Mencken vs. the Mountebanks

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Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.” — Jonathan Swift

Last October, a man named Wlodzimierz Umaniec (also known as Vladimir Umaniec, which is only a bit more helpful) went to the Tate Gallery in London and wrote “Vladimir Umanets’ [sic] 12 A potential piece of yellowism" on a painting by Mark Rothko called “Black on Maroon.” “Yellowism,” an artistic movement of which Umaniec is an advocate or perhaps the founder, was summarized by another advocate in this way: “Everything is equal. Everything is art. Everything is a potential piece of yellowism.” Umaniec is now in jail.

The defaced painting is fairly typical of Rothko’s work — a set of rectangles painted in various murky colors. Its restoration is expected to cost $300,000, cheap at the price, considering the fact that last May another Rothko painting, “Orange, Red, Yellow,” sold for $87 million. As for the aesthetic value of “Black on Maroon” . . . what can I say? I am not a Philistine. Whistler’s engravings make my heart leap up. I am excited by the iconographic problems of the Portland Vase. The late works of George Inness are among my favorite things, and it doesn’t matter that other people call them weirdly abstract and incomprehensible. But yeah — to me, Rothko is nothing but a man who obsessively painted dull versions of dull geometrical forms. I can scrape up a little interest in his technique. I think I am qualified to say that he has the best technique of anyone who ever set out to paint rectangles on canvas. But that is all. I suspect that when the New York Times called “Orange, Red, Yellow” “the most powerful of all his pictures,” it was taking its adjective from the wrong world of discourse. It might just as accurately call the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel the most decorative of all Michelangelo’s paintings.

In this case, Yahoo! News (of all horrible things) was more literate than the New York Times. You may think, “That’s not saying much,” but here Yahoo! wins by a mile. Its headline about the Umaniec affair was “Man Jailed for Defacing Pricey Painting.” Pricey: that’s exactly right. Not powerful, not renowned, not legendary, but pricey. Pricey says the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Something similar happened in an article by Michael Tarm and Pete Yost, published in the Huffington Post on February 16. The subject was Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s confession that he had exploited his public office (18 years in Congress!) for personal aggrandizement. There was a paragraph about Jackson’s father:

Several messages left with Jackson's father, the voluble civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, were not returned Friday. The elder Jackson has often declined to comment about his son's health and legal woes over the past several months.

Voluble says it all.

And isn’t that the goal of all good writing? I mean, a good writer doesn’t ruminate, “I’m going to state an exaggeration or approximation or vague representation of the truth as I see it, and you can sort of try to figure out what I mean.” He or she says, “I’m going to come as close as I can to hitting the target, and you can watch what I do and enjoy the sight.” When somebody hits the bullseye, people stand up and cheer — at least people who are smart enough to be interested in the game. But it’s more than a game, when truth is the target.

Lamentably, many libertarians appear to believe that to hit the target, you have to aim at the moon, or at least bay at it.

Of course, there are hundreds of ways of missing the target completely. You can undershoot; you can also overshoot. To Colin Powell, a man without a sense of proportion or a sense of humor, someone’s reference to President Obama’s evasions of truth as “shucking and jiving” is self-evidently racist, and sufficient evidence of a dark vein of intolerance in the Republican Party (to which institution, by the way, he owes every bit of his national prominence). And Powell is far from the worst archer on the range. To ordinary conservative spokesmen, everything that this administration does is the greatest invasion of American liberty since . . . since when? Since the last time the Republicans voted to jail people for smoking weed? I’m reminded of the late Sen. Sam Ervin, the genial blowhard who ran the Senate investigation of Watergate. Ervin referred to the crisis that he (with the able assistance of President Nixon) was engineering as the greatest since the Civil War. Say that while standing in a cemetery created for the military dead of the 20th century.

I.F. Stone, another darling of the Beltway, went Ervin one farther. He is said to have been queried about what should be inscribed on a plaque that astronauts could affix to the moon. He suggested that mankind be memorialized in this way: “Their Destructive Ingenuity Knows No Limits and Their Wanton Pollution No Restraint. Let the Rest of the Universe Beware.” Some people never seem to count themselves as members of Humanity. Well, draw your own conclusions.

