Black and White Gray

Check out this scathing review published in The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 18th – Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 54, Issue 19, Page B5). Beyond any interest it may have to those who follow John Gray’s output, the review is salient to the recent “controversy” about philosophers being uncivil. My favourite line from the following review could with equal validity be extended to many other public academics:

The rest is a case study of how a tenured intellectual, lured by the footlights, can toss away all academic rigor as he spouts off on radio, contributes one-sided tirades to newspapers, and becomes a pointy-headed hack for hire.

I haven’t read Gray since his book Berlin (1996) which, though too dependent upon Jo Raz’ formulation of value incommensurability, was a fine read. More recently I’ve read early ’80s stuff Gray wrote on Hayek. To Gray’s credit, he was one of the earliest social theorists who came to appreciate the importance of Hayek’s philosophical psychology to all of Hayek’s work. 

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CRITIC AT LARGE

The Triumph of ‘Smugism’

The philosopher John Gray’s certainty is certainly unwarranted

“Smugism” doesn’t turn up as a separate entry in dictionaries of ideas, probably because it permeates so many other -isms. Yet it can be isolated and delineated. Consider it the jaunty declaration of large philosophical beliefs with a smack of magisterial certainty, and absence of argument, that’s breathtaking.

The picture that belongs next to this -ism in any lavishly illustrated reference work is that of John Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science. To Gray, every significant issue is black and white. If there’s a prize for two books by a humanist intellectual that contain the most false generalizations, the most blithe offenses against what we mean by conceptual words — dub it the “Mad Booker” — it goes to Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia,both recently published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, perhaps as a kind of Dada stunt.

Gray is an egotistical true believer who flip-flops across the old right-left ideological chessboard, while maintaining the attitude that led William Lamb to say of Thomas Babington Macaulay, the Victorian historian: “I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything.” Having grown up poor, the son of a shipyard worker in Northern England, Gray won a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford, received his D.Phil. there, and then taught political science at the Universities of Essex and Oxford, before joining the London School of Economics in 1998.

In the 1980s, influenced by Isaiah Berlin and F.A. Hayek, he blared the trumpets for Thatcherism. Then in the 1990s, he turned on Thatcher, angered by post-cold-war “triumphalism” à la Francis Fukuyama’s “the end of history.” He became an early New Labour fan of Tony Blair, whom he now treats as a mental defective. More recently Gray came under the sway of George Soros and the Gaia environmental theorist James Lovelock. Having written a number of competent academic books in his area of expertise — English political philosophy — he took the true public-intellectual plunge with Straw Dogs (published in England in 2002 by Granta), unleashing a farrago of broadsides about utopianism, religion, free will, and more.

The rest is a case study of how a tenured intellectual, lured by the footlights, can toss away all academic rigor as he spouts off on radio, contributes one-sided tirades to newspapers, and becomes a pointy-headed hack for hire. Today, at 60, Gray writes as an antipragmatist and nihilist critical of all sorts of politics to make a better world — in short, a crank. He touts a slightly green, Gaia-conscious passivism and favors an Eastern form of contemplation shorn of mysticism. Politically — that is, the kind of politics in which moving one’s mouth counts as activism — he’s a dyed-in-the-wool hater of Bush and the allegedly “utopian” project of bringing democracy to the Middle East. Gray makes Michael Moore sound like a polite assistant professor.

Like Moore, Gray regularly gets facts and history wrong. As he excoriates neocon intellectuals such as Allan Bloom, Gray spells Bloom’s name wrong. As he pretends to in-depth knowledge of cultures from the ancient Greek to the Chinese and Russian, he writes, in Black Mass,“When they cannot ensure tolerable living standards for the majority, liberal democratic regimes may be rejected — as happened when Russian voters repudiated Yeltsin in favor of Putin.” Actually, it was Boris Yeltsin who appointed Putin to the position that made him acting president when Yeltsin resigned — the two never ran against each other. When he dates eschatological ideas, he fails to properly go back to Judaism.

But it’s in his broader philosophical assertions that Gray shows the danger of careerist overreaching. Straw Dogs begins with an assurance and Gray’s first falsehood: “My thoughts are presented in fragments, but they are not unsystematic.”

The book unsystematically argues that the “idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence” (even though all scientific notions of progress explicitly reject any notion of providence). And thus, Gray claims, modern utopian movements, from those of science to Nazism and communism, are religious at their core. Along the way, as if lecturing to an adult-education class, Gray provides potted summaries of philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche that sound like data dumps from his course lectures.

One of Gray’s bugbears is progress. “Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world,” Gray writes, “but their core belief in progress is a superstition.” Later he adds: “Outside of science, progress is simply a myth.” Still later, as he does often, Gray begins to introduce contradictions into his views. “Progress is a fact,” he writes. “Even so, faith in progress is a superstition.” At the same time, “There is progress in knowledge, but not in ethics.”

