London School of Economics political philosophy professor John Gray serves (most likely, unwittingly) as a satisfying corrective to modern liberal thought. Though the general tenor of his work is one of a breezy nihilism, he penetratingly points out the flaws of liberal thought. In his work Straw Dogs, he reminds, ” Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth–and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth” (26). The Western democratic belief that through scientific developments and political schemes humankind’s level of knowledge and capacity for justice will continue to advance unabated is the core belief of liberalism. However, as Gray point outs, “The humanist belief in progress is only the a secular version of [the] Christian faith.” In other words, liberalism takes what is Christianity’s emphasis on personal perfection and externalizes it as a type of political manifesto, a program for political expression. Given this, liberalism is, despite the philosophically materialistic elements that commingle, essentially a religious vision that provides its adherents with a narrative of meaningfulness. Thus, as with many traditionally religious believers, liberals may be less inclined to pursue disconcerting truths than they are with keeping a narrative–and, as such, themselves–dominant.
In the latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, Gray once again points out the new clothes of the democratically elected un-emperor of the liberal narrative–this time in regard to ISIS, one of the most pressing currents concerns, a concern that is constantly discussed in the most appalling unhelpful terms. Gray sets out to set to buffet this secular cow.
To begin, Gray claims that ISIS is utterly modern in its violent methodology: “ISIS has brought with it many atrocious assaults on civilized values: the sexual enslavement of women and children; the murder of gay men; the targeted killing of writers, cartoonists, and Jews; indiscriminate slaughter at a rock concert; and what amounted to the attempted genocide of the Yezidi. All of these acts of barbarism have modern precedents, many of them in the past century” (par. 2). He goes onto mention a few names that many liberals might be disinclined to associate with ISIS: Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot. Yet, all of whom, like ISIS, were far more inspired by the events of the French Revolution than by medieval ecclesiology, as the slur oft goes.
The sharpest shiv that Gray twists in-between the ribs of the think global crowd is this: “None of these features [e.g., such as its eschatology] go any distance toward showing that ISIS is other than modern. A transnational crime cartel, rapidly expanding apocalyptic cult movement, and worldwide terror network, ISIS could have emerged only in modern conditions of globalization” (par. 6). The rise of ISIS, contends Gray, especially given the US-facilitated chaos that arose in the wake of regime changes in Iraq and Libya, should not shock us, but it does because most of us–at least in the Western world–assume the liberal vision by default. (Perhaps not by default, as all of us imbibe it in our political mother’s milk.) To accept this would mean that we accept that “now as in the past some of the most modern movements are among the most barbaric. But to admit this would mean surrendering the ruling political faith, a decayed form of liberalism without which Western leaders and opinion formers would be disoriented and lost” (13). This, in turn, might lead to the further realization that “[c]ivilization is not the endpoint of modern history, but a succession of interludes in recurring spasms of barbarism” (17).