Paul Simon, The Voice of American Wandering, In Concert

Paul Simon played at Merriweather Post Pavilion last Friday with a full band, and I had the pleasure of seeing him and his opener Sarah MacLachlan, a singer I’ve seen twice, with my sister. Simon is a master and his presence fills the stage.

In his 70s, that legend of the 60s was swaying on stage, nodding and stretching out his arms, bobbing his wrist to simultaneously conduct the band. He led with his fingers and his chest like a much younger man.

The instruments: Mandolins, accordions, xylophones, trumpets and the staples: drums, a piano, and guitars. Some sea shells added sound too and a chime that looked like it was made out of spoons, although it surely wasn’t.

The crowd was mostly white, old and young. We sat and stood, bounced and bobbed, cheered and called.

He played my favorites: America, The Boxer, Graceland, Homeward Bound, Call me Al, many I did’t know and finally, alone on stage, The Sound of Silence–the classic that drew me into Simon and Garfunkle in my freshmen year of college.

There is no word for Paul Simon but master: he moves and commands attention with that easy grace of someone fully self-possessed, with the comfort that lacks self-consciousness and hesitance. His twirling wrist signaled the band and his hips moved with his guitar, whether it was acoustic or electric.

He carries that hard-won air of someone who has passed through the stages of craft and relationship:  1) being enamored with music, sound and fame–then 2) the ever-looming disillusionment at the pitfalls of an industry, fickle audiences and imperfect others, and then finally 3) to fully embrace the American musical scene as an institution and his role within it. To be a master, he didn’t abandon music or the audience, but took up his instruments and his listeners–the imperfections and all, and loved American folk music and its people, thereby lifting it–and us–to a higher level.

That’s what a true master does–he doesn’t abandon the imperfect world to seek a purified craft, but embraces the whole endeavor and so raises the water-level of the culture.

Paul Simon’s America

Simon’s music has wandered decades; he’s been and is the voice, the poet of America. His chords are the anthems of American folk music and the playlist of my dishwashing. The lyrics frequently touch on the peculiarities of the life of the poor. The Boxer for instance, tells the story of a young man gone out to seek his fortune;

“Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places only they would know.”

Simon’s heritage, the New York Jew, the Yankees fan, the hippie all bring together strains of America that unite our disparate factions and allow us to remember and cherish the collective past, something our nation often seems to struggle with.

Somehow, we believe that we are a class-free society, that one person can strive and rise, bootstrap-style to upper echelons. We are cantankerous; hard work is its own reward; we welcome the stranger, but aren’t afraid to put up our fists when we have to.

Wandering

Yet we are also highly individualistic and have a sub-culture of roaming–whether for itself or transplanting for work. There is a roaming spirit in Simon’s music that I think speaks for America, for that impulse to strike out alone, to wander, to be pilgrims, in a way, never quite at home.

The wandering spirit pops up in other areas of culture; I think of Jack Kerouac, On the Road and The Dharma Bums. More recently, writer Mary Karr surfed as an idealistic young woman before heading to college after a terrifying encounter hitchhiking. The drive to get up and go, to seek, seems part of our cultural ethos, or maybe it’s just a strain that interests me.

There is nevertheless always a tension or a balance between wandering and stability. The ability to tramp around depends on the stability of most of society–otherwise whose trains would they jump onto? Whose fields would feed them? But the wandering impulse is also a check to a way of a life which has forgotten to wonder.

When I think of the wandering pilgrimage type of life I course cannot help but think of St. Francis and the medieval European pilgrims trailing about from place to place, Canterbury or St. Juan Compostela. We are pre-programmed to search, and that makes sense to  me. Though I live in my home-metropolis, I still search.

But back to Paul Simon: what he captures to me is that wandering spirit, of seeking, of longing, and in the American voice, the poor pilgrim always searching out home. To see him was an honor, a legend who set the water-mark.

Questions: Do I have it right? What do you think of Paul Simon? Is there someone else who also or instead epitomizes American music? Who is your favorite music artist? what does that person’s work mean to you?

Graduation Matters

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Image Credit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-gail-gross/10-inspirational-quotes-for-graduates_b_7508152.html

[Note: I like to post heavily researched articles with long quotations. But this year, my mental energy is spent more on tutoring and a other writing projects, so there are fewer articles, which is fine.

