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H. L. Mencken: Is this your hero, New Atheists?

Over at Why Evolution is True, Professor Jerry Coyne has been busily promoting the writings of a man he describes as “The First New Atheist”: the acclaimed writer, H. L. Mencken (1880-1956). Professor Coyne promised his readers one week of daily posts featuring quotes from the great essayist, on the follies of religion, and he’s kept his word: he’s just completed Day Seven of his postings.

When I first read of Professor Coyne’s choice of patron for the New Atheist movement, I quietly marveled. Professor Coyne is a very well-read man, and when he makes a choice, you can be sure that he has given it a lot of thought. It was he who officially declared Aratina Cage’s logo of a red A with two horns to be the Gnu Atheist symbol, and his choice has been vindicated by the surge in the logo’s popularity. I therefore have to assume that Coyne knew what he was doing when he nominated H. L. Mencken as the patron of the New Atheist movement. So far, visitors to his Web site have strongly supported Coyne’s choice. Coyne has been very enthusiastic in his promotion of Mencken, even going so far as to refer to him as “the imperishable Henry”. What’s next, I wonder? Will we see a readers’ contest for the best halo design?

Now, when one nominates a patron for one’s movement, one should be careful to nominate an individual whose greatness is readily apparent and whose faults, whatever they may be, are capable of being overlooked. A patron need not be perfect, but he/she should be, at the very least, an admirable person: a pioneer in whose steps others can follow. To his credit, Professor Coyne has acknowledged Mencken’s vindictiveness; but this is hardly a fatal flaw.

The reason for my quiet astonishment when I learned of Coyne’s choice of a patron for the New Atheist movement was that only two weeks before, I had stumbled upon some very interesting quotes from H. L. Mencken’s writings on pages 397-398 of Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society (Basic Books, Revised and expanded edition, 2012). I therefore knew that Professor Coyne’s nomination of H. L. Mencken as the First New Atheist was an extremely inopportune one – and that’s putting it mildly. For the information I now had about Mencken could fairly be described as political dynamite. Yes, I said “dynamite.”

Surely Coyne must know, I said to myself. Surely someone would have tipped him off about Mencken’s opinions. And early this week, I found out that he did know. For the last few days, Coyne has been quoting from a little-known book by Mencken, titled Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1956), which was published in the final year of Mencken’s life. It’s an old book, but Johns Hopkins University Press issued a new edition in 2006. I strongly urge people who like collecting rare books to buy it ASAP, before the 15 remaining new copies get snapped up. Alternatively, viewers can read the book online here,which is where I discovered it. Over at his Web site, to the great delight of his readers, Professor Coyne has been gleefully quoting humorous passages from the book, in which Mencken tears apart what he regards as the patently absurd claim that science and religion are compatible.

Now, I’d be the first to acknowledge that Mencken was an extraordinarily gifted writer, even though I disagree with most of his opinions. But when I actually read Mencken’s “Minority Report” for myself, I discovered that Mencken’s views were even more awful than the ugly sentiments quoted in Thomas Sowell’s book. I don’t think Coyne’s readers will thank him for nominating Mencken as the first New Atheist after they’ve read this post. They’re more likely to ask him, “What were you thinking?” I’d say Professor Coyne definitely has some explaining to do. I sincerely hope he does so, and I am looking forward to his response.

So, who was H. L. Mencken?

H. L. Mencken in 1932. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Readers under the age of 40 might not know H. L. Mencken, so I’d better introduce the man. To most people, Henry Louis Mencken is best-known as the author of The American Language, an acclaimed and highly readable study of how the English language is spoken in the United States, and for his reporting on the 1925 Scopes trial, which he dubbed the “Monkey Trial.” (By the way, if you want to know what the movie Inherit the Wind got wrong about the trial, click here. Short answer: practically everything.) Mencken is also widely admired as a peerless satirist, a hard-hitting journalist and an acerbic critic of Christian fundamentalism, organized religion, anti-intellectualism and Prohibition.

But who was the real H. L. Mencken? In this post, I have put together a collection of excerpts from his writings, with the aim of demonstrating that despite his personal warmth, his generosity, his unfailing courtesy to women and his unflagging loyalty to his friends, the man held appalling and callously inhuman views, even for his time, on matters relating to race, eugenics, crime and punishment.

To continue, click here.

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16 Responses to H. L. Mencken: Is this your hero, New Atheists?

