Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Back-seat Driver

Passenger Compartment, Rambler Ranch

Did you ever experience in the years before COVID-19, when driving a vehicle with seats fully occupied, the occasional passengerusually from the back seatwho 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 whomas quickly and uninformed as a back-seat drivermegaphone 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?

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 incentivesthereafter 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 armsthis 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 campaignsstrategies 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 vaccinatewhich, 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

by Gillfoto is licensed under 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 animalsand, 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 advertising practices 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 peopleand, 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 elsewherelittle 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 remediesand, 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 newsoften 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


by Mickey Sanborn, Department of Defense, National Archives. 
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-USGov-Military}}

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 associationwithin democracies. Lest we forget.

Monday, November 1, 2021


by John Gould (1804-1881), Mammals of Australia, Vol 1 Plate 54. 
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

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.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Light, or No...

Have you ever wondered why some people convey a sense of optimism, energy, or other positive feelings when they speak? Often it's a smile, or eye contact, or attentiveness with facial or another nonverbal cue that puts a ray of sunlight into a conversation. 

Also though, it's the words we choose that help shape such feelings. Even after the passage of so many years, inspiring speakers like Martin Luther King Jr, Sir Winston Churchill, or several Kennedys, when read again, will inspire once more.

Within their words are images of light, upbeat rhythm, and invitations to a better future. It's all in the words. Or more precisely, it's what we find in the words. Beyond what words denote is the power we give to what they suggest. 

When Churchill visualized the life of the world moving "forward into broad, sunlit uplands" or spoke of the "island home," which he called upon the British to defend, he rekindled treasured feelings of belonging, of place, and a life worth living. He brought to the foreground, in minds and hearts, some hope for what might be, amid the mayhem and misery of wartime realities.

This comes to mind vividly while reading and enjoying Thomas E. Ricks's intriguing dual-biography, Churchill & Orwell, The Fight for Freedom, alongside George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. 

Despite Churchill's own periodic challenges with what he called the "black dog" of depression, the positive power of his words somehow connected within neurons, delivering hope and purpose in himself and in others. Against this, the dark words of opponents looked off-putting, or plain, or sometimes even underwhelming.

Likewise, in George Orwell's writing, amid vivid descriptions of tough times and experiences in the Spanish Civil War, he projects a spirit of hope and possibility, for the ascent of human dignity from what the ramshackle human efforts in that war might be able to accomplish. 

Today, it's still possible to find words of light, separated from the projected fantasies of carnage and apocalypse that appeal to those wired for conspiracy or other dark arts, like autocrats and their co-conspirators. Slogans like one seen on a t-shirt recently, "vaxover my dead body" will appeal to those wired for the dismal, dreary, and macabre; but anyone who respects facts will reflect on that cheery thought, and see the ironic inference about the destiny of the myopic.

Shifting metaphors, if we are what we eat, it's reasonable to believe that we feel what we hear, see, and read. No great discoveries in neuroscience are needed to tell us that choosing the light and the bright matters, including the words around us. Through the words that we encounter and the words that we choose, we effectively "wire" our own world view.

So, here's a short-list of words in Orwell and Churchill that leapt from just the first pages of each, as they dealt with sombre scenes: Orwell, powerful, liking, affection, spirit, bridging the gulf, liked, stuck vividly, memory, special atmosphere; and, Churchill, repair, heroic, best troops, best trained, fought well, think of the future, safely back, very large and powerful

Often, both narrated hard realities, yet their language was peppered with optimism. We should all feel free to use such words, to encourage others to use them, to add to a list to keep handy for frequent use; perhaps sometimes they can help build spirits, to navigate better paths whenever dark forces are in play. These are words that wear well, and have no use-by-date. 

Of course, much more is at work in Orwell's and Churchill's language than just the presence of such words. They weren't just tossing together word-salad. Each deals with the difficult, yet is up-lifting. Each chose a place and purpose for every word in relation to otherscreating patterns in syntax that shape minds and hearts. These are places to explore another time. 

For now, Orwell and Churchill (and Ricks) are calling to more lighter and brighter, to enjoy.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Whose Challenge?

by Mabel May Woodward. Shannon's Fine Art Milford CT is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

Often barely noticeable, like the passing of the date on the calendar for the change of seasons last week, are many adjustments to how we live. No such luck with the impact of COVID.

This was clear early. Unfortunately, the projections in my first blogpost in May last year about the likely changes in services for daily needs, education, and other areas of life were close enough to what happened. Apparently, crystal-ball gazing can get some things right. 

From the 1970s, Heidi and Alvin Toffler scrutinized data to make large-scale, largely accurate predictions about the world we now live in. They were also mostly right about many details. From the same time, I recall predictions that we'd pay about the same price for water in a bottle as for wine, and people would be talking on portable  communicators everywheresuggestions that were considered unlikely.

