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Mencken Reconsidered

Posted 5/3/2006

I’m writing in response to Leo Sirota’s letter about H.L. Mencken (“Mencken Was No Mensch,” The Mail, April 26). I don’t doubt that Mr. Sirota’s anecdote is accurately recalled, or that it reflected Mencken’s attitude at the time, but I would recommend reading Marion Elizabeth Rodgers’ biography if Mr. Sirota is interested in a more complete and complicated picture of the man.

It’s sadly true that Mencken could never bring himself to acknowledge, or forcefully condemn, the German persecution of the Jews, but this was because his experience in the First World War had led him to mistrust Allied propaganda about his ancestral homeland’s atrocities (many of which, in that war, were fabrications). I’m not excusing Mencken’s comment or his callous attitude, only pointing out that he was a complicated guy, and like everyone he had his biases and blind spots.

He was, in many ways, a more compassionate and decent man than his public opinions (which were intended to provoke outrage) might lead you to expect. He confessed that he could feel only contempt for the poor, but once literally gave the coat off his back to a homeless man he met in Times Square during the Depression. He believed that African-Americans were an inherently inferior race, but was the first American editor to publish many black authors, among them W.E.B. Du Bois. He belittled rumors about the Holocaust, but also submitted affidavits and petitions to the government to grant entry to several German Jews fleeing to the United States. Despite his regrettable prejudices, he was always open to judging any individual on his (or her) own merits. Plus he was usually funny as hell. I won’t defend his anti-Semitism; just saying that a man’s whole character ought not to be summarily condemned over one bad joke.

Tim Kreider
New York

The author is a City Paper contributing artist and the creator of The Pain—When Will It End?, which runs in these pages every week.

Not United About 93

In his April 26 review of Paul Greengrass’ film United 93, Lee Gardner repeatedly claims that the movie is an accurate account of the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. Unfortunately, both Greengrass and Gardner are omitting a number of details that dispute the official version of those events.

For example, there was no plane wreckage found in the large hole in Shanksville, Pa., that was described as Flight 93’s last resting spot. This is confirmed by reviewing the news clips aired by the TV networks in the aftermath of that day (see

In addition, Gardner finds no irony with the claim that there were 19 hijackers that day. According to the BBC, four of the 19 hijackers were alive after the events of 9/11 went down (see The FBI has never bothered to publish a new list of hijackers in response to the BBC’s report.

Since 3,000 people were murdered in broad daylight there is ample reason for City Paper to cover the events of Sept. 11, 2001, with more probity Gardner does with his review.

Scott Loughrey

Lee Gardner responds: I did write that the filmmakers “hew[ed] as closely to [history] as possible,” but I only made such a claim once, in the final paragraph, not “repeatedly.” The number of hijackers and the location and disposition of the actual crash site are immaterial to the film, and therefore my review, which I stand by.

Hair Hoppers

Bush and his corrupt cronies. War in Iraq. Illegal immigrants pouring over the borders. And Iran knocking on Heaven’s door with the “Big Bomb.” And you give us six pages of prep-school boys’ hairstyles (“The Balti,” April 19). I thought City Paper was the last bastion of intelligent, cutting-edge journalism. You should be ashamed! What’s next? Fashion Tips from the Duke University Boys’ Lacrosse Team.

Curtis Leigh Kidwell

An article about the Balti! I love it! However, local Towsonites may know it by another name: the Calvert Hall Mullet.

Keep up the great work! Any newspaper that has a cover article about the ridiculous hairstyles of prep-school jocks is No. 1 in my book!

Emily Harris

An Old Punk Bitches

Jess Harvell’s snarky comments about Elvis Costello’s commissioned ballet score Il Sogno and Mr. Costello’s appearance with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on April 21 (Baltimore Weekly, April 19) did not make me tear up my box-seat tix for Friday.

I attended as planned, and to say that I enjoyed the entire concert would be a gross understatement. My own appreciation for Mr. Costello’s music began with the purchase of an import vinyl copy of My Aim Is True, prior to its U.S. release in 1977. My enthusiasm continues uninterrupted to include his most recent works, as well as all of his past.

A serious artist can often annoy the unsophisticated fan who is incapable of appreciating the result of the artist’s growth and new abilities. Did Mr. Costello really crawl “into his own ass sometime in the mid-’80s,” as Harvell suggests, or did he learn to read and write music, allowing him to communicate complex arrangements and compositions to other artists? His collaborations with Nick Lowe, producer of Armed Forces, haven’t ended with the ’80s. Steve Nieve still plays piano with Elvis. I think these fellows know a thing or two about music, and they’ve known Mr. Costello since the beginning. Judging by the concert I witnessed, we should all probably do well to follow Mr. Costello’s example and crawl into our respective asses. No doubt we will be much improved.

Finally, for Philistine Harvell to dis the BSO, a world-class orchestra, makes me angry indeed. What does Harvell mean by “actual classical music”? Perhaps something done before the mid-1980s? Not only did the BSO capture the magic of Costello’s vision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they also swung like Charles Mingus, and seriously rocked out to new orchestral arrangements by Costello and Nieve of Costello’s older tunes.

I enjoyed last year’s Elvis Costello concert at Ram’s Head Live, but this concert with the BSO showcased Costello’s considerable talents as a composer, lyricist, musician, and vocalist in a variety of genres. Don’t confuse him with some ancient rocker who has taken to standards in his dotage. At fiftysomething, this man is still making important music and has not lost his chops. In my box at the Meyerhoff, there weren’t any faux punks whining that Elvis Costello didn’t sing “Oliver’s Army” and how they really liked his jittery persona better. This old punk bitch would have dropped her opera glasses long enough to toss the brat over the rail.

Alix Tobey Southwick

Thanks for Standing Up

It’s about time someone exposed the scurrilous behavior of the Baltimore Police Department, City Hall, and the City Solicitor’s Office (“Retaliation Syndrome,” Mobtown Beat, April 19). Nothing can replace what Jeremiah Kelly and Stanford Franklin, two beyond-reproach law-enforcement professionals, have endured. Public ridicule, loss of pay, endangerment from criminals, and all because of spite, lies, and total lack of professionalism from their higher-ups. It’s time to put the department under the control of the state and clean out Baltimore from City Hall on down. Hopefully, all four citizens will get their day in court and appropriate compensation. Long live the First Amendment, and thanks for having the guts to write this story. Keep following it, as the powers that be will spin, frame, and deny!

Mandy Johnson

Carter: The People’s Champion

Regarding the April 5 issue, I noticed that the “Kill Bill” article’s photo caption references Del. Jill P. Carter as “unpopular.” I don’t know where you got your information, but in my neighborhood (Upper Waverly) she is a hero. I have watched the elected officials rally behind and support a mayor whose legacy will be increased crime, failed schools, fallen communities, and a city that has become the model for “what not to become” in the media. As a Democrat it saddens me to think that only one delegate, Jill P. Carter, had the courage to bring forth and support the truth. Del. Carter is anything but unpopular. She has earned the respect of the people. It was refreshing to see someone stand up and fight. Her bill may not have passed, but it’s far from over! Good work, Del. Carter!

Jim Morrison

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