Rolling Back the Enlightenment

Back in 2003 William Greider published an essay in The Nation entitled “Rolling Back the 20th Century: The Right’s Grand Ambition” about how Republicans were determined, on his view, to diminish and the power and authority of the federal government, to “reduce its scale and powers to a level well below what it was before the New Deal’s centralization.” That is, they wanted, he continues, to return governing authority and resources “to local levels and also to individuals and private institutions, most notably to corporations and religious organizations.”

Few people in the U.S. would like corporations to have more power. Unfortunately, Democrats have done little to halt their increasing power. Their hands, or so they would argue if they were honest, are effectively tied by the nature of campaign finance. They can’t afford to bite the hands that feed them. 

So the Democrats are not protecting us from the increasing hegemony of large corporations. What they are doing, on the other hand is far worse than rolling back the 20th century. They are taking us all the way back to the Dark Ages, the age of orthodoxy, where only officially sanctioned ideas were allowed to be publicly proclaimed. Freedom of expression, a lawyer friend of mine is fond of pointing out, is specifically for views one does not like, views one finds offensive, even threatening. It is completely unnecessary for views one agrees with because there is never a question of suppressing those. This point is made very well in an episode of a television series called “The Defenders” that appears now to be largely forgotten. The episode, “The Iron Man,” has good-guy attorney Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall) defending a fanatical young proponent of totalitarianism, Jack Powers, who is accused of instigating a physical attack on one of his critics. Preston is repulsed by Powers’ views, but the law, he explains to his son and law partner Kenneth Preston (Robert Reed), “isn’t just there to protect those people who happen to agree with us.” The commitment of the senior Preston the the First Amendment, as well as the Equal Protect Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, appears to make such a deep impression on Powers that viewers are left suspecting that he may eventually come around to Preston’s views. That isn’t the point of the episode, though. The point is that freedom of expression is essential to civilized society. 

The Enlightenment faith in the inherent rationality of every human being was also a faith in the truth, a faith that the truth would emerge victorious in any genuine contest with lies. Enlightenment thinkers believed the contest between truth and lies was itself an essential part of the self-actualization of the human potential for rational self-determination. The truth, they believed, no longer needed the protection of a powerful institution. People no longer needed to be told what to believe or to be coerced into believing it if they resisted. They needed to develop their own potential to recognize the truth as such.

Enlightenment thinkers, even if they imperfectly exemplified the values they espoused, viewed human beings as possessed of a potential for rationality that gave them an inherent dignity, a dignity that brought with it certain rights and necessitated certain freedoms. They rejected the infantilizing of humanity represented by the infamous “argument from authority” employed by the Catholic Church to keep people from being able to think for themselves and make their own decisions. People, they believed, needed to be allowed to work out their own views about the nature of right and wrong, to make their own decisions about how they wanted to lead their lives. 

There are those who believe that by allowing people the freedom to think for themselves, the Enlightenment opened the door to moral relativism. Proponents of this view have little faith that the mass of humanity is actually capable of figuring out the truth. Most people, they believe, are actually too stupid or too morally bankrupt to arrive at the truth on their own. They need the help of “their betters.” They need authorities to tell them what to think and how to live. They are nostalgic, though few would admit this, even to themselves, for the days when there was an actual institutional repository of moral authority.

So they are trying to resurrect the ideology of the Dark Ages. Heretical ideas must be stamped out. Ridicule, rather than rational engagement, has become the weapon of choice. Anyone opposed to the tearing down of monuments is dismissed as “racist.” Analogies to the infamous “memory hole” of Nineteen Eighty-Four are simply ignored. Anyone opposed to medical mandates is dismissed as “an idiot,” an “enemy of science,” and “a threat to public health.” Analogies to the rallying cry of the pro-choice movement, “My body. My choice,” are either ignored or ridiculed as simplistic. 

Principles are no longer considered sovereign because they are themselves ignored. No coherent principles provide the foundation of the new purportedly progressive orthodoxy. Hence the failure to engage in rational argument. Rational argument exposes incoherencies. Ridicule has not merely replaced rational argument as the rhetorical weapon of choice of the purportedly enlightened; it has become obligatory. To engage in reasoned debate with “the other side” has itself become a mark of ideological treason since it exposes one to the possibility of having the paucity of one’s position revealed. One doesn’t rationally engage with heretics — one tortures them until they recant, or one burns them. 

There are disturbing signs that attacks on “heretics” may soon become literal. So far, however, the “torture” and “burning” are merely metaphorical. The torture is bullying and the burning is shunning, but the spectacle, to those of us who had believed we had left the dark ages behind, is profoundly disturbing. The irony of people who purport to be opponents of bullying in schools and workplaces engaging in bullying themselves on social media, to say nothing of the mainstream media, is obviously lost on those whose actions speak so loudly one can’t hear what they are saying about the values they purport to hold dear. 

The failure of these new apostles of rules and mandates to respect freedoms of individual conscience for views that sometimes cut along racial lines exposes that for all their purported commitment to equity and diversity they are fundamentally racist. Despite the opposition in the Black Lives Matter movement to vaccine mandates, resistance in the Black community to both the vaccines themselves and the mandates is dismissed as stemming from either ignorance or suspicion. The implications of the failure to acknowledge that this resistance may stem from a reasoned commitment to the Enlightenment ideal of individual rights and freedoms are so profoundly morally offensive I shrink from spelling them out here.

The real commitments of the new rhetorical bullies on what purports to be the progressive end of the political spectrum are, ironically, to hierarchical authority and ideological conformity. Their zealotry blinds them to the fact that their intolerance of views that diverge from their own is sowing the seeds of a brutality they will eventually be unable to control. 

A properly functioning society requires moral leaders. A moral leader is not someone who imposes a lot of rules and regulations. A moral leader is someone whose values and conduct are so admirable they inspire emulation. Rules are what societies fall back on when they are falling apart, when there is a vacuum of moral leadership. 

And when there is a vacuum of moral leadership, there is also contempt for rules.

(An earlier version of this essay appeared in the 17 September 2021 issue of Counterpunch. A kind reader wrote to correct my spelling of Greider’s name. Unfortunately, I’m unable to locate that email and hence to give them proper credit.)

2 responses

  1. This a great post M.G., thanks for writing it. We are sliding back in to the dark ages yet too few people seem aware of it, let alone are doing anything about it. Or maybe they sense something is deeply troubling in our culture of censorship and bullying, yet they don’t know what to do or can’t bring themselves to admit that they the people continually vote for are responsible for it so they busy themselves in work or vacations, etc…

    I suspect we disagree in some political areas, but I’m completely with you on the importance of free speech and self agency. Hope all is well, happy holidays!

    • Thanks for your kind words about this post. One of the really important truths that people seem to be forgetting now is that good people can, and often do, disagree on things. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean that they are wrong about everything or that they are a bad person. Happy Holidays to you as well!

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