NEWFANE — Let's begin with what the Age of Enlightenment was. It was a time when objective thought, science and math, reason and structure, and evidence-based conclusions were a radical departure from the previous world of the tyranny of belief systems as the sole authority in one's life.
The hope was that humanity had a reset, a more productive path toward understanding the world and creating a better civilization. And for a while, the premise seemed to make good on its promise. But then came the opposition.
Whenever anything is set up, especially if it is good, it will generate an opposition. An example of this principle: the difference between Voltaire and Rousseau.
Voltaire, a classic case of an age of enlightenment thinker, and Rousseau, the back-to-nature, romantic-age, get-into-your-feelings-and-let-your-animal-instincts-guide-your-life counterculturist.
Still, science, once established, is a hard thing to kill. Civilization was on the move. The idea that people, rather than kings or popes, could direct their own affairs found form in the birth of the United States.
* * *
While incomplete in its origins, our new country's governmental structure contained the mechanisms to self-correct and move toward a more perfect union.
These mechanisms presumed that people, given the chance, would base their actions on enlightened self-interest. That is to say, they would give up some of their narrow self-interest for something that benefited them longer-term. They would pay taxes to get their snow removed, garbage collected, or live in a safe and ordered society while enjoying the fruits of freedom.
There was one more dimension: education. Daniel Webster was the father of publicly funded education based on the idea that people could be more supportive of true democracy if they were knowledgeable.
The other presumption of our founders was that people would work in their own best interest - that is to say, they would support those principles that helped them and would oppose those things that would not.
This has not turned out to be true.
* * *
So welcome to the age of un-enlightenment. Objective thought, science, and conclusions based on evidence is out the window. A return to beliefs over facts, power plays over collective cooperation, thuggery over good manners, and obsessive focus on identity in the form of nationalism has proven that humanity has a deeply corrupt dark side that is self-destructive.
For those who count themselves among the un-enlightened, truth, evidence, scientific thought, intelligence, social consciousness, and trying to help your neighbor is out.
Now, the rule is never apologize when you are wrong.
Instead, double down on your claims. Ignore reality. Look for symbols of membership - who is in and who is out.
And, with the type of cultlike behavior that would make a Scientologist blush, subscribe to the craziest conspiracy theories while, at the same time, positioning yourself as a victim of the “elites.”
* * *
Here's the thing. If we forget about politics for a moment, and if we just think clearly and structurally, we can see there are some collective needs that we can do alone and others we can't.
What we can't do on our own leads us to join with others. If the outcomes we are trying to create are clear, and if we understand current reality, we can figure out strategies to accomplish our common goals.
This was the original idea behind Massachusetts and Pennsylvania being called “commonwealths.”
As a mental experiment, imagine for a moment that we, throughout the world, could join on behalf of common interests. How quickly could we build something great, grand, and noble?
I know. That can't possibly happen.
* * *
The practical is defeated by the philosophical. If you don't have a belief system and you simply enter into the pure creative process, fantastic things could happen.
But if you introduce a philosophical notion of how it has to be, that introduces an opposition of those who have different opinions and who, in the extreme, are mortal enemies.
In the more subtle, these opponents become obstacles who need to be defeated and overcome.
There could be a productive dialogue between liberals and conservatives about how best to organize collective action on behalf of society. That type of dialogue is impossible in the age of un-enlightenment.
* * *
I know that anything I write here is irrelevant to the political and social dynamics we now live in. We are forced to fight with one another. We have little chance if we can no longer agree about reality.
But isn't that the point? It's the real Orwellian 1984, in which truths are lies, and lies are truths. Up is down, and down is up. The person who got more votes loses, and the person who got fewer votes wins.
And those who try to defend speaking truth and facts based on clear evidence are treated with vicious hostility.
Perhaps this cycle will run its course, spin out, be outgrown by a new generation happy to revolt against their parents' stupidities.
But what kind of damage might happen before the fever breaks?