  1. 1

    Mencken was among other things a satirist. Taking everything he says seriously is A Great Big Huge Mistake, but that’s what you do.

    E.g., his 1937 “Utopia by Sterilization” is clearly satire, but you miss it completely. See his:

    Mencken, H. L. (1927). “On eugenics.” Baltimore Sun, May 15, 1927 (and reprinted).

    http://www.pandasthumb.org/arc.....ent-268985

    …this is right when the infamous sterilization case before the Supreme Court, Buck v. Bell IIRC, was going on.

    Even you note that in his actual actions he was braver than most in opposing racist and anti-Semitic policies, often against the prevailing winds and even at risk to his wallet and his safety.

    Also, Mencken was a professional misanthrope and humorist, but he dealt it out to just about everybody, it’s pretty silly to pick out passages on this or that group and assume these represent sincere racist views. The magazine he edited, The American Mercury, published anti-eugenics essays by Darrow and others which definitely bucked common views in the 1920s; he also published Langston Hughes and other black authors, right there in the decade that saw the revival of the KKK, etc.

    E.g. the 1927 essay. Oh look, Mencken hates philosophers too!

    An overproduction of geniuses, indeed, would be very dangerous, for though they make for progress they also tend to disturb the peace. Imagine a country housing 100 head of Aristotles! It would be as unhappy as a city housing 100 head of Jesse Jameses. Even quasi-geniuses are a great burden upon society. There are in the United States today 1,500 professional philosophers—that is, men who make their living at the trade. The country would be far better off if all save two or three of them were driving taxicabs or serving with the Rum Fleet.

  2. Hi Nick,

    Thank you for your post. I have spent the past week carefully sifting Mencken’s work, and of course, I continually asked myself the question: did he really mean it when he wrote that? My considered conclusion is that generally speaking, he did.

    I make no pretense of being a literary critic, and you are welcome to ignore my opinion if you wish. But you cannot ignore Christopher Hitchens, who wrote:

    Nietzsche despised both Christianity and democracy, as did Mencken…. But for Mencken, the German savant played approximately the same role as does Ayn Rand for some rancorous individualists of our own day. In the celebrated confrontation with William Jennings Bryan, for example, where the superstitious old populist feared that scientific Darwinism would open the door to social Darwinism, Mencken shared the same opinion but with more gusto. He truly believed that it was a waste of time and energy for the fit to succor the unfit. When he had written about Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914 and entitled the essay ‘The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet,’ he had not attempted to be ironic or critical. (“A Smart Set of One,” New York Times, November 17, 2002).

    I really don’t think Mencken was joking when he wrote in “The Mailed Fist and its Prophet” in 1914:

    The weak and the botched must perish: that is the first principle of our humanity. And they should be helped to perish! … I am writing for the lords of the earth. You say that a good cause hallows even war? … I tell you that a good war hallows every cause!’

    Barbarous? Ruthless? Unchristian? No doubt. But so is life itself. So is all progress worthy the name. Here at least is honesty to match the barbarity, and, what is more, courage, the willingness to face great hazards, the acceptance of defeat as well as victory.

    Mencken really was a Nietzschean nut. A funny Nietzschean nut, to be sure, but still a nut.

    Thomas Sowell certainly didn’t think Mencken was joking when he wrote a piece praising black intellectuals, but then going on to remark:

    The vast majority of people of their race are but two or three inches removed from gorillas: it will be a sheer impossibility, for a long, long while, to interest them in anything above pork-chops and bootleg gin.
    (“The Aframerican: New Style”, in The American Mercury, February 1926, p. 255.)

    That doesn’t sound like a joke to me. It sounds like prejudice.

    You mention that The American Mercury also published anti-racist views. So what? Mencken believed in free speech, and he was not afraid of a controversy.

    You write that he dished it out to just about everybody. No; there was method in his malice. He really did think that Anglo-Saxons were a poor white race, compared to the Prussians. He really did think that Native Americans couldn’t be educated. He really did think that African “Bushmen” (sic) were more apelike than humanlike. And he thought this because his evolutionary views were strongly influenced by Haeckel.

    You write that Mencken was obviously being funny when he wrote what he did. But a satirist and a humorist are not the same thing. There’s no doubt that Mencken was capable of making even his wildest suggestions sound funny. But that doesn’t imply that he wasn’t serious about them.

