Thursday, April 22, 2010

Moral Indignation, by H. L. Mencken


The loud, preposterous moral crusades that so endlessly rock the republic -- against the rum demon, against Sunday baseball, against Sunday moving-pictures, against dancing, against fornication, against the cigarette, against all things sinful and charming -- these astounding Methodist jehads offer fat clinical material to the student of mobocracy. In the long run, nearly all of them must succeed, for the mob is eternally virtuous, and the only thing necessary to get it in favor of some new and super-oppressive law is to convince it that that law will be distasteful to the minority that it envies and hates. (...) The hardworking householder who, on some bitter evening, glances over the Sunday Evening Post for a square and honest look at his wife is envious of those gaudy drummers who go gallivanting about the country with scarlet girls; hence the Mann Act. If these deviltries were equally open to all men, and all men were equally capable of appreciating them, their unpopularity would tend to wither.

-from Damn! A Book of Calumny (1918), public domain

The most amazing thing about reading H. L. Mencken is that, if there weren't occasional references to historical events, you would completely forget that his criticism of American society is nearly a century old. The main theme of his career was to mock and excoriate the small-minded idiots who attack art, literature, science and harmless fun in the name of morality, virtue and religion -- to do so viciously but without ever sacrificing humor. Reading him today is at once remarkable and depressing; remarkable because he sees so clearly into the heart of the American character that his criticism transcends his era, and depressing because we're still fighting the same battles today that he was then. I wish he was still around to help us.

I'll leave you with one more quote from the same book:
It is argued against certain books, by virtuosi of moral alarm, that they depict vice as attractive. This recalls the king who hanged a judge for deciding that an archbishop was a mammal.

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