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When Language Dies

This 1930 photo is by Walker Evans.

 

But one may say very true things and apply them falsely. People can easily take the sacred word duty as  a name for what they desire any one else to do.

                                 

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, 1876

 

               

It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths.

 

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Propaganda Minister, January 9, 1928, Berlin at a training conference for Nazi party members.

 

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases... one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

 

George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays, 1940

 

 

I thank George Orwell and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) for the inspiration to write a "critical" essay this morning, which hopefully will sustain my readers' interest and attention. In this sound-byte culture we are living in—and as a writer and educator—I despair at the loss of attention, curiosity, and language itself. I had wanted to write a humorous blog post this week, or to post some lovely holiday photos and mountain sunsets, which I am assured my friends will "like," but it feels impossible.


And with that preamble, I will proceed:


These past few tiresome weeks, we have been witness to an unprecedented political spectacle, aided and abetted by both the mainstream media and social media. No matter where we are on the political spectrum, or what market-driven channels we watch, we are consumers of this media, all of which delivers us to the advertisers. Books and commentary are proliferating; 45 is a media cash cow.


It is time to take a breath and think.


The outcome in the Senate is pre-ordained: Donald Trump will remain in the White House until the election, possibly beyond. We are at great risk and must prepare for such a result. I ask myself and my readers to consider this possiblity, and worse, and to initiate a process of self-questioning and problem solving.


What can we do in the short term? What can we do day-to-day to make our individual, too-short lives joyous and fulfilling while, at the same time, remain constant in our efforts to resist fascist impulses, retrograde laws, and constitutional challenges.


I cannot ask others to do what I must do to answer these questions. I will list a few suggestions here and ask you, dear reader, to add yours to the mix with your comments in this open forum:


1. Read more history to maintain persepective about the fault lines in the American Experiment that have led us to this dire moment. Resist escapist literature and series binging, at least some of the time. Each day, shut down electronic devices and read. Reading slows us down and exercises our cognitive muscles so that we can think deeply and precisely. We will need strengthened brain power in the months ahead.


2. Help a young person become educated. If you do not have children or grandchildren, and even if you do, volunteer some hours every week with the other 98% as well as the entitled 1 %. Both are important. Help deepen literacy in the broadest sense of the word. Encourage and participate in a content analysis of the media this young person relies on for information and entertainment. Study together. Talk constantly. Use evolved language to defeat propaganda.


I work in two disparate educational instituions—one privileged, one under-privileged—and I can attest to a stark similarity: Americans are under-educated. All of us need to raise our knowledge base.


3. Think global, work local. Wherever you are, in whataever town, village, hamlet, city or county--volunteer. Canvas. Meet and greet your local politicans, call them when you have a concern, write them emails, insist that they speak to you in full, considered sentences. Resist jargon, platforming and fund-raising pitches. Most are good people who want to serve until they get swept up into the "system." Insist on continuing accountability.


4. Get outside, away from the computer and television and news feeds, into the fresh air and sunshine. Walk with a friend, or wander and explore solo. Let your brain and spirit rest. Talk to everyone, do not assume anything, including a political point of view. People are more than one thing: they have struggles, they have stories. Listen to their stories. Remain open and compassionate. We owe it to the next generation. We owe it to ourselves.

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Facebook; An Update

The internet superhighway as predicted by Vice President Al Gore (1993-2001). Facebook was launched in 2009.
Once again, it’s time for a Facebook assessment. I remember my reluctance to enter this virtual world, and my surrender. I’ve written about finding a college friend, the pleasure we’ve found in our posts, the constancy of our responses, the shared news about our creative lives. I enjoy the photographs my niece posts of her children and her husband posts of his new encaustic paintings. Yes, he’s painting again! We are separated by a continent but can eavesdrop on one another’s activities. This makes it easier to feel connected and to reconnect when we do see each other.

I post my website blog—this blog post that I am writing today—as a “note,” and the Facebook note feeds into Twitter which enhances my online profile and keeps my classes (mostly) filled. My prospective students check me out before signing up. Who can blame them? They are spending hard-earned money—a lot of it—and want to make sure it will not be wasted. I even use their Facebook posts and photographs as writing prompts in the workshop. Who would have ever thunk it? In fact, I encourage my students to write their hearts out on Facebook and in emails, not just sound bytes but long narratives: captions for every photograph, commentary in answer to every commentary. Facebook: yet another tool to keep the writing muscle supple.

But Facebook is more than a publicity or writing tool. It’s also a bulletin board, a graffiti wall, a communal well, a listening post. I find it particularly comforting when something awful is going on in the world which, alas, is all too frequent these days. People in the US and overseas post words of comfort or insight, and all at once the isolation, despair or frustration we feel is eased; we are a community. And, maybe just maybe, a shared link or two might suggest a way out of a conundrum: the refugee migration crisis, England’s imminent EU referendum, the US election. Or, more personally, a private woe expressed fleetingly on one particular day: “Dear FB Friends,” it might say, “I am not feeling so great today.” Incoming: lots of supportive messages and suggestions. And, for me, the impulse to pick up the phone and talk.

