Mencken Lives

Years ago, reading Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, I was struck by a line early in the book, where he criticized the American Left for not remembering their own intellectual history. What struck me about it was that Goldberg seemed to be astonished by this revelation. It is tempting to think, upon learning something new, that you are the first person to have the insight. Young people tend to suffer from this, coming home from college convinced they know the secrets of the universe. In the case of the Left, Goldberg may have been the last person to notice the Left’s hatred of the past.

The other thing that was striking is that modern conservatives suffer from the same defect. Read any of the so-called conservative writers of the Official Right™ and you get the impression that the world began in 1938. Every bad guy in the world is Hitler and any hesitation about rushing into war is appeasement. More important, they think the great intellectual tradition of the Right starts with the day Bill Buckley penned God and Man at Yale. Everything before that is fairy tales and mythology from a foreign people.

Of course, this is not an accident. Buckley conservatism was a break with the old traditional Right, if it was ever actually of the Right, which is debatable. George Will famously called Buckley’s Yale book “a lovers’ quarrel with his alma mater.” It was also a good way to describe the conservatism of Bill Buckley and his followers. It was and still is a lover’s quarrel with the Left. Put another way, it was the child admonishing the parent for not living up to the ideals the parent preached to their children.

To be fair, the Buckleyites borrowed some political objectives from traditional conservatives, along with some of the language of the Right, but it was essentially a Progressive heresy over the issue of communism. It’s why the Buckleyites had exactly zero wins in the culture war. They never bothered to fight it. Their singular reason to exist was opposition to communism, foreign and domestic. It’s why after the Cold War, they declared themselves Big Government Conservatives.

Anyway, Goldberg’s ahistorical view of conservatism came to mind when reading this post over at the ironically named The American Conservative.

H.L. Mencken has a conservative problem. The Baltimore journalist became the poster boy for literary modernism thanks to his literary criticism and nationally syndicated op-ed columns, in addition to his work as a magazine editor, most notably at American Mercury. But he ranks well behind the modernist poets T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens as an acceptable literary figure for conservative consumption. The reason has much to do with Mencken’s skepticism and irreverence. He mocked Puritanism famously as the cultural force that gave Americans a moralistic squint. Worse, he recommended the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche as an antidote to Victorian morality and then promoted Theodore Dreiser, whose novels offended censors. Mencken proved his heretical ways at the Scopes Trial, where he mocked the prosecution led by William Jennings Bryan and the “simian faithful” who hung on the Great Commoner’s every word. Everywhere Mencken turned, his mantra seemed to be “just say no” to inherited moral, intellectual, and literary standards.

The most recent conservative complaint about Mencken is that he was an elitist who ridiculed his fellow Americans. Kevin D. Williamson of National Review objected that the debunking mentality prevalent in Mencken’s work represented a “genuine fervor to knock the United States and its people down a peg or two.” For Mencken, “the representative American experience was the Scopes trial, with its greasy Christian fundamentalists and arguments designed to appeal to the ‘prehensile moron,’ his description of the typical American farmer.” Fred Siegel of the Manhattan Institute registered a similar complaint in his book The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Undermined the Middle Class. He charged that Mencken was part of a company of liberal thinkers who wanted to create an American aristocracy that could “provide the same sense of hierarchy and order long associated with European statism.”

The unhinged madhattery on display here is breath taking. The starting point of Anglo-Saxon conservatism is skepticism, particularly a skepticism of universalism and Utopian lunacies like Puritanism. Similarly, the Right has always accepted that humans are a hierarchical species by nature. Therefore, the structure of society, including the political system, will always reflect this reality, as it has at all times and all places. Egalitarianism is a fetish of the Left, not the Right. Yet, the modern Right now claims it for their own.

Those two paragraphs describe what Buckley Conservatism is today. It is vinegar drinking prudery, a cartoonish version of Christian piety and unquestioning reverence for the jingoistic version of American history, that has little resemblance to reality. Put another way, it is kept men tut-tutting about manners, droning on about the old church and demanding you send your sons off to fight pointless wars of choice, claiming it is your patriotic duty. No wonder its constituency does not extend beyond the Imperial Capital.

Mencken was a man of his age so much of what he wrote about no longer has relevance or it strikes the delicate ear of the modern reader as hate speech. He also wrote a lot and that leads to a degree of inconsistency and incoherence. When you are writing to be read, your first goal is to be entertaining, so a degree of logical inconsistency is inevitable. Even so, Mencken is an important figure to study, because it is the conservatism of his era that is roaring back in the form of the populist upheavals we are seeing in our politics.

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64 Comments on "Mencken Lives"

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Doug
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The love hate relationship between the political left and right elites is political incest. Once they got a taste of carnal knowledge with their siblings, nothing could surpass the thrill of such forbidden fruit. But really what its about is combined, both parties found they had more political power than they could imagine than if they where separate entities, to do anything they wanted. And they have, they do. And now they are in a serious pickle. They are seen as the incestious political scum they are. Inbred dilettantes. A criminal syndicate who betray everything as a matter of course.… Read more »
Member

Yeah, but there’s good money in it. They even marry across the lines like the potentates of Old Europe.

