Sunday, December 27, 2020
Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Sunday, November 29, 2020
Thursday, November 12, 2020
Germaine Greer described herself during an Address to the National Press Club of Washington DC, on 18 May 1971, as a "media freak." Her comments were certainly catnip for the media. She was promoting her just released book The Female Eunuch. Yes, now about half a century ago.
She urged women to invent new ways to deal with the truly violent man. Rather than learning karate, she pointed out that karate or other rule-based reactions don't work against the genuinely violent.
Greer shrewdly observed that the genuinely violent don't muck about with Marquess of Queensberry rules; rather he uses "a broken bottle, a wheel brace, a tire lever or an axe. He does not see the fight through, but seeks to end it quickly by doing as much harm as he can as soon as he can," she said.
Any of us observing the genuinely amoral might get the analogy. Whether you are dealing with an amoral person physically or otherwise, it's best to know that the norms of karate or boxing or equivalent conventional rule-based schema don't apply.
When your opponent lacks stability and is obsessed with self-preservation, these character flaws function like catnip. You might get opportunity for just one response. And, you better hit the right spot so to speak; per another sporting analogy, you better not be counting on a "Hail Mary."
To reframe this as a fable: A cat will lay in wait sometimes for days observing the patterns of one scurrying mouse. Put catnip into the mix and all semblance of rules leave the scene. So maybe it will help to think of your genuinely amoral, not stable opponent as being about as predictable as a big cat on catnip. How will you deal with this, without being able to count on the equivalent of Animal Control?
As Aesop might say: The true leader proves him/herself by his/her qualities.
Friday, October 30, 2020
After 1949, the world was under threat of thermonuclear annihilation following the Soviet explosion of an atomic bomb and America's commitment to develop the even more massive hydrogen bomb.
The playwright Arthur Miller, much later, wrote of this time, "An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted... The whole place was becoming inhuman, not only because an unaccustomed fear was spreading so fast, but more because nobody would admit to being afraid."
Unsurprisingly, with eyes opened and emotion keyed to the significance of our time, Americans are voting in unprecedented numbers. Time will tell how bumpy a ride the next weeks will be.
For the years beyond to be better, I believe some changes are needed to offset the virus of populism, which also will NOT "just disappear." And, no nation is immune. As if there's not enough to deal with in the challenges imposed through COVID and the irresponsible neglect of wannabe leaders!
A sad lesson from the current era is that norms and the rule of law are no bulwarks against rogue actors who specialize in word-salad and obstruction that exploit the legal system for personal advantage.
With the United States now showing, more than ever before, that we can come together with family, friends, and neighbors to vote, surely to climb the next rocky mountain we need to find paths to the future.
Central now for civil society to operate are workable ways to detect and counteract propaganda, along the lines outlined in earlier blog posts on this site. As Dorothy L. Sayers noted after the tyranny of World War II, each of us needs to be better able to disentangle "fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible."
Today, we see largely that part of the political process that politicians allow us to see. Learning what we do from politicians, illusion is imbibed by describing it to others. Worse still is when voters ignore entirely what's happening, in some mistaken belief that nothing changes whoever you vote for, as some non-voters just shared with a television reporter. With such people searching for information as a way to reduce uncertainty, so begins the cycle toward the cult.
Every society has its own illusions. Best to truly understand how public figures shape their words and actions to relate to us. We clearly need a better basis for learning how to learn. So, some starter thoughts:
1. Education programs require strengthening of critical thinking as core to being a good citizen (and a graduate from any level of education);
2. Virtues of justice, prudence, courage, and wisdom require more effective nurture in public figures, teachers, librarians, students, parents, family, friends, neighbors, and all of us;
3. Improved civics knowledge and practical understanding of what democracy prevents are urgent needs.
Hopefully, we can agree this much at least with the warning from Dorothy L. Sayers in 1947 in The Lost Tools of Learning that "the sole true end of education is simply this : to teach [wo/]men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain."
This is not about any kind of rivalry among disciplines of learning or in the teaching staff-room. By analogy, it is about the future to be found in past success - such as, for the past two years, the sustained efforts of students from Parkland High School in Florida - lest we forget!
