March 28th, 2011

Bulletin From the Ministry of Truth: Entergy Spokesman Refines New Yankee Speak, Leading to Doubleplusgood Newthink

by Philip Baruth

The best part of George Orwell’s 1984 isn’t what’s behind the door of Room 101 (hint: rats) or the doomed love affair between Winston and his Junior Anti-Sex League sweetie. No, the best part of 1984 has always been the Appendix, titled “The Principles of Newspeak.” Because that’s where Orwell digs into the actual, operational linguistic methods behind Party-approved language, and the way it gradually but inevitably limits the user to Party-approved thought.

“It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”

Have we made the connection between Newspeak and the PR flaks Entergy employs to massage the truth on a daily basis? We certainly have. Back in 2007, we called their dialect New Yankee Speak.

But there’s fresh reason to revisit that parallel. Among the slew of interviews Arnie Gundersen has given since the debacle in Japan, one last week stands out — not so much for what Arnie had to say, but for what Entergy spokesman Larry Smith had to say in return. The show is PRI’s Living on Earth, the reporter is Jeff Young, and the level of obfuscation is astounding:

YOUNG: Tell me about safety incidents you’ve had at Vermont Yankee - what’s gone wrong here?

SMITH: We’ve had no safety incidents at Vermont Yankee.

Now to you and to me, there’s a level of the outrageous here that brings just a tang of bile to the back of the throat. Smith is not allowing himself a hedge or an obscure reference to the truth; he’s stating as fact that which is not fact, and he’s clearly ready simply to brazen it out.

YOUNG: Maybe this is a matter of semantics, but there was a collapse of a cooling tower, correct?

SMITH: That’s right and that’s industrial safety, and that happened in 2007. Put it into perspective. You’re talking about a 20- ft section of a 460-foot tower, that’s what collapsed.

Smith isn’t breaking new ground here: Rob Williams, his predecessor, made something of a career out of declaring anything unrelated to the inner fuel core therefore unrelated to safety itself. But notice here the way Smith models what can only be called the Newspeak thought process, if that phase isn’t inherently contradictory. He feigns an inability even to connect the word “safety” to the concept of collapsing plant infrastructure. What you have, in effect, are two Americans speaking two distinct languages.

YOUNG: There was a transformer fire?

SMITH: In 2004. The transformer was not on fire, it was the bus duct on top of it, but that can happen at any power plant.

Again, the concept of a “transformer fire” cannot be expressed in New Yankee Speak; therefore, a speaker must separate the flaming element from the rest of the transformer, and rename it. And of course, a “bus duct” sounds much smaller and less essential. For all we know, bus ducts function more efficiently while on fire. Maybe, like tonsils, we’d get along better without all the bus ducts.

YOUNG: Also the manner in which information has come to light has led some people to express to me a lack of confidence that they’re getting open communication. For example, how did the tritium leak, how did that come to light?

SMITH: It came to light because industry, in 2007, undertook a voluntary groundwater protection program and put in monitoring wells. We identified tritium and the same day we told NRC and we told the state of Vermont. So I don’t know what you mean about not being transparent or not being straightforward.

YOUNG: There was a denial that the pipe system existed and only after persistence by a watchdog did your company admit, oh yes there’ a pipe system and oh, by the way, it’s leaking.

SMITH: Well, I can tell you we did a lousy job providing testimony to the Vermont Public Service Board on the extent of our pipes, but we have a lot of support in the state of Vermont. We certainly have a lot of support from this community, the host community, for the continued operation of Vermont Yankee and this station.

Yes, Smith creates an entire revisionist fable here about Entergy’s disclosures around tritium. In this thumbnail history, Entergy couldn’t sleep nights until it had answered once and for all, damn it, whether tritium was escaping into the groundwater; so they dug wells when no one thought to compel them, they reported their results though no one had asked them to do so, and they accomplished this disclosure before the sun had set on the day radioactivity was discovered.

But what’s more interesting to VDB? Is it Smith’s odd phrase “host community,” which brings to mind nothing so much as parasites like lamprey and ringworm?

No, it’s the way that Smith holds ideas and concepts out of the discussion until such time as the reporter demands that they be inserted. Smith knows, knows in the deepest part of his gut, that this interview is eventually Going There: on safety, on cooling tower and transformer fire, on corporate lies related to underground piping.

But in each case Smith issues an absolute New Yankee Speak denial, not just as a means of steering the interview but of modeling an entirely distinct mode of thought. He concedes nothing unless forced, and in that way “lying” becomes “doing a lousy job” of testifying before the Legislature. But for the most part, he reacts like a Parisian defending French in an argument with an Englishman: amused, defensive, disdainful, but never less than fully confident in the world as his language paints it.

What does it tell us that in 2011 Entergy’s corporate spokesman has opted neither to compromise nor to translate? What does it say that Smith is now addressing the national media determined not to concede mistakes or to demonstrate linguistic good faith?

Nothing good, friends. It has the feel of early legal hostilities, this insistence on different histories and languages and the world-views they conjure.

Only one of these world-views will eventually prevail.

In one, Yankee is decommissioned on schedule in 2012. In the other, VDB is tried and found doubleplus guilty of Oldthink and unbellyfeeling Ingsoc.

And that, of course, is where the rats come in.

It’s tempting to think, finally, that there’s some deep irony in the fact that Orwell’s hero and Entergy’s latest flak share the name Smith. But there’s not. After all, Winston Smith doesn’t finish the book in anything resembling heroic fashion.

No, once he eventually leaves Room 101, secure in the knowledge that two plus two equals five, Winston Smith actually serves as a pretty decent PR spokesman himself.