Thursday, April 2, 2009

An Essay: Searching For A New Mencken: America's Wealthy Elite Could Use Sage To Shield Them From The Growing Populist Pitch Fork Wrath.

An Essay: Searching For A New Mencken: America's Wealthy Elite Could Use Sage To Shield Them From The Growing Populist Pitch Fork Wrath.


H.L. Mencken comes to mind, a latter-day Sage of Baltimore, at least as a model. The last time populism crested, back in the 1930s, the so-called Sage of Baltimore sided with America's oppressed patricians and poured scorn on the overweening hoi polloi. Mencken was no worshiper of Wall Street, but he instinctively sided with the few against the many. "The whole history of the country has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary," he wrote.

As a nationally syndicated columnist and book author, he notably attacked ignorance, intolerance, "frauds", fundamentalist Christianityosteopathychiropractic,[ and the "Booboisie," his word for the ignorant middle classes. In 1926, he deliberately had himself arrested for selling an issue of The American Mercury that was banned in Boston under the Comstock laws. Mencken heaped scorn not only on the public officials he disliked, but also on the contemporary state of American democracy itself: in 1931, the Arkansas legislature passed a motion to pray for Mencken's soul after he had called the state the "apex of moronia"

The acerbic journalist and critic H.L. Mencken considered himself a natural aristocrat and viewed the average American as a yokel, a knave or a fool. Thus his objection to democracy, which in his view retarded social progress by exalting imbeciles over their betters.

He laid out his case in Notes on Democracy (1926), a book so subversive of the standard American pieties that no contemporary civics teacher would dare assign it to her class. But it's safe if consumed in small doses, such as the excerpts presented in this slide show. (Bolder readers can order the full text from Dissident Books, which put out a reprint in 2008. The original edition was published by Alfred A. Knopf. Excerpts used with permission.)

"Everywhere on earth, save where the enlightenment of the modern age is confessedly in transient eclipse, the movement is toward the completer and more enamored enfranchisement of the lower orders. Down there, one hears, lies a deep, illimitable reservoir of righteousness and wisdom, unpolluted by the corruption of privilege. What baffles statesmen is to be solved by the people, instantly and by a sort of seraphic intuition. Their yearnings are pure; they alone are capable of a perfect patriotism; in them is the only hope of peace and happiness on this lugubrious ball." (Pages 3-4)

"So much for the theory. It seems to me, and I shall here contend, that all the known facts lie flatly against it--that there is actually no more evidence for the wisdom of the inferior man, nor for his virtue, that there is for the notion that Friday is an unlucky day.

There was, perhaps, some excuse for believing in these phantasms in the days when they were first heard of in the world, for it was then difficult to put them to the test, and what cannot be tried and disproved has always had a lascivious lure for illogical man. But now we know a great deal more about the content and character of the human mind than we used to know. ... There are minds which start out with a superior equipment and proceed to high and arduous deeds; there are minds which never get any further than a sort of insensate sweating, like that of a kidney." (9-10)

"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 one side and a rabble of preposterous impossibilists on the other. ... 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 produces, true enough, occasional libertarians, just as despotism produces occasional regicides, but it treats them in the same drumhead way. It will never have a party of them until it invents and installs a genuine aristocracy, to breed them and secure them." (205-206) 

These are hard times for elitists. On the left and on the right, populist mobs are lighting torches and passing out pitchforks.

Soon they may start herding plutocrats onto tumbrels and rolling them toward Wall Street, the new home of the Place de la Revolution. Amid such dire portents, who will dare to take a stand for aristocracy?

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was a newspaper pundit, literary critic, magazine editor and agent provocateur. He first rose to prominence as a Progressive Era dissenter who ridiculed the very notion of uplift as laughably naive. What ailed America, he announced, was "the lack of a body of sophisticated and civilized public opinion, independent of plutocratic or government control and superior to the infantile philosophies of the mob--a body of opinion showing the eager curiosity, the educated skepticism and the hospitality to ideas of a true aristocracy."

Mencken derided the common man for envying the rich. "He hates the plutocrats of the cities, not only because they best him in the struggle for money, but also because they spend their gains on debaucheries that are beyond him," Mencken wrote in his caustic classic Notes on Democracy (1926). "The seeds of his disaster, as I have shown, lie in his own stupidity: He can never get rid of the naive delusion--so beautifully Christian!--that happiness is something to be got by taking it away from the other fellow."

Mencken was hugely influential during the roaring '20s, when he functioned as a bipartisan scold, flaying socialists and Rotarians alike. But the Great Depression pushed the country to the left and stranded Mencken on the right. As a libertarian, he viewed the New Deal with horror. His eloquent denunciations of Franklin Roosevelt alienated many former admirers but presumably earned him the gratitude of those aristocrats who considered Roosevelt a traitor to his class.

These days, with the Wall Street bailout fueling populist rage, there is an opportunity for a new Mencken to show his mettle. But is there anyone among the current crop of right-wing pundits who can bear comparison to the Sage?

No; because Mencken had a sense of wit and a brain to go with it, albeit, leaning to the wrong side of things; he did however hit everyone upside the head like a not too subtle two by four and engender serious dialog. Limbaugh, Coulter , Savage, Dobbs, O’Reilly only elicit contempt in their crude verbal vomit.  They don’t make the cut!

Let’s just look a few last words from an older poison pen: 

A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn't know. 

A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin. 

A home is not a mere transient shelter: its essence lies in the personalities of the people who live in it. 

A judge is a law student who marks his own examination papers. 

All men are frauds. The only difference between them  is that some admit it. I myself deny it. 

All successful newspapers are ceaselessly querulous and bellicose. They never defend anyone or anything if they can help it; if the job is forced on them, they tackle it by denouncing someone or something else. 

All [zoos] actually offer to the public in return for the taxes spent upon them is a form of idle and witless amusement, compared to which a visit to a penitentiary, or even to a State legislature in session, is informing, stimulating and ennobling. 

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup. 

Oh But my favorite, because all these types of people know that in their arrogant excess, their distain of  democracy and that which this Republic is supposed to stand for, at least on paper, that the common man will/can only take so much, more elegantly spoken to by Thomas Jefferson In The Declaration Of Independence and then….


Every Normal Man Must Be Tempted At Times To Spit On His Hands, Hoist The Black Flag, And Begin To Slit Throats....

These are hard times for elitists. On the left and on the right, populist mobs are lighting torches and passing out pitchforks.

Soon they may start herding plutocrats onto tumbrels and rolling them toward Wall Street, the new home of the Place de la Revolution. Amid such dire portents, who will dare to take a stand for aristocracy….THEN? 

PS: I took some time and really thought about restoring the shabby old photo at the top, ten seconds and then…just did it! 


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