Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Rip Van Who?

Rip Van Winkle
by John Quidor (1801-1881), Art Institute of Chicago. 
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}


Do you sometimes wish you'd fallen into a long sleep early in 2020 like the fabled Rip Van Winkle? Look around and you will find some people did.

When you encounter anyone like Rip, it's best to be careful. Rip didn't understand much when he met the silent ghosts of Henry Hudson's crew playing a game of nine-pins in the Catskill Mountains. He didn't ask who they were or how they knew his name. He did get their magic purple liquor when he imbibed it, putting him to sleep. It worked well for him to miss the American Revolutionary War.

So, chances are that if you're on an evening or early morning walk trying to social distance from the joggers and dog-walkers, or wherever, when you find someone sleeping or sleep-walking through the twenty-first century, this person won't get much about the present reality either.

There are people to shake awake still. Ever since memory, the USA has yet to turn out the higher percentages of voters recorded in some countries. Getting out the vote person-to-person, door-to-door is the powerful method to do this, with face-masks on (not just by phone or the even weaker ways of social media).

Meanwhile, to out-think and out-do the propagandist, George Orwell (1946), Vance Packard (1957), Jacques Ellul (1962), and a host of others have provided us with ways to deal with the continuous propaganda that often numbs the "sleepers," and all of us.

For example, Jacques Ellul named the counter-actions you can take against a continuous propaganda onslaught.

1. Challenge any propaganda targeting our pre-existing attitudes AND reassert our beliefs in honesty, justice, temperance, courage, and wisdomand, our desire to live in a society that enables health, jobs, shelter, food, safety, freedom, with any bad actor held accountable. 

2. Highlight the harm to people by those using anti-democratic actions to deny health care, jobs, safety, postal services, etc. AND say exactly what should happen instead.

3. Reassert the rightness of facts, positively and specifically (without naming the lie or the liar, to avoid being a megaphone for the corrupt).

4. Keep repeating what is right (propaganda decays over time, especially when crowded out of the public communication channels).

Oh, and as George Orwell urged about any verbal refuse, be sure to call out and mock the foreign propaganda that misses our culture. As we saw in my previous blog posting, this is really easy when it's half-baked with lots of "tells."

Too many of our fellow "we, the people" might seem to be awake in their sleep-walk, as they continue to be polite about a propagandist. But some have taken years to publicly call a lie a lie. And, some in the media still broadcast unfiltered drivel of a propagandist; or, endlessly micro-analyze this nonsense, thereby promoting him and his nonsense. Maybe they have some dangerously mistaken belief that this serves some purpose of even-handedness, or democratic debate, or advertising sales.

I even heard a federal senator this week say, completely unacceptably, that the shame for the failure of his opponents to act properly was on his opponents. How about what that senator had not accomplished holding them to account? He wasn't elected to be a bystander.

During this Big Sleep, with apologies to Raymond Chandler, many "we, the people" patiently expected someone else to stop the useless growth of lawyers taking legal actions. Providing employment for lawyers wasn't supposed to be a main outcome of democracy. Yet, too many such proceedings continue in multiple, drawn-out, inconclusive actions, instead of anything useful to stop the propagandist. 

Lookalike despots, autocrats, and wannabe leaders flourish when they are unchecked. There's still time to block and check in workable ways.

One step we can all help with NOW is to personally encourage friends, family, and neighbors to get out the vote.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Foreign Fake-Fun Flops

Every Dance Counts
I've NOT here linked or pictured the propaganda video received.
 Above is a counter-image of a genuine "flash mob" dance (one of a great many in the USA)

by Lorie Shaull, DCPantsuitPower Flash Mod Dance, Every Dance Counts 

is licensed under CCA-BY-SA-2.0 Generic.


When a foreign adversary focuses on spontaneity for a propaganda video, it's great when they don't get that they're on slippery ground.

Anyway, for the propaganda video I just received, it's even more encouraging that whoever was the chief of propaganda failed to see the humungous humor in the incongruity of having a few hundred young folks happen to gather at a mountain-top ski-field. Then, to have them so-called spontaneously break into a "flash mob" dance, for some unclear reason, dancing to vintage American musicwith the foreign adversary's iconic buildings etc also just happening to be in the backdrop views. 

