Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much

Not a Lao Tzu quotePoor Lao Tzu. He gets saddled with the most atrocious of the New Age codswallop. As if it wasn’t enough to be for founder of one of the most obscure  philosophies (not a religion, since it has no deity), he gets to be the poster boy for all sorts of twaddle from people who clearly have never read his actual writing.

This time it’s a mushy feel-good quote on Facebook (mercifully without kittens or angels) that reads,

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Well, it’s not by Lao Tzu. Or more properly, Laozi. That’s not his name, by the way: it’s an honorific, a title that roughly translates to “Old Master.” His real name was likely Li Er, Wikipedia tells us. But his name doesn’t matter: it’s the single book he left us that is relevant.

That book – the Tao Teh Ching – consists of 81 short “chapters” – although they’d be better described as poems. Or pithy epithets. It can be ready cover to cover in an hour.

For all its brevity, the Tao Teh Ching is a weighty work. It’s the underpinning of an entire school of  Chinese metaphysics and philosophy: Taoism, that dates back to the Axial Age, circa 500 BCE. That makes Lao Tzu contemporary with Confucius and in the same rough time frame as Siddhartha Gautama.

Lap Tzu was clearly a deep thinker, which makes it all the more ironic that he gets accused of spouting all sorts of saccharine New Age piffle.

One of the stories of how the book came about goes like this: Lao Tzu was the Keeper of the Royal Archives. Late in his life, he wearied of the intrigues, the corruption and the crassness of life at court. He decided to go live the remainder of his life as a hermit in the mountains. At the city gate, the sentry asked him to write down his wisdom. The result was the Tao Teh Ching.

Like with many religious, political or philosophical figures, take any story or claims with a grain of salt. Stories get embellished by both supporters and enemies over the centuries.*

Others say the work is really a collection of sayings by many people, collated into a single work. Since the earliest copy of the text is at least 100 years younger than Lao Tzu, and there are no verifiable records that identify him as the sole author, this theory strikes me as having some merit.

After all, every single religious work I can think of has been edited, added to, cut away from and interpreted by hundreds of human hands in the interim since it was first penned. Why not this one?

Continue reading “Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much”

63,635 total views, 25 views today

The (sometimes violent) urge to write

Scribble, scribbleAs of this writing, I will have published 253 posts since I began this blog at the ending week of December, 2011. Two hundred and fifty three posts in 21 months. Just over one post every two-and-a-half days, on average. Plus 30 or so still in draft mode. Another half-dozen scribbled in word processing notes or notebooks.

And that doesn’t include the six years of blog posts – a list of 91 pages – on my previous blog site (still available in archive format, although some formatting issues have developed after some code updates).

“Scribble, scribble, scribble,” as Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh said to Edward Gibbon. *

Approximately 500,000 words on this blog as published, public material. Uncounted numbers on my other sites, forum and blog, in draft or other formats.

That’s a lot of writing – and it still doesn’t include the writing I have done for my Municipal World articles or books (more than 75,000 words in two published books, one submitted and in editing at 45,000, and the fourth still being written – about 20,000 so far), my Machiavelli book (more than 75,000 words), and a novel I started more than a year ago (approx. 50,000 so far).

Or the writing I’ve done for an upcoming convention talk, my websites, and the innumerable Facebook (and the pages I maintain), Twitter, LinkedIn and forum posts. The ukulele and harmonica reviews, the motorcycle essays, the blog pages, and pre-blog material, the tequila guide. Or numerous emails to staff and fellow councillors, the work I did for a local political party – including crafting their newsletter.

Continue reading “The (sometimes violent) urge to write”

6,627 total views, 5 views today

Why Spelling Matters

Bad spellingSometimes I despair when I surf through the social media. Technology has empowered everyone to be able to comment, to post their stories, to share their opinion. Yet it has not enabled their ability to compose a sentence, or to spell the words correctly. It has not made us better grammarians, better spellers.

And in my despair, I’m not alone. Others take exception to the general dumbing down and its accelerating spread online.

It’s not just the easily-confused homophones like they’re, their and there, board and bored, your and you’re. What’s heartbreaking about those mistakes is that the differences are simple, easy to understand, and taught at at early age. How do people forget them so easily when they get older and more educated?

And not simply the rather common typos of dropped or accidental letters. You can’t always blame the results of a flaky keyboard on the writer, and few of us have been educated as touch typists or stenographers, so our skills may be lacking. And of course we have to be tolerant of the millions for whom English is not their native tongue, and laud rather than criticize their efforts.

Because I often stump about on the keyboard and hit errant keys while typing or don’t press a key hard enough to register, I can understand how too becomes to, care becomes car, waiter becomes water, quiote becomes quite (and sometimes vice versa).

But  tre for tree? Mony for money? Hosue for house?

We all have spellcheck in pretty much every app, which, if not perfect, at least identifies most common problems. They show up as little angry red underscores as I write this piece; hard to avoid. I must resist the temptation to obey them and correct my examples.

Are we not bright enough to use this ubiquitous technology? Is the problem that we are technologically illiterate? No.

I’ve read these examples from Facebook on one site:

“take it for granite” instead of granted, petafile for pedophine, raping for wrapping, prosentation for presentation, perthetic for pathetic, conceded for conceited, then for than (and vice versa – very common mistake), majic for magic, grammer for grammar, commen for common, loose for loose, forchen for fortune, mourning for morning, preasure for pressure, pea for pee, affense for offence, dose for does, rite for write, colladge for college, homosidal for homicidal, sense for cents, hungary for hungry, intelligense for intelligence, witch for which, waist for waste, wounder for wonder, sewing for suing, logged for lodged, speel for spell, boarders for borders, died for dyed, rite for right, past for passed, beet for beat, go’s for goes, Labia for Libya, colon for cologne…”

Many of which make for humorous reading, but poor communication. Plus…

retarted, inforcing, teecher, recponcibility, sementary, peppol, exhaugstion, decisons, tomarrow, gardian, unfare, unniversity, ludacris, litarecy, commet, tipe, cought, frusterated, driveing, rideing, teecher, blak, tares, beutiful, asain, spint, huunnies, gratest, huray … and then plurals written as possessives – truth’s for truths, musician’s for musicians, or misplaced apostrophes like your’s, and so on…

The list seems endless.

What’s most annoying is that so many of these errors are easily caught by spellcheckers – technology on every device and available for or integral to every browser – that the posters routinely ignore or refuse to acknowledge. But perhaps even if a word is identified by the spell-checker as incorrect, the poster doesn’t know the correct form, and rather than search for it, ignores the warning.

Stopping to proofread, stopping to correct takes too much time and thought in an era of snap judgments and immediate, off-the-cuff answers. It’s a self-inflicted wound.

Where is the pride we used to take in being able to spell, to write well? Have we lost our literary self respect?

Continue reading “Why Spelling Matters”

11,415 total views, 10 views today

Should Latin Return to Ontario Schools?

Teaching LatinWhen I was a young lad, all I ever wanted to be was a paleontologist. Dinosaurs were the most important thing in my life until around age 14 or 15. That’s when I barely scraped through my high-school Latin course. After that, my interests shifted to other, more attainable career goals.

Basic Latin was, at least back then, required for a career in paleontology. Greek, too*. My ability to learn languages was, as a young teenager, not up to the mark. I barely passed Latin, probably given a pass by a teacher who felt sorry for my linguistic disability (and didn’t want to suffer me through a remedial summer class).

Which is odd, given that today Latin fascinates me and I delight in reading about it and its etymological influence in our language.  I often spend time online looking for Latin phrases or translations. I happily struggled with some phrases from Livy when researching my book on Machiavelli.

But back in high school, it was more a drudgery than a delight.

According to a 2010 story in the Toronto Star, Latin was mandatory in Ontario high schools until 1968. It started falling off curricula after that.

For centuries, Latin and ancient Greek were staples of general education, and working knowledge of authors like Cicero and Virgil was required for university admission. Latin was mandatory in Ontario’s high schools until 1968.
But since 1994, the number of Ontario schools offering Latin has fallen to 60 from 159 — a 62 per cent drop. Classical educators face a battery of pressures: tight student timetables, teacher shortages, and underlying it all, the perennial accusations of irrelevance and Eurocentrism.

