Quantity Production in Ideas
OUR nation is composed of individuals of marked energy, of average potential ability, of fair educational accomplishment, and of great material productiveness. We are doubtless capable of striking achievements. But, like any other inchoate mass of humanity, we become effective and move forward only under the inspiration of leaders. Where can we turn to find the leaders we need? We have a plethora of followers, but we are unable to refute the accusation made by our critics: that we have a marked dearth of true leadership in every important division of national activity.
The fields of art, literature, science, music, politics, frankly confess a shortage of fresh thinking and original expression, the surest evidence of a paucity of creative minds. In the world of business we have had leadership of a kind, though accomplishment has been chiefly in mechanical developments and the perfecting of organization, and success has been but meagre in wrestling with the more subtle and difficult problem of human adjustments in the industries.
We are inclined to be a little resentful that leaders have not turned up when they are so obviously needed. We ask ourselves what can be the reason.
Is it possible that the qualities of originality are entirely lacking in the diverse combinations of inherited traits that distinguish the constantly increasing millions of our population? All the races of the earth are contributing germ-plasm to the making of our citizens. It is improbable that any of the strains which have lent lustre to other peoples and civilizations are lacking in the material we are using in our gigantic experiment in crossbreeding. Other countries, without either our numbers or our resources, succeed in producing a creditable quota of persons of outstanding ability. It seems fair to assume that biologically we also produce our share. Our lamentable state must be due to a failure somehow to realize, in end results, on the investment Nature is making in these gifted individuals.
If the difficulty is not, then, in the material of which our leaders and followers alike are formed, we shall have to look for some factor of environment which is determining the quality of our population. Can there be something blighting in our national atmosphere, which withers the fresh, outreaching, sensitive intelligence of those marked at birth for leadership, and inhibits the development of the abilities that we first create and then neglect to foster?
A discriminating critic of Canadian life deplores the scarcity of cranks in his native land — not because the crank is in himself so precious a national possession, but because he is symptomatic of the tolerance for differences of opinion which is the very essence of an expanding intellectual and spiritual life. The generalization need not have stopped at our pervious northern frontier, but might have extended all-inclusively to the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico. We may have numerically more creatures with the tang of the wild places of the mind about them than our neighbor has, but in proportion to our population we probably are even less adequately supplied. We do nothing designed to increase their number. Do we not, instead, actually place obstacles in the way of their development?
We pride ourselves on a modern civilization which has eliminated the markings that denote class differences. In Europe the external trappings of the Middle Ages have long since ceased to distinguish the lord from the serf. Yet there may have been more real likeness between the mediæval king and his humblest subject than between a Fabre and his beekeeping neighbors in their peasant smocks. With the king and the serf the intellectual and political concepts were held in common, though the one individual might serve as the warp and the other as the woof of the completed social fabric. But between Fabre with his passion for organized knowledge and the beekeeper with his passion for profit there was an unbridgeable gap. No revocation of sumptuary laws can alter the vestments of the mind.
We in America have not rested satisfied with stripping off externals alone. Our ambition has been to make ourselves in all respects alike. Whether as a result of our effort to build a unified nation out of diverse racial material, or as an accompaniment of an intellectual simplicity unaware of the penumbra of ideas beyond its own mental margins, or as the product of innate conservatism, we have throughout our country, North, South, East, and West, stressed conformity and looked askance upon difference. To our Puritan tradition irregularity in party or creed, divergence in social theory or in literary form, have all smacked of immorality. The rural philosopher who noted that there was mighty little difference between men, but insisted that that little difference was almighty important, would meet with warm sympathy from us if he agreed that the almighty importance demanded that we reduce that difference to zero. The slashed doublet and the silken hose, the royal crown and the jester’s bauble, have been cast out. We feel the victory would be incomplete unless we offered up at the same time the crank and his nobler counterpart, the genius, to the glory of equality and the preciousness of uniformity.
Canada shares with us a shortage both of cranks and of intellectual leaders. In our two countries we may find that the shortage of the one is as inevitably related to that of the other as the price of butter to the number of old maids in Darwin’s biological parable.
