Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/March 1894/Editor's Table
WHEN a private employer of labor wants work well done he tries to employ, in the first place, persons who are presumably, and to the best of his judgment, competent to do it well, and then he gives them an opportunity to show what their qualifications really are. He tests their work as they go on in every way possible, and, if he finds it satisfactory, he congratulates himself on the excellent service he is getting and on the prospect of still better results in the future as his workmen, clerks, superintendents, or whatever they may be, acquire greater experience. If any one were to come and suggest to him to inquire into the political opinions of his assistants and to replace any who did not think quite as he did by inexperienced persons whose one certified virtue was that their political complexion was exactly the same as his own, he would conclude that he had struck a lunatic, and would probably inform the gentleman that such was his opinion.
But, turning to the people of the United States, we may say, in the words of the Roman poet, "The story is told of you with a simple change of name." Yet, after all, there is more than a change of name; for we have assumed that the private employer of labor would treat the person who made such a suggestion to him as a lunatic; but not so do the people of this country treat those who make like suggestions to them. Far from it; they have in past times appeared to find such advice good, and have made those who gave it their trusted counselors. They have cut short the official careers of men who had just begun, after a few years' necessary experience, to be fully competent in their several positions, in order that the work might be taken up by incompetent (because inexperienced) men of a different political profession of faith, on the understanding that the latter should remain in office only so long as their party was "on top" or so long as they themselves continued to be meet instruments of party policy. A given official might at a given moment be carrying on important investigations, the various threads of which were gathered in his own hands and head—possibly a post office inspector trying to get on the track of a series of mail robberies, or a customs officer similarly employed as regards frauds on the revenue, or a statistician marshaling an elaborate array of facts by methods which he himself had carefully devised and could alone apply with the best results, or the head of some scientific bureau who, after a battle with disorganization and sloth and the indifference bred of the political system, had conquered the forces of opposition, established order, and prepared the way for a vigorous advance of the important work committed to him—what would it matter?—whatever he was, or whatever he was doing, when the hour came that a stronger than he politically wanted his place, the supposed guardian of the public interests, cabinet minister or President, would order his dismissal, and bring in the new man to throw everything into confusion, or, at the very least, to retard in a more or less serious degree operations that might have been carried on without a break, to the great advantage of the community.
We do not mean to say that changes have never been made for the better. That has been as it chanced; and certainly under our system changes for the better have for the most part been only too possible. Who that has any acquaintance with the public service of the country is not thoroughly familiar with the official in the last year or so of his terra, looking forward to removal and too profoundly discouraged to throw any zeal into his work, or to form any plans for putting things around him into better shape? We have seen him and know whereof we speak, nor will it be devised that the type abounds in the country to-day. As to plans for the future, the simple knowledge that his successor in office will want to do things in his own way, and will lack the experience necessary to the appreciation of arrangements based on experience, would alone dispose the retiring official to live a kind of hand-to-mouth existence till his change came.
Even as we write this article we notice by the dispatches from Washington that the excellent appointment made by the last administration of Prof. T. C. Mendenhall to the superintendence of the Coast Survey is in danger of being canceled in the interest of a Democratic aspirant to the office. There does not appear to be any pretense that Prof. Mendenhall is not in all respects suited to the office he fills, or that he has not already rendered very valuable service in it. It is stated, indeed, in journals not unfavorable to the present administration that he has been and is most efficient, and that under his management the survey is doing better work than ever before; and yet the wolves are howling round him, and the impression is gaining ground that the wolves are to be satisfied. Now, if the public would only reflect a little on what this means and what it costs, we think there would be a more serious revolt against the subordination of civil administration to party politics than this country has witnessed yet. We either want good, faithful, and intelligent service or we do not. If we do, then we must also want the means to the desired end; and an important part of the means will be a secure tenure of office for capable and faithful public servants. If we are indifferent as to the service we get, and wish to keep all the more important offices as rewards for partisan service, let us avow it distinctly and cease to be surprised when officeholders show that they understand why they were appointed and make the public interest as secondary in their own calculations as it was in that of those who gave them their positions. Of course, to avow this would be to accept a very low place in the scale of civilized nations, but if we can not screw our public virtue up to any higher pitch, let us at least honestly acknowledge where we stand.
