Gray's Anatomy | The Nation


Gray's Anatomy

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We live, it has been said, in a postideological age. Ideologically confused might be more like it. Either way, there is no question that since the fall of the Berlin wall the ideological sands have been shifting. A good deal of the political map has been reshaped, its intellectual coordinates recombined with results that are by turns welcome and horrifying, but almost always amusing--at least to me.

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Danny Postel
Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author...

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This post-cold war road is paved with the personal journeys of intellectual and political figures of various stripes, many of whom have crisscrossed one another along the postideological superhighway. Think of Pat Buchanan's metamorphosis from conventional cold war Republican into paleocon populist and full-fledged anti-imperialist; Michael Lind's long, strange trip "up from conservatism" to an idiosyncratic sort of social-democratic nationalism; Joschka Fischer's voyage from revolutionary New Leftism to "realo" pragmatism to humanitarian interventionism; Harper's editor Lewis Lapham's drift from a hard-to-pin-down but more or less conservative centrism to a kind of undefined patrician left-liberalism and now militant anti-imperialism. And then, of course, there's Christopher Hitchens, who is still building the road as he travels, but who blends elements of post-Trotskyism, liberal internationalism and what Ian Williams has cleverly labeled "neo-neo-conservatism."

Among the most interesting of the postideological pilgrims is the British writer John Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. Gray's journey has taken him from championing the Thatcher revolution to becoming one of globalization's most savage critics; from writing Hayek on Liberty, a 1984 paean to the Austrian sage of free-market economics, to penning False Dawn, a 1998 jeremiad about the "delusions of global capitalism"; from frequenting Washington's right-wing think tanks to frequenting the pages of the Guardian and the New Statesman.

Straw Dogs represents yet another twist in Gray's journey. He is now a convert to the worldview of "deep" ecology. No longer is it the excesses of the free market or corporate globalization that exercises Gray. He's had it with the human race itself. "The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, 'Western civilisation' or any flaw in human institutions." Rather, he explains, it is "a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate."

This will come as altogether welcome news to the captains of industry and the architects of the global economy; the ecological devastation they leave in their wake, according to Gray, has nothing to do with their exploits. And it will come as terribly disheartening news to anyone attempting to curb the more ferocious forms of environmental degradation. Kyoto Protocol--what's the point? Alternative energy--why bother?

Gray has had it not only with humans but with their self-aggrandizing self-image, with the pernicious intellectual scheme that he sees as the animating force behind their ecocidal rampages: humanism. Humanism, for Gray, commits two unforgivable intellectual sins: It claims that humans possess the capacity to shape their own destinies and that humans are above other animals.

This second claim rests on a peculiar distortion of humanism, one Gray compounds by idiosyncratically positing an antagonism between humanism and science. While Darwin "showed that humans are like other animals," humanists, he asserts, "claim they are not." An odd reading of modern intellectual history, to be sure. The Darwinian revolution was, on the contrary, hailed by humanists from the beginning as one of the high-water marks in humanism's struggle against religious irrationalism and superstition. Yet, in an odd reversal, Gray has turned humanists into enemies of science and evolution. Provided are no explanation, no argument, no reference to any specific humanists--just blanket assertion. This, I'm afraid, is all too characteristic of the method employed in Straw Dogs.

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