Such social deficiencies suggest a disease at the root of our civilization, which allows only the weeds of the human species to grow up into the light.
We cannot look at our people as a whole without being struck with the fact that we have two prepossessions: we are either trying to be like everyone else, or trying to make everyone else like ourselves.
In the first place, we have a penchant and a passion for quantity production in all kinds of fabrication, from the building of automobiles to the manufacture of college graduates. Quantity production means uniformity on a colossal scale. We show our fondness for this uniformity in everything we undertake, from our style of hairdressing to our choice of plumbing. The flapper, who wears a skirt to her ankle one year, just below her knee the next, and finds it necessary the third season to walk through the park in knickerbockers, seems to be demonstrating diversity, but she is a monument to conformity. No more thinking is required of her than of the chameleon when he changes his hue. The reptile and the primate shrink similarly from the discomfort of being different.
We like to build our houses from the plans in the Sunday-paper supplement. We enjoy making the interiors replicas of department-store models. From such experiences shared in common we get a warm feeling of being fellow citizens in a great democracy. The certainty that millions of meals are being prepared to-day, all over this land, on the same type of kitchen stove gives us a sense of cozy familiarity, which puts geological eras and interstellar spaces out of the way of our thinking, where they can do us no harm.
We love to be like all the others: to wear what they wear, eat what they eat, cut our hair as they cut theirs, ride in automobiles as they ride, bathe in the same type of enameled tubs, listen-in to the same concerts, and be buried in identical cemeteries. Yet we occasionally come upon people who may indeed wear the prevailing style of headdress, but who beneath that orthodox covering develop theories of life and social conduct radically different from our own. We feel both uncomfortable and censorious. What is the advantage of riding in the same make of automobile if our thoughts are to be antipathetic ? Standard concrete houses that shelter, indiscriminately, anarchists, pacifists, atheists, and communists have obviously failed of their fundamental purpose, which was to provide homes for the one-hundredper-cent Americans who are making this country what it is.
This is our first impasse. It has been clear sailing and a joyous holiday trying to be like everyone else, but here and there, injected into our midst, we have found people who not only make no effort to be like everyone else, but frankly admit that they have no desire to add to the number of homogeneous Americans. The situation is not, however, beyond the range of our inventive genius. If these nonconforming individuals do not spontaneously see the light, they can be made to see it, and such energy as we have left from our own efforts to conform we employ in forcing conformity upon the recalcitrant. The Spanish Inquisition is denied us, but we shall in time be able to develop methods at least as efficient. We are at present in the experimental stage, but much ingenuity is being employed to make this country safe and sane in the presence of new ideas.
The Ku Klux are undoubtedly convinced that they have found a solution of the problem of living righteously together. What more natural and altruistic than forcing that way upon the dissenter?
But the dissenters present difficulties, because they refuse to accept this well-meant guidance pleasantly. They display a penchant for their own convictions. They will not admit that in a plastic, developing universe a single group has hold upon the only solution of our problems. They insist that such an idea is not only unreasonable but, above all, uninteresting. We may be condemned by the orthodox to a heaven where nothing ever happens and dull perfection is the order of the day, but they declare that on earth there are still hundreds of possibilities of right and wrong, better and worse, to stimulate and quicken our imaginations. We should therefore owe no debt of thanks to an organization pledged to reduce these hundreds of delicious uncertainties to one tedious certainty.
The tide of rebellion against Ku Klux dictation rises. Even could he justify their use of secrecy and recourse to super-law, the dissenter would not submit to their doctrine of infallibility. He would rather think wrong for himself than think right under the direction of someone else.
