An election is like a flash of lightning at midnight. You get an instantaneous photograph of what every man is doing. You see his real relation toward his government. But an election happens only once a year. Government goes on day and night.
It is hard breaking down the popular fallacy that there is such a thing as “politics” governed by peculiar conditions, which must be understood and respected; that the whole thing is a mystic avocation, run as a trade by high priests and low priests, and is remote from our daily life. Our system of party government has been developed with this end in view: to keep the control in the hands of professionals by multiplying technicalities and increasing the complexity of the rules of the game. There exists, consequently, an unformulated impression that the corruption of politics is something by itself. Yet there probably never was a civilization where the mesh of powers and interests was so close. It is like the interlocking of roots in a swamp. Such density and cohesion were never seen in any epoch, such a mat and tangle of personalities where every man is tied up with the fibres of every other. If you take an axe or a saw, and cut a clean piece out of it anywhere, you will maim every member of society. How idle, then, even to think of polities as a subject by itself, or of the corruptions of the times as localized!
Politics gives what the chemists call a “mirror,” and shows the ingredients in the average man’s composition. But you must take your mind off of politics if you want to understand America. You must take up the lives of individuals, and follow them out, as they play against one another in counterpoint. As soon as you do this you will not be able to determine where politics begins and where it stops. It is all politics. It is all social intercourse; it fs all business. Any square foot of this soil will give you the whole fauna and flora of the land. Where will you put in your wedge of reform? There is not a cranny anywhere. The mass is like crude copper ore that cannot be blasted. It blows out the charge.
We think that political agitation must show political results. This is like trying to alter the shape of a shadow without touching its object. The hope is not only mistaken, it is absurd. The results to be obtained from reform movements cannot show in the political field till they have passed through the social world.
“But, after all, what you want is votes, is it not?” “It would be so encouraging to see virtue win that everybody would vote for you thereafter. Why don’t you manage it somehow?” This sort of talk is the best record of incompetence that corruption has imprinted. Enlighten this class and you have saved the republic. Why, my friend, you are so lost, you are so much a mere product of tyranny that you do not know what a vote is. True, we want votes, but the votes we want must be cast spontaneously. We do not want them so badly as to buy them. A vote is only important because it is an opinion. Even a dictator cannot force opinions upon his subjects by six months of rule; and yet the complaint is that decency gets few votes after a year of effort by a handful of unimportant and contemptible people. We only enter the field of politics because we can there get a hearing. The candidates in reform movements are tools. They are like crowbars that break open the mind of the age. They cannot be dodged, concealed, or laughed away. Every one is aroused from his lethargy by seeing a real man walk on the scene amid all the stage properties and marionettes of conventional politics. “No fair!” the people cry. They do not vote for him, of course, but they talk about the portent with a vigor no mere doctrine could call forth, and the discussion blossoms at a later date into a new public spirit, a new and genuine demand for better things.
It is apparent that between the initial political activity of reformers and their ultimate political accomplishments there must intervene the real agitation, the part that does the work, which goes on in the brains and souls of individual men, and which can only be observed in social life, in manners and conversation.
Now let us take up the steps by which in practical life the reaction is set going. Enter the nearest coterie of radicals, and listen to the quarrel. Reformers proverbially disagree, and “their sects mince themselves almost to atoms.” With us the quarrel always arises over the same point. “Can we afford under these particular circumstances to tell the exact truth?” I have never known a reform movement in which this discussion did not rage from start to finish, nor have I known one where any other point was involved. You are a citizens’ committee. The parties offer to give you half a loaf. Well and good. But this is not their main object. They want you to call it a whole loaf. They want to dissipate your agitation by getting you to tell the public that you are satisfied. What they hate is the standard. The war between you and them is a spiritual game of chess. They must get you to say they are right. It is their only means of retaining their power.
Thus the apple of discord falls into the reform camp. Half its members take the bait. In New York city our politics have been so picturesque, the pleas of the politician so shallow, the lies demanded from the reformers so obvious, that the eternal principles of the situation have been revealed in their elemental simplicity. It is just because the impulse toward better things carries no material content, — we do not want any particular thing, but we want an improvement in everything, — it is just because the whole movement is purely. moral, that the same questions always arise.
