The Devil's Odds

The Devil's Odds
St. Martin's Press. To Be Released Feb. 28, 2012

Friday, July 16, 2010

Bitter Bierce

Ambrose Bierce was born in 1842, as Southern writer Florence King pointed out, "On the Ohio frontier, which he hated. Soon the family moved to the Indiana frontier, which he also hated." Born into a poor but well read family, he was apprenticed to a printer when he was fifteen. At the outset of the Civil War he enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Infantry Regiment as a private and rose to the rank of brevet major by the end of the War, during which he was seriously wounded twice and cited eleven times for valor. The war and his short participation in the Reconstruction occupation made Bierce a thoroughgoing misanthrope: "I favor war, famine, pestilence... In short, anything that will keep people frightened enough to behave halfway decently."

After resigning his commission, he made his way to San Francisco where he wrote for a number of newspapers. In 1888 he became affiliated with the Hurst papers where he rose to the position of one of the most widely-respected columnists of the day. An early pioneer of investigative journalism, he wrote a series of articles that exposed the manipulations of Colis P. Hunnington's
Southern Pacific Railroad in bilking of the federal government of vast amounts of money. He was called to testify before Congress in the matter. A highly placed attorney for the railroad accosted him on the steps of the capitol and tried to bribe him. "Name your price, Bierce," the man said. "Everyone has a price." Bierce knocked the man tumbling down the steps and bellowed out, "My price is sixty million dollars to be returned to the treasury of the United States."

He was also well known as a short story writer. His "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge" is one of the most famous stories in the American cannon. Filmed three times, it was regarded by novelist Kurt Vonnegut as the most perfect short story in the English language. He called it "A work of flawless American genius."

Bierce, who delighted in being politically incorrect a full century before the term was invented, was fond of claiming that women were incapable of rational thought. Whether or not this reflected his true opinion or whether it was meant to annoy and inflame passions is subject to debate. Whatever his feelings toward the fair sex, they did not stop him from having one wife, numerous affairs and a bevy of female admirers. Nor did they prevent him from blatantly and publicly trying to seduce one of the most famous feminists of the era.

One of Bierce's more delightful books is his Devil's Dictionary. In his own prose the soul of brevity, he defined "once" as "enough" and "twice" as "once too often."

A few of Bierce's definitions:

POCKET, n. The cradle of motive and the grave of conscience. In woman this organ is lacking; so she acts without motive, and her conscience, denied burial, remains ever alive, confessing the sins of others.

NOSE, n. The extreme outpost of the face. From the circumstance that great conquerors have great noses, Getius, whose writings antedate the age of humor, calls the nose the organ of quell. It has been observed that one's nose is never so happy as when thrust into the affairs of others, from which some physiologists have drawn the inference that the nose is devoid of the sense of smell.

PALACE, n. A fine and costly residence, particularly that of a great official. The residence of a high dignitary of the Christian Church is called a palace; that of the Founder of his religion was known as a field, or wayside. There is progress.

PAINTING, n. The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic. Formerly, painting and sculpture were combined in the same work: the ancients painted their statues. The only present alliance between the two arts is that the modern painter chisels his patrons.

FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

FOLLY, n. That "gift and faculty divine" whose creative and controlling energy inspires Man's mind, guides his actions and adorns his life.

Bierce was himself fond of saying that a cynic was merely a realist as viewed by an idealist. Regardless of whatever else might be said of the man, he was a journalist the likes of which we could use on the national scene these days. H.L. Mencken, a man not given to idle praise, said of him, "He would not lie and he could not be bought."

No one knows for sure what happened to Bierce. In 1913 he got his affairs in order and vanished into the maelstrom of the Mexican Revolution. All subsequent attempts (and there have been many) to determine his fate have proven fruitless. A few years ago a film was made of Bierce's supposed Mexican adventure called "The Old Gringo" after the novel of the same title by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. The movie starred Gregory Peck as Bierce and Jane Fonda as an idealistic young American teacher who fell under his sway. Because Fuentes is an optimistic socialist and because Jane Fonda is Jane Fonda, the film considerably softened Bierce's personality.

