Wednesday, October 12, 2022


Your voice matters party material

Masquerading as breaking news this morning was the "bombshell" insight that apparently 29% of us believe the United States is headed in the right direction. This gem of intelligence is hauled out periodically, often on a slow news day, or when a pundit wants to probe a pet peeve.

As an all-purpose stimulant of meaningless commentary, a new twist this morning was the reframing as a positive statement. Usually, we'd be told 71% of us believe we're headed in the wrong direction. Maybe that was considered too tough to take with the morning coffee.

This "news" again occupied the serious conversation of ordinarily sensible pundits on a cable TV station for ages todaydiscussing the shocking wisdom, from an unimaginable variety of approaches. Not mentioned were the questionable ambiguities in the question to secure this statistic. We're no wiser about what anyone believes is "right" or "wrong," or even what these terms mean.

Other than feeling gloomy or launching speculations of one's own, what's anyone to think, say, or do about what? Probably the only certainty from this poll is that it helps to shore up existing prejudices.

Regrettably, even missing now from the media presentation of poll results most of the time are the sample size, margin of error, and date the poll was conducted. But with this poll so flawed, contextual facts don't really matter.

The hazards of opinion polling affect us all in too many ways to outline briefly. But putting aside any feeling that polls are facts is a safe bet. In his unique way, Peter Cook shared a not-so-gentle warning about the potential hazard of polls as long ago as 1970in the film, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer [4 minute YouTube, here].

What matters in this silly season of electioneering is to be wary of pollsalong with making a plan to vote in the one important poll, when you can.

Friday, September 16, 2022

Now Is the Time

by LeoFed. This image is in the Public Domain.

With anti-democracy propagandists still generally not held accountable, it seems one of the extra steps now needed to be able to vote in the United States is to check again that you are enrolledwell before turning up at the polling booth or mailing in your vote.

Best check now whether you're still enrolled. If not, you're not alone. 

As the autocrats propagandize, "a lot of people are saying" that they are finding themselves unenrolled, or with changed party affiliation, or other new inaccuracies. One clue to this might be receiving mail from your local elections board at your address, directed to the "current resident." 

Thanks to the continued adoption of the playbook of autocrats, it looks like "Darth Vader's" servants might be continuing to amp up the direct interference in the electoral process that's become a regular challenge elsewhere, especially for some European democracies. 

For good reason, for example, the Netherlands has advanced most elections since November 2006 to be by paper ballot.

Now there's a blasphemy the technology evangelists here aren't likely to adopt.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Speak Read Write Vote

Roots of Democracy
First four Americana stamps, the 1977 Americana Series
by United States Postal Service. This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-USGov}}

"Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates."

– Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist No. 8, 20 November 1787

Regardless of such wisdom, it was for much too long that otherwise sensible people slept through Churchill's alerts to the danger of tyrants, less than a century ago. Who will neuter the propaganda weapon of today's wannabe-tyrants, foreign or domestic?

If the legal profession's clichéd explanation that shouting "Fire" in a crowded movie theater is not acceptable, how is it that propaganda threatening democracy is? Is propaganda rightly protected speech?

At the very least, we need progress to prosecute propagandists driving "schemes and artifices" for mail or wire fraud, or perjury, or defamation, or any other actionable threat I'm not thinking of. When gaming the rule of law is the rule of play, will rational problem-solvers-at-law ever advance actions at a speed to meet the need?

With bizarre mirages of propagandists filling the airwaves, some more bright lights are needed in the media to counter what's wildly opposite to reality. The mirages of crazies are certainly not diverted by media amplifications of them.  

Perhaps one day, we'll again encounter worthwhile puzzles, instead of addressing how so many people can believe the unbelievable. And maybe it's time to stop looking at hucksters as if they operate by the norms of normal people. To defeat a twisted mind, we don't need to be twisted, but we'd better be able to project the next move, and get ahead of it.  

Some individuals spend a lifetime's energy on coming up with distorted talk to smooth over distorted actions. Savvy people get this, and have a nose to detect the grifter and pretender. Even household pets might be inspiration herethey've retained senses to detect looming danger.

How much longer are we all to stand for glacial movements toward potential accountability? Sustaining democracy requires the wide-awake actions of "we the people."

Friday, August 12, 2022

What's Real

(prior to enclosed driver cabin)
by unknown author, John Oxley Library, Queensland, Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

As far back as memory, books and bookshelves! Being read to when very young stimulated voracious reading when older. In late childhood, the weekly routine included a Saturday morning tramway ride to the not-so-local public library, which invited further reading interests. 

Hours were spent in the library, lost in the stacks of books, novels, short stories, poetry, criticism, local and international newspapers, and magazines or journals about whatever held interest at the time, like astronomy, the season's sport, looking after pets, and later, books on history, rhetoric, or propaganda.

The morning spent leafing through titles had to conclude well before the mid-day closing time, to stand in line with everyone else, and hear the librarian quip about each item as it was checked outto join that week's ration of the most books able to be carried, for the journey home on the rattling tram. 

These older trams were called "bone-shakers" for a reason. Each weekday, it was an experience to also travel by tram to school. 

