John Burns and Isaiah Berlin

… the one an international reporter, the other a philosopher and historian of ideas, have come to remarkably similar conclusions regarding the 20th. century.


Wikipedia tells us that John Fisher Burns (born October 4, 1944 in Nottingham, England) was a British journalist (winner of two Pulitzer Prizes), and most recently, until his March 26 retirement, the London bureau chief for The New York Times. He was thought by many to be “the dean of American foreign correspondents.”


Wikipedia tells us that Sir Isaiah Berlin (born June 6, 1909, in Riga, Latvia, died Nov. 5, 1997 in Oxford, United Kingdom) was a Russo-British Jewish social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas, “thought by many to be the dominant scholar of his generation.”

These two men saw much of the 20th. century Berlin’s lifetime spanning almost the entire 100 years, Burn’s about half that.

Read excerpts from Burn’s Sunday Review article, The Things I Carried Back, in the left column below, and then from Berlin’s “short credo” on the right, the text being read on the occasion of his receiving a Doctor of Laws from the University Toronto in 1994.

Did these two men know one another? In any case Berlin was still alive when Burns wrote his portrait of a cellist playing Albinoni’s Adagio on Sarajevo’s main pedestrian concourse while artillery shells exploded nearby. This was a classic of modern journalism, the sort of reporting that Berlin would have much appreciated, and I’m sure much enjoyed, Sarajevo being on that day as described by Burns, much like Berlin’s own summation of the entire century.

In a Sunday Review article from the Times of April 11, The Things I Carried Back, Burns writes

Tiziano Terzani told the rapt gathering of musicians, physicians, politicians, entrepreneurs, writers, diplomats and reporters that weekend in Florence, “Never forget, it’s not how far you’ve traveled, it’s what you’ve brought back.”

If I have been remembering Tiziano with a special fondness in recent days, it is because I, too, have reached the 40-year milestone in my career at The New York Times, and formally retired last week, six months past my 70th birthday.

It was a fine thing, Tiziano said, to have accumulated all those visas and passport stamps, all those exotic datelines, all those Saddam Hussein puppets and Little Red Books of Mao’s wisdom, all those richly seasoned tales of derring-do. But what, please tell, had we brought back?

In my case, poking from the very top of my traveler’s backpack is something you might expect of a reporter who spent long years in what were then some of the nastiest places in the world, each of them fraudulently dressed up, in their enveloping propaganda, as something entirely different, and benign. What those years bred in me, more than anything else, was an abiding revulsion for ideology, in all its guises.

From Soviet Russia to Mao’s China, from the Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban to the repression of apartheid-era South Africa, I learned that there is no limit to the lunacy, malice and suffering that can plague any society with a ruling ideology, and no perfidy that cannot be justified by manipulating the precepts of a Mao or a Marx, a Prophet Muhammad or a Kim Il-sung.

As Tiziano surely knew, distilling some semblance of enlightenment from a lifetime’s work is not the easiest of challenges, and not only because it supposes the wit to bring order and sense out of years of jumbled, helter-skelter experience — of repression by forces of the left and right, of man’s propensity for cruelty to man, and of the countervailing strains of humanity that endure wherever the worst kinds of malevolence prevail….

The commitment to fairness and balance, and to shunning conventional truths when our reporting leads us in unexpected directions, has been our gold standard — and one that I, like other reporters, undoubtedly failed on occasions when my passions, and the passions of those around me, ran at their highest.

Those moments, I fear, might have to include for me the hours after American troops overran Baghdad in April 2003. At the time, I witnessed and shared the wild public rapture at Saddam Hussein’s fall, which gave way almost overnight to grim forebodings about the murderous sectarian chaos that was to ensue, and which continues, with a redoubled vengeance, in Tikrit, Mosul, Ramadi and dozens of other Iraqi cities and towns where the Islamic State has held sway.

