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.