Swans Commentary » swans.com January 31, 2011  



H.L. Mencken And The Cult Of Incivility


by Jonah Raskin





(Swans - January 31, 2011)   I was reading H. L. Mencken, the raucous American journalist and literary and social critic, just the other day and it was about time. I'd read the occasional Mencken essay before -- one on Theodore Dreiser, another on Joseph Conrad -- but I'd never sat down and read from cover to cover as I did with the volume called Prejudices.

Now, Mencken can be long-minded with interminable sentences and no clear point to make. But then he hits the target dead center. "The chief business of the nation, as a nation, is the setting up of heroes, mainly bogus," he wrote in the essay, "On Being an American." In the same essay he said, "The only way to success in American public life lies in flattering and kowtowing to the mob." I could quote many other equally provocative remarks.

Reading Prejudices, it occurred to me that today Mr. Mencken would be called uncivil. Indeed, he goes out of his way not to say nice things and not to flatter and kowtow to the mob. So you might not be surprised when I say that the whole civility thing rubs me the wrong way. Not that I'm against all make of manners, speaking in a civil tone of voice, and respecting other people. Those are all good things and I try to live by them in moderation.

What I don't like is the fact that the president -- the man in power and with the power of the police and the military -- has urged the country to be more civil -- though I can see why he'd say that. He does not want to be shot like the congresswoman in Arizona, and he doesn't like to be called a Communist and a Muslim. More civility for the president from the Tea Baggers would be a good thing. Stop demonizing the man. And no more open hunting season on elected officials.

I think it's too late, however, for civility. At this point in American history, saying, "Please" and "Thank you" ain't going to address the underlying problems of the society. The nation is in the midst of a hurricane of violence; Americans are killing one another and killing human beings all over the world. Arms manufacturers are selling guns around the world and making big profits, thank you very much.

President Obama has not specifically asked American troops in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to show more civility to the citizens of those countries. America is not on the whole civil to the rest of the world -- unless the world is willing to pay money and to acknowledge that America is number one. To be treated civilly by the American state you have to genuflect before it. It's the same old paternalism that whites once extended to African Americans. Bow down and we won't beat you to death.

The fact that there is now a black mask on the face of imperial American paternalism does not make a big difference to me. America is an empire with a black mask on its face, and the front man goes by the name of Barack Obama.

I'm in the satire and social criticism business, and it's not in my business to be civil. I and my fellow critics and satirists are expected to make barbed comments, to be uncivil, to shock, and to wake people up. I can't see myself giving up the satirical, the ironical, and the barbed -- not for President Obama and especially not now.

I'd say that Mencken's comment about success in America applies to Obama. As a politician, he flatters and kowtows to the mob so that he can be a political success story and stay in power. Right now the mob wants to be told to be more civil than it has been for some time. It's willing to entertain that idea. Right now civility is in and I wouldn't mind if it remained in for some time. But the mask of civility should not be allowed to mask the epidemic of uncivil hypocrisy, uncivil greed, uncivil war, and uncivil lies. As was said in the 1960s, "let it all hang out." Don't hide the real. See it for what it is. And in the meantime, I recommend H. L. Mencken, who entertained the idea of socialism but concluded in Prejudices that, "Capitalism, in the long run, will win in the United States, if only for the reason that every American hopes to be a capitalist before he dies."

It turned out that Mencken, who was a white southerner, really did have prejudices about African Americans and Jews. When his letters were published after his death, readers were shocked to learn that he made derogatory comments based on the race and religion of individuals. But any careful reader of Mencken's work would have noted his prejudices. Moreover, he called his book Prejudices. He was out there for nearly everyone to see. I don't mean to excuse Mencken's prejudices, or anyone else's for that matter. I don't think it's possible to find a writer who doesn't have prejudices, and it would be a shame not to read Mencken's impolite essays because of his snide comments about Jews and African Americans. What's remarkable about Mencken is not only that he shared in the prejudices of his time and place, but that he also rose above them. Can we expect that Sarah Palin and her party will rise above the prejudices of our time? I'd like to think so but I'm not counting on it.


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About the Author

Jonah Raskin teaches in the communication studies department at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine and The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published January 31, 2011