Thursday, April 1, 2021

When Fools Rule

Make Way for Ducklings Prank, Boston Common
Sign warns: No photography, to avoid erosion of sculptures from the light emitted by cameraphones.
photo credit: Whoisjohngalt, English Wikipedia CCA-BY-SA 3.0 Unported

Once the glory day for pranksters, April Fool's Day seems to be less dutifully observed these days.

Sometimes the pranks are good-humored, harmless, and funny. Unfortunately, some cause an injury to feelings at least. Perhaps any decline in this second type might be welcomed as a change to human nature. Are we now any less inclined to find humor in the distress of others? Let's hope any injury is modest enough to easily forgive and soon forget.

Some April Fool's pranks live longer than others though. One radio broadcaster when I was growing up, appropriately and affectionately known to his listeners as "Bird Brain Bert Robertson," caught the wrath of city officials. One April 1st, he told his listeners that the City would soon turn off the water supply to all suburbs. 

He so convincingly urged his large group of loyal listeners to get prepared for their day's domestic water needs by filling buckets, pots, sinks, and bathtubs, that the City's Water Commissioner asked Bird Brain to stop at once; the level of water in the Dam supplying the City was dramatically falling.

When Bird Brain informed listeners of their April foolishness, they delighted in his offbeat success and quickly forgave him. Regardless of the wasted water, for which he'd not be so readily forgiven today, the effect then was that Bird Brain's popularity rose further.

These days, a NOT-forgivable prank too often played out any day of the year is by some "bird brain" politician who dreams up outrage to get a headline. 

As my grandmother would have said, tarred with the same brush, and even less forgivable is the media sub-editor who publishes the outrage [even if critical of it--please see earlier blog posts on the uselessness of "not" and so-called fact-checking]. And, LESS forgivable because the media sub-editor sets an expectation in journalists that "we the people" are willing to still be the victims of the sickness in those outrage pranks of a politician.

Little wonder that the residual effect of such foolishness in public communication is an appetite among some media gatekeepers for more foolish fiction. I guess this was what caused journalists to turn up recently to their first press conference with a new President to put questions with in-built potential to manufacture outrage.

These journalists' questions sounded eerily like they were distilled from partisan talking points; which themselves result from questions that media-manipulators put to members of focus groups to stimulate pre-determined foolishness. 

Anyone who doesn't see this as truly bizarre, even without the other bizarre truth that political parties, media, and other companies actually pay money to support this whole set-up, needs at least another cup of coffee.

Also, little wonder then, that this charade of ever-increasing competition for media listeners is causing so many of us to find and enjoy other pursuits. 

It's remarkable that such a tragi-comedy continues--a relic of a bye-gone era that was itself manufactured by media rating agencies. 

Someone should point out that the world has changed.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Civil Civics

Old Glory
photo credit: US Air Force, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Just when the need is great, this month more than 300 educators from across the United States delivered a report and roadmap targeted to enhance Educating for American Democracy, for K-12 education in history and civics. 

This remarkable effort, involving wide-ranging consultations for over a year, resulted from the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the US Department of Education to address the serious need in this country for better understandings of civics. This is an ambitious roadmap, providing national guidelines that invite responses for state, local, tribal, county, and district-level solutions to how the roadmap gets implemented.

A key educational goal is to enable future generations to be effective citizens and decision-makers, by seeing their part in shaping the future. 

During a national forum to launch the roadmap, Harvard Professor Jane Kamensky spoke to the purpose of equipping students "to ask hard questions, and learn to answer them effectively from evidence, and by deliberating about that evidence even with people who disagree with you, maybe especially with people who disagree with you." 

The roadmap outlines a carefully considered approach to improve understandings and involvement in civic decision-making. It incorporates historical content and the stories of the nation's institutions and democratic concepts, as well as considering "people with contemporary debates and possibilities."

This effort to strengthen the foundation in the United States for citizen participation in civic decision-making will be ongoing. It provides a welcome step to address the well-documented need to improve history and civics education, to help sustain democracy.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

The Next Thing?

 "I wandered lonely as a cloud"
photo credit: texas_mustang, Wikimedia CCA-2.0 Generic

Who knows, with Spring trying to make it in the northern hemisphere, and, for many months, nations that had leaders and populations enough with common sense mostly COVID-clear, and opinion pollsters unable to excite us with poll results, and vaccinations seriously underway in many locations, perhaps we can feel okay reading Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Muriel Spark or whomever you prefer, unconcerned for now about any next black swan upsetting the millpond?

