Monday, August 20, 2018

Flashback to 2003: The Iraq War, Isaiah Berlin, and the Next Counter-Enlightenment

The Jerusalem Post

The Iraq War, Isaiah Berlin, and the Next Counter-Enlightenment

by James P. Pinkerton

America will triumph in Iraq.  But for how long?   And what unintended consequences will Americans and Israelis discover a decade from now?  A century from now?  Those are questions provoked by the work of Isaiah Berlin, a man who lived long enough—and saw far enough—to understand the contradictions of grandiose idealism.

Berlin, born in Riga, Latvia, in 1909, witnessed the disaster of World War One up close.  Moving to England, he then lived through the Depression, the rise of fascism, another World War, the Holocaust, and the Cold War.  Such experiences left him, by then an Oxford don, profoundly suspicious of absolutes and, more to the point, absolutists.  His big idea was that there should be no big idea.   To be sure, he was no defeatist; he served in the British government during World War Two.  But his life’s work left him skeptical of ambitious solutions; he had seen how huge movements gave rise to their opposites, and eventually to their own demise. 

Berlin’s writings on the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment illustrate his worldview.  In the 18th century, Berlin notes, the rationalist, anti-clerical views of Voltaire and Rousseau captured the imagination of intellectuals across Europe.  And after the fall of the Bastille in 1789, it seemed that the moment for a continental political restructuring, based on universalist principles of reason and justice, had finally arrived.  Nowhere was enthusiasm for an Aufklärung greater than among German thinkers.   As Berlin observes, “Almost without exception, they began by welcoming the French Revolution rapturously, planting trees of liberty and denouncing as obsolete and brutally oppressive the rule of the three hundred German princes.”

But then the wheel turned.  “Horrified by the Terror and wounded by the national humiliation of Germany by the armies of Revolutionary France and, still more, those of Napoleon,” those same Germans, Berlin writes, “turned into patriots, reactionaries and romantic irrationalists.” One such German was Beethoven.  Living at the time in Vienna, Beethoven originally intended to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon, but after the French leader crowned himself emperor in 1804, he tore up the “Eroica” dedication.   Less than a decade later, he composed a celebratory piece entitled “Wellington’s Victory.”

To Francophiles turned Francophobes, it mattered little that the French were still, more often than not, reformers, abolishing serfdom, establishing new legal codes, emancipating Jews.   But in the first decade of the 19th century, the backlash to French universalism—the Counter-Enlightenment---took two forms.  The first was a sense of a particularist German identity; the second was a yearning for German national unity.   Millions of Frenchmen died in the furious wars to come, and tens of millions of others.

The paradigmatic case was that of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, born in Saxony in 1762.  As a young man, Fichte was a true son of the Enlightenment; in 1799, accused of atheism, he was forced to resign a university position.  But whereas he might have spent the rest of his life mocking ministers, he was soon radicalized in a much different direction; from his new academic post in Berlin, he began celebrating the Volksgeist, the unique and defiantly non-Gallic spirit of the German people.  In 1807-8, he delivered a series of lectures, soon published in a wildfire of a book, Appeal to the German Nation.  Of course, there was no German Nation at the time.  That was the point: Fichte argued that only a united Germany could both repel foreigners and find its true soul. 

Not everyone noticed Germany’s upsurge all at once.  Napoleon was ultimately defeated, not by German romanticists, but by a familiar collection of crowned heads.  Most likely, Napoleon went to his grave in 1821 without thinking much about the deep geysers of sentiment he had helped uncork on the other side of the Rhine.  But even as Bonaparte moldered in St. Helena, Germany was rallying around the most militaristic Teutonic state of all, Prussia.   And in 1871 came the defeat of Napoleon’s country in the Franco-Prussian War.  That victory was sweet revenge, German nation-builders proclaimed, for the humiliations of the past, and it heralded a new Ordnung in Mittel Europa. And of course, those passions led to another seven decades of disaster.

