Sipping sweet, sweet whiskey with H. L. Mencken and the Bourbon Democrats

November 23rd, 2009

I discovered an excellent post on “Open Left” about H. L. Mencken the other day.  The author, John Emerson, puts Mencken’s both elitism and allegiance to the Democrats in the context of a wing of the party I’d never heard of: the Bourbon Democrats:

…Mencken was a Bourbon Democrat. The Bourbon Democrats ruled the South and most of the big cities of the North. They (and their “stand-pat” Republican frenemies) were uniformly corrupt, cynical, elitist, anti-labor, and segregationist. During the 1890s they succeeded in destroying the Populist Party, and in the succeeding era they were under continual attack by progressives within the party, and they and the stand-pat Republicans fought to the death against reform. The Bourbons didn’t lose their power within the party until 1965 or so, and during the New Deal they supported FDR only grudgingly, if at all.

Emerson cites Mencken’s encomium to Grover Cleveland, “the most famous and most successful Bourbon Democrat.”  Cleveland, students of American history will recall, sent troops to Chicago to put down the Pullman Strike.

Surveying today’s political landscape, Emerson remarks that

[T]oo many of the Democratic rank and file – what I call the “wonk demographic” — have bought into the anti-populism, cultural elitism, and administrative liberalism of the machine Democrats, and this cripples the party. In many contexts, becoming a liberal is a way of making yourself a better class of person, the same as buying a nicer pair of shoes or a better kind of cheese.

There’s truth to the that, but there’s another truth that’s even uglier to consider.  Most of the American masses don’t want to hear about progress.  They despise uplift.  Anything that opposes their masters–the corporations, the State (especially the military), and the church–is evil and unpatriotic.  Look at the response to health care reform.  Look at how “socialist” has become a pejorative word.  (Actually it’s been pejorative for decades, but now it’s on a level of “Satanist.”)  Look at the cults of creeps like Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh.

It’s hard, very hard, to fight for people who don’t want to be liberated.  To quote a passage from Notes on Democracy, what the common man mistakes liberty for, “nine times out of ten, is simply the banal right to empty hallelujahs upons his oppressors.  He is an ox whose last proud, defiant gesture is to lick the butcher behind the ear.” 

Bring back the Wobblies, I say.

Bookmark and Share

No More Veterans Days

November 11th, 2009

Here’s an idea: let’s drop Veterans Day.  And while we’re at it, let’s drop Memorial Day too.  I can think of a lot of other holidays we should cut, but let’s start with those two for now.

We’ll take the money saved from forgoing these days off (think of the regained productivity and tax revenue!) and put it toward better hospitals and programs for veterans.  Instead of wasting energy waving flags made in China, let’s see if we can actually help those to whom we supposedly feel so much gratitude.

And while we’re at it, let’s meditate on why we celebrated Veterans and Memorial Days in the first place.  Was it to honor soldiers who defended our freedom?  If that’s the case, think of most, perhaps all, of the wars this country has waged.  Did we need to slaughter over three million Vietnamese so you and I could vote, buy handguns, and download porn?  Which rights were defended when A-bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  How did Mexico, Spain, North Korea, Granada, ad nauseam threaten our liberty?   Could it be that “rights” is just a codeword for imperialism and hegemony?  Is the issue “freedom” or “free markets”?  (Many Americans don’t know the difference.)  And let’s not forget the how the military has been used against Americans themselves, particularly, but not exclusively, the First Americans.

Why are soldiers so esteemed?  Because they serve the State.  Through intimidation and violence, they do its dirty work.  To the State, the soldier is the perfect citizen.  He puts following orders above basic self-interest (i.e., self-preservation).  There’s a reason there’s no “Organizer Day,” “Heretic Holiday,” or “Scientist Appreciation Week.”

But the fighting man isn’t an automaton.  No matter how much his mind is fucked with, he’s still making decisions.  As Joel Stein wrote in his infamous “Warriors and wusses” editorial

[B]laming the president is a little too easy. The truth is that people who pull triggers are ultimately responsible, whether they’re following orders or not.  An army of people making individual moral choices may be inefficient, but an army of people ignoring their morality is horrifying. 

Remember what we said about “only following orders”?

