THE SHADOW ON THE DIAL AND OTHER ESSAYS
By Ambrose Bierce
Edited by S. O. HOWES
A NOTE BY THE AUTHOR
IT WAS expected that this book would be included in my "Collected Works" now in course of publication, but unforeseen delay in the date of publication has made this impossible. The selection of its contents was not made by me, but the choice has my approval and the publication my authority.
Washington, D. C. March 14. 1909.
THE note of prophecy! It sounds sharp and clear in many a vibrant line, in many a sonorous sentence of the essays herein collected for the first time. Written for various Californian journals and periodicals and extending over a period of more than a quarter of a century, these opinions and reflections express the refined judgment of one who has seen, not as through a glass darkly, the trend of events. And having seen the portentous effigy that we are making of the Liberty our fathers created, he has written of it in English that is the despair of those who, thinking less clearly, escape not the pitfalls of diffuseness and obscurity. For Mr. Bierce, as did Flaubert, holds that the right word is necessary for the conveyance of the right thought and his sense of word values rarely betrays him into error. But with an odd—I might almost say perverse—indifference to his own reputation, he has allowed these writings to lie fallow in the old files of papers, while others, possessing the knack of publicity, years later tilled the soil with some degree of success. President Hadley, of Yale University, before the Candlelight Club of Denver, January 8, 1900, advanced, as novel and original, ostracism as an effective punishment of social highwaymen. This address attracted widespread attention, and though Professor Hadley's remedy has not been generally adopted it is regarded as his own. Mr. Bierce wrote in "The Examiner," January 20, 1895, as follows: "We are plundered because we have no particular aversion to plunderers."
The 'predatory rich' (to use Mr. Stead's felicitous term) put their hands into our pockets because they know that, virtually, none of us will refuse to take their hands in our own afterwards, in friendly salutation. If notorious rascality entailed social outlawry the only rascals would be those properly—and proudly—belonging to the 'criminal class.'
Again, Edwin Markham has attracted to himself no little attention by advocating the application of the Golden Rule in temporal affairs as a cure for evils arising from industrial discontent In this he, too, has been anticipated. Mr. Bierce, writing in "The Examiner," March 25, 1894, said: "When a people would avert want and strife, or having them, would restore plenty and peace, this noble commandment offers the only means—all other plans for safety and relief are as vain as dreams, and as empty as the crooning of fools. And, behold, here it is: 'All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.'"
Rev. Charles M. Sheldon created a nine days' wonder, or rather a seven, by conducting for a week a newspaper as he conceived Christ would have done. Some years previously, June 28, 1896, to be exact, the author of these essays wrote: "That is my ultimate and determining test of right—'What, under the circumstances, would Christ have done?'—the Christ of the New Testament, not the Christ of the commentators, theologians, priests and parsons."
I am sure that Mr. Bierce does not begrudge any of these gentlemen the acclaim they have received by enunciating his ideas, and I mention the instances here merely to forestall the filing of any other claim to priority.
The essays cover a wide range of subjects, embracing among other things government, dreams, writers of dialect, and dogs, and always the author's point of view is fresh, original and non-Philistine. Whether one cares to agree with him or not, one will find vast entertainment in his wit that illuminates with lightning flashes all he touches. Other qualities I forbear allusion to, having already encroached too much upon the time of the reader.
S. O. HOWES.
THE SHADOW ON THE DIAL
THERE is a deal of confusion and uncertainty in the use of the words "Socialist," "Anarchist," and "Nihilist." Even the '1st himself commonly knows with as little accuracy what he is as the rest of us know why he is. The Socialist believes that most human affairs should be regulated and managed by the State—the Government—that is to say, the majority. Our own system has many Socialistic features and the trend of republican government is all that way. The Anarchist is the kind of lunatic who believes that all crime is the effect of laws forbidding it—as the pig that breaks into the kitchen garden is created by the dog that chews its ear! The Anarchist favors abolition of all law and frequently belongs to an organization that secures his allegiance by solemn oaths and dreadful penalties. "Nihilism" is a name given by Turgenieff to the general body of Russian discontent which finds expression in antagonizing authority and killing authorities. Constructive politics would seem, as yet, to be a cut above the Nihilist's intelligence; he is essentially a destructionary. He is so diligently engaged in unweeding the soil that he has not given a thought to what he will grow there. Nihilism may be described as a policy of assassination tempered by reflections upon Siberia. American sympathy with it is the offspring of an unholy union between the tongue of a liar and the ear of a dupe.
Upon examination it will be seen that political dissent, when it takes any form more coherent than the mere brute dissatisfaction of a mind that does not know what it wants to want, finds expression in one of but two ways—in Socialism or in Anarchism. Whatever methods one may think will best substitute for a system gradually evolved from our needs and our natures a system existing only in the minds of dreamers, one is bound to choose between these two dreams. Yet such is the intellectual delinquency of many who most strenuously denounce the system that we have that we not infrequently find the same man advocating in one breath, Socialism, in the next, Anarchism. Indeed, few of these sons of darkness know that even as coherent dreams the two are incompatible. With Anarchy triumphant the Socialist would be a thousand years further from realization of his hope than he is today. Set up Socialism on a Monday and on Tuesday the country would be en fete, gaily hunting down Anarchists. There would be little difficulty in trailing them, for they have not so much sense as a deer, which, running down the wind, sends its tell-tale fragrance on before.
Socialism and Anarchism are the two extremes of political thought; they are parts of the same dung, in the sense that the terminal points of a road are parts of the same road. Between them, about midway, lies the system that we have the happiness to endure. It is a "blend" of Socialism and Anarchism in about equal parts: all that is not one is the other. Everything serving the common interest, or looking to the welfare of the whole people, is socialistic in the strictest sense of the word as understood by the Socialist Whatever tends to private advantage or advances an individual or class interest at the expense of a public one, is anarchistic. Cooperation is Socialism; competition is Anarchism. Competition carried to its logical conclusion (which only cooperation prevents or can prevent) would leave no law in force no property possible no life secure.
Of course the words "cooperation" and "competition" are not here used in a merely industrial and commercial sense; they are intended to cover the whole field of human activity. Two voices singing a duet—that is cooperation—Socialism. Two voices singing each a different tune and trying to drown each other—that is competition—Anarchism: each is a law unto itself—that is to say, it is lawless. Everything that ought to be done the Socialist hopes to do by associated endeavor, as an army wins battles; Anarchism is socialistic in its means only: by cooperation it tries to render cooperation impossible—combines to kill combination. Its method says to its purpose: "Thou fool!"
Everything foretells the doom of authority. The killing of kings is no new industry; it is as ancient as the race. Always and everywhere persons in high place have been the assassin's prey. We have ourselves lost three Presidents by murder, and will doubtless lose many another before the book of American history is closed. If anything is new in this activity of the regicide it is found in the choice of victims. The contemporary "avenger" slays, not the merely great, but the good and the inoffensive—an American President who had struck the chains from millions of slaves; a Russian Czar who against the will and work of his own powerful nobles had freed their serfs; a French President from whom the French people had received nothing but good; a powerless Austrian Empress, whose weight of sorrows touched the world to tears; a blameless Italian King beloved of his people; such is a part of the recent record of the regicide whose every entry is a tale of infamy unrelieved by one circumstance of justice, decency or good intention.
And the great Brazilian liberator died in exile.
This recent uniformity of malevolence in the choice of victims is not without significance. It points unmistakably to two facts: first, that the selections are made, not by the assassins themselves, but by some central control inaccessible to individual preference and unaffected by the fortunes of its instruments; second, that there is a constant purpose to manifest an antagonism, not to any individual ruler, but to rulers; not to any system of government, but to Government. It is a war, not upon those in authority, but upon Authority. The issue is defined, the alignment made, the battle set: Chaos against Order, Anarchy against Law.
M. Vaillant, the French gentleman who lacked a "good opinion of the law," but was singularly rich in the faith that by means of gunpowder and flying nails humanity could be brought into a nearer relation with reason, righteousness and the will of God, is said to have been nearly devoid of a nose. Of this affliction M. Vaillant made but slight account, as was natural, seeing that but for a brief season did he need even so much of nose as remained to him. Yet before its effacement by premature disruption of his own petard it must have had a certain value to him—he would not wantonly have renounced it; and had he foreseen its extinction by the bomb the iron views of that controversial device would probably have been denied expression. Albeit (so say the scientists) doomed to eventual elimination from the scheme of being, and to the Anarchist even now something of an accusing conscience, the nose is indubitably an excellent thing in man.
