The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, APRIL 19, 1936
by W. J. Cash
TWO ESSAYS which, if I had my way about it, would be read and expounded to American school boys and girls at least once every day, are John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" and William Hazlitt's "On Vulgarity and Affectation."
As a nation we are forever and eternally mouthing about "our precious liberties." But when the thing is sounded down, not one man in a thousand actually so much as knows what those liberties are, and not one in ten thousand has enough understanding of the philosophy back of those liberties to appreciate their true meaning or to give them his full support--not one in ten thousand knows enough about them to be actually in favor of them. Liberty of speech? Why, yes, they recall that one when you press them. But they have never heard that the Constitution of the United States forbids to the Congress the passing of any law--any law whatsoever--abridging that liberty. They do not know, they do not in their hearts believe, that this provision was meant by those who wrote it and forced into the Bill of Rights to guarantee the right of a man to say without penalty whatever it pleases him to say, and though it seemed to all the world but himself to be damnable. They do not know, and they do not believe, that this liberty is as much the right of a Communist, say, as it is the right of a Republican or Democrat. They have no notion that when they stand by calmly and see a Communist or a Socialist or what you will blackjacked and carted off to the hoosegow for no other crime than having opened his foolish mouth in public, they are cutting away the ground from under their own feet--they are acquiescing in the substitution for the doctrine of free speech the Fascist principle that only those who agree with the powers that be shall be heard--and that tomorrow some easy extension of that principle may land themselves in the same unhappy box.
AND IF YOU try to make them see it, they simply go to a crackpot and a bore, quite likely in the pay of Moscow on your own account.
The result is that, while we go on with our complacent mouthing, our liberties are in reality vanishing rapidly. Laws have already been passed in a dozen states, which leave the liberty of speech only a mere empty phrase--which proclaim the Fascist principle openly and unashamed. In Congress, the Hon. Ham Fish and his associates have been hammering away for years--and not without effect. And, what with that and the gathering power of William Randolph Hearst's campaign for Fascism, the whole mass of our real liberties may be completely suppressed within another generation.
The only hope for arresting this destruction lies, not in the courts--very often they are a party to the thing--, but in the arousing in the masses of the people a genuine appreciation of the meaning of their liberties, a genuine understanding of what ground those liberties rest on. And that cannot be better done than by increaslessly instructing the young in this essay of Mill's--itself the very Bible of liberty.
As for Hazlitt's essay--maybe it ought to be inculcated in boys and girls all around the earth, but surely there have never been boys and girls who more need it than the Americans.
Listen to him: "Few subjects are more nearly allied than these two, vulgarity and affectation. There cannot be a surer proof of a low origin or an innate meanness of disposition, than to be always talking and thinking of being genteel. One must feel a very strong tendency to that which one is always trying to avoid: whenever we pretend, on all occasions a mighty contempt for anything, it is a pretty clear sign that we feel ourselves very nearly on the level with it. Of the two classes of people, I hardly know which is to be regarded with most distaste, the vulgar aping the genteel, or the genteel constantly sneering at and endeavoring to distinguish themselves from the vulgar. These two sets of people are always thinking of one another: the lower of the higher with envy, the more fortunate of their less happy neighbors with contempt. They are habitually placed in opposition to each other; jostle in their pretensions at every turn; and the same objects and train of thought (only reversed by the relative situation of the other party) occupy their whole time and attention. The one are straining every nerve, and outraging common sense to be thought genteel: the others have no other object or idea in their heads than not to be thought vulgar. That is but poor spite: a very pitiful type of ambition. To be merely not that which one heartily despises is a very humble claim to superiority: to despise what one really is, is still worse."
"A THING is not vulgar merely because it is common. 'Tis common to breathe, to see, to feel, to live. Nothing is vulgar that is natural, spontaneous, unavoidable. Grossness is not vulgarity, ignorance is not vulgarity: but all these become vulgar when they are affected and shown off on the authority of others, and or to fall to with the fashion of the company we keep... Simplicity is not vulgarity: but the looking to affectation of any sort for distinction is... An opinion is vulgar that is stewed in the rank breath of the rabble: nor is it a bit purer or more refined for having passed through the well cleansed teeth of a whole court. The inherent vulgarity is in having no other feeling on any subject than the crude, blind, headlong, gregarious notion acquired by sympathy with the infused multitude or with a fastidious minority... The true vulgar are the servum and purus imitatorum--the herd of pretenders to what they do not feel and to what is not habitual to them, whether to high or low life..."
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