Fragments, Fumbles, Scraps, and Scratchings

The Nature of Public Opinion

Yet we do know certain things about [public opinion]. One of the most important findings of the pollsters over the last twenty years is that public attitudes are rarely changed by mere exhortation without all the facts, on all sides, to provide the context and to assure the reader or listener that he agrees, rather than that he is being pushed. The concept of mobilizing opinion by a campaign of hortatory slogans is fallacious. For all of us in the profession of journalism that point has vital significance, no matter what medium we serve. It suggests that public opinion is crystallized or changed by the force of persuasion and argument only if, as a condition precedent, entirely different forces have first been at work. People generally resist being told what to do or think. They want to know all the facts and then make up their own minds about the merit of the opinions of others and of suggested courses of action.

This may well be the lesson we can draw from the Cincinnati experiment, conducted by the American Association for the United Nations and the United Nations Association of Cincinnati, aided by the Stephen H. Wilder Foundation. Their objective certainly represented an essential goal of a democratic people in a shrinking world: “to demonstrate how a community may become so intelligently informed on world affairs as to be a dynamic force in the creation of an ordered, eventually a peaceful world.”

The campaign started in September 1947 — a period of relative serenity, with the United Nations heavily involved in procedural debates. Literature on the United Nations was given to every public school child and every teacher. Church and PTA meetings were devoted to the subject. At more than 225 meetings special speakers appeared, documentary films were shown, and thousands of pamphlets were distributed. Newspapers and radio gave special emphasis every day to information about the United Nations. Everywhere in the city slogans urging support for the United Nations were exhibited in enormous numbers: on blotters, matchbooks, street car cards and billboards.

Yet this mammoth campaign descended upon the people of Cincinnati with all the impact of a whisper in a boiler factory. On two central aspects of the United Nations — its main purpose and the existence of the veto power — almost exactly the same percentage of the population had knowledge after the six-month campaign as before it. The same percentage of people who praised the United Nations before the campaign praised it afterwards — and for the same things; so did an unchanged percentage blame it — and for the same things. The citizens of Cincinnati were just not susceptible of mobilization by exhortation alone, even of the most concentrated, disinterested and saturating kind.

— Frank Stanton, The People Must Know: An Analysis of the Key Role of Information in a Free Society, concluding address at the 49th Annual Journalism Week of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Columbia, Missouri, 1958.

I see Stanton’s point, but I’m not totally convinced. The brief description that he gives of the Cincinnati experiment suggests that only a fraction of the population was actually exposed to the pro-UN efforts. Is it possible that people, especially those who were already opposed to the UN, might simply have ignored the literature and lectures? The fact that few, if any, of the citizens learned anything new from the experiment suggests to me that it just hadn’t interested them, or that they had already made up their minds. But that’s just my (mostly uninformed) take on this.


Warfare at the Dinner Table

The student was born and brought up in Trondhjem. Tronghjem was the first and oldest capital of Norway. It is so no longer; but it is still the geographical centre of the country, the intersection between north and south, west and east, the heart of Norway.

His mother, who was a Trondhjemmer, and thoroughly urban, ate with her fork; his father who came from Sunnmøre and was a “foreigner”, ate with his knife.

That is not to say that his father handled his knife inelegantly; on the contrary, he used his knife with the same style and precision as he did a morticing chisel at his workbench. First, a piece of cod on the knife, then the knife into his mouth; then a piece of carrot on the knife and the knife into his mouth; then a piece of potato onto his knife, and the knife into his mouth. He never, ever dropped a bit onto his plate. And when he had finished, he used his knife to scrape the plate, his son would watch his knife bend, elegantly, noiselessly, to follow the china bottom; the plate was always as clean as a whistle. When the man noticed that his son was watching him, he would say: “You must always eat up properly.” Finally, last of all, his father licked his knife; he never ever cut his tongue.

It may well be a matter of indifference how you convey food to your mouth. Some people use a spoon, others their fingers; there are supposed to be whole nations who use chopsticks. But it mattered to his mother.

“Please,” she would say to her husband across the dinner-table, “please, when the children can see you …”

A wry little smile might then appear on his father’s face, a hard smile, or a smile of melancholy. He would not say anything, just went on eating with his knife; year out, year in; stubborn, imperturbable.

(Secretly, the boy sided with his mother; he thought his father might have eaten like other people. But at times he sensed that his mother ate with a fork in order to make their father look small in his children’s eyes, and then he sided with his father.)

Those two gods ….

Such warfare at the dinner table left you with a feud in your mind, a feud between your right hand and your left. After such a childhood you preferred to keep your hands in your trousers pockets, deep, out of sight, each by itself; it could be many years before you dared to take them out and use them, freely, unconstrainedly, purposefully …

— Agnar Mykle, Rubicon, translated by Maurice Michael

Evolution and Human Activities

Man wants to see nature and evolution as separate from human activities. There is the natural world, and there is man. But man also belongs to the natural world. If he is a ferocious predator, that too is a part of evolution. If cod and haddock and other species cannot survive because man kills them, something more adaptable will take their place. Nature, the ultimate pragmatist, doggedly searches for something that works. But as the cockroach demonstrates, what works best in nature does not always appeal to us.

— Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World

“The Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.”

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”


“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”

“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

“If they would rather die …”

The clerk, in letting Scrooge’s nephew out, had let two other people in. They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats off, in Scrooge’s office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him.

‘Scrooge and Marley’s, I believe,’ said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. ‘Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr Scrooge, or Mr Marley?’

‘Mr Marley has been dead these seven years,’ Scrooge replied. ‘He died seven years ago, this very night.’

‘We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner,’ said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.

