Garbage–physical and spiritual–in Michael Hartnett’s “Generation Dementia”

Author Michael Hartnett’s Generation Dementia is an engaging, bittersweet, and ultimately affirming story about the garbage—physical and spiritual—that we produce in our lives.

Hartnett has given us the opposite of garbage: A gem of a story, finely cut and beautifully polished. But it’s a story about trash, or really, about lost kids—Generation Dementia—high school seniors whose lives are adrift toward emptiness and who must find some way to connect to each other and themselves. They do this in a wildly improbable way: By signing up to collect their town’s garbage every morning before school. It’s called Operation Pick-up Kids, devised by a crusty school psychologist on the verge of retirement who hopes somehow—though he doubts it’ll happen—to save as many kids as he can.

The narrator-protagonist is Hash O’Connell, newly orphaned and heading for a collapse after the death of his mother, whom he calls “the Joan.” Hash, depressed and an occasional hallucinator, signs up for Operation Pick-up Kids and slowly seeks answers to his desperate questions. For much of the book, Hash not only empties garbage pails into the truck, he also carefully selects odd pieces of trash to keep and he slowly becomes a hoarder. One of the first pieces he collects is a set of old floppy disks, one of which is labeled “the Answer,” from a deceased Pulitzer prize winning journalist who was somehow connected to “the Joan” before she died. The book follows Hash’s probing into the mysterious “answer,” which leads him deep into the secrets in his family and in his town.

Hash—we never learn how he came by that remarkable name—is a rich and fully drawn character. Michael Hartnett’s story and his writing reminded me of Michael Chabon or the early John Irving: deep emotion without a touch of sentimentality, strong plotting full of surprises and twists, and well crafted and memorable characters with wonderful evocative names. Louie Sacco, Hash’s partner on the truck, Lee Lee, a girl genius who plays violin on the truck, Grandpa Artie, Mayor Heine, Eva (who, despite chain-smoking and guzzling coffee constantly, begins to help Hash begin the long journey back to life), Big Bill Hannah, Rev. Alexander Burr (as in “under the saddle”?), Selena Omaha, the mysterious Mavellas, and of course Pulaski, the school psychologist. All these characters are vivid and true to life, and Hartnett keeps their unique voices pitch-perfect throughout.

Garbage, of course, is not only the literal stuff Hash and the kids must deal with, it’s also a profound metaphor for both the kind of society we seem to want (the town is named “Frick”) and the psychological and interpersonal mess that our dependence on smart phones and screens and our absorption in reality TV are creating. In a remarkable scene early in the book, Hash finds that he is forgetting all the passwords, locker combinations, phone numbers, ID numbers, and personal information about himself—all the information that binds him to others and to his world. He ends up standing at his locker, obsessively and futilely spinning the knob, seeking the combination for hours, and missing all his classes. It’s a heartbreaking moment— but one deftly lightened by Hartnett’s humor. When Pulaski writes an order for Hash to apply for Operation Pick-up Kids, Hash observes that he looked like a physician writing prescriptions, and thinks, “I’d rather he was handing out passwords.” Hash, despite his pain and alienation, is one of the keenest observers and genuinely funny characters I know. Remember Holden Caulfield? Hash has Holden’s edgy wit and his own broken heart.

You can read Generation Dementia simply for its enormously entertaining story, or for its engaging writing, sparkling images and similes, and wonderful characters. You can read it as a commentary on how trash is perhaps the most enduring and connecting thing human beings produce, or as a keen psychosocial exploration of the alienation and despair afflicting so many who are coming of age in a world full of garbage. But at whatever level you read it, I promise you this: The twist in the last two lines of the book will knock your socks off.

 

 

 

Michael Hartnett’s “Fools in the Magic Kingdom”

Michael Hartnett’s Fools in the Magic Kingdom is a timely, complex, and entertaining novel, capturing both the bold outlines and the more subtle nuances of the contemporary anti-immigrant trend with a combination of biting social commentary and laugh-out-loud satire.

The story is set in the Magic Kingdom—Disney World in Florida—which is a perfect metaphor for the “American Dream”: A rosy illusory world built on a hidden underworld of racism and corporate manipulation. The bones of the story involve a crowd of “Dreamers,” the young Hispanics brought to the U.S.A. illegally when they were young children, who gather in Disney World on April Fools’ Day. They are enjoying the portrayal of the country in which they so much want to remain. Opposing them are various hate groups who want to “take back our World” (meaning both Disney World and the wider American society) from the Dreamers (and immigrants in general).

