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Merchandising “Cool” – The Never-Ending Search

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PBS Frontline, in 2001, ran a frankly prophetic documentary on what were then cutting-edge techniques in brand marketing. It’s interesting to note how quickly these trends proliferated until now, nine years later, they seem frightfully commonplace. The transcript can be found here.

The piece begins by remarking that the “teen generation” of 2001, the one to which I belonged, had been the largest and most sought-after generation to date – even larger than the baby boomers.  It collectively spent $100 billion dollars per year on itself, and induced its parents to spend an additional $50 billion. It had more disposable cash then ever before, and economic freedom to spend it. And so finding the best way to appeal to that generation became a pressing concern for the Madison Street advertising firms – and a lucrative one.

Early research quickly focused upon that implacable question – What is ‘cool’?How does one become cool? A species known in the marketing business as “Cool Hunters” made its niche to find that answer. As Malcolm Gladwell says in the piece:

“Cool hunting” is structured around, really, a search for a certain kind of personality and a certain kind of player in a given social network. For years and years on Madison Avenue, if you knew where the money was and where the power was and where the big houses were, then you knew what was going to happen next. And cool hunting was all about a kind of revolution that sets that earlier paradigm aside and says, in fact, it has to do with the influence held by those who have the respect and admiration and trust of their friends.

PBS takes us briefly through the life of a corporate spy:

A correspondent is a person who’s been trained by us to be able to find a certain kind of kid, a kid that we call a trendsetter or an early adopter. This is a kid who’s very forward in their thinking, who looks outside their own backyard for inspiration, who is a leader within their own group.These kids are really difficult to find. So what this correspondent does is they go out and they, like, find and identify these trend-setting kids. They interview them. They get them interested in what we do. They send all that stuff in. We look at it. We compile it. We look for trends or themes that are happening through all the information, and that’s the stuff that we put on our Web site.

But there was a problem. The process essentially cannibalizes itself. As it turns out, a big part of being “cool” is having nothing to do with avaricious marketers with an intent to exploit. As soon as a certain trend becomes blatantly marketed, kids move on to the next thing. Trying to pin down “cool” is an infinite game of whack-a-mole, a perpetual cycle.

The piece details how Sprite improbably became the symbol of hip-hop by sponsoring DJs and MC’s to promote their drink. By the way, this is the reason contemporary music is awful:

[Advertising Executive] PINA SCIARRA: Hip-hop for us became the sort vehicle, or the lens, for us to get to teens and talk to them in a credible way. And the way we did that was to develop relationships with artists.

And it worked. Sprite’s sales skyrocketed, and in 2001, when the piece was done, had attained supremacy in the youth market.

The reporter, Douglas Rushkoff, intones chillingly:

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Is it nostalgic to think that when we were young it was any different, that the thing we called “youth culture” wasn’t something that was just being sold to us, it was something that came from us, an act of expression, not just of consumption? Has that boundary been completely erased?

Today five enormous companies are responsible for selling nearly all of youth culture. These are the true merchants of cool: Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Universal Vivendi, and AOL/Time Warner.

Those companies own all of the networks. All advertising must go through them. And MTV, one of our primary outlets of branded youth culture, became a virtual laboratory, where the results of thousands of focus groups, undercover fact-finding missions, and interviews got to be tested on real consumers.  Viacom, MTV’s parent, happened to be the ‘coolest’ conglomerate when this piece was made, and I have no doubt it still is. After all, they still own Jon Stewart, the White House court jester, who is authentically popular with the 18-24 demographic.

Exploring Viacom’s success, PBS examines how it gained popularity with the male demographic with several case studies, all centered around the idea of a “mook”, an advertising term that translates roughly to “boor”. In males, the “mook” takes its manifest in the lowbrow comedy acts like Howard Stern, Tom Green, the phenomena of professional wrestling, The Man Show and the Jackass franchise. The impulse there is always not to think, not to worry about anything in particular; just embrace your “manhood” – your penchant for slapstick comedy and outrageous statements – and above all, keep buying things.

The female counterpart to the “mook” emphasized overt sexuality, typified by Britney Spears. As the piece remarks of Ms. Spears:

She hit the scene at 16 with “Baby, One More Time,” as a naughty Catholic schoolgirl bursting out of her uniform. When it came time for a spread in Rolling Stone, the 17-year-old self-professed virgin Britney struck the classic nymphet pose. And at the Video Music Awards last year, when Britney finally and famously came out of her clothes, she wasn’t just pleasing eager young boys, she was delivering a powerful missive to girls: Your body is your best asset. Flaunt your sexuality even if you don’t understand it. And that’s the message that matters most because Britney’s most loyal fans are teenage girls.

PBS takes us through several other case studies, and the trend of anti-intellectualism pervades throughout. Through endless focus groups and iterations of the cool chase, our marketers have programmed us to be unthinking, unfeeling, buying machines. It would be easy to dismiss these techniques as rather severe examples of the sort of anti-intellectualism that prevailed around the time President Bush was elected; that they were a small part of an overall scheme to make a purely corporate candidate electable for office. Perhaps, many would argue, President Obama, the university intellectual, repudiated that culture.

However, to those detractors I would offer this last bit of evidence: the lyrics to a song entitled “Blah Blah Blah” by our newest musical sensation, 22-year-old “Ke$ha”, who has just released a best-selling record, one year into Obama’s presidency.