Give me that again? What about (where it has taken place) the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, the elimination of child labor, let alone what Gray might consider mere “scientific” progress, like longer life expectancies and conquest of disease?

Most of the time, Gray simply ignores counterevidence. But it’s the quantity of nonsense, not just its quality, that makes Gray’s work distinctive. Ponder these persuasive declarations (annotated) from Straw Dogs:

“Species do not exist.” (They do, because it’s a category we determine.)

“To believe in progress is to believe that … humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals.” (No, that doesn’t follow for modest believers in progress.)

“In the struggle for life, taste for truth is a luxury — or else a disability.” (Okay, throw out Peirce, James, Dewey, and all of modern pragmatism.)

“Morality is not a set of laws or principles. It is a feeling — the feeling of compassion for the suffering of others.” (One can’t have that feeling without prior assumptions related to “us and them” and other principled relations.)

“Tragedy has nothing to do with morality.” (Try concluding that an event is tragic without an earlier normative premise.)

“Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen.” (You know, spouses, children, jobs, where we live. … )

“We get up in the morning and put on our clothes without meaning to do so.” (No comment.)

“The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.” (End of ballgame.)

One of Gray’s regular philosophical errors is to think similar things are the same because they share one property. Whenever he finds a single belief shared by two schools of thought — say, Christianity’s hope for a better future, and science’s hope for a better future — he treats those schools as if they’re identical in other respects (e.g., a faith-based bent), a move he also makes in comparing Enlightenment thought with 20th-century totalitarianism.

By the end of Straw Dogs,one surmises that Gray prefers to be oracular, not sensible. Is it any wonder that, by then, some Grayisms make no sense except on Alice-in-Wonderland terms? (“Nihilism is the idea that human life must be redeemed from meaninglessness.”)

The desultory rambling of Straw Dogs may explain Black Mass, Gray’s latest hodgepodge that repeats all of Straw Dogs’s claims. It fleshes out context and offers further explanations while weaving in rewrites of Gray’s many journalistic polemics against Bush, Blair, and the war in Iraq. The last supposedly counts as a perfect illustration of Gray’s view of history (delivered, oddly, by a supposed denier of meaningful patterns in history).

After the first book’s assault on one’s educated common sense, Black Mass feels like the academic version of pub bravado: If you say it over and over and louder and louder, the idiots in the bar may believe you.

His themes remain the same. Religious faith saturates secular utopian thought about the future. Atheism is just a “Christian heresy,” with Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens its priests. The Enlightenment gets the blame for terrorism. “Realists” like himself “do not accept that international relations, any more than human life in general, consist of soluble problems.” The aspiration for moral harmony in this world “does not rest on experience,” and “traditional values” are “nonsense.”

Here, Gray’s Michael Moore side dominates as he becomes impossibly huffy on Iraq: “A project is utopian,” he informs us, “if there are no circumstances under which it can be realized.” Any fool, he suggests, could have told the United States that “establishing liberal democracy in post-Saddam Iraq” was a fantasy. Gray, had he been puffing on his pipe in 1945, would have said the same about Germany and Japan. The Bush administration simply “lost any sense of reality,” and “the willingness to use intolerable means to achieve impossible ends showed the utopian mind at its most deluded.”

Again, in Black Mass, fatuous declarations flow:

“It is when state power is used to remake society that the slide to totalitarianism begins.” (As in the New Deal?)

Iran “currently practices a type of democracy — in effect a more stable version of the system that is developing in Iraq — that gives its present leadership a degree of legitimacy.” (Please consult with fellow Isaiah Berlin student Ramin Jahanbegloo on the mullahs’ obstruction of free elections, murder of dissidents, etc.)

“America’s defeat by the Iraqi insurgency was in no way unexpected. … A larger deployment would have made little difference.” (Stay tuned.)

“Suicide terrorism is not a pathology that afflicts any particular culture, nor has it any close connections with religion.” (No comment.)

Yep, that’s John Gray for you.

Gray has been welcomed on the left as a trophy because he deserted Thatcherism, but he’s no friend of any progressive group that believes in action to achieve a better future. His nirvana, in which we all enjoy a nonmystical contemplation of facts — “Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” — is self-indulgent apathy.

Professor of European thought? Professor of “Eurythermic” thought is more like it. Gray is an know-it-all “organism” (he’d say so himself) who adapts easily to different ideological temperatures.

They say he’s about to retire. Until then, some advice to LSE students: If you’re waiting with Professor Gray to cross Portsmouth Street and he announces that the light has turned green, get a second opinion.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review and literary critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.