Yet, despite my years of eye-opening experience of people in politics and the media, still unanticipated was the sheer craven behavior of some wannabe leaders, who were elected to be responsible firstly for the safety and health of all of us. Who, other than the craven or complete cynics, would predict the ramshackle response of these individuals to the pandemic in the United States? 

For all the ongoing efforts of countless healthcare workers and so many other service providers, whom we literally applauded in symbolic and substantive statements of support last year, here we are. With many regions in the nation well-vaccinated, and others not, and with continuing threats to the supply chain for household goods and other key importsthanks to the back-log of ships awaiting entry to the wharves of major ports. 

Part of this challenge is the ongoing threat of the anti-vax, anti-mask self-proclaimed elite, determined to endanger themselves and everyone else. A larger challenge is leadership that's lackluster or worse in too many places, hampering recovery efforts. We all know that this affects everyone. Even a child who cares for goldfish soon learns that murky water in the fish-bowl is everyone's challenge. 

One lesson hopefully learned during the last five years in the United States is that the self-deluded, right along with the grifters and charlatans, will keep thriving on distortions, unless each of us makes the effort to dismantle their oppositions to reality. When will there ever be enough pressure on the social media companies, elected officials, charlatans, and some heads of foreign governments who dangerously undermine our safety and health with well-publicized nonsense? What's very clear by now is what doesn't work: NEITHER the half-baked approach called "fact-checking," NOR repeating a propagandist's "messages" in the negative! 

Getting the attention of anyone to change behavior requires smart use of the motivation process. How to encourage change in someone who is opposed to a proposition has been known for a long time. Still useful are the steps John A. McGee shared for example, in 1929 in his book Persuasive Speaking, now out of copyright and freely available on the Internet [here], with a helpful table in his book, in Appendix C at pages 268-9. McGee's basic principles remain a good guide for some purposes.

Briefly, when seeking to change the actions of people opposed to a proposition, McGee advocated that we: 

1. Secure common ground by first emphasizing any agreement in attitudes, beliefs, or experienceshe described how to seek agreement on general principles, to apply a principle to the specific problem; 

2. Anticipate and overpower objections with facts and testimony that demonstrate your approach is the best solution; explain it, and offer proof that it removes the cause of a shared problem, using testimony that's credible in the eyes of your audience, with examples of successes; 

3. Make the results of the solution vivid with imagery, impelling motives and projections for the audience into the future, while being beware of exaggeration;

4. Request definite action, with specific ways that individuals can help, appealing to habit.

If this all sounds too long and logical, take confidence that folks who get creative have found simple, visual, and emotive ways to put a strategy like this into practice for thousands of years. McGee was just one of the first in more recent times to outline the steps so clearly.

Perhaps it's worth trying an alternative to filling the media and the air with conversations that perpetuate the divisiveness of propagandists. Smallpox, tuberculosis, polio, and too many pandemics since were eradicated not only thanks to the brilliant development and delivery of life-saving vaccines. 

Equally important was finding ways to enable reality laggards to just get over it!

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The -ism Family

by Bryan Ledgard is licensed under CCA 2.0 Generic

Large, or even dangerously dominant, in people's minds and hearts is a family of words in English with the suffix -ism.

We can all too quickly think of some branch or other of the -ism family tree. The favorites of the 20th century were the feuding cousins "Fascism" and "Communism." Persistently adversarial also are "Conservatism" and "Liberalism" and "Radicalism" and "Anarchism," seeking the attention of potential devotees. And, on the left or the right, the often noisy claims of "Libertarianism" might pop up, sometimes with the implied question, "what about me?" Or, the calls of "Environmentalism" that ask the question, "what about all of us?"

Then there are the regrettably ever-enduring and insidious presumptions of "Racism" and "Sexism." They manage to keep finding followers among legislators, judges, employers, teachers, and parents, as well as some devotees of "Professionalism," or everyday individuals, all of whom keep blighting lives through the centuries. 

There's also "Cannibalism" or the arguably, analogically unrelated "Authoritarianism," or "Corporatism," or "Nationalism," or "Nazism," or "Tribalism," or "Populism" or "Cronyism" or "Denialism." Do we need to pay more attention to asking which of these branches in the -ism family are intertwined, or true, or phony? And, where are we with "Modernism," or "Postmodernism," or "Relativism"? To mix metaphors some, this is just the tip of the -ism iceberg. The complexity and scale of the -ism family appear substantial.

Of course, "Individualism" is a shining light surely, perhaps the 21st century's modern champion of -isms? It's easy to add to the catalog of the family members, and we need to exercise care about whether to include some in the family, such as "Opportunism," observed of course only in others. 

Then there are the frequent fellow travelers of "Cultism," "Fundamentalism," "Evangelism," and "Originalism." Which might additionally stimulate questions about what happened to "Realism?" So often not welcome in the -ism family.

Thanks to the creativity that language permits, we can be swamped with "Neologisms" seeking inclusion in the -ism family. This can be fine, even enjoyable, for anyone with interest in words.

