Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Hi, I'm Rich, and I'm a Simple-Minded Literalist

After their fashion, they were kind of cute: picture the Macbeths at age 18, or Claire and Frank Underwood of House of Cards as high-school sweethearts. Now reduce their evil by two-thirds and their cunning by half, and you have the two students in my career who took the time and exerted the effort to do some really nasty critiquing of my teaching.

Or one aspect of my teaching, personality, and way of being in the world.

What angered them was that I was a simple-minded "Literalist" and I had marked down the young woman of the pair for using words inexactly in her writing in a College Composition course (at Miami U, Oxford, Ohio, some time in the late 20th century).

This story would be totally irrelevant to anyone except to me and the couple if it weren't for "journalist Salena Zito’s analytical couplet on the surprise winner of [US Presidential] Campaign 2016 [... that] The press took Republican Donald Trump 'literally, but not seriously' [...], whereas Trump’s supporters took him 'seriously, but not literally.'"

The quotation above is from Charles Lane in an opinion piece published 16 November 2016 in The Washington Post, and Zito's differentiation between taking Trump "literally" and "seriously" has become a commonplace — and we're on our way to that degree of familiarity with Lane's advice that we should take Trump both literally and seriously.

I'd expand that advice and recommend taking every speaker with power both literally and seriously, while allowing, and allowing a lot, for the possibilities of such figurative language as hyperbole — and allowing for plain old bullshit and lying.

One example I gave was a coach demanding "one hundred and ten percent dedication to the team." I suggested pointing out to the coach that his demand was clearly figurative — there can only be 100% dedication to anything — but also excessive. He obviously wasn't demanding 110% dedication, but he was demanding a blank check, so to speak, and it would be well if team members got him to clarify by pointing out they had demands on their time — school, work, family — that were also legitimate and pressing and make a counter- offer of a very generous 30% dedication. 

There's a good chance that even star athletes would be thrown off the team — I once won a bet with some students that coachly authority would trump winning and that even a tennis coach would purge a disobedient player — ahem, there's a good chance any uppity high school or college players trying to negotiate dedication would be cut, but the point would be made.

If you can help it, it don't allow other people to make unlimited demands on your time, not unless you're a bonded pair and you really, really love and trust the other party. 

WORDS MEAN, goddamn it, and if "I want 110% dedication" doesn't mean "110% dedication," it does mean an open-ended demand that you should be very careful in allowing. 

Later in my career, I was going to learn the paradoxical Daoist teaching that no one lies. The paradox is resolved with the very sensible idea that if you listen carefully enough you can figure our what the person is really trying to say — but I'm pretty sure you have to be a Daoist sage to do that reliably.

Where we have trouble taking people literally or seriously is with pathological liars, of which I've met another couple. More exactly, I dealt with, let's say, a congenital liar in senior year of high school and was one among a number of people who had to deal with a pathological liar in college.

The congenital liar was a guy — we'll call him "Todd" — somewhat on the periphery of my life but still a friend and kind of classmate. (Chicago schools divided up by semesters, and he graduated the same year I did but a semester earlier.) Anyway, he was someone I was friendly with and had no reason to doubt him when he said he was taking ... let's call her Dolores to the prom. I did have reason to doubt him when Dolores asked me why I hadn't asked her to prom, and I told her because Todd said that she was going to the prom with him, and she said "Huh?!" and then some stronger things, and I went off looking for the first real fight since I was seven. Todd won, but I owe him this much: he was my introduction to the idea that some people would lie for the hell of it; that even when there was no reason to lie, some people might.

More powerful blows to my worldview came in college, when I learned that some people could behave with literal malice: i.e., that they would hurt someone not for any profit for themselves, not for revenge, but just to hurt someone they disliked. (In literature, I learned of people who just hurt other people — period; Shakespeare's Iago says he hates Othello, but maybe he doesn't; he may just despise everyone). More to the immediate point, I and the guys I lived with learned about pathological lying.

After his fashion, he was a cool guy: president of his pledge class, and, he said, working his way through school, including working at the job we offered him at the house, work beyond his chores as a pledge. And he was just cool, a smooth talker, personable — and an obsessive, compulsive, pathological liar who could make you think you'd gone crazy because he could assert obvious untruths with more assurance than most of us could talk about what was right in front of us.

