Dan Hind, author of The Threat to Reason
Yesterday, there were good reviews of Dan's book over on Lenin's Tomb (where the latest Christopher Hitchens book, God is Not Great, is also soundly dismantled) and at the Socialist Review. Right, onto the interview:
Mark Thwaite: Now, postmodernists! They're a rum lot aren't they? Lots of anti-foundationalist mumbo-jumbo. Surely they are a threat to reason!?
Dan Hind: 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.