Much trouble comes though when blind devotion to an -ism fuels the underpinning ideology that ignites emotions like greed and hate and fear. Deep-seated greed, hate, and fear drive nasty behavior. And, neither greed nor hate nor fear need look very far for family feuds to copy, like the generations of Hatfields and McCoys, or the Campbells and McDonalds, and who can forget the "joys" of the Montagues and Capulets? When blind devotion is a tinder box, "Extremism" makes common sense not so common.

With a history of misfortune and tragedy draped over so many -isms, it's reasonable to wonder what will ever slow the propagation and proliferated impact of the -ism family? Mostly, -isms don't comply with control, especially self-control. However much civil society attempts avoidance, containment, or elimination of -isms, these labels, libels, and lip-service to thinking will often just keep on keeping on. 

Look at the conveniently recurring use of "Socialism," blathered about in efforts to make outcasts of people from the left, the right, and the middle. Then there are "Nudism" and "Idealism," which sound suspiciously similar; best make outcasts of both, just in case. Of course, there's always difficult-to-deal-with "Hedonism," along with "Behaviorism," and digging deep into the barrel of despair there's the rag-bag with estranged relatives, "Sadism" and alter ego, "Masochism." 

And, no need to create "Joyism" or "Extaticism" just because a favorite word of humanity misses family membership by a letter. Yet anything like these could be welcome to crack the door on some real joy, or everyday peace, or safety at least, from those resurgent expressions of "Elitism," now in the form of the anti-vax, anti-mask devotees who dictate life in this COVID world, as threats to themselves and everyone else.

Fortunately, the great value of language and its relation to thinking is that the ability of each of us to create our own landscape for living is within each of us. Whether or not we'll ever have command of all the genealogical branches of the -ism family is unclear. Meantime, do you think it would help to think carefully before resorting to -ism talk?

Maybe too, we should listen to George Orwell, who knew a thing or two about such matters. It's more than time to heed his good advice to jeer loudly enough to send some of these lumps of verbal refuse into the dustbin where they belong.

9-11, Never Forget.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021


Studying criminal law way back when, a required class assignment was to provide a full report on a court proceeding. Finding a case to audit was probably part of the test, since this required locating the right noticeboard in the old courthouse downtown, firstly to choose from the list of hearings for the day, then to navigate the musty corridors of the old courthouse building, to be in the right place at the right time. And, this also turned out to be an early and unexpected experience of humor-in-law, before television audiences enjoyed the now dated but legendary British comedy series, Rumpole of the Bailey

The case I happened to choose was the preliminary hearing of three accused men, caught after a bank robbery gone wrong. The getaway car was an Austin A30, well-known in British Commonwealth countries at the time as an old family sedan, commonly referred to as a "baby Austin," not noted for speed. 

The tip-off to the arresting police was the car's license plate on the rear of the car, observed to be dangling vertically, just held by one shoe-lace; with the second shoe-lace that had kept this license plate horizontal and in place no longer visible, having surrendered its duty somewhere in the hurly-burly of getting away from the bank.

Revealed to the police, firmly-affixed, horizontal, and easily read underneath was the original license plate of this stolen car. So, the police pulled the baby Austin to the side of the road on suspicion, and the jig was up when pistols and canvas bags of bank money were sighted. 

With these facts, like a scene from Gilbert and Sullivan or another farce, it only occasionally gets any better when studying law! Not sure how the presiding magistrate kept a straight face as the prosecutor outlined each piece of evidence.

Equally remarkable was the dialog that occurred during recesses in the morning's proceedings, when the magistrate was not present. The police prosecutor and the accused men evidenced almost back-slapping "friendliness," apparently well-known to each other, with other police in the courtroom smiling discretely, appreciating these exchanges. Unsurprisingly, the prosecutor was optimistic about bringing a case to finally secure the three accused for a time, at Her Majesty's pleasure. 

The defense lawyer was more braggadocious in retelling, to anyone who'd listen, tit-bits of conversations he'd had with his clients during their dinners at his home; he was a big talker, combining poor dress sense with a diamond ring on one hand, and with a slickness just a touch akin to the character of the lawyer, Vinny, in the movie My Cousin Vinny. Yet he lacked most of the smarts of the movie lawyer. 

After these proceedings, I didn't track the outcome of the trial or any appeals; time to follow that progress was required for other assignments and, in those days, would also have required continuous checking of the right noticeboard in the courthouse; but it didn't look too promising for the three accused men during this preliminary hearing, which resulted in a clear case to answer.

Updating to the present in the United States, some of the more than 500 cases in progress against the January 6 terrorists at the Capitol present facts strangely similar. The terrorists' plans were large, but disconnected, and flawed enough in execution to permit over 300 million Americans to dodge, for now, the intended result of some 9,000 terrorists, who injured about 140 police while attempting to violently overturn democratic government. Many behaviors of the terrorists were as bizarre and darkly comedic as those of the bank robbers.  

Of course, anyone facing armed attackers, whether bank robbers or terrorists, with life put at risk, sees no humor. Bizarre as these events look in the rear-view mirror, they're a stark reminder of the importance to anticipate, pursue, and prosecute criminals soonest and well. 

