H.L. Mencken

What Do You Mean ‘We,’ White Man?

Photo of Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, 3 February 1956. Moore is riding Silver, while Silverheels is riding Scout. (Credit:  ABC Television)

Photo of Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, 3 February 1956. Moore is riding Silver, while Silverheels is riding Scout. (Credit: ABC Television)

The joke was old even before it appeared in print.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves surrounded by hostile Indians. The Ranger asks Tonto: “What are we going to do, Tonto?” To which Tonto replies: “What do you mean we, white man (or paleface, or kemo sabe, depending on the version)?” Its racist ancestry is undeniable: the joke partly evokes the picture of a feckless subordinate who will treacherously abandon his superior at the first sign of trouble—usually with the ethnic or social group to which the subordinate belongs. But even before 1956, ancient variants of the joke were meant to deflate the condescension of individuals who used the royal “we,” and the insulting presumption of people who assumed, for their own purposes, what they had no business assuming.

Perhaps because one becomes cantankerous with advancing age, I have increasingly resorted, in the last few years, to Tonto’s wise words to defend myself against the mind-bending onslaught of U.S. political rhetoric. (more…)

Clown Dynasty

Postcard photo of the main cast of Chicago's Bozo's Circus. From left: Ringmaster Ned (Ned Locke), Mr. Bob (bandleader Bob Trendler), Bozo (Bob Bell), Oliver O. Oliver (Ray Rayner), Sandy (Don Sandburg). (Credit: WGN-TV via Wikimedia Commons)

Postcard photo of the main cast of Chicago’s Bozo’s Circus. From left: Ringmaster Ned (Ned Locke), Mr. Bob (bandleader Bob Trendler), Bozo (Bob Bell), Oliver O. Oliver (Ray Rayner), Sandy (Don Sandburg). (Credit: WGN-TV via Wikimedia Commons)

We have had occasion in this this space (see “American Exceptionalism” post) to conjure up the name of H.L. Mencken, and to celebrate his insight on U.S. society: “Here in the very citadel of democracy, we found and cherish a clown dynasty!

We find that from the very beginning of the Republic, clowns have been an enduring element of our social fabric. Frederic Jackson Turner, in his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” relates that “backwoodsmen” from across the Alleghenies petitioned for statehood by advancing the following argument:

Some of our fellow-citizens may think we are not able to conduct our affairs and consult our interests; but if our society is rude, much wisdom is not necessary to supply our wants, and a fool can sometimes put on his clothes better than a wise man can do it for him.

This argument is based on faulty premises: 1) it assumes that the fool understands what “clothes” are; and 2) it assumes that the fool has learned the proper way of wearing clothes. “This forest philosophy,” Turner concludes “is the philosophy of American democracy.”

Truer words were never written. (more…)

Combative Patriotism

Patriotic Christmas light display in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA (photo by Pezow / Wikimedia Commons).

Patriotic Christmas light display in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA (Pezow / Wikimedia Commons).

The rush of patriotism. We’ve all seen it, perhaps even gotten caught up in it. It is a ritual of nationalism that enacts the story of America and the mythic vision of its special calling.

For many (perhaps most) who are U.S. citizens, there is something vital and irresistible, even right, about this public celebration of national identity, especially in times of crisis. Expressing pride of country brings us together, suggests a common past and shared purpose, reassures us that we will overcome adversity, that we are not alone in the face of danger.

Yet, the price we pay for this prideful rite is high. It makes us combative in our assertion of national identity. We define who we are as a people in opposition to an enemy. The rush of patriotism becomes an act of righteous indignation and polarization. It’s US against THEM—the United States vs. the World. It constitutes an attitude of war.

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American Exceptionalism

"Theodore Roosevelt, c. 1904" (1974), oil on canvas by Allyn Cox.  Spanish-American War hero Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, and during his two terms in office he worked vigorously to regulate big business, encourage conservation programs, and expand America's role in foreign affairs. The mural shows Roosevelt giving one of his characteristically enthusiastic speeches. Directly below him, journalist H.L. Mencken takes notes.

“Theodore Roosevelt, c. 1904” (1974), oil on canvas by Allyn Cox. Spanish-American War hero Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, and during his two terms in office he worked vigorously to regulate big business, encourage conservation programs, and expand America’s role in foreign affairs. The mural shows Roosevelt giving one of his characteristically enthusiastic speeches. Directly below him, journalist H.L. Mencken takes notes.

“What a state!”

So did my friend and colleague, an eminent education professor at the University of New Mexico, express her indignation over dinner at a Chinese restaurant. She was reacting to the infamous SB 1070 (“Papers, Please”) law that was approved by the Arizona Legislature and signed into law by the Arizona Governor. She was so outraged by the law, that whenever she traveled to Arizona (“strictly for business”) for her consulting work in Indian reservations, she loaded up with food, water, supplies and gas so as not to leave a penny of her hard-earned money behind. If her work required an overnight stay, she would drive to the border and room in New Mexico. She felt about my home state the way I feel about the city of Scottsdale—the last, most miserable, low-down honky-tonk shack next to the Gates of Hell.

Implied in her outburst was a recrimination: How can you live there?

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