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A new era

Photo: Gullers, KW / Nordiska museet (CC BY-NC-ND)
Torgny Segerstedt,1940. Photo: Gullers, KW / Nordiska museet (CC BY-NC-ND)

Torgny Segerstedt on new times, published on 22 February 1932.

Time moves fast, and progress is slow. Events move quickly, everything changes in a short time beyond recognition. On the other hand, the more things change, the more they become the same. The explanation is simply that the serpent of time is the same, even when it changes its skin. Those, therefore, who are attached to what is external, are astonished at the rapidity with which the world changes its appearance. Those who look to the essentials feel doubtful whether anything changes at all. It does, though it must be reckoned with very long intervals and fine instruments used to measure the change.

Those who are caught up in the foam on the surface of the current of events, call out the ephemeral and ephemeral as the significant part of what is happening. This is quite true for them, who live their lives like the shavings and bits of bark that swirl away in the ripples. And for this view of life, almost every solstice signifies a new current of time. And they, out of breath, tear their way forward: they must not be left behind. Anyone who wants to keep up with the changes of the modern age will have to change his point of view, his attitude and his slogans as often as his shoes, his suit and his tie.

It is clear that we are facing a general change in political attire. Some imagine that the social order, which has been precipitated by millennia of experience, and which is unsympathetic to them because it is graduated and sorted, is now to be replaced by another. They want to deny its value on the ground that it does not work properly, since the politicians have poured grit and sand into the machinery. It is quite certain that it will be made to work even worse if the treatment continues. Hence no innovation follows.

It is true that at the basis of the order of our modern society lies, if you like, human self-interest. It spurs every man to exert himself and to use what ability he possesses in one direction or another. It is set up in such a way that no one can produce value without it directly or indirectly benefiting everyone. If you cut off the power to work which the prospect of success implies, you cut off the nerve of what has created our civilization.

It is the incompetent who are the bad citizens. They compensate for the feeling of their own inferiority by thinking about how to achieve general equality by cutting down everything that rises above the average. If they succeed in their endeavours, the decline of the civilisation created by the European peoples will begin. It will not last forever, of course. It is quite possible that those who say that the time of the west has come are right.

Since the end of the Great War, we have lived in a period of ideology. It was President Wilson's beautiful words that captured the attention and kept it shackled even after statesmen, in making peace, had totally disregarded the whole neighbourhood song. The League of Nations he created has nurtured this ideological tradition to the extent that it has provided a forum for it. All nations have sent their exponents of this tendency. Never in the history of mankind have so many beautiful speeches been made as in Geneva. The noble speeches of the Holy Alliance pale completely before this array of noble ideas, like Napoleon's war before the World War.

One should not judge the League by this. Its activities have not consisted only in the manufacture of words. The League has served as a political stock exchange. In this respect it has succeeded and happily developed what used to be the concert of the great powers. It has thus created an instrument for reconciling political differences, which has done a great deal.

While the ideologues have talked, the politicians have acted. They have continued in the old ways. Just as surely as society is built on self-interest, people's dealings are regulated by this norm. Politicians have been careful to ignore this. They have stuck to reality instead of arguing about town planning issues on behalf of Utopia.

Now, however, through the power of circumstance, reality has so emphatically made itself known that even those who are numbed by the intoxication of ideology begin to feel the chill of cold winds cooling their temples. We have slipped into a new era, if one wants to count by what is before the eyes. The age of Wilsonian ideology is upon us. Even the most dogmatic are beginning to notice that nations are ruthlessly pursuing their own interests. They invoke the right. It is true. They always have. They all do it in the sense that they stand on their right.

What has changed? Have the forces at work in people's lives changed in nature? Certainly not. It is only the phraseology that has become worn out. Those who have been foolish enough to confuse it with reality have only themselves to blame. Basically, no change has taken place. Now, as always, those with power use it, and the weak succumb. All hail the right, all profess it, and those who have no disadvantage therefrom follow its precepts. But the least impression is made by those who, from the safe refuge of the spectator's stand, lift an admonishing finger to those who have so insisted on their right that they have found themselves in a life-and-death struggle. The right to admonish and moralize is in direct proportion to the danger thereby incurred. A moralizer who has put himself in safety is a ridiculous figure.

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