Friday, August 27, 2004

Correction: I fell for a folk etymology
Reader Ian M. Slater writes:

My Latin dictionaries and grammars may be out of date, or my memories of them (since they are mostly in storage after a move) may be wrong, but I was under the impression that *propaganda* is "for the extension of...," from *propago,* "to extend, to generate," by way of *propagatio.* The resemblance of the *-anda* ending to *(pa)gani* would be coincidental -- except that they are both permitted under the laws governing sound combinations in Latin.

I am not citing English dictionaries on this, since so many of them persist in repeating dubious etymologies from nineteenth-century sources (try comparing explanations for the Latin root of "person").

Also, although the explanation of *paganus* as "rustic," hence, "not part of urban Christian culture" is generally accepted, there is an alternative explanation as "from beyond the boundary," with the metaphorical implication of "not initiated." This actually fits some contexts from late antiquity much better. Of course, both etymologies may have been current then, and invoked as appropriate.

One of the frustrating problems of philology is how one separates out real etymologies of words from 'folk etymology.' I appear to have fallen prey to this problem here, since it seems like "propagatio" is more plausible.
Now, my error isn't as bad as, say, aruging that the word "therapist" is actually "the" "rapist," but its the kind of thing that drives hard-core philologists crazy. At the last meeting of The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, one German philologist was particular ferocious to someone who suggested that the word "fulwiht" (baptism) might have meant "full" "white" (i.e., completely pure). There's a German cognate to 'fulwiht', and so the suggested folk-etymology wasn't necessary.

To give myself a little benefit of the doubt, however, I'll point out that the kind of play on words of "for" "the rustics" would be a form of paranomasia, a rhetorical device beloved of the 10th-century, Benedictine Reform writers that are my research focus. The problem with dealing with writers who use paranomasia is that you are never 100% sure when they are using the device and when you are reading too much into a word's physical form.

This is also the case in Tolkien studies, most famously with the word "Moria," which Tolkien created in one of his elvish languages ("Mor" meant 'black' or 'dark'). Some critics read a lot into a putative link between "Moria" and the biblical "Moriah." As can be seen from JRRT's letters, this psuedo-connection (as he saw it) really drove him crazy.

This is a useful point for a larger discussion or authorial intent versus cultural resonance, but I think I've already done a good job of taking the focus off of my error in the etymology of 'propaganda.'

Thursday, August 26, 2004


Rose Nunez at No Credentials has an interesting and challenging response to some of my posts below. It's my daughter's fourth birthday today, so I probably won't be responding until tomorrow at the earliest, but I think this is a conversation worth having.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Listen to me speak in 'The Black Speech'
by clicking this link. The producer did a great job, I think, in blending all of the material together, and the piece is pretty neat.

Back in fifth grade, my best friend Chipper and I wrote an adapted play of "The Council of Elrond" (yes, the one chapter in LotR where there's no physical action). I think our version is much better than Peter Jackson's, by the way. But in doing this I ended up memorizing the lines written on the One Ring: ash nazg durbatuluk, etc. This has come in handy many more times than you might expect.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Knowledge Problems and the Value of Academics (and Journalists)

In my last two posts, and in some previous writings, I've asserted that the loss of cultural authority of academics and journalists, although quite likely deserved, is a bad thing for the culture as a whole. Each of those posts was already too long, so I just let the assertion hang and asked my readers to trust me. Now I need to argue for that assertion.

I'll begin by saying that I accept a lot of the critique of contemporary academia and journalism (and I've made some of it myself): I don't think it really can be denied with a straight face that journalists and profs skew heavily toward one end of the political spectrum, that this skew is self-reinforcing and that non-conforming individuals have a very difficult time in both fields. It's a little more controversial to argue that both journalists and academics have tended to present a one-sided view of the world in their work, but I think it's pretty clear from recent journalistic events and simple inspection of the titles of papers at MLA that the bias in these fields extends beyond personnel-selection and into actual scholarship and journalism.

But I don't think that the above is prima facie bad. Bias tends to wash out in the end, and I'm enough of an idealist to believe that the truth of any issue has such a great advantage in the long run that eventually it comes out. If academics and journalists all hold a certain basic set of views, and that set of views includes incorrect views along with correct ones (and obviously many views are normative and can't be broken down to correct/incorrect), I think that the correct ones will ultimately prevail.

