Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

The famous lyric goes “haters gonna hate.” That reflexive structure is equivalent to the meaningless phrase “It is what it is.” Subtexts attach to these phrases, and they take on lives of their own, after a fashion, with everyone pretending to know precisely what is intended and meant. That was the lesson, by the way, of the phrase “Stupid is as stupid does,” made up precisely to confound bullies who were making fun of someone of apparently limited capacity. In light of these commonplace rhetorical injunctions to actual thought, it is unsurprising that practitioners of various endeavors would be revealed as cheerleaders and self-promoters (sometimes rabidly so) for their own passion projects. With most activities, however, one can’t XX about XX, as in sport about sports, music about music, or cook about cooking. If one plays sports, makes music, or cooks, exemplary results are identifiable easily enough, but promotion on behalf of those results, typically after the fact but sometimes in the midst of the activity (i.e., sports commentary), takes place within the context of language. The two major exceptions I can identify are (1) politicking about politics and (2) writing about writing, both heavily laden with speech. (A third example, which I won’t explore, might be celebrating celebrities. Ugh.)

Of the first example I have little to say except that it’s so miserably, ugly, and venal that only politicians, policy wonks, political junkies, and campaign strategists (now full-time political strategists considering campaigns never end) derive much joy or energy from the reflexive trap. The rest of us prefer to think as little as possible about the entirely corrupt nature of political institutions and the associated players. The second example, however, is arguably an inborn feature of writing that still commands attention. Writers writing about writing might be typically understood as fiction writers revealing their processes. A recent example is J.K. Rowling, who leapt from obscurity to international fame in one bound and now offers writing tips (mainly plotting) to aspirants. An older example is Mark Twain, whose recommendation to ward off verbosity is something I practice (sometimes with limited success). Writers writing about writing now extends to journalists, whose self-reflection never seem to wear thin as the famous ones become brands unto themselves (perhaps even newsworthy in their own right). Training attention on themselves (“Look mom, no hands!”) is rather jejune, but again, commonplace. It’s also worth observing that journalists journaling about journalism, especially those who reveal how the proverbial sausage is made (e.g., Matt Taibbi and his book Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another (2019)), are essentially self-cannibalizing (much like celebrities).

What strikes me lately is how many writers, journalists, and commentators (probably includes bloggers like me — bloggers blogging about blogging) have become cheerleaders for the media in which they work, which is especially true of those who have abandoned legacy media in favor of newer platforms to connect with readerships and/or audiences. Extolling the benefits of the blog is already passé, but the shift over to podcasting and YouTube/TikToc channels, accompanied by testimonial about how great are attributes of the new medium, has passed beyond tiresome now that so many are doing it. Print journalists are also jumping ship from legacy publications, mostly newspapers and magazines, to digital publishing platforms such as Medium, Revue, and Substack. Some create independent newsletters. Broadcast journalists are especially keen on YouTube. A fair bit of incestuous crossover occurs as well, as media figures interview each other endlessly. Despite having restricted my media diet due to basic distrust of the legacy media in particular, I still award a lot of attention to a few outlets I determined deserve my attention and are sometimes even trustworthy. Or sometimes, they’re just entertaining. I still tune in the stray episode of someone I find infuriating just to check in and reinforce my decision not to return more frequently.

Stopping here and breaking this post into parts because the remainder of the draft was already growing overlong. More to come in part 2.

Continuing my book-blogging project on Orality and Literacy, Ong provides context for the oral tradition that surrounded the two great Homeric classics: The Iliad and The Odyssey. According to Ong, it took decades for literary critics and sociologists to overcome their bias, borne out of literacy, and recognize how formulaic are the two epics. They are essentially pastiches of commonplace plots, phrases, and sayings of the time, which was a notable strength when oral delivery based on memorization was how epic poetry was transmitted. In a literate era, such clichés are to be avoided (like the plague).