Irrelevance? Latin has a firm grip on the English language, a millennium-and-a-half after the Roman Empire collapsed. As Wikipedia notes:

…a significant portion of the English vocabulary comes from Romance and Latinate sources. Estimates of native words (derived from Old English) range from 20%–33%, with the rest made up of outside borrowings. A portion of these borrowings come directly from Latin, or through one of the Romance languages, particularly Anglo-Norman and French, but some also from Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish; or from other languages (such as Gothic, Frankish or Greek) into Latin and then into English. The influence of Latin in English, therefore, is primarily lexical in nature, being confined mainly to words derived from Latin roots.

Many neologoisms are based in Latin – especially the “classical compounds,” although the word neologism is actually from the Greek (neo-new, logos-word). But that’s just a reinforced argument for teaching at least rudimentary Greek as well.

The Star story goes on to say,

One American study showed that students who learn Latin in high school have average GPA scores of 2.89 in university compared to 2.38 for those who didn’t study any language and 2.80 for those who studied a modern language. Latin students also consistently out-perform on the SAT.

Because SAT scores are paramount for admission at American colleges, in the U.S. “they can’t get enough Latin teachers,” according to Margaret-Anne Gillis, a board member of the Ontario Classical Association and Latin teacher at Barrie Central Collegiate. Two teachers she helped train had their green cards expedited.

Continue reading “Should Latin Return to Ontario Schools?”

4,588 total views, 5 views today

Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus and CressidaAfter reading the play by Shakespeare last week, I decided to tackle Chaucer’s epic 8,000-line poem about the Trojan lovers, Troilus and Cressida (or Criseyde as Chaucer writes it). It’s a long, somewhat meandering piece that begins, in the Online Medieval Classical Library version:

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!

To thee clepe I, thou goddesse of torment,
Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne;
Help me, that am the sorwful instrument
That helpeth lovers, as I can, to pleyne!
For wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery fere,
And, to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.

Okay, that’s the Middle English original. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But don’t give up yet. Read it aloud. Slowly. Pronounce each vowel as you would in Spanish or Italian. Sorwe becomes sor-weh. Parte is par-teh. You will at least hear, and perhaps feel, the rhythm in his words, the rhyming scheme.

You can hear how Chaucer would have pronounced his words on the Harvard Chaucer site. Or listen to parts of or the entire poem at Librivox.

You can also take several online courses in Chaucer that will help teach his language and style, like this one at Harvard U. The site also offers a handy interlinear translation of several fragments (although not complete poems) where the Middle English line is followed by a modern version. I have a paperback edition of the Canterbury Tales like that and it’s very helpful and quite readable.

Here’s the same two initial verses translated by Kline:

Troilus’s double sorrow for to tell,
he that was son of Priam King of Troy,
and how, in loving, his adventures fell
from grief to good, and after out of joy,
my purpose is, before I make envoy.
Tisiphone, do you help me, so I might
pen these sad lines, that weep now as I write.

I call on you, goddess who does torment,
you cruel Fury, sorrowing ever in pain:
help me, who am the sorrowful instrument
who (as I can) help lovers to complain.
Since it is fitting, and truth I maintain,
for a dreary mate a woeful soul to grace,
and for a sorrowful tale a sorry face.

Somewhat easier to understand, don’t you think? Continue reading “Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde”

12,322 total views, no views today

Not All Words Are Equal, or Used Equally

Dilbert
There’s an economic principle known as the rule of fungibility that states a commodity is equivalent to other units of the same commodity. For example, a litre of gasoline is the same commodity regardless of the brand or source. A bushel of wheat is the same regardless of the country. Ten dollars is ten dollars whether presented as a single bill or in smaller denominations. These are fungible items.

But fungibility doesn’t apply to language. Words do not have an absolute base value, but are rather weighed in their context, and their source. A street thug telling his pack followers to “Kill the bum” is very different from a sports fan shouting the same thing at an empire during a baseball game. Context is everything.

If a neighbour comments, “Taxes in this town are too high. They are killing jobs, hurting homeowners and bankrupting businesses,” it’s a complaint. A fairly common one from a taxpayer. One person bitching to another is lightweight, regardless of the truth of that complaint.

Put it in a letter to the editor, and it gains weight because others read it and may start discussing it. It gains traction.

Put it on social media and you can engage people in discussions immediately and share the comment with people outside your own borders, creating an image of the town for outsiders: don’t move there, don’t start a business there, because taxes are too high. There’s no work there.

It can quickly become damaging to to whole community.

If the media says it in an editorial, it’s bulks up. Even though the media does not necessarily represent any more voices than the editor’s sole view, media still has a patina of authority for most readers.*

And when that editorial gets put online, like the social media comment, it not only spreads the idea, but it helps build – or deteriorate – the community’s reputation for outsiders.**

Continue reading “Not All Words Are Equal, or Used Equally”

6,030 total views, 10 views today

Enter Christopher Marlowe – Again

Back in the late 1990s, I wrote an essay about the “controversy” over who actually wrote the works of Shakespeare. I wrote, then,

Not everyone agrees that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The challenge to his authorship isn’t new: for the last three centuries it’s been the most popular whodunit of literature: trying to uncover the true identity of the author of the world’s greatest dramas and comedies. I can’t think of another author of note in the world who is considered not to have written the works under which his or her name is penned. Even Shakespeare’s many contemporaries are considered the author of the works under their names – Jonson, Marlowe, Fletcher, for example. But not Bill the Bard.

I don’t think of it as a controversy as much as a conspiracy theory, since, like UFOs and chemtrails, it doesn’t get any significant traction in academia. The dating of a particular play, or even if it belongs in the canon, may be controversial, but not conspiratorial.

However, it’s one of the oldest conspiracy theories, at least in the literary world (Atlantis, the Noachian flood, and Freemasonry may be older, but not literary). And I have to admit to still enjoying reading about it. This old conspiracy still has legs. Plus, it has generated serious, intellectual and scholarly debate for centuries.* It’s even become a meme, thanks to the internet.

History PlayA couple of years ago, in my endless search for books on the Bard, I picked up History Play, by Rodney Bolt (Perennial, New York, USA, 2005). I only started to read it last week. Bolt revives an old idea: that Christopher Marlowe, contemporary playwright, was the actual author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Like that of the contemporary favourite among literary conspiracy theorists, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, Marlowe’s life presents a significant challenge to explain in terms of the theory: Marlowe was murdered in 1593.

That’s twenty years before the last known works by Shakespeare were penned (Henry VIII, and Two Noble Kinsmen). de Vere, at least, died in 1604, more than a decade after Marlowe, so his supporters have a shorter time to cover.

The “solutions” for this rather uncomfortable historical fact are either that the person in question didn’t really die, but rather went into hiding and continued to write, or that he (or she in the case of those who attribute the plays to Elizabeth I) wrote them all before, and they were released sporadically after that death.

For Marlowe, it was even more inconvenient to “die” at age 29. Considering he was in university until 1587, that doesn’t leave a lot of time to write the 36-plus plays and numerous poems attributed to Shakespeare. Unless, of course, we was really alive all this time, as Bolt suggests.

Bolt overcomes this significant problem in grand fashion: Marlowe faked his own death and fled to the continent with a copy of Hollinshead’s Chronicles in his chest (Chronicles was, of course, one of Shakespeare’s prime sources). The book is full of Elizabethan spy stories – if nothing else it’s wildly entertaining.

Marlowe has been presented as the actual author of the Bard’s works since at least 1819 (this article dates it to 1895). While it’s accepted that Marlowe influenced Shakespeare, his death usually involves some rather fantastic explanation to make him stand up among the other conspirators.

The argument is generally that a “lout” like William Shakespeare had neither the education nor experience to write about such a wide range of topics as he did. Only a nobleman like de Vere and Bacon had that background. Marlowe, despite being raised in a middle-class background similar to Shakespeare’s (Marlowe\s father was a cobbler) had better tutelage and Cambridge schooling. As it says on Shakespeare-Oxford.com:***

1) It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare’s works could have been composed by the person to whom they are traditionally assigned.

2) The qualifications necessary for the true author of these works are more adequately realized in the person of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, than in the many other candidates proposed in the last two hundred years.

