Monday, July 25, 2022

Not Propaganda?

The Meeting of Day and Night with Invisible Pink Unicorn
photo credit: Robin A Smile, Wikimedia Commons Attribution-SA 4.0 International

The philosopher 
Immanuel Kant's rules for happiness are: 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 up--it 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 many--to 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 larger--even medical groups now feel obliged to send messages they call "unprecedented," politely asking their patients to be nice...as 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 educationalists--too 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 white-ant both our reality and democracy?!

Friday, July 15, 2022

A Few Words

"The Remarkables," near Queenstown, New Zealand
photo credit: Bernard Spragg, Wikimedia Commons CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain

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] ...to 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 Australia--by 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 very--probably 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 ability--engaging 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 places--rather 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 neatly and truly as The Remarkables.


References:

Peter Jackson (2011), “100 words of English: How far can it get you?" 30 March, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12894638 


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, https://www.michaelkirby.com.au/images/stories/speeches/2000s/2010_Speeches/2441.PublicConv.Scalia&Kirby9February2010.pdf 

Hélène Schumacher (2020). "Is this the most powerful word in the English language?" 31st December, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200109-is-this-the-most-powerful-word-in-the-english-language


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Vive Le Tour de France

Tour de France Grand Depart Copenhagen
photo credit: News Oresund, Wikimedia Commons CCA-BY-2.0 Generic

Le Tour 2022 commenced less than a week ago. Followers and fans on television or along roadways of the route will inhale a spectacle of cycling for more than a couple of weeks yet. Each nuance of tactic, tragedy, and triumph will be a shared experience.

For many years, veteran commentators Phil Liggett and the late Paul Sherwen personified the cyclists as "dancing on the pedals" or "reaching into a suitcase of courage"--their words immortalizing the human struggle that's played out on the race route through the European landscapes of villages, architecture, ancient and newer cities, mountains, and bucolic countryside.

Le Tour puts a spotlight on fitness, endurance, courage, skill, ingenuity, competition, cooperation, camaraderie, and more, while sharing a fascination of human beings with visual spectacle. We can all recall scenes or occasions that capture our attention or imagination. Many remain sharply in our memory. It's a natural inclination of human beings to think visually. 

What catches attention or what we think important (visually or otherwise) we'll even say is "top of mind" or "front of mind." It might be our very own "red, red rose" or "road not taken" that will take shape as the image we see, but it will be a red rose or a road.

We frequently use the visual power of a variety of words for readers and listeners to see people, creatures, actions, places, objects, colors, shapes, events, processes, concepts, and other "stuff" not on this list. And the visual words we choose can also infer how we think about or experience other senses.

Each time the leading teams of cyclists and the peloton whisk along their winding pathways of history, I recall the fortresses on hilltops across France, blown up on Richelieu's orders to centralize the power of the monarchy, through to 160 years later "the mob tearing down, stone by stone, the hated fortress-prison at what remains in today's Paris as the name, Place de la Bastille"--bookmarking the beginnings and the close of France's literary Golden Age of the Enlightenment, and the foundation of the Republic.

Each year Le Tour emerges on the calendar as three weeks of anticipated spectacle, and provides a visual experience that reliably "floods memory" with the significance of France's contributions to western civilization--especially the evolution of a worldwide commitment of free peoples to give expression to Liberté, égalité, and fraternité.