I think Hank would’ve dug this. (Special thanks to Jackie of San Francisco for tipping us to the below clip.)
Archive for the ‘commentary’ Category
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.
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.”
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!
Let’s make something clear: H.L. Mencken wasn’t a liberal. He wasn’t a left-winger. He wasn’t a progressive. Although personally he could be kind and charitable, politically speaking, he wasn’t an egalitarian. He was an unmitigated and unapologetic elitist. He called Marx “a philosopher out of the gutter.” (Notes on Democracy: A New Edition, New York: Dissident Books, 2008, p. 31.) Later he softened the epithet somewhat to “out of the ghetto.” (A Mencken Chrestomathy, New York: Vintage Books, 1982, p. 156.) Liberals, he wrote, always “cling to some shred of illusion, as if the whole truth were too harsh to be borne…” (Notes, p. 159.) So was Mencken a conservative?
That’s what I asked myself last week at an event named after the Sage of Baltimore. The H.L. Mencken Club Annual Meeting was held October 30 through November 1 in Linthicum, Maryland, just outside of Hank’s hometown. It attracted 113 attendees, which is fairly respectable given that it was only the Club’s second gathering. The conference’s theme this year was “The West: Is It Dead Yet?” Among the speakers were Richard Spencer of Taki’s Magazine, John Derbyshire, author of the recently released We are Doomed: Rediscovering Conservative Pessimism, and the Grand Dinosaur of Paleoconservatives, Pat Buchanan.
I initially mistook the Club for the H.L. Mencken Society: big mistake. My contacts at the Society and Mencken’s estate knew nothing of the Club. Curiously, I found some of the attendees knew little-to-nothing of Mencken. “He was a humorist, wasn’t he?” one fellow asked me. “And Jewish?” I joked to another man who confessed he never read Mencken that the cigar-maker’s son is the Lydia Lunch of American letters: people know his name and importance, but are often unfamiliar with his oeuvre. That said, copies of Notes on Democracy: A New Edition sold well. Someone even bought a copy of Don’t Call Me a Crook! A Scotsman’s Tale of World Travel, Whisky, and Crime.
Paul Gottfried, the H.L. Mencken Club’s president, outlined the group’s worldview in his opening address. “We are distinct from movement conservatives,” he explained, speaking of The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and the G.O.P. “We are more different than neocons than liberals are,” he said. “We raise questions that are anathemas to” both wings of the mainstream. To the Club and those who share its vision, “democracy and freedom are on a collision course… Heredity largely determines character and intelligence.”
As an example of how “alternative conservatives” split with Republicans, Gottfried cited academic diversity training. Although Beltway conservatives might scoff at liberal rationale for recruiting minority students, they will press to teach them “the American Experience” and “democratic values” and to integrate them into the greater society. “Our side would say not every adolescent can do college work,” Gottfried said. The present “egalitarian managerial consensus moves in one direction: left.”
Mencken would’ve agreed with much of what Gottfried said. Mencken absolutely believed liberty and universal suffrage were incompatible, and saw inherent inequality among humans, largely determined by heredity. Consider this take on inter-caste copulation: “Adultery, in brief, is one of nature’s devices for keeping the lowest orders of men from sinking to the level of downright simians: sometimes for a few brief years in youth, their wives and daughters are comely—and now and then the baron drinks more than he ought.” (Chrestomathy, page 63.)
RACE TO THE EDGE
But Gottfried spoke of differences between races. Indeed, that was a recurring theme at the conference. One session was entitled “Debt, Demographics, and Disaster.” On the same table where I offered Notes on Democracy: A New Edition, another publisher sold books with titles like IQ and Global Inequality and Race Differences in Intelligence. Nearby were flyers for a conference next year sponsored by a group named the American Renaissance. (“Virtually no whites are willing to break taboos about racial differences in IQ, the costs of ‘diversity,’ or the challenges of non-white immigration. We are different. We believe these are vital questions.”) Among the speakers at the gathering will be Nick Griffin of the British National Party.
Mencken, like many men of the early twentieth century, was racist. But his racism was complex, imbued with fascinations and skepticisms that took it beyond mere tribalism. In his American Mercury he published African American authors Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois. “He made disparaging remarks about blacks and Jews in his diary, yet crusaded against the Ku Klux Klan, lobbied with the NAACP for an anti-lynching bill, and urged the Roosevelt administration to open America’s doors to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany,” Marion Elizabeth Rodgers explains in her introduction to Notes‘ new edition. (Notes, p. 8.) Mencken’s take on race and the West was more nuanced than those expressed at the H.L. Mencken Club meeting. Here’s another Mencken mediation on “extra-legal crosses”:
As a result of this preference of the Southern gentry for mulatto mistresses there was created a series of mixed strains containing the best white blood of the South, and perhaps of the whole country. As another result the poor whites went unfertilized from above, and so missed the improvement that so constantly shows itself in the peasant stocks of other countries… The Southern Mulatto … is an unhappy man, with disquieting tendencies toward anti-social habits of thought, but he is intrinsically a better animal than the pure-blooded descendant of the old poor whites, and he not infrequently demonstrates it. (Chrestomathy, page 192)
The much above passage’s charm comes from its offense to multiple readerships: white racists, black nationalists, prudes, feminists, Southerners. Dinner is served and all are invited!
“It is perfectly possible that the superior mental development of the white races may be due to the fact that they have suffered from tuberculosis for many centuries,” Mencken posited, probably with a winked eye. (Chrestomathy, p. 369.)
One of the Mencken club speakers spoke wistfully of America’s “founding stock.” What did Mencken have to say about the highflying, mighty WASP?
What are the characters that I discern most clearly in the so-called Anglo-Saxon type of man?… One is his curious and apparently incurable incompetence… The other is… his hereditary cowardice… Consider, for example, the events attending the extension of the two great empires, English and American. Did either movement evoke any genuine courage and resolution? The answer is plainly no. Both empires were built up primarily by swindling and butchering unarmed savages, and after that by robbing weak and friendless nations. (Chrestomathy, pp. 173-174.)
This Anglo-Saxon of the great herd is, in many important respects, the least civilized of the white men and the least capable of true civilization. His political ideas are crude and shallow. . . . His blood, I believe, is running thin; perhaps it was not much to boast of at the start. . . (Chrestomathy, page 177.)
CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET?
Another thing in conflict with Mencken’s spirit was the Club’s secrecy, and frankly speaking, paranoia. Attendees were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement barring them from releasing the names of Club members, guests, and speakers and from reporting on the lectures without the Club’s permission. Incredibly, the agreement explained that these “privacy provisions are intended to stimulate the free flow of opinions, comments and conversation.”
What would Mencken, a man who fought all his life against censorship and for greater openness, say about that? He ruthlessly took Mark Twain to task for “his profound intellectual timorousness” in not publishing his darker, more pessimistic writings for fear of public outcry. (Chrestomathy, pp. 486-487.) I was told that last year there had been trouble with disruptions by people unfriendly to the Club’s agenda. No doubt the Club was also unhappy with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report on its 2008 gathering. Click here for the SPLC’s piece.
Mencken wasn’t afraid to make enemies by unequivocally stating his views. It’s a drag to be condemned for your opinions, but Mencken and those like him would agree that’s the price one pays for voicing heterodox thoughts.
I explained to one of the organizers that I planned to cover the event for this blog. We spoke briefly, and she agreed to my terms: I assured her I wouldn’t disrupt any of the proceedings, but that I would ask the speakers provocative questions. I also said I’d write precisely what I saw and heard at the meeting, and that I would make no assurances about my post’s content. She didn’t have to be accommodating. She could’ve told me those were the rules, like them or not. I appreciated her cooperation.
GIVE ME THAT OLD-TIME RELIGION
Even more perplexing than the Club’s racial attitudes and guardedness was its Godliness. Grace was said at the two meals I attended. Grace?! At a conference whose namesake is H.L. Mencken?! The same journalist who railed against Fundamentalists? The same editor who a Boston reverend sought to silence? The same freethinker who wrote a praiseful introduction to and translated Nietzsche’s The Antichrist? It was like something from a comic novel: mind-blowingly hypocritical and disrespectful to his memory.
Apparently I’m not the only one who sees a disconnect. Here’s a post from Secular Right on last year’s proceedings.
“The plutocracy is comprehensible to the mob because its aspirations are essentially those of inferior men: it is not by accident that Christianity, a mob religion, paves heaven with gold and precious stones, i.e., with money,” Mencken sneers (Notes, p. 152). Indeed, you can see the dollar sign/crucifix on Notes’ cover as an allusion to this passage. You can also read it as an ideogram for the two deciding factors in a presidential election: what’s the candidate’s economic stance and the zeal of his/her devotion. Again, a few selections from the soi-disant ombibulous guzzler’s writings go a long way in illustrating my point:
I can no more understand a man praying than I can understand him carrying a rabbit’s foot to bring him luck. This lack of understanding is a cause of enmities, and I believe that they are sound ones. I dislike any man who is pious, and all such men that I know dislike me. (Chrestomathy, pp. 84-85.)
The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone. All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is mainly to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world. The minute a new one is launched, in whatever fields, some imbecile of a theologian is certain to fall upon it, seeking to put it down. (Chrestomathy, p. 80.)
Hymn of Hate, with Coda—If I hate any class of men in this world, it is evangelical Christians, with their bellicose stupidity, their childish belief in devils, their barbarous hoofing of all beauty, dignity and decency. But even evangelical Christians I do not hate when I see their wives. (Chrestomathy, p. 624.)
On Saturday morning I attended a talk on “Radical Traditionalism.” The night before I chatted with two of its presenters, Patrick J. Deneen, director of Georgetown University’s Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy, and E. Christian Kopff, director of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Center for Western Civilization. I found both men charming, erudite, and ready to listen to opposing viewpoints. Deneen opined on the Catholic Church’s place in resisting modernity, while Kopff spoke on Julius Evola, the Italian reactionary mystic. Evola, Kopff explained, sought a return to a society of clearly delineated roles, ruled by warrior and priest classes. Evola rejected the Enlightenment and had little use for the Renaissance. Again, some familiarity with Mencken prompts one to scratch one’s scalp in confusion:
[The Eighteenth Century was] when human existence, according to my notion, was pleasanter and more spacious than ever before or since. The Eighteenth Century, of course, had its defects, but they were vastly overshadowed by its merits. It got rid of religion. (Chrestomathy, pp. 557-558.)
[How did Western Europeans during the Renaissance] manage to convert themselves into highly civilized men—perhaps the most civilized ever seen on earth; certainly vastly more civilized then the grossly overrated Greeks…? (Chrestomathy, p. 377.)
During the question session I asked how the speakers could reconcile a discussion on religion—conservative-minded religion at that—at an event named after America’s most irreligious writer? “We hope we’re in his spirit,” responded Kopff. “We’re standing up for religion and being as obnoxious as Mencken was in his day. We’re not the H.L. Mencken Society; we don’t study him. Like Mencken, we’re in opposition to the FDR regime that’s still ruling this country.”
In other words, if I understand Kopff correctly, the Club identifies with Mencken’s plainspoken attacks on liberalism. That’s understandable up to a point. To reiterate what I asserted above, Mencken cannot be mistaken as a liberal. But was he a conservative, whether movement or alternative?
EAST IS THE NEW WEST
The answer is no. As I’ve written elsewhere, he was a “Medieval, Pessimistic Dissident.” Put another way, he was a monarchist in search of a new aristocracy. His ideology was thoroughly un-American. Like Marxists and anarchists, he rejected God, the church, and morality. (But not, it’s essential to note, honor.) Unlike the left, he had no time for the proletariat and the peasantry. He had little time for their masters—businessmen, politicians, and the clergy—as well. “The capital defect in the culture of These States is the lack of a civilized aristocracy,” Mencken bemoaned, “secure in its position, animated by an intelligent curiosity, skeptical of all facile generalizations, superior to the sentimentality of the mob, and delighting in the battle of ideas for its own sake.” (Chrestomathy, p. 178.)
From my readings of Mencken, I don’t perceive an allegiance to an ideology or institution. There were certainly ones he rejected—liberalism and religion, for example—but he wasn’t wedded to a particular order. If it advanced liberty, reason, and science, or simply made life more pleasant, then it was good. If it furthered superstition, irrationality, and intolerance, it was bad.
To the question, “The West: Is It Dead Yet?” Mencken would’ve replied, “If it is, so what? If other peoples are ready to carry on the hard work of science and art, so be it. Let the white man gorge himself on cheeseburgers, growing fatter and fatter, slowly sinking into a quicksand of consumption, mindless entertainment, and war.” Mencken was a Germanophile, but I think his high regard for Teutons would’ve slipped away if they weren’t living up to his high standards. Remember, the columnist was as unsentimental a thinker as this country has ever produced. “A man of active and resilient mind outwears his friendships just as certainly has he outwears his love affairs, his politics and his epistemology.” (Chrestomathy, p. 16) If he felt that way about buddies, I think it’s fair to say he’d harbor no race loyalty.
