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Exquisite Corpse

by James Nolan

This week I visited a multiplex cinema. A sign over the electric hand-dryer in the rest room apologizes that this is the most "energy-efficient and environmentally friendly option" for drying your hands. I wanted to scrawl "bullshit" above the sign, but am writing this instead. Today I tried to change doctors. I learned from the "HealthNet coordinator" (secretary) that my former "primary care physician" (doctor) belonged to another "participating medical group" (hospital) so they couldn't authorize a change of "health care providers." I sputtered and stumbled over the phrases, as if arguing in a foreign language, then stormed out muttering to myself about cheap quacks.

And we wonder why Americans have become so angry. For the past five years I lived in Spain, a quaint country where people dry their hands with towels and call a doctor a doctor. As I navigate the shark-infested 90s in the United States, it strikes me that much of this anger comes from a growing distance between the words we use and the reality we face. American public language, once jazzy, flexible, and to the point, has become Latinate, euphemistic, and Big Brotherish. The gorge between public language and social reality leaves us speechless, groping to express our frustration with words twisted beyond recognition. Daily we face "environmentally friendly" hot-air blowers, and "health care providers" who wish we would drop dead.

We roll our eyes at each absurdity even as the linguistic ground beneath us continues to erode. A common ground between the Balkanized segments of society can't exist without a common language, and the state of that language is a window onto the national soul. The completely separate tracks between a High- Church American spoken by postgrads in suburban offices, and an Action-Comic American spoken by dropouts on city streets, indicates a disturbing democratic breakdown.

In healthier historical periods, when the culture is alive and kicking, a common language is formed by an upward movement from the streets as people climb the economic ladder. Social mobility, both upward and downward, keeps language elastic. In stagnant eras such as this one, words are imposed from above, defying and denying everything we know to be true. Language becomes special spectacles we put on to blot out the grimmest doses of reality. And the only sounds coming from that regenerative kitchen of American English, the city streets, are expletive grunts.

* * *

It's a story old as this country, one that began with muddy frock coats trudging through New World forests and dazed Europeans trying to describe the exotica they encountered in imported languages. Colonial English was a brittle language imposed upon a wild reality for which it had few adequate words. Its starched diction kept the menacingly "savage" continent at a Christian distance.

In "Nature" (1836), Ralph Waldo Emerson declared linguistic bankruptcy for the United States, a young country in which "old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, where there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections." Emerson was describing the schizoid state of early 19th century Americans, who continued to write and speak as transplanted Europeans, in a language unconnected to the teeming new country in which they were living. He called for Americans to "pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things." Answering Emerson's call, Walt Whitman listened to the working-class "blab of the pavement" and by the 1850s went on to single-handedly invent American poetry. For the first of several instances in American history, cultural renewal accompanied a linguistic invigoration that churned up from below.

By 1919, H.L. Mencken could celebrate in The_American_Language a distinctly American English, a Saxon-succint language that had overtaken its bombastic British ancestor. Mencken's abrupt, wise-cracking language is immortalized in movies of the 1930s and 40s, in which we hear the triumph of street-smart working-class and immigrant argot over the proper British euphemisms of the upper classes, who are the butt of every joke. In these films it does seem that English "had been run over by a musical comedy," as Mencken predicts. The cultural vitality of those decades is due to the close way that language mirrored reality. Hard-boiled guys and dames, calling a doughnut a doughnut, met any high-flown rhetoric with a defiant oh_yeaaah!

American English was again revitalized after the stodgy 50s by the Beat-influenced youth culture that incorporated language from the ghettos of urban blacks, drug addicts, and sexual outlaws. As lives changed dramatically around us, this hip argot made it immediately into the mainstream, directly from crash-pads into the columns of Time. Once again, the linguistic renewal that accompanied social change boiled up from below. "Relevance," or reconnecting words to pressing realities, was the war cry of blunt 60s radicals, the heirs to Whitman's vision and Depression-era labor politics.

