Triumph of the Hedgehogs

What characteristic do neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz, hard left-wing political magazine The Nation, conservative-without-qualifiers The National Review and liberal commentator Eric Alterman all share? Despite their bald divergences in political ideologies and opinions, they are, without exception, hedgehogs, as identified by Isaiah Berlin in his 1953 essay on Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Berlin saw in the words of the Greek poet Archilochus—“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—the two essential perspectives from which thinkers interpret the world. Hedgehogs are those that “relate everything to a single central vision,” while foxes are wary of grand truths and embrace a diffusive, pluralistic outlook. To put it another way, Hedgehogs think centripetally around a central organizing principle and foxes centrifugally, recognizing that some values can both be moral and contradict each other.

Of course any abstract dichotomy risks sacrificing accuracy for theoretical neatness. As Robert Benchley remarked, there are two groups of people in the world: those that divide the world into two groups and those who do not. The question then is whether a categorization can reveal aspects of our world that previously were hidden or merely adds an artificial and unnecessary interpretative layer. Spectacles improperly used distort and blur, but when accurately prescribed they bring surroundings into sharper and clearer focus.

It is true, for example, that one can better understand American writers by peering through Philip Rahv’s classification of Palefaces (e.g. Washington Irving, Henry James) or Redskins (e.g. Mark Twain, Walt Whitman), just as one can more readily grasp an artist’s creative personality by knowing Friedrich Schiller’s binary division between the “naïve” and “sentimental” artist. One can even distinguish between the fine shades of idiocy through Vladimir Jabotinsky’s bifurcation of the winter and summer fool: The former is one so bundled up with clothing that only after time does this characteristic become apparent (aka the cable-news pundit), while the latter parades around in beachwear, all too happy to flaunt this quality to any passerby (Paris Hilton comes to mind). Berlin’s formulation also has an elegance and richness that illuminates rather than darkens. Dante, Plato, Hegel, and Nietzsche all bear the monistic outlook of the Hedgehog, while the ambiguity of the Fox is obvious in Goethe, Shakespeare, Balzac and Aristotle.

The Fox/Hedgehog division is especially helpful in framing the current political discourse in the United States, which, despite its heated rhetoric, shows remarkably little biodiversity in Berlin’s terms. Hedgehogs, to mix metaphors, rule the roost. Opinions have narrowed to the point where knowing the stance of a periodical or commentator is to know their conclusion, almost eliminating the bother of reading what once was quaintly referred to as “the argument.” If one is anti-administration and anti-war, or for that matter the opposite, then ipso facto his or her claims, facts, and conclusions flow directly from this starting position. In many ways, the hedgehog’s “organizing principle” now performs a role similar to the “prime mover” in Aristotle’s cosmological argument—every position is causally linked back to this original source. If one supports principle A, then when discussing subject B, inexorably he or she will arrive at conclusion C.

There is no admission of the fox’s view that a principle might not apply in all cases or that values we hold dear can, at times, contradict each other yet still remain equally valid. To use one of Berlin’s examples, liberal democracies subscribe to both equality and freedom. Yet in reality there is a necessary trade-off between the two, with either’s full realization excluding the other. The key point of divergence between the two species is that a fox embraces the world’s wonderful complexity on its own terms and recognizes good ends can conflict with each other. However, the fox is not a relativist—a rough hierarchy of values is obtainable so that a liberal democracy is not simply another political system, but is clearly superior to a totalitarian regime. The former’s ability, imperfect though it may be, to allow its citizen the freedom to choose their own path and route to happiness absolutely trounces the latter’s efforts to dictate the same effect, regardless of any noble or utopian pretensions.

To translate into a contemporary example, if one emphatically criticized the current administration’s handling of the Iraq War, a fox would still acknowledge the prospect that the administration might have acted correctly in handling a different international or domestic issue (even possibly some aspects of the War) without an a priori dismissal. Whether one counters that a situation has not arisen to test this proposition is immaterial; what is important is that such an outcome is at least a conceivable possibility. How many American commentators, periodicals, or newspapers today would subscribe to such an outlook?

The current dominance of hedgehogs, however, is particularly surprising considering that the rise of the Internet, along with the “democratization” of the media that it ushered in, seemingly would have favored the plurality of the fox. Back when the word blog still appeared in quotation marks (i.e. the 1990s), there was a measured optimism that the Internet’s ability to enable individuals to easily access, share, and publish information would reinvigorate civil society. The halcyon days of the Greek forum where all could speak and all could participate had ostensibly returned on a global scale—Agora 2.0 if you will. However, the cracks in this ideal were already apparent well before the tech bubble went belly-up in 2000.

The Internet did level the playing field and introduce more opinions and news sources, itself an impressive accomplishment, but it also allowed us to easily filter those same sources. One can now quite happily subsist on a diet of Power Line, Frontpage Magazine and the Wall Street Journal Online, or, if you prefer, Daily Kos, Salon and The New York Times Online. Both approaches often refer to the same events and discuss the same issues, but each interprets them differently—and the twain shall never meet. The Internet, rather than producing a flowering of civic culture, let a hundred little Pravdas bloom, with each reinforcing its own hedgehog-like view. We have lost the sentiment that archetypical fox George Orwell expressed when he said that some things remain true, even if Lord Halifax and the Daily Telegraph say they are true.