Hartnett deftly weaves together multiple story lines—I count at least seven! Without spoiling anything, I note that each of the seven could carry the weight of its own novel:

  1. A group of intellectuals tries to embarrass the Disney corporation by acts of humorous subversion of Disney’s perfect world;
  2. Groups of “patriotic” haters try to “take back our World” by violently attacking the Dreamers in the Magic Kingdom;
  3. The chief security officer of Disney World struggles to protect the Dreamers and to disrupt the plans of both the intellectuals in story #1 and the hate groups in #2;
  4. An aging actress manipulates a narcissistic movie director through a day in the Magic Kingdom laced with consumption—of toys, souvenirs, food, and alcohol—in order to reignite her career;
  5. Girl (from story #1) meets boy (from story #2), they fall for one another, until a tragedy strikes (perpetrated by a guy from stories #1 and #2);
  6. An elderly do-gooder (from story #1) falls for an elderly racist (from story #2, but also story #5), and both are changed in the process;
  7. The big corporation (Disney World itself) cons and manipulates everyone to line its own coffers.

 

Disney World might in fact be the main character in the book. It both helps and thwarts all the other characters as they pursue their goals. It offers the illusion of satisfaction to all, while relentlessly parting everyone from their money. A single illustration: On the positive side, the park provides Tucker, its chief security officer, a large, nimble, and effective security team who can take control of a disturbance almost instantly and nearly invisibly. But at the same time, the park’s vast size and enormous variety of rides, features, restaurants, and shops makes Tucker’s job almost impossible—there’s no way for him to know where the bad guys are and what they’re up to.

One of the most intriguing features of Fools in the Magic Kingdomis Hartnett’s almost gleeful violation of some of fiction’s cardinal norms. For instance, there is no single plot, as I already noted. Instead, Mike mashes stories and genres exuberantly. Is this a detective story? Yup. Is this a social satire? Yup. A critique of the current social and political situation in America? Yup. A coming of age story? Yup. A romance? Yup. Its all of them, and more. The mash-ups are strikingly like Disney World: They promise (and deliver) something for everybody.

Another way Mike breaches fictional conventions lies in his agility in switching points of view (POV), often within the same scene, even (at times) within the same paragraph. Yet, he’s so smooth a “head-jumper” that I never lost the thread or became confused. As an ardent “one POV per scene” kind of writer, I took guilty pleasure each time I “heard” the interior thinking of both Character A and Character B in the same moment. Mike pulled off his crimes as smoothly as Disney World makes the illusory “real.” His novel reminded me: No rule is too sacred to break—and if you want to break rules, do it with gusto!

I am left with deep admiration for this book. The intricacy of the plot(s), the dimensionality of the characters (every “good” character had some darker flaws, every “bad guy” had surprising virtues), the skillful—and wholly unexpected—way the multiple stories became one story at the end, the extensive descriptions of Disney World rides and hidden spaces, and the evidence that the author has done extensive research into all facets of the Magic Kingdom (did you know there are “hidden Mickey’s” scattered throughout the park?)—all tell me I was in the hands of a master story-teller. Mike Hartnett is an author after Walt Disney’s own heart.

Is Fiction Fake News?

Writing fiction, as I do now, has allowed me to experience first hand a curious paradox: Fictitious stories are simultaneously both untrue and true. They are news of a kind, but “fake” news (to borrow an odious phrase). We’ve always known this, of course. A delightful Goodreads page of quotes about fiction confirms this. For example, Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”  Or this from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

Contrast this paradox—that the lie of fiction can discover the deeper truth of reality—with the Trumpian and Fox-News-ian blather about “fake news.” Crying “fake news” about whatever one doesn’t like to know is a lie intended to obscure the truth. In the lie of fiction, on the other hand, I try to create a world, people, events, reactions that utterly imaginary, yet truer, perhaps, than many actual, historical places, people, events, and reactions.

And readers are the judges: They know when a place or a person or something that happens rings false, even in fantasy fiction. Readers love J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin in part because their worlds are so palpably real, their characters so emotionally authentic.

And in reading successful fiction, by agreeing to accept the author’s lie, astute readers can have the life-affirming experience of opening to a deeper, broader, sharper truth—the truth of what it means to be human. Hiding the truth behind the whine of “fake news” steals from all of us the dignity of our human capacity to judge for ourselves what is true or false.

