Sunday, March 22, 2009

WWMD (What Would Mencken Do?)

HL Mencken was probably one of the most disagreeable yet entertaining public critics in American history. The man was incorrigible, reactionary, misanthropic, a class snob, and opposed to just about everything that Americans then and now hold dear and sacred. Yet, he was a walking paradox. His public statements were often racist and anti-Semitic, but he spoke out against lynchings, was married to a Jewish women (and apparently conversant in Yiddish) and counted WEB DuBois as a friend.

And if Milton Friedman is the father of American libertarianism, and Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, Hayek and Mises the founding grandparents, Mencken is one of the founding great grandparents.

So WWMD? It is dangerous to try and impose modern questions on someone who live two or three generations ago. But this 1932 quote from the American Mercury (reprinted by the Mencken Society) is quite interesting and relevant :

The psychic effect of the depression, it seems to me, is generally a good one. It has made multitudes distrust such charlatans as Hoover and [Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W.] Mellon who were quite willing, three years ago, to credit them with the magic of saints and archangels. It has busted a long line of popular wizards, running from Henry Ford to [head of Bethlehem Steel] Charlie Schwab, and from [economist] Irving Fisher to [newspaper editor] Arthur Brisbane, all of them as hollow as jugs. It has taught people the difference between speculative values and real values. It has hastened the death of sick industries, and proved the vigor of sound ones. It has blown up the old delusion that the amount of money in the world is unlimited, and that every American is entitled to a police captain’s share of it.

Best of all, it has taught millions that there is really no earthly reason why there should be two cars in every garage, and a chicken in the pot every day. A few years back we were all leaping along after the pacemakers, and making shining fools of ourselves. Life in America had become an almost unanimous effort to keep up with the Joneses, and what the Joneses had to offer by way of example was chiefly no more than a puerile ostentation. So many luxuries became necessities that the line separating the one from the other almost vanished. People forgot altogether how to live well, and devoted themselves frantically to living gaudily.

It seems to me that the depression will be well worth its cost if it brings Americans back to their senses. Once they rediscover the massive fact that hard thrift and not gambler’s luck is the only true basis of national wealth, they will discover simultaneously that a perfectly civilized and contented life is possible without the old fuss and display.


Anonymous said...

Obviously Mencken would call for a military coup...



Rodak said...

Rodak calls for a chicken coop.

Anthony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthony said...

Mencken was a weird guy. He actually showed an affinity for pre-World War I Germany as a system of government. But with Mencken, you could never rerally believe what he was saying, I think he like being provocative.

That said, I doubt he would have followed the Barkerist line.

And Rob -- I like your take on it!