John Ralston Saul

HowTheLightGetsIn is the world’s largest ideas and music festival, taking place from 24-27 May in Hay-on-Wye. As a long-standing festival partner, we’ve curated a series of interviews and articles with some of the fascinating expert speakers. This year's festival theme, "Dangers, Desires and Destiny", explores what we desire to change, and where our destiny might lie, as we continue to live in an increasingly dangerous world.

To read more, check out our interviews with foreign correspondent Christina Lamb and China expert Isabel Hilton.

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John Ralston Saul is a Canadian writer, political philosopher and public intellectual. He is best-known for his trilogy – "Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West", "The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense" and "The Unconscious Civilization" – as well as the follow-up meditation, "On Equilibrium: Six Qualities of the New Humanism". He is a former president of PEN International.

You’ve written about the “dictatorship of reason”. What do you mean by that?

A lot of intellectuals got very worried when I wrote Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. It was amazing, particularly in Britain, there was a kind of panic in some circles. "Oh, my God, he’s against reason, so he must be in favour of racism and chaos and all those things …" Not at all, that would be a reductivist or ideological approach. I’m taking a more open view of something larger that involves seeking balance all the time; for that you need to have several qualities, of which reason is just one.

On Equilibrium: Six Qualities of the New Humanism made the argument that we have six qualities that we need to work with all the time. Reason is one of them. And it was very handy to write the book in alphabetical order, so that I got to explain common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition and memory, before getting to reason …. It was a way of showing that you can make an argument about a balanced humanist civilisation, which wasn't dependent on reason, but which included reason.

How might this apply today? You’ve criticised public discourse for getting stuck in the minutiae of facts. Is the current debate around the climate crisis an example of that?

We can get stuck in the details of specialisation … You open a door, you go in the room, you close the door behind you, you don't let anybody else in. And since your room leads to the next room, you don't let anybody else through. Within a couple of decades, specialists have turned the environmental movement into a jumble of closed rooms with tens of thousands of specialists arguing over tiny details the facts! and slowing the whole thing down instead of getting on with it.

As an intellectual, it's fascinating to watch suicide in action, particularly mass suicide, particularly when the mass suicide is being led by PhDs, tenured professors, deputy ministers, you know, heads of international organisations – and they're the leaders of a global suicide movement, while pretending that they're trying to save the planet.

What do you think of the idea that we’re moving into a new era of great power competition, with the United States withdrawing as the ‘policeman of the world’?

What I said, I think, at the end of Voltaire's Bastards was that … we were headed back into a pre-Enlightenment way of running the world … and that’s what has happened. We are once again in a regionalist world. And that's what makes it impossible for us to act boldly when it comes to things like climate change, or poverty or violence.

The Enlightenment concept of progress was a mixed bag of interesting ideas on how to improve things, mixed with a ridiculous idea that we’re actually moving forward in some profound way, which relates to an alteration in the human character if not soul. Whereas we’re finding now that we're right back in the middle of a classic nationalist era, where racism is getting stronger every year, with the result that violence is justified against people on the basis of race.

The tragedy is that the United States has always been a very nationalistic place. And inward-looking. They never wanted to be handed the torch of international leadership. They never wanted that. Yes, they have always wanted to control North and South America and Central America. But there was enormous opposition within the US to going into both World Wars. They’re very uncomfortable with spending all their time looking outwards. It's very hard to get elected as a president who looks outwards.

The Europe which could have been the driving force in their place has come up against a series of barriers. In good part, after the 1960s, it is the fault of Britain, which tried to follow the American introverted dream and went back to nationalism. Of course there are a brilliant minority [in Britain] which has always been in favour of internationalism. But I'm talking about big movements, and it's one of the great tragedies of the second half of the 20th century that Britain abandoned its opportunity to be an international leader in a positive way.

It looks likely that Donald Trump will be re-elected this year. What are your thoughts on the future of democracy in the US?