Aside: my review of David Serota’s Back to Our Future mentions the dialect he and his brother developed, filled with one-liners and catchphrases from entertainment media, especially TV and movies. The three-word (also three-syllable) form seems to be optimal: “Beam me up” (Star Trek), “Use the Force” (Star Wars), “Make my day” (Dirty Harry), “I’ll be back” (The Terminator), etc. This construction is short, punchy, and memorable. The first holder of high office in the U.S. to attempt to govern by catchphrase was probably Ronald Reagan, followed (of course) by Arnold Schwarzenegger and then Donald Trump. Mustn’t overlook that all three (and others) came to prominence via the entertainment industry rather than through earnest (Kennedyesque) public service. Trump’s numerous three-word phrases (shtick, really) lend themselves especially well to being chanted by adoring crowds at his pep rallies, swept up in groupthink, with a recognizable beat-beat-beat-(silence) structure. The rock band Queen stumbled upon this same elemental rhythm with its famous stomp-stomp-clap-(wait) from the anthem “We Are the Champions,” consciously intended for audience participation (as I understand it).

Further aside: “We Are the Champions” combines its iconic rhythm with a recitation tone sourced in antiquity. Make of that what you will.

Ong goes on to provide a discussion of the psychodynamics of orality, which I list here without substantive discussion (read for yourself):

  • orality is additive rather than subordinative
  • orality is aggregative rather than analytic
  • orality is redundant or copious
  • orality is conservative or traditionalist
  • orality is close to the human lifeworld
  • orality is agonistically toned
  • orality is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced
  • orality is homeostatic
  • orality is situational rather than abstract

Of particular interest is Ong’s description of how language functions within oral cultures distinctly from literate cultures, which is the source of the bias mentioned above. To wit:

Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like, that is, a culture with no knowledge whatsoever of writing or even the possibility of writing … In a primary oral culture, the expression ‘to look up something’ is an empty phrase … [w]ithout writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual … [for] ‘primitive’ (oral) people … language is a mode of action and not simply a countersign of thought — oral people commonly, and probably universally, consider words to have great power. [pp. 31–32]

If this sounds conspicuously reminiscent this previous post, well, congratulations on connecting the dots. The whole point, according to a certain perspective, is that words are capable of violence, which is (re)gaining adherents as our mental frameworks undergo continuous revision. It’s no small thing that slurs, insults, and fighting words (again) provoke offense and violent response and that mere verbal offense equates to violence. Not long ago, nasty words were reclaimed, nullified, and thus made impotent (with varying levels of irrational rules of usage). Well, now they sting again and are used as ammo to cancel (a form of administrative violence, often undertaken anonymously, bureaucratically, and with the assistance of the digital mob) anyone with improper credentials to deploy them.

Let me draw another connection. Here’s a curious quote by Walter Pater, though not well known:

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.

Put another way, the separation of signifier from signified, an abstraction conditioned by literacy and rationalism (among other things) is removed (“obliterated”) by music, which connects to emotion more directly than representational art. Similarly, speech within primary oral cultures exists purely as sound and possesses an ephemeral, even effervescence (Ong’s term) quality only experienced in the flow of time. (Arguably, all of human experience takes place within the flow of time.) Music and “primitive” speech are accordingly dynamic and cannot be reduced to static snapshots, that is, fixed on a page as text or committed to a canvas or photograph as a still image (hence, the strange term still life). That’s why a three-word, three-syllable chant, or better yet, the Queen rhythm or the Wave in sports arenas (a gesture requiring subscription of everyone), can possess inherent power, especially as individuals are entrained in groupthink. Music and words-as-violence get inside us and are nearly wholly subjective, not objective — something we all experience organically in early childhood before being taught to read and write (if in fact those skills are learned beyond functional literacy). Does that mean culture is reverting to an earlier stage of development, more primitive, childlike, and irrational?

Already widely reported but only just having come to my awareness is an initiative by Rolling Stone to establish a Culture Council: “an Invitation-Only Community of Influencers, Innovatives, and Creatives.” The flattering terms tastemakers and thought leaders are also used. One must presume that submissions will be promotional and propaganda pieces masquerading as news articles. Selling advertising disguised as news is an old practice, but the ad usually has the notation “advertisement” somewhere on the page. Who knows whether submissions will be subject to editorial review?

To be considered for membership, candidates must sit in a senior-level position at a company generating at least $500K in annual revenue or have obtained at least $1M in total institutional funding.

Rolling Stone‘s website doesn’t say it anywhere I can locate, but third-party reports indicate that members pay either a $1,500 annual fee and $500 submission fee (one-time? repeat?) or a flat $2,000 submission fee. Not certain which. Just to be abundantly clear, fees would be paid by the submitter to the magazine, reversing how published content is normally acquired (i.e., by paying staff writers and free lancers). I’d say this move by Rolling Stone is unprecedented, but of course, it’s not. However, it is a more brazen pay-to-play scheme than most and may be a harbinger of even worse developments to come.

