It would be a downright shame for 2007 to pass without a celebration, however modest, of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Sin and Society: An Analysis of Latter-Day Iniquity. That's because this little book is jam-packed with piercing, pithy illuminations of the transformation of sin by the Industrial Revolution that remain every bit as fresh and relevant in the early 21st century as they were in the early 20th century. Throughout the decades since Edward Alsworth Ross explored the transformation religious and political leaders have mostly ignored it. But there was one quite notable exception: the 26th President of the United States.
"Your book is wholesome and sane," Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a warm, admiring letter to Ross on Sept. 19, 1907. "You define 'sin as conduct that harms another in contradistinction to 'vice,' by which we mean practices that harm one's self; and you attack as they should be attacked the men who at the present day do more harm to the body politic by their sinning than all others."
The punchy quotes abounding in Sin and Society offers were -- surprise? -- served up by a professor of sociology (at the University of Wisconsin). Here are a few:
"In its reaction against wrong-doing the public is childishly naîve and sentimental. ... It lays emphasis where emphasis was laid centuries ago. It beholds sin in a false perspective, seeing peccadillos as crimes, and crimes as peccadillos."
"Modern sin takes its character from the mutualism of our time. Under our present manner of living, how many of my vital interests I must intrust to others! Nowadays the water main is my well, the trolley car my carriage, the banker's safe my old stocking, the policeman's billy my fist. My own eyes and nose and judgment defer to the inspector of food, or drugs, or gas, or factories, or tenements, or insurance companies. I rely upon others to look after my drains, invest my savings, nurse my sick, and teach my children. I let the meat trust butcher my pig, the oil trust mould my candles, the sugar trust boil my sorghum, the coal trust chop my wood, the barb wire company split my rails."
"How decent are the pale slayings of the quack, the adulterator, the purveyor of polluted water, compared with the red slayings of the vulgar bandit or assassin. Even if there is blood-letting, the long-range, tentacular nature of modern homicide eliminates all personal collision. What an abyss between the knife-play of brawlers and the law-defying neglect to fence dangerous machinery in a mill, or to furnish cars with safety-couplers!"
"Among the chiefest sinners are now enrolled men who are pure and kind-hearted, loving in their families, faithful to their friends, and generous to the needy."
"People are sentimental, and bastinado wrong-doing not according to its harmfulness, but according to the infamy that has come to attach to it. Undiscerning, they chastise with scorpions the old authentic sins, but spare the new. ...The mob lynches the red-handed slayer, when it ought to keep a gallows Haman-high for the venal mine inspector, the seller of infected milk, the maintainer of a fire-trap theatre. The child-beater is forever blasted in reputation, but the exploiter of infant toil, or the concocter of a soothing syrup for the drugging of babies, stands a pillar of society."
"The grading of sinners according to badness of character goes on the assumption that the wickedest man is the most dangerous. This would be true if men were abreast in their opportunities to do harm. In that case the blackest villain would be the worst scourge of society. But the fact is that the patent ruffian is confined to the social basement, and enjoys few opportunities. He can assault or molest, to be sure; but he cannot betray. Nobody depends on him, so he cannot commit breach of trust,--that arch sin of our time. He does not hold in his hand the the safety or welfare or money or the public. He is the clinker not the live coal; vermin, not beast of prey. To-day the villain most in need of curbing is the respectable, exemplary, trusted personage who, strategically placed at the focus of a spider-web of fiduciary relations, is able from his office chair to pick a thousand pockets, poison a thousand sick, pollute a thousand minds, or imperil a thousand lives. It is the great-scale, high-voltage sinner that needs the shackle."
"[T]he old righteousness is not enough. We need an annual supplement to the Decalogue."
"There is nothing like distance to disinfect dividends. Therefore the moral character of the stockholders makes very little difference in the conduct of the corporation."
"You can hiss the bad man, egg him, lampoon him, caricature him, ostracize him and his. Not so with the bad corporation. The corporation, moreover, is not in dread of hellfire. You cannot Christianize it. ... In short, it is an entity that transmits the greed of investors, but not their conscience; that returns them profits, but not unpopularity."
"Fine the law-breaking officers, and the board of directors by indemnifying them encourages them to do it again. Fine the corporation, and, if sinning is lucrative, it heeds the fine no more than a flea-bite. Never will the brake of the law grip these slippery wheels until prison doors yawn for the convicted officers of lawless corporations."
"The directors of a company ought to be individually accountable for every case of misconduct of which the company receives the benefit, for every preventable deficiency or abuse that regularly goes on in the course of business."
It's all but inconceivable that the praise that President Roosevelt heaped on Ross in the letter he wrote from his home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., could have come from the current occupant of the White House or, for that matter, from a long string of his corporate-friendly predecessors.
"With almost all that you write I am in full and hearty sympathy," Roosevelt wrote. "As you well say, if a ring is to be put in the snout of the greedy strong, only organized society can do it.
"You war against the vast inequities in modern business, finance, politics, journalism, due to the ineffectiveness of public opinion in coping with the dominant types of wrong-doing in coping in a huge, highly complex industrial civilization like ours.
"You show that the worst evils we have to combat have inevitably evolved along with the evolution of society itself, and the perspective of conduct must change from age to age. so that our moral judgment may be recast in order more effectively to hold to account the really dangerous foes of our present civilization."
Roosevelt's letter follows the Preface of *Sin and Society*, which was first published by Houghton Mifflin Company and which, with its permission, was reprinted, in 1965, by Peter Smith of Gloucester, Mass. Used copies may be purchased at www.abebooks.com.
Online text and much information about the author may be found by Googling Sin and Society and/or Edward Alsworth Ross. A brief bio may be found at www.bookrags.com/biography/edward-alsworth-ross/.
Morton Mintz covered the Supreme Court for The Washington Post from 1964 to 1965 and again from 1977 to 1980. He is a former chair of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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