After our experience with this guy, we had a new rule for our chapter: A pledge caught in lies was "depleged," and the burden of proof was on him to be repledged, and if he couldn't do that we'd pay whatever it cost for him to move out of the house and elsewhere. An honest, plain-speaking character in Shakespeare's King Lear describes the most contemptible of the villains in that play in terms of, "Such smiling rogues as these," who "Like rats, oft bite the holy cords a-twain" that bind together people and society. Our cool, personable, pathological pledge wasn't that bad, but he was on the continuum.

When lies become constant, words no longer really mean, and that way lies social chaos.

So in good, simple-minded fashion, let us take seriously what people say, especially people with power — and start with the literal meaning of words and then work through the dangerous and wonderful complexities of language. 

And, while we're at it, let us hold the President of the United States to standards of exactness a competent teacher and pretty nice guy like me would hold college frosh to — and to standards of honesty a bunch of undergrads ca. 1962 could figure out they had to hold themselves to in order to live together even as a group of 50. If Mr. Trump says he'll torture prisoners and kill the families of terrorists, and we elect him president — which under the Electoral College system favoring small states and rural folk we did — then we've written that figurative blank check for actions up to the rack and more elegant means of torture, and the killing of children. This isn't "110%": torture and the murder of children (and the torture of children in front of their parents) are indeed possible: we can be sure of that since they have been done. And if someone recommends doing such things, and you empower him to do so, well that is exactly what almost half of the US electorate have done.

WORDS MEAN, damn it: often in complex ways, but they do indeed mean.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Putin the Pious, Czar of All the Godly Russias

Some 24 minutes into "Week in the News" on ON POINT Friday, 13 Jan. 2017, Elaine from Wisconsin praised Donald Trump (and Jesse Ventura) for friendship with Vladimir Putin as the strong leader who has overseen the re-Christianizing of Russia and making it (therefore?) a free country. So what's on my mind is that some groups of voters who'd been pretty reliably anti-USSR could lately be pro-Russia, now that Russia is free of godless Communism and helping Christendom become great again.

I grew up with the image of Alexis de Tocqueville in the middle-ish 19th century looking at a map and predicting the competition for global influence in the 20th would be between the Russian Empire and the USA; and I figured that's what was happening, with the godless Communism v. Capitalist free-market freedom schtick largely propaganda. I knew that some "old China hands" took the "godless" bit very seriously, but .... But I underestimated how seriously many of my fellow Americans saw us as "one nation under God" and not in Great-Power competition with the Russians but a Manichean, Apocalyptic, John-of-Revelation struggle against godless Evil.

Now that Vladimir the Bare-Chested has come to Jesus and dragged a lot of Russian culture with him, hey, he's okay.

Uh, no. Not really.

The Russians are still competitors with us for influence and power, and those competitions can get very rough without major ideological issues: Europe's Wars of Religion were major horror shows in the late 16th and 17th centuries, but World War I was sufficiently nasty, thank you — plus there's also the possibility of the USA as a secular Republic v. Holy Mother Russia, the Third Rome and Protector of the Orthodox Faith.

We need to cooperate with the Russians on Syria and the "Levant" more generally, plus issues of nuclear overkill and proliferation plus climate change plus anti-terrorism plus ... well et bloody cetera. However, the competition and conflicts are there and serious and a bunch of Americans enthralled with Putin the Pious would be "useful idiots" for him, reinforcing what may turn out to be the US "Idiot in Chief" (if Trump isn't a political genius, fooling enemies into underestimating him — but, nah, what we see is, probably, what we get).

The problem with literal Manichean views is that they're more figuratively Manichean, dividing the world into neat categories and allowing people to zip over from hating the USSR and its godless Communism to enrapture with a new Russia basking in freedom (for the Church).

Buckle up, buckeroos, and be sure the airbags are working; it's going to be a rough ride through dangerous territory.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Thirty Seconds to a More Politically Powerful Vocabulary: "Emoluments" and "Provenance"

All right class! Last time around we learned the word "emoluments," and I apologize for telling you it meant some sort of ointment you put on your skin. It's actually an important word in what was once an obscure clause in the US Constitution that is likely to become very well known if a President Trump pisses off a critical mass of important Republicans without maintaining a critical mass of supporters willing to take to the streets (well, and depending on how the seriously-armed US Armed Forces come down: always the key issue when politics get truly, uh, serious).

