Thursday, April 22, 2010

Like it or not: America's Dirty Little Secret

There's a dirty little secret in America today: all too many of our young people, whatever their biological age may be, can't speak.

Sure, they can facebook, textmessage, twitter, but they can't speak.

First, vocal cords. Why do so many attractive, intelligent young women mutilate their vocal cords when they utter a word? They grind their voices like fingernails scraping a blackboard. They uptalk as if sentences had no end or conclusion. (A theory: by vibrating their vocal cords to lower the sound they produce, young women want to "masculinize" their voices, thereby taking revenge on rampant sexism).

Young men, in contrast, prefer to mumble. Whoever said the sexes, always in a battle, were ever the same?

Then there's "like." Have you ever been on public transportation with young people "speaking" over their cell phones? One in every three/four words is "like."

Maybe it doesn't drive you nuts -- if you're hard of hearing.

Another favorite: "Whatever."

Do these linguistic tics reflect young people's understandable, instinctively negative reaction to the uber-precision of a high-strung, non-stop "communicating" technological society with a "standard" American English sadly inherited, some would say, from not yet fully dead white males?

So much of everything, in the USA "homeland" these days, is timed, measured, "messaged" even when we cross streets. You've got eight second before a car will kill you, the electronic sign tells the pedestrian. Rush, rush, rush (ok, safety first).

Buy sugar-free Coke Now! Now! Now!

No wonder the young among us use language to slow things down, by being comfortably vague when they -- we -- "speak."

After writing your supposedly tightly-worded resume, don't you just want to say "like," which has no meaning at all? Like, you know what I mean? You don't know what I mean, but that's, like, ok. Like.

Or is it that young people learned how to "speak" by looking at essentially non-verbal cartoons on TV, with absent parents with whom they could not "talk," as they -- the parents -- were "at work"? Again, perhaps.

Or are we just being democratic -- speak, baby speak, whatever that "speak" may be?

Another possible reason: Rhetoric -- it's been around since at least Aristotle -- has been essentially abolished from college curricula.

Instead, we idolize "power-point" presentations that minimize the use of language and, in some foreign policy programs, organize "public diplomacy" courses that overlook, in perhaps too many cases, the importance of classical rhetoric in shaping human discourse.

(How can a future diplomat ever learn a foreign language -- essential in carrying out public diplomacy -- if he/she cannot even speak his/her own language beyond "like" and "whatever" -- or, more generally, beyond the American contemporary way of "speaking" among the young?)

True, speaking "proper" English is a convention. Chaucer isn't today's "conventional" English. Jefferson, as I discovered from reading, with much pleasure, his manuscripts, makes no distinction between "its" and "it's." No one in her right mind would want language to stand still. What makes language human is its ability to evolve -- let's hope for the better.

But isn't the magic and poetry of well articulated (I hate the word "articulate," do you have a better one?) face-to-face language disappearing in our time, here in America -- the America of the so-called "web 2.0 communications revolution" -- in a tsunami of "likes" and "whatevers"?

Now, after all the preaching, I want to make you feel comfortable. Report from the forthcoming Evening News:

How, like, ironic, or, whatever, like distressing. Like, you know what I mean. Whatever.

Like, whatever, forget about it.

I like like, Big like Brother. Like, abolish language Big Brother, like is, like, the best way to newspeak, how we, like, "speak " -- whatever.

About Winston -- after his, like, treatment at the Ministry of Truth -- we know about him from, like, the updated version of 1984 we, like, just, like, just got, whatever -- glad you, Win, like, feel better.

Like, Win, turn on, like, your cell phone: Speak to say nothing. Say nothing to speak.

Like, like "like." Or else.

This, like, is the six o'clock evening news. And now a word from our sponsor, the producer of "Like" products -- products you like whatever they, like, are.

P.S. From Newspeak Dictionary: "duckspeak - (To quack like a duck). To speak without thinking. Can be either good or bad, depending on who is speaking, and whether or not they are on your side."

Monday, April 12, 2010

Strategic Communication from (one of many) Public Diplomacy Perspectives

Regarding strategic communication, a term currently in favor with some conceptually-challenged geopolitical commentators, the straightjacket of strategy turns communication, at its best a process of discovery open to many conclusions, into a rigid, often unimaginative, mechanism for the fulfillment of a preconceived "plan."

