Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is currently editorial director of Bodley Head. His journalism has appeared in Lobster and the Times Literary Supplement. He lives in London. The Threat to Reason (Verso) is his first book.
Mark Thwaite: Dan, thanks for submitting to my questions and agreeing to this! So, for starters, what gave you the idea for The Threat to Reason?
Dan Hind: After 9/11 I noticed that the word Enlightenment seemed to be cropping up much more regularly - one source suggests that the phrase "enlightened values" cropped up four times more often in broadsheet newspapers in Britain in the period after the terrorist attacks in the US. People started to claim that we had to defend enlightened values from Muslim fanatics. This made me wonder what the Enlightenment was as a set of historical events, and what we could learn from it now. The book came from out of that curiosity, and from an impatience with what some liberals and progressives were saying, especially in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
MT: How long did it take you write it?
DH: I started writing some notes in the summer of 2004. Francis Wheen's book, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World was kind of the last straw... I wrote a first draft Autumn 2005 - Spring 2006, which I sent to publishers And I wrote the final draft in the Autumn of last year when Verso) signed me up. Apart from that final re-write I was working full-time, so the book came along quite slowly.
MT: Lets get back to basics: what was and is the Enlightenment?
DH: What was the Enlightenment? That's big question! Put neutrally it was a period of philosophical and political upheaval between the Glorious Revolution in Britain and the French Revolution around a century later. If I had to give a more substantial definition, I'd say it was a collection of attempts to describe the world more accurately, by replacing dogma with experiment and open debate. A world understood more clearly could be improved. That was, I think, the characteristic hope of Enlightenment. That's what it was, at least seen in one light. There are other ways to describe it and I talk a little about them in my book. But that is a useful definition to start with.
MT: Why is it perceived to be under threat? Is it?
DH: Well a number of movements consciously or implicitly reject the ideas that we associate with the Enlightenment; most spectacularly some religious fundamentalists insist that science cannot challenge the authority of scripture. More complicatedly, postmodern philosophers have sometimes seemed to argue that Enlightenment universalism is only ever a cover for imperialist land grabs.
In my book I argue that the enlightened inheritance really is under threat and that it should be defended, but that its most significant enemies usually pose as its friends. Science is under constant, corrupting pressure from the institutions that fund it, or example. All the time these institutions pose, sometimes very convincingly, as the defenders of science. Angelina Jolie perhaps alludes to this with her tattoo, 'What nourishes me destroys me'. Too often defenders of the Enlightenment engage in a kind of intellectual Punch and Judy show, a formal confrontation between faith and reason, say, where everyone happily talks at cross purposes and hits each other with rhetorical sticks. Reality doesn't have the same, reassuring, seaside-knockabout form. Enlightenment is a much more unsettling subject than most of its self-appointed defenders are comfortable admitting; the word itself demands a state of constant vigilance in those who presume to use it.
MT: Speaking with you, in one sense you seem surprised that your book even needed to be written. I'm surprised you're surprised! It seems to be that - particularly since 9/11 - the ruling elites of the UK and US have become dangerously tyrannical and that is obvious for all to see.
DH: Certainly our rulers have become more authoritarian since 9/11. What surprises me is the ease with which they have been able to claim that their project was in some way enlightened. The idea that the Enlightenment can be re-staged now as a showdown between (Western) reason and (Islamic) faith has gained a measure of respectability that is in a way rather amazing.
MT: The current political climate seems to suggest that every single Muslim in the world is potentially bad and evil and that our brave politicians will wage a war without end against them. How has this nonsense managed to gain any foothold?
DH: The honest answer is that I don't know. History shows that people can be made to be frightened of pretty much anyone. Effective propaganda works with what it has, it generalises from the particular in ways that suit its purposes. Aggressive campaigns to promote prejudice often pose as self-defence. Isolated incidents and a tiny minority of extremists can be made to define whole communities, if the conditions are right. Certainly many people who should know better have gone along with this, even contributed to it. There is an alternative, we can change the subject; it is up to us to step outside the story we have been given, a story that we are tempted to tell ourselves, that evil is external and simple and our leaders are only trying to keep us safe.
MT: Is the War on Terror a racist war, an imperialist war or something else? Are terms like imperialist even very useful to describe the dreadful mistake that was the invasion of Iraq?
DH: Well, last week BBC radio referred to 'the so-called War on Terror'. That was a bit of a breakthrough, though it happened before the recent run of scares. There is a very lively debate about American global policy going on and you can find a wide range of answers to your questions.
