Sunday, March 12, 2017

More quotes for our time

I had really hoped to get you a full post this week—I even started on one already—but the tyranny of the birthday weekend has other plans for me.  For now, I’ll give you another quickie quotes post.

Amongst the great quotables, everyone knows Voltaire and Mark Twain, Confucius and Ghandi.  Most know Will Rogers and Oscar Wilde, Ambrose Bierce and Dave Barry.  But not enough people know H. L. Mencken.

Ever heard of the Scopes Monkey Trial?  Well, Mencken is the one who named it.  He was an American newspaperman and author who was most prolific during the period of World War I to World War II, but many of his quotes ring true today with a foresight that is almost eerie.

Of course, he was not a perfect man, as no historical figure is.  As his Wikipedia article is quick to point out, he was extremely racist, and he once wrote “war is a good thing.”  He also didn’t believe in populism and was quite a big fan of Ayn Rand.  Which makes it all the more curious to me that his words are such a clear indictment of our current president, who it seems he probably would have personally thought well of.  For instance, he once noted:

It is [a politician’s] business to get and hold his job at all costs.  If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out, he will try to hold it by embracing new truths.  His ear is ever close to the ground.

    — H. L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 1926

Of course, one could argue that Trump doesn’t have much truck with embracing truths, new or otherwise.  However, it is true that Trump has an amazing ability to tap into people’s fears: economic fears, xenophobic fears, isolationist fears.  And, of course, Mencken has a comment for us on that too:

Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.

    — H. L. Mencken, In Defense of Women, 1918

Again, this is highly amusing, given Mencken’s personal views: one could easily imagine that he would have been fully in favor of, say, bans on refugees.  But PolitiFact rates the commonly touted opposition statistic that your chances of being killed by a refugee are 1 in 3.6 billion as “mostly true,” primarily because the statement should more properly be considered to be “your chances of being killed on American soil by a refugee in an act of terrorism are 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”  Still pretty low.  And, while it’s true that the study this is based on excludes the 3 people that died in the Boston Marathon bombings because those perpetrators were not refugees but rather their family has been granted political asylum—an admittedly nitpicky distinction—it’s still a wash because the only people that the study could identify as having been killed by terrorist refugees were 3 people killed prior to the 1980 Refugee Act, which radically increased how hard it is to get refugee status.*  So I think it’s safe to call this fear of refugees, which is being masterfully played on by Trump and many other politicians, as imaginary.  As Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu pointed out when he originally trotted out this statistic, your chances of being struck by lightning twice is 1 in 9 million.  You know, just for comparison purposes.

Given the recent WikiLeaks dump on the CIA’s ability to turn your televsion into a listening device, I found this one pretty spot-on as well:

Moreover, this gradual (and, of late, rapidly progressive) decay of freedom goes almost without challenge; the American has grown so accustomed to the denial of his constitutional rights and to the minute regulation of his conduct by swarms of spies, letter-openers, informers and agents provocateurs that he no longer makes any serious protest.

    — H. L. Mencken, 1920

Ah, if all we had to worry about were letter-openers.  Those were truly the good ol’ days.

I’ll leave you with that thought for this week.  Next week I hope to have a more regular post.


* Also, classifying those incidents as “terrorism” is a bit dicey, and 2 of the 3 people killed weren’t American, although they were on American soil at the time.

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