Reagan-era yuppies, on the other hand, recall Emerson's "paper currency" metaphor, coined during the economic panic of the 1830s. They, too, lived not only on borrowed money but on borrowed words, with nothing in the bank to back up either. Their credit bubble of bogus capital was inflated with the hot air of a made-up babble that rivals the original Gilded Age for what Mark Twain called "hifalutin'." This was a nouveau riche era during which lives became glamorous "lifestyles," food turned into "cuisine" and main dishes into "entrees" (in French, an entree is an appetizer between courses). Business and computer terms took over, coloring popular language the decorator hue of the day: office-machine gray. Every choice was a fancy "option," the rich became dynamically "upscale," the poor a hopeless "underclass." Social reality was falling apart for the majority, but those in the know wore linguistic blinders that "enhanced" and "facilitated" their "quality time" with so many "upscale options."

Whoever remained from the 60s left retreated into universities, where they enshrined youthful revelations into a scripture of social theory so out of touch with reality that their jargon became lampooned as "politically correct." In deconstructionist theory (another nouveau-Gilded Age misappropriation from the French), the world is a texte that can be read. It follows that if we change the words of that text--voila!--we change the world. P.C. is nothing but well-intentioned verbiage that has tried to modify society through this form of magical thinking. The right responded with its own language orthodoxy, and the culture wars have been about nothing but words, as if once we agree on the definitive text, our problems will be solved. "Sex-industry workers" will harmonize on union songs at the noon whistle as the "differently abled" somersault over their wheelchairs. Meanwhile, as the word-smog thickens, on the street things only get worse.

The new murkiness in American English is akin to what Mencken criticized in British English as a "suffocating formalization," symptomatic of the sclerosis of every raj. What concerns us now is "the language" of any public utterance, rather than its meaning or effect. Buzz words are buried in such a Latinate lard that nobody notices they always reflect the opposite of the world we find outside our doors. And when we do notice, the buzz words have changed. In fact, a collusion of media spin-doctors, bureaucrats, academics, psychologists, advertisers, and politicians has created a weather-map of hot air currents that changes daily. Perhaps only visiting foreigners, or Americans who have lived abroad for a long while, even notice these absurd gulfs between names and things. On several points, I would like to articulate my recent culture shock--and the shock of many foreigners--on this schizophrenia, for the sake of my own sanity. Or perhaps yours.


One out of every three Americans is obese--not overweight or even fat--but clinically obese. This epidemic has been accelerating for the past fifteen years. Yet precisely during this period, grocery and restaurant language has been geared to variations on "lite" food. Supermarkets offer aisle after aisle of "low-fat," "no-fat," sugar-and-sodium-free "high fiber" concoctions, just as restaurants advertise "macrobiotic pizza" or "no-fat cheesecake," from which the fat, I imagine, has been liposuctioned by elfin clinicians in the kitchen. You have to marvel at a gaggle of obese Americans waddling through a mall clutching Styrofoam containers of "cholesterol-free garden-burgers." Who, I wonder, is fooling whom? What do these words mean?

Eastern Europeans may tend to be pudgy, and the Third World rich chubby, but nothing on the scale of the American obesity epidemic exists anywhere else on the globe. Groups of Americans abroad stand out--so to speak--compared to the slim natives.

Particularly in pedestrian Europe you also notice that Americans have forgotten how to walk. And what are these obese Americans who can no longer walk wearing? Running shoes. People unable to walk are wearing running shoes and clothes emblazoned with sports insignias, from warm-up pants to baseball caps. Why are Americans crippled by obesity covered from head to toe in sports insignias? Is the breakdown between symbol and reality so severe that even they can't see the irony? It's like a nation of illiterates dressed in Oxford gowns, of paupers sporting business suits, of celibates in g-strings.