No, I don't think the general left-liberalism of the professoriate and the press corps is a terrible tragedy. But I think the abuse of authority that has become so apparent recently is a cultural disaster in the making.

Here's why: if we do live in a 'knowledge society,' it is one in which it can be very, very hard to find out the truth of many issues. For example, between us my wife and I have seven college degrees, including two Ph.D.'s and degrees from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Northwestern. And yet we are completely unable to be sure that we are not making hideous mistakes in a variety of circumstances, including mortgages and fees, life insurance (in fact, I'm sure we've gotten ripped off here), safety issues,local politics, and telecommunications. The problem is, it's nearly impossible to find honest, informed and disinterested advice in these fields. Every piece of advice that you get, unless you're lucky enough to find a family member or a close friend who is knowledgeable, is potentially a trap. And my wife and I can, in fact, do the math.

Journalists and academics are supposed to be disinterested experts whose word you can trust. Seriously. Our students and readers should be able to trust us absolutely. But many people are starting to believe that they no longer can. Right now that lack of trust may only extend to national politics, but the cancer is spreading.

Let me give an example: what is the maximum safe speed to drive on any road? The posted speed limits are obviously bogus, since no one follows them. But is it really safe to take a curve at 80, or should you slow down to 70? Signs with real safety information would be useful, but the culture is such right now that we instead put up a bunch of uniform 65 mph signs. Do traffic engineers expect everyone to go 65? No, they're not idiots. But they assume that if they post the road at 75, everyone will go 90. There's been a breakdown in trust at every level (the drivers don't trust the signs; the traffic engineers don't trust the drivers). Bad information has driven out good information.

I could give another 20 examples easily. How long is medicine really good for? What are the real nutritional/health effects of various foods and drugs? How many pounds can the swing actually hold? How much does the kid really have to weigh before the child seat is no longer safe? How much life insurance do you really need? For many of these, you simply have to play it safe and accept the 'official' advice, but you get the nagging feeling you're being played for a fool.

I think my point is pretty obvious by now: if people stop being able to trust information from experts, if the experts are spinning or skewing the information for their own interests, you're working up to a collapse of, or at least immense damage to, an information-based culture. I know that people are certain that they're on the side of the angels by distorting their data and manipulating their readers. And for any given issue, this may be the case (i.e., it's a least theoretically possible that more social good could come from such a manipulation if it led people to do the 'right' thing more than the unmanipulated data would). But in the long run, once people catch on that they are being manipulated, you end up with the disaster of no one trusting any one except people they know personally. One of the great accomplishments of Western culture was to break free of the bonds of 'I only trust family,' thus allowing people to trust strangers and easily cooperate. Lack of trust of strangers is one of the great stumbling blocks to development in the third world (I speak from experience, as a dual citizen of Jamaica and the US--there is a great lack of honesty and trust in any situation in which one doesn't have personal connections).

The mass media and the professoriate had, in our culture, built up a huge reservoir of trust. But now, and this is what I meant by 'eating their seed corn,' that trust is being eroded. Each distortion or manipulation eats a little bit more, and eventually there will be none left, and we'll have to rebuild. That process will be very, very painful.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Why Some Journalists *And Academics* Do What They Do

A term from literary theory might actually be useful here [hey! stop laughing! I'm serious...].

Theory people often talk about praxis, a term right on the border between useful terminology and alienating jargon. "Praxis," in this context, means how the theory gets put into practice, or what actually get done if you accept the theory.

This is a sore spot for many literary theoreticians, because the praxis of their earth-shaking theories often ends up being banal or even invisible. What good, one might ask, is your theory of the deconstruction of everything if the only praxis turns out to be that your books gets some good reviews and you get chatted up at MLA? The larger the claims for the theory, the more problematic the praxis.
The real, practical praxis (i.e., what academics actually do) always seems to be 'vote the straight democratc-party ticket and donate to various causes.' Nothing wrong with that, but it's a bit of embarrassment for theory, since about 100 million other people in America manage to do the same exact thing without the benefit of the deep theoretical analysis. Old-school cultural materialists (i.e., honest Marxists and 'Old Left' folks), often make younger theory-people profoundly uncomfortable by pointing out that, from a materialist perspective, there's no difference in praxis from the college professor who votes the straight ticket after an exhausting Foucaultian analysis of late-capitalistic discourses and the 92-year-old retired welder who votes the straight ticket because he always has and always will.

