Thursday, July 28, 2005

Ich bin einer Berliner ... In preparation for a piece I'll be putting up on the Huffington Post soon, I've been re-reading some Isaiah Berlin. In the process, I came across a passage that articulates well the sum of my own political thought:
...Sometimes a demand turns into its opposite: claims to participatory democracy turn into oppression of minorities, measures to establish social equality crush self-determination and stifle individual genius. Side by with these collisions of values there persists an age-old dream: there is, there must be -- and it can be found -- the final solution to all human ills; it can be achieved; by revolution or peaceful means it will surely come; and then all, or the vast majority, of men will be virtuous and happy, wise and good and free; if such a position can be attained, and once attained will last forever, what sane man could wish to return to the miseries of men's wanderings in the desert? If this is possible, then surely no price is too heavy to pay for it; no amount of oppression, cruelty, repression, coercion will be too high, if this, and this alone, is the price for ultimate salvation of all men? This conviction gives a wide license to inflict suffering on other men, provided it is done for pure, disinterested motives. But if one believes this doctrine to be an illusion, if only because some ultimate values may be incompatible with one another, and the very notion of an ideal world in which they are reconciled to be a conceptual (and not merely practical) impossibility, then, perhaps, the best that one can do is to try to promote some kind of equilibrium, necessarily unstable, between the different aspirations of differing groups of human beings -- at the very least to prevent them from attempting to exterminate each other, and, so far as possible, to prevent them from hurting each other -- and to promote the maximum practicable degree of sympathy and understanding, never likely to be complete, between them. But this is not, prima facie, a wildly exciting programme: a liberal sermon which recommends machinery designed to prevent people from doing each other too much harm, giving each human group sufficient room to realise its own idiosyncratic, unique, particular ends without too much interference with the ends of others, is not a passionate battle-cry to inspire men to sacrifice and martyrdom and heroic feats. Yet if it were adopted, it might yet prevent mutual destruction, and, in the end, preserve the world. Immanuel Kant, a man very remote from irrationalism, once observed that 'Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.' And for that reason no perfect solution is, not merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and failure.
Now, there's a ton I have to say about this passage -- and hopefully at some point soon I'll be able to air most of those thoughts.

But for the moment my main question is this: is the position that Berlin espouses here necessarily an a posteriori one? -- ie, can you rely upon rational discourse alone to arrive at the conclusions he draws, or do you first have to experience, directly or indirectly, the catastrophic suffering to which 'final solutions' inevitably lead?

Berlin struggles to assert that we can reason our way to his conclusions, but frankly, in this one regard I don't find him convincing. For instance, I have a hard time believing Berlin himself could have written that passage had he not witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution as a child or, in his early 30s, lived through the second World War. Even more, I know I would not agree with his position had I not lived in South Africa for a year soon after apartheid, or even in Austria -- with its dim, if resonant, echo of the Holocaust -- this past year.

Meanwhile, the reason I place so much emphasis on the question of historical experience has to do with the nature of American politics. In a country like ours, where our wars are typically fought abroad and the most afflictive consequences of our policies are rarely felt by Americans themselves, do Berlin's conclusions ever stand a chance of significantly informing American political life?


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