Friday, March 17, 2023

Parrots with Purpose

Original beauty
is licensed under CCA-SA 3.0 Unported

Three years ago, at about this time, recognition was dawning that no one was immune from the global pandemic of coronavirus. We thirsted for clarity, just to navigate everyday life. Anxiety and melancholy abounded, with many people glued to television and other media in hopes some action would stop the spread of the virus.

We figured out lockdowns, social distancing, work and study from home, contact tracing, hospitalization rates, and how to deal with an unfathomable loss of loved ones. And no pathways for remedy appeared for a long while. It was a time we all acquired stories we'd rather not recall.

Meanwhile, anti-vaxers, anti-mask advocates, and other pseudo-populists exploited the opportunity, with ruthless disregard for human life, truth, and freedoms. Some got access to public megaphones to play on fears, parroting weird remedies to the virus, along with other false hopes or diversions. 

Coming just two days after the Centers for Disease Control in the US recommended no gatherings of 50 or more people, St. Patrick's Day celebrations were muted. Regrettably, the tale about St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland remained just a legend. Instead, the local purveyors of snake-oil gained greater media airtime than most, with the nonsense-chatter and personal attacks from these pseudo-populists continuing to grow. And each silly season of electioneering just further intensifies screeches for the camera.

We know that pseudo-populists are also adept using computer networks and social media powerfully against freedoms of thought, speech, and association. More so than with the coronavirus pandemic though, efforts from each of us can seriously help to counter this virus. We can all do our bit to

  • Hold public figures and the media accountable.
  • Stand up to the verbal abuse that George Orwell predicted.
  • Reassert truth and other core values in daily life.

Democracies tend to move slowly to hold bad actors accountable. Prosecutions for defamation, perjury, mail or wire fraud in political fundraising, or other schemes and artifices proceed, if at all, at slower than snails-pace. Legal processes are generally failing to deter much less hold any of the lead bad actors accountable. 

Speaking out remains one of the few viable ways to dismantle the distracting, distorting, or destructive disinformation and misinformation of pseudo-populists. 

Perhaps one of the best ways to do this is to join a political party and find ways to advocate for what you believe in. Otherwise, the hot-air of pseudo-populists will keep filling the gap. A lesson from my brushes with politics is that just a few strong and organized voices can make a real difference relatively quickly to the tenor and direction of these groups, locally, nationally, or beyond.

Whether by joining in these efforts or with support in other ways, any of us can help democracy thrive. What might you do to:

1. Be first to speak up about the concerns that matter to people's daily life, especially speaking out to elected representatives and local media.   

2. Expect and demand accountability of elected leaders, regulators, judiciary, administrators, mainstream and social media platform gatekeepers, or any others whose failure to take prompt action enables pseudo-populists.

3. Support thoughtful family, friends, and neighbors to be involved in school boards or other community organizations and groups.

3. Detect and refuse to repeat propaganda or the constantly parroted names of propagandists. 

4. Challenge and reframe nonsense talk to address what will benefit peoplelike access to food, a roof overhead, healthcare, jobs, safety, freedoms, and peace of mind.

5. Save energy for push-back that matters.

Failures to do so surrender the control of one's life to others, a process that Orwell describes so well in Animal Farm. During the takeover of the farm, the autocratic pigs use the other animals' inaction, fuzzy memory, and limited reasoning ability to confuse collective memories and impose weird rules. The pigs secure obedience largely because their fellow animals ponder ambiguities, without taking any action.

When pseudo-populists already have a head-start in noise, skills, and resources, especially computing resources, it's time to reduce the uncertainties, to catch up, and to scale activities that will outwit these propagandists.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Solidarity for Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Monday, February 13, 2023

Year of the Rabbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 22, 2023

How Useful?

Social media
by Gerd Altmann is licensed under Pixabay 

When Common Sense was first published, it was read aloud in taverns and meeting places. This was in the emotion-charged time of early 1776, prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Some in the yet to be United States were ambivalent about whether to "reconcile" with England. The pamphlet is impassioned and powerful, though not an easy read in certain passages for a modern reader. 

Yet it remains one of the best-selling publications in the United States. The then anonymous author Thomas Paine noted in a postscript to the Introduction that his identity was "wholly unnecessary... [except] ...That he is unconnected with any Party, and under no sort of Influence public or private, but the influence of reason and principle." 