This brings us to consideration of the human nose as a measure of human happiness—not the size of it, but its numbers; its frequent or infrequent occurrence upon the human face. We have grown so accustomed to the presence of this feature that we take it as a matter of course; its absence is one of the most notable phenomena of our observation—"an occasion long to be remembered," as the society reporter hath it Yet "abundant testimony showeth" that but two or three centuries ago noseless men and women were so common all over Europe as to provoke but little comment when seen and (in their disagreeable way) heard They abounded in all the various walks of life: there were honored burgomasters without noses, wealthy merchants, great scholars, artists, teachers. Amongst the humbler classes nasal destitution was almost as frequent as pecuniary—in the humblest of all the most common of all. Writing in the thirteenth century, Salsius mentions the retainers and servants of certain Suabian noblemen as having hardly a whole ear among them—for until a comparatively recent period man's tenure of his ears was even more precarious than that of his nose. In 1436, when a Bavarian woman, Agnes Bemaurian, wife of Duke Albert the Pious, was dropped off the bridge at Prague, she persisted in rising to the surface and trying to escape; so the executioner gave himself the trouble to put a long pole into her hair and hold her under. A contemporary account of the matter hints that her disorderly behavior at so solemn a moment was due to the pain caused by removal of her nose; but as her execution was by order of her own father it seems more probable that "the extreme penalty of the law" was not imposed. Without a doubt, though, possession of a nose was an uncommon (and rather barren) distinction in those days among "persons designated to assist the executioner," as the condemned were civilly called. Nor, as already said, was it any too common among persons not as yet consecrated to that service: "Few," says Salsius, "have two noses, and many have none."
Man's firmer grasp upon his nose in this our day and generation is not altogether due to invention of the handkerchief. The genesis and development of his right to his own nose have been accompanied with a corresponding advance in the possessory rights all along the line of his belongings—his ears, his fingers and toes, his skin, his bones, his wife and her young, his clothes and his labor—everything that is (and that once was not) his. In Europe and America today these things can not be taken away from even the humblest and poorest without somebody wanting to "know the reason why." In every decade the nation that is most powerful upon the seas incurs voluntarily a vast expense of blood and treasure in suppressing a slave trade which in no way is injurious to her interests, nor to the interests of any but the slaves.
So "Freedom broadens slowly down," and today even the lowliest incapable of all Nature's aborted has a nose that he dares to call his own and bite off at his own sweet will. Unfortunately, with an unthinkable fatuity we permit him to be told that but for the very agencies that have put him in possession he could successfully assert a God-given and world-old right to the noses of others. At present the honest fellow is mainly engaged in refreshing himself upon his own nose, consuming that comestible with avidity and precision; but the Vaillants, Ravechols, Mosts and Willeys are pointing his appetite to other snouts than his, and inspiring him with rhinophagic ambition. Meantime the rest of us are using those imperiled organs to snore with.
'Tis a fine, resonant and melodious snore, but it is not going to last: there is to be a rude awakening. We shall one day get our eyes open to the fact that scoundrels like Vaillant are neither few nor distant. We shall learn that our blind dependence upon the magic of words is a fatuous error; that the fortuitous arrangement of consonants and vowels which we worship as Liberty is of slight efficacy in disarming the lunatic brandishing a bomb. Liberty, indeed! The murderous wretch loves it a deal better than we, and wants more of it. Liberty! one almost sickens of the word, so quick and glib it is on every lip—so destitute of meaning.
There is no such thing as abstract liberty; it is not even thinkable. If you ask me, "Do you favor liberty?" I reply, "Liberty for whom to do what? Just now I distinctly favor the liberty of the law to cut off the noses of anarchists caught red-handed or red-tongued. If they go in for mutilation let them feel what it is like. If they are not satisfied with the way that things have been going on since the wife of Duke Albert the Pious was held under water with a pole, and since the servitors of the Suabian nobleman cherished their vestigial ears, it is to be presumed that they favor reversion to that happy state. There is grave objection, but if we must we will. Let us begin (with moderation) by reverting them."
I favor mutilation for anarchists convicted of killing or inciting to kill—mutilation followed by death. For those who merely deny the right and expediency of law, plain mutilation—which might advantageously take the form of removal of the tongue.
Why not? Where is the injustice? Surely he who denies men's right to make laws will not invoke the laws that they have wickedly made! That were to say that they must not protect themselves, yet are bound to protect him. What! if I beat him will he call the useless and mischievous constabulary? If I draw out his tongue shall he (in the sign-language) demand it back, and failing of restitution (for surely I should cut it clean away) shall he have the law on me—the naughty law, instrument of the oppressor? Why? that "goes neare to be fonny!"
Two human beings can not live together in peace without laws—laws innumerable. Everything that either, in consideration of the other's wish or welfare, abstains from is inhibited by law, tacit or expressed. If there were in all the world none but they—if neither had come with any sense of obligation toward the other, both clean from creation, with nothing but brains to direct their conduct—every hour would evolve an understanding, that is to say, a law; every act would suggest one. They would have to agree not to kill nor harm each other. They must arrange their work and all their activities to secure the best advantage. These arrangements, agreements, understandings—what are they but laws? To live without law is to live alone. Every family is a miniature State with a complicate system of laws, a supreme authority and subordinate authorities down to the latest babe. And as he who is loudest in demanding liberty for himself is sternest in denying it to others, you may confidently go to the Maison Vaillant, or the Mosthaus, for a flawless example of the iron hand.
Laws of the State are as faulty and as faultily administered as those of the Family. Most of them have to be speedily and repeatedly "amended," many repealed, and of those permitted to stand, the greater number fall into disuse and are forgotten. Those who have to be entrusted with the duty of administering them have all the limitations of intelligence and defects of character by which the rest of us also are distinguished from the angels. In the wise governor, the just judge, the honest sheriff or the patient constable we have as rare a phenomenon as the faultless father. The good God has not given us a special kind of men upon whom to devolve the duty of seeing to the observance of the understandings that we call laws. Like all else that men do, this work is badly done. The best that we can hope for through all the failures, the injustice, the disheartening damage to individual rights and interests, is a fairly good general result, enabling us to walk abroad among our fellows unafraid, to meet even the tribesmen from another valley without too imminent peril of braining and evisceration. Of that small security the Anarchist would deprive us. But without that nothing is of value and we shall be willing to renounce all. Let us begin by depriving ourselves of the Anarchist.
Our system of civilization being the natural outgrowth of our wretched moral and intellectual natures, is open to criticism and subject to revision. Our laws, being of human origin, are faulty and their application is disappointing. Dissent, dissatisfaction, deprecation, proposals for a better system fortified with better laws more intelligently administered—these are permissible and should be welcome. The Socialist (when he is not carried away by zeal to pool issues with the Anarchist) has that in him which it does us good to hear. He may be wrong b all else, yet right in showing us wherein we ourselves are wrong. Anyhow, his mission is amendment, and so long as his paths are peace he has the right to walk therein, exhorting as he goes. The French Communist who does not preach Petroleum and It rectified is to be regarded with more than amusement, more than compassion. There is room for him and his fad; there are hospitable ears for his boast that Jesus Christ would have been a Communist if there had been Communes. They really did not "know everything down in Judee." But for the Anarchist, whose aim is not amendment, but destruction—not welfare to the race, but mischief to a part of it—not happiness for the future, but revenge for the past—for that animal there should be no close season, for that savage, no reservation. Society has not the right to grant life to one who denies the right to live. The protagonist of reversion to the regime of lacking noses should lack a nose.
It is difficult to say if the bomb-thrower, actual or potential, is greater as scoundrel or fool. Suppose his aim is to compel concession by terror. Can not the brute observe at each of his exploits a tightening of "the reins of power?" Through the necessity of guarding against him the mildest governments are becoming despotic, the most despotic more despotic. Does he suppose that "the rulers of the earth" are silly enough to make concessions that will not insure their safety? Can he give them security?
Of all the wild asses that roam the plain, the wildest wild ass that roams the plain is indubitably the one that lifts his voice and heel against that socialism known as "public ownership of public utilities," on the ground of "principle." There may be honest, and in some degree intelligent, opposition on the ground of expediency. Many persons whom it is a pleasure to respect believe that a Government railway, for example, would be less efficiently managed than the same railway in private hands, and that political dangers lurk in the proposal so enormously to increase the number of Federal employes as Government ownership of railways would entail. They think, in other words, that the policy is inexpedient. It is a duty to reason with them, which, as a rule, one can do without being insulted. But the chap who greets the proposal with a howl of derision as "Socialism!" is not a respectable opponent. Eyes he has, but he sees not; ears—oh! very abundant ears—but he hears not the still, small voice of history nor the still smaller voice of common sense.
