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