Maybe reflection, reminiscence, even nostalgia are permitted now? Just for a while, can we anticipate the tulips and daffodils, then savor the tastes and scents known only to the anxiety-free? Let the cat be the one leaping at shadows on the window. 

Be relaxed, that book from 2001, The New New Thing is no longer on the best-seller list. Rest-[what a great word]-assured, we will be able to get through moments of zen or other peace, and never miss that other dopamine, unexcited by the not-latest breaking news.

Weren't secret gardens dreamt up for this time? Why let politicians and other marketers of statistics make worry? Feel confident, someone will keep pots of potentiality stirred in your absence. 

Will you really lose your edge by taking a Spring or Summer break (dare we think?) away from the crowd? ... especially with skills gained from a year's lockdown! Why let claptrap now rule your life when some lonely beach or wilderness holds such promise, and might soon be enjoyed. 

Let's hear it for this kind of ennui!

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

What to Do

Jacques Ellul 
photo credit: Jan van Boeckel, ReRun Productions, Wikimedia CCA-BY-SA-4.0 International

A Gary Larson cartoon that a friend recently shared illustrates, by analogy, some of the dilemma the United States faces tackling domestic terrorism.

In the cartoon, four pampered pooches are grouped together in a green field. They are looking toward the edge of trees or woods on the left, and behind them is a pull-cart, with one dog in harness to the cart. The cart is stacked with large books labeled Domestication. The pooches are well-groomed and relaxed, with the lead dog reading aloud from a large open book, also labeled Domestication. This optimistic pooch directs the reading from the book toward the woods, where a pack of wolves glare back at the dogs, fixed in their gaze, and poised for attack, clearly anticipating lunch.

Putting aside the visual exaggeration the cartoonist used to create the comic, the recognizable dilemma remains that "we the people" (also known as "lunch") don't seem to be equipped with even a basic playbook to handle the culture of domestic terrorism. 

And, wouldn't it be a good thought to have some ways to address this reality? Especially since, of the many human phenomena, culture is among the slowest to change - regardless of what the latest promises for culture change in organizations promise. 

Almost two decades ago, after 9/11, and following a dozen bomb alerts in just one day, I recall my wife's wisdom saying sadly that this would change the country forever. So, to handle foreign terrorism domestically, we have built practices to lessen risk. 

But, it was two years ago that a neighbor wanted to help fight the coup. This then-odd comment was stimulated by a domestic wannabe-leader's using such words repeatedly in mailings to the neighbor and so many others. I knew then we were at the beginning of a very different reality. 

Domestic terrorists have used age-old emotional appeals, such as fear of "others" or an array of desires... for recognition, for virility, for accomplishment or for belonging, to strengthen connection with adherents and to acquire new followers for the propagandist's worldview.

Unfortunately, as a society, we are well primed to tolerate and respond to propaganda processes, thanks to generations of political and commercial propagandists working us over. For example, perhaps we think of rumor and fashion as two very different realities that we live with. Yet they are very similar in how potently and quickly each spreads and stimulates automatic responses. As Jacques Ellul pointed out, rumor and fashion are forms of propaganda; it's just that in the interests of commerce, we've given fashion a more friendly name.

Fads of fashion are spread by ad populum appeals, advancing a herd-mentality, especially when supported by advertising campaigns. Just one odd example was the now, little-seen yo-yo. This toy, for anyone not familiar with it, consists of small discs joined by an axle spinning at the end of a piece of string, and was featured as far back as 440 BC on a Greek vase. The toy's popularity has waxed and waned over the centuries. From the 1960s, the yo-yo saw a comeback campaign, with a series of television advertisements. It was also used to help sell otherwise unrelated products, as yo-yo dexterous performers toured the world's schools and fairgrounds; and, by the way, promoted products. 

These folks displayed skill we wanted to emulate, by delivering amazing tricks with these spinning disks at the end of a piece of string, from the basic "walk-the-dog," which every self-respecting school-kid might master, to "around-the-world," "rock-the-cradle," and other more elaborate tricks that only the truly competent could tackle after much practice. 

All this seemed fairly harmless. It was certainly less immediately dangerous than the physical harm dealt out in some enduringly fashionable contact sports. Yes, fashion is quite the driver of a range of behaviors, including the banal, like hula-hoops, emoji, and the assigning of "likes."

