Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Condi as Hegelian

I took some heat via email over my "grudging respect" for Condoleezza Rice's performance at her confirmation hearings last week; most of my friends & colleagues don't want to give an inch where this woman is concerned.

I can understand that. I'm bitter too -- the Democratic Party just graduated from the third to the fourth circle of Hell. But I also think one needs to keep in mind Condi's immense ambition and her talents as a political operator... At the very least, it's a matter of knowing one's enemy.

Anyway, here is yet another reading of Condi by Jeffrey Hurf in the New Republic. Hurf feels Condi's philosophy of history resembles that of Hegel, and that is troubling to him. Rice made this statement:

I said yesterday, Senator, we've made a lot of decisions in this period of time. Some of them have been very good. Some of them have not been very good. Some of them have been bad decisions, I'm sure. I know enough about history to stand back and to recognize that you judge decisions not at the moment but in how it all adds up. And that's just strongly the way I feel about big historical changes."

And Hurf argues that this is Hegelian for the following reason:

In his lectures on the philosophy of history delivered in the early nineteenth century, the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel argued that history was a slaughter bench on which the happiness of individuals was sacrificed. (He also claimed that the course of history comprised the teleological unfolding of God's plan on earth at whose endpoint all human beings would be free, an idea that also appears to have some supporters in Washington.) The achievement of freedom, or in the case of the communists, the classless society, justified the sacrifices on the path to its perfection--as if such perfection could not, in the end, have come about without those sacrifices. In the aftermath of the Soviet victory in World War II, communist apologists, including sophisticated French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, argued that the victory of 1945 either justified or sent into oblivion the horrors and crimes of the Stalin years. Stalin's decision to sign the Nonaggression Pact with Hitler and his refusal to recognize the imminence of the Nazi invasion were blunders of unprecedented proportions that contributed to the capture of three million Soviet prisoners of war in 1941, two million of whom died. If the Soviet regime had been a democracy, Joseph Stalin would have been quickly ousted from office, just as Neville Chamberlain was defeated following the failure of his appeasement policy. Yet in 1945, in the glow of victory, Stalin was presented as a great genius whose wise decisions in the end worked out. Fidel Castro captured this communist faith in the redeeming power of history in one pithy phrase: "History will absolve me."

I'm much more sympathetic to Merleau-Ponty and Sartre than Hurf is, but maybe he has a point about the differential political fates of Chamberlain (whose deceptions in the House of Commons led to the downfall of his government) and Stalin (who was never held accountable for his mistakes -- or his crimes).

But the difference between George W. Bush and Neville Chamberlain is that, while it was clear at the moment that Chamberlain's policies weren't working, it's by no means been made clear to the American public that George Bush's war didn't work (and won't work). When Condoleezza Rice talks about history, she doesn't mean it the way Castro or even Hegel meant it. What she means is, "History will absolve us, because we will write it ourselves."


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