Sunday, October 6, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 166: H. L. Mencken, The Nature of Liberty (#36)

H. L. Mencken, "The Nature of Liberty" (1920) from H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series:

It seems like every week or so, we get at least one story of some ridiculous, tragic, foul abuse of power by police (e.g., performing illegal body cavity searches on stopped cars in Texas), institutional administrators (e.g., covering up rape or other crimes, from Church to university), or other officials who we put trust in (e.g., shutting down the government in a temper tantrum over a law that was passed years ago and upheld by every branch of government--just for example).

So Mencken's attack on this trend in American culture reads unfortunately true even 90+ years later. When he says that the Bill of Rights was "inelastic" when it was adopted, but has now been "kneaded and mellowed into a far greater pliability and reasonableness," I hear echoes of people who say things like "After 9-11"--and then follow it with some draconian and unAmerican proposal.

(Which is not to say that I believe in any bullshit originalism when it comes to the Constitution. Obviously, some things change, as in the obvious example of technology; at the same time, some things change more slowly, if at all, as in the obvious example of our ideals and hopes: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.")

Mencken exposes this ridiculous kowtowing to violence on the part of a certain segment of society by pretending to be for it, noting that, for instance, someone who was imprisoned falsely has the recourse... of taking his photo down from the public section of the police precinct. This is so much like the idea that surveillance isn't a big deal if you have nothing to hide (at the same time as various surveillers are caught snooping their exes), that I'm not sure whether to be heartened that things haven't changed or depressed about it. Mencken's pose of naive acceptance is somewhat humorous, but his anger is too close to the surface for him--and for me--for this to be a really hilarious satire.

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