The Long Goodbye, Part 2


Last week, I suggested in New Matilda that Tony Blair, as he quits the role of British Prime Minister, presents in some ways a more disturbing spectacle than George W Bush.

At least Bush has shown no competence for anything more than play-acting and the crudest sort of government-by-cronyism. It is harder to assess a politician like Blair who has been often, at more or less the same period both steadily effective and substantially demented.

But precedents are not so rare: consider the McCarthy years in 1950s America, or the witch-crazes of early-modern Europe and America. Stigmata are fairly consistent in all instances: there’s the seamless, universal scope of the evil which good citizens must combat (or be judged collaborators); then there’s the thirst for special laws, even torture, to collect evidence otherwise inaccessible. Most of all, there’s the disconnect between passion mobilised and the substance, if any, of the peril.

Real Communists, of course, were white-anting the USA after World War II, but their efficacy was not remotely proportional to the panic sustained. By contrast, the Satanic conspiracy of the ‘witches’ was totally unreal as was the great Jewish plan for world-mastery which convinced many Russians, and half-convinced many Westerners before metastasising into Nazism in the 1930s.

Witch-hunting is regularly condemned as a medieval hangover into our world, but it’s truer to say it is characteristically if episodically modern. Jean Bodin, the modern State’s first master-designer, worked in mortal dread of Satan’s terror network. James I was an English king of fair quality not just for an early judgment-call on smoking. He faced-up to following Elizabeth I (the supreme monarchist act), coolly settled affairs with Spain, and chaired with skill the most creative of all literary committees, producing the Authorised Bible. Yet, he was capable also of pursuing rings of Mephistophelean agents supposedly fixing a hurricane to drown him.

There were no real witches, but there were real, entirely innocent Jews. The supreme danger of anti-Semitism and related epidemics is that even great gifts may not immunise: it’s hard to forget the shock of encountering TS Eliot’s Jew among the rats gnawing at Europe’s foundations.

And crazes become dangerous to speak against often depraving rational policies which have the misfortune to share times with them. For instance, George Kennan‘s careful plan for containing Stalin’s real threat to Europe became, to his dismay, a lethal panic about a global domino train expected (absurdly) to encompass all of Indo-China and South East Asia.

The craze usually arises internally. Not because external threats are absent they may be quite potent, like al-Qaeda but because the ability to engage with the complexity of a situation has collapsed. Ambiguity, the most fatiguing component of reality, becomes intolerable, bringing about the condition in which British Middle East specialists found Tony Blair during the Iraq countdown (see last week’s article).

Doubtless Blair’s moment was unique, but far from novel. The great victory of 1945 gave the USA an infallibly simple world (which vanished almost immediately). The causes of that vanishing were manifold, and at the time often inscrutable. So, there was obvious relief in rendering the causes as one Red evil, denying multiplicity. Similarly, witch-crazes gripped Europe as the medieval synthesis Rome’s confident account of universal existence yielded to pressures unseen since classical times. After long denying the reality of witches, the Church reversed itself and declared the craft crimum exceptum, and said that no cruelty could be excessive in repressing it.


Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated 1953 essay on Leo Tolstoy as historian, ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox,’ suggested that powerful intellects work in two ways: the hedgehog (Plato, say) who ‘knows one great thing’; or the fox (Shakespeare, say) who ‘knows many things.’ The modes aren’t rigidly exclusive, and Berlin calls Tolstoy a fox wanting desperately to be a hedgehog. The supreme Russian novelist matchlessly perceived the complexities of existence but they oppressed him, and he ached for a system to unify and judge them. At the same time, though, his scrupulous mind exploded every simplification he could discover until he abandoned even rationality’s form, and adopted radical quietism.

My suggestion is that periods of oppressive complexity are ‘hedgehog times,’ and that hedgehog minds are often gifted, but without Tolstoy’s self-critical rigour they fall ready victims to fantasy. To this, let’s just add that Professor Philip Tetlock, quoted last week after a 30-year study of expert political advising, consulting and analysing suggests, cautiously, that foxes do it better.

