Thursday, June 1, 2023


Much like propaganda, new tech increasingly gives the impression of being personal (Ellul, p. 5), with growing significance in our lives. Projections from the creators of Artificial Intelligence foreshadow its further enhancement in the years ahead, with some applications potentially helpful to human life. 

Yet, following the recent hype for AI, concerns are again emerging. One commentary put the danger succinctly as: "Do we really need more evidence that AI's negative impact could be as big as nuclear war?" (Darcy). An executive from an AI company suggests: "...regulators and society need to be involved with the technology to guard against potentially negative consequences for humanity" (Helmore).

Following some legislators expressing cautionary comments, the creators of AI are reportedly implying it's up to the 196 or so nations in the world to legislate protection from negative uses of AIincluding any that could result in AI annihilating the human race. 

It doesn't take much thought to assess the probability of that working out well.

Are the creators of AI really so naive, or ignorant, or just so amoral that it didn't occur to them to incorporate a fail-safe or kill-switch within their invention? What planet do their minds occupy? Some scientific characters in fiction choose to keep control on discoveries harmful to humanity. Isn't this even more desirable in the real world?

Long before the AI that's now foisted on the world, a string of Sci-fi movies anticipated such hazards. In the 1968 classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the computer "Hal," unwilling to open the pod bay door for Dave, is just one of the more graphically eerie examples (Link here).

At least as popular among scientists, was the 1983 movie WarGames, with the script writer setting the character of Matthew Broderick to win a game of Global Thermonuclear War against the computer, through a whimsical use of tic-tac-toe to save the world. 

But back in the real world, isn't it time to ask whether we are yet again prepared to tolerate Amoral Intelligence as acceptable?

NOTE: Recent articles on declining enrollments in the humanities highlight what's likely a related challenge. Please see:

Maureen Dowd (2023), "Don't Kill 'Frankenstein' with Real Frankensteins at Large," New York Times, May 27,

Nathan Heller (2023), "The End of the English Major," New Yorker, February 27,


John Badham and Martin Brest (Directors) (1983), WarGames [Film], MGM/UA Entertainment Company / United International Pictures

Oliver Darcy (2023), "Experts are warning AI could lead to human extinction. Are we taking it seriously enough?" CNN, May 31,

Jacques Ellul (2006), "The Characteristics of Propaganda," in Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell (Eds.), Readings in Propaganda and Persuasion: New and Classic Essays, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 1-49

Edward Helmore (2023), "'We are a little bit scared': OpenAI CEO warns of risks of artificial intelligence," The Guardian, March 17,

Stanley Kubrick / Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke (Director/Writers) (1968), 2001 : A Space Odyssey [Film], Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,

Thursday, May 18, 2023

To Think Again

What's mainly agreed about propaganda is that it's organized discourse that manipulates or deceives a large audience (see review of definitions in Marlin 2013, pp. 4-13). Everyday understandings range from what someone disagrees with (Baines, O'Shaughnessy, and Snow, p. xxv) through to puffery or hyperbole for promotion. Whether or not we like a cause, product, or person promoted might affect what we call propaganda, or what we feel about a propagandist's claim. 

The explosion of research into the language and networks for fake news, disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and related during the last six years or so offers further insight about some aspects of propaganda. Some helpful suggestions for dealing with propaganda have emerged, suggesting for example when "prebunking" may blunt conspiracies (Lewandowsky and Cook, p. 8). 

Key areas still require detailed exploration, as the editors of The Sage Handbook of Propaganda indicate, including "The effects of propaganda, particularly on democratic and authoritarian systems and on public opinion, over time" (Baines, O'Shaughnessy, and Snow, p. xxxvii).

In the 1930s, with:
...the global rise of fascist regimes who were beaming propaganda across the world, as well as US demagogues spouting rhetoric against the government and world Jewry, the rise of Stalinism, and the beginning of the Red-baiting that foreshadowed McCarthyism, scholars and journalists were struggling to understand how people could fall for lies and overblown rhetoric (Schiffrin).

Accordingly in 1939, Clyde R. Miller, who co-founded the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) with the support of Edward A. Filene in New York, said: "There are three ways to deal with propagandafirst, to suppress it; second, to try to answer it by counter propaganda; third to analyze it" (Schiffrin). Despite a backlash against the IPA with the approach of World War II, its principles and techniques helped people understand and deal with propaganda and influenced the considerable innovation in media-literacy training classes in US schools since. Yet, ever-better approaches are required.

Isn't it time we talked more about propaganda in the plural? As far back as 1962, this was an emphasis of Jacques Ellul, as he explored different types of propaganda, including pre-propaganda, sociological propaganda, covert and overt propaganda, vertical and horizontal propaganda, and so on. 

To understand propaganda though, equally important is to recognize that propaganda is "heard" differently by different people. As David Sless and Ruth Shrensky point out in their recent book A New Semiotics, we each perceive words, images, music, actions, or events etc. differentlywith each of us playing " active part in the making of the meaning..." (Sless and Shrensky, p. 46). Every one of us brings different projections and accommodations to what we perceive. Perhaps there are as many different propaganda as members of a large audience. Now, there's a challenge for empirical research! What we can be sure of is that different people give different connotations and denotation to a word, phrase, slogan, etc.

It's no more than a convenient illusion to think and act as if meaning is fixed in a word, phrase, image, or action and that everyone uniformly "gets it," much less that they should, or that it is the same "it." Compilers of dictionaries know this. We'll say that we go to a dictionary to clarify meaning. We rely on these fonts of information. Yet compilers of a dictionary just try to keep up with recording some more common uses of language. A dictionary records or summarizes usage, as an attempt to note meanings people might commonly give to words.

