Language Politics, Censorship, and Reality

The poet Charles Olson wrote, “Whatever you have to say, leave/  The roots on, let them/ Dangle/ And the dirt/ Just to make clear/ Where they come from.” Words are grimed, caked, and clotted with decades of use and wrinkled with age. Some words and phrases become anachronistic, like “winding” a window down in a world of electric windows. Others carry an explosive politics. Many get bleached by the endless passing of palms, losing a clear meaning.

But at a deeper sense, Olson’s line reminds me that we need to inspect our language in all its dirty history and daily use. To take it step further: Words impact our world, etching our reality like the steady run of water on rock or blowing it up like dynamite.

As George Orwell wrote, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” His classic 1984 also stresses the coercive and meaning-making power of language through “newspeak,” the official language of Oceania that uses simplicity and structure to limit free thought. For example, “bad” no longer exists; instead, one has “ungood.” By limiting expression, one limits thought. This, among other reasons, hits at the danger of censorship and its popularity among totalitarian regimes.

This, of course, leads me to the recent reveal of the Trump administration’s censorship of seven words for the CDC: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” While the initial call seems like it was over-blown, the words being discouraged for the CDC budget to make it more palatable, it follows a larger pattern: the EPA’s censoring of scientists, the removal of “LGBT” and “climate change” from the White House site, Trump’s attacks on the media and use of “fake news” epithets, etc. Indeed, even if the Post’s story was overblown, the fact they needed to police their language along ideological lines for research funds troubles me.

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“A nice cup of tea”

I’m trying to post more during the week–mostly shares and little reflections–and maintain the longer Sunday posts I generally had. I think I finally have a routine I can can sustain which lets me. For today, I’m thinking about tea.

[Image from olivenation.com]
[Image from olivenation.com]

It’s a rainy day where I live, a resilient patter like the crackles of a dozen small fires. Now and then, a cold breeze blows through my window. The sky is deep grey, like faded blacktop, thick with clouds and no prospect of sunlight, even as a dim, filmy outline. Just perpetual twilight without the colors.

Such a drippy day begs for a cup of tea. In particular, black tea with milk. Normally I’m a green tea person. I like the sweetness, nuttiness, refreshing astringency, and floral levity of it. The way a judicial steeping doesn’t infuse it with too many tannins. I also like how it doesn’t stain as much and contains less caffeine.

But on a day like today, I recall what Orwell said in his essay “A Nice Cup of Tea“: “Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.” This needs some explaining.

Indian teas often used the Assamica variety of the original Camellia sinensis, the tea plant that supplies all the different types of tea, including black, green, white, yellow, or oolong. Herbal teas like rooibos or mint are actually “tisane,” not tea. To my knowledge, only the French, tea producers, and tea lovers (or snobs) respect this difference.

The British used the Assamica variety throughout India, particularly in the Assam region, because the original tea plant that China and Japan used suffered in the swampy, tropical heat. The same Assamica variety made its way to other tropical locales, as when Thomas Lipton started growing tea in Sri Lanka.

Tea being picked in Assam [Image from Wikipedia]
Tea being picked in Assam [Image from Wikipedia]

Thus, most “Indian tea,” and consequentially most of the tea drunk in Britain, came from this Assamica tea plant, which are generally more robust and malty. Moreover, transportation and tradition had most English drinking black tea, not green, which capitalize on Assamica‘s malty flavor and heartier mouthfeel.

So on a day like today, when I make a cup of tea “to feel wiser, braver or more optimistic,” to echo Orwell again, I pull out my Assamica black tea and add a dash of milk. Something about this combination–the rainy day, the black tea, the milk–wields comfort, like a warm fire on a winter day. I’m not sure where that comes from, but I’ve always felt it. For instance, a few years ago I made a list of “Things I can look forward too” and number one said, “black tea with milk.” I haven’t changed my mind.

In the end, it is a question of taste. But every taste has some interesting history behind it.