The New Wilderness


By GEORGE V. DENNY, JR., President, The Town Hall, Inc.

Delivered at Commencement Exercises at Lafayette College, Easton, Pa., June 6, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 597-601

IN the depths of the depression about ten years ago, I returned to my native state of North Carolina and heard an old negro I had known who was very fond of using big words, talking to some of his friends about the status quo. After an exchange of greetings, I asked him if he knew what status quo meant, "Yessuh," he said, "I sho does. It means de mess we is in."

For the past decade, yes, for the past quarter of a century, the status quo has been a pretty sorry mess, and generations of college men and women have been asking why. Little by little each succeeding generation makes its contribution to solving and creating the problems of the world, and it's a moot question whether humanity has improved or not.

The impact of science and the machine age upon our lives during the past twenty-five years has been greater thanat any comparable period in our history. In terms of the impressions that dart in and out of our minds and our central nervous systems during a single day, we are living three or four times as long as our ancestors. Indeed there has never been a time in all of human history when it was possible for us to gain a greater knowledge of the world about us than it is today. Yet we have never been more bewildered and confused. What a curious paradox it is. We have practically abolished illiteracy, yet we have increased the volume of published filth, propaganda, and misinformation a thousandfold. We have conquered plagues and many dreaded diseases only to develop new and more perplexing ones. While some were working to prolong life, our merchants of death created more efficient methods of producing wholesale human slaughter, and now they areusing them. We fought a war to make the world safe for democracy, and begat a world bristling with dictatorships. With all of the miracles of modern science in our hands, only a fabulously expensive war seems able to abolish wholesale poverty in the midst of plenty. And the end is not yet.

Its not an easy task to deliver a Commencement address in times like these. A world revolution is in progress and we appear to be in the grip of circumstances beyond our control. Every day we find it necessary to do things we don't want to do because of something somebody else has done. Some of those somebodies are thousands of miles away while some of them are in our midst. We are not alone.

When the early pioneers settled this country a hundred and fifty years ago, they voluntarily faced a wilderness of plains, rivers and mountains as they sought to carve out a destiny for themselves in a new land. Today we are pioneers in a new wilderness that has grown up around us. This wilderness consists of the unsolved social, economic and political problems of a laissez faire society. And it is not a static wilderness. Softly rolling hills have become impassable mountain ranges; gentle streams have become torrential rivers whose flood waters threaten us with destruction; beautiful woods have been transformed into a jungle of twisted and impenetrable undergrowth, infested with chameleon like serpents with deadly poison in their fangs. The cities we have built will not protect us from this wilderness, for its birds drop their destructive eggs like hailstones on the cities' inhabitants. Again it is a fight for survival. If we would live, we must conquer this wilderness or, like other species which have inhabited this earth before us, we may face extinction.

A friend of mine was chiding Mr. H. G. Wells when he was in this country last fall about being pessimistic in his book, "The Shape of Things to Come." "Pessimistic, old chap?" said Mr. Wells, "Indeed not, I was exceedingly optimistic in that book. Why do you assume that man will continue to inhabit this earth? Other animals that did not use their brains became extinct. Why shouldn't we?" Is it possible that the same species of man who achieved such greatness in conquering the world of matter about him through a wise use of his rational faculties, cannot apply these same faculties to save himself? It took us a long time to learn the validity of the scientific method in our approach to the problems of the physical world. Millions of men and women died as a result of superstitions and witchcraft before science was accepted. Even today fragments of the old superstitions lurk in dark corners of the minds of otherwise enlightened men.

The human mind is a very docile instrument. We may use it, if we will it, to enable us to become a forger, an embezzler, or a criminal of any kind. On the other hand, we may choose to use it for more constructive purposes. It may help us to become a great inventor, scientist, engineer, artist, or statesman. The same rational processes, differently applied, will make us a demon or a saint. Writing in The New York Times last month, Mr. Joseph C. Harsch of the Christian Science Monitor said of Hitler's Propaganda Minister: "Goebbels is irreplaceable. He is the personification of sheer intellect unfettered by principles, morals or scruples, devoted to the manipulation of mass psychology to any given end."