Coming out your mouth with your blah blah blah
Just zip your lips like a padlock
And meet me at the back with the jack and the jukebox
I don’t really care where you live at
Just turn around boy and let me hit that
Don’t be a little bitch with your chit chat
Just show me where your dick’s at

Music’s up
Listen hot stuff
I’m in love
With this song
So just hush
Baby shut up
Heard enough

Stop ta-ta-talking that
Blah blah blah
Think you’ll be getting this
Nah nah nah
Not in the back of my
If you keep talking that
Blah blah blah blah blah

Boy come on get your rocks off
Come put a little love in my glove box
I wanna dance with no pants on
Meet me in the back with the jack and the jukebox
So cut to the chase kid
‘Cause I know you don’t care what my middle name is
I wanna be naked
But your wasted

For anyone who would like to know how these lyrics came to be, and still wonders how the machinery of political suppression is exercised, I highly recommend PBS Frontline’s investigation.

Update: You can watch the documentary online here.

Tapes & Transcripts

Merchants of Cool
Program #1911
Original Airdate: February 27, 2001Produced by
Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin

Directed by
Barak Goodman

Written by
Rachel Dretzin

Correspondent and Consulting Producer
Douglas Rushkoff

ANNOUNCER: They want to be cool. They are impressionable, and they have the cash. They are corporate America’s $150 billion dream.

    NEAL MORITZ, Movie Producer: Teenagers have a lot of disposable income. They want to go spend their money. And you know, we’re more than happy to make product that they want to go spend money on.

ANNOUNCER: MTV, Madison Avenue and the dream makers of Hollywood have targeted our teenagers.

    ROBERT McCHESNEY, Communications Professor, U. of Illinois: They look at the teen market as part of this massive empire that they’re colonizing. Teens are like Africa.

ANNOUNCER: They are the most studied generation in history.

    ROB STONE, Teen Marketing Executive: If you don’t understand and recognize what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, you’re going to lose. You’re absolutely going to lose.

ANNOUNCER: But what does this relentless focus on the teenager do to the culture?

    MARK CRISPIN-MILLER, Communications Professor, NYU: They’re going to do whatever they think works the fastest and with the most people, which means that they will drag standards down.

ANNOUNCER: And to the teenagers themselves?

    BARBARA: I have to look good for people. I need to look good.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, author and media critic Douglass Rushkoff takes a journey through the complex world of buying and selling cool.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: OK, so I’m going to take attendance here. Christopher.




    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Right there. OK. Adam. OK.

    You guys can all have a seat right over here. Has anybody ever done a focus group before? Do you remember what you talked about?

    PARTICIPANT: After-school sports.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, FRONTLINE: [voice-over] On a summer afternoon, in a downtown New York loft, corporate America is on a very serious mission.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: You know, it’s all going to be sort of, like, what you guys think. You guys are sort of the experts today, and it’s going to really be just you guys telling me your opinions.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: These five boys are here to be questioned about what they wear, what they eat, what they listen to and watch. For $125 each, they’re expected to answer.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Tell me some of the things that are really hot right now, some of the things that are really big right now, popular trends, things that you sort of see everywhere. What’s, like, going on? What’s hot right now? Just shout them out.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: OK, so they’re no more responsive than most teenagers, but that’s not going to stop this market researcher because the information he’s looking for is worth an awful lot of money. At 32 million strong, this is the largest generation of teenagers ever, even larger than their Baby Boomer parents. Last year teens spent more than $100 billion themselves and pushed their parents to spend another $50 billion on top of that. They have more money and more say over how they’ll spend it than ever before.

BOB BIBB, Television Marketing Executive: Teens run today’s economy. There’s an innate feeling for moms and dads to please the teen, to keep the teen happy, to keep the teen home. And I think you can pretty much take that to the bank.

SHARON LEE, Teen Market Researcher: They’re given a lot of what we call guilt money. “Here’s the credit card. Why don’t you go on line and buy something because I can’t spend time with you?”

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: I’m Douglas Rushkoff, and tonight we’ll tour through a landscape that has both attracted and repelled me during the decade I’ve been studying it. It’s the world in which our teenagers are growing up, a world made of marketing.

For today’s teens, a walk in the street may as well be a stroll through the mall. Anywhere they rest their eyes, they’ll be exposed to a marketing message. A typical American teenager will process over 3,000 discrete advertisements in a single day, and 10 million by the time they’re 18. Kids are also consuming massive quantities of entertainment media. Seventy-five percent of teens have a television in their room. A third have their own personal computer, where they spend an average of two hours a day on line.

BRIAN GRADEN, Television Programming Executive: I think one of the great things about this information age is, with so many channels, you can say my business is 12 to 15, or my business is 21 to 24. As a result, you have the most marketed-to group of teens and young adults ever in the history of the world.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It’s a blizzard of brands, all competing for the same kids. To win teens’ loyalty, marketers believe, they have to speak their language the best. So they study them carefully, as an anthropologist would an exotic native culture.

ROB STONE, Teen Marketing Executive: If you don’t understand and recognize what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and then be able to take that in and come up with a really precise message that you’re trying to reach these kids with in their terms, you’re going to lose. You’re absolutely going to lose.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Is there anybody in your group of friends in particular that is, you know, always really following the trends?


    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: No? So it’s just sort of all of you together kind of keep each other in check? OK. Cool.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: What makes this market so frustrating is that they don’t operate the same way as the rest of us. They’re a stubborn demographic, unresponsive to brands and traditional marketing messages. But there is one thing they do respond to: cool. Only cool keeps changing. So how do you map it, pin it down?

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: As I’m moving up, stop me when I get to, like, two years ago.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: What is cool anyway?

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: Like right here? OK.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: The search for this elusive prize has its own name: “cool hunting.”

MALCOLM GLADWELL, Writer, “The New Yorker” Magazine: “Cool hunting” is structured around, really, a search for a certain kind of personality and a certain kind of player in a given social network. For years and years on Madison Avenue, if you knew where the money was and where the power was and where the big houses were, then you knew what was going to happen next. And cool hunting was all about a kind of revolution that sets that earlier paradigm aside and says, in fact, it has to do with the influence held by those who have the respect and admiration and trust of their friends.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Many companies don’t trust themselves to do this kind of research, so they hire experts who can find these cool kids and speak their language.

