Monday, May 9, 2022

Much in Verbs

Much Ado about Nothing church scene, 
by William Shakespeare
photo credit: Artist-Alfred W. Elmore 1846, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Shakespeare's play Much Ado about Nothing lightly explores human realities and impressions, delivering insights or delights about both. A good deal of repartee or turn-taking among characters in the play relies on verbs or verbal functions, to trigger the nuggets of humor or some wisdom--with quotable quotes like "...wooing, wedding and repenting is as a Scotch jig." 

And this play is only one of the many places in literature, in history, and in life that the functions of verbs matter more than we might first notice. Verbs do much beyond what they denote.

From ancient to contemporary history, barbarians have peppered their propaganda with action verbs, seeking to be remembered as "Great," despite bloodthirsty conquests. In 480 BC Xerxes boasted in a tone too recently echoed, "My intent is to throw a bridge over the Hellespont and march an army through Europe against Greece, that thereby I may obtain vengeance..." 

Regardless, history recorded a very large difference between the promise and performance, after Xerxes assembled his reportedly huge army and failed to conquer Greece. The famous historian, Herodotus, seems to consider Xerxes a superstitious and bloodthirsty fool. Just behind the veil of "greatness" that tyrants seek are the very real atrocities that their propaganda works to erase, with lies buttressed by strong-sounding language.

Any public communication is worth examining for how verbs energize and/or divert us. Unsurprisingly, news headlines across the world during the last 24 hours deliver mainly action verbs--casts doubt (UK), grinds on (USA), pushes back (USA), deficits left open (Australia), grid emissions set to skyrocket (Canada), economist warns (Germany), limit even more (Mexico), four Jokowi ministers may run (Indonesia), appears to be in no rush (France), secure three seats (Ireland), "...we will win..." (Ukraine), takes hit...in elections (Netherlands), ...to establish new reception centers (Finland), tax reduction eaten up (Norway), can benefit when defence has become more important (Sweden), ...makes claim (Russia), continues search (Japan), ramps up provocations in run-up (South Korea), ...and expands Covid-19 mass testing (China). The French newspaper headline seems more cognitive, yet the headline writer infers an expectation of more immediate action. 

And action verbs matter in more places than just news headlines. The campaign slogans that the advertising industry touts as its most effective variously rely on verbs, adverbs, or (in one case here) a noun that denotes an action. These include within "whassup" a colloquial "ss" for "is or 's," the adverbial "always," and the noun "search," suggesting verb functions--...do..., ...share..., ...whassup..., ...tastes great..., ...always..., ...think small..., ...in search..., ...got milk..., ....get a..., Does she..., ...is forever..., ...smell like..., Where's the beef..., ...thank you mom.

Likewise, we can all think of extraordinary speeches that use carefully chosen verbs to stimulate action or new ways of thinking, helping to propel special power in delivery that's long remembered--you cannot locate it and you cannot stop it (Emmeline Pankhurst), I have a dream (Martin Luther King Jr), let tyrants fear (HRH Elizabeth I), give me blood and I will give you freedom (Subhas Chandra Bose), give me liberty or give me death (Patrick Henry), ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the world (John F. Kennedy), the land is our mother (Oodgeroo Noonuccal), we will not be quiet, we will not be controlled (Gloria Steinem), we have nothing to fear but fear itself (Franklin D. Roosevelt), we shall fight on the beaches (Sir Winston Churchill), the advertisements are for women (Germaine Greer), or a subtle use of the "to be" verb, "as is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters (Seneca).

We know verbs can help keep language lively and tell us much about the beliefs of a speaker or writer, including the stance on a subject, or any perception of us, the listeners or readers. Worth a look also is the ratio of "verbals" (verbs and their derivatives, like adverbs etc.) to "nounals" (nouns and their derivatives, like adjectives etc.), as well as the occurrences of the verb "to be," or verb pairs, or the infinitive, or the present tense versus other tenses, or passive voice, or the imperative verb--to name just some of the entrances to explore how verbs work.

And, verbs provide just one area of language to explore more closely, before venturing further into an Aladdin's Cave of the interesting ways of language--such as how function words, rather than content words, reflect thought and attention patterns, from which listeners and readers infer personal qualities, relationships, and types of formality or informality. 

A good way to navigate language effectiveness though is to look for how verbs actually do more work for us than we might always consider.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Certainty Claims

Comparison of different methods to raise voter turnout
photo credit: Numbersinstitute, Wikimedia Commons Attribution-SA 4.0 International

As we re-enter the "silly seasons" of electioneering, in the United States, France, Australia, and elsewhere, it's timely to look afresh at propaganda claims and processes. Not that this or that propagandist's statement or action now is very different, or especially more damaging than the propaganda processes we let wash over us every day--it's just the stakes are even greater. Since a good result in an election can also blunt some effects of propaganda, how we approach an election brings the opportunity to look afresh at what's going on with propagandists--if only to reconsider ways to raise the voter turnout of anyone who believes in democracy. 

Often as an election approaches, the foreboding will be of a Groundhog Day experience--as we anticipate even more intense shouting by the anti-democracy mob, any of whom might live next door. Unfortunately, the United States and some other democracies have a too large crop of shouting wannabes, whose copy-cat tradition is to speak of carnage and how they're so hardly done by--especially by the media--and, with a zealot's energy, will set about attacking others and claim that all will certainly "be best" by reviving some mythical glories of the past--which never include humor or a capacity for laughter.

And those candidates along with some elected representatives seem to mistakenly believe that they're born to rule. They keep popping up. Their public communication is strikingly similar in its dual focus on themselves and on being "anti-" the values of civil society--especially democratic values. Commonly, they promise certainties, rather than choices. The certainty claims conveniently ignore that, especially from the early to the later stages of an election, many of us would like to have some real choice--including among quality candidates for public office. 

Who are propagandists is usually what's most certain, when you know what to look for. Sometimes these propagandists pay lip service to democratic values, but mostly just "scream for the camera," as one Congressional representative astutely described some colleagues from his own party recently. The anti-democratic language of propagandists is preoccupied with at-least-mild exaggeration, or more often hyperbole--to capture the attention of a journalist or a camera.  

Caught up with self-advancement--by any means, at the expense of anyone else--most propagandists routinely use a high proportion of content words which have unclear referents, along with lots of function words like factive verbs and non-referential adverbs. 

It feels strange that the United States government in recent months has done so well, by using declassified intelligence, to anticipate and deal effective blows to blunt the propaganda of a foreign aggressor--yet we the people seem comfortable with domestic propaganda. Why is it that the horrors of lies told by another country are deplorable, while apparently local propaganda is willingly accepted in daily living?

A great amount of electoral and everyday propaganda ironically is from domestic terrorists and their foreign collaborators--mostly focused on the character assassination of opponents, sometimes persistently for many years, during endless fundraising and other mailings or using gossip chains. With the targeting of audiences dictated by some very expensive and ongoing socio-psychometric mapping and "messaging" rules, continuous propaganda is directed at party faithful and potential swing voters throughout the country. Yes, anyone else is as irrelevant as any non-person--who, just like any stateless individual in a foreign conflict, will be characterized as "not us"--with eerily bad outcomes expected to flow from all the "anti-" drivel.

