Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardon him for writing well.
— W. H. Auden, “In Memory of William Butler Yeats”
has been an embarrassment to twentieth century literature. Despite his many honors, including the Nobel Prize, nearly everyone who writes about him seems compelled to apologize for him—as Auden did, as T. S. Eliot did in introducing a collection of his verse, and as Angus Wilson did in writing his biography.
In some measure, these and other apologists are uncomfortable withon purely literary grounds—especially with his verse, which was aimed at a popular audience, and with his use of phonetically spelled dialect in a way that has gone out of style. But there is more to it than that. achieved the distinction of being politically incorrect decades before the phrase was coined. Even today, on the Internet, bitter denunciations of his racism and imperialism appear from time to time.
In fact,did believe that the British Empire was a good thing, for the British and for the world; and he also believed, as most people in his time did, that different ethnic groups had different mentalities and were suited to different ways of life, and that little good could come of their intermingling. But these were only part of his beliefs.
was a patriot and an imperialist. He admired force and authority; but he also admired privacy and individuality, and many of his strongest defenses of imperialism turn on British respect for these values and on the hopeful prospect of bringing different races together in common respect for the law that safeguarded them. In short, his outlook contained a wide streak of what is now called libertarianism, as was noted by in an introduction to a reprinting of ’s science fiction story “As Easy as A.B.C.”
, tells us, denounces democracy, and this makes it all too easy to think that he is an authoritarian who dislikes human freedom. But in fact, ’s basic bias was libertarian and individualistic, and he objects to democracy because it places too many restrictions on individual freedom—because majorities can be just as tyrannical as elites and because mass society tears down individuality. A close reading of “As Easy as A.B.C.” gives evidence for ’s claims, and also shows ’s “racism” in a different light.
’s story follows four members of the Aerial Board of Control as they intervene in a political crisis in North America. tells us that the Aerial Board of Control, or A.B.C., effectively rules the world through its control of airborne traffic and all that that implies, a phrase repeated throughout the story. But for world rulers, they are singularly reluctant to exercise their power.
During the story, they ask a girl on a farm for information about the situation in Chicago, and when she shows her hostility to their intervention by using an electrical device to paralyze them, they do no more than blow out her fuses. Later, in Chicago, they bring a halt to mob violence by inflicting painfully intense light and sound on the crowds, doing no permanent harm; even this much coercion horrifies one of the Board members, Dragomiroff, who asks if they have killed the rioters and protests that he has never seen death. (The Board, by the way, is clearly international, its members being English, Italian, Belarussian, and Japanese.)
Their actions in Chicago are focused on avoiding having the burden of public administration inflicted on the A.B.C.’s already strained reserves of executive talent, and on making sure that no deaths occur. Throughout the story, they show almost superhuman restraint in the exercise of their powers, both technological and political. The cause of the crisis, it turns out, is that Chicago has developed a minority group. As a large town (not a city, in’s world), it has acquired inhabitants who prefer not to own their own land and their own houses and work for themselves, but to rent and live in groups. The rest of the city calls them the Serviles. And the offense of the Serviles that has called out the mobs is that they want to bring back democracy.
“The orator urged us to arise in our might, burst out prison doors and break our fetters (all his metaphors, by the way, were of the most mediaeval). Next he demanded that every matter of daily life, including most of the physical functions, should be submitted for decision at any time of the week, month, or year to, I gathered, anybody who happened to be passing by or residing within a certain radius, and that everybody should forthwith abandon his concerns to settle the matter, first by crowd-making, next by talking to the crowds made, and lastly by describing crosses on pieces of paper, which rubbish should later be counted with certain mystic ceremonies and oaths. Out of this amazing play, he assured us, would automatically arise a higher, nobler, and kinder world, based—he demonstrated this with the awful lucidity of the insane—based on the sanctity of the Crowd and the villainy of the single person. In conclusion, he called loudly upon God to testify to his personal merits and integrity.”
The reference to crowd-making is’s central point in this. Throughout his fiction, there is a thin line between the crowd and the mob; and in this story, he shows us a world that has recoiled from mobs and from mass society in horror, after seeing a century, ours, filled with their excesses. (This story is set in 2065; “With the Night Mail,” clearly part of the same future history, is set in 2000 and already has many of the crucial political developments that are shown in more detail here.) In fact, he shows us that as the crowd in the Chicago streets regain their sight and, in the first sunlight, see themselves crowded together, they instinctively draw apart, filled with horror at being so close to other human beings.
But the peril to the Serviles has not been ended. A small group of women advance on them, and their spokeswoman explains how much it means to the women that crowds not return to the world.
“But, at the same time, one feels that an example should be made, because no price is too heavy to pay if—if these people and all that they imply can be put an end to.”
To further explain what she means, she asks for the unveiling of a statue that stands in the town square: a figure called “The Nigger in Flames,”whose pedestal is inscribed “To the eternal memory of the justice of the people.” We are told that the statue is unveiled once a year, on Thanksgiving day, to remind Chicago of the horrors from which it has been delivered. (When I first read this story, in the early 1960s, it was in a Groff Conklin anthology whose preface explained that the word “nigger” was not offensive to the British ear whenwrote the story. But had lived in the United States, and knew exactly what he was saying; he clearly meant to give offense—to the Americans who tolerated the lawless custom of lynching.)
The woman ends by attempting to cut her own throat, hoping to provoke mob violence that will kill all the Serviles before they can bring back the evils of the past; and though the Board are able to stop her, they are persuaded by her threat that they must intervene and take the Serviles away.
“As Easy as A.B.C.” is a powerful and ironic story, one that emphasizes that even its idealized future society has a cost. But in setting a story in the future,freed his imagination to envision what he really desired. And what do we find? A small, distant government, maintaining a world where everyone has both freedom to travel and privacy, and where mob violence and racism have been brought to an end and democracy is considered an outmoded superstition. This last may give offense to present day sensibilities, but it does not make an advocate of dictatorship—not given the nature of his charges against democracy. And the story’s condemnation of racism puts his better known statements on the subject in a startlingly different light.
In fact, anyone who readswill find a number of such surprises. Among his enduring themes are the sense of kinship among people from different faiths and ethnicities, the evils of arbitrary authority and socialism—and a sheer delight in the diversity of the world that not all libertarians may share, but that is a vital part at least of my kind of libertarianism.
’s venture into science fiction was both libertarian and futuristic; and it was a compelling work of art, one that even now has gained far less recognition than it deserves, and still less understanding. may not have been a comfortable writer for the twentieth century, but we may hope that he will be a writer for the twenty-first.
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