Publication information

Source:
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine
Source type: magazine
Document type: editorial column
Document title: “Musings without Method”
Author(s): Whibley, Charles
Date of publication: October 1901
Volume number: 170
Issue number: 132
Pagination: 559-69 (excerpt below includes only pages 559-65)

 
Citation
Whibley, Charles. “Musings without Method.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine Oct. 1901 v170n132: pp. 559-69.
 
Transcription
excerpt
 
Keywords
William McKinley; William McKinley (presidential character); anarchism; anarchism (protection under the law); anarchism (dealing with); the press (censorship).
 
Named persons
Gaetano Bresci; Marie François Sadi Carnot; Richard Croker; Leon Czolgosz; James A. Garfield; Emma Goldman; Abraham Lincoln; William McKinley; William Melville; Maximilien François de Robespierre; Theodore Roosevelt; Donatien Alphonse François Sade; Jean Baptiste Sipido; George Washington.
 
Notes
Though authorship of the editorial column is not credited in the magazine, Whibley is known to be its author.
 
Document


Musings without Method
[excerpt]

     THE cruel murder of William McKinley reminds us that Anarchy is still a living and a working terror. Not only was it cruel—it was purposeless, even for an anarchistic outrage. The President of the United States represents neither privilege nor tyranny. He is not a ruler whose indolence the people is asked to support by unequal taxes; he is not the member of a sheltered family, which claims a high office by virtue of exalted birth. He is but a citizen, like the rest, and, as the world knows, the door of the White House stands open to all comers. Moreover there is no American so poor but he may arrive at the President’s throne, upon which none ever sits without discovering that he is the servant, not the master, of the people. Nor is there any episode in McKinley’s career which should condone or explain an act of vengeance. Throughout his double term of office he has served his country by faithfully representing the majority. His policy of protection was popular, because it made America instantly prosperous. The war with Spain was not a war of his devising; had he been free to follow his own discretion he would have ensured peace by diplomacy or by gold. He was incapable of echoing such cries as “Remember the Maine!” or of appealing to the quickly roused hysteria of his countrymen. But no sooner was war inevitable than he assured its vigorous conduct, and so carried out with energy and effectiveness the will of the people. Nor was he following a personal inclination when be committed America to a policy of imperialism. The expansion which has followed the war with Spain does but express the natural desire of a free and prosperous nation for an empire beyond its own borders. In brief, William McKinley accomplished nothing in his years of office which was not consonant with the wishes of the majority. He had so little of the dictator in his nature that he did not disdain to use the machinery of wards and bosses by which the politics of America are administered. And if his methods of government violated no popular principle, his career should have endeared him to all citizens of the States. For if he could not boast, like Garfield, a passage “from log-cabin to White House,” he was not aided in his progress by any [559][560] advantages of birth or position. A post-office clerk when the war broke out, he volunteered for service, was a captain at twenty-one, and retired a major honourably distinguished by Abraham Lincoln. A few years of the law gave him a competence, and from the age of twenty-eight he pursued the profession of politics with single-minded energy. Of course it would be unkind, as well as unjust, to compare him with the heroic Presidents, Washington and Lincoln. He was never called upon to perform such feats as theirs. But whatever duty fell to him he accomplished with dignified simplicity. In the eyes of Europe he was the worthy representative of a great country. In the eyes of America he was a faithful unselfish champion of national interests. So scrupulous was he of his honour that he avoided the merest suspicion of speculation, and though he was thought by many to be unduly kind to trusts, he has died a poor man. His modest will, in truth, is an eloquent testimony to his upright conduct of affairs. Though he has enjoyed for many years the highest dignities of state, he leaves but a few thousands of pounds to his widow; and he has practised this splendid self-denial in a country which not only worships the millionaire, but which finds Boss Croker an indispensable instrument of government.
     If, then, we attempt to explain the murder of President McKinley by his actions, we involve ourselves in an impenetrable mystery. Nobody can pretend for an instant that this wise, simple, honourable, and modest citizen was a proper target for the assassin’s bullet. Yet no sooner was the news of the cowardly outrage received, than the Radical papers began with one accord to make excuses for the miscreant. The best method of abolishing Anarchy, said they, with a veiled satisfaction in the death of a statesman, is to abolish its cause. And straightway they fell upon the usual commonplaces of their sect, higher wages and less work for the unskilled, the pampering of the lazy, and the instant ruin of those who dare to be industrious and useful citizens. But the Radicals talk idly when they declare that Anarchy is the effect of so obvious a cause as hunger or political discontent. President McKinley died not because he represented bad government, nor even because he represented government at all. He died because he seemed a conspicuous citizen to the weak-brained, uncontrolled scoundrel who slew him. But we shall never find a proper remedy for Anarchism until we understand what an Anarchist is, and what he wants. He is an indolent monster, diseased with vanity, whose first and last desire is advertisement. He has no practical aim, no definite ambition. He knows that when he has slain one ruler, good or bad, another will arise; he knows also that so long as he and his friends live policemen will be a patent necessity. He knows all this, [560][561] or he would know it, if thirst for publicity had left any space for knowledge in his narrow brain. It is not wrong that goads him to revenge, for he is as often as not well supplied with the things which make life pleasant, and the money which shall purchase the instruments of his crime are seldom lacking to him. He travels at will from one end of the earth to the other, generally accompanied by a mistress, and when he has driven home his dagger, thrown his bomb, or pulled the trigger of his pistol, he is aureoled with glory, in whose reflected light his companions proudly bask.
     He is, moreover, gregarious: he loves clubs, associations, and strange brotherhoods. Passwords and secret signs appeal to that love of mystery in him which always afflicts the feebleminded. When he visits a foreign city, he is consigned to some comrade or another with whom he may exchange those platitudes of murder and sentiment upon which his intellect is fed; and thus it is that he gives us a hold upon him. His vanity will seldom let him “work” alone, and nothing absolutely ensures secrecy save solitude. Indeed, no sooner has he entered a club than he is a marked man, and, if our laws permitted us, we could very soon render him incapable of harm.
     But unhappily the law is on the side of the Anarchist. By the wildest irony the contemner of all constitutions is protected in his murderous contempt by the most enlightened constitutions of the world. For the Anarchist’s peculiar benefit a monstrous contradictory contrivance is tolerated, called “political crime.” The Anarchist did not invent it; it may trace its origin to the cult (once popular) of abstract freedom. No man, it was proudly said, shall suffer for his opinions, and indeed the principle was sound enough with a limitation. There is no reason why any one should be punished for holding opinions which do not conflict with the common law of his land. But no man should be permitted to express an opinion in favour of plunder or assassination. Directly an agitator exhorts to unlawful action, he loses all touch with politics and becomes a sordid criminal. No sooner does a demagogue, proud in his opinion, advocate a breach of the law, than he puts himself upon a level with the housebreaker’s accessory. In brief, there is no such thing as “political crime,” of which the very name is hypocritical. On the one hand there is obedience to the law, on the other there is lawlessness; and the understanding of this principle is the first step in the suppression of Anarchy.
     And even if “political crime” were not a palpable contradiction, it ought to be punished far more heavily than any other; for punishment should be apportioned according to temptation and to the ease wherewith the crime is committed. Forgery is heavily punished, because it is not beyond the [561][562] reach of any man who can hold a pen; and though hunger is no excuse for theft, it is, at any rate, an obvious temptation. Now, if we apply this principle to what is absurdly called “political crime,” we see at once that a miscreant who murders with no better excuse than a political opinion should expect no mercy, and that the ease wherewith the life of king or president may be attempted should ensure a special penalty even for failure.
     But the Anarchist, taking shelter behind the empty phrase “political crime,” enjoys a licence which is granted to no other criminal. He may advertise his intentions; he may publicly incite his followers. If two ruffians are overheard planning the murder of Bill Smith, they may be summarily arrested. If a burglar be found with the implements of his trade upon him, he is already a malefactor. But there are still countries where an Anarchist may publish open incitements to murder in his journals and escape the smallest censure. The head of a State, indeed, whose life is more valuable than the life of Bill Smith, has asked in vain for the common protection. In the past England has been a conspicuous offender. We have boasted with a sort of cant that London is free to all policies, that deposed monarchs or escaped king-slayers find equal asylum in our midst. However, the harm we have done in the past by our ill-judged devotion to a philosophic principle is partly condoned by the very efficient watch we now keep upon the apostles of Anarchy. That our method is the best we would not assert; but until sterner measures are taken Inspector Melville’s device is not to be despised. True, the Anarchists are allowed the freedom of Soho, but it is a freedom sternly tempered by the knowledge and control of Inspector Melville. The Anarchists frequent their cafés and attend their clubs, under the wise restriction that all they say is known to a vigilant police. With the worst intention in the world, they can do nothing, for once they move they are checked on the threshold of action, and then a prison receives them. Often, indeed, the police is their only friend, and not many years since two noble specimens—America’s gift to England—were forced to demand of the detective who watched them that he should write their letters and announce their return. But the fly is not always safe, even in the spider’s web; and we would sleep more easily if we knew that dangerous Anarchists were shut behind a firmer barrier than the vigilance of the police.
     Moreover, it is idle for England to watch, if other countries are guilty of carelessness. When the imbecile Sipido shot at the Prince of Wales, Belgium set an example of levity which was a patent encouragement to all Anarchists. Nor is England likely to forget it. But America, herself so sternly tried, has long been the worst offender. The ideal of freedom and brotherhood which in- [562][563] duced her to harbour Fenians has been shamefully turned against her; yet it should be remembered that she was not the first to suffer. The wretched Bresci, who murdered the King of Italy, received his education in New Jersey. It was New Jersey, also, which defended his action, and held it up for emulation to his comrades and compatriots. But America left the conspirators of Paterson free and at large; and probably her laws will prevent her from punishing Miss Goldman, whose speeches seem to have armed the miserable Czolgosz. Two days after McKinley was shot, a well-known Anarchist left New Hampshire, if Reuter may be believed, with the avowed intention of shooting Mr Roosevelt. Yet he could not be arrested, and the police had done its duty when it had warned New York of his approach. In brief, no ruler can be safe until the ancient superstition of “political crime” be swept away.

