Monday, September 07, 2015

Mencken on political campaigns

I normally avoid quoting HL Mencken, mainly because it seems like such a bandwagon-ish thing to do, given that everyone else seems to enjoy quoting him (a bit like those who incessantly quote entries from Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary—oho, that Bierce fellow is so clever, tweedy humor and all!), but since I'm doing a research project at the Golden Goose that involves pulling extracts from old texts that will be the basis for an English textbook, I thought I'd quote this particular bit of Menquenian wisdom regarding the ridiculous nature of US political campaigns:

Turn, now, to politics. Consider…a campaign for the presidency. Would it be possible to imagine anything more uproariously idiotic—a deafening, nerve-wracking battle to the death between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Harlequin and Sganarelle, Gobbo and Dr. Cook—the unspeakable, with fearful snorts, gradually swallowing the inconceivable? I defy anyone to match it elsewhere on this earth. In other lands, at worst, there are at least intelligible issues, coherent ideas, salient personalities. Somebody says something, and somebody replies. But what did Harding say in 1920, and what did Cox reply? Who was Harding, anyhow, and who was Cox? Here, having perfected democracy, we lift the whole combat to symbolism, to transcendentalism, to metaphysics. Here we load a pair of palpably tin cannon with blank cartridges charged with talcum powder, and so let fly. Here one may howl over the show without any uneasy reminder that it is serious, and that someone may be hurt. I hold that this elevation of politics to the plane of undiluted comedy is peculiarly American, that no-where else on this disreputable ball has the art of the sham-battle been developed to such fineness.

"The unspeakable... gradually swallowing the inconceivable." With an unspeakably idiotic Donald Trump and an inconceivably corrupt Hillary Clinton as the current apparent front-runners in the presidential race, it feels almost as if Mencken were some sort of dark prophet. But he's not a prophet: he's simply tapped into something perennially and cyclically true about the farce that is American politics. Sound and fury—"fearful snorts"—indeed.


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