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Pride in America: H.L. Mencken

Pride in America: H.L. Mencken

Wayne Hoffman
June 29, 2023

One of my favorite journalists is a fellow by the name of H.L. Mencken. Famous for some of his witticisms, Mencken has, of course, been of late criticized by leftists who contend he’s a racist. But that’s a misinterpretation of the life of a man who grew up in the 19th century and witnessed the world change around him until his death in 1956. He was actually a vocal opponent of lynching and a critic of white supremacism.  

Leftists probably seek to cancel Mencken because he predicted the period in which we are living, writing, “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” 

Mencken, born in 1880, was a journalist and satirist.  He began writing for the Baltimore Sun in 1906, and was once considered among the most influential writers of his time, his columns dripping with wit, sarcasm, and critiques of American society.

It is his observations about government that I have come to love. Among those:

  • “The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable.”
  • “The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”
  • “A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”
  • “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”
  • “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
  • “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”
  • “All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him.”
  • “The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office.”
  • “Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right.”

And long before I said that government has no business in education, Mencken wrote, “The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.”

If you have never read any Mencken before today and these snippets inspire you to read more, remember this simple request from that gifted writer: “If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.”

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