Saturday, March 18, 2006

Len Hart on H.L. Mencken

I seem to be posting other people's work as often as my own, of late. But we have here, in the midst of a longer pro-Mencken piece by Len Hart, in his blog The Existentialist Cowboy, a literate description of the problem with American discourse these days.

Dr. John Lienhard, whose Engines of Our Ingenuity is a nationally syndicated radio program, called Mencken a brilliant iconoclast "...who knew language and who wielded it like a surgical laser." To be honest, I wish I had that gift. I would turn it upon what appears to be a deliberate attempt to water down the language, rob it of its power, and reframe debates to right wing advantage.

Terms like "pro-life" and "death tax" are conservative inventions designed to tilt the debate. Progressives lose by merely using those terms. Doing so legitimizes them; liberals lose. Pro-life is deliberately intended to disguise conservative hypocrisy with respect to partial-birth abortions —itself a misnomer designed to reframe the debate. [See: About "partial birth abortion" (a total misnomer)]. The term pro-life tends also to restrict the debate; those opposed to conservatives must, therefore, be opposed to life. It is easier to get away with non-sequitur logic if the very terminology seems to compel it. The modern right wing uses language like Edward I used the archer's fussilade into melees in which his own soldiers were embattled. He was willing to sustain the loss of life for the ultimate victory on the field.

In fairness, anyone claiming to be "pro-life" must also be anti-aggressive war, especially when that war causes the violent deaths of thousands of civilians —many just kids and infants. But perhaps for the pro-life crowd, life is only sacred when it's still inside the womb, but fair game once birthed.

In his day, Mencken towered above his peers. But because Mencken would not countenance or buy into the sloppy use of language today, he would be hard pressed to get published in the corporate media which would subject it to focus groups, tedious research, and the gospel of PC. It is our loss.

Sadly, Mencken seems all but forgotten among the general populace, and, among those who know his name, he is often thought to be liberal. Mencken was, in fact, a libertarian and an individualist.

Mencken's audience was not one of poltroonish ignoramuses; rather, he wrote for the intelligent few. Clearly, his intention was to make a difference by making a point among those who could make a difference with the mere public expression of an informed decision. Surely, he hopes to help shape that opinion. There is no way of knowing whether or not he succeeded.

It is for that reason, obviously, that Mencken wrote more about the American Language than anyone. He would be angered by the meaningless platitudes that often parade as literate speech or political debate; he would snort at puffed up slogans like family values and compassionate conservatism; he would slice and dice pure bunkum like supply side economics.

The best example is still the word liberal —the successful debasement of which spelled doom for the liberal movement. Now liberals feel obliged to change the name of their movement to progressive.

Liberal once meant "free" but that predates Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove and the current occupant of the Oval Office. In each case and many more, language itself is attacked, exploited, degraded and debased by those motivated to cloak a disingenuous agenda.

The word Liberal derives from the latin "liberalis", meaning "pertaining to a free man". Other words from that root are "liberty," "liberation," and libertarian, and, of course Liberal. It is the "liberte" in the French rallying cry: "Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite." To be "Liberal," therefore, is to be free, to believe in freedom. Those opposed to liberal are therefore opposed to "freedom". That describes the American right wing, its recent bent toward totalitarianism, its successful attempts to link Liberal with waste, communism, Keynesian economics, and big government. It is ironic that both big government (under Reagan) and Keynesian economics (under Bush) have ostensibly been embraced by the Republican rank and file even as they denounce the "liberals" who presumably espouse it. I think the word for that is hypocrisy —a word not found in the modern conservative lexicon.

The epithet "big government Liberal" in the mouths of a Republican is oxymoronic, hypocritical and ludicrous. Nixon said "...we're all Keynesians now" and it was Nixon, of course, who is known for the very un-conservative imposition of wage and price controls, a draconian measure of big government if there ever was one. The biggest U.S. governments since World War II have all been of GOP creation. It was the Democrats who were tarred with the label "tax and spend", but, in reality, it is the GOP that presided over the largest military build up in the world and it has done so upon the backs of those who can least afford it.

Proportionally, the biggest tax burdens have fallen upon lower and middle income earners —the very groups who lost ground over a period of some 30 years. It was over that period of time that the incomes of the upper one percent of the U.S. population increased exponentially. Only the upper quintile prospered; everyone else lost ground.

Bush doesn't do nuance. And that is a shame; someone, somewhere feels pain everytime Bush fails to do a nuance. Can you imagine explaining Adam Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, or Keynes to G. W. Bush —a man who claims to be conservative but would be hard pressed to tell you why?

What is to be said of someone who refuses to be informed? Is this the root of Bush antipathy to the Constitution —or is his ignorance a disingenuous act to conceal the real reasons that he would subvert the underpinnings of American democracy? I am, admittedly, overly fond of quoting Bertolt Brecht on this point but no one makes that point more succinctly:

A man who does not know the truth is just an idiot but a man who knows the truth and calls it a lie is a crook!
—Bertolt Brecht
Iconoclasts are always misunderstood; truth telling has become un-patriotic. Were he alive and writing today, Mencken would be assailed for telling the truth. But Mencken had the verbal ammunition to take them on. As Mencken himself said, "One horse-laugh is worth ten-thousand syllogisms." Mencken would dispatch Bill Frist with a single phrase: "Puritanism —The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy."

Which pretty much says it all, doesn't it?

No comments: