Quotulatiousness

January 29, 2018

A new collection of H.L. Mencken’s “The Free Lance” columns

Filed under: Books, History, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In Reason, Bill Kauffman reviews S.T. Joshi’s new selection from H.L. Mencken’s Baltimore Evening Sun essays:

The longtime Baltimore Evening Sun columnist, American Mercury editor, and rumbustiously splenetic critic, who graced this orb from 1880 to 1956, would not be published in any major newspaper today. The reasons he foresaw over a century ago, when he decried the “cheap bullying and cheaper moralizing” whose purpose was the extirpation, the annihilation, of anything resembling a robust exchange of ideas. Two beliefs puffed up the righteous censor, according to Mencken: first, “that any man who dissents from the prevailing platitudes is a hireling of the devil,” and second, “that he should be silenced and destroyed forthwith. Down with free speech; up with the uplift!”

Plus ça change and all that.

S.T. Joshi, who has chosen his primary scholarly interests — Mencken, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ambrose Bierce — with a fine eye for readability over reputation, has assembled a selection of Mencken’s Evening Sun “Free Lance” columns of 1911–1915 into a book called A Saturnalia of Bunk and contributed an informative introduction to it.

Henry Louis Mencken churned out six of these 1,200-word meringues every week, a vertiginous pace that makes Joyce Carol Oates look like Harper Lee.

Logorrheic bloggers aside, does anyone really have that much to say about the controversies of the day? Mencken once nicked Bierce for reprinting his early work, which was “filled with epigrams against frauds long dead and forgotten, and echoes of old and puerile newspaper controversies.” Is A Saturnalia of Bunk similarly irrelevant?

Happily, no. Although Mencken’s fusillades against, say, blue laws have grown fusty, his rousing conclusions — “the militant moralist tries to steal liberty and self-respect, and the man who has lost both is a man who has lost everything that separates a civilized freeman from a convict in a chain-gang” — have lost none of their punch.

These columns, composed while their author was on the shy side of middle age, afford, says Joshi, “a nearly complete view of Mencken’s political, religious, social, and cultural philosophy as it had evolved up to this point” — and this philosophy would largely remain constant for the rest of his rooted life. (Mencken, a dyed-in-the-wool third-generation Baltimorean, a sardonic citizen of his place, made his home in the house in which he grew up.)

January 17, 2018

QotD: The true purpose of public education

Filed under: Education, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. 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 and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else

H.L Mencken, The American Mercury, 1924-02.

December 5, 2017

Happy Repeal Day!

Filed under: Government, History, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Eighty-four years ago today, the US repealed Prohibition. Baltimore’s own H.L. Mencken was among the first to publicly celebrate the demise of the hated legislation:

HL Mencken celebrates repeal of Prohibition, December 1933

Reason‘s Baylen Linnekin celebrates the federal anniversary, but points out that devolving powers to the various states hasn’t been quite a libertarian panacea:

[December 5th] will mark the 84th anniversary of the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed alcohol Prohibition. The repeal of Prohibition is worth celebrating, even if the amendment was (and remains) a deeply flawed vehicle.

The chief flaw with the Amendment is, as I wrote earlier this year, that it “simply shifted much of the power to prohibit and incessantly regulate alcohol from the federal government to the states.”

States have truly made the most of their teetotalitarian authority for decades, to the detriment of both alcohol producers and—much more so—consumers.

Much of the negative impacts of states’ approach to alcohol regulation can be tied to what’s known as the three-tier system, a Prohibition relic under which states generally prohibit direct alcohol sales from a brewer, vintner, or distiller to a consumer. The three-tier system mandates these alcohol producers first sell to a distributor or retailer — a mandatory middleman — who can then sell to actual drinkers.

Laws that require this approach create a host of problems, including, for one, that they drive up consumer costs dramatically and needlessly. States’ plenary control over alcohol has been controversial for decades, as this 1987 article in the Journal of Public Health Policy makes clear, noting that “the idea of a government monopoly of a consumer product seems odd and even bizarre[.]”

