When I flew out to New Jersey for Christmas, I greatly enjoyed reading John Derbyshire’s piece on H. L. Mencken in the December 29th issue of National Review on the long flight. So I finally picked up a copy of Terry Teachout’s 2002 Mencken biography, The Skeptic at the enormous Barnes & Noble in the Citibank building on 54th and 3rd in Manhattan–and read it on the flight back. It’s tremendously enjoyable on one level, though the deep cynicism and Nietzsche-inspired nihilism of Teachout’s subject does start to wear after a while.
But history has been remarkably kind to Mencken in one sense. Upon Hunter S. Thompson’s suicide a few years ago, James Lileks wrote:
He can say what he wants. Drink what he wants. Drive where he wants. Do what he wants. He’s done okay in America. And he hates this country. Hates it. This appeals to high school kids and collegiate-aged students getting that first hot eye-crossing hit from the Screw Dad pipe, but it’s rather pathetic in aged moneyed authors. And it would be irrelevant if this same spirit didn’t infect on whom Hunter S. had an immense influence. He’s the guy who made nihilism hip. He’s the guy who taught a generation that the only thing you should believe is this: don’t trust anyone who believes anything. He’s the patron saint of journalism, whether journalists know it or not.
If Thompson made nihilism hip in the 1970s by combining a loathing of his country and the bulk of its inhabitants with gallons of Chivas and a Rexall’s drugstore worth of pharmaceuticals, Mencken put it on the map in America in the first half of the 20th century–literally so in one sense, by penning one of the first biographies of Nietzsche in the English language.
And certainly Mencken’s tone, if not his actually stance, was the model for newspapermen since. And really is his tone that mattered, because they didn’t pay much attention to his content, aside from his writings on the Scopes trial. Unlike vast majority of journalists in Old Media, the only big government that Mencken admired was the Kaiser’s; he had little use for Wilson’s restrictions in WWI, and he really hated FDR and the New Deal.
In the 1920s Mencken wrote:
It is the prime function of a really first-rate newspaper to serve as a sort of permanent opposition in politics.
Which is certainly a respectable position, though half the time it involves contrarianism for its own sake. And at one point, journalists drunk deep from that well–or at least claimed they did, which is why that ridiculous “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” cliche keeps popping up, even in the 21st century. But these days?
I think they realize that America wants to see results, and they don’t want gridlock. So I think this is an extraordinary moment. I guess my passion is for something to happen to fix these problems, and for dialing down of all of the sharp criticism that we have on cable talk, on talk radio, from, you know, the –
ROSE: From left to right.
MITCHELL: – the blogosphere. I just wish that we could find something in the center that would be bipartisan and would be productive and constructive.
Harry Reid, put down the crack pipe. You don’t work for Barack Obama? We’re all working for Barack Obama.
* * *
I believe that he can be a great president. But only if we help make him a great president. It is not left to his own devices, it’s not going to happen. We have to help make him a great president.
And that’s just from the past couple of days; this McCain video from the summer featured clips of numerous earlier examples from 2008:
As one of the my favorite recent quotes (from Umberto Eco) goes:
G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: “When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything.” Whoever said it – he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.
H. L. Mencken may have been a rare skeptic in a nation where religion flourished, but these days, journalists have a new savior to worship. And something tells me that Mencken would be loving every minute of it.
Update: The writings of Mencken’s mid-century successor also seem remarkably prescient these days.