Democracy, as we all know, is a Greek word. Literally, it means “rule of the people.” To a proponent of democracy, then, it is not unfair to ask, “How have the people been ruling themselves?” In these days of election fever (or exhaustion), it is amusing, if not illustrative to remember that one prominent American openly proclaimed that the people stink and that democracy is a joke. I’m thinking, of course, of H.L. Mencken. Surveying the teeming hordes of American citizens, Mencken called them the “booboisie.” The booboisie is composed of idiots and mental children. “Ideas,” Mencken noted, “leave them unscathed; they are responsive only to emotions, and their emotions are all elemental — the emotions, indeed, of tabby-cats rather than of men.”
Mencken wrote these thoughts down in 1926’s Notes on Democracy (recently published in a new edition through Dissident Books with an introduction by Mencken biographer Marion Elizabeth Rodgers). Fear, Mencken thought, is the essential force driving human beings. The vast majority of us look simply to quell the terror in our hearts with basic comforts. Give us sweet things to eat and some light pornography and we crawl back to our domiciles awaiting further instruction. Rarely, a human being will be able to conquer that basic fear and take a stab at truth or beauty. Rarely.
It follows that, for Mencken, a democratic politics that must pander for the votes of the booboisie will inevitably be a politics that exploits fear. “Politics under democracy,” Mencken writes, “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’!”
Notes on Democracy sustains itself, as Mencken sustained himself in life, with the hard sustenance of such ideas. Some hit harder than others. But Mencken never claimed that his arguments were airtight. He was more interested in ripping his way through the American psyche in search of illusions to tarnish. He does his damage with a sawed-off shotgun, leaving the sniper’s rifle to the college boys.
The real pleasure of Notes on Democracy comes in the ride, the trip that Mencken takes through all the lies and the scams, and the infinite patience by which the general populace allows itself to be exploited. The conclusion is not long in coming: “The American people, true enough, are sheep. Worse, they are donkeys. Yet worse, to borrow from their own dialect, they are goats.”
Near its crescendo, Mencken’s spirited tirade turns to his central philosophical inspiration, Nietzsche. There are reasons to think (namely, the wrongheaded book Mencken wrote on Nietzsche) that Mencken lacked some of the necessary tools to fully understand Nietzsche’s philosophy. But he sure had the gist of it, and he ran with Nietzsche’s idea that Christianity is a religion for resentful slaves as if he was out to win a rhetorical marathon. Mencken wanted to do Nietzsche one better in outright disgust for the common man. At the beginning of the “Democracy and Liberty” section of the book, Mencken goes so far as to accuse Nietzsche of being a little soft. He thinks Nietzsche was wrong to posit a universal “will to power.” More universal than that, Mencken thinks, is a will to peace, a cowardly longing for “the simplest and most ignominious sort of peace—the peace of a trust in a well-managed penitentiary.” I have to think Mencken was rather proud of himself there. Few have dared to take Nietzsche on for his meekness in the face of the herd.
Mencken’s Nietzschean metaphysics runs against the American grain. He simply does not think that there are any answers. He refuses to romp into the glorious future. Looking backward, he notes with satisfaction that whatever the ills of medieval society, at least they recognized that “the evils of the world were incurable.” Musing for a moment on the final Day of Judgment that he never actually believed in, Mencken thinks that “the last joke upon man may be that he never learned how to govern himself in a rational and competent manner.”
Thus, the final secret of Notes on Democracy. It is not actually an attack against democracy as such, but against an Americanism that constantly pats itself on the back and manically proclaims its own unique virtue. Mencken was not excited by the “shining city on the hill” metaphor most recently associated with Ronald Reagan and now repeated ad nauseam from every compass point on the political dial. Mencken suggests, instead, that the American experience — one he was always happy to chronicle — is as pathetic as all the rest. We are rascals, individually and en masse. If we were only willing to accept that basic truth, then Mencken would be happy to lighten up a little. “In the long run,” he says, “it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government, and even to civilization itself — that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle.”
So, bring on the swindle. Seeing civilization as the “glorious farce” constantly amuses and delights Mencken. That is his secret joy. Though he wrote about politics during the entirety of his long career, Mencken was never actually interested in politics per se. He was a thinker of ethics, interested in the question of how man should live. His pessimism about the human capacity for self-improvement was an extended slap in the face to the inherently aspirational nature of American thinking. He wanted to inject a fatalism into the American mind and he was willing to inject with force. The saving grace of that fatalism is that, in an explicitly Nietzschean vein, it is a fatalism that says “Yes.” It is a fatalism that wants to participate in the ongoing follies.
Nietzsche called it the eternal return. He hypothesized that the eternity of time mixed with the finitude of matter meant the necessary replication of all things and events. For Nietzsche, this is the most horrible of all thoughts. It is the idea that life goes nowhere but in an infinite circle. Nietzsche’s twist was to challenge human beings to accept this fact and further, to revel in it. “Let us not only endure the inevitable,” says Nietzsche, “and still less bide it from ourselves: Let us love it.” Mencken was smitten with this idea. It was what allowed him to take pleasure in the glorious farce.
Not surprisingly, it never really caught on in America. Americans kept on being their optimistic American selves. I wonder, though, if that old rascality isn’t becoming apparent again. So far, the 21st century has handed out a lot of disappointment. There are wars, shenanigans by the fat cats that imperil the financial system, bumbling politicians, and general global chaos. Mencken would not have been surprised, but he would have been amused. • 31 October 2008