Read THE UNACCUSTOMED EARS OF EUROPE of Humanly Speaking, free online book, by Samuel McChord Crothers, on ReadCentral.com.

I

When, as a child, I learned the Westminster Catechism by heart I found the Ten Commandments easy to remember. There was something straightforward in these prohibitions. Once started in the right direction one could hardly stray from the path. But I stumbled over the question, in regard to certain Commandments, “What are the reasons annexed?”

That a commandment should be committed to memory seemed just. I was prepared to submit to the severest tests of verbal accuracy. But that there should be “reasons annexed,” and that these also should be remembered, seemed to my youthful understanding a grievance. It made the path of the obedient hard. To this day there is a haziness about the “reasons” that contrasts with the sharp outlines of the commandments.

I fancy that news-gatherers have the same experience. They are diligent in collecting items of news and reporting them to the world, but it is a real hardship to them to have to give any rational account of these bits of fact. They tell what is done in different parts of the world, but they forget to mention “the moving why they did it.” The consequence is that, in this age of instantaneous communication, we know what is going on in other countries, but it seems very irrational. The rational elements have been lost in the process of transmission.

There has, for example, been no lack of news cabled across the Atlantic in regard to the nominations for President of the United States. The European reader is made aware that a great deal of strong feeling has been evoked, and strong language used. When a picturesque term of reproach has been hurled by one candidate at another it is promptly reported to a waiting world. But the “reasons annexed” are calmly ignored. The consequence is that the reader is confirmed in his exaggerated idea of the nervous irritability of the American people. There seems to be a periodicity in their seizures. At intervals of four years they indulge in an orgy of mutual recrimination, and then suddenly return to their normal state of money-getting. It is all very unaccountable. Doubtless the most charitable explanation is the climate.

It was after giving prominence to an unusually vivid bit of political vituperation that a conservative London newspaper remarked, “All this is characteristically American, but it shocks the unaccustomed ears of Europe.”

As I read the rebuke I felt positively ashamed of my country and its untutored ways. I pictured Europe as a dignified lady of mature years listening to the screams issuing from her neighbor’s nursery. She had not been used to hearing naughty words called out in such a loud tone of voice. Instead of discussing their grievances calmly, they were actually calling one another names.

It was therefore with a feeling of chastened humility that I turned to the columns devoted to the more decorous doings of Europe. Here I should find examples worthy of consideration. They are drawn from the homes of ancient civility. Would that our rude politicians might be brought under these refining influences and learn how to behave!

But alas! When we drop in upon our neighbors, unannounced, things are sometimes not so tidy as they are on the days “at home.” The hostess is flustered and evidently has troubles of her own. So, as ill-luck would have it, it is with Dame Europe’s household. The visitor from across the Atlantic is surprised at the obstreperousness of the more vigorous members of the family. Evidently a great many interesting things are going on, but the standard of deportment is not high.

While the unaccustomed ears of Europe were shocked at the shrill cries from the rival conventions at Chicago and Baltimore, there was equal turbulence in the Italian Parliament at Rome. There were shouts and catcalls and every sign of uncontrollable violence. What are the “reasons annexed” to all this uproar? I do not know. In Budapest such unparliamentary expressions as “swine,” “liar,” “thief,” and “assassin” were freely used in debate. An honorable member who had been expelled for the use of too strong language, returned to “shoot up” the House. The chairman, after dodging three shots, declared that he must positively insist on better order.

In the German Reichstag a member threatens the Kaiser with the fate of Charles the First, if he does not speedily mend his ways. He suggests as a fit Imperial residence the castle where the Mad King of Bavaria was allowed to exercise his erratic energies without injury to the commonweal. At the mention of Charles the First the chamber was in an uproar, and amid a tumult of angry voices the session was brought to a close.

In Russia, unseemly clamor is kept from the carefully guarded ears of the Czar. There art conspires with nature to produce peace. We read of the Czar’s recent visit to his ancient capital: “The police during the previous night made three thousand arrests. The Czar and Czarina drove through the city amid the ringing of bells, and with banners flying.”

