Democracy

The biggest exercise of popular will in the history of mankind has produced a government in Delhi after much haggling and massaging of egos. From the looks of it, we are in for another disastrous five years of socialism because the people who matter believe that its the social programs of the previous government that is responsible for this unexpected gift of a second five-year term. Unfortunately, they are more-or-less right. That doesn’t stop the “sages” however, from believing what they want to believe, as churumuri writes

[A]nd we have been seeing plenty of hindsight dressed as foresight over the last fortnight following the announcement of the results of the general elections, which bucked the “anti-incumbency” cliche and put the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance back in power.

# Indian Express editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta has said the politics of aspiration trumped the politics of grievance. CNN-IBN editor-in-chief Rajdeep Sardesai writes that it is a vote for decency in public life. Outlook editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta sees it as a vote against hate and abuse.

# Journalists aligned to the BJP like Swapan Dasgupta have said the BJP failed to keep pace with the realities of a new India. The BJP spokesman Sudheendra Kulkarni has said stability won over change. Atanu Dey says the Congress managed the media better.

# Many analysts have seen in the surprise Congress win, a vote for youth. Political psychologist Ashis Nandy detects a vote against arrogance. The economist Bibek Debroy among others has attributed the Congress win to its social welfare programmes. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has said the era of votebank politics is over.

And so on and on.

And on and on. (links removed)

Well, as expected, the Sanyals and Gopinaths and Sarabhais of the world have been soundly thrashed while career politicians have triumphed. Hopefully, these people will adopt cynicism – for their own good. There is a reason why these people lost – they don’t understand democracy. Mencken did, very well. That’s why he wrote this in “A Little Book in C Major,” a collection of pithy, topical, one liners-

Democracy is also a form of religion. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses.

What will the sheep do when the jackasses and jackals are cutting deals among themselves?

What needs to be understood about democracy – egalitarians and modern liberals will never agree – is that people have the power to vote without having the necessary qualifications to do so, and unlimited power over the fate of fellow citizens . And the outcome is disastrous. Mobocracy is an apt synonym for democracy.

About 80 years ago, Mencken wrote a book, “Notes on Democracy” (Google Books – this, or this). It is not “notes” on anything. Nor is it a critique, or criticism. It is, in fact, a disembowelment, or evisceration, or a crucifixion, or a hatchet job, or something similar, on/ of democracy. In his book, Mencken delves into the mind of the “democratic man” and concludes that he is stupid, petty, childlike, vindictive, and a danger to the virtuous people around him. He writes-

Men are not alike, and very little can be learned about the mental processes of a congressman, an ice-wagon driver or a cinema actor by studying the mental processes of a genuinely superior man. The difference is not only qualitative; it is also, in important ways, quantitative. One thus sees the world as a vast field of greased poles, flying gaudy and seductive flags. Up each a human soul goes shinning, painfully and with many a slip. Some climb eventually to the high levels; a few scale the dizziest heights. But the great majority never get very far from the ground. There they struggle for a while, and then give it up. The effort is too much for them; it doesn’t seem to be worth its agonies. Golf is easier; so is joining Rotary; so is Fundamentalism; so is osteopathy; so is Americanism.

In an aristocratic society government is a function of those who have got relatively far up the poles, either by their own prowess or by starting from the shoulders of their fathers — which is to say, either by God’s grace or by God’s grace. In a democratic society it is the function of all, and hence mainly of those who have got only a few spans from the ground. Their eyes, to be sure, are still thrown toward the stars. They contemplate, now bitterly, now admiringly, the backsides of those who are above them. They are bitter when they sense anything rationally describable as actual superiority; they admire when what they see is fraud. Bitterness and admiration, interacting, form a complex of prejudices which tends to cast itself into more or less stable forms. Fresh delusions, of course, enter into it from time to time, usually on waves of frantic emotion, but it keeps its main outlines, This complex of prejudices is what is known, under democracy, as public opinion. It is the glory of democratic states.

Its content is best studied by a process of analysis — that is, by turning from the complex whole to the simpler parts. What does the mob think? It thinks, obviously, what its individual members think. And what is that? It is, in brief what somewhat sharp-nosed and unpleasant children think. The mob, being composed, in the overwhelming main, of men and women who have not got beyond the ideas and emotions of childhood, hovers, in mental age, around the time of puberty, and chiefly below it. If we would get at its thoughts and feelings we must look for light to the thoughts and feelings of adolescents.