So how did Shakespeare’s name get put on them? The real, noble authors would lose face if they were identified as the authors, so they used a minor actor as their mouthpiece.** Wikipedia notes:

Reasons proposed for the use of “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym vary, usually depending upon the social status of the candidate. Aristocrats such as Derby and Oxford supposedly used pseudonyms because of a prevailing “stigma of print”, a social convention that putatively restricted their literary works to private and courtly audiences—as opposed to commercial endeavours—at the risk of social disgrace if violated. In the case of commoners, the reason was to avoid prosecution by the authorities: Bacon to avoid the consequences of advocating a more republican form of government, and Marlowe to avoid imprisonment or worse after faking his death and fleeing the country.

Savage ChickensThat argument, however, doesn’t hold a lot of water since many nobles in the Elizabethan era wrote plays and poems openly, including de Vere.

It all hinges on how you perceive talent and genius. There’s a certain snobbishness in believing that one needs noble birth and university degrees to have the talent to be creative and artistic. Yet every notion we have of genius says that it belongs to individuals regardless of background, upbringing and formal education.

The argument against Shakespeare as the author overlooks simple plagiarism, too. Shakespeare’s sources are well known, and it’s clear that he lifted many of his plots, characters and settings from the works of others, even some of the dialogue. His genius lay in how he assembled them into his plays.

In Shakespeare, Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes:

You cannot reduce Shakespeare to any single power, of all his myriad gifts, and assert that he matters most because of that one glory. yet all his endowments issue from his extraordinary intelligence, which for comprehensiveness is unmatched, and not just among the greatest writers. The true Bardolatry stems from this recognition.

Personally, I find all of the arguments against Shakespeare flimsy and contrived.  Most of the arguments in favour of alternative authors depend on a lot of circumstantial evidence,  “what-if” suppositions, and interpretations of internal “evidence” in the plays.****

The conspiracy looks for answers in the shadows and ignores those in common sight. And simply because 400-plus-year-old records are incomplete or were kept in ways different from our practices today doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

But back to Bolt. His tale is fascinating reading, and he makes it clear his belief in Marlowe’s authorship is absolute. Quotes from the plays are identified as Marlowe’s work from the first pages. Yet Bolt pulls back in his afterword and teases us by saying it is all the “purest conjecture.” Despite this, and despite the trips along what is clearly leaps of intellectual faith, what Bolt offers is entertaining and well researched, and in the end a rewarding read.

If only all conspiracy theories were so much fun to read.

~~~~~

* In his book, Contested Will, James Shapiro identifies at least 50 persons have been put forward as potential authors of the Shakespearean canon, since the notion of alternate authorship was first raised, in 1785. Wikipedia includes other dates for doubters.

** I’ve heard similar conspiracies about local blogs.

*** The site also boasts an “honor role” of skeptics who doubted Shakespeare as the author. However, simply because others believe in it, does not make it true, regardless of the perceived eminence of the skeptic. Just because some doctors smoke does not make the practice healthy or sanitary, no matter how good they are as surgeons. I cannot see any names of literary scholars or historians on the list, but there are a lot of actors.

**** I’m seldom convinced by interpretations by critics, historians and scholars that try to tell me what the author intended, thought, believed, or felt. Only the author can do that. Interpretations too often assume that what is written is not what was meant.

5,198 total views, no views today

The Consolation of Literature

For Boethius, it was the Consolation of Philosophy*. For me, it’s literature. Not to write about it so much as to read it. Consolation from the act of reading.

And read about literature. Sometimes literature is made more meaningful, brought into sharper focus by analysis and deconstruction. I started reading Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays Were Made (John C Meagher, Continuum, New York, 2000) last night. He opens by saying:

There are as many legitimate ways of reading Shakespeare’s plays as there are of having a conversation, making a meal, or rearing children.

I suppose we assign meaning to whatever we read – the Bard and everyone else – according to our circumstances and moods. I might read Othello now with a different eye than when I read it a few years ago. I might perceive Iago as a more real, more cunning and more malicious villain today than I did then. Iago – who at one point swears by Janus, the two-faced god – tells Roderigo:

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Announcing himself to be a deceiver. Later in Act One, Iago contemptuously says of Othello:

The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

Such villainy, such deception. But of course, without Iago, there would be no drama. We want drama in literature, if not always in life.

Similarly, in The Tempest, which I recently restarted, Caliban seems a darker, more monstrous figure than he did when I first opened the play. Prospero mutters quietly about,

…that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates…

Although there is some redemption to be had, towards the end of the play. There often is redemption in literature. It cleans things up, closes the circle, completes the cycle. But life isn’t like literature – more’s the pity. Redemption does not always pour oil on our troubled waters in life.

Meaning, of course, derives from context, and separate quotes cannot convey that properly. Everyone’s understanding is different, so we read into things what we want to see. Intent and meaning may not be parallel paths. The fullness of the play carries the real meaning, not simply lines drawn at random.

Over the weekend, I read these lines in Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust (part one). Faust himself speaks:

Ah, happy he who can still hope to rise,
Emerging from this sea of fear and doubt!
What no man knows, alone could make us wise;
And what we know, we could well do without.

They seem deeper, richer than I recall them from my first reading. A few pages further, Mephistopheles comments to the audience after the deal with Faust has been signed:

So, knowledge and fair reason you’ll despise,
The highest powers by which you mortals rise.
The Prince of Lies it is that edifies you,
With all the flash of magic he supplies you

Ah, that crafty Prince of Lies. The opposer who leads humankind astray. Satan, if you believe in that sort of thing. Me, I see it as a metaphor for more human manifestation, something archetypal: Coyote, Loki, and Trickster. Br’er Rabbit with evil intent. Or is it Br’er Fox? Either way, a deceiver also creates drama in literature.

Is what we read really what the author intended, or is what comes through the veil of our own circumstances the truer meaning? Literature as the psyche’s mirror? Is it more valid to read Shakespeare, indeed any playwright, novelist or poet, looking for your own intent rather than the author’s?

Meager seems to think so. He says we can never really see the author’s true intent, no matter how we strive to find it:

…a search for the author’s intention is not a proper way to read a text…

I think Harold Bloom might disagree somewhat with him. In his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverside, New York, 1998), Bloom wrote:

…no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than one hundred major characters and many hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages. The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare,the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe… They abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us…

Which suggests to me that he means our own contextual understanding, the through-the-personal-lens view, is limited, and we must search for the greater, even universal, meaning in the author’s intent. Look for the intrinsic, not the extrinsic.

Of course, trying to understand Shakespeare at any reasonable level of comprehension depends on having some grasp of the author’s own background, his education, his cultural, political and social influences, and his language. What I read into, say, Julius Caesar’s comment,

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Or Casca’s description to Brutus of Caesar being lauded by the crowd:

Why, there was a crown offered him: and being
offered him, he put it by with the back of his hand,
thus; and then the people fell a-shouting.

…is filtered through my own experience. My derived meaning may not be even close to Shakespeare’s intent. Shakespeare’s references might be not to historical (Roman) times, or even to the general human condition, but to characters or events at Elizabeth’s contemporary court. It could be a veiled comment on politics of his day.

Reading Shakespeare is always like that: layered. Yet four hundred years later we can still find resonance in his writing. Which is why I still pick him up and read him with awe.

Whether what I read in those words reflects the author’s intent or is merely a mirror to my own imagination I can’t say.

All I know for sure that, opening the pages of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chaucer, Cervantes, Austen or any of a number of works by great writers, gives me respite from the daily turmoil. Consolation and reflection.

~~~~~

* From Wikipedia:

Consolation of Philosophy was written during a one-year imprisonment Boethius served while awaiting trial … for the crime of treason … This experience inspired the text, which reflects on how evil can exist in a world governed by God (the problem of theodicy), and how happiness can be attainable amidst fickle fortune, while also considering the nature of happiness and God. It has been described as “by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen.”

..

 

4,061 total views, 5 views today

10,000 words too many

Scribble, scribbleBeen working the last two-and-a-half months on my latest book for Municipal World. A bit of a challenge, actually – trying to combine marketing, branding, advertising, public relations and communications topics into one coherent yet succinct package has been difficult. There are so many things to say, so many areas to cover, that brevity often escapes me (there are those that say it’s always that way with me…).

I’ve been reading about three dozen books on the topics, and an unknown (but very high) number of websites and white papers on the same subjects. I have almost 2GB of PDF files printed from or downloaded from the Net related to the various topics in the book.

