Stand Up On a Hill

The scene is in the trenches on the muddy, bloody Western Front.  It appears in the third volume of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy of the First World War, Parades’ End (1924-1928), where a war-weary Sergeant Major says this to the story’s hero, Christopher Tietjens:

“Then a man could stand hup on an ’ill . . . You really mean to say, sir, that you think a man will be able to stand up on a bleedin’ ’ill.”

At the Summit, Edward H. Potthast (c. 1924)

The Sergeant-Major is talking about what he imagines it will be like once the War has ended, the shooting has stopped, and the muddy men can climb up out of their trenches, burrows and bunkers.  The Sergeant Major goes on to say,

“You want to stand up! Take a look round . . . . Like as if you wanted to breathe deep after bein’ in a stoopin’ posture for a long time!”


The Sergeant Major gave Ford the title of his third volume, A Man Could Stand Up (1926)As Christopher Tietjens reflects somewhat later in the novel,

“For the Lincolnshire Sergeant-Major the word Peace meant that a man could stand up on a hill.”

Stand up on a hill, breathe deep, look round, and not be picked off by a sniper, mowed down by a machine gun, or torn to shreds by whistling scraps of deadly shrapnel.

* * * * *

Freedom of speech is often defended on the grounds that dissent and debate are necessary in the “search for truth.”  This may be true, but the social utility of the “marketplace of ideas” is not the principle grounds for freedom of speech.  Men and women should be permitted to speak freely because they “stand up on a hill” when they speak freely.  Denial of this liberty forces them to scurry down off their hills, assume a “stoopin’ posture,” and submit to the degradation of an unwilling liar, a accidental coward.

When I say unwilling liar, I mean a dissembler who does not wish to be a dissembler.  I mean men and women who are not natural frauds, but whose natural inclination is to stand up on hills in all frankness and candor.  This natural inclination to frankness and candor is good, but it is perverted when snipers and machine-gunners set the price of honestly standing up on a hill too high.

And when I say accidental coward, I simply mean a proud and plucky person for whom the price of honesty is too high when the price is to be picked off by a sniper, mowed down by a machine gun, or torn to shreds by whistling scraps of shrapnel.

You do not live in a free country if only toadies and suicidal martyrs are permitted to stand up on hills.  This is the principal reason why men and women should be permitted to stand up, even on hills—even on very lonely hills where there is no one standing up beside them.

It is true that freedom of speech permits naturally fraudulent liars to run wild, and that it sets the price of honesty so low that fraudulent liars will stand up on hills beside drooling fools, both blabbering foolish and dangerous things.  But these scoundrels will have degraded themselves into scoundrels; these fools will have degraded themselves into fools.  No screaming bullets will have forced them to tell lies; no whistling shrapnel will have forced them to blabber folly.

Haze in the Valley, Charles Courtney Curran (1900)

The evil cause by fools and frauds is small compared to the evil of forcing honest men and women to “keep their heads down,” assume a “stoopin’ posture,” and submit to the degradation of an unwilling liar, an accidental coward.  I do not say this to shame anyone who is not presently standing up on a hill, since those screaming bullets are real, and that whistling shrapnel draws blood.

17 thoughts on “Stand Up On a Hill

  1. I know someone who grew up in a communist society who when I complained about the lack of freedom of speech on campus and elsewhere he commented that there was an easy solution; what you do is wait until surrounded by your most trusted buddies and then whisper to them your true opinion. He thought this a most wonderful and desirable solution. Who needs hills when one can whisper while looking over your shoulder in total fear and trembling?

  2. Pingback: Stand Up On a Hill | Reaction Times

  3. I’m a defender of censorship myself (or at least I was when it was an unpopular position–now it’s not as much fun), and yet I find the current environment obnoxiously oppressive. How to explain this?

    1) It’s just that I’m on the receiving end. Suppressing speech always seems oppressive when it’s speech one agrees with, always seems mild when it’s speech you also abhor.

    2) It’s that the list of forbidden opinions is growing so rapidly. Fixed restrictions do not feel so onerous, but not knowing what one will be allowed to say next week is intolerable, especially when one can be punished ex post facto.

    3) It’s that the censorship is informal, imposed by employers, journalists, and social media mobs rather than by government or Church, with no clear rules of what is punishable and what is not, and no due process protections wherein the accused has a chance to defend himself.

    Probably all of these contribute to my discomfort, but I think the third point is the worst.

    • Maybe it feels so onerous because the possessed are trying to stifle the ability to say obvious truths — “hate facts,” as Steve Sailer calls them. I do not find the idea of blasphemy laws oppressive, even if I may disagree with particular instantiations of them. There is something sensible about a society’s taking the sacred seriously. Bowing to the moment’s idols of the tribe, though, is more flagrantly idolatrous than most attempts to safeguard the sacred, and we should feel repulsed by such idiotic and wicked idolatry. Myself, I tend to romanticize paganism in the abstract, and I do not have positive inner responses when I read about this or that famous saint’s hacking down holy groves or pulling statues of heathen gods through the mud. However, when I’m actually confronted by pagan depravity, I want Samuel to come hewing not just prized idols but wicked and powerful idolaters into pieces before the Lord.

