Which "Enlightenment" values?

Thierry Chervel takes issue with John Gray's pessimistic worldview

Thierry Chervel, editor of the German website Perlentaucher (and its English-language sibling, Sign and Sight), has fastened on to something John Gray says towards the end of his recent NS review of Timothy Garton Ash's latest book, Facts Are Subversive.

Gray notes that Garton Ash abandons the term "Enlightenment fundamentalism", which he had previously used, to controversial effect, in a 2006 essay for the New York Review of Books entitled "Islam in Europe" (there, Garton Ash described the Dutch Muslim apostate and women's rights campaigner, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, as an "Enlightenment fundamentalist", setting off a pan-continental debate in the process):

If Garton Ash is reluctant to talk of Enlightenment fundamentalism, this may be in part because it suggests that we are at risk of drifting into an intractable conflict. Yet clearly the danger of clashing fundamentalisms is real.

According to Chervel, Gray's "pessimistic worldview" (which I anatomised in an NS profile here) requires the presence of contending world-historical forces locked in eternal and intractable conflict. "Calling the Enlightenment fundamentalist," Chervel writes, "is the dream of an apocalypticist who is waiting for the clash of cultures to happen."

Leaving aside the question whether Chervel has characterised Gray's views correctly here, it is certainly the case that "the Enlightenment", for Gray, is a kind of secular salvation myth, a vision of human perfectibility that inspired Lenin as much as Locke, Mao as much as Mill. And, for that reason, you could be forgiven for thinking that, in Gray's hands, "Enlightenment" is a historical term of art so capacious and flexible that it explains almost nothing (this is certainly what Will Hutton suggested to me when I spoke to him for the profile: "[The] dark, troubling aspect of John's thinking is that he tracks all mistakes back to the Enlightenment: Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Marx, Alan Greenspan, New Labour are all tributes to Enlightenment theology. It doesn't wash. ... [P]rogressives should be wary of a thinker who is so sceptical about the Enlightenment.")

But as Gray himself is well aware, and as Garton Ash in fact points out in another piece in the new book, there wasn't one Enlightenment, but several:

To say "Enlightenment values" is not enough. Which Enlightenment? The Enlightenment of John Locke, which claimed freedom for religion, or that of Voltaire, which aspired rather to freedom from religion?

And nor does a commitment to, say, a secular public sphere (if that isn't an Enlightenment value, I don't know what is) require a blanket vilification of religion and all its works, or, pace Gray, an unempirical belief in the inevitable decline of religious faith. As Garton Ash recognises,

we ... need to be clearer about the difference between secularism and atheism. Secularism ... should be an argument about arrangements for a shared public and social life; atheism is an argument about scientific truthm individual liberation and the nature of the good life. ... The public policy argument about freedom from or in religion should operate on different levels.

 

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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