By Mencken’s GhostNov. 7, 2011
Have you ever noticed that the busybodies who want to change human nature are incapable of changing themselves?
Anyway, I wrote in “The Cult of Hope” about the messianic delusion of trying to solve problems that are insoluble, especially the inherent and unchangeable flaws of humans and their governments:
Unluckily, it is difficult for a certain type of mind to grasp the concept of insolubility. Thousands of poor dolts keep on trying to square the circle; other thousands keep pegging away at perpetual motion . . . These are the optimists and chronic hopers of the world, the believers in men, ideas and things. These are the advocates of leagues of nations, wars to make the world safe for democracy, political mountebanks, “clean-up” campaigns, laws, raids, Men and Religion Forward Movements, eugenics, sex hygiene, education, newspapers.
In my days on Earth, there was the “war to end all wars,” which tried to improve the human condition by ordering men out of trenches and into machine gun fire so that they could kill other men who were less of a threat to the United States than little green men from Mars. There also was Prohibition, which was based on the white-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant notion that the banning of alcohol would stop the desire for alcohol by Catholic men who wanted a temporary escape from the realization that, at best, they would be beasts of burden all of their lives or, at worst, cannon fodder in wars to end all wars started by WASPs.
Many of you have lived through the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty, the War on Terror, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, and the War on Drugs. If you learned something from these experiences, I see no evidence of it in your current politics.
Take the War on Drugs. Instead of recognizing that the problem of the need for mood-altering drugs is insoluble, and instead of developing policy responses based on that recognition, you have wreaked havoc on your southern neighbor, unleashed black-suited SWAT forces in armored personnel carriers on your streets, and now lead the industrialized world in the percentage of the population behind bars. Well, at least the War on Drugs gave black men something to do in your inner cities after the War on Poverty had stunted their socioeconomic progress and made them unnecessary as husbands and fathers.
The War on Drugs was started by Richard Nixon, and the War on Poverty by Lyndon Johnson, neither of whom attended the Ivy League but were just as hell-bent on using government force to change human nature and fix insoluble problems. Sadly, arrogance, hubris, egotism, foolishness, and pathological power needs aren’t restricted to the East Coast.
I wrote in “The Cult of Hope” that it is impossible to get an audience for ideas that are not progressive--that is, for ideas that recognize the realities of human existence and the insolubility of certain problems. To get an audience, political messages have to be “glib, and uplifting, and full of hope, and hence capable of tickling the emotions by leaping the intermediate barrier of the intelligence.” Your current president is an example of what I called the “empty babbling of men who constantly mistake their mere feelings for thoughts.”
In my days, empty babbling was restricted to newspapers, magazines and radio. Now there are no restrictions on empty babbling and thus no opportunities for introspection, reflection, and critical thinking. Empty babbling is 24/7. It’s on TV screens in bars, airport waiting rooms, and doctor offices. It’s on smart phones, on I-Pads and in the cloud. With great solemnity and self-importance, commentators of little wisdom and intelligence bray endlessly and repetitiously on network TV, on cable TV, and on talk radio about the same nothing for hours and days on end. Pummeled from the left and right, listeners end up like a brain-damaged prize fighter, unable to think for themselves and thus unable to sit still in a quiet room with their own thoughts or with reading material longer than a tweet.
The babblers are now bewildered by the Wall Street demonstrations and at a loss to explain the root cause. I’m not bewildered at all. To show why, I’ll end here with some excerpts from my essay of 90 years ago, “Das Kapital.”
. . . many of the acknowledged evils of capitalism, now so horribly visible in the world, are not due primarily to capitalism itself but rather to democracy, that universal murrain of Christendom.
The essential thing about democracy, as every one must know, is that it is a device for strengthening and heartening the have-nots in their eternal war upon the haves. That war, as every one knows again, has its psychological springs in envy pure and simple--envy of the more fortunate man’s greater wealth, the superior pulchritude of his wife or wives, his large mobility and freedom, his more protean capacity for and command of happiness--in brief, his better chance to lead a bearable life in this worst of possible worlds. It follows that under democracy, which gives a false power and importance to the have-nots by counting every one of them as the legal equal of George Washington or Beethoven, the process of government consists largely, and sometimes exclusively, of efforts to spoil that advantage artificially. Trust-busting, free silver, direct elections, Prohibition, government ownership and all the other varieties of American political quackery are but symptoms of the same general rage
I simply defy any critic of my doctrine to find a single issue of genuine appeal to the populace, at any time during the past century, that did not involve a more or less obvious scheme for looting a minority.
What I contend is that the democratic system of government would be saner and more effective in its dealings with capital if it ceased to regard all capitalists as criminals ipso facto, and thereby ceased to make their armed pursuit the chief end of practical politics.
What ails democracy, in the economic department, is that it proceeds upon the assumption that the contrary is true--that it seeks to bring capitalism to a state of innocuous virtue by grossly exaggerating its viciousness--that it penalizes ignorantly what is, at bottom, a perfectly natural and legitimate aspiration, and one necessary to society. Such penalizings, I need not argue, never destroy the impulse itself; surely the American experience with Prohibition should make eve a democrat aware of that. What they do is simply make it evasive, intemperate, and relentless. If it were legally as hazardous in the United States to play a string quartet as it is to build up a great bank or industrial enterprise--if the performers, struggling with their parts, had to watch the windows in constant fear that a Bryan, a Roosevelt, a Lloyd-George or some other such predatory mountebank would break in, armed with a club and followed by a rabble--then string quartette players would become as devious and anti-social in their ways as the average American capitalist is today . . .
Mencken’s Ghost is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.