Saturday, April 29, 2017


Uplifters and Reformers

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), Minority Report (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), p. 84, § 113:
Uplifters of all sorts spend their time cadging money from A to save the so-called underprivileged B. Once they settle down to their business the cadging of this money becomes an end in itself, and they'd keep on doing it even if all the underprivileged were succored. Even setting aside considerations of their private profit, it must be manifest that they are moved largely by mere professional zeal. Every quack always ends by convincing himself that his quackery is a boon to humanity. It is impossible to convince any given uplifter that the world would still go on if his graft were abolished.
Id., pp. 113-115, § 156:
Of all varieties of men, the one who is least comprehensible to me is the fellow who immolates himself upon the altar of what he conceives to be the public interest—in other words, the reformer, the uplifter, the man, so-called, of public spirit. What I am chiefly unable to understand is his oafish certainty that he is right—his almost pathological inability to grasp the notion that, after all, he may be wrong. As for me, I am never absolutely certain that I am right, and for the plain reason that I am never absolutely certain that anything is true. It may seem to me to be true, and I may be quite unable to imagine any proof of its falsity—but that is simply saying that my imagination is limited, not that the proposition itself is immovably sound. Some other man, better born than I was or drinking better liquor, may disprove it tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, then day after tomorrow, or maybe next week, or next year. I know of no so-called truth that quite escapes this possibility. Anything is conceivable in a world so irrational as this one.

But even if the truth were not wobbly I should still hesitate a long while before sacrificing any of my comfort or security to it. The man who does so seems to me to be one who deceives himself doubly. First, as I have noted, he convinces himself that he cannot be wrong, which is nonsense. And then he convinces himself that he is disinterested, which is also nonsense. Actually altruism simply does not exist on earth, at least in our present glorious age. Even the most devoted nun, laboring all her life in the hospitals, is sustained by the promise of a stupendous reward—in brief, billions of centuries of undescribable bliss for a few years of unpleasant but certainly not unendurable drudgery and privation. What passes for altruism among lesser practitioners is even less praiseworthy; in most cases, indeed, it is only too obviously selfish and even hoggish. In the case of the American reformer, in his average incarnation, the motive seldom gets beyond the yearning for power, the desire to boss things, the itch to annoy his neighbors. If they really wanted to be saved from their iniquities he would let them alone; if they bawled to give up their money he would not press them for it; if they did not flee him he would not pursue them. Well, this happens to be a motive that burns in my own breast very feebly, so I am not a reformer. Like all other men, of course, I pant for power—but not the power to afflict and dominate a rabble of my inferiors. I have had the job, in the past, of bossing them, but it gave me no joy, and I got rid of it as soon as possible. Thus I lack altogether the messianic hankering, and to that extent must remain a bad American. When people seem to me to be immersed in error and sin, I can discover no impulse to save them, but only a gentle hope that their follies will soon translate them to bliss eternal, and I'll be rid of the nuisance of their presence.

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