Book review of Prejudices by H.L. Menken
We previously looked at Menken’s withering attacks on US involvement in WWI, the lack of protest against wartime curbs on Constitutional freedoms, sheep-like political views and Prohibition.
In Prejudices, Menken goes into some of the underlying human traits that prompt such cruelty and stupidity. On the over-the-top violence committed against olde-time sinners – “saloon keepers, prostitutes, . . . believers in the Darwinian hypothesis, . . . adulterers”, he says:
. . . for to do injustice with impunity is a sign of power, and power is the thing that the inferior man always craves most violently.
My readers have no doubt already made the connection to the modern, ‘inferior men’ of the SJW mobs and their power-craving Twittering and shadowbanning of twenty-first century sinners: racists, sexists and freakophobes.
The eternal – I do not think ‘confirmed’ – bachelor Menken had the following to say about the natural condition of marriage. It matches my own observations and prejudices, but I would be interested in comments from men who actually are or have been married:
The truth is that, no matter how great the domestic concord and how lavish the sacrifices a man makes for his women-folk, they almost always regard him secretly as a silly and selfish fellow, and cherish the theory that it would be easily possible to improve him. This is because the essential interests of men and women are eternally antithetical. A man may yield over and over again, but in the long run he must occasionally look out for himself – and it is these occasions that his women-folk remember. The typical domestic situation shows a woman trying to induce a man to do something that he doesn’t want to do, or to refrain from something that he does want to do. This is true in his bachelor days, when his mother or his sister is his antagonist. It is pre-eminently true just before his marriage, when the girl who has marked him down is hard at the colossal job of overcoming his reluctance. And after marriage it is so true that there is hardly need to state it. One of the things every man discovers to his disquiet is that his wife, after the first play-acting is over, regards him essentially as his mother used to regard him – that is, as a self-worshiper who needs to be policed and an idiot who needs to be protected. The notion that women admire their men-folks is pure moonshine. The most they ever achieve in that direction is to pity them. When a woman genuinely loves a man it is a sign that she regards him much as a healthy man regards a one-armed and epileptic soldier.
He goes on and on about marriage and I find it hilarious, and I am presently using all my limited willpower not to quote thousands of his words here. Please, my married betters, read it for yourselves and tell me what you think.
Getting back to his habitual attacks on his adopted home, Menken shares some harsh views on democracy. After stating that Andrew Jackson broke down the Constitutional fence standing between the republic and mob rule in 1825, he goes on to say:
The only way to success in American public life lies in flattering and kowtowing to the mob. A candidate for office, even the highest, must either adopt its current manias en bloc, or convince it hypocritically that he has done so, while cherishing reservations in petto.
I agree, and this is why I would discourage any friend from getting involved in politics. One must either be an idiot, pretend to be an idiot, or lose. And plenty of candidates pretend hard to be idiots and lose anyway.
So far in this review and the last I have broadly supported Menken’s attacks on America, and have only protested that they might equally be aimed at the West or at humanity as a whole. But it seems that the frustration of WWI, the Treaty of Versais, Prohibition and wowserism in general finally made him snap, and at some point in the 1920s he seems to have completely turned against the United States and become unable to see its genuine strengths. Indeed at this point we might call him, as per his title, ‘prejudiced’. Take this, for example:
It seems to me quite certain, indeed, that an American army fairly representing the American people, if it ever meets another army of anything remotely resembling like strength, will be defeated, and that defeat will be indistinguishable from rout. I believe that, at any odds less than two to one, even the exhausted German army of 1918 would have defeated it, and in this view, I think, I am joined by many men whose military judgment is far better than mine – particularly by many French officers.
This might be true of the US army today, but at the time of writing he was only a generation away from 1945, when the US had won two colossal, simultaneous wars on opposite sides of the planet, developed the atomic bomb, and rewrote the world order such that it would dominate alone as Europe had once dominated collectively. And as for those French officers . . .
He calls industry in the US “wasteful and chaotic”, shortly before it built what would become the largest economy that ever was.
Perhaps Menken gets furthest from the truth when he claims that Americans are useless because they are made up of the worst stock of Europe. All the losers who couldn’t get by in the Old World – the worst Norwegians, the worst Jews, the worst Irish, the worst Italians etc. – are the ones who emigrated. Those who stayed behind were the super awesome ones, which is perhaps why Europeans were by then even more superior to Americans than they were in the 1700s.
This is close to the exact opposite of the truth. The healthiest, most go-getting Europeans were often the ones to escape oppression, discrimination or overcrowded countries in order to try their luck in America. And – a fact too often forgotten today – there was no welfare back then. You know what that means? The ones who were unsuccessful in America, or who just didn’t like it, went home. Many did – perhaps a third. As with his comments on the US military, his thoughts on immigration might be true today but were not true of his time. He foretold the future but did not realize that did so.
I sometimes cop it here for making anti-American jibes, especially because most of my readers are Americans. This is something we Australians do. After all, there’s plenty to mock: Americans are so earnest, so credulous, so often impervious to the most audacious irony, and often so ignorant that they bring a smile to one’s face. Like when we tell them our kids ride kangaroos to school. Just one example shall suffice to illustrate: a college-educated colleague was amazed to hear that Australia had participated in the Vietnam War, and that five hundred of our men had died there. And then she asked . . . which side we were on.
But Americans, being much politer and more straightforward than we are, sometimes mistake tomfoolery and laughing at our differences for actual dislike. Why would be dislike you? The US rescued Australia from the Japanese and continues to underwrite the security of Asia’s white tribe. The US was formerly our largest trading partner and the important economic relationship continues. Much of our law, culture, research, business, diplomacy and media are tied in to the US system. And anyway, culturally and (once) genetically, Americans are our cousins. Surely we can stir our own cousins in a good-natured way.
If I were genuinely anti-American I would revel in the current decline. In fact, genuine anti-Americans like the Arabs and the Chinese are presently doing just that. Not me. I’m afraid that the West’s rich uncle is now becoming guilty of the worst, most unfair accusations that Menken leveled, and that’s bad news for all of us. With a decline in US prestige, how can the rest of the free world maintain its security, its independence, its values – its whole technological and political progress towards what we thought was going to be a glorious future? I fear that the answer is, we are doomed.
But be proud of what you achieved during your peak, America: hold your heads high, live well, and leave a beautiful corpse.