Tuesday, January 31, 2017

My Language Poetry

So, maybe you remember how I've been serving as president of the New York Society for General Semantics for the past year, and maybe you even subscribed for updates over on the NYSGS website. And if not, please feel free, you don't have to be in or anywhere near New York to get the latest news on our events and resources added to the website (which I put together, and it's not too shabby, if I do say so myself).

And maybe you saw my previous posts on the subject, New York Society for General Semantics, my initial announcement, and the two posts on panels I put together prior to the 2016 election, Political Talk & Political Drama Part 1: Election 2016 and Political Talk & Political Drama Part 2? Pretty interesting stuff, wouldn't you say?

So, now for something completely different, or maybe somewhat different, another of the sessions that I organized for the NYSGS was a series of poetry readings. You can see, and hear, all of them over on the NYSGS site via the following link: The Language of Poetry (Video Recorded September 28, 2016). And they're also available on the NYSGS YouTube Channel

As far as this post here on Blog Time Passing is concerned, I just want to share my own performance of several original, unpublished poems. I think you'll find there's still some connection to politics and other issues and controversies, as well as to the theme of language, and to general semantics. Well, for better or verse, here it is:

In case you were wondering about where this reading took place, it was at The Players, a pretty cool site where all of our events have been held over the past year. And for this one in particular, I connected the NYSGS event to Poetry at the Players, a group that meets periodically at The Players to engage in readings of poetry (which is all about the performance, dramatic readings, so the rule being that you cannot read poems that you yourself have written). I have taken part in the readings for this group a number of times, and whenever I've been able to make it, but less so since September because I'm teaching and holding NYSGS sessions on Wednesday evenings, the same evening that this group meets.

Anyway, the evening began with Poetry at the Players for the first hour, and that was followed by a second hour of readings and performances of original poetry. And that helps to explain some of what I'm saying in my introduction to the session, which I include here mainly for the reference to general semantics and poetry:

And I should add that the place was packed, with something like 100 people in attendance. So it was quite a night, all things considered! And maybe we'll do it again sometime... Subscribe, and you'll know!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Whither Obama?

So, I know many of us are missing Barack Obama more and more every day, and he did say he was taking an extended, and well earned vacation. And he also said that when he gets back to work, he wants to help the Democrats do better in local and statewide politics, a badly needed effort, to be sure.

But this post looks back to an item that appeared right before the 2016 presidential election, courtesy of the UK's Independent. Dated November 4, 2016, the title of the article is, How much money could Barack Obama earn after leaving the White House? And it is followed by a subtitle that says, Mr Obama will receive an annual pension of $203,700. And it is always important to acknowledge the author, which in this case is Matt Payton. So, you know the drill, you can click on the title of the article to read it on the newspaper's website, or stick around are read it here.

The article is more or less informational, starting off with the following:

Barack Obama leaves the White House, the third President in a row to have spent two full terms as commander-in-chief.

Before winning the the 2008 Presidential election, he served three years in the US Senate (2005 to 2008) and seven years in the Illinois State Senate (1997-2004).

Following nearly 20 years in public office, there has been much speculation in regards to his post-Presidential career.

Regarding the next few years, Mr Obama has stated he will remain in Washington DC until his youngest daughter, Sasha, finishes high school.

As standard, every former US President since 1958 receive a pension, with Mr Obama set to receive $203,700 (£162,798) per annum.

Other than his repeated intention to play more golf, the 55-year-old leader of the free world has a number of options:

At this point, the article moves into a speculative mode, listing six possibilities, starting with the following:

1. The political memoir

A traditional first project of former Presidents looking to sculpt their own legacy.

Bill Clinton reportedly received a $10 million (£7.9 million) advance for his presidential memoirs with George W. Bush allegedly receiving $7 million (£5.6 million) for his memoir, Decision Points.

Mr Obama already made millions with his two previous memoirs Dreams of My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006).

Publishers have described his presidential memoirs as the most hotly anticipated with advances estimated between $25 million (£19.9 million) and $45 million (£35.9 million), reports The New York Times.

I think we can pretty much count on this one, given Obama's intellectual acuity, track record in publishing, and communication skills. Next up we have a topic familiar to longtime readers of this blog:

2. Lecture circuit

Another popular post-Presidency side-line, former White House residents can net millions making paid speeches at universities and corporate venues across the world.

While his father, President George H.W. Bush reportedly earns $10,000 (£7,990) per speech, George W. Bush earns between $100,000 (£79,900) to $175,000 (£139,840) per appearance.

