Columns » Bob Lancaster




In these pages last week, a letter-writer delivered herself against the “false amusement” of a state lottery.

It hadn't occurred to me that there might be true and false amusements. An amusement might be dangerous or immoral or trashy or harmless or habit-forming, it seemed to me, but if it does indeed amuse some sentient creature, as, say, magpies are said by fabulists to be amused by tinfoil or chimps by the cavortings of termites that they are about to eat, then it qualifies as a shonuff bona-fide amusement, and calling it “false” does not make sense.

I remember how Bro. Hershey used to inveigh against “false gods” in that same sense of the word. Even back then I found the notion perplexing. Either a deity was a deity or it wasn't. If it was, you should pay your respects, even if insincere, or betake to another jurisdiction. If it wasn't, you could call it a dog-faced imposter and safely go on about your business. No need to scoff, or to rile the locals by hooting of idolatry as horned Moses did as his inconstant brethren boogied around the gilded milch cow.

Ol' Baal was Jehovah's brute cousin or just another Levantine figment, one or the other, but either way  you couldn't rightly accuse him of being false.

My first thought here was that “false amusement” was merely an oxymoron, that bittersweet part of speech in which the first word of a pair of them gives lie to the second, or the two combine in a wry way that prestidigitates a perfect absurdity. But I subsequently decided by such thinking I was putting unfair and narrow-minded restrictions on that word “false.”

True Believers used to refrain from speaking or writing the name of the Almighty for fear of committing the same offense. To imprison the Creator in a name, to attempt binding up his allness with the sad little cords of human language, was looked upon as a grave blasphemy — diminishing him, disrespecting him, pretty much giving him the razz, in an intolerable show of the cardinal sin of pride. Think how much more insulting of him these ignorant TV blowhard preachers of today are, going about promiscuously bawling his name. Putting it on billboards, blurbed with infuriatingly lame quotations. False quotations.

Well, neither should I be putting my own feeble and slovenly limitations on words that are bigger than I know how to handle. So on second thought, and maybe in different senses of the word, I'm recking now that there probably are false gods, and perhaps also false amusements. Lots of false in many different costumes.

Halloween we used to wear what we called “false faces,” with the rubber string. The mask itself wasn't false, and there wasn't really intentional falseness, deceit, in the trick-or-treating masquerade. Door answerers weren't really presumed to find themselves standing face to face, or, more commonly, waist to eyeholes, with genuine leering devils or stinky green Karloff zombies with ersatz neckbolts, giving the dispensers to understand that they'd best propitiate forthwith with a Tom's Peanut Log, and goblins weren't expected to feign malignant berserker intent if they only got the All Saints equivalent of old chunks of coal, a single niblet of candy corn, say, or one melt-in-your-mouth M.

Good manners, good cheer, and a spirit of generosity infused the whole ritual, and yet … and yet, undeniably, a dark thread ran through the thing. Hard to put your finger on it, but the telling reference might have been the “false face,”  prompting the thought that “false amusement” might be a fair description after all. A not inaccurate description, if you'll pardon a resort to litotes.

Another possibility is that the falseness in a “false amusement”  isn't meant to criticize or condemn the promoters or sponsors or advocates of the amusement; that it is rather a self-rebuke of and by the amused, telling himself he ought to be ashamed if he allows himself to be entertained by such unworthy stuff.

I know a Baptist preacher, a good man, who once upon a time moved himself and his family from a prosperous situation in Mississippi to an iffy one in Maryland out of chagrin that he had indulged just such a false amusement. It wasn't anything as bad as having peeked in on the horse races, which was poor Bro. Welch's downfall, but it was bad enough: what it was, he had taken to snickering fraternally at the Rastus minstrel jokes that the redder necks of his congregation were always telling. He just couldn't help it.

Americans traditionally oppose wickedness one of two ways —  by butting heads with it, bearding it in its own den, or by avoiding contamination from it by moving off to a safe distance. Knowing he lacked the stomach for the former, my self-shamed friend didn't get another good night's sleep until he had loaded up his brood, hightailed it up 55, 40 and 81, and taken asylum in a Border State community where false amusements of this stripe aren't tolerated, much less encouraged, and where most other amusements, even inarguably harmless ones, and the indubitably correct ones, are regarded with such suspicion that you're required to quarantine them, submit them for review, have them screened, and then keep them leashed for the duration.




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