In the serendipitous manner that “way leads on to way” when you’re online, I came across a seemingly obscure essay by G.K. Chesterton titled, “The Vote and the House,” dealing, initially at least, with the rules governing canvassing for votes in England. The essay appeared in a collection published in 1908, although it may have been first published earlier. In any case, there were a few interesting passages that resonated with our present political climate.
The third rule for canvassing, Chesterton noted, told him that he must not “threaten a voter with any consequence whatever.” Chesterton, of course, knows what this intends to mean, but “as verbally and grammatically expressed,” he adds, “it certainly would cover those general threats of disaster to the whole community which are the main matter of political discussion.” For example:
“When a canvasser says that if the opposition candidate gets in the country will be ruined, he is threatening the voters with certain consequences. When the Free Trader says that if Tariffs are adopted the people in Brompton or Bayswater will crawl about eating grass, he is threatening them with consequences. When the Tariff Reformer says that if Free Trade exists for another year St. Paul’s Cathedral will be a ruin and Ludgate Hill as deserted as Stonehenge, he is also threatening. And what is the good of being a Tariff Reformer if you can’t say that? What is the use of being a politician or a Parliamentary candidate at all if one cannot tell the people that if the other man gets in, England will be instantly invaded and enslaved, blood be pouring down the Strand, and all the English ladies carried off into harems. But these things are, after all, consequences, so to speak.”
Ah, it would seem that this passage is, as they say, evergreen.
Then, after discussing the objections of “refined persons” to both canvassing in politics and interviewing in journalism, Chesterton comes to this conclusion:
“The whole error in both cases lies in the fact that the refined persons are attacking politics and journalism on the ground of vulgarity. Of course, politics and journalism are, as it happens, very vulgar. But their vulgarity is not the worst thing about them. Things are so bad with both that by this time their vulgarity is the best thing about them. Their vulgarity is at least a noisy thing; and their great danger is that silence that always comes before decay. The conversational persuasion at elections is perfectly human and rational; it is the silent persuasions that are utterly damnable.”
That whole paragraph is worth reading (link below).
Finally, I’ll leave you with the paragraph that was my impetus for writing this post in the first place. It’s a provocative reflection on the relative merits of optimism and pessimism with regards to reforming injustice. I pass it along to you as someone who does not think of himself as an optimist, generally speaking.
“For, in order that men should resist injustice, something more is necessary than that they should think injustice unpleasant. They must think injustice absurd; above all, they must think it startling. They must retain the violence of a virgin astonishment. That is the explanation of the singular fact which must have struck many people in the relations of philosophy and reform. It is the fact (I mean) that optimists are more practical reformers than pessimists. Superficially, one would imagine that the railer would be the reformer; that the man who thought that everything was wrong would be the man to put everything right. In historical practice the thing is quite the other way; curiously enough, it is the man who likes things as they are who really makes them better. The optimist Dickens has achieved more reforms than the pessimist Gissing. A man like Rousseau has far too rosy a theory of human nature; but he produces a revolution. A man like David Hume thinks that almost all things are depressing; but he is a Conservative, and wishes to keep them as they are. A man like Godwin believes existence to be kindly; but he is a rebel. A man like Carlyle believes existence to be cruel; but he is a Tory. Everywhere the man who alters things begins by liking things. And the real explanation of this success of the optimistic reformer, of this failure of the pessimistic reformer, is, after all, an explanation of sufficient simplicity. It is because the optimist can look at wrong not only with indignation, but with a startled indignation. When the pessimist looks at any infamy, it is to him, after all, only a repetition of the infamy of existence. The Court of Chancery is indefensible—like mankind. The Inquisition is abominable—like the universe. But the optimist sees injustice as something discordant and unexpected, and it stings him into action. The pessimist can be enraged at wrong; but only the optimist can be surprised at it.”
You can read the whole essay here, although I couldn’t tell you why it was classified as a “short story.”