Whatever royalties I get from this book will have to go back to paying for the other books I bought from Amazon and Abebooks. And I still have a half-dozen titles in my cart I hoped to get next week… they’ll join all those other books piled around my computer with little sticky notes like colourful tongues, marking pages with quotes I want to add or ideas I want to ponder (and include). I am glad Susan is a tolerant, loving person, who puts up with my habits and obsessions.

There have been some really interesting areas of research – too many, actually; some very distracting – the psychology of persuasion, the changing nature of PR and public affairs, the historical development of media relations in the last century, ethics in marketing, lobbyists… but most of all, the new emphasis on storytelling as a vehicle for content. That has really caught my attention (so much so that I also got an audio course on storytelling from The Great Courses to listen to as I walk my dog…)

Not to mention the books and reports about metrics, demographics, psychographics, design and video. Books from the earliest of Bernays’ writing (1923) to recent marketing gurus and professors (2012) clutter my floor, my tabletop, and bedside. If nothing more, my bibliography is comprehensive!

Altogether too much time spend reading and not enough in writing and editing. I tend to do that – get engrossed in the topic and absorb it through as many sources as I can. Well, I eventually got my book into rough shape – 50,000 words of it by mid week. Took 2-3,000 out Friday, relentlessly hacking away the excess. Probably do that many again this weekend.

As a result, I’ll still be about 10,000 words over the expected limit. If a typical 8.5 x 11 page of writing has 500 words, that’s 20 pages too many. Sigh. How and what to cut? Big decision the next week, because the first draft is due by month end.

My knowledge of the business of PR and marketing has gone from modest but practical to broad and philosophical, bolstered by come intriguing science about human psychology and what motivates consumers. Lots of new insight into social media and how it has changed PR, too.

Wonder how much of it I will be able to actually use. Not much before my next book has to get started (my fourth book for MW is due this summer), I expect.

Actually I’ll probably take a short break between books to declutter my workspace, and maybe get back to reading a few off-topic books I’ve been holding off in order to cram for this work. Maybe I can donate a few of the read books to the library. And just maybe I can put some more time into a novel I started on last year. And of course, there’s always this blog… and my stories….but I do love to write….

3,777 total views, 5 views today

Propaganda, PR and Spin

What is propaganda? The word gets thrown around easily by people who obviously mean “anything we dislike or don’t agree with.” It’s a pejorative often used by a small group to describe anything official that any level of government puts out, no matter how benign or factual. Libertarians, for example, often grouse that government information about, say the efficacy of flu shots or the safety of fluoridated water, is “propaganda.”*

Ironically, many of these individuals and groups then turn around and create their own pieces, blogs and websites to counter these government’s declarations, and aggressively spread them through the internet and social media while decrying the government’s documents as “propaganda.” Pot calling the kettle black, eh?

Wikipedia describes propaganda like this:

Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed towards influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of an argument. Propaganda is usually repeated and dispersed over a wide variety of media in order to create the chosen result in audience attitudes.

Chapters Indigo imageI usually find Wikipedia a reasonably valid source of information, albeit one that has to be weighed in the balance most times, and I think its description here is a tad weak. It needs enhancement.

In their excellent book, PR: A Persuasive Industry? (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, USA, 2008), authors Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy dedicate the whole of chapter seven to wrestling with a definition that differentiates between public relations and propaganda, and to explain the mechanics of each. While recognizing some of the similarities between the two (and their common origins), they write,

“…there is no real moral distinction: both practices are essentially amoral, capable of serving any cause. However, there are some practical differences. The ubiquity of propaganda as a term arises from the fact that it does not just describe a debating technique or a particular mode of persuasion such as media relations. Instead… it is all-encompassing. Thus propaganda is perhaps best seen as an orchestra of persuasion. Propagandists exploit all possibilities for influencing human thought and action.”

Two key phrases appear in their description: ubiquity and all-encompassing. Morris and Goldsworthy underscore the “sheer scope and scale of the levers available to the propagandist…” in their chapter. They conclude by laying out three distinct ways in public relations is different from propaganda:

  1. It has far fewer levers of influence to pull on;

  2. It exists in conditions where competing persuasive messages are communicated;

  3. The public relations practitioner, unlike the propagandist, doe not have effective powers of censorship or any lasting control over the media.

To believe any small town bureaucracy and government has such power and control, is somewhat delusional. Censorship? Would the local papers or radio stations stand for that? You’d have to believe that town hall gives them their orders on what to print or broadcast.

But there are always conspiracy theorists in every community who see dark shapes in the shadows, where the rest of us just see the chiaroscuro (honest, we’re not building secret mushroom farms in the terminals…).

The word propaganda means “to disseminate” or “to propagate.” In 1622, the Catholic Church created the “Congregatio de Propaganda Fide” (Congregation for Propagating the Faith), which actively and aggressively spread Catholicism in non-Catholic countries.**

In short order, this was shorted to simply being known by the Italian word for dissemination, “Propaganda.” Catholics associated the word with spreading the truth (their truth, of course). Protestants, however, didn’t share their view and associated it with spreading lies. By the 1790s, the word had migrated from religious use to secular activities.

Political propaganda (PP) as a national, government activity played a major role in the Protestant Reformation, and then in the 18th century Revolutionary War between the US and Britain. It played a major role in the Revolution in France and Napoleon subsequently used PP to justify his actions and rule. PP was used in the American “Indian wars” and Civil War of the 19th century.

Chapters Indigo imagePropaganda really came into its own in the early 20th century. Governments on both sides of WWI ran agencies or departments dedicated to propaganda. One of the American practitioners, Edward Bernays, was schooled in its art, and took his skills into the private sector after the war, when he applied psychology to public relations to become the “father of modern PR.” From the early 1920s, PR became a discipline that used psychology and sociology and mass media. Propaganda followed apace.

The Soviets and Nazis were masters at propaganda (and reputation laundering). They both used every tool and technique at their disposal to develop widespread and ubiquitous propaganda. Mao Tse Tung’s Communists would learn from them and take propaganda even further during the Cultural Revolution. Today several nations live under a constant barrage of state propaganda that reaches through all media, culture, faith, government, recreation and business – Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, Tibet among them (Tibet being the subject of Chinese propaganda, of course, not the originator).

Generally no nation is free of some form of government propaganda. However, as Morris and Goldsworthy note, it’s amoral – it is neither good nor bad. It just is. Encouraging flu shots, rabies shots for pets, recycling, and not smoking are propaganda, too. It takes a fairly high level of authority and a lot of money to produce anything effective or widespread, and it isn’t always self-serving.

Every government also practices public relations (sometimes called public affairs, although there is a disagreement over whether PA and PR and the same), which is usually focused on single issues, rather than trying to sustain or create a particular national culture and mindset.

Spin is inherent in propaganda, but is not necessarily present in PR. Of course, PR frames the discussion in the most beneficial light, but this is not always spin. Spin is defined as presenting only the favourable side of the argument and deprecating the unfavourable.

A single flyer – Collingwood Councils’ Half Time flyer – is not propaganda, merely public relations.Some people complain that council doesn’t communicate with the public, others complain when it does.

Nor is it “blatant campaigning at the tax payers’ expense” as one person complained. Since municipal politics are non-partisan (at least in such small urban centres like Collingwood, and despite the overt partisanship of at least one previous mayor), it would not be a very effective campaign tool, since every member of council is listed and pictured, and no individual gets any credit for the accomplishments of the group. Not to mention that not a single one of us can legally declare our candidacy for council until January 1, 2014.

It cannot be called “spin” either, because it did not crow over council’s accomplishments aside from its teamwork, and does not deprecate anything. The inside merely listed what had been achieved for the greater good of the community. It was not “biased and misrepresentative,” simply a list of things council has initiated, passed, or accomplished. It is unclear how, say, approving a new fire station, reducing the debt, keeping taxes at a 0% increase, or resolving the patio issue satisfactorily can be misrepresented this way. I suspect that anything this council did would be objectionable to some people.