Thursday, October 15, 2020
During this never quiet time in Silly Season, you might find some renewal in checking out Philip Collins' thoughts about Speeches that Shape the World and Why We Need Them - this is the subtitle for his book titled When They Go Low, We Go High.
After the launch of this book, in which Collins of course discussed the source of its title, Sam Leith put a microphone in front of the author for The Spectator podcast on 25 October 2017. Early in this interesting interview, Collins pointed out that the best case for democracy is what it prevents, as Albert Camus had noted.
Collins goes further in his book, comparing democracy and populist utopia (pages 71-84). This emphasized again for me the wisdom of keeping close with people who know how little they know.
If someone also aims for the stars while keeping feet on the ground, then you've likely found a true leader. The true leader shares feelings for what "we the people" care about; And, talks with us to let us know what the leader will do to:
* help put a roof overhead and keep it there;
* see we can get food;
* assure health care we can afford;
* provide a pathway to a job; and
* respect our freedoms and peace of mind.
For this person, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be a governing principle. These are just some of the ways we can "go high."
Collins' book focused mainly on speeches that address these very real concerns of any of us. The speeches that he discussed are, in my opinion, mainly Good (Pericles, Lincoln, Pankhurst, Churchill, Kennedy, Mandala, King, Reagan, etc), with a few of the Bad and Ugly (Hitler, Castro, Mao), along with a host of others worthy of attention.
With his insider's understanding as a former prime ministerial speechwriter in Britain, Collins shared lesser known insights about the context, composition, and delivery of the speeches. He has put together an entertaining read. In both podcast and book, he pointed out the virtues of going high, to change people's circumstances for the better, through politics.
He also shared some interestingly common tells about the autocrats. They consistently self-indulge how poorly done by they are, especially by the media not loving them - and are forever angry. Sound familiar? And, their utopia ordinarily requires returning to some mythically better past; apparently unable to show us a better future, much less to do so with humor.
Another well-known commonality of autocrats, Collins wrote, is to drumbeat various inventions about conspiracies of the elite against the people; consistently claiming that "utopia [is] just around the corner, if only the corrupt elite had cared to venture there." Another tell is that the propagandist/autocrat self-portrays as leading efforts to "rise above the smears, and ludicrous slanders from ludicrous reporters." Yet another tell is to claim "a lot of people are saying," as authority for some preposterous drivel. Apparently, this is all in every days' "work" for the self-dealing autocrat.
Collins book is a worthwhile and reassuring read at this time. Engagingly brief also is his description of rhetoric as a positive, developed canon of principle and knowledge. This addressed my pet peeve about the educators or others who preface their analyses of propaganda with long preachy explanations of rhetoric. Please, would you put your energy and words toward the better use of rhetoric's tools of analysis that have been around for some 2,400 years.
How about we all do what we can to edge the understanding of rhetoric, as other than a pejorative, into the popular imagination and, as a system for living, back into the mainstream of all educational curricula!
Maybe then the vain regrets I recently read about The Lost Tools of Learning, in a booklet published in Oxford in 1947, would actually go to some purpose. Maybe then, just maybe a propagandist wouldn't have such an unchecked path.
Maybe a propagandist could be caught out and stopped in time in future.
Tuesday, September 29, 2020
Sunday, September 27, 2020
When a foreign adversary focuses on spontaneity for a propaganda video, it's great when they don't get that they're on slippery ground.
Anyway, for the propaganda video I just received, it's even more encouraging that whoever was the chief of propaganda failed to see the humungous humor in the incongruity of having a few hundred young folks happen to gather at a mountain-top ski-field. Then, to have them so-called spontaneously break into a "flash mob" dance, for some unclear reason, dancing to vintage American music - with the foreign adversary's iconic buildings etc also just happening to be in the backdrop views.
Maybe it was a further "tell" that contradicted the supposed spontaneity that on-site were a helicopter and two gigantically high bucket-cranes used to video the wide-angle shots. Oh yes, this was a big-budget production, worthy of the attention of whoever was the chief of propaganda.