Lamentably, many libertarians also appear to believe that to hit the target, you have to aim at the moon, or at least bay at it. They feel that any adjective that’s applicable to Hitler should also be applied to the local zoning board. It’s true, and it’s of great interest to political theory, that many officials and disciples of our mild and beneficent government (note to Colin Powell: I’m being sarcastic) would act like Hitler, Stalin, or Mao Tse-Tung if they were given a decent chance. It’s also true that many of them act like that anyway, within the sphere currently allotted them. Every judge who sends kids to jail for doing drugs, every regulator who talks about “crucifying” business people who don’t get with the program, every mad mother determined to rid our veins of demon rum is a tyrant and should be called a tyrant. But a constant barrage of abusive terms does not communicate the truth, much less calibrate it. I’ll put this simply: if you do nothing but shriek in people’s ears, they may eventually get tired of you.

Isabel Paterson, who spared none of her vast vocabulary on the sins of conservatives, modern liberals, and the occasional libertarian, identified a chronic problem in the language of cultural rebellion: people kept trying to write like H.L. Mencken, but they couldn’t do it. Mencken was a genius, but they weren’t, and the result, in their own writing, was sheer and mere abuse. If you can say anything as clever as “It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull,” or “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard,” then you are entitled to rank yourself as a follower of Mencken, without fearing that his specter will appear in your room one night, cigar in hand, and cheerfully call you a mountebank. But if you can’t be that clever, you shouldn’t try.

The side of Mencken that people don’t notice is understatement, or just plain statement. Consider his review of An American Tragedy, a novel by his friend Theodore Dreiser. Mencken spends a few hundred words summarizing the plot of this long, long novel, which is about a man of no particular interest who kills a woman of no particular interest, gets caught, and gets executed. He observes Dreiser’s “spacious manner” in the “431 pages of small type” devoted to the man’s parentage, his early career, and the “disagreeable ebb” of his affair with the woman. Then he says:

So much for Volume I: 200,000 words. In Volume II we have the murder, the arrest, the trial and the execution: 185,000 more.

Obviously, there is something wrong here.

I can think of no more devastating understatement in the history of American literature.

Only after some special examples of Dreiser’s adventures in overstatement —

The “death house” in this particular prison was one of those crass erections and maintenances of human insensibility and stupidity principally for which no one primarily was really responsible.

Quite everything of all this was being published in the papers each day.

— does Mencken start piling on, but even then most of his attack consists of incremental understatement:

What is one to say of such dreadful bilge? What is one to say of a novelist who, after a quarter of a century at his trade, still writes it? What one is to say, I feel and fear, had better be engraved on the head of a pin and thrown into the ocean: there is such a thing as critical politesse. Here I can only remark that sentences of the kind I have quoted please me very little.

Now, while we are considering how to abuse without being abusive — in other words, how to have your say without boring everyone to tears — I should mention the existence of whimsy. You don’t have to denounce people all the time; you can also play with them. Gertrude Stein is, in her imaginative productions, someone who pleases me very little, but I love her for calling Ezra Pound “a village explainer — excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” This is a million times better than her crude lack of whimsy in saying to her publisher, Bennett Cerf (who was a pretty good guy, and put up with a lot), “You’re a very nice boy but you’re rather stupid.” (He was “stupid,” you understand, because he failed to comprehend her incomprehensible creative works.) Anyone can say that kind of thing about anyone she wants to criticize; it ain’t worth nothin’.

Isabel Paterson identified a chronic problem in the language of cultural rebellion: people kept trying to write like H.L. Mencken, but they couldn’t do it.