We do know that the prime movers in the Iraq invasion were a coalition of imperialists and militarists who were in a hurry to exploit America's 'unipolar' moment. They were backed by a network of institutional interests who could see the benefits of a move to a war footing. Forty percent of America's tax income is spent on defence; that kind of money can change your life, or end it if you are in the wrong place. Readers who are interested in this might want to look at Ismael Hossein-Zadeh's The Political Economy of US Militarism for a detailed recent treatment of this subject.
I am not sure we can expect an entirely adequate explanation of what is going on in a useful timeframe. We can get a reasonable sketch. It is at least as important to try to figure out how to stop it.
MT: In one sense, your book is all about asking people to ask themselves what are the real threats that are out there. The world is not a bad place because of homeopathy! Is that correct?
DH: Yes, that's an important theme in the book, definitely. This comes back to your earlier surprise about my surprise at the need to make the case I make in the book. If you believe something like Dick Taverne's The March of Unreason, you would end up thinking that a sinister alliance of New Age aromatherapists, animal rights activists and NGOs were about to destroy western civilization. How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World played a similar tune. Part of me finds it baffling that people can take this sort of thing seriously, but clearly they do and that has serious consequences.
We have already talked about fundamentalist religion a little. The point here is not that it doesn't have any threatening aspects (it is more threatening than homeopathy, say). But we need to investigate how it relates to other forces. The alliance between the Evangelicals and elements in the Republican party should be explored, of example. But this line of inquiry leads us away from fretting about metaphysics and towards the messiness of facts; it becomes a matter of Enron consultancies and casino shakedowns.
Let's try to order problems rationally, in line with their objective significance. Let's investigate them on rational lines, by inquiring into their structure. And then let's develop responses that are based on a clear-eyed understanding of them. Some people might really think that Greenpeace is a more serious menace to public understanding than, say, Exxonmobil. Well, that's up to them. I think most people can see that a large transnational energy company is more likely to be able to estrange us from reality than a relatively tiny NGO.
MT: Isn't this all a bit conspiratorial? Are you really suggesting that the pharmaceutical industry are putting profits ahead of people and allowing countless folk to die!?
DH: Well the pharmaceutical companies do put profits ahead of people and countless people have died as a result of this profit orientation. Some of this is a matter of secret, coordinated efforts to suppress unwelcome trial data and keep lucrative drugs on the market -- these efforts might be legal, in the sense that no one ends up going to prison, so I would hesitate to use the word conspiracy. But I talk a little about the controversy over SSRIs and Vioxx in the book; what was happening simply boggles the mind.
More generally, the structure of corporations leads them to ignore the public health and safety, if they can get away with it, and if there is an incentive to do so. They will also deceive the public if it serves their interests and they can get away with it. Now I don't propose to know what to do about this fact about corporations, but it is a fact. And if we take the "threat to reason" seriously, we should bear it in mind. Ideally I'd like every news bulletin to end with: "And finally, today states and corporations told thousands of lies that resulted in death, injury and misery for millions of people around the world." Is that too much to ask?
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
DH: Well, partly I wanted to reach people who get upset and angry about the threat posed to secular liberal society by religious fanatics, postmodernists and New Age crystal healers. I wanted to suggest that they were possibly being distracted from some other issues that are a sight more serious, and that we had some way to go before we could claim to be enlightened.
MT: Now, postmodernists! They're a rum lot aren't they? Lots of anti-foundationalist mumbo-jumbo. Surely they are a threat to reason!?
DH: Well, some of them would certainly like to think they are. It's dangerous to generalise, though. The post-modern impulse to cast doubt on the legacy of the Enlightenment has a strong historical justification. Ideas and language we associate with the Enlightenment have been used repeatedly by European powers to justify aggression and state terror. The Americans in the Philippinnes were bringing progress to the region, as they are in Iraq now. So it is quite right to question the uses made of the Enlightenment. Now I don't agree with some post-modern positions, and some I plain don't understand. I think it is wrong to dismiss the ideas of the Enlightenment outright because of the use that has been made of them in the past, which is sometimes a temptation. 'Radical' critiques of reason and morality can, I think, lead to a withdrawal from the work of knowing, and of trying to change, the world.
Still, even at their most radically anti-rational, post-modernists pale into insignifance as a threat to reason. A philosopher might tell a journalist that they can never report truthfully on a situation; this might give the journalist pause, it might even undermine his or her self-confidence a little. But politicians and businessmen have journalists killed when they stumble on a story, or simply when they are in the wrong place. Now it is not a subtle point, but it is worth making; post-modernists don't kill journalists as part of their efforts to derail Western metaphyisics. What is a more serious threat to your capacity to make reasoned judgments about the world - academics who claim that reason is a chimera, or institutions that use violence to suppress information that might have a disruptive effect?