Regrettably, by the time we bother to look closely at propaganda, much of its damage is already done--with the greatest damage not much talked about, namely how propaganda over time white-ants personal and social values, changing where we put attention, energy, and action. As Jacques Ellul warned, for propaganda to succeed the propagandist must control free thought.

What most empowers a propagandist are reactions. So, it surely is time to take a pause, instead of taking to Twitter, or devising that media exposé of this or that propagandist, or feeling threatened, or otherwise responding to the impulses of fight or flight when our raw nerves are touched off by a propagandist's emotive nonsense. 

It's often safest and best to assume that a propagandist is weird, driven to develop extraordinary skills in self-preservation from probably a very early age, by a distorted commitment to being right and winning--at everything, by whatever means--including as an adult through remarkably protracted gaming of the legal system. All the lies, distortions, and dodges are tactics to prove to anyone who'll react that the propagandist is right and a winner, at your cost. 

Of course, as noted in earlier blog posts, pundits frequently do additional damage with so-called fact-checking or other clumsy analyses, disseminating a lie much more widely than the propagandist could manage. And, those nauseating excuses by the pundits on mainstream or social media that "only show you this, so you know what's going on" just repeat and magnify the propagandist's insult and abuse.

So, what are we to do? 

1. We could stop being obsessed with the aberrant behavior of the propagandist. It's better to pay attention to asserting, with truthful, lawful, and just speech, the practical initiatives that build and strengthen the values of western civilization--like justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom. It's better to ensure accountability, soon and well, of anyone whose "anti-" behavior violates existing law. And, it's more than time to find ways to "clean house" of any unqualified "anti-" administrators and judiciary.

2. We could be skeptical of glib commentary, especially when it's just too neat, outlandish, or sounds too good to be true--these con-artists learned from wolves to dress up as sheep, and will bleat way too loudly, way above their weight. It's important to scrutinize a propagandist's actions or claims, to assess what impact these will make on freedoms of thought, speech, or association, and on the common good of people. This scrutiny and any needed actions in response are necessary for democracy to thrive.

3. We could stand up to the now too common virulent variety of propaganda that abuses or threatens your personality or safety--we no longer tolerate such abuse in domestic or workplace settings. It's hard to figure why that behavior is tolerated, and not called out more at school board meetings and other community gatherings, much less in legislatures or at the supermarket checkout--with persistent "anti-" claims about masks or vaccination, for example, still popping up in unexpected places. Some chairpersons and individuals are objecting to and successfully moderating that behavior, which requires some verbal "whackamo" skills.

4. For all the propaganda processes and puffing and stuffing and hot words, it's best to look elsewhere--separate from the propagandist promises of certainty--for what's authentic and achievable.

The propagandist thrives by receiving attention. In the time that any of us is objecting to the latest outlandish outrage, our own comments will often exponentially assist the viral spread of drivel, while the propagandist launches more vitriol to suck(er) more people into weird obsession with delusions of the propagandist's invention. 

And, all those appeals to people's fears, grievances, greed, hates, wanting to belong, or other emotions are just a means to an end for propagandists--along with their lies, denials, delays, distortions, and disruptions that are megaphoned and further magnified unwittingly or willingly by mainstream and social media. Unfortunately, as much as one believes in democratic debate, this is not a belief shared by any propagandist. 

It's mostly pointless to argue or 'splain propagandist comments, other than to reassert or demonstrate democratic values of civil society. Likely those comments were put together to extend dogma, and are frequently couched as "not-for-debate." And it's not possible to even kindle debate when a propagandist won't acknowledge anyone else's much less civil society's ethical or moral framework. As wannabe winners, propagandists don't "get" anyone's morality, because, a bit like self-centered nihilists, they're not absorbing of anything other than self.

The propagandist sees nothing but "selling" us on anything that advances the wannabe goals of the propagandist. So, trying too much to describe a propagandist's ideological commitment is about as meaningful or useful as trying to label the Wizard of Oz. The better efforts will be to raise voter turnout.

Welcome your thoughts...

Thursday, April 7, 2022

To Speak Out!

The Platypus sings of the antediluvian days
photo credit: from Dot and the Kangaroo, 1899, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

At Amazon websites internationally 

or Ingram for libraries and bookstores.

ISBN: 978-1-7374895-1-1 (hardback)

ISBN: 978-1-7374895-0-4 (paperback)


Persuasive language styles of notable Australians, 1890s to 21st century. This book describes the ways that word choice, sentence shape, and passage development enable successful arguments for change. It is packed with creative uses of metaphor, humour, polemic, anaphora, and political jargon, with rhetorical flair. 

 

Detailing rhetorical strength in the speeches and writing of Sir Samuel Griffith, Louisa Lawson, Alfred Deakin, Dame Nellie Melba, John Curtin, Dame Enid Lyons, Sir Robert Menzies, Oodgeroo Noonuccal [Kath Walker], Kevin Gilbert, Gough Whitlam, Germaine Greer, Bob Hawke, Sallyanne Atkinson, Michael Kirby, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Noel Pearson, Scott Morrison, and more. Includes a selection of notable speeches and writing.


*  *  *  *  *

True leaders advance the common good, using "...truthful, lawful, and just speech"--as recommended for more than 2,400 years. 

My new book, Australians Speak Out: Persuasive Language Styles, assesses persuasive language styles in the speeches and writing of leaders in one modern nation, who got it right. These leaders had to speak directly, laconically at times, and use plain talk to hold the attention of audiences. 

The book is packed with examples of how extraordinary speakers and writers use ordinary words to make representative democracy thrive. It assesses the persuasive language of some notable Australians, from the 1890s to the 21st century. 

Living in the United States through the absurdity of the initial handling of COVID and a remarkable election, I kept some perspective by exploring a rich heritage of extraordinary Australians who advocate social and political change--completing the book while intense fights for democracy continue throughout the world.

Speaking Up
In Australia, where the anti-hero is revered, leaders have to speak up and speak out in individual ways. When the Olympics were held here, on the night before the race, the blue line marking the marathon course was erased from one section of the course--the next morning to be found repainted running up to one pub door and out from another.

It's the same nation where, amid the COVID pandemic early in 2020, photos spontaneously appeared on the Internet of suburban dwellers dressed in startling costumes as superheroes, zombies, grotesques, princesses, etc., just to roll out their wheelie garbage bins to the front of their homes for collection. Australians deal with the absurd with a developed sense of humour and a sense of independence.

At a time when truthful, lawful, and just speech is needed more than ever, the book takes a fresh look at how prime ministers, other community leaders, and advocates of change attract attention and move people to action. 

