Live and Let Live

GERALD W. JOHNSON is the author of biographies of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevell, Andrew Jackson, and John Paul Jones. The following article is the last of three pieces drawn from his forthcoming book, HODCARRIER : NOTES OF A LABORER ON AN UNFINISHED CATHEDRAL. to be published in March by William Morrow.

IN THE summer of 1963 the American Library Association published a brochure of thirty-two pages under the title “Expanding Population in a Shrinking World.” Its author was Dr. Marston Bates, a biologist and demographer of the University of Michigan, and its aim was, first, to summarize the known facts and, second, to recommend a dozen authoritative books treating the subject in greater detail.

I read it all, conscious that in so doing I was furnishing support to Lippmann’s observation of many years ago that people are not interested in their interests. He meant that the chambermaid and the houseboy, if such creatures still exist, will ignore a newspaper column explaining the city’s efforts, usually vigorous and sometimes intelligent, to provide decent, low-cost housing for chambermaids and houseboys but will read avidly five columns devoted to scandal in high places.

All hands agree that the effects of the population explosion will become critical not earlier than the year 2000, probably a generation or two beyond that date. Now, the chance that I shall have a direct, personal interest in anything that happens in the year 2000 is so remote that it may be disregarded. Yet I read about the effects of the expanding population. Nor is there any singularity in that, as the appearance of the pamphlet proves. The American Library Association is a national organization that does not cater to parochial tastes. It is, furthermore, an organization of public libraries — “public” in this connection meaning any library not restricted to the use of the owner and his friends — and the public library is the acme of neutralism, never inciting controversy, and taking note of its existence only when it has grown too important to be ignored.

Thus, publication of the pamphlet under such auspices is conclusive proof that very large numbers of Americans are greatly interested in a problem that will become acute only when their grandchildren, more likely their great-grandchildren, will bear responsibility for public policy.

This is not a childish attitude; on the contrary, it would seem to be rather impressive evidence of an approach to political maturity. In theory, now is the time when a disastrous expansion of population could be prevented. Thus our interest in the problem evinces some consciousness of our situation as participants in a continuing process, links in a chain that as far as we know is endless, with the corollary that our quality will inevitably affect an indeterminate future.

In the strictly scientific aspects of the current discussion, whether the science is biology, sociology, agronomy, or economics, my interest is languid, because scientific questions are the province of scientists and because none of the disciplines has as yet come up with a suggested solution broad enough and plausible enough to be impressive. Perhaps posterity is destined to harvest the sea and compete with the whales for plankton, or perhaps it will discover the secret of chlorophyll and subsist upon sunlight. Since I am not called on to do anything about either, I am indifferent to both.

What comes close enough to create a slight disturbance of my equanimity is the insistence of sociologists that the key to the problem is in the hands of the living generations, which ought to attempt a solution with the inadequate information that we now possess, rather than idly wait for some unpredictable advance in chemotherapy, physiotherapy, orthopraxy, or whatever, to give us an answer that is not only correct but applicable to vast numbers of people. The implication is that the problem is as much philosophical as scientific and therefore excuses nobody, for it is the thinking of great numbers that shapes the dominant philosophy of any society.

It has not escaped the attention of the savants that the sites of the population explosion are areas characterized by low income, high illiteracy, and widespread hunger. They have duly noted that as soon as industrialization produces a material increase in per capita income, the birthrate drops in the area affected. From this they have deduced that the nutritional factor has an important influence on both the primitive cultural level and the exceptional human fertility of these regions; hence elimination of ignorance and hunger offers the most promising avenue of approach to prevention of disastrous overpopulation. (It is true that the population of the United States is increasing at a somewhat disconcerting rate, although different factors are operative here. But the increase is not — or at least not yet — of the explosive type, as it is in the industrially less advanced regions.)

I can pick no flaw in this reasoning; therefore I am not disposed to challenge the conclusion. A change in the environment obviously produces effects very difficult to produce through individual action. But as a bystander who has been bystanding longer than 85 percent of the population, I venture the opinion that the scientists are neglecting a factor that may be as important as nutrition in reducing excessive fertility. This factor is distraction.

The regions in which the increase of population is most rapid do have in common the two characteristics of ignorance and hunger. But they also have a third — boredom. If any man on earth lives a duller life than that of a Bolivian Indian peasant, he must be a Chinese coolie. Even a Hindu farmer in the middle of the subcontinent probably has an edge on the Bolivian, if only by a hairbreadth. No doubt the increased caloric intake resulting from industrialization is part of the explanation of a falling birthrate; but new sights, new sounds, new neighbors, and new excitements also accompany industrialization and may also play a part.

