Bryan Caplan  

Mencken's Appeasement

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I just learned that the great H.L. Mencken's Prejudices contains an eloquent plea for appeasement.  From Mencken's "Martyrs":

[I]t seems to me sheer vanity for any man to hold his religious views too firmly, or to submit to any inconvenience on account of them. It is far better, if they happen to offend, to conceal them discreetly, or to change them amiably as the delusions of the majority change. My own views in this department, being wholly skeptical and tolerant, are obnoxious to the subscribers to practically all other views; even atheists sometimes denounce me. At the moment, by an accident of American political history, these dissenters from my theology are forbidden to punish me for not agreeing with them. But at any succeeding moment some group or other among them may seize such power and proceed against me in the immemorial manner. If it ever happens, I give notice here and now that I shall get converted to their nonsense instantly, and so retire to safety with my right thumb laid against my nose and my fingers waving like wheat in the wind. I'd do it even to-day, if there were any practical advantage in it. Offer me a case of Rauenthaler 1903, and I engage to submit to baptism by any rite ever heard of, provided it does not expose my gothic nakedness. Make it ten cases, and I'll agree to be both baptized and confirmed. In such matters I am broad-minded. What, after all, is one more lie?
Notice: In a sense, Mencken's candor precludes him from undiluted appeasement.  If he ever recanted this essay in the face of persecution, he would be entirely true to its theme.  Fortunately, most persecutors are too illogical to grasp the absurdity.

HT: The excellent Shanu Athiparambath



COMMENTS (13 to date)
Tracy W writes:

A very refreshing view.

RPLong writes:

All I see is a man who lacks conviction. But I am already extremely biased against Mencken for his vile and shameful views on race. If there are lessons of personal conduct to be learned, they won't be learned from a man who couldn't see past the melanin content of a person's skin. Why the libertarian blogo-sphere insists on perpetuating its love affair with this man is absolutely beyond me. Even a pariah like Ayn Rand came out squarely against racism.

"What, after all, is one more lie?", Mencken.

Trade requires a degree of trust, if I am not mistaken. So a society which has grown wealthy because of specialization and trade can lose its foundation of trust, one lie at a time.

Surely there are other quotes from Mencken where he sounds honorable, admirable.

cassander writes:

RPLong, If you condemn mencken for those views, you must also condemn just about everyone who wrote before 1950, because virtually none of them would have disagreed with that statement.

RPLong writes:

cassander, nonsense. I can think of many: Frederick Douglass, WEB Dubois, Harriet Wilson, Langston Hughes, Alexandre Dumas, and so on.

What do you think those authors might teach us about appeasement?

David R. Henderson writes:

Bryan,
I don’t believe you and I’m glad that I think too much of you to believe you.
Here’s why:
Since you quote Mencken approvingly and do not appear to dissent even from his view that he would willing to change his behavior if he receives a small bribe, what would be your price for disowning your views on immigration?
I’m reasonably sure that the price is high, so high as to be irrelevant.

jonny957 writes:

RPLong, I encourage you to throw out the bath water, but not the baby. Aristotle wrote longingly of the benefits of slavery. That does not mean that he has provided us with nothing of value.

Our seeming disagreement suggests to me that there is another dimension. We should consider the nature of the associations within which we speak. This may decide whether we tell the truth, or lie.

Voluntary Associations
Each of us has, I suppose, some circles-of-association within which we need mutual trust. In these circles we are naturally reluctant to lie.

Coercive Associations
But each of us commonly finds himself expected to feign fealty in other circles-of-association, circles in which we are deemed members only because of coercion or strong and unsympathetic negotiation. In such circles most humans feel more free to lie, unless I am mistaken. Mencken's example is one of these circles. I have added emphasis.

At the moment, by an accident of American political history, these dissenters from my theology are forbidden to punish me for not agreeing with them. But at any succeeding moment some group or other among them may seize such power and proceed against me in the immemorial manner.
I expect libertarians will recognize politics (coercion) in Mencken's example. So Mencken's lie would be something like a confession extracted through torture.

I do not see that Mencken implies he would lie in a voluntary association, in an honest free-market negotiation. So I am amending what I said in my first comment above; there I took Mencken's "one more lie" out of its political context.

mutant_dog writes:

Contrast this view of belief with the famous "Pascal's Wager" ("defi" in french). For Pascal, one ought to believe, despite an unestimateable a priori likelihood of that belief being true, since the payoff promised - eternal bliss - is of far more value than whatever the believer's could cost.

I'm reminded of elementary playground logic 101:
Nothing is better than eternal bliss.
But, a ham sandwich is better that nothing.
Therefore.. aw, you can work the syllogism yourself.

Thanks for the Mencken citation.

concerned cynic writes:

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Tracy W writes:

RPLong: there's no one group that has a monopoly on wisdom. One can thoroughly disparage a person's views on one topic, and still learn from them on others. I'm reminded of how apparently anti-smoking campaigns were retarded by their association with the Nazis.

Refusing to consider that possibility is dangerously arrogant.

RPLong writes:

Tracy W, racism isn't a "view on one topic." If I know that someone is a racist, then I have important insight into that person's ability to think rationally in general. Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom, and a stopped clock is right twice a day. Even so, I prefer to take my wisdom from adults and my time from functional time pieces. If this seems "dangerously arrogant" to you, I can only laugh.

Mack S writes:

@RPLong - Odd argument. You say Mencken's views are vile and shameful, which sounds like a moral argument against them rather than a rebuttal. Now you say it's okay to dismiss Mencken in general because those views were so irrational as to destroy his credibility in other areas.

Yet you haven't said which views you're talking about or why they're supposed to be so obviously irrational.

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