Thursday, July 26, 2012

Literacy Grows People
Children must earn adulthood by becoming both literate and well-mannered.
(p 88) The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman 

…C. H. Waddington has hypothesized that “one component of human evolution and the capacity for choice is the ability of the human child to accept on authority from elders the criteria for right and wrong.” Without such assurances children find it difficult to be hopeful or courageous or disciplined. If it is hypocrisy to hide from the child the “facts” of adult violence and moral ineptitude, it is nonetheless wise to do so. Surely, hypocrisy in the cause of strengthening child growth is no vice.
 (p 93)

 Literacy Grows People

I’m eager to tell you: It’s been a life-changer to read Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood. I feel (he said in a stunned voice): “Wow.”

I’ve been fond of Postman ever since I did a book report for college, back when my world was young and idealistic, on Teaching As a Subversive Activity (written with Charles Weingartner). Postman will always be best known for his books about TV, such as Amusing Ourselves to Death and (with Steve Powers) How To Watch TV News. Of course these books deserve their fame. Yet just as an art-house movie can be better and more memorable for you than a famous mainstream movie, can even become almost your favorite film, (Tree of Life) even though you just can’t recommend that film to strangers, so too is The Disappearance of Childhood my favorite of Postman’s work, although it’s one of his less known books. It’s Postman’s favorite too, as he notes in the forward to the new Vintage edition.

Obscure, and perhaps too bookish: I don’t even know who Postman’s readers will be. From what I can see, even smart computer nerds seem to prefer their computer forums, such as reddit, to be just like TV: Valuing variety over complexity, quick emotions over depth, and with a pronounced distaste for anything lengthy. One Internet lady wrote with heated annoyance that if you couldn’t make your point in 200 words then you shouldn’t bother writing at all. (I guess she’s not one of my fans)

Postman needn’t apologize to nerds, although his thesis, step-by-step, chapter-by-chapter, requires more than a page each to cover things like: the long history of non-childhood; the super-swift spread of the “printing press with movable type;” the character-building effect on the reader of literacy; how childhood is a relatively recent social construct, we made it up; how childhood as we know it arose alongside printing; and, finally, the US cultural decline of the concept of childhood and innocence alongside the ascent of TV. That’s a lot of pages. Just now, trying to keep this essay closer to 200 words, I am focusing not on childhood but on literacy… Although I’ve posted two quotes as prologue to get you started on thinking about children.

Although lately, as shown in my essays, I’ve been grasping how TV is “bad,” especially TV “news,” suddenly a new light bulb has turned on: Thanks to Postman, now I grasp how literacy is “good.” More: From Postman, my new theory is that literacy is an achievement, and that adulthood is an achievement, and that literacy is a key to mature adulthood, as we have known it. (Although my favorite brother-in-law is both adult and less-literate)

It seems to me that in those dynamic Greek forums the citizens supported democracy as they gathered to talk, but the true sinews of power for their forums came from a populace who would go home alone to read and to reason. How seriously the Greeks took citizenship could be seen by their term “idiot” meaning one who could neither swim nor read.

I remember when “new, exciting” video computers first appeared, being used for teaching and gaming and TV, and a few people speculated that the skill of reading might one day become as rare as playing music. However—and this is serious—none of them speculated that literacy had an effect on the body politic: on people’s character. Considering how even the nerds among us don’t get it, I’m feeling glum. Considering the consequences, I’m aghast.

Oh well, I may be walking around in a dark cloud but there’s a silver lining: At least I have a clue for the solution of a mystery. In one of the recent nonfiction best sellers, —It was either by the Freakonamics guys or Malcolm Gladwell— he had tracked how TV came to America in bits, with certain regions getting TV broadcasting earlier than others. He tracked the crime rates in these same regions. He was baffled, considering that children only watch kiddies shows, not ones on crime or violence, baffled at how those earlier regions suffered an earlier rise in the crime rate. Today I am wondering if those kids had a less innocent, more cynical childhood, followed by a less literate adulthood. Our ancestors, in their traditional oral society would of course communicate, but literacy means something upstairs, beyond plain communication.

Reading Postman (p. 76-77) I thought of strange far away young males in our war on terror: “When one learns to read, one learns a peculiar way of behaving in which physical immobility is only one feature. Self-restraint is a challenge not only to the body but to the mind as well…. In reading, one must wait to get the answer, wait to reach the conclusion. And while waiting, one is obliged to evaluate the validity of the sentences, or at least know when and under what conditions to suspend critical judgment… The literate person must learn to be reflective and analytical, patient and assertive, always poised, after due consideration, to say no to a text. This mode of behavior is difficult for the young to learn… the young reader is expected at first only to paraphrase, not criticize.”

 According to Postman, (p 101) “When the United States Constitution was written, James Madison and his colleagues assumed that mature citizenship necessarily implied a fairly high level of literacy and its concomitant analytic skills. For this reason the young, commonly defined as those under twenty-one, were excluded from the electoral process because it was further assumed that the achievement of sophisticated literacy required training over a long period of time… As Tocqueville tells us, the politics of America was the politics of the printed page.”