Without describing fully how creative content (arts and news) was supported in the past, I will at least observe that prior to the rise of full-time creative professions in the 18th and 19th centuries (those able to scratch out earn a living on commissions and royalties), creative work was either a labor of love/dedication, typically remunerated very poorly if at all, or was undertaken through the patronage of wealthy European monarchs, aristocrats, and religious institutions (at least in the developing West). Unless I’m mistaken, self-sustaining news organizations and magazines came later. More recent developments include video news release and crowd sourcing, the latter of which sometimes accomplished under the pretense of running contests. The creative commons is how many now operative (including me — I’ve refused to monetize my blog), which is exploited ruthlessly by HuffPost (a infotainment source I ignore entirely), which (correct me if wrong) doesn’t pay for content but offers exposure as an inducement to journalists trying to develop a byline and/or audience. Podcasts, YouTube channels, and news sites also offer a variety of subscription, membership, and voluntary patronage (tipping) schemes to pay the bills (or hit it big if an outlier). Thus, business models have changed considerably over time and are in the midst of another major transformation, especially for news-gathering organizations and the music recording industry in marked retreat from their former positions.

Rolling Stone had always been a niche publication specializing in content that falls outside my usual scope of interest. I read Matt Taibbi’s reporting that appeared in Rolling Stone, but the magazine’s imprint (read: reputation) was not the draw. Now that the Rolling Stone is openly soliciting content through paid membership in the Culture Council, well, the magazine sinks past irrelevance to active avoidance.

It’s always been difficult to separate advertising and propaganda from reliable news, and some don’t find it important to keep these categories discrete, but this new initiative is begging to be gamed by motivated PR hacks and self-promoters with sufficient cash to burn. It’s essentially Rolling Stone whoring itself out. Perhaps more worrying is that others will inevitably follow Rolling Stone‘s example and sell their journalistic integrity with similar programs, effectively putting the final nails in their own coffins (via brand self-destruction). The models in this respect are cozy, incestuous relationships between PACs, lobbying groups, think tanks, and political campaigns. One might assume that legacy publications such as Rolling Stone would have the good sense to retain as much of their valuable brand identity as possible, but the relentless force of corporate/capitalist dynamics are corrupting even the incorruptible.

Years ago, I broke with my usual themes and styles to offer a listicle, mostly inanities and hyper-irony, which began as follows:

  • All cats are girls, all dogs are boys. Everyone knows this from childhood. Additional discussion is moot.

I’m not a good writer of aphorisms, so I haven’t returned to that brief experiment until now. For inspiration, I’m quoting numerous examples by Caitlin Johnstone, who is a frequent and fantastic writer of aphorisms under the repeated subtitle “Notes from the Edge of the Narrative Matrix.” The long-running theme we share is that we are all being programmed and propagandized continuously through the shaping of narrative by folks with obvious agendas. Johnstone believes we are collectively waking up — as if from a nightmare — to the dark realization that our minds have been colonized (my term) and that a worldwide transformation of consciousness is currently taking place. I don’t quite see it yet, but I’m sympathetic to the possibility that, as in the famous rant from the 1976 movie Network, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

  • The essential character relationship of the 1% to the rest of us is predator/prey or strong/weak. Strong predators behave precisely as one would expect.
  • Trying to restore peace using the same violent police force whose violence disrupted the peace in the first place is a bit like trying to put out a fire using lighter fluid. The same lighter fluid that was used to start it. (Johnstone)
  • Rioting and looting are not constructive responses to society’s ills, but then, neither have various nonviolent forms of protest and dissent been effective at petitioning government for redress of grievance. Packing up and going home merely cedes the field of play to bad actors already stuffing everyone down.
  • Believing cold war is no big deal because nuclear war hasn’t happened yet is the same as believing your game of Russian roulette is safe because the gun hasn’t gone off yet. (Johnstone)
  • According to the movies, realizing one’s potential is achieved by developing punching/fighting/domination skills sufficient to force your will upon others, which is true for criminals, saints (good guys), men, and women alike.
  • Ecocide will be a problem as long as ecocide remains profitable. War will be a problem as long as war remains profitable. Politicians will cater to profit-seeking sociopaths as long as profit determines what drives human behavior. (Johnstone)
  • The most influential news outlets in the western world uncritically parrot whatever they’re told to say by the most powerful and depraved intelligence agencies on the planet, then tell you that Russia and China are bad because they have state media. (Johnstone)
  • Wanting Biden because he’s not Trump is the same as wanting cancer because it’s not heart disease. (Johnstone)
  • Capitalism will let you starve to death while sitting meters away from food. (Johnstone)

I wish more of them were my own, but the opportunity to choose some of Johnstone’s best was too good to pass up.

