Sunday, 30 November 2014

50 shades of John Gray

Are you a Liberal? If so, you're probably cruising the web looking for rough trade. What's more, you want your intellect  hog-tied and your conscience given a darn good whipping coz that's what gets your rocks off.
Well, you are in luck today, coz this is a link to an essay by John Gray in which he argues that 'AIMING TO EXORCISE EVIL FROM THE MODERN MIND, LIBERALS HAVE CONSTRUCTED ANOTHER VERSION OF DEMONOLOGY, IN WHICH ANYTHING THAT RUNS COUNTER TO THE RATIONAL COURSE OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT IS ANATHEMATISED.
Is Prof. Gray correct? Suppose the population of Mosul decide to put their underwear on their heads and their shoes on their hands. This would not be a rational thing to do. The productivity of Mosul's economy is likely to fall and its people are likely to suffer various inconveniences more or less grave.
Would Liberalism anathematize Mosul? Would their people be demonized? Would our leaders, or leader-writers, demand that we bomb Mosul till the 'rational course of Human Development' is once more seen to prevail in that ancient City?

Clearly not.

What then is Gray's point?

He says- 'When Barack Obama vows to destroy Islamic State's "brand of evil" and David Cameron declares that Islamic State (ISIS) is an "evil organisation" that must be obliterated, they are echoing Tony Blair's judgment of Saddam Hussein: "But the man's uniquely evil, isn't he?"

