Thursday, November 29, 2012

Media Ethics
We live in a media age, or so "they say." It’s queer, then, how so many of "them" don’t understand journalistic ethics. Especially when modern “social” technology allows more people to “join in.” Once, on one of my favorite essay-blogs, I found a few people asking each other why people went to J-school. One of the few times I’ve ever got a “thanks” e-mail, and this was from a fellow with over 20,000 readers, (Scott Berkun) was after I added my voice to those blog comments, explaining that J-school ensures folks have ethics.

I explained there was a Journalism program in Eastern Canada, a short one for people who already have a degree, where if one of your news stories has even one factual error then you fail “… either the course or the semester, I forget which.” Naturally, I did not just “guess” which one you fail. Guessing is only good for gossip—and look what damage that does!

“No guessing” applies to things like, say, the writing of job titles and department titles, the spelling of names and even the dates of rock songs. Finding out these details could be seen by lazy and foolish people as “extra work,” … while being seen by ethical people as merely “just work” that “has to be done.” When I was a volunteer reporter for my university student newspaper I learned it’s OK, when you don’t know a person’s job title, to merely say “employee,” --just don’t guess. All of your facts should be either attributed, “…six tons according to the Vice President,” or else you should be able to bet your right arm on it. At my student paper our style was to attribute everything we possibly could.

As with any lady or gentleman, for whom ethics are common sense, a reporter is always on “Scouts honor.” Your facts and quotes should be good as gold, fit to be re-printed in a royal encyclopedia. Gossip morphs, journalism doesn’t.

Common Sense
At the end of my first year as a volunteer I had the honor of having a story of mine take up the entire top half of the front page, a story “above the fold” as we say. One teensy paragraph of this big story had been researched by Andrew Sparling, a guy who went on to become next year’s editor. Andrew urged me to have the byline solely in my name. But no, I insisted on sharing the byline because, figuratively, I did not want to risk my right arm. Call me a Klingon, but honor is important to me. You can’t be only a tiny bit pregnant, or a teensy bit without honor.

Years after university I freelanced for an intellectual coffee house magazine, Falstaff’s Table. What happened was: After reading a line from Robert Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100, “We can’t all be our own Tom Paine,” I researched and wrote a piece on the literary father of the American Revolution. The editor liked it and paid me. Sweet! Then I went on holidays, where one day I was privileged to tour a cement plant. Light bulb! Back to the editor, who told me that no, the public wouldn’t care about the making of cement. So I immediately asked if I could do a “history of concrete” piece. The editor agreed. I found it fascinating that during the Dark Ages the peasants, who only knew of stones, bricks and mortar, would think the mossy old Roman bridges had been built by the devil, as the technology had been lost.

Meanwhile, as I was writing the article, a lady told me that when her husband, an engineer, went on holidays he too would visit cement plants. He was very interested in my upcoming piece, she said, as his colleagues were always looking for ways to make concrete interesting to the public. As it happened, he and his wife left town right after the piece came out, so I never got to say: The factual errors were my editor’s! Without telling me, the editor had added some engineering that he himself was not absolutely sure of. This without attributing it to himself or anyone else. Grrr!

I took his money and sat him down and explained he would get no third piece from me.

Looking back, I suppose that editor didn’t much believe in people. I realized he had given me a few little clues to his beliefs, the most important being how he believed in “fact checkers.” Aw, rubbish! To be clear: Neither of my city daily newspapers uses “fact checkers” nor did my student newspaper. We would have been deeply offended at the idea.

No Hired Guns
According to Business Guru Peter Drucker, as documented in his autobiography, Adventures of a Bystander, “fact checkers” were introduced by the Luce media chain. Drucker, who knew Henry Luce personaly, found this laughable, especially when the checkers would proceed to alter the copy (manuscript) because they had misunderstood. Well, I’m not laughing. If your writers need to be fact checked, if they have no loyalty to the brand of “journalistic ethics,” then what are they? Hired guns? ...

Here’s another ethic: A journalist reports the news; he doesn’t make it. To put it crudely, he does not act as an agent provocateur. Staying above the fray, he only reports what’s already there.

“Already there” means: For taking a photograph, outdoors, he does not first rearrange the rocks on the ground to look more balanced, nor, when indoors, artfully re-arrange the furniture, nor, for a human subject, put on make up or lipstick. I documented this in my essay Citizen Activist, archived November 2011. When we activists were ambling down the sidewalk, and I was walking alongside David Gazzard, a Calgary Herald reporter I knew, every time the TV cameraman turned around to get a shot of us all, David would step aside down onto the road, out of camera range. It was not his place to “make news.”

