​H.L. Mencken: The genealogy of etiquette


Why do the great majority of Presbyterians (and, for that matter, of Baptists, Episcopalians and Swedenborgians as well plus many other sects which, if put together even Jesus would not recognize Christianity as the religion he so zealously founded) regard it as unlucky to meet a black cat and lucky to find a pin? What are the logical steps behind the theory that it is indecent to eat peas with a knife? By what process does an otherwise sane man arrive at the conclusion that he will go to Hell (as preached by the pundits and the ‘intoxicated’ men who promise their followers salvation) unless he is baptized by total immersion? What causes men to be faithful to their wives (and vice versa): habit, fear, poverty, lack of imagination, lack of enterprise, stupidity, religion? What is the true nature of the vague pooling of desires that Rousseau called the social contract? Why does an American regard it as scandalous to wear dress clothes at a funeral, and a Frenchman regard it as equally scandalous not to wear them? Why is it that men trust one another so readily, and women trust one another so seldom? Why are we all so greatly affected by statements that we know are not true? What is the origin of the so-called double standard of morality? Why do so many people dislike Jews? Why are women forbidden to take off their hats in church?

All these are questions of interest and importance to all of us, for their solution would materially improve the accuracy of our outlook upon the world, and with it our mastery of our environment, but the psychologists, busily engaged in chasing their tails, leave them unanswered, and, in most cases, even unasked. Thus the field lies open to the amateur, and not infrequently he enters it to good effect. The late Friedrich Nietzsche did it often, and the usufructs were many curious and daring guesses as to the genesis of this, that or the other common delusion of man—e.g., the delusion that the law of the survival of the fittest may be repealed by an act of Congress. The problem with even the most intellectually sophisticated thinkers in the society is that they indulge in thinking that is only half intellectual, the other half being as automatic and unintelligent as swallowing, blinking the eye, or falling in love.

The power of the complex that I have mentioned is usually very much underestimated in the modern world, not only by psychologists, but also by all other persons who pretend to enlightenment (Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and the likes would serve as formidable examples here). We take pride in the fact that we are thinking animals, and like to believe that our thoughts are free, but the truth is that nine-tenths of them are rigidly conditioned by the babbling that goes on around us from birth, and that the business of considering this babbling objectively, separating the true in it from the false, is an intellectual feat of such stupendous difficulty that very few men are ever able to achieve it. Not one of us is actually a free agent – less one be a man of supreme, perfect enlightenment. Not one of us thinks for himself, or in any orderly and scientific manner. 

The pressure of environment, of mass ideas, of the socialized intelligence, improperly so called, is too enormous to be withstood. No genuine American, no matter how sharp his critical sense, can ever get away from the notion that democracy is, in some subtle and mysterious way, more conducive to human progress and more pleasing to a just God than any of the systems of government which stand opposed to it. In the privacy of his study he may observe very clearly that it exalts the facile and specious man above the really competent man, and from his reflections upon it he may draw the conclusion that its abandonment would be desirable, but once he emerges from his academic seclusion and resumes the rubbing of noses with his fellow men, he will begin to be tortured by a sneaking feeling that such ideas are heretical and unmanly, and the next time the band begins to play he will thrill with the best of them—or the worst.

The boundary between etiquette and morality is very dimly drawn, and it is often impossible to say of a given action whether it is downright immoral or merely a breach of the punctilio. Even when the moral law is plainly running, considerations of mere amenity and politeness may still make themselves felt. How can we possibly explain the fact that the populace is constantly ravished and set aflame by fresh brigades of moral, political and sociological prophets—that it is forever playing the eager victim to new mountebanks? The explanation lies in the simple circumstance that these performers upon the public midriff are always careful to ladle out nothing actually new, and hence nothing incomprehensible, alarming and accursed. What they offer is always the same old panacea with a new label—the tried and much-loved dose, the colic cure that Mother used to make. 

