Monday, 13 April 2009

In which I mount a revolt against the pre-eminent thinker of the day

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

This morning, a strange thing happened on the wireless. A man mentioned the word ‘pessimism’ and everyone else in the studio went crazy with delight. It is bank holiday Monday as I write; a dazzling sun is shining out of an untroubled sky; a lone oyster catcher is dozing on the grass in front of my study window. The cool air has that sharp spring scent of infinite possibility. I was going to write a nice, whimsical piece to do with Easter and daffodils or I don’t know what. But the men on Radio Four are haunting me, so instead, my darlings, I am afraid you are going to get a rant.

So there I was, listening to Start the Week, vaguely happy, looking forward to a little cerebral stimulation. And on came Professor John Gray, the leading thinker, the pre-eminent philosopher, as Andrew Marr took care to remind his audience. I always love a good philosopher on a Monday morning, so I settled down happily to pay attention. I started getting ruffled fairly early on, but that is fine, because my entrenched ideas and prejudices must always be challenged, that is what I pay the licence fee for. I waited for the other guests to put up a counter-argument, or just ask a question, because that is usually what happens, but instead they all piled in behind Gray, gleefully smashing up everything I believe in in the process. And that was when I became very, very cross indeed.

The burden of Gray’s song was that any idea of human progress is a chimera. He was especially scathing of the Whig view of history, which has been largely discredited, but for which I still hold a small guttering candle of fondness. He said that despite undeniable technological and scientific advances, humans and the lives they live and the values they hold do not improve. And so, pessimism must be the only correct reaction for the thinking person. Yes, yes, cried Michael Portillo, in a perfect fandango of joy. Pessimism is what true conservatives should and do embrace. Of course, of course, said Peter Ackroyd, in a grumbly chorus of agreement – do moderns think any better than Aristotle? Has drama improved since Sophocles? (Personally, I prefer Ibsen and Chekhov myself, but that’s just me). Marr made a slightly pathetic attempt to put the other side: we do know more, he said, weakly. Yes, but what do we do with that knowledge? said Gray. Implication: nothing good.

The only gentle dissenting voice came from Amanda Craig who said that she would rather be a woman now than a hundred years ago. Although she was polite and diffident, I thought that was the crushing point, but Gray waved it off. We might think of that as progress, he admitted, but it was so fragile and reversible as not to count. In other words, at any moment, all human achievement and striving could be wiped out by some unnamed malicious force, taking us back to the dark ages. It’s the bleeding obvious, said Portillo, giddy with happiness, smacking the argument home.

I knew at once that I did not agree with this argument. Every part of me revolted against it. But Professor John Gray is the foremost thinker of our time, and I am just an irrelevance who sits at home in a room with my dogs. What do I know? I have no PhD; Radio Four producers do not come and build a willow cabin at my gate. My rational mind said: perhaps he is right, perhaps the low humming optimism about the human condition that I carry with me is no better than the kind of magical thinking that believes in ghosts or horoscopes. Years after the slave trade was abolished, there are still young women being trafficked, and illegal immigrants working for little better than slave wages. Centuries after the Enlightenment, there are still people in the most powerful nation in the world who believe fervently in the rapture and the end times, some of them in public office. Years after the poor laws and the invention of the welfare state, there are still old ladies who dare not turn on their heaters in winter. Perhaps I am just a posturing Pollyanna who knows nothing.

And yet, and yet. The more I think of it, the more I think that this intellectual pessimism is a cheap trick. There was something about the fervid eagerness with which it was embraced in the studio which carried a whiff of snobbism, a rotting fish stink of us and them. We brilliant thinkers know the truth, which is that we are all doomed; while you unreflective dolts out there carry on with your plebeian optimism. I think that most humans do believe in progress; it is why people fight and die for the vote; it is why huge crowds in Prague recently roared Barack Obama to the echo when he talked of the Velvet Revolution; it is why parents will sacrifice almost everything to get their children educated. Hope is not just a slogan or a political sleight of hand or bovine group-think, it is an absolute necessity for life. If the pessimists had been in charge when humans learnt to make fire, they would have convinced the populace that it would only ever be good for arson.

It is easy to look around the world and find examples of poverty and oppression and bigotry. It’s all hell and handcarts, and thinking otherwise is stupid and naive. But I thought it instructive that it was the only woman in the room who took Gray on. I have a small, fledgling theory that women might be more inclined to believe in progress than men, just now, because they feel it so keenly in their daily lives. You don’t even have to go all the way back to the suffragettes. In my own family, university, which was inevitable and expected for me, little swot that I was, was unthinkable not just for my mother but also for my older sister. Small, hardly noticed things have set women free – the washing machine and hot running water mean that the laundry no longer takes an entire day of steamy battling with mangles and other hideous contraptions. Women in the West may do jobs, keep their own money, and run countries. This is progress. Even in the countries where advances seem illusory, there are women fighting for freedom – there are feminists in Afghanistan and Iran, and I believe that one day they will prevail.

Casual prejudice is no longer accepted in polite drawing rooms, or any room. As recently as the 1970s, one of my stepfathers used to stalk about the house talking of kikes and coons (my mother in those days had famously bad taste in men). Now, Britons view anti-Semitism and racism as incontrovertible wrongs. In living memory, children were sent down coal mines, which would be unthinkable today. The mentally ill are not regarded as sub-humans to be herded into asylums, but increasingly understood and treated. Despite the Iraq adventure, it is generally considered bad form to go about invading other people’s countries so that you can paint the map a pretty shade of pink.

