Friday, November 30, 2007

The Peter Principle

This is a site for quotes of Laurence J. Peter, who had attitudes similar to Mencken's.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Deomocratic behavior

"It is a distinguishing mark of democratic societies that they exalt the powers of the majority almost infinitely, and tend to deny the minority any rights whatsoever. " Mencken wrote this in 1915 in the Smart Set in something called "The Geneology of Etiquette.

The lesson he drew from this insight is this: "..under a democracy, he [a "revolutionist"] is opposed by a horde so vast that it is a practical impossibility for him, with complex and expensive machinery, to reach and convince all its members, and even if he could reach them he would find most of them quite incapable of rising out of their accustomed grooves."

Mencken wrote this before the Palmer raids, to take one example.

You might think that the hysteria over the so-called "war on terrorism" is an example of this. When Edwards, a Democatic party candidate, tried to get the public to think of the so-called "war on terrorism" as merely a fabrication of the administration, the public simply could not deal with it. The public couldn't rise out of its accustomed groove, which the current administration foisted on the public. Standby for an orange alert right after Christmas, right before the Iowa caucus.

Here's an example about how the hysteria is playing out in the UK:

Here's what respected security expert Bruce Schneier says in his November 15, 2007 "Crypto-o-gram" newsletter:
"We've opened up a new front on the war on terror. It's an attack on the
unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it's a war on different. If you
act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and
even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of
doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants
and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation
of reported threats." See .


I had a lover's quarrel with the world. -Robert Frost, poet (1874-1963)

Mencken didn't say this, but I like the quote.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Prehensile Gentry

In a review of a book of Justice Homes' dissents, from the May 1930 issue of American Mercury, Mencken wrote "Laws are no longer made by a rational process of public discussion; they are made by a process of blackmail and intimidation, and they are executed in the same manner. The typical lawmaker of today is a man wholly devoid of principle---a mere counter in a grotesque and knavish game. If the right pressure could be applied to him he would be cheerfully in favor of polygamy, astrology or cannibalism. It is the aim of the Bill of Rights, if it has any remaining aim at all, to curb such prehensile gentry."

Mencken's reason for discussing this is that Mencken said Holmes was too deferential to legislators. Mencken said Holmes allowed legislators too much "headroom."

We mean by "activist judges" is that judges are not adequately deferential to legislative majorities. At least, maybe that's what "activist" means. If that's true, Holmes would not be classed as "activist."

Mencken's point is that legislators are too easily swayed by pressure of one sort or another. Therefore, deference to judges is not appropriate, Mencken thought, because the legislators are not using their own independent good judgment. Said differently, if legislators did a better job of legislating, then there would be more reason for judges to defer to them. As it is, Mencken thought, judges should try to make up for the deficiencies of the legislators, not defer to them.

In New York, we have just had a flap about letting non-US citizens drive. The hysteria about "illegal" aliens and the federal government's mindless frenzy to mistake Mexicans for "Islamofascist" terrorists doomed Governor Spitzer's plan to allow drivers to be properly licensed. If our government had a more rational tinge, we might say that it was a good thing to cause automobile drivers to be properly licensed. As it is, the hysteria has pushed the governor to keep unlicensed drivers on the road. If immigration policy were more rational, then we would not be confusing safety on the highways with enforcement of irrational immigration status rules. As it is, we surrender highway safety to hostility to individuals who don't look like people who have been here a couple of generations.

Who knows what kind of "blackmail and intimidation" Secretary Chertoff brought to bear on Governor Spitzer to get the Spitzer administration to sign an agreement to enlist New York State in the national program to issue an identity card for every American. But it did not take long for Spitzer to cave in to this radical change in traditional American values.

Anyway, that must be the kind of thing that Mencken thought should not trigger judicial deference to lawmakers. Mencken's insights into his time relate to our times. You don't have to look far to find "prehensile gentry."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

"Doctrinaire Rubbish"

The review of the book about Teddy Roosevelt appears in the Mencken Chrestomathy. He wrote: "For one thing, a man devoted professionally to patriotism and the wisdom of the fathers is very apt to come to a resigned sort of acquiescence in all the doctrinaire rubbish that lies beneath the national scheme of things --- to believe, let us say, if not that the plain people are gifted with an infallible sagacity, then at least that they have an inalienable right to see their follies executed."

We are all familiar with the idea of men "devoted professionally to patriotism." That sort of identifying by officeholders with patriotism is what has caused so many US citizens to think that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. It wouldn't be unreasonable to characterize as "doctrinaire rubbish" the idea that the events of 9/11 justify the US occupation of Iraq. It wouldn't be unreasonable to characterize as "doctrinaire rubbish" the idea that the events of 9/11 justify shredding citizens' Constitutional rights in the name of a war powers against a few thousand terrorists.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Panaceas & Bugaboos

"No one who has given any study to the development and propagation of political doctrine in the United States can have failed to notice how the belief in issues among politicians tends to run in exact ratio to the popularity of those issues. Let the populace begin suddenly to swallow a new panacea or to take fright at a new bugaboo, and almost instantaneously nine-tenths of the masterminds of politics begin to believe that the panacea is a sure-cure for all the malaises of the Republic, and the bugaboo an immediate and unbearable menace to all law, order and domestic tranquility."