Simply because someone doesn’t like a council decision, listing it as an accomplishment for the greater good is a far distance from propaganda. So if we’re going to have a civil discussion about any council activity, we must first lose the emotionally-laden and wildly inaccurate vocabulary, and stick to the facts.***

~~~~~

* In a similar manner, the politically naive uber-right of the USA labelled Barack Obama a “socialist” during the election, which merely showed they were ill-educated in the actual meaning of the term. It would have been as meaningful to call him an Aspidistra, which they might have done, if they could have spelled it.

** Propaganda via mass media can be traced back to Pope Sixtus, who used the new printing press of the late 15th century to attack the Medicis.

*** And stop calling every council decision you didn’t understand or appreciate “hypocritical.” If you truly wanted to understand or debate a decision, you could call or email any member of council and ask for an explanation, instead of whinging in the media about how it baffled and angered you.

12,319 total views, 15 views today

Foolish words that still resonate

FoolFoolosopher. What a wonderful word. Not much in use these days, but it ought to be. It is a portmanteau word, first used in English way back in 1549*, according to my copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. It defines foolosopher as, “A foolish pretender to philosophy.” So foolosophy is therefore the “foolish pretence of philosophy.”

Philosophy comes from the Greek (philo and sophia), meaning, literally, “love of knowledge,” but more generally the word means just knowledge or reasoning (Johnson, 1755).

We suffer from a surfeit of foolosophers, these days, methinks. Thanks to the internet, foolosophers have sloughed the necessity of actually having to think about what they write. It’s inconvenient to actually read what they feel compelled to comment upon. Just think of any public issue or debate and there they are. In the past, foolosophers needed to grab a soap box and stand in a public space to express their rambling ideas and wild theories. Today all they need is a Facebook or Twitter account.

Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.
William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 1

Fool is a word that doesn’t get as much traction as it deserves these days. In an invective-dense culture, fool seems almost cutely antiquated, a little prim and schoolmarmy. When 10-year-olds drop the F-bomb with practiced ease, calling someone a fool lacks verbal punch. The word has such a range of meanings: there’s a world of difference between “my foolish heart,” “where fools rush in,” “fooling around,” “April fool’s” and Mr. T’s exclamation, “Fool!”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, fool has a long genealogy:

…late 13c., “silly or stupid person,” from Old French fol “madman, insane person; idiot; rogue; jester,” also “blacksmith’s bellows,” also an adjective meaning “mad, insane” (12c., Modern French fou), from Latin follis “bellows, leather bag” (see follicle); in Vulgar Latin used with a sense of “windbag, empty-headed person.” Cf. also Sanskrit vatula- “insane,” lit. “windy, inflated with wind.”…
Meaning “jester, court clown” first attested late 14c., though it is not always possible to tell whether the reference is to a professional entertainer or an amusing lunatic on the payroll. As the name of a kind of custard dish, it is attested from 1590s (the food also was called trifle, which may be the source of the name).
There is no foole to the olde foole [Heywood, 1546]
Feast of Fools (early 14c.), from Medieval Latin festum stultorum) refers to the burlesque festival celebrated in some churches on New Year’s Day in medieval times. Fool’s gold “iron pyrite” is from 1829. Fool’s paradise “state of illusory happiness” is from mid-15c. Foolosopher, a most useful insult, turns up in a 1549 translation of Erasmus. Fool’s ballocks is described in OED as “an old name” for the green-winged orchid.
fool (v.) mid-14c., “to be foolish, act the fool,” from fool (n.). The meaning “to make a fool of” is recorded from 1590s. Also as a verb 16c.-17c. was foolify. Related: Fooled; fooling. Fool around is 1875 in the sense of “pass time idly,” 1970s in sense of “have sexual adventures.”
fool (adj.)
“foolish, silly,” considered modern U.S. colloquial, but it is attested from early 13c., from fool (n.).

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

Samuel Johnson defined fool as “one whom nature has denied reason.” To play the fool, he wrote, was to, “act like one void of common understanding.” Both come easily to the mind when contemplating how some current issues are portrayed by various commentators.

In Scots, a marvelllous language**, there are several words for fool: bawheid, cuif, gawky, glaik, gumf, ouf, and tawpie. Foolish is daftlike; to act foolishly is dyte, gype, gypit, menseless, taupie, and unwicelike. Daftlike is another word that appeals to me; daft is a word I heard a lot when growing up, sometimes in reference to me, but generally to the contemporary political situation. It still fits today, don’t you think?

Fool has different meanings in the Bible. In the Psalms, it says,

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1.

According to this site, the Hebrew word nabal translated here as “fool” suggests a lack of perception of ethical and religious claims. It’s used in a moral sense, not an intellectual one. It would be used to describe people who, for example, lie or deceive – making bad moral choices and deliberately misleading people – rather than people of little wit. But clearly fool has other meanings in the Bible. For example, this line from Ecclesiastes 10:14:

A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?

That’s the King James Version, a poetic reading but one laced with translation problems. The more modern English Standard Version is:

A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him?

That’s actually a pretty powerful line; one that can easily be read into many issues, national to local. Foolish words sometimes do multiply, don’t they?

Proverbs has several good lines about fools (ESV):

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.
Proverbs 18:2

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Proverbs 26:3-12

If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.
Proverbs 29:9

Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge. The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving.
Proverbs 14:7-9

Now I’m not a biblical scholar, and my Hebrew is more than a bit rusty, so I can’t say if the same word, nabal, is used in all of these sayings. There were other terms translated as “fool” in the Bible, including ewil (also evil) and kesil meaning thick and stupid, or letz, meaning scoffer (or scorner) and pethi (plural: pethaim) meaning simpleminded. These terms don’t all share the implications of evil or wrongdoing associated with nabal, yet all are frequently translated into English as “fool.”

Ship of fools

In Shakespeare, fools – sometimes referred to as clowns – are often people who play the mythic role of the Trickster, like Loki, Mudhead and Raven. They may provide the springboard for dialogue or action. He also referred to fools in the professional sense: jesters whose job it was to entertain courts, nobles and royalty.

The fool in Shakespeare often acts as an important counterpoint to the drama of the play. Sometimes the fool is the smartest on on the stage, pointing out what the playwright wants the audience to see. Sometimes, he’s just a clown, there to emphasize how much smarter everyone else around him is.

Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipp’d out…
-The Fool, King Lear, I.4.640

and then Shakespeare deflates the fool’s pretensions…

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
-Touchstone, As You Like It, V.1.2217

Perhaps it’s simply my age and upbringing that retains the potency of the epithet “fool,” and gives weight to the term “foolosopher.” They drip with contempt in a way mere profanity cannot. When I read some of the drivel I encounter online, I can’t help but think of these words and no better description seems to fit.

~~~~~

* Another useful word from that era is “knavigations” (OED 1590), which Samuel Purchase used to describe the false claims of navigators. It could be used equally well today to describe the false claims on some websites and blogs.
** Perhaps it’s from my mother’s Scottish heritage that I like Scots. Our talk at home was peppered with Scots words that I didn’t realize until many years later were not common English – when I used words like ken and ilk and produced blank stares.

7,866 total views, 5 views today

Is Tar Baby the new N-Word?

Wikipedia imageAs far back as I can recall, the term “tar baby” was a metaphor in common political parlance for a “sticky situation.” It has no racial meaning in that context, any more than saying “honey trap” or “sticky wicket.” Both have similar, but not synonymous meanings. But in the last decade, “tar-baby” has become the new N-word on the political stage.*

The tar-baby theme is common in mythology from many cultures (referenced, for example, in Joseph’s Campbell’s groundbreaking work, Hero With a Thousand Faces). It represents an apparently attractive situation that traps the beholder and, once you embrace it, the harder you struggle to break free, the more you become stuck in it. I’ve used the term in such a context in several blog posts. But recently, when I was accused on Facebook of using “racist” terms by mentioning a tar-baby situation, I was taken aback, and felt I had to disagree. And do some research.

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHNDKxySTvU]

In 2009, the use of this term in the House of Commons created a mini-cyclone of comment about allegedly racist terminology used in the House. As the blog Unambiguously Ambidextrous, notes:

A controversy erupted in the House of Commons today after Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, used the term “tar baby” in response to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s decision to back away from Stephane Dion’s unpopular carbon tax policy. I have to plead ignorance on the etymology of the noun, as I have always been more familiar with the pejorative.

“On that side of the House, they have the man who fathered the carbon tax, put it up for adoption to his predecessor and now wants a paternity test to prove the tar baby was never his in the first place,” said Poilievre.

