Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Reason in revolt: two books on enlightenment. posted by lenin

Little God, Big Hitchens

I can get two reviews in here for the price of one. I'll start with 
Hitchens' latest, 'God Is Not Great'. Some people, in the wake of an 
atrocity by religious fanatics that has already been matched several 
times over in this young century, have taken to taking up atheism as 
if it were a militant creed. The range of people willing to reduce 
most of the world's problems to religion include the admirable 
Richard Dawkins, and the despicable Sam Harris. Hitchens, who has at 
different times been both admirable and despicable, is not saying 
much that he hasn't said before. If you look at his writings in the 
1980s, he was often explaining the futility of belief, stressing its 
role as a false comfort for the poor and a source of morality for 
power. He contemptuously dismissed 'Liberation Theology' as a 
pathetic oxymoron, reminded readers of what Freud had to say in The 
Future of an Illusion (that religions are a form of 
wish-fulfillment), refers to "the mystical element in modern 
tyranny", specifically Stalinism and Nazism, insists that it is 
impossible for the religious and irreligious to be at peace, and - in 
his writings on El Salvador and Nicaragua, generally finds religion 
either to be a poor ally of socialism or its devout enemy. His latest 
therefore summarises the arguments of a lifetime, or the life that he 
has had since he was nine years old and decided firmly that God did 
not exist, a fact he is given to bragging about. But then, as someone 
remarked to me, perhaps this only means he still thinks like a nine 
year old.

God Is Not Great is sometimes witty, or at least half-witty, which is 
better than average. And it displays some of the author's 
ostentatiously wide learning with some of the old lapidary skill. It 
repeats many of his catechisms of old, the Freudian reference, the 
one-liners and the blunt insistence that not only can there be no 
peace between the religious and the atheist, but such peace would be 
undesirable. It is also superficial, error-strewn, and riddled with 
inconsistency and disavowal. On the error front, one could mention 
that Victor Serge didn't in fact invent the term 'totalitarianism' 
(it was Giovanni Amendola, a parliamentary opponent of fascism, who 
invented the phrase 'totalitaria', and Mussolini who took it up 
proudly, boasting of his 'totalitarianismo'). Or, his claim that 
Islam is in need of a Reformation, which suggests that his reading 
didn't take him as far as the revivalist movements of the 19th 
Century and that he doesn't recognise the self-evident analogue 
between salafism and Lutheranism. Equally, it may be that he doesn't 
really understand what the Reformation in its various manifestations 
was really about. On inconsistency, one marvels about his references 
to the Parties of God destroying Iraq without really dallying on the 
fact that the biggest Parties of God and the most aggressive ones are 
actually allies of the occupation. He doesn't seem to have noticed, 
either, that God's soldiers were fighting alongside him in Bosnia. On 
disavowal, the whole work can be seen as a careful expiation of the 
sins of imperialism and indeed of capitalism. Religion is blamed not 
only for the bad deeds of the religious, but also for modern 
'totalitarianism', the threat of nuclear war, conflict in Palestine, 
gender repression (somehow the idea of Hitchens as a feminist doesn't 
really convince), the destruction of Iraq, the Lebanese civil war and 
so on. He states, falsely, that Iran is about the bring the world 
closer to the brink of nuclear war because it is acquiring nuclear 
weapons - this is the sort of assertion that is made without 
evidence, so perhaps we should follow Hitchens' motto and dismiss it 
without evidence. He finds that it is the religious fanatics on 'both 
sides' of the Israel-Palestine divide that have frustrated the 
attempts to reach a two-state settlement, an obvious falsehood about 
which it is safe to say he knows better.

