Old Words for a New Era

I recently have been rereading Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary.

Bierce was an American journalist and fiction writer of the 19th century, author of the classic short stories "Chickamauga" and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." In 1914, at the age of 72, he allegedly wandered off into Mexico, never to be seen again.

The book, first published in 1906 as The Cynic's Word Book, is his sarcastic, acerbic take on the political and cultural language of his time. The book is an intelligent, often nasty attack on the disingenuousness of polite society at the turn of the century, crafted in the form of a dictionary. ("Politeness," he said, "was the most acceptable hypocrisy.")

While many of his definitions are outdated or just plain odd (he defines the lyre as an "ancient instrument of torture") many continue to hit their mark even today. For Bierce, a saint is "a dead sinner revised and edited" and politics "the conduct of public affairs for private advantage." A corporation is "an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility" and impunity is defined as "wealth." And the Senate was "a body of elderly gentlemen charged with high duties and misdemeanors."

Watching the news these days, it is easy to see how Bierce arrived at these observations. The shenanigans in Washington and the state capitals, in America's corporate suites and municipal and school offices, the quid pro quos, the fiscal games, the general duplicity that passes for our political culture -- they're enough to make me want to pull the covers up and never get out of bed.

This seems especially relevant now that the campaign commercials have hit the airwaves and politicians -- "eel(s) in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared" -- are recreating the truth in their own image. Truth, says Bierce, is "an ingenious compound of desirability and appearance." And, apparently, there is an overabundance of it in politics.

There are the ties between Enron and Thomas White, secretary of the Army and the former vice chairman of Enron Energy Services, an Enron subsidiary that relied on a series of accounting tricks to hide huge losses. And ties between US Securities and Exchange Commissioner Harvey Pitt and the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, which is at the center of the Enron scandal.

In response to all of this, President Bush had called for stiffer jail sentences for corporate wrongdoers -- which assumes that much of what happened was illegal. It wasn't. The use of subsidiaries and shell companies to hide losses and inflate the value of the parent companies' stock appears standard business on Wall Street. So if what Enron did -- and WorldCom and Global Crossing -- was legal, then the new penalties the president is proposing become meaningless. The CEOs and high-level managers have nothing to worry about.

Hence Bierce's definition of reform: "A thing that mostly satisfies reformers opposed to reformation."

And there's more: How come President Bill Clinton's pre-presidential financial dealings demanded a taxpayer-funded inquiry and President George Bush's equally fishy pre-presidential financial dealings -- or Vice President Dick Cheney's -- do not? (Don't tell me they would be a distraction from the work at hand. President Clinton had a lot of work to do, as well. And don't tell me President Bush was cleared -- he wasn't. The letter from the Securities and Exchange Commission very clearly stated that its decision to drop its investigation was not to be construed as exonerating the son of the then-president.)

A hypocrite, Bierce said, was "one who, professing virtues that he does not respect, secures the advantage of seeming to be what he despises."

The average voter senses this -- and I think it's why many choose to stay home, rather than vote. (I don't have hard numbers on this, just bits and pieces of conversations over the years in which friends, relatives, sources for stories have derided political candidates as greedy, self-absorbed and unconcerned with the people they purport to represent.)

And can you blame them?

For most politicians, politics is no longer about policy but about the game of politics, about one-upping one's opponent and getting one's face in front of the cameras. (Politics, says Bierce, is "a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principle") It has become more and more difficult to determine where candidates and elected officials stand on specific issues and why, how they come to make their decisions and how those decisions will affect us as citizens and taxpayers.

All has become sound-bite and fury, so to speak, signifying nothing.

I'm sure Bierce would have something to say about that.

Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. Email

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