Whimsy’s next-door neighbor is self-deprecation, which can do a lot more for your street cred than belaboring your enemies could ever do. Let’s face it, most of your enemies have never heard of you. People who heave brickbats at Obama (yes, I do too) often picture him as staggering, stunned and wounded by their trenchant, caustic words; they glory in the picture. But he doesn’t care — which is fine, because you don’t need him to care. The people you need are your readers. And if they’re going to care about what you say, you may need them to care about you. To like you. To trust you. To trust your judgment about the topics you discuss. And believe it or not, readers are more likely to trust an author who recognizes, or seems to recognize, his own limitations than an author who thinks only about those of other people. That is why President Obama’s true believers have been reduced to folks who don’t even try to follow his speeches — utterances so full of credit to himself, so intent on discrediting others. Better to say with old Walt Whitman (a cunning writer, if ever there was one, and never more cunning than he was when grounding his radical perspective in a trustworthy authorial ethos), “I am as bad as the worst, but thank God I am as good as the best.” Or to say with Mencken, “The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”

How do you get to be “as good as the best”? One way is just by showing that you’re having fun, as much fun as Whitman must have had when he made that statement. Very few people care whether An American Tragedy is good or bad; but in reviewing it, Mencken communicated to his audience the wonderful fun of making up your own mind on literary matters. I’d use the same adjective for the fun of being told, easily but persuasively, that you can make up your own mind about whether famous paintings are great, or merely pricey. The fun is suggested by the word itself, that one word: pricey. And there’s fun in everything, if you have the right word for it.

Mencken, an atheist or agnostic, loved traditional Christian hymns. So do I, so long as their words project the fun of choosing that one right word. An example: Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady’s (very loose) paraphrase of Psalm 130, “My soul with patience waits.” (Tate and Brady’s hymns were commonly sung in churches, c. 1700; this one is best with the tune “Franconia,” with which it is usually paired.) One of the stanzas goes like this:

My longing eyes look out
For thy enlivening ray,
More duly than the morning watch
To spy the dawning day.

Not a bad image: waiting for God’s guidance is like being a watchman, awaiting the dawn that will “enliven” everything. Watching, being a watchman, would be a dull enterprise, and it would make a dull image, were not “enlivening” provided to, well, enliven it. But look at “duly.” It’s not the first, or the thirtieth, adverb one would think of. Convenient substitutes are readily available: "As faithful as the morning watch," "More eager than the morning watch," "As hopeful as the morning watch." But “duly,” which would never occur to you if you were happy enough with ready and convenient terms, is the right, though unlikely, word. It brushes aside the emotional boilerplate and gets right to the fact: the watch is taken "duly" — daily, punctually, at the right and appointed time. Whatever you feel about waiting for the Lord, you keep on doing it, just as the shivering watchman does, every morning. That is how one becomes, eventually, enlivened. It’s all a matter of one or two words, but look at how interesting they make this song. And remember that it started with “patience.” Go write a poem about patience. See how far you get.

That little stanza shows a lot about writing, and reading too. Good writing doesn’t merely tell you something, or show you something, either; it interests you in figuring out how it told you and showed you so much.

Readers are more likely to trust an author who recognizes his own limitations. That is why President Obama’s true believers have been reduced to folks who don’t even try to follow his speeches.

Of course, I don’t mean “figuring out what the hell the author meant.” The need to do that is hardly an invitation to appreciate anyone’s literary skill, especially if you can’t tell whether the meaning you find is the right one or not. When politicians demand a “comprehensive solution to the immigration problem,” when unions demand “a living wage,” when parents confess that their kids “have issues,” when a criminal admits that he “may have made some wrong choices,” when “activists” chant (as they did in Washington the other day), “Forward on climate change!”, what is one to do? Subject their remarks to intensive literary investigation? As soon as you think you’ve found the secret significance of the words, the speakers interrupt your deliberations, asserting that you’ve “misinterpreted” them and should have put their words “in the proper context,” whatever that may be.

Garson Kanin, that prince of Hollywood wits, provided an easy exit from such difficulties. “When your work speaks for itself,” he said, “don't interrupt." A corollary is, “If you need to interrupt, then your work isn’t speaking very well for itself.” If your words need to be poked, probed, kicked, and threatened with fates worse than death before they wake up, shake their angry manes, and emit snarls of protest, then they aren’t proper words in proper places, and you have no style to bother with. So go away. We’ll have fun with someone else’s words. We’ll have fun writing our own.

