“Unfortunate” Semantics

The following mini-drama played itself out in the March 2009 pages of Sky & Telescope . It concerned an exchange of verbal pot-shots on the biblical subject of the “Star of Bethlehem”, found in S&T articles and letters to the editor going all the way back to December 2007.

The critique you are reading  here appears in Writing NOTES, rather than Summitlake’s Astronomy department, because the “Star of Bethlehem” subject was hijacked by the subtext. Those letters and columns were not primarily about stale rehashes of the perennially old debate. They were about a battle for intellectual dominance and crowd control. They were about “spin doctoring” in the Lee Atwater “Dirty Tricks” sense, scaled down to the palate of the Astronomy crowd.

Contributor: Unfortunately, I and my work on the Star have been maligned in what amounts to a personal attack. Since I am the injured party here, I get to substitute a fairness appeal for any substantive additions to my hypothesis.

Columnist: Others have misrepresented my research and ignored historical evidence. A book reviewed cited my work on the Star of Bethlehem as the “final word”. Unfortunately, others have ignored the historical evidence.

Was there really a Star of Bethlehem, or was it just invented out of whole cloth, or was it a misidentification of some other apparition, now understood, such as Venus or Halley’s Comet? Could it have been a supernova, even though we have neither a confirmed date nor independent observations from the courts of Chinese astronomers? Were there really Three Wise Men, and, if so, exactly how wise were they?

The fact seems to be that we simply can’t know. Except for the highly supercharged Biblical reference, such an alleged sighting wouldn’t even be remembered today.

Personal attacks are intolerable as a substitute for substantive argument. I dug into the Sky & Telescope articles and references with interest, looking for signs of slander. Finding no direct personal attacks, I found it interesting that the writer who came across as the pious psalm-singing defender of the faith was the one arguing that the Star of Bethlehem, historically, probably did not exist at all. The writer representing himself as the reasoned man of science was the one who concluded that the “Star” was, variously, either an astrological event, or just the “mundane Morning Star” [Venus].

Semantically, it’s worth noting that current popular usage of the word “unfortunately” has a different purpose than the mere confirmation of a regrettable fact. It’s used to hijack the conversation, to pre-empt it with a corrective change of context. And we need to be aware of that signal.

Old usage: Unfortunately, at that exact moment, Holmes dropped his pipe onto the doctor’s lap, setting Watson’s pants on fire.

New usage: Unfortunately, you don’t get to ask for an allowance this week, because you didn’t clean your room in 1957.

Or even: Unfortunately, you’re fired.

In other words, “unfortunately” isn’t used today so much to express regret, as to set you up for the show-stopper. It’s no accident that successful delivery of the catch-word is easily intoned to sound like a parent rebuking an unthinking child: you thought the conversation was about the allowance, but now you can see it’s really about who calls the shots here.

And what about the Star of Bethlehem?

In my personal opinion, when a conversation devolves into a verbal pissing match, it’s prima facie evidence that at least one party doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or has become bogged and befuddled in intellectual quicksand, and intends to derail the discussion. If possible, he intends to turn the situation around, from facts to appearances, so that an audience perceives the other side as the bad guy, and therefore, the loser. The spin artist becomes the default winner.

I watched “Boogie Man” on PBS last night, the Lee Atwater “Dirty Tricks” story of the small-town Southern boy who made it to the very top rungs of Washington society by smear and innuendo. Atwater was the one who cost Dukakis the election with the “Willie Horton” tactic. While Governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis signed a prison reform bill allowing furloughs for convicted felons. While out on furlough, Horton raped a woman after pistol-whipping and knifing her fiance. Atwater spun this to make Horton “a household name”, implying Dukakis pandered to rapists, even getting third parties to sponsor interviews with rape victims. Horton was also African-American, and it was no accident that his rise to national notoriety pandered to Southern racism too. America got the message this was what you could expect if they elected Dukakis instead of George H.W. Bush.

Dukakis explained retrospectively, in an interview near the end of the “Boogie Man” special, that he believed at the time the best defense against an unfair smear was to refuse to dignify it: to ignore it. In real life, this may sound like the high road, but, in politics, it’s suicide: Atwater hung him out to dry.

