Thursday, August 30, 2012

Communication, Democracy, and Despotism

So, I was working on an article about the concept of information in the context of the field of media ecology, and as I started to discuss information as a function of communication, I immediately thought of Harold Lasswell, a mass communication scholar whose work is foundational in that area of study.  Lasswell is also well known, indeed better known, in the field of political science.

Lasswell is typically cited in communication textbooks for two reasons.  One of them is that he identified three main functions of mass communication:  surveillance (gathering information about the environment and making it available within the social system), correlation (evaluating the information collected, deciding what to do about it, and coordinating activities by way of response), and cultural transmission (socialization and education, maintaining tradition and cultural continuity, and what Alfred Korzybski called time-binding).  

Charles C. Wright added a fourth function to Lasswell's triad, entertainment, and as Neil Postman argues in Amusing Ourselves to Death, it's the only function that matters in the television medium, or at least the need to satisfy that function is so overwhelming that it contaminates and undermines the other three.

But, anyway, back to Lasswell, and I'll get to his other claim to fame in the field of communication in a bit, but first I wanted to mention that when I took a look to see what there was about him online, I came across his Wikipedia entry, naturally enough, and was interested to learn that he was a member of the Chicago School of Sociology, in addition to later becoming a professor of law at Yale. As a member of the Chicago School, he was heavily influenced by the philosophy of pragmatism, and particularly by John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead.  Mead is the founder of the symbolic interaction approach of social psychology, later popularized by Erving Goffman, which we also consider part of the field of media ecology. 

Mead insisted on taking a behavioral approach, albeit one distinct from that of Pavlov and Skinner, less empirical, more theoretical, and allowing for the phenomenon of mind as a form of behavior. Dealing with human behavior in a qualitative manner leads naturally to functionalism, behavior being a function of the mind, or at least the nervous system/organism.  

James W. Carey also employed functionalism in his media ecology approach, known outside of our field as American cultural studies, arguing that you cannot study an entire society empirically by way of testing and using control groups, which makes it difficult to talk about the effects of media on the level of society, which in turn is why so much emphasis was placed on behavioral studies of the effects of media content on individuals.  That is, you can set up an empirical, quantitative study on whether watching a particular TV program leads to an increase in aggressive behavior, but you cannot do the same to find out whether the widespread adoption of television viewing within a society leads to increased incidence of violence.  So we can get precise answers, but only for trivial questions, whereas the really interesting and significant questions need to be dealt with by other means.  Specifically, you can talk about function, which implies effects (the function of informing, for example, and the effect of being informed), albeit indirectly. Carey's main influence, it's worth noting, was the seminal media ecology scholar Harold Innis, who like Lasswell was a graduate of the

I suspect that the influence of the Chicago School on Lasswell's work has been underestimated, or at least overshadowed by the fact that he relied heavily on Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theories as he engaged in pioneering work in propaganda analysis.  Here, let me quote some of the
Wikipedia entry:

More influential, however, was Freudian philosophy, which informed much of his analysis of propaganda and communication in general. During World War II, Lasswell held the position of Chief of the Experimental Division for the Study of War Time Communications at the Library of Congress. He analyzed Nazi propaganda films to identify mechanisms of persuasion used to secure the acquiescence and support of the German populace for Hitler and his wartime atrocities. Always forward-looking, late in his life, Lasswell experimented with questions concerning astropolitics, the political consequences of colonization of other planets, and the "machinehood of humanity."

The machinehood of humanity!  Clearly, this was a play on the title of Korzybski's first book, The Manhood of Humanity, not surprising in that general semantics provided significant contributions to the analysis of propaganda, and general semantics was well known in the field of communication during Lasswell's time.  And that's not to mention the fact that Korzybski was originally based in Chicago, and like Lasswell, later moved to Connecticut.  I'm not aware of any interaction that went on between them, however.  In any event, clearly Lasswell had some interest in science fiction as well as futurism, and the machinehood of humanity refers to a time when artificial intelligence outstrips human biological intelligence, making us somewhat obsolescent (in McLuhan's view, that would free humanity up to become an art form).

