Study in paradoxes
One of the excellent consequences—or should one say compensations? I think not—of advancing age, is in the rapid dwindling of one's sense of responsibility for Burbanking human society into a new and improved form. This exemption comes entirely from within, nor is it the fruit of disappointment and cynicism. It is released largely by observation and experience of how the things that one believes in actually work out. One believes in them as much as ever, and is all on the side of their being lived out. One also has as much faith as ever in the possibilities of the human race. But unforeseen things happen, and they keep happening so often and so decisively, and with such an air of inevitability about them, that before long one becomes aware that the Burbanking business has more to it than one thought. I sometimes remind myself of a friend living in Brussels sixteen years ago, who rushed into her husband's bedroom one morning at the crack of dawn saying, "Here comes the German Army right past the house! Hurry up and and put on your dressing-gown." There was no hurry. For two days and three nights that stream of soldiery moved by without cessation. The German army was no circus-procession.
Many matters thus contribute to make our hindsight clearer than our foresight. Viewed by hindsight, some of my most cherished social theories work out in an odd way. For one thing, I am impressed by the ugliness resulting from their operation—freedom and equalitarianism, for instance. I am all for both; yet where liberty and equality most prevail, or are most thought to prevail, the resulting civilization is extremely unlovely. My present habitat in the country is near a seashore resort that thirty years ago rather looked down its nose at Newport's summer society as being an amalgam of the newly-rich. It was somewhat inaccessible; there were transportation difficulties about getting there, which kept the crowds away. At present, anybody with a motor-car or the price of a middling long bus-ride may go there, and everyone goes. I am glad everyone can. The old life of the place was bottomed on a social theory that I utterly disbelieve in and regard as false and vicious. The new life is bottomed on an equalitarian theory that I believe in and subscribe to with all my heart, yet the old life gave rise to an amenity that was pleasing, beautiful and civilizing, and the new life has nothing of it, but is, on the contrary, tawdry and hideous.
Thus the moment one goes at applying a social principle flatly, certain compensatory reactions seem to be set up. For instance, I am in favor of having everyone able to read. I believe in the principle of it; I am all for equalitarianism in literacy. Yet when my theory is taken up and measurably put into effect, as it is in this country, just see the result—the quantity-production of a contemptible journalism, a contemptible literature, an unconscionable blatant puffing of both, and a corresponding degradation of literary values, literary tastes, literary habits. Of all the repulsive features of an equalitarian society, its literary feature seems to me the ugliest. I say this advisedly, for of late I have been emulating Bruneseau, and have followed the turbid course of some of the best-selling literature of the day, in books and periodicals, by way of knowing what goes on. My cardinal theory of society as shown by the substance of what I read, has set this course straight towards ignorance and vulgarity, while quantity-production salesmanship in literature—an offshoot of my theory—has succeeded in making ignorance and vulgarity arrogant.
Hence it is that one becomes a little circumspect about the imposition one's theories, vi et armis. I have to recognize, with searchings of heart, that the sense of whatever in human society is enviable, graceful and becoming has been bread by a regime so monstrously unjust and flagitious that it had no right ever to exist on earth. I am not speaking now of inanimate cultural legacies in literature and other arts, but of the tone of a people's actual social life. I remember being in a European country before the War, and a friend's saying to me, "Well, here we are, where according to your social creed and mine everything is absolutely wrong, and yet these are the happiest people on earth." There was no doubt about it, they were. I wonder about the effect on their happiness if my friend and I could by magic have conjured their infamous regime suddenly out of existence and replaced it by a hundred-per-cent democracy. I know the one phenomenon of American life on which there is agreement by all foreign critics and observers, is that nobody seems to be happy. Mr. Edison lately said he was not acquainted with anybody who was happy. Personally, my social theories reach far beyond anything that is contemplated by American institutions, since I am an individualist, anarchist, single-taxer and free trader. I think also that the general course of things is in those directions. But whenever I feel inclined to hurry up the course of things, I ask myself how much at home I should feel in a society of my own creating, if I had to create it out of the material at present available.
Probably something more than a workable theory is necessary; very likely you have to have a people that knows how to work it. Otherwise you may get a lot of bad by-products. Logically, one would say that as existence becomes mechanically easier, life should become richer and fuller; instead it becomes emptier and poorer, and the more people there are who have access to increased ease of existence, the emptier and poorer it seems to become. The wider the spread of literacy, one would say, the higher should go the level of general intelligence; but it does not work out that way. I have always been a thoroughgoing feminist, strong for the emancipation of women; but while there has been a social gain "in principle" as the diplomats say, through their emancipation, there have been very grave collateral losses which were practically unpredictable. Probably the only way that society can profitably progress is the way it does progress, by the long and erratic ins and outs of trial and error; and blind insistence on any theory, even a sound one, is to little purpose. One may best hang one's theory up in plain sight for any one to examine who is so disposed, and let it go at that. Even if I were in Moscow now, I do not think my wife would get me out in my pajamas at five in the morning to see the Bolshevist theory go by. There is a great deal of it, and it will be a long time on the way; and so I should snooze awhile, shave, dress, get my breakfast, and then repair to my front window and regard it attentively.
(New Freeman, 5. April 1930)