All of the Great Thinkers of the world, East, West, North and South, have been alarming their customers, for two or three years past, with the same bugaboo.
According to the New York Times and the Department of State, there must be a complete restoration of the capitalistic system in Russia and Mexico, or our sweet Christian civilization will go to pot. According to the master-minds of France, the Germans must first lose all their trade and then pay 10,000 cents on the dollar, or our sweet Christian civilization will go to pot. According to H. G. Wells, the Treaty of Versailles must be denounced by all parties to it, or our sweet Christian civilization will go to pot. And so on, and so on. On the main point the propagandists of all schools are unanimously agreed: that the civilization of the West teeters on the edge of an abyss, and that a few more wobbles will send it over. The barbarians once more thunder upon the gates of Rome. Let the turmoils within go on for a brief while longer, and they will burst in with their hellish cries, and every great boon and usufruct that men have sweated and died for since the days of Charlemagne, from the cathedral at Rheims to the pneumatic automobile tire, and from fiddle music to diphtheria antitoxin, and from the inferiority complex to the bichloride tablet, will vanish in one universal catastrophe. Blood drips from the moon; another general war impends. This war, according to Will H. Irwin, a soothsayer employed by the Saturday Evening Post, will be so colossal a butchery that there will be no survivors save a few undertakers and profiteers, and no material salvage save a few stone quarries and a couple of million bales of worthless bonds.
Personally, I should be glad to see such a war, for it seems to me that the human race has run on long enough—that the high gods would show unaccustomed sense if they dropped it into hell and so ended the farce. I know of no existing nation that deserves to live, and I know of very few individuals. But despite the fact that my wishes are thus on the side of Dr. Irwin’s thought, I find it quite impossible to follow him. In brief, I see absolutely no sign of a general débâcle. On the contrary, it seems to me that the thing we call civilization was never more secure than it is today, either in Europe or in America. More bloodshed, of course, is pretty certain to come; the French, to name only one people, are obviously headed for another shambles. But that is a small matter, almost a private matter. Even the complete destruction of France would not materially damage civilization, save, perhaps, in the eyes of touring American Puritans, a-search for a moral oasis. I also incline to think that England and the United States will be by the ears before many years have come and gone, and that one or the other of them, probably the United States, will get a severe beating. But they have fought before, and civilization was scarcely aware of it. Either could be wiped out utterly, and it would still be possible to buy Ford parts, Bibles, oil stocks, canned salmon, union suits, First Folio Shakespeares, hair tonics, books on sex hygiene, diamonds, coffins, dice, dog soap, glass eyes, and all the other great blessings of our Christian Kultur. Both could be destroyed, wholly and horribly, and men in Italy would continue to grow excellent wine, and men in Germany would continue to pursue the colloids and the cocci, and men in Scandinavia would continue to shiver and curse God through their long, grisly Winter nights, and so keep the world supplied with its normal doses of theology, metaphysics and political theory. Moreover, there are the Chinese. If the entire population of Christendom were disposed of by some cosmic delousing operation the Chinese would have a chance—a chance denied to them to-day, in free competition, by their superior dignity, decency and sense of honor.
The interdependence of nations, indeed, is much overestimated by sentimentalists, chiefly of the economic faculty. They permit the gyrations of foreign exchange to alarm them. But what is it to a man in Kansas, or Uruguay, or Saskatchewan, expressed in hard figures, that a million Poles have been slaughtered, or that the Turks have again ravaged Armenia, or that the British and Dutch are at odds over human liberty and the oil-wells of Mesopotamia, or that Belgrade has fallen, or that the French refuse to go back to work but propose to live hereafter by highway robbery? It is, at most, a matter of ten per cent. This is all he feels, and this is all he cares. If he shows any excitement or even any interest it is because some drive manager has played upon his credulities, as Dr. Wells seeks to play upon the credulities of all of us. For one, I refuse to be alarmed. If Paris were burned tomorrow, I’d scarcely know it on my estates in Maryland, feeding upon my razor-back hams, listening to Caruso’s ghost, and reading the state papers of Thomas Jefferson. Even if I tired of that idyllic life and went abroad, I’d admire the ruins quite as much as I have ever admired the Trocadero or the Eiffel tower. Both, perhaps, would escape the fire—and no doubt the incendiaries would make off with the best things in the Luxembourg and the Louvre. Nor am I greatly alarmed by the current doctrine that the late war stamped out the best strains of all the contesting nations, and that they are rapidly sinking to the level of their lower classes. This alarm is raised in an inflammatory book called “Is America Safe for Democracy?” by one William McDougall, a Scotchman imported to civilize the sophomores at Harvard. The McDougall also raises and parades another hobgoblin, once a favorite of the immortal zany, Major-General Roosevelt. That is the bugaboo of race suicide, especially among the upper classes. The wops in the ditch and the Slovaks in the mining towns, it appears, breed up to the limit of human endurance, but bank presidents seldom have more than four or five legitimate children, and the great majority of poets, metaphysicians, Oxford dons, lady Ph.D.s, assyriologists and moving-picture actors are childless, and perhaps even sterile. At the present rate of reproduction, says Prof. McDougall, 1000 Harvard graduates of today will have but 50 descendants 200 years hence, whereas 1000 Rumanians will have 100,000.
