[tt] H.L. Mencken: The Forward-Looker

Frank Forman <checker at panix.com> on Wed Oct 22 10:30:52 CEST 2014

This is my own favorite essay of Mr. Mencken, wherein he famously says 
that he never met a socialist simliciter. It's in the public domain, so 
use it freely.

H.L. Mencken: The Forward-Looker

Chapter XI of Prejudices, Third Series (1922), pp. 213-231

WHEN the history of the late years in America is written, I suspect that 
their grandest, gaudiest gifts to Kultur will be found in the incomparable 
twins: the right-thinker and the forward-looker. No other nation can match 
them, at any weight. The right-thinker is privy to all God s wishes, and 
even whims; the for ward-looker is the heir to all His promises to the 
righteous. The former is never wrong; the latter is never despairing. 
Sometimes the two are amalgamated into one man, and we have a Bryan, a 
Wilson, a Dr. Frank Crane. But more often there is a division: the 
forward-looker thinks wrong, and the right-thinker looks backward. I give 
you Upton Sinclair and Nicholas Murray Butler as examples. Butler is an 
absolute masterpiece of correct thought; in his whole life, so far as 
human records show, he has not cherished a single fancy that might not 
have been voiced by a Fifth Avenue rector or spread upon the editorial 
page of the New York Times. But he has no vision, alas, alas! All the 
revolutionary inventions for lifting up humanity leave him cold. He is 
against them all, from the initiative and referendum to birth control, and 
from Fletcherism to osteopathy. Now turn to Sinclair. He believes in every 
one of them, however daring and fantoddish; he grasps and gobbles all the 
new ones the instant they are announced. But the man simply cannot think 
right. He is wrong on politics, on economics, and on theology. He glories 
in and is intensely vain of his wrongness. Let but a new article of 
correct American thought get itself stated by the constituted 
ecclesiastical and secular authorities by Bishop Manning, or Judge Gary, 
or Butler, or Adolph Ochs, or Dr. Fabian Franklin, or Otto Kahn, or Dr. 
Stephen S. Wise, or Roger W. Babson, or any other such inspired omphalist 
and he is against it almost before it is stated.

On the whole, as a neutral in such matters, I prefer the forward-looker to 
the right-thinker, if only because he shows more courage and originality. 
It takes nothing save lack of humor to believe what Butler, or Ochs, or 
Bishop Manning believes, but it takes long practice and a considerable 
natural gift to get down the beliefs of Sinclair. I remember with great 
joy the magazine that he used to issue during the war. In the very first 
issue he advocated Socialism, the single tax, birth control, communism, 
the League of Nations, the conscription of wealth, government ownership of 
coal mines, sex hygiene and free trade. In the next issue he added the 
recall of judges, Fletcherism, the Gary system, the Montessori method, 
paper-bag cookery, war gardens and the budget system. In the third he came 
out for sex hygiene, one big union, the initiative and referendum, the 
city manager plan, chiropractic and Esperanto. In the fourth he went to 
the direct primary, fasting, the Third International, a federal divorce 
law, free motherhood, hot lunches for school children, Prohibition, the 
vice crusade, Expressionismus, the government control of newspapers, deep 
breathing, international courts, the Fourteen Points, freedom for the 
Armenians, the limitation of campaign expenditures, the merit system, the 
abolition of the New York Stock Exchange, psychoanalysis, crystal-gazing, 
the Little Theater movement, the recognition of Mexico, vers libre, old 
age pensions, unemployment insurance, cooperative stores, the endowment of 
motherhood, the Americanization of the immigrant, mental telepathy, the 
abolition of grade crossings, federal labor exchanges, profit-sharing in 
industry, a prohibitive tax on Poms, the clean-up-paint-up campaign, 
relief for the Jews, osteopathy, mental mastery, and the twilight sleep. 
And so on, and so on. Once I had got into the swing of the Sinclair 
monthly I found that I could dispense with at least twenty other journals 
of the uplift. When he abandoned it I had to subscribe for them anew, and 
the gravel has stuck in my craw ever since.

