Tues. Nov. 5, 2002
Nowhere "on God's green earth"--it is fitting that this paper contain a bit of bosh--nowhere is so much insufferable stuff talked in a given period of time as in an American political convention. It is there that all those objectionable elements of the national character which evoke the laughter of Europe and are the despair of our friends find freest expression, unhampered by fear of any censorship more exacting than that of "the opposing party"--which takes no account of intellectual delinquencies, but only of moral. The "organs" of the "opposing party" will not take the trouble to point out--even to observe--that the "debasing sentiments" and "criminal views" uttered in speech and platform are expressed in sickening syntax and offensive rhetoric. Doubtless an American politician, statesman, what you will, could go into a political convention and signify his views with simple, unpretentious common sense, but doubtless he never does.
Every community is cursed with a number of "orators"--men regarded as "eloquent"--"silver tongued" men--fellows who to the common American knack at brandishing the tongue add an exceptional felicity of platitude, a captivating mastery of dog's-eared sentiment, a copious and obedient vocabulary of eulogium, an iron insensibility to the ridiculous and an infinite affinity to fools. These afflicting Chrysotoms are always lying in wait for an "occasion." It matters not what it is: a "reception" to some great man from abroad, a popular ceremony like the laying of a corner-stone, the opening of a fair, the dedication of a public building, an anniversary banquet of an ancient and honorable order (they all belong to ancient and honorable orders) or a club dinner--they all belong to clubs and pay dues. But it is in the political convention that they come out particularly strong. By some imperious tradition having the force of written law it is decreed that in these absurd bodies of our fellow citizens no word of sense shall be uttered from the platform; whatever is uttered in set speeches shall be addressed to the meanest capacity present. As a chain can be no stronger than its weakest link, so nothing said by the speakers at a political convention must be above the intellectual reach of the most pernicious idiot having a seat and a vote. I don't know why it is so. It seems to be thought that if he is not suitably entertained he will not attend, as a delegate, the next convention.
Here are the opening sentences of the speech in which a man was once nominated for Governor:
"Two years ago the Republican party in State and Nation marched to imperial triumph. On every hilltop and mountain peak our beacons blazed and we awakened the echoes of every valley with songs of our rejoicings."
And so forth. Now, if I were asked to recast those sentences so that they should conform to the simple truth and be inoffensive to good taste I should say something like this:
"Two years ago the Republican party won a general election."
If there is any thing in this inflated rigmarole that is not adequately expressed in my amended statement, what is it? As to eloquence it will hardly be argued that nonsense, falsehood and metaphors which were old when Rome was young are essential to that. The first man (in early Greece) who spoke of awakening an echo did a felicitous thing. Was it felicitous in the second? Is it felicitous now? As to that military metaphor--the "marching" and so forth--its inventor was as great an ass as any one of the incalculable multitude of his plagiarists. On this matter hear the late Richard Grant White:
"Is it not time that we had done with the nauseous talk about campaigns, and standard-bearers, and glorious victories (imperial triumphs) and all the bloated army-bumming bombast which is so rife for the six months preceding an election? To read almost any one of our political papers during a canvass is enough to make one sick and sorry. . . . An election has no manner of likeness to a campaign, or a battle, It is not even a contest in which the stronger or more dexterous party is the winner; it is a mere counting, in which the bare fact that one party is the more numerous puts it in power if it will only come up and be counted; to insure which a certain time is spent by each party in reviling and belittling the candidates of its opponents and lauding its own; and this is the canvass, at the likening of which to a campaign every honest soldier might reasonably take offense."
But, after all, White was only "one o' them dam litery fellers," and I dare say the original proponent of the military metaphor, away off there in "the dark backward and abysm of time," knew a lot more about practical politics than White ever did. And it is practical politics to be an ass.
In withdrawing his own name from before a convention, a California politician once made a purely military speech of which a single sample passage is all that I shall allow myself the happiness to quote:
"I come before you today as a Republican of the Republican banner county of this great State of ours. From snowy Shasta on the north to sunny Diego on the south; from the west, where the waves of the Pacific look upon our shores, to where the barriers of the great Sierras stand clad in eternal snow, there is no more loyal county to the Republican party in this State than the county from which I hail. [Applause, naturally.] Its loyalty to the party has been tested on many fields of battle [Anglice, in many elections] and it has never wavered in the contest. Wherever the fate of battle was trembling in the balance [Homer, and since Homer, Tom, Dick and Harry] Alameda county stepped into the breach and rescued the Republican party from defeat."
