On H.L. Mencken


Today is the birthday of the great libertarian pundit, original thinker, humorist, author, critic and journalist H.L. Mencken, a.k.a. “The Sage of Baltimore” (1880-1956).

Mencken’s was the kind of iconoclastic mind I adore, an amalgam of his heroes Mark Twain, Freidrich Neitzsche, and Herbert Spencer. This is the result of his being an autodidact — his only post-secondary education was a correspondence course in writing. Other than that, to tweak Will Rogers, “all he knew is what he read.”

The thrust of his thinking was a hatred of the mob and all its dogma; he detested the bogus and the conventional; and he loathed the pieties of conservatives and socialist liberals alike. While he spent the 1920s attacking the so-called “Booboisie” and Republican Presidents Coolidge and Harding (whom he invariably referred to derisively by his middle name “Gamaliel”), he was equally virulent in his criticism of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s.

What does that leave? Why, freedom for the INDIVIDUAL, of course. Mencken’s ideal was something like 18th century Virginia, presumably without the slavery. An atheist, he had no use for the theocracy associated with the other early American government model, Massachusetts. It was Mencken who covered the Scopes Monkey Trial and pretty much discredited Fundamentalism among thinking American adults until the time of Ronald Reagan. At the same time, he championed the work of socialists like George Bernard Shaw and Theodore Dreiser (especially Sister Carrie) and Ayn Rand’s distinctly anti-socialist We the Living (1938). He would not let himself be put into any column, any category, any box.

Like most white men of his time, Mencken evinced unfortunate attitudes about African Americans, Jews and women in his private (and some of his public) writings. The strength of these feelings is exaggerated by his famously extravagant language — he never wrote with less than inventive, exhilarating passion, making his patronizing disdain for the oppressed classes appear stronger than it was. In reality, his real bete noir was the unthinking mob; contrast his occasional disparagement of those groups with his prolonged, sustained, no-holds-barred campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis, and the fact that he was a proponent of Women’s suffrage and wrote the 1918 book In Defense of Women. Thus, while Mencken (like nearly everyone of his time) got it wrong on the micro, he got it right (as few did) on the MACRO. For example, though he didn’t want more than one Jew at a time to join his private club, during World War Two he wrote to FDR to try to convince him to admit ALL of Europe’s Jews (or all who wanted to come) into the United States. Roosevelt, the big Democrat and “man of the people” was apparently uninterested. Similarly, there was no greater enemy of Southern lynch mobs in print during the 1920s than H.L. Mencken.

To most conventional American minds there is a cognitive dissonance about hating both Nazism and democracy, but with a little analysis, there really isn’t. In a democracy the mob are easily led by charlatans. Since the age of 9, Mencken’s favorite book had been Huckleberry Finn. For Mencken, the Duke and Dauphin are just a few elections away from becoming Hitler. (Hitler, you realize, was elected in a democracy).

Mencken often touted his vision of an “aristocracy” which would presumably favor an intellectual elite. It’s a feeling I don’t quite share. My utopia would be run by the Good of Heart. But if we’re talking about a practical, real-world form of government? I don’t think Mencken was ever quite clear about what he was envisioning. Certainly not the old model of European style inherited aristocracy, a recipe for unearned privilege and injustice. He liked America’s free institutions, he just didn’t like sharing it with a lot of stupid people, which makes him an entertaining crank and curmudgeon but rather a vague political scientist. Still, ideas  — brilliantly expressed — crackle forth in every sentence of his writing. I’d take him over any thousand lockstep liberals.

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