Wanted: politicians who inspire and creative public policy

I watched Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake again recently. Again, I cried. A sick bloke with talent and decency ends up dead before he can argue his case to be treated not as a client, customer, service user or national insurance number but as a citizen, no more no less. Surely our citizens can expect more from governments and public servants than mindless process and indifference. In the age of automation ought not compassion be precious? In the age of big data, shouldn’t it be easier to tailor public services to the individuals who pay, or have paid, taxes?

Worrying about this reminded me of an exchange I had with Donald Horne in 1996. Our letters were prompted by an allegation in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail that the historian Manning Clark had acted as a covert ‘agent of influence’ on behalf of the Soviet Union. There was no evidence to back the claims: fake news is not new. It was also the time of the first rise of Hansonism. I was angry that the Howard government was not standing up against ignorant racism and intolerance. Horne wrote back:

I keep having this fear that Australia (well – not Australia, but some bits of its public culture) will suddenly go mad, as the hidden rises to the surface – without the appropriate denunciations from the guardians.

Today, Horne might have concluded that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

What has caused the malaise in our polity and how we might do things differently is the subject of a two-part essay published in Pearls and Irritations.

Why we have diplomatic language

For many years I have introduced new entrants to the diplomatic service to the archaic language of third person notes or notes verbales. Some are enchanted by the trappings of their new profession; others scornful of the use of phrases like:

‘avails itself of this opportunity to renew the assurances of its highest consideration’.

I explain this usage as part of the toolbox of diplomacy which, along with protocol, can serve to contain heated emotion and temper hostilities. These have been the tasks of diplomats before and since the French coined such elaborate phrases centuries ago.

Now, when the talk is of a new Cold War, Australia’s Foreign Minister – some people call her our chief diplomat – prefers the TV cameras to the conventions devised to maintain lines of communication even during times of heightened tension. On 28 March she gave the Russian Ambassador what the media calls her ‘death stare’. Logvinov seemed to take this in his stride. He has even appeared to relish his on-screen performances.

This tit for tat isn’t over. Russia’s Foreign Minister had already reacted to the expulsions by Western governments of Russian diplomats by saying that Moscow will not tolerate Western countries’ crassness. ‘Rest assured, we will respond’, Lavrov told the Russian news agency, TASS. ‘The reason is that no one would like to tolerate such obnoxiousness and we won’t either.’

These slanging matches are bad for international relations. If we start to call people out before we have the facts* and prefer to conduct the business of foreign policy in the public glare, we abandon the professional foundations from which to prosecute for peace not war. That’s serious stuff.

*For more on what we do or don’t yet know about the Skripal attack, see http://johnmenadue.com/scott-burchill-on-the-russian-gas-attack/

and

https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/unlikely-that-vladimir-putin-behind-skripal-poisoning-1.3425736 

Image: the Russian ambassador, Grigory Logvinov, with the foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

Stories from the front: art reveals more than news about the ravages of war

Australia’s handling of the global refugee crisis confounds me. I cannot fathom how a nation of immigrants can be so manipulated by our politicians. They stir up artificial fears, pathetic fears when compared to the terror that compels people to flee their homes.

Facts and more facts about the horrors in Syria, the plight of the Rohingyas, the misery on Manus and Nauru can act as an anaesthetic. Art, on the other hand, can revive the senses.

That was my experience at Gardens Speak by Tania El Khoury, which I visited during the 2017 Adelaide Festival. Come with me to those gardens. First, enter the bleached forecourt of the tumble-down Queen’s Theatre, the oldest in the city. It appears abandoned. Is this the right place for the performance? A girl in the cool, dim foyer tells us someone will fetch us soon. Another willowy volunteer appears to lead us and ten others into a high-ceilinged barn of a building, alongside the theatre. As instructed, we take off our shoes, we put on disposable rain coats. What’s going on? We are handed a card with the name of someone who has died. It’s in Arabic. Our usher explains that Syrians bury their dead quickly. In wartime, it can be impossible to get to a cemetery for a funeral or to visit a grave. So, people are put in the ground at home, sometimes under a favourite tree, still close.

Our group is guided through heavy plastic curtains to a darkened part of this cavernous space. Twelve mounds of soil are arranged in two rows, each with a stake where a name is written. Using our cards to guide us, we find ‘our’ grave. We have to dig around in the dirt. One woman disturbs the solemnity, exclaiming concern for her jewellery. We are looking for a buried speaker. The volume is low so there is no choice but to lie on the mound with an ear to the microphone to be able to hear a story about war and dislocation, of fear and anger. Not all these people are innocents. My person – I confess, I have forgotten his name – tried to stay out of the conflict until it got too close. His own family members were killed. He entered the fray. He was shot.

It is not comfortable lying in the dirt, clean though it may be. Its earthiness and the intimacy of the listening and the gloom add a visceral perspective to the news we hear about Syria. But let’s not kid ourselves; we are still perfectly safe and soon we’ll be able to go for a cleansing ale. Our final instruction comes as we return to the vestibule to remove the coats and retrieve our shoes. We are given pencil and paper and invited to write to the relatives of the person we met on the other side, of the plastic sheet. Who knows if anyone ever received those letters. If they did, what did they think? Did they feel, just for a moment, a little less abandoned, a little more part of the whole human race?