Most passengers rushed first to occupy the never large enough, enclosed cabins at each end of the tram. It was the unlucky or the undaunted, who found a location on the middle platform between the cabinsto sit in the open-air on wooden-slat seats, or stand hanging on to leather straps overheadsome of us were glad to feel the breeze as the tram picked up speed, others just grudgingly thankful to be underway to some destination. And all of us exposed to the traffic noise and exhaust fumes, the wind, the tropical sun, or rain squalls, in the hot or cold that the seasons brought, for the six-mile journey each way.

Some of the undaunted, while standing and swaying to the curves of the road, or jerking with stops and starts along the route had mastered reading newspapers or books one-handed. The more social passengers talked and laughed, strangers as they met, to become firm acquaintances and possibly meet again on later travels.

Through travel experiences never ideal, people were mostly good natured and helpful, looking out for one anotheralerting the tram-driver to wait up by pulling the bell cord sharply, when children, or the elderly, or someone unwell, or with larger packages needed extra time boarding or alighting. Strangers looked out for strangers, with some sense of care and safety enveloping everyone.

Maybe you have memories that are different yet feel basically similar to times like this. Whether realities experienced are long past or recent, memories are a touchstone to what's realbut any day in our experience will be very different from a great many stories in the daily news. 

Connotations and the texture of words matter to capture what's real. We know that understanding these qualities in words is learned gradually over time, through listening or reading with care and attention to the nuance of words. For anyone in the business of news, this is well understood.

Yet how damaging is the intoxication to write news stories that repeat verbatim so many delusions of the outrageous, the trivial, and the bizarrerepeating ad nauseam the hyperbolic words of media releases. Today's media, inherited from the continuously declining tabloid press, reward urgency and conflict-based stories, or sometimes "balancing" one set of opinions against another.

Some gatekeepers in the mainstream media and journalists are taking responsibility to pursue a more constructive approach to deliver news. For this "constructive journalism," the media only report comment from politicians that is evidence-based and can be evaluated by "pegging their words back to reality."


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

Peter Pomerantsev (2019), This Is NOT Propaganda, London: Faber and Faber, p. 239 (on constructive journalism)

John Zada (2021), Veils of Distortion, How the News Media Warps our Minds, Toronto: Terra Incognita

Monday, July 25, 2022

Not Propaganda?

Most attributed to the philosopher Immanuel Kant are rules for happiness: something to do; someone to love; and something to hope for.

It's helpful to keep these rules nearby when wading into Peter Pomerantsev's Adventures in the War Against Reality, which is the subtitle of his book This Is NOT Propaganda. The front cover to my copy of the book projects optimism, with its rainbow, unicorn, and some praise in words listed from reviews. Best be prepared though that, intriguing and lively as the narration is, this well-written scrutiny of 21st century agents of "doublespeak" probably won't cheer you upit details the activities of people whom George Orwell had warned us to expect, back in 1949. 

The author provides an update that such "doublespeak" agents are now very real, and very manyto an extent that most of our nearest friends, family, and neighbors might prefer not to know. And these characters, whose stories he tells, seem committed to "do something" day-and-night to make the world a lesser place. They are preoccupied with Kant's first rule. If they'd ever heard of his other rules, their concern would be solely from the point of view of narcissism. 

Too much like the fictional folks of a South-East Asian bot farm that was featured in the television series, The Bureau, the real people in this book mostly display immorality of the amoral. The book starts with a well-written narrative of some earlier times [spoiler detail averted], as context for the even more disturbing recent past and the present. Both the early narrative and the outlines of more recent times are chilling insight into the post-fact world that propagandists continue to create, which they'd like us all to live in.

So, yes, as yet another warning, the book lives up to the effusive claim of the reviewers. It is "frightening." Additionally, since this book was written, our real-life challenges are largereven medical groups now feel obliged to send messages they call "unprecedented," politely asking their patients to be well as warning that rude communication, unreasonable demands of medical staff, inappropriate language, and making threats will not be tolerated. 

We're well along the path of the unacceptable in society when abuse against health care workers from patients has reached such a level that it stimulates this request. This is just one of the signals that the long-gestated plans of autocrats, who continue to refine and execute many of the systems of propaganda that contribute polarization and dysfunction throughout the world, are reaching totally unacceptable levels of penetration.

Where are the counter-discussions and actions that might bring improvement to the mess made by propagandists and some other forces exploiting democracy? In the last 27 pages of the book, the author of This is NOT Propaganda provides a few glimmers of hope along the lines of Kant's third rule. 

Might we hope that journalism schools or, increasingly, practicing journalists will devote some considerable effort to the "constructive news" practices that he mentions? This is an approach that has been around for a while. Instead of "merely 'balancing' one set of opinions against another ...[the constructive news approach tries]... to find practical solutions to the challenges which face its audience, forcing politicians to make evidence-based proposals, which one could then evaluate over time, pegging their words back to reality..." [Peter Pomerantsev (2019), This Is NOT Propaganda, London: Faber and Faber, p. 239]

But, to counter the mono-thinking and certainty claims of autocrats, much more is also needed. We face one of the most critical periods of history, in which, more than ever, vigorous efforts are needed to offset propagandists. 