Maybe it was a further "tell" that contradicted the supposed spontaneity that on-site were a helicopter and two gigantically high bucket-cranes used to video the wide-angle shots. Oh yes, this was a big-budget production, worthy of the attention of whoever was the chief of propaganda. 

There were many other "tells" in this week's video too. It was brought to the inbox by those fun-loving folks who stimulated the Berlin Wall. What's that about history repeating, and the adoration of walls? But I'm not in the business of listing out all the "tells" that would be obvious to the rest of us. 

In the interests of the health of those who were the creative "talent" for the video, I hope they get to transfer soon from the Propaganda Bureau to the Tourism Bureau, or anywhere elsebefore the failure of this propaganda flop is fully understood in the foreign propaganda bureaucracy. 

The philosopher Jacques Ellul, whom I've mentioned once or twice before, warned foreign adversaries to beware of their cultural clumsiness, when it comes to launching propaganda in another country. Gotta admit this video seemed better than the foreign propaganda in Ellul's time, but that's still no compliment. 

Maybe the fake in the video I just saw would slip by some folkslike the social media mob who won't pause to think, or busy folks eager for any joy amid the COVID Pandemic. 

Still, the "tells" of sleaze-at-work were very many, which is good for "we, the propagandized."

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

"It's the PROPAGANDA, Stu***"

Today's message is to the media (and all of us, really). Here are the delusions.

"I get personal tweets..." - along with some multi-million others!

"The stock market is up..." - this 47% of the population now own the national debt pumped into the financial markets.

"THEY will take it all off you..." - the biggest fear of all...

In the old days, when my father was selling milking separators to dairy farmers, the farmer had a three-legged chair to sit on while milking the cows. It had three legs so it stood firmly on any uneven ground.

Three propaganda assaults still work to milk us, apparently. With what flows from each assault spreading like a virus, or to mix figurative language more, like Triffids (could be worth looking this one up). The propagandist counts on your engagement with one or other of the viral "news" flows, while propagating another... and throwing at you the fertilizers of outrage, exaggeration, and repetition. If you're tantalized by such tractor-beams, as pictured in my previous blog, shame on you.

For counter-propaganda, three-legged chairs work too. 
How about:

1. IGNORE manufactured outrages;
2. Trumpet reality; and
3. Advance and repeat what matters to people: health, shelter, food, safety, and freedom. 

Out of these five life positives, surely you can pick three to focus on. At the very least, you'll be in touch with reality and, who knows, when you talk with someone else about what's real, you might help someone else live a little better.

If this is starting to sound like a message with Dick and Dora in a grade-school reading class, it is. You see, I'm willing to IGNORE another successful propagandist who made millions telling you to always flatter your audience. The propagandist knows you will obsess about lies, hyperbole, and insecurities. Don't let it keep happening--it's up to you.

Fact is, the jig is up. Just tell the truth, without quixotically tilting at the propagandist's fantasies. Simple, direct truth hurts the propagandist. Of course, you have to keep choosing what really matters to "we, the people"see "3" above.

Who has the smarts and discipline to build a new three-legged chair? 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Funny That...

Alien abduction

by Travis Walton (reconstitution). This image is in the Public Domain.


Did you know that long-time Monty Python fan and former member of The Beatles, George Harrison mortgaged his quite expensive house to fund the production of the movie, Life of Brian? If you did, you might have what it takes to win some counter-propaganda efforts, since I just learned this from a vintage documentary. You had the advantage to be first (probably way before me, anyway).

Continuing the theme, of all people, Woody Allen not just humorously alerted us to the important quality of being first. He pointed out that the world should not be so preoccupied with any invaders from outer space having a technology that's many years ahead of ours. He claimed it was not advanced technologies supported by plans for world domination that will win. He worried about the invading force that was equipped to be anywhere even fifteen minutes ahead of us.

It's the same with propaganda. Being first wins, especially followed up with high repetition.

Which is why the bad actor, and just about any savvy politician, likes to give her or his version of bad news first, or at least be quickest to reframe the story after the breaking news. Of course, a bad actor who has lots of bad news sometimes has to take a little longer to weigh up which bad news has enough traction to need response. This delay gives quick-off-the mark counter-propaganda the opportunity for added advantage.