A dear friend, someone I see in the flesh in the city, once said to me that an old high school mate, now a FB friend, is ranting on his site. For some reason he won’t “unfollow,” him though this is easy enough to do now—a new, welcome function—without the finality of “unfriending.” Don’t we pick and choose our friends in the real world? So why not insist on civility on Facebook if that is our preference? The digital culture has evolved and so have we.

I can’t imagine my life these days without Facebook and I wonder, at times, whether friends and family who “don’t do Facebook” are missing out on this inclusive, global conversation. I intuit that they are and wish they’d consider joining.  Read More 
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Facebook Stories

When I was in graduate school studying media—before the days of social media—one of my professors always reminded us that whatever technology we chose to use and master, it was important to remember that technologies are tools, nothing more or less. And some of them are powerful, as we have experienced since the advent of the internet and smart phone. And so I am puzzled when someone says, “I don’t want to get into FB, it will consume me.” Unless one develops an addiction, this is patently not true. And most people are responsible. Those that aren’t can easily be un-followed or un-friended. I don't believe in robots taking over the world; the use or the abuse of any technology is in our control

That all said, I do remember my first skeptical reactions to FB, which I wrote about here. The skepticism didn’t last long. Like everyone else I know, I have enhanced my personal and business connections, kept in touch with friends and family very far away, found people I had not been in touch with in a very long time (a college friend, a friend who had moved to Asia) and enjoy posting photographs with captions (one technology inside another). I’m a writer and I write long captions, notes and stories. Why not? I even use the edit option to change them occasionally and/or correct a mistake. Thank you, FB, for this feature.

As for privacy issues, surveillance and all the rest. I try to ignore them. We all know that surveillance is pervasive and will be for the forseeable future. But this is my thinking: we live in a free society, albeit constricted in some ways. And in this democratic free society, it is our mandate to speak with loud, bold voices without fear. Whomsoever wants to drop in on my blog posts and FB posts, please do so. If you have an issue with what I have said, answer it in words. I am listening.

I am thinking about all this today because an ex of my daughter’s, who I have always thought of as a son, is in the hospital. He’s able to use his phone and is on FB all the time. Friends and family are at his bedside, others are on FB sharing stories, joking with him and encouraging his recovery. What a wonderful healing technology, one to celebrate as we enter a new year.  Read More 
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Carol Bergman:Writer

I suppose I should be pleased that I now have 67 Facebook friends on my professional Carol Bergman: Writer page. It’s an active page but what does that mean exactly and how does it enhance the writing life and/or help to solicit professional gigs and/or sell my books? I’m not sure. I do know that my students, prospective students and private clients look at my website and read my blog though they are loathe to admit this. Until I have mentioned them in a blog, then they might say something. “Oh, I think you were referring to me in that blog post the other day.” Of course, I don’t use anyone’s real name but they are nonetheless able to identify themselves and their triumphs or conundrums. I keep the FB page active by routing my blog into the “notes” function. The blog post, this one included, also appears as an RSS feed on my Amazon Authors Page and Goodreads. It also used to appear on the PEN AMERICA website but that has been redesigned and I can’t be bothered to re-do everything, not this week anyway. Are you getting my drift? All of this takes time, energy and a different mind-set than writing itself, although I am writing right now as I write this blog post. (And I hope you noticed the alliteration.) It’s so pleasurable I could do it all day but I have to get back to some other business, as opposed to writing, and then meditate/rest for a half hour before I go off to teach at NYU. Must remind myself to cut up an apple to slip into my bag. (Sentence fragment.) And what else? How about some reading? I’m in the midst of three books at the moment, two on my Kindle e-reader, another in hard copy. The current New Yorker is interesting and there’s more than one article I want to read there. I’ve read the NY Times online today. I wish I could be in a hammock, or on a cruise ship, or at a writer’s retreat because my mind is so befuddled by some brick work drilling on the East Side of my apartment house that I can hardly think much less work today on the revision of one of three failed novels. I have my headset plugged into the computer and am mildly distracted by the Brandenburg Concertos on Pandora, thank goodness. And did I mention that I’ve been “friended”( noun into a verb, quite common in the vernacular American English tongue) by a young woman writer in Kenya and a writer in Hong Kong and another somewhere else, all three people I don’t know, which is a bit unsettling. If you like me, I will like you. Isn’t that how it goes? Unsettling also because I am being “mapped” and “followed.” I forgot to say that my Carol Bergman: Writer FB page appears automatically on Twitter, whatever that means, and that I get notifications there of so many people following me, more than 67, and why? Then these same people, strangers all, writers in far flung places, turn up as requests on Linked In. I think my blog posts appear there also. All told, as I end this blog post, I realize that social media may be more exhausting than useful. Comments welcome.  Read More 
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