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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/14180/the-elitist-individualism-of-h-l-mencken/

The Elitist Individualism of H.L. Mencken

October 8, 2010 by

Mencken saw the implications of where his thinking was leading him and he acknowledged those implications frankly. “I am,” he wrote in The Smart Set in 1922, “a libertarian of the most extreme variety.” FULL ARTICLE by Jeff Riggenbach

{ 23 comments }

P.T. Bull October 8, 2010 at 8:27 am

Mencken paints and extraordinarily dark and cynical vision of american politics, and leavens it with brilliant satire and humor. He wrote Notes on Democracy nearly 100 years ago, and it could have been written about today–if one substitutes the puritanical religious folk of his day with the puritanical leftists of today.

His vision of political process was that of a meritocracy of hypocricy and tyrrany of ignorant voters who abhored honesty and nuance. While it is a relief to see my own perceptions so accurately described by another, it can be a dark, if almost irrefutable, vision.

Notes on Democracy is an incredibly radical work, challenging one of america’s sacred cows–governance by the masses. Its dark because he proposes no better alternative. Yet it is an absolute joy for me to read. I laughed so hard I had tears streaming down my face at parts, and I commend anybody to this scathing indictment of ignorance, self-seeking, and hypocricy.

Russ the Apostate October 8, 2010 at 3:35 pm

One of my favorite lines on democracy is still this little gem:

“Democracy is when the people get the government they deserve – good and hard!”

Eric M. Staib October 8, 2010 at 9:00 am

Libertarians could use an H.L. Mencken today.

Ben Ranson October 8, 2010 at 9:27 am

“He had been publicly denounced from pulpits and state legislatures all over the country as a destroyer of American civilization…And what was the doctrine Mencken espoused — the doctrine that aroused his critics to such spluttering paroxysms of uncontrollable rage, the doctrine that scalded the sensitive palates and raised hives on the delicate skins of clergymen and teachers and literary critics and public officials from Bangor to Seattle and from San Diego to Miami?”

Atheism might have something to do with it too.

The first Mencken piece that I read was “Christmas Story.” I laughed and laughed. I have been a fan ever since.

Diogenes October 8, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Mencken was smart but he was also fatally wrong many times. In one writing he praised the “genius” of warlords such as Bismarck and Napoleon. He even wrote that it can be a “good thing” for the U.S. to be in perpetual global military occupation, but nothing “small” like “in Haiti.”

anti-state eh Mencken?

Fallon October 8, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Are you sure of context? was this not further satire?

Diogenes October 9, 2010 at 6:39 pm

How am I supposed to magically conclude that such boggling doublespeak is ‘really’ just “satire” and not the ‘true’ Mencken? Especially when the ‘context’ does not give much help.

[It seems to me that the United States would be a great deal better off today if it had a war on its hands, somewhere or other, all the time. I do not mean, of course, such puerile buffoonery as now goes on from time to time in Nicaragua and Haiti, but real war, occupying say a quarter of a million or half a million men.
"Editorials" in the The American Mercury, Nov 30, p.284 ]

Fallon October 10, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Right. It is difficult if not impossible sometimes. I bet authors, including Mencken, do it on purpose.

Fallon October 8, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Gore Vidal wrote that “Mencken was particularly good — that is, Prophetic — on American skullduggeries south of the border, where he often visited and duly noted our eerie inability to do anything honest or even intelligent, whether in Cuba or Haiti or in dealing with Nicaragua’s Sandino.”

Brian Cantin October 8, 2010 at 6:40 pm

Mencken was hated not only because he displayed contempt, but also because he picked targets who were the most sacred cows of both the religious and secular establishments. If Mencken had restrained himself to laughing at the hillbillies, he would have been lauded during his declining years, and after his death. In particular, attacking the Roosevelt administration brought Mencken enemies who could do him real harm.

For someone who is new to Mencken, I would recommend the Chrestomathy. The Chrestomathy is a collection of Mencken’s best work, selected by the great man himself shortly before he had the stroke that ended his career.

Russ the Apostate October 8, 2010 at 7:29 pm

I would think that the best place to get an idea of why exactly Mencken was reviled by so many would be his book “The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche”. Nietzsche is so opaque that any author who writes about his philosophy will reveal more about himself and his own beliefs than about Nietzsche’s, unless he is extremely circumspect; something Mencken has never been accused of being.

Benjamin Marks October 8, 2010 at 9:41 pm
Ohhh Henry October 8, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Evidently word got out about Nietzsche at some point.

