privilege

The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
Installment 41
PRIVILEGE

We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.

Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.

start of CHAPTER 18, BONDAGE OF THE PRESS

Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of Government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.

- WASHINGTON: Farewell Address.

Dick Turpin is blamed - suppose - by some plain-minded person, for consuming the means of other people's living.

"Nay," says Dick to the plain-minded person, "observe how beneficently and pleasantly I spend whatever I get!"

"Yes, Dick," persists the plain-minded person, "but how did you get it?"

"That question," says Dick, "is insidious and irrelevant."

- RUSKIN: Fors Clavigera, Letter LX.

IMAGINE two of our Princes of Privilege laying out a campaign for the acquisition of a fresh franchise grant. If they had to deal with a political boss, the course would be simple: merely to name the consideration and receive the grant. In the absence of a boss, the process must be different.

"Who would have charge of the matter?" asks one.

"Mr. M, the superintendent of our system," is the reply.

"How many votes could he count in the Board of Aldermen?"

"With no talk or fuss, two thirds; with friction, a few less."

"Could he be sure that the majority would see how the public would benefit by the grant ?"

"He says he could."

"Of course there should be no bribery or scandal, but would he have ample funds for 'attorney fees,' 'clerk hire,' and the like?"

"Ample."

"And suppose the newspapers should cry out?"

"We must take care of that. I own an influence in The Dart. I think the management would be unprejudiced enough to print what we should be pleased to have said. Mr. Y's bank has lent considerable money to The Bow, as I happen to know. We could take him in with us and have him observe to The Bow's management that our enterprise will mean more money to be spent in wages and more rail-road facilities for the general public ; that it therefore should be supported; that, at any rate, it should not be antagonized. And then there is The Quiver: you know it is mainly owned by the Z estate. The executor is a conservative man. We can give enough time to be civil and friendly with him and let him understand how all the conservative interests ought to support us in this matter; that if any of us abandons the others and gives the least countenance to such a thing as public ownership and operation of railroads, there is no saying where the public might let itself be led by unprincipled, self-seeking agitators. If he would not listen to reason, then we could influence some of his larger advertisers to object to a paper expressing the sentiments of socialists and anarchists and to say that to continue to advertise in it would hurt their trade. This would hit the purse and get the paper. But such a plan would have to be well executed to be altogether successful, and the possibility of a misfire makes it an extremity measure."

"But The Fly and The Sparrow - what of them? They would bother us."

"Granted, but they always were against us. Are they important enough to hurt? Besides, it would look better not to have the press unanimous. The charge of 'owning' and 'subsidizing' would not appear as apt. With the three largest papers presenting our argument in our way, and ignoring or belittling that opposed to us, we could put the deal through.

"But the job is a big one - bigger than any before."

"Bigger, because we're bigger.,'

"Such a privilege in the streets capitalized means fifty millions, at least."

"Which makes the weightier motive for capturing politics, the politicians and the press."

This may serve to illustrate the broader conditions. Acquiring through the exercise of their privileges vast wealth, and striving to conserve and extend those privileges through the corruption of politics and by control of the legal and military arms of the government, our princes try at the same time to shape public thought on such matters through the press, the university and the pulpit.

And of the three means of guiding the minds of the multitude, the first and most obvious is the press. A privilege is in violation of equal rights. No sooner does it appear under a popular government than popular attack upon it begins. The natural mouthpiece for this attack is the press. It expresses the consensus of opinion. Privilege at once stealthily moves to get control of that mouthpiece. Getting control, it achieves a double purpose if, without general realization, it offers Esau's hands, but Jacob's voice -- that is, if it makes the popular mouthpiece appear to speak for equal rights, but in reality speak for privilege.

At first it might seem the cheaper and easier course to control the press by putting restrictions upon it. This would appear not to be a difficult matter for the power that manipulates our politics. But such a course would stir the American people to a quick resentment. "The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom of a state," says the Massachusetts Bill of Rights of 1780. "It ought not, therefore, to be restrained in this Commonwealth." This has been the sentiment of the whole country.

From colonial days the press has had a liberty of utterance which to Europeans has appeared to be no less than a wild license, especially as it presents and discusses personal matters. It might be called the public gossip. All manner of questions, public and private, important and trivial, are offered to public view in this forum. If our best judgment does not approve of the excesses committed under this freedom, it prizes the free utterance.