There were many other "tells" in this week's video too. It was brought to the inbox by those fun-loving folks who stimulated the Berlin Wall. What's that about history repeating, and the adoration of walls? But I'm not in the business of listing out all the "tells" that would be obvious to the rest of us.
In the interests of the health of those who were the creative "talent" for the video, I hope they get to transfer soon from the Propaganda Bureau to the Tourism Bureau, or anywhere else - before the failure of this propaganda flop is fully understood in the foreign propaganda bureaucracy.
The philosopher Jacques Ellul, whom I've mentioned once or twice before, warned foreign adversaries to beware of their cultural clumsiness, when it comes to launching propaganda in another country. Gotta admit this video seemed better than the foreign propaganda in Ellul's time, but that's still no compliment.
Maybe the fake in the video I just saw would slip by some folks - like the social media mob who won't pause to think, or busy folks eager for any joy amid the COVID Pandemic.
Still, the "tells" of sleaze-at-work were very many, which is good for "we, the propagandized."
Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Sunday, September 13, 2020
Continuing the theme, of all people, Woody Allen not just humorously alerted us to the important quality of being first. He pointed out that the world should not be so preoccupied with any invaders from outer space having a technology that's many years ahead of ours.
He claimed it was not advanced technologies supported by plans for world domination that will win. He worried about the invading force that was equipped to be anywhere even ten minutes ahead of us.
He feared that a ten-minute advantage enabled them to "eat all the breakfast cereal, use all the toothpaste, and catch all the taxis... These invaders could paralyze whole cities. Most importantly, they could use even traditional weapons ten minutes before we thought of targeting ours."
It's the same with propaganda. Being first wins, especially followed up with high repetition.
Which is why the bad actor, and just about any savvy politician, likes to give his/her version of bad news first, or at least be quickest to reframe the story after the breaking news. Of course, a bad actor who has lots of bad news sometimes has to take a little longer to weigh up which bad news has enough traction to need response. This delay gives quick-off-the mark counter-propaganda the opportunity for added advantage.
Which is also why breakfast brainstorming sessions to counter anticipated propaganda was so often the advantage that won airtime during my brushes with politics.
Because being first applies to counter-propaganda too. Enough with all the micro-analyses. Just get ahead of the game - ten minutes ahead, at least. Which is why those media people who have long-winded, polite interviews about or with crooks will never really succeed in keeping them accountable. Some media interviewers are very effective at walking bad actors into disclosing themselves. But, you don't need nuanced understanding of someone picking your pocket; you need to stop them.
If you feel this might not be democratic, I'd counter that you're reasserting simple dialogue - which is kryptonite to propaganda with its sole purpose of mindless obedience, as well as to the bad actor behind it.
No time now to be writing instruction books and action plans either. Just counter-propaganda ahead of the continuous stream of drivel is what matters now.
Monday, August 31, 2020
Without delving here into the layers of Jonathan Swift's satire, this episode of fiction certainly raises concerns that matter right now. For sure, re-reading Swift is recommended.
As we chart the future, we probably need little reminding that today's juggernaut of the inappropriate framing of much public communication does not serve us well. With the endless news cycle, added to social media and other community gossip, the communication landscape continues to grow more challenging - especially with the continuous fog of the not-really latest "breaking news."
Yet, with the ever-widening gap between the theory and reality of any Hatch Act enforcement to keep public officials accountable, this is no time to be faint-hearted, inattentive or distracted.
It's truly unfortunate to recall that in my first blog, little more than three months ago, I suggested that "after some trial fits and starts... much education at all levels might be mainly online - for a long time." With children and teens in many places returning to school over recent weeks, we now start to learn that new COVID-19 infections are greatest in children and teens in some areas.
Although much is being done by many in efforts to protect and treat people, much more change and inventiveness will be needed going forward. It looks like everyone who cares will have to keep alert to how to remedy the effects of Yahoo behaviors.
