Inside Story

At a hinge point in history

Stan Grant distils his travels into an argument about the future

Jane Goodall Books 19 May 2021 2287 words

Change is possible: writer and broadcaster Stan Grant. Michael Masters/Getty Images

With the Falling of the Dusk: A Chronicle of the World in Crisis
By Stan Grant | HarperCollins | $34.99 | pages

In our fight with Covid-19, says Stan Grant, we have supported authoritarian measures and suspended the shared commerce of daily life that holds together the delicate tissue of democracy. The virus that travelled here from Wuhan has weakened our immunity to the virus of tyranny. “We find ourselves now at a hinge point in history,” he writes in his latest book, With the Falling of the Dusk, and he has an ominous view of our prospects.

After more than a year of disruption and uncertainty — a time when coping with anxiety was a major challenge — this might seem like the last perspective we need. In spite of its portentous title, though, this is no empty indulgence in doomsaying. Grant wants to make an urgent case for a fundamental political reorientation.

With the Falling of the Dusk is mainly a book about China, and about Grant’s experience as correspondent for CNN in Hong Kong — during 1997, the year the territory began its long reckoning for a century and a half of British control — and Beijing. Recent events in Hong Kong have served to confirm a grim challenge: how many times does the Communist Party leadership need to tell the West that they reject liberal democracy before we accept the reality?

Grant has chosen the politically potent metaphor of the virus deliberately. Under Stalin and Hitler, targeted populations were characterised as infections to be eradicated. The totalitarian state itself, as Francis Fukuyama warned in his 1989 book, The End of History and the Last Man, “could replicate itself throughout the world like a virus.”

Fukuyama’s big-picture view of history is in tune with Grant’s way of thinking. Both acknowledge the influence of the early nineteenth-century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, who drew an arc from imperial China through the foundations of democracy in the classical world to the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath.

Mention Hegel, and you have to explain him, or at least explain enough to justify the allusion. That’s no easy task in a book designed for readers unlikely to be interested in the metaphysical wranglings of the Enlightenment. Grant devotes only a few pages to the task, though he insists that “Hegel looms over us” and we cannot understand our own political environment without some grasp of his ideas.

Hegel may also throw light on Grant’s enterprise in a way that he doesn’t mention. According to the great German theorist, history can be done in three ways: through first-hand witness and documentation; by situating events in the longer sweep of time; and as a form of philosophy, identifying overarching patterns in the march of civilisation. By braiding all three strands, Grant builds a sense of urgency.

The reporter who has been sent to Papua New Guinea, North Korea, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq to witness some of the darkest scenes in recent history is backed up by the historian who places them in the larger scheme of things. The philosopher is compelled to ask where all this is heading, and whether we still have the time or the awareness to stave off the worst of what the future may hold.

Many foreign correspondents write books, but few do so with such intellectual ambition and historical sweep. And I doubt many of them read Hegel, who may seem a remote and abstruse figure to most of those who front world crises. Yet the work of bearing witness to human cruelty and derangement also prompts a need for larger structures of understanding in which reason holds its place as an article of faith.

Rationality and optimism, though, don’t necessarily go together. When Fukuyama, in a mood of Hegelian buoyancy, rashly proclaimed the end of history, he believed that the grand narrative of humanity’s march towards freedom was at last being brought to its conclusion: capitalism had triumphed; the totalitarian regimes of communism were a spent force.

Fukuyama himself has clarified and largely retracted those predictions; and Grant’s ongoing determination to wrestle with them, which he has done numerous times in reports for the ABC, seems driven by a conviction that Fukuyama was not just wrong, but wrong in a critical way. History has returned with a vengeance, with China as the model towards which the major political traditions are converging. And now the virus may prove to be the instrument through which freedom itself is terminally weakened.

Grant’s brief as Beijing correspondent involved covering major political moments, such as the accession speech of Xi Jinping, but also gave him licence to hunt the length and breadth of the country for stories illustrating all aspects of contemporary life. He provides a distressing account of the wet markets in Guangdong at the time of the SARS outbreak in 2002. Poverty shapes destinies in many ways. Near Lanzhou in the northwest, where the suicide rate is high, a fisherman adapts his inherited trade to make an income hauling in the corpses of those who have jumped from the bridge. He posts the photographs online, and relatives can then pay to view the corpse for identification.

Ever-present official minders and trackers must be evaded on an expedition to Chengdu on the Tibetan border to speak to Buddhist monks protesting about the crackdown in their homeland. Reporting in this country is a cat-and-mouse game that is by turns dangerous and absurd: new tactics are constantly needed to hide footage and outwit the surveillance.

The assiduous journalist alternates between chasing emerging stories in the provinces and delving into the background of the people who steer events, but the weave of destiny is always his underlying story. The roles of reporter, historian and philosopher merge seamlessly in Grant’s narrative.

In search of insights into how a new form of leadership has emerged in China, he visits Mao’s living quarters in Yan’an, where the Long March ended. A photo hanging outside shows the young Mao still in political exile, weakened by hunger and depression, who was spending days and nights alone in the mountains planning the guerilla campaign that would change the course of the revolution.

Mao and Xi carried bitter experience of privation and exclusion into positions of supreme power, and the consequences are still playing out in the reign of Xi, who calls himself “son of the Yellow Earth.” Like Mao, Xi has ridden the wheel of political fortune. Tainted by the reputation of a father who was purged from the party, Xi spent his childhood in a re-education program, so ragged and underweight he lacked the strength for the farm labour to which he was assigned.