Anyway, what follows in the entry brings us back to behavior, as opposed to the prior emphasis on psychoanalysis:
Lasswell's work was important in the post-World War II development of behavioralism. Similarly, his definition of propaganda was also viewed as an important development to understanding the goal of propaganda. Laswell's studies on propraganda, produced breakthroughs on the subject to broaden current views on the means and stated objectives that could be achieved through propaganda to include not only the change of opinions but also change in actions. 
The entry also notes his influence on the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, which takes me back to my old doctoral student days, when I studied propaganda with Terry Moran in the late, lamented media ecology program. I should add that Terry's mentor in propaganda analysis was the mass communication scholar George Gordon (no connection to Lord Byron, no), who spent the last years of his career at Fordham University, and was my colleague here back when I was a junior faculty member). And of course, Lasswell was a key source for Jacques Ellul in his book Propaganda, and elsewhere, especially in Lasswell's emphasis on propaganda directed within a society to gain cooperation, as opposed to propaganda directed at other societies, and attempting to influence political, economic, and military decision-making. This helped Ellul to form the distinction between sociological and political propaganda, as well as the propaganda of integration as opposed to the propaganda of agitation.  Also significant for Ellul was the shift in stress from a prior focus on propaganda as an attempt to influence people' attitudes, to Lassell's view that the main goal of the propagandist is to control people's behavior.  Again, note the emphasis on behavior, and the clarification of the function of propaganda.

So, now for some fun.  I looked over on YouTube to see if there was anything concerning Harold Lasswell, and actually there are quite a few videos of various individuals talking about him, and I came across this video, whose opening immediately caught my idea, with images of Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, and Donna Haraway (although no attempt is made to connect these scholars to Lasswell).  I also found the student-eye view (my guess is graduate students made this video, but maybe they're advanced undergrads) of us professors pretty hilarious, although I hasten to add that there is some nice background information on Lasswell here as well:

So, as the video mentions, Lasswell also came up with one of the basic models of communication, in some ways similar to the Shannon-Weaver Model (which I've mentioned before here, for example, see my previous post Children are the Living Messages We Send to a Time We Will Not See), but one that is verbal rather than diagrammatic.  Here it is in the form of a sentence:  Who says what to whom, in what channel, and with what effect?  And the fact that it helps to establish areas of research within the field is certainly useful (although I'd prefer source analysis rather than control analysis, and audience analysis is now often referred to as reception instead).


Whether "to whom" comes before or after the "channel" and whether it's "in what" or "in which" is of no great import, but I always thought that the phrase "in what channel" was out of place, given the simplicity of the model, and when I taught introductory courses, I liked to substitute "how" instead, and present it as a series of questions:

Says what?
To whom? 
And with what effect?

In the field of media ecology, we see this type of point-to-point communication as a special case, but more generally view the process as one of communing, sharing meaning, binding communities together and establishing continuity over time, in addition to sending signals across distances. And communication also involves interacting with an environment. Channel implies a link between sender and receiver, a connection, and not an environment that surrounds the communicators, envelopes them, and provides the basis for their communication. 

Of course, on a more basic level, the model is biased towards the sender, rather than being a receiver-oriented model, which would look like this:

Hears what?
From whom?
And with what effect?

This variation resembles Lasswell's model of politics, which goes like this:  Who gets what, when, and how?  But what would a media ecological version of the model look like? Maybe something like, Within what medium do what effects emerge our of what relationships among which participants?  Well, maybe that one needs more work, or maybe it just won't work out in the end.

But whatever the criticisms of the Lasswell Model, he deserves a great deal of credit for including the question of effects, a point that most other models of communication ignore, or take for granted.  Media ecology has sometimes been referred to as an "effects" tradition, and  it certainly is true that we are concerned with the impact, consequences and effects of technology and techniques, codes and modes of communication, of form, relationship, grammar, and the like. Of course, we've moved away from cause-and-effect terminology, as that is problematic, and alternatives such as formal cause and emergent phenomena seem better suited to our approach and subject matter.

