Invisible Censor

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19. With Malice Toward None



Last night I woke up suddenly to the sound of bombardment. A great detonation tore the silence; an answering explosion shook it; then came a series of shots in diminishing intensity. My windows look out on a rank of New York skyscrapers, with a slip of sky to the south. In the ache of something not unlike fear, I thrust out my head to learn as quickly as I could what was happening. No result from the explosions was to be seen. The skyscrapers were gaunt and black, with a square of lost light in a room or two. The sky was clean-swept and luminous, the stars unperturbed. Still the shots barked and muttered, insanely active, beyond the blank buildings, under the serene sky.

I heard hoarse cries from river-craft. Could it be on the river? Could it be gun practice, or was there really an interchange of gun-fire? A U-boat? An insurrection? At any rate, it had to be explained and my mind was singularly lively for three a. m. Long after your country has gone to war, I told myself, there remains, if you have sluggish sympathies, what may fairly be called a neutrality of the imagination. You are aware that there is fighting, bloodshed, death, but you retain the air of the philosophic. You do not put yourself in the place of Americans under fire. But if this be really bombardment, shell-fire in Manhattan? I felt in an instant how Colonel Roosevelt might come to seem the supreme understander of the situation. An enemy that could reach so far and hit so hard would run a girdle of feeling from New York to the remotest fighters in Africa or Mesopotamia. To protect ourselves against the hysteria of hatred-that would always be a necessity. But I grimly remembered the phrase, "proud punctilio." I remembered the President's tender-minded words, "conduct our operations as belligerents without passion," and his pledge of sincere friendship to the German people: warfare without "the desire to bring any injury or disadvantage upon them." Here, with the Germans' shell-fire plowing into our buildings and into our skins? Here, meeting the animosity of their guns?

Becoming awake enough to think about the war, I began to reason about this "bombardment," to move from the hypnoidal state, the Hudson Maxim-Cleveland Moffett zone. The detonations were continuing, but not at all sensationally, and soon they began to shape themselves familiarly, to sound remarkably like the round noises of trains shunting, from the New York Central, carried on clear dry November air. Soon, indeed, it became impossible to conceive that these loud reverberations from the Vanderbilt establishment had ever been so distorted by a nightmare mind as to seem gun-fire. And my breathless inspection of the innocent sky!

But that touch of panic, in the interest of our whole present patriotic cultural attitude, was not to be lost. It is the touch, confessed or unconfessed, that makes us kin. If we are to retain toward German art and literature and science an attitude of appreciation and reciprocation, without disloyalty, it must be in the presence of the idea of shell-wounds German-inflicted. Any other broad-mindedness is the illusory broad-mindedness of the smooth and smug. It is Pharisaical. It comes from that neutrality of the imagination which is another name for selfish detachment, the temperature of the snake.

A generation less prepared than our own for the mood of warfare it would be difficult to imagine-less prepared, that is to say, by the situation of our country or the color of our thought. To declare now that New York has made no provision for the air-traffic of the future is not to arouse any sense of delinquency. No greater sense of delinquency was aroused ten or fifteen years ago by the bass warnings of military men. It is not too much to say that Lord Roberts and Homer Lea were felt to have an ugly monomania. In that period Nicholas Murray Butler and Elihu Root and Andrew Carnegie were thinking in terms of peace palaces. Colonel Roosevelt had tiny ideas of preparedness, but he was far more busy enunciating the recall of judges-and he earned the Nobel Prize. Few men, even two years ago, believed we would be sending great armies to Europe in 1917. In the first place, men like Homer Lea had said that the United States could not mobilize half a million soldiers for active service in less than three years. And in the next place, we still felt pacifically. We had lived domestic life too long ever to imagine our sky black and our grass red.

Because of this mental unpreparedness for war, this calm enjoyment of an unearned increment of peace, there was never a greater dislocation of standards than our recent dislocation, and never a greater problem of readjustment. For England, at any rate, there was a closeness to the war that helped to bring about an alignment of sentiment. But here, besides the discrepancies in the entailment of services, there are enormous discrepancies in sentiment to start with, and policies still to be accepted and cemented, and European prejudices to be suppressed or reconciled. Misunderstanding, under these circumstances, is so much to be looked for, especially with impetuous patriots demanding a new password of allegiance every minute, that the wonder is not at how many outrages there are, but how few.

