Category Archives: language

The muddled mess of truth today: introductory thoughts

Lately, I’ve noticed that news organizations configure their headlines in such a way that only half truths or even falsehoods are told. Here’s an example

Woman to be deported after traffic violation

The story is accompanied by a picture of the lady and her children.

This limited information evokes an emotional reaction of how unfair it is for this poor lady to be thrown out of the country because of such a trivial incident.

Only after you go beyond the headline and read the details of the story do you get a clear picture of the facts.

This woman has been living in the United States illegally for two decades. She was found out when she was stopped by police and ticketed for operating a vehicle without a driver’s license.

Commenters on this story note that the woman brought this situation on herself by entering the country illegally in the first place and then staying for so long.

Illegal immigration is of course a hot button issue in the US.  There are extremists on both sides.

Some believe that all those who have broken the law by coming here should be sent back to where they came from. This would include “dreamers”, the children who came here before the age of 16 and probably had little say in the matter.

Others think that we should just have open borders. Anyone who wants to live and work in our nation should have the right to do so, they say.

Based on my training in journalism school in ancient times, I would have reported this story with the 5 W’s and H. Just the facts, ma’am. Give ’em who, what, when, where, why and how.

Editors don’t function that way in today’s society, however. What used to be suitable  only for the editorial page is passed off as headline news.

The result is that America is inundated with propaganda.

One of the reasons this is happening is that how we perceive truth is changing.

We used to be a culture based on a Judeo-Christian world view. Thus, the generation after World War 2, for example, tended to see things through that lens.

Nowadays,  young Americans talk about presenting “my truth.” I take this to mean that what they are going to tell me is not the “truth” per se, but their own view of reality.

In  modern America, the state of truth is similar to the condition of my favorite major league baseball team. Baseball writer Ken Rosenthal recently called my Baltimore Orioles a “muddled mess.” I would maintain that truth in the US is in the same shape as my beloved Os.

What is occurring in the media today is that reporters are now giving us SOME facts, and then interpreting them with “their” truth. It used to be that the reader was supposed to do the interpreting.

I can’t philosophize about this phenomenon. I’m not a philosopher. I’m trained in journalism, linguistics and to some extent in practical theology. So I can only look at the problem through those grids.

In terms of language, my observation is that people can’t even get their terms straight. For example, slurs with fully charged political electrons are freely being thrown around like darts, especially in social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter.

In the immigration debate, the left likes to accuse the right of being  “fascists”, “bigots”, “racists” and “Nazis”. The right tosses out equally inflammatory terms toward progressives. Insults such as “loon”, “nut job” and “bomb thrower” come to mind.

From my perspective, it would be appropriate in some cases to question who is actually the fascist or the loon.

I know that questions about truth are not new. Neither are discussions over the meaning of certain vocabulary words.

Even popular culture contains the story of  Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?”.

As a student of the Bible, I like to go a little deeper than what a film at Easter might tell me. I want to know the context, i.e. the whole story

In context, Jesus is being examined before Pilate before he was to be delivered up to be executed by Roman soldiers.  The trumped up charge made by the chief priests of Israel at the time was that Jesus was a rebel trying to overthrow the Roman government. The Jewish leaders, who had a stake in trashing Jesus, claimed that he wanted to be a king. Here’s the text from John 18:

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth.”

The last statement by Jesus prompted Pilate’s question about truth. The excerpt reveals that  Pilate not only did not understand truth, but that he also had no idea what Jesus meant about being a king.

The effects of such miscommunication can be devastating, especially when a politician with authority is involved. Pilate ended up bowing to popular demand and having Jesus nailed to a cross.

In future posts, I will discuss the effects of this kind of confused thinking on our society. But first, I will try to ascertain exactly what we mean when we discuss the term “truth” and how it is related to other words we currently like to bandy about.

I also hope to propose some solutions that could help us work through the murk and gain a clearer picture of reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Argument, Christianity, Communication, culture, immigration, Jesus Christ, language, Media, religion, Uncategorized

The Divine Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has always been a bit of an enigma.

Like a lot of artists, he has “periods” where fans can identify certain emphases in his music and lyricism. For example, in the 60s he was thought of as a generational prophet. Then there was the “Christian” period of the late 70s and early 80s during which believers bought albums such as “Slow Train Coming.”

However, Ben Sisario of the New York Times has written of how Dylan resists study.

