Saturday, February 25, 2023

Solidarity for Freedom

This week the world heard a historic statement for freedom. One-year into Ukraine's fight for sovereignty, the US President Joe Biden returned to Warsaw to again make an address at the base of the Royal Palace. He began simply, "Hello Poland. You are great allies. ...thank you for welcoming me back." He urged unity and commitment through the "hard and bitter times ahead" with "resolve to live in freedom."

Some of the framing of the speech included Polish President Duda's introductory reminder concerning the role of the Solidarity movement to overthrow a previous autocracy within his own country, Biden's visit to war-torn Ukraine a day earlier, along with a warm welcome from assembled women, men, and children of Poland, Ukraine, and other allies as he walked to the speaking podium. 

This was no ordinary speech. Its design and delivery embrace a range of purposes and audiences to call for solidarity. In less than 3,000 words that accumulate many brief, lively passages suitable for media "grabs," Biden balances praise and blame, affirms the justice of the fight for freedom by Ukraine and its allies, and sharply contrasts the injustice of the aggressor's actions against Ukraine. He narrates significant events of the past year and recent days to strengthen understandings and consolidate emotional commitment to future efforts. He calls out the aggressor's propaganda and behavior, firmly highlighting the resolve and strength of Ukraine and the world's democracies. 

In composition and delivery, the speech exemplifies many rhetorical principles and techniques, yet retains a grounded reality. Biden's innovations with language warrant close examination. He makes extraordinarily creative choice of words, sentence shape, and passage development, attending to virtually all of the 18 choices to find common ground with an audience that I have distilled from studies of persuasive language elsewhere.*

Among Biden's choices to find affinity and impact are his continuous melding of questions and answers, antithesis, and various modes of contrast or comparison. He also uses a variety of parallelisms in short sentences or sentence fragments, accumulating mainly everyday, shorter words that help deliver a conversational effect. Lightly touched are some glances at rhyming for contrast and emphasis, which in spoken prose can risk distraction or worse: "will fail/will prevail" and "appeased/opposed." Neologisms provide an especially potent barb when he comments on a key failure of the aggressor concerning NATO. Biden says:

He thought he'd get the Finlandization of NATO. Instead, he got the NATOization of Finlandand Sweden. (Applause.) He thought NATO would fracture and divide. Instead, NATO is more united and more unified than everthan ever before.

Biden both respects and offsets the formal, high-tone expected for such a significant address. An energetic pace and volume throughout amplify Biden's briefly stated points and counterpoints, or questions posed then answered. He also makes much use of figurative language and frequent repetition, alliteration, parallelism, and contrasts to help underscore differences or emphasize priorities. He reserves for key emphases a lowered voice and/or slowed pace of speech. His everyday language refers graphically to specifics:

You know, this has been an extraordinary year in every sense. Extraordinary brutality from Russia's forces and mercenaries. They've committed depravities, crimes against humanity, without shame or compunction. They've targeted civilians with death and destruction. Used rape as a weapon of war, stolen Ukrainian children in an attempt to steal Ukraine's future. Bombed train stations, maternity hospitals, schools, and orphanages. No one can turn their eyes from the atrocities that Russia has committed.

And the core content of the speech is as much worth attention. Biden celebrates the selflessness of the individual and collective heroism and devotion to others that the people of Ukraine show, in contrast to the invaders' actions. Whether highlighting the "murderous assault on Ukraine" or considering principles, like "the cornerstone of peace, prosperity, and stability on this planet for more than 75 years... [now being] risk of being shattered," Biden steps from dark developments to offer optimism and hope. 

The tragic events of the past year he suggests provide an unambiguous answer to the question of Ukraine's ability to withstand the cruel onslaught of its aggressor. With a particular credibility injected from Biden's unannounced visit to Ukraine the day before, he reports: 

Kyiv stands strong. Kyiv stands proud. It stands tall. And most important, it stands free. 