Hats off to the ongoing efforts in education to illuminate propaganda by developing the ability in next generations to criticize what's going on, and hopefully take actions needed to do better by everyone. We all owe an enormous debt to decades-long efforts of insightful educationaliststoo many to list here. 

Of particular note are Randal Marlin, whose Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion remains such a valued classic, and Garth S. Jowett/Victoria O'Donnell, whose thorough text Propaganda & Persuasion is soon going to its eighth edition. Additionally, thanks go to Nancy Snow for her many contributions, including her highlighting the role of public diplomacy, as well as to J. Michael Sproule's scholarly clarity on various facets of propaganda, while recommending, as he might say, the pleasures of toil in the vineyards of propaganda.

Continuing efforts are important to sustain understandings beyond such key efforts as the Institute of Propaganda Analysis, founded in 1937 by Edward A. Filene and Clyde R. Miller, as well as the insightful landmark Propaganda, published by Jacques Ellul in 1962.

Once you've read This is NOT Propaganda, or other warnings concerning the propaganda morass surrounding us all, the question remains, beyond the diagnoses and warnings, what more will you do to help offset these propagandists, who continue to undermine both our reality and democracy?!

Friday, July 15, 2022

A Few Words

"The Remarkables" New Zealand

Regularly counted on but little noticed are some words that appear to have not much meaning, but a lot of use. In English, one of the most innocuous words, the, is thought to be the word that we use the most.

We may take the article, the, for granted partly because it delivers no meaning by itself. Yet some estimates put it at 5% of every 100 words used. Considering that each of us uses an estimated 20,000 words actively (Schumacher 2020), this means just three letters carry quite a load in our communication. The way function words like the work is specific to a context, and some languages get along just fine without the or an equivalent, or use an affix to a word, or a demonstrative in its place.

When you look at some uses of the, it's clear why we like to use it so much. The helps us understand what's being referred to. It's used to help quantify, for example, "the slice of pie." It signals something special about "the place," rather than just being "a place." It makes distinction between a lapse of memory any of us might have, which nonetheless causes grief to friends, family, and the person who experience it, and concern that this foretells the lapse of memory. 

Shakespeare has us ponder which King is referred to in Hamlet when the guard utters "'Long live the King,' soon followed by the apparition of the ghost: 'Looks it not like the King?'" This is discussed in a piece from the BBC listed in the references below, which points out that the serves in this case as "a kind of 'hook'... [used] make us quizzical, a bit uneasy even." As the author of that discussion points out, the also adds substance to a phrase like "the man in the Moon," with the naming presuming that "he" exists. (Jackson 2011)

In this direction, we sometimes use the to dignify or attribute power and authority, as in the President, yet omission of the might have different effects in different nations. The British simply say "Yes, Prime Minister," both for directly addressing the Prime Minister and the for the celebrated television series of that name. On the other hand, people in the United States preface addressing "the" President with "Mr.," or in the future "Madam."

In other situations, we use the to give concepts gravitas, as in "the climate crisis" or "the silent spring," whether or not all details are known or knowable. In relation to interpreting the United States Constitution, the media and popular usage have probably unwittingly dignified a current crop of Associate Justices within the nation's Supreme Court by referring to them as "the originalists."

But the, like all words, needs to be understood in the linguistic and broader social context, and "the Founders" surely have more dignity, significance, and authority than the so-called "originalists." Both those "originalists" and others pay lip-service, at the very least, to the historical significance and greater wisdom of "the Founders." It must therefore be willful blindness of the current propagators of originalism that enables them to conveniently overlook the recorded suggestions from “the Founders” that the Constitution would need to be interpreted, adjusted, or changed to accommodate unforeseen or unforeseeable circumstances.

Associate Justice Scalia was politely but firmly invited to explore this broader view as long ago as 2010 when he visited Australiaby Justice Michael Kirby, formerly of the High Court of Australia. I mention this in my recent book, in the chapter on Kirby, at pp.181-2 available at his website [here]Kirby's complete "public conversation" with Scalia is referenced below.

Another word much-used in some public talk is very. It's used to provide emphasis or assert significancePseudo-populists especially overuse veryprobably because they're attracted to its emphasis of the extreme, without referencing anything specific. They seem to hope that accumulated uses of very will make what they're talking about have greater importance than what's merited.

More favored by some public figures is remarkably. This seems to resonate with significance or substance in ways that very does not. The versatility of remarkable and its variants is as the word itself denotes, provided it's not overused or used in ways that make the person using it seem "stuffy."

At its root meaning, "remark..." reminds of situations that involve people, in a way that very does not. When we talk about making remarks, rather than "speaking" or "presenting" to people, for example, we infer more of a conversational experience. Other nuance, like some sense of scale, is wrapped into remarkably, which the vagueness of very lacks.

The conservative Australian politician, Sir Robert Menzies, drew on the nuances of remarkable and its variants with his remarkable speaking abilityengaging audiences and enabling him to retain the role of prime minister for almost twenty years. Against the fears that he stoked about the disunity of his opponents, he recommended the progress accomplished through the stability of his own governments by pointing out to voters that "we have enjoyed in Australia 12 years of remarkable growth and remarkable prosperity, with a remarkably high level of employment, notwithstanding small occasions..." 

