Win Gruening: Politics haven’t changed

  • Friday, December 9, 2016 1:02am
  • Opinion

“Politics are much discussed, so are banks, so is cotton. Quiet people avoid the question of the Presidency … the great constitutional feature of this institution being, that directly the acrimony of the last election is over, the next one begins.” — Charles Dickens, American Notes, 1842.


Admired by his contemporaries and a hugely celebrated writer of his day, Charles Dickens is now remembered as one of the greatest English novelists of all time.

Less well-known was his commentary regarding America after traveling here on a public reading and speaking tour. Following that trip, Dickens wrote American Notes for General Circulation — a travelogue detailing his visit to North America from January to June, 1842. Later, Dickens’ American journey inspired his novel Martin Chuzzlewit.

He met Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Boston, Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore and President John Tyler in Washington, D.C.

Having arrived in Boston, he visited Lowell, New York, and Philadelphia, and travelled as far south as Richmond, as far west as St. Louis and as far north as Quebec. The American city he liked best was Boston: “The city is a beautiful one, and cannot fail, I should imagine, to impress all strangers very favourably.” He also singled out Americans generally: “… People are affectionate, generous, openhearted, hospitable, enthusiastic, good humored, polite to women, frank and cordial to all strangers.”

Despite his admiration for our cities and our people, Dickens was not so enamored with other aspects. Dickens was horrified by slavery, appalled by the common use of spitting tobacco and indignant about his treatment by the press. He was a fierce critic of our political system and what he perceived to be a lack of freedom of opinion.

In a letter to William Macready, a noted British Shakespearean actor, Dickens lamented: “I see a press more mean and paltry and silly and disgraceful than any country ever knew — if that be its standard, here it is. I speak of Bancroft and am advised to be silent on that subject, for he is ‘a black sheep — a democrat.’ I speak of Bryant and am entreated to be more careful — for the same reason. … I speak of Miss Martineau, and all parties — slave upholders and abolitionists; Whigs, Tyler Whigs, and Democrats — shower down upon her a perfect cataract of abuse. But what has she done? Surely she praised America enough. Yes, but she told us of some of our faults, and Americans can’t bear to be told of their faults.”

Much has changed in the last 174 years since Dickens wrote this. Yet, but for some of the names, outdated party labels and stilted language, he could easily have been writing about the 2016 presidential election.

Indeed, “freedom of opinion” today remains stifled by a political correctness so ingrained in various elements of our society and the media that many politicians’ answers to questions of the day are reduced to inconsequential blather.

Which brings me to Donald Trump. It’s not a stretch to posit that much of Trump’s attraction to voters in no small part relates to his complete disregard for political correctness. His unfiltered tweets and offhand comments may not in themselves articulate complete policy positions but they nonetheless effectively circumvent the biased press and reflect what many people are thinking. Some say he is being divisive but isn’t he often saying what many others are reluctant to say? And once said, whether you agree with it or not, isn’t it healthy to debate it?

The media also played an important role in Donald Trump’s victory — in the primary races as well as the general election. By providing free nonstop (generally uncritical) press coverage during the primaries, the media helped Trump win the Republican nomination, perhaps assuming he would be the weakest candidate against Hillary Clinton.

Later, media coverage became extremely critical in the hopes that by exposing his foibles, voters would reject him in the general election. Eventually, it became clear many in the media misjudged the mood of the electorate and their unrelenting campaign against Trump worked in his favor.

Yet, the media seems to have ignored this lesson as their attacks continue to energize the left’s obsession with the popular vote and their perception of Trump’s illegitimacy, encouraging further division and distrust. Irrelevant vote recounts are underway. Electoral College voters are receiving death threats. Coddled students and malcontents, many of whom either did not vote or chose to vote for fringe candidates, are offered counseling, are excused from attending class but encouraged to demonstrate in the streets. To what end?

It’s time to move on. The election is over. The enormity of the political upset notwithstanding, this political season isn’t more divisive or much different from the one Dickens described in 1842. Our republic survived then, even flourished, and Americans can believe it will again.

• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.

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