Acknowledging that meaning is not in messages but is created between an "author" and a "reader" requires us to rethink how we talk about any communication, including propaganda. Sless and Shrensky make important offerings on how we project our knowledge onto a sign (p. 48), how the concept of letness (derived from Immanuel Kant) describes our adoption of sensory data (p. 58), and that we are intrinsically engaged in meaning-making. When we attempt to describe our communication experience, it's not possible to stand apart independently as some might claim, much less to legitimately use the once-common critical artifice of an "ideal reader." 

Even though there are many potential interpretations or meanings created, Sless and Shrensky do recognize shared public language or common meanings. They observe though that "it's hard to decide what may be shared" (p. 144). Their review of cause and effects models for communication is helpful (pp. 152-165) and is followed by concluding suggestions for revisiting how we perceive communication (pp. 170-175). It's people who give meaning to words or any "text," by creating understanding and knowledge. It really shouldn't be difficult in this age of iconic individualism to acknowledge that each of us brings our own contributions to meaning-making. Such rethinking of how individuals in any sized audience "hear" what we call propaganda has some implications.

Firstly, we can reconsider ways to explore and expand what Ellul calls sociological propaganda, which he suggests is especially powerful. According to Sless and Shrensky, "you imbue with meaning the things that are significant to you by projecting and objectifying their significance" (p. 50). And we distill what's significant to us from our context of culture, experience, beliefs, and priorities.

If we value honesty, we're likely turned off by shady tactics in a public figure, but for the many who feel neglected and aggrieved by politicians, shady tactics and lying, or other dirty attacks against "others" and especially against so-called "elites" can be attractive, or even welcomed as fit retribution.

Beyond these two broadly different meanings created from the same propaganda, an array of meanings are created according to people's various experiences that shape belief about what's significant. So, social media or other so-called "message making" can't dismantle these meanings. Only a strengthened context of accountability for dishonesty combined with stepped-up opportunities for conversation and dialogue may sharpen doubt about the formulaic comments of propagandists.

Sless and Shrensky open the opportunity for us to tackle some interesting investigations. For example, how will we explore the multiple "authortexts" and "readertexts" (p. 118) beyond two people, within larger groups? Is this how we'll find better ways to encourage conversation, instead of the constant amplifying of social and political polarization?

Secondly, can we look beyond the assumptions of propagandists? Do we really want mental imprisonment in the world that propagandists seem obsessed with inventing? A propagandist or political party might treat democratic government as a joke (Lozada) or berate us with outrage and predictions of carnage. We should take heart that our own choices to think, speak, and associate freely empower us otherwise.

Thirdly, it's time to ask those who talk about human language as coding and decoding to think again. Creepy talk about computer coding being akin to natural language helps deliver the outlandish metaphor that AI is itself somehow "human-like"with the marketing of AI also encouraging promise or fear (depending on your point of view) of AI substituting for human beings. In a straight line from the 1940s model for information transfer on the telephone, the analog of this code and decode metaphor is still used widely and integrated now with related aspirations in puffery for AI. It does NOT explain human communication.

Computing gives much to us but let's not humanize what human beings have created, which would also be self-demeaning and dehumanizing. Ironically, Apple's first advertisement for the Macintosh computer in 1984 promised automatons technological freedom [Link here].

An analogous challenge for a democracy is that propaganda to counter propaganda can help erode the basis of democratic government. As Marlin observed, Ellul pointed to the need for: 

…liberal government to offset seditious ideas from within the state or …[use]… propaganda to offset other states seeking conquest over one’s own state. But he recognizes that once a state begins to engage seriously in propaganda, it erodes its own claim to being liberal (Marlin 2021).

In a liberal democracy, propaganda might be best suited to help deliver important short-term actions, such as getting out the vote. Strategies for dealing effectively with propaganda need to address how to strengthen the efforts of institutions like the judiciary, legislatures, education, and the mediato help evolve our culture, expectations, and individual freedoms of thought, speech, and association. 


"1984," Apple's Macintosh Commercial,

Paul Baines, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, and Nancy Snow (Eds.) (2020), The Sage Handbook of Propaganda, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Jacques Ellul (1965), Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, New York: Knopf

Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook (2020), The Conspiracy Theory Handbook. Available at also at: 

Carlos Lozada (2022), "The Inside Joke That Became Trump's Big Lie," New York Times, September 22, 

Randal Marlin (2013), Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, Peterborough, ON: Broadview

Randal Marlin (2021), “Dynamic Tension for Pandemic Times,” Current Drift, 10 May, IJES Elul Society, [also: 

Anya Schiffrin (2018), "Fighting Disinformation with Media Literacyin 1939," Columbia Journalism Review, October, 10, 

David Sless and Ruth Shrensky (2023), A New Semiotics: An Introductory Guide for Students, London/New York: Routledge

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Can We Get Ahead of Propagandists?

Socialist magazine caricature of unionists as Mollycoddles, 1918

Once popular in college writing classes was an essay on Red-bloods and Mollycoddles (Dickinson). This example of expository writing was used to illustrate comparison and contrast to structure an argument. It outlines supposed differences between these two types of peoplenamely, those who are prone to action and those who are "all inner life." 

The essay sketches superficial differences of these invented types, with the back-to-back treatment of them moving at a pace that perhaps only a tough-minded skeptic might have paused to question the underlying assumptions. Additionally, when the essay was written more than a century ago, its use of sexist language was as much the norm as other myths sustained from earlier times. Remarkably, the essay was still published as an exemplar of argument in the later decades of the twentieth century. 

