H.L. Mencken, Where Have You Gone?

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At least in the most obvious sense, my title poses a dumb question. Where has H.L. Mencken gone? He’s been dead for more than 50 years. But though he’s long gone, and we won’t see his like again, many of those who cherish liberty wish they could call him back. America could use another like him, perhaps now as never before.

My introduction to the Sage of Baltimore came in my sophomore year of high school. Sharon Morrow, a teacher I wish I could personally thank today, extolled his virtues to our journalism class. To us, he was just an old dead guy. If a teacher liked anybody famous, the poor soul was automatically consigned to the purgatory of the uncool. But to suck up, this aspiring journalist read A Mencken Chrestomathy — a huge anthology of his essays and columns. Read it, and wrote a report.

I expected the project to be a chore, but I’ve seldom enjoyed a book so much before or since. Some of the pieces were dated, lampooning or lambasting people and notions nobody has heard of since the Roaring Twenties. But many could apply as sharply to today’s events as to those of times long past. What wicked and delicious fun Mencken would have had in 2012!

Henry Louis Mencken hated sham. He made mincemeat of hypocrites. He had a curmudgeonly love for this country, and he often spoke harshly to his American audience. But always with a twinkle in his eye. He could bring a reader to vein-popping outrage in one paragraph and pants-wetting laughter in the next.

He was a staunch libertarian before anybody knew what the word meant. “The government I live under has been my enemy all my active life,” he once wrote. “When it has not been engaged in silencing me it has been engaged in robbing me. So far as I can recall I have never had any contact with it that was not an outrage on my dignity and an attack on my security.”

Mencken certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

The young Ayn Rand regarded Mencken as an inspiration, remarking in 1934 that he was “one whom I admire as the greatest representative of a philosophy to which I want to dedicate my whole life.” If anybody ever stood up against Leviathan and refused to blink, it was he. In the feverish days leading up to World War I, he sacrificed his job as a newspaper columnist to denounce President Woodrow Wilson’s manipulation of public opinion in favor of entering the conflict. As Franklin Roosevelt amassed unprecedented power and craftily angled the US into World War II, Mencken earned FDR’s ire by opposing him and, in the process, lost another job.

His bedevilment of Roosevelt started during the Great Depression. “The New Deal began,” he famously observed, “like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flophouses and disturbing the peace.”

What might he have to say about our apparently endless War on Terror? Or — given his merciless mockeries of Prohibition — about our even more interminable War on Drugs?

About the first national crusade for sobriety, he had this to say:

Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.

Mencken was my introduction to libertarian thought. Not only to its thought per se, but to its attitude. I sensed even then, in the Carter years, that if he were to be miraculously resurrected (a notion at which he, a lifelong unbeliever, would cackle), he would give our moribund nation a much-needed kick in the pants. He had no use for whining or victimhood, and the spectacle of a president lamenting our “malaise” would be met with appropriate scorn. He certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

“On some great and glorious day,” predicted the Sage, “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

He knew a coverup when he saw one, and made sure it didn’t stay covered up for long. Campaign seasons were sources of neverending merriment to him. Never a partisan cheerleader, he treated his readership to what he saw as the unvarnished truth about both sides. And when a public servant displayed the integrity to do what was right, against overwhelming opposition, Mencken was likely to be the one voice in the press to point it out. Even though, about ambitious office-seekers in general, he remarked that “a good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”

What we lack today, in the mainstream media, is people who simply observe and comment without owing automatic allegiance to either side. Or observe and report with no preconceived agenda. Fox News, billing itself as “fair and balanced,” may see a different angle from its competitors, but it still sees only one angle. Like the blind men in a well-known Buddhist parable, some think the elephant is all trunk, while others reduce it to its giant posterior.

A people fit to govern itself needs to keep its baloney-detectors in keen working order. The people need to know when they’re being duped. They need to know how to recognize their own best interests. This requires sharp thinking on the important issues of the day. In our own day, journalists with the courage and wit to perform this service are in woefully short supply.

From 1899, as a cub reporter, until 1948, when he was felled by a stroke, Mencken did his utmost to help Americans understand the human drama and recognize the players for what they were. I owe him my rambunctious love for liberty, deep appreciation for the written word, and taste for fine cigars. I can’t personally thank him, any more than I can my high school journalism teacher. This essay will need to suffice.

“In every unbeliever’s heart there is an uneasy feeling that, after all, he may awake after death and find himself immortal.” Mr. Mencken, your great soul is immortal indeed. Too bad it can’t drag itself back here and knock some sense into us.




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