What shall it profit us then, to train the human race in the skills and techniques of modern science and place them indiscriminately in the hands of the scrupulous or unscrupulous alike? Such a course is only to lengthen the teeth and claws of the tiger. It is to return to the jungle with fiercer and more powerful weapons of destruction than before. Does science deny any moral responsibility?

I was talking to Dr. Robert Hutchins of the Universityof Chicago on the train the other day, and he told me the story, which I had heard before, of certain students in one of his classes in Government who said that they saw no point in discussing good government or bad government as a moral question because they saw no distinction between good and evil. These young men had thoroughly rationalized themselves into such a superior position that they were willing to place their finite capacities at the apex of the universe and, with their limited experience and observation, appraise the true nature of mankind.

Among the things these young men had not learned was the fact that there are limits to the validity of the rational process. It works very well as a guide in a three dimensional world where time, space and matter can be observed by not one, but many men, and as a result of the observations of experts we have evolved a great body of law which has made it possible for us to construct great bridges and highways, skyscrapers, steamships and airplanes, and to encircle the globe in a fraction of a second on the waves of an unfathomable something called ether.

Slowly and laboriously this body of knowledge has been accumulated. And how was it accumulated? Not by using the mind to confirm our prejudices, not by disregarding those laws of physics or chemistry which were distasteful to us, not by shutting our eyes to the advances made by fellow scientists. This body of knowledge upon which modern civilization rests is based upon the observations of men and women who have learned to approach the unknown in a spirit of deep humility, with complete honesty and integrity of purpose. They had determined to search for truth.

You have often heard the quotation: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." But did you know that this statement is incomplete? If you will consult the eighth chapter of St. John, thirty-first and thirty-second verses, you will find that the whole sentence reads: "Then said Jesus to those Jews who believed in him, 'If ye follow in my way, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.'" Quite a different meaning from the first one, is it not?

We understand perfectly when the coach tells us that we must follow in a certain way if we are to play on the football team. We know that we must follow in the way of the laws of mathematics and physics if we are to build great skyscrapers, airplanes and steamships. Yet we completely overlook the fact that if we would find truth in life, and gain real freedom, we must subject ourselves to the disciplines of the laws of life.

I shall not attempt a discourse upon the laws of life at this time, for I know you have learned many of them well in your work here and in your own experience. I hope to point out to you today some of the things that I have learned about the operation of these laws as they affect us here in America at this particular moment of history and how I think you can do something about the situation I have just described.

First and foremost as we attempt to penetrate this new wilderness, we must learn something from our friends in the physical sciences. We must learn to look honestly and fearlessly at both subject (ourselves) and object (the problems we have created). Let's look first at ourselves.

There is a good deal of loose talking about freedom, liberty and democracy today and people who are thoroughly unfamiliar with the origins of this government are fanning the air with bombastic phrases that have no real application whatsoever to the present crisis. Let us examine this phrase, "all men are created equal." Does this mean that all men are equally endowed with talents to become great scientists,

musicians, inventors or social philosophers? Does it mean that all men are endowed with equal talents as artists, salesmen, statesmen or machine tool workers? We live in a day of extreme specialization. How successful would be the extensive enterprises of the great General Motors Corporation if Mr. Sloan suddenly decided to give all of his salesmen a turn at manufacturing his automobiles, refrigerators and radios, and made salesmen of his engineers, technicians and factory workers? I doubt if our biologists, psychologists and anthropologists would agree that for the purposes of operating a modern government in a modern world, all men are equally competent, to pass judgment on all of the complex economic, social and political problems before us. Yet that is one of the suppositions made by loose thinking politicians who tell every audience of American voters that in them rests all ultimate wisdom, and he, the politician, will do whatever they want him to do if they will just keep him in office. If this theory of government is right, why should we go to all the expense of electing senators and congressmen and maintaining them in their sumptuous quarters in Washington? Why not let Dr. George Gallup do the job? I am sure that he does a much more accurate job of sounding out public opinion, if that is all we want, and more nearly reflects the will of the people than the pressure group inspired letters to Congress and the White House.

