AC Grayling on the dan­gers of dis­en­gage­ment

Britain’s Think­ing Man, the se­ri­ously pop­u­lar philoso­pher and au­thor AC Grayling, is headed to Tas­ma­nia to talk up a storm about democ­racy and en­gage­ment

Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine - - Up Front - WORDS HI­LARY BUR­DEN

Ini­tials as names are tricky. They are ei­ther in­ti­mate or dis­tanc­ing. When they be­long to an em­i­nent philoso­pher, to whom apub­li­cist refers re­spect­fully as “Pro­fes­sor Grayling”, they can be daunt­ing. In Aus­tralia, you cut to the chase. Do I call you AC or An­thony? “An­thony,” says the philoso­pher via What­sApp from Lon­don on the eve of his first trip to Ho­bart. One of the world’s most widely read philoso­phers, AC Grayling is a writer and ed­i­tor of more than 30 books. He lives in “proper Blooms­bury”, Lon­don, and was this year awarded Com­man­der of the Or­der of the Bri­tish Em­pire for Ser­vices to Phi­los­o­phy.

A for­mer chair of judges for the lit­er­ary world’s most fa­mous prize, the Man Booker, Grayling will be in Ho­bart this month for the bi­en­nial Tas­ma­nian Writ­ers and Read­ers Fes­ti­val. Though he’s been com­ing to Aus­tralia (“loves it”, “it has a buzz”) for nearly a decade – vis­it­ing his brother John, who lives in Syd­ney – he has never vis­ited the is­land state. In the man­ner of a rock star, he’s done the rounds of the other cap­i­tals – sev­eral times.

“I’ve heard about the beauty of Tas­ma­nia – and cul­tural life ap­par­ently is very much on the up,” he says. “I also hear so many peo­ple are go­ing to re­tire there.”

Grayling re­flects on his only real con­nec­tion with Tas­ma­nia, when, in the year he was chair of judges, the 2014 Man Booker Prize was awarded to Tas­ma­nian au­thor Richard Flana­gan.

“I was very de­lighted to do that,” he says. “It [ The Nar­row Road to the Deep North] was a won­der­ful novel – re­ally out­stand­ing – es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that year was the first year Amer­i­can authors were in­cluded in the com­pe­ti­tion. Re­ally, it was for the best book in the whole world – and Flana­gan won. I hope I’ll be see­ing him at the fes­ti­val.”

Within three min­utes’ walk from his home, Grayling says, you’ll find a rash of blue plaques that in­di­cate where fa­mous lit­er­ary fig­ures once lived, in­clud­ing poet Percy Bysshe Shel­ley, rev­o­lu­tion­ary Vladimir Lenin and authors Mary Shel­ley, Vir­ginia Woolf and Jerome K. Jerome.

Britain’s in­fa­mous satir­i­cal mag­a­zine Pri­vate Eye rou­tinely refers to the high-profile philoso­pher as “ACDC”, even though, he quips, he is “rather bor­ingly hetero­sex­ual”. Di­vorced for the sec­ond time, he says, he’s now “in a great po­si­tion to be get­ting on with work, liv­ing a peace­ful, soli­tary life” as a self-de­scribed “lib­eral leftie”. Britain’s Think­ing Man, in deal­ing with the strug­gles of the free world, is free again, ven­tur­ing far­ther south than he’s ever been.

You get the feel­ing Grayling will en­joy the in­ti­macy of his­toric Ho­bart: he walks ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing to his place of work at Lon­don’s New Col­lege of the Hu­man­i­ties – all of 15 min­utes – where he is Mas­ter. If you were to pass him on the street you might even take him as a philoso­pher with his high fore­head, fine round spec­ta­cles and Beethoven hair.

Grayling says he wrote his lat­est book, Democ­racy and its Cri­sis, “in a white heat” af­ter Britain voted to leave Europe and Don­ald Trump won the pres­i­dency. While many think­ing peo­ple seem less en­gaged in pol­i­tics these days – giv­ing up over the com­plex­i­ties of Brexit and hardly wish­ing to give the next Trump-ism the time of day – Grayling as­serts that our qual­ity of life de­pends on pre­cisely the op­po­site – our abil­ity to be coura­geous and to stay in­volved.

His pre­vi­ous book, last year’s The Age of Ge­nius, was a fas­ci­nat­ing riff on how the 17th cen­tury be­came the cru­cible of moder­nity. Be­fore that, there was What is Good: The Search for the Best Way to Live, which I picked up af­ter hear­ing the au­thor speak at the wildly suc­cess­ful Hay Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture and the Arts (held an­nu­ally for the past 30 years at the re­mote Welsh town Hay-on-Wye), where you can imag­ine there is plenty of par­ty­ing as well as lit­er­a­ture.

Grayling seems chuffed when I tell him I was “picked up” by a fel­low seated in the row be­hind me at the talk: “Was there ro­mance? Tell me you met the love of your life.”

“There was, and I didn’t,” I replied. “But, it’s 15 years since you con­tem­plated the themes of What is Good. Do you think we’re get­ting bet­ter or worse at know­ing how to live? Are we de­volv­ing as a species?”

