Yesterday I came across an interesting piece at The New American, a John Birch Society website and magazine. Jack Kenny writes that
Perhaps as we remember the war dead this Memorial Day, we might commit our prayers and any efforts we can make for our country not only to the cause of liberty, but also to the all-important task of guiding our nation to a path of peace. Perhaps we should determine to stay out of those foreign wars and “entangling alliances” that Washington and Jefferson warned against, and employ the force of arms only when it is genuinely a last resort — when war truly is “forced upon us,” as our leaders like to say when they are all the while pursuing a war of choice. While decorating the graves of our war dead this Memorial Day, let us resolve to make fewer of them.
Kenny cites a remark by Robert Taft, a U.S. Republican senator who opposed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and involvement in Korea.
“War, undertaken even for justifiable purposes, such as to punish aggression in Korea, has often had the principal results of wrecking the country intended to be saved and spreading death and destruction among an innocent civilian population,” he said. “Even more than Sherman knew in 1864, ‘war is hell.’ War should never be undertaken or seriously risked except to protect American Liberty.”
I also recently ran across a quotation from Russell Kirk, the great American conservative thinker:
A handful of individuals, some of them quite unused to moral responsibilities on such a scale, made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we must make it our business to curtail the possibility of such snap decisions.
We tend to conflate conservatism with hawkishness. There are good reasons for doing so, but the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. There’s been the American Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed the annexation of the Philippines and was comprised of such working-class heroes as Andrew Carnegie, William Graham Sumner, and Grover Cleveland; Middle-American opposition to World Wars One and Two; and antiwar.com, a libertarian site against U.S. invention overseas.
Nearly two years ago I concluded “No More Veterans Days” with a passage from Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States:
Let’s go back to the beginning of Veterans Day. It used to be Armistice Day, because at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I came to an end… Veterans Day, instead of an occasion for denouncing war, has become an occasion for bringing out the flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic speeches… Those who name holidays, playing on our genuine feeling for veterans, have turned a day that celebrated the end of a horror into a day to honor militarism. As a combat veteran myself, of a “good war,” against fascism, I do not want the recognition of my service to be used as a glorification of war. Veterans Day should be an occasion for a national vow: No more war victims on the other side; no more war veterans on our side.
Isn’t it curious that the words of paleo-conservatives and a Marxist historian sound so similar? Maybe it’s because they express a basic truth: War is a pointless waste of lives and resources.
“Yet the human race,” H.L. Mencken wrote, after watching generals “perform their gory buffooneries, cheers them when they come home, dazed and empty-headed, and thrusts its highest honors upon them. What a certificate to its judgment, its common sense, its sense of humor, its right to survive on earth!”
That’s a tad insensitive, particularly on this day of remembrance, don’t you think? Yes, but as Mencken wrote elsewhere “Such are the facts. I apologize for the Babylonian indecency of printing them.” There’s a time for sensitivity, but it limits and controls dialogue. We hold back from expressing heterodox ideas because we don’t want to risk ostracism. What do we call that which runs against notions of propriety? “Bad taste,” i.e., doesn’t taste good. As any mother will tell you, the most nutritious foods often are the least tasty. If your diet only consists of candy, pizzas, and milkshakes, get ready for a date with diabetes.
As Mencken said of image breakers,
The iconoclast proves enough when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing — that at least [ital]one[ital] visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The liberation of the human mind has been best furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten-thousand syllogisms.
I have never pretended to be a nice guy, because I’m not. It’s fairly impossible to remain true to oneself and still be a “nice guy.” Similarly, only people as misanthropic as myself can be counted on not to have to lie to others, since we have the unique luxury of not caring what sort of opinions others formulate about us. . . If others choose to see the world in terms of sugar, spice and everything nice, that’s certainly their prerogative, and I would never dream of trying to tell them otherwise.
Memorials, whether of marble or holidays, are reliquaries for received truths. As such, a trace of impertinence, even the heaving “dead cats into sanctuaries,” is essential to the frank study of war history. Examining the new spate of books that challenge assumptions about World War Two, Adam Kirsch writes in The New York Times Book Review that
The passage of time doesn’t just turn life into history; it also changes the contours of history itself. Over the last several years, historians, philosophers and others have begun to think about the Second World War in challenging and sometimes disturbing new ways, reflecting the growing distance between the country that fought the war and the country that remembers it. . . .
