Saturday, August 20, 2011

Notes on Democracy, by H. L. Mencken

I've never been more depressed about America or its prospects than I am right now. During the Bush years, I thought, perhaps stupidly, that everything would return to a tolerable state after he left. Obama's speeches on the campaign trail even made me hope for something better than a return to normalcy. Now it looks like the most aberrant and brutal policies of the Bush era are simply going to continue as part of a bipartisan consensus. And looking at the current field, there is no obvious hope of things getting better, only the very real possibility of them getting much worse.

So: what can a person do, assuming that you have the luxury to care about something beyond paying your bills and getting through the day?

1) You can get involved in fixing a broken system: lobbying for changes in the political process, supporting or creating a viable third party, maybe even running for something yourself.

2) Like Thoreau (before his John Brown days), you can try to reformulate your sense of idealism to function entirely outside the existing systems of power. Your program will then involve only yourself and maybe a few other people. Also, it'll probably require some surplus income or a wealthy friend. Individual civil disobedience falls somewhere between the first and second categories.

3) You can take a historical perspective, realize that things have never been all that much better or worse in America, and then have a good laugh at the endless procession of smooth-talking frauds and pious idiots that this country manages to produce.

Most people move up and down this list, but each has a natural resting place. If the third option has any appeal for you, and to a lesser extent the second, H. L. Mencken's Notes on Democracy might prove sympathetic. If the first, prepare to be quite brilliantly mocked:
...there are still idealists, chiefly professional Liberals, who argue that it is the duty of a gentleman to go into politics—that there is a way out of the quagmire in that direction. The remedy, it seems to me, is quite as absurd as all the other sure cures that Liberals advocate. When they argue for it, they simply argue, in words but little changed, that the remedy for prostitution is to fill the bawdyhouses with virgins. My impression is that this last device would accomplish very little: either the virgins would leap out of the windows, or they would cease to virgins.
You have to be in a very particular mood to enjoy Mencken. The publisher kindly sent me this book several years ago, and it took increasing quantities of dismay to finally, a few weeks ago, arrive at it. Mencken is an entertaining writer but not, for me, an endearing one. Americans are naturally idealistic, which is part of the reason we are so easily fooled, and have such a hard time recognizing when we're working on ruining our own lives while actively destroying those of others.

When there is so little to be patriotic about, though, and you are both completely fed up and have no idea how to improve the situation, Mencken can provide a kind of desperate consolation. As he writes in the concluding section of the Notes, "I am not engaged in therapeutics, but in pathology."

This book was published in 1926, when increasing concentration of wealth, virtually unregulated markets, and runaway war spending were preparing the way for a massive collapse. Manning the helm at the period were, among others, an inarticulate idiot, whose English was "so bad a kind of grandeur creeps into it," and a pseudo-idealist who reduced "all the difficulties of the hour to a few sonorous and unintelligible phrases, often with theological overtones," and whose avowed principles were quickly compromised in the face of any resistance.

Notes on Democracy is not particularly cohesive; it is basically a series of witty political pamphlets with titles like "The Eternal Mob" and "The Occasional Exception." For some reason, it fell out of print for decades, and this useful re-issue features an excellent introduction by Marion Elizabeth Rogers, as well as extensive footnoting of Mencken's references to scandals of the day and America's political past. Most of these footnotes are useful; some are a little insulting—I wonder what Mencken would make of the fact that Bach and Freud as well as batches of fairly common foreign phrases, from Reich to vox populi, now apparently need to be identified.

Here are some of Mencken's arguments: most people are stupid and this is simply a genetic necessity. Forget education or any other system of improvement; these people are dumb because they have simply absorbed as much as they are constitutionally able to absorb. He expresses admiration for eugenicists like Francis Galton, and incredulity that anyone could think that folk music or folktales actually rose out of the common mass. He supports the theory that some great, now forgotten individual artists created this work, with the folk acting only as "referees, choosing which should survive," although he fails to explain why the idiotic folk would have such unerringly good taste.

(Note: I find this side of Mencken repellent, but there is enough that is worthwhile that I suggest simply getting past it. Most of this stuff is at the beginning of the book.)

