Tag: h. l. mencken

The GOP’s Insipid American Exceptionalism

I’ve had it with “American exceptionalism.” Enough already.

The phrase has garnered a considerable amount of attention lately, namely because Republicans are saying it over and over again. The Atlantic points out that the term itself was coined by Joseph Stalin, lamenting America’s inability to go communist (cf. Louis Hartz). Of course, the concept that America was different than Europe goes back at least to Tocqueville, but is it too much to ask that we recall Tocqueville was writing nearly 200 years ago? Might we not pause, at least momentarily, to reconsider the argument from authority and subject it to a bit of scrutiny?

I complained about the pervasive theme at the Republican convention in my podcast yesterday, and Alex Massie holds forth against the exceptionally exceptionalistic speechifying at Foreign Policy today. Republicans—and the rest of us—ought to just shut up about exceptionalism already. As it stands now, a few word substitutions could make Herder or Fichte feel right at home at a GOP convention. We ought not to like this.

Encouraging citizens to reify, then flutter with excitement at the uniqueness of their own “imagined community” lubricates both the administrative capacity of and enthusiasm for the Great American Welfare/Warfare State that is presently bankrupting our unborn children. Those of us who would like a bit more federalism, veering toward sectionalism even, do so realizing that this would create downward pressure on the centralization of our lives in the body of the national government. (“Who is this fellow 2,000 miles away from me and why should I subsidize his career and pay his flood insurance and pension?”) That the disgrace of slavery accompanied the last era of sectionalism in this country is no reason to throw out the concept itself.

Bizarrely, the GOP married this nationalistic theme with an ostensible concern for how America is viewed across the world. Might we not consider that the world finds this constant self-congratulation unseemly and perhaps even dangerous? Imagine your coworker, or neighbor, or spouse, constantly parading about, preening and pronouncing that he is the greatest person ever to have been made and marveling at how lucky are those subject to his ministrations. Any impartial observer would forgive you for nudging him off a pier, and all the more so if he were, in fact, great.

This is perhaps the saddest part of the whole garish spectacle. The United States is a great country. Take a look around you. Saying it over and over again doesn’t make it any more so; in fact it makes it less. All the bleating about our exceptionalism from our leaders is enough to make you think that they don’t really believe it. The party doth protest too much, methinks.

The next time your would-be ruler holds forth about exceptionalism, remind yourself what Mencken said:

Democratic man, as I have remarked, is quite unable to think of himself as a free individual; he must belong to a group, or shake with fear and loneliness—and the group, of course, must have its leaders. It would be hard to find a country in which such brummagem serene highnesses are revered with more passionate devotion than they get in the United States. The distinction that goes with mere office runs far ahead of the distinction that goes with actual achievement.

That’s what this is all about: If we allow the other party or candidate to insert its peculiar and grotesque proboscides into our homes, wallets, and lives—well, we’ll be just that much less exceptional.

Much more in the podcast:

Kauffman on Bierce

Do yourself a favor and click on over through this link to read Bill Kauffman’s WSJ review of a new edited collection of Ambrose Bierce’s work, including his famous Devil’s Dictionary. As Kauffman writes:

Bierce’s politics amount to an aristocratic libertarianism. “In a republic,” he writes, the rabble are “those who exercise a supreme authority tempered by fraudulent elections.” The “dominant and controlling” tribe in human affairs is that of the “idiot.” A revolution is “an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment.”

Bierce emerges from his dictionary not so much a misanthrope as a man who expects the worst and makes the best of it. He possesses a marvelously large vocabulary, which he deploys with Menckenesque glee. Why say “war of words” when you can use “logomachy”? Most of all, Bierce offers the pleasure of lacerating wit, felicitously phrased.

This welcome omnibus, rather than supplying a concluding sentence to the story of Ambrose Bierce, reintroduces a fantastically imaginative and unflappable cynic to an America that needs acutely honest humor now more than ever.

I may have to replace my yellowed old copy of Dictionary, which has tick marks just in the letter “P” section next to Bierce’s definitions of politics (“A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”) and presidency (“The greased pig in the field game of American politics.”) But perhaps the highlight is his take on patriotism: “Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name. In Dr. Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.”

Will ‘the People’ Fall for It?

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

President Barack Obama is taking a cue from President Bill Clinton by pushing a series of bite-sized policies. Among them: a new fatherhood pledge, graphic tobacco warnings, updated sunscreen requirements, an anti-bullying summit and entertainment discounts for fathers to spend more time with their kids. Can he use this “school uniforms” approach to effectively appear above the daily partisan Washington sniping? And is this “small ball” approach a retreat from the grander “change we can believe in” vision candidate Obama touted in the 2008 campaign?

