Timothy Garton Ash: Isaiah Berlin apologist, a comment by Political Cynic

One has to wonder out loud as to where Mr. Garton Ash has been. David Caute’s book Isaac and Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic’ was published in July of 2015. Which is a searching historical case study of the how of Mr. Berlin’s practice of tolerance was exercised in reality. Note that Mr. Garton Ash compares the Great Man to the  tattered Mr. Hitchens. Rhetorically canny this  comparison of a very rare sort: ‘…Hitchens exemplified courage; Berlin, tolerance.’  The ability of The Berlin acolyte to perceive with clarity ?  But just sample the rhetoric of Mr. Garton Ash on Berlin (Not quite in the category of the worshipful Michael Ignatieff!):

‘Rather, it is a matter of temperament, character, habits of the heart.’

‘Yet Berlin was one of the most eloquent, consistent defenders of a liberal­ism which creates and defends the spaces in which people subscribing to dif­ferent values, holding incompatible views, pursuing irreconcilable political projects —…’

‘Berlin personified not merely tolerance but also an extraordinary gift for empathy, that ability to get inside very different heads and hearts which is a distinguishing mark of the liberal imagination.’

‘It takes a certain quiet fortitude to maintain your intellectual independence when all about you are becoming partisan.’

Note the quotation of Judge Learned Hand that Mr. Garton Ash makes use of later in his essay:

‘In a speech delivered in 1944, explaining what the United States was fighting for in the Second World War, to an audience that included many newly created American citizens, Judge Learned Hand declared: “What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”

The same Learned Hand that attacked the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision:



I find Judge Hand’s argument for ‘Judicial Restraint’ unconvincing, or more pointedly a defense of Jim Crow i.e. Separate but Equal ! But his opinion helped to shape the coming resurgence of States Rights, under the more moderate sounding idea of Originalism. And the formation of the Federalist Society as  a professional organization of Conservative Jurisprudence, that specialized in the manufacture of Anti-Warren Court political hysterics. The Party Line on Brown v. Board constructed by the Federalist Society was that the decision represented Sociology rather than Law, an act of political de-legitimization on the nine to nothing decision. That party line also paved the way for Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito. Five names synonymous with liberty.

Mr. Garton Ash continues, given the Hand pronouncement on the spirit of liberty:

Who can doubt that Berlin was filled with that spirit of liberty? But Hitchens was filled with a spirit of liberty too.Though they tend to distrust, even to despise each other, both these spirits are indispensable. Each has its characteristic fault. A world composed entirely of Hitchenses would tend to intolerance. It would be a permanent, if often amusing, shouting match, one in which there would be neither time nor space to understand — in the deepest sense of understanding, involving profound study, calm reflection, and imaginative sympathy — where the other person was coming from. A world composed entirely of Berlins would tend to relativism and excessive tolerance for the sworn enemies of tolerance.

Mr. Garton Ash’s self-willed ignorance of Mr. Berlin’s unsavory record of intolerance leads him to this overstatement:

A world composed entirely of Berlins would tend to relativism and excessive tolerance for the sworn enemies of tolerance.

At this point Mr. Garton Ash’s essay, or more accurately his two man melodrama, becomes intellectually more palatable, even interesting in the postulation offered by Ralf Dahrendorf’s idea of Erasmians, Mr. Berlin being one of this noble breed of thinkers/actors/advocates. Again the melodrama becomes heightened with the replacement of the Berlin and Hitchens protagonists,  with the more historically suggestive protagonistic relation of Erasmus and Luther. Does the blackballing of Isaac Deutscher by Isaiah Berlin rise to the level of the actual historical drama of the conflict between Erasmus and Luther? As suggestive as this might appear, in terms of producing dramatic interest, rather than the exercise of an historically based honesty about the conduct of Berlin – the reader is at an impasse! Mr. Garton Ash has produced an apologia for Mr. Berlin and this re-description adds an ersatz metaphysical weight to the ideological pettiness exercised by Berlin. The exercise of candor demands that the reader recognizes Mr. Garton Ash’s intent, no matter how intellectually beguiling his subterfuge.

The description of Mr. Berlin provided by Mr. Garton Ash:

Berlin was not notable for his courage. This was a weakness he struggled with. In a letter to a close friend, written when he was already a highly re­spected, middle-aged man, he wrote, “I wish I had not inherited my father’s timorous, rabbity nature! I can be brave, but oh what appallingly superhuman struggles with cowardice!” And in an essay on his beloved Turgenev, he evokes “the small, hesitant, self-critical, not always very brave, band of men who oc­cupy a position somewhere to the left of center, and are morally repelled both by the hard faces to their right and the hysteria and mindless violence and demagoguery on their left. … “

Mr. Hitchens is Mr. Garton Ash’s perfect antagonist, malicious and politically self-serving, while David Caute, a colleague of Berlin at All Souls College, Oxford, provides a more historically objective perspective on the conduct of Mr. Berlin in situ. 

Political Cynic


About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.