What if our government actually listened?

A Yale history professor’s powerful, 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today:

1. Do not obey in advance.

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution.

Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics.

When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.

Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.

When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out.

Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk.

This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world.

Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state.

The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can.

Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life.

Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries.

Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed.

If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can.

If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot.

The [current] president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

This article was originally published as a Facebook post by Timothy Snyder, the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

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Existential Change

We generally change in response to what the past has done to the present, but frequently, we then ignore, even deny, what the present will do to the future. One day our past damages will exceed our resource for planned change. Ultimately, the grinding force of universal changes will sweep everything in, but we can’t do much about that. Meanwhile, how we change ourselves is ultimately our responsibility, and a clear definition of who we are.

From star dust to star dust, we are nothing special in the cosmos. There is no specialness, except what we create in the scope of our existence. In the year of a planet’s existence, life is but a millisecond, sentience a nanosecond, and then it’s over. In galactic terms, all sentient populations are effectively alone, incommunicably distant in time and space. The Here and Now is the universe we live in. Humans are all the sentient beings we will encounter and each of us is the only being of any kind we will fully encounter. Each of us lives in her or his own universe in effect. We can live there alone or we can try to merge into other universes, but our knowledge is our existential limit.

The Universe is everything we know; beyond our knowledge is Nothing. Heaven and hell are just our hopes for and fears of the Nothing. The Here and Now is the only thing we have. It is the only thing we can effectively change, and the effect will be the next here and now. Hopes and fears peer into nothingness. Only doing changes our course from one here and now to the next. Only learning grows our universe. We learn from what has been to predict what might be and that allows us to shape a plan.

A plan is a hopeful outcome of a calculated change, a shift in trajectory, an action taken or a stasis maintained. A plan guesses at the shape that will emerge from the nothingness of the future. As the future shapes itself into the here and now and slides into the past, we assess the accuracy of our planning.

Ultimately, each of us manages this process in his or her own universe, individually or in commune with others. Like vehicles on the roads, our plans and our changes will impact others, and others’ plans and changes will impact us. And like the galaxy, the solar system and the planet, the roads offer no support for the hopeful plans of the drivers. For all we can know, the road may end in a great void just over the next rise, or the truck on our left may suddenly swerve to the right. The only laws that truly apply to drivers’ planned changes are the laws of physics. What we see and hear and perhaps feel from the driver’s seat is all we know along with some rules of the road we have been led to believe. It is our known universe. It is our immediate knowledge of the here and now.

Knowledge is all we can have any faith in. Everything else is guess work, and its more courageous brother, belief, each weighting the wager placed on an outcome. Belief is not knowledge. Belief is a shroud to disguise ignorance. If knowledge enlarges our universe and who we are, then ignorance diminishes those.

This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit…”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Gaining knowledge moves our here and now closer to heaven, while ignorance moves us closer to hell. The greater knowledge is on Earth then, the closer we are to heaven on Earth. Humans’ incredible capacity for learning is what most elevates us on the planet; not-learning then is bestial.

Learn to live.

Never a Truer Word

Things are not going well with the world. I have recently pondered the overwhelming, perhaps overshadowing, general sense of dysfunction, this decay of civility we now endure. It blares out of politics, economies, technologies and even organized religions. It erodes our quality of life, our access to necessities, our feelings of safety, our sense of humanity. As is natural, we strike out at the things that threaten us, usually people whom we are predisposed not to like. And we declare our injuries, real and anticipated, demanding justice, yet accepting revenge which is more tangible.

Even when justice and/or revenge is achieved, the sense of impending doom remains and seems to envelope us in a vague fog of unknowing. A place of victimization and powerlessness becomes the abode of tens of millions, even hundreds of millions. Much of what we hear when we listen are the screams of rage and fear. Reality is cracking.

There is a churning cloud of words and images hovering behind, around and over people, a cloud so unstable and so filled with threat, yet so impervious to any efforts to quell it or fend it off, that it can only be called the Darkness. It is as if the Void and the Chaos that were banished in Creation have truly crept back in, not from the starry heavens, offended by arrogant space venturers, but from the inner depths of the very people whom it afflicts.

