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Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling Critique the Media

“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.”


Gender Politics and the English Language, Pete Seeger Edition

“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.


Gorgeous Black-and-White Photos of Vintage NASA Facilities

From the wind tunnels the made commercial aviation possible to the analog machines that preceded the computer, a visual history of the spirit of innovation presently unworthy of the government’s dollar.

Among the great joys of spending countless hours rummaging through archives is the occasional serendipitous discovery of something absolutely wonderful: Case in point, these gorgeous black-and-white photographs of vintage NASA (and NASA predecessor NACA) facilities, which I found semi-accidentally in NASA’s public domain image archive. Taken between the 1920s and 1950s, when the golden age of space travel was still a beautiful dream, decades before the peak of the Space Race, and more than half a century before the future of space exploration had sunk to the bottom of the governmental priorities barrel, these images exude the stark poeticism of Berenice Abbott’s science photographs and remind us, as Isaac Asimov did, of NASA’s enormous value right here on Earth.

NACA’s first wind tunnel, located at Langley Field in Hampton, VA, was an open-circuit wind tunnel completed in 1920. Essentially a replica of the ten-year-old tunnel at the British National Physical Laboratory, it was a low-speed facility which involved the one-twentieth-scale models. Because tests showed that the models compared poorly with the actual aircraft by a factor of 20, a suggestion was made to construct a sealed airtight chamber in which air could be compressed to the same extent as the model being tested. The new tunnel, the Variable Density Tunnel was the first of its kind and has become a National Historic Landmark. (April 1, 1921)
Pressure tank of the Variable Density Tunnel at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Hampton, VA. Photograph courtesy Northrop-Grumman Shipbuilding-Newport News (February 3, 1922). The tank was shipped by barge to NACA, now NASA Langley Research Center, in June 1922.
Workmen in the patternmakers’ shop manufacture a wing skeleton for a Thomas-Morse MB-3 airplane for pressure distribution studies in flight. (June 1, 1922)
A Langley researcher ponders the future, in mid-1927, of the Sperry M-1 Messenger, the first full-scale airplane tested in the Propeller Research Tunnel. Standing in the exit cone is Elton W. Miller, Max M. Munk's successor as chief of aerodynamics. (1927)
A Langley researcher ponders the future, in mid-1927, of the Sperry M-1 Messenger, the first full-scale airplane tested in the Propeller Research Tunnel. Standing in the exit cone is Elton W. Miller, Max M. Munk’s successor as chief of aerodynamics. (1927)
16-foot-high speed wind tunnel downstream view through cooling tower section. (February 8, 1942)
Free-flight investigation of 1/4-scale dynamic model of XFV-1 in NACA Ames 40x80ft wind tunnel. (August 18, 1942)
Engine on Torque Stand at the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, now known as the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field. Torque is the twisting motion produced by a spinning object. (April 15, 1944)
Detail view of Schlieren setup in the 1 x 3 Foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel. (October 26, 1945)
Boeing B-29 long range bomber model was tested for ditching characteristics in the Langley Tank No. 2 (Early 1946)
Looking down the throat of the world’s largest tunnel, 40 by 80 feet, located at Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Moffett Field, California. The camera is stationed in the tunnel’s largest section, 173 feet wide by 132 feet high. Here at top speed the air, driven by six 40-foot fans, is moving about 35 to 40 miles per hour. The rapid contraction of the throat (or nozzle) speeds up this air flow to more than 250 miles per hour in the oval test section, which is 80 feet wide and 40 feet high. The tunnel encloses 900 tons of air, 40 tons of which rush through the throat per second at maximum speed. (1947)
Analog Computing Machine in the Fuel Systems Building. This is an early version of the modern computer. The device is located in the Engine Research Building at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, now John H. Glenn Research Center, Cleveland Ohio. (September 28, 1949)
Guide vanes in the 19-foot Pressure Wind Tunnel at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, form an ellipse 33 feet high and 47 feet wide. The 23 vanes force the air to turn corners smoothly as it rushes through the giant passages. If vanes were omitted, the air would pile up in dense masses along the outside curves, like water rounding a bend in a fast brook. Turbulent eddies would interfere with the wind tunnel tests, which require a steady flow of fast, smooth air. (March 15, 1950
24-foot-diameter swinging valve at various stages of opening and closing in the 10ft x 10ft Supersonic Wind Tunnel. (May 17, 1956)
A television camera is focused by NACA technician on a ramjet engine model through the schlieren optical windows of the 10 x 10 Foot Supersonic Wind Tunnel’s test section. Closed-circuit television enables aeronautical research scientists to view the ramjet, used for propelling missiles, while the wind tunnel is operating at speeds from 1500 to 2500 mph. (8.570) The tests were performed at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, now John H. Glenn Research Center. (April 21, 1957)
8ft x 6ft Supersonic Wind Tunnel Test-Section showing changes made in Stainless Steel walls with 17 inch inlet model installation. The model is the ACN Nozzle model used for aircraft engines. The Supersonic Wind Tunnel is located in the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, now John H. Glenn Research Center. (August 31, 1957)
The Gimbal Rig, formally known as the MASTIF of Multiple Axis Space Test Inertia Facility, was engineered to simulate the tumbling and rolling motions of a space capsule and train the Mercury astronauts to control roll, pitch and yaw by activating nitrogen jets, used as brakes and bring the vehicle back into control. This facility was built at the Lewis Research Center, now John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field. (October 29, 1957)
Lockheed C-141 model in the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel (TDT). By the late 1940s, with the advent of relatively thin, flexible aircraft wings, the need was recognized for testing dynamically and elastically scaled models of aircraft. In 1954, NASA’s predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), began converting the Langley 19-foot Pressure Tunnel for dynamic testing of aircraft structures. The old circular test section was reduced to 16 x 16 feet, and slotted walls were added for transonic operation. The TDT was provided with special oscillator vanes upstream of the test section to create controlled gusty air to simulate aircraft response to gusts. A model support system was devised that freed the model to pitch and plunge as the wings started oscillating in response to the fluctuating airstream. The TDT was completed in 1959. It was the world’s first aeroelastic testing tunnel. (November 16, 1962)

Alas, the names of the photographers — as is often the case with creators working on the government dollar — were not preserved. If you recognize any, get in touch and help credit them.


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