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Nationalism in the United States

ISSUE:  Summer 1925

The New Barbarians. By Wilbur C. Abbott. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $2.50.

The Indestructible Union. By William McDougall, F. R. S. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. $2.50.

It is probable that no more familiar phenomenom presents itself to the student of American life—not to go outside the United States—than the existence and employment of multitudinous labels designating various thought processes and attitudes of mind. In comparatively recent months a case in point has been furnished in the form of a controversy between certain people who style themselves “modernists” and others who have adopted the name “fundamentalists.” Now it seems reasonable, without entering the controversy,—for there is no concern here with religious or theological matters—to recognize that, so far as the label is concerned, the fundamentalists have somewhat the better of it. It would appear that a distinction can be made between the fundamental and the superficial definite enough to be of considerable value; and if this valid antithesis be employed as a standard of classification, it is probable that few thinkers would care to be classed as definite advocates of the superficial. On the other hand, modernism seems a much less definite concept; and with just what it is to be contrasted is equally indefinite. Except in the heat of controversy, it can scarcely be maintained that those who take a stand in opposition to some, many, or all of the doctrines making up what is called modernism are thereby relegating themselves to the darkest period of the Middle Age.

Closely connected with this indefiniteness of modernism —if it is not indeed the same thing—is an element in the position of the modernists to which the most valid objection it to be made. As Mr. G. K. Chesterton suggested a good many years ago, the real case against modernism consists in the fact that it is essentially snobbish. This criticism, by pointing out that the spirit of so-called modernism is fundamentally bad, possesses one decided advantage: it avoids a strenuous attack on the whole of the tenets of a school for some of the elements of which not a little is to be said. The dialectic of the advocates of modernism is not unfamiliar, and it ought scarcely to confuse. It consists„ in the first place, of a tendency to identify change with improvement and of an assumption that the newness of a thing is a preliminary argument in its favor. Conversely, it attempts to destroy the position of its opponents by stating their arguments, though the latter are often sound, even if from the nature of the case familiar; it considers such arguments refuted because recognized; and it assumes that what is old or, better still, old-fashioned could hardly expect serious consideration at the hands of intelligent people. It is the sort of attitude which would endeavor to frighten one from advocating that the sum of two and two is four, because this fact was believed by those who thought that the earth was flat. Between those two elements in the attitude of modernists and the attitude of one who bases his claim to superiority on a ready adoption of modern styles or who condemns an old lady’s bonnet on the ground that it is not the prevailing fashion, there is a close similiarity: both are essentially snobbish.

It is unfortunate that many of those who are unwilling to admit themselves modernists have adopted an attitude the spirit of which is precisely the same as that of their opponents. The very doubtful conclusion has apparently been accepted that the only way to fight the devil is with fire. Just as in the one case to be old is identical with being old-fashioned, so in the other the new is held to have the same associations as new-fangled; it is regarded as unworthy of serious examination by the conservative and moderate man; and it is inveighed against, as are its advocates, with scornful superiority. Yet there can be no better example of an instance in which two wrongs fail to make a right. Furthermore, in a very real sense, the second wrong is greater than the first. It may well be that the burden of proof rests upon the advocate of the new, and it may likewise be unfortunately natural that enthusiasm for a new cause result in a spirit lacking in moderation and dignity; but the obligation to be moderate and dignified is beyond doubt greater in the case of one whose opposition of the new proceeds from an older position and a position which is from the nature of the case well established. Superior advantage imposes greater responsibility and obligation; and to this elementary principle of justice may be added a simple consideration of expediency. The enthusiastic advocate of an unsound cause feeds on unreasoned opposition and blind prejudice; but in the presence of a patient and sympathetic understanding or effort at understanding, his ardor inevitably cools. In such circumstances, it is possible to substitute for unavailing opposition a positive advocacy which may give real hope of bearing valuable fruit.

It is doubtful whether a reader of moderate temper can, after a continuous perusal, put down Professor Abbott’s “New Barbarians” with a feeling that the predominating spirit of the book is one of sympathy, tolerance, temperate-ness, or dignity. It is not that certain proposed innovations, new schools of thought, and the like are opposed; it is rather the manner in which they are opposed. Instead of reasoned arguments against such innovations or against the tenets of such schools of thought, there appear hostile references to them or descriptions of them couched in a diction which often fails to fall short of scurrilous invective. A form of abuse takes the place of dialectic, or contempt is substituted for an effort at understanding. Thus, an undoubtedly important concept is summarily dismissed by being referred to as “social justice—whatever that may be.” Furthermore, there is abundant argument against the man. As the title of the book implies, there is opposition to the advocates of certain new and barbarous things. These things themselves are often simply disposed of by Professor Abbott’s complete acceptance of the idea that their champions are all “insane.”

