The vital mystery of how we think about the world
One positive thing about living at a time of ideological turbulence is that it can be an opportunity to reflect on how we came to hold our views in the first place. When we do, we find rather quickly that the process is pretty mysterious.
Imagine a breaking news report about a shooting at a local food court. A mentally ill man pulls out a handgun and starts firing, killing three adults and a child before someone in the crowd takes out his own concealed weapon and kills the shooter. Is this story an indictment of America's gun laws for facilitating outbreaks of violence that leave innocents dead? Or is it a story about the genius of America's gun laws for empowering a bystander to save lives and thwart evil?
Those are just two possible judgments of the scenario, both of which map rather neatly onto America's partisan divide. Those living in other parts of the world would undoubtedly come to different conclusions, as might Americans who dissent in various ways from the dominant assumptions of our politics.
But where exactly do these assumptions and the judgments we make on their basis come from?
Why do some view the requirement to wear masks in public during a pandemic as an obvious and prudent public-health measure while others see it as the leading edge of tyranny? Ideology and partisanship are obviously part of it, as are habits of news consumption. But there are other factors, too — like education, age, geography, class, gender, religion, ethnicity, and psychological makeup.
Social scientists and historians do their best to disentangle this web of variables and rank their influence on the formation of opinions. Yet none of them can exhaustively explain why the world and events within it appear one way to one person and very differently to another — or why some people's views shift radically, and sometimes suddenly, over the course of a life.
That's because judgment is perplexing, which is why there's a rich tradition of philosophical reflection on the subject. Aristotle thought that those with the best judgment achieve it by building on good moral habits, refining them until they reach a peak of moral and intellectual virtue (prudence or practical wisdom) that enables the individual to make the right call and devise the right course of action in any given moment.
If that sounds somewhat circular — those with the best judgment achieve it by becoming capable of rendering the best judgments — that's because it is. Other thinkers who reflected on judgment, including Immanuel Kant and Hannah Arendt, blended their own versions of circularity with descriptions of an almost mystical capacity to evaluate experiences and events within the world.
In my own reflections on the subject, I've been thrown back on myself — because I make my living by rendering judgments, because my judgments have changed a lot over the years, because my judgments tend not to conform to standard ideological categories, and because it's never possible to know any mind better than one's own. Two examples of how and why I come to the judgments I do might be able to illuminate the mysterious way the process works.
The first concerns Henry Kissinger and has been prompted by my reading of Barry Gewen's ambitious and highly stimulating new book about the man and the intellectual world in which his views were forged. At the level of ideas and assumptions, I agree with Kissinger about a lot. I think he's right that international affairs are primarily about power, that history is largely a string of tragic conflicts that can never be completely resolved, and that the United States often gets tripped up in its dealings with the rest of the world by its own incorrigible naivete and moralism.
It isn't especially surprising that I would agree with Kissinger on so much. Gewen devotes large chunks of his book to sketching the "family resemblances" among Kissinger, Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and Hans Morgenthau — all of them Jews who fled Hitler's Germany and brought a continental European education and sensibility with them to the United States. Meanwhile, I studied with students of Strauss and remain enduringly influenced by him, and I greatly admire Arendt and Morgenthau. Given that background, you'd expect that Kissinger would be a kindred spirit.
But at the more practical level — the level of applying principles to the real world and assessing specific cases — I find Kissinger's record decidedly mixed, and marked by some colossal errors of judgment. He deserves praise for pursuing a policy of détente with the Soviet Union, for opening up dialogue with China, and for engaging in "shuttle diplomacy" in the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. But dragging out the Vietnam War for years? Expanding that war into Cambodia? And working to overthrow the democratically elected government of Chile and install an authoritarian dictator in his place? All three were awful.
Unlike most of Kissinger's critics, I don't primarily take issue with these actions on moral or legal grounds. If the Vietnam War had been worth fighting and if there had been a reasonable chance of prevailing by extending and expanding it, Kissinger's actions might have been justified. And if the victory of socialist Salvador Allende in Chile's presidential election of 1970 had been a dangerous incursion of the Soviet Union into our hemisphere that seriously threatened the United States, then helping to overthrow its government might have been called for.
But none of those conditionals were true. Whether or not a communist government prevailed in a post-colonial conflict in a Third World country on the other side of the planet should never have been seen as a matter of vital importance to the United States — just as we should never have been foolish enough to consider it a conflict our side could win at anything less than a stupefyingly high cost. There was likewise no reason to consider the Allende government anything close to a threat worthy of betraying America's stated commitment to democratic norms and ideals.