Likewise, remarkable was favored by Labor prime ministers noted for making more substantive commentary, like Gough Whitlam speaking to the Washington Press Club, "In the wake of the remarkable events in Indo-China..." or Paul Keating in his Redfern Park Speech, "...we can build a prosperous and remarkably harmonious multicultural society..." Justice Michael Kirby, in his law reform advocacy, similarly uses the word for emphasis, "...bring home to us all the remarkable changes in the makeup of our country."
And once alerted to the strength of remarkable, it seems like the word pops up in many placesrather like the owners of the Volkswagen "Beetle" would notice that Volkswagens were everywhere. Apparently I've caught the habit for my recent book at least, using remarkable and its variants 13 times, in addition to quoting others.

But it's challenging to find a greater visualization of the power of such words than the New Zealanders' name for the mountain range featured in the opening photo to this blog post. Geologists will point out that geologically older mountains are weathered and worn down over time. It's believed Britain's highest peak, Ben Nevis, only survived erosion because it collapsed into a chamber of molten granite magma. New Zealand's tallest mountain, Aoraki/Mt. Cook, is more than 2.7 times higher than Ben Nevis, being among the many mountains thrust up through New Zealand's "newer" geological activity.

Of the words discussed here, it only takes two to spotlight the grandeur and scale of the mountain range known neatly and truly as The Remarkables.


Peter Jackson (2011), “100 words of English: How far can it get you?" 30 March, BBC News, 

Michael D. Kirby (2010), The Internalisation of Domestic Law and Its Consequences, Public Conversation between The Hon Justice Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America and The Hon Michael Kirby, Justice of the High Court of Australia, 1996-2009, 9 February, Website Speech No. 2441, pp. 1-21, 

Hélène Schumacher (2020). "Is this the most powerful word in the English language?" 31st December, BBC,

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Vive Le Tour de France

Tour de France, Stage 5, Masny, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Angel to Grifter to...??

by Guido Reni (1575-1642) Santa Maria della Concerzione. 
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

In 1952, the iconic educator Robert Maynard Hutchins completed publication of the substantial, multi-volume Great Books of the Western World. These include two volumes discussing a hundred or so Great Ideas, as well as detailing references to these ideas in the Great Books. This has special interest as the United States continues to travel its extended exposé of the white-ants of democracyand, who knows, perhaps their eventual accountability?

Reading now what Hutchins and his editors compiled seven decades ago offers some insight about the values in prominence then, compared to the present. The complete Great Books was exploratory and ambitious in many ways, but it inevitably incorporated some assumptions of that time that are not acceptable today, including sexist language and the conscious exclusion of Eastern thought. 

Importantly though, and more positively, the Great Ideas that are discussed in Volumes I and II, along with the entire 54 volumes, illuminate many personal values considered important to daily lifelike wisdom, courage, prudence, and justice. Unsurprisingly, not listed are the modern media's five main preoccupations, of "Disaster, Celebrity, Crime, Sex, and Violence."

The Great Ideas commence with "Angel," then continue alphabetically through "Good and Bad," "Government" and so on, to eventually wrap up with "World." "Grifters" don't rate a mention, although we know from other sources that, along with "Charlatans" and "Crooks," these certainly found their way into all sorts of places, including government then and now. 

As early as the "Cs" the trend is clear, as "Citizen" is given its due, along with "Constitution, Courage, Custom and Convention." Publishing so soon after the world's narrow escape from the domination of notorious tyrants in Europe and Asia, Hutchins and his editors also thought "Democracy, Dialectic, and Education" were each worth individual attention.

Further along alphabetically, "Happiness" is priority enough to capture 26 pages of exploration (pp. 684-710). The separate treatments of "Law" and "Liberty" collect 50 pages morebefore "Life and Death," "Logic," and "Love" take 67 pagesto close out the first of two volumes on what Great Ideas mattered to civilization. You get the idea, so to speak.

The second volume also has interesting reminders on perspective, including "Oligarchy, Principle, and Punishment," before explaining the values in "Reasoning, Rhetoric, and Sense," or contrastingly in "Sin and Slavery." Maybe it's not entirely coincidence that "Truth" and "Tyranny" are alphabetical neighbors, while described together are "Virtue and Vice," as well as "War and Peace." 

It was something of a relief to reach, at Great Idea number 101, a 16-page exploration of "Wisdom," before concluding the volumes with an ambitious explanation of "World." Much here that is clarifying. For example, whether for past or present concerns, in a nod to wisdom, many of us will agree with Aquinas that "Free choice is part of...dignity."

Thursday, June 16, 2022

How Anti-social Are Social Media?

by Gerd Altmann is licensed under Pixabay.

While legislators and the providers of social media platforms quibble, serious questions continuously emerge about the "social" value or otherwise of social media. How much the social media harm social cohesion is a concern of pundits and analysts, and many others of us. A New Yorker article by Gideon Lewis-Kraus on June 3 [here] surveys the ongoing tussle over these serious questions.

