18 Feb

In the East End of London and whatever pubs in Collingwood remain unchanged; in the hard streets of Dublin and Glasgow, in places closer to a whiskey bottle than a spire John Gray is what they call a miserable old cunt. Well maybe not to his face. And perhaps in person he’s quite affable and jolly but in print, no.

For some time now books by old men have been pouring out of the United Kingdom determined somehow to influence those of us at the beginning of the 21st century who can still make a difference in action. Those of us who will make the policies and fight the wars that will the render the globe in whatever state we will find it on the first of January, 2101: the dawn of the twenty-second century. John Gray is one such. In his 90s, Eric Hobsbawm is another.

They are different creatures on the surface but below they’re of a type. British men of letters who’ve seen the wars of the 20th century and lived to tell the tale. Hobsbawm, much older, can remember when Britannia ruled the waves and spent his life striving for a world in which common people ruled themselves. John Gray, a bit younger than Mick Jagger, never knew that era and, after the Holocaust, after the massacre plagued catastrophes of the Soviet Union, after the New Left and the New Right; New Labour and the Neoconservatives – after all that – well, he can no longer dream the dreams that so many of Hobsbawm’s generation mistook for the clarity that reason finally brings.
Gray, I’d suppose one would classify as a Nietzschean conservative, one who acknowledges the death of God, the hopeless relativism of morality and the Hobbesian nastiness at the heart of human nature. His book Straw Dogs is a series of soundbyte aphorisms designed to wake us up to one of Nietzsche’s theses: that one of the most perfidious illusions of humanity is our supposed superiority to other animals. The paragon of animals, Hamlet calls us. What a piece of work is a man, he asks. Gray tells us. And it ain’t pretty.

He tells us true stories that illustrate. That of a man in Auschwitz who is raped by a guard. The guard steals his cap knowing that anyone without a cap is shot at morning parade. Knowing this, the victim steals someone else’s cap and feels relief that it’s not him that gets shot next day. He relates the commonplace gory details of southern lynchings, of a black woman, pregnant, who has her baby cut from her belly whilst she is alive in the full view of families with children who think the whole thing a grand day out. He tells us of the Tasmanian genocide and he concludes:

Morality tells us that conscience may not be heard – but that it speaks always against cruelty and injustice. In fact conscience blesses cruelty and injustice – so long as their victims can be quietly buried.

Miserable right? Nietzsche’s combination of radical distance from conventional morality with his political caution is put to use in an attack on George Bernard Shaw, one of those most progressive and enlightened of English writers that crossed over from the Victorian certainties of the 19th century to the anarchies loosed in the 20th. Shaw, he reminds us, was a supporter of the Soviet Union. He endorsed the cruelty, the inhumanity, the cavalier indifference to the lives and interests of individuals all in the name of progress. Understand, he was not someone who enjoyed the base violence of the human animal but sought to push all humanity past it. And in the name of this progress he supported the unprecedented horrors manifest by modern technology put to the task of making people suffer. “Morality is a sickness peculiar to humans” concludes Gray sounding less like a conservative and more like Arthur Rimbaud who spun this exact same hostile sentiment in experimental verse. A sickness?

Nietzsche claims that morality is herd instinct. And this is undeniably an aspect of it. There is a natural tendency of human groups to get the rules straight. The rules will vary from group to group. A pack of soccer fans on their way to an after-match pub-stripjoint-brothel soirée will have a set of rules, a code of ethics even if that does surprise some. A post-graduate poetry club will likewise have an ethos. These codes will be different but both will depend on largely unwritten assumptions about acceptable attitudes, speech and behaviour accepted as normal whatever the private reservations of the membership. And such reservations as exist will not be debated. To instigate such is to risk losing membership. That is the way of it.

Naturally almost no-one acknowledges this or thinks about it, much less does anything about it. But the behaviour will be the same. If Jack the Lad starts telling the other lads that their vulgar ape antics and the stupid things they’re saying are disrespectful to women and/or degrading to themselves he isn’t likely to get invited again. Likewise if Miss Jane’s new boyfriend brings uncomfortable silence down on a late winter night’s mulled wine and Keats session by regaling all with an anecdote about his experience with a hooker it will probably be a brief affair. In both cases there will be silence, a change of subject and a freezing out of the transgressor. The herd rejects the heretic.

