16. Youth And The Skeptic
In 1912, I think it was, Mr. Roosevelt told the public how Mr. Taft had bitten the hand that fed him. I have forgotten Mr. Taft's rejoinder but it was a hot rejoinder and it led to some further observations from the colonel. Those were the days. Nothing but peace on earth and good will among Republicans.
About that time I happened to have lunch with a most attractive young man, one of the first American aviators. He was such a clear-cut young man, with trusting brown eyes and no guile in him. And said he to me, "But how can these things be true? I can't understand it. If any one else said these things you'd pay no attention to them, but both of these men are fine men; they've both been president; and if these things they say are true, then neither of them can be such fine gentlemen. I can't make it out, honestly." And he looked at me with a profundity of pained inquiry.
What could I say? What can you say when you meet with such simple faith? It took years of primary school and Fourth of July and American history to build up this conception of the American presidents, and now the worst efforts of a president and an ex-president had only barely shaken the top-structure. What was the good of forcing this youth to unlearn everything he had learned? If I took away his faith in the divine office of president, perhaps he might begin to lose his patriotism and his willingness to lay down his life for the flag. Perhaps he might go on and lose faith in the jury system, the institution of marriage, the right of free speech, the sacred rights of property, the importance of Harvard. Faith is a precious but delicate endowment. If I unhinged this lad's faith, perhaps he would follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther, Voltaire, Anatole France, Bernard Shaw and Emma Goldman-the "Goldman Woman" as the Ochs man and the Pulitzer man and the Ogden Mills Reed man call her in their outbursts of American chivalry. I wanted no such arid and lonely career for this splendid young man. I hated to think of his wearing an ironic smile like Anatole France or losing his fresh bloom to be a subversive idealist like Eugene Debs. Much better, said I to myself, that he should hug Taft to his bosom, even if mistaken, than that he should repulse him and face life without him. So I gave the lad soothing words and earnest though insincere glances, and he went his way puzzled but greatly reassured.
Now, I ask you, did I do wrong? You may say that simple faith is all very well, but a man ought to live in the real world and know his way around. Otherwise he is incapable of handling the existing situation. He is compelled to evade uncomfortable facts. Very true. Quite right. Exactly so. But is it better to be able to face facts at the cost of being a nerveless skeptic, or to be something of a simpleton and yet a wholesome man of action, a man of will and character and pep? What is the good of knowing facts, especially unflattering and unpalatable facts, if it confuses you and upsets you and undermines everything you've been brought up to believe? What's the use? Voltaire may be all right in his way, but is his way the only way? Can we all be Voltaires?
If I stick up for good faith in the character of presidents, I know that there will be a bad comeback. I know the tricks of the skeptic. But even if my opponents use their ugliest arguments, am I therefore to give in to them? I refuse to admit that there is nothing else than to destroy a beautiful faith in the good that is everywhere.
What the skeptics do, of course, is to use the old argument of the war. They say: Yes, your fine brown-eyed trustful young aviator is a typical product of patriotism. And where were the prime examples of patriotism to be found? In Germany. He happens, in your instance, to believe in the divine office of the presidents. But it is much more characteristic of him to be on his knees to the Kaiser. Yet consider how one-sided you are. When he declares himself ready to die for the Kaiser you see the joke. You see the joke when he is pouring out his reverence over the Tsar of Russia or the Tsar of Bulgaria or the King of Greece. But when it comes to an American you say, "Oh, don't let's destroy this beautiful faith! How precious it is, how noble, how commendable! Hands off, please." And you act in the same way toward the Constitution or the Supreme Court. It's magnificent when the Germans come ahead with a perfectly good new constitution, model 1920. But we must stick to the brand of 1789, with the cow-catcher added in 1910. Hail to Our Iron Constitution! And hail to the Old Man's Home down in Washington where they hand out the uncontaminated economics that they themselves lisped at the Knees of the Fathers of Our Country. Straight from the source, these old men got their inspiration, and they are a credit to the early nineteenth century. You think we exaggerate your loyalty? You agree that the simple faith of young Germans and young Turks can be highly dangerous, but do you counsel unquestioned faith for young Americans?
That is the argument, rather ingenious in its way; but hardly likely to fool the intelligent, law-abiding, God-fearing citizen. Because no good American could admit for one instant that the cases are on all fours. America, after all, is a democracy. And when a young man starts out having faith in a democracy he is in an altogether different position from Germans and Turks and Bulgarians and Soviet Russians and people like that. A democracy, whatever its faults, is founded in the interests of all the people. It is unquestionable. Therefore simple faith in it is equivalent to simple faith in a first principle; and you cannot go behind first principles.
That, in the end, is the trouble with the skeptic. He thinks it is very clever to question the things that are of the light in just the same spirit that he questions things that are of the darkness. And of course he goes wrong. He is like a surgeon who cuts away the sound flesh rather than the diseased flesh. He is, in the evergreen phrase, de-structive not con-structive.
And so I am glad that I did not seek to disillusion my fine young aviator. If I had succeeded in disillusioning him, who can tell what the consequences might have been? We know that during the war there were grim duties to be performed by our young men-towns to be bombed where it took excessive skill to kill the men-citizens without killing the women and the children. If I had sapped this boy's faith even one pulsation, perhaps he would have failed in his duty.
You cannot be too careful how you lead people to rationalize. In this world there is rationalism and plenty of it. But is there not also a super-rationalism? And must we not always inculcate super-rationalism when we know we possess the true faith?