Book review of The American Credo by H.L. Menken.
There was a girl I knew from a perfectly bourgeois, conventional family in the suburbs. The mother was a high-school teacher. The father sold computers. One day her middle-aged parents, after years of dreaming about it, set off on a trip to America to visit Disneyland. Unfortunately, they were denied entry to the United States as the father was recorded in US security files as being ‘anti-American’.
It wasn’t a complete misunderstanding – turns out he’d thrown eggs at the touring LBJ during an anti-war demonstration in his university days – but it struck me as absurd to simply label someone with the rather broad term, ‘anti-American’. How can one be opposed to a whole country and its interests, especially one so large? One might be a citizen of a belligerent nation, but in a time of peace the word seems meaningless. Terrorist, sure. Criminal, okay. Troublemaking ratbag, fair enough. But ‘anti-American’? He wanted to see the Cinderella Castle!
But perhaps when applied to H.L. Menken, the label fits. He seems reflexively critical of Americans no matter how polite they are, how prosperous, or how much they achieve. At the very least, his security file ought to record that he has a bee in his bonnet about America.
Menken is a German-American whose books were oddly popular among his hosts. In The American Credo he posits that Americans, when you get down do it, want nothing more than to get ahead, to rise socially and economically, to improve their position in life. Most Americans would probably agree, but the sneering way he puts it makes this seem like a base, servile and unvirtuous approach to life. Auto mechanics dream of starting their own shop – vile! Farmers plan to buy more land and try new crops – horrid, uppity peasants! Teachers aim to become principals and superintendents – how lame! How petty! Those nasty little workers and craftsmen ought to make a decent, lofty living by writing, editing and reviewing, like I do! That seems about the gist of it.
And yet, he also makes some good points. He criticizes not just the first war against his homeland, but also the domestic, unconstitutional bites taken out of US freedoms the original Stupid War caused:
The really startling phenomenon of the war, indeed, was not the grotesque abolition of liberty in the name of liberty, but the failure of that usurpation to arouse anything approaching public indignation.
Those words make him sound like he’s channeling the ghost of Ben Franklin – and no one ever accused him of being anti-American.
Some criticisms equally apply today, and to all Western societies – even to Prussia’s inheritors:
Fashionable society in America . . . has no room for intelligence; within its fold an original idea is dangerous; it carries regimentation, in dress, in social customs and in political and even religious doctrines, to the last degree. In the American cities [it seems the flyover exception already existed by this time] the fashionable man or woman must . . . show the right political credulities and indignations . . .
The word ‘indignations’ hits the spot. Today these indignations continue to be required, but the causes and religions have shifted. In fact, keeping up with weekly shifts in indignation targets is part of how one demonstrates continuing membership of fashionable society, and missing a beat means defenestration. Perhaps the only real change is that social media has increased the rapidity with which our social betters are able to churn social trends and sift out the sinful dags who can’t keep up. Like fast fashion.
As for those defenestrations, he goes on:
The whole thinking of the country thus runs down the channel of mob emotion; there is no actual conflict of ideas, but only a succession of crazes. It is inconvenient to stand aloof from these crazes, and it is dangerous to oppose them. In no other country in the world is there so ferocious a short way with dissenters; in none other is it socially so costly to heed the inner voice and to be one’s own man.
Sound familiar? Keep in mind, the crazes he’s talking about are the Stupid War and Prohibition, not Gay Marriage and puberty-blockers for confused kids. As we say in Australia, ‘same shit, different bucket’. But again, is this just an American thing, and only a phenomenon of the last century or two? Let’s not forget the witch burnings, the Taiping Rebellion, the Tanzanian albino-eating, the Wise Latino Human Sacrifice frenzies, Communism, Fascism, or Tamagotchi. Face it, Henry: humans in all places, at all times, have been and ever will be a pack of hysterical nitwits. Flashes of cleverness here and there don’t change the rule. And the Germans, need it be said, can not be held up as some sort of a noble exception.
This comment is salient:
Idealism is not a passion in America, but a trade; all the salient idealists make a living at it, and some of them . . . are commonly believed to have amassed large fortunes.
Look at the intelligentsia of any side today, from Anne Coulter to Mike Moore. We continue to take it for granted that their beliefs are also their livelihood. And what does this internal feedback loop do to their beliefs? No doubt it pushes them towards more popular or more controversial opinions, ones that will raise the blood of their respective sheep and make books fly of digital shelves. And we don’t even question it – except, of course, for the dancing monkeys on the other side.
This is why I respect writers who apparently make little or no money out of their words, and who have real jobs outside of politics.
I guess the professional activists are like the modern equivalent of single-combat champions: we pay them in advance through our money, hero-worship and love, but become infuriated when they break their part of the deal and go off-script.
Indeed, Menken says of the public reaction to our professional opinion shapers:
Their influence reveals strikingly the readiness of the inferior American to accept ready-made opinions. He seems to be pathetically eager to be told what to think and he is apparently willing to accept any instructor who take the trouble to tackle him.
Let me tell you about two types of people towards whom I feel little more than contempt, or perhaps, in a more generous mood, irritated pity: one is the Mainstream Churchian who approves of the death penalty, opposes abortion and gay marriage, supports the troops, thinks trannies are crazy and disgusting, venerates the both the free market and federal agricultural subsidies, and likes country and western music. The other is the proselytizing atheist who opposes the death penalty, supports abortion and gay marriage, is officially anti-war, thinks trannies are Stunning and Brave, venerates both socialism and Apple, and likes hip-hop.
Do you see why? Entire tribes of people convert wholesale to these prefabricated belief sets without bothering to turn on their brains for a moment, kind of like how old King Vladimir converted his people to the Orthodox faith from on high.
I respect the man who belongs to Group 1 but who supports public health care, or a member of Group 2 who happens to think the US should update and expand its nuclear arsenal. Not because I necessarily agree with any of these beliefs, but purely because such unconventional mixes of political views demonstrate that the holder bears within his head the second-rarest and most precious thing in the world: original thought. (Number one is a new idea, but those only come up occasionally and cannot be expected even of the very intelligent. I think the last was the crypto-anarchist movement of the 1990s that led to WikiLeaks.)
Just wait ‘til you see the comments and NPCs say “B-b-but . . .” and then spout, word perfect, all the arguments for Group I or Group II in their respective totalities, thereby precisely missing the point of everything Henry and I just said. Sigh.
Thus the Boobus americanus is lead and watched over by zealous men, all of them highly skilled at training him in the way that he should think and act.
Nope, he’s misclassified a subspecies of Boobus sapiens.
The next part of that quote is more relevant to his own time than ours, but is so hugely entertaining that we shall hereby conclude with his cutting remarks:
The Constitution of his country guarantees that he shall be a free man and assumes that he is intelligent, but the laws and customs that have grown up under that Constitution give the lie to both the guarantee and the assumption. It is the fundamental theory of all the more recent American law, in fact, that the average citizen is half-witted, and hence not to be trusted to either his own devices or his own thoughts. If there were not regulation against the saloon (it seems to say) he would get drunk every day, dissipate his means, undermine his health and beggar his family. If there were not postal regulations as to his reading matter, he would divide his time between Bolshevist literature and pornographic literature and so become at once an anarchist and a guinea pig. If he were not forbidden under heavy penalties to cross a state line with a wench, he would be chronically unfaithful to his wife. Worse, if his daughter were not protected by statues of the most draconian severity, she would succumb to the first Italian she encountered, yield up her person to him, enroll herself upon his staff and go upon the streets. So runs the course of legislation in the land of freemen.