Thursday, April 14, 2005

The fox and the hedgehog: Kerry and Bush revisited

Here's a guy I'd love to have known. Everything I've ever read about Isaiah Berlin indicates that he was one of the most fascinating people ever; a giant mind, a great heart, and a tremendous sense of joy. One of these days (yeah, right!) I'm going to actually read some of his works, instead of just excerpts and tantalizing quotes.

Berlin is famous for his distinction between the fox (who knows many things) and the hedgehog (who knows one great thing). Here's Berlin explaining the idea:

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.

During the 2004 campaign, many people pointed out that Bush was the quintessential hedgehog, and Kerry the classic fox. I agree. So why, so long after the election, am I bringing this up again?

Well, one reason is that I really, really, like the fox/hedgehog distinction, so I thought it bears repeating. But the other reason is something that just occurred to me, and that is that perhaps some of the enmity towards Bush comes from lack of understanding of the value of hedgehogginess. Perhaps even some of the anger at Kerry stems from a contempt for foxiness, for all I know (I'm somewhat of a fox myself, so I don't think that's what I dislike about Kerry--it is his shiftiness and narcissism, and his inability to take any stand.)

It's a yin/yang thing, I guess; the world seems to need both types. Each is best at certain tasks. For dealing with the war against Islamicist fundamentalist terrorism, I think it's clear we need a hedgehog. Others, of course, think a fox is the way to go.

My guess is that the Democratic party right now has a much higher percentage of foxes than the Republicans do, and that hedgehogs are far more numerous among Republicans than Democrats. Perhaps the short version of what happened to people like me, post-9/11 (the very short, hedgehoggy version), is that we changed from fox to hedgehog.

16 Comments:

At 12:02 PM, April 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw some good things in both candidates but felt that Bush would be much stronger in fighting terrorism and voted for him. I always vote the person and lean just a bit towards the Republican side.

 
At 2:17 PM, April 14, 2005, Blogger Lichanos said...

You've certainly put your finger on why Kerry did not appeal to a lot of people, but I wonder what IS the great principle to which GWB adheres? One strength of his is projecting a different concept of his core beliefs to different audiences (Faith in God, Stand strong against terror, Tax breaks for the rich, Simple values, All power to the state, States rights, Free markets...)He can't be for all of them, they contradict one another.

 
At 6:32 AM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

Given the way Bush slaughters the English language, part of me thinks this appeals to an element of common people who don't have a need for much formality in their speech, but when trying to speak in a formal manner, they also flounder. A big part of me thinks Bush is dumb in many respects, yet he is obviously a clever politician.

Some of Kerry's gaffes somehow seemed more blatant, like when he was talking about being a hunter and mentioned something to the affect of crawling through the woods after a deer. This caused considerable derision and hilarity amongst the gun folks, as deer are not hunted in that manner. If anyone doesn't think gun folks constitute a solid block of people/voters, I came across a blog called Nation of Riflemen and the site meter shows over 4 million hits. This deer hunting gaffe somehow seemed more faked and less forgivable than Bush's speaking gaffes. Another thing in my opinion that hurt Kerry in the debates was his note taking. Most people already knew Bush was not the sharpest pencil in the bin, so why would Kerry need to take notes on what he was saying? I wouldn't take notes on someone I believed didn't really know what they were talkig about. Anyway, that is just my opinion.

 
At 7:29 AM, April 15, 2005, Anonymous Paul said...

I voted for GWB because I felt I could not trust JK and that Bush would prosecute the war with the Islamo Fascists. I am not a Bush partisan, but I voted for the man whom I thought was the better candidate under the circumstances as they existed then.

 
At 8:01 AM, April 15, 2005, Anonymous David Hobbs said...

To Lichanos:

"Faith in God, Stand strong against terror, Tax breaks for the rich, Simple values, All power to the state, States rights, Free markets..."

Come now, what type of list is this? You are just creating contradictions and not listing actual ones. Tax breaks for the rich is obviously not one of the President's core values. Infact I'm not even sure tax breaks qualify as a value(s). It is an instrument to serving some economic principle or perhaps some other value, but not a value in and of itself. Much the same could be said for almost any item on your list. You're mistaking the end with the means. For example, all power to the state is certainly not a value of GWB. He may support more power to the national government in the context of threats of terror, but it is not the goal in and of itself. It is merely a tool to reach some other goal, such as "safe america", or some other such principle.

