"Notes on Democracy": A hearty, timely dose of Mencken
A new edition of "Notes on Democracy" by the critic H.L. Mencken answers this question: Can a book on politics written before polls, focus groups and TV ads say anything to Americans of today? You bet.
Special to The Seattle Times
"Notes on Democracy"
by H.L. Mencken
Dissident Books, 208 pp., $14.95
"Democracy," wrote H.L. Mencken, "is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."
Mencken, a newspaperman at the Baltimore Sun, was the iconoclast of American journalism between the world wars. To compare his style with ordinary newspaper writing is to compare Kobe beef with grass-fed lean. It was as if he was painting with color and everyone else in black and white.
"Notes on Democracy" was one of his many eruptions. It dates to 1926, a time when America had been through a long foreign war that had been sold to the people with simple slogans and not a few lies. Terrorists had set off bombs in New York, Washington and elsewhere, and the Justice Department had gone after them, throwing out the Bill of Rights. There was a War on Drugs. A new communications medium was changing popular culture. And the president was an inarticulate Republican.
The war was World War I, the terrorists were anarchists, the drug was alcohol, the medium was radio and the president was Coolidge. Many details in this book will be unfamiliar to the modern reader, and it has been footnoted for readers who have never heard of the Mellons, the Mayo brothers or Louis Brandeis. But aficionados of politics and good prose will savor it.
Mencken was not then, and is not now, "politically correct." He believed in a natural aristocracy. "There are minds which start out with a superior equipment, and proceed to high and arduous deeds," he wrote, and "there are minds which never get any further than a sort of insensate sweating, like that of a kidney." Democracy was the rule of the kidney-thinkers.
And what are such folks willing to fight for, in the political arena? "Not for liberty," wrote Mencken, "but for ham and cabbage." Even more than that, for "safety and security. They want to be delivered from the bugaboos that ride them." Democratic man, he wrote, "is an ox whose last proud, defiant gesture is to lick the butcher behind the ear."
Of the politician, Mencken wrote, "It is his business to get and hold his job at all costs. If he can hold it by lying he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out he will try to hold it by embracing new truths. His ear is ever close to the ground."
In a world run by such folk, "the business of law-making becomes a series of panics — government by orgy and orgasm."
Can a book written before polls, focus groups and TV ads say anything to Americans of today? Judge for yourself: just now, American democracy is in full fulmination.
This is a book aimed at a certain type of skeptical and cynical mind. It is like a very strong cheese: only a few will like it, but those who do will crave it, and go on to his two "Chrestomathy" books, his three "Days" books and his collection of presidential-election journalism, "A Carnival of Buncombe." "Notes on Democracy" is not my favorite, but it is certainly lively, and gives the reader what Mencken would call "a horse-doctor's dose" of his famous prose.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.