Obviously to those who, having eyes, do see, public ownership of anything is a step in the direction of Socialism, for perfect Socialism means public ownership of everything. But "principle" has nothing to do with it The principle of public ownership is already accepted and established. It has no visible opponents except in the camp of the Anarchists, and fewer of them are visible there than soap and water would reveal. Antagonists of the principle of Socialism lost their fight when the first human government held the dedicatory exercises of a Cave of Legislation. Since then the only question about the matter has been how far the extension of Socialism is expedient Some would draw the limiting line at one place, some at another; but only a fool thinks there can be government without it, or good government without a great deal of it (The fact that we have always had a great deal of it yet never had good government affirms nothing that it is worth while to consider.) The word-worn example of our Postal Department is only one of a thousand instances of pure Socialism. If it did not exist how bitter an opposition a proposal to establish it would evoke from Adversaries of the Red Rag! The Government builds and operates bridges with general assent; but as the late General Walker pointed out, it might under some circumstances be more economical, or better otherwise, to build and operate a ferry boat, which is a floating bridge. But that would be opposed as rank Socialism.
The truth is that the men and women of principle are a pretty dangerous class, generally speaking—and they are generally speaking. It is they that hamper us in every war. It is they who, preventing concentration and regulation of un-abolishable evils, promote their distribution and liberty. Moral principles are pretty good things—for the young and those not well grounded in goodness. If one have an impediment in his thought, or is otherwise unequal to emergencies as they arise, it is safest to be provided beforehand with something to refer to in order that a right decision may be made without taking thought. But "spirits of a purer fire" prefer to decide each question as it comes up, and to act upon the merits of the case, unbound and unpledged. With a quick intelligence, a capable conscience and a habit of doing right automatically one has little need to burden one's mind and memory with a set of solemn principles formulated by owlish philosophers who do not happen to know that what is right is merely what, in the long run and with regard to the greater number of cases, is expedient Principle is not always an infallible guide. For illustration, it is not always expedient—that is, for the good of all concerned—to tell the truth, to be entirely just or merciful, to pay a debt. I can conceive a case in which it would be right to assassinate one's neighbor. Suppose him to be a desperate scoundrel of a chemist who has devised a means of setting the atmosphere afire. The man who should go through life on an inflexible line of principle would border his path with a havoc of human happiness.
What one may think perfect one may not always think desirable. By "perfect" one may mean merely complete, and the word was so used in my reference to Socialism. I am not myself an advocate of "perfect Socialism," but as to Government ownership of railways, there is doubtless a good deal to be said on both sides. One argument in its favor appears decisive; under a system subject to popular control the law of gravitation would be shorn of its preeminence as a means of removing personal property from the baggage car, and so far as it is applicable to that work might even be repealed.
When M. Casimir-Perier resigned the French Presidency there were those who regarded the act as weak, cowardly, undutiful and otherwise censurable. It seems to me the act, not of a feeble man, but of a strong one—not that of a coward, but that of a gentleman. Indeed, I hardly know where to look in history for an act more entirely gratifying to my sense of "the fitness of things" than this dignified notification to mankind that in consenting to serve one's country one does not relinquish the right to decent treatment—to immunity from factious opposition and abuse—to at least as much civil consideration as is due from the Church to the Devil.
M. Casimir-Perier did not seek the Presidency of the French Republic; it was thrust upon him against his protestations by an apparently almost unanimous mandate of the French people in an emergency which it was thought that he was the best man to meet. That he met it with modesty and courage was testified without dissent. That he afterward did anything to forfeit the confidence and respect that he then inspired is not true, and nobody believes it true. Yet in his letter of resignation he said, and said truly:
"For the last six months a campaign of slander and insult has been going on against the army, magistrates. Parliament and hierarchical Chief of State, and this license to disseminate social hatred continues to be called 'the liberty of thought.'"
And with a dignity to which it seems strange that any one could be insensible, he added:
"The respect and ambition which I entertain for my country will not allow me to acknowledge that the servants of the country, and he who represents it in the presence of foreign nations, may be insulted every day."
These are noble words. Have we any warrant for demanding or expecting that men of clean life and character will devote themselves to the good of ingrates who pay, and ingrates who permit them to pay, in flung mud? It is hardly credible that among even those persons most infatuated by contemplation of their own merit as pointed out by their thrifty sycophants "the liberty of thought" has been carried to that extreme. The right of the State to demand the sacrifice of the citizen's life is a doctrine as old as the patriotism that concedes it, but the right to require him to forego his good name—that is something new under the sun. From nothing but the dunghill of modern democracy could so noxious a plant have sprung.
"Perhaps in laying down my functions," said M. Casimir-Perier, "I shall have marked out a path of duty to those who are solicitous for the dignity, power and good name of France in the world."
We may be permitted to hope that the lesson is wider than France and more lasting than the French Republic. It is time that not only France but all other countries with "popular institutions" should learn that if they wish to command the services of men of honor they must accord them honorable treatment; the rule now is for the party to which they belong to give them a half-hearted support while suffering all other parties to slander and insult them. The action of the President of the French Republic in these disgusting circumstances is exceptional and unusual only in respect of his courage in expressly resenting his wrong. Everywhere the unreasonable complaint is heard that good men will not "go into politics;" everywhere the ignorant and malignant masses and their no less malignant and hardly less ignorant leaders and spokesmen, having sown the wind of reasonless obstruction and partisan vilification, are reaping the whirlwind of misrule. So far as concerns the public service, gentlemen are mostly on a strike against introduction of the mud-machine. This high-minded political workman, Casimir-Perier, never showed to so noble advantage as in gathering up his tools and walking out.
It may be, and a million times has been, urged that abstention from activity in public affairs by men of brains and character leaves the business of government in the hands of the incapable and the vicious. In whose hands, pray, in a republic does it logically belong? What does the theory of "representative government" affirm? What is the lesson of every netherward extension of the suffrage? What do we mean by permitting it to "broaden slowly down" to lower and lower intelligences and moralities?—what but that stupidity and vice, equally with virtue and wisdom, are entitled to a voice in political affairs, a finger in the public pie?
A person that is fit to vote is fit to be voted for. He who is competent for the high and difficult function of choosing an officer of the State is competent to serve the State as an officer. To deny him the right is illogical and unjust. Participation in Government can not be at the same time a privilege and a duty, and he who claims it as a privilege must not speak of another's renunciation (whereby himself is more highly privileged) as "shirking." With every retirement from politics increased power passes to those who remain. Shall they protest? Shall they, also, who have retired? Who else is to protest? The complaint of "incivism" would be more rational if there were some one by whom it could reasonably be made.
My advice to slandered officials has ever been: "Resign." The public officials of this favored country, Heaven be thanked, are infrequently slandered: they are, as a rule, so bad that calumniation is a compliment. Our best men, with here and there an exception, have been driven out of public life, or made afraid to enter it. Even our spasmodic efforts at reform fail ludicrously for lack of leaders unaffiliated with "the thing to be reformed." Unless attracted by the salary, why should a gentleman "aspire" to the Presidency of the United States? During his canvass (and he is expected to "run," not merely to "stand") he will have from his own party a support that should make him blush, and from all the others an opposition that will stick at nothing to accomplish his satisfactory defamation. After his election his partition and allotment of the loaves and fishes will estrange an important and thenceforth implacable faction of his following without appeasing the animosity of any one else; and during his entire service his sky will be dark with a flight of dead cats. At the finish of his term the utmost that he can expect in the way of reward not expressible in terms of the national currency is that not much more than one-half of his countrymen will believe him a scoundrel to the end of their days.
The kind of government that we have seems to me one of the worst kinds extant A government that does not protect life is a flat failure, no matter what else it may do. Life being almost universally regarded as the most precious possession, its security is the first and highest essential—not the life of him who takes life, but the life which is exposed defenceless to his hateful hand. In no country in the world, civilized or savage, is life so insecure as in this. In no country in the world is murder held in so light reprobation. In no battle of modern times have so many lives been taken as are lost annually in the United States through public indifference to the crime of homicide—through disregard of law, through bad government. If American self-government, with its ten thousand homicides a year, is good government, there is no such thing as bad. Self-government! What monstrous nonsense! Who governs himself needs no government, has no governor, is not governed. If government has any meaning it means the restraint of the many by the few—the subordination of numbers to brains. It means the determined denial to the masses of the right to cut their own throats. It means the grasp and control of all the social forces and material enginery—a vigilant censorship of the press, a firm hand upon the church, keen supervision of public meetings and public amusements, command of the railroads, telegraph and all means of communication. It means, in short, the ability to make use of all the beneficent influences of enlightenment for the good of the people, and to array all the powers of civilization against civilization's natural enemies—the people. Government like this has a thousand defects, but it has one merit: it is government.
