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Grave Wisdom from a Grave Oxford Don

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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.