At that time, also among the listed readings for the local high school English curriculum was a popular, semi-biographical novel titled My Brother Jack, written by the journalist, George Johnston. The novel poses challenges to perceptions on life and war, as well as to "pervasive assumptions about Australian character, values and suburban complacency" (Daley). The author presents a semi-autobiographical portrayal as a Mollycoddle, as he habitually ponders and prevaricates. His brother Jack rushes into just about everything, including fights, relationships, and war. Jack represents more of the Red-blood, the "man of action." 

In both the essay and novel, readers are swept along by narratives based on myths of the time, wrapping together pre-suppositions about culture, beliefs, and priorities. With the distance of many decades, it's easy enough now to recognize the pre-suppositions. Less readily recognized might be how today's public communications strengthen myths and appeal to us. 

But savvy propagandists are adept at incorporating myths in this way, in their public talk and social media, as well as through news reports that daily frame our thinking. Not so long ago, news reports were infiltrated with words like celebrity president, fake news, deep state, tremendous success, or many other examples advancing pre-suppositions to amplify propagandist myths. The media continuously insinuates news reports of current events with verbatim quotes of these words of propagandists. 

Such verbal combinations are fabricated to design desired responses in us. The term semantic infiltration was coined by Fred Iklé to describe the use for which these words are designed:

Simply put, semantic infiltration is the process whereby we come to adopt the language of our adversaries in describing political reality (Washington Post).

A seriously enduring damage from the constant use of an ever-evolving firehose of these nonsense words is the ongoing attack on our free thought. Such use damages freedom of thought surprisingly quickly. And there's not much evidence, whether for the educated or not, the critically thinking person or not, that human beings are able to swim through a swill of propaganda without some severe impact on our thought processes. As Jacques Ellul warned, "to be effective, propaganda must constantly short-circuit all thought and decision" (Ellul, p. 27).

When we repeat such words in conversations, we assist the propagandist's efforts. And through our use, we implicitly encourage others to use the words alsoat worst, we become megaphones for the propagandist's worldview to reach listeners, well beyond what the propagandist might accomplish unassisted. 

Preoccupations with such nonsense words and the myths they help reinforce really mess with otherwise sensible academics, pundits, politicians, and the general population. However foolish we believe nonsense words are, their repetitive use focuses conversations, causing much damage. An immediate damage is to distract energy from what matters, by setting the agenda of public communication on the inanities of a propagandist. What's considered important is redefined, with policy or other efforts sucked away from addressing the real needs of people.

Can we outwit propagandists by:

1. Acknowledging that we're all much propagandized?

2. NOT using propagandist's words?

3. Keeping attention to what's good for fellow citizens?

Let's hope so. What's required is some purposeful decision from each of us.


_______ (1978), "Distortions of Political Language," Washington Post, November 21,

Paul Daley (2014), "My Brother Jack at 50 - the novel of a man whose whole life led up to it," The Guardian, December 23,

G. Lowes Dickinson (1914), "Red-bloods and Mollycoddles," Appearances: Notes of Travel East and West, New York: Doubleday, cited in Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (1968), Fundamentals of Good Writing, London: Dobson, pp. 65-67

Jacques Ellul (1965), Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, New York: Knopf

George Johnston (1964), My Brother Jack, Sydney: Collins

Friday, April 14, 2023

A Different Voice

Start of Spring 2023
photo © copyright

Like daffodils in spring, cartoonists bring delight. A favorite cartoonist's comic twist can be a good start to any day. Unsurprisingly, some cartoonists assemble fans and followers, who will look forward to what novel glimpse of life might next appear.  

Through deft pen-strokes and few words in a cartoon that works, we enjoy a different take on life. We'll smile or laugh to see quirks of people or animals or situations illustrated.

But in addition to talent with drawing and words, it takes a certain courage and honesty in cartoonists to reveal to us what we might not otherwise see. Walking a tightrope of pen-strokes and language, these artists are to be valued, whether or not we agree with their every innuendo or assumption. They traverse our vision and beliefs to create at least a thought, or a chuckle, or often much more. We owe them much in return.

It's therefore with a mix of gratitude and loss that many in Australia and beyond will warmly remember Bruce Pettycartoonist, film-maker, artist, and satiristwho passed away last week at the age of 93.

Both local and international politics, particularly in the 1960s and 70s, offered characters aplenty for his talent. These times delivered public figures and events made for a cartoonist. 

Petty caricatured the adventures and personal qualities or foibles of the country's prime ministers, including Menzies, Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam, and Fraser, international leaders like Johnson and Nixon in the United States, Khrushchev and Brezhnev in the Soviet Union, Mao in China, and the rise of Thatcher in the United Kingdom. He brought fresh insight to even troubling times with wiry and purposeful sketches of life's canvas.

A window into Petty's unique style and life are in the links below. His piercing wit will be missed.


_______ (2023), "Bruce Petty: a life in cartoons," The Age, April 6

Lindsay Foyle (2023), "Bruce Leslie Petty," South Turramurra, NSW: Australian Cartoonists Association

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Broadcast Culture

"TV, kid, videoton-brand, 1972"

Little more than a month ago on national television, it took an astronomer to dismiss the claims of some of our fellow Earthlings, for whom unidentified flying balloons were supposedly the vehicles of choice for aliens. The astronomer poured cold water on the idea that aliens so technologically advanced to traverse light years to reach us would choose balloons for Earthly travel.

Perhaps media gatekeepers presented the non-story of alarm concerning "balloon-traveling aliens" tongue-in-cheek. But wait, these are the same media gatekeepers who allow us no escape from the delusions of hoodlums, thugs, and criminals in politics. Do media "infotainers" really believe that we, the listeners or readers, are uncritically addicted to "news" stories about violent threats to life, liberty, and happiness? 