It is as if malignant insecurity, buried under the nurturing soil of civilization is reaching up from its grave to fuel the chaos of misinformation, accusation, incrimination and virulent conflict that surrounds us. Nothing is as it seems; everything is confuted with evil forces reckoning to destroy each of us, isolated and confused. Yet, it is from within ourselves that this malignancy originates; it is our own internal dysfunctions, made manifest and fed on by parasites of power, that have created the Darkness that threatens us. We feed the turmoil we dread.

Walt Kelly’s words have never been more true, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” (Pogo, 1971)

Pogo quote

 

Corrupting the English language for fun and profit

an icon

 

Here’s an icon representing Mary and Jesus. Speaking to it is speaking directly to Mary and Jesus.

 

an app

Here’s an icon representing text on a page inside a folder. Clicking on it, on your desktop, opens an app that you can type text on and read from.

 

a trainHere’s a picture representing the Orient Express. Speaking to it or clicking on it does not open any doors, allow one any access or (sigh) take one on an iconic journey. Yet the journey is “iconic” because it represents another opportunity for marketeers to misuse the ‘new word’ in Madison Avenue’s vocabulary. How very per-adolescent.

And awesome! Or wait…it doesn’t really inspire awe.
What is awe anyway. Awesome? Awful? Ah shucks? Ah well. Ah! Inspiring AH! Ahsome!

It’s not the Queen’s English anymore!

Outbursts of hostility seem more frequent?

It’s the resurgence of bigotry. It is an eddy in the cosmic tides, the universal back-and-forth between entropic chaos and structured order. How many genesis texts proclaim this very observation? What is troubling, on the side of the order that chaos opposed, is mostly that our order is what defines us, and defines our values. Of course, for individuals who attack the ordered group, order seems to devalue the strong self-interest that defines that individual. Everyone tries to do the “right thing.” Generally we accept Right and Good to reside on the side of Order, while Wrong and Bad imbue Chaos. That is a socially accepted evaluation: society being an ordered collective. The chaotic have values too, derived from a world view that tends toward: what is good for me and mine is Good, and what is bad for me and mine is Bad. The good and bad can be valued as right and wrong.

The undeniable truth of chaos and order has no value component. So acting out in impulsive, seemingly random directions has roots in the cosmic impulse to chaos, but it’s only wrong to the tidal swell of order. Acts of bigotry then are simply acts of chaos attempting to assert itself against order, while the societal response will be to suppress and even extinguish those chaotic elements. Extinguishing chaos will not happen of course, because in the dispassionate, nonjudgmental scope of the cosmos, we must have both forces. As Ravana said to Rama: each of us defines the other.

In the here-and-now of earthly existence, this cosmic interplay both condemns and forgives our actions in these days or terror and terrorism: condemned because we cannot escape these rending forces, which actually help to pull people closer together as victims and allies, and yet forgiven because we are all victims of ultimately primal forces, which cannot ever pull us all together. As chaos perpetrators, we lash out energetically to fend off what we perceive to be the domination of an adversarial order. As communities, we huddle together, cloaked in self-righteousness against the irrationality of bigotry. Yet, who we are is not as a result of the fact of their birth, but is a result of when and where we were born. All individuals are products of their conditioning, and all are acting out their own conditioned perception of what the world is.

I offer two cautions here. One is that chaos is ultimately ungoverned and unconstrained, seeing wrong and right uniquely, but seeing it. It would be easy to fit this to the term “freedom.” Freedom however must be freedom from something negative, not freedom from order or freedom from everything. The other is that order is governance which defines right and wrong and shapes us to it. It would be easy to try to define order as right or wrong, but it become an impossible circular rationale. Order is a state, like liquids or solids. Within that state things are ordered, but different things can be ordered differently. While things in an ordered state are indeed ordered, they are right. Therefore, there are no right or wrong orders. Understanding this leads us to examine acts of bigotry and hostility in better light.

