Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Friday, November 11, 2016

Concerning improper use of the word Moron

Dear Hannah,

I will begin this letter by expressing my disappointment with H.L. Mencken; and being disappointed (perhaps unfairly) because H.L. Mencken was not G.K. Chesterton.  The beauty of G.K. Chesterton wasn't only that he was right (whenever he was, that is); it was that he didn't have to tell you when he was.  His genius eked from every line; even when he was being ridiculous.  Mencken was distasteful not only enough to be right (when he was right), but to insist that he was right when he thought he was right.  And the way he insisted he was right was by insisting others were morons.

We know this because he said so -- profusely used the word moron and any other pejorative he could get his hands on; and while I firmly believe that many people are stupid and ought to know it, the whole point of an essay is telling people anything you can tell them that they wouldn't have been able to tell you.  Every essay in an attempted exercise in superiority.  Every word we publish is a testament to our belief in our sagacity.  Whether we're really smarter than everyone else or delusional is often proved in practice (wisdom, as Jesus says, is known by her children); and the proof of your being a successful writer is not in your saying so.  It's first in being right, and second in other people's realizing that only you could have said it like you, and being thoroughly grateful you've said it.

Mencken in the respect of a readership was apparently a success; but a success in the kind of marketing appreciated predominantly by weaklings: that is, the kind of marketing that  "confirms" your intelligence rather than your humility.  A great writer -- at least to those of us who like reading really great writers* -- should absolutely floor you with his genius.  He should make you feel like you've discovered something brilliant that you have to share with everyone else, and that if it hadn't been for this writer, you would have been like everyone else.  But I'm annoyed by men who call their enemies morons, because what they're saying isn't that their enemies are morons.  They're saying that if I agree with whatever they say I'm enlightened.  They're winking at me and saying thank God we're in this together and not like the rest of humanity.  This is a fine thing to feel, but not a brilliant thing to write.  If you're going to blow my mind, then blow it.  

I enjoy reading men who tell me I'm wicked, or lazy, or too soft, or confused; and they do it by pointing out wickedness or laziness or softness or confusion.  It's much more difficult to trust a preacher who flatters my intelligence.  Everyone is already in the habit of thinking we're right and that everyone else is stupid.  That's the meaning of our opinions.  That's why we have essayists and pundits and tyrants.   Nobody has to be reminded that we're intelligent.  We have to be reminded that we're ignorant -- by showing us that someone or some way is better.  Prove that I was wrong, and I have no choice but to worship you.  I go to essays to learn; not to have anyone tell me that I'm learned.    

On the other hand -- and it ought to be asked -- what is the point of having a word and not being able to use it?  What is to become of society if nobody should ever say anyone's a moron; that a large section of the American populace is illiterate, unwise, willfully ignorant, and possibly mentally retarded**?  That ideas of intelligence and of stupidity shouldn't be turned into labels and distributed accordingly?   Wouldn't this be a flattery by omission instead of commission?  Wouldn't we just be ignoring the elephant in the room?  

Absolutely.  Which is why moron ought to be used sparingly, and liberty defended with every ounce of our energy so that morons can ruin themselves publicly for our benefit.  The fool is just as great a teacher as the genius.  The difference is that the fool is always insisting he's wise while paying for it, and the wise man is getting paid in some way or another for his wisdom.     

Your father,

*A short list of my favorite writers, so profound that I feel almost embarrassed to have written anything after them: GK Chesterton, CS Lewis, Ayn Rand, Montaigne, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (for The Federalist alone), Samuel Johnson (particularly the Rambler essays), and Lord Macaulay.  

**The widespread opinion that we should never discuss religion and politics is suitable only for children and animals.  There is almost nothing I despise more than a preference for sports news over actual news; and evil itself in my opinion is almost preferable to bad taste and arrested development. 


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