Despotism? Yes. It is the despotisms of the world that have been the conservators of civilization. It is the despot who, most powerful for mischief, is alone powerful for good. It is conceded that government is necessary—even by the "fierce democracies" that madly renounce it. But in so far as government is not despotic it is not government. In Europe for the last one hundred years, the tendency of all government has been liberalization. The history of European politics during that period is a history of renunciation by the rulers and assumption by the ruled. Sovereign after sovereign has surrendered prerogative after prerogative; the nobility privilege after privilege. Mark the result: society honeycombed with treason; property menaced with partition; assassination studied as a science and practiced as an art; everywhere powerful secret organizations sworn to demolish the social fabric that the slow centuries have but just erected and unmindful that themselves will perish in the wreck. No heart in Europe can beat tranquilly under clean linen. Such is the gratitude, such is the wisdom, such the virtue of "The Masses." In 1863 Alexander II of Russia freed 25,000,000 serfs. In 1879 they had killed him and all joined the conspirators.
That ancient and various device, "a republican form of government," appears to be too good for all the peoples of the earth excepting one. It is partly successful in Switzerland; in France and America, where the majority is composed of persons having dark understandings and criminal instincts, it has broken down. In our case, as in every case, the momentum of successful revolution carried us too far. We rebelled against tyranny and having overthrown it, overthrew also the governmental form in which it had happened to be manifest. In their anger and their triumph our good old gran'thers acted somewhat in the spirit of the Irishman who cudgeled the dead snake until nothing was left of it, in order to make it "sinsible of its desthroction." They meant it all, too, the honest souls! For a long time after the setting up of the republic the republic meant active hatred to kings, nobles, aristocracies. It was held, and rightly held, that a nobleman could not breathe in America—that he left his title and his privileges on the ship that brought him over. Do we observe anything of that in this generation? On the landing of a foreign king, prince or nobleman—even a miserable "knight"—do we not execute sycophantic genuflexions? Are not our newspapers full of flamboyant descriptions and qualming adulation? Nay, does not our President himself—successor to Washington and Jefferson!—greet and entertain the "nation's guest"? Is not every American young woman crazy to mate with a male of title? Does all this represent no retrogression?—is it not the backward movement of the shadow on the dial? Doubtless the republican idea has struck strong roots into the soil of the two Americas, but he who rightly considers the tendencies of events, the causes that bring them about and the consequences that flow from them, will not be hot to affirm the perpetuity of republican institutions in the Western Hemisphere. Between their inception and their present stage of development there is scarcely the beat of a pendulum; and already, by corruption and lawlessness, the people of both continents, with all their diversities of race and character, have shown themselves about equally unfit. To become a nation of scoundrels all that any people needs is opportunity, and what we are pleased to call by the impossible name of "self-government" supplies it.
The capital defect of republican government is inability to repress internal forces tending to disintegration. It does not take long for a "self-governed" people to learn that it is not really governed—that an agreement enforcible by nobody but the parties to it is not binding. We are learning this very rapidly: we set aside our laws whenever we please. The sovereign power—the tribunal of ultimate jurisdiction—is a mob. If the mob is large enough (it need not be very large), even if composed of vicious tramps, it may do as it will. It may destroy property and life. It may without proof of guilt inflict upon individuals torments unthinkable by fire and flaying, mutilations that are nameless. It may call men, women and children from their beds and beat them to death with cudgels. In the light of day it may assail the very strongholds of law in the heart of a populous city, and assassinate prisoners of whose guilt it knows nothing. And these things—observe, O victims of kings—are habitually done. One would as well be at the mercy of one's sovereign as of one's neighbor.
For generations we have been charming ourselves with the magic of words. When menaced by some exceptionally monstrous form of the tyranny of numbers we have closed our eyes and murmured, "Liberty." When armed Anarchists threaten to quench the fires of civilization in a sea of blood we prate of the protective power of "free speech." If,
"Girt about by friends or foes, A man may speak the thing he will,"
we fondly fancy that the thing he will speak is harmless—that immunity disarms his tongue of its poison, his thought of its infection. With a fatuity that would be incredible without the testimony of observation, we hold that an Anarchist free to go about making proselytes, free to purchase arms, free to drill and parade and encourage his dupes with a demonstration of their numbers and power, is less mischievous than an Anarchist with a shut mouth, a weaponless hand and under surveillance of the police. The Anarchist himself is persuaded of the superiority of our plan of dealing with him; he likes it and comes over in quantity, inpesting the political atmosphere with the "sweltered venom" engendered by centuries of oppression—comes over here, where he is not oppressed, and sets up as oppressor. His preferred field of malefaction is the country that is most nearly anarchical. He comes here, partly to better himself under our milder institutions, partly to secure immunity while conspiring to destroy them. There is thunder in Europe, but if the storm ever break it is in America that the lightning will fall, for here is a great vortex into which the decivilizing agencies are pouring without obstruction. Here gather the eagles to the feast, for the quarry is defenceless. Here is no power in government, no government. Here an enemy of order is thought to be least dangerous when suffered to preach and arm in peace. And here is nothing between him and his task of supervision—no pampered soldiery to repress his rising, no iron authority to lay him by the heels. The militia is fraternal, the magistracy elective. Europe may hold out a little longer. The Great Powers may make what stage-play they will, but they are not maintaining their incalculable armaments for aggression upon one another, for protection from one another, nor for fun. These vast forces are purely constabular—creatures and creators of discontent—phenomena of decivilization. Eventually they will fraternize with Disorder or become themselves Praetorian Guards more dangerous than the perils that have called them into existence.
It is easy to forecast the first stages of the End's approach: Rioting. Disaffection of constabulary and troops. Subversion of the Government A policy of decapitation. Upthrust of the serviceable Anarchist. His prompt effacement by his victorious ally and natural enemy, the Socialist. Free minting and printing of money—to every citizen a shoulder-load of the latter, to the printers a ton each. Divided counsels. Pandemonium. The man on horseback. Gusts of grape. ———?
Formerly the bearer of evil tidings was only slain; he is now ignored. The gods kept their secrets by telling them to Cassandra, whom no one would believe. I do not expect to be heeded. The crust of a volcano is electric the fumes are narcotic; the combined sensation is delightful no end. I have looked at the dial of civilization; I tell you the shadow is going back. That is of small importance to men of leisure, with wine-dipped wreaths upon their heads. They do not care to know.
THE question "Does civilization civilize?" is a fine example of petitio principii. and decides itself in the affirmative; for civilization must needs do that from the doing of which it has its name. But it is not necessary to suppose that he who propounds is either unconscious of his lapse in logic or desirous of digging a pitfall for the feet of those who discuss; I take it he simply wishes to put the matter in an impressive way, and relies upon a certain degree of intelligence in the interpretation.
Concerning uncivilized peoples we know but little except what we are told by travelers—who, speaking generally, can know very little but the fact of uncivilization as shown in externals and irrelevances, and are moreover, greatly given to lying. From the savages we hear very little. Judging them in all things by our own standards, in default of a knowledge of theirs, we necessarily condemn, disparage and belittle. One thing that civilization certainly has not done is to make us intelligent enough to understand that the opposite of a virtue is not necessarily a vice. Because we do not like the taste of one another it does not follow that the cannibal is a person of depraved appetite. Because, as a rule, we have but one wife and several mistresses each it is not certain that polygamy is everywhere—nor, for that matter, anywhere—either wrong or inexpedient. Our habit of wearing clothes does not prove that conscience of the body, the sense of shame, is charged with a divine mandate; for like the conscience of the spirit it is the creature of what it seems to create: it comes to the habit of wearing clothes. And for those who hold that the purpose of civilization is morality it may be said that peoples which are the most nearly naked are, in our sense, the most nearly moral. Because the brutality of the civilized slave owners and dealers created a conquering sentiment against slavery it is not intelligent to assume that slavery is a maleficent thing amongst Oriental peoples (for example) where the slave is not oppressed.
Some of these same Orientals whom we are pleased to term half-civilized have no regard for truth. "Takest thou me for a Christian dog," said one of them, "that I should be the slave of my word?" So far as I can perceive the "Christian dog" is no more the slave of his word than the True Believer, and I think the savage—allowing for the fact that his inveracity has dominion over fewer things—as great a liar as either of them. For my part, I do not know what, in all circumstances, is right or wrong; but I know, if right, it is at least stupid to judge an uncivilized people by the standards of morality and intelligence set up by civilized ones. An infinitesimal proportion of civilized men do not, and there is much to be said for civilization if they are the product of it.
Life in civilized countries is so complex that men there have more ways to be good than savages have, and more to be bad; more to be happy, and more to be miserable. And in each way to be good or bad, their generally superior knowledge—their knowledge of more things—enables them to commit greater excesses than the savage could widi the same opportunity. The civilized philanthropist wreaks upon his fellow creatures a ranker philanthropy, the civilized scoundrel a sturdier rascality. And—splendid triumph of enlightenment!—the two characters are, in civilisation, commonly combined in one person.
