Mencken on Liberty and the Inferior Man
In 1926, H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) wrote Notes on Democracy in which he expressed his views on democracy and related issues. He was a journalist, satirist, and critic and a libertarian and one of the leaders of the Old Right. In his book, he describes liberty and the inferior man, pages 51-58. Below is an overview of his discussion on the liberty and the inferior man; my comments are in brackets.
“All the revolutions in history have been started by hungry city mobs.” From this fact, some historians deduce “the doctrine that city life breeds a love of liberty.” To this notion, Mencken replies, “It may be so, but certainly that love is not visible in the lower orders. I can think of no city revolution that actually had liberty for its object, in any rational sense.” For example, freedom of speech “was actually given its first support in law by the most absolute monarch of modern times, to wit, Frederick the Great.” Mencken adds, “When it [the city] wins, its first act is to destroy every form of freedom that is not directed wholly to [satisfying hunger].” Its next objective “is to butcher all professional libertarians.”
Mencken notes “that liberty, in any true sense, is a concept that lies quite beyond the reach of the inferior man’s mind. He can imagine, and even esteem, in his way, certain false forms of liberty — for example, the right to choose between two political mountebanks, and to yell for the more obviously dishonest — but the reality is incomprehensible to him.” “[G]enuine liberty demands of its votaries a quality he [the inferior man] lacks completely, and that is courage. The man who loves it must be willing to fight for it; blood, said Jefferson, is its natural manure. More, he must be able to endure it — an even more arduous business.” [Perhaps this explains the great clamor for the welfare state by people with a lower-class mentality.] Mencken continues, “Liberty means self-reliance, it means resolution, it means enterprise, it means the capacity for doing without.” [Sacrifices the inferior man is not willing to make — especially those in the Democratic party and many in the Republican party.]
“The free man is one who has won a small and precarious territory from the great mob of his inferiors, and is prepared and ready to defend it and make it support him.” Having no friends, the free man “can hope for little help from other men of his own kind, for they have battles of their own to fight.”
The inferior man has no talent for self-reliance. Furthermore, he cannot even “understanding that such a talent exists. Liberty is unfathomable to him.” Moreover, “[h]e can no more comprehend it than he can comprehend honour.” To the inferior man, liberty “is simply the banal right to empty hallelujahs upon his oppressors. He is an ox whose last proud, defiant gesture is to lick the butcher behind the ear.” He shrinks from the responsibility of standing and acting alone.
Mencken explains that until the latter part of the eighteenth century, 80 percent “of the people of the world, white and black alike, were slaves, in reality if not in name.” Liberty to most people is a recent occurrence. “Thus the lower orders of men, however grandiloquently they may talk of liberty to-day, have actually had but a short and highly deceptive experience of it. It is not in their blood.” He adds, “The heritage of freedom belongs to a small minority of men, descended, whether legitimately or by adultery, from the old lords of the soil or from the patricians of the free towns.” Mencken contends “that such a heritage is necessary in order that the concept of liberty, with all its disturbing and unnatural implications, may be so much as grasped — that such ideas cannot be implanted in the mind of man at will, but must be bred in as all other basic ideas are bred in.” Consequently, most men are “still incapable of bearing the pangs of liberty.” Liberty makes them uncomfortable, alarms them, and fills them with great loneliness. Not only does the common man not long for liberty, “he is quite unable to stand it. What he longs for is something wholly different, to wit, security. He needs protection. He is afraid of getting hurt.” [The type of person whom Mencken is describing can be seen in the masses of people who were ready to abandon all liberties for security following 9-11. They all but shouted from the rooftops, “I will be your slave if you will protect me from the bogeyman.” And many did shout it. Of course, the elite who controlled President Bush was willing to oblige, and they brought forth the police state.]
As a result, “[t]he great masses of men, though theoretically free, are seen to submit supinely to oppression and exploitation of a hundred abhorrent sorts.” Obviously, they can resist but do not. “The worst tyrant, even under democratic plutocracy, has but one throat to slit. The moment the majority decided to overthrow him he would be overthrown. But the majority lacks the resolution; it cannot imagine taking the risk. So it looks for leaders with the necessary courage, and when they appear it follows them slavishly, even after their courage is discovered to be mere bunkum and their altruism only a cloak for more and worse oppressions.” Consequently, “[p]olitics become the trade of playing upon its [the majority’s] natural poltroonery — of scaring it half to death, and then proposing to save it. There is in it no other quality of which a practical politician, taking one day with another, may be sure. Every theoretically free people wonders at the slavishness of all the others. But there is no actual difference between them.” [Democratic and Republican politicians have become highly skilled at making half the population fear the other half. Only Democrats can save the masses from the evil Republicans, and only the Republicans can save the masses from the evil Democrats. And that is why the country has one party with two names.]
Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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