The answer to a question is often influenced by how you ask it, and when. If you ask whether scientists or politicians were more important to shaping this century, the currently popular answer is not likely to be the chosen profession of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Al Gore. But going with the popular answer is not always the right thing to do.
Perhaps seeking to surprise readers and to capture the current mood, Time magazine announced this week that the "Person of the Century" was neither Franklin D. Roosevelt, the early favorite, nor Mohandas Gandhi, the other runner-up, but Albert Einstein, who gave us a great equation and fundamentally altered our view of how the universe is put together.
Who would argue against Einstein's genius? That's one reason the magazine's editors must have seen their choice as bulletproof. Nor could anyone disagree that this century's great leaps forward in science and technology have transformed human life in fundamental ways.
You'll never catch me knocking scientific achievement. These words wouldn't be coming to you without it. The extraordinary portable computer that lets me research, write and transmit from my brother-in-law's kitchen, the breakthroughs that made it possible for my mother to give birth to one more child she thought she couldn't have, the medicines that kept me alive when I was sick as a kid -- these are among the workaday miracles from which millions upon millions of us have benefited. So three cheers for Einstein and his brethren.
But it would be a grave mistake to see science as untethered from the political circumstances in which scientists work or the values that shape the societies in which their genius is nurtured or stifled. Einstein clearly understood this when he emigrated from Hitler's Germany to the United States. It's not just that oppressive societies limit free inquiry. (Time notes that the Nazis regularly attacked Einstein and "Jewish physics.") It also matters what uses are made of scientific knowledge. The Holocaust is a terrifying example of what happens when an evil regime applies science to the task of mass killing.
That's why the most important achievement of the century -- the achievement on which all others rest -- is the triumph of a certain view of politics and a certain set of principles. The political philosopher Isaiah Berlin captured the values that won this way: "that decent respect for others and the toleration of dissent is better than pride and a sense of national mission; that liberty may be incompatible with, and better than, too much efficiency; that pluralism and untidiness are, to those who value freedom, better than the rigorous imposition of all-embracing systems, no matter how rational and disinterested, better than the rule of majorities against which there is no appeal."
This list is arresting because it is humble. It reflects a preference for "decent respect," "toleration" and "untidiness" over "pride," "national mission," and "all-embracing systems." It is shaped in part by the battle against Nazism and Soviet communism to which Berlin turned his political energies.
It is little remembered that in the 1930s and early 1940s, the triumph of democracy and liberty was seen not as a given but as highly unlikely. The democracies were viewed as messy, inefficient, slow to make decisions, divided by many quarrels, unable to mobilize the national will against economic catastrophe. Dictatorships were described by a fair share of what passed for respectable opinion as lean, modern, forward-looking, decisive. Political pilgrims returned from -- depending on their ideology -- Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia proclaiming that they had seen the future.
Two months before FDR took office in 1933, as Doris Kearns Goodwin points out in her Time essay, the columnist Walter Lippmann warned him: "The situation is critical. You may have no alternative but to assume dictatorial power."
That FDR didn't do that is his first great achievement. He created that great democratic concoction called the New Deal, premised on the idea that free governments could try to save the market system, preserve the values Berlin praised and reach for social justice at the same time. He then helped lead the battle that made our current world, including the achievements of humane science, possible.
So, yes, all praise to Einstein. But absent Roosevelt, Churchill and Truman and the ideas they defended, we would not be facing the next century with the margin of hope that is their legacy to us.