by H.L. Mencken
Afterword by Anthony Lewis
Introduction and annotations by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
Dissident Books, 206 pp
Reviewed by Edward Pettit
Swimming Against the Sea of Morons
Over the last couple years, I’ve become so dissatisfied with the American political system that I’ve almost stopped participating. Politicians who speak in nothing but a coded language, pundits who do nothing but speak in a code of their own and journalists who feed the obfuscating fire. Is it any wonder that so many people have turned to comedy programs, like the Daily Show, SNL and late-night talk shows, for their political news? Comedy has a way of cutting through the bullshit.
So how refreshing it was to read Dissident Books’ reissue of H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy, first published in 1926. Mencken was a world famous journalist and iconoclast of the highest order, so politically incorrect that it is highly unlikely he would survive in what passes for news-reportage today.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers provides some biographical and critical background for Mencken in an introduction that borders on hagiography. But I forgave the saint-like treatment when Rodgers provided this Mencken quotation:
If I have accomplished anything in this world it is this: that I have made life measurably more bearable for the civilized minority in America. The individuals of this minority are often surrounded by dark, dense seas of morons and so they tend to become hopeless. I have reason to believe that my books and other writings have given a little comfort to many such persons and even inspired some of them to revolt. I am glad of the comfort but the revolt doesn’t interest me.
The elitist in me feels a pang of Menckenian kinship, as I daily swim against that tide of morons.
Mob rule was feared by many of the politicians who founded America and the role of the common man was heatedly debated for the first few decades of the Early American Empire. This is not surprising when you consider they watched the French Revolution, modeled after and inspired by the American one, succumb to riot and rampant bloodshed. America never went down this path. Our politicians, at least, have been relatively safe from violent overthrow.
However, Mencken saw American Democracy in the same stark turns, as a conflict between the elite, educated citizens and the shrill, blunt mob. Watching the political parties ratchet up the class war terminology for the last few months has done nothing to dispel this view. Mencken watched successive administrations play the fear card to pursue their agenda, especially with The Great War. Make the people afraid and they’ll follow you anywhere.
Mencken’s fear of demagoguery has become an even greater problem today because of the power of mass media. Political operatives have learned how to manipulate a system, to control certain small pockets of voters, just enough of them to supply victories at the polls. Mob rule is now so deftly manipulated that the mob doesn’t know they’re being led and the watchdogs, the journalists, don’t know they are playing a role in manipulating them.
You might wonder why I’m pontificating about politics in what is supposed to be a book review. Mencken made me do it. Every page of his Notes was a refreshing shot to my political brain. I felt as if I had finally found someone willing to lay bare the bones of our democratic system. I can’t help but read his book and think about our own time. Comfort indeed in a world of morons.