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Tag: Communication

Going Off the Rails With No Way Back

Going Off the Rails With No Way Back

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon once again, there are some things that need to be said. If I’m a curmudgeon — I don’t think I am — so be it.

What brought this sudden bout of curmudeonness on, you ask? It began Saturday morning with telephone conversations with two different bankers in Maryland. I’d written two checks to a friend of mine visiting from Albania, repayment of an old debt. She took the checks to a local branch of Wells Fargo Bank (I’m naming names this time), the bank on which the checks were drawn, and someone from the branch called me to verify the checks’ legitimacy. Okay, I can see the point of that, though I wonder if they would have done the same if my friend was American or had, say, a British or Canadian passport and not an Albanian one. I also have questions about the need for a call given that Wells Fargo seems to have policies in place that deliberately make it as difficult as possible for customers to access their own funds. But that is a whole other story.

In any case, one of the checks was for $2,000.00, and the other one was for $9,000.06. I put the numerical amount as I always do, $2,000.00/100 for the first check, and $9,000.06/100 for the second one. And then I wrote out the amount in the proper format, the one I’ve been using for some 50 years virtually without incident: Two Thousand and No Hundreths Dollars, and Nine Thousand and Six Hundreths Dollars. Okay, granted, the proper spelling is hundredths, but close enough for government work since the words spell out what the numerals already show, and in my haste I dropped the “d.” But that wasn’t the issue.

Now, I don’t know, but I think anyone from about the age of 5 should know that a hundredth of a dollar is a cent. A penny. One hundredth of a dollar is one cent, six hundredths of a dollar is six cents. Even misspelled, I’d bet most 5 year olds can figure that out. But apparently this fine point is lost on Wells Fargo bankers, and I had to explain to two different genius bankers that Nine Thousand and Six Hundreths (sic) Dollars was not $9,600, but $9,000.06. The first banker said their branch policy was not to accept checks with the cents expressed that way. That made no sense to me, but finally he conceded and said they’d cash the checks. All good, right?

Not quite. A few minutes later another banker, the first one’s manager, called me, and after a few unnecessary and unwanted pleasantries, she repeated that the branch didn’t normally accept checks where the cents were expressed as they were on my check. She had me read off the amount of the check, and confirm the intended amount. I was rapidly losing my patience with this whole thing, and I told her I’d been writing checks like this for 50 years, it was the proper way to write a check, and what exactly didn’t she understand? She then feigned a brief reconsideration of the matter, and finally confirmed that they would accept the check. Hurrah. I got to tell a banker what should have been obvious to her by reading the check as it had been written. Duh.

Now I have better ways of spending my Saturday mornings than explaining the obvious to bankers, but this whole affair served to remind me the extent to which this country is going to hell in a hand basket. The signs are increasingly everywhere, how far off the rails we’re going, this just being the most recent one. It seems people, and the country as a whole, just get stupider and stupider by the day.

I’ve railed against the madness in the direction we’re headed before, but it’s time to do it again, drilling down a bit this time.

In the course of a typical day, I get messages – obviously written on a phone with a run-away spell corrector – that are virtually incomprehensible. I’m asked questions that I already answered, sometimes multiple times. And I get abbreviated messages that fail to respond to issues I raised. In short, I can almost always tell when someone is writing me from a phone, and the communication is seriously impaired as a result. This is a significant matter, since communication should be primary, not to mention I don’t understand how people don’t go crazy typing and reading on a small screen. Well, maybe they do, and we just don’t have a name yet for this mental illness.

If you’re a parent in this country, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you that your little darlings are no longer expected to learn cursive writing. At one point, some 45 states and the District of Columbia had dropped the requirement to teach cursive writing, and the dreaded Common Core was at least in large part responsible for that since Common Core doesn’t require cursive as part of the curriculum. Now blaming Common Cause for stupidity is a bit like blaming phones for errors. It’s the people behind Common Core who are exhibiting their ignorance, and the curriculum is just the symptomatic outcome of that.

There has been some retrenchment in a handful of states that realized the folly of dropping cursive writing from the curriculum, but overall this country is on the verge of entering a new Dark Ages where kids can’t even sign their own names. The idea is that they can do everything on a keyboard, but somehow that seems equivalent to saying they don’t need to learn to walk since they can get driven around everywhere by their parents.

