John Gray gives the Enlightenment a damn good thrashing

John Gray has a burr up his ass about the Enlightenment.

Central and Eastern Europe was a morass of ethnic enmities, and in Germany the Nazis were implementing their poisonous mix of nationalism and racism. Was this just a detour in the onward march to a brave new world where everyone will be treated equally? Or did it – as Roth suspected – reveal a darker side of modernity? There can be no doubt about Kenan Malik’s view. A pious disciple of the Enlightenment, though not untroubled by the doubts that can afflict any believer, he cannot tolerate the thought that some of the last century’s worst atrocities were by-products of modern Enlightenment thinking…Nazism – though it drew on some strands of Counter-Enlightenment thought and mobilised the prejudices of Christian anti-Semitism – was able to make use of a tradition of “scientific racism” that belongs squarely within the Enlightenment. The darkness that settled on Europe between the wars was not a reversion to medievalism. In crucial respects, it was peculiarly modern.

Well of course it was, but was it a necessary product of the Enlightenment? No. The darkness that settled on Europe between the wars was a very contingent sort of darkness; a lot of factors caused it and it wasn’t inevitable.

A belief in science and progress is part of the Enlightenment creed. So why does Malik resist the conclusion that these racists were, despite the ersatz character of their so-called science, Enlightenment thinkers?

Because belief in science and progress is only part of the Enlightenment ‘creed’? Because ersatz science doesn’t make anyone an Enlightenment thinker? Those would be a couple of my reasons, anyway.

When Roth mourned the demise of the Habsburgs, communists and liberals ridiculed his attachment to a pre-modern imperial structure. Yet it was Roth, not the progressive thinkers of the day, who foresaw the horrors that would come from its collapse. There is a lesson here, but it is not one that Malik – for whom progress and modernity are articles of secular faith – can be expected to learn.

Pious, doubts, believer, belief, creed, faith – he got quite a few variations on that – very stale by now – joke about secular religion. Me, I prefer people who prefer progress and modernity to those who prefer the other thing.

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