Most of these outrages fall outside the scope of literary discussion, naturally. "Let the sailor content himself with talking of the winds; the herd of his oxen; the soldier of his wounds; the shepherd of his flocks"; the critic of his books. But there is one kind of outrage that requires to be discussed, from the point of view of culture, if only because there is no ultimate value in any culture that has to be subordinated to the state. That is the outrage, provisionally so-called, of mutilating everything German; not only sequestering what may be dangerous or unfriendly and vindictive, but depriving of toleration everything that has German origin or bears a German name. The quick transformation of Bismarcks into North Atlantics, of Kaiserhofs into Café New Yorks, is too laughable to be taken seriously. The shudderings at Germantown, Pa., and Berlin, O., and Bismarck, N. D., are in the same childlike class. But it is different when an Austrian artist is not permitted to perform because, while we are not at war with Austria, she is our enemy's ally. It is different when "the music of all German composers will be swept from the programmes of scheduled concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra in Pittsburgh. 'The Philadelphia Orchestra Association wishes to announce that it will conform with pleasure to the request of the Pittsburgh Association. The Philadelphia Orchestra Association is heartily in accord with any movement directed by patriotic motives.'" It is this sort of thing, extending intolerance to culture, that suggests we have been surprised in this whole matter of culture with our lamps untrimmed.

In a sense we, the laissez faire generation, have been unavoidably surprised-so much so that our "proud punctilio" has been jogged considerably loose. So loose, in fact, that we have given up any pretension to being so punctilious as soldiers used to be. It used to be possible, even for men whose hands dripped with enemy blood, to sign magnanimous truces; but science has made another kind of warfare possible, and the civilian population of the modern State, totally involved in a catastrophe beyond all reckoning, falls from its complacency into a depth of panic and everywhere believes that the enemy is inhuman in this war.

Were such beliefs special to this war, hatred might well go beyond the fervor of the Inquisition, and the hope of exterminating the Germans as a people might be universally entertained. But no one who has read history to any purpose will trust too far to this particular emotionality of the hour. To say this, in the middle of a righteous war, may sound unpatriotic. But, if hatred is the test, what could be more traitorous and seditious than Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.... The prayers of both could not be answered-that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.' If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the Providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope-fervently do we pray-that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet,... so still it must be said, 'The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan-to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations." It is, perhaps, like quoting the Lord's Prayer. And yet it is the neglected wisdom of a man who had gleaned it from long meditating fratricidal war.

But, you may say, Prussia has always been outside humanity. We are engaged in a war foreordained and necessary, a natural war. A war inescapable, yes, but not inevitable. Let the plain testimony of hundreds of books speak.... To ask for such discriminations as this is, however, scarcely possible. It is too much, in the face of superstitions, anxieties, and apprehensions, to expect the attitude of culture to be preserved. In peace-time we are allowed to go outside our own state to enjoy any manifestation of the seven arts; and such violent nationalism as attacked The Playboy of the Western World in New York is at once called "rowdy" and "despicable." But in time of war it is part of its morality, or immorality, that culture must be subordinate to clamor, and that even national sculpture must become jingoistic, making railsplitters neatly respectable and idealizing long feet. How far this supervision of culture goes depends only on the degree of pressure. It may go so far as to make the domination of political considerations, state considerations, paramount in everything-precisely the victory that democracy, hoping with Emerson that "we shall one day learn to supersede politics by education," has most to fear.

It is in war itself, with its enmity to so much that is free, that one must seek the opposition to enemy culture, not in the culture that is opposed. Must one, on this account, think any peace a good peace? To do so is to show an immunity from the actual which is not to be envied. It is only necessary to imagine New York bombarded, as many French and English and Belgian and Russian towns have been bombarded since the beginning of the war, to realize the rush of resistance that is born in mankind, expedient for government to recruit and to rally to the end. But for the man who has partaken of democratic culture this "end" involves democracy. All character and all spirit cannot be absorbed in the will to cure the homicidal enemy by his own poison. The only course open to the man who is still concerned for democratic culture is to remember the nobility of Lincoln's example-by concentrating on the offenses rather than the persons that cause the mighty scourge of war, to avoid the war-panic and war-hatred which will enrage our wounds.