Thursday, December 29, 2016

Ecclesiastes 1:9

Every now and then (in fact, more now than then) I think wistfully of what great journalists, essayists and satirists would write of our times. Specifically, I wonder what someone like Mencken, or Bierce or Juvenal would have to say, if only they were alive to bear witness to our folly. In that mood I revisit what I've read by them, and sometimes find what I haven't read before (to discover something I haven't read is particularly delightful).

I've been reading Mencken mostly. The Sage of Baltimore had an incisive mind, his writing is clear, erudite and witty, and he was more often right than wrong, though he had his prejudices and didn't hesitate to voice them. What struck me most as I read was that seemingly very little has changed since his death. Granted, he didn't die all that long ago, but it seems long ago and it seems we've come to think of most everything which happened more than a decade into the past as being ancient. Such are the expectations and inclinations of those of the age of Twitter.

The chapter (if I may call it such) of the Bible called "Ecclesiastes" makes several neat little observations about life which seem commonplace now, but perhaps were not so then. One might not think the members of a Bronze Age tribe would make them, but they were made nonetheless. Some have a Stoic tinge to them. What's referred to in the title to this post is the one which is paraphrased as "there is nothing new under the sun." Let's give the ancient author his due and quote him here: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." (King James' version).

This saying came to mind while I was reading an article Mencken wrote in 1924 regarding immigration. The government was taking steps to stem the tide of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, then. That's more or less where my ancestors come from, as I'm largely of Italian and Polish descent My ancestors would not have been affected by the law, as they were in the first wave of immigration from those parts, so to speak; the late 19th century. That assumes the law wouldn't have retroactive application, of course, but I think that would be pushing anti-immigration sentiment too hard; making it too obviously contrary to the Constitution.

I think the rhetoric used to justify such a law at that time would have been similar to the rhetoric we hear now about Mexican immigrants. Mencken in his article doesn't dwell on the Italians, especially southern Italians and Sicilians, being undesirable in the many ways they were thought to be undesirable in 1924. Instead, the article sets forth an argument that if the immigration of such people is prohibited, then the Americans Mencken called "Anglo-Saxon" would be forced to do the manual or factory labor being done by the immigrants. This made no sense to Mencken, because the lower kind of Anglo-Saxon not only wanted to avoid such work, but were no longer capable of doing such work well or diligently. The higher kind of Anglo-Saxon, of course, would not even consider doing such work in any situation, according to Mencken. Mencken, as a devotee of Nietzsche, was inclined to speak of higher and lower kinds of people.

The claim that immigrants are needed to do the work we don't want to do, but which nevertheless should be done, is an argument we hear today as well. So it isn't new, and nor is the claim that immigrants from particular areas or nations are undesirable, which is to say unlike Americans who are descendants of northern Europe or England. It is only new to the extent it addresses new people.

Though we're often called a nation of immigrants, America has always been unkind to immigrants. Irish, Chinese, Italian throughout the 19th and even into the 20th century; now Mexican and Muslim. The Irish, Chinese and Italian have been accepted for the most part; perhaps more properly assimilated. The prejudice against them reduced over time. Perhaps that will happen as well with the newly undesirable, and they will have their turn at objecting to immigrants in the future. It seems to be the American way.

It's claimed by some that restricting the immigration of Muslims is a special case, as it impacts our national and personal security. The same was also said of others, though. Italians promoted crime and even organized it. Eastern Europeans were communists. Italians could be anarchists as well, of course, like Sacco and Vanzetti.

Mencken wrote, wisely I think, that people don't really want liberty. Instead, what they want is security. What was truly said is that which shall be truly said, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes. We seem most willing to sacrifice our liberty--and those of others, of course--in the hope that sacrifice will provide us with security. Immigrants like many other things make us feel insecure.

Mencken thought democracy to be a destructive form of government given his contempt for the masses who through it would run the show, and remarked that its result in America would be that someday the common people would achieve their dream of electing a complete moron to the presidency. It may be that dream has come true at last, and that it has come in part due to our desire for security.

I suspect Mencken and other great cynics and critics of the past would therefore be inclined to write much like they did in the past if they lived now. There seems indeed to be nothing new under the sun at least as far as human conduct and misconduct is concerned, and so those who comment on human conduct are fated to make comments already made. But they would make them in with much more skill and wit than can be found these days, as skill and wit in communication are actively discouraged, the act of communicating instantly being of greatest importance in these unhappy times when talk is quick and cheap.

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