Paine advocates specific steps for needed action, drawing on both intuition and reason. Many of his comments remain pertinent. Take, for example, his conclusion: "Let the names of Whig and Tory be extinct; and let not other be heard among us, than those of a GOOD CITIZEN, AN OPEN AND RESOLUTE FRIEND, AND A VIRTUOUS SUPPORTER OF THE RIGHTS OF [HU]MANKIND AND OF THE FREE AND INDEPENDANT [sic] STATES OF AMERICA."

Centrally, the pamphlet makes a powerful condemnation of autocracy, specifically targeted at the King of England. But the key criticisms pertain to autocrats anywhere, anytime. Common to autocrats, then and now, is insatiable self-interest. And like any empty vessel, an autocrat will make the most noise, propping up partisan posturing to divert attention from real concerns.

If you'd like to push back on the meandering nonsense autocrats use to intimidate and control, there are some thoughtful guides available. One is the book How to Stand Up to a Dictator by Maria Ressa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, at least partly in recognition of her effective efforts to stand up to then President Duterte in the Philippines. 

The book exposes the underbelly of intimidation typically employed by an autocratic regime against individuals who advocate basic freedoms. Most valuably, Ressa provides a compelling recap on her lessons learned, along with steps that she and her team take to fight back and survive. Much of what she describes to deal with autocracy's weaponization of the news, social media, the law, and education is applicable to efforts needed worldwide to strengthen democracy. 

The book brings together personal and professional understandings. Ressa shapes workable wisdoms from life experiences to guide her actions. She describes a desire early in life, " know myself to such a degree that I could take myself out of the equation when approaching the world around me and responding to it. That is claritythe ability to remove your self and your ego." Just some lessons distilled from her professional experiences are "...we couldn't stay quiet because silence is consent. ...don't let anyone else tell your story...," or "Free speech is being used to stifle free speech," or "Every day of inaction is a day of injustice...," or "My hope is that others can replicate our three pillars: technology, journalism, and community to fight back and build forward."

And she details how to uncover and address autocrats' manipulation of social media, sharing plans and the actions she takes to check if not checkmate a dictator. More than interesting and compelling, Ressa outlines much to put into action. 

She doesn't only detail how social media use us. She also outlines how anyone determined to strengthen democracy can, with some planning, support, and savvy, turn social media against the pseudo-populist actions of autocrats. On this point, she advises that, "If your nation has elections coming up, organize your #FactsFirst pyramid a year earlier. The very minimum is six months." Ressa describes how to do this. Hers is a unique and transferrable story of how to "...fight for our future." Not easy, but very doable by people committed to do the work needed to assure a better future. 

Another bookan even more personal guideis the widely-known On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder. He draws on the rear-vision-mirror of history, to anticipate and tackle the ruinous rants of contemporary tyrants in our midst. 

While revealing the reality behind the masks that tyrants use, Snyder's major contribution in this simple and short work is to offer twenty useful actions. These are his distillations of "twenty lessons from the twentieth century," to help keep perspective and be prepared. 

From his initial advice not to obey in advance, through some down-to-earth personal suggestions for preserving truth, to getting prepared to deal with the worst outcomes, he provides a pocket-guide to deal with deniers of freedom. Some samples are "Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside," or "Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary," or "Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it." 

For anyone who cares about strengthening democracy, these publications and any others that are as clear about needed actions are worth checking out. You can expect them to be more use than the repetitive outrages amplified by social and mass media, or the morass of stories focusing on grifters, crime, and violence that dominate video entertainment and so-called news.

Being continuously bathed with sensation-seeking, polemical echoes from empty vessels has limits. It's time for each of us to find a better way to require better. And to engage the talent, creativity, and drive of new generations to do the same. What more will you do?


Thomas Paine (1997), Common Sense: Of the Origin and Design of Government in General. With Concise Remarks on the English Constitution, Mineola, NY: Dover [first published 1776]

Maria Ressa (2022), How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future, New York: Harper Collins

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

Friday, December 30, 2022

Icelandic New Year

Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, Iceland
photo © copyright

A Story in LitHub last week was titled "Chocolate, Books, and More Books: Could America Even Handle Iceland's Traditional Christmas 'Book Flood'?" (Hinds). 

It describes how families and friends in "the most literate country in the world, with the highest number of published authors" exchange books every Christmas Eve, reading together around the fireplace to celebrate the holidays. The story recounts a "most dearly loved tradition" of a flood of publications annually released in the weeks leading up to Christmasalso stimulating author visits to workplaces for readings, bookshop festivities, or finding a reading nook at a family gathering, in addition to the evenings reading at home late into the night, fueled by hot chocolate.

