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Celebrating H.L. Mencken

Flickr/Union-Square

Jan. 29 marked 57 years since the passing of a great American author and the ever-witty H.L. Mencken.

Deserving of a spot along with Twain and Swift as a brilliant satirist, he is virtually unknown to many. This ignorance would not have surprised him.  He, according to lewrockwell.com, once wrote to a friend: “If I really believed that I had Left a Mark upon my Time I think I’d leap into the nearest ocean. This is no mere fancy talk. It is based on the fact that I believe the American people are more insane today than they were when I began to write.”  As you can tell, Mencken did not have much faith in the average American – whom he referred to as “boobus Americanus” – or any American institutions.

Mencken combined his disdain for the common man with a special contempt for government, politicians and especially democracy.  His definition of democracy was: “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

He believed that government was always a threat to liberty in whatever form it presented itself.  To Mencken, democracy was no exception to this rule.  In the present day, where the alleged virtues of democracy have become an almost atheistic religion, Mencken is a cynical breath of fresh air. Instead of the worship of elected officials and the “democratic process” which is so commonplace, Mencken took a different stance on the nature of politicians and those who believe their false promises.  “Democracy is the worship of jackals by jackasses,” he quipped.

With the 57th anniversary of his passing, it seems that Mencken’s beliefs are as relevant now as they were when he wrote them during the first half of the 20th century. He railed against the entrance of the United States into World Wars I and II.  Today, we have a “War on Terror” which does not stop or even slow no matter how many countries we invade and how many of our rights are stripped away.  Mencken opposed the massive expansion of government, which occurred under the New Deal.  Today even so-called “conservatives” won’t hold their promises to their constituents not to raise taxes.  Mencken was also vehemently against prohibition.  He viewed it as the devout forcing beliefs on others.

Another prominent feature of Mencken was his atheism.  He gave the religious a lot of grief, especially when they tried to force their morality on others.  He was the man who coined the term “Scopes Monkey Trial” when he was covering the famous case that involved the state of Tennessee prosecuting a teacher for teaching evolution.  His irreverent attitude towards religion caused many fervent believers, especially those in the south, to dislike him.  The Arkansas state Legislature passed a measure once that called on citizens to pray for Mencken’s soul after he referred to the state as “the apex of moronia.” This term is representative of Mencken’s attitude towards the south in general.  He said, “it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.” This makes it all the more ironic that he married an Alabama native.

When you combine all of these facets of Mencken, the common theme that stands out is a love of freedom.  Mencken always fought to protect the individual from the theocratic, nationalist and socialist designs of his or her neighbors.  As usual, there is no one better to describe Mencken’s views than the man himself:

“I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.

I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty, and that the democratic form is as bad as any of the other forms….

I believe in complete freedom of thought and speech – alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.

I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run. I believe in the reality of progress. I –

But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than to be ignorant.”

Rane McDonough is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at rmcdonou@student.umass.edu.

 

Comments
2 Responses to “Celebrating H.L. Mencken”
  1. Bill Peschel says:

    Even iconoclasts have feet of clay, and don’t always heed their own beliefs. He let his anti-Semitism blind himself to Hitler and the Holocaust. He approved of resettling Polish and Rumanian Jews in Russia, and declared after 1934 that he would write anything more about the Jews “no matter how poignant their sufferings.”

  2. Rane says:

    He described Hitler as an “idiot,” “lunatic,” “maniac,” a “preposterous mountebank” whose “whole scheme seems to be insane,”
    About the Nazis he wrote
    ‘God knows what the Nazis are up to. They seem to be a gang of lunatics to me. I hear I am on their blacklist. . . . I don’t know a single man among them, and all my friends in Germany seem to be in opposition – that is, all save a few damned fools I’d hesitate to approach.”
    Considering that Time Magazine awarded Hitler their man of the year award as late as 1938, I think Mencken did better than most of his era at recognizing evil when he saw it.

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