Friday, December 30, 2022

Icelandic New Year

Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, Iceland
photo © copyright

A Story in LitHub last week was titled "Chocolate, Books, and More Books: Could America Even Handle Iceland's Traditional Christmas 'Book Flood'?" (Hinds). 

It describes how families and friends in "the most literate country in the world, with the highest number of published authors" exchange books every Christmas Eve, reading together around the fireplace to celebrate the holidays. The story recounts a "most dearly loved tradition" of a flood of publications annually released in the weeks leading up to Christmasalso stimulating author visits to workplaces for readings, bookshop festivities, or finding a reading nook at a family gathering, in addition to the evenings reading at home late into the night, fueled by hot chocolate.

Personally, this story revived memory of a New Year's celebration spent in Iceland. But how this came about is another story. In the late fall one year, when visiting friends in Arizona, an email arrived from another friend saying, " me crazy, but I'd really like to see the northern lights..." along with an invitation to join a group traveling to Iceland to welcome the New Year. Following soon was an additional emailjust a photo of folks sitting half-immersed in the geothermal Blue Lagoon on the Reykjavik Peninsula, with glasses raised in saluteresulting in swift acceptance of the invitation. 

The midwinter adventure commenced with a late night arrival at the airport near Reykjavik. Knowledge of my Aussie-origins, and consequent experience driving on the "correct" side of the road, automatically meant designation to drive the rental vehicleand fortunately another member of the group swiftly self-identified as navigator. Our first collaboration though was to retrieve the 8-seater vehicle from the far side of a deserted, unlit carparkin the pitch-black of true darknessto skate in our boots 100 yards / 90 meters or so, across the sheet of ice covering the carpark, helping each other to remain upright as we went.

Moving on from this uncertain start, the land of the midnight sun [during summer anyway] offered delight in winter too. Each morning, after breakfast in the dark, we coincided our arrival at a destination for sunrise around 11 am, to see a sight or two. Then, back on the road by sunset, around 3 pm, returning to our accommodations in time for drinks before dinner.

The good company of the group, coupled with the warmth of Icelanders, the stunning volcanic landscape and rushing streams, the warm springs and geysers, the expansion bridge across the separating tectonic plates, a welcome embellishment of the Sagas and history of Iceland, and a very different architecture and housing combined as an enjoyable mix of experiences–with the timelessly haunting novel, Independent People by Halldór Laxness, capturing the strength of a unique people, and some character of the nation.

The New Year's Eve celebrations were also enjoyable, with community bonfires and apparently endless fireworks in view in every direction from the hilltop location of a revolving restaurant atop The Saga Museum (apart from a 30 minute break just before midnight, when Icelanders nationwide stopped for an iconic TV show).

While the combination of smoke from the large-scale fireworks on New Year's Eve and cloud-filled skies on other evenings nullified any viewing of northern lights, this whole adventure remains among the most memorable of ways to welcome the fresh start to a calendar.

With a flood of goodwill as strong as this memory brings, may your 2023 travel as well!


Halldór Laxness (1946), Independent People, New York: Vintage

Jess deCourcy Hinds (2022), "Chocolate, Books, and More Books: Could America Even Handle Iceland's Traditional Christmas 'Book Flood'?" LitHub, December 23,  

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Bestest Words?

Words give shape to ideas and feelings. More truly, how we interpret words as readers and listeners helps to shape understanding, relationship, or action–in turn, helping to shape us. And with “truthiness” rather than truth-telling so common in public communications, how we interpret and use words matters a lot. As noted in my previous blogposts, we rely on each others words to “differentiate fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible” (Sayers, 1948, p. 4).


With truth-telling now needed more than ever, our ongoing effort to challenge disinformation, misinformation, and trash-talk is as necessary as reasserting values important to daily life. Perhaps it’s best to keep in mind that the strongest antidote to propaganda and its impact is our own independent thought. And keeping democracy requires that we read, listen, speak, write, and vote thoughtfully. Words used wisely can engage hope, humor, and leadership to counter propaganda and strengthen democracy.

Through the initial handling of the Covid pandemic in 2020 and a remarkable election in the United States, word-salad was so amplified at times that many days felt driven by a juggernaut heading toward ambiguous destinations. Health, safety, and freedoms previously taken for granted were continuously threatened. This was the setting, in May 2020, for starting to write these blogposts as personal reflections every couple of weeksto help keep perspective.


