Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

17 MAY, 2013

Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling Critique the Press

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“There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.”

Modern history is peppered with public intellectuals speaking up against the follies of popular media, including E. B. White, Einstein, and David Foster Wallace. But among the most articulate critics of the press are Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, who famously met in 1889.

On March 31, 1873, Twain — adviser of little girls, recipient of audacious requests, cat-hater — gave a talk before the Monday Evening Club at Hartford, titled “License of the Press” and critiquing the state of the popular press. It was later included in the altogether indispensable volume The Complete Essays Of Mark Twain (public library). Though his admonitions target the newspaper as the archetypal press, it’s remarkable to consider how prescient his remarks are in the context of today’s online media. Twain writes:

[The press] has scoffed at religion till it has made scoffing popular. It has defended official criminals, on party pretexts, until it has created a United States Senate whose members are incapable of determining what crime against law and the dignity of their own body is, they are so morally blind, and it has made light of dishonesty till we have as a result a Congress which contracts to work for a certain sum and then deliberately steals additional wages out of the public pocket and is pained and surprised that anybody should worry about a little thing like that.

I am putting all this odious state of things upon the newspaper, and I believe it belongs there — chiefly, at any rate. It is a free press — a press that is more than free — a press which is licensed to say any infamous thing it chooses about a private or a public man, or advocate any outrageous doctrine it pleases. It is tied in no way. The public opinion which should hold it in bounds it has itself degraded to its own level.

There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.

[…]

It seems to me that just in the ratio that our newspapers increase, our morals decay. The more newspapers the worse morals. Where we have one newspaper that does good, I think we have fifty that do harm. We ought to look upon the establishment of a newspaper of the average pattern in a virtuous village as a calamity.

After bemoaning the downward spiral of newspaper integrity over the previous 30 years, Twain takes Raymond Chandler’s belief that “the reading public is intellectually adolescent at best” to an even more unforgiving degree:

It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people — who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations — do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.

Among us, the newspaper is a tremendous power. It can make or mar any man’s reputation. It has perfect freedom to call the best man in the land a fraud and a thief, and he is destroyed beyond help.

He then foretells with astounding, uncompromising accuracy the “sponsored content” and “native advertising” debates of today and laments:

In the newspapers of the West you can use the editorial voice in the editorial columns to defend any wretched and injurious dogma you please by paying a dollar a line for it.

He ends with his signature package of keen cultural observation tied with a bow of irreverent satire:

I have a sort of vague general idea that there is too much liberty of the press in this country, and that through the absence of all wholesome restraint the newspaper has become in a large degree a national curse, and will probably damn the Republic yet. There are some excellent virtues in newspapers, some powers that wield vast influences for good; and I could have told all about these things, and glorified them exhaustively — but that would have left you gentlemen nothing to say.

More than a quarter century later, in September of 1899 — a decade after he had met Twain and had his fanboy moment — Kipling penned a poem of similar sentiment. Titled “The Press”, it is one of fifty newly discovered Kipling poems found in the recently released hardback set The Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 3 (public library). It echoes the heart of Twain’s concerns with a satirical tone, perhaps ironically, more typical of Twain and his own little-known verses:

The Press

Why don’t you write a play —
Why don’t you cut your hair?
Do you trim your toe-nails round
Or do you trim them square?
Tell it to the papers,
Tell it every day.
But, en passant, may I ask
Why don’t you write a play?

What’s your last religion?
Have you got a creed?
Do you dress in Jaeger-wool
Sackcloth, silk or tweed?
Name the books that helped you
On the path you’ve trod.
Do you use a little g
When you write of God?

Do you hope to enter
Fame’s immortal dome?
Do you put the washing out
Or have it done at home?
Have you any morals?
Does your genius burn?
Was you wife a what’s its name?
How much did she earn?

Had your friend a secret
Sorrow, shame or vice —
Have you promised not to tell
What’s your lowest price?
All the housemaid fancied
All the butler guessed
Tell it to the public press
And we will do the rest.

Why don’t you write a play?

Whether or not Twain’s essay was a direct influence on Kipling’s poem, of course, will never be known, for the anatomy of influence is a complicated matter. But what we do know is that all great art builds on what came before, every “new” idea a combination of past fragments, and creativity is a slot-machine of knowledge end experience. After all, it was Twain himself who told Helen Keller that “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”

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17 MAY, 2013

Gender Politics and the English Language, Pete Seeger Edition

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“Building a new and livable world will necessitate thousands of little changes.”

“Since the only test of truth is length of life,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her meditation on language, “and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest.” Indeed, language and culture are in constant osmosis, feeding and shaping each other.

From Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) — that remarkable collection of “social media” from the second wave of feminism, which gave us many brave women’s epistles of empowerment — comes this charming letter by legendary American folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919–January 27, 2014). At the time in his mid-fifties, he explores with equal parts wit and insight the gender politics of language:

The words congressperson and chairperson are awkward words, typical of the ugly words created by scholars and scientists. Working people traditionally simplify language. God bless the English peasants who gave us a hand, if irregular slanguage, by combining Anglo-Saxon and Norman French and discarding the formalities of both.

