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.