Dumb luck is a fickle ally.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Letters of Law

A foundation for a fair application of the law requires the interpretation of law and facts. How judges and juries interpret words, in statutes, or case reports, or the description of facts, is central to the effective operation of the legal system.

Recent articles, which I'm grateful a friend pointed out, in Science and in the Harvard and Yale law journals, look at the varying ways that judges, juries, the legal profession, and everyday people interpret the meaning of words. It's perhaps no surprise that unlike Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, for whom a word meant whatever he chose for it, the law seeks more consistency.

What should rock the legal profession and concern everyone is how much juries apparently can differ from judges about the meaning of words. It might be no surprise that how judges and juries interpret words can differ greatly. In any particular case, much less between successive cases and among different people, the character of language permits varying interpretations of meaning.

This is so, even with the efforts to apply the law's special rules that seek clarity and consistency, including various uses of "canons of interpretation, relevant context, or the text's purpose." In one of the articles, Kevin Tobia from Georgetown Law noted that Justice Frankfurter had remarked: "Anything that is written may present a problem of meaning... The problem derives from the very nature of words." People in general, as well as students of language, intuitively understand this.

And, so do others in the legal profession, which doubtless helps to add fuel to ongoing debates about originalism or other legal niceties of interpretation. Just two of the more interesting implications stimulated beyond these articles include firstly, how juries interpret deceit and secondly, the challenge to prove intent.

On the first for example, as I understand it, when deceit to enable an agreement arguably does not go to the heart of the contract, as well as in some other circumstances, juries that apply "commonsense consent," rather than some legal norms, tend to side with the perpetrator rather than the victim. Roseanna Sommers, from University of Michigan Law, explains the concepts, some psychological experiments that seek to explain such interpretations, and what this means for the law itself. 

More broadly, the layperson's tolerance for deceit might also at least partly explain why voters will (re-)elect politicians charged with or convicted of criminal offenses; while such understanding is good to have, it's not any less disturbing, especially in the current context in the United States.

On the second challenge of intent, as difficult as the tangled interpretations of consent continue to be, it could be helpful if the authors of these articles in the future paid more attention to intent; in particular, how the law's normative definitions for proof of intent cause troubleespecially in criminal law. 

It's possible that any "commonsense blindness" to deceit might also contribute to the difficulties of proving intent in court. And, likely such "commonsense" fuels the more general tolerance of the fraudulent behavior of some public figures, who are perpetually engaged in attempted corruption of the electoral system and justice through frivolous litigation. Likewise, the difficulty of proving intent probably contributes to the failure to prosecute the bad actions of public figures, which debilitates representative democracy.

Let's remember that juries supposedly consist of everyday persons drawn from the community, on the democratic principle that any person's case should be judged by one's peersas a holdover and ongoing symbolic and substantive statement of true populism over the monarchy or other autocratic rule.

Valuable as these articles are to anyone with an inclination toward the brain-bending needed for legal semantics, their largest consequences will probably emerge through teasing out further commonsense meanings in the interconnection of legal interpretation with people's lives. 

The importance of the work of these scholars cannot be overstated. And, the concluding remarks of Sommers's longer 2020 article, at pp. 2306-7, are especially interesting perspective. Each author inherently puts in question some basic assumptions about the realities of how the law operates to benefit civil society.


Roseanna Sommers (2021), "Experimental Jurisprudence: Psychologists Probe Lay Understandings of Legal Constructs," Science, Vol 373:6553, 23 July, pp. 394-5

Roseanna Sommers (2020), "Commonsense Consent," Yale Law Journal, Vol 129:8, pp. 2232-2307

Kevin P. Tobia (2020), "Testing Ordinary Meaning," Harvard Law Review, Vol 134:726, pp. 727-806

Monday, August 9, 2021

Five Rings

Olympic Rings at the Top of Mount Takao
by Antonio Tajuelo is licensed under CCA 2.0 Generic

The Olympic torch is once more passed forward. Beyond conception as the world's must-see platform for competitive sports excellence, the Olympic Games reliably deliver much more. 

For the days of the competition and well beyond, the events put a spotlight on the best of human qualities, not only sports skill, strength, endurance, courage, and more, but popping up regularly too are occasions that showcase a human sense of fairness and grace, and care for strangers and friends drawn from so many parts of the world.

Little wonder then that we're ready to experience the modern Games, bringing together, as the rings symbolize, five of the world's inhabited continents, when considering North and South America as onein a competitive spirit that actually expresses tremendous cooperation among peoples of these continents. 

Perhaps the enthusiasts who, regularly in southern-hemisphere summer, travel to the Antarctic to run a marathon will eventually find a way to help include this additional continent, with its too-little acknowledged 37 year-round scientific bases of non-permanent residents?

Against all impediments of difference, or dissent, or pandemic, a spirit of the ancient Olympics has passed forward for all of us, through generations of remarkable accomplishment by competitors, supporters, and organizers, well into our futures. 

