Rhetoric

What actors and orators in the classical world knew about the quirks of the brain

Quite a bit, apparently. Recent research suggests that the same part of the brain which helps us see space and navigate through it also guides us through the thinking process. As we remember and reason, we’re taking a spatial tour of memories and possibilities.

This is precisely how classical and medieval scholars, actors, and orators carried knowledge with them. They would meticulously construct memory palaces by memorizing spatial locations, like cathedrals, areas, palaces, and parts of cities, which they would then mentally place powerful images in to help them remember facts and ideas.

It’s easy to think about the power of such locations when we think about our earliest memories. You may not remember what was on TV in a given year of your childhood, but I’ll bet you remember what the TV looked like and where in the room it was placed. Your whole childhood home, or series of homes, is probably indelibly imprinted on your mind. This same fantastic staying power of visual memory can be knowingly harnessed. In the era before paper and Google, it was probably how troubadours memorized long songs on a single hearing, or how orators could speak for hours on end using a predetermined sequence of ideas.

We can’t enter the mansions of memory any more, thanks to information tech in all its forms, but it seems like we’re hardwired to want to be there.

Anybody out there use a memory palace or anything like it?

From the Commonplace Book: Dickens on Whimsy and National Security

Well, not quite national security, but national strength anway.

It is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales be respected. A nation without fancy, without some romance, never did, never can, never will, hold a great place under the sun.

-Charles Dickens, from Frauds on the Fairies

The wage premium for liberal arts grads, the continuing technological edge that the U.S. still enjoys over China (despite our comparative lack of investment in research), the inventiveness of our defense programs, and the appeal of our pop culture abroad are all built on our imagination, not our efficiency.

Hat tip to The Week, November 16, 2018 for pointing out the quote.

Copy Critique: U.S. War Propaganda from 1942

Advertising has at least one thing in common with the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. It is a vast collective creative project undertaken in anonymity. Nobody cared, least of all the stonemasons, who built the pillars and spires of a church as long as they stood upright. And nobody cares who makes the art and copy of great ads, as long as they get the message across.

But unlike the cathedrals, advertising is ephemeral. Beyond annual award shows, we don’t stop to appreciate and learn from classic work. That’s why it was a rare thing to see a collection of World War II propaganda posters at the FDR Presidential Library this weekend. Many of them are a perfect union of words and visuals, made with brevity and power that would put social media mavens to shame.

Example number one is this beauty from 1942. It conveys with three words and one symbol what a long-form copywriter like myself would take at least 300 words to get across. I was humbled by it, and pass it along to you.

Get the message?

Punctuation & Civilization

As Kenneth Clark said, “Manners are small morals.” I’d say the same about punctuation.

The part of the mind that remembers the rules for capitalization after a semicolon or whether to use “who” or “whom” is also the part of the mind that strives to think clearly about the matter in front of it. Punctuation guides our grammar and through our grammar it guides our consciousness.

Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s “comma Queen,” says as much in her latest piece. If you think of yourself as a member of The Resistance against the immorality and incompetence of those in power at the moment, she says that a good place to start is with a clean, beautiful statement of the truth. To speak truth to power, in other words, it is essential to first know how to speak.

The Creeping Loss of History

There are two great horrors in 1984, the violence done to the narrator by the thugs of the thought police, similar to the actual crimes of repressive regimes in Orwell’s time and ours, and then there is the creeping loss of history, the more subtle of the two horrors, and the one that makes the violence possible.

I would argue that Orwell’s book is preoccupied with the erosion of history more so than violence.

The main character’s experience of the loss of history takes up far more pages than his brainwashing and physical abuse. When we see him broken at the end of the story, it is the loss of memory which makes him less than human. Without memory, there can be no ward against unreality. Without memory, whatever the screens around him say is truth and always has been.

Apart from reports of violence against migrants and the U.S. prison population in Guantanamo and at home, I am not exposed to physical brutality, but I am exposed every day to the creeping loss of history.

I recently ghost wrote a book on the future of the workplace for an executive. In discussions of economics or of the future, it is commonplace to talk about history. Economics is a science without a laboratory. The only way to test out theories about how the economy might work in the future is to look at how it has worked in the past. The most important work of economics in the last decade, Tomas Piketty’s Capital, was notable for its analysis of wealth inequality in the past. Because of new methods, Piketty could be more precise than Marx.

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The HBO-Sesame Street deal is not a reason to privatize public television

The Nation

Ever since its creation in the late 1960s, public broadcasting in the US has been under attack. The attacks have come mostly from conservatives, but liberals have not been above them, either, and the debate usually flares up when there is a change in the funding for NPR and PBS, either in amount or source. The new partnership between HBO and Sesame Street is the latest such flare up. Usually, Big Bird gets held up as a symbol for all of public broadcasting, but in this case, he and his pals are actually at the center of the debate.

In my latest for The Nation, my co-author and I argue that the Sesame Street deal, while good for the iconic children’s show, is a bad model for the rest of PBS programs. When it comes to providing educational resources for all Americans, privatization isn’t the way to go. Click on the bird for the full piece.