But what of it? On the one hand this gay professor assumes far too readily that Harvard graduates, taking one with another, deserve to be ranked as first-rate men, and on the other hand he greatly overestimates the number of first-rate men needed to run the world, and to insure a reasonable rate of human progress. The fact is that the safeguarding and development of civilization are and always have been in the exclusive care of a very small minority of human beings of each generation, and that the rest of the human race consists wholly of deadheads. Consider, for example, the telephone, a very characteristic agent of Christian advancement. It has been invented, perfected, organized and brought to every door in our own time by less than 20 men—nay, by less than 10 men. All the others who have made it, financed and installed it have been simply trailers. All the rest of the human race has taken a free ride. The number of such first-rate men in the world is always overestimated, and it is fatuously assumed that they are identical with the wealthier minority of the population. Prof. Dr. McDougall himself falls into this last error. He proves—what everyone knew already—that the children of well-to-do parents are brighter, by pedagogical standards, than the children of poor folk, but this fact is of no significance. If it were, then pedagogues themselves would rank as first-rate men, which is an absurdity; they are, in fact, generally stupid, and seldom produce anything of value to the world. The test of a first-rate man is not to be made by the criteria of schoolmarms. It is to be made by asking the simple question: Has he ever said or done anything that was not said or done before, and is it something of positive and permanent value to the human race? If the answer is yes, then he belongs to the superior minority; if it is no, then he belongs to the mob, no matter how brilliantly he may pass examinations, and no matter how greatly he may prosper under the civilization that his superiors have fostered and developed.
The number of men who can pass this test is always extremely small—vastly smaller than the uncritical worshipers of politicians, university presidents, prima donna theologians, opera singers, lawyers, popular philosophers, successful authors and other such human Fords usually assume. How many exist at the present moment in the United States? I turn to “Who’s Who in America” and find 23,443 names. But a brief inspection is sufficient to show that only a small minority are borne by first-rate men. I run over page after page and find nothing but Fords—an army general who has done absolutely nothing save obey orders and draw his pay, three authors of the eighth rate, five or six pedagogues, a theologian or two, a Federal judge—who ever heard of a Federal judge who left the world more intelligent, more virtuous or more efficient than he found it?—a publisher of bad books, two Congressmen, a bishop. I begin to despair. Finally, I find a first-rate man: Bush of the Bush Terminals. One in 35. The proportion, I think, is fair for the whole book. This makes 670 first-rate Americans in our time. Call it 700 to be safe. But race-suicide among the upper classes will make it impossible to produce even the 700 in the next generation? Nonsense! It is not necessary that every first-rate man leave children behind him; it is only necessary that a few of them in each generation do so. Nature will do the rest. The first-rate character may be concealed for a generation or two, but soon or late it will reveal itself, and sometimes in many individuals. This explains the common notion that first-rate men are often produced in low life, e. g., the case of Lincoln. They are, but not by low-lifers. Here the devil helps the angels, and the sinfulness of man takes on a high human utility. Often the cross is concealed in forgotten generations. The good blood is apparently lost in the flood of proletarian bilge—but suddenly it begins to run red and clear, and the platitudinarians have another up-from-slavery chapter to wag their ears over. I believe fully that the first-rate men of the world constitute a distinct and separate species—that they have little, if anything, in common with the lower orders of men. But the two races, fortunately for human progress, are mutually fertile. If they ever cease to be, then God help us all! But there is absolutely no sign that they are ceasing to be. So long as they remain as they are there need be no worry about the future of civilization. The danger is that first-rate men may grow too numerous, and so arouse the hatred of the lower orders, as happened in Greece. The United States now accommodates 700. If the number rose to 1000 I fear that the churches, the newspapers, Congress and the American Legion would grow restless, and that the catastrophe dreamed of by Prof. McDougall would begin to cast its shadows before.