We ought not to grieve over the discussion, over the heartburn and heated argument that start from a knot of radicals and run through the community, setting men against one another. The initiative of all this wholesome life is the quarrel in the executive committee of some reform body. They are no more responsible for it, they can no more avoid it, the community can no more advance to higher standards before they have had it, than a child can skate before it can walk.
The executive committee is discussing the schools. In consequence of a recent agitation the politicians have put up a candidate who will give new plumbing, even if he does steal the books, and the question is whether the School Association shall indorse this candidate. If it does, he wins. If it does not, both plumbing and books are likely to remain the prey of the other party, and the Lord knows how bad that is. The fight rages in the committee and some sincere old gentleman is prophesying typhoid.
The practical question is, “Do you want good plumbing, or do you want the truth?” You cannot have both this year. If the Association goes out and tells the public exactly what it knows, it will get itself laughed at, insult the candidate, and elect his opponent. If it tells the truth, it might as well run a candidate of its own as a protest and an advertisement of that truth. It can buy good plumbing with a lie, and the old gentleman thinks it ought to do so. The reformers are going to indorse the candidate, and upon their heads will be visited his theft of the books. They have sold out the little public confidence they held. Had they stood out for another year, under the practical régime which they had already endured for twenty, and had they devoted themselves to augmenting the public interest in the school question, both parties would have offered them plumbing and books to allay the excitement. Perhaps the parties would have relaxed their grip on the whole school system rather than meet the issue.
But the Association does not understand this. It does not as yet clearly know its own mind. All this procedure, this going forward and back, is necessary. The community must pass through these experiences before it discovers that the shortest road to good schools is truth. A few men learn by each turn of the wheel, and these men tend to consolidate. They become a sort of school of political thought. They see that they do not care a whit more about the schools than they do about the parks; that the school agitation is a handy way to make the citizens take notice of maladministration in all departments; that the parties may be left to reform themselves, and to choose the most telling bid for popular favor; that the parties must do this, and will do this, in so far as the public demands it, and will not do it under any other circumstances.
It is the very greatest folly in the world for an agitator to be content with a partial success. It destroys his cause. He fades instantly. You cannot see him. He is become part of the corrupt and contented public. His business is to make others demand good administration. He must never reap, but always sow. Let him leave the reaping to others. There will be many of them, and their material accomplishments will be the same whether he indorses them or not. If by chance some party, some administration gives him one hundred per cent of what he demands, let him acknowledge it handsomely; but he need not thank them. They did it because they had to, or because their conscience compelled them. In neither case was it done for him.
In other words, reform is an idea that must be taken up as a whole. You do not want any specific thing. You use every issue as a symbol. Let us give up the hope of finding any simpler way out of it. Let us take up the burden at its heaviest end, and acknowledge that nothing but an increase of personal force in every American can change our politics. It is curious that this course, which is the shortest cut to the millennium, should be met with the reproach that it puts off victory. This is entirely due to a defect in the imagination of people who are dealing with an unfamiliar subject. We have to learn its principles. We know that what we really want is all of virtue; but it seems so unreasonable to claim this that we try to buy it piecemeal, item a schoolhouse, item four parks; and with each gain comes a sacrifice of principle, disintegration, discouragement. Fools, if you had asked for all, you would have had this and more. We are defeated by compromise, because no matter how much we may deceive ourselves into thinking that good government is an aggregate of laws and parks, this is not true. Good government is the outcome of private virtue, and virtue is one thing, a unit, a force, a mode of motion. It cannot pass through a nonconductor of selfishness at any point. Compromise is loss: first, because it stops the movement, and kills energy; second, because it encourages the illusion that the wooden schoolhouse is good government. As against this you have the fact that sonic hundreds of school children do get housed six months before they would have been housed otherwise. But this is like cashing a draft for a thousand pounds with a dish of oatmeal.