You may think that in a month or so, with second thoughts, I will have reached a calmer, more critical balance… I hope so, but just now, under Postman’s spell, and wondering if literacy builds character, I am feeling dark and thunderous. I see TV as images without language, without abstractions, and without a sense of time. I see “moving pictures” which don’t allow any pause to reflect. I sense the futility of any “TV-now-time” liberal trying to direct our foreign policy and our savage peace making without having first woven together a personal philosophy of history. I envision the horror of Nineteen Eighty-Four replaced by the horror of Brave New World, censorship replaced by the “soma” of electronics. Later I will be calmer, of course, but just now I am trying on this new clothing, look at every mirror, trying to imagine if an entire society can suffer from a reliance on image over abstract language.

As regards society, I suppose people intent on politics are especially sensitive. Earlier this month, a backroom party worker and syndicated columnist, Warren Kinsella, wrote that image, emotion, has become more important than words. The hook for his column, which he must have been thinking about for some time, was about Bev Oda, the Member of Parliament we all loved to hate. Finally she’s been turfed. It seems her fate wasn’t just from the public contemplating her incredibly stupid and selfish actions, but was mostly from a single image of her dressed in black, looking sinister, sneaking a cigarette. Kinsella wrote, “Print folks —the ones who like to pour their souls into writing newspapers and magazines, the ones who craft profound essays for blogs, the ones who toil in government offices and conjure up grand speeches— like to believe that words matter still. But, mostly, they don’t.” To this, all I can say is “Ouch!” and “Too true.” What’s happened to us?

I guess James Madison’s time has passed. Judging by the prevalence of electronic screens, Americans now prefer not to think. Last summer, when a nearby library was having a one-dollar sale, I overheard two young ladies in high heels. As a blonde reached for a fantasy her brunette friend asked, “Are you going to look at these science fiction books?” “No! I don’t want to think!” …As God is my witness, I never would have thought to see, in my lifetime, the fantasy books at the big box bookstore, formerly a minority to be mixed in with, and outnumbered by, the science fiction books… now having their own separate gargantuan fantasy section, ignoring the withered little row of sf books. While hoping it is somehow coincidence, I am finding those two book sections awfully symbolic.

Often I despair. As documented in A Time to Start Thinking (A book I announced in my America Descending essay of June 2012) when it comes to US federal politics the experts have concluded, and I suppose Kinsella would agree, “to explain is to lose.” And so “they” spout labels and slogans. I ask you: How much more unthinking could the American people be? When Postman discusses screens versus literacy he never comes out and says “post-literate age,” but I think this term describes our timid new world. Longing for lush language, I am traveling across the desert, “a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made.” Las Vegas initially looks attractive, with bright images of moving neon, but in the end, it is surrounded by desert.

… “And what is the use of a book,” Alice thinks “without pictures or conversations?” Lewis Carrol is making the obvious point that the pictorial and narrative mode is of a lower order of complexity and maturity than the expository. Pictures and stories are the natural form in which children understand the world. Exposition is for grownups.
(p 117)
The often missed irony of the remark that television programs are designed for a twelve-year-old mentality is that there can be no other mentality for which they may be designed. Television is a medium consisting of very little but “pictures and stories,” and Alice would have found it quite suitable for her needs.
(p 118)

Sean Crawford
Finishing this essay, complete with quotes, at exactly 1776 words.
July 2012

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Understanding Essays

Prologue: The opening paragraph of a piece by J. Hillis Miller, Dylan Thomas's "Delayed Meaning" ends with these two lines:
Of his early poetry Thomas said: "I thought it enough to leave an impression of sound and feeling and let the meaning seep in later." This does not mean that there is no meaning, but that the poet refuses to give the reader easy access to it… (ellipses Miller's)

Understanding Essays:
Using your Tardis, suppose you found a Chinese master chef and asked him precisely whether his Peking soup was sweet or sour? He'd scowl, for his soup is a wordless blend, crafted as best he knows how. Ask an English literature-type author which picture to put on the cover of his classic novel and he'd reply, "Make it black." Then, I suppose, you'd use a dark meaningless old oil painting.

Ask a classical composer what prose description-title to put on his piece. He'd shrug. "Can't you just give it a number?" In our own day, of course, pop artists have said they only make music videos because their labels insist they do. It disturbs the musicians because it takes away your personal imagination. The artist Seal won't even put song lyrics in his CD liner notes, because, as his notes explain, you might be able to mishear and mistakenly come up with better words on your own. Art is like that—it's personal.

Similarly, for an essay, the prose title may not be very descriptive, the message may not be reducible to a sound bite, and some reader assembly may be required.

So if an essay goes on at great length about serving in ill-fitting uniforms for years in London (London - 1944 by Mary Lee Settle, from The Virginia Quarterly Review) while on reduced rations under the blitz, and then, at the end, suddenly switches to a brief incident, around VE Day, of hearing a French officer at a fine New York dinner expressing satisfaction at the reduction in the Jewish population... then don't expect from the author a prose description, a pretty paint-by-numbers conclusion, telling you what the essay was all about. If I met Ms Settle, I would not ask.

I am saying that essays can be artistic, a blending of art and craft, of right-brain and left-brain.

Unlike essays by schoolchildren, an adult essay need not proceed to a predetermined end of Q.E.D. (Thus it is demonstrated) Topic sentences are fine for kids, but...
...Topic sentence technique can result in nothing but wooden and mechanical writing....and the fact is that topic sentences can be found in the work of no great author... Further, since the topic sentence inevitably gravitates towards the beginning, it cultivates textbookish writing: first the definition in blackface, then the explanation. If we understand the definition, we need not read the explanation. Texbook writing makes no attempt at suspense; and since textbooks are synonymous with dullness, it is perhaps as well that such writers as Dickens, Thackeray, Conrad and Galsvorthy wrote before the topic sentence technique was born... 
 The Way of the Makers, by F. M. Salter, University of Alberta, 1967  
Essays are not as artistic as novels, of course, but the two forms are related. In prose, the reason you can have symbols and themes being interpreted three different ways by three different English teachers is: Art is like that—the interpretation is personal.
And no, the writer won't give away the answers: It just isn't done, and besides—he or she doesn't know. Some of the things, the insights, came as she wrote, not before. Her readers will have insights too, but each reader will be unique, each having different insights at different places in a novel... or in an essay.

