by Mark English
I want to say something about political and social commitments. In order to make the points I want to make, I will sketch out my own political and social views (and how they have changed) and refer to the views of Isaiah Berlin. But I am also making some general claims about human values and critical thinking.
My views (not surprisingly) have shifted over time, and I flatter myself that they are somewhat more developed now than they were in the past. Nonetheless, that beautiful old phrase, ‘through a glass, darkly’, still seems to apply. Another image that comes to mind is that of a kaleidoscope.
Is it that the world has changed, or have I? Both, of course. But I don’t think my underlying values have altered much.
Once I was quite relaxed about having (something I didn’t set out to have, but which I slowly recognized to be) a fairly standard, Western, conservative view of the world. America and its World War 2 allies were basically good. They/we had done some bad things in the past (e.g. the bombing of Dresden and, of course, Hiroshima and Nagasaki) but these were, if not justifiable, then aberrations (i.e. they were not characteristic or typical).
In the post-war period, America had been, again, despite some further moral ‘aberrations’ (certain bombing and other operations in Indochina come to mind), basically a force for good in the world. I was inclined at least to keep an open mind about various controversial covert operations. Realpolitik was just the political manifestation of common sense.
Underlying my outlook was a Hobbesian view that peace does not always come naturally and needs to be maintained by a strong sovereign power. This I still believe.
But something has definitely changed. I am less sure of things now. In particular, I no longer believe that the particular grouping with which I identified and towards which I felt a degree of loyalty (‘the free world’) had right on its side; that its causes were basically just and basically good (even if various actors – including the US – did bad things from time to time). This particular myth just no longer works for me.
What probably started my doubts was a brute reality rather than a moral fact, namely America’s decline, which I first began to take real notice of in the early 2000s. As government debt increased and the political system started (apparently) to break down and political views polarized in very ugly ways and as other countries (especially in Asia) gained confidence and gathered momentum and as prosperity spread to previously impoverished regions, it became clear that American dominance was rapidly waning. I think it was this that initially jolted me out of my previous views and led me to reassess the past as well as the present.
There was also a Chinese woman to whom I became quite close and in whom I saw a different kind of conservatism from my own (or my father’s from whom mine probably derived). For one thing, it was anti-American. Her father had been a national hero at the time of the Korean War and rose to the rank of general. Her mother was an opera singer and her maternal grandmother (from whom my friend received much of her education) had been a concubine in the old China.
She was an unusual person. As a young gymnast, she had convinced herself that she could fly and jumped off a fairly high balcony. Not too high, fortunately, but she was injured. No drugs were involved, I assure you. Her culture, a strange mixture of traditional, revolutionary and martial elements, was almost Puritanical.
Anyway, these varied influences – and others, related to my learning more about mid-20th century European thought and history – caused my ideological kaleidoscope to turn.
Shortly before his death, Isaiah Berlin was asked by a Polish researcher about the meaning of life: “Those who seek for some deep, cosmic, all-embracing, teleologically arguable libretto or god are, believe me, pathetically deluded,” Berlin remarked. 
And, as there is no privileged cosmic libretto, so there is no privileged social or political one. Berlin’s kaleidoscopic vision reflected this conviction also.
He was a complex man and a complex and (above all) passionate thinker. As Christopher Hitchens put it: “Fearing that English liberalism on its own was too diffuse and benign and insipid, [Berlin] tried to inject it with a dose of passionate intensity, much of it necessarily borrowed from some rather illiberal sources.” 
Always opposed to fanaticism and revolutionary violence, he was fascinated by certain 19th-century radical thinkers (e.g. Herzen, Sorel). He was also a Zionist of sorts, but he distanced himself both from the secular zealots and their Orthodox counterparts. His vision was clearer than theirs, and his loyalty was ultimately to a broader constituency.
Loyalty is at the heart of things, both in personal and political life. The crucial question is: loyalty to whom, or to what?
To certain values, first of all, I would say, values which one typically sees as being embodied in certain individuals or groups. What I have realized is the tenuousness of the link between values (which persist) and the individuals and groups with which these values are – often quite arbitrarily – identified.
I’m not saying that social ideals can exist in the abstract, apart from actual individuals and actual groups. But any such identification should never be more than provisional. There is a world of difference between taking sides in an ideologically open manner, which involves keeping one’s critical senses alive, and taking sides in a merely political or social way so that the party or the nation or a particular ideology or ideologue becomes the cause.
I don’t know that I can satisfactorily describe the social vision or ideal that drives me. It’s a personal thing and I would probably need to draw on certain literary or cinematic sources to make it plain, books and films which others may not have read or seen. Unfortunately (from my perspective), it just happens to be an ideal which is not celebrated in contemporary Western culture.
I value self-control, a balance between asceticism and sensuality, a non-religious (or anti-religious) stance, good manners, self-reliance, intellectual curiosity, passion – and compassion (and practical help) for those who cannot cope.
I am generally repelled by contemporary progressive thought, by feminism (which all too often is mean-spirited and driven by resentment), and by the current obsession with ‘rights’. The dominant strand of organized secular humanism strikes me as a pale religion-substitute; a watered-down and sentimentalized version of Kantianism or Christianity; a front for progressive politics; a pretext for tedious and superficial moralizing.
These attitudes of mine are largely, no doubt, a function of biological predispositions and a particular upbringing. But the same applies to everyone. The trick is to take one’s deep feelings and intuitions seriously, but not too seriously; to maintain a critical distance. (My dislike of feminism, for example, does not entail a reactionary position or a belief that girls should be discriminated against in terms of education or anything else.)
There is a line in The Book of Revelation which resonates with me: “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” Our deepest intuitions give depth and purpose to our lives. As I see it, managing them involves something like the willing suspension of disbelief which allows us to become involved in fictions like movies or plays or novels.
Passionate thoughts can all too easily override our critical faculties. But any form of critical thinking which does not embrace and come to terms with these unconscious drives and feelings is going to be both bland and impotent.
- Quoted here: http://new.spectator.co.uk/2015/10/fear-loneliness-and-nostalgia-a-return-to-johannesburg/
- See his rambling and amusing essay on Berlin: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n23/christopher-hitchens/moderation-or-death (Roger Scruton calls it “a collage of mischievous gossip, innuendo and self-righteous contempt …”. Enjoy!)