Letters 1960-75 by Isaiah Berlin: Vast erudition, fluency and humanity, gossip, back-stabbing and name-dropping too

Berlin's letters, superbly edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle, encourage us to ask what is going to be remembered and what is going to fade: the work, or the personality?

Isaiah Berlin – Building: Letters, 1960-75
Edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle
Chatto & Windus, 704pp, £40

Isaiah Berlin’s career fell into three different parts. First, there was a period of growing acclaim during the late 1940s and 1950s. A key anti-communist voice during the cold war, he became a household name thanks to his radio broadcasts on the BBC and he became one of the most important liberal thinkers of the postwar period, the author of works such as The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953) and Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) – his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford.

From the mid-1960s, however, Berlin increasingly came under attack from the new left and, later, the new right. His cold war liberalism seemed out of step with the times and a new generation of historians of political thought was more critical of his academic work. Then, in the late 1980s and 1990s, his ideas acquired a new relevance with the end of the cold war, the fall of Soviet Communism and the revival of ethnic nationalism, especially in the Balkans.

The third volume of his Letters brings the story of the second stage to life. It begins in 1960 with Berlin in his heyday: recently knighted, an Oxford professor, a friend of the great and the good on both sides of the Atlantic. He knows Stravinsky, W H Auden and David Ben-Gurion. He is invited to the Kennedy White House and Anna Akhmatova and Shostakovich visit him in Oxford.

Yet, as the 1960s go on, Berlin becomes more and more embattled, like one of his beloved 19th-century Russian liberals. Under attack from left and right, he writes with feeling of “the awful fate of liberals in difficult times”.

One of “the miserable centrists, the contemptible moderates”, Berlin was not at home in the new world of student protests, feminism and race riots. In May 1968, he writes, “New York – the student riots – the slowly mounting mass of black anger – is terrifying.” Two years later, he writes, “I am 60, this is not my world.”

Even more disturbingly for Berlin, Israel is attacked twice – in 1967 and in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. He agonises as Israel faces destruction from its enemies and then, having won both wars, risks losing the peace. This prompts some of the most powerful letters in the book, especially his exchanges with the Palestinian Omar Haliq.

In much of Building, the Holocaust is a strange absence until it explodes with extraordinary intensity in a series of letters from 1972. Berlin goes to Israel to give a lecture on “Zionist politics in wartime Washington” and comes under ferocious attack from an Israeli, Nathan Yellin-Mor, over his alleged silence about the Holocaust during the war. Berlin mounts a passionate defence against this charge and these 20 pages are the darkest and most troubling part of the book.

This is Berlin at his most engaged. Surprisingly, though, he is often neither original nor illuminating about the events of the day. He writes, “My life is divided between my duties in Oxford and thoughts about conductors; Cuba, Laos, the atom bomb, Berlin pass me by.” There is one letter on the Eichmann trial and just a single reference to Martin Luther King. The great social and cultural changes of the time – the civil rights movement, feminism and gay rights – do not engage him.

However, the editors are surely right to call Berlin “one of the best letter-writers of the 20th century”. He used to say that people were his landscape and the book is full of evocative portraits. His lifelong friend Maurice Bowra was “like a half-extinct, halferupting volcano”, once a “Byronic, satanic, brilliant destroyer” but now “a pathetic old porpoise, fat, resentful, suspicious”. His mother “had enormous vitality, fantasies of what she might have been, passionate love of Ibsen, Hamsun, D H Lawrence . . . all forms of full-blooded self-assertion”.

Many individuals pass through in just a sentence but come to life, like Mr Edelberg, “who used to sell chocolates to her [Berlin’s mother], and wept in a welter of German- Russian Riga broken phraseology”.

Then there are the intellectual fireworks. There are pages and pages of Oxford gossip and endless chatter about Wolfson College and the Royal Opera House, then suddenly Berlin turns to 19th-century Russian thinkers and writers such as Belinsky, Herzen and Tolstoy or late 18th-century critics of the Enlightenment such as Herder and Hamann. Take this on Tolstoy: “Towards the end of his life, [he] was thought of much as [Bertrand] Russell is now – marvellously self-confident aristocrat, a genius in his own proper sphere, but cranky and silly on social and political issues, though so proud, and so eminent, as not to be assailable whatever he said.” These pages are astonishing and bring Berlin’s genius to life.

This is the essence of Berlin and the best part of this volume of Letters, superbly edited again by Henry Hardy, this time in tandem with Mark Pottle. Yet there is always a tension. On the one hand, the vast erudition, fluency and humanity. On the other, the feline gossip, the back-stabbing and the namedropping. In 1972, Berlin wrote about his friend Lewis Namier: “He will live by his works more than by his personality, the memory of which will gradually fade.” The central question this book raises about Berlin is which will fade: the work or the personality? And what will endure?

Man out of time: Isaiah Berlin in 1985. Photograph: Gemma Levine/Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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