I may never write a novel—essays are more fun—but I have written short fiction. I was humbled, once, to meet a fan. I was in a booth at the Lido cafe when a stranger, a young man, knelt (knelt!) at my booth. He asked if I was that friend of Lucas who had once read a short story aloud at a picnic table at Citizen Paine coffee house. I said I was. He said, "That story changed my life."

I thanked him, asked no questions. He left... For him to ask me what exactly I had thought as I wrote, or, for me to ask him what parts had changed his life, would have been just too personal: Art is like that. And besides, we may not have quite known the answers ourselves.

Please don't feel that an essay has to be crystal clear, as in some impersonal computer manual, and please don't feel foolish if you don't "get it." If an author is good enough to merit an editor and be published then you surely "got" his blended soup at some level, you got what what you personally needed to get.

The End


What I am saying, before we get to a long thoughtful epilogue, is that you should not be intimidated when reading a non-structured essay, nor be intimidated into the thinking you must write a structured essay.
Unless you are a pre-adult in school, I  guess, for just as you will re-trace the reasoning of Pythagorus,  for your own good, it will do you good to learn to think straight. But once you're learned? Here is a blow against structure, as part of advice to young movie critics:

9. Just write, damn it. I believe that ninety percent of writer's block is not the fault of the writer. It's the fault of the writer's wrongheaded educational conditioning. We're taught to write via a 20th century industrial model that's boringly linear and predictable: What's your topic sentence? What are your sections? What's your conclusion? Nobody wants to read a piece that's structured that way. Even if they did, the form would be more a hindrance than a help to the writing process, because it makes the writer settle on a thesis before he or she has had a chance to wade around in the ideas and inspect them. So to Hell with the outline. Just puke on the page, knowing that you can clean it up and make it structurally sound later. ..

For all ten points of Advice to Young Critics by MZS,  see link

Epilogue: Selected paragraphs to further indicate that schoolchild essays are not like the real world, taken from my unpublished Me and Your Essay:

My two year college ran a "third year level' course in "rhetoric" (written). As a prerequisite I needed six English courses to get in. I had one. Or, permission from the department head. This I hoped I could wrangle. So we met. I confessed, "You know how in high school they tell you to begin with a clear topic sentence and then outline your clear reasoning A,B,C each with subheadings 1,2,3? Well, I never do it that way. I am self-taught, from reading George Orwell. Would that be OK?" The man chuckled and said, "If you know George's name then you're doing better than most of the students here." And I was in. It turned out to be my favorite class; the teacher said I was one of his wild horses. So you can understand that I take the reading and writing of essays quite seriously.

I also obtained permission to take a "history of stage plays" class with the theatre majors. There I learned of theater movements such as "theater of the absurd." They say education is never wasted—especially when I can compare and contrast my two classes.

You may have found that for certain "English 101" essays, of the ABC type, you can read the first half, or the middle half, or the last half, and thereby know almost half the essay. The same might apply to reading certain plays—but never for the absurd ones. For plays like the one act The Zoo Story (two guys on a park bench) or Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (two couples at home) you have to read the entire organic whole—the gestalt. Similarly, while some essays are purely left brain, others include the right brain. For the latter, you may need to relax enough to let the whole essay wash over you.

When Orwell, a lover of literature, put in a "'conclusion' sentence" to his essays he seldom meant it narrowly and literally: he usually meant it as a subtle tip of the ice berg, expecting you to have first read the whole piece. Me too.

Three conclusion-ending lines of Orwell:

The corner of the human heart that they speak for might easily manifest itself in worse forms, and I for one should be sorry to see them vanish. (The Art of Donald McGill)

"Them" refers literally to risque post cards; but figuratively to society's outlet for impropriety.

And really it was like watching a flock of cattle to see the long column, a mile or two miles of armed men, flowing peacefully up the road, while the great white birds drifted over them in the opposite direction, glittering like scraps of paper. (Marrakech)

Literally: a scene of white officers and black enlisted men; figuratively: while on paper the colonizers could excuse their oppression, one day these colonies, strong enough to survive on their own, would be free.

One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can a least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase—some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse—into the dustbin where it belongs. (Politics and the English Language)

This seems closer to a literal summary-ending—but the subject is in fact political thought. I include it to show how richly one can write. Not like all that barren prose, immortal, floating in cyberspace, of less beauty than a drifting dandelion seed.

~Paul Graham speculated that "conclusions" came from concluding remarks to the jury. I suppose he wondered why the heck schoolchildren are taught to write a conclusion as a reworded beginning, even though readers could presumably scroll with their eyes back to the top of the essay. The above quoted F. M. Salter would agree. Here is his paragraph against schoolchild conclusion paragraphs:
Similarly, the way to stop writing is to stop; and the very best place to stop is at the end. Teachers who insist on "conclusions" are really asking students to go beyond the end. Nowhere in life is it pleasant to see people going on after they have finished; people who explain their jokes, people who linger forever at the door at the end of a visit and refuse to go home; people who have said or done all they need to do or say, and still  go on puttering. In endings it may be the theatre has the edge on all other mediums of writing if the author does not know when to end his play, the producer will  find out very soon, and ring down the curtain when the audience tells him, by applause or otherwise, "That's enough."

