January 24, 2017: Fake News & the Fillmore Bathtub

We’ve heard a lot lately about fake news, and I suspect that before long we’ll be hearing, and hearing about, a lot more. Sadly, dishonest journalism is actually a time-honored American institution. Thus far anyway, newspapers and other media outlets in the United States have been censored by the Government only during periods of outright war, and so for most of our history—during peacetime at least—the only way anyone could piece together a complete picture on any controversial subject was to buy and read three or four newspapers of varying political slants. After the end of World War II the Federal Communications Commission attempted to impose some reason and balance on the journalistic process by introducing and enforcing the so-called Fairness Doctrine, requiring media outlets to give print and air time to differing opinions about political controversies, and for as long as it lasted the Fairness Doctrine worked well. The FCC abolished it in the mid-eighties due to conservative pressure and Congress then attempted to codify its precepts as law, but Ronald Reagan vetoed the effort. Since then, journalism has gradually devolved to the Wild West Show that we know today, all in the name of Free Speech. If everyone had the presence of mind to check several newspapers and networks before trying to form an opinion of his or her own, things might not be so bad, but the prevailing ethic nowadays seems to be simply to believe whatever you want to; it’s all legitimate.

In times like these we would do well to keep in mind the greatest literary hoax ever perpetrated in the history of American journalism: “A Neglected Anniversary,” newspaper writer H. L. Mencken’s spurious history of the bathtub, published initially within the heavy censorship confines of World War I. Mencken’s essay first appeared in a New York City paper on December 28, 1917,claiming that the first American bathtub had been installed in a home in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1842 by a man who had traveled widely in Europe and had acquired the habit of regular bathing there. The event was supposed to have sparked widespread argument against bathing, with politicians claiming that the bathtub was a decadent European invention that had no place in republican America and physicians warning that washing might give a careless bather all manner of fatal diseases. In early 1851 the bathtub’s cause was supposed to have been saved, however, by the thirteenth President of the United States. Millard Fillmore—and what better name for a bathtub supporter than that?—visited Cincinnati, took a bath in the historic pioneer tub, and then had one installed in the White House. After Fillmore’s brave and progressive example, regular tub bathing caught on in the United States.

Not even Mencken himself could have anticipated the readiness with which the public swallowed his cock-and-bull story. It was printed, reprinted, quoted, and taken for law and Gospel by virtually everyone who read or heard of it. Within a few years’ time it had even worked its way into legitimate history books, no one seemingly ever pausing to consider how utterly ridiculous the tale really was. Eight years after Mencken first published the piece he confessed his hoax and claimed that it had only been a joke, but it’s suspected that he wrote it for a more serious purpose: to see just how far he could go in making the American public believe and perpetuate a baldfaced lie. And since the story continued to circulate for decades even after his retraction, and is in fact still quoted by some sources as truth, it’s hard to say whether he was more amused, or more disgusted, by the results of his experiment.

H. L. Mencken was such anoutspoken, pessimistic critic of human nature that he made a lot of enemies, particularly in the Bible Belt. The Arkansas legislature actually once passed a resolution to pray for his soul, although the legislators introduced themeasure only after they learned that they couldn’t force the Federal Government to deport him to Germany. His crimes? Such literary gems as this, written during Warren G. Harding’s Presidential campaign in 1920:

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

I suppose that, if this were ever to happen, we must hope that the leader in question should at least have a smarter daughter and son-in-law.

 

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January 17, 2017: Politics, Pastoring, and Peanuts

“Well, Drackler, you made a nice column two weeks ago from my political idears. Real good work there,” Chuck Q. Farley grumbled the next time we talked on the phone.

“It all made for a good story, Chuck Q.,” I answered. “Politics makes the world go round, and if you and I can make people think even a little bit, we’re doing our job.”

He humphed. “Atter that Twitter danger, I’ve quit foolin’ with politics. From now on I’m just gonna watch church programs and stay away from the news!”

“Well, if you can catch the address for that TV Miracle Water, send away for some and share it with me. But TV or not, you’ve always got to think politics in church too. The preachers and deacons do, anyway. Especially the pastor. And sometimes, everybody.”

“Why you say that? You study Political Science along with all them other sciences you took, Drackler?” he asked.

“Never had a Political Science course in my life. I learned politics the hard way, right behind a pulpit.”

He clicked his tongue. “That’s right. You was once a preacher. Well, then, tell me why they has to be politics and politicians in church! If I’m gonna help you any more with that column, Drackler, I’ve gotta know somethin’ about what you think.”

“True enough,” I admitted, and deliberated a moment. “Tell you what, Chuck Q. Once there was a fellow named Socrates who answered questions WITH questions, but he still got his points across. Years ago a really good teacher, rest her soul, showed me how to do it too. So let me try to answer you like Socrates. First question: how important is it in your religion to love your enemies, return good for evil, pray for those who mistreat you, turn the other cheek to somebody that hits you, that kind of thing?”