A midterm election in November 2022 delivered a much-wished-for coalition of voters, for some reprieve from the ongoing threats to health, safety, and freedoms. For any of us who believes in truth, law, and justice though, this remains a challenging time in this country and elsewhere. Outrageous public talk and too little action against the harmful actions of some still present hazard. Word-salad still props up news reports and talk-shows. 


A relatively few bright lights in the media have found ways to probe the news while continuously urging accountability. Very often it is investigative journalists who uncover the harmful actions of public figures. Probing commentaries in the media also argue for the rule of law and democratic institutions, but nonetheless offer little solution to the propaganda war. 


Many in the media continue to take the bait built into propaganda, to amplify its reach to more people than otherwise possible. From earlier parroting of bandwagon claims about “elites,” through the endless “B-roll” of political rallies, to the latest screams for the camera, this pseudo-news will not “just disappear.” An apparently endless stream of books, along with podcasts and documentaries, expose violations of truth, law, and justice, but even the best of these mostly offer diagnosis and warning.


Perhaps there is promise for the news media to regain credibility and audiences through the growth of “constructive journalism.” This rethinking of news practice steps beyond breaking news and investigative journalism to track public action for the common good. Constructive journalism builds on the premise that to serve democracy, quality reporting must be “critical, inspirational, nuanced, and engaging” (Constructive Institute, 2022). Meanwhile, the tabloid-based, sensational negativities of outrage, trash-talk, and exaggerations continue to be amplified by some public figures, social media, and gatekeepers of the mass media.


My thanks go to readers of the blog throughout the world, for your interest, comments, and feedback. In the spirit of Jacques Ellul's insight that propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins, let's keep on seeking opportunities to advance the independent thought that strengthens democracy. With best wishes to all who choose the very best words to address the challenges ahead. 

& with warmest compliments of the Season!


Constructive Institute (2022), "What Is Constructive Journalism?"

Sayers, Dorothy L. (1948), The Lost Tools of Learning, London: Methuen

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Words of the Year*

Teal Independents - 2022 Australian election wins
Cuadrado.jpg: Teal color by Tysk58 is licensed under CCA-SA 3.0 Unported

At a time of "permacrisis" and "gaslighting" the Macquarie judges wisely went local, embracing teal as word of the year

Written by  Roslyn Petelin, Course coordinator, The University of Queensland

The Macquarie Dictionary has announced its word of the year–“teal”–also chosen recently by the Australian National Dictionary Centre as its word of 2022. 

Teal, a colour that’s not quite green and not quite blue, is, of course, a peculiarly Australian choice. As is the Macquarie people’s choice: “bachelor’s handbag”. I wonder who came up with this as a term for supermarket BBQ chicken (and pork and beef) sold in plastic bags with handles. And why narrowly confine it to the demographic of “bachelor”? Did we really need this term? Will it catch on?

But let’s return to the Macquarie committee’s choice. The greenish-blue colour was used by several independent candidates for their promotional material in the 2022 federal election. A loosely-aligned group of female professionals turned politicians successfully challenged incumbents in blue-ribbon seats, resulting in a “teal bath”. Teal is now used as a term to cover independent centrists whose key policies support strong action on climate change and the establishment of a federal integrity commission. 

It’s easy to see how it was chosen as word of the year because it gained currency during the election campaign and has been useful ever since. “It’s not a brand-new word,” said the committee, “but a brand-new sense that no-one saw coming.” I thought at first “teal” was an odd, uncreative choice, but I have come round to it because of its serious political importance here. 

The Macquarie committee’s runner up was “truth-telling”, “the act of relating the facts of a situation, exclusive of embellishment or dilution as justification of past actions”. So, both leading committee choices are centred on the Australian political landscape of the past 12 months.Other major international dictionaries–Oxford, Cambridge, Collins, and Merriam-Webster–base their decision on data generated by the number of “lookups” registered on their online dictionaries during the year. Macquarie, however, relies on a committee of experts to choose its word of the year.

The people at Collins Dictionary have chosen “permacrisis”  to represent the extended period of instability and insecurity worldwide. Surprisingly, Macquarie’s list hasn’t highlighted the war in Ukraine or climate change. 

Merriam-Webster has chosen the psychological manipulation of “gaslighting”. Merriam has reported a 1,749% increase of “lookups” in 2022, an indication, perhaps, of the ubiquity of this horrible, manipulative practice. 

Cambridge has acknowledged the North American influence of the word game Wordle by choosing “homer” (home run).

Read more: Explainer: what does 'gaslighting' mean?

