Letters of Travel

Letters to the Family

Newspapers and Democracy

Rudyard Kipling

LET it be granted that, as the loud-voiced herald hired by the Eolithic tribe to cry the news of the coming day along the caves, preceded the chosen Tribal Bard who sang the more picturesque history of the tribe, so is Journalism senior to Literature, in that Journalism meets the first tribal need after warmth, food, and women.

In new countries it shows clear trace of its descent from the Tribal Herald. A tribe thinly occupying large spaces feels lonely. It desires to hear the roll-call of its members cried often and loudly; to comfort itself with the knowledge that there are companions just below the horizon. It employs, therefore, heralds to name and describe all who pass. That is why newspapers of new countries seem often so outrageously personal. The tribe, moreover, needs quick and sure knowledge of everything that touches on its daily life in the big spaces—earth, air, and water news which the Older Peoples have put behind them. That is why its newspapers so often seem so laboriously trivial.

For example, a red-nosed member of the tribe, Pete O’Halloran, comes in thirty miles to have his horse shod, and incidentally smashes the king-bolt of his buckboard at a bad place in the road. The Tribal Herald—a thin weekly, with a patent inside—connects the red nose and the breakdown with an innuendo which, to the outsider, is clumsy libel. But the Tribal Herald understands that two-and-seventy families of the tribe may use that road weekly. It concerns them to discover whether the accident was due to Pete being drunk or, as Pete protests, to the neglected state of the road. Fifteen men happen to know that Pete’s nose is an affliction, not an indication. One of them loafs across and explains to the Tribal Herald, who, next week, cries aloud that the road ought to be mended. Meantime Pete, warmed to the marrow at having focussed the attention of his tribe for a few moments, retires thirty miles up-stage, pursued by advertisements of buckboards guaranteed not to break their king-bolts, and later (which is what the tribe were after all the time) some tribal authority or other mends the road.

This is only a big-scale diagram, but with a little attention you can see the tribal instinct of self-preservation quite logically underrunning all sorts of queer modern developments.

As the tribe grows, and men do not behold the horizon from edge to unbroken edge, their desire to know all about the next man weakens a little—but not much. Outside the cities are still the long distances, the “vast, unoccupied areas” of the advertisements; and the men who come and go yearn to keep touch with and report themselves as of old to their lodges. A man stepping out of the dark into the circle of the fires naturally, if he be a true man, holds up his hands and says, “I, So-and-So, am here.” You can watch the ritual in full swing at any hotel when the reporter (pro Tribal Herald) runs his eyes down the list of arrivals, and before he can turn from the register is met by the newcomer, who, without special desire for notoriety, explains his business and intentions. Observe, it is always at evening that the reporter concerns himself with strangers. By day he follows the activities of his own city and the doings of nearby chiefs; but when it is time to close the stockade, to laager the wagons, to draw the thorn-bush back into the gap, then in all lands he reverts to the Tribal Herald, who is also the tribal Outer Guard.

There are countries where a man is indecently pawed over by chattering heralds who bob their foul torches in his face till he is singed and smoked at once. In Canada the necessary “Stand and deliver your sentiments” goes through with the large decency that stamps all the Dominion. A stranger’s words are passed on to the tribe quite accurately; no dirt is put into his mouth, and where the heralds judge that it would be better not to translate certain remarks they courteously explain why.

It was always delightful to meet the reporters, for they were men interested in their land, with the keen, unselfish interest that one finds in young house-surgeons or civilians. Thanks to the (Boer) war, many of them had reached out to the ends of our earth, and spoke of the sister nations as it did one good to hear. Consequently the interviews—which are as dreary for the reporter as the reported—often turned into pleasant and unpublished talks. One felt at every turn of the quick sentences to be dealing with made and trained players of the game—balanced men who believed in decencies not to be disregarded, confidences not to be violated, and honour not to be mocked. (This may explain what men and women have told me—that there is very little of the brutal domestic terrorism of the Press in Canada, and not much blackmailing.) They neither spat nor wriggled; they interpolated no juicy anecdotes of murder or theft among their acquaintance; and not once between either ocean did they or any other fellow-subjects volunteer that their country was “law-abiding.”

