America is sometimes
offered to us, even by Americans (who ought to know better), as a moral example.
There are indeed very real American virtues; but this virtuous attitude is
hardly one of them. And if anyone wants to know what a welter of weakness
and inconsequence the moral mind of America can sometimes be, he may be advised
to look, not so much to the Crime Wave or the Charleston, as to the serious
idealistic essays by highbrows and cultural critics, such as one by Miss
Avis D. Carlson on "Wanted: A Substitute for Righteousness." By righteousness
she means, of course, the narrow New England taboos; but she does not know
it. For the inference she draws is that we should recognize frankly that
"the standard abstract right and wrong is moribund." This statement will
seem less insane if we consider, somewhat curiously, what the standard abstract
right and wrong seems to mean--at least in her section of the States. It
is a glimpse of an incredible world.
She takes the case of a young man brought up "in a home where there was an
attempt to make dogmatic cleavage of right and wrong." And what was the dogmatic
cleavage? Ah, what indeed! His elders told him that some things were right
and some wrong; and for some time he accepted this strange assertion. But
when he leaves home he finds that, "apparently perfectly nice people do the
things he has been taught to think evil." Then follows a revelation. "The
flowerlike girl he envelops in a mist of romantic idealization smokes like
an imp from the lower regions and pets like a movie vamp. The chum his heart
yearns towards cultivates a hip-flask, etc." And this is what the writer
calls a dogmatic cleavage between right and wrong!
The standard of abstract right and wrong apparently is this. That a girl
by smoking a cigarette makes herself one of the company of the fiends of
hell. That such an action is much the same as that of a sexual vampire. That
a young man who continues to drink fermented liquor must necessarily be "evil"
and must deny the very existence of any difference between right and wrong.
That is the "standard of abstract right and wrong" that is apparently taught
in the American home. And it is perfectly obvious, on the face of it, that
it is not a standard of abstract right or wrong at all. That is exactly what
it is not. That is the very last thing any clear-headed person would call
it. It is not a standard; it is not abstract; it has not the vaguest notion
of what is meant by right and wrong. It is a chaos of social and sentimental
accidents and associations, some of them snobbish, all of them provincial,
but, above all, nearly all of them concrete and connected with a materialistic
prejudice against particular materials. To have a horror of tobacco is not
to have an abstract standard of right; but exactly the opposite. It is to
have no standard of right whatever; and to make certain local likes and dislikes
as a substitute. We need not be very surprised if the young man repudiates
these meaningless vetoes as soon as he can; but if he thinks he is repudiating
morality, he must be almost as muddle-headed as his father. And yet the writer
in question calmly proposes that we should abolish all ideas of right and
wrong, and abandon the whole human conception of a standard of abstract justice,
because a boy in Boston cannot be induced to think that a nice girl is a
devil when she smokes a cigarette.
If the rising generation were faced with no worse doubts and difficulties
than this, it would not be very difficult to reconcile them to the traditions
of truth and justice. But I think the episode is worth mentioning, merely
because it throws a ray of light on the moral condition of American Culture,
in the decay of Puritanism. And when next we are told that the idealism of
America is to set a "standard" by which England must transform herself, it
will be well to remember what is apparently meant by a standard and an ideal;
and that the fire of idealism seems both to begin and end in smoke.
Incidentally, I must say I can bear witness to this queer taboo about tobacco.
Of course numberless Americans smoke numberless cigars; a great many others
eat cigars, which seems to me a more occult pleasure. But there does exist
an extraordinary idea that ethics are involved in some way; and many who
smoke really disapprove of smoking. I remember once receiving two American
interviewers on the same afternoon; there was a box of cigars in front of
me and I offered one to each in turn. Their reaction (as they would probably
call it) was very curious to watch. The first journalist stiffened suddenly
and silently and declined in a very cold voice. He could not have conveyed
more plainly that I had attempted to corrupt an honorable man with a foul
and infamous indulgence; as if I were the Old Man of the Mountain offering
him hashish that would turn him into an assassin. The second reaction was
even more remarkable. The second journalist first looked doubtful; then looked
sly; then seemed to glance about him nervously, as if wondering whether we
were alone, and then said with a sort of crestfallen and covert smile: "Well,
Mr. Chesterton, I'm afraid I have the habit."