My search on YouTube also yielded two old 10-minute Encyclopedia Britannica Films made in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, both of which feature Harold Lasswell.  While there is a certain campy charm in the old style of educational films, These films, while dated in certain ways, and not without their amusing moments, still are much more to be taken seriously, even now, or especially now, as compared to other films of this sort from that era.  Let's start with the one on Despotism, a subject of immediate interest following the defeat of Nazism and fascism, and the onset of the Cold War, and yet not at all irrelevant today:

It can happen here is an important message indeed, one we need to keep in mind, with the price of liberty being eternal vigilance after all.  So, we really have to ask whether we've moved farther away from despotism, or slid a bit closer in the 66 years since these films were made, or perhaps more to the point, in what ways have we moved in the right direction, and in what ways the wrong?  

And now for the flip side, let's hear all about democracy:

I don't know about you, but I find Lasswell's commentary, and especially his insight on the relationship between economic balance and democracy, altogether impressive.  Ah, Harold, I think we could really use the likes of you these days!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

NY Media Ecologists 1991

Well, well, well, look what turned up on the internet, over on Pinterest of all places.  The photograph was taken on October 19, 1991, at the annual meeting of the New York State Speech Communication Association, held in Albany.

Over the past two decades I've changed a bit.  Yeah, that's me, front row, left of middle, sitting next to Neil Postman, with Christine Nystrom to the left of Neil, and Bill Petkanas to the right of me. 

Standing behind us, from left to right, are my good friend and former classmate Robert Albrecht, Paul Thaler, Gene Secunda, Janet Sternberg, Sal Fallica, Mary Alexander, Thom Gencarelli, and Casey Lum.  

It's a gaggle of media ecologists.  Or is that a giggle?  Or a flock? Maybe a mob, because some call it the media ecology mafia.  But let's keep that in the family, okay?

Somehow, seeing myself so young in this photograph, I'm reminded of the Bob Dylan refrain from "My Back Pages" from 1964:  "Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now."  The Byrds did a cover version of the song in 1967 that turned into a Top 40 hit, and here's an amazing live version of the song reminiscent of the arrangement from The Byrds, and featuring the band's leader, Roger McGuinn, along with George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Neil Young, and Dylan himself, all jamming out, and segueing into another Dylan tune, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door":  

And let's get Bobbie's original lyrics to "My Back Pages" in here as well:

Crimson flames tied through my ears
Rollin’ high and mighty traps
Pounced with fire on flaming roads
Using ideas as my maps
“We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
Proud ’neath heated brow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now 
Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now 
Girls’ faces formed the forward path
From phony jealousy
To memorizing politics
Of ancient history
Flung down by corpse evangelists
Unthought of, though, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now 
A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now 
In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now 
Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

I am not trying to make any connection between the photograph and these lyrics, I hasten to add, beyond the remembrance of time's past.  But given that all of us in the picture studied general semantics with Neil Postman and Chris Nystrom, I wonder if lines like, "using ideas as my maps," "abstract threats," and "good and bad, I define these terms quite clear, no doubt, somehow," don't all suggest a certain non-Aristotelian influence on Dylan's thinking?

As for the photograph, it is a map of sorts as well, a map of a territory no longer accessible, a territory that no longer exists.  And I know this makes no sense, but somehow, I used to think the lyrics said, Ah but I was so much older then, I'm younger then, not now...  And, after all, I am.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Evolution Now?

So, not too long ago I got into an exchange over on Peter Montgomery's McLuhan discussion list about Walter Ong, technology, and evolution, and I thought I'd use that as the basis for a post.

Walter Ong is best known, in media ecology circles, for his scholarship on orality and literacy, on memory and mnemonics vs. the written record, on the differences between the oral-aural world and the visualism that has its origins in the alphabetic culture of ancient Greece and comes to dominate western culture in the typographic era, and on how the electronic media have granted us a new form of orality, one built on top of literacy and mediated by electronic technologies, different and distinct from the original form of primary orality, and hence designated as secondary orality.

Whew, that was a mouthful, wasn't it? Or at least it would have been, had I said it out loud. Which I didn't of course.  As Ong would put it, do you see what I say?

Ong was a Jesuit priest, as well as a professor of English literature, but he was also something of a biologist, and an early proponent and pioneer of incorporating the idea of evolution into a theological framework.  Another Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, is better known for his philosophical work on evolution, and while Ong's ideas were arrived at somewhat independently, he lived together with Teilhard in France during the 1950s, when Ong was doing his doctoral research on Peter Ramus, and according to Thomas J. Farrell, Ong was favorably disposed toward Teilhard's notion of the noosphere, which is a move towards a collective consciousness of humanity, bringing us in closer communion with the divine, and in unity with all of creation.  In his view, evolution is moving inexorably towards an omega point.

