Albert Einstein, Albert Einstein: His Life and Universe, America and Americans, Bertrand Russell, conflict, democracy, England Your England, Eugene Debs, Fascism, Genus Americanus, George Orwell, Government, John Steinbeck, March, Marching, Military, nonfiction, Pacifism, Patriotism, peace, politics, protest, Rosa Luxemburg, Socialism, Spectacle, Walter Isaacson, War, Why I Write
“When troops would come by, accompanied by fifes and drums, kids would pour into the streets to join the parade and march in lockstep. But not Einstein. Watching such a display once, he began to cry. ‘When I grow up, I don’t want to be one of those poor people,’ he told his parents. As Einstein later explained, ‘When a person can take pleasure in marching in step to a piece of music it is enough to make me despise him. He has been given his big brain only by mistake.'”
Albert Einstein, as described in chapter 2 (“Childhood, 1879-1896”) of Walter Isaacson’s biography Einstein: His Life and Universe.
“One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim.
Why is the goose-step not used in England? In the British army… the march is merely a formalized walk. It belongs to a society which is ruled by the sword, no doubt, but a sword which must never be taken out of the scabbard.”
George Orwell, reflecting in a segment from his essay “England Your England,” which is published in his collection of essays Why I Write.
“It is a strange thing how Americans love to march if they don’t have to. Every holiday draws millions marchers, sweating in the sun, some falling and being carted away to hospitals. In hardship and in some danger they will march… but let the Army take them and force them to march, and they wail like hopeless kelpies on a tidal reef, and it requires patience and enormous strictness to turn them into soldiers.
Once they give in, they make very good soldiers; but they never cease their complaints and their mutinous talk. This, of course, does not describe our relatively small class of professional soldiers: they are like professionals in any army; but national need calls up the citizen soldier, and he is a sight. He kicks like a steer going in, bitches the whole time, fights very well when he is trained and properly armed…”
John Steinbeck, writing in his essay “Genus Americanus,” which can be found in his last published book, America and Americans.
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During the First World War, prominent public figures in all three of these men’s home countries were jailed for not marching in lock-step into the conflict. Because she opposed the war and had become one of the figureheads of the German socialist movement, Rosa Luxemburg spent most of the war in prison and was eventually murdered by German soldiers in 1919. In England, Bertrand Russell was thrown into Brixton Prison for six months for “passive resistance to military or naval service.” And in the United States, the famous union leader and five-time presidential candidate Eugene Debs was charged with ten counts of sedition for making an anti-draft speech on June 16th, 1918. He was eventually sentenced to ten years in prison and was disenfranchised for life.
If you’d like to read more from Steinbeck, check out another selection from America and Americans, in which he points out a curious paradox at the heart of how Americans appraise their presidents: “The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else…”
Or, see more from Isaacson’s biography of A.E., including a page describing Einstein’s obsession with identifying the causality behind the laws of nature. “When I am judging a theory… I ask myself whether, if I were God, I would have arranged the world in such a way?”