BOTH of them gaze down at me from their 8-by-10 frames on my workroom wall. I'll often look up at the two faces when writing social commentary and exclaim, "Well, what do you think?" They never answer, of course, but there are times during the wee hours when I swear I can see lip movement.
Especially from the one on the left with the ever-present Uncle Willie in his mouth, the ironically cherubic face, hair meticulously parted in the middle and the requisite tie. I see it in those eyes of Anthony J.Lomenzohis: "The thing should stir the animals and cause the ecclesiastics to pray for you."
The one on the right, with his left hand holding his head and a smile that proclaims he has in fact worked hard and "made something of himself," seems to quote himself: "Don't settle for writing it the way it's always been written; dare to write it differently . . ."
They are my two mentors. One ghostly, one very much alive. Two unique styles. Both having something to say and saying it as they see it. One then, one now. One loud, one soft. One windy, one calm. Both, however, on the same mission. H. L. Mencken and Russell Baker. Two whangdoodles.
Whangdoodles? Forget the dictionary; you won't find it. Credit Col. Henry Watterson, crusty editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1906. He'd just read a witty and slightly irreverent piece about himself by an upstart writer in Baltimore. Said the good colonel, "Think of it! The staid old Baltimore Sun has got itself a whang- doodle. . . ."
Those words, then and now, use a peculiar mix of humor as needed, invective when called for, finger pointing when necessary, wit as appropriate, and irreverence when indicated. And one more thing. No sacred cows, be they issues, ideas, people or organizations, escape journalistic dissection and exposure to light. Mencken took his paper's motto literally: "Light for All." Whether they liked it or not. Many didn't.
Whangdoodles. We need more of them. Who, save for the few, dissect the sacred cows? AIDS. Affirmative action and reverse discrimination. Abortion. Alcoholism. Alternative life styles. Political and social botcheries. Ultra-feminism. Ecclesiastic pronouncements of what is right and what is wrong.
And what of obnoxious labelists, those who would define "acceptable" opinion and/or rebuttal while hurling labels at recalcitrant offenders? Leading the label league in the '90s are "racist," "sexist" and "homophobic." In that order.
I addressed the matter in a newspaper piece. The paper, one of New York's thick Sunday majors, dutifully supplied my byline and Mencken's picture, since he was the original whangdoodle.
Four days after the essay appeared, I received a message: "Your story was prejudicial and hateful . . . it reeked of racism, sexism and bigotry . . . why, you're just as Godless and sinful as Mencken was." I could almost hear Mencken's urn rattling at Loudon Park. He would have expected it. I can hear him now: JTC "The thing worked . . . the animals are beginning to stir. . . ."
I'm on a mission. The mission is to get the readership back into the habit of free expression without fear of label-throwers. People should be able to speak or write an opinion without being accused of racism and sexism. Bring the opinions out of the local watering holes, where they now wallow, and back into the public forum for honest debate, discussion and analysis.
Damn it, there are no "acceptable" opinions. Dislike this essay. Chastise me. Criticize me. Debate me. But please, no labels.
Sensitivity is an ideal. But it has a questionable place in a free press if that sensitivity strangles critical analysis and rebuttal, if we cannot comment honestly on race, creed, sexual preference, religion or anything else that sets people's teeth on edge.
We create divisions with the present sensitivity and thereby unknowingly bestow sacred cow status upon people and ideas. The trend is disturbing, the results dangerous. Now, before it's too late, bring on the whangdoodles!
Anthony J. Lomenzo writes from Fort Ann, N.Y.