In developing democracies or for push-back against autocrats, social media allow people to share information and grow group cohesion. Elsewhere, questions are often asked, like whether social media "make people angrier... more... polarized... create political echo chambers... increase... violence... [or] enable foreign governments to increase political dysfunction in the United States and other democracies?" 

Or, whether social media leave us "particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias, or the propensity to fix upon evidence that shores up our prior beliefs?" Or, whether "social media might be more of an amplifier of other things going on?"

All good questions deserving better answers. But more simply, I would ask: If social media executives really believe that what they do is so purely a social good, why do so many Silicon Valley parents, who manage many of these companies, ration the amount of time their offspring devote to social media? Can't recall this advice being urged on the rest of us with any consistency by social media executives, their lobbyists, or industry representatives.

Some studies of social media effects are inconclusive, disputed, or ongoing (forever?). Meanwhile, teen suicide, gun violence, and political dysfunction undeniably intersect with social media daily. 

Of all the questions mentioned in the New Yorker article, perhaps the most important is whether society can really wait around another five or ten years for more literature reviews?

A variety of individuals and organizations keep exploiting social media. This is serious value for the companies providing the platforms, who spend substantially on talented specialists to develop the algorithms and drive up the use of social mediaat least, where western-styled salaries, bonuses, and stock options are paid! But social media entice serious activity by trolls, zealots, and dilettantes too! 

Of course, it's the people using social media who are really exploited. In exchange for their time and using a bit of intelligence to acquire some know-how, social media users can reach a variety of people for a variety of purposeswhile also stimulating considerable dopamine in the brain, to help fulfill the social media companies' main purpose, of getting more people to occupy more time on social media. 

Minimally, should society make social media providers abide by requirements equivalent to what govern mass media? 

How long will it be before legislators do something about any of these matters, instead of muddling along at buggy speed in a nanosecond world?

Monday, May 30, 2022

Making It So

Mountain Bluebird
Sialia currucoides by Elaine R. Wilson is licensed under CCA-SA 2.5 Generic

You are

to the violin

as a bee

to the flower,

bringing continuous life

to Spring.

Perhaps also honoring this violinist's virtuoso performance from a time before Covid-19, in the early morning today, full-throated chirrups and calls floated through the open window, making another springtime symphony.

These performances fittingly commemorate on Memorial Day the many who gave all, to provide opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to each of us.

In an effort to sustain such commitment going forward, almost eighty-one years ago during the bleak beginnings to World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed the Atlantic Charterinterestingly, never signed yet continuously honoredand ever since serving as a foundation for ongoing alliance of democracies against autocratic rivals.

With this bond "updated" and reaffirmed on June 10 last year, both Britain and the United States agreed to adhere to "the rules-based international order," focus on the "climate crisis," and "protect biodiversity"as well as calling on Western allies to "oppose interference through disinformation or other malign influences, including in elections."

The New York Times described this as "an effort to stake out a grand vision for global relationships in the 21st century." Unquestionably, and as irrepressible as this morning's symphony, it also reaffirmed commitment for the liberties of thought, speech, and association to continuously grow. 

Once experienced, nothing else will do.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Much in Verbs

by William Shakespeare
by Alfred W. Elmore (1815-1881). This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

Shakespeare's play Much Ado about Nothing lightly explores human realities and impressions, delivering insights or delights about both. A good deal of repartee or turn-taking among characters in the play relies on verbs or verbal functions, to trigger the nuggets of humor or some wisdomwith quotable quotes like "...wooing, wedding and repenting is as a Scotch jig." 

And this play is only one of the many places in literature, in history, and in life that the functions of verbs matter more than we might first notice. Verbs do much beyond what they denote.

From ancient to contemporary history, barbarians have peppered their propaganda with action verbs, seeking to be remembered as "Great," despite bloodthirsty conquests. In 480 BC Xerxes boasted in a tone too recently echoed, "My intent is to throw a bridge over the Hellespont and march an army through Europe against Greece, that thereby I may obtain vengeance..." 

Regardless, history recorded a very large difference between the promise and performance, after Xerxes assembled his reportedly huge army and failed to conquer Greece. The famous historian, Herodotus, seems to consider Xerxes a superstitious and bloodthirsty fool. Just behind the veil of "greatness" that tyrants seek are the very real atrocities that their propaganda works to erase, with lies buttressed by strong-sounding language.

Any public communication is worth examining for how verbs energize and/or divert us. Unsurprisingly, news headlines across the world during the last 24 hours deliver mainly action verbscasts doubt (UK), grinds on (USA), pushes back (USA), deficits left open (Australia), grid emissions set to skyrocket (Canada), economist warns (Germany), limit even more (Mexico), four Jokowi ministers may run (Indonesia), appears to be in no rush (France), secure three seats (Ireland), "...we will win..." (Ukraine), takes elections (Netherlands), establish new reception centers (Finland), tax reduction eaten up (Norway), can benefit when defence has become more important (Sweden), ...makes claim (Russia), continues search (Japan), ramps up provocations in run-up (South Korea), ...and expands Covid-19 mass testing (China). The French newspaper headline seems more cognitive, yet the headline writer infers an expectation of more immediate action. 