Hiding Behind the Mentally Ill

In my professional life, before I began writing novels, I was a psychologist. In the course of my work, I met hundreds of wonderful, courageous, loving, generous people. They all suffered some form of mental illness.

After each drumbeat of the tragic mass shootings in our beloved country, a chant arises from the right wing of the choir.

Like any chant, it follows its rubric carefully, meticulously. (Chants, you know, have no power if they are improvised, disorderly, undisciplined. Ask any monk, any member of any choir.) The chant goes like this:

We are outraged: This evil strikes again

 For the victims and their families, women, children, men:

We send our thoughts and prayers.

 

It is too soon to speak of guns,

We must honor our departed ones,

And offer them our thoughts and prayers.

 

The killer was mentally ill, an animal, deranged.

Not like us, not like those of us who exchange

Our thoughts and prayers.

 

This chant is an obscenity.

“Thoughts and prayers” are not the anti-dote to mental illness, treatment is. But what has the present administration given us regarding mental illness? A law expanding access to guns for the mentally ill!

As if to say, “We will arm your killers, and when you are dead, we will pray for you.”

Yes, outrageous. But an even deeper outrage, to me, is the way politicians hide their cowardice toward the NRA behind tough language about mentally ill persons. Their veiled (but only thinly veiled) implication is that every mentally ill person is a potential mass murderer. If “mental illness” causes mass shootings, then . . . This is not only nonsense, it is insidious, hateful nonsense. It casts a shadow on every law-abiding, loving, hard-working person who happens to suffer from a mental illness.

If I were to twist the truth in the same way about gun owners, I could write: “All mass shooters are gun owners. The problem here isn’t guns, it’s owning a gun.” (This is a variant on the NRA’s “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It just takes it one logical step further—therefore, owning a gun is the problem.) But that would be nothing else than hateful, dishonest, and cruel nonsense, equal in depravity to “guns don’t kill people, mentally ill people kill people.”

Just as millions of gun owners are lawful, decent, caring human beings and the gun owners who kill are a vanishingly small number of them, so too millions of Americans who suffer from some form of mental illness are upright, caring, and decent people and the number of mass shooters with mental illness is infinitely small. To tar all those good people in either group with the cowards’ brush—“We don’t have a gun problem here, we have a mental illness problem”—is perhaps a more hateful and fateful evil than gun violence itself.

Why?

Because it is an evil perpetrated by those who do not need to do it, who commit it to divert attention from the real causes, the real problems, the real issues that make gun violence “as American as apple pie.” It is a vast smear against millions of decent people that further divides and weakens our country.

We don’t need to “make America great again”—it is already great.

We need to make America honest again.

Why Teach the Humanities?

In the Nov. 9, 2017 issue of the New York Review of Books, author Marilynne Robinson writes an impassioned and thoughtful defense of the humanities and liberal education in general (read it here). She reminds us that liberal education—under attack from many quarters in our rapidly deteriorating intellectual climate—is “an education worthy of a free people.” As she says, “[T]he object [of political attacks on public higher education in general and the teaching the humanities in particular] is clear—to create a virtual army out of the general population who will compete successfully against whomever for whatever into an endless future, at profound cost to themselves.” Education as boot camp for robot-like workers in the perfect capitalist economy.

Then, wryly, she adds, “All this differs from military engagement in one great particular. The generals [CEOs, in this case] are always assumed to be free to abandon their armies and go over to the other side, if there is profit in it.”

The attack on the humanities arises, she contends, out of an insistent belief that public education should be oriented only to “skills training” for the competitive economy. This article of faith is in turn driven by a world view  (dare I say “religion”?) that defines competition as the only meaningful criterion of value.

In defending the humanities and liberal education, Robinson notes that “literature had been made a kind of data to illustrate, supposedly, some graceless theory that stood apart from it, and that would be shed in a year or two and replaced by something post- or neo- and in any case as gracelessly irrelevant to a work of language as whatever it displaced.” We’re all familiar with “modernism,” “post-modernism,” “constructivism,” “post-constructivism,” “neo-post-constructivism,” and on and on. Trendy—and empty—when you set those theories side by side with Hamlet, For Whom the Bell Tolls, From Here to Eternity, or Ulysses.

But she ends on a hopeful note. “And yet, the beautiful persists,” she writes, “and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.”

“. . . the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.” A call to grace in a graceless time.