            This news cycle — sorry if that's only a couple of days — this news cycle, a key word is "provenance," as in the sentence from what seems like ages ago, "What the hell was the provenance of that 2005 tape of Trump's talking with Billy Bush of ACCESS HOLLYWOOD about grabbing women?" So from Google, Search Results prov·e·nance
 /ˈprävənəns/ noun
the place of origin or earliest known history of something."an orange rug of Iranian provenance"synonyms:   origin, source, [...] pedigree, derivation, root [...] the beginning of something's existence; something's origin."they try to understand the whole universe, its provenance and fate"a record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality. [...]
            It's like "chain of custody" on crime shows but more scholarly — and spookish, so throw in spy shows as well, and political thrillers. (There's also history and other real-world stuff, but you kids aren't into that so we'll stick with TV and movies.)

            So, add to "emoluments" the vocabulary word "provenance" and have it handy for the debates when/if we get to those critical mass points and they break more for "jaw jaw" as Winston Churchill put it, than "war war" — of that (un)civil, "takin' it to the streets" variety.

            And so finally so; So: What are the details of the PROVENANCE of the "KGB Candidate (sic)" accusations about Donald Trump, what do those details tell us about the deep implications of the conflicts concerning Mr Trump — and, ultimately, with which of the groups of players should ordinary folk ally?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Battle of the Oligarchs: Trump v. Intelligence "Community" and Other Denizens of What He Thinks a Swamp

In his study of POLITICAL PARTIES (1911), Robert Michels noted an "Iron Law of Oligarchy": that organizations generally, even political parties dedicated to democracy, fall into a kind of not-necessarily-rich oligarchy of people who know how the organization works (well, and where, as the American saying goes, "the bodies are buried"). What can disrupt the "oligarchy" is the success of a popular movement under a charismatic Leader, which is why Michels ended up supporting Mussolini.
Okay, I don't even see much less feel Donald Trump's charisma, but Trumpism might be most usefully seen as desire to "drain the swamp" to destroy not the oligarchs of wealth but of elite knowledge and positions in powerful bureaucracies. Through this lens, much of what we've seen the last few days is the opening of a battle through the Everglades of Trump and allies against "the permanent government."
Either a nicely-placed figurative body-blow — a toe into the groin let's say — or a figurative shot across the bow was when the Republicans in Congress empowered members to try to cut the salaries of bureaucrats down to $1 per year. And from the other side may be leaks and reinvigorating (unproved) stories of Trump and associates acting badly in Russia, which minimally had the effect of Mr. Trump's admitting to being a "germaphobe" and apparently unaware that bacteria are ubiquitous on the inhabited Earth outside of the lava of active volcanoes (and at low levels in the blood and brains of healthy mammals — and pretty low in the urine of healthy people).
For ordinary politicians, taking on "the Intelligence Community" would just be stupid. For Trump, it may be part of the central task that may be a whole lot more negative than envisioned by those who use "disrupt" as an unambiguous positive and have called for radical change in a globalized, post-Enlightenment, (post)modern world. Like, Occupy Wall Street and such talk up radical change, but if you really want change from the roots and the world turned upside down, look to the Taliban and ISIS and the far, far Right. For those who just want the swamp drained of intellectual, professional, professorial, and Leftish political elites, who want some Iron Laws broken or melted down — Trump may be starting on that crusade.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Trump Ditches Media for a Bit: Good!