The historical record suggests that Kissinger came down on the other side of these questions not because he was led there by his commitment to amoral realpolitik but because of a mixture of questionable intellectual assumptions and psychological predispositions. As a refugee from National Socialism, Kissinger may have overlearned the lessons of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler in Munich 1938. That left him inclined to consider every potentially expansionist move by a non-democratic adversary a dangerous threat that must be countered, often with a show of force. As a grateful emigre to the United States, he became susceptible to affirming America's exceptionalist civil religion, and formulating foreign policy on its basis. And as an ambitious Washington player out to maximize his influence in the Nixon White House, he was willing to go along with the prevailing Cold War consensus in favor of confrontation even when his first principles pointed in another and wiser direction. (Morgenthau, Kissinger's mentor in foreign policy "realism," never supported the Vietnam War and thought Kissinger made a terrible mistake in prolonging and expanding it.)
Why am I convinced that Kissinger's judgment on these questions was wrong? Partly from my reading of how the Cold War ended, with America's myriad proxy battles with the Soviet Union around the world proving far less important to its eventual collapse than systemic weaknesses at home. I'm also much less inclined than Kissinger (and most members of the American foreign policy establishment) to treat Munich as a universally applicable lesson in the danger of dealing with dictators. And then there's the piece of the puzzle rooted in Kissinger's personal ambitions. I'm disinclined to adjust my views in order to win praise from powerful people.
But why do I hold these views about the world and myself in the first place? The core of the answer probably lies deep in my psyche — in the way my mind has assimilated and prioritized certain lessons about the world and discounted or dismissed others. That's certainly the case with the second example of judgment in action, which has to do with my ongoing dispute with several conservative writers over the character of Viktor Orban's rule in Hungary — and more broadly about the political character of right-wing populism around the world.
In a word, I am deeply troubled by Orban's effort to make good on his promise to institute an anti-liberal form of politics that claims (majoritarian) democratic legitimacy while shutting down media outlets critical of his rule, making elections less competitive, kicking a major university out of the nation's capital, instituting rule by decree, and deploying the most egregious anti-Semitic rhetoric heard in Europe in decades.
This is more than enough for me to conclude that Freedom House is right to categorize Hungary in its latest report as no longer a democracy in the broadest (liberal democratic) sense of the term. But a group of conservatives I respect disagrees quite strongly. Orban's Fidesz Party is merely instituting policies favored by most Hungarians, they claim, and in doing so he's charting a legitimate and admirable path that conservative critics of liberalism across the West can and should try to follow.
Though I value my friendship with these writers and frequently learn from their spirited critiques of liberalism's excesses, I cannot abide Orban's experiment with illiberal democracy. Why? The honest truth is that I think it's because I was raised as a Jew and endured bullying — including anti-Semitic bullying — as a teenager. I can easily imagine suffering persecution at the hands of Orban's government — and imagine an American version of it coming to power and inflicting it here.
It's true that some American conservatives fear a future government of progressives doing something analogous to devout Christians like themselves. Yet it's also the case that nothing remotely like that has ever happened in the United States, where Christians have always constituted an overwhelming majority of the country and where they and their interests are currently represented by the president and executive branch, by a majority in the upper house of Congress, by a majority of Supreme Court justices, and in a majority of state houses around the country.
My conservative friends may not all be fond of Donald Trump, but he and his party are their strongman defenders and champions. They have powerful supporters in the very highest places. They know — or should know — that they'll be just fine no matter what happens.
I know no such thing about myself and my family.
What is the basis of this feeling of vulnerability? Just an outlook on the world and experiences shaped by growing up in a Jewish-American family in the decades following the Holocaust. I was raised to understand that there was once a part of the world where Jews assimilated and thrived. Then things changed, they were no longer welcome, and within a few years they were marked for death.
I don't seriously fear another Hitler. History doesn't unfold in the same way twice. But I do fear the kind of politics that would empower a 21st-century wannabe tyrant if he showed up on the scene, promising to usher in a world more to the liking of my right-wing friends. This would likely be a world in which those like me would be much less likely to thrive. Could it happen here? In the right confluence of circumstances, I'm convinced it could.
In my judgment, my conservative friends are playing with a potentially raging fire in supporting rightwing populism, and I can easily imagine myself and those I love getting badly burned. These friends probably think I'm being foolishly paranoid.
Which of us is right? It's hard to know for sure. That's how it is with our judgments about the world.
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