Sunday, December 27, 2020

From Now On

Sydney Fireworks, New Year 
photo credit: Rob Chandler, Fickr by Wikimedia CCA-BY-2.o Generic

"The propagandist's first requirement is to be heard," said Jacques Ellul in 1965. 

Regardless of whether or not you've heard of Ellul, this observation ought to be self-evident to anyone who thinks for more than a moment about the matter.

Why then do so many media megaphones irresistibly remain servants of someone they also regularly describe as an outrageous liar? Why magnify manufactured outrage?

When facing any other serious threat, it would be a no-brainer to first remove the threat. And, to be fair, some media are making headway in countering propaganda, mainly by bringing us other wanted news. 

By searching out lucid opponents whom any propagandist has, perhaps more yet will elaborate better and new visions for the future, without mention of the propagandist or his outrageous fantasies. 

A wonderful quality of propaganda is how quickly it decays, when denied opportunity for a "refresh."

So much "news" is still slave to the gossip formulae, named by media analysts for years, of reacting to Disaster, Celebrity, Crime, Sex, and Violence. This is sad commentary on the lack of imagination of some media and media educators when thinking of their audiences.

After too many years of countless variants of this kind of verbal and nonverbal abuse, for sure, our household will not be alone in continuing to search out the better media options.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Trouble with Theory

Supreme Court, Washington DC
photo credit: United States Government, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

At the outset, just for the record, I'm committed to theory and putting theory to work. Yet, whether "relentless public scrutiny" is just a fallacy of political theorists is about to be clarified in the United States.

We're soon to see what happens to democracy too. Coming days, weeks and maybe years will produce an uncountable number of words about this. Whatever happens, divergent ideas of popular democracy, liberal democracy, and representative democracy will likely get thrown around with abandon.

Although what we mean by democracy is a legitimate concern, perhaps the more immediate question should be who will do something useful about two especially serious failures of theory? 

Firstly, what will you do to push back on the too-frequent failure of the so-called "guardrails" of public accountability? 

Perhaps someone can tell me where the prosecution of public corruption in the United States has recently worked effectively? Most often this appears no longer expected in this oh-so-sensitive-to-popular-sentiment political climate. 

Are voters supposed to believe that the multiple statute books federally, for example, really lack "teeth" or require such difficult proof that prosecution really is worthless? 

Proof of value should be performance in use, not leaving needed laws sitting in the statute books. Goodness knows there's been plenty of malfeasance and corruption to warrant prosecutions in recent times.

Political theorists continue to write about their interviews with leading political and government pragmatists. Then, they republish as largely unqualified "wisdom" what they're told about artifacts called "guardrails," which appear to be so valued that they can't be tainted by use. 

Meantime, the numbers of whistleblowers and others leaving public service with careers and personal safety in tatters for speaking out just continue to soar. 

If a law is not useful enough to be used, the time on theorizing could be better spent dreaming up some provisions that even flawed public figures would have to use - or else, spend some time dreaming up how such failing "representatives" of the public might be removed quickly but fairly by the population if they don't. Apparently, that's a problem worthy of a legal-political science equivalent of Einstein.

Secondly, what will you do to find and urge the elected politicians who do care to do something better, to help:
1. educate everyone about detecting and calling out propaganda;
2. codify remedies to the multiple deficiencies of norms and regulations to protect the rule of law; and
3. educate everyone about putting civics to use?

I'm sure you could add much to this list, as I could, but these are gargantuan enough for a start.

Here we all are now, stuck in the effects of blatant failures in accountability, and "we, the people" remain caught in the consequences of bad actors. 

While such matters are still richly fermenting, before much further deluge of theoretical posturing, it's time to demand action.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Beyond Heavens

Orion Belt
photo credit: NASA, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Growing up with astronomy as an interest was some preparation for dealing with current fantasies in public communications. Although astronomers see very little of the oblivion they relentlessly probe, they often develop remarkable theories to understand the unexplained and what might feel unexplainable.

Gazing into the heavens is serious business though. These generally-trusted scientists don't confuse theory and myth. For example, shining brightly in the night sky is the welcome constancy of the planet Venus. Named for the goddess of love, a tangible value of Venus is to help navigators by pointing to the constellation Orion, the hunter. 

Orion, as we know, is also something of a bright light in mythology who has attracted varying interpretations. He had what could be called an encounter with Artemis during his quest for one of the seven nymphs sent by Zeus to guard her. Now, Artemis is the Greek equivalent of the Romans' Diana, and both were goddesses of the hunt (your choice on who to follow, I guess).

