Monday, October 29, 2007

Connotation: A Not So Terrible War

This week's Onion (a satirical newspaper) features a hilarious parody of "damage control" — euphemistic speech designed to sell people on the war. It reminded me of our earlier conversations about connotation, and it relates to our discussion of civil liberties in perilous times since reports about the hideous violence of the war are seen as "unpatriotic" by some people.

Click on the title of this post for the link to the Onion article or just click HERE.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Stuff of Thought

Steven Pinker's book, The Stuff of Thought, focuses on a major thread we've been following in class this year: namely, the connection between our choice of words and the thoughts behind them. He opens with an on-going law suit concerning the World Trade Towers. The suit concerns the definition of a single word -- "event." If the fall of the two towers is seen as one event (one plan master-minded by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda) then the lease holder of the WTC is entitled to 3.5 billion dollars. However, if the fall of the towers is seen as two separate events, then the leaseholder will receive 7 billion dollars. See how important language is?

Here's a second example he cites. In his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush used the following sentence to help justify the American invasion of Iraq that began later that year: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Shortly after the invasion it became clear that Hussein had no nuclear capabilities, nor did he ever explore the possibility of buying yellowcake [uranium] from Niger.

Many headlines screamed, "Bush lied." But did he? Pinker wants us to pay close attention to the language which, in his mind, rests on the word "learned."

Can you find an example of a headline or a news or sports story where a single word determines the way in which the event is understood?


Dear AiS Parents,

Mr. O'Connor and I are pleased to have you contribute to the online portion of our course. We realize how busy your lives are so we are very appreciative of the time you take to add to our ever-evolving discussion.

Please feel free to comment on any of our previous postings, taking care to identify yourself by either your last name or your child's name. Eg., "Mr. Jones" or "this is Gabriel's Mom".

If you have any questions before or after posting, please email one or both of us at the New Trier Home Page. Click on -Quick Links- then, "Staff Directory". If you have any technological issues, however, ask your kid! ;)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Moments of Silence

Illinois legislators have passed a new bill requiring public school teachers to hold a period of silence at the start of each day. Opponents call the law a thinly veiled attempt at requiring prayer in school. Proponents insist that silence is necessary to calm students as they begin a hectic day of study. What do you think of the law? Read this linked article critically.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Whitewashing the Present Day Away

In December, 2004, the Justice Department stated: "Torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms." However, according to the New York Times, that same department, in 2005, secretly:
provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.
The White House did not deny the allegations; instead, spokesperson Dana Perino stated, no less than four times: "we do not torture". And believe me, when Dana Perino says it, I count each time!

Dana, are you sure about the White House's policy? Because here are some basic descriptions of these and other techniques utilized by the CIA:
1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.

2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.

3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.

4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.

5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.

6. Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.
The sad part about this is how little TV news time is devoted to covering these issues. Listening to National Public Radio's "On the Media", I was surprised to hear that the three major news networks virtually ignored these stories. ABC never mentioned it all, CBS decided to report on how expensive airline tickets would be this holiday season, and NBC opened with another piece regarding the toe-tapping Senator in the bathroom! Then they (and only they) covered the 'torture' memo. Listen here:

While our class has talked about the whitewashing of the past, what do we know about whitewashing the present? Can you think of any other stories that seem to get less attention than they deserve?