Notes on Democracy: Mencken Vents His Spleen for His Era and Ours

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August 15, 2008

This is a wonderful book'packed with personality and a surprising amount of helpful supplementary material. For example, in her introductory essay to Notes on Democracy: A New Edition, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (author of Mencken: The American Iconoclast) describes the effect of Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) on first-time readers:

'[Mencken is] . . . still castigated as un-American, 'anti-democractic,' even 'a near anarchist.' His independent and realistic thought is sternly censured; in more liberated circles, it is simply regarded with unease. When every phrase must be examined for political correctness, many find it impossible to enjoy Mencken without apology.'

For first-time readers, yes, Mencken is pugnacious. Yes, he adopted indefensible positions for their shock value, but he knew in his bones that thick heads need a good hard whack to break up the cobwebs. And when it came to words versus action, he followed the good advice that was once given to children: 'sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.' Today, our culture of hypocrisy and false-civility has completely reversed that bit of wisdom. On one hand, we enforce politically correct speech to avoid hurt feelings. On the other, we institutionalize the genuine victimization of our fellow citizens through idiotic laws, prohibitions, and progressive taxation. Even worse, we celebrate as heroism the slaughter of impoverished civilians in far-away locations by our military establishment'no matter how implausible the 'threats' they pose.

As an antidote for our perverse zeitgeist, there is no better medicine than this readable and entertaining book by one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. As Mencken explores the democratic man, the democratic state, and the conflict of democracy and liberty, he laughs and pokes fun at fundamentalists, teetotalers, law enforcement zealots, judges, victimless crime laws, presidents, public schools, our history of warmongering, and the drooling stupidity that seems to run through our society like a bubbling sewer with lots of inconvenient clogs.

To make this particular edition even more valuable to readers, Ms. Rodgers' introduction explores Mencken's most fascinating traits and some of the accusations made against him'placing him in an appropriate historical context. She also provides 45 pages of annotations to supplement the text. These bring to life (and save us the trouble of looking up) the people, places, and ideas cited by Mencken throughout the book. Then, in a succinctly written afterword, Pulitzer-prize-winner Anthony Lewis brings us up to date. He explains the vital relevance of Mencken's thinking to 21st century America, which already has been twisted beyond recognition by a Janus-headed cadre of lying and spineless politicians (take your pick from either party) and their easily deceived mob of witch-burners born in the wrong century.

Part 1: The Democratic Man

Mencken begins by taking the high road: He refuses to blame the Greeks for cooking up the concept of 'democratic man.' Instead, he blames the idealized vision of the noble savage on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Then Mencken playfully digs through the mountain of evidence that contradicts Rousseau's rosy assumptions'and he uses the appropriate tool, a steam-shovel. He immediately dispels the notion that democratic man is on a quest for his higher self. What he really wants is 'something concrete and highly materialistic'more to eat, less work, higher wages, lower taxes.' But what's so bad about that? The problem, says Mencken, is that 'the inferior four-fifths of mankind' reduces everything to his own private advantage. This, he explains, is based on the inevitable inequality that prevails among men: 'The mob, being composed, in the overwhelming main, of men and women who have not got beyond the ideas and emotions of childhood, hovers, in mental age, around the time of puberty, and chiefly below it.' With a bit more sympathy, he puts it this way:

'One thus sees the world as a vast field of greased poles, flying gaudy and seductive flags. Up each a human soul goes shinning, painfully and with many a slip. Some climb eventually to the high levels; a few scale the dizziest heights. But the great majority never get very far from the ground. There they struggle for a while, and then give it up. The effort is too much for them; it doesn't seem to be worth its agonies. Golf is easier; so is joining Rotary; so is Fundamentalism; so is osteopathy; so is Americanism.'

But how does this transform itself into democratic man? With the help of fear and stupidity: 'Man comes into the world weak and naked, and almost as devoid of intelligence as an oyster, but he brings with him a highly complex and sensitive susceptibility to fear.' Most of us are incapable of getting rid of our childish fears, and being unable to reason, we fall prey to those who are expert in manipulating our fears''the demagogues, i.e., the professors of mob psychology, who flourish in democratic states.' According to Mencken, '. . . man on the lower levels, though he quickly reaches the limit of his capacity for taking in actual knowledge, remains capable for a long time thereafter of absorbing delusions. What is true daunts him, but what is not true finds lodgment in his cranium with so little resistance that there is only a trifling emission of heat.' Consequently:

'Politics under democracy consists almost wholly of the discovery, chase and scotching of bugaboos. The statesman becomes, in the last analysis, a mere witch-hunter, a glorified smeller and snooper, eternally chanting 'Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum!' It has been so in the United States since the earliest days. The whole history of the country has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary: the red-coats, the Hessians, the monocrats, again the red-coats, the Bank, the Catholics, Simon Legree, the Slave Power, Jeff Davis, Mormonism, Wall Street, the rum demon . . . the hell hounds of plutocracy, the trusts . . . Pancho Villa, German spies, hyphenates, the Kaiser, Bolshevism.'

