Among a number of depressing discoveries I made during two-plus decades of university teaching was the fact that most of my students had never heard of the Enlightenment.
I know, I know–that was just one of many deficiencies students brought to a class on law and public policy…so why do I consider that particular deficit to be especially depressing? Because–as I have repeatedly explained on this site– Enlightenment philosophy caused a significant shift in human understanding. Its philosophers introduced what has become the prevalent–although certainly not universal–worldview of modern civilization. The Enlightenment introduced western civilizations to science and empirical inquiry, posited the existence of human rights and challenged/toppled belief in the divine right of kings, among many other things.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of MAGA Republicanism is its wholesale rejection of that Enlightenment worldview. There are several theories about the appeal of MAGA partisanship (I can’t dignify MAGA by suggesting it’s a philosophy–it isn’t. It’s a visceral, tribal scream…)–certainly, racism is a huge factor. But so is a primal fear of modernity, a rejection of the secular civilization that grew out of the Enlightenment.
As I’ve recently written, I tend to see much of today’s political turmoil as a fight between Puritan fundamentalism and Enlightenment modernity, so I was interested in a New York Times book review by Emily Bazelon some months back titled “Speaking Truth to Both Right and Left.” The review focused on two books, one of which–Jonathan Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge— I’d read. (The other, by George Packer, remains on my “eventual” list…)
Packer and Rauch are here to defend the liberalism of the Enlightenment — equality and scientific rationality in an unapologetically Western-tradition sense. They see this belief system as the country’s great and unifying strength, and they’re worried about its future.
I worry alongside them. A lot.
Packer expresses his deep fear that Americans have lost the “art” of self-government.
He means, with credit to Alexis de Tocqueville, “not just rights, laws and institutions, but what free people do together, the habits and skills that enable us to run our own affairs.” Self-government depends on trust, “which we’ve lost.”
The review notes that Packer’s lens is economic.
He ties his thesis about Americans’ loss of the art of self-government to the inequality that he has covered extensively and intimately in his career as a journalist. “If I had to put it in a single sentence,” he writes, “I would say: Inequality undermined the common faith that Americans need to create a successful multi-everything democracy.” He recognizes that “racism is in our marrow, and enough Americans either celebrate or tolerate this evil that it came within a whisker of gaining a lasting hold on power.” (He’s talking about Trump, though he would recognize that racism has in fact gained such a hold in other ways and times.)
Bazelon outlines what she calls Packer’s “biting” critique of the Left, and ties it to abandonment of the Enlightenment framework and the Left’s focus on subjectivity and “psychological trauma caused by speech and texts.”
Rauch addresses the Enlightenment basis of America’s Constitution more directly.
Rauch’s subject, in “The Constitution of Knowledge,” is the building of human understanding. He takes us on a historical tour of how a range of thinkers (Socrates, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montaigne, Locke, Mill, Hume, Popper) sought truth, came to embrace uncertainty, learned to test hypotheses and created scientific communities. He is astute about the institutional support and gatekeeping that sustains “the reality-based community of science and journalism.” Social media platforms are bad at this because their profits are built on stoking users’ existing rage and spreading lies faster than truth. This is not a new critique, but it’s nice to see Rauch weave it into his larger project.
Rauch describes the danger posed by Rightwing trolling and disinformation, but–like Packer–he also recognizes and criticizes the excesses of the left.
He blames it for cancel culture, defined as firing or ostracizing people for stray comments or social-media posts (some awful, some awkward, some expressing mainstream-until-yesterday views). He writes at helpful length about the difference between criticizing and canceling. “Criticism seeks to engage in conversations and identify error; canceling seeks to stigmatize conversations and punish the errant. Criticism cares whether statements are true; canceling cares about their social effects.”
Bazelon ended her review with a question I find increasingly pertinent: why do so many of today’s Americans reject the Enlightenment values of individual liberty and civic equality? She wanted both Rauch and Packer to “consider why the Enlightenment figures and values they love don’t speak to everyone.”
it’s a very important question.