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H.L. Mencken regarding the American Plutocracy:

It shows all the stigmata of inferiority -- moral certainty, cruelty, suspicion of ideas, fear.
From the 1st half of the 20th Century, many of H.L. Mencken's observations of American social and political culture still seem to hold some truth and the conditions he observed then still seem to exert some influence over current events. Since Mencken's time, American culture might appear to have undergone enormous changes that one might guess could so transform Americans to render the Sage of Baltimore's views quaint and of only historical interest. But maybe all these changes are more superficial than otherwise and the Sage still has something to tell us.  

Continue reading for today's excerpt and discussion.

This excerpt is part of a Mencken letter first published in the Yale Review, June 1920.  In remarking upon the "intellectual deficiencies of the plutocracy", Mencken said:

It is badly educated, it is stupid, it is full of low-caste superstitions and indignations, it is without decent traditions or informing vision; above all, it is extraordinarily lacking in the most elemental independence and courage. Out of this class comes the grotesque fashionable society of our big towns, already discussed. It shows all the stigmata of inferiority -- moral certainty, cruelty, suspicion of ideas, fear. Never does it function more revealingly than in the recurrent pogroms against radicalism, humorless persons who, like Andrew Jackson, take the platitudes of democracy seriously. And what is the theory at the bottom of all these proceeding? So far as it can be reduced to comprehensible terms it is much less a theory than a fear -- a shivering, idiotic, discreditable fear of a mere banshee -- an overpowering,m paralyzing dread that some extra-eloquent Red, permitted to emit his balderdash unwhipped, may eventually convert a couple of courageous men, and that the courageous men, filled with indignation against the plutocracy, may take to the highroad, burn down a nail-factory or two, and slit the throat of some virtuous profiteer."
Mencken knew nothing of iPods or computers or orbital satellites or 24 hour news networks or television. When he wrote these words, Mencken had not yet experienced the Great Depression or World War II. No doubt he would know nothing about most of the details of how an American life is put together these days.

He would recognize our plutocracy, however; it is no less powerful now than in his own time. Mencken would recognize the same old fear of the Red in the modern pols who worship at the shrine of unfettered capitalism and shrink from ever allowing the government to help the hoi polloi should those wayward souls encounter hard times under the harsh austerity required to main the profits of the plutocrats, because that would be socialism, you know, Red.

Many of the threads of the American political psyche are broad, deep and persistent. Every time I open my Mencken, I find words that speak to me about politics and culture in contemporary America, and even if I largely disagree with what he says, and sometimes I do, his words nevertheless help to better illuminate my own ideas for me.


What can Mencken's observations tell us about our own times?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (19+ / 0-)

    LeftofYou: Taking the platitudes of democracy seriously since 1955. H/T to H.L. Mencken, 1880-1956

    by LeftOfYou on Sun Aug 14, 2011 at 01:51:12 PM PDT

  •  This diary deserves to be read widely (4+ / 0-)

    Mencken's observations about the plutocracy are timeless and timely. At its foundation is shivering, primeval fear. And we all know how dangerous a fear-filled animal can be.

    "Respect for the rights of others is peace." -- Benito Juarez, president of Mexico

    by Blue Boy Red State on Sun Aug 14, 2011 at 02:29:57 PM PDT

  •  H.L. Mencken was a major influence on a (5+ / 0-)

    teen-age Richard Wright who recounts in Black Boy,that while holding down two jobs and just discovering that there was a whole different world out there of ideas and other ways of living,  he had to use a white co-workers library card (due to Jim Crow laws) and forged notes to check out Mencken's books, whose writings led him to Theodore Dreiser and others such as Gertrude Stein and Sinclair Lewis and Dostoevsky.

    But it was Mencken who first opened up his eyes and introduced him to a whole new world even as he suffered under the yoke of Jim Crow South.

  •  Another Mencken gem quote (8+ / 0-)

    "Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on "I'm not so sure."
     --H.L. Mencken

  •  Let's not get carried away... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...with the wisdom of HL Mencken. He had a long career as a writer and published a lot of bone-headed things in his day.

    I believe 1948 was the last election that he covered as a pundit and columnist. He came out it in favor of...Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats.