To those who fought World War II, it was plain enough that Allied bombs were killing huge numbers of German civilians, that Churchill was fighting to preserve imperialism as well as democracy, and that the bulk of the dying in Europe was being done by the Red Army at the service of Stalin. It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth — because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a “good war,” and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat.
If that didn’t ruffle your feathers, I’ll leave you with this scene from Platform, Michel Houellebecq’s fantastic novel of sex and Fundamentalism. While on a group tour of Thailand, the protagonist visits a museum dedicated to the horrors suffered by allied POWs.
Certainly, I thought, what had happened was thoroughly regrettable; but, let’s face it, worse things happened during the Second World War. I couldn’t help thinking that if the prisoners had been Polish or Russian there would have been a lot less fuss.
A little later, we were required to endure a visit to the cemetery for the allied prisoners of war — those who had, in a manner of speaking, made the ultimate sacrifice. There were white crosses in neat rows, all identical; the place radiated a profound monotony. It reminded me of Omaha Beach, which really hadn’t moved me either, had actually reminded me, in fact, of a contemporary art installation. “In this place,” I said to myself, with a feeling of sadness which I felt was somewhat inadequate, “In this place, a bunch of morons died for the sake of democracy.”
As I said in my last post, a lot has happened over the past six months, and I’ve been sorely remiss in blogging about it. The developments in the Middle East are particularly fascinating. They bring to mind the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, et al might become Arabic versions of post-Communist Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. They could just as easily turn into killing fields like Bosnia and Kosovo, or decadent, weak Weimar Republics, teetering on the edge of oblivion.
Watching the videos of the vast, truculent crowds, I wondered what H.L. Menckenwould’ve made of it. When imaging what HLM might’ve felt about something, it’s essential to remember his cynicism and misanthropy. Yes, he wrote “I know of no other man who believes in liberty more than I do,” but he maintained that freedom was something that only a select few could endure. He loathed the common man and democracy.
Mencken would wonder, as I do, whether there’d be uprisings if countries like Egypt were well-run and prosperous. Notice that I didn’t say democratic. Most people would happily live under authoritarian regimes if there was plenty of work, cheap food, and public services. I’m not casting judgment. Freedom doesn’t count for much when you can’t afford coffee and a donut. “All the revolutions in history have been started by hungry city mobs,” Mencken observes in Notes on Democracy. “When the city mob fights it is not for liberty, but for ham and cabbage.” Although I don’t think the crowds in Cairo, Tunis, and Tripoli have a taste for the former.
My thoughts became a lot clearer after reading of CBS correspondent Lara Logan’s sexual assault. As most of you already know, while covering the February 11 celebrations over Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Logan was separated from her crew by a mob of more than 200. According to a statement four days later by her network, Logan “was surrounded and suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers.”
Disgusting stuff, but also quite a story. You’ve got to wonder why CBS sat on it for so long. Gawker pointed out that the multiple typos in the original release (since corrected) suggest the news was about to break. The Jewish Week and TownHall.com have their own thoughts why the story was held. Although it’s very intriguing to contemplate, that question isn’t my focus.
As I’m sure even Logan would admit, the sexual assault of woman by a mob in the middle of a public square is a story. It is particularly a story because the crowd in Tahir Square was almost invariably characterized as friendly and out for nothing but democracy. In fact, some of the television correspondents acted as if they were reporting from Times Square on New Year’s Eve, stopping only at putting on a party hat. In those circumstances, a mass the sexual assault in what amounted to the nighttime version of broad daylight is certainly worth reporting.
We’d like to believe the Middle Eastern crowds are driven by the noblest impulses. But are they? Probably not. From from the Coliseum to the Reign of Terror, from the Deep South lynchings to the L.A. Riots, the mob is idiotic and sadistic. As Mencken explains in Notes
What does the mob think? It thinks, obviously, what its individual members think. And what is that? It is, in brief, what somewhat sharp-nosed and unpleasant children think. The mob, being composed, in the overwhelming main, of men and women who have not got beyond the ideas and emotions of childhood, hovers, in the mental age, around the time of puberty, and chiefly below it.
And what is the crux of those “ideas and emotions”? Fear. Fear of the unknown, of strange people, of new ideas. “The process of education is largely a process of getting rid of such fears,” Mencken writes. But sadly, the fact is “that the vast majority of men are congenitally incapable of any such intellectual progress. They cannot take in new ideas, and they cannot get rid of old fears. They lack the logical sense; they are unable to reason from a set of facts before them, free from emotional distraction.”
The men who assaulted Logan didn’t have liberte, egalite, fraternite on their minds. They were driven by hatred, a hatred born of fear; hatred of Logan as a Westerner, an infidel, a woman, and—in their imagination—a Jew.
According to the New York Post, her assailants chanted “Jew, Jew” as they beat her. (For the record, Logan is not Jewish.) The attack may have been fueled by Egyptian state media reports of Israeli spies disguised as overseas news teams. Or it could’ve been driven just by the will for destruction.
Mencken would’ve read of Logan’s attack and shook his head. “There’s ‘your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,'” he’d mutter.
No, I’m not saying that everyone in the crowd that night was a hateful moron. But I dare say there were a lot more troglodytes than one might care to imagine, and that there are a lot more troglodytes wordwide than we dare to dream. They’re not just among the poor and downtrodden, although don’t kid yourself with the Christian/Marxist myth that “poverty” is a synonym for “enlightenment.” As Mencken explained,
Thus the plutocracy, in a democratic state, tends to take the place of the missing aristocracy, and even to be mistaken for it. It is, of course, something quite different. It lacks all the essential characters of a true aristocracy: a clean tradition, culture, public spirit, honesty, honour, courage—above all courage. . . Its most puissant dignitaries of to-day came out of the mob only yesterday—and from the mob they bring all its peculiar ignobilities.
I’ll come out and say it: Most people—black, white, rich, poor, powerful, weak—are stupid, and quite dangerous if given the opportunity.
And that’s why Mencken wouldn’t have high hopes for the current Mideast upheaval. It’s possible some good will come of it. Even Niccolo Machiavelli, the godfather of amoral analysis, thought republics were preferable to principalities. Under a republic people feel more invested in the fruits of their labors, and consequently have more reason to work hard and innovate. But there’s no point in pretending that mobs are comprised of Pericleses, Joan of Arcs, and Patrick Henrys.
Do you honestly think Average Joes and Janes concern themselves over ideas like fair representation, consensus, and the free exchange of ideas? Do you really believe people behave more honorably and wisely in democracies than in other societies? Hardly. I’m reminded of Luis Bunuel’s classic film, Viridiana. A novitiate takes in a group of beggars and dedicates herself to feeding and uplifting them. They repay her kindness by breaking into her home, and later attempting to rape her.
Go to a bar, a football game, or a shopping mall and see what comprises the crowd. Morlocks, as far as the eye can see.
Sometimes fairly articulate people make it unintentionally clear how they, and most others, dwell in an Egyptian Night. “Spruce Panther of Kemet” offers a sterling example.
In a February 16 YouTube video entitled “Lara Logan Raped: But Was She?” she urges viewers to ask themselves
was she indeed raped. I’m just now hearing about this story on the Internet now but apparently this happened almost a week ago. And we need to put this in context: she is a white South African, therefore she is directly implicated in the oppression [and in the perpetration] of atrocities against the black population of South Africa. Indeed, the white population used rape against black women as means of intimidation, violence, control, oppression to keep the black population in line. So is this an act of karmic retribution? These questions should be asked and analyzed.
At the bottom of the video in red lettering runs “The real rape is Kemet’s Black African cultural treasures being plundered right before our eyes by barbarians” and later “Lara Logan’s ‘rape’ a false flag attack?”
Spruce Panther is a capable speaker, but her worldview is on the level of a superstitious, illiterate peasant. What she says is on a par with medieval blood-libel and witch-hunting. She’d fit right in with the nice folks in Tahir Square. And quite possibly so would you.
OK, I freely admit it: it’s been far too long since my last blog post. I’m sorry. Really. And it’s not from a lack of topics. From the November U.S. elections to the mass movements in the Mideast, things are changing quickly! Not to make excuses, but Dissident Books’ is a one-man shop, so between getting the word out about the titles, sales, and dozens of other tasks, blogging tends to get pushed to the back burner. But that’s not an excuse. I promise to post more often. Just like I promise that the check is in the mail.
