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Bist du ein Berliner?

The Mexican historian Enrique Krauze outside George Orwell’s onetime home in London (Photo courtesy of Mr. Krauze)

A few weeks ago, I went to Mexico City, mainly to see Enrique Krauze, the historian, writer, and all-around intellectual. I have written up our conversation in two parts. Part I is here.

Politically speaking, Krauze is considered a conservative by many Americans. This is because he is a staunch supporter of democracy and a staunch foe of dictatorship, whether it comes from left or right. (Few are those who are consistent in this respect.) He is considered a conservative — even a right-winger or reactionary — by many Mexicans too. This is because he is a staunch foe of the Left populism that currently rules in Mexico.

Yet he is a liberal “in the classical sense,” he says. He drank from the waters of George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Karl Popper, and Isaiah Berlin — to name four — and liked it.

When he mentioned Berlin, I thought of Charles Krauthammer. Years ago, I had a long talk with Charles, for the purpose of a piece on him. I asked him how he had arrived at his views. In short, he read Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty. And that was it. That’s what I believe, he thought.

When Sir Isaiah died in 1997, Krauthammer wrote a column, which I have just re-read. Here it is.

It begins,

Not too many people can point to a specific day when they sat down with a book and got up cured of the stupidities of youth. I can. I was 19. The book was “Four Essays on Liberty.”

Later, Charles says,

I read this book and a great fog . . . lifted. I was forever enlisted on the side of limited, constitutional government — flawed as it was and despised at the time as “the system.”

In his final paragraphs, he says,

“Four Essays” is available everywhere. Buy it. Make your children read it before they go to college, the last redoubt of romantic neo-Marxism. . . .

And keep one copy at home. The idea of limited government has triumphed. But the moment may not last. The pluralism Berlin championed will be challenged again.

Oh, yes.

Just before he had to stop writing, in the summer of 2017, Krauthammer wrote a piece called “The Authoritarian Temptation.” You will recognize the title as an adaptation of Jean-François Revel’s “The Totalitarian Temptation.”

“The slide back away from liberal democracy is well underway,” Charles wrote, pointing to Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela, and Poland, among other countries. “In a development once unimaginable, mature Western democracies are experiencing a surge of ethnonationalism,” tending toward “strongman rule.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not much for reading philosophy — even philosophy I like. I’d rather listen to Mozart’s worst minuet than read my favorite philosopher. I guess I’m not built for philosophy-reading. But I have reacquired Berlin’s Four Essays — I think my student copy lies a-mouldering in my mother’s basement — and will give it the old college try.

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