Posts Tagged ‘H. L. Mencken’

H.L. Mencken and the Pledge of Allegiance

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

I think Hank would’ve dug this. (Special thanks to Jackie of San Francisco for tipping us to the below clip.)

Heaving Dead Cats on Memorial Day with H.L. Mencken (and Boyd Rice too!)

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Yesterday I came across an interesting piece at The New American, a John Birch Society website and magazine.  Jack Kenny writes that

Perhaps as we remember the war dead this Memorial Day, we might commit our prayers and any efforts we can make for our country not only to the cause of liberty, but also to the all-important task of guiding our nation to a path of peace. Perhaps we should determine to stay out of those foreign wars and “entangling alliances” that Washington and Jefferson warned against, and employ the force of arms only when it is genuinely a last resort — when war truly is “forced upon us,” as our leaders like to say when they are all the while pursuing a war of choice. While decorating the graves of our war dead this Memorial Day, let us resolve to make fewer of them.

Kenny cites a remark by Robert Taft, a U.S. Republican senator who opposed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and involvement in Korea.

“War, undertaken even for justifiable purposes, such as to punish aggression in Korea, has often had the principal results of wrecking the country intended to be saved and spreading death and destruction among an innocent civilian population,” he said. “Even more than Sherman knew in 1864, ‘war is hell.’ War should never be undertaken or seriously risked except to protect American Liberty.”

I also recently ran across a quotation from Russell Kirk, the great American conservative thinker:

A handful of individuals, some of them quite unused to moral responsibilities on such a scale, made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we must make it our business to curtail the possibility of such snap decisions.

We tend to conflate conservatism with hawkishness.  There are good reasons for doing so, but the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.  There’s been the American Anti-Imperialist League, which opposed the annexation of the Philippines and was comprised of such working-class heroes as Andrew Carnegie, William Graham Sumner, and Grover Cleveland; Middle-American opposition to World Wars One and Two; and antiwar.com, a libertarian site against U.S. invention overseas.
 
Nearly two years ago I concluded “No More Veterans Days” with a passage from Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States:

Let’s go back to the beginning of Veterans Day. It used to be Armistice Day, because at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I came to an end…  Veterans Day, instead of an occasion for denouncing war, has become an occasion for bringing out the flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic speeches…  Those who name holidays, playing on our genuine feeling for veterans, have turned a day that celebrated the end of a horror into a day to honor militarism.  As a combat veteran myself, of a “good war,” against fascism, I do not want the recognition of my service to be used as a glorification of war. Veterans Day should be an occasion for a national vow: No more war victims on the other side; no more war veterans on our side.

Isn’t it curious that the words of paleo-conservatives and a Marxist historian sound so similar?  Maybe it’s because they express a basic truth: War is a pointless waste of lives and resources.
 
“Yet the human race,” H.L. Mencken wrote, after watching generals “perform their gory buffooneries, cheers them when they come home, dazed and empty-headed, and thrusts its highest honors upon them.  What a certificate to its judgment, its common sense, its sense of humor, its right to survive on earth!”

Mencken with cigar

H. L. Mencken, contemplating throwing kitty corpses into shrines

That’s a tad insensitive, particularly on this day of remembrance, don’t you think?  Yes, but as Mencken wrote elsewhere “Such are the facts.  I apologize for the Babylonian indecency of printing them.”   There’s a time for sensitivity, but it limits and controls dialogue.  We hold back from expressing heterodox ideas because we don’t want to risk ostracism.  What do we call that which runs against notions of propriety?  “Bad taste,” i.e., doesn’t taste good.  As any mother will tell you, the most nutritious foods often are the least tasty.  If your diet only consists of candy, pizzas, and milkshakes, get ready for a date with diabetes.

As Mencken said of image breakers,

The iconoclast proves enough when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing — that at least [ital]one[ital] visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts.  The liberation of the human mind has been best furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud.  One horse-laugh is worth ten-thousand syllogisms.

More than a half a century later, another American iconoclast, Boyd Rice, would remark on the irreconcilability of sensitivity and truth:

I have never pretended to be a nice guy, because I’m not. It’s fairly impossible to remain true to oneself and still be a “nice guy.” Similarly, only people as misanthropic as myself can be counted on not to have to lie to others, since we have the unique luxury of not caring what sort of opinions others formulate about us. . .   If others choose to see the world in terms of sugar, spice and everything nice, that’s certainly their prerogative, and I would never dream of trying to tell them otherwise.

Boyd Rice

Boyd Rice: The American Iconoclast

Memorials, whether of marble or holidays, are reliquaries for received truths.  As such, a trace of impertinence, even the heaving “dead cats into sanctuaries,” is essential to the frank study of war history.  Examining the new spate of books that challenge assumptions about World War Two, Adam Kirsch writes in The New York Times Book Review that

The passage of time doesn’t just turn life into history; it also changes the contours of history itself. Over the last several years, historians, philosophers and others have begun to think about the Second World War in challenging and sometimes disturbing new ways, reflecting the growing distance between the country that fought the war and the country that remembers it. . . .

