(a.k.a The Devil's Dictionary, New Millennia Edition)

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Cynical People

H. L. Mencken

cynic, n. A well informed optimist.

H. L. (Henry Louis) Mencken was a newspaperman wordsmith with prose as accurate and deadly as sniper fire. Reading Mencken today shows that politicians, wars and religion never really change, and receive all the respect they deserve (none).

Mencken was the voice of Baltimore during the overtly wicked times of the early 20th century. He was a gifted writer and reporter, who survived his entire life in Baltimore – if you can call that surviving – working for both the Baltimore Herald and Sun. This proves that journalists have as little loyalty as the politicians they discover in no-tell motels.

His work at the Herald city desk cemented his cynical foundation. Baltimore was widely considered a corrupt city, unlike today where it is known to be a corrupt city.  In Mencken's day, local politicians were little more than talented pick-pockets and from external appearances, their descendants are keeping the family business alive.

Mencken's cynicism may have reached its apex during the infamous Scopes Money Trial. The Sun sent Mencken to cover an event that was equal parts religious fervor, grandstanding politics and open air circus, a vein of literary ore that made Mencken's mind melt. The court case, where a school teacher was being prosecuted for teaching Darwinian evolution, and local religious fundamentalism caused Mencken to call Tennessee a "sort of Holy Land for imbeciles." This might have been the most polite reference Mencken made during the entire trial (For the cinema buffs, the Scopes Monkey trial was made into Spencer Tracy's Inherit the Wind, where Mencken was portrayed by Gene Kelly and his character was called "E. K. Hornbeck").

Mencken was, if nothing else, evenhanded he derided everyone including himself, as witnessed from this excerpt from his essay "In Defense of Women":

"As a professional critic of life and letters, my principal business in the world is that of manufacturing platitudes for tomorrow, which is to  say, ideas so novel that they will be instantly rejected as insane and outrageous by all right thinking men, and so apposite and sound that they will eventually conquer that instinctive opposition, and force themselves into the traditional wisdom of the race. I hope I need not confess that a large part of my stock in trade consists of platitudes rescued from the cobwebbed shelves of yesterday, with new labels stuck rakishly upon them."

Cynical Mencken Quotations

It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.

The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.

It is even harder for the average ape to believe that he has descended from man.

I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.

Once a woman passes a certain point in intelligence it is almost impossible to get a husband: she simply cannot go on listening [to men] without snickering.

In Europe, aristocracy is founded upon land. In the United States, it is founded upon real estate.

In the United States, doing good has come to be, like patriotism, a favorite device of persons with something to sell.

Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States.

It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.