[Democracy] is, perhaps, the most charming form of government ever devised by man... It is based on propositions that are palpably not true and what is not true, as everyone knows, is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast majority of men than what is true...H.L. Mencken, America's greatest journalist and critic, wrote Notes on Democracy over 80 years ago. His time, the paranoid and intolerant years of World War I, Prohibition and the Scopes trial, is strikingly like our own. Notes isn't just a blast from the past, but also a perceptive and unsentimental report on contemporary life.
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Notes on Democracy by H.L. Mencken published in 1926 must be something of a hard sell these days. The inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States seems to stand as a shining example of how well democracy works. A system that can produce a leader of such stature must have something going for it. Mencken would probably beg to differ. And it may do us good to keep in mind democracy's failings even during such a hopeful time. After all, the same system that elected Barack Obama also passed Proposition 8.Notes on Democracy provides a clear-headed, skeptical view of American politics and the democratic system. Menken begins with this premise: "The average man doesn't want to be free. He simply wants to be safe." Mencken would not be at all surprised to hear the use of torture justified as necessary to keep ourselves safe from terrorists. He would expect us to willingly surrender our freedom rather than face even the slightest sense of danger. Would you allow government agents to randomly search people on the street who are neither charged with a crime nor suspected of committing a crime? Would you allow these random searches to include strip searches? What if the government told you these searches were necessary to insure safe air-travel? Mencken believes that the main motivating factor in democracy is fear. He believes that fear has been used since the founding of America to motivate the mass of voters, whom he calls the mob. Leaders have always and will always use fear to convince the mob to trade away its rights and to support causes that will harm it in the end and to enter wars it could have avoided. He is worth quoting at length about this:Fear remains the chiefest of them. The demagogues, i.e., the professors of mob psychology, who flourish in democratic states are well aware of the fact, and make it the corner-stone of their exact and puissant science. Politics under democracy consists almost wholly of the discovery, chase and scotching of bugaboos. The statesman becomes, in the last analysis, a mere witch-hunter, a glorified smeller and snooper, eternally chanting "Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum!" It has been so in the United States since the earliest days. The whole history of the country has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary: the red-coats, the Hessians, the monocrats, again the red-coats, the Banks, the Catholics, Simon Legree, the Slave Power, Jeff Davis, Mormonism, Wall Street, the rum demon, John Bull, the hell hounds of plutocracy, the trusts, General Weyler, Pancho Villa, German spies, hyphenates, the Kaiser, Bolshevism. The list might be lengthened indefinitely; a complete chronicle of the Republic could be written in terms of it, and without omitting a single important episode. It was long ago observed that the plain people, under democracy, never vote for anything, but always against something. Add to this list civil rights activists, feminists, drugs, terrorists and gay marriage and you bring Mencken's thesis up to the present. Mencken wrote Notes on Democracy after seeing how the mob of voters could be manipulated into passing Prohibition, surely the single most hypocritical piece of legislation in the country's history. Anti-saloon leagues played upon the fears of the mob; religious leaders used their pulpits the pressure state legislatures into passing a law that took away property rights, closed businesses, and turned a majority of Americans into criminals. Mencken also covered the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee which charged a man with the crime of teaching evolution. (It would do us all well to remember that was a crime with a prison sentence as punishment less than 100 years ago.) These two events as well as his years as a Baltimore reporter provide the foundation for the views he expresses in Notes on Democracy. But his sense of humor and his way with words make the book a pleasureable read. He is like an acidy Mark Twain. Humorous, but as forgiving.Mencken would probably look around today, and find that not much has changed. Personally, I'm not sure I would agree, but reading Notes on Democracy forces one to take a hard look at the system, to see that what we hold as dear may not be as good as we want it to be. It's probably like going to a parent conference and finding out that your favorite child is really not all that nice to the other kids on the playground. How you react to the news will determine what kind of adult that child grows up to be. Disregard that sort of bad news at your peril. President Obama said in his inaugural address that America is a young country but that it is now time to put away childish things. Perhaps we can prove Mencken wrong and move beyond our fears towards our better natures. Surely, the time has come.more
One need not agree with Mencken's bedrock belief -- that vast swathes of humanity are nearly subhuman, to be dismissed -- to judge this book a delight, and often perceptive. Really, it is one of those books that everyone should read, even if at least one of the threads that runs through the book is just plain wrong. A critical reader should be able to identify that thread, and untangle it from the tapestry woven here. Why, a person who does this might even learn something!more