I will let Bierce himself have the last word on things via advice he wrote to his son: "Endeavor to see the world as it is and not as you would have it be. Do not trust the human race without collateral security for it will play you a scurvy trick every time. And remember: it harms no man to be considered an enemy worthy of respect until he has proven himself a friend worthy of affection."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Sage of Baltimore

The Fourth of July is a perfect time to read a modest proposal for the betterment of the government in this fair republic. I give you H.L. Mencken and his prescription for dealing with corrupt and unjust officials.

"The Malevolent Jobholder"

H.L. Mencken

[From the American Mercury, June, 1924.

In the immoral monarchies of the continent of Europe, now happily abolished by God’s will, there was, in the old days of sin, an intelligent and effective way of dealing with delinquent officials. Not only were they subject, when taken in downright corruption, to the ordinary processes of the criminal laws; in addition they were liable to prosecution in special courts for such offenses as were peculiar to their offices. In this business the abominable Prussian state, though founded by Satan, took the lead. It maintained a tribunal in Berlin that devoted itself wholly to the trial of officials accused of malfeasance, corruption, tyranny and incompetence, and any citizen was free to lodge a complaint with the learned judges. The trial was public and in accord with rules fixed by law. An official found guilty could be punished summarily and in a dozen different ways. He could be reprimanded, reduced in rank, suspended from office for a definite period, transferred to a less desirable job, removed from the rolls altogether, fined, or sent to jail. If he was removed from office he could be deprived of his right to a pension in addition, or fined or jailed in addition. He could be made to pay damages to any citizen he had injured, or to apologize publicly.

All this, remember, was in addition to his liability under the ordinary law, and the statutes specifically provided that he could be punished twice for the same offence, once in the ordinary courts and once in the administrative court. Thus, a Prussian official who assaulted a citizen, invaded his house without a warrant, or seized his property without process of law, could be deprived of his office and fined heavily by the administrative court, sent to jail by an ordinary court, and forced to pay damages to his victim by either or both. Had a Prussian judge in those far-off days of despotism, overcome by a brain-storm of kaiserliche passion, done any of the high-handed and irrational things that our own judges, Federal and State, do almost every day, an aggrieved citizen might have haled him before the administrative court and recovered heavy damages from him, besides enjoying the felicity of seeing him transferred to some distant swap in East Prussia, to listen all day to the unintelligible perjury of anthropoid Poles. The law specifically provided that responsible officials should be punished, not more leniently than subordinate or ordinary offenders, but more severely. If a corrupt policeman got six months a corrupt chief of police got two years. More, these statutes were enforced with Prussian barbarity, and the jails were constantly full of errant officials.

I do not propose, of course, that such medieval laws be set up in the United States. We have, indeed, gone far enough in imitating the Prussians already; if we go much further the moral and enlightened nations of the world will have to unite in a crusade to put us down. As a matter of fact, the Prussian scheme would probably prove ineffective in the Republic, if only because it involved setting up one gang of jobholders to judge and punish another gang. It worked well in Prussia before the country was civilized by force of arms because, as everyone knows, a Prussian official was trained in ferocity from infancy, and regarded every man arraigned before him, whether a fellow official or not, guilty ipso facto; in fact, any thought of a prisoners’ possible innocence was abhorrent to him as a reflection upon the Polizei, and by inference, upon the Throne, the whole monarchical idea, and God. But in America, even if they had no other sentiment in common, which would be rarely, judge and prisoner would often be fellow Democrats or fellow Republicans, and hence jointly interested in protecting their party against scandal and its members against the loss of their jobs. Moreover, the Prussian system had another plain defect: the punishments it provided were, in the main, platitudinous and banal. They lacked dramatic quality, and they lacked ingenuity and appropriateness. To punish a judge taken in judicial crim. con. by fining him or sending him to jail is a bit too facile and obvious. What is needed is a system (a) that does not depend for its execution upon the good-will of fellow jobholders, and (b) that provides swift, certain and unpedantic punishments, each fitted neatly to its crime.