First, I don't think it's inevitable that Trump will win. I think it's probable, but not inevitable. Second, yes, he is crazy. Really bonkers … I don't think we'll know what it means until it's over. Really over. But if he loses, I think the United States will come very close to a civil war. My view has always been that the United States will end up shattering again – what form that breakup will take, and exactly when, I can't tell you …. Politicians don't want to get up and say, "We're going to have another civil war, we're gonna break apart." But I do think if you talk to some of the smart [politicians] in private, they would talk about the dangers to the country. Now, some of them would use that as a way of saying "we can't have so much democracy’"and others would say "we must strengthen our democracy". But I think there has to be an awareness of how dangerous the situation currently is.

I think a lot of Europeans and Brits are missing the [point about the] deep, deep anti-democratic forces in the United States, and how powerful they have always been – since the very beginning. And the racism, which was always at the heart of that, has not gone away. It’s fascinating, when you think that it took from the landing of the English with slaves [in 1619] till 1962 – how long is that? three centuries? – to get rid of slavery first technically, then socially. And the last 25 years have been all about an organised group, which represents what the United States always was; people who believe the US should be a country divided by race. And they have been winning battle after battle.

How would you describe that ideology that was there from the beginning?

Profoundly anti-democratic, and profoundly racist.

You also said that the United States is a profoundly nationalist country. Are you critical of all kinds of nationalism?

You can’t do away with nationalism … Everybody belongs, everyone needs to believe that they belong, in the place where they live and to feel good about it. But what kind of nationalism are we talking about here? What kind of citizen engagement? I often talk about positive nationalism – which citizens need – versus negative nationalism – the destructive, racist kind. Positive nationalism? How much time will citizens give to a national project? How much time can they give? Look at what's happened over the last more than 25 years of deregulation – people have been left with less and less time. As citizens, they've had to work harder and harder. You now have a situation where a husband and wife – or two women or two men, whatever – have to work full time in order to support a family with two children. Whereas 20 years before, maybe they weren't doing as many things, but now they both have to work very hard, probably with more than one job each. We've inflated away the possibility of what you'd call citizen time.

And by deregulation, you mean of labour laws?

Weakened labour laws are just one of the many, many [aspects] of what was what was called globalisation … I'm in favour of [global] trade. I'm a writer, my books are sold all over the world. But that wasn't what globalisation was really about. What it was about, was removing the possibility of having regional or national rules, which would protect citizens … it made it possible for large financial interests of various kinds to determine the shape of things.

I mean, the only guarantor of the Western democratic state is the citizen. We are the guarantor! Each of us. And out of that, everything else can grow. So if what’s actually happening is that you're undermining the power of the citizen, you are in effect directly undermining the possibility of democracy. We talk all the time about voting, as if it were the synonym for democracy. Yes, of course, go out and vote. But voting is just a small part of democracy. What matters most is the time to be an engaged citizen.

How can we be more active as citizens? Are you talking about going to council meetings, or also teach-parent meetings, business meetings etc?

Yes. You can come at this in different ways, depending on where you are in your own evolution. So you can come in and break things up, that’s not a bad thing to do. The raucous citizen. But you can also think to yourself, "I wonder if I could just make them uncomfortable enough to stop and reconsider for a while, long enough that we can broaden this [discussion] and put other things into consideration." What I am saying is that common sense, ethics, intuition, imagination, memory and reason are the tools we have to intervene effectively. We’re citizens. We don’t have a personal army or our own bank. We have our capacity to argue publicly. And these six qualities are the tools with which we can change societies and set directions.

That’s what I mean about living with these six qualities. You have to carry them in your pocket …. and then you sit there and you start pulling them out, bringing them into the discussion. So you might have to say, from an ethical point of view, this is problematic. My memory of our ethical standards pushes me to imagine what we should be doing. That's really what a citizen has to be doing … We have the right to create disorder, intellectual and emotional disorder …. I mean, you'll see that the word running through everything I write is "doubt’" … When people are filled with doubt, and happy to be filled with doubt, that's when they do interesting things.

Don’t miss out on John Ralston Saul's talks at HowTheLightGetsIn, including on 25 May at 12pm, when he'll be speaking on artificial intelligence and the creativity crisis in a discussion hosted by our editor Niki Seth-Smith. You can also catch him on 26 May at 9am, when he'll be hosting a philosophy breakfast. Get your special offer of 20% off full tickets using the discount code NEWHUM24 when prompted.

In the meantime, check out previous festival debates and talks on IAI.TV to get excited for the big event.

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