The explanation of this spirit is not far to seek: it involves a distinctly tu quoque attitude. It is illustrated by the position of Professor Abbott when he concludes that he must “meet rhetoric with rhetoric;” and it has already been questioned whether such procedure is either altogether commendable or expedient. It must in fairness be recognized that Professor Abbott seems himself to have realized such a doubt; for in a preface, which was of course presumably written after the book, the author protests that he does not oppose change as such and, with regard to “purely destructive schools,” that he “proposes to discuss them as frankly as they have discussed democracy.” Yet almost the whole book gives ample ground for the belief that this is a case of excessive protesting; and since the author throughout the book complains of the ignorance of the disciples of new schools of thought and of their prejudiced views of democracy, his proposal to discuss these schools with an equal amount of frankness is equivalent to a proposal not to discuss them frankly at all. Finally, it may be added, as has already been suggested, this is not in reality a case of calling the score even; for it is only just that more be expected of a Harvard professor than of a “barbarian” or an “insane” person.

This question of the spirit pervading Professor Abbott’s book and of the superior responsibility of an individual holding a position of dignity and respect is a basic consideration in an appraisal of the work. However, it is necessary to examine more definitely the theme of the writer and to ask precisely who the new barbarians are. They may be regarded as falling into two groups, of which one displays tendencies commonly designated as “modern” while the other assumes a more political or social character. In a list of the former class Professor Abbott would include the advocates of an art without line, color, or perspective; of music without harmony or beauty; of dancing which would arouse the envy of Bacchanals; of words adapted to the intellectual capacity of a moron; of self-expression; of subtly decadent fiction; of poetry inferior in form and content to that of the early Teutons; of efforts to break down the family; of a moral code of a herd of wild cattle; of spiritism and superstition; and of magic and credulity. It is a hardy champion who would have a word for any of these things, since, amongst other epithets, those who have to do with them are described as being pleasure-seeking, vapid, illiterate, useless, ostentatious, insolent, and grasping. The second class is naturally composed of “radicals” or “socialists.” Associated with these or included in them are communist-internationalists, true socialists, guild socialists, Bolsheviks, syndicalists, nationalizationists, British Labour Party, Progressives, humanitarians, martyrs, and demagogues. It is especially, of course, against these social and political manifestations of things new that Professor Abbott inveighs.

It might be thought that indications are not lacking that the hysteria of the days immediately following the War has in large measure abated and that with it has disappeared constant fear of danger to the national life. This does not represent the conviction of the author of “The New Barbarians.” “The danger to the world,” he says, “is greater than even the threat of Attila.” Though elsewhere enthusiasm for “Americanism” leads to the admission that many new citizens are loyal, honest, hard-working, and useful and that they have nothing but contempt for “the minute fraction” of their membership which forsakes their doctrine. Yet this minority of “subversives” offers the threat of an Attila to American life in their advocacy of “phenomena beside which, to certain sensitive minds, even the horrors of war seem preferable.”

“The Indestructible Union” of Professor McDougall is written in a spirit which is in somewhat marked contrast with that of “The New Barbarians.” In the former book, there is anticipated no danger that the national unity of America will be reversed or seriously weakened. The author does not hesitate to assert that “the danger has been grossly exaggerated ;” and he believes that it is decidedly less in America than in any other nation. It is true that the patience of Professor McDougall has limits. He does not refrain from applying to the views of anti-nationalists such terms as “some crazy scheme” or “a foolish shibboleth,” and he considers anti-nationalists “blind leaders of the blind, false voices crying in the wilderness of political fancies and empty phrases,” or else “cranks and half-baked social philosophers ;” but such a tone is decidedly the exception. The various views of anti-nationalists are carefully examined with model calmness and moderation. Almost the whole book is consistent with the expressed view of the author that “no solution is to be hoped for from mutual recrimination,” and that “it behooves every patriotic American carefully to weigh the arguments and sympathetically to appreciate the sentiments and emotions of both parties.”

It appears inevitable that one who, like Professor Abbott, tends, on account of recrimination, often to fall short of moderation should even in his more restrained expressions of opinion find himself the advocate of one-sided and extreme views. There is considerable evidence of this in “The New Barbarians.” It is seen in the opinion that historically autocrats have been a blessing to the people by compelling them to activity beyond mere physical existence. It is illustrated by the opinion that “it is the business of society to devote its greatest strength not to the support of its weakest members but to the development of the strongest.” It is shown by references to “the danger of humanitarianism,” which latter “tends to perpetuate incapables,” and by various extreme applications in the social sphere of the law of the survival of the fittest. It is particularly manifest in the statement that any advance realized by Labor is due to the capitalist system and that capitalists are responsible for experiments in profit-sharing, share in management, and the like. It is apparent even in the view that “idealism unrestrained by knowledge and judgment produces a mental state wholly out of accord with that of the mass of men who daily face the facts of life, and learn experience what is possible and salutary in the business of society and government.”

