“Shut Up He Explained”

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“Shut up he explained.” —-Ring Lardner

Words, words, words.,,they matter, but sometimes we get so caught up in them that we place more meaning and importance on them than they were ever meant to convey. As an English major in college I was privy to a number of academic conversations in which the peers of my chosen field of study derived strange meanings from the writings of noted authors. I recall countless discussions focused on interpretations of what various writers actually meant when they chose certain phrases. Sometimes those discussions devolved into silliness, and I found myself wondering how much of our own thinking is responsible for the meanings that we derive whenever someone says or writes something to which we become privy. Perhaps what we think is being said is not what the originator meant at all.

How many times have you found your statements being misinterpreted? I know that as someone who spent a lifetime speaking publicly in front of countless audiences I often had to explain my intent to people who had ascribed some profoundly insulting meaning that had never even crossed my mind. We bring lifetimes of experience to every situation and often how we hear something is based far more on the kinds of experiences we have had than on any maliciousness from a speaker or an author.

When I write blogs each day I expose myself to constant criticism. Quite often someone will twist my words into contortions that had never occurred to me. Without the ability to immediately correct the misconceptions, I have made an enemy or two. Writing or speaking publicly is risky, but attempting to cloak words in cautious sentences sometimes backfires even more. Honesty is required to be believable, but such willingness to be true to ones’ self has its price, particularly in a world in which people are parsing every single word that is uttered or written down. Anyone who says something deemed to be unacceptable may find themselves losing friends or even jobs. We seem to be in an era that categorizes everyone in one way or another, and woe be the consequences for anyone who chooses to utter the wrong kind of statements regardless of what he/she may have really meant.

A few months back The Atlantic magazine hired conservative writer, Kevin Williamson, to balance out the staff which was mostly composed of liberals. Kevin is a Texan who has a rare gift for writing. He chooses vivid and colorful words and phrases that bring his work to life. I enjoy reading his columns just for the sheer appreciation of his craft in a world where true artistic talent with the written word seems to be quite lacking.

Kevin Williamson has strong points of view. He has had no problem speaking loudly against Donald Trump since before the man was even elected. His critiques of the President have not abated. He has made it quite clear that he sees Trump as a rather ignorant buffoon, thus I suppose that The Atlantic may have seen him as a good candidate for giving the periodical a veneer of diversity of thought. Unfortunately trouble ensued from the moment that Mr. Williamson became a member of the staff, mostly because of his unwavering view that abortion is murder. The reality is that Williamson was adopted as a baby, given up by a mother who did not have the wherewithal to raise him. He has often expressed his thanks that he was given a chance to live a wonderful life rather than being denied that opportunity by experiencing death before he was even born. His comments regarding abortion have angered many people over the years but he has steadfastly stood by them. Once he was hired by The Atlantic a furor arose that resulted in his being fired within days. It was a sad commentary on freedom of thought and speech regardless of what one’s views on abortion may be. More recently we have seen others relieved of their public duties for various and sundry slips of the tongue. Among them is Megan Kelley. 

I have admittedly never been a big fan of Megyn Kelley. She is bright and beautiful and appears to be quite sincere, but I never quite understood the admiration for her journalistic skills that were so prevalent. I suppose that my respect for her grew by leaps and bounds when she was willing to openly criticize then candidate Trump during the 2016 presidential election. I understood how much courage it took for her to voice her concerns given that she worked for Fox News. She stood her ground even as Donald Trump hurled unseemly insults at her, and her popularity among conservatives took a plunge. I was happy for her when NBC hired her to host part of the Today Show lineup. I found her programs to be far more informative than the drivel that most of the morning entertainers provide. She attacked difficult topics with honesty and I slowly came to like her. At the same time I sensed that her coworkers still held it against her that she had at one time worked for Fox. 

