Bitter Laughter

Mark Twain, c. 1907 (Library of Congress)
Humor and the politics of hate

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.

Historical context matters, of course. As Edmund Burke said, “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” Twain was born in 1835, and there was much that was detestable in the America of Tom Sawyer. Mencken, at the age of nine, read Huckleberry Finn and experienced a literary and intellectual awakening — “the most stupendous event in my life,” he called it — and followed a similar path. Both men were cranks: Twain with his premonitions and parapsychology, Mencken with his “Prejudices” and his evangelical atheism. He might have been referring to himself when he wrote: “There are men so philosophical that they can see humor in their own toothaches. But there has never lived a man so philosophical that he could see the toothache in his own humor.”

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.”

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In high school, I had a very left-wing American history teacher who was a teachers’-union activist (a very lonely position in Lubbock, Texas, where the existence of such unions was hardly acknowledged) for whom the entirety of the great American story was slavery, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, the Great Depression, and the momentary heroism of the New Deal (we were not far from New Deal, Texas), with the great arc of American history concluding on the steps of Central High School in Little Rock on September 23, 1957. It was, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, very important to her — plainly urgent to her — that the American story be one of disappointment, betrayal, and falling short of our founding ideals.

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.

#share#Mencken lived in horror of the American people, “who put the Hon. Warren Gamaliel Harding beside Friedrich Barbarossa and Charlemagne, and hold the Supreme Court to be directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and belong ardently to every Rotary Club, Ku Klux Klan, and anti-Saloon League, and choke with emotion when the band plays ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” Much of that horror was imaginary, and still is. But we must have horror, especially in politics. How else to justify present and familiar horror except but by reference to a greater horror? In this year’s election, each candidate’s partisans already have been reduced to making the argument that while their own candidate might be awful, the other candidate is literally akin to Adolf Hitler. Yesterday, I heard both from Clinton supporters and Trump supporters that the other one would usher in Third Reich U.S.A. “Don’t tell yourself that it can’t happen here,” one wrote.

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.

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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.

#related#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.


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