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     And while McKinley has been assassinated, the Czar of Russia has visited France, a close prisoner guarded by forty thousand men. He was seen by few except soldiers, and though a love of symbolism may be satisfied by a dim consciousness that the Czar is there, the perilous expedition reduces to an absurdity the position of kings. Of what use is empire if it delivers him who wields it bound hand and foot to his jailers? Are loyal citizens so feeble that their wishes are always to be thwarted by an active minority? We do not believe they are, and surely the kingdoms of the earth need not surrender to knife and pistol without a struggle. Much may be done by concerted action, and if all nations persisted in moving Anarchists on, the danger would be sensibly lessened. When a riot is feared in the streets, the hopes of the rioters are easily foiled by a simple expedient. Nobody is permitted to stand still, and the collection of a crowd is thus impossible. Let us apply this sound principle to Anarchists. The most of them are known to the police. Let them be driven from their homes; let them be forbidden to meet; and when they have found another domicile, let them be sent adrift again, until they renounce their superstition and take refuge in work. Murder being their game, it should be sin to harbour them, as it is a sin to harbour the criminal who from greed or passion hopes to kill a helpless victim. No mercy should be shown them who show none to others, and not one single country—no Belgium nor Switzerland—should be allowed by the Powers to offer them protection. If this step were taken, we should hear little more of Anarchy, for the laziest, most brutal assassin shrinks from playing the part of the Wandering Jew.

