Happy Birthday to H.L. Mencken (1880-1956).
Mencken was one of the most important social critics and columnists in American history. His prose and ability to craft remarkable sentences are now of legend. He was well known for covering the Scopes trial (it is popularly known as the “monkey trial” –this was Mencken’s doing). Here is Murray Rothbard’s essay on Mencken: “H.L. Mencken: The Joyous Libertarian.” While Mencken was well known as an agnostic and for his harsh words against religion (which, if applied to the right religious groups –the moralist Progressives and the anti-philosophy Arminian fundamentalists– are entirely agreeable), he had much respect for a hero of this website: J. Gresham Machen. Here is a quote from Mencken’s obituary of Machen. Keep in mind that this is coming from someone who generally despised religion:
What caused [Machen] to quit the Princeton Theological Seminary and found a seminary of his own was his complete inability, as a theologian, to square the disingenuous evasions of Modernism with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. He saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the Modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives.
Thus he fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works. Most of the other Protestant churches have gone the same way, but Dr. Machen’s attention, as a Presbyterian, was naturally concentrated upon his own connection. His one and only purpose was to hold it [the Church] resolutely to what he conceived to be the true faith. When that enterprise met with opposition he fought vigorously, and though he lost in the end and was forced out of Princeton it must be manifest that he marched off to Philadelphia with all the honors of war.
And finally, here are my favorite quotes of Mencken’s:
- “A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker.”
- “Democracy is an art of governing the circus from the monkey’s cage.”
- “The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”
- “The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself… Almost inevitably, he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable.”
- “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”
- “I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air– that progress made under the shadow of the policeman’s club is also progress, and of no permanent value. I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight measure, is bound to become a slave.”
- “The truth, indeed, is something that mankind, for some mysterious reason, instinctively dislikes. Every man who tries to tell it is unpopular, and even when, by the sheer strength of his case, he prevails, he is put down as a scoundrel.”
- “When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre….”
- “As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day 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.”
- “The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.”
- “The typical lawmaker of today is a man wholly devoid of principle — a mere counter in a grotesque and knavish game. If the right pressure could be applied to him, he would be cheerfully in favor of polygamy, astrology or cannibalism.”
- “It is [a politician’s] business to get and hold his job at all costs. If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out, he will try to hold it by embracing new truths. His ear is ever close to the ground.”
- “Public opinion, in its raw state, gushes out in the immemorial form of the mob’s fear. It is piped into central factories, and there it is flavoured and coloured and put into cans.”
- “I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.”
- “The state… consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get, and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time it is made good by looting ‘A’ to satisfy ‘B’. In other words, [the state] is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advanced auction on stolen goods.”
- “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”
- “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins.”
- “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”