“Wag more, bark less” is a pretty good example of trite bumper-sticker philosophy, the sort of thing popular with leftists who’ve traded their protest placards for small strips of vinyl and conservatives that can’t resist preaching the good word to the masses at every opportunity. Surprisingly, however, it’s not a proverb of modern origin with roots that extend back beyond 500 B.C.
In its current form it is a rather bland anthem, in the same vein as The Bark Magazine’s “Dog is my co-pilot:” appropriate for subtle consumerist branding, and thus it’s not surprising to be the choice for a crunchy-granola (in philosophy, not recipe) dog biscuit company who aligns with all the typical paternalistic sentiments of saving the widdle doggies, children, women and the environment. While there are dozens of popular dog-related bumper stickers, this one is particularly popular here in Colorado, enough that another Denver resident who is decidedly more affirmative on bumper stickers than I am wrote this analysis of the “Wag more” fad:
A new one I just ordered is “Bark Less Wag More.” What a nice sentiment this one has, an approach to life that would be admirable for us all. When I first saw it I thought, okay this is my new calling card, my new mantra, my daily goal, my personal mission statement, if you will. I lived with that philosophy for a couple days (actually it was more like 40 minutes) and then I thought, Nah, I’ll pass.
And I agree, it’s not really a message I support. It has the same “ignorance is bliss” kind of message as “Don’t worry, be happy.” I’d say my perspective aligns with the anti-PC curmudgeons that Clough embraces:
So, my new bumper sticker will probably never make it onto the truck, as nice and sweet as it is. After all, it would look out of place next to “I’m already visualizing the duct tape over your mouth.”
These are tricky times for curmudgeons, as political correctness and the “every kid wins a ribbon at field day” mentality that has taken over. P. J. O’Rourke, the resident curmudgeon at Rolling Stone, says that, “It’s only in recent years that curmudgeons have gotten a bad rap.” It wasn’t that long ago that Mark Twain, James Thurber and H. L. Mencken (members of the Curmudgeon Hall Of Fame) were highly regarded. O’Rourke also said, “Popular culture has always been moronic. It has to be by mathematics. I mean, one-half of the population is by definition below the median intelligence.”
Andy Rooney (another member of the Hall of Fame) states, “Curmudgeons are idealists at heart. They’re trying to straighten out the whole world. I think criticism is the best source of change.” The truth of the matter is that curmudgeons are occasionally crotchety and testy, partially because they carry a big burden. As Author Jon Winokur reflects, “Curmudgeons don’t hate sinners, just sin. They don’t hate humankind, just humankind’s excesses—and they hold out secret hope for the improvement of the species.”
As banal and hippie-dippie-come-conformist as the message is, it actually has a very ancient origin. The Story of Ahikar is an age-old folktale that was widely popular in antiquity given that we find variations of the story coming down to us through Syrian, Arabic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Turkish, Greek, and Slavic literary traditions. It is likely Persian or Babylonian in origin and describes the harsh trials but eventual vindication of a righteous man (c.f. the tale of Job), Ahikar, who was counselor to the Assyrian king Sennacherib* circa 700 BC and his successor-son, Esarhaddon.
The tale is part of the extra-Biblical cannon of works (like the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha) that none-the-less are influenced by or influential on Biblical cannon.
In the beginning of the tale, Ahikar instructs his adopted nephew with an extensive series of proverbs which greatly over-lap those found in the books of Proverbs, Psalms and Ecclesiastes, e.g. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” The story also has strong parallels with the apocryphal books of Ecclesiasticus and Tobit. While modern scholars believe that the list of proverbs were originally a different collection of wisdom that was added to the Ahikar story, they are included in an Aramaic papyrus of the story found in the ruins of Elephantine, Egypt dated to 500 B.C., leading them to conclude that the sayings represent popular proverbs of the era.
And herein we have our most ancient documented use of “wag more, bark less:”
My son, sweeten they tongue and make savoury the opening of thy mouth; for the tail of a dog gives him bread, and his mouth gets him blows.
The ancient phrasing gives us a much better argument for the declarative call for behavior change compared to the modern version. It is an appeal to consequence using rather compelling imagery. A happy dog that wags its tail can more easily con you out of a piece of bread than a dog that growls and barks. And of course this is true. But it’s a rather cynical means of manipulation, no? Do what gets you rewards instead of what is honest or rational? This sort of advice breeds obsequious behavior and values sycophants above peers and well-meaning criticism. And yes, we have selected many a dog to be sycophants in place of a peer. The question remains if we should select humans in the same manner, and clearly some people do.
Frankly, while most people say they value honesty and forthrightness, in practice I find this to be a lie. Most people value pleasant fiction over harsh truths and the way to make friends and influence people is to play into these vanities instead of actually calling it like it is.
So what the hell are you wagging for? I’m barking at you bub!
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