Acts of hostility are in fact increasing. It’s not about white people, or Americans or Christians; it’s about individuals. The rise in individual rights and the sense of greater individual freedom has created the tinder. Astute individuals have recognized this development and now tap its potential. Tinder in place, a spark from the supremacist leadership has ignited the conflagration of hatred and violence against that which is identifiable as different, that difference being a contrivances of the same leadership. The messages have been about religious groups, color groups, language groups, national origin groups and even gender, as if the world’s reality descends from the commonality of these groups. That’s simply wrong. These commonalities bring individuals together to be sure, but the individuals define the group; the group does not define the individual. What the attacks achieve is often ironic, as it welds the attacked group into a tighter order and helps shape group members to the conditions the group defines. Meanwhile, individuals without the ordered conditions of such groups, who labor under ignorance, fear and hatred will also come together with their commonality, newly revealed by the manipulative leadership. These individuals bring unique perspectives to the group; they do not get them from the group. They do not bond in order to generate their stability; they are left with only negative definitions, anti-order. Seeing impunity under the masters of the new regime, this group of bullies can and will turn their bigotry against anyone who is ‘different’ and probably vulnerable. They have been told they are right; so, all difference is wrong. Remember we all define right and wrong either individually or by consensus.

Chaotic individuals derive validity for their values of self-interest from compatible, powerful and often simplistic ideologies. Ordered individuals derive validity through shared values and shared interests – one for all, etc. Hence, chaotic soldiers fight for god and country, while the ordered soldier fights for the good of comrades and citizens’ safety and well-being.

So the ordered groups, the ordered societies can define right and wrong to maintain the smooth operation of their group, and this is done by consensus; we are shaped by one another. On the other hand, disconnected individuals – social free radicals, as it were – are aimed at targets, generally defined by their apparent difference for the mainstream, real or imagined, by manipulation from without. As individuals, we are all subject to the defining influence of others.

Because it is part of the universal dynamic, this situation has always existed. It has always been used by malignant rulers first to mobilize destructive forces against relatively defenseless victims, as a common enemy, thus creating a new, seemingly powerful if deluded cadre which can be used as a weapon of power and terror. The rulers then redefine the bigotry group as a racial or national champion that can be moved against other, new, stronger targets on the way to domination.

Perhaps the good news in this chaos versus order view is that ordered forces cannot be turned around in short order. Only after the free radicals are sufficiently well established as a group to at least appear to be the mainstream will the existing organizations begin to realign, and thoughtful individuals, who value genuine order, will continue to exist, first as dissidents and later as the new free radicals. The universal tides will not be stopped.

So remember: “When good people do nothing, bad things happen.” The question will always be, “Who are the good people?”

Response for Stanford course on Poverty and Inequality module 2

It is said that nothing can be done about poverty. However, we probably know that many who say that, and who know it to be false, are masking a frustration at best or unwillingness at some worse level with efforts to invest in trying to do something. However as a nation, we widely suffer from two other ‘myths’ about effecting change in anything, which seriously hamper achieving lasting effects in anything. First, we expect relatively immediate results that allow us to terminate the effort. Second, we assume that anything involving large numbers of people must be handled by large institutions.
Poverty has certainly been around a long time, and it is clearly much worse in other places in the world than in the U.S., and that makes it look pretty intractable. It may appear rather like a cancer on humanity. So as with cancer, it seems reasonable that we would not say, "Oh, well, Humanity, you have cancer. So sorry. There’s nothing we can do." Poverty is certainly persistent and pernicious, and as with cancer, we must attack the cancer and its causes. We must continue that attack without looking for a quick return on investment, and with the understanding that we might not always have successes and we may never reach our goal in our life time. Furthermore those affected by poverty are people who feel the pain of that poverty. Grasping the idea of the suffering of millions of individuals, not just data sets, may suggest a way to strengthen solutions.
We too often expect institutions to handle all our big problems. We pay taxes that go out in Medicaid payouts. We contribute to food shelves. Often we write a check to an organization and consider our contribution to the cause has been made. These are all good things to do, but they are seriously diluted by overhead, and their work is often spread so thinly in has little effect. To support those efforts, volunteers working with individuals and families are already a valued asset, but there are few, and in many areas, no organized institutional efforts to locate, train and match up volunteers to individuals and families in need. In my city, if one person in 100 volunteered 1 hour a week to a child or family providing some of the factors we know lead to better school results, we might see an improvement in academic performance of roughly 3,000 students, about 10% of the public school population. A good thing about volunteering is that it is almost without cost; the best thing is seeing the direct results of the effort.
Just as with institutional efforts, the work must be ongoing – conception to graduation is about 19 years – and successes are never guaranteed. Combined with institutional programs, organized volunteering could make a significant impact.
This would be a culture change for American people, of course, and that’s a whole other Stanford course, I’m sure.