In a recent issue of The New Republic, Jonathan Chait identified a sliver of this phenomenon by recognizing how the ideology of the liberal “Netroots” mirrors that of the conservative movement. He argued that in the Netroots, a “measure of an idea is its rhetorical effectiveness, not its truth.” But this sentiment—the core of the hedgehog’s view—is not confined to these two groups alone. It would be more accurate to see the Internet as reinforcing and aggregating a trend that already infused our entire political discourse and has become increasingly bitter as we approach the fifth anniversary of the American intervention in Iraq.

In time of war, however, this state of affairs is to some degree understandable. Since the stakes cannot be higher, a polarizing, black-and-white attitude is not only predictable, but arguably reasonable. With lives on the line, who wants to hear from foxes who pepper their positions with too many qualifiers, constantly positing “however,” “on the other hand,” or even “while there is some merit in my opponent’s argument.”

But understanding why this occurred leaves unanswered the key question: So what? What if hedgehogs have squeezed out foxes? Before we can attempt a reply, it is important to emphasize that there is seemingly little intrinsic superiority to being either a fox or a hedgehog. They are simply empty frameworks from which to view the world, with the deciding factor being the content that we pour into them (which is why comparing President Bush to Osama Bin Laden, even if both are avowed hedgehogs, is a particularly odious example of intellectual laziness). Therefore, if the hedgehogs currently packing our political discourse are all committed to liberal democratic principles (admittedly a generous assumption), then why shouldn’t foxes go the way of the dodo?

Well for one thing, academic research favors the fox. Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment, for example, utilizes Berlin’s terms to categorize political pundits and shows that foxes are significantly more accurate in their predictions than hedgehogs. Hedgehogs’ ideological fervor predisposes them towards dramatic “boom or doom” scenarios, which simply materialize much less frequently than the measured, nuanced developments envisioned by foxes. From an empirical standpoint, foxes cleave more closely to, and thus sketch a more truthful picture of, our messy reality.

The Iraq War itself is an excellent case in point of how hedgehog-like our discussions have become and why this clouds our understanding of what is actually happening. The need of many commentators to justify their “organizing principle” of either supporting or opposing the US invasion in 2003 has led to a peculiar, one-eyed approach. One good example would be the contradictory interpretations given to the situation of Iraqi refugees in mid 2006, before it was clear that there was a wholesale exodus from the country. Amir Taheri, arguing for the achievements and accomplishments of the American intervention in the June 2006 issue of Commentary, pointed to a general return of refugees. He noted, “Iraqis, far from fleeing, have been returning home. By the end of 2005, in the most conservative estimate, the number of returnees topped the 1.2 million mark.” However, when we examine a hedgehog from the opposing camp we receive a contrary picture—Tom Hayden on The Nation’s Website in August 2006 points to a large exodus of Iraqis as a sign of the abject failure of American efforts. He states, “At least 4 million Iraqis…have become refugees since 2003, with 3 million sheltered in Syria, 1 million in Jordan and many thousands more living in various places from the United Arab Emirates to Europe.”

While I am suspicious of the figures cited by both (the UNHCR’s April 2007 report stated that 300,000 refugees returned between 2003 and 2005 and that two million have left the country with another two million internally displaced) the issue is more than a vapid “the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” A hedgehog’s need to have the evidence fit their conclusions, rather than the reverse, means they are unable to acknowledge what Max Weber labels the “inconvenient facts.” As a result, a skewed picture is produced from which we are likely to draw even more flawed recommendations. A more nuanced depiction of the seemingly contradictory positions above could have described how immediately following the toppling of Saddam there was a sizable return of Shiites and dissidents, but with the deteriorating security situation there was a larger exodus of mainly Sunnis and members of the middle class. From this basis, we can more accurately frame the consequences of toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime and add content to the sometimes simplistic notions of “success” and “failure.” In other words, foxes are necessary because they offer something more than a thin realism; they embody a willingness to subject all arguments to a vigorous and often ironical skepticism, accepting that it might lead to unexpected—or even unwanted—conclusions.

But stopping at this level of analysis misses a larger point—both foxes and hedgehogs are indispensable. Foxes stress prudence, but left unchecked they risk becoming entangled in a morass of details and qualifiers, unable to see approaching icebergs that will upend the entire system. The hedgehog’s retort to the fox is that of Pindar, “in ways of single-heartedness may I walk through life, not holding up a glory fair-seeming but false.” Or to use 9/11 parlance, a fox can suffer from a “failure of imagination.” Revolutions, innovations, and transformations, while more infrequent, reorder our world. It is the single-minded focus of the hedgehog that recognizes the approach of these discontinuous changes, as well as provides the determination and sustained effort necessary to actualize them. John Stuart Mill, an unmistakable fox, described the power of the one-eyed observer in his essay “Bentham,” a tribute to his hedgehog utilitarian mentor Jeremy Bentham. He noted, “If they saw more, they probably would not see so keenly, nor so eagerly pursue one course of inquiry. Almost all rich veins of original and striking speculation have been opened by systematic half-thinkers.”

Today, however, we find ourselves in the opposite situation. The triumph of the hedgehogs has meant that American political discourse, whatever the partisan stripes, is concerned primarily with ideological purity and vanquishing opponents. Without the fox’s focus on dull reality the risk is more than rushing over looming precipices, but once over the edge continuing to blindly pump our legs, heedless to the fact that we long ago left the ground behind. Yet there is a funny thing about reality; no matter what our beliefs it will eventually make itself heard. Like a dentist’s appointment that is continually pushed off to avoid a filling and ends up requiring a root canal, the longer the wait the more severe and painful the corrective action. For everyone’s well-being, not least of all the hedgehogs, let us hope that the fox shares more in common with the phoenix than the dodo.

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