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Triumph of the Counter-Enlightenment

Reading the news today is like watching a bad disaster movie. As you shout at the screen for the characters not to open the hatch that will flood the ship, they open the hatch.

The default crisis was sort of like this, with one big difference. A disaster movie “works” because the audience knows something the characters don’t: there’s death behind that hatch. That’s not true of the default drama.

Washington’s disaster epic actors knew it was an invented crisis. Certainly those who invented it did. And it’s easy for all to see that the continuing global economic crisis – a real crisis – requires increased government spending. Consumers aren’t spending so businesses aren’t spending so consumers aren’t spending. Our collective spending, through government, is the only possible way to recharge the economy.

So what did they do? They opened the hatch. They cut government spending. And in this case, the whole theater gets flooded.

Could it be that what Rienhold Niebuhr said about morality – individuals could more easily act morally than society – is true of society’s ability to act intelligently? Are we doomed to collective ignorance? War, the global climate crisis, global hunger, and fundamentalist religious mayhem of all kinds would make one think so.

I don’t think society is doomed by its nature. I think there are those, however, who want to enforce both individual and collective ignorance. They are the forces of the Counter-Enlightenment, and they’ve been with us since the mid-1700s. These just may be their years of triumph.

It is easier to steal from the stupid, especially when the marks equate their enforced ignorance with holiness or salvation. Consider a person who builds a self around belief in angels. He finds it less psychologically troubling to grab for a mythical winged angel as he jumps from the cliff than it is to stop and consider the certain effect of gravity and hard ground on his fate.

And some on the Left have sometimes been unwitting allies of Counter-Enlightenment activists. Because of my disappointment that some 18th- and 19th-Century thinkers rejected the role of empathy in morality and overstated the potential of a colder Reason, I have sometimes painted with too broad a brush and appeared critical of the Enlightenment itself.

The liberating principles of the Enlightenment, however, are obvious. The profoundly humanistic understanding of equality and freedom, the questioning of Tradition and Authority (especially religious authority), the more modest or humble hopes for reason – these are among its gifts.

From its very beginning the Enlightenment faced vicious opposition, opposition that became known as the Right (the terms “Right” and “Left” owe their origins to the seating arrangements of France’s 1789 National Constituent Assembly). The Counter-Enlightenment was a powerful force in its own day.

Today we see its power everywhere: the rejection of compromise in politics; the trashing of public education and the assault on independent universities; the teaching of Creationism in the schools that remain; the dismantling of the social safety net; the rejection of climate science; authoritarian control of private life, from bans on gay marriage to attacks on women’s health. These are all symptoms of an ascendant Counter-Enlightenment.

Texas Governor Rick Perry’s Saturday prayer meeting was called “The Response.” It may has well have been called National Counter-Enlightenment Day.

Here’s how Darrin McMahon describes 18th-Century Counter-Enlightenment voices in his terrific book, Enemies of Enlightenment:

The fundamental importance of religion in maintaining political order, a preoccupation with the perils of intellectual and social license, the valorization of the family and history, the critique of abstract rights, the dangers of dividing sovereignty, and the need for a strategic alliance between throne and altar – these all featured centrally in this new ideology. Even more fundamental was a Manichean readiness to divide the world in two between good and evil, right and wrong, Right and Left. Marked by an unwillingness to compromise and the belief that to do so would imperil the social order in its entirety, this vision was a direct outgrowth of the apocalyptic rhetoric aimed at the philosophes during the final years of the ancien regime.

McMahon writes that the Right believed the free exchange of ideas in an open public sphere would undermine all authority and send the world into chaos.

If it couldn’t close down the public sphere, the Right could corrupt it. Enter FoxNews. McMahon details how the Counter-Enlightenment got in the game:

But in the absence of other, viable means to curtail the Enlightenment’s expansion, it was forced to adopt modern methods and modern technology, employing pamphlets, print culture, and the periodical press to compete openly in the new republic of letters.

In other words, they created the right-wing noise machine.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith