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The Oracle That Always Says 'no' Post by :texan-in-oz Category :Essays Author :Clinton W. Gilbert Date :October 2011 Read :2909

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The Oracle That Always Says "no"

Has anyone ever stopped to think what the nonsenseorship would do to our suppressed desires? A little while ago suppressed desires were one's own affair. One fondled them in the skeleton closet of his consciousness and was as proud of them as anyone with a haunted house is of his right, title and interest in a ghost.

They proved to him that though he went to church on Sunday and was respectably married to only one woman, he was really beneath his correct exterior a whale of a fellow, who might have been, had he but let himself go, a Casanova or at least a Byron. He patted himself on the back for keeping unruly instincts in subjection. He applauded himself for what he might be and for what he was. He got it coming and going. It was a pleasant age.

But now is he permitted to have his own secret museum of virility? I speak only of the sex which has my deepest sympathy.

No. The nonsenseorship regards him with suspicion. He must go and have even that part of him which lies below the level of his consciousness dragged forth by experts in the interests of society, and if there is anything hidden in him which might not be exhibited on the movie screens, he must have it sublimated. He cannot even have suppressed desires. He cannot be a devil of a fellow even to himself. He cannot be his own censor any longer, he must submit himself to outside censoring, to the nonsenseorship.

It all came about this way. First to establish divine right somewhere in modern government, the doctrine was set up that the public mind was infallible. Thereafter, naturally, attention centered on the public mind. What was it that it had this wonderful quality of always being right? Experience showed that it was not a thinking mind. Since it was not, then the thinking mind was anti-social.

Then our very best American philosophers, and some French ones, for the support of mass opinion, developed a system which set forth that reason always led you into traps and that the only mind to trust was the irrational, instinctive or intuitional mind. Thus the nonsenseorship, with excellent philosophic support put the ban upon thinking. Now, I do not contend that many suffer seriously from this restriction. For, after all, thinking is hard work and may cheerfully be foregone in the general interest.

But does the nonsenseorship rest content with its achievement? If the instinctive part of us is so important, let us have a look at it, says society; perhaps something anti-social may be unearthed there. A Viennese explores this area of the mind. He discovers what society would forbid, merely hidden away. Civilization has merely pressed it into dark corners, as the law has crowded the blackjack artist into alleys and dens of thieves. The psychic police are put on our trail. They must nab every suppressed desire and send it to the reform school for re-education into something beautiful and serviceable. We may not be unhappy, neurotic, mad; our complexes must be inspected. We must suppress our reason, we may not suppress our desire; the nonsenseorship says so, and to persuade us, its experts offer us the reward of health and greater usefulness if we make this further surrender.

Now, although as I have said we let reason go at the behest of the nonsenseorship without so much as a word of protest, we do not give up our suppressed desires so easily and without a fight.

As a result we see the nonsenseorship in a new light. We feel it more keenly now than ever before. It is revealed as the Procrustean bed which cramps us up until we ache inside. If there is anything the matter with us, if we are introverted, introspective, neurotic, complicated, have too much ego or too little ego, are dyspeptic, sick, sore, inhibited, regressive, defeated or too successful, unhappy, cruel or too kind, if we differ ever so slightly from the enforced average, it is because censorship presses upon us. And the cure for censorship is more censorship. Have your psychic insides censored; if you would be a perfect 36 mentally and morally, with the Hart, Schaffner & Marxed soul which modern society wills that you shall have, conform not only without but within, and be "splendidly null"! I think it is the sudden realization that just a little more of individuality, our hidden individuality, is threatened, which makes the nonsenseorship irk us now as it never did before.

The race has always had it, but in the beginning it was a crude and simple thing, troubling itself only with externals. A woman whose official duty it is to look after the virtue of the movies in Pennsylvania or Ohio, will not permit on the screen any suggestion that there is a physiological relation between a mother and a child. This method of protecting the race has its roots back in the primitive mind of mankind. When men really did not understand how children came about, births were catastrophic. A woman at a certain moment had to disappear into the wilderness; she came back having found a baby under a cabbage leaf. Any contact with her while she was making her discovery might bring pestilence and death to the tribe.

