Monday, June 8, 2009

Tea & armageddon: an interview with John Gray

John Gray is the Radiohead of political philosophy. To his fans his views are a welcome antidote to that most virulent strain of human conceit - the belief that mankind is destined for some higher purpose - while his detractors label him a pessimistic old killjoy hellbent on spoiling the party. Personally I love Radiohead and believe parties are always improved by a good gatecrashing, so when Gray came to Australia for the 2008 Sydney Writers' Festival I begged GQ to let me interview him (this was when the magazine, under the tutelage of the admirable Nick Scott, still had some guts). I found Gray the most charming of fire-starters, and treasure the signed copy of Straw Dogs that he gave me. Here is the article as it appeared in the August issue of GQ that year:

Halfway through my conversation with John Gray, just as he’s getting into his stride on why the idea of world peace is a hopeless fantasy and mankind is doomed to eternal conflict, I find myself thinking about Star Trek. We’re having breakfast in a Sydney restaurant and Gray, esteemed political scientist, bestselling author and philosophical firestarter du jour, is explaining why society’s established faith in human progress is mistaken. Human intelligence has failed to keep pace with human knowledge, says the amiable 61-year-old Brit between sips of tea. While technology and science leap hurdle after hurdle, ethics and politics remain stuck in the starting blocks.

This gets me thinking of the crew of the Starship Enterprise, and how it’s never their teleporters or faster-than-light space travel that cause you to doubt the show’s premise. The huge advances in science you can swallow; humans do that sort of thing well, after all. What nettles is the ridiculous back-story about a ‘United Federation of Planets’; hundreds of worlds spread across 8,000 light years, all living peacefully (the odd commie pinko Klingon aside) in one big interstellar democracy. This a conceivable future for a race that, back in the real world, can barely organise a football match without it turning into an ethnically divided bloodbath? No wonder Spock always looks a bit sceptical.

Mankind’s penchant for Captain Kirk-esque pipe dreamery is the burning, nay molten, issue at the core of Gray’s latest smouldering polemic, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. A ripe and very timely raspberry blown directly at the dominant political hopes of our time, Black Mass argues that, far from being a panacea for the world’s ills, the accepted wisdom of ‘democracy or bust’ is merely the latest in a succession of doomed utopian projects (Communism and Nazism take a bow) to have plagued modern civilisation since the Enlightenment.

Where Gray really upsets the existential applecart is in his assertion that all these supposedly secular policies are in fact nothing more than a mutation of the hoary old religious faith they claim to have superceded. From the torrent of Biblical verbiage spouting from the White House since 9/11 (“The enemy has a face. He’s called Satan, and we’re going to destroy him”), to the blind faith in science endorsed by humanists and ‘evangelical atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins, Gray explains how, God-bothering or not, we are a race fixated with being the stars of our own historical drama. While the politicos and mystics punt two versions of the same happy ending – that heaven, or at least MacDonalds, awaits those who toe the ideological line – humanity’s obsession with manifest destiny is rapidly creating hell on Earth.

Pessimistic? Hell yes. I ask Gray how he feels about his reputation as a doomsayer, and he places his teacup on the table before answering (when an Englishman puts down his tea, you listen).

“I have a reputation as a pessimist because I’m relentlessly forcing people to look at the facts,” he says. “If, impossibly, we lived in a world where realist ideas dominated, I might be doing something different. But in this world realist thinking is intermittent, and very often what’s represented as realist thinking is just another progressive ideology. The disastrous war in Iraq will put an end to such projects for a while, but unfortunately the utopian mentality still prevails on issues like terrorism and climate change.”

Hang on a minute, climate change? So even the green movement is a victim of wishful thinking?

“There are well over six million people on this planet,” sighs Gray. “They can’t all exist on windfarms and solar power. And even if we reduce carbon emissions by fifty percent, which we won’t, what’s the good if in the meantime we’ve chopped down all our trees? A lot of response to the environmental problem is about personal therapy. People doing token things to make themselves feel better.”