On reading this item the American reader plucks up heart. If, during the Chicago convention, the police had made three thousand arrests the sessions might have been as quiet as those of the Duma.

Even the proceedings of the British House of Commons are disappointing to the pilgrim in search of decorum. The Mother of Parliaments has trouble with her unruly brood.

We enter the sacred precincts as a Member rises to a point of order.

“I desire to ask your ruling, Mr. Speaker, as to whether the honorable gentleman is entitled to allude to Members of the House as miscreants.”

The Speaker: “I do not think the term ‘miscreant’ is a proper Parliamentary expression.”

This is very elementary teaching, but it appears that Mr. Speaker is not infrequently compelled to repeat his lesson. It is “line upon line and precept upon precept.”

The records of the doings of the House contain episodes which would be considered exciting in Arizona. We read: “For five minutes the Honorable George Lansbury defied the Speaker, insulted the Prime Minister, and scorned the House of Commons. He raved in an ecstasy of passion; challenging, taunting, and defying.” The trouble began with a statement of Mr. Asquith’s. “Then up jumped Mr. Lansbury, his face contorted with passion, and his powerful rasping voice dominating the whole House. Shouting and waving his arms, he approached the Government Front Bench with a curious crouching gait, like a boxer leaving his corner in the ring. One or two Liberals on the bench behind Mr. Asquith half rose, but the Prime Minister sat stolidly gazing above the heads of the opposition, his arms folded, and his lips pursed. Mr. Lansbury had worked himself up into a state of frenzy and, facing the Prime Minister, he shouted, ’You are beneath my contempt! Call yourself a gentleman! You ought to be driven from public life.’”

I cannot remember any scene like this in Disraeli’s novels. The House of Commons used to be called the best club in Europe. But that, says the Conservative critic, was before the members were paid.

II

But certain changes, like the increased cost of living, are going on everywhere. The fact seems to be that all over the civilized world there is a noticeable falling-off in good manners in public discussion. It is useless for one country to point the finger of scorn at another, or to assume an air of injured politeness. It is more conducive to good understanding to join in a general confession of sin. We are all miserable offenders, and there is little to choose between us. The conventionalities which bind society together are like the patent glue we see advertised on the streets. A plate has been broken and then joined together. The strength of the adhesive substance is shown by the way it holds up a stone of considerable weight attached to it. The plate thus mended holds together admirably till it is put in hot water.

I have no doubt but that a conservative Chinese gentleman would tell you that since the Republic came in there has been a sad falling-off in the observance of the rules of propriety as laid down by Confucius. The Conservative newspapers of England bewail the fact that there has been a lamentable change since the present Government came in. The arch offender is “that political Mahdi, Lloyd George, whose false prophecies have made deluded dervishes of hosts of British workmen, and who has corrupted the manners of Parliament itself.”

This wicked Mahdi, by his appeals to the passions of the populace, has destroyed the old English reverence for Law.

I do not know what may be the cause, but the American visitor does notice that the English attitude towards the laws of the realm is not so devout as he had been led to expect. We have from our earliest youth been taught to believe that the law-abidingness of the Englishman was innate and impeccable. It was not that, like the good man of whom the Psalmist speaks, he meditated on the law day and night. He didn’t need to. Decent respect for the law was in his blood. He simply could not help conforming to it.

And this impression is confirmed by the things which the tourist goes to see. The stately mansions embowered in green and guarded by immemorial oaks are accepted as symbolic of an ordered life. The multitudinous rooks suggest security which comes from triumphant legality. No irresponsible person shoots them. When one enters a cathedral close he feels that he is in a land that frowns on the crudity of change. Here everything is a “thousand years the same.” And how decent is the demeanor of a verger!

When the pilgrim from Kansas arrives at an ancient English inn he feels that he must be on his good behavior. Boots in his green apron is a lesson to him. He is not like a Western hotel bell-boy on the way to becoming something else. He knows his place. Everybody, he imagines, in this country knows his place, and there is no unseemly crowding and pushing. And what stronger proof can there be that this is a land where law is reverenced than the demeanor of a London policeman. There is no truculence about him, no show of physical force. He is so mild-eyed and soft of speech that one feels that he has been shielded from rude contact with the world. He represents the Law in a land where law is sacred. He is instinctively obeyed. He has but to wave his hand and traffic stops.

