01 March 2017

Selective Enlightenment

David Brooks worries for the legacy of the Enlightenment. The New York Times columnist fears that we're living in an anti-Enlightenment moment dominated by ethnic populism, a "Nietzschean" Russia, and Donald Trump. "When Trump calls the media the 'enemy of the people,' Brooks writes, "he is going after the system of conversation, debate and inquiry that is the foundation for the entire Enlightenment project." What, then, is that foundation? What is "the Enlightenment" to David Brooks? Historians today rarely discuss "the Enlightenment," but also add adjectives to indicate that the period of "the Enlightenment" encompassed multiple, sometimes contradictory movements that nevertheless appeared to share some traits in common. For Brooks, however, "the Enlightenment" is defined by a modest skepticism exemplified by the American Founders. In his summary:

The Enlightenment included thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant who argued that people should stop deferring blindly to authority for how to live. Instead, they should think things through from the ground up, respect facts and skeptically re-examine their own assumptions and convictions.Enlightenment thinkers turned their skeptical ideas into skeptical institutions, notably the U.S. Constitution. America’s founders didn’t trust the people or themselves, so they built a system of rules, providing checks and balances to pit interest against interest.

The end product of Enlightenment, in this account, is liberal democracy and its deliberative approach to political decision-making. Brooks' Enlightenment has its shortcomings; he criticizes its naive contempt for religion, as well as a related "thin[ness] on meaning" that cultivates "soulless technocrats." Still, Enlightenment is to be preferred to anti-Enlightenment tendencies that "don’t think truth is to be found through skeptical inquiry and debate," but "see history as cataclysmic cycles — a zero-sum endeavor marked by conflict." Such elements are essentially authoritarian; "They prefer the direct rule by one strongman who is the embodiment of the will of the people."

It's easy to put a noble Enlightenment heritage against the bad people of today if you cherry-pick history to harvest an ideal version of it. Brooks' anglocentric Enlightenment would seem to have no room for the phenomenon of "enlightened despotism," but would seem compelled to dismiss that phenomenon as an oxymoron. And yet there has been what might be called an Authoritarian Enlightenment probably for as long as people have talked about Enlightenment in the secular European sense of the word. That Enlightenment allows skepticism relatively limited scope, compared to Brooks's ideal, both because the Authoritarian Enlightenment is also a Progressive Enlightenment dismissive of most if not all skepticism toward the idea, not to mention the necessity of progress, and especially dismissive of the skepticism of the "unenlightened." Twentieth century critics, inspired by the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxist critics, have located "totalitarian" tendencies in the Enlightenment's dismissal of resistance as necessarily unreasonable. In this account Enlightenment brought with it an entitlement to dominate if not destroy others. Some of the "anti-enlightenment" elements decried by Brooks probably see the world this way, threatened by elites that are intellectually arrogant and contemptuous toward traditions, e.g. the European Union, the Democratic party, etc. At the same time, some of the elements Brooks labels "anti-Enlightenment" aren't necessarily opposed to the Enlightenment's historic or cultural heritage. Again, it depends on what people mean by "Enlightenment." Some of our struggles today may simply be the Enlightenment turning on itself, as an Enlightenment in which skepticism is the essential element probably is bound to do. But the seemingly ongoing backlash against the Enlightenment only seems more unreasonable when people idealize Enlightenment as a purely benign force in history, without owning up to its abuses, actual and potential, or simply owning the fact that Enlightenment always will meet resistance, but shouldn't always back down in the face of skepticism.


Anonymous said...

When tRump calls the press "enemy of the people", I'm guessing he's more likely referring to the extreme leftist bias the press has had now for quite some time. Even Fox is slanting more and more to the left. They refuse to talk about the increasing number of muslim attacks across the globe. Is it because they're afraid of the repercussions? Or is it because they feel they are personally safe from jihad and, if so, why is that?

Samuel Wilson said...

Do you now define "left" and "right" in terms of people's stance on Islam, or are there other factors? As for the President, I imagine anyone who doesn't agree with his view of himself is his enemy, and since he's the President of the United States ... you can follow the logic. I'm sure he wouldn't appreciate what you do with his name, either.

Anonymous said...

That is one definite marker. Most of the left defends islam, regardless of the fact that islam began in violence, has grown mainly through violence and muslims have been responsible for more than 30,000 terror attacks against non-muslims since 9/11/01. So yes, for the most part, when discussing islam, the left may be defined as 'pro-islam' while the right may be defined as "correct" in this particular case. This isn't my view because I support tRump. It's my view because I am an atheist and, according to the koran, I should be exterminated for being an atheist. I should think you would apply that same logic to the situation, all things considered. But hey, if you want to willingly bare your throat to an assassin's knife, that's your business. I'd much rather keep all muslims out of the West to minimize the possibility. If they want sharia law, let the foul bastards live in Saudi Arabia or Yemen or Kuwait or some other bastion of islmic "civilization".
But considering that some American universities (Georgetown first and foremost) are now lumping criticism of islam in with hate speech, anyone with INTELLIGENCE can see where this is going and, if you truly believe in freedom of speech, you should be standing against this bullshit, rather than condoning the people, culture and religion behind it.

Samuel Wilson said...

Ironically, while following up your reference to Georgetown, I found a TownHall.com article about an appearance at Georgetown this week by a pro-Trump Muslim woman, and in the comment thread there was a mini-debate over whether Islam itself should be assigned to the "left" or "right." The speaker had described jihadis as the "far right" of Islam, while a reader argued that they should be considered part of the left, since they advocate an "all-powerful" state. A bigger scandal at Georgetown was an appearance by an apostate Muslim (converted to Christianity) who spoke out against sharia law. This talk was denounced in advance as "hate speech" in a student newspaper and led to protests as well as the resignation of the head of the Campus Republicans who invited the speaker. You don't have to be an expulsionist to condemn that crap.

Anonymous said...

Regardless, a religion which condones the murder of those who refuse to convert should not be allowed in the civilized world. 30,000 terrorist attacks and their well-over 30,000 dead victims would probably agree...if they were still alive to do so. The culture and values of islam are NOT in accordance with those of the West. As I've said before, as long as muslims are allowed to live in the West, there will be violence. Better to simply get rid of them than to allow further contamination of our culture.