To Goesh:

Interesting idea, but perhaps it is something as simple as that one is a common error and the other isn't? Kerry's mistakes aren't somehow less genuine, just that they are mistakes that the "average" american wouldn't make. This would also somewhat explain some of the vile GWB receives from the intellectual elite. He makes mistakes that none of them would make. I doubt that Kerry lost voters because he took notes during a debate, but I suppose it is possible.

Paul Said " I am not a Bush partisan, but I voted for the man whom I thought was the better candidate under the circumstances as they existed then. "

Lichanos, this is another example of what I was pointing out. In this instance, Paul doesn't have the principle or core value "George W Bush should be President". He wants GWB to be president BECAUSE of his values. Now if later Paul were to want a democrat or hell a green party member to be president, it would be because his values and beliefs led him to the decision that at the present time this type of president would be more valuable. It doesn't entail a contradiction even though the political ideals of the two canidates are certainly in opposition.

 
At 8:51 AM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Lichanos said...

Mr. Hobbs:

I said that GWB projects different concepts of his core beliefs, not values. There is a difference, and you put your finger on it when you said,

"Infact I'm not even sure tax breaks qualify as a value(s)."

I tend to agree. I also have little interest in the professed values of candidates since I don't know them personally, and I regard it as next to impossible to divine their genuine values through the fog and distortion of soundbites, etc. I go more on their record, and the constituents they appear to be committed to pleasing.

Having said that, I must differ with your assessment of GWB: tax breaks for the richest are definitely a core belief/goal/policy of his. I grant him the benefit of the doubt in saying that he may honestly believe that it will lead to a better economy for all, but that doesn't mean much to me. Maybe he is a nice guy, maybe he's a bastard to spend time with ...I don't care And onward...He and other republicans profess a strong belief in the importance of states rights, until it conflicts with their desire to legislate morality. Republicans USED to be for sound money and balanced budgets...'nuff said on that one. Free markets? Remember Cheny intoning during the California power 'crisis' how we must let the "market do its work?" Turns it, it was hardly a free market. And preferential tariffs? How about getting government off our backs? The Patriot Act is not a good example, nor is extraordinary rendition, nor are the botched and absurd arrests that have led to many terror cases being thrown out. Nor is his intense defense of presidential perogatives and secrecy. I'm not charging moral turpetude here - simply pointing out that his professed core beliefs are radically contradictory.

As a coda, I will remark that the desire for a free society is always in conflict with the need to ensure security for its citizens. This USED to be a bedrock principle of conservatism. By keeping it in mind, we preserve our safety and our liberty. Forgetting this inevitable conflict leads to another absured contradiction - the drive to state authority and the professed love of limited government. When New Hampshire citizens declared "Live free, or die!" they weren't advocating a military-industrial complex.

 
At 9:01 AM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

That note taking on Kerry's part may be more significant than we realize, again from a common-man perspective. I certainly am not claiming it was a significant factor, but from the days of the old 3 R approach to education, which many middle class, middle aged people still suscribe to, a common consensus of note taking is that one wants to learn what is being said, that it is very important and must be recorded. That was not the image to project, a tall man hunched over behind the President of the United States feverishly taking notes on everything being said. It strongly conveyed a 'second fiddle' image, one to be viewed with negative perception.

 
At 9:24 AM, April 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lichnos asked "how about getting goverment off our backs?" He should be very happy then with Bushs tax cuts because that is government being on peoples backs worse than anything else, taxes. I bet those live free or die folks in new hampshire complain the loudest about taxes too. The problem with liberals is they always want lots of social welfare at the expense of working people paying more taxes. These same liberals want strong government enforcement of all the social program policies and laws too. Talk about contradictions they dont want the government legislating morality and values but they sure want the government to create more laws and policy for tax paid social welfare.

 
At 10:12 AM, April 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having read a fair bit of Isaiah Berlin, whose work I recommend highly, I think you may be misrepresenting the hedgehog / fox distinction in the way you apply it to Bush and Kerry.

Berlin's own examples of the archetypal fox and hedgehog were Shakespeare and Tolstoy respectively. Berlin himself was a classical liberal in the 19th century mould and his whole intellectual project was a rejoinder to fascism, communism, and other forms of radicalism. Berlin believed that essential goods like liberty and equality conflict and that therefore we need a moderate perspective on things than can balance these conflicting claims.

In that respect, his sympathies are clearly with the fox, with Shakespeare, rather than the hedgehog, Tolstoy, who renounced his art and became a kind of fundamentalist late in life.

Given all that, to me, the more appopriate identification, one closer to Berlin's intent, would be to see Bush as the fox and Osama bin Laden as the hedgehog; Bush as the defender of democratic liberalism and bin Laden as the avatar of militant theocracy.