“Taking a Knee”

Last weekend, we went to our grandson’s 7th grade football game. Midway through the game, after a hard tackle, he didn’t get up. His dad was a linesman, carrying the down marker; his mom was sitting beside my wife, her mother. Our breaths caught in our chests as the doctor rushed out, and knelt at the side of our grandson’s small body.

As she and the coaches were gathered round Aspen, the boys on the field were taking a knee. Sudden memory returned—when I was a boy, my football coaches trained us to take a knee when a player was down, perhaps injured. Taking a knee was a sign of respect, of concern and attention and almost of prayer.

Taking a knee, in football, symbolizes acknowledgement that an injury has occurred and that attention should be paid. We attended, watchful with worry, until Aspen stood up and we burst in applause.

And as that happened, I realized something.

Most of you, no doubt, have been aware of the controversy about the NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. What I realized is that Colin Kaepernick—and now more than a hundred NFL players, and some MLB players—are taking a knee because there has been an injury to which they want to attend, to express concern, to show respect for the injured, perhaps to have a moment of prayer:

For the injury of racial injustice and the lingering sin of white supremacy in America, the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

Thinking of the poor after Harvey, Irma, and Katia

(This post is another in my ongoing experiment with writing for only ten minutes. Period. I do allow for an additional ten minutes for proofreading. Please let me know what you think.)

My friend, Lou Kavar (whose blog at http://blog.loukavar.com) is well worth following) posted a meaningful link that reminds us that it is all well and good for governors to order evacuations in the face of hurricanes, but that the story is more complicated than that.

The article in The Guardian tells the stories of “two Hurricane Irmas.” The first descends on the wealthy citizens of Miami Beach, many of whom have second homes elsewhere and can afford to travel there, or they have houses designed to withstand hurricanes like this, with hurricane-proof windows or built-in shutters and backup generators and plenty of fuel. Their pantries are stocked with many days’ worth of food and water—these are folks who can afford to leave OR to stay.

The second Hurricane Irma descends on the inner city of Liberty Beach, a few miles north of Miami Beach, whose residents either haven’t got cars to escape in or cash for enough gas to get safely away. Those who might be able to get out often can’t afford lodging if they can’t find a public shelter. Many, the article asserts, can barely buy enough groceries for today’s meals, much less three or four days’ stock of bottled water. These folks, like the wealthy of Miami Beach only a few miles away, will also ride out the storm, not because they are safe, but because they have little choice.

Farther south, in the Caribbean, some of the islands devastated by Irma are coming to grips with the reality that their communities have, effectively, been destroyed. 95% of the buildings on St. Maartin, for instance, have been damaged or destroyed. The devastation on the island of Anguilla (where my great-grandparents once lived), was worse. Across the path of Irma, countless families are homeless.

Last week, Harvey. This week, Irma. Next week, Jose?

Katia in Mexico.

These storms do not discriminate between the wealthy and the poor. But their impact does, and because you and I contribute to the recovery effort, let’s be sure we do not. Let’s not forget.

My ten minutes is up. See you next week!

Some Thoughts After Harvey

It’s heartbreaking to see the video of all the people being displaced by Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath. Just heartbreaking. The images bring to mind those  of the refugees from Syria washing ashore in Greece, utterly displaced in every possible way.

Two years ago, in a cool Budapest park, we heard a talk by a college professor who had started a movement of professors and ordinary folks. Their goal? To protect and to care for the tens of thousands of refugees who’d made their way to Budapest and were stuck in its three huge train stations, nowhere left to go. The Hungarian government—led by racist nationalists—refused to help the refugees, and instead built a wall on the border to keep more of them out. Sound familiar?

Anyway, this gentleman mobilized hundreds,  then thousands of people to create tent cities, provide food and supplies and medical care, and generally provide the basic human necessities to the suffering refugees. A modern saint, and a movement of honorable citizens more moral than their government.

The images from Houston and Corpus Christi and Crosby and Beaumont and the other cities devastated by the storm show ordinary people doing the same thing, time and again. Helping old people onto boats to rescue them from the flood. Establishing shelters and attending to the basic human needs of the thousands of Texans who escaped death with hardly anything of their own.

Meanwhile, the president’s budget proposal cuts disaster relief. Medical research. Funding for flood insurance through FEMA. Funding for FEMA itself. What takes priority? More war in Afghanistan and the Middle East. A wall on our southern border. Redistributing more of our national treasure to the wealthy, who already own so much of it.