This was fascinating to the Ancients and apparently also got the interest of some astronomers with dual devotion to mythology and science. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed the gods played with we mere mortals. In subsequent centuries, apart from the withering vine of astrology and the never-say-die occultists, mostly astronomers and other mere mortals have agreed that the gods and their colluder representations in the sky above us are illusions. 

Astronomers see that the forces and matter of the real universe are massive, observable, magnificent, and often beyond our grasp. At first glance, the scale might feel similar when viewing the fantasies of stoked fears, greed, and even apathy that perpetuate populist politics.

The myths are large, the outrage of conspiracy theories are galactic in size, both colorful and gaseous in composition. Just looking at and recording their aberration sure doesn't help. 

At human scale, comedy can be a usefully quick comeback. More enduring is to build systematic education in both values and analytic ability. 

Regardless of whether or not what our leaders say is truthful, lawful, and just, apparently "voters are increasingly drawn to leaders who can make difficult, complex problems easier to understand with intuitive, confident answers." This is according to a 2019 worldwide study of long-term trends in politics and culture, cited in Proceedings National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 116, No. 9, pp. 3476-81) edited by Stephen Pinker. This study further notes that a decline in analytical communication style began around 1980.

Do I need to mention again that this was noted to be a worldwide trend (at least, in English-speaking nations)? So, the time for action is yesterday.

Of course, if the world wants to keep waiting out the passing of the equivalent of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, that's an option, just not a good one in these precipitous times.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Catnip Curse

"black and white cat"
photo credit: Rosendahl, Wikimedia Public Domain

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

Thinking for a Future

US propaganda poster in 1917
photo credit: James Montgomery Flagg, Wikimedia Public Domain-US-expired

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

Go High

Isocrates (436-338 BC)
"Rhetoric as that endowment of our human nature 
which raises us... to live the civilized life."
photo credit: Student Lives TVW, Wikimedia CCA-SA-4.0 International

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

Rip Van Who?

Rip Van Winkle
Artist: John Quidor (1801-1881), Art Institute of Chicago, Wikimedia Public Domain

Do you sometimes wish you'd fallen into a long sleep early in 2020 like the fabled Rip Van Winkle? Look around and you will find some people did.

When you encounter anyone like Rip, it's best to be careful. Rip didn't understand much when he met the silent ghosts of Henry Hudson's crew playing a game of nine-pins in the Catskill Mountains. He didn't ask who they were or how they knew his name. He did get what it was about their magic purple liquor that he imbibed, which putting him to sleep. It just worked for him to miss the American Revolutionary War.

So, chances are that if you're on an evening or early morning walk trying to social distance from the joggers and dog-walkers, or wherever you find someone sleeping or sleep-walking through the twenty-first century, this person won't get much about the current reality either.

But, there are people to shake awake yet. Ever since memory, the USA has yet to turn out the higher percentages of voters recorded in some countries. Getting out the vote person-to-person, door-to-door is the powerful method to do this, with face-masks on (not just by phone or weaker social media).

Meantime, to out-think and out-do the propagandist, George Orwell (1946), Vance Packard (1957), Jacques Ellul (1965), and a host of others have provided us with ways to deal with the continuous propaganda that often numbs the "sleepers," and all of us.

For example, Jacques Ellul named the counter-actions you can take against a continuous propaganda onslaught.

1. Challenge any propaganda that targets our pre-existing attitudes AND reassert our beliefs in honesty, justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom - and, our desire to live in a society that enables health, jobs, shelter, food, safety, freedom, with any bad actor held accountable. 

2. Highlight the harm to people of anti-democratic actions that deny health care, jobs, safety, postal services, etc. AND say exactly what should happen instead.

3. Reassert the rightness of facts, positively and specifically (without naming the lie or the liar, to avoid being a megaphone for the corrupt).

4. Keep repeating what is right (propaganda decays over time, especially when crowded out of the public communication channels).

Oh, and as George Orwell urged about any verbal refuse, be sure to call out and mock the foreign propaganda that misses our culture. As we saw in my previous blog posting, this is really easy when it's half-baked with lots of "tells."

Too many of our fellow "we, the people" might seem to be awake in their sleep-walk, as they continue to be polite about a propagandist. But some have taken years to publicly call a lie a lie. And, some in the media still broadcast unfiltered drivel of a propagandist; or, endlessly micro-analyze his nonsense, thereby promoting him and his nonsense. Maybe they have some dangerously mistaken belief that this serves some purpose of even-handedness, or democratic debate, or advertising sales.

