Public Opinion

CHAPTER III

CONTACT AND OPPORTUNITY

1

While censorship and privacy intercept much information at its source,
a very much larger body of fact never reaches the whole public at all,
or only very slowly. For there are very distinct limits upon the
circulation of ideas.

A rough estimate of the effort it takes to reach “everybody” can be
had by considering the Government’s propaganda during the war.
Remembering that the war had run over two years and a half before
America entered it, that millions upon millions of printed pages had
been circulated and untold speeches had been delivered, let us turn to
Mr. Creel’s account of his fight “for the minds of men, for the
conquest of their convictions” in order that “the gospel of
Americanism might be carried to every corner of the globe.”
[Footnote: George Creel, _How We Advertised America._]

Mr. Creel had to assemble machinery which included a Division of News
that issued, he tells us, more than six thousand releases, had to
enlist seventy-five thousand Four Minute Men who delivered at least
seven hundred and fifty-five thousand, one hundred and ninety speeches
to an aggregate of over three hundred million people. Boy scouts
delivered annotated copies of President Wilson’s addresses to the
householders of America. Fortnightly periodicals were sent to six
hundred thousand teachers. Two hundred thousand lantern slides were
furnished for illustrated lectures. Fourteen hundred and thirty-eight
different designs were turned out for posters, window cards, newspaper
advertisements, cartoons, seals and buttons. The chambers of commerce,
the churches, fraternal societies, schools, were used as channels of
distribution. Yet Mr. Creel’s effort, to which I have not begun to do
justice, did not include Mr. McAdoo’s stupendous organization for the
Liberty Loans, nor Mr. Hoover’s far reaching propaganda about food,
nor the campaigns of the Red Cross, the Y. M. C. A., Salvation Army,
Knights of Columbus, Jewish Welfare Board, not to mention the
independent work of patriotic societies, like the League to Enforce
Peace, the League of Free Nations Association, the National Security
League, nor the activity of the publicity bureaus of the Allies and of
the submerged nationalities.

Probably this is the largest and the most intensive effort to carry
quickly a fairly uniform set of ideas to all the people of a nation.
The older proselyting worked more slowly, perhaps more surely, but
never so inclusively. Now if it required such extreme measures to
reach everybody in time of crisis, how open are the more normal
channels to men’s minds? The Administration was trying, and while the
war continued it very largely succeeded, I believe, in creating
something that might almost be called one public opinion all over
America. But think of the dogged work, the complicated ingenuity, the
money and the personnel that were required. Nothing like that exists
in time of peace, and as a corollary there are whole sections, there
are vast groups, ghettoes, enclaves and classes that hear only vaguely
about much that is going on.

They live in grooves, are shut in among their own affairs, barred out
of larger affairs, meet few people not of their own sort, read little.
Travel and trade, the mails, the wires, and radio, railroads,
highways, ships, motor cars, and in the coming generation aeroplanes,
are, of course, of the utmost influence on the circulation of ideas.
Each of these affects the supply and the quality of information and
opinion in a most intricate way. Each is itself affected by technical,
by economic, by political conditions. Every time a government relaxes
the passport ceremonies or the customs inspection, every time a new
railway or a new port is opened, a new shipping line established,
every time rates go up or down, the mails move faster or more slowly,
the cables are uncensored and made less expensive, highways built, or
widened, or improved, the circulation of ideas is influenced. Tariff
schedules and subsidies affect the direction of commercial enterprise,
and therefore the nature of human contracts. And so it may well
happen, as it did for example in the case of Salem, Massachusetts,
that a change in the art of shipbuilding will reduce a whole city from
a center where international influences converge to a genteel
provincial town. All the immediate effects of more rapid transit are
not necessarily good. It would be difficult to say, for example, that
the railroad system of France, so highly centralized upon Paris, has
been an unmixed blessing to the French people.

It is certainly true that problems arising out of the means of
communication are of the utmost importance, and one of the most
constructive features of the program of the League of Nations has been
the study given to railroad transit and access to the sea. The
monopolizing of cables, [Footnote: Hence the wisdom of taking Yap
seriously.] of ports, fuel stations, mountain passes, canals, straits,
river courses, terminals, market places means a good deal more than
the enrichment of a group of business men, or the prestige of a
government. It means a barrier upon the exchange of news and opinion.
But monopoly is not the only barrier. Cost and available supply are
even greater ones, for if the cost of travelling or trading is
prohibitive, if the demand for facilities exceeds the supply, the
barriers exist even without monopoly.