Sean Crawford
July 20012
~Paul Graham, my favourite web essayist, has done two more meta (about) essays, The List of N Things and Persuade Xor Discover. (Both pieces were eye openers, but I won't try to summarize them here—one of the links compares schoolboy essays to the articles in Cosmopolitan)

~My Essays and Blogs piece archived June 2010 gives a "present at the creation" perspective on the internet; the 'net came to the general public in 1992, and here is a song I really like about it, based on the hit "Video killed the Radio Star"—which I also really like—which was the very first music video ever broadcast on MTV. (the music television channel)

~For fun, I am slowly adding "links" to this piece to see if, and at what point, I get any extra hits. So far, links make no difference. My few hits are solely from the week I posted.
Update: Now I'm getting hits, but not until my piece was linked to the max.

~While the word is not on my "spell check," which doesn't have VE day either, I'm so pleased my ROM (computer) dictionary includes the word Tardis

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Intentions and Default Behaviors

For a few years I was part of the second oldest Dialogue Group in the world. The oldest, we thought, was going on in Britain. Such groups have a life cycle and so, like my Community Building group before this—much of the group memberships overlapped—we eventually shut down. During our final year Foster Walker sent me an e-mail. He was excited by my off the cuff observation, during a meeting, that "Dialogue cannot be seen." He urged, "Write one of your essays, and be sure I get to see it."

... In our western society the natural thing, the default, is to discuss and argue and debate and have nice conversations. Dialogue, with a capital D, is different than all these, for it is a blessed state of ego-less shared inquiry. It would sure help if we could "see" when we are into Dialogue and not our default state.

The key that opens the door is not so much motivation as intention. I suppose at our meetings we allow for this by our two minutes of silence at the beginning, and again after the break. During the silenced I get centered, yes, but I am also switching from default mode to inquiry; I am affirming and settling in to my new intention to Dialogue.


The power of intention is something I became especially aware of years ago as part of a start up company (that is still going strong!). Our meetings were enthusiastic and chaotic and there was always so much to do. We were creating the first holistic outdoor pursuits company ever seen in our watershed. We still had lives, and day jobs, but our meetings, unfortunately, kept going into overtime. Then Lynn Russell proclaimed, "Intention is everything. If we set our intention, at the beginning of the meeting, to end on time, at certain hour, then—"...and it worked. A room of holistic talkative anarchists found they would magically calm and merge the flow of chaos near the intended end of the meeting.

Sounds like new age magic, doesn't it? It was the old 19th century classic children's writer, E. Nesbit, who first taught me intention. Back in the Edwardian age children couldn't afford alarm clocks. But Nesbit had advice for a child who wanted to go on a pre-dawn adventure. All a girl had to do was choose an hour to wake up at, then thump her head against the pillow for the number of chimes in the hour. As an adult I still do this, but I no longer have to thump my pillow. It seems queer to believe in old wisdom while writing on a state of the art (for this year) computer. There are reasons why old wisdom is slow to become widespread common sense, reasons that include the need to "see" not just our faults but our defaults.

When I was in college I took a leadership class taught by Municipal Consultant Gerry Bruce. It had a proper course number, but we students called it the "how to run a meeting" class. All semester we practiced Robert's Rules of Order. The stuff you can "see," such as Robert's Rules, were easy to learn. Does the chairman "gate keep" so that everyone has their say, is the agenda clear, are chairs arranged, do the windows open if need be, are there felt pens and lots of flip chart paper? ... All of the books on meetings that I found in the library stopped about there. I suppose new leaders would later in their career "peel the onion" to find deeper ways to lead, but at first novices like the comfort of reading a checklist for things they could see and measure. Certainly this had been true for me as a young army squad leader. For Corporal Crawford the hardest challenges had been nice concrete ones.


Where the library books ended our class was just beginning. We learned how a meeting is a group, and how a group, just as though it was an individual, has its avoidance behaviors and procrastination, its defenses and denial. We learned what to do when a group seems to be "working hard" but actually is running away from a problem that is too fearsome... And then, one day, we had a midterm. With essay questions. Open book, since we would have our books to help us in the real world. (We used Dynamics of Groups at Work by Herbert Thelen)

I wrote that, having come from the army base across the road, I hadn't even realized that a group has emotions, or at least, not the emotion of fear. After all, if a squad is given a mission then fear is not relevant—it's downright counterproductive. It's not like soldiers can run away from a task. We students had thought it was common sense how to behave in a meeting. Such behavior was common, yes, but now we were to be sensitive to a hitherto unseen world of emotional currents. In deep water, what is our default?

Our classroom had a low stage. After writing our test we had yet another practical exercise: a meeting in front of our peers. Some of us, including me, were picked for roles, pretending to be various people in the community, while other students merely watched events unfold. Did we achieve the purpose of the meeting? No. Did the group make any decisions at all? Let me put it this way: the emotional currents swamped our boat... we spun our wheels... we kept getting helplessly dug in deeper and deeper.