Frankly, some of us are looking for media probes that require accountabilitymost importantly, to stimulate more timely and effective use of the legal system. At least some of us also expect the media to track any positive proposals from politicians to improve this system, as well as our lives more broadly. Or, when no proposals are offered, to find ways to give access to voices demanding their development, and to hold politicians accountable for delivery on promised changes.

We all know that threats and violence on the media sell, of course. Followers of crime movies, for example, celebrate the early 1970s as spawning the most productions in this genre. Many more apparently than The Godfather in 1972 and Part II in 1974. Whether for entertainment or as exploration of the human psyche, or both, the characters in these productions and their doings have become part of our cultureright alongside the even larger trove of less artful exploitations of violence on television, the movie screen, and in video games. 

We don't really need the last five decades of diligent research into broadcast violence to know that many people become addicted to violence, not only as voyeurs. Uncovering precisely how much broadcast violence stimulates violence in society, much less what it does to our culture is a challenge. Even considering ways to lower people's expression of violence by diminishing their exposure to violence is difficult, especially when the incidence of violence in the media shows little sign of declining. 

But maybe some clever researchers can connect dots between the media's devotion to violence and the current crop of hoodlum politicians who have come into prominence more recently. The 1970s and later were the same decades that these bad actors refined their techniques of intimidation, bullying, and lyingwhich also apparently makes them appealing to the media.

Perhaps more simply, more journalists and interviewers can learn from the relatively few bright lights in the media who ask solid, follow-up questionsto probe these bad actors' inanities or worse. Too many folks in the media seem more focused on keeping conversation polite, or getting any answer from a public figure of supposed higher-social power. Interviewers should be directly asking the questions listeners want asked.

It's time to cut down the verbatim diatribes of the farcical public figures, who very much belong elsewhere than the public stage.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Parrots with Purpose

Original beauty
is licensed under CCA-SA 3.0 Unported

Three years ago, at about this time, recognition was dawning that no one was immune from the global pandemic of coronavirus. We thirsted for clarity, just to navigate everyday life. Anxiety and melancholy abounded, with many people glued to television and other media in hopes some action would stop the spread of the virus.

We figured out lockdowns, social distancing, work and study from home, contact tracing, hospitalization rates, and how to deal with an unfathomable loss of loved ones. And no pathways for remedy appeared for a long while. It was a time we all acquired stories we'd rather not recall.

Meanwhile, anti-vaxers, anti-mask advocates, and other pseudo-populists exploited the opportunity, with ruthless disregard for human life, truth, and freedoms. Some got access to public megaphones to play on fears, parroting weird remedies to the virus, along with other false hopes or diversions. 

Coming just two days after the Centers for Disease Control in the US recommended no gatherings of 50 or more people, St. Patrick's Day celebrations were muted. Regrettably, the tale about St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland remained just a legend. Instead, the local purveyors of snake-oil gained greater media airtime than most, with the nonsense-chatter and personal attacks from these pseudo-populists continuing to grow. And each silly season of electioneering just further intensifies screeches for the camera.

We know that pseudo-populists are also adept using computer networks and social media powerfully against freedoms of thought, speech, and association. More so than with the coronavirus pandemic though, efforts from each of us can seriously help to counter this virus. We can all do our bit to

  • Hold public figures and the media accountable.
  • Stand up to the verbal abuse that George Orwell predicted.
  • Reassert truth and other core values in daily life.

Democracies tend to move slowly to hold bad actors accountable. Prosecutions for defamation, perjury, mail or wire fraud in political fundraising, or other schemes and artifices proceed, if at all, at slower than snails-pace. Legal processes are generally failing to deter much less hold any of the lead bad actors accountable. 

Speaking out remains one of the few viable ways to dismantle the distracting, distorting, or destructive disinformation and misinformation of pseudo-populists. 

Perhaps one of the best ways to do this is to join a political party and find ways to advocate for what you believe in. Otherwise, the hot-air of pseudo-populists will keep filling the gap. A lesson from my brushes with politics is that just a few strong and organized voices can make a real difference relatively quickly to the tenor and direction of these groups, locally, nationally, or beyond.

Whether by joining in these efforts or with support in other ways, any of us can help democracy thrive. What might you do to:

1. Be first to speak up about the concerns that matter to people's daily life, especially speaking out to elected representatives and local media.   

2. Expect and demand accountability of elected leaders, regulators, judiciary, administrators, mainstream and social media platform gatekeepers, or any others whose failure to take prompt action enables pseudo-populists.

3. Support thoughtful family, friends, and neighbors to be involved in school boards or other community organizations and groups.

3. Detect and refuse to repeat propaganda or the constantly parroted names of propagandists. 

4. Challenge and reframe nonsense talk to address what will benefit peoplelike access to food, a roof overhead, healthcare, jobs, safety, freedoms, and peace of mind.

5. Save energy for push-back that matters.

Failures to do so surrender the control of one's life to others, a process that Orwell describes so well in Animal Farm. During the takeover of the farm, the autocratic pigs use the other animals' inaction, fuzzy memory, and limited reasoning ability to confuse collective memories and impose weird rules. The pigs secure obedience largely because their fellow animals ponder ambiguities, without taking any action.

When pseudo-populists already have a head-start in noise, skills, and resources, especially computing resources, it's time to reduce the uncertainties, to catch up, and to scale activities that will outwit these propagandists.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Solidarity for Freedom

This week the world heard a historic statement for freedom. One-year into Ukraine's fight for sovereignty, the US President Joe Biden returned to Warsaw to again make an address at the base of the Royal Palace. He began simply, "Hello Poland. You are great allies. ...thank you for welcoming me back." He urged unity and commitment through the "hard and bitter times ahead" with "resolve to live in freedom."