Translated into English this military mouthing would read somewhat like this:
"I live in Alameda county, where the Republicans have uniformly outvoted the Democrats."
The orators at the Democratic
convention a week earlier were no better and no different. Their rhetorical
stock-in-trade was the same old shop-worn figures of speech in which their
predecessors have dealt for ages, and in which their successors will traffic
to the end of--well, to the end of that imitative quality in the national
character, which, by its superior intensity, serves to distinguish us from
the apes that perish.
"What we most need, to secure honest elections," says a well-meaning reformer, "is the Clifford or the Myers vothing maching." Why, truly, here is a hopeful spirit--a rare and radiant intelligence suffused with the conviction that men can be made honest by machinery--that human character is a matter of gearing, ratchets and dials! One would give something to know how it feels to be like that. A mind so constituted must be as happy in its hope as a hen incubating a nestful of porcelain door-knobs. It lives in rapturous contemplation of a world of its own creation--a world where public morality and political good order are to be had by purchase at the machine-shop. In that delectable world religion is superfluous; the true high priest is the mechanical engineer; the minor clergy are the village blacksmiths. It is rather a pity that so fine and fair a sphere should prosper only in the attenuated ether of an idiot's understanding.
Voting-machines are doubtless well enough; they save labor and enable the statesmen of the street to know the result within a few munutes of the closing of the polls--whereby many are spared to their country who would otherwise incur fatal disorders by exposure to the night air while assisting in awaiting the returns. But a voting-machine that human ingenuity can not pervert, himan ingenuity can not invent.
That is true, too, of laws.
Your statesman of a mental stature somewhat overtopping that of the machine-person
puts his faith in the law. Providence has designed to permit him to be
persuaded of the efficacy of statutes--good, stringent, carefully drawn
statutes definitively repealing all the laws of nature in conflict with
any of their provisions. So the poor devil (I am writing of Mr. Legion)
turns for relief from law to law, ever on the stool of repentance, yet
ever unfouling the anchor of hope. By no power on earth can his indurated
understanding be penetrated by the truth that his woeful state is due,
not to any laws of his own, nor to any lack of them, but to his rascally
refusal to obey the Golden Rule. How long is it since we were all clamoring
for the Australian ballot law, which was to make a new Heaven and a new
earth? We have the Australian ballot law and the same old earth smelling
to the same old Heaven. Writhe upon the triangle as we may, groan out what
new laws we will, the pitiless thong will fall upon our bleeding backs
as long as we deserve it. If our sins, which are scarlet, are to be washed
as white as wool it must be in the tears of a genuine contrition: our crocodile
deliverances will profit us nothing. We must stop chasing dollars, stop
lying, stop cheating, stop ignoring art, literature and all the refining
agencies and instrumentalities of civilization. We must subdue our detestable
habit of shaking hands with prosperous rascals and fawning upon the merely
rich. It is not permitted to our employers to plead in justification of
low wages the law of supply and demand that is giving them high profits.
It is not permitted to discontented employees to break the bones of contented
ones and destroy the foundations of social order. It is infamous to look
upon public office with the lust of possession; it is disgraceful to solicit
political preferment, to strive and compete for "honors" that are sullied
and tarnished by the touch of the reaching hand. Until we amend our personal
characters we shall amend our laws in vain. Though Paul plant and Apollos
water, the field of reform will grow nothing but the figless thistle and
the grapeless thorn. The State is an aggregation of individuals. Its public
character is the expression of their personal ones. By no political prestidigitation
can it be made better and wiser than the sum of their goodness and wisdom.
To expect that men who do not honorably and intelligently conduct their
private affairs will honorably and intelligently conduct the affairs of
the community is to be a fool. We are told that out of nothing God made
the Heavens and the earth; but out of nothing God never did and man never
can, make a public sense of honor and a public conscience, Miracles are
now performed but one day of the year--the twenty-ninth of February; and
on leap year God is forbidden to perform them.
Ye who hold that the power of eloquence is a thing of the past and the orator an anachronism; who believe that the trend of political events and the results of parliamentary action are determined by committees in cold consultation and the machinations of programmes in holes and corners, consider the ascension of Bryan and be wise. A week before the convention of 1896 William J. Bryan had never heard of himself; upon his natural obscurity was superposed the opacity of a Congressional service that effaced him from the memory of even his faithful dog, and made him immune to dunning. Today he is pinnacled upon the summit of the tallest political distinction, gasping in the thin atmosphere of his unfamiliar environment and fitly astonished at the mischance. To the dizzy elevation of his candidacy he was hoisted out of the shadow by his own tongue, the longest and liveliest in Christendom. Had he held it--which he could not have done with both hands--there had been no Bryan. His creation was the unstudied act of his own larynx; it said, "Let there be Bryan," and there was Bryan. Even in these degenerate days there is a hope for the orators when one can make himself a Presidential peril by merely waving the red flag in the cave of the winds and tormenting the circumjacence with a brandish of abundant hands.
