Friday, October 12, 2007

The Awful Example

by G.K. Chesterton

The exhilaration and the difficulty of the Distributist's task consist in the fact that he has to make men see a side of things to which the whole world has gone blind. It is not really that he himself necessarily thinks that side is the only side; still less that he approves of excess or exaggeration even on his own side. It is that (for most modern people) this other side of the world is like the other side of the moon. Or rather, it is more remote; for men not only do not know it, but do not know it is there.

I will take a fairly familiar example. It is not true, as some seem to suppose, that Distributism is another name for Drink; or that we have any particular admiration for drunkards. Most of us are Christians or believers in common decency; and we are less likely than the pagans of Capitalism and Communism to regard an orgy as an ecstasy, in which enjoyment justifies itself. We dislike intemperance and intoxication as most sane people dislike them. In saying so, we are only saying what nearly everybody would say. But take the same subject and consider it from another angle; and it will seem to such people as insane as a fantasy in the Fourth Dimension. Suppose a Prohibitionist orator or scribe of the United States writes, for the five hundredth time, the words, "The workman who used to spend a dime on a drink now spends it on a magazine or journal, or on going to see a good film or in saving up a subscription for a club or a library." Well, nobody need deny that, in a case like that, there are two sides to a question. The trouble is that most people only see one of them.

Nobody in a normal way, in the newspapers or on the public platform, ever says this. When a man had a glass of beer in front of him, in one of the old inns or taverns, it acted as a slight refreshment or stimulation for him; for him and nobody else. It was his mind that was stirred; his memories that were awakened; his experience that was encouraged to expend itself in talk. There was always the danger that he would exceed and spoil the experiment by excess; but supposing that he conducted it with moderation (as most men did and do) it had the effect of making him, in the old convivial phrase, contribute to the entertainment. When he goes to the pictures he does not contribute to the entertainment. When he reads the newspaper, he does not contribute to the entertainment. Sometimes, so innocent is his sense of humour, he is not even entertained. It was always said of the old rustic alehouses that, if you put a little beer into a man, you could get a lot of talk out of him. This may not be, by itself and without qualification, a dignified formula. But, in the case of the newspaper, you put a lot of talk into the man and get nothing out of him; except a penny, which goes to the millionaire who owns all the newspapers, in that nation. Anybody who has any actual experience of those ale-houses (that is anybody who is not a temperance reformer with no experience except of tea-shops) knows quite well that the old rustic very seldom did get disgracefully drunk. For one simple reason, which will be gratifying to the professors of the economic theory of history, he could not afford it. The pay of agricultural labourers is not of the lavish sort required for such lawless sacrifices to Lyaeus. But anyhow, when he was, rightly or wrongly, stimulated to talk, he told stories that were a resurrection of real history; a trump of doom over all the churchyards of that countryside. The hearer of such tales often saw pictures passing before him that will never be seen again; that are like a vision of ghostly armies of Napoleon or forgotten fights upon the sea. If you forcibly deprive the old rustic of his pot of beer, and drive him with a stick to the Cinema, he will undoubtedly see much more vivid visions of sea-battles or Napoleonic armies; but they will be subject to two important modifications. They will be other people's visions and not his own; and they will be visions of things that the visionaries never saw. All his own contribution to history will not only be emptied out with the pot of beer, but blasted with the limelight or blotted out upon the screen. He will no longer be a man giving forth anything to his fellows; he will be a man reduced to receiving from them an indirect version even of the very things that he could give them. Machinery is killing memory; coloured lights thrown by theatrical lanterns are killing the colours of a human face and character; the man who in the bar-parlour could feel like somebody, is forced in the dark and crowded hall to feel like nobody; the actual human testimony of mankind is minus a man. In short, in the places of modern amusement men are amused by Something Not Themselves that makes for vulgarity; but for a vague and featureless and collective vulgarity. In the old places of entertainment, men were amused by each other; often, I freely admit, amused at each other.

Now we shall find it hard in modern England, and still harder in modern American, to make people perform that simple act of intelligence. I mean seeing the other side of the comparison between the ale-mug and the newspaper or the theatre. It will perhaps be long before they begin to see that this superiority, of expenditure on what they call art over expenditure on what they call alcohol, is not by any means such a truism as they imagine. It is at best a half-truth; and we have before us the gigantic toil of trying to make them see the other half of the truth. At present they are in a queer and dazed mood, in which they feel that half a truth is better than no culture. But nothing is more dangerous to the whole truth than the half truth; and in this case it means that the whole huge half of the huge real world is being ignored. We are thinking only of what ordinary people have to receive; and not at all about what ordinary people have to give. The best defence of liquor, like the real defence of leisure, is being ignored because men will not see that it is a defence of life. If we are never to have the conditions that encourage common men to expand, they will be dumb parasites, greedy long after they are dead. Half of the human functions will be starved and half sated. Man will be paralysed down one side.

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