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<nettime> Amsterdam: Berlin
David Garcia on Wed, 1 Dec 2004 17:42:25 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Amsterdam: Berlin

Everything is what it is and not another thing
Bishop Joseph Butler

Everything is what it is and not another thing.
Two concepts of Liberty: Isaiah Berlin.

It is a dark inscrutable workmanship that harmonizes discordant elements
makes them hang together in one society
The Prelude: Wordsworth

Amsterdam: Berlin

On the day on which Theo van Gogh was slain, Job Cohen the mayor of
Amsterdam, moved with speed. He proposed and personally led a
demonstration, a noisy vigil in which demonstrators were encouraged to
bring drums and whistles etc. Cohen aimed to draw together the different
strands of Amsterdam society in a collective shout of rage against those
who would smash the freedoms and way of life Holland has long taken for
granted. Above all the freedom to speak your mind without fearing for your
life. One of the banners I saw on TV, (I chose not to march) simply read
"pas op. Ik heb een mening" (watch out I've got an opinion). Theo van Gogh
and Pim Fortuyn  may have been murdered by very different men and for very
different reasons but what they held in common was a widely shared
libertarian understanding of what liberal society stands for. A society in
which freedom, particularly free speech trumps other values. I believe,
this version of liberalism could be described as liberal fundamentalism..
Job Cohen is one of the few Dutch politicians of any stature, who also
commands a degree of cross party respect rare in these times. But his
current cautious use of language has lead to him being accused of being
soft on Islamic fundamentalism, which must be a novel experience for such
a tough politician.


Rather than go on a march and a bang a drum I found myself foraging (sad
case that I am) through a series of late lectures by Isaiah Berlin,
published posthumously as The Roots of Romanticism. These talks were
transcribed more or less verbatim, so they have a sketchy vitality, vivid
urgent sometimes rambling and scatological. Understandably he did not wish
them published in his lifetime as they were also working notes towards a
book he had started too late in life to be able to complete. But still (on
that day) the words jumped off the page seeming to offer, a different kind
of language and a deeper analysis of the origins of our version of
liberalism. Something that might clarify (as oppose to simplify or resolve)
some of the contradictions of actually living the reality of pluralism, in
the era of globalisation.

In the first of these lectures Berlin proposes that the late eighteenth and
early nineteenth century introduced a new understanding of the notion of
tragedy into western culture. His proposition was that from Oedipus to
Othello the view of tragedy is consistently one in which the tragic events
are the inevitable result of some human weakness or error, some avoidable
or perhaps inevitable lack of something in men: knowledge, skill moral
courage, ability to live, to do the right thing when you see it. But for the
Romantics of the early nineteenth century this is not so, argues Berlin.
Taking examples which range from Schiller's The Robbers to
Buchner"s Death of Danton, tragedy in this iteration is not the result of
any fault, error or weakness in the protagonists but a collision between
heroic individuals sincerely and uncompromisingly perusing incompatible
values. There is a collision here with what Hegel called the *good with
the good*. It is not due to error (or weakness or even fate) but to some
kind of conflict of an unavoidable kind. Here we see the moment in
cultural history when we start to treat difference not simply as a fact of
life but as a value with special moral significance.
It is in Berlin's particular interpretation of the German artists and
thinkers of the Romantic movement that we find the seeds of his own
pessimistic version of the liberalism.

In the Netherlands right now nearly everyone is desperately seeking
solutions. But Berlin's political philosophy implies that outside of
>authoritarian regimes (a road down which the Netherlands might just
conceivably be slipping), quite often there are no solutions. Just choices
all of which will be bad combined with the law of unintended consequences.
Ours is the era always in search of win win solutions. We have grown
unfamiliar with the notion that serious political choice frequently
involves loss and sacrifice not merely trade offs or compromises but
genuine sacrifice of desirable ends: so much liberty sacrificed for so much
equality or justice sacrificed for the sake of mercy. and so on..

The value of Isaiah Berlin's perspective is not that it offers solutions;
rather it frees us from the illusion that there is something wrong,
unnatural or illiberal about a society made up of extreme antagonisms. Lack
of harmony does not always represent political failure; indeed it is the
complacent refusal to confront the presence of these antagonisms that has
been a contributing factor to the current spiral of violence and tragedy.
But the opposite is also implicit in Berlin's approach. A suggestion of the
need for vigilance, circumspection  (even courtesy) in our use of language.
It is interesting how in the current climate the term "political
correctness" is frequently used to ridicule anyone who seeks to use
language respectful of the sensitivities of particular groups or cultures.
Since Fortuyn blew the roof of Holland's cozy and paternalistic consensus
politics, unedited expressions of prejudice if they reflect our "feelings"
have become positively fashionable.  Feelings have become big political
business in Holland these days. Open expressions of saloon bar bigotry, is
taken, if not always for native folk wisdom, then at least as a healthy
antidote to the pieties of old style politics. And those who dare to
criticize the current rise of Islamophobia are likely to find themselves
denounced as the mind police of political correctness.

Berlin reminds us that pluralism will necessarily generate a complex
landscape of potentially conflicting values and antagonisms. They will not
need to be sought out; they will be all too present. Antagonisms should be
neither suppressed (the Dutch mistake in the past) but neither do they need
to be deliberately inflamed (the Dutch mistake in the present). Only
liberal fundamentalists such as Geert Wilders, Theo van Gogh and Fortuyin,
who interpret free speech as a free for all. For Berlin. "Loss was
because values were in conflict and because human reason was incorrigibly

Berlin's ideas are important for us because he helps us resist our
addiction to quick fixes and the organized optimism that inform the party
political democracy of a consumer society (as the recent US elections
showed us pessimistic realists rarely win elections). Living in a
pluralistic society will never be a soft option. It is simply the kind of
society, which most openly expresses the intrinsically divided nature of
human psychology. In proposing a human nature this is an essentialist
creed, but not in the manner of cynical and simplistic Darwinian
neo-liberals who sees the market economy as an expression of our
essential nature as competitive predators, or even Karl Popper's
technocratic and critically rational "open society". Berlin's contribution
was a darker liberalism that laid the emphasis squarely on the fact that
values are frequently incompatible; justice and mercy, equality and liberty
often find themselves irreconcilably at odds in daily life, in principle
and (most happily) in art. Reason could clarify facts, but choice itself
was an act of will, instinct and emotion and as such was a gamble made in
the dark=EE.  It is the incompatibility of values that gives rise to the
tragic dimension of liberal choice.

In his various and numerous reiterations of this perspective Berlin is a
useful corrective to the happy clappy third way social democrats who
promise a world full of choice but without loss or sacrifice (we are
promised low taxes AND social justice for all). But it also makes him the
enemy of utopian politics, which often seek to elide different values into
a harmonious and seamless unity. He saw this tendency as the main reason
why utopian political movements tend to morph into authoritarian regimes.
The quote he used most often was Bishop Butler's "Everything is what it is
and not another thing " for Berlin "liberty is liberty, not equality or
fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience..
The truth has never made men free, and freedom did not always make men

David Garcia

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