At last the teacher sent us back to our seats to put us out of our misery. Then he raged at the whole class while we sat there. Both actors and observers were mute. He demanded, "What the heck went wrong?" Silence. "Come on, you just wrote the midterm... all know how to conduct a meeting!" Silence. "Well?..." The first humble student to snap out of it was I. "Uh, we could have called a ten minute (to calm the waters) recess?" "Yes!" Once the mental logjam was broken our teacher knew we would all rush to review our textbook and bag of tricks. But before he dismissed us to go do so he pronounced judgment on us: "You all reverted to old behavior patterns!"

Down the years I have tried to be open minded; I have used a "concerted effort" with the intention of getting new abstract knowledge etched in enough that I don't revert. It may take me considerable effort to ingrain a new default setting. Liberation has always worked this way for me, as, at first, I war against my former ignorance.—Now... we are in a war on terror.

My own little part of the war effort is to apply this lesson: it is not practical to expect a male Muslim immigrant to Europe to instantly agree that his primitive and terrifying honor killing of women in his family is wrong. Better to expect him to revert. To ask him to instantly put a liberal society's criminal law above his old world culture, is not possible—a concerted effort is needed. Meanwhile, the goal of the U.S. "occupation" is to have Iraq be the first democracy in the Arab world. Since I have written entire essays on small aspects of democracy it is obvious to me that giving the Iraqis a few sound bites, or a summary, about the outer forms of democracy will not suffice: there needs to be a concerted effort to become democratic between the ears. It takes intention, time and repetition to explain, for example, how as women become more equal then the whole nation becomes more "healthy" and prosperous.

Focus and intention is like plowing a field: if you take your eye off the prize, if you relax at all, then you and your "furrow" will drift off and you won't even know it.

Down the years I've tried to enhance my awareness of what a group looks like when it is working, not avoiding a problem. It's not easy to see. Neither is Dialogue easy to see or do.

And I know, with awe, that society's default, the primitive old behavior patterns, are always waiting in the wings.

Sean Crawford,
Less than a month after Remembrance Day (Armistice),
Five seasons after hearing a lament for Corporal Nathan Hornburg,
Trying not to avoid my responsibility,

Calgary, Alberta, Canada
(re-posted to complement recent essays, July 2012.1)

Queer footnotes:

As gay women were given equal rights it became hard for society to justify not allowing feminists to have "male" jobs such as becoming lawyers, doctors and police officers. As there was less stigma of gays, there was less power to silence "women's libbers" by slogans accusing them of being homos. (Yes, I'm mixing the flow of time.)

In Europe it is an immigrant enclave ideal for Muslim females, literate or not, to be taken out of school at puberty.

As Muslim women in Europe are given equal rights they will feel more free to get educated, and, as housewives, to educate their children. As there is less stigma, in the enclave world, for freedom of thought it will be harder to to use old slogans to justify in-house violence or down-the-street and across-the-border terror.

Not all Muslims believe in terror. (And not all North Americans can ride a horse) In South Asia, weeks before "global reach" Pakistanis shot up the Mumbai (Bombay) financial district, the Indian Muslims issued a fatwa (holy decree) against terror. Canadian Muslims have done so too. During my lifetime I expect to see Muslims in Europe and the rest of North America issue the same fatwa.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Talking Between Groups

Everybody knows that normally, here in North America, we believe in democracy, “freedom of speech” and dialogue. Lately? Not so much.

I remember… One afternoon in the early 1990’s I found myself at the “women’s club,” the Woman’s Collective and Resource Centre at the university. It was crowded that day as we were hearing a presentation, with a bit of a meeting, before mingling for wine and snack food. I might have been the only male.

This was in the Student Building, a little ways down the hall from my “favorite club,” the Student Newspaper, the Gauntlet. We were sitting in a circle, of course—for maximum empowerment—and it was shortly before we broke for food that some people expressed their strong dislike of the newspaper. “Why is the Gauntlet so… ” I offered quietly, “I can answer that.” More disapproval expressed, and I softly repeated myself, and the conversation swirled on. I knew enough group dynamics theory to be soft voiced as I sensed the group was not ready to hear me. In a few minutes we all got up and swirled around the room snacking and mingling and having drinks.

The few who were being so negative about the newspaper were mainly strangers to me, being mainly of the classic (to me) age of feminists: early thirties. My own peers in the Centre were the keen regulars, mostly young undergraduates. They had encouraged me to attend their club meetings, adding, “Just don’t vote.” That day, after mingling for a bit, I stepped out to go down the hall. I entered the Gauntlet office and said, “Hello Carey.” This young man, age 26, sitting in the editor’s chair, was someone I knew well from sharing the work of cranking out the weekly newspaper. He had a life; I remember seeing him when he was the night manager of a skid row hotel. He was a liberal; he still had flowing long hair years after most males had gone back to short hair. And he had typical student idealism; this while the Gauntlet was known for being, out of all the other western campus newspapers, the most redneck—er, conservative. Needless to say, rednecks have their ideals too.

I knew all about the Gauntlet because I was then a volunteer reporter, doing at least one story every week. That takes a lot of man-hours. It was not unknown for me to briefly saunter from the Gauntlet to the Woman’s Centre for a while and then return. Back then the newspaper was male dominated. When the fellows saw me emerge they’d look wide-eyed. “What were you doing in there?” I might tease them with a line my chaplain and I shared: “You know, the most attractive babes on campus are in the Centre.” Or better yet, say “I just had a real good time laughing: We were telling men jokes… But hey, we weren’t male-bashing; we were venting!” Sometimes in the bullpen I’d hear negative feelings about the feminists, but it was rather baseless, more “just because” than for any coherent reason. I asked Carey if he’d like to meet some women to explain why the Gauntlet was so…

I returned to the Centre and mingled to cut out from the herd a few young ladies I knew. They all expressed interest in meeting the editor. As I recall, they were all younger than Carey, typical vulnerable students, with not a single bra-burning harridan in the bunch. Once I had enough idealistic volunteers I gathered them and led them down to see Carey.

