This issue, we revive the tradition of highlighting the world’s greatest thinkers. And throughout the magazine, you’ll find writers determined to make sense of senseless timesby Tom Clark / July 19, 2019 / Leave a comment
When leaders wallow in wilful ignorance, it’s time to worry. Mao stoked rebellion against scholarship, and Hitler disdained Einstein’s thought as “Jewish speculation.” Mercifully, no British politician, nor even President Trump, is aping them yet. But the American right’s disdain for climate science threatens the world. Meanwhile, over here, the posturing pretence that “political will” can somehow dissolve all the problems that experts identify in a chaotic crash out of the EU strikes me as dangerous too.
Viewed as a group, “the intellectuals” can sometimes be as blinkered and self-serving as any other. Like everyone else, professors, judges and authors tend to believe that their own line of work is uniquely important. Big brains were called on to rationalise the economics that gave us the banking crisis, and a foreign policy that left the Middle East in flames. But the most devastating critiques of these policies also came from learned minds. Indeed, the whole point about a healthy intellectual culture is that it values thoughtful disruption and dissent.
The “put out more flags” brigade in Washington and London are interested in neither, which is why this summer seems the perfect time to revive the Prospect tradition of highlighting the world’s greatest thinkers, an exercise I introduce separately here. But throughout the magazine—our summer double issue—you’ll find writers determined to harness thought to make sense of senseless times.
Take Dahlia Lithwick, perhaps the leading legal journalist working in the United States today. We’ve all heard the liberal screaming—and conservative counter-screaming—about whether or not Trump spells the end of days for the American republic. It is thanks to her expertise that Lithwick can transcend the noise, and provide a cool, authoritative appraisal: no, Trump has not (yet) stopped the writ of the courts from running. But yes, he is remaking the bench and the culture in ways that are fast eroding the rule of law.
Or take our own Steve Bloomfield, honoured in June with the Orwell Prize for deep dive reporting into the thinking—or lack of it—that frames foreign policy. He sits down with all the players, from Tony Blair down, that have shaped so-called “liberal intervention” over 20 years. He concludes that as the world reorders away from the west, the old arguments for and against humanitarian military missions are being overtaken by a cold new reality—we’re no longer in a position to carry them out.
And then we have the doyenne of China watchers, Isabel Hilton, who gives us an authoritative history of Huawei, the tech giant that has caused ructions at the G20 and around the British cabinet table. The story she tells suggests this is a rare case where a mass outbreak of western panic may be justified.
We welcome, too, a Conservative voice—who hails from a different tradition from me, and has a very different view on Brexit—but is equally convinced that new times call for new thought. Tim Montgomerie notes with alarm how his party’s mindset remains frozen in the 1980s, despairs at the shallowness of the Cameronian and Theresa May makeovers, and sets out an entirely new Tory agenda which would shift the focus away from a Thatcherite fixation with “hands-off” economics, and on to the security that so many citizens crave.
“We have echo chamber politics and rumbling against an impartial civil service”
The growing rumbling against an impartial civil service (Sue Cameron) is one very practical illustration of the dangers of a politics that’s stuck in the echo chamber. Another sort of danger is a narrowing of interests and a shutting down of empathy—a problem art and literature can ward off. As readers pick their holiday books, we’ve made room for plenty of both: Alberto Manguel on his favourite characters from children’s fiction; Andrew Dickson on the sculptor of the rootless, Edmund de Waal; fiction reviews, and a final column from the great Clive James who it has been a pleasure for us to provide with a perch for the last six months.
Last but not least, Prospect’s Sameer Rahim provides a taste from his new novel, Asghar and Zahra, which has won rave reviews. It is a relationship story, but also a meditation on how people from different families and traditions and with very different ideas can rub along together. And, fittingly for my theme, it is exceptionally thoughtful.