And so it begins…

And it begins again. First, the signs. Next, the newspaper articles for endorsements. Then the calls. We sigh and bear it. This too shall pass. At least until next time. This week will be a brief history of the tools of rhetoric electioneers use on us. Perhaps you learned this in school. My generation didn’t—signs of the times—but we sometimes gave ourselves our grades which saved the teachers a lot of effort.

Three modes of rhetoric or argument: logos, ethos, pathos. It’s not that the Greeks invented thinking, but they did organize the rules of argument, set at a high level of competition and competency. But we’re not here for history. Here’s a chart from that modern invention, Pinterest, that gives details.

Logos is simply the word for “word” in Greek. It means a great deal more, of course (“In the beginning was the logos”), but for this discussion we can associate it with the English word “logic.” Facts, figures, the message, the data, the reasons—these are used in arguments based on logos. These days, when one set of facts is not necessarily someone else’s, snarky comments ensue. The role of Google cannot be underestimated in making us all “experts” after a quick trip to that fount of knowledge, Wikipedia. Trust is an issue, perhaps like never before. Even when the data are accurate, Aaron Levenstein’s famous quotation comes to mind: “Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” A case in point: You knew the quotation but not the source. You have to trust me, or not, and I have to trust Google. And all of us have to be careful how we respond to persuasion that seems to rely on data.

Ethos means “character.” If you don’t think anyone in public life has any, you’re not alone. Dead last in a recent Gallup poll sits Congress, though newspapers and television news are just a few ticks above that august institution. That hasn’t always been true, but times being what they are… Trust is obviously an issue here but in different ways than for logos. Where an Eagle Scout may have once been the gold standard, winning the Nobel Peace Prize is now so much better. Some would argue that you don’t have to actually do anything to win the Prize, but I digress, still slightly puzzled about Bob Dylan who was himself puzzled. I like this passage from his speech: “John Donne as well, the poet-priest who lived in the time of Shakespeare, wrote these words, ‘The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts. Not of two lovers, but two loves, the nests.’ I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.” That’s honesty, which speaks to ethos.

Pathos means both “suffering” and “experience.” If logos seeks the head, and ethos seeks the hand, pathos clearly and unashamedly seeks the heart. Stories like Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue after his son’s birth began and ended with his tears. That he misstated facts about health insurance did not seem to bother people at first, though he later clarified. This emotional blog post from Kurt Eichenwald addresses the same topic but uses anger as its main element. The thing about pathos is that you can’t argue with feelings. More could be said about that, but for now, look to your own experience of trying to convince a child screaming “But I want it!” that she can’t have it. Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.”

These days, all this information has been turned on its head. Words are weapons, ethics are MIA, and feelings trump reason. Stated another way: we are so divided into tribes that each side uses its own words in different ways that the other side; morality seems relative to time and place; facts do not inform feelings. It’s all rather tiresome. I can invite you to take the scientific route and simply analyze which tool of rhetoric this crop of candidates is using on you. That might be the safest option. Good luck. (Today’s headlines will seem very familiar when you read about Huey P. Long here.)

An SI SI Rant and Something Precious

First, a brief (excuse the pun) recounting of my experience with naked people. When we were in school in Austin, a certain cove on Lake Travis named Hippie Hollow sheltered nudists except from the prying eyes of anyone who wanted to drive by. Way has gone on to way, and this once-freewheeling escape is now a formal park, the only clothing-optional one in Texas. A website lists all the rules: no openly viewed alcohol, the places to put sunscreen, the reasons to wear shoes, the reminder not to remove the rocks and driftwood, and so on. Nudists, yes; lawbreakers, no. Notably, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal brought by a couple who wanted the age limit of 18 lowered. The county won. And no, we never stopped. We assumed the hippies were innocent enough, probably addled by so much marijuana.