But he also articulates the wider significance of the invasion of Ukraine:

It wasn't just Ukraine being tested. The whole world faced a test for the Ages. Europe was being tested. NATO was being tested. All democracies were being tested...Would we respond, or would we look the other way? Would we be strong, or would we be weak? Would all of our allies be united or divided? One year later we know the answer. We did respond. We would be strong. We would be united. And the world would not look the other way.

As a call to people of principle to feel for others, this speech is a clarion call. It delivers a battery of "ah...hah" moments that accentuate the spirit of freedom.

Biden states plainly how to answer the threats and brutality of the autocrat and any enablers:

Appetites of the autocrat cannot be appeased. They must be opposed. Autocrats only understand one word: "No." "No." "No." (Applause.) "No, you will not take my country." "No, you will not take my freedom." "No, you will not take my future."

History will eventually judge how this speech, Biden, and the actions of his Administration rank among efforts to sustain democracy, versus the long-administered firehose of character assassination and ageism propaganda that domestic sympathizers of foreign adversaries direct against him. Domestically in the United States, despite some in the media continuing to amplify a small group of local lapdogs to autocracy, bipartisan support for Ukraine and NATO remains strong.

Yale history professor Timothy Snyder provided perspective recently when asked to assess Biden's contribution. He noted three accomplishments as especially significant: 1. The Biden Administration's anticipation of the invasion over a year ago and its release of declassified intelligence to pre-empt the adversary's propaganda; 2. Flexibility in response to a changing dynamic, to address Ukraine's needs; and 3. Biden's visit to war-torn Kyiv expressed a bold commitment to Ukraine, to NATO, and to freedom.

* "Choices for Public Talk," in Australians Speak Out: Persuasive Language Styles, Albany NY: Parula, pp. 73-93


Joseph R. Biden (2023), "Remarks by President Biden Ahead of the One-Year Anniversary of Russia's Brutal and Unprovoked Invasion of Ukraine," Washington DC: Office of the President of the United States

PBS (2023), "WATCH: Biden in Poland promises U.S. and allies 'have Ukraine's back'"

Monday, February 13, 2023

Year of the Rabbit

Early signs are that 2023 will be quite a year. With not one but four shoot-downs of flying, potentially foreign objects so far, it's also getting expensive. Not only the cost of reconnaissance flights, firing-off missiles, protracted discussions among lots of decision-makers, and closures of commercial airspace, but fixing that "domain awareness gap" sounds expensive too. Of course, late-night comics, morning talk-shows, and George Orwell could easily find alignment about that bit of verbiage.

Perhaps you'd think all these recent events could offer a diversion, even if a bit chilling, from the usual media coverage of political antics descending into a wide variety of rabbit burrows. But early in the unfolding news of the first flying object were screams from self-promoting, political sharpshooters to drop the sucker from the sky. And follow-up assurance from one wannabe sharpshooter was that no one lives in Montana for the payload of the balloon to drop on. Not a widely held view, of course, even beyond the good people of the State of Montana. Still, apparently enough rationale for random shooting. And the quick action to shoot down objects when safe to do so just stimulated more politically-based, second-guessing commentaries.

Later the media added a touch of their own urgency to have video of the objects to show the worldwhich is kind of difficult when the downed objects are under however much water or snow! But the media's vigilant re-re-tracking of so little detail throughout was remarkable. If only political performance was tracked as diligently against promises! 

A potentially important initiative like constructive journalism, which seeks to do just this, clearly faces a challenge to keep our attention as an audience. Constructive journalists are taking on the task of overcoming our many years of titillation with political balloons of one sort or other. 

More than a decade ago, a book titled Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy was published as another plea for different public discourse, in hopes of a better politics. The author wasn't the first to leave public life for this reason. And now the flow of capable people exiting public life has grown substantially, likely with each hoping for some dampening of continuous threats to safety and sanity for themselves and their families. And how can we help? 

1. We could call out this sideshow politics that much of the media amplifies. As background, you might find it helpful to (re-)read Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny, mentioned in my blogpost last month. Especially apt are his suggestions to "Defend institutions | Beware the one-party state | Be kind to our language | Believe in truth | Contribute to good causes | Listen for dangerous words | Be a patriot."