My impatience with ideology has carried over in recent years to my encounters with the societies in the West that are my home: to the widespread propensity, as I have sensed it, for people who lack the excuse of brutal duress that is a constant in the totalitarian world to fall sway to the formulaic “isms” of left and right, each of them full of Yeats’s “passionate intensity,” that excuse, and indeed smother, free thinking.

The bankruptcy of the approach that divides the world into camps of left and right was a lesson learned early. An assignment to China in the early 1970s exposed me to the murderous doctrines of Mao Zedong “Thought,” with victims that numbered in the millions; and a posting to Moscow in the early 1980s, 30 years after Stalin’s death, was redolent of the miseries that a perverted form of Marxism-Leninism imposed on Soviet Russia, with its own ghastly toll in the millions….

If ideology was the scourge of the 20th century, so it has continued to be in many of the worst places of the 21st. Perhaps the most murderous of all states in our time is the North Korea of the Kim family, with millions dead from hunger and the deprivations of vast, hidden prison camps. And the beheadings, mass shootings and burnings-alive committed by the Islamic State have their origins in yet another kind of corrupted, extremist thought.

In all of these places, my experience has been that when it suits the ends of power, ideology can be invoked to prove that 2+2 = 5, or 3, or any other number that suits the state, and to demand that all embrace the madness….

Twenty years ago—on November 25, 1994—Isaiah Berlin accepted the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at the University of Toronto. He prepared the following “short credo” for the ceremony, at which it was read on his behalf.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” With these words Dickens began his famous novel A Tale of Two Cities. But this cannot, alas, be said about our own terrible century. Men have for millennia destroyed each other, but the deeds of Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon (who introduced mass killings in war), even the Armenian massacres, pale into insignificance before the Russian Revolution and its aftermath: the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and the systematic falsification of information which prevented knowledge of these horrors for years—these are unparalleled. They were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and whatever those who believe in historical determinism may think, they could have been averted….

If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally any.

The root conviction which underlies this is that the central questions of human life, individual or social, have one true answer which can be discovered. It can and must be implemented, and those who have found it are the leaders whose word is law. The idea that to all genuine questions there can be only one true answer is a very old philosophical notion. The great Athenian philosophers, Jews and Christians, the thinkers of the Renaissance and the Paris of Louis XIV, the French radical reformers of the eighteenth century, the revolutionaries of the nineteenth—however much they differed about what the answer was or how to discover it (and bloody wars were fought over this)—were all convinced that they knew the answer, and that only human vice and stupidity could obstruct its realization.

This is the idea of which I spoke, and what I wish to tell you is that it is false. Not only because the solutions given by different schools of social thought differ, and none can be demonstrated by rational methods—but for an even deeper reason. The central values by which most men have lived, in a great many lands at a great many times—these values, almost if not entirely universal, are not always harmonious with each other. Some are, some are not. Men have always craved for liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, and so on. But complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality—if men were wholly free, the wolves would be free to eat the sheep. Perfect equality means that human liberties must be restrained so that the ablest and the most gifted are not permitted to advance beyond those who would inevitably lose if there were competition. Security, and indeed freedoms, cannot be preserved if freedom to subvert them is permitted. Indeed, not everyone seeks security or peace, otherwise some would not have sought glory in battle or in dangerous sports….

So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?

I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen…. My point is that some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled—liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity…. the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.

But let me allow Isaiah Berlin himself to end on a more hopeful note with these concluding words from his Credo:

I am glad to note that toward the end of my long life some realization of this is beginning to dawn. Rationality, tolerance, rare enough in human history, are not despised. Liberal democracy, despite everything, despite the greatest modern scourge of fanatical, fundamentalist nationalism, is spreading. Great tyrannies are in ruins, or will be—even in China the day is not too distant. I am glad that you to whom I speak will see the twenty-first century, which I feel sure can be only a better time for mankind than my terrible century has been. I congratulate you on your good fortune; I regret that I shall not see this brighter future, which I am convinced is coming. With all the gloom that I have been spreading, I am glad to end on an optimistic note. There really are good reasons to think that it is justified.

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