Most of us are familiar with a grandpa, uncle, or father who eventually turns into a cranky old man during late middle age or in his dotage. (Why is it a mostly male phenomenon?) In the last three decades, Clint Eastwood typecast himself as a cranky old man, building on lone-wolf characters (mostly cops, criminals, and cowboys) established earlier in his career. In real life, these guys spout talking points absorbed from mainstream media and narrative managers, or if they are truly lazy and/or can’t articulate anything coherently on their own, merely forward agitprop via e-mail like chain mail of yore. They also demonstrate remarkably forgivable racism, sexism, and bigotry, such as Eastwood’s rather enjoyable and ultimately redeemed character in the film Gran Torino. If interaction with such a fellow is limited to Thanksgiving gatherings once per year, crankiness can be tolerated fairly easily. If interactions are ongoing, then a typical reaction is simply to delete e-mail messages unread, or in the case of unavoidable face-to-face interaction, to chalk it up: Well, that’s just Grandpa Joe or Uncle Bill or Dad. Let him rant; he’s basically harmless now that he’s so old he creaks.

Except that not all of them are so harmless. Only a handful of the so-called Greatest Generation (I tire of the term but it’s solidly established) remain in positions of influence. However, lots of Boomers still wield considerable power despite their advancing age, looming retirement (and death), and basic out-of-touchness with a culture that has left them behind. Nor are their rants and bluster necessarily wrong. See, for instance, this rant by Tom Engelhardt, which begins with these two paragraphs:

Let me rant for a moment. I don’t do it often, maybe ever. I’m not Donald Trump. Though I’m only two years older than him, I don’t even know how to tweet and that tells you everything you really need to know about Tom Engelhardt in a world clearly passing me by. Still, after years in which America’s streets were essentially empty, they’ve suddenly filled, day after day, with youthful protesters, bringing back a version of a moment I remember from my youth and that’s a hopeful (if also, given Covid-19, a scary) thing, even if I’m an old man in isolation in this never-ending pandemic moment of ours.

In such isolation, no wonder I have the urge to rant. Our present American world, after all, was both deeply unimaginable — before 2016, no one could have conjured up President Donald Trump as anything but a joke — and yet in some sense, all too imaginable …

If my own father (who doesn’t read this blog) could articulate ideas as well as Engelhardt, maybe I would stop deleting unread the idiocy he forwards via e-mail. Admittedly, I could well be following in my father’s footsteps, as the tag rants on this blog indicates, but at least I write my own screed. I’m far less accomplished at it than, say, Engelhardt, Andy Rooney (in his day), Ralph Nader, or Dave Barry, but then, I’m only a curmudgeon-in-training, not having fully aged (or elevated?) yet to cranky old manhood.

As the fall presidential election draws near (assuming that it goes forward), the choice in the limited U.S. two-party system is between one of two cranky old men, neither of which is remotely capable of guiding the country through this rough patch at the doomer-anticipated end of human history. Oh, and BTW, echoing Engelhardt’s remark above, 45 has been a joke all of my life — a dark parody of success — and remains so despite occupying the Oval Office. Their primary opponent up to only a couple months ago was Bernie Sanders, himself a cranky old man but far more endearing at it. This is what passes for the best leadership on offer?

Many Americans are ready to move on to someone younger and more vibrant, able to articulate a vision for something, well, different from the past. Let’s skip right on past candidates (names withheld) who parrot the same worn-out ideas as our fathers and grandfathers. Indeed, a meme emerged recently to the effect that the Greatest Generation saved us from various early 20th-century scourges (e.g., Nazis and Reds) only for the Boomers to proceed in their turn to mess up the planet so badly nothing will survive new scourges already appearing. It may not be fair to hang such labels uniformly around the necks of either generation (or subsequent ones); each possesses unique characteristics and opportunities (some achieved, others squandered) borne out of their particular moment in history. But this much is clear: whatever happens with the election and whichever generational cohort assumes power, the future is gonna be remarkably different.

