Saturday, December 06, 2003

Danny Postel, who first brought to our attention the Straussian philosophical roots of today's neoconservative political revolution, as explored in his interview with Chadia Drury takes on ex-Thatcherite John Gray's peripathetic philosophizing in his brilliant review of Gray's two most recent books: Straw Dogs and Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern.


"For all of his insights into our geopolitical situation and his monitions about the perilous path we're on, when one reads the two books in tandem, the effect is one of moral numbness. If one follows the argument of Straw Dogs (as we can only assume Gray does), what difference does it make whether the human species avoids its collision course with doom? If we should look forward to a time "when humans have ceased to matter," as Gray exhorts us to do in Straw Dogs, what's the point of even considering the proposals he offers in Al Qaeda for fashioning a less calamitous future? How can the apocalyptic antihumanism of Straw Dogs be squared with the claim, in the concluding chapter of Al Qaeda, that "we need to think afresh about how regimes and ways of life that will always be different can come to coexist in peace"?"


"Gray's long and winding ideological road has thus taken him from free-market fanaticism to "center-left" anticapitalism and now to green antihumanism. This might seem a bizarre trajectory even in a postideological age. But there is, arguably, a method in Gray's madness, a pattern to his restless shifting of intellectual gears. It could have something to do with what his old friend Norman Barry calls Gray's "philosophical promiscuity." Barry, a fellow traveler of Gray's from the Thatcher years, told Lingua Franca magazine in 2001 that even in his days as an anarcho-capitalist, Gray "was always flitting from person to person, philosopher to philosopher.... He couldn't form a steady relationship with any thinker." "

"As far as he [Gray] has traveled, and as frequently as he has changed lanes, he's still conservative after all these years."

Perhaps the source of Gray's inconsistency is not just his voracious search for mentors and meaning, but the same problem that a lot of social and political philosophers face right now (apart from the Straussians and other neocons), particularly here in the U.S.: the lack of any seeming relevance to mainstream political debate. That's an uncomfortable position to be in for anyone who wants to be taken seriously.