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A Bark That Had Bite


Why is Henry Louis Mencken, the most prolific, acerbic and influential journalist of the 20th century, who died 50 years ago last week, still quoted so often in the press and now on the World Wide Web?

Like a mere handful of other deceased American critics, Mencken continues to enjoy the status of a celebrity, that exalted individual whom Mencken once defined as "one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn't know." Like another Baltimorean, Babe Ruth, Mencken did not need a press agent. He knew that "the number one rule of American psychology" was to "give a good show in order to get a crowd."

Of far more value than the random quoted quip is Mencken's commitment above all else to the free expression of ideas, no matter how controversial and unpopular. It has become even more pertinent in an America under siege from governmental intimidation, manipulation and erosion of civil liberties and the Bill of Rights.

Liberals and academics, who once damned Mencken for his racial and ethnic positions published in his Diary in 1989, now embrace the views for which he risked jail and fought all his life: free speech and justice for blacks and whites alike. For all of his printed slurs against blacks and Jews, his personal life was replete with evidence of his efforts to advance their condition and in many cases their literary aspirations. He published and promoted the work of Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson when no other white editor was doing so.

Republicans who once embraced Mencken for his sharp criticism of Franklin D. Roosevelt are obliged to cringe at the merciless Mencken quote now flashing across the Internet in the current context: "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."

Today, Mencken's prescient take on culture, politicians and the role of the press rings ever more true as Americans grapple with the same issues of his heyday. Bloggers have imitated Mencken's independent attitude while often failing to adhere to his relentless loyalty to facts (half the time misquoting him). If only more of Mencken's heirs in the press would take a cue from him now.

Mencken's skepticism is especially relevant in today's debate over intelligent design, the latest version of the anti-Darwinian debate that Mencken famously skewered in his coverage of the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial." The sensational case became the focus of the world - as well as a cause of ridicule. Long after the trial, Mencken knew the argument over the separation of church and state would continue. "Heave an egg out of a Pullman window," Mencken observed, "and you will hit a fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today."

As the scourge of Puritanism in America, he would have infuriated today's red-state Americans with his definition: "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." So would his interpretation of the Bill of Rights as a sacred document setting up clear lines against government intrusion. Whenever books were pulled from library shelves, Americans hauled off to jail without a hearing, or those of color denied basic rights, Mencken went into battle. "We have got to fight," famed lawyer Clarence Darrow encouraged him, "and you are the best fighter I know."

Mencken's fight against censorship, an issue in which the whole press had a stake, was not always recognized by his colleagues. A majority of journalists accused Mencken of being a publicity hound, or worse, as a German-American, "alien" to America. Nor were they always appreciative of Mencken's championing of individual rights at a time when political protest had been driven underground, when the language of fear ruled the land, and the principle aim of the executive branch, as Mencken put it, seemed hell-bent on "throwing the plain people into a panic."

Rather than conform, Mencken looked beyond his own political and economic beliefs and judged problems on principle rather than ideology. Though he did not share the views of the anarchists Eugene Debs or Emma Goldman, he opposed their jailing and wrote forcefully on their behalf.

When the superpatriots shifted their focus from radicals to immigrants, Mencken heralded their contributions to America, from their exotic food to their colorful language. In the face of the Ku Klux Klan, he was one of the few voices protesting racial injustice, risking death threats by joining with the NAACP to testify in support of anti-lynching legislation.

Long before the civil rights movement gained popularity among whites, Mencken was labeled "a nigger lover" for writing columns in this newspaper against segregation. The man who initially failed to recognize the threat posed by Hitler later went against the prevailing opinion and fellow journalists such as Walter Lippmann by urging Roosevelt to open America's gates to Germany's Jewish refugees. "We didn't remember anything about the Bill of Rights," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "until Mencken began plugging it."

Yet Mencken knew that even in a democracy the media could fail to do their job, that opinion could be manipulated and newspapers could distort the news - or fail to report it. Few newspapermen, Mencken thought, say what they believe, freely and frankly; they always try to find out what will be well-received. "This may be prudent, but it is bad journalism."

Nor did Mencken approve of the press getting cozy with politicians. Its role, he said, is "to keep a wary eye on the gentlemen who run this great nation, and only too often slip into the assumption that they own it."

It is a valuable quote for members of the press to remember, such as prizewinning journalists Bob Woodward and Judith Miller, who, in the words of author Todd Gitlin, "willingly surrendered to power." For a reporter especially, Mencken said, it was crucial to remember one's objectivity in times of war. "No one, in such times, ever praises the man who seeks to restore the national thinking to a reasonable sanity," Mencken stated. "On the contrary, he is regarded as a shabby and evil fellow."

When Roosevelt began to overreach, broadening his executive powers by using the Justice Department and Supreme Court to sanction the wiretapping of labor unions, radical political groups, civil rights organizations and individuals, Mencken railed against the press for being "too stupid to penetrate the fraudulencies by which they are surrounded." Such timidity in the face of governmental interference and intimidation made journalism, Mencken said, a profession of "public office seekers, title hunters, social pushers, dollar diddlers, mountebanks and cads."

Few journalists remain such a joy to read. In the preposterous age in which we live, hearing "media personalities parrot partisan talking points," the Boston Globe recently noted, "a visit with Mencken is a seidel of cold pilsner on a hot day."

Pretenders of Mencken's style merely mimic the Mencken sarcasm without conveying the Mencken wisdom or breadth of scholarship. Mencken's ideas are notable for their native shrewdness and sound common sense. He not only made his readers laugh; he made them question - and think. Some called him a maniac. Others said worse. But few could remain indifferent.

What remains is the satirist of devastating independence and ferocity. Mencken once remarked that "Mark Twain, dead, promises to stir up the animals even more joyously than Mark Twain, living." Half a century after Mencken's death, the same could be same of him.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of "Mencken: The American Iconoclast," published by Oxford University Press.

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