31 January 2011

H. L. Mencken on 'Forward Lookers'

From the perspective of the 21st century, Theodore Roosevelt still looks like a progressive figure in many ways. He has impressed me as someone worthy of intense study as we approach the centennial of his "Bull Moose" independent presidential campaign because he recognized that government had to evolve beyond the original intentions of the Founders and Framers in response to fresh concentrations of industrial and financial power. He seemed to stand above "Left" and "Right," believing that both capital and labor had to compromise, neither being entirely in the right, in the national interest. Despite the prejudices of his time and his class, he strikes me as a clear-eyed non-ideological patriot. H. L. Mencken, who shared the earth with him for a number of years, saw Roosevelt differently.

He didn't believe in democracy; he believed simply in government. His remedy for all the great pangs and longings of existence was not a dispersion of authority, but a hard concentration of authority. He was not in favor of unlimited experiment; he was in favor of a rigid control from above, a despotism of inspired prophets and policemen. He was not for democracy as his followers understood democracy, and as it actually is and must be; he was for a paternalism of the true Bismarckian pattern ... a paternalism concerning itself with all things, from the regulation of coal-mining and meat-packing to the regulation of spelling and marital rights....

All the fundamental objects of Liberalism -- free speech, unhampered enterprise, the least possible government interference -- were abhorrent to him. Even when, for campaign purposes, he came to terms with the Liberals his thoughts always ranged far afield. When he tackled the trusts the thing he had in his mind's eye was not the restoration of competition but the subordination of all private trusts to one great national trust, with himself at its head. And when he attacked the courts it was not because they put their own prejudice before the law but because they refused to put his prejudices before the law.

Mencken had a grudge against Roosevelt, as he had against Woodrow Wilson and anyone he thought had made life difficult for those, like Mencken, who had opposed America's entry into World War I. He had cause for complaint. Whether one sympathized with Germany, as Mencken did, or simply opposed war, as Eugene Debs did, you were subject to censorship, intimidation or prosecution, depending on the nature of your offense. He saw the government's pro-war propaganda campaign, along with the ratification of Prohibition, as signs that the U.S. was headed toward a grim Puritanical tyranny antithetical to the kind of culture he valued. Roosevelt was part of that trend. As for his Progressivism, Mencken deemed it "the most amazing mixture of social, political and economic perunas ever got down by one hero, however valiant, however athirst -- a cocktail made up of all the elixirs hawked among the boobery in his time." The most Mencken will say in Roosevelt's favor is that he probably didn't believe in most of those things himself.

At the same time, Mencken didn't quite dismiss Roosevelt as one of the "mountebanks" or "quacks" that routinely exploit the naive "forward lookers." Reading between the lines, Mencken ventured that "his actual beliefs were anything but nonsensical." On the major point of the obsolescence of the Founding political model, Mencken agreed with Roosevelt, whether he liked it or not.

The old theory of a federation of free and autonomous states has broken down by its own weight, and we are moved toward centralization by forces that have long been powerful and are now quite irresistible. So with the old theory of national isolation; it, too, has fallen to pieces. The United States can no longer hope to lead a separate life in the world, undisturbed by the pressure of foreign aspirations....Roosevelt, by whatever route of reflection or intuition, arrived at a sense of these facts at a time when it was still somewhat scandalous to state them, and it was the capital effort of his life to reconcile them, in some dark way or other, to the prevailing platitudes, and so get them heeded.

To-day no one seriously maintains, as all Americans once maintained, that the states can go on existing together as independent commonwealths, each with its own laws, its own legal theory and its own view of the common constitutional bond. And to-day no one seriously maintains, as all Americans once maintained, that the nation may safely potter on without adequate means of defense. However unpleasant it may be to contemplate, the fact is plain that the American people, during the next century, will have to fight to maintain their place in the sun.

Mencken might be as surprised as Roosevelt would be to hear Americans still maintaining these premises ninety years after he wrote. He entertained seemingly contradictory beliefs, hoping for limited government while conceding the necessity of consolidation in many realms. Elsewhere, he advocated the replacement of small farmers by corporate factory farms in the consumers' interest, considering the traditional yeoman nothing but a stupid, greedy yokel who tried to rip off city folk at every opportunity while begging constantly for government aid. He would not, however, have advocated doing this at once or by force. His conservative critique of politicians like Roosevelt was that they always wanted to get done too quickly "what could only be accomplished by a long and complex process." Mencken condemned radical reformers for their impatience, for their alleged belief that they could accomplish their goals within their own lifetimes or, worse, could accomplish what Mencken thought could never be accomplished.

