Friday, May 11, 2012

Michael Sandel Book Tour Review

Monday, May 7, 2012

Town Hall

Sponsored by Elliot Bay Books

Oh how I love book readings but there is nothing like author of current social issues to really bring out the crazies. LOVE EM. Tonight, Town Hall has two readings going on at the same time and they are both social civic whoppers. In the lower auditorium is Timothy Noah reading from his new book “Across the Great (Income) Divide”It’s advertised as a book about how Noah believes the 1%ers vs. the 99%ers is the greatest problem facing the country. The other option, upstairs, is the Harvard Professor Michael Sandel promoting his newest book "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets" a lecture advertised as how marketing is changing and intruding upon American culture.

Outside of Town Hall is buzzing with people as they arrive to both readings. The sidewalks are filled with civic minded Seattleites who yammer away with the excitement of a Rolling Stones concert but I can’t get no satisfaction because I have a choice to make. I’m accompanied by my friend Nick so I solicit his advice.

Nick tells me that judging from the crowd, half the Occupy Seattle Movement is mobilizing downstairs, which would make for a wild author reading but the city is less than a week from the May 1st, Occupy Movement demonstrations which turned violent and caused damage to the city. Nick and I work at local hospitals and I don’t want to feel obligated to patch up Mr. Noah’s audience if things go wrong, we elect to hear the Harvard guy.

That was my first mistake.

We sit down in the old church pew of Town Hall, while Nick scans the crowd saying to me, “You ever wonder why a lot of these people are so passionate about how the government should hold corporations to high transparent standards, yet the same group will fight to the death to keep the State out of their personal business?”

It’s a thought provoking comment. Actually it is the most provocative comment I hear the whole night and I should have just given Nick the five bucks I paid to listen to the Professor.

Going into tonight’s talk, as usual, I know little about the speaker but I read the playbill and expect a lecture about how markets are intrusive into people’s lives and what can be done about preventing this encroachment. Maybe I will get the “Big Brother” is here message, making me more paranoid than a TSA airport screener. At the very least I expect to hear something about the new book “Moral Limits of Markets”, the background of the book, why Mr. Sandel wrote the thing or even a reason to buy the book.

Michael Sandel comes out dressed like a professional wearing a nice tie suit combo standing behind the podium and makes some opening heart felt remarks. (He was married in Seattle and has some family here) The Professor seems like a nice man and brings energy to the stage; capturing the audience right away.

He starts by speaking from behind the stage podium but I see his face and realize that Professor Sandel is wearing a Garth Brooks style microphone; allowing him to wander where he wants and oh boy does he wander back and forth.

This kind of presentation is not new and the good Professor is not alone in using this speaking style. From Cicero to Mark Twain, in the days before the microphone, great lecturers could project their voices to be heard among the masses. They had no confining podiums or tables to stand behind. In those days, they were out in front but unlike today, the orators were larger than life and the stage was small.

In the last fifteen years, whether it’s Bill Gates, the late Steve Jobs, Dr. Wayne Dryer or the Sham Wow pitch man, everyone now walks around the giant stages plugged into a headset.

I’m guessing that that some marketing/image consulting, idiot told the speakers of this era that moving on stage helps keep the audience’s attention, but doesn’t help. The most intelligent speakers come across looking bad because most times their bouncing around distracts to the point where the message gets lost. I mean this guy moved more on stage than Van Halen. I’m talking 1980’s Van Halen or course, not those geriatric, Geritol popping, Ben-Gay smelling, facsimiles currently on tour.

Professor Sandel started off his talk with some vignettes about how money can gives the rich advantages over the rest of us. One example he gives is how someone in prison, can buy better accommodations rather than live in general population. ($90 a night.) Great story, he got my attention and then he gives us some more examples, and I wait for the point of his story.

Instead, he engages the audience to participate by asking their opinion on a particular subject. What do you think of school districts that pay students two dollars for every book they read? Raise your hands if you think this is a good idea and then raise your hands if you think this is a bad idea. Okay?

What happened next is a bad idea unless you in fact want to irritate an audience or in my case, give me something to write about: in that case it’s a good idea.

Keep in mind, there are least 300-400 people in the room mind you, so with the help of Town Hall volunteers passing out microphones, the Professor asks audience members to stand up and give reasons why they think it’s a good or bad idea to pay school children to read books.


It is one thing to have people ask public questions of a speaker, I like that because I come to hear the speakers opinion, but my God when you hand an angry opinionated audience a microphone; hmm boy does this make for an eventful night. Especially when the crazies holding the microphone, insist on giving out their resume to a room full of strangers before they make a point saying things such as “I’m an artist AND a dancer and I believe…” or the woman who introduces herself by saying “I’m a teacher AND a nurse and I think…”

Well guess what: I’m disgusted AND appalled. Okay, not really, however, it is worth pointing out that this kind of group discussion may work well in a class room or even in a small group but in a lecture hall of this size it turns into a controlled brawl of pointless discussion.

Professor Sandel relishes this circus he has created, acting like the Roman god, Vulcan, as he fans the flames of discontent by pitting the audience against one another, challenging them to give definitions and hone down what we as a people mean by using terms like “reward” or “bribe.”

It’s painful. So now an author reading, advertised to be a meaningful lecture on how marketing is invading every facet of modern American life, has turned into a debate about public school education sponsored by Webster’s on-line Dictionary.


I look at Nick who starts laughing. “Sorry, dude. We should have gone downstairs.”

Toward the end the preachy, pontificating, Professor points out proficiently, (I use words that start with P cause it makes me sound so wicked Harvard smart) that the culture of the United States has changed. He alludes to the audience that the gap between rich and poor has shifted the way people perceive each other and that the value of strict monetary reward might be creating a harmful division in American culture.

I’m thinking, Really? Look out your limo window buddy, because some downtown Seattle businesses still have plywood up waiting for windows to be replaced from earlier in the week. This is the town famous for the 1999 WTO riots and you’re trying to tell us there is an economic problem on the horizon? For a guy who comes from the same town as Paul Revere, you’re a little late.

I hear his message: that this country needs a national conversation on how corporate marketing is bad for American culture and we need to start talking about it soon.

Well, slap me in the mouth and call me Pearl, I thought that is why we came here tonight. I had hoped Professor
Sandel might bring some historical perspective or some forward solutions to stem the tide of these issues but all we get is a talk about needing to talk?

Even more ironic, he was here marketing a book about the dangers of intrusive corporate marketing. Not once did he even bother to promote the book his publisher wants him to sell. Okay you figure it out.
All I know is that measuring Michael Sandel against my own college philosophy professors; I didn’t miss out going to an Ivy League school.