DEE DEE GORDON, Teen Market Researcher: We look for kids who are ahead of the pack because they’re going to influence what all the other kids do. We look for the 20 percent, the trendsetters, that are going to influence the other 80 percent.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Dee Dee Gordon is a sought after cool hunter. Just 30 years old, she commands high fees as a consultant to some of the largest corporations in America and has been the subject of a New Yorker profile.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: How good is she? I think she’s as good as anyone is at this game, and it’s something- it’s a difficult thing to quantify, of course. It’s not a science. It’s really a question, ultimately, of how much do you trust the person who’s doing the interpretation and how good are their instincts. And I think, in both cases, she’s at the top of the field.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Three years ago, Gordon and her partner, Sharon Lee, left the small advertising agency where they worked to start their own business, Look-Look.

    DEE DEE GORDON: All the photos are really busy, so somebody has to shoot a skateboarder in the air or a cyclist in the air-

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Gordon and Lee have put together a team of what they call “correspondents”: all young, all former cool kids themselves.

    DEE DEE GORDON: The Slipknot story came in, and our writer did a really good job.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: They’re culture spies, who penetrate the regions of the teen landscape where corporations aren’t welcome.

    “CORRESPONDENT”: Can I take your picture for a street-culture Web site I work for?

    TEENAGE BOY: Go ahead.

    “CORRESPONDENT”: I got to get your piercings. Can I get your tattoo?

DEE DEE GORDON: A correspondent is a person who’s been trained by us to be able to find a certain kind of kid, a kid that we call a trendsetter or an early adopter. This is a kid who’s very forward in their thinking, who looks outside their own backyard for inspiration, who is a leader within their own group.

These kids are really difficult to find. So what this correspondent does is they go out and they, like, find and identify these trend-setting kids. They interview them. They get them interested in what we do. They send all that stuff in. We look at it. We compile it. We look for trends or themes that are happening through all the information, and that’s the stuff that we put on our Web site.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: For a subscription fee of $20,000 each, companies are granted access to the Look-Look Web site, a Rosetta stone of teen culture. If companies can get in on a trend or subculture while it is still underground, they can be the first ones to bring it to market.

DEE DEE GORDON: And that’s when the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and then eventually kills it.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: And that’s the paradox of cool hunting: It kills what it finds. As soon as marketers discover cool, it stops being cool.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: The faster you pick up on these trends and blow them out and show them to everybody and reveal them to corporate America, the more you force the kind of person who starts them and spreads them to move on and find the next. So you simply- there’s no kind of solution to this. You can’t ever solve the puzzle permanently. By having- by discovering cool, you force cool to move on to the next thing.

[ Learn more about “cool hunting”]

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: For those of you who crossed out Madonna, why did you cross out Madonna?

    PARTICIPANT: Because she’s old.

    FOCUS GROUP LEADER: She’s old?

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: This creates a problem for marketers. Kids begin to see them as the enemy. So what do marketers do? Market to kids without seeming to do so, become cool themselves, as Sprite did a few years ago.

    SPRITE COMMERCIAL: [singing] I like the way you make me laugh. I like the funny things you do-

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: In the early ’90s, Sprite was an also-ran brand in the competitive soft drink category. Their focus groups with teenagers were designed to find out what was wrong.

PINA SCIARRA, Director of Youth Brands, Sprite: What we found by talking to teens is that they had seen so much advertising that they were on overload and became very cynical about that traditional approach to advertising.

    GRANT HILL: [Sprite commercial] Hi, I’m Grant Hill, professional basketball player for the Detroit Pistons.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Then they launched this ad campaign aimed at teens, which pokes fun at marketing itself.

    GRANT HILL: [Sprite commercial] -because it’s the only drink with that cool, crisp, refreshing taste that satisfies even my manliest thirst.

PINA SCIARRA: There was really no one in the market at the time that was saying, “Discount it all. Don’t believe it. It’s all BS, and we know that you know that. And you’re smarter than everyone else.” So it put them in a position to feel like we understood them, so that they were feeding back to us, “You know, Sprite understands me. Sprite is one”- you know, “It’s really one of us.”

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It worked for a while. But soon Sprite’s own focus groups revealed that kids were getting wise to this anti-marketing marketing campaign.

    PARTICIPANT: They had Grant Hill telling you not to listen to some celebrity telling you to drink a beverage.


    PARTICIPANT: Well, that’s what you’re doing. You’re listening to Grant Hill telling you to drink Sprite.


    PARTICIPANT: I don’t know how much they probably paid all those stars to come on and say, “Don’t listen to what a star says.”

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So Sprite crossed an entirely new threshold into the innermost sanctum of teen culture, where they cloaked themselves in genuine cool.

PINA SCIARRA: Hip-hop for us became the sort vehicle, or the lens, for us to get to teens and talk to them in a credible way. And the way we did that was to develop relationships with artists.


Written by pavanvan

March 20, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Roger Ebert: Saint

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If you haven’t read Chris Jones’s moving interview-tribute to Roger Ebert in this month’s Esquire, I highly recommend it. I’ve been a fan of Ebert’s movie reviews for years  now, and while I have often found him far too soft on Hollywood’s stinkers (he liked Booty Call, for god’s sake!) I see now that it’s a product of a truly gentle personality, a soft, sophisticated intelligence that seeks, in spite of everything, to look on the bright side.

