Friday, September 10, 2010

H.L. Mencken, Au Contraire

“So far as I can make out, I believe in only one thing: liberty.“
Henry L. Mencken to Ernest Boyd, 1925

It is rare any more that I do not feel compelled to address the rise of statism in this country, abetted as it is by the Millionaire Mendicants of Capitol Hill, the Mooners of Mecca, or the Mariachi Marauders of the Southwest. Not to mention the Ground Zero Gang. One of the most astute, devastating, and frequently amusing observers of American politics and culture was Henry L. Mencken (1880-1956). His “talent to amuse” is never pointless or irrelevant to the subjects of his scrutiny. It is always employed to make a point. The “Sage of Baltimore” once quipped, “The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it." How true. Look to Washington, or any state capital.

I enjoy his journalistic style, which is consistently infused with acerbic wit and benign contempt. It is rarely vitriolic or bitter. And I concur with most of his observations, most of which still ricochet today with embarrassing veracity. I have not been able to find an exception to that rule. As a keen auditor of human behavior, he dealt in timeless universals and verities. One wonders what he would have to say about the likes of President Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel, and that whole, altruistically ambitious gang. They are, after all, moved by the urge to save America, even if it means ruling it. And they have demonstrated that they do want to rule. Regimes rule. Republics govern.

No President was immune from his mordant pen. Here is what he wrote in 1921 about President Warren J. Harding’s speeches:

He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

He would have been merciless had he been able to lay into Obama and his speeches:

Here is a man whom we foolishly elected President, but whose speeches are devilishly calculated to disarm the sentient among us by putting them to sleep so their klepto-liberal seat-mates may more easily pick their pockets, and, once he has ceased speaking, to cause the mesmerized congregation to yell Hallelujah and begin singing hymns of evangelical if discordant praise. From a distance, and even at arm’s length, one can see that the man obviously lacks some important mental faculty, mainly the capacity to remember what he intends to say. This is a fault usually associated with the hopelessly inebriated or octogenarians trying to recall their first roll in the hay. He lacks the skill exhibited by a rural carnival barker, or by a itinerant purveyor of patent medicine. He does not trust himself to memorize any of his banal blather, which he does not write, for I do not believe for a moment that he can compose anything so simple as one of the Ten Commandments or instructions on how to open a cereal box.

He speaks without apparent notes, as many of our great orators of the past did -- Patrick Henry, Calhoun, Clay -- however, he performs with the aid of a toy, a fancified flash card thing usually employed by ambitious kindergarten teachers to instruct their less-than-swift charges who cannot get a point if it is buried in a six-word sentence. Moreover, Mr. Obama has two of these cheaters, one on either side of him, and perhaps a third in the middle, so that he can read them alternately and create the impression that he is including all sides of a spellbound audience as he assaults it with fresh sumptuary poppycock, when in fact he is only addressing one or the other flash card. Nevertheless, his regular Sermons on the Dais command the stupefied adoration of countless select souls eager to be saved by him. He is credibly convincing in that role, but I think the country would be at better ease if Mr. deMille lured him from the White House with a fabulous salary and cast him as a fire-breathing prophet in one of his biblical epics.

Mencken also noted (and this is Mencken, not me):

It is the invariable habit of bureaucracies, at all times and everywhere, to assume...that every citizen is a criminal. Their one apparent purpose, pursued with a relentless and furious diligence, is to convert the assumption into a fact. They hunt endlessly for proofs, and, when proofs are lacking, for mere suspicions. The moment they become aware of a definite citizen, John Doe, seeking what is his right under the law, they begin searching feverishly for an excuse for withholding it from him.

But there is one essay of his that I have wanted to tackle and rebut, which is his 1922 essay, “The Nature of Liberty,” which appeared in Prejudices (Alfred A. Knopf, 1922). On the surface, it contradicts what he wrote about the exercise of arbitrary government power to abridge the freedom of the individual. Mencken could be said to be the grandfather of modern conservatism, a conservatism, however, not rooted in religion, not even in “tradition,” but in “common sense.”

In his essay, he sets up an absurd straw man, in which a non-criminal individual going home from work is accosted by a policeman who abruptly remembers a crime committed years before in another city, and accuses the citizen of the crime. The accosted citizen panics and flees, is shot by the policeman, who then uses his rosewood to beat the man senseless for resisting arrest.

Mencken wrote this in the early years of Prohibition, which he vigorously opposed, and whose deleterious economic and criminal consequences had not yet gathered steam or been realized by the time it was repealed. On the one hand, Mencken roasted Prohibition, its advocates and defenders, and its ax-wielding, Tommy gun- and billy club-toting cops. On the other hand, he upheld the “right” of a cop to arrest a person on the most specious suspicion.

Policemen are not given night-sticks for ornament. They are given them for the purpose of cracking the skulls of the recalcitrant plain people, Democrats and Republicans alike. When they execute that high duty they are palpably within their rights.

No mincing of meanings there. Nor here. A policeman, he writes,

…is protected by the legislative and judicial arms in the peculiar rights and prerogatives that go with his high office, including especially the right to jug the laity at his will, to sweat and mug them, to subject them to the third degree, and to subdue their resistance by beating out their brains.

