Reflecting on his own illustrious career, H.L. Mencken said it was “the business of a journalist to stand in a permanent Opposition.”
And lest some of our permanently-virginal minds should automatically misconstrue the statement, let me quickly add the oppositionism to which Mencken referred had little to do with the elected opposition.
What the revered icon of American journalism had in mind was an attitude that combined skepticism with a compulsion to argue in the public interest.
The dearly departed and widely missed Christopher Hitchens—at any rate, missed by that section of the universe that does not depend for its survival on divine miracles and the generosity of twisted Robin Hoods who bleed the poor to feed their ambitions—took a similar approach; one based on “the presumption of guilt for those in power.”
By the way, the legendary atheist was a devout believer in words as weapons. “That is why I got into the business in the first place,” he wrote in Forbidden Thoughts: A Roundtable on Taboo Research. “I don’t seek the title of ‘inoffensive,’ which I think is one of the nastiest things that could be said about an individual writer.”
This week the last quoted sentiment came to mind, triggered by two quite separate episodes: I was in the middle of a lunch-postponing discourse with my editorial staff on Tuesday when my phone rang.
The interrupter quickly informed me she was domiciled in London, and had sought legal counsel about her rights in relation to a STAR feature published online that very morning.
It turned out she was referring to my commentary on our abruptly consensus-conscious prime minister’s latest hook-up with UK-based fellow Saint Lucians.
“How could you do that to me!” said the damsel in obvious distress, as an opener.
“Do what to you?”
“You took my pictures from my personal Facebook page and put them in your paper without my permission.”
“Whoever you are,” I said, with all the patience I could in the circumstances muster, “I need you to know I am most discriminating when it comes to the pictures featured in the STAR. The last place I’d go fishing for anything, let alone publishable photos, is Facebook—unless of course I was seeking to illustrate garbage.”
“Well, my pictures with Dr. Kenny D. Anthony and Dr. Ernest Hilaire were on my personal Facebook page. They were private!”
It was my turn to counsel the deluded creature. I suggested she should immediately fire her lawyers if they had not yet advised her that nothing on Facebook is private.
“If you had not wished the whole world to admire your pictures,” I said, “why then didn’t you keep them under your mattress? In any event we received them from a London contact who sourced them from person or persons unknown to me.”
“But you have me dere lookin’ like a groupie!” she stuttered, no longer with Looshan-Londone accent.
I couldn’t help myself. “A groupie?” I said. “Now that’s a word I haven’t heard in years. Aren’t groupies usually associated with sybaritic activities involving rock stars? In case you hadn’t noticed, Ernest Hilaire looks nothing like a rock star. Especially in that picture we featured. Frankly,
he seems scared out of his mind . . . or disgusted.”
I paused for breath before going on: “The way your arm is draped around the guy’s shoulders . . .”
“Well, he’s my friend,” she interjected, “and it’s nobody’s business how I posed with him. What we were doing was private.”
“In your mind, perhaps,” I said. “But when you choose to indulge private proclivities with public officials at public functions paid out of the public purse, then post the evidence on Facebook . . .”
Again she interrupted my flow: “Saint Lucian taxpayers didn’t pay for the gala dinner. I paid my two hundred pounds for the food.”
I wanted to say: “And judging by the way you and Dr. Hilaire appear in that picture you certainly got more than your money’s worth.” (Ah, but gentle and considerate soul that I am, I kept the devilish thought to myself.)
One more time she grumbled about being “made to look like a groupie.”
“Lady,” I said, finally. “I mean no disrespect. But you must’ve noticed our story never identified you. And the reason is obvious. We had no idea who you were, and frankly didn’t give a damn. You might just as well have been a sofa in the room. Or a private dancer.
“The STAR’s interest centered on Kenny Anthony, his wife and Ernest Hilaire, all of whom may well be long-time close friends of yours. But they also happen to be public servants. The salaries that keep them fat and contented are paid by folks in Saint Lucia who can barely afford dry bread and tea sweetened with brown sugar, let alone gala dinners and Boo on his sadly weeping guitar!”
On which note our conversation ended.
Episode number two occurred shortly after I had delivered my daily dose on Newsspin. An email from a friend of a friend of a friend sought to chastise me for having that day said a government minister was incapable of speaking proper English.
Moreover, even though the minister and I had for over 25 years been friends, I had several weeks ago informed the whole world via Timothy Poleon’s lunch-hour show that I not only considered the minister dishonest, I also had no friends who were politicians.
Wrote the friend of a friend of a friend: “He figures life is short, and people are too important, which is why he refuses to be consumed by hatred. Nevertheless, he wishes you and your family all the best.”
Again, to borrow from Hitchens, I am never rude except deliberately. I do consider the above-cited government minister a long-time friend. I never suggested to Poleon the minister was not on familiar terms with the English language. Indeed, I daresay he is one of the few parliamentarians that understand what they read so badly at Budget presentations.
The particular MP is also an appreciator of wit and sarcasm, a fine sounding board for good writing. Alas, he sometimes gets carried away and says what in his own interest might’ve been better left unsaid—or better stated. As for the line about having no friends who were politicians, this is what I’ve said, repeatedly: “It’s not easy being my friend, especially when you’re in politics.”
Moreover: “If I should befriend a swan and then discover my friend was really a disguised toad, well, then, so long friend, hello toad!”