Tuesday, April 18, 2017

On "The Sage of Baltimore" - Someone read one of my old pieces and didn't like it

If you want to quote H. L. Mencken as some great paragon of wisdom I would suggest you go read him on science and, even more so mathematics.  The man was a massively ignorant boob whose writings on those topics, logic, as well, shows that he was an ignoramus fueled mostly by his hostility to religion and his own sense of crude, British style common sense, which, when things extended even a little past his uninformed understanding, turned to common stupidity.  Like an otherwise ignorant Brit, he liked Darwinism for it turning inequality into science and, most gratifyingly to the bigoted snob which Mencken was, the permission it gave him to believe he and those like him were superior to the large majority of humanity.  While not really knowing much about it or understanding it.   Hilariously, for the time he lived in, he derided the mathematics of probability which was essential for the advancement of science, but, then, he also expressed his disdain of math higher than arithmetic as a form of theology.  I would guess he didn't do well in beginning algebra or something. 

The man was an ass who was moderately gifted in cynicism and acid spitting.   He was, essentially, an educated yahoo. 

Update:  If he was the valedictorian of a technical school in Baltimore, it must have had a particularly weird curriculum. Among other things, Mencken condemned the use of mathematics in science, even physics.  I can't imagine what any physics or chemistry classes he took must have been like.  In this review of Eddington's The Nature of the Physical World and Man A Machine by Joseph Needham (which I haven't read, though I might, now), notice how, at every turn, his accusation has nothing to do with the science involved but centers around his characterization of every thing he dislikes as "theology," though I suspect like easily 95% of those who use the word as invective, he never read any.  

As a student of Darwin's inner circle, I find it fascinating that he holds out for Thomas Huxley as the great man of science while deriding mathematics, which that other central figure in the Darwin circle, Francis Galton, extended.  During the next decade after Mencken's idiotic piece was written, it was just that kind of mathematical approach that would lead to the neo-Darwinian synthesis that kept the creaky and constantly in need of patching theory of natural selection going.  

Mencken compares Huxley to the figures he disdains, Planck, Einstein, Eddington, etc.  I think largely because he could understand Huxley's narrative approach but, I suspect, most of all for the thing that Huxley is most often read for, today, his anti-religious invective.  I don't think that Mencken cared at all about science, like Huxley, he was a man deeply and totally enamored of the idea of inequality on the basis of race, ethnicity and class.  He hated democracy and, really, most people.  

I think what he hated the most about the second book by Needham is illustrative of something that is ubiquitious, today. 

… And Dr. Needham, who is a biochemist, closes a brilliant demonstration that the living organism is a machine and responsive to natural laws like any other, with the amazing confession that the mechanistic theory, in the last analysis, is only “a methodological fiction.”  

Given Mencken's disdain for mathematics (he calls it "theology," repeatedly) you have to wonder what he imagines "natural laws" to be expressed in.   Since he seems to have been stupid enough to not understand that discrepancy,  his inability to understand that since science can address nothing but physical aspects of anything, those things which are quantifiable are exactly the things that science addresses most successfully and so any scientific explanation will lead those ignorant of that fact to believe the methodological fiction mentioned.  

But, that's not what really bugged Mencken, it was the same thing I've confronted over and over again, what fuels the materialist, ideological motivation of so much of today's more dubious science, that any implication that there is more to living beings than that mechanical description can lead to something other than materialistic implications. 

He called his review "The Riddle of the Universe" also the name of a popular book by Darwin's closest continental friend and colleague,  Ernst Haeckel, a book in which he furthers his Drawinian assertion of materialist monism and its own implications that are genuinely proto-Nazi in character.  The book was translated with that title into English by the British celebrity atheist of his day, Joseph McCabe - more like Christopher Hitchens than Richard Dawkins - a book which was reprinted by the American atheist version of Regnery Books or Chick Publications, Prometheus, by the late Paul Kurtz.  

Given Mencken's darker side (he had only dark and darker, no light to him), his hatred of democracy, FDR, his opposition to American entry into WWII, some say his admiration for Nazism, the subsequent history of the magazine he founded, American Mercury, going through a gradual slide from his elitist ignorance to conservative to overt and total neo-Nazism (it's been revived by neo-Nazis as an online magazine) what might seem to be ironic in a publication which started out with intellectual intentions of, really, pretensions, isn't really very ironic, at all. 

That there was a major fad of quoting Mencken in the 1970s and after, as the United States was reverting to right-wing racism doesn't strike me as particularly surprising, in retrospect. 

1 comment:

  1. I have a favorite Mencken piece from the New Yorker, a collection of Christmas related works from that magazine's archives, that I still enjoy reading for the characters and the story it tells.

    As for Mencken's thoughts, I find just from that example that they don't wear well, and he comes across as no more enlightened than the people he mocks and derides in other works. There was a mania for his quotes, but the advantage to quotes is that, taken out of context, they can mean pretty much what we want them to mean.

    The one story I mentioned is fun, but I could do without it, too.