Meanwhile, all the current pulling of long faces is absurd. There is not the slightest sign that the basic elements of modern civilization, such as it is, are in any danger, proximately or remotely. Europe, at the moment, is a bit weary, but no actual barbarians are thundering at the gate; all the recognizable barbarians, in fact, are retreating sadly into their native jungles, with troubles of their own. There is no decline in Christian morale; if anything, there is far too much Christian morale on tap. The one thing that one may say accurately is that there is a struggle for control within the borders of civilization itself, to wit, between the masses of simple and stupid men and various minorities of extremely egoistic and determined men. But neither side is trying to destroy civilization, save in the indignant visions of the other. On the contrary, both are trying their best to preserve it, and whether one side wins or the other it will be duly preserved. Ten years hence it will be just as easy to send a picture postcard or to be beaten by a policeman as it is to-day, and wherever one may buy a picture postcard the arts are safe and wherever one may be beaten by a policeman law and order are safe, and when the arts and law and order are safe, then civilization is also safe. False analogies are at the bottom of most of the current fears—that is, when they are honest. The analogy with Rome, so often cited, is especially nonsensical. A few hundred thousand Romans were surrounded by countless millions of barbarians, and the barbarians had arms quite as good as those of the Romans. Where is any similar horde to be found today? Are the Japs dangerous? Plainly not, save perhaps to the United States. The Japs, with all of the odds on their side, took more than two years to beat the Russians; they would stand up before a European coalition no more than 10 days. The Chinese? They don’t want Europe; they want only China. The blacks of Africa? Two German divisions could dispose of all of them, given a fair, stand-up battle, in two hours. Nor is any genuine fear to be deduced from the fate of the late Confederacy in America. The intellectual collapse of the Southern States after the Civil War was purely a local and geographical matter. Most of the surviving Southerners who had been civilized before the war simply moved North, leaving only a few cripples, the darkeys and a mob of poor white trash behind. But civilization in the United States was certainly not affected; in fact, the mixing of Southerners and Northerners in the North probably improved it. Today, a half century afterward, even some of the Southern poor whites are becoming relatively civilized. A book store has been opened in New Orleans, a man in Mobile has bought a violoncello, and only the other day, in Georgia, a white man was actually taken by the constabulary for killing a dozen Negroes.
What the authors of elegies mistake for the collapse of civilization is simply the internal struggle that I have mentioned—the ages-old combat between the haves and the have-nots, now rendered transiently acute by a parlous shortening of the things fought for. The ultimate issue of that struggle seems to me to be plain enough. The have-nots will be given a drubbing, and under the protection of a new and unprecedentedly vigorous and daring capitalism the thing called Christian civilization will be promoted as it has never been promoted before. My arteries harden so fast—a consequence of my constant and quixotic sacrifice of myself to the common weal—that I cannot hope to live into the full flush of that new Golden Age, but I can at least smack my lips over it in anticipation. What I see is a vast horde of inferior men broken, after a hopeless, fruitless fight, to the hard, uninspiring labor of the world—a race of slaves superbly regimented, and kept steadily in order by great brigades of propagandists, official optimists, scare-mongers, Great Thinkers and rev. clergy. And over them a minority of capitalist overlords, well-fed, well-protected, highly respected, politely envied, and lavishly supplied with endless stores of picture postcards, gasoline, silk underwear, mayonnaise, Ponet Canet, toilet soap and phonograph records.
The battle, in fact, is already half won. In France and the United States capitalism can weather any conceivable storm. In England it craftily encourages labor to a combat that will be to a finish, and with capital on top. In Italy it is already in the saddle. In Germany only the Junkers stave off the inevitable victory of money. In Russia the Bolsheviks help capital everywhere by reducing the cause of the have-nots to an absurdity. The other countries are not dogs, but mere tails…. The United States, I believe, will see the thing brought to its finest flower. There were no war losses here, but only profits. In all other countries, the conscripts of the war are restless, and inclined to move toward the Left. Here they are already superbly organized to serve capital, and give the final touch of felicity to the situation by serving it for nothing. On the evening of the same day that an American Legionary has his wages reduced 40 per cent. and his hours of labor increased 25 per cent., he goes out at his own risk and expense and helps to tar and feather some visionary who tries to convince him that he has been swindled. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of New York decides formally that “the courts … must stand at all times as the representatives of capital,” and the newspapers commend the dictum in lavish terms…. I sing Utopia. It is about to burst upon us.