Faced with the praxis problem, theoretically minded folks go in either of two directions: the first is what we can call "Trickle-Down Theory." The idea is that the rarified, complex analysis of the academy will eventually end up influencing policy. Thus you may have written a book about masculinist discourse in 10th-century Latin Saints' Lives that only 30 people on earth will read, but eventually you'll be helping to overturn the social order.
There are, of course, some examples of theoretical ideas being taken up by the culture--Catherine McKinnon's feminist scholarship, for example, led to a lot of sexual harrassment law. But it's hard for the average scholar to argue with a straight face that the best way to end racism is to write a hard-to-read book about William Faulkner. (That's probably why people have gotten so angry at me when I've used the "Trickle-Down Theory" description in public). If the theories are as complex and difficult to understand as they are (given the current state of theoretical discourse conventions), it's hard to believe that the bits of theory that do trickle out are as influential on the social order as, say, volunteering at a literacy center one night per week.

The second approach is to use the insights gained from theory to influence one's teaching and thus one's students. But the complexity problem rears its ugly head here as well. If theory is complex enough to require whole books written for very specialized audiences, then how are students going to master it at the same time they have to deal with difficult sources, unfamiliar concepts, etc.? Teachers try, but students often aren't ready to put the theory in context yet. That doesn't mean that they are stupid, just that there's a lot of background that has to be absorbed.

And so, frustrated professors (and journalists), end up trying to push the praxis on the students. That is, students can't necessarily engage with the theory at its highest levels, but they can at least be coaxed, even forced, to adopted the practical outcome of the theory: and that praxis is, usually, limited to having a certain set of opinions and voting the straight ticket.

So, yes, we are back in a loop. And we can give a clear label to what happens when profs and journalists get frustrated and rush to the short-cut: Propaganda. I'm going to be a pedant [oh, that's a surprise], and note that "Propaganda" means "for the pagani," "for the country people." The original idea of propaganda was to get the country people to believe the right thing -- to enact the correct praxis -- even if they weren't capable of following the argument.

I think that a great many journalists and academics have decided that the pagani really aren't ready for all of the information. Corporate knowledge-manufacture or government manipulation have, in the minds of many people, become so powerful that the pagani believe the wrong things. The only way to set them straight is to fight fire with fire, distortion with distortion and manipulation with manipulation. I don't think that academics and journalists are doing this in bad faith. Quite the opposite. Based on my personal experience I think that journalists and academics really and truly believe that the praxis they want to enact is the right thing for society and therefore the ends are worth the means.

This explains why journalists are not simply reporting the news, but figuring out how to report the news so that the pagani will draw the 'correct' conclusions. In this case, the 'correct' conclusion is to vote a certain way in November.

I have great sympathy for the honest concern for the society and culture that is, in my view, at the heart of this behavior. But I think it is a terrible mistake: the pagani aren't as stupid as they appear to be, and they resent being manipulated. The end result may be that the pagani still don't adopt the preferred praxis, but they do end up rejecting the academics and journalists who have tried to manipulate them. Furthermore the actual causes, for which there are in fact reasoned, non-propagandistic arguments, end up being tarnished by association. When people automatically discount what is said by a journalist or a professor, the culture has a real problem. Because it is often--although not universally--the case that journalists and professors actually do have a greater depth of knowledge in their specialities than do members of the general public. In these cases it is worth listening to what they (we) have to say. But if you abuse your position of trust too much, no one will believe you even when there actually is a crisis and when you (we) are telling an important truth.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Why Some Journalists Do What They Do
Or, why the blogosphere seems to be better at digging for facts

Glenn Reynolds collects a bunch of information on Senator Tom Harkin's fake Vietnam stories, and several readers wonder what has gone wrong with journalists/journalism. One writes to Glenn: "Newspaper reporters used to know this - and they used to look for those facts. They used to check sources. They used to search for the truth in a way that would make any skeptic proud. But now they just read the press releases and change a word here or there."