As I also have the habit, and have never been able to imagine how it could
be connected with morality or immorality, I confess that I plunged with him
deeply into an immoral life. In the course of our conversation, I found he
was otherwise perfectly sane. He was quite intelligent about economics or
architecture; but his moral sense seemed to have entirely disappeared. He
really thought it rather wicked to smoke. He had no "standard of abstract
right or wrong"; in him it was not merely moribund; it was apparently dead.
But anyhow, that is the point and that is the test. Nobody who has an abstract
standard of right and wrong can possibly think it wrong to smoke a cigar.
But he had a concrete standard of particular cut and dried customs of a
particular tribe. Those who say Americans are largely descended from the
American Indians might certainly make a case out of the suggestion that this
mystical horror of material things is largely a barbaric sentiment. The Red
Indian is said to have tried and condemned a tomahawk for committing a murder.
In this case he was certainly the prototype of the white man who curses a
bottle because too much of it goes into a man. Prohibition is sometimes praised
for its simplicity; on these lines it may be equally condemned for its savagery.
But I myself do not say anything so absurd as that Americans are savages;
nor do I think it would matter much if they were descended from savages.
It is culture that counts and not ethnology; and the culture that is concerned
here derives indirectly rather from New England than from Old America. Whatever
it derives from, however, this is the thing to be noted about it: that it
really does not seem to understand what is meant by a standard of right and
wrong. It is a vague sentimental notion that certain habits were not suitable
to the old log cabin or the old hometown. It has a vague utilitarian notion
that certain habits are not directly useful in the new amalgamated stores
or the new financial gambling-hell. If his aged mother or his economic master
dislikes to see a young man hanging about with a pipe in his mouth, the action
becomes a sin; or the nearest that such a moral philosophy can come to the
idea of a sin. A man does not chop wood for the log hut by smoking; and a
man does not make dividends for the Big Boss by smoking; and therefore smoking
has a smell as of something sinful. Of what the great theologians and moral
philosophers have meant by a sin, these people have no more idea than a child
drinking milk has of a great toxicologist analyzing poisons. It may be a
credit of their virtue to be thus vague about vice. The man who is silly
enough to say, when offered a cigarette, "I have no vices," may not always
deserve the rapier-thrust of the reply given by the Italian Cardinal, "It
is not a vice, or doubtless you would have it." But at least the Cardinal
knows it is not a vice; which assists the clarity of his mind. But the lack
of clear standards among those who vaguely think of it as a vice may yet
be the beginning of much peril and oppression. My two American journalists,
between them, may yet succeed in adding the sinfulness of cigars to the other
curious things now part of the American Constitution.
I would therefore venture to say to Miss Avis Carlson that the quarrel in
question does not arise from the Yankee Puritans having too much morality,
but from their having too little. It does not arise from their drawing too
hard and fast a line of distinction between right and wrong, but from their
being much to loose and indistinct. They go by associations and not by
abstractions. Therefore they classify smoking with vamping or a flask in
the pocket with sin in the soul. I hope at least that some of the Fundamentalists
will succeed in being a little more fundamental than this. The men of Tennessee
are supposed to be very anxious to draw the line between men and monkeys.
They are also supposed by some to be rather too anxious to draw the line
between black men and white men. May I be allowed to hope that they will
succeed in drawing a rather more logical line between bad men and good men?
Something of the the difference and the difficulty may be seen by comparing
the old Ku Klux Klan with the new Klu Klux Klan. The old secret society may
have been justified or not; but it had a definite object: it was directed
against somebody. The new secret society seems to have been directed against
anybody; often against anybody who drank; in time, for all I know, against
anybody who smoked. It is this sort of formless fanaticism that is the great
danger of the American Temperament; and it is well to insist that if men
must persecute, they will be more clear-headed if they persecute for a creed.
from Generally Speaking, Dodd & Mead, 1929