I had a nice conversation with a lady that I earlier gave copies of Dissident Books’ two offerings, Notes on Democracy: A New Edition and Don’t Call Me a Crook! She said she was enjoying both. However, she was curious about my company’s name and how it fit in with its two titles. She could see how it applied with Bob Moore, the author of Don’t Call Me a Crook!, a rouge and scoundrel, yet questioned its suitability for Mencken.
According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, “dissident” means “disagreeing with an opinion or group: disaffected.” The definition of “disaffected” is “discontent and resentful esp. against authority; rebellious.” Mencken considered himself part of a permanent opposition, always skeptical of whatever agenda the governing class and its lackeys sought to push through.
Yes, though he was a libertarian, he was no one’s freedom fighter. As Marion Elizabeth Rodgers cites in her introduction to Notes, Mencken wrote that
If I have accomplished anything in this world it is this: that I have made life measurably more bearable for the civilized minority in America. The individuals of this minority are often surrounded by dark, dense seas of morons and so they tend to become hopeless. I have reason to believe that my books and other writings have given a little comfort to many such persons and even inspired some of them to revolt. I am glad of the comfort but the revolt doesn’t interest me.
Yes, revolt didn’t interest him, but he spoke out against censorship, what he perceived as injustice, cant, and hypocrisy. As I said to the reader, unlike most pundits today, he wasn’t a mouthpiece for a political party or social class. He had a stake in the battles of his time only insofar as he felt one side was right, or at least more tolerable than the other. He certainly wasn’t an uplifter. “I am against slavery simply because I dislike slaves,” he quipped.
Mencken didn’t follow anyone’s talking-points memo. He was an outsider, in the best sense of the word. And in that regard, he was a dissident.
Most of us think of a dissident as someone fighting for a philanthropic cause. That’s not necessarily so. To me at least, a dissident is someone who stands apart from the crowd, and his/her views aren’t don’t have to be along the lines of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” In the introduction to his 1920 translation of Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ, Mencken wrote:
But this combat between proletariat and plutocracy is, after all, a civil war itself. Two inferiorities struggle for the privilege of polluting the world. What actual difference does it make to a civilized man, when there is a steel strike, whether the workmen win or the mill-owners win? The conflict can interest him only as spectacle. . . . The victory, whichever way it goes, will simply bring chaos nearer, and so set the stage for a genuine revolution later on, with (let us hope) a new feudalism or something better coming out of it, a new Thirteenth Century at dawn.
(For the record, call me a sentimentalist, but I for one will always, always root for the steelworkers, be they of the Eternal Mob or not.)
A “new Thirteenth Century at dawn.” Not very American, is it? Like I said, Mencken stood apart, especially from his countrymen. As Morgan Meis writes in his wonderful review of Notes for the online Smart Set,
Mencken’s Nietzschean metaphysics runs against the American grain. He simply does not think that there are any answers. He refuses to romp into the glorious future. Looking backward, he notes with satisfaction that whatever the ills of medieval society, at least they recognized that “the evils of the world were incurable.” Musing for a moment on the final Day of Judgment that he never actually believed in, Mencken thinks that “the last joke upon man may be that he never learned how to govern himself in a rational and competent manner. ”
Thus, the final secret of Notes on Democracy. It is not actually an attack against democracy as such, but against an Americanism that constantly pats itself on the back and manically proclaims its own unique virtue. Mencken was not excited by the “shining city on the hill” metaphor most recently associated with Ronald Reagan and now repeated ad nauseam from every compass point on the political dial. . . .
His pessimism about the human capacity for self-improvement was an extended slap in the face to the inherently aspirational nature of American thinking. He wanted to inject a fatalism into the American mind and he was willing to inject with force. The saving grace of that fatalism is that, in an explicitly Nietzschean vein, it is a fatalism that says “Yes.” It is a fatalism that wants to participate in the ongoing follies.
For those doubting Meis’ characterization of Mencken as a pessimist in the midst of Yankee positive-thinking, I cite his praise of Joseph Conrad. The “enigmatical Pole” offers readers illuminating sunshine on the world’s nature, although not the rays of light of “the imbecile, barnyard joy of the human kohlrabi–the official optimism of a steadily delighted and increasingly insane Republic.”
At the risk of splitting hairs and straying from my point, it’s interesting to wonder how far back Mencken yearningly looked back. As cited above, Mencken speaks of “a new Thirteenth Century.” A few sentences earlier he writes that “[w]e are in the midst of one of the perennial risings of the lower orders. It got under way long before any of the current Bolshevist demons was born; it was given its long, secure start by the intolerable tyranny of the of plutocracy–the end product of the Eighteenth Century revolt against the old aristocracy.” Curiously, 11 years later he wrote that the Eighteenth Century was
the days 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. It lifted music to first place among the arts. It introduced urbanity into manners, and made even war relatively gracious and decent. . . .
The Eighteenth Century dwelling-house has countless rivals today, but it is as far superior to any as the music of Mozart is superior to Broadway jazz.
“[A]s the music of Mozart is superior to Broadway jazz.” Again, not very American, is it? I wonder if there’s a connection between the beginning of old aristocracy’s fall and what Mencken sees as the graciousness of the time. I believe Nietzsche wrote that late-stage societies, as they become more civilized and decadent, have a kind of luxurious, hedonistic quality to them. In any case, Mencken looked backward, while his country’s eyes were glued to the future. That heterodox spirit is a sign of a true dissident.