To be quite honest, I do
not entirely believe that Orator Bryan's tongue had anything to do with
it. I have long been convinced that personal persuasion is a matter of
animal magnetism--what in its more obvious manifestation we now call hypnotism.
At the back of the words and the postures, and independent of them, is
that secret, mysterious power, addressing, not the ear, not the eye, nor,
through them, the understanding, but through its matching quality in the
auditor, captivating the will and enslaving it. That is how persuasion
is effected; the spoken words merely supply a pretext for surrender. They
enable us to yield without loss of our self-esteem, in the delusion that
we are conceding to reason what is really extorted by charm. The words
are necessary, too, to point out what the orator wishes us to think, if
we are not already apprised of it. When the nature of his power is better
understood and frankly recognized, he can spare himself the toil of talking.
The parliamentary debate of the future will probably be conducted in silence,
and with only such gestures as go by the name of "passes." The chairman
will state the question before the House and the side, affirmative or negative,
to be taken by the honorable member entitled to the floor, That gentleman
will rise, train his compelling orbs upon the miscreants in opposition,
execute a few passes and exhaust his alloted time in looking at them. He
will then yield to an honorable member of dissenting views. The preponderance
in magnetic power and hypnotic skill will be manifest in the voting. The
advantages of the method are as plain as the nose on an elephant's face.
The "arena" will no longer "ring" with anybody's "rousing speech," to the
irritating abridgment of the inalienable right to pursuit of sleep. Honorable
members will lack provocation to hurl allegations and cuspidors. Pitchforking
statesmen and tosspot reformers will be unable to play at pitch-and toss
with reputations not submitted for the performance. In short, the congenial
asperities of debate will be so mitigated that the honorable member from
Hades will retire permanently from the hauls of legislation.
"Public opinion," says Buckle, "being the voice of the average man, is the voice of mediocrity." Is it therefore so very wise and infallible a guide as to be accepted without other credentials than its name and fame? Ought we to follow its light and leading with no better assurance of the character of its authority than a count of noses of those following it already, and with no inquiry as to whether it has not on many former occasions led them and their several sets of predecessors into bogs of error and over precipices to "eternal mock?" Surely "the average man," as every one knows him, is not very wise, nor very learned, not very good; how is it that his views, of so intricate and difficult matters as those of which public opinion makes pronouncement through him are entitled to such respect? It seems to me that the average man, as I know him, is very much a fool, and something of a rogue as well. He has only a smattering of education, knows virtually nothing of political history, nor history of any knid, is incapable of logical, that is to say clear, thinking, is subject to the suasion of base and silly prejudices, and selfish beyond expression. That such a person's opinions should be so obviously better than my own that I should accept them instead, and assist in enacting them into laws, appears to me most improbable. I may "bow to the will of the people" as gracefully as a defeated candidate, and for the same reason, namely, that I can not help myself; but to admit that I was wrong in my belief and flatter the power that subdues me--no, that I will not do. And if nobody would do so the average man would not be so very cock-sure of his infallibility and might sometimes consent to be counseled by his betters.
In any matter of which the public has imperfect knowledge, public opinion is as likely to be erroneous as is the opinion of an individual equally uninformed. To hold otherwise is to hold that wisdom can be got by combining many ignorances. A man who knows nothing of algebra can not be assisted in the solution of an algebraic problem by calling in a neighbor who knows no more than himself, and the solution approved by the unanimous vote of ten million such men would count for nothing against that of a competent mathematician. To be entirely consistent, gentlemen enamored of public opinion should insist that the text books of our common schools should be the creation of a mass meeting, and all disagreements arising in the course of the work settled by a majority vote. That is how all difficulties incident to the popular translation of the Hebrew Scriptures were composed. It should be admitted, however, that most of those voting know a little Hebrew, though not much. A problem in mathematics is a very simple thing compared with many of those upon which the people are called to pronounce by resolution and ballot--for example, a question of finance.