Be it a villager or peasant – a yokel, or a city slicker – the proletarian, democratic man is not concerned with liberty, the supposed cornerstone of democracy-

Under the festive surface, of course, envy remains: the proletarian is still a democrat. The fact shows itself grimly whenever the supply of panem et circenses falls off sharply and the harsh realities make themselves felt. All the revolutions in history have been started by hungry city mobs. The fact is, indeed, so plain that it has attracted the notice even of historians, and some of them deduce from it the doctrine that city life breeds a love of liberty. 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. The ideas of freedom that prevail in the world to-day were first formulated by country gentlemen, aided and abetted by poets and philosophers, with occasional help from an eccentric king. One of the most valid of them — that of free speech — was actually given its first support in law by the most absolute monarch of modern times, to wit, Frederick the Great. When the city mob fights, it is not for liberty but for ham and cabbage. When it wins, its first act is to destroy every form of freedom that is not directed wholly to that end. And its second is to butcher all professional libertarians. If Thomas Jefferson had been living in Paris in 1793, he would have made an even narrower escape from the guillotine than Thomas Paine made.

The fact is 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. And no wonder, for genuine liberty demands of its votaries a quality he 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. Liberty means self-reliance, it means resolution, it means enterprise, it means the capacity for doing without. 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. All around him are enemies, and where he stands there is no friend. He can hope for little help from other men of his own kind, for they have battles of their own to fight. He has made of himself a sort of god in his little world, and he must face the responsibilities of a god, and the dreadful loneliness. Has Homo boobiens any talent for this magnificent self-reliance? He has the same talent for it that he has for writing symphonies in the manner of Ludwig van Beethoven, no less and no more. That is to say, he has no talent whatsoever, nor even any understanding that such a talent exists. Liberty is unfathomable to him. He can no more comprehend it than he can comprehend honour. What he mistakes for it, nine times out of ten, 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 writes on the American constitution, and the American people, and American democracy-

The American people, keeping strictly within the Constitution, could do anything that the most soaring fancy suggested. They could, by a simple amendment of that hoary scripture, expropriate all the private property in the land, or they could expropriate parts of it and leave the rest in private hands; they have already, in fact, by tariff juggling, by Prohibition and by other devices, destroyed billions of dollars of property without compensation, and even without common politeness, and the Constitution still survives. They could enfranchise aliens if they so desired, or children not taxed, or idiots, or the kine in the byres. They could disfranchise whole classes, e.g., metaphysicians or adulterers, or the entire population of given regions. They have done such things. They could abolish the Federal and State Legislatures, as they have already abolished the city councils in hundreds of municipalities. They could extend the term of the President to life, or they could reduce it to one year, or even to one day. They could provide that he must shave his head, or that he must sleep in his underclothes. They could legalize his assassination for malfeasance, and the assassination of all other recreant public officers, as I myself once proposed, entirely within my rights as a citizen and a patriot. They could introduce burning at the stake, flogging, castration, ducking and tar-and-feathering into our system of legal punishment; they have already done so in the South by acclamation, regardless of the law and the courts, and, as the phrase is, have got away with it. They could abolish the jury system, abandon the writ of habeas corpus, authorize unreasonable searches and seizures, legalize murder by public officers and provide that all Federal judges be appointed by the Anti-Saloon League: a beginning has been made in all these fields by the Volstead Act. They could make war without constitutional authority and refuse to engage in it in the face of a constitutional declaration. They could proscribe individuals or classes, and deny them the protection of the laws. They could convert arson into a laudable act, provide a bounty for persons skilled at mayhem, and make it a crime to drink coffee or eat meat. They have already, either by Federal action or by State action, made crimes of such intrinsically harmless acts as drinking wine at meals, smoking cigarettes on the street, teaching the elements of biology, wearing a red necktie on the street, and reading Das Kapital and The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua. They could, with equal facility, make it criminal to refuse to do these things. Finally, they could, if they would, abandon the republican form of government altogether and set up a monarchy in place of it: during the late war they actually did so in fact, though refraining from saying so frankly. They could do all of these things freely, and even legally, without departing in the slightest from the principles of their fundamental compact, and no exterior agency could make them do any of them unwillingly.

[…]

[T]here is little appositeness in the saying of another German, the philosopher Hegel, that the masses are that part of the state which doesn’t know what it wants. They know what they want when they actually want it, and if they want it badly enough they get it. What they want principally are safety and security. They want to be delivered from the bugaboos that ride them. They want to be soothed with mellifluous words. They want heroes to worship. They want the rough entertainment suitable to their simple minds. All of these things they want so badly that they are willing to sacrifice everything else in order to get them. The science of politics under democracy consists in trading with them, ie., in hoodwinking and swindling them. In return for what they want, or for the mere appearance of what they want, they yield up what the politician wants, and what the enterprising minorities behind him want. The bargaining is conducted to the tune of affecting rhetoric, with music by the choir, but it is as simple and sordid at bottom as the sale of a mule. It lies quite outside the bounds of honour, and even of common decency. It is a combat between jackals and jackasses. It is the master transaction of democratic states.