Mr. Ebert has spent the better part of the last decade in an out of surgery, battling a variety of cancers, which have ultimately claimed his throat and vocal cords, as well as his ability to eat, drink and communicate. As the article mentions, he can’t remember the last word he spoke, the last thing he ate, the last drink he drank. But with what grace, what humility he bears it! One hears no complaints from this man, no poor-me sob stories; in fact, he considers himself lucky!

As he says, “There is no need to pity me. Look how happy I am! This has led to an explosion of writing.”

And indeed it has. If you haven’t already, you owe it to yourself to go over Roger Ebert’s Journal, where he, in his verbal silence, effuses a bright and erudite stream of daily prose on every subject thinkable. Life, death, politics, film, love, relationships – well, everything really. There is much to learn from this man, and he is kind enough to attempt to teach us.

Written by pavanvan

February 21, 2010 at 10:26 am

Telangana Resumption

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Poster at a Telangana protest. The dam diverts water from Telangana to Andhra, leaving some farmers impoverished.

As I write, the city of Hyderabad has virtually shut down – but then, a city of 4 million can never really shut down, can it? The police have cordoned off the arterial roadways; they stand erect, decked in full riot gear, shields glistening in the sun before a tangle of razor-wire. Every 200 meters or so reveals a new checkpoint, a new cadre of stern-faced policeman prepared for – what? – for anything. The students of Osmania University have decided to march on the state assembly, for one last (though it won’t really be the last) cry of agitation for Telangana. The police have determined that they will not get that far. Hyderabad swarms with them; they have learned from past mistakes, and are now taking no chances. The previous agitations may have seemed a joke to most, a petty squabble between fresh-faced youngsters and India’s grimly determined gendarmerie. Only now does the seriousness of this affair sink in. Hyderabad resembles an occupied city, a militarized zone, whose citizens are doing their best, in spite of the inconvenience, to go about their daily business. The main roads blocked, their vehicles cram the side-streets, loosing a cacophony of horns, shouts, and irritated grunts.

But what of the students? From a terrace outside the university campus I got a birds-eye view of the coming agitation; a prelude, perhaps, to the free-for-all that is sure to ensue should the students somehow make it to the state assembly. (As of this writing, at 2:30 PM, the mob has been stopped approximatly four kilometers from their target.) Thousands of students stand in a tightly packed oblong circle, surrounded by hundreds of riot-clad policeman. The crowd roars, “Jai! Telangana!” and the police nervously fingered their batons, ready for the violence to break, perhaps even willing it, but sternly warned not to attack until the first stone had been thrown.

Suddenly – a break. As though by common consent, the stduents in the center of the mass begin pushing, and soon they force a hole in the police line. The police, still cautious, refrain from swinging their batons. One catches just the faintest wisp of bemusement in their eyes – the students, after all, have six kilometers and fifteen roadblocks to traverse before they reach their goal at the assembly. Let them march! But still, one officer cannot help but swing a half-hearted whack at a passing student. The gap widens; the students pour through. The shouts become ebullient, joyful: “Johar! Johar!” One young fellow, only twenty by the looks of him, runs at the head of the mob, leaping with joy, pumping his fist into the air. Another group of students stays behind at the university gate, chanting slogans, waving flags, and glaring, with anger-widened eyes, at their khaki-clad oppressors.

The Telangana movement has entered into the third month of its current incarnation, and it shows no signs of slowing. What moves these students to risk their lives, their well-being? By what do they endure the blows of police batons, the cracked skulls, the shattered ribs? To find out, I visited the Osmania University campus during a lull in the activity, one week ago. In interviews with students and professors, I caught, perhaps, a glimpse of the disposession, the frustration that drives this movement – but I gained as well a healthy dose of cynicism.

Before I begin I should admit that my initial writings on this topic (here, here and here) were premature and largely uninformed. I regarded this business then as so much wasted time, a pointless agitation for a rather meaningless goal – would Telangana, after all, relieve India’s systemic corruption? Would it ease Hyderabad’s pollution-withered lungs? I had a sense, at the time, that Telangana had suffered some historical injustice, but I had no idea how systematic it was, how deeply it affected the farmers and villagers of this area, what a scarified psychic wound it left. As with all political movements, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, how much of it is a spontaneous effusion of decades of frustration, and how much planned by clever, power-seeking politicians. My interviews with the Osmania students did little to relieve this ambiguity.

The grievances, at least, are real enough – Telangana has been deprived of water, land, and cultural identity. The statistics are revealing, and Telangana protesters never turn down an opportunity to quote them – 80% of state jobs go to Andhra, even though the state capital is in Telangana; only 13% of the state’s water supplies get to the Telangana region. Telangana finds itself bereft of universities, capital investment, development projects, or any kind of government support.  They’ve been lied to from the start – the 1956 agreement that bound Andhra and Telangana together was a sham and was violated almost immediately after it was signed.

The knowledge of this deprivation has moved countless students to protest – but it seems there must be something more to it.

My interviews at Osmania were partially instructive. I wanted to know why these students felt so strongly about the Telangana issue – beyond the various statistics that illustrate Telangana’s subjugation. What did Telangana mean to them? Why were they willing to risk being arrested and beaten? Why were students dousing themselves with kerosene and lighting a match?


Aravind Seti, 22, is a Master’s student in Biotechnology. He has a shy, innocent smile, and a soft-spoken manner about him. He was sitting outside the Osmania Arts College, the main building of the agitations, under a tent where a few students desultorily milled about and a cheap 1960s-era speaker blasted grainy Telangana protest music. I approached him, notebook in hand, and began to ask of his motivations.

“Well…” he started. He seemed to have difficutly putting his thoughts into words. “The political leaders here are all very corrupt. We aren’t represented in the assembly. I’m doing this for the sake of my friends and colleagues. We’ll get more jobs, you see, many more opportunities if Telangana comes.”