Which is also why breakfast brainstorming sessions to counter anticipated propaganda was so often the advantage that won airtime during my brushes with politics.

Because being first applies to counter-propaganda too. Enough with all the micro-analyses. Just get ahead of the gamefifteen minutes ahead, at least. Which is why those media people who have long-winded, polite interviews about or with crooks will never really succeed in keeping them accountable. Some media interviewers are very effective at walking bad actors into disclosing themselves. But, you don't need nuanced understanding of someone picking your pocket; you need to stop them.

If you feel this might not be democratic, I'd counter that you're reasserting simple dialoguewhich is kryptonite to propaganda with its sole purpose of mindless obedience, as well as to the bad actor behind it.

No time now to be writing instruction books and action plans either. Just counter-propaganda ahead of the continuous stream of drivel is what matters now.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Change or Be Changed

Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms
by Sawrey Gilpin (1733-1807), Yale Center for British Art. 
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

Gulliver's visit to the Land of the Houyhnhnms, at one level is an engaging exploration of values, scrutinizing the good and bad sides of reason versus emotions. Perhaps horse-lovers feel comforted focusing on the nobility of the calm and rational Houyhnhnms versus the wild Yahoos.

Without delving here into the layers of Jonathan Swift's satire, this episode of fiction certainly raises concerns that matter right now. For sure, re-reading Swift is recommended.

As we chart the future, we probably need little reminding that today's juggernaut of the inappropriate framing of much public communication does not serve us well. With the endless news cycle, added to social media and other community gossip, the communication landscape continues to grow more challengingespecially with the continuous fog of the not-really latest "breaking news."

Yet, with the ever-widening gap between the theory and reality of any Hatch Act enforcement to keep public officials accountable, this is no time to be faint-hearted, inattentive or distracted.

It's truly unfortunate to recall that in my first blog, little more than three months ago, I suggested that "after some trial fits and starts... much education at all levels might be mainly onlinefor a long time." With children and teens in many places returning to school over recent weeks, we now start to learn that new COVID-19 infections are greatest in children and teens in some areas.

Although much is being done by many in efforts to protect and treat people, much more change and inventiveness will be needed going forward. It looks like everyone who cares will have to keep alert to how to remedy the effects of Yahoo behaviors.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Silly Season

Charlie Chaplin (with "double cross" emblem)
from trailer screenshot, The Great Dictator. This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-no notice}}

Thanks to George Orwell's short essay published in 1946, "Politics and the English Language," we can be more alert to public figures using words to obscure or deliberately hide realities.

The eminent British linguist David Crystal, in his 2016 Orwell Lecture to the Emirates Festival of Literature, named Orwell's essay as "one of the most important articles on the language to come out of the 20th century." Yet, together with the many further warnings of the French philosopher, Jacques Ellul and others delineating propaganda processes for us, these combined efforts are clearly not enough to counteract the emergence of added generations of the ideological offspring of Joseph Goebbels or Leni Riefenstahl.

Some robust educational preparations for life are sustained in the United States and other countries. Evidence of this is the remarkably sustained public communication efforts of students from Florida's Parkland High School, following the shootings there in February 2018. Unfortunately, there is also ample indication that too few people are prepared for the silly season now upon the United States.

An indication of this is a not-so-recent video that's resurfaced, showing the ABC network conducting street-interviews of youths, who are asked to name countries on a map of the world, with no success. What hope then to navigate obscure or deceptive election rhetoric?

Anything can happen as a nation enters the final months of an election.

What's predictable is that "talking points" that direct how to send "messages" to us will increase. With each passing day these will sound more alike. For sure, there will be some public figures and pundits still frozen in talking about the "right message" and message sending. They should find a time-machine and take themselves back to the meetings of telephone engineers in the 1940s, when this concept of communication was popularized (and later challenged). C'mon, that was almost 80 years ago, folks.

In our personal lives, we accept that the ingredients that make life worthwhile are trust, common understanding, and commitment to do what truly benefits people, so why should politicians' public talk be judged at any lesser standard?