Language about food and health in the United States is dominated by a jargon imposed by professional nutritionists and sports-trainers. Flying in the face of common sense, obese Americans are offered salvation through rabbit-food diets and spartan marathons in penitential "fitness centers," where they are strapped into the digital descendants of torture devices from the Spanish Inquisition.

The slim European, on the other hand, guzzles fat, has never heard of fiber or cholesterol and seldom, to be sure, has darkened the doorway of a "fitness center." What the European knows is a word I haven't heard in the United States in twenty-five years: "strolling." I don't mean jogging or fast-walking but the by-now foreign concept of getting from one place to another on a daily basis by leisurely walking, usually in pleasant company through beautiful surroundings. Just as there are no sidewalks left to stroll on, there are no words to describe the real cause of American obesity: the deadly triangle between car, refrigerator, and TV/computer screen to which daily life is confined.

The language of nutrition and sports-training has taken the place of a healthy way of life lost for good. You have to catch a plane to Europe or to Mexico take a walk. The American response to obesity is, of course, to buy more and more things with new words stuck on them: low-fat, cholesterol-free, Lycra, Stair-masters. There is nobody left to stand up and simply say, "Sell the car, smash the TV, and get off your duff, you big lug." That would be un-American.


Americans abuse language not only to fool themselves about health but, what is worse, about the deteriorating environment. If you can lose weight by eating and save money by shopping, then you can rescue the planet by processing junk. Every day, for instance, I receive a pound of junk mail, half of which is "printed on recycled paper." This is supposed to make me feel better as I toss it unread into the recycling bin. Two-thirds of the newspaper is literally garbage geared to make me buy more garbage, which will come bubble-wrapped, boxed, and finally bagged in garbage, all of which will wind up make more garbage.

The United States, which invented the packaging industry, is now repackaging its system of gargantuan waste as "ecological." A garbage culture, of course, has made a pious fetish out of the garbage, one that keeps us on our knees sorting paper, plastic, and glass into bins "to save the earth." As a kid, I spent whole weekends collecting newspapers for monthly paper drives, which schools organized to support their extracurricular activities. I made endless trips to the corner grocery pulling a red wagon filled with rattling soft drink and beer bottles, to collect the two-cent deposit on each. Now paper drives and bottle deposits have been replaced by a binge-and-purge mentality of consumer waste coupled with ecological guilt. What corporations sell us we give back to them, at 100% profit. And in the bargain, no poor student in the band gets a trumpet, or industrious child a free root beer. The guilt-ridden consumer, however, gets to feel good enough to load up on more stuff.

For several months I lived in an isolated Mallorcan village with a farming family, and one day I asked the mother where the garbage was. What, she wanted to know, is "la basura?" She didn't understand the concept. When I explained, she asked what I had that I no longer wanted. I handed over an empty disposable lighter, which she claimed she knew how to refill, and then tucked away. She shook her head and laughed often about this American and his "garbage."

To explain ecology to an American would be like trying to explain the garbage to this woman. In both cases, the concepts exist outside of the economies in which they live. How, I wonder, could anyone define ecology to the owner of the car I saw yesterday with a "BE GREEN!" bumper sticker. That car puts five tons of carbon dioxide annually into an environment that has suffered three "air quality alert" days in the past week. Fossil-fuel engines, on the whole, are responsible for 47% of the nitrogen oxide, 39% of the hydrocarbons, and 66% of the carbon monoxide in the air. That car is driven in a city where the broken-down public transit system has been abandoned to delinquents, in a country in which non-drivers feel like quadriplegics. That car is perhaps driven to meetings to save the Brazilian rain forest, meetings that take place in a "climate controlled" building in which the windows don't open, in a room carpeted and furnished with petroleum products. That rain forest organization probably mass mails fund-raisers "printed on recycled paper," which I will toss into the recycling bin that I lug down to the street every Monday evening, in another bumper-sticker gesture to save the planet from the American way of life.


