzled by the glittering successes and attractive simplifications offered by modern technology and a business driven economy. The Greek farmer embraced the plow as a wonderful new technological device, but brought to that and the other technological advances of his day a worldview that took them in contemplatively. The Greek took technology, like all of life, and absorbed its fascinating betterment for productivity and lifestyle into the harmony of the created order, into the logos (the driving rational principle) of the universe.

The worldview we have inherited, unlike that of ancient Greece, leads us to use the methodology, the goals, the criteria for technological-economic-bureaucratic success as values in and of themselves, to employ the motivating urges of the technological-economic-bureaucratic sector pervasively throughout society, far beyond the proper boundaries and without stringent regulations and other forms of checks and balances. The United States has developed a society that can be defined, by and large, as a consumerist society. Everything seems to be for sale, and the value of everything is viewed in terms of what it is worth on “a market.”

The consumerist understanding of human nature is at fault rather than technology itself, though consumerism and the popular accessibility to high-technology seems to elicit tendencies from each other which builds onto the problem. The capitalistic system also tends to reward capital as a value in and of itself, such that there is now a tendency to rely too much on financing, that is, on making money out of money, than on producing goods and services. Indeed, one way of using money to make money is in giving it to politicians and reaping the rewards that can be elicited – legally and illegally – through legislation and executive powers.

There is much to be said here, but for our purposes let us simply say that when we combine all the factors with the domination of money in politics, we find ourselves today rapidly approaching a state of plutocracy, and the church should want that to be avoided. The genuine Christian never fares well in totalitarian government, that is, when government is totally dominated by one realm of government. Is it surprising that this is true even when the theocracy is identified as Christian?

Is it surprising that the path we have been on has taken us too far and thrown us into a crisis? Are we ready to us wake up and smell the smoke? Are we ready to correct the relationships between the three spheres of society?


Reaction to Globalization and Deindustrialization
Written by: Joe Morris Doss

Globalization is a fact. This is producing a very different mode of operation internationally and domestically. Americans are finding the change highly exciting, very scary, and often painful. Some are all for it; some are absolutely against it; many are just confused and waiting to see what things look like when enough of the smoke clears.

Trade agreements are opposed by politicians on the left and on the right, from Bernie Sanders to organized Labor to Donald Trump. Others who also represent both the left and the right, from President Obama to most Republicans in Congress, are all for free trade and the agreements that enhance it. That alone is confusing enough.

If you understand it and embrace it you are pleased that globalization is widening and deepening in almost every conceivable dimension. Anyone can do business with anyone else anywhere. America’s hardware, software, automobile, pharmaceutical, and other companies all depend more than ever on sales abroad for their growth; 40% of the S&P 500’s revenues are international. The American economy is increasingly dependent on globalization with respect to the inflows of talent and investment and outflows of goods, services, and capital seeking higher returns. If you are in favor of all this, it is very likely that you would be in favor of opening America to engagement with the whole world in more ways than simply doing business. You are, if you will, “open” to internationalism and the whole new dispensation about how the world works.

If you have lost a job because manufacturing plants are closing down, or if you live in large regions of the nation where the pain of unemployment is being broadly shared, you are likely to blame the movement of companies abroad and view international labor competition as unfair. It is likely that you would be more closed to “internationalism,” generally. For example, you would be more likely to resent the immigration of new peoples into the land, and perhaps not only because of labor competition, but because of a rising wish to be left along and closed to the rest of the world. Besides open borders and free trade, you might resent cosmopolitan culture and global intervention. You might just find a candidate appealing who is for closed borders, trade barriers, local and nationalistic culture, and an America First foreign policy.

In an age of anxiety, that closed posture might have a shot at winning. On trade agreements, for example, though supporters represent both the left and right wings of the political spectrum, the opposition is moving into the lead at this point: 60 percent of Republicans, 49 percent of Democrats and 50 percent of independents believe that trade agreements are mostly harmful (according to a Brookings Institution/Public Religion Research Institute study).

OK, but where does this picture leave us? Here is the reality, and so, “get over it:” globalization is here to stay. We have to adjust, pitch in, and continue to work for the common good.

Take the movement of American manufacturing to foreign lands:

It is tragic to see the suffering caused by those whose jobs are taken abroad, but then it is also tragic to see the suffering of human beings in other countries who lack jobs and livable wages. Christians are just as concerned for neighbors who are far off as for neighbors who are near. The evidence is stacking up to indicate that globalization is better for the world, and if that is so, then Christians must be ready and willing to work for the good of all.

Meanwhile, there is always going to be “the next China” to attract labor-intensive, low-wage manufacturing. In fact, America’s efforts to bring back home one or two million manufacturing jobs pale in comparison to the nearly 100 million manufacturing jobs that are flowing out of China and recirculating to places where there is cheaper labor costs: Myanmar, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and other low-wage, low-skill countries.

The output of American made goods by American companies will continue to decline because the math still clearly favors arbitrage – (1) producing at the cheapest price and (2) closest to one’s customers. The combination of cheaper labor and being able to build close to the customer is the optimal way to manufacture. Indeed, the American manufacturer is discovering that building closer to the customers they are reaching right at home can be cheaper than the savings to be made by hiring cheaper labor elsewhere. In an age of globalization, the hope for increasing American manufacturing is largely in having foreign companies build locally in order to be closer to the Americans to whom they hope to sale what is manufactured. This is apparent, for example, with Japanese cars.

The best way to increase manufacturing at home is not to try to bring plants and companies back, but to improve the infrastructure, making it easier to build and sale across the land. Of course this includes improvement of the social infrastructure in states and cities wishing to attract high-wage business, e.g. schools, broadband availability, culture, etc.

One other fact should be taken into account as workers loose manufacturing jobs: a relatively new problem is about to overtake American workers: robotics. The only hope going forward is to provide training for new jobs and new skills, while supporting those who will need to be retrained.

Take those trade agreements:

Is it not clear enough that The US got the deal it wanted with Iran regarding nuclear weapons production because it had entered into trade agreements with countries that cooperated with the imposition of economic sanctions?

Are enough people paying attention to what “the turn to the East” has meant to American business enterprises, and how much damage would be done economically if the US does not enter into pan Asian trade agreements that are fair, innovative, and foresighted? A study by Peter Petri and Michael Plummer estimates that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would boost American incomes by $131 billion.

Does anyone think Mexico would have become as democratic and economically healthy without NAFTA? And, the flow of Mexican and US immigration during Obama’s term has mainly been the voluntary exiting of Mexicans on their way home to capitalize on the growing economy. The smartest thing the US can do is to send job creating and socially stabilizing supply chains back with those people returning Mexico, investing there. America should begin to think of itself as the heart of an integrated North American supercontinent. The infrastructural, economic, cultural, and strategic blending of north America has become an irreversible fact.

Though developments are still so rapid and so fluid that it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions, overall and on balance there is evidence that globalization is good for the American economy. A study by the Peterson Institute found that past trade liberalization laws added between $7,100 to 12,900 in additional income to the average household. And, a more efficient manufacturing system makes it possible to divert resources into things that improve the quality of life. Neil Irwin points out that Pittsburgh has lost 5,100 steel jobs since 1990, but it has also gained 66,000 health care jobs over the same time.