There we were in the buffet line, and we had been there awhile. With only two people taking cards and a serpentine line twice as long as a South Florida python, things were a little…slow.
Then there was the “handicap” lane: a short line at best, but surprisingly devoid of people walking with any sort of assistance. As a person with vertical scars on his knees, married to someone with vertical scars on her knees, one notices these things. So when we finally reached the desk the question was asked: “what are the criteria for using the handicap lane?”
The answer was expected but not really welcome, because it was as expected: the criteria are, one is in the handicap lane. Even if one is apparently well and whole physically and mentally, “We can’t ask,” the checker said sotto voce. “It’s against the law.” Because, you know, it might make someone feel bad. Welcome to the neovictorian world of that-which-may-not-be-uttered. It’s just as confining as the original, with far fewer opportunities for satisfying naughtiness.
Like the original Victorians, our modern version is divided into a number of classes, each of them with special privileges and immunities, tasks and expectations. Now as then, the vast majority of people were in what was seen as the lowest class — not economically. The majority of Americans today are wealthy beyond the comprehension of someone alive in 1885. But in terms of access to power and in the eyes of the ruling classes, there is little difference between the Dickensian toilers of the late 1800s and the “deplorables” of today.
Language helps tell the tale. As with the Victorian “reformers,” today’s Progressives push policies and actions that they just know will help the underclasses: from handing out benefits like salted nuts to forbidding revelatory questions on job applications to promulgating diktats on forbidden and acceptable words, the two groups, separated by time, have a virtual identity forged in a sense of Noblisse Oblige and a certainty that they know better about what the Great Unwashed need and want. “It’s not ‘legs,’ dear. That’s an offensive word in polite society. A table has limbs...” Today it’s “undocumented residents,” because — poor things — they left their identification at home on the dresser. In Guatemala.
Then as now, those who itch to remake society started with words in an attempt to control thoughts. In the Victorian era, much effort was expended to advance the idea that the poor and destitute were a separate and permanent underclass, requiring a unified social response guided by the principles of “reform,” that is to say, by those who embraced the new ideas of the social experiment and the welfare state. Previously, the “working poor” were seen by society, and saw themselves as part of the continuum of workers. They saw their status not as something imposed, but as something natural; they demanded fair wages when working and charity relief when they were not. Through diligent effort this was changed to an idea that the indigent were essentially adult children, bereft of the intellectual and even moral capacity to better their lot. It became necessary to create, fund and staff institutions for their relief on a country-wide basis. Across Europe, the welfare state slowly came into being.
Today the same sort of linguistic tricks dominate our conversations about many social issues, not only about those who enter and reside in our country illegally. Wait for the argument from Democrats in the General Assembly that, due to centuries of ill-treatment, Virginia’s black and Hispanic citizens are incapable of such complex tasks as obtaining a mortgage, a photo ID, medical care or decent post-secondary education. As a result, they must be collected into the arms of the paternalistic state which, guided by those who are wiser and better-intentioned than the rest of us, will recompense them for past wrongs and bring them all to a world in which no upsetting word, no contrary action is taken, on pain of law. Oh, wait…
No, the World of Tomorrow is already well underway, fueled by intense loathing for things as they are; peopled by the credulous, the ill-schooled and those who prefer hope to experience. It is being made as we watch; when it is complete, it will be ruled by those who think nothing of manipulating language to control perceptions and rule people’s thoughts. For their own good, of course. And the further they move from truth, as George Orwell once observed, the more they will hate those who speak it.
Morgan Liddick, who lives in Stuarts Draft, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published the first and third
Wednesday of each month.