Election Eve

Peter Wood

“History, which ought to record truth and teach wisdom, often sets out with retailing fiction and absurdities.”  Ah, for the good old days when fiction and absurdities were the only dangers that beset the reader in quest of a true account of past doings.

That cheerful sentence was penned by William Robertson (1721-1793), author of History of Scotland 1542-1603. Or at least I think it was. I found it in a chapter of Scotland in Samuel Maunder’s The History of the World, Comprising A General History, Both Ancient and Modern, of All the Principal Nations of the Globe, Their Rise, Progress, Present Condition, Etc.   (New York: Bill, Witter & Co, 1854). Maunder knew how to bulk out a 1,400-page paid-for-by-subscription history by including postal regulations and the populations of cities and towns. (Cincinnati grew from 46,382 in 1840 to 116,108 in 1850.) But he was not to be bothered with footnotes and bibliography.   We can assume he knew his audience. Thomas B. Hewitt of North Stoningham, Co, whose name graces my copy of The History of World, read deep into the volume, marking his progress through Ireland, Scotland, France, and Spain with folded page corners. Alas, he never reached Persia, or Borneo, or the Nutmeg Isles. One of his descendents found new use for The History of the World by pressing oak leaves.   Well, actually, this was an old use. The history of the world has been pressing leaves for a long time.

I am flipping the pages of the aptly named Maunder to fill up the time until the American electorate writes the next chapter in the history of the world. Will it be the candidate who has no history at all? Or the candidate who is nothing but history? The National Association of Scholars, being a strictly non-partisan outfit, endorses neither.  We take the long view.  No matter which party swings Ohio, Pennsylvania, and every other contended state, American higher education will remain a deeply troubled institution, in need of our ministrations. Republicans have, by and large, treated the ideological capture of the university by the Left as a matter of small consequence, and contented themselves with the thought that, of those 18 million college students, most value the acquisition of a well-paying job over the opportunity to read Noam Chomsky or to delve into Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States

Democrats, by contrast, tend to view the ideological corruption of the university with yawning complacency.   Professors are a reliable constituency, and the success of American higher education in graduating left-tilted individuals who dominate the media, entertainment, and the professions suggests only one urgent need: more of the same.  But thoughtful liberals recognize that there is something amiss in our system, which produces large numbers of graduates who are ill-prepared for either life or work. A form of higher education that does little more than postpone responsibility at the cost of decades of personal debt isn’t really liberal. 

“Algiers,” according to Maunder, “a country of north Africa and which was regarded as the most powerful of the Barbary states, has long been the subject of European indignation for its piratical practices, and the ignominious slavery to which all Christians who fell into its power were irrevocably doomed. But the hour of retribution has at length come.”  The hour of retribution is such a fleeting span of time. Why can’t retribution linger like an August evening? Or a presidential campaign? 

I see historical parallels in nearly every page of Maunder’s tome.   America, now in the place of Algiers, has become the subject of European indignation, and we too face our hour of retribution. We have a candidate, forged in the self-fired furnace of racial indignation and the theology of Reverend Wright, but who has cooled to the temperature of sauvignon blanc. We have another candidate indignant at his own party’s transgression and the ever-rolling barrel of Congressional pork. Indignation, your hour has arrived. We will choose our next president as he whose indignation overmasters the other. Then presumably will come the hour of retribution. 

“Much has been said of the injustice and rapacity of the United States’ government in wrestling from the aborigines their lands,” writes Maunder, “and forcing the removal of the ‘unfortunate people’ beyond the Mississippi. Faultfinders are generally wrong; those who have grumbled upon this subject particularly so.” He goes on to list in detail the munificent compensation paid to the Sioux, the Winnebagoes, and the Cherokees, among others.   This is a sore spot. Certainly we know that the extirpation of the eastern tribes was a sorry chapter in our history and that the cause of sustainability would have been better served if our nation’s westward advance had halted on the banks of the Susquehanna. 

But even here we can rescue some wisdom from the pages of Maunder’s History of the World. “Faultfinders are generally wrong.” This is a truly excellent principle, applicable in various ways to the election at hand. Faultfinders, be they notional swiftboaters, Axelrodders, antiwallstreetbailoutatarians, Palin peccadillo hunters, or Biden blunder buffs have been generally wrong.   But along the way, we have learned some lessons, and we can be especially grateful to the press for restraining its tendency to poke around unnecessarily in the details of our candidates’ pasts. 

Election eve is a time of fretting and anxiety for many people who get caught up in the spirit of partisanship.  I’m sorry to say that scholars are not immune to these temporal excitements. Scholarship, which once prided itself on its detachment from the moment, now often prides itself on how deeply it can be in the moment. This seems to me a serious loss. Shouldn’t there be some small reserve of people left who look upon the hurly-burly of election day with reasonable detachment? For those who aspire to the long view, I recommend spending the remaining hours with a good history of the world. It need not be Samuel Maunder’s. The world has had many histories; just pick a good one, and don’t hesitate to press a few autumn leaves if the spirit moves you. 

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