Now, intelligent and honorable politicians, Mencken argues, when faced with this mob, either don't last long or quickly become frauds, consciously or unconsciously. Then the exploitation of the office begins. "The business of victimizing [this public]," Mencken writes, "is a lucrative profession, an exact science, and a delicate and lofty art. It has its masters and it has its quacks ... The adept practitioner is not only rewarded; he is also thanked. The victims delight in his ministrations, as an hypochondriacal woman delights in the flayings of the surgeon. But all the while they have the means in their hands to halt the obscenity whenever it becomes intolerable, and now and then, raised transiently to a sort of intelligence, they do put a stop to it."

As you can see, there is both wit and insight here, both about why the bums do eventually get thrown out, and then inevitably thrown back in, with renewed hope. Again, Mencken suggests no solutions, but it is at least something to hear the truth spoken. Mencken once wrote, incidentally, that his only objective was only to make "life measurably more bearable for the civilized minority in America."

So what, you might ask, is Mencken's standard for "civilized"? He is not, it turns out, devoid of idealism; he simply believes—like Carlin, incidentally—that honor does not exist in groups, which inevitably work to destroy it, but only in isolated free individuals. In Europe, he says the aristocrats might once have filled this role; in America, their absence is filled, in the public mind at least, by the plutocracy. "[This plutocracy] is, of course, something quite different," he writes. "It lacks all the essential characters of a true aristocracy: a clean tradition, culture, public spirit, honesty, honour, courage—above all, courage. It stands under no bond of obligation to the state; it has no public duty; it is transient and lacks a goal. Its most puissant dignitaries of to-day came out of the mob only yesterday—and from the mob they bring all its peculiar ignobilities."

He fails to identify the historical aristocracy that actually possessed these noble qualities, but he at least makes it clear what he admires. So, what should the few men and women in America that fit this description do for their country? Mencken's answer: leave it alone, and fight to make sure it does the same to you.
Liberty means self-reliance, it means resolution, it means enterprise, it means the capacity for doing without. The free man is one who has won a small and precarious territory from the great mob of his inferiors, and is prepared and ready to defend it and make it support him. All around him are enemies, and where he stands there is no friend. He can hope for little help from other men of his own kind, for they have battles of their own to fight. He has made of himself a sort of god in his little world, and he must face the responsibilities of a god, and the dreadful loneliness.
It is partially Mencken's fault that this passage is all too easy to applaud. How else could someone who endlessly castigated America become such a celebrated figure in his time? Most people like to think of themselves as surrounded by inferiors, and this kind of writing lends itself to self-congratulation of the stupidest kind. But Mencken is constantly slipping out of such traps if you read him carefully; he has a complicated mind, and this is why his writing is still worth reading for more than turns of phrase. The capacity for doing without—there is a line that, say, Ayn Rand, would never have written. She would also never have mentioned public duty or any kind of obligation, to the state or otherwise. But Mencken's brilliant and racy style makes it very easy to read fast and miss the harder lessons, so the laughter his insults produce often settles into arrogant complacency.

This is finally, though, the reader's fault and not the writer's. And it is good to know that Mencken, in his own life, was capable of appreciating real artists and true statesmen, and seems to have been a man of both courage and (occasional) open-mindedness. I still find him, as I always have, a difficult writer to like. I admire people whose instinct, in the absence of definite evidence, is to believe before they disbelieve, who are willing to be fooled and disappointed repeatedly before they reject anything that might be worthwhile. Mencken's constant shoveling out of bullshit means he often loses his eye for gold. Notes from Democracy is filled, for example, with mockery of chiropractors and osteopaths, both of whom have long since proved—in the face of immense opposition—that they are not in fact quacks.

Something else bothers me too. Adjusting for comic exaggeration, many of the things Mencken says have the absolute ring of truth, but I feel like they should be said with sadness or rage instead of relish, because no one suffers more from the current arrangements in America than the masses on whom Mencken heaps so much contempt. It is also hard, today, to be satisfied with Mencken's vision of lonely and honorable individualism. Our most pressing problems, particularly the ecological ones, have demonstrated that we are an interconnected community whose private actions affect each other. Simply removing yourself from the contagion doesn't seem like a real solution.

But, well, maybe there is no solution, and that's that. This could be something, at long last, to consider, and Notes on Democracy makes the point too incisively to be ignored. If you have arrived at the mood I mentioned earlier, and need some desperate consolation, I recommend seeking it out.

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