Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Our Failed Enlightenment

The great American experiment in democracy owes a lot to the 18th century European Enlightenment. The results of the experiment are not terribly inspiring.  Progress and enlightenment were possible, Thomas Paine proclaimed.  The road to 18th century enlightenment was paved with belief in reason, material science, and secular government. All good, no doubt. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin saw by the same light. So what happened?

The forward march of material science has undoubtedly shaped American life, making us masters of the Earth and its resources.  Empires have been built, wars fought, and vast wealth created.  The ideas of the philosophes propelled American history forward, all in line with our vaunted Manifest Destiny. 

But the Enlightenment was also supposed to trend toward liberty and equality, idealizing brotherly love.  The American civil war was proof of something quite the opposite of brotherly love.  There was nothing humane or enlightened about the North and the South heroically slaughtering each other.  And given that racist pathology lives on in America today, although Enlightenment tolerance has made some headway, we’re a long way from realizing that ideal.      

Are we in spirit a country of brotherly love?  Sometimes. But Americans also like to shoot themselves and each other to death about 92 times a day or roughly 33 thousand times a year.  Brotherly love, sure, but I wonder how the people of Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. feel about our gun worship and near silent complicity in endless war.   

The subjective side of enlightenment, what Jefferson called the “pursuit of happiness” was also part of the founder’s vision.  But the picture from the subjective side in America today is pretty dismal.  The nation is depressed, anxious, suicidal, and caught up in a killer opioid epidemic, knowingly created by big Pharma.  More people are dying every year in America from this capitalist con than perished in the entire  Vietnam War.

America is not only supposed to be enlightened but also a Christian nation.  Would Jesus stand square with the NRA or with the sea of corpses caused by gun violence?  Or the endless wars that depend on all that weaponry we make, sell, and use daily?  Is it Christian to grovel before the idol of the Gun?  To sacrifice whomever is necessary for the sake of the Gun?  That sounds like the religion of Moloch, not of gentle Jesus.

The Enlightenment was supposed to lead to a more peaceful world.  But reason and material science have not created a peaceful world.  On the contrary, reason and material science are repeatedly used with murderous efficiency in fighting wars, oppressing and snooping on people, and in the big business of building empires.  America was the first nation in world history to use atom bombs for the mass annihilation of civilian populations—perhaps so far the most unChristian single act in the history of the world. 

Reason, god of the Enlightenment, is an efficient servant.  The technology of espionage, surveillance, and weaponry of enormous destructive power are constantly evolving, consuming the wealth of the nation whose infrastructure is crumbling and environment is increasingly unprotected.

America leads the world in arms production and sales.  The U.S. spends more on military technology than all the nations of the world combined.  That one country should have become the lone “super” power is counter to the way history should be unfolding, according to Enlightenment ideas of our forefathers.

Reason and the democratic fruits of our labor were supposed to empower the whole of society, not a tiny fraction of money-mad sociopaths.  Progress was supposed to gravitate toward justice, not toward the gross inequities witnessed everywhere today.  America has slipped from a once viable democracy; money has poisoned the heart and soul of our democracy.    

Enlightenment?  Look with a clear eye: the country has moved from the founding holocaust of native America and black slavery to the present state of permanent war.  Nor is it a sign of Enlightenment to create an apocalyptic climate crisis and then deny there’s a problem?

Science and technology have been co-opted by the uncivil and the unenlightened.
The European Enlightenment has left us high and dry, or maybe the converse, we have betrayed its ideals. Emphasis has been on material progress, which has benefitted the few, certainly not the many. The ideals of the Enlightenment have failed in large part to be realized except in part and for relatively small minorities.  Their success has been on the backs of slaves and from behind the barrel of a gun.  

We need a new kind of Enlightenment that goes deeper than lip-service to freedom and justice and beyond the selfish ideals of consumerism.


Anonymous said...

I will NEVER care one whit what any Euro-colonial, not Franklin nor Jefferson, said about the supposed "founding" of America. This country was "founded upon" the genocide of millions of Native Americans, and the theft of their land. That genocide wasn't just a misunderstanding, the result of conflicting cultures. It was murder from the beginning, and it will end by murdering the entire world in the near future.

Europeans haven't lived within their moral or material limits since Charlemagne in the 8th century. Western Europeans have overrun the entire planet, with a the notable exception of China, but they held Hong Kong for 150 years, as the British did also in India. As we all know, Gandhi is famous for getting rid of them.

Hundreds of millions of indigenous people in the Western hemisphere, in Africa, in all the Polynesian islands, in Australia (only 6% of the aboriginal people survived in Australia), in New Zealand, and everywhere Western Europeans have invaded were slaughtered in genocides that lasted CENTURIES. Theft of land and resources continues to this day. Indigenous children were still being stolen and either adopted out to non-Native families or sent to boarding schools where they were frequently abused, as late as 1978!

It is more than our so-called enlightenment that failed. This culture isn't reality based. It's based in humanistic hubris. The entire society would fall apart in an instant if not for its deep and abiding violence as a way of being and relating to the rest of all creation.

Other societies have evil people. This is an evil, predatory society. And Euro-colonial people cannot see it. The brainwashing must become hardwired, or something, because Euro-colonial people are impenetrable when it comes to understanding the horrific destructiveness of their cultures. The entitlement is too deep and pervasive, and it will be the end of everything.

Anonymous said...

The fact is this: the Earth could NEVER take how this materialistic society wants to live on it. I have studied and followed environmental science since the 60s. Indigenous cultures around the world had it figured out. Despite the contempt from westerners for them, and numerous lies to the contrary, indigenous people everywhere were very sophisticated philosophically, and especially biologically. They had profound understanding of their environments, the plant life, the animals, the waters, the complex and multi-layered cycles of all these things, and the inter-dependence of the whole on all its parts, and each part on the whole.

Western Europeans had literally trashed their own environment by the middle ages. They had felled most of their great forests, exterminated their large predators, and had already fouled their waters with human and animal waste by the year 1100, and they had the communicable diseases and plagues to show for it, too.

Nothing about this entire way of life was ever sustainable. It cannot be salvaged, nor made right, either. There are no fixes for the unreality of western destruction. If there were, we really, really needed to apply them at least 60 years ago. The unfolding climate holocaust will be the only thing to put an end to it, I believe.

Fortunately, I don't believe this world is all there is to reality.

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