Bill Clinton was reportedly paid $225,000 (£179,795) for an appearance in February 2014, reports Fortune. Communications professor at Fordham University, Lance Strate said: "The speech is kind of secondary to… just being able to have a big name at your event.

"It might get reported on some form of TV or cable news, which further adds to the prestige and the publicity of the event."
So, there I am, being quoted, and actually this is another case of being re-quoted, a quote in an older article being used in a new article. In fact, I have a whole history on this subject, and you can see it unfold via my previous blog posts, first Giant Speaking Fees-Fi-Fo-Fum, then Of Fees, Futility, and Mike Huckabee, and A Fortune in Speakers' Fees, and then Long-Shot Candidates in the Marketplace, and its follow-up, Why Run & Other Answers to Political Questions. Funny how something small like that just keeps echoing and re-echoing around the digital canyon.

All right then, that's how this article came to my attention, as you might have guessed. But while we're at it, let's see what else comes up on the list, shall we? And the next item demonstrates, if nothing else, that someone doesn't know how to count, as it's mislabeled number 2, and far be it from me to change the quote and correct it:

2. Buy a sports team

President Obama has mentioned his dream of part-owning an NBA basketball franchise⏤his first sporting love. The advance for his memoirs could make this a realistic proposition.

He told GQ last year: "I have fantasized about being able to put together a team and how much fun that would be. I think it’d be terrific."

His predecessor, George W. Bush had owned a stake in the Major League Baseball team, the Texas Rangers, before selling up in 1998 for a cool $14.9 million.

Considering he made an initial $606,000 investment in 1989, that's a decent level of profit.
Maybe the mistake in numbering was due to the farfetched quality of this item? Whatever the reason, the misnumbering continues, as we move on to the fourth item:

3. College professorship

The hottest contender for his post-Presidential career, Mr Obama has spoken frequently about returning to teach law at College.

In an interview with The New Yorker, Mr Obama said: "I love the law, intellectually. I love nutting out these problems, wrestling with these arguments.

"I love teaching. I miss the classroom and engaging with students."

As to where, there are three obvious choices; Columbia where he was an undergraduate political science major, Harvard where he graduated from law school or the University of Chicago where he taught previously.

Columbia is seen as the front runner after the college's president said at the 2015 convocation he was looking forward to "welcoming back our most famous alumnus... in 2017."

Mr Obama would not be the first politician to return to academia, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice returned to Stanford University as a politics professor.

At some of the wealthiest and most prestigious American colleges, top professors can earn six figure salaries⏤tempting enough for a former President?
Also, former Vice-President Al Gore taught at Columbia after losing the 2000 presidential election. Speaking on behalf of my profession, I do have to say that Obama's sentiments are admirable, and I bet he's dynamite in the classroom. Of course, this option seems to be more in line with the intellectualism of recent Democratic presidents, as opposed to the Republicans. Not that it has to be that way, although the ivory tower does lean a bit towards the left, making it a context more conducive to liberals than conservatives. But maybe there's some reluctance on the part of folks on the right to have their views challenged and tested? Anyway, the fifth item is also an option that seems to go with a particular political inclination:

4. Social Activism

Probably the least remunerative option but one that holds attraction to both Barack and Michelle Obama.

After graduating from Columbia, Mr Obama spent three years as a community organiser in Chicago.

Both have stated they are committed to their grassroots initiatives such as My Brother's Keeper⏤a mentoring programme for young minority men.

And finally, something that probably would not have been considered as an option until the Clintons:

5. Public office

Mr Obama has made it very clear that neither he nor his wife would ever seek public office after leaving the White House.

He recently said: She will never run for office, she is as talented and brilliant a person as there is, and I could not be prouder of her, but Michelle does not have the patience or the inclination to actually be a candidate herself.

"That’s one y’all can take to the bank.”

The First Lady has categorically backed these sentiments despite groundswell support for her to enter frontline politics.

Mrs Obama said at the South by Southwest festival in March: "I will not run for president. No, nope, not going to do it.

“There is so much that I can do outside of the White House… without the constraints, the lights and the cameras, the partisanship.