An honest man can never hope to gain public office in a democracy, for more reasons than one-

Thus the ideal of democracy is reached at last: it has become a psychic impossibility for a gentleman to hold office under the Federal Union, save by a combination of miracles that must tax the resourcefulness even of God. The fact has been rammed home by a constitutional amendment: every office-holder, when he takes oath to support the Constitution, must swear on his honour that, summoned to the death-bed of his grandmother, he will not take the old lady a bottle of wine. He may say so and do it, which makes him a liar, or he may say so and not do it, which makes him a pig. But despite that grim dilemma there are still idealists, chiefly professional Liberals, who argue that it is the duty of a gentleman to go into politics — that there is a way out of the quagmire in that direction. The remedy, it seems to me, is quite as absurd as all the other sure cures that Liberals advocate. When they argue for it, they simply argue, in words but little changed, that the remedy for prostitution is to fill the bawdyhouses with virgins. My impression is that this last device would accomplish very little: either the virgins would leap out of the windows, or they would cease to be virgins. The same alternatives confront the political aspirant who is what is regarded in America as a gentleman.

The justice system is presided over by thieves and scoundrels-

The judiciary, under the American system, sinks quite as low. Save when, by some miscarriage of politics, a Brandeis, a Holmes, a Cardozo or a George W. Anderson is elevated to the bench, it carries on its dull and preposterous duties quite outside the stream of civilized thought, and even outside the stream of enlightened juridical thought. Very few American judges ever contribute anything of value to legal theory … they seem to be quite content to enforce any sort of law that is provided for their use by ignorant and corrupt legislators, regardless of its conflict with fundamental human rights…judges are so often chosen for purely political reasons, even for the Supreme Court of the United States, that the lawyer of professional dignity and self-respect hesitates to enter into the competition. Thus the bench tends to be filled with duffers, and many of them are also scoundrels, as the frequent complaints against their extortions and tyrannies testify…

The politician is without honour or grace-

The old Congressman, the veteran of genuine influence and power, is either one who is so stupid that the ideas of the mob are his own ideas, or one so far gone in charlatanry that he is unconscious of his shame. Our laws are made, in the main, by men who have sold their honour for their jobs, and they are executed by men who put their jobs above justice and common sense. The occasional cynics leaven the mass. We are dependent for whatever good flows out of democracy upon men who do not believe in democracy.

[…]

A glance through the Congressional Directory, which prints autobiographies (often full of voluptuous self-praise) of all Congressmen, is enough to show what scrub stock is in the Lower House. The average Southern member, for example, runs true to a standard type. He got his early education in a hedge school, he proceeded to some preposterous Methodist or Baptist college, and then he served for a time as a school teacher in his native swamps, finally reaching the dignity of county superintendent of schools and meanwhile reading law. Admitted to the bar, and having got a taste of county politics as superintendent, he became district attorney, and perhaps, after a while, county judge. Then he began running for Congress, and after three or four vain attempts finally won a seat. The unfitness of such a man for the responsibilities of a law-maker must be obvious. He is an ignoramus, and he is quite without the common decencies. Having to choose between sense and nonsense, he chooses nonsense almost instinctively. Until he got to Washington, and began to meet lobbyists, bootleggers and the correspondents of the newspapers, he had perhaps never met a single intelligent human being. As a Congressman, he remains below the salt. Officialdom disdains him; he is kept waiting in anterooms by all the fourth assistant secretaries. When he is invited to a party, it is a sign that police sergeants are also invited. He must be in his second or third term before the ushers at the White House so much as remember his face. His dream is to be chosen to go on a congressional junket, i.e., on a drunken holiday at government expense. His daily toil is getting jobs for relatives and retainers. Sometimes he puts a dummy on the pay-roll and collects the dummy’s salary himself. In brief, a knavish and preposterous nonentity, half-way between a kleagle of the Ku Klux and a grand worthy bow-wow of the Knights of Zoroaster. It is such vermin who make the laws of the United States.

[…]

I turn to the testimony of a Senator who stands out clearly from the rest: the able and uncompromisingly independent Reed of Missouri. This is what he said of his colleagues, to their faces, on June 2, 1924:

[The pending measure] will be voted for by cowards who would rather hang on to their present offices than serve their country or defend its Constitution. It would not receive a vote in this body were there not many individuals looking over their shoulders toward the ballot-boxes of November, their poltroon souls aquiver with apprehension lest they may pay the price of courageous duty by the loss of the votes of some bloc, clique, or coterie backing this infamous proposal. My language may seem brutal. If so, it is because it lays on the blistering truth.