Next scene: Copacabana Beach, Thanksgiving Day, 2015. Perfect weather, bit of sunburn from Sugar Loaf Mountain, missing my turkey and dressing. Walking back to the hotel along the beautifully designed black and white mosaic sidewalks, we saw a young woman strolling by, naked as a jaybird to use an idiom that makes no obvious sense. (There are at least two explanations. One, a j-bird is a jailbird, and new prisoners had to strip and walk naked to their first showers. Two, a jay is a country bumpkin, “vulnerable to the wiles of others.” Three, the jaybird with its tiny brain lacks a sense of embarrassment parading around in public.) So, we have this woman ambling leisurely down the sidewalk, vulnerable, exposed, and unembarrassed. She carried a dress in her hand, swinging it a bit. Did anyone catcall her? Did anyone approach her? No. Why? We could all see that she was not fully present mentally. Instead of running toward her, people were running to the beach authorities. Such a person needed attention, but not the jeering, leering kind. She finally slipped into her dress.

Now we come to the object of my rant: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, just last week appearing in mailboxes and on newsstands everywhere. Many of the pictures are online, but since they are pornography, I am not including a link to them but to the definition of the word itself. It combines two words from the Greek: graphein, meaning to write (which you knew) and porne, meaning prostitute (which you probably didn’t). It goes further: The word “prostitute” has to do with being bought or sold. As forbidding as that sounds, I will continue.

So we have not just the usual women in this issue in bikinis but a section shot by Taylor Ballantyne called “In Her Own Words” featuring complete nudity with strategically placed arms and hands, and words written on the various bodies: TRUTH, LOVER, MOM, ARTIST, NATURAL. Etc. McCall Magazine calls SI out a bit but not authoritatively: “Rightly painted into a corner by the #MeToo movement, it should have sent a stronger message than ‘Come for the female empowerment, stay for the hot babes.’” That seems backwards. Wouldn’t the vast majority of readers (77% are men) come for the “babes” and stay for the empowerment? If there were time, I would rant on the word “babe” but there isn’t.

Alexandra Schwartz at The New Yorker does better: She calls the attempt to “fight fire with fire” posed (forgive the pun) by the team as “spectacularly silly.”

The models talked about their experience. Paulina Porizkova, who had the word ‘truth’ written on her side, told SI the project is about “more than being naked. It’s not just that you’re nude, but it’s also, ‘You’re nude and you show me the way you want me to see you.’ It’s even more naked than naked,” she explained. “I wanted to say that I’m not ashamed of my body and you shouldn’t be ashamed of your body, no matter what age you are. We all have our own truths. We all want to live according to our own truths. We want to be true to ourselves so truth is what matters more than anything.” I have no idea what this means. I don’t know if it’s true; I do know it is incoherent.

Sadder, though, is Aly Raisman’s point of view. She was the Olympic gymnast who so eloquently decried Larry Nassar only days before writing WOMEN DO NOT HAVE TO BE MODEST TO BE RESPECTED down her body. That also makes no real sense. She added, “You should be able to walk down the street late at night in an alleyway by yourself wearing whatever you want, and not have any risk of being attacked.” (Emphasis added. See “The Should World”) In a dark alley, you’re in danger. What you have on (or off) is the least of your worries. Don’t risk it.

At this point, there are many possible directions. Without mind-reading skills, I think what these women are trying to say that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies. That they have presumably sold their images for the purpose of being stared at by men does limit their credibility in my mind. But there is a deeper question: Where does that shame come from?

If I understand the origins of the concern with “patriarchy,” Eve is to blame for the Fall. We have to go Old Testament on this. Surely a treatise explains how shame led to clothing. I disagree. Adam and Eve were not ashamed when they were naked (Genesis 2:25), and when they had eaten the fruit that gives them knowledge, they simply became aware that they were naked; shame is not used. They sewed together some fig leaves and covered themselves. This knowledge is precious. No matter your stance on the Garden or the Fall, at some point we put on clothes. Philosophically, it doesn’t matter why. We keep them on to protect something sacred, not something of which we are ashamed. Eve is not to be blamed for that but praised. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Love follows knowledge.” Knowing better means we can love better. And that is good.


