All I Survey/Essay XXII

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Essay XXI All I Survey
Essay XXII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Essay XXII: On Journalistic Philosophy

THERE appears at regular intervals in the Sunday Press, like the article on the Cuckoo or Christmas Shopping, an article on the supposed superstition of the Good Old Times, laboriously alleging that they were really Bad Old Times. This article appeared in due course, in a popular weekly, under the title of "What is Right with the World"; but, except for the title, the article was the same. The same examples, the same hackneyed historical details, the same comfortable moral in almost exactly the same words. There are several things that are rather curious about this well-known journalistic feature. One is that the article professes to be an answer to another article which does not exist. I have never in my life seen the first original offending statement, that the Good Old Times really were Good Old Times. I have never heard any rational human being talking about the Good Old Times. I have heard a great many rational and highly intellectual and instructed people talking about the advantages of certain particular institutions that existed at certain particular periods. Thus I have heard political economists of the first rank saying that the Apprenticeship System was the best training for trades and the world would be wise to return to it. Or I have heard historians of high authority say that it was easier to create international understanding and peace in the days when all the nations knew Latin ... and pronounced it in the same way. I have heard very modern experts wish there were more people back on the land, and regret that for a hundred years they had poured into the overcrowded towns. I have even listened to daring thinkers who thought our position was more financially regular before we went off the Gold Standard; who positively regretted the process of lowering wages in order to start businesses; who would have it that our big industries were better off when they lived on a profit and not on an overdraft, and who stuck to their old paradox that banking was safer when there were not so many banks going bust. In short, I have known many perverse persons who held that, in this or that particular respect, we were better off in this or that particular period. But this visionary man who walks about the streets in funereal garb, wailing aloud, and at large over the disappearance of some undefined and undated Good Old Days--I have never met him, I rather doubt whether anybody has ever met him; and I doubt still more whether it is necessary to reprint the same article so many hundreds of times in order to check his pestilential influence.

The second curious thing about the article is this: that, though it is always introduced in the very vaguest terms, it always does gravitate eventually in the direction of one particular period, and it is always practically the same period. It is always, I may add, the very worst period that could possibly be chosen, for any purpose of practical comparison. It is (as in the present example) the period of about a hundred and fifty years ago. It is a very bad selection, because that date does not mark any other or older system; it only marks the most crude and clumsy beginnings of our present or modern system. It is not like saying that there was another world, for better or worse, before Rousseau or before Luther or before Christ, in the ancient Pagan world. At the date chosen we already had machinery, but much cruder machinery; we already had big towns, but much more unfinished and disorderly big towns; we already had a complete dependence on commerce, but as yet on a much more cut-throat competitive commerce. It is naturally not difficult to show that we are better than our great-grandfathers, when we are doing in a finished way what they were also doing, but in an unfinished way. The only question is whether, in another sense, we are not something that they most certainly were not: and that is, finished.

Everyone knows the list of examples. Our fathers hanged men for petty thefts, whereas we only exalt and ennoble men or put them in the House of Lords for really large and impressive thefts. But I am not troubled here by such questions, but only by the sameness and the lack of any lively curiosity about questions on the other side. Thus it begins with drunkenness; how typical of that type of moralist to begin with drunkenness ... as if nothing else could be quite so immoral! "In those days there was undoubtedly more drunkenness." I wonder. There was certainly more drunkenness among those who could stand it best; strong men who rode hard in country air and drank before they slept. Was there more drunkenness among schoolgirls than there is in America, or more drunkenness among Society girls than there now is in Mayfair? I wonder. But I wonder, most of all, why this sort of questioner is always content with his one fixed question. Suppose I were to ask him a question. Does he think there was a bigger trade in cocaine and drugs before the Battle of Waterloo than there is now?

After mentioning the one really dreadful thing, which is drunkenness, the writer goes on more vaguely about brutality and ignorance and injustice and the rest. It is difficult to test these things, because there are different moral standards in different people and different periods. For instance, I think it is just that every man should be a free owner of primary property, like land and tools. I therefore think a just commonwealth will have a multitude of peasant proprietors and small shopkeepers. The writer must know, if he knows anything, that these small men were steadily disappearing--or rather, being destroyed-- all through what he considers the great period of progress. I do not say there were not other things in which our forefathers were unjust. I only wonder, by this time somewhat wearily, why the story of the Yeoman never even occurs to the writers of the perennial article.

Then the writer gives an astonishing example. "The press-gang was still a favourite method of recruiting members for His Majesty's Army or Navy." The press-gang was a black blot on Britain; a thoroughly mean piece of brutality; but why? Because until then it was universally held that English fighters were all volunteers and enlisted freely. The press-gang was a piece of illegal and treacherous Conscription, used by men who were ashamed to use legal and universal Conscription. But the men of the modern world are not ashamed to use legal and universal Conscription. All the enlightened modern States used it in the last war, and they will use it more in the next war. It is a specially and particularly modern thing. In short, a gigantic Press-Gang, crimping and crushing not somebody but everybody, is one of the most towering and typical creations of the last hundred and fifty years.

That is what I complain of in this sort of regular journalistic philosophy. Not that it criticizes conditions a hundred years ago, when there were, heaven knows, plenty of things to criticize. But that it is intellectually incapable of criticizing conditions now, when there are new and different things to criticize. Nobody can take in the scale of the modern changes, let alone feel free enough of them to note what is sinister or dubious about them. For instance, nobody has yet measured the meaning of State education, with its practical elimination of the parent; at least of the poor parent. In a real study of modern and relatively recent things it would be necessary to go into these questions. But if somebody merely says that my grandfather used candles and I use electric light, I am content to answer that when I was in the most modern American hotels, it was the very latest fashion to lower all the electric lights till they gave rather less light than a candle.