Cranks as Social Motors
WE have a natural admiration for the complete man who is not beguiled by appearances. It is good to see him taking his reputable pathway through the world ; he walks erect therein, deviating neither to the right hand nor to the left. How fascinating a figure is Goethe, the type of the many-sided, well-poised citizen ! — one so healthy in mind that when a Napoleon crosses his path he can regard him coolly as an historic phenomenon. He will not disturb his good digestion, and the serene contemplation of mortal affairs which comes of it, by taking up arms, like the lesser German poets and hot-headed students who rush to the fray like passionate animals. This master of life knows too much to concentrate his interest upon any temporary or passing phase of being. It is obvious that cyclones and gales will not help him ; he anchors till they are past, and then steers right onward, his sails filled by a steady wind.
“ Such men,” we are tempted to say, “ are our appointed leaders : their judgments are broader and more just than those of their humbler brethren ; they should hold a fatherly and protective office in society ; we must accept them as arbiters, and rejoice in their well-considered directorship. Surely, if our social progress is to continue, these men must increase! ”
Nevertheless, they do not increase. Universal education and facilities for influencing thought are thrusting into prominence many men who are hopelessly one-sided, —men who will accept nothing as proved, and who sting the established social order like hornets. And necessity, that mother of invention, has enriched our English speech with a word to distinguish them. We call them cranks, — one of those crisp monosyllables which are easier to understand than to explain. Snob was another of these useful creations; it entered the language somewhat earlier. Cranks come from all classes, and may be roughly defined as persons who have not the instinct of their order. They fail to take the prevailing tone of sentiment, which most of us catch as easily as we do the measles, — and often, perhaps, with consequences as regrettable.
One cause of the multiplication of the bright, aggressive crank is the great increase of specialism. Most men who are worth taking into account are specialists. But the average citizen will never allow for his specialism, and confess that his vision is distorted thereby. Only the superior minds have the wisdom to do this. It was Burke who lamented that the law invigorated the understanding at the expense of openness and liberality of mind. It was a greater than Burke who confessed that his spirit was subdued to what it worked in, and received a bias therefrom as real as the stain upon the hand of the dyer. But if these specialists of one hundred or three hundred years ago did well to acknowledge that their outlooks were contracted by their tasks, how much more must we recognize this contraction now, when our complex civilization drives every man into a specialism far more absorbing and narrowing than those known to our predecessors !
The specialist who makes no allowance for the “personal error,” and avoids the company of those who might correct his mistakes, easily becomes a crank. Having discovered his panacea, he proceeds to create just the sort of world that will be healed by its application. Prospects of vast and indefinite extent open before him. His pill or elixir is proclaimed a delightful substitute for natural processes of amelioration, each step of which must be guided by a painful intellectual effort. Grant him his somewhat doubtful premises, and he has logical machinery in splendid running order, that will grind you out a scheme insuring glorious exemption from evils now encompassing sentient beings.
Yet, criticise him as we may, the crank, when at his best, feeds that admiration for the heroic which is so fine an element in man. Your manysided personage, unless he has supreme genius, is hopelessly commonplace. The most uninteresting character in Shakespeare is Horatio. He is the essence of right thinking ; one whose blood and judgment are so well commingled that we long for a little more blood and a little less judgment. He is useful to keep up his end of the dialogue and as a drag upon the coach-wheel. It is Fortinbras, no nice calculator of chances, but a man of exuberant energy, ready to risk what is mortal and unsure even for an eggshell, who gratifies our imagination and carries the day.
A useful function of cranks is to try our beliefs by bringing them to the test of action. Scholars might have proved the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures to be untenable, but the mass of well-to-do Englishmen took no note of their researches. Not until the sect calling itself the Peculiar People undertook the anointing of their sick in the manner prescribed by the Apostle, and would hear of no other treatment, was this question of plenary inspiration discussed before the courts and in the Times newspaper. Then the busy shopkeepers were compelled to look into the matter, and to come to some conclusion. The sound and fury of the cranks who led the Chartist agitation in England, and the clamor of our own non-voting Abolitionists, stirred easy-going men to revise their inherited opinions as nothing else could have done.
Yet it must be acknowledged that, in spite of his usefulness and his apparent heroism, the crank is not always to be respected. One cannot help believing that there is a variety of this gently who are self-made cranks, — cranks because they want to be. They seek some social disproportion whereupon they can posture with effect. The pleasures of conformity are humdrum ; nonconformity is piquant and startling. Such a man is not a crank from abundance of virtue, as he would have you believe, but rather because he feels his feebleness in the world of practical affairs and is soured thereby. If he pose as an advanced philanthropist, we suspect that his love of mankind has some side glances at personal profit. If facts be against him, he does not hesitate to invent them, and visits with arrogant abuse those who would expose his falsities. He is especially angry with those halting disciples who accept his scheme as something ultimately possible, and then humbly inquire what they are to do provisionally as a practical approximation to the distant good. If he be a rhetorician, he has no scruple in administering the electric shock of paradox, and seeks the levity of assent that may be caught by the sudden spring of a false analogy. No doubt this reckless shooter occasionally hits the mark. Pope describes the talking bird who berates the passers-by with epithets which well-conducted periodicals have ceased to print. But the poet confesses that, though sometimes struck with the extreme felicity of these characterizations, he had never been able to extend his admiration to the speaker whose entire stock in trade consisted of this very limited and abusive vocabulary.
