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The Human Touch

May 20, 1934
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

YOU must have heard of William James’ theory about the moral equivalent of war. In that essay he wrote that if nations are to live in peace, their young men’s energies, their young men’s heroism must have peaceable objects on which to expend themselves. Peace has got to be made exciting for the young if you are to continue to have peace. James wrote this long before there was a Chalutz movement and although that movement has a much more practical purpose than that of justifying a psychologist’s reasoning, it does justify it also, incidentally.

James wrote that if young men could band together in some constructive enterprise like clearing a forest-he may not have made that specific suggestion-that effort would supply them with a constructive substitute for destructive war. It is remotely possible that Hitler’s Labor Corps is the projection of a similar process of thinking, except that intelligent people outside Germany-read Leland Stowe’s “Nazi Means War”-know that the Hitlerian enterprises are not substitutes, but preparations, for war.

I am recalled to the William James essay by a little passage in the latest travel book of Aldous Huxley’s, “Beyond the Mexique Bay.” Huxley is eminently a thinking person whose vision of anything is informed by a background of science, history, literature, art and general intellectual speculation which makes every chapter in any book of his an adventure in thinking. His thinking may be dry and hard but it is none the less illuminating. It would be as unreasonable to demand, or expect, warmth from Shaw as from Huxley.


Huxley also is thinking, but in even more modern terms than James, of the manner in which you can make the condition of peace tolerable and exciting for the young; for anyone, for that matter. How much orgy and how much bread does a people need in order to have to go off, periodically, into a self-destructive spasm of nationalistic hate. Some people can get all their kick out of Coney Island; others, whose sensibilities are numbed, need to be whipped into a sense of the joy of living, almost by surgical methods, by gun and knife. In the past, Huxley points out, some of these babies could be counted on to kill themselves off by going on Crusades, by piracy, by duelling and, until recent times, by exploring and general colonial adventure. It is unfortunate, he writes, that some of these outlets for the absorption of anti-social energies already have been closed. Mr. Huxley’s comment puts a new light on one of the decisions of the gentlemen of Versailles.

“Germany, for example, has no colonies as a safety-valve for her more ferocious young men. Perhaps that is why Hitler found such a rich supply of them in the streets of Munich and Berlin. The Jews and the Communists are paying for the annexation of Tanganyika and German Scuthwest Africa. For the Nazi gunmen they provide, so to speak, a Colony in Every Home.”

I recall now that at the time dear old Hugenberg of blessed memory-he is the man who gave Hitler a foot up into the stirrup of dictatorship-presented a memorandum to some international conference demanding the return of the colonies, a French newspaper printed a cartoon showing a Negress frightening her little boy into obedience in the very heart of the jungle, with lions, tigers and crocodiles all around them, with the remark: “Be a nice boy, now, and come along, or Hitler will get you!”


Not forgetting, however, that he is in Central America, Huxley makes the observation that for the natives the domestic circle absorbs most of the political violence they feel; that, for them, their wives and their children are their “Jews,” their “Communists,” their “Colored Races.” At the world conference to study the psychological reconditioning to peace which Huxley suggests, he would propose, as one of the minor tasks, that of providing “born adventurers and natural slave-drivers with harmless and unharmable blackamoor Ersatzes,” pointing out, however, that “it is not the color of a posterior that counts; it is its kickableness.” Perhaps what Huxley would like to suggest is a back-side equivalent for an electric horse that can neither run down or be pained, no matter how hard you ride it.

In the same part of the book there is fruitful discussion of how much circus a despot may give with how little bread before reaping the whirlwind of discontent. “Mussolini and Hitler,” he writes, “have restored to the New Stupid”-and by the New Stupid he means the large masses who have literacy without intelligence-“some of the substantial pleasures enjoyed by the Old Stupidity. Can these pelasures be restored in some other and less pernicious name than that of collective hatred and vanity?”


Huxley concludes that Hitler is overdoing the circus; that is, the orgy, and underdoing the bread. “Unable to fill empty bellies with bread, they (the Nazis) aim instead at filling empty heads with flags and verbiage and brass bands and collective hysteria.” The point that Huxley makes is that the Nazis can excite the German people up to a certain point and then come slap-up against the law of diminishing returns; that is, after the psychological saturation point is reached, the German people will cease to be excited, interested, or amused. Does not Hitler have a General Staff in psychology to advise him when the law of diminishing returns begins to operate?

You can beat a tom-tom for so many hours, or days, or weeks, then the savage ceases to be interested-or else, long before he has ceased to be interested, he has gone out to fight. After all, the Nazis’ clear intention in beating the tom-tom is not to bore the German people, but for some other purpose, the purpose of War which they so piously disclaim when the non-German is known to be listening in. The only hope of peace is that the German tom-tom will continue to beat at the ears and the hearts of the German people long after it has ceased to excite them to the point of going forth to battle.

But the worst thing about the German tom-toms, or any other tom-tom, is that before the point of boredom or satiety has been reached, the neighbor tribe likewise has been excited into the psychological attitude preceding war, and tom-tom answers tom-tom. And who will resist? Only those psychologically conditioned to other stimuli than the tom-tom. And how damned few of them there are!

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