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Meditation in E Minor*

George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty
H. L. Mencken, noted writer and editor, enjoying a cigar on the S.S. Bremen ocean liner circa 1930.

The editors of The New Republic both craved and attracted spiritual godfathers. Louis Brandeis, John Dewey, Learned Hand, and Felix Frankfurter would play this role in the early life of the magazine, passing along avuncular suggestions. Mencken never intervened in the life of The New Republic in this sort of way. In fact, the crusty newspaperman made an unlikely idol for the young liberals. His disappointment with his fellow humans poured forth in bilious essays that espoused deeply conservative politics.

Still, there was something of this very same disappointment in 1920s liberalism. The Great War, and especially its ugly aftermath, had exposed the worst of the American people. The masses, it turned out, harbored xenophobia and racism; they celebrated repression of unpopular minorities; they elected uninspiring dolts to high office.

Mencken embodied a style that liberals widely emulated. They adored his ability to write about both politics and literature and to write about politics with literary flair. His wit, with its edge of misanthropy and condescension, became something of the house style for the decade.

—Franklin Foer, former TNR editor,
Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America

*Passed reluctantly by the censor. —The Editors.


I seem to be the only sort of man who is never heard of in politics in the Republic, either as candidate or as voter. Also, I must write my own platform, make my own speeches, point with my own pride, view with my own alarm, pump up my own hopes and ideals, invent my own lies, posture and grimace upon my own front porch ...


Politically I am absolutely honest, which is to say, as honest as possible; which is to say, honest more or less; which is to say, far more honest than the general. My politics are based frankly and wholly upon what, in the dim light now shining in the world, I take to be my self-interest. I do not pretend to any pressing interest in the welfare of any other man, whether material or spiritual; in particular, I do not pretend to any interest in the welfare of any man who belongs to a class that differs clearly from my own. In other words, I am intensely class-conscious—almost the ideal citizen of the radical vision. Virtually all of the men that I know and like and respect belong to my own class, or to some class very closely allied to it. I can’t imagine having any active good-will toward a man of a widely differing class say the class of professional politicians and bureaucrats, or that of wealthy manufacturers, or that of schoolmasters, or that of policemen, ordained and lay. Such men simply do not interest me, save as convenient targets for the malevolence that is in all of us. I like to vex them; beyond that, as old Friedrich used to say, I hand them over to statistics and the devil. If all the members of such a class were deported by Dr. Palmer and his blacklegs tomorrow, my indignation would be transient and theoretical; if I yelled, it would be as I yell occasionally about the massacres in Ireland, Haiti, Armenia and India, hoping all the while that the show doesn’t stop.

Here, of course, I wallow in platitudes; I, too, am an American, God save us all! The blather of politics is made up almost wholly of violent and disingenuous attempts to sophisticate and obfuscate those platitudes. Often, of course, the bosh-monger succumbs to his own bosh. The late Major-General Roosevelt, I have no doubt, convinced himself eventually that he was actually the valiant and aseptic Bayard of Service that he pretended to be that he was a Latayette sweating unselfishly and agonizingly to protect, instruct, inspire, guide and lift up the great masses of the plain people, his inferiors. He was, perhaps, honest, but he was wrong. What moved him was simply a craving for facile and meaningless banzais, for the gaudy eminence and power of the leader of a band of lynchers, for the mean admiration of mean men. His autobiography gives him away; what he left out of it he babbled to the deacon of his mass, Leary, and to the sub-deacon, Abbott. Had Roosevelt been the aristocrat that legend made him, his career would have presented a truly astonishing spectacle: Brahms seeking the applause of organ grinders, piano tuners and union cornetists. But he was no such aristocrat, either by birth or by training. He was simply a professional politician of the democratic kidney, by Harvard out of the Rotary Club bourgeoisie, and his good was always the good of his well-fed, bombastic and extremely shallow class. Immediately his usual victims became class-conscious on their own hook, he was their enemy, and showed all the horror of them that one would look for in John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Judge Gary or Frank A. Munsey.