Gray basically sums up the history of ideas as an eternal wheel of competing delusions spinning on the energy of various eternal worldviews. Philosophy, moral theory in particular, is an illusion, a means of self-deception that allow us to “thrive in the ignorance of our natures.” This assertion is at the heart of nihilism. There is no God dispensing justice, justice is a matter of custom and can be discarded as soon as the situation makes it inconvenient. There are many anecdotes that provide evidence for this argument. The most commonplace theological disposition associated with this attitude is that if there is a God than why allow such evil to fall on the innocent. Why allow the evil to prey on the innocent; why is their so much trouble in this world?!

I must confess I find the question a little trite. The answer seems obvious to me. What would we be without trouble? Happy? But anyone who has known joy has known sorrow as well. Those whose lives are endless cycles of enjoyment are trite and shallow and bored! Some song popular in the decade before last declared the belief that true love cannot be experienced “’til you’ve been burned.” True? Many would nod their heads and agree without the slightest inclination to test the hypothesis. There are religious codes that declare the exact opposite of course with equal conviction. That is a paradox which does not trouble me. At the heart of existence is a paradox that has many faces. Only those prepared for war can know peace. But if you are prepared for war you will probably end up fighting one anyway – it ain’t simple. It’s not supposed to be.

Gray’s critique boils down to an attack on the Enlightenment notion of progress which appears to be his current mission. Progress is envisaged differently by everyone who envisages it but certain metaphors resonate. There is the concept of the March: the slow march, the grinding march, the grand march, the great leap forward. And there is Nietzsche’s, for me, more realistic image of a tenuous walk on a tightrope strung over an abyss. Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God but I’d ask where did the tightrope come from?

The early era of complex society, what Victorians like Shaw called ‘civilization’, regarded the forces and consequences behind the Holocaust as normal. Cities were sacked in the quest for Empire as a matter of course. The Assyrians would attack a city, surround it, starve its inhabitants, break in finally, precipitate an orgy of killing and then nail the city’s leaders to what remained of its walls and flay them leaving their apocalyptic corpses as visual testimony to the price paid for defiance. Men were slaughtered, women too or sold into slavery. The horror which we moderns keep at an Apollonian distance was a real and ever present possibility until only a few centuries ago. Everywhere. So why did it change? It did change.

The American invasion of Iraq occurred pretty much as a consequence of the same motivation that inspired the Assyrians to build an empire. They wanted resources. And many Iraqis were killed. The difference was that the Americans had to invent a reason, three reasons actually, why the war was morally justifiable. None of them included oil. The figure is submerged but it’s thought that well over a hundred-thousand Iraqis are dead because of the US-led invasion. Gray appears right. We bless cruelty and injustice if the victims can be buried and forgotten. The policies of the American government and its allies, the collusion of the vast majority of those in the media has served to put the ‘colatoral damages’ of the Iraq War out of the minds of most of us and yet, still, there is a difference. And in this difference lies the clue to the measure and the nature of human progress. This is not because the protagonists of the Iraq War are in actuality virtuous visionaries bent on changing the world for the better but in actual fact because they are not.

However posterity judges the Iraq War, and I personally feel that it’s yet another step backwards toward the barbarity of the pre-modern era, the fact remains that American soldiers, when caught, were executed for rape and murder. In times past this behaviour was not only unpunished or ignored it was often mandated by command! The US government that kicked off the war was a venal beast. Dominated by interests associated with the oil business, populated almost entirely by men and women who owed their prestige and fortune to same, who lied and manipulated nations to war without the slightest compunction, but…

They did not cry havoc.

They did not, could not, cry havoc. They would not annihilate the Iraq people, could not sell them into slavery, could not flay Saddam Hussein alive and nail him to anything. In fact despite their hard-hearted wills and cold, dispassionate rationalism, it probably never entered their heads.

That is progress.



  1. Philomena February 18, 2011 at 7:44 am #

    What a confused screed. I don’t know why you don’t just shoot yourself now. I would if I thought like that.

  2. AC Stewart February 19, 2011 at 1:50 am #

    Yes if you thought like that you would. I can hack it. 🙂

  3. Philomena February 20, 2011 at 8:54 am #

    And it’s all about you.

    That much is obvious.

    How dull.

  4. AC Stewart February 21, 2011 at 12:42 am #

    C’arn Phil. You know you never find me dull. 🙂

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