why we need another Mencken.

These past few days, if anything, have proved to me that no other time since the eve of the great depression have we needed some great wit to provide commentary on the national lunacy as it transpires.  the 20’s had Mencken himself, but the time calls for another kindred soul.

The Onion is a good enough source of political satire, but that is not what is called for, nor was it Mencken’s speciality in the first place.  What is called for is political commentary, and not the sort of drivel that you find on Slate or the National Review; these two publications are simply a scratch behind the ear of the ideologues that will decide the presidential election.

When I say “political commentary”, I mean something far different than the phrase as it is currently bandied about in the softcourts of political weeklies who through some extraordinary effort have stolen the political dialogue away from Americans themselves.  A better translation of the phrase: political antagonism.

And here is the great problem with American society (as Mencken might see it): we no longer have that exclusive club of fake-Aristos who are more of a microcosm of outside society than a rugged congregation of the Nation’s elite.  Before, someone could ruffle feathers simply by pointing out the poor blood, the idiotic works of culture, and above all the imbecilic sensibilities of those who were ostensibly supposed to rule the country from the seat of Washington and rule American society from New York City.  The fact that Europe provided a means of comparison (Aristocracy, that is, and the real kind) made the job of someone like Mencken quite easy.

Now, however, a prospective gadfly must search much more thoroughly for ways to aggravate the men on top (and no, it is not civil disobedience.  The concept is worn, and never worked anyway).  American Aristocrats, like their bretheren all throughout the world, are by no great measure more intellectually developed than their slobbering and inbred ancestors.  The problem is that they (I don’t deign use the collective ‘we’, even though I might qualify) are themselves a shock to the dispassionate observer: they are no more smart, no more perverse, indeed, no more interesting than, as Mencken put it, “the masses of their fellow-man.”  The shock consists in this: How do you poke fun at the cultural inanities, the somnambulic political wisdom, or even the irritatingly bland perversities of a class of people who are little else than a better-off version of those who are supposed to hate them?

Anyone who can answer this question in regular segments online will have at least one loyal reader.


5 responses to “why we need another Mencken.

  1. “and no, it is not civil disobedience. The concept is worn, and never worked anyway”

    In my view, civil disobedience is the only thing that has ever really troubled the political elite. People can blog, write articles for the mainstream press and generally pontificate all day long and it achieves little or nothing (unless you’re a Woodward type investigative journalist who actually helps bring down a presidency through evidence of their wrong doing). While we’re all sitting at our PCs (or type writers in the past), we’re not actually affecting anything, we’re kept seperate from each other and represent no real challenge.
    One of the main reasons the US couldn’t send more troops to Vietnam at the height of the war there has been documented thoroughly, and it turns out the police and government realised they needed troops back home as they actually feared some kind of uprising. Freedom to protest against susequent wars, as well as the civil rights movement all rested heavily on civil disobedience (although a more pacifist version in the case of the latter). Our generation can talk about how civil disobedience isn’t relative, because we haven’t had to resort to it to win rights… that was our grandparents generation. The fact people are now in a passive state of anomie and wont turn out on the streets will most likely lead to the further erosion of our rights, as there is nothing for the gov etc to fear.

  2. Oh, and in better functioning democracies, such as Bolivia and other S American states, people turn out regularly… not to be violent, but to make clear what the mass of the people want from their leaders and that they shouldn’t overstep the mark. In the US and UK we just write ‘witty’ op-eds… look where its got us recently.

  3. This is a point that I will disagree with you on, but I agree my statement was brash and without qualification. While civil disobedience has held its place in the past, the hyper-individualization of society has rendered it an impotent tool of social change. The fact of the matter is that our government has the ability to vaporize our cars from space if it so chooses. We are no longer in a situation where they will have to put the national guard in the difficult situation of having to shoot at its own countrymen; by integrating immigrants, convicts, and other ‘outsiders’ into an army that has already adopted a highly depersonalized version of war (fought from robotic drones, tanks with LCD screens, etc.) the Government no longer has this problem.