Through mass travel, television, corporate franchise, and pre-fab architecture, the United States has become McDonalized in one generation. The unique regional cultures that flourished until the 1950s have become no more than folkloric themes to accent gift shops that punctuate the monotonous stripmall stretching from coast to coast. Suburban houses, offices, universities, shopping malls, gas stations, freeways, and motels share the same processed blandness as air ports, where you have to glance at placement logos to tell where you are. Wherever you go, the speech, architecture, food, dress, music, and slang are identical, except for kitsch regional motifs made into consumer icons, as seen on TV.

In his chants, Whitman celebrated a cornucopia of regional cultures in what he called, in the 1850s, "these States." A little more than a hundred years later, all of this diversity has been reduced to a t-shirt that says, of course, "diversity." Authentic American diversity has always been regional. These regions were defined by how ethnic and racial groups interacted with geographical areas to produce unique New World variations on ancestral cultures. Cultural diversities are born from the wedding of a particular group with a specific place: Boston Irish, New York Jew, Southwestern Navajo, San Francisco Chinese, Hawaiian Japanese, Florida Cuban, Los Angeles Chicano, New York Puerto Rican, New Orleans Creole, Lafayette Cajun, Chicago Black, Minnesota Swede, Pennsylvania Dutch. Each of these phrases conjures an aroma, taste, and accent that defines the place. Every New Yorker speaks with a Yiddish inflection, every San Fransican can eat with chop sticks, and every New Orleanian knows how to second-line. Just as all New Yorkers are, to some extent, honorary Jews, Richard Rodriguez has remarked that, despite his Chicano origins, living in San Francisco makes him feel Chinese. What counts is the place and its culture, not skin color or last name.

The truth is that now, except for the welcome influence of first-generation immigrants and certain backwater vestiges of regional cultures, there is little real diversity in a McDonalized country. The term has become code for "not white." "Diversity" is idealized as a two-of-each parade into a rainbow-striped corporate Ark, in which any two Americans who share the same skin color or continent of origin somehow constitute a separate "culture." Los Angeles Chicanos, New York Puerto Ricans, and Florida Cubans are lumped together, much to their discomfort, as McSpanics and awarded a complimentary enchillada from Taco Bell. New Orleans Creole, Georgia share-cropper, Harlem Black: what's the difference, put a McBlack on the panel. In beige offices, beige people sit around making decisions based on the beige concept of "diversity."

But diversity in the mall is a contradiction in terms. No matter what their ancestry may be, most Americans now seem to eat, dress, and speak in lockstep. Depending on income levels, they live in the same style house, watch the same TV shows, drive the same cars to the same kind of jobs. Occasionally, they might microwave something grandma used to make. Whether parents are from Westchester or Canton, Mexico or Mississippi, ten minutes after birth the kids turn into MTV Gap models who would have to logo their checked ethnic boxes onto their baseball caps to even hint at their origins. In one generation, a homogenized culture has displaced a genuine diversity of regional cultures. The faces on the billboards of this generic culture may have different racial and ethnic features. And it's about time! But they are all selling the same product, an identity as uniform as Visa and Mastercard.

Yet this is difficult for Americans to see. In the fluorescent glare of the frozen food section, Anywhere USA, differences are magnified. But ask any first-generation immigrant: they see it. Or observe a busload of American tourists on a foreign tour. The racial makeup will vary but, from fanny-pack to fanny-pack, tell me if you spot anything that might be considered cultural diversity. And let me know if you can tell, by dress, speech, or taste, which part of this enormous country they are from.


Queen Victoria appointed an assistant to place tiny squares of wrapping paper over the genitals of Greek and Roman figures as she turned the pages of art books. This was one of the first attempts to construe what Americans now call "gender," or sexual differences without genitals.

