Monday, 24 January 2011

The truth is rarely pure and never simple

We all get a bit fed up from time to time. And when that happens, what we need is a quick remedy to put a smile back on our lips. Struggling to work on a dismal Monday morning in January, we need something that will act as a splash of sun to relieve the greyness of the day. 

For me, one of the best tonics is to absorb a flash of wit. It’s even better if the wit is laced with a touch of cynicism. I feel that anchors it more firmly in reality, and if you want a real laugh, have a laugh about something real.

That’s why I’ve developed such affection for the American journalist H. L. Mencken, who died over half a century ago. Five minutes reading some of his quotations, and there are loads on the web, is an excellent antidote for boredom or depression, perhaps brought on because you’re at work when you'd rather be almost anywhere else.

Mencken: deserves to be better remembered
He isn’t always right, of course, by which I mean that I don’t always agree with him. But right or wrong he always gets me smiling. Or at least sneering.

A taster for you:

All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.

The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line.

Some of his comments on politics are particularly striking. Here’s one I’ve found more and more convincing as the years roll by and I realise that, judged by their achievements, the guys in government have absolutely no edge over the rest of us in skill or understanding. Mencken grasped that ages ago:

The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office.

But here’s the sentiment that really bowls me over because it sums up what so many tell us, in churches, in politics, in the press – in business for God’s sake:

There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong

Right now several governments around the world explain our economic problems on the grounds that ‘the nation has maxed out its credit card and has to reduce its debts.’ This is such a simple idea, so close to the experience of individuals, that more or less any voter can grasp it.

All it leaves out of account is that, like a company but unlike an individual, a government can spend money so that it makes more money – for instance, a smart investment can get people out of benefit and into taxes. And unlike either individuals or companies, a government can set its own income – by increasing or reducing taxation.

So how is government like a man with a maxed-out credit card?

Remember Mencken. It’s an easy idea. It’s neat. It’s plausible. And it’s wrong.

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