Our soldiers, like all troops, were not, are not, and will never be angels.  The soldiers of yesterday, today, and tomorrow weren’t, aren’t, and will never be any more enlightened than the average schmuck.  Some soldiers are quite brave, and that’s admirable.  But bravery doesn’t equate to moral superiority.  Those who have fought and are fighting against American soldiers are also often very brave, regardless how you feel about their causes (or how you misunderstand them).  Frequently those who war against the U.S. are poorly equipped and trained.  It takes a lot of guts to go up against a military with nearly limitless resources.  And yes, that nod of respect extends to the Confederacy, the Axis forces, and al-Queda.

Bravery comes in many forms.  A worker organizing a union under the threat of the boss’ goons, a black woman sitting at a “Whites Only” lunch counter, or a writer defending a dangerously unpopular position can be just as lionhearted as an infantryman in combat.

Some soldiers aren’t especially brave, nor does their work demand bravery.  To paraphrase Ward Churchill, sometimes it’s pushing buttons in air-conditioned, sterile rooms, no different than playing videogames.  Even when they’re in combat, American soldiers enjoy overwhelming force over their enemies.  How is dropping bombs on civilians courageous?

Some soldiers are craven sadists.  Some just do it because it’s a job.  Because they were unlucky enough to get drafted.  Because bullying, raping, and killing is fun.

The fact is, Zell Miller’s remarks at the 2004 Republican Convention were pure bullshit. 

For it has been said so truthfully that it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press.
It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest.
It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag who gives that protester the freedom to abuse and burn that flag.

No. 

No.

No.

No one gave us these rights.  The idea of someone bestowing a right is medieval.  The Founding Fathers saw rights “as inalienable.”  These freedoms are defended everyday when citizens—reporters, poets, agitators, and protesters—use them, particularly when they use them in ways that displease the majority.

Some might say that our soldiers fought against against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan to keep us free.  Similarly, they’d claim we engaged in proxy wars with the Soviet Union to perserve our liberty.  Again, bullshit.  None of those countries had any more hope, much less plans, to invade Main Street than Vietnam or Cambodia.  Did some good come of fighting the forces of totalitarianism?  Certainly, although I wonder if the fascist and Marxist juggernauts would’ve eventually imploded and collapsed on their own, weighed down by paranoia, xenophobia, and the expense of vast arsenals.  (Sound familiar?)

And today’s struggles against the insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan are no different.  I want to retch whenever I hear someone say “we’re got to fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.”  No, the violence we sow there we reap here.

The military doesn’t defend freedom; it threatens it.  Have you ever heard of an army used to encourage debate and dissent?  When it’s time to organize a coup d’etat, they don’t call up milkmen, sports writers, or bookkeepers.

“Support the troops.”  That’s another way saying don’t criticize them.  Why?  Through my tax dollars I pay them. Imagine a company where the boss can only praise his employees.  I want that job.  You’ll hear that protest is bad for the troops’ morale.  Excellent!  With enough rallies and demonstrations perhaps they’ll get really sad and desert.  Then we won’t have to pay for their idiotic crusades anymore.  “Support the troops” is another way of saying “Don’t question the State.”

When did soliders become faultless, selfless superheroes?  Are we engaged in an adult discourse or a Marvel comic?

I’ve never fought in a war and I don’t plan to.  At this point, I’m far too old for it anyway, thank God.  But let’s hear from an actual veteran.  Here’s Howard Zinn, historian and 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.

Bookmark and Share

A Spectre is Haunting Asia: the Spectre of 1970s Pop Legends

November 7th, 2009

The Ghost of Neil Diamond The Ghost of Neil Diamond by David Milnes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why do we review other publishers’ titles? Because we like to, that’s why! There are a lot of good books out there, and we think you should know about them.

 

The Ghost of Neil Diamond by David Milnes is the best novel I’ve read in years. I’ve not experienced fiction like it since Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.

Novelists can succeed at their craft four ways: story, architecture, painting, and poetry. You almost certainly know what I mean by “story.”  A great story is exactly that: a tale that holds the reader’s interest. It can be an account of high-school angst or interstellar war. Regardless, the writer spins a yarn that keeps your attention, one that you’re glad you made the time to read.