The day has passed when special interests attempt to get what they want by "owning" a congressman or a senator. Public opinion, or to be more accurate, articulate public opinion, is the most powerful force in the world today. Even the dictatorships make a mockery of democratic processes by holding occasional elections and pretending that they are carrying out the popular will. However, they have been careful in advance to control all the sources of information and propaganda, so that the popular will reflects their will at the proper time. They have become so adept in this art that they literally hypnotize public opinion through their mass meetings and public demonstrations, and they have a most effective way of dealing with those who do not fall under the spell.

Hermann Rauschning, a former associate of Hitler, quotes the Fuehrer as saying, "At a mass meeting thought is eliminated. Because this is the state of mind I require, and because it secures to me the best sounding board for my speeches, I order everyone to attend the meetings where they become part of the mass whether they like it or not. What you tell the people in a mass in a receptive state of fanatic devotion will remain like words received under a hypnotic influence, ineradicable and impervious to every reasonable explanation."

I wonder if those American pressure groups now using mass meetings as an attempt to influence their fellow Americans realize the dangerous precedents they are following. It was through the mass meeting that Hitler rose to power. It was through the mass meeting that he hypnotized and gained the fanatical loyalty of his followers who now give him unquestioning obedience. Mussolini used mass meetings as a means of attaining absolute control over the Italian people. In the vast Soviet Union, mass meetings have long been used to maintain Stalin as a great popular leader. Of course a bit of liquidation of minority opinion on the side has also helped to maintain his popularity.

I would be the last to advocate the suppression of mass meetings by the government, but it does seem to me that mass meetings in the hands of pressure groups at this critical hour constitute a tragic misuse of freedom of speech. Each group attracts only its own followers, who participate in an emotional experience which can serve only to intensify their prejudices, obstruct the processes of reason and promote intolerance of opposing views. Instead of appearing before different audiences, at different times, speaking only to the converted, would it not be a wiser use of freedom of speech for Mayor LaGuardia and Colonel Lindbergh (two authorities on aviation, by the way) to speak before the nation over the same radio network on the same night within the same hour period? In the presidential campaigns of 1936 and 1940, we tried our best to get the candidates to do this and offered them the time, free of charge. Why wouldn't they do it? Because we are still in the grip of mass meeting psychology.

I think we should remember that freedom will destroy as readily as it will create. The free-flowing floods of the Mississippi and our other great rivers wrought havoc and destruction until they were brought under control. By the construction of dams and reservoirs we have created enormous power plants for our factories and transportation systems and have immeasurably improved our general welfare.

In similar fashion, freedom of speech may be used to incite to riot and revolution. But it may be used also as a means of enabling men to reason together about their differences and to solve their common problems. This is what we are trying to do at Town Hall. We want to help to establish dams, or meeting places, at various points throughout America, where many streams of ideas may meet and intermingle and, as they move through the turbines of orderly discussion, generate the power of an informed public opinion on which we must rely for the solution of our common problems. We call these dams "town halls," and we are attempting now to recapture an institution used so effectively by those early pioneers as a means of conquering our new wilderness.

I have spoken of the essential biological differences in men in relation to the business of modern government. I have called your attention to the fact that not everyone is equipped, by inclination or capacity, to deal with the complex social, economic and political problems we face today. This expresses itself rather clearly in a chart I frequently use which consists of three panels, two of equal size, with a smaller one half the size of the larger two in the middle. A survey of past national elections will indicate that never less than 40 per cent of the total vote has been cast for the defeated candidate of one of the two major parties. The two larger panels, then, represent the Republican and Democratic parties, each of which can count upon 40 per cent of the total vote no matter whom they nominate. The 20 per cent in the smaller panel represent the independents, those who will swing from one party to the other, who hold the balance of power and can, if they use that power intelligently, exercise the greatest influence in the selection of candidates and issues. I think it is generally agreed that it was the effective activity of this independent group that secured Mr. Willkie's nomination last June in Philadelphia.

