Goodbye to Berlin
Hitchens, Christopher, The Nation
When official liberalism decides to award itself a pat on the back, it thumps away unstintingly. The death of Sir Isaiah Berlin gave vent to the most orgiastic self-congratulation. With the passing of the spokesman of high liberal values, it seemed, tolerance and pluralism and free inquiry were all but orphaned. Fortunately, Berlin had found time, in the intervals of his dazzling repartee, to rid the world of the scourges of Marxism and "positive liberty," and put rancorous Continental ideologies firmly in their place.
It can be conceded at once that Berlin was just as charming and well-mannered as his sycophants claimed for him. I can remember, as an undergraduate at Oxford, trepidatiously taking him to dinner at the Union before an address on Marxism he gave at the Labor Club. He entranced with memories of Old Petersburg, and beguiled by pretending to grade Marx on the course (PPE -- Philosophy, Politics and Economics) I was then idly reading. "Only a beta-alpha, I think, for economics, but an alpha -- no, I rather think an alpha plus -- for politics." Yes, it was true that Churchill had confused him with Irving Berlin during the Second World War ("the man's an idiot," exclaimed the great imperial statesman after a lunch at which Irving, invited by world-historic error, had freely drooled). The public talk he gave was actually rather slight. His intellectual biography of Marx falsely insisted that Marx was a determinist and a mechanist and an apostle of inevitability; more important, he did not seem to have read the texts that supported the contrasting interpretation.
Once define yourself as emancipated from dogma and ideology, and you can hope to live a life of unexamined lightness. Berlin did not believe in ultimate truths (who does, except the respectable religious?), and he did not think humans should be sacrificed to abstract ideas. For these stands, he earned a Niagara of praise. However, if, for example, you defined Zionism as a political ideology, or "containment" or "deterrence" as abstract ideas, then you would find Berlin quite sinuously and devotedly their servant. He once told a close mutual acquaintance that when he looked at Israel, he understood exactly how the European and American Stalinists of the thirties must have felt about the Soviet Union. A doubly revealing admission, you might say, except that Berlin never made it in public and always acted as a damage-control agent when the interests of Israel were at issue. He wrote about President Chaim Weizmann that "he committed none of those enormities for which men of action, and later their biographers, claim justification on the ground of what is called raison d'etat." Did this mean that the founding of a new state had not involved an injustice to the indigenous inhabitants, justified in terms of a transcendent necessity? Berlin rather backed away from the question. He was much better on Herzen than on Herzl.
In Kai Bird's excellent forthcoming biography of the fabulous Bundy brothers, there are several insights into Berlin's actual views of Realpolitik. McGeorge …
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Publication information: Article title: Goodbye to Berlin. Contributors: Hitchens, Christopher - Author. Magazine title: The Nation. Volume: 265. Issue: 19 Publication date: December 8, 1997. Page number: 10. © 1999 The Nation Company L.P. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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