I’ve been told an election is approaching, one deemed important in some quarters. I respect such an opinion without sharing it. The last time I avidly followed an American presidential election was the Kennedy/Nixon race in 1960. My parents were diehard FDR-style Democrats and JFK seemed to fire their imaginations, especially my mother’s. I had just turned eight and some of their enthusiasm had rubbed off. I would soon write my first book – a collection of potted presidential biographies, based on secondary sources. My research budget was modest.
This indifference to electoral politics is not a matter of philosophy but temperament. By nature I am not an enthusiast. I never had school spirit. As Max Beerbohm puts it in “General Elections” (Yet Again, 1909): “I admire detachment. I commend a serene indifference to hubbub.” Causes don’t move me. I inhabit a world of individuals, not demographics. Human nature is largely intractable and moral progress is a myth. The Gulag is a suburb of Utopia. Given appropriate stimuli, like the rest of the species I am capable of savagery – and of selfless sacrifice. No human is pure. As Evelyn Waugh puts it, “we are all potential recruits for anarchy.” Individuals can change; the species, never. Dr. Johnson contributed these lines to Oliver Goldsmith’s 1764 poem “The Traveller”:
“How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
Still to ourselves in every place consign’d,
Our own felicity we make or find.”