Doug
Guest

It always about the money, incest is best when you keep it in the family.

FaCubeItches
Guest

Everything is relative.

George Orwell
Guest

The greatest tragedy to ever befall the Republican Party was the fall of the Soviet Union. The fall of the one led to the fall of the other.

Member

This was predicted by many on the left at the time.

Doug
Guest

They lost the straw man they could hide like behind like to cowards they are.
The left and deep state is the Amerikan version of the old Soviet Nomenklaturer State of Administrative Tyranny. The fact the Republican party has never even intimated such an organ of communist marxism exists within their midsts tells you they are if anything greater treasonous scum than their cultural marxists bedfellows on the left.

Drake
Guest

The Democrats lost their bracket on the left. They couldn’t get too far out on the left because they could not let themselves be called commies.

Since then, the have been flying leftward at warp speed.

Doug
Guest
Easy when you have a cuck majority in congress running the pick for you. And vice versa. Thats why they take turns on which family of the federal crime syndicate holds a majority. It’s how you make it look like something is getting done when all they are doing is shifting the players around. The crowds love it. WooHoo! Conservative Majority in both houses! Now things are really going to get done! This is what a crock of shit and lies looks like: All they ever needed to stop obamacare was for the House of Reprentatives to stop funding for… Read more »
Member

Lincoln was the greatest tragedy to ever befall the republican party. He was the original statist neocon and if you disagreed he simply burned your city to the ground.

Doug
Guest
When I started to delve into the not state approved revisionist history of Lincoln, it became apparent the guy was a marxist. I have no proof other than putting 2 and 2 together from what I’ve read so far. He shares a lot of similarities with Obama in his style of administrative centralism and the mental gymnastics both practiced to conflate or revise constitutional law and original intent. Never mind the oratory of justifying their more grander violations of rule of law. Not to mention how they both pounced on crisis as a means as a tool to do things… Read more »
Member
Mencken never died. Most people know what he said even if they don’t know he said it. A bit like the Bible, in some respects, but without the Source Authority, of course. A few: For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. Communism, like any other revealed religion, is largely made up of prophecies. Puritanism. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. Immorality: the morality of those who are having a better time. Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and… Read more »
Doug
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George Orwell
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“…an elitist who ridiculed his fellow Americans. Kevin D. Williamson of National Review…”

“The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.”

Doug
Guest

comment image?w=696

Member
I’m past the point of hanging my hat on any one author or thinker. All of them let you down sooner or later. Formulating a comprehensive and consistent system of political philosophy is just as difficult as any attempt at a philosophical system, and probably moreso because the interface with reality comes much sooner. I hadn’t really thought about this before, but what I do could be described as having certain categories of thought and when confronted with something, deciding which category that idea fits in with and making a judgement based on it in light of decisions already made… Read more »
Dutch
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People understand their world through narratives, placing what they see into a comprehensible stories and explanations. Once you subscribe to one, you become hostage to it, and then must try to defend it. The real world is much more messy, complicated, and random than any narrative can explain or predict. Utopians will not accept that we just might be living in the best of all possible worlds today. They must put their fingerprints all over things, trying to fit our reality into the narrative of their choice.

james wilson
Guest

If Menchen was smart enough never to offer a philosophy, that should not be held against him. A man can do me greater service by pointing out I am pissing down my leg than than he can telling me how to build a latrine. On second thought, perhaps that is the best political philosophy. The Invisible Hand is paring away all those things that do not work to reveal those happy accidents that do.

smitty
Guest

“Egalitarianism is a fetish of the Left, not the Right. Yet, the modern Right now claims it for their own.”

One wonders if you’re conflating equality of opportunity (a conservative view) with equality of condition (that the Left seeks like Eden, and your “Cloud People” perpetuate in a pseudo-religious manner).

Dutch
Guest

Mencken is great for “go to” quotes. Less so for any overarching philosophy or consistency of ideas. He would feel right at home today, with tweets and blogs. He probably stands out now, in part, because he found a megaphone for his thoughts back in the day, when megaphones were hard to find. Today he would be a blogger, and might even be lost in the crowd.

Member

“The most recent conservative complaint about Mencken is that he was an elitist who ridiculed his fellow Americans.” This of course could be said of most of Conservative, Inc. A lot can be said about Mencken, but for sure he hated phonies, which leads me to believe that he’d hate most of Conservative, Inc.

L. Beau Macaroni
Guest

Kevin Williamson can’t see the value of the debunker of all the great Utopian schemes for the improvement of Man, Henry Louis Mencken? Mencken, the man who wrote, “Americans may be stupid, but they’re not stupid enough to fall for communism.*” Egad! Williamson has struck me as a twink, but I wasn’t aware of how severe his limitations actually were.

