San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

The Dumbocracy of Consumerism

The café was a nest of pleasant aromas --old varnished wood, freshly eroded coffee beans, warm scones huddled in linen-lined baskets. Three booths lined the west wall with high church benches that complimented the rectory theme of the coffee bar.

I sat in the corner. The booth in front of me was a mahogany lifeboat filled with young women, survivors from the wreckage of a university term paper, no doubt. They were mercilessly modern in appearance, which is to say their Vegas neon clothes, face rivets, nose rings, multi-hued straw hair, WWII footwear and shoulder or sacral tattoo agreed with the current camouflage for mammals who wanted to stand out. I mused on how recent it seemed when a few extra inches of hair length was enough to fill one with the same rebellious pride that rang like bell tones in the voices of these four girls. But it wasn’t their appearance that drew my attention away from the delicious gazpacho soup at the end of my spoon. It was their conversation, or rather, the persistence of a single syllable that confettied their dialogue to such an extent that I quietly removed my plastic pedometer from my pocket and began logging its extravagant abuse. That syllable was the word 'like'.

After a few minutes of attentive accounting, it became obvious my little scientific sampling would likely provoke a self-inflicted epileptic seizure. I’m quite certain a five-time Jeopardy champion wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the button action. According to the café’s wall clock and my pedometer, those girls managed to rack up 217 contributions of the word 'like' in ten minutes. Here is an example of their linguistical marksmanship:

“I was like talking to this dude and he was like really old man, y'know, like with gray hair'n shit and he's like asking me some kind of directions only his voice is really like weird or something and I'm all 'man, what is this dude like saying to me?' and I'm all like 'this guy is weirding me out' and I'm thinking like, what the hell does he really like want from me.”

I remember reading about Hemingway’s concern for the English language, its tendency to become blunted and lose its edge. Hell, the above quote is so far beyond a whet stone recovery, it would better be served by lofting it down a bowling alley.

Why has 'like' so lavishly spangled the voices of today’s youths? It doesn’t appear to be the same pathology that ‘modernized’ the speech mannerisms of earlier generations. Previous cultural non sequiturs such as cool, 'groovy, man', 'far out' or dude were not indiscriminately used as gap-stops. They followed unwritten, if not actually distressed, grammatical rules. When 'man' was used in a slow-syllable exchange between two café votaries in the mid-60’s, the word always followed or came before a pause in the speech flow. Cool and groovy each ambidextrously toggled between an incarnation as an adjective or adverb. Far out was the reigning exclamatory. And dude was a hip analogue of a second person or third person pronoun. But what I heard in the booth of that café wasn’t a sloppy attempt to forcibly introduce a new entity into the lexicon of our language. It more closely resembled the sawdust used to bulk up bread loaves during the siege of Stalingrad during WWII. It was pure filler, verbal white noise.

An estimate of the statistics in the conversation I overheard is two likes for every seven spoken words. This translates to 29% of the dialogue being empty space. Almost a third, which coincidentally is what the body needs for its daily down-time. So what does this mean? Are today’s young people so in tune with their bodies that their spoken thoughts have adopted its circadian rhythms? Perhaps. After all, there has never been a culture so unreligiously obsessed with physical appearance. Or has the dumbing-down of our culture by public vehicles of entertainment and information finally produced a citizen who perfectly mirrors the products he or she is meant to consume, with their inordinate percentages of empty spaces? In the age of miniaturization there is a strange movement toward yacht-sized SUV’s, wall-engulfing televisions, homes that sprawl like plantation mansions and capacious cocoons of plastic that surround every wing nut and ball point pen on the market. It would appear down-sizing is something that only applies to jobs and noses.

Natural selection has favored an increasing body size. We are three or four times the size of our australopithecine ancestors. So it stands to reason the various extensions of our bodies, our cultural artifacts, should similarly inflate in size. Maybe a sentence is just another reflection of this trend.

The word like comes from the Middle English shortening of the Old English word gelic, which meant “similar”. When someone used the word gelic in a conversation seven or eight hundred years ago, they probably didn’t know it derived from the Proto-Germanic word galikaz, which pre-dated their conversation by half a millennium. The older posture of the word meant "having the same form”. So its meaning hasn’t changed in fifteen hundred years. We use it the same way a poet uses a simile. We use it the way an ad man uses a cartoon or photograph.

The problem with the kind of language overheard at the café is that it never says what it means. It is descriptive rather than factual, imprecise rather then focused. It presumes the universality of the speaker, the claim that if you know what such-and-such is like, then all you need to do is associate it with an analog experience of your own to know its meaning. There is no work on the part of the speaker to know what it is, only what it is like. This cultivates feelings or impressions rather than understanding and what might have been the high powered flood lamp of clear perception becomes instead a mental landscape feebly lit by the firefly of fuzzy apprehension. Take for instance the sentence “He had a demeanor about him that suggested he was a capable person, one who wouldn’t psychologically fall apart in a crisis.” Articulated by one of the cafe socialites, it would become “He was like, awesome, ya know?” Now it is up to the listener to supply their own analog, provided he or she had ever met anyone who was ‘awesome’.

