Various Matters: Socialistic Balderdash

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 30, 1910

“Life in a big city in America is nothing but haste, anger and greed.” So said Dr. Karl Liebknecht not long ago in the course of an harangue to the massed Socialists of Milwaukee. The Socialists howled their approval: it was a sentiment that went straight to their hearts. The whole Socialist gospel, indeed, is based upon the assumption that human existence has come to be nothing more than a ruthless scramble for money. Their own bitter striving is frankly for the money that other folk have got, and so they take it for granted that all other human beings are moved by the same yearning.

Not only the Socialists hold to this cannibalistic theory of civilization. It is preached, too, by silly windjammers of a hundred other breeds—loud roaring pulpit pounders, magazine muckrakers, the mad mullahs of the New Thought, silly casuists innumerable. Not long ago a local ecclesiastic solemnly told his congregation that the struggle for existence in America had grown more fierce than the struggle for existence in the jungles of Africa. The average American business man, he said, was so burdened by labor that he had no time to become acquainted with his children. Coming home from his office in a state of utter mental and physical exhaustion, he fell snoring into bed.

What empty nonsense! Is it true that “life in a big city in America is nothing but haste, anger and greed?” Is it half true, or a quarter true, or even one-eighth of one per cent true? Of course it is not. Far from being a ruthless and greedy race, the American people are actually the most sentimental race in history. They are constantly beset and pillaged by mendicants; they give millions of dollars every year to maudlin charities; the easiest of all human enterprises is that of getting money out of them for the unfortunate. Pathos always fetches them; their pocketbooks are never closed; the most virtuous act within the range of their imagination is that of giving away money: in their sight a charitable scoundrel is not a scoundrel at all.

In every American city the largest single communal expense is that incurred in relieving the helpless and shiftless. No one has ever thought to figure out the total cost of Baltimore’s charities, but it must be fully $5,000,000 or $6,000,000 a year. If the money that has been spent during the past 50 years in supporting sanatoria for broken-down cart horses, providing elaborate turkey banquets for the loafers of the water-front, supplying lazy and worthless negroes with free medical attention, sheltering homeless dogs and maintaining the various and discordant Salvation armies—if this money had been deposited instead in some safe bank and permitted to send out its natural shoots, the sum in hand today would be sufficient to pave every street in the town.

An Able Teacher

Many an old Polytechnic boy, I have no doubt, was pleased the other day to see a letter in praise of Richard H. Uhrbrock among THE EVENING SUN’S “Editorials by the People,” Mr. Uhrbrock is now at the City College, but he taught at the Polytechnic for a number of years, and those Baltimoreans who enjoyed the advantage of sitting under him in that school well remember the ardor of his teaching and the success of it. He is by nature an extremely earnest man. As Chesterton said indignantly, when he sets out to maintain a proposition he does so with a battleax. This quality, I take it, must be blamed, at least in part, for the noise he has made as an academic politician and gladiator. But it is a quality visible in most truly masculine men, and masculine men are rare enough and of value enough in the pedagogic ranks to be allowed a certain leeway.

But the test of a teacher, after all, is not his manner of conducting debates, but his ability to teach. Of that ability Mr. Uhrbrock has a plentiful store. It is a very stupid boy who cannot follow him, a woefully lazy boy who does not absorb some of his own enthusiasm. In his Polytechnic days at least he was a hard taskmaster. The boy who went to his classroom unprepared was sure to come to grief. But the boy who showed any desire to learn made quick progress under him. He was never too busy nor too tired to explain and expound. Any boy who wanted private instruction got it—after school. And it was given willingly and gladly, as if there were pleasure in the giving.

The boys of those days are boys no longer. Some grow bald; others are paunchy; others are tortured by children and mothers-in-law; yet others have attained to opulence. Now and then I meet one of them, and the talk naturally enough, goes back to school days. The name of Uhrbrok always bobs up—and I have noticed that it is invariably mentioned with very real affection and respect.

 Lambasting the Doctors

The Chicago Daily News has begun a crusade against medical grafters, and every day it prints terrific broadsides against the surgeon who divides his fees with the practitioner who brings him his victim, the specialist who leaves his patient bankrupt and other such foes of professional decency. The crusade is, no doubt, an honest one, and should be vigorously prosecuted—but let it not be converted into a wild attack upon the whole medical profession The dishonest doctor, after all, is a rather rare bird. The fates are against him. He is elbowed along by his more decent fellows until by and by he stands out in the open, and his dishonesty is visible to all. The patient who patronizes him does so stupidly. Let the buyer use due care.

No science has made greater progress in our time than that of healing and that progress has been due almost wholly to the earnestness and altruism of men who sacrificed money, or at least the chance of making money, at every step. Doctor’s fees, compared to lawyers’ fees, remain exceedingly modest. The public usefulness of the medical profession, compared to the public usefulness of any other profession, is enormously great. Let us take aim deliberately before we throw our dead cats. There is danger of bringing down the wrong game.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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