The Moral Degeneracy of H. L. Mencken

“Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant.”

This quote, attributed to journalist H. L. Mencken, should immediately prompt a contentious person in a sufficient state of cognitive arousal to ask: What is the degree of morally uncertainty about genocide, rape, and slavery? Are those of us who are horrified by the sight of starving children culturally inferior? Are we uncivilized for objecting to this situation? Will we really make moral progress when we question whether it is truly wrong to starve children?

I must count myself among the uncivilized who cannot tolerate genocide, rape, and slavery. I cannot even bring my-culturally-inferior-self to be skeptical of the moral demand that we never fail to be intolerant of such things.

What is the source of H. L. Mencken’s view that civilized and culturally superior men must be uncertain of moral truths? The answer to this question is an easily discoverable and unambiguous one: Mencken was a committed social Darwinist. Like the sociopathic Ayn Rand of Atlas Shrugged fame, and any thoughtful fascist, Mencken believed that morality and democracy were tools that inferior men used to hold back superior men. For Mencken, what should determine right and wrong is the “will to live” (Schopenhauer’ notion which Mencken conflated with Nietzsche’s “will to power”), a judgment to which only a handful of superior men should be entitled – and perhaps will if a succession of supermen appear and save the world from democracy.

Pressing the philosophy of his idol Nietzsche into his own hyper-individualist and anti-democratic worldview, Mencken writes, “There must be a complete surrender to the law of natural selection – that invariable natural law which ordains that the fit shall survive and the unfit shall perish. All growth must occur at the top. The strong must grow stronger, and that they may do so, they must waste no strength in the vain task of trying to lift up the weak.”

To preempt the convenient delusion that Mencken is expressing only a possible interpretation of Nietzsche’s views and not his own, one should recall that Mencken said on his own account: “The great problem ahead of the United States is that of 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. The prevailing political mountebanks have sought to put down a discussion of this as immoral: their aim has been to prosper and increase the unfit as much as possible, always at the expense of the fit. But this can’t go on forever, else we’ll have frank ochlocracy in America, and the progress of civilization will be halted altogether.” (For those unfamiliar with the term ochlocracy, it means “mob rule,” which is how Mencken viewed democracy.)

“Linthead” was Mencken’s favorite term to refer to southern textile workers, a reference to the fragments of fabrics that clung to their hair even after their always arduous and sometimes deadly day in the factory. It was hardly a term of endearment. Mencken said of Southern whites, “Only a rare linthead girl remains a virgin after the age of twelve. Her deflowering, in fact, is usually performed by her brothers, and if not by her brothers, then by her father. Incest is almost as common as fornication among these vermin, and no doubt it is largely responsible for their physical and mental deterioration.” Working people – to a civilized and cultural superior mind like Mencken’s – were inbred mentally retarded and physical deformed vermin.

He was hardly kinder to African Americans. On the contrary: “So long as we refrain, in the case of the negro loafer, from the measures of extermination we have adopted in the case of parasites further down the scale, we are being amply and even excessively faithful to an ethical ideal which makes constant war upon expediency and common sense.” To Mencken, black Americans were not as evolved as whites of his own social caste. “In any chance crowd of Southern Negroes one is bound to note individuals who resemble apes quite as much as they resemble Modern Man, and among the inferior tribes of Africa, say the Bushmen, they are predominant.”  

Is there any hope for black Americans? “I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example, but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready at hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it. The educated negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.”

However much one might credit Mencken with having, along with Mark Twain and a handful of others, established a unique U.S. literary tradition (Mencken’s lasting claim to fame), uncivilized people cannot allow a man with such repugnant opinions (and I have here provided but a sampling of his vileness) to stand among those luminaries who are so easily quoted as if their words reflect some deep wisdom to be heralded or emulated. Mencken was an antidemocratic, antisemitic, classist, negrophobic snob. So crude was the man that Dorothy Parker, having come to Baltimore with great interest in its literary scene, was compelled to leave Mencken’s presence when he turned to his pastime of making derogatory racial remarks. 

We should likewise be compelled to leave the presence of the myth of Mencken’s greatness. His legacy should instead serve as an example of how even moral degenerates can possess a knack for phrase-turning.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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