With Paralympians and the winter Games still to come, we can look forward to further reminders of some of the very best in people.

Friday, July 30, 2021

To Strengthen Democracy

by Caravaggio (1571-1610) This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, how hugely ironic it is that phony populists swim in a sea of self-adulation, obsessively interested only in themselves; narcissistic in their ignorance that George Orwell long ago illustrated how to tear down trash-talk to restore truth, and Jacques Ellul alerted us to both the dangers and limits of propaganda.

Like many of us today, Orwell and Ellul had their fill of wannabe leaders wanting to snatch up control of governments and freedoms. And, we hardly need reminding of the horrors that the phony leaders caused then.

During the upsurge in phony populism more recently, it's been healthy and useful to use the mute button on nonsense claims, or switch TV channels, or turn off the tech, or question presumptions in the too-often-repeated outrages.

It's understandable to wonder where is the mute button to counter propaganda more widely. We dampen nonsense on television this way, why not other trash-talk? And, why do mainstream and social media so like to magnify manufactured outrage?

When a fringe-mob violently tried to overthrow democratic government in the United States almost seven months ago, many of us were more than tired of the phony tirades and trash-talk. By then, manufactured outrages often dominated public communications.

Orwell and Ellul had warned about the use of media to engulf us in a swell of swill. Ellul noted that propagandists win by denying freedom of thought. And, with fashion, rumors, and propagators of weird social beliefs aided and abetted by some unprofessional news-folks and social media, of course we'll always be targets of propagandists.

To help swim the sea of propaganda, with its hidden currents and rips, and to encourage the critical thinking needed to do so, Ellul outlined what enables propaganda. He provided relatively few specifics on what we each might do to counter propaganda, as Randal Marlin pointed out in a recent blog-post here. Ellul sought to stimulate, not dictate our thinking. His thoroughly exploring principles and practices remains useful though, to help swim across the tidal rips of propaganda to reach a better destination.

One of Orwell's contributions was to help us scrutinize language, to look for the tells that identify the self-interested wannabe controllers of thinking. He also explained how to deal with their language, which was especially well-outlined in his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language"first published in 1946, and still well worth the (re-)read. 

As daily life gets engulfed in a swell of swill on digital devices and other products of the technological age that we welcome into our lives, it becomes increasingly important to enlarge commitments to critical thinking. Educators have a role here, but the declines in teaching logic and the already crowded educational curricula mean that logic and other life skills like civility, or information literacy, or financial management, or the law will be formal educational experiences beyond the reach of many.

So it is up to each of us to build defenses and offensives to dismantle propaganda. Check out earlier postings on this blog for some "to do's" to counter propaganda, and/or look into Randal Marlin's excellent Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion [Here].

Plenty to be concerned about, with the continuously rising impact of technology on what we see, hear, and doas well as the ongoing efforts of wannabe leaders pretending to be democratic, who aim to control people directly, or through legislative sleights of hand.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021


The Bookworm
by Carl Spritzweg (1808-1885) Museum Georg Schäfer
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

Policy wonks long believed healthcare delivery to be governed by considerations of Access, Quality, and Costand, that it was possible to address any two, but not all three satisfactorily. Policy prophecy can be self-fulfilling, or worse, as we now know from endless hours dealing with health insurance companies, pharmacies, and the others fiddling in this space.

Hype among policy determiners often has self-fulfilling effects. The preoccupation of the news media with ratings and advertising sales has predetermined the constraints within which the most creative editors, journalists, and others are bound to work. Progressively, added to the mix are the effects of new tech. 

The editor-in-chief of the newspapers in my hometown, Harry Gordon, contrasted how print and broadcast news media might report on Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Gordon wrote the newspaper version of this story as "Moses came down from the mountain today with Ten Commandments. These are... [with the ten guides-to-life described]." He projected that the broadcast news would be "Moses has delivered Ten Commandments, two of which are..." 

How social media might relate this news is anyone's guess. But more interesting is the hype that tech fashion has self-perpetuated, as well as its long-term effects.

Over a decade ago, the CEO of an early online search firm shared his surprise with me that his teenage daughter showed no interest in participating in that rite-of-passage of earlier generations, of proving skills enough to obtain a driver's license. Her answer, living in a city, was to text a friend, if she wanted a ride to go somewhere; and soon afterwards, there was Uber!

Now, it's reported that, in a nation whose people seem otherwise sensible, the National Library of New Zealand is set to "de-accession" over 600,000 "Overseas" Books collections, including Shakespeare, Cervantes [that should stop future tilting at the windmills of wonks!], all the classics, and much more. Oh, and just about any other non-New Zealand literature you might (or might not) be encyclopedic enough to remember. Some policy wonking, eh?! Even the shortlist for the chop, identified in a World of the Written Word blogpost on July 9, is remarkable. [Here: two blogposts on this]

Interestingly, the "Internet Library" chosen as New Zealand's substitute knowledge repository, unlike a physical library, appears not to compensate authors still in copyright, or their publishers' production effortsno mention of either buying or re-buying books, as other libraries do, much less per page lending and payment systems so common elsewhere. Naturally, an author association and publishers are mounting legal challenges to the presumptions underlying the approach, with proceedings still winding through the courts. 