Ong was much more down to earth, as he maintained that human consciousness evolves, and that it does so in response to technological innovation.  The shifts from orality to literacy to typography to electricity opened the door to new stages in the evolution of consciousness.  

My understanding is that Ong was working dialectically, noting that the same technologies that distance us from one another create new forms of human presence, and that using technology is natural for human beings. He used the metaphor of having die to our old selves to be born into a new self as an analogy to the fact that we lose something of value as we make technological progress. Ong acknowledged the agonistic nature of evolution, the struggle for survival, competition based on the fittest individuals within a species.  Ong had no romantic illusions about nature, but he did hold the ecological view that there is a natural tendency to seek balance and homeostasis.

Like other media ecologists, Ong recognized that technology has its costs as well as its benefits, negative as well as positive effects, or as McLuhan put it, disservices as well as services But his faith in God led him to believe that on sum, it was all for the best. In Ong's view, evolution is part of God's plan, technological progress is part of God's plan, the result being the evolution of human consciousness.

Ong's scholarship also extended to psychology and psychiatry, and both he and McLuhan made passing reference to a growing awareness of the unconscious in the electronic age, which perhaps relates to Carl Jung's notion of the evolution of consciousness through the integration of the conscious and the unconscious mind into a holistic self.

I think it's important to note that the religious, spiritual, and popular discourse on evolution has given it a teleological spin that Darwin never intended.  Gregory Bateson put it well, that the environment provides negative feedback that limits which individuals survive to reproduce, and how many offspring they produce.  It's also a bit of a tautology, in that the basic point is whatever survives survives, and whatever doesn't doesn't.  But mainly it's about the ability to survive and thrive within a given environment.  And environmental change, in requiring adaptation to an altered environment, speeds up the evolutionary process, hence Stephen Jay Gould's tweaking of Darwin in favor of punctuated equilibrium.  And then there's Richard Dawkins, who argues that it is neither the species nor the individual that is the natural unit of evolution, but the gene.  But we'll leave that genie in the bottle for now.

Adaptability does not necessarily imply evolution to some kind of higher state. Kurt Vonnegut expressed this quite well in his novel, Galapagos, where evolution amounts to devolution, with humans evolving downward, in a sense, towards a less intelligent, more peaceful state, something akin to a walrus.  This was also wonderfully conveyed in the brilliant opening to the movie Idiocracy:

From this point, the natural result over centuries is a dumbing down of the human race to the point of absurdity, making for great comedy.  This process, sometimes referred to as de-evolution, or devolution, was the theme of the new wave rock group popular during the 80s called Devo. Remember them? Their signature refrain was, Are we not men? We are Devo! 

The song "Jocko Homo" is by Mark Mothersbaugh, better known to younger generations for the theme music of the clever children's cartoon program and film series, Rugrats. The lyrics are a bit insensitive by contemporary standards, but here they are anyway:

They tell us that  
We lost our tails  
Evolving up 
From little snails  
I say it's all  
Just wind in sails  
Are we not men?  
We are DEVO!  
We're pinheads now  
We are not whole  
We're pinheads all  
Jocko homo  
Are we not men?  
Monkey men all  
In business suit  
Teachers and critics  
All dance the poot  
Are we not men?  
We are DEVO!  
Are we not men?  
god made man  
but he used the monkey to do it  
apes in the plan  
we're all here to prove it  
i can walk like an ape  
talk like an ape 
do what a monkey do  
god made man  
but a monkey supplied the glue  
We must repeat  
O.k. let's go! 

And this relates to and is derived from the idea of mutants, popularized by horror movies during the 50s, and more recently by Marvel Comics X-Men franchise:

Of course, these ideas are more fantasy than science fiction, as genetic mutation works in much more subtle and gradual ways, so no one is going to suddenly be born with wings, or skin made of metal, let alone the ability to defy the laws of physics.  Anyway, popular culture themes about mutant monsters and heroes reflects postwar fears and concerns about radiation, the bomb, nuclear energy, and technology in general as well as recent attitudes regarding stereotyping, prejudice, and scapegoating.