We have perhaps followed in the wake of some little reform movement, and it has left us with an insight into the relation between private opinion and public occurrences. We have really found out two things: first, that, in order to have better government, the talk and private intelligence upon which it rests must be going forward all the time; and second, that the individual conscience, intelligence, or private will is always set free by the same process, to wit, by the telling of truth. The identity between public and private life reveals itself the instant a man adopts the plan of indiscriminate truth-telling. He unmasks batteries and discloses wires at every dinner party; he sees practical politics in every law office, arid social influence in every convention, and wherever he is, he suddenly finds himself, by his own will or against it, a centre of forces. Let him blurt out his opinion. Instantly there follows a little flash of reality. The shams drop, and the lines of human influence, the vital currents of energy, are disclosed. The only difference between a reform movement, so called, and the private act of any man who desires to better conditions is that the private man sets one drawing-room in a ferment by speaking his mind or by cutting his friend, and the agitator sets ten thousand in a ferment by attacking the age.
As a practical matter the conduct of politics depends upon the dinner-table talk of men who are not in politics at all. For instance, there is a public excitement about Civil Service Reform. A law is passed and is being evaded. If the governor is to set it up again he must be sustained by the public. They must follow and understand the situation or the official is helpless. Government is carried on from moment to moment by the people. The executive is a mere hand and arm. But do we sustain him? We do not. We are half-hearted. To lend power to his hand we shall have to be strong men. If we now stood ready to denounce him for himself falling short by the breadth of a hair of his whole duty, our support when we gave it would be worth having. But we are starchiess and deserve a starchless service.
What did you find out at the last meeting of the Library Committee? You found out that Commissioner Hopkins’s nephew was in the piano business. Hence the commissioner’s views on the music question. Repeat it to the first man you meet in the street, and bring it up at the next meeting of the committee. You did not think you had much influence in town politics and hardly knew how to begin. Yet the town seems to have no time for any other subject than your attack on the commissioner. From this point on you begin to understand conditions. Every man in town reveals his real character and his real relation to the town wickedness and to the universe by the way he treats you. You are beginning to get near to something real and something interesting. There is no one in the United States, no matter how small a town he lives in, or how inconspicuous he or she is, who does not have three invitations a week to enter practical politics by such a door as this. It makes no difference whether he regards himself as a scientific man studying phenomena, or a saint purifying society; he will become both. There is no way to study sociology but this. The books give no hint of what the science is like. They are written by men who do not know the world, but who go about gleaning information instead of trying experiments.
The first discovery we make is that the worst enemy of good government is not our ignorant foreign voter, but our educated domestic railroad president, our prominent business man, our leading lawyer.
If there is any truth in the optimistic belief that our standards are now going up, we shall soon see proofs of it in our homes. We shall not note our increase of virtue so much by seeing more crooks in Sing Sing as by seeing fewer of them in the drawing-rooms. You can acquire more knowledge of American politics by attacking in open talk a political lawyer of social standing than you can in a year of study. These backstair men are in every Bar Association and every Reform Club. They are the agents who supervise the details of corruption. They run between the capitalist, the boss, and the public official. They know as fact what every one else knows as inference. They are the priestly class of commerce, and correspond to the intriguing ecclesiastics in periods of church ascendency. Some want money, some office, some mere power, others want social prominence; and their art is to play off interest against interest and advance themselves.
As the president of a social club, I have a power which I can use against my party boss, or for him. If he can count upon me to serve him at need, it is a gain to him to have me establish myself as a reformer. The most dependable of these confidence men (for they betray nobody and are universally used and trusted) can amass money and stand in the forefront of social life; and now and then one of them is made an archbishop or a foreign minister. They are indeed the figureheads of the age, the essence of all the wickedness and degradation of our times. So long as such men enjoy public confidence we shall remain as we are. They must be deposed in the public mind.
These gentlemen and their attorneys are the weakest point in the serried ranks of iniquity. They are weak because they have social ambition, and the place to reach them is in their clubs. They are the best possible object lessons, because everybody knows them. Social punishment is the one cruel reality, the one terrible weapon, the one judgment against which lawyers cannot protect a man. It is as silent as theft, and it raises the cry of “Stop thief!” like a burglar alarm.
