08 February 2007

Johann Hari - Enemy of the Enlightenment

Johann Hari, for those unfamiliar, is a left-wing British journalist with a habit of embracing, or usually building from scratch, the most bizarre political positions with the most rational and indisputable reasoning. He believes in the abolition of the monarchy for the sake of the royalty. He believes in fighting homophobic extremists using gay sex, and among brilliant pieces on the right to asylum, the conflict in the Congo and blood shortages in Palestinian hospitals, has even written an article on the prevalence of gay Nazism. I enjoy the spectacle of his running battles with Richard Littlejohn and identify with him as a non-sporty sexual minority (though where he is fat and gay I am skinny and, until recently, involuntarily celibate). However, his repeated attacks on Postmodernism grate with me, and this article is an attempt to rationalise why they seem to smack of hypocrisy, irrationality and particularly arrogance. This critique is by no means an indictment of Hari, the fact that I read his columns religiously shows the admiration I have for his work and particularly his talent for avoiding simplistic categorisation and any kind of party line. I cannot, however forgive these attacks as, because they are a minor irritation and as Derrida said, "The only forgiveness is to forgive the unforgiveable".

The first of these attacks followed the demise of Jacques Derrida, the "mad axeman of Western philosophy". His summary of Derrida's philosophy is brief, but impartial and thorough. However, he neither refutes nor even seems to disagree with a single one of Derrida's ideas before he reveals the source of his opposition: "All we are left with - if we accept Derrida's conclusions - is puzzled silence and irony. If reason is just another language game, if our words cannot match anything out there in the world without doing 'violence' to others - what can we do except sink into nihilism, or turn to the supernatural?" Hari argues not against the reasoning, but against the result of that reasoning. Yet to introduce his review of 'Why Truth Matters', he says: "The great Enlightenment goal of pursuing the truth wherever it may lead us – even to ideas we find totally unexpected, or initially horrifying – is under siege.". But when the ideas to which Derrida's pursuit of the truth and its nature lead horrify Hari, he begins to vilify Postmodernism as vehemently as he glorifies the Enlightenment. His subsequent attack on postmodern literature - conveniently ignoring 'Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit', 'The Name of the Rose' or other brilliant postmodern works - takes him further towards the horrifying result and further away from his own beloved Reason. Postmodernism and Deconstruction are "the terrible forces of ultra-scepticism" and he most tellingly talks of "chaining the deconstructionist beast" and limiting the extend of intellectual enquiry.

He frequently misrepresents Postmodernism to fit his beliefs. The most prevalent misconception is that "Derrida's method for destroying language is deconstruction", that is that close examination of something will destroy it. He describes Foucault's relations with the Iranian Ayatollah as: "the culmination of his life's work dismantling reason". And although there are many reasons to dismantle something, to break, to fix or, especially for a philosopher, to examine it, Hari treats this act as pure destruction. Even Hari's love for the Enlightenment seems as unenlightened as his hatred of those that question it. In the same article, condemning the Chapman Brothers as monsters, he attacks their belief in "transgression" and the way they "vandalise and ridicule the fruits of reason". However Goya's mockery and caricatures of the ancien régime, also clear transgressions, are lauded as such. Derrida's is a "shrill and silly agenda to unpick and 'expose' the Enlightenment tradition" and "The Chapmans' declared aim is... to puncture and destroy it". To puncture and expose, or to subvert and question the validity of, the Enlightenment is, to Hari, to destroy it. His Enlightenment is only valid when it is absolute.

Absolutist Enlightenment? It is at this point that Hari becomes an enemy of his own beloved creed, one that, as he quite rightly points out, has benefitted Western society immeasurably. And it is at this point that he becomes dangerous. He claims "Postmodernism demoralises and disorients intellectual elites when confronted with reactionary movements", but overconfident, purposeful elites are a dangerous thing. The most disgusting ideologies of the twentieth century grew from dogmatic interpretations the Enlightenment's intellectual traditions. Darwinism, Marxism, Smithsonian economics, were all three rationalist, materialist readings of the world perfectly consistent with Enlightenment ideals. But it did not take long for Marxism to become Stalinism, for the same absolutist interpretations to be applied to the Free Market or for Darwinism to become Social Darwinism, racial science, eugenics, Fascism, Nazism and ultimately genocide. It is neither coincidence nor shady conspiracy that Third-World dictators see the Enlightenment as a branch of Western imperialism - "spreading civilisation", namely our own, post-Enlightenment civilisation, was always the given justification for the most brutal parts of European empire-building, from Britain's forced famines in India to Belgian slavery in the Congo, to the French army torturing Algerian POWs. Adorno identified this danger when he observed that the myth of the Enlightenment is often stronger than the Enlightenment itself. A professed belief in the Enlightenment does not make anyone enlightened or immune from the descent into myth, tyranny and the sleep of reason. Rather, the certainty given by the illusion of rationality makes pitfalls more likely, and this perversion of the Enlightenment happens not wilfully but by mistaking the Enlightenment for its own myth.

