Dispatches | August 23, 2005

[By William Bradley]

Reading Michael Piafsky’s interview with Jon Stewart and the writers of America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction in the most recent issue of the Missouri Review reminded me of one of my favorite moments from the Daily Show, and why that moment made me glad to be a creative nonfiction essayist.

On an episode from last February, Stewart suggested a new drinking game centered around our president’s use of emotionally-charged buzzwords in place of detailed discussion. The idea was simple—anyone who played a drinking game in college and pays the slightest amount of attention to our president when he’s speaking got the joke before Stewart had a chance to deliver the punchline. They would air Tim Russert’s interview with George W. Bush from the previous weekend’s episode of Meet the Press, heavily cut to emphasize the president’s use of the words “danger,” “terror,” and “madman,” and players were required to do a shot of tequila every time one of these buzzwords was uttered. Of course, by the end of the segment, Stewart was drinking straight from the bottle in order to keep up with the commander-in-chief’s repetitive responses. In fact, if you played the presidential talking points drinking game at home, in just under one hour you’d be obliged to do 46 shots.

The idea of a politician using key words or phrases to sound decisive and powerful did not begin with the current president, of course. A decade ago, for example, Newt Gingrich’s political action committee GOPAC released to its members a memo entitled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” which offered a list of “Optimistic, Positive Governing Words” a candidate might use to describe himself or his policies, such as freedom, share, protect and empower. Additionally, the memo contained a list of “Contrasting Words” to be used to describe an opponent or her policies, such as traitor, waste, impose, and spend. The fact that these lists were created and then used successfully is not very reassuring; it suggests that what a politician says is not as important as the way he or she says it, and that we may be manipulated to the point where our decisions are made based on knee-jerk responses to signifiers, rather than on thoughtful, detailed analyses of that which is signified.

The personal essay avoids the abstractions that infect our political discourse, making it vital for those of us who still value informed debate and intellectual honesty. By its very nature, the essay is an attempt to reveal truth. When Montaigne first began to define the form, he made sure to explain that the essay does not contain “straining or artifice” and that it is “written in good faith.” The essay is not an example of language used as a “mechanism of control.” Instead, one could consider it a “mechanism of discussion,” or a “mechanism of thought.” Certainly, Montaigne viewed his essays as attempts at understanding his world and his place in it—hence the title Essais, French for “trials.” As Philip Lopate notes, “Montaigne understood that, in an essay, the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some understanding of a problem is the plot.” Honesty and attention to detail while seeking to expose truth, then, are the essayist’s chief concerns.

George Orwell argued that the essay—like all writing of consequence—was inherently political. “It seems to me nonsense,” he wrote, “in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such [political] subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another.” Similarly, Orwell was concerned with the degradation of language and the effects such degradation has on a culture. “[Language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish,” he wrote, “but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” One imagines that, had Orwell lived in the United States in the 21st century, he would have placed recent political talking points under the “meaningless words” category he detailed in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” and berated those who use them.

The essayist understands the way words—stripped of context and meaning—can be used as mechanisms of control, and she struggles against the forces that would impose their will on her. Ideologues may seek to control the conversation by remaining abstract and superficial, but, Scott Russell Sanders says:

By contrast, the essay remains stubbornly concrete and particular: it confronts you with an oil-smeared toilet at the Sunoco station, a red vinyl purse shaped like a valentine heart, a bowlegged dentist hunting deer with an elephant gun. As Orwell forcefully argued, and as dictators seem to agree, such a bypassing of abstractions, such an insistence on the concrete, is a politically subversive act.

Essayists are often hindered by the common belief that “average people” have nothing interesting to say; nonfiction is a form for world leaders, rock stars, political prisoners, and other “exceptional” people. And yet I find myself less interested in the “insights” of celebrities than in the account Lopate gives of the ways his body has changed over the years in “Portrait of My Body.” Lopate gives us an idea of just what it’s like to be Lopate, to experience the world as he experiences it, and that seems more useful and relevant than anything a movie star or reality TV personality might have to say about fame. Furthermore, the essayist knows that in a culture whose chief value is consensus—”You’re either with me, or against me”—the recognition that we are all disparate, unique individuals with minds of our own reminds us that we don’t have to march in lockstep with anyone else’s ideology.

It is our individuality that gives the essay its vitality. It is the successful essayist who is able to make that vital individuality feel familiar to the reader. Successfully communicating a unique consciousness—providing an illustration of a mind at work and play—is much more useful than any vague talking points or collection of abstract buzzwords could ever be.