The difference between the contrasted quotes above reflects the slippery head/heart debate, which is at the root of our cultural dumbing-down process. But is the process a natural function of social evolution or is there a guiding hand in its movement? What could possibly be the advantage of a culture whose reigning icons are uneducated sports figures, gangster rap singers, Beavis and Butthead and the Simpsons?

There is an old saying: Cut off the head, the body dies. This is not true for a social body, however. When you cut off its head, the heart rules. And that is exactly what is required for a consumer-driven society to perpetuate its profit thirst and maintain an ever-growing production level of shoddy and useless artifacts. It is the producers of these products whose heads remain invisible, which make them exceedingly difficult to cut off. It is in their interest to keep rational thought from exploring the territory between the ear canals of the average consumer. When the heart rules there is impulse, unpremeditated reaction, guilt, jealousy, avarice and a whole spectrum of feelings –rich loam for the seeds of fuzzy thinking and the perfect crop for realtors, telemarketers and online e-malls.

History books clearly show that the heart was an eager host for the sophistry of clerics and priests during the Dark Ages. Education, a commodity for the ruling elite back then, was carefully denied to the everyman, who dutifully remained inexpensively anaesthetized by drink and sordid entertainments. Our own modern Dark Age is ruled by politicians, marketers and corporate CEOs. They are the new clerics and ecclesiasts. They sow the seeds of control using the tools of television, music, movies, newspapers, books, sports and politics, which manipulate our heart strings like master violinists. For the last fifty years they’ve undermined the educational system, which took its first steps during the Renaissance, dieted and exercised through the Reformation and finally found its athleticism in the Age of Enlightenment, until today it’s fallen to such levels of disrepair there is scarcely a modern lawyer or engineer who can formulate a grammatically correct sentence.

Everyone has heard of the vole-like creatures in Scandanavia that periodically stampede off a cliff edge. This seems like such a human actvity. Behavior is ratified by consensus. If the number of others who behave similarly is large enough, the illusion of security inhabits the act and it becomes easy to do what everyone else does. That is the principle behind politics, fashion, brokering condominiums and countless other behavior-manipulating enterprises. It comforts the heart to know million of others share the posturing of the current ethos. The lemmings are no doubt also content to be members in the co-op of their doomed pilgrimage.

Salesmen are taught to husband the emotions of their prospects and guide them to the point where, at the moment of decision, the buyer will be more favorably disposed to what the seller is offering. When closing a deal, they make an emotional appeal to the buyer. They carefully weave an illusion of security, a feeling that the buyer will join the membership of a majority who have made the same praiseworthy decision to buy. The whole process of cultivating the buyer aims at making them acknowledge they are a part of a movement, singular in their choice to enter the fellowship, but at the same time safeguarded by the number of others involved (pre-sales of condominiums always begin by advertising the development is more than 50-75% sold out).

It’s a mercantile planet. People are constantly talking shop, whether at work or play. If they are not peddling a product, they are marketing themselves, or rather, an image they have of themselves. It’s strictly an imitative process, just as the stream of lemmings pouring from the lip of a cliff is a collective of one lemming imitating his neighbor. It is not a rational or logical behavior.

What person in his right mind would purchase something that doesn’t even exist? Many would say none. But that is exactly what happens during the pre-sale period of a condominium development. It is no different than the cotton candy faith spun out of words by priests, promoting their equally intangible products. The buyer responds to the offer of security and the knowledge that many of his neighbors react to the promise in the same way. And since the education system has failed to make them autonomous thinkers, someone who can rationalize a decision before it is made, they hold hands with their hearts on their sleeves and smilingly spill off the precipice.

During the 70’s a marketing campaign managed to create a frenzy for what was probably the most rudimentary product ever retailed to the American public. An advertising executive named Gary Dahl marketed a small stone nestled in excelsior at the bottom of a cardboard box. The catalyst that caused the lemmings to convocate into a substantial market share was intrinsic in the product’s name. The Pet Rock. There was a deep psychological strategy to the advertising tactic. Promoting the rock as the perfect pet addressed the modern unconscious desire to keep the reciprocity of responsibility in a relationship to a minimum. It was a subtly emotional appeal to the previous decade’s quest for autonomy and freedom. Here was something that didn’t require feeding, grooming, dressing, medical attention, small talk or personal space. Could there be a more liberating pet or partner? It also happened to be a product that would have been utterly impossible to market with an appeal to reason and logic.