Australians Speak Out ["Look Inside" here] reveals the persuasive language of notable Australians whose advocacy helped to
* federate the colonies of Britain in the South Pacific as one nation
* make Australian women among the first to be able to vote, in 1902
* appeal directly to the people of the United States for wartime support
* establish rights for First Nations
* challenge sexism
* reform laws to respect human rights
* control guns
* deal with the COVID pandemic
and advance many other causes by appealing to our reason and emotions. For ready access, a selection of notable speeches and writing is included.

Direct Appeals
Looking closely at the language of more than 20 notable Australians, who helped to transform the colonies of Britain into a multicultural nation on the world stage, brought surprises along with expected familiarity. Familiar now to relatively few is the plea during World War II to strengthen the partnership of the United States and Australia to defeat foreign aggression in the Pacific--from prime minister John Curtin, speaking via radio directly to the people of the United States. 

Perhaps more readily recalled are prime ministers Sir Robert Menzies and Gough Whitlam, who respectively committed and removed Australian troops in support of the United States in Vietnam. Or, Germaine Greer provocatively addressing women's rights at the National Press Club in Washington DC in 1971--while promoting publication of The Female Eunuch, with the persuasive language that she used in her book reviewed here.

Advocacy for Action
Surprising to some might be the powerful language of Louisa Lawson's social activism, which spearheaded women's right to vote on the same terms as men in 1902; and yet peoples in the First Nations were unable to vote until 1962. 

The disturbing treatment of First Nations was finally officially acknowledged during the term of the reform prime minister Gough Whitlam, elected in 1972, and in the landmark speeches of prime ministers Paul Keating (1992) and Kevin Rudd (2008). Yet, still unaddressed were key rights for First Nations strongly advocated from the late 20th century, by activists like Oodgeroo Noonuccal [Kath Walker] and Kevin Gilbert, whose speeches are reviewed in the book. 

Also assessed are the remarkable speeches and writing of the former Justice of the High Court, Michael Kirby, who recalls the inspiration that Eleanor Roosevelt brought to schoolchildren through her visit to Sydney in 1944--and to his own life-long commitment of reforming laws to respect human rights. And, how The Right Honourable Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Sallyanne Atkinson, invited British royalty who were present to join Brisbane residents in "our party," to celebrate the City's coming of age at the opening of World Expo '88.

From more recent times, there are powerful, and perhaps surprising speeches. These include prime minister John Howard's address to transform gun ownership nationally, little more than a month after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, and prime minister Julia Gillard's address to parliament in 2012 in her powerful objection to sexism, which resonated around the world--to current Prime Minister Morrison's brief but reassuring plan to deal with the COVID pandemic.

For anyone interested in a close look at words that appeal to audiences--that are authentic and move hearts and minds! I hope you'll enjoy reading the book.
 

Monday, March 21, 2022

Tales of Two...

Auckland Islands, Looking toward New Zealand
photo credit:  Lawrie Mead & Tony Nicklin, Wikimedia Commons-Public Domain

Joan Druett in Island of the Lost [here] brings to life the character of people who, sailing into forbidding seas, were shipwrecked on a remote island 285 miles to the south of New Zealand. She recounts how two groups deal with deprivation at the "edge of the world" in the year 1864--as current today as then. 

The tales reveal the best and most base in humanity--starkly contrasting adaptability and rigidity in the respective leaders of the groups. One group showed courage in selfless acts too many to know, a flexibility in fighting overwhelming forces, and a determination to survive--qualities largely lacking in the second group.

Part history and part immersion in human nature, the author finds her stride early to bring to life the events and voices of the individuals, through her carefully creative interpretation of journals and other research. She relates the true tales of two groups, who were castaway and unaware of each other's existence, at different ends of the same island. Each took a different approach to making decisions and to finding shelter or food--with consequently different outcomes. 

Powerful recreations of ships, sea, storms, islands, vegetation, sea lions, bird-life, and other creatures are described in graphic detail, along with the cruelty needed to survive. Druett melds seamlessly the records of events within descriptions of the island setting, to illustrate how the castaways cope, insightfully sharing the thoughts and actions of people facing extreme challenges to their lives. 

The smaller group of castaways celebrate human savvy in undertaking hard efforts, using limited tools retrieved from their shipwreck--foraging for food, building shelter, and sustaining spirits. As leader of this group, Captain Musgrave provides encouragement, requiring times of relaxation as needed. He seems as a leader to appreciate when to lean in with guidance and when to cheer initiative. For 18-months, Captain Musgrave and his group withstood the isolation and deprivation through adaptation, ingenuity, and cooperative efforts. 

A larger group of castaways, who were shipwrecked four months after Musgrave's group, fared much less well. Their tale, as one reviewer remarked, was in some ways like an adult version of Lord of the Flies. From their shipwreck at the foot of cliffs through later events, this group's lethargic treks and decisions too late or not at all accumulate failure after failure in taking the actions needed for survival. With the low energy and inflexibility of this second group and its official leader, you can broadly predict why their tale would be so different--with just one seaman having the resourcefulness needed to face such dire circumstances. 

The detail of the narration is engaging. The book also describes norms of master-servant relations of the time, notes the behaviors of government officials, and chronicles some subsequent history of this "graveyard for ships." Lessons emerge naturally from the recreation of a distant time, in a far-away place, through deftly reimagined conversations and events that are freshly relevant today. 

When the world waits and watches from elsewhere, tales of survival offer possibility for hope. But they also highlight the limits to being able to survive alone. 

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Homage

Cattle Graze in an Iowa Field
photo credit: Preston Keres/US Dept of Agriculture, Wikimedia Commons-Public Domain

George Orwell concluded his Homage to Catalonia with a reflection on his return to England:

"Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don't worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday... [the people] ...all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs."

This was 1937, when Orwell returned from a harrowing time as a volunteer in the fight against real fascists, during the Spanish War. Although it's not possible now to know just how, greater efforts at that time to weaken or defeat the fascists could have seen events from 1939 onwards unfold very differently.

It was not only England that was sleeping. Throughout a world still slowly recovering from a Great Depression, in rural areas, cities, and towns, people on farms and in offices and factories sought peace of mind for a better life--while leaders of the Axis Powers secretly made massive preparations for conquest. 

Their first forays with bombs and troops were to take control of countries as staging areas for further conquest. 

The world waited and watched from elsewhere, until the disparate and distracting debates, increasingly influenced by members of the Fifth Column telling smart-sounding lies, could no longer shield elected representatives from duty to protect homelands. Compelled by overwhelming circumstances, people worldwide progressively woke from sleep to harrowing years of action.

Foremost among what was different then was that Hitler from very early so completely lied about his intentions.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Neighbors

Napoleon in Exile at St Helena
photo credit: Helen Leah Reed, Wikimedia Commons-Public Domain

Much like family, we don't usually get to pick our neighbors. Pleasant times spent with a neighbor chatting and sharing stories, drinks, or a meal provide a sense of belonging, security, and peace of mind within immediate and familiar surroundings--extending the valued bubble of comfort and security of home that anyone should be able to expect. 