2. We could identify good people who are thinking of leaving public life at any level, and reach out to themto encourage and support their efforts.

3. We could seek out more good people to join in strengthening schools, libraries, political parties, other community support groups, and local media.

4. Wherever possible, we could push back against disinformation, misinformation, or other propaganda. Standing up for truth and independent thought, both within and beyond our immediate family or circle of friends, is a good start.

5. Individually, we could keep learning more about recognizing and dismantling the repetition and re-runs of nonsense talk or other distortions. 

Repetition and re-runs keep changing us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It's commonly understood that frequent repetitions of words shape our understanding or beliefs. What might now be a benign, small example of this is illustrated by one of movie history's most-loved films that actually had a strong propaganda purpose. The oft-misquoted phrase Play it again, Sam never occurs in the 1942 movie Casablanca, but popular memory still attributes it to the main character, Rick (Humphrey Bogart). Both Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Rick do come close to saying the line. Respectively, Ilsa says "Play it once, Sam. For old times' sake..." and later Rick says to Sam, "If she can stand it, I can. Play it." Perhaps some fogging of popular memory is also due to Woody Allen's play (1969) and film (1972), Play It Again, Sam.

Adapting good lines for impact through abbreviation, expansion, or otherwise is common enough in the worlds of entertainment and fiction. From ancient times onwards, much storytelling thrives on imaginative adaptation. And responsible public figures, journalists, academics, or others also imaginatively adapt language, often to spotlight realities, truth, and facts for public communications. 

It's when meaning is obfuscated, as Orwell illustrated, or reality is distorted with lies or part-truths, as Jacques Ellul warned, that we'd best call for better. It's especially key to call out any re-run of falsity that violates basic principles of humanity or democracy. For example, the old rhetorical trick of claiming to protect a freedom by leaving decision on a matter as a "local option" is frequently re-run.

As far back as 1854, Abraham Lincoln in his famous Peoria speech deftly dealt with this. He opposed the approach in the Kansas-Nebraska Act to extend slavery in the territories. His eloquence should be revived. The falsity of asserting a freedom to make decision at a local or state level at a cost of dumping fundamental principles of civil liberty keeps popping up. Lincoln powerfully directed attention to the inhumanity of making good people choose between self-interest and what was moral (Wilson, pp. 38-9). When stacked against a fundamental freedom of humanity, this trick deserves to be called out. We should name it as self-interest, as Lincoln did.

Another opportunity for our decisive action is to speak up first about what's important. Otherwise, we leave a vacuum for any quick-off-the-mark propagandist to frame public communication, sometimes for years. As election-time comes around, we're already observing "trial balloons" so to speak, to test what fantasy stories about "elites" might fly, unless the claims are "shot down." Likely soon we'll be on the receiving end of megaphones again about failed businesspeople who aren't politicians, to recommend their supposed value, along with a focusgroup-tested host of other distortions.

Some years ago, at a much broader level, a thoughtful academic pointed out the semantic tyranny of the "father of PR," who successfully asserted a huge distortion of meaning and reinterpretation of a thought-leader on propaganda, to build his own credibility. Sue Curry Jansen describes this semantic tyranny as "a form of communication that censors critical thought at the source" (Jansen, p. 1109). Not only for this reason, pulling back the curtain on the effects of PR warrants considerably more focused attention.


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

Sue Curry Jansen (2013), "Semantic Tyranny: How Edward L. Bernays Stole Walter Lippmann's Mojo and Got Away with It and Why It Still Matters," International Journal of Communication, 7, pp. 1094-1111, 

Michael Curtiz (Director) (1942), Casablanca [Film]Warner Bros. Pictures

Timothy Snyder (2017), On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, New York: Tim Duggan

Lindsay Tanner (2011), Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy, Melbourne: Scribe [Detailed review at: ]

Douglas L. Wilson (2007), Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, New York: Vintage