I persisted, “But why do you, specifically, feel strongly about this? Is it a sense of historical injustice, or have you personally seen Andhra oppression? What lead you to protest?”

“I am excited to be part of such a historic movement,” he explained, “We have suffered for so long – not me, personally, but my countrymen, we in Telangana. So much history behind us gets stamped under the Andhra heel. Who will speak for us?”

He opened his mouth to continue, but before he could speak, a short professor with a furrowed brow walked quickly towards us. His eyes were red.

“Yes, who are you?” he asked.

“I’m a journalist – I’m trying to get a sense of the public mood here. You know, why the students feel so strongly about this, etc.”

He was brusque. “Address your questions to me. I can speak for the students.”

“And who might you be?” I asked.

“I’m his teacher.”

“Which class do you teach?”

“I teach Arts at a different university.”

“But he just told me he’s a biochemistry student. How can you be…”

“Well, I’ve taken on the role of a mentor for these students. I’m a teacher for all the students of this movement now.”

I attempted to interview Aravind, but his ‘professor’ continued to interject with the standard Telangana grievances: the water, the jobs, the land-grab on the part of Andhra, etc. He was vigorous, angry, even, and hardly allowed Aravind to speak. This was not what I had come there for. The grievances I knew; the students, I didn’t.

Thinking I could not understand Telegu, the professor hurriedly whispered to Aravind: “When he asks you questions, you must give perfect answers. You are speaking for the movement.  Do not give wrong answers!”

I felt I wouldn’t get much farther with Aravind, so I asked him one final question: “How long have you felt this way? How long have you been conscious of the Telangana plight?”

He blushed. The professor winced. “To tell you the truth,” said Aravind, “I had no idea about any of this until last November, when K.C.R [the leader’s movement] gave his speech at the university and began his hunger strike. I listened to his speech and wanted to be part of a movement.”

The professor began to give a long speech regarding the historical injustice of Telangana’s union with Andhra – the broken promises, the theft of water, the deprivation of employment. I cut him off and asked: “What do you think of the recent suicides? There have been almost 100 so far, all for Telangana. Do you think that by glorifying the students who choose to kill themselves, the movement condones it?”

He turned scarlet. “We absolutely do not condone these suicides!” he said vigorously, “But how can we stop them? They are an expression of the students’ rage.”

I persisted. “But Aravind just said he didn’t even know about this movement until a couple months ago. How could they have gotten so enraged so quickly?”

The professor stammered. “Well… emotions run hot…” He did not want to comment further.

I was curious as to how long the professor had been active in the movement. For someone who evidently felt so strongly about the issue, for someone who had taken a leadership position in these student agitations, he surely must have agitated before. He was in his late thirties.

“How long have you been in the movement?” I asked.

The professor scowled, then frowned, as though he knew the question was coming, and dreaded it.

“…. I’ve only been participating since November 28th, the date of K.C.R’s speech. ” And then, by way of justification: “One has to take care of their own…” Meaning his family.


Pandu Rangam is 22 years old, and he’s studying for a B. Tech in computer science. His parents are farmers in Nizamabad, in the heart of Telangana. When I spoke with him he betrayed a profound cynicism toward the whole student movement, and questioned the motives of its leaders.

“These students are being totally manipulated by K.C.R and the rest of the leadership,” he said, “The tragedy is that while the politicians aren’t really sincere about this, the students are. Look at how many have killed themselves over this! I’m amazed K.C.R has no shame. 99% of the students you talk to had no idea about Telangana this – Andhra that, until K.C.R came and gave his speech here. They’re 2-month-old patriots.”

“What do you think will happen if Telangana comes into existence?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing much will change,” he replied, almost cheerfully, “The politicians will rule the state much as it has been ruled – only now we’ll be plundered by our own people, instead of those living 200 km away.”

“These students are trying so hard,” he continued, “They endure the police charges, take their blows, but in the end they’ll be disenfranchised as they always have – you know, we’ll only see a real change if the students get leadership positions in the new Telangana. They’re the only ones who aren’t corrupt. How can they be – they haven’t had time to get the taste of money. ”

Arjun, 21, another computer science student, overheard our conversation and joined in.

“But you have to admit, we’ve been totally mistreated by the Andhra government. Remember – 85% of jobs to go Andhra! They buy all our real estate and force our farmers into slavery!” he chided Pandu, “All politicians are corrupt – we know that. But maybe things will be a little better under our own leaders.”

Pandu laughed, “You want to risk your life for a ‘maybe’?”

Arjun continued, “Before we get Telangana we need a full inquiry into government corruption. We must root out corruption in our state if anything is to change.”

Pandu: “That’s why we let the students run the state!”

Arjun: “That’s a stupid idea. What do we know? We 22-and-23 year olds? You yourself said how easily the students were led into risking their lives, into enduring police charges. Who is to say some corrupt politician won’t manipulate these student leaders if they gain power in the state?”

Pandu had no answer.

I asked, “Would it be worth all this be worth it if Telangana happened, but its leaders turned out to be just as corrupt as the Andhra leaders?”

Pandu said no. Arjun said yes.

Pandu: “What is the use if none of our problems are solved?”

Arjun: “Even if we get corrupt leaders, at least they will be our corrupt leaders.”


Walking about the campus, I stopped a student on the street for a spot interview. His name was Vikas, and he had taken part in the agitations since November 28th – K.C.R’s speech. He has attended meetings, but did not participate in the riots.

“I wanted to be a part of something historic,” he said, “I didn’t know very much about this until K.C.R. gave his speech. I listened to it and became very inspired. Without Telangana we won’t get jobs. We won’t get land, or water.”


Thimmapa is 20, and one of the few students I spoke with who rioted with the students last December. He endured the police batons, and showed me a scar on his forehead to prove it. He bears it with pride.