Some neighbors become life-long friends. Some take on the care of houseplants or pets when we travel. Looking out for each other and caring about someone else are good qualities in folks we'd call good neighbors.

Of course, in different ways tough on everyone are those neighbors only interested in themselves. Least troublesome are the ones who keep to themselves. But the one or two who dispute the fence-line, push too much, or make a lot of noise or worse are the flip-side. 

More widely in the world they're often mocked or illustrated as ridiculous but dangerous, frighteningly real compared to the cartoon characters their actions prompt. 

I recall a Donald Duck cartoon strip in which Donald got his feathers so greatly in a flap with his neighbor that they each frantically built fences higher and higher on their adjacent fence-line, to outdo each other.

Eventually, the fences were many times higher than their homes, bending and swaying from the height of the fences that Donald and his neighbor were atop and still building, when the cartoonist summoned a tornado to whisk both fences away onto a nearby body of water--there to serve as life-rafts for passengers escaping a ferry that was overturned by the same tornado--such is the power of the cartoonist's pen to find a good ending to madness.

The longer that dangerous actions are allowed, the greater the harm for everyone.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Cons

Wirkung eines Zerrspeigels
photo credit: Xocolatl, Wikimedia Commons-Public Domain

It's all done with mirrors. A once-famous columnist for a still-famous newspaper probably had this saying in mind when he speculated more than half a century ago about writing the ideal all-purpose political speech--by appealing to anyone who's committed to any side of just about any issue. He went further to write, tongue-in-cheek I hope, his own best effort toward earning "the supreme accolade: 'Nobody can quarrel with that.'"

It's worrisome that he was also a presidential speechwriter for five years in an administration not noted for covering itself in glory. While the columnist's name might not matter any more, the sentiment does, whether or not the original motivation was mainly comic. The columnist proffered that the way to earn the "supreme accolade" was to craft words that permitted political candidates "to take firm stands on all sides of every issue." What's happened to political language since elevates this cheeky comment to seriously worrisome.

We all long ago let ourselves get used to propaganda washing over us every day in every way. Perhaps it's not surprising that, for too many decades in this country, some generators of political language have borrowed and "improved" the techniques that Madison Avenue found sufficiently useful to convince us to buy not this but that soap, toothpaste, food, car, college, or you-name-it. 

As expressed in the spirit of the original remarkably pseudo-scientific gibberish, these advertising techniques were built on "measuring subjects' reactions to messages." In the 1950s, this was done by observing eye dilations and other physiological reactions to "messages"--methods that long ago found their way into politics, with the aim of delivering more certainty in the effect of words.

So-called research data are now gathered from electrodes on potential voters who listen to political speeches, to determine the "right words" for the use of these words uniformly in talking points across a political party, which makes addressing people's real needs irrelevant--with too many in the media then repeating the juicy parts of the talking points verbatim! Anyone who doesn't think this cringeworthy and wrong on so many levels has a long way to climb back to decent human values.

The easier propagandists to call out are those who say the outright opposite of what they do. But these still seem to attract more media attention for what is said rather than done--maybe because the lie is more colorful and comes pre-packaged in a media release. Hyperbole or even mild exaggeration combined with provocative ambiguity is a headline-writer's dream, whether connected to reality or not.

More challenging is the conjurer of euphemism or maestro of the mealy-mouthed, especially those urging politicians to talk to us about "security," "peace of mind," "results," "renewal," "independence," and a litany of words being promoted into conversational currency, without the matching actions to accomplish laudable ideals. Such as "transparency" or better still "accountability" for example! Now, these sound like promising thoughts--and is it too much to ask that the legislators, judiciary, and others, who've sworn real oaths to do so, actually take the steps needed to "secure our peace of mind by getting a result of some accountability, to deliver a renewal of democracy and individual independence"--at more than buggy-speed in a nano-world!? The come-ons and put-offs become encyclopedic, as the news cycle moves on. 

As messages are being shaped and shared for yet another election, it's a good time to see the hucksters for who they are. Just like the about-to-be-bankrupt person in business projects confidence, even bombast, to reassure an unfortunate target to invest in a yet-again just-wonderful opportunity, so too will the political propagandist. 

Waking to every day's news that includes some fearfully absurd figures, it's a time to look for what's real behind the images. Computerized propaganda has just kept improving its targeting too. And foreign state-sponsored efforts remain. So, here are some suggested rules-of-thumb to take action on, after reaching for a second cup of coffee each morning during the coming months:

1. Vote when you can.

2. Find people in your neighborhood or circle of friends and relatives, of whatever party affiliation, who believe in democracy--put aside differences, and form a coalition of ongoing-working-consultation to take actions to strengthen democracy together--and count on doing this for a long while. 

3. Laugh at and/or stand up to the puffed-up and self-opinionated autocrat, whether local or (if you're able) international.

4. Write a letter (not a tweet) to your elected representatives, requesting action on something you care about, asking for and expecting a reply, and following up if you don't get one, until you do get a satisfactory (not mealy-mouthed) reply.

5. Recognize grift-language--if it really seems to be everywhere, ignore it if it looks harmless enough for now, and call it out when it's not.

6. Secure a funhouse mirror (by analogy) to hold up and show to others, yes anyone who'll listen, just how distorted and far from the common good of normalcy that the words and actions of autocrats travel.

6. Re-re-read writers like Jacques Ellul and Randal Marlin, referenced in earlier blog-posts.

7. Laugh a Lot.

Tearing down grifters and their propaganda requires more than occasionally switching off the media and tech devices, although this might help gain some perspective. 

Most seriously, any of us needs to take time to hold up a mirror to propaganda, to make out what's real, past the reverse/distorted images--like we do with a funhouse mirror at the sideshow, to look for the reality that's being distorted.

Not that all of this will be possible or always work, but reinforcing critical inquiry and informed challenge will prove way better than bathing every day in the distortions of people whom you'd not otherwise open your door to. 

And, if enough of us believe in doing good within democracy, and communicate well, democracy will thrive.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Honestly

Fishermen Unloading their Catch at Portmagee
photo credit: Frank Donovan, Wikimedia Commons CCA-BY-SA 2.0 Generic

Expected on full display off the coast of Ireland this week will be a contrast of values. With the deadly armaments of war-gamers potentially endangering Irish fishermen, it is real values and not pretense that will be clear to the world. 

The war-gamers are set to fire naval artillery and rockets 150 miles off the Irish coast in international waters, but within the Irish exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Pat Murphy and his fellow fishermen have caught the attention of many worldwide, for promising to do what they've always done on the first of February--namely, work the fishing grounds off the coast of Ireland, from the start of the season.

What's clear already is that when Pat Murphy says he's not moving aside for war-gamers, you'd better believe it. He and a fellow fisherman made this known, armed only with maps of the fishing grounds, during a visit with the war-gamers' ambassador to Ireland. 

