Liberal portions of blame

Black Mass
July 6, 2007

Did the Enlightenment lead to Abu Ghraib? Laurie Taylor thinks not

Although John Gray's books now come garlanded with high-flown, grown-up praise - his Straw Dogs was hailed by novelist J. G. Ballad as "powerful and brilliant", and this latest work is decorated with Will Self's nomination of the author as "the most important living philosopher" - it is increasingly difficult to read yet another episode in his crusade against modern secular humanism without thinking of the little boy in the Alice in Wonderland rhyme who "only does it to annoy/ because he knows it teases".

After all, at a time when political life is so consensual, a truly controversial political philosopher is something wonderful for broadcasters nd journalists to behold, particularly when the man can write and speak with such wit and verve, and maintain a sufficiently disdainful view of any idea of progress to attract the attention of a clutch of dystopia literary figures.

But there is a more objective reason for the growing suspicion that Gray positively relishes setting his fatalistic cat among the progressive pigeons. This, quite simply, is his unreadiness to take aboard any of the serious and sustained criticisms that have been made of his earlier jeremiad.

The most fundamental of these criticisms is the objection to his characterisation of modern secular humanism as an enterprise that has at its heart a virtually unshakeable faith in the ability of reason to liberate humanity from all its ills. So central is this faith, so earnestly embraced, Gray insists, that it can only be explained as a Freudian return of the repressed, an unconscious regression to the Utopian beliefs in the final salvation of mankind that lay at the heart of all the major religions. Far from sweeping away the unenlightened religiosity of the past, secular liberal humanism has merely supplied a new vocabulary for the same old Utopian myths.

Critics of this argument - even critics who have some sympathy with Gray's fatalistic view of the possibility of any sort of human progress - are quick to point out that this is an unreasonably sweeping characterisation of liberal humanism. Those who believe it is possible to improve the human condition rarely accompany their proposals with any assertion that they are taking another step on the road to human perfection. They more usually assert that they are trying to make things better: to reduce poverty and social injustice, increase educational opportunities, improve the lives of disadvantaged minorities and extend basic rights to women and gay people.

They may well believe that the adoption of some policies has been effective in partially securing some of these ends, but few of them exhibit the belief in the perfectibility of human life that is so central to Gray's characterisation. And few would resist the notion that this progress could go into reverse, that gains could be lost as well as made.

I realised how difficult it was to knock Gray off his vulturous perch when I interviewed him for the New Humanist shortly after the publication of Straw Dogs . He was, I told him, looking at his own worst nightmare: a self-confessed liberal humanist. But I also had to tell him that I did not recognise either myself or any other humanists I knew in his portrait. We were not by any means Utopians. We were much more likely to characterise ourselves in Popperian terms as piecemeal social engineers.

Gray was unmoved. How well, he asked, had I examined the premises on which my beliefs rested? I said that I had done my best but could not, no matter how I tried, find any lurking Utopianism. "Ah well," he said, "my experience is that liberal humanists fall into one of two categories. Some hold to a set of conventional beliefs that don't have much depth. They're the sort who almost seem relieved when I ventilate the doubts, the forebodings that they have long had. The other type of liberal humanist is the body-armoured rigid type who illustrates a certain kind of innocence. Unlike members of most religions in the world, they don't interrogate their own myths. They don't even think their beliefs might be myths."

There you have it then. Those who fail to detect the Utopianism underlying their pragmatic beliefs are either so mildly deluded that they can be shaken into a proper appreciation of their underlying premises by an injection of Gray's analysis, or are so deeply deluded that they are constitutionally incapable of recognising their own delusion.

None of the criticism voiced about Straw Dogs - and here is the crux of my suspicion about Gray's delight in provocation - is even marginally addressed within Black Mass . We are back on the same bandwagon. Once again, we are told about how the Enlightenment values of pluralism, democracy, freedom of thought and inquiry were really absurdly Utopian projects that, in their subscription to the notion that knowledge can make one free, simply mirrored the apocalyptic ideologies of organised religion. Once again, we are told that Nazism and Soviet communism were examples of the terrible consequences of the Enlightenment belief in human perfectibility.

This is the laziest sort of conflation. Of course, there were Enlightenment thinkers who entertained hopelessly optimistic views of how knowledge might lead to the creation of a new harmonious world. And there was Enlightenment thought that could be perverted into the idea of human betterment by eugenics and racial purification. But surely it was also the case that those who fought against such excesses and helped to bring down the totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were precisely those who believed most passionately in the central values of the Enlightenment, the freedom of thought and expression and inquiry. To suggest some kindred between these two groups is truly to mock the dead.

These, as I have indicated, are not new criticisms, and I repeat them here only because they present such an obstacle to an appreciation of other parts of this book.

Mick Jagger once explained (possibly apocryphally) that he never read the magazine Time Out when it was going through its right-on socialist phase because: "I don't like having to walk through a picket line to find out what's on at the pictures." In this case, it is worth making the effort. Once Gray has performed his usual conjuring trick with religion and liberal humanism ("look, no difference!"), he turns to a solidly researched and utterly persuasive critique of the contemporary War on Terror and the American (and Blairite) belief in the possibility of exporting democracy.

But even as you are nodding your head in agreement with his analysis, with the subtle distinctions that he makes between the Cold War and the War on Terror, between past and present versions of imperialism, you know that you are going to have to pay the price eventually for your submission. And along comes the bill. "Toppling tyranny in Iraq," we are told, "was not just an American attempt to secure hegemony in the Middle East. It was the start of a new kind of imperialism guided by liberal principles of human rights." As we might have suspected, it was the liberals what done it.

Laurie Taylor is a fellow of Birkbeck College.

Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia

Author - John Gray
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 256
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 9780713999150

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