When the traveler is told that in the vicinity of the House of Commons traffic is stopped to allow a Member to cross the street, his admiration increases. Fancy a Congressman being treated with such respect! But the argument which, on the whole, makes the deepest impression is the deferential manners of the tradesmen with their habit of saying, “Thank you,” apropos of nothing at all. It seems an indication of perpetual gratitude over the fact that things are as they are.

But when one comes to listen to the talk of the day one is surprised to find a surprising lack of docility. I doubt whether the Englishman has the veneration for the abstract idea of Law which is common among Americans. Indeed, he is accustomed to treat most abstractions with scant courtesy. There is nothing quite corresponding to the average American’s feeling about a decision of the Supreme Court. The Law has spoken, let all the land keep silent. It seems like treason to criticize it, like anarchy to defy it.

Tennyson’s words about “reverence for the laws ourselves have made” needs to be interpreted by English history. It is a peculiar kind of reverence and has many limitations. A good deal depends on what is meant by “ourselves.” An act of Parliament does not at once become an object of reverence by the members of the opposition party. It was not, they feel, made by them, it was made by a Government which was violently opposed to them and which was bent on ruining the country.

It is only after a sufficient time has elapsed to allow for the partisan origin to be forgotten, and for it to become assimilated to the habits of thought and manner of life of the people that it is deeply respected. The English reverence is not for statute law, but for the common law which is the slow accretion of ages. A new enactment is treated like the new boy at school. He must submit to a period of severe hazing before he is given a place of any honor.

To the American when an act of Congress has been declared constitutional, a decent respect for the opinion of mankind seems to suggest that verbal criticism should cease. The council of perfection is that the law should be obeyed till such time as it can be repealed or explained away. If it should become a dead letter, propriety would demand that no evil should be spoken of it. Since the days of Andrew Jackson the word “nullification” has had an ugly and dangerous sound.

But to the Englishman this attitude seems somewhat superstitious. The period of opposition to a measure is not ended when it has passed Parliament and received the royal assent. The question is whether it will receive the assent of the people. Can it get itself obeyed? If it can, then its future is assured for many generations. But it must pass through an exciting period of probation.

If it is a matter that arouses much feeling the British way is for some one to disobey and take the consequences. Passive resistance with such active measures as may make the life of the enforcers of the law a burden to them is a recognized method of political and religious propagandism.

In periods when the national life has run most swiftly this kind of resistance to what has been considered the tyranny of lawmakers has always been notable. Emerson’s “the chambers of the great are jails” was literally true of the England of the seventeenth century. Every one who made any pretension to moral leadership was intent on going to jail in behalf of some principle or another.

John Bunyan goes to jail rather than attend the parish church, George Fox goes to jail rather than take off his hat in the presence of the magistrate. Why should he do so when there was no Scripture for it? When it was said that the Scripture had nothing to say about hats, he was ready with his triumphant reference to Daniel III, 21, where it is said that the three Hebrew children wore “their coats, their hosen, their hats and their other garments” in the fiery furnace. If Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego wore their hats before Nebuchadnezzar and kept them on even in the fiery furnace, why should a free-born Englishman take his hat off in the presence of a petty Justice of the Peace? Fervent Fifth Monarchy men were willing to die rather than acknowledge any king but King Jesus who was about to come to reign. Non-juring bishops were willing to go to jail rather than submit to the judgment of Parliament as to who should be king in England. Puritans and Covenanters of the more logical sort refused to accept toleration unless it were offered on their own terms. They had been a “persecuted remnant” and they proposed to remain such or know the reason why.

Beneath his crust of conformity the Briton has an admiration for these recalcitrant individuals who will neither bow the knee to Baal nor to his betters. He likes a man who is a law unto himself. Though he has little enthusiasm for the abstract “rights of man,” he is a great believer in “the liberty of prophesying.” The prophet is not without honor, even while he is being stoned.

