HERETICS

BY GILBERT K. CHESTERTON (1908)

 

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Source

Heretics was copyrighted in 1905 by the John Lane Company. This electronic
text is derived from the twelth (1919) edition published by the John Lane
Company of New York City and printed by the Plimpton Press of Norwood,
Massachusetts. The text carefully follows that of the published edition
(including British spelling).

About the Author


 

VIII. The Mildness of the Yellow Press

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There is a great deal of protest made from one quarter or another nowadays
against the influence of that new journalism which is associated with the
names of Sir Alfred Harmsworth and Mr. Pearson. But almost everybody who
attacks it attacks on the ground that it is very sensational, very violent
and vulgar and startling. I am speaking in no affected contrariety, but in
the simplicity of a genuine personal impression, when I say that this
journalism offends as being not sensational or violent enough. The real
vice is not that it is startling, but that it is quite insupportably tame.
The whole object is to keep carefully along a certain level of the expected
and the commonplace; it may be low, but it must take care also to be flat.
Never by any chance in it is there any of that real plebeian pungency which
can be heard from the ordinary cabman in the ordinary street. We have heard
of a certain standard of decorum which demands that things should be funny
without being vulgar, but the standard of this decorum demands that if
things are vulgar they shall be vulgar without being funny. This journalism
does not merely fail to exaggerate life--it positively underrates it; and
it has to do so because it is intended for the faint and languid recreation
of men whom the fierceness of modern life has fatigued. This press is not
the yellow press at all; it is the drab press. Sir Alfred Harmsworth must
not address to the tired clerk any observation more witty than the tired
clerk might be able to address to Sir Alfred Harmsworth. It must not expose
anybody (anybody who is powerful, that is), it must not offend anybody, it
must not even please anybody, too much. A general vague idea that in spite
of all this, our yellow press is sensational, arises from such external
accidents as large type or lurid headlines. It is quite true that these
editors print everything they possibly can in large capital letters. But
they do this, not because it is startling, but because it is soothing. To
people wholly weary or partly drunk in a dimly lighted train, it is a
simplification and a comfort to have things presented in this vast and
obvious manner. The editors use this gigantic alphabet in dealing with
their readers, for exactly the same reason that parents and governesses use
a similar gigantic alphabet in teaching children to spell. The nursery
authorities do not use an A as big as a horseshoe in order to make the
child jump; on the contrary, they use it to put the child at his ease, to
make things smoother and more evident. Of the same character is the dim and
quiet dame school which Sir Alfred Harmsworth and Mr. Pearson keep. All
their sentiments are spelling-book sentiments--that is to say, they are
sentiments with which the pupil is already respectfully familiar. All their
wildest posters are leaves torn from a copy-book.

Of real sensational journalism, as it exists in France, in Ireland, and in
America, we have no trace in this country. When a journalist in Ireland
wishes to create a thrill, he creates a thrill worth talking about. He
denounces a leading Irish member for corruption, or he charges the whole
police system with a wicked and definite conspiracy. When a French
journalist desires a frisson there is a frisson; he discovers, let us say,
that the President of the Republic has murdered three wives. Our yellow
journalists invent quite as unscrupulously as this; their moral condition
is, as regards careful veracity, about the same. But it is their mental
calibre which happens to be such that they can only invent calm and even
reassuring things. The fictitious version of the massacre of the envoys of
Pekin was mendacious, but it was not interesting, except to those who had
private reasons for terror or sorrow. It was not connected with any bold
and suggestive view of the Chinese situation. It revealed only a vague idea
that nothing could be impressive except a great deal of blood. Real
sensationalism, of which I happen to be very fond, may be either moral or
immoral. But even when it is most immoral, it requires moral courage. For
it is one of the most dangerous things on earth genuinely to surprise
anybody. If you make any sentient creature jump, you render it by no means
improbable that it will jump on you. But the leaders of this movement have
no moral courage or immoral courage; their whole method consists in saying,
with large and elaborate emphasis, the things which everybody else says
casually, and without remembering what they have said. When they brace
themselves up to attack anything, they never reach the point of attacking
anything which is large and real, and would resound with the shock. They do
not attack the army as men do in France, or the judges as men do in
Ireland, or the democracy itself as men did in England a hundred years ago.
They attack something like the War Office--something, that is, which
everybody attacks and nobody bothers to defend, something which is an old
joke in fourth-rate comic papers. just as a man shows he has a weak voice
by straining it to shout, so they show the hopelessly unsensational nature
of their minds when they really try to be sensational. With the whole world
full of big and dubious institutions, with the whole wickedness of
civilization staring them in the face, their idea of being bold and bright
is to attack the War Office. They might as well start a campaign against
the weather, or form a secret society in order to make jokes about
mothers-in-law. Nor is it only from the point of view of particular
amateurs of the sensational such as myself, that it is permissible to say,
in the words of Cowper's Alexander Selkirk, that "their tameness is
shocking to me." The whole modern world is pining for a genuinely
sensational journalism. This has been discovered by that very able and
honest journalist, Mr. Blatchford, who started his campaign against
Christianity, warned on all sides, I believe, that it would ruin his paper,
but who continued from an honourable sense of intellectual responsibility.
He discovered, however, that while he had undoubtedly shocked his readers,
he had also greatly advanced his newspaper. It was bought--first, by all
the people who agreed with him and wanted to read it; and secondly, by all
the people who disagreed with him, and wanted to write him letters. Those
letters were voluminous (I helped, I am glad to say, to swell their
volume), and they were generally inserted with a generous fulness. Thus was
accidentally discovered (like the steam-engine) the great journalistic
maxim--that if an editor can only make people angry enough, they will write
half his newspaper for him for nothing.

Some hold that such papers as these are scarcely the proper objects of so
serious a consideration; but that can scarcely be maintained from a
political or ethical point of view. In this problem of the mildness and
tameness of the Harmsworth mind there is mirrored the outlines of a much
larger problem which is akin to it.

The Harmsworthian journalist begins with a worship of success and violence,
and ends in sheer timidity and mediocrity. But he is not alone in this, nor
does he come by this fate merely because he happens personally to be
stupid. Every man, however brave, who begins by worshipping violence, must
end in mere timidity. Every man, however wise, who begins by worshipping
success, must end in mere mediocrity. This strange and paradoxical fate is
involved, not in the individual, but in the philosophy, in the point of
view. It is not the folly of the man which brings about this necessary
fall; it is his wisdom. The worship of success is the only one out of all
possible worships of which this is true, that its followers are foredoomed
to become slaves and cowards. A man may be a hero for the sake of Mrs.
Gallup's ciphers or for the sake of human sacrifice, but not for the sake
of success. For obviously a man may choose to fail because he loves Mrs.
Gallup or human sacrifice; but he cannot choose to fail because he loves
success. When the test of triumph is men's test of everything, they never
endure long enough to triumph at all. As long as matters are really
hopeful, hope is a mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything
is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all the
Christian virtues, it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.

It was through this fatal paradox in the nature of things that all these
modern adventurers come at last to a sort of tedium and acquiescence. They
desired strength; and to them to desire strength was to admire strength; to
admire strength was simply to admire the statu quo. They thought that he
who wished to be strong ought to respect the strong. They did not realize
the obvious verity that he who wishes to be strong must despise the strong.
They sought to be everything, to have the whole force of the cosmos behind
them, to have an energy that would drive the stars. But they did not
realize the two great facts--first, that in the attempt to be everything
the first and most difficult step is to be something; second, that the
moment a man is something, he is essentially defying everything. The lower
animals, say the men of science, fought their way up with a blind
selfishness. If this be so, the only real moral of it is that our
unselfishness, if it is to triumph, must be equally blind. The mammoth did
not put his head on one side and wonder whether mammoths were a little out
of date. Mammoths were at least as much up to date as that individual
mammoth could make them. The great elk did not say, "Cloven hoofs are very
much worn now." He polished his own weapons for his own use. But in the
reasoning animal there has arisen a more horrible danger, that he may fail
through perceiving his own failure. When modern sociologists talk of the
necessity of accommodating one's self to the trend of the time, they forget
that the trend of the time at its best consists entirely of people who will
not accommodate themselves to anything. At its worst it consists of many
millions of frightened creatures all accommodating themselves to a trend
that is not there. And that is becoming more and more the situation of
modern England. Every man speaks of public opinion, and means by public
opinion, public opinion minus his opinion. Every man makes his contribution
negative under the erroneous impression that the next man's contribution is
positive. Every man surrenders his fancy to a general tone which is itself
a surrender. And over all the heartless and fatuous unity spreads this new
and wearisome and platitudinous press, incapable of invention, incapable of
audacity, capable only of a servility all the more contemptible because it
is not even a servility to the strong. But all who begin with force and
conquest will end in this.

The chief characteristic of the "New journalism" is simply that it is bad
journalism. It is beyond all comparison the most shapeless, careless, and
colourless work done in our day.

I read yesterday a sentence which should be written in letters of gold and
adamant; it is the very motto of the new philosophy of Empire. I found it
(as the reader has already eagerly guessed) in Pearson's Magazine, while I
was communing (soul to soul) with Mr. C. Arthur Pearson, whose first and
suppressed name I am afraid is Chilperic. It occurred in an article on the
American Presidential Election. This is the sentence, and every one should
read it carefully, and roll it on the tongue, till all the honey be tasted.

"A little sound common sense often goes further with an audience of
American working-men than much high-flown argument. A speaker who, as he
brought forward his points, hammered nails into a board, won hundreds of
votes for his side at the last Presidential Election."