In the first volume of his personal philosophy, "The Book of Life: Mind 
and Body," he is estopped from displaying whole categories of his ideas, 
for his subject is not man the political and economic machine, but man and 
mammal. Nevertheless, his characteristic hospitality to new revelations is 
abundantly visible. What does the mind suggest? The mind suggests its dark 
and fascinating functions and powers, some of them very recent. There is, 
for example, psychoanalysis. There is mental telepathy. There is 
crystal-gazing. There is double personality. Out of each springs a scheme 
for the uplift of the race in each there is something for a forward-looker 
to get his teeth into. And if mind, then why not also spirit? Here even a 
forward-looker may hesitate; here, in fact, Sinclair himself hesitates. 
The whole field of spiritism is barred to him by his theological 
heterodoxy; if he admits that man has an immortal soul, he may also have 
to admit that the soul can suffer in hell. Thus even forward-looking may 
turn upon and devour itself. But if the meadow wherein spooks and 
poltergeists disport is closed, it is at least possible to peep over the 
fence. Sinclair sees materializations in dark rooms, under red, satanic 
lights. He is, perhaps, not yet convinced, but he is looking pretty hard. 
Let a ghostly hand reach out and grab him, and he will be over the fence! 
The body is easier. The new inventions for dealing with it are innumerable 
and irresistible; no forward-looker can fail to succumb to at least some 
of them. Sinclair teeters dizzily. On the one hand he stoutly defends 
surgery that is, provided the patient is allowed to make his own 
diagnosis! on the other hand he is hot for fasting, teetotalism, and the 
avoidance of drugs, coffee and tobacco, and he begins to flirt with 
osteopathy and chiropractic. More, he has discovered a new revelation in 
San Francisco a system of diagnosis and therapeutics, still hooted at by 
the Medical Trust, whereby the exact location of a cancer may be 
determined by examining a few drops of the patient s blood, and syphilis 
may be cured by vibrations, and whereby, most curious of all, it can be 
established that odd numbers, written on a sheet of paper, are full of 
negative electricity, and even numbers are full of positive electricity.

The book is written with great confidence and address, and has a good deal 
of shrewdness mixed with its credulities; few licensed medical 
practitioners could give you better advice. But it is less interest ing 
than its author, or, indeed, than forward-lookers in general. Of all the 
known orders of men they fascinate me the most. I spend whole days reading 
their pronunciamentos, and am an expert in the ebb and flow of their 
singularly bizarre ideas. As I have said, I have never encountered one who 
believed in but one sure cure for all the sorrows of the world, and let it 
go at that. Nay, even the most timorous of them gives his full faith and 
credit to at least two. Turn, for example, to the official list of eminent 
single taxers issued by the Joseph Fels Fund. I defy you to find one 
solitary man on it who stops with the single tax. There is David Starr 
Jordan: he is also one of the great whales of pacifism. There is B. 0. 
Flower: he is the emperor of anti-vaccinationists. There is Carrie Chapman 
Catt: she is hot for every peruna that the suffragettes brew. There is W. 
S. U Ren: he is in general practise as a messiah. There is Hamlin Garland: 
he also chases spooks. There is Jane Addams: vice crusader, pacifist, 
suffragist, settlement worker. There is Prof. Dr. Scott Nearing: Socialist 
and martyr. There is Newt Baker: heir of the Wilsonian idealism. There is 
Gifford Pinchot: conservationist, Prohibitionist, Bull Moose, and 
professional Good Citizen. There is Judge Ben B. Lindsey: forward-looking 
s Jack Horner, forever sticking his thumb into new pies. I could run the 
list to columns, but no need. You know the type as well as I do. Give the 
forward-looker the direct primary, and he demands the short ballot. Give 
him the initiative and referendum, and he bawls for the recall of judges. 
Give him Christian Science, and he proceeds to the swamis and yogis. Give 
him the Mann Act, and he wants laws providing for the castration of 
fornicators. Give him Prohibition, and he launches a new crusade against 
cigarettes, coffee, jazz, and custard pies.

I have a wide acquaintance among such sad, mad, glad folks, and know some 
of them very well. It is my belief that the majority o r them are 
absolutely honest that they believe as fully in their baroque gospels as I 
believe in the dishonesty of politicians that their myriad and amazing 
faiths sit upon them as heavily as the fear of hell sits upon a Methodist 
deacon who has degraded the vestry-room to carnal uses. All that may be 
justly said against them is that they are chronically full of hope, and 
hence chronically uneasy and indignant that they belong to the less sinful 
and comfortable of the two grand divisions of the human race. Call them 
the tender-minded, as the late William James used to do, and you have 
pretty well described them. They are, on the one hand, pathologically 
sensitive to the sorrows of the world, and, on the other hand, 
pathologically susceptible to the eloquence of quacks. What seems to lie 
in all of them is the doctrine that evils so vast as those they see about 
them must and will be laid that it would be an insult to a just God to 
think of them as permanent and irremediable. This notion, I believe, is at 
the bottom of much of the current pathetic faith in Prohibition. The thing 
itself is obviously a colossal failure that is, when viewed calmly and 
realistically. It has not only not cured the rum evil in the United 
States; it has plainly made that evil five times as bad as it ever was 
before. But to confess that bald fact would be to break the 
forward-looking heart: it simply refuses to harbor the concept of the 
incurable. And so, being debarred by the legal machinery that supports 
Prohibition from going back to any more feasible scheme of relief, it 
cherishes the sorry faith that somehow, in some vague and incomprehensible 
way, Prohibition will yet work. When the truth becomes so horribly evident 
that even forward-lookers are daunted, then some new quack will arise to 
fool them again, with some new and worse scheme of super-Prohibition. It 
is their destiny to wobble thus endlessly between quack and quack. One 
pulls them by the right arm and one by the left arm. A third is at their 
coat-tail pockets, and a fourth beckons them over the hill.