I even heard a federal senator this week say, completely unacceptably, that the shame for the failure of his opponents to act properly was on his opponents. How about what that senator had not accomplished holding them to account? He wasn't elected to be a bystander.

During this Big Sleep, with apologies to Raymond Chandler, many "we, the people" patiently expected someone else to stop the useless growth of lawyers taking legal actions. Providing employment for lawyers wasn't supposed to be a main outcome of democracy. Yet, too many such proceedings continue in multiple, drawn-out, inconclusive actions, instead of anything useful to stop the propagandist. 

Lookalike despots, autocrats, and wannabe leaders flourish when they are unchecked. There's still time to block and check in workable ways.

One step we can all help with NOW is to personally encourage friends, family, and neighbors to get out the vote.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Foreign Fake-Fun Flops

Counter-image: "Every Dance Counts"
I've NOT here linked or pictured the propaganda video received.
 Above is a counter-image of a genuine "flash mob" dance (one of a great many in the USA)
photo credit: Lorie Shaull, DCPantsuitPower Flash Mod Dance, Wikimedia CCA-BY-SA-2.o Generic

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

"It's the PROPAGANDA, Stu***"

Three-legged chair
photo credit: Milica Buha, Museum of Pedagogy in Belgrade, Wikimedia CCA-BY-SA-4.o International

Today's message is to the media (and all of us, really). Here are the delusions.

"I get personal tweets..." - along with some multi-million others!

"The stock market is up..." - this 47% now own national debt pumped into the financial markets.

"THEY will take it all off you..." - the biggest fear of all...

In the old days, when my father was selling milking separators to dairy farmers, the farmer had a three-legged chair to sit on while milking the cows. It had three legs so it stood firmly on any uneven ground.

Three propaganda assaults still work to milk us, apparently. With what flows from each assault spreading like a virus, or to mix figurative language more, like Triffids (could be worth looking this one up). The propagandist counts on your engagement with one or other of the viral "news" flows, while propagating another... and throwing at you the fertilizers of outrage, exaggeration, and repetition. If you're tantalized by such tractor-beams, as pictured in my previous blog, shame on you.

For counter-propaganda, three-legged chairs work too. 
How about:

1. IGNORE manufactured outrages;
2. Trumpet reality; and
3. Repeat to advance what matters to people: health, shelter, food, safety, and freedom. 

Out of these five life positives, surely you can pick three to focus on. At the very least, you'll be in touch with reality and, who knows, when you talk with someone else about what's real, you might help someone else live a little better.

If this is starting to sound like a message with Dick and Dora in a grade-school reading class, it is. You see, I'm willing to IGNORE another successful propagandist who made millions telling you to always flatter your audience. The propagandist knows you will obsess about lies, hyperbole, and insecurities. Don't let it keep happening - it's up to you.

Fact is, the jig is up. Just tell the truth, without quixotically tilting at the propagandist's fantasies. Simple, direct truth hurts the propagandist. Of course, you have to keep choosing what really matters to "we, the people" - see "3" above.

Who has the smarts and discipline to build a new three-legged chair? 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Funny That...

Alien abduction
photo credit: Travis WaltonWikimedia Public Domain

Did you know that long-time Monty Python fan and former member of The Beatles, George Harrison mortgaged his quite expensive house to fund the production of the movie, Life of Brian? If you did, you might have what it takes to win some counter-propaganda efforts, since I just learned this from a vintage documentary. You had the advantage to be first (probably way before me, anyway).

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

Change or Be Changed

Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms
photo credit: Artist-Sawrey Gilpin (1733-1807), Yale Center for British ArtWikimedia Public Domain

Gulliver's visit to the Land of the Houyhnhnms, at one level is an engaging exploration of values, scrutinizing the good and bad sides of reason versus emotions. Perhaps horse-lovers feel comforted focusing on the nobility of the calm and rational Houyhnhnms versus the wild Yahoos.

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

Silly Season

Charlie Chaplin (with "double cross" emblem)
photo credit: film trailer screenshot, The Great Dictator, Wikimedia Public Domain

Thanks to George Orwell's short essay published in 1946, "Politics and the English Language," we can be more alert to public figures using words to obscure or deliberately hide realities.

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

What's So Funny?

photo credit: Charles Edward on Wikimedia CCA-SA3.0 Unported

A delightful book on The Language of Humour by Walter Nash just arrived in the mail. Worth every penny on the second-hand market, if you're prepared to risk never smiling again, after reading Nash's analyses of the joke, anecdote, pun, parody, humorous rhythms, overstatement / understatement / counterstatement, and all manner of funny-bone ticklers in-between.

