Notes on a Democracy by Henry Louis Mencken: A Review
We interrupt our current series to bring you this special review.
H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) began his writing career as a cub reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald. He would later pen a number of essays, op-ed pieces, books (fiction and non-fiction) and even poetry. Known for sharp satire, pithy one-liners and iconoclastic observations, his works in toto seem more a collection of caricatures than actual portraits of American society. With broad characterizations of various segments of American, British and German populations, along with a distorted view of their abilities, motivations and proclivities, he directly addressed, with tongue slightly in cheek, the foibles and perceived fallacies and potential danger of populist rule in his 1926 book Notes on a Democracy.
Dissident Books has just published an excellent new edition of Notes on a Democracy, with an introduction and annotations from Mencken biographer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers. Rodgers deftly situates this book in the context of Mencken’s life and times; the former consisting of a middle-class, nearly chauvinistic German American background, and a lifelong commitment to personal liberty; the latter entailing such (then) hot-button topics as Prohibition, lynching, the Palmer Raids, the Scopes Trial and female suffrage. The annotations, designed to explain certain themes constant in Mencken’s other works, archaic terms, and intellectual jargon, can sometimes leave the reader scratching her head wondering why Rodgers feels compelled to explain some terms (e.g. ‘Freud’) and not others (e.g., ‘flappers’). If the reader’s never heard of Sigmund, the book’s probably over her head anyway, while flappers, on the other hand, populated an era that has almost vanished from living memory. Nevertheless, the annotations are usually helpful, especially with respect to antiquated definitions of terms currently used to mean something completely different (e.g. ‘modernism’).
Notes on Democracy is neither a defense of nor paean for democratic values, but rather a no-holds-barred criticism of them. For this, some have labeled Mencken anti-democratic. In some respects, because of his penchant for caricature--which often results in an obliteration of anything resembling so-called political correctness--one might have problems seeing the irony in Mencken’s writing. In other words, some simply don’t get the joke. On the other hand, flippancy doesn’t necessarily indicate that the individual means the opposite of what he says—just as some in the southern US take license to level the most ruthless commentary at another provided that the phrase “bless his heart” punctuates it at the end (“That man is a money-grubbing, whore-chasin’, whiskey-swilling pig, bless his heart”). Thus, we are left to wonder a bit if Mencken’s really advocating the destruction of the republic in favor of monarchy, or if he’s actually challenging democracy to get its act together.
We often see the concepts of liberty and democracy going hand-in-hand. But from Mencken’s perspective, democracy is the natural enemy of freedom. While this might seem counterintuitive at first, he lists a number of reasons why this is so, reasons that would ring true to the twenty-first century American reader, especially in the midst of the presidential campaigns that we have witnessed lately. First off, he regards the notion of a wise, or intelligent mass as mere fiction. He sees instead a mob acting not by virtue of reason, but primarily out of fear, or the lust for security. Indeed, post-9/11 we’re often told that we have to sacrifice our civil liberties for personal security, because our leaders and the polls say so. So we barely stir when Justice Department officials illegally tap our phones, assuring us they only intend to catch terrorists (or as W. calls them, “evildoers”); or when law enforcement officials harass, infiltrate or profile certain groups whose ideas or personnel seem foreign to us. Then again, fearmongering from both major parties has played a role in presidential elections all of my life, from the “Daisy Girl” spot for LBJ in 1964 to the current attempts by GOP proponents to brand Democratic nominee Obama a terrorist.
Second, Mencken declares that the tenet of all men being equal leads to denying the existence and liberties of exceptional men due to the perpetual public desire to bring them down to (presumably equal) size. Certainly, anti-intellectual themes abound in our everyday discourse, but we can perhaps more readily see this concept in popular culture, with its current fascination for getting the dish on the loftiest luminaries, the celebrities that it simultaneously worships and savages.