This was followed by MP Ralph Goodale’s objections to the term and asked Mr. Poilievre to apologize for the usage:

“In addition to being a pejorative term, which might well prove to be unparliamentary, the parliamentary secretary might consider that there are many authorities both in this country and many others that consider the term racist,” said Goodale.

Stephen Taylor provided a list of references to similar non-parliamentary uses of the term in his blog, none of which seem to have have generated the same storm of controversy. Clara Rising, writing in 2002 about collective religious consciousness, called original sin, “a cultural Tar Baby implacable and immutable, as infinite and as unavoidable as eternity.”

Back in 2006, then-governor Mitt Romney was taken to task for using the term “tar-baby” in a reference to a piece of problematic infrastructure. As a Time Magazine writer commented about the subsequent uproar:

So, is use of the term today a case of insensitivity? Or is the controversy caused by political correctness gone amok?

The latter, I suggest. True, I might not be as sensitive to it as Americans. I don’t live in the same political-racial-social milieu as most Americans; while racism exists in Canada, it is not nearly as overt in our multicultural nation.

In the USA, “tar-baby” has been used as a pejorative (and sometimes as a term of affection). Racial politics are so highly charged among our southern neighbours that it is a treacherous undercurrent in American political dialogue. As the Colorado Springs Gazette noted in this editorial:

Racism in the political sphere today has become so insulting that it makes “tar-baby” seem benign.

Even if mild, a white person calling someone of African-American heritage a “tar-baby” is considered a racist slur, and I can appreciate the sensitivity of the use. But surely there’s a difference between labelling a person, race or group with a term and labelling an issue or situation.

Just as an example, calling a woman a “honey trap” is very different from labelling a common tactic in espionage a honey trap. If I call a woman a bitch, it is very different from calling a tricky shot in golf one. Clearly context matters.

Would there be an issue if we used the metaphor of the “tar-wolf” (from James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee)? Would anyone be accused of slinging racist slurs against aboriginal First Nations people by talking about a “tar-wolf” situation? The two stories are almost identical, aside from the difference between the character molded from the tar. Both the Cherokee and African-Americans shared at least one disreputable part of US history:

If these two stories sound remarkably similar, it is no coincidence.  Before the Cherokee were relocated to Oklahoma in 1838, many were plantation owners and owned slaves.

In the heated cauldron of American politics, or in the adversarial arena of the House of Commons, people are constantly looking for ways to attack opponents for any reason, regardless of the validity or strength of the attack. Unfortunately, this also creates a situation of apparent wrongdoing by making it a focus of media attention. The perception of  racism can create the reality in the public mind that it is there, regardless any logical argument that it is imaginary. Words themselves, no matter how innocently used, become their own tar-babies.

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4D470YSl2Y]

The Denver Post commented on this flap in the US:

The notion that referencing African folklore reveals inherent racism against those of African descent is bizarre.

True, the tar baby has been fundamentally misunderstood by various illiterate racists. In their ignorance of the folklore, such bigots think the term applies specifically to a black person. For example, the late comedic genius Bernie Mac wrote of being called a “tar baby” as a child. But surely we ought not let ignorant racists push us to obliterate cultural knowledge of important African folklore.

This raises the question: where does the reference come from? The Denver Post points out a bit of the history:

“Tar baby” comes from African folklore. Congressman Doug Lamborn used the term to refer to the debt-ceiling negotiations, not the president. And the nationwide smear campaign against Lamborn follows the left’s typical path of character assassination and guilt by association.
In his book, “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell writes of the “celebrated and well-nigh universal tar-baby story of popular folklore.” Campbell refers to scholar Aurelio Espinosa, who in the 1930s and ’40s gathered hundreds of examples of “the tar-baby story” from around the world, varying in detail but all about getting stuck in something.
In America, we know the story best from Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories of the 1800s. But Harris did not create these stories. Instead, he took (some say stole) them from slaves, who brought the stories with them from Africa and adapted them orally.

What’s ironic is that Chandler’s stories were not seen as racist until more than a century later. They were originally treated as they were meant: records of African-American folklore.** As Wikipedia notes:

The animal stories were conveyed in such a manner that they were not seen as racist by many among the audiences of the time. By the mid-20th century, however, the dialect and the “old Uncle” stereotype of the narrator, was considered politically incorrect and demeaning by many African-American people, on account of what they considered to be racist and patronizing attitudes toward African-Americans. Providing additional controversy is the story’s context in the Antebellum south on a slave owning plantation, a setting that is portrayed in a passive and even docile manner. Nevertheless, Harris’ work was, according to himself, an accurate account of the stories he heard from the slaves when he worked on a plantation as a young man. … Many of the stories that he recorded have direct equivalents in the African oral tradition, and it is thanks to Harris that their African-American form is preserved.

Wikipedia has a lengthier list of antecedents, including Cherokee and African folk tales, and mentions one researcher who identified 267 variants on the tale in world mythology.

The New Republic took up the debate, noting in 2011 when the term again raised its politically-charged head:

…the word around the blogosphere, most articulately phrased by David Sirota at Salon, is that Lamborn was using coded language: “[T]he comment reveals how various forms of racism are still being mainstreamed by the fringe right,” as Sirota has it. But before making that judgment, we must ascertain: Is tar baby actually a racial slur?

Certainly not the way the guys before Lamborn were using it. A notion that they were passing a quiet signal to racists is awkward, given the decidedly non-black topics they were discussing. Need we entertain the possibility that Romney was telegraphing a subtle signal to bigots in a discussion of a highway project? Was John McCain preaching a coded message to a racist base in a comment about divorce procedure?

In those instances, a simpler analysis works. Language is all about metaphor, and it is useful to have one to refer to objects or topics that ensnare one upon contact. It’s why the Bre’r Rabbit story the expression traces to has had such legs—as well as why cultures worldwide, including African ones, have equivalent folklore characters. Thus a reasonable analysis is that people reach for this useful metaphor, within the rapid and subconscious activity that speaking entails, unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur.

As little as I respect the Republicans or Harper’s Conservatives, I doubt they would be deliberately and provocatively racist, and, like my use, meant the word as a powerful metaphor that still resounds in popular culture. John McWhorter, at the New Republic, added:

I submit, however, that to a large extent, those who feel that tar baby’s status as a slur is patently obvious are judging from the fact that it sounds like a racial slur, because tar is black and baby sounds dismissive. And here’s the crucial point: that, in itself, is a reality that cannot be denied.

Part of the human propensity for metaphor is that we make semantic associations, which drift and reassign over time. As such, it’s not the most graceful thing to refer to a black figure as a tar baby, and it was quite gracious for Lamborn to apologize. However, to assume Lamborn knew the word was a slur and was passing a grimy little signal to his base is unwarranted here. It is the kind of reflexive and recreational abuse we revile when it comes from the other direction (i.e. Obama as a “racist”).

Tar baby is one of those intermediate cases: The basic meaning is the folkloric one, while a derived meaning, known only to a segment of American English speakers (and to many among them, only vaguely) is a dismissive reference to black people.

There will be gaffes with expressions like these, upon which, in a sociologically enlightened society, apologies will be necessary. However, to insist upon the moral backwardness of the apologist is logically incoherent in reference to this particular term, and as such, less sociologically enlightened than it may seem.

Sounds like a racist slur? Should we not judge a thing by more depth than a bad first impression? There’s a conversation in Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer (played by Allen) is complaining about what he (mis)hears as an anti-Semitic remark by a TV executive:

“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, ‘Did you eat yet or what?’ And Tom Christie said, ‘No, JEW?’ Not ‘Did you?’…JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?”

Which the audience recognizes as both comically over-sensitive on Alvy’s part, but also as a wry comment on how things get misconstrued so easily. Such is the situation with “tar-baby” today. Except not all of the audience seems to get the joke.

The Denver Post editorial concluded:

The irony is that “tar baby” has become its own tar baby, and we’re all getting stuck in it. Several media outlets reviewed my detailed blog posts on the matter, and all involved stole time away from addressing the nation’s pressing problems.

Yet there’s a reason the tar baby folktale has spread through so many cultures. It teaches us something important and universal about human nature. And that’s precisely why we ought not sacrifice the African tar baby story on the altar of political correctness.

