November 23rd, 2009 01:08 EST
The Durable Label Mencken Pinned on The Ignorati
H.L. Mencken, professional curmudgeon, literary sculptor and forensic investigator of human foibles, coined the word in 1922, or rather we should say he amalgamated the words boob and bourgeoisie into booboisie. He meant to refer to a class of ignorati.
Little did he foresee talk radio and television in which professional loudmouths would take the booboisie by the hand and lead them across the plain of paranoia into the kingdom of the terminally infuriated.
Mencken knew a lot about know-nothings. He was something of a bloodhound where they`re concerned. His views delighted and exacerbated his readers.
The year before he defined the booboisie he published The American Language, a classic that helped make Americans aware and proud of their distinct language and its fabulous nuances. He pointed out to us that we were not second-cousin recipients of a British hand-me-down language but had in fact invented a distinct language of our own. His book emboldened American writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O`Connor and Ernest Hemingway to celebrate regional speech in their work. It was a license to exercise our regional and ethnic improvisations. In short, it was an important book.
Remembering my delight in reading The American Language for the first time, I wonder now what the Baltimore sage would have made of hate radio and TV, of the smarm and trouble-making we call infotainment because we don`t have the guts as a society to call it what it is, hate-mongering. I wonder if Oprah Winfrey has this in mind as she plans to launch a new cable network. Perhaps her good humor and essential decency will purify a polluted airscape.
Mencken heard Father Coughlin in the 1930s spew his anti-semitism on radio, pandering to the Nazis, who were about to engulf the world in a blood bath. He knew all about hate-mongering. But Mencken, who worked for The Baltimore Sun, lived in the age of great family-owned newspapers. He didn`t live to see them pillaged by avaricious mega-corporations that felt no responsibility to their communities, indeed no responsibility to conduct decent journalism. And he didn`t live to see the new medium, television, give itself over to covert race-baiting and the dynamiting of political and cultural fault lines.
Every day at The Baltimore Sun Mencken worked with colleagues, and indeed managers, who believed in fair, balanced reportage, believed in actually helping people understand what was going on instead of jerking their prejudices around the way Father Coughlin and his heirs do today. He could not have imagined when he died in 1956 that his great newspaper would so soon become a pale shadow of its former self or that most other great dailies would follow suit. He understood the press to stand between the booboisie and the disasters that must follow a society led by the booboisie.
It wouldn`t have surprised Mencken that his own beloved Maryland produced Spiro T. Agnew, the con man who bamboozled Americans into believing they have a liberal press instead of the commercially censored press that regularly misleads them. Lies are addictive. Truth is an acquired taste. Lies are like fast food. We enjoy them immensely while they make us ill. Truth is the girl in glasses in the far corner of the library, never a cheerleader, rarely in demand.
When I think of hate radio in its various red and blue disguises, I think of the bullies I encountered in school and the Navy. You couldn`t count on them when the chips were down, certainly not when their own lives were at stake. And then I remember how angry Mencken made the booboisie when he gave the lie to their fondest prejudices. He loved to bait bullies because he knew they were cowards turned inside out. Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.