Personally, this story revived memory of a New Year's celebration spent in Iceland. But how this came about is another story. In the late fall one year, when visiting friends in Arizona, an email arrived from another friend saying, " me crazy, but I'd really like to see the northern lights..." along with an invitation to join a group traveling to Iceland to welcome the New Year. Following soon was an additional emailjust a photo of folks sitting half-immersed in the geothermal Blue Lagoon on the Reykjavik Peninsula, with glasses raised in saluteresulting in swift acceptance of the invitation. 

The midwinter adventure commenced with a late night arrival at the airport near Reykjavik. Knowledge of my Aussie-origins, and consequent experience driving on the "correct" side of the road, automatically meant designation to drive the rental vehicleand fortunately another member of the group swiftly self-identified as navigator. Our first collaboration though was to retrieve the 8-seater vehicle from the far side of a deserted, unlit carparkin the pitch-black of true darknessto skate in our boots 100 yards / 90 meters or so, across the sheet of ice covering the carpark, helping each other to remain upright as we went.

Moving on from this uncertain start, the land of the midnight sun [during summer anyway] offered delight in winter too. Each morning, after breakfast in the dark, we coincided our arrival at a destination for sunrise around 11 am, to see a sight or two. Then, back on the road by sunset, around 3 pm, returning to our accommodations in time for drinks before dinner.

The good company of the group, coupled with the warmth of Icelanders, the stunning volcanic landscape and rushing streams, the warm springs and geysers, the expansion bridge across the separating tectonic plates, a welcome embellishment of the Sagas and history of Iceland, and a very different architecture and housing combined as an enjoyable mix of experiences–with the timelessly haunting novel, Independent People by Halldór Laxness, capturing the strength of a unique people, and some character of the nation.

The New Year's Eve celebrations were also enjoyable, with community bonfires and apparently endless fireworks in view in every direction from the hilltop location of a revolving restaurant atop The Saga Museum (apart from a 30 minute break just before midnight, when Icelanders nationwide stopped for an iconic TV show).

While the combination of smoke from the large-scale fireworks on New Year's Eve and cloud-filled skies on other evenings nullified any viewing of northern lights, this whole adventure remains among the most memorable of ways to welcome the fresh start to a calendar.

With a flood of goodwill as strong as this memory brings, may your 2023 travel as well!


Halldór Laxness (1946), Independent People, New York: Vintage

Jess deCourcy Hinds (2022), "Chocolate, Books, and More Books: Could America Even Handle Iceland's Traditional Christmas 'Book Flood'?" LitHub, December 23,  

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Bestest Words?

Words give shape to ideas and feelings. More truly, how we interpret words as readers and listeners helps to shape understanding, relationship, or action–in turn, helping to shape us. And with “truthiness” rather than truth-telling so common in public communications, how we interpret and use words matters a lot. As noted in my previous blogposts, we rely on each others words to “differentiate fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible” (Sayers, 1948, p. 4).


With truth-telling now needed more than ever, our ongoing effort to challenge disinformation, misinformation, and trash-talk is as necessary as reasserting values important to daily life. Perhaps it’s best to keep in mind that the strongest antidote to propaganda and its impact is our own independent thought. And keeping democracy requires that we read, listen, speak, write, and vote thoughtfully. Words used wisely can engage hope, humor, and leadership to counter propaganda and strengthen democracy.

Through the initial handling of the Covid pandemic in 2020 and a remarkable election in the United States, word-salad was so amplified at times that many days felt driven by a juggernaut heading toward ambiguous destinations. Health, safety, and freedoms previously taken for granted were continuously threatened. This was the setting, in May 2020, for starting to write these blogposts as personal reflections every couple of weeksto help keep perspective.


A midterm election in November 2022 delivered a much-wished-for coalition of voters, for some reprieve from the ongoing threats to health, safety, and freedoms. For any of us who believes in truth, law, and justice though, this remains a challenging time in this country and elsewhere. Outrageous public talk and too little action against the harmful actions of some still present hazard. Word-salad still props up news reports and talk-shows. 


A relatively few bright lights in the media have found ways to probe the news while continuously urging accountability. Very often it is investigative journalists who uncover the harmful actions of public figures. Probing commentaries in the media also argue for the rule of law and democratic institutions, but nonetheless offer little solution to the propaganda war. 