Do we really have to go back 2,400 years or more to the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao-Tzu to find the wisdom that "a leader is best when people barely know [s/]he exists"? Wouldn't that be refreshing? More recently, other thoughtful folks like Warren Bennis and Lee Thayer have added that a true leader:

* helps focus a desired state of affairs;
* asks the right questions that help people come to grip with problems; and
* helps translate solutions into practice.

It is significant that the leader's duty to help is in every line. It's time to expect leaders to take only actions that help people. This is the test of authenticity that's needed now.

Meanwhile, in preparation for the drivel about to be spewed forth, I'd urge you to get a copy of the second edition of Randal Marlin's Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2013. If you'd like a detailed review, before parting with about $33 on Amazon or elsewhere, google the excellent review by Gary James Jason at California State University.

Despite Jason's final recommendation that the book should be accessible to any serious scholar of propaganda and persuasion, it's actually a straightforward preparation for any of us.

Randal Marlin puts succinctly that:

"PROPAGANDA = The organized attempt through communication to affect belief or action or inculcate attitudes in a large audience in ways that circumvent or suppress an individual's adequately informed, rational, reflective judgment."

Not hard to understand. With this very useful definition, quibbles about whether or not all propaganda is harmful get swept away. All propaganda is bad. This is not just my view, but was earlier implied by Jacques Ellul, who pointed out that "to be effective, propaganda must constantly short-circuit all thought and decision." The light at the end of the tunnel we're in is that Ellul also noted that propaganda ceased where simple dialogue begins.

The current public "exchanges" about the US Postal Service have special value in the United States. Curtailing this beloved US institution is a loser for such advocates. The limitations on propaganda that Ellul outlined are a warning to propagandists and a clue for ways to counter propagandists.

1. Don't mess with people's pre-existing attitudespropaganda cannot move except within the framework of these attitudes, which it can modify only very slowly (certainly not in the time frame of the final stages of an election).

2. Although propaganda might sometimes overcome general trends of society, the sociological/cultural factors in which people act have an absolute limit. So, in a nation committed to democracy, proselytizing for a monarchy is a loserinstead, tyrants try to claim they are democratic, which counter-attacks need to focus vigorously on unmasking.

3. The propagandist is limited by people's need for consonance with facts; so, the counter-attack is to reassert and convince people of the solidity of a fact that is right! Propaganda of ideas does not exist. Even "Goebbels changed his propaganda after Stalingrad, because it was impossible to transform that debacle into victory," said Ellul.

Among many other good qualities of Marlin's book are his explanatory list of the common fallacies of reason, in one of the best summaries I've seen, AND similar provided by Eleanor MacLean of the known and less well known examples of how language can be used to manipulate an audience.

It's time to get ready, get personal with email and mutually supportive action, and be prepared to listen up. Slogans matter less in elections than we might think, but this might be time to remember that the 1957 election slogan in Britain "Never had it so good" was turned back, by the opponents' response "Never been had so good."

That's the spirit needed now. Going forward, especially in coming weeks, we'll see whether candor of actions matches public talk.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

What's So Funny?

"A horse is tied to a 10 minute parking sign" by Charles Edward is licensed under CC BY-SA3.0 Unported

A delightful book on The Language of Humour by Walter Nash just arrived in the mail. Worth every penny on the second-hand market, if you're prepared to risk never smiling again after reading Nash's analyses of the joke, anecdote, pun, parody, humorous rhythms, overstatement / understatement / counterstatement, and all manner of funny-bone ticklers in-between.

My reward for buying second-hand, however, was apparently at the cost of some next generations of students at Villanova University in Philadelphia no longer having access to the humor and its principles in this slim book on their library shelfas the stamp "NO LONGER PROPERTY OF..." that a librarian there in search of more shelf-space was obliged to announce inside the front cover.

Why this book is interesting is that for all the wonderful humor that keeps the world healthy and for all the descriptions of the effects of humor, we are less well served with explanation of the causes of humor.

For some of the more intelligent speculations about why we laugh, we have to reach back to the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, writing in 1900. He described his purpose in exploring humor as better understanding what it is to be human. He talked about many aspects, including the social role of laughter, the part played by exaggeration of human features, gesture and movements, and the relationship of the comic to human imagination.