Unsurprisingly, the two parties' readouts of this meeting, which were later given to the media, were different concerning a key undertaking--with the ambassador's public statement contradicting his private guarantee of safety given to Murphy. Mr Murphy reportedly responded that he takes the ambassador's public comment as "a threat and an insult." As my Irish grandfather quipped more than once, there are no degrees of honesty.

As with most events of this type that involve devotees to war who are reported in the media, the slippery treatment of truth, half-truth, and myth will keep evolving as the coming week(s) unfold. This casual relationship with truth of warmongers, and war-gamers also apparently, was evident even before the first edition in 1975 of Phillip Knightley's revelatory The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo.

It's to be hoped the war-gamers might temporarily escape their own view of the world to know that an Irish fisherman named Pat Murphy will keep his word--he and his compatriots will be fishing and "not moving aside," when the war-gamers commence their dangerous maneuvers on Thursday, local time. 

Just how many generations of Murphy families have fished off the Irish coast isn't clear. And which Murphy family would you be talking about, you might ask.  

Population experts would likewise have a hard time guessing the scale of various extensions of the Murphy families and their countryfolk throughout the world. Estimates based on the rates with which Irish migrants in this country and elsewhere marry out of the Irish community, and extend the sharing of Irish values, would give some idea of this. Yet another clue could be the readership of books about Ireland, including How the Irish Saved Civilization--which tend to fly off the shelves of bookshops and libraries.

What the world is seeing many will consider a further repeat of what Sir Winston Churchill acknowledged as a "sorry history" of the Emerald Isle, so often subjected to intimidation and, in earlier times, invasion!

Whatever happens this week, many millions within and beyond Irish families, in a great many countries worldwide, will feel unity with Mr Murphy and his fellow fishermen.

[FOOTNOTE UPDATE, February 1, 2022: The Irish Echo has reported "...the Russians have now said that they will relocate their naval exercises, though to exactly where is not clear. But they apparently won't now be staged in the Irish EEZ."]

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Pundit Propaganda

Barnum & Bailey clowns, geese, roosters, and donkey
photo credit: The Strobridge Litho. Co./Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Propagandist Pundits play too much with our perception. Will such folks ever appreciate that if we really do hanker for the current equivalent of performing geese, roosters, & a musical donkey, we'll find a real circus.

NOT talking here about the so obvious pundits whom we regrettably notice too much--these are the self-servers, who routinely speak conspiracy lies, or so much that's outrageous, that, if they had a moral compass, or any of the faith that some of them claim, their comments would surely head them hellward. NOR those mentioned recently in an opinion article in the newspaper, which suggested that pundits should own up when they get something wrong, just like the rest of us do, when inevitably in life we make a mistake.

Important as those are to address, more important are pundits who try to put truthful perspective, yet fail. And these pundits are important because of their potential! These are the folks who too often fail by being unwitting propagandists, constantly parroting the words and claims of some grifter, charlatan, propagandist, or other pretender--thereby publicizing the pretender's original claims. Particularly dangerous and destructive to democracy now are these prevalent and persistent pundits.

Ever since the first televised presidential debates in the United States in 1960, we've known that pundits who soon afterwards comment on what public figures say have more power than the original remarks. As mentioned in an earlier blog post, this was already apparent as long ago as 1943, when the brilliant pundit Martin Esslin--well before he famously described the theater of the absurd--participated in counter-propaganda radio broadcasts. His role was to immediately analyze Hitler's speeches, and Esslin's analyses--which were unfavorable to the Nazis--were broadcast in German into occupied countries, where people were allowed to listen only to radio broadcasts in German.    

Today, we need more pundits who use their own words more, to comment truthfully, positively, and plainly. To do this, many need to stop repeating the language of pretenders. For example, when will people's attraction to alliteration give way to sense? Should be plain as day that, if you keep quoting the audience-tested, much propagated slogan "St** the St***," you're helping the propagandist by spreading bad words (and lies) again, and again, and again, etc. And, it should be just fine for moderators on broadcast media or editors in the print media to use different words to challenge this as propaganda. No different than the responsibility to prevent dissemination of libel and slander, and unchecked propaganda is at least as dangerous.

Dear Pundit, if you really must have a slogan to repeat, or a bumper sticker to put up somewhere prominently, how about the alliterative "Stop the Stupid." Or, instead of still repeating "no fr**d was found," just dump the negatives--and say what's Fair for Freedom of thought, speech, and association. It's simple to do, when you remember what's at stake.

But apparently these pundits feel purified by putting a negative in front of their free publicity for some pretender--whom they ironically often decry--then do detailed forensics, reusing the pretender's fantasy verbiage, and repeat the original words and claims endlessly, sometimes putting "not" in front; mistakenly believing that "not" has some power that it actually lacks.

For example, if I said to you "Don't WALK on the grass," likely you'd hear most prominently the verb "walk" and what follows it, even if I'd not capitalized=shouted this verb, or if I'd used "not" instead of the barely noticeable contraction ...n't! Have you noticed also that verbs are more powerful in getting our attention than nouns and negatives... or just about any other bit of language. Since this imperative or instruction form of the verb is especially powerful and attention-getting because it rarely occurs in conversation, there's added inclination for your brain to totally ignore the negative and hear something more like "Go ahead, you (or y'all) go walk on the grass!!"

Out of habit, or dancing around legalisms, or ignorance, or just being lazy though, people do negate or double-negate comments, all the time. Some even double-negate themselves into insulting followers, as was reported recently.

It really is simple to rephrase or paraphrase, to purify the puerile and pernicious. How about just saying "X & Y have occurred, and Z suggests/ed this remedy..." instead of the usual pattern, "This killer fog that I'm showing you again and again will not go away anytime soon." Maybe cross the street, so-to-speak, to find someone who will offer a remedy to pursue, rather than continuing to provide a platform for some "Desdemona-downer" pretender! Or, for additional thoughts on what language to use, please re-check George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language."

It's not only preference for the positive that prompted this post. Among Jacques Ellul's warnings about propaganda is an alert to what he called social propaganda. This most powerful propaganda drives automatic behavior, triggered from the assumptions and norms wrapped within the context and language that we swim in everyday. Even if you're not perturbed about the impact of all these "nots" not-not-negating us into nothingness or worse, media bullhorns that repeat foul fantasies and pretense just perpetuate the mind warp first intended. 

Anyway, please consider that a great many people are just plain tired of hearing all the swamp talk of pretenders repeated. Surely, it's time to find a better way to call out the putrid and the puerile? How about perorating the promising? Now there's a prospect!  

A pundit is supposed to be, and is often paid to be, well, better--with an opinion to share, with perspective and precision. So, please, can this include putting a stop to promoting drivel?

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Surf

 

Kawana, Sunshine Coast, Australia
photo credit: Finnrussell99, Wikimedia Commons CCA-SA-4.0 International

New Year for a couple of decades marked the final stage of three-weeks at the beach when growing up. Apart from a few seasonal celebrations, visits with relatives or friends, and some movies, this annual vacation was a time of uninterrupted surfing, of both waves and words. 

