A toast to … Pride Day and the Declaration of Independence

This week, on the eve of a visit to my old home town, I republished a few essays about my family’s tenancy there as well as a history or two of the City of Brotherly Love.

It’s been a month since my usual Friday audience at Cafe Katja and I won’t be there today, but if I were, I’d be lifting my glass high to Sunday’s Pride Day and the lovely and courageous LGBTQ+ men, women, and others who have contributed an extraordinary amount to our country and who still face so much prejudice from morons and idiots. So prost!

And, of course, I lift my glass as well to the Declaration of Independence, celebrating its 243rd birthday next Thursday, July 4. At the G20 summit in Japan, our Idiot in Chief is enjoying the opportunity to kid around with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “A smirking Mr. Trump wagged his finger at the Russian president and said: ‘Don’t meddle in the election, please,'” according to the BBC, and once again dismissing the idea that he wouldn’t be the Idiot in Chief at all were it not for Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns in 2016. (Of course, he wouldn’t be.) And what will Trump and Putin discuss in their closed door meeting? “‘What I say to him is none of your business,’ he told reporters, bluntly.” And none of ours, apparently.

What’s more, Putin told a reporter for the Financial Times that Western liberalism — of which the Declaration of Independence is a central expression — is dead. “[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone,” Putin said (and there’s nothing Putin and Trump love more than dictating).  The BBC reported:

He added that liberalism conflicted with “the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population,” and took aim at German Chancellor Angela Merkel for allowing large numbers of refugees to settle in Germany.

“This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. That migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.”

So it’s worthwhile here to remind ourselves of the contemporary trend to tyranny-as-populism, exemplified in both leaders. In 1921, H.L. Mencken translated the 1776 document from its original English into the American language; that translation first appeared in the Baltimore Evening Sun. I reprint that — with his introductory remarks, as well as a few words which may well be understandably offensive to some today (so you’ve been warned) — below. Here’s to Western liberalism after all.


The following attempt to translate the Declaration of Independence into American was begun eight or ten years ago, at the time of of my first investigations into the phonology and morphology of the American vulgate. I completed a draft in 1917, but the publication was made impossible by the Espionage act, which forbade any discussion, however academic, of proposed changes to the canon of the American Koran. In 1920 I resumed the work and have since had the benefit of the co-operation of various other philologists, American and European. But the version, as it stands, is mine. That such a translation has long been necessary must be obvious to every student of philology. And this is Better Speech Week.

The great majority of Americans now speak a tongue that differs materially from standard English, and in particular from the standard English of the eighteenth century. Thus the text of the Declaration has become, in large part, unintelligible to multitudes of them. What, for example, would the average soda-fountain clerk, or City Councilmen, or private soldier, or even the average Congressman make of such a sentence as this one: “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures”? Or this one: “He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise”? Obviously, such sonorous Johnsonese is as dark to the plain American of 1921 as so much Middle English would be, or Holland Dutch. He may catch a few words, but the general drift is beyond him.

This fact, I believe, is largely responsible for the disaster which overtook those idealists who sought to wrap the Declaration around them during and immediately after the war. The members of the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan and other patriotic societies, unable to understand the texts upon which the libertarian doctrines of such persons were based, set them down as libelers of the Declaration, and so gave them beatings. I believe that that sort of faux pas might be avoided if the plain people, civil and military, could actually read the Declaration. The version which follows is still far from perfect, but it is at all events in sound American, and even the most advanced admirers of the Hon. Mr. Harding, I am convinced, will find it readily intelligible.

When things get so balled up that the people of a country have to cut loose from some other country and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are on the level, and not trying to put nothing over on nobody.

All we got to say on this proposition is this: First, you and me is as good as anybody and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man these rights ain’t worth a damn; also people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to can it and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day, like them South American coons and Bolsheviki, or every time some jobholder does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons, Bolsheviki, etc., and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I. W. W.s would say the same. But when things gets so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal no much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more. The administration of the present King, George III, has been rotten from the jump-off, and when anybody kicked about it he always tried to get away with it by strong-arm work. Here is some of the rough stuff he has pulled:


He vetoed bills in the Legislature that everybody was in favor of, and hardly nobody was against.

He wouldn’t allow no law to be passed without it was first put up to him, and then he stuck it in his pocket and let on he forgotten about it, and didn’t pay no attention to no kicks.