Today we might update the list with Korea, Vietnam, foreign oil, Islam, Wal-Mart, inequality, tobacco, Iraq, illicit drugs, Afghanistan, Russia, immigrants, firearms, imported cars, gay people, Iran, Holocaust-deniers, Starbucks coffee, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and anti-war protesters. If you nodded your head at any of these, ask yourself why. As an example of the bugaboo theory of demagoguery in action, Mencken demonstrates how President Wilson'a favorite target'was able to whip Americans into a fear-based frenzy by demonizing Germany:

'The whole power of the government was concentrated upon throwing the plain people into a panic. All sense was heaved overboard, and there ensued a chase of bugaboos on a truly epic scale. Nothing like it had ever been seen in the world before, for no democratic state as populous as the United States had ever gone to war before. I pass over the details, and pause only to recall the fact that the American people, by the end of 1917, were in such a terror that they lived in what was substantially a state of siege, though the foe was 3000 miles away and obviously unable to do them any damage.'

Does this remind anyone of President Bush and 9-11? But how is it that demagogues find such fertile fields on the continent of the democratic man? In a word, envy. Underneath his pretensions of superiority, in democratic man 'there lies an uncomfortable realization of actual inferiority.' More explicitly:

'The sea-sick passenger on the ocean liner detests the 'good sailor' who stalks past him a hundred times a day, obscenely smoking large, greasy, gold-banded cigars. In precisely the same way democratic man hates the fellow who is having a better time of it in this world. Such, indeed, is the origin of democracy. And such is the origin of its twin, Puritanism.'

Today's Puritans carry the torch of their philosophical ancestors by persecuting deviancy wherever they find it: the Puritans of the left abhor the fat wallets of the economically successful, and on the right, they spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the pudenda of the sexually adventurous. By alternating the use of fear and envy, says Mencken, politicians can stampede their followers into just about anything. The democratic man '. . . oscillates eternally between scoundrels, or if you would take them at their own valuation, heroes. Politics becomes the trade of playing upon its natural poltroonery'of scaring it half to death, and then proposing to save it.'

Mencken quotes Sir Francis Galton to explain that the pervasive mixture of fear, envy, and stupidity results in fear of liberty: 'The vast majority of persons of our race have a natural tendency to shrink from the responsibility of standing and acting alone.' He adds: 'The heritage of freedom belongs to a small minority of men, descended whether legitimately or by adultery, from the old lords of the soil or from the patricians of the free towns.' In contrast the democratic man seeks only one thing: security. That is why instead of seeking genuine justice (justice for the individual based on his own actions), he seeks out social justice (a pre-determined result applied for politically organized groups). Says Mencken, 'Justice, in fact, is always unpopular and in difficulties under democracy, save perhaps that false form of so-called social justice which is designed solely to get the laborer more than his fair hire.' Mencken's theory about the roles played by fear, stupidity, and envy goes a long way toward explaining why we are presented'in each election cycle'with a choice between two fraudsters: '[the democratic man] can imagine and even esteem, in his way, certain false forms of liberty'for example, the right to choose between two political mountebanks, and to yell for the more obviously dishonest'but the reality is incomprehensible to him.'

Part 2: The Democratic State

Mencken provides a definition of the democratic state that not only describes it but also hints at its internal mechanism. Furthermore, he does not protest that the United States is supposed to be a constitutional republic:

'Whether it be called a constitutional monarchy, as in England, or a representative republic, as in France, or a pure democracy, as in some of the cantons of Switzerland, it is always essentially the same. There is, first, the mob, theoretically and in fact the ultimate judge of all ideas and the source of all power. There is, second, the camorra of self-seeking minorities, each seeking to inflame, delude and victimize it. The political process thus becomes a mere battle of rival rogues. But the mob remains quite free to decide between them.'

He denies that checks and balances have had any salutary effect. Why? Because politicians play upon the envy, stupidity, and fears of the electorate: '[The politician] is willing to embrace any issue, however idiotic, that will get him votes, and he is willing to sacrifice any principle, however sound, that will lose them for him.' Mavericks? They are rarely elected and quickly disappear. If they are dubbed with that title in an admiring way by journalists, you are being taken to the cleaners'and Obama and McCain are no exception.

Read onward as Mencken's delightful microscope tears into the presidencies of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt with relish'exposing them and their adoring constituencies for what they are. If Machiavelli took off our blinders and exposed the rancid underbelly of tyrants in The Prince, Mencken did the same for democracy in this gem of a book. As Mencken says plainly, 'We are dependent for whatever good flows out of democracy upon men who do not believe in democracy.'