And action verbs matter in more places than just news headlines. The campaign slogans that the advertising industry touts as its most effective variously rely on verbs, adverbs, or (in one case here) a noun that denotes an action. These include within "whassup" a colloquial "ss" for "is or 's," the adverbial "always," and the noun "search," suggesting verb, ...share..., ...whassup..., ...tastes great..., ...always..., ...think small..., search..., milk..., ....get a..., Does she..., forever..., ...smell like..., Where's the beef..., ...thank you mom.

Likewise, we can all think of extraordinary speeches that use carefully chosen verbs to stimulate action or new ways of thinking, helping to propel special power in delivery that's long rememberedyou cannot locate it and you cannot stop it (Emmeline Pankhurst), I have a dream (Martin Luther King Jr), let tyrants fear (HRH Elizabeth I), give me blood and I will give you freedom (Subhas Chandra Bose), give me liberty or give me death (Patrick Henry), ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the world (John F. Kennedy), the land is our mother (Oodgeroo Noonuccal), we will not be quiet, we will not be controlled (Gloria Steinem), we have nothing to fear but fear itself (Franklin D. Roosevelt), we shall fight on the beaches (Sir Winston Churchill), the advertisements are for women (Germaine Greer), or a subtle use of the verb "to be," is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters (Seneca).

We know verbs can help keep language lively and tell us much about the beliefs of a speaker or writer, including the stance on a subject, or any perception of us, the listeners or readers. Worth a look also is the ratio of "verbals" (verbs and their derivatives, like adverbs etc.) to "nounals" (nouns and their derivatives, like adjectives etc.), as well as the occurrences of the verb "to be," or verb pairs, or the infinitive, or the present tense versus other tenses, or passive voice, or the imperative verbto name just some of the entrances to explore how verbs work.

And, verbs provide just one area of language to explore more closely, before venturing further into an Aladdin's Cave of the interesting ways of languagesuch as how function words, rather than content words, reflect thought and attention patterns, from which listeners and readers infer personal qualities, relationships, and types of formality or informality. 

A good way to navigate language effectiveness though is to look for how verbs actually do more work for us than we might always consider.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Certainty Claims

Comparison of different methods to raise voter turnout

As we re-enter the "silly seasons" of electioneering, in the United States, France, Australia, and elsewhere, it's timely to look afresh at propaganda claims and processes. Not that this or that propagandist's statement or action now is very different, or especially more damaging than the propaganda processes we let wash over us every dayit's just the stakes are even greater. Since a good result in an election can also blunt some effects of propaganda, how we approach an election brings the opportunity to look afresh at what's going on with propagandistsif only to reconsider ways to raise the voter turnout of anyone who believes in democracy. 

Often as an election approaches, the foreboding will be of a Groundhog Day experienceas we anticipate even more intense shouting by the anti-democracy mob, any of whom might live next door. Unfortunately, the United States and some other democracies have a too large crop of shouting wannabes, whose copy-cat tradition is to speak of carnage and how they're so hardly done byespecially by the mediaand, with a zealot's energy, will set about attacking others and claim that all will certainly "be best" by reviving some mythical glories of the pastwhich never include humor or a capacity for laughter.

And those candidates along with some elected representatives seem to mistakenly believe that they're born to rule. They keep popping up. Their public communication is strikingly similar in its dual focus on themselves and on being "anti-" the values of civil societyespecially democratic values. Commonly, they promise certainties, rather than choices. The certainty claims conveniently ignore that, especially from the early to the later stages of an election, many of us would like to have some real choiceincluding among quality candidates for public office. 

Who are propagandists is usually what's most certain, when you know what to look for. Sometimes these propagandists pay lip service to democratic values, but mostly just "scream for the camera," as one Congressional representative astutely described some colleagues from his own party recently. The anti-democratic language of propagandists is preoccupied with at-least-mild exaggeration, or more often hyperboleto capture the attention of a journalist or a camera.  

Caught up with self-advancementby any means, at the expense of anyone elsemost propagandists routinely use a high proportion of content words which have unclear referents, along with lots of function words like factive verbs and non-referential adverbs. 

It feels strange that the United States government in recent months has done so well, by using declassified intelligence, to anticipate and deal effective blows to blunt the propaganda of a foreign aggressoryet we the people seem comfortable with domestic propaganda. Why is it that the horrors of lies told by another country are deplorable, while apparently local propaganda is willingly accepted in daily living?

A great amount of electoral and everyday propaganda ironically is from domestic terrorists and their foreign collaboratorsmostly focused on the character assassination of opponents, sometimes persistently for many years, during endless fundraising and other mailings or using gossip chains. With the targeting of audiences dictated by some very expensive and ongoing socio-psychographic mapping and "messaging" rules, continuous propaganda is directed at party faithful and potential swing voters throughout the country. Yes, anyone else is as irrelevant as any non-personwho, just like any stateless individual in a foreign conflict, will be characterized as "not us"with eerily bad outcomes expected to flow from all the "anti-" drivel.

Regrettably, by the time we bother to look closely at propaganda, much of its damage is already done--with the greatest damage not much talked about, namely how propaganda over time undermines personal and social values, changing where we put attention, energy, and action. As Jacques Ellul warned, for propaganda to succeed the propagandist must control free thought.