While I was off camping last week Ms. Kelley had a segment on Halloween and the idea that some costumes are deemed to be offensive because of cultural appropriation. She had a panel of guests to discuss this rather recent phenomenon. She made the cardinal mistake of insisting that there may actually be times when wearing blackface is not as egregious as it may appear and her guests soundly disagreed with her premises. Admittedly her arguments were thin and I do understand how some may have found them offensive, but after much thought she reversed her thinking and apologized first on Twitter and then on air the following morning. Sadly it was too late for her. The executives at NBC decided to let her go in spite of her mea culpas. She has become yet another pariah in a world that allows no mistakes even knowing that erring is human.

Any magazine or studio has every right to hire and fire whomsoever they want. Still it bothers me that people who disagree with the general thinking of the organization are let go with very little provocation. There seems to be a fear that contrary thoughts and utterances should be quickly excisized rather than allowed. It is as though we are no longer able to accept ideas counter to our own. Rather than debating the merits of one argument or another, we prefer to shun those who do not think like ourselves. Such lack of reasoning is dangerous and we should all be concerned that it is happening more and more frequently both on the left and on the right. There is no room for differences or even for changes of heart. We must march in cadence with a particular group or leave the ranks.

I had not really thought of writing about this until I read a plaintive comment  from a dear friend regarding her sadness that Megyn Kelley had been fired from NBC. She spoke of how much she admired Ms. Kelley and how she would miss her program. My friend is such a sweet and compassionate woman that I began to think of how sad it is that very talented people are being forced to toe the prevailing line rather than being encouraged to think, debate, pose questions, suggest alternatives. We really should not want to become people who think like one of Ring Lardner’s characters, “Shut up he explained.”

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Stop the Insanity

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I no longer watch CNN or Fox News. In spite of claims to the contrary both cable news stations report events with a definite bias. The big three of CBS, NBC and ABC do a bit better, but all too often even their storylines seems to march in tandem. I find the BBC to be far more interesting and informative than any of our national news services because they are not as obsessed with influencing American politics. I read from a number of news sources and rarely find one that simply provides facts without editorial comments. Journalism today is not like it was when I once dreamed of becoming a writer for a newspaper or magazine. Back then articles were a treasure trove of “who, what, when” rather than hidden persuasions. As Joe Friday used to insist on Dragnet  the columns that we read on the first page were comprised of “just the facts” not that long ago. Editorials were labeled as such and found in a different section of the paper.

I almost barf every time I hear the term “fake news.” It’s become a ploy for changing the topic and insinuating that the media is making things up. I seriously don’t believe that is the case, but I do feel that the line between pure reporting and editorializing has been blurred beyond distinction. As such we are treated to a continual stream of attempts to influence our thinking rather than a simple presentation of information. It used to be that the critical thinking was left to the reader. Now it is as though every report is couched in persuasive arguments that are hidden between the lines. That’s not fake news, it’s just sloppy journalism.

As a result of this mode of reporting we tend to divide into camps where issues are not judged on their distinct merits, but rather in a way characterized by highly generalized thinking. For example, the word “Republican” is casually used by to indicate someone who voted for Donald Trump and is guilty of a number of vile “isms.” Such people are pictured as being mostly white, male and rather uneducated. Reporters carefully choose individuals who fit their preconceived notions to support their thinking. In other words they work backwards from ideas they wish to promote. This results in those who are more progressive casting a self righteous eye of indignation toward anyone who dares to espouse even a hint of conservatism, and of late it more and more often applies to anyone who has certain Christian beliefs.

On the other side are right leaning news outlets who demonizes Democrats by lumping them all together as dangerous socialists intent on destroying our democracy. They even eat their own kind by throwing under the bus any conservative who dares to disagree with them. Donald Trump was elected in part because many of the conservative commentators used a scorched earth manner of reporting on those Republicans who were moderate or willing to compromise. In the meantime the far left dropped these same individuals into a catch all basket of deplorables and destroyed their political ambitions.

