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Mencken rules

March 17, 2023

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” — H.L. Mencken

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

After Sam Clemens died, Henry Louis Mencken was our most acute social observer and the best writer in the United States until Hemingway came along. Hemingway, influenced by Mencken, helped sweep away centuries of crap — Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘airy persiflage.’

Hemingway taught writers and readers not to accept meringue in place of meat.

Mencken was a meat, potatoes and beer kinda guy, and what he wrote 100 years ago about our perishing republic holds true today.

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Mencken enjoyed covering political conventions. He enjoyed the company of politicians, even though he knew, and wrote, that the vast majority of them were shameless liars and rogues. Were old Henry around today, I’m sure he would find that still true — with one difference — he wouldn’t enjoy our crop of liars, rogues and morons.

Mencken called Mark Twain “the Lincoln of our literature:” exposing prejudice, freeing us from hidebound nonsense and idiotic rules.

Surely the most influential sentence in the American language is the first sentence of “Huckleberry Finn”: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter.”

Twain broke three rules in that sentence, by being true to the way people speak; and throughout Huck Finn he did it by being true to the way people act.

Let’s talk about rules — imposed on us: even on little kids; simple rules, such as the Golden Rule, which covers just about every social situation. Its corollaries include: be polite; do not insult people needlessly; do not try to impose needless pain, needlessly; don’t brag; don’t tell lies; if you did hurt someone, even accidentally, apologize; and so on.

Need I say that a large majority of politicians in one of our major political parties today break all of these rules, intentionally, every day.

Now we come to the heart of this column: Little League Baseball. 

In this clip, a Little League pitcher named Kaine unintentionally beaned a batter named Jarvis, with a wild pitch. (I’m not reporting their last names because kids do not deserve to become immortal on the internet, even for doing what’s right.) 

As you will see if you watch the clip, Jarvis, who was protected by a helmet, went down like a box of rocks, then took first base. There, he saw that Kaine was upset because he’d beaned him. So Jarvis tossed his helmet aside and jogged over to the mound and hugged Kaine, the pitcher, and told him not to worry about it. That earned an ovation from the crowd, as it should have.

Now I ask you: When is the last time a U.S. politician showed such class? Last time I remember is John McCain defending Barack Obama from an impertinent question in 2008.

Since then, particularly in the past seven years, common decency in politics has been tossed aside like a used condom.

I give you George Santos (R-Nuthouse). I give you Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Tenn.). I give you 20 investigations against the former guy. I give you Rep. Jim Jordan, (R-Mordor).

Let me remind you: Hatred is not required to fight for freedom. Hatred is not required to run for political office. Or is it?

Republican campaigns, more and more these days, are based upon hatred and insults — trying to hurt people, in the crudest way possible — stirring up hatred.


I suppose because it works, to some extent, and it “rallies the base,” to some extent — but let’s consider an alternate meaning of “base.”

Well, to quote Mencken again: “You can't do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth.”

Or can they?

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