Only now turning, I see a tall boy running,
fifteen, sixteen, dressed thinly for the weather.
Reaching the streetlight he turns a brown face briefly
phrased like a question…
For a long time, America’s been playing Variations on a Theme, and the theme is Race. There’s been progress — e.g., President Barack Obama — but the Republican Party, with help from the Supreme Court, is working tirelessly to restrict voting laws so this can’t happen again. And pretty much since 1861 the same states, instead of saying “OK, you win,” still would prefer to secede. The new movie The Butler gives a stirring summary of this spotted progress, and should be required viewing by all the high schools in the country. Hey, it has Oprah in a starring role; what’s not to like?
On Oct. 3, 1995, we were at a bar in the Newark, New Jersey, terminal, waiting for a flight home. The usual airport buzz filled the place, until someone yelled for QUIET! A TV newsman was about to announce the jury’s verdict in the double-murder trial of Orenthal James Simpson. What followed was the opposite of the Trayvon Martin reaction: the blacks in the bar stood up and roared their approval of “Not Guilty,” and the whites sat quietly, as if shell-shocked.
Whatever one thinks of either verdict, it’s clear we have two countries out there, reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s dark prophecy about East and West — “Never the twain shall meet.” Kipling was a conservative pessimist, and the real world, repeatedly shooting itself in the foot (and elsewhere), keeps trying to prove him right. One large branch of these countries was given a name some time ago.
The great editor and curmudgeon H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) coined the word “booboisie” to refer to a section of America’s middle class that, far from fading away, has actually grown more powerful. His booboisie were gullible, anti-science, and angry, believing in the 1920s equivalent of Fox News, Creationism, and Separation of the Races. The high point of Mencken’s journalistic career was the so-called Monkey Trial where, in 1925, a Tennessee high school teacher was tried for teaching about evolution. The legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow debated three-time Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan about evolution and the Bible, with Mencken covering the trial for the Baltimore Sun.
In Inherit the Wind, the famous movie about the event, Spencer Tracy plays Darrow, Fredric March plays Bryan, and Gene Kelly plays Mencken (to Mencken’s great benefit, at least in the looks and charm departments). Mencken would have had a field day covering the Martin/Zimmerman trial, beginning with the choosing of the jury: six Southern women — not a single one of them black — who claimed to have no opinion about the shooting. A more polite word for booboisie would be “Philistines,” used by the poet Mathew Arnold (1822-1888) to mean, more or less, the “unenlightened,” antagonistic to progress. You can trace it back to the Bible — a bit unfairly — where the Philistines (the enemies of the Hebrews) were the ones Samson slew with the jawbone of an ass. We have lots of those jawbones still, but seem to be a bit short of Samsons.
Bryan, who stood for many of the ideas, including Prohibition, that Mencken detested, died in his sleep five days after the trial, confident of victory, in certain knowledge of where he was going. He did win, of course, the state being Tennessee, though the teacher was fined only $100.
Not all the booboisie’s ideas were bad. In 1931, after Mencken referred to Arkansas as “the apex of moronia,” the Arkansas Legislature passed a motion to pray for his soul. I would have voted for that, even though Mencken once declared that “a poet more than 30 years old is simply an overgrown child.”
Well, that’s possible. Next Thurs., Sept. 12, is his birthday. Requiescat in pace, wherever he is.
Error from Babel mutters in the places,
Cities apart, where now we word our failures:
Hatred and guilt have left us without language
that might have led to discourse
—Both quotes from “Effort at Speech” by William Meredith (1919-2007)
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