Our obsession with H.L. Mencken

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“The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable…”

There you have it. One quote that compresses why we at Notoir are so fond of H.L. Mencken. We could go on and on with other quotes. His acerbic style, which had so sharply defined the freewheeling sensibility of the 1920s, has been curiously absent in some periods. I can imagine it being not-done in the sensitive 1960s. But also in current times, when the majority of people are over-socialized, I am sure a little bit of Mencken rubs many sensitive souls the wrong way.

To read Mencken is to know that showing government as backward and ridiculous is the best way to confront it. The ridicule is better than guns and even most elections. Both merely replace one set of humorless dolts with another bunch of boring idiots. “Every decent man,” wrote Mencken, “is ashamed of the government he lives under.” Of Congress he wrote, “Congress consists of one-third, more or less, scoundrels; two-thirds, more or less, idiots; and three-thirds, more or less, poltroons.” It is almost as if he wrote this this morning.

Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.

H.L. Mencken

As Mencken had that premonition one hundred years ago, we now see big government getting up to a big start. He could not foresee big tech and big data. In hindsight he was eerily prescient when he wrote that

“The pestilence of Service and bureaucracy which torments the people nowadays was just getting under way, and many of the multifarious duties now carried out by social workers, statisticians, truant officers, visiting nurses, psychologists, and the vast rabble of inspectors, smellers, spies and bogus experts of a hundred different faculties either fell to the police or were not discharged at all.

Lovers of big government are afraid that this kind of harsh words, or modern jokes about Big Tech or the Post Office will discourage smart and intelligent people from going into Government “service.”

And that might be a good thing. We do not need smart and intelligent people in government. It would be like having smart and intelligent people in the Mafia or some other criminal gang. The interesting point is that we ourselves put these people on these high places. One only has to lightly skim through a book like Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay, to appreciate the extraordinary contradictions and utterly stupid fads to which mass opinion can be self-deluded.

Usually I am an optimist, but sometimes there is a the point where I have to sit down and just shake my head in disbelief. It is then that I revert to satire, as it is the pessimist’s art. And since satire is best in the hands of grown-up people like Mencken, it is with his work that we should start. Recently we are beginning to see lots of Mencken-like stuff again, tough and funny and libertarian.

Here is listed Notoir’s Mencken collection.