Architecture refers to a novel’s intricacy, staging, and development.  War and Peace, a book I don’t like, is impressive in its sheer breadth, the swath of time, space, and people it covers. While the grandeur of its architecture is undeniable, its story is abysmal. It’s a hideously boring book. A novel doesn’t have to be epic in scale to exhibit fine architecture. While a book might cover a single day spent alone in a protagonist’s life, through its exploration of actions, memories, and psyche it could be as vast as The Odyssey.

A novelist can paint portraits, scenes, and images so striking that it doesn’t matter whether the novel’s story and architecture are weak. Jim Thompson‘s The Grifters and The Getaway are like that. As a stories go, they’re not terribly interesting, but Thompson wields his pen-brush with such artistry that it doesn’t occur to you until later that the plots were pretty threadbare.

Poetry and painting are closely related, but not the same. “Painting” for a novelist is the creation of singular, beautiful, or shocking people, places, or events through words. The word choice itself doesn’t have to be remarkable. With simple, unassuming brushstrokes, the writer can limn memorable language-paintings. Charles Bukowski was like that.

It’s very rare to find writers who can imbue their prose with poetry. And by poetry I don’t mean sonnets and the like. I mean language that conveys that which can only be communicated through words. Plenty can be told through multiple media: think of books that have been made into plays, movies, comics… Poetry is different. It expresses experiences—layered, ephemeral moments—that are language’s sole domain.

A few rare novels excel in all four categories. The Ghost of Neil Diamond, like Suite Francaise, is one such book.

Honestly, I had a good feeling about Ghost right from its opening:

Amen to all sorrows.

With a few splashes of cold water Neil washed away his sins. He watched them slip down the plughole, one by wretched one. The wrongdoings and the wrong turns, the bad debts and the bad memories sank beyond the U-bend, and his soul lay empty and prepared. A whiff reached him from the urinals, the stale reminder of the catalogue of men who had fallen short just this point—the last call, the swan song. Well, forget them, he decided. They had their lives and this is mine. He lifted his aching head to the mirror. This time. Maybe this time.

As Sinatra once said, “If you don’t like that, you don’t like ice cream.” It’s as simple a scene as one could imagine: a man washing his face in a public lavatory. But the painting (the meticulous details, the imagery) coupled with the poetry (the character’s inner dialogue and the artistry by which it’s expressed) is exquisite.

“So what’s it about?” you ask. Set roughly ten years ago, Ghost chronicles the (figurative) death and rebirth of Neil Atherton, a middle-aged English folk musician. Well, more like former folk musician. Atherton has spent most of his life touring “the shabby pub rooms, the British Legion Clubs, cellar bars, back rooms, church halls,” struggling, waiting, plying and honing his art, waiting for folk’s revival. But sadly, unlike rockabilly, big band, and ska, no acoustic phoenix has risen from the cigarette ashes. Folk died years ago, is still dead, and almost certainly will remain dead. (Now to all you hipsters who are about to write angry emails on how there’s a vibrant folk scene in your town, chill. I’m sure there are some swell singer-songwriters warbling in basements near and far. But unlike the hip-hoppers, their music ain’t paying the bills. Day jobs at offices, libraries, and department stores are.) Neil’s wife, Angel, in a last-ditch effort to escape destitution, takes up a lucrative job selling shipping space in Hong Kong, dragging Atherton along.

In Hong Kong, Atherton transforms from an anti-establishment, gypsy troubadour to a kept man. The thing is, Mrs. Atherton isn’t so keen to keep her man. She’s taken to Hong Kong’s restlessness, ruthless meritocracy, and itches to trade Atherton in for a newer, sleeker model. Jobless and purposeless, Atherton keeps his self-esteem on life-support by singing karaoke, much to unsympathetic wifey’s disgust.

One night, a local shady businessman, Elbert Chan, catches Atherton performing “Reason to Believe” as Neil Diamond. Chan, sensing a hot property ripe for the plucking, gives Neil his business card. “If you want to fix up some dates, some bookings,” he offers, “just call or stop by… I think you’re terrific. Terrific. I really do. Any time. Open door. Perhaps I can be of service.”