Aj1 these views have one thing in common: there is a tendency to neglect the element of vital force necessary in the affairs and institutions of men. Such vitality is furnished in considerable measure by what is dubbed “idealism” or “humanitarianism”; for there is real survival value in the sincerity of even those who are mistaken. It is true that what is desirable has in practice often to be modified with regard to what is possible; but concentration of attention on what is possible ought not to result in failure to appreciate the contribution of those who centre attention on the desirable. For the view that an institution like profit-sharing is the result of the demands of Labor an equally good case, to say the least, can be made out as for the opinion that it is due to a benevolent grant on the part of Capital. Altogether to ignore the possibility that some of the new barbarians contribute an appreciable modicum of vitality to the national life is almost sure to result in overemphasis of the material; and Professor Abbott has found himself in just this position. He opposes to these new barbarians not altogether definite concepts of “democracy” and of “Americanism,” either of which would appear to be the sum of all virtues. Yet after the enumeration of these virtues, the authority is manifestly conscious of having dwelt overmuch on material prosperity; and he is at some loss how to justify his position. One characteristic effort is the quotation at great length of the exaggerated language of an admittedly prejudiced critic of American life on the assumption that such expression condemns itself. Another reply has it that materialism is an old evil. Yet materialism cannot be adequately defended by the dictum that it is not new; materialist considerations are undoubtedly the basis of much of the frenzied opposition to new barbarians; and moderation and sympathy on the part of materialists might introduce into materialism a spiritual element of no little value. Professor Abbott’s final justification of the status quo in America is “the large proportion of contented people;” but contentment in this sense is for the most part a materialistic concept, and it is possible that these people might not be irreparably injured by an admixture of the discontent which has been thought divine.

Professor McDougall has, on account of his moderation, an initial advantage in the difficult effort of appraising American national life: he is not committed to opposition to any opinions or groups of individuals, nor is he consequently constrained to support a one-sided case; so that he is able in judicious temper to address himself to the task of evaluating all the elements, no matter what their nature, which enter into nationalism in general and into American nationality in particular. These last-mentioned concepts furnish the subject of study in “The Indestructible Union.”

From the standpoint of formal logic, objection may doubtless be offered to the acceptance by Professor McDougall of the view of a student who suggests that “a nation may be defined as a population animated by a common desire to be a nation.” It is the same objection which the logician may offer to Professor McDougall’s definition in his “Group Mind,” where he says that “a nation is a people . . . possessed of a national mind . . .” In both statements, the adequacy of the definitions is without doubt lessened by the employment of a derivative of the word defined; but definitions are at best not easy, and the exact nature of a nation has for long proved itself particularly difficult of exact determination. The importance of the contribution of certain students, of whom Professor Mc-Dougall is a distinguished example, consists in the introduction of psychological concepts into the study of the nation. The author of “The Indestructible Union” summarizes the view of these students when he says of the nation that “its existence is a mental or spiritual fact, though it requires certain physical or biological conditions.”

It is from this point of view that Professor McDougall addresses himself to the examination of nationalism in America; and he finds the United States a peculiarly interesting study. “The American Nation,” he says, “is now entering upon its maturity; America is assuming the responsibilities of an adult, of a self-conscious, self-directing moral organism.” It is impossible here to discuss in detail the examination of American life which results in the conviction that American unity is indestructible. It can only be repeated that Professor McDougall attacks the problems in the national life of this country, such for only one example as the Negro question, with unimpeachable logical analysis, with extremely judicious and delicate appraisal of the elements yielded by analysis, and with irresistible conclusions, which are courageously faced even when suggesting highly difficult solutions.

In conclusion, a word may be said with respect to the secondary title adopted by Professor McDougall in calling his book “The Indestructible Union: Rudiments of Political Science for the American Citizen.” Not a few students will ask whether the rudiments to which reference is made ought not primarily to be furnished to the American citizen by juristic concepts; whether institutions which represent crystallizations of sentiment ought not in a real sense to come before the sentiment from which the institutions partly result. The simple answer doubtless is that the two things belong together; and, so long as this is recognized, no objection can be taken to a student who addresses himself to the aspect of the matter on which he is an admitted authority.

Professor McDougall’s book is the second number of a series of which Professor Abbott’s work is the introductory volume. The editor of the series, in a preliminary note, states the intention of “presenting the story of American nationalism in separate volumes, each dealing with particular aspects, but all contributing to produce a well-rounded body of literature embracing this vital subject.” Professor McDougall has, in the treatment of the aspect allotted to him, set a high standard; and, possibly even more important, his perspective has been so good that he never loses sight of the relationship between his own part and the whole.


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