This is an infrequent feature of this blog: additions to and deletions from my blogroll. Other bloggers attract my attention for various reasons, mostly the quality of writing and ideas (interrelated), but over time, some start to repel me. This update has several in both categories.

At Wit’s End, Three-Pound Brain, and Bracing Views were are all added some while back. The first two have new posts very infrequently, but the quality is very high (IMO). The last is far more active and solicits commentary openly. Subject matter at these blogs varies widely, and only the third could be accused of being an outrage engine. It’s a worthwhile read nonetheless if political dysfunction doesn’t ignite in you a firestorm of rage and indignation.

Dropping Creative Destruction, Gin & Tacos and Pharyngula. The first has been dead for a long time; nothing there to see anymore besides the backblog. I thought it might eventually revive, but alas, no. Updates to the second have dropped significantly as authorial attention shifted to podcasting. The commentariat there was especially worthwhile, but with so few new posts, the disappearance of whimsical history lessons, and irritating focus on racehorse politics, the blog has lost my recommendation. The third used to be a fun read, especially for being well argued. The tone shifted at some point toward smug, woke felation service of an in-group, by definition excluding everyone else. Like another unmentioned blog dropped from my blogroll some years ago, the author behaves like an omniscient bully: being absolutely correct about everything all the time. The lack of humility or tolerance for ambiguity — or even the very human admission once in a while “I dunno …” — is exhausting.

Final admission: traffic to and from this blog is chronically low, so no blogger cares about being added or removed from my blogroll. No illusions about that on my part. However, respectable curation is a value worth periodic updates.

A year ago, I wrote about charges of cultural appropriation being levied upon fiction writers, as though fiction can now only be some watered-down memoir lest some author have the temerity to conjure a character based on someone other than him- or herself. Specifically, I linked to an opinion piece by Lionel Shriver in the NY Times describing having been sanctioned for writing characters based on ideas, identities, and backgrounds other that his own. Shriver has a new article in Prospect Magazine that provides an update, perhaps too soon to survey the scene accurately since the target is still moving, but nonetheless curious with respect to the relatively recent appearance of call-out culture and outrage engines. In his article, Shriver notes that offense and umbrage are now given equal footing with bodily harm and emotional scarring:

Time was that children were taught to turn aside tormentors with the cry, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” While you can indeed feel injured because Bobby called you fat, the law has traditionally maintained a sharp distinction between bodily and emotional harm. Even libel law requires a demonstration of palpable damage to reputation, which might impact your livelihood, rather than mere testimony that a passage in a book made you cry.

He also points out that an imagined “right not to be offended” is now frequently invoked, even though there is no possibility of avoiding offense if one is actually conscious in the world. For just one rather mundane example, the extraordinary genocidal violence of 20th-century history, once machines and mechanisms (now called WMDs) were applied to warfare (and dare I say it: statecraft), ought to be highly offensive to any humanitarian. That history cannot be erased, though I suppose it can be denied, revised, buried, and/or lost to living memory. Students or others who insist they be excused from being triggered by knowledge of awful events are proverbial ostriches burying their heads in the sand.

As variations of this behavior multiply and gain social approval, the Thought Police are busily mustering against all offense — real, perceived, or wholly imagined — and waging a broad-spectrum sanitation campaign. Shriver believes this could well pose the end of fiction as publishers morph into censors and authors self-censor in an attempt to pass through the SJW gauntlet. Here’s my counter-argument:

rant on/

I feel mightily offended — OFFENDED I say! — at the arrant stupidity of SJWs whose heads are full of straw (and strawmen), who are so clearly confused about what is even possible within the dictates and strictures of, well, reality, and accordingly retreated into cocoons of ideation from which others are scourged for failure to adhere to some bizarre, muddleheaded notion of equity. How dare you compel me to think prescribed thoughts emanating from your thought bubble, you damn bullies? I have my own thoughts and feelings deserving of support, maybe even more than yours considering your obvious naïveté about how the world works. Why aren’t you laboring to promote mine but instead clamoring to infect everyone with yours? Why is my writing so resoundingly ignored while you prance upon the stage demanding my attention? You are an affront to my values and sensibilities and can stuff your false piety and pretend virtue where the sun don’t shine. Go ahead and be offended; this is meant to offend. If it’s gonna be you or me who’s transgressed precisely because all sides of issues can’t be satisfied simultaneously, then on this issue, I vote for you to be in the hot seat.

rant off/

Be forewarned: this is long and self-indulgent. Kinda threw everything and the kitchen sink at it.

