October 26, 2002
THE ESSENTIAL MENCKEN:
Mencken and Orwell, Social Critics With Little (and Much) in Common (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, October 26, 2002, NY Times)
Mr. Teachout shows that Mencken's influential assault on the genteel tradition included opposition to the very idea of democracy - not just to democratic taste but to the notion of equality itself. This was accompanied by racist comments and Mencken's allegiance to his family's Teutonic origins. Before World War I, Mencken wrote about the "race-efficiency" and "superbly efficient ruling caste" in Germany. During World War II, Mr. Teachout shows, an eerie silence was more the rule than Mencken's half-hearted declarations that Hitler was a boob.
But Mencken was reacting to a tension latent in democratic life - the fear that it can level cultural life instead of allowing it to flourish, that it can even turn majority rule into tyranny. And yet as Mencken did not realize or did not care to, tyranny also looms in the act of rebelling against democracy.
Orwell, like Mencken, was not all that keen on American life, but the tyranny trap worried him. A tension between the claims of democratic liberty and socialist equality may have haunted him, as well as those who followed him on the left. Could state power be used to bring an ideal society into being without leading to the oppressive regime of "1984" (which he called INGSOC - English Socialism)? And if the Soviet Union had already become such a regime, as Orwell believed, how was it to be opposed and what forces could be marshaled against it? Orwell was torn, uncertain; his novels were clearer that his essays. But the need to confront that regime was what the cold war was all about.
Now the issue returns in a slightly different way as new forms of tyranny are faced. That is why Orwell still matters and why Mencken may not.
This is, I believe, quite wrong. Mr. Mencken continues to matter precisely because even so great a critic of society as George Orwell could not in the end face the truth that Mr. Mencken never ceased speaking, that democratic freedom contains within it the seeds of its own destruction, chiefly in the ease with which it can be turned into an egalitarian leveling force. Woe are we if we ever forget the warning that has echoed from Burke to de Tocqueville to Ortega y Gasset to Mencken to Willmoore Kendall to...ah, but who will say it now?...that equality is the enemy of freedom.
The fundamental tension within democratic conservatism is, has been, and will be the recognition that democracy is necessary but at the same time dubious, even dangerous. As Mencken put it:
I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government, and even to civilization itself - that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating. But I am, it may be, a somewhat malicious man: my sympathies, when it comes to suckers, tend to be coy. What I can't make out is how any man can believe in democracy who feels for and with them, and is pained when they are debauched and made a show of. How can any man be a democrat who is sincerely a democrat?
Conservatism's predicament is that it refutes utterly the idea that men are all equal in fact but espouses a political philosophy that demands that all be treated and listened to as if they were equal.
Now we are all familiar with the ringing statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal", and this was fine so long as it was understood to mean that men are equal at birth, each free to make himself into a greater or lesser man. But in what Mr. Kendall scorned and Garry Wills hails as a "giant, if benign swindle", Abraham Lincoln elevated the doctrine of equality in the Gettysburg Address and performed , again in Mr. Wills's words, a "daring act of intellectual
sleight-of-hand" which has ever since made actual equality of station an end, if not the end, of government.
It is then the solemn and often unpleasant duty of conservatism to constantly remind the masses that they are not all equal, that, as Russell Kirk declared in one of his canons of conservative thought:
[C]ivilized society requires orders and classes. The only true equality is moral equality; all other attempts at leveling lead to despair, if enforced by positive legislation.
The danger of allowing all men to think themselves equal and of allowing them to create legislation to impose this equality--the very need for which would seem to put paid to the idea that they are equal in the first place--was expressed by Mr. Ortega y Gasset, looking out across a Europe which had already succumbed to the dangerous notion:
European history reveals itself, for the first time, as handed over to the decisions of the ordinary man as such. Or to turn it into the active voice: the ordinary man, hitherto guided by others, has resolved to govern the world himself. This decision to advance to the social foreground has been brought about in him automatically, when the new type of man he represents had barely arrived at maturity. If from the view-point of what concerns public life, the psychological structure of this new type of mass-man be studied, what we find is as follows: (1) An inborn, root-impression that life is easy, plentiful, without any grave limitations; consequently, each average man finds within himself a sensation of power and triumph which, (2) invites him to stand up for himself as he is, to look upon his moral and intellectual endowment as excellent, complete. This contentment with himself leads him to shut himself off from any external court of appeal; not to listen, not to submit his opinions to judgment, not to consider others' existence. His intimate feeling of power urges him always to exercise predominance. He will act then as if he and his like were the only beings existing in the world and, consequently, (3) will intervene in all matters, imposing his own vulgar views without respect or regard for others, without limit or reserve...
Conservatism, having recognized the potential for tyranny in government by the elite, counterbalanced the elite institutions by shifting power to the hoi polloi. But this sets up an inherently dangerous situation, for who will stop the masses once they get a wind in their sails? Thus, we need the Menckens--despite their irascibility and their bigotry--to whisper in our ears, like the slaves who followed Roman Emperors, that: Thou art mortal. It takes a Mencken to keep us humble, to try to constrain what will otherwise be a natural tendency to exchange an unequal freedom for an imposed equality. The Menckens help to keep us free men of the sort that Eric Hoffer described:
Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect. The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.
This is an unpopular message and one inevitably makes oneself unpopular in enunciating it--as witness Mencken--but it is vital nonetheless. It ensures that conservatism will always be a minority philosophy: but, just perhaps, if it's conveyed often enough, loudly enough, and as wittily as it was conveyed by Mr. Mencken, it may serve to preserve us as free men. But you wouldn't bet on it...
The Virginia Declaration of Rights (Paul Cella,
REVIEW: of H.L. Mencken on American Literature Edited by S. T. Joshi (Christopher Orlet, 9/20/02, American Prowler)