Friday, May 6, 2016

Propaganda By Any Other Name

One of the important issues I'll have to deal with as the Public Affairs Officer in Vilnius, Lithuania, is the Russian propaganda bombarding the Baltic states. I recently attended a screening of a documentary film about this. Considering how best to respond to Russia's well-financed and pervasive propaganda machine, it raises the question of what is and what isn't propaganda.

What makes information propaganda? Does the mere fact that a government is funding that information make it propaganda? America's Voice of America and Britain's BBC are two obvious Western examples of government or public-funded broadcasting. But I certainly would not lump those media outlets in the same category as the Kremlin-funded Russia Today (recently renamed to the more ambiguous RT).

Maybe propaganda means information that attempts to twist public opinion a certain way. However, by that loose definition, you could label just about any news organization in America as propaganda.

In America, we are extremely sensitive to any perception that the U.S. might be engaging in propaganda, so we go out of our way to avoid any such accusation. Only in the last couple of years has the Smith-Mundt Act been updated to account for the Internet; and, oh boy, did that stir up a hornets nest of conspiracy theories about how the State Department would start brainwashing Americans.

Russia does not engage in any such moral deliberations. Nor is it confined by, say, the truth. This gives Russia an advantage in the information war in which we find ourselves. So how should we respond? The biggest challenge is that people who are particularly susceptible to spin - especially when it confirms their existing biases - are rarely influenced by rationality. In other words, you can't always counter conspiracy theories and propaganda with logic.

At the very least, we should hold ourselves to higher standards than RT, for example. But we have to sometimes get down in the mud where these conversations are taking place. It's a delicate tightrope walk between maintaining our integrity on the one hand and refuting the half-truths and outright lies told about us in a way that will resonate with those who want to believe the worst about us.

It's a challenge I'm looking forward to facing in Lithuania. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Off Topic

"Do you regret having kids?"

That's a rude question to ask an acquaintance, right? So why do some people feel it's okay to ask me, "do you regret not having kids?" I'm not talking about close friends, with whom I discuss personal issues (although I'm not sure I would ask "do you regret having kids" even to close friends), but people I know casually.

Being of a certain age and never married, I understand that some people might think A) I'm gay (I'm not, and these days that's not a barrier to marriage); B) I have a deep-rooted bias against the institution or come from a broken home (I don't; my parents are about to celebrate their 50th anniversary); or, if neither A or B, then C) I'm currently desperate to find a husband (really not).

Some people (usually women), when they find out I've never been married and I don't have children, are surprised that I'm not - at that very moment - on the prowl for a husband (hopefully not theirs) or sitting at home crying because I don't have a husband.

I've discovered a pattern. People who seem the most comfortable and happiest with their life choices are less likely to try to make me feel bad about mine. When someone with a spouse and children says to me, "you'll regret it later," what I hear is, "the fact that your life is very different than mine yet you seem happy and not desperate to have what I have makes me uncomfortable."

In every person's lifetime, there are multiple paths to happiness. And they're not always identical to someone else's.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Androgynous Declinations and Cross-Dressing Nouns

In many foreign languages, nouns have genders. But in Lithuanian, there are various categories of noun endings within each gender, all with their own declinations. Masculine nouns can end in -as, -us, -is, etc. Feminine nouns can end in -a, -ė, -is, etc. With six common endings x 12 common declensions (6 singular cases and 6 plural cases), there are 72 common endings I have to know. This actually wouldn't be too bad if there weren't so many other weird endings and exceptions.

For instance, you may have noticed above that the -is ending is both feminine and masculine. Actually, there are three possible declensions for -is nouns and no good way to know which is which just by looking at the word. I haven't even mentioned the peculiar nouns that do their own thing; there are just as many "special nouns" with unique, androgynous declinations as there are normal nouns.

Then there are the transvestite nouns. Nouns that are actually one gender, but dress up as the other gender. For example, the word for a male colleague (kolega) ends in -a, which is a feminine ending, and so it declines as a feminine noun. But it is, in fact, a masculine noun and therefore requires an adjective in the masculine form.

When it comes to gender-bending people, I'm of the "live and let live" mindset. But when it comes to grammar rules, masculine nouns should behave masculinely and feminine nouns should behave femininely. I'm old-fashioned that way.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Unfurling the Flag and the Welcome Mat

On this blog, I’ve avoided commentary on controversial topics or on anything that touches on policy. But with all the uninformed chatter about Syrian refugees floating around the interwebs in the wake of the Paris bombings, I feel compelled to share my perspective on the matter.

I understand the worry and fear many people have. Although we are very good at tracking and/or stopping people who wish to do us harm from entering the U.S., we can’t catch 100% of the bad guys and, as we’ve seen, it only takes a few bad guys to do some very bad things. It is natural to react to the tragedy in France with fear. But I would argue that it is not the American way to let fear turn into paranoia.

Unlike Europe, where tens of thousands of refugees are pouring into the continent with virtually no screening, the U.S. has the luxury of only accepting refugees after a lengthy and thorough vetting process. It can take 1-2 years (or longer) for a Syrian refugee to actually arrive in America. Is there a statistical possibility that a wanna-be terrorist could make his way to a refugee camp, get on the long waiting list, make it through the vetting process, and finally get to America many months, or even years, later? Yes. But the chances of him wanting to go that route to get to America are very slim.

Shutting down the Syrian refugee resettlement program won’t really make America safer. In fact, not tending to the refugee crisis could make things worse, as my former boss Ambassador Ryan Crocker wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Left unaddressed, the strain (of the humanitarian crisis) will feed instability and trigger more violence across the region, which will have consequences for U.S. national security.

We can protect our country and security without becoming the ugly, hateful country ISIS portrays us to be. We are better than that.