“Well, yes and no,” he says with a wry laugh, al­most apol­o­gis­ing for the philoso­pher’s an­swer.

Grayling is ex­cep­tional at yes and no an­swers. And very good at fol­low­ing up with a lec­ture, which I won’t re­peat here. You must go to his talk. For the record, Grayling is op­ti­mistic the world is mov­ing in a bet­ter di­rec­tion (he says there are smaller per­cent­ages of peo­ple in­volved in wars, even though the num­ber of weapons has in­creased) but that Trump’s elec­tion and the Brexit re­sult ex­posed many prob­lems and fail­ings of our demo­cratic or­der.

“I’d been think­ing and wor­ry­ing about it for quite a num­ber of years,” he says. “About the way we might re-or­gan­ise our pol­i­tics and what the right so­lu­tion to the prob­lem of how we get con­sent of the peo­ple to the gov­ern­ment of that peo­ple. These very painfully worked out in­sti­tu­tions have been ma­nip­u­lated. What we have are re­sults that are not in the in­ter­ests of the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in the UK or US. If there are sil­ver lin­ings, more peo­ple are be­com­ing con­scious that the sys­tem has been gamed.”

Grayling is hop­ing the re­al­ity of Brexit and the Trump pres­i­dency will make peo­ple re­alise they have to get “very se­ri­ous in­deed” about op­er­at­ing in­sti­tu­tions prop­erly with real trans­parency and aware­ness. In his lat­est con­clu­sion he sug­gests vot­ing at 16, civic ed­u­ca­tion and pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion are some of the ways con­sent will be re­turned to the peo­ple. (He’ll be bon­ing up on Tas­ma­nia’s Hare-Clark sys­tem be­fore he gets here.)

“We’ve all got very com­pla­cent – we’re demo­cratic and we get on with our lives – but that’s why these groups of peo­ple have moved in and got hold of the levers,” he says. “Trump, clearly, by any ra­tio­nal stan­dard, is un­fit to hold the of­fice of pres­i­dent – we have to make an ex­po­sure of the fact that there is gain­ing go­ing on and ex­pose it.”

Grayling has been awarded hon­ours for ser­vices to phi­los­o­phy, though not with­out giv­ing him pause be­fore ac­cept­ing. “One al­ways re­flects on the pro­pri­ety of ac­cept­ing these awards,” he says. “But I think the idea of a so­ci­ety re­ward­ing peo­ple who do char­i­ta­ble work or who make a con­tri­bu­tion to ed­u­ca­tion is in fact not a bad idea. It’s all very hi­er­ar­chi­cal, of course.” He then re­counts a joke made by one of his peers – that he has be­come, like Rus­sell Crowe, both mas­ter and com­man­der (that is, both mas­ter of his col­lege, and a com­man­der of the Bri­tish Em­pire).

Grayling will be in Tas­ma­nia when Aus­tralians are com­plet­ing the same-sex mar­riage sur­vey. While he is in favour of same-sex mar­riage, he adds: “Rather con­tra­dic­to­rily, I am not so much in favour of mar­riage, which is a com­pli­cated view­point to hold.”

He says it’s so much bet­ter if two peo­ple share their lives to­gether “as vol­un­teers”. “The minute you go to the registry of­fice or church, you’ve got a third party – and that’s the State – and they will take an in­ter­est,” he says. “Mar­riage is ac­tu­ally a very sex­ist hang­over from those days when the only peo­ple who got mar­ried were rich peo­ple – who did it to pro­tect their prop­erty.”

But he says he un­der­stands gay peo­ple want so­cial ac­cep­tance and recog­ni­tion, and want so­ci­ety to step up, and that the way of get­ting that is for same-sex mar­riage to be recog­nised legally. What as­ton­ishes him is that a coun­try such as Aus­tralia – “one of the most ad­vanced so­ci­eties in the world” – has what he calls “a big drag an­chor on so­ci­ety: the Ro­man Catholic Church”.

“It is the one very sur­pris­ing thing when you con­sider how open-minded and fun the Aussies are in Lon­don,” he says. “You think they must come from a coun­try very sec­u­lar and ma­ture. The fact, in 2017, there is still a debate go­ing on about the po­si­tion of gays in so­ci­ety is down to the Ro­man Catholic Church.”

Any­one con­tem­plat­ing what makes a good life (as I was all those years ago when I at­tended Prof Grayling’s lec­ture at Hay) will be in­spired by his con­clu­sion that it is one that is “in­di­vid­u­ally crafted”. And, that a good so­ci­ety is one based on co-op­er­a­tion, con­ver­sa­tion, dis­cus­sion, ar­gu­ment, dis­agree­ment and com­pro­mise be­tween peo­ple who have a wide va­ri­ety of in­ter­ests. “That is what the in­sti­tu­tions of democ­racy are meant to de­liver,” he says.

AC Grayling will de­liver the open­ing ad­dress at the Tas­ma­nian Writ­ers and Read­ers Fes­ti­val at Ho­bart’s The­atre Royal on Thurs­day, Septem­ber 14, fol­lowed by an ‘in con­ver­sa­tion’ with au­thor Heather Rose and Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor Jeff Mal­pas on the chal­lenge of free­dom. For book­ing de­tails, see Note­book p4

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.