I agree with that last line. Metaphors are powerful and memorable because they speak to something larger than just the words. Most come from storytelling and in a few words they encapsulate the entire tale – the characters, the events, the moral. The Colorado Springs Gazette suggests what I don’t believe is a reasonable solution:

Let us all stop saying “tar-baby,” for sure. For using this phrase, Lamborn will pay. He is mired in a controversy that will get worse as he fights against it. But let’s keep perspective. Relative to the racial hatred and insensitivity that permeates political rhetoric of the past and present, this should be far from a major-league scandal.

What next? Will we stop saying “slow but steady wins the race” because it comes from one of Aesop’s fables, and it might be seen as a slur against Greeks? Stop using “the boy who cried wolf” because it might be derogatory towards shepherds? Stop using the “good Samaritan” parable because it might be seen as a pejorative against Palestinians (today’s Samaritan ancestors)? Where will this nonsense end? Will we abandon all of our powerful language and chuck metaphors out the window out of fear someone won’t understand what we’re saying?

Better instead to get our head out of the politically correct sand learn to recognize the context of a metaphor. Stop treating it like a convenient one-size-fits-all racist slur that fits your preconceived political notions, and start thinking critically instead.

~~~~~

* Yes, I know “tar baby” is really two words, but calling it the new N-phrase has no cachet. N-word has a life of its own, larger than mere counting or vocabulary.

** Uncle Remus stories were still popular when I was growing up in the 1950s, and I saw Disney’s 1946 cartoon version (Song of the South) on TV that decade. Even as a child I was able to see the racial stereotypes and exaggerations. Uncle Remus tales were still available in school libraries, too, sometimes alone, other times in compilations of folktales.

Read the tale here. I wonder why the briar patch metaphor from the second half of the tale does not evoke similar revulsion among the politically correct guardians.

8,776 total views, 5 views today

Lost Worlds, Lost Words

Samuel JohnsonMoidered. It sounds like something from the Three Stooges. Or maybe something Tony Soprano would say.”I moidered him.”  But it actually means “crazed,” according to Samuel Johnson in his famous dictionary of 1755. It’s long since left  the stage of English usage.

Scan down another few inches and you’ll find “mome.” No, not “mome, mome on the range” or a reference to Mitt Romney’s bizarre religion. Mome means, “a dull, stupid blockhead” according to Johnson. I can think of a use for that right now. Some words deserve to be resurrected.

Johnson’s wasn’t the first dictionary of English – that honour goes back to The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knight, in 1538. That was a Latin-English dictionary. It wasn’t until 1604 that an English-English dictionary was published: Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall. Others followed between Cawdrey and Johnson. Many have been published since. But Johnson’s was the first truly scholarly and standardized dictionary. He backed up his list of almost 43,000 words with 114,000 quotations. It took him nine years to complete it.*

Words come into and go from English like species in Darwin’s evolving, ever-changing universe. It’s fascinating to go back even a half-century to see what we’ve lost, and to wonder what will happen to the everyday words we use today in another generation or two. It’s one of the reasons I delight in finding books and websites dedicated to forgotten words; it’s like a doorway into a lost world.**

Just flipping through the pages of Johnson’s magnificent work, I find a wealth of words that no longer find a place in our modern language and yet they are so delightful I want to find a use for them in my conversations:

  • Amatorculist
  • Amaritude
  • Bibacious
  • Consopiation
  • Enubilate
  • Flexanimous
  • Pauciloquy
  • Ruricolist
  • Runnion
  • Tremulent
  • Welkin

and many, many more. Of the above, only welkin appears in my recent edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the only one I recognized from that list. I’ll leave it up to you to learn about them and uncover their meaning.

I’d love to be able to write about the consopiation of viewers watching council on TV.

None of these terms appear in either of Jeffrey Kacirk’s two books on forgotten words (Forgotten English and The Word Museum). I have not yet checked Erin McKean’s two-volumes, however (Weird and Wonderful Words and Totally Weird and Wonderful Words) or some of the other, similar books in my library (like Shakespeare’s Words, which is also fun to peruse, although limited to that period and place in English literature and history).

The COED has its share of words that are either uncommon in modern use or are regional terms seldom heard here in Canada. These include (gathered in under 10 minutes of browsing last night):

  • Boffin
  • Bootblack
  • Flibbertigibbet
  • Lucubrate
  • Noddle
  • Offing
  • Puncheon
  • Quidnunc
  • Socage
  • Younker

I actually know most of them, although predominantly from my reading older works rather than from conversation; I doubt any of them are destined to remain in modern dictionaries for much longer. How many people speak of “in the offing” these days? Or call room service for a “bootblack” at a hotel? But flibbertigibbet still deserves to hang around and might find its way into some future blog commentary about local events.

There are many sites about lost words aside from Kacirk’s (linked above): for a sampling, read 20 obsolete words that deserve to make a comeback for a few, or favourite forgotten words, 20 forgotten words,  30 words, and difficult words (not so much forgotten, but it contains many words not in common use). And then, once your appetite is whetted, Google for more. Or get your own copy of Johnson and dive in.

 ~~~~~

* Reading Johnson’s dictionary today is both a delight and a challenge. He was prone to mix his own comments and apply his wit to his definitions, and to sometimes guess at etymologies (often wildly). That makes it an entertaining read. However, in the original, it’s a bit of a slog for modern readers: the typography is antiquated, with ligatures not common in today’s typesetting, and it uses the extended s that looks like an f (so fishing looks like fifhing and song becomes fong,  which always made reading Izaac Walton in the original tough going).

You can download the original in PDF format at archive.org and work through the 2,300 pages onscreen (remember to download both volumes), or you can purchase a reprint (about $60 for both volumes) from Amazon. I suggest one of the modern abridgments. I like Jack Lynch’s 640-page version, but at 3,100 definitions it has a mere tenth of Johnson’s original work. Lynch’s notes and introduction are, however, invaluable.

** You should also try reading Chaucer in his original, Middle English. It’s a challenge, but for anyone interested in language, it’s also a voyage of discovery. A glossary is necessary, however.

6,740 total views, 10 views today

Taking words out of context

Out of contextCouncil, along with the media, the auditor general, the CBC, our MP and MPP,and a few others, were recently sent a letter complaining about council’s decision to build new, year-round recreational facilities without raising taxes.

Fair enough. Everyone has the right to write letters. We’re open to public criticism, even after the issue has been decided, contracts signed, and council (and most of the town) has moved on. You can read the letter on the EEU.

The letter contains two quotes – both by dead Americans – to open and close the letter.

Because I am a bit of a quote-authenticity fanatic (see my other blog posts about quotations and mis-attributions, here and in the archives), I immediately did some online sleuthing to see if they were actual quotes, not the usual internet/Facebook misquote. I also wanted to learn under what context they were written. I naturally assumed the letter writer chose them for some relevance to the issues raised in the body of the letter.

Here’s the first one:

“It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” Thomas Jefferson

Yes, indeed, to the writer’s credit, that was written by Thomas Jefferson. However, it is significantly out of its original context here. It comes from Query VII of Jefferson’s book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781, revised 1782).

Thomas Jefferson wrote his book in response to several questions about Virgina posed by a “Foreigner of Distinction.” Query VII is a response to the question, “The different religions received into that state?”

Here’s a fuller quote – not all of his response by any means – from Jefferson’s reply to that question. The line that was taken out of context is highlighted. You can see that Jefferson’s comments were made in relation to how science (reason) was treated by religious authorities in historical times:

“Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith.

“Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion.”

To me, the telling points come later in this excerpt: Jefferson’s comment about the coercion of public opinion by fallible men (referring to the fallibility of government or church to determine a question outside its demesne), and the undesirability of uniformity of opinion (referring to the church’s insistence in uniformity of belief in the face of such challenges).

Both might be considered somewhat relevant to politics, but were not chosen, perhaps because they might be construed as unflattering to the cause of the writer.

Jefferson’s book – his only work published in his lifetime – is a rambling commentary on the State of Virginia, religion, law, reason, morality, geography, trade, faith, science, agriculture and politics. His words have nothing to do with Canada, Ontario, Collingwood, or municipal recreation. Canada barely gets a mention in this book – in reference to the height of Niagara Falls.