"There’s a potential that my voice can be heard by many people that can’t hear me now because I’m Michelle Obama the First Lady, and I want to be able to impact as many people as possible in an unbiased way."
And as much as many of us may admire Michelle Obama, and regard her as having strong potential were she to enter the political arena, dynastic politics is generally not the best thing for democratic government. Growing up, there was this longing for another Kennedy, and while Teddy matured into an excellent elder statesman, his directionless flirtations with running for president were not helpful. His brother Bobby might have been a great one, there is no way of knowing. But John Quincy Adams was not one of the good ones. As for Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, they were fifth cousins, so they don't count. And of course I'd rather have seen Hillary Clinton as president, and for that matter Jeb Bush, but as a basic principle, we are better off without any kind of political aristocracy.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Post-Truth and Post-Reason

So, I was playing catch-up in posting 3 of my op-eds published in the Jewish Standard and online on my blog for their Times of Israel site previously, and was going to hold off until posting my most recent op-ed here on Blog Time Passing. But in light of recent events revolving around the inauguration of Donald Trump, I figure I should post this sooner rather than later.

The piece originally appeared in the December 30th issue, and was written with an end-of-year sensibility. The editor extended the title to read, Post-Truth and Post-Reason—Big Data and Big Dada Fight It Out, which is a bit misleading since it's more like big data and big dada ganging up in an assault on truth and reason. But I am grateful that they were willing to publish what turned out to be a very long item, almost twice as long as the typical op-ed. So, here it is:

As we reach the end of 2016, I find I have mixed feelings about the Word of the Year chosen by Oxford Dictionaries: post-truth.

Reflecting the Brexit vote in the UK as well as the presidential election campaign in the US, the term reflects the disillusionment that many of us feel with political discourse in the 21st century, especially as it is conducted via television, the internet, and social media.

But the advent of post-truth leaves open the question, what is truth? In one sense, it is the opposite of a lie, and this year’s election campaign has seen more accusations of lying coming from both sides of the political spectrum than I can recall from past political seasons. A lie is a deliberate attempt to mislead, either by knowingly making a false statement, or by withholding information known to be true.

Over the past half century, two of our presidents have gotten in trouble for lying—Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign, and Bill Clinton, who was impeached. Of course, some of us find that there is a significant difference between Nixon lying to cover up an attempt to undermine the democratic process, and Clinton lying to cover up a personal indiscretion. But both were guilty of failing to live up to the ideal of honesty. Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, campaigned on the promise that “I’ll never lie to you.” Whatever else might be said of him, he tried to tell the American people the truth about the end of postwar prosperity. His message was not well received, to say the least.

The apocryphal story of young George Washington admitting to chopping down a cherry tree with the words “I cannot tell a lie” reflects one type of honesty, honesty in confession of sin, wrongdoing, or error. This kind of honesty is very much a part of Jewish religious and ethical tradition, and the Judeo-Christian foundation of the American republic. It is a practice that our president-elect seems to avoid more often than not, although it has been in general decline through our culture, in part due to the litigious nature of our society, but also due to a decay in people’s willingness to take responsibility for their actions.

Abraham Lincoln was known as “Honest Abe,” reportedly long before he entered the political arena, when he was a young store clerk and, notably, when he was a lawyer. In this regard, beyond telling the truth, honesty refers more broadly to integrity and trustworthiness; beyond lying, dishonesty includes a variety of unethical behaviors, such as cheating. Here too, we can trace this ideal back to biblical passages such as can be found in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-27), which includes the commandment “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights…” (18:35-36). Accusations of cheating also have been a part of 2016 politics, again directed at both major parties and their candidates.

Admittedly, these concepts of honesty are old-fashioned and obsolescent in our contemporary culture of celebrity, where honestly amounts to self-display and self- promotion. It is the honesty of going on a talk show and talking about yourself, or feeding details of your personal life to the gossip outlets. Donald Trump is seen as honest by his followers not because he accurately conveys the truth, but because he says what he thinks, seemingly with little or no filtering. This stands in stark contrast with the typical politician, who sends different messages to different audiences, especially to wealthy backers as opposed to the general public. Not to mention the fact that officeholders often must withhold information from their constituents.

Because Trump seems to say whatever comes into his head and does not care to be diplomatic in his remarks or hold back in concern over anyone’s sensitivities, he is seen as honest in a way that renders any inconsistencies in what he says irrelevant. So what if he contradicts himself from one situation to another, if what he says at any given moment is what he truly is thinking, what he truly believes to be true? In this way, Trump’s vulgar remarks caught on tape before an Access Hollywood appearance serves as more proof of his honesty, and does not conflict with his statements that he loves women and that no one has more respect for women than he does, at least as far as his fans are concerned.

The kind of honesty Trump represents is associated with the ideal of authenticity. For celebrity logic, authenticity means playing yourself, even if you are playing a role. That’s the difference between being an actor, along the lines of Meryl Streep or Dustin Hoffman, or being a star, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, or Adam Sandler for that matter. What fans often forget is that playing yourself is still playing a role, that authenticity on the part of celebrities is still an act.