The general cowardice of this age covers itself with the illusion of charity, and asks in the name of Christ that no one’s feelings be hurt. But there is not in the New Testament any hint that hypocrites are to be treated with charity. This class is so intrenched on all sides that the enthusiasts cannot touch them. Their elbows are interlocked; they sit cheek by jowl with virtue. They are rich; they possess the earth. How shall we strike them? Very easily. They are so soft with feeding on politic lies that they drop dead if you give them a dose of ridicule in a drawing-room. Denunciation is well enough, but laughter is the true ratsbane for hypocrites. If you set off a few jests the air is changed. The men themselves cannot laugh or be laughed at, for nature’s revenge has given them masks for faces. You may see a whole roomful of them crack with pain because they cannot laugh. They are angry, and do not speak.
Everybody in America is soft, and hates conflict. The cure for this both in politics and social life is the same, — hardihood. Give them raw truth. They think they will die. Their friends call you a murderer. Four thousand ladies and eighty bank directors brought vinegar and brown paper to Low when he was attacked, and Roosevelt posed as a martyr because it was said up and down that he acted the part of a selfish politician. What humbug! How is it that all these things grow on the same root, — fraud, cowardice, formality, sentimentalism, and a lack of humor? Why do people become so solemn when they are making a deal, and so angry when they are defending it? The righteous indignation expended in protecting Roosevelt would have founded a church.
The whole problem of better government is a question of how to get people to stop simpering and saying “After you” to cant. A is an aristocrat. B is a boss. C is a candidate. D is a distiller. E is an excellent citizen. They dine. Gloomy silence would be more respectable than this chipper concern that all shall go well. Is not this politics? Yes, and the very essence of it. Is not the exposure of it practical reform? How easily the arrow goes in! A does not think you should confound him with B, nor E with C. Each is a reformer when he looks to the right, and a scamp as seen from the left. What is their fault? Collusion. “But A means so well!” They all mean well. Let us not confound the gradations of their virtue, but can we call any one an honest man who knowingly consorts with thieves? This they all do. Let us declare it. Their resentment at finding themselves classed together drives the wedge into the clique.
Remember, too, that there is no such thing as abstract truth. You must talk facts, you must name names, you must impute motives. You must say what is in your mind. It is the only means you have to cut yourself free from the body of this death. Innuendo will not do. Nobody minds innuendo. We live and breathe nothing else. If you are not strong enough to face the issue in private life, do not dream that you can do anything for public affairs. This, of course, means fight, not to-morrow, but now. It is only in the course of conflict that any one can come to understand the system, the habit of thought, the mental condition, out of which all our evils arise. The first difficulty is to see the evils clearly; and when we do see them, it is like fighting an atmosphere to contend against them. They are so universal and omnipresent that you have no terms to name them by. We must burn a disinfectant.
We have observed thus far that no question is ever involved in practical agitation except truth-telling. So long as a man is trying to tell the truth his remarks will contain a margin which other people will regard as mystifying and irritating exaggeration. It is this very margin of controversy that does the work. The more accurate he is, the less he exaggerates, the more he will excite people. It is only by the true part of what is said that the interest is roused. No explosion follows a lie.
The awakening of the better feelings of the individual man is not only the immediate but the ultimate end of all politics. Nor need we be alarmed at any collateral results. No one has ever succeeded in drawing any valid distinction between positive and negative educational work, except this that in so far as a man is positive himself he does positive work. It is necessary to destroy reputations when they are lies. Peace be to their ashes. But war and fire until they be ashes. This is positive and constructive work. You cannot state your case without using popular illustrations, and in clearing the ground for justice and mercy some little great man gets shown up as a make-believe. This is constructive work.
It is impossible to do harm to reform unless you are taking some course which tends to put people to sleep. Strangely enough, the great outcry is made upon occasions when men are refusing to take such a course. This is due to the hypnotism of self-interest. “Don’t wake us up!” they cry; “we cannot stand the agony of it,” and the rising energy with which they speak wakes other sleepers. In the early stages of any new idea the only advertising it gets is denunciation. This is so much better than silence that one may hail it as the dawn. You must speak till you draw blood. The agitators have always understood this. Such men as Wendell Phillips were not extravagant. They were practical men. Their business was to get heard. They used vitriol, but they were dealing with the hide of the rhinoceros.