Thirty years ago, when lynching was still endemic in this country, Mencken proffered a suggestion for stamping it out that, like many of his most brilliant ideas, was mistaken for farce. His specific for the disease of mob murder was brass bands. Organize one in every forlorn backwoods community, and it would break the intolerable monotony that in his opinion was one of the most potent causes of outbreaks of bestial ferocity.

There is this much to support his view: the subsidence of lynching has proceeded pori passu with removal of the isolation that for generations had made the lives of rural dwellers in many parts of America so drab and dull that the incidence of insanity among farmers’ wives was appalling.

It may be objected that the problem under consideration is the reverse of lynching: not the blind destruction, but the blind generation of life. Perhaps an answer to that is the fact that of all the fauna spawned by mother earth, the fiercest by long odds is the white man. It is therefore logical enough that when the tedium of his life becomes intolerable, his rebellion against it should be marked by a ferocity unequaled among milder breeds: pogroms in Russia, lynchings in America, the two countries in which rural life was most often isolated and inexpressibly dull.

It is reasonable to assume that less bloodthirsty strains would find release in milder activities, but the need for release of some kind is universal. If sexual play is the only form of amusement readily available, as it is among illiterate and desperately poor people, what else could be expected but a high birthrate?

The point is worth considering when the effects of the population explosion are plainly nearing the danger line. Theoretically, at least, it adds to education and industrialization a third weapon against the menace — to wit, distraction. Furthermore, it is a weapon that can be employed without collision with our established mores and without any suggestion of moral usurpation.

THERE is a valid objection to propaganda in favor of birth control when agencies of the United States government do the propagandizing, but it is not based on religious dogma or silly prudery. It rests, rather, upon a decent refusal to attribute to ourselves a moral superiority over other nations and other races. It applies exclusively to official action, for the reason that official action is supposed to be impersonal. When an individual deals with another individual the relationship is quite different. For one American to offer contraceptive information to one Chinese who has already begotten fourteen children may be a friendly act motivated only by concern for the welfare of the man and his family.

But for the United States government to suggest to the Chinese people generally that they apply what we have learned about reducing the birthrate admits of but one interpretation — namely, that in American official opinion there are already too many Chinese. To say that Ah Sin should repress his philoprogenitive impulse because he cannot support the children he already has is no reflection on the Chinese race; but an assertion that there are too many Chinese most certainly is.

The work that American medical science has done in backward regions of the world is unquestionably one of the finest contributions to civilization made by this country. It can be reasonably claimed, too, that the preventive aspect greatly exceeds in importance the clinical part of this work: that in preaching everywhere the principles of immunology, sanitation, and hygiene the American doctor abroad has done more for the world than he could possibly do by treatment of patients.

It is true that this strictly scientific work arouses a certain amount of hostility because it comes into collision with superstition. The shamans, witches, and warlocks resent being displaced; but theirs is a class, not a racial resentment, and it can be dealt with by their own people. But birth control is sociology, not medicine, except as the doctors can detect and condemn dangerous methods. Medical men, therefore, should leave sociology to the sociologists.

On the other hand, if any foreign nation through its own lawful government asks for such information as American medical science possesses, on this or any other problem, it is a reversion to barbarism to deny it. The discoveries of science, especially biological science, are the common property of mankind and should be made available to anyone who needs them.

Then, for any department of our government, Congress included, to decree that an American doctor abroad, because he is paid out of tax money, shall be forbidden to disseminate any medical knowledge that he has acquired is equally an act of moral usurpation. The fact that some states of this Union do restrict medical practitioners for sectarian or sumptuary reasons is no excuse for thrusting our peculiar view on other people. To do so is arrogance.

It is arrogance in any people, but in the case of the American people it is more: it is a repudiation of their own professed faith. The great state papers that by general agreement contain the distillation of the American idea of government — the Declaration, the Constitution, the Farewell Address, The Federalist, the inaugurals of Jefferson and Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address — all are couched in simple language. Anyone capable of reading an ordinary newspaper can understand what they say. To understand all that they mean is, of course, a different matter; but we can approach that understanding only by careful study of what they say.

Their language leaves no doubt that each of these documents is based on the assumption that the American people are committed to the theory that it is entirely right and proper that other peoples should live. I am aware that within the past twenty years this interpretation has been sternly challenged, and not by any geographically restricted group. In every section of the country there are persons who seem to be driven into frenzy by bare mention of the word “coexistence,” and the frenzy is doubled in intensity if the word is preceded by “peaceful.” Yet, since war involves killing, coexistence without peace is obviously a contradiction in terms.