Once, on a late Saturday afternoon, my university chaplain and I were the very last ones left at a public rally at the Family of Man statues downtown. I was covering it for my newspaper. A lonely Calgary Herald reporter appeared. The rally speaker, former Lieutenant-Governor Grant MacEwan, was long gone, and so was the crowd. Oh well, at least the reporter could still interview us for quotes… but only after the chaplain and I both testified I was truly there as a citizen, besides being a volunteer reporter; we swore I absolutely would have still attended the rally even if I wasn’t reporting back to the student paper.

Fair is Fair
Here’s another ethic: A gentlemen of the press is fair and unbiased, providing balanced reports. I realize some skeptical smirking guy might want to “discuss” how we all have some measure of bias. Really? That’s one rabbit I’m not chasing.

Of course out in nature the measurement of zero does not exist: Even vegetarians have pollutants in their body and live with clicks of background radiation. So if some cynic says to me, “Everyone has bias” then I respond, “Sure, we all have a few decimal points of bias. No one has zero. Yet when I was a soccer referee, even with my own side playing, I could feel myself being fair.” It’s a neat feeling, just like when I’m being a community centre chairman. I suppose part of what’s cool is feeling my heavy ego, which I normally drag around like a chain, fall away. Then, by comparison, I enjoy something approaching the focused clarity of a Buddhist monk.

Again, when I am a judge at toastmaster competitions, with a speaker from my own club involved, I am always fair. In fact, for toastmasters we have several judges, not to even out bias but to even out human error, as with judging skating or rhythmic gymnastics. Of course, whenever we have the luxury of extra judges—oh joy--then I would bow out of judging anyone from my own club.

“Balanced reports” means: There are always two sides. Every police rookie soon learns, when it comes to disputes, not to righteously rush off to make an arrest until he hears the other fellow’s story too. (According to best-selling police fiction by Joseph Wambaugh) An ethical reporter, likewise, will seek out and include the “other side,” and then trust the readers to judge. That’s what balanced means… Unhappily, I think the owners of a certain Canadian news service have compromised themselves. Long before “global warming” became downgraded to “climate change” I had become suspicious that their stories on “warming” were favoring emotional bias over science: I had noticed they never included quotes by global warming “deniers.”

Balance Over Bias
Does your community library have female librarians? Are they religious? Good friends? Well, what about abortion? Do the friends all agree they will only stock books in favor… or only against? ... Easy: When it comes to abortion, or any issue, according to a librarian, they will take care to purchase an equal number of books advocating both sides. I have to chuckle: In their case, “balance,” with their books on a scale, is meant literally!

You might ask, “Yes, but what if a journalist really, truly, needs to express his bias?” Easy: That’s what editorials and columns are for. These days I am following the blog of a Calgary Sun newspaper columnist, Warren Kinsella. In the little bio for his column he is called a backroom political party worker. In other words: openly, honestly biased. On his blog, where he includes all his columns, he recently replied to a commenter who had chastised him ‘as a journalist’: “I’m not a journalist, you moron.” His Sun column? It always appears with his personal photograph, signaling the column is personal and partisan.

As for politics, as far as it affects reporters, one of the “hazards of the trade” is they may become “political eunuchs.” (After all, they have to cover all parties) This I learned at a free afternoon workshop in “dealing with the media.” Our teacher was a liberated lady from the CBC. I had a nice time. In attendance, at the carpenter’s union hall, were activists from many causes. In the midst of us learning to write press releases, someone popped the question: “Is there a conspiracy?” Silence. You could have heard a pin drop. The answer was… no, and … the folks who become editors all tend to be of the same type, so in that sense the news is the same. But they do try, she assured us, to be ethical.

Truth Over Entertainment
Peter Drucker, who worked in the real world long before he invented “business management,” once wrote that businessmen in a boardroom, before they are constrained to compromise, should first determine what is Right. In the world of journalism, I have found newspapers to be the gold standard for ethics, for what is Right. I cherish newsprint journalism for being appropriate: I believe it’s all downhill from there. For the other media, I think journalists still know what is Right, even as they compromise. Like how people who once took driving lessons still know what a driving instructor would say to do.

