O Generation of Vipers, How Can ye, Being Evil, Speak Good Things?

“In our democracy, many good qualities are certain to be found; but it would be vain to seek there for that old virtue styled sincerity.  It is doubtless comprised of many excellent ingredients; but also of envy, deception, ambition and slander, which serve our so-called democratic politicians or demagogues as a rich treat . . . .  Where this state of things restricted to politics alone, it might pass, but . . . democracy with its cunning deceit penetrates our entire existence and becomes a poison . . .”

Charles Sealsfeld, Life in the New World, or, Sketches of American Society (1844)

Every American lives in a state of radical insecurity.  I mean that his job, his social standing, his reputation, his companions, and nowadays even his marriage and family, may vanish at very little more than a moment’s notice.  And thus every American is enslaved to the good opinion of other Americans who are themselves radically insecure, and who are therefore the very opposite of averse to expediently stabbing him in the back.

In this respect every American knows the terrors of an American politician, who despite the irremovable appearance of our octogenarian legislators, lives in a state of radical insecurity.  Every politician knows the “dirt” is already on file, that these files grow fatter the longer he holds office, that they fill cabinets by the time he has grown into an “elder statesman.”   And so our Solons bite or hire their tongues just as circumstances require.

This is why democratic society is a snake pit of “envy, deception, ambition and slander.”  I think Sealsfeld should have added fear, anxiety and depression.  Democracy arouses envy and ambition when it declares that “any boy can grow up to be president” and “any man can become a millionaire.”  Democracy arouses fear, anxiety and depression because this implies that any boy can also grow up to be floor-mopper and any man can go broke and wind up in jail.  Thus the endless anxious struggle.

Thus the deception, the slander, the dissembling, the flattery, the lies.

This insecurity is radical, by which I mean real, but this reality is hidden behind a screen of apparent entrenchment.  If we Americans live in a state of radical insecurity, how, you may ask, do I explain all those octogenarian legislators?  How do I explain what appears to be the irremovable establishment?  Let me hand this over to H.L. Mencken, who will tell you how men get and stay on top.

“Out of the muck of their swinishness the typical American law-maker emerges.  He is a man who has lied and dissembled, and a man who has crawled.  He knows the taste of boot polish.  He has suffered kicks in the tonneau of his pantaloons.  He has taken orders from his superiors in knavery and has wooed and flattered his inferiors in sense.  His public life is an endless series of evasions and false pretenses.  He is willing to embrace any issue, however idiotic, that will get him votes, and he is willing to sacrifice any principle, however sound, that will lose them for him.  I do not describe the democratic politician at his inordinate worst; I describe him as he is encountered in the full sunshine of normalcy . . . . It is almost an axion that no man may make a career in politics in the Republic without stooping to such ignobility: it is as necessary as a loud voice . . . . They are men who, at some time or other, have compromised with their honor, either by swallowing their convictions or by whooping for what they believe to be untrue.  They are in the position of the chorus girl who, in order to get her humble job, has had to admit the manager to her person.” 

*) H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy (New York: Knopf, 1926), pp. 103-105


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