As Berlin sums up, “The French Revolution was founded on the notion of timeless truths given to the faculty of reason…it preached a peaceful universalism and a rational humanitarianism.” But the ideal and the real, to be sure, proved to be much different.  The extended consequences of the Revolution, Berlin explains, “threw into relief the precariousness of human institutions…the clash of irreconcilable values of ideas, the insufficiency of simple formulae; the complexity of men and societies; the poetry of action, destruction, heroism, war.”  The Enlightenment-Counter-Enlightenment dynamic, he concludes, demonstrates “the feebleness of reason before the power of fanatically believed doctrines; the unpredictability of events, the part played in history by unintended consequences.”

And so to the present.   America, a country without much history and without much knowledge of other countries’ histories, is poised to launch a great experiment.  On Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell made an overwhelming legal case that Iraq has, indeed, violated U.N. Resolution 1441.  But in light of all the failures of past American military expeditions—most obviously Vietnam, but also including such Muslim misadventures as Lebanon and Somalia—Powell failed to make the practical case that “liberating” Iraq would prove successful in the long run, let alone that it would lead to a net increase in world security. 

But it’s probably too late for such concerns.   The Bush Administration is operating from theory, not from prudence informed by historical experience.  Such abstract idealism is exactly what Berlin, who died in 1997, warned against.   According to the Bush Doctrine, America must go beyond the removal of Saddam Hussein and the disarmament of Iraq; it must seek to transform the political and religious life of the Muslim Middle East--all according to Western universalist principles of enlightened rationality.  Indeed, words such as “liberation” and “reformation” are on the lips of the bright-eyed Doctrinalists, most of whom have probably never heard of Isaiah Berlin, let alone Johann Gottlieb Fichte.  Will these efforts at a New Regional Order succeed, despite their origins in ahistoricality?  

Here’s a Berlin-influenced bet.  Going into Iraq in 2003 will be easy--just as it was for the French going into Germany in the 1790s, just as it was for the Israelis going into Lebanon in 1982.   But then will come the hard part, the bloody part, the heartbreaking part.  And meanwhile, the backlash will gain momentum.  American-style “globalization” has already generated plenty of enemies worldwide; globalization achieved at swordpoint will generate yet more.   And so somewhere in the world, just as surely as strong action causes strong reaction, the rough beast of a new or rejuvenated counter-ism, schooled in asymmetrical tactics and technologies, is going to rise up, and it will come slouching our way.  


Flashback to 2006: Grave Wisdom from a Grave Oxford Don

The Huffington Post
July 25, 2006

Grave Wisdom from a Grave Oxford Don

by James P. Pinkerton

Sir Isaiah Berlin looked down at the newspaper article and smiled.  Actually, maybe the expression on his wraith face was more of a sigh.   He was reading aloud, in his plummy British accent, the words of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:  “What we’re seeing here is, in a sense…the birth pangs of a new Middle East.”  The professor looked up at me, and added, “I hope she is right, although, of course, ‘new’ can be good, ‘new’ can be not so good, and ‘new’ can also be…” 

His voice trailed off.  “Perhaps I shan’t say anymore.  I saw enough trouble in my own era, and wrote a lot about trouble in times past.  So why do you want to hear from an old ghost now?”  

I was ready for the question.  “Professor, that’s exactly why I wanted to speak with you—why I begged you to descend from the historians’ pantheon long enough to share your wisdom.”  After all, during his 88 years on this earth, Berlin earned a reputation as a man who could apply the lessons of the past to contemporary situations; he served as adviser to the British government during World War Two and again during the Cold War.  

Born in the Russian Empire in 1909, young Isaiah witnessed the disaster of World War One, and the Bolshevik Revolution, up close.  In 1921, his family moved to England, where he could observe, from a safe enough perspective, the Depression, the rise of fascism, and more war.   These experiences left him, as he assumed his long tenure at Oxford, with a profound suspicion of absolutes and, more to the point, of absolutists.   As he wrote in his famous 1953 essay, “There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision...and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory...The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.”

I thought of that hedgehog-fox comparison last year when I heard George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, in which the 43rd President seemed to be saying that all human history could be related to a single central vision of freedom. Was that hedgehog thinking?   And where might such hedgehogging be taking us? 