You know the First Sign-post on the Great Main Road? “When a Woman advertises that she is virtuous, a Man that he is a gentleman, a Community that it is loyal, or a Country that it is law-abiding—go the other way!”

Yet, while the men’s talk was so good and new, their written word seemed to be cast in conventional, not to say old-fashioned, moulds. A quarter of a century ago a sub-editor, opening his mail, could identify the Melbourne Argus, the Sydney Morning Herald, or the Cape Times as far as he could see them. Even unheaded clippings from them declared their origin as a piece of hide betrays the beast that wore it. But he noticed then that Canadian journals left neither spoor nor scent—might have blown in from anywhere between thirty degrees of latitude—and had to be carefully identified by hand. To-day, the spacing, the headlines, the advertising of Canadian papers, the chessboard-like look of the open page which should be a daily beautiful study in black and white, the brittle pulp-paper, the machine-set type, are all as standardised as the railway cars of the Continent. Indeed, looking through a mass of Canadian journals is like trying to find one’s own sleeper in a corridor train. Newspaper offices are among the most conservative organisations in the world; but surely after twenty-five years some changes might be permitted to creep in; some original convention of expression or assembly might be developed.

I drew up to this idea cautiously among a knot of fellow-craftsmen. “You mean,” said one straight-eyed youth, “that we are a back-number copying back-numbers?”

It was precisely what I did mean, so I made haste to deny it. “We know that,” he said cheerfully. “Remember we haven’t the sea all round us—and the postal rates to England have only just been lowered. It will all come right.”

Surely it will; but meantime one hates to think of these splendid people using second-class words to express first-class emotions.

And so naturally from Journalism to Democracy. Every country is entitled to her reservations, and pretences, but the more “democratic” a land is, the more make-believes must the stranger respect. Some of the Tribal Heralds were very good to me in this matter, and, as it were, nudged me when it was time to duck in the House of Rimmon. During their office hours they professed an unflinching belief in the blessed word “Democracy,” which means any crowd on the move—that is to say, the helpless thing which breaks through floors and falls into cellars; overturns pleasure-boats by rushing from port to starboard; stamps men into pulp because it thinks it has lost sixpence, and jams and grills in the doorways of blazing theatres. Out of office, like every one else, they relaxed. Many winked, a few were flippant, but they all agreed that the only drawback to Democracy was Demos—a jealous God of primitive tastes and despotic tendencies. I received a faithful portrait of him from a politician who had worshipped him all his life. It was practically the Epistle of Jeremy—the sixth chapter of Baruch—done into unquotable English.

But Canada is not yet an ideal Democracy. For one thing she has had to work hard among rough-edged surroundings which carry inevitable consequences. For another, the law in Canada exists and is administered, not as a surprise, a joke, a favour, a bribe, or a Wrestling Turk exhibition, but as an integral part of the national character—no more to be forgotten or talked about than one’s trousers. If you kill, you hang. If you steal, you go to jail. This has worked toward peace, self-respect, and, I think, the innate dignity of the people. On the other hand—which is where the trouble will begin—railways and steamers make it possible nowadays to bring in persons who need never lose touch of hot and cold water-taps, spread tables, and crockery till they are turned out, much surprised, into the wilderness. They clean miss the long weeks of salt-water and the slow passage across the plains which pickled and tanned the early emigrants. They arrive with soft bodies and unaired souls. I had this vividly brought home to me by a man on a train among the Selkirks. He stood on the safely railed rear-platform, looked at the gigantic pine-furred shoulder round which men at their lives’ risk had led every yard of the track, and chirruped: “I say, why can’t all this be nationalised?” There was nothing under heaven except the snows and the steep to prevent him from dropping off the cars and hunting a mine for himself. Instead of which he went into the dining-car. That is one type.

A man told me the old tale of a crowd of Russian immigrants who at a big fire in a city ’verted to the ancestral type, and blocked the streets yelling, “Down with the Czar!” That is another type. A few days later I was shown a wire stating that a community of Doukhobors—Russians again—had, not for the first time, undressed themselves, and were fleeing up the track to meet the Messiah before the snow fell. Police were pursuing them with warm underclothing, and trains would please take care not to run over them.