“My dad is dead, and my mom is a coolie,” he said, by way of introduction, “I’ve been wanting Telangana ever since I was 14 years old. I read about it in books, but more than that, I watched society. People from Andhra are managers. People from Telangana are night watchmen outside the buildings.”

I ask you, how is this fair? Are we not people? I tell you, we are just as smart as anyone from Andhra. They think we’re second-class, but I say they are the second-class!”

“What about K.C.R.?” I asked.

“He is a good orator,” Thimmapa replied. “We will see what kind of leader he is. I trust him.”

“With Telangana we’ll have jobs, land,” Thimmapa continued, “We’ll tear down these evil dams that divert our water. Our water! And we won’t give a drop more to Andhra. Have they not drank enough?”

His roommate interjected: “We feel stepped on. They destroy our culture, say it’s no good. Well, I think they’re culture is no good. But who listens to me? If I were from Andhra, I would have a nice job waiting for me when I get out of university; I would have big land with a river flowing through it.”


Anurag is a 19-year-old law student and speaks in flawless English. He, too, is skeptical of the movement, and says he is “neither for nor against Telangana”, instead describing himself merely as “pro-development”.

“I see no clear agenda from the pro-Telangana people”, he remarked, “The students who are involved in this so-called agitation to me  seem to be simply moving with the flock. What will happen once they achieve Telangana? No one knows. Well, I guess K.C.R will become Chief Minister – everyone knows that. But then what? Do they think they’ll suddenly get land and water and jobs overnight? I think a lot of students are in for a big disappointment, one way or another.”

“What do you see as the pros and cons of a separate Telangana state?” I asked.

“Well, let’s see – definitely a con will be the lack of negotiation power with the Central Government – consolidated with Andhra we speak with a much bigger voice. All alone, I’m not sure how many concessions we’ll be able to wrest from them. Another con would be the interruption of studies. If these agitations continue, the students will have lost one full year of school. Don’t they care about that?

On the pro side – a new state will open new opportunities for jobs. A new state means a new assembly, a new legislature. These positions will obviously be filled by Telangana students. But at the same time, the number of positions we’re talking about is slight – maybe 300 to 400 new jobs at the max. It’s clear the problem is bigger than this – it has to do with overpopulation – but of course no one wants to talk about that. Let’s see… well, I guess it’ll do wonders for our self-respect. I mean that’s what everyone talks about, right? But I can’t help but think that if we can’t respect ourselves without our own state, how will be be able to respect ourselves with one? During the independence movement that was also a major argument; people said India can never respect itself while it’s under the British crown. Do we really respect ourselves so much now?”


I came away from the university with something of a clearer picture of this movement. The grievances, at least, are no doubt legitimate, but I found it extremely curious that most of the students with whom I spoke had very little knowledge of them before K.C.R gave his fateful speech. However no one can doubt the genuineness of the student’s emotions – they feel the injustice, and are willing to go to some length to demonstrate it. Partly for a desire to belong to a larger movement, certainly, but also of a feeling of historical injustice, and the desire to redress it. The student suicides are especially perplexing, and I cannot wrap my mind around why someone would kill themselves over this.

One last note on the police brutality this movement has seen: at several protests over the past few months the police have charged, seemingly without warning, striking anyone at hand, including women and reporters. I know not under whose orders such actions were undertaken, but they remain counterproductive in the extreme, and have likely done more than their part in recruiting new protesters. It is not a pleasant sight to see young women clutching their heads as blood seeps between their fingers – and those who do see it are likely to become far more enraged over that, rather than abstract historical grievances.

The Chinese Mystique

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Perry Anderson has an excellent round-up of some recent books on the rise of China in this fortnight’s London Review of Books.

An excerpt:

These days Orientalism has a bad name. Edward Said depicted it as a deadly mixture of fantasy and hostility brewed in the West about societies and cultures of the East. He based his portrait on Anglo-French writing about the Near East, where Islam and Christendom battled with each other for centuries before the region fell to Western imperialism in modern times. But the Far East was always another matter. Too far away to be a military or religious threat to Europe, it generated tales not of fear or loathing, but wonder. Marco Polo’s reports of China, now judged mostly hearsay, fixed fabulous images that lasted down to Columbus setting sail for the marvels of Cathay. But when real information about the country arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries, European attitudes towards China tended to remain an awed admiration, rather than fear or condescension. From Bayle and Leibniz to Voltaire and Quesnay, philosophers hailed it as an empire more civilised than Europe itself: not only richer and more populous, but more tolerant and peaceful, a land where there were no priests to practise persecution and offices of the state were filled according to merit, not birth. Even those sceptical of the more extravagant claims for the Middle Kingdom – Montesquieu or Adam Smith – remained puzzled and impressed by its wealth and order.

A drastic change of opinion came in the 19th century, when Western predators became increasingly aware of the relative military weakness and economic backwardness of the Qing empire. China was certainly teeming, but it was also primitive, cruel and superstitious. Respect gave way to contempt, mingled with racist alarm – Sinomania capsizing into Sinophobia. By the early 20th century, after eight foreign forces had stormed their way to Pekin to crush the Boxer Uprising, the ‘yellow peril’ was being widely bandied about among press and politicians, as writers like Jack London or J.H. Hobson conjured up a future Chinese takeover of the world. Within another few decades, the pendulum swung back, as Pearl Buck and Madame Chiang won popular sympathy for China’s gallant struggle against Japan. After 1948, in a further rapid reversal, Red China became the focus of still greater fear and anxiety, a totalitarian nightmare more sinister even than Russia. Today, the high-speed growth of the People’s Republic is transforming Western attitudes once again, attracting excitement and enthusiasm in business and media alike, with a wave of fashion and fascination recalling the chinoiserie of rococo Europe. Sinophobia has by no means disappeared. But another round of Sinomania is in the making.