Egg Day, Cereal Day

Egg day, cereal day. Gym day, pool day with bath, shower, respectively. That’s where I am right now, in my happy ruts. You could call them routines, but that sounds too positive. We say “in a rut” as if that’s a bad thing. Much of the time, we love our ruts, seek them even, for the pattern they give our lives. Their slight walls keep us in line, conforming, settled.

Knowing we need variety and stimulation, we take vacations. A few days, a few weeks, and we are ready to come back to the familiar comforts of home.

When something happens that shakes us out of our ruts, we feel upset and long to return to those activities and places we consider normal and comforting. The image isn’t of being on a smooth path that is disrupted by hard going; it’s a bulldozer erasing the ruts we have so carefully organized.

Apparently, the internet agrees with my opposition and offers article after article, three to fifiteen ways, on how to get out of your rut(s). I will take my inspiration from the roadside sign in Alaska that reads: “Choose your rut carefully. You’ll be in it for the next 200 miles.”

Rather than get out of my ruts—what’s the matter with egg days?—I will add some better ruts. Writing daily, for example. These could be called making good habits, of course. A myth abounds that it takes 21 days to make a change permanent.

Something I like better is a study in which 500 pieces of classical music by 78 composers were ranked by position in years in the career. What emerged was a 10-year gap between beginning and greatness for all but a few pieces which emerged 8 or 9 years in. Mozart was one of those composers. He starting composing at age 5, for goodness sake. The principle is called “10 Years of Silence.” If that doesn’t sound like a rut, I don’t know what does. Diligent practice, inherently boring, produces results. Sort of throwing the ball at the goal doesn’t.

This comes a long way from what I had for breakfast. Part of the miracle of thinking, I guess. My goal is to get into some of those better ruts, obviously. The pleasant feeling of something holding me up on each side beckons.

Nose On Your Face

Crime puzzles me, and sin. Our modern age has invented nothing new in either category. Human nature, for all its glory, lets us think we can succeed in hiding our misdeeds. These days, more than ever before, this cannot be.

Our works don’t show in our faces, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray aside. Mr. Gray offered to sell his soul if his life choices wouldn’t show on his face but on a portrait of his young and beautiful self. A simple bargain, a horrific result. Were it so easy.

So we stroll through life deceived that no one will ever know. Sometimes that spills over into the absurd. Last week we had the dog groomer roughing up a Shih Tzu. Now you would think she might have thought, “This is 2018. Everyone has a phone with a camera. I’m mad at this dog for being, well, a dog, and I’d better not take any action against said dog or someone will catch me.” But no. On she goes to a swift termination a few hours later.

Home security cameras now alert owners to someone at their door. Recently an adolescent was caught stealing a bike off a porch. He walked toward it as if the camera could not see him because he was doing freeze-frame motions. Quite bizarre. Perhaps he just had bad information about how the things work.

Screaming at your kids? A neighbor will hear. Stealing money out of an employer’s wallet, account, truck? Someone will suspect and lay a trap. Things on your laptop that you’d rather not have seen? It will need repair and someone will find it: One of the stars of Glee recently killed himself before being sentenced. Talking online to a minor? Or not. How that can happen after the first sting operation remains a mystery to me.

The phrase I keep thinking of is “plain as the nose on your face.” Yet we cannot see our own noses. They are obvious to everyone else but us. We know they’re there, but we forget. And on we go about our business.

A hymn I know called “Do What Is Right” has this phrase: “Angels above us are silent notes taking/ Of ev’ry action; then do what is right!” You can forget the angels. Likely, someone else is recording you. (Even when it is a good thing, as here.) Think twice before doing something stupid. Having said that, I fully expect another week in which a text, email, open mike, iPhone, CCTV image, or some other omnipresent device will skewer an unwitting transgressor. Make your motto “Assume it’s on.” Maybe not this time, but someday, you’ll be caught. Don’t be deceived. We can see you. It is a puzzle as yet unsolved.