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Whiskey & Wry — critical thinking

39. The Boy who cried 'Wolf!'

The famous story of the 'Boy Who Cried Wolf' goes something like this — one day in Ye Olden Times, in a Vaguely-European-Countryside Location, a little shepherd boy got bored. Tired of playing Candy Crush on his smart phone, and weary of the dull, classical-music soundtrack that accompanied all activities in Ye Olden Times, he turned away from his sheep, cupped his hands to his mouth, and shouted, "Wolf! Wolf! I saw a wolf!" Hearing the boy's cries, the villagers — who were also bored when not burning witches, looking for witches to burn, or shoveling plague victims into mass...

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27. Monkeying around with H.L. Mencken

On February 3, 1931, the Arkansas legislature passed a motion to hold a group prayer to save the soul of the journalist H.L. Mencken. The proximate cause were three columns by Mencken in the Baltimore Evening Sun in January. Describing Arkansas as “perhaps the most shiftless and backward state in the whole galaxy,” he dubbed it “the apex of moronia.” Mencken shrugged off the prayer session, saying, “I didn’t make Arkansas the butt of ridicule. God did.”Mencken was especially harsh on the religious southeastern and south-central states, coining the phrase “Bible Belt” to describe them. There, aggressive evangelicals often used government to...

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24. The Time Mencken Hoaxed Himself, Part II

Note: For Part I of this article, click here.  “Melancholy Reflections” appeared in the Chicago Tribune on May 23, 1926. It was not just a confession but also Mencken's cry for the public to use critical reasoning. The joke had soured. H.L. Mencken was receiving letters of corroboration from some readers and requests for more details from others. And, because Fillmore’s presidency was uneventful, some calendars now marked his birthday with the only interesting tidbit they had: Fillmore introduced the bathtub into the White House. In “Melancholy Reflections,” Mencken speculated on the probable response to his confession. Cincinnati, where the faux...

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23. The Time Mencken Hoaxed Himself, Part I

"Democracy is the theory that ... the common people knowwhat they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." – H.L. Mencken   The iconoclastic journalist H.L. Mencken was notoriously scornful of uneducated and uncultured people whom he called the “booboisie.” In 1917, the publishing world boycotted his articles on World War I because Mencken was of German descent, critical of the war and held pro-German views based on the nation's culture, not its politics. Forced into non-political writing, he decided to give it to the public “good and hard.” On December 28, 1917, “A Neglected Anniversary” appeared in...

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22. Corn-Pone Opinions, Part II

In our last post, we visited Mark Twain's classic essay, Corn-Pone Opinions, and we asked why people tend to reflexively defend their existing beliefs when confronted by contrary views, rather than even-handedly weighing the merits of each position. For his part, Twain emphasized the human impulse for conformity.  The author of Huckleberry Finn and The War Prayer believed that the vast majority of people unthinkingly adopt the prevailing opinions in their social environment, and that their primary value is the approval of others. In short, many people are uncomfortable if their ideas stray too far from those of their fellows, and most crave social acceptance, so great energy...

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