    “Utopia by Sterilization” is a fairly light-hearted piece, and one might be inclined to dismiss it as idle satire, if one had nothing else to go on. Even this piece, though, contains a deadly serious streak bubbling just below the surface:

    Let a resolute attack be made upon the fecundity of all the males of the lowest rungs of the racial ladder, and there will be a gradual and permanent improvement. It may not be noticed at once, for it will take some time to work off the damage they have already done, but in the course of two generations it will be brilliantly manifest.

    Here, unluckily, we collide with another difficulty. What I have argued so far is subscribed by virtually all intelligent persons, though many of them, for one reason or another hesitate to say so. But when it comes to applying the obvious remedy, a large number of them discover impediments… The theological doctrine of the equality of souls before God has been bred into them, and it would be impossible to induce a majority of them, or even any considerable minority, to repudiate all its implications today. In the long run they may do so, but certainly the time is not yet.

    Are you sure Mencken was joking when he wrote that, Nick? Doesn’t sound like satire to me. I could cite dozens of deadly serious suggestions made along the same lines, in the 1930s.

    And what about this, from Minority Report, just after a passage in which Mencken argues for “reducing the high differential birthrate of the inferior orders, for example, the hillbillies of Appalachia, the gimme farmers of the Middle West, the lintheads of the South, and the Negroes” (sic)?

    The theory that inferior stocks often produce superior individuals is not supported by any known scientific facts. All of them run the other way.
    (Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1956, Section 270)

    Doesn’t sound like satire to me – and if it is, then it’s extraordinarily inept satire. It’s too heavy. A good satirist wouldn’t attach little sermons about the need to breed stocks intelligently at the end of an outrageous proposal.

    That’s all for now, Nick. GTG. Talk to you later.

  3. 3

    From Christopher Hitchens:

    …Mencken was a German nationalist, an insecure small-town petit bourgeois, a childless hypochondriac with what seems on the evidence of these pages to have been a room-temperature libido, an antihumanist as much as an atheist, a man prone to the hyperbole and sensationalism he distrusted in others and not as easy with the modern world and its many temptations and diversions as he liked it to be supposed….

    Nietzsche despised both Christianity and democracy, as did Mencken…. But for Mencken, the German savant played approximately the same role as does Ayn Rand for some rancorous individualists of our own day. In the celebrated confrontation with William Jennings Bryan, for example, where the superstitious old populist feared that scientific Darwinism would open the door to social Darwinism, Mencken shared the same opinion but with more gusto. He truly believed that it was a waste of time and energy for the fit to succor the unfit. When he had written about Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914 and entitled the essay ‘The Mailed Fist and Its Prophet,’ he had not attempted to be ironic or critical.

    Eugenicists unintentionally make me laugh. They set themselves up as the arbiter of what constitutes a “superior” human, never seeming to realize their own criteria for believing what is “superior” is nothing but subjective. Perhaps some eugenicists will even consider other eugenicists “inferior.” The irony.

  4. Hi Nick,

    Back again. OK, now I’ve had time to look at the article “On Eugenics” from The Chicago Tribune (May 15, 1927), which you cited. Reading it through, I don’t see it as a repudiation of eugenics. I see it as a criticism of unsophisticated interpretations of eugenics which were popular among the chattering classes (whom Mencken despised). Mencken astutely pointed out that the term “superior” was inadequately defined: did it mean intelligence, moral stability or merely fame? The other simplistic assumption was that the qualities that make a person “superior” are all found among one class, whereas in fact they are rare in all classes, but somewhat more common in one class than in the others.

    In this piece, which was written for a mass-circulation newspaper, Mencken tempers his eugenicism by pointing out that the great bulk of people were pretty much alike. But that position is perfectly consistent with holding that, say, the bottom tenth of society (among whom Mencken included sharecroppers and Appalachians) needed to be discouraged from breeding. In the essay, “Utopia by Sterilization” which I cited, Mencken suggested a cash inducement. Although he wrote the piece in a humorous vein, the proposal that poor people be voluntarily sterilized was made by other people, including scientists, during that era.

    Getting back to the article in The Chicago Tribune: does Mencken reject the notion of “superiority” in this article? No. He declares that he believes Napoleon I to have been a superior man. On the subject of Nietzsche, he has this to say:

    Nietzsche, in fact, preached a gospel that, to most human beings, is unbearable, and it will probably remain unbearable for centuries to come. Its adoption by Dr. Coolidge, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, would plunge this republic into dreadful woe.

