Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Calling for an end to the End of History: John Gray's disarming critiques of apocalyptic misadventure

Reading John Gray’s 2002 book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals is rather like having some particularly gummed-up section of your brain scrubbed ruthlessly clean. With steel wool. For most readers, Gray’s taut, provocative, almost gleefully unsentimental attacks on certain venerated schools of liberal thought can initially feel both unnerving and unsavoury.

With surgical precision (and, to be sure, a few sweeping generalizations), he takes to task the Enlightenment-born notion of progress, which is to say the largely unquestioned belief that the accumulation of knowledge will inevitably make man better. More specifically, he attacks what we misleadingly call secular humanism, weaving in numerous examples of human activity at its bleakest to impart a clear sense of the impulses toward irrationality and conflict that make us basically similar to all other animals. His dismissal of the convention of dividing political outlooks into neat camps of Left and Right (a most welcome dismissal as far as I’m concerned) will no doubt enrage those who consider their allegiance to either side a badge of honour. I would recommend finding a copy in hardcover, not only because it is a book to be revisited but because you may find yourself compelled to hurl it across the room more than once before quickly resuming your reading of it. For this reason alone a more durable edition is quite useful.

Only gradually as you read Straw Dogs does it become clear that at the core of Gray’s argument is a realist diagnosis of our ongoing and increasingly destructive inability to recognize the abundant failings of Enlightenment philosophy and its reactionary, utopian undercurrents, persistent modes of thinking that, most notably, form the backbone of neo-conservatism as first popularized in Francis Fukuyama’s divisive but still hugely influential The End of History and the Last Man, which presupposes that history is one long march of progress ending with the entire human race adopting the same ideological model. With the catastrophe that is the invasion of Iraq –that all-too-perfect expression of utopian, neo-con delusions– having begun in the interim, Straw Dogs, whether you buy into all of Gray’s ideas or not, has become an even more essential text, one that nicely and succinctly sums up Gray’s post-Cold War perspective of global politics.

But if Straw Dogs is the ideal introduction to Gray’s philosophy, his new book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (Doubleday, $29.95) functions as a more finely detailed analysis of global trends that have more fully erupted since. Much of this analysis is founded in the same contention that defined Straw Dogs: that the rationale that leads a government peopled by the Christian Right into disastrous nation building –and ironically binds it to Islamic terrorists– finds its lineage in a perhaps surprisingly diverse history of unrealizable utopian exploits, including Jacobinism, Soviet and Chinese communism and, at one particularly gruesome extreme, Nazism, all of which, however indirectly, have their roots in Christianity, which Gray purports is the mother of all mankind’s dreams of apocalypse and universal redemption through righteous violence and upheaval. Granted, to arrive at this conclusion you have to view any outspoken anti-Christian view, such as atheism, as inherently and unavoidably informed by the dictates of Christianity. Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens should love that! But anyone familiar with the work of Nietzsche, who both declared God dead while never quite slipping out of God’s grip, this theory shouldn’t actually seem so far-fetched.

Harsh critics of Gray, of which there of course many, tend to misinterpret or baldly misquote his texts. He just rubs people the wrong way, to the point where they don’t seem able to read very coherently. Writing for, oddly enough, The New Humanist, Laurie Taylor for example has protested against what she deems to be Gray’s unrelenting pessimism. “Gray is literally proposing that we should do nothing to try to change our world,” she tells us. Yet this directly contradicts Gray’s explicit appeal to simply apply more reasonable models of policy-making. Politics, he writes near the close of Black Mass, “is not a vehicle for universal projects but the art of responding to the flux of circumstances.”

But let’s look for an example of Gray at his most iconoclastic. “‘Humanity’ does not exist,” he boldly announced in Straw Dogs. “There are only humans, driven by conflicting needs and illusions, and subject to every kind of infirmity of will and judgment.” Am I crazy for being able to sleep nights while more or less agreeing that people are indeed diverse, unruly, passionate, unpredictable and requiring a variety of problem-solving initiatives instead of one single ideological vision of “perfect” government for all, i.e.: American-style (and violently forced) democracy?

I didn’t grow up in an especially religious household, but I do remember that as a little kid I felt at once desirous and fearful of the notion of going to heaven. The alternative described to me seemed almost too horrible to even ponder, yet heaven seemed like this eerily static place where all the pleasures and adventures of life came to a screeching halt. I didn’t know what to make of the Promised Land, only that I was afraid not to get in. Maybe Talking Heads put it best: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”

Not to oversimplify Gray’s ideas, but I appreciate his recognition of my childhood response to the never entirely imaginable utopian state that so many religious and political parties strive to enter us unto. Accepting mortal man with all his flaws might be more useful than endeavouring toward some great social project that will deliver us all to a realm that denies us all the sorrows and joys that make real life what it is. Of course, Gray doesn’t deny that we still might dream of such a place, he just points out that it might not be the smartest foundation for government.

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