Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Marvelous Mr. Bierce

It's been a few days since I've done any blogging, but not without reason. May has been the Month of Panic, as I've got online lectures to record (14 of them, ranging from 1-2 hours each), stories to finish before going to Book Expo next week, unexpected visits from West Coast family, anxiety about bills as this is my last month without a 2nd/3rd job--and realizing after weeks of little sleep and non-stop work that I still have a lot more to do. So, not feeling any pressure or anything.

In talking with friends and co-workers in recent days, it's interesting how everyone has had a sense of feeling "trampled" these days. Lately I find myself getting irritated at selfish and uncivil behavior, even though it's pretty much the norm in our self-absorbed society. In such cases, where people may be wrong but you can't change them, there's really only one solution: satire.

I've forced myself to take some time out to relax over the last couple of days, and I've taken that time to do some reading. My book of choice is "The Ambrose Bierce Satanic Reader". Bierce was an American writer from the late 19th century, well-known for his short stories and his ultra-cynical "Devil's Dictionary", one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. Bierce was a master of the art of "telling it like it is". The "Satanic Reader" features clips from news articles written by Bierce in various newspapers from the 1860s to the 1880s. The articles provide a glimpse into the social and political life of America on the West Coast (namely San Francisco) during that time period, and Bierce's cynical feelings are hardly concealed. What is remarkable is how little has changed between now and then. Here are some examples:

On religion in the "land of the free" (1869):

"Mr. J.G. Methua was arrested for giving a theatrical exhibition on Sunday. Mr. J.G. Methua would better have a care how he conducts himself in a country of equal rights. Sunday theatricals may be safe in the crumbling despotisms and rotten aristocracies of the old world, but not in the lusty young republic of religious toleration--not in a land of religious liberty! Rally round the Cross, O leathern-lunged elect, for the recognition of Christianity, and its relentless enforcement by law! Let us jam our holy religion down the protesting throats of the heathen and the infidel, so that they shall be brought to know God, and to love him as we do; yea, that they may hanker after him, even as a baby craveth rhubarb, or a cat lusteth after soft soap."

In a section called the "Fallacy of Democracy" we have the following:

The Versatile Lieutenant-Governor (1869)

"The Secretary of the State Prison Commission complains that the Lieutenant-Governor, who is ex-officio Warden of the Penitentiary, is selected without reference to his qualifications for that position, but for his fitness to take the place of Governor in case of necessity. He is selected with no reference to either, but is usually well qualified to take the place of the Governor or of the prisoners, indifferently."

Essence of Political Differences (1877)

"Judge Bradley says of the electoral commission: 'I firmly believe that the differences of opinion were honest, and arose from the different standpoints of individuals.' Not a doubt of it; seven members of the commission looked at the question from a standpoint of self-interest, and eight considered it from one of personal advantage."

The Pattern of Power (1884)

"The wrongs that the poor and feeble suffer from the rich and powerful transcend expression. The sufferers are themselves but dimly aware of them: 'tyranny', 'plunder', and 'insult' are mild terms to describe them. But redress there is none--there is only escape; the victims must emancipate themselves by acquisition of wealth and power. They cannot hope successfully to fight. They are a minority, and have neither the intelligence nor the means to cope with the formidable energies and exhaustless resources of the system that is to them an engine of oppression. Nine men in ten have in them the potencies and possibilities of rascality, which need but opportunity to develop. Let Socialists make the laws to-day and they would break them to-morrow. No sooner do the poor become rich than they harden their hearts to the miseries of the poor. In so far as it proposes to correct the evils of unequal fortune, Socialism aims to repeal the laws of nature."

On Prisons (1886):

"The newest 'fad' of the penologists is 'indeterminate sentences'--that is to say, criminals are to be simply sent to prison, to be, like patients in a hospital, 'discharged when cured'. This plan--which has the merit of Prison Director Hendrick's approval--will work first rate if God will agree to act as the discharging officer. It is hardly likely, though, that he would accept the position; he has long been out of politics."

"Case Dismissed" (on bribery) (1871)

"We have the highest possible regard for Mr. Freelon, the Assistant District Attorney, but if we had caused as many murder cases to be dismissed in one week as he has, we should expect somebody to affirm that we were bribed. That nobody has made that charge against Mr. Freelon is extremely creditable to our community, and very fortunate for Mr. Freelon. If it were once made somebody would be sure to believe it, and would swear that it was the only intelligible explanation of his conduct. Let us give thanks that Mr. Freelon is above suspicion, and let Mr. Freelon feel grateful that we are above suspecting him."

And so on. Bierce was often criticized for "telling it like it is", and in my favorite response to that charge he says:

"...I had a thing to say which nobody else would say, and it was necessary to be said. One of the disadvantages of our social system, which is the child of our political, is the tyranny of public opinion, forbidding the utterance of wholesome but unpalatable truth. In a republic we are so accustomed to the rule of majorities that it seldom occurs to us to examine their title to dominion; and as the ideas of might and right are, by our innate sense of justice, linked together, we come to consider public opinion infallible and almost sacred."

Which is also why we need satire--it's a joke that's only half-joking. People can't handle "unpalatable" truth head on. More importantly, satire reminds us that we take ourselves and our opinions too seriously. We do know this, which is why The Onion, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report are all more popular than the regular news. They're not only more truthful; they remind us how absurd everything is.

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