Mencken wrote admiringly of Japan on the eve of World War II. It had become a modern, confident nation, and no longer looked to whites as models. (Gore Vidal’s introduction to The Impossible H. L. Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, New York: Anchor, 1991.) He would’ve been intrigued by twenty-first century Asia. He’d see India and China as nations on the rise, driven by science and “resolution.” The fact that many classical musicians today hail from Asia wouldn’t have been lost on Mencken, a lover of Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms. He’d be quick to note how many students of Asian descent matriculate at America’s finest colleges and universities. As always, Mencken would’ve found things to not to his liking in and of the East: even of his beloved Germania he spoke of a “curious reverence for authority.” (Notes, p. 15).
Similarly, I think he would’ve approved of today’s wave of immigration. After all, he wrote that
[I]n order that [the Anglo-Saxon] may exercise any functions above those of a trader, a pedagogue, or a mob orator, [his blood] needs the stimulus of other and less exhausted strains. The fact that they increase is the best hope of civilization in America. They shake the old race out of its spiritual lethargy, and introduce it to disquiet and experiment. They make for a free play of ideas. In opposing the process, whether in politics, in letters, or in the ages-long struggle toward the truth, the prophets of Anglo-Saxon purity and tradition only make themselves ridiculous. (Chrestomathy, p. 177.)
Mencken would turn his eyes east without a second thought if he sensed that’s where Wissenscaft flourishes. “If the next Bach is born in Bombay, I will present unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh,” I can hear him exclaim. “Should Fujian produce a new Frederick the Great, I’ll come and adore him. If the future Nietzsche arrives unto the world in Ningbo, two other wise men and I will make the pilgrimage to greet him.”
I don’t think his attitude would be any different as far as U.S. demographics. “If tomorrow’s Poe is the daughter of Mexican field-hands, splendid! Should a Somali couple conceive this century’s Twain, I’ll be overjoyed. When a Pakistani husband and wife bestow unto our fair land the new Whitman, I’ll be the first at the maternity ward to congratulate them. And why should it be otherwise? Are the nation’s Anglo-Saxons rearing any children of great promise?”
It’s not my intention to denigrate the H.L. Mencken Club. The speakers were all articulate and provocative. Everyone I met—attendees, lecturers, and organizers—were very courteous, even when it when I made it clear that my views were at odds with theirs. I left with a lot to think about, and I’m grateful for that.
A NEW CLUB, A NEW CASTE
But with all due respect to the Club, with its religiosity, racial obsessions, and defensive secrecy, it simply doesn’t share the spirit of America’s greatest journalist. If the Club wants to advance a conservatism of heredity and the holy, one that spurns multiculturalism and the dictatorship of the dollar, I suggest it rename itself after a more appropriate figure. What about The Yukio Mishima League? Or The Marcus Garvey Institute? Or The Order of Crazy Horse? “The H.L. Mencken Club” could then be claimed by a group truly attuned with the maverick newspaperman’s weltanschauung.
How do I envision such an association? What does it concern itself with? What drives it? For one thing, it’s as irreverent and curious as the Marylander himself. It esteems learning, honor, and most of all, freedom. It studies and discusses science, art, and nearly anything else in a spirit of skepticism and open-mindedness. It examines religion only as a product of the human imagination: an inestimable influence on every facet of existence, the fertilizer of some of the most exquisite architecture, music, and literature ever, but not a guide for life, at least not one the fellowship espouses. (Individual members may follow whatever spiritual path they like, but don’t evangelize to their peers.)
The same would hold for morality. I imagine a group that studies issues like same-sex marriage in a spirit of Wertfreiheit. The question is whether laws allowing such matrimonies enhance the nation’s liberty and general health, not if they’re immoral. As a researcher dispassionately examines water samples, fossils, or statistical data, so my fantasy association dissects ideas. Whether a concept or a work smacks of one ideological bent or another is immaterial. The question is whether it makes sense or if it’s simply beautiful.
The sodality encourages and fosters debate both within its circle and beyond it, but not ad hominem attacks or the incessant, indecent harassment Mencken loathed. Aside from liberty, dignity, and enlightenment, the group holds nothing sacred, not even the Sun god himself. I picture a fellowship that has no time for jingoism, piety, and sentimentality. It would reject both the blind worship of the past practiced by conservatives and the call for brave new worlds by radicals.
Like Mencken, the organization admires the great aristocracies of the past. However, its membership rolls are open to anyone of whatever gender, sexual orientation, race, class, religion, or ideology, with a history of accomplishment, hard work, and inquisitiveness. Indeed, the group’s goal—perhaps a pipe dream—would be to nurture a future nobility. As H.L.M. wrote,
Thus politics, under democracy, resolves itself into impossible alternatives. Whatever the label on the parties, or the war cries issuing from the demagogues who lead them, the practical choice is between the plutocracy on the one side and a rabble of preposterous impossibilists on the other. One must either follow the New York Times, or one must be prepared to swallow Bryan and the Bolsheviki. It is a pity that this is so. For what democracy needs most of all is a party that will separate the good that is in it theoretically from the evils that beset it practically, and then try to erect that good into a workable system. What it needs beyond everything is a party of liberty. . . It will never have a party of [libertarians] until it invents and installs a genuine aristocracy, to breed them and secure them. (Notes, p. 153.)
[President Obama] is taking it straight to his perceived enemy, calling both Fox News and Rush Limbaugh radical and out of the mainstream, making the two crazier than a preacher at a whorehouse with a parishioner working the door. Because that is exactly what they say about him. [Emphasis mine.] Methinks there may be a bad case of “can dish it out but not take it” going around.
Conservative commentators are retaliating by lobbing charges of extreme partisanship at the President. Claiming he totally ignored his campaign promise to be “a uniter, not a divider.” Oh wait, that wasn’t him. That was the other guy. Sorry. You remember the last guy. Now there was someone who reeked of non- partisanship. At least I think that’s what it was.
Look, let me me make something clear: this isn’t a case of worshipping Obama. I don’t worship him, much less any mortal on this lugubrious ball. I’m just applauding Durst’s, and yes, Obama’s too, common-sense. The Bush administration and its apologists were opposed to the point of lunacy against any and all criticism. Now Republicans are upset when a president speaks back to the press? Would it kill them them to simply say, “Of course he says we’re wretched! No surprise there. We say the same thing about him. That’s just good business.” The haters of Obama are so full of loathing for the man I wonder if they’d say it was a Communist/Socialist/Islamofascist/feminist/gay liberation plot if he found a cure for AIDS.
This is why I find the U.S. news commentary for the most part so dull. It takes predictability and stodginess to almost Soviet levels. The right condemns the left. The left condemns the right. For the love of God, can’t you once, just once say something surprising? Do you have to follow the party line like a rabbi adheres to kosher dietary laws? Is it possible that an approach or initiative not within your ideological scope might have some validity? Even if you don’t agree with it, can you perceive at least some charm? And why does everything have to be “right/wrong,” “good/bad”? Could it be that they are instances were neither side has an answer? Where the situation is hopeless?
None of today’s pundits are fit to wear H. L. Mencken’s mantle. They’re not intellectuals; they’re yelping, whining sports fans, fanatically devoted to their teams at the cost of all reason and critical thinking.
“Society cannot exist without inequality of fortunes and the inequality of fortunes could not subsist without religion. Whenever a half-starved person is near another who is glutted, it is impossible to reconcile the difference if there is not an authority who tells him to.” Napoleon Bonaparte, general and politician (1769-1821)
We’re the flowers in the dustbin. . .
The Sex Pistols, “God Save The Queen”
I’m nosy. I love to snoop around. I once reported for a commodities news service, and nearly all my work was phone based, but you could say investigating market rumors and trends is a kind of snooping. On top of that, I love “finds.” I poke around flea markets and used-book stalls for something forgotten yet beautiful, worthless to others but a prize for me. My discovery of a Don’t Call Me a Crook! is an example of this, although it I spotted it a public library, not on a folding table or in a dusty shop.
A month ago, on my way to Carl Schultz Park, I spotted a huge book in a garbage can. Measuring roughly a foot in width and length and about three inches thick, it was big enough to be a family Bible. It even came with a sturdy, dark green case. But it wasn’t a Bible—it was a wedding album, and not an old, dusty, dog-eared one. It was in perfect condition and dated May 2004.
Why would anyone dump a wedding album in a public trash bin? That’s different than carefully tearing up its pictures, dropping them into a garbage bag, and fastening the pouch so the ripped photos are hidden. This is a public and stark renunciation of the album’s contents.