Such reversals of fortune are emblematic of revolution itself, expressing the capacity of the people as a whole to rise from the worst of human conditions to become a force of destiny. This is Hegel with a twist. How is it that the rise of the people as an expression of the world spirit has led only to a worse form of despotism?

And there is no cause for complacency in the West, where a very different narrative of freedom has led us to a state of delusion. “History hisses at us like the devil,” Grant warns, yet we fail to hear it. There are parallels with 1914, when the worst-case scenario played out because so many believed it could not. Even since the publication of this book, talk of potential conflict with China is recklessly leaking onto the front pages in Australia.

But might such pessimism itself be a dangerous indulgence? If we are at a crucial hinge point, perhaps a journalist who has supped full of horrors from the worst places of human suffering and cruelty is not the best guide to the way forward. “The things I have seen weigh heavy on my soul,” Grant acknowledges. But these things do exist out there in the world.

Just over halfway through the book the focus shifts to Pakistan, where Grant made several visits in the mid 2000s, and found another order of horror unfolding, one without even the pretence of reason and justice that inspired the revolutionary leaders of China. It is there that he finds his way to “a place beyond grace,” in a town square in the Swat Valley where headless bodies are dumped and the heads impaled on posts or left on doorsteps.

Zibahkhana Chowk, or “Slaughter Square” as it is now called, is an exhibition of extreme human pathology. There may be versions of it in any war zone. It is the heart of darkness that Conrad found in the Congo and Coppola recreated for Apocalypse Now in an abandoned Angkor Temple near the mouth of Cambodia’s Nùng River. In Coppola’s version the presiding spirit is Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a colonel in the US army who has gone into full-blown psychosis and used his military authority to create hell on earth.

Grant finds “the devil incarnate” in the very different guise of Imran, a tall, red-haired Pashtun man taken captive by Pakistani troops. Imran has a voice like honey — smooth, quiet and alluring — and the demeanour of a holy man. It has been his job to mentor the boys who will become suicide bombers, poisoning their minds with visions of a higher destiny. Reason, the core business of Hegelian history, has no place here.

The world is what it is, and journalists must report it as they find it. If Grant’s primary aim were to provide an overview of his experiences as a foreign correspondent, the accounts of what he witnessed in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan would clearly belong here. But he is attempting something much more. He wants to do the historian’s work of analysis and correlation, and the philosopher’s work of interpretation.

His Hegelian paradigm is convincing when it’s applied to China, where the long march of history is a drama by turns heroic, tragic, harrowing, euphoric and ominous. As he was told repeatedly during his ten years in the country, there’s no China without Mao, no Mao without Marx. And no Marx without Hegel. In a revolutionary scenario, big ideas lead to big events, not vice versa.

The chapters on China have a cohesiveness and depth that is missing from the rest of the book. There’s an atmosphere, too, created from the opening paragraphs, where Grant recalls the train journey into China with his family on Christmas Day in 2004, feeling “the pull of the earth” in a land that seems to pulse with memory.

As the landscape unfolds in the morning light, his attention is caught by a solitary figure working in the field. The man looks old, and must have lived through tumultuous changes: the birth of the People’s Republic, the reign of Mao and the Great Leap Forward. Grant, as a Wiradjuri man bearing a heritage of dispossession, senses a fellow time traveller. “We were twinned with fate,” he writes. “We belonged to old cultures whose worlds had been upended by the march of modernity.” This upending brings with it a legacy of anger towards the modernising nations, with their presumptions of moral authority and powers to enforce it.

Grant’s style may be cool and measured, but at its heart this is an angry book. Civilisations have long memories, he warns, while nations think only of tomorrow. As China and Australia face off in an absurdly mismatched game of sanctions, and our great ally America is trying to work its way out of a political quagmire, a reckoning looms.

So what are we to do? No world-historical individuals are in sight, at least from our side of the picture, which could be a blessing. One of the bitterest lessons of a failed democracy is that the people have only themselves to blame. Perhaps they are also to blame for states of post-revolutionary dictatorship. At the end of his documentary novel Stalingrad, Vasily Grossman launches into a tirade against the people, seeing the underlying cause of Stalin’s regime in a resurgence of “the soul of the serf” among the Soviet citizenry.

When things get fraught, it feels good to lay some blame, even if it means blaming oneself. It may feel good, but whether it does any good is another matter, and that depends on whether the hinge point is a point of no return. This would not be the first time the spectre of 1914 has reared its head and faded again. If we are not there yet — and as Grant claims, “destination is a Western idea” — a moment of reckoning may be to some purpose.

Grant contrasts his vision of the Chinese peasant working in the fields at daybreak, heralding a world of possibility and a new story to tell, with the image of his title, taken from Hegel. “Wisdom is not gained in the dawn; the owl of Minerva spreads its wings with the falling of the dusk.”

Hegel wrestled with the question of whether the long march of history was on some predetermined course. He rejected such a view, believing it left no real place for human freedom and agency. There are times when events seem to converge in inevitable ways, and it is perhaps this, above all, that is the most dangerous assumption.

For all his apparent pessimism, Grant raises the alarm with the conviction that a change of course is possible. The reckoning he calls for involves recognition of political responsibility at all levels: not just by governments, elected or otherwise, but by all of us who in our diverse ways may have some influence on the course of events. This is in many respects a compelling and convincing book, though not one that will help you sleep easily. •