The point I wish to make is that the great majority of people prefer to follow party leadership, and are not essentially political philosophers. Yet the problems we face require political philosophers of character, integrity and rare ability. If an automobile manufacturer would not put his salesmen to work at manufacturing his cars, by what process of reasoning do we assume that the most effective orators are necessarily the wisest law makers? We have been choosing our political leaders on this basis for a long time but surely we realize now that we must apply other tests.

Who will lead us through this new man-made wilderness? No one man can do it unless, by our indifference, we force one to. And I am not speaking merely of the immediate future. 1 am referring to the long, hard pull of the next quarter of a century, when you will be shouldering yourresponsibilities and we on this platform will be passing out of the picture.

For the record, I want to say that I am convinced that as patriotic citizens of a great democracy facing the gravest crisis in its history since the Civil War, we should respond in spirit and in fact to the President's proclamation of an unlimited national emergency and stand squarely behind the Government in its avowed purposes. Certainly this does not mean that we avoid all critical comment, but if we make it, it should be made in a spirit of constructive usefulness and not for partisan advantage. I am still puzzled to know what Colonel Lindbergh meant when he asked if it were not "time for us to turn to new policies and a new leadership."

The leadership of which I am speaking today is a kind of leadership for which you and I are responsible, as citizens of a democracy, in our daily lives. There is an old Greek proverb which says that the strength of a city is in the virtue of its citizens. An American businessman who also served in our national legislature said about a year ago, "We are the not-so-courageous sons of courageous fathers. Ours is the first generation in American life that refused even to try to struggle with its problems. . . . The capitalistic system in America would seem to be drawing to a close. No foreign enemy is destroying it. We Americans are destroying it because we have become so soft, so selfish and so weak that we refuse to face our problems." If this be true, then we had better make peace with the Nazis at once and accept our Fuehrer. But I do not believe that the sons of those who conquered the old wilderness have become so weak, so soft and so decadent that they will be conquered by the new wilderness.

I do not believe that you expect easy pleasantries from me today. If I indulged in them you would know that I was lying. It is a hard world into which you are going, and some of you may fall by the wayside. But if you are tempted to excuse yourself from any of the responsibilities that come your way, remember that you have been prepared for leadership in whatever field you have chosen. Only two per cent of our population are college graduates, which puts you in the top class.

Many of you will be leaving here today and some of you will be taking up your first jobs soon. Doubtless a large number of you will find your way into the military service of your country. Some of you will consider this as an interruption in your careers, while others will regard it as an opportunity to render a high patriotic service. Again let me remind you that these are not events of our choosing, no more than the Greeks at Thermopylae or Thrace chose to interrupt their peaceful pursuits and do battle with the Nazi hordes. The wilderness is closing in on us and we must conquer or be conquered by it.

I have been in educational work now for more than fifteen years, and I have heard many definitions of education, but the best I have ever heard was one given by my old military school superintendent back in 1918. He used to say: "Gentlemen, I define education in two words: learning responsibility." I wouldn't take anything for my six years of military training where I learned to cooperate with my fellowmen as a buck private, a sergeant, a captain and a battalion commander. With all its faults, the military service is one of the best training grounds I know of for the development of character and discipline. We Americans do not take easily to discipline of any kind, least of all self discipline, but that is what your generation will have to exercise if it does not wish to submit to the discipline of a super state.

