Could a sharp-tongued journalist with a reputation for bitter honesty be the person we need to bring some sense to our 24/7 media circus?
I write this essay in Knoxville, Tennessee, not forty minutes’ drive from the site of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trials in the city of Dayton. Knoxville is deemed one of the most religious cities in the country, yet is also home to the state of Tennessee’s best public university, second in ranking only to the private Vanderbilt University in my hometown of Nashville. Despite UT’s intellectual eclecticism—for there, literary Marxists converse with trickle-down economists and libertarians discourse with socialist Africanists as disconnected roues converge in drug-orgies in The Fort—there is on nearly every block of the city not one church but two of them. Were the city not in general disrepair the sight almost might be enticing to the encloistered student, but since church properties do not pay taxes to the city’s coffers, the sight quickly becomes disheartening to an outside observer: Knoxville is an economically poor city still remembering the days it hosted the World’s Fair. For, quoth Marx on the opium of the people, such a constellation of churches is sure to be as evidential of social disaster as having not one but two liquor stores on every block.
In the 1930s, H.L. Mencken, at that time one of the most prolific and popular journalists writing in America, lambasted the Methodist “boobeoisie” of Dayton for denying the entry of Darwinian biology into public education. The Scopes Trial proved nationally famous because of Clarence Darrow’s legal eloquence, William Jennings Bryant’s assertion in court that the Earth was created exactly six thousand and some-odd years ago at a specific time in the evening, and Mencken’s bitter coverage of the case and local Dayton culture itself. Always a scathing wit regarding the legacies of Nietzsche or Darwin, Mencken’s acid reportage made Dayton somewhat of a national treasure—or a national disappointment, depending on one’s particular viewpoint. The ability to criticize events without reservation was one of Mencken’s professional strongsuits, though he himself often harbored extremely elitist views and was thus a victim of ideology like the very people he criticized; his intellectual modernism often conflicted with provincial views of the all too human affairs of civilization and its moral strictures, though he was often as moralistic as the preachers he denounced. He was a professional mocker of quack fads, politics in general, wishful-thinkers, fundamentalists, and whatever project he thought comprised the stupidest of humanity’s most earnest of endeavors. This prediliction toward iconoclastic criticism is precisely why we need him today.
A Religious Orgy in Tennessee is a popularized book of Mencken’s coverage of the Scopes Trial. It features his most trenchant coverage of that history—bitter and mocking as only the ironist can imagine when he knows he knows the truth—but where once people accepted Darwin and his synthesis of science and philosophy, they now deny these truths all too often in the South. Natural selection has become a shibboleth for disrespect to the status quo, even though the local capitalisms function according to a species of Darwinism that Darwin himself would have denied. The South is one of the few regions of America that refuses to criticize the concept of pure capitalism, originally inculcating the pro-capitalist voting bloc of both Reagan and Bush and, beyond that, reveling in the cultural symbols of those dubious political reigns that yet emain mysteriously worshiped. As the North resounds with cries of populist Marxism in the midst of crumbling cities and the resurgence of racist crises, the South encloses its discourses in the same modalities of republicanism and exclusivity it has held for decades. Mencken, who unquestionably but pardonably would have sided with the elitists, nevertheless understood that chicanery is chicanery. Had he lived in the 21st century, he would most certainly not have sided with the progressive Left, but neither would he have sided with the exclusionary Right. He would have provided unwanted criticism toward each set of human beings in that they may better understand their cognitive flaws in how they understand the human condition, which, at any rate, he thought doomed to mediocrity to begin with.
Mencken’s early 20th-century targets seem strangely contemporary: religion that takes itself too seriously to the point of becoming cultish, the downfall of intelligence as a cultural value, New Age ideology (in his day it was called New Thought), and the American Dream. For all this you have our Pat Robertsons, Arnold Schwarzeneggars, Deepak Chopras, and Michael Moores. Mencken was no savior of the proletarians, nor a proponent of democracy in general—had he been a less intelligent man he might have supported the Fascists, given his take on elitism, but he also saw through their mythologies as he saw through all the others. He perfectly represented free-thought, albeit his personality might have damaged the cause of honest scientific inquiry: a list of the people he offended would be longer than the book on The American Language he wrote. A studious polymath, Mencken nevertheless saw fit to make enemies in order to sell print—a mercenary if honest endeavor then as it is now in the age of cultural liberalism, when people are perhaps too careful of hurting each other’s feelings. He was a professional journalist at a time when journalism was still yellow; but although he was well read in the sciences of his time, he was no professional scientist. His purview of inquiry did not extend as far as he might have hoped. He despised the books of the enlightened professors spouting socialist metaphysics as surely as he despised the cawing of the Dixie Fundamentalists. The intensive and delightful effort he exerted in lambasting the cruelly optimistic and the fraudulent throughout his series Prejudices speaks to his innate meanness as much as to his will to truth. While tirelessly championing free speech, he also suggested “the ignorant should be allowed to spawn ad libitum, that there may be a steady supply of slaves, and that those of us who are more prudent and sedentary may be relieved of unpleasant labor” and that most of mankind comprised “the nether herd.” He is not above suspicion, but for all that, neither are any of us alive today.
Given the cultural climate we find ourselves in, alternating between right-wing paranoia and left-wing softness, it might be time we took the old boy out of the literary grave and applied his sense of honesty to our 21st century.
Photo: wikipedia.org, H.L. Mencken
Photo: wikipedia.org, Scopes Trial, aka Scopes Monkey Trial