Final hours

This week there have been a couple of great pieces that sum up what many of us have been banging on about for the last year.

First, David Aaronovitch addresses the narrative of the Great Decline.

Not surprisingly the geist that gibbers in this straitened zeit is a pessimist. Articulated by a small army of declinists, the dominant sentiment is that it’s all gone to the dogs in the West: community, spirituality, morality – and left us in a state of alienation, of anomie, eating apart in front of American Idol, obesely exercising on our Wiis, leading unsatisfactory lives of consumption and envy.

At least a couple more new books this week have suggested that our etiolated and weakened sense of higher self is consequently no match for rampant, self-confident Islam. We are the new late Romans and the Muslims are the new equivalent of Gibbon’s destroying religious army. ‘Man is a theotropic beast,’ argue the authors of God is Back: we will have Jehovah – or Allah – one way or another.

Again: the point is to be on the winning side.

Then, Matt Taibbi shoots the eaglefish out of their barrels.

But something tells me we’re going to be hearing more of this rhetoric, if for no other reason that whenever money gets tight and the times get nervous even intellectuals will suddenly start talking about God. You see this same phenomenon played out on a more crude level in Southern fundamentalism, where the megachurches are smart enough to send their missionaries to rehab centers and prisons and everywhere else you find people stumbling, confused, and vulnerable to a soul-snatching out of their various existential car wrecks — and now that 21st century capitalism has hit the wall and yuppies everywhere are flying through the windshield into debt and foreclosure, the God-hawkers will show up here, too, to argue that where materialism and science have let your postmodern liberal self down, religion comes ready with answers.

He’s talking about Terry Eagleton, who after deservedly being kicked out by the University of Manchester has been swanning around Yale, talking Jesus. More eaglefish action here, and also I’ve been thinking about something P Z Myers said, during his flight into terror: ‘What’s going on here? I thought the other side of campus, the one with all those arty lit-crit types, was where the good writing was done’.

Curious, no? I was educated as an arts and humanities student, and as a young man I divided people into two opposing camps: the science and maths crowd who were boring, conformist and abstemious, and the liberal arts crew who were cool, sexy and bohemian. Now it seems that the reverse is true – the laboratory side of campus is full of interesting, creative, perceptive freethinkers, while the delirious faculties have degenerated into little claques of tedious and repetitive morons.

It is especially ironic  given that arts and humanities disciplines have traditionally been distinguished by a fierce independence of mind and a healthy scepticism towards received wisdom.


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