There are critics who think the heresy trials of which we are so fond are out of harmony with our national ideals. They may seem out of harmony with some of our theoretical convictions, but they symbolize our love for uniformity and our enthusiasm for clipping off the groping tendrils of thought to a neat hedge, behind which the true believer may be safe. Who could say to what unforeseen interpretations of accepted dogma we might come if each individual were left free to think in such matters as he would? We feel safer to accept authority in our religious as in our social life. The Catholic has for centuries accepted the authority of the Church without question, and he is consistent. The Protestant, whose whole religious status is that of one who has protested against that very authority, meekly puts himself in turn under a similar yoke. He accepts the dictates of a church synod, or of a formal creed, or of the words of the Bible as interpreted by his congregation, or by a sectarian convocation, or by a body of church elders or trustees. He sells his protestant heritage for a confusion of textual arguments. Every church has its would-be believers who are trying to crowd the genii back into the bottle and practise a religious life in which the critical intelligence may remain quiescent.
We hear much about one-hundredper-cent Americanism. The phrase implies that the perfect social and political formula has been found, and that the coming-in of the millennium is merely a matter of fitting all the inhabitants of the United States into the Procrustean bed of a true democracy. The skeptic hesitates, in the face of such certainty, to be more than a fifty-percent American. He feels as if he had been asked to be a one-hundred-percent admiring and satisfied parent. We know nothing is more fatal to both parent and child than such undiscriminating affection. We have to practise pessimism — though we may secretly cherish optimism — in dealing with our children. We can hardly do less as citizens, if we hope for better things for our country. Love America though we may, we must still be conscious of its limitations, and anticipate decades of guidance, criticism, and discouragement before it can come to a dependable maturity.
The Babbitts of this country have only impatience and distrust for such qualified patriotism. Our ‘bigger, better, and busier’ campaigns all over the country exploit optimism. They force it upon us as the only preventive of national decay. Yet the optimism which they practise bears a striking resemblance to the delusions of grandeur which the psychiatrist treats as a mental disease. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make optimistic. A little more pessimism introduced into our national consciousness would not so much slow us down as make the progress that we do achieve sounder and more enduring. Pessimism is a frank recognition of the facts which an easy optimism ignores. The booster is a less obvious but more deadly belittler of his land than the knocker, for his insistence upon the glaring brilliancy of white blinds the eyes to the subtle colors of the spectrum, and his use of the heavy major chord drowns out the delicate vibrations of the overtones. If our country were really what he claims it is, it would be a region to flee from. The critic is our nation’s truest friend. He is the real one-hundred-per-cent American for whom we have been looking, for he alone will enable us to sec ourselves — not as we like to imagine we appear to ourselves and to the world, but as we are.
The post-war veterans’ associations assume the responsibility of the warthinking for the rest of us. Any effort toward peaceful understanding with other nations, any const ructive attempt to prevent the recurrence of war, is denounced by them as disloyalty and the work of traitors to their country. They labor unrestingly, not to illuminate the very complex and difficult problem of so organizing society as to make war impossible, but to thrust without the pale those who substitute for vainglorious memories of military service plans for installing safety devices against the future need of such sacrifices. They are comfortably able to forget the long succession of reformers, struggling through the centuries to substitute law for force in every type of human relation, who have always been like voices crying in the wilderness, persecuted and despised.
It seems only reasonable to believe, in the light of history, that there is some solution of international differences other than war.
Why cannot we let the cranks and enthusiasts work at the problem without attempting to stifle them? In the troubled days of the World War thousands of schemes for annihilating the Germans were sent to the War Office. The War Department, — which is proverbially hard-boiled, — instead of rejecting them in toto, winnowed the wheat from the chaff and gathered in some very valuable ideas. Even on a subject to which they claim rights prior to those of any other citizens, the veterans’ associations could still afford to keep an open mind. Who knows what person living to-day, or yet to be born, holds the key to the riddle? We can do no better than listen with fresh hope to each new voice.
The pressure on state legislatures to exclude the teaching of evolution from public educational institutions registers an unwillingness to allow within our boundaries any variety of explanations for terrestrial development. A fear of moral chaos, following untrammeled diversity, actuates these zealous lobbyists for a safe American education. One has to hark back to the days of Galileo for a parallel. Such lawmaking does not occur within the narrow confines of a religious sect, however, as did the suppression of Galileo, but in a country dedicated to freedom of thought and expression and sanctimoniously certain that theory and practice are identical. The whole attitude betrays a callous indifference to the factors that make it possible for men to endure the rigors and disappointments of life.
