I’m having lots of fun with a great new volume of H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy by Dissident Books. They have taken the time and trouble to present the work with all the notes that are needed for the 21st century reader to properly understand it.
Mencken, who famously covered the Snopes Trial, was an expert on ignorance and its immense political value, and he wrote about the ways in which it was exploited in his time — people arrested for reading the Bill of Rights, musicians beaten for playing Beethoven.
And he challenged the idea that the common man is the source of the greatest wisdom.
But as you read this book, you realize that he is so much of a curmudgeon that you cannot sign on to all his ideas.
For one thing, he seems to have an irrational contempt for all farmers, which I don’t share, and for another, he seems to have no confidence in the promise that Jesus made that the meek shall inherit the earth, which I do.
He really dislikes “inferior men” and I don’t like assigning people to that category. But I know what he is talking about.
You have to remember he was writing in one of democracy’s darkest ages — the Harding administration — although the work wasn’t finished until 1926. Had he met Barack Obama, I believe, he would have retracted a lot of what he said about the promises of democracy and of Chistianity. But that’s pure speculation.
After drawing these lines, it’s just a matter of enjoying great writing that reflects great thinking with a lot of annotations to bridge the historical gap for the modern reader.
Mencken makes the point – a true one – that the “common man” has fought tooth and nail against liberty throughout the ages. And he describes in detail the process by which the modern politician exploits his ancient fears and prejudices.
Mencken proves in this work what Winston Churchill expressed so well: “Democracy is the worst system of government in the world — except for all the others.”
In the end, he says, it’s not up to him to come up with a better system than democracy.
“All I argue,” he writes, ” is that its manifest defects, if they are ever to be got rid of, at all, must be got rid of by examining them realistically — that they will never cease to afflict all the more puissant and exemplary nations so long as discussing them is impeded by concepts borrowed from theology.”
In a brief afterword, Pulitzer-Prize winner Anthony Lewis argues that if we had had an intellect like Mencken’s in the White House Press Room, it might have been harder to sucker the American people into a disastrous war half a world away. I sure can’t argue with that.
Because, after all, Mencken loved democracy. “I enjoy democracy immensely,” he writes. “Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down.”