If you look at the work of the anti-slavery people by the light of what they were trying to do, you will find that they had a very clear understanding of their task. The reason of some of them canted a little from the strain and stress, but they are so much nearer being right-minded than their contemporaries that we may claim them as respectable human beings. They were the rock on which the old politics split. They were a new force. As soon as they had gathered head enough to affect political issues they broke every public man at the North by forcing him to take sides. There is not a man of the era whom they did not shatter. Finally their own leaders got into public life, and it was not till then that the new era began. The same thing is happening to-day. It is the function of the reformer to crack up any public man who dodges the issue of corruption, or who tries to ride two horses by remaining a straight party man and shouting reform. This is no one’s fault. It is a natural process. It is fate. Some fall on one side of the line, and some on the other. One gets the office and the next loses it, but oblivion yawns for all of them. There is no cassia that can embalm their deeds; they can do nothing interesting, nothing that it lies in the power of the human mind to remember. Why is it that Calhoun’s speeches are unreadable? He had the earnestness of a prophet and the ability almost of a Titan; but he was engaged in framing a philosophy to protect an interest. He was maintaining something that was not true. It was a fallacy. It was a pretense. it was a house built on the sands of temporary conditions. Such are the ideas of those middling good men who profess honesty, in just that degree which will keep them in office. Honesty beyond this point is, in their philosophy, incompatible with earthly conditions. These men must exist at present. They are an organic product of the times; they are samples of mediocrity. But they have nothing to offer to the curiosity of the next generation. No, not though their talent was employed in protecting an empire, — as it is now employed in piecing out the supremacy of a disease in a country whose deeper health is beginning to throw the poison off.
Our public men are confronted with two systems of politics. They cannot hedge. If the question were suddenly to be lost in a riot, no doubt a good administrator might win applause, even a Tammany chief. But we have no riots. We have finished the war with Spain, and, unless foreign complications shall set in, we are about to sit down with the politicians over our domestic issue, theft. Are you for theft or against it? You can’t be both; and your conversation, the views you hold and express to your friends, are the test. It is only because politics affect or reflect these views that politics have any importance at all. Your agents, Croker, Platt, Hanna, are serving you faithfully now. Nothing else is to be heard at the clubs but the sound of little hammers riveting abuse.
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There is another side to this shield, that calls not for scorn, but for pity. Have you ever been in need, of money? Almost every man who enters our society joins it as a young man in need of money. His instincts are unsullied, his intellect is fresh and strong, but he must live. How comes it that the country is full of maimed human beings, of cynics and feeble good men, and outside of this no form of life except the diabolical intelligence of pure business?
How to make yourself needed: this is the sycophant’s problem, and why should we expect a young American to act differently from a young Spaniard at the court of Philip II.? He must get on. He goes into a law office, and if he is offended at its dishonest practices he cannot speak. He soon accepts them. Thereafter he cannot see them. He goes into a newspaper office. The same. A banker’s, a merchant’s, a dry-goods shop. What has happened to these fellows at the end of three years, that their minds seem to be drying up? I have seen many men I knew in college grow more and more uninteresting from year to year. Is there something in trade that desiccates and flattens out, that turns men into dried leaves at the age of forty? Certainly there is. It is not due to trade, but to intensity of self-seeking combined with narrowness of occupation. If I had to make my way at the court of Queen Elizabeth, I should need more kinds of wits and more knowledge of human nature than in the New York button trade. No doubt I should be a preoccupied, cringing, and odious sort of person at a feudal festivity, but I should be a fascinating man of genius compared to John H. Painter, who at the age of thirty is making fifteen thousand dollars a year by keeping his mouth shut and attending to business. Put a pressure gauge into Painter, and measure the business tension at New York in 1900. He is passing his youth in a trance over a game of skill, and thereby earning the respect and admiration of all men. Do not blame him. The great current of business force that passes through the port of New York has touched him, and he is rigid. There are hundreds of these fellows, and they make us think of the well-meaning young man who has to support his family, and who must compete against them for the confidence of his business patrons. Our standard of commercial honesty is set by that current. It is entirely the result of the competition that comes from everybody’s wanting to do the same thing.