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     But there are other means of checking this organised system of murder. The Anarchists, having no chin, and very little (when not too much) forehead, are easily led, and it [563][564] should be the purpose of our rulers to ensure that they are not led at all. Their newspapers should be rigorously suppressed, nor should the police wait for an open declaration of murder before they seize their treasonable presses. But the suppression of a newspaper is a serious difficulty. If there is one thing in which enlightened people believe more devoutly than in “political crime,” it is a free printing-press. Only one check is placed upon the ingenuity of our printers. So long as they are not obscene, any freedom seems permitted to them. Yet, dangerous as obscenity may be, no moralist can pretend that it does more harm than incitements to murder. Robespierre, we think, was a more loathsome criminal than the Marquis de Sade; at any rate he had far more opportunity of wrong-doing; and if Anarchy is to be suppressed, we must put sedition on the same footing as obscenity. No Radical paper must be allowed to find excuses for Anarchy; no Republican editor must be permitted to condone the murder of kings. The censorship which exists in law must be rigorously enforced in fact; and who knows but some day the Czar of Russia may leave his palace without trembling for his life!
     However, it is not merely the prints which exist for sedition that are a menace to the State. Of late years the whole press of the world has claimed a dangerous and deplorable licence. It has been wisely pointed out that the Yellow Press of New York is not guiltless of McKinley’s murder. The ignorant and youthful editors, who day after day have insulted the elected ruler of their country, have helped to arm the assassin’s hand. Nor is there any doubt that our own press is similarly culpable. Anarchy, after all, is a form of hysteria, and to provoke hysteria is the avowed object of our modern journals. The newspaper which cannot be content without a daily sensation, which does not trouble to sift its news, and so publicly makes truth of no account, is not guiltless of crime. The law protects it, that is true; but the opinion of all just men should fiercely condemn it. Nor is there any reason why the law should not control the press. If our enactments are not stringent enough, legislation is still possible. The worst is, that the press is a fetich, like political crime. Some fool invented the phrase “the fourth estate,” and other fools have believed that the press is a decent and a definite power. Politicians, in fact, have so loyally supported the freedom of journalists to misguide, that one suspects an unconscious black-mail. Says the politician: “If I say a word in the journalists’ disfavour, they will all attack me in their privileged columns”; and so the politician is content to soothe himself with the generous dream that a free, untrammelled press is a noble institution. But why should it be noble? It owes responsibility to none save the purse. Its constant [564][565] excuse for its indiscretions is that it gives the public what the public wants—an excuse which is nothing more nor less than Anarchy. The public wants a thousand things which the law properly withholds, and the journalist who shelters his sins behind the popular demand confesses himself the enemy of his country. He knows that Anarchy is a disease of the nerves, and yet he does not scruple by cunning methods of excitement to destroy the already weakened nerves of his foolish readers. The law, as we have said, might check the falsehood and hysteria of the press, as it might, if it chose, abolish it utterly. But the law, we fear, will never be moved against a newspaper. Any man who has no better credential than a balance at his bank may buy a printing-machine; and with that implement of sin to help him, he may grow rich by deceiving a credulous people, which has not yet learned that all which it sees in print is not necessarily true.
     Though we cannot silence the extravagant tone of our press, at least we may discourage it. But the fight will be fought against the fearsome odds of an innumerable circulation. What can a hundred or a thousand good men achieve in the face of a million dolts? They can decrease the precious circulation by a few: they can throw some discredit upon the disseminator of the false. Yet the victory cannot be won until there is a national reaction. Nor need we despair of the reaction, which is indeed inevitable. The half-educated mob which the Board School turns out, ready for any villainy, will some day be ambitious to learn a little more, or content to learn a little less, and the popular press, with its unplumbed ignorance, its boastful readiness to rule the world, and its hideous familiarity, will disappear from our midst. The change will assuredly come; but until it comes we must expect to see the weakling’s hand armed against our rulers. Perpetual excitement may still throw the feeble mind off its balance; the bitter abuse of a statesman, who happens to have annoyed an irresponsible journalist, may at any moment suggest a useless crime. But happily the pendulum of taste and opinion is wont to swing back, and time may rid us of a disease which our politicians are afraid to cure. Meanwhile we have witnessed the failure of popular government. The peoples which boast of universal suffrage, and which throw their palaces open to the lowliest-born, cannot protect the lives of their elect. France and America, indeed, are no better off than autocratic Russia. For while the Czar travels, the close prisoner of forty thousand soldiers, Carnot and McKinley have fallen in the citizens’ field of battle, victims to the superstitions of free thought and “political crime.”