“Why, that’s ever’thing that matters!” he shot back. “Well, doctrine, too, I guess…”

“Let’s just let doctrine take care of itself for the time being. Second question: if all those things I mentioned are so important to your religion, where do you find that you have to use them the most? With ‘sinner’ people, or when you deal with your fellow church members?”

He pondered the query a moment, and grew solemn. “I never thought of it like that,” he finally replied. “I’m gonna have to study on that one…”

“Well, study on this, too,” I responded. “Third question: don’t you think anybody having to lead a bunch that acts like that had better learn his politics fast, or else he’ll have to soak ‘em up through the knots he’ll get on his head?”

Chuck Q. was silent. “Drackler, is that how come you quit preachin’ and pastorin’?” he eventually asked quietly. “It wasn’t no woman, like with so many?”

“No, no woman,” I answered with a sigh, “though I halfway expected somebody would start up a rumor like that, even so.” The phone was silent as I pondered. Had I already said too much, or not enough? There was no way for me to tell. Could anyone who hadn’t actually been there truly understand mere words? I owed Chuck Q. some response, though, and so I took a deep breath and began to speak.

“Once I had a church member in the hospital, and I went to see him,” I said. “We had a good visit, but he had a bowl of peanuts on his side table, and as we talked I’d reach over and grab a few peanuts and eat ‘em. And finally I noticed that I’d absentmindedly eaten his entire bowl of peanuts.

“That really embarrassed me, so I apologized to him for eating all his peanuts and I promised him I’d go buy him some more right then. But he just looked at me with a great big gummy smile—poor old fellow didn’t have a tooth in his head, you see—and he said to me, ‘Brother John, it’s okay. All I could do was lick the chocolate off them things, so you was welcome to the rest.’

“It never was the same after that,” I concluded.

There was another moment of dead air on the phone, and then a snort. “Aw, shoot, Drackler,” Chuck Q. complained, “You had me a-goin’ there a minute. Shame on you! I nearly swallered that one whole! And now you’ve done gone and took my appetite too,” he added reproachfully.

“Sorry, Chuck Q.,” I answered, “let’s just call that tale a parable. But if you had swallowed it whole, at least I hadn’t licked off the chocolate first!”

January 10, 2017: Hear the Royal Proclamation

Governor Bevin has proclaimed 2017 to be “The Year of the Bible” in Kentucky, although he did the same thing in December 2015 for the year 2016 and few Kentuckians took notice of it for more than a week. The announcement pretty much coincided, also for the second year in a row, with the so-called Kentucky 120 United Bible Reading Marathon, an event staged by a group called the Kentucky Prayer Focus and which involves volunteers statewide taking turns reading Scripture aloud until they orally complete the entire sixty-six books. I’m unsure what this is supposed to accomplish. Do the Governor and the Kentucky Prayer Focus think that this yearly ceremonial reading serves as some sort of annual gesture or invocation for God’s blessing on the state? And if they do, wouldn’t simple, silent prayers to that effect do more good? After all, Jesus of Nazareth once reasoned that God preferred private prayers spoken quietly from inside one’s closet, and he gave a name to those who prayed out loud at the street corners for no other reason than that they wanted to be seen and heard: hypocrites. A little hypocrisy never stopped a politician—or the occasional football player—from making a grand gesture, though.

Still, even if it’s politics as usual, I guess Bevin’s and Kentucky’s Year of the Bible is harmless enough. It’s certainly preferable to what the State Legislature once did, proclaiming April 1986 as Jimmy Swaggart Month only a few months before the famous evangelist got caught with his britches down the first time. The real tragedy, I think, is that both The Year of the Bible and the Kentucky 120 United Bible Reading Marathon only emphasize what’s already obvious: the Bible is the most-bought and most-praised, yet least-read and most-misread volume ever compiled in the history of the world. Saddest of all to me is how completely it’s neglected within the United States as one of the very pillars, alongside Shakespeare’s plays, of modern English language and literature. An entire generation, probably more than one, has grown up never having learned about the source of many common expressions they’ve heard all their lives: “the blind leading the blind,” “forbidden fruit,” “a little bird told me,” “a leopard can’t change its spots,” “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and a host of others originating in Scripture—including even the old song about the bones being connected together. And there’s seemingly no way of fixing the problem, either within our present public school system or the quasi-religious setup which Governor Bevin and his cronies seem to want to replace it with.

All too often it’s the case that the more observant you are religiously, the more heaven and earth hangs on doctrine and the more you quarrel over dogmatic questions. If the Bible were studied in elementary, middle, and high school in an academic fashion, like most other ancient writings are when they are studied at all, soon enough you’d have irate parents complaining that the course work somehow didn’t give proper respect to a book that they regard as holy. Around here at least they’d likely perceive any comparison and contrast of the good old King James Version with later translations, or even the Hebrew and Koine Greek of the original writings, as introducing doubt and heresy to their children. And the same principle applies even if the Bible were taught from a doctrinal perspective, because there’s so blasted much dogmatic disagreement. Immerse, pour, or sprinkle? Confession, penance, and absolution, or the “priesthood of all believers”? Musical instruments or just voices? Can you backslide, or are you heaven-bought and heaven-bound no matter what you do or say? Purgatory or simply split hell wide open? You can find justification for all in Scripture. Back when Christianity was newly recognized as the Roman Empire’s state religion, there were street fights and actual killings in several cities over a dispute about the nature of Jesus of Nazareth—and ironically, in the Koine Greek then spoken throughout the Empire, the difference amounted to no more than one letter in one word. With a historical record like that, maybe we ought to regard religion like Chuck Q. Farley respects both work and his mother: so much that he’s never struck either one of them a lick in his entire life. Actually this may be exactly how Governor Bevin and most other politicians do respect religion. But it’s not really a satisfactory solution, either.

The Year of the Bible? I’ll never live to see the real thing. But I keep wishing.

January 3, 2017: Im-taterment

“Chuck Q., I’m fresh out of ideas for a new column,” I said to my friend Chuck Q. Farley as we lingered at the table over coffee on New Year’s Day. Our wives evidently preferred washing the dishes to listening to us. “Can you help me?”

“Well, it bein’ New Year, what about the feller that stuck the pistol down his britches and got the trigger hung in his belt buckle?” he offered.

“That happened at midnight one New Year, sure enough, but I’m not certain I should write about it. Too much like John Bobbitt. But I guess I could use that story in another column about gun control.”

“Drackler, don’t be radical, now,” urged Chuck Q. “I’m tryin’ to cure you from writin’ stuff like that. I’ve got another idear. How about the new President’s impeachment?”

I blinked my eyes a couple of times. “What?” I asked. “Chuck Q., I thought you liked him!”

“Oh, he’ll be great!” Chuck Q. enthused. “But I seen a bunch of stuff on the Internet claimin’ he ort to be impeached, and I think he should at least try it out. Could be good for him. Can’t hurt to see if it works.”

“All right. Tell me how the new President would benefit from impeachment. This, I’ve GOT to hear,” I sighed as I pushed my glasses up on my forehead and rubbed my eyes.

“Well, it’s simple, Drackler. The man’s good, but he ain’t perfect, and you gotta admit, that orange makeup looks pretty stupid.”

“Amen to that, but how—”

“Hear me out. So, let him just TRY peach makeup on instead of orange, and he might do better. First I thought he could get some of them pretty lady cosmetic stars on the home shoppin’ networks to impeach him with it, maybe on live TV like that ‘Makeover Story’ reality show except it’ll be on prime time, and them girls bein’ experts with all colors, I’m sure they’d do a great job. There’s two troubles I see, though. One, if he’s impeached, peach makeup might make him look like he’s got the yaller janders even more than he does already with that Eau de Sunkist—”

“Oh, Lord!” I groaned.

“And second, if he’s on live TV, ‘specially prime time, he’ll have to resist the temptation to reach in and grab them cosmetic ladies by their—”

“Okay, okay, I get the point! Shh! Keep your voice down!”

“So you see, that could be a real deal breaker,” he continued, unfazed. “Then I thought: why not use MALE makeup people instead, if need be? Now, I don’t know any such men except undertakers. But I guess undertakers could work on a live person’s face just as well as one of their ordinary customers, couldn’t they?”

By now I was just rolling with the flow. “Well,” I mused, “undertakers don’t get the complaints from their ordinary customers that they would from live ones. Especially live Presidents with Twitter accounts. But since undertakers are always the very last people to let you down—yeah, why not use ‘em?”

“Glad you agree, Drackler! So I’m gonna write the new President a letter. If I mail it tomorrow it should reach him before he’s swore into office. I’ll tell him that he ort to be impeached as soon as possible, and if he can’t keep his hands to hisself, then undertakers needs to work on him!”

It took me a moment to respond to that one. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor, after all. “Chuck Q.,” I finally said slowly and carefully, “If Polly Esther’s got the good sense I remember her having when we worked together, she’ll never let you mail that letter. The Secret Service could take it as a threat against the new President’s person, or even his life! You’d make the national news, and have Men in Black all up and down the holler here! And get Twittered to death besides!”

“WHAT?” he exclaimed indignantly. “All that, just for me sharin’ my good idears with the new President? I swear, people away from here can be SO stupid about things sometimes! Well… if you think it’d put me and Polly Esther and the kids in danger from them Twitter people, I won’t do it, Drackler. But I wish I could come up with a column for you, at least.”

“Don’t worry, Chuck Q.,” I replied as I wondered if the new President would ever know, or Tweet, about my secret good-faith effort in behalf of his peace of mind—as well as that of his Twitter followers. “You have.”