    Mencken is just being a political realist here. For most people, Nietzsche’s gospel is unbearable, but Mencken wasn’t one of those people; he was an avowed Nietzschean. What Mencken was doing here was to simply advise the “superior” people to bide their time. The changes he wanted would take centuries.

    So, I’d say the article is perfectly consistent with a sophisticated form of eugenics.

    What do you think?

    Finally, Mencken warns that an oversupply of geniuses can have undesirable social consequences, as they tend to disturb the peace. One Beethoven is enough; we don’t need 100. A eugenicist could assent to this; superior people should be rare.

  5. Dr Torley:

    Thank you for a courageous, well-researched, searching post.

    As you know, I have repeatedly cited Plato in The Laws Bk X on the inherent radical relativism of evolutionary materialism and how it opens the door to nihilistic domineering factions.

    This issue as, you raised from a different angle, precisely echoes the unspoken closing argument Bryan intended to give in reply to Darrow at the Scopes Trial, pivoting on the Loeb-Leopold Superman murder (Darrow had been defense attorney there). Of course, Bryan had intended to publish, but died of complications of diabetes five days after the trial. And, it was unspoken because, after the so-called duel in the shade, the disgusted Judge terminated the way the proceedings had been going.

    Here is the pivotal part, cited from point viii here:

    A criminal is not relieved from responsibility merely because he found Nietzsche’s philosophy in a library which ought not to contain it. Neither is the university guiltless if it permits such corrupting nourishment to be fed to the souls that are entrusted to its care . . . . [[Again, strongly echoing Plato's analysis; and also his recommendations.]

    Mr. Darrow said: “I say to you seriously that the parents of Dicky Loeb are more responsible than he, and yet few boys had better parents.” Again he says: “I know that one of two things happened to this boy; that this terrible crime was inherent in his organism and came from some ancestor, or that it came through his education and his training after he was born.” . . . . He says “I do not know what remote ancestor may have sent down the seed that corrupted him, and I do not know through how many ancestors it may have passed until it reached Dicky Loeb. All I know is, it is true, and there is not a biologist in the world who will not say I am right.”

    Psychologists who build upon the evolutionary hypothesis teach that man is nothing but a bundle of characteristics inherited from brute ancestors. That is the philosophy which Mr. Darrow applied in this celebrated criminal case. “Some remote ancestor” – he does not know how remote – “sent down the seed that corrupted him.” You cannot punish the ancestor – he is not only dead but, according to the evolutionists, he was a brute and may have lived a million years ago. And he says that all the biologists agree with him. No wonder so small a percentage of the biologists, according to Leuba, believe in a personal God.

    This is the quintessence of evolution, distilled for us by one who follows that doctrine to its logical conclusion.

    So, now, here at UD and in the wider discussion, the question of the want of a foundational IS that can bear the weight of OUGHT that so haunts evolutionary materialism, is squarely before us.

    An this, in the form of a bubbling brew of evolutionism, aggressive new atheism, and the lingering traces of Nietzschean nihilism, eugenicism, and social darwinism. Where, we must never forget, Hunter’s Civic Biology — the textbook at the heart of the case in Tennessee in 1925 — was (as its title suggests) a book that presented eugenics in the guise of science and its relevance to society.

    The recent pouncing on Dr Carson and on the state of Tennessee, in this light, take on a very different colour.

    We have some serious pondering to do, on where our civilisation is headed.

    Dr Torley, thanks again.

    GEM of TKI

  6. Well, it’s nice to see that some atheists have consciences. Glad that Nick takes issue with Mencken’s views. Not sure what in the world Coyne is thinking, but nominating a guy like this as a hero of atheists is downright scary! It doesn’t build our trust and confidence in subjective atheistic morality. I know that is an oxymoron, but I’m sure you understand what I mean..

