Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fear of Change and Public Policy

Speaking of the Tea Party extremists who succeeded in shutting down the government and threatening the world economy recently, Fareed Zakaria today (on his CNN program) made a striking statement:  One cannot love the idea of America while also hating America.

Yet that is what those on the far right have long done: they love the idea of America as it was while hating the America of the past fifty years, the country of diversity in which minorities have become more and more powerful. Zakaria is a clear-eyed realist, not an ideologue.

The latest ideologue to cause havoc in the cause of self-promotion is Ted Cruz of Texas, who warns of disaster and the coming of American "oblivion" unless the federal government becomes less "socialistic."

This is the argument to fear that Ronald Reagan used in 1961 to warn of the coming horror of Medicare, something that most Republicans today who honor Reagan's memory greatly value, even though he warned that it would take away our freedom. Whose freedom is lost by the Medicare program?

The same argument is made today about Obamacare, with ominous warning glances at European nations that have chosen social welfare programs, which to the right-wing extremists, mean the coming of "socialism," a term GOP ideologues seldom define or understand.

The rhetoric based on people's fear of change is clear, from Reagan to Cruz, with each decade seeing more extreme and shrill scare tactics being used in the public policy debate.  These pessimists give true conservatism a bad name by seeing the inevitable changes in demographics and world economy as a loss of freedom, with America becoming second rate. They rarely take in the prosperity, creativity, and innovation that still make the U.S. the envy of the world, much of it due to immigrants like Fareed Zakaria.

Like many astute outsiders, he can see the bigger picture than what the daily news presents to us. He can appreciate the positive side of America as it is today, not as it was in the 1950s; he has also become a leading critic of our fear-based policies and the dangerous polarization that will again threaten the federal government.

The very thing the Tea Party types like Cruz say they want to prevent is what they are achieving by their extremist tactics: the decline of America.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hyped Language, Bad Writing

As a teacher of writing, I usually show students examples of good prose style in the hope that they will learn from the masters what makes a memorable sentence.  I rarely exhibit examples of awful writing.

This week, however, in editing a thesis on the education of nurses, I once again encountered an example of the worst kind of academic prose, the kind of pompous, inflated, jargon-filled sentences that seem designed to impress one's colleagues.  Even English professors, alas, resort to such writing to be current. And their work needs to be exposed as dangerous and fraudulent.

The thesis in question exhibits the type of deadly language that George Orwell memorably deplored in 1946 (his classic essay "Politics and the English Language"). There he noted the linguistic fog that tends to obscure clarity and fresh thinking because writers tend to rely on ready-made phrases, not just in political discourse but in most fields. If only he were still around to see how educators themselves pass on bad writing habits to their students!

How else explain my nursing student's reliance on articles and books that are filled with passive verbs and sentences that seem designed to deaden the brain. Consider:  "A database must be created though the use of multiple sources of evidence by preceptors in their perceptions...."  Can you imagine 112 pages of this?

This piece is all about the perceptions of preceptors (a repeated phrase) and the preparedness of student nurses: simple ideas dressed up in the most tacky style imaginable, a style in which simple verbs (measure) are converted into windy verb phrases (perform a measurement). Why? Because that is the way the experts write, and my poor student is afraid to deviate from the style advocated by her professors and the scholars admired by those professors.

This is the Read, Write, and Regurgitate School of Writing, just as widespread today, if not more so, than when Orwell criticized it. It led me to a dramatic decision today: I will edit no more theses or dissertations.  I do so not for the money, which is negligible, but to be helpful to students, many foreign-born, who need guidance in their use of idioms and grammar.

The type of jargon-filled prose I so strongly oppose has little to do with grammar. It has to do with an inflated type of writing so far removed from the way English is spoken as to constitute a foreign language, a dialect spoken by many--too many--who consider themselves elite. 
What can I do besides refusing to read such stuff? Like chemical pollution, it will always be with us; it won't go away, and any effort to rewrite awful sentences more effectively is met with resistance.

So I must try my best to keep writing clearly and honestly, to read only the best writers, and to encourage those I know to do the same.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dealing with Hate

It's easy to deal with annoying emails: they get deleted or put into spam.  When a troubling message from someone I know arrives, as it did this week--a message of bias and bigotry, I am nonplussed.
After I delete it, I am still affected by its contents.

