The best and the brightest eschew oversimplification

One of the reasons I work with creative writers is so I can spend my time with people who are articulate and intelligent. We don’t always agree. We don’t always get along, but at least we’re able to communicate.

I would have disagreed with some of what H.L. Mencken wrote when he was alive, but I can’t argue with something he published in the Smart Set in 1922:

In every age the advocates of the dominant political theory seek to give it dignity by identifying it with whatever contemporaneous desire of man happens to be most powerful. In the days of monarchy, monarchy was depicted as the defender of the faith. In our present era of democracy, democracy is depicted as the only safe guardian of liberty. And the communism or super-communism of tomorrow, I suppose, will be sold to the booboisie as the only true palladium of peace, justice and plenty. All of these attempts to hook up cause and effect are nonsensical. Monarchy was fundamentally not a defender of the faith at all, but a rival and enemy to the faith. Democracy does not promote liberty; it diminishes and destroys liberty. And communism, as the example of Russia already shows, is not a fountain that gushes peace, justice and plenty, but a sewer in which they are drowned.

What was true in 1922 remains true today. Mencken’s “booboisie,” who are more vocal and visible than ever, prefer simplistic, even mystical, solutions to complex problems that have been intractable for hundreds of years. I’d much rather face and discuss the facts and with people who know the history and eschew oversimplification.

The Smart Set

  Image: The Smart Set, March 1922 (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

4 thoughts on “The best and the brightest eschew oversimplification

  1. Mike

    An interesting take on “eschew obfuscation,” a rule that I break daily. :)

    You handed me a mirror when you mentioned the mystical, but I’m not quite in your crosshairs, I don’t think. The issue with oversimplification and use of mysticism as a crutch is 100% on point, but I would suggest that they are not the root problem. The root problem is that people think they’re smarter than other people, and thereby assume that the solution they thought of covers the problem for everyone. It can be a simple solution (teetotaling), a mystical one (regimented prayer)… but also a complex one (the European Union).

    I am completely guilty of worlds of bad choices and proscriptions, even rooted in the mystic, but they apply only to myself. I don’t have a clue how to solve a problem like Maria. And if I did, I wouldn’t press it on Maria.

  2. Robin Mizell Post author

    Very good point, Mike! The play on words was unintentional.

    I’m not sure I agree that people think they’re smarter than other people, because most Americans actually have inferiority complexes. Counterintuitively, we’re indoctrinated to be a little defensive about our intellect lest we get too big for our britches, as they say, and make fools of ourselves. This leads many people, probably including me, to search reflexively for signs of intellectual and socio-economic inferiority in others to help bolster our own self-esteem. There seems to be no getting around the fact that we all want to feel good about ourselves. Self-effacement, which is not the same as true humility, backfires or at least undermines a natural goal. That’s my take, anyway.

    The root of the problem, then, might be the tendency to accept simplistic rhetoric as truth because it takes no time or effort to understand. Couple that with the drive to feel good about oneself, at the expense of degrading others, and you have the current mess.

    Between the lines, I’m reading that I’ve given offense by being too frank. I have a difficult time holding tension. (Isn’t that the current expression for careful listening?) However, I do understand and empathize. Been there; done that. My shabby excuse for voicing my perspectives now is old age. Kierkegaard said it well: “It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.”

    I smell my oatmeal burning. It’s time to go gum my lunch.

  3. Mike

    There was no offense felt or taken at all. I specialize in blurred lines, but there truly was nothing to see here. But thank you for being sensitive to it. Transparency remains neither reality nor aspiration for me…

    I will offer that the mess caused by “obvious” right answers is one that has likely always existed, at least for as long as animals could think. Who knows, maybe the bird cracking the nut on the rock was secretly mocking that other bird’s choice of rock.

  4. Robin Mizell Post author

    Good to know, and thanks for drawing me back here so I could correct a spelling.

    Yes, the survival instinct is strong. I gather it’s regulated by the second most primitive part of our brains, the hypothalamus. Of course, regulated isn’t a perfect word for a function that goes beyond self-preservation when needed to overindulgence when there’s no immediate threat. We seem to like threats, don’t we? Or is it that we enjoy overindulgence and are just smart enough to know we need to identify and claim a threat as justification?

    I’ll have to think about the nutcracker for a while.

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