*Quoted from memory, so I might have gotten the phrasing slightly wrong, but the sentiment is, I believe, intact.

JB
Guest
mencken was one of the few writers to see through all the tendentious lunacy prevalent in the progressive age that has continued on until today. He never subscribed to a single political program or even a philosophy beyond a vague Nietzscheism. He poured a general scorn on all of America high, low and middle. His writing still packs a punch to this day. Ambrose Bierce and Robinson Jeffers are the only other two Americans that come to mind in terms of clear sightedness towards what had occurred and what was going to occur with the country. More and more I… Read more »
BillH
Guest

Has anyone ever postulated that Mencken got his shtick from Will Rogers? Mencken’s always seemed to me a lot like Rogers with a good dose of nasty, sarcasm, snark or whatever thrown in.

Soviet of Washington
Guest

Albert Jay Nock was a (lesser known) contemporary of Mencken who’s very much worth reading, particularly his autobiography “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man” (hint: it’s much more) that is superb.

Lorenzo
Guest

“Our Enemy the State” is also worth a read. It has a prophetic look at the New Deal.

Mike Pitzler
Guest
Soviet of Washington, I haven’t heard our leftist state called that in a long time. I’m a retired TacomaFire. We were picking up a bum off the street once, when one of the guys described the steps he’d take to work himself out of being a bum. “I’d save and get a lawnmower, and work my way into an apartment…” “Todd, that’s why you’re not a bum. If you gave that bum a lawnmower and a can of gas, he’d pawn the lawnmower, buy a bottle, and use the can of gas to start a fire, which would probably blow… Read more »
ganderson
Guest
My favorite Mencken quote: “”…no other president ever slipped into the White House so easily, and none other ever had a softer time of it while there. When, at Rapid City, S.D. on August 2, 1927, he loosed the occult words, ‘I do not choose to run in 1928,’ was it prsecience or only luck? For one, I am inclined to put it down to luck. Surely there was no prescience in his utterances and maneuvers otherwise. He showed not the slightest sign that he smelt black clouds ahead; on the contrary, he talked and lived only sunshine. There was… Read more »
james wilson
Guest

I’d been familiar with the Coolidge barbs, not the conclusions. Menchen adds up his insults to Coolidge toward the end and concludes that Silent Cal may have had the measure of them all. Extra points for Menchen. Silent Cal, mute in six languages, was the last President to have understood the Constitution in detail, and care to stay within his bounds. He despised Hoover.

Dr. Mabuse
Guest

Mark Steyn has a soft spot for Coolidge. He described visiting that president’s simple grave, standing among other family gravestones, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. “Seven generations of Coolidges are buried there all in a row – including Julius Caesar Coolidge, which is the kind of name I’d like to find on the ballot next November (strong on war, but committed to small government).”

Ganderson
Guest

Paul Johnson states that Coolidge called Hoover “the Wonder Boy”.

Wayne Parker
Guest

If you’re all seeking additional fodder for why the Left has lost it, check out http://www.daily49er.com/opinion/2017/03/13/milk-new-symbol-of-hate/. I’m still trying to decide if this is one student’s attempt at comedic writing or she seriously believes the nonsense she wrote.

Member

I just left this comment there

“Thanks for the laugh, I do like well done satire, please play again soon.”

Dutch
Guest

That’s real. Keep in mind that every last thing must be politicized. And we always thought lactose intolerance was a biological thing, not a political thing, silly us.

Member

Mencken could see the future wrote about Obama:

“As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and complete narcissistic moron.”

I sincerely hope it was not Trump that he foresaw.

Member

But wait, there’s more!

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Member
The best for last: “I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to… Read more »
Christopher S. Johns
Guest

I read a Carnival of Buncombe a couple of years ago – a collection of Mencken’s columns from the late 20’s to early 30’s – and the almost supernaturally adroit evisceration of character and pretension (a sort of Fred Astaire of political take-downs) was still, after all these years, laugh out loud hilarious. Highly recommended.

Old Surfer
Guest

H.L. Mencken
“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

Member
I’ve had my troubles with Mencken’s worldview myself, but certainly not on any of the elements raised here. As to your penultimate paragraph, Preach, brother! Your characterization of the Buckley right as a prog heresy is increasingly coming into view everywhere. I used to think of the “new right” [a term later used over and over again, to be sure, but here meaning early NR] and “new left” of the 60s as both being revolts against the established American system of the day. It’s just that unlike some others, I think of that system as being basically left in the… Read more »
Member

too much of a downer?

Joey Junger
Guest
Surprised to see Kevin Williamson piling on. Wasn’t he the one who wrote the piece about how the oxycontin-addicted white trash who love Trump should die off? That’s not exactly exalting the salt of the Earth. I think the main reason they won’t touch Mencken is his antisemitism, but even though that’s socially handicapping now, most philosophers and intelligent men of the right throughout most of history at least distrusted Jews. Mencken was in some respects progressive on race, at least by the lights of his time. He said quite a few flattering things about the first really famous black… Read more »
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