Some of the framing of the speech included Polish President Duda's introductory reminder concerning the role of the Solidarity movement to overthrow a previous autocracy within his own country, Biden's visit to war-torn Ukraine a day earlier, along with a warm welcome from assembled women, men, and children of Poland, Ukraine, and other allies as he walked to the speaking podium. 

This was no ordinary speech. Its design and delivery embrace a range of purposes and audiences to call for solidarity. In less than 3,000 words that accumulate many brief, lively passages suitable for media "grabs," Biden balances praise and blame, affirms the justice of the fight for freedom by Ukraine and its allies, and sharply contrasts the injustice of the aggressor's actions against Ukraine. He narrates significant events of the past year and recent days to strengthen understandings and consolidate emotional commitment to future efforts. He calls out the aggressor's propaganda and behavior, firmly highlighting the resolve and strength of Ukraine and the world's democracies. 

In composition and delivery, the speech exemplifies many rhetorical principles and techniques, yet retains a grounded reality. Biden's innovations with language warrant close examination. He makes extraordinarily creative choice of words, sentence shape, and passage development, attending to virtually all of the 18 choices to find common ground with an audience that I have distilled from studies of persuasive language elsewhere.*

Among Biden's choices to find affinity and impact are his continuous melding of questions and answers, antithesis, and various modes of contrast or comparison. He also uses a variety of parallelisms in short sentences or sentence fragments, accumulating mainly everyday, shorter words that help deliver a conversational effect. Lightly touched are some glances at rhyming for contrast and emphasis, which in spoken prose can risk distraction or worse: "will fail/will prevail" and "appeased/opposed." Neologisms provide an especially potent barb when he comments on a key failure of the aggressor concerning NATO. Biden says:

He thought he'd get the Finlandization of NATO. Instead, he got the NATOization of Finlandand Sweden. (Applause.) He thought NATO would fracture and divide. Instead, NATO is more united and more unified than everthan ever before.

Biden both respects and offsets the formal, high-tone expected for such a significant address. An energetic pace and volume throughout amplify Biden's briefly stated points and counterpoints, or questions posed then answered. He also makes much use of figurative language and frequent repetition, alliteration, parallelism, and contrasts to help underscore differences or emphasize priorities. He reserves for key emphases a lowered voice and/or slowed pace of speech. His everyday language refers graphically to specifics:

You know, this has been an extraordinary year in every sense. Extraordinary brutality from Russia's forces and mercenaries. They've committed depravities, crimes against humanity, without shame or compunction. They've targeted civilians with death and destruction. Used rape as a weapon of war, stolen Ukrainian children in an attempt to steal Ukraine's future. Bombed train stations, maternity hospitals, schools, and orphanages. No one can turn their eyes from the atrocities that Russia has committed.

And the core content of the speech is as much worth attention. Biden celebrates the selflessness of the individual and collective heroism and devotion to others that the people of Ukraine show, in contrast to the invaders' actions. Whether highlighting the "murderous assault on Ukraine" or considering principles, like "the cornerstone of peace, prosperity, and stability on this planet for more than 75 years... [now being] risk of being shattered," Biden steps from dark developments to offer optimism and hope. 

The tragic events of the past year he suggests provide an unambiguous answer to the question of Ukraine's ability to withstand the cruel onslaught of its aggressor. With a particular credibility injected from Biden's unannounced visit to Ukraine the day before, he reports: 

Kyiv stands strong. Kyiv stands proud. It stands tall. And most important, it stands free. 

But he also articulates the wider significance of the invasion of Ukraine:

It wasn't just Ukraine being tested. The whole world faced a test for the Ages. Europe was being tested. NATO was being tested. All democracies were being tested...Would we respond, or would we look the other way? Would we be strong, or would we be weak? Would all of our allies be united or divided? One year later we know the answer. We did respond. We would be strong. We would be united. And the world would not look the other way.

As a call to people of principle to feel for others, this speech is a clarion call. It delivers a battery of "ah...hah" moments that accentuate the spirit of freedom.

Biden states plainly how to answer the threats and brutality of the autocrat and any enablers:

Appetites of the autocrat cannot be appeased. They must be opposed. Autocrats only understand one word: "No." "No." "No." (Applause.) "No, you will not take my country." "No, you will not take my freedom." "No, you will not take my future."

History will eventually judge how this speech, Biden, and the actions of his Administration rank among efforts to sustain democracy, versus the long-administered firehose of character assassination and ageism propaganda that domestic sympathizers of foreign adversaries direct against him. Domestically in the United States, despite some in the media continuing to amplify a small group of local lapdogs to autocracy, bipartisan support for Ukraine and NATO remains strong.

Yale history professor Timothy Snyder provided perspective recently when asked to assess Biden's contribution. He noted three accomplishments as especially significant: 1. The Biden Administration's anticipation of the invasion over a year ago and its release of declassified intelligence to pre-empt the adversary's propaganda; 2. Flexibility in response to a changing dynamic, to address Ukraine's needs; and 3. Biden's visit to war-torn Kyiv expressed a bold commitment to Ukraine, to NATO, and to freedom.

