Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Where's H.L. Mencken when we need him?

H.L. Mencken
     As Donald Trump, the most idiotic and unfit man to run for the American presidency in living memory, deforms our political discourse, it can be a comfort to remind ourselves that imbecility is nothing new, but has a long, rich tradition in American politics. And no voice more clearly outlined what he called the "booboisie" than H.L. Mencken, whose 136th birthday was Monday. 
     He injected his venom into the relatively benign figure of Warren G. Harding. What would he have made of a poisonous sac of mendacious malice like Donald Trump? One likes to think he'd dice Trump into cubes. But given the way Trump, like the Terminator, can be blown apart by criticism and censure and the mercury drops of his solipsistic essence just reconstitute, the red eye blinks to life, he pulls himself to his feet and continues on his inexorable march to the White House. 
    This originally ran in 2006.

     Anniversary stories are lazy journalism. Every day is the 75th anniversary of this or 25 years since that. Births and battles, deaths and discoveries. In a dynamic world where so much is new and fascinating, it seems shameful to turn your back on the thrilling present and sit around regurgitating the well-chewed past, working up an air of false wonder that it has been 100 years since Mr. Fig met Mr. Newton.
     But anniversary stories do serve a twofold purpose. First, they remind us of the passage of time. The 30th anniversary of the Queen song "Bohemian Rhapsody" might not have meant much to you. But as a guy who twisted crepe paper, decorating a gym, to the song when it was new, it was bittersweet to realize how much of my life — the good part, I suppose — has slipped away.
     Second, they do inform certain people of what they may have missed. As routine as those Dec. 7 Pearl Harbor commemorations are, every year there must be a new crop of youngsters who say, "Gee, Dad, did you realize the people who make Pokemon also bombed our ships?"


     On the train Wednesday night, a neighbor asked, "How's the column going?"
     "Saturday is the 50th anniversary of the death of H.L. Mencken," I replied, rather literally. "I thought I would write about him."
     He looked at me blankly.
     "Who's Mencken?" he said.
     Henry Louis Mencken, the bard of Baltimore, the American Anti-Christ, was the most famous newspaperman of the 20th century, bar none. In the 1920s, the nation hung on his biting, acerbic observations in a way not seen before or since. In a profession where the work is by definition disposable, where little we do holds interest for a week, never mind a year, Mencken's words have endured, and are still sharp, 50 years after his passing and 80 after his heyday.
     Read Mencken on government:
     "Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right."
     It could have been written yesterday, in response to the Alito hearings. 
     Read Mencken on faith:
     "The time must come inevitably when mankind shall surmount the imbecility of religion, as it has surmounted the imbecility of religion's ally, magic. It is impossible to imagine this world being really civilized so long as so much nonsense survives. In even its highest forms religion embraces concepts that run counter to all common sense."
     Who has the guts to write that kind of thing today? No matter what topic a writer tackles, odds are Mencken was already there, and did a better job. Feel like complaining about telephones?
     "The thing, indeed, becomes an unmitigated curse," he wrote in "The Telephone Menace" in 1927. "The telephone has become as great a boon to bores as the movies are to morons. . . . What is needed is a national secret organization, with members bound by a bloody oath to avoid telephone calls whenever possible and to boycott all persons who make them unnecessarily."
     That secret group is needed now more than ever.
     Quoting Mencken is addictive, and I have to stop. He was no knee-jerk critic — he wrote in praise of his favorite composers, writers, artists, and pioneered study of the American language. But his lasting contribution was to hold up a mirror to the United States in all its naked idiocy. Not only has Mencken not been topped, but in our culture of victimhood and complaint, we have slipped into a state of permanent babyhood where any extreme statement leads to demands for apology and censure. This week, a young columnist at the Los Angeles Times began his column, "I don't support our troops," and though the rest of the column went on to back our soldiers in ways sunshine patriots forget to do — calling for improved benefits and such — his tart opening sentence brought howls for his head. Mencken is still current because, alas, we have not changed.
         —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Jan. 27, 2006


  1. Elitist!

    not much above average john

  2. Who was the "young columnist" at the LA Times? I'd like to find that column and find out what happened to him.

    1. Joel Stein is the "young columnist." You can look it up. Apparently, he can offend both the right and the left without hardly trying. At any rate, he's still working, though not presently for the LA Times.


  3. Mencken remains eminenty quotable, but the racism and anti-Semitism revealed in his private diary are disquieting, although they weren't that far out of the main stream in those days. And he evidently kept them out of his published writing. Contemporary Jews who write, I should think, must approach him as Jewish musicians do Wagner, about whom Leonard Bernstein said he despised him, but on his knees.

    Of his myriad quips I like his definition of a cynic, "A man who, when he smells flowers looks aroung for a funeral."

    Tom Evans

  4. I don't find them disquieting, any more than his opinions on computers would be. If we use the present moral certainties as our standard, and wander off into the past, measuring our heroes by them, all will fall short. Refusing to enjoy "Othello" because of Shakespeare's decidedly 16th century view of Moors would be ridiculous.

  5. "Neil Steinberg, what a dolt!" complains an 8th grader in 2150, "He didn't even know about the Pan Social Transmogrifying Theory that so clearly settles all questions of race, sex and community values. What can I learn from him?"


  6. I entirely agree, but,not being Jewish myself, should perhaps not speculate on such matters. I do know that many Jews enjoy performances of Wagner operas, but not if they abide in the state of Israel.



    1. I wrote a column once about how not only CAN a Jew enjoy Wagner, but in a sense, the ultimate revenge is having our latke-larded asses in the seats, enjoying his music while everything he believes in molders on the ash heap of history, Donald Trump notwithstanding.

  7. I remember that column. Very good. But I believe you got some push back. Re the comment that started this, when I said the Mencken diaries were disquieting I didn't mean to imply he shouldn't be read. I once read Mein Kampf for my sins.



Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.