Henry Louis Mencken was a penetrating writer, who represented the crux of the journalism of America. Then, a philosophical analysis of his work will be useful to understand that journalism. To do this, I have perused A Gang of Pecksniffs (1), which is a compendium of texts engaged against the hypocrisy of mediocre newspapermen. Our point d’appui could be this simple Kantian sentence: we can not know things in an objective manner. Our necessary representations a priori, like geometry and arithmetic, give a form and an order to the various data coming from the exterior world.
A beautiful image within our mind is simply a conjunct of objects arranged in accordance with the idea of space. Space is a geometric idea. This idea has several branches or derived concepts, such as position, proportion, form and extension. An interesting story in our memory is a mere conjunct of words representing objects organized under the idea of time. Time is an arithmetic idea and displays derived concepts, such as quantity, hierarchy, valour and duality. Objects and words, we must remember, chaotically fall above our minds. We can call this chaos “subjectivity”.
Well… the principal labor of a philosopher is to criticize that chaos. For instance, when we discover that a picture of war has been manipulated by the eye or interpretation of a journalist, and when we ascertain that a historic narration has been trimmed by the interest of a government, we are working for “objectivity”. But, as we said, the human mind is unable to know something with “objectivity”. Objectivity, thus, is a heuristic fiction.
On the other hand, it is possible to array information with logic (2). Our mind can not penetrate the essence of material things and thus is ignorant, in political questions, of the deeds perpetrated by politicians, who are the materialization of stupidity. If one is an honest thinker who seriously takes the described epistemology, then one must admit two affirmations of The Sage of Baltimore (Mencken), namely: “obvious” things regularly are “untrue” (3) and controversial matters have two “sides” (4).
An “obvious” fact is a singular, an accidental fact, and facts of this kind are so numerous, and a public, by mentally accumulating them, suffers a “psychic tumescence” (5). Between deeds without number, that is, showing a face of infinite, has a place either skepticism or the “paradise of credulity” (6). But a person affected by “psychic tumescence” needs beliefs. Therefore, the excess of information causes the said paradise. I have abridged, I think, the journalistic theory of Henry Louis Mencken.
This theory is connoted, I must say it again, among the pages of his book A Gang of Pecksniffs. If Mencken was a reader of Kant and an empiricist, since he was, above all, a Yank, then to say that “obvious” social deeds have two sides signifies that each important deed could be analyzed, firstly, from a logical perspective, and secondly from an experimental perspective. If a group of propositions is capable to cross logical proofs, and if by means of these proofs we can find between the deeds some physical or sociological law, then these propositions have worded objective tidings.
But how does a social deed appear like something “obvious”? By means of a confusion of sources of information. Mencken explains this conscious confusion, that is, the mechanism working behind the American journalistic industry. Mobs “running amuck” (7), or masses, or public, etc., receive “news” from various newspapers, which are manipulated by a “pressure group”, which, at the same time, is ruled by a government, or in better words, by the “official propaganda” (8) coming from a selected group of families.
Here and there, apparently, there is “no overt censorship” (9). Apparently each writer, institution, medium of communication or citizen can say whatsoever harangue. But this harmony betwixt Heaven and Earth is a mere illusion. A scientific book, today, is not a font of knowledge, but a pamphlet written by a politician disguised as a professor. The sacred perorations of the Church are not moral lections, but pro-exploitation fanfares. The masks, vaccines and confinements that nowadays we are suffering are not ordinances oriented towards our health, but useful subterfuges to maintain social control (10).
It is difficult, as we know, to criticize images, since they do not have, logically speaking, a point of departure, that is, a general premise applied above an object which permits us to knit inferences. The journalism of the age of Mencken was not one sustained by images, but by discourses. A paragraph is like an image when it is worded with “chain-store methods” (11).
Mencken mourns against those comrades that are “timorous” and “platitudinous” (12). They, he says, are not originally thinking, or in philosophical words, they are not producing texts by consciously adding “clear” signals, as Locke would say. They simply are gathering existing phrases, that is, thoughts of other people, to describe some new fact. Such writers, in sum, wasted “the superb plasticity and resilience of the English language” (13).
A ready-made phrase represents a conjunct of objects previously organized. How could any reader separate, between such obscure mental configurations, a general idea from an empirical concept? Journalism, to be honest, must applaud philosophical texts, which are those texts that clearly display in their structure a theory, an object and an inference (14).
The foregoing reflections brought us a paradox, with which we conclude this brief review: readers need objective articles to know the truth, but they are unable to read philosophical texts, which are the only works with some intellectual ammunition to linguistically undo the geometric lies of the aforementioned “pressure groups” and governments.
A ready-made phrase frequently comes from some sacred font, and examples of this are the Bible and the classic literary books (they are, for this, a “locus classicus”). The learned reader will remember this Borges’s verse: “Algún verso latino o sajón, que no es otra cosa que un hábito”. The “homo boobus”, as Mencken named the kind of reader we are describing, is an “undifferentiated” (15) being made of masses, and thus, he celebrates democracy, and above all justifies it by means of religion. A mind nourished by popular metaphysical dogmas is a place impaired by “sadism” (16). How could, so, the average reader abandon this linguistic game? Mencken does not give us a solution. In short, the book we have reviewed could receive another title: The art of stir the animals.-
1- Mencken, Henry Louis, A Gang of Pecksniffs. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House-Publishers, 1955.
2- The Kritik der reinen Vernunft says (“Vorrede zur zweiten Auflage”, B XII): “Sie begriffen, dass die Vernunft nur das einsieht, was sie selbst nach ihrem Entwurfe hervorbringt, dass sie mit Principien ihrer Urtheile nach beständigen Gesetzen vorangehen”.
3- P. 85.
4- P. 181.
5- P. 47.
6- P. 62.
7- P. 175.
8- P. 160.
10- I have demonstrated this in two articles written in Spanish: La ilegitimidad de las anticoronavirulentas ordenanzas políticas and Coronavirulentos tragediantes mitopoiéticos y estoicos impertinentes, both published in “El cotidiano” (Spain).
11- P. 133.
12- P. 57.
13- P. 88.
14- On the opposite side there are the articles with an excess of philosophy. Karl Kraus, with the light of Die Fackel, has attacked this kind of “flatus vocis”.
15- P. 64.
16- P. 59.