It’s a strange thing, to be seen as “one of us” by two “opposed” groups. Perhaps that’s why I sensed it would be best to immediately excuse myself and return to the party. That day, I’m sure, both sides said their piece, and, whether or not any minds were changed, they made their peace with each other. The remarkable thing is how they reported back to me later. Both sides, with considerable anxiety, asked me what the other(s) had thought of them. Neither side wanted to be personally despised or disrespected. Unlike a harridan, both sides cared. Call it the human factor.

This was in my adopted home province of Alberta, known as the most redneck (of ten) in Canada, and with Calgary known as the most redneck city—much more than our capital—and of course around these parts the cowboys are said to be the most redneck of all. The concept “redneck” means conservative, bigoted and stupid. My niece, who also lives in cattle country, but over in the next time zone, once asked me in the kitchen, “Uncle, are you a redneck?” Her parents laughed and one answered, “He’s an intellectual redneck.”

Here in Alberta, according to science—not religion—we have the same percentage of homosexuals as in any other province. And yes, some gays live in small towns where they may not realize that, in fact, others do know about their orientation. But people get along.

They can get along, and they can talk between groups. One day the community college had “clubs day” and by sheer coincidence the rodeo club’s six-foot table was right next to the gay club. That morning I struck up a friendly conversation with the cowboys. They knew that, according to the science of statistics, I was probably a city slicker who had never been on a horse (although I had) but we found nice things to talk about. I probably didn’t let on that I knew by name the gay students seated at the next table. Then I included the next table in the conversation, and got the folks nicely talking together. It was easy to do.

This isn’t as remarkable as it might sound. After all, young students expect to be liked, and to like others. Call it the age group factor.

In fairness, I must add that although from the media you would expect that gays are just as oppressed here as they are down in the United States, I have been assured by “real live gays,” based on research, the prejudice up here is only about a tenth that of the US. This makes sense. Just because we watch the same TV shows doesn’t mean we have the same culture. Here we have nation-wide gay marriage without any damage to morals or the social fabric––  the home of the brave doesn’t. (Not at the federal level) We’ve had legal permission to be gay in the military for decades, without any hysteria. Needless to say, no Canadian soldier has ever wanted to wear a dress on parade or convert his peers. (Believe me, such a thing would have been big news) Thought: If Yankees are so rich, then why are they so isolationist? Why can't they afford to go be tourists in Canada and Europe and learn some common sense?

My older brother lives in the US, while visiting our parents enough to have an idea how the north is dysfunctional. I still haven’t forgotten a certain Canadian election upset. Of the party with a majority, abruptly, all but two people lost their seat in parliament. As for the US, I wonder if their system is “broken.” “You think yours is bad,” says my brother “Ours is crazy.” He was saying how the candidate for his favorite party is so bizarrely uninformed he might have to vote for the other guy. (Or maybe not so unusual, when I remember a certain female far north state governor) But such switching would be impossible for the rest of his neighborhood. It seems that the two “real” parties are evenly matched and all the party-believers are crazy-glued into their position. This means all the decision-making is by just the narrow middle of unaligned, or apathetic, voters. I suppose this means neither party could, to use that old Vietnam phrase, reach the “hearts and minds” of the middle of the road citizens. Such a pity.

While the “two-party system” has usually been functional down the generations, I think it has been on life support since, oh, at least the turn of the millennium. Since then, it’s been as if people have glue in their ears. From away up here in Canada, I can hear a lot of shrill despair, with no hope of any connection, any middle ground, or any two-way dialogue. In fact, especially since the last president got in, I keep hearing a fear that democracy will soon vanish due to the president’s “secret socialist agenda.” What certain folks “don’t get” is that if democracy means having open-minded dialogue, then partly thanks to their own efforts it has already been squished down to the vanishing point: They just don’t know it yet. My own humble attempt, as in that old Vietnam era phrase, to “be part of the solution, not the problem” has been to announce here on my essay site the book Time to Start Thinking, which includes an examination of “the dialogue of the deaf.” (See America Descending, June 2012)

I know from my study of group dynamics that a group in a meeting can generate a cyclone of energy yet get nothing done, as if the group is gripped by invisible forces it can’t understand. This is like when the group is unable to decide and move on, even as people repeat their earlier points with more force, more frustration. Fortunately, thanks to the work of Professor Herbert Thelen, I know what I could do if I was chairman of such a group. Sometimes the group will work free of the cyclone on its own, and return to healthy functioning, but this rarely happens. Usually the chairman has to reach into his bag of tricks. At this point the poor Americans know it can’t be coincidence they no longer talk, still, they are totally baffled. It’s painful to watch.

Will my US neighbors straighten out and get functional real soon, before their launch window closes for good, before they forgo forever the joy of having a decent-sized middle class? I don’t know. I wish their media could help. Although Americans claim to live in an age of media, with news at the-speed-of-light, you would never know the media was important. I mean you wouldn’t find the average man on the street to be able to explain “journalistic ethics,” nor explain TV news versus TV editorial.