The saying that "all is for the bet in the best possible of worlds" is one which does not at every moment come home to ns with conviction. It sometimes seems as if many things went unnecessarily awry, as if evil results were being incurred in many quarters through simple carelessness and indifference to the conditions of well-being. It is difficult, for example, to be quite satisfied with the general effects of popular education, or with the fruits which have as yet been reaped from the diffusion of scientific knowledge. If we ask whether the popular press exhibits a higher intellectual stamp than it did twenty or thirty years ago, the answer will not be altogether reassuring. It is within about thirty years that most of the devices now used by the press for taking the strain off the attention of lazy readers have been introduced; and what a development there has been within the same period in the ignoble industry of purveying and tricking out in all the adornments of newspaper rhetoric a kind of news for which the simplest considerations of public interest would prescribe the briefest and driest treatment, it is quite needless to declare.
We have noticed with pleasure lately two or three articles drawing attention to the great evil which must undoubtedly be wrought by the highly colored and vigorously expressed representations of vice and criminality with which most of our daily papers teem. That such matter is read with avidity by a large class of the population is only too true; and with the average publisher, unfortunately, no other Justification is needed for serving it up in unlimited measure and with the most piquant flavorings that his able "young men" can devise. Apart from the elaborate reporting of vicious and criminal actions, the press gives a large portion of its space to personalities of a very trivial character, which in their way exert almost as hurtful an influence as the more sensational matter. Nothing is more directly or fundamentally opposed to anything like nobility of nature than undue occupation of the mind with personal trifles, particularly when it takes the form of a prying curiosity regarding the private affairs of others. Anything more vulgar than the desire so widely manifested to tear aside the veils which persons who, in certain capacities, are obliged to come more or less before the public eye wish very naturally to draw over their private lives, could not well be imagined. Yet papers which in some respects deserve commendation make the very living of their reporters depend on the success they are able to achieve in this terrible business of destroying a lawful privacy, and encouraging the public to gaze with shameless intrusiveness upon scenes and incidents and sentiments with which they have nothing whatever to do, and which ought to he kept as inviolate as a letter in the mails.
The question of responsibility for the evil done to the community in these ways is one that is dismissed too lightly by those on whom it rests. True, within the limits within which most papers confine their operations, there is no civil tribunal that can interfere with them. Still, the question is a haunting one, "Am I or am I not, for a pecuniary consideration, inflicting deliberately and with full knowledge an injury upon society?" Granted that large numbers are craving for a depraved nutriment, is a man justified in meeting such a demand? If so, the thing may be carried further, and, however vicious the indulgence sought, the mere fact that there is a demand will justify him who undertakes to supply it. Yet there are trades from which many publishers whose journals are highly sensational would shrink. It is a question, evidently, as to where the line should be drawn; and it is a great pity that enterprising journalists can not see their way to drawing it a little nearer to sound morals and public duty.
