What is the Greatest Menace to Twentieth Century Progress?, February 14, 1901

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MISS JANE ADDAMS: You may remember that when Maggie Tulliver was very hard pressed by Stephen Guest, and when she didn't know in the least how to answer his arguments, she at last cried out: "If the past can't guide us, what can guide us?" And so, during the last two weeks, when I have tried very hard to think what was the greatest menace of this new century's progress, the more I tried to think, the more I discovered that I didn't know, and I finally was reduced to this: "If the past century can't guide us, what can [page 2] guide us?" Possibly, by a very quick review, we may be able to deduce some prognostications for the future, although I think the older one grows the more cautious one is, at any rate about dealing in futures. In the dawn of the Nineteenth Century, everybody was anticipating a new century of human fellowship. We thought, or, rather, they thought, perhaps -- I won't put myself back so far as the dawn, although I do belong pretty well back -- they thought that because they had formulated the doctrine of human rights, because they had expressed the hope of human solidarity, and, most of all, because they had gotten up a political apparatus for democratic life, that all human ills were cured. Now, certainly, the men who formulated these hopes, if they were living at this moment, would be disappointed in the outcome of democracy. You remember that Mr. Lowell, in one of his English Speeches, said that the great achievement of American democracy had been to put the common man upon his feet so that he stood on the eastern shore and looked across to the old world, with its highly organized society, and said, with no deference in his voice, "I am as good as you are." But Mr. Lowell said that the achievement of English democracy has been to make the aristocrat stand upon his feet and take the commoner by the hand and say, "You are as good as I am." Now let us imagine that at the beginning of this century America stood on the eastern shore, that she looked across the Atlantic, and that she shouted out, with all the crudeness, and yet with all the fervor of youth, "I am as good as you are," and then let us say that by the end of the century her face has been turned around, and, instead of standing on the eastern shore, she is standing on the western shore, and that she is looking, not across the Atlantic, but across the Pacific, and the words that the people in Asia and in the islands across the sea are waiting for her to say are these, "You are as good as we are." In the very last days of the century she changed her cry to England into "You are as bad as we are," but she cannot quite bring herself now to say to Asia, "You are as good as we are." Something has happened to her democracy, something ungracious, something unexpected holds her silent, at least for the moment. Some of us have faith that in her mature age she will be able to shout the worthier cry, as in her youth she was able to shout the cruder cry, but certainly she will not say it now. Now, what came to pass during the hundred years? If I were to sum up in a sentence what I considered the greatest possible menace, I should say lack of faith in the people, lack of faith in all kinds of people, lack of faith that the people contain in themselves a dynamic power which only needs to be used in order to make the world better. Why is it that the American nation rises up at this tremendous patriotism [page 3] over the question of expansion? It is because it gives the people an outlet for their beliefs, gives them a consciousness of nationality, the sense of being in the sweep of the world’s activities. And why is it the people are so slow to rouse on the subject of social reform? It is because social reforms are handed out to them as something for "the people," presupposing that they are paralyzed morally and have no share in pushing forward social reforms for themselves. We are having, as a distinguished Englishman said a little while ago, "government for the people, but we are not yet having government by the people." We do not yet believe that each soul has within itself a tremendous power, which, because we distrust it, has not been awakened, and our democracy has not succeeded because it has not been thoroughly tried. If we distrust our own people, of course we distrust other peoples; in neither case have we succeeded in finding the thing which gives them dignity and recognition. A certain set of human energies combined to formulate democratic dogmas, but we do not believe that certain human minds are also able to discover democratic dynamics. Somehow, the human mind is not able to free the dynamics; we are not able to find the enthusiasm we need in the people. Personally, I believe this change came on gradually. I think we allowed ourselves to say a good many harsh things about the foreigners within our borders, sometimes, I regret to say, we say them under the head of philanthropy, often in order to arouse pity, that we might help them, but every time that philanthropy allows itself to belittle the human individual in order to help him, it lowers human nature and pushes it down instead of arousing it to its best. There is a loss of social energy throughout our land, the causes of which we have not yet analyzed, and there are no groups of men studying how to free this social energy, such as the end of the last century produced -- men who strove to formulate a faith in it to provide channels through which this social energy might move. Then, we have learned to talk about evolution in a solemn way, as if evolution was a force, instead of being merely a process, as if it could take the place of social energy instead of only teaching us by what method social energy might be directed, what power it has behind it, and the fact that it falls in line with universal laws. We have a way of believing that if any great thing is to be done it must be done by means of a commercial activity, that moral energy some way is very good in its way as long as applied to individuals and families, but it is not a great force nor a national one. The sociologists talk about the plus forces that lie outside the human will and energy, and do not urge us to free the forces within ourselves. We will never learn to interpret alien peoples, we will never be able to break [page 4] through the outside differences, we will never develop in the real democratic direction, so long as we distrust human energy and the power of human thought.

For the sake of its own development, democracy needs to get out of national lines. It seems at this moment to be struggling and drowning in a narrow nationalism. No one who has large hopes for his nation would think that it wanted to be confined always within its own shores; democracy could get an enormous impulse by realizing that it, too, had its place in the world’s history, and perhaps that is the test which is coming to us now. We are going out into the world’s activities. Of course we are. The question only is, how shall we go out? Shall we go out with the narrow notion of national life, which would claim democracy for itself alone, or shall we be really and truly inter-national in that we throw our energy into other lands, mingling in an absolute equality and only knowing that progress belongs to us altogether?

De Tocqueville, at the beginning of the century, when trying to sum up some of the difficulties which lay ahead of democracy, said that doubtless the great stumbling block would be the belief of the people that a mass [judgment] was irresistible; that if the majority said a thing was true that it became true at that moment. Now, we haven’t any De Tocqueville at the present moment patiently and carefully studying our democracy. Perhaps we don't need a philosopher so much as we need a physician. But, at any rate, we need to be told that this delusion has taken possession of the nation -- not that the mass was irresistible, but that a certain type of civilization is irresistible, that everything must fall before it, that democracy is a mere trifle, that a democratic government is nothing compared with the great gift of civilization which we hold in our hands. Now, commerce is democratic. In spite of all its faults, it is willing to minister to the needs of anybody who will buy its wares, and certainly the highest conceptions of the human mind, if we take them seriously and merely follow the democracy of commerce, can be received throughout the world.

But if we lose the belief that it is the business of faith and progress to unlock social energy, that it is its mission to give a meaning and dignity to the life of the humblest man, of course we have very little to contribute to the world, and it seems to me it doesn't take much difference whether we are in China or not. The thing to get into China for is to bring, not civilization, but the causes and the ideas which lie back of civilization, back of progress itself. So I should say that lack of faith in the people was what was the matter with not only our domestic politics and our expansion abroad, but I should add, if there were not so many ministers here, with our religion as well.

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