You might recall in my last post I wrote how e-newsletter ForeWord This Week ran a feature on Notes on Democracy: A New Edition. Well, this week managing editor Kimber Bilby turned her attention to Dissident Books’ other offering, Don’t Call Me a Crook! Bilby writes that
Autobiographies & Memoirs is the biggest category in our Book of the Year Awards program. I understand why: everyone has a story to tell—even reference librarians. (Does Ruth Harrison from A Prairie Home Companion ring familiar?) The ability to tell a good story and grab the reader from page one is a gift that not everyone has. That’s what makes an award-winning memoir: it’s not only an incredible tale, but an incredibly well-written one. Cheers to those who tackle retelling their life stories in print. This week we feature a more humorous account of a con man, Bob Moore, in Don’t Call Me a Crook! published by Dissident Books.
Boy, did reading that make my day! It’s a fact is Don’t Call Me a Crook! is both “an incredible tale” and “an incredibly well-written one.” One blogger confessed that she read it three times. Three times! You know a story is gripping and a pleasure to read when someone goes through it more than once. Check out what ForeWord has to say about Moore’s memoirs here.
“Tis’ the season for the subliminal and the over-the-top political ads,” ForeWord Reviews’ managing editor Kimber Bilby writes today in ForeWord This Week, an e-newsletter. “And they’re definitely getting to me because I’ve chosen two politically-inspired titles for our featured FTW reviews.” And guess what? Notes on Democracy: A New Edition is one of them! No kidding! We here at Dissident Books are mighty jazzed that the good folks at ForeWord thought to give a well-timed primary-week nod to Mencken’s Majestic Missive on the Mob and its Malice.
And we’re very flattered that Notes is coupled with what appears to be a scorcher of a book: Lt. Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, a memoir of the war in Iraq. “While Gallagher didn’t hold back his opinions, there is no mistaking the biting satire of noted social critic H.L. Mencken in Notes on Democracy.” Take a minute to read what ForeWord has to say about Notes. And while you’re at it, check out what it had to say about Dissident Books’ other epic, Don’t Call Me a Crook! A Scotsman’s Tale of World Travel, Whisky, and Crime.
“Speaking of democracy and freedom, Banned Books week is only two weeks away,” Bilby segues. She invites readers to send in their answers to ForeWord’s “Banned Books Survey”:
1. What is the most popular banned book in your library/bookstore?
2. Number one question you’re asked about banned books?
3. What display or event received the most attention during Banned Books Week?
Off hand we can’t think of answers to these excellent questions, but we will say that Mencken fought censorship and Puritanism all his life. Indeed, he was no stranger to censorship. A Boston reverend tried to ban The American Mercury, Mencken’s magazine. The Sage of Baltimore stood up to the Puritan, went to trial, and won. Right on, Hank!
Nowadays Prohibition seems rather quaint. It conjures flickering, grainy black-and-white images of silent movie stars, flappers, and Tommy gun-brandishing gangsters. Even Prohibition’s goal—a sober, righteous America—has a decidedly outdated smack to all but the most militant teetotaler.
But don’t mistake the Volstead Act for a mere historical curiosity. It was a prolonged, destructive violation of personal freedoms. Ironically, the law fostered chaos. As Deborah Blum explains in “The Chemist’s War,” an article that appeared last February in Slate,
But people continued to drink—and in large quantities. Alcoholism rates soared during the 1920s; insurance companies charted the increase at more than 300 percent. Speakeasies promptly opened for business. By the decade’s end, some 30,000 existed in New York City alone. Street gangs grew into bootlegging empires built on smuggling, stealing, and manufacturing illegal alcohol. The country’s defiant response to the new laws shocked those who sincerely (and naively) believed that the amendment would usher in a new era of upright behavior.
(Incidentally, for a firsthand account of fun and games under Prohibition, including rum-running, tending bar in a speakeasy, and shootouts with rival bootleggers, turn to Don’t Call Me a Crook! by Bob Moore. As obnoxious as Moore is, one reason I like him so much is his utter refusal to be controlled, whether by oppressive bosses, rich women, or Prohibitionists.)