MT: I'm been particularly dismayed recently by the so-called "bombing left"? How do you respond to them and their (ir)rationalism?
DH: You're talking about Christopher Hitchens, Johann Hari, David Aaronovitch, I guess, the enlightened supporters of intervention in Iraq. One of my main aims in writing the book was to try to gently prise their fingers off the Enlightenment. So in a sense the book is my response to them. They wanted to claim that US-UK military intervention in the Middle East had an 'objectively' enlightened quality, somehow; to side with America was to side with progress. This is an idea that depends on a very eccentric understanding of what the Enlightenment itself was about, and a wilful reluctance to find out what was going on in 2002-2003. Plenty of people were able to see that the invasion was not about promoting democracy, or confronting religious tyranny, and that it was likely to be a disaster for the Iraqi people. Interventionist liberals thought they could see a bright shining future. Clearly the people who protested against the war had a better title to the Enlightenment than the 'bombing left; they had the courage to use their own reason and weren't suckers for any old mood music that the White House put on.
Power is very adept at finding reasons why we should stand by and let them do what it wants. The language of Enlightenment was part of that process in 2002-2003. It is time to put an end to this blackmail - 'either you're with us or you're against the Enlightenment', not only in our dealings with state power, but also with the corporations. States and corporations are very dangerous, and if you ever hear them talking about the forward march of progress and the triumphant possibilities offered to us by modern science, then you have to start worrying.
MT: What are you working on now Dan?
DH: I am working on a longish article about the possibilities and opportunities presented by new technology. I am not a techno-utopian, by any means - posting on the Guardian's Comment is Free is enough to cure anyone of that. But I am interested in looking at the potential of new technology. And I am also writing a proposal for a new book. When I say writing, I am mostly staring at a blank piece of paper and then checking the Amazon ranking for The Threat to Reason. I mean, I am only human.
I am also trying to do some work at the day job, at Random House.
MT: You end The Threat to Reason with a call for a re-energisation of the public sphere. Isn't this a kind of naive amalgam of Habermas and Internet optimism?
DH: Well I am not that naive about the emancipatory potential of new technology. The internet has great potential as a way to widen participation in research and debate; that is, I think, already being demonstrated and we are only at the start of that process. But it is also a great venue for peddling misinformation, violent pornography, and corporate advertising.
Habermas and I mean different things when we talk about the public sphere. Habermas is describing a history of modern society, which he traces back to eighteenth century England. He is talking about how individuals and institutions create a space for discussions about the 'public interest'. I follow Kant in seeing the public sphere as a realm where individuals and groups abstract themselves from their institutional roles and try to achieve a state of total autonomy. Collaboration, of course, but an acute sensitivity towards, and suspicion about, the distorting effect of institutional power on the free exercise of the intellect. This runs against the idea that one can be entirely free to inquiry in the context of one's institutional life (a claim that academics and journalists sometimes make). Kant's conception of the public/private divide is a good deal more exotic, and more radical, than we usually recognise. He is very far from Habermas in this regard.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
From the Enlightenment, Hume is an extraordinary figure and in many ways a sympathetic one. I'd like to read more Diderot and more Madison over the summer, too, now I think about it, but I wouldn't call them favourites. It won't come as a great surprise that I admire Noam Chomsky a great deal. His book with Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent, is still news. Joel Bakan's The Corporation is a model of how to deliver an unanswerable polemic. It is calm, concise, devastating, and it achieves precisely what the author intended. As far as reading for pleasure I have recently been introduced to graphic novels. Two that stand out are Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and Joe's Matt's The Poor Bastard. In their very different ways they are exceedingly fine.
Can't claim any great authority or knowledge about fiction. I don't think anyone would regret taking the time to read Bulgakov's The Master and Magarita (I read Glenny's translation) or Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. And there is something about The Iliad that I can't stop wondering about. Christopher Logue's re-workings of it are a good place to start. Not so much a favourite as a puzzle I can't solve, and wouldn't want to.
MT: What would you like readers to take away from your book?
DH: The main point I'd like readers to take away is that the Enlightenment doesn't belong to a small group of experts. The Enlightenment was a public debate about the fundamental issues in society; who should rule, how should their power be limited, how do we agree on a common account of reality? We can take useful things from the historical Enlightenment, and use them to help us in the work of becoming more enlightened now. Without becoming lost in the thickets of the history of ideas, we can draw on the work of figures like Bacon and Kant and learn from them about the possibilities and dangers of a campaign for knowledge. I believe that only a world more fully understood can be made more just.
But don't take anyone else's word on faith. What the Enlightenment was, what it might be now, these are questions for us all to try to answer.
MT: Thanks so much for your time Dan. All the best with the book!