H. L. Mencken was incapable of faith, either the spiritual faith in a divine order and ultimate justice nor the secular faith in human perfectibility and progress. His assimilation of Darwin and Nietzsche taught him that man's life was without cosmic significance, and that objective, intelligent people could not expect justice from life. He cultivated a tough-minded attitude toward life, which for him meant recognizing your obligation to look out for yourself first, and warned against the "tender-minded" mentality characteristic of "forward lookers." When pressed, Mencken preferred forward-lookers to those reactionaries he called "right thinkers." The forward lookers "show[ed] more courage and originality," he wrote in the essay, "The Forward-Looker," but suffered from what he considered a congenital mental disorder.

All that may be said of them is that they are chronically full of hope, and hence chronically uneasy and indignant -- that they belong to the less sinful and comfortable of the two grand divisions of the human race....They are, on the one hand, pathologically sensitive to the sorrows of the world, and, on the other hand, pathologically susceptible to the eloquence of quacks. What seems to lie in all of them is the doctrine that evils so vast as those they see about them must and will be laid -- that it would be an insult to a just God to think of them as permanent and irremediable...it simply refuses to harbor the concept of the incurable.

Mencken claimed, perhaps facetiously, to be a happier person because he was less tender-minded. People like him "seek contentment by pursuing the delights that are so strangely mixed with the horrors -- by seeking out the soft spots and endeavoring to avoid the hard spots." He justified his stance by stating that "the world is not our handiwork, and we are not responsible for what goes on in it, save within very narrow limits." He admits that this is a "ruthless" viewpoint, but laments the forward-looker's incapacity for such ruthlessness. "It is of the essence of his character that he is unable to escape the delusion of duty." That essence makes the forward-looker "the ideal citizen of democratic states," but Mencken didn't believe in democracy. He thought democracy was driven by envy of anyone better situated than the rabble, whether the plutocrat, the intellectual or the artist. In his mind, that envy probably had something to do with the "notorious ill-humor of uplifters." But there was nothing to be done about it. The forward-looker "was born that way, as men are born with hare lips or bad livers, and he will remain that way until the angels summon him to eternal rest. Destiny has laid upon him the burden of seeing unescapably what had better not be looked at, of believing what isn't so. There is no way to help him. He must suffer vicariously for the carnal ease of the rest of us."

I suppose I see myself in this gently contemptuous description, and I agree that Mencken has no cure for me. I'm not as easily convinced as he was of the incurability of some sorrows or evils, and I'm not as ready to concede his entitlement to carnal ease or his exemption from civil duty. As a Nietzschean, he'd have no basis for complaint if I made the cosmic hopelessness of the situation a basis for raiding his Baltimore home and robbing him of his beer, books and bank account. Had I pulled off the job, it would only prove that I was better than he, after all. Since I'm not aware of any provisions he ever made to defend his home by armed force, I assume that he had some stake in social order and some expectation of how others should behave toward him. He might even agree that those expectations are negotiable. As a forward-looker myself, that's all I ask -- for starters, at least. Mencken himself never said that things can't be made better; he only said that they couldn't be made better as instantly as some forward-lookers would like. But sometimes they can't be made better without insistence, and that insistence shouldn't be seen as some desperate perfectionist yearning. In retrospect, it seems that Mencken abandoned too quickly the idea that society can be improved by concerted effort; hence his critique of Theodore Roosevelt and his implicit critique of progressives and forward-lookers to come. Sometimes you can't know that a thing can't be done until you try it. If Mencken somehow knew that some things weren't worth trying, I'd like to know how he gained that knowledge. Until I read more of him, I find him of limited use for our time, though his ability to amuse remains far less limited.


Anonymous said...

The more of Mencken I read, the more disagreeable I find him. That being said, I still think his response to the Scopes trial hit the proverbial nail on the head, insofar as the average human is concerned.

Samuel Wilson said...

If so, how do you account for your different political attitude toward "average humans?" Mencken wanted to be left alone by them -- though I suppose he didn't mind them buying his books -- and he definitely didn't want to lead or slaughter them. Do you consider yourself more of a forward looker than Mencken? If so, what do you find disagreeable in his description of the type?

Anonymous said...

What I find disagreeable is his belief that things can get no better so there is no sense in trying to make things better.

It seems to me that those on top have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and the easiest way to do so is to keep people believing that this is as good as it gets. So our education system becomes less about educating and more about socializing and propagandizing.

People like Mencken, having the public ear, could do a lot towards pointing out the inequalities and really getting "the people" to question the status quo vis-a-vis their own place in it.