Look it up: Living beings are divided, biologically, into two sexes, male and female, as defined by their reproductive organs. Nouns and pronouns are divided, grammatically, into three genders, masculine, feminine, and neuter. If the world is a text we can read and then rewrite, it is understandable why we might prefer to neuterize the chapter on sexual differences with the grammatical term gender rather than sex, a word with connotations of rank copulation. In our higher selves, who wouldn't prefer to be an objective word rather than a messy body, especially during a job interview? Fortunately for the human race, even as we deconstruct the book called love, living beings continue to be born, copulate, and give birth, far removed from the orderly declensions of grammar.

American women are acknowledged world-wide for their feminist stance. Yet in no other country in the world, except for the strictest Muslim nations, do women suffer such a severe degree of personal immobility. American women are confined to their job sites, cars, and homes, unless accompanied by a female friend or, preferably, a man. Even at work they do not feel safe, as evidenced by the phenomenon of sexual harassment, nor with their romantic partners, threatened by date rape, not even in that ultimate sanctuary of American life, the car, with the doors locked and windows rolled up, terrified by car-jackings.

Yet in more traditional countries, even in the macho Mediterranean or patriarchal Asia, women circulate freely, alone or in groups, by day or night. In Barcelona or Madrid, I would casually bid good-night to a woman friend on a street corner at 3:00 or 4:00 AM, sure that she would arrive home safely, unthinkable in the United states. In Beijing, Hong Kong, Paris, or Buenos Aires, women walking alone are as much a part of the city landscape as pigeons or taxis, although certainly better appreciated. Ironically, these women enjoy a respected anonymity that American women, who form brigades to accompany each other to the parking lot, do not.

Orthodox Muslim women obliterate their bodies in public with tent-like chadors. In India, a woman drapes her head with cloth as a sign not to intrude. In these cultures, the signal to men is unequivocal: I_am_not_a_body_in_this_context. American feminists, some dressed to kill, attempt the same invisibility with the grammatical distinction of "gender," which defines them in exclusively non-biological terms. In rap lyrics and street argot, however, we routinely hear women referred to as "bitches," which crudely defines them in exclusively biological terms. This dis-parity offers some clue to the war zone of misunderstanding that American male-female relations have become. This is a country curiously divided into one gender, the feminine, and one sex, the male. "Gender," unfortunately, does little to protect American women from the vulnerability they endure on a daily basis. Foreign women may admire their rhetoric but, when it comes down to it, don't envy their lives.

Yes, there has been a terrible accident at what academics call "the intersection of gender, ethnicity, and class." Yet these High-Church euphemisms foreclose any real discussion by numbing us into a Sunday School-like trance, self-righteously nodding in agreement until the sermon ends. Painful as it may be, we must begin by calling things by their real names, the ones connected to our emotions, entwined within the sinews of the language. Just mention "sex," "race," or "money," and watch the fur fly. These days an initial is enough: O.J.


Carson McCullers called loneliness the "American malady." Step from the chaotic jumble of Bombay, Madrid, Rome, Shanghai, or Mexico City onto any eerily empty American street lit at night by the cathode glow from TV sets, and you'll see what she means. People weren't exiled to this house-arrest by some cruel dictator. They worked hard for it: the American Dream.

This, we are told, is the "communication era," and wires overhead sizzle with people e-mailing, Internetting, faxing, and voice-mailing each other, creating electronic "communities" of people who have no families, no neighborhoods, whose nearest friends live hours away and who, for the most part, have little to say except backfence chatter. "Communication" and "community" are two of the most frequent buzz words I hear, yet nowhere do I find evidence of either, only their gaping absence.

Spaniards fiercely situate themselves within their families and neighborhoods, at local meeting places, in towns or cities. They are connected by an inexhaustible flow of talk that spills over balconies, between windows and doorways, down the street and into cafes and markets, where the events of the day are processed into the mammalian energy of real communication. Visiting Americans find the noise deafening, but this is the din of community. When I return to the U.S., I often feel as though I'm locked inside the refrigerator, the light indeed has gone out, and I have to push any number of buttons--telephone, fax, or computer--before anyone knows I'm alive.

