Baltimore Evening Sun/June 1, 1916
Two critics of exotic kidney, M. Eamon de Buidhe and Mr. Jesse Lee Bennett, have lately bedizened this place with painful attempts to answer the question, What is the matter with the United States? M. de Buidhe, whose Flemish name betrays a (perhaps justifiable) Belgian bitterness, sees the American people as a nation of flaccid and soulless numskulls, putting what is easy and pleasant to believe above the truth and frankly preferring a prehensile sentimentality to honor. Mr. Bennett, apparently setting out to dispose of these allegations, ends by admitting even worse ones. The picture of the United States that he draws, indeed, is a picture of a country that shows little more delicacy and decency than a pickpocket, and it is no wonder that he regards its future with much apprehension and seems convinced that a beating would do it good.
In this Mr. Bennett’s tragic strophes I hear a foreign note that is almost as plain as Montsoor de Buidhe’s. He writes, in fact, from the precise stand-point of an English leader writer, and there is even a hint of the traditional roll and rumble in his prose. I do not, of course, hold it against him. Practically all serious writing in this country follows English models, and the more intelligent an American writer becomes the more he shows his regret that he is not an Englishman. But foreignness is foreignness, and to it, when it deals with America, there should be opposed some Americanism. I nominate myself to dispense this antidote, chiefly because I am quite free of the current Anglomania, and do not judge the United States by English standards. The day of that sort of judging, in truth, is passing, and it will end with Anglo-Saxon domination. The America of day after tomorrow will not be an Anglo-Saxon colony. I don’t know exactly what it will be, but speaking for one of the races hitherto complaisant I can tell you with assurance that the era of complaisance has definitely ended. Hereafter the Anglo-Saxon will find himself challenged on all sides, and his present easy assumption of his divine right to rule will descend to the comic. A new and much greater America looms up; once the Anglo-Saxon has been unhorsed the nation will obviously make progress in both intelligence and honor, for it is difficult to imagine a race possessing less of either than his does. I kiss him good-by without heat. A sweet fellow, but a sick one. He has been tried in the fire—and his squawks and screams have deafened the world.
The discussion of all this, however, can wait. What I set out to do was to answer the question that Montsoor de Buidhe and Mr. Bennett, for all their persuasive writing, left unanswered, to wit: What is the matter with the United States? The answer to that question is so simple that I almost blush to write it down. The matter with the United States is (a) that its whole spiritual development, like its political organization, is grounded upon the desires, weaknesses and habits of mind of third-rate men, (b) that its population contains more third-rate men per thousand than that of any other country in the world. In brief, it is a paradise for the stupid, the incompetent, the vulgar, the just-as-good. They exist everywhere, to be sure, but this is the only presumably civilized country (with one exception) in which their ideas are gravely accepted as important and inspired, and thus the only one (again with one exception) in which those ideas enter into the national policies, and determine the national weltanschaaung, or, to make it easy for patriots, the national philosophy. The United States, as a nation, thinks exactly like a farm hand or a car conductor. It shows, on the one hand, his amazing lack of information; on the other hand, his infantile belief in platitudinous maxims and principles; and, on the third hand, as it were, his utter lack of anything properly describable as imagination.
Once this three-cornered fact is grasped, the causes behind all the allegations of Mons. De Buidhe and Mr. Bennett become crystal clear. Imagine America as a huge peasant, and it is easy to understand that complacent stupidity which the former describes as intellectual anaemia and the latter as “self-satisfaction and self-righteousness.” The peasant has cunning, but he is unable to see any farther than the next farm. He acquires and safeguards property, but his cultural development stops at a point little above that of the domestic animals. He is intensely moral, but his morality is never permitted to stand in the way of his self-interest. He is enormously emotional and easy to run amuck, but his imagination is unequal to the most elemental concepts of æsthetics or philosophy. He is a violent patriot, but he is always eager to beat the tax collector. He has immovable opinions about all governmental affairs, but all of them are imbecile. He is inordinately jealous of his rights, but habitually forgetful of the other fellow’s. He is full of religious superstitions and prejudices, but quite devoid of any sense of the profound beauty and dignity of religion.
It is my contention that the American people appear to any intelligent foreigner as a nation of just such peasants, and that this recognition of their essential peasantness is at the bottom (though perhaps often unconsciously) of all the criticisms commonly heard of them. And in witness whereof I point to the two articles of Mons. de Buidhe, the Latin-Teuton, and Mr. Bennett, the American spokesman of upper-class English Kultur.
The fathers of the republic, of course, dreamed a different dream. It was certainly very far from the thought of such men as Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton that the United States should become an authentic mobocracy, and that the official doctrines of the nation, in 1916, should be indistinguishable from the ideas that are applauded at chantauquas and revivals. Nay; these seers made the most ingenious efforts to hold the mob in check, to secure the determination of national policies to the intelligent minority, to hold down the prosperity of rabble-rousers. But Jackson and his merry men broke through those barbed wires, and ever since 1825 the mob has been continuously in the saddle. Today there is so longer any question of statesmanship, in the true sense, in our politics. The only way to success in public life lies in flattering and kotowing to the mob. A candidate must either adopt its current manias and delusions en bloc, or convince it hypocritically that he has done so, while cherishing reservations in petto, if he would make any progress at all. The result is that only two sorts of men stand any chance whatever of getting into actual control of affairs—first, the glorified mob-men who genuinely believe what the mob believes, and secondly, the shrewd fellows who are willing to make any sacrifice of conviction and self-respect in order to get jobs. One finds perfect examples of the first class in Jackson and Bryan. One finds hundreds of specimens of the second class among the politicians who have been so affectingly converted to prohibition, and who vote and blubber for it with jugs in their pockets.