Politicians can accuse their opponents of lying as a way of emphasizing their own image of authenticity, but actually proving such claims can be very difficult, because they require some evidence that there was an intent to mislead. The Watergate conspirators avoided charges of perjury by using the phrase “to the best of my recollection” in conjunction with their testimony. Who can prove that a lie is not the result of a faulty memory rather than a deliberate deception?

For similar reasons, journalists rarely accuse anyone of lying, instead identifying statements as false. That leaves open the question of whether the politicians were simply mistaken, or in the neologism used by press secretaries, whether they misspoke. Journalists can, however, report on the accusations of lying made by some other source. While they may not be able to support the claim that candidate A is lying, they can easily show that candidate B said that candidate A is lying.

The important point is that while in one sense lies are the opposite of truth, in another sense it is falsity that is truth’s antonym. The contrast between true and false takes us away from the ideal of honesty, and removes the factor of personal belief. Instead, we are asked to objectively consider the logic of the claim, and the evidence that may support or refute it.

This meaning of truth is closely related to the concept of facticity, hence the Oxford Dictionary definition of post-truth: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This reflects the commonly held view that facts are statements that are true, typically having been verified scientifically. But this is based on a misunderstanding of science.

A scientific fact is a statement that is open to testing. A statement such as “God created the world,” cannot be tested empirically by any known method, and therefore cannot be considered a scientific fact. That means that it cannot be tested to see if it’s true or false. A statement such as “The world is approximately 6,000 years old” can be tested via scientific method, and has been shown to be false. But it is still a fact, in the sense of being a statement open to testing. Ronald Reagan was notorious for citing facts that turned out to be false, but no one accused the former actor of lying.

Actually, according to philosopher Karl Popper, scientists can never prove anything to be absolutely true, because to do so would require observing every possible instance of the phenomenon in question, past, present, and future. And it only takes one exception to prove the theory false. In this sense, science advances by falsification alone, by eliminating error and mistaken notions.

Science cannot give us truth, just tentative explanations that conform to the available evidence, and effective means of predicting outcomes. Science is by far the best method we have for making such predictions. But absent claims of absolute truth, science leaves open the door to relativism, a view that is problematic when it is championed by the left in regard to morality, and by the right in regard to reality.

Stephen Colbert introduced the term truthiness to refer to George W. Bush’s reliance on intuition and gut feelings as a guide to truth, rather than logic, evidence, or even thoughtful reflection. The word seems almost quaint now, as it retains at least a bit of a folksy connection to some sense of the truth, something less extreme than post-truth. It is perhaps a reflection of nostalgic longing and disturbance over contemporary public discourse that accounts for the revival earlier this year of the classic television game show To Tell the Truth, introduced in 1956 by Bob Stewart, née Isidore Steinberg of Brooklyn.

But truth long has been a problematic term, and for many years now we have been rightfully suspicious of anyone who lays claim to the truth. The true tragedy we are witnessing is the decline of rationality. The prophet Isaiah declared, “Come now and let us reason together” (1:18), and it was the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, that gave birth to the American republic. The democratic basis of our government was predicated on our ability to engage in rational discussion and argumentation, and through competition in the marketplace of ideas, arrive at the truth, or at least negotiate a compromise between opposing opinions.

Rationality has been under attack on two fronts, from the irrationality of an image culture that emphasizes appearance and personality rather than sensible language, and from the hyper-rationality of number-crunching information technologies that leave no room for deliberation or value other than efficiency and productivity. We are caught between emotional appeals that leave no room for thoughtful, impartial consideration, and calculations of quantifiable certainties that do not allow for human evaluation and judgment.

In short, reason is being squeezed out by the extremes of big data and big dada.

The end of rationality has had an adverse affect on the State of Israel as well, as Jewish culture, with its long tradition of Talmudic scholarship, which emphasizes reasoned discussion. Israel’s attempts to use logic and evidence fare poorly in the face of its enemies’ use of images and emotional appeals in the international arena.

Liberals have had more difficulty adjusting to a post-rational world than conservatives, given the liberal bias toward intellectualism. One advantage that liberals do enjoy is in the use of humor, so look for comedians to take on leadership positions in the Democratic Party. For this reason, I wouldn’t be surprised if Saturday Night Live alumnus Al Franken, the junior United States senator from Minnesota, was the Democratic nominee in 2020.

But the end of reason is not a problem only for liberals. It is a challenge to liberalism writ large, to our ideals of freedom and equality. And it makes it all but impossible to follow the commandment found in Deuteronomy (16:20): “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” How can we pursue justice in a post-truth, post-rational world?