But getting back to the point that adaptation has no direction, no automatic movement towards a higher state, this fundamental point regarding Darwinian evolution was overlooked in popular discourse about evolution, where the assumption was that evolution moved from lower to higher states, from single-cell to multicellular organism, from invertebrates to vertebrates, from fish to reptiles to mammals, leading up to the ascent of man, as it once was called.

In this sense, the popular view of evolution has been associated with the concept of progress, which made for a good fit with social darwinism in the late 19th and early 20th century.  And in the postwar period, as our faith in progress was shaken to the core, evolution became something of an euphemism for progress, a point I make in On the Binding Biases of Time (see the link over on the side there and order a copy if you please).

More recently, however, complexity theory suggests that there is in fact a tendency under certain conditions to evolve towards greater complexity.  This is not exactly the same as evolving towards an omega point or final state of being that Teilhard imagined, nor is it exactly progress in the early 20th century sense.  But complexity theory does suggest that the universe evolves, that there is a natural tendency towards negative entropy and increased complexity that includes the evolution of amino acids into self-replicating genetic material, that is, the evolution of life from non-life, and possibly as well the evolution towards higher states of consciousness that humanity seems to be a product of.  In other words, this would make life and consciousness a natural function of the universe.

It seems that it's hard to escape the sense that evolution has a direction, its own arrow of time, pointing towards something higher, or as we sometimes put it, towards something more evolved. What that means is hard to say, but we can at least hope that the potential exists for evolution towards a higher state of consciousness, and that our technological evolution can provide the impetus for such an evolution of consciousness.  If nothing else, it's quite clear that the current state of the world requires us to evolve our consciousness now, if we are to continue to survive as a species, and preserve our ecosystem (or what's left of it).

In this, I certainly find comfort in Ong's optimistic outlook, that on the whole, there is a spiritual dimension to the world that helps to move things in the right direction, and will help us to evolve as we need to, if only we can be open to it.  So maybe this needs to be our battle cry:

Evolution Now!

What do you think?

Monday, August 20, 2012


The topic of remix has come up here on occasion, and it's one I cover in my Introduction to New Media class at Fordham University.  So it seems only right that I include this Ted Talk video that recently came to my attention, entitled Kirby Ferguson: Embracing the Remix. Here's what the blurb over on YouTube says:

Nothing is original, says Kirby Ferguson, creator of Everything is a Remix. From Bob Dylan to Steve Jobs, he says our most celebrated creators both borrow, steal and transform.

And of course, I hasten to add that there is nothing original about the idea that there is nothing original.  As Walter Ong explains in Orality and Literacy, this realization is relatively recent in literary circles, where it is associated with the concept of intertextuality, that no text is a closed system, but that all texts draw on previous writings through quotation, allusion, or simple influence. 

Moreover, what is generally unacknowledged is the fact that the language itself is borrowed, not the invention of the author.  In this sense, all writing is remixAnd all speech as well.

Through most of the modern era, originality was idealized to the point of worship. And as general semantics scholar Wendell Johnson notes, idealization is the first step of the IFD Disease, a result of treating high level abstractions as if they were concrete phenomena, and failing to adequately define our terms, establish procedures, and set measurable goals.  As the IFD disease progresses, idealization leads to frustration, and ends with demoralization. And in some instances, the elusiveness of originality was seen as reason enough for suicide, at least among poetic types in the Romantic era.

And let's not forget the first lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes (the original Hebrew name of the scroll being Kohelet, which means preacher), attributed to King Solomon.  Here's the poetic rendering from the good old King James Version:

1  The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2  Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
3  What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?
4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
5  The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
6  The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
7  All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full: unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
8  All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9  The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
10  Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

So life is a remix, whether you believe in the Bible, or in those twisty strands of DNA.  Well, anyway, where was I. Oh yes, the video, right, here it is (and special thanks to Maria Popova and Brain Pickings for bringing this to my attention):

