The Stupidity of the Ages

Today’s symposium shall begin with the words of two great Americans, and — gasp! — two foreign people: P.T. Barnum, H.L. Mencken, Charles Baudelaire and Cornelius Tacitus.

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) may never have said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” If he did, he may have said it two or four years after Mark Twain’s friend Artemus Ward did.

Who cares? It makes no difference.

Nor did Henry Louis Mencken say, precisely: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

What Mencken (1880-1956) did write, in the Sept. 19, 1926 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, was: “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

This inaccuracy of this condensed quote makes no difference either. I don’t think Mencken would have objected.

I am away from home and my library, so cannot quote verbatim what Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) wrote in an introduction to Fleurs de Mal (1857). In it, Baudelaire tried to explain why he wrote The Flowers of Evil. But after reading the daily newspaper, the poet said, he felt “crushed by the weight of a thousand suns,” and understood the impossibility of explaining anything to anyone.

Last, but certainly not least, we come to Publius Cornelius Tacitus (58-120), the greatest historian of ancient Rome.

Allow me to digress for a moment, to explain why I am quoting these dead white men.

It’s been, lo, 33 years now since I dedicated my life to reporting political shenanigans. Never would I daresay that in this third of a century I’ve seen it all — but I’ve seen a lot of it. That is why in this short column I am quoting only dead men.

It’s because our president, senators, congressmen, and virtually all — virtually all? no, all of them — have nothing to say that is true that has not been said better before. Plus, none of them care whether they speak the truth or not. U.S. politics today is just dealing off the bottom of the deck at a casino.

This brings us to Tacitus, who summed up today’s U.S. politics, 1,900 years ago, in the first pages of his Annals. Tacitus did not blame Rome’s descent from republic to dictatorship on Augustus, but on the Roman Senate, whose members were “exalted by wealth and honors … each in proportion to his readiness for servitude.”

In the first pages of his Annals Tacitus promised, then delivered, the most honest history of his country and its government. He wrote that the brilliant writers of his time “were deterred by swelling sycophancy.” And that the truth about their rulers was “falsified through dread while the powerful men flourished, and composed with hatred fresh after their fall.”

All he wanted to do, Tacitus said, was to transmit “a few things about the emperor … without anger or partiality, from which I try to keep a distance.”

Thus it was that Tacitus invented journalism, and perfected it. The trade was lost for 1,800 years or so, then revived, briefly. If it is not dying today, it’s certainly taking a lot of blows to the body and head, from Mencken’s booboisie, Barnum’s suckers, and all of our congressmen, senators, Cabinet members and their underlings, all of them exalted in proportion to their readiness for servitude.

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