But, what about the Bill of Rights? What about unlawful arrest and incarceration. What of redress and restitution for an innocent man whose skull has been cracked? The Amendment he particularly objected to (without actually naming it in his essay) was the Fourth, which reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Mencken wrote about the Bill of Rights in his essay:

As adopted by the Fathers of the Republic, it was gross, crude, inelastic, a bit fanciful and transcendental. It specified the rights of a citizen, but it said nothing whatever about his duties.

I take issue with that characterization. In his essay he states that a cop has every right to arrest a citizen on his own cognizance. He is indemnified against personal error or ignorance or the injurious consequences suffered by his victim. But the indemnification assigns him the attribute of infallibility and dispenses with his error or ignorance. The citizen’s “duty,” on the other hand, is merely to submit to the cop’s authority, regardless of his or his victim’s knowledge or certainty, and regardless of the cost to the victim’s livelihood and reputation.

His unfortunate disparagement of the Bill of Rights reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of its purpose. The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to act as an unequivocal and plainly worded check on government powers. It is neither to assign the citizen any duties or obligations, nor to define a reciprocal relationship between government and the citizen. It is strictly a “hands-off” and “no trespassing” warning to government.

Nearly midway in his essay, Mencken reveals his proto-conservative premises, which echo the cynical beatitudes of Thomas Hobbes and the Christian view that man is born in sin or is naturally a beast who must be constrained by law. In his obedience to a leviathan or a cop lies his salvation.

On the one hand, the citizen still retains the great privilege of membership in the most superb free nation ever witnessed on this earth. On the other hand, as a result of countless shrewd enactments and sagacious decisions, his natural lusts and appetites are held in laudable check, and he is thus kept in order and decorum.

It is reason and reality that constrain or limit men in their values and actions, not fiat law, not the most rational and wisest law. Men are not born sinners, nor as natural beasts, but tabula rasa. If they discard reason and flout reality, they will reap only misery, confusion, or death.

It is hard to reconcile Mencken’s opposing and incompatible positions. He was right about innumerable political, cultural, and social matters. He was particularly voluble about arbitrary and tyrannical laws and statutes. But his contradictory positions on police powers are of the kind that can sanction, multiply and sire worse fallacies in the future. Observe today the timid, conciliatory Republican and conservative opposition to ObamaCare and other statist legislative landmarks of the current administration. In policy, faced with such a contradiction, most politicians habitually seize upon the worst part of it to advocate and implement, because the better part of it grants them no leave or power to indulge in their own “natural lusts and appetites.”

Liberty is not a privilege or a blessing. It is a requirement for living. Knowing it demands of one, not belief, but absolute certainty.


Ragnar said...

But Mencken was being sarcastic... Are you?

Anonymous said...

Alex: There is a difference between satire and sarcasm. Mencken was occasionally sarcastic, but more often satirical. In "The Nature of Liberty" piece, he may have been satirical or sarcastic, but he did not qualify himself, and so, in that instance, his words should be taken straight up. That essay is one of the few of his which I could not distinguish between his humor or his seriousness.


Jeffrey Perren said...

How interesting that you should write about that particular Mencken piece just now. I read it a few days ago - my first exposure to Mencken in more years than I can count - and disliked it thoroughly. It caused me to return the book to the library with the rest unread.

Sounds like I'll have to try again.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, Alex: I have read most of Mencken's essays and articles. "The Nature of Liberty" is one the very, very few in which he is not forthrightly "sarcastic" or "satirical." One usually has no doubts about his humor. This is one of the few in which that humor is not apparent or obvious.


Dogmael Jones said...

Mencken wrote millions of words over a career that spanned about 60 years. For a man with little formal education, he was one of the most erudite men of his age. 99% of what he wrote was not only entertaining, but spot on. Occasionally, he came out with something to make you cringe. To call him a conservative, however, does him a great disservice. In an earlier age, he would have been our Thomas Paine. As it was, he was one of the few men to stand up against the entire progressive movement even though it cost him dearly in popularity. I like to remember him for his credo:

"I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind-that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the
ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.

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...

I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.

I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech...

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.

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
be ignorant."

I would like to hear any conservative say that today. I recommend his writing without reservation (except perhaps for that other 1%).

Anonymous said...

Dogmael Jones: Thanks for your remarks here. However, I didn't call Mencken a "conservative." I characterized his remarks in the subject essay as "proto-conservative," and did not imply that he himself was a "conservative." They very likely served as "ammo" for conservatives to propagate their conservatism, together with the statements of conservative writers who followed or post-dated Mencken in the political culture. I would never call Mencken a "conservative." That would be tantamount to character assassination.


Inspector said...

Off the cuff, I find it hard to swallow that a man who uses the terms "mug" and "beating out their brains" is being serious in his advocacy.

I'll have to obtain the source material to review so that I can be sure, though.

I think it's possible you may have been had, Ed, although given the famous wit of the source I would not be too embarrassed if I were you.

Inspector said...

Oh, I see it's available online where you linked it.

Yes, I am certain now that you've been had, Ed.

"The specialists aforesaid are the same fanatics who shake the air with sobs every time... a Prohibition enforcement officer murders a bootlegger who resists his levies"

I'm sure that the "sobbing fanatic" he refers to there is himself.

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