The Passing Show

Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner/July 8, 1900

Washington, Thursday — It is to be hoped that before these lines are printed the State Department will have been place able to decide if the troubles in China and our military action regarding them constitute “a state of war.” That they constitute a war there is no question; but between war and a state of war there is a mighty difference—a difference as broad and deep as the great Gulf between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. In a “war”, it appears, the President has authority to employ the army and navy in active military operations, to move ships and troops from one country to another, to make the troops attack and defend forts, capture cities, engage armies in the open field and march upon the enemy’s capital. In a “state of war” he can do none of these things without authority of Congress. With reference to the particular situation now confronting us in Asia the question seems to be whether our soldiers and sailors shall fight the Chinese and the war and navy departments, or the Chinese, the war and navy departments, or the Chinese, the war and navy departments and Congress.

This, I think, is the only “Presidential campaign” in which the accusation of trying to compel a man to become Vice-President has been made with savage bitterness by the men under compulsion. It is interesting to note that both resentful victims of the stress are from New York. Perhaps it is thought in the Empire State that the office is of no great dignity, but that erroneous view is held by no one who has ever observed Mr. Frye “presiding over the deliberations” of the United States Senate, grave, imperturbable, majestic and sound asleep.

It is painful to observe that Colonel Watterson is dominated by a tendency to the use of imperfectly civil speech. He says that Representative Lentz of Ohio “seems to be no less a hopeless blackguard than a braying ass.” It is not easy to see what national interest is promoted by such words, excepting when they are used of a Republican. Colonel Watterson may fancy that it does not matter what he says in the seclusion of his own paper, but God looks over his shoulder and sees every word he writes. And God made Mr. Lentz.

Let us hope it will not occur again.

Consuls at Tien-Tsin having unanimously proposed to their Governments as the sole means of saving the Ministers at Pekin a threat to destroy the graves of the Imperial family, the dear old familiar sentimentaliters and futilitarians came promptly to the fore, fashioning the visages of them into visible depreciation and lifting the song of dissent. They were pleased to be shocked, these good folk, by a proposal so barbarous. It is observable, however, that the suggestion was freely accepted by many of those who had been most audible in denouncing “British brutality” when Kitchener kicked to pieces the tomb of the Mahdi at Khartoum and parceled that gentleman among the Tommies. Doubtless, too, it met the approval of many publicists and statesmen of this country who weep all over themselves and us whenever the several sorts of Sulzers denounce the blowing of Sepoy ravishers from British guns. Oh, well, it’s better to be right than consistent, and the philosopher of today may be the dunce of yesterday and the idiot of tomorrow. Nothing is accomplished by the man of sense without fools in his following.

Doubtless the threat of desecrating the Imperial graves is made too late to save the Legations at Pekin. But what would have been good as a timely admonition is good as “the wild justice of revenge”—let the tombs be destroyed and the spirits of their occupants disrated from deities to dogs. It will be a lesson to the future. And to reinforce it, Pekin should be made a place for “the lion and the lizard.” Nothing is more absurd than to do unto barbarians as we would that they should do unto us. In dealing with them we must study their vulnerable points. We must know their customs, the peculiar sentiments and superstitions which we can address in speech and action which they will understand. And that is why we should arrest Minister Wu Ting Fang and, if necessary, cut off his sleeves.

A correspondent signing a woman’s name writes me a despondent letter about his troubles and bereavements, as If I had not enough of my own. My first thought was to turn it over to Ella Wheeler Wilcox, or Laura Jean Libbey, or somebody else skilled in “heart-to-heart talks” with the afflicted, but even the professional consoler has rights, and this fellow is too grievous a burden to unload upon anybody but an enemy. My correspondent hints darkly at suicide, which I think a remedy well worth considering. But If he will not adopt it, and he almost certainly will not, I would advise him to shut up and go about his business as if nothing had occurred. Nothing really has occurred but what he ought to have expected. Life is a “skin game” –the odds are enormously against the player, who has no right to expect to win. If he stays in the game, which he is not compelled to do, let him take his losses in good temper and not whine about them. They are hard to bear, but that is no reason why he should be.

