Sunday, January 19, 2014

Straw Dogs

When the philosopher John Gray looks out over the world, he sees a bloody madhouse, a hell broth of deranged magical thinking.  In his bestselling book, Straw Dogs, he turns into a ruthless vigilante who tirelessly pounds the stuffing out of ridiculous ideas that condemn us to mindless self-destruction.  What might happen if we ever succeeded at clearing the decks of loony whims?  Would this make it easier to think clearly, and move onto a path with a future?

By the time you get to the end of the book, not one sacred cow is left standing.  He rubbishes our entire belief system.  Readers who are thoroughbred critical thinkers may not find much to disagree with, but those who uncritically accept everything they are told by society will foam at the mouth and scream obscenities.  To some, he is an honorable and dignified iconoclast, and to others he is a super-pessimistic misanthrope.  Reader comments at Amazon are all over the place, and quite interesting.

Gray’s thinking is an unusual swirl of intellect and animism, minus mysticism.  In his analysis of our current predicament, the two primary culprits are humanism and progress.

Humanism is the illusion that humans are apart from, and superior to, all other beings in the family of life.  We have no obligation to obey the laws of nature, because they don’t apply to us.  Our sacred species does not really belong in the natural world, because we are so much better than filthy wild animals.  Humanism is a notion that we picked up somewhere on the path to civilization.  It has been passed from the Platonists, to the Christians, to the Enlightenment, and to modern secular humanists.

Life never stops getting better and better.  As long as we can maintain a fervent blind faith in scientific progress, there is little need for us to exercise our thinkers.  Witness the fact that nearly all of those who graduate from the most prestigious institutions of higher learning — and most other people too — cling to a magical belief in perpetual economic growth, a nutjob superstition.

Darwin drove a stake through the heart of the humanist fantasy, demonstrating that humans were simply animals, like all the rest, and we have survived by luck alone.  The humanists were not amused.  They pulled out the stake, seized Darwin’s notion of the survival of the fittest, and proclaimed that our remarkable success was indisputable proof that we are, without a doubt, the greatest!

Gray looks outside his window, perceives thousands of serious problems, and concludes that catastrophes are on the way.  Humanists look out the window, disregard thousands of serious problems, and see reality as an unfinished masterpiece — our species will be saved once we are all fully illuminated by precious reason.

He acknowledges that there has been real progress in science and technology, but sees little progress in morals and ethics.  While progress does reduce human suffering in some ways, it is simultaneously inventing bigger and better weapons for killing people.

In 1543, Japan had more guns than any other nation.  In that year, they banned firearms, and the nation was gun-free until 1879, when Commodore Perry arrived from the modern world, and frightened Japan into a process of rapid industrialization.  Their era of isolation was over, and they understood the diabolical law of civilization:  “Any country that renounces technology will become the prey to those who do not.  There is no escape from a world of predatory states.”

The greatest atrocities in human history have been enabled by advances in modern technology.  Innovation is impossible to control.  Horrid inventions that are banned in many countries will be eagerly produced by others.  Some technology, like biological weapons or cyber warfare can be pursued in the shadow world, unknown to governments or corporate entities.

At the same time, the traditional concept of warfare as being nation versus nation is dissolving.  With the rise of movements like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, that exist entirely beyond government control, we’re seeing a revival of religious warfare, where there are no standing armies or front lines.  The woman standing beside you might be a bomb.

Humanists envision a secular world that is educated, rational, and ethical, but few societies are secular today.  In primitive countries, like the U.S., millions of educated people reject the notion of evolution.  Millions of fundamentalists, of every variety, insist that their specific interpretation of sacred texts and visions is the one and only correct way to live, and that the rest of humankind must be converted to their beliefs — or else!

With regard to the Earth Crisis, Gray does not assign all blame to agriculture and civilization.  He believes that our problems began far earlier.  “There was never a Golden Age of harmony with the Earth.  Most hunter-gatherers were fully as rapacious as later humans.  But they were few, and they lived better than most who came after them.”  Throughout our long journey, the cost of every “advance” has been ecological injury.

He acknowledges that some cultures did manage to live sustainably for long stretches of time.  An essential component of their success was restraint.  They used practices like infanticide, geronticide, and sexual abstinence to limit the size of their clans — no crowding, no scarcity, no conflict.  These brilliant hunters clearly understood that, in a world of finite food sources, perpetual growth was dumber than a box of rocks.

Unfortunately, farmers threw restraint out the window.  Growing population forced us to become deeply addicted to agriculture, and we burned our bridges behind us.  Today, a return to living in balance is obstructed by our enormous population.  We could greatly reduce our misery by reducing our numbers, but this will never be done voluntarily on a global scale.  We’ve entrusted the remedy to Big Mama Nature, who will effectively clean up the mess without mercy.  The human herd might shrink at a rate as rapid as its explosion.

Throughout the book, Gray is a tireless fire hose of criticism.  He tells us that consciousness, reason, and self-awareness are highly overrated; Homo rapiens bears a striking resemblance to cancer, and so on.  This does get tiresome.  Is he a dark man with an unhealthy mind, or is he a sane man who is clearly and competently describing a dark reality?  He encourages us to turn on our thinkers and reexamine our beliefs, a pastime that can often be quite profitable.  The book has been a best seller.  It’s short and easy to read.

Here’s a line that intrigued me:  “It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.”  Gray bets that humankind will succeed in our crusade of self-destruction, at which point the healing process can begin.  Earth will forget us, and life will move on.  On the other hand, modern folks spend their lives wearing their freaky Master of the Universe masks, which conceal their ordinary animal faces.  In theory, humans could “cease to matter” by taking off our masks, abandoning our achievements, humbly returning to the family of life, and disappearing into the crowd.

Gray, John, Straw Dogs — Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, Granta Books, London, 2003.

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