Americanization, December 29, 1919


As most germane to my subject, may I ask you to consider for a few moments the marked change in the concept of nationalism which has taken place during the last quarter of a century. May I contrast the impressions received in Europe last Summer with those of thirty-five years before. As the earlier moment, in all political matters the great popular word was Unity; a coming together into new national systems of little states which had long been separated.

Now Italy was vociferously jubilant from the toe to the heel, for Venice had been so recently rescued from Austria that she still wore wreaths of welcome in honor of her [homecoming], and Victor Emmanuel was the most popular king in Europe.

The first Kaiser and Bismarck ruled over a newly made German Empire, represented by a new imperial parliament in which it was said that a homogenous people, long estranged, had at last been united. It rather smacked of learning, in those days, to use the words Slavophile and Panslavic, but we knew that the words stood for a movement toward unity in remoter parts of Europe where Bohemia was the most vocal, [although] she then talked less of a republic of her own than of her desire to unite with her fellow Slavs. The most striking characteristic of all those nationalistic movements was their burning humanitarianism, a sense that the new groupings were but a preparation for a wider synthesis, that a federation of at least the European states was [page 2] a possibility in the near future.

The words of Mazzini, who had died scarcely a decade before, were constantly on the lips of ardent young orators, who stressed his statement that it was impossible to unite men into stable nations unless such efforts were founded upon a recognition of the higher claims and obligations of humanity. And, of course, one still heard mid-Victorian phrases concerning the Parliament of Man. Certainly the desire to unite, to overcome differences, to accentuate likenesses, was everywhere a ruling influence in political affairs.

All this was, of course, in marked contrast to the impressions received in the Summer of 1919. Nationalism was still the great word, but with quite another content. Whereas I had formerly seen nationalistic fervor stressing likenesses and pulling scattered people together it now seemed equally dogmatic and effective in pushing apart those who had once been combined -- a whole ring of states was pulling out of mother Russia, Bavaria was organizing her own government and Italy, in the name of nationalism, was separating a line of coast from its Slavic hinterland, to mention but a few instances.

Had nationalism become overgrown and over-reached itself, or was it merely for the moment so self-assertive that the creative impulse was submerged into the possessive instinct? To be sure, there was the old type found in Poland gathering together her [page 3] scattered people. [Although] it was constantly explained that the new Poland was a valuable barrier and that the guarantee to defend France from attack extended to her outposts as well, apparently the motives were so inextricably mixed that it was impossible to make a fair statement. Then there was much talk about coal and iron deposits in regard to all the new boundaries. Of course, the formation of Czecho-Slovakia had much about it of the old ideas. Cavour as well as [Masaryk] had sent an army to fight in a cause not his own in order to secure recognition for his newly formed state, but on the other hand there was nothing corresponding to the solemn pride of the young Italians, thirty-five years before, that it Nice had to be given up, it had been relinquished as the results of a plebiscite and not of conquest.

Had the notion of nationalism become institutionalized and dogmatized during thirty-five years, or was it only that now, older and disillusioned, I had been talking too much with other older and disillusioned people? Certainly not all the people with whom I talked had been disillusioned. In Paris one day I had been received by Venizelos, out of respect for my many Greek neighbors; he at least had seemed at ease and sure of his nationalism. He said that, thanks to the glorious traditions of Greece, she need put forth no claims because the people of the Hellenic temper and aspirations were themselves asking to join their fortunes to hers. That sounded like the old talk, and it would have been a great comfort if I had not heard a Bulgarian later [page 4] say that the Bulgarians of Thrace who were to be handed over to Greece could not understand why they had been given no opportunity to decide their own fate, and had become most restive and threatening. Signor Orlando, when he had received our Committee and read our resolutions, had grown eloquent over Italia Irredenta; and in sonorous phrases had set forth Italy's historic claim to the east coast of the Adriatic, her expanding commercial needs, and the military necessity for defensive ports. This was in contrast to the statement of an Albanian official I had met who was much worried over the surrender to Italy of the port of Avalona, which after all was little compared to the fate now awaiting Albania -- a possible division between Greece and Servia.

In yet another contrast I recalled several [Romanians] we had met, who were proud of their Latin speech, so pleased that the Entente was ready to enforce their claims, that there was no Bolshevism within their borders.

Later, in Holland, we were told of the Unitarians, the Calvinists, the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans and Jews long living in Transylvania, who were now all to be brought under the rule of the Greek Church of [Romania]. A distinguished Unitarian clergyman had just been released from prison but was still interned. The sectarian schools and seminaries had been closed that the children and young people might all be instructed by orthodox teachers of the national church. The whole situation was apparently still more complicated where the religious test yet remained [page 5] as part of the national concept and imposed itself under the name of patriotism.

Was that perhaps the clue? Had nationalities become dogmatic, like the Greek Church itself? Had it hardened in thirty-five years? It was as if I had left a group of early Christians and come back into a flourishing medieval church holding great possessions and equipped with well tried methods of propaganda. Had the early spontaneity now changed into an authoritative imposition of power? Certainly one receives the impression everywhere in this moment when nationalism has been so tremendously stressed, that the nation demands worship and devotion for its own sake, as if it existed irrespective of the tests of reality. It demands unqualified obedience, denounces all who differ as heretics, insists that it alone has the truth, and exhibits all the well known signed of dogmatism. It sends out its missionaries, and in Germany at least its state universities were analogous to the theological schools in which propagandists were carefully prepared.

But an utter inability to see the "other side", to apply impartiality the ordinary standards of just dealing, is a well known characteristic of the dogmatic mind, as is a habit of considering ordinary standards inapplicable to a certain line of conduct because the motives inspiring it are above reproach.

[Although] dogmatic nationalism was curiously exaggerated in [page 6] Germany, there was a similar manifestation of it in the dealings of the Entente with their heretics, so to speak. We saw arriving in Rotterdam, from the German colonies in Africa and the Pacific, many families fleeing from their pioneer homes. In the railroad stations there were posted directions for the fugitives coming from Posen, from Alsace, from the Czecho-Slovakia, and from the [Danzig] corridor. They told of prohibition of language, of the forced sale of real estate, of the confiscation of business, of the expulsion from university faculties and the alienation of old friends. There was something about it all that was curiously anachronistic, like the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, of Cromwell's drive through Ireland, of the banishment of the [Huguenots] from France. It was as if nationalism had fallen back into an earlier psychology, exhibiting a blind intolerance which does not properly belong to those later centuries, as if it had become purely creedal. In fact, the very existence of these widespread nationalistic dogmas suggests one of those great historic myths which "large bodies of men are prone to make for themselves when they unite in a common purpose requiring for its consummation the thorough and efficient output of moral energy." It is said that the making and unmaking of these myths always accompanies a period of great moral awakening. Such myths are almost certain to outlast their social utility, and they frequently outlive their originators; as the myth of The Second Coming -- evolved by the Early Christians when only Heaven could contain their hopes -- [page 7] lasted for a thousand years.

Upon my return to the United States last August I seemed to encounter a like change in sentiment here, affording the sharpest possible contrast to what had existed in the late eighties and throughout the nineties.

In that remoted decade the young men's movements in the Church, in Politics, in Labor, in Reform, in Philanthropies as diverse as the Settlement and the Salvation Army, were all characterized by a desire to get back to the people, to be identified with the common lot, each of them magnified the obligation inherent in human relationships as such.

Americanism was then regarded as a great cultural task and we eagerly sought to invent new instruments and methods with which to undertake it. We believed that America could be best understood by the immigrants if we ourselves, Americans, made some sort of a connection with their past history and experiences. We extolled free association and the discussion of common problems as the basis of self-government and constantly instanced the New England town-meeting. We especially urged upon the immigrant that he talk out his preconceived theories and untoward experiences. We believed that widespread discussion might gradually rid the country of the compulsion and inhibitions, the traditions and dogmatisms under which newly arrived immigrants suffered. [page 8] The Settlements especially staked their future upon this identification with the alien and considered his interpretation their main business. We stuck to this at some cost for we believed that especially in times of crisis it was our mission to interpret American institutions to those who were bewildered concerning them. Although this seemed to use to lie in the direct path of public obligation, it was often apparently impossible for the over-wrought community to distinguish between the excitement which the Settlements were trying to allay and the attitude of the Settlement itself.