COVID virgins and cookers

Australia’s Macquarie has provided a rather colourful long-list of words spanning 14 categories with some quirky choices.

Several are related to the COVID-19 pandemic including “spicy cough” (for COVID-19 itself), “COVID virgin” (for those who have remained free of it), “pandemic brain” (for the diminished mental capacity some people have experienced, such as forgetfulness and lack of concentration), “goblin mode” (to embrace the indolence and slovenliness–supposedly characterised by goblins–brought on by the enforced isolation of lockdowns), and “cooker” (a person protesting against vaccine mandates). 

Omicron makes the list, but, surprisingly, long COVID doesn’t. A couple of other long-listed words also evoke the pandemic: “quiet quitting” (strictly limiting oneself to performing the task and hours worked as specified in one’s job description) and “e-change” (a move from the city to a rural environment enabled by being able to work remotely).

Technology is represented by “bossware” (software that allows a boss to remotely monitor and measure staff activity and productivity) and “yassify” (which allows a person to apply multiple filters and edits to an image or digital photo, thereby transforming the original to a glamorous, more beautiful version).

A choice I would classify as good and useful is “pre-bunking” (the practice of challenging the veracity of misinformation and disinformation and the authority of its source, BEFORE such information is disseminated).

One term I would classify as unnecessary is “passenger princess” to describe someone who is old enough to have a driver’s licence, but always remains a passenger.

In the fashion category, we have “Barbiecore” for the hot pink redolent of Barbie outfits. Then there’s “fauxgan” for a non-genuine bogan who dresses like a real one. How could one tell?

Most of us will have noticed the “shrinkflation” adopted by food stores, whereby products have been reduced in size and quality while prices have remained the same or, in many cases, also increased. And many will have suffered from “orthosomnia”, caused by a preoccupation with obtaining the amount and quality of sleep recommended by wearable sleep-tracking devices, thereby making our sleep quality worse.

Goblins again

If you have a hankering to express your view on the words of 2022, for the first time, Oxford has opened its award up by inviting its international readership to vote (open until December 2). It has provided three terms from which to choose: “metaverse” (the virtual reality environment), #IStandWith" (a hashtag used to express solidarity), and “goblin mode”. 

I can confidently endorse the first two, but I’m not sure about those goblins. They may claim they have been subject to discrimination.

[*This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.]

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Votes for Action

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus Ieucocephalus)
About to Launch, (Kachemak Bay, Alaska) by Andy Morffew, CCA-BY-2.0 Generic

In the past week, enough voters who identify as Independent or Republican have joined Democrats to bolster democracy in the United States, importantly with projected control of the Senatein what might prove to be one of the largest positive counters to a "propaganda of the deed" (Bolt 2020). 

Not that perpetrators of violence or blathering threats in the name of pseudo-populism will "just disappear," any more than other social sicknesses do. Still required is further action for accountability.

Yet this midterm election has delivered important positives, not least a rebuke to the "anti-" behaviors megaphoned at us all for far too long.

A coalition of voters expressed a "roar" which, for the moment, drowns out screams for the camera. Voters reasserted the ideals on which the United States of America was foundedright back at the incessant nattering of recast "nabobs of negativity," who were rejected as nihilists and exploiters of the democratic system. 

Less than one week along, with counting of votes continuing, what's sinking in is the significance. Some historians call this the best midterm election result for an incumbent party and first-term president in at least 60 years. The election result surely reaffirms many Americans' faith in "we the people."

Election workers, whistleblowers, local officials, journalists, and many more people in the United States have shown resilience against the ongoing propaganda of screamed threats, violence, and character assassinationenabling voters to speak out.

A strengthened faith of a people in their countryfolk is being echoed by more in the media. Can we hope fertile seeds are sown for more than a reprieve from a dark alternative?


Neville Bolt (2020), "Propaganda of the Deed and Its Anarchist Origins," in Paul Baines, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, and Nancy Snow (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Propaganda, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 3-21

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Cows & Curtains

Wallaby appreciates milk directly from a cow
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

How delightful that we gained another hour of light at the end of today, thanks to "falling back" from Daylight Saving Time, in the United States anyway. 

This bonus from frugality is a treat, especially if you've suffered through endless public wrangles sometime about the merits, or not, of setting the clocks forward in the Springto enable such generosity for this day in the Fall.

Tussles over the terrors of time adjustment can tear at local communitiessome call theft what others call a gift of extra sunlight, to play or get extra chores done in daylight. 