But surely our rich West is beyond the agonies and nightmares of either the Renaissance or the Cold War? Well, why should wealth give immunity if intellectual power and aesthetic virtue fail? Cannot the problems of success also be seriously oppressive for government?

Until recently, heroic genius would have been required of an administration if it even aspired to manage cyclical economic catastrophe. Few seriously did hence the depressing predictability of boom and bust. But now that skills synthesised from Keynes and Friedman are widely distributed, quite mundane officials commonly succeed. Touch wood, of course.

(See Paul Krugman’s brilliant account of the synthesis, in his Introduction to John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money .)

But the productivity of our brilliant economies may be more mysterious than ever as so many grand old manuals have been pulped adjusting society’s controls is hair-raising if you have little idea how they work in detail.


Ambitious people used to enter politics honourably expecting to exercise power and in doing so improve existence. But not only did they sometimes make things worse: other things sometimes radically improved without much involvement by politicians. Nowadays, they increasingly imitate creativity like karaoke singers masking the fact that many worthwhile aims are on hold till we have a better idea of what we’re doing. Voters see through this, and suspect it won’t end with Tony Blair’s reign.

These are stressful conditions, and perhaps more so than coping with Anglo-Irish relations a tough assignment and one for which Blair has rightly won plaudits, but one recognisably connected with traditional statecraft and well-understood issues.

In any case, some international complications are certainly altogether worse. The Middle East conflict, for instance, has at its core one of the most intense complications possible, where two just causes are locked in contradiction. To my mind, the Zionist side in Palestine is more deeply wrong than the Palestinian, but however that’s argued a deeper contradiction remains: nothing Zionism has done could justify the destruction of the Israeli p
eople, as nothing the Palestinians have done justifies their continuing repression.

And this is no single ‘hedgehog principle’ just one grim item in a list the most resilient fox might despair of analysing.

Of course, a hedgehog principle has been distilled from it, with Tony Blair the most eloquent exponent. The one great thing is that terrorism constitutes a transcendent evil terror being violence used to apply political pressure. It’s a definition which leaks in every historical direction (Tolstoy, an experienced counter-insurgency officer, knew that well). But once you accept it, logic will quickly dispatch you in pursuit of chimerical solutions.

Just before the Iraq invasion, a British general, Sir Michael Rose, gave an interview on ABC TV’s Four Corners which foreshadowed the present nightmare in great detail. (Virtually no British or Australian politician took the slightest notice.) Rose didn’t oppose vigorous pursuit of Western security (generals don’t). But starting with Iraq he found strategically ‘inexplicable.’ By contrast:

if we brought about using the same sort of pressures, diplomatic and military a just and equitable solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians then I don’t think there would be a single Muslim who would suspect America of having other designs.

That overstates things, since frantic Islamic hedgehogs are also numerous (certainly now). But the essence is right. And of course Coalition leaders balk at the Israel/Palestine issue because of its merciless complexity: again, there’s relief in rendering it as one among the many manifestations of a single systemic iniquity, only trivially distinguished by location. And logically, if you strike at one seamless phenomenon, the site of initial pressure need not matter: as in a hydraulic system, it will deliver its effect everywhere.

It should go without saying that a worldview like this can’t survive without a massive, self-destructive volume of fraud and self-deception, breeding lethal incompetence. Plainly, in brokering a peaceful solution in Northern Ireland, Blair never let such an affliction capture his mind. And conceivably, consequent fatigue contributed to the breakdown over Iraq as nobody’s sanity is inexhaustible.

I don’t suggest this wholly explains the Blair catastrophe. There are many other components like the Cabinet decay which grossly inflates the British Prime Minister’s operational licence. But I think it does something to show that it was indeed a catastrophe little to do with personal turpitude, and much more to do with an old political epidemic returning to haunt our world.

The odds are that it will take down more talented individuals before its present course is run.

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