“Over the decades he has frustrated many an interviewer who wanted to penetrate his mind and method,” he says.

‘Dylan has never been at all revealing about those kinds of issues,’ the music critic and author Anthony DeCurtis said in an interview.

‘He has always been dismissive,’ Mr. DeCurtis said. ‘He has certainly said things that have minimized his lyrics in the attempt to fend off or downplay any attempt to see him as a prophet.’ So he’ll say, “Oh, I just wrote what came to my mind.”

Whatever kind of offhand thing you could say to try to deflate someone who is trying to inflate your lyrics with meaning.”

A 1991 interview with Paul Zollo further illustrates Dylan’s reluctance to be pigeonholed. He asked Zollo,”Songwriting? What do I know about Songwriting?” Though Dylan said this with laughter, the grain of truth, i.e., he is just your average Joe,  is there.

Despite his reticence to be acknowledged, Zollo points out one of the reasons Dylan is a landmark artist.  He says,“He broke all the rules of songwriting without abandoning the craft and care that holds songs together.”

I would admire Dylan without this desire for excellence with language.  But for this writer, an English teacher by trade, Dylan’s care for his use of the written word makes me revere him even more. Zollo compares the beauty of his poetry to Shakespeare, Byron, as well as modern greats.

Even though Dylan’s reference for his writings is hard to determine, Zollo’s piece hints at it.  He writes, “There’s an unmistakable elegance in Dylan’s words, an almost biblical beauty that has sustained in his songs throughout the years.”

The artist once known as Robert Zimmerman influenced the soul of other musicians in this regard. According to Zollo, John Lennon was inspired by the depth of Dylan’s music to write songs that concerned life and the soul and not just  “empty pop songs”.

Dylan’s approach to his vocation is not of the secular, lunch bucket, 9 to 5 variety. It has a more spiritual bent. He told Zollo that His songwriting has “never really been seriously a profession…It’s been more confessional than professional.”

Bishop Robert Barron, a Catholic prelate based in Los Angeles, is stronger in his assessment of the supernatural aspects of Dylan’s work.

“You have to read him as a spiritual poet,” says Barron. “You can read him politically. You can read him as a cultural commentator. All that is right, but I think ultimately the best way to read him is as a spiritual teacher.”

Barron notes that Dylan is like most artists in that they will be elusive in terms of explaining the meaning of their lyrics. “But I think you can see patterns in any great artist,” he says. “You see them clearly in Bob Dylan.”

“You know in the 80s he became explicitly biblical, explicitly Christian. But all throughout his career, from beginning to right now, the Bible has been the dominant influence.”

Dylan’s epoch song “Blowing in the Wind” exemplifies this effect of Scripture on his work. The hit tells the listener that the answers to our most abiding questions come only through the intervention of God, according to the bishop.

God’s influence on Bob Dylan is nothing new. Author Julia Cameron explains that channeling spiritual information has been a means of creating great works for hundreds of years. In her book “The Right to Write”, she quotes some other noted artists (past and present) who attribute their genius to God.

“Although we rarely talk about it in these terms, writing is a means of prayer,” she says. “It connects us to the invisible world. It gives us a gate or conduit for the other world to talk to us whether we call it the subconscious, the unconscious, the superconscious, the imagination or the Muse.”

While we may not seek to contact God as we write, as we actually engage in the process of putting ideas down we come into contact with the divine.

Cameron says, “Writing gives us a place to welcome more than the rational. It opens the door to inspiration.

“We are an open channel.”

One critic on the public forum Quora calls Cameron’s work “creepy”, presumably because of  her spiritual approach to writing.  In “The Right to Write” she addresses those who feel that her thoughts about inspiration are too “New Age” or “airy-fairy”.

“Channeling? Julia, that word is so…

“I know. I know and I do not care because the word is artistically accurate,” she responds.

The author as a channel of the thoughts of God has an impact on how we go about writing. It also has  some surprise consequences on the lives of those who are willing to accept this concept of divine inspiration at face value and apply it to their work.

I will explain these effects in a future post.

 

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Filed under Bob Dylan, language, religion, Songs, spirituality, Uncategorized, writing

Garbled messages

I was sitting in my local Starbucks this morning when a soft rock song with a gentle sound and a male singer with a haunting voice was played. It moved me and I wanted to identify the song so I could listen to it again, but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t understand the lyrics. I thought I caught part of a sentence and “Googled” it, but never found what I was looking for. I finally gave up.

