The end of certainty
by Stephen Chan
[ people - july 09 ]
Baroness Helena Kennedy called Stephen Chan's new book a great work of public intellectual intervention in our understanding of world politics. In this article, the much-travelled Professor of International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, talks about the book, and the adventures that contributed to its writing as much as the research.
The End of Certainty was written on board an endless stream of airplane flights and I think that contributed to its sense of adventurous writing. But the background to the book is decades old and involved my exposure to comparative scriptural studies 30 years ago. That was piled upon early training in political philosophy and a failed effort to be a classics scholar. So the reading and research for the book has been, in some key ways, a lifetime's work. But, as a young man, there was also a lot of action in its preparation. As a student activist and later as an international civil servant, I was involved in a raft of liberation movements and, more pertinently, in the post-conflict reconstruction work that inevitably followed independence or the end of war. That was far from romantic and involved a lot of hard slog. Achieving unity after years of national fracture was always a hopeless but necessary aim. But understanding why people fight was a huge part of my education, as was coming to appreciate the humanity in even the most blood-soaked veterans of conflicts. It didn't make me feel my book-learning was irrelevant, but it helped me understand how 'rationality' becomes different forms of rationality, and how 'ethics' become a whole float of things that also pass under the name of ethics.
So that I have always resisted the tendency among scholars of international relations to analyse events in terms of one form of rationality or one form of ethics. And I have always been bemused by how carefully scholars have sought to mirror politicians and policy-makers in attributing bad faith in terms of rational and ethical expectations to all those who challenge the West. I don't think that the resultant demonisation of people as diverse as Robert Mugabe or Osama Bin Laden helps in any way to deal with them. This doesn't mean that such people are not atrocious. What they do may be very much more bad than good. But it doesn't necessarily mean that they are mad and do what they do simply to spill blood unreasonably. They spill blood very reasonably. That is why they have so many supporters who would never themselves lift a gun or explode their bodies. They see a discourse of rebellion, resistance and faith that won't go away simply by calling it names.
So the book was written as an antidote to simple-mindedness - to the simple idea that there is one form of certainty in terms of rational and ethical behaviour, and that is what the West gave to a sometimes alarmingly ungrateful world.
But this meant a book that was going to deal with issues, not only of politics, but of contrasting philosophies and religions, of cultures, and of moral reasons for violence. Notwithstanding years of reading, I was still very aware that my understanding of, for instance, Iranian political philosophy, was going to seem primitive or simply wrong to a specialist. Multiply that across the range of all the philosophical and religious systems I deal with in the book, and the end result could be a nightmare of my own misunderstandings.
The second big problem was not whether I was wrong or not, but whether a book like that could be made readable to a general public without being so reductionist that it contributed nothing to deep understanding. I absolutely loathe 'fortune cookie' wisdom. And that is what the proponents of 'multiculturalism' so often serve us - bits of digested, aphoristic slogans that seem inane and pretentious. What had to be done was not just to present what systems of thought stood for, but how they came historically and culturally, through rational processes, to stand for that. I had to present a range of differing rational processes without sending the most well-meaning and literate readers into a sleep as deep as coma.
And this is where writing it on airplane journeys probably helped. Jetlag, whiskies, an inability to wear headphones while all around tiny screens kept flashing perhaps took their toll. But the decision was made to write the book like a novel - not just any novel, but like a Latin American novel of magical realism. Ideas and thinkers are treated in the book like characters. They wander on and off, reappear some chapters later, changed and mutated but still the same character. In the meantime, the course of the book's development has inflected their characters with new backgrounds. And time zones and cultures collapse, even in terms of the Western heritage. Satan first turns up in the form he takes in the Biblical book of Job, and later reappears as Dante, the anti-hero in the recent children's electronic game, Devil May Cry. Christianity is prefigured in Zoroastrianism. Ancient Persia lectures defeated Rome. The angel Gabriel sighs as he flies in both Islamic and Christian writings. Jean-Paul Sartre's work on existentialism is married to revivalist Shia Islam. And the Ayatollah Khomeini reads neo-Marxist writings on immiseration and dependency theory in Paris. I tried to bring all this alive and to make the book as compelling to read as a novel.
If it's like a novel, what is its plot line? Well, obviously from the title, it's that there is no more international certainty. By that I mean no more international certainty based on Western universalism. But the plot line is about how a new internationalism can be assembled based on the appreciation of a huge range of commonalities. Not universality - commonality. And they are not unproblematic commonalities. They have problems coming out of their eardrums when they're not perforating those very eardrums. But what they demand is a higher, more educated and more sensitive politics. That much may be singing in the wind right now. But they also demand a higher form of scholarship. It's a clarion call for my international colleagues not just to serve their professions and their political masters, but to serve the possibility of multiple truths that, all the same, can be spoken truthfully. Sincerely. And with understanding that others will have thought in different ways, but with the same care and sincerity. Truthfulness, care and sincerity are the meeting points for negotiating a commonality. At the end of the day, I have written, perhaps, a most idealistic novel of a book.