Everyone seems to have an opinion. In an early local debate in Australia, one of the louder advocates for not messing with Tempus Fugit was a politician who, as a former farmer, knew a thing or two about messing with "rules of nature." He was especially knowledgeable, he said, about when the cows expected to be milked!! 

Amid others' commentaries were when children needed afternoon snacks after school, and, of course, the extra hour of tropical sunlight would fade the curtains. 

You think I'm making this up? 'fraid notperhaps you heard equally preposterous polemic pressing panic buttons locally in your community (but hopefully not).

During deliberations on so momentous a proposition, the media generously sustains ever-prescient insights about the pros and cons, seeking to elevate each skirmish of the debate into a gladiatorial battle. Rarely was so much expended by so many about so little, as for the potential losses and gains from adjusting just sixty minutes. And thankfully some playful commentators added parody and humorous quips to the debate.

This raging public discourse for the politician was, of course, more than harmless diversion. It was just one more of the many mock controversies he stoked. His polemic helped distract attention and energy from dismantling the gerrymanders and electoral malapportionment he'd quietly installed. 

Sounding familar?

Frequently he was re-elected with a smaller number of votes than the state's two other major parties. He kept his leadership and his political party in power in coalition with one of the other partiesbenefiting also from a preferential voting system. He maneuvered this with about 20 to 27% of the primary vote for five elections before defeating the "coalition party" decisively in two more elections. All this and more kept him in the driver's seat for almost 20 years.

Unfortunately, today's time adjustment doesn't provide an extra hour for voting on Tuesday... so, best plan now, which five peopleneighbors, family, friendsyou can help get to a voting booth (where this is still permitted by state law!!), to cast votes in the poll that matters.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022


Initiale E. Lune, montagne, et reflet dans un lac.
This image from "Songs of a Sentimental Bloke" p. 64, 1916 edition is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

It's just as well dictionaries pay no heed to the principle of guilt by association. Otherwise literature's long line of fabulists would be lumped in with a second sense of the word, as "liars." [namely, "FABLE MAKER" both: "1. composer of fables AND 2. teller of tales; a liar."]

Certainly, Aesop, Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Jean De La Fontaine through George Orwell and James Thurber, and many others do make stuff up. But fable writers delight us with truths, for young readers through many much olderwith tales like The  Tortoise and the Hare, The Ugly Duckling or, more recently, the extended fairytales of Animal Farm and The Wonderful O.

Thank goodness for the charm of tales that spotlight a moral, or offer other enlightenment, or humor, or hope. Quite a contrast to some torturous, terror-filled tale-tellers today, especially the barbaric and wannabe tyrants who fill the airwaves with lies.

Nasties like these get their comeuppance though, when James Thurber amusingly explores in one of his fantasies, titled The Wonderful O, their theft of the letter "O." Thanks to someone in Oxford taking the trouble to count the occurrence of letters, we can know that "O" is 36-times more generally used than the letter "Q" in English. So the effect on people's communication in Thurber's fantasy kingdom is severe. And he takes readers delightfully through the difficulties and disruptions that the theft of "O" causes, as well as what happens [deleted spoiler alert] to that kingdom's thieving tyrants.

Just as well Thurber's nasties didn't steal the letter "E" of course, which the diligent Oxonian says is our favorite letter to use, at 56-times more than the letter "Q." It's also the most common letter in Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Latin, Latvian, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish, and some other languages. To see how challenging it would be to live with that theft, I had a go writing a tale not using our most popular letter. Writing as if a thief had won by stealing away use of the letter "E," the tale started like this:

"In a land not far away, in which birds roar and big cats sing, it is an Almost-KING who's ranting about what's what. Occasional pundits still parrot His almost-royal trash-talk, using what I think of as bigly words, or not, again, again, again, and again. Within this land now, all living things, or humans anyway, must cast a ballot to outlaw anything that's not what our Almost-KING calls "what," such as voting to ban or burn booksor, if you avoid voting, you must pay fifty dollars to the Almost-Royal Fund. With topsy also almost turvy, what's up is down and what is, is not..."

The first and only review (by my wife) of an earlier, longer version of this e-deficient tale was that she didn't know what on earth this meant. I'm guessing more was missing than just the familiar letter, "E." But give it a try yourself, if you like... not so nice to live without our favorite letter, eh?

Yet with that temporary E-drought broken for now, how should we feel about democracy denialists, who want us to live without FR' 'DOM... with its two too many ee's? Of course, much more to lose with that theft... much more.

