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Saturday, December 08, 2012

Are the lights going out?

I had a different topic in mind for this morning, but a series of new stories has moved me in a different direction. The United States is threatened in the medium and long term by the betrayal of, literally, its oldest traditions. The Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution were products of the Enlightenment idea that human reason could combine logic and the study of mankind to make a better and fairer world. Huge numbers of Americans, including many of the richest and most powerful, now reject that assumption, and it is becoming harder and harder to base public policy upon it.

The immediate trigger of this thought was Charles Blow's New York Times column this morning, which discusses the prevalence--or dominance--of creationism among Republicans. Republican presidential candidates can no longer categorically deny that dinosaurs and human beings co-existed on the earth. (I wonder how the evangelicals who hold to this position explain the Bible's failure to mention dinosaurs; perhaps some one can, for want of a better word, enlighten me.) Bobby Jindhal, the governor of Louisiana, says Republicans have to come across as the "smart" party, but he signed a voucher law allowing Louisiana children to attend religious schools where they would learn, among other things, that the Loch Ness monster was real, with the help of state money. (This has been a long-standing dream of red state evangelicals, but thankfully, a Louisiana court has struck it down.) Meanwhile the Republican propaganda machine has convinced most of its followers that Christianity, rather than the Enlightenment, was the inspiration for the early Republic, a position that has no historical support whatever. The Founders lived in an Anglo-American society in which religion had been declining in importance for the better part of a century, and the founding generations were among the least religious in American history. That is why they produced a Declaration of Independence that refers only an an anonymous "Creator" and a Constitution that does not mention any higher power at all. They also had a very deep empirical bent, and designed the Constitution to reflect the lessons of the British experience, while trying to include safeguards against the tyranny which they believed the British Constitution had allowed the King to impose.

More serious at this moment is the Republican's denial of economic realities, which has become far more influential. Empirical evidence, as I pointed out not long ago, overwhelmingly indicates that higher economic growth is correlated with higher marginal tax rates on high incomes, not lower ones. In order to get out of the deep recession we are still in the government has to spend more money, not less. It does not serve the interests of society as a whole to allow certain favored individuals to accumulate unlimited fortunes. Securities markets need tight regulation to prevent recurrent financial crises. The economy can't prosper if wages are forced downward to levels that leave earners with nothing to spend. Yet the Republican Party and most of the supposed "bipartisan establishment" now denies all these clearly established facts, and the federal budget will indeed be cut over the next few weeks. The only issue is how much. Government spending, clearly the best cure for the recession, has been defined as bad--end of story. One reason the Republicans get away with this is that the press has decided that news reports are not supposed to reflect the views of reporters. The press, which is of course losing much of its circulation and influence, decided some time ago that its job is to report what both sides say. The press subsidizes a certain number of highly educated and intelligent men and women to write for the public--but does not allow them to use their own brains. We all suffer as a result.

Another indication of the decline of rationalism was the extraordinary news that Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, perhaps the leading reactionary in the whole Senate, is going to quit his seat and become the head of the Heritage Foundation. I still can't quite understand why he would do this, but it seems that he hopes to turn it into the Tea Party's propaganda ministry. The Heritage Foundation has always been conservative but it began with serious intellectual pretensions, and 23 years ago it came up with one rather interesting idea: an individual mandate that would require all Americans to buy health insurance. That, needless to say, is no longer part of its playbook.

But the problem is by no means all on the right. The other day I was perusing, on line, the tables of contents of recent issues of the American Historical Review. I discovered this summary of the lead article in the most recent issue:

In "Enlightenment in Global History: A Historiographical Critique," Sebastian Conrad notes that narratives of the Enlightenment, even those that place it in a global context, have remained deeply Eurocentric, assuming that Enlightenment was generated in Europe alone and then gradually diffused around the world. In this article, he argues for a thorough revision of this dominant view. Drawing on recent scholarship, Conrad recasts the history of Enlightenment as a history of global conjunctures. This perspective allows us to recognize the transnational generation of Enlightenment ideas in the late eighteenth century, when debates spanned the Atlantic and beyond and involved a multitude of authors and contributors. This was also true for the nineteenth century, when "Enlightenment" began to be invoked by social actors throughout Asia. Conrad insists that this long history of the Enlightenment should not be reduced to a history of European origins and subsequent dissemination. Instead, he argues that claims to Enlightenment were literally coproduced by historical actors from a variety of locations in their attempt to think globally and to come to terms with the challenges of an integrating world. By thus rethinking the spatiality and temporality of the global Enlightenment, he invites us to de-center debates about Enlightenment universalism.

Now the editors of that venerable journal are getting more and more protective of their content in direct proportion to the general interest that content offers the public, and the full text of the article is not available on line. Clearly, however, it is one of literally thousands of pieces of contemporary scholarship designed to undermine the idea that Europe (and its settler colonies in North America and elsewhere) created modern civilization, which the rest of the world then adopted. What has happened in university education as a result was detailed in a fascinating article by Ricardo Duchesne, "The World Without Us," which appeared three years ago in the iconoclastic journal Academic Questions and which can be downloaded here. Over the last thirty years western civilization has generally been replaced as the basic historical survey by world history, and world history is usually the story of the exploitation and destruction of other cultures by the West. I would suggest that a historical profession that focuses on the harm done by the Enlightenment, or on manufactured debates about where it originated, will not be able to tell its students very much about the principles of the Enlightenment and their application. Both the right and the left, in short, have been assaulting the Enlightenment for some time. Only in western Europe--its original home--does it apparently remain the basis of public policy.

I still have not finished a book I've mentioned here several times, Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind, which shows how the rationalism of Greece and Rome retreated into the background during the early Christian era, not to become intellectually dominant again for many centuries. It is beginning to look as though the period from the 17th through most of the 20th centuries marked a similar high tide of rationalism, one which produced far greater achievements. Yet it is not clear that that era will endure too much longer. What has happened before can happen again.


Bozon said...

Great topics.

Refer, if you like, in these contexts, to some of Collins' comments in The Sociology of Philosophies, on the Enlightenment, and some of its less well known tendencies to subvert then existing academic dimensions and clerical institutions of Renaissance society, especially Catholic ones, based on Enlightenment anti-clericalism; eg pb p. 649.

All the best,

Skimpole said...

One of the problems I have with this blog is that it keeps complaining about contemporary American historiography without really engaging with it. There's a recent synthesis on postwar American history by Joshua Freeman called "American Empire: The rise of a Global Power, the democratic revolution at home, 1945-2000" I'd be interested in what you think of it.