Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 18, No. 10. July 15, 1954
Ignorance, Fear, Hatred . . . — . . . The U.S. Comes of Age — ". . . We Were Born Free"
Ignorance, Fear, Hatred . . .
. . . The U.S. Comes of Age
". . . We Were Born Free"
As New Zealanders watch in amazement and pass comment on the Incredible activities of Senator McCarthy, there is a tendency to forget that many Americans are aware of the dangers of his methods, and are active in the struggle to preserve civil liberties. Henry Steele Commager is a well-known American historian whose works of scholarship are studied in this college. We reprint here his review of "But We Were Born Free" by Elmer Davis, which, even in this edited form, sketches the background to today's events and outstandingly interprets the current American scene. The situation in New Zealand is similar in many respects.
Courage and common sense are the distinguishing characteristics of Elmer Davis, and of this fine book of essays which remind us that . . . We Were Born Free. We are assailed day after day by loud-mouthed super-patriots and dozens of organisations that arrogate to themselves responsibility for preserving the Constitution and the "American way of life."
What is the cause of this ferment of fear, this near hysteria? What explains The upsurge of panic, of irrationalism, of hatred? It is after all a sobering fact that this disease should spread so widely at a time when we might have expected immunity from such infections. For how does it happen that so many Americans are consumed with fear at a time when our rich and powerful country is fresh from the greatest victory that it or any other modern nation has known? How does it happen that so many of us harbour the deepest misgivings about our allies and associates Just at a time when we stand at the head of the greatest and most successful alliance in history? How does it happen that we are tempted to withdraw into our own shell—tempted to weaken even our ability to conduct a foreign policy at adjust at a time when we have been thrust into the centre of world power and have taken on responsibilities that we cannot possibly evade or avoid? How does it happen that we are consumed with fear of the intellectuals at a time when the proportion of our college-bred population is larger than ever before, larger than comparable groups in Britain, or Scandinavia or Switzerland, nations (happily immune from our suspicions and dissension?
There are paradoxes here, and it is not easy to resolve them. If it is difficult to find extenuating circumstances, it is not difficult to find at least partial explanations. First, we must remember, we are suffering from over-rapid growth. We have taken on what seems like too much: we have been asked to bear burdens not greater than we can bear, but greater, so many of us think, than we should be asked to bear.
It took the English a century to learn to act as a world power; Germany, France, Russia, Italy and Spain never learned. Suddenly we found ourselves thrust on to the very centre of the world stage implacably required to take on chief responsibility for war, then for peace, then for arming the West. This was asking more than had been asked of any other people in so short a time. It is no wonder that many Americans, even upright and virtuous Americans, reacted convulsively to these demands.
The hatemonger's of our day speak in voices that are strident and raucous; what they say has a peculiar ugliness because most of them are well groomed, respectable and self-satisfied members of our society. The upsurge of hatred and fear in our own day differs in this marked way from similar outbreaks in other days—that it comes from the upper-rather than from the lower-income groups. It is not, now, the oppressed workers, the down-trodden farmers, the starving intellectuals who are joined in desperate revolt. Quite the contrary. It is the well-padded, the well-heeled, the respectable, who spearhead the present movement for suppression and persecution; It is the middle-class reactionaries who are the revolutionists.
Not only is there a reversal of social and intellectual backgrounds, but of argument as well. For the paradox of middle-class revolution extends to philosophy and to the very language that is employed. Almost everything has been turned inside out and upside down. Now it is unconstitutional to invoke the Constitution: now it is un-American to emulate the example of Founding Fathers like Jefferson or Franklin. Now it is not the function of colleges to disturb the minds of the young, but to put them to sleep. Now it is not the function of the churches to agitate moral issues.
The readiness of so many editors, churchmen and educators to tolerate McCarthyism raises this question. We have had rabble-rousers before, men who appealed to the mob spirit and the lynching instinct, but never before have such men operated on the highest level, so to speak . . . How after all explain the wide following or at least tolerance, that the Senators from Wisconsin and Indiana and Nevada command? How explain our failure to reject reasoning that is so clearly spurious, to repudiate policies and programmers so clearly designed to poison our society?
To say that an attack on civil liberties does not matter if it is not successful amounts to saying that attempted rape is no crime if the girl is lucky enough to fight off her assailant.
The press has a heavy responsibility in all this. It is not so much that the press has failed as that it has allowed itself to be confused; it is not so much a failure in morality as a failure in selectivity. For in one sense journalism is the victim of its own standards of honesty and objectivity. How many of those who read on page one that Fort Monmouth is (so a Senator alleges) riddled with spics and traitors read the next day on the editorial page that it is not so?
But the difficulty, it must be admitted, is deeper than this.
What is under way is a corruption of the critical process, a corruption almost of the reasoning process. Why, after all, have the Canadians, the British, the Scandinavians—all of them sharing whatever danger we are exposed to—why have they somehow escaped the wave of fear and suspicion that threatens to inundate us? Why has the process gone so far here? The responsibility for this situation is widespread and far from clear. Advertisers have much to answer for—-they have taught us over the years to disregard the meaning of words. Educators have a heavy responsibility—they have failed to train the critical faculties. Politicians have a heavy responsibility—they have distracted our attention from the genuine to the meretricious. And we are witnessing, too, one or those consequences of democracy which Tocqueville described over a century ago. In a democracy, he pointed out the pressure for conformity must always be much stronger than in an aristocratic society, for here differences of appearance, of interest, of ideas all look like challenges to the accepted standards of the multitude. And in a democracy, too, the average man, the half-educated man, will not hesitate to arrogate to himself the function of critic and arbiter.
Mr. Davis has no pat solutions to our problems. The ultimate solutions, he knows, are to be found within us. They are moral and intellectual, not mechanical. And again and again he returns to what is the great theme of the book—courage. "Don't let them scare you," he writes. And yet even as he writes the words, he known that they are not wholly adequate. For "they" can hurt you. Especially they can hurt the young, the man or woman just starting in life with responsibilities of family, with a career still to make. What a to be done to protect these people and to fight their battles?
Mr. Davis concludes on this note: It is one of the grandeurs of old age that the old—at least those who are reasonably secure—need no longer fear misfortune. They are beyond and above the hopes and fears and passions that assail the young. They can afford to be brave, they can afford to speak their own minds, they can afford to take risks. It is indeed the peculiar responsibility of those who have security the security of age, the security of family and position, the security of wealth—that they take risks. This is one of those elementary considerations which too few of those who enjoy security keep in mind.