If my correspondent were not an egotist—if he would conquer the habit of considering all things in their relation to himself and learn to consider them in relation to the general scheme of the universe of which he is so minute a part, he would not only understand, but feel, that his troubles are of no particular importance. A person who loses heart and hope through a personal bereavement is like a grain of sand on the seashore complaining that the tide has washed a neighboring grain out of reach. He is worse, for the bereaved grain cannot help itself; it has to be a grain of sand and play the game of tide, win or lose; whereas he can quit by watching his opportunity can “quit a winner.” For sometimes we do beat “the man who keeps the table”—never ln the long run, but infrequently and out of small stakes. But that is no time to “cash in” and go, for you cannot take your little winning with you. The time to quit is when you have lost a big stake, your fool hope of eventual success, your fortitude and your love of the game.

But we are told with wearisome iteration that we are “put here” for some purpose (not disclosed) and have no right to retire until summoned—it may be by small-pox, it may be by the bludgeon of a blackguard, it may be by the kick of a cow; the “summoning” Power (said to be the same as the “putting” Power) has not a nice taste in the choice of messengers. That “argument” Is not worth attention, for it is unsupported by evidence or anything remotely resembling evidence. “Put here” indeed! And by the keeper of the table who “runs” the “skin game.” We were put here by our parents—that is all anybody knows about it; and they had no more authority than we, and probably no more Intention.

The notion that we have not the right to take our own lives comes of our consciousness that we have not the courage. It is the plea of the coward—his excuse for continuing to live when he has nothing to live for—or his provision against such a time in the future. If he were not egotist as well as coward he would need no excuse. To one who does not regard himself as the center of creation and his sorrows as the throes of the universe, life, if not worth living, is also not worth leaving.

The ancient philosopher who was asked why he did not die if, as he taught, life was no better than death, replied: “Because death is no better than life.” We do not quite know that either proposition is true, but the matter is not worth bothering about, for both states are supportable, life despite its pleasures and death despite its repose.

To all editors, proofreaders and compositors to whom these presents shall come. Greeting: May dogs not walk upon your graves. These, therefore, are the things which I do not know: Why you print “heaven” with a little h and “Harrisburg” with a big one; “Earth” with a little e and “Bermuda” with a big B; “Hell” with a little h and “Kansas” with a big K; Mr. McKinley’s official title with a big p and Satan’s with a little d.

Additional thing unknown to me: Why is it less easy to print my stuff as I want it than as you want it.

Addendum: Why, although your existence may be sweet to you, my sins cannot be punished otherwise?

It is the conviction of Bishop Fowler of the Methodist Church, that “the errand of the United Anglo-Saxon race is to keep the world’s peace, and soon it will be true that not a soldier will lift his foot unless the command is given in the English language.” Maybe so, but it looks as if not a soldier would go gray waiting for the command. For some hundreds of years the world has been ringing with the words “Forward-march” delivered in the veritable language of what we know as the Authorized Version of the Holy Scriptures—the language which the good and hopeful Bishop Fowler preaches peace on earth and good will toward men. In that language they are today heard “heard through rolling drums” in the Philippine Islands, in China, in the Transvaal, in Ashantee. It Is a great language; it has the richest military vocabulary of any in the world. And it lends itself with a glib facility to fool prophecies of universal peace.

There is a tongue in which, so far as we know, no military commands were ever thundered forth—in which great state papers were never written—in which rulers of provinces and colonies never received their instructions from beyond the sea; a tongue whose words are not found inscribed in shouting characters on triumphal arches and the tombs of conquerors. That language is Aramaic—the mother tongue of Jesus Chris. It is not much spoken today and does to appear to be spreading. The world is not taking very kindly to the language of the Prince of Peace; it prefers that of the Prince of Wales.

A contested seat, Mr. Croker-David B. Hill of New York.

If certain readers of The Examiner think that in dating my work at Washington, D. C, I am joking they must fancy that my sense of humor is, if not defective, at least peculiar, or else their own is most unearthly. If they do not think so why do they address letters to me at the San Francisco office of the paper and even ask for personal interviews? Washington, it is cheerfully admitted, is not so good a place to live in as San Francisco, but I really do live in it, and it is a pretty good place to send such letters as it is desired shall reach me. The postmaster here is an obliging gentlemen who will undertake to see that they are delivered; he hires a man to do that. What is inside the letter does not matter—suggestions, compliments, low abuse, anything—but outside it should bear the words “Office of the San Francisco Examiner, Washington, DC,” and (in testimony to the truthfulness of my character) a two cent steel engraving of the gentlemen for whom the city is named.