Just at this time things are moving almost as rapidly as they did in the seventeenth century. There is the same clash of opinion and violence of party spirit. All sorts of non-conformities struggle for a hearing. One is reminded of that most stirring period, which is so delightful to read about, and which must have been so trying for quiet people to live through.

A host of earnest and wide-awake persons are engaged in the task of doing what they are told not to do. Their enthusiasm takes the form of resistance to some statute made or proposed.

The conscientious women who throw stones through shop windows, and lay violent hands on cabinet ministers, do so, avowedly, to bring certain laws into disrepute. They go on hunger-strikes, not in order to be released from prison, but in order to be treated as political prisoners. They insist that their methods should be recognized as acts of legitimate warfare. They may be extreme in their actions, but they are not alone in their theory.

The Insurance Law, by which all workers whose wages are below a certain sum are compulsorily insured against sickness and the losses that follow it, is just going into effect. Its provisions are necessarily complicated, and its administration must at first be difficult. The Insurance-Law Resisters are organized to nullify the act. Its enormities are held up before all eyes, and it is flouted in every possible way. According to this law, a lady is compelled to pay three-pence a week toward the insurance fund for each servant in her employ. Will she pay that three-pence? No! Though twenty acts of Parliament should declare that it must be done, she will resist. As for keeping accounts, and putting stamps in a book, she will do nothing of the kind. What is it about a stamp act that arouses such fierceness of resistance?

High-born ladies declare that they would rather go to jail than obey such a law. At a meeting at Albert Hall the Resisters were addressed by a duchess who was “supported by a man-servant.” What can a mere Act of Parliament do when confronted by such a combination as that? Passive resistance takes on heroic proportions when a duchess and a man-servant confront the Law with haughty immobility.

In the mean time, Mr. Tom Mann goes to jail, amid the applause of organized labor, for advising the British soldier not to obey orders when he is commanded to fire on British working-men.

Mr. Tom Mann is a labor agitator, while Mr. Bonar Law is the leader of the Conservative party; but when it comes to legislation which he does not like, Mr. Bonar Law’s language is fully as incendiary. He is not content with opposing the Irish Home Rule Bill: he gives notice that when it has become a law the opposition will be continued in a more serious form. The passage of the bill, he declares, will be the signal for civil war. Ulster will fight. Parliament may pass the Home Rule Bill, but when it does so its troubles will have just begun. Where will it find the troops to coerce the province?

One of the most distinguished Unionist Members of Parliament, addressing a great meeting at Belfast says, “You are sometimes asked whether you propose to resist the English army? I reply that even if this Government had the wickedness (which, on the whole, I believe), it is wholly lacking in the nerve required to give an order which in my deliberate judgment would shatter for years the civilization of these islands.” If the Government does not have the nerve to employ its troops, “It will be for the moon-lighters and the cattle-maimers to conquer Ulster themselves, and it will be for you to show whether you are worse men, or your enemies better men, than the forefathers of you both. But I note with satisfaction that you are preparing yourselves by the practice of exercises, and by the submission to discipline, for the struggle which is not unlikely to test your determination. The Nationalists are determined to rule you. You are determined not to be ruled. A collision of wills so sharp may well defy the resources of a peaceful solution.... On this we are agreed, that the crisis has called into existence one of those supreme issues of conscience amid which the ordinary landmarks of permissible resistance to technical law are submerged.”

When one goes to the Church to escape from these sharp antagonisms, he is confronted with huge placards giving notice of meetings to protest against “The Robbery of God.” The robber in this case is the Government, which proposes to disendow, as well as disestablish, the Church in Wales. Noble lords denounce the outrage. Mr. Lloyd George replies by reminding their lordships that their landed estates were, before the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, Church property. If they wish to make restitution of the spoil which their ancestors took, well and good. But let them not talk about the robbery of God, while their hands are “dripping with the fat of sacrilege.”

The retort is effective, but it does not make Mr. Lloyd George beloved by the people to whom it is addressed. Twitting on facts has always been considered unmannerly.