I know of no savage custom or habit of thought which has not its mate in civilized countries. For every mischievous or absurd practice of the natural man I can name you a dozen of the unnatural which are essentially the same. And nearly every custom of our barbarian ancestors in historic times survives in some form today. We make ourselves look formidable in battle—for that matter, we fight. Our women paint their faces. We feel it obligatory to dress more or less alike, inventing the most ingenious reasons for it and actually despising and persecuting those who do not care to conform. Within the memory of living persons bearded men were stoned in the streets; and a clergyman in New York who wore his beard as Christ wore his, was put into jail and variously persecuted till he died. We bury our dead instead of burning them, yet every cemetery is set thick with urns. As there are no ashes for the urns we do not trouble ourselves to make them hollow, and we say their use is "emblematic." When, following the bent of our ancestral instincts, we go on, age after age, in the performance of some senseless act which once had a use and meaning we excuse ourselves by calling it symbolism. Our "symbols" are merely survivals. We have theology and patriotism. We have all the savage's superstition. We propitiate and ingratiate by means of gifts. We shake hands. All these and hundreds of others of our practices are distinctly, in their nature and by their origin, savage.
Civilization does not, I think, make the race any better. It makes men know more: and if knowledge makes them happy it is useful and desirable. The one purpose of every sane human being is to be happy. No one can have any other motive than that. There is no such thing as unselfishness. We perform the most "generous" and "self-sacrificing" acts because we should be unhappy if we did not. We move on lines of least reluctance. Whatever tends to increase the beggarly sum of human happiness is worth having; nothing else has any value.
The cant of civilization fatigues. Civilization is a fine and beautiful structure. It is as picturesque as a Gothic cathedral. But it is built upon the bones and cemented with the blood of those whose part in all its pomp is that and nothing more. It cannot be reared in the generous tropics, for there the people will not contribute their blood and bones. The proposition that the average American workingman or European peasant is "better off" than the South Sea Islander, lolling under a palm and drunk with over-eating, will not bear a moment's examination.
It is we scholars and gentlemen that are better off.
It is admitted that the South Sea Islander in a state of nature is overmuch addicted to the practice of eating human flesh; but concerning that I submit: first, that he likes it; second, that those who supply it are mostly dead. It is upon his enemies that he feeds, and these he would kill anyhow, as we do ours. In civilized, enlightened and Christian countries, where cannibalism has not yet established itself, wars are as frequent and destructive as among the maneaters. The untitled savage knows at least why he goes killing, whereas the private soldier is commonly in black ignorance of the apparent cause of quarrel—of the actual cause, always. Their shares in the fruits of victory are about equal: the Chief takes all the dead, the General all the glory. Moreover it costs more human life to supply a Christian gentleman with food than it does a cannibal—with food alone: "board;" if you could figure out the number of lives that his lodging, clothing, amusements and accomplishment cost the sum would startle. Happily he does not pay it. Considering human lives as having value, cannibalism is undoubtedly the more economical system.
Transplanted institutions grow but slowly; and civilization can not be put into a ship and carried across an ocean. The history of this country is a sequence of illustrations of these truths. It was settled by civilized men and women from civilized countries, yet after two and a half centuries with unbroken communication with the mother systems, it is still imperfectly civilized. In learning and letters, in art and the science of government, America is but a faint and stammering echo of England.
For nearly all that is good in our American civilization we are indebted to England; the errors and mischiefs are of our own creation. We have originated little, because there is little to originate, but we have unconsciously reproduced many of the discredited and abandoned systems of former ages and other countries—receiving them at second hand, but making them ours by the sheer strength and immobility of the national belief in their newness. Newness! Why, it is not possible to make an experiment in government, in art, in literature, in sociology, or in morals, that has not been made over, and over, and over again. Fools talk of clear and simple remedies for this and that evil afflicting the commonwealth. If a proposed remedy is obvious and easily intelligible, it is condemned in the naming, for it is morally certain to have been tried a thousand times in the history of the world, and had it been effective men ere now would have forgotten, from mere disuse, how to produce the evil it cured.
There are clear and simple remedies for nothing. In medicine there has been discovered but a single specific; in politics not one. The interests, moral and natural, of a community in our highly differentiated civilization are so complex, intricate, delicate and interdependent, that you can not touch one without affecting all. It is a familiar truth that no law was ever passed that did not have unforeseen results; but of these results, by far the greater number are never recognized as of its creation. The best that can be said of any "measure" is, that the sum of its perceptible benefits seems so to exceed the sum of its perceptible evils as to constitute a balance of advantage. Yet the magnificent innocence of the statesman or philosopher to whose understanding "the whole matter lies in a nutshell"—who thinks he can formulate a practical political or social policy within the four corners of an epigram—who fears nothing because he knows nothing—is constantly to the fore with a simple specific for ills whose causes are complex, constant and inscrutable. To the understanding of this creature a difficulty well ignored is half overcome; so he buttons up his eyes and assails the problems of life with the divine confidence of a blind pig traversing a labyrinth.
The glories of England are our glories. She can achieve nothing that our fathers did not help to make possible to her. The learning, the power, the refinement of a great nation, are not the growth of a century, but of many centuries; each generation builds upon the work of the preceding. For untold ages our ancestors wrought to rear that "revered pile," the civilization of England. And shall we now try to belittle the mighty structure because other though kindred hands are laying the top courses while we have elected to found a new tower in another land? The American eulogist of civilization who is not proud of his heritage in England's glory is unworthy to enjoy his lesser heritage in the lesser glory of his own country.
The English are undoubtedly our intellectual superiors; and as the virtues are solely the product of education—a rogue being only a dunce considered from another point of view—they are our moral superiors likewise. Why should they not be? It is a land not of log and pine-board schoolhouses grudgingly erected and containing schools supported by such niggardly tax levies as a sparse and hard-handed population will consent to pay, but of ancient institutions splendidly endowed by the State and by centuries of private benefaction. As a means of dispensing formulated ignorance our boasted public school system is not without merit; it spreads it out sufficiently thin to give everyone enough to make him a more competent fool than he would have been without it; but to compare it with that which is not the creature of legislation acting with malice aforethought, but the unnoted outgrowth of ages, is to be ridiculous. It is like comparing the laid-out town of a western prairie, its right-angled streets, prim cottages, "built on the installment plan," and its wooden a-b-c shops, with the grand old town of Oxford, topped with the clustered domes and towers of its twenty-odd great colleges; the very names of many of whose founders have perished from human record as have all the chronicles of the times in which they lived.
It is not alone that we have had to "subdue the wilderness;" our educational conditions are otherwise adverse. Our political system is unfavorable. Our fortunes, accumulated in one generation, are dispersed in the next. If it takes three generations to make a gentleman one will not make a thinker. Instruction is acquired, but capacity for instruction is transmitted. The brain that is to contain a trained intellect is not the result of a haphazard marriage between a clown and a wench, nor does it get its tractable tissues from a hard-headed farmer and a soft-headed milliner. If you confess the importance of race and pedigree in a race horse and a bird dog how dare you deny it in a man?
I do not claim that the political and social system that creates an aristocracy of leisure, and consequently of intellect, is the best possible kind of human organization; I perceive its disadvantages clearly enough. But I do not hold that a system under which all important public trusts, political and professional, civil and military, ecclesiastical and secular, are held by educated men—that is, men of trained faculties and disciplined judgment—is not an altogether faulty system.
It is only in our own country that an exacting literary taste is believed to disqualify a man for purveying to the literary needs of a taste less exacting—a proposition obviously absurd, for an exacting taste is nothing but the intelligent discrimination of a judgment instructed by comparison and observation. There is, in fact, no pursuit or occupation, from that of a man who blows up a balloon to that of the man who bores out the stove pipes, in which he that has talent and education is not a better worker than he that has either, and he than he that has neither. It is a universal human weakness to disparage the knowledge that we do not ourselves possess, but it is only my own beloved country that can justly boast herself the last refuge and asylum of the impotents and incapables who deny the advantage of all knowledge whatsoever. It was an American Senator (Logan) who declared that he had devoted a couple of weeks to the study of finance, and found the accepted authorities all wrong. It was another American Senator (Morton) who, confronted with certain ugly facts in the history of another country, proposed "to brush away all facts, and argue the question on considerations of plain common sense."
Republican institutions have this disadvantage: by incessant changes in the personnel of government—to say nothing of the manner of men that ignorant constituencies elect; and all constituencies are ignorant—we attain to no fixed principles and standards. There is no such thing here as a science of politics, because it is not to any one's interest to make politics the study of his life. Nothing is settled; no truth finds general acceptance. What we do one year we undo the next, and do over again the year following. Our energy is wasted in, and our prosperity suffers from, experiments endlessly repeated.