I needed answers.   Fortunately, Clio, the muse of history, took pity on me; she arranged an audience, or maybe a séance, with Oxford’s former Chichele Professor of  Social and Political History.  And as always, the legendary don had come prepared; he began reading aloud from Bush’s 2005 speech: “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.”

The professor pulled out his pipe and lit it—I guess after you’re dead, health warnings don’t mean much—and then resumed reading from the presidential speech:  “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”  Sir Isaiah read one further sentence: “America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”

The professor puffed on his pipe as he gathered his thoughts. “This rhetoric,” he suggested, “does seem to be a bit on the synoptic side—all things gathered into one totalistic thing.” 

So what did he think?  I asked.  His answer: “We historians are naturally reluctant to pass judgment on contemporary events; that’s why we’re historians.  And it’s doubly true for historians more on the right than on the left.   Just as historical method shies away from immediate judgment, so truly Burkean conservative politics shies away from immediate action.  Let the tea cool in the saucer, as your George Washington once said to your Thomas Jefferson.  So yes, always be leery of too-hasty action in the name of a great goal, no matter how noble.  As I wrote once, ‘To manipulate men, to propel them towards goals which you—the social reformer—see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.’”

I knew I was talking to the right man.   Now to the big vexing question:  What did Professor Berlin think about what was happening now in the Middle East? 

“Do you really want me to tell you?”  I nodded in reply.

“Very well.  I will tell you what I fear.  I fear that we have seen this before.”

“Do you mean the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982?”

He smiled that wistful wan smile of his.  “No.  I mean something even bigger.  I am thinking of the long struggle between the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment in 18th and 19th century Europe—specifically, the many wars in that period between France and Germany.   I fear that America might be replaying the role of France, and the Arabs and Muslims, the role of Germany.”

“I know all about the Enlightenment,” I lied.  “But tell me more about the Counter-Enlightenment.” 

Berlin smiled for real now—the smile of an old lecturer revving up his intellectual engines.  “The French, dear boy, had big ideas, too, once upon a time—as big as those of your President Bush.  In the 18th century, the modernizing words of Voltaire, Rousseau, and the Encyclopedists stirred the imagination of intellectuals all across Europe. And after the fall of the Bastille in 1789, it seemed that the moment for a continent-wide political restructuring, based on universalist principles of reason and justice, had finally arrived.   Serfdom would be abolished, new legal codes written, Jews emancipated from their ghettoes.  And nowhere was enthusiasm for this Enlightenment project greater than in Germany—the Aufklärung, they called it.  As I wrote in an essay on this very topic, ‘Almost without exception, they began by welcoming the French Revolution rapturously, planting trees of liberty and denouncing as obsolete and brutally oppressive the rule of the three hundred German princes.’”

“Hmm. … So today, it’s the Americans who are proclaiming the universal value of liberty.”  

The professor was pleased at my progress.  “Yes.  As with the Germans two centuries ago, many of today’s nationalists in the Arab world appreciate the basic message of liberty and democracy.  But there’s a catch.” 

What’s that?  He answered: “After the initial period of greeting-as-liberators, a backlash sets in.  A people will allow themselves to be ‘improved’ by another people only for a certain period of time.  That’s what happened in Germany.  As I wrote once, ‘Horrified by the Terror and wounded by the national humiliation of Germany by the armies of Revolutionary France and, still more, those of Napoleon,’ the Germans ‘turned into patriots, reactionaries and romantic irrationalists.’” The professor continued:  “One such was Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who gave lectures in Berlin, starting in 1807, in which he argued that only a united Germany could both repel foreigners and find its unique soul.   Eventually, the Germans did unite, crushing the French several times in wars to come, and they found their unique soul—albeit sometimes a dark soul.  The Counter-Enlightenment spawned a new poetry of action, destruction, heroism, and war.  It demonstrated the feebleness of reason before the power of fanatically believed doctrines, as well as the unpredictability of events and the part played by unintended consequences.”

