The great American humorists have something in common: hatred.
H. L. Mencken and Mark Twain both could be uproariously funny and charming — and Twain could be tender from time to time, though Mencken could not or would not — but at the bottom of each man’s deep well of humor was a brackish and sour reserve of hatred, for this country, for its institutions, and for its people. Neither man could forgive Americans for being provincial, backward, bigoted, anti-intellectual, floridly religious, or for any of the other real or imagined defects located in the American character.
The debunking mentality is prevalent in both men’s writing, a genuine fervor to knock the United States and its people down a peg or two. For Twain, America was slavery and the oppression of African Americans. For Mencken, the representative American experience was the Scopes trial, with its greasy Christian fundamentalists and arguments designed to appeal to the “prehensile moron,” his description of the typical American farmer. The debunking mind is typical of the American Left, which feels itself compelled to rewrite every episode in history in such a way as to put black hats on the heads of any and all American heroes: Jefferson? Slave-owning rapist. Lincoln? Not really all that enlightened on race. Saving the world from the Nazis? Sure, but what about the internment of the Japanese? Etc. “It was wonderful to find America,” Twain wrote. “But it would have been more wonderful to miss it.”
Much of this phenomenon isn’t about how one sees society but how one sees one’s self. Literary men invent literary characters, and very often the first and most important literary character a writer invents is himself. Samuel Clemens cared a great deal more about money and the friendship of titled nobility than Mark Twain ever would, and Mencken was in real life subject to the sort of crude superstitions and pseudoscience that Mencken the public figure would have mocked. The great modern example of this was Molly Ivins, a California native raised in a mansion in the tony Houston neighborhood of River Oaks, who liked to take her private-school friends sailing on her oil-executive father’s yacht, who somehow managed to acquire a ridiculous “Texas” accent found nowhere in Texas and reinvent herself as a backporch-sittin’ champion of the common man, a redneck liberal.
The chief interest of Molly Ivins’s writing about Texas is that it demonstrates how little she actually understood the state, or the Union to which it belongs. As with Twain and Mencken, Ivins’s America would always be backward and corrupt, with Washington run by bribe-paying lobbyists (a lazy writer, she inevitably referred to them as “lobsters” — having thought that funny once, she made a habit of it) and a motley collection of fools and miscreants either too feeble or too greedy to do the right thing, defined as whatever was moving Molly Ivins at any particular moment.
Each candidate’s partisans make the argument that while their own candidate might be awful, the other candidate is literally akin to Adolf Hitler.
A nation needs its Twains and Menckens. (We could have got by without Molly Ivins.) The excrement and sentimentality piles up high and thick in a democratic society, and it’s sometimes easier to burn it away rather than try to shovel it. But they are only counterpoints: They cannot be the leading voice, or the dominant spirit of the age. That is because this is a republic, and in a republic, a politics based on one half of the population hating the other half is a politics that loses even if it wins. The same holds true for one that relies on half of us seeing the other half as useless, wicked, moronic, deluded, or “prehensile morons.” (I know, I know, and you can save your keystrokes: I myself am not running for office.) If you happen to be Mark Twain, that sort of thing is good for a laugh, and maybe for more than a laugh. But it isn’t enough. “We must not be enemies,” President Lincoln declared, and he saw the republic through a good deal worse than weak GDP growth and the sack of a Libyan consulate.
The better angels of our nature have not deserted us. It is closer to the truth that we have failed them, and the impossible situation of 2016 — a choice between two kinds of corrupt, self-serving megalomaniacs — is only the lesion that denotes a deeper infection. There is no national vice-principal’s office or confessional into which we can drag ourselves and shame-facedly admit that we messed up, say that we’re very sorry, and promise to do better next time. But we must nonetheless admit that we messed up, say that we’re very sorry, and promise to do better next time. And there will be a next time, irrespective of the hysterical ninnies who insist that if this election does not go their way, then this is the end of the nation.There’s work in that. Hating the Other One and all affiliated partisans will not do. Between the caustic skepticism of H. L. Mencken and the mass-produced, sentimental, plastic-wrapped patriotism of the American civil religion in its foursquare expression there exists space for serious, reflective, clear-eyed citizenship that accounts for both the lovely and the unlovely, for both Bull Connor and the patriots at Valley Forge. Election Day is November 8. There are 364 other days in the year, and we owe them a civic duty, too, a larger and more significant one.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.