      • The apostles of progress are certainly busy pulling down heathen idols nowadays. What I see, now that the censorship shoe is on the other foot, is how often it is used as a tool of personal ambition or cruelty. I don’t wish to see anyone sexually harassed in the workplace, or anywhere else, but also believed that the rules to prevent sexual harassment are often used to harass and destroy people. I don’t wish to see anyone demeaned by ethnic slurs, but believe rules to prevent this are routinely used to demean or destroy rivals and enemies.

      • Freedom means putting the right people in prison. Not my words but I like the way it is put. In the same sense freedom of speech is censorship of the right opinions. Unfortunately, for some people this seems to be anathema.

    • I’m not sure that one can be in favor of censorship in principal, and without specifying its application. No one favors the death penalty in principal, and would therefore not object to its being used to deter littering and public intoxication. I think there is a name for what I am trying to say, but it’s too early in the morning for me to remember it. I think you are right about number three. As you know, the Inquisition was an attempt to deal with charges of heresy in a fair and orderly manner. Perhaps the present ad hoc regime will evolve into something like that.

  4. Commercial societies appear to numb their peoples’ sense of honor. Profit over principle — and the consequent hollowing of the soul. It is no wonder that we have become a nation of Mandarins, obediently following the commands of the least bureaucratic toady mindlessly fulfilling the latest imperial whim.

    • This is a good point that bears repeating. All the ancients recognized the moral hazards of commerce. But this naturally becomes crazy talk in an industrial society where commerce is king.

  5. I do not say this to shame anyone who is not presently standing up on a hill, since those screaming bullets are real, and that whistling shrapnel draws blood.

    The danger of course is that those screaming bullets and that whistling shrapnel carry with them great potential to inflict mortal wounds. A warrior ‘ain’t got time to bleed,’ and sometimes needs reminding that he’d best take time to duck.

    • I thought your link might be to the clip from the movie Patton where he reminds his soldiers that the point of war is not to die for your country, but to make the enemy die for his country. A martyr is not a hero if his side would have benefitted more from his living than his dying.

      • Sgt Daly, in his medal of honor citstion, famously rallied his men saying, “Come on you apes, you want to live forever?” A noble sentiment when storming a trench, maybe, but i hope none were disappointed that they made it alive to the other side.

      • If that trench was not worth the lives of those men, Sergeant Daly should have been court marshaled. It is a complicated question because self-sacrifice has spiritual and social consequences, and cannot be judged solely by social utility, but we should never lose sight of the fact that self-sacrifice is often extremely egotistical. The same is often true of martyrdom. In the circumstances alluded to in this post, I can respect a man who foregoes the glory of martyrdom because he has a responsibility to his wife and children. Speaking out might make him feel like a hero, but it won’t change anything but his employment status and his children’s prospects for a good start in life.

      • Well, there is martyrdom, and then there is Martyrdom. If I’d thought to post a clip from Patton in that particular sense, I’d probably have rather chosen the scene where he is apologizing for his abusive treatment of the unnerved coward in the hospital ward. He gritted his teeth and obeyed the order so that he might live to fight another day. Contrast that with, e.g., Rep. Yoho’s groveling apology to AOC for the mean and hurtful words he is alleged to have said to her, or about her to someone else (or whatever it all amounted to in reality), and you can’t help, or at least I can’t help, but feel utter contempt for the guy. My sense is that the Yoho guy essentially proved in his apology that it had been better had he died defending that hill. But anyway.

      • I agree. As I just wrote in my reply to Scoot, there are selfless and selfish martyrs. But on top of all that, there is the question of honor. We live in a post-honor society, so we have great difficulty thinking clearly about honor. At the same time, I believe honor is part of our natural psychology, and that questions of honor are therefore constantly springing up in inarticulate forms. I was recently reading about an 1890s gunfight on Main Street here in Bryan. It was between two men and a pair of brothers who had been consciously avoiding each other for weeks because they knew a face-to-face encounter would result in what the newspaper called “a difficulty.” Witnesses agreed that both sides were visibly dismayed when they walked onto Main Street and the same time and saw that the “difficulty” was upon them. I do (edit do not) want to see gunfights on Main Street, but I do not think modern men are superior because most of them are blind to such “difficulties.” As with your Rep. Yoho, they do not believe that groveling has a permanent effect on one’s soul. I suppose this is because most modern men deny that they have a soul on which groveling might have a permanent effect.

  6. There’s an interview at the New Yorker with one of the primary drafters of the Harper’s letter on open debate here:

    Mr. Williams is anxious to reassure the interviewer that he is not a free speech absolutist. He thinks Blake Neff had it coming. And they were careful not to associate with any Trump supporters. These guys will clearly not object if anyone here gets canceled.

    Maybe that’s not surprising, but I really can’t think of any politically or morally charged issue on which a true diversity of opinions is considered acceptable nowadays.


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