Magazine article The American Conservative

Getting Lost on Utopia Highway

Magazine article The American Conservative

Getting Lost on Utopia Highway

Article excerpt

[Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, by John Gray; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 229 pages] Getting Lost on Utopia Highway

By R.J. Stova

TO PRAISE A WRITER on American foreign affairs for being adult might seem a backhanded compliment but for the obvious pueriUty of so much written in this field. Mark Steyn, David Frum, and Michael Ledeen are not necessarily the names that first spring to mind in considerations of serious reasoning for grown-ups. It does credit to John Gray, London School of Economics professor and regular New York Review of Books contributor, that he takes political dogmas seriously and, above all, is not constantly engaged in screaming down his opponents.

While Gray's main preoccupation in his new book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, is the Iraq imbroglio, in its American and (more unusuaUy) its British aspects, he avoids-as his title and subtitle make obvious-the entire "what one apparatchik told another apparatchik" method iUustrated by, for instance, Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack and James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans. Nor is his principle interest geostrategic scrutiny. He concerns himself, instead, with the history and prehistory of the fantasizing that has animated the Bush-Blair imperium: how it arose and how it laid successful siege to otherwise rational minds.

As a concise blocker-in of inteUectual backgrounds, Gray warrants, at his best, being likened to Isaiah Berlin, although in accordance with his subject, his overall picture is darker. He owes much (maybe too much) to the surveys of Norman Conn, the British chronicler of demonology who died only weeks before Gray's book arrived in the mail. Nevertheless, Gray admits the crucial distinction, which Conn blurs, between even the most crackpot of medieval Christian millenarians-such as Joachim of Fiore in the 12th centuryand their modern counterparts. Whereas the former, as Gray notes, "believed that only God could remake the world, modern revolutionaries imagined it could be reshaped by humanity alone."

Forming a bridge between medieval and modern apocalyptic lunacies stands Gray's account of life-if life it can be called-in the proto-Jacobin, protoMarxist, proto-Playboy city-state ruled during the 1530s by John of Leyden, who devised a new calendar, abolished private ownership, and implemented polygamy. This supplies some comic relief, an element not otherwise conspicuous in this volume, though it does crop up again on page 42. It seems that Stalin thought New Soviet Man might be created by way of New Soviet Primate. Yes, in Uncle Joe's Georgia, women were officially impregnated with ape sperm. (Goodness knows whether these pregnancies resulted in Uve births, but if they did, that would explain lots about journalism.)

When dealing with comparatively recent tunes, Gray asks the simple and resonant question: "How did Utopiaonce found mainly on the Left-come to power through the Right?" Some notion of Gray's expository gifts may be gathered from the fact that he even makes Leo Strauss intelligible, a feat usually conceded to have been beyond Leo Strauss himself. (Dwight Macdonald's verdict on Alger Hiss describes Strauss admirably: "The cuttlefish can take lessons from our author in how to obscure an issue.") It is hard to withhold a certain perverse admiration for a guru who attained as cultic a foUowing as Strauss did without having bothered to elucidate what his own reUgious views were or if he held any such views at aU. Gray avoids over-easy identification of Strauss with neocons-after aU, Strauss never imagined that Zanzibar could be forcibly democratized by next Tuesday at the latest-but the common ground between them remains. Both Straussianism and neoconservatism appeal primarily, in 2007, to those whose desire to be In The Know outweighs any piffling loyalty to sane traditions. Moreover, both offer the specific charms of a world where the plebs can be fobbed off with mere surface meanings while the Big Kahunas feast on Gnostic fantasies of their own creation: fantasies in which Plato's Republic somehow becomes an attack on utopianism and Baghdad becomes as law-abiding as Burlington, Vermont. …

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