III

When we hear the acrimonious discussions and the threats of violence, it is well to consider the reason for it all. I think the reason is one that is not discreditable to those concerned. These are not ordinary times, and they are not to be judged by ordinary standards. England is at the present time passing through a revolution, the issues of which are still in doubt. Revolutionary passions have been liberated by the rapid course of events. “Every battle of the warrior is with confused noise.” The confused noise may be disagreeable to persons of sensitive nerves, but it is a part of the situation.

When we consider the nature of the changes that have been made in the last few years, and the magnitude of those which are proposed, we do not wonder at the tone of exasperation which is common to all parties.

It is seldom that a constitutional change, like that which deprived the House of Lords of powers exercised for a thousand years, has been made without an appeal to arms. But there was no civil war. Perhaps the old fashion of sturdy blows would have been less trying to the temper.

A revolution is at the best an unmannerly proceeding. It cannot be carried on politely, because it involves not so much a change of ideas and methods as a change of masters. A change of ideas may be discussed in an amiable and orderly way. The honorable gentlemen who have the responsibility for the decision are respectfully asked to revise their opinions in the light of new evidence which, by their leave, will be presented.

But a change of masters cannot be managed so inoffensively. The honorable gentlemen are not asked to revise their opinions. They are told that their opinions are no longer important. The matter is severely personal. The statement is not, “We do not believe in your ideas”; it is, “We do not believe in you.”

When political discussion takes this turn, then there is an end to the amenities suited to a more quiet time. It is no longer a question as to which is the better cause, but as to which is the better man.

Mr. Asquith, who has retained in this revolutionary period the manners of the old school, recently said in his reply to a delegation of his opponents, “When people are on opposite sides of a chasm they may be courteous to one another, and regret the impossibility of their shaking hands, or doing more than wave a courteous gesture across so wide a space.”

These are the words of a gentleman in politics, and express a beautiful ideal. But they hardly describe the present situation. As to waving a courteous salutation to the people on the other side, that depends on who the people are. If you know them and have been long familiar with their good qualities, the courteous salutation is natural. They are, as you know, much better than their opinions.

But it is different when they are people whom you do not know, and with whom you have nothing in common. You suspect their motives, and feel a contempt for their abilities. They are not of your set. The word “gentleman” is derived from the word gens. People of the same gens learn to treat each other in a considerate way. Even when they differ they remember what is due to gentle blood and gentle training.

It is quite evident that the challenge of the new democracy to the old ruling classes has everywhere produced exasperation. It is no longer easy to wave courteous salutations across the chasms which divide parties. Political discussion takes a rude turn. It is no longer possible to preserve the proprieties. We may expect the minor moralities to suffer while the major moralities are being determined by hard knocks.

Good manners depend on the tacit understanding of all parties as to their relations to one another. Nothing can be more brutal than for one to claim superiority, or more rude than for another to dispute the claim. Such differences of station should, if they exist, be taken for granted.

Relations which were established by force may, after a time, be made so beautiful that their origin is forgotten. There must be no display of unnecessary force. The battle having been decided, victor and vanquished change parts. It pleases the conqueror to sign himself, “Your obedient servant,” and to inquire whether certain terms would be agreeable. Of course they would be agreeable. So says the disarmed man looking upward to his late foe, now become his protector.

And the conqueror with grave good will takes up the burden which Providence has imposed upon him. Is not the motto of the true knight, Ich dien? Such service as he can render shall be given ungrudgingly.

Now, this is not hypocrisy. It may be Christianity and Chivalry and all sorts of fine things. It is making the best of an accepted situation. When relations which were established by force have been sanctioned by custom, and embodied in law, and sanctified by religion, they form a soil in which many pleasant things may grow. In the vicinity of Vesuvius they will tell you that the best soils are of volcanic origin.

Hodge and Sir Lionel meet in the garden which one owns, and in which the other digs with the sweat of his brow. There is kindly interest on the one hand, and decent respect on the other. But all this sense of ordered righteousness is dependent on one condition. Neither must eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge that grows in the midst of the garden. A little knowledge is dangerous, a good deal of knowledge may be even more dangerous, to the relations which custom has established.