Why, after thousands of years, do we still read Plato's dialogues? And why, once another "strategic communication" report appears, practically no one pays attention to it?

Because, I would say, Socrates sees communication as an intellectual -- and emotional -- voyage that defines us as human beings searching for truth and pleasure, whereas SC sees communication as yet another, essentially short-term, tool for Victory over the Enemy.

And, closer to our own time than Socrates, consider the Jazz Ambassadors funded by the State Department to perform the world over during the Cold War, perhaps the best among the many public diplomacy programs of that epoch.

When Louis Armstrong did his thing overseas, he was playing his music, improvising as he wished, not communicating "strategically."

No wonder audiences abroad admired -- yes, loved -- him. Being the least propagandistic, the least mapped-out and predictable kind of public diplomacy, Armstrong's music indeed was public diplomacy -- or, if you wish to call it so -- propaganda at its best.

(Of course, Plato, who wanted to exile poets from his ideal Republic, would probably not have approved of jazz. But Plato was not Socrates, although Plato longed to be like like Socrates in order to be what he -- Plato -- was not, in his worst moods: a doctrinaire).

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Admiral Michael G. Mullen,

by the way, has it right about SC:

It is time for us to take a harder look at 'strategic communication.' Frankly, I don't care for the term. It is now sadly something of a cottage industry.

In a world with so many problems, far too many words are wasted discussing an inside-the-beltway-cottage-industry subject, that, at most, is secondary *.

Let's by all means talk about America's role in the world -- a key question of our new century -- but do we really need one more committee-produced report about ideologically massaging (barbecuing may be a less polite but more accurate way to put it) foreign brains and hearts for the ultimate American "Victory"?

Essentially, we Americans, as we are seen by others other than ourselves -- are what we do and how we -- including American diplomats and military personnel overseas -- behave and listen & speak with others, not necessarily what staffers at the Pentagon (or the State Department) "strategically" plan in order to obtain Congressional funding for their organization.

DoD SC and psy-ops experts should revisit Socrates' wisdom in Plato's dialogues. Then maybe their reports would be more widely read (well, maybe it's just as well they're not).

Incidentally, Richard Crossman, recognized as a master of psychological warfare against the Nazis during World War II, was the author of Plato Today (1937).

*One notable exception to this jaw-breaking verbiage is "Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication" (2004), which was actually written, for the most part, in complete sentences and comprehensible English.

P.S. Exchange with a valued friend, a scholar of the classics: "I've read only two of the dialogues all the way through in Greek - the Apologia and Gorgias. There are still plenty of them that I have
never looked at in any language. Plato didn't like democracy. After all, it was a democracy that
condemned and executed Socrates. I guess that doesn't necessarily make him a fascist, does it?"

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Yale Richmond on the Cold War

E-mail message from Yale Richmond:

"Patricia Kushlis of Whirled View says she has not seen any evidence that foreign radios caused the downfall of the Soviet Union. She will also not see any evidence that the Soviet downfall was caused by U.S.-Soviet scholarly and scientific exchanges, U.S exhibitions, American jazz bands, Hollywood movies, the Amerika magazines read by Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders, or even rock’n roll. Yet, when you add up all those exchanges with the Soviet Union over the years following the death of Stalin, plus similar exchanges conducted by the West Europeans, it can be argued that cultural exchanges were one of several factors that, taken all together, led to Soviet reforms that eventually brought about the downfall of the entire communist system. For more on this read my keynote address, “Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: How the West Won,” delivered October 30 at a conference in Helsinki held by the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki."

Thursday, April 1, 2010

New Pubic Diplomacy Institute Wants to Cooperate with State Dept. Public Diplomacy Office

New Pubic Diplomacy Institute Founded – Las Vegas Sun: "K. Sehguh, a Panama-born Texas entrepreneur, has just opened a Public Diplomacy Institute, funded by city businesses, near the campus of University of Nevada. ... 'We plan to cooperate closely with the Public Diplomacy office at the State Department,' Sehguh said. 'We share its interest in international outreach, as foreign tourism is becoming increasingly important to our city.'

Several Pubic Diplomacy staff members have worked at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch, which with the Department has cooperated." See also; image from

April's fool! as if you didn't know :)