Our news on all sides is more hyperbolic than fair and balanced, making it difficult for any of us to get a clear idea of what is really happening and what will work best to solve problems. It’s a “my way or the highway” kind of world that is tearing apart families and friendships as more and more people jump onboard with the self righteousness of the far left or the far right. It seems to me that most of the media is missing the point that we are indeed being manipulated, but not as much by Russians as by our own press. The stories that they write may not be fake, but they are riddled with far too many propaganda techniques that are churning us up and dividing us from one another. I hate to point this out, but it’s a method that has been used since time immemorial to fool the populace.

I for one have grown weary of it, and find it increasingly difficult not to notice all of the rhetorical devices being peppered into virtually every report of the news. The clinker for me is that it is not just one group or one political point of view that is propagating this style. It has found it’s way into everything, leaving us with no recourse other than to be very careful about learning the truth of anything that we see or read. Having a bit of skepticism would serve us all well.

We’ve reached a kind of watershed in which forces around us are playing with our emotions, and in many ways it is working. It’s up to each of us to halt this dangerous trend by realizing that we can’t use labels of any kind to define individual human beings. A firm sociological principal is that we can’t generalize to an entire population based on a single anecdote and yet that is exactly what many of today’s journalists are doing to increase ratings and their own popularity. That isn’t fake. It’s very real and dangerous for the health of our country.

I believe that most of us feel uncomfortable with the bickering and the dividing that is taking place. It’s time that we lead ourselves out this predicament by putting the brakes on attempts to influence our thinking and our beliefs. We need to turn off the noise when we hear it. It’s easy to identify the difference between good reporting and blathering. If we refuse to listen to those who are editorializing rather than reporting, they will soon go away. Reporting the news is a business. If the powers that be realize that we no longer care for their way of doing things, they will change. We are the customers. We have the power. Let’s stop the insanity.

Tasteless Bread

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“Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident of human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” 

― John SteinbeckTravels with Charley: In Search of America

Back when I was in college I took a linguistics class that was fascinating. One of the requirements was to write a paper and I decided to do some undergraduate research. I recorded the voices of several women who had all grown up in Houston, Texas. They varied in age from the late sixties to early teens. I had them all read the same passage and then answer some questions about it so that their more natural way of speaking would become apparent. I then created a questionnaire whose purpose was to find out if the listeners detected any kind of regional dialect in the speakers. I played the recordings without comment and then had the respondents complete their answers to the questions.

The results were much as I had expected them to be, but fascinating nonetheless. A hundred percent of those who took the survey could hear a definite Texas twang in the speech of the older women, but wondered if the younger speakers were from some other part of the country like the Midwest. In fact, the survey answers indicated that as the speakers became younger, less and less of a regional dialect was apparent.

I drew some conclusions based on various theories that we had studied in class, the main one being that the younger individuals who spoke had grown up watching television which generally favors a rather bland Midwestern way of speaking. In addition our city of Houston had become much more diverse and cosmopolitan over time leading the younger women to more exposure to different ways of speaking. Finally, the educational system had impacted the young by allowing them to interact with teachers from places all over the country, unlike the older women who had mostly learned from people native to the area.

My professor was quite pleased with my study and gave me a high mark. I knew that to draw any meaningful conclusions regarding dialects I would need to have more speakers, more respondents and better controls, but it was a somewhat daring project for an undergraduate and my teacher appreciated my efforts. He also agreed with many of the conclusions that I formed as to way there was such a dramatic difference in the ways of speaking.

There was a time when it was quite easy to detect linguistic differences in people. New Orleans had its “Where ya at?’ natives, and Chicago had its south side workers who cheered for “da Bears.” There were the people from Jersey and those from Georgia, all of whom gave away their place of origin the minute they opened their mouths to speak. Of course there was also the classic Texas drawl that stereotyped our state for posterity, but according to the most recent research many of the linguistic differences are dying out as people have more and more access to the world at large. The kind of isolation that bred distinct ways of speaking is becoming less and less frequent, so for the most part there are few people today who actually never hear anyone but the people in the immediate neighborhood.