So, you've doubtless got the drift of Thurber's little book, The Wonderful O, which is more than totally worth the readand it's an especially recommended read for THIS MONTH. 

Oh, and please vote! Otherwise, just imagine the consequence of this being the last Halloween, just because that children's celebration clearly has too many ee's. 

Amid the furore of such a theft, who'd even notice the departure of Milton's Paradise Lost. Oh yes, also, do I need to mention to make a memo to self that freedom is on the ballot too?!

And can you get others, who care, to VOTE? Or, as Sesame Street foretold, we're all in the hands of the Cookie Monster [2 minute video, here]. For eeee's sake.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022


Your voice matters party material

Masquerading as breaking news this morning was the "bombshell" insight that apparently 29% of us believe the United States is headed in the right direction. This gem of intelligence is hauled out periodically, often on a slow news day, or when a pundit wants to probe a pet peeve.

As an all-purpose stimulant of meaningless commentary, a new twist this morning was the reframing as a positive statement. Usually, we'd be told 71% of us believe we're headed in the wrong direction. Maybe that was considered too tough to take with the morning coffee.

This "news" again occupied the serious conversation of ordinarily sensible pundits on a cable TV station for ages todaydiscussing the shocking wisdom, from an unimaginable variety of approaches. Not mentioned were the questionable ambiguities in the question to secure this statistic. We're no wiser about what anyone believes is "right" or "wrong," or even what these terms mean.

Other than feeling gloomy or launching speculations of one's own, what's anyone to think, say, or do about what? Probably the only certainty from this poll is that it helps to shore up existing prejudices.

Regrettably, even missing now from the media presentation of poll results most of the time are the sample size, margin of error, and date the poll was conducted. But with this poll so flawed, contextual facts don't really matter.

The hazards of opinion polling affect us all in too many ways to outline briefly. But putting aside any feeling that polls are facts is a safe bet. In his unique way, Peter Cook shared a not-so-gentle warning about the potential hazard of polls as long ago as 1970in the film, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer [4 minute YouTube, here].

What matters in this silly season of electioneering is to be wary of pollsalong with making a plan to vote in the one important poll, when you can.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Now Is the Time

by LeoFed. This image is in the Public Domain.

With anti-democracy propagandists still generally not held accountable, it seems one of the extra steps now needed to be able to vote in the United States is to check again that you are enrolledwell before turning up at the polling booth or mailing in your vote.

Best check now whether you're still enrolled. If not, you're not alone. 

As the autocrats propagandize, "a lot of people are saying" that they are finding themselves unenrolled, or with changed party affiliation, or other new inaccuracies. One clue to this might be receiving mail from your local elections board at your address, directed to the "current resident." 

Thanks to the continued adoption of the playbook of autocrats, it looks like "Darth Vader's" servants might be continuing to amp up the direct interference in the electoral process that's become a regular challenge elsewhere, especially for some European democracies. 

For good reason, for example, the Netherlands has advanced most elections since November 2006 to be by paper ballot.

Now there's a blasphemy the technology evangelists here aren't likely to adopt.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Speak Read Write Vote

Roots of Democracy
First four Americana stamps, the 1977 Americana Series
by United States Postal Service. This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-USGov}}

"Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates."

– Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist No. 8, 20 November 1787

Regardless of such wisdom, it was for much too long that otherwise sensible people slept through Churchill's alerts to the danger of tyrants, less than a century ago. Who will neuter the propaganda weapon of today's wannabe-tyrants, foreign or domestic?

If the legal profession's clichéd explanation that shouting "Fire" in a crowded movie theater is not acceptable, how is it that propaganda threatening democracy is? Is propaganda rightly protected speech?

At the very least, we need progress to prosecute propagandists driving "schemes and artifices" for mail or wire fraud, or perjury, or defamation, or any other actionable threat I'm not thinking of. When gaming the rule of law is the rule of play, will rational problem-solvers-at-law ever advance actions at a speed to meet the need?

With bizarre mirages of propagandists filling the airwaves, some more bright lights are needed in the media to counter what's wildly opposite to reality. The mirages of crazies are certainly not diverted by media amplifications of them.  

Perhaps one day, we'll again encounter worthwhile puzzles, instead of addressing how so many people can believe the unbelievable. And maybe it's time to stop looking at hucksters as if they operate by the norms of normal people. To defeat a twisted mind, we don't need to be twisted, but we'd better be able to project the next move, and get ahead of it.  

Some individuals spend a lifetime's energy on coming up with distorted talk to smooth over distorted actions. Savvy people get this, and have a nose to detect the grifter and pretender. Even household pets might be inspiration herethey've retained senses to detect looming danger.