I thought it might still be fun to post shorter, more casual opinions on other topics. The best we can possibly do is to help others through the places that we have been–so I will try to post things that I know about….which is precious little.]

Here’s one: Graduation matters

I didn’t attend my undergraduate graduation exercises, and I regret it. I’ve heard other new graduates express that graduating wasn’t really an accomplishment–getting in was the hard part, and the rest was expected. I said something similar at my own high school graduation–that it didn’t matter because Virginia law required us to graduate. I crankily added that the ceremony was meaningless.

Well–those are wrong. Graduating does matter, and it’s not guaranteed. Yes, getting into college is hard. Yes, graduating high school is required. But it still takes work to get there–real work.

That diploma wasn’t guaranteed in the admissions letter; the law didn’t bestow a sealed diploma upon you because you turned 18. A lot of people drop out–of high school and college. Sticking with it requires discipline, effort, and showing up.

Showing up is highly underrated. Show up enough, and you get places and meet people. Stay home too much and you don’t. Often, it’s that simple.

It’s true that graduating isn’t the end of the road. There is no end. But even if it’s not an end, it’s a still a landmark worth slowing down and savoring. Seriously, if life is road trip, the destination is death–so enjoy the rest stops. Don’t say they don’t matter because they aren’t the end.

Further, by enjoy–I don’t mean total hedonism. I mean, look with gratitude at what you’ve done; what God has accomplished and ponder where he may be calling you next.

Enjoyment is where the ceremony comes in. It’s a ritual. Rituals are not empty, cult events. They are markers of culture and what a culture venerates as meaningful and worth remembering. How do we remember things as a group? Ritual. (That’s what the Catholic Mass is: a ritual that also, miraculously, serves to make present the reality we are remembering).

Rituals are not empty; they are us participating in a long line of tradition and culturally handed down values. No man is an island. Our culture and communities matter; they are not merely external to individuals, but an important component of who we are. The Aristotelian philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote about our interdependence in communities in his book “Dependent Rational Animals,” where he argued that human dependence on each other is an integral but often overlooked (in the Western tradition) aspect of the moral life, or what it means to live well.

The take-away: enjoy graduation. Savor the accomplishment–even while reflecting with gratitude on all the people and circumstances that helped you get there. While no one accomplishes much all on their own, each person’s unique contribution is an integral thread of the tapestry whose current pattern is an accomplishment.

Did you ever skip a graduation ceremony? Why or why not? Are you glad you went or didn’t go? Are rituals really empty?

W.B. Yeats: Are fairies real? Myths and The Myth

What are fairies? Are they real?

I’m skimming Yeat’s anthology, “Fairy & Folk Tales of Ireland,” and one for thing, the “wee folk,” “the good people,” or the fairies are actually rather menacing. They are not the beautiful, delicate women with large butterfly wings who sit cross-legged on flower petals. The Irish fairies belong to a different world; Yeats quotes the “peasantry.” They are “fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved, nor bad enough to be lost.”

Fairies leave odd signs like mushroom rings and those careless or luckless enough to wander into their territory are often stolen away for years or sometimes never returned. The fairies must be appeased or they turn children into changelings or drive people mad. But in other stories, they punish wrong-doers and teach lessons to the vain.

What I find particularly interesting is in Yeat’s introduction. Yeats does not directly treat the question of the veracity of these stories.

Instead, he explains that he punts on the question: “The reader will perhaps wonder that in all my notes I have not rationalised a singled hobgoblin. I seek for shelter in the words of Socrates.” [from the Phaedrus, which he quotes at length]

The question is the exact site of an mythical occurrence of Artemis, Socrates:

“The wise are doubtful, and I should not be singular if, like them, I also doubted. I might have a rational explanation that Orithyia was playing with Pharmacia, when a northern gust carried her over the neighboring rocks; and this being the manner of her death, she was said to have been carried away from Boreas….And if he is skeptical about them, and would fain reduce them one after another to the rules of probability, this sort of crude philosophy will take up all his time. Now I have certainly not the time for such inquiries. Shall I tell you why? I must first know about myself…to be curious about that which is not my business, while I am still in ignorance about my own self, would be ridiculous….Therefore, I say farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me. For as I was saying, I want to know not about this, but about myself.”

And Yeats says no more on the matter. Which to me is a version of the perspective that true or not, these are myths or stories meant to tell a lesson, meant to show us part of ourselves, part of truth.

