Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sunday Reading

Your Call Is Very Important To Us — James Surowiecki at The New Yorker looks at the crisis in customer service.

American workers are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. That’s the clear message of flight attendant Steven Slater’s emergence as a “working-class hero,” after he threw his job away with a tirade against passengers and a slide down an exit chute. Slater’s fifteen minutes of fame may be winding down, but his heady time in the spotlight—he was the subject of numerous tribute songs and his Facebook fan page drew more than two hundred thousand people—suggested just how frustrated employees are with stagnant pay, stressful working conditions, and obnoxious customers.

Still, there was something a little surprising about the adulation. After all, the public comprises customers as well as workers, and everyone knows that the contemporary customer is mad as hell, too—fed up with inept service, indifferent employees, and customer-service departments that are harder to negotiate than Kafka’s Castle. Witness the popularity of last summer’s customer-service sensation Dave Carroll, whose guitar was broken by careless United Airlines luggage handlers and who wrote a song slamming uninterested flight attendants and stonewalling customer-service reps. As protest songs go, Carroll’s “United Breaks Guitars” isn’t exactly “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but it has garnered more than nine million views on YouTube. When it comes to customer service, it seems, people are unhappy no matter what side of the counter they’re on. Why can’t we get it right?

More below the fold.

Party Like It’s 1982 — Jim Kessler has some advice on what the Democrats could learn from Ronald Reagan’s first mid-term election.

“We are going to lose the House and the Senate.”

Those were the opening words of a memo that I faxed to my then-boss, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), on Labor Day in 1994. Schumer was still in the House, I was his legislative director, and my prediction was based on one overarching idea: The Democratic Party had lost its way. Our national agenda had been hijacked by the parochial agendas of aggrieved special interest groups. And as a result, we were badly misfiring with the middle class.

Today, Democrats are fretting and Republicans are salivating at the prospect that 2010’s midterm elections will be a repeat of 1994, when the GOP took control of both houses of Congress. A new Gallup poll shows Republicans with a 10-point lead on a generic two-party congressional ballot — a margin unmatched in more than 60 years of polling. Several incumbent senators have lost what should have been safe primary races. House Republican Leader John Boehner has gone so far as to boast of 100 possible GOP pickups and has already begun outlining a three-point plan for his tenure as speaker.

All in all, the president’s party holds some pretty bad cards — but even so, this year needn’t be like 1994. If Democrats take a close look at what happened that year, they can avoid repeating it. And if they look to another election year, 1982, they might even find inspiration in an unlikely place: President Ronald Reagan’s leadership. In the run-up to that year’s midterm elections, Reagan faced 10.8 percent unemployment, 6 percent inflation, a declining GDP, an approval rating barely above freezing and the indignity of having drastically increased the budget deficit over the previous year after running as a fiscal hawk. You can’t get a hand much worse than that, but Reagan nonetheless managed to hold all 54 GOP Senate seats while losing only 26 House races.

Cherry on Top — A profile of Cherry Jones, who is taking on Mrs. Warren’s Profession (the play by Shaw, not the real job) this fall.

She was the terrifying, unyielding Sister Aloysius in the stage version of “Doubt,” for which she won a Tony. More recently, for two seasons on the television series “24,” she was Allison Taylor, the first female president of the United States, who stood up to the Russians and the crazed dictator of Sangala and had her own daughter arrested.

On Oct. 3 she opens in the Roundabout Theater Company revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” playing the title character, the self-made owner of a string of brothels whose daughter would probably like to lock her up, or at least shut her out of her life.

At a rehearsal hall near Herald Square recently, readying for previews that were to start last Friday, she and Sally Hawkins, who plays the daughter, practiced the climactic Act IV scene in which the break between the two becomes complete. The text suggests that Mrs. Warren has over the years acquired a posh accent, which deserts her in moments of stress, but at the urging of Doug Hughes, the director, Ms. Jones played her with the cockney accent of a street-smart woman who doesn’t pretend to be what she isn’t. She was vulnerable and sympathetic one moment, proud and stiff-necked the next. By the end she was slowly oozing venom.

“Another unmarried woman!” Ms. Jones said of her character after the rehearsal. “I’m never married.” Referring to her role in the 2006 revival of the Brian Friel play, she added, “Except in ‘Faith Healer,’ and he was already dead.”

Tall and handsome, Ms. Jones, 53, was wearing pedal pushers and a gray T-shirt but had kept on her high-buttoned Mrs. Warren boots. Her manner was not unlike her outfit: forthright, unaffected, a little playful.

“There are the girls who play the Heddas, the Noras, the Cleopatras,” she went on. “When I was young, I was Rosalind, Rosaura in ‘Life Is a Dream,’ Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’ — all the pants roles.”

Ms. Jones, whose breakup with the actress Sarah Paulson briefly made the tabloids, has never been shy about her sexual orientation and didn’t hesitate to bring it up again.

“In part, maybe because I’m gay, there’s an androgyny there that serves me well and that I think serves a lot of performers well,” she said. “It makes us interesting onstage.”

Doonesbury — Old friends.