It certainly was, for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word liberality, Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

‘At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,’ said the gentleman, taking up a pen, ‘it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.’

‘Are there no prisons?’ asked Scrooge.

‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are they still in operation?’

‘They are. Still,’ returned the gentleman,’ I wish I could say they were not.’

‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?’ said Scrooge.

‘Both very busy, sir.’

‘Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’

‘Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,’ returned the gentleman, ‘a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?’

‘Nothing!’ Scrooge replied.

‘You wish to be anonymous?’

‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge. ‘Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.’

‘Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.’

‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides-excuse me-I don’t know that.’

‘But you might know it,’ observed the gentleman.

‘It’s not my business,’ Scrooge returned. ‘It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!’

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

— Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Perceptions of Misfortune

This is what I gathered. That in that country if a man falls into ill health, or catches any disorder, or fails bodily in any way before he is seventy years old, he is tried before a jury of his countrymen, and if convicted is held up to public scorn and sentenced more or less severely as the case may be. There are subdivisions of illnesses into crimes and misdemeanours as with offences amongst ourselves—a man being punished very heavily for serious illness, while failure of eyes or hearing in one over sixty-five, who has had good health hitherto, is dealt with by fine only, or imprisonment in default of payment. But if a man forges a cheque, or sets his house on fire, or robs with violence from the person, or does any other such things as are criminal in our own country, he is either taken to a hospital and most carefully tended at the public expense, or if he is in good circumstances, he lets it be known to all his friends that he is suffering from a severe fit of immorality, just as we do when we are ill, and they come and visit him with great solicitude, and inquire with interest how it all came about, what symptoms first showed themselves, and so forth,—questions which he will answer with perfect unreserve; for bad conduct, though considered no less deplorable than illness with ourselves, and as unquestionably indicating something seriously wrong with the individual who misbehaves, is nevertheless held to be the result of either pre-natal or post-natal misfortune.

The strange part of the story, however, is that though they ascribe moral defects to the effect of misfortune either in character or surroundings, they will not listen to the plea of misfortune in cases that in England meet with sympathy and commiseration only. Ill luck of any kind, or even ill treatment at the hands of others, is considered an offence against society, inasmuch as it makes people uncomfortable to hear of it. Loss of fortune, therefore, or loss of some dear friend on whom another was much dependent, is punished hardly less severely than physical delinquency.

— Samuel Butler, Erewhon, or Over the Range (1872)

Trust in Institutions

[F]rustrated citizens have tried to fill the vacuum. Like-minded “followers” and “friends” feed us news online; people sometimes barter on eBay rather than bow to big corporations; and parents increasingly homeschool their children rather than expose them to failing public schools and unsafe streets. But this is coping, not institutional adaptation. And sociologists say we need the control that institutions provide: It’s how things get done.

When people trust their institutions, they’re better able to solve common problems. Research shows that school principals are much more likely to turn around struggling schools in places where people have a history of working together and getting involved in their children’s education. Communities bonded by friendships formed at church are more likely to vote, volunteer, and perform everyday good deeds like helping someone find a job. And governments find it easier to persuade the public to make sacrifices for the common good when people trust that their political leaders have the community’s best interests at heart. “Institutions — even dysfunctional ones — are why we don’t run amok in the woods,” [Laura] Hansen says.

Still, no metrics exist to measure life without institutions, because they’ve been around as long as humankind. The first institution was the first family. The tribe was the first community. The first tribe’s leader was the first politician, and its elders were the first legislature. Its guards, the first police force. Its storyteller, a teacher. Humans are coded to create communities, and communities beget institutions.

What if, in the future, they don’t? People could disconnect, refocus inward, and turn away from their social contract. Already, many are losing trust. If society can’t promise benefits for joining it, its members may no longer feel bound to follow its rules. But is the rise of disillusionment inexorable? Can institutions regain their mojo? History offers hope, but Whitmire’s story, and the story of Muncie, say no.

— “How Americans Lost Trust in Our Greatest Institutions”, by Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton [The Atlantic, Apr 20, 2012] (www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/04/how-americans-lost-trust-in-our-greatest-institutions/256163/)

Mastering Your Vocabulary

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be the master — that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass


I wish, sometimes, that I had a way to hold up my thoughts, the images and sounds in my head, the memories and the stories, and let you see them in all their dimensions. To be able to hold them in your hands and move them around, looking at front and back and top and bottom. But I don’t have such an ability — sometimes not even for myself.

On Becoming a Troll

OLD MAN: What is the difference between trolls and men?

PEER GYNT: As far as I can see — none at all.
Big trolls will roast you, and little trolls claw you;
and we’d be the same — if only we dared.

OLD MAN: True; in that, and in other respects, we’re alike,
But morning is morning and evening is evening,
and one huge difference stands between us ….
I’ll tell you, now, what that difference is:
Outside among men, where the skies are bright,
there’s a saying ‘Man, to thyself be true’;
but here among trolls, the saying runs:
‘Troll, to thyself be — enough.’

COURTIER: Well? Do you get it?”

PEER GYNT: I’m still a bit hazy …

OLD MAN: ‘Enough’, my son! That shattering word
of Power must be your battle-cry.

— Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt, Act 2, translated by Peter Watts

OLD MAN: When you went from the Ronde
my motto was firmly engraved on your heart.

PEER GYNT: What motto?

OLD MAN: That potent significant saying —

PEER GYNT: A saying?

OLD MAN: The one that distinguished humans
from trolls, which is: ‘Troll, to thyself be — enough!’

PEER GYNT: Enough!

OLD MAN: Yes, that’s right; and from that day to this
you’ve lived up to that motto as hard as you could!

— Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt, Act 5, translated by Peter Watts

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