Great arguments in favor of scrapping the dreaded three-tier system are often countered by those who claim doing so will bring about the end of days, or worse.

Reposted from 2013:

ReasonTV
Published on 5 Dec 2012

In honor of Repeal Day, which celebrates the end of America’s “noble experiment” in banning alcoholic beverages, Reason TV is happy to introduce you to George Cassiday, a man whose life and work should be taught to every schoolkid — and to every member of Congress hell-bent on legislating the nation’s morals.

From 1920 through 1930 — the thick of the Prohibition era — Cassiday supplied illegal liquor throughout the halls of Congress. Known as “The Man in the Green Hat,” Cassiday was the Capitol’s highest-profile bootlegger, with a client list that included senior members of the Republican and Democratic Parties. How instrumental was he to the D.C. power elite? He even had his own office in the House and Senate office buildings.

Cassiday gave up the liquor trade after his arrest in 1930, but gained notoriety by penning a series of front-page articles for The Washington Post about his days as Congress’ top bottle man.

Though he never named names, Cassiday’s stories detailed every aspect of his former business — and the depths of hypocrisy in Washington. By his own estimation, “four out of five senators and congressmen consume liquor either at their offices or their homes.” Appearing days before the 1930 mid-term elections, Cassiday’s revelations caused a national stir and helped sweep pro-Prohibitionist — and ostensibly tee-totaling — congressmen and senators out of power.

Today, with the rise of cocktail culture and prohibition-vogue in full swing, Cassiday’s life and legacy are being re-discovered. Through books such as Garrett Peck’s Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t to New Columbia Distillery’s Green Hat Gin, the remarkable story of George Cassiday — “The Man in the Green Hat” — is again being told.

Reason TV spoke with Cassiday’s son, Fred, author Garrett Peck, and New Columbia Distillery’s John Uselton to discuss George Cassiday and the end of Prohibition.

October 29, 2017

QotD: Mencken’s revised view of Coolidge

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In what manner he would have performed himself if the holy angels had shoved the Depression forward a couple of years — this we can only guess, and one man’s hazard is as good as another’s. My own is that he would have responded to bad times precisely as he responded to good ones — that is, by pulling down the blinds, stretching his legs upon his desk, and snoozing away the lazy afternoons…. He slept more than any other President, whether by day or by night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored…. Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant? There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.

H.L. Mencken, The American Mercury, 1933-04.

July 15, 2017

The Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee

Filed under: History, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

As a long-time admirer of H.L. Mencken (since discovering Prejudices: A Selection in a used book store on Queen Street in the mid-1980s), I’ve always had an interest in the skullduggery around the “Scopes Monkey Trial” … and apparently so has Colby Cosh:

H.L Mencken celebrates the repeal of Prohibition, December 1933.

In a merely procedural sense, the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, ended on July 21, 1925 with the conviction of biology teacher John T. Scopes on the charge of instructing students that “man has descended from a lower order of animals.” But of course the real Monkey Trial is eternal, winding its way anew through American life, decade after decade. The carefully staged publicity stunt in Tennessee was merely one occasion in a longer struggle over the nature of man and the limits of his knowledge. I know this is an old-fashioned romantic ACLU-liberal view of the matter, but I hold to it.

As I write this column, county officials in Dayton are unveiling a statute of Clarence Darrow, the garrulous, crooked lawyer who represented Team Enlightenment in the original 1925 contest between Darwinian evolution and the Scriptures. In 2005, the citizens of Dayton, where Monkey Trial tourism is now a crucial industry, erected a statue of William Jennings Bryan on the grounds of the immortal Rhea County courthouse. Bryan had been the chosen hero of evangelical Christianity in the trial, dying less than a week after its conclusion, and is the namesake of a local bible college, which paid for the statue.