Also not considered important apparently are the realities of digital storage decay, or who will really take care of the periodic re-"saving" that will be needed for such mountains of information in yet-to-be developed new digital formats. No indication that the so-called Internet pirates discussed in the more recent blogpost, who are to be the substitute caretakers of this knowledge resource of New Zealand, have any more concern about this or other consequent losses than the library policy wonks, who seem fine about glossing over the losses to the nation in deciding on their approach. 

Such wonks will likely remain enamored with the idyllic fantasy portrayed by sci-fi movie actors, who talk to computers to retrieve any information that the movie script, written by someone else, has told them how to request. 

At the risk of sounding even more like a dinosaur, the other, even-bigger effect that pops up regularly in the news is the ambiguous security of our infrastructure, national and personal, which we are all governed by. Amid these apparently uncontrolled forces, there are some things we can do. 

A key "to do" was crystallized in the years I worked alongside two very talented undergraduate computing students, to deliver computer-coding competitions, we called "hackathons." Within this tech-sect, social media was gospel for every purpose, except to get geeks to enroll in the (free) computer-coding competition. 

Which is where the title of today's blogpost comes from. ".0001%" was roughly the percentage return, calculated over the years, of the actual enrollment in our "hackathons" that resulted from social media, in a highly tech communityin other words, insignificant in this group. Of course, with different resources to drive the social media, including automated systems and expensive demographic data, and/or with very much larger population groups, and/or with physiological pre-testing of messages, and/or, etc., etc., others do better. 

Just have to look at the social media election exploitations in the United States and other countries, where the first or strongest in a territory/nation with relatively developed resources has done well, especially where the opponent gears up little or not at all with social media, in offense or defense. But the distance between results and hype in our modestly resourced "hackathon" marketing efforts always stunned us.

As you might have guessed, what worked to engage participants in our "hackathon" competition, and in all the other big computer-coding events we surveyed in Michigan, Boston, and elsewhere, was word-of-mouth/person-to-person. As my tech-student colleagues found, what worked was standing, day-after-day, in the university quad and food court, handing out flyersinviting personallyand, yes, email still lives... with personalized email follow-up.

This also applies to dismantling propaganda, by restoring dialog. Or, nurturing critical thinking (socratic dialog doesn't seem to fly on social media). Or, inviting others to join a cause. Zoom calls in these times are helpful. 

It will be best for us all the soonest and more completely that the United States, or for that matter any nation or community, finds person-to-person ways to further enliven the community interactions that shape democratic strength. 

[FOOTNOTE UPDATEAt the end of November 2021, a reprieve for an unspecified time from the proposed action of the National Library of NZ was announcedpossibly due to the legal uncertainties mentioned above, along with potential embroilment in the likely long-winded and expensive legal proceedings mounted by publishers and author organizations against the so-called "Internet Library" in the United Statesdetailed here]

Wednesday, June 30, 2021


Henry Ward Beecher cartoon as Gulliver reaching out to "Lilliputian" crowd.
by Bernard Gillam (1856-1896). Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

Engaging an audience takes talent. Whether comedian, TV anchor, journalist, or a speaker or writer for any purpose, how you start sets the stage for all that follows. Especially in the snappy world of social media, the choice of visuals as well as your first words matter. 

We know that with distractions just a click away, it's best to get attention to topic, theme, and you, quickly! From the earliest teachers of rhetoric onwards, we've known that audiences look for an introduction, a body, and a conclusion; and the best introduction attracts attention to both the topic and the speaker/writer, as well as directly developing the topic. We connect with anyone who does this well.

Clearly, what you choose to mention among facts, opinions, and ideas, along with the words you chose, how you shape sentences, and how you develop passages, all impact how an audience sees you, thinks of you, relates to you, and hears what you say. The talent of making these choices well grows from thinking to do, from thoughtful "listening," and from practice.

During the introduction, as in any first meeting, a listener or reader intuitively looks for common interests, along with signs of who you are in the words you choose; which signal your tone, role, stance, and personality. 

When teaching speech-writing, an exercise that I often used to help reveal how language choices project personal style and persona (adopted role) was to ask students to read brief speech excerpts, which didn't identify who the speakers were. The students then described what personality characteristics they detected from the language choices, wrapping up with the inevitable guesses about the identity of each speaker. 

In common with much teaching of rhetoric, we also listened to the recorded speeches of a wide variety of powerful speakers, to take note of specific language features that resonated. 

