And now for something topical about the rationalizations used by those who either despise - or don't 'get" - the Enlightenment...
This week's Senate imbroglio - featuring efforts by the majority to bypass a democratic filibuster of administration judiciary appointments - can be viewed as yet another front in the Great Big War Against Modernity.
On a purely political basis, this entire stance is simply stupid. Even George F. Will has complained that the GOP position seems to assume there will never again be a democratic president, with a democratic Senatorial majority. Under those circumstances, would not republicans wish for a way to stymie the worst, most doctrinaire and ideological court appointments? A method to force some kind of negotiation and compromise, or at least respect for the views of a large and strong-willed minority?
Either their sense of history is extremely myopic... or else they think they know something that we don't know, about the political shape of our future. (Ponder this paragraph at leisure, till that last remark makes sense. And shiver.)
But let's consider this issue at a more abstract level. In a very general sense, what we are seeing is one party - claiming justification based on a slim electoral majority - asserting that they thereupon have a sweeping mandate to rule without negotiation or compromise.
Let's break up that last sentence. One of the great, consistent patterns of human governance, seen in nearly all cultures, has been a tendency for some group to claim justification based on __________, and thereupon assert that they have a mandate to rule without negotiation or compromise.
Fill in the blank. What justifications were used by past ruling groups?
Rationalizations ranged from royal divine right to the verdict of the battlefield, all the way to some inherent, logical superiority of "philosopher kings." Often these excuses were articulated with great care and passion by clever, nerdy fellows - by priests, wizards, or court ideologues, who thereby won the privilege of hanging around real power - the big fellows who got their swords, or vast estates, or trust funds mostly the old-fashioned way. By inheritance.
Instead we have allowed arm-waving romantic rationalizers to distract us with a myriad details and fast-talking incantations. Theologians and Marxist theoreticians. Aryan mystics and Hegelian dialecticians. Machiavelli, Confucius, Rand, Mao, Strauss and all their ilk wove verbal spells to justify the use of raw power by those who already had it - or soon intended to get it - free of any obligation to negotiate with those who might suggest alternative methodologies of statecraft.
I mean, really, were the Communist theoreticians who justified a narrow clique of Party Nomenklatura families any different from the churchmen who preached in support of the slavocracy in the Old South, or the Social Darwinists who wove excuses for robber barons in the 1890s?
This commonality keeps being obscured by a bewildering storm of particulars. Which, of course, serves the common interest of their Ideologist Guild.
Alas, we keep buying into one or another of these trips. Take the latest version: majority rule.
Now, please. Let me avow that majority rule is vastly better than any previous political oversimplification. Indeed, it began as a reform generated by the Enlightenment, won at great cost, overcoming desperate opposition by every kind of social elite. In other words, majority rule was better than minority rule. (But is there something even better still?
No quasi-mystical catch phrase ever contained more essential wisdom than the one asserting that states derive their legitimate powers from "consent of the governed."
But what does 'consent' mean? Majority rule helps guarantee against the worst kinds of tyranny - those featuring iron-fist repression by a truly narrow, unaccountable and coercive elite. Hence, if we ever do have a dictatorship, it will cover the fist with silken gloves, and suffer great lengths to convince us that "we" (the majority) voted for it.
Moreover, majorities can also be manipulated. Whether based on ethnic, religious, sexual, lifestyle or political differences, it is easy to create a sense of "us" and "them". Such distinctions can be leveraged through propaganda, as Hitler used his campaign against Jews, gypsies and other minorities, to mobilize large portions of Germany, both before and after the election of 1933.
Consider the statement above. "Such distinctions can be leveraged through propaganda" to manipulate majority opinion. Are we immune? And by "we" I mean even we modernists? (If you do not ever doubt or question yourself, you do not belong on this list. Go away. Now.)
Are "modernists" immune to propaganda? No! We are human and thus can be swayed. Indeed, for most of our lives we have been subjected to "pro-enlightenment propaganda" in the greatest indoctrination campaign of all time!
Some of you have heard my riff on this, many times. But it bears repeating. So, next time we will talk about Enlightenment Propaganda... how effective it has been... and why this very success may be the reason why the romantics are now fighting back so hard.
Continue to: Part II: The Propaganda of the Enlightenment
or: The Myth of Majority Rule Part III
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A couple of science notes that you'll find amusing, in light of some of my novels...
*Augmenting the Animal Kingdom Wired News May. 3, 2005 **James Auger in his controversial new book, Augmented Animals, envisions animals, birds, reptiles and even fish using specially engineered gadgets to help them overcome their evolutionary shortcomings. He imagines rodents zooming around with night-vision survival goggles, squirrels hoarding nuts using GPS locators and fish armed with metal...
*Chimeras on the Horizon, but Don't Expect Centaurs New York Times May 3, 2005 *** If research on human embryonic stem cells ever gets going, people will be hearing a lot more about chimeras, creatures composed of more than one kind of cell. Such creations -- of pigs with human hearts, monkeys with human larynxes -- are likely to be unsettling to...
*A journalist tracks down the source of a claim, often cited by
greenhouse denialists, that most of the glaciers in the world are
growing: This one is very important!