            Some of my best friends really are or have been journalists, or at least teachers of journalism, but here is one case in which I agree with Donald Trump against "the media."
            In a brief Associated Press article on 31 December 2016, Jill Colvin very elegantly told the world, Donald "Trump ditches media for golf game" in Jupiter, Florida. More specifically,  "President-elect Donald Trump has ditched his press pool once again — this time traveling to play golf at his club in Jupiter, Florida, without a pool of journalists on hand to ensure the public has knowledge of his whereabouts." Without straining AP objectivity too far, Ms. Clovin complains that "Trump, both as a candidate and during the transition, has often scoffed at tradition," specifically the tradition of an ever-present press pool, "allowing a group of reporters to follow him at all times, to ensure the public knows where he is. Not long after his election, Trump went out to dinner with his family in Manhattan without informing the pool of his whereabouts" and now — playing hooky to play golf!
            Clovin says, "The practice is meant to ensure that journalists are on hand to witness, on behalf of the public, the activities of the president or president-elect, rather than relying on secondhand accounts" and notes … generously? that "The White House also depends on having journalists nearby at all times to relay the president's first comments on breaking news." Repaying that generosity, "Trump aides appear to have made an effort in recent weeks to offer additional access, allowing reporters to camp out outside a doorway at Mar-a-Lago to document staff and Cabinet candidates' arrivals and departures and providing information about his meeting schedule."
            Uh, huh.
            Working backwards through the quotes:
                        * Camping out?! Are you people presidential paparazzi? Well, yes, with about as little self-respect, apparently as paparazzi.
                        * Getting the President's (or President-elect's) "first comments on breaking news": Gang, with any president, but especially with Donald Trump, the last thing that should go out to the world are comments on breaking news beyond a boilerplate notice, "We are following developments and will comment when we have more information." It may be cruel to note, but the 24/7 news cycle is your problem, and shouldn't be allowed to tempt officials and spokesfolk into making statements when they don't really know what's going on and prudence requires that they just shut the hell up until things settle down.
                        * I'm old enough to remember when stalking the president got started, and it may be that  "The practice is meant" in someone's theory "to ensure that journalists are on hand to witness, on behalf of the public, the activities of the president or president-elect, rather than relying on secondhand accounts" — but the specific occasions when the practice got started were the assassinations of the 1960s and the attempted assassinations later of Presidents Ford and Reagan.
            There's a morbid origin to constant coverage of the president, and as a continuing matter an assassination attempt is about the only thing that requires reporters right there reporting on what a president is doing in public. Where there's a pressing public right to know and media's obligation to report, we're talking policies decided on in private meetings and announced (if at all) in formal public addresses — not paparazzi stuff or shouted questions and over-the-shoulder answers.
            No. Guys and gals of the press corps: Go home or, and better, back to the office. News organizations: Enough already with the death-watch coverage of the president and other important people; put your money into bureaus — you can look the word up in histories of journalism — and into in-depth research of mostly public documents, with interviews with the aides and agency operatives of what has been insightfully called "the permanent government." That is, drop the celebrity-reporting already and do the sort of in-depth journalistic Scheisswerk that I. F. Stone and such were good at.
            Think about it. You guys and gals in the White House press corps look down your noses as the literal paparazzi and the "jock sniffers" who rush into locker rooms to get the very first post-game comments from players who really should be left alone to shower — and I'll bet show equal contempt for the on-air airheads who do celebrity interviews … right? Well, if you're camped out at goddamn Mar-a-Lago, you're no better.
            In this case, Trump is on the mark: he should ditch you and have dinner with his family or play a game of golf. He has a right to some privacy, and the public have a right to go a couple days without having to hear one word more about Donald J. Trump. Serious journalists should spend more time trying to get hold of Trump's financial data and the full-form prescription list from Dr. Feelgood, his hippy-dippy family physician, or spend more time on what the Congress might be up to and/or the bureaucrats who most directly affect people's lives.

            So Go Trump! / Lose the Press Corps! But not for too long. There's much to be said for your staying in the public eye, Mr. Trump, over-exposing yourself, and getting your enemies pool up to critical mass. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Donald J. Trump: Charismatic Leader Crushing the Federal Bureaucracy and Other Bastions of the Establishment (or Not)

For a fair portion of the American public, Donald Trump is a charismatic leader. I can't feel the charisma, but it seems to be there, and Trump's opponents need to go back to Robert Michel's study of "The Iron Law of Oligarchy" and how the way to break through a bureaucratic oligarchy is with a charismatic, populist leader. Michels ended up supporting Mussolini. 

I suspect Trump's populism is shallow and that what we get with him will be a fairly standard Republican bait-and-switch, but with some real payoffs for social conservatives with Supreme Court nominations and such. Still, I don't think Trump or his supporters care much for the Republican Party or know much about traditional conservatism or the US Constitution. If they really get frustrated over checks and balances — and facts about what can and can't be done — then the danger is that "It Can Happen Here" and we get Trump forces out in the streets calling for deportations, jobs, and death to foot-dragging bureaucrats. (The other side to the tremendous difficulty of deporting millions of people is that doing so would create a lot of jobs in the paramilitary-thug line and finally remove the inconveniences of a number of civil liberties and — while at it — civil rights.)

I don't think Trump will be our Mussolini, much less Hitler; I think he'll be Shakespeare's idea of King Richard II: a self-absorbed actor who comes to live the role and, less figuratively, believe his own self-aggrandizing, divine-right, bullshit propaganda. With all his pretty words — beautiful words! — Richard II fell to "hard facts" men after people got bored with his act and over-exposure. ALL TRUMP!! ALL THE TIME!!! will finally bore a lot of people, and bored former fans aren't out of the streets cracking heads and channeling the Will of the Volk to the Leader. They're changing the channel.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Teaching Americans to Argue Civilly

             In a quietly inspiring story in the USA Today network of newspapers, Gabe Cavallaro tells how Meg Heubeck of the Center for Politics' Youth Leadership Initiative (UVa) "works with teachers nationally to help students respectfully deal with the divides of our society through civil discourse, debate[,] and compromise."

