(Roughly) Daily

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”*…

 

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For the powerful, the repetition of stock phrases can be a valuable tactic. These phrases serve to fortify rhetorical armour, deflecting all attack. The armour often brings clichés and abstract words together in a metallic professional embrace. Consider this, from an article on the website of the British government: “The Prime Minister emphasised her desire to listen to the views of businesses, to channel their experience and to share with them the government’s vision for a successful Brexit and a country in which growth and opportunity is shared by everyone across the whole of the UK.” Or this, from a speech by the ceo of Exxon Mobil: “Our job is to compete and succeed in any market, regardless of conditions or price. To do this, we must produce and deliver the highest-value products at the lowest possible cost through the most attractive channels in all operating environments.”

To quote neither the Bible nor William Shakespeare: yada yada yada… Listeners can be lulled into smiling submission.

Or they can be roused to a condition of prefabricated outrage…

How prefabricated language helps everybody from politicians to CEOs disguise what they really want to say: “Clichés As a Political Tool.”

* “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.  When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns…to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”

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As we search for meaning, we might recall that today is the anniversary of the day, in 1241, that “most changed history” (per Yale’s Timothy Snyder):

The Mongol warrior Batu Khan [grandson of Genghis Khan] was poised to take Vienna and destroy the Holy Roman Empire. No European force could have kept his armies from reaching the Atlantic. But the death of Ögedei Khan, the second Great Khan of the Mongol empire, forced Batu Khan to return to Mongolia to discuss the succession. Had Ögedei Khan died a few years later, European history as we know it would not have happened…

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Batu Khan on the throne of the Golden Horde  (source)

Written by LW

December 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Fortune sides with him who dares”*…

 

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… or not:

Does hot weather actually make us hot-headed? Does a warming planet induce us to take more risks? According to new research, there is indeed a correlation: When it comes to rational decision-making, changes in climate shape how individuals think about loss and risk—even if it takes centuries for that evolution to occur…

New research finds that people living in climatically turbulent regions tend to make riskier decisions than those in relatively more stable environments.  The full story at “How volatile climate shapes the way people think.”

* Virgil

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As we feel the heat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that Volume 1, Number 1 of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was published.  Concerned with scientific and global security issues resulting from accelerating technological advances that might have negative consequences for humanity, the group created “The Doomsday Clock” which has featured on its cover since its introduction in 1947, reflecting “basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age.”

The current “setting” is 2 minutes to midnight, reflecting the failure of world leaders to deal with looming threats of nuclear war and climate change. This is the clock’s closest approach to midnight, matching that of 1953,

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The cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has featured the famous Doomsday Clock since it debuted in 1947, when it was set at seven minutes to midnight.

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Happy Birthday, Ada Lovelace!

 

“Too often the concept of nature has been used to explain social inequalities or exploitative relations as inborn, and hence, beyond the scope of social change”*…

 

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Martha Brookes Hutcheson (center) and colleagues at Merchiston Farm, c. 1917

The landscape architect and theorist Martha Brookes Hutcheson (née Brown, 1871–1959) lived in an age when most American women were actively discouraged from entering a profession. Women might consider landscape gardening as a “novel occupation … a congenial, soothing, out-of-doors pursuit to which a woman of taste, who loves flowers, cannot do better than turn her hand.” But any who seriously considered becoming landscape architects were informed that women were too “impatient” to learn the necessary drawing and surveying, the horticultural and business skills, and that the resulting “physical fatigue” would lead to breakdowns. Male colleagues and clients, they were warned, doubted “whether they conceive largely enough to undertake public works like the laying out of great parks or the plotting of plans for new cities.” Female landscape architects were limited to “the ample field of designing beautiful settings for beautiful homes.”

Martha Hutcheson, however, loved the great gardens of Europe and the farm in Vermont where she had summered as a girl, and she saw the potential for landscape design to serve a social agenda in the Progressive Era — to improve lives and conserve natural resources. One of the first women trained at university level in the emerging profession of landscape architecture, she was a founding member of the Woman’s Land Army during World War I, and her experience with a group of WLA “farmerettes” at her home, Merchiston Farm, in Gladstone, New Jersey, convinced her of the impact landscape architects could have by increasing agricultural productivity, improving soils and plant communities, and fostering women’s practical skills and economic autonomy. In her evolving designs for Merchiston Farm, and in her public lectures, writings, and advocacy through the Garden Club of America, Hutcheson argued for the contributions of landscape architects to national education, and explored tensions internal to the design theory of the age — including those between her own progressive agenda and the strictures of her elite social class. In the realm of landscape architecture, she became a leader in “a gallant little group of women who have forged for themselves National reputations.”