All these lonely communities: Where do they all come from? The literary community, gay community, black community, scientific community, progressive community, scent-free S&M community, flat-earth community. I used to imagine myself surrounded by happily integrated circles of people, locked shoulder to shoulder, dancing communal jigs on all sides. When I went looking for these communities, ready to join up, I found individuals as isolated as I am, who had decided on some partial definition of themselves--whether by skin color, ancestry, sexuality, diet, vocation, or neurotic tic--in order to belong to an identity club, have something in common with anyone, even though they live miles apart and this is but one aspect of a busy, compartmentalized life. Everywhere I looked for community, I found another stark facet of American loneliness.

The leaders of these "communities," I soon discovered, all eventually run for public office or make fortunes. The media has their numbers on automatic dial. Their so-called communities are splintered into infinitesimal factions that don't speak to each other. The theatrical sense of family, of a rackety courtyard of wildly gesturing neighbors, is sheer public relations, here on the desolate off-ramps of American isolation. I wonder what the blond community has to say about Madonna letting her roots grow out.


Ask your foreign friends, and they will explain that the most dramatic difference between the United States and their countries is that here people don't have families. "Or not like in Spain," as my friend Pilar made clear, or not as in any other traditional culture where the lion's share of life is devoted to family. "Americans ignore their children and throw away their old people," a Salvadoran student observed, and she should know, since day-care centers and nursing homes in California are staffed mostly by immigrant women. Where would California be without its undocumented mothers and daughters, raising other people's children and taking care of other people's elderly parents? The only "family values" around are those that immigrants bring with them on the plane.

One out of every three American families is now headed by a single woman, almost half of whom have never been married. Sixty percent of all marriages end in divorce. Against this floodtide of seeming irresponsibility, the Republican party has mounted a rhetoric of "family values," as if these intimate domestic arrangements could be legislated. Many of these Republicans are twice-divorced people with two sets of kids, like Newt Gingrich. Within the American context, "family values" must mean the tingly feeling that divorcees get at Christmas while their stepchildren unwrap presents next to that plaster icon of the nuclear family, the nativity scene.

Yet, of course, in tribal Hebrew society, the nuclear family was unknown, as in most traditional cultures. The nuclear family is a recent product of a prosperity and mobility that has encouraged couples to free themselves from the complex network of the real families upon whom they previously depended for everything. The crisis in "family values" does not spell the end of the nuclear family. On the contrary, this final disintegration is the inevitable result of the nuclear family, the tail-end of a generational experiment begun in the 1950s--that Republican era of prosperity and mobility--that ended the family, as most people in the world know it.

I grew up during that transition in the early 50s, in an intergenerational French family in downtown New Orleans. Until my parents got on their feet, we lived with my maternal grandparents, who were taking care of my great-grandparents. My grandfather was "too good for any job," and my great-grandfather had retired from his Canal Street cigar store, so the family economy depended on the heroic efforts my great-aunt, an unmarried school teacher. My mother's teenage sister slept behind sliding doors in the parlor, where she listened to Elvis on the Victrola. I slept with my grandfather, my sister with my grandmother, and my parents, at some point, had a studio apartment nearby.

This bustling shotgun household, with its slamming screen doors, was connected to another around the corner, of great-aunts and uncles who never married. They maintained a huge old creole house because one of the sisters went raving mad and "back there no one can hear her scream." Family dinners, at a long dining room table, always involved any number of these bachelor uncles and spinster aunts, the crazy one as well as another whose husband was "away at sea." We were Catholic, Protestant, and agnostic, and there was always a black person working in the house who left gris-gris chalk marks on the front steps. Divorce was what movie stars and rich people in New York did, a word with kinky overtones.