I thought that maybe I could give a bit of an explanation that wasn't quite as simple as 'they are all in the tank for John Kerry' (which is probably 65% true, but doesn't explain everything).
Readers of this blog will remember that I have a journalism degree from (M.A., Stanford, 1991) that I don't use (I don't regret the time spent at The Farm, because I met my wife there, but I've never been a full-time, paid journalist).

Based on my experience at J-school, I can generalize a couple things about journalists around my age that could explain some of the problems. First, nearly all of us were in J-school not because we wanted to be reporters, but because we wanted to write. Most of us who were together at Stanford have also either gotten out of journalism or never really got in, probably because we didn't really like reporting very much. I personally hated it, and I was lucky that I learned this so soon and didn't waste a big chunk of my life trying to be a reporter.

I think a lot of reporters feel the same way, which is why they all want to become columnists. Writing is fun and gratifying. Reporting is a lot of drudgery and leg-work. Thus reporters are ripe for the temptation of press-releases: and most press-release-writing flacks are people with journalism degrees who know exactly how to write a release so that the reporter can edit out obvious promotion but still buy the overall spin.

Second, almost all of the J-school program at Stanford was spent trying to get us to think about the implications of journalism, the politics of reporting, the influence of journalists, etc. Stanford is on tri-mesters, and you take three or four courses per trimester in grad school. We had a total of 3 mandatory classes that were on reporting. Two of these, taught by two-time Pullitzer winner James Risser and then city-editor of the San Jose Mercury News, Jerry Lanson, were brilliant. The other wasn't. But the great majority of the classes we all took were about Journalism and Law, Journalism and Politics, etc. (It almost goes without saying that these classes slanted very left-liberal. And it wasn't just professors indoctrinating us: we all wanted to be crusading, Woodward and Bernstein reporters, bringing down the powerful and helping the little guy. I don't think this is automatically a bad thing, by the way)

But when you focus all your attention on the implications, you're likely to spend more time and intellectual energy trying to control those implications (via spin, etc.) than you do in unearthing the details behind the story. And when your training is in recognizing political implications rather than in leg-work, sourcing and background, you're less able to automatically do what good, non-J-school, cynical, old-school reporters used to do.

When you factor in these two things--reporters would rather write than report, and those who have gone to J-school are more likely to have spent their time thinking about 'implications' rather than actually reporting--you see how avoiding research and fact-checking is the path of least resistance. And journalist are, contra some people's beliefs, very overworked and very underpaid. Really (I had a job offer, which would have required me to live in downtown Atlanta and work 50-60 hour weeks, that paid $14,000 per year. I made more money managing a pet store in Columbia, MO).

I think this is a long-term big problem for Journalism, the profession. It has been eating its seed corn for a decade or more, and so much of its cultural authority is used up. This can be good, in that it reduces the influence of unaccountable institutions, like the big daily papers. But it's also bad, because once everyone stops believing the newspapers, you have a huge problem of vetting and evaluating information. I really hope that up-and-coming reporters, and J-schools, realize that they also have a huge opportunity: if there were a media outlet that really did hard-core research and fought to avoid bias and 'spin' (as impossible as it is to be completely unbiased), it would overcome many of its competitors: there is a real thirst for true information about a huge variety of topics [future post on this]. 'Spinning', even when done with the best of intentions (which I think is often the case), just further weakens a really important democratic institution.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Current Project

If I had to keep one of those dreadful time sheets that my wife does for her work (where you document every six minutes of your time), surely this summer would seem unproductive, with most entries reading "changed Mitch's diaper," "carried Mitch around outside until he stopped crying." "changed Mitch's diaper again." But somehow I managed to finish off a whole bunch of lingering projects:

1. Article on Anglo-Saxon Medicine, co-written with biology professor, submitted to Anglo-Saxon England.

2. Long article on 20th century fantasy's use of medieval materials: "The Problem of Transformation: The Use of Medieval Sources in Fantasy Literature," for Blackwell's Literature Compass.