If someone gave you the book, one option would be it to return it. Of course, that’s got to be more than a little uncomfortable. What do you say? “Your wedding pictures are so sweet and precious, but I’m clearing stuff out, and…” But as awkward and alienating as it might giving it back, the act’s politics are different from the genuinely shocking violence and irreverence of chucking an album into a public garbage, not even bothering to bury it beneath rubbish. The act screams “I don’t care about you anymore, and I’m not going to hide my disdain. The memories these photos record are nothing to me. They’re worse than nothing. I won’t even let this book gather dust in my overpriced studio apartment: I want it out of my life. Gone!”
Why leave photos of a man and wife’s happiest day (or what they hoped would be their happiest day) with rotting banana peels and empty dog food cans? Why abandon them for some dude to bring home and use as the basis for a blog post?
Who dropped it in the can? A former friend of the couple? A disgruntled relative? Did the marriage end so quickly and badly that one of its partners was moved to exile reminders of its first day to a trash can?
Actually, whoever slipped the album into the bin might’ve been motivated by something blander than vitriol. Perhaps he was a handyman, sweeping up the detritus of past tenants. Hopefully it wasn’t the couple who left behind their own wedding album: that’s a little too absentminded! In any case, the bin-banishment was still brutal, but impersonal. Like a sexton kicking a sleeping bum out of church, he was just doing his job.
For the sake of discretion and decency, I won’t tell you the couple’s identity. Suffice to say their names, both given and cognominal, are unassuming and Anglo-Saxon. Both the groom and bride are young and attractive, in their early to mid-twenties. Both have light-brown hair: the bride has hers back in not a painful but a pleasant and comfortable bun with blond highlights. Later photos reveal the bun consists of interwoven braids, the effect like a bouquet. The groom’s haircut is short, spikey with mousse.
The album’s first photo is of the bride, in her white gown sitting on a bed. Her grin reveals large, bright teeth. She’s a lovely woman, almost beautiful, with tan skin, luminous green eyes, and full breasts. She casually holds a bedpost with one hand, and lets the other rest on the cover. I doubt she’s aware of photo’s eroticism. Was the photographer?
In the next photo the bridesmaids join their friend on the bed. (Get that smirk off your face.) They too are attractive girls, but look younger, less sophisticated than the bride. Has love and commitment matured the wife-to-be? She’s certainly the most pulchritudinous of the lot.
You can pretty much guess the course of the rest of the album: the father-of-the-bride (I assume that’s her father) walks her to the altar, the couple says their vows, friends and family pose for pictures, the assembled take lunch and dinner, man and wife cut the cake and slip morsels into each other’s mouths. However, there is one surprise: the ceremony unfolds on a beach.
The sand is pristine, and in some pictures it has a burnt-almond hue. A path, flanked left and right by white, broken shells and small stones, divides the seated guests and leads to a white lattice arch there the couple say the vows. A stout, white-haired officiant gazes placidly at them. The bride looks close to tears in one shot.
The wedding party is entirely Caucasian. The women are well-dressed for the occasion, but the young men are too casual. They have their shirts open-necked: one is shod in sneakers! The groom wears a goatee. It signifies more frat boy than hipster, although nowadays the terms aren’t mutually exclusive.
Where do these scenes unfold? Perhaps somewhere on either coast, but not necessarily. The Great Lakes have beaches. Perhaps it’s on an island.
It’s tempting, maybe even logical, to assume scenes unfold somewhere in the U.S, but there’s no reason to think it couldn’t be Canada, Great Britain, Australia, or anywhere in the English-speaking world. It could be nearly anywhere. South America, for example—why not? The couple could be scions of expatriates, with names from the old country. English could be a second language for them, an ill-fitting hand-me-down. I doubt it, but it’s amusing to imagine the bride whispering “I do” in Spanish or Portuguese.
But for all its charm and wonder, the album is very sad. Something went wrong between friends, between relatives, between parent and child, or most likely, between man and wife. As happy as the pictures are, it’s impossible to forget where the album was discarded. What happened? That’s a true-crime mystery, and I’m not sure I want to solve it.
I just finished reading this wonderful piece on Andre the Giant from Modern Drunkard magazine. I never was that into the guy before, but now I’m a real fan. I love him the same way I love Bob Moore: he was lusty, crazy, and full of life … and alcohol. Imagine if the author of Don’t Call Me a Crook! and the Gigantic Andre met for an imbibing match… Whoa, the mind reels. Methinks that Andre would sip Bobby under the table, but hey, that’s no disgrace. We’re talking about Andre.