Mencken, Schmencken

Michael Barone has a good post where he mentions how Mencken hated FDR: “Mencken was taken to be a force for social liberalism and toleration in the 1920s. But in the 1930s, he vitriolically opposed Franklin Roosevelt … and the New Deal.”

Barone is right, and it is unusual to see anyone mention Mencken’s anti-FDR phase. He is usually treated as a liberal hero for ridiculing religious people, and his disdain for the Republican presidents of the 1920s and those who voted for them.

But Mencken hated FDR at least as much as he despised Wilson, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover.

He did make one grudging concession to Coolidge:

Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant? There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.

This is actually half wrong. It is accurate to note that Wilson, Hoover and FDR, three presidents who are not usually lumped together, were all “world savers”, and this is not usually a good thing for a president to be. But Coolidge had a well-developed philosophy and acted on it. Like Eisenhower, he did the actual work quietly, while presenting a soothing image to the public. But Mencken was too convinced of his own intellectual superiority over everybody to notice that. That unearned arrogance is what makes Mencken age rather poorly, in my opinion. That said, he can be a clever writer and sometimes astute, and frequently funny. But the self-regard is grating.

Mencken was at his best in his books about the American language. There he mostly restricted himself to observable facts, or reasonable deductions therefrom, and while an amateur, he did a good job with it. His books of memoirs are also good, because they seem to have less spite in them, and his positive qualities shine through.

3 thoughts on “Mencken, Schmencken”

  1. Mencken demonstrated one of the persisting sins of public intellectuals when he poured endless scorn upon FDR while hardly mentioning the biggest problem in the world of that era: a man named Adolf Hitler.

    We can see precisely the same phenomenon nowadays among the punditry in the form of GWBush-hating.

    As Orwell noted, intellectuals – as a class – are almost always wrong. I would add that democratic elections are _usually_ right.

    We see intellectuals at their worst when they disagree with democracy, as now.

  2. Gore Vidal has this to say:
    Mencken was one of the first journalists to denounce the persecution of the Jews in Germany at a time when the New York Times, say, was notoriously reticent. On November 27, 1938, Mencken writes (Baltimore Sun), “It is to be hoped that the poor Jews now being robbed and mauled in Germany will not take too seriously the plans of various politicians to rescue them.” He then reviews the various schemes to “rescue” the Jews from the Nazis, who had not yet announced their own final solution.

    To the British proposal that the Jews be admitted to British Guiana, Teutonophile Mencken thinks that the Ostjuden might hack it in British Guiana but not the German Jews, as “they constitute an undoubtedly superior group…. Try to imagine a German-Jewish lawyer or insurance man, or merchant, or schoolmaster [in] a place where the climate is that of a Turkish bath. Tanganyika he thought marginally better but still pretty bad, at least “as good as the worst parts of Mexico.” He then suggests that Canada could “absorb 100,000 or even 200,000 with ease, and they would be useful acquisitions, especially in the western prairie populations, which are dominated today by a low-grade of farmers, without any adequate counterbalance of a competent middle class.” Today Mencken could not write this because the Farmers Anti-Defamation League of Saskatchewan would be offended, and his column banned in Canada. “Australia, now almost as exclusive as Sing Sing, which it somewhat resembles in population, could use quite as many [Jews] as Canada and New Zealand.” The Australian Government would, today, file a protest; and Mencken’s column would be banned.

    Then Mencken gets down to business: “The American plan for helping the refugees is less openly brutal than the British plan, but almost as insulting to them, and even more futile.” After many official and unofficial condemnations of Germany, including “the Hon. Mr. Roosevelt’s” declaration that “he could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a Twentieth Century civilization,” the President is still not willing to relax the immigration laws or do anything “that might cause him political inconvenience.” Mencken finds such “pecksniffery … gross and disgusting … and I hope that American Jews will not be fetched by it.” Mencken also notes how the “Aframerican press” found amazing Roosevelt’s solicitousness for German Jews, so unlike his complaisance to the ongoing crimes against black Americans.

    Mencken concludes: “There is only one way to help the refugees, and that is to find places for them in a country in which they can really live. Why shouldn’t the United States take in a couple of hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?” He notes two popular objections. One, there is already a lot of unemployment in the United States, to which he responds that it is unlikely the Jewish immigrants will either loaf or be incompetent. Two, there is anti-Semitism of the sort then being fanned by the Ku Klux Klan but, as he observes, “not many Jews are likely to go to Mississippi or Arkansas.”

    I am certain that those who wish to will be able to find anti-Semitism in Mencken’s proposal to admit all Jewish refugees. Certainly he generalizes about Jews. (How does he know that they don’t all want to go to Mississippi?) But then perhaps the whole message is code; certainly the remark about Jewish “efficiency” is a classic blood libel.

    As of 1934, Mencken was moderately impressed by Eretz Israel and agreeably condescending to the Arabs, who “breed like flies but die in the same way.” Mencken was generally approving of the European Jewish settlers, though he predictably cast a cold eye on the collectivist farms and kibbutzim. Of one of them, he wrote, presciently, “It was founded in 1921, and is still in the first flush of its success. Will it last? Probably not. As soon as its present kindergarteners grow up they will begin to marry outside, and then there will be quarrels over shares, and it will no doubt go the way of Brook Farm, Aman and all the other predecessors.” Mencken thought that there was only a fifty-fifty chance of the Jewish plantation in Palestine enduring. “On the one hand (Ere[t]z Israel) is being planted intelligently and shows every sign of developing in a healthy manner. But on the other hand there are the Arabs — and across the Jordan there is a vast reservoir of them, all hungry, all full of enlightened self-interest. Let some catastrophe in world politics take the British cops away, and the Jews who now fatten on so many lovely farms will have to fight desperately for their property and their lives.” The catastrophe came right on schedule in the form of Hitler and of such professional Jewish terrorists as Begin and Shamir.

  3. Mencken wrote a great many things on Jews, as well as on other subjects, so it is rather difficult to generalise. However, if one consults Terry Teachout’s biography of Mencken, there are definitely passages in his private papers released many years after his death that can only be termed anti-semitic. Among other things Mencken blames the Jews for their own misfortunes, accuses them of being clannish, of failing to assimlate, of being the proverbial nation apart, of being responsible for communism in Russia, etc. Mencken was certainly no admirer of Hitler but felt the Germans to be no threat to the United States, a point of view that was common to many Americans of that day.

    Mencken was certainly an intellectual snob but arguably it was justified. He was a very bright man. He did deliberately seek to offend but that is far better than the mandatory cringing before minority sensibilities that permeates today’s discourse.

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