Walter Nash's book is packed with a mix of examples of humor of course. One of the more famous being the restaurant diner asking, "Waiter, what's this fly doing in my soup?" for the Waiter's reply, "Looks like the breast-stroke, sir."as an example of the pragmatic factor. Or an example of the bizarre pun, "What do you do with a wombat?Play wom." In the interests of space, these are among the shorter samples.

The value of the book is not so much the examples, as much as the attempt at outlining some principles. Although published in 1985, for today's readers there might be too many historical (and not even hysterical) examples that relied on sexism or other appeals now considered inappropriate. Maybe this was the reason for my copy's removal from the university library's shelf?

Another limitation of the book is that it could do with more examples not so literary or Anglo-centric. Still, with so little of worth looking at humor, which is an elixir for so many of us sharing emailed jollies at this bizarre time, Nash's book is worth a lookif, like Bergson, you're interested in an important aspect of what makes us human.

One commentator on political humor, whom I read recently, suggested that a universal theory of humor is yet to be developed that takes into consideration three major theories, namely superiority, relief, and incongruity.

What's clear is that the human emotions behind humor remain a mystery and complex. Perhaps that's why at this time that the talk of public figures is so rife with blatant banality, as well as insult and injury of we the people; with some so lacking in empathy or other emotions we value, that we hear little or no humor from them.

Among politicians, who do you remember last able to make us laugh at all, much less for the right reasons?

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Time to Chill

Big Brother Orwell "1984" in Donetsk, Ukraine

by Борис У is licensed under CCA-SA3.0 Unported.


It's time... Being hooked is bad. The media are hooked on themselves, so why not us too?

Look around you - it won't take long to see someone chained to catching the latest meaningless but dangerous inanity.

Media analysts for years have noted the media's preoccupation with the big 5 = Disaster, Celebrity, Crime, Sex, and Violence.

Anytime media can capture all 5 categories in one story, especially in politics, wow, what a story! And, there you have all wrapped into one what people living in New York City saw long ago. But Ground-hog Day is no longer just a movie.

This is the bigger story of why it's time to ignore the nonsense. Time to tackle what matters now.

Better to take actions I've suggested in earlier blogs. Do get right your words to push back (save energy to push back on the big lies), turn off the media for most of the day, talk to your friends, build personal networks, and... chill.

The serious observers of propaganda knew this long ago. Of course, right now the technology is already in many TV's for the 2-way scary big brother screen that George Orwell warned about (not a conspiracy theory, just fact). But unlike Orwell's "Utopia=Nowhere Land," we can turn the screen off, for now.

Not new. As your quick google search will confirm: "Julius Caesar's influence provided Augustus with manipulative techniques he would need, such as literature, statues, monuments, and coins in order to gain preeminence in Rome."

In other words, what Jacques Ellul has warned about as a most dangerous propaganda: social-propaganda. That is, what our preoccupations build into the social fabric, of media, conversation, education, arts, statuary, etc of society. Sound familiar?

It's time. The future is in our hands.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

We or Me?

Social media faces
by Gerd Altmann is licensed by Pixabay.

So, we continue...

Our "snow-bird" neighbors have finally just returned from Florida. After months of their worrying about the hazard of air travel, they're hereafter betting their lives on the blind hope that the risks of getting here might be less than staying on any longer in that State. 

From another recent flight out of Florida, three passengers who tested positive for COVID-19, when arriving locally, set off alarms for tracing, testing and, where needed, treatment of anyone associated with the flight. 

Alarming increases in notified new cases of COVID-19 are occurring daily in two-thirds of U.S. states, including Florida. Patients, health care workers and a host of "front-line" people providing services to the community face the prospect of no let up, and likely worse to come. 

When life, liberty, happiness, and peace of mind are breached all at once, the simple question is: "Which leaders are doing what to protect the people?"

Especially in these times, it's a question of what elected representatives are doing for "we," rather than themselves.

It's a question not of what any one of them is saying, but what each does.

Clearing up who are the "we" people and who are the "me" people changes a lot. Not that we didn't notice this sometimes. But taking a closer look is like putting on 3D-glasses in a movie!

There, in sharp relief, is the politician convicted of felonies who gets elected anywayclearly, he (yes, every one of them is male) and his supporters never heard from my Irish grandfather, who’d quip that there are no degrees of honesty!