Many in the media continue to take the bait built into propaganda, to amplify its reach to more people than otherwise possible. From earlier parroting of bandwagon claims about “elites,” through the endless “B-roll” of political rallies, to the latest screams for the camera, this pseudo-news will not “just disappear.” An apparently endless stream of books, along with podcasts and documentaries, expose violations of truth, law, and justice, but even the best of these mostly offer diagnosis and warning.


Perhaps there is promise for the news media to regain credibility and audiences through the growth of “constructive journalism.” This rethinking of news practice steps beyond breaking news and investigative journalism to track public action for the common good. Constructive journalism builds on the premise that to serve democracy, quality reporting must be “critical, inspirational, nuanced, and engaging” (Constructive Institute, 2022). Meanwhile, the tabloid-based, sensational negativities of outrage, trash-talk, and exaggerations continue to be amplified by some public figures, social media, and gatekeepers of the mass media.


My thanks go to readers of the blog throughout the world, for your interest, comments, and feedback. In the spirit of Jacques Ellul's insight that propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins, let's keep on seeking opportunities to advance the independent thought that strengthens democracy. With best wishes to all who choose the very best words to address the challenges ahead. 

& with warmest compliments of the Season!


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

Sayers, Dorothy L. (1948), The Lost Tools of Learning, London: Methuen

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Words of the Year*

Teal Independents - 2022 Australian election wins
Cuadrado.jpg: Teal color by Tysk58 is licensed under CCA-SA 3.0 Unported

At a time of "permacrisis" and "gaslighting" the Macquarie judges wisely went local, embracing teal as word of the year

Written by  Roslyn Petelin, Course coordinator, The University of Queensland

The Macquarie Dictionary has announced its word of the year–“teal”–also chosen recently by the Australian National Dictionary Centre as its word of 2022. 

Teal, a colour that’s not quite green and not quite blue, is, of course, a peculiarly Australian choice. As is the Macquarie people’s choice: “bachelor’s handbag”. I wonder who came up with this as a term for supermarket BBQ chicken (and pork and beef) sold in plastic bags with handles. And why narrowly confine it to the demographic of “bachelor”? Did we really need this term? Will it catch on?

But let’s return to the Macquarie committee’s choice. The greenish-blue colour was used by several independent candidates for their promotional material in the 2022 federal election. A loosely-aligned group of female professionals turned politicians successfully challenged incumbents in blue-ribbon seats, resulting in a “teal bath”. Teal is now used as a term to cover independent centrists whose key policies support strong action on climate change and the establishment of a federal integrity commission. 

It’s easy to see how it was chosen as word of the year because it gained currency during the election campaign and has been useful ever since. “It’s not a brand-new word,” said the committee, “but a brand-new sense that no-one saw coming.” I thought at first “teal” was an odd, uncreative choice, but I have come round to it because of its serious political importance here. 

The Macquarie committee’s runner up was “truth-telling”, “the act of relating the facts of a situation, exclusive of embellishment or dilution as justification of past actions”. So, both leading committee choices are centred on the Australian political landscape of the past 12 months.Other major international dictionaries–Oxford, Cambridge, Collins, and Merriam-Webster–base their decision on data generated by the number of “lookups” registered on their online dictionaries during the year. Macquarie, however, relies on a committee of experts to choose its word of the year.

The people at Collins Dictionary have chosen “permacrisis”  to represent the extended period of instability and insecurity worldwide. Surprisingly, Macquarie’s list hasn’t highlighted the war in Ukraine or climate change. 

Merriam-Webster has chosen the psychological manipulation of “gaslighting”. Merriam has reported a 1,749% increase of “lookups” in 2022, an indication, perhaps, of the ubiquity of this horrible, manipulative practice. 

Cambridge has acknowledged the North American influence of the word game Wordle by choosing “homer” (home run).

Read more: Explainer: what does 'gaslighting' mean?

COVID virgins and cookers

Australia’s Macquarie has provided a rather colourful long-list of words spanning 14 categories with some quirky choices.

Several are related to the COVID-19 pandemic including “spicy cough” (for COVID-19 itself), “COVID virgin” (for those who have remained free of it), “pandemic brain” (for the diminished mental capacity some people have experienced, such as forgetfulness and lack of concentration), “goblin mode” (to embrace the indolence and slovenliness–supposedly characterised by goblins–brought on by the enforced isolation of lockdowns), and “cooker” (a person protesting against vaccine mandates). 