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Dangerous Mood Swings

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On June 27, appearing on the Hannity show, Karl Rove responded to a question about what would have happened if President Bush had set aside laws in the way in which President Obama set aside the immigration law. “All heck would have broken loose,” Rove replied.

Karl Rove is 61 years old. He was talking on the network that runs the “Red Eye” show (which, unlike the Hannity show, is pretty good once you get used to it). But he wouldn’t say the word “hell.” He said “heck” instead. And “hell” isn’t a coarse expletive. It isn’t even an expletive, really. It is rumored to be a place. Yet Rove was behaving like the clergyman whom Alexander Pope satirized 300 years ago — the “soft dean” who “never mentions hell to ears polite.”

Ordinarily, as you know, this column collects examples of verbal ineptitude, comments upon them, and weaves the commentary subtly into one thematic whole. This month, that can’t be done. There are just too many discrete (in the sense of separate) bits of wreckage flying past us. One can only gaze and marvel as they cross the eerie sky that we call modern discourse.

Look, there’s another one! Have you noticed that every single “public figure” you encounter now says “we” when he or she can’t possibly mean anything more than “I”? People of all parties do this. Ron Paul does it. Barack Obama does it. Mitt Romney does it all the time. Scott Walker, who relieved some of my worries about the future of the republic by winning his recall election in Wisconsin, does it so often and so confusedly that I can hardly stand to listen to the poor guy. It used to be that politicians were laughable because they said “I” all the time. Now they say “I” in a much more nauseating way. They use a “we” that means, simultaneously, “I am too humble to say ‘I,’” and “I am too mighty to say ‘I’ — observe the hosts that follow me.” Actually, of course, the person saying “we” is just that one strange-looking guy, standing at the bottom of the swimming pool, talking incessantly to himself.

On to the next disaster. San Francisco has just experienced a mass landing of verbal flying saucers. There exists in that city a man named Larry Brinkin. Thirty years ago, this man sued his employer, the Southern Pacific Railway, for allegedly refusing to give him three days off to mourn the death of his male lover, the same three days the company allegedly gave straight people to mourn the deaths of their spouses. Because Brinkin kept doing things like that, he was given a job as an enforcer for something called the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which uses tax money to procure the votes of modern liberals by hunting down private individuals who allegedly treat gay people, “transgendered people,” foreign people, fat people, short people, and probably many other people in “discriminatory” ways. One of Brinkin’s accomplishments, I believe, was spending years worrying a gay bar for its alleged racial discrimination in admitting customers. A larger accomplishment is alleged to have been (sorry, I need to use “allegedly” a lot in a column like this) the invention of a phrase, “domestic partner.” Some accomplishment. Sounds more like a poodle to me.

Let me be clear. If the railway refused to give him three days off, it did an indecent thing. Discriminating against people because you look down on their race, religion, or sexuality is always indecent. But so, in my opinion, is devoting your life to demanding that other people give you stuff, or you’ll send the law after them.

Anyway. Two years ago, for the inestimable work he had done for human rights, and for retiring from his $135,000 a year city salary, Brinkin received a great public honor. The city declared a “Larry Brinkin Appreciation Week” (one day was just not enough), in recognition, it was said, of his “advocacy.” The retired civil servant, about whom you now know 100 times more than almost anyone who lived in San Francisco at the time, was pronounced by all available media a “gay icon,” a “beloved icon,” and every other kind of “icon” that can puff up a lazy text. But after June 22, San Franciscans learned, or thought they learned, a great deal more than they had known before, because on that day Brinkin was arrested for (once more allegedly — and this time the word really does deserve the emphasis), having had something to do with child pornography. He had also, allegedly, made racist remarks pertaining to the subject, although that is not illegal, even in San Francisco.

Discriminating against people because you look down on their race, religion, or sexuality is always indecent. But so is devoting your life to demanding that other people give you stuff, or you’ll send the law after them.

The charges, I am happy to say, are not the business of this column. I have no idea what really happened, or what he really did, if anything. Perhaps I will have a better idea, once the police department’s “forensic” experts complete what has turned out to be a very longterm “study” of Brinkin’s computers. And perhaps I won’t. But the verbal reactions to the matter — those are things within the interest and competence of us all. And they don’t reflect very well on the City by the Bay, which is allegedly so well supplied with intelligence and sophistication.