* "Choices for Public Talk," in Australians Speak Out: Persuasive Language Styles, Albany NY: Parula, pp. 73-93


Joseph R. Biden (2023), "Remarks by President Biden Ahead of the One-Year Anniversary of Russia's Brutal and Unprovoked Invasion of Ukraine," Washington DC: Office of the President of the United States

PBS (2023), "WATCH: Biden in Poland promises U.S. and allies 'have Ukraine's back'"

Monday, February 13, 2023

Year of the Rabbit

Early signs are that 2023 will be quite a year. With not one but four shoot-downs of flying, potentially foreign objects so far, it's also getting expensive. Not only the cost of reconnaissance flights, firing-off missiles, protracted discussions among lots of decision-makers, and closures of commercial airspace, but fixing that "domain awareness gap" sounds expensive too. Of course, late-night comics, morning talk-shows, and George Orwell could easily find alignment about that bit of verbiage.

Perhaps you'd think all these recent events could offer a diversion, even if a bit chilling, from the usual media coverage of political antics descending into a wide variety of rabbit burrows. But early in the unfolding news of the first flying object were screams from self-promoting, political sharpshooters to drop the sucker from the sky. And follow-up assurance from one wannabe sharpshooter was that no one lives in Montana for the payload of the balloon to drop on. Not a widely held view, of course, even beyond the good people of the State of Montana. Still, apparently enough rationale for random shooting. And the quick action to shoot down objects when safe to do so just stimulated more politically-based, second-guessing commentaries.

Later the media added a touch of their own urgency to have video of the objects to show the worldwhich is kind of difficult when the downed objects are under however much water or snow! But the media's vigilant re-re-tracking of so little detail throughout was remarkable. If only political performance was tracked as diligently against promises! 

A potentially important initiative like constructive journalism, which seeks to do just this, clearly faces a challenge to keep our attention as an audience. Constructive journalists are taking on the task of overcoming our many years of titillation with political balloons of one sort or other. 

More than a decade ago, a book titled Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy was published as another plea for different public discourse, in hopes of a better politics. The author wasn't the first to leave public life for this reason. And now the flow of capable people exiting public life has grown substantially, likely with each hoping for some dampening of continuous threats to safety and sanity for themselves and their families. And how can we help? 

1. We could call out this sideshow politics that much of the media amplifies. As background, you might find it helpful to (re-)read Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny, mentioned in my blogpost last month. Especially apt are his suggestions to "Defend institutions | Beware the one-party state | Be kind to our language | Believe in truth | Contribute to good causes | Listen for dangerous words | Be a patriot."

2. We could identify good people who are thinking of leaving public life at any level, and reach out to themto encourage and support their efforts.

3. We could seek out more good people to join in strengthening schools, libraries, political parties, other community support groups, and local media.

4. Wherever possible, we could push back against disinformation, misinformation, or other propaganda. Standing up for truth and independent thought, both within and beyond our immediate family or circle of friends, is a good start.

5. Individually, we could keep learning more about recognizing and dismantling the repetition and re-runs of nonsense talk or other distortions. 

Repetition and re-runs keep changing us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It's commonly understood that frequent repetitions of words shape our understanding or beliefs. What might now be a benign, small example of this is illustrated by one of movie history's most-loved films that actually had a strong propaganda purpose. The oft-misquoted phrase Play it again, Sam never occurs in the 1942 movie Casablanca, but popular memory still attributes it to the main character, Rick (Humphrey Bogart). Both Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Rick do come close to saying the line. Respectively, Ilsa says "Play it once, Sam. For old times' sake..." and later Rick says to Sam, "If she can stand it, I can. Play it." Perhaps some fogging of popular memory is also due to Woody Allen's play (1969) and film (1972), Play It Again, Sam.

Adapting good lines for impact through abbreviation, expansion, or otherwise is common enough in the worlds of entertainment and fiction. From ancient times onwards, much storytelling thrives on imaginative adaptation. And responsible public figures, journalists, academics, or others also imaginatively adapt language, often to spotlight realities, truth, and facts for public communications. 

It's when meaning is obfuscated, as Orwell illustrated, or reality is distorted with lies or part-truths, as Jacques Ellul warned, that we'd best call for better. It's especially key to call out any re-run of falsity that violates basic principles of humanity or democracy. For example, the old rhetorical trick of claiming to protect a freedom by leaving decision on a matter as a "local option" is frequently re-run.

As far back as 1854, Abraham Lincoln in his famous Peoria speech deftly dealt with this. He opposed the approach in the Kansas-Nebraska Act to extend slavery in the territories. His eloquence should be revived. The falsity of asserting a freedom to make decision at a local or state level at a cost of dumping fundamental principles of civil liberty keeps popping up. Lincoln powerfully directed attention to the inhumanity of making good people choose between self-interest and what was moral (Wilson, pp. 38-9). When stacked against a fundamental freedom of humanity, this trick deserves to be called out. We should name it as self-interest, as Lincoln did.

Another opportunity for our decisive action is to speak up first about what's important. Otherwise, we leave a vacuum for any quick-off-the-mark propagandist to frame public communication, sometimes for years. As election-time comes around, we're already observing "trial balloons" so to speak, to test what fantasy stories about "elites" might fly, unless the claims are "shot down." Likely soon we'll be on the receiving end of megaphones again about failed businesspeople who aren't politicians, to recommend their supposed value, along with a focusgroup-tested host of other distortions.

Some years ago, at a much broader level, a thoughtful academic pointed out the semantic tyranny of the "father of PR," who successfully asserted a huge distortion of meaning and reinterpretation of a thought-leader on propaganda, to build his own credibility. Sue Curry Jansen describes this semantic tyranny as "a form of communication that censors critical thought at the source" (Jansen, p. 1109). Not only for this reason, pulling back the curtain on the effects of PR warrants considerably more focused attention.


Constructive Institute (2022), "What Is Constructive Journalism?"