For example, when Chatelaine magazine was caught putting lipstick on their cover photo of K.D. Lang, they had the grace to blush. They didn’t make excuses or claim, “Hey, that’s entertainment.” (In the accompanying article, Ms Lang said she doesn’t wear makeup)

To me, the worst journalism is television: Descended from vaudeville, dependent on ratings and aimed at a much lower common denominator, television really compromises. Neil Postman has done excellent work on analyzing the difference between newsprint and TV. (See his How to Watch TV News) He has pointed out that if you typed out all the words spoken in a half hour 6 o’clock news program, the words would only equal the front page of a newspaper. But at least there are nice pretty moving pictures!

Clearly, then, there is no such thing as a daily “Fox Newspaper.” At least, not yet.

Surely, to a lady or gentleman, ethics are common sense. It logically follows, when doing social media, it only takes a second of self-discipline to do what is Right.

Meanwhile, if the “6 o’clock infotainment,” due to various constraints, is simply unable to be as “journalistic” as the less entertaining “just the facts Ma’am” newspapers, then I think everybody and their dog should be aware of that. After all, we live in a media age.

Sean Crawford
Calgary, 2012

~Even though I was 90% sure that Postman’s book was called Understanding TV News (In fact, it’s called How to Watch TV News) I did not write using my memory. I took time to look up the title after applying the acid test from an old army captain in David Gerrold’s Chtorr Wars series: “Be Sure! Can I rip off your arm if you’re wrong?” ...That’s the sort of thing I mean by ethics.

~ For how to read newspapers with ease, see my Reading Newspapers, archived in November 2012.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Go Outside and Play!

Life is queer.

“Go outside and play!” That’s what we told our children, back in the 20th and 19th and 18th centuries. We always meant well. “Aw, kids these days.” But we adults have never been much better.

Any time I hear parents say, “Go outside and play!” I have to blush: I don’t see myself as setting an example to the fair children across our fair land. No, not when my greatest joy outside of my home is hanging around the inside of coffee shops. At least I can say that in my little cabin I don’t have any TV cable, nor rabbit ears, nor video games, but that’s only because I know my limitations: I know I won’t read history or make art if I dare have those distractions. As it is, I still stay up too late doing nothing.

It was in the 18th century that Benjamin Franklin, highly respected in his community, spread the word to us adult-type persons: We could really save on the price of candles, Franklin urged, if only we got up earlier and went to bed earlier. History tells us we didn’t listen.

In the 19th century folks were saying, and this may have been Franklin’s little ditty, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.” Such a nice little rhyme. One of my favorite Victorians was known in his day for being one of the very few people to ever start an international organization. I’m referring to Sir Robert Baden-Powell, hero of the Boer War and founder of the Boy Scouts. B-P said that by starting his day early he added an hour per day to his life, adding up to— er, something or other… Which sounded so good to me, right up until one day when I reflected… we all have the same number of waking hours! Maybe he was kidding himself, unconsciously, but I’m sure he meant well. Just as we mean well when we say, “Go play outside!”

My favorite 19th century humor writer is a Briton, Jerome K. Jerome, best known for his classic novel Three Men in a Boat. (To say nothing of the dog) In his age, a more innocent, more rural and less crowded time, Jerome wrote of how people like to flock to the gaslights. This makes perfect sense: They didn’t have any neon lights.

In Jerome’s novel three young friends get away from the city; eventually they tie up their boat at a remote slow river, and they set up the tent. Next morning, one virtuous fellow, Jerome, decides to take an outdoorsy refreshing dip in the cold, cold water… "Arrrg!" Of such stout fellows, of such stout ideals, was the Scout movement later to arise. As for the other two, they have more sense: Forgoing any morning dip, they stay in the tent until a civilized hour. Of such fellows are empires built.

In the mid 20th century my dear mother, although she grew up listening to radio plays like Gunsmoke and Dragnet, “dummm dee DUM dum,” always gave me funny looks when I wanted to watch those same shows on our old black-and-white. And she really didn’t “get” Saturday morning cartoons. “Go outside! Run around!” And I would. I would run around smacking my foes just like Batman--but not until Saturday afternoon.

Now at last it’s the 21st century: We have mothers and fathers, at last, who themselves grew up watching television and Saturday morning cartoons, progressive modern parents who surely “get it.” Hurray! Yes, and just as surely they are still saying, “Go outside!” Kids just can’t win—in any century.

This summer, indoors at the cinema, (with young company, I hasten to add) I watched Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The kid is so excited to have a whole summer off so he can set himself up with drinks and snacks and plunk himself down to play video games all day… inside.