So there you have three sort of steam-borne unfitness—soft, savage, and mad. There is a fourth brand, which may be either home-grown or imported, but democracies do not recognise it, of downright bad folk—grown, healthy men and women who honestly rejoice in doing evil. These four classes acting together might conceivably produce a rather pernicious democracy; alien hysteria, blood-craze, and the like, reinforcing local ignorance, sloth, and arrogance. For example, I read a letter in a paper sympathising with these same Doukhobors. The writer knew a community of excellent people in England (you see where the rot starts!) who lived barefoot, paid no taxes, ate nuts, and were above marriage. They were a soulful folk, living pure lives. The Doukhobors were also pure and soulful, entitled in a free country to live their own lives, and not to be oppressed, etc. etc. (Imported soft, observe, playing up to Imported mad.) Meantime, disgusted police were chasing the Doukhobors into flannels that they might live to produce children fit to consort with the sons of the man who wrote that letter and the daughters of the crowd that lost their heads at the fire.

“All of which,” men and women answered, “we admit. But what can we do? We want people.” And they showed vast and well-equipped schools, where the children of Slav immigrants are taught English and the songs of Canada. “When they grow up,” people said, “you can’t tell them from Canadians.” It was a wonderful work. The teacher holds up pens, reels, and so forth, giving the name in English; the children repeating Chinese fashion. Presently when they have enough words they can bridge back to the knowledge they learned in their own country, so that a boy of twelve, at, say, the end of a year, will produce a well-written English account of his journey from Russia, how much his mother paid for food by the way, and where his father got his first job. He will also lay his hand on his heart, and say, “I—am—a—Canadian.” This gratifies the Canadian, who naturally purrs over an emigrant owing everything to the land which adopted him and set him on his feet. The Lady Bountiful of an English village takes the same interest in a child she has helped on in the world. And the child repays by his gratitude and good behaviour?

Personally, one cannot care much for those who have renounced their own country. They may have had good reason, but they have broken the rules of the game, and ought to be penalised instead of adding to their score. Nor is it true, as men pretend, that a few full meals and fine clothes obliterate all taint of alien instinct and reversion. A thousand years cannot be as yesterday for mankind; and one has only to glance at the races across the Border to realise how in outlook, manner, expression, and morale the South and South-east profoundly and fatally affects the North and North-west. That was why the sight of the beady-eyed, muddy-skinned, aproned women, with handkerchiefs on their heads and Oriental bundles in their hands, always distressed one.

“But why must you get this stuff?” I asked. “You know it is not your equal, and it knows that it is not your equal; and that is bad for you both. What is the matter with the English as immigrants?”

The answers were explicit: “Because the English do not work. Because we are sick of Remittance-men and loafers sent out here. Because the English are rotten with Socialism. Because the English don’t fit with our life. They kick at our way of doing things. They are always telling us how things are done in England. They carry frills! Don’t you know the story of the Englishman who lost his way and was found half-dead of thirst beside a river? When he was asked why he didn’t drink, he said, ‘How the deuce can I without a glass?’”

“But,” I argued over three thousand miles of country, “all these are excellent reasons for bringing in the Englishman. It is true that in his own country he is taught to shirk work, because kind, silly people fall over each other to help and debauch and amuse him. Here, General January will stiffen him up. Remittance-men are an affliction to every branch of the Family, but your manners and morals can’t be so tender as to suffer from a few thousand of them among your six millions. As to the Englishman’s Socialism, he is, by nature, the most unsocial animal alive. What you call Socialism is his intellectual equivalent for Diabolo and Limerick competitions. As to his criticisms, you surely wouldn’t marry a woman who agreed with you in everything, and you ought to choose your immigrants on the same lines. You admit that the Canadian is too busy to kick at anything. The Englishman is a born kicker. (“Yes, he is all that,” they said.) He kicks on principle, and that is what makes for civilisation. So did your Englishman’s instinct about the glass. Every new country needs—vitally needs—one-half of one per cent of its population trained to die of thirst rather than drink out of their hands. You are always talking of the second generation of your Smyrniotes and Bessarabians. Think what the second generation of the English are!”

They thought—quite visibly—but they did not much seem to relish it. There was a queer stringhalt in their talk—a conversational shy across the road—when one touched on these subjects. After a while I went to a Tribal Herald whom I could trust, and demanded of him point-blank where the trouble really lay, and who was behind it.

“It is Labour,” he said. “You had better leave it alone.”

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