2

The size of a man’s income has considerable effect on his access to
the world beyond his neighborhood. With money he can overcome almost
every tangible obstacle of communication, he can travel, buy books and
periodicals, and bring within the range of his attention almost any
known fact of the world. The income of the individual, and the income
of the community determine the amount of communication that is
possible. But men’s ideas determine how that income shall be spent,
and that in turn affects in the long run the amount of income they
will have. Thus also there are limitations, none the less real,
because they are often self-imposed and self-indulgent.

There are portions of the sovereign people who spend most of their
spare time and spare money on motoring and comparing motor cars, on
bridge-whist and post-mortems, on moving-pictures and potboilers,
talking always to the same people with minute variations on the same
old themes. They cannot really be said to suffer from censorship, or
secrecy, the high cost or the difficulty of communication. They suffer
from anemia, from lack of appetite and curiosity for the human scene.
Theirs is no problem of access to the world outside. Worlds of
interest are waiting for them to explore, and they do not enter.

They move, as if on a leash, within a fixed radius of acquaintances
according to the law and the gospel of their social set. Among men the
circle of talk in business and at the club and in the smoking car is
wider than the set to which they belong. Among women the social set
and the circle of talk are frequently almost identical. It is in the
social set that ideas derived from reading and lectures and from the
circle of talk converge, are sorted out, accepted, rejected, judged
and sanctioned. There it is finally decided in each phase of a
discussion which authorities and which sources of information are
admissible, and which not.

Our social set consists of those who figure as people in the phrase
“people are saying”; they are the people whose approval matters most
intimately to us. In big cities among men and women of wide interests
and with the means for moving about, the social set is not so rigidly
defined. But even in big cities, there are quarters and nests of
villages containing self-sufficing social sets. In smaller communities
there may exist a freer circulation, a more genuine fellowship from
after breakfast to before dinner. But few people do not know,
nevertheless, which set they really belong to, and which not.

Usually the distinguishing mark of a social set is the presumption
that the children may intermarry. To marry outside the set involves,
at the very least, a moment of doubt before the engagement can be
approved. Each social set has a fairly clear picture of its relative
position in the hierarchy of social sets. Between sets at the same
level, association is easy, individuals are quickly accepted,
hospitality is normal and unembarrassed. But in contact between sets
that are “higher” or “lower,” there is always reciprocal hesitation, a
faint malaise, and a consciousness of difference. To be sure in a
society like that of the United States, individuals move somewhat
freely out of one set into another, especially where there is no
racial barrier and where economic position changes so rapidly.

Economic position, however, is not measured by the amount of income.
For in the first generation, at least, it is not income that
determines social standing, but the character of a man’s work, and it
may take a generation or two before this fades out of the family
tradition. Thus banking, law, medicine, public utilities, newspapers,
the church, large retailing, brokerage, manufacture, are rated at a
different social value from salesmanship, superintendence, expert
technical work, nursing, school teaching, shop keeping; and those, in
turn, are rated as differently from plumbing, being a chauffeur,
dressmaking, subcontracting, or stenography, as these are from being a
butler, lady’s maid, a moving picture operator, or a locomotive
engineer. And yet the financial return does not necessarily coincide
with these gradations.

3

Whatever the tests of admission, the social set when formed is not a
mere economic class, but something which more nearly resembles a
biological clan. Membership is intimately connected with love,
marriage and children, or, to speak more exactly, with the attitudes
and desires that are involved. In the social set, therefore, opinions
encounter the canons of Family Tradition, Respectability, Propriety,
Dignity, Taste and Form, which make up the social set’s picture of
itself, a picture assiduously implanted in the children. In this
picture a large space is tacitly given to an authorized version of
what each set is called upon inwardly to accept as the social standing
of the others. The more vulgar press for an outward expression of the
deference due, the others are decently and sensitively silent about
their own knowledge that such deference invisibly exists. But that
knowledge, becoming overt when there is a marriage, a war, or a social
upheaval, is the nexus of a large bundle of dispositions classified by
Trotter [Footnote: W. Trotter, Instincts of the Herd in War and Peace.] under the general term instinct of the herd.

Within each social set there are augurs like the van der Luydens and
Mrs. Manson Mingott in “The Age of Innocence,” [Footnote: Edith
Wharton, _The Age of Innocence._] who are recognized as the
custodians and the interpreters of its social pattern. You are made,
they say, if the van der Luydens take you up. The invitations to their
functions are the high sign of arrival and status. The elections to
college societies, carefully graded and the gradations universally
accepted, determine who is who in college. The social leaders,
weighted with the ultimate eugenic responsibility, are peculiarly
sensitive. Not only must they be watchfully aware of what makes for
the integrity of their set, but they have to cultivate a special gift
for knowing what other social sets are doing. They act as a kind of
ministry of foreign affairs. Where most of the members of a set live
complacently within the set, regarding it for all practical purposes
as the world, the social leaders must combine an intimate knowledge of
the anatomy of their own set with a persistent sense of its place in
the hierarchy of sets.