'Blair made this observation in November 2002, four months before the invasion of Iraq, when he invited six experts to Downing Street to brief him on the likely consequences of the war. The experts warned that Iraq was a complicated place, riven by deep communal enmities, which Saddam had dominated for over thirty-five years. Destroying the regime would leave a vacuum; the country could be shaken by Sunni rebellion and might well descend into civil war.
'These dangers left the Prime Minister unmoved. What mattered was Saddam's moral iniquity. The divided society over which he ruled was irrelevant. Get rid of the tyrant and his regime, and the forces of good would prevail.'
What did Blair mean by saying 'Saddam is uniquely evil'? Let us recall the facts. Saddam had launched two wars against bigger countries and also attacked his own people. He was uniquely stupid. The strong likelihood existed that a conventional war of the sort NATO is good at would cause his regime to fall. A process similar to De-Nazification could have been speedily implemented such that competent people had a role in preserving Law and Order and getting the Nation back on its feet. Unfortunately, Bush's cronies were uniquely greedy. They disintermediated the Iraqi Governing Class so as to enrich favored contractors and to create 'jobs for the boys' in the 'Emerald City'.
Blair himself, greatly to the embarrassment of his Party, has enriched himself in an unconscionable manner. The Vicar of St. Albion is now on a par with the Rector of Stiffkey.
Surely no great 'Truth about Evil', as opposed to news about Greed, insight into self-serving moral stupidity, can be gained in this context?
Gray makes an astonishing claim- 'Too morally stunted to be capable of the mendacity of which he is often accused, Blair thinks and acts on the premise that whatever furthers the triumph of what he believes to be good must be true. Imagining that he can deliver the Middle East and the world from evil, he cannot help having a delusional view of the impact of his policies.
Blair was and is a liar by profession. Everybody knows that. Why is Gray pretending otherwise? 
Here Blair is at one with most Western leaders. It's not that they are obsessed with evil. Rather, they don't really believe in evil as an enduring reality in human life. If their feverish rhetoric means anything, it is that evil can be vanquished. In believing this, those who govern us at the present time reject a central insight of Western religion, which is found also in Greek tragic drama and the work of the Roman historians: destructive human conflict is rooted in flaws within human beings themselves. In this old-fashioned understanding, evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.
So, let me see whether I've got this straight. Evil will always be around but it tends to destroy itself. But that means it can too be vanquished. Not eradicated, vanquished. Nothing easier. Just as it may be impossible to destroy a particular virus completely yet ensure that no one dies from it, so too with Evil. There is no 'central insight' of Western Religion which says otherwise. In a Greek Tragedy, the land may suffer dearth for a crime of the King. But that dearth we will not have with us always. Something can be done about it and, sooner or later, something is done, some horrific act of purgation, and then foul Erinyes turn to benign Eumenides. No heteroclite Lovecraftian horror remains to overthrow Apollo and mark the return of those Elder and Insane Gods.
But, wait! What if those Gods already possess us? Gray suggests that something of that sort has in fact happened, not to us, the wife would have noticed, but to our leaders.
No view of things could be more alien at the present time. Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the West's default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing - however falteringly - to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind. According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved.
If Gray is right, our leaders would set targets to reduce the number of people being incarcerated (since criminal behavior can be cured) while greatly increasing spending on rehabilitation and also 'breaking the chain of deprivation', ending child poverty etc. Nothing of the sort can be observed at home, why should something different obtain in foreign policy? Does Gray live in a parallel universe where it is still the Sixties and LBJ has just announced a new set of Great Society Programs? 
One might think such experiences would be enough to deter governments from further exercises in regime change. But our leaders cannot admit the narrow limits of their power. They cannot accept that by removing one kind of evil they may succeed only in bringing about another - anarchy instead of tyranny, Islamist popular theocracy instead of secular dictatorship. They need a narrative of continuing advance if they are to preserve their sense of being able to act meaningfully in the world, so they are driven again and again to re-enact their past failures.
Many view these Western interventions as no more than exercises in geopolitics. But a type of moral infantilism is no less important in explaining the persisting folly of Western governments. Though it is clear that ISIS cannot be permanently weakened as long as the war against Assad continues, this fact is ignored - and not only because a Western-brokered peace deal that left Assad in power would be opposed by the Gulf states that have sided with jihadist forces in Syria. More fundamentally, any such deal would mean giving legitimacy to a regime that Western governments have condemned as more evil than any conceivable alternative. In Syria, the actual alternatives are the survival in some form of Assad's secular despotism, a radical Islamist regime or continuing war and anarchy. In the liberal political culture that prevails in the West, a public choice among these options is impossible.
What Gray is describing is simply policy drift within a larger context of disengagement and withdrawal. America is at its most dangerous when it isn't actively loathed. Then, it says 'well, our current puppet belongs to the wrong sect or isn't photogenic enough, so let's ditch him and put in someone who tests better with our Madison Avenue Focus Group.' 
That's what happened in Vietnam. However, after the Tet offensive, once the Yanks understood that the locals thought they only looked good in body bags, America had no difficulty at all in doing a deal with 'evil' Commie scum. Obviously, NATO intervention in Muslim countries is going to get us loathed by everybody. We no longer greatly care who presides over which patch of desert because it's the Chinese, not Haliburton, who will get the contracts.
A Liberal Idea of Evil.
Mill recognized long ago that responsibility means punishability. Thus, that which should be punished is evil. Moreover, to sustain a contract, Social or otherwise, some culpa levis type actions are required the nature of which are inchoate. Hence no meliorism can exhaust punishability. Thus no grave scandal re. Evil arises for Liberalism.
Statistical and Evidentiary Decision Theory type problems however, as King Yuddhishtra learns, are the price of moral leadership based on that mutuality which is the essence of Liberalism.
But Gray isn't a Liberal anymore-
There are some who think the very idea of evil is an obsolete relic of religion. For most secular thinkers, what has been defined as evil in the past is the expression of social ills that can in principle be remedied. But these same thinkers very often invoke evil forces to account for humankind's failure to advance. The secularisation of the modern moral vocabulary that many believed was under way has not occurred: public discourse about good and evil continues to be rooted in religion. Yet the idea of evil that is invoked is not one that features in the central religious traditions of the West. The belief that evil can be finally overcome has more in common with the dualistic heresies of ancient and medieval times than it does with any Western religious orthodoxy.
Gray is an atheist. Why is he speaking of 'orthodoxy' and 'heresy'? Very very few people alive at any time understood the difference between orthodoxy and heresy. Indeed, denunciations of heresy often contained heretical material. It really didn't matter who got burnt. What did matter was who got the Abbey and the melted down its gold plate and lived large thereafter.
A radically dualistic view of the world, in which good and evil are separate forces that have coexisted since the beginning of time, was held by the ancient Zoroastrians and Manicheans. These religions did not face the problem with which Christian apologists have struggled so painfully and for so long - how to reconcile the existence of an all-powerful and wholly good God with the fact of evil in the world. The worldview of George W. Bush and Tony Blair is commonly described as Manichean, but this is unfair to the ancient religion. Mani, the third-century prophet who founded the faith, appears to have believed the outcome of the struggle was uncertain, whereas for Bush and Blair there could never be any doubt as to the ultimate triumph of good. In refusing to accept the permanency of evil they are no different from most Western leaders.
Gray isn't a scholar of Iranian Religion. What he says is simply false- the product of a stupid textual availability cascade. Does Gray really believe that for Bush and Blair ' there could never be any doubt as to the ultimate triumph of good?' Surely they believed they themselves were good? Why didn't Blair stand as an Independent for P.M? Ultimately, if Gray is right, he'd have expected to triumph. Why didn't Bush invade Iran and North Korea and so on? 
Politicians don't say things like 'I'm stupid' or 'I'm ignorant' or 'I'm sure we're gonna lose this Election' or 'As a country, we're fucked.' Salesmen don't say 'This car is shit'. Lawyers don't say 'this scumbag, my client, is as guilty as hell.'  However, these beliefs can be inferred from their actions.
Contra Gray, Britain and America didn't chose to ally with Stalin against Hitler because the latter was more evil. Hitler declared war of Stalin and then on America. What of Britain? Did it choose to go to war for some purely moral reason or did it do so because it believed its Security was based on fulfilling Treaty obligations entered into on the basis of a utilitarian calculus? 
In Gray's Universe, our foreign policy is decided solely by moral considerations. He doesn't understand that it makes sense to legitimate foreign policy by speaking of either morality or some even more visceral drive- so as to convince others that one is sincere rather than strategic in one's policy choice (i.e. you have 'bourgeois strategy' in the hawk/chicken game)- and also to pretend that the policy is bound to be successful because expectations can  create reality. Gray mentions Freud, that old fraud, and also speaks briefly of evolutionary psychology. The latter has developed notions like 'costly signals' and Zahavi handicap which, unlike, Gray's own theory, have a lot of predictive power in International Politics. Questions of Mechanism Design remain, but the wrong way to tackle them is by uttering the following lament-
The weakness of faith-based liberalism is that it contains nothing that helps in the choices that must be made between different kinds and degrees of evil. Given the West's role in bringing about the anarchy in which the Yazidis, the Kurds and other communities face a deadly threat, non-intervention is a morally compromised option. If sufficient resources are available - something that cannot be taken for granted - military action may be justified. But it is hard to see how there can be lasting peace in territories where there is no functioning state. Our leaders have helped create a situation that their view of the world claims cannot exist: an intractable conflict in which there are no good outcomes.
'Faith based Liberalism' isn't weak, it's unviable. It never existed. Gulf War One made a profit. Gulf War Two didn't. That's the bad outcome which underlies pi-jaw driven policy drift, within a context of disengagement and defeat.
Gray panders to a masochism of the Liberal Conscience which, alas!, has already been mugged and which thus has no money to pay for the service in question. Apocalyptic talk of galloping meliorism but flogs a dead horse.


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