My response:

The president has two main responsibilities: internationally, to oversee the nation’s foreign policy; domestically, to see that the laws be faithfully executed. For Obama to devote his attention to trivia like this is not only to demean the office of the presidency – recall Clinton’s “boxers or briefs” incident – but to play to the basest instincts of the electorate.

Unfortunately, in a country in which nearly 60 percent of adults don’t know when we declared our independence and a quarter don’t know from what country, Obama’s “small ball” politics may work. This is a president who couldn’t get a budget passed for two years, despite having huge majorities in Congress, yet he’s got time for this. Perhaps H.L. Mencken put it best: “People deserve the government they get, and they deserve to get it good and hard.” I didn’t know Obama was a student of Mencken.

Nostalgia Used to Be Better

Julian Simon often wrote about the persistence of the belief that life was better in the past or that things are steadily getting worse. It takes many forms: people used to be more polite, the media used to be more literate, life is more dangerous today, we’re running out of natural resources. Simon pointed out in many books and articles that, at least since the industrial revolution, life on earth is in fact getting longer, healthier, more comfortable, and less dangerous. Or, as the title of one of his books put it, It’s Getting Better All the Time.

He was mostly right. But in a review of a new collection of H. L. Mencken’s writings, I found an exception: Nostalgia itself, the longing for a lost golden age, was at least more eloquent when Mencken was writing it back in the 1920s. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post quotes these eulogies for old Baltimore:

Mencken was born in Baltimore in 1880 and lived almost his entire life in the house on Hollins Street where he grew up. “The Baltimore of the 80’s had a flavor that has long since vanished,” he wrote in a 1925 Evening Sun piece reprinted here. “The town is at least twice as big now as it was then, and twice as showy and glittering, but it is certainly not twice as pleasant, nor, indeed, half as pleasant. The more the boomers pump it up, the more it comes to resemble such dreadful places as Buffalo and Cleveland.”…

Mencken believed, as he wrote in 1930, that the great fire of 1904 was what killed the old Baltimore that he knew so intimately and loved so deeply: “The new Baltimore that emerged from the ashes was simply a virtuoso piece of Babbitts. It put in all the modern improvements, especially the bad ones. It acquired civic consciousness. Its cobs climbed out of the alleys behind the old gin-mills and began harassing decent people on the main streets.”…

“I am glad I was born long enough ago to remember, now, the days when the town had genuine color, and life here was worth living. I remember Guy’s Hotel. I remember the Concordia Opera House. I remember the old Courthouse. Better still, I remember Mike Sheehan’s old saloon on Light street – then a mediaeval and lovely alley; now a horror borrowed from the boom towns of the Middle West. Was there ever a better saloon in this world? Don’t argue: I refuse to listen! The decay of Baltimore, I believe, may be very accurately measured by the distance separating Mike’s incomparable bar from the soda-fountains which now pollute the neighborhood – above all, by the distance separating its noble customers (with their gold watch-chains and their elegant boiled shirts) from the poor fish who now lap up Coca-Cola.”

Man, you just don’t get nostalgia like that any more!

Apropos of Nothing, Your H. L. Mencken Quote of the Day

From the best for-pleasure book I read (so far!) in 2009, Notes on Democracy:

H. L. MenckenThe Cheerful Visage of H. L. Mencken

The fact is that liberty, in any true sense, is a concept that lies quite beyond the reach of the inferior man’s mind.  He can imagine and even esteem, in his way, certain false forms of liberty–for example, the right to choose between two political mountebanks, and to yell for the more obviously dishonest–but the reality is incomprehensible to him.  And no wonder, for genuine liberty demands of its votaries a quality he lacks completely, and that is courage.  The man who loves it must be willing to fight for it; blood, said Jefferson, is its natural manure.  More, he must be able to endure it–an even more arduous business.  Liberty means self-reliance, it means resolution, it means enterprise, it means the capacity for doing without.  The free man is one who has won a small and precarious territory from the great mob of his inferiors, and is prepared and ready to defend it and make it support him.  All around him are enemies, and where he stands there is no friend.  He can hope for little help from other men of his own kind, for they have battles of their own to fight.  He has made of himself a sort of god in his little world, and he must face the responsibilities of a god, and the dreadful loneliness.  Has Homo boobiens any talent for this magnificent self-reliance?  He has the same talent for it that he has for writing symphonies in the manner of Ludwig van Beethoven, no less and no more.  That is to say, he has no talent whatsoever, nor even any understanding that such a talent exists.  Liberty is unfathomable to him.  He can no more comprehend it than he can comprehend honour.  What he mistakes for it, nine times out of ten, is simply the banal right to empty hallelujahs upon his oppressors.  He is an ox whose last proud, defiant gesture is to lick the butcher behind the ear.