The highest type of the incomplete man who to worldly eyes has something of the crank about him is he who for a noble purpose voluntarily contracts his view. He is willing to sacrifice the geniality of wide culture to the trenchant zeal in a single direction which he feels can alone influence human conduct. Abuses can be dislodged only by continuity of attack. Having reached certain principles bearing upon the general welfare, the man of education will demonstrate them in an essay, and then, thinking that he at least has done his duty, will proceed to refresh his mind by passing to the consideration of other questions. For the iteration of one idea, its incessant presentation under different forms, however good for the community, is narrowing to the individual. It is a high conception of public duty which causes a man of large nature to accept this personal risk, to resign the intellectual balance and completeness he might otherwise attain.
There is a story of a visitor to an institution for those mentally afflicted, who was taken through the establishment by a gentleman by whom he was favored with much scientific discourse respecting the different irrationalities of its inmates. But having gained an attentive ear by his sound and interesting expositions, the guide could not resist seizing the moment of parting to deliver himself of sentiments which established his own right to a place among the unfortunates whose woful extravagances he had so well described. In like manner, the writer of this paper finds it impossible to forbear the opportunity of delivering himself of opinions which for the past thirty years he has advocated, and which, according to the judgment of those who ought to know, entitle him to a fair position in the brotherhood of cranks; for he has persuaded himself — though he has had indifferent success in persuading others — that the first practicable reform, which will initiate, if it does not include, all others, is a total change in our methods of taxing. The saying of Turgot, that the art of taxation is that of plucking the goose without making it cry, must be consigned to the limbo prepared for maxims about the divine right of kings and kindred absurdities. Encourage the democratic goose to cry vigorously, until he can be brought face to face with the fact that he is only a goose for making the clamor. Let our imposts give a maximum of education rather than a minimum of inconvenience: the teaching of circumstance, of environment, should supplement the weaker teaching of the schools. Direct taxation, falling lightly, but palpably, upon the necessities of the poor, and heavily upon the luxuries of the rich, is the object-lesson of which we stand in need. One may favor the initiating or fostering of certain industries, and yet hold that custom - houses are abominations. Whenever it is wise to give state assistance, it should take the form of a subsidy, that voters may know what they pay and see that it is well to pay it. Tax exemption, under general laws, is a most pernicious form of public money-giving ; it is wasteful, demoralizing, and grossly unjust. The property which the citizen holds subject to taxation he should give subject to taxation ; if he gives it with wisdom, let the State increase his benefaction so far as, from time to time, it shall appear expedient.
But this is not the place to make further utterances upon a subject concerning which the present writer has, upon fitting occasions, disburdened himself. Let us reach the conclusion of the whole matter by saying that the impracticable crank whose vision develops the sense of the ideal exercises an important function; we may choose our associates from much worse company. If we cannot wind up our affairs and set out on a pilgrimage for Mr. Bellamy’s celestial city, let us at least take our tickets for a way station, in the hope that upon arrival we may find it possible to continue our journey to the end of the line. If the pliant men who serve parties and corporations possess the present, the enthusiasts hold the future. Their eccentricities of thought and action initiate valuable variations ; they break through the little circle of conventional obligation, and point to duties lying outside of it. The picturesque leadership of great chiefs is no longer possible. Given our present opportunities of knowledge, or half knowledge, and the social advance must be the resultant of a thousand impacts which impel movement in different directions. The motor is no longer a single clear-sighted hero, but a congress of cranks.
Perhaps the happiest condition the modern man can attain is to acknowledge his one-sidedness, and then to accept it cheerfully. He who would take large views, without a large mind to put them in, is apt to be ineffective. Energy of action is in inverse ratio to the field of vision, and a pushing manliness is after all the supreme quality. It is good to be deceived as to the importance of our special variation from the normal standard. A little wider outlook leads our neighbor the philosopher to expend in irony upon the world the force that was given him to act upon it. Nature provides many twisted instruments for her orchestra, but if each plays his own lustily the result is harmony. Thus we come into effective contact with the universe ; and, to the Power that grasps the whole in one collective act of consciousness, an honest acceptance of the distortions of our petty personalities may be the condition of their highest utility.
J. P. Quincy.