A readiness to doubt


I arose on September 12 prepared to celebrate the birthday of H.L. Mencken, who would have been 132 had the flesh prevailed, but who nonetheless is 132 because the fresh prevails. Yes, the pith and pungency of the Sage of Baltimore, the scourge of all human folly, remains as vital as when first committed to paper. Mencken’s favorite targets were fools and jackasses. Ergo: “It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.”

The government and politics notwithstanding, Mencken considered the greatest source of jackasses and fools to be the roiling, muddy pool at the confluence of ignorance and fundamentalist religion. Inevitably, he contended, government and politics are sucked into the eddy.

“The worst government is the most moral,” Mencken opined. “One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.”

And so it was on Mencken’s birthday we awoke to the news that our man in Libya, the personal representative of the president of the United States, Ambassador Christopher Stevens, had been murdered, with three other Americans, in an attack against our consulate in Benghazi, a city U.S. forces had protected against the murderous rage of the (late) dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi. It now appears the assault was a conspiracy in waiting, perhaps an al-Qaeda offensive, an attack in search of political — read, religious — cover. The assailants were handed their excuse by the one or more individuals responsible for a film attacking Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The producers were initially reputed to be hard line Jewish Zionists but more recent reporting strongly suggests, at a minimum, the involvement of Christian zealots fearful of global Islamic takeover. The producers of the movie — no one seems certain if it is actually a full-length feature or some scenes cobbled together — undeniably were exercising their right to free speech. They are also jackasses, and fools. So is that “Christian” preacher in Florida, the one who thinks burning a Koran is a worthy observance of the First Amendment. “The trouble with fighting for human freedom,” Mencken wrote, “is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

The terrorists who killed our ambassador and his colleagues — and the Libyans who died trying to protect them — may well prove to be among those who believe the modern world entirely of the devil and that Jews and Christians, all of them, stand in the way of a perfect Islamic planet. Regardless, they are murderous, ignorant jackasses.

Again, Mencken: “Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on ‘I am not too sure.’”

Mitt Romney, jumping the gun and issuing a statement falsely accusing the Obama administration of “apologizing for American values,” looked like a fool. In reiterating his theme after it was learned of the Americans’ deaths, he looked like a jackass.

President Obama, who Romney, in an attempt to court conservative Christians, has repeatedly and falsely accused of “throwing Israel under the bus,” looks a fool for giving Israel everything it has asked for and then some, all the while allowing Prime Minister Netanyahu to order him about as if he was a fool. So now, in a region where secular education is limited by resources, though also by custom and sometimes by religious decree, and where prayer in such public schools as there are usually is both abundant and compulsory, there are, in a half-dozen countries, demonstrations, riots or near-riots, some of them endorsed by clergy, some of them condemned (and some not) by civilian authorities. High unemployment in most of the countries may give some of the angry time to participate in the violence but the passionate certainty of their beliefs grants them the license.

Mencken, of all faiths, all governments: “Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.”

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.