As you might have guessed from the fact that I am including the video here, I am generally sympathetic to Kirby's view.  Of course, there was the case of George Harrison being found guilty of plagiarism, however unintended it may have been.  Here's a YouTube video that does a great job of demonstrating how Harrison's 1970 hit song "My Sweet Lord" really did plagiarize "He's So Fine," a song written by Ronald Mack and recorded by The Chiffons in 1962:

And that's the problem, after all. We don't want to do away with intellectual property rights altogether, or at least I don't think we do.  In fact, as a product of the typographic media environment, they are very much undermined by the electronic media, and especially by the fact that digital copying can be done so easily, and without loss of quality. While the extension of copyright to protect corporate interests is absolutely unwarranted, those interests, and those of all intellectual property holders, individual and conglomerate, are threatened as never before by the new technologies, and there is no easy solution. 

I am far from alone in saying that for many years Lawrence Lessig has been a voice of reason in all this, and his fabulous Ted Talk is included in my previous post, Say Amen to Digital Sampling, along with a very interesting YouTube video that relates to it.  And for something a bit more offbeat, another post from a while back on the topic is McLuhan Redux/Remix.

And yeah, I know, this post wasn't very original at all, was it?  Maybe we need a new word, like maybe...


Sunday, August 19, 2012

No Debating It

Back in June, in a post entitled Some More Reading List, I mentioned that one of the books I intended to read this summer was Judaism’s Great Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl by Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, noting that it "is an absolute must for anyone interested in moral theology or a dialogical approach to religious experience, and it is near the top of my stack of books."

And while I don't plan on providing book reports for all of my summer reading, I did want to post specifically about this book, in part because it has been a great pleasure and honor to get to know the author personally over the past year.  As I explained in another previous post, Presiding for the Congregation, this summer I also took on the role of president of our small temple, Congregation Adas Emuno, located in Leonia, New Jersey, the part of Bergen County just over the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan.  And the previous summer, Barry Schwartz took on the role our congregation's rabbi, while continuing as director of the Jewish Publication Society, one of the oldest if not the oldest Jewish publishers in the United States.

So, I wrote a review of the book over on Amazon that you can find on the book's page, and here's a nice link to it for your convenience:

But I think you might have guessed that I'd also share what I wrote over there right here with you, or else, what's a blogger for?  And you were right, so here goes:

No Debating the Value of this Book

Rabbi Schwartz's latest book, Judaism's Great Debates, is a well-written and accessible guide to some of the major disputes in Jewish history, and as such, serves as a great introduction to this essential element within the world's oldest monotheistic tradition.

The book presents us with 10 debates in all, stretching all the way from Abraham's argument with God to spare the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the differing views on Zionism of Theodor Herzl and Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise at the turn of the 20th century. Each debate is presented in a concise form, with emphasis on the dialogue, whether real or virtual, between the disputants. And most importantly, each debate is presented with an eye towards the continuing relevance of the issues under consideration for contemporary life. The debates are a part of a living tradition, and are in their own way reflective of the contradictions inherent in the human condition.

Each of the 10 debates is thought-provoking, and provides an excellent opportunity for discussion and self-examination.  But I do have my favorites.  The 3rd debate, between Moses and the daughters of Zelophehad is remarkable for its relation to women's rights, the fact that it implies flexibility in regard to Mosaic Law, and its connection to the question of intermarriage.  Chapter 4's debate between King David and the prophet Nathan is a sobering case of the abuse of authority and the need to speak truth to power, and the essential ideal that no one is above the law.  The debate between Hillel and Shammai in Chapter 6 is a classic in Jewish tradition, encapsulating the conflict over lenient and strict interpretations of the Law, between liberal and conservative, progressive and fundamentalist.  Chapter 7's dispute between the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov similarly speaks to the conflict between head and heart, between intellect and emotion, between study and prayer, and offers two sides of Judaism that are each in their own ways worthy of celebration.  The debate between Spinoza and the Amsterdam Rabbis in Chapter 8 regards in unblinking manner a dark moment in Jewish history, where one of the greatest of modern philosophers, and one of the founders of the Enlightenment movement, was excommunicated for his views--this chapter alone is worth the price of the book!