Most important, Mencken indicts systems of democratic government, characterizing them as totally corruptible, more so than monarchy. Because he has to pander to a mob for election and reelection, the politician is open to manipulation by well-managed and heavily financed minorities willing to give him an edge. The Anti-Saloon League, consequently, receives a grand dose of Mencken’s wrath for self-righteously bullying legislators into passing laws leading to dire consequences. As he puts it, one cannot reform government simply by electing persons of better character, any more than one can reform a whorehouse by staffing it with virgins. Because of the nature of each enterprise, one will have to either go against one’s principals early and often, or leave right away to maintain his or her honor. The more honor a politician shows, according to Mencken, the less viable he is as a candidate, for he will have broken the illusion of being one of the mob:
The aim of democracy is to break all such free spirits to the common harness. It tries to iron them out, to pump them dry of all self-respect, to make docile John Does of them. The measure of its success is the extent to which such men are brought down, and made common.Nowadays, we see candidates reaching out for the approval of some guy named Joe SixPack, or basing their electability on how well they reflect the voter’s self identity, with all its virtues, flaws, self-righteousness, bigotry and ignorance. Moreover, when one candidate or other has demonstrated a latent streak of honor, we see that gets ironed out in seconds flat, as has occurred recently at a Republican rally in Minnesota when, amid shouts of condemnation for Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain briefly defend his Congressional colleague, only to be greeted with boos by his own supporters for gently suggesting that their lynch mob mentality was unjustified and unwarranted.
These are only three of the aspects Mencken cites as democratic impediments to freedom. He lists and expands on numerous others, in a very light prose style that’s not only easy, but also fun to read. If one keeps in mind the deliberately broad brush with which he paints the subjects of this piece, he or she will probably see this book as eternally relevant. Taken at its word, it’s the most self-indulgent screed for Hobbesian autocracy written at the time. Perhaps the confusion as to how to take Mencken accounts for his simultaneous embrace and revulsion by both right and left.
Critics have chided Mencken over the years for his political incorrectness, especially after the posthumous publication of his diary entries, which show among other things venomous racist and anti-Semitic leanings—this despite his open advocacy for the anti-lynching movement or his demonstrated concern for the welfare of Jews in Nazi Germany.
For someone like me, the issue of political incorrectness isn’t troubling because it’s potentially offensive to hypersensitive bourgeois sensibilities, or patently provocative, but because it betrays a fundamental ignorance on the part of the speaker. Mencken bases this book on the premise that some men are naturally superior to others. To his credit, he, unlike many of his contemporaries, sees this as a factor of individuality, not genetics. Superior men, like their inferiors, come in all shapes, sizes and colors, he says. In his assumed position of judging which is which, Mencken tacitly characterizes himself as one of the superior men.
Well, it’s easy to think that you’re above the rabble, its fears and superstitions if, as the son of a prosperous cigar maker you can always go back to the family business, you’ve grown up free of the daily fear of wondering where your next meal comes from, or the dread that the nightriders are going to pump your house full of lead. It’s perhaps easy to castigate people for choosing liberty over life instead of the other way around. For example, although he sympathizes with African Americans in the Jim Crow South because of their practical inability to vote, their refusal to either flee north or fight to the death for suffrage proves to him that they are still driven with fear, and, despite the possible future achievements and superiority of their progeny, inferior. Yet, those who stayed and took no action, survived. And some of their progeny did become men and women of letters and complex abstractions (myself included), not despite of their ancestors’ sacrifice of liberty for survival, but because of it. After all, we grew up free of want and violence. Despite my degrees and achievements, I’d be a fool to think that I’m superior to those who went out of their way to make these things possible for me. So in this regard, Mencken has possibly mistaken patience for popular cowardice. Who knows what else he’s mistaken for popular cowardice?
To be fair, Notes on a Democracy precedes the work of Maslow and other shrinks who would tell you that physical survival is always the first order of human business. That the mass demonstrates a tendency to organize for “ham and cabbage” instead of liberty might not indicate a lack of imagination or intelligence, but rather a (perhaps justified, perhaps accurate) realization that that’s all they’re gonna get—at least until a chance for actual and sustainable liberty raises its head.
Patience, you see. But my caveat to this book has little to do with its perceived notion of African Americans, country bumpkins, or the great unwashed. Rather, Mencken’s prejudices ironically point out the difficulty he had in fully extricating himself from the mob mentality—even if it’s arguably a more genteel mob we’re talking about, here.
Notes on a Democracy is in many ways a dangerous book. Take it as a joke, and you risk missing the very cogent and valid insights Mencken had about the nature of democracy. Take it verbatim, and you feed the ever-growing cult of blind individualism. However you take it, this isn’t a book you can toss aside lightly, given how its themes echo in the works of such writers as Ayn Rand and in the philosophical underpinnings of Libertarianism.
Labels: political theory