Yeats is so willing to learn, tell and enjoy the tales of Irish countryside without much concern for specific verification–a perspective that I honestly find refreshing. As Socrates points out, that’s not what it’s about.

Myths are cultural stories that give shape to how we understand ourselves and our history; they are the geography of the cultural landscape–imparting values, presenting warnings and outlining a structure of what to expect from life and from other people. As Socrates said, he is interested in discovering the truth about himself and the myths help him do that.

 

Two prominent Christian writers in the twentieth century thought very highly of the importance of myth:  J.R.R. Tolkien said to C.S. Lewis, Christianity is not a myth, but “the” myth. He said the Christian faith is an enunciation of the highest truth from which all stories derive their of insight. I think Lewis and Tolkien would agree that the faith is a way of life with meaning.

While materialists may balk at any/every myth, I find this misguided. There needn’t be a massive conflict between acknowledging the atoms and rocks of the world and the meanings for us infused in them.

Returning to fairies, I agree with Yeats and Socrates that is more helpful to leave the status of the myth’s veracity open, at least for the fairies, because true or untrue, they yield insight into human life and nature. And to understand our own little place in the world and our role within it is both demanding and necessary in order to see how to live our own lives well, how best to direct our choices. To use Aristotle’s terms, myths are necessary for our flourishing, to help direct us towards our end-goal or telos.

What are your favorites myths or stories? Which did you grow up with? What values did they emphasize? Did stories affect your development?

 

Freelance: 6 Pro-Life Priorities for Healthcare Reform

One of the fruits of my readings on health insurance.

http://truthandcharityforum.org/top-6-pro-life-aims-for-health-care-reform/

“The practice of medicine involves the whole human body, so policies about it inevitably express a specific anthropology or philosophical understanding of the human person. National legislation that includes every citizen will have the consequence of enacting one anthropology as opposed to others. Accordingly, health care law has become a test of America’s ability to balance an authentic pluralism, one that is capable of respecting both individual freedom and the moral commitments of other individuals who become funders of it.”

  1. A clear distinction between insurance and medical care – A glaring, but oft-unacknowledged error of the Affordable Care Act is the difference between having health insurance and receiving needed medical care. The former is no guarantee of the latter. The working poor with incomes that set them above the Medicaid threshold have been saddled with low-premium plans that have exorbitant deductibles of up to $13,000, that leave them de facto uninsured and priced-out of healthcare. This problem reveals a gap in concern for certain social groups; it’s part of an anthropology that gives lip service to covering all people, but actually disregards some. Pro-life means pro-life for everyone, so a pro-life policy should seek to increase access for all.
  2. Adequate funding for the severely ill and dying – Euthanasia is a development that pro-life people need to fight. As physician-assisted suicide gains legal traction, insurance companies have incentives to deny expensive care for cancer patients, such as Stephanie Packer, a mother of four diagnosed with late stage cancer.Legalized suicide inverts the practice of medicine, turning patients into dollar amounts instead of lives worth saving, regardless of long is left. The cultural message about the value and purposes of life that is sent by legal suicide is tragic and irreversible. If lives are only valuable when they are pain-free and productive, most of us will soon be in the crosshairs. As the government sets policy, we must demand that it take care of its citizens rather than killing them, and that it tells Americans that life is worth living. This should be an anthropological no-brainer.
  3. A continuation of Hyde restriction on abortion – Presently, the Hyde Amendment, a rider attached annually to the Congressional budget, prohibits federal funding for abortion. It affects Medicaid primarily, but is also present in the ACA. Insurers are not required to cover abortions. States, by contrast, may add abortion coverage or limit it.The principles of the Hyde Amendment permit a level of personal removal for taxpayers who would be funding the procedure that, for many, amounts to murder. Hyde is one of the key compromises that followed the 1973 legalization of abortion. However, it came under fire this campaign season from the Democratic party platform and nominee, Hillary Clinton. In the first week of his presidency, Mr. Trump passed the Hyde rider into a permanent law. For valuing life, it’s a small but important victory. Abortion is a clear-cut case of difference on what it means to be human and who counts as one. Hyde represents one stab at pluralism, a starting point. A committed pro-life healthcare policy will further demonstrate support for women, babies and families through—
  4. Support for prenatal and neonatal care – Pro-life groups are often criticized for caring more about the baby than the mother. If conservatives have a chance to help shape public health policy, we need to make abortion obsolete. Support for pregnant mothers, new moms, and infants, as well as adoption placement need to be readily available so that women in difficult situations aren’t left alone and without options. Raising a child is difficult and demanding work. If we claim to welcome unplanned children, we need to welcome unplanned children, viewing them and their mothers as essential to the social fabric of our country. That’s an anthropology of life that values people and responsibility rather than seeking to abolish the natural consequences of behavior.

