Wednesday, August 08, 2012

I am a Berliner

Well, this is interesting. I just finished reading Michael Ignatieff's biography of Isaiah Berlin the other day. I just quoted from it yesterday. And here he is being interviewed about it:

IL: Yes, they are. But back to Berlin. You say that he was highly sceptical about the Aristotelian idea that people are "political animals". Is it possible nowadays not to be a political animal? How possible is it to stay out of it all?

MI: One of the freedoms that Isaiah valued, which is not very popular, was the freedom not to be a political animal. The luxury of a truly free society is that political involvement is a choice, not an obligation.

IL: That may be true regarding active political involvement, but there is also the argument that you may not be interested in politics...

MI: ...but that politics may take an interest in you. Oh, sure, sure. And he understood that. He understood that the freedom to be disengaged was possible only in societies like the British one in which he lived in for most of his life. Whereas there are other societies where politics taps you on the shoulder or knocks on your door and can carry you away. In that case, involvement becomes compulsory, in the sense that it's a matter of your survival and your dignity. He understood that. But a good society, I think, is a society where politics leaves you alone and where you choose to get involved or not. I think he was right to say that there are a lot of things that shouldn't be politicized. Healthy societies are societies that don't politicize everything. You choose the best judge, not the politically well-placed judge; you choose the best director of the orchestra, not the one with the best political friends; you choose the best editor for a magazine, not the one who has political connections. If everything is politicized, then everything becomes a zero sum game between those who are in and those who are out. Smart societies just don't do that because it means you don't get the best people.

That reminds me of one of my favorite passages from the book:

A second conflict of values—between privacy and participation—ensued. Against the weight of the whole republican tradition, which had always made political participation and citizenship the redeeming arena of human life, Berlin tacitly defended political quietism, or at least the liberty of those who wanted to keep out of politics. He was highly sceptical, therefore, about the idea held since Aristotle that men were 'political animals'. The desire to participate was simply the desire to be recognised by one's own group, and the desire to belong. There was no reason to suppose that participation, the exercise of citizenship, improved human character. Politics was an inescapable element of human affairs, he argued, simply because human goals were in conflict. Politics was not an emancipatory activity, merely a necessary one.