Posts Tagged ‘Enlightenment’

What do Trump supporters and ISIS recruits have in common?

December 19, 2015

UnknownNo, it’s not a joke question. Both actually do reflect a similar dynamic: a wave of disaffection and psychological alienation. Trump supporters and ISIS recruits both feel the world isn’t working for them or respecting them. They’re rebelling against the system and its elites which they see as soft and rotten. Standing against that imparts meaning to their lives.

imagesRadical Islamists portray the West as dissolute; its freedom a lack of discipline; bereft of moral seriousness. Putinist Russian chauvinism similarly puffs its chest as morally strong as against an insipid West. And Trump (now endorsed by Putin) casts himself as a no-nonsense tough guy while our government is run by squishy fools and knaves. Comparable tropes boost similar populist movements in Europe, like France’s National Front.

images-1All this is really a rejection of fundamental rationalist Enlightenment values – the classical liberalism (not big government “liberalism”) of democracy, personal autonomy, openness, tolerance, free commerce, free inquiry and expression, and the worth and dignity of every person. Liberalism, in that classical meaning, is under assault from both left and right, having become a dirty word even among lefties who inveigh against “neoliberalism” (as though some kind of Trojan horse for a rapacious capitalism). The word has particular opprobrium in Europe (Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban pugnaciously vaunts an “illiberal state”).

Such belittling of Enlightenment values is a well-worn theme of cynical disaffected intellectuals, making all kinds of ridiculous arguments – that those values somehow fail to embody more romanticist human proclivities, or that they’ve failed altogether, that misguided rationalism even “led us straight to Auschwitz.” What rubbish.

images-2It’s all a myopic refusal to see how much those liberal Enlightenment values have changed the world, and the lives of human beings, for the better. All those disaffected fools would not have enjoyed feudal times. Nor would the Eighth Century “utopia” ISIS yearns to restore be good for Muslims; the Arab world’s problem is not modernity, but insufficient modernity with its Enlightenment values. And Trump supporters should think twice about the illiberal paranoid state their champion would introduce.

Both Trumpism and Islamic radicalism need to be opposed not just with name-calling (and, in the case of the latter, air strikes and a domestic gestapo), but with full-throated advocacy for the fundamental humanistic values those movements trash. We have to explain them, and promote them, and make them attractive, to show people why they are better than the opposing poisonous farrago of mean-eyed garbage. Humanist ideals are not mere lofty piffle. They are better, not just morally as premised on enabling as many people as possible to thrive – they are better pragmatically because they do in fact promote that goal. In the past couple of centuries, it is precisely the advance of those humanist, rationalist, liberal Enlightenment values that has made a far better world.

Is it a perfect one? Of course not. But, again, if you don’t think it’s better, get thee back to feudal times to see what a really crappy world is like. And the different world today’s anti-liberal movements seek would go in that direction.

Unknown-2This is the case that must be vigorously made. But, in particular, we have woefully failed to meet the propaganda of Islamic radicalism with an alternative narrative. Remember Radio Free Europe, during the cold war? Actively and eloquently spreading free world values, in answer to the other side’s lies. What a success that was in helping to win that war of ideas. Where, on our side, is today’s equivalent? In today’s new war of ideas, where are our verbal boots on the ground?

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The Passion of the Western Mind

August 30, 2014

UnknownThis book by Richard Tarnas is a history of Western thought. Now, yes, Eastern thought is also worthy of respect. But the Western intellectual tradition is the 800 pound gorilla, the elephant in the room, the hippo in the bathtub.

I have written about our falling down on humanities education. Tarnas presents his history as a story – the tale of how we got from Point A (the ancient Greeks) to Point B (where we are today), with hints of a further Point C. It’s actually a thrilling story – but more, it’s vital to understanding our world and its challenges.

Play-doh's Forms

Play-doh’s Forms

Tarnas says he aims to describe systems of thought “on their own terms,” without “condescension,” so that we can better understand our journey. He begins with the Greeks, notably Plato, whose theory of “forms” was a first stab at understanding the nature of reality, starting a conversation that’s never stopped.