Shortly after that, an old age pensioner walked by. He was wearing a T-shirt which included a title or name on it, but the complete moniker was concealed by the jacket he was wearing. I was interested because the letters I DID see were identical to ones belonging to the name of a city where I used to live, a place located in Europe.

The old fellow’s jacket bore a lion insignia. This animal is the symbol of the country where this town is located. However, the term “Polizei” was emblazoned next to the lion and a quick Internet search told me that it is the German word for “police”. My city is in Finland. Even so, I was intrigued.

The man passed by me on his way out and as he did a woman walked in. I immediately caught the pleasant scent of her fragrance, but she moved so far away I couldn’t make her out. I was wondering if the attractiveness of the smell was representative of the person, but I couldn’t tell.

It occurred to me after these three consecutive frustrating incidents that a lot of communication gets easily distorted. In my case, the messages were garbled by obstructions in my line of sight and hearing.

I could have sought to overcome these obstacles. For example, I could have asked the senior citizen if he had lived in Finland or asked a barista if they knew the name of the song I had heard. Further, I might have moved closer to the lady with the sweet aroma, but of course that would have been creepy. (As it turned out, she DID walk in my direction and I found that her redolence was more distinctive than her appearance.) In other words, I could have sought to clarify my end of the communication.

I used to teach academic writing to engineers and one of my mantras was that it was not the responsibility of the receiver of their communications to have to interpret their them. I made it clear to these budding stars of technology that it was THEIR job to be clear.

Lack of clarity is what frustrates me when I listen to politicians in this day and age. For instance, I read the following on Yahoo this morning.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein is calling on the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate all issues related to obstruction of justice in the events leading up to the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the federal probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

This post just added to my earlier frustration I experienced from the incomprehensible communications by people at Starbucks. I knew that the folks at Starbucks did not intend to send me garbled messages. In fact, they were not even aware of their own communication or of me.

However, given the political environment we live in today and Madam Feinstein’s affiliation, I could only presume that she planned her use of the alarming phrase “obstruction of justice”. She was going after her political opponent, i.e., the current president of the United States.

This article prompted my response. I wrote the following in Yahoo’s reaction section of the post:

Exactly what “justice” does Feinstein say is being obstructed? Justice is defined as “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals.” (Merriam Webster for kids). What crime was committed? If she is referring to Trump seeking to influence Comey, how is that obstruction? POTUS is in charge of administration of justice and the FBI director is his subordinate in that task.

All the honorable senator’s statement did was raise a bunch of questions. It is her responsibility in my view to answer those questions for me in her public statement. However, I realize this is too much to ask from a politician. As a class, they are almost always purposely vague.

When it comes to my own issues, especially on subjects of importance to me, I can’t be like Senator Feinstein. I have to seek to define them as precisely as possible. I tried to do this as part of a writing exercise while I was the Starbucks.

Author Julia Cameron suggests that writers have a dialogue with their “Inner Writer”. She advises to write two letters; one is to be written from the “Inner Writer” to me and the other is by me to my “Inner Writer”. The task is to clarify my own fears and complaints regarding writing so that I can reassure myself that I have the “right to write” (the title of her book).

One of the problems my Inner Writer came up with is that I feel as if I have no message. My “self” replied:

“If you want my advice, get with God. Get your message from Him. Then write that message.”

In context, I realized as I did this exercise that I felt I am not allowed to be a writer. My response to Inner Writer was this:

You are not only allowed to be what God made you to be. You are encouraged to be what He made you to be.  In fact, it might be said that you are commanded to be what He made you to be. You are asking for a purpose from God. If writing is it, then be a writer. If not, then be whatever else He tells you to be.

One of the problems we have this side of heaven is that messages from God are garbled. The famous “love chapter” in the Bible, I Corinthians 13, likens our understanding of His communications in this life to a person looking in a flawed mirror.  As with my attempt to see the lady at Starbucks, my effort to perception of God is dimmed by our distance from each other.

However, I have had a taste of His presence and He indeed desires mine. My prayers are a sweet incense to Him. Thus, I have to keep trying to find a way through the muck to get to Him and hear what He has to say to me. Making sense of His messages to me are crucial.  He’s not a fellow customer at Starbucks. He’s the living God.

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Filed under Christianity, Communication, Donald Trump, language, politics, religion, Uncategorized, writing

Culture shock at the 99 cent store

The local 99 Cent Only Store is quite an experience. It’s the only place I go shopping where I get a sense of panic as I mill around.

