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H. L. Mencken“I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented, at least in the field of government, in a thousand years. I believe that it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air – that progress made under the shadow of the policeman’s club is false progress, and of no permanent value.

I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave…

In any dispute between a citizen and the government, it is my instinct to side with the citizen… I am against all efforts to make men virtuous by law.”


From H.L. Mencken, writing in his article “Why Liberty?”, published in the Chicago Tribune on January 30th, 1927.

I had to reread this essential essay after scanning the sixth chapter of Mencken’s Prejudices a few nights ago and running across his consummately cool statement that, “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” Of course the thought is only metaphorical — and its overt violence only meant to instill verve, not aggression, in the reader — but under the shadow of the monsters now slitting throats under black flags across Iraq and Syria, the paragraph didn’t sit well. But that’s not Mencken’s fault, and there could be no more durable, stalwart rebuke of Takfirism, Salafism, and all other totalitarianisms than his article “Why Liberty,” published only a decade after the October Revolution and a decade before the Spanish Civil War.

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