Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

We are not liv­ing in happy times. Vi­o­lence, famine and mil­lions in flight from the arc of in­sta­bil­ity, from Cen­tral Africa to the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, dom­i­nate the daily news. Post-colo­nial Is­lamism is bring­ing ter­ror into the heart of the old colonis­ing metropoles, such as Lon­don in re­cent weeks. Glob­al­i­sa­tion is shift­ing jobs from the West to cheaper re­gions of the world. The ac­cel­er­a­tion of global warm­ing, and its de­nial, have ter­ri­fied the sci­en­tif­i­cally minded.

The resur­gence of re­li­gion in a world that had long been sculpted by the growth of im­par­tial in­quiry might have seemed im­prob­a­ble. Yet in the last cou­ple of weeks alone we have seen Is­lamist ter­ror­ists mur­der Eu­ro­peans in Europe, and whole­sale mur­der by com­pet­ing Is­lamic mil­i­tary fac­tions in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and be­yond.

Above all, we are see­ing the re­turn of the kind of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal rage that fu­elled the rise of the right in the early 20th cen­tury. Af­ter the balmy days of Fran­cis Fukuyama’s “end of his­tory”, when open-minded, in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic, hu­man rights-me­di­ated cap­i­tal­ism seemed to have beaten re­pres­sive al­ter­na­tives, per­sonal anger has re­turned to the po­lit­i­cal arena. To­day, it has new di­men­sions in­clud­ing on­line anonymity and sleights of lan­guage that pol­ish up old con­cepts such as racism and Nazism into an­o­dyne new terms such as “alt-right”.

Mark Lilla, a Columbia Uni­ver­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist and writer for the The New York Re­view of Books among other pub­li­ca­tions, has writ­ten a pow­er­ful thought pro­voker on these themes. He has long been pre­oc­cu­pied with the his­tory of ideas and the never-end­ing con­tes­ta­tion pro­voked by the En­light­en­ment. His new book, tion, takes a nar­row-fo­cus look at the back­lash against the idea of “progress”: the as­sump­tion since the 18th-cen­tury that his­tor­i­cal change is al­ways an ad­vance.

Re­ac­tion, by his def­i­ni­tion, is not nec­es­sar­ily caused by ig­no­rance, anger or in­tran­si­gence, and nei­ther are re­ac­tionar­ies merely con­ser­va­tive. Ed­mund Burke’s most pow­er­ful ar­gu­ment, for ex­am­ple, was not sim­ply that things were bet­ter in the old days.

“Burke,” Lilla writes, “con­sid­ered the idea of his­tory as an im­per­sonal force car­ry­ing us to fixed des­ti­na­tions to be both false and dan­ger­ous since it could be used to jus­tify crimes in the names of the fu­ture.” Lib­eral and so­cial­ist re­form­ers, he adds in paren­the­sis, “had an ad­di­tional worry, which was that it would en­cour­age pas­siv­ity”. His­tory for Burke de­vel­ops un­con­sciously over stretches of time, with un­pre­dictable re­sults.

The Ship­wrecked Mind is a col­lec­tion of sev­eral of Lilla’s NYRB es­says that hang to­gether nicely. He has three short sharp chap­ters on key 20th-cen­tury thinkers who il­lus­trate his larger pur­pose: Franz Rosen­zweig, Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss, Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers whose ar­gu­ments were dis­rupted and re­formed by the rise of Nazism. Each saw the prob­lems of their era as a break­down in se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal thought, and pro­moted a re­turn to an ear­lier, more holis­tic mo­ment: not to rest there, but so Age of Anger: A His­tory of the Present By Pankaj Mishra Hamish Hamil­ton, 416pp, $49.99 (HB) The Ship­wrecked Mind: On Po­lit­i­cal Re­ac­tion By Mark Lilla NY Re­view Books, 168pp, $24.99

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