The review is nuanced, scholarly, and even-handed. Definitely worth a read.

The Supreme Court: On the Other Hand…

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I want to draw attention to Glenn Greenwald’s recent discussion of the Supreme Court’s pro-bribery decision. Kevin Drum gives him a good rebuttal. These two posts demonstrate the complexity of this issue and how knee-jerk embraces or denials of the Supreme Court’s decision are  vast oversimplifications. I admit I, too,regarded the decision initially with horror, though like Mr. Greenwald I noted that bribery in our polity is so bad it could not get much worse. However, I also swept aside the substantial first-amendment issues implied in this case, casually remarking “Money is not speech” or “Corporations aren’t individuals”.

Mr. Greenwald raises some difficult challenges to those once-seeming platitudes. Isn’t spending money to publicize a message, after all, a form of “speech”? Did the Founding Fathers intend freedom of speech to only cover verbal communication? But then they have that “freedom of the press” too! What if you buy a printing press and use it to disseminate your message? That’s speech, right? And what if you use your press to irrationally support one candidate or one ideology (like a certain network we know)? Even that should be protected under the First Amendment.


Anyone who believes that [“money isn’t speech”] would have to say that there’s no First Amendment problem with any law that restricts the spending of money for political purposes, such as:”It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money to criticize laws enacted by the Congress; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such laws, provided no money is spent;” or

“It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money advocating Constitutional rights for accused terrorists; all citizens shall still be free to express their views on such matters, provided no money is spent”; or

“It shall be illegal for anyone to spend money promoting a candidate not registered with either the Democratic or Republican Party; all citizens shall still be free to advocate for such candidates, provided no money is spent.”

Anyone who actually believes that “money is not speech” would have to believe that such laws are necessarily permitted by the First Amendment (since they merely restrict the expenditure of money, which is not speech).

Do you actually believe that? I don’t even find that argument sufficiently coherent to warrant much discussion.


This highlights the dangers inherent in trying to limit monetary political support. The potential for misuse is enormous. That said, corporate influence on campaigns and governance is probably the single biggest disease affecting our polity. If this decision doesn’t exacerbate the problem, it undoubtedly legitimizes it.

Citizens United v. FEC is a tremendously difficult case. Corporations must have constitutional protection; certainly from unwarranted search or seizure, and just as certainly the right to advertise. Blackwater, a private mercenary company vigorously exercises its right to bear arms. To what extent can these rights be abridged to achieve “good results”? The Supreme Court cites “compelling state interest”, and it is up for debate whether political contributions constitute such.

With regard to campaign finance, I definitely think the solution – or at least a solution – is transparency. We must have detailed records as to who takes money from whom, publicly displayed and open to scrutiny. OpenSecrets does a great job of this, but such organizations are tragically few. Beyond that, I think a return to public financing with strict limits on campaign length would be a great idea. It seems to be working in Britain, anyway. And given the length and cost of a presidential campaign (1.5 years and $680 million as of 2008 and growing), I think some steady rules on this issue would be nice.

This, of course, would not prevent a large financier from investing in some television network and using it to pump out propaganda for his chosen candidate, nor should it. That will be another difficult battle. For now, it seems clear that some restrictions on how long the campaign season lasts and how much money each candidate can spend are well in order.

Written by pavanvan

January 24, 2010 at 11:26 am

Sarah Palin: Political Scientist

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Apropos Ms. Palin’s recent entry into political commentary, I think it’s important to remember this lengthy article in October’s Vanity Fair, written by none other than Ms. Palin’s once (but not future) son-in-law, the man who impregnated her daughter, Mr. Levi Johnson.

The public saw Levi only once, following the bizarre announcement that Ms. Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant during the 2008 election. He made a single appearance at the Republican National Convention, which the article suggests he was basically forced to do, and nobody really heard from him again. Until now.

Palin comes across in Mr. Johnson’s article as a careerist par-none, a person for whom the next step in the executive (here, political) ladder is their sole driving force, who would be willing to sacrifice anything and tell any lie to get ahead, for whom even her children and (soon-to-be) grandchildren are little more than political pawns. It seems likely that Mr. Johnson has some ax to grind with Ms. Palin, as the bulk of the article states how she never had time for her children or family – but he levels some charges which, if true, would be fantastically outrageous.

You may remember, for instance, the short-lived speculation that Ms. Palin’s most recent son, Trig, was actually her daughter’s. This turned out not to be true, but a similar scheme almost went into play. As Levi explains:

“You’ve got to listen to what my mom just said.” Sarah told me she had a great idea: we would keep it a secret—nobody would know that Bristol was pregnant. She told me that once Bristol had the baby she and Todd would adopt him. That way, she said, Bristol and I didn’t have to worry about anything.

Sarah kept mentioning this plan. She was nagging—she wouldn’t give up. She would say, “So, are you gonna let me adopt him?” We both kept telling her we were definitely not going to let her adopt the baby. I think Sarah wanted to make Bristol look good.

Truly absurd.

And let’s not forget why Ms. Palin quit her governorship of Alaska, despite having two more years to serve. In her resignation speech, she mumbled something about dead fish not swimming with the stream, or something like that – but Levi gives us another take:

[After the election], Sarah was sad for a while. She walked around the house pouting. I had assumed she was going to go back to her job as governor, but a week or two after she got back she started talking about how nice it would be to quit and write a book or do a show and make “triple the money.” It was, to her, “not as hard.” She would blatantly say, “I want to just take this money and quit being governor.”

Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes more sense.