The problem that occurs for "we the people" is when the propagandist, whether commercial or cult-promoting, can find, from among all the possible responses that we might make, a relational response that connects us to the propagandist's objective. In other words, we, the propagandized give ourselves over to automatic response to what's said by the propagandist about what's going on around us.

Or, putting this into pulp-talk, when anyone enters that zombie-zone, even someone silently scorning the propagandist or related conspiracy theorists or partisan politicians and pundits, that person becomes a participant in the propagandist's play. A more engaged level in the zombie-zone is when you spend energy on criticizing the propagandist. This usually requires repeating and therefore promoting the propagandist's name and some foolishness or dogma, while making the criticism. Maybe more importantly, it also means you're wasting your time in the propagandist's alternative reality, taking you away from real reality.

In his comprehensive and nuanced book Propaganda, Jacques Elull concluded by illustrating where propaganda could fail. He implied ways to mount counter-attacks, to diminish the impact of propaganda, as I've outlined in earlier blog posts. The strategies he described are potent, as are the recommendations more recently in the work of Randal Marlin, so well-grounded in the wisdom of both Ellul and George Orwell. All these writers have serious value in these times. Each helps to build further principles and techniques for the practical dismantling of propaganda.

It's good that many school curricula have increasingly included ways to identify and counter propaganda techniques. Many incorporate simple approaches for dismissing the inane emotional fallacies of much advertising; but more and broader efforts are needed. 

For example, further strengthening is needed more widely of efforts to teach writing through a problem-solving approach, to advance writing as thinking. For some insights on this, do take a look at former colleague, Roslyn Petelin's interview of Professor David Crystal in 2014 (on YouTube). Crystal raised concern about the absence of grammar from most writing classrooms from the 1960s up until the 1990s, which, as Petelin pointed out, Professor John Frow called "a calamity." Hard to figure how one's supposed to write thoughtfully without a workable knowledge of grammar. Whatever fashion drove this impulse might periodically still need dismantling.

In relation to the domestic terrorists in the United States, it's a reasonable start to keep calling terrorists what they are and to keep calling out lies or "the big lie," while prosecuting illegal behaviors. We do also need to get beyond these first stages and address the systemic challenges though.

What will we do to - 

* Enhance feelings of belonging in civil society among the propagandist's targets?

* Defuse the impact of rumor that occurs through social media and otherwise, which gains power, as Ellul noted, "the farther away the source and the greater the number of individuals who have passed it on, [so that]... the more the objective fact loses importance and the more the rumor is believed by the multitudes who adhere to it"?

* Nurture a variety of viewpoints through stepped-up "conversation and dialogue" as Ellul urged--to sharpen doubts about formulaic comments, and lessen the likelihood of responding to a propagandist?

* Intercept spontaneous responses to a propagandist, before these become learned responses connected to the propagandist's objective?

Brainwashing seeks to weaken independent thought and absorb the individual into the mass. Ellul pointed out that propaganda more broadly also aims to eliminate individualizing factors. He warned that: "At the moment when the attitudes learned by propaganda begin to prevail over... [what is] ... second nature, they become collective, and the propagandist who has taught them can then calculate more easily what a given stimulus will elicit from them."

Our better future will be found through the vigor of our strengthening individual thought.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

What We Say

Audrey Hepburn, My Fair Lady
photo credit: movie studio publicity, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Way back when, Australian schoolchildren would challenge each other to spell what we understood was the scientific name for that unusual mammal, the Platypus. 

By school-age, Aussie kids had sidestepped hazards beyond the schoolyard, surviving some of the world's most deadly jellyfish, sharks, snakes, spiders, and more. So, the smart kids would reply to the daunting challenge of "Ornithorhynchus is a hard word, spell it," by simply answering "I...T," choosing to focus on the literal meaning of the sentence.

For anyone with an interest in words though, what words suggest, rather than what they denote, might hold special interest. 

Pioneering professors of phonetics showed how we say more than what we literally mean in our choice of words. It was the character, Professor Henry Higgins, in George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion and Higgins' subsequent appearance in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical version, My Fair Lady, that  popularized some wide awareness of how language choice and pronunciation marked class stratification. The character of Higgins was based in part on the pioneering, prolific but cantankerous British professor of phonetics, Henry Sweet. 