Omicron makes the list, but, surprisingly, long COVID doesn’t. A couple of other long-listed words also evoke the pandemic: “quiet quitting” (strictly limiting oneself to performing the task and hours worked as specified in one’s job description) and “e-change” (a move from the city to a rural environment enabled by being able to work remotely).

Technology is represented by “bossware” (software that allows a boss to remotely monitor and measure staff activity and productivity) and “yassify” (which allows a person to apply multiple filters and edits to an image or digital photo, thereby transforming the original to a glamorous, more beautiful version).

A choice I would classify as good and useful is “pre-bunking” (the practice of challenging the veracity of misinformation and disinformation and the authority of its source, BEFORE such information is disseminated).

One term I would classify as unnecessary is “passenger princess” to describe someone who is old enough to have a driver’s licence, but always remains a passenger.

In the fashion category, we have “Barbiecore” for the hot pink redolent of Barbie outfits. Then there’s “fauxgan” for a non-genuine bogan who dresses like a real one. How could one tell?

Most of us will have noticed the “shrinkflation” adopted by food stores, whereby products have been reduced in size and quality while prices have remained the same or, in many cases, also increased. And many will have suffered from “orthosomnia”, caused by a preoccupation with obtaining the amount and quality of sleep recommended by wearable sleep-tracking devices, thereby making our sleep quality worse.

Goblins again

If you have a hankering to express your view on the words of 2022, for the first time, Oxford has opened its award up by inviting its international readership to vote (open until December 2). It has provided three terms from which to choose: “metaverse” (the virtual reality environment), #IStandWith" (a hashtag used to express solidarity), and “goblin mode”. 

I can confidently endorse the first two, but I’m not sure about those goblins. They may claim they have been subject to discrimination.

[*This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.]

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Votes for Action

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus Ieucocephalus)
About to Launch, (Kachemak Bay, Alaska) by Andy Morffew, CCA-BY-2.0 Generic

In the past week, enough voters who identify as Independent or Republican have joined Democrats to bolster democracy in the United States, importantly with projected control of the Senatein what might prove to be one of the largest positive counters to a "propaganda of the deed" (Bolt 2020). 

Not that perpetrators of violence or blathering threats in the name of pseudo-populism will "just disappear," any more than other social sicknesses do. Still required is further action for accountability.

Yet this midterm election has delivered important positives, not least a rebuke to the "anti-" behaviors megaphoned at us all for far too long.

A coalition of voters expressed a "roar" which, for the moment, drowns out screams for the camera. Voters reasserted the ideals on which the United States of America was foundedright back at the incessant nattering of recast "nabobs of negativity," who were rejected as nihilists and exploiters of the democratic system. 

Less than one week along, with counting of votes continuing, what's sinking in is the significance. Some historians call this the best midterm election result for an incumbent party and first-term president in at least 60 years. The election result surely reaffirms many Americans' faith in "we the people."

Election workers, whistleblowers, local officials, journalists, and many more people in the United States have shown resilience against the ongoing propaganda of screamed threats, violence, and character assassinationenabling voters to speak out.

A strengthened faith of a people in their countryfolk is being echoed by more in the media. Can we hope fertile seeds are sown for more than a reprieve from a dark alternative?


Neville Bolt (2020), "Propaganda of the Deed and Its Anarchist Origins," in Paul Baines, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, and Nancy Snow (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Propaganda, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 3-21

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Cows & Curtains

Wallaby appreciates milk directly from a cow
This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

How delightful that we gained another hour of light at the end of today, thanks to "falling back" from Daylight Saving Time, in the United States anyway. 

This bonus from frugality is a treat, especially if you've suffered through endless public wrangles sometime about the merits, or not, of setting the clocks forward in the Springto enable such generosity for this day in the Fall.

Tussles over the terrors of time adjustment can tear at local communitiessome call theft what others call a gift of extra sunlight, to play or get extra chores done in daylight. 

Everyone seems to have an opinion. In an early local debate in Australia, one of the louder advocates for not messing with Tempus Fugit was a politician who, as a former farmer, knew a thing or two about messing with "rules of nature." He was especially knowledgeable, he said, about when the cows expected to be milked!! 

Amid others' commentaries were when children needed afternoon snacks after school, and, of course, the extra hour of tropical sunlight would fade the curtains. 

You think I'm making this up? 'fraid notperhaps you heard equally preposterous polemic pressing panic buttons locally in your community (but hopefully not).

