Monday, November 1, 2021

Thylacine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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