Beyond this, the words we choose tell much about us, as later linguists and psychologists have shown. They know more than we do ourselves about the meanings we share, through the words we choose and how we speak.

For example, in the early twentieth century, European researchers speculated that a high ratio of nouns (and their related adjectives, articles etc.) to verbs (and their related adverbs etc.) might be a flag for people having some psychological challenges. Linguistic researchers have long noted that someone using many verbs versus nouns projected a more in-touch, vigorous personality. 

Ongoing research has refined clues about noun/verb ratios and other language features, to help diagnose and treat some serious psychological conditions. In more recent decades, the computerized counting of word types, along with content analyses, have helped to extend the understanding of some effects from a variety of the accumulated language features.

We can all recognize the sleep-inducing effect of bureaucratic messages, with complex sentences and too much passive voice or past tense verbs. And, breaking an old grammatical "rule," what about the very great value of using the little word "and" to begin a sentence, or just more frequently--and connect thoughts, as we do in conversation. Jonathan Swift and some other powerful writers used "and" a lot, which helped to keep us interested in what they had to say, by making them seem more conversational. So, the revelations abound, when you realize what to look for. 

Even a small variation from an expected style might have big effects. It was the researcher Mr E.H. Flint, in the early 1970s, who pointed out to our class that sentence fragments (a.k.a. non-principal sentences, to the traditional grammarian) uniquely occurred in the spoken language and not the samples of written Australian English that he was reviewing at the time. 

The big deal he pointed out to us was how dramatically even a single sentence fragment in writing helped to create an informal, conversational effect. That President Biden used 38 sentence fragments in his Inaugural Address, as I noted in the previous blog post, had a really big effect.

I wonder what Mr Flint would have thought of the eminent British linguist, David Crystal's publishing a book with the title Txting: The gr8 db8, as long ago as 2008; much less the ongoing shifts in what we now consider formal or colloquial or intimate language.

Beyond the strengths found in how language choices influence what we think about the tone and style of a speaker or writer, there are even more enjoyments in these Elysian Fields--for example, looking at how word choice, sentence form, and passage construction "Xtra-verbally" influence the potency of emotional appeals, or the effectiveness of an argument, or other communication effects. 

A field far from the Elysian Fields also contains the bad folks who continuously deny, distract, or delay, by putting the small word "not" in front, to say they are not advocating something or other, when they really are. As I've noted before, in relation to so-called "fact-checking," like most car drivers who genuinely don't see cyclists, we don't see the NOT and focus again on the lie; and when we repeat a statement from these folks, with "not" upfront, we're really helping to state what they said/the lie, again and again and again.

Then, to come right up to date, there's a whole other field of positive-sounding words like "Remember this day forever;" which, given the context, is quite the hyperbolic signal to strengthen commitment to nasty actions that I believe even school-kids might know are NOT democratic.

Once we more consciously look at the meanings of words well beyond the "thing" or concept that a word represents, it's kind of like wearing X-ray glasses from science fiction--you might want to keep your vision adjusted and never want to take your new X-ray glasses off.

Friday, January 22, 2021

What the Inaugural Address Means

"We Hold These Truths" - Jefferson Memorial 
photo credit: Billy Hathorn, Wikimedia CCA-BY-3.o Unported

The recent inaugural address of the new president of the United States was distinct in both content and style.

Most important was the outline of policies to reassert truth, law, and justice as national values. Importantly too, the language of the inaugural address signaled a novel integration of analytical and intuitive styles.

I was interested to hear this different language mix from President Biden, having just compared the language of the previous president with ten notable speakers from the 1890s to 1980. Compared with these speakers, the outgoing president had the most intuitive communication style. 

In contrast, President Biden blended a mix of content and function words that reinstated an analytical communication style in the presidency, while also incorporating some language features that suggested an intuitive approach. 

The speech was structured to logically address problems facing the nation and to offer solutions. Language features included a substantial number of complete sentences, low occurrences of non-referential adverbs, prepositions, and impersonal pronouns, as well as a strong presence of such common rhetorical devices as anaphora and other parallelism, antitheses, and other features that reinforced a conceptual, analytical communication style. It also derives some punch from a frequency of verbs and verbals, especially action verbs, infinitives, and participles. 