It turns out that this Massachusetts furlough program was modeled after a similar and seemingly successful progressive program in California, signed into law by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. But Dukakis never explained that to the press.

In retrospect, Dukakis admitted his best defense would have been to simply state the affirmative, and shut up.

In Astronomy, as in the greater and contentious world of academia and business, it seems the same ethics would apply. State the affirmative, shut up, skip the pissing matches, and get on with real business.

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The New Yorker Cover

July 21 2008 New Yorker Cover - ObamasI saw it on PBS News before my own issue arrived. Like so many others, I didn’t get it.

But there was the firestorm of controversy. Was The New Yorkerimplying Michelle totes an AK-47 and Barack is a radical Islamist? And what’s with the flag burning in the fireplace? In short, was one of the nation’s most literary magazines disrespectingthe Obamas?

According to PBS, The New Yorker was gamely replying that this was satire. No, any fool (it was hoped) should see that the cover represents how Obama’s scaremongering enemies would like to paint him as election day draws near.

Well, my own July 21 issue of The New Yorker arrrived, and I looked at the cover again, and I still don’t get it. It’s not the first time. From where I stand, it’s just another attention-getting flub from the magazine’s cover editors and whomsoever else is responsible for keeping the magazine in the public eye from week to week.

The current White House regularly goes ballistic over incisive weekly reporting by Jon Lee Anderson and Seymour Hersch on gasoline-on-the-flames topics such as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Iraq and global warming – oops – I mean, Climate Change. Most of those leaders need no caricaturist, being fully qualified stand-in artists for The Joker in the current Batman cinema.

There’s rarely if ever any explanation or apologia for New Yorker covers, and I didn’t find any. What I did find was yet another outstanding issue – in the printed material inside.

On page 48 there’s a terrific feature article on the political scene by Ryan Lizza, MAKING IT– how Chicago shaped Obama. I learned a lot about Obama the candidate, most of it very favorable in my opinion. I learned quite a bit about Obama the politician. Let’s face it, no one who hasn’t mastered politics will ever be elected President, and here again Obama seems to have what it takes. I also learned more than I ever wanted to know about the world of politics, Chicago-style – but (also my opinion) if you were thinking that the politics of a Boston, San Francisco or New York were prettier in any way, think again.

You probably know that cartoons grace the pages of The New Yorker, as they have for decades. The first rule of New Yorker cartoons is not really any different (if you think about it) than the first rule for cartoons in any magazine, or any collection of same: only one or two are going to strike a really responsive chord; the rest of them are going to be eminently forgettable, disappearing weekly in the recycling container.

New Yorker covers are a big deal to many folks, including the magazine itself. Periodically, the magazine publishes a “book of covers” so that, if you wish, you could ferret out an image of the cover for the week you were born, or Pearl Harbor day, or the day Bush took office – so to speak. Some of those covers are themselves cartoons, with the same success-failure ratios we just discussed. Most covers are just light art, breezy ethereal art, and occasionally even good art. Few people who buy magazines at all would need the words “The New Yorker” to instantly identify this magazine from the hundreds offered on the news racks.

I’m willing to go so far as to say I don’t care for the current Obama cover. I think it’s unfortunate. But I’m unwilling to join the thousands who will damn it or praise it. Sure, some conservatives will point to it and say, “I told you so”. Some liberals will see the cover as a betrayal of the last best hope for America. I say it’s just a lousy cover. It’s not just this magazine – Time also gets lambasted periodically for questionable covers. It’s happened before, and will happen again.

1962 New Yorker CoverIf I was forced – by an evil torturer, perhaps, or by the necessities of adventuring into the frugality of retirement living – to choose a paid subscription to just one magazine, it would be The New Yorker. The older I get, the more of its pages I devour each week. Sure, I would miss my venerable Scientific American, and my Astronomy and Sky and Telescope. But I can get all of that news and much of that content from the web. You can even get some of the feature articles of the New Yorker on the web. Would it be the same? Can I adapt? I don’t know.

Hell, before I retire, I’m going to buy one of those “Complete Set Portable Hard Drive” editions – every page of every issue, 1925-2007 – only $179.99 US.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover”, goes the adage. It all makes you wonder how many people actually read what’s inside.


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