The class that I belong to is of the order of capitalists. I am not rich, but my ease and welfare depend very largely upon the security of wealth. If stocks and bonds became valueless tomorrow, I’d be forced to supplement my present agreeable work with a good deal of intensely disagreeable work. Hence I am in favor of laws protecting property, and am an admirer of the Constitution of the United States in its original form. If such laws can be enforced peacefully, i.e., by deluding and hornswoggling the classes whose interests they stand against, then I am in favor of so enforcing them; if not, then I am in favor of employing professional bullies, e.g., policemen, soldiers and Department of Justice thugs, to enforce them with the sword. Here I borrow the morality of the radicals, who are my en-emies; their arguments in favor of an alert class-consciousness convince me, but I stick to my own class. I borrow even more from the liberals, who are also my enemies. In particular, I borrow the doctrine that peace in such matters is better than war—that it is foolish to hire gunmen when it is so much simpler and easier to bamboozle the boobs with phrases. Here, of course, a trade interest helps out my class consciousness; I am a professional maker of the phrases and delight in displays of virtuosity. The liberals feed me with that delight. This explains why I like them and encourage them, though their politics usually depress me.

But though I am thus in favor of property and would be quite content to see one mob of poor men (in uniform) set to gouging and ham-stringing another mob of poor men (in overalls) in order to protect it, it by no means follows that I am in favor of the wealthy bounders who now run the United States, or of the politics that they preach in their kept press. On the contrary, I am even more violently against them than I am against the radicals with their sticks of dynamite and the liberals with their jugs of Peruna. And for a plain reason. On the one hand, these swine oppress me excessively and unnecessarily by putting up prices, by loading me with inordinate taxes, by setting hordes of bureaucrats to looting me, by demanding that I give my assent to all their imbecile and dishonest ideas, and by threatening me with the cost of endless wars, to them extremely profitable. On the other hand, and even more importantly, their intolerable hoggishness threatens to raise the boobery in revolt and bring about a reign of terror from which only the strongest will emerge. That revolt would ruin me. I am not large enough, as a capitalist, to make a profit out of wars and turmoils. I believe that the rising of the proletariat, if it ever comes in this country, will end in a colossal victory for capitalism—that capitalism, as at present and in the past, will play off one mob against another, and pick the pockets of both. But it will also pick my pockets. It will also force me, who had nothing to do with the row, and protested against it bitterly, to pay a tremendous price for getting out alive. I’ll have my naked hide, but everything else will be lost, including honor.

Ah, that my vision were a mere nightmare, the child of encroaching senility and bad beer! Unluckily, the late lamentable war showed its terrible reality. That war was fought against my advice and consent, and I took no part in it whatever, save as spectator. In particular, I made no profit out of it—not a cent, directly or indirectly. Well, what is my situation today? In brief, I find that my property is worth, roughly speaking, no more than half of what it was worth at the end of 1916, and that, considering its ratio to the total national wealth, and the difference between the national debt then and now, I owe, as a citizen of the United States, something between $8,000 and $10,000. To whom? Who got it, and how, and for what? ... Let us not go into the question too particularly. I find my class-consciousness wobbling!


Meanwhile, however, I still manage to eat without too much labor, and so I incline to the Right, and am a Tory in politics, and trust in God. It would give me great pleasure to vote for a Tory candidate for the Presidency not a hollow ass like General Wood, but an honest and unashamed Tory, one voicing the sincere views of the more civilized section of the propertied class, not a mere puppet for usurers. Unfortunately, no such candidate ever offers himself. The men put up by the usurers are always such transparent frauds that it is impossible, without anaesthetics, to vote for them. I admire liars, but surely not liars so clumsy that they cannot fool even themselves.

I am an old hand at political shows, and witnessed both the nomination of Harding at Chicago and that of Cox at San Francisco. It would be difficult to imagine more obscene spectacles. Who, being privy to their disgusting trimming, their mean courting of mean men, their absolute lack of any sense of dignity, honor or self-respect, could vote for either? It will take me all the time between now and November, abandoning all other concerns, to work up the necessary cynicism-and no doubt I’ll fail even then. But could I vote for Christensen? He is a Knight of Pythias; allow me my prej-udices! Debs? Please don’t suggest it in plain words. It would be anguish unspeakable; I am probably the only man in Christendom who has never been a Socialist even for an instant. An idiot, this Debs, but honest, and he says plainly that he is against me. I’d be a worse idiot if I voted for him.

My dilemma, alas, is not unique. Thousands of other men must face it—men of my class, men of related classes, perhaps even men of classes far removed. It visualizes one of the penalties that democracy, the damnedest of frauds, inflicts upon every man who violates all its principles by trying to be honest.