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.)