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WHAT THE WAR HAS DONE FOR US
"And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice."
It is a strange thing to come back to New York after an absence of nearly a year to find aeroplanes buzzing overhead, a captured U-boat in Central Park, service-flags covered with stars on every other building, and to bump into one's family doctor on the streetcorner in the uniform of a full-fledged major. It is even queerer to have one's wife going afoot to market every morning with a knitting-bag on her arm (camouflaging the pot-roast and chuck steak), and one's daughter hurrying off to a business college to juggle all day with dots, dashes, and pothooks. These things for a returned Wall Street bond-broker are strange indeed—but strangest of all is the new inward and spiritual grace of which they seem to be the outward and visible signs.
The other day I was riding up-town in the local Subway, where for several years I have had an opportunity to study contemporary manners. Up to the time when I left the city ten months ago the male travellers had consisted of two classes: those who frankly refused to surrender their seats to a woman, and those who strove to hide their incivility by pretending not to see her. I will not state to which I belonged. At Canal Street a middle-aged woman carrying a bundle entered the car. She obviously did not expect to be offered a seat, and had quite naturally annexed a strap, when a young man in uniform arose at the other end of the car and tendered her his place. Before, in her embarrassment, she could either accept or decline it no less than half a dozen passengers nearer her had arisen and offered her their seats. From that moment until the train reached the Grand Central Station there was a contest in politeness going on in that car which rivalled the etiquette of King René at his “Court of Love.”
There is a new spirit abroad to which everybody, from the sandwich-man to the railroad president, responds--a spirit of cheerful co-operation. People are more friendly, they are politer, generally more decent. Respect for the uniform has jacked us all up several pegs. It has acted as a moral tonic for the whole country, just as it has for the men who wear it.
We of the cities, at any rate, had become bored with the old-fashioned virtues and callous to the outward observances of gentility. It was fashionable to be cynical. The passion for money-getting in the men of my own class, which had numbed our spiritual fibre, had permeated the whole nation, and had engendered wide-spread industrial discontent and jealousy. As I have said, we were drunk with prosperity. Our materialism was a byword among nations-themselves hardly less material.
There had never been so much money anywhere in the world before. To-day skilled labor is still weltering in it. Harvesters and miners ride to work as a matter of course in their own motors. A couple of weeks ago in Miami, Arizona, I counted thirtythree automobiles standing in a row, belonging to workmen, outside the crusher of the Inspiration Mine. In the factory towns the girls spent their money on gloves, laces, and jewelry. There was a growing sexual immorality among the former poorer working class which was now so rapidly becoming well-to-do. Girls who could not buy jewelry and take trips to New York out of their own savings, did so out of the earnings of men. Their ambition was to become movie actresses at fabulous salaries. The “Vamp” was their ideal. Debauchery, eugenics, and degeneracy became common subjects for the screen, the stage, and periodical literature. There was a flood of frankly erotic magazines-- Tough Tales, Saucy Stories, Naughty Novelettes, to paraphrase their titles-most of the readers of which were young girls. I saw it myself in my business trips and heard about it from my correspondents and employees. This was the reaction of
the laboring class to the same conditions that plunged the rich into a riot of extravagance and dissipation.
Wealth had had the same effect upon imperial Rome. As Winwood Reade says, referring to the decline of Egypt, in “The Martyrdom of Man”: “The vast wealth and soft luxury of the new empire undermined its strength. . . . To the same cause may be traced the ruin and the fall, not only of Egypt, but of all the powers of the ancient world: of Nineveh, and Babylon, and Persia; of the Macedonian Kingdom and the Western Empire. As soon as those nations became rich they began to decay."
Material prosperity, like that of England and America before the war, tends to render nations enervated and corrupt, depriving them of vigor, and making them susceptible to anarchy or other forms of social disease. Certainly civilization in 1914 had reached a state of extravagance and luxury which possibly only war or social revolution could have cured. Indeed, it seems to me that when the sufferings of the war shall be over, and men can look back calmly at the events and conditions that preceded it, it will be seen that not its least dramatic aspect was the sudden ending of the madness which had taken possession of society the world over.
Shane Leslie, treating of social conditions in England just before the war, says: “The English fleet has been aptly compared to the Roman legions cut off from a decadent capital, to guard the world from the barbarians. Whether English society was suffering from decay or development, symptoms made their appearance not far different from those which historians tell of the last phase of Roman history. The Colosseum once contained the same crowds of pallid unfit that watched the muddy arenas of English football. A similar indolent and half-educated bourgeoisie loafed in the imperial baths as attended English cricket. In the higher stage of society there was the same revulsion from the old-fashioned virtues and an expressed contempt for whatever belonged to the Augustan, or in the latter case Victorian, age in writing or morals. London churches were deserted for weekend parties exactly as the temples were scorned by the jaded pleasure-seekers of Rome. Nobody in England took the sovereign's defensorship of the faith more seriously than the Romans took the deification of their Emperors. The state religion in London had a less hold on many than the charlatan, the theosophist, and the necromancer, just as Capitoline Jove and the matronly Juno were deserted for the more exciting deities of the East. Socially, women in London exchanged family lockets for immodest charms. The signs were present, even if the decay was not as deep as German sociologists wished to believe. War instantly restored the old stoical and patriotic virtues.