When people went to work and gone to him and asked him to put through a law about this or that, he give them their choice: either they had to shut down the Legislature and let him pass it all by himself or they couldn’t have it at all.

He made the Legislature meet at one-horse tank-towns out in the alfalfa belt, so that hardly nobody could get there and most of the leaders would stay home and let him go to work and do things as he pleased.

He give the Legislature the air and sent the members home every time they stood up to him and give him a call-down.

When a Legislature was busted up he wouldn’t allow no new one to be elected, so that there wasn’t nobody left to run things, but anybody could walk in and do whatever they pleased.

He tried to scare people outen moving into these States, and made it so hard for a wop or one of them poor kikes to get his papers that he would rather stay home and not try it, and then, when he come in, he wouldn’t let him have no land, and so he either went home again or never come.

He monkeyed with the courts and didn’t hire enough judges to do the work and so a person had to wait so long for his case to be decided that he got sick of waiting, and went home, and so never got what was coming to him.

He got the judges under his thumb by turning them out when they done anything he didn’t like, or holding up their salaries, so that they had to cough up or not get no money.

He made a lot of new jobs and give them to loafers that nobody knowed nothing about, and the poor people had to pay the bill, whether they wanted to or not.

Without no war going on, he kept an army loafing around the country, no matter how much people kicked about it.

He let the army run things to suit theirself and never paid no attention whatsoever to nobody which didn’t wear no uniform.

He let grafters run loose, from God knows where, and give them the say in everything, and let them put over such things as the following:

Making poor people board and lodge a lot of soldiers they ain’t got no use for and don’t want to see loafing around.

When the soldiers kill a man, framing it up so that they would get off.

Interfering with business.

Making us pay taxes without asking us whether we thought the things we had to pay taxes for was something that was worth paying taxes for or not.

When a man was arrested and asked for a jury trial, not letting him have no jury trial.

Chasing men out of the country, without being guilty of nothing, and trying them somewheres else for what they done here.

In countries that border on us, he put in bum governments, and then tried to spread them out, so that by and by they would take in this country, too, or make our own government as bum as they was. He never paid no attention whatever to the Constitution, but he went to work and repealed laws that everybody was satisfied with and hardly nobody was against, and tried to fix the government so that he could do whatever he pleased.

He busted up the Legislatures and let on he could do all the work better by himself.

Now he washes his hands of us and even declares war on us, so we don’t owe him nothing, and whatever authority he ever had he ain’t got no more.


He has burned down towns, shot down people like dogs, and raised hell against us out on the ocean.

He hired whole regiments of Dutch, etc., to fight us, and told them they could have anything they wanted if they could take it away from us, and sicked these Dutch, etc., on us without paying no attention whatever to international law.

He grabbed our own people when he found them in ships on the ocean, and shoved guns into their hands, and made them fight against us, no matter how much they didn’t want to.

He stirred up the Indians, and give them arms and ammunition, and told them to go to it, and they have killed men, women and children, and don’t care which.

Every time he has went to work and pulled any of these things, he have went to work and put in a kick, but every time we have went to work and put in a kick he has went to work and did it again. When a man keeps on handing out such rough stuff all the time, all you can say is that he ain’t got no class and ain’t fitten to have no authority over people who have got any rights, and he ought to be kicked out.

When we complained to the English we didn’t get no more satisfaction. Almost every day we warned them that the politicians over there was doing things to us that they didn’t have no right to do. We kept on reminding them who we were, and what we were doing here, and how we come to come here. We asked them to get us a square deal, and told them if this thing kept on we’d have to do something about and maybe they wouldn’t like it. But the more we talked, the more they didn’t pay no attention to us. Therefore, if they ain’t for us, they must be again us, and we are ready to give them the fight of their lives, or to shake hands when it is over.


Therefore be it resolved, That we, the representatives of the people of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, hereby declare to follows: That the United States, which was the United Colonies in former times, is now free and independent, and ought to be; that we have throwed out the English King and don’t want to have nothing to do with him no more, and are not in England no more; and that, being as we are now free and independent, we can do anything that free and independent parties can do, especially declare war, make peace, sign treaties, go into business, etc. And we swear on the Bible on this proposition, one and all, and agree to stick to it no matter what happens, whether we win or we lose, and whether we get away with it or get the worst of it, no matter whether we lose all our property by it or even get hung for it.

A toast to … Leon Redbone

This week I delighted in my daughters’ first launch into the field of nihilistic satire, then explained how it probably had a genetic origin.