(Minor point: I can find no mention of Neil Diamond performing “Reason to Believe” under its Wikipedia page or that of its composer, Tim Hardin. What does that mean? Any number of things. Maybe Diamond did cover it–Wikipedia is far from infallible. Maybe the author made a mistake; certainly not an important one. Perhaps this is an instance of a writer rewiring reality ever-so slightly to fit better his novel’s architecture.)

What’s Atherton’s reaction to such a promising overture? Disinterest, of course. But Angel (now that’s an interesting name choice) pushes him to take up Chan’s offer. (“Losers can’t be choosers, Neil.”) And thus begins Atherton’s initiation into Neil Diamond’s world, or more accurately, the world of Neil Diamond impersonation. Initiation into a literal cult of personality. Suffice to say nothing is as it seems, or as Atherton hopes.

Chan becomes Atherton’s second wife. The relationship isn’t intimate or loving, yet it’s very sexual in that it’s driven by lust: specifically, lust for recognition and money. (Neil Diamond.) Like a shrewd shrew, Chan alternately encourages and belittles Atherton, ignores and lavishes attention, knocks him down only to build him up again.

Ghost, though quite original, follows the noir trope of the basically innocent man suddenly swept into a strange and corrupt world. Although there’s no gangsters or violence, the underworld pulsates just below story’s surface (forgive the pun).

I could reveal more of the novel’s masterful architecture, but that would be unfair to you. If a family tells you they’re making a pilgrimage to a beautiful cathedral, you don’t show them photographs of its interior. No, let the church’s stained glass, carvings, and sheer vastness astonish them. And at the risk of sounding effusive, you should make a pilgrimage to The Ghost of Neil Diamond.  It’s that superb.

Ghost is about a lot more than one man’s venture into show-business’s fringes.  It tackles authenticity versus imitation, generations of duplication, identity, art versus commerce, representation, and transformation. (Andy Warhol would’ve loved this book.) Atherton is both a ghost of Neil Diamond and haunted by the vocalist’s spirit.  It’s not for nothing that Ghost is set in the Far East, where factories churn out products originally made in the West. The output’s quality varies from shoddy knockoffs to substantial improvements:

A beautiful Chinese girl came on, dressed in a silvery sixties slip that was little more than a nightdress… She delivered a flawless Downtown. Petula Clark had to stay on the opposite screen the whole song. But Petula Clark was ignored, irrelevant. She’d been upstaged. Against her beautiful Chinese impersonator, Clark—in her mid-thirties, in dowdy black and white, 1965, couldn’t compete. Not even with her one and only British hit. There was a discipline about this girl’s performance that was unsettling to Neil… It was like watching a mirror image to Clark, except that she was so much prettier and sexier and more exotic.

Oh, and if that’s not enough, The Ghost of Neil Diamond is also about culture clashes; performing; music; ambition; success; failure; desperation; home and homeless; music; sex; desire; flatulence…

When he looked down, everywhere he looked, the thighs were trapped under the overflowing buttocks of European, Australian and American men, in their Thai silk suits or linen chinos… And trapped deep and tight between those overflowing buttocks were arseholes that had farted and shat on long haul flights to and from every capital in the world. Arseholes that had shat in Hyatts all around Asia, broken wind in conference rooms scented with rosewater, in Macau and Shenzen and Guangzhou.

That’s a hysterically funny passage, but it’s also an example of Ghost’s poignant—yes, I said poignant—poetry.

If you can’t see the lyricism in farting—although, hey, passing gas is as much a part of life as work, eating, and sex—savor this passage from late in the novel, when Atherton and Chan have a business breakfast at a swank hotel’s cafe. Atherton contemplates the restaurant’s stunning vista:

Now, sipping his second glass of coffee, Neil came to understand what gave the view its power. It wasn’t just the beautiful panorama itself, with all its gliding reflections and deceptions. It was the silence of the scene beyond the glass. The silence underscored it all, as it were. The wash in the harbor was heavy from the weight of traffic—the ferries, barges, crane barges and liners—yet they all went by without a sound, not a hundred yards away. In the closeness of the sea traffic to the massive glass walls there was a danger, a recklessness, but it was suppressed, silenced, there was not a word about that. The risk had been taken and forgotten, had sunk to the bottom of the sea.