Consider how gradually we have slipped away from thediscipline nature provided when we were largely a rural nation and had to submit to the stern orders of the changing seasons, of flood and drouth, of sunshine and rain. Some of you have come from farms and have accustomed yourselves to these disciplines. You know what it means to get up at dawn and feed the stock and milk the cows. You know when a field has to be plowed and when the crops must be harvested. You know what failure to do these things at the right time means.

Also you know what cooperation means. Every summer as a boy, I used to work on my uncle's farm and would exchange labor with our neighbors in getting in the crops. When a tobacco barn burned down and we had to build a new one, my uncle bought a couple of gallons of whiskey, killed a couple of pigs for barbecue, invited the neighbors to a "barn raising" and we finished it in two days. There we could see our interdependence, and we could see that cooperation was wise. Have you ever noticed how much better people stick together as families and friends if they face difficulties and hardships together?

But in this complex, artificial civilization we have built up, things are different. The young man wants a job at a good salary with nice surroundings. He wants some firm to take him in and pay him for his services. He wants to get married. The business organization is so large and complex, he is unable to see his direct relationship to the productive capacity of the business, unless perhaps he is a salesman. And who wants to start out on a commission basis in these days? That is too precarious. We all want security. We want steady incomes. We want unemployment insurance, old age pensions and group life insurance. In short, we want security in the midst of a world revolution! While we spend billions of dollars of borrowed money, labor and capital alike, demand high wages, profits and security. Some of us are going to feel pretty sheepish when we look back on the past eighteen months five years from now.

Five years from now, you will have begun to have your part in shaping our destiny. Five years from now, let us hope that we will all be saner and wiser men. Five years from now, you will have made some contribution to the solution of our problems, or by your actions, you may have complicated them further.

May I say to you quite frankly that it seems to me the best contribution you can possibly make to the country and to humanity in this hour of need is to set forth into this world tomorrow, no, today, with the firm resolve to meet every problem you face in life with the same honesty and integrity that was required of you in your studies here. Honesty and integrity are not "childish things" that are to be put away now that you have become men. These are the foundation stones of civilization. You know what they mean in the world of scholarship. They are just as essential in the world of affairs. Deep down we are all sick of hypocrisy, sick of dishonesty, sick of chiselers. What this world needs now more than anything else is men of intellect, character and ability, who have faith in the inherent power of right and truth, and the courage to hold steadfastly to their faith and their ideals in the face of every situation. If Hitler and Mussolini can inspire millions of young men to die for the ideals of a super state that ruthlessly murders and persecutes helpless minorities, stifles and devitalizes all the finer instincts of human spirit, and unleashes a veritable inferno to destroy the lives of innocent women and children, then can we not find leaders in America to inspire our people with a consuming passion for justice and right, with a firm determination to preserve a system of government where human personality is respected, where the ideals of true freedom and liberty may be advanced? When ourforefathers endured cold and starvation at Valley Forge, they did not do it that we might grow fat and soft, wallowing in the luxuries of a decadent machine age. They were fighting for freedom from oppression, freedom from injustice, freedom from exploitation.

It is well to remember at this time that the record of man's habitation on this Earth is one series of revolutions after anotherórevolutions brought on because men in positions of power and influence did not have the vision or courage to right the wrongs of the status quo. They did not recognize one of the most fundamental laws of life: the law of change. "Where vision fails, the people perish," said the prophet. I hope that the full meaning of the brief poem I am about to read will be clear to you. It seems to sum up what I have been trying to say. It is called "Destiny," with a question mark:

Whence blows this world-engulfing storm
With millions ranged in battle form?
Why do we fight, why do we kill?
Is this a destiny we fulfill?
Is not man the master here?
What evil force invades his sphere?
Why does confusion reign supreme
When ordered peace is man's great dreamó
A peace that is just, a peace that is fair
Made for a world that all men share?
Can man achieve his heart's desire
If Truth be not his guiding fire?
As darkness fades in light of sun,
So Evil yields to Justice done.
And peace will reign where warriors trod,
When man shall turn again to God.