Or the political operative who seems to think it's still ok to manipulate voting, or the garbage collector who leaves your garbage bin full on your front driveway because he couldn't work his truck's lift mechanism properly, or the neighbor's air conditioning contractor who puts his advertising sign on our front lawn instead of the neighbor's, so his company name gets a better view from the street (clearly, I need to get out more...) 

Could continue endlessly of course on who thinks of “we” or “me”–say, "road rage" individuals, the open carry and AR-15 crowds, etc. Anyway, for the big and small, the "we" or "me" filter sure clarifies.

Then, since at least 1998, there's the political party that has gathered research data from electrodes on voters, in focus groups that they euphemistically call "dial sessions." They look for bio-reactions to political comments, to determine the "right words" to use uniformly in talking points across the party. What bucket of deceptive self-interest do you put that in?  

But, wait, what about #MeToo? Easy... this is a collective "we," who seek redress from the hormone driven "Me" crowd. Or, Black Lives Matter or similar movements? Again, when these are a collective "we," who seek remedy from the driven "Me" crowd, you can feel good with it. 

How clarifying our language is. What visiting Martian would believe a couple of pronouns could clarify so muchjust by looking afresh through the filter of "we" or "me"?

That's the only choice really in any election.

Who cares to do for we the people?

Wednesday, July 1, 2020


The Constitution of the United States of America

by Bluszczokrzew, Constitution_Pg104_AC.jpg: Constitution Convention (retouched). 

This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-USGov}} 


"The most important thing to hear in communication is what isn't said." 
                                                                                                 - Peter Drucker

Some time ago, with the aim of getting attention in a lunchtime talk to a group of public relations folks, I began by sharing a comment of one of their clients when he learned of my scheduled talk. "P.R." he said, "is hokum and deception. It's the preserve of charlatans and magicians!!"

After I delivered this "gem" to the PR practitioners, amid the unexpected cheers and applause that they responded with, I quickly modified how to talk with them about communication.

We are in an era when "P.R." doesn't represent Public Responsibility, if it ever did.

Among the serious challenges facing citizens in representative democracies are the 24/7 news cycle and huge paid propaganda. For even the most responsible elected representatives, "PR" (the public relations version) is a greater magnet than ever beforeespecially at election time. On the television talk shows, we occasionally see this in an overly appreciative glance, and sometimes over-effusive thanks, given by an elected representative to a television host.

The PR of Congressional Hearings and investigations and follow-up interviews do get tiresome when there's no result. All that endless handwringing, the "dodges" and refinements might provide media moments for some elected representatives. Too often, these confuse the essential matter, namely securing remedy of a crooked action.

Electors should expect accountability for corruption and malfeasanceincluding punishment, intervention and removal where appropriate. Now, not later.

It's time to recognize that sticking solely with the strategies of trading words and pursuing legal messes does not serve representative democracy. It's important to recognize that fighting bad actors on these terms, where they're smart, will rarely work. It's time to turn off funds and resources to bad actorsnot just talk about it on TV.  

What democracy needs more than ever is not PR talk, but genuine callings to account. The Westminster system long ago formalized the role of the Opposition. Each government minister (cabinet member) has a well-briefed competent counterpart as a "Shadow" cabinet member in the opposition party. The role includes keeping the cabinet member as honest as possible on specifics, as well as being up-to-speed when the government changes. Doesn't always work as desired, but it helps.

In the "Washington system," it looks like the checks and balances that were designed thoughtfully by the Founders for different times only work, like most rules and norms, in some circumstances.

Today, it's plain to a near-sighted bandicoot, that we're not in such a circumstance. Substantial changes to laws and norms are needed.

In the meantime, with so much awry, as the ever-continuing revelations and memes show, the challenge is what to do and when.

Anytime confusion rules, it's best to go back to basic principles. A basic principle of democracy is "A public who listens and speaks out." When you're fed up with the level of preoccupation with PR, here are some thoughts to help set your action plan, to let it be known that there is a public who cares:

1. Do get personal (nicely) with your elected representativesNOW is the time; none better than during election campaigns. Send a letter and make a phone call (not an email or tweet!) to question what your representative is doing about what you care about. In the lead up to an election, once a week on different issues might keep attention, if you're comfortable with this (this person does work for you). Ask for a specific answer each time!

