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'.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.