BY MATTHEW HERBERT
This post continues a thought I started a couple years on why I bother to write.
I make no claim to originality in this blog. Its title is taken straight from Orwell. Many of its ideas come from him as well, or from other writers, even where I fail to give them credit. I have stolen almost everything you might possibly read here.
And, as Orwell pointed out on the first page of “Charles Dickens,” the essay that got me addicted to literary criticism, some authors and ideas are well worth stealing.
Take this idea from H.L. Mencken, which I came across this morning in his essay “The American Tradition.” Menken is attacking book critics who promote Anglo-Saxonhood by censoring “foreign” ideas out of American literature:
I have come to believe in [their] inferiority thoroughly, and that it seems to me to be most obvious in those who most vociferously uphold the so-called American tradition. They are, in the main, extremely stupid men, and their onslaughts are seldom supported by any formidable weight of metal. What they ask the rest of us to do, in brief, is simply to come down voluntarily and irrationally to their own cultural level–the level of a class that easily dominated the country when it was a series of frontier settlements, but that has gradually lost leadership as civilization has crept in. The rest of us naturally refuse, and they thereupon try to make acquiescence a patriotic matter, and to alarm the refractory with all sorts of fantastic penalties.
The main thing to notice here is not Mencken’s attack on the stupidity of the middlebrow white supremacist, which is bracing and pungent, yes, but old hat. Read any 100 pages by the old mammal, and you will find this trope in 70. (Enjoy, by the way.)
What struck me with the force of an electric current though, was Mencken’s identification of fear as the defining characteristic of bigotry, and even more than that, how the forces of bigotry use fear’s gravitational power to try to pull the civilizing few down to their level of misery. And no sooner had I processed this idea than I realized one of the cardinal reasons I keep this diary: to resist this gravitational pull. I write to resist the injunctions of fear and bigotry, which threaten to pull decent folk down into brutality and swinishness.
Mencken’s words remind me that keeping this journal is an attempt at self respect. I may be wrong in my optimistic belief that human dignity is possible: fear may be humankind’s natural and proper response to a world ruled by the law of the jungle. But now that we have built this experimental city on a basis science, reason, law and art, I cannot bring myself to throw away the chance it affords us to become decent. Writing is the best way I know to defy the powers who ask me to voluntarily throw this chance away. Fear may have dominated our country when it was less civilized, but we need not let it do so today. Times change.