A few weeks ago I went to another performance. Much less sophisticated, still raw. Suitcase Stories are vignettes written and performed by teenage refugees now living in Sydney. First, the actors offer us their childhood memories of accidents and illnesses and awkward moments. These lull us with their familiarity about our own lives. Who doesn’t know a child carrying a scar from a toddler mishap? Soon we are in new territory, where ISIS and soldiers, landmines and bombs shatter families, produce demons and desperation. All this is mimed by the group, dressed in plain red T-shirts and leggings. Crates act as the only props, turning from cars and tractors into beds where sleep is hard. Instead of counting sheep to help her nod off, one girl counts missiles, 429, 430, 431.

These are grim stories, some better written and spoken than others — English is a new language, a second, third even fourth tongue.  Amanda tells of the Tuesday she went to the hairdresser.  She was delighted by the result. As she preens, a bomb goes off. Hundreds are killed in the busy marketplace. ‘It was supposed to be an ordinary Tuesday afternoon.’

Anabella can’t act out her own story. Mariam takes her place. She’s at her uncle’s house. The phone rings. Something has happened. No-one will tell her what. She goes into the street where she overhears two people talking. That’s how she learns her father has been murdered. These are, we are reminded, true stories.

Finally and urgently these families flee; some must leave everything behind to escape the danger. They are now in Australia. In unison, the teenagers tell us they like Australia because they are safe, away from fear. Well nearly. In one of the final scenes Shukrullah and Saltanat discover a new enemy, a magpie, who swoops them daily as they walk to school. Kifarkis plays the magpie. He has a future on the stage.

Suitcase Stories is a production by Treehouse Theatre in Sydney. The theatre provides a platform for young refugees to share their life stories.

What do we mean by Australia Day?

All the talk about Australia Day – what it symbolises, for whom and when we should celebrate – prompted me to delve into the history of the date, which has long been contentious. The Conversation website has run a series.  And Honest History has published various articles.  My post for the Professional Historians Association of NSW and ACT argues that, before we lock in the date, we need to decide what we want our national day to commemorate: the arrival of the British, invasion, sovereignty, citizenship, summer? Here it is:

What the history of Australia Day can tell us about the date

Metaphors: find the right word to stimulate the brain

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase ordinarily used to describe one thing is applied to another:

Fill your paper with the breathing of your heart. William Wordsworth

It’s not just poets who use metaphors. We all do. Some have become so deeply entrenched we hardly recognise them, for example ‘deadline’, which derives from the literal line around a prison beyond which, should a prisoner go, they would be shot.  The language experts have branded these, inaccurately, ‘dead metaphors’ . They may have lost their freshness but they certainly live on in everyday language.

In recent years, neuroscientists have also been taking an interest in the metaphor. They have investigated how our attempts to turn abstractions into something more concrete are processed in the brain. Their findings reinforce an important lesson for writers: choose words that can arouse all five senses.

In 2006, the journal NeuroImage published a study by researchers in Spain who asked participants to read words with strong associations to smell. The participants were scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When they saw the words ‘cinnamon’ ‘perfume’ and ‘coffee’ not only did those parts of the brain that control language light up, so did the olfactory cortex. At Emory University in the United States, by changing the sentence ‘the singer had a pleasing voice’ to one with a tactile metaphor ‘the singer had a velvet voice’, the researchers activated the sensory cortical region, which had not responded to the word ‘pleasing’. Similarly, ‘he had leathery hands’ triggered a more widespread reaction than did ‘he had rough hands’.

Perhaps these scientific discoveries explain why wordsmiths don’t usually like the mixed metaphor, where two inconsistent images are used in the same description:

Some people sail through life on a bed of roses like a hot knife slicing through butter.

Asking different parts of the brain to process simultaneously the images of yachts, roses (and maybe their thorns), blades and butter is a recipe for confusion rather than clarity.

By the way, I should explain the difference between metaphors and similes (both used in the example above) or, rather, let Ann Edwards do so:

While both similes and metaphors are used to make comparisons, the difference between similes and metaphors comes down to a word. Similes use the words like or as to compare things—’Life is like a box of chocolates’. In contrast, metaphors directly state a comparison—’Love is a battlefield’.

 

Season’s Greetings!

Do you say merry or happy Christmas or both? Are you comfortable with Xmas or do you prefer ‘holiday’? As we approach the festive season, here are some explanations for these differences, some of which are, I’m afraid, political.

First to merry or happy: you’ll note that both are used on this Christmas card, the very first, designed by John Horsley and sent out by Sir Henry Cole, Assistant Keeper at the UK’s Public Record Office, in 1843.

clever animation from Mental Floss suggests that ‘merry’ is more about behaviours (imbibing in particular), while ‘happy’ is a feeling.  It also thinks ‘merry’ more American, and ‘happy’ more English, though Dickens used ‘merry’ in A Christmas Carol and so do many Brits today.

