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Gray's Anatomy | The Nation

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Gray's Anatomy

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As one would expect, the political vision Gray offers in Al Qaeda is a complicated postideological jambalaya. (I generally distrust political visions that aren't complicated and, in some sense, postideological.) Having said that, there are several hints of a pre-postideological form of conservatism in the book. He characterizes Robert Kaplan's Warrior Politics as "brilliant." "Even intolerable regimes," he remarks, should be tolerated "so long as they posed no danger to others." This superficially unobjectionable-sounding view happens to be rooted in a deeply conservative understanding of state sovereignty and global order--and one in which there's no problem with genocidal tyrants and mass murderers so long as they're only torturing and annihilating their own subjects.

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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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There is nothing progressive about defending Russia’s role in Syria, no matter how one packages it. 

Moreover, Gray's rejection of liberal universalism itself is rooted in an archetypally conservative belief in essential human differences, a right-wing ontology of alterity. The particular expressions of liberal universalism Gray chooses to attack--positivism, free-market neoliberalism--are sufficiently loathsome to make his criticisms sting with ease. But Gray's beef isn't just with them. It's with the very concept of universalism, or cosmopolitanism, or internationalism--ideas that conservatives have abhorred for centuries. Thus when Gray assails liberal modernists for the blindness to fundamental and immutable differences between cultures inherent in their universalizing schemes, it might sound as if he were speaking the anticapitalist language of the global justice movement or the anti-imperialist idiom of the antiwar movement. But that's not where he's coming from at all. He's speaking the language of organicist conservatism--a credo of natural hierarchies and congenital cultural partitions. And pulsating through both books is another defining ingredient of the conservative mind: a profoundly dark, pessimistic view of human nature.

Gray's conservative essentialism is cut from the same cloth as the Huntingtonian belief in the incommensurability of civilizations. "Can we not accept that human beings have divergent and conflicting values, and learn to live with this fact?" Gray bemoans. From this perspective it is a given that the world's civilizations are monolithic, each speaking with a single voice. But they aren't--they're internally contested battlegrounds of opposing ideas, interests, classes, visions and possibilities. Think of Iran today, to take just one of myriad examples. It would be impossible to make head or tail of its internal situation in Gray's monochromatic terms.

Gray is right when he argues that the vast majority of the world's societies do not wish to have globalization in the form of American-style corporate neoliberalism visited upon them. But he transposes this into an argument against universalism as such, which it is not. Human rights activists across the planet are waging corresponding struggles. As the Egyptian sociologist and dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim has noted, when human rights activists from different countries get together and exchange notes, they invariably find that, despite wide geographic, cultural and religious chasms, they share many of the same experiences and speak a remarkably common idiom. It's not an accident that people in the international human rights movement tend to think of themselves, in this sense, as universalists.

Gray has not a word to say about this kind of universalism. Or, for that matter, about solidarity movements around the world that bring people of divergent societies and traditions together in common struggles for economic justice and resistance to domination--many of whom see themselves as acting in the name of universal principles.

Hegel admonished us to enter into the strengths, rather than the weaknesses, of our adversary's arguments--something Gray resoundingly fails to do in these two books; attacking universalism by targeting positivism and neoliberalism is to score cheap points while avoiding more challenging questions.

Although Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern shows several signs of improvement over Straw Dogs, in the end it remains plagued by the underlying impulses that animate Gray's work generally. As far as he has traveled, and as frequently as he has changed lanes, he's still conservative after all these years.

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