The speech was delivered in a largely conversational tone. This combined with accumulations of many very short sentences, 38 sentence fragments, quite a few occurrences of "we/our" and imperatives, some questions, use of "and" to begin sentences and phrases, interpolations, and relatively few conjunctions, all helping to suggest an intuitive approach. 

Why this matters is that, as mentioned in an earlier blog post, a study published by the National Academy of Sciences not long ago had noted a decline of the analytical communication style in American presidents and other English-speaking political leaders since about 1980. Apparently "voters are increasingly drawn to leaders who can make difficult, complex problems easier to understand with intuitive, confident answers."

Since the later twentieth century, mostly gone from popular taste are the long, grand rhetorical flourishes, replaced first by the conversational language and tones required on radio and television, then more recently by a snappy resonance demanded in social media. 

After the perversions of brief and snappy into untruthful, illegal, and unjust, to deliver whatever is most outrageous, perhaps we are to see whether outrageous language might more often get shunted aside by a quieter rhetoric in an analytical communication style--which is buttressed with an intuitive approach.

Perhaps it's not a total pipe dream to hope that the mix of content words in the inaugural address that actually refers to people, tangible things, and real concepts might open the way for further, similar public communications that reference reality. 

Can we even hope these continue to get some media attention, instead of the covey of "audience-tested" outrage words delivered into talking points and media releases that have become so common for too long?

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Beyond Reason

photo credit: Arwen Abendstern, Fickr by Wikimedia CCA-BY-2.o Generic

As the inexorable grind of the United States legal processes progress in the coming months and years, accountability for words will come into even sharper focus.

Scrutiny of the gossip-sphere of social media might finally see some requirements for reasonable behavior beyond the user agreements of social media companies that this week proved to be valuable.

Capitol rioters are about to discover in court how sophisticated the tools of law enforcement have become during recent decades to detect bad behavior online, before and after a riot. 

Skilled analyses of the public and dark webs, assembling evidence of involvement and intent, are just some of the tools that are now routine in much law enforcement. Two decades of efforts to anticipate the intent of terrorists, by analyzing behavior and language, have delivered many advances in detecting intent.

The tools of language analysis to attribute authorship from relatively small samples of text are also much more refined. Stylometry techniques commenced almost 100 years ago have developed further from 50 years ago in Sweden and Britain to arbitrate the authorship of plays by Shakespeare, Fletcher, Marlowe and Middleton. Almost 40 years ago, I used stylistic analysis of language to advise the Director of Public Prosecutions on the likely authorship of an accused murderer's disputed police record of interview.

Public language such as the positive-sounding codewords used to incite mobs are appropriate for legal attention too. We all know what "Fight like hell" means in the context of a mob and riot; accumulated positive-sounding codewords extolling the coming utopia are not any more neutral in context and are easy to track because of their repetition.

Of course, so many criminals seem driven by belief in their own superiority that the "knock at their door" by law enforcement in coming days, weeks, months or even years will likely still be a surprise.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

From Now On

Sydney Fireworks, New Year 
photo credit: Rob Chandler, Fickr by Wikimedia CCA-BY-2.o Generic

"The propagandist's first requirement is to be heard," said Jacques Ellul in 1965. 

Regardless of whether or not you've heard of Ellul, this observation ought to be self-evident to anyone who thinks for more than a moment about the matter.

Why then do so many media megaphones irresistibly remain servants of someone they also regularly describe as an outrageous liar? Why magnify manufactured outrage?

When facing any other serious threat, it would be a no-brainer to first remove the threat. And, to be fair, some media are making headway in countering propaganda, mainly by bringing us other wanted news. 

By searching out lucid opponents whom any propagandist has, perhaps more yet will elaborate better and new visions for the future, without mention of the propagandist or his outrageous fantasies. 

A wonderful quality of propaganda is how quickly it decays, when denied opportunity for a "refresh."

So much "news" is still slave to the gossip formulae, named by media analysts for years, of reacting to Disaster, Celebrity, Crime, Sex, and Violence. This is sad commentary on the lack of imagination of some media and media educators when thinking of their audiences.

After too many years of countless variants of this kind of verbal and nonverbal abuse, for sure, our household will not be alone in continuing to search out the better media options.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Trouble with Theory

Supreme Court, Washington DC
photo credit: United States Government, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

At the outset, just for the record, I'm committed to theory and putting theory to work. Yet, whether "relentless public scrutiny" is just a fallacy of political theorists is about to be clarified in the United States.