What most empowers a propagandist are reactions. So, it surely is time to take a pause, instead of taking to Twitter, or devising that media exposé of this or that propagandist, or feeling threatened, or otherwise responding to the impulses of fight or flight when our raw nerves are touched off by a propagandist's emotive nonsense. 

It's often safest and best to assume that a propagandist is weird, driven to develop extraordinary skills in self-preservation from probably a very early age, by a distorted commitment to being right and winningat everything, by whatever meansincluding as an adult through remarkably protracted gaming of the legal system. All the lies, distortions, and dodges are tactics to prove to anyone who'll react that the propagandist is right and a winner, at your cost. 

Of course, as noted in earlier blog posts, pundits frequently do additional damage with so-called fact-checking or other clumsy analyses, disseminating a lie much more widely than the propagandist could manage. And, those nauseating excuses by the pundits on mainstream or social media that "only show you this, so you know what's going on" just repeat and magnify the propagandist's insult and abuse.

So, what are we to do? 

1. We could stop being obsessed with the aberrant behavior of the propagandist. It's better to pay attention to asserting, with truthful, lawful, and just speech, the practical initiatives that build and strengthen the values of western civilizationlike justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom. It's better to ensure accountability, soon and well, of anyone whose "anti-" behavior violates existing law. And, it's more than time to find ways to "clean house" of any unqualified "anti-democratic" administrators and judiciary.

2. We could be skeptical of glib commentary, especially when it's just too neat, outlandish, or sounds too good to be truethese con-artists learned from wolves to dress up as sheep, and will bleat way too loudly, way above their weight. It's important to scrutinize a propagandist's actions or claims, to assess what impact these will make on freedoms of thought, speech, or association, and on the common good of people. This scrutiny and any needed actions in response are necessary for democracy to thrive.

3. We could stand up to the now too common virulent variety of propaganda that abuses or threatens your personality or safetywe no longer tolerate such abuse in domestic or workplace settings. It's hard to figure why that behavior is tolerated, and not called out more at school board meetings and other community gatherings, much less in legislatures or at the supermarket checkoutwith persistent "anti-" claims about masks or vaccination, for example, still popping up in unexpected places. Some chairpersons and individuals are objecting to and successfully moderating that behavior, which requires some verbal "Whac-A-Mole" skills.

4. For all the propaganda processes and puffing and stuffing and hot words, it's best to look elsewhereseparate from the propagandist promises of certaintyfor what's authentic and achievable.

The propagandist thrives by receiving attention. In the time that any of us is objecting to the latest outlandish outrage, our own comments will often exponentially assist the viral spread of drivel, while the propagandist launches more vitriol to suck(er) more people into weird obsession with delusions of the propagandist's invention. 

And, all those appeals to people's fears, grievances, greed, hates, wanting to belong, or other emotions are just a means to an end for propagandistsalong with their lies, denials, delays, distortions, and disruptions that are megaphoned and further magnified unwittingly or willingly by mainstream and social media. Unfortunately, as much as one believes in democratic debate, this is not a belief shared by any propagandist. 

It's mostly pointless to argue or 'splain propagandist comments, other than to reassert or demonstrate democratic values of civil society. Likely those comments were put together to extend dogma, and are frequently couched as "not-for-debate." And it's not possible to even kindle debate when a propagandist won't acknowledge anyone else's much less civil society's ethical or moral framework. As wannabe winners, propagandists don't "get" anyone's morality, because, a bit like self-centered nihilists, they're not absorbing of anything other than self.

The propagandist sees nothing but "selling" us on anything that advances the wannabe goals of the propagandist. So, trying too much to describe a propagandist's ideological commitment is about as meaningful or useful as trying to label the Wizard of Oz. The better efforts will be to raise voter turnout.

Welcome your thoughts...

Thursday, April 7, 2022

To Speak Out!

The Platypus sings of the antediluvian days
 This image is in the Public Domain {{US-PD-expired}}

At Amazon websites internationally 

or Ingram for libraries and bookstores.

ISBN: 978-1-7374895-1-1 (hardback)

ISBN: 978-1-7374895-0-4 (paperback)

Persuasive language styles of notable Australians, 1890s to 21st century. This book describes the ways that word choice, sentence shape, and passage development enable successful arguments for change. It is packed with creative uses of metaphor, humour, polemic, anaphora, and political jargon, with rhetorical flair. 


Detailing rhetorical strength in the speeches and writing of Sir Samuel Griffith, Louisa Lawson, Alfred Deakin, Dame Nellie Melba, John Curtin, Dame Enid Lyons, Sir Robert Menzies, Oodgeroo Noonuccal [Kath Walker], Kevin Gilbert, Gough Whitlam, Germaine Greer, Bob Hawke, Sallyanne Atkinson, Michael Kirby, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Noel Pearson, Scott Morrison, and more. Includes a selection of notable speeches and writing.


D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

…designed to appeal to a broad audience interested in communication, rhetoric, and persuasive speaking… Australians who wielded their words as firmly and effectively as battlefield swords and guns …highly recommended, top-notch selection that belongs in the collections of a diverse set of libraries... Ideally, it will be used in classrooms and discussion groups as a solid example of language styles and effective speech.