Additionally, as studies confirm, the ability to write, and not just type, promotes some cognitive and motor skills that typing does not. Writing is not the same as typing, and while both skills might be worthwhile, school districts and states don’t want to spend the money teaching both. So out goes cursive writing, and with it one of the traits of an educated person. And people wonder why I’d never put any child of mine in a public, and probably most private, schools.

While this has been going on in more recent years, another long term trend – grade inflation in the nation’s colleges and universities – has been underway for more than half a century. It’s true that a degree of grade inflation began during the Vietnam War years, Recent GPA Trendswhen I was in college. Some attribute this to the desire on the part of many professors to keep students out of the draft, which worked for awhile, but based on my own experience it also probably had to do with the proliferation of pass-fail grading during the turmoil of years of sit-ins, walk-outs, and student strikes that closed some institutions, including the one I attended, for nearly entire semesters. But the grade inflation of that period pales to what has been going on since the 1980s, when grade-point averages have been rising an average of 0.1 points a decade, and the percentage of A grades given has gone up 5 to 6 percentage points a decade.

Since the 1990s, the A grade is the most common grade given in four-year colleges, and As are now three times more common than they were in 1960. At that time Cs were most common, and in my own era, Bs were most common. Now if they don’t get an A, students are at the professor’s throat as if the failing rests with the prof and not with their own performance. If you believe that is because college students have gotten that much smarter since 1960, I have a nice athletic building on a fine campus I’d like to sell you. Very good price. Just sign right here. Oh, wait, you can’t sign, because you never learned cursive. Okay, put your “X” on the line there.

Having been a college professor, I can tell you there is a strong tendency toward treating what are supposed to be young (and sometimes not so young) adults as 50 Years Rise of A Gradechildren. There is a stress on not offending the students, sandwiching any critical remarks in between praise, not being unduly harsh in comments even in the face of abject and repeated refusal on the part of the student to follow guidance. This is called the Student as Consumer Era, and it is indicative of schools that need to cultivate their students to stay enrolled and to pay the exorbitant tuitions and fees charged them and their parents. And instead of challenging their minds and belief systems, these educational institutions allow students to retreat to so-called “safe spaces” and to drive speakers with views divergent from their own off campus, allowing a new form of Fascism and sheltered closed-mindedness to run rampant on college campuses.

Moving from the swamp of so-called education, we have cars that stop themselves or keep themselves in their own lanes, ostensibly so their owners (“drivers” is too strong a word for them) can text and talk on the phone. Things seem increasingly geared toward the lazy and the ignorant. My own car turns its own lights on and off, doesn’t have a key, and tells me how many miles I can go before I run out of fuel. Thank goodness it doesn’t stop itself or do that lane thing, which would be way beyond what I would tolerate of my car. It does open its own trunk, though, for unknown reasons and at very inconvenient times, sometimes multiple times in a row. I guess taunting its owner is part of the deal. I can almost hear it laugh when it does this.

In the course of all these trends, we continue to lose human contact at an almost alarming rate. My most recent two forays into paying entry fees – one at a movie theater, the other at a major conference I attended – were done at terminals. Gone were the friendly ticket girl and the helpful conference gatekeeper, replaced by screens and credit card readers and keyboards. That may all be more efficient, but it’s a bit disconcerting, too. My local Walmart has installed all sorts of self-check-out equipment, but I have never found self-check-out to be faster or more efficient than dealing with a human cashier, and it’s also a tad insulting, I think. If the store wants my money, it should at least have a sufficient number of humans on hand to take it. So, unless I have just one or two items and am in a major hurry, I won’t use the self-check-out.

Meanwhile, the medical profession – one area that might benefit from more, rather than less, technology in enabling improved communication between physicians and patients – remains mired back a century or two. If anyone is able to email their doctor, or even their doctor’s office, I’d love to hear about it. And our prescription drug system seems designed to breed frustration and inefficiency, and we wonder why healthcare costs continue to escalate. I’ve written on these things before, and on the inherent inequities and inefficiencies of the medical system, and the most I’ve gotten in response from doctors is a smile and a laugh, as if I were proposing absurdities.

Call me a curmudgeon if you like, but somehow this all feels like we’re headed off the rails with no way back. Maybe, as the illustration says, you’ll get it eventually, but by then it might be — probably will be — too late. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. Am I only the only one who feels this way? I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this, regardless which side of things you come down on.