Well! Harumph! When I was that wimpy kid’s age—no, even younger-- I walked a mile and a quarter, two kilometers, to get to my elementary school. In the heat of summer I walked to other elementary schools, much further away, as part of a “summer reading program.” How excitedly (before student packs or plastic bags) I carried heavy stacks of books in my arms home to read… inside. I suppose my mother consoled herself that at least I was walking. As for that 21st century wimpy kid, his father ends up wearing a scout-leader’s hat, and putting himself and his kid into “Scouts” for the summer. (The “Wilderness Explorers”) Tres Bien. As they say in France, “The more times change, the more they stay the same”… Ironically—should I groan or laugh?—the other adult leader crams his tent with even more luxuries than Jerome’s two friends would ever dare.

As for me, I must admit, these days, I don’t walk enough. Sometimes, for almost a full second, I regret trading in my bus pass for a car. And if I read of pasty white adults in Calgary and Toronto who book their holidays to coincide with their city film festivals, then my eyes take on a far away speculative look…

Sean Crawford
Old enough to finally afford to see movies
But too busy to go
Calgary 2012

~I’ve learned that reading can be approached as carefully as planning refreshments for a spectator-type professional ball game…or a wimpy kid’s video day. This was after I told my buddy Blair I planned to soon re-read the lengthy classic Dalgren, by Samuel Delaney. Blair loved that book! He immediately recommended that I make sandwiches first so that I can start the book early on Saturday morning and not have to stop to make lunch.

~As I had announced in a previous footnote, I booked a hotel room for the reader-writer festival When Words Collide, in mid-August. Our days, with five to seven seminars running at once, never started until a nice civilized hour.

What I found so very charming, in the quiet morning hours, was how so many fellow nerds would take a book to breakfast!

~Any comments?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reading Newspapers
I keep six honest serving men (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
Rudyard Kipling

What’s new? Whaz up? What’s the sitch?... (situation)

For news, if you want “bang for your buck,” then newspapers are the way to go. Comment one: “But I don’t want any bad news.” Answer: We can touch on that later, fellow citizen.
Comment two: “But newspapers are too big to read.” Answer: Well now, let’s dig into that idea.

A lot of good citizens don’t read any books at all from year to year, let alone big books. So how can we expect them to read big newspapers? In my city there are two major dailies: a bigger “broadsheet” newspaper, and a thinner “tabloid” newspaper. The tabloid is easier, but still big.

Imagine the poor working person, coming home exhausted to a stuffed easy chair, tired enough to talk in a flat voice like Detective Friday on Dragnet saying, “Just the facts Ma’am.” Here’s the good news: A good newspaper is organized to give just that: the facts. That’s because each news article is written pyramid style. The five W’s are put in the leading paragraph, known to reporters as “the lead.” Often the second paragraph continues to set out the bare bones of the story. Call this the top of the pyramid. Once the barest of W’s, Rudyard Kipling’s honest serving men, have been dealt with then the pyramid gets wider and wider with more and more elaboration, extra details, and even some details the average person won’t want to know.

I am reminded of the little boy writing a thank you letter to his aunt: “Thank you for the book about penguins. It told me more than I wanted to know….” As readers, then, we can gallop through the newspaper reading just the headlines and leads. We can read down any pyramid we like, stopping halfway, once we have learned enough. How easy.

Of course on Sundays the worker does not sink into his chair but sits more lightly, more sprightly. After some church and some visiting he is quite refreshed, and still has free time. Hence the phrase “Sunday supplements” for newspaper features on science and gardening and so forth. These articles will be longer, with longer paragraphs, and they won’t follow the pyramid format. Just as with news, of course, the reader still has permission to skim and omit some pieces entirely. I’m telling every Puritan churchgoer: It’s OK not to consume every word… the starving kids in Asia won’t mind, they will find their own newspapers.

Now, what’s about all this fuss about “bad news?” Unsurprisingly, human nature hasn’t changed since the Book of Genesis. (The lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah are still whispering in my brain) Join the women at the well and you will still hear them exclaiming over the bad news… and the good news too. There is talk of new wells and irrigation projects, new factories and new jobs, and new funding drives to feed the children…. and there is news of factories catching fire and burning down in the night, too… If we responsible citizens want the news, then don’t we have to take the bad with the good?

On the other hand, we will always have the option of exchanging “citizenship” for the comfort of letting other people rule us… then the mysterious all-powerful “they” can be left all-responsible and we can comfortably dispense with reading any news.

The women at the well who speak of local good news—the church bazaar, the folks helping the widow, the Star Trek convention—tell such news knowing it is of only local importance. The truly big stuff, news that gets propagated clear across the time zone, is most likely to be “bad news.” That’s just how it is…

And what if a newspaper or radio resolved to only propagate good news? Well, it’s been tried; it always fails: People want a mix of the good, the bad and ugly.

