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For the Mob

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Certain of our esteemed betters who scrape their living together in disreputable papers telling us all what we should think have of late become obsessed – haunted – by the spectre of the mob, which has emerged from the shadowy recesses of the internet to disagree with them. A certain distressed moaning about civility and manners follows shortly on the heels of a great and low groan about people having the temerity to answer back. Mob! Mob! A great and unwieldy mass of disagreement and incivility which lends some joy to an inspection of the torrent of daily published pabulum – a grim and low gruel in whose greasy depths float lumps of fourth-hand opinion, undigested chunks of theory and slimy clumps of gratuitous offence.

Mob! You have broken the silent contract in which your gratitude is expected! Grovel in gratitude to those who condescend to write about you! Mob! Do you not know that you are supposed to sit still with lips sewn shut? Mob! Mob! Do not question! Do not speak!

It is a curious term for those who polish their left-wing halos to use. Some citations:

  • Arch-reactionary and sentimentalist-in-chief Edmund Burke: ‘Lord George Gordon..having..raised a mob (excuse the term, it is still in use here) which pulled down all our prisons.’ (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790)
  • Affronted 19th century Liberal M.E. Grant Duff: ‘The mob of the great cities..is hostile to us.’ (A Political Survey, 1868)
  • Joseph Addison, littéraire, with a manicured sneer into a thronging crowd: ‘A cluster of mob, who were making themselves merry with their betters.’ (…Freeholder, 1716)
  • Indignant Lord Chancellor, Lord Brougham, in horror of the people: ‘I do not mean the populace—the mob: I never have bowed to them.’ (Speeches, 1838)
  • A wheezing nightmare in the bastion of bourgeois taste, Harper’s Magazine, in this our contemporary age:  ’One ghost is terror of a self-aware, politicized proletariat—the age-old mugwumpish fear that the mob may organize to destroy the last fragile vestiges of civilized life.’ (Dec., 1993)

Of course, the word itself means simply, or historically, people in movement – people (who are inconvenient and have tongues in their mouths, and who, worse, use them to answer) risen from passivity. An imperfect audience. Mobile. Indeed:

  • The snorting fear of a 1697 aristocrat: ‘Ye mobele was very rud to ye Dutch Imbasidor & his wife.’ (Memoirs of the Verney family from the Restoration to the Revolution 1660-1696, [1899])
  • In 1714, an issue of the Spectator tantalises with ambiguity, but our fervent hope is that they were the sort of clubs one goes armed with: ‘ The Mobile were very sarcastick with their Clubs.’ (Nov., 1714)
  • Chambers in 1857 looks down its nose to tell us, thus: ‘In these agitations, the populace of London was particularly active; and it was at this period  that the term mob was first used. The word was an abbreviation of mobile vulgus, a phrase signifying ‘the unsteady vulgar’.’

Ah, the UNSTEADY VULGAR. And this is their name for the speaking crowd: unpossessed of the clear light of steady reason, the celestial eyrie of the columnist, giddy in vulgarity! Ungrateful!

To leave the best word till last, and spoken with the tremulous fear and jowled outrage only a lawyer can muster:

  • Roger North flushes from the page in distemper: ‘This Mob-assembly was drawn together for the Purpose of Terror.’ (Examen, 1740)

Yes, indeed.