The least useful thing that could be said about the book is that it 
is not constructive: it is not supposed to be constructive. It has 
some interesting, if rather old, things to say about different 
religions (oh, the common patriarchal norms, the sexual repression, 
the insistence that - as he puts it - "the birth canal is a one-way 
street", the textual bases for genocide and sectarianism and so on), 
garnished with the mantra: "religion poisons everything". It brags, 
repeatedly, that the attitude of non-believers like him is not one of 
faith, not dogmatic, but relies on free discussion and evidence. For 
a man who spent a great deal of February and March 2003 explaining 
that Wolfowitz would definitely bring peace and prosperity to Iraq, 
that the weapons of mass destruction would definitely be found, that 
evidence of Saddam's connections to the global jihad would be 
located, this doesn't sit well. Alright, perhaps it was unreasonable 
of him to make a claim to 'Twenty-Twenty Foresight' as he put it, but 
the fact that he persists in believing these things in hindsight 
despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary doesn't leave one 
with the impression that he is an avatar of Enlightenment. You can 
still find him on the Charlie Rose show repeating the gags about 
Saddam's alleged connections to the Abu Sayyaf movement and the 
'hospitality' given Abdul Rahman Yasin, one of the alleged WTC 
bombers in 1993 - and thus, hint hint, the Baathist regime might have 
been behind it. The former is without substantial evidence (despite 
allegations rehashed in the neocon Weekly Standard in 2006), and the 
latter is a discredited thesis advanced by Laurie Mylroie who, before 
changing her - well, I won't say mind, but before changing her 
opinion on Saddam, was arguing for a deepening of the relationship 
between the Reagan regime and the Baath one. In fact, Yasin was an 
Iraqi who was released by the US government to return to his country 
of birth. When he arrived in Iraq, he was allegedly imprisoned and 
the Iraqi government repeatedly offered to hand him over in exchange 
for sanctions relief. But the US authorities that permitted his 
release were evidently not interested in prosecuting him - an 
interesting story in itself.

There are other reasons for doubting that Hitchens has overcome 
faith. To insist on the superiority of the scientific method against, 
say, 'intelligent design' is in principle a sensible step, but to 
serve it up with a blustering scientific realism and a curious 
combination of sociobiology and genetic reductionism arguably blunts 
the force of the argument. Similarly, it is one thing to assert 
religion's role in many of the worst forms of human behaviour, but it 
is another to reduce religion to that. Here he gets himself into an 
appropriate muddle: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's resistance to the Nazis is 
explained away as a victory for humanism, not religion. Okay, but 
then this - and countless other examples could be adduced - is a 
tacit acknowledgment that at least religion can coexist with 
humanism, rationalism, and so on, which mocks his own claim that 
there can be no peace between religion and atheism. The history of 
the development of science by the religious doesn't permit any facile 
opposition between the two (Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, Boyle, Newton 
etc). Nor is there even a complete opposition available between 
science and the Counter Reformation, in which the Church sought both 
to crush its enemies and restore its earthly power precisely by 
learning and spreading the new methods being developed. All of this 
has become so obvious that it is common wisdom among philosophers of 
science that its relationship to religion has often been productive, 
and that the instances of repression (of Galileo, for instance) are 
the exception rather than the rule.

It is simple enough to cite statements in the holy texts, but he is 
every bit as literalist as the fundamentalists and salafists. Such a 
gesture is completely incompatible with Hitchens' noisily avowed 
materialism, as well. If one only thinks of the millenia during which 
religions were developed and elaborated and argued over and censored 
and repressed and rearticulated, it is clear that a religion is not, 
or is not only, the content of its texts. It is a work of labour, a 
performance by people working in different contexts, deriving 
meanings that are apt for their circumstances. How else could there 
be such disagreement among people of the same faith about when and 
whom it is permissible to kill, or love, or rule? It may be an alibi 
of repression, but it is also an alibi of revolt (which raises the 
earlier prospect, that Hitchens doesn't understand the Reformation, 
or that part of it that was manifested in 1525). Although Hitchens 
claims to operate on the basis of Marx's critique of religion, he 
neglects to note that Marx was also a critic of the critique of 
religion: that he insisted that social change would come first and 
then people would abandon their "religious narrowness". He 
fundamentally misrepresents Marx, therefore, to make a case more 
befitting Bruno Bauer.