 The woman at the well are jolted by bad news, and yes, they truly want their jolt… but they are not bad people. They love their gossip, but make no mistake: On the whole they are good people trying to do the right thing. These ladies are “the long and the short and the tall” and they live in this dusty, messy world of ours. Heaven can wait. Our world is not as nice as the world in Star Trek, but at least it’s real.

Many wells in the dusty Near East date back to the Old Testament. Today, throughout the Near East, only one state has democracy. That state is only a “minority of one.” Well. Does this mean those people are mistaken to have democracy? No, it means they have faith in people. Democracy is based on the faith that most of the people, most of the time, will do the right thing, provided they have the information. Hence every democracy needs freedom of speech, meaning: freedom of information. Meaning: a free press.

Of course information can be propagated by waves from a tall television broadcast tower. But there’s a problem with taking a whole thirty minutes for the 6 o’clock news: If you took every word spoken, and typed it up in newsprint, it would equal only the first page of the newspaper. (According to Neil Postman) Not much bang for your buck! Hence this essay to encourage reading newspapers. Newspapers aren’t too “bad,” and if you read them right, taking less than thirty minutes, then they aren’t too big.

God bless democracy.

Sean Crawford
On mountain time
November 2012
~Real reporters, regarding news articles, use the metaphor “inverted pyramid” but I like my own right-side-up image better.

~I like how the Arab news agency, Al-Jazeera, believes in democratic journalistic ethics.

~ Freedom is coming. In Pakistan more people are starting to say it is wrong to murder a schoolgirl for wanting an education. Same as in Afghanistan. Of course extremists are afraid: Once the ladies become literate, who can ever stop them from encouraging their children to take a grownup interest in the newspapers?

~Needless to say, although the extremists won’t agree, you can still believe in Islam while also believing in the law, human rights and democracy. I like the web site of a young Muslim lawyer in Australia, an “Aussie Mossy.”

~For further documentation that Muslims in the East agree with the West supporting them to achieve their modern freedoms, in Afghanistan and other Muslim nations, see Canadian correspondent Michael Petrou’s 2012 book Is this Your First War? subtitled Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World.

~Is the public worthy of democracy? Any oppressor will always tell you, “No.” In Iran the Islamics say only the clerics are good enough. There the high clerics, and not solely the Ayatollah, have more political power than their president does. Over in the Far East the communists say very few are good enough to be allowed to join the communist party. Back in Europe the nobles used to say the peasants weren’t good enough because, metaphorically, they didn’t have any blue blood. That’s why when the American commoners in 1776 insisted on trying democracy, the nobles called it “an experiment” and predicted it would fail… So far, so good.

~What do you think?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Harry and the Teens
An Appreciation of The Cross-time Traders by Harry Turtledove

Like many grown adults, I freely admit to enjoying “cross-over” books: These are young adult (YA) books enjoyed by adults too. I enjoy being carried away to worlds where, say, preparing for the senior prom is Real and Earnest. Even more, I like the fantasy world of the Harry Potter series, yes, and the science fiction (sf) world of The Hunger Games trilogy, too. What about a time travel book? Would it be experienced as an adventure of fantasy or of science fiction? It would depend on the author. I really appreciate the “Cross-time Traders” YA series by Harry Turtledove. It’s always a pleasure to find a new one.

Every new book takes place on a new “timeline” with new characters. Harry usually portrays two teenagers: one girl, one boy; one time traveler, one native. Both teens are putting energy into questioning and understanding the world they are growing up into. It’s this driving urge to know that makes the series science fiction, not fantasy. I hope schoolteachers and librarians are aware of the Cross-time Traders series.

The gimmick is simple: One of the teens is with parents or an uncle or something, all posing as merchants running a little store, while surrounded by locals who mustn’t ever learn their secret identity. In the series, inventing cross-time travel is just as momentous as inventing the A-bomb, only it’s much, much easier. If the natives ever learned such travel was even possible, they would soon figure out how to do so too. Hence the time-travelers are sworn to lonely secrecy.

These traders are “out of time,” shipping desperately needed grain and resources back to their own world through a portal in the basement. Cool! Secret rooms and concealed technology! The twist is the people travel not to different “times” but to different “earths,” to alternate worlds that have the same date as back home, but are not so advanced. The traders, as it happens, are in the late 21st century. Some of the worlds they trade with have computers with silicon chips, computers as advanced as late 20th century earth, but still not as good as back in the home timeline. Why not?