One of the disadvantages of our social system, which is the child of our political, is the tyranny of public opinion, forbidding the utterance of wholesome but unpalatable truth. In a republic we are so accustomed to the rule of majorities that it seldom occurs to us to examine their title to dominion; and as the ideas of might and right are, by our innate sense of justice, linked together, we come to consider public opinion infallible and almost sacred. Now, majorities rule, not because they are right, but because they are able to rule. In event of collision they would conquer, so it is expedient for minorities to submit beforehand to save trouble. In fact, majorities, embracing, as they do the most ignorant, seldom think rightly; public opinion, being the opinion of mediocrity, is commonly a mistake and a mischief. But it is to nobody's interest—it is against the interest of most—to dispute with it. Public writer and public speaker alike find their account in confirming "the plain people" in their brainless errors and brutish prejudices—in glutting their omnivorous vanity and inflaming their implacable racial and national hatreds.
I have long held the opinion that patriotism is one of the most abominable vices affecting the human understanding. Every patriot in this world believes his country better than any other country. Now, they cannot all be the best; indeed, only one can be the best, and it follows that the patriots of all the others have suffered themselves to be misled by a mere sentiment into blind unreason. In its active manifestation—it is fond of shooting—patriotism would be well enough if it were simply defensive; but it is also aggressive, and the same feeling that prompts us to strike for our altars and our fires impels us likewise to go over the border to quench the fires and overturn the altars of our neighbors. It is all very pretty and spirited, what the poets tell us about Thermopylae, but there was as much patriotism at one end of that pass as there was at the other. Patriotism deliberately and with folly aforethought subordinates the interests of a whole to the interests of a part. Worse still, the fraction so favored is determined by an accident of birth or residence. Patriotism is like a dog which, having entered at random one of a row of kennels, suffers more in combats with the dogs in the other kennels than it would have done by sleeping in the open air. The hoodlum who cuts the tail from a Chinamen's nowl, and would cut the nowl from the body if he dared, is simply a patriot with a logical mind, having the courage of his opinions. Patriotism is fierce as a fever, pitiless as the grave, blind as a stone and irrational as a headless hen.
There are two ways of clarifying liquids—ebullition and precipitation; one forces the impurities to the surface as scum, the other sends them to the bottom as dregs. The former is the more offensive, and that seems to be our way; but neither is useful if the impurities are merely separated but not removed. We are told with tiresome iteration that our social and political systems are clarifying; but when is the skimmer to appear? If the purpose of free institutions is good government where is the good government?—when may it be expected to begin?—how is it to come about? Systems of government have no sanctity; they are practical means to a simple end—the public welfare; worthy of no respect if they fail of its accomplishment. The tree is known by its fruit. Ours, is bearing crab-apples.
If the body politic is constitutionally diseased, as I verily believe; if the disorder inheres in the system; there is no remedy. The fever must burn itself out, and then Nature will do the rest. One does not prescribe what time alone can administer. We have put our criminal class in power; do we suppose they will efface themselves? Will they restore to us the power of governing them? They must have their way and go their length. The natural and immemorial sequence is: tyranny, insurrection, combat. In combat everything that wears a sword has a chance—even the right. History does not forbid us to hope. But it forbids us to rely upon numbers; they will be against us. If history teaches anything worth learning it teaches that the majority of mankind is neither good nor wise. Where government is founded upon the public conscience and the public intelligence the stability of States is a dream. Nor have we any warrant for the Tennysonian faith that
"Freedom broadens slowly down From precedent to precedent."
In that moment of time that is covered by historical records we have abundant evidence that each generation has believed itself wiser and better than any of its predecessors; that each people has believed itself to have the secret of national perpetuity. In support of this universal delusion there is nothing to be said; the desolate places of the earth cry out against it. Vestiges of obliterated civilizations cover the earth; no savage but has camped upon the sites of proud and populous cities; no desert but has heard the statesman's boast of national stability. Our nation, our laws, our history—all shall go down to everlasting oblivion with the others, and by the same road. But I submit that we are traveling it with needless haste.
But it is all right and righteous. It can be spared—this Jonah's gourd civilization of ours. We have hardly the rudiments of a true civilization; compared with the splendors of which we catch dim glimpses in the fading past, ours are as an illumination of tallow candles. We know no more than the ancients; we only know other things, but nothing in which is an assurance of perpetuity, and little that is truly wisdom. Our vaunted elixir vito is the art of printing with moveable types. What good will those do when posterity, struck by the inevitable intellectual blight, shall have ceased to read what is printed? Our libraries will become its stables, our books its fuel.
Ours is a civilization that might be heard from afar in space as a scolding and a riot; a civilization in which the race has so differentiated as to have no longer a community of interest and feeling; which shows as a ripe result of the principles underlying it a reasonless and rascally feud between rich and poor; in which one is offered a choice (if one have the means to take it) between American plutocracy and European militocracy, with an imminent chance of renouncing either for a stultocratic republic with a headsman in the presidential chair and every laundress in exile.
I have not a "solution" to the "labor problem." I have only a story. Many and many years ago lived a man who was so good and wise that none in all the world was so good and wise as he. He was one of those few whose goodness and wisdom are such that after some time has passed their fellowmen begin to think them gods and treasure their words as divine law; and by millions they are worshiped through centuries of time. Amongst the utterances of this man was one command—not a new nor perfect one—which has seemed to his adorers so preeminently wise that they have given it a name by which it is known over half the world. One of the sovereign virtues of this famous law is its simplicity, which is such that all hearing must understand; and obedience is so easy that any nation refusing is unfit to exist except in the turbulence and adversity that will surely come to it. When a people would avert want and strife, or having them, would restore plenty and peace, this noble commandment offers the only means—all other plans for safety or relief are as vain as dreams, and as empty as the crooning of fools. And behold, here it is: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."
What! you unappeasable rich, coining the sweat and blood of your workmen into drachmas, understanding the law of supply and demand as mandatory and justifying your cruel greed by the senseless dictum that "business is business;" you lazy workman, railing at the capitalist by whose desertion, when you have frightened away his capital, you starve—rioting and shedding blood and torturing and poisoning by way of answer to exaction and by way of exaction; you foul anarchists, applauding with indelicate palms when one of your coward kind hurls a bomb amongst powerless and helpless women and children; you imbecile politicians with a plague of remedial legislation for the irremediable; you writers and thinkers unread in history, with as many "solutions to the labor problem" as there are dunces among you who can not coherently define it—do you really think yourself wiser than Jesus of Nazareth? Do you seriously suppose yourselves competent to amend his plan for dealing with all the evils besetting states and souls? Have you the effrontery to believe that those who spurn his Golden Rule you can bind to obedience of an act entitled an act to amend an act? Bah! you fatigue the spirit. Go get ye to your scoundrel lockouts, your villain strikes, your blacklisting, your boycotting, your speech-ing, marching and maundering; but if ye do not to others as ye would that they do to you it shall occur, and that right soon, that ye be drowned in your own blood and your pickpocket civilization quenched as a star that falls into the sea.
THE GAME OF POLITICS
IF ONE were to declare himself a Democrat or a Republican and the claim should be contested he would find it a difficult one to prove. The missing link in his chain of evidence would be the major premise in the syllogism necessary to the establishment of his political status—a definition of "Democrat" or "Republican." Most of the statesmen in public and private life who are poll-parroting these words, do so with entire unconsciousness of their meaning, or rather without knowledge that they have lost whatever of meaning they once had. The words are mere "survivals," marking dead issues and covering allegiances of the loosest and most shallow character. On any question of importance each party is divided against itself and dares not formulate a preference. There is no question before the country upon which one may not think and vote as he likes without affecting his standing in the political communion of saints of which he professes himself a member. "Party lines" are as terribly confused as the parallels of latitude and longitude after a twisting earthquake, or those aimless lines representing the competing railroad on a map published by a company operating "the only direct route." It is not probable that this state of things can last; if there is to be "government by party"—and we should be sad to think that so inestimable a boon were soon to return to Him who gave it—men must begin to let their angry passions rise and take rides. "Ill fares the land to hastening ills a prey," where the people are too wise to dispute and too good to fight. Let us have the good old political currency of bloody noses and cracked crowns; let the yawp of the demagogue be heard in the land; let ears be pestered with the spargent cheers of the masses. Give us a whoop-up that shall rouse us like a rattling peal of thunder. Will nobody be our Moses—there should be two Moseses—to lead us through this detestable wilderness of political stagnation?
