Every Decent Man Is Ashamed of the Government He Lives Under

H. L. Mencken (1880–1956) was a writer, journalist, cultural critic, and scholar of the English language. He was a prolific writer that explored just about every notable topic, including politics, government, literature, music, culture, art, and law. He is best known for the seminal three-volume The American Language, a comprehensive study of English as it developed in America, and for his reporting of the famous trial, The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (1925), which Mencken famously dubbed the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” Although not a household name, he is regarded as one of the most influential writers and cultural critics of 20th century America. In many reference works, Mencken is one of the most quoted authors, along with other respected names like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain.

Throughout his writing career, Mencken was extremely critical of representative government which sounded good on paper, but was horribly compromised in its implementation. Mencken believed that man, with all his flaws and vices, could not live up to the ideals of a democracy as envisioned by the classical philosophers. In his work, A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949), Mencken expressed it this way: “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”

Mencken’s observations about government and politicians are just as relevant today was they were in the early 1900s. Here are some of his keen observations that seem to be written as if could peer into the future, into the Trumpian world:

“All government is, in its essence, organized exploitation, and in virtually all of its existing forms it is the implacable enemy of every industrious and well-disposed man.

The storm center of lawlessness in every American State is the State Capitol. It is there that the worst crimes are committed; it is there that lawbreaking attains to the estate and dignity of a learned profession; it is there that contempt for the laws is engendered, fostered, and spread broadcast.

A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker.

The theory behind representative government is that superior men — or at least men not inferior to the average in ability and integrity — are chosen to manage the public business, and that they carry on this work with reasonable intelligence and honest. There is little support for that theory in known facts.

Government is actually the worst failure of civilized man. There has never been a really good one, and even those that are most tolerable are arbitrary, criminal, grasping, and unintelligent.

The natural tendency of every government is to grow steadily worse-that is, to grow more satisfactory to those who constitute it and less satisfactory to those who support it.

The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naive and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.

The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself… Almost inevitably, he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable.”

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If you enjoyed this: I write at Atkins Bookshelf, the blog that explores the world of ideas — through books, movies, music, quotations, and the English language — for the intellectually curious. The goal of Bookshelf is to educate, entertain, and inspire. At the heart of Bookshelf is a lifelong love of books and literature. Join here: https://atkinsbookshelf.wordpress.com

President of Alexander Atkins Design, a leader in philanthropic graphic design for nonprofits & schools; author of Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf.

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