In The Inarticulate Society, Thomas Shachtman persuasively argues that Americans have lost the ability to respond to other points of view - to argue - without coming swiftly to blows. His case is forcefully punctuated by the rising tide of political violence in America and the hateful and intolerant speech that appears to incite it. We are in danger of moving our political debates from the Senate chamber to the streets, in the process of losing the social stability needed for a working democracy. Shachtman pins the blame for this decline on the jargon-spouting "specialists" in the professions and academia, who use parochial vocabulary to erect linguistic barriers between themselves and "ordinary" citizens; on teachers who are barely articulate themselves; on the pervasiveness of popular entertainment geared to the lowest common denominator; on insipid advertising and marketing campaigns that deliberately bypass reason to appeal to emotions; and especially on our political leaders who find it easier to play the demagogue than to give substantive explanations of policy choices. Shachtman proposes a concrete, multifaceted program for rehabilitating eloquence through the constructive use of media together with political and educational reform.
Shachtman's (Skyscraper Dreams) latest seems to start out as an intriguing study of the fate of conversation and Socratic dialogue in America. But the study of such an elusive topic would require a great deal of supposition, and apparently Shachtman prefers to deal with facts. After reviewing studies on how we learn to speak, standard English and on the culpability of schools in declining literacy, he makes it clear that his primary interest is political discourse. With television news more closely approximating entertainment and election campaigns approximating advertising, Shachtman worries that Americans are in danger of losing their voice in the democracy-and, what's worse-not really knowing they've lost it. Little of this will seem new: informed readers are aware of changes in network news coverage; of the low intellectual caliber of talk shows; of the decline in literacy in schools; and of the spin-doctoring and sound-biting of political communication. Shachtman offers suggestions for increasing general articulateness (and, in doing so, raising the level of discourse), but most are commonsensical, and some are nave: does anyone really believe that ``Oprah Winfrey might hire a vocabularist to cook up some delectable words for her talk show''? Probably not. The book will confirm readers' worst suspicions, but it gives them little new to think about. (July)