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Civilization and the aeroplane
Anthony M. Ludovici
The New English Weekly 21, 1942, pp. 45
- p. 4 -
As Mr. Davy appears to have been admirably equipped to write the first four chapters, but would have been wise to secure the collaboration of a philosopher for the remainder of his book, his historical chapters are by far the more interesting and alone make the book worth reading.
It is impossible to deal with every important question he discusses. But suffice it to say that he favours a policy of controlling the use of the aeroplane, and does so in the belief that this is the only way to save what he calls "civilization."
In the whole of the reasoning concerned with these two conclusions, however, he thinks and expresses himself more as a dinner-table conversationalist than as a serious and competent contributor to the controversies concerned; for he fails, in the first place, to establish what he means by civilization, and secondly to place clearly the position of new mechanisms in general and the aeroplane in particular in the picture.
Regarding the use of the aeroplane in war, for instance, he says: "though some could foresee the débâcle ahead none had the vision and ingenuity to prevent it," and then argues that "man's scientific knowledge of the material world was already outstripping his knowledge of his own mind and society."
But, we may ask, when, in modern times, has anyone in England, except a mere handful of rare thinkers, regarded it as possible or even desirable to deprive of the chance of development a new or theretofore unknown appliance, no matter how upsetting? Except for Cobbett and Samuel Butler, what great name has recently been associated with the idea of controlling mechanical inventions?
Are we now suddenly to introduce the policy of controlling new mechanical contraptions just because the aeroplane happens yesterday to have proved catastrophic to both civilians and fighting forces all over the so-called "civilized" world? Why this right-about-turn owing solely to the aeroplane? What about the motor-car itself? Before the war, that is in peace time, this lethal mechanical contraption was killing our children at the rate of about 1500 every year on the roads, without any violent unanimous nation-wide protest. In 1928, I wrote in the "Daily Express:" "The chief blessing of man's triumph over Nature was that, through it, he emerged from the constant strife and alarm of the jungle, and secured for himself the cloistered life in which he could cease to be constantly on the alert, looking about for lurking dangers and threats of death. The motor-car has restored to modern life this disadvantage of the jungle; it has cancelled part of man's triumph over Nature. In this sense it is a step backwards." Some of our forefathers, within the framework of a civilization that paid more than lip-service to chivalry questioned the morality of the bow, the cross-bow and other artillery. In 1139, Pope Innocent II forbade their use. At about the same time the Emperor Conrad did the same and for the same reasons. De Quincey also, with definite ideas about a desirable civilization in his mind, condemned tiger-hunting as practised in India. But Mr. Davy advocates his policy of the control of the aeroplane, as it were, out of the blue, without any background, and free from
* Air Power and Civilization (George Allen & Unwin Ltd., Crn. 8vo. pp. 197. Price 8/6 net).
He must know that the tradition in these islands has for three hundred years been in favour of accepting any mechanical invention, regardless of its implications both for society and so-called "civilization." But does this not mean that for three hundred years there has been no precise understanding of what our civilization is and how it might he jeopardized?
Has it occurred to Mr. Davy that any policy of control in regard to new mechanical contrivances must hinge on the possession by the controllers of a definite scheme in pattern for the civilization they wish to preserve? Without such a scheme or pattern, how can they control? What framework are they to control to?
About thirty years ago I wrote of mechanical contrivances in general: "Their worst evils arose when they ceased from being controlled." 1 But when I said this I had in my mind a definite picture of a particular civilization which I described in detail.
Before discussing the control of the aeroplane, therefore, it is incumbent on any thinker worthy of the name, to discuss two matters the principle governing the control of mechanical inventions in general, and then the scheme or pattern of civilization which it is proposed to preserve by the control of certain classes of mechanical devices.
And as this brings me to the question of civilization itself, I ask what Mr. Davy means when he uses the term. Nowhere does he define it as Guizot, or as Dr. H. Smith-Williams does. Nowhere does he get as close to a description of his idea of it as Buckle does.
This is not to say, however, that he does not let certain large and very self-revelatory cats out of the bag. But they are let loose more or less as asides.
With slight reservations, which are not described, he quotes with approval, for instance, Rudyard Kipling's remark that transportation is civilization. Later on, speaking of the 8,000,000 people living in Greater London and the contiguous parts of the Thames Valley, he says they "lived at a fairly high level of modern civilization." And what does he mean by that? He does not hesitate a moment to explain. He says that this means, "they were dependent on the supply of light, heat, power, water, sewerage and communication services on a very intricate scale."
To reply to such statements is beyond the scope of this article I would merely point out that, had we preserved a definite picture of the civilization that was most precious, it might not have been thought so very expedient or desirable to keep 8,000,000 people dependent on these public services; and if we counted and examined the latter one by one, we might find that some of them, at least, never have been and never can be blessings, and that, therefore, it is doubtful if they are "fairly high."
I would, therefore, recommend to both the writer and reader of this book the advisability of taking a little thought about two matters first, the general principle of control as applied to new mechanical contrivances, and to do this, if possible, without allowing the hypnotic influence of the aeroplane in war to dominate the process of reasoning; and, secondly, the question of civilization, what it means, what kind is most precious and desirable, and what measures, including the control of newfangled machinery, would need to be taken to preserve it.
Until ideas on this subject are clarified, and until the great mass of the people and their publicist leaders cease to identify civilization with porcelain-enamel baths and water-closet plugs, it seems to me that the constant reference to the destruction or survival of civilization can only weary and annoy.
1 See my Defence of Aristocracy, p. 49.