The Konformist

May 2001

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Politics and Brain Damage in the New Word Order

Mickey Z.

"One can lie with the mouth, but with the accompanying grimace, one nevertheless tells the truth."



On the day of the shootings at Santana High School in Santee, California, President-select George W. Bush trotted out the standard boilerplate message. Calling the shootings, "a disgraceful act of cowardice," Bush declared that "our hearts and prayers go out to the parents and teachers and children whose lives have been turned upside down." Just a few weeks after U.S. bombs missed targets all over Iraq, the president pronounced that "all adults in society can teach children right from wrong, can explain that life is precious."

On the day of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, President William Jefferson Clinton held the requisite news conference. He trotted out the standard boilerplate message, i.e. prayer, shock, grieving, healing, talk of preventing future incidents, and the obligatory Bible quote. "We do know we must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons," the president declared, as U.S. bombs dropped over Yugoslavia (and, yes, Iraq). The next day, while Apache helicopters made their way to the Balkans, Clinton asked parents to "shield our children from violent images," and "hammer home to all the children of America that violence in wrong."

"There¹s a war here at home," then-Vice President Al Gore chimed in, as Puerto Rico laid to rest a civilian blown to bits by an errant 500-pound bomb dropped by a U.S. warplane engaging in war games in Vieques before heading to Yugoslavia. "We must work to replace a culture of violence with a culture of values in America," Gore intoned.

In early March 2001, the man responsible for well over 100 executions while governor of Texas concluded that, "All of us must be mindful of the fact that some people may decide to act out their own aggressions."

"Apaches" on a mission to quell ethnic cleansing? Violence is wrong? Expressing anger with words? Resolving conflicts without weapons? Cowardice? Teaching children right from wrong? Life is precious? At this juncture, I was reminded of a chapter from Oliver Sacks' remarkable book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales in which Sacks detailed the reactions of people with aphasia and agnosia as they viewed a televised speech by President Ronald Reagan.

While the multiple language and speech problems of aphasia can be caused by any disease or injury to the brain, the most common cause is stroke. "The hallmark of aphasia," explains Dr. Antonio Damasio, a behavioral neurologist at the University of Iowa, "is the use of words that are off-target, words that are related but not quite correct." Therefore, this condition can often be masked and difficult to diagnose.

This can also be true when treating those with agnosia. Agnosia, while it can present an extremely broad range of symptoms, sometimes causes aphasia-like speech and language problems. Such a person with agnosia may suffer from tonal problems and be unable to recognize the tone, timbre, feeling, or character of a voice, but can understand the words and grammatical constructions perfectly.

Sacks, a noted neurologist, has been in the position to encounter many rare cases of agnosia. "Such tonal agnosia (or 'atonias') are associated with disorders of the right temporal lobe of the brain," he explains, "whereas the aphasiacs go with disorders of the left temporal lobes." According to Sacks, people with atonia may sometimes be found in an aphasia ward. Therefore, as it is for patients with aphasia, treating someone with aphasia can occasionally become more complex because many patients will display a level of understanding that seemingly belies their condition.

In addition, Dr. Sacks found that some people with aphasia, when addressed "naturally," could grasp some or most of the meaning of one¹s words. Thus, he was compelled to utilize an unusual approach in his treatment. In order to satisfactorily confirm their condition as aphasia, Dr. Sacks stated that he had to go to "extraordinary lengths, as a neurologist, to speak and behave un-naturally, to remove all the extra-verbal clues - tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual cues (one¹s gestures, one¹s entirely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture)."

Such de-personalizing of voice renders speech devoid of tone or color. It is this machine-like way of talking that will usually be unrecognizable to people with aphasia and quite possibly cause them to laugh at the incomprehensible sounds being uttered. The words mean nothing, it is the way they are spoken that matters. Through such unusual treatment, Sacks was able to truly demonstrate his patients¹ aphasia.

Quite unexpectedly, this peculiar method exposed a rather fascinating side-effect: political savvy. In the mid-eighties, Sacks studied the reaction of people with aphasia as they watched a televised speech by the former-actor-turned-president. Despite being unable to grasp the skillful politician¹s words, the patients were convulsed in laughter.

"One cannot lie to an aphasiac," Dr. Sacks noted. "He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps, he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily."

So, why did those patients with aphasia cackle at Reagan¹s speech?

"It was the grimaces, the histrionics, the false gestures and, above all, the false tones and cadences of the voice which rang false for these wordless but immensely sensitive patients," explained Sacks.

Conversely, Sacks remarked on a woman with tonal agnosia who was also watching the address - stony-faced. Emily D., a former English teacher and poet, was deprived of any emotional reaction to the speech but was able to judge it in the opposite way the patients with aphasia did. Her response? "He does not speak good prose," Emily D. told Sacks. "His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged or he has something to conceal."

"We normals," concluded Dr. Sacks, "aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled. And so cunningly was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, that only the brain-damaged remained intact, undeceived."

The corporate media has become so conditioned to post-shooting sermons that Bush¹s recent comments went essentially uncommented on - except by the New York Post where Deborah Orin praised his "emphasis on character and his conviction that new guns laws aren¹t the answer." Two years ago, after the Columbine shooting, however, at least one New York Times reporter was "well and truly fooled" (as Sacks might put it) by a president¹s homily. Bill Clinton¹s face, according to reporter David Stout, was "flushed" and his eyes were "downcast" at the news conference which, Stout explained, "amounted to a shared outpouring of grief and a call for prayer rather than a plan."

Either he is brain-damaged or he has something to conceal.

The words of Emily D. rang in my ears, and I couldn¹t help wondering if there was laughter echoing down the corridors of the hospital where Dr. Oliver Sacks once worked.


Mickey Z. (Michael Zezima) is the author of Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of "The Good War" (Soft Skull Press) and a contributor to You Are Being Lied To (Disinformation Books). He can be reached at

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