Despite the law, Americans continued to pursue the forbidden pleasure. Sound familiar? Make no mistake, Prohibition exists today.
And as with yesterday’s Prohibition, it’s not just that there’s laws proscribing pot and other narcotics. They’re enforced with a vast security apparatus, paid for with billions of our tax dollars. The Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free has more citizens in its prisons than any other nation, largely because of its Jihad on Narcotics. It’s not enough that statutes are on the books: they must be enforced with the zeal of true believers and people jealous of their government salaries.
Of course, the effects are never, ever what were intended. Just as Al Capone and his peers grew rich and powerful through bootlegging, we’ve seen the rise of well-armed gangs, narco-terrorists, and the Taliban, all flush with lucre from drug sales.
Then as now, lawmakers’ response to proscription’s unexpected consequences was the same: full steam ahead. Indeed, the effort must be intensified. Harass citizens? Jail offenders? No, that’s not enough. Poison the juice and its imbibers.
Blum explains that when Uncle Sam stemmed the flow of smuggled Canadian hooch, gangsters stole industrial alcohol and redistilled it to make it palatable. Industrial alcohol is essentially grain alcohol with some disagreeable additives to render it distasteful. As crooks slaked America’s thirst with redistilled firewater, the government reacted by telling producers to pump chemicals into industrial alcohol.
Gangsters met the challenge by recruiting chemists to “renature” the purloined rotgut and render it consumable. Washington, in all its infinite wisdom and compassion, in turn demanded manufacturers pump more poisons into the mix.
By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons—kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.
It wasn’t long until the inevitable results came in:
In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700. These numbers were repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide joined in the angry clamor. Furious anti-Prohibition legislators pushed for a halt in the use of lethal chemistry. “Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statutes,” proclaimed Sen. James Reed of Missouri.
Readers of Notes on Democracy will recall H. L. Mencken’s words of praise for Reed. “Normally, no American government would engage in such business. … It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified,” the Chicago Tribune observed in 1927.
That’s right. Fanaticism. It was the driver then as it is now. Two passages from Notes on Democracy sum it up:
Our laws are invented, in the main, by frauds and fanatics, and put upon the statute books by poltroons and scoundrels.
Under the pressure of fanaticism, and with the mob complacently applauding the show, democratic law tends more and more to be grounded upon the maxim that every citizen is, by nature, a traitor, a libertine, and a scoundrel. In order to dissuade him from his evil-doing the police power is extended until it surpasses anything ever heard of in the oriental monarchies of antiquity.
Incidentally, if you think official and deliberate tainting of illegal substances is the stuff of nearly a century ago, think again. In the 1970s the U.S. sprayed Mexican marijuana fields with an herbicide named Paraquat. Blum relates that its
use was primarily intended to destroy crops, but government officials also insisted that awareness of the toxin would deter marijuana smokers. They echoed the official position of the 1920s—if some citizens ended up poisoned, well, they’d brought it upon themselves. Although Paraquat wasn’t really all that toxic, the outcry forced the government to drop the plan. Still, the incident created an unsurprising lack of trust in government motives, which reveals itself in the occasional rumors circulating today that federal agencies, such as the CIA, mix poison into the illegal drug supply.
I’m not the only one who sees a parallel between the yesterday’s and today’s crusades against intoxication and finds Notes on Democracy a valuable commentary on both. Robert McHenry, former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica and author of How to Know, writes this week that
Prohibition is a comfortable 80 years in our past, of course, so we can read [Notes on Democracy’s] passionate denunciation of it with equanimity, even smugness. A terrible idea, based on false premises and conducted ruthlessly, that left the country far worse off than it was to begin with. Yet simply substitute “War on Drugs” for “Prohibition,” and see what you think.
McHenry says that Mencken in Notes “performed vivisection on the dogma underlying the American political system and revealed the offal within.”
As Mencken loathed Prohibition, he would’ve detested the War on Drugs, and not just for its infringement on liberty. Mencken would’ve perceived democracy’s stunting influence at work: Because addicts can’t handle wine or cocaine responsibly, the healthy are barred from enjoying them. The same force was at work when the FCC went after Howard Stern.