We're soon to see what happens to democracy too. Coming days, weeks and maybe years will produce an uncountable number of words about this. Whatever happens, divergent ideas of popular democracy, liberal democracy, and representative democracy will likely get thrown around with abandon.

Although what we mean by democracy is a legitimate concern, perhaps the more immediate question should be who will do something useful about two especially serious failures of theory? 

Firstly, what will you do to push back on the too-frequent failure of the so-called "guardrails" of public accountability? 

Perhaps someone can tell me where the prosecution of public corruption in the United States has recently worked effectively? Most often this appears no longer expected in this oh-so-sensitive-to-popular-sentiment political climate. 

Are voters supposed to believe that the multiple statute books federally, for example, really lack "teeth" or require such difficult proof that prosecution really is worthless? 

Proof of value should be performance in use, not leaving needed laws sitting in the statute books. Goodness knows there's been plenty of malfeasance and corruption to warrant prosecutions in recent times.

Political theorists continue to write about their interviews with leading political and government pragmatists. Then, they republish as largely unqualified "wisdom" what they're told about artifacts called "guardrails," which appear to be so valued that they can't be tainted by use. 

Meantime, the numbers of whistleblowers and others leaving public service with careers and personal safety in tatters for speaking out just continue to soar. 

If a law is not useful enough to be used, the time on theorizing could be better spent dreaming up some provisions that even flawed public figures would have to use - or else, spend some time dreaming up how such failing "representatives" of the public might be removed quickly but fairly by the population if they don't. Apparently, that's a problem worthy of a legal-political science equivalent of Einstein.

Secondly, what will you do to find and urge the elected politicians who do care to do something better, to help:
1. educate everyone about detecting and calling out propaganda;
2. codify remedies to the multiple deficiencies of norms and regulations to protect the rule of law; and
3. educate everyone about putting civics to use?

I'm sure you could add much to this list, as I could, but these are gargantuan enough for a start.

Here we all are now, stuck in the effects of blatant failures in accountability, and "we, the people" remain caught in the consequences of bad actors. 

While such matters are still richly fermenting, before much further deluge of theoretical posturing, it's time to demand action.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Beyond Heavens

Orion Belt
photo credit: NASA, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Growing up with astronomy as an interest was some preparation for dealing with current fantasies in public communications. Although astronomers see very little of the oblivion they relentlessly probe, they often develop remarkable theories to understand the unexplained and what might feel unexplainable.

Gazing into the heavens is serious business though. These generally-trusted scientists don't confuse theory and myth. For example, shining brightly in the night sky is the welcome constancy of the planet Venus. Named for the goddess of love, a tangible value of Venus is to help navigators by pointing to the constellation Orion, the hunter. 

Orion, as we know, is also something of a bright light in mythology who has attracted varying interpretations. He had what could be called an encounter with Artemis during his quest for one of the seven nymphs sent by Zeus to guard her. Now, Artemis is the Greek equivalent of the Romans' Diana, and both were goddesses of the hunt (your choice on who to follow, I guess).

This was fascinating to the Ancients and apparently also got the interest of some astronomers with dual devotion to mythology and science. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed the gods played with we mere mortals. In subsequent centuries, apart from the withering vine of astrology and the never-say-die occultists, mostly astronomers and other mere mortals have agreed that the gods and their colluder representations in the sky above us are illusions. 

Astronomers see that the forces and matter of the real universe are massive, observable, magnificent, and often beyond our grasp. At first glance, the scale might feel similar when viewing the fantasies of stoked fears, greed, and even apathy that perpetuate populist politics.

The myths are large, the outrage of conspiracy theories are galactic in size, both colorful and gaseous in composition. Just looking at and recording their aberration sure doesn't help. 

At human scale, comedy can be a usefully quick comeback. More enduring is to build systematic education in both values and analytic ability. 

Regardless of whether or not what our leaders say is truthful, lawful, and just, apparently "voters are increasingly drawn to leaders who can make difficult, complex problems easier to understand with intuitive, confident answers." This is according to a 2019 worldwide study of long-term trends in politics and culture, cited in Proceedings National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 116, No. 9, pp. 3476-81) edited by Stephen Pinker. This study further notes that a decline in analytical communication style began around 1980.

Do I need to mention again that this was noted to be a worldwide trend (at least, in English-speaking nations)? So, the time for action is yesterday.