The article is worth reading in full, but any of the coverage on Ms. Palin should give some idea of her intellectual rigor. This is a woman who, in 2008 was unable to explain the Bush Doctrine, someone who didn’t know what the Federal Reserve did, who had only a vague grasp of the dynamics of the Cold War, who could not explain why there was a North and South Korea, why we’re best friends with “communist” China, or even what the phrase “checks and balances” means.

When pressed on these issues, Ms. Palin, of course, points to her faux-blue collar background – the whole “I didn’t get to go to a fancy college” line, but we’re talking about a basic grasp of high school history here. Nevertheless, I’m sure Fox News will find her commentary most valuable.

A grim, misanthropic version of myself hopes she wins the Presidency in 2010. She would be no more than we deserve, and, much more than the Bush scion, would lay bare the decadence of our political culture. Already her popularity and soon-to-be status as a bona-fide political “journalist” betrays the wide and bottomless pit in which we now carry our discourse.

Written by pavanvan

January 12, 2010 at 7:54 pm

Telangana: An Exchange

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Telangana supporters burn an effigy

“Total bandh today! Every shop has closed. They must give Telangana now.”

– Are you pro-Telangana?

“Yes, Yes, Jai! Telangana! We have waited too long; for forty years, fifty years, they are not listening. Now we are united – we must have Telangana”

– I’ve been hearing these sentiments quite often. Why do you think Telangana should be a separate state?

“Yaar – so many reasons! The Andhra people, they don’t give us the water, the irrigation – every river begins in Telangana, but they give us only 13% of water and 87% goes to Andhra and Rayalseema.”

– But then shouldn’t you be protesting for equal water distribution?

“Sir, sir, very quickly let me tell you. I will give you one example. In 1956 they had the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ when Andhra and Telangana became one state. They said whenever there is an Andhra Chief Minister, there will be a Telangana deputy. They did not do this. We have no educational facilities here. Andhra people think we are dumb, stupid. Andhra has only 9 districts and more than 90 universities! In Telangana there are 10 districts but only 30 universities! They give us only a  fraction of the power generation, even though we have the most population. Andhra does not allow us to develop. We get no investement, no money – what do they think?”

– If you asked for these things, don’t you think you would get them?

“No way, yaar! How long we are asking! The Andhra politicians will never listen to us – that is why we must get our own state.

– But you must admit they are listening at least somewhat to you now. Telangana leaders are participating in high-level meetings!

“Yes, but that is only because we made them!”

– “Well then, let me ask it like this: If the Andhra government were to build universities, dig irrigation, allow a Telangana chief minister – in short, if they addressed all of your grievances, would this movement dissolve? What do you think would end these strikes and riots?

“We will accept nothing but Telangana. We have been mistreated for too long. The only solution is Telangana.”

– Do you think that such an absolute stance might make negotiation difficult?

“No, yaar – here, please listen, let me tell you just one example. We need Telangana for our self-respect! The Telegu film industry is all Andhra. They use Telangana accent as a joke. They only make villains from Telangana.  They take our self-respect! When it was independence time, we Indians had to chase the British out to get back our self-respect. Just like that, we in Telangana must break from Andhra to regain our self-respect. It is like Gandhi said: ‘Do or Die'”

– I think he used it in a different context. Don’t you think the Telangana movement works to an opposing aim to Gandhi’s? He wanted to keep India together. Do you think maybe this movement increases the regionalism here; makes people of themselves more as a member of their region than India? I mean, if Telangana gets statehood, a lot of other regions will want their own state as well.

“I don’t think that would be bad. Let them split the states up! Andhra, Telangana, Rayalseema – then the UP states can all be broken up, and the Madhya Pradesh states as well. Why not? Smaller states means better development. You’re from America – your country has only 30 Crore people and you have 50 states. Here we have 130 Crore people! Why shouldn’t we get more states?”

– If that’s the case, isn’t this something that should be decided all at once? Like, they have a session of parliament or whatever and declare once and for all how many states there should be and who should get them? That way everyone gets independence at once, and it’s done officially. Don’t you think that by doing it piecemeal like this it creates more problems than it solves?

“No, No, sir, please, please listen, we have waited 40 years for Telangana. Let them have their meeting after Telangana is independent. This much at least they owe us.”

– Well, I would think that monopolizing the central government’s time like this doesn’t let them solve the real problems of India. If you lived in Bihar or Orissa, you would wish you lived in Telangana, even with its problems. You know what goes on in those states – it’s basically slavery.  And look at the pollution around you. Look at the overpopulation, the masses of poor. Wouldn’t you want these problems solved?

“Yes, and they will be! Once we are free of the Andhra government we will have much less poverty here, we will be able to rule ourselves.”

– But that doesn’t help the Oriya farmer.

“They are poor because they don’t have resources, they have nothing there. Why should Telangana also be poor when it has coal mines, copper, tin, and two massive rivers? India will always have these problems; poverty, corruption, bonded labor – but at least we can make them lesser in our Telangana!”

– Do you really think the problems will be fixed, even within Telangana? You said yourself that Indian politics will always be corrupt. And so long as Sonia Gandhi exercises absolute power over the Congress Party, there doesn’t seem a likelihood for reform. I mean, think about it: Maybe Telangana can keep Congress out for the first few election cycle,s but once a Congress leader gets in, it’ll be the same situation as it is now. Look at what all of the Members of Parliament are saying now: “We must wait for Sonia ma’am’s approval – we can take no decision without her.”

“This may be true, but we can do nothing about that. At least now we will have our own Telangana. If we can remove 10% corruption, then this will be worth it.”

– Even if it means increasing corruption elsewhere?

“Yes, even then. We will stop at nothing to achieve Telangana. We are willing to pay any price.”

Written by pavanvan

January 1, 2010 at 3:41 pm