Full review here or search for book title at:

Roslyn Petelin PhD, Honorary Associate Professor, School of Communication and Arts, The University of Queensland and author, How Writing Works:

“A fascinating, monumental book that should be compulsory for all history and politics students and many others.

Harry Hobbs PhD, Associate Professor, University Technology Sydney Faculty of Law, in Australian Law Journal:

Miller's... keen eye, quick prose, and strong choice of material keep the reader engaged... [As he] explains, all effective speakers must 'combine the ingredients of language creatively' ...If representative democracy is to be sustained, Miller persuasively suggest it is incumbent on all of us to both speak out and call out those who do not offer real solutions. This requires an appreciation of the tools and techniques needed to develop an argument and communicate effectively.

Full review here

*  *  *  *  *

True leaders advance the common good, using "...truthful, lawful, and just speech"as recommended for more than 2,400 years. 

My new book, Australians Speak Out: Persuasive Language Styles, assesses persuasive language styles in the speeches and writing of leaders in one modern nation, who got it right. These leaders had to speak directly, laconically at times, and use plain talk to hold the attention of audiences. 

The book is packed with examples of how extraordinary speakers and writers use ordinary words to make representative democracy thrive. It assesses the persuasive language of some notable Australians, from the 1890s to modern times. 

Living in the United States through the absurdity of the initial handling of COVID and a remarkable election, I kept some perspective by exploring a rich heritage of extraordinary Australians who advocate social and political changecompleting the book while intense fights for democracy continue throughout the world.

Speaking Up
In Australia, where the anti-hero is revered, leaders have to speak up and speak out in individual ways. When the Olympics were held here, on the night before the race, the blue line marking the marathon course was erased from one section of the coursethe next morning to be found repainted running up to one pub door and out from another.

It's the same nation where, amid the COVID pandemic early in 2020, photos spontaneously appeared on the Internet, of suburban dwellers dressed in startling costumes as superheroes, zombies, grotesques, princesses, etc., just to roll out their wheelie garbage bins to the front of their homes for collection. Australians deal with the absurd with a developed sense of humour and a sense of independence.

At a time when truthful, lawful, and just speech is needed more than ever, the book takes a fresh look at how prime ministers, other community leaders, and advocates of change attract attention and move people to action. 

Australians Speak Out ["Look Inside" here] reveals the persuasive language of notable Australians whose advocacy helped to
* federate the colonies of Britain in the South Pacific as one nation
* make Australian women among the first to be able to vote, in 1902
* appeal directly to the people of the United States for wartime support
* establish rights for First Nations
* challenge sexism
* reform laws to respect human rights
* control guns
* deal with the COVID pandemic
and advance many other causes by appealing to our reason and emotions. For ready access, a selection of notable speeches and writing is included.

Direct Appeals
Looking closely at the language of more than 20 notable Australians, who helped to transform the colonies of Britain into a multicultural nation on the world stage, brought surprises along with expected familiarity. Familiar now to relatively few is the plea during World War II to strengthen the partnership of the United States and Australia to defeat foreign aggression in the Pacificfrom prime minister John Curtin, speaking via radio directly to the people of the United States. 

Perhaps more readily recalled are prime ministers Sir Robert Menzies and Gough Whitlam, who respectively committed and removed Australian troops in support of the United States in Vietnam. Or, Germaine Greer provocatively addressing women's rights at the National Press Club in Washington DC in 1971while promoting publication of The Female Eunuch, with the persuasive language that she used in her book reviewed here.

Advocacy for Action
Surprising to some might be the powerful language of Louisa Lawson's social activism, which spearheaded women's right to vote on the same terms as men in 1902; and yet peoples in the First Nations were unable to vote until 1962. 

The disturbing treatment of First Nations was finally officially acknowledged during the term of the reform prime minister Gough Whitlam, elected in 1972, and in the landmark speeches of prime ministers Paul Keating (1992) and Kevin Rudd (2008). Yet, still unaddressed were key rights for First Nations strongly advocated from the late 20th century, by activists like Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal Tribe [Kath Walker] and Kevin Gilbert, whose speeches are reviewed in the book. 

Also assessed are the remarkable speeches and writing of the former Justice of the High Court, Michael Kirby, who recalls the inspiration that Eleanor Roosevelt brought to schoolchildren through her visit to Sydney in 1944and to his own life-long commitment of reforming laws to respect human rights. And, how The Right Honourable Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Sallyanne Atkinson, invited British royalty who were present to join Brisbane residents in "our party," to celebrate the City's coming of age at the opening of World Expo '88.

From more recent times, there are powerful, and perhaps surprising speeches. These include prime minister John Howard's address to transform gun ownership nationally, little more than a month after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, and prime minister Julia Gillard's address to parliament in 2012 in her powerful objection to sexism, which resonated around the worldto current Prime Minister Morrison's brief but reassuring plan to deal with the COVID pandemic.

For anyone interested in a close look at words that appeal to audiencesthat are authentic and move hearts and minds! I hope you'll enjoy reading the book.