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

Time to Chill

"Big Brother," in Donetsk, Ukraine
photo credit: Author - Борис У on Wikimedia CCA-SA3.0 Unported

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

We or Me?


Social media faces
photo credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

So, we continue...

Our "snow-bird" neighbors have finally just returned from Florida. After months of their worrying about the hazard of air travel, they're here - after betting their lives on the blind hope that the risks of getting here might be less than staying on any longer in that State. 

From another recent flight out of Florida, three passengers who tested positive for COVID-19, when arriving locally, set off alarms for tracing, testing and, where needed, treatment of anyone associated with the flight. 

Alarming increases in notified new cases of COVID-19 are occurring daily in two-thirds of U.S. states, including Florida. Patients, health care workers and a host of "front-line" people providing services to the community face the prospect of no let up, and likely worse to come. 

When life, liberty, happiness, and peace of mind are breached all at once, the simple question is: "Which leaders are doing what to protect the people?"

Especially in these times, it's a question of what elected representatives are doing for "we," rather than themselves.

It's a question not of what any one of them is saying, but what each does.

Clearing up who are the "we" people and who are the "me" people changes a lot. Not that we didn't notice this sometimes. But taking a closer look is like putting on 3D-glasses in a movie!

There, in sharp relief, is the politician convicted of felonies who gets elected anyway – clearly, he (yes, every one of them is male) and his supporters never heard from my Irish grandfather, who’d quip that there are no degrees of honesty!

Or the political operative who seems to think it's still ok to manipulate voting, or the garbage collector who leaves your garbage bin full on your front driveway because he couldn't work his truck's lift mechanism properly, or the neighbor's air conditioning contractor who puts his advertising sign on our front lawn instead of the neighbor's, so his company name gets a better view from the street (clearly, I need to get out more...) 

Could continue endlessly of course on who thinks of “we” or “me” – say, "road rage" individuals, the open carry and AR-15 crowds, etc. Anyway, for the big and small, the "we" or "me" filter sure clarifies.

Then, since at least 1998, there's the political party that has gathered research data from electrodes on voters, in focus groups that they euphemistically call "dial sessions." They look for bio-reactions to political comments, to determine the "right words" to use uniformly in talking points across the party. What bucket of deceptive self-interest do you put that in?  

But, wait, what about #MeToo? Easy... this is a collective "we," who seek redress from the hormone driven "Me" crowd. Or, Black Lives Matter or similar movements? Again, when these are a collective "we," who seek remedy from the driven "Me" crowd, you can feel good with it. 

How clarifying our language is. What visiting Martian would believe a couple of pronouns could clarify so much - just by looking afresh through the filter of "we" or "me"?

That's the only choice really in any election.

Who cares to do for we the people?


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Accountability

photo credit: The Constitution of the United States: Wikimedia-Public Domain


"The most important thing to hear in communication is what isn't said." 
                                                                                                 - Peter Drucker

Some time ago, with the aim of getting attention in a lunchtime talk to a group of public relations folks, I began by sharing a comment of one of their clients when he learned of my scheduled talk. "P.R." he said, "is hokum and deception. It's the preserve of charlatans and magicians!!"

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.

We are in an era when "P.R." doesn't represent Public Responsibility, if it ever did.

Among the serious challenges facing citizens in representative democracies are the 24/7 news cycle and huge paid propaganda. For even the most responsible elected representatives, "PR" (the public relations version) is a greater magnet than ever before - especially at election time. On the television talk shows, we occasionally see this in an overly appreciative glance, and sometimes over-effusive thanks, given by an elected representative to a television host.

The PR of Congressional Hearings and investigations and follow-up interviews do get tiresome when there's no result. All that endless handwringing, the "dodges" and refinements might provide media moments for some elected representatives. Too often, these confuse the essential matter, namely securing remedy of a crooked action.

Electors should expect accountability for corruption and malfeasance - including punishment, intervention and removal where appropriate. Now, not later.

It's time to recognize that sticking solely with the strategies of trading words and pursuing legal messes does not serve representative democracy. It's important to recognize that fighting bad actors on these terms, where they're smart, will rarely work. It's time to turn off funds and resources to bad actors - not just talk about it on TV.  

What democracy needs more than ever is not PR talk, but genuine callings to account. The Westminster system long ago formalized the role of the Opposition. Each government minister (cabinet member) has a well-briefed competent counterpart as a "Shadow" cabinet member in the opposition party. The role includes keeping the cabinet member as honest as possible on specifics, as well as being up-to-speed when the government changes. Doesn't always work as desired, but it helps.