We still believe in the pestilence even if we no longer have faith in the cabbage leaf. The lady censor of Ohio or Pennsylvania is the tribe driving the pregnant woman into the wilderness. On the whole the tribe did it better than we do; it only removed the offender and the mental life of the little community went on just as before. We keep the offender amongst us and close our minds. Our simple ancestors covered no more with the fig leaf than they thought it necessary to hide; we wear the fig leaf over our eyes: that is the nonsenseorship.

Mr. Griffith recently brought out a cinema spectacle called "Orphans in the Storm," which presented many scenes from the French Revolution. Now it was not long ago that we Americans were all rather proud of the French Revolution. We had had a revolution of our own and we thought with satisfaction that the French had caught theirs from us. We were as pleased about it as the little boy is when the neighbor's little boy catches the mumps from him. He sees an enlargement of his ego in the swollen neck of his playmate.

All that is changed now. Mr. Griffith picturing the triumphant mob in Paris had to fill his screens with preachments against Bolshevism, which had as much to do with his subject as captions about the rape of the Sabine woman would have had to do with it. It is as if the little boy had been taught to believe that by never saying the word mumps, he could save his playmate from tumefying glands.

Soon some committee of morons which attends to the keeping of our intellects on the level with their own will exclude from the schools all histories which contain the words "the American Revolution." We must call it the War for American Independence. That is putting the fig leaf over our eyes. That is the nonsenseorship.

But before we decide whether or not we shall refuse to yield up our suppressed desires as we have surrendered our reason to it, with the approval of our leading philosopher, Mr. William James, let us consider some of the advantages of the nonsenseorship. Perhaps it will prove worth while to give up this little internal privilege.

First there is the simplicity of consulting the so-called public mind. The favorite aphorism of the politician and his friend and spokesman the editor is: "The public is always right upon a moral issue." This means that if the politician or the propagandist can present a question to the people in such a way that he can win his end by having the public respond in the negative, he is sure of success. It is as if society depended for its guidance upon the word of an oracle, a great stone image, out of which the priests had only succeeded in producing one response, a sound very much like, "No." The trick would consist of so framing your question that the word "no" would give you approval for your designs. That is the art of laying before the public a "moral issue" upon which it is inevitably right.

Suppose, in a society ruled by the stone image, you wanted to make war upon your neighbor. You would frame your question thus: "Shall we stand by idly and pusillanimously while our neighbor invades our land and rapes our women?" This is a moral issue of the deepest sanctity. You would present it. The priests would do their little something somewhere out of sight. From the great stone image would come a bellow which resembled "No." You would have won on a moral issue and would then be licensed to invade your neighbor's territory and rape his women.

Now you will perceive certain advantages in an oracle which can only say one word. You know in advance what its answer will be. Suppose the great stone image could have said either "yes" or "no." Suppose its answer had been "yes" to your righteous question? It would have been embarrassing. You could no longer say with such perfect confidence, "It is always right upon a moral issue."

Suppose you were capital and you desired to reduce wages. You would not go to the temple and say, "Shall we reduce wages?" That would not be a moral issue upon which the answer would be right. You would ask, "Shall we tamely acquiesce while the labor unions import the Russian revolution into our very midst?" The great stone voice always to be trusted on moral issues would thunder, "No."

Or suppose you were labor; for my oracle is even-handed--and you wished to extend your organization--you would go to the temple and propound the inquiry, "Shall we be eaten alive by the war profiteers?" The always moral voice would at least whisper "No"

It will be observed that in consulting the oracle whose answer is known in advance, the only skill required consists in so framing the question that you will get a louder roar of "no" than the other side can with its question. If you can always do this you can say with perfect confidence that old granite lungs "is always right upon a moral issue."

That is the art of being a great popular leader.

Would anyone exchange a voice like that as a ruler for the wisdom of the world's ten wisest men? We laugh at the Greeks for their practice of consulting the oracle at Delphi and rightly, for our oracle beats theirs which used to hedge in its answers and leave them in doubt. Ours never equivocates; we know its answer beforehand, for the public mind is compounded of prejudices, fears, herd instincts, youthful hatred of novelty, all easily calculable.

It has been my duty for many years to tell what public opinion is on many subjects. My method, more or less unconscious, has been to say to myself, "The public is made up largely of the unthinking. Such and such misinformation has been presented to it. Such and such prejudices and fears have been aroused. Its answer is invariably negative. The result is so and so." It is thus that judges of public opinion invariably proceed. They do not find the popular will reflected in the newspapers. They know it as a chemist knows a reaction, from familiarity with the elements combined. At least such a mind is highly convenient.

And after all who does make the best censor, or nonsenseor or whatever you choose to call it? Was it not written, "The child is censor to the man?" Well, if it was not it ought to have been, and it is now. Consider the child as it arrives in the family. Forthwith there is not merely the One Subject which may never be mentioned. There are a hundred subjects. A guard is upon the lips. The little ears must be kept pure.

Now, when we set up the establishment of democracy we did take a child into our household. I have discussed elsewhere (Footnote: Chapter V, Behind the Mirrors) the parentage of this infant born of Rousseau and Thérèse, his moron mistress. The public mind is a child mind because in the first place the mob mind of men is primitive, youthful and undeveloped, and again because by the wide diffusion of primary instruction, we have steadily increased the number of persons with less than adult mentality who contribute to the forming of public opinion. In the nature of the case, fifty per cent. of the public must be sub-normal, that is, youthful mentality. We have reached down to the level of nonsense for our guide. That is why we call it in this book the nonsenseorship.

Every one who has watched the growth of a child's vocabulary has observed that it learns to say "no," many months, perhaps more than a year, before it ever says "yes." An infant which took to saying "yes" before it did "no" would violate all precedents, would scandalize its parents, and would grow up to be a revolutionist. It would have an attitude toward life with which men should not be born and which parents and society would find subversive. On the instinct for saying "no" rests all our institutions, from the family to the state. It should exhibit itself early and become a confirmed habit before the dangerous "yes" emerges.

Besides, the child needs to say "no" long before it needs to say "yes." Foolish parents feed it mentally as they feed it physically, out of a bottle. If it had not its automatic facility of regurgitation, both mental and physical, it would suffer from excesses. Its "no" is its mental throwing up.

The public mind is still in the no-saying, the mental regurgitative stage. But is not that ideal for the nonsenseorship? Does a censor ever have need of any other word but "no"?

I have now established the convenience of an oracle whose answer "no" can always be foreseen; and the fitness of the child mind for saying "no," as well as the perfect adaptation of the single word vocabulary to the purposes of the nonsenseorship.

One of the important ends which a "no" always serves is maintaining the status quo. We all cling precariously to a whirling planet. We hate change for fear of somehow being spilled off into space. The nonsenseorship of the child mind is splendidly conservative. The baby in the habit of receiving its bottle from its nurse will go hungry rather than take it from its mother or father. Gilbert was wrong. Every child is not born a little radical or a little conservative.

Reaching down for the child mind in society, with some misgivings, we have been delighted to find it the strongest force making for stability. An amusing thing happened when Mr. Hearst some years ago sought readers in a lower level of intelligence than any journalist had till then explored. To interest the child mind he employed the old device of pictures, his favorite illustration portraying the Plunderbund. Now, persons who thought the cartoon of the Plunderbund looked like themselves, viewed the experiment with alarm. But Mr. Hearst was right. He proved to be as he said he was, "our greatest conservative force." The surest guardians of our morals and of our social order are precisely Mr. Hearst's readers, who learned the alphabet spelling out P-L-U-N-D-E-R-B-U-N-D. They watch keenly and with reprobation in Mr. Hearst's press our slightest divagations.

De Gourmont, writing of education, asks: "Is it necessary to cultivate at such pains in the minds of the young, hatred of what is new?" And he says it is done only because the teacher naturally hates everything that has come into the world since he won his diploma. But no; De Gourmont is mistaken. It is because we teach the young what it is socially beneficial that they should learn, having regard also for their aversion to novelty, to the bottle from any other than the accustomed hands.

