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Mon Feb 22, 2021, 05:14 PM

Reading John Gray in war

The complete essay, written by Andy Owen, is at AEON. Most people take Gray to be extremely pessimistic - he doesn't believe in human progress. Owen sees him as more of a realist who accepts the limitations of life. At the end of the essay, he talks about Gray's latest book, Feline Philosophy, where Gray suggests some lessons we could learn by paying closer attention to cats.

Owen is British and fought in the Iraq War. Reading Gray helped him make some sense of his experience.

An excerpt from the essay:


Much of the criticism levelled at the post-invasion failure focused on the mistake of disbanding the Iraqi state, the lack of post-conflict planning and the lack of resources. There was less focus on the utopian aims of the whole project. But it was only through Gray that I saw the similarities between the doctrines of Stalinism, Nazi fascism, Al-Qaeda’s paradoxical medieval, technophile fundamentalism, and Bush’s ‘war on terror’. Gray showed that they are all various forms (however incompatible) of utopian thinking that have at their heart the teleological notion of progress from unenlightened times to a future utopia, and a belief that violence is justified to achieve it (indeed, from the Jacobins onwards, violence has had a pedagogical function in this process). At first, I baulked at the suggested equivalence with the foot soldiers of the other ideologies. There were clearly profound differences! But through Gray’s examples, I went on to reflect on how much violence had been inflicted throughout history by those thinking that they were doing the right thing and doing it for the greater good.

A message repeated throughout Gray’s work is that, despite the irrefutable material gains, this notion is misguided: scientific knowledge and the technologies at our disposal increase over time, but there’s no reason to think that morality or culture will also progress, nor – if it does progress for a period – that this progress is irreversible. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the flawed nature of our equally creative and destructive species and the cyclical nature of history. Those I spoke to in Basra needed no convincing that the advance of rational enlightened thought was reversible, as the Shia militias roamed the streets enforcing their interpretation of medieval law, harassing women, attacking students and assassinating political opponents. By the time bodies of journalists who spoke out against the death squads started turning up at the side of the road, Basra’s secular society was consigned to history. Gray points to the re-introduction of torture by the world’s premier liberal democracy during the war on terror as an example of the reversibility of progress. The irreversibility idea emerged directly from a utopian style of thinking that’s based on the notion that the end justifies the means. Such thinking is often accompanied by one of the defining characteristics of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns: hubris.

The myth of progress was a key theme of Gray’s bestseller Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002). There he attacks what he believes is the illusory faith that our species is apart and above the rest of nature, uniquely privileged in the Universe with the gifts of self-consciousness and reason. He attacks the idea of ‘humanity’, saying that ‘there are only humans, driven by conflicting needs and illusions’. Due to the plurality of human needs and illusions, it’s utopian to imagine that any one political system or social order could be universally good for all. For Gray, human nature is an inherent obstacle to advancing ethical or political progress. There’s no end of history as was once proclaimed when the Cold War finished and US hegemony was assured. Instead, our ceaseless attempts to try to find some meaning to life invariably drive us into the embrace of religious belief systems and their secular imitations – and, consequently, to continual conflict. Writing in 2020, Gray highlights that, throughout history ‘killing and dying for nonsensical ideas is how many human beings have made sense of their lives’, and notes the irony of attempting immortality through death.

Gray acknowledges the theories of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, outlined in his book The Denial of Death (1973). Becker believed that human activity is largely driven by unconscious efforts to deny the inevitability of our demise. We invest in activities, institutions and belief systems that we think will allow us to transcend our brief time in the world. Becker wrote: ‘We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of underlying helplessness and terror of our inevitable death.’ The stories we create give us a sense that we’re part of something greater than ourselves, which will continue after we die. In Collins’s speech, he placed the invasion of Iraq in an epic context, linking our presence on the ground there to the great stories of our shared past, saying: ‘Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham.’ These stories are the result of what the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal says is our ‘inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. Literature is awash with stories that examine this inability. For me, Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851) is the exemplar. Melville not only captures the desire of young men to search for meaning and purpose in adventure, but also the role of charismatic individuals in developing a sense of belonging and a shared worldview. Motivated by hate, Ahab causes harm to real entities, his crew, in the name of a fictional creation: the vengeful whale, given an agency it didn’t possess.

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hatrack Feb 22 #1
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Response to Jim__ (Original post)

Mon Feb 22, 2021, 07:32 PM

1. I remember reading "False Dawn" when it came out in the 1990s

It was published, I believe, the same year as LTCM collapsed, and it made an impression.

That would have put it three years before 9/11, and five years before the Iraq Clusterfuck, three events which pretty much ended the Golden Triumphal March of Freedumb (except of course in the tiny minds of Republican politicians and their voters.

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Response to hatrack (Reply #1)

Mon Feb 22, 2021, 08:13 PM

2. I haven't read "False Dawn". I'll put that on my list.

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