Hutcheson’s early writings and garden commissions considered good design as a matter of organization, massing, and proportion, while her later work stressed contextualism within natural systems. In this later and more daring work, she prioritized the use of native plants as a means to support healthy habitats, shift aesthetic preferences, and minimize costs; her practice hybridized sustainable water management and soil science with the normative, Europeanizing geometries of the “country place” garden, and implemented the emerging discipline of ecology on a practical level. Merchiston Farm, Hutcheson’s home for nearly 50 years, served as a workshop for these endeavors. She continually made and remade her property, using the woods, fields, pastures, and gardens to build theory through action.

Reading the evolving design of Merchiston Farm thus allows us to understand Hutcheson’s work as an extended social, political, and ecological project…

For nearly half a century, the pioneering landscape architect Martha Brookes Hutcheson used her own farm to empower women and to build an ecological design theory through action: “Dreaming True.”

Maria Mies, who also observed: “In a contradictory and exploitative relationship, the privileges of the exploiters can never become the privileges of all. If the wealth of the metropoles is based on the exploitation of colonies, then the colonies cannot achieve wealth unless they also have colonies. If the emancipation of men is based on the subordination of women, then women cannot achieve ‘equal rights’ with men, which would necessarily include the right to exploit others. Hence, a feminist strategy for liberation cannot but aim at the total abolition of all these relationships of retrogressive progress. This mean it must aim at an end of all exploitation of women by men, of nature by man, of colonies by colonizers, of one class by another. As long as exploitation of one of these remains the precondition for the advance (development, evolution, progress, humanization, etc.) of one section of people, feminists cannot speak of liberation…”

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As we look to the land, we might recall that it was on this date in 1897 that the first issue of La Fronde (The Sling) was published in Paris.  A pioneering feminist newspaper, it was founded by Marguerite Durand, a well known actress and journalist (for La Presse and Le Figaro, e.g.), who used her high-profile to attract many notable Parisian women to contribute articles to her daily, the first of its kind in France to be run and written entirely by women.

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Marguerite Durand, by Jules Cayron

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“There’s no such thing as an original sin”*…

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Paradise, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Still…

… The philosophical ideas behind the concept of Original Sin were explored in detail by St Augustine, developing the seminal thinking of St Paul, who saw Original Sin as a concept of radical equality; that no one speaks from a position of strength. All are flawed and when mankind seeks perfection, it is setting itself up, literally, for a fall.

Though fundamental to Christianity, the concept survived the Enlightenment, despite Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s argument that man was born innocent. The rationalist philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, wrote of the ‘crooked timber of humanity’. Two centuries later, Sigmund Freud offered a secular version of Original Sin, tracing the  dark forces that lurk within the subconscious. Original Sin is a tenacious idea…

The fall of humankind and the concept of Original Sin: “Adam and Eve.”

Original thought is like original sin: both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met  – Fran Lebowitz

* Elvis Costello, “I’m Not Angry”

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As we sort out sin, we might recall that today is The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a solemn celebration in some form in most Christian faiths, of belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

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Mary’s holy and immaculate conception, by Francisco Rizi

 

Written by LW

December 8, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life”*…

 

inequality Scales

… It might be that people have been studying inequality in all the wrong places. A few years ago, two scholars of comparative politics, Alfred Stepan, at Columbia, and the late Juan J. Linz—numbers men—tried to figure out why the United States has for so long had much greater income inequality than any other developed democracy. Because this disparity has been more or less constant, the question doesn’t lend itself very well to historical analysis. Nor is it easily subject to the distortions of nostalgia. But it does lend itself very well to comparative analysis.

Stepan and Linz identified twenty-three long-standing democracies with advanced economies. Then they counted the number of veto players in each of those twenty-three governments. (A veto player is a person or body that can block a policy decision. Stepan and Linz explain, “For example, in the United States, the Senate and the House of Representatives are veto players because without their consent, no bill can become a law.”) More than half of the twenty-three countries Stepan and Linz studied have only one veto player; most of these countries have unicameral parliaments. A few countries have two veto players; Switzerland and Australia have three. Only the United States has four. Then they made a chart, comparing Gini indices with veto-player numbers: the more veto players in a government, the greater the nation’s economic inequality. This is only a correlation, of course, and cross-country economic comparisons are fraught, but it’s interesting.

Then they observed something more. Their twenty-three democracies included eight federal governments with both upper and lower legislative bodies. Using the number of seats and the size of the population to calculate malapportionment, they assigned a “Gini Index of Inequality of Representation” to those eight upper houses, and found that the United States had the highest score: it has the most malapportioned and the least representative upper house. These scores, too, correlated with the countries’ Gini scores for income inequality: the less representative the upper body of a national legislature, the greater the gap between the rich and the poor.