My high school English teacher used to encourage us to become citizens of the world. This was long before anyone was even dreaming of the Internet or hundreds of channels on television. At the time I rarely ventured more than a few miles from my neighborhood and even then it was to visit with relatives who spoke in ways similar to mine. To this day I have a discernible accent that has been described by strangers as cute, southern or even Texan. They seem able to determine where I was born, but mostly are unable to hear the same dialect in the speech of my daughters. Only once was one of them referred to as a “Cracker” when she was working in Chicago and someone heard a hint of the south in her speech.

We are more and more becoming just Americans with regard to the way we talk, The old differences are fading and mostly found in older citizens rather than the young as noted in the most recent studies. The old ways of speaking are becoming the venue of folklore and should probably be recorded for posterity so that we might one day remember a way of life that is vanishing.

My grandfather grew up in the hills of Virginia. He was not even listed in a census until 1930, mostly because nobody wanted to travel into the backwoods areas to find him and his family. His way of speaking was quite representative of the area where he lived. When I played a recording of him telling a story to someone whose childhood was spent in the same part of the country, he smiled with recognition and said that it sounded just like his own older relatives. He noted that there are still places so remote that the local accents thrive, but in his own case all traces are gone. His education as well as his travels to New York City and Chicago have all but eliminated any hints of his origins.

Language is a fascinating way of expressing ourselves that tells us so much about who we are and where we have been. Today our influences are so many that it is becoming more and more difficult for anyone who is not an expert or who does not possess a good ear to discern our stories simply from the way we speak. In some ways that is a sign of progress, and in others it is just a bit sad. There was something quite delightful in the variety that was once so evident in our voices. Perhaps it will one day be little more than a memory as our speech becomes one speech, better but devoid of our frailties.

#earnhistory

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My mom was from the generation that grew up listening to the radio. Back in the day people tuned in to hear programs filled with illusions built from sounds and words. The listening experience was glorious with pictures painted in the mind’s eye by announcers and actors with versatile and mellow voices. Since news stories did not include photos or films the reporters had to describe the scene and the best of them created gloriously graphic images that allowed listeners to feel as though they were on the scene. The best sportscasters managed to outlined each play in a game in such vivid detail that those who followed the broadcast might just as well have been sitting on the fifty yard line or behind home plate. It was a glorious era when ordinary folk got up close and personal with the happenings in the world from the comfort of their living rooms.

Mama especially loved Sundays because those were the days when her family honored the sabbath with visits to church, a special family meal and time to listen to favorite programs on the radio. They would gather around and be swept away into worlds of adventure, information and sports. Afterwards her father would hold family meetings in which he iterated character lessons for his brood of eight children. He insisted on honesty, hard work, frugality, ethical behavior and love of country and family. My mother would always refer to the beliefs that he had instilled in her and to those glorious Sundays when they paused from the labors of the work week to indulge in entertainment and sporting fantasies.

In my earliest years as a child the radio was still the center of information and enjoyment in our home. I recall listening to The Lone Ranger and Texas A&M football games with my parents. Eventually my father brought home a television in a lovely mahogany cabinet that replaced the radio as the center of our entertainment needs, but somehow my mom never quite lost her love for the radio. Thus it was that she developed a lifelong taste for certain programming that she followed inside her car or her bedroom. Chief among her regular habits was listening to the Houston Astros baseball games, which she rarely missed season after season. She knew the stats of all of the players and served as an armchair coach offering advice to the air as though the team might actually hear her suggestions. She cheered and rejoiced in their victories, keeping the faith that they were the best team in the country. Even in the lean times she was never willing to give up on her boys of summer and she loved them as though they were members of her own family. She rarely had the money to purchase a ticket to see a game in person, but she had her radio and it was religiously tuned to the games.