Charts from 

Shouting Past Each Other

Shouting Past Each Other

For several years now, I have been in the habit of listening to the liberals in the morning and the conservatives in the afternoon. My rationale for this is that I want to hear both sides of various current arguments and issues. Not being an adherent to either political persuasion – I consider myself both a libertarian and independent – I find lots of cause for annoyance across the political spectrum, though in truth I find lots more grounds for annoyance originating from the left than from the right. It has been this way for some time, but the trend seems to be accelerating lately.

What has increasingly occurred to me is that there not only seem to be at least two entirely different conversations going on, with some sub-sets within each, but those conversations are based on entirely different sets of facts and, without doubt, vastly different world views. And as this trend continues and deepens, the conversations – again, especially on the liberal side – seem to be degrading into shouting matches.

I’ve always believed that we all can disagree, but that disagreement is based on the same sets of facts. Now, listening in to these two camps, one increasingly begins to wonder if there are even such things as facts any more, and what facts there might be seem to be mutable, with each side holding and citing two almost completely different sets of them. And that’s ostensibly on the news and news analysis side of things. In the realm of entertainment, the divisions appear to be even greater, and sub-sets of divisions, between the coasts and what is called fly-over country, between white and black, between younger and older, between cities and rural areas, and even schisms between and among residents of the same cities and the same states become ever more evident.

While I listen to these things daily, becoming somewhat inured to them, someone coasting in from out there somewhere and catching these battling views for the first time might be justified to conclude that we are going through a kind of societal crack up.

Without a basis in common facts, the arguments become self-justifying. Each side builds its logic like competing jenga towers teetering atop bases of illusory blocks, seemingly ignoring the laws of physics and the pull of reality. When things become too difficult to justify based on factuality, the next step is simply to raise the volume. Speech rises to shouting and shouting to screaming, as if decibels are a stand-in for rationality. See me, the shouters seem to say, I can yell louder than you so I must be right and you must be wrong.

We’ve seen this in street demonstrations, where one almost comes to expect such behavior. We’ve seen it on cable TV, with panelists shouting at each other to the point no one, least of all the viewers, can make out what is being said. And now we see it in Congressional hearings, where raising one’s voice and speaking over the subject of one’s disdain appears to be a substitute for actually seeking answers to questions. We saw this during Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, with Democrats like California’s Sen. Kamala Harris insistently speaking over Attorney General Jeff Sessions, her grandstanding meant to block out whatever Sessions might actually have to say and, ostensibly, to discredit him. And then Sessions is later heckled by the liberal media for becoming flustered and stymied by such obviously pre-planned tirades and Harris painted as some sort of victim because she’s a woman and black.

This dismissal of inconvenient facts seems to be a hallmark of the 21st Century in this country. If we come to realize that the Iraq War was a folly, we dismiss the fact that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats voted in support of it. If the IRS abuses its power in going after conservative groups, we look the other way and ignore it as if it never happened. If the Obama Administration failed to protect or attempt to rescue Americans under attack in Benghazi, we say there is no there there and don’t question why the Administration found it necessary to concoct and promulgate a lie about what actually happened. And if Hillary Clinton violated federal law and jeopardized the country’s security, we ignore it and her non-prosecution and justify voting for her anyway. And when facts turn out differently than we have been told they are, such as that there is no chance Donald Trump can ever be elected President, we throw a tantrum and question his legitimacy and hold his bloody head in our hands. How dare reality intrude on our manufactured view of how things should turn out?

Like I said, I find lots more to annoy me on the left than on the right, but the right is not without its own sets of facts and fictions. I think at this point there is little question but that Trump can be his own worst enemy, despite the efforts of many on the right to defend his every misstep, and even many of his supporters hope someone will take away his phone and throw it in the toilet. And while he gets no credit on the left for what he does right, there is little criticism from the right of what he does wrong. And let’s not forget that, despite years of bellyaching about the ills of Obamacare, the Republicans showed themselves utterly bereft of a viable alternative plan.

While I can understand the urge to overcompensate on the right to counter the venom spewing like a volcano from the left and the anti-Trump crowd, there is truth in what many of us were taught as children, which is that two wrongs do not a right make.

But my assertion remains, which is that we’re not arguing over the same facts and realities, but over completely different sets of facts, completely different realities. And therein lies much of the problem.