Part 3: Democracy and Liberty

Mencken's discussion of Prohibition and the 18th Amendment teaches a lesson that applies directly to our bizarre obsession over what people ingest in the privacy of their own homes. I refer to the War on Drugs and those who profit mightily from it'not only the criminal gangs that are its inevitable result, but the judges, police departments, DEA, FBI, and the vast and vicious prison industry. Here Mencken describes their tactics:

The Prohibitionist leaders, being mainly men of wide experience in playing upon the prejudices and emotions of the mob, developed a technique of terrorization that was almost irresistible. The moment a politician ventured to speak against them he was accused of the grossest baseness. It was whispered that he was a secret drunkard and eager to safeguard his tipple; it was covertly hinted that he was in the pay of the Whiskey Ring, the Beer Trust, or some other such bugaboo . . . . The point is that such accusations are generally believed, especially when they are leveled at a candidate for office. The average American knows what he would do in like case, and he believes quite naturally that every other man is willing and eager to do the same.'

If we ask why the democratic man supports bankrupt notions such as Prohibition, the War on Drugs, and a host of victimless crime laws and economic legislation, we must remember the unholy trinity of envy, stupidity, and fear:

'Democracy, as a political scheme, may be defined as a device for releasing this hatred born of envy, and for giving it the force and dignity of law . . . . The Puritan's actual motives are (a) to punish the other fellow for having a better time in the world, and (b) to bring the other fellow down to his own unhappy level . . . . The whole criminal law in America thus acquires a flavour of fraud . . . . It is executed by officers whose private prosperity runs in direct ratio to their reckless ferocity. And the business is applauded by morons whose chief delight lies in seeing their betters manhandled and humiliated . . . . There is always a district attorney at hand to launch the prosecution, for district attorneys are invariably men who aspire to higher office, and no more facile way to it is to be found than by assaulting and destroying a man above the general [level].'

Does this remind anyone of the raid on the bong business of comedian Tommy Chong? What about financier Michael Milken in the 1980s? The same instinct applies to both. And let's not forget about Martha Stewart, surrounded like Joan of Arc by a barnyard pen of FBI agents, prosecutors, and judges (known to be hybrids of lawyers and politicians).

One must always remember Mencken's assessment of the democratic man: '. . . he is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. He longs for the warm, reassuring smell of the herd, and is willing to take the herdsman with it.' According to Mencken, that is why the most harmful legislation often runs through the gauntlet of Congress so quickly: 'Haste is necessary, lest even the mob be shaken by sober second thought.' Can anyone spell USA PATRIOT Act? This gift of Congress was passed before it was read. By mistake, someone even forgot to remove the thinly veiled humor. After all, when spelled out, the acronym actually reads as follows: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. Yes, there is a god; George Orwell walks among us.

Part 4: Coda'or Mencken's Final Barb

In the last section of his book, Mencken leaves us with some final thoughts on democracy: 'It came into the world as a cure-all, and it remains primarily a cure-all to this day. Any boil upon the body politic, however vast and ranging, may be relieved by taking a vote; any flux of blood may be stopped by passing a law. The aim of government is to repeal the laws of nature . . . . War becomes simply a device to end war. The state . . . takes on a transcendental potency . . . . Democracy becomes a substitute for the old religion . . . not vulnerable to logical attack.'

Oh, my. What's a mother to do? We are saddled with a faith-based religion called democracy. Along with Mencken, we can proclaim, 'I have never encountered any actual evidence, convincing to an ordinary jury, that vox populi is actually vox Dei. The proofs, indeed, run the other way.' So what is Mencken's advice? In short, enjoy it:

'. . . the true charm of democracy is not for the democrat but for the spectator . . . . Try to imagine anything more heroically absurd! . . . . It is based upon propositions that are palpably not true'and what is not true, as everyone knows, is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast majority of men than what is true . . . . 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.'

Citing the preceding text, many readers consider Mencken to be the quintessential cynic. I disagree. Look behind the words. Mencken was a supreme idealist, and Notes on Democracy is an expression of his bottomless disappointment in the American public and its mode of government. Behind his unbridled amusement and boozy laughter lies a man deeply wounded by the nonsense that surrounds him, and Notes on Democracy is his attempt to reach an accommodation with it while remaining a sane'and living'human being. This particular edition places his remedy directly in our hands. Buy ten copies. You know who needs them.

Notes on Democracy: A New Edition, 208 pages.

By H. L. Mencken (introduction and annotations by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers; afterword by Anthony Lewis)

Dissident Books; New York , New York ; October 15, 2008

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Columns on STR: 33

Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer living in San Diego.