It’s chilling to think that young people who became full voting citizens, age 21, in the year 2,000 A.D., will be 33 this year, raising children, and busy in their careers. If they’ve never known a nation with common sense, then how can they share any inspiration with their children?

Meanwhile, as life goes on, I’m sure I’m not the only citizen humbly showing myself that dialogue between groups is possible. As I’ve quoted (from Romain Gary) before, “Our greatest enemy is despair.”

God bless North America.

Sean Crawford
Three hours north of Montana

Footnote: In Mount Royal College (now MRU) my leadership class studied Herbert Thelen's Dynamics of Groups at Work. I return to it every few years.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

No Links is Good Links

No Links is Good Links
(an essay against internet links)
“Son of ‘Done and Learned’”
(which morphs into the essay against links)

Son of 'Done and Learned'
Footnote morphing to links

No Links is Good Links

End note
More, regarding attention span, from the above essay

Son of ‘Done and Learned’
Man, I need a fresh new title for my “taking stock” essays, before I end up writing one called “‘Done and learned’ Returns” or “ ‘Done and learned’s’ Filly.” After every page of 25 titles I’m “s’posed to” write a meta-blog. It’s been over 30 posts now,  time to look back.

During this last batch of posting (30) essays the biggest, saddest thing I’ve learned is the American people just aren’t ready yet to hit bottom, lose their denial, and then get their act together. My (America Descending June 2012) announcement of finding a book, Time to Start Thinking, by an alien, Edward Luce, has amazingly few hits (views by readers) compared to the essays immediately before and after it. In a sane world, the ratios would be reversed. Oh well, it takes what it takes.

For an essay putting into context “The Death of Buffy,” (January 2012) I’ve had many, many hits. Isn’t that nice? Now I can be like that obscure band out of Winnipeg, Crash Test Dummies. I remember well their music video, “Superman’s Song.” Their song was a mega hit; lots of folks became fans, but then this didn’t do the band any good. Folks were fans of the song, not the band. Similarly, I don’t think any of my Buffy readers became fans of my essay site. I say this because, out of all those “readers?” The only “comment” was a sentence fragment—not even a complete sentence. And it wasn’t “nice essay,” it was, “link to (Roger) Ebert?” And then silence… I’m real proud of that essay. My fellow Buffy fans? Not so much. To quote an ex-girlfriend’s T-shirt, “But I’m not bitter.”

On this site, I often write “sounding middle aged.” Why? Easy: As a regular guy, albeit one with a university degree, I know I may not be as smart as a young Internet computer nerd, but at least I can offer a middle aged man’s perspective. And besides, nerds aren’t so smart.

Footnotes morphing to links
A former Microsoft guy took a poll to plan out his next book:

It turns out not all nerds are nerdy enough to like footnotes. What blog-essayist Scott Berkun found was that half his readers would prefer the “footnotes” to be placed as “end notes.” In Theory, it follows that half of of his readers don't desire the distraction of footnotes on every page. And then, if on-line, neither would they desire any blue "link notes" scattered through an essay… In Reality, they do like links; in fact, a most prominent member of Scott’s posse has said he won’t even read a post if at first he doesn’t see lots of blue links scattered about.

Furthermore, a very successful blogger, Ms Penelope Trunk, has said that as she composes, her sense of timing includes allowing time for the reader to go off and follow links. Wow, some folks sure love their links. As for me: "Sorry Ms Trunk, “there’s something wrong with this picture.”" In fairness, she doesn’t exactly blog essays, although, like an essayist, she does like to sneak up on a surprise thesis. Rather, she writes blog-feature articles, hence the links, documenting her interesting opinions.

Call me middle aged, but in my day, only a dog would suddenly shout, “Squirrel!” Or, “link!” Call me a lover of indie bands, but if my dog shouts “sell out!” then I know someone is linking from desperately seeking SEO (search engine optimization) while hoping for a major hit count. “Lots of hits,” eh? Suddenly I imagine young nerds talking loudly in the doorway of a science lecture theatre to show other students they have “lots of friends.”

I’ve stopped linking. My own blog statistics are unclear; it might seem that my earlier linked posts had more hits, but it is my later, non-linked essays that have proved to be “evergreens,” ever generating hits. But as I said, it’s unclear.

What I am clear on is this: When it comes to linking to show my hits to my ego, I don’t want to be like one of those guys on the commuter train, audible from the next car, who talk on their fancy cellular telephones extra-loudly to show they have friends. Or else they’re showing everyone they bought a made-in-China cell with a crappy microphone. I’m still chuckling at how all the riders in my car cracked up one day: I pulled out a pretend phone and loudly started answering the guy.

No Links is Good Links
Excerpts from two essays, March and February 2011, from shortest to longest :)

~~ ... It was the web surfers, or “clickers,” that dimmed my enthusiasm for putting links in my pieces. I now use a logical lesson from the novel A Taste For Honey.

According to my childhood memory… This book was a 1940’s horror-mystery, recommended by Boris Karloff, where a beekeeper uses swarms of bees to get away with murder. The detective was Sherlock's brother Mycroft Holmes; the viewpoint character was an ordinary man who liked buying fresh honey. One day, walking along a quiet country road, this man sees a new sign that is just too far up the embankment to read. He climbs up and finds an advertisement for honey. As it happens, his usual beekeeper has just been accidentally stung to death (murdered, but he doesn’t know that yet) so he goes to the address on the sign. There he finds Holmes.