‘Freud regards dreaming as fiction that helps to sleep; thinking we may regard as fiction that helps us to live. Man lives by imagination.’ Yet these lawmakers would practise a headbinding far more rigorous than that of any savage, for they would alter, not the mere shape of the skull, but the very form of our thinking.
It is hard to picture any danger to the individual or to the society in which he lives for a man to think thoughts genuinely his own. He and his community alike are stimulated by the presence in their midst of a reality instead of an imitation. Individuals are inferior and national life impoverished when men are forbidden to think save according to a prescribed pattern.
Whether the pattern be according to my ideas or yours, it is equally benumbing to the intellectual life of the world about us.
There is no more impressive sight in this country than the instant stoppage of traffic on Fifth Avenue when the signals change. It symbolizes the assent of the individual, with a gesture extending for miles, in a conformity that allows the streets to perform their function. But traffic regulations cannot be applied to the thoughts of men without hopelessly blocking the free functioning of the mind. Thoughts do not occupy space. They can move freely through the universe without regulated right and left turnings. They can coexist or envelop each other, so that there is no danger of crashing collision. The cross-currents of ideas, instead of leading to hopeless confusion or an inextricable jam, freshen and broaden the main direction of thought and increase the momentum without exceeding the speed limit. We can employ no better method for assuring steady intellectual progress and for making the alterations in theory and practice, inevitable in a changing world, follow each other without disastrous accident than in leaving all roads open to the free passing of ideas.
Yet how suspicion of the unfamiliar hedges us about! Our insistence upon conformity does not even ignore the most trifling hint of origin foreign to our experience. Whether it be a saladdressing which departs from the orthodox sugar and vinegar of our forefathers, or music that disregards the traditions of Moody and Sankey, or literature which defies our Puritan shibboleths, we deplore them all alike. Every new current of thought makes us scan our vacillating landmarks anxiously for fear our anchors are dragging.
What measure of originality can we expect in such an atmosphere? What encouragement for fresh thinking can there be in such widespread satisfaction with secondhand conviction? Our whole attitude is the expression of a fear of finding on our own premises — or, worse, on those of our neighbor that possession most menacing to the status quo, the open mind. We fear it as the past generation feared the nihilist’s bomb. We are as eager to keep the ingredients of its manufacture from the dissatisfied of to-day as were the Russian tsars to control the distribution of dynamite. We tell ourselves, if we can only keep things as they areor, better, as they were a few years ago — all will be well. And yet we are amazed that, though we score highest at the Olympics, the Nobel prizes so seldom cross the Atlantic.
We find it human to enjoy likenesses rather than unlikenesses. Our clubs, associations, churches, societies, are founded on the basis of like-mindedness. We narrow our personal lives by surrendering to this preference and spending our free time with those who are socially, economically, and intellectually of our own kind. When we meet one of the audacious ones of the earth who have ignored such distinctions and known all manner of men, we have a momentary pang of envy and then, all too easily, slip back into a studied avoidance of the disputatious.
Superficially we seem ready for novelty. No nation shows such enthusiasm for new breakfast-foods, or such haste to inspect the fall model of a favorite automobile. No people search more zealously for the most recently advertised roofing material, or more readily adopt balloon-tire soles for their shoes. Yet, actually, the most ardent patron of the latest thing in cigar-lighters may be the first to shy off from a new idea.
Most of us complete our mental as well as our physical growth by the time we are twenty-one. We achieve it by building a framework which is originally almost unshakable and then made perfectly secure by being concreted against any stray intellectual concepts from outside our own circle. We are like the Leamington bobby who, unable to direct the traveler five miles to Kenilworth Castle, defended himself against the foreigner’s astonishment at his ignorance by saying, ‘We ‘ave our boundaries, you know.’ The boundaries vary in extent with different individuals, but they are there for us all. The only point for us to consider is whether we regard boundaries as something to stay within or something to climb without.