In the "Washington system," it looks like the checks and balances that were designed thoughtfully by the Founders for different times only work, like most rules and norms, in some circumstances.

Today, it's plain to a near-sighted bandicoot, that we're not in such a circumstance. Substantial changes to laws and norms are needed.

In the meantime, with so much awry, as the ever-continuing revelations and memes show, the challenge is what to do and when.

Anytime confusion rules, it's best to go back to basic principles. A basic principle of democracy is "A public who listens and speaks out." When you're fed up with the level of preoccupation with PR, here are some thoughts to help set your action plan, to let it be known that there is a public who cares:

1. Do get personal (nicely) with your elected representatives - NOW is the time; none better than during election campaigns. Send a letter and make a phone call (not an email or tweet!) to question what your representative is doing about what you care about. In the lead up to an election, once a week on different issues might keep attention, if you're comfortable with this (this person does work for you). Ask for a specific answer each time!

 2. If you're a joiner, join an action group that actually puts pressure and expects results from elected representatives. United States citizens are still in the top levels of volunteer participation (however you measure it). The 2018 Volunteering in America report found that 77.34 million adults (30.3 percent) volunteered through an organization that year.

3. Make the effort to become familiar with and use Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation to learn what government is really doing on the matters you care about.

Here's a quick list of some countries with FOI legislation and when it was enacted:
United States, France, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands (all by 1967)
Australia, New Zealand (in 1982)
Canada (in 1983)
United Kingdom (2000 to 2001)
Scotland (2005)

Elected representatives might eventually recognize that "the people" know more and expect better. 

Perhaps the norm of public handwringing will shift to getting results

Thursday, June 25, 2020

It's Time for Plain Talk


Statue of George Orwell outside BBC headquarters - the wall behind is inscribed 
with the words "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people 
what they do not want to hear," from his proposed preface to Animal Farm.
photo credit: Matt Brown-Wikimedia CCA-2.0 Generic, FlickereviewR 2

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an American sculptor of the Beaux-Arts generation, once remarked that "...it's the way a thing's done that makes it right or wrong."

When it comes to public talk, I believe we're long overdue for some plain talk about what we should accept as right. 

Too many public conversations now (obviously, tweets too) are just, well, unacceptable, wrong, off or cringeworthy. Take your pick, or waste energy on expletives and likely you'll be closest to right.

Here, I'm not referring to comments like someone who described an opponent as "simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up." With variants tracing back to at least 1966, the endurance of this artful and possibly apt gibe might be welcome for many to hear (except the latest target).

Doublethink
No, what we need plain talk about is what George Orwell named "doublethink," and its close relative "doubletalk." 

This is "a process of indoctrination whereby the subject is expected to accept as true that which is clearly false, or to simultaneously accept two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in contravention to one's own memories or sense of reality." (Wikipedia)

Why then are there not more of us carrying out Orwell's urging to jeer "...loudly enough, [to] send some worn out and useless phrase - some...lump of verbal refuse...into the dustbin where it belongs."

Fact-checks
For example, there are good reasons to believe that fact-checking, as it's mostly done, is a fool's fantasy. 

Firstly, once prejudices are established and continuously reinforced, including through the mail, media, or social media, the "tribe" will not believe criticism from any source about a tribal leader's corruption or malfeasance.

Secondly, it is clear that so-called fact-checking, or otherwise restating a message by repeating it (even in the negative), just reinforces the original propaganda. 

Both the believers and the undecided will focus on the original false message and ignore that little word "NOT" or other negation that the fact checker inserts. The negative is as invisible as the cyclists whom car drivers genuinely don't see on the road.

To Counter
There are right ways to counter the emergence of the ideological offspring of Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. These include:

1. Ignore any verbal refuse designed to distract, deny, or delay - by all means, counter with the truth but, please, oh please, stop repeating the words of the original - you're just being a megaphone for what you oppose;

2. Listen up, friends in the media, there's not much that a bad actor fears more than being ignored - at the very least, please: stop using or repeating a bad actor's name; stop repeating direct quotes in the lower thirds of the television screen; and, stop showing "B-Roll" of a bad actor, instead of doing your job to paraphrase any comments, if needed at all;

2. Encourage leaks of sensitive information that expose lies and fraud;

3. Reverse any serious lie right back onto the liar - use words more like the graffiti artist who sprays a mustache, beard, or horns onto a propaganda poster;

4. Exponentially grow networks of person-to-person communications, especially through personal emails and personalized tweets.

Finally, if you believe you can win doing it right, and you put in the effort to communicate vigorously and well, you will win.