In the August 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Walter Kirn’s “Easy Chair” column called “Apocalypse Always” revealed his brief, boyhood fascination with dystopian fiction. This genre has been around for a very long time, to which the Cassandra myth attests. Kirn’s column is more concerned with “high mid-twentieth-century dystopian fiction,” which in his view is now classic and canonical, an entire generation of Baby Boomers having been educated in such patterned thought. A new wave of dystopian fiction appeared in the 1990s and yet another more recently in the form of Young Adult novels (and films) that arguably serve better as triumphal coming-of-age stories albeit under dystopian circumstances. Kirn observes a perennial theme present in the genre: the twin disappearances of freedom and information:

In the classic dystopias, which concern themselves with the lack of freedom and not with surplus freedom run amok (the current and unforeseen predicament of many), society is superbly well organized, resembling a kind of hive or factory. People are sorted, classified, and ranked, their individuality suppressed through goon squads, potent narcotics, or breeding programs. Quite often, they wear uniforms, and express themselves, or fail to, in ritual utterance and gestures.

Whether Americans in 2018 resemble hollowed-out zombies suffering under either boot-heel or soft-serve oppression is a good question. Some would argue just that in homage to classic dystopias. Kirn suggests briefly that we might instead suffer from runaway anarchy, where too much freedom and licentiousness have led instead to a chaotic and disorganized society populated by citizens who can neither govern nor restrain themselves.

Disappearance of information might be understood in at least three familiar aspects of narrative framing: what happened to get us to this point (past as exposition, sometimes only hinted at), what the hell? is going on (present as conflict and action), and how is gets fixed (future as resolution and denouement). Strict control over information exercised by classic dystopian despots doesn’t track to conditions under which we now find ourselves, where more disorganized, fraudulent, and degraded information than ever is available alongside small caches of wisdom and understanding buried somewhere in the heap and discoverable only with the benefit of critical thinking flatly lost on at least a couple generations of miseducated graduates. However, a coherent narrative of who and what we are and what realistic prospects the future may hold has not emerged since the stifling version of the 1950s nuclear family and middle class consumer contentment. Kirn makes this comparison directly, where classic dystopian fiction

focus[es] on bureaucracy, coercion, propaganda, and depersonalization, overstates both the prowess of the hierarchs and the submissiveness of the masses, whom it still thinks of as the masses. It does not contemplate Trump-style charlatanism at the top, or a narcissistic populace that prizes attention over privacy. The threats to individualism are paramount; the scourge of surplus individualism, with everyone playing his own dunce king and slurping up resources until he bursts, goes unexplored.

Kirn’s further observations are worth a look. Go read for yourself.

I was never much drawn to genre fiction and frankly can’t remember reading Orwell’s 1984 in middle school. It wasn’t until much later that I read Huxley’s Brave New World (reviewed here) and reread 1984. The latest in the dystopian pantheon to darken my brow is Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. None of these are pleasure reading, exactly. However, being landmarks of the genre, I have at times felt compelled to acquaint myself with them. I never saw the 1959 movie On the Beach with Gregory Peck, but I did see the updated 2000 remake with Armande Assante. It rather destroyed me — forcing me for the first time to contemplate near-term human extinction — but was mostly forgotten. Going back recently to read the original 1957 novel, I had a broad recollection of the scenario but little of the detail.

(more…)

My previous entry on this topic is found here. The quintessential question asked with regard to education (often levied against educators) is “Why can’t Johnnie read?” I believe we now have several answers.

Why Bother With Basics?

A resurrected method of teaching readin’ and writin’ (from the 1930s as it happens) is “freewriting.” The idea is that students who experience writer’s block should dispense with basic elements such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, organization, and style to simply get something on the page, coming back later to revise and correct. I can appreciate the thinking, namely, that students so paralyzed from an inability to produce finished work extemporaneously should focus first on vomiting blasting something onto the page. Whether those who use freewriting actually go back to edit (as I do) is unclear, but it’s not a high hurdle to begin with proper rudiments.