The growth of inequality isn’t inevitable. But, insofar as Americans have been unable to adopt measures to reduce it, the numbers might seem to suggest that the problem doesn’t lie with how Americans treat one another’s kids, as lousy as that is. It lies with Congress…

The estimable Jill Lepore on accounting for inequality: “Richer and Poorer.

[image above: source]

* Jane Addams

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As we search for the balance, we might recall that it was on this date in 1931 that the National Hunger March gathered in Washington DC to demand jobs and relief.  Massing in front of Congress, the 1,670 marchers were met by an estimated 1500 police, and 1000 Marines, all armed.  They left without a hearing from President Hoover or any other official, but did have an impact: they set the stage for the 1932 march of the Bonus Army where 43,000 marchers – many veterans – descended on Washington DC to demand payment for the “service certificates” which had given to them in 1924 in lieu of cash.

hunger-march-in-pictures source

 

Written by LW

December 7, 2018 at 1:01 am

“No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted”*…

 

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“Joesph’s Tunic” by Velasquez (in which Joseph’s sons lie to him…)

On the sad occasion of the passing of scholar, showman, and sleight-of-hand expert nonpareil Ricky Jay, your correspondent revisited this 2009 interview, conducted by another remarkable, filmmaker Errol Morris in the late, lamented New York Times‘ Opinionator blog….

We think we know what a lie is, but the moment we try to define it, we run into trouble. Take the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary. (A dictionary definition in an essay should be seen as a red flag, or at the very least, an amber cautionary light, but please bear with me.) According to the O.E.D., a lie is “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” The O.E.D. complicates matters by telling us that to deceive is “to cause to believe what is false, to mislead as to a matter of fact, to lead into error” [emphasis mine] [6]. It also tells us that “in modern use, the word [“lie”] is normally a violent expression of moral reprobation, which in polite conversation tends to be avoided, the synonyms falsehood and untruth being often substituted as relatively euphemistic.” This is where the trouble begins. Are “falsehood” and “untruth” really synonyms for a “lie?” Is lying an attempt merely to mislead or an attempt to get someone to believe that which is false? Or is lying used in two different ways? Here, I believe the O.E.D. is merely reinforcing a standard confusion. I would argue that all that is needed for lying are beliefs about what is true or false — not knowledge of what is true or false.

The fact that there are these two senses of lying gets us into trouble. When we focus on intent, the goal of lying seems utterly clear. When we focus on truth and falsity, we are often led into error…

Read it and reap: “Seven Lies About Lying, Part One and Part Two.”

* Mark Twain, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”

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As we think about trickery, we might send mannerly birthday greetings to a master of the sly deception and the flattering white lie, Baldassare Castiglione; he was born on this date in 1478.  A Renaissance soldier, diplomat, and author, he is most famous for The Book of the Courtier.– a prime example of the courtesy book, offering advice on and dealing with questions of the etiquette and morality of the courtier– which was enormously influential in 16th century European court circles.

Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione

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Written by LW

December 6, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The one who believes he can control violence by setting up defenses is in fact controlled by violence”*…

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Pieter Beugel, “Envy” (source)

René Girard (1923–2015) was one of the last of that race of Titans who dominated the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their grand, synthetic theories about history, society, psychology, and aesthetics. That race has since given way to a more cautious breed of “researchers” who prefer to look at things up close, to see their fine grain rather than their larger patterns. Yet the times certainly seem to attest to the enduring relevance of Girard’s thought to our social and political realities. Not only are his ideas about mimetic desire and human violence as far-reaching as Marx’s theories of political economy or Freud’s claims about the Oedipus complex, but the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably “Girardian” in its behavior…

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison on Girard’s life, work… and its cautionary relevance to our time: “The Prophet of Envy.”

* René Girard

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As we deconstruct desire, we might recall that it was on this date in 63 BCE that famed Roman orator (and Consul) Cicero gave the fourth and final Catiline Oration, an accusation that Senator Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline) had led a plot to overthrow the Roman government.  At Cicero’s urging (and over the the more moderate wishes of some other senators), Catiline was convicted and sentenced to death.

Some modern historians, and ancient sources like Sallust, suggest that Catiline was a more complex and sympathetic character than Cicero’s argument declares, and that Cicero, a career politician, was driven by a desire to establish decisively a lasting reputation as a great Roman patriot and statesman.

In any case, most accounts of the events come from Cicero himself.  And as he was an accomplished self-promoter, this is one of the best, if not the very best, documented events surviving from the ancient world– one that presaged the series of political struggles throughout history that pit state security against civil liberties.

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A fresco by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919 CE) depicting Cicero denouncing Catiline in the Roman senate.

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Written by LW

December 5, 2018 at 7:50 am

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