 2. If you're a joiner, join an action group that actually puts pressure and expects results from elected representatives. United States citizens are still in the top levels of volunteer participation (however you measure it). The 2018 Volunteering in America report found that 77.34 million adults (30.3 percent) volunteered through an organization that year.

3. Make the effort to become familiar with and use Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation to learn what government is really doing on the matters you care about.

Here's a quick list of some countries with FOI legislation and when it was enacted:
United States, France, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Netherlands (all by 1967)
Australia, New Zealand (in 1982)
Canada (in 1983)
United Kingdom (2000 to 2001)
Scotland (2005)

Elected representatives might eventually recognize that "the people" know more and expect better. 

Perhaps the norm of public handwringing will shift to getting results

Thursday, June 25, 2020

It's Time for Plain Talk

Statue of George Orwell outside BBC headquarters - the wall behind is inscribed 
with the words "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people 
what they do not want to hear," from his proposed preface to Animal Farm.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, an American sculptor of the Beaux-Arts generation, once remarked that "...it's the way a thing's done that makes it right or wrong."

When it comes to public talk, I believe we're long overdue for some plain talk about what we should accept as right. 

Too many public conversations now (obviously, tweets too) are just, well, unacceptable, wrong, off, or cringeworthy. Take your pick, or waste energy on expletives and likely you'll be closest to right.

Here, I'm not referring to comments like someone who described an opponent as "simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up." With variants tracing back to at least 1966, the endurance of this artful and possibly apt gibe might be welcome for many to hear (except the latest target).

No, what we need plain talk about is what George Orwell's description of Newspeak helped spotlight, namely "doublethink," "doubletalk," and that close relative "doublespeak." 

This is "a process of indoctrination whereby the subject is expected to accept as true that which is clearly false, or to simultaneously accept two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in contravention to one's own memories or sense of reality." (Wikipedia)

Why then are there not more of us carrying out Orwell's urging to jeer "...loudly enough, [to] send some worn out and useless phrasesome...lump of verbal refuse...into the dustbin where it belongs."

For example, there are good reasons to believe that fact-checking, as it's mostly done, is a fool's fantasy. 

Firstly, once prejudices are established and continuously reinforced, including through the mail, media, or social media, the "tribe" will not believe criticism from any source about a tribal leader's corruption or malfeasance.

Secondly, it is clear that so-called fact-checking, or otherwise restating a message by repeating it (even in the negative), just reinforces the original propaganda. 

Both the believers and the undecided will focus on the original false message and ignore that little word "NOT" or other negation that the fact checker inserts. The negative is as invisible as the cyclists whom car drivers genuinely don't see on the road.

To Counter
There are right ways to counter the emergence of the ideological offspring of Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. These include:-

1. Ignore any verbal refuse designed to distract, deny, or delayby all means, counter with the truth but, please, oh please, stop repeating the words of the originalyou're just being a megaphone for what you oppose.

2. Listen up, friends in the media, there's not much that a bad actor fears more than being ignoredat the very least, please: stop using or repeating a bad actor's name; stop repeating direct quotes in the lower thirds of the television screen; and, stop showing "B-Roll" or photos of a bad actor, instead of doing your job to paraphrase any comments, if needed at all.

3. Encourage leaks of sensitive information that expose lies and fraud.

4. Reverse any serious lie right back onto the liaruse words more like the graffiti artist who sprays a mustache, beard, or horns onto a propaganda poster.

5. Exponentially grow networks of person-to-person communications, especially through personal emails and personalized tweets.

Finally, if you believe you can win doing it right, and you put in the effort to communicate vigorously and well, you will win.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Violent Rhetoric

The Hon. Peter Lalor MLA, Speaker of the 
Legislative Assembly of Victoria, 1880–1887
 by Ludwig Becker (1808?-1861). This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}


Not a new phenomenon.

How about, from Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty, or give me death." (in 1775)

Or, from Australia's Peter Lalor at the Eureka stockade: "We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties." (in 1854)

Yet, hearing a broadcast anchor today object to the "violent rhetoric" of the crowd that worships AR-15’s and oversized engines to impose their egos on others still felt new.

