Mencken, Islam, and Political Correctness
I’d like to share a great article written by Edward Cline, a Facebook friend and an admirer of philosopher Ayn Rand. Here’s a very short bio of Mr. Cline from Capitalism Magazine: Edward Cline is a novelist who has written on the revolutionary war period. He is author of the Sparrowhawk series of novels set in England and Virginia in the Revolutionary period, the detective novel First Prize, the suspense novel Whisper the Guns, and of numerous published articles, book reviews and essays.
He wrote this article which was first posted on The Rule of Reason on January 21, 2010.
Mencken, Islam, and Political Correctness
Two months after the John Scopes “monkey” trial of July 1925, H.L. Mencken, writing for the Baltimore Evening Sun, took to
task two prominent publications, the New York World and the New Republic, for castigating Clarence Darrow, chief defense counsel of Scopes, over his conduct during the trial. The World was infuriated by Darrow’s brutal cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan, the state’s star counsel against Scopes, an experience which humiliated Bryan and is thought to have contributed to his death later that same month. The New Republic objected to Darrow having made the issue of evolution vs. the Bible a national, rather than merely a local one, even though the trial was broadcast on radio.
What drew Mencken’s ire was the World’s position that one’s religious beliefs, should be respected and not subjected to criticism or satire.
Once more…I find myself unable to follow the best Liberal thought. What the World’s contention amounts to, at bottom, is simply the doctrine that a man engaged in combat with superstition should be very polite to superstition. This, I fear, is nonsense. The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame….True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force….*
Mencken, an agnostic — “Myself completely neutral in theology, and long ago resigned to damnation” — practiced what he preached. No religion was safe from his biting wit and unbridled contempt. He was an uncompromising enemy of blind belief in assertions, especially religious ones, that contradicted evidence and reason. When they showed their heads, he picked them off with all the skill of Alvin York picking off German soldiers during World War I. Mencken was an intellectual marksman.
Two things about the Scopes trial are noteworthy. First, Mencken wrote that Scopes should have been charged with teaching evolution in defiance of Tennessee’s ban. He argued that since Scopes (actually a high school gym teacher filling in for another teacher) was an employee of the public school, he should have obeyed the ban and the school‘s directives. The second thing is that the trial was intended to be a deliberate test of the state’s constitutional authority to impose such a ban, orchestrated by a businessman, George W. Rappleyea, as a means of boosting the fortunes of Dayton, where Scopes lived and taught. Scopes agreed with Rappleyea to discuss evolution in his classroom and to persuade students to report him to the authorities, and even volunteer as witnesses against him.
The state, Bryan, and other religionists took the bait.
Darrow, at the trial (working on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union), changed his strategy from one of defending Scopes’ and any other teacher’s right to teach evolution as a form of freedom of speech — the irony was that evolution was explained in the state-mandated textbook used by Scopes — to one of casting doubt on the veracity of the Bible. Bryan, a Presbyterian Fundamentalist, insisted that the Bible should be accepted as the literal truth, recorded verbatim by its saintly scribes as the word of God himself, regardless of evidence and reason.
Mencken covered the trial for the Evening Sun. Although Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution (and was fined $100, which penalty was overturned by the state’s supreme court), Mencken applauded the airing of the conflict between science and religion. If any men deserved respect, he wrote, it should be the men of science who had expanded man’s knowledge of the universe and contributed to everyone’s well-being, and not the beliefs of those who reject the evidence of their senses in favor of the unprovable. He reserved a poignant disgust with men of science who upheld any brand of religion, and wasted no politeness on them.
What is there in religion that completely flabbergasts the wits of those who believe in it? I see no logical necessary for that flabbergasting. Religion, after all, is nothing but an hypothesis framed to account for what is evidentially unaccounted for. In other fields, such hypotheses are common, and yet they do no apparent damage to those who incline to them. But in the religious field they quickly rush the believer to the intellectual Bad Lands. He not only becomes anaesthetic to objective fact; he becomes a violent enemy of objective fact. It annoys and irritates him. He sweeps it away as something somehow evil.**
Mencken might have been less confounded by the appeal of religion, especially among prominent men of the mind, had he examined more closely the role of religion as a morality and not exclusively as a transparent hash of absurdities, whether in the Bible or in practice. To my knowledge, he never took that approach. So he remained an intellectual marksman, never becoming a general able to direct the battle against superstition, mysticism, and other brands of anti-intellectualism. He never solved the paradox of the power of belief to anaesthetize that part of the minds of otherwise rational men, the part which requires a morality by which to conduct one’s life, and render it reason-proof against all logic and evidence. (That task remained to be achieved by one of his admirers, Ayn Rand.)
That being said, Mencken would have found the whole phenomenon of modern political correctness intolerable, inexhaustibly amusing, perhaps even perilous. He was vehemently opposed to any suggestion that he be told what to think and what to write. Doubtless he would have excoriated those who claim that Islam should be respected and that Muslims be exempted from criticism or mockery of their creed, and lambasted the politically-correct as well as Islam and its practitioners. As he was able to, in his own time, cite chapter and verse of the Bible, he would have mastered the Koran and Hadith in order to expound on their irrational and heinous character.