Does the writer draw some connection between Galileo and the Inquisition, and Collingwood Council and a swimming pool? Adams might have some fun with that on his Eastend Underground blog, but I struggle to see the connection. Perhaps I’m too close to the issue to see such metaphorical relationships.

The full text can be read here: avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffvir.asp

Jefferson also wrote (in Query VI) what strikes me as more relevant to the debate:

“Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”

To be fair, he was writing about the origin of the then-mysterious fossil seashells in limestone, not about ice pads and swimming pools. However, that again might have been turned back on the writer, so perhaps it was also ignored for chance of being misunderstood.

My favourite Jefferson line from that book is also from Query VI:

“Our quadrupeds have been mostly described by Linnaeus and Mons. de Buffon. Of these the Mammoth, or big buffalo, as called by the Indians, must certainly have been the largest.”

This, I realize, may have equally small relevance to recreational facilities, but calling a mammoth a “big buffalo” does sound swell. I’m sure I can find a use for that some day.

Let’s move on.

The second quote is this:

“Whenever men take the law into their own hands, the loser is the law. And when the law loses, freedom languishes – Robert Kennedy”

Again, the writer was correct: it was actually written by Robert F. Kennedy. But I had to find out when and why. That took a bit more work, because the entire text it was gleaned from is not online in one place (unless it is sequestered in Google Books). However, enough of it is extant that I could piece together a significant portion, and appreciate his intent.

Robert – Bobby – Kennedy was the US Attorney General in 1961. He spoke these quoted words in an address to the Joint Defence Appeal of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, Chicago, July 21, 1961. That speech was a comment on the evils of segregation, then being challenged in the US courts and on the streets of the southern states. These excerpted lines are in particular reference to the actions of the state police who were beating and jailing the Freedom Riders (anti-segregation activists) in Alabama.

You can learn more about that speech and about the civil rights movement in a book called, The Politics Of Injustice: The Kennedys, The Freedom Rides, And The Electoral Consequences of Moral Compromise, by David Niven: buy it on Amazon.ca

Civil Rights protestIt’s a fascinating period: the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the beatniks, the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the Berlin Wall, Khrushchev, the Avro Arrow,the Diefenbaker-Pearson debates, the Space Race…. Although I was young then, I still remember the TV news showing the marches and the protests. I remember rather fondly the folk music of the day. However, I would hesitate to equate the Freedom Riders – who put their lives on the line to end a social injustice in America – with a protest against an ice rink. I am quite sure we did not engage the dogs or the water cannons on the protesters, even though they were demanding higher taxes.

In that same speech, Kennedy said,

“My faith is that Americans are not an inert people. My conviction is that we are rising as a people to confront the hard challenges of our age-and that we know that the hardest challenges are often those within ourselves. My confidence is that, as we strive constantly to meet the exacting standard of our national tradition, we will liberate a moral emery within our nation which will transform America’s role and America’s influence throughout the world-and that upon this release of energy depends the world’s hope for peace, freedom and justice everywhere.”

See here. Kennedy was speaking about the injustice of the segregation that kept African-Americans from enjoying the same rights that their white counterparts in the south enjoyed (like being able to vote, attend university, eat in any restaurant). Kennedy was a very vocal advocate for civil rights. Canada, on the other hand, had civil rights, and shared none of the social unrest around this issue.

I don’t recall that Kennedy ever turned his oratory skills on the issue of municipal swimming pools, but I have not read all of his speeches. I just know this speech was not about them. Without that context to link them, I’m sorry, but I just can’t see the relevance of this quote.

If we’re going to pull phrases out of context, I would prefer to use this one from the same speech, noted above:

“Americans are not an inert people. My conviction is that we are rising.”

Like the lines used in the letter, it has nothing to do with Canada, municipal politics, or swimming pools, but it sounds like something you can have fun with. What’s life without a sense of humour, eh?

Kennedy made another speech to the B’nai B’rith in Chicago, in October, 1963. You can read it here. It’s quite powerful – again it’s mostly about freedom and civil rights. But like all of his speeches I’ve read, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Collingwood or municipal process.

I digress. The issue is about using words taken out of context as inspirational quotes, or to ascribe some credibility to an argument. When readers realize neither quotation is relevant to the issue, it makes you wonder why they were chosen. Without contextual relevance, where is the meaning? That’s a question wise readers will ask, and they may extend it to the rest of the letter.

Jefferson and Kennedy made many wise, pithy comments in their lifetimes, and deserve our respect and recognition for their lives and their wisdom. That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to take their words out of context for your own agenda.
~~~~~
PS. The answers to the questions posed in that letter can be read here: here, here and here. You can also watch Rogers Cable 53 for a re-run of the council meeting where our CAO, Mr. Houghton, made his public presentation explaining the process and how staff arrived at a recommendation (which was not provided to the local media, however). All questions have been answered. Many times over. There are no more answers because the town, and council cannot continue to say the same thing over and over.

9,083 total views, no views today

And again, more mis-attibuted quotes online

Faux Mark Twain quote“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.” Allegedly by Mark Twain, but unlikely, and not found in any published source I have of Twain’s quotations. Online sources, of course, don’t count as authorities because they lack all credibility.

As one person commented on Yahoo,

The fact that “Quora attributes it to him” is worthless. Quora is yet another one of those idiotic “quote websites” that misquote and misattribute things all the time.
Note that Quora doesn’t bother to give an actual citation — what book was it from, what page, etc. Without a full citation, you have no assurance that this was said by Mark Twain or Herbert Hoover or some random dude who made it up yesterday.
It doesn’t appear (as Twain’s or anybody else’s) in either the 14th or 15th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I suppose it’s possible that it comes from the newly released edition of his Autobiography, but I think it’s more likely that it’s just something misattributed by some stupid “quote website.”

These comments are applicable to almost every quote site I’ve found, with rare exception such as wikiquote.org. Most of these so-called quote sites are wastes of electrons because they share without qualification, without verification, without confirmation.

Faux Picasso quoteEvery Child is an Artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up. Pablo Picasso. Again, another unsourced quote that does not appear in any reliable printed source such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, or on Wikiquotes. In fact, not of the reliable quotations from Picasso I have read ever mention children at all.

Sometimes this comment is noted as “”Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Other variations include “Every child is born an artist” and this one: “Every child is born an artist. The problems begin once we start to grow up.”

I have not been able to identify the actual source of these words; every Internet site I have encountered sheepishly repeats the words or images, without bothering to identify where or when Picasso said them. Personally, I expect to discover they were made by some more modern educator rather than the late artist Picasso. Or perhaps part of it was taken from this Talmudic comment on poem by Isabella McCullough:

Every child is a poet.
Every child is an artist.
Every child is a philosopher.
Every child is a theologian.
Every child is an actor.
Every child is a dancer.
Every child is a nature-lover.
Every child is an explorer.
Every child is a comedian.
Every child is a skeptic.
Every child is a teacher.
Every child is a boundary pusher.
Every child is a truth speaker

Martin Luther King half-quote“Everything we see is a shadow cast by that we do not see. The invisible is a shadow cast by the invisible.” Martin Luther King Jr. This is actually a quote by King, but not the full portion, so it’s misleading. It has been taken out of context and turned into a soppy, New Age bumper sticker slogan.

It is taken from a sermon given by King on April 21, 1957, titled “Questions that Easter Answers.” The full quotation is:

Easter tells us that everything we see is a shadow cast by that we do not see. The invisible is a shadow cast by the invisible.

In other words, King wasn’t making some deep Platonic comment about the shadow-vs-truth nature of the world, but rather a very specific observation on the nature of Christian belief, and even more specifically about what the Christian observance of Easter teaches Christians. It is not a general comment on life, nor was it ever meant to be used as such.

Comments taken out of context like this are as dangerous and stupid as mis-attributed quotations.

Mark Twain actually said, (in a letter to George Bainton, 15 October 1888, solicited for and printed in George Bainton, The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners (1890), pp. 87–88.
sourced from Wikiquote): “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Literacy comment A book commits suicide every time you watch Jersey Shore. Just a peripheral comment on the nature of literacy; watching TV rather than reading is one of the reasons people are not critical thinkers, able to actually identify or confirm whether these are real or faux quotations. Most people simply pass them along unchecked because they confirm some sort of existing belief – “epistemic closure” it’s called.

59,209 total views, 40 views today