So, I asked, is that what the Arabs and Muslims are doing now?  At first, I suggested to Sir Isaiah—drawing upon his own narrative of the long-ago Germans—many of the Arabs and Muslims were jubilant about our liberating presence, as in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.  But then the hard feelings set in; patriots, reactionaries, and romantic irrationalists got the upper hand, embracing the politics of nationalism and the soul of Islamism in reaction to the West.   Indeed, it seemed easy for this recrudescing Arab Volk to adopt fanatical terror tactics in its effort to repel foreigners and find its unique Islamic Sonderweg—that is, “special path.”  

And so, I queried, is America reaping some unintended consequences as a result—in Iraq?  In Afghanistan?  And is Israel now, too, reaping its share of unintended consequence in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon?  And if we look even further ahead, I wondered, what will happen as Iran gropes its way toward nuclear weapons, and as Pakistan openly announces that it wants many more nukes?

Berlin smiled his sighing smile.  “Alas, I can’t answer these contemporary questions.  I’m an historian, not a prophet.    But as I have told you, almost exactly two centuries after the French Enlightenment went to war against the German Counter-Enlightenment, I have fears now that history is repeating itself, that it’s the American Enlightenment now colliding with the Arab-Muslim Counter-Enlightenment.  The signs of jihad revivalism seem to be everywhere, and the rise of what you call ‘weapons of mass destruction’ will certainly add piquancy to the situation.”

I was feeling queasy as this information sank in.   “So what will be the outcome of this great struggle?”

The professor’s wise and kindly face was starting to fade now; he was leaving me, returning to his rightful place among the History All-Stars.  But he left me with this thought: “The French Enlightenment and the German Counter-Enlightenment fought each other for a century and a half, through 1945.  But one could say that Enlightenment values ultimately prevailed—if that makes you feel better.”

I protested: “A century and a half of fighting?  The Holocaust?  Two world wars, with a lot of close calls, before ultimate victory?  And the German fascists, of course, never had nuclear weapons!”

He was gone now.  All I could hear was his retreating voice: “I wish I could offer you a more direct, or optimistic, answer.  But as my friend Immanuel Kant likes to say, ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.’  So that’s why I am more comfortable with foxes than hedgehogs; the sly nuance of the fox is usually, shall we say, more realistic than the stubborn certitude of the hedgehog.”

Hearing those words, I shouted sarcastically into the nothingness: “On behalf of the United States of Hedgehogging, thanks a lot!”  Then I added, “Are there are any historians up there with you who are more optimistic about the current situation?”

A far and wee voice, already half way home to Clio’s Elysium, answered back:  “I will check.  But I’ll warn you: In our pantheon, we try to be realistic; we have learned that realism reduces disastrous mistakes.  You’ll learn that realism lesson down there, eventually.”

And with that, he was gone, really gone. 


Monday, May 29, 2017

President Trump on healthcare

Monday, March 27, 2017

"A great healthcare plan for the people"

My new article on healthcare for Breitbart.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

"A Deus ex Machina for the Climate Change Problem"--my piece in American Conservative on the need for a more ambitious carbon-capture program.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Bollards and other Barriers: The Value of Passive Defenses in Homeland Security

The news is relentlessly sad: cars running over pedestrians, in Alabama, and in Louisiana--and that's just in the past few days. Whether the perpetrators are drunks, psychos, terrorists--or someone who has lethally lost his or her wits and shouldn't be driving--that doesn't make much difference at the moment when tons of steel comes crashing down on innocent people. 

In the wake of the truck-attack in Nice, France, I wrote about the value of passive defense for Breitbart last summer, here, and here.

The barriers could be static, active, or even self-aware.  But we need to do something.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Carbon Capture as a solution--perhaps THE solution--to Climate Change

This is a screen-grab from a video produced by Carbon Engineering, a British Columbia-based company which promises "industrial scale capture of CO2 from ambient air."  Bill Gates is an investor.

From a non-scientific political perspective, I have written about this idea in the past: In 2012, in 2014,  in 2015, in 2016, and then again in 2016. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014