Reviewing 'Why Truth Matters' Hari claims: "The postmodernists serve up the ultimate in identity politics...identity politics is the opposite of progressive or liberating politics. It privileges the unchosen, the happenstance and the biological over the learned, the acquired and the new.” Yet he omits other ways of creating identity - by freely chosen beliefs and associations such as religions, social groups and political parties. The intellectual protectionism he applies to his creed shows Hari identifies with the Enlightenment's flag rather than its beliefs. In short, he chooses the politics of identity over reason. This becomes clearest when, quoting Levinas, he chides Derrida as a "Jewish mystic". He does not point to any peculiarly Jewish irrationality (though Deconstruction does mirror the 'riddles within riddles' of Talmidic hermeneutics). Without reasoning, he simply states: Jewish equals religion equals irrationality, and ignores the emphasis many religious thinkers place on Reason. He simply labels his opponents with words associated with irrationality, as the Other Party, in the same way a SWP-supporter or an Ayatollah might simply dismiss any counter-arguement as 'Toryism' or 'Western interference'. His simplistic portrayal of Postmodernism seems to be as a champion of irrationality, particularly irrational tribal beliefs, religious superstition and identity politics, where the Postmodernist claim that nothing is inherently right makes it impossible for it to champion anything.

Hari's support for the Iraq war has won him a lot of criticism from the left and from even the Chapman Brothers. But this support is forgivable and if anything, shows an admirable independence of thought and moral courage. But it also demonstrates a (well-intentioned) naivety stemming from his unenlightened, tribal belief in the Identity of the Enlightenment. Despite his scepticism on WMD, he supported it on 'humanitarian' grounds, to oust Saddam and bring democracy and freedom, but an injection of moral relativism into his view could perhaps have changed this. Of course, nobody should have abandoned democracy as just another "discourse", and championed Ba'athism, the indigenous way of the Iraqi people, and this is never the aim of Postmodernism. But belief in the inherent validity of their own beliefs made the Hawks blind. Democracy is a discourse, or rather many, fragmented and entwined, and as such it is tainted by its context and by the discourses that accompany it. The discourse of democracy we brought to Iraq was accompanied by lies, shock-and-awe, cluster-bombs, torture, humiliation and gross mismanagement, and then by the following terror campaigns and civil war. Seeing the Enlightenment ideals as absolutes prevented the Hawks from anticipating their possible failure and preparing persuasive arguments and methods to maintain them. Hari later retracted his support, not because he no longer believed in democracy, but because he had, in his own words, been foolish to believe that George Bush was the man to bring it. But why was he deceived? Perhaps he was too willing to salute the flag of the Enlightenment, and too receptive to anything done in its name.

Hari is correct when he claims: "the Hindu fundamentalist right in India and the new creationist right in the US are well-versed in postmodern language. 'Epistemic relativism makes possible a world where bad arguments and no evidence are helped to win public discussions over justified arguments and good evidence'”. Postmodernism is not, as he so dogmatically believes, the enemy of the Enlightenment, but its direct continuation, and like the ideals of rationalism, science and liberation, it is easily twisted to justify irrationality, superstition and repression. Postmodernism simply asks that the Enlightenment examine and contextualise itself with the same rigour it does others. Postmodernism, with its constant self-examination, has an inbuilt safeguard against absolutism and, rather than being an oblique obfustication of polysyllabic meta-commentary and reflexivity, this takes the form of a simple joke: "There are no absolutes - save one".

The true enemies of the Enlightenment are those that use it as a pawn in their tribal struggles, either as an interfering foreign 'Other' to justify their theocracy, or as their own tribal banner to wave at the uncivilised, superstitious savages about to be plundered for their fossil fuels. As he grovels and squirms to apologise for supporting the war in Iraq, Johann Hari should perhaps look at why he was so easy to dupe at the slightest mention of Enlightenment ideals, and we his loyal readers should ask ourselves if those preaching blind faith in the Enlightenment and even its son Postmodernism are really their friend or foe.