Of course, if the world wants to keep waiting out the passing of the equivalent of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, that's an option, just not a good one in these precipitous times.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Catnip Curse

"black and white cat"
photo credit: Rosendahl, Wikimedia Public Domain

Germaine Greer described herself during an Address to the National Press Club of Washington DC, on 18 May 1971, as a "media freak." Her comments were certainly catnip for the media. She was promoting her just released book The Female Eunuch. Yes, now about half a century ago.

She urged women to invent new ways to deal with the truly violent man. Rather than learning karate, she pointed out that karate or other rule-based reactions don't work against the genuinely violent. 

Greer shrewdly observed that the genuinely violent don't muck about with Marquess of Queensberry rules; rather he uses "a broken bottle, a wheel brace, a tire lever or an axe. He does not see the fight through, but seeks to end it quickly by doing as much harm as he can as soon as he can," she said.

Any of us observing the genuinely amoral might get the analogy. Whether you are dealing with an amoral person physically or otherwise, it's best to know that the norms of karate or boxing or equivalent conventional rule-based schema don't apply.

When your opponent lacks stability and is obsessed with self-preservation, these character flaws function like catnip. You might get opportunity for just one response. And, you better hit the right spot so to speak; per another sporting analogy, you better not be counting on a "Hail Mary." 

To reframe this as a fable: A cat will lay in wait sometimes for days observing the patterns of one scurrying mouse. Put catnip into the mix and all semblance of rules leave the scene. So maybe it will help to think of your genuinely amoral, not stable opponent as being about as predictable as a big cat on catnip. How will you deal with this, without being able to count on the equivalent of Animal Control?

As Aesop might say: The true leader proves him/herself by his/her qualities.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Thinking for a Future

US propaganda poster in 1917
photo credit: James Montgomery Flagg, Wikimedia Public Domain-US-expired

After 1949, the world was under threat of thermonuclear annihilation following the Soviet explosion of an atomic bomb and America's commitment to develop the even more massive hydrogen bomb. 

The playwright Arthur Miller, much later, wrote of this time, "An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted... The whole place was becoming inhuman, not only because an unaccustomed fear was spreading so fast, but more because nobody would admit to being afraid."

Unsurprisingly, with eyes opened and emotion keyed to the significance of our time, Americans are voting in unprecedented numbers. Time will tell how bumpy a ride the next weeks will be.

For the years beyond to be better, I believe some changes are needed to offset the virus of populism, which also will NOT "just disappear." And, no nation is immune. As if there's not enough to deal with in the challenges imposed through COVID and the irresponsible neglect of wannabe leaders! 

A sad lesson from the current era is that norms and the rule of law are no bulwarks against rogue actors who specialize in word-salad and obstruction that exploit the legal system for personal advantage.

With the United States now showing, more than ever before, that we can come together with family, friends, and neighbors to vote, surely to climb the next rocky mountain we need to find paths to the future.

Central now for civil society to operate are workable ways to detect and counteract propaganda, along the lines outlined in earlier blog posts on this site. As Dorothy L. Sayers noted after the tyranny of World War II, each of us needs to be better able to disentangle "fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible." 

Today, we see largely that part of the political process that politicians allow us to see. Learning what we do from politicians, illusion is imbibed by describing it to others. Worse still is when voters ignore entirely what's happening, in some mistaken belief that nothing changes whoever you vote for, as some non-voters just shared with a television reporter. With such people searching for information as a way to reduce uncertainty, so begins the cycle toward the cult. 

Every society has its own illusions. Best to truly understand how public figures shape their words and actions to relate to us. We clearly need a better basis for learning how to learn. So, some starter thoughts:

1. Education programs require strengthening of critical thinking as core to being a good citizen (and a graduate from any level of education); 

2. Virtues of justice, prudence, courage, and wisdom require more effective nurture in public figures, teachers, librarians, students, parents, family, friends, neighbors, and all of us;

3. Improved civics knowledge and practical understanding of what democracy prevents are urgent needs.

Hopefully, we can agree this much at least with the warning from Dorothy L. Sayers in 1947 in The Lost Tools of Learning that "the sole true end of education is simply this : to teach [wo/]men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain."