Mobocracy, once set up, worked irresistibly toward its own permanence and prosperity. To mention only one thing, its existence held out a strong invitation to dissatisfied mob-men across the ocean, and they came in to reinforce the native peasants. The immigration that started in the thirties brought very few men of the upper classes, or even of the middle classes. Fully 98 per cent. of the newcomers, once they got their bearings, found themselves in perfect accord with the national political philosophy. They, too, were peasants; they recognized El Dorado, and sent the news home. That enormous influx, extending over eighty years, thus wrought no change whatever. The German farmers of Missouri and the Swedes of Minnesota swallowed Populism just as eagerly as the decadent Anglo-Saxons of Kansas; the Italians and Jews in New York have fallen into the Tammany scheme of things just as docilely as the Irish of sixty years ago.
In view of all this, Mons. De Buidhe’s announcement that sober and constructive thinking is rarely encountered in America is no more than the statement of a platitude. Sober and constructive thinking, under the present organization of our society, is almost, if not quite, impossible. Any i dea that shows any inherent originality (as opposed to merely superficial novelty) is at once denounced as immoral and dangerous—the peasant’s eternal distrust of what is unknown and unintelligible. The most that one can look for is a restatement of old (and usually exploded) ideas in what appear to be new forms. Thus one hears it gravely argued that the way to cure the undoubted evils of democracy—evils so plain that all men above the common level freely admit them—is to change their names and try them again. In this manner, the short ballot follows the direct primary, and the initiative and referendum follow the city commission, and the recall follows the Australian ballot. But if any American statesman were to arise in Congress and point out the obvious fact that the real difficulty lies in the stupidity and corruption of the electorate—that the true way to get competent and honest public officials lies in restricting the franchise to competent and honest electors—his reward would undoubtedly be his swift and ignominious retirement to private life. Such ideas are simply not tolerated in the United States.
No public problem is ever discussed here with absolute honesty and in its elementals. Even in England, which has been ruined by the reform bill of 1832, there is a vastly greater freedom of discussion, for the university tradition, surviving mobocracy, preserves an educated aristocracy; but in the United States a taboo is upon such things, and no public man would dare to flout it. Our problems are settled. not by searching out the causes underlying them but by exchanging salvos of nonsense on the surface of them. Thus many of the serious questions now confronting us can only come to intelligent solution by critically considering and determining the actual extent and character of our neutrality in the present war, and yet any proposal to examine that neutrality would provoke a yell of rage from the spokesmen of the national predilection, and any Congressman who pushed it would inevitably suffer.
I have used the word “taboo.” It would bob up frequently in anything approaching a scientific examination of American ways of thinking. The taboo in always conspicuous in primitive cultures; in the form of a rigid and bellicose moral code it survives in the mob-culture of the most civilized states. Strange as it may seem at first glance, it would not be entirely absurd to say that morality and civilization proceed in opposite directions. The savage is the most moral of all men; there is scarcely an act of his daily life that is not conditioned by unyielding prohibitions and obligations. The mob-man, even under a high variety of civilization, is almost as much a slave to superstitions and fixed ideas. He believes firmly that right and wrong are immovable things; that they have an actual and unchangeable existence, and that any challenge of them, by word or by act, is the most heinous of crimes. And with the concept of wrongness he always confuses the concept of mere differentness. Anything that is strange is to be combated; the democrat is the most adamantine of conservatives.
To the concept of the taboo add the kindred concept of the evil spirit, and you begin to tread a safe path through the mob-man’s mind. He believes, like the savage, in devils. He is forever on the alert for black magic. Here in the United States, for example, the whole history of our politics since Jackson’s time has been a history of the denunciation and pursuit of bugaboos. One recalls an endless list of crowns of thorns, crimes of ’73, Standard Oil companies, white slave trusts, money barons, beef trusts, rum demons, German spies, most of them chiefly imaginary. Such an adept at rabble-rousing as Dr. Roosevelt devotes almost his whole energy to discovering and popularizing new ones; his repertoire, first and last, has included at least a score, ranging from the malefactors of yesteryear to the hyphenates of today. At one time, during the white slave mania, it looked as if syphilophobia might actually get into politics. The mob-man cannot grasp ideas in their native nakedness. They must be dramatized for him, and clothed in tin swords and red whiskers. All discussion, to interest him, must get down to the primitive level of combat; he must see a definite enemy before him.
But enough of all this. The weather, as I write, is too hot for such solemn concerns. Besides, it in useless to pile up words about them; mob-rule is not a theory, but a massive fact, and it is not going to be disposed of with phrases. That business, when the time comes, will be performed by other and harsher artillery, the roar of which, I sincerely trust, will reach me down in Gehenna. Meanwhile, all I can do is to thank God that my bilious view of mobocracy is not turned into pain by any sneaking faith in its divine origin. The man I pity is that man who clings to a sentimental belief in it, and yet has to inhale its stench.