I do not wish to soil this perfect thing with comment; the words of Mercury
are harsh after the songs of Apollo. But just think for a moment of the
mind, the strange inscrutable mind, of the man who wrote that, of the
editor who approved it, of the people who are probably impressed by it, of
the incredible American working-man, of whom, for all I know, it may be
true. Think what their notion of "common sense" must be! It is delightful
to realize that you and I are now able to win thousands of votes should we
ever be engaged in a Presidential Election, by doing something of this
kind. For I suppose the nails and the board are not essential to the
exhibition of "common sense;" there may be variations. We may read--

"A little common sense impresses American working-men more than high-flown
argument. A speaker who, as he made his points, pulled buttons off his
waistcoat, won thousands of votes for his side." Or, "Sound common sense
tells better in America than high-flown argument. Thus Senator Budge, who
threw his false teeth in the air every time he made an epigram, won the
solid approval of American working-men." Or again, "The sound common sense
of a gentleman from Earlswood, who stuck straws in his hair during the
progress of his speech, assured the victory of Mr. Roosevelt."

There are many other elements in this article on which I should love to
linger. But the matter which I wish to point out is that in that sentence
is perfectly revealed the whole truth of what our Chamberlainites,
hustlers, bustlers, Empire-builders, and strong, silent men, really mean by
"commonsense." They mean knocking, with deafening noise and dramatic
effect, meaningless bits of iron into a useless bit of wood. A man goes on
to an American platform and behaves like a mountebank fool with a board and
a hammer; well, I do not blame him; I might even admire him. He may be a
dashing and quite decent strategist. He may be a fine romantic actor, like
Burke flinging the dagger on the floor. He may even (for all I know) be a
sublime mystic, profoundly impressed with the ancient meaning of the divine
trade of the Carpenter, and offering to the people a parable in the form of
a ceremony. All I wish to indicate is the abyss of mental confusion in
which such wild ritualism can be called "sound common sense." And it is in
that abyss of mental confusion, and in that alone, that the new Imperialism
lives and moves and has its being. The whole glory and greatness of Mr.
Chamberlain consists in this: that if a man hits the right nail on the head
nobody cares where he hits it to or what it does. They care about the noise
of the hammer, not about the silent drip of the nail. Before and throughout
the African war, Mr. Chamberlain was always knocking in nails, with ringing
decisiveness. But when we ask, "But what have these nails held together?
Where is your carpentry? Where are your contented Outlanders? Where is your
free South Africa? Where is your British prestige? What have your nails
done?" then what answer is there? We must go back (with an affectionate
sigh) to our Pearson for the answer to the question of what the nails have
done: "The speaker who hammered nails into a board won thousands of votes."

Now the whole of this passage is admirably characteristic of the new
journalism which Mr. Pearson represents, the new journalism which has just
purchased the Standard. To take one instance out of hundreds, the
incomparable man with the board and nails is described in the Pearson's
article as calling out (as he smote the symbolic nail), "Lie number one.
Nailed to the Mast! Nailed to the Mast!" In the whole office there was
apparently no compositor or office-boy to point out that we speak of lies
being nailed to the counter, and not to the mast. Nobody in the office knew
that Pearson's Magazine was falling into a stale Irish bull, which must be
as old as St. Patrick. This is the real and essential tragedy of the sale
of the Standard. It is not merely that journalism is victorious over
literature. It is that bad journalism is victorious over good journalism.

It is not that one article which we consider costly and beautiful is being
ousted by another kind of article which we consider common or unclean. It
is that of the same article a worse quality is preferred to a better. If
you like popular journalism (as I do), you will know that Pearson's
Magazine is poor and weak popular journalism. You will know it as certainly
as you know bad butter. You will know as certainly that it is poor popular
journalism as you know that the Strand, in the great days of Sherlock
Holmes, was good popular journalism. Mr. Pearson has been a monument of
this enormous banality. About everything he says and does there is
something infinitely weak-minded. He clamours for home trades and employs
foreign ones to print his paper. When this glaring fact is pointed out, he
does not say that the thing was an oversight, like a sane man. He cuts it
off with scissors, like a child of three. His very cunning is infantile.
And like a child of three, he does not cut it quite off. In all human
records I doubt if there is such an example of a profound simplicity in
deception. This is the sort of intelligence which now sits in the seat of
the sane and honourable old Tory journalism. If it were really the triumph
of the tropical exuberance of the Yankee press, it would be vulgar, but
still tropical. But it is not. We are delivered over to the bramble, and
from the meanest of the shrubs comes the fire upon the cedars of Lebanon.

The only question now is how much longer the fiction will endure that
journalists of this order represent public opinion. It may be doubted
whether any honest and serious Tariff Reformer would for a moment maintain
that there was any majority for Tariff Reform in the country comparable to
the ludicrous preponderance which money has given it among the great
dailies. The only inference is that for purposes of real public opinion the
press is now a mere plutocratic oligarchy. Doubtless the public buys the
wares of these men, for one reason or another. But there is no more reason
to suppose that the public admires theiz p@éL‰?:40¯6,0‚:$2φuâ8€K" Dø8"ø˜"˜ Àà"øx8$ @ x8$ø Œù L
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creed of Mr. Blackwell. If these men are merely tradesmen, there is nothing
to say except that there are plenty like them in the Battersea Park Road,
and many much better. But if they make any sort of attempt to be
politicians, we can only point out to them that they are not as yet even
good journalists.