There are floods and hurricanes and wildfires. There are earthquakes. There are killing blizzards and murderous heat waves. None of these are under our control, and we all know they are getting worse. As I write, we are surrounded by hundreds of wildfires around the northern Rockies, their smoke utterly obscuring our view. But far more damaging, there are also the moral outrages and the incessant drumbeat of war, the disruptions of our rights and our freedoms, the rallying fascists who feel so emboldened, and the vacating of our values in favor of those who would turn America into an oligarchy.

My ten minutes have passed, and I must stop. So this ends on a sorrowful note. I apologize for that. Next week’s ten-minute post will be the antidote—but perhaps sorrow is not inappropriate for a time like this. Meanwhile, I will look for the hope.

“Small Everyday Acts of Kindness”

(I’m still experimenting with writing these posts in ten minutes or fewer. I’d love to hear from you about what you think of them!)

Gandalf, the great wizard in Tolkien’s beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, was asked why he’d chosen a Hobbit, Frodo Baggins, to go up against Sauron, the evil lord who threatened the existence of goodness itself. Gandalf answered, “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Frodo Baggins? I am afraid. He is small, but he gives me courage.”

In our world, it seems to be the case that many people think differently. I listen, particularly, to certain of our politicians, whom I can only conclude must be terrified, to judge from their relentless rhetoric of war and their chest-thumping cruelty. It is as if by threatening, by promising death and destruction, by blithely ripping families apart and condemning a generation to poverty, these men—and they are always men—think they can have their way with whomever they wish. Can they?

I doubt it. We wanted to have our way in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, and now North Korea in 2017. After 16 years, we are still in Afghanistan, after 14 we’re still in Iraq, and we’re not getting our way. We wanted to have our way in 1950 in Korea as well, and we are still there, still bellowing in frustrated fury at its leaders.

“Small everyday deeds,” said Gandalf, “keep the darkness at bay.” He was too wise to think that anything could make the darkness vanish and give victory to the light. The best we can hope for, he suggests, is to hold off the darkness, and whatever small everyday deeds of kindness and compassion that you and I can perform will do so.

But what small everyday deed can I do that will keep North Korea or ISIS or any threat at bay? I think that’s not the right question: On the world stage, nothing you or I, as individuals, do will stop the Saurons of our time, nothing, that is, except to vote carefully and to pressure our representatives in government to do the same, and keep pushing for the best. A better question is: What small act can I perform today that will improve my life, my family, my community, the world around me?

The Ring of Power has been handed to each of us, as it was to Frodo, and each of us must find our own particular small everyday act to perform, faithfully, in order to play our small role in the great deeds of our time.

Well, my ten minutes are up. I’ll see you next week!

Newspeak at Work

What is Doublespeak?

As a writer – of fiction, outside of this blog – I’m always intrigued by imaginative uses of words to communicate, and appalled by equally imaginative uses of words to distort and prevent authentic communication. My sense of intrigue (in both its meanings) has been piqued by the verbal performances of members of the administration, who find curious words to convey their “alternative facts,” that is, their untruths. This, of course, has a venerable history, and not only in politics; but it is the political use of “doublespeak” that I want to talk about here.

Doublespeak, also called “double talk,” happens when one changes or somehow distorts words to make something unpleasant or offensive sound positive. 

The word was given to us by George Orwell in his prescient novel, 1984, which has seen a remarkable surge in sales since the election to the U.S. presidency of one of the world’s masters of doublespeak, Donald J. Trump. You may have heard (incessantly) about him.

Orwell’s novel, if you’re not familiar with it, is a chilling description of life under a dictatorship that controls – and watches, literally – every aspect of human life. One cannot even use the toilet without being watched by the ubiquitous telescreeens. (On an ironic twist of that meme, we now carry our own telescreens – which, as Orwell predicted, can track us everywhere.) As a key feature of the intellectual and moral devaluation of human discourse, the government practices – and insists the “citizens” practice – doublespeak, based on the ability to think (and therefore to say) something, while knowing full well it is utterly false. In order to soften the dissonance, the technique involves using euphemisms and word-distortions.

“Doublespeak” Flows from “Newspeak”

In 1984, Orwell describes how the government of Oceania (the fictional dictatorship) invents a new language whose primary character is to “rid itself of unnecessary words.” For instance, since the word “good” implies the absence of “bad,” there is no need for the word bad. Since the word “peace” implies the absence of war, there is no need for the word war. Instead, prefixes suffice: “Ungood” and “unpeace” cover “bad” and “war.”