Superficially, the United States seems to suffer from an endless and astounding neophilism (obsessive love for new things); actually all its thinking is done within the boundaries of a very small group of political, economic and religious ideas, most of them unsound. For example, there is the fundamental idea of democracy—the idea that all political power should remain in the hands of the populace, that its exercise by superior men is intrinsically immoral. Again, there is the doctrine that the possession of great wealth is a crime—a doctrine half a religious heritage and half the product of mere mob envy. Yet again, there is the peasant suspicion of the man who is having a better time in the world—a suspicion grounded, like the foregoing, partly upon undisguised envy and partly upon archaic and barbaric religious taboos. The whole history of the United States is a history of these three ideas. There has never been an issue before the people that could not be translated into one or another of them. 

Here is a golden opportunity for other investigators: I often wonder that the field is so little explored. Why do otherwise sane men believe that they have immortal souls? What is the genesis of the American axiom that the fine arts are somehow unmanly? What is the precise machinery of the process called falling in love? Why do people believe newspapers?

-Adapted from PREJUDICES: FIRST SERIES, 1919.

2 thoughts on “​H.L. Mencken: The genealogy of etiquette

  1. I mean no disrespect, but I feel an urgent need to set the record straight about H. L. Mencken.

    While he was a clever and witty writer for many years who had a large following in the United States for decades and used his intellect to uncover some hypocrisies in mainstream thought, he also was a person of low morals. Even while alive hatefulness came through in his work, but was ignored while his clever observations were highlighted by journalists who admired him. Any doubt of the validity of this assessment is eliminated by the diary of over 2,000 pages he kept that was released to the public in 1989.

    H.L. Mencken was racist: ” . . . it is impossible to talk anything resembling discretion or judgment to a colored woman. They are all essentially child-like, and even hard experience does not teach them anything.” (Written in Sep. 1943)

    He didn’t support the U.S. entering WWI or WWII, but that only appears to be the opinion of a compassionate, anti-war person when looked at simplistically. He publically supported the idea of militarism: “War is a good thing because it is honest, it admits the central fact of human nature… A nation too long at peace becomes a sort of gigantic old maid.”

    It’s reasonable to conclude that his lack of support to enter these wars and hold back the designs Germany and Japan had to conquer the planet was not only due to being anti-semitic, he actually was a Nazi sympathizer. During WWII when the Maryland Club he belonged to had decided against admitting any more Jewish members after the only one they has passed away, he wrote:

    “There is no other Jew in Baltimore who seems suitable.”

    He despised president Franklin D. Roosevelt (arguably one of the better in U.S. history) and vehemently argued against the “New Deal” legislation which brought millions of people out of poverty and created programs like Social Security. He felt that (as you touched on in this post) representative government (democracy) was not a good thing because it would allow inferior “men” to dominate policy instead of “men” of superior intellect. This is incredibly arrogant and would create a stronger caste system than we already have. He was also a fan (and possibly a friend) of Ayn Rand, a cruel hypocritical person who believed that there was a group of “supermen” who were superior to most and who deserved to be served by the masses as if they were gods. She is considered the “godmother” of Libertarianism.

    From the Los Angeles Times:

    “The previously secret diary of writer and social critic H. L. Mencken discloses virulent anti-Semitism, racism and pro-Nazi leanings, shocking even the sympathetic Mencken scholar who edited it.”

    There is more, but I believe I’ve made my point. When I first read quotes from him I believed him to be clever and wanted to know more. That was when I discovered the truth about him.

    I hope you take this information in the spirit in which it was given: to help you better understand him and be able to make a proper assessment of him as a person.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I understand. Thank you so much for the knowledge. I understand the spirit in which your argument is based. And I totally support that.
    However deluded or tainted the intellect of such men, I use the third eye to see the diamond in them bearing in mind all mankind has taints due to his adamancy to wake up from spiritual sleep. I love his individuality and sincerity since many men only repress their understanding of various phenomena and situations. Mencken is a brave man whose honest mind attracts my approbation of the good things he wrote. He surpasses many that I have met who on the surface appear to be fighting for truth but in reality they are not.

    I really appreciate your contribution.


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