I announce without further ado that such a system, after due prayer, I have devised. It is simple, it is unhackneyed, and I believe that it would work. It is divided into two halves. The first half takes the detection and punishment of the crimes of jobholders away from courts of impeachment, congressional smelling committees, and all the other existing agencies—i.e., away from other jobholders—and vests it in the whole body of free citizens, male and female. The second half provides that any member of that body, having looked into the acts of a jobholder and found him delinquent, may punish him instantly and on the spot, and in any manner that seems appropriate and convenient—and that, in case this punishment involves physical damage to the jobholder, the ensuing inquiry by a grand jury or coroner shall confine itself strictly to the question of whether the jobholder deserved what he got. In other words, I propose that it shall be no longer malum in se for a citizen to pummel, cowhide, kick, gouge, cut, wound, bruise, maim, burn, club, bastinado, flay, or even lynch a jobholder, and that it shall be malum prohibitum only to the extent that the punishment exceeds the jobholder’s deserts. The amount of this excess, if any, may be determined very conveniently by a petit jury, as other questions of guilt are now determined. The flogged judge, or Congressman, or other jobholder, on being discharged from hospital—or his chief heir, in case he has perished—goes before a grand jury and makes a complaint, and, if a true bill is found, a petit jury is empaneled and all the evidence is put before it. If it decides that the jobholder deserves the punishment inflicted upon him, the citizen who inflicted it is acquitted with honor. If, on the contrary, it decides that this punishment was excessive, then the citizen is adjudged guilty of assault, mayhem, murder, or whatever it is, in a degree apportioned to the difference between what the jobholder deserved and what he got, and punishment for that excess follows in the usual course.

The advantages of this plan, I believe, are too patent to need argument. At one stroke it removes all the legal impediments which now make the punishment of a recreant jobholder so hopeless a process, and enormously widens the range of possible penalties. They are now stiff and, in large measure, illogical; under the system I propose they could be made to fit the crime precisely. Say a citizen today becomes convinced that a certain judge is a jackass—that his legal learning is defective, his sense of justice atrophied, and his conduct of cases before him tyrannical and against decency. As things stand, it is impossible to do anything about it. A judge cannot be impeached on the mere ground that he is a jackass; the process is far too costly and cumbersome, and there are too many judges liable to the charge. Nor is anything to be gained from denouncing him publicly and urging all good citizens to vote against him when he comes up for re-election, for his term may run for ten or fifteen years, and even if it expires tomorrow and he is defeated the chances are good that his successor will be quite as bad, and maybe even worse. Moreover, if he is a Federal judge he never comes up for re-election at all, for once he has been appointed by the President of the United States, on the advice of his more influential clients and with the consent of their agents in the Senate, he is safe until he is so far gone in senility that he has to be propped up on the bench with pillows.

But now imagine any citizen free to approach him in open court and pull his nose. Or even, in aggravated cases, to cut off his ears, throw him out of the window, or knock him in the head with an axe. How vastly more attentive he would be to his duties! How diligently he would apply himself to the study of the law! How careful he would be about the rights of litigants before him! How polite and suave he would become! For judges, like all the rest of us, are vain fellows: they do not enjoy having their noses pulled. The ignominy resident in the operation would not be abated by the subsequent trial of the puller, even if he should be convicted and jailed. The fact would still be brilliantly remembered that at least one citizen had deemed the judge sufficiently a malefactor to punish him publicly, and to risk going to jail for it. A dozen such episodes, and the career of any judge would be ruined and his heart broken, even though the jails bulged with his critics. He could not maintain his air of aloof dignity on the bench; even his catchpolls would snicker at him behind their hands, especially if he showed a cauliflower ear, a black eye or a scar over his bald head. Moreover, soon or late some citizen who had at him would be acquitted by a petit jury, and then, obviously, he would have to retire. It might be provided by law, indeed, that he should be compelled to retire in that case—that an acquittal would automatically vacate the office of the offending jobholder.