Anyway, I urge everyone who hasn't read Berlin yet to do so now, especially neo-neocon herself, who should find a lot in his work that speaks to her. The best place to start is *Four Essays on Liberty*, the most thorough articulation of Berlin's ideas and one of the best works of intellectual theory in the twentieth century.

 
At 10:40 AM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Daniel in Brookline said...

An interesting topic; thanks for bringing it up.

I think the "fox vs. hedgehog" analogy is interesting, although (like most metaphors) it oversimplifies. I don't think that Bush "knows only one thing well", as the hedgehog does; the man can be unbelievably canny where you least expect it. (Here are some more thoughts on that subject.) And if Kerry knows many tricks, as the fox does, then it's in the manner of the "jack of all trades, master of none".

Lichanos: you ask what GWB's great principles are. I'd argue that an overriding principle, very much evident in GWB's style as President, is that he sticks to his core beliefs. He doesn't always say what he's doing, but when he does we can believe him. He has a firm grip on what he believes, and governs accordingly... and doesn't mince words about it.

All of this was a refreshing contrast to Kerry, in my mind, back before the election. Kerry's famous "flip-flops" drove me crazy, as he tried to appeal to one interest group after another. No doubt Kerry does have his own core interests and beliefs, but he didn't talk about them -- ever.

(For example, I suspect that, since Vietnam, Kerry has remained suspicious of the use of American military power abroad, and thus has sought to reduce American military effectiveness so that it wouldn't be misused. That's a reasonable position to take, although I don't agree with it... but I suspect Kerry knew that voicing such an opinion would be electoral suicide, no matter how fervently he believed it.)

In the end, this doesn't reflect Bush's principles; it reflects his character, i.e. the aspect of his personality that guides his formation of principles. Bush's character appealed to me more than Kerry's, which was a big part of why I voted the way I did.

Great blog! I'll be back frequently.

respectfully,
Daniel in Brookline

 
At 11:06 AM, April 15, 2005, Anonymous Bill Barnes said...

For Berlin, hedgehogness was on balance a negative and foxness on balance a positive, though of course all real thinkers are mixes to some degree and there are better and worse versions of each. Berlin himself was,in the end, a bit of a hedgehog, his holy grail being value pluralism without relativism. Hedgehogness is good if it is just grasping the big picture, not missing the forest for the trees, being intellectually ambitious; but hegehogs tend toward the dogmatic fundamentalist, the self-righteous prophet, the passionate idealogue, and that's bad. Berlin's hedgehogs were the Jacobins and the reactionary romantics, the communists and the fascists. Foxes are attuned to reality on the ground. At least since 9/11, Bush is definitely a hedgehog, not a fox, and Berlin would disapprove. Easiest way to get a quick take on Berlin is to read Michael Ignatieff's biography. For a very stimulating somewhat parallel conceptualization and critique of hedgehogness, and brief for foxness, see James Scott's Seeing Like a State.

 
At 12:19 PM, April 15, 2005, Anonymous neo-neocon said...

I appreciate the guides to Berlin (sounds like a travel book!). His work, as I said, I haven't read, but I would like to when I get some time. In this essay, I was going mainly on descriptions and summaries of his work as interpreted by others--which, as we know, can sometimes be quite misleading and simplifying.

I also read or heard somewhere a description of FDR as a hedgehog, at least when it came to the Depression and WWII. FDR was quite a different guy than Bush, of course, but apparently he was also not considered to have been an intellectual in the sense that Kerry or Wilson, or even JFK were thought to be. According to what I've read, he had the capacity to get an idea into his head that he thought was the right course of action, and to not thereafter be troubled by hesitation about it once he'd made up his mind (sort of like the opposite of Hamlet). He was an incurable optimist, and resolute. Those are characteristics I also include in my own personal (and perhaps flawed) definition of hedghoginess.

 
At 1:23 PM, April 15, 2005, Anonymous David Hobbs said...

To Lichanos:

I apologize, I did misread your original post, but I believe an aspect of my point still stands. You stated that he couldn't possible be for all of the listed propositions because they contradicted one another. But that isn't necessarily true. It is perfectly possible for him to be in favor of any of the above propositions at different times and under different conditions. For example, if one were concerned primarily with the general liberty of a nation, then one would in general be in favor of States rights and a less centralized national government. Ok, new scenario, let say said nation is now under threat of conquest from anothe opposing nation. In this instance only a strong national government could defend the entire nation. Our politician would want to increase power to the national government because death and conquest are obviously more dangerous to the liberty of the nation than an increase in centralized powered ( or perhaps more precisely, a temporary increase).