Why not use a vowel like o: congresso or chairo? And for those who don’t’ want to use the syllable man, likewise change foreman, boilerman, anchorman, newspaperman. et cêtera.

The language, agreed, needs more neutral words. Now’s the time to make the changes more creatively. Incidentally, we might as well face it: we’ve got to invent some neutral pronouns. Saying “his or her” all the time is awkward unless we want to slur it into “hizar.”

As a man, perhaps I have no right to make such suggestions, but as a user of words, I think I do. Building a new and livable world will necessitate thousands of little changes.

P.S. I’ve been the chairo of many committees, and I like the word.

Pete Seeger
Beacon, New York
February 5, 1974

It’s always a bit disorienting to consider the history of the things we’ve come to take for granted, but Ms. editor and reconstructionist Mary Thom reminds us in the chapter on language, in which Seeger’s letter appears, that the cultural shift toward gender neutrality took a long time. June 19, 1986, was a major turning point for one such thing that shapes modern gender politics: Even after the Second Wave of Feminism had gathered critical mass, The New York Times had been a major holdout against using “Ms.” as a courtesy title for women, clinging instead to the only then-accepted addresses: “Miss” for single women and “Mrs.” for the married. But on that fateful spring day, the Times finally capitulated and joined, after having failed to helm, this seminal and symbolic shift toward women’s independence.

Though Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 is long out of print, used copies are luckily still floating around and are very much worth a grab — the collection is absolutely fantastic from cover to cover.

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16 MAY, 2013

Why Adrienne Rich Became the Only Person to Decline the National Medal of Arts

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“I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.”

Beloved poet, essayist, and reconstructionist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) is celebrated as one of the most influential literary voices of the twentieth century, her essays and poems having catapulted into the forefront of collective conscience controversial issues like sexual identity and the oppression of women and lesbians. In 1997, to protest the growing monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, she became the first and only person to date to decline the prestigious National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed upon an individual artist on behalf of the people of the United States, awarded to such luminaries as Maya Angelou, John Updike, Ray Bradbury, and Bob Dylan.

In this 1997 broadcast from the radio show Democracy Now, Rich reads her spectacular letter — one of the bravest and most eloquent acts of political dissent in creative culture, and a superb addition to history’s finest definitions of art — later published in Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations (public library).

July 3, 1997

Jane Alexander
The National Endowment for the Arts
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20506

Dear Jane Alexander,

I just spoke with a young man from your office, who informed me that I had been chosen to be one of twelve recipients of the National Medal for the Arts at a ceremony at the White House in the fall. I told him at once that I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration. I want to clarify to you what I meant by my refusal.

Anyone familiar with my work from the early Sixties on knows that I believe in art’s social presence—as breaker of official silences, as voice for those whose voices are disregarded, and as a human birthright.

In my lifetime I have seen the space for the arts opened by movements for social justice, the power of art to break despair. Over the past two decades I have witnessed the increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice in our country.

There is no simple formula for the relationship of art to justice. But I do know that art — in my own case the art of poetry — means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage. The radical disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate. A President cannot meaningfully honor certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.

I know you have been engaged in a serious and disheartening struggle to save government funding for the arts, against those whose fear and suspicion of art is nakedly repressive. In the end, I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope. My concern for my country is inextricable from my concerns as an artist. I could not participate in a ritual which would feel so hypocritical to me.

Sincerely,
Adrienne Rich
cc: President Clinton

Complement with Rich on love, loss, happiness, and creativity and her indispensable 1977 commencement address on claiming an education, then see why Sartre became the first person to decline the Nobel Prize.

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15 MAY, 2013

Heinz Haber, Disney’s Chief Scientist, Explains the Atom in 1957

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What Aristotle, Aladdin, and Captain Nemo teach us about the promise of nuclear energy.

In 1954, Walt Disney entered an unusual barter-economy arrangement with television network ABC: He would provide them with a weekly hour-long broadcast, and in exchange they’d fund the construction of Disneyland. The TV show, originally named after the theme park Disney envisioned and later renamed Tomorrowland, went on to become one of the longest-running series in TV history, producing 54 seasons, 13 of which were hosted by Disney himself.

In January of 1957, two years after the release of Disney’s illustrated gem Our Friend the Atom, German atomic physicist and science writer Heinz Haber (May 15, 1913 — February 13, 1990) — whom Disney had hired as chief scientist at Disneyland and who had authored the book — appeared on an episode of the show bearing the same title as the book and exploring the “exciting possibility” of atomic energy as a new power source for humanity through a mix of science and illustrative animations from Disney films:

The atom is our future. It is the subject everyone wants to understand.

See the wonderful mid-century illustrations from the book, sadly long out of print, here.

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