And we find in the child mind--and foster it by education--"the will to believe," that great American virtue. It requires an immense "will to believe" to grow up in the family and in society, looking at the elders and at all that is established, and accepting all the information that mankind has slowly accumulated and which teachers patiently offer. If the young once doubted, once thought--but unfortunately they do not! Anyway, we do find in the child mind, which forms the nonsenseorship, the "will to believe,"--of immense social utility.

Now, the "will to believe"--like teeth which decay if not used upon hard food, or muscles which grow flabby if they have not hard work to perform--must be given something for its proper exercise. In a chapter on "The Duty of Lying," in his brilliant book Disenchantment, Mr. C. E. Montague shows what may be done with "the will to believe," developed as it has at last been. "During the war the art of Propaganda was little more than born." In the next war, "the whole sky would be darkened with flights of tactical lies, so dense that the enemy would fight in a veritable 'fog of war' darker than London's own November brews, and the world would feel that not only the Angel of Death was abroad, but the Angel of Delusion too, and would hear the beating of two pairs of wings." And what may be done with the "will to believe" in time of war has immense lessons for the days of peace. A British Tommy, quoted by Mr. Montague, summed the moral advantages up: "They tell me we've pulled through at last all right because our propergander dished up better lies than what the Germans did. So I say to myself: 'If tellin' lies is all that bloody good in war, what bloody good is tellin' truth in peace?'" What "bloody good" is it, when you have ready to hand the well-trained "will to believe," which those who censored reason for its social disutility set up as the most serviceable attribute of the human mind?

I think I have written enough to prove that the child mind at the bottom of nonsenseorship is the effective base of stability. But the heart of man desires also permanency. Is there reasonable assurance that we shall always be able to keep the guiding principles of our national life, the nonsenseorship, a child mind?

It is true that we have reached as far down, through our press and through our public men, to the levels of the low I. Q. as it is practicable to go, until we grant actual children and not merely mental children an even larger share than they now have in the forming of public opinion; for this is, as you know, "the age of the child."

And no great further advance is likely to be made in the mechanical means of uniting the whole 100,000,000 people of this country in a 24-hour a day, 365 days a year, mass meeting. The cheap newspaper, the moving picture, instant telegraphic bulletin going everywhere, the broadcasting wireless telephone, and the Ford car, have accomplished all that can be hoped toward giving the widely-scattered population the responsiveness of a mob.

But though perhaps we may never lower the I. Q. of the nonsenseorship, no further triumphs being possible in that direction, there is no reason why education, what we call "creating an enlightened public opinion," should not always maintain for us the child mind as it now is with all its manifold advantages.

Somewhere in Bartlett there is, or ought to be, a quotation which reads like this: "The god who always finds us young and always keeps us so." That is education; it always finds us young and always keeps us so.

It catches us when our minds are merely acquisitive, storing up impressions and information; and it prolongs that period of acquisition to maturity by always throwing facts in our way. Its purpose is not to "sow doubts," far from it, for that would have for its ideal mere intelligence and not social usefulness. It develops instead the "will to believe," and this serves the needs of the propagandists, who, as Mr. Will H. Hayes is reported to have said of the movies, "shake the rattle which keeps the American child amused so that it forgets its aches and pains." We may safely trust education to keep the American mind infantile, merely acquisitive and not critical. And thus the nonsenseorship seems sure to be perpetuated, and we reach the ideal of all the ages, society in its permanent and final form. Here we are, here we may rest.

These considerations persuade me at least that we should make the utmost sacrifices for so perfect a social means as we now have. Let the nonsenseorship invade the secret closets of our personality and rummage out our most cherished suppressed desires. Let us have nothing that we may call our own. For my part, I shall spend the proceeds of this article upon one of the new social police, a psycho-analyst.

(The end)
Clinton W. Gilbert's essay: Oracle That Always Says "No"

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