It matters

By George Jonas on November 13, 2008

Yes, it matters. Just because you've seen one president, doesn't mean you've seen them all. If you got the president you always wanted for a neighbour, don't yet heave a sigh of relief. If you got the one you always feared, don't yet despair. Knowing who the president is doesn't tell you everything, or even half of it. Presidents aren't free to be what they are. A candidate may be his own person. But a President  is his office. As a leader, he no longer belongs to himself. The Chinese might call him the creature of the three Ps: His people, his place and his period. A leader is a follower by definition.

Leaders create the illusion of acting but what they do is react to the commands of their era and position. Like figures on a chess board, they have a range of permissible moves. Who moves them? Those who believe in historic determinism hold that it isn't the leaders' own ideas, friendships or interests as much as the spirit of the times. The current is too swift for anyone to swim against. The strongest will or highest self-regard isn't enough.

One classic exponent of this view is Leo Tolstoy in War And Peace. If all his life Napoleon wanted to give one order, Tolstoy suggested, that had ran counter to the spirit of his times, ordering it would have been useless. He would have commanded an impossibility and it wouldn't have been obeyed.

Campaigning, like Barack Obama, on a program of "change" is meaningless even if the candidate means it. Change is simply not his to bring about. It's not in his hands. Running on a program of "no change" would have been meaningless, too: Changes occur because of historic trends, and leaders can do little to induce or prevent them. The clock is the clock. You can neither turn it back nor speed it up.

There's an opposing school of thought, though. It holds that individuals make all the difference. This school believes the history of nations, the history of the world, is essentially the story of individuals. We talk about the Napoleonic period or the Elizabethan era for a reason. Everything turns on the ideas, foibles, character and nature of these pivotal figures, including their love lives -- even their health issues. A famous literary expression of this view is British playwright John Osborne's 1961 stage play Luther, which all but attributes the Reformation to Martin Luther's trouble with his digestive system.

These interpretations go in and out of academic or literary fashion. For centuries, the individual hero-theory held sway among historians, tempered (or aggravated) by assumptions of divine interference. History was supposedly made by leader-heroes or anti-heroes, assisted first by the various gods of antiquity, and later by the lone gods of the monotheistic faiths that replaced them.

By the 19th century, social, economic and technological forces eclipsed the importance of individuals and divinities in the study of human events. Did General Wolfe and the Marquis de Montcalm sacrifice their lives at the Plains of Abraham to market forces? Some modern historians would attribute the Seven Years War to little else, yet on that fateful September morning in 1759, the two generals probably didn't think that's what they were dying for. In the deterministic view, if you could rent a time machine and ship President-elect Obama back into the 18th century, it would make a difference only to Joe Biden . The world would be the same. Britain, France, Prussia, Russia, Austria, Sweden and Spain would be at each other's throats under leaders borrowed from the 21st century no less than they were under Frederick the Great or the Duke of Marlborough.

In the last 50 years or so, the pendulum has started swinging back. Some historians and other students of past events have begun to feel that individual leaders do influence what happens in the world far more than a deterministic view would give them credit for. There is considerable leeway for individuals. By mailing Obama  back to the 18th century we could determine, for instance, whether Americans spoke English or French today.

Or Spanish? Now there's a thought. It isn't even so far fetched.

My own view bridges (straddles?) both schools. I suspect the bigger deal is the zeitgeist. Bucking historic trends is difficult -- that's why most leaders govern from the middle in Western-style democracies. I think America's new president will, too.

Yet individuals and their ideas do weigh in the scales. People don't create history only in retrospect by writing and teaching it, but also prospectively by helping to make it. Leaders can deliver change, just as Obama promises to do. Especially change for the worse.

But let's end on an optimistic note. Sometimes they deliver change for the better.

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