” JEEVES: … I have it from her ladyship’s own maid, who happened to overhear a conversation between her ladyship and one of the gentlemen staying here … that it was her intention to start you almost immediately upon Nietzsche. You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

From Jeeves Takes Charge by P. G. WodehouseBut seriously, I looked into this Mencken on Nietzsche thing a bit just now and found this, which may illuminate what Russ is hinting at above, namely that Mencken was racist against Jews and blacks. While lamentable, I doubt that this is why he was so reviled in his time. Many other so called leaders and intellectual heroes of the time expressed similar views, some of them even advocating sterilization and genocide euphemized as “eugenics”. Unfortunately, Jews and blacks were hardly sacred cows in early 20th C intellectual circles.

Russ the Apostate October 9, 2010 at 5:22 pm

I wasn’t hinting at his racism so much as his own sense that he was an Übermensch compared to most everybody else, even though he was really more of a wit than a deep thinker. The very title of the article says it; Mencken was an elitist. Brian Cantin gave some other reasons why he was so reviled, but I think the biggest was his general attitude that the common man in America was an ignorant boob. That may very well have been true, but it’s not a very American sentiment, and not one calculated to garner support from the common man.

Ohhh Henry October 9, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Thanks for the clarification.

Franklin October 9, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Elitism is not libertarian but, rather, a first cousin of collectivism, a paradigm which subjugates the individual into classifications. It is judgmental and arrogantly false prescience, which belies the insecurity of he who would set himself above not another human being but, rather, another group.
Elitist individualism is an oxymoron, and a revolting one at that.

Matthew Swaringen October 9, 2010 at 9:31 pm

It depends on how you define elitism. At the core it’s simply the belief that some people are more productive and intelligent than others. I don’t think this is questionable. If you believe because of this that these more intelligent and more productive people should boss others around, that’s where you’d get into collectivism.

I don’t agree with you at all that believing some people are more intelligent and productive (including oneself, which almost everyone thinks to some degree) is a first cousin of collectivism. On the contrary, this is simply a recognition of facts about the differences that exist between different members of the human species. Many of the collectivists seek sameness, so I could just as easily say not believing in elitism is a cousin of collectivism.

Collectivism works because it convinces elitists that they can be the central authority, while convincing workers that they can be taken care of by a society of people like them. It appeals to both groups, and thus is not really owned by either of them.

john thames October 10, 2010 at 3:02 am

Oooh Henry is quite correct that Mencken was very anti-Jewish. In Terry Teachout’s biography, there is much material on how Mencken equated Jews with Communism and generally mocked them. He wisely published these sentiments in private papers not released until the late 1980′s and early 1990′s. He was also pro-German and opposed US entry into WW2.

Beefcake the Mighty October 10, 2010 at 7:09 am

Of course, in this regard (associating Jews with Communism), Mencken was really no different from most other observers of that situation at the time (eg such liberal icons as Wilson and Churchill). And of course, even if these observers overstated that role, they were accurate in the essentials.

Russ the Apostate October 10, 2010 at 5:48 pm

“And of course, even if these observers overstated that role, they were accurate in the essentials.”

Yes, Jews back then tended to be Communists or fellow travelers more than most other ethnic groups. Even now, Jews tend to be more left-wing than not; a fact that Norman Podhoretz recently wrote a book trying to explain. (Of course, not all Jews are leftist. Mises and Rothbard, for instance.)

Beefcake the Mighty October 10, 2010 at 7:09 pm
P.M.Lawrence October 11, 2010 at 6:11 am

Jews often have a cultural separation from local traditions that makes them déclassé and déraciné. Calling them “rootless cosmopolitans” ended up either a euphemism or a pejorative, but that stereotype did actually apply to some Jews. For any particular person, the connections he or she forms depend on traditions like that, on personal and family history, personal experience and so on. With Jews, it made it less of an abrupt break to get into things like communism etc., especially if the background culture had given them a poor enough deal or a chip on the shoulder that was enough to make them more rebellious. (This is the sort of thing that worked on Klaus Fuchs, though he wasn’t Jewish, from his wartime experience of being interned and not trusted as a German.) In Disraeli’s case, he was Sephardic which meant that his family reached Britain before the Ashkenazim and – in their case – felt superior, which inclined them to Toryism; it came into full flower when his father broke with the other Jews and converted to Anglicanism (“the Tory party at prayer”), so he had a break of his own with his own traditions and the chance to connect with British ones.

Diogenes October 11, 2010 at 8:22 pm

modern communism was founded ultimately by the Talmudic-Communist-Zionist, Rabbi Moses Hess. It was he who mentored Karl Marx, and he who Israel Shahak called “an extreme Jewish racist,” who wrote the ORIGINAL copy of The Communist Manifesto. It was not, as most think, Marx and Engels who wrote the first original copy, but Rabbi Hess. The Communist Manifesto called for the abolition of private property and the family for the goyim. At the same time Hess called for a Zionist dream of a “Jewish State” in Palestine.

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