The censors wield their red pens, defending the weak’s delicate ears from profane words. But what of those of us who don’t take offense at Stern’s ramblings? How truly free are you when you can’t partake of simple pleasures like smoking a joint or listening to uncensored talk on the radio?
It all fairness to democracy, everyone knows other systems are often repressive. Actually, they tend to be even more restrictive. But what’s particularly galling about democracy is that by its very nature it allows and encourages small but focused groups—Prohibitionists, for example—to direct the nation. As Mencken observes in Notes on Democracy
Some of these minorities have developed a highly efficient technique of intimidation. They not only know how to arouse the fears of the mob; they also know how to awaken its envy, its dislike of privilege, its hatred of its betters. How formidable they may become is shown by the example of the Anti-Saloon League in the United States—a minority body in the strictest sense, however skillful its mustering of popular support, for it nowhere includes a majority of the voters among its subscribing members, and its leaders are nowhere chosen by democratic methods. And how such minorities may intimidate the whole class of place-seeking politicians has been demonstrated brilliantly and obscenely by the same corrupt and unconscionable organization. It has filled all the law-making bodies of the nation with men who have got into office by submitting cravenly to its dictation, and it has filled thousands of administrative posts, and not a few judicial posts, with vermin of the same sort.
Certainly it’s possible for a determined minority to persuade a king or dictator, but it’s got just one shot, so to speak. The potentate either approves or dismisses the petition: end of story. But in a democracy, if the minority is driven and well-funded enough, chances are it’ll succeed, no matter how insane its goal. Politicians need money and votes. If a lobby offers them, it’s got your representatives’ ears more than you can ever hope.
This is not a libertarian rant. I don’t see government as inherently evil. Living in a community means making compromises. But something is very wrong when there’s more resources invested into forbidding adults from indulging in whatever pleasures they choose than fostering science and culture. As Mencken points out elsewhere in Notes, although liberty is “the very cornerstone of its political metaphysic,” democracy “always seems bent upon killing the thing it theoretically loves.”
I’ve got to believe that Bob Moore, marine engineer and author of Don’t Call Me a Crook! A Scotsman’s Tale of World Travel, Whisky, and Crime, would find Jan Smith’s photographs of abandoned ships in Mauritania’s Nouadhibou Bay both fascinating and horrifying. They’d no doubt remind him of his ill-fated stints on a yacht on Long Island Sound, a river boat carrying kerosene along the Yangtze, and the cruise ship s.s. Vestris.
Like Dissident Books’ beloved Glaswegian, Mr. Smith is quite an adventurer and risk-taker. From MSN’s Good:
When Smith attempted to venture into Mauritania in 2008, he encountered no shortage of struggle. “I was turned away at the border, slept in a mine field, and was accused of espionage. No one believed I would travel to the remoteness of Nouadhibou to simply take pictures of rotting ships.”
Well, whatever Bob might or might not of thought, I love the pictures. To my eyes these vast behemoths are dead dinosaurs, rotting in a primordial lake.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Erin of the blog “Do I have to have a title?” reports that among her birthday gifts was a copy of Notes on Democracy: A New Edition. Nothing, absolutely nothing, says “joyeux anniversaire” like a delightful package of iconoclasm and heresy. Heck, Notes on Democracy is the perfect gift for any occasion. Gentlemen, remember, St. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner: tell your true love you care with Mencken’s savage attack on universal suffrage!
Cato Institute scholar calls “Notes on Democracy” “the best for-pleasure book I read (so far!) in 2009″December 2nd, 2009
Mr. Logan, we at Dissident Books congratulate you on your superb taste. You are a gentleman and a scholar. We thank you, and Mr. Mencken thanks you!
City Journal this week published an outstanding piece on World War I and its aftermath in America. In “1919: Betrayal and the Birth of Modern Liberalism”, Fred Siegel, a City Journal contributing editor and a visiting professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, challenges the notion that liberalism is a direct descendant of 19th and early 20th century reformers. “Today’s state-oriented liberalism, we are often told, was the inevitable extension of the pre–World War I tradition of progressivism…. After the unfortunate Republican interregnum of the 1920s, so the story goes, this progressivism, faced with the Great Depression, matured into the full-blown liberalism of the New Deal.”
