Henry Louis Mencken had two enemies above all others: the masses and the moralists. It was his opinion that they Menckenwere one and the same. He wrote, in Damn!: A Book of Calumny, that…

…the mob is eternally virtuous, and the only thing necessary to get it in favor of some new and super-oppressive law is to convince it that that law will be distasteful to the minority that it envies and hates. The poor numskull who is so horribly harrowed by Puritan pulpit-thumpers that he can’t go to a ball game on Sunday afternoon without dreaming of hell and the devil all Sunday night is naturally envious of the fellow who can, and being envious of him, he hates him and is eager to destroy his offensive happiness. The farmer who works 18 hours a day and never gets a day off is envious of his farmhand who goes to the crossroads and barrels up on Saturday afternoon; hence the virulence of prohibition among the peasantry. The hard-working householder who, on some bitter evening, glances over the Saturday Evening Post for a square and honest look at his wife is envious of those gaudy drummers who go gallivanting about the country with scarlet girls; hence the Mann act. If these deviltries were equally open to all men, and all men were equally capable of appreciating them, their unpopularity would tend to wither.

This diagnosis of moral crusades is striking in its inaccuracy. It is true that common men can be imbued with puritanism, and fundamentalist religion could not exist otherwise, but it is wrong-headed to think that this is due to envy. Arabic Salafists could down alcohol and ditch their wives as easily as American agnostics if they shook off their religious creed but it turns out that beliefs can be as and more emotionally satisfying as sensory pleasure. Closer to home: are Middle English prohibitionists envious of the crack fiends they seek to deny a fix? I doubt that most have any idea of what heroin is like except that it can lead one to turn out like Peter Doherty.

Mencken was also wrong to think that common men need be inclined towards virtuous living. The years since prohibition maintained its uneasy rule over America have seen an unprecedented rise in drinking, drug-taking, fornicating and material accumulation of which adults, and young people, of every class have energetically partaken. True enough, we have a great deal that still stirs the millions into emotional fevers, but censoriousness in the case of age-old ethics of restraint has all but disappeared. Tell the average man or woman that you feel that sport should not take place on Sunday afternoons and they will laugh until they reach the point when they grasp that you are earnest, at which they will conclude that you are freakish.

It is ironic that Mencken, the arch aristocrat, was significant in his contribution to populism: one of the finest sharpshooters among the progressive ranks that picked apart the tired old armies of traditional ethics and allowed a wave of social liberalism to sweep the rich and poor into a strange new cultural age.

It does not take Anthony Comstock to observe that amid the enthusiasm for brief and often self-involved pleasures, significant customs and enduring consolations have been undervalued. From the steep decline in stable families to the discomfiting rise in social isolation, Westerners are too fractured to be very moblike and it turns out that this is not an unqualified blessing.

Mencken may have been too much of an individualist to appreciate this. He cared about great men. Everyone else was entertainment. I quote, again, from his Book

The only permanent values in the world are truth and beauty…This is the heritage of man, but not of men. The great majority of men are not even aware of it. Their participation in the progress of the world, and even in the history of the world, is infinitely remote and trivial. They live and die, at bottom, as animals live and die.

It is true that most people will not get far in or with science and art, and that their lives will not be troubled to all that great an extent by the more fundamental questions of existence. There are two points to be made, though. The first is that the lives and works of the greatest people have depended, to a large extent, on their existence in societies populated by conscientious and energetic men and women. The second is that those of us who are not phenomenal in our cognition and creativity have emotional lives alone and together that are meaningful to us, and, in their triumphs and tragedies, often rich in charm and interest. Not everyone can be Shakespeare, Dickens or Mencken favourite Mark Twain but these men drew inspiration from the lives of the forgotten. One is entitled to reject or disregard this but I think that societies with no care for the wellbeing of all but a select few of their members are doomed to callousness so dramatic that it entails barbarism.

To believe this, one need not deny individual greatness any more than admiring a landscape prevents one from studying particular flowers. I suspect that Mencken knew this or he would not have been such a keen journalist. Some of his enthusiasm can be attributed to a morbidity but once this has been accepted as an avenue of pleasure, as well as listening to opera or reading the classics, it would be foolish to suppose that one could transcend the masses.

About these ads