How much longer are we all to stand for glacial movements toward potential accountability? Sustaining democracy requires the wide-awake actions of "we the people."

Friday, August 12, 2022

What's Real

(prior to enclosed driver cabin)
by unknown author, John Oxley Library, Queensland, Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

As far back as memory, books and bookshelves! Being read to when very young stimulated voracious reading when older. In late childhood, the weekly routine included a Saturday morning tramway ride to the not-so-local public library, which invited further reading interests. 

Hours were spent in the library, lost in the stacks of books, novels, short stories, poetry, criticism, local and international newspapers, and magazines or journals about whatever held interest at the time, like astronomy, the season's sport, looking after pets, and later, books on history, rhetoric, or propaganda.

The morning spent leafing through titles had to conclude well before the mid-day closing time, to stand in line with everyone else, and hear the librarian quip about each item as it was checked outto join that week's ration of the most books able to be carried, for the journey home on the rattling tram. 

These older trams were called "bone-shakers" for a reason. Each weekday, it was an experience to also travel by tram to school. 

Most passengers rushed first to occupy the never large enough, enclosed cabins at each end of the tram. It was the unlucky or the undaunted, who found a location on the middle platform between the cabinsto sit in the open-air on wooden-slat seats, or stand hanging on to leather straps overheadsome of us were glad to feel the breeze as the tram picked up speed, others just grudgingly thankful to be underway to some destination. And all of us exposed to the traffic noise and exhaust fumes, the wind, the tropical sun, or rain squalls, in the hot or cold that the seasons brought, for the six-mile journey each way.

Some of the undaunted, while standing and swaying to the curves of the road, or jerking with stops and starts along the route had mastered reading newspapers or books one-handed. The more social passengers talked and laughed, strangers as they met, to become firm acquaintances and possibly meet again on later travels.

Through travel experiences never ideal, people were mostly good natured and helpful, looking out for one anotheralerting the tram-driver to wait up by pulling the bell cord sharply, when children, or the elderly, or someone unwell, or with larger packages needed extra time boarding or alighting. Strangers looked out for strangers, with some sense of care and safety enveloping everyone.

Maybe you have memories that are different yet feel basically similar to times like this. Whether realities experienced are long past or recent, memories are a touchstone to what's realbut any day in our experience will be very different from a great many stories in the daily news. 

Connotations and the texture of words matter to capture what's real. We know that understanding these qualities in words is learned gradually over time, through listening or reading with care and attention to the nuance of words. For anyone in the business of news, this is well understood.

Yet how damaging is the intoxication to write news stories that repeat verbatim so many delusions of the outrageous, the trivial, and the bizarrerepeating ad nauseam the hyperbolic words of media releases. Today's media, inherited from the continuously declining tabloid press, reward urgency and conflict-based stories, or sometimes "balancing" one set of opinions against another.

Some gatekeepers in the mainstream media and journalists are taking responsibility to pursue a more constructive approach to deliver news. For this "constructive journalism," the media only report comment from politicians that is evidence-based and can be evaluated by "pegging their words back to reality."


Constructive Institute (2022), "What Is Constructive Journalism?"

Peter Pomerantsev (2019), This Is NOT Propaganda, London: Faber and Faber, p. 239 (on constructive journalism)

John Zada (2021), Veils of Distortion, How the News Media Warps our Minds, Toronto: Terra Incognita

Monday, July 25, 2022

Not Propaganda?

Most attributed to the philosopher Immanuel Kant are rules for happiness: something to do; someone to love; and something to hope for.

It's helpful to keep these rules nearby when wading into Peter Pomerantsev's Adventures in the War Against Reality, which is the subtitle of his book This Is NOT Propaganda. The front cover to my copy of the book projects optimism, with its rainbow, unicorn, and some praise in words listed from reviews. Best be prepared though that, intriguing and lively as the narration is, this well-written scrutiny of 21st century agents of "doublespeak" probably won't cheer you upit details the activities of people whom George Orwell had warned us to expect, back in 1949. 

The author provides an update that such "doublespeak" agents are now very real, and very manyto an extent that most of our nearest friends, family, and neighbors might prefer not to know. And these characters, whose stories he tells, seem committed to "do something" day-and-night to make the world a lesser place. They are preoccupied with Kant's first rule. If they'd ever heard of his other rules, their concern would be solely from the point of view of narcissism. 

