Babel redux

I have sometimes imagined myself as a sort of political ballast. When the country seemed to be listing leftward, I made conservative noises. When Zombies went on interminably about how the words “wall of separation” appear nowhere in the Constitution, and how American was and is a Christian nation, I pushed back. Enough already! I know about the Danbury Baptists, but I also know what the Constitution does say.

Maybe I’m just contrary. 

I know some people who say they haven’t changed their positions on anything, but the world has shifted, putting them out, relatively at least, on one wing or the other.

That’s not true of me. I have changed positions, and I’m still changing. When you see that political doctrines you held have produced a mess, how can you not change position? When you see that both parties, for instance, mock the free market with crony capitalism; that both parties voted to bail out “too big to fail” institutions and then promised to regulate them better in the future (instead of breaking them up into pieces “small enough to fail”); then how can you rhapsodize about a free market that never was and to all appearances never will be in this real world?

The ballast metaphor seems broken. Where do I rush to right the ship of state now?

My imagination has shifted from the ballast metaphor to the Babel metaphor.  Our nation is as polarized as I have ever seen it.  The two sides have talking points rather than dialogue. The talking points may consist of recognizable words, but they bear no intelligible meaning. As I say, the policies concealed behind the talking points appear substantially identical.

It reminds me of the Banquet at Belbury in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.

Here’s the setup, in case you’re not familiar with this wonderful work.  The protagonist,  a young married man with academic aspirations, finds himself connected with — and increasingly a prisoner of — N.I.C.E,  the “National Institute on Coordinated Experimentation.” N.I.C.E.  turns out not to be very nice at all. They practice vivisection (a practice the blithe acceptance of which greatly troubled Lewis) and a primitive sort of transhumanism. They control their own people through a mixture of calculated ambiguity and fear of outright violence.  They control hoi polloi with soothing-sounding scientific slogans and violence.

At a banquet at headquarters, the Director stood up to bloviate, resorting to euphemism and cant as usual:

For the first few minutes, anyone glancing down the long tables would have seen what we always see on such occasions. There were the placid faces of the elderly bon viveurs whom food and wine had placed in a contentment which no amount of speeches could violate. There were the patient faces of responsible but serious diners, who had long since learned how to pursue their own thoughts, while attending the speech just enough to respond wherever a laugh or a low rumble of serious ascent was obligatory. There was the usual fidgety expression of the faces of young man unappreciative of port and hungry for tobacco. There was bright over-elaborate attention on the powdered faces of the women who knew their duty to society. But if you have gone looking down the tables, you would have presently seen a change. You would have seen face after face look up and turn in the direction of the speaker. You would have seen first curiosity, then fixed attention, then incredulity. Finally, you would have noticed that the room was utterly silent, without a cough or a creak, that every eye was fixed on Jules,  and soon every mouth opened in something between fascination and horror.

To different members of the audience the change came differently. To Frost, it began at the moment when he heard Jules end a sentence with the words, “as gross an anachronism as to trust Calvary for salvation in modern war.” Calvary, thought Frost almost aloud. Why couldn’t the fool mind what he was saying? The blunder irritated him extremely. Perhaps — but hullo! what was this! had his hearing gone wrong? For Jules seemed to be saying that the future destiny of mankind depended on the implosion of the horses of Nature. “He’s drunk,” thought Frost. Then, crystal-clear in articulation, beyond all possibility of mistake, came, “The madrigore of verjuice must be talthibianised.”

Wither was slower to notice what was happening. He had never expected the speech to have any meaning as a whole and for a long time familiar catchwords rolled on in a manner which did not disturb the expectation of his ear. He thought, indeed, the Jules was sailing very near the wind, that a very small false step would deprive both the speaker and the audience of the power even to pretend that he was saying anything in particular. But as long as that border was not crossed, he rather admired the speech; it was in his own line. Then he thought, “Come! That’s going too far. Even they must see you can’t talk about accepting the challenge of the past by throwing down the gauntlet of the future.” He looked cautiously down the room. All was well. But it wouldn’t be if Jules didn’t sit down pretty soon. Then in that last sentence there were surely words he didn’t know. What the deuce did he mean by aholibate? he looks down the room again. They were attending too much, always a bad sign. Then came the sentence, “the surrogates esemplanted in a continual of porous variations.”

Wither was wondering whether he should wait till Jules sat down or whether she should rise, interrupting with a few judicious words. He did not want a scene. It would be better if Jules sat down of his own accord. At the same time, there is now an atmosphere that crowded room which warned Wither or not to delay too long. Glancing down at the secondhand of his watch, he decided to wait 2 minutes more. Almost as he did so, he knew that he had misjudged. An intolerable falsetto laugh rang out from the bottom of the table and would not stop. Some fool the woman had gotten hysterics. Immediately Wither touched Jules on the arm, signed to him with a nod, and rose.

… Then Wither cleared his throat. He knew what to do so that every eye in the room turned immediately to look at him. The woman stopped screaming. People who had been sitting dead still in strained positions moved and relaxed. Wither looked down the room for a second or two in silence, feeling his grip on the audience. He saw that he already had them in hand. There would be no more hysterics. Then he began to speak.

They ought to have all looked more and more comfortable as he proceeded; and there ought  soon to have been murmurs of great regret for the tragedy which they had just witnessed. That was what Wither expected. What he actually saw bewildered him. The same too attentive silence which had prevailed during Jules’ speech had returned. Bright unblinking eyes and open mouths greeted him in every direction. The woman began to laugh again —  or no, this time it was two women. Cosser, after one frightened glance, jumped up, overturning his chair, and bolted from the room.

The deputy director could not understand this, for to him his own voice seem to be uttering the speech he had resolved to make. But the audience heard him saying, “Tiddies and fugleman — I sheel foor that we all — er — most steeply rebut the defensible, though I trust, lavatory, Aspasia which gleams to have slected our redeemed inspector this deceiving. It would — ah — be shark, very shark, from anyone’s debenture ….”

The banquet did not end well, even apart from the large experimental animals that escaped from the laboratories into the banquet hall and wrought havoc.

I vacillate between Withers and Cosser. I’m not sure whether remaining and trying to speak sensibly, at the risk of the auditors hearing me speak gibberish to neutralize gibberish, is the better course, or if it’s time to say “the jig’s up” and flee. I’m not sure where to flee. The frontier’s gone. The Western world is all caught up in the same culture of death.

If we don’t learn to communicate, our party will not end well.

I prevaricate that you exfolify my expectorations, n’est çe pas? Shibboleth, y’all!