Full article  (and the other 2 ideas here): http://truthandcharityforum.org/top-6-pro-life-aims-for-health-care-reform/

Question: Why do you think healthcare exploded onto the political scene during Obama’s presidency? What is at stake in the debate?

When Truth is Disturbing: Another Look at Wuthering Heights and the Purpose of Literature

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Flannery O’Connor

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, drew me in immediately, pulling me through every lurid page. Yet I felt oddly uncomfortable about how much I liked it as it is populated by selfish, angry, dysfunctional characters, only one of whom possesses much of a moral compass.

Like a good Catholic (I say that sarcastically), I tend to want to spend to time reading things that will edify or offer some great insight or meaningful lesson to take away, which I usually look for in Christian themes or uplifting messages. But this is exactly the attitude that Flannery O’Connor excoriated in her 1965 essay, “The Catholic Reader and the Catholic Novel,” in which she skewered the legions of “pious trash” that Catholics have written and that Catholics read. O’Connor argued that good art or literature has to be good in and of itself–that is, it must also be true. Something that disregards basic truths or doesn’t testify to them fully will inevitably be bad–no matter how pious.

She says, quoting Aquinas, “a work of art is good in itself…this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten.” When she cites him, she (and he) mean “good” in the metaphysical sense–that is the worth of the art comes from itself, not just from its relation to ideas we approve of. Goodness is one of the transcendentals; the others are truth, unity and beauty. Goodness, in this sense, is its desirability in so far as it exists, its ability to attract and move the will. It is a property co-existent with being, one that is not dependent on our feelings about it. To my judgement, “goodness” in a work of art will correlate with one or both of two things: its beauty and its truth.

In written work, with the exceptions of certain poetry, the value defaults to coming from truth. Then the value of being a Catholic writer or a Catholic work doesn’t come from having “uplifting” themes, but from being true, of offering real insight into reality and human understanding. Many secular works succeed at this; many Christian ones fail.

But, Catholic belief should be an effective instrument that contributes to a work’s goodness. Far from a shackle, O’Connor says, “dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.” She further explains: “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.” Thus the Church’s understanding of the span of natural and supernatural realities is a magnificent insight that aids the artist or viewer in seeing and composing a true picture of the world.

Nevertheless, she says, the artist must still use her own eyes. The Church offers an extension of sight, not a replacement. O’Connor cautions that “When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.” Just like grace does not exclude free will, the Catholic vision still demands the vision of the writer him or herself. Her insight is that Catholic literature is really anything that is true, but that something that pursues the whole scope of reality will inevitably be better. I think here of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Having established that good art is true. That leads me back to Wuthering Heights. Someone as wretched as the abusive Mr. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights still offers us a great catholic value; Healthcliff shows us a dark side of humanity, an anti-hero whose love, while real, is distorted and disordered and plays out to the harm of the generations, the cast of characters whom he taints.

Continue reading

Might TV Contribute to Millennials’ Emotional Fragility?

Image resultDavid Brooks has noted that Millennials, while more accomplished, are more “emotionally fragile” than previous generations. He is backed up by this article which includes reports from Psychology Today, that “the average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”

This fits with my experience. People my age have battled spiraling depression and anxiety since early adolescence or before. I do agree with Brooks that it’s in large part because many of us lack deep convictions and a narrative about what is really meaningful.

In his book, “The Road to Character,” he identifies inside everyone an “Adam I” and an “Adam II.” Adam I is the external person, the face we show to the world, the bearer of “resume virtues,” as he puts it. Adam II is the internal person, the inner compass of wisdom, maturity and kindness or of fragility, shallowness and self-righteousness. Adam II is bearer of the “eulogy virtues.” Brooks says and I agree that the great struggle of being a good person is to bring these two aspects of ourselves together.

