Gottfried on Mencken 4

Paul Gottfried on the figure from American history hated by neocons and liberals alike.

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The Irrepressible Mencken HL Mencken celebrates the end of Prohibition.

Recently I’ve been thinking about someone whose name is attached to an organization I’m currently president of, H.L. Mencken (1880-1956). For years I’ve tried to understand why the Baltimore Sage has been branded, mostly recently in The Weekly Standard (see here and here) and in a voluminous biography by Terry Teachout, as anti-Semitic and anti-Black. The closest I could come to documenting these charges is that Mencken joked in his diary about the bad table manners of an obviously Jewish diner in a club that he frequented. He also said in a moment of levity that “an anti-Semite is someone who dislikes Jews more than is absolutely necessary.” This, as everybody who knew him was aware of, was a quip that Murray Rothbard was fond of repeating.

As for Mencken’s supposed revulsion for Blacks, I can’t find any evidence of it, although he may not have used “African-American,” or whatever is the now fashionable PC term in referring to the minority in question. We know that Mencken criticized segregation in his native city of Baltimore. He also never tired of attacking lower class White Southerners of the kind who wanted to keep Blacks segregated. Indeed if I were going after Mencken for his intolerance, I would have to notice his invectives against Southern Fundamentalists rather than his scattered, insignificant jokes about Jews and Blacks. That said, however, White Southerners don’t count as victims in their own eyes or in anyone else’s. In fact their politicians and journalists seem quite happy to view them as onetime racial victimizers, who were redeemed by civil rights legislation.

In any case, it seems to me that the recent attacks on Mencken have nothing to do with his prejudices. Liberals and neocons hate him for taking stands that don’t have much to do with the accusations made against him. One, Mencken opposed America’s entry into both World Wars, and during the First World War, he was expressly pro-German. (He was after all a German-American.) His predilection for the Central Powers in 1914 elicited a bitter tirade from Fred Siegel in (where else?) The Weekly Standard (January 30, 2006), a screed that charges the “horrid” Mencken with being a lifelong enemy of democracy and decency. Supposedly Mencken’s fondness for Nietzsche (about whom he produced a not very useful or scholarly biography) shows for all to see that he worshipped the “will to power” and saw this incarnated in the Teutonic enemy of Anglo-American democratic civilization. Someone who took such reprehensible positions in foreign affairs, we have to infer from Siegel’s remarks, must also have been against Jews, who represent all that is good and radiant in the West and (lest we forget) Israel.

Two, Mencken expressed anti-egalitarian views that are now unfashionable, and he never missed a chance to cast ridicule on the democratic welfare state. There are more than a few of Mencken’s unseasonable remarks that would cause blood to surge to the head of David Brooks, the New York Times’s “resident conservative,” who has just written about “national greatness” and the role to be assigned to the federal welfare state in making us all “great”: the most famous are “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard” and “every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.” And how about this one for the fans of public administration: “I believe all government is evil and that trying to improve it is a waste of time.” And this for the devotees of judicial activism: “A judge is a law student who grades his own examination papers.”

Not all politically incorrect figures have suffered humiliation at the hands of our academics and journalists. For example, the Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who helped build the foundations of our gargantuan administrative state and advocated a “crusade to make the world safe for democracy,” is given a fairly wide berth, despite the facts that he kicked Blacks out of the civil service and promoted “scientific racism.” And if Wilson, whom Mencken despised, railed against Jews, that too was forgivable. After all, didn’t Wilson agree to a Jewish political entity in the Middle East, while making war on the Germans and Austrians, who were later ruled by Hitler?

Moreover, it hardly seems that the “Great Emancipator” qualifies as the racial egalitarian that he is now depicted as. That honor devolved on our 16th president because he freed slaves in seceded states, as a military measure. And then many decades later Lincoln became identified with a civil rights movement that represented positions that were not at all his. But Mencken was not as useful as Lincoln or Wilson. He did not write or do much that would please our present rulers. Except for his rants against Christianity, this satirist did not leave behind the sorts of slogans that would suggest that he was politically progressive. In fact, if Mencken had gotten what he wanted, most of our political class would lose their public financing and be forced to become gainfully employed.

4 comments

  1. “As for Mencken’s supposed revulsion for Blacks, I can’t find any evidence of it, although he may not have used “African-American,” or whatever is the now fashionable PC term in referring to the minority in question. “

    Has Gottfried not read Men Versus the Man ?

    “The educated negro of to-day is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. His brain is not fitted for the higher forms of mental effort; his ideals, no matter how laboriously he is trained and sheltered, remain those of the clown. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him. I have used the negro as an example because in him the inherited marks of the low-caste man are peculiarly conspicuous.”

