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December 21, 2003: Hedgehogs and Foxes

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On the upcoming election: the hedgehogs will face off against the foxes...


The man we selected to be our president, to administer how our government functions domestically and internationally, is fond of making things simple and understandable.

The most obvious examples of this center on our official policy statements regarding how we will now relate to other nations - the various formulations of "you're either with us or against us" and how not falling in line with our policies and actions means that such an uncooperative nation has sided with the terrorists in the battle of "good versus evil."  Enough has been said about that.

As for domestic disagreement with official policies and actions - dissent - those who voice such disagreement are characterized, at best, as harmless but unbalanced "Bush Haters" and, at worst, as traitors, as Ann Coulter would have it.  And much has been said about that.  No need to go over that again. 


This formulation does simplify matters.

As for why we find ourselves in a protracted, worldwide war against certain elements of the Islamic world, the short answer is simple.  "They hate freedom."  It's just envy and resentment.  No more. That's our official line.

On the domestic front, we have adopted the position that Abraham Lincoln was stupidly wrong, that we do not have "government of the people, for the people and by the people."  Big government is bad; in fact, it is the enemy of the people, and not "the people" at all.  Thus government programs and institutions should be privatized given back to the people, as with the current efforts to privatize the national air traffic control system "to get the government off our backs," and efforts as small as replacing all the staff in our national parks with private employees.  The list is endless - abolish welfare, let businesses regulate themselves and all that - but the concept is quite simple.  People should "take personal responsibility" for their lives.  Reduce or eliminate taxes and end "entitlement programs" and let people spend their own money as they see fit.  Government?  Bad.  Individuals?  Good.

There are those of us who think things are a little more complex than all that, who feel we as individuals also live in a community and formed a government to address issues of the common good - and gladly pay taxes for government efforts that help the community.  Some things should be a matter of personal responsibility, but other things are matters of common concern, matters of the common good.  It's not one or the other.  Ah, too complicated.

Some of us feel there are myriad reasons the World Trade Center fell and the USS Cole was attacked and all the rest, and these reasons might be examined as we plan what to do next in the world.  Again, too complicated.

I am fond of quoting what I think Albert Einstein once said - "Everything should be made as simple as possible - but NOT simpler."


That sort of view, of course, gets you nowhere these days.

It has occurred to me that the conflict in which way we proceed from here, whether we reelect, or actually now elect, our current leaders for another four years of this way of seeing things, comes down to a vote between people who are stuck in brutal simplifications, and those who enjoy unsettling complexity.

One side will say the other is making simple things needlessly complex.  The other side will say their opponents are foolishly ignoring the real complexity of the world, of the economy, of the environment.

The hedgehogs will face off against the foxes.

One does tend to recall "The Hedgehog and the Fox" - Isaiah Berlin:


There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense.

But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.

For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel - a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance - and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.

The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.


See Berlin, Sir Isaiah (1953), The Hedgehog and the Fox, New York, Simon & Schuster

The problem is that the hedgehog and the fox will never, ever, understand each other.




And then I came across a fellow hedgehog.

Daniel Davies in London (UK, not Ontario) in D-Squared Digest wrote this about why we went to war, and the "we" here includes the UK.


...one of the few things they teach you at business school which is worth the price of entry; very few decisions in business or elsewhere are "now or never".  It is massively more common for a decision to be "now or later".  Furthermore, corporate finance theory teaches us that the option to wait is usually really quite valuable.  So when we were faced, pre-war, with the following dichotomy -

Option A: Have a war which will kill people and have many undesirable geopolitical consequences
Option B: Leave Saddam in power

- it was necessary to consider not just the pros and cons of A and B, but also the unstated third option which is almost always present whenever you are considering an expensive and time-consuming project.

Option C: Wait awhile to see if a better tradeoff or more information becomes available.

Specifically, my taste was to wait until 2004, when we might have a different American government which wasn't quite so zealously devoted to the project of cocking things up.

This is why I never quite understand why the pro-war crowd, left and right, seem to think that injecting the phrase "Bush is a moron" into the debate is in some way unsportsmanlike, unmannerly or evidence that one's opposition is partisan or not serious.

It's an entirely germane point in considering the costs and benefits of a war whether or not it's being run by a moron, and it is by no means established that the option of a war not run by a moron was completely out of the question.

The benefits of waiting could have been considerable; we might have had a significantly better-planned war and post-war.  And I'd argue that the costs were not so great; although Saddam was indeed a dictator or the variety "brutal", the fact is that those mass graves were filled in the early 1990s.  At the particular time when we were discussing this question, the actual Saddam-caused mayhem was at a much lower level (although, obviously, I would certainly not have chosen to live there).  In any case, any argument based on the assumption that Saddam's domestic brutality was so horrible in 2003 that it could not be suffered to carry on for a single second longer runs into a particularly nasty tu quoque objection; like the rest of us, the humanitarian-bomber crowd were, observably, not out in the streets demanding intervention in Iraq during the first half of 2001, so how serious could this argument actually be?

I'm pretty sure that a lot of us who marched to Hyde Park were in the same camp as me; opposed to "this war now", rather than opposed to "any war against Saddam ever".  A very significant proportion of UK and world opinion was entirely prepared to give them their damn war, if they could only get a UN resolution in favour of it, but they couldn't.  It's simply an error of reasoning to assume, without specific proof to the contrary, that the anti-this-war-now left could be described as "objectively pro-Saddam".  Much fairer to say "objectively pro-Saddam until a sensible plan can be formed to get rid of him, which they judge the current proposal not to be". I'm pretty sure that this was a common point of view, which is why I'm disappointed to see that it wasn't articulated better at the time (I only said anything about it myself in a pretty frivolous way).

Of course, the point would have been moot if there really were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; that of course would have been a decent reason why the "war/not war" decision was "now or never" rather than "now or later".  But I don't think anyone's pushing that line any more.


So.  That's how a hedgehog sees it.