The speakers of course included Sir Winston Churchill, whose early experience in journalism showed through, with his initially setting a scene, then dramatically relating events to inspire commitment. Or, John F. Kennedy's memorable introduction in his inaugural address, urging observance of "not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom." And Martin Luther King Jr's deeply resonant voice, to commence his sharing of a dream, by marking the occasion of the day's march to Washington DC as "the greatest demonstration of freedom." Each alerted listeners to focus the moment.

Some speakers use questions to begin. Mahatma Gandhi asked what was non-cooperation and why was it important; and Jawaharlal Nehru asked what brought "friends and fellow Asians" together. Each, with straightforward engagement, developed tremendous following. Across a range of Australians, from Dame Enid Lyons, Sir Robert Menzies, John Curtin, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Gough Whitlam, Germaine Greer, and a host of other community leaders and advocates of social change, a similar variety of approaches for introductory remarks is evident.

Even the less savory provided lessons. Such as the opening to Richard Nixon's 1969 inaugural address, where he acknowledged that "In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free;" indicating how far down the escalator it's all traveled since. Or, the rambling Adolf Hitler in 1938, complaining of "the foreign press [who] inundated the new Reich with a virtual flood of lies and calumnies," which hardly deserved repeating, yet some still like to hear their own echoes of that approach.   

On the flip-side, the nineteenth century's so-dubbed "most famous man in America," Henry Ward Beecher, so the story goes, one hot summer evening walked into his routinely over-crowded church, and the assembled congregation became aware of his uncharacteristically removing his coat and tie, and mopping his head with a large handkerchief. Once in the pulpit, with all eyes fixed in his direction, Beecher is said to have exclaimed "It's so goddamn hot in here tonight!" After a pause, he stated that this was what he'd heard someone say as he'd walked into the church; then he delivered a sermon on blasphemy. 

Today's audiences might not sit still for the length of sermons and other speeches so common in the nineteenth century. Yet Beecher's introduction stands the test of time, to illustrate how he made full use of the situation and his own movement, combined with careful timing and a very few words, to commence his remarks powerfully.

Choosing well the ideas, nonverbal opportunity, and words we use makes a real difference.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Dynamic Tension for Pandemic Times*

Lieutenant (junior grade) Natasha McClinton, a surgical nurse prepares a patient in USNS Comfort's ICU, for healthcare support in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic
by US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman. 
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-USGov}}

Written By Randal Marlin

One of the great features of Jacques Ellul's writings is his extraordinary ability to keep focused on what is important. It is important, for example, to take account of how readers are going to interpret your writings. It is important that they become engaged in an issue. Constant qualification can baffle the hearer.

Ellul's political and sociological writings tend to leave us with unsolved problems. In the case of propaganda, for example, he points to a need on the part of liberal government to engage in propaganda to offset seditious ideas from within the state or propaganda to offset other states seeking conquest over one's own state. But he recognizes that once a state begins to engage seriously in propaganda, it erodes its own claim to being liberal. In Propaganda, he leaves his readers with a stark understanding of the dilemma without resolving it.

I see a parallel with Albert Camus who dealt with the problem of free will and determinism by ranking different certainties. He was certain that he was free. And he was certain that the world of science presented us with a deterministic universe. What was important, then, was to be faithful to what reason presented him and not to deny one or other of these two certainties. He was not going to deny one of his certainties merely because there was an apparent contradiction.

As I understand Ellul, he preferred to hold fast to the clash of ideas, leaving the reader to solve a dilemma, rather than presenting a solution that would save the reader the trouble of thinking on her own. That did not mean he did not have a solution. For example, in conversation he approved of what might have been done (but wasn't done) to stand up to Hitler in the late 1930s. Left wing publications folded after the victory of Franco in Spain, but keeping them alive through subsidies would likely have fostered more anti-Hitler sentiment.

In a bizarre way, I am brought back to advertisements of my childhood, where a bully insults and humiliates a "97-pound weakling" in the presence of his girl. The weakling puts on muscle through Charles Atlas's strength-building "dynamic tension" and later returns to deck the bully, winning his girl's admiration.

The phrase "dynamic tension," applied intellectually instead of physically, seems to fit both Camus and Ellul.

The growth of technology and the state is a threat to humanistic values. In defending the latter, Ellul may appear to be a technophobe, but that is because he saw the former as being held too much in awe and in need of more balance regarding the latter.

We see that tension very strongly with the current COVID-19 pandemic. The state has indeed a duty to reduce the spread of this deadly virus, but how far should this power extend? Should the state have the power to compel universal vaccination?

Ellul advises us to be aware of the costs involved with the unchecked growth of technique and state power. Have we reckoned adequately with those costs? One of the most heart-rending costs is that of restrictions preventing close relatives being with their mother, father, spouse, sibling, grandparent, child, long-time friend, etc. when the latter are on their deathbed.

There is also the general problem of lack of social contact. For many, this is not a problem, especially if we have spacious living conditions, contact with nature and someone we live with. But for others, regulations governing whom one may be in contact with can bring extreme hardship, and possibly suicide.