I would like to introduce a contributing factor that Brooks does not explore: the saturation of TV, movies and visual media in our lives. In my (limited) experience, development of the Adam II, the inner person, relies on refining our emotional processing of external realities. Yet, in our culture, we almost lack entirely a vocabulary to express this inner thought process and dialogue. Our language is much better suited to the roles of Adam I – naming nouns, like rocks and buildings, and discussing clear, observable markers of achievement such as job titles and salaries. If our words have trouble explaining Adam II, our visual mediums struggle even more and this contributes to the difficulty we have in developing Adam II.

In mediums such as TV shows and films where characters hash out their differences or conquer adventures in visual theatrics, there is almost no method for depicting the inner-transformations that go on in order to develop that wisdom and maturity that characterizes Adam II. Even writers, artists of the silent medium, today criticize older models of novel-writing that spent paragraphs and paragraphs detailing a character’s motivation. In today’s sitcoms or romantic comedies, a character experiencing emotional distress almost always runs away and pouts–be it a child nervous before a performance or a woman scorned. Then, the father, teacher or boyfriend character seeks out the distressed child or girlfriend, listens patiently, gets passed the walls and offers reassurance. This is the model of any TeenDisney or Jude Apatow movie.

From an artistic standpoint, it makes sense. When two characters interact, there is something to display on the screen. When they speak to one another, their thoughts and emotions can be revealed. Dialogue is the Holy Grail of good story-telling.

But when this example permeates our lives, we encounter a problem: it is not realistic. These portrayals set-up the expectation that there will always be a kind mentor to rescue us from our emotional distress or at least help us to process it. But in real life, the mature person must often process her own emotions rather than expect others to do it for her. (It’s not that we can never ask for help, but that sometimes we can do it ourselves and we grow when we try).

When our real-life father, teacher and boyfriend (or opposite sex) figures do not always deliver the expected emotional rescue, we are often left distraught, without options–hence the spiral of depression and anxiety. The Washington Post describes the story of Amy, a 30-year-old in therapy who suffered break-downs in college “unable to do laundry and often stayed up until 2 a.m. trying to complete homework because she didn’t know how to manage her time without her parents’ keeping track of her schedule.” We have few models for healthy self-reliance and care in our cultural models of TV and film.  It’s not as simple as pointing the finger at mom and dad, though. The issue is more pervasive. If TV and movies are our cultural models, and I think they are, there are no cultural models even to guide parents for effective development of Adam II, of healthy maturation or emotional processing.  Continue reading

Why Old Magic was Innocent, According to C.S. Lewis

As I’ve mentioned, That Hideous Strength dealt with a number of things, and there is one of them I’d like to explore more in depth, as it is a topic that interests me a lot and is relevant to the general enjoyment of literature and other of my favorite works such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Arthurian tales such as The Once and Future King by T.H. White and the more recent Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which I hope to begin soon.

Through the character of Arthur Dimble, a professor of ancient languages and mythology, C.S. Lewis speculates on the role and place of magic in ancient times as contrasted with its place today. Here is an abbreviated version of the discussion on the subject between Dimble and his wife:

“Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time….[For a man like Merlin] there were still possibilities for a man of that age which there aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were much more like physical actions. And there were–well, Neutrals [spirits] knocking about…A conscious being is either obeying God or disobeying Him. But there might be things neutral in relation us [humans]….There used to be things on this Earth pursuing their own business, so to speak.”

“I think there was room for them then, but the universe has come more to a point.”

“In Merlin’s time…though you could still use that sort of life in the universe innocently, you couldn’t do it safely. The things weren’t bad in themselves, but they were already bad for us….Like polygamy. It wasn’t wrong for Abraham, but one can’t help feeling that even he lost something by it.”

“Merlin…is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead–a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases.”

(from That Hideous Strength, p. 284-285)

Lewis, who like Dimble, was an expert in languages and in English literature especially would have encountered this issue theologically and in explaining the value of the myths from various cultures that engrossed him so much.

His answer regarding the status of pre-Christian or early post-Christian magic is that the world was a bit different back then, when distinctions about power and agency were perhaps less clear. It was a time, he says, when angels or other spirits may not have had a position towards humans and when the spiritual, even animal, realities of nature could be tapped into innocently, though he adds not safely. Continue reading

Article Round Up I

Well, Happy Thanksgiving! And welcome to a round of articles that I have found thoughtful and worthwhile over the past few months. It’s really things that I want to save for potential future use or citation.  (Note–unlike re-posts of my freelance work, these are not by me).

On Voting’s Significance (I know the time frame is sort of done on this one)

“I don’t plan to tell you how to vote, but I do want to establish a few basic principles:

  1. No well-formed Catholic should feel comfortable with Trump or Clinton;
  2. Thus, voters face a difficult decision this fall;
  3. The Church gives some guidance on this, but this guidance is limited;
  4. You, as a potential voter, have the final decision to make as to who to vote and who to support;  and
  5. Your salvation could well hang in the balance.”

http://shamelesspopery.com/worth-more-than-your-vote/

Why We Can’t Just Get Along— a disagreement, often unseen, on first principles, renders modern/faithful disagreement unsolvable

In Paradise Lost,

“Satan and Adam begin alike from a point of ignorance—they know nothing prior to (the precise word is “before”) the perspective they currently occupy; and the direction each then takes from this acknowledged limitation follows with equal logic or illogic. Adam reasons, since I don’t remember how I got here, I must have been made by someone. Satan reasons, since I don’t know how I got here, I must have made myself, or as we might say today, I must have just emerged from the primeval slime.

In neither case does the conclusion follow necessarily from the observed fact of imperfect knowledge. In both cases something is missing, a first premise, and in both cases reasoning can’t get started until a first premise is put in place. What’s more, since the first premise is what is missing, it cannot be derived from anything in the visible scene; it is what must be imported—on no evidentiary basis whatsoever—so that the visible scene, the things of this world, can acquire the meaning and significance they will now have. There is no opposition here between knowledge by reason and knowledge by faith because Satan and Adam are committed to both simultaneously. Each performs an act of faith—the one in God and the other in materialism—and then each begins to reason in ways dictated by the content of his faith.”

https://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/02/001-why-we-cant-all-just-get-along?utm_source=First+Things+Subscribers&utm_campaign=639cc6d14a-Sunday_Spotlight_Two_Essays_on_Gifts&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28bf775c26-639cc6d14a-180480817

David Brooks on Modern Toughness

“In short, emotional fragility is not only caused by overprotective parenting. It’s also caused by anything that makes it harder for people to find their telos.” (a Greek word meaning “end ” or  “purpose” in moral philosophy).

 

The End of Identity Liberalism

A good diagnosis I think of what went wrong for progressives in the election:

“In recent years, American liberalism has slipped into a type of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

So, that’s it, readers. Enjoy and as always, feel free to send any thoughts!

 

Mr. Trump’s Language Problem, and Mrs. Clinton’s Worse One – Lying

Two unacceptable candidates for presidential office will be on the main-party ballots in a just a day or so. A quick look at how the two of them speak clarifies the troubling nature of Mr. Trump’s  views, but also why Mrs. Clinton’s history of lying is an even more severe abuse that undermines authentic communication itself.

The Purposes and Functions of Language

Two basic functions of language are discussing ideas and speaking to one another.

This first purpose, the formal use of language is the language of law, of documents like the Constitution, of logic, of philosophy and academics. It uses specific vocabulary and concepts in an effort to name truths such that we can all understand them and converse about them. The second purpose is basic interpersonal communication and often uses the casual register. It is more colloquial, relying on shared understandings and implications. The vocabulary is much smaller and is non-specific. These two overlap of course, especially in high level conversation such as debates. (I draw these two basic categories: formal and casual, from the five registers discussed in Ruby K. Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty.)

Trump’s Triumphs and Tribulations from Casual Speech

A point of distinction for Mr. Trump is his use the casual register, even in debates. He calls things “tremendous” and “great” or “messes” and “disasters” without further specification and expects to be understood. Meanwhile, the moderator, his opponent, and much of his audience are left with their jaws hanging wondering why he failed to answer the question. He exemplifies the non-specific language of the casual register which functions on shared understandings and implications.

Trump’s casual speech opens him to easy lampooning in the media, but is has also allowed him to connect with a deep well of untapped support from the working class. When asked if he would accept the results of the election in the third debate, Mr. Trump replied that “I’ll keep you in suspense,” which is a vague answer intended to tap into a shared understanding that the election process is somewhat suspect. All he likely meant is that he might sue, as Al Gore did in 2000, and that he might otherwise sulk in his penthouse.

But his comment met with media consternation and uproar about undermining the foundations of our democracy which rest on the peaceful transfer of power. Many commentators construed Trump’s comment as seditious because they do not share the implication that his speech relied upon. To them, “accepting election results,” means accepting the foundations of the rule of law and legal proceedings that govern America. The two assumptions undergirding the question missed each other and led to miscommunication, a danger often present in casual speech. This line bothered the media, but was likely less problematic than many assumed.