Too much like the fictional folks of a South-East Asian bot farm that was featured in the television series, The Bureau, the real people in this book mostly display immorality of the amoral. The book starts with a well-written narrative of some earlier times [spoiler detail averted], as context for the even more disturbing recent past and the present. Both the early narrative and the outlines of more recent times are chilling insight into the post-fact world that propagandists continue to create, which they'd like us all to live in.

So, yes, as yet another warning, the book lives up to the effusive claim of the reviewers. It is "frightening." Additionally, since this book was written, our real-life challenges are largereven medical groups now feel obliged to send messages they call "unprecedented," politely asking their patients to be well as warning that rude communication, unreasonable demands of medical staff, inappropriate language, and making threats will not be tolerated. 

We're well along the path of the unacceptable in society when abuse against health care workers from patients has reached such a level that it stimulates this request. This is just one of the signals that the long-gestated plans of autocrats, who continue to refine and execute many of the systems of propaganda that contribute polarization and dysfunction throughout the world, are reaching totally unacceptable levels of penetration.

Where are the counter-discussions and actions that might bring improvement to the mess made by propagandists and some other forces exploiting democracy? In the last 27 pages of the book, the author of This is NOT Propaganda provides a few glimmers of hope along the lines of Kant's third rule. 

Might we hope that journalism schools or, increasingly, practicing journalists will devote some considerable effort to the "constructive news" practices that he mentions? This is an approach that has been around for a while. Instead of "merely 'balancing' one set of opinions against another ...[the constructive news approach tries]... to find practical solutions to the challenges which face its audience, forcing politicians to make evidence-based proposals, which one could then evaluate over time, pegging their words back to reality..." [Peter Pomerantsev (2019), This Is NOT Propaganda, London: Faber and Faber, p. 239]

But, to counter the mono-thinking and certainty claims of autocrats, much more is also needed. We face one of the most critical periods of history, in which, more than ever, vigorous efforts are needed to offset propagandists. 

Hats off to the ongoing efforts in education to illuminate propaganda by developing the ability in next generations to criticize what's going on, and hopefully take actions needed to do better by everyone. We all owe an enormous debt to decades-long efforts of insightful educationaliststoo many to list here. 

Of particular note are Randal Marlin, whose Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion remains such a valued classic, and Garth S. Jowett/Victoria O'Donnell, whose thorough text Propaganda & Persuasion is soon going to its eighth edition. Additionally, thanks go to Nancy Snow for her many contributions, including her highlighting the role of public diplomacy, as well as to J. Michael Sproule's scholarly clarity on various facets of propaganda, while recommending, as he might say, the pleasures of toil in the vineyards of propaganda.

Continuing efforts are important to sustain understandings beyond such key efforts as the Institute of Propaganda Analysis, founded in 1937 by Edward A. Filene and Clyde R. Miller, as well as the insightful landmark Propaganda, published by Jacques Ellul in 1962.

Once you've read This is NOT Propaganda, or other warnings concerning the propaganda morass surrounding us all, the question remains, beyond the diagnoses and warnings, what more will you do to help offset these propagandists, who continue to undermine both our reality and democracy?!

Friday, July 15, 2022

A Few Words

"The Remarkables" New Zealand

Regularly counted on but little noticed are some words that appear to have not much meaning, but a lot of use. In English, one of the most innocuous words, the, is thought to be the word that we use the most.

We may take the article, the, for granted partly because it delivers no meaning by itself. Yet some estimates put it at 5% of every 100 words used. Considering that each of us uses an estimated 20,000 words actively (Schumacher 2020), this means just three letters carry quite a load in our communication. The way function words like the work is specific to a context, and some languages get along just fine without the or an equivalent, or use an affix to a word, or a demonstrative in its place.

When you look at some uses of the, it's clear why we like to use it so much. The helps us understand what's being referred to. It's used to help quantify, for example, "the slice of pie." It signals something special about "the place," rather than just being "a place." It makes distinction between a lapse of memory any of us might have, which nonetheless causes grief to friends, family, and the person who experience it, and concern that this foretells the lapse of memory. 

Shakespeare has us ponder which King is referred to in Hamlet when the guard utters "'Long live the King,' soon followed by the apparition of the ghost: 'Looks it not like the King?'" This is discussed in a piece from the BBC listed in the references below, which points out that the serves in this case as "a kind of 'hook'... [used] make us quizzical, a bit uneasy even." As the author of that discussion points out, the also adds substance to a phrase like "the man in the Moon," with the naming presuming that "he" exists. (Jackson 2011)

In this direction, we sometimes use the to dignify or attribute power and authority, as in the President, yet omission of the might have different effects in different nations. The British simply say "Yes, Prime Minister," both for directly addressing the Prime Minister and the for the celebrated television series of that name. On the other hand, people in the United States preface addressing "the" President with "Mr.," or in the future "Madam."

