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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump