Book on Orwell Goes Full Kindle

Not that you asked, but the book my co-blogger and I wrote, Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in the Age of Pseudocracy  is  available on Kindle now.


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Ted Cruz Encounters Data and Loses

In a debate with a retired admiral about climate change, Ted Cruz first labeled adherents to climate-change data “alarmists,” attempting to distract with the old straw-person/begging the question combo, and then cherry-picks the data. Unfortunately he was arguing with someone who knew the climate-change data and about all of the cherries, not just some. A link to a video snippet of the debate:

Cruz vs. Data

Asymmetric Polarization and the Pseudocracy

A new column by Paul Krugman in the New York Times crystallized for me a problem with the American media in these pseudocractic times.

The link

Krugman argues that the intellectual integrity of American “conservatives” has been degraded so much and eschews evidence to such a degree that conservatives who have influence on the media and policy are “cranks and charlatans,” whereas the few conservatives who retain some principles and integrity (if such people exist) have no influence on media and politics.

The occasion for the column is the Atlantic‘s firing of the newly hired Kevin Williamson, whom the editors were “shocked, shocked” (Krugman) to find out was a crank who wanted to hang women who have abortions.  (And note how pervasive the lynching mentality is among Right Wingers.)

A broader issue Krugman’s point raises is the bizarre addiction to “both siderism” to be found in media and academia. At colleges and universities, there is much angst about taking pains to represent “conservative” views on campus.  Right wing faculty often play the victim, and centrist or left wing faculty get taken in by it.  Faculty like me wonder why we need to take pains to represent homophobia, trickle-down economics, creationsim, climate-change denial, and White Supremacy.  Just to show we are, like Fox News, “fair and balanced”? Why the compulsion to entertain abjectly stupid and, in the cases of White Supremacy and homophobia, verifiably lethal ideas?  Why not stick with ideas that are at least contestable in the realm of evidence?  Opposing views are the stuff of academia, for sure, but not all opposing views are legitimate–measured by the broadest of academic standards.

Krugman uses Larry Kudlow as a supreme example of “cranks and charlatans” who have influence but no integrity and no connection to evidence, and Kudlow is a perfect example. But for me, the greater problem is exemplified by MSNBC’s hiring on George Will and other right-wingers who are “shocked, shocked” to find out that a White Supremacist misogynistic loon is the leader of the GOP, not to mention the nation.  Will and others like him paved the way for Trump by supporting the race-baiting Southern Strategy, the “war on drugs,” Reagan’s “trickle-down” scam, the belittling of President Obama’s interest in ideas (recall the “faculty lounge” meme, in which Will and others tried to reduce Obama to a mere “academic,” depending upon the anti-intellectual meanness of the right wing.  To pander to “both siderism” (I guess), MSNBC, CNN, and all sorts of online periodicals indulge right-wingers who, because of Trump, pretend not to have been on the side Trump represents all along. For me, this practice is as potentially destructive as the presence of Fox News because it, too, legitimizes cranks and charlatans, even if they are less grotesque than Trump.

A Simpler Explanation for the Use of Jargon, Buzzwords, etc.

As we know, Orwell in ‘Politics and the English Language,” came down Puritanically hard on the use of jargon, “foreign phrases” (provincial much, George?), and academic-insider diction and vocabulary.  He virtually makes such usage a moral issue.

A simpler explanation, and one that fits our age of communication-deluge, is that how we learn language and, via language, how we learn to fit into families, schools, jobs, and so on, induce us to use “the latest words.”

I’ve seen this fitting-in phenomenon in academia frequently.  New terms will spread like a flu-bug during a large or small academic conference, and people reflexively start using them, not necessarily because of their efficacy but just because they are new and moving up the popular charts,  and people do not want to be perceived as being not fully current, not being part of the group that’s using this language.

It seems as if younger academics may be more susceptible to this anxious need to keep up on new lingo, but even if this is true, it doesn’t mean academics of every stage don’t do the same thing.  That said, there also seems to come a time in most academics’ careers when an opposing reflex kicks in: generally weary, and acutely weary of academia, many academics become hostile to new things and new words, and they become increasingly likely to dismiss the latter and align themselves epistemologically with the credo, “There’s nothing new under the sun!  Therefore, leave me alone!”

But it can happen anywhere–job sites of every kind, political groups, social groups.  The right-wing servicer, Frank Luntz, developed dozens of slippery phrases, to a) lie in a most “Orwellian”way, b) heap scorn on “liberals” (a term he never had to define), and c) further fortify White-Right political identity.  Members of the group, new and old, lap up the new cream like kittens, not least of all because they like that feeling of being righteous and accepted.  Of course the same thing goes on in virtually every kind of group.  I do think it’s pretty clear that, in the U.S., the Republicans have been much better at this language-game than the flat-footed, befuddled Democrats, who haven’t exactly put effective roadblocks in the way of right-wing flim-flammers from Reagan to the current bloated, narcissistic loon, Our President, who is too lazy, and too rewarded for his laziness, to use new language.  He sticks with words like terrible, sad, tremendous, bad, and good.  Before the end of his term(s), he may just start grunting at his rallies and in his press conferences, and a large percentage of White folks will cheer each nuanced sound effect. Animal Farm, indeed.

In any event, counteracting both the keeping-up-with-the jargon mania and the curmudgeonly hostility any new words and terms can be difficult because to do so with the former requires checking the impulse to fit in immediately, and to do so with the latter means checking your own desire to stop learning.  In other words, discernment and self-discipline are crucial.

After all, in whatever specialized group one may think of, new language will arise, and much of it will be appropriate and useful–a reasonable acknowledgement (if I do say so myself) that is tough to find in Orwell’s essay.

Simple forms of such discernment come in the shape of questions: “Why am I using this new word/term, exactly?”  “Am I sure I know what it means?”  “Why are ‘they’ using this new word/term, exactly?” “Are people using this term more or less unthinkingly, out of reflex, habit, or an anxious need to fit it?”

Discernment in vocabulary and diction, in writing, speaking, and reading/consuming: a good aptitude to develop, and one distinct from Orwell’s clumsy eradication-policy vis a vis (foreign phrase!) “jargon.”

The March on Washington and White Privilege

Coverage of the remembrance of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s speech (1963) is mostly segregated, ironically. Here’s what I mean: in local and national newspapers, on network and cable programs, and so forth, coverage tends to focus on Black reactions to the March and the speech. A local paper might get the reaction of Black residents who are known to be activists or who attended the March or both. A cable channel might get the reaction of a Black political figure or a Black academic. And so on.

There’s nothing wrong with such coverage; it’s necessary. But what’s missing is a White response that isn’t merely reactionary, like that of Laura Ingraham’s on Fox News, or passive: think of a White commentator sitting back and observing Black folks reminisce or opine.

That is, the coverage maintains White privilege, in this case the privilege of remembering a moment comfortably, of watching Black folks discuss the event, and of having the event framed in safe ways. The overall effect of the coverage is to suggest that things were bad, there was a March and a great speech, and things got better.

I’d like to see more White folks interviewed–Whites who found themselves galvanized by the events and got involved, or even Whites who don’t remember the 1960s fondly. I’d like to hear from Whites who recognize their own privilege and see things in the nation and in their communities that still aren’t right: race-related issues with education, law-enforcement, the judicial system, voter-suppression, and so on.

I’d also like to see a more complicated remembrance of those times–one that includes views from Malcolm X, the actions or inaction of politicians at the time, facts about the FBI’s secret wiretapping and surveillance of Dr. Kind (a timely angle, given our current problems with surveillance).

Mainly I’d like to see coverage that genuinely engages White people and that doesn’t isolate black people, coverage that isn’t routine and even cliche.

A Student Writes (and Reads) a “Break-up Letter” to Stanford University

The Rhetoric of Employees-As-Political-Beings

Wild Bill and I work at a small liberal arts college, which is, according to the tax code, a not-for-profit entity–although, given the cost of tuition, some parents may want to dispute that status.

I just received the following email from the dean here (all my colleagues did, too):

Dear faculty colleagues,

In this election year and especially as political activities heighten as we approach election day, it is important to remember the rules governing political activities on college campuses. We need to remain in compliance with applicable rules and regulations in order to preserve Puget Sound’s tax-exempt status as an educational institution.

Certain political activities are permitted and others are strictly prohibited. Essentially, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations such as the University of Puget Sound may not participate in or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office. Two helpful resources for planning are:

• Puget Sound’s long-standing Political Activity Policy, which aligns with applicable laws and regulations and can be found on the university’s web site here.
• Specific situational guidance provided by the American Council on Education (ACE), with helpful examples of permitted and prohibited activities based on judicial and IRS rulings, IRS guidance, the Federal Election Campaign Act, and Federal Election Commission regulations. These ACE guidelines can be found here; item I.B.Y7 on providing opportunities for candidates to speak is particularly worth noting.

If you have any questions, [ ] or her delegate will help sort through the details of your desired political activity on campus and help determine what is and is not possible.

Of course, being a writer and teacher of writing (and not a lawyer), I focused on the last sentence and desired to excise “what is and is not possible” and replace it with “what is and is not appropriate, according to the regulations.” That is, it’s possible for me to campaign for someone on campus. It’s not appropriate, apparently.

Of course (part deux), I thought of Governor Romney’s allegedly having urged certain corporate employers to tell their employees whom to vote for: Romney, I’m assuming.

I do understand the rationale behind treating not-for-profits differently than for-profits. I’m just not sure I agree with it. In fact, I think a plausible (if not convincing) argument could be made that campaigning on campus would be instructive to students, especially those in a political science department. And a plausible argument could be made for inviting bosses not to lean on their employees about elections. What, eight hours of work isn’t enough for you? You have to bug me about your political preferences?

Finally, I’m mildly amused by the idea of a boss telling an employee whom to vote for. I imagine an employee responding with a “sure, boss,” followed by much eye-rolling once the boss is out of sight. I also imagine voting the opposite way, just out of spite. The situation is just a bit like the question of signing loyalty-oaths back in the 1950s. A colleague once opined that the most likely person to be first in line to sign the oath would be . . . a disloyal person–a spy, for example, or just a wag.

We are all political animals, or beings, Aristotle noted. Except when we wee are working for non-profits. Or when we are working for for-profits, in which case we are, apparently, children.

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