To those who fought World War II, it was plain enough that Allied bombs were killing huge numbers of German civilians, that Churchill was fighting to preserve imperialism as well as democracy, and that the bulk of the dying in Europe was being done by the Red Army at the service of Stalin. It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth — because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a “good war,” and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat.

If that didn’t ruffle your feathers, I’ll leave you with this scene from Platform, Michel Houellebecq’s fantastic novel of sex and Fundamentalism.  While on a group tour of Thailand, the protagonist visits a museum dedicated to the horrors suffered by allied POWs.

Certainly, I thought, what had happened was thoroughly regrettable; but, let’s face it, worse things happened during the Second World War.  I couldn’t help thinking that if the prisoners had been Polish or Russian there would have been a lot less fuss.

A little later, we were required to endure a visit to the cemetery for the allied prisoners of war — those who had, in a manner of speaking, made the ultimate sacrifice.  There were white crosses in neat rows, all identical; the place radiated a profound monotony.  It reminded me of Omaha Beach, which really hadn’t moved me either, had actually reminded me, in fact, of a contemporary art installation. “In this place,” I said to myself, with a feeling of sadness which I felt was somewhat inadequate, “In this place, a bunch of morons died for the sake of democracy.”

Stalin Parade

J-O-S-E-P-H-S-T-A-L-I-N! Joseph Stalin! Joseph Stalin! Forever we hold our banner high, high, HIGH!

 

H.L. Mencken in Tahir Square: Democracy or Destruction?

Friday, February 25th, 2011

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.

Richard Cohen of The Washington Post wrote

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.

Viridiana

Uploaded by tagnuevo. – Independent web videos.

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.

Be ForeWarned!

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

“Tis’ the season for the subliminal and the over-the-top political ads,” ForeWord Reviews’ managing editor Kimber Bilby writes today in ForeWord This Week, an e-newsletter. “And they’re definitely getting to me because I’ve chosen two politically-inspired titles for our featured FTW reviews.”  And guess what?  Notes on Democracy: A New Edition is one of them!  No kidding!  We here at Dissident Books are mighty jazzed that the good folks at ForeWord thought to give a well-timed primary-week nod to Mencken’s Majestic Missive on the Mob and its Malice. 

And we’re very flattered that Notes is coupled with what appears to be a scorcher of a book: Lt. Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, a memoir of the war in Iraq.  “While Gallagher didn’t hold back his opinions, there is no mistaking the biting satire of noted social critic H.L. Mencken in Notes on Democracy.”  Take a minute to read what ForeWord has to say about Notes.  And while you’re at it, check out what it had to say about Dissident Books’ other epic, Don’t Call Me a Crook! A Scotsman’s Tale of World Travel, Whisky, and Crime.

“Speaking of democracy and freedom, Banned Books week is only two weeks away,” Bilby segues.  She invites readers to send in their answers to ForeWord’s “Banned Books Survey”:

1. What is the most popular banned book in your library/bookstore?
2. Number one question you’re asked about banned books?
3. What display or event received the most attention during Banned Books Week?

Off hand we can’t think of answers to these excellent questions, but we will say that Mencken fought censorship and Puritanism all his life.  Indeed, he was no stranger to censorship.  A Boston reverend tried to ban The American Mercury, Mencken’s magazine.  The Sage of Baltimore stood up to the Puritan, went to trial, and won.  Right on, Hank!

Notes on Democracy and the Jihad on Narcotics

Friday, April 30th, 2010

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.”

Notes on Democracy Makes the Perfect Gift

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

Erin of the blog “Do I have to have a title?” reports that among her birthday gifts was a copy of Notes on Democracy: A New Edition.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, says “joyeux anniversaire” like a delightful package of iconoclasm and heresy.  Heck, Notes on Democracy is the perfect gift for any occasion.  Gentlemen, remember, St. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner: tell your true love you care with Mencken’s savage attack on universal suffrage!

Cato Institute scholar calls “Notes on Democracy” “the best for-pleasure book I read (so far!) in 2009″

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Justin Logan, associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute today called Notes on Democracy: A New Edition “the best for-pleasure book I read (so far!) in 2009.”

Mr. Logan, we at Dissident Books congratulate you on your superb taste.  You are a gentleman and a scholar.  We thank you, and Mr. Mencken thanks you!

