Edit: I’ve been warned this post is excessively boring.
A lot of the people I admire have starkly different opinions to me, and this is not exactly a new issue for me. My growing obsession with Reinhold Niebuhr has brought it to the fore however, and of late I’ve been pondering my admiration for George Kennan. It was always obvious to me that he was somewhat conservative, but a recent biography reveals the father of containment to be really rather regressive. According to a friend of his cited by author John Lewis Gaddis: “George is ultra-conservative. He’s almost a monarchist.” Kennan’s affection for his idea of a halcyon 19th century America is symptomatic of a pretty much archetypal ultra-conservative attitude. It would be fair to say that for all my flirtation with conservative ideas, I’m a world away from that kind of thinking.
Reinhold Niebuhr himself was, of course, always something of a leftist. What we don’t have in common, however, is a deep religiosity. Arguably the 21st century’s leading American theologian, Niebuhr’s entire world-view was informed, if not defined, by his faith. Whilst I spent much of my youth a Roman Catholic, and accept that those origins retain an immense influence, I’m certainly not one for the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ. I may well take a much kinder view of religious faith than many non-believers, but I’d still argue that there is a substantial difference in mindset between the believer and the skeptic. Perhaps even a bigger difference than between a conservative and a socialist.
I’m a political realist, which isn’t all that unusual for a vaguely centre-left type these days, so is the answer simply that I’m able to divorce my ‘international politics’ and my ‘domestic politics’? Indeed is it that I’m merely separating different aspects of these people’s worldviews? Unfortunately not, because I don’t simply agree with Niebuhr’s understanding of political action, or Kennan’s take on superpower foreign policy, I admire the men themselves, and a few others who don’t make easy bedfellows. I’m a left-wing atheist who admires a protestant minister and a political revanchist of the first order. Exactly how unusual is this, and where does it come from?
I suppose it’s worth considering the extent to which this can go the other way. Not my loathing nominal ideological allies, there’s no surprise there, but avowed lefties who are admired by some on the right. Usually due to readily identifiable integrity, bravery, or a dedication to personal freedom. The brave and committed Peter Tatchell is a good example along these lines, although the fact that he’s openly gay rather limits his appeal for many on the right. Then there are those who remain resolutely left-wing, but happen to have an affection for the use of force. And there always going to be those who simply aren’t very left-wing at all, like the coalition’s favourite ‘red’ Lord Hutton.
I believe, however, that a great number of left-wingers who are lionised by sections of the right are just myopically represented, somewhat like my intermittent and mostly misplaced affection for George H. W. Bush. The biggest example of this would have to be the late Christopher Hitchens. Hitch may well have been in favour of the Iraq war, but so were Johann Hari and Juan Cole. He may have had a kind word for Bush the lesser, but so would I if you narrowed his scope down to, say, AIDS in Africa. Hitchens was a contrarian first, polemicist second, and probably a socialist about fifteenth, but he definitely hated the right. Along similar lines, vast swathes of the modern right on both sides of the Atlantic have a bizarre fixation on noted socialist George Orwell purely because he was anti-totalitarian. My personal favourite along those lines has to be John McCain’s avowed admiration for the hero of Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. Does everyone’s favourite failed presidential candidate not remember exactly what the admittedly fictional Robert Jordan was doing in Spain?
Actually this last one rather brings me towards my explanation for the apparent incoherence of my admiration. I mock McCain for liking a fictional communist guerilla, but he admires him for the same reason I admire plenty of people I disagree with on a great many things. It’s not about the specifics of politics or ideology, it’s about character. McCain loves Jordan for the same reason most people like Hemingway’s creations; their stoicism, their honour, and their much-vaunted ‘grace under pressure’.* I admire Kennan and Niebuhr for their character, although their’s is primarily to be found in their writing rather than their actions. In fact, as an aside, I’m coming to suspect that a person’s international politics may well be more truly representative of who they are, certainly more than their attitude towards welfare or gay marriage or banking regulation or anything along those lines. This is my realism speaking here, obviously, but international politics is much starker, and much less dependent on context and culture. Therefore is it not much more likely to reflect the truth about someone? I remain deeply bemused by nominal conservatives, avowed heirs of Burke, who love nothing more than to call for yet another armada of unforeseeable consequences such as a war with Iran. The state can’t regulate banks because central management of the economy is too utopian an ideal, but we can light a bonfire under the Middle East and be certain that good will come of it? That’s not conservativism, that’s just a heady mix of chauvinism, ignorance, avarice and jerking knees.
I digress. Niebuhr preached the social gospel, Kennan longed for aristocracy, and I’m something approaching a social democrat†, but what we all share a resignation about the limited capacity of human action, an awareness of the immense damage invariably wrought by overreach, and a desire to still strive for betterment. To sum it up in a phrase: righteous prudence. Hemingway actually fits nicely, as he was all about accepting the truth about the world, but never resigning oneself. And again he is a hero of mine with whom I would have stark differences of opinion. Whatever their politics or opinions, these men always strove to be clear-headed, realistic and thoughtful about their goals, accepting of the immense limitations of human action and their own capabilities, and bold enough to try anyway. Or, in other words:
“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.” – Reinhold Niebuhr
So how better to close than with probably my favourite contemporary thinker, the never knowingly left-wing Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan is perhaps most famous these days for his championing of Obama (a man who may well fit the criteria I’ve been expounding on) but he is, by his own proud admission, a proper tory. And a conservative intellectual at that. He is also happily married to another man, a devout Roman Catholic, an avowed drug user and an academic. The man is the living antithesis to the unexamined life, so whilst he possesses the prudence characterised above, he also shares the second part of what makes someone draw my admiration. He has real integrity. Once a proud fan of George W. Bush, and a significant proponent of the Iraq war, he now condemns military adventurism in the bluntest terms, and is one of the leading critics of Bush’s legacy. Some would argue this apparently abrupt change shows a lack of integrity, but in truth it shows quite the opposite. He has not changed his mind on a whim. He has been honest with himself, and has truly examined his beliefs, the evidence, and the changing facts on the ground. Subsequently he has accepted that the Iraq War has been a disaster, and that the Bush way of doing things has lead to gross immorality, reckless imprudence, and horrific divisions within American politics.
Andrew Sullivan has remained intellectually honest throughout, despite all that assails such an attitude in the modern world, and he has shown immense integrity. Niebuhr was famed for the supposedly dramatic shifts in his opinions, Kennan spent decades railing against the cold war that many consider him to have designed, but they always stayed true to their underlying righteous prudence and integrity, and so has Sullivan, and so, I can only hope, will I. That’s why I admire these men, despite my many and varied disagreements with their views, and that’s why they are as close as I come to having heroes.
*As per usual this image slightly misrepresents what Hemingway was really about, much like the much-vaunted ‘Papa’ image does with the man himself. I imagine I’ll tackle this in detail at some point, but for now, here’s the background to McCain and Jordan, and a perfect example of the misrepresentation I’m talking about. It contains substantial spoilers for For Whom the Bell Tolls though, so be warned.
†I believe the technical term for this may well be “New Labour”, but that’s far too disturbing a truth to face up to.