Published on July 19, 2021
The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin turned an obscure fragment by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus (“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”) into an intellectual’s cocktail-party game. In a famous essay, published as a book in 1953, Berlin suggested that the world is divided between hedgehogs and foxes—between those who believe in One Big Thing (one all-sufficient super-explanation), and those who are content with a more modest, irrational and even incoherent idea of history’s unfolding. Karl Marx was a supreme hedgehog: Everything, for him, was about the conflict of economic classes. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a restlessly improvising fox.
The world’s hedgehog population tends to expand in times of stress and change. Lately it has exploded in the U.S. Hedgehogs are thick on the ground, all of them advancing One Big Thing or another—each peering through the lens of a particular obsession. At the moment, the biggest One Big Thing is race—the key, it seems, to all of America, to the innermost meanings of the country and its history.
It isn’t really true. Race is one of many big things in America. It is hardly the most important. Americans need to desanctify the subject of race—to mute its claims, which have grown absolutist and, as it were, theological in their thoroughness, their dogmatism.
Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His latest book is “God and Mammon: Chronicles of American Money.”