Church gatherings are forbidden where they threaten the spreading of the disease. But didn't Jesus say that he who saves his life will lose it? Yes, but he also commanded us to love one another and that means respecting the lives of others.

Just as with the propaganda dilemma described above, there are dangers with being too lax or too rigorous in countering the pandemic. What is wrong is supporting proposed measures without due consideration to fundamental rights and duties that are at stake. Some measures, in that light, may need mitigation while others need strengthening.

[*first published 10 May 2021 by the International Jacques Ellul Society; IJES Ellul Society grants permission to Word to the wise to reprint the blog posting "Dynamic Tension in Pandemic Times" by Randal Marlin: A.B. Princeton, M.A. McGill, Ph.D. Toronto, all in philosophy; philosophy professor, Carleton U. Ottawa, 1966-2001; sabbatical year in Bordeaux, 1979-80, with Jacques Ellul; and author, Propaganda and the Ethics of PersuasionBroadview Press, 2nd ed. 2014.]

Monday, May 31, 2021

Why read? Why Write?

Two boys in Laos laugh over the book "What Can You Do with an Extra Dinosaur?" which one of them received as his first book.
by Blue Plover/Big Brother Mouse is licensed under CCA-SA 3.0 Unported

Answers to "why write?" are probably as many as why we read. Whether from the spontaneous response "...because I have to" or answers more thoughtfully explored with authors, such as in the Paris Review Interviews, maybe not everyone will agree reading and writing are acts of thinking. 

For example as LitHub noted just yesterday, Ray Bradbury had a sign over his typewriter which read "Don't think!" on the principle, he said, that " must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway." Perhaps the sign helped Mr Bradbury follow his own imperative; yet he seemed to feel his writing did also involve thinking and he was just urging against doing this consciously, avoiding a writer's sin of over-thinking.

And, of course, writing from the heart to the heart, even to move the mind, most would acknowledge as good advice. Whether we believe language is driven by thought or thought is driven by language, and whatever the debunkers of "book-learning" might claim, it's a no-brainer that the love of words is clearly important.

Yet, whether as reader or writer, consciously and/or unconsciously, I believe that we think. Yes, even when we're lost in the escapist fun of worlds that words create. Had Darwin attended to readers and writers as groups to classify, maybe he'd have seen this as a common basis for bundling "readers-writers" together as one group, or at least close to each other. Certainly, any writer is also a reader. 

As children growing up, we might not get the significance of parents who encourage reading: the parent who reads a story or more every day or every night to a young child; the related behavior of giving books to one another in the family; and a parent's habit of just reading the news every morning, while not burning the breakfast toast. All are activities that influence how growing children come to think about a life that includes reading and writing. 

I've yet to hear any decent case to deny on the weekend a child's habit of weekday reading at home after school; even if it means in the late weekend-afternoon disappearing from playmates or a family gathering for a while. The worlds of words explored, for many children, we know will shape occupational success. Importantly too, we see this habit enjoyed and it can help kids in lots of ways, setting a foundation that's passed forward.

When teaching writing with my former colleague Roslyn Petelin years ago, we were always surprised and more than a little dismayed that so many of our very bright first-year university students were starting a communication degree program, but could not write very well. Soon enough we redesigned the first-week's writing class to provide just a few introductory remarks, followed by a grammar test that also specifically sought thoughts about writing.

Year after year, what the students' test responses told us, both by their poor knowledge of grammar and by their shared thoughts about writing, was that while most wanted to write well their school experience had not adequately prepared them. Students had serious gaps in basic knowledge of conventional language use. Even knowledge of spelling, punctuation, or grammar was lacking.

In their earlier schooling, high-flowered "creativity" or plagiarism seemed then to be most often rewarded. Of course, as Roslyn and I acknowledged when sharing these issues at a National Reading Association conference, some students forget or didn't pay attention when language lessons appeared in their schooling, but the scale of students' ignorance and antagonism about writing was massive. This was especially so from the 1960s through the 1990s, in many countries. Importantly, the responses to the diagnostic test we administered also detailed the individual needs to address.

Using principles for teaching reader-based prose, we set clear steps for students to be able to communicate genuinely with people, as steps to write interactively. We focused ways to identify the key issues that concerned readers and applied a problem-solving approach to teach writing, which Linda Flower and others had developed.

In that other time in another country, what was not so evident was one of the greatest values of reading and writing. Today, the free inquiry that fuels reading and writing becomes even more pertinent as a re-run of McCarthyist-like outrage seeks to dominate the media and our lives in the United States. And, in any other countries where look-alike populist propagandists also twist words and thinking, seeking to undermine democracy.

While acknowledging the critical need for civics education and action, at least equally important is the very developed ability to think clearly, which comes from reading and writing. As Isocrates noted, "We regard speaking well to be the clearest sign of a good mind, which it requires; and truthful, lawful, and just speech we consider the image of a good and faithful soul."

Unless deeply into incantations or some propagandist's stimuli, we can feel secure that reading, writing, and simple dialogue will nurture free thought, which is how propaganda dies.