To say there is no such thing as progress is to tell all those who fought for trades unions, women’s suffrage, human rights, rule of law and full democracy that they have been wasting their time. Blind optimism is a kind of delusion, and the human condition is not perfectible, but full-scale pessimism will surely only lead to ulcers and despair. Advances in anything do carry a fragility which must be guarded; smugness and complacency will not do. But a hope for better things is not idiocy, a crazed pipe dream which we would do better to give up. It is what gets me out of bed in the morning; and I wish that the pre-eminent thinkers would not try and take that away from me.


  1. First paragraph had me feeling that I was sitting in the Study with you - lovely. The rest - had me wanting to stand up and sing "Land of Hope and Glory" - gosh, what a well written piece, certainly got me thinking (which is dangerous!).

  2. Recessionista - how lovely you are. Have been sitting here having slight angst about subjecting my poor readers to an excessively long rant. Am always terrified of falling into self-indulgence. To have provoked thought makes me feel happy and soothed - so you have given me a perfect Easter present. Thank you.

  3. Hi Tania,
    What a beautifully argued (and well-balanced) piece - more than can be said for the contributions of Marr's male guests!

    Completely agree too little acknowledgement of huge advances made. Perhaps intellectual pessimism is the new black, the latest cri de coeur of pre-eminent philosophers such as John Gray closeted away in their ivory towers - far from the chalk face of human endeavour & tangible achievement. And as for Mr Portillo...Enough said.

    Share your feelings too about the angst sentiment! My own humble 'carpe diem' post on Good Friday would appear to have fallen into that huge Easter black hole of the blogosphere together with the Easter bunny! Though intended as something quite positive, maybe not quite pessimistic enough for the prevailing (at least in Radio 4 circles) mood?

    In any event, I look forward to your continued balanced & provocative pieces. And Happy Easter (belatedly!)



  4. I did not hear the Radio 4 piece, which sounds like rather a blessing. Here in SoCal we have to work fairly hard to harness time and the computer to get anything more than CBeebies Podcasts (AGHH) and Radio 1 from Blighty so I have given up trying to keep up with anything more highfalutin', now not feeling regretful.
    I think pessimism is an old standby for those in the lofty and enviable position of being able to discuss it from a purely intellectual standpoint. How many of the programme's participants are in serious need of optimism in order to improve their daily lot? And as you pointed out in your last post, medium news or good news(A few famous women having a not very good week) is not headline grabbing stuff, nor is it going to fill a radio programme with opportunities for showing off esoteric knowledge and these men sound like they very much wanted to be the best at seeing the worst.
    Squalor and misery appear widespread and indiscriminate when viewed from a great height. Hope, good news and change sparkles in small places and in tiny steps until it reaches critical mass and if you're not looking for it you surely won't find it.

  5. Nora - Love your idea that pessimism is the new black. As usual, I fight against prevailing fashions, mostly out of unreconstructed cussedness. Am slightly disappointed in Portillo though; had grown rather fond of him in his new incarnation with Diane Abbott on This Week.

    Motherhood - Yes, yes! Good news sparkles in small places is now going to be my slogan. Lovely turn of phrase, and has the added beauty of being true.

  6. I rather love pessimism from a superstition that it keeps the fates at bay. But I would rather be me now than at any time in the past (with a slight weakness for the late 1970s when, legend has it, one could always find a park and houses were cheap). Also, the internet alone is a huge advance and blessing as it allows instant access to the beautifully written thoughts of people like you. Thank you!

  7. Livia - how incredibly kind you are. Beautifully written is the best compliment I can ever get, and although I try and keep my ego in check and not yearn for praise, it is so sweet when it comes. My early fear of the blogosphere was that I should just encounter cross green ink type people who would shout at me and tell me I was wrong about everything. The utter opposite has turned out to be true. So thank YOU.

  8. With this post i discovered - thank goodness - your blog - and it's so nice to read something non-hysterical, even slightly optimistic in these times and intelligent that makes me think, question and promise to question and listen more. Just wanted to register my own love of this piece and the book in general which seems to have filled an important gap in a non-acknowledged market. I've added you to my Google reader on Igoogle to which i am utterly addicted to keep updated.

  9. Jo - you are so incredibly kind. The blog is a new thing for me, and I am slightly haunted by the feeling that I am not doing it quite right. Not at all sure what I think 'right' is. So your lovely comment is like balm to my soul.

    Have now gone and looked at your blog, which is beautiful. I adore cooking, so it could not be more thrilling for me to find such a great food blog.

    Thank you again - Taniax

  10. you're braver than i am - our blog is a work one ( if you're interested) and I am terrified every time i post. I am going to start blogging on my new veg plot soon (to tie in with a feature) and the thought makes me want to lie down and faint. Someone is bound to write in and say 'but your cavolo nero shouldn't be 3 inches tall now and although it may be taking over the kitchen, it's far too early to plant it' and they shall be right and we shall just haev to resign ourselves to the new dawn of the brassica triffids on the windowsill before they collapse of legginess and lack of nutrition.


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