There once lived an American man called Henry Louis Mencken, one whose writings unfailingly give pleasure and annoyance; challenge received wisdom and expose his own dark views; and reveal a brilliant mind that breathed the English language. Reading Mencken tempts a newspaper columnist to hang up the pen for, measured against Mencken, some of us are irredeemably hopeless strugglers.
Mencken annoys me. He was a racist. His diaries reveal this. But like Joseph Conrad before him, Mencken’s writings were, and remain brilliant works whose prose and wit soften the ugliness of some of his views. I confess that what anger he induces is evanescent.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1880, Mencken was an outstanding writer and thinker. Pity that he is not with us today to pronounce himself on the dramatic events in his homeland. He died in his sleep in 1956.
Here are just a few of his thoughts on democracy, government and the human condition:
“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.” (July 26, 1920)
“I confess I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.”
“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
“All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.”
“It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.”
“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
“In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican.”
“The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”
“A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.”
“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”
“Each party steals so many articles of faith from the other, and the candidates spend so much time making each other’s speeches, that by the time election day is past there is nothing much to do save turn the sitting rascals out and let a new gang in.”
“If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”
“The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out… without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, intolerable.”
“I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.”
“A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”