How did this state come to be? I think there are a number of factors in play, some of which are the result of changes in technology and how we communicate, and some of which go back much further and are rooted in the same sources that have led to the general alienation and disconnectedness we have come to take for granted in our society, and to the coarsening and degradation of dialogue.

In past decades, as recently as the 1990s but going back well before that, we had a basis for a common dialogue. Not that everyone agreed, which they didn’t, but at least there was a common set of facts we could and would debate over. We had three primary television networks, three primary sets of national news reporting, and, in effect, three focal points for a national audience. Locally, we might have had one or two or three newspapers which, while they might have diverged somewhat in viewpoint, made an effort to at least deal in common facts. And one could make one’s views known through a letter to the editor which had a decent chance of showing up on the editorial page.

All that has changed in the past 20 years. While the three TV networks prevail, there is now cable television with new sources and new, and often radically divergent, views on the news. There is social media, like Facebook and Twitter. And there are hundreds and thousands of online so-called news sites and blogs (full disclosure: including this one), where there is no prevailing view or even any prevailing agreement on the facts. Daily newspaper readership has dwindled to the point that it’s not clear how long newspapers will even remain viable. Our news sources have become fractured almost beyond description, as has our national dialogue. Anyone can spout any sort of nonsense one wants, any sort of venom, any set of facts, real or fabricated, and there is a place for it on the Internet. Try to express one’s views, like one could before with a letter to the editor or even in some online forums, and there is a high likelihood it will be lost in a flood of conflicting and often nutty comments, and diluted by multiple places to even post one’s views. What if one doesn’t use Twitter? One’s views might never see light. And have you read much on Twitter? The same 140-character vision of reality (whatever that might be) repeated 100 times.

With all this fracturing of communication, there also is a tendency toward recycling. When I was trained as a journalist 30-some years ago, it was considered tacky, if not downright improper, for journalists to interview other journalists. It was expected that one would go out and find original sources for stories, or even commentary, and that one would at least make an effort at balancing one’s stories. Now journalists interview other journalists incessantly, with little or no effort at balance, and this incestuous relationship just builds on and furthers this tendency toward competing and non-overlapping conversations. So-and-so at the New York Times or the Washington Post reported this, so it must be correct, and I’ll base my reporting and blathering on those reports (which more often than not are based on anonymous sources readers or viewers or listeners have no means of vetting for themselves).

Going back further, we see how things like air conditioning in our homes and the rise of the automobile moved people indoors and off public transport, breeding the kind of alienation and social separation that has been with us and growing for many decades. Now we have people with their noses buried in their devices – it’s common to see even friends and lovers incommunicado with one another as they focus on their smart phones – and our interpersonal distance simply grows exponentially and, along with it, any sense of a common dialogue. The Culture of the Id seems to prevail over all.

While all this was going on, our dialogue also seems to have become coarsened. We no longer seem capable of conducting civil discussions with those with whom we disagree. Whether in Congress, or in the media, or in our personal interactions, it’s become acceptable to spout all sorts of untruths and distortions, to issue threats, and to cut off communication, simply because we might disagree. This seems to be mostly, if not exclusively, a tendency on the left, and I have had supposedly “liberal” friends going back half a century break off contact with me simply since I didn’t agree with everything that came out of their mouths or off their keyboards, no matter how logically flawed or factually incorrect it might be.

I like to see the bright side of things and a way out of dark places and times, but I confess I’m at a bit of a loss on this one. In some ways we appear to be on the verge of a Vietnam Era breakdown, and I guess the one bright side might be that our discourse has become so fragmented that even that kind of two-sided split may no longer be possible. But I think that is false optimism. We see battling demonstrations, people being gunned down for their perceived views, looting and lawlessness, widespread dissent across the political spectrum and, along with all these things, competing realities that make any common effort at resolution virtually impossible. Given current trends, I’m afraid I just see more of what we have, and that’s not positive.

I’ll probably continue to listen to the liberals in the morning and the conservatives in the afternoon, knowing that ultimately we all need to form our own judgments and, to the extent we can, protect ourselves from whatever the latest new cause either side might concoct that will come raining down on our heads.

I’d love to hear dissenting views and maybe some insights on ways forward. I’m open to having my mind changed, as challenging as that might be. But that’s how I see things from here.


This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there and here.