Barry Schwartz explains that he took part in tournament debate as a high school student, and his love of the form is present throughout the volume.  Despite the sometimes tragic consequences of the conflicts that took place, Rabbi Schwartz makes it clear that "debate is more than a valued intellectual exercise in Judaism.  In echoing the divine process of creation, it is a holy act."  His introduction and overview of the tradition of "arguing for the sake of heaven" would serve as an excellent text for religious studies courses, adult education, and is an absolute must for anyone interested in moral theology or a dialogical approach to religious experience.

I should add that, as a communication scholar, I was quite pleased to discover that this book is informed by a real appreciation of the art of debating, a practice that is covered by my field, along with public speaking and oral interpretation.  And in this political season when what passes for debate is a form of speech that can only be labeled debased, this book serves as a valuable reminder of the potential of debate to uplift, enlighten, and inspire.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Second Amen Dementia

Loyal readers of this blog may recall that I post poetry here on occasion. I still do most of my poetry over on MySpace, yes, believe it or not, and I posted this one over there a few days ago, but thought that I'd include it here on Blog Time Passing as well.  I wrote this after the shooting in Aurora (see my previous post, What to Blame for the Colorado Shooting?) and posted it on MySpace shortly before the reports came in about the shooting in the Sikh Temple near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and that coincidence certainly gives me pause.  So anyway, here goes:

Second Amen Dementia

I have to write with bare arms
Amen! Amen!
I have a right arm that's bare
as a matter of fact
and so is the other one
I have two bare arms
That's right!  That's right!
Nothing up my sleeve
and losing my shirt
who wouldn't give a right arm
to have half a loaf
even withered with forgetfulness?

Do I babble on? Yes I do!
Say Amen! once, say Amen! twice and then
second the motion!
And now the second emanation:

Second emend meant no harm
I have the right to bear harms
in harm's own way
Bullseye! Bullseye!

Second Amen! dimension
did I happen to mention
Flatland?  Hey, Abbott!
Holy! Holy!
Loop de loop!

Second omen, damn it!
I have the right to bar arms
I don't have to bear them
Second Amen!  Demand it!
You have the right to bare arms and legs
Amen! Amen!
You have the right to bare torso and head
Amen! Amen!
You have the right to bear children
Amen! Amen!
You have the right


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Blues for Jerry

Today being what would have been the 70th birthday of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, it should serve as a moment to remember and celebrate his musical achievements, and also to reflect upon a life cut short, much too soon, due to drug abuse. If there's a lesson to be learned from his passing 17 years ago from a heart attack in which drug addiction (including cigarettes), diabetes, obesity, and sleep apnea all played a role, it's that these all are medical problems, not law enforcement issues.  

But leaving aside the illogical nature of just say no and just say go (to jail) policies, the bittersweet quality of this occasion brings to mind, for me, the song that I consider to be his signature performance piece. Although there were many that were better known, such as "Friend of the Devil," "Casey Jones," and of course "Truckin'," in my opinion nothing better showcases Jerry Garcia's unique quality as a musician, his style and his sensibility, that the song "Stella Blue," especially in live performance.

This high quality YouTube video was uploaded by , featuring a tasteful set of still images, mostly photographs featuring Garcia, and a "soundboard recording of a *gorgeous* Stella performed @ the Auditorium Theater in Chicago, May 13, 1977" according to the write-up.

The lyrics were written by poet and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter:

All the years combine, they melt into a dream,
A broken angel sings from a guitar.
In the end there's just a song comes cryin' up the night
Thru all the broken dreams and vanished years.
Stella Blue.

When all the cards are down, there's nothing left to see,
There's just the pavement left and broken dreams.

In the end there's still that song comes cryin' like the wind.
Down every lonely street that's ever been
Stella Blue.

Ive stayed in every blue-light cheap hotel, can't win for trying.
Dust off those rusty strings just one more time,
Gonna make them shine, shine

It all rolls into one and nothing comes for free,
There's nothing you can hold, for very long.
And when you hear that song come crying like the wind,
It seems like all this life was just a dream.
Stella Blue.

It's a melancholy song, but as I tried to explain, I think this is a melancholy day when it is possible to consider what might have been as well as what was.  But I do think that, for anyone wondering what all the fuss is about concerning Jerry Garcia, this video would be a great way to being to answer that question.