What's common among these cases is that the disputants do not allow for solution, other than by winning. What's new is that some of us thought violence was supposed to be contained in civilized society.

Norms & Laws
When propagandist self-dealers rule by sweeping aside norms and laws, all the hand-wringing in the media will only do so much to advance a nation's self-correction. Voting might only do so much too. 

Pundits still talk as if norms and laws are going to spring back, resuscitated and freed from the grip of bad actors. IMHO, no laws and certainly no norms by themselves, even assuming they are diligently and actively executed, will truly control the bad actor whose smarts are every minute pursuing crooked actions. 

National Self-correction
Some political theorists still claim that oversight committees and whistleblower public servants, who see their professional lives destroyed, provide "relentless public scrutiny" and "transparency." 

Unless national self-correction is backed, as appropriate, with punishment, intervention/therapy or disregard of bad actors, then representative democracy faces a rocky road ahead. 
Of course, joining the AR-15 crowd, who want to copy the most infamous barbarians before and since Xerxes crossed the Hellespont to conquer Athens back in 480 BC, might be attractive to barbarians. 

No sane person wants a repeat of the human history that saw loss of lives in battles on a scale equivalent to what COVID-19's short trajectory has caused already. Mostly, some of us would like the pitch of public talk tamped down. We'd like the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness assured.

After all, don't we expect the people we elect to deliver peace of mind? Isn't that why our forebears risked so much to demand better of tyrants?

Sunday, June 14, 2020


The Great Dictator (1940) poster

by United Artists, retouched by Brandt Luke Zorn. 

This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-not renewed}}


Alexander Hamilton warned in The Federalist, Number 8, 20 November, 1787: 

"...the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free."

Although Hamilton was commenting on the effect of chaos from war upon a nation, this is also the clue to why a propagandist stimulates continual chaos.

The foremost writer on this subject, the French philosopher, Jacques Ellul warned long ago that the propagandist needed:

"...continuous agitation... [that was] ...produced artificially even when nothing in the events of the day justifies or aroused excitement. Therefore, continuing propaganda must slowly create a climate first, and then prevent the individual from noticing a particular propaganda operation in contrast to ordinary daily events."

Almost 40 years ago in an address to a Royal Society gathering focused on public information, I drew on Ellul to urge awareness about how we are all propagandized. As the most educated, intelligent people in the community, my audience was the most propagandized, because they:

(1) absorbed the largest amount of second-hand information;
(2) felt some compulsion to have an opinion; and
(3) considered themselves capable of "judging."

When our world view is so dominated with one leader's name, with the media conducting endless analysis and regurgitation of that leader's statements or views, we are being abused.

It's time to imagine a better way.

One lesson from the Covid-19 experience is that social distancing worksby analogy, we should separate ourselves from a propagandist's messages and the "busy work" of reacting to them. You can keep the virus known as propaganda at a distance too.

The actor Peter Finch, in the film Network [here], satirically modeled a first step along these lines when he declared:

"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore..."

Otherwise, as Ellul also warned, each of us can become:

"...suited to a totalitarian society, ...not at ease except when integrated in the mass, ...reject[ing] critical judgment, choices and differentiations because... [we] ...cling to clear certainties... assimilated into uniform groups and want it that way."

Internationally, peaceful protests have shown one way to divert such a dismal future. It's time to imagine,  among the many choices, how you will deploy your talents in 2020.

Is there nothing you can do? What will you do?

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Speaking Out

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963

by Rowland Scherman (1937-) National Archive. This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-Gov-USIA}}

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." 

Democracy has a long association with communication. In Montesquieu’s view, the durability of free government depends on a nation’s capacity for self-correction. 

Citizens judge political events from the reports of electronic media, newspapers, or politicians themselves. We have few guidelines for assessing the value of such reports. 

As from the earliest times, improved understanding of what makes public talk effective will empower future rhetors to speak out, as the best assurance that democracy will thrive. 

Educational curricula need much revision to ensure effective teaching of civics. 

Concurrently, it is important to develop in individuals key virtues of western civilization, including justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom.  

The teaching of writing and public talk must develop the responsible principles learned from a rich legacy of thoughtful speakers and commentators. 

Conscious of the resonant comment from George Orwell that "political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable," a public who listen and speak out is the root of democracy.