The point is that words the government wishes to hide for any reason can be simply be put out of use. The concepts they express will soon follow suit and wither away. Take the case of “collateral damage.” How often do we hear this euphemism for the murder of innocent civilians? This reminds me of something I was taught in college about the Confucian emperors’ practice, when ascending to the throne, of issuing a new dictionary. The goal was to ensure that everyone could use the right meaning for words. The key difference with Orwellian Newspeak, though, is that the aim of the Confucians was to facilitate clear communication across a vast, polyglot empire, whereas the aim of the Oceania government was, to the contrary, to ensure an absence of genuine communication among the citizens. By doing so, the government aimed to control their minds. “Through his creation and explanation of Newspeak, Orwell warns the reader that a government that creates the language and mandates how it is used can control the minds of its citizens.”

Examples of Doublespeak

We already live in an era of vast doublespeak. The website “Your Dictionary,” from which I got my definition of doublespeak above, gives a list of 30 examples we all use in our everyday lives. Have you ever said “John passed” instead of “John died”? Put your dog “to sleep” instead of “euthanized” him? Protested “capital punishment” instead of “state-murder”?

It’s no surprise that many examples of doublespeak come from our government, and always reflect some action or decision that will harm someone. “Pre-emptive strikes” (as opposed to “unprovoked attacks”) have become commonplace. “Ethnic cleansing” is more sanitary than “genocide.”

On the domestic political front, we have seen in recent months a significant uptick in doublespeak . We now talk about “making health care affordable” (Paul Ryan) rather than “taking away people’s health care insurance.” The decision to defund Planned Parenthood (for instance) is spoken of as “protecting the unborn” rather than as “depriving poor women of health care.”

And of course, there is the blanket, one-size-fits-all response to re-phrasing those in the direction of more honesty. Saying that defunding Planned Parenthood, for instance, is “depriving poor women of health care” is attacked from the conservatives as being “failed liberal cant,” despite the fact that it is a much more accurate—and honest—phrase than “protecting the unborn.” (My source here is FactCheck.org.)

On the military side, we hear the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), which are presumed to be different in kind from “conventional weapons.” But is “the mother of all bombs” that was dropped on an almost-vacant area in Afganistan last week really different in kind from a chemical weapons attack? Sure, the “Mother” (is the word meant to lull us into feeling secure—“Mom’s on the watch”?) only killed (reports vary) 36 or 94 ISIS soldiers. But the bomb was dropped in a nearly deserted corner of Afghanistan; drop the Mother-of-all-bombs on a city and count the bodies.

Doublespeak Is Doublespeak, No Matter Who Says It

No one disputes that ours is a dangerous world, a precarious time. The man who controls our nuclear codes ordered, from his dining table, an airstrike against a Syrian airbase because photos of dead babies made him emotional. Meanwhile, North Korea has succeeded in provoking the Trump team into escalating the tension on the Korean peninsula—at a moment when there is no viable government in the south.

Vice-President Mike Pence went to Seoul, South Korea, and offered stern words to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. At the end of his statement—filled with innuendo and, yes, doublespeak—we heard this: “There was a period of strategic patience but the era of strategic patience is over.”

Strategic patience?

Mr. Vice-president, did you mean “peace”?

And were you telling us, with the “era of strategic patience” now over, that we are entering a period of war?

Why Not Speak Straight?

“The idea behind Newspeak is that, as language must become less expressive, the mind is more easily controlled.” I find it hard to imagine hoards of citizens carrying signs and marching in the streets against “the end of strategic patience” (that is, war with North Korea).

I cannot imagine the people of the United States rising in anger at Trumpist efforts to “protect the unborn” (that is, to defund women’s health care).

I cannot see my fellow citizens standing shoulder to shoulder in rainy spring weather to protest “tax cuts for the middle class” that in fact actually are for the wealthy, such as Donald Trump, and that – for many working class and single parents –  would result in a tax increase.

What I can envision, though, is citizens learning to see through the doublespeak. Even with telescreens glued to our noses, most Americans have a healthy dose of skepticism about politicians. Sure, the base of the Republican party has acted foolishly, deluded by the doublespeak, but the base’s bedrock remains common sense. They know that drought is drought, even if the president declaims, “There is no drought” in California, it’s just “them shoving the water into the sea.” Many of the people living in the Great Plains have family memories of the Dust Bowl, and they recognize that dust-bowl conditions in California’s central valley are dust-bowl conditions. No amount of doublespeak can change what people know in their bones.

And most of us know that “the end of an era of strategic peace” means a promise of war.