That's what Mencken wrote in a book review on a book about Teddy Roosevelt in 1920. The review appears in A Mencken Chrestomathy, Chapter XIII, Statesmen.

When we see Rudy Giuliani trying to decide what he thinks about a woman's right to choose or when we see Hillary Clinton trying to decide what she thinks about eligibility for drivers licenses, we understand what Mencken was saying.

My colleague was saying at lunch today that Rudy Giuliani believes in abortion. I said he was being taken in by the people Mencken would have called charlatans and mountebanks. It is not that Giuliani believes in abortion. What he believes in is getting elected. He has to say what he believes the public wants to hear in the jurisdiction where he is running. The rightwingers are being too hard on him. If he had been running in Utah or Louisiana, Giuliani would never have talked positively about a woman's right to choose. Why do voters persist in believing that politicians have sincere beliefs the way other Americans have sincere beliefs. Mencken knew. Why do people still get taken in after all this time by the idea that something one of these candidates says arises from anything other than a keen instinct for saying what the public wants to hear? The public gets played back to it what the public wants. If a candidate does not say what the public wants, the candidate does not get elected. Candidates should not be reviled for what our fellow citizens reward. As the economists say, when a particular behavior receives rewards, you get more of that behavior.

If the voters did not continue to elect individuals who displayed that kind of behavior, individuals who aspire to elective office would exhibit different characteristics. In short, it's time to stop blaming the candidates and shoulder some responsibility ourselves.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A government of ideas

Mencken wrote: "The kind of man who demands that government enforce his ideas is always the kind whose ideas are idiotic." (Chapter XXX of the Chrestomathy) This could be relevant to the current immigration debate, for example. It could even be pertinent to the hysteria-driven debate over the so-called war on terror.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Effect of War

Mencken had a realistic view of death. He scoffed at a romantic view of death in war. He wrote in "Exeunt Omnes": "Let us not have too much hope.The chances are that, if we go to war, eager to leap superbly at the cannon's mouth, we'll be finished on the way by being run over by an army truck driven by a former bus-boy and loaded with imitation Swiss cheeses made in Oneida, NY."

Considering the way the modern Pentagon parses casualties in Iraq, Mencken's relevance to modern life is clear, even though Mencken wrote these things in 1915.

Here's a site that counts casualties in Iraq:

Here's a wikipedia entry, but the US military does not seem to release casualty statistics involving traffic accidents involving military injuries.

Mencken would have hated that sort of coverup, but he would not have been surprised.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Mencken didn't say this, but he could have.

Endless money forms the sinews of war. -Marcus Tullius Cicero,
statesman, orator, writer (106-43 BCE)


Here's from a story in The Washington Post, April 2006:
"War-related investment costs have more than tripled since 2003, from $7 billion to $24 billion, as money has been spent on armored vehicles, radios, sensors and night-vision goggles, as well as on equipment for reorganized Army and Marine Corps units."

Monday, November 5, 2007


The Second Mencken Chrestomathy includes this, which he apparently wrote in November 1940 "for use in my own obituary": Having lived all my life in a country swarming with messiahs, I have been mistaken, perhaps quite naturally, for one myself, especially by the others. It would be hard to imagine anything more presposterous. I am, in fact, the complete anti-Messiah, and detest converts almost as muchas I detest missionaries."

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Decent Man

Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under, HL said.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Merits of Democracy

Here's a link to Mencken on the merits of democracy.


Mencken thought that religiosity was exceptional.

Monkey trial

Here's a web page about the Mencken comments on the Scopes trial.

Still relevant today

Here's an essay on the modern relevance of Mencken.

Mencken on Women

Mencken wrote about women.

Here's an essay on Mencken's views, which were unusual for his age, or any age.

April 7, 1933 - An Epochal Event in the Onward March of Humanity

April 7, 1933 was a good day for HL Mencken. That was the day that Prohibition lapsed. Americans could drink beer again. ( As Marion Elizabeth Rodgers wrote, " reporter had worked harder than Mencken to bring about Prohibition's end."

Mencken reportedly said, "Under the leadership of a personable, attractive and forceful man,we have cast off the cursed yoke imposed by a parcel of umbrella-brandishing halitotic harridans who forced the standards of Goosetown and Waterville, Ohio, upon New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Union Hill, New Jersey."

"Perhaps the first time in history that any of essential liberties of man has been gained without the wholesale emission of blood."