Thursday, January 14, 2016

ON THE AVENUES: Should the Queen fail to rescue us, there's always H. L. Mencken.

ON THE AVENUES: Should the Queen fail to rescue us, there's always H. L. Mencken.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

Last autumn an American wrote to the Queen of England, requesting that she take back the colonies in the event of a Donald Trump presidency.

The office of Elizabeth II actually made a reply, politely noting that it isn’t her habit to interfere in the affairs of sovereign states, something that might come as a shock to Argentina and Iraq, to name just two.

Inevitably, this real-life exchange morphed into a satirical Internet rendering of the Queen’s earnest promise to intervene, which immediately metastasized into widespread on-line gullibility, necessitating a rebuttal by Snopes.

By the time Snopes was finished snooping, hundreds of thousands of Americans were equating Englishness with ISIS-ness, and rushing fully armed (and uninsured) to our border with Canada, since almost none of them grasp that one cannot drive to London from Mississippi.

Perhaps I’m the only observer who made a cup of black tea with milk, inserted Oasis’ “Definitely Maybe” into the CD player, sat on my divan, and started thinking about what a fine idea it would be for the United States to resume colonial status.

Knowing this action is unlikely does not diminish the pleasure of daydreaming, and after all, there’s another way.

This occurred to me last week, while watching an old BBC documentary about the life of the poet T. S. Eliot, who was born into a factory-owning family in St. Louis, but got better.

(Eliot) immigrated to England in 1914 at age 25, settling, working and marrying there. He was eventually naturalized as a British subject in 1927 at age 39, renouncing his American citizenship.

My knowledge of Eliot’s life is far too scant to venture an opinion as to why being a mere expatriate was insufficient. However, this passage from his poem “Little Gidding” resonates.

What we call the beginning is often the end.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

As non-native Americans, we came to the United States from a variety of places, reflecting myriad circumstances. Obviously, the journey of an African slave was far different from that of my German ancestors.

Still, it can be asserted that as violent, incomplete and messy as the American experiment has been, and in spite of the utterances of the many under-educated dullards currently dotting our degraded landscape, the ultimate point remains: We, as Americans, agree to a contract stipulating our citizenship not through ethnic, religious or financial litmus tests, but by acceptance of certain points of governmental order, as expressed in the Constitution.

In turn, whatever their merits, these points of governmental order arose as post-traumatic manifestations of our colonial experience. Many of them were borrowed from the British. Others were intended as revolutionary improvements. Some were smudged and fudged, requiring adjustments further down the line – as with the American Civil War.

In my view, there has tended to be a measure of hypocrisy with regard to American citizenship. Almost from the beginning, those already established here have tended to divide the planet’s human population into reputable and unsavory potential arrivals, seeking to welcome the former and prohibit the latter.

As it pertains to those fortunate enough to be accepted, we see nothing unusual about their renunciation of citizenship, and in fact celebrate their good taste in domiciles.

However, I suspect an American like Eliot, who chose to reject Ronald Reagan’s shining city on a hill and become a citizen of the former colonial overlord, was regarded as a turncoat or traitor.

It has been 240 years, but to me this notion of an American choosing to be British is the most profound conversion of all, far outweighing “born again” religious embraces, precisely because it symbolizes the discarding of a rote pledge of allegiance to a cloth flag, in favor of kneeling at the feet of pestiferous royalty.

In the end, or in the beginning, I suppose it depends on what the piece of cloth really stands for. At times these days, I wonder.

My wife’s mother was born in Plymouth, England. She married a man from Maine, and became an American citizen. If British law allowed her to reclaim a slice of citizenship, would she take it? If so, as her husband, would I? Could I abandon New Gahania for Yorkshire?

Our decision-making process would not be restricted to the glories of access to the European Union and the extended Commonwealth, although these factors are significant. Rather, it would address the opportunity to look Americanism squarely in the eye, and see who blinks first.

As with life itself, I wasn’t involved with the process of coming into existence. Leaving it is different. I have no plans to die or emigrate any time soon. But being an American can be very, very tiring.

Must we be so consistently proud to be enduringly stupid?


With the horror of a presidential election year about to be unleashed, the fabled American journalist, writer and social commentator H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) needs to be reincarnated.

The whole life of the inferior man, including especially his so-called thinking, is purely a biochemical process, and exactly comparable to what goes on in a barrel of cider.

Mencken is said to have celebrated the repeal of Prohibition by drinking a glass of cold water.

“My first in 13 years,” he succinctly explained.

H.L. Mencken, in full Henry Louis Mencken … controversialist, humorous journalist, and pungent critic of American life who powerfully influenced U.S. fiction through the 1920s … Mencken was probably the most influential American literary critic in the 1920s, and he often used his criticism as a point of departure to jab at various American social and cultural weaknesses.

Controversialist … now there’s a wonderful word, indeed. It may need to appear on my post-NABC business cards.

As a militant American of German ancestry, enduring a “dry” era brought about by the same religious zealots, health fascists, cultural terrorists and bubble-headed activists now inhabiting social media (and local health departments) nationwide, Mencken was not averse to the merits of the tall, cool one, and I could not agree more strongly.

Surely Mencken would take great delight in skewering a petty Hoosier politician by the name of Bill Davis, who until his providential resignation in 2014, habitually used his sinecure as chairman of the House’s public policy committee like a bully pulpit to denounce beverage alcohol, often “bottling” up sensible reforms by preventing their passage through committee to a full reading and vote.

Davis does not drink, and Mencken well understood the fatal implications of this bizarre condition.

Teetotalism does not make for human happiness; it makes for the dull, idiotic happiness of the barnyard. The men who do things in the world, the men worthy of admiration and imitation, are men constitutionally incapable of any such pecksniffian stupidity. Their ideal is not a safe life, but a full life; they do not try to follow the canary bird in a cage, but the eagle in the air. And in particular they do not flee from shadows and bugaboos. The alcohol myth is such a bugaboo. The sort of man it scares is the sort of man whose chief mark is that he is scared all the time.

Mencken was one of the earliest advocates of unrestricted bile as a means of ensuring equal opportunity, and he understood that common sense is remarkably uncommon.

All professional philosophers tend to assume that common sense means the mental habit of the common man. Nothing could be further from the mark. The common man is chiefly to be distinguished by his plentiful lack of common sense: he believes things on evidence that is too scanty, or that distorts the plain facts, or that is full of non-sequiturs. Common sense really involves making full use of all the demonstrable evidence and of nothing but the demonstrable evidence.

Hardly a week goes past without my pulling down a Mencken volume from the bookshelf in my home library and seeking brief consolation in a paragraph or three. The required dosage increases during times of jaundice.

Like now.

I keep reminding myself: History’s lessons provide as many reasons to be sanguine as depressed. Life is cyclical. The pendulum swings forever, first out, then back. One merely needs to be patient, and wait.

In point of fact, I’m perfectly content to bide my time.

Whether or not Trump wins, would the cottage in Cornwall be a better venue for heel-cooling than my present view of a moronic one-way street?


Recent columns:

January 7: ON THE AVENUES: You know, that time when Roger interviewed himself.

December 31: ON THE AVENUES: My 2015 in books and reading.

December 24: ON THE AVENUES: Fairytale of New Albania (2015 mashup).

December 17: ON THE AVENUES: Gin and tacos, and a maybe a doughnut, but only where feasible.

December 10: ON THE AVENUES: Truth, lies, music, and a trick of the Christmas tale (2015).

No comments: