British philosopher John Gray’s ability to provoke is once again on display in his essay (at Lapham’s Quarterly) “The Anomaly of Barbarism,” an essay cited approvingly by Rod Dreher (at The American Conservative) for its critique of liberal modernity.
Whereas Mr. Dreher’s ongoing beef with contemporary liberal society has mainly to do with “religious liberty” as it applies to issues like same-sex marriage, gender identity, and who gets to use which bathroom, John Gray is concerned here with political ideology—specifically, with our inability to understand and respond to the “barbaric” threat of ISIS:
When it is invoked in politics modernity is a figment. The increase of knowledge in recent centuries is real enough, as is the enlargement of human power through technology. These advances are cumulative and accelerating and, in any realistically likely scenario, practically irreversible. But there have been few, if any, similar advances in politics. The quickening advance of science and technology in the past few centuries has not gone with any comparable advance in civilization or human rationality. Instead, the increase of knowledge has repeatedly interacted with human conflicts and passions to produce new kinds of barbarism.
There is nothing mysterious in the rise of ISIS. It is baffling only for those who believe—despite everything that occurred in the twentieth century—that modernization and civilization are advancing hand in hand. In fact, now as in the past some of the most modern movements are among the most barbaric. But to admit this would mean surrendering the ruling political faith, a decayed form of liberalism without which Western leaders and opinion formers would be disoriented and lost. To accept that liberal societies may not be “on the right side of history” would leave their lives drained of significance, while a stoical response—which is ready to fight while being doubtful of ultimate victory—seems to be beyond their powers. With mounting bewilderment and desperation, they cling to the faith that the normal course of history has somehow been temporarily derailed.
Under such circumstances, John Gray is understandably skeptical about the ability of “liberal civilization” to survive:
Civilization is not the endpoint of modern history, but a succession of interludes in recurring spasms of barbarism. The liberal civilization that has prevailed in some Western countries over the past few centuries emerged slowly and with difficulty against the background of a particular mix of traditions and institutions. Precarious wherever it has existed, it is a way of life that has no strong hold on humankind. For an older generation of liberal thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Isaiah Berlin, these were commonplaces. Today these truisms are forbidden truths, which can no longer be spoken or in many cases comprehended.
Seeking to buttress his own continuing insistence that we are doomed! Rod Dreher gleefully cites the above paragraph; not surprisingly, though, he does not cite this next paragraph, in which John Gray explicitly defends “liberal civilization” as worth fighting for and worth saving:
Liberal civilization is not the emerging meaning of the modern world but a historical singularity that is inherently fragile. This is why it is worth preserving. Defending this form of life against ISIS requires a clear perception that the jihadist group is not an atavistic force that—with a little assistance from intensified bombing—will fade away with advancing modernization. If the threat is to be removed, ISIS will have to be defeated and destroyed.
Of course, in Rod Dreher's worldview--the one in which the West went astray back in the 12th and 13th centuries--the "threat" comes not from ISIS but from liberal modernity itself; that is a crucial difference between Mr. Dreher and Mr. Gray. Politics has been known to make strange bedfellows, but the thought of Rod Dreher and John Gray cuddling up to each other is more than I, for one, can handle.
In fact, John Gray wants the liberal modern West to triumph:
For many in the West, the threat ISIS poses to their view of the world seems a greater disaster than the atrocities ISIS has committed and threatens to repeat. The bafflement with which the West approaches the group is a symptom of the senility of the liberal mind, a condition for which there is no obvious remedy.1 Perhaps what our culture lacks, in the end, is the ability to understand itself.
It could be argued that any civilization inevitably fails to fully understand itself, and that such understanding can only ever be achieved either from an outside perspective or in retrospect (history being the ultimate outside perspective). Regardless, Gray’s salutary critique of “the liberal mind” reminds us of our human limitations from which there is, alas, no escape: we will be released from the human condition neither by modern liberal democracy with all its discontents nor by Rod Dreher’s option of a quixotic, quasi-Benedictine retreat to a supposedly more perfect past—a past which, in truth, merely featured different forms of barbarism than does the present age.
Baffled and self-deluded as we may be, all we can do is what John Gray implores us to do: soldier on despite our imperfections and despite the uncertainty of the outcome. It probably doesn’t help that the anti-Modernity likes of Rod Dreher are all but openly hoping that we will fail; but I’m betting his conscientious objections won’t make much of a difference.
1 You will not be shocked to learn that Rod Dreher and the editors at The American Conservative immediately (and happily) hijacked Mr. Gray’s phrase, “the senility of the liberal mind”. It would actually make a pretty good book title.