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H.L. Mencken on Envy and Democracy

Mencken:

No doubt my distaste for democracy as a political theory is, like every other human prejudice, due to an inner lack-to a defect that is a good deal less in the theory than in myself. In this case it is very probably my incapacity for envy.

That emotion, or weakness, or whatever you choose to call it, is quite absent from my make-up; where it ought to be there is a vacuum. In the face of another man’s good fortune I am as inert as a curb broker before Johann Sebastian Bach. It gives me neither pleasure or distress. The fact, for example, that John D. Rockefeller had more money than I have is as uninteresting to me as the fact that he believed in total immersion and wore detachable cuffs. And the fact that some half-anonymous ass or other has been elected President of the United States, or appointed a professor at Harvard, or married to a rich wife, or even to a beautiful and amiable one: this fact is as meaningless to me as the latest piece of bogus news from eastern Europe.

The reason for this does not lie in any native nobility or acquired virtue. Far from it, indeed. It lies in the accidental circumstance that the business I pursue in the world seldom brings me into very active competition with other men. I have, of course, rivals but they do not rival me directly and exactly, as one delicatessen dealer or or clergyman or lawyer or politician rivals another.

It is only rarely that their success costs me anything, and even then the fact is usually concealed. I have always had enough money to meet my modest needs and have always found it easy to get more than I actually want. A skeptic as to all ideas, including especially my own, I have never suffered a pang when the ideas of some other imbecile prevailed. […]

And there is only one sound argument for democracy, and that is the argument that it is a crime for any man to hold himself out as better than other men, and, above all, a most heinous offense for him to prove it.

What I admire most in any man is a serene spirit, a steady freedom from moral indignation, an all-embracing tolerance-in short, what is commonly called good sportsmanship. Such a man is not to be mistaken for one who shirks the hard knocks of life. On the contrary, he is frequently an eager gladiator, vastly enjoying opposition. But when he fights, he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon. That is to say, he carefully guards his amour propre by assuming that his opponent is as decent a man he is, and just as honest-and perhaps, after all, right. Such an attitude is palpably impossible to a democrat. His distinguishing mark is the fact that he always attacks his opponents, not only with all arms, but also with snorts and objurgations-that he is always filled with moral indignation-that he is incapable of imaging honor in an antagonist, and hence incapable of honor himself.

Such fellows I do not like. I do not share their emotion. I cannot understand their indignation, their choler. In particular, I can’t fathom their envy.

And so I am against them.

Taken from A Blind Spot from the Smart Set, 1920, pp.43-44

Published in Brian Jacobson