Better Read Than Never: Saul’s Unconscious Civilization 3

My first look at this book (and its author, John Ralston Saul) was here, and the first chapter was summarized here.

Saul called Chapter 2 of The Unconscious Civilization – the second of the speeches he originally gave as the 1995 Massey Lectures in Canada – “From Propaganda to Language”. To bring (Western, or maybe even global) civilization to a more conscious state, to encourage genuine democracy and real citizenship in pursuit of the general good, he advocates fundamental changes in the way that we communicate, and in the role of

JRS at the lectern.

education in producing such true and meaningful expression. These are big ideas. Saul is often criticized for his sweeping generalizations. Even his fans might find occasional pronouncements positively tsunami-like in their breadth, force and where-did-that-come-from suddenness. This is also his greatest strength: he describes philosophical and historical forests to a public too often entranced by the trees.

And speaking of sweeping general statements, then, here are my no-more-than-500 words in summary of “From Propaganda to Language” by John Ralston Saul:

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Driving Miss Piggy (Crazy)

[This piece, or something similar, was originally posted in May, but then I withdrew it as I had decided to shop it around. A shorter version was accepted by Canada’s national newspaper — — and it ran in the print edition of August 13, 2012, and on-line as well. If you missed it, here it is again, for the record.]


The tones, the tones, bane of my existence and forger of linguistic atrocities! You probably know enough of Chinese languages – Shanghaiese, or Cantonese, or the pu tong hua (“common speech”) that we call Mandarin – to recall that they are tonal. People used to say, and some probably still do, that Chinese people speak in a “sing song” way, but now that I’ve been listening to this music for a few years, I can’t help thinking that English must sound blunt and monotonous to folks here. (Actually, the French have been muttering about that for a long time, so no surprise there, I guess.) Yes, the tones do add melody to the language, and a certain intensity, too; for the first year I lived in China, I saw arguments breaking out everywhere for what seemed like no reason. Whenever I was with students or friends who could speak English, I’d ask, Are you angry right now? Or, What are those guys fighting about? The answer was wonderment, or confusion, or just a chuckling, They’re talking about their schedule/the weather/what was for lunch in the cafeteria. I was constantly fooled by hearing rising, strident tones that, in English, generally mean consternation or incredulity or rage,

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