I don't know whether this is it. Some say it is and others say it isn't; and even if I were an economist, which I certainly am not, I would be hard put to make any firm judgment. At least, it is my own impression that economists – both left and right – are moving very warily today and so far not a one has gone out on a limb and declared that the beginning of the end of the long hayride is here.
Yet there is one fact that sticks out of the current mess with ugly certainty – the fact that a Russian announcement of a large cut in military manpower has thrown our economy into at least a momentary tizzy; and I can't help reflecting on what my fellow Americans make out of that. The truth is that the nut of the dirty fruit called "war economy" is war; and who, I wonder, is kidding who?
* * *
It is quite evident that the nineteen-fifties will never be remembered as an age of reason; yet one must perforce ascribe to men who are capable of brushing their teeth and driving a car at least a modicum of brain power. It must have occurred to them, at least fleetingly, that in a world reduced to hot cinders, profits would buy very little indeed. Or perhaps not. Perhaps all rational mentation is submerged to the iridescent and holy joy of contemplating the incineration of one's fellow man.
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The holy joy at such a prospect – and equally profound melancholy at its negation – was brought home to me last week when I watched a television presentation of Mr. Harold Stassen being interviewed by two gentlemen of the press, representing respectively Newsweek Magazine and the Scripps Howard chain. I might say that my respect for Mr. Stassen – whom I have observed in the past as an intelligent and charming gentleman – rose a good deal; for he conducted himself with all the wit and balance one needs when one is forced to deal publicly with articulate Neanderthalers. He made it quite plain that he wanted peace because there was, in his opinion, no rational alternative.
The two gentlemen of the press, on the other hand, gave not an inch in their dedicated desire for at least the hope of Armageddon. At the beginning of the program, their insistence was sublime; thunder cracked in their questions. Peace was hell – and would Mr. Stassen not grant them at least the hope, at least the possibility of joyous incineration? He would not. His strange smile at their questions said nothing and everything – and as he held to the simple proposition that Russia was disarming because she did not want war and that this was positive, the two warriors were plunged into and increasing and profound gloom.
I wish that they were exceptions among the many who manage American government and American opinion; but I am afraid they are not, and they manifest a hell of our own making. If we are forced to choose between national economic stagnation and the ultimate horror of atomic warfare, then we have come to a most monstrous destination indeed; and it is high time that we took a good look at ourselves and began to behave like human beings. We have spent better than ten years gibbering at the world like a pack of childish apes. Enough is enough.
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For the sorriest part of our era of national lunacy is that we have robbed ourselves of most of the standards of human decency that were a thousand years in the making; and thereby we have dangerously undermined our ability to really believe in anything at all. Nor is this something one can cynically dismiss. The need to believe is basic, and without it, one becomes not only something less than man, but, more ominously, something very dangerous to man.
I know that there is much talk of a turn to religion; but so far as I can see, this is an action of despair and not of hope. The frightened, hollow, bombastic and often utterly blasphemous lip-service given to the strange new doctrines preached by such prophets as Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham is almost as far a cry from the teachings of the gentle martyr of Nazareth as was Hitler's holy creed of blood and race; and the ritualistic glorification of what is called "the American way of life," is as nasty as Britain's Victorian glorification of the Church of England – and without the good manners that the British made such a fetish of.
The need to believe must be joined to reality, and there never was a crusading religion that placed death and only death upon its altar. Belief is the future, the continuity of the family, the social unit, the town and city and nation. The first touch of maturity brings home to us the bitter knowledge of our own mortality, and the most basic hope given to man is the certainty that his children and his brother's children will live on when he is gone. Hope is the fire that burns in us and makes us human – and we are near successful in robbing a whole generation of hope.
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There is nothing intrinsically evil in our amazing tools of production; quite to the contrary, our splendid technical advance will ultimately benefit all of mankind. But in order for that to happen, we must cease to make national dishonor and lunacy the price of a new washing machine. For ten years, we have been lied to, believed the lies, and have become conditioned to the violation of all that is morally good as the price of our prosperity. The result is that we have ceased to believe in anything at all.
It is not too far a cry from placing moral neuters and racist hatemongers in the halls of Congress and imprisoning and ruining men of honor and courage, to accepting the ultimate extinction of mankind as the price of our few years of prosperity; but it is much too far for Americans to go. We are the very last people on earth to be robbed of belief; for once, not too long ago, the very name of our country was a beacon of hope and glory to millions who now despise us.