I bet that doesn’t make him too many friends down at the bottle bank. I ask him if he’s not concerned that such a defeatist outlook encourages apathy.

“Sometimes apathy is better than doing some great nonsensical thing that goes wrong,” he counters. “Look at what happened with biofuels and global warming. It’s taken five years for people to finally realise that not only are biofuels not the solution, they actually aggravate the problem. It’s better to accept our limitations, however undesirable, and prepare accordingly rather than lose ourselves in crackpot schemes based on unrealisable ideals.”

But what about our achievements? Surely even Gray can’t deny humanity ethical advances like, say, the abolition of slavery?

“Much of what we term human progress is reversible. Slavery is still going on in many forms. And look at torture; during the Second World War waterboarding would get you fifteen years hard labour, and now the US, supposedly the world’s leading liberal democracy, has declared it legal. And it happened in the blink of an eye. Progress in ethics if often an illusion.”

Like all great revelations – the world is round, cigarettes are bad for you, Bill Clinton did have sexual relations with that woman – much of what Gray has to say seems painfully obvious in hindsight. With this in mind, I jump the gun and ask him what’s in store for our poor deluded species over the next twenty years.

““Environmentally, if present science is even reasonably correct, then it’s pretty clear that within twenty years we’ll have serious problems with rising sea levels. The evidence is already there to see. Geopolitically, the big change will be the swift eclipse of American power. I’m not a fan of American policy, but critics of the US haven’t realised there’s nothing to replace it. Will the world it be safer? I don’t think so. If Australia was attacked by a large power tomorrow, or suffered an environmental catastrophe, who would it turn to? China, India, Japan and Russia will be the key players, at least until the oil runs out. Europe and America are out of it. They won’t be in a position to call the shots anymore.”

It’s time to start clutching at straws. What if Obama gets in? Won’t that signal a sea change in US foreign policy?

“Obama? I like him. His emergence is a tremendous tribute to the American people. But race is still a huge issue in US politics. I believe he will lose the election to John McCain.”

Oh, crumbs. There is, however, some good news. In this future of faith-based conflict, doomsday cults, wholesale environmental meltdown and global resource wars, Gray reckons Australians will fare better than most.

“You won’t get a much safer country than Australia. It’s remote, resource rich, and you have most of the institutions that make modern civilised life possible; the rule of law, democracy and governments you can get rid of without killing them.” He considers this for a moment and then chuckles. “Although you came close with that last one, didn’t you?”

It would be foolhardy to dismiss Gray as a pessimist. Not only are his arguments valid, but they have a curiously liberating effect on those individuals who, often without realising it, are prone to struggle under what Gray himself terms ‘the burden of hope’; the indefinable sadness and frustration that comes with feeling that humanity is capable of so much more.

“If you have a lighter burden of hope it doesn’t stop you doing things about problems, it just makes you more pragmatic in your approach. You’re not trying to solve everything in one go.”

It comes as no surprise to learn that Gray’s books are popular with psychotherapists, who say that clients suffering from depression have found comfort in reading them. His views might be unpalatable to those with their hearts set on a United Federation of Planets, but for the rest of us they offer blessed relief in the knowledge that we’re no more important in the grand scheme of things than lichen, giraffes or jellyfish. We just make a lot more noise.

© Sam Tinson, GQ Australia 2008


  1. Excellent piece of work. It must have been like interviewing Moses. In fact, the conjunction with the Nick Cave piece must have seemed like an Old Testament experience. Seen in that light, it's even more impressive. Carve it on tablets of stone.
    To mitigate some of John Gray's remorseless realism, think of him as the sailor who sits in the back of the dinghy pointing a large electric fan at the sails. Ponder on this.

  2. Excellent piece of work. It must have been like interviewing Moses. The conjunction with the Nick Cave piece must have been an Old Testament experience. Even more impressive, then. Carve them on stone tablets.
    To mitigate John Gray's messages of despair, think of him as the sailor in the stern of the dinghy directing a large electric fan at the sails. Ponder on this.