The rest of us are less tender-minded, and, in consequence, much happier. 
We observe quite clearly that the world, as it stands, is anything but 
perfect that injustice exists, and turmoil, and tragedy, and bitter 
suffering of ten thousand kinds that human life at its best, is anything 
but a grand, sweet song. But instead of ranting absurdly against the fact, 
or weeping over it maudlinly, or trying to remedy it with inadequate 
means, we simply put the thought of it out of our minds, just as a wise 
man puts away the thought that alcohol is probably bad for his liver, or 
that his wife is a shade too fat. Instead of mulling over it and suffering 
from it, we seek contentment by pursuing the delights that are so 
strangely mixed with the horrors by seeking out the soft spots and 
endeavoring to avoid the hard spots. Such is the intelligent habit of 
practical and sinful men, and under it lies a sound philosophy. After all, 
the world is not our handiwork, and we are not responsible for what goes 
on in it, save within very narrow limits. Going outside them with our 
protests and advice tends to become contumacy to the celestial hierarchy. 
Do the poor suffer in the midst of plenty? Then let us thank God politely 
that we are not that poor. Are rogues in offices? Well, go call a 
policeman, thus setting rogue upon rogue. Are taxes onerous, wasteful, 
unjust? Then let us dodge as large a part of them as we can. Are whole 
regiments and army corps of our fellow creatures doomed to hell? Then let 
them complain to the archangels, and, if the archangels are too busy to 
hear them, to the nearest archbishop.

Unluckily for the man of tender mind, he is quite incapable of any such 
easy dismissal of the great plagues and conundrums of existence. It is of 
the essence of his character that he is too sensitive and sentimental to 
put them ruthlessly out of his mind: he cannot view even the crunching of 
a cockroach without feeling the snapping of his own ribs. And it is of the 
essence of his character that he is unable to escape the delusion of duty 
that he can't rid himself of the notion that, whenever he observes any 
thing in the world that might conceivably be improved, he is commanded by 
God to make every effort to improve it. In brief, he is a public-spirited 
man, and the ideal citizen of democratic states. But Nature, it must be 
obvious, is opposed to democracy and whoso goes counter to nature must 
expect to pay the penalty. The tender-minded man pays it by hanging 
forever upon the cruel hooks of hope, and by fermenting inwardly in 
incessant indignation. All this, perhaps, explains the notorious ill-humor 
of uplifters the wowser touch that is in even the best of them. They dwell 
so much upon the imperfections of the universe and the weaknesses of man 
that they end by believing that the universe is altogether out of joint 
and that every man is a scoundrel and every woman a vampire. Years ago I 
had a combat with certain eminent reformers of the sex hygiene and vice 
crusading species, and got out of it a memorable illumination of their 
private minds. The reform these strange creatures were then advocating was 
directed against sins of the seventh category, and they proposed to put 
them down by forcing through legislation of a very harsh and fantastic 
kind statutes forbidding any woman, however forbid ding, to entertain a 
man in her apartment without the presence of a third party, statutes 
providing for the garish lighting of all dark places in the public parks, 
and so on. In the course of my debates with them I gradually jockeyed them 
into abandoning all of the arguments they started with, and so brought 
them down to their fundamental doctrine, to wit, that no woman, without 
the aid of the police, could be trusted to protect her virtue. I pass as a 
cynic in Christian circles, but this notion certainly gave me pause. And 
it was voiced by men who were the fathers of grown and unmarried 

It is no wonder that men who cherish such ideas are so ready to accept any 
remedy for the underlying evils, no matter how grotesque. A man suffering 
from hay-fever, as every one knows, will take any medicine that is offered 
to him, even though he knows the compounder to be a quack; the 
infinitesimal chance that the quack may have the impossible cure gives him 
a certain hope, and so makes the disease itself more bearable. In 
precisely the same way a man suffering from the conviction that the whole 
universe is hell-bent for destruction that the government he lives under 
is intolerably evil, that the rich are growing richer and the poor poorer, 
that no man's word can be trusted and no woman s chastity, that another 
and worse war is hatching, that the very regulation of the weather has 
fallen into the hands of rogues such a man will grab at anything, even 
birth control, osteopathy or the Fourteen Points, rather than let the foul 
villainy go on. The apparent necessity of finding a remedy without delay 
transforms itself, by an easy psychological process, into a belief that 
the remedy has been found; it is almost impossible for most men, and 
particularly for tender-minded men, to take in the concept of the 
insoluble. Every problem that remains unsolved, including even the problem 
of evil, is in that state simply because men of strict virtue and 
passionate altruism have not combined to solve it because the business has 
been neglected by human laziness and rascality. All that is needed to 
dispatch it is the united effort of enough pure hearts: the accursed 
nature of things will yield inevitably to a sufficiently desperate battle; 
mind (usually written Mind) will triumph over matter (usually written 
Matter or maybe Money Power, or Land Monopoly, or Beef Trust, or 
Conspiracy of Silence, or Commercialized Vice, or Wall Street, or the 
Dukes, or the Kaiser), and the Kingdom of God will be at hand. So, with 
the will to believe in full function, the rest is easy. The eager 
forward-looker is exactly like the man with hay-fever, or arthritis, or 
nervous dyspepsia, or diabetes. It takes time to try each successive 
remedy to search it out, to take it, to observe its effects, to hope, to 
doubt, to shelve it. Before the process is completed another is offered; 
new ones are always waiting before their predecessors have been discarded. 
Here, perhaps, we get a glimpse of the causes behind the protean appetite 
of the true forward-looker his virtuosity in credulity. He is in all 
stages simultaneously just getting over the initiative and referendum, 
beginning to have doubts about the short ballot, making ready for a horse 
doctor s dose of the single tax, and contemplating an experimental draught 
of Socialism to morrow.

What is to be done for him? How is he to be cured of his great thirst for 
sure-cures that do not cure, and converted into a contented and careless 
backward-looker, peacefully snoozing beneath his figtree while the 
oppressed bawl for succor in forty abandoned lands, and injustice stalks 
the world, and taxes mount higher and higher, and poor working-girls are 
sold into white slavery, and Prohibition fails to prohibit, and cocaine is 
hawked openly, and jazz drags millions down the primrose way, and the 
trusts own the legislatures of all Christendom, and judges go to dinner 
with millionaires, and Europe prepares for another war, and children of 
four and five years work as stevedores and locomotive firemen, and guinea 
pigs and dogs are vivisected, and Polish immigrant women have more 
children every year, and divorces multiply, and materialism rages, and the 
devil runs the cosmos? What is to be done to save the forward-looker from 
his torturing indignations, and set him in paths of happy dalliance? 
Answer: nothing. He was born that way, as men are born with hare lips or 
bad livers, and he will remain that way until the angels summon him to 
eternal rest. Destiny has laid upon him the burden of seeing unescapably 
what had better not be looked at, of believing what isn't so. There is no 
way to help him. He must suffer vicariously for the carnal ease of the 
rest of us. He must die daily that we may live in peace, corrupt and 

As I have said, I believe fully that this child of sorrow is honest that 
his twinges and malaises are just as real to him as those that rack the 
man with arthritis, and that his trusting faith in quacks is just as 
natural. But this, of course, is not saying that the quacks themselves are 
honest. On the contrary, their utter dishonesty must be quite as obvious 
as the simplicity of their dupes. Trade is good for them in the: United 
States, where hope is a sort of national vice, and so they flourish here 
more luxuriously than anywhere else on earth. Some one told me lately that 
there are now no less than 25,000 national organizations in the United 
States for the uplift of the plain people and the snaring and shaking down 
of forward-lookers societies for the Americanization of immigrants, for 
protecting poor working-girls against Jews and Italians, for putting 
Bibles into the bed rooms of week-end hotels, for teaching Polish women 
how to wash their babies, for instructing school-children in 
ring-around-a-rosy, for crusading against the cigarette, for preventing 
accidents in rolling-mills, for making street-car conductors more polite, 
for testing the mentality of Czecho-Slovaks, for teaching folk-songs, for 
restoring the United States to Great Britain, for building day-nurseries 
in the devastated regions of France, for training deaconesses, for fight 
ing the house-fly, for preventing cruelty to mules and Tom-cats, for 
forcing householders to clean their backyards, for planting trees, for 
saving the Indian, for sending colored boys to Harvard, for opposing 
Sunday movies, for censoring magazines, for God knows what else. In every 
large American city such organizations swarm, and every one of them has an 
executive secretary who tries incessantly to cadge space in the 
newspapers. Their agents penetrate to the remotest hamlets in the land, 
and their circulars, pamphlets and other fulminations swamp the mails. In 
Washington and at every state capital they have their lobbyists, and every 
American legislator is driven half frantic by their innumerable and 
preposterous demands. Each of them wants a law passed to make its crusade 
official and compulsory; each is forever hunting for forward-lookers with 