Like the hotel, Atherton seizes Hong Kong’s spirit of risk and takes a gamble, perhaps the first real one he’s ever wagered.  Does he win?  That’s for you to find out. But Ghost itself takes a gamble—a story about an English folkie in Hong Kong impersonating Neil Diamond? Really?—and it pays off brilliantly.

Can I find any faults in Ghost? A few, but again, like Sinatra said, too few to mention. I would’ve liked a blurb about the author, David Milnes: who he is, his past, and how come he writes so Goddamn good.

Incidentally, if you think it’s far-fetched that a veteran of the cellar bars would take up Neil Diamond impersonation, I draw your attention to Phranc, an “all-American Jewish lesbian folk singer,” who for awhile wowed audiences with her tributes to the Brooklyn Gemstone, complete with fake sideburns and chest hair.  Now that’s art.

View all my reviews >>

Bookmark and Share

Would Hank Join the H. L. Mencken Club?

November 6th, 2009

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.)

Bookmark and Share

Well, exactly…

October 27th, 2009

Will Durst, the political humorist, really got it right today with his “Poking the cobra” post:

[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.

Bookmark and Share

Booklust returns and reviews “Don’t Call Me a Crook!”

September 24th, 2009

You might recall my August 23 post (“Booklust takes ‘Don’t Call Me a Crook!’ on a trip”).  Well, Booklust is back, and has written a review of Bob Moore’s pickled, globetrotting and illegal memoirs.  We’re pretty stroked to see she gave it a rating of 7.5 out of 10–not bad!  Personally, we think Mr. Moore’s memoirs rate an 11 out of 10, but we have an admittedly biased opinion.  “I don’t know if there are any thoroughly unapologetic, charmingly devious con men out there in the world like him any more,” Booklust writes.  “The author embodied the spirit of the Roaring 20s, of a world thrilled to be done with WWI and happily ignoring the inevitability of WWII, a world that had not reached the Great Depression, and was riding high on waves of lawlessness and corruption on the cusp of the modern age. . . .  It’s hard to admire him, but it’s impossible to dislike him. He has a certain roguish, rakish charm.”

Booklust also comments wisely on Moore’s racism.  In the book’s third part, “Mitchell and China,” “Moore’s racism and bigotry shine through a little too much for my liking,” she remarks. “However, it made the book very real. I think now, a lot of historical fiction tends to glaze over the racial relations of the past, sidestepping the complications and possible negative reactions that those situations can create. But when you read books that were written in those eras, by people who lived them. . .  well, it’s just there. Innate. In the pores, as it were. Yes, it is hard to read, but it’s worse to ignore it, and worst to pretend it never happened, I think. Moore had opinions and he stuck by them, regardless of how narrow-minded or slippery his ideas were. I can’t help but respect a man who sticks to his guns. And when he does it in such a hilariously self-righteous and interesting manner. . . well, that just makes the going that much easier.”

We completely agree.  How often in movies and books about the past do you find whitewashing of discrimination and strife?  The good old days weren’t so good.  Like today, there was hatred and racism.  Like Booklust, we prefer reality to lies.

Booklust ends her review with an equally perceptive summary: “Don’t Call Me a Crook is a fun and interesting look at what life was like for the working class of the 1920s–unapologetic, realistic and true, it sheds light on what must have been a fascinating time to be alive.”  She’s absolutely right to stress that Don’t Call Me a Crook! is a proletarian memoir.  As The Scotsman (Edinburgh) pointed out, “Moore’s book is one of relatively few accounts looking at the Roaring Twenties from the point of view of a Scot who was, if hardly at the bottom of the social order, at least not born with a silver spoon in his gob.”  It might break the hearts of politically correct folks to read that a laboring man didn’t feel class solidarity (just the opposite: he wanted your job!), and saw the world through a sexist, racist, and greedy lens, but that’s their problem.  Again, we’ll take truth over fairy tales.