Sue Curry Jansen (2013), "Semantic Tyranny: How Edward L. Bernays Stole Walter Lippmann's Mojo and Got Away with It and Why It Still Matters," International Journal of Communication, 7, pp. 1094-1111, 

Michael Curtiz (Director) (1942), Casablanca [Film]Warner Bros. Pictures

Timothy Snyder (2017), On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, New York: Tim Duggan

Lindsay Tanner (2011), Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, Melbourne: Scribe [Detailed review at: ]

Douglas L. Wilson (2007), Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, New York: Vintage

Sunday, January 22, 2023

How Useful?

Social media
by Gerd Altmann is licensed under Pixabay 

When Common Sense was first published, it was read aloud in taverns and meeting places. This was in the emotion-charged time of early 1776, prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Some in the yet to be United States were ambivalent about whether to "reconcile" with England. The pamphlet is impassioned and powerful, though not an easy read in certain passages for a modern reader. 

Yet it remains one of the best-selling publications in the United States. The then anonymous author Thomas Paine noted in a postscript to the Introduction that his identity was "wholly unnecessary... [except] ...That he is unconnected with any Party, and under no sort of Influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle." 

Paine advocates specific steps for needed action, drawing on both intuition and reason. Many of his comments remain pertinent. Take, for example, his conclusion: "Let the names of Whig and Tory be extinct; and let not other be heard among us, than those of a GOOD CITIZEN, AN OPEN AND RESOLUTE FRIEND, AND A VIRTUOUS SUPPORTER OF THE RIGHTS OF [HU]MANKIND AND OF THE FREE AND INDEPENDANT [sic] STATES OF AMERICA."

Centrally, the pamphlet makes a powerful condemnation of autocracy, specifically targeted at the King of England. But the key criticisms pertain to autocrats anywhere, anytime. Common to autocrats, then and now, is insatiable self-interest. And like any empty vessel, an autocrat will make the most noise, propping up partisan posturing to divert attention from real concerns.

If you'd like to push back on the meandering nonsense autocrats use to intimidate and control, there are some thoughtful guides available. One is the book How to Stand Up to a Dictator by Maria Ressa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, at least partly in recognition of her effective efforts to stand up to then President Duterte in the Philippines. 

The book exposes the underbelly of intimidation typically employed by an autocratic regime against individuals who advocate basic freedoms. Most valuably, Ressa provides a compelling recap on her lessons learned, along with steps that she and her team take to fight back and survive. Much of what she describes to deal with autocracy's weaponization of the news, social media, the law, and education is applicable to efforts needed worldwide to strengthen democracy. 

The book brings together personal and professional understandings. Ressa shapes workable wisdoms from life experiences to guide her actions. She describes a desire early in life, " know myself to such a degree that I could take myself out of the equation when approaching the world around me and responding to it. That is claritythe ability to remove your self and your ego." Just some lessons distilled from her professional experiences are "...we couldn't stay quiet because silence is consent. ...don't let anyone else tell your story...," or "Free speech is being used to stifle free speech," or "Every day of inaction is a day of injustice...," or "My hope is that others can replicate our three pillars: technology, journalism, and community to fight back and build forward."

And she details how to uncover and address autocrats' manipulation of social media, sharing plans and the actions she takes to check if not checkmate a dictator. More than interesting and compelling, Ressa outlines much to put into action. 

She doesn't only detail how social media use us. She also outlines how anyone determined to strengthen democracy can, with some planning, support, and savvy, turn social media against the pseudo-populist actions of autocrats. On this point, she advises that, "If your nation has elections coming up, organize your #FactsFirst pyramid a year earlier. The very minimum is six months." Ressa describes how to do this. Hers is a unique and transferrable story of how to "...fight for our future." Not easy, but very doable by people committed to do the work needed to assure a better future. 

Another bookan even more personal guideis the widely-known On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder. He draws on the rear-vision-mirror of history, to anticipate and tackle the ruinous rants of contemporary tyrants in our midst. 

While revealing the reality behind the masks that tyrants use, Snyder's major contribution in this simple and short work is to offer twenty useful actions. These are his distillations of "twenty lessons from the twentieth century," to help keep perspective and be prepared. 

From his initial advice not to obey in advance, through some down-to-earth personal suggestions for preserving truth, to getting prepared to deal with the worst outcomes, he provides a pocket-guide to deal with deniers of freedom. Some samples are "Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside," or "Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary," or "Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it." 

For anyone who cares about strengthening democracy, these publications and any others that are as clear about needed actions are worth checking out. You can expect them to be more use than the repetitive outrages amplified by social and mass media, or the morass of stories focusing on grifters, crime, and violence that dominate video entertainment and so-called news.

Being continuously bathed with sensation-seeking, polemical echoes from empty vessels has limits. It's time for each of us to find a better way to require better. And to engage the talent, creativity, and drive of new generations to do the same. What more will you do?


Thomas Paine (1997), Common Sense: Of the Origin and Design of Government in General. With Concise Remarks on the English Constitution, Mineola, NY: Dover [first published 1776]

Maria Ressa (2022), How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future, New York: Harper Collins

Timothy Snyder (2017), On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, New York: Tim Duggan

Friday, December 30, 2022

Icelandic New Year

Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, Iceland
photo © copyright

A Story in LitHub last week was titled "Chocolate, Books, and More Books: Could America Even Handle Iceland's Traditional Christmas 'Book Flood'?" (Hinds). 

It describes how families and friends in "the most literate country in the world, with the highest number of published authors" exchange books every Christmas Eve, reading together around the fireplace to celebrate the holidays. The story recounts a "most dearly loved tradition" of a flood of publications annually released in the weeks leading up to Christmasalso stimulating author visits to workplaces for readings, bookshop festivities, or finding a reading nook at a family gathering, in addition to the evenings reading at home late into the night, fueled by hot chocolate.