Various reasons. And here is where Harry’s rollicking good plots disguise “teachings” that could help his young readers gain perspective on the world, just as the heroes are gaining perspective too. As I see it, maximum “progress” over the generations happens when everything goes just right. But lots of things can go wrong. Progress can be delayed, since human societies, alas, are imperfect. My high school history textbook was divided into sections such as ‘The quest for security,’ ‘The quest for freedom’ and so on. God bless our children: They don’t realize yet what it means to be a responsible citizen.

As you know, today’s privileged school kids usually find “the past” boring. They don’t understand how things of “right now,” including things as vital as, say, the War On Terror, are easier to manage if one has an historical understanding of what conditions nurture the public and democracy, and what conditions are abusive to the public.

Harry offers modern lessons. The fear today on the streets of Islamist Iran is like on the streets in the world where the Kaiser’s army got atomics first. Today’s child indoctrination by the Saudi’s exported “madrasses,” or religious schools, (Islam is under attack, Jews are ruling, etc.) is like the California boy, some generations after an atomic war, believing everything he’s been told about the folks over in the next valley. Today the mullahs (priests) of the Arab world are contorting themselves to combine old Arabic words to describe new things, while discouraging innovation and free thought. They are acting like the bureaucrats in the world where the Roman Empire never fell… hence there was no dark age… a world where nevertheless, in the 21st century, they haven’t gone beyond muskets and slavery yet. (An application of the thick best seller Guns, Germs and Steel)

As for slavery, in one of the worlds the US, having advanced into the industrial age, no longer has racial slavery, but they have two levels of citizen, based on race. And in one state--oh irony!--the levels are reversed: Mississippi. In this world the civil rights movement, with the federal transport laws supporting the Freedom Riders, never happened. As well, the locals have a technology that is still a hundred years behind the home timeline. Their divergence in “fortune,” in both senses of the word, came some time after 1776 when, for federal taxation and representation, they couldn’t manage to find the right balance between going by State or by population. (States like Wyoming have fewer people than New York City) And so they couldn’t manage to have a Union. This would echo certain far-reaching mistakes today in the Constitution the US has foisted on Iraq. History matters.

Harry Turtledove’s stories, by encouraging thought experiments, can teach in the way “games” do. As for games, in one novel, Gladiator, the cover shows a hand holding up a typical multi-sided Dungeons’nDragons die. In Italy the teen hero is posing as a typical high school student, helping to run a gaming store, selling Gladiator.

In this world the Soviets have won the contest for “the hearts and minds.” Here Western Europe has joined the east in being under a planned economy. And the children are true believers. At least, supposedly: Just as today’s Islamists need capital punishment for “blaspheming,” so too, the Communists need their scary thought police. The hero is brave. Besides selling Gladiator, he is doing something more: Under the noses of the Reds he is also selling a game about capitalists building railroads. How subversive. This in a world where anyone from Russia automatically has high status.

I don’t think Turtledove is deliberately trying to teach young students, not exactly. He reminds me of an excited developer who once scribbled on paper to describe to me how he would buy and sell hotels to own more and more. I think of the car lover experimenting with fuel mixtures, the old military historian playing his WWII board games, or the starving college business student manipulating a computer spread sheet. What if? Whenever you are fascinated by something you want to get involved. Plainly, Turtledove loves history. And therefore, like a science fiction writer, he asks, “What if--?”

Possibly he has learned old skills like riding a horse, or grinding his own wheat (Sore shoulders!) and then baking his own bread. (Easy to burn!) Perhaps he boils soap. Maybe he even dresses as knight in the SCA. (Society for Creative Anachronism) More likely, I suppose, Harry is a typical English literature guy, feeling most at home curled behind his desk. What strikes me most about literary folks, as compared to my friends who write science fiction, is how they are very unlikely to subscribe to Scientific American. Instead, for them, the most fascinating thing in this world is people. While history looks at characters wholesale, with persons being embedded in their culture, writers look at character retail. Individuals vary. Not all adolescents grow up to be clones of their parents—thank God!

I found one of Turtledove’s cross-time novels to be especially literary. In The Disunited States of America, a girl travels alone with just her grandmother—in a world with no federal Interstate Highways. It’s hard. Not the physical travail, but the emotional. While her dear mother, left back home, is really nice, (why?) her mother’s mother is horrid and immature. Why? The girl begins to look at people to imagine what their choice points were: How did they become who they are? I thought this imagining of “alternate people” was a delightful variation on alternate earths.

The Cross-time Traders series deserves more notice. I look forward to a re-issue of them, this time with matching covers—so I can read them all again! Then maybe they would be noticed by the general public. I suppose a movie might launch the series, but then again, no, for I don’t see how a movie could ever work…

After all, they can’t film Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield, either. The enduring value of Finn, and the Cross-time Traders, is their youthful inner thoughts. It’s something the “moving pictures” can never capture. And it’s something I never tire of reading.

Sean Crawford
Living in the best of all possible worlds,
(Except for some hanging chad and butterfly ballots)
Calgary, 2012
Footnote: It’s neat how Gladiator takes place in Italy, because as a boy I read a (translated?) collection of amusing short stories about a poor village in Italy, written from the viewpoint of the village priest, stories where the priest and the local union leader keep competing for whether the villagers will convert to communism.

Sidebar: The mother of all US time travel stories is Andre Norton’s 1958 novel The Time Traders. The hero begins as a lonely juvenile delinquent unsuited to a near-future society. But he ends up wearing furs in the prehistoric Bronze Age, as part of a little team of traders, one of many little teams intently searching along the timeline. Everything they carry or wear must be authentic or disguised. And for good reasons: They don’t want to change history, of course, and besides: they don’t want to be noticed by the Reds, who also have teams. The Americans desperately need to know where the Reds are getting their lost technology. As the cover shows, it turns out to be ancient aliens. It’s quite a story. I once met an anthropologist and sf writer, Joan D Vinge, whose interest in prehistoric civilizations had been started by that book.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Humble and Iraq
“Humble is good.”
An executive director

Last week at my toastmasters club Bob Elwood was challenged to speak impromptu for a couple minutes on “humble.” He really nailed it!

I wonder how many other club members had once been silly like me: As a lad I got humble mixed up with humility, mixed up with humiliation. Somehow, from reading the New Testament, I had thought a good person would try to be a blank, a cipher, while a really good man would even beat his breast when he prayed. As it turns out, my best friend Susan had been to Bible College, and she advised me they call that “worm Christianity.” Not good.

Later, I’ll get back to what Bob told us. For now, I can say that “humble” has been a useful lifestyle choice. To me humble means: Facing reality, calm and sure-footed, without the crutch of relying on (social) rank, fame or fortune. A crutch should never be a way of life, as a crutch can be knocked away: It is too easy to change communities, lose money or become at last merely one more well dressed retiree on the beach.

I have found I can be well respected at work, yet feel like Stephen Leacock while in a bank, and then comfortably call someone else “sir” in the community. I’m still me: Just me, being non-egotistical. It has taken me years to toss my crutch aside.

I still remember how as a young college student, more insecure than humble, whenever I had to give a presentation I compensated for my stage fright by having a bit of an ego high… and that worked… but then at the end of the speech I was humble me again. It was during my college years, taking Rehabilitation Studies, that I asked a teacher: “Why are the staff from the sheltered workshops, and the staff from the group homes, so angry and disrespecting of each other?” She didn’t know. I asked my boss and favorite CEO, Elaine Yost. “Ego” she instantly replied. Ah yes, the opposite of humble.

Elaine is a role model for me. She has taken her for-profit agency from being squished into the upper quarter of a house to being the second largest rehabilitation agency in the city. This while always respecting the clients, parents and guardians--and never subordinating them to red tape. She could manage this because she was a good and humble leader. One year she received a provincial award.

My favorite 20th century US president, Harry Truman, surely had a big enough ego for his job. “The buck stops here” he said. And, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” He managed his ego: he was never egotistical. He never confused himself with his temporary position of being the nation’s CEO. In fact, he talked of folks coming to Washington, on the Potomac River, and then swelling up like frogs with “Potomac fever.” Like Benjamin Franklin, he spoke of stepping down at the end of his term and resuming the most honorable title in all the land: “citizen.” That’s my ideal too. I think a person could counterbalance the stress of even a big Washington job with an ongoing commitment to being humble.

If a big US president can be humble, can a big army general? Sure. General Patton, in the peace before Pearl Harbor, told a fresh lieutenant, “We can always learn from each other.” While some officers will “wimp out” by using military discipline as an armor to keep from accepting feedback or from having to second-guess themselves, the best officers, like Patton with his controversial “unwanted tanks,” will never stop humbly thinking about trying to be better at their profession. I’m thinking now of my favorite peacetime general, Rick Hillier. Having his read his two books, I feel assured he is both competent and humble. Not macho. Maybe it has something to do with growing up in a family of all sisters!