You would have thought that Mama was a personal friend of Milo Hamilton, the voice of the Astros for decades. She thought that he was a gifted announcer and she sometimes quoted his pronouncements. She especially enjoyed discussing the games with her grandsons, Shawn and Ryan, and seemed particularly proud that Ryan was named for pitcher Nolan Ryan who thrilled her during his tenure as an Astros pitcher. She knew so many details about each competition that one might have thought that she had actually been present rather than merely a listener. She was entranced by the Astros. They were her team, the one group that she followed with the fanaticism of a true believer.

When she came to live with me in the last year of her life she insisted on having a radio in her bedroom, which my brother Pat provided for her. It was tuned the the Astros station and she knew their schedule by heart. Day or night she dropped whatever she had been doing to lie on the bed upstairs and listen to the games. Sometimes we would hear her cheers or her groans and always she would follow up with a blow by blow commentary peppered with optimism and sound advice for the players. She treasured no gift more than a ticket to one of the games, but by her final year on this earth it had become increasingly more difficult for her to navigate in the vastness of Minute Maid Park. She would grow tired quickly and so her radio allowed her to fully enjoy her most treasured pleasure without requiring her to expend her limited energy.

On the last day of her life my mother remembered that the Astros were playing. When my nephew Ryan came to the hospital to say his goodbyes she insisted that we turn on the television in the ICU. Of course she was unable to speak because there was a ventilating tube in her mouth. She simply motioned toward Ryan as though she was pitching a ball and we all understood what she wanted. It was a touching and very appropriate moment and watching her eyes light up with delight as she shared a final game with Ryan made her final hours as perfect as such a time might ever be.

I’ve thought of my mom all season long as the Houston Astros have proven to be a dominant force in the game of baseball. She would have been oh so proud of them. I can’t even imagine how frenetic her cheering would have been as they brought home the pennant with so much class and style. I’d like to think that she has a home plate seat in heaven and that she and Milo Hamilton have been celebrating the Astros’ victories together. If heaven is indeed  a place where everything is perfect then there has to be Astros baseball there for my mom. I suspect that she has told my dad all about the team that had not even existed when he died and converted him into a fan as avid as she always was. Mostly though I am quite happy that the Astros are truly the team that she always believed they would be.

We’ve had some very hard times here in Houston this year. Many of our friends and neighbors and relatives are still picking up the pieces of their broken lives after hurricane Harvey. Our city has been wounded, but we proved ourselves to be strong. We’ve had a quiet nervous breakdown together and our emotions are still very close to the surface. We cry easily as we think of all that we have endured. Somehow our Astros have been part of the community glue that has kept us focused on rebuilding an even better future. We became the bullpen for our glorious athletes who have brought us so much joy. Somehow it is fitting that the Astros would emerge as the symbol of who we Houstonians are. We celebrate their victories as our own. There is a new determination in Houston as we wish our Astros well as they meet the Los Angeles Dodgers. We are fighters and so are they. We are not willing to give up on our town or its teams. Now the world understands who we are.

Fact or Opinion?

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I usually listen to the radio whenever I’m driving. Rather than being a distraction, it is a habit that keeps me more alert. I tend to prefer talk radio but I’ve grown weary of political tirades, so my go to station of late is NPR. I enjoy the informative programming through which I learn lots of interesting facts. A few evenings ago I was returning home when I happened upon a newscast from BBC that lasted for most of the forty five minutes that it took me to reach my destination. I found myself feeling enchanted by the way in which the reporting was done. Refreshingly it was simply a recitation of factual events with no hint of editorializing. The news stories moved along so quickly that the narrator was able to provide information on literally dozens of world events of which I had little or no prior knowledge. By the time I drove into my garage I felt rather knowledgeable about situations from Turkey to Kenya to Myanmar. I found myself wondering why our own national news programs spend so much time on far less important situations, and why the reporters feel the need to discuss and analyze what is happening rather than just telling us about the events of the day without commentary. There is a certain irony that British broadcasting was so succinct and fact filled while ours now seems intent on creating controversy and inciting emotional responses. Perhaps we have brought this trend on ourselves because at the end of the day news stations are businesses and businesses must make money which means that they need high ratings. In other words we are pandering to the state of broadcast journalism by tuning in and accepting the politicization.