God Is Not Great is principally a polemic about current affairs. 
Secularism and democratic republicanism are metaphors for American 
imperialism. In his hands they are alibis for repression and not, as 
one might have hoped, for revolt. Hitchens' long-standing anti-theism 
has become a means by which he commutes his remaining liberal 
commitments into support for aggressive American expansionism, 
nationalism, and accomodation to the claims of Zionism. If it wasn't 
for this, the book would probably not have been written, for there is 
not much in the book that was worth saying that hasn't already been 
said better, without the howlers, the arrogance and the insistence on 
using provisional scientific research as brickbats.

Defending Reason From Its Defenders

Dan Hind's new book, The Threat To Reason, is a very different kind 
of book. It too sees reason and Enlightenment values as being under 
threat, but the author doesn't accept that the main threat comes from 
New Agers and the religious. The Enlightenment is conscripted for 
various projects - not only American warfare, but also the corporate 
assault on environmentalism (or the attempt to coopt it), the 
capitalist attempt to curb labour protections, and the effort to 
override consumer and worker concerns about genetically modified 
foods. Bush cites Locke, The Economist cites Adam Smith, agribusiness 
cites progress against the forces of unreason, Blair contrasts 
globalising optimism with parochial pessimism and despair, and so on. 
A "bowdlerised and historically disembodied Enlightenment" is being 
used as a form of blackmail: if you are against us, you are with the 
forces of unreason. It has become a source of immense self-confidence 
for political and capitalist elites and the American empire, who all 
claim to be safeguarding that heritage. What Hind refers to as 'Folk 
Enlightenment' - because we all know the tune, even if the lyrics 
change sometimes - is reflected in the facility with which 
neoliberals appropriated the Scottish Enlightenment for their global 
crusade, matched by the neoconservative affirmation of the need for 
'Enlightened' administration of Third World countries. Its use in 
this fashion has also helped people who described themselves as being 
on the Left, reconcile themselves to the invasion and occupation of 
Iraq. The current clash-of-civilisations theme of imperialist 
apologetics often casts America's contemporary Islamist opponents as 
pre-Enlightenment and mythological (in contrast to America's 
self-image as confident and progressive). Similarly, the defense of 
capitalist enterprise against "eco-fundamentalists" who tend to be 
depicted as preferring to subsist in mud-huts on diets of greens and 
grains, is a familiar one.

Partially, the roots of this appropriation of the Enlightenment are 
located in anticommunism, in which a number of thinkers saw the 
tradition of 18th Century liberalism as the only viable alternative 
to - well, you probably could have guessed it - serfdom. (For in this 
outlook, the only alternative to liberal capitalism is something 
essentially premodern). Hind is very adept at drawing out the ways in 
which this has been perpetuated institutionally (he is a Lobster 
contributor after all), and in which it became the handmaiden of 
tyranny as well as exploitation. There are also some excellent 
put-downs - of Hitchens, and Wheen and that whole school of 
unthought. The unaccountability - ethically and otherwise - of 
corporations, and their private efforts to use Enlightenment methods 
to bolster their own power is described in some detail, as is that of 
the state: this, Hind calls 'Occult Enlightenment'. Additionally, the 
recklessness, moral irresponsibility and irrationality of the 'war on 
terror' is outlined brilliantly. There is a good discussion of the 
Enlightenment and various interpretations of it, and Hind also takes 
on some of the myths about the postmodernist assault on enlightened 
thought: pomo is thus summarised as not so much a coherent body of 
thought but as in many respects "a response to the accumulated 
disasters of Western modernity from the nineteenth century through to 
the 1960s: imperialism, world war and genocide". I don't think it 
could be put better than that. It concludes with a way out of the 
current binds, a gesture toward a truly Enlightened method. For one 
thing, we need to recognise the state-corporate nexus as the 
essential source of contemporary irrationalism. The vague, 
ahistorical histories in which people's ideas are given enormous 
social weight need to be eschewed in favour of an understanding of 
the institutional forms that produce knowledge. Hind reminds the 
indefatigable contrarians and defenders of reason that, far from 
being fearless conveyors of unblemished truths, they are themselves 
employees for information industries, some of them private and some 
of them state-owned. The forms of knowledge that they produce are 
conditioned by these institutions, and they delude themselves when 
they imagine otherwise. We need to abandon the illusions of 
'disinterested' inquiry and try to overcome the property forms that 
currently repress common creativity and thought.

