Mystery malady silences America

A parable for our politically discordant times

GRAFTON — Yesterday, as the sun rose from east to west across the USA, citizens awakened to discover that they could not speak. No embodied voices emanated from pulpits or the campaign trail. Michele Bachmann stopped shrieking. In private homes, there were no mister-and-missus tiffs, no squalls of infants, nor whines of teenagers.

At 7 a.m. EST, the president declared a national state of emergency on Twitter. Conspiracy theories flew through cyberspace like predator drones.

Survivalists blamed the government. Republicans blamed the president and single mothers on welfare. Catholic bishops and members of fundamentalist churches blamed women's widespread use of contraception. Environmentalists blamed big oil.

Left-leaning members of the 99 percent blamed bankers and corporate malfeasance, while staunch conservatives in the latter group continued to defend the “trickle-down” economy. Delusional zealots blamed empty chairs and other household furniture.

At 9 a.m. EST, the Internet crashed. While a few people were able to communicate in sign language, most people scrambled to locate pens, pencils, and paper. All across the country, from sunrise to sunset, there was only the terrifying sound of silence.

Thousands of frantic citizens flocked to emergency rooms, seeking treatment for what appeared to be an unknown strain of infectious laryngitis. Doctors had no clues as to the malady's origin and were unable to administer any effective treatments.

Angry demonstrators congregated on the Washington mall, carrying signs that read “Free speech forever” and “1st Ammendment [sic] guaranteas [sic] our right to be stupid.”

* * *

The cause of the mysterious affliction came under investigation by Homeland Security, FEMA, the FBI, CIA, and local law enforcement. Speculation was rampant. Homeland Security officials focused on the possibility of a terrorist attack.

At the Centers for Disease Control, scientists began searching for a new strain of flu or evidence of chemical warfare. Some moderate religious leaders called the imposed silence a form of divine intervention, although the purpose of such an intervention was unknown.

Throughout the long, panic-stricken day, victims were forced to swallow their own opinions. When nightfall came and speech was restored, many victims reported that the silence, though frightening, was also oddly illuminating.

“At first I felt as if I'd been forced to swallow antifreeze,” a prominent evangelical pastor said. “But now I think that the silence was not a curse but a blessing from God: a lesson in humility.”

“The silence was unnerving,” admitted a popular, garrulous talk show host.

“I couldn't broadcast my opinions, and my entire reason for living went down the toilet.”

In a miraculous development, Missouri congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin resigned from the science, space, and technology committee and announced his intention to return to school.

“I have a lot to learn,” he said.

Although women feared that their voices had been stolen by conservative lawmakers and their followers, many found the silence restful.

“I hate to resort to cliché, but trying to get men to listen is like trying to push Jello up a wall,” one weary feminist said.

She was quick to add that she wasn't lumping all men into the same category: “It's just that the men who like and respect women don't talk as loud as the others.”

* * *

In cities and towns, residents gathered in coffee shops and bars with pens, pencils, and reams of paper.

“There was something about the slow process of handwriting that made us consider our words carefully, and the crisis made us understand that we really are all in this world together - every minute, not just during emergencies,” said a resident of a small town in southern Vermont.

Couples on the brink of divorce found new camaraderie.

“Before this calamity, my wife and I argued constantly,” said a Caucasian hedge-fund manager as he and his wife sat on the porch of their Nantucket beach house sipping vodka gimlets. “Last week she said she was going to divorce me and join the Peace Corps. I told her she should see a psychiatrist.”

He smiled and reached for his wife's hand. She smiled back.

“He was all about the money,” she said, “and he didn't much care how he got it. Plus he looked down on people who are less fortunate than we are. That's not an attitude that stirs my libido.”

“I thought that poor people had simply made bad choices,” her husband said. “She was always telling me that I took the privilege of my birth and color for granted. She might as well have been speaking Arabic. But by the time we could talk again, I was thinking that there was some truth in her opinion.”

* * *

Throughout the day, thousands of musicians swarmed to city streets and village greens and jammed, sans lyrics.

The Baltimore symphony orchestra played for five hours in Camden Yards, home of the Orioles baseball team. They didn't stop until the sky was dark and the moon rose over the city. Audience members automatically opened their mouths to shout “bravo!” and to everyone's astonishment, all vocal chords were in working order.

“Music is the universal language, and today it was needed more than ever,” explained the principal oboe player as he and other exhausted orchestra members packed their instruments into their vehicles.

Vitriolic arguments were already breaking out in the streets. Men and women long past the age of maturity were making unsubstantiated accusations and hurling epithets.

“If they have to be vituperative, I wish they'd use a more creative vocabulary,” the oboe player said ruefully. “These days, restraint of pen and tongue is a forgotten virtue.”

As of this writing, the national din continues unabated. The cause of the mysterious malady is still under investigation.

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