Sunday, August 23, 2020
The eminent British linguist David Crystal, in his 2016 Orwell Lecture to the Emirates Festival of Literature, named Orwell's essay as "one of the most important articles on the language to come out of the 20th century." Yet, together with the many further warnings of the French philosopher, Jacques Ellul and others delineating propaganda processes for us, these combined efforts are clearly not enough to counteract the emergence of added generations of the ideological offspring of Joseph Goebbels or Leni Riefenstahl.
Some robust educational preparations for life are sustained in the United States and other countries. Evidence of this is the remarkably sustained public communication efforts of students from Florida's Parkland High School, following the shootings there in February 2018. Unfortunately, there is also ample indication that too few people are prepared for the silly season now upon the United States.
An indication of this is a not-so-recent video that's resurfaced, showing the ABC network conducting street-interviews of youths, who are asked to name countries on a map of the world, with no success. What hope then to navigate obscure or deceptive election rhetoric?
Anything can happen as a nation enters the final months of an election.
What's predictable is that "talking points" that direct how to send "messages" to us will increase. With each passing day these will sound more alike. For sure, there will be some public figures and pundits still frozen in talking about the "right message" and message sending. They should find a time-machine and take themselves back to the meetings of telephone engineers in the 1940s, when this concept of communication was popularized (and later challenged). C'mon, that was almost 80 years ago, folks.
In our personal lives, we accept that the ingredients that make life worthwhile are trust, common understanding, and commitment to do what truly benefits people, so why should politicians' public talk be judged at any lesser standard?
Do we really have to go back 2,400 years or more to the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu to find the wisdom that "a leader is best when people barely know [s/]he exists"? Wouldn't that be refreshing? More recently, other thoughtful folks like Warren Bennis and Lee Thayer have added that a true leader:
* helps focus a desired state of affairs;
* asks the right questions that help people come to grip with problems; and
* helps translate solutions into practice.
It is significant that the leader's duty to help is in every line. It's time to expect leaders to take only actions that help people. This is the test of authenticity that's needed now.
Meantime, in preparation for the drivel about to be spewed forth, I'd urge you to get a copy of the second edition of Randal Marlin's Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2013. If you'd like a detailed review, before parting with about $33 on Amazon or elsewhere, google the excellent review by Gary James Jason at California State University.
Despite Jason's final recommendation that the book should be accessible to any serious scholar of propaganda and persuasion, it's actually a straightforward preparation for any of us.
Randal Marlin puts succinctly that:
"PROPAGANDA = The organized attempt through communication to affect belief or action or inculcate attitudes in a large audience in ways that circumvent or suppress an individual's adequately informed, rational, reflective judgment."
Not hard to understand. With this very useful definition, quibbles about whether or not all propaganda is harmful get swept away. All propaganda is bad. This is not just my view, but was earlier implied by Jacques Ellul, who pointed out that "to be effective, propaganda must constantly short-circuit all thought and decision." The light at the end of the tunnel we're in is that Ellul also noted that propaganda ceased where simple dialogue begins.
The current public "exchanges" about the US Postal Service have special value in the United States. Curtailing this beloved US institution is a loser for such advocates. The limitations on propaganda that Ellul outlined are a warning to propagandists and a clue for ways to counter propagandists.
1. Don't mess with people's pre-existing attitudes - propaganda cannot move except within the framework of these attitudes, which it can modify only very slowly (certainly not in the time frame of the final stages of an election).
2. Although propaganda might sometimes overcome general trends of society, the sociological/cultural factors in which people act have an absolute limit. So, in a nation committed to democracy, proselytizing for a monarchy is a loser - instead, tyrants try to claim they are democratic, which counter-attacks need to focus vigorously on unmasking.
3. The propagandist is limited by people's need for consonance with facts; so, the counter-attack is to reassert and convince people of the solidity of a fact that is right! Propaganda of ideas does not exist. Even "Goebbels changed his propaganda after Stalingrad, because it was impossible to transform that debacle into victory," said Ellul.
Among many other good qualities of Marlin's book are his explanatory list of the common fallacies of reason, in one of the best summaries I've seen, AND similar provided by Eleanor MacLean of the known and less well known examples of how language can be used to manipulate an audience.
