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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Mencken’s timeless insights”

In my column for the December 26th, 2008, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I offered a small feast of insights from the great H.L. Mencken. You can read my column beneath the fold.

Mencken’s timeless insights

L’affair Rod Blagojevich reminds me that if I could bring one person back to life for an evening of good food, stiff drink and sterling conversation, that person would unquestionably be H.L. Mencken (1880-1956).

Mencken was a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, literary critic and expert on what he called “the American language.” But he was, in my view, above all this country’s unmatched observer and recorder of politics. So sit back and feast on these intellectually nutritious and tasty tidbits of Mencken’s political wisdom.

In Mencken’s view, the typical politician is a “merchant of delusions,” a “pumper-up of popular fears and rages.”

The politician is never to be trusted:

“What is a political campaign save a concerted effort to turn out a set of politicians who are admittedly bad and put in a set who are thought to be better• The former assumption, I believe, is always sound; the latter is just as certainly false. For if experience teaches us anything at all it teaches us this: that a good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar. His very existence, indeed, is a standing subversion of the public good in every rational sense. He is not one who serves the common weal; he is simply one who preys upon the commonwealth. It is to the interest of all the rest of us to hold down his powers to an irreducible minimum and to reduce his compensation to nothing; it is to his interest to augment his powers at all hazards, and to make his compensation all the traffic will bear.”

But ours is a democratic republic where We the People choose our leaders freely in fair elections. Doesn’t the need to secure a majority of votes ensure that only worthy candidates win?

Here is Mencken’s answer:

“The only way to success in American public life lies in flattering and kowtowing to the mob. A candidate for office, even the highest, must either adopt its current manias en bloc or convince it hypocritically that he has done so while cherishing reservations in petto. The result is that only two sorts of men stand any chance whatever of getting into actual control of affairs — first, glorified mob-men who genuinely believe what the mob believes, and secondly, shrewd fellows who are willing to make any sacrifice of conviction and self-respect in order to hold their jobs.”

But some politicians are reformers — or, to use the nom du jour, “change agents.” And many others are professional policy wonks, devoted to the dull but important details of running government. Surely they are more nobly motivated than is the typical office-seeker.

Nope, says Mencken: “Politics, as hopeful men practice it in the world, consists mainly of the delusion that a change in form is a change in substance.”

And more emphatically:

“Reformers and professionals are alike politicians in search of jobs; both are trying to bilk the taxpayers. Neither ever has any other motive. If any genuinely honest and altruistic politician had come to the surface in America in my time I’d have heard of him, for I have always frequented newspaper offices, and in a newspaper office the news of such a marvel would cause a dreadful tumult. I can recall no such tumult.”

Alas, though, we continue — despite mountains of evidence that should scare us off — to entrust our lives and riches to these frauds.

Mencken blamed this blind trust in government to “the survival into our enlightened age of a concept hatched in the black days of absolutism — the concept, to wit, that government is something that is superior to and quite distinct from all other human institutions — that it is, in essence, not a mere organization of ordinary men, like the Ku Klux Klan, the United States Steel Corporation or Columbia University, but a transcendental organism composed of aloof and impersonal powers, devoid wholly of self-interest and not to be measured by merely human standards.”

Finally, I leave you with this truly deep insight — one that, were it more widely seen, would save humankind from all manner of mischief:

“When we say that (government) has decided to do this or that, that it proposes or aspires to do this or that — usually to the great cost and inconvenience of nine-tenths of us — we simply say that a definite man or group of men has decided to do it, or proposes or aspires to do it; and when we examine this group of men realistically we almost invariably find that it is composed of individuals who are not only not superior to the general, but plainly and depressingly inferior, both in common sense and in common decency.”


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