The alarmists tell us that we have thousands of Bolsheviki in our midst. But why should we be alarmed? Could anything offer more incentive to our own straight thinking? The friends who are always most stimulating to us are those who most completely disagree with us. It is they whose company we should keep, whose ideas we should ponder; not necessarily that we may be converted thereby, — though an occasional change in our convictions would be most invigorating, — but that, in the light of their certainties, we might search out the basis of our own.
We dignify by the name of our beliefs a jumble of inherited and acquired traditions and superstitions, and we need to go over them periodically, spurred by some skeptic, to sort out the grain from the chaff. The only danger the radical has for us is in making us see red, and we should hardly hold him responsible for our own bigoted reaction. If he can make us think, we have nothing but gratitude to offer him. Our real danger lies in agreeing with the majority. When we find ourselves doing that, we should be well advised to take our intellectual temperature. We are probably victims of the fever and chills of our locality and need to go to a higher altitude, where the outlook is more extended and the atmosphere clearer.
Chidley, the itinerant philosopher in the streets of Sydney, to the outward eye clad scantily in bathing-trunks, but to the inward eye gloriously arrayed in the luminous truth his sensitive imagination revealed to him, lends more genuine distinction to Australia than all its muttons and wool. The outraged authorities could think of no place save an asylum or the jail appropriate to house so extreme a nonconformist. His fellow citizens neither cherished his brief incarnation in their midst nor rejoiced in his uniqueness, and yet he may have been one of the leaders for lack of whom their national life languished. Nothing is so intolerable to an age as an individual who is — or is suspected of being — superior to it.
On the plains of the West thousands of cattle may be seen grazing as one. They move slowly, feeding as they go, their heads pointing in the same direction. Occasionally among the hundreds there will be one individual that ignores the custom of the others and feeds where it will. The cattlemen have learned through experience to look to such an animal for the salvation of the rest in times of emergency. When wild creatures attack or sudden storms break, the solitary feeder is the one to give warning or lead the herd to safety.
Yet what do we feel save distrust for those fellows of ours who will have none of our ways and who walk with their eyes fixed upon a vision which we cannot see?
Whitman has sung the joys of the open road. The open mind has adventures no less intoxicating, but we are wary of the uncharted way. Your timidity and my timidity shut us in behind the high hedge of the prevailing opinions. The loss of our ranging may not be a national disaster, but our acceptance of those barred gateways makes it increasingly difficult for the brilliant and daring minds of our potential leaders to break through and make a thoroughfare for us into new and more fertile lands.
Once in a while we come across that most perfect flower of creation, a mind defenseless against the truth. No prejudice, no preconception, no yearning for intellectual or spiritual loyalty can save such a nature from the onslaughts of reality. Persecution cannot wipe the record from the brain, nor martyrdom distort the image. Galileo’s lips might utter recantation, but his intelligence was incapable of thrusting out the concept of cosmogony that had formed within his mind.
Many of us have erected definite defenses against the truth and are quite capable of keeping it out of our lives. We may deplore this in individuals; but in a nation it means stagnation. If we foolishly expect to formulate final truths at this stage in human development, if we ignore our Galileos or laugh them out of court, if we practise a denial of the enrichment a variety of minds and ideas brings to a country, we are giving up the movement of a freshflowing spring for the heavy inertness of a mud bath.
We may breed minds of high calibre, our cradles may be full of wonderchildren, but none will achieve complete maturity or bring to fruition the gift of leadership which turns the mob into a force for good.
We want our bigots here and there, as we want any other type of human diversity, and we expect to endure amiably the hearty good-fellowship of the conformist; but we cannot let the tumult of the klaxon drown out the other notes of the universe. The value of moral attitudes and the success of human expedients are still unmeasured. We can lose nothing by putting off decision, and we can gain much by keeping the way clear for the bearer of the new idea. The idea may be trivial or useless, and the bearer a nuisance and a bore, but he serves to give assurance that the path still lies open to the great truths for which the whole world waits.