However, it’s not as simple as that. Siegel writes that
But a central strand of modern liberalism was born of a sense of betrayal, of a rejection of progressivism, of a shift in sensibility so profound that it still resonates today. More precisely, the cultural tone of modern liberalism was, in significant measure, set by a political love affair gone wrong between Wilson and a liberal Left unable to grapple with the realities of Prussian power. Initially embraced by many leftists as a thaumaturgical leader of near-messianic promise, Wilson came to be seen—in the wake of a cataclysmic war, a failed peace, repression at home, revolution abroad, and a country wracked by a “Red Scare”—as a Judas. His numinous rhetoric, it was concluded, was mere mummery.
One strand of progressives grew contemptuous not only of Wilson but of American society. For the once-ardent progressive Frederick Howe, formerly Wilson’s Commissioner of Immigration, the prewar promise of a benign state built on reasoned reform had turned to ashes. “I hated,” he wrote, “the new state that had arisen” from the war. “I hated its brutalities, its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism, that made profit from our sacrifices and used it to suppress criticism of its acts. . . . I wanted to protest against the destruction of my government, my democracy, my America.”
Like John Emerson’s great piece on the Bourbon Democrats and H. L. Mencken, Siegel reveals fascinating historical tidbits. Almost 500,000 million Germans left America to join the ranks of the Kaiser’s army. He details the era’s paranoia over all things Teutonic. Little did I know that there was some justification for the fear:
Charles John Hexamer, president of the National German-American Alliance, financed in part by the German government, insisted that Germans needed to maintain their separate identity and not “descend to the level of an inferior culture.” Germans even began attacking that inferior culture. The most important instance of German domestic sabotage was the spectacular explosion on Black Tom Island in the summer of 1916, which shook a sizable swath of New York City and New Jersey. The man-made peninsula in New York Harbor was a key storage and shipping point for munitions sold to the British and French. The bombing sank the peninsula into the sea, killed seven, and damaged the Statue of Liberty. Wilson denounced Germany’s supporters in America: “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”
The war, with its jingoism and repression of dissent, together with Prohibition and the Red Scare, soured many forward-minded thinkers on American “progress.”
What followed was not so much protest as simmering scorn. In 1919, the Germanophile H. L. Mencken, writing in The New Republic, called sarcastically for honoring the civilian heroes who had suppressed Beethoven by bedizening them with bronze badges and golden crosses. Mencken ridiculed the mass of Americans who had backed “Wilson’s War,” branding them a “timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob”; a great admirer of Kaiser Wilhelm, he denigrated American democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses.” Taking its cues from Mencken, the liberalism that emerged from 1919 was contemptuous of American culture and politics. For liberals, the war years had shown that American society and democracy were themselves agents of repression. These sentiments deepened during the 1920s and have been an ongoing current in liberalism ever since.
Siegel leaves out that Mencken himself was scornful of liberals. His unleashes his wrath on them throughout Notes on Democracy. Moreover, I don’t think liberals are alone in the their contempt of American society. It would be more accurate to say they, like conservatives, hold a contempt for those stretches of the nation’s landscape that don’t adhere to their principals and values. For some, gay marriage, atheism, and war resistance are vitally American.
To his credit, Siegel identifies one of liberalism’s best qualities:
The new liberal ethos was not without its virtues. In picking their fights with Prohibition and their former hero Wilson, liberals encouraged the sense of tolerance and appreciation of differences that would, over time, mature into what came to be called pluralism. “The root of liberalism,” wrote [Harold] Stearns, “is hatred of compulsion, for liberalism has the respect for the individual and his conscience and reason which the employment of coercion necessarily destroys.” Though not always observed by liberals themselves, the call for an urbane temper would come to mark liberalism at its best.
This is no small point. In Notes, Mencken himself contrasts repressive America with “more liberal and enlightened countries.” Mencken’s “philosophy, stated one critic, was ‘thoroughly American,’ the remnants of nineteenth-century liberal thought,” Marion Elizabeth Rodgers explains in her introduction to Notes.
Regardless of Siegel’s views on liberalism, his piece is fascinating. Anyone who’d like a backgrounder on the political and intellectual climate that fostered Mencken’s dark, cynical position on democracy and America should read it.