  7. OT: For anybody interested in the refutation of evolutionary algorithms there is a new video upload;

    “Darwin or Design” with Dr. Tom Woodward with guest Dr. Robert J. Marks II – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yoj9xo0YsOQ

  8. Here is the fruit of militant atheism:

    The Soviet Union Story – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j296ubWIRzM

  9. Hi kairosfocus,

    Thank you for your post. The story of the Loeb-Leopold murder was the big unspoken background issue behind the trial. Darrow knew that Bryan was onto something here, which is why he tried to put a lid on the whole discussion about Nietzsche’s philosophy at the trial. As a Nietzschean, Mencken had his own reasons for not wanting Nietzsche’s philosophy to become an issue, and he knew that Bryan knew enough to make trouble. So he did what he had to do: he tried to discredit Bryan by depicting him as an incompetent fool who knew nothing about evolution. I was astonished to find that Bryan had actually read Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man, when reading through the trial transcripts. I also discovered that Bryan never claimed that man is not a mammal, as Mencken had falsely alleged. I’ll say more about that in my next post. Thanks again, kairosfocus.

  10. 10
    Barry Arrington

    Vincent, great job!

  11. 11

    Dr Torely, as usual, you are treasure to ID and UD.

  12. Dr Torley:

    Quite some food for thought, on both Darrow and Mencken.

    KF

  13. Barry Arrington, Upright BiPed and kairosfocus,

    Thanks very much for your kind comments. I’m currently working on a follow-up article, on the Scopes trial – and especially on Mencken’s reporting of that trial. It should be ready before the end of the week.

  14. Looking forward . . .

  15. 15

    Mencken is just being a political realist here. For most people, Nietzsche’s gospel is unbearable, but Mencken wasn’t one of those people; he was an avowed Nietzschean. What Mencken was doing here was to simply advise the “superior” people to bide their time. The changes he wanted would take centuries.

    So, I’d say the article is perfectly consistent with a sophisticated form of eugenics.

    What do you think?

    Finally, Mencken warns that an oversupply of geniuses can have undesirable social consequences, as they tend to disturb the peace. One Beethoven is enough; we don’t need 100. A eugenicist could assent to this; superior people should be rare.

    What do I think? I think your attempting to somehow spin the 1927 essay as pro-eugenics is strained and unconvincing, as demonstrated by your saying absurdities like that eugenicists thought superior people should be rare. The whole point of eugenics was to achieve the exact opposite.

    And somehow you try to spin “Its adoption by Dr. Coolidge, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, would plunge this republic into dreadful woe” into some secret bide-your-time strategy? What?

    The American Mercury, when Mencken was editor, literally led the charge against eugenics. I’ve already mentioned the incredible anti-eugenics essays by Darrow. Then there was also Raymond Pearl’s article in 1927. Random quotes from the literature that come up on google:

    These scientific shortcomings—poorly defined, fanciful and complex traits, the unwillingness to address environmental and polygenic causes—gradually persuaded
    American geneticists, led by Thomas Hunt Morgan, to distance themselves from the eugenic organizations they once embraced. Geneticist Herbert Jennings resigned from the American Eugenics Society in 1925, a year after writing to Irving Fisher that eugenics societies were no place for men of science. Geneticist Raymond Pearl (1927), an early eugenic enthusiast, distanced genetics from eugenics
    in H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, an apostasy that caused the withdrawal of a job offer from Harvard.

    In 1927, a renowned Johns Hopkins biologist named Raymond Pearl published a critique assailing eugenics. The eugenicists believed in the supremacy of heredity. Good genes made a strong man strong and an intelligent man smart, while bad genes could lead to poverty, prostitution, and criminality. Improving the human race would require ridding the population of “defective protoplasm” while encouraging the superior stock to breed more. By the mid-1920s, eugenics was the prevailing model of human genetics. But Pearl had found flaws in its underlying science, and he exposed these errors in his critique. It appeared in The American Mercury, an influential magazine published by Pearl’s close friend, H. L. Mencken.

    The first American biologist to publicly rebuke eugenics, Pearl earned a mark as a pioneer in the annals of science. The American Philosophical Society describes him as “an inveterate opponent of most eugenic policies, and critic of eugenic research.”

  16. 16

    Another good quote: http://theamericanmercury.org/.....gressives/

    The most significant reference I’ve seen to Mencken in the popular media in the last decade or so referred to the “racism” supposedly exposed in some newly discovered letters. Given the fact that Mencken was probably the most effective opponent of racism in this country in the first half of the 20th century, hardly ever failed to hammer the Ku Klux Klan and related excrescences in a single issue of the American Mercury, and provided a mainstream forum for W.E.B. Dubois and many other African American intellectuals that put him head and shoulders above the rest of the editors of his day, one can but shake one’s head when reading such stupidities.

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