The hierarchy, in fact, is bound together by the social leaders. At
any one level there is something which might almost be called a social
set of the social leaders. But vertically the actual binding together
of society, in so far as it is bound together at all by social
contact, is accomplished by those exceptional people, frequently
suspect, who like Julius Beaufort and Ellen Olenska in “The Age of
Innocence” move in and out. Thus there come to be established personal
channels from one set to another, through which Tarde’s laws of
imitation operate. But for large sections of the population there are
no such channels. For them the patented accounts of society and the
moving pictures of high life have to serve. They may develop a social
hierarchy of their own, almost unnoticed, as have the Negroes and the
“foreign element,” but among that assimilated mass which always
considers itself the “nation,” there is in spite of the great
separateness of sets, a variety of personal contacts through which a
circulation of standards takes place.

Some of the sets are so placed that they become what Professor Ross
has called “radiant points of conventionality.” [Footnote: Ross,
_Social Psychology_, Ch. IX, X, XI.] Thus the social superior is
likely to be imitated by the social inferior, the holder of power is
imitated by subordinates, the more successful by the less successful,
the rich by the poor, the city by the country. But imitation does not
stop at frontiers. The powerful, socially superior, successful, rich,
urban social set is fundamentally international throughout the western
hemisphere, and in many ways London is its center. It counts among its
membership the most influential people in the world, containing as it
does the diplomatic set, high finance, the upper circles of the army
and the navy, some princes of the church, a few great newspaper
proprietors, their wives and mothers and daughters who wield the
scepter of invitation. It is at once a great circle of talk and a real
social set. But its importance comes from the fact that here at last
the distinction between public and private affairs practically
disappears. The private affairs of this set are public matters, and
public matters are its private, often its family affairs. The
confinements of Margot Asquith like the confinements of royalty are,
as the philosophers say, in much the same universe of discourse as a
tariff bill or a parliamentary debate.

There are large areas of governments in which this social set is not
interested, and in America, at least, it has exercised only a
fluctuating control over the national government. But its power in
foreign affairs is always very great, and in war time its prestige is
enormously enhanced. That is natural enough because these
cosmopolitans have a contact with the outer world that most people do
not possess. They have dined with each other in the capitals, and
their sense of national honor is no mere abstraction; it is a concrete
experience of being snubbed or approved by their friends. To Dr.
Kennicott of Gopher Prairie it matters mighty little what Winston
thinks and a great deal what Ezra Stowbody thinks, but to Mrs. Mingott
with a daughter married to the Earl of Swithin it matters a lot when
she visits her daughter, or entertains Winston himself. Dr. Kennicott
and Mrs. Mingott are both socially sensitive, but Mrs. Mingott is
sensitive to a social set that governs the world, while Dr.
Kennicott’s social set governs only in Gopher Prairie. But in matters
that effect the larger relationships of the Great Society, Dr.
Kennicott will often be found holding what he thinks is purely his own
opinion, though, as a matter of fact, it has trickled down to Gopher
Prairie from High Society, transmuted on its passage through the
provincial social sets.

4

It is no part of our inquiry to attempt an account of the social
tissue. We need only fix in mind how big is the part played by the
social set in our spiritual contact with the world, how it tends to
fix what is admissible, and to determine how it shall be judged.
Affairs within its immediate competence each set more or less
determines for itself. Above all it determines the detailed
administration of the judgment. But the judgment itself is formed on
patterns [Footnote: _Cf_. Part III] that may be inherited from
the past, transmitted or imitated from other social sets. The highest
social set consists of those who embody the leadership of the Great
Society. As against almost every other social set where the bulk of
the opinions are first hand only about local affairs, in this Highest
Society the big decisions of war and peace, of social strategy and the
ultimate distribution of political power, are intimate experiences
within a circle of what, potentially at least, are personal
acquaintances.

Since position and contact play so big a part in determining what can
be seen, heard, read, and experienced, as well as what it is
permissible to see, hear, read, and know, it is no wonder that moral
judgment is so much more common than constructive thought. Yet in
truly effective thinking the prime necessity is to liquidate
judgments, regain an innocent eye, disentangle feelings, be curious
and open-hearted. Man’s history being what it is, political opinion on
the scale of the Great Society requires an amount of selfless
equanimity rarely attainable by any one for any length of time. We are
concerned in public affairs, but immersed in our private ones. The
time and attention are limited that we can spare for the labor of not
taking opinions for granted, and we are subject to constant
interruption.