“But,” you say, “we are here dealing with a natural force. If you like, it withers character, and preoccupies one part of a man for so long that the rest of him becomes numb. He is hard and queer. He cannot write because he cannot think; he cannot draw because he cannot think; he cannot enter real politics because he cannot think. He is all the wretch you depict him, but we must have him. Such are men.” This is the biggest folly in the world, and shows as deep an intellectual injury in the mind that thinks it as self-seeking can inflict. Business has destroyed the very knowledge in us of all other natural forces except business. What shall we do to diminish this awful pressure that makes politics a hell and wrings out our manhood, till (you will find) the Americans condone the death of their brothers and fathers who perished in home camps during the war, because it all happened in the cause of trade, it was business thrift, done by smart men in pursuance of self-interest? You ask what you can do to diminish the tension of selfishness which is as cruel as superstition, and which is not in one place but everywhere in the United States. It runs a hot iron over young intellect, and crushes character in the bud. It is blindness, palsy, and hip disease. You can hardly find a man who has not got some form of it. There is no newspaper which does not show signs of it. You can hardly find a man who does not proclaim it to be the elixir of life, the vade mecum of civilization. What can you do? Why, you can oppose it with other natural forces. You yourself cannot turn Niagara; but there is not a town in America, where one single man cannot make his force felt against the whole torrent. He takes a stand on a practical matter. He takes action against some abuse. What does this accomplish? Everything.
How many people are there in your town? Well, every one of them gets a thrill that strikes deeper than any sermon he ever heard. He may howl, but he hears. The grocer’s boy, for the first time in his life, believes that the whole outfit of morality has a place in the practical world. Every class contributes its comment. Next year a new element comes forward in politics as if the franchise had been extended. Remember this: you cannot, though you owned the world, do any good in it except by devising new ways of advertising the fact that you felt in a particular way. It is the personal influence of example that is the power. Nothing else counts. You can do harm by other methods, but not good. This influence is a natural force, and works like steam power. Why all this commotion over your protest? If you accuse the mayor of being a thief, why does he not reply in the words of modern philosophy, “Of course I’m a thief; I’m made that way”? Instead of that he resents it, and there ensues a dis-cussion that takes people’s attention off of trade, and qualifies the atmosphere of the place. You have appreciably relieved the tension and checked the plague.
This whole subject must be looked at as a crusade in the cause of humanity. You are making it easier for every young man in town to earn his livelihood without paying out his soul and conscience. There is no royal road to this change. You cannot help any one man. You are forced into helping them all at once. Every time a man asserts himself he cuts a cord that is strangling somebody. The first time that independent candidates for local office were run in New York city strong men cried in the street for rage. The supremacy of commerce had been affronted. New York, in all that makes life worth living, is a new city since the reform movements began to break up the torpor of serfdom.
You asked how to fight force. It must be fought with force, and not with arguments. Indeed, it is easier to start a reform and carry it through than it is to explain either why or how it is done. You can only understand this after you have been three times ridiculed as a reformer, and then you will begin to see that throughout the community, running through every one, there are currents of power that accomplish changes, sometimes visible, sometimes hard to see; that this power is in its nature quite as strong, quite as real and reliable, as that Wall Street current, — terrible forces both of them, forever operative and struggling and contending together as they surge and swell through the people. It is the sight of that second power that you need. I cannot give it to you. You must sink your own shaft for it. It is this current passing from man to man that makes the unity of all efforts for public betterment. You have a movement and an excitement over bad water, and it leaves you with kindergartens in your schools. It is this current that turns your remark at the Club (which every one repeated in order to injure you) into a piece of encouragement to the banker’s clerk, who could not have made it himself except at the cost of his livelihood. It is this current, not only the fear of it but the presence of it in the heart of your merchants, that leaves them at your mercy. Cast anything into this current and it goes everywhere, like aniline dye put into a reservoir; it tinges the whole local life in twenty-four hours. It is to this current that all appeals are made. All party platforms, all resolutions, all lies are dedicated to it, all literature lives by it. The head of power is near and easy if you strike directly for it.
There is an opinion abroad that good politics requires that every man should give his whole time to politics. This is another of the superstitions disseminated by the politicians who want us to go to their primaries, and accepted by people so ignorant of life that they believe that the temperature depends upon the thermometer.