Senator Reed, in this startling characterization of his fellow Senators, plainly violated the rules of the Senate, which forbid one member to question the motives of another. But there was no Senator present that day who cared to invoke those rules. They all knew that Reed told the truth. Their answer to him was to slink into the cloak-rooms, and leave him to roar at the Vice-President and clerks. He not only described the Senate accurately; he also described the whole process of law-making under democracy. Our laws are invented, in the main, by frauds and fanatics, and put upon the statute books by poltroons and scoundrels.

Those who are surprised and troubled by the attacks on artists, writers, art exhibitions, theaters, book stores, and kids having fun, by right wing religious whack jobs of all kinds, and left wing secular whack jobs of the only kind, should not be – surprised. It is the philistinism of the “democratic man” at work-

Learning survives among us largely because the mob has not got news of it. If the notions it turns loose descended to the lowest levels, there would be an uprising against them, and efforts would be made to put them down by law. In a previous treatise, adverting to this probability, I have sounded a warning against the fatuous effort to put the fine arts into the common-school curriculum in the United States. Its dangers are diminished, no doubt, by the fact that the teachers told off to execute it are themselves completely ignorant; but they remain dangers none the less. The peasants of Georgia, getting wind of the fact that grand operas were being played in Atlanta, demanded that the State Legislature discourage them with a tax of $1,000 a performance. In the Middle West, after the late war, the American Legion proceeded with clubs against fiddlers who played Beethoven and Bach. Everywhere in America galleries of paintings are under suspicion, and in most States it is impossible for them to display works showing the female figure below the clavicle. Nor is this distrust of the fine arts confined to the rural sections. The most active censorship of literature, for example, is to be found in Boston. The Methodist anthropoids of the town, supported by the Chandala of the Latin rite, clerical and lay, carry on so violent a crusade against certain hated books, unquestionably of sound quality, that the local booksellers fear to stock them…

In all this there is a great deal less of yearning for moral perfection than there is of mere hatred of beauty. The common man, as a matter of fact, has no yearning for moral perfection. What ails him in that department is simply fear of punishment, which is to say, fear of his neighbours. He has, in safe privacy, the morals of a variety actor. Beauty fevers and enrages him for another and quite different reason. He cannot comprehend it, and yet it somehow challenges and disturbs him. If he could snore through good music he would not object to it; the trouble with it is that it keeps him awake, So he believes that it ought to be put down, just as he believes that political and economic ideas which disturb him and yet elude him ought to be put down. The finest art is safe from him simply because he has no contact with it, and is thus unaware of it. The fact, in this great Republic, saves the bacon of ]ohann Sebastian Bach. His music remains lawful because it lies outside the cognizance of the mob, and of the abandoned demagogues who make laws for the mob.

Democracy is just another form of despotism which pretends otherwise. And the way laws are passed and enforced, the way innocent people are thrown in jail for imagined crimes is proof of that fact. It may be better than the despotism that one witnesses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (also known as North Korea), but only as a matter of degree. To repeat something that I have said previously in a different manner, I don’t think it is possible for sane people to live a sane life in any major democratic country – the “good life.” A free society, if it has to exist, needs to be formed of like minded people. Otherwise, its just a dream, a utopian idea. “Reforming” India, or America, or Britain is easier said than done. To borrow an idea from probability theory, a monkey banging away at a typewriter has a better chance of producing a Shakespearean play than the reform I refer to being successful. If this sounds fatalistic – I don’t think I am being that, just my usual cynical self – so be it. It all boils down to “man vs. men,” man in the abstract vs. men in the real world.

I’ll let Mencken have the last word.

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Comments

  • Atanu Dey  On May 30, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Excellent post. Thanks much.

    I admire Mencken. Here’s one from him on democracy — “Democracy is the theory that common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

    • Aristotle The Geek  On May 30, 2009 at 11:28 am

      Discovered him through a connection with Rand. The man is full of pleasant surprises, and shocking ones. As Jeff Tucker at the Mises blog writes-

      You can agree or disagree with him, but what I find great about this towering intellect is that he forces you to rethink everything you have taken for granted. Reading him is like getting electric shocks to the brain. He refuses to allow intellectual laziness. You find yourself thinking: “Is it really legal to write things like this? Do I have to hide this book if someone else enters the room?”

  • NYC Dude  On May 31, 2009 at 7:15 am

    Actually, Dissident Books late last year released a new edition of Mencken’s “Notes on Democracy.” It includes an introduction and extensive annotations by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” and an afterword by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Lewis. The new material provides context and opens vista Mencken’s words that otherwise would go unnoticed by a 21st century reader. Check it out at http://www.amazon.com/Notes-Democracy-H-L-Mencken/dp/0977378810/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1243734132&sr=8-1

  • blr_p  On September 7, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Hilarious, the things he says. Had to dig this one up for further study. I guess his contemporary in the music field would be Jim Morrison.

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