Then comes Christianity. True to his word, Tarnas gives us Christian thought and its development straight, “on its own terms,” nonjudgmentally. images-2This takes many pages. Frankly I skimmed over much of it. However, one thing that impressed itself upon me was how impossible it was, in Europe at least, during the centuries of church domination, to break free of that influence. The Christian way of thinking was the only way of thinking.

But then the story gets good. Revolution bursts out all over. You’ve got your Renaissance. Then your Reformation. And then your scientific revolution, and your Enlightenment. It all makes the church’s head spin.

When it comes to discussing the modern intellectual paradigm – the Enlightenment of science and rationality – Tarnas lets slip his straight-faced mask of nonjudgmentalism. images-4He is downright triumphalist about how thoroughly the modern idea demolishes the older mentality grounded in religion. To read his passages on the sweeping victory of science over faith, you might think religion has slunk away, crushed and banished. This may be true in the academic groves Tarnas inhabits; but it sure ain’t true in Kansas.

Meantime, though, it wasn’t just religion having trouble with science; philosophy did too. It’s the eternal problem of epistemology:  what is true knowledge, and how can a human mind possess it? “The Crisis of Modern Science,” Tarnas calls this chapter. In particular he invokes philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922-96), and the notion that what we’ve got is not so much information as interpretation; we cannot truly know anything. And then we find sentences like this: “The aggressive exploitation of the natural environment, the proliferation of nuclear weaponry, the threat of global catastrophe – all pointed to an indictment of science, of human reason itself, now seemingly in thrall to man’s own self-destructive irrationality.”

Please. This is indeed the pessimistic post-modern mindset. But just as Tarnas was over-the-top in declaring that science had killed faith, he is even further off the mark in declaring science mortally wounded.

Unknown-1Firstly, you can bullshit all night in your dorm room over the epistemological conundrum, whether we can truly know anything – but airplanes fly (and pigs don’t). That airplanes do fly actually proves that the great corpus of modern scientific knowledge is true. Not probably true, as Kuhn might at most allow, all encrusted with qualifiers and caveats – but absolutely true, full stop. (But perhaps Professor Kuhn, believing as he did, never boarded an airplane; or did 99% of the other things modern people do, like using computers, thanks to scientific knowledge.)

As for “man’s own self-destructive irrationality,” etc., it’s undeniable that we are at least imperfectly rational and sometimes cause great harm to ourselves and others. But is that the whole picture? It’s not even most of it. The bigger picture – vastly bigger – is that, from our emergence as a species, and especially from the start of civilization, and especially in modern scientific times, we humans have increasingly utilized rationality to create societal structures and to gain knowledge to advance technologically, to give ever greater numbers ever better quality of life.

Unknown-2That’s the bigger picture. All this “self-destructive irrationality” crap makes me sick. We have not blown ourselves up with nuclear weapons. Most of us are less violent than ever (yes; see again my review of Pinker’s book). More people than ever have more food, better health, more education, and more rewarding and longer lives.* True, all this has put a strain on the planet, but rather than being irrationally self-destructive, to the contrary it’s been a rational effort to improve life. There’s no free lunch, but the price has been worth paying, and so far growing knowledge has enabled us to handle the resulting environmental challenges.

Now what about that Point C I mentioned? In the spirit of Tarnas I’ll try to present this “on its own terms.” He suggests a resolution to “the profound dualism of the modern mind” – man vs. nature, mind vs. matter, self vs. other, etc. One’s birth is an expression of a larger underlying archetypal process of moving from one paradigm to another. The newborn is expelled into a world of confusion, needing a “redemptive reunification of the individuated self with the universal matrix.” It’s not a matter of our seeking to extract knowledge from the world; rather, “the world’s truth achieves its existence when it comes to birth in the human mind.” There is a “universal unconscious” that “reflects the human mind’s radical kinship with the cosmos.” images-6This break-out is what the great Western intellectual journey has been leading toward. But so far it’s been mostly a masculine thing, and only now are we beginning to reunite our masculine and feminine. For this, “the masculine must undergo a sacrifice, an ego death.” This evolutionary drama may now be reaching its climactic stage.

Well. As Francis Urquhart, in the original House of Cards would say, “You might think that; but I could not possibly comment.”

* No doubt some lefty cynic will deride me as a blind fool. Much though such folks love to believe everything is getting worse, it just ain’t so.