            From what I've seen in comment sections of articles on line, and based in 40 years teaching courses in rhetoric, "the art of ethical persuasion," I'll suggest a broader project.

            One of the reasons so much of our public discourse is uncivil is that too few Americans know how to put together an argument and therefore fall back on personal attack. (Too few Americans can argue well privately with a spouse or other family member or friend, which is a related issue.)

            For the last three generations, middle-class kids have gotten little practice arguing in contexts they care about. Their families have fewer children, and family dinners have become rare, so young children don't get supervised practice arguing with siblings, with feedback from parents on the order of "'Johnny is a doodie-head' is not an argument!" Older children aren't routinely shooed out of the house to organize their own games, and by the time they're teens moving toward adulthood, economically-privileged kids are trapped in what I've called "The Little-League Syndrome."

            Little League Baseball and similar organizations for other sports, and grammar school and high-school athletic teams, teach kids to play the sports well, and these adult-organized and coached sports have been excellent for father-daughter relationships. They have been bad, though, for allowing American kids opportunities to organize their own activities and learn how to persuade their peers.

            On a couple of occasions, my students were surprised to learn my age cohort really didn't have Little League when and where I grew up, but teenage boys had high school fraternities and social-athletic clubs and ran our own leagues. "It's not like we built the parks and playing fields," I told my students, but we did put together teams, arrange schedules, and, sometimes, had to decide what to do with some schmucks who'd embezzled the money the clubs had chipped in for trophies.

            And there were year clubs for boys and for girls that arranged social events.

            Poorer American kids still have gangs — which look to me authoritarian and led by adults — but current fashions in middle-class American parenting and school management seem to preclude kids' organizing their own activities.

            So, one thing that can be done to improve American discourse is for parents and other adults to teach children basic manners and insist on basic decency to others — including no bullying — and to draw back a bit at a time to allow older kids to run more of their own activities and have to persuade one another to do what they want them to do.

            Little League and such teaches kids how to fit into a bureaucracy and follow orders; kid-organized activities teach democratic organizing, which includes persuasion of peers on issues kids care about (and some activities that may legitimately horrify their parents and others in authority).

            The schools need to teach things kids may care less about: argument as a kind of summation of skills, but also description and definition and analysis and other "modes" of discourse. For a slogan for this kind of teaching, we used to have "Unplug the Scantron machines!": i.e., get rid of multiple-choice tests (as an ultimate goal) and have students write out present orally descriptions, extended definitions, analyses, and finally arguments.

            Logical thought isn't exactly natural, and kids need to be taught, and adults need to be reminded, how to use evidence and present a logical argument (if one with enough of an emotional appeal to get it accepted).

            And young adults and some older ones need to be taught how to debate with one another on matters for adults, and for citizens.

            This doesn't mean just pure politics, but — obviously! — issues in the sciences, including military science and tactics, history, theology, and the arts. And it means some training in the sort of deep analysis where you can figure out why political arguments so often go in circles.

            One reasons for a "failure to communicate": Different people often use the same key words with different meanings. E.g., if a human being is essentially a soul to be saved and "ensoulment" occurs at conception, then abortion may be worse than murder. If you're not big on theories of souls and/or if you think theological issues shouldn't enter American politics — then you'll have a different view on abortion (and we haven't even gotten to historical questions on control of women's bodies!). For another example, what do we mean by "patriot"? In 1969 or so, I told an FBI agent, "Mr. N_____ is a very patriotic young man" since Mr. N_____ started out in Marine ROTC, studied US warfare in Vietnam and decided it was wrong, dropped his plans for a military career, and joined the Peace Movement, actively opposing the war. Now that is a patriot, like John Kerry, only a bit earlier. The FBI agent may have had different ideas on patriotism and, indeed, might have thought my idea of a patriot his idea of a traitor.

            The sort of rough-and-ready analysis I just did requires training, and pulling it off in the real world requires practice — a lot of practice — in controlling one's temper and getting opponents to control theirs.

            Meg Heubeck is doing important and difficult work; she deserves a wide variety of support.