I don’t care for shopping in general, but I mostly tolerate it. But at the 99 Cent Only Store in my community, I seem to actually suffer psychological stress.

I believe I have pinpointed the cause of this angst. The place is literally a cross cultural meeting zone.

Having lived in a small city in the Midwest the last few years I am encountering some overall culture shock out on the West Coast anyway.  The 99 Cent Only Store is just part of my transition from traditional America to a place that seems to be a separate, multicultural nation. My anguish at this shop is just a symptom of the kind of response a cultural transition triggers,

Some of the my uneasiness isn’t due to differences in culture. It is provoked more by the  more universal experience of moving from a rural area to the big city. Unlike my fly-over country town, in this Pacific megalopolis there are crowded highways and crowded parking lots. Further, there are heavily populated shopping malls. Even the hiking trails are loaded with people.  Back home I am used to isolation and peace and quiet.

The 99 Cents Only Store is just a part of this local phenomenon of commotion. The shop has its own set of noise and clatter caused by its masses. Every aisle and checkout line is full.

As I do when I drive in traffic,I have to stay totally aware to avoid a collision as I cruise around this repository of cheap goods.

Going to buy the elements necessary to living at a 99 Cents Only Store in this locale is not only similar to driving the freeway, but also a bit like shopping abroad. In a recent trip there, I had a list of items and had trouble finding them. The Latino lady I asked for help didn’t understand my English. She didn’t seem to comprehend my question about the location of radishes and green onions. A fellow Anglo, probably a more experienced expat with perfect language skills told me where to look as she passed by and observed my struggles.

After I picked out my treasures, I maneuvered my shopping cart through the herd to the cashier line and waited as the people in front of me checked out. It was there that the event I have dreaded since I have been out West occurred. I had a wreck.

This accident was not my fault and it was only the equivalent of a parking lot fender bender, so it was really no big deal. It was only a nudge from behind.

Although the rear-ender was minor, I still felt as if my personal space had been violated. As a result I began to feel annoyed. Then I turned around and was totally disarmed.

Before me stood a short, wiry Asian fellow. “I need a walking license,” he said smiling. I laughed and replied, “So do I.”

Like an old friend, this man began to talk. He told me his name was Pham.

This senior citizen asked me, “How old do you think I am?” I looked him over and answered,“Oh, I would say early to mid 60s.”

My new Vietnamese pal answered with a look of glee and a sparkle in his eye. “I’m 80.”

I was astonished because he clearly had taken a drink from the Fountain of Youth. Pham was a good-looking guy, slim with an appealing face and a non-descript coloring to his hair.

“That’s incredible. You’re a handsome guy!”, I said. He kept smiling.

A senior Vietnamese lady came to his side and I asked Pham, “Do you know this lady?” He said, “That’s my boss.”

Pham’s wife said without missing a beat, “He’s 80.” I expressed my amazement to her as well.

Pham proceeded to tell me about his life. He told me proudly and with his continued smile that he had been a fighter pilot. “I flew 600 missions,” he said. That seemed like a lot to me. But Pham confirmed to me that he was telling the truth because he rattled off the designations of the planes he had flown. Having been around Navy pilots as a young man, I knew that HE knew what he was talking about.

I wondered how a Vietnamese guy could be a fighter pilot and wanted to ask him about it. Guesses flashed through my mind. I surmised that he had fought for the US in Vietnam or that he had immigrated and joined the service.

I wish I had had time to have a long talk with Pham about his four-score life. But the throngs kept pressing and we had to move through the checkout line.

I also found myself to be disoriented, one of the symptoms of culture shock. As a result, I stopped at an empty cashier station to make sure I had all my purchases and the things that I brought with me.

Sure enough, the cashier who had checked me out saw me and brought over the cell phone I had bought the day before. (I can tell you it was more than 99 cents.)  As I went through my backpack and purchases Pham and his wife passed behind me and exited the store.

I was sorry to see him go, for he was a gift from God. My positive meet up with this elderly Asian man has helped me to  move on from my cultural fatigue in the Pacific States. It also reminded me of why decided to work cross culturally years ago: I am intrigued and fascinated by the customs, language and people of other nations. I feel re-energized and feel the allure of international life once again.

My last visit to the 99 Cent Only Store was far more valuable than the inexpensive items sold there.

