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By Will Sommer
November 9, 2011
Caption : The H.L. Mencken Club invites professors to speak about racist “research,” like claims that a person’s race can indicate their intelligence.      

While the majority of the nation’s professors spent the past weekend grading papers, attending academic receptions, or doing something similarly tweedy, five academics from American universities spent the first weekend of November in a very different way—by delivering speeches at the H.L. Mencken Club, a radical group the Anti-Defamation League has called a “racist gathering.”

The H.L. Mencken Club—which met in the Baltimore suburb of Linthicum, Md., last weekend for its fourth annual conference—draws members from several streams of the radical right, including paleoconservatives, worshipers of the Norse pantheon, believers in racially-determined IQ’s, and even some aspiring pick-up artists.

But the club also drew cachet from several university professors who will attend. One is the group’s president. At least one supports scientific tests into racial intelligence differences. And others were attracted to the meeting by ideological similarities.

And some of them, if history is a guide, likely had no idea what they were walking into.

Patrick Deneen, a government professor at Georgetown University, falls into that group.

Deneen, who taught one of my courses at Georgetown, came to the club in 2009 to deliver a speech on Catholic traditions. But as he watched the speaker preceding him defend the use of scientific testing to discern intelligence differences between various races, he decided he better add a warning against eugenics—the term for such a practice—to his lecture.

Before he spoke, Deneen warned the audience members that he might make some “discomfiting” points. Only in the H.L. Mencken Club’s bizarre ethical world would opposing eugenics be considered controversial.

“A lot of these people, in a way, pine for the era of segregation, when whites ruled the roost,” Heidi Beirich, the director of research at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Campus Progress.

But the club and its members don’t fit into the archetypes of skinheads or cross-burning white nationalist, Beirich said.

Instead, they represent the “uptown Klan,” in Beirich’s words—continuing a reprehensible tradition of racial appeals striving for mainstream respectability, stretching back as far as opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.

And while club members likely aren’t using racial slurs in public, some of their ideas are just as ugly.

In the short history of its annual conference, the club has hosted promoters of racial differences in intelligence like Steve Sailer, who uses the term “human biodiversity” to describe his queasy science.

University of Utah Professor Henry Harpending spoke at the club’s meeting last weekend about similar intelligence scores among the same racial groups, even when the test-takers are in different countries. He acknowledges that his views can be controversial outside the club.

“Somebody’ll call you a racist,” he said. “But that’s the way the world is.”

The group’s organizers have dabbled in their own racial politics, too.

Paul Gottfried, the club’s president and a professor of political science at Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown College, has also spoken at a conference held by the white nationalist group American Renaissance, for which flyers have reportedly been distributed to club members.

Michael Desch, a Notre Dame professor who was scheduled to give a lecture on human rights at last weekend’s retreat, wrote in an email to Campus Progress that he doesn’t think Gottfried holds racist views. Instead of using “guilt by association” to tarnish the club, Desch said he thinks opponents like the Southern Poverty Law Center should engage its ideas with research of their own.

And Richard Spencer, this year’s master of ceremonies, has cut a wide swath across the far right, including his position as a director of the National Policy Institute, which bills itself as a think tank defending white Americans’ rights.

Spencer says he uses the Club to bring together academics and activists. 

“The idea is to form an intellectual right,” he said in an interview.

While the club draws much of its strength from the isolationist, anti-immigrant paleoconservative movement—prominently represented in public by frequent club speaker Pat Buchanan—it also features more eccentric, and often bigoted, ideologies.

At last weekend’s meeting, a lecturer memorialized Joe Sobran, a former editor at National Review who associated with Holocaust deniers and wrote anti-Semitic articles that described Jewish people as “radical and nihilistic.”

And during last year’s meeting, World Net Daily columnist Ilana Mercer wondered aloud in her speech why South Africa’s apartheid government gave up power so easily—a troubling reading of history.

At that time, Mercer also touted her disturbing book about the end of apartheid, Into the Cannibal’s Pot; its cover is illustrated with a picture of a naked white woman, pulled into the fetal position and covered in black handprints.

The club’s connection to its namesake is nebulous.

H.L. Mencken, a Baltimore journalist and essayist, had his own conflicting, ugly views on minorities, which Journalist Christopher Hitchens has described in this way:

“He was scrupulous and mannerly in his dealings with individual Jews and African Americans, while apparently harboring crass suspicions of them in the mass.”

His contrarianism and elitism also appeal to the group; one of the Club’s presenters this year describes himself as a monarchist.

But Mencken was fiercely opposed to religion, which meshes uneasily with the club’s reverence for white Christianity. Nicholas Towasser, a Mencken enthusiast who has published a collection of his writings, came away from a club meeting confused that there were so many speeches about religion.

“We’re not the H.L. Mencken Society; we don’t study him,” E. Christian Kopff, a classics professor at the University of Colorado and the associate director of the school’s honors program, then explained to Towasser.  “Like Mencken, we’re in opposition to the FDR regime that’s still ruling this country.”

Kopff, who declined to speak with me about his involvement in the club and spoke at last weekend’s conference, has previously written for Occidental Quarterly, a website rife with dark theories about the Jewish role in controlling white Americans, though his own articles focus on conservatism.

Towasser was also shocked to see participants saying grace over their meals at a club ostensibly about Mencken, something their namesake would have clearly frowned up.

“It was like something from a comic novel: mind-blowingly hypocritical and disrespectful to his memory,” he wrote on his blog.

Kevin Gutzman, a history professor at Western Connecticut State University, came away similarly disturbed after the club’s 2009 meeting, though for a different reason.

Gutzman delivered a speech on the Constitution, but soon, he was turned off by other speakers’ frequent references to race and intelligence.

“I’ve never been back,” Gutzman said. “Because I didn’t like that.”

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