1919: The Year Liberalism Broke

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

City Journal this week published an outstanding piece on World War I and its aftermath in America.  In “1919: Betrayal and the Birth of Modern Liberalism”, Fred Siegel, a City Journal contributing editor and a visiting professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, challenges the notion that liberalism is a direct descendant of 19th and early 20th century reformers.  “Today’s state-oriented liberalism, we are often told, was the inevitable extension of the pre–World War I tradition of progressivism….  After the unfortunate Republican interregnum of the 1920s, so the story goes, this progressivism, faced with the Great Depression, matured into the full-blown liberalism of the New Deal.”

However, it’s not as simple as that.  Siegel writes that

But a central strand of modern liberalism was born of a sense of betrayal, of a rejection of progressivism, of a shift in sensibility so profound that it still resonates today. More precisely, the cultural tone of modern liberalism was, in significant measure, set by a political love affair gone wrong between Wilson and a liberal Left unable to grapple with the realities of Prussian power. Initially embraced by many leftists as a thaumaturgical leader of near-messianic promise, Wilson came to be seen—in the wake of a cataclysmic war, a failed peace, repression at home, revolution abroad, and a country wracked by a “Red Scare”—as a Judas. His numinous rhetoric, it was concluded, was mere mummery.

One strand of progressives grew contemptuous not only of Wilson but of American society. For the once-ardent progressive Frederick Howe, formerly Wilson’s Commissioner of Immigration, the prewar promise of a benign state built on reasoned reform had turned to ashes. “I hated,” he wrote, “the new state that had arisen” from the war. “I hated its brutalities, its ignorance, its unpatriotic patriotism, that made profit from our sacrifices and used it to suppress criticism of its acts. . . . I wanted to protest against the destruction of my government, my democracy, my America.”

Like John Emerson’s great piece on the Bourbon Democrats and H. L. Mencken, Siegel reveals fascinating historical tidbits.  Almost 500,000 million Germans left America to join the ranks of the Kaiser’s army.  He details the era’s paranoia over all things Teutonic.  Little did I know that there was some justification for the fear:

Charles John Hexamer, president of the National German-American Alliance, financed in part by the German government, insisted that Germans needed to maintain their separate identity and not “descend to the level of an inferior culture.” Germans even began attacking that inferior culture. The most important instance of German domestic sabotage was the spectacular explosion on Black Tom Island in the summer of 1916, which shook a sizable swath of New York City and New Jersey. The man-made peninsula in New York Harbor was a key storage and shipping point for munitions sold to the British and French. The bombing sank the peninsula into the sea, killed seven, and damaged the Statue of Liberty. Wilson denounced Germany’s supporters in America: “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”

The war, with its jingoism and repression of dissent, together with Prohibition and the Red Scare, soured many forward-minded thinkers on American “progress.” 

What followed was not so much protest as simmering scorn. In 1919, the Germanophile H. L. Mencken, writing in The New Republic, called sarcastically for honoring the civilian heroes who had suppressed Beethoven by bedizening them with bronze badges and golden crosses. Mencken ridiculed the mass of Americans who had backed “Wilson’s War,” branding them a “timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob”; a great admirer of Kaiser Wilhelm, he denigrated American democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses.” Taking its cues from Mencken, the liberalism that emerged from 1919 was contemptuous of American culture and politics. For liberals, the war years had shown that American society and democracy were themselves agents of repression. These sentiments deepened during the 1920s and have been an ongoing current in liberalism ever since.

Siegel leaves out that Mencken himself was scornful of liberals.  His unleashes his wrath on them throughout Notes on Democracy.  Moreover, I don’t think liberals are alone in the their contempt of American society.  It would be more accurate to say they, like conservatives, hold a contempt for those stretches of the nation’s landscape that don’t adhere to their principals and values.  For some, gay marriage, atheism, and war resistance are vitally American.

To his credit, Siegel identifies one of liberalism’s best qualities:

The new liberal ethos was not without its virtues. In picking their fights with Prohibition and their former hero Wilson, liberals encouraged the sense of tolerance and appreciation of differences that would, over time, mature into what came to be called pluralism. “The root of liberalism,” wrote [Harold] Stearns, “is hatred of compulsion, for liberalism has the respect for the individual and his conscience and reason which the employment of coercion necessarily destroys.” Though not always observed by liberals themselves, the call for an urbane temper would come to mark liberalism at its best.

This is no small point.  In Notes, Mencken himself contrasts repressive America with “more liberal and enlightened countries.”  Mencken’s “philosophy, stated one critic, was ‘thoroughly American,’ the remnants of nineteenth-century liberal thought,” Marion Elizabeth Rodgers explains in her introduction to Notes.

Regardless of Siegel’s views on liberalism, his piece is fascinating.  Anyone who’d like a backgrounder on the political and intellectual climate that fostered Mencken’s dark, cynical position on democracy and America should read it.

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

Monday, 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.

Would Hank Join the H. L. Mencken Club?

Friday, 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.)