The Gray Zone
If there is one issue in contemporary life that supposedly defines the progressive nature of liberal societies, it is gay rights. Over the past half-century, most of the world’s Western democracies have seen incredible strides toward fuller acceptance of gay people. In the United States, the pace is, if anything, increasing, as each step toward full equality—from the striking down of anti-sodomy laws, to the Supreme Court’s recent decision voiding the Defense of Marriage Act, to the increasing number of state legislatures legalizing gay marriage—builds on prior ones.
The sense of history moving forward is not limited to people who cheer on this expansion of rights. When Justice Antonin Scalia dissented from the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the case that struck down the Lone Star State’s anti-sodomy law, he wrote, “If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is ‘no legitimate state interest’ for purposes of proscribing that conduct…what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising ‘[t]he liberty protected by the Constitution?’” The more recent decision in United States v. Windsor—which did not legalize gay marriage in all fifty states—allowed Scalia to make another slippery-slope prediction: “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.” Scalia’s views are odious, but it’s hard to look at the history of the issue and doubt that he is right: gay marriage is coming to all fifty states, and he can’t do a thing about it.
To John Gray, the British philosopher, political theorist and wide-ranging cultural critic, the optimistic narrative I have sketched is another example of fanciful, misguided optimism. According to Gray, human flourishing is cyclical, and does not inevitably increase over time. Advances are followed by setbacks, and eras of peace by horrific wars. Unprecedented developments in medicine, science and women’s rights in the first half of the twentieth century were succeeded by the worst conflict in human history. Jim Crow came after Reconstruction. And revolutions that initially seemed to offer the promise of more freedom—whether in France or Iran or Egypt today—have led to violence and depravity, if not chaos. One imagines Gray arguing that of course the Western world could see a further entrenchment of gay rights; at the same time, an unknown series of events might lead to the reverse scenario. All we know is that we don’t know.
What concerns Gray, as he has argued in numerous articles, books and lectures, is that those who believe in steady progress are foolishly engaging in teleological thinking. “Progressives”—in the most literal sense of the word—have replaced religion with a faithful humanism that allows for a nearly supernatural view of human functioning, behavior and flourishing. Rather than viewing humans as just another member of the animal kingdom, “humanists” believe that our species can fulfill a unique destiny and reach The End of History. This faith in progress, Gray believes, will end up leading to great crimes and disasters. Ideological fanaticism, whether rooted in a teleological view of human liberation, national destiny or divine provenance, has led us down this road before.
Gray has become one of the most visible and prolific public intellectuals of the past decade, and he is almost always worth reading. His knowledge of philosophy and history is nicely integrated with his passion for literature and the arts. He would scorn the title of humanist, but his writing contains a wide-ranging curiosity about other people. In his recent work, however, he has chosen to simplify the arguments of writers he scorns and proclaim that anyone who disagrees with him is near messianic in his or her thinking. Gray’s incessant pessimism about humanity’s ability to spark durable change has produced its own form of teleology. As E.H. Carr wrote in “What Is History,” “To denounce ideologies in general is to set up an ideology of one’s own.”
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People who have moved through various stages of political orientation have a tendency to prove that the last stage of ideological drift is ideological certainty. David Horowitz went from honorary Black Panther to contented Reaganite before settling into the role of insufferable campus troublemaker. Arianna Huffington metamorphosed from anti-feminist Republican to establishment centrist and, at least for the time being, into a harsh critic of the financial system and committed liberal partisan.
Gray would at first appear to be an exception to this rule. Although he has inhabited the roles of moderate Thatcherite, admirer of Tony Blair’s New Labour experiment and strong opponent of the Iraq War, he currently scorns free market evangelism and interventionism. His general political outlook now appears to approximate that of a mainstream liberal, if only because he heaps scorn on anyone too far on either side of the current political spectrum. (Mainstream liberalism has made its compromises with imperialism and more rapacious forms of capitalism, and so it is to Gray’s credit that he has devoted so much energy to criticizing both.)
It is in the field of criticism—in both senses—that Gray has flourished. His close reading of Marx has frequently come in handy when evaluating such ideologically distinct figures as Thomas Friedman and Slavoj Zizek. In the former case, Gray explained the surprising similarities between Friedman’s thinking about globalization and Marx’s, both of which were prone to shunting aside cultural analysis to focus on technological advancement. In his dissection of Zizek, meanwhile, he lauded Marx’s empiricism, which stands in stark contrast to the blathering of his “Leninist” (in Zizek’s word) follower.
It was in his 1995 book on Isaiah Berlin, however, that Gray (who studied under Berlin at Oxford) was at his finest, largely because he managed to put forth a reading of Berlin’s political philosophy that added up to something significant. Berlin was often accused of failing to provide a grand theory for his many arguments about liberalism, largely because celebrating “negative liberty”—essentially being left alone, free from interference—does not necessarily yield a coherent political philosophy. But Gray showed that Berlin’s distrust of monism added up to a robust pluralism, or what Gray called an “agnostic liberalism.” “The master-thesis of pluralism supports liberalism,” he wrote, further defining it as a sort of liberalism that “grounds itself on the radical choices we must make among incommensurables.”
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