The body of the people have accepted the words of Thomas Jefferson, that such things must be set down as a part of the price we pay for our liberty, which cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it. (To John Jay, he wrote (Paris, Jan.25, 1786, Jefferson's Writings, Ford Edition, Vol. IV, p. 186) : "It is really to be lamented that after a public servant has passed a ~ife in important and faithful services, after having given the most plenary satisfaction in every station, it should be in the power of every individual to disturb his quiet by arraigning him in a gazette, and by obliging him to act as if he needed a defense, an obligation imposed on him by unthinking minds, which never give themselves the trouble of seeking a reflection unless it be presented to them. However, it is a part of the price we pay for our liberty, which cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it. To the loss of time, of labor, of money, then must be added that of quiet, to which those must suffer themselves who are capable of serving the public, and all this is better than European bondage.")

Politicians learned a stern lesson from the attempt of President John Adams to use shackles. He procured the passage of the "Sedition Act," empowering him to punish political criticism in the newspapers. It became one of the main causes of the overwhelming defeat of Adams for reelection in the "civil revolution of 18oo." The century since passed has seen no change in the popular attitude.

The great Federation of Labor, with its one and three quarter million trade unionists, signalized this in its twenty-fourth annual convention, held in San Francisco in the fall of 1904. The labor council of New Orleans had boycotted a newspaper, not on the ground that it was nonunion, but because it had criticised some of the actions of the council. The National Convention of the Federation condemned the boycott in these positive terms: "The untrammeled freedom of the press is so important to the wellbeing, not only of organized labor, but to human civilized life, that no conceivable circumstance can arise that can warrant trade unionists in their organized capacity to place a publication upon a boycott list for the expression of opinion."

And so, aside from Adams's "Sedition Act," we might say, as De Tocqueville wrote fifty years ago: "Not a single individual of the millions who inhabit the United States has, as yet, dared to propose any restrictions on the liberty of the press." Of course there have been repressive acts under military rule, as during the Civil War; and under hostile acts of mob, as with the mob of mine owners and militia in Colorado during the strike struggle in 1903-1904. But these were only isolated cases. We are considering the attitude of the people at large toward the press in general. That attitude has been one of jealous preservation of freedom of expression even to frequent wanton abuse. Privilege, in consequence, has been constrained to guide what it could not muzzle.

For purposes here being considered the press may be divided into two general classes: the monthly and weekly publications belonging to one, the dailies to the other. Putting apart those publications that rarely or never trench upon political or economic subjects, and aside from trade union and propagandist organs, most of the monthlies and weeklies until recently have been in general respects on the monopoly side. Their owners or readers were there. Their sentiments have been boldly or qualifiedly exclusive. They have appealed to the comparatively small privileged class and to those of easy circumstances who uphold that class through a mistaken idea of the nature of monopoly and confusion of it with what is properly wealth. These periodicals have been high of price and small of circulation.

It must be admitted that periodicals of less exclusive and more general sentiments touching monopolies would not before the present time have flourished. The monopoly issue was not ripe. Except in singular instances, the general public took no particular interest in it. A magazine devoted to it and aiming to be popular would have died.

But the rapacious march of monopoly within the past decade has awakened lively popular interest, and latterly a number of low-priced, well-printed, well-illustrated magazines, containing, besides, generally attractive features, have offered exposures of the more flagrant superficial aspects of Privilege, and, in consequence, have sprung into phenomenal vogue.

Yet so long and so many are the arms of Privilege, and so slow are the masses of men to overcome the inertia of habit, especially the habit of thinking, that, save in particular and superficial aspects, Privilege is for the present, at least, safe against general periodical discussion. However searching the examination and cogent the argument of any of these monthlies and weeklies as to this or that phase of Privilege, not one of the flourishing ones will dare arraign the larger and wider aspects for fear of hurting its business credit, which Privilege gives; or of losing advertising, which Privilege closely or remotely controls; or of offending a considerable body of readers, some of whom, belonging to the privileged class, might set it down for a "socialist" or "anarchist" organ, and others of whom, being of the general mass of the population, but advancing by only slow degrees in thought, might dub it a "crank" publication.

Its attacks are really not against even a particular phase of monopoly, but rather a particular kind of transgressing individual. It seeks out the distinct person, as if he and only he by his own moral turpitude were the transgressor; as if the monopoly powers he possesses do not exist elsewhere and in other hands would not produce similar results.

In this way Privilege, by the hurt it can do or by the prejudice it inspires, puts limitations upon even those monthlies and weeklies that attack its outposts. As Privilege grows stronger, the attacking power of such publications weakens, unless, indeed, the body of the people themselves become thoroughly roused. Then all individual wills must succumb to the collective will, if that collective will be well directed. But short of these conditions, Privilege, as it gathers strength, gathers sway over this division of the press.

Next Week: Daily Papers, Competition and Abuse of the Copyright Privilege


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