H.L. Mencken would easily recognize the South he disdained. 

Mencken's Revenge

More than 50 years ago, Virginius Dabney wrote an editorial bemoaning the appearance of and rave reviews for a new radio character, Sen. Beauregard Claghorn of the Fred Allen Show. Dabney objected to the "magnolia-moonlight-mockingbird-moon-June-croon school of thinking" and wrote, in part, "For years, yes decades, we've been battling to bring some measure of rationality ... to [thinking] on Southern problems." Dabney quoted "Claghorn" as saying, "The only dance Ah do is the Virginia Reel ... When Ah pass Grant's Tomb Ah shut both eyes. Ah never go to Yankee Stadium! Ah won't even go to the Polo Grounds unless a southpaw's pitching." Claghorn invariably punctuated his remarks with the refrain "That's a joke, son," but Dabney was not amused. To him, "The ... disturbing thing about the [Claghorn] business is that so many who have never seen a Southerner in the flesh will think that Claghorn is typical of this region, and that we all go around roaring in the Claghorn manner."

Claghorn was light-hearted as was, to a degree, Dabney's editorial. In the main, though, Dabney was in earnest because in addition to perceived perceptions of Claghorn, Dabney had been fighting the perceptions engendered by H. L. Mencken, the acerbic-penned, Gentleman with the Meat-Ax, in his book "The Sahara of the Bozart." A scathing review of the South, the book bemoaned the lack of anything even remotely resembling gentility, intelligence, literature and art below the Mason-Dixon Line. In "The Sahara" and his magazine, American Mercury, Mencken "flail[ed] porcine politicians, tinpot evangelists, fundamentalists, and the booboisie." After the recent Republican primary, the current session of the General Assembly, and some other local events, one has to ask, "What's changed?"

In lieu of Beauregard Claghorn, we've now got State Sen. Madison Marye who, in the dulcet tones of his Southwest Virginia accent, objected to a bill that would have prohibited the carrying of open containers of alcoholic beverages in vehicles. Marye complained that the "feds" were unfairly attacking "good-old boys," and Marye asked plaintively, "Couldn't they just have a beer on the way home?" One has to wonder what sort of mental picture the nation is getting from this?

There is surely no lack of "tinpot evangelists" and "fundamentalists" in the Old Dominion. And they're considerably more vocal, divisive, and, unfortunately, powerful now than they were when Mencken made it his business to skewer them. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, while making ludicrous claims to disinterestedness, have been injecting themselves and their policies of intolerance into state and national politics for years now. In the wake of George "Dubya" Bush's visit to Bob Jones University, the South Carolina bastion of segregation and anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic bias, Robertson and his Christian Coalition nonetheless began an all-out phone, e-mail and mail campaign to get out the vote for his man, Bush. Robertson and his minions made recorded phone calls accusing a prominent McCain supporter of being "anti-religious" and accusing John McCain of being supported by the "left-wing, liberal press." (They called me. I hung up after the first sentence.)

In the General Assembly, the political "fundamentalists" continue to press for legislation that would force every student in every Virginia public classroom to observe "a moment of silent meditation, prayer or reflection." The bill's sponsor, Warren Barry, claims he put the bill forward "to do something to stem the spread of violence in schools" while disingenuously insisting that "[t]his is not a religious crusade." Even though the overwhelming majority of such measures have never passed constitutional muster, the General Assembly continues its fight to force our children to pray — goaded by and supported financially by Robertson and his Christian Coalition, and Falwell and his Moral Majority. Ironically, when a bill was introduced in the Senate to close all loopholes that allow students to bring weapons onto school grounds, the measure was trounced. So much for real concerns about the "spread of violence in schools."

As for Mencken's "booboisie," Virginia still has them in abundance. National late-night television audiences were recently treated to repeated clips of Richmond City Councilman Sa'ad El Amin stating threateningly and ominously, "You better bring your stuff!" No matter what the reason for his statement, the clip made Richmond and its City Council a momentary national laughing-stock. Shortly thereafter, when City Council decided to rename for civil rights leaders two bridges that had been named for Civil War heroes — and this in the wake of the Flood Wall Fiasco — state and regional audiences were barraged by television interviews with uniformed members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans outraged at another attack on their "heritage." That Richmond (and the commonwealth) has a whole street lined with statues of Civil War heroes, and schools, buildings, and streets that also bear their names seems to be of little account to the SCV.

So what does Virginia look like to the rest of the country in light of these events? Politicians who are enamored of drinking-while-driving-gun-toting good ol' boys, who want to put prayer in school and keep guns there too, led by a group of Bible-beating, Scripture-quoting demagogues , with a population that continues to wave the Confederate flag in homage to the "Lost Cause" of a century and a half ago.

Somewhere, H.L. Mencken is chuckling and Virginius Dabney is slowing spinning in his grave. And that is not a joke, son.

Jim Watkinson is a historian who lives in Richmond and is the grandson of Virginius Dabney.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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