Nowhere "on God's green earth"—it is fitting, that this paper contain a bit of bosh—nowhere is so much insufferable stuff talked in a given period of time as in an American political convention. It is there that all those objectionable elements of the national character which evoke the laughter of Europe and are the despair of our friends find freest expression, unhampered by fear of any censorship more exacting than that of "the opposing party"—which takes no account of intellectual delinquencies, but only of moral. The "organs" of the "opposing party" will not take the trouble to point out—even to observe—that the "debasing sentiments" and "criminal views" uttered in speech and platform are expressed in sickening syntax and offensive rhetoric. Doubtless an American politician, statesman, what you will, could go into a political convention and signify his views with simple, unpretentious common sense, but doubtless he never does.
Every community is cursed with a number of "orators"—men regarded as "eloquent"—"silver tongued" men—fellows who to the common American knack at brandishing the tongue add an exceptional felicity of platitude, a captivating mastery of dog's-eared sentiment, a copious and obedient vocabulary of eulogium, an iron insensibility to the ridiculous and an infinite affinity to fools. These afflicting Chrysostoms are always lying in wait for an "occasion" It matters not what it is: a "reception" to some great man from abroad, a popular ceremony like the laying of a corner-stone, the opening of a fair, the dedication of a public building, an anniversary banquet of an ancient and honorable order (they all belong to ancient and honorable orders) or a club dinner—they all belong to clubs and pay dues. But it is in the political convention that they come out particularly strong. By some imperious tradition having the force of written law it is decreed that in these absurd bodies of our fellow citizens no word of sense shall be uttered from the platform; whatever is uttered in set speeches shall be addressed to the meanest capacity present As a chain can be no stronger than its weakest link, so nothing said by the speakers at a political convention must be above the intellectual reach of the most pernicious idiot having a seat and a vote. I don't know why it is so. It seems to be thought that if he is not suitably entertained he will not attend, as a delegate, the next convention.
Here are the opening sentences of the speech in which a man was once nominated for Governor:
"Two years ago the Republican party in State and Nation marched to imperial triumph. On every hilltop and mountain peak our beacons blazed and we awakened the echoes of every valley with songs of our rejoicings."
And so forth. Now, if I were asked to recast those sentences so that they should conform to the simple truth and be inoffensive to good taste I should say something like this:
"Two years ago the Republican party won a general election."
If there is any thing in this inflated rigmarole that is not adequately expressed in my amended statement, what is it? As to eloquence it will hardly be argued that nonsense, falsehood and metaphors which were old when Rome was young are essential to that. The first man (in early Greece) who spoke of awakening an echo did a felicitous thing. Was it felicitous in the second? Is it felicitous now? As to that military metaphor—the "marching" and so forth—its inventor was as great an ass as any one of the incalculable multitude of his plagiarists. On this matter hear the late Richard Grant White:
"Is it not time that we had done with the nauseous talk about campaigns, and standard-bearers, and glorious victories (imperial triumphs) and all the bloated army-bumming bombast which is so rife for the six months preceding an election? To read almost any one of our political papers during a canvass is enough to make one sick and sorry.... An election has no manner of likeness to a campaign, or a battle. It is not even a contest in which the stronger or more dexterous party is the winner; it is a mere counting, in which the bare fact that one party is the more numerous puts it in power if it will only come up and be counted; to insure which a certain time is spent by each party in reviling and belittling the candidates of its opponents and lauding its own; and this is the canvass, at the likening of which to a campaign every honest soldier might reasonably take offense."
But, after all, White was only "one o' them dam litery fellers," and I dare say the original proponent of the military metaphor, away off there in "the dark backward and abysm of time," knew a lot more about practical politics than White ever did. And it is practical politics to be an ass.
In withdrawing his own name from before a convention, a California politician once made a purely military speech of which a single sample passage is all that I shall allow myself the happiness to quote:
"I come before you today as a Republican of the Republican banner county of this great State of ours. From snowy Shasta on the north to sunny Diego on the south; from the west, where the waves of the Pacific look upon our shores, to where the barriers of the great Sierras stand clad in eternal snow, there is no more loyal county to the Republican party in this State than the county from which I hail. [Applause, naturally.] Its loyalty to the party has been tested on many fields of battle [Anglice, in many elections] and it has never wavered in the contest Wherever the fate of battle was trembling in the balance [Homer, and since Homer, Tom, Dick and Harry] Alameda county stepped into the breach and rescued the Republican party from defeat."
Translated into English this military mouthing would read somewhat like this:
"I live in Alameda county, where the Republicans have uniformly outvoted the Democrats."
The orators at the Democratic convention a week earlier were no better and no different. Their rhetorical stock-in-trade was the same old shop-worn figures of speech in which their predecessors have dealt for ages, and in which their successors will traffic to the end of—well, to the end of that imitative quality in the national character, which, by its superior intensity, serves to distinguish us from the apes that perish.
"What we most need, to secure honest elections," says a well-meaning reformer, "is the Clifford or the Myers voting machine." Why, truly, here is a hopeful spirit—a rare and radiant intelligence suffused with the conviction that men can be made honest by machinery—that human character is a matter of gearing, ratchets and dials! One would give something to know how it feels to be like that. A mind so constituted must be as happy in its hope as a hen incubating a nest-ful of porcelain door-knobs. It lives in rapturous contemplation of a world of its own creation—a world where public morality and political good order are to be had by purchase at the machine-shop. In that delectable world religion is superfluous; the true high priest is the mechanical engineer; the minor clergy are the village blacksmiths. It is rather a pity that so fine and fair a sphere should prosper only in the attenuated ether of an idiot's understanding.
Voting-machines are doubtless well enough; they save labor and enable the statesmen of the street to know the result within a few minutes of the closing of the polls—whereby many are spared to their country who would otherwise incur fatal disorders by exposure to the night air while assisting in awaiting the returns. But a voting-machine that human ingenuity can not pervert, human ingenuity can not invent.
That is true, too, of laws. Your statesman of a mental stature somewhat overtopping that of the machine-person puts his faith in law. Providence has designed to permit him to be persuaded of the efficacy of statutes—good, stringent, carefully drawn statutes definitively repealing all the laws of nature in conflict with any of their provisions. So the poor devil (I am writing of Mr. Legion) turns for relief from law to law, ever on the stool of repentance, yet ever unfouling the anchor of hope. By no power cm earth can his indurated understanding be penetrated by the truth that his woful state is due, not to any laws of his own, nor to any lack of them, but to his rascally refusal to obey the Golden Rule. How long is it since we were all clamoring for the Australian ballot law, which was to make a new Heaven and a new earth? We have the Australian ballot law and the same old earth smelling to the same old Heaven. Writhe upon the triangle as we may, groan out what new laws we will, the pitiless thong will fall upon our bleeding backs as long as we deserve it. If our sins, which are scarlet, are to be washed as white as wool it must be in the tears of a genuine contrition: our crocodile deliverances will profit us nothing. We must stop chasing dollars, stop lying, stop cheating, stop ignoring art, literature and all the refining agencies and instrumentalities of civilization. We must subdue our detestable habit of shaking hands with prosperous rascals and fawning upon the merely rich. It is not permitted to our employers to plead in justification of low wages the law of supply and demand that is giving them high profits. It is not permitted to discontented employees to break the bones of contented ones and destroy the foundations of social order. It is infamous to look upon public office with the lust of possession; it is disgraceful to solicit political preferment, to strive and compete for "honors" that are sullied and tarnished by the touch of the reaching hand. Until we amend our personal characters we shall amend our laws in vain. Though Paul plant and Apollos water, the field of reform will grow nothing but the figless thistle and the grapeless thorn. The State is an aggregation of individuals. Its public character is the expression of their personal ones. By no political prestidigitation can it be made better and wiser than the sum of their goodness and wisdom. To expect that men who do not honorably and intelligently conduct their private affairs will honorably and intelligently conduct the affairs of the community is to be a fool. We are told that out of nothing God made the Heavens and the earth; but out of nothing God never did and man never can, make a public sense of honor and a public conscience. Miracles are now performed but one day of the year—the twenty-ninth of February; and on leap year God is forbidden to perform them.
Ye who hold that the power of eloquence is a thing of the past and the orator an anachronism; who believe that the trend of political events and the results of parliamentary action are determined by committees in cold consultation and the machinations of programmes in holes and corners, consider the ascension of Bryan and be wise. A week before the convention of 1896 William J. Bryan had never heard of himself; upon his natural obscurity was superposed the opacity of a Congressional service that effaced him from the memory of even his faithful dog, and made him immune to dunning. Today he is pinnacled upon the summit of the tallest political distinction, gasping in the thin atmosphere of his unfamiliar environment and fitly astonished at the mischance. To the dizzy elevation of his candidacy he was hoisted out of the shadow by his own tongue, the longest and liveliest in Christendom. Had he held it—which he could not have done with both hands—there had been no Bryan. His creation was the unstudied act of his own larynx; it said, "Let there be Bryan," and there was Bryan. Even in these degenerate days there is a hope for the orators when one can make himself a Presidential peril by merely waving the red flag in the cave of the winds and tormenting the circumjacence with a brandish of abundant hands.
