THE premier American social critic of the first half of the 20th century was probably Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956). Certainly he was among the most prolific. In a career of almost 50 years, Mencken wrote more than 70 million words - many intended to expose hypocrisy, debunk received wisdom and take on all manner of sacred cows. Among his favorite targets were democracy, organized religion, Prohibition, marriage (until he himself wed), modern architecture and chiropractors.
Mencken published mainly in The Baltimore Sun, The American Mercury and The Smart Set. But if he had flourished in the age of computer keyboards, would he have dispensed his crusty wisdom on a Web log?
"I think the form would have suited him perfectly," said Terry Teachout, author of "The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken" (HarperCollins, 2002) and editor of "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy" (Knopf, 1995). "He spent a lot of time in the 30's and 40's putting down a lot of short notebook entries that are collected in 'Minority Report.' He liked to write briefly and reactively, and he liked to get into print immediately. I think blogging would have been a natural for him - if he were paid for it and could have gotten over the technology."
Mencken's newest biographer differs. "I find the idea preposterous," said Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, author of "Mencken: The American Iconoclast" (Oxford University Press, 2005). "He prided himself on being a man of print. He didn't think much of having his things syndicated. But bloggers write for everyone."
Still, Ms. Rodgers said she believed that Mencken's cynical worldview would find a receptive audience in the 21st century, especially his outrages about presidential power, the behavior of the press during wartime and evangelical fervor. "Much of what he says still holds," she said. "Not long after the Scopes trial, he wrote that you couldn't throw an egg out of a Pullman car without hitting a fundamentalist. You could say the same now about any red state."
Here, then, are some recent entries from the hypothetical blog of H. L. Mencken.
Dec. 10, 2005
I'm less than flummoxed to hear that the Pentagon is bribing Iraqi editors to print upbeat boilerplate about their country's march of progress. The neoconservative panjandrums who unleashed the current fracas are desperate to generate all the good news they can. That the Fourth Estate would tailor its coverage for filthy lucre is not exactly surprising, either. The average newspaperman, whatever his country of origin, is a semiliterate creature of dubious integrity, certainly not to be trusted with conveying the first draft of history. Most can be had for a bottle of good Pilsner.
The departure of Tookie Williams via intravenous chemical cocktail was less noteworthy than the brummagem protests that attended his final days. Williams himself was a malignant nonentity, his switch to the side of the angels while in the San Quentin calaboose an act of sheer opportunism. But on that score he was outmatched by Mike Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Susan Sarandon and the other magnificos who adopted him as their personal cause c╚l╦bre while they basked in his spotlight. Ever since the Supreme Court gave these United States the leave to take life, death row has racked up a thousand bodies. Surely a few of them had had moral reawakenings no less fervent than Williams's. Where was the outrage of Hollywood's finest when these malefactors were being dispatched?
Dr. Bush is convinced that his force-fed ministrations of liberty are having a salutary effect on the Iraqi body politic. Beholding the parliamentary elections, and the purple staining of 11 million fingers, he exulted, "This is a major step forward in achieving our objective, which is having a democratic Iraq." What twaddle! Democracy, especially in the hothouse atmosphere of the Holy Land, remains the art of running the circus from the monkey cage. The notion that the onetime caliphate of Saddam Hussein will benefit from its presence is as preposterous as expecting leadership from Howard Dean, or Christian charity from Ann Coulter.
Coerced by Senator McCain, Bush has folded on the torture issue like a Chinese fan. The public rationale for his turnabout is that the avatars of freedom do not engage in waterboarding, mauling and similar pleasantries. Bushwah! The vast majority of this country's polizei resort to the lash when a culprit is less than forthcoming in his confession. Anyway, flogging terrorist yahoos to head off their mendacities strikes me as perfectly defensible. America as a civilization is slowly annihilating itself. Why should we stand by and let foreigners hasten the process?
Today Howard Stern leaves terrestrial radio for the rarefied climes of the satellite variety. Stern's unique form of verbal catarrh is the price we pay for the First Amendment. But there remains something fundamentally indecent about forcing his gurgling followers to pony up cash for speech that is, by constitutional writ, free.
Hillary Clinton continues to believe she can be elected president. Someone should disabuse the good lady of this notion. It is not La Clinton's sex that disqualifies her. On the contrary. Women possess more intelligence and common sense than their male counterparts. Rather, it is Hillary's naked ambition that will keep her from high office. Earlier this year, against every innate fiber of her left-leaning body, she effectively said that abortion is always a tragic choice. Now she has come out foursquare for a bill that would ban flag burning. If pandering were sufficient entr╚e for public service, Hillary would be elected handily. As it is, even the masses can spot a poseur.
Sanity has triumphed in Dover, Pa., where the boobs who tried to foist intelligent design on the local lyceums have been soundly thrashed. Judge Jones, the Bush-appointed archon who made the decision, went so far as to lambaste the school board's "breathtaking inanity." Would that this victory were permanent. It will take more than jurisprudence to retire the forces of ignorance permanently. Meantime, we can only hope that they engage in less egregious forms of buncombe - like installing the Ten Commandments in public squares, or speaking in tongues.
Elton John has embarked upon wedded bliss with David Furnish, described by acclamation as his "longtime companion." I wish the nominally ambidextrous Mr. John luck. Marriage is among the most purgatorial of states, even under the best of circumstances. Beguiling though women may be, and even useful upon occasion, I would no sooner spend my life with one than surgically probe my own peritoneum. As for the conjugal union of two men, engaging in non-Euclidean sex, I prefer not to contemplate.
And so the messianic Bono and the Croesian Gateses have been named Time magazine's People of the Year. Their selection only shows that this distinction is no longer conferred on the chief headline-grabbers of the past 12 months. Instead, the honor has been transmogrified into an extended guessing game, with a candidate who would never cross the public imagination as the grand prize. Witness the recent roster of implausible laureates, the computer as 1982's Machine of the Year and Earth as 1988's Planet of the Year among them. Had the Phuket tsunami struck a scant week later, it surely would have given New Orleans' grand washout healthy competition as the Disaster of the Year.