It used to be that news stories were based on “Ws and an H,”  such as who, what, where, when and how. Opinions were the domain of editorial pages and programs. We expected to hear differing points of view on Meet the Press, but the nightly news was more often than not an exercise in providing only information. We thought of remarks intended to change our minds as being propaganda. Now we endure personal attitudes in virtually every version of the news perhaps with the exception of local programming which still tends to follow a fact driven format. It’s enough to drive us all mad and it tends to encourage the airing of controversial stories over those that simply provide needed information, and then allow each individual to add their own personal spin to what they have heard.

I really believe that we need to more carefully delineate fact from opinion. We teach children this important concept from the time that they are very young, but then as adults we fall into the trap of accepting someone else’s thinking as factual. As a society far too many of us are blurring the line between actual news and editorializing. This has created culture wars and idealogical divisions that are unnecessary and has led to a tendency to defend points of view with false narratives and soundbites. In other words we appear to be living in an epoch that actually trivializes the news and our politicians are taking full advantage of the situation.

I have listened to old school radio programming in which Edward R. Murrow used words to describe world situations. His elegant use of the English language was almost poetic, but it also provided vivid mental pictures of what was actually happening, not how he felt about what he was seeing or whether or not such things should have been happening. That was the right way to present the news. In fact it should always be up to the listener or viewer to fill in the blanks of feelings and emotions, not the person who is on the scene giving us an update.

I actually enjoy the kinds of programs that provide an editorial analysis of current events, especially those that strive to provide alternate points of view. They give us an opportunity to think critically as long as they are transparent and willing to give each side of an argument an uninterrupted platform. I don’t mind at all when the guests debate one another, but I prefer for the host to be a moderator, not someone who joins in the fray. All too often these venues devolve into efforts to change minds and to advocate for one side over the other. That’s when I tend to sigh and then tune out. I suppose that I’d prefer just watching something like a Lincoln Douglas debate to feeling as though my intelligence is being insulted by biased reporting.

It’s funny how we teach students how to spot propaganda and then we unwittingly fall for it time and time again. We expect politicians to engage in such shenanigans because it is the nature of the beast, but when those charged with providing us with the news twist information to fit personal agendas I cringe. I believe that most people have enough common sense to decide for themselves how to react to the events that take place each day. None of us need interpretations. When those things happen there should always be full disclosure that what is being reported is a personal opinion rather than a fact.

I doubt that things will change anytime soon, so I will have to find alternative methods of seeking the truth. I would love for our American newscasters to learn a bit from the BBC. I think we would all be the better for getting more information about not only local and national events, but also the goings on around the world. We really do need to know about the problems in Myanmar and the elections in Liberia. We don’t live on an island and what happens in lands far away will indeed have an effect on things here. Ours is a global economy and we share a political symbiosis with everyone. We really are better served when we are informed. While we may be all abuzz about athletes kneeling for the national anthem, we also need to understand what the effects of famine in another part of the world will be on all of us. The truth is that we are spending far too much time being manipulated into arguments with one another when far more pressing issues are facing us. While we are being mesmerized by indignation over an individual’s sexual sins, there are citizens among us who are struggling with real problems that the infighting is preventing us from solving. While the media and the politicians are stirring up our anger and emotions they get away with making us believe that there is always somebody else to blame for the inaction that leaves so many in a state of distress.

We’ve got real work to do and it will only be done when we learn the facts and then decide how to address them. We can no longer afford to be taken in by propaganda masquerading as truth. Perhaps its time to quit rewarding the news programming that has so lost its way by providing them with the ratings they so need. If we were to turn them off and then boost the viewership of those who follow the old school rules of reporting without all of the chattering and blathering, then the spin might end. Until we do this we will be subject to the fighting that is slowly but surely tearing us apart and preventing us from accomplishing anything.  I don’t know about you, but I for one have grown weary of being manipulated.