Why Bother Learning Math?

At Michigan State University, the algebra requirement has been dropped from its general education requirements. Considering that algebra is a basic part of most high school curricula, jettisoning algebra from the university core curriculum is astonishing. Again, it’s not a terribly high bar to clear, but for someone granted a degree from an institution of higher learning to fail to do so is remarkable. Though the rationalization offered at the link above is fairly sophisticated, it sounds more like Michigan State is just giving up asking its students to bother learning. The California State University system has adopted a similar approach. Wayne State University also dropped its math requirement and upped the ante by recommending a new diversity requirement (all the buzz with social justice warriors).

Why Bother Learning Music?

The Harvard Crimson reports changes to the music curriculum, lowering required courses for the music concentration from 13 to 10. Notably, most of the quotes in the article are from students relieved to have fewer requirements to satisfy. The sole professor quoted makes a bland, meaningless statement about flexibility. So if you want a Harvard degree with a music concentration, the bar has been lowered. But this isn’t educational limbo, where the difficulty is increased as the bar goes down; it’s a change from higher education to not-so-high-anymore education. Not learning very much about music has never been prohibition to success, BTW. Lots of successful musicians don’t even read music.

Why Bother Learning History?

According to some conservatives, U.S. history curricula, in particular this course offered by The College Board, teach what’s bad about America and undermine American exceptionalism. In 2015, the Oklahoma House Common Education Committee voted 11-4 for emergency House Bill 1380 (authored by Rep. Dan Fisher) “prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.” This naked attempt to sanitize U.S. history and substitute preferred (patriotic) narratives is hardly a new phenomenon in education.

Takeaway

So why can’t Johnnie read, write, know, understand, or think? Simply put, because we’re not bothering to teach him to read, write, know, understand, or think. Johnnie has instead become a consumer of educational services and political football. Has lowering standards ever been a solution to the struggle of getting a worthwhile education? Passing students through just to be rid of them (while collecting tuition) has only produced a mass of miseducated graduates. Similarly, does a certificate, diploma, or granted degree mean anything as a marker of achievement if students can’t be bothered to learn time-honored elements of a core curriculum? The real shocker, of course, is massaging the curriculum itself (U.S. history in this instance) to produce citizens ignorant of their own past and compliant with the jingoism of the present.

I picked up a copy of Daniel Siegel’s book Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human (2017) to read and supplement my ongoing preoccupation with human consciousness. Siegel’s writing is the source of considerable frustration. Now about 90 pp. into the book (I am considering putting it aside), he has committed several grammatical errors (where are book editors these days?), doesn’t really know how to use a comma properly, and doesn’t write in recognizable paragraph form. He has a bad habit of posing questions to suggest the answers he wants to give and drops constant hints of something soon to be explored like news broadcasts that tease the next segment. He also deploys a tired, worn metaphor that readers are on a journey of discovery with him, embarked on a path, exploring a subject, etc. Yecch. (A couple Amazon reviews also note that grayish type on parchment (cream) paper poses a legibility problem due to poor contrast even in good light — undoubtedly not really Siegel’s fault.)

Siegel’s writing is also irritatingly circular, casting and recasting the same sentences in repetitious series of assertions that have me wondering frequently, “Haven’t I already read this?” Here are a couple examples:

When energy flows inside your body, can you sense its movement, how it changes moment by moment?

then only three sentences later

Energy, and energy-as-information, can be felt in your mental experience as it emerges moment by moment. [p. 52]

Another example:

Seeing these many facets of mind as emergent properties of energy and information flow helps link the inner and inter aspect of mind seamlessly.

then later in the same paragraph

In other words, mind seen this way could be in what seems like two places at once as inner and inter are part of one interconnected, undivided system. [p. 53]

This is definitely a bug, not a feature. I suspect the book could easily be condensed from 330 pp. to less than 200 pp. if the writing weren’t so self-indulgent of the author. Indeed, while I recognize a healthy dose of repetition is an integral part of narrative form (especially in music), Siegel’s relentless repetition feels like propaganda 101, where guileless insistence (of lies or merely the preferred story one seeks to plant in the public sphere) wears down the reader rather than convinces him or her. This is also marketing 101 (e.g., Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Budweiser, etc. continuing to advertise what are by now exceedingly well-established brands).

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