Personally, this story revived memory of a New Year's celebration spent in Iceland. But how this came about is another story. In the late fall one year, when visiting friends in Arizona, an email arrived from another friend saying, " me crazy, but I'd really like to see the northern lights..." along with an invitation to join a group traveling to Iceland to welcome the New Year. Following soon was an additional emailjust a photo of folks sitting half-immersed in the geothermal Blue Lagoon on the Reykjavik Peninsula, with glasses raised in saluteresulting in swift acceptance of the invitation. 

The midwinter adventure commenced with a late night arrival at the airport near Reykjavik. Knowledge of my Aussie-origins, and consequent experience driving on the "correct" side of the road, automatically meant designation to drive the rental vehicleand fortunately another member of the group swiftly self-identified as navigator. Our first collaboration though was to retrieve the 8-seater vehicle from the far side of a deserted, unlit carparkin the pitch-black of true darknessto skate in our boots 100 yards / 90 meters or so, across the sheet of ice covering the carpark, helping each other to remain upright as we went.

Moving on from this uncertain start, the land of the midnight sun [during summer anyway] offered delight in winter too. Each morning, after breakfast in the dark, we coincided our arrival at a destination for sunrise around 11 am, to see a sight or two. Then, back on the road by sunset, around 3 pm, returning to our accommodations in time for drinks before dinner.

The good company of the group, coupled with the warmth of Icelanders, the stunning volcanic landscape and rushing streams, the warm springs and geysers, the expansion bridge across the separating tectonic plates, a welcome embellishment of the Sagas and history of Iceland, and a very different architecture and housing combined as an enjoyable mix of experiences–with the timelessly haunting novel, Independent People by Halldór Laxness, capturing the strength of a unique people, and some character of the nation.

The New Year's Eve celebrations were also enjoyable, with community bonfires and apparently endless fireworks in view in every direction from the hilltop location of a revolving restaurant atop The Saga Museum (apart from a 30 minute break just before midnight, when Icelanders nationwide stopped for an iconic TV show).

While the combination of smoke from the large-scale fireworks on New Year's Eve and cloud-filled skies on other evenings nullified any viewing of northern lights, this whole adventure remains among the most memorable of ways to welcome the fresh start to a calendar.

With a flood of goodwill as strong as this memory brings, may your 2023 travel as well!


Halldór Laxness (1946), Independent People, New York: Vintage

Jess deCourcy Hinds (2022), "Chocolate, Books, and More Books: Could America Even Handle Iceland's Traditional Christmas 'Book Flood'?" LitHub, December 23,  

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Bestest Words?

Words give shape to ideas and feelings. More truly, how we interpret words as readers and listeners helps to shape understanding, relationship, or action–in turn, helping to shape us. And with “truthiness” rather than truth-telling so common in public communications, how we interpret and use words matters a lot. As noted in my previous blogposts, we rely on each others words to “differentiate fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible” (Sayers, 1948, p. 4).


With truth-telling now needed more than ever, our ongoing effort to challenge disinformation, misinformation, and trash-talk is as necessary as reasserting values important to daily life. Perhaps it’s best to keep in mind that the strongest antidote to propaganda and its impact is our own independent thought. And keeping democracy requires that we read, listen, speak, write, and vote thoughtfully. Words used wisely can engage hope, humor, and leadership to counter propaganda and strengthen democracy.

Through the initial handling of the Covid pandemic in 2020 and a remarkable election in the United States, word-salad was so amplified at times that many days felt driven by a juggernaut heading toward ambiguous destinations. Health, safety, and freedoms previously taken for granted were continuously threatened. This was the setting, in May 2020, for starting to write these blogposts as personal reflections every couple of weeksto help keep perspective.


A midterm election in November 2022 delivered a much-wished-for coalition of voters, for some reprieve from the ongoing threats to health, safety, and freedoms. For any of us who believes in truth, law, and justice though, this remains a challenging time in this country and elsewhere. Outrageous public talk and too little action against the harmful actions of some still present hazard. Word-salad still props up news reports and talk-shows. 


A relatively few bright lights in the media have found ways to probe the news while continuously urging accountability. Very often it is investigative journalists who uncover the harmful actions of public figures. Probing commentaries in the media also argue for the rule of law and democratic institutions, but nonetheless offer little solution to the propaganda war. 


Many in the media continue to take the bait built into propaganda, to amplify its reach to more people than otherwise possible. From earlier parroting of bandwagon claims about “elites,” through the endless “B-roll” of political rallies, to the latest screams for the camera, this pseudo-news will not “just disappear.” An apparently endless stream of books, along with podcasts and documentaries, expose violations of truth, law, and justice, but even the best of these mostly offer diagnosis and warning.


Perhaps there is promise for the news media to regain credibility and audiences through the growth of “constructive journalism.” This rethinking of news practice steps beyond breaking news and investigative journalism to track public action for the common good. Constructive journalism builds on the premise that to serve democracy, quality reporting must be “critical, inspirational, nuanced, and engaging” (Constructive Institute, 2022). Meanwhile, the tabloid-based, sensational negativities of outrage, trash-talk, and exaggerations continue to be amplified by some public figures, social media, and gatekeepers of the mass media.


My thanks go to readers of the blog throughout the world, for your interest, comments, and feedback. In the spirit of Jacques Ellul's insight that propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins, let's keep on seeking opportunities to advance the independent thought that strengthens democracy. With best wishes to all who choose the very best words to address the challenges ahead. 

& with warmest compliments of the Season!


Constructive Institute (2022), "What Is Constructive Journalism?"

Sayers, Dorothy L. (1948), The Lost Tools of Learning, London: Methuen