Early every morning in a land of endless summer, the family carried beach umbrella, rolled-up beach mat, towels, boogie boards, sunglasses, sunscreen, drink-containers, and of course books, to trek in caravan formation across sand-hills and the already hot beach sand--to find just the right spot, between the flags placed by the lifesavers to mark the area safe for swimming.

The morning was spent in the surf--after a quick survey of what the previous night's tides and weather had set as the surfing terrain, to make safe navigation across any deep gutters, rip-currents, or sandbars--out far, to where serious waves gathered--there to catch a deeply rolling swell the long distance to shore, riding on its final curl and roll onward to the beach. 

Swimming with the swell to catch a wave more than two- to three-times one's height was learned early, for an exhilarating ride as close as you'd hope to the beach. Sometimes, misjudged timing delivered an additional lesson as a human cork, tumbling in the wave or hitting the sand hard, with eyes wide open underwater, shrouded with flurries of white bubbles and sand clouds, until breaking the surface for air. Eventually we'd come back to the beach umbrella and outspread towels, talking and reading, until returning home for lunch. 

During the long hot afternoons, in separate places--indoors, under trees, or in the sand-hills, lots of reading revealed more than the year's schooling about how words work. Being carried along by words for the afternoon was different but in some ways similar to the morning's experience riding the waves.

Even from everyday Aussie talk, we were well primed to be curious about exploring language, often encountering analogy, rhyming substitutions, abbreviation, imaginative omission, and lots of figurative language. Not everywhere in the world will you hear the phrase "like a lizard drinking" with everyone around you understanding this translates to "busy"--because a lizard lies "flat out" busily drinking at the billabong... and it's commonly known that a billabong is a particular type of watering hole and not a surfing reference, despite the confusion created by this now also being a popular brand-name for surfing gear and clothing. 

Or, how many people do you know who, out of the blue, refer to a best friend and/or spouse as "china plate," or just "china," or "plate"? Of course, Cockneys and Aussies know what this is because there's a rhyme with "mate," and everyone knows what that means, right! These are some of what are better known among quite a large trove of Australian/"Oz-talk"--now, that's "clear as mud" you might say, but will you routinely put these and many more language adaptations and adoptions, one after another continuously in every sentence you speak? No wonder that John O'Grady, writing under his pseudonym Nino Culotta, sold so many copies of They're a Weird Mob--a 1957 comic novel about an Italian immigrant to Oz trying to work all this out. And, then there's Frank Hardy's irreverently humorous satire The Outcasts of Foolgarah--which would require too many blogposts to translate from Oz-talk, however imprecisely.

Later, it was kind of surprising to find thoughtful authors, mainly from Europe or North America, who bothered to write entire books about tropes, rhetorical style, slang, or colorful language. Mostly these authors were interested in how words are used differently in different places, or for different purposes. It didn't take long to catch curiosity about how we shape words and words shape us--which also primed curiosity about how a writer like Dylan Thomas opened a path to sounds, sights, and insights [here in 5 minutes, "Poem in October" and "In My Craft or Sullen Art," read by the poet]. Or, of his walk in winter Quite Early One Morning, describing a seaside Welsh village and its people waking to another day [here in less than 13 minutes], as he makes intriguing entrances to unfamiliar scenes and feelings, via his unique rhythm, symbols, and density of lyrical language. 

Then Charles Darwin describing human origins in language attentive to his wife's deeply different faith, to an eye-opening James Baldwin telling it on the mountain, to "Rabbie" Burns's reshaping songs and stories of Scotland, to Judith Wright visualizing the Australian bush, to Halldor Laxness's vision of independence, to the wit of Wislawa Szymborska, and so many other worlds of words.

Along the way, seeds from the thoughtful authors on rhetoric and language style progressively grew further curiosity--so it continues--recently and enjoyably, with much thanks to a friend, who pointed out yet another thoughtful author known on his weblog as The Inky Fool. This is Mark Forsyth, who dives into, if you'll allow the metaphor, oceans of words... and, who seems to have way too much fun with explanations of etymology, syntax, semantics, and rhetoric.

For anyone even a little interested in stretching understandings of what words can do, Mr. Forsyth, with an energy worthy of a surfer, dives into allusion, Diacope, and other examples of rhetorical style, to explain how apparently everyday language in movies or songs, or other word experiences, manage to carry us along.

If this is the nearest that a lexicographer comes in an armchair to surfing waves of words, good luck to us all. You can join in, and hopefully enjoy starting the year with one of his videos... here

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Back-seat Driver

Passenger Compartment, 1967 Rambler Ranch in Colorado
photo credit: Christopher Siemnowicz, Wikimedia Commons CCA-SA-4.0 International

Did you ever experience in the years before COVID-19, when driving a vehicle with seats fully occupied, the occasional passenger--usually from the back seat--who instructed the best time to brake, or turn, or accelerate, or which route to take? 

One of the unexpected benefits of the pandemic is the effective disappearance of this individual from many vehicles, mainly because sane people no longer tend to take weekend drives or carpool with lots of passengers.

Unfortunately, not to be suppressed by anything serious like a pandemic, this impulse to instruct from the back seat has visibly increased in other places. 

You might have noticed there seem now to be a very large number of people suddenly qualified in their minds to judge how test kits and vaccines can be magically produced and distributed, how the virus works, what are the effective remedies, what safety protocols should pertain, how hard done by they are compared to everyone else, and the list goes on. 

Somehow, this infects some media talkshow hosts, and program anchors, and reporters, and Mr or Ms Interviewee, all of whom--as quickly and uninformed as a back-seat driver--megaphone their snappy instructions or question the efforts of health care workers, government, and everyone else, without reference to or any apparent knowledge of realities like production and delivery, or of surges in demand set off by panic.

Perhaps it's unsurprising that health care workers in some hospitals are now being issued body armor, yes, kevlar jackets, etc., etc., as protection from incoming patients who react violently to having their barmy treatment instructions denied.

Ignoring the back-seat driver apparently no longer works. What to do? What happened to working together to defeat a common enemy, namely the virus! 

Perhaps to paraphrase Pogo, it's time to address the enemy within who is us?

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Where's the Outrage?

Sydney Harbour Bridge & Opera House New Year
photo credit: Linh_rOm, via FlickreviewR/Wikimedia Commons CCA-BY-2.0 Generic

Perhaps the most substantial failure in public communication during recent decades is the not-so-combined effort to counter the death-cult of anti-vax and anti-mask propagandists, in the United States and more widely.

Since the first vaccinations against COVID commenced one year ago yesterday in this country, we've been presented with countless images on television and social media that show people being jabbed with a needle. 

The media latched on to this image early. The first person vaccinated on national TV here was a nurse, who had the good sense immediately afterwards to clap her hands and nonverbally try to convey joy, as best she could from behind her mask. On-screen vaccinations of some national leaders and a few celebrities progressively followed, laudably showing the right thing to do. Then a strange series of giveaways and gimmicks were popped in front of viewers as incentives--thereafter followed continuous urgings to vaccinate, alongside repeated diatribes on dire consequences of not vaccinating.

