Smart words from annoying people.

For good or ill, I am a person who collects quotes. For years, my locker, then my dorm room, then my cork board grew increasingly crowded with the wisdom of others. H.L. Mencken moved across the ocean with me and back ( “We are here and it is now. Further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine” ), and a glance at my current office wall reveals Martin Luther King, Jr., Joni Mitchell, Socrates, and W.H. Auden ( “…all I have is a voice/to undo the folded lie…” ).

I say that this tendency is possibly “for ill” because I also hold the contrary opinion that words out of context often serve as little more than ornament. To quote an old friend of my brother’s: “I am perfectly capable of contradicting myself — I have a bicameral mind.”

But I say “for good” because words are often my sanctuary, my source of inspiration or consolation, and that’s (I think) a good thing — and also “for good” because, occasionally, my love for a trenchant turn of phrase leads me to to not entirely reject the thoughts of people for whom I would otherwise have very little time. It is to be hoped that this, in turn, helps to keep me humble….

“Either a word means something, or it doesn’t,” Bill Maher once said on Real Time. I don’t watch Real Time anymore because Maher’s over-weaning self-confidence too often leads to blatant disrespect for others who fail to be sufficiently Like Him — in particular, people of faith, such as myself — but it’s hard to argue with the logic in this bon mot! Each time the unthinking right pulls out words like “facist” or “socialist” (not to mention “Hitler” or “witch doctor”), I think: Dude. Either a word means something, or it doesn’t! Full disclosure, though: I can’t find any online reference to Maher actually saying this! But I promise: He said this or something very like it, and now I say it all the time. Me and Bill Maher? We’re like this.

Of course, if you do trust me, without linkage, you’ll be ignoring the very wise advice given to us by one Mr. Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.” He was a terrible President, but we’re supposed to act as if he was actually precisely this wise, all the time (case in point: Ketchup as a vegetable. And all that rich-get-richer/poor-get-poorer stuff). But dude, not only is this good advice, it serves to describe the characters of everyone I live with: The husband, the ten year old son, the six year old daughter, all of them — they love me, all right, and they’re pretty sure I’m not making stuff up, but you know what? They’d really like to see my source material. (Bonus fun: Click on the “Trust, but verify” link and you’ll see Reagan and Gorbachev being pretty funny and charming! Ah, if only Reagan’s wits had matched his wit…).

And speaking of people I really can’t stand who are occasionally stinkin’ funny, that Glenn Beck. Whew! If ever there was a human being in need of a lengthy time out (and quite possibly a quiet room and some professional help), it’s Glenn Beck. And yet, every once and awhile, he does stuff like praise a band (Muse), and then — entirely aware of the place he holds in the world — apologize for it: “My apologies to Muse for saying that I like them. I didn’t mean to destroy all their credibility and all their coolness. It’s an awful album and you should never go out and buy it.”  (Indeed, he said that the band had asked for a retraction, but he was joking! The really rather amusing tale can be found here).

All of this is well and good, because there is a kind of comic diversion to it, but I’ll tell you what: If I find you insufferable and you reduce me to tears? I may have to find you, and cut you. This is how I felt when George W-stands-for-Worst-President-in-History Bush reacted to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. “The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today,” Bush said within hours of the shuttle’s break-up on re-entry on February 1, 2003. “The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that they are all safely home.” Hell, I teared up just typing the words just now! Thankfully, Lovely Friend pointed out to me once that those words were no doubt written by someone paid to write them — and it is that person who so moved me, not our Most Awful Commander-in-Chief. And, you know: Phew!

Because finding him and cutting him would have been a really bad idea — after all “hate multiplies hate, violence multiples violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…. The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” So said Dr. King, and I really rather wish that it might have occured to someone in the last Administration to listen to him.

(Also: You didn’t really think I’d close with George Bush, did you?).

1 Comment

  1. Yeah, I think ‘trust, but verify’ is a good quote.

    I’d also nominate—and have used—the execrable Peggy Noonan’s phrase ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations.’ Helluva line.

    Or consider the put-down from the truly awful Ayn Rand, as said by the hero of ‘The Fountainhead,’ Howard Roark, to his adversary, Ellsworth Toohey. Toohey happens upon Roark, alone, and asks Roark to tell him what he really thinks of him. ‘But I don’t think of you.’

    Excellent! Too bad she didn’t stop there.

    And as I was just about to say that I’m unlikely ever to quote a Nazi, I remembered the Goebbels quote: ‘When I hear the word culture, that’s when I reach for my revolver.’ Best used only ironically, of course.

    All this means is that wit and conscience—or even talent—do not necessarily go together.

    But, to follow your lead, I’ll end on a happy note: sometimes they do. Consider the sublime Sojourner Truth: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right-side up again. And now that they are asking to do it the men better let them.”

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