Mr. Trump’s Unrespectable Views

Unfortunately, many of Trump’s casual, off-hand remarks are actually as problematic as left-leaning writers say they are because of the the shared understandings that he relies upon do tend to be discriminatory and disrespectful. Mr. Trump’s comments on women are a uncontroversial example

Leaving aside his outrageous 2005 recording, in August 2015 Trump dismissed journalist Megyn Kelly, wondering aloud whether she had “blood coming out of her wherever.” The reference to her menstruating accessed the stereotype that due to the hormones accompanying this bodily process, women are not rational during it. In so speaking, Mr. Trump claims power to dismiss Ms. Kelly’s comments as potentially non-rational. Because menstruation is private, this logically extends to all women being dismissable all the times. Trump’s comments about a judge of Hispanic descent being unable to try an immigration case fairly functioned similarly, as did his comments about imposing a religious test for people coming into America.

Mr. Trump’s temper and reliance on harmful stereotypes pervade his campaign and leaves us with a candidate who holds severely problematic views against a majority of Americans (since non-whites and females together constitute a majority of citizens), attributes which are hardly fitting for someone who is campaigning to lead all these different groups.

Clinton Promulgates Lies

In contrast to Mr. Trump’s blatant sexism and racism, Hillary Clinton appears to occupy a moral high ground. She has command of the formal register, that specific speech we use to explain reality, and she trounced Mr. Trump in debate. But Mrs. Clinton abuses language by unaccountable lying and in doing so, she turns formal speech into propaganda, undermining the end of truthful communication. Continue reading

3 Modes of Impartiality/Personal Engagement

Reading and reflecting recently on how people talk to one another, here are some recent observations of mine on how people share and address the impartiality/personal aspect of conversation. Most of David Brooks’ people of character, from his new book The Road to Character, likely fall into the “Quiet” category of mine.

The academic gold-standard is impartiality– to appear impersonal and objective, presenting only the facts. But this is not the mode that most of us interact in, which is perfectly reasonable.

Most of us are affected by and drawn to personal stories, things that resonate with our own experiences. In books, these are novels and memoirs.

I’ve noticed that there are (seem to be) three ways most of us deal with impartiality/personal when speaking, and I think most of us shift between each one though one may tend to dominate.

  1. The Know it All – Impartial as attempt to impress, appear objective and knowledgeable
    1. This is so evident in young people, especially ambitious young people (I can get pretty embarrassed when I think about how often I’ve here) who will happily prattle on about all the things he or she knows or has done or plans to accomplish.
    2. Other times, this surfaces through excessive criticism.
    3. The goal, often unconscious, is to appear learned and accomplished from an objective point of view while hiding the inner self.
    4. Ironically, it stems from a place of insecurity, of wanting very badly to be liked and appear well before others.  Older and mature people see through it right away, but are often very charitable and encouraging.
    5. That being said, the insights and criticisms can be very accurate, though not always.
    6. The Know-It-All is less a fault than a stepping stone in a path of growth.
  2. The Personal – When we becoming willing to show our selves
    1. At some point, most of us become willing to share our true selves, our actual opinions and experience without overt regard to its appearance to others.
    2. Here or elsewhere, we realize that even objective information is filtered through our own experience, so even when we try to be impersonal, it is often more revealing and personal than we realize.
    3. This is how we share with those close to us. Sometimes, public figures will share in this way. But most often, actors and politicians will keep it to the Know-it-All or be a totally the closed-book.
    4. Sometimes, this personal share loses an appropriateness filter and we can ramble on and on about ourselves and our experiences without enough regard to the actual subject of the conversation
    5. This is a normal mode, at least sometimes, in most people. It can be both deeply illuminating or shallow and myopic.
  3. The Quiet – Speaks when necessary
    1. The quiet person has learned that wrongly-placed or careless speech can be incredibly damaging.
    2. This person weighs the entire situation: the participants, their temperaments, the social setting, before adding his or her voice
    3. This quiet one is no longer concerned with the approval of others and uses his or her speech to clarify necessities, put others at ease, or add something edifying without regard for getting credit for it
    4. The quiet person may actually speak quite a lot if it is called for in the situation, but it will always be in balance.

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