Icon was in every headline, as if Larry Brinkin’s picture, rendered in a Byzantine style, encrusted with jewels, and lit by votive candles, was a fixture of every church and civil-servant cubicle in Northern California. One of Brinkin’s organizational associates got media attention by saying that she was surprised by the charges, because . . . Guess why. Because he was a “consummate professional.” In the religion of the state, the corporations, and all those occupations in which people must conform to the rules of some “peer” association, professional is not the neutral term it was a mere 20 years ago. It is now a term of absolute value, a universal replacement for ”virtuous,” “admirable,” and all those other words for “morally swell.” Coupled with such terms as “consummate,” it offers prima facie grounds for sainthood, for membership in that exclusive order of men and women who have been selected by their peers for the highest forms of recognition they can imagine and bestow: a picture on the coffee room wall, a place in the Civil Servants’ Hall of Fame and Museum of Professionalism, and at last a funeral in the Executive Conference Room, where colleagues will be invited to step forward and voice their memories of how well Old So and So took care of the paperwork when SB 11-353 was working through committee.

Here’s a politician — one Bevan Duffy, a busy bee about San Francisco, and the caring soul who sponsored the Larry Brinkin Appreciation Week — responding to Brinkin’s arrest: "I have admired and respected his work for the LGBT community. . . . I respect and am confident that there will be due process." Grammar flees where professionalism reigns. Mr. Duffy respects that there will be due process.

Here’s another colleague — the “executive director” (how does that differ from “director”? — but I guess that’s a professional mystery) of the Human Rights Commission, as quoted in a report by Erin Sherbert of the SF Weekly:

We put in a call to Theresa Sparks, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, [who] told us this allegation is "beyond hard to believe."

"It's almost incredulous, there's no way I could believe such a thing," Sparks told us. "He's always been one of my heroes, and he's the epitome of human rights activist — this is [the] man who coined phrases we use in our daily language. I support Larry 100 percent, hopefully it will all come out in the investigation."

It’s not surprising that someone who can’t tell the difference between “incredulous” and “incredible” would regard Larry Brinkin as a hero of the English language. But to be a true professional, especially in a governmental or community context, one must have a grasp of all the inanities with which government workers are equipped. And what a parade of them we see here — beyond hard, one of my heroes (of whom there are, no doubt, countless thousands who are yet unsung), epitome, activist, I support, 100 percent, and that indispensable lapse from basic grammar, hopefully. Nothing more could possibly be required. But by the way, what do you think of this apostle of justice declaring that “there’s no way” she’ll believe what the evidence shows, if it doesn’t show what she already believes?

In the religion of the state, “professional” is not the neutral term it was a mere 20 years ago. It is now a term of absolute value, a universal replacement for ”virtuous,” “admirable,” and all those other words for “morally swell.”

There once was a time when a president of the United States, himself an uneducated and, some said, an illiterate man, could respond to legal opposition in a memorable and verbally accurate way. Referring to a decision written by Chief Justice Marshall, President Jackson said, “John Marshall has made his decision: now let him enforce it.”

Contrast our current Attorney General, Eric Holder (you see, now I’ve had to switch to another, unrelated track), responding to the vote by which the House of Representatives charged him with contempt of Congress. “Today’s vote,” he said, “may make good policy feeder in the eyes of some . . .” He then continued with the usual blather. But I had stopped listening. What stopped me was “feeder.” Clearly, the Attorney General has never been around a farm, or wasn’t listening when he was. And clearly, he’s not hip to ablaut, the means by which one type of word becomes another type of word by changing one of its vowels. Farm animals are sometimes fed in feeders, and the feed that some animals are fed is fodder — not feeder. But why worry about ablaut, or exposure to agricultural conditions? Like his boss, President Obama, who got through Harvard Law without discovering that there is any difference between “like” and “as,” Holder just doesn’t seem to read or listen.

