Thursday, November 06, 2008


Isaiah Berlin on FDR

After the election, Scott McLemee, who blogs for Inside Higher Ed, asked some folks for ideas about what the new president should read before taking office. One that particularly struck me was Eric Rauchway's recommendation of Isaiah Berlin's essay on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Rauchway's focus as a historian is on the Great Depression and the New Deal; he just wrote a Very Short Introduction on the topic. I love the VSI series - it's like mind candy.)

I thought that the following excerpts were particularly resonant - especially in comparing the campaign styles of Obama and McCain, and in laying out the kind of approach to politics that we hope the Obama administration will follow.

He did not sacrifice fundamental political principles to a desire to retain power; he did not whip up evil passions merely in order to avenge himself upon those whom he disliked or wished to crush, or because it was an atmosphere in which he found it convenient to operate; he saw to it that his administration was in the van of public opinion and drew it on instead of being dragged by it; he made the majority of his fellow citizens prouder to be Americans than they had been before. He raised their status in their own eyes - immensely in those of the rest of the world.…

But Roosevelt's greatest service to mankind (after ensuring the victory against the enemies of freedom) consists in the fact that he showed that it is possible to be politically effective and yet benevolent and human: that the fierce left- and right-wing propaganda of the 1930s, according to which the conquest and retention of political power is not compatible with human qualities, but necessarily demands from those who pursue it seriously the sacrifice of their lives upon the altar of some ruthless ideology, or the practice of despotism - this propaganda, which filled the art and talk of the day, was simply untrue. Roosevelt's example strengthened democracy everywhere, that is to say the view that the promotion of social justice and individual liberty does not necessarily mean the end of all efficient government; that power and order are not identical with a strait-jacket of doctrine, whether economic or political; that it is possible to reconcile individual liberty - a loose texture of society - with the indispensable minimum of organising and authority; and in this belief lies what Roosevelt's greatest predecessor once described as 'the last best hope of earth'.

The full essay is available online from the Southern Cross Review.

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