The inescapable inference is that these persons do not admit any commitment to the theory that other people have an inalienable right to life. Their right is conditional. It is alienable unless they conform, at least to a minimal extent, to the American scale of human values.

No pacifist, I agree that if their nonconformity to our set of values goes to the length of attempting to kill us, then the theory of Americanism does not imply an obligation to coexist with them, and we may butcher them with complete consistency. But there is a sharp, clear line between proclaiming the opinion that we ought not to be allowed to live and making an overt attempt to kill us, as the Japanese did in 1941. Until they cross that line any nonAmerican people have a right to live, and it is a flat negation of Americanism to say otherwise.

But while this seems to be crystal-clear, fog begins to enshroud the question when it is a matter, not of denying the right of other people to exist, but of persuading them not to exercise that right. Advocacy of contraception is persuasion toward nonexistence. Theodore Roosevelt was talking arrant nonsense when he called it “race suicide,” because the opposite course is not only race suicide but, by forcing attempts at conquest, is also an invitation to mass murder. But there is no denying that some very fine distinctions are involved, one being that between official and nonofficial advocacy, which is the distinction between assistance and intrusion.

ALL of this gives rise to a strong suspicion that much of the talk about how to avoid a population explosion is based upon a false premise — to wit, the delusion that the United States at its present cultural level is capable of making a wise decision relative to this problem. Evidence is lacking that we, as a people, have made sufficient progress toward mastering the art of self-government to be competent to advise others in a matter closely related to their national — or should one say tribal? — existence.

Nor should we fail to take into account the everpresent chance that at the critical moment we shall have no choice or voice in the matter. Extreme pressure of population on the means of subsistence may result in mass hysteria that will engulf reason in the overpopulated countries and cause these countries to rush upon their own destruction. This pressure was certainly one component of the suicidal policy of Japan.

In any sane view this would be little preferable to ultimate disaster, for it would drive us to perpetration of such a holocaust as history has not yet had the dreadful duly of recording. If the critical moment comes at, or near, the year 2000, it is almost a certainty that our technology will still be well in advance of that of our assailants, so that, however badly hurt, we should still be able to retaliate strongly. Nor is it likely that the ingrained ferocity of the white man will have abated materially in a matter of forty years. Add, then, the stimulus of severe fright, and it is all but a foregone conclusion that we should flail the world with a storm of unimaginable horrors.

It is a deed that would mingle the wine of victory with gall and wormwood, for while we might have solved the problem of overpopulation for a long time, it would have been at the price of a reversion to the moral level of the darkest of the Dark Ages. Out of that pit it would take us generations, probably centuries, to climb back to our present level, which, God knows, is low enough.

I have never been one of those Americans who seem to be hagridden by guilt over Hiroshima. Given the state of mind of the Japanese high command on August 6, 1945, l believe that Hiroshima actually saved more Japanese lives than it destroyed, to say nothing of our own prospective losses. But 1 confess that I am appalled by the prospect of repeating Hiroshima n times all over the earth. It would mean that the great experiment undertaken in 1776 had produced, not a beacon, but a death light for mankind. Could failure be more complete?

There is no shadow of doubt that the threat of a population explosion is serious, even if it still lies beyond the horizon of the living generation. Therefore I am inclined to snatch at any straw. Brass bands? By all means, if the trio — industrialization, nutrition, and diversion — by changing the environment can effect the purpose. For that would relieve us of the necessity of summoning from the vasty deep the two dread spirits of moral arrogance and physical carnage. “But will they come,” quoth Hotspur, “when you do call for them?” They most certainly will, usually one close behind the other, or all history is a liar.

Yet in discoursing on this theme any man of mature years illustrates Lippmann’s dictum that we are interested in things that do not affect our own interests. Age enables us to repeat with a certain insouciance,

And ye, red-lipped and smooth-browed; list,
Much is there waits you we have missed;

perchance including triumph we have not won that will compensate for defeats we have suffered. Who knows? At this moment there may be in library or laboratory some anonymous youth in whose brain is already stirring the idea that will exorcise the demon by means unguessed by us. However, if he fails I shall be unperturbed; for if the population explosion reaches the critical point at or near 2000 A.D., in the course of nature it is reasonably certain that I shall not be around to be hoist with that petard.