Friday, March 3, 2017

From Whence Comes the Threat?

David Brooks often writes erudite columns for the New York Times and has recently written a piece based on a lecture he attended on the period in history known as the Enlightenment. He discusses a number of interesting aspects of the lecture in his column but one in particular that caught my eye had to do with how we today seem to be abandoning the tradition of open inquiry and skepticism toward authority we inherited from Enlightenment thinkers.

He writes:
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. He goes on to explain how the American Founding Fathers incorporated these ideas into our foundational documents and how those ideas gradually became accepted globally.
In the 20th century, however, anti-Enlightenment movements emerged:
Amid the collapse of the old regimes during World War I, the Marxists attacked the notion of private property. That brought us Lenin, Stalin and Mao. After the failures of Versailles, the Nietzscheans attacked the separation of powers and argued that power should be centralized in the hands of society’s winners, the master race. This brought us Hitler and the Nazis.
Brooks then veers away from the lecture and adds his own thoughts.
I’d add that anti-Enlightenment thinking is also back in the form of Donald Trump, racial separatists and the world’s other populist ethnic nationalist movements.

Today’s anti-Enlightenment movements don’t think truth is to be found through skeptical inquiry and debate. They think wisdom and virtue are found in the instincts of the plain people, deep in the mystical core of the nation’s or race’s group consciousness.

Today’s anti-Enlightenment movements believe less in calm persuasion and evidence-based inquiry than in purity of will. They try to win debates through blunt force and silencing unacceptable speech.
Whether Brooks is correct in what he says in his first sentence or not he's surely right about what he says in the rest, but he fails to note that the traits he espies in the groups he mentions in the first sentence are also commonplace elsewhere along the ideological spectrum.

Anyone in the academy, for example, who fails to toe the Darwinian line on evolution or bend the knee to the dogma that anthropogenic climate change is "settled science," can expect professional opprobrium or worse. Skeptical inquiry and debate are not welcomed on these topics by a large percentage of intellectuals at many of our institutions of higher learning nor by many ideologues in our government.

Moreover, anyone who speaks on campus without paying proper obeisance to progressive shibboleths about race, gender or even Israel can forget about being engaged by their opponents with "calm persuasion and evidence-based inquiry." And anyone who offends the enforcers of political correctness on our campuses knows what it's like to be silenced and to have "blunt force" brought to bear on their "unacceptable speech." A recent example is the treatment accorded noted sociologist Charles Murray by students at Middlebury College who shouted him off the stage as he tried to give a lecture. As an aside, I wonder how many of those "protestors" who were so outraged over Murray speaking at their campus ever read any of his books.

In any case, there may well be a threat to the Enlightenment tradition of open inquiry and debate arising among nationalists and Trump supporters (though I think it's a little premature to conclude much about this), but we've already had decades of experience of the rejection of these values by the left, and it's a bit surprising that Brooks doesn't mention it.

He closes with this:
We live in a time when many people have lost faith in the Enlightenment habits and institutions. I wonder if there is a group of leaders who will rise up and unabashedly defend this project, or even realize that it is this fundamental thing that is now under attack.
Quite so, but knowing whereat the most serious challenge lies is the necessary first step in addressing the problem. If people like David Brooks think the gravest threat to the Enlightenment intellectual tradition currently comes solely or even mostly from the alt-right or Donald Trump then the Enlightenment project in this country is indeed in very deep trouble.