Untimely Observations

The Irrepressible Mencken


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 TheWeekly 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?) TheWeekly 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.