3. Long article on Beowulf: "Blood and Deeds: The Inheritance Systems in Beowulf” submitted to Review of English Studies.

4. Short (hopefully humorous) piece for Old English Newsletter: An Anglo-Saxonist Gets His Fifteen Minutes (or, what happens when the media briefly pay attention). There may be a web version here

5. And, what took the longest time, the penultimate version of the Table of Contents for the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. The lists of entries and possible contributors is being finished by the press, as is the project website, and I'll post details when I have them.

It's not really that bad. If you count either Tolkien Studies volume I (which we finished editing in 2003 but was published in 2004), or you count TS vol II (which we're editing in 2004 but will be published in 2005), I've had a book and four articles published thus far this year and I've written a few more articles (including one in a collection coming out in Italy) and have two more guaranteed articles (in Rob Eaglestone's Tolkien book from Continuum and in the collection that will come out of the Marquette conference. So I shouldn't feel unproductive, but, in fact, I do.

That's because I want to get back to doing reseach rather than just writing. I feel weird saying it, because obviously when I wrote all of the above, I did a lot of research, but it's not quite the same. For most of what I wrote/published, I didn't do new primary source work. Rather, I used my existing knowledge of texts to pull different threads of argument together. In the case of the Beowulf article, I'd been teaching the ideas for seven years or so, so they were quite refined (thanks to good student questions), but I hadn't put it all down on paper. That was hard, and fun, and mentally good.

But now I'm starting on a quasi-new project (only quasi, because I dealt with some of the background in my dissertation). I'm researching and writing an article about Albert S. Cook, possibly the most powerful American Anglo-Saxonist who ever lived. Cook founded the English department at Johns Hopkins and re-organized that at Berkeley before becoming a prof. at Yale. His published articles take up a gigantic, three-inch-thick binder in photocopies. He did editions of most major OE texts, and these were used for about 50 years and were the 'standard' editions even as late as the early 1980s.

But almost no one knows who Cook was or why he was important. And people who do mention him, like Gerald Graff, in Professing Literature get him hideously wrong (one reason I'm writing this article is to have the fun of showing how wrong Graff gets Cook). I've got all the pieces of the Cook side of the article, but I need to find, for want of a better word, a "hook" to link up my ideas about Cook and the history of scholarship and his particular beliefs with Cook's great achievement: his edition of The Christ of Cynewulf, which was the standard edition until Fred Biggs did one in the 1980's. I want to find a place in Christ of Cynewulf where I can argue that Cook's ideas about authorship and authority, particularly his construction of a biography and identity for Cynewulf, influenced his edition. This means working through and translating all of the three Christ poems and comparing my translation to Cook's, trying to figure out why Cook made the decisions that he made.

It's a fun project, and more importantly, it gets me back in touch with the primary material (reading and translating OE). Who knows what I'll find? My big Chrodegang article (which I think is my best piece of scholarship thus far) came out of digging into the text, translating it, and all of a sudden noticing a pattern. We'll see if that's what happens here.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Cool Thing I Got to Do

On Friday I got to go see this exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science before it opened to the public. I was invited to do some commentary for WBUR, the local public radio station. I'll put up a link when the piece is broadcast in a couple of weeks.

The exhibit was surprisingly good. I've seen lot of movie props (my roomate at Carnegie Mellon was a drama production major and used to bring work home), and they're usually crappy: just good enough to look ok on film is the rule (and it makes sense, since you don't want to waste a lot of money). But these are really impressive: beautifully crafted and presented as if they were 'real' artifacts in a 'real' museum.

I was inwardly amused because I remember that back in sixth grade we had been given the assignment of designing a museum or something like that, and I'd done The Museum of Middle-earth, with orc skulls and palantiri on display. I'd forgotten that until just as I was walking out of the exhibit

There are also some very interesting displays that let you do interactive stuff to see how the characters, etc. were made. You can re-create the Gandalf and Frodo on the cart scene (two separate benches, different sizes, melded together on one screen), or move a plastic sword and shield to make a computer-generated warrior follow you moves. Pretty neat stuff, whether you were disappointed in aspects of the films or not.