One of the latest of these uplifting vereins to score a ten-strike is the 
one that sponsored the so-called Maternity Bill. That measure is now a 
law, and the over-burdened American taxpayer, at a cost of $3,000,000 a 
year, is supporting yet one more posse of perambulating gabblers and 
snouters. The influences behind the bill were exposed in the Senate by 
Senator Reed, of Missouri, -but to no effect: a majority of the other 
Senators, in order to get rid of the propagandists in charge of it, had 
already promised to vote for it. Its one intelligible aim, as Senator Reed 
showed, is to give government jobs at good salaries to a gang of nosey old 
maids. These virgins now traverse the country teaching married women how 
to have babies in a ship-shape and graceful manner, and how to keep them 
alive after having them. Only one member of the corps has ever been 
married herself; nevertheless, the old gals are authorized to go out among 
the Italian and Yiddish women, each with ten or twelve head of kids to her 
credit, and tell them all about it. According to Senator Reed, the 
ultimate aim of the forward-lookers who sponsored the scheme is to provide 
for the official registration of expectant mothers, that they may be 
warned what to eat, what movies to see, and what midwives to send for when 
the time comes. Imagine a young bride going down to the County Clerk s 
office to report herself! And imagine an elderly and anthropopagous 
spinster coming around next day to advise her! Or a boozy political 

All these crazes, of course, are primarily artificial. They are set going, 
not by the plain people spontaneously, nor even by the forward-lookers who 
eventually support them, but by professionals. The Anti-Saloon League is 
their archetype. It is owned and operated by gentlemen who make excellent 
livings stirring up the tender-minded; if their salaries were cut off 
to-morrow, all their moral passion would ooze out, and Prohibition would 
be dead in two weeks. So with the rest of the uplifting camorras. Their 
present enormous prosperity, I believe, is due in large part to a fact 
that is never thought of, to wit, the fact that the women s colleges of 
the country, for a dozen years past, have been turning out far more 
graduates than could be utilized as teachers. These supernumerary lady 
Ph.D s almost unanimously turn to the uplift and the uplift saves them. In 
the early days of higher education for women in the United States, 
practically all the graduates thrown upon the world got jobs as teachers, 
but now a good many are left over. Moreover, it has been discovered that 
the uplift is easier than teaching, and that it pays a great deal better. 
It is a rare woman professor who gets more than $5,000 a year, but there 
are plenty of uplifting jobs at $8,000 and $10,000 a year, and in the 
future there will be some prizes at twice as much. No wonder the learned 
girls fall upon them so eagerly!

The annual production of male Ph.D s is also far beyond the legitimate 
needs of the nation, but here the congestion is relieved by the greater 
and more varied demand for masculine labor. If a young man emerging from 
Columbia or Ohio Wesleyan as Philosophies Doctor finds it impossible to 
get a job teaching he can always go on the road as a salesman of dental 
supplies, or enlist in the marines, or study law, or enter the ministry, 
or go to work in a coal-mine, or a slaughter-house, or a bucket-shop, or 
begin selling Oklahoma mine-stock to widows and retired clergy men. The 
women graduate faces far fewer opportunities. She is commonly too old and 
too worn by meditation to go upon the stage in anything above the grade of 
a patent-medicine show, she has been so poisoned by instruction in sex 
hygiene that she shies at marriage, and most of the standard professions 
and grafts of the world are closed to her. The invention of the uplift 
came as a godsend to her. Had not some mute, inglorious Edison devised it 
at the right time, humanity would be disgraced to-day by the spectacle of 
hordes of Lady Ph.D s going to work in steam-laundries, hooch shows and 
chewing-gum factories. As it is, they are all taken care of by the 
innumerable societies for making the whole world virtuous and happy. One 
may laugh at the aims and methods of many such societies for example, at 
the absurd vereins for Americanizing immigrants, i.e. degrading them to 
the level of the native peasantry. But one thing, at least, they 
accomplish: they provide comfortable and permanent jobs for hundreds and 
thousands of deserving women, most of whom are far more profitably 
employed trying to make Methodists out of Sicilians than they would be if 
they were try ing to make husbands out of bachelors. It is for this high 
purpose also that the forward-looker suffers.

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