[…]

I became a serious student of the Scopes Trial as an undergraduate. Like anybody else, I had seen the 1960 Hollywood rendering of the play about the trial, Inherit The Wind, which represents Bryan as an ignorant windbag, Darrow as a tired, patient figure of ostentatious nobility, and a thinly disguised H.L. Mencken as a cruel nihilist newspaperman. Today, I suppose I would regard Mencken as the real hero of the show. He was privy to the ACLU’s engineering of the trial as a publicity stunt, but he also always said that Tennessee was within its constitutional rights to forbid the teaching of evolution — to be, in his view, just as backward as its people wished.

Inherit The Wind makes its pseudo-Mencken a heartless guttersnipe mostly as a device for elevating a sympathetic Darrow even further. This is part of the movie’s major liberty with the events of the trial: it has Bryan drop dead in mid-rant at the moment of its culmination, instead of waiting a few days. What I discovered as a student was that, aside from this excusable concession to theatrical unity, the film probably deserves some kind of prize for general fidelity to historical events.

April 11, 2017

QotD: The great American humourists

Filed under: History, Humour, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The great American humorists have something in common: hatred.

H. L. Mencken and Mark Twain both could be uproariously funny and charming — and Twain could be tender from time to time, though Mencken could not or would not — but at the bottom of each man’s deep well of humor was a brackish and sour reserve of hatred, for this country, for its institutions, and for its people. Neither man could forgive Americans for being provincial, backward, bigoted, anti-intellectual, floridly religious, or for any of the other real or imagined defects located in the American character.

Historical context matters, of course. As Edmund Burke said, “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” Twain was born in 1835, and there was much that was detestable in the America of Tom Sawyer. Mencken, at the age of nine, read Huckleberry Finn and experienced a literary and intellectual awakening — “the most stupendous event in my life,” he called it — and followed a similar path. Both men were cranks: Twain with his premonitions and parapsychology, Mencken with his “Prejudices” and his evangelical atheism. He might have been referring to himself when he wrote: “There are men so philosophical that they can see humor in their own toothaches. But there has never lived a man so philosophical that he could see the toothache in his own humor.”

The debunking mentality is prevalent in both men’s writing, a genuine fervor to knock the United States and its people down a peg or two. For Twain, America was slavery and the oppression of African Americans. For Mencken, the representative American experience was the Scopes trial, with its greasy Christian fundamentalists and arguments designed to appeal to the “prehensile moron,” his description of the typical American farmer. The debunking mind is typical of the American Left, which feels itself compelled to rewrite every episode in history in such a way as to put black hats on the heads of any and all American heroes: Jefferson? Slave-owning rapist. Lincoln? Not really all that enlightened on race. Saving the world from the Nazis? Sure, but what about the internment of the Japanese? Etc. “It was wonderful to find America,” Twain wrote. “But it would have been more wonderful to miss it.”

Kevin D. Williamson, “Bitter Laughter: Humor and the politics of hate”, National Review, 2016-08-11.

April 1, 2017

Repackaging H.L. Mencken for modern-day conservative tastes

Filed under: Books, History, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At The American Conservative, D.G. Hart attempts to rescue H.L. Mencken’s reputation from the progressives:

H.L. Mencken has a conservative problem. The Baltimore journalist became the poster boy for literary modernism thanks to his literary criticism and nationally syndicated op-ed columns, in addition to his work as a magazine editor, most notably at American Mercury. But he ranks well behind the modernist poets T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens as an acceptable literary figure for conservative consumption. The reason has much to do with Mencken’s skepticism and irreverence. He mocked Puritanism famously as the cultural force that gave Americans a moralistic squint. Worse, he recommended the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche as an antidote to Victorian morality and then promoted Theodore Dreiser, whose novels offended censors. Mencken proved his heretical ways at the Scopes Trial, where he mocked the prosecution led by William Jennings Bryan and the “simian faithful” who hung on the Great Commoner’s every word. Everywhere Mencken turned, his mantra seemed to be “just say no” to inherited moral, intellectual, and literary standards.

[…]

It doesn’t help conservatives who have a soft spot for Mencken that Gore Vidal took inspiration from the Baltimorean. Vidal’s own moralism could be as priggish as any fundamentalist’s, but that did not stop him from recognizing Mencken as another writer who was too good for America. Vidal applauded Mencken’s ridicule of Americans’ intelligence: “The more one reads Mencken, the more one eyes suspiciously the knuckles of his countrymen,” Vidal wrote, “looking to see callouses from too constant a contact with the greensward.” How grass produces callouses is anyone’s guess, but that imagery’s challenge did not stop Vidal from recommending Mencken’s unbelief. Mencken viewed religion, Vidal contended, “as a Great Wall of China designed to keep civilization out while barbarism might flourish within the gates.” Vidal was convinced that only the few, the proud promoters of licentiousness like himself could recognize Mencken’s charms.

Of course, conservatives have saner writers like Joseph Epstein, longtime editor of The American Scholar, to speak on Mencken’s behalf. Epstein grew up at a time when reading Mencken was required by “young men with intellectual interests.” The reason was Mencken’s iconoclasm — his constant deflating of politicians, reformers, moralists, preachers, and “all the habits and attitudes and hidebound views that for him marched under the flag of twentieth-century Puritanism.” But Epstein noticed that as he became older, Mencken’s appeal grew. For starters, “few American writers have been funnier.” And Mencken’s prose was “original and unmistakable” — “strong verbs, exotic nouns, outrageous adjectives, a confident cadence … and wide learning.” Epstein also credited Mencken with an accessible and engaging point of view that relied on basic common sense. “Like Nietzsche, Mencken could be wildly extravagant, but unlike Nietzsche he was always sane,” Epstein wrote. “Like [George Bernard] Shaw, Mencken made a living out of detesting hypocrisy; but unlike Shaw, he was without the pretensions of the pundit.”

One way of putting Epstein’s point is that with Mencken there is more than meets the eye, a truism that registers as scientific fact when measuring Mencken’s literary output. Over his career he authored approximately 10 million words. That works out roughly to 40,000 pages of manuscript. At roughly 350 pages per book manuscript, that leaves Mencken with the equivalent of 115 books. Much more than meets the eye, indeed.

September 24, 2016

QotD: Liberty for all

Filed under: Liberty, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty. If ever a man is to achieve anything like dignity, it can happen only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say. I am against any man and any organization which seeks to limit or deny that freedom … [and] the superior man can be sure of freedom only if it is given to all men.

H.L. Mencken, quoted in Letters of H. L. Mencken (1961) edited by Guy J. Forgue, p. xiii.

September 16, 2016

QotD: The politician

Filed under: Humour, Politics, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

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.

H.L. Mencken, quoted in LIFE magazine, Vol. 21, No. 6, 1946-08-05.

September 9, 2016

QotD: Mussolini

Filed under: Europe, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One hears murmurs against Mussolini on the ground that he is a desperado: the real objection to him is that he is a politician. Indeed, he is probably the most perfect specimen of the genus politician on view in the world today. His career has been impeccably classical. Beginning life as a ranting Socialist of the worst type, he abjured Socialism the moment he saw better opportunities for himself on the other side, and ever since then he has devoted himself gaudily to clapping Socialists in jail, filling them with castor oil, sending blacklegs to burn down their houses, and otherwise roughing them. Modern politics has produced no more adept practitioner.

H.L. Mencken, “Mussolini”, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1931-08-03.

September 2, 2016

QotD: H.L. Mencken’s beliefs

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind — that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.

I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.

I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty and the democratic form is as bad as any of the other forms.

I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.

I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech — alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.

I believe in the reality of progress.

I — But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

H.L. Mencken, “What I Believe”, The Forum 84, 1930-09.

