Saturday, January 24, 2004

Big Hinges

The historian Niall, too-bad-the-Germans-didn’t-win-World War I, Ferguson has sponsored a couple of books of essays on alternative history. His “What If” books are more interesting than many others of that genre if only because the contributors identify some pretty recherchĂ© crises in human history instead of the inevitable “What if somebody had shot Hitler in 1920?” For example, Ferguson himself wrote a piece in the first What If book exploring what would have happened if Charles the First had managed to govern without calling parliament back in the 17th Century. How often I’ve found myself pondering that one!* I have a general problem with “what if” essays, however, though I certainly take Ferguson’s point that events don’t travel smoothly forward on invisible rails. I agree that the future is not determined by material or spiritual laws. But while Ferguson emphasizes decisive events, I see the great contingencies taking place over long stretches of time. I believe it was an instance of human freedom, for example, when the people of the American South decided to preserve slavery come hell or high water, even though that decision involved years of debate and struggle before it was fatally confirmed on the battlefield. Similarly, the Germans didn’t opt for unspeakable barbarism all at once. They spent the better part of the 19th Century taking the path of authoritarian nationalism, willfully coarsening their sensibilities and celebrating the manliness of brutality.

* Like many another contemporary intellectual, Ferguson seems to find Catholicism as alluring as he finds representative government otiose and dangerous. The sorrow and the pity of the English Civil War, the eventual consequence of calling parliament, seems to have been that it set the English against the Roman church. I can well understand why somebody might find the bigotry of English Protestantism unattractive—think of the strutting hatefulness of some of the Orange politicians in Northern Ireland—but why anybody wants to promote a decrepit system of superstition escapes me. Without revisiting the Kulturkampf, if I were presented with no alternatives but the Kaiser and the Pope, I’m not sure I’d prefer the Pope. Ferguson, apparently, wants both. I would very much like to understand why

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