Ed Driscoll

Nobody's Mencken

Tim Graham writes, “WaPo Book Critic Sneers at ‘Self-Important Pipsqueaks’ on the Right:”

Mark Lewis at Forbes.com wondered “is there anyone among the current crop of right-wing pundits who can bear comparison to” legendary columnist, critic, and curmudgeon H.L. Mencken? “Absolutely nobody,” declared Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, who edited Mencken’s posthumous memoir My Life as Author and Editor.

“These people are self-important pipsqueaks,” Yardley said, via e-mail. “I don’t respect a single one of them, much less think that a single one of them deserves to be compared to H.L.M. I do have a measure of respect for David Brooks, whose knee doesn’t seem to jerk in his sleep, but he’s no Mencken and I suspect he’d be the first to say so.”

Well, not everybody can be an atheistic anti-Semite whose worldview was shaped by the start-from-zero nihilism and proto-fascism of Nietzsche’s Uberman theory–not to mention the Kaiser. Though one could see how those views would have appeal to some modern journalists.

Speaking of which, a few years before he died, Mencken described his career as a newspaperman as “the life of kings”; his successors took that last word far too literally, as Mark Steyn wrote in his obit for the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham:

Her formula for her publications was succinctly expressed: “Mass With Class” — “perhaps the best three-word definition for what a good news magazine should be,” wrote Mark Whitaker in Newsweek. But what “Mass With Class” boils down to in practice is the genteel middlebrow conformity that makes so much of the mainstream U.S. media such a world-class yawnfest. “Mass With Class” means you don’t ask Hillary Clinton about her husband’s perjury and trashing of his, ahem, female acquaintances but only whether she finds it difficult coping with the accusations and if she thinks this is because conservatives have a difficult time dealing with her as a strong intelligent woman in her own right. “Mass With Class” means Dan Rather piously declaring that the Chandra Levy story is too unseemly for the CBS Evening News, no matter that it involves a Congressman obstructing a police investigation.

“Mass With Class” equals “All the news that’s fit to print” and it’s never more protective than when giving the mass a glimpse of the class. Thus, Mrs. Graham’s death clippings tell us more in their oleaginous uniformity about the relationship between journalism and politics than the heroics of Woodward and Bernstein ever did. The mourners at her funeral “read like a Who’s Who,” albeit a somewhat obvious one: Alan Greenspan, Bill Gates, Oscar de la Renta, John McCain, Tina Brown. I shall refrain from disparaging the guest list any further as our own power couple, Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel, were also among those present. But the cosiness of this world is American journalism’s principal problem: There is “us” and there is “them,” the “class” and the “mass,” and the media have long since decided which side of the fence they belong on.

Which is a far, far different mindset to Mencken’s goal of journalism, as he envisioned it in the 1920s: “It is the prime function of a really first-rate newspaper to serve as a sort of permanent opposition in politics.” That idea is anathema to a newspaper such as the Post (and its opinion magazine, Newsweek), which is only in permanent opposition to one party in Washington, and will bend over backwards to support the other.

Which is but one reason, as Kathy Shaidle recently noted, someone who actually is the next Mencken wouldn’t last five minutes in the touchy-feely world of “liberalism” journalism: it has an outward veneer of cynicism designed to camouflage a hollow, easily manipulated core. (See also: the establishment media’s rapid, rabid embrace of–oh sorry, leaned on the scales a little bit” fora neophyte radical chic senator as presidential candidate in 2007 and 2008.)

Kathy writes:

Among the problems we face as “free speechers” are those of unshared lived experience, and sheer chronology.

There are quite simply millions of young people who, through no fault of there own, have never lived in a time when it was commonplace to hear “offensive”, contrarian words in public, and hear such words praised by liberals as the epitome of cool.

Young people have never read, or even heard of, Mencken, for instance — and would find the idea of looking for a “new” one utterly incomprehensible. Mencken was clearly a “hater.” Menken was “mean.” And “mean people suck.”

Because reality itself is now deemed “racist”, one is hard-pressed today to make perfectly sound, if cutting, observations about everyday phenomena. Those of us who grew up with Dirty Harry and All in the Family and National Lampoon and Lenny Bruce and Don Rickles and George Carlin and Richard Prior remember a time “when foreigners were funny.”

And the sane amongst us miss those times terribly. We were freer then.

Indeed. Besides, why is there the need to search for a new Mencken? The old Mencken’s work is complete.

Related: “When the Left does that kind of stuff, it’s called ‘research’ and ‘investigative journalism.’ When the Right does it, it’s just hate.”