Yet we are able to point to thousands of instances in which the radical young man who most earnestly arraigned unjust conditions has become the typical prosperous and bourgeois citizen, sometimes so complacent that one is moved to repeat the English bon mot, that if a man is not too liberal when he is young, he becomes too reactionary when he is old.

Yet, at the present moment one finds in the United States the some manifestation of the world-wide tendency toward national dogmatism, the exaltation of blind patriotism above intelligent citizenship. Many of the liberties supposedly inherent in a system of self-government were doubtlessly necessarily cancelled during the war, but it is as if we were now willfully prohibiting their normal and natural restoration.

Is it that the odium and hatred lavished upon the Central Powers during the war has not yet spent itself and that connected [page 8] as it is with an intense nationalistic feeling it is at present being turned upon the alien because he is perforce outside the national life? The emotions aroused by the war are not yet fully discharged into action and do we see in the suspicion of the alien, the mania to hold him responsible for every strike and for every heresy, only a case of "baulked disposition" so familiar to the psychologist.

To ticket bodies of men by a collective name, and to regard the men as we believe the principles deserve to be regarded, is an egregious blunder similar to that made by the dull school boy who obtains "his answer" in apples and pears because he has confused them with dollars and cents. When we confound doctrines with people, it shows that we understand neither one nor the other. Many men, not otherwise stupid, when they consider a doctrine detestable, failing to understand that changes can be made only by enlightening people, feel that they suppress the doctrine itself when they denounce and punish its adherents. They really are as confused as the aforementioned school boy.

The application of a collective judgement in regard to aliens in the United States is particularly stupid. The twenty-seven million people of foreign birth living among us are not only quite as diversified in their political opinions as those of use forming the remaining millions of the population, but they are in fact more highly differentiated from each other by race, tradition, religion and European background, that the rest can be. [page 9]

The task before us is to utilize properly the enthusiastic patriotism engendered by the war by making it more inclusive. The slogan "To make the world safe for democracy", which transcended the nationalistic point of view, secured an unhesitating response and resulted in a great output of self-denying and heroic action, upon and international scale. To Americanize every alien in American might become a compelling slogan but it could be consummated only if our enthusiasm ran in wider channels and after the conception of nationalism has been transformed from a dogma of the eighteenth century to the evolutionary conception of the twentieth century.

Would it not be possible for students of the Social Order such as are gathered here to reassure a panic stricken public? Could our fellow citizens not be told how gradually social changes come about if free opportunity for modification is guaranteed. That quite as the capitalistic system so incompletely superseded the feudal system that great tracts of the feudal regime are still extant not only in European countries but in democratic England itself; doubtless the capitalistic system in turn will yield to a more socialized form of society so gradually and incompletely that the process of change as such will be much more normal than a static condition, a standing still could possibly be.

It is certainly most important that Americans should not make a problem for themselves by placing an unfair emphasis upon differences which are inevitable in a country such as ours; that [page 10] we should not get into the habit of arresting aliens for holding meetings of a type which have been held for many years without disorder and free from espionage. The altered equilibriums and distributions brought about by war opened avenues for a tremendously increased activity along the lines of teaching English and of classes in preparation for securing first and second citizenship papers. These are most praiseworthy, but could not we diversify almost indefinitely our opportunities for mutual effort with the alien population, thus finding a new center and perspective. It is possible, for instance, to collect funds for starving Poland, Armenia, [Romania], indeed for almost any part of underfed Europe in cooperation with bodies of citizens whose affections and interests are centered in those starving countries. As we undertake a mutual task of this sort how "our convulsive inconsistencies, how our antipathies and dreads of each other" would soften down; what tolerance and good humor, what willingness to live and let live would inevitably emerge.

William James was constantly urging us to look at each other sub specie aeternitalis -- perhaps that advice was never so needed as now.