Afterwit

A good friend was driving on a two-way road in the Argentine pampas. After a bend, a traffic policeman, standing on the side of the road, signaled him to pull over. The policeman asked my friend for his ID and verified that everything was right. But instead of letting him go, the policeman told my friend that he had gone over to the other side at the curve. He would have to fine him.

My friend denied it. And he could do it with conviction and because he was sure that he had not gone over to the other side. But the policeman insisted with suspicious kindness: “I’m sorry, but I have to fine you. And it’s a lot of money”. Of course, there was something implicit, and not very unusual: the policeman expected a bribe. Indeed, he said a common phrase in Argentina: “At least give me something for the coffee.”

Then my good friend, tired of the blackmail, gave him the best answer I’ve heard for cases like this. Upon hearing it, the policeman apologized and told him he was free to go. And my good friend left without paying a cent.

I have noticed that happy writers live longer than sad ones. Denis Diderot was happy and lived to 70 in the 18th century. He largely owes his posthumous fame to the erudition he imbued the first encyclopedia with, along with d’Alembert, who was more versed in science.

Diderot’s contemporaries admired his erudition, but they appreciated his ingeniousness even more, his capacity to analyze what’s obvious. A novel by Diderot begins by saying: “So how did Jacques and I meet? By coincidence, like everybody else”.

Diderot coined the “l’esprit de l’escalier” expression to describe those situations when someone comes up with a good answer, but when it’s too late to give it. “Esprit” at the time was ingeniousness and the reference to the stairs (“escalier”) is because the witty answer comes when one is coming down the steps from the tribune where he was grilled.

The expression caught on because there was no word to describe the concept, even though all of us have been through similar situations. Especially when we are teenagers, we care a lot about what others think. In English it’s called “escalator wit” o “afterwit.”

A case of “l’esprit de l’escalier” can be seen in a Seinfeld chapter. George is at a work meeting with some snacks on the table. George, with little inhibition and education, has grabbed a bowl of shrimps that he’s wolfing down. Then a friend tells him: “Hey, George, the ocean called; they’re running out of shrimp.” For the rest of the chapter, George will be regretting that he didn’t know what to respond. For example: “Oh yeah? Well the jerk store called. They’re running out of you”.

Well then, what do we have to respond when someone asks for a bribe? We have to look at them sternly in the eyes and tell them: “I’m sorry, my profession does not allow me to.”

The Power of Negative News

 

“Negative news have an impact” I was told once. It was during the presentation of a global image study for my employer, a multinational corporation with one of the most valuable brands in the world. That was the first time I saw how negative news, even when they are false, lead to negative views. Up to that moment, my magical thinking went like this: if I don’t believe in negative news, they don’t exist; a little like Peter Pan. It’s a natural belief, explained in part by W. Phillips Davidson’s “third person” theory. When we miss information about others, we assume they think like us. This is one of the 27 communication theories in the Public Relations Society of America’s accreditation exam, which I recommend to every professional in this trade.

Many of these communication theories were based on the results of U.S. presidential elections. For instance, the “framing” theory is one of my favorite ones, very well explained by linguist George Lakoff in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant! published after George W. Bush won his second term in 2004. I recommended this book to my Argentine friends who were inconsolable after the 2015 election results in that country. The idea was avoiding the rival’s framing and develop one’s own. Today that I live Hillary’s defeat in the U.S. election, I realize how hard it is to follow my own recommendation. Apologies guys! It is my duty to explain this year’s election in the U.S. without talking about Trump.

“This is not a crisis, it’s an issue,” one of my bosses always told me. It was the post-crisis Argentina and I would call him with certain regularity asking for his help with the fires I faced at the time. I once again saw the difference studying “issue management” this year. Crisis management is a public relations practice in rapid growth. The reason is just the growth of damage risk to reputation due to the proliferation of news on the Internet. Risk management is identifying the issues that may trigger a crisis and methodically eliminate their underlying causes before they emerge. For example, if reputation is at stake due to the publication of certain emails, we may mitigate the risk by publicizing the messages in a controlled manner in our own terms. We thus avoid a crisis due to the revelation of new messages ten days before the elections, we prevent negative news that hurt reputation, and we focus on setting our own framework of reference on freedom, equality and the environment.

It’s easy to say after the election! To say it sooner, we need more accredited professionals.

Victor Aimi

President

Verb.company

 

Fidel Castro: The Man Who Was an Island

 

It may be too early to assess the significance of Fidel Castro, the longest serving contemporary leader outside of Queen Elizabeth. “Too soon to tell,” had famously responded a Chinese revolutionary leader, Chou En-lai, when in the 1960s he was asked about the impact of the French Revolution in modern history.

Yet we can be sure about one thing, or two. Castro, the leader of a small island that only tardily obtained its independence from Spain, had an outsize influence on world politics. Two key factors contributed to that: he allied himself with the Soviet Union, the archenemy of his big neighbor 90 miles across the sea to the north, the United States, his anathema and yet his linchpin to glory.

For Castro had an innate ability to turn on his rivals’ words and weapons against them. Outgoing U.S. president Barack Obama may have acknowledged that particular trait of Cuba’s leader, reverting more than fifty years of hostility and embargo. There was no point in swimming against the tide. Every attempt at hitting at Castro, his regime or his country bounced back badly, making them stronger in the process.

There can be little doubt that Castro was a convinced Communist. Yet it is also true that Marxism-Leninism’s call for a dictatorship of the proletariat provided the ideological justification for Castro’s own autocracy. It escaped few observers’ attention that, beneath the now fading ideological colorings, it had much older roots in the figure of the Latin American strongman, the “caudillo.” And Castro was the quintessential one, and perhaps the last one.

Much is to be said about the willpower that turned this man into a source of endless fury and frustration in the biggest power of the day, then and now. It obviously took much more than tyranny and brutalities to turn him into the undisputed leader of Cuba. Three centuries after that other islander, English poet John Donne had penned that “No man is an island,” this Cuban child of a Spanish landowner and his maid came to embody his island.

Castro was indeed an island onto himself in other ways, too. His stubborn refusal to acknowledge the geopolitical realities of the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union caused immense hardship to the long-suffering Cuban people. Then again, the Communist regime’s repressive machine may not be the only explanation. Many a tyranny has fallen mightily for all the power of its police state.

So yes, Fidel Castro’s life was the stuff of legend. That does not amount to condoning the summary executions that he carried out as soon as he came to power and the egregious violations of human rights that are inevitably associated with any dictatorship of whatever political orientation. It merely comes to prove that in our current era of unlimited information legends do not pass reality check. Too many of Castro’s atrocities are documented as to be forgotten or be absolved.

None of that will matter to the loyal coreligionists and admirers of Castro, of course. “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” has written Orwell. Legend has it that Stalin’s mother was taken aback when she came to visit him at the Kremlin and she couldn’t understand how her son was there. “What are you doing here?” she asked him. “Do you remember the Tsar? I’m something like that,” Stalin responded. So no, Castro did not make any claim to sainthood. But, in the ideological puritanism he espoused, he too yearned for “something like” sainthood.