A few quibbles. I don't quite understand how Theodor Adorno is cast 
as a 'postmodernist', much less how Adorno and Horkheimer become the 
central examples of postmodern thought. Adorno's immanent critique of 
the Enlightenment doesn't entail a radical scepticism about the 
possibility of knowledge, and he was nothing if not a rationalist. 
Derrida and Foucault would surely have been better examples, 
especially since they are the most hated 'postmodernists', the clercs 
whose trahison has been most heinous for people like Wheen and Hari. 
Take, for example, Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the 
World, which characterises Derrida's philosophy in the words of 
Barbara Ehrenreich, as maintaining that the "world is just a socially 
constructed 'text' about which you can say just about anything". 
Similarly, take Hari's claim that the bad man wants to attack reason 
and language. Now, neither of these claims is true. Derrida was 
astonished to hear that his critique of logocentrism had been 
misinterpreted in this fashion: "I never cease to be surprised by 
critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond 
language, that we are imprisoned in language; it is, in fact, saying 
the exact opposite. The critique of logocentrism is above all else 
the search for the 'other' and the 'other of language...'". So far 
from abandoning truth, Derrida insists: "the value of truth (and all 
those values associated with it) is never contested or destroyed in 
my writing, but only reinscribed in more powerful, larger, more 
stratified contexts". He was not, as so often depicted, a textualist: 
"not that I consider laws, constitutions, the declaration of the 
rights of man, grammar, or the penal code to be the same as novels. I 
only want to recall that they are not 'natural realities', and that 
they depend on the same structural power that allows novelesque 
fictions or mendacious inventions and the like to take place. I have 
never 'put such concepts as truth, reference, and the stability of 
interpretive context radically into question' if 'putting radically 
into question' means contesting that there are and that there should 
be truth, reference, and stable contexts of interpretation". It is, 
in other words, the kind of reasoned and responsible critique of 
existing forms of institutionalised power/knowledge that is the most 
characteristic of the radical Enlightenment. Nor is the hatred for 
Derrida accidental. His Of Grammatology is explicit in connecting the 
deconstruction of Western philosophy to anti-imperialism. He 
explained: "the science of writing - grammatology - shows signs of 
liberation all over the world". By attacking the tropes through which 
white, European supremacy has been propagated, he has undermined the 
self-confidence of would-be imperialist intellectuals. Similarly, 
Hind could have been a bit more unkind to Peter Gay, who is actually 
partially responsible for the simplistic dichotomy between religious 
thought and Enlightened thought. Although Gay acknowledges the 
religious commitments of some of the chief Enlightenment thinkers 
(Locke, Rousseau, Newton, Ferney), his attempt to recreate the "mind 
of the Enlightenment" as a pagan throwback, a sort of Francocentric 
sensuous humanism, reinforces that binary. Similarly, in handling the 
resonance of the experience of French philosophes for contemporary 
usurpers, it would have been worth commenting on the inegalitarianism 
of its leading lights. While, for example, the later utilitarians 
like John Stuart Mill have sometimes been rightly criticised for 
their support for colonialism (the view that Bentham himself 
supported the British colonies has been undermined by Jennifer Pitts' 
recent work), a lot more could be said about the contempt of people 
like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot and others for the multitude, 
whom they energetically sought to distance themselves from. While 
hostile to certain forms of religious superstition, they articulated 
a fanatical resentment of 'le peuple' as mindless and malleable, that 
is surely analogous to the current warnings against 'populism'. The 
discussion of the 'Occult Enlightenment' might have been enriched by 
a discussion of its relationship to Renaissance and early-modern 
magical practise, since magical forms of thinking persist in elite 
doctrines. Those are merely quibbles, however. The author has done 
something that Dawkins et al have not done, which is to take both the 
Enlightenment and religion seriously, and to locate the social forces 
responsible for squandering and diverting its immense resources. He 
also handles wit, sarcasm and scepticism better than the current 
militant anti-theists do. And be prepared for the unexpected, too, 
because he isn't as content with the obvious as the 
God-botherer-botherers are.