Sunday, July 31, 2005

At the moment (as for the last few months) I've been trying very hard to do what I'm supposed to be doing, namely, write a thesis on Isaiah Berlin. This has led to a self-imposed no-blogging policy. However, lately I've been coming across little tidbits that have made it hard to resist the resurgent urge to blog. One was a review Berlin did of Norman Cohn's book, which distracted me for a bit and led to the post below. Now , reading a review Berlin did of Adlai Stevenson's book A Call to Greatness, I again find myself moved to make a probably invalid and certainly objectionable historical analogy to current events.
Stevenson, of course, was the embodiment of mid-century American liberalism and the embodiment of the intellectual politician -- the man attacks on whom made 'egghead' a part of popular speech (he wasn't actually that much of an intellectual, but he was more intellectually curious than most politicians, and his speeches were really good; and he had a big, bald head. Ergo, in the world of American politics, he was considered an intellectual). Unfortunately, then as now, Americans apparently didn't care to elect intellectuals, so he didn't fare too well. But he did inspire devotion from liberal intellectuals; and in the wake of McCarthyism held out hopes for a more moderate (though still genuine) anti-Communism combined with a humane domestic policy (civil rights, civil liberties, that sort of stuff). Call to Greatness, as summarised by Berlin, seems to me to offer advice that is wise and applicable to the 'war on terror', and criticism that is as telling applied to the Bush administration as to the foreign policy of the fierceley anti-Communist John Foster Dulles. I've therefore pasted the (un-edited) passage of my thesis dealing with Berlin and Stevenson below; I apologise for taking this short-cut to blogging, but I really should be devoting all my writing energies to the thesis. (Speaking of which ... why am I writing this?) I think I've represented Stevenson's and Berlin's views, and something of the context from which they emerged, pretty faithfully, though it's possible that some of my own view of my own world has shaped my account. So enjoy what may well be a mixture of presentist history and the analogical fallacy at their worst!:
Stevenson’s stance was that of a moderate, rather than a hard-liner. In Berlin’s account, he warned that the Western world ‘must prepare for a long endurance test’, which would require patience and moderation, and an acceptance of ‘neutralism’ as, at any rate, better than Communism (Stevenson, and by implication Berlin, thus urged a more temperate attitude to non-anti-Communist liberals, as opposed to the fierce, either/or outlook of Koestler and Burnham). Stevenson cautioned against a militant, bellicose, bullying stance, since this would (in Stevenson’s words, quoted by Berlin) ‘win few hearts’.
Speaking through Stevenson, Berlin wrote that the chief danger facing America was ‘impatience, arrogance … belief in quick solutions’, and the ‘fatal tendency to believe in "absolutes of right or wrong, black or white," leading to the exploitation of the public appetite for simple solutions and prompt and inexpensive results’. Stevenson pled for the same virtues that Berlin advocated in public life - ‘sympathy, modesty and the temperate use of power’ – and warned against quick panaceas and total solutions for problems which may be the by-products of a passing historical period, more likely to disappear with it than to be solved, and will duly be replaced by other problems which no one can yet foresee.’ This was precisely the position of pluralistic political wisdom that Berlin would directly champion late in his life.
Berlin praised Stevenson (and Kennan) for criticising ‘the sermons at present emanating from’ the Republican Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (whom Berlin called ‘a kind of [Woodrow] Wilson in reverse’) as ‘a menace which … terrify America's allies and work in the interests of her enemies.’ Berlin wrote as a liberal anti-Communist, fond of and sympathetic to America, who had to contend with anti-American sentiments which were widespread in British and European society. Suspicion and disapproval of the U.S., based both on the plight of black Americans and the scourge of McCarthyism, was not only exploited by the pro-Communist Left; it also affected liberals who had no sympathy for Communism, who looked to the U.S. to stand for liberal values and found it betraying those values in its domestic policies, as well as among conservatives who were jealous of American power, and contemptuous of American ideological earnestness and self-righteousness.

Ok, is it just me, or does this tune sound familiar?

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?