Squirrel are rabies carriers! Don’t walk near trees!

It’s the visceral 21st century. Conflict and alarmism charge your adolescent addiction to adrenalin. In this scary world, free marketeers, smart as well as greedy, are correctly reading the winds they have helped to create. They have picked up on the highly charged CNN delivery style for getting and leading viewers’ attention and offering them more that household cleaning products. Now you can go so far as to diagnose and prescribe for all the dysfunctions and diseases you are beset with as you drive a new car and have new carpet installed.

Even stalwarts such as BBC are rowing in the blood red river. It’s no longer just laundry soap advertisers who are surfing this wave of angst and fear. BBC needs massive government funds. They need to look friendly to the Brexit fanaticists trying to wrench the U.K. out the E.U. And the science community has fallen into the funding morass as well. We want to know all the threats that surround our paranoid selves, and science can find funding to do that.

The media glean scant evidence from often bad science to show us in vividly colored surging animations how our globe is overrun with disease, famine, drought, floods, storms and, the highest drama, war. In total, this churning, thrilling anarchy is merely a well-established understanding of humanity cultivated by the marketing industry and disseminated by ubiquitous media.

Aristotle said twenty-five centuries ago: among appeals to reasoning, appeals to authority and appeals to emotions, the last is by far the most effective. Knowing that, I have written into this piece several highly charged, low content adjectives, and assiduously avoided a complex line of reasoning. If you already get it, you may, I hope, have laughed a little sadly or at least nodded your way through it. If it felt serious, you may have gotten a little more rational as you fought back your sense of being used.

Our common enemy is conflict

During the Viet Nam War, it was clear that the demonstrations, while they did not create the divide in positions, did amplify it. There we were in a Wagnerian opera, screaming across our mystic gulf with suspended disbelief. Our “rightness” and their “wrongness” were absolute and diametrically opposed.

This division, which had many less than desirable collateral effects, subsided with the revelations of the Watergate cover up, a pathetic collapse of one camp. Among other issues, such as that in the Guardian article herewith (“Protesting Trump’s immigration policy? You might be accidentally helping him.”), the resistance, a high energy expense, must be maintained until one side or the other fades. Then the remaining side must pull back as well. Attempting to overwhelm the weakened camp, as the Republicans seem to be attempting, simply reinvigorates the insurgency.

The only true victors will be those who, when the opportunity, arises will attempt to put us back on a track of collaborative problem solving, and effectively sideline the zero-sum, single issue activists. No one can win until we all stop trying. Our common enemy is conflict.

How progressed we are!

Do you remember when writers knew what their words meant and could use them in a way that produced clarity, even precision? Of course you don’t. Probably because such a time never really existed. Perhaps I should say—Because such a time probably never existed. If you do not see the difference in the two causal clauses, you may struggle a bit with what follows.

We have achieved an unintended consequential situation through almost universal education—a situation exacerbated by the science-technology-engineering-math emphasis in that education. I won’t belabor what I believe is the broadly detrimental effect of that emphasis, but I hope you will be able to discern its complicity in the changes we see in writing today. The situation is that more and more often I see uses of the English language that would have earned an editorial circling in any middle school English classroom as recently as 50 years ago. And yes, in a language that only had two changes of amount in the last 400 years, those being the loss of the second person singular pronoun and the loss of the final “t” on the end of singular third person verbs, the last 50 years represent a recency.

I hasten to add here that 400 years ago, the written English word sprung from an attempt to capture the English spoken word of the day. Greek and Latin came to Tudor England as print, and so were as formal and consistent as the few Greeks and Romans, who were educated enough and had the time to write, had written them. Ben Jonson wrote English words that sounded like the 16th century courtiers among whom he lived and for whom he wrote. William Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd wrote a broader language for an audience of all levels of wealth and education in London among whom they lived and for whom they wrote. They spelled and arranged the spoken language as they heard it every day.