August 28, 2016

QotD: Religious opinions

Filed under: Humour, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone. All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is mainly to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world. The minute a new one is launched, in whatever field, some imbecile of a theologian is certain to fall upon it, seeking to put it down. The most effective way to defend it, of course, would be to fall upon the theologian, for the only really workable defense, in polemics as in war, is a vigorous offensive. But the convention that I have mentioned frowns upon that device as indecent, and so theologians continue their assault upon sense without much resistance, and the enlightenment is unpleasantly delayed.

There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly. If you doubt it, then ask any pious fellow of your acquaintance to put what he believes into the form of an affidavit, and see how it reads … “I, John Doe, being duly sworn, do say that I believe that, at death, I shall turn into a vertebrate without substance, having neither weight, extent nor mass, but with all the intellectual powers and bodily sensations of an ordinary mammal; … and that, for the high crime and misdemeanor of having kissed my sister-in-law behind the door, with evil intent, I shall be boiled in molten sulphur for one billion calendar years.” Or, “I, Mary Roe, having the fear of Hell before me, do solemnly affirm and declare that I believe it was right, just, lawful and decent for the Lord God Jehovah, seeing certain little children of Beth-el laugh at Elisha’s bald head, to send a she-bear from the wood, and to instruct, incite, induce and command it to tear forty-two of them to pieces.” Or, “I, the Right Rev._____ _________, Bishop of _________,D.D., LL.D., do honestly, faithfully and on my honor as a man and a priest, declare that I believe that Jonah swallowed the whale,” or vice versa, as the case may be. No, there is nothing notably dignified about religious ideas. They run, rather, to a peculiarly puerile and tedious kind of nonsense. At their best, they are borrowed from metaphysicians, which is to say, from men who devote their lives to proving that twice two is not always or necessarily four. At their worst, they smell of spiritualism and fortune telling. Nor is there any visible virtue in the men who merchant them professionally. Few theologians know anything that is worth knowing, even about theology, and not many of them are honest. One may forgive a Communist or a Single Taxer on the ground that there is something the matter with his ductless glands, and that a Winter in the south of France would relieve him. But the average theologian is a hearty, red-faced, well-fed fellow with no discernible excuse in pathology. He disseminates his blather, not innocently, like a philosopher, but maliciously, like a politician. In a well-organized world he would be on the stone-pile. But in the world as it exists we are asked to listen to him, not only politely, but even reverently, and with our mouths open.

H.L. Mencken, The American Mercury, 1930-03; first printed, in part, in the Baltimore Evening Sun, 1929-12-09.

August 19, 2016

QotD: The reason we will always have con-men and politicians

Filed under: Humour, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

H.L. Mencken, “Notes On Journalism”, Chicago Tribune, 1926-09-19.

August 12, 2016

QotD: Belief and faith

Filed under: Quotations, Religion, USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

By what route do otherwise sane men come to believe such palpable nonsense? How is it possible for a human brain to be divided into two insulated halves, one functioning normally, naturally and even brilliantly, and the other capable only of such ghastly balderdash which issues from the minds of Baptist evangelists? Such balderdash takes various forms, but it is at its worst when it is religious. Why should this be so? What is there in religion that completely flabbergasts the wits of those who believe in it? I see no logical necessity for that flabbergasting. Religion, after all, is nothing but an hypothesis framed to account for what is evidentially unaccounted for. In other fields such hypotheses are common, and yet they do no apparent damage to those who incline to them. But in the religious field they quickly rush the believer to the intellectual Bad Lands. He not only becomes anaesthetic to objective fact; he becomes a violent enemy of objective fact. It annoys and irritates him. He sweeps it away as something somehow evil …

H.L. Mencken, The American Mercury, 1926-02.

August 4, 2016

QotD: The invention of liberty

Filed under: Liberty, Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented, at least in the field of government, in a thousand years. 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 false 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 the measure, is bound to become a slave.

H.L. Mencken, “Why Liberty?”, Chicago Tribune, 1927-01-30.

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