Plaint du Jour


A wise and gentle friend tried to explain the rage engendered in some quarters by the halting words offered in this space last time. He suggested that the response—a couple of dozen letters to us and a jeremiad in a newspaper—was not the coordinated reaction of a vast conspiracy but the result of genuine dismay at finding “the political issue du jour in the SCHOLAR.” The friend’s words did not sting; they stunned. The subject, after all, was war. Is war merely “a political issue du jour”? At first glance, you might think that Emerson, in the speech that named this magazine, says so: “The world at any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy.” But Emerson is not arguing for disengagement from the world and its controversies. Just the opposite. What he is arguing against is knee-jerk reactions, or reactions based on self-interest. The role Emerson envisions for the intellectual, what he calls “Man Thinking,” is to bring a longer view to “the world of actions … the passing men and events of to-day,” a view informed by “the conclusions of history.” As the friend’s explanation suggests, though, one person’s historical perspective is another person’s narrow politicization.

One reader wrote to complain that we had turned the SCHOLAR into Newsweek (another that we had turned it into The New Yorker without the cartoons—if only). Many readers, including even readers unacquainted with the editor, wrote to say, simply, that they approve of the new look and focus of the magazine. We liked those letters. When I wrote back to the reader who made the Newsweek comparison, I suggested that she had responded to the cover lines rather than to the articles themselves, and she counter-suggested that the editor will not get very far by accusing the reader of not reading. Point taken. The cover for this issue headlines articles about Social Security and the Lawrence Summers flap, among much else. Issues du jour? Perhaps. But the articles themselves, we believe, are written by people who know their subjects and bring an Emersonian detachment to these issues. Please read them.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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