As I Please
Tribune, 8 December 1944
past I have been an industrious collector of pamphlets, and a fairly steady reader of
political literature of all kinds. The thing that strikes me more and more and it
strikes a lot of other people, too is the extraordinary viciousness and dishonesty
of political controversy in our time. I dont mean merely that controversies are
acrimonious. They ought to be that when they are on serious subjects. I mean that almost
nobody seems to feel that an opponent deserves a fair hearing or that the objective truth
matters as long as you can score a neat debating point. When I look through my collection
of pamphlets Conservative,
Communist, Catholic, Trotskyist, Pacifist, Anarchist or what-have-you
it seems to me that almost all of them have the same mental atmosphere, though the
points of emphasis vary. Nobody is searching for the truth, everybody is putting forward a
case with complete disregard for fairness or accuracy, and the most plainly
obvious facts can be ignored by those who dont want to see them. The same propaganda
tricks are to be found almost everywhere. It would take many pages of this paper merely to
classify them, but here I draw attention to one very widespread controversial habit
disregard of an opponents motives. The key-word here is objectively.
We are told that it is only peoples objective actions that
matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing
the war effort, are objectively aiding the Nazis; and therefore the
fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have
been guilty of saying this myself more than once. The same argument is applied to
Trotskyism. Trotskyists are often credited, at any rate by Communists, with being active
and conscious agents of Hitler;
but when you point out the many and obvious reasons why this is unlikely to be true, the
objectively line of talk is brought forward again. To criticize the Soviet
Union helps Hitler: therefore Trotskyism is Fascism. And when this has been
established, the accusation of conscious treachery is usually repeated.
This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with
it. If you disregard peoples motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their
actions. For there are occasions when even the most misguided person can see the results
of what he is doing. Here is a crude but quite possible illustration. A pacifist is
working in some job which gives him access to important military information, and is
approached by a German secret agent. In those circumstances his subjective feelings do
make a difference. If he is subjectively pro-Nazi he will sell his country, and if he
isnt, he wont. And situations essentially similar though less dramatic are
In my opinion a few pacifists are inwardly pro-Nazi, and
extremist left-wing parties will inevitably contain Fascist spies. The important thing is
to discover which individuals are honest and which are not, and the usual blanket
accusation merely makes this more difficult. The atmosphere of hatred in which controversy
is conducted blinds people to considerations of this kind. To admit that an opponent might
be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable. It is more immediately
satisfying to shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out what he is
really like. It is this habit of mind, among other things, that has made political
prediction in our time so remarkably unsuccessful.
The following leaflet (printed) was passed to an acquaintance of mine in a pub:
LONG LIVE THE IRISH!
The first American soldier to kill a Jap was Mike Murphy.
The first American pilot to sink a Jap battleship was Colin Kelly.
The first American family to lose five sons in one action and have a naval vessel named
after them were the Sullivans.
The first American to shoot a Jap plane was Dutch OHara.
The first coastguardsman to spot a German spy was John Conlan.
The first American soldier to be decorated by the President was Pat Powers.
The first American admiral to be killed leading his ship into battle was Dan Callahan.
The first American son-of-a-bitch to get four new tyres from the Ration Board was Abie
The origin of this thing might just possibly be Irish, but it is much likelier to be
American. There is nothing to indicate where it was printed, but it probably comes from
the printing-shop of some American organization in this country. If any further manifestos
of the same kind turn up, I shall be interested to hear of them.
This number of Tribune includes a long letter from Mr Martin Walter, Controller
of the British Institute of Fiction-Writing Science Ltd, in which he complains that I have
traduced him. He says (a) that he did not claim to have reduced fiction-writing to an
exact science, (b) that numbers of successful writers have been produced by his
teaching methods, and (c) he asks whether Tribune accepts advertisements that it
believes to be fraudulent. With regard to (a): It is claimed by this Institute that
these problems (of fiction-writing) have been solved by Martin Walter, who, convinced of
the truth of the hypothesis that every art is a science at heart, analyzed over
5,000 stories and eventually evolved the Plot Formula according to which all his own
stories and those of his students throughout the world are constructed. I had
established that the nature of the "plot" is strictly scientific.
Statements of this type are scattered throughout Mr Walters booklets and
advertisements. If this is not a claim to have reduced fiction-writing to an exact
science, what the devil is it?
With regard to (b): Who are these successful writers whom Mr
Walter has launched upon the world? Let us hear their names, and the names of their
published works, and then we shall know where we are.
With regard to (c): A periodical ought not to accept
advertisements which have the appearance of being fraudulent, but it cannot sift
everything beforehand. What is to be done, for instance, about publishers
advertisements, in which it is invariably claimed that every single book named is of the
highest possible value? What is most important in this connexion is that a periodical
should not let its editorial columns be influenced by its advertisements. Tribune
has been very careful not to do that it has not done it in the case of Mr Walter
himself, for instance.
It may interest Mr Walter to know that I should never have
referred to him if he had not accompanied the advertisement he inserted some time ago with
some free copies of his booklets (including the Plot Formula), and the suggestion that I
might like to mention them in my column. It was this that drew my attention to him. Now I
have given him his mention, and he does not seem to like it.
Answer to last weeks problem. The three errors are:
(a) The who should be whom.
(b) Timon was buried below the high-tide mark. The sea would
cover him twice a day, not once, as there are always two high tides within the twenty-four
(c) It wouldnt cover him at all, as there is no perceptible
tide in the Mediterranean.