As for Xmas, do you know where the ‘x’ comes from? In Greek, the word Christos  begins with the letter ‘X’ or chi. Here’s what it looks like: Χριστός. This is where the politics start: Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham, has said the abbreviation is ‘taking Christ out of Christmas’.   The etymology suggests otherwise.

And President Trump has claimed to have brought ‘Merry Christmas’ back to the White House this year. Trump doesn’t like ‘happy holidays’,  seeing the term as a war on Christmas. But, as The Atlantic Monthly pointed out last year, ‘ironically, it’s a Christian-friendly greeting at its root; “holiday” stems from the Old English for “holy day”’.

My advice: put the semantics aside and embrace the best of the festive season but don’t forget that pesky apostrophe between the ‘n’ and the ‘s’ in Season’s Greetings!

 

Tone matters

Last month (May 2017) the World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, was stripped of his management duties (he remains the bank’s chief economist) after researchers rebelled against his efforts to make them communicate more clearly.

Romer wanted his staff to write succinct, direct emails, presentations and reports, using the active voice and avoiding too many ‘and’s’. Good advice, delivered poorly. Staff found Romer curt and abrasive.

Quoted in Bloomberg Romer  said, ‘I was in the position of being the bearer of bad news…It’s possible that I was focusing too much on the precision of the communications and not enough on the feelings my messages would invoke.’

Indeed. Writing is an expression of personality. Just think of how long it took you to refine your signature, still a common way to prove your identity. Criticism of the words you put on paper can hurt. Furthermore, writing according to an organisation’s style or a boss’s preferences takes guidance and practice. That’s something the supervisors of writing need to understand: to get the best out of writers demands clarity of tasking; consistent style rules; plus more coaxing than red pen or sharp tongue.

 

Fact check: turn to the dictionary

Merriam-Webster, the oldest dictionary publisher in America, has had no qualms about entering cyberspace. Its Twitter feed now responds to the weird use of language in political debate.

After Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to explain the dispute about crowd numbers at the presidential inauguration, Webster tweeted:

A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.

Merriam-Webster lexicographer (noun: dictionary editor) Kory Stamper told CNN at the time:

We’re not going to change the meaning of the word ‘fact’ just because of the way one person uses it…We’re trained to pull words out of a jar and just tell the truth about what they mean. So we’ll keep doing what we do.

Stamper’s book, Word by Word, The Secret Life of Dictionaries, was published by Penguin Random House in March 2017. The blurb tell us that ‘Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language’.

Australian readers take note: it’s the Macquarie Dictionary (the seventh edition was published in March 2017) that holds sway down under. It too has a website, blog and podcast, and readers can vote for the Word of the Year. In 2016, the word (well phrase) was halal snack pack with an honourable mention going to, yes, fake news.

Latin-isms

Here’s an article from The Spectator about the plural of ‘referendum’ being ‘referendums’. I agree.

We didn’t adopt Latin grammar ‘holus bolus’ (that’s an archaic term from North America), so shouldn’t be imposing rules that apply to Latin but sound silly in English. The split infinitive is a case in point. The rule works for Latin verbs but is not necessary for English. If ‘to boldly go’ sounds better than ‘to go boldly’, split that infinitive (‘to go’). Here’s what the Oxford Dictionary people have to say on the matter.

Back to referendums: in this case, Dot Wordsworth in The Specator argues that even according to Latin rules there can be no referenda.

The Oxford Comma: usage in Australia

oxford comma

In my classes, I am quite often asked about the Oxford comma. When the question comes, others ask what on earth is that? The Oxford comma, because it was traditionally used at Oxford University Press, is also known as the serial comma and comes before the penultimate item in a list:

The wombat eats shoots, roots, and leaves.

I don’t think you need this comma. It might even cause some confusion, suggesting that the word ‘leaves’ is a verb rather than another item the wombat eats.

In Australia, most of us were taught NEVER use a comma before ‘and’; in other words, don’t use the Oxford comma. But what if the wombat eats shoots and roots, and also eats a different category of foods like bananas and mangoes? Then a comma might help:

In captivity, the wombat eats shoots and roots, and bananas and mangoes.

In the United States the Oxford comma is alive and well. Nearly every list I saw on a six-week trip across the continent contained a comma before the ‘and’ at the end of a list. This prevalence surprised me, for in so many other ways – take spelling and pronunciation – the Americans do not emulate Oxford English. A poll conducted in 2014 asked 1,129 Americans which sentence they thought was grammatically correct:

It’s important for a person to be honest, kind and loyal.

or

It’s important for a person to be honest, kind, and loyal.

Fifty-seven per cent were for the Oxford comma. As the authors of the poll reported the split in the result probably originates at school where grammar was taught as a set of incontrovertible rules: don’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’; never use a comma before ‘and’, etc..

For me there’s only one rule: use punctuation to aid clarity. So when the Oxford comma helps, go ahead and use it, and when it doesn’t, save yourself a keystroke.