Anybody who is aware of Leon Redbone is by this time similarly aware that the musician “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore” yesterday morning. I don’t have much to add to the obituaries and appreciations that have been appearing here and there (especially Megan Pugh’s exemplary profile of Redbone that appeared in March in the Oxford American). Two things worth noting, though: First, that Redbone was himself an anti-celebrity, whose self-conscious eccentricities served solely to foreground the early American music that seemed to be the love of his life; it’s a rare thing. Second, there is a vibrant if small subculture of other American musicians who are doing their best to keep this kind of music alive; Redbone was far from alone, if he was the most visible representative of this subculture. I recommend checking out these fine people.

Social media and the internet are littered with Redbone clips and tributes, so instead I offer something in his memory that I hope would meet with his approval, Laurel and Hardy’s performance of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” one of Redbone’s signature songs, from their 1939 film The Flying Deuces; it’s a charming two-and-a-half minutes from the past, featuring Stan’s light and loose-limbed dance and Ollie’s very pleasant Georgia baritone. I’ll be lifting my glass to Mr. Redbone and Messrs. Laurel and Hardy at Cafe Katja this afternoon. See you there.

A toast to … Henry David Thoreau

This week I offered a few suggestions on how to jumpstart your personal resistance, learned a little more about Philadelphia history, and anticipated with pleasure the return of a favorite musical of my youth.

In preparing for a trip to Concord later this summer, I’ve been reading a little of Concord’s favorite native sons, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I came across the below video about Walden Pond in my background investigations, and though I have my problems with Thoreau, I have fewer and fewer problems with Walden Pond. As the photograph at the head of this post indicates, the pond is a far cry from the Lower East Side of New York, but later this afternoon I’ll lift my glass to Henry David Thoreau from the bar at Cafe Katja; the pond seems to beckon even from there.

A toast to … Cafe Katja

I spent this week in a nostalgic and musical frame of mind, looking back to a peculiar television personality of my childhood and listening to a bit of American musical history.

My usual Friday getaway is to the delightful Cafe Katja at 79 Orchard Street, only a few blocks from my home; I’ve been going there since its opening in 2007, when it was only a third of a size it is now. Blissfully free of big-screen televisions (except during World Cup finals) and jukeboxes, the bar/restaurant is formally a buschenschank, an Austrian-style bistro specializing in local food and alcohol offerings; owners Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase preside over a multiculti staff and offer new twists on traditional Austrian cuisine. The drinks — my main concern on Friday afternoons — are exquisite, the food even more so. So I lift my glass to my Friday regular today; that’ll be me down at the end of the bar. Prost!

A toast to … World Press Freedom Day

This week I compared and contrasted two Missourians, Mark Twain and Scott Joplin; noted Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow’s misattribution of a quote to Mr. Twain, supplying a more cogent Twainian observation about the press; and chuckled over E.B. White’s change of heart about New York.

Speaking of Joplin, this Sunday Marilyn will perform a  program of Scott Joplin’s sublime, melancholy concert waltz “Bethena” (1904) and Charles Ives’ majestic Concord Sonata (1911) at St. Bart’s Church in New York. More here.

And speaking of the press, today, May 3, is World Press Freedom Day, declared in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly. According to UNESCO, it is “a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.”

The year 2018 was not a particularly good one for journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, 66 professional journalists were killed in connection with their work around the world (compare this to the 13 Jewish men and women who were killed in anti-Semitic attacks last year according to this recent study issued in connection with Yom Hashoah — people who also were killed just for being who they were), and the organization remarks in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index that “an intense climate of fear has been triggered — one that is prejudicial to a safe reporting environment.”

Nor are things better here in the US. There was, of course, this:

And whether or not you think such stupidity has contributed to the dangerous hostility against the press both here and abroad (and I think it has), Reporters Without Borders says the hostile climate reaches past even this:

As a result of an increasingly hostile climate that goes beyond Donald Trump’s comments, the United States (48th) has fallen three places in this year’s Index and the media climate is now classified as “problematic” (orange). Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection. Hatred of the media is now such that a man walked into the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018 and opened fire, killing four journalists and one other member of the newspaper’s staff. The gunman had repeatedly expressed his hatred for the paper on social networks before ultimately acting on his words.

I won’t be able to get to Cafe Katja this afternoon, so I’ll raise a glass to journalists and press freedom at home, and direct the savings to Reporters Without Borders. I hope you do, too — and subscribe to your local paper while you’re at it.