ON THE EVE OF THE MILLENNIUM: The Future of Democracy Through an Age of Unreason by Conor Cruise O'Brien

ON THE EVE OF THE MILLENNIUM: The Future of Democracy Through an Age of Unreason

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The latest offering from the distinguished scholar and diplomat (The Great Melody, 1992, etc.) is a brief collection of his Massey Lectures, delivered at the University of Toronto and over the CBC Radio. O'Brien opens these talks in a somber mood, quoting Yeats's ""The Second Coming,"" with its apocalyptic imagery, and Michelet's description of the approach of the year 1000, an event that kindled unprecedented hysteria. From there he moves into a cogent, mordant analysis of an (un) holy alliance between the papacy and fundamentalist Islam to roll back the Enlightenment. O'Brien is nothing if not candid about his own feelings: ""I frankly abhor Pope John Paul II,"" he remarks at one point. Regrettably, it's downhill from there. In the subsequent lectures, he wanders all over the place, reaching sometimes dubious conclusions. There is a lengthy and ill-judged attack on Thomas Jefferson that combines a cynical and mechanistic reading of Jefferson's motives in the French Revolution and on the slavery question with a shocking dismissal of virtually all of Jefferson's writings. One essay is devoted in large part to a somewhat ill-formed discussion of the role of the arts in a democracy. In another, O'Brien argues unconvincingly that the death of the British monarchy would he a fatal blow to Western values. There is even the obligatory attack on PC and multiculturalism, an attack that O'Brien himself seems to admit is irrelevant to the minimal threat that PC extremists represent to democracy. Throughout the talks, O'Brien keeps shifting his ground uneasily, simultaneously extolling the Enlightenment values that democracy embodies while raging against the proponents of those values. A disappointing effort at a time when clear thinking about democracy is essential.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1995
Page count: 168pp
Publisher: Free Press