"The voice of the people is the voice of God"--the saying is so respectably old that it comes to us in the Latin. He is a strange, an unearthly politician who has not a score of times publicly and solemnly signified his faith in it. But does anyone really believe it? Let us see. In the period between 1859 and 1885, the Democratic party was defeated six times in succession. The voice of the people pronounced it in error and unfit to govern. Yet after each overthrow it came back into the field gravely reaffirming its faith in the principles that God had condemned. Then God twice reversed himself, and the Republicans "never turned a hair," but set about beating Him with as firm a confidence of success (justified by the event) as they had known in the years of their prosperity. Doubtless in every instance of a political party's defeat there are defections, but doubtless not all are due to the voice that spoke out of the great white light that fell about Saul of Tarsus. By the way, it is worth observing that the clever gentleman was under no illusion regarding the origin of the voice that wrought his celebrated "flop"; he did not confound it with the vox populi. The people of his time and place had no objection to the persecution that he was conducting, and could persecute a trifle themselves upon occasion.
Majorities rule, when they
do rule, not because they ought, but because they can. We vote in order
to learn without fighting which party is the stronger; it is less disagreeable
to learn it that way than the other way. Sometimes the party that is numerically
the weaker is by possession of the Government actually the stronger, and
could maintain itself in power by an appeal to arms, but the habit of submitting
when outvoted is hard to break. Moreover, we all recognize in a subconscious
way, the reasonableness of the habit as a practical method of getting on;
and there is always the confident hope of success in the next canvass.
That one's cause will succeed because it ought to succeed is perhaps the
most general and invincible folly affecting the human judgment. Observation
can not shake it, nor experience destroy. Though you bray a partisan in
the mortar of adversity till he numbers the strokes of the pestle by the
hairs of his head, yet will not this fool notion depart from him. He is
always going to win the next time, however frequently and disastrously
he has lost before. And he can always give you the most cogent reasons
for the faith that is in him. His chief reliance is on the "fatal mistakes"
made since the last election by the other party. There never was a year
in which the party in power and the party out of power did not make bad
mistakes--mistakes which, unlike eggs and fish, seem always worst when
freshest. If idiotic errors of policy were always fatal , no party would
ever win an election and there would be a hope of better government under
the benign sway of the domestic cow.
Each political party accuses
the "opposing candidate" of refusing to answer certain questions which
somebody has chosen to ask him. I think myself it is discreditable for
a candidate to answer any questions at all, to make speeches, declare his
policy, or to do anything whatever to get himself elected. If a political
party choose to nominate a man so obscure that his character and his views
on all public questions are not known or inferable he ought to have the
dignity to refuse to expound them. As to the strife for office being a
pursuit worthy of a noble ambition, I do not think so; nor shall I believe
that many do think so until the term "office seeker" carries a less opprobrious
meaning and the dictum that "the office should seek the man, not the man
the office," has a narrower currency among all manner of persons. That
by acts and words generally felt to be discreditable a man may evoke great
popular enthusiasm is not at all suprising. The late Mr. Barnum was not
the first nor the last to observe that the people live to be humbugged.
They love an imposter and a scamp, and the best service that you can do
for a candidate for high political preferment is to prove him a little
better than a thief, but not quite so good as a thug.
The view is often taken that a representative is the same thing as a delegate; that he is to have, and can honestly entertain, no opinion that is at variance with the whims and the caprices of his constituents. This is the very reductio ad absurdum of representative government. That it is the dominant theory of the future there can be little doubt, for it is of a piece with the progress downward which is the invariable and unbroken tendency of republican institutions. It fits in well with manhood suffrage, rotation in office, unrestricted patronage, assessment of subordinates, an elective judiciary and the rest of it. This theory of representative institutions is the last and lowest stage in our pleasant performance of "shooting Niagara." When it shall have universal recognition and assent we shall have been fairly engulfed in the whirlpool, and the buzzard of anarchy may hopefully whet his beak for the national carcass. My view of the matter--which has the further merit of being the view held by those who founded this Government--is that a man holding office from and for the people is in conscience and honor bound to do what seems to his judgment best for the general welfare, respectfully regardless of any and all other considerations. This is especially true of legislators, to whom such specific "instructions" as constituents sometimes send are an impertinence and an insult. Pushed to its logical conclusion, the "delegate" idea would remove all necessity of electing men of brains and judgment; one man properly connected with his constituents by telegraph would make as good a legislator as another. Indeed, as a matter of economy, one representative should act for many constituencies, receiving his instructions how to vote from mass meetings in each. This, besides being logical, would have the added advantage of widening and hardening the power of the local "bosses," who, by properly managing the showing of hands could have the same beneficent influence in national affairs that they now enjoy in municipal. The plan would be a pretty good one if there were not so many other ways for the Nation to go the the Devil that it appears needless.
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