It’s interesting that the people who were feverish about autonomy and freedom in the 60’s (a decade when new lemming herds rallied around liberal causes), who slipped flower stems down rifle barrels, mellowed under plumes of MJ and hashish smoke and gardened their own organic food with their own organic arms, are now members of a herd that treats family dwellings like any other stock market commodity, flips real estate like two headed coins, collects MBAs as if they were baseball cards and muscles giant corporations through plankton-rich business cartels, devouring smaller companies like a Pac-Man with a ticker tapeworm. They had a brief window when they were able to use logic and reason to disengage their youthful psyches from the prevailing cultural consumerism only to take up its methodology years later, immeasurably improve its potency and turn it against their own children and grandchildren. And the mainspring of their measures is the dumbing down of the public.

In 1963 SAT scores dropped in the United States and haven’t recovered since, despite more than 200 percent increase in spending on elementary and secondary education, after inflation. Today’s average score of 1020 is the result of the College Board’s decision in 1995 to ‘re-center’ SAT scores, which at bottom meant adding 100 points to each student’s score. Now SAT no longer includes antonyms or verbal analogies and students can use calculators on the math section. This trend certainly explains why the United States has never rated more than median compared to the educational scores of Europe and Japan. In late 1992, executives at Pacific Telesis found that 60 percent of the high school graduates applying for jobs at the firm failed a company exam set at the seventh-grade level.

What has caused this steady sliding of academic achievement? Perhaps it is the gradual paring down of the time spent in classrooms actually studying mathematics, history, geography and literature. The National Education Commission on Time and Learning in the US found that only 41% of a modern high school day is dedicated to basic academics. The curriculum is now augmented by lectures and courses on self-esteem, personal safety, AIDS education, family life, consumer training, driver's education, holistic health, and gym. It’s as if the entire spectrum of a child’s development has been mandated to schools while their parents are not expected to commit a single resource toward the survival skills of their offspring, other than school fees.

The typical American high school student now spends only 1,460 hours on subjects like mathematics, science and history during their four years in high school. Students in Japan spend 3,170 hours on basic subjects, while their counterparts in France spend 3,280 on academics. Students in Germany spend 3,528 hours studying the standards - nearly three times the hours exercised by American high schools.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the US, only one in six nine-year-olds reads well enough to "search for specific information, interrelate ideas, and make generalizations." Only one in four nine-year-olds can apply basic scientific information."

It’s easy to see that beneath the puppet strings of the ruling Plutocratics of North America there lies a complacent Dumbocracy, a modern social strata that closely mirrors the narcotized public of the Dark Ages. As civic acumen erodes, language follows suit. As technology replaces human musculature with flab, so too does language become doughy. It’s been said that writers are the priests of cultural change, the canaries in the coal mine of social toxicity. But other than a small minority who wing-flap and chirp warnings that are largely ignored, the bulk of our writers only serve to disguise the problem. Bookshelves sag under the weight of volumes written by the few who managed to transcend public education. Their thirst to learn did not stop at a high school or a college degree. They continually and relentlessly schooled themselves because at some time in their development a parent, a teacher or a friend awoke in them the wonder of learning, the perpetual renewal of perspective which is the legacy of an interested mind. Their books show an occupation with language that unfortunately masks the public’s disinterest. I have yet to read a conversation in a modern novel that accurately reflects the dialogue I overheard in that café. It’s, like, very misleading. One could easily conclude that our spoken tongue is relatively healthy, judged by what appears on retail bookshelves and magazine racks. But the diamond lane to a pathology of our lexicon is wide and overcrowded. It spills its traffic into trendy cafes and fast food restaurants. Those are the places where English is broken and where the trained ears of our various literary canaries work to acquit the damage by making the voices of the books’ inhabitants, if even just a little, more grammatically correct. If a writer isn’t ruled by textual symmetry and ease of scansion, his or her editor will certainly champion the process.

A public whistleblowing indicting the erosion of our education system transpired at a recent beauty pageant. A contestant from South Carolina was asked why she thought a fifth of Americans couldn’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Her reply was itself the loudest canary in the coal mine.

“I personally believe the U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh…people out there in our nation don’t have maps, and, uh, I believe that our education like such as South Africa and, uh, the Iraq everywhere like, such as and…I believe that they should, uh…our education over here in the US should help the US, uh, should help South Africa, it should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future, for us.”

It was a heartfelt answer. It just had no trace of logic or reason in it. I am sure anyone, if they wanted to, could sell Miss South Carolina anything. I am also sure she was one of the girls sitting at the booth in front of me at that café. I think her response to the panel’s question was so disjointed because she was consciously struggling to keep the word like out of her reply. She almost succeeded, for what is was worth.

So where do we go from here? A sentence is a product of the mind. If it has no adhesion and clearness, it reflects the state of that mind. And judging from the wholesale evidence, it appears we will go the way of the lemming. The few who stand outside the linguistic migration to the cliff edge and frantically gesture toward a safer path are the ones we should pity. Friendless in the cult cafes and fast food emporiums, they sit quietly and witness the inexorable wheel of progress mill to dust whole etymologies of verbs, pronouns, articles and adverbs. They know they can’t do anything about it. The strong ones grin and bear it.

But they don’t have to like it.