delanceyplace.com 1/3/11 - h.l. mencken and crowds
In today's excerpt - H.L. Mencken comments on the impact of crowd psychology. Mencken, known as "The Sage of Baltimore," was a popular journalist, essayist and satirist, and is regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the first half of the 20th century. A caustic critic of American life and culture, Mencken was one of the first in the U.S. to popularize such writers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad.
He had grave concerns about anti-intellectualism in American society, which he viewed as being found most prominently in organized religion and political discourse. He was especially concerned about the role of the crowd in this anti-intellectualism. His reporting of the debate over the theory of evolution between William Jennings Bryan and legendary attorney Clarence Darrow (made famous in the movie and play Inherit the Wind) reflected his distaste for fervent belief rooted in faith rather than science:
"The individual man, cheek by jowl with the multitude, drops down an intellectual peg or two, and so tends to show the mental and emotional reactions of his inferiors. The crowd, as a crowd, performs acts that many of its members, as individuals, would never be guilty of. Its average intelligence is very low; it is inflammatory, vicious, idiotic, almost simian. Crowds, properly worked up by skillful demagogues, are ready to believe anything, and to do anything. ...
"The numskull runs amuck in a crowd, not because he has been inoculated with new rascality by the mysterious crowd influence, but because his habitual rascality now has its only chance to function safely.
"What happens when a crowd cuts loose? ... The few superior men in it are not straightway reduced to the level of the underlying stoneheads. On the contrary, they usually keep their heads, and make efforts to combat the crowd action. But the stoneheads are too many for them; ... And why? Because they are suddenly conscious of the power lying in their numbers. ... The third rate man, though he may wear the false whiskers of a first rate man, may always be detected by his inability to keep his head in the face of an appeal to his emotions. A whoop strips off his disguise."
with thanks to thomas quinn spitzer