To be quite honest, I do not entirely believe that Orator Bryan's tongue had anything to do with it. I have long been convinced that personal persuasion is a matter of animal magnetism—what in its more obvious manifestation we now call hypnotism. At the back of the words and the postures, and independent of them, is that secret, mysterious power, addressing, not the ear, not the eye, nor, through them, the understanding, but through its matching quality in the auditor, captivating the will and enslaving it That is how persuasion is effected; the spoken words merely supply a pretext for surrender. They enable us to yield without loss of our self-esteem, in the delusion that we are conceding to reason what is really extorted by charm. The words are necessary, too, to point out what the orator wishes us to think, if we are not already apprised of it. When the nature of his power is better understood and frankly recognized, he can spare himself the toil of talking. The parliamentary debate of the future will probably be conducted in silence, and with only such gestures as go by the name of "passes." The chairman will state the question before the House and the side, affirmative or negative, to be taken by the honorable member entitled to the floor. That gentleman will rise, train his compelling orbs upon the miscreants in opposition, execute a few passes and exhaust his alloted time in looking at them. He will then yield to an honorable member of dissenting views. The preponderance in magnetic power and hypnotic skill will be manifest in the voting. The advantages of the method are as plain as the nose on an elephant's face. The "arena" will no longer "ring" with anybody's "rousing speech," to the irritating abridgment of the inalienable right to pursuit of sleep. Honorable members will lack provocation to hurl allegations and cuspidors. Pitchforking statesmen and tosspot reformers will be unable to play at pitch-and-toss with reputations not submitted for the performance. In short, the congenial asperities of debate will be so mitigated that the honorable member from Hades will retire permanently from the hauls of legislation.
"Public opinion," says Buckle, "being the voice of the average man, is the voice of mediocrity." Is it therefore so very wise and infallible a guide as to be accepted without other credentials than its name and fame? Ought we to follow its light and leading with no better assurance of the character of its authority than a count of noses of those following it already, and with no inquiry as to whether it has not on many former occasions let them and their several sets of predecessors into bogs of error and over precipices to "eternal mock?" Surely "the average man," as every one knows him, is not very wise, not very learned, not very good; how is it that his views, of so intricate and difficult matters as those of which public opinion makes pronouncement through him are entitled to such respect? It seems to me that the average man, as I know him, is very much a fool, and something of a rogue as well. He has only a smattering of education, knows virtually nothing of political history, nor history of any kind, is incapable of logical, that is to say clear, thinking, is subject to the suasion of base and silly prejudices, and selfish beyond expression. That such a person's opinions should be so obviously better than my own that I should accept them instead, and assist in enacting them into laws, appears to me most improbable. I may "bow to the will of the people" as gracefully as a defeated candidate, and for the same reason, namely, that I can not help myself; but to admit that I was wrong in my belief and flatter the power that subdues me—no, that I will not do. And if nobody would do so the average man would not be so very cock-sure of his infallibility and might sometimes consent to be counseled by his betters.
In any matter of which the public has imperfect knowledge, public opinion is as likely to be erroneous as is the opinion of an individual equally uninformed. To hold otherwise is to hold that wisdom can be got by combining many ignorances. A man who knows nothing of algebra can not be assisted in the solution of an algebraic problem by calling in a neighbor who knows no more than himself, and the solution approved by the unanimous vote of ten million such men would count for nothing against that of a competent mathematician. To be entirely consistent, gentlemen enamored of public opinion should insist that the text books of our common schools should be the creation of a mass meeting, and all disagreements arising in the course of the work settled by a majority vote. That is how all difficulties incident to the popular translation of the Hebrew Scriptures were composed. It should be admitted, however that most of those voting knew a little Hebrew, though not much. A problem in mathematics is a very simple thing compared with many of those upon which the people are called to pronounce by resolution and ballot—for example, a question of finance.
"The voice of the people is the voice of God"—the saying is so respectably old that it comes to us in the Latin. He is a strange, an unearthly politician who has not a score of times publicly and solemnly signified his faith in it But does anyone really believe it? Let us see. In the period between 1859 and 1885, the Democratic party was defeated six times in succession. The voice of the people pronounced it in error and unfit to govern. Yet after each overthrow it came back into the field gravely reaffirming its faith in the principles that God had condemned. Then God twice reversed Himself, and the Republicans "never turned a hair," but set about beating Him with as firm a confidence of success (justified by the event) as they had known in the years of their prosperity. Doubtless in every instance of a political party's defeat there are defections, but doubtless not all are due to the voice that spoke out of the great white light that fell about Saul of Tarsus. By the way, it is worth observing that that clever gentleman was under no illusion regarding the origin of the voice that wrought his celebrated "flop"; he did not confound it with the vox populi The people of his time and place had no objection to the persecution that he was conducting, and could persecute a trifle themselves upon occasion.
Majorities rule, when they do rule, not because they ought, but because they can. We vote in order to learn without fighting which party is the stronger; it is less disagreeable to learn it that way than the other way. Sometimes the party that is numerically the weaker is by possession of the Government actually the stronger, and could maintain itself in power by an appeal to arms, but the habit of submitting when outvoted is hard to break. Moreover, we all recognize in a subconscious way, the reasonableness of the habit as a practical method of getting on; and there is always the confident hope of success in the next canvass. That one's cause will succeed because it ought to succeed is perhaps the most general and invincible folly affecting the human judgment Observation can not shake it, nor experience destroy. Though you bray a partisan in the mortar of adversity till he numbers the strokes of the pestle by the hairs of his head, yet will not this fool notion depart from him. He is always going to win the next time, however frequently and disastrously he has lost before. And he can always give you the most cogent reasons for the faith that is in him. His chief reliance is on the "fatal mistakes" made since the last election by the other party. There never was a year in which the party in power and the party out of power did not make bad mistakes—mistakes which, unlike eggs and fish, seem always worst when freshest. If idiotic errors of policy were always fatal, no party would ever win an election and there would be a hope of better government under the benign sway of the domestic cow.
Each political party accuses the "opposing candidate" of refusing to answer certain questions which somebody has chosen to ask him. I think myself it is discreditable for a candidate to answer any questions at all, to make speeches, declare his policy, or to do anything whatever to get himself elected. If a political party choose to nominate a man so obscure that his character and his views on all public questions are not known or inferable he ought to have the dignity to refuse to expound them. As to the strife for office being a pursuit worthy of a noble ambition, I do not think so; nor shall I believe that many do think so until the term "office seeker" carries a less opprobrious meaning and the dictum that "the office should seek the man, not the man the office," has a narrower currency among all manner of persons. That by acts and words generally felt to be discreditable a man may evoke great popular enthusiasm is not at all surprising. The late Mr. Barnum was not the first nor the last to observe that the people love to be humbugged. They love an impostor and a scamp, and the best service that you can do for a candidate for high political preferment is to prove him a little better than a thief, but not quite so good as a thug.
The view is often taken that a representative is the same thing as a delegate; that he is to have, and can honestly entertain, no opinion that is at variance with the whims and the caprices of his constituents. This is the very reductio ad absurdum of representative government. That it is the dominant theory of the future there can be little doubt, for it is of a piece with the progress downward which is the invariable and unbroken tendency of republican institutions. It fits in well with manhood suffrage, rotation in office, unrestricted patronage, assessment of subordinates, an elective judiciary and the rest of it. This theory of representative institutions is the last and lowest stage in our pleasant performance of "shooting Niagara." When it shall have universal recognition and assent we shall have been fairly engulfed in the whirlpool, and the buzzard of anarchy may hopefully whet his beak for the national carcass. My view of the matter—which has the further merit of being the view held by those who founded this Government—is that a man holding office from and for the people is in conscience and honor bound to do what seems to his judgment best for the general welfare, respectfully regardless of any and all other considerations. This is especially true of legislators, to whom such specific "instructions" as constituents sometimes send are an impertinence and an insult. Pushed to its logical conclusion, the "delegate" idea would remove all necessity of electing men of brains and judgment; one man properly connected with his constituents by telegraph would make as good a legislator as another. Indeed, as a matter of economy, one representative should act for many constituencies, receiving his instructions how to vote from mass meetings in each. This, besides being logical, would have the added advantage of widening and hardening the power of the local "bosses," who, by properly managing the showing of hands could have the same beneficent influence in national affairs that they now enjoy in municipal. The plan would be a pretty good one if there were not so many other ways for the Nation to go to the Devil that it appears needless.