And that brings me back to my point: we are now a 21st century loosely applying 16th century spelling and grammar strategies. Unfortunately as writers, many of us lack the command of all the variants of English as spoken by perhaps a billion people around the world. So modern writers cannot match Shakespeare who had only to negotiate English for the several hundred-thousands of Londoners.

On average, current writers probably have less than half of Shakespeare’s writing vocabulary, and of that, many writers are weak in the nuances among our rich vocabulary amalgamated from so many language sources. Writers tend to avoid many of the most precise words, because they haven’t heard them in contexts enough to feel comfortable using them. Worse however, some writers boldly misuse these words, usually to their detriment. Sometimes the misuses result in misunderstandings, more often they result in readers’ dismissal of an entire text as ill-informed or ill-conceived.

Evidence of our current lexical limitations is the trend toward “verbing”. Shakespeare observed that things in the world existed without names. Many of these as yet unnamed things were brought to light by the sciences and explorations of the times. Many of today’s writers have had to respond similarly. Such responses have been appropriate to the evolution of the language. As it happens however, “verbing” new words has become a trend, and trends can create blind inertia. Such inertia has taken us down to courses.

One course trends can take us is to general meaningless, the other to redundancy. Both courses lead to a diminishment of complete lack of clarity. In the first case, a word is applied to a new thing, but failing any prior knowledge of the use of the word, its inertia pushes it to further applications to other more or less related things. Eventually the word’s clarity of meaning begins to wander away from its original meaning into a cloud of impression. An historical expression of this type is the word “wonderful.” In Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus was, as witnessed, wonderful. That is, it was full of wonder, that which is exceptional for which we can have no explanation. We wonder how that could be. So how did it transmogrify into the expression, “I had a wonderful time?” Certainly this does not mean the speaker had a time so exceptional that he or she wonders how it could have happened. Yet It creates the impression that “wonderful,” in this case, is more courteous than the plain word “good.”

“Verbing” exemplifies our penchant for the appearance of creativity with the result of demonstrating a pointless effort. “Verbing” is simply using words, usually nouns, as verbs. There is a long history of it. “Housing” people or things almost certainly took the idea of providing a house or shelter for someone or something into a verb, “to house.” (how-s to how-z) So well established are some of these words that they can take on all the functions of verbs, actions, participles and gerunds, which may then act as verbs, adjectives and nouns respectively. Hence, the gerund “housing” can be a house or shelter provided for someone or something other than the provider, e.g. public housing. “Verbing” is easy; decline a noun. In most cases, “verbed” nouns replace currently used and understood words or phrases, while suggesting that there is some difference from that word or phrase. Is “gifting” then different from “giving” or is it just a stop on a pointless trend? Ironically, the word “give” appears to have evolved from the word “gift” through the dropping of the final “t.” English has a particularly rich vocabulary. It contains roughly 100,000 words depending on how you count various forms of a word. Why would we ever need to invent new verbs from old nouns when there are tens of thousands of old verbs we simply never knew about or used? “Verbing” does not show creativity; it show a poverty of vocabulary.

We misuse and invent words precisely because we have not been taught the use of nearly the numbers of words necessary to cope with the broad, deep and complex topics with which we must deal. We don’t hear enough words in the crib, at the dinner table, on the bus, in the school or office or laboratory. A hundred years ago, few people wrote anything that received a wide reading. Serious writing was academic or legal, and it was read by academics and lawyers. Journalism was “yellow,” sensational and often misleading. Literature was a luxury of a growing, but much smaller, educated middle class. But now writing is free and easy via the Internet, reading is done by the vast majority of the population, many of whom lack the knowledge or the cognitive skill necessary to distinguish the appearance of the language from its deeper conceptual content. The greatest amount of what appears in print, ink or electronic, is vapid, ill-informed and sloppy, roughly emulating the casual register of speech, applying 16th century coarsely phonetic spelling—for which spell-check is both cure and disease—and devoid of any sense of rhetoric that would make a complex idea comprehendible. It is because nearly everyone can write for the masses and neither the mass of writers nor the mass of readers have been adequately taught their language that our expectations have been so reduced that we can accept the use of ”then” for “than” in a respectable national press article. Perhaps knowing that most readers don’t know the difference, the writers and publishers don’t care about being precise.

