Because it came up in a Twitter conversation (with Vlad Chituc and Michael Payton) and because sometimes a good polemical response is called for, I thought we should revisit Hazlitt’s Letter to Gifford. (I say revisit because I did a post on it back in 2004.)
SIR, You have an ugly trick of saying what is not true of any one you do not like; and it will be the object of this letter to cure you of it. You say what you please of others : it is time you were told what you are. In doing this, give me leave to borrow the familiarity of your style : for the fidelity of the picture I shall be answerable.
You are a little person, but a considerable cat’s-paw; and so far worthy of notice. Your clandestine connection with persons high in office constantly influences your opinions, and alone gives importance to them. You are the Government Critic, a character nicely differing from that of a Government spy; the invisible link that connects literature with the police. It is your business to keep a strict eye over all writers who differ in opinion with His Majesty’s Ministers, and to measure their talents and attainments by the standard of their servility and meanness. For this office you are well qualified. Besides being the Editor of the Quarterly Review, you are also paymaster of the band of Gentlemen Pensioners ; and when an author comes before you in the one capacity, with whom you are not acquainted in the other, you know how to deal with him. You have your cue beforehand. The distinction between truth and falsehood you make no account of : you mind only the distinction between Whig and Tory. Accustomed to the indulgence of your mercenary virulence and party-spite, you have lost all relish as well as capacity for the unperverted exercises of the understanding, and make up for the obvious want of ability by a barefaced
want of principle. The same set of threadbare commonplaces, the same second-hand assortment of abusive nick-names, the same assumption of little magisterial airs of superiority, are regularly repeated ; and the ready convenient lie comes in aid of the dearth of other resources, and passes off, with impunity, in the garb of religion and loyalty.
The end sanctifies the means; and you keep no faith with heretics in religion or government. You are under the protection of the Court j and your zeal for your king and country entitles you to say what you choose of every public writer who does not do all in his power to pamper the one into a tyrant, and to trample the other into a herd of slaves. You derive your weight with the great and powerful from the very circumstance that takes away all real weight from your authority, viz., that it is avowedly, and upon every occasion, exerted for no one purpose but to hold up to hatred and contempt whatever opposes
in the slightest degree and in the most flagrant instances of abuse their pride and passions. You dictate your opinions to a party, because not one of your opinions is formed upon an honest conviction of the truth or justice of the case, but by collusion with the prejudices, caprice, interest, or vanity of your employers.
That’s a sample of it. A fine pleasure for a Sunday afternoon; I wish you joy of it.