The Spectacles of Isaiah Berlin

By Assaf Inbari

The twentieth century's greatest liberal was anything but a pluralist

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onest liberals know that they are not pluralists. They know that the liberal worldview does not recognize the validity of other worldviews, and that it aspires—using all the economic, media, and military means at its disposal—to make itself dominant. Liberalism is not tolerance, liberalism is not pluralism, and admitting this is not a mark against it; it is simply to recognize the difference between the perception of a liberal agenda as the just, indispensable agenda, and “let a thousand flowers bloom.”
But not all liberals are willing to admit this. The greatest teacher of those liberals who are convinced that they are pluralists was Isaiah Berlin. Berlin’s thought, more than any other liberal doctrine formulated in the twentieth century, reveals a conceptual confusion between pluralism and liberalism. At the end of the twentieth century, this confusion did not appear to be critical or potentially dangerous. In the 1990s, with the fall of the Eastern Bloc, with the euphoric rise of capital markets, and with the fashionable post-modernist discourse that flourished in academia, the West celebrated what seemed to be its final victory. For ten years it had no enemies, and when you have no enemies, it is possible to babble on about pluralism, denigrate the “oppressive” culture of the West, and demand that the “voice of the other should also be heard.” The multicultural discourse that flourished at the time did not stand up to scrutiny, because the “other” did not speak. On September 11, 2001, four years after the death of Berlin, we heard the clear voice of the “other.”
Since Osama Bin Laden made his voice heard, every liberal has had to figure out for himself if he really is a pluralist, as he imagined himself to be. This is no longer an academic or theoretical issue. To counter the clear voices of the enemies of the West, the West must speak out clearly, or else it will be defeated. This year, Europe has incurred Muslim riots in France and Muslim unrest in England and Germany; it has enabled the “others” to build mosques in its capitals that nurture hatred of the West. The repercussions of this foolishness in the name of pluralism were foreseeable but are still being denied. French intellectuals were quick to interpret—and justify—the riots in Paris by portraying them as acts of protest by the poor and the downtrodden. They presented the issue as a social struggle, and in so doing exempted themselves from the question of pluralism. When the Muslim “other” is portrayed as oppressed, his true and declared identity as a jihadist soldier is denied, and so the test facing multicultural pluralism in our time is rejected. Understanding Berlin’s philosophical doctrine, therefore, has become a pressing matter for our time.

Assaf Inbari is an essayist and literary critic.

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