The quality of writing has not changed over time, but the numbers of writers and the number of readers to whom they are exposed has mushroomed in the past 100 years or so. Education has changed however. The trend in education and in American society in general has been to broaden into the workers language and away from the language of scholarship. An education in which language, rhetoric, structure, semantics and syntax figured has always produced writing that is clear and precise. A lack of attention to the components of clear discourse or a simple lack of education has left thoughtful writing and reading out of the lives of many. We are left to wonder what would have precipitated from an alternative trend that would have broadened the language of the workers into the language of scholarship, if that were even possible. And assuming that such a trend was not a selected natural mutation, what agenda has promoted and supported the dumbing down of our language?

How handy is curbing the language in which citizens think for shaping the structure of a society. In the Middle Ages of Europe, landed gentry and the Church held wealth and power; aristocrats held the land and the Church held the word. Is it in anyone’s interest in the Post-modern Age not to have most, if not everyone, competently educated in the finer points of our language and its uses? And if it is not in their interest, how might they manage educational affairs to limit who has the access to such a powerful tools?

Perhaps we are progressed just as much as we are meant to be.

 

Ethical Authority

2,500 years ago, Aristotle had it right. There are several ways to make a point and move opinion. At one end of the list is reason. At the other end is passion. And this has been how it has been all this time.

Reason tries to get at the truth, because truth like justice should be the best of all conclusions. To get there, the reasoner puts together all the available facts, the evidence. He then presents these facts that anyone can see for themselves in an order that shows how one fact leads to the next and finally gets us to the truth of the point. However, this process takes time, even a lot of time. We have to sort through all these details to get to a point which, if it’s true, ought to seem right on its own. This is where passion comes in.

Passion tries to get at our feelings, because as good and fair people, our feelings should tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. To get there, the empassioner tries to determine what our strongest feelings are. He then lines up his point with those feelings. That point then looks like what is right because it feels right. However, this process does not show anything about how good the point is; it simply ties the point to our feelings about things. That conclusion we blindly take on faith, and faith is good for what is beyond human knowledge. Most of what we make decisions on however is not beyond our knowledge. So, there needs to be another way.

We need something between the pointy-heads’ information-overload and the snake oil salesmen’s slick talk. There is something. In the middle of the making-a-point list is the voice of authority. When we go to a friend we trust, we are going to a voice of authority. When we go to a butcher or grocer who sells good products, we are going to a voice of authority. When we go to a licensed doctor or pharmacist, we are going to a voice of authority. In each case, we go to these people in good faith, knowing about their history or their credentials, and we accept what they say as right. However, authority is power, and it can be misused to deceive or mislead us. There needs to be some way to tell if a voice of authority is really trustworthy.

There are two keys to deciding if a source of advice, a provider of services or a seller of products is deserving: having a good track record and showing little or no benefit to himself.

If the authority has a proven track record, he is more trust worthy. If we’ve done business with him before and the outcome has been good, that’s a good track record. If he has the regular legal certificate or license, and puts it out where we can see it, that’s a good track record. If he’s been around a long time and not received bad reports in the past, that’s a good track record.

If the authority shows little or no benefit to himself in our decision, he is more trust worthy. If the authority offers to share the sources of his information, that shows little or no benefit to himself. If the authority offers ideas on both sides of a question, that shows little or no benefit to himself. On the other hand, if the voice of authority asks us to join him, that shows some benefit to himself. If the authority tell us what we should do, that shows more benefit to himself.

If the supposed authority talks a lot about why we should believe him, we should doubt him. If the supposed authority talks a lot about us rather than someone or something that is neither us nor himself, he may be trying to play on our feelings. If the supposed authority buries us in an avalanche of details, he may be trying to hide something under all that manure.

The voice of authority should sound calm and clear. If it is not, it may be pulling the wool over our eyes or firing us up to do what he wants. An ethical authority tries to help us figure out for ourselves what’s best, because an ethical authority trusts that we can.