In other situations, we use the to give concepts gravitas, as in "the climate crisis" or "the silent spring," whether or not all details are known or knowable. In relation to interpreting the United States Constitution, the media and popular usage have probably unwittingly dignified a current crop of Associate Justices within the nation's Supreme Court by referring to them as "the originalists."

But the, like all words, needs to be understood in the linguistic and broader social context, and "the Founders" surely have more dignity, significance, and authority than the so-called "originalists." Both those "originalists" and others pay lip-service, at the very least, to the historical significance and greater wisdom of "the Founders." It must therefore be willful blindness of the current propagators of originalism that enables them to conveniently overlook the recorded suggestions from “the Founders” that the Constitution would need to be interpreted, adjusted, or changed to accommodate unforeseen or unforeseeable circumstances.

Associate Justice Scalia was politely but firmly invited to explore this broader view as long ago as 2010 when he visited Australiaby Justice Michael Kirby, formerly of the High Court of Australia. I mention this in my recent book, in the chapter on Kirby, at pp.181-2 available at his website [here]Kirby's complete "public conversation" with Scalia is referenced below.

Another word much-used in some public talk is very. It's used to provide emphasis or assert significancePseudo-populists especially overuse veryprobably because they're attracted to its emphasis of the extreme, without referencing anything specific. They seem to hope that accumulated uses of very will make what they're talking about have greater importance than what's merited.

More favored by some public figures is remarkably. This seems to resonate with significance or substance in ways that very does not. The versatility of remarkable and its variants is as the word itself denotes, provided it's not overused or used in ways that make the person using it seem "stuffy."

At its root meaning, "remark..." reminds of situations that involve people, in a way that very does not. When we talk about making remarks, rather than "speaking" or "presenting" to people, for example, we infer more of a conversational experience. Other nuance, like some sense of scale, is wrapped into remarkably, which the vagueness of very lacks.

The conservative Australian politician, Sir Robert Menzies, drew on the nuances of remarkable and its variants with his remarkable speaking abilityengaging audiences and enabling him to retain the role of prime minister for almost twenty years. Against the fears that he stoked about the disunity of his opponents, he recommended the progress accomplished through the stability of his own governments by pointing out to voters that "we have enjoyed in Australia 12 years of remarkable growth and remarkable prosperity, with a remarkably high level of employment, notwithstanding small occasions..." 

Likewise, remarkable was favored by Labor prime ministers noted for making more substantive commentary, like Gough Whitlam speaking to the Washington Press Club, "In the wake of the remarkable events in Indo-China..." or Paul Keating in his Redfern Park Speech, "...we can build a prosperous and remarkably harmonious multicultural society..." Justice Michael Kirby, in his law reform advocacy, similarly uses the word for emphasis, "...bring home to us all the remarkable changes in the makeup of our country."
And once alerted to the strength of remarkable, it seems like the word pops up in many placesrather like the owners of the Volkswagen "Beetle" would notice that Volkswagens were everywhere. Apparently I've caught the habit for my recent book at least, using remarkable and its variants 13 times, in addition to quoting others.

But it's challenging to find a greater visualization of the power of such words than the New Zealanders' name for the mountain range featured in the opening photo to this blog post. Geologists will point out that geologically older mountains are weathered and worn down over time. It's believed Britain's highest peak, Ben Nevis, only survived erosion because it collapsed into a chamber of molten granite magma. New Zealand's tallest mountain, Aoraki/Mt. Cook, is more than 2.7 times higher than Ben Nevis, being among the many mountains thrust up through New Zealand's "newer" geological activity.

Of the words discussed here, it only takes two to spotlight the grandeur and scale of the mountain range known neatly and truly as The Remarkables.


Peter Jackson (2011), “100 words of English: How far can it get you?" 30 March, BBC News, 

Michael D. Kirby (2010), The Internalisation of Domestic Law and Its Consequences, Public Conversation between The Hon Justice Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America and The Hon Michael Kirby, Justice of the High Court of Australia, 1996-2009, 9 February, Website Speech No. 2441, pp. 1-21, 

Hélène Schumacher (2020). "Is this the most powerful word in the English language?" 31st December, BBC,