During deliberations on so momentous a proposition, the media generously sustains ever-prescient insights about the pros and cons, seeking to elevate each skirmish of the debate into a gladiatorial battle. Rarely was so much expended by so many about so little, as for the potential losses and gains from adjusting just sixty minutes. And thankfully some playful commentators added parody and humorous quips to the debate.

This raging public discourse for the politician was, of course, more than harmless diversion. It was just one more of the many mock controversies he stoked. His polemic helped distract attention and energy from dismantling the gerrymanders and electoral malapportionment he'd quietly installed. 

Sounding familar?

Frequently he was re-elected with a smaller number of votes than the state's two other major parties. He kept his leadership and his political party in power in coalition with one of the other partiesbenefiting also from a preferential voting system. He maneuvered this with about 20 to 27% of the primary vote for five elections before defeating the "coalition party" decisively in two more elections. All this and more kept him in the driver's seat for almost 20 years.

Unfortunately, today's time adjustment doesn't provide an extra hour for voting on Tuesday... so, best plan now, which five peopleneighbors, family, friendsyou can help get to a voting booth (where this is still permitted by state law!!), to cast votes in the poll that matters.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022


Initiale E. Lune, montagne, et reflet dans un lac.
This image from "Songs of a Sentimental Bloke" p. 64, 1916 edition is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

It's just as well dictionaries pay no heed to the principle of guilt by association. Otherwise literature's long line of fabulists would be lumped in with a second sense of the word, as "liars." [namely, "FABLE MAKER" both: "1. composer of fables AND 2. teller of tales; a liar."]

Certainly, Aesop, Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Jean De La Fontaine through George Orwell and James Thurber, and many others do make stuff up. But fable writers delight us with truths, for young readers through many much olderwith tales like The  Tortoise and the Hare, The Ugly Duckling or, more recently, the extended fairytales of Animal Farm and The Wonderful O.

Thank goodness for the charm of tales that spotlight a moral, or offer other enlightenment, or humor, or hope. Quite a contrast to some torturous, terror-filled tale-tellers today, especially the barbaric and wannabe tyrants who fill the airwaves with lies.

Nasties like these get their comeuppance though, when James Thurber amusingly explores in one of his fantasies, titled The Wonderful O, their theft of the letter "O." Thanks to someone in Oxford taking the trouble to count the occurrence of letters, we can know that "O" is 37-times more generally used than the letter "Q" in English. So the effect on people's communication in Thurber's fantasy kingdom is severe. And he takes readers delightfully through the difficulties and disruptions that the theft of "O" causes, as well as what happens [deleted spoiler alert] to that kingdom's thieving tyrants.

Just as well Thurber's nasties didn't steal the letter "E" of course, which the diligent Oxonian says is our favorite letter to use, at 57-times more than the letter "Q." It's also the most common letter in Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Latin, Latvian, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish, and some other languages. To see how challenging it would be to live with that theft, I had a go writing a tale not using our most popular letter. Writing as if a thief had won by stealing away use of the letter "E," the tale started like this:

"In a land not far away, in which birds roar and big cats sing, it is an Almost-KING who's ranting about what's what. Occasional pundits still parrot His almost-royal trash-talk, using what I think of as bigly words, or not, again, again, again, and again. Within this land now, all living things, or humans anyway, must cast a ballot to outlaw anything that's not what our Almost-KING calls "what," such as voting to ban or burn booksor, if you avoid voting, you must pay fifty dollars to the Almost-Royal Fund. With topsy also almost turvy, what's up is down and what is, is not..."

The first and only review (by my wife) of an earlier, longer version of this e-deficient tale was that she didn't know what on earth this meant. I'm guessing more was missing than just the familiar letter, "E." But give it a try yourself, if you like... not so nice to live without our favorite letter, eh?

Yet with that temporary E-drought broken for now, how should we feel about democracy denialists, who want us to live without FR' 'DOM... with it's two too many ee's? Of course, much more to lose with that theft... much more.

So, you've doubtless got the drift of Thurber's little book, The Wonderful O, which is more than totally worth the readand it's an especially recommended read for THIS MONTH. 

Oh, and please vote! Otherwise, just imagine the consequence of this being the last Halloween, just because that children's celebration clearly has too many ee's. 

Amid the furore of such a theft, who'd even notice the departure of Milton's Paradise Lost. Oh yes, also, do I need to mention to make a memo to self that freedom is on the ballot too?!

And can you get others, who care, to VOTE? Or, as Sesame Street foretold, we're all in the hands of the Cookie Monster [2 minute video, here]. For eeee's sake.