It's time to get ready, get personal with email and mutually supportive action, and be prepared to listen up. Slogans matter less in elections than we might think, but this might be time to remember that the 1957 election slogan in Britain "Never had it so good" was turned back, by the opponents' response "Never been had so good."
That's the spirit needed now. Going forward, especially in coming weeks, we'll see whether candor of actions matches public talk.
Thursday, August 6, 2020
My reward for buying second-hand, however, was apparently at the cost of some next generations of students at Villanova University in Philadelphia no longer having access to the humor and its principles in this slim book on their library shelf - as the stamp "NO LONGER PROPERTY OF..." that a librarian there in search of more shelf-space was obliged to announce inside the front cover.
Why this book is interesting is that for all the wonderful humor that keeps the world healthy and for all the descriptions of the effects of humor, we are less well served with explanation of the causes of humor.
For some of the more intelligent speculations about why we laugh, we have to reach back to the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, writing in 1900. He described his purpose in exploring humor as better understanding what it is to be human. He talked about many aspects, including the social role of laughter, the part played by exaggeration of human features, gesture and movements, and the relationship of the comic to human imagination.
Walter Nash's book is packed with a mix of examples of humor of course. One of the more famous being the restaurant diner asking, "Waiter, what's this fly doing in my soup?" for the Waiter's reply, "Looks like the breast-stroke, sir." - as an example of the pragmatic factor. Or an example of the bizarre pun, "What do you do with a wombat? -- Play wom." In the interests of space, these are among the shorter samples.
The value of the book is not so much the examples, as much as the attempt at outlining some principles. Although published in 1985, for today's readers there might be too many historical (and not even hysterical) examples that relied on sexism or other appeals now considered inappropriate. Maybe this was the reason for my copy's removal from the university library's shelf?
Another limitation of the book is that it could do with more examples not so literary or Anglo-centric. Still, with so little of worth looking at humor, which is an elixir for so many of us sharing emailed jollies at this bizarre time, Nash's book is worth a look - if, like Bergson, you're interested in an important aspect of what makes us human.
One commentator on political humor, whom I read recently, suggested that a universal theory of humor is yet to be developed that takes into consideration three major theories, namely superiority, relief, and incongruity.
What's clear is that the human emotions behind humor remain a mystery and complex. Perhaps that's why at this time that the talk of public figures is so rife with blatant banality, as well as insult and injury of we the people; with some so lacking in empathy or other emotions we value, that we hear little or no humor from them.
Among politicians, who do you remember last able to make us laugh at all, much less for the right reasons?
Sunday, July 26, 2020
It's time... Being hooked is bad. The media are hooked on themselves, so why not us too?
Look around you - it won't take long to see someone chained to catching the latest meaningless but dangerous inanity.
Media analysts for years have noted the media's preoccupation with the big 5 = Disaster, Celebrity, Crime, Sex, and Violence.
Anytime media can capture all 5 categories in one story, especially in politics, wow, what a story! And, there you have all wrapped into one what people living in New York City saw long ago. But ground-hog day is no longer just a movie.
This is the bigger story of why it's time to ignore the nonsense. Time to tackle what matters now.
Better to take actions I've suggested in earlier blogs. Do get right your words to push back (save energy to push back on the big lies), turn off the media for most of the day, talk to your friends, build personal networks, and... chill.
The serious observers of propaganda knew this long ago. Of course, right now the technology is already in many TV's for the 2-way scary big brother screen that George Orwell warned about (not a conspiracy theory, just fact). But unlike Orwell's "Utopia=Nowhere Land," we can turn the screen off, for now.
Not new. As your quick google search will confirm: "Julius Caesar's influence provided Augustus with manipulative techniques he would need, such as literature, statues, monuments, and coins in order to gain preeminence in Rome."
In other words, what Jacques Ellul has warned about as a most dangerous propaganda: social-propaganda. That is, what our preoccupations build into the social fabric, of media, conversation, education, arts, statuary, etc of society. Sound familiar?
It's time. The future is in our hands.
Sunday, July 12, 2020
Wednesday, July 1, 2020
After I delivered this "gem" to the PR practitioners, amid the unexpected cheers and applause that they responded with, I quickly modified how to talk with them about communication.