  •  I'm going to like this series. Thanks. n/t (0+ / 0-)

    Improvement is change. Not all change is improvement.

    by ricklewsive on Sun Aug 14, 2011 at 04:43:40 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for the topic. My favorites (0+ / 0-)

    H.L Mencken


    ”The plutocracy, in a democratic state, tends to take the place of the missing aristocracy, and even to be mistaken for it.. It is, of course, something quite different. It lacks all the essential character of a true aristocracy: a clean tradition, culture, public spirit, honesty, courage– above all, courage. It stands under no bond of obligation to the state; it has no public duty; it is transient and lacks a goal…Its main character is its incurable timorousness; it is forever grasping at straws held out by demagogues… its dreams are of banshees, hobgloblins, bugaboos.”

    Nowadays, just because a person has a college degree it doesn't mean they aren't badly educated, either.

    Maybe you'd like to know, too, about recent psychology study:

    Upper-class people less empathetic than lower-class people: study

    "The rich are different — and not in a good way, studies suggest
     The 'Haves' show less empathy than 'Have-nots'"
    "The rich are different and not in a good way, studies suggest

    by Brian Alexander  •   Aug. 10, 2011  
    " Psychologist and social scientist Dacher Keltner says the rich really are different, and not in a good way: Their life experience makes them less empathetic, less altruistic, and generally more selfish.

    In fact, he says, the philosophical battle over economics, taxes, debt ceilings and defaults that are now roiling the stock market is partly rooted in an upper class "ideology of self-interest."

    “We have now done 12 separate studies measuring empathy in every way imaginable, social behavior in every way, and some work on compassion and it’s the same story,” he said. “Lower class people just show more empathy, more prosocial behavior, more compassion, no matter how you look at it.”
    There is one interesting piece of evidence showing that many rich people may not be selfish as much as willfully clueless, and therefore unable to make the cognitive link between need and resources. Last year, research at Duke and Harvard universities showed that regardless of political affiliation or income, Americans tended to think wealth distribution ought to be more equal.

    The problem? Rich people wrongly believed it already was."
  •  Mencken on Christianity (0+ / 0-)

    I'm thinking about the dangers of the modern American right-wing's elite picking up their philosophy from the bottom:

    SNIPPET from Mencken's intro to Nietzche.

    The fact is that Nietzsche had no interest whatever in the delusions of the plain people—that is, intrinsically. It seemed to him of small moment what they believed, so long as it was safely imbecile. What he stood against was not their beliefs, but the elevation of those beliefs, by any sort of democratic process, to the dignity of a state philosophy—what he feared most was the pollution and crippling of the superior minority by intellectual disease from below. His plain aim in “The Antichrist” was to combat that menace by completing the work begun, on the one hand, by Darwin and the other evolutionist philosophers, and, on the other hand, by German historians and philologians. The net effect of this earlier attack, in the eighties, had been the collapse of Christian theology as a serious concern of educated men. The mob, it must be obvious, was very little shaken; even to this day it has not put [Page 19]  off its belief in the essential Christian doctrines. But the intelligentsia,
    by 1885, had been pretty well convinced. No man of sound information, at the time Nietzsche planned “The Antichrist,” actually believed that the world was created in seven days, or that its fauna was once overwhelmed by a flood as a penalty for the sins of man, or that Noah saved the boa constrictor, the prairie dog and the pediculus capitis by taking a pair of each into the ark, or that Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, or that a fragment of the True Cross could cure hydrophobia. Such notions, still almost universally prevalent in Christendom a century before, were now confined to the great body of ignorant and credulous men—that is, to ninety-five or ninety-six percent. of the race. For a man of the superior minority to subscribe to one of them publicly was already sufficient to set him off as one in imminent need of psychiatrical attention. Belief in them had become a mark of inferiority, like the allied belief in madstones, magic and apparitions.
  •  We were close to a good friend of Mencken (0+ / 0-)

    His name was Ben Katz.  He was a pharmacist, but he knew more about more subjects than any Phd I ever knew.  Ben frequently wrote letters to the Baltimore Sun - almost all were published.  He spoke of "Henry" fondly.  Ben came to our wedding in 1979, wrote a poem in our honor, and died not long afterwards.

    My cousin once dropped in on the Katz's home, and found Ben on the phone chatting with Henry Mencken.  Ben put my cousin on the phone and they talked for a few minutes.  This was not long before Henry Mencken's debilitating stroke in 1948.  

    Mencken's last article in the Evening Sun, about the arrest of young people black and white playing tennis at a "white" public tennis court, is priceless.  It was published, I believe, on the day of his stroke.

    "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

    by Navy Vet Terp on Tue Aug 16, 2011 at 02:46:00 PM PDT

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