 

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Filed under Civility, culture, language, Shopping, Uncategorized

Leaders: watch your language

“Words give us power.”–Julia Cameron, author of “The Right to Write”

Unless we are born with a disability or become ill or are recipient of an injury after birth,we all have the ability to communicate, some better than others.  But even if we are not limited by a physical or mental condition, there are constraints on our expression.

For example, according to writing expert Julia Cameron, we are all born with a gift of language, but once we enter school we are limited by what we write and how we write it by our teachers. Students are confronted by academic conventions which they must obey. As a long-time instructor of writing at universities, I know too well how important these principles are. Violate them and you risk receiving a slap from the heavy hand of academic authorities.

The expectations of those who govern us also restrain communication.  In his book “The Death of Common Sense”, Philip K. Howard bemoans the tendency of those who write government regulations to attempt to cover every contingency regardless of the effect imposed on those having to implement them. In their effort to ensure certain outcomes, bureaucrats dispense with logic, a key feature of the effective transmission of ideas, at least in western societies like America

To illustrate this trend, Howard tells a story regarding Mother Teresa’s experience with the laws of New York City. The sainted lady wished to build a homeless shelter and was willing to put up half a million dollars to do so if the city would donate the building.

New York was very willing and the project seemed to be doable until  city building officials presented Mother Teresa with a requirement to include a $100,000 elevator on the premises, purportedly for safety reasons.  This regulation violated the beliefs of the Mother’s organization, which did not allow for the use of modern conveniences. The city wouldn’t budge on its rules even though the elevator would not be used. As a result, Mother Teresa politely declined to go further with the shelter and her desired good work turned to nothing because of the wording of a government fiat. Even though the verbiage flowed from the legal beagles, its effect prevented a good work: a shelter which would have housed 70 men who otherwise didn’t have a home.

Howard writes, “We seem to have achieved the worst of all possible worlds: a system of regulation that goes too far while it also does too little.This paradox is explained by the absence of the one indispensable ingredient of any successful human endeavor: use of judgment.”

Solomon, an ancient king, advised his readers in the biblical book of Proverbs to get good judgment. He particularly singled the effect of good judgment from leaders.  Solomon wrote that those leaders who have good judgment create stability but those who don’t leave a wasteland. America is becoming a huge brownfield because of a lack of discernment among its leaders in what they say and how they say it.

 

Rhetoric is out of control in the political arena. The president, for example, is known for his edgy comments and verbal attacks on enemies. He is known for his insults of political opponents during the last election and other inappropriate statements.

His adversaries, however, are also extreme in their statements and suffer not only from sins of commission, but also those of omission. Despite his election last November, political leaders and celebrities on the left refuse to see Donald Trump as legitimate and as a result produce personal insults not only toward him and his adult family members, but also his 10-year old son.

Further, some politicians are keeping their mouths shut over the violence perpetrated by left-wing extremists when they should be coming out against it. Long-time political reporter Brett Hume decries what he calls the intolerance of the left, especially in the media, the entertainment industry and on college campuses.  After condemning an obscenity-filled commentary against Trump by the politically left comedian Stephen Colbert on CBS as “unrepeatably vulgar”, Hume said that “restraints are being broken through as we go and it does make you wonder if we are on a slippery slope to real violence.”

In other words, the breakdown of honorable speech in our culture is leading us to a destructive hell. Use of  the spoken and written word should be artistic, enriching people’s lives. Instead, political charlatans are destroying our society through their hateful discourse.

By lowering the standards of civilized speech in our culture, these people are influencing even well meaning folks at the community level. A recent TV series focusing on youth football in Texas and Pennsylvania shows coaches verbally abusing the kids in their charge.  While the program “Friday Night Tykes” documents the difficult task these men have in trying to lead a generation of children away from drugs and gangs and into character building sports, it also led to the suspension of coaches due to their coarse language.

As Hume says, I believe these coaches have been influenced by their leaders, people who have let go of all restraint in their communication. After watching the hard work put in by these men despite the obstacles they face, I felt they were at heart good people. They deserve better role models as they seek to have a positive effect on the blighted towns in which they serve.

Julia Cameron discusses how our acquisition of words as children give us ownership. We treat them as gold and cherish them.

It seems our leaders have lost this sense of value when it comes to what comes out of their mouths or crosses their fingertips onto a computer. Would that they take ownership again of their words and benefit us all.

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Filed under Civility, Donald Trump, language, politics, Speech, United States