" I'm not charging moral turpetude here - simply pointing out that his professed core beliefs are radically contradictory. "

True enough, but I still fail to see your contradiction! Your examples can only be seen as contradictions if they are taken as absolutes. But I think it is obvious there his core beliefs balance these various political propositions. He is not in favor of absolute power to the State, but in favor of increased power under condition x and only covering power(s) y.

"I will remark that the desire for a free society is always in conflict with the need to ensure security for its citizens."

And this is exactly my point! There is a balance that needs to be maintained and concidered at all times. No one need is absolute. In different conditions the scale can obviously tip one way or another depending on the needs of the nation. You may have shown that you disagree with GWB on where exactly this balance should be, but you certainly haven't shown a contradiction in his policies nor his beliefs.

 
At 1:34 PM, April 15, 2005, Anonymous Gene said...

Neo-neo: I think you will get a lot out of Berlin, but be prepared for some work. The guy was the master of the 150-word sentence. Be prepared for a lot of backtracking in search of subjects and verbs. OTOH, sometimes as you slog through his essays, you'll come across a single paragraph of amazing clarity and force that will just about knock you over.

 
At 8:21 PM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Lichanos said...

Mr. Hobbs said:

"...You may have shown that you disagree with GWB on where exactly this balance should be, but you certainly haven't shown a contradiction in his policies..."

Okay, I certainly differ on where the balance point is, and your point is taken - I may not have demonstrated contradiction. Personally, I feel that the GWB administration is the most dishonest since Nixon, and I actually believe there is more hypocrisy than intellectual confusion, but I haven't demonstrated that here either. It would take a long blog of its own to argue that one. I'll just say that his presentation of the Social Security policy issues strike me as a good example of his deep dishonesty, or reckless disregard for truth.

[As an aside, I rarely get involved in discussions of whether GWB is a 'liar.' I don't know, and don't much care. A president is so powerful, if he wants to go against the truth, others will do the lying for him. The modern-state equivalent of Henry II and Thomas Beckett.

When Clinton said, "I didn't have sex with that woman..." that was a lie. (Unless you believe that he didn't think - as I'm told many teen agers don't think - that oral sex is REAL sex, but that's another sordid story...) When a man has such strongly held pre-conceived notions, core values if you will, that he doesn't care much about the niggling details of fact, and never concerns himself with hearing from those who do care, then that's a disregard for the truth. It's a powerful tool of politicians, but it's not the same as lying. Reprehensible and dangerous, though.]

As for Anonymous's comment:

"...how about getting goverment off our backs? [Lichanos] should be very happy then with Bushs tax cuts because that is government being on peoples backs worse than anything else,"

I said that GWB 'claimed' to want to get government off our backs, and I said that he pursues many polices that do the opposite. As a hardcore modern liberal, I'm not too concerned with government on my back in the form of taxes. I see government as a useful tool to improve human society. (Yes, I know it can be used to destroy it too.) It seems to me that present day conservatives rail so much against taxes that you'd think they were against them in toto, but of course, then we'd have no government at all. If we want an army, police force, courts, highways, harbors, etc. we need taxes. Taxes in the USA are by far the lowest in the advanced industrialized world. The tax rates in Scandinavia may strike terror into your heart, but they GET a lot for their taxes. They don't pay for college tuition, for example. There are a lot of tradeoffs, and I don't begrudge people their opinion if they feel that low taxes in a society of strivers, some of whom fall through the 'safety net', is the best arrangement. What bugs me is that these same people are often the ones who whine for more services from government when it benefits THEM. A case in point - the rock rib conservatives of the Republican states of Colorado, Utah, and the region, e.g. James Watt. Die hard conservatives all, until it comes to getting the water for their enormous corporate farms for virtually nothing from dams built at terrific cost to the taxpayer. Just one little example.

 
At 4:29 PM, April 29, 2006, Blogger Hildaur said...

You will probably find the book _Expert Political Judgement_ by Philip Tetlock, which describes statistical studies of the accuracy of predictions by political "experts," very interesting.

He seems to conclude that nobody is very good at it, and the the accuracy of prediction correlatted better with thought style (hedgehog vs fox) than with political leaning, education, experience, or reputation. You can get a taste of the book from http://www.newyorker.com/critics/books/articles/051205crbo_books1

While I would agree with the specific cases of Kerry and Bush, I don't think your generalization about the parties really holds. From what I see, the independents and moderates from both sides tend to be foxes, while the "mainstream" (that is, mainstream within the parties) and extremes of each party tend to be hedgehogs.

 

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