Bookmark and Share

Book Review: “Shooting Star” and “Spiderweb” by Robert Bloch

September 18th, 2009

Shooting Star/Spiderweb (Hard Case Crime #42) Shooting Star/Spiderweb by Robert Bloch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A great package! I knew nothing of Robert Bloch when I picked up this book at the library.  I selected it largely because of my experiences with other releases from its publisher, Hard Case Crime.  Bloch was the author of Psycho and the youngest within H. P. Lovecraft’s circle.

Both novels are gritty, L.A. mean noir, and have some exquisite and darkly funny word-paintings.  From Spiderweb:

The Professor nodded and whispered.  “We’re back in the world of normal people, my friend. Look at them.”

I looked. . . .

A cannibalistic circle huddled around a small fire, gorging on half-raw weenies and rancid dill pickles.  Troglodyte faces gaped in the firelight.  A wrinkled, wizened old man’s head: white, bushy hair and beetling black brows that moved convulsively as he chewed with his whole face.  There was a fat, blobby woman with stringy hair and a red neck: the rest of her flesh hung in dead white folds, broken here and there by bulging purplish veins that stood out like mountain ranges on a relief map.  She slapped at a screaming brat with one beefy hand, slopping beer from a punctured can clutched in the other.  A bullet-headed youth squatted next to a portable radio, fiddling with the volume control and scratching the hairy recesses of his armpits.

From Shooting Star:

Yes, there but for the grace of God went all of us, and there seemed to be plenty the grace of God had somehow overlooked. Everybody overlooked them, including the nice, clean, family newspapers and the smug little moralists who devoted their oracular pronouncements to solving vital problems of people who couldn’t make up their minds between buying a new station wagon or taking a vacation in Hawaii this season.

Neither book is perfect.  They both hinge on paranoid fears over dated controversies: marijuana in Shooting Star and self-help gurus in Spiderweb.  (Incidentally, alcoholism plays a curious subtext in both.  Booze gushes everywhere.  Perhaps that’s unsurprising given the books were written a half-century ago, but it also suggests a sly take on sanctioned addictions versus criminal ones: “Put down that joint, stop listening to that shrink, and have a drink!”)  Shooting Star’s ending is so contrived and deus ex machina it detracts from its overall artistry.  But don’t let any of this dissuade you from reading the book.  It’s a fantastic read!

View all my reviews >>

Bookmark and Share

From Associated Press: “Cops: Man steals woman’s car on first date”

August 30th, 2009

From Associated Press, updated 11:43 p.m. ET, Sat., Aug 29, 2009

FERNDALE, Michigan – A first date went from bad to worse when a man skipped out on the restaurant bill, then stole his date’s car, police said.

Police say 23-year-old Terrance Dejuan McCoy had dinner with a woman April 24 at Buffalo Wild Wings in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale. The woman said the two met a week earlier at a Detroit casino and she knew McCoy only as “Chris.”

The woman told police that McCoy said he left his wallet in her car and asked for keys. He then sped away in the 2000 Chevrolet Impala.

Not terribly romantic…  A descendant of Bob Moore, perhaps?  Same sense of chivalry.

For more click here.

Bookmark and Share

Great quotation from Napoleon

August 28th, 2009

“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)

From Wordsmith.

Bookmark and Share

Anatomy of a Killer and A Shroud for Jesso by Peter Rabe

August 28th, 2009

Anatomy of a Killer & A Shroud for Jesso Anatomy of a Killer & A Shroud for Jesso by Peter Rabe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Very good! I read much of “Anatomy of a Killer” on train rides from New York to D.C. and back again. At times I was a little tired, and that might account for the confusion I experienced with some of it.  That said, someone else remarked that Rabe does a lot of “head-hopping,” i.e., quick changes in perspective.  It’s literally a portrait (“Anatomy”) of a young killer. It doesn’t surprise me Rabe was a psychologist because really does go into the characters’ heads, particularly their habits, methods, etc. Of the two novels, I liked “A Shroud for Jesso” the best.  As Donald Westlake observes in his afterword, at first it’s a nasty big American city-hardboiled tale, but then quickly switches gears into an Continental espionage thriller and romance.  Don’t let “romance” fool you though: this is a bitter, bitter story.  The characters are really well-crafted. I can’t understand why it wasn’t made into a film.  “Killer” also would’ve been good on the screen.  Recommended!

View all my reviews >>

Bookmark and Share