The fact we have to face to-day is that an agency of unlimited range and influence exists for the popularization of evil, for filling the imagination of young and old with everything that is most unprofitable and pernicious from a moral and social point of view—tales of unbridled license, of violence and revenge, of selfishness and fraud. The same journals that contain this noxious stuff may also contain able editorial articles, and other more or less useful reading matter; but how many read the able editorials compared with the number of those who fasten chiefly or exclusively upon the gossip and the crime? Be the proportion or disproportion what it may, can the fact that a portion of the paper consists of good and useful matter furnish any defense for filling the rest of it with poisonous matter? Mr. Henry Wood, in an article in The dishonest, unjust, disgusting, and of ill report. The contrast is indeed flagrant, and possibly the apostle, if he could be revived and given a week's reading of some very widely circulated daily papers, might be disposed to wonder that a community which openly and systematically violated an ethical precept so authoritative in its very simplicity as that which he had laid down, should still be very jealous for the name and character of Christian. Then, if he were regaled with a course of pink-tinted police literature, and had spread out before him the numerous illustrated purveyors of vileness that may be seen on most news-stands, he would be too profoundly discouraged, we fear, even to think of inditing a stinging epistle to the Church in these lands.on The Psychology of Crime, cites very appositely the apostolic injunction, "Whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report," to "think on these things," and contrasts it with the invitation constantly held out by the press to drench the mind with thoughts of whatever is false,
We do not need, however, to resurrect an apostle in order to arrive at a moral judgment on this matter. By every rule, both of psychology and of common sense, a certain kind of journalism is morbific in its tendency. It brings and is known to bring a plague in its train, perverting the thoughts of youth, and relaxing moral sanctions that are none too strong even in old age. The question then is. How long will it be before the better portion of the community rises in revolt against so great and unnecessary an evil? The ever-ready resort of some, when a reform is to be accomplished, is to legislation: that idea we wholly repudiate; legislation can not touch this particular evil. What is required is that intelligent and well-disposed people should discriminate between papers that treat acts of crime or moral disorder with brevity and reserve and those that seek to make capital out of them, bestowing as far as possible their support on the former and withholding it from the latter. This is a very simple remedy, but it would be wonderfully efficacious if tried on a large scale. But no one need wait for others in this matter. It is a thing which concerns the home, and no one should wait to see whether others are going to protect their homes before taking steps to protect his.
One other word before we leave this subject. When we get down to the root of the matter we find that all this morbid interest in what is evil and trivial arises from a lack of individuality. "You have no soul—that makes you weigh so light," says an old dramatist. It is those who have no deep personal interests of their own, no cultivated tastes, no definite opinions, nothing special to fix and characterize them as individuals, who are insatiable for gossip, and whose love for gossip naturally passes into a love for scandal and whatever else is morally miserable. Multiply individuals in the true sense, and scandal mongering will just proportionately decline, while the scum-gathering which now forms so large a part of what is called "journalistic enterprise" will become a neglected and dishonored art. How large a part the teaching of science might play in the development of individuality we can not now attempt to indicate: we can merely say that here we see a field of infinite promise which has yielded but little as yet, simply because workers of the right stamp have been few.
The novelists will not leave "the young moon" or "the crescent moon" alone, and three times out of four they contrive to get it into the wrong place. How to explain the conviction which haunts the minds of so many of them, that the crescent moon may be seen almost any fine evening rising gracefully in the east, is altogether beyond us. The point seems to be one for psychologists. Hero is a thing that never was seen since the world began; and yet a number of otherwise sane gentlemen are firmly persuaded that it is a regularly recurring natural phenomenon. Surely the philosophy of this hallucination deserves investigation. The last case that has come under our notice is in a well-written story called A Comedy of Masks, by Ernest Dowson and Arthur Moore. Two friends are sitting out one summer evening, looking over the Thames, and the story goes on: "By this time the young moon had risen, and its cold light shimmered over the misty river." A novelist need not be an astronomer, but he should at least try to draw from Nature, and should not pretend to have seen the young moon rising at the very hour when it was being packed off to bed. Some day, perhaps, a little acquaintance at first hand with the broadest facts of Nature will be thought a requisite for writing a good novel, but the time is not yet. Meantime, if our novelists would try to bear in mind that the young moon, like other young things, goes to bed early—that Nature does not trust it out late at night they might get into the way of seeing it at the right time and in the right place, and not treat us to "cold shimmers" that are only moonshine in the least favorable sense of the term.
Since the foregoing was put in type our attention has been called to a precisely similar blunder in an article entitled Notes from a Marine Biological Laboratory, written by a man of science and a college professor, and printed in the February number of this magazine.
In the light of what has previously been said, the situation, we must confess, is decidedly awkward, and not at all to the credit of our editorial scrutiny. Yet, while freely admitting that the case is far less excusable than the one cited above, we are still inclined to regard it as an even more emphatic admonition that writers, and particularly writers on scientific subjects, are under obligations to know what they are talking about, and should also be able to subordinate their poetical ambitions to the requirements of truth.