But he’s nothing compared to Jerry Brown, California’s version of Joe Biden — except that he’s even worse in the words department. Brown’s utterances are commonly described as “babble,” despite the fact that their purpose is always clear: increase the power of government. His obsession right now is California High-Speed Rail, an attempt to “create jobs” for union employees by building the largest public-works project in American history, a rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Two years ago, he convinced a majority of voters to approve the project. Today, even its friends concede that it will cost three times more than mentioned in the bond referendum, that it will not and cannot be high-speed, and that it may not even enter San Francisco or Los Angeles. Nevertheless, on July 6, the California legislature authorized a set of bonds for what many now regard as the Browndoggle. Ignoring the language of the referendum, which stipulated that the money should go for a high-speed train and nothing else, the solons proudly allocated billions of dollars to such things as buying new subway cars for San Francisco.

That’s the background. Here, in the foreground, babbles Jerry Brown, who on one of the many occasions on which he “argued” for “high-speed” rail, intoned: “Don’t freak cuz you got a few little taxes. Suck it in.” Brown doesn’t even know the difference between “suck it up” (a vulgar term for “endure it”) and “suck it in” (a vulgar term for faking weight loss).

Jerry Brown’s utterances are commonly described as “babble,” despite the fact that their purpose is always clear: increase the power of government.

Let’s put this in perspective. President Obama, campaigning among morons, or people he regards as morons, drops hundreds of final “g’s” in every speech he gives, and regularly converts “because” to “cuz.” You’ve heard of the hoodlum priest? This is the hoodlum president. But there are people still more vulgar than he, people who speak on serious public occasions in the language of the drug-lost: “Don’t freak out.” Some of them go so far as to omit the “out,” thereby demonstrating that they’re at least as jivy as the jiviest 65-year-old. Other public figures innocently reveal that they’ve gone through their whole lives without a basic knowledge of English-language idioms. Thus the acclaimed Spike Lee, prattling on Turner Classics (July 5) about the last scenes in On the Waterfront, and describing what happens to the Marlon Brando character: “The thugs beat him an inch within his life.” And of course the rich are always with us, in the form of politicized tycoons who lecture us about being a low-taxed people, compared to the Europeans or the Russians or somebody else. Every day of our lives, we in California hear this kind of thing from professors and pundits, politicians and thinktank fishies, despite the fact that our savage sales tax and still more savage income tax put us in the front ranks of slave labor in the United States.

All right. Let me summarize. We’re used to hillbilly talk, and drug talk, and pressure-group talk, and impudent talk, and just plain ignorant talk. Then Jerry Brown comes along, and runs all the bases: “Don’t freak cuz you got a few little taxes. Suck it in.”

Is this what wins the ballgame? What happened to the people on the other team? (No, I’m not thinking about the Republican Party. I’m thinking about people with a normal command of the English language.)

Maybe they’re suffering from the demoralizing condition that afflicts Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. Some weeks ago, Jackson stopped showing up in Congress. For quite a while, it seems, the absence of the nine-term Congressman wasn’t noted. Then colleagues started theorizing that he was being treated for exhaustion, because of all the hard work that congressmen have to do. Others, including NBC Nightly News, entertained suspicions that Jackson was being treated for something much more serious. Finally, as reported by Rachel Hartman on Yahoo News (July 11), the nation learned the truth:

“The Congressman is receiving intensive medical treatment at a residential treatment facility for a mood disorder," Jackson's physician said in a statement provided to Yahoo News via the congressman's congressional office. "He is responding positively to treatment and is expected to make a full recovery." The statement indicated that Jackson's attending physician and treatment center "will not be disclosed in order to protect his continuing privacy."

Privacy? Jesse Jackson, Jr.? That’s funny. Continuing privacy? That’s beyond funny.

Speaker Boehner, always the man with le mot juste, may be right in taking a cautious and distant approach to Jackson’s illness: “This is an issue between he and his constituents.” And it’s good to know that President Obama isn’t the only one who has this curious way with pronouns that follow prepositions. But if you’re laughing about Jackson’s mood disorder, I’m here to tell you that the condition is real, and serious. By the time I’ve finished one of these columns, I too am ready for a residential treatment facility.




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