The message was about David Irving, the once respectable British historian who was found guilty of denying the Holocaust in a libel case in 2000. He is known as a Holocaust denier, racist, and anti-Semite. Now he has re-surfaced, giving talks to fellow travelers at carefully selected and secure locations where the press and opponents can be denied access.

A local historian, teacher, and friend, a man with a Ph.D., was excited about the prospect of hearing Irving speak somewhere in Florida and so sent me an email invitation. The topic of the talk was Rudolf Hess, whose case interests me. And it's possible that Irving might say interesting things about Hess that I don't know. But he would probably use the occasion to spread his own biased version of modern events.

I don't know how reliable Irving would be on any topic when he has been discredited as an objective historian, who calls mainstream writers and biographers "conformist historians" since he sees himself as a crusader for "truth," writing (he said) "what I call history."  I would call it hate.

I can't imagine paying money to hear David Irving.  And what is especially troubling is that the man I know and thought I respected believes that, because of "free speech," Irving should be heard; that my friend wants to hear his twisted version of events is very disturbing. I begin to wonder what my friend's students have been hearing about modern history, about minorities in general and Jews in particular.

Irving, you see, is quoted in the British press as perpetuating the old stereotypes of fear and hatred of "Jewish power."  He says that the Jews in America control all the media and banks.  He seems indifferent to what happened in Germany in 1933 when Jews were blamed for the economic woes of the time, as if unaware of the consequences: 6 million perished.

Does he admit this?  Begrudgingly now, after years of questioning the gas chambers--but adds: The Jews were advised by a PR firm to give what happened to them a name--the Holocaust--and the result is a billion-dollar enterprise.  Auschwitz is "hugely inflated and hyped up. It's like Disney.  It has no part in history." (This from an August 13 article by Simon Usborne).

My historian friend is eager to hear such a man? Can I still call him a friend? I am horrified.

I spent several years teaching a course The Faces of Evil, all about hatred and racism. I included a section about Holocaust denial, using David Irving and his trial as evidence that anti-Semitism is alive and well, even among articulate, educated and widely published authors.

As I read about Irving today, at the age of 75, I can see a man to be pitied and shunned: he has become paranoid about the press and criticism (for good reason), and his own narcissism and prejudices have made him blind to facts, logic, and objective reality.  He is deluded, and somehow I have to tell my friend that I for one want nothing to do with David Irving and people like him.   Free speech does not allow a forum for disseminating bias and hatred.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The power of fear

Fear is so pervasive that it is often not discussed.  Many writers, it seems to me, fail to address its insidious power, which can so quickly lead to anger and hatred and even violence. I am always on the lookout for writers who use fear as a motivating force in fiction or as a theme in non-fiction.

Having lived with a heavy dose of fear for most of my life, I know, too, that it can have it positive side, making us more sensitive and empathic to others who are worried, anxious, nervous--and who isn't?

The heart without fear would be less tender, writes Edna O'Brien. And anxiety can stir the imagination like little else. I have a summary of a comment she made some years ago in a journal I keep.

In general, O'Brien says that fear is a dreadful drawback in our lives because it stops us from living in the moment; it forces us to focus on an imagined future horror.  Fear happens, she says, when we don't really meet one another: one part of us meets a part of another person, but somehow we make it difficult to be our real selves with other people and so we become false, diminished, or somehow artificial.

Another perspective is from Ernesto Cardinal: The universe is expanding, but we often are not; our souls or selves are contracting. Thomas Aquinas said that where there is fear, contraction takes over. "To allow fear to take over our ways of living or our hearts or our institutions is to avoid a cosmic law: the need to expand through love and courage."

The contrast between institutional fear and a love that has no limits is captured today in the critical stance of some on the extreme right in the Catholic Church toward Pope Francis, who does not seem to fear meeting people as his real self.  He confronts others with the open, human face of pastoral love and compassion; yet his "liberal" openness is seen as a threat to some of the hardliners, making them fearful of meaningful change. They want the old institutional rigidity to remain since change is dangerous.

A final perspective on fear is from Nelson Mandela's 1994 inaugural speech: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that
most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be so brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?"  He goes on to say that each of us is shining with the glory of God, so we must let our light be seen.

If we do so, if we are liberated from our fears, we give others permission to do the same. And the world becomes a better place. (It sounds so simple--yet what is harder to achieve?)

Our instinctive fears serve a purpose and must be wisely monitored: when they become too extreme, we can be crippled; when they are turned into trust and love, they can help us do amazing things for the world.