The values I learned from this family were tolerance, cooperation, and inclusivity. I learned that you could marry or not, believe this or that, listen to Elvis or go to the opera, go crazy if there was a back room, but still you were family, with a permanent place at the table. Later, as a latch-key kid within a nuclear family, the values I learned were loneliness, conflict, and exclusivity. The next stage of this transition was the inevitable move to the planetary suburbs in the mid-60s, when I dropped out of the nuclear family and moved back downtown with my grandparents. By the time I was in college, everyone in the suburban family had their own cars and therapists. At long last, we're normal as apple pie: my unmarried great-aunt, who took care of four generations, wound up in a nursing home, my elderly mother now lives with a paid companion, and my sister is a twice-divorced single mother, all living in different parishes. I never married, and am "away at sea."

The 50s family sitcoms that programmed this transition by way of our brand-new Motorola TV are now reruns that haunt the cultural memory. Yet few can live up to these slapstick icons. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, that gregarious Irish-Cuban couple, at least had their childless neighbors the Mertz's, and Kingfish and Sapphire had a live-in mother-in-law. The WASP nests presented in other family sitcoms, however, are remarkable for those they exclude from the picture: in-laws, drunk uncles, poor relations, the separated, unmarried, elderly, sick, and orphaned. In the same way, the modern nativity scene excludes the three kings and their camels, the shepherds and their flocks, central as Mediterranean Christmas symbols. The wise men and shepherds, those family members marginalized by nuclear "family values," make up the support-system that, in most countries, keeps the traditional family alive and independent of child support, welfare, day-care, and nursing homes. The public services necessary to replace the extended family and supplement the nuclear family--even if it were working--would bankrupt any government. Americans have become a nation of lone black sheep, and even in reruns of a fantasy golden age, we've already lost the way home.

* * *

In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell compares British English of the 1940s to a "cuttlefish squirting out ink," not to express meaning but to conceal it. "A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like snow," he writes, "blurring the outlines and covering up the details." With a sharp eye Orwell dissects the ideological boilerplate that passes for the leftist and righest prose of his day, peeling back the pre-fab phrases hung like aluminum siding on a crumbling building tilting toward totalitarianism.

It would be fascinating to watch Orwell go to work on a speech by Pat Robertson, coded with "family values" and "pro-life" rhetoric, or to take on a paragraph by bell hooks, whom Michele Wallace crowns "the queen of p.c. rhetoric.... without the unlovely code phrases 'white supremacy,' 'patriarchal domination,' and 'self-recovery,' hooks couldn't write a sentence" (VLS, Nov. 1995). Were Mencken alive today, he would read Orwell's essay with a sad nod of recognition as a post-mortem on the jazzy, succinct American language he championed in the 20s. Surveying a contemporary panorama that includes, just for starters, such Newspeak concoctions as "environmentally friendly" hot-air blowers, cut-throat "health care providers," "fat-free" obesity, "Be Green!" automobiles, McDonaldized "diversity," sexually-threatened "gender," "communities" of loneliness, and divorce-court "family values," he would have to roundly agree with Orwell: "Words and meaning have almost parted company."

These oxymorons, of course, echo the slogans chanted in Nineteen Eighty-Four: WAR IS PEACE / FREEDOM IS SLAVERY / IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. Language is political, not only in content but in form. Totalitarian thinking, of the left or right, depends on the obfuscatory effect of coded phrases in ready-to-assemble prose, whose purpose is to demand consensus rather than to encourage thought. In this context, Orwell claims that the ultimate revolutionary act is clarity, since by speaking and writing clearly, "one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is the first step toward political regeneration." But like Muzak at the mall, omnipresent Newspeak casts a zombie spell that silences and manipulates. Angrily muttering to ourselves, we wait for clear voices to break that spell, to take back the language by shouting "bullshit" in a crowded theater. Few come along, or speak loudly enough. In the meantime, the hot air machine continues to whirr ceaselessly over the half-articulate American landscape like some pyramidal Ministry of Truth, leaving us speechless.


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