Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The power of explanations

As some of you know, it is long been my opinion that Obama, or his representatives, have an explanation problem.  The problem being that they don't give them.

Eventually the world comes out, through different channels, well after one's feelings about an event have come to pass and sometimes after the explanations had any chance of helping.

I came to this conclusion when, after getting a ticket to see an Obama event in person by waiting one day in a very long line (made Disney world lines look like the shortest thing ever by comparison) in the freezing cold, I didn't actually get to see him ... a couple days later I think, after waiting in an even longer line in the burning sun.  (It's Maine, we can a different season every day, as we did when I re-roofing the garage.)

The line moved in spurts: Go a little, wait, go a little, wait, go a little, wait, and so on for hours.  Get sun-burnt in the process.  The line snaked through and around various blocks.  Quite close to the entrance, my mother and I stopped for what appeared to be a normal wait.  Which is to say, long, frustrating, and with protesters across the street from us cordoned off with a no man's land in the middle and a Secret Service sniper visible on top of a nearby hospital (highest point around.)

Since the waits had been so long before, it took even longer to realize that this one might be somehow different.  Someone who worked for Obama (a local member of his organization) revealed that she had no more idea than us what was going on.  Eventually it came to pass that it was learned via other channels that the President was already inside speaking which meant that the doors wouldn't be opened again until after he left the building via a different exit.  Not only would we not see him speak, we wouldn't even see him walk to his car.

Those other channels, the news media had cameras outside, the cameramen learned from the studios that the speech was going on, an Obama organizer tried to cut through the cone of silence by making a cellphone call to a friend she had who was already inside, when she hear the President in the background she knew she and we would never see them.

As one might expect, a lot of people were disappointed  pissed off, or both.  Not so much because we were locked out in spite of being promised we'd be let in, most of us knew that there'd been some kind of discrepancy between the invitations given out and the capacity of the building which was really too small a venue for the event.

Being kept out was always a possibility, that's why we'd gotten there hours ahead of hours ahead of time.  Though my mom, last it came up, still beats herself up for not waiting on her own earlier because then we would have gotten in.  Instead she waited until I could join her after I got out of classes.  She figured that since that was hours ahead of hours ahead of time, and we had our invitations, that should be overkill, it wasn't.

No, what really bothered people was the lack of explanation.  It would have been the simplest thing in the world to say, "Sorry, building is full."  They refused to tell even their own workers, at least the ones outside the building, that no one else was getting in.  They would rather toy with the emotions of a lot of people, letting them think they'd soon be inside and see the president, than offer an extremely simple explanation.

I see that as a bit of a problem, mostly because it's outrageously rude, but also none of the feelings hurt that day would have been hurt if they hadn't decided to add a sense of betrayal to the disappointment of not getting in.  It wasn't, "Crap, the fire marshal said no one else could come in before I made it in," it was, "You left me out here burning in the sun in the boiling fucking heat for how long while you, in your air conditioned building, knew that there was no point in me being here and could have told me as much?  For fuck's sake, I could have gone home and watched the president live on TV instead of suffering out here if you'd just said two words, but no, you had to make me suffer.  Why?  Why the fuck?  We're your supporters, for fuck's sake."

And the line, at the time of this feeling of betrayal, stretched behind me so far I couldn't see the end.  A lot of people needlessly pissed off.

So consider this week.

I know of two people who had their travel plans changed by the recent tragedy.  Both through the same school email account in fact.  One is the President of the United States.  The other is a more personal acquaintance.

The President, or those working for him, announced early in the afternoon (after he'd been briefed on the tragedy so probably those working for him who didn't hear how that the President planned to respond yet) that he'd be coming to my school later this week and so the university sent out an email saying so.

About four hours later, a couple of minutes more actually, a second email went out from the university announcing two things.  First, the visit was cancelled.  Second, they hadn't been told why and had absolutely no information other than the fact the visit was cancelled, so please don't ask them because they knew nothing beyond the bare bones fact that the visit was cancelled which they had just announced so now we knew everything they knew.

It didn't have to be that way, as evidenced by the other cancellation I got word of.

Myself and a few other students had been promised a visit to someone's house and a home cooked meal.  That too was cancelled.  If she'd pulled a team Obama that probably would have hurt a lot of feelings because, "I won't do the thing I promised you and I refuse to tell you why," just stings.  Instead she said, quite simply, that a friend had lost a loved one in the shooting and so she was going to see the friend and thus wouldn't be there when she had previously said she would.

Minus the words, the actions are the same, Promise something people look forward to a lot, then cancel a few days beforehand.  But the words make a big difference.  When you break your promises it isn't enough to have a good reason, you have to say what that reason is.

The feeling left by the team Obama way: I'm breaking my promise and I won't say why, is completely different than the feeling left by the other way, I'm breaking my promise for this unforeseen reason.  But it was the same reason.  In the next few days two events I would have liked to attend will not be held because the hosts are both much more concerned with what happened in Newtown and it's effects than they were with previously planned events.  And it's a damn good reason.  But without the explanation you don't know there's a good reason, you just know that a promise was broken.  (And then have to wait for the local paper to eventually tell you why.)

Explanations make a big difference because they change "WTF?" to, "I completely understand.  Is there anything I can do to help make your life easier?"


  1. I don't know why your university claimed they hadn't been told a reason - because the fact that the visit to Maine was being cancelled, specifically due to the shooting, was quite publicly announced (saw it on both Reuters and Talking Points Memo *before* your post about it a few days ago).

    1. The news finding out before the people canceled on seems to be standard fare, but worth remembering that my post was after the fact by enough time for the news to circle the world many times over.

      Also I left out that, while the university was very clear that they hadn't been told anything beyond the fact that the President cancelled they did recommend anyone interested in more information follow their preferred news provider implying that whoever wrote the email was at least aware that, while the university and by extension the students might not be hearing anything about any explanation from the President's team, the media certainly would be.