As it turns out, Holmes had planted that sign as a screening device. What he needed for catching the bad guy was:
a local partner,
who had to be someone curious,
and observant enough to notice a sign was new,
and adventurous enough to climb up to read it.
And, of course, it had to be someone who could convincingly go to the suspect’s bee farm to buy honey.

So I’ve decided to be like Holmes. Rather than make a link, even a link to my own posts, rather than risk casting pearls before swine, I would rather leave those pages for anyone who is active and curious enough to adventurously type up a search term to see what she will find. Or at least take the initiative to go to my home page archives. Those who are upset at this, those who want all their links handed to them on a silver platter, are probably not seekers of knowledge but merely clickers: incurious, frivolous clickers. I feel no guilt at filtering them out, just as Holmes would, denying them their all-too-easy links.

~~… Needless to say, in the working world, I won't waste your time. I'm polite. If I call you, I already have my pen and paper ready. If I have to leave you a message, then I leave my phone number, to save you a couple seconds from going to your rolodex… But I'm not so blasted efficient during my leisure time! In my real life I "waste time" in non-business ways by holding doors for ladies to go first, removing my hat and standing when someone enters…  Isn't the Internet a leisure activity? I like to buy a coffee when I surf the web.

~~ ... My own excitement for links died… on the day I read a thoughtful post by one of my favorite nerd web essayists, a computer wizard at Google, named Stevey. As you know, certain programming languages, such as Fortran and Cobol, are as dead as Latin. Other languages are half-dead, and it was beyond Stevey as to why anyone would waste time learning a dying language when you could put your precious man hours into a more recent, more powerful language. His essay was to encourage his fellow programmers to prevent any waste of their time.

Perhaps Stevey enjoys linking. Maybe, just like me, after his essay is ready to post, he will conscientiously spend an hour going over Google listings to find the best links for his dear readers. For his piece on programming languages, though, I’m sure Stevey thought that searching out a link to a certain useless language he had never used, and would never use, would be exactly what his article was against: a waste of time.

Then one of his “dear readers” scolded him: “Give us a break!” he said, angry that Stevey hadn’t linked to that half-dead language. I was angry too— at the reader! Presumably he is a programmer just like Stevey: computer literate, a fast touch-typist and skilled at web searches. Question: So why not easily do his own search? Answer: He’s obviously a surfer, a flea, jumping from tree to tree but unable to see the forest, the gestalt, or in this case the essence of Stevey’s article: Don’t Waste Time. Note to fleas: You can’t see connections, you can't reflect, while you are clicking.

Here’s a chilling thought: If that skilled programmer, besides being so rude and attention-span-challenged, is also too lazy to type in a search term, then is he too lazy to be conscientious when he makes his own links? Instead of an hour, does he only spend a minute by linking to the first thing he finds, wikipedia say? If I work so hard to find a link for this not-so-dear reader, then aren’t I setting down an oyster before a pig? My excitement at linking has turned to ashes.

Surf Destroys the Shore

I’ve seen others like that reader, destructive rude trolls, at forum sites such as Reddit and Digg, where people garner pages from the web and post them for comments. In fairness, though, at this point in web history, these forums tend to be mostly for the early adopters of technology: the computer geeks. A computer millionaire, Paul Graham, in an essay on trolls (No, I won’t link) wrote that computer nerds tend to be less social, lacking common people skills. The troll never sees a troll in the mirror.

I can barely imagine the effect on society, and the “opportunity cost,” of all those computer users, amidst a dark sprinkling of rudeness, devoting all those man-hours to skimming only the surface of all those superficial pages.


Well. Where does that leave an average guy like me? If I were to write my essays strictly with stereotypical surfers in mind then I would have to write “essays that are superficial,” because "surfers" read by skimming, ignorant of gestalt, and I'd write “essays that are impersonal,” to give myself a safe distance, because trolls might try to hurt my feelings. How boring! …

Worst of all: I’d never work hard on “essays that sneak up,” not for any of the big issues that have baffled people down the generations. Writing for surfers, I would have to give up on “essays that promote the good fight for lost causes.” Such a pity, because lost causes, the sort that trolls and hyenas will rush to tear apart, are the causes worth fighting for.

~For anyone with the true grit to go to my homepage, three related essays, since my last meta-blog, (done and learned) are
Reading and Rushing   (December 2010)
Surfing at Work   (January 2011
Fluffy Social Media   (November 2010)

More, regarding Attention Span, from the above essay:

Our society, or at least our surfers, at least for this day in web history, is creating an environment, or medium, where we value learning facts more than the process of learning, and we value rudeness and snap answers over civilized discourse and slow thinking. When Marshal McLuhan said, "The medium in the message" he was echoing John Dewey's belief that "we learn (message) what we do." (medium) For the next quote, I wonder how many hurried surfers would want to be spoon fed as to what to think?

McLuhan seems to have his most difficult moments trying to persuade his audiences that a television set or a newspaper or an automobile or a Xerox machine can be usefully defined as such an environment. And even when his audiences suspend disbelief long enough to probe with him further, McLuhan still  must labor to persuade that the relevant question to ask of such environments is not "What's on TV?" or "What's in the newspaper?" but "In what ways does the structure or process of the medium-environment manipulate our senses and attitudes?" (Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, 1969, p. 17) 

Sean Crawford
At a table by a meadow by a pond
July 2012