One year later when dealing with COVID, what remains as the dominant visual on all media here is the image of needles going into arms--this is NOT enticing, even possibly for masochists. Conjecturing that this contributes some ad populum appeal is just too feeble to treat seriously.

Worse still, this visual sets the frame for the sometimes white-coated experts urging vaccination. The only other visual much apparent is a tufted ball ominously floating through some micro-universe, presumably to represent COVID magnified under a microscope, and on its way to infecting someone. Does anyone really think this conveys confidence in science?

As the world continues to face the worst pandemic in living memory, what is outrageous is the failure to learn from so many well-documented, successful public health campaigns--strategies and insights readily available from decades of encouraging better behaviors on smoking, drink-driving, skin-cancer prevention, swimming pool fencing, and a host of other public health concerns. 

Among the many early anti-smoking campaigns that failed to work were some blanket representations of dire consequences from smoking, with dramatically graphic visuals failing to change behavior.  As with any communication, creatively anticipating varieties of interpretation matter, along with testing of draft "messaging." Surely, we can do better now!

Wherever you're reading this, feel free to comment on the extent to which public communication is helping or otherwise your nation's efforts to vaccinate--which, so far, is the only way to make us all safe.

Most importantly, ask your leaders and media what each will do to help.

Hoping that you keep safe over the festive season--and let's wish for 2022 to bring better!

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Fall in the Suburbs

Bear Cub Tackles Garbage
photo credit: Gillfoto, Wikimedia Commons CCA-SA 4.0 International

At this time each year with foliage fallen, in the early morning half-light, animated shadows take the shape of deer hearing a noise inaudible to others, and, looking up from grazing on their favorite garden beds, turn tail to scatter, clattering across the bitumen of neighborhood roads.

In this season, human suburbanites bring out a bevy of bird-feeders, multiplying the offerings of seed and suet to help the birds, and the inevitable squirrels and chipmunks, through the winter. 

On sunny days, a shadow sensed overhead causes birds and the smaller creatures to freeze like stalagmites, alert to a predator hawk's survey before its dive-through swoop. At times, a bear, or bobcat, or quick red fox will be glimpsed crossing the fallen leaves, attending to pre-winter foraging. Hunkering down and preparing for what's to come are instincts strongly sustained by suburbanized animals--and, this is also somewhat true of their human neighbors. 

A not-so-mythical Neighbor Jones attends to outdoor chores to prepare home for winter. Apparently a keen role model, Jones keeps right up to date with the latest garden tools, gutter guards, and any advertised gizmo needed for such responsibility. A dimming memory of Aesop's fables, or James Thurber's stories, fables, and cartoons, or quips of Ogden Nash might keep some suburbanites' feet on the ground, but Jones captures currency with TV and social media clicks and swipes.

This very modern commander of what is popular frequently forages the advertised specials, to keep ahead of the outdated. With dopamine that advertising and media have stimulated in the brain for more seasons than remembered, Jones is ritually separated from conscious thought. Gilbert and Sullivan's very model modern-major-general could not compete with such an embodiment of the media's key goal, which is to have more people diligently spending more time on the media.

So runs the theme of an intriguing book, Veils of Distortion: How the News Media Warp Our Minds, recently launched by a practicing journalist, John Zada. This is not a new suggestion. Vance Packard was the canary in the coal mine, so to speak, pointing to practices in subliminal advertising in books like The Hidden Persuaders in the 1950s. In the next decade, Jacques Ellul alerted to the power of social propaganda, which predisposes us to respond to the most unremarkable drivel. And, many more since.

What's refreshing within Zada's insights, beyond his being employed in the news media and daring to critique the news media, are observations on how it is that what gets treated as news are aberrations from real life for most people--and, how this news sets an increased appetite for reports of the bizarre, the dangerous, and the outlier, which ever since people existed we are keen to know about. Zada describes a variety of added touches that degrade the news as "info-tainment." 

He suggests that this "news" crowds out reality. The news media just keep on obsessively covering mainly outlier incidents to infer a besieged, beleaguered world, contrary to what most people might ever experience. And, for all this churning invention of an apocalyptic fantasy, news media outlets in fierce competition with each other are competing for an ever-diminishing pool of followers, as droves of potential readers and viewers choose to spend time elsewhere--little wonder!

Yet, without the persistently professional investigations of journalists, much malfeasance of elected officials would never be known. And, journalists deploy information gathering and writing abilities within standards of the profession, media management, audience interests, and other constraints that would paralyze many people. The regularity of finding and getting to us items that might be truly fit to print or to broadcast is an ever-changing landscape, ever-demanding on talent, patience, persistence, politeness, and a host of other positive human qualities.  

Zada seeks to avoid taking cheap shots at his colleagues though. He defines various types of "fake news" precisely, including as disinformation, and alerts to the supercharged impact of the news media as servants of conspirators and other disinformation merchants, by obligingly amplifying their existence, activities, and messages. Such "reporters," hyped by dopamine of their own making, highlight extreme details of disinformation merchants to ensure a "news piece" gets passed through the news organization's internal gatekeepers for publication or broadcast. 

Zada points out that Aric Toler has noted news media magnify the reach of disinformation "way beyond anything Moscow could achieve by itself." Likewise, touched on is how news media ever so regularly cover grifter and charlatan politicians, massively expanding the reach of their propaganda. He points to the role of PR as propaganda and many other aspects of "churnalism" in the "news factory."

While this book mainly probes a great many examples of the distortions to offer diagnosis of the why, how, and what that drive the news and the consumers of news, he does touch on "what to do." Zada's brief concluding suggestions for action, understandably perhaps, are mostly geared to those in the media, with some suggestions quite doable and others less so. At least, unlike the litany of diagnostics and forensics offering no remedy that most publishers continue to launch upon us, he makes the attempt. But, while an interesting read, clearly this is not enough. 

Unfortunately, warnings are not remedies--and, in the United States and many other countries, it is in the disinformation land of the suburbs that elections are so often decided. It should be obvious to anyone paying attention that the old claim that the news informs to develop an informed electorate, for example, just isn't true. And, apart from a relatively few notable bright-lights in the media, op-eds and cable channel megaphones don't much help.

So, who will offer more than is needed of what really matters? Namely, support for the ongoing fights to sustain freedoms of thought, speech, and association. For a start, this includes putting an even brighter spotlight on the actions needed yesterday to

* codify the much talked about guardrails of democracy, with prompt and vigorous prosecution of violators

* dismantle propaganda everywhere possible

* replace the grifters and charlatans who currently are making "news" with what the decent, elected representatives are actually doing, rather than what they're wrangling about doing 

* use the undoubted power of the media to creatively develop analytic and critical abilities among all generations.

Before too many naysayers line up, let's remember what the media can do when truly creative individuals have a go. Long-running are some genuine accomplishments of media organizations partnering with initiative-takers, to bring freshness in some areas beyond the news--often with very young audiences, like Sesame Street, Play School, and Blue Peter.  