When Hillier speaks, I listen. Here’s what he said about a certain Washington official, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (p 307) “Rumsfeld struck me as a grumpy old man…” (p308) “Rumsfeld didn’t like people pushing back, and I wasn’t invited to come visit with him anymore…” As the War On Terror limps on, the green Krypton, both personal and systematic, radiating from officials like Rumsfeld should be addressed. Truly, “the personal is the political.”

As I see it, Rumsfeld failed himself when he failed to achieve a lifestyle habit of being humble. For him, the “payoff” for being grumpy, for having blinders on, was he got his own way on so many mistakes for Iraq. His green krypton, alas, destroyed the potential of others to reason and speak. The consequences, for the US army, have been thousands of dead and many, many wounded.

Today it’s historical knowledge the US State Department had offered to help, had even, for example, predicted that the priceless world heritage museums would be looted unless protected, but State involvement was rejected by Rumsfeld.

For me the tip of the iceberg, the most egregious example of Rumsfeld being so unprofessional, was his abusive treatment of General Shinseki. The good general, according to various history books, simply tried to explain, before the invasion, that an occupation would require far more troops than an invasion would, far more troops than what Rumsfeld was envisioning would be required. Rumsfeld’s shocking, scandalous and shameful treatment of Shinseki then produced a chilly climate. When nothing was done to redress the specific scandal, not by “the system,” not by other senior officials, nor even by the president himself, then there could no longer be any general feedback offered by anyone. No one raised any thoughtful questions anymore.

Wow, talk about a “smoking gun” for predicting failure: With Washington so self-blinded and dysfunctional, the occupation to build a “democratic Iraq” was utterly doomed in advance.

How could they blindly ignore the State Department? Any schoolboy who took Vietnam would have told the grownups that for nurturing democracy, for “winning the hearts and minds,” the army, even with the embassy involved, still needs help very, very badly. This means top-down systematic help, not random efforts by individual amateurs with Republican Party membership cards reporting to the embassy. And certainly not amateurs being hired in preference over non-Republican experts, when those experts have years of overseas development experience. Which, unbelievably, is what happened in Iraq. Ego again. State should have been involved, and in charge.

If my boss Elaine were ever to learn of any unprofessional behavior like Rumsfeld’s, even by senior executives, she would take immediate action, and then, if appropriate, let the whole organization know things had been dealt with. It’s clear that General Hillier also believes in functional organizations.

Another smoking gun: I find it all too revealing of ego that for the Bush years no one resigned in a shadow, no one was reprimanded, no one was fired… no, not even for the Wall Street melt down. In contrast, Truman fired America’s most popular serving general, the hero of Korea, right in the middle of the Korean War.

Away from the fancy streets of the capital district, away from the bright financial district, are the patched and cracked asphalt streets of the cities and towns of Middle America. As citizens, what can we do? For my part, I can try to “lead by example.” I can “be part of the solution, not part of the problem.” In other words: I can try to be humble.

My fellow toastmaster Bob Elwood noted (in effect) that being humble is a blessed state of being equal to others, not “greater than” nor “less than.” It means being detached from one’s ego, and from the ego of peer pressure. Humble means not taking things personally; it means “being here now;” it means being authentic to yourself. It’s an altogether fitting and proper state of being.

Last year at work I was tasked to take over a team that was being awfully difficult to manage. I could have gone in with a “stern command presence” to take immediate control. Instead? I went in very polite and humble; it all worked out. I reported back to my boss. She approved, saying, “Humble is good.”

Sean Crawford
As summer wanes
~ Last night at toastmasters Esperanza Montalvo did a speech noting that in a certain less democratic Latin American country they believe, as did her mother, that good people don’t say, “I don’t know.” (Partly because rich leaders “should” know more than poor peasants) Esperanza explained that humbly learning to “not know” was a paradigm shift that truly expanded her world, and her ability to truly listen to others.

~ Regarding Shinseki: “The general left all of us in uniform with a new appreciation of what moral courage means and how important it as to give clear and blunt military advice to the powerful, no matter whether they wanted to hear it or not.” (p 184) A Soldier First subtitled Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. 2009

~ For a perspective on how the American people consented to the fiasco of Iraq, see my essay of September 2012, Citizenship After 9/11.

~For the US disgrace, and crazy hiring practices for nurturing democracy in Iraq, see the prize-winning Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

~ For a simple structural method to mitigate that fiasco, see the last part of my essay of October 2010, Reality Checks.