Success!

     Do people have a moral obligation to be intelligent?
     H.L. Mencken said we do. In one of his last books, “Treatise on Right and Wrong,” Mencken wrote that the failure to live up to this responsibility was the primary shortcoming of every established religion.
     Today, it’s the primary shortcoming of the entire U.S. political system, of both political parties and two branches of government. The courts are all that’s left us – barely.
     The preferred manner of being unintelligent today is to drag religion into every question of public policy, no matter how remote or specious the connection.
     Since Jan. 19, 1981, the citizens of the United States have become so accustomed to being lied to that now we demand pleasant untruths, instead of an even remotely unpleasant truth, no matter what the subject, no matter how necessary the truth.
     Perhaps, then, it’s to be expected that our political debate is fatuous, vile and phony. But there is no need for it to be willfully unintelligent.
     That’s immoral.
     Five generations ago, here is how Mark Twain described the federal government. Twain, who caused millions of people around the world to love the United States, was describing the Civil War cemetery at Vicksburg.
     “Everything about this cemetery suggests the hand of the national Government,” Twain wrote. “The Government’s work is always conspicuous for excellence, solidity, thoroughness, neatness. The Government does its work well in the first place, and then takes care of it.”
     Twain was not joking. He praised the federal government repeatedly in “Life on the Mississippi.” And Mark Twain was not one to hand out praise lightly.
     How have we come, since the days of Mark Twain, who thought the work of the federal government “conspicuous for excellence,” to a situation in which virtually every candidate for every office in the United States runs for election by wailing about how rotten the federal government is, what a cheat and a fraud it is, how incompetent, what an oppressor?
     And then proves it.
     Why do so many people around the world hate our country today, not for its literature, but for what we have become?
     And why do we let it continue?
     If the federal government indeed has become a cheat, a fraud, and an oppressor, how did it become that way, since the same two political parties have traded power since Twain wrote “Life on the Mississippi”?
     Congress and the executive branch are hopelessly corrupt. They will not reform themselves, yet short of violent revolution, they are the only ones with the power to do it.
     The courts can no longer stop even the most flagrant constitutional violations, including torture, nor the Bush’s administration deliberate crippling and corruption of the courts themselves, through the Department of Justice, our next-to last protection against tyranny. Our final protection, of course, is the guns that are so easy for us to buy, but the average American citizen has become so stupid he no longer knows whom to shoot.
     I object to most of the policies of the Bush administration. I particularly object to the fact that for seven years it has treated me, and the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, as though we are all morons.
     Just two generations ago, the United States government, then truly pacific and isolationist, managed to defeat the most fearsome army in the history of the world in less than four years. Why is it that now we are unable to defeat a tenth-rate army, a weak and miserably managed army, in nearly twice the time it took us to win World War II?
     I’m just asking.
     I also blame the members of my own profession, journalists, for this. Mencken, a journalist himself, summed up the problem 75 years ago: “Most of the evils that continue to beset journalism today, in truth, are not due to the rascality of the owners nor even to the Kiwanian bombast of business managers, but simply and solely to the stupidity, cowardice and Philistinism of working newspaper men. … A Washington correspondent is one with a special talent for failing to see what is before his eyes. … I know of no American who starts from a higher level of aspiration than the journalist. He is, in his first phase, genuinely romantic. He plans to be both an artist and a moralist – a master of lovely words and a merchant of sound ideas. He ends, commonly, as the most depressing jackass in his community – that is, if his career goes on to what is called success.”

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