This is not about any kind of rivalry among disciplines of learning or in the teaching staff-room. By analogy, it is about the future to be found in past success--such as, for the past two years, the sustained efforts of students from Parkland High School in Florida--lest we forget! 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Go High

Isocrates (436-338 BC)
"Rhetoric as that endowment of our human nature 
which raises us... to live the civilized life."
photo credit: Student Lives TVW, Wikimedia CCA-SA-4.0 International

During this never quiet time in Silly Season, you might find some renewal in checking out Philip Collins' thoughts about Speeches that Shape the World and Why We Need Them - this is the subtitle for his book titled When They Go Low, We Go High. 

After the launch of this book, in which Collins of course discussed the source of its title, Sam Leith put a microphone in front of the author for The Spectator podcast on 25 October 2017. Early in this interesting interview, Collins pointed out that the best case for democracy is what it prevents, as Albert Camus had noted. 

Collins goes further in his book, comparing democracy and populist utopia (pages 71-84). This emphasized again for me the wisdom of keeping close with people who know how little they know.

If someone also aims for the stars while keeping feet on the ground, then you've likely found a true leader. The true leader shares feelings for what "we the people" care about; And, talks with us to let us know what the leader will do to: 

* help put a roof overhead and keep it there; 

* see we can get food

* assure health care we can afford; 

* provide a pathway to a job; and 

* respect our freedoms and peace of mind

For this person, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be a governing principle. These are just some of the ways we can "go high." 

Collins' book focused mainly on speeches that address these very real concerns of any of us. The speeches that he discussed are, in my opinion, mainly Good (Pericles, Lincoln, Pankhurst, Churchill, Kennedy, Mandala, King, Reagan, etc), with a few of the Bad and Ugly (Hitler, Castro, Mao), along with a host of others worthy of attention. 

With his insider's understanding as a former prime ministerial speechwriter in Britain, Collins shared lesser known insights about the context, composition, and delivery of the speeches. He has put together an entertaining read. In both podcast and book, he pointed out the virtues of going high, to change people's circumstances for the better, through politics.

He also shared some interestingly common tells about the autocrats. They consistently self-indulge how poorly done by they are, especially by the media not loving them - and are forever angry. Sound familiar? And, their utopia ordinarily requires returning to some mythically better past; apparently unable to show us a better future, much less to do so with humor.

Another well-known commonality of autocrats, Collins wrote, is to drumbeat various inventions about conspiracies of the elite against the people; consistently claiming that "utopia [is] just around the corner, if only the corrupt elite had cared to venture there." Another tell is that the propagandist/autocrat self-portrays as leading efforts to "rise above the smears, and ludicrous slanders from ludicrous reporters." Yet another tell is to claim "a lot of people are saying," as authority for some preposterous drivel. Apparently, this is all in every days' "work" for the self-dealing autocrat.

Collins book is a worthwhile and reassuring read at this time. Engagingly brief also is his description of rhetoric as a positive, developed canon of principle and knowledge. This addressed my pet peeve about the educators or others who preface their analyses of propaganda with long preachy explanations of rhetoric. Please, would you put your energy and words toward the better use of rhetoric's tools of analysis that have been around for some 2,400 years. 

How about we all do what we can to edge the understanding of rhetoric, as other than a pejorative, into the popular imagination and, as a system for living, back into the mainstream of all educational curricula! 

Maybe then the vain regrets I recently read about The Lost Tools of Learning, in a booklet published in Oxford in 1947, would actually go to some purpose. Maybe then, just maybe a propagandist wouldn't have such an unchecked path. 

Maybe a propagandist could be caught out and stopped in time in future.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Rip Van Who?

Rip Van Winkle
Artist: John Quidor (1801-1881), Art Institute of Chicago, Wikimedia Public Domain

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 what it was about their magic purple liquor that he imbibed, which putting him to sleep. It just worked 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 you find someone sleeping or sleep-walking through the twenty-first century, this person won't get much about the current reality either.

But, there are people to shake awake yet. 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 weaker social media).

Meantime, to out-think and out-do the propagandist, George Orwell (1946), Vance Packard (1957), Jacques Ellul (1965), 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 that targets our pre-existing attitudes AND reassert our beliefs in honesty, justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom - and, 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 of anti-democratic actions that 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 his 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

Counter-image: "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)
photo credit: Lorie Shaull, DCPantsuitPower Flash Mod Dance, Wikimedia CCA-BY-SA-2.o 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 music--with 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 else--before 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 folks--like 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."