Who will invent the next new, new thing that enlivens the ongoing fights for freedoms of thought, speech, and association?

Monday, November 15, 2021

Remembrance

World War I veteran Joseph Ambrose, 86, 
at Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982
photo credit: Mickey Sanborn, Dept of Defense, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

United through invisible links stronger than titanium are people who live in genuine democracies worldwide. Regardless of local or national differences, consistently valued is the appreciation of freedom.

At certain times of the year, at home, school, or workplace, we pay tribute to all who have saved so many countries from tyranny. We pause in memory of the veterans who served, so that we live free; and we experience again the truth that sanity may rule, when tyrants don't. 

This year at 11 am, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the "complete suspension of all our normal activities" to observe two-minutes of silence felt specially significant, with remembrance genuinely reaffirmed at the national level.

Likewise, much appreciated from across the miles was a friend's email with spectacular photos attached of poppies projected onto the shell-like sails of the Sydney Opera House. [here] 

The email referred also to what Country Life in the UK has described as "a mammoth new work recounting the First World War, week by week... a rich tapestry of courage, camaraderie and love." The four-volume publication titled As We Were, at over 2,200 pages by David Hargreaves and Margaret-Louise O'Keeffe, reminds of the pain, dignity, and contradictions of a war that was touted to end all wars. This work is well reviewed by David Crane in The Spectator, 27 February 2021. [here] 

The huge loss and efforts in 20th century wars especially, along with the losses and sacrifices of veterans in too many wars since, link us in a legacy of commitment to sustain freedoms of thought, speech, and association--within democracies. Lest we forget.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Thylacine

Thylacinus cynocephalus, 1863
photo credit: John Gould (1804-1881), Mammals of Australia, Vol 1 Plate 54, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

No longer seen and mostly under-appreciated was Thylacine, commonly known as the Tasmanian Tiger because of its striped lower back. 

Since this carnivore ceased to roam the islands of Tasmania and New Guinea, and the Australian mainland, its continuing claims to fame include supporting the official coat of arms for the State of Tasmania, being appropriated on a beer label, and, more recently, featuring as a character in a video game. 

This presumed extinct marsupial is sometimes confused with a different marsupial, popularized by the Looney Tunes cartoon as the whirling carnivore, the Tasmanian Devil. However, Thylacine was not equipped for high speed running, and could briefly do a hop on hind legs, similar to a kangaroo. 

It's a stretch to draw much comparison with William Blake's description of the Asian "tyger's... fearful symmetry," since, according to Wikipedia, Thylacine was known in the wild and in captivity just to growl and hiss when agitated, exhibit a threat-yawn, and when hunting give rapidly repeated guttural cough-like barks. 

Unambiguously a predator though, it was able to open its jaws to an unusual extent, and likely relied on sight and sound in its nocturnal hunting, mainly of large ground-dwelling birds. The decline in population of these birds, resulting from human hunting of the same birds, might have correlated with the demise of the Thylacine in the wild.

Despite the doubts that scientists have expressed more recently about the strength of Thylacine's jaws to deal with more than the light bones found in birds and smaller animals, rumors occurred in earlier times about the Tasmanian Tiger attacking sheep. In any case, the fate of this interesting and extinct creature seems to confirm Thomas Hobbes's relativities of life in nature as "nasty, brutish, and short," especially if competing with human beings. 

Growing up in Australia, my reading included the weekly Nature Notes in a local newspaper by David Fleay, whose legacy included one of the few movie-clips we have of this extinct animal. Thanks to the life-long efforts of trailblazers like Fleay, who first bred the Platypus and other native species and developed initiatives to protect endangered species, what people can do individually and collectively to advance such efforts is now more in the spotlight.

Which puts perspective on public communication more broadly today. Amid the endless articles and books that review the last five years of America's political decay, a nagging concern is that even the best of these do little more than uncover malign activity, and put a laser focus on diagnosis. 

Journalists and pundits, in the United States at least, reveal the disaster that's continuing like a cancer, eating away at the democratic system in unsubtle ways. The open question remains who will address treatment regimens? Where are today's Orwell and Ellul to point the way to remedy? Where are the young, savvy individuals who have the chops to execute needed change?

As both education and the vote became more generally available over recent centuries, regrettably almost in parallel, educational curricula jettisoned the teaching of grammar, dialectics, and rhetoric to make room for many educators' pet and sometimes important subjects. Dorothy Sayers highlighted this trend as commencing well before her 1947 address to a Vacation Course in Education at Oxford, which was later published as The Lost Tools of Learning. 

Recent generations were sometimes able to remedy their schooling's neglect of English grammar through later study of Latin, French, or other languages, but mostly had to rely on self-education for logic, or smatterings of dialectics and rhetoric. As a result of this myopia in education, as Sayers noted, the ability to differentiate "fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible" declined.

It's unsurprising then, that the misinformation we are living through includes what some journalists and pundits so gratuitously and erroneously propagate and bemoan as a "lack of bipartisanship." This ready catch-cry often props up a media report, and misses the point.

Regrettably, in the United States and apparently in other places around the world, what we now have, and ought to vigorously address in every way possible, is better described as "null-partisan politics" or more simply, "monolog." Masquerading as populism, its devotees are nearest to anarchists or nihilists in ideology, with primary commitment to self.

It's time to call out occasions that pose as debate, but are really about nullifying civil society. When talk occurs at a tangent to addressing the public good, whether or not it's manufactured outrage, it offers nothing useful to society; it is monolog and should be shown to be. This absurdity of public communication needs dismantling, and disentangling from its pretense as debate. The continuing reality seems to be that the monolog vacuum of "NO" is what we hear in response to proposed initiatives to address people's needs. 

It requires creativity to expect better and to call on the vacuous to do better. It's more than time to spotlight this sad scene in our public communication; which, in some ways, is akin to when one child goes to a playground and is only able to sit alone and immobilized on one end of a see-saw, because no one else turns up to sit on the other end of the see-saw.

Too many elected representatives now seem to believe that the role of each individual elected member is to clamor for their own monolog on the media (a very 80s and 90s concept, if ever a useful activity), keen to be on any TV, or radio, or podcast, or social media, often in tandem with propagating slurs and rumors. And, a wide variety of partisan or not-so-partisan media oblige, spreading sometimes wildly dangerous fantasies, as if this constitutes news or is otherwise of interest. 

Will we ever see social media and other media satisfactorily self- or otherwise regulated to take responsibility for content seriously? Will we ever see educational systems that sufficiently prepare new generations with the abilities needed to discern, analyze, criticize, and synthesize reality?

So, taking the fate of the Tasmanian Tiger as analogy, if you'd like a future that's better than just being a memory within a coat of arms, beer label, or video game, best get prepared for the wilds of no-debate land--a Wild West where the norms that rule are drawn from anachronisms like the rancher's open range and pitiful imitations of the Marlboro Man.