    “The negro loafer is not a victim of restricted opportunity and oppression. There are schools for him, and there is work for him, and he disdains both. That his forty-odd years of freedom have given him too little opportunity to show his mettle is a mere theory of the chair. As a matter of fact, the negro, in the mass, seems to be going backward. The most complimentary thing that can be said of an individual of the race today is that he is as industrious and honest a man as his grandfather, who was a slave. There are exceptional negroes of intelligence and ability, I am well aware, just as there are miraculous Russian Jews who do not live in filth; but the great bulk of the race is made up of inefficients. In the biological phrase, the negro runs true to type. There are few variations, except downward. I have known, I should say, at least five hundred negroes in my time, and of all these not more than ten have displayed any inclination whatever to rise above their racial level. Socialism, as I understand it, proposes to let these savages plunder civilization. It holds that they should get more pay for their loafing; that the comforts and luxuries which represent the ideals and ingenuity of the highest caste of human beings should be handed over, gratuitously, to these parasites. It proposes to heed and satisfy their yearnings, to take account of their opinions, to give them a hand in the government of the state, to dignify their laziness with sounding names, to hail them as brothers. I am unable, my dear La Monte, to subscribe to this scheme. I am far from a Southerner in prejudice and sympathies, though born on the borders of the South, but it seems to me that, so long as we refrain, in the case of the negro loafer, from the measures of extermination we have adopted in the case of parasites further down the scale, we are being amply and even excessively faithful to an ethical ideal which makes constant war upon expediency and common sense.”

    “In every characteristic, instinct, habit, and quality which serves to differentiate any man from any ape, Huxley was more lavishly endowed, perhaps, than any other individual man that ever lived; but in Johnson these characteristics, instinct, habits, and qualities, when they appear at all, are so faint that it is well-nigh impossible to detect them. Huxley, in a word, was an intellectual colossus; while Johnson, intellectually, scarcely exists at all. The one pushed the clock of progress ahead a hundred years; the other is a foul, ignorant, thieving, superstitious, self-appointed negro preacher of the Black Belt, whose mental life is made up of three ambitions—to eat a whole hog at one meal, to be a white man in heaven, and to meet a white woman, some day, in a lonely wood. “

    Now, arguably, his racial views were fair for his day, and he definitely contributed to the political liberty and personal careers of blackfolk back then; but, beyond simple acknowledgement of inequalities, that’s some odious reading–and I generally like his work.

    • “Oppenheimer, they tell me you are writing peotry. I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write a peotry at the same time. They are in opposition. In science you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In peotry you are bound to say something that everybody knows already in words that nobody can understand.”

  2. Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff like that in Mencken’s writings. There’s a another quote where he said something like “it is impossible to overestimate the stupidity of a colored man” or something to that effect. That’s not an exact quote, and I can’t find the source at present, but it’s fairly close.

    At the same time, I have to wonder how much of that on Mencken’s part was a matter of racialist ideology and how much of it was a reflection of his general misanthropy. For instance, he referred to Anglo-Saxons as “innate cowards” and there are writings of his where talks about the Scots as ill-bred inferiors as well. Mencken was definitely a Teutonophile, so those comments might be reflective of a disdain the peoples of the UK. He was actually a racial liberal for his time in his political views. He supported a federal anti-lynching law despite his general hostility to the federal government. As you mention, he also promoted Harlem Renaissance writers like Zora Neale Hurston when he was editor of the American Mercury.

    Racial hostility towards blacks in America was virulent during Mencken’s lifetime, even among political progressives. In fact, many white progressives considered racial segregation to be a progressive policy along with wage and hour regulation, women’s suffrage, food and drug regulation. The Left was often just as enthusiastic about eugenics in those days as the far Right. That’s an aspect of the Left’s history that has gone down the memory hole. A lot of leftists and political progressives also supported alcohol prohibition just like some of the now support the drug war and tobacco prohibition.

  3. Reading through the blog post that MRDA linked to, I had some additional disagreement with some of the things said. That extreme sort of elitism displayed by Mencken there I think is detrimental to the cause of advancing individual liberty. Well I understand that Mencken did not believe that only the elite should have liberty (he made that clear in later writings) I do think that the idea that everyone is irredeemably stupid except for a small cadre of elites and that people would screw up everything if they were given a hand in running the country, as Mencken said in that article, can definitely lead to the managerial liberal totalitarian humanism that Keith critiques. After all, if people are too stupid for democracy than they are probably incompetent to run their own lives thus there needs to be a group of experts who will micromanage society to make sure the masses do what they are supposed to do. This attitude is actually quite common among mainstream statist liberals which explains their patronizing attitude toward lower class whites, poor ethnic minorities, women of colours who must be protected from exploitation and so on.

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