Why, you are running those primaries now. If you were different, they would become different. You need never go near them. Go into that camp where your instinct leads you. The improvement in politics will not be marked by any cyclonic overturn. There will always be two parties competing for your vote. It takes no more time to vote for a good man than for a bad man. There will be no more men in public life then than now. There will be no overt change in conditions. A few leaders will stand for the new forces. It is true that it requires a general increase of interest on the part of every one in order that these men shall be found. Your personal duty is to support them in private and public. That is all. The extent to which you yourself become involved in public affairs depends upon forces with which you need not concern yourself. Only try to understand what is happening under your eyes. Every time you see a group of men advancing some cause that seems sensible, and being denounced on all hands as “self-appointed,” see if it was not something in yourself, after all, that appointed those men.
As we grow old, what have we to rely on as a touchstone for the times? You once had your own causes and enthusiasms, but you cannot understand these new ones. You had your certificate from the Almighty, but these fellows are “self-appointed.” What you wanted was clear, but these men want something unattainable, something that society as you know it cannot supply. Calm yourself, my friend: perhaps they bring it.
Has the great Philosophy of Evolution done nothing for the mind of man, that new developments as they arrive are received with the same stony solemnity, are greeted with the same phrases as ever? How can you have the ingenuousness to argue soberly against me, supplying me by every word you say with new illustrations, new hope, new fuel? Until I heard you repeat word by word the prayer book of crumbling conservatism I was not sure I was right. You have placed the great seal of the world upon new truth. Thus should it be received.
The radicals are really always saying the same thing. They do not change; every one else changes. They are accused of the most incompatible crimes, of egoism and a mania for power, indifference to the fate of their own cause, fanaticism, triviality, want of humor, buffoonery, and irreverence. But they sound a certain note. Hence the great practical power of consistent radicals. To all appearance nobody follows them, yet every one believes them. They hold a tuning fork and sound A, and everybody knows it really is A, though the time-honored pitch is G flat. The community cannot get that A out of its head. Nothing can prevent an upward tendency in the popular tone so long as the real A is kept sounding. Every now and then the whole town strikes it for a week, and all the bells ring; and then all sinks to suppressed discord and denial.
The only reason why we have not, of late years, had strong consistent centres of influence, focuses of steady political power, has been that the community had not developed men who could hold the note. It was only when the note made a temporary concord with some heavy political scheme that the reform leaders could hear it themselves. For the rest of the time it threw the whole civilization out of tune. The terrible clash of interests drowned it. The reformers themselves lost it, and wandered up and down guessing.
It is imagined that nature goes by jumps, and that a whole community can suddenly sing in tune after it has been caterwauling and murdering the scale for twenty years. The truth is, we ought to thank God when any man or body of men makes the discovery that there is such a thing as absolute pitch, or absolute honesty, or absolute personal and intellectual integrity. A few years of this spirit will identify certain men with the fundamental idea that truth is stronger than consequences, and these men will become the most serious force and the only truly political force in their community. Their ambition is illimitable, for you cannot set bounds to personal influence. But it is an ambition that cannot be abused. A departure from their own course will ruin any one of them in a night, and undo twenty years of service.
It would be natural that such sets of men should arise all over the country, men who “wanted” nothing, and should reveal the inverse position of the boss system; a set of moral bosses with no organizations, no politics; men thrown into prominence by the operation of all the forces of human nature now suppressed, and the suppression of those now operative. It is obvious that one such man will suffice for a town. In the competition of character, one man will be naturally fixed upon whom his competitors will be the first to honor; and upon him will be condensed the public feeling, the confidence of the community. If the extreme case do not arise, nevertheless it is certain that the tendencies toward a destruction of the present system will reveal themselves as a tendency making for the weight of personal character in practical politics.
Reform politics is after all a simple thing. It demands no great attainments. You can play the game in the dark. A child can understand it. There are no subtleties nor obscurities, no higher analysis or mystery of any sort. If you want a compass at any moment in the midst of some difficult situation, you have only to say to yourself, “Life is larger than this little imbroglio. I shall follow my instinct.” As you say this your compass swings true. You may be surprised to find what course it points to. But what it tells you to do will be practical agitation.