Saturday, July 28, 2012

Homage to H. L. Mencken

I've been reading the series of articles, or columns, or editorials the Sage of Baltimore wrote for The Baltimore Evening Sun regarding the Scopes trial.  They evoke admiration and wonder--admiration for the author, wonder that so little has changed in our great land since 1925.

They're part of a book of his works graced by an Introduction written by Gore Vidal, another formidable writer, written it appears during the administration of the second Bush.  Vidal admires Mencken as well, which is no small thing as Vidal is generally sparing in his praise.  That admiration is not unqualified, however, and neither is mine.

Mencken is a joy to read, though he had his faults.  One of them in my opinion was his fondness for Nietzsche, and he was somewhat less a fan of democracy than I am (which is not unexpected given his fondness for Nietzsche) and of women.  But he always wrote well, wittily and intelligently which is a marvelous thing in a journalist, regarding a vast variety of topics.  One can't help but compare him with the journalists of today, and sigh.

He wrote wittily and intelligently regarding the Scopes trial, but didn't try to hide his "bias" in favor of the defense (one of the things Vidal writes of in his Introduction is the grim and ever increasing tendency of critics of thought in these dark days to ferret out any hint of bias in speech and the written word).  He is particularly hard on William Jennings Bryan (the "old mountebank" as he refers to him).  He heaps disdain upon him, an old, spent force at the time, though it is hard not to understand why given his declamation that humans are not mammals and the other antics he and the proponents of the prosecution engaged in throughout those hot summer days in Dayton, Tennessee.

If Mencken's version of events is correct, even accounting for witty exaggeration, the proceedings were indeed farcical.  The lawyers of the local bar, and even of Tennessee generally, don't come out looking particularly well (not to mention the presiding Judge), nor do the politicians of the state.  All are either in fear of or in thrall to those who took Genesis literally and expected others to do so as well.  Mencken was, of course, a notorious freethinker.  He describes visiting a kind of revival or tent show at night in which the zealous spoke in tongues.  In those far off times when I was in high school, I visited a gathering of Pentecostals in which tongues were spoken, and I was disturbingly reminded of the experience as I read what Mencken describes as a "religious orgy."  What I attended was not nearly as riotous as the event he witnessed, but it was oddly frightening in its own way.  Some people spoke what seemed gibberish and others translated it into unsurprisingly biblical sounding English.

Mencken was a pessimist, but he indulged in a bit of optimism writing at the end of the proceedings.  He felt the scorn with which Tennessee was apparently treated as a result of the trial would ultimately lead it to become more enlightened as he would have it.  I wonder what he would feel, and write, now as Tennessee adopted anti-evolution legislation of a somewhat more sophisticated kind in 2011.

He might be inclined to speculate on just what it is that drives certain Americans (and only Americans, it seems) to legislate against the teaching of science in their schools, or more precisely the teaching of any theory which appears to be contrary to treasured religious beliefs.  The Catholic Church doesn't indulge in this fantastic limitation on thought any longer, so it would appear to be a kind of function of American Protestantism.  Presumably, such legislation is motivated by fear that the young will become in some fashion irreligious as a result of the teaching of evolution.  But religion need not be inconsistent with evolution, or science.  Only particular kinds of religion have much to fear from them.

Will there be similar laws in the next century, here in our great Republic?

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