What right has Sir Lionel to lay down the law for Hodge? Why should not Hodge have a right to have his point of view considered? When Hodge begins seriously to ponder this question his manners suffer. And when Sir Lionel begins to assert his superiority, instead of taking it for granted, his behavior lacks its easy charm. It is very hard to explain such things in a gentlemanly way.

Now, the exasperation in the tone of political discussion in Great Britain, as elsewhere in the world, is largely explained by the fact that all sorts of superiorities have been challenged at the same time. Everywhere the issue is sharply made. “Who shall rule?”

Shall Ireland any longer submit to be ruled by the English? The Irish Nationalists swear by all the saints that, rather than submit, they will overthrow the present Government and return to their former methods of agitation.

If the Home Rule Bill be enacted into law, will Ulster submit to be ruled by a Catholic majority? The men of Ulster call upon the spirits of their heroic sires, who triumphed at the Boyne, to bear witness that they will never yield.

Will the masses of the people submit any longer to the existing inequalities in political representation? No! They demand immediate recognition of the principle, “One man, one vote.” The many will not allow the few to make laws for them.

Will the women of England kindly wait a little till their demands can be considered in a dignified way? No! They will not take their place in the waiting-line. Others get what they want by pushing; so will they.

Will the Labor party be a little less noisy and insistent in its demands? All will come in time, but one Reform must say to another, “After you.” Hoarse voices cry, “We care nothing for etiquette, we must have what we demand, and have it at once. We cannot stand still. If we are pushing, we are also pushed from behind. If you do not give us what we ask for, the Socialists and the Syndicalists will be upon you.” There is always the threat of a General Strike. Laborers have hitherto been starved into submission. But two can play at that game.

IV

This is not the England of Sir Roger de Coverley with its cheerful contentment with the actual, and its deference for all sorts of dignitaries. It is not, in its present temper, a model of propriety. But, in my judgment, it is all the more interesting, and full of hope. To say that England is in the midst of a revolution is not to say that some dreadful disaster is impending. It only means that this is a time when events move very rapidly, and when precedents count for little. But it is a time when common sense and courage and energy count for a great deal; and there is no evidence that these qualities are lacking. I suspect that the alarmists are not so alarmed as their language would lead us to suppose. They know their countrymen, and that they have the good sense to avoid most of the collisions that they declare to be inevitable.

I take comfort in the philosophy which I glean from the top of a London motor-bus. From my point of vantage I look down upon pedestrian humanity as a Superman might look down upon it. It seems to consist of a vast multitude of ignorant folk who are predestined to immediate annihilation. As the ungainly machine on which I am seated rushes down the street, it seems admirably adapted for its mission of destruction. The barricade in front of me, devoted to the praise of BOVRIL, is just high enough to prevent my seeing what actually happens, but it gives a bloodcurdling view of catastrophes that are imminent. I have an impression of a procession of innocent victims rushing heedlessly upon destruction. Three yards in front of the onrushing wheels is an old gentleman crossing the street. He suddenly stops. There is, humanly speaking, no hope for him. Two nursemaids appear in the field of danger. A butcher’s boy on a bicycle steers directly for the bus. He may be given up for lost. I am not able to see what becomes of them, but I am prepared for the worst. Still the expected crunch does not come, and the bus goes on.

Between Notting Hill Gate and Charing Cross I have seen eighteen persons disappear in this mysterious fashion. I could swear that when I last saw them it seemed too late for them to escape their doom.

But on sober reflection I come to the conclusion that I should have taken a more hopeful view if I had not been so high up; if, for example, I had been sitting with the driver where I could have seen what happened at the last moment.

There was much comfort in the old couplet:

“Betwixt the saddle and the ground,
He mercy sought and mercy found.”

And betwixt the pedestrian and the motor-bus, there are many chances of safety that I could not foresee. The old gentleman was perhaps more spry than he looked. The nursemaids and the butcher’s boy must assuredly have perished unless they happened to have their wits about them. But in all probability they did have their wits about them, and so did the driver of the motor-bus.