    The only way for the American people to truly stick it to the man these days is to stop paying taxes; this won’t work right now, but as soon as the vast majority of America is struggling to make its mortgage payments, it will start becoming a lot more prevalent. Once the government can no longer promise foreign governments the amount of money required to at least service its foreign debt, the Government will be forced to curtail its military spending.

    People in Washington have no more illusions about the power of the people, because the power of the people has been stripped; we live in a highly individuated world, where everyone feels more or less separate from the rest of the country. This is a consequence of ‘individual rights’. The fact of the matter is that two Januarys ago as many people marched on Washington against the Iraq war as marched on many Vietnam demonstrations; the problem is that there are now far more people in the country, and far less in the Army; combine that with a lack of a draft, and people have no more impetus to protest, even if protest still had the political power it used to.

  4. Ok, well firstly, I agree with you when it comes to the draft etc… I think having a professional army is a pretty dangerous thing, and if everyone in society were forced to serve after being picked randomly by ballot (including the children of the rich and powerful) then policy makers would have to think twice about starting wars. Although as you say, wars are fought by different means these days, but as seen by the number of deaths among US service personel in Iraq, the old means of fighting and dying are still in place.

    “The fact of the matter is that two Januarys ago as many people marched on Washington against the Iraq war as marched on many Vietnam demonstrations”

    -Yeah that’s true. One big difference here in the UK (and I’m sure it was the same in the US) was that there were huge protests BEFORE the war in Iraq, something that has no historical precedent as far as I know. Ok, the protests didn’t work, but through that they did two important things. 1) they prob frightened the leadership somewhat at least 2) People now seem so disillusioned with their government (here and in the US) and also don’t trust a word they say in concern to anything. While that’s yet to be translated into any kind of change as to how society functions, it’s still a difference, even if at a glacial pace.

    I can’t imagine people not paying income tax in the US, unless it’s some weird militia group up in the mountains who barricade themselves somehwere armed to the teeth. An interesting example of non-compliance with tax has been seen here in the UK in regards to something called the Poll Tax, now the ‘Council tax’. Basically the original poll tax forced Thatcher out of office as no one would pay it, and there were widespread riots as it disproporionately hit the poor. It’s now been changed into the council tax which is similar but somewhat softer. There have been some high profile cases picked up in the mainstream press of old women not paying the tax and actually willing to go to prison to contest the whole thing, which has happened and caused outcry. Guess that could be something to take heart form if it could be replicated on a greater scale. Although it would require a free press in which the issue was reported fairly and people knew it was happening. In the US and UK most of the press is either corporate/wealthy individual owned so it’s not in their favour to highlight something which could lead to widespread tax avoidance and the possible downfall of the system/leadership they sponsor.

    When you say about the gov being able to destroy a car from space, and I guess making the point that civil disobedience is now either too dangerous/unlikely to affect anything, well people were killed the old fashioned way while protesting the Vietnam war/racist policies, a good ol shot/kick to the head. High tech lasers and old school bullets have the same affect and if people were to start shooting at a crowd i nany respect, it would only signal a regression back 40 yrs and hopefully wake people up again. It’s a shame people weren’t more irked by the scenes surrounding the RNC where journalists were arrested on a whim and flash grenades etc used against people marching on peaceful protests. If I was living in the US and saw that on tv I’d be shitting myself tbh, but there ya go. Police can be just as brutal here, and are using all kinds of high tech surveillance and Identification means to keep a tab on regular protestors etc, but the one thing that is a positive is their lack of guns!

  5. I think it’s more the fear that such weapons cause than the actual danger of them being used. The US military is deploying microwave emitters that can debilitating pain in anyone within a pretty large radius over a range of several hundred yards. Probably won’t see this deployed on the citizenry anytime soon, but I think that the problem is that television, the internet, and cell phones have caused people to think they are more connected (because they are ‘in touch’ with people) but in reality are more separate from the rest of society than ever before.

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