Monday, November 17, 2008

Skill, Showmanship, and "Never Again!"

(warning: most of the initial links are YouTube videos and thus have sound)

Shamus recently blogged about a teenage ukulele player. He complimented her showmanship. She does demonstrate a lot of showmanship in how she layers multiple tracks of voice and percussion, as well as editing her videos to jump from the ukulele performance to other scenes of herself and her friends.

I mention this video because her showmanship carries her performance. She is not an expert ukulele player (compare her to Jake Shimabukuro in this video) but her performance is entertaining because it is clever and crafted.

Some performers purposefully develop showmanship and others do not. Compare these videos of Buddy Greene and Eric Clapton.

In contrast, some showmanship does not compliment a person's skill but instead draws the attention away from it. The most extreme version of this is with a close-up magician, whose showmanship does not highlight skill but rather distracts the audience from noticing when the trick is done.

(okay, no more links with sound)

Politicians also use showmanship to draw attention away from skill, but unfortunately this is most often done to disguise a lack of skill.

The most worrying result of the recent presidential race for me is how much the public and media are now valuing showmanship above skill.

(I am not blind to the other problems in politics today. I have enough trust in God's plans to not worry that America's next president is already planning to divide Jerusalem. I have enough trust in American voters to doubt Congress can seize private retirement accounts. The American economy has recovered from worse problems than the Federal Reserve quietly loaning two trillion dollars, or a proposed 50 billion dollar bailout for companies worth only 7 billion.)

Todd Zywicki recently wrote an interesting article about political showmanship, in which he noticed how much the ability to "bs" works as showmanship within the political arena. He describes one politician as
a master bs'er, as his debate performance exhibited. As a general rule, the less informed he was about the answer to a question, the more assertive he was in answering it...he had not the slightest idea what he was talking about, yet he just plowed ahead throwing out assertions with rhetorical flair.
Patrick Stephens reflects on this article and laments that neither presidential candidate demonstrated more skill than showmanship:
It's more important that an ignorant executive be cautious than decisive. On that score, Palin is the only candidate in either ticket that seems even mildly conscious of her own ignorance. When foundering in ignorance, Obama reverts to platitudes, Biden makes stuff up, McCain suspends his campaign, and Palin asks for clarification.
Why am I most worried by the public and media valuing showmanship above skill? Because that has happened before, and fairly recently, and also during a depression. I do not know what great evils will appear during the next few years but showmanship cannot fight evil. At least I can hope that these great evils will originate outside our country, unlike how Germany in the 1930s was host to a great internal evil.

UPDATE: Apparently my final sentence was not clear enough since an intelligent friend asks me if am trying to compare Obama to Hitler. I tryied to avoid doing so. I'm not worried about Obama, who seems likely to be a capable president, or Congress, which has been this disappointing before. I'm worried about the American populace.

Rereading the post when it's not so late at night I now see that what I wrote leaned too heavily on part of a Jewish worldview I was taught as a child that most readers will not share. To this view, we must respond to the Holocaust with the motto "Never again!" because of two aspects of what happened.

The first was being herded for genocide: nationalism and Antisemitism had mixed many times before but previously it was always possible to flee the oppressive country. The first part of "Never again!" is not being passively herded.

The second was that the world was surprised by the Nazi party. It seemed to appear from nowhere and initially looked helpful. It was shocking to learn that countries could not reliably see a great evil approaching until it was almost too late. The second part of "Never again!" is staying alert for hidden evils.

So I'm not worried about political leaders having showmanship that hides or creates evil. (That will always be a minor problem to which our political structures are designed to be resilient.) Rather, a populace enchanted by showmanship is easily herded and not alert.

Appreciating showmanship is not a problem, but valuing it above skill or mistaking it for skill is a recipe for disaster.

UPDATE: The claim that Obama supported dividing Jerusalem is apparently false.



cayswann said...

Hmm, I think that your links to other analysts and articles were the most misleading portions of this post. I appreciate the clarification on several points.

However, you're quick to think that somehow your Jewish upbringing gives you a different outlook from many of your readers. Some of us are more aligned with the "Never again!" commitment than you might think.

Finally, it was my understanding that Senator Obama's voting record was 100% for Israel. A quick Google search yielded this synopis article (and PDF):

...although there might be other records and sites out there with better information.

I'm more frustrated with the past 8 years and the Bush administration's records than with analysis of President-Elect Obama's previous voting records and his current level of transparency, something I've never seen in my 40 years in this country. I'm actually motivated to stay more informed, with this level of communication.

David V.S. said...

I've read conflicting things about how Obama might treat Israel.

I certainly agree that doing better than the Bush administration for domestic policy and transparency is not much of a challenge.

I'm also encouraged by how the American populace is increasingly intolerant of Congressional "Pork-Barrel spending".

If the next four or eight years have more government transparency and less "Pork" in Congress then our domestic situation will surely improve.

Which is one reason my biggest fear is not about our president-elect or our domestic situation, but an uncritical populace combined with unknown external evils.

David V.S. said...

> Hmm, I think that your links to other
> analysts and articles were the most
> misleading portions of this post

Ah. I don't include links because I agree with what the articles say. Rather, they prompted me to think something and for that they deserve citation.

For example, in this post the article on Atlas Shrugs definitely does compare Obama and Hitler. But I don't care about or agree with that. What I was prompted to think after reading that article was that showmanship during an economic crisis can cause people to stop thinking critically and become blind to evil -- so that is what I wrote about in my own text around that link.