I’ve been vacationing for a couple of weeks on a Great Lake, swimming, sailing, hitting the local tourist attractions, and reading books on the Enlightenment . On vacation I deliberately try to avoid the news (so I don’t spoil it playing tiny violins after reading sad tales like this one), but somehow I ended up reading a summary account of rabble-rousers and their roused rabble at town hall meetings about health care reform, and the contrast between that and my reading left me feeling depressed.
It was Voltaire, I think, (or perhaps Diderot) who wrote that violent resistance to arguments just meant you were too stupid to form arguments. We have seen this playing out around the country, with right-wing professional idiots (leaders?) encouraging their followers to shout, disrupt proceedings, deliberately avoid debate, and all the other tactics of the stupid and inarticulate in the face of calm reason. The irony is that these leaders and their followers seem to think of themselves as "conservatives" of some kind, but it’s not at all clear what they want to conserve other than the wealth and power of private insurance companies. They certainly don’t seek the ordered liberty so beloved of some who deem themselves conservatives. I’ve long speculated that there aren’t really any conservatives in America anyway. There are only variations of reactionary against the Enlightenment ideals of the founding.
Historians of conservatism–e.g., Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Jerry Muller–often trace the beginnings of conservatism in the English-speaking world to Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the Revolution in France (though Anthony Quinton goes further back to Bolingbroke, if I remember correctly). Burke himself, though, was a beacon of tolerance and reason compared to aggressive soldiers of the Counter-Enlightenment like Joseph de Maistre. A clubbable man and friend of Adam Smith and a supporter of the American War of Independence such as Burke couldn’t have been otherwise. As the title and movement of conservatism were born and spreading through Europe, it made some sense. The conservatives were trying to conserve, or at least to resurrect, an older regime of authoritarian political and religious order that was actively under assault from Enlightenment values such as liberty, equality, toleration, reason, education, and individual rights against the state.
In America, such a tradition makes little sense, despite Kirk’s heroic efforts to give American reactionaries an historical tradition. America was the first country founded upon Enlightenment values. Granted, Americans themselves have rarely in the mass lived up to those values, and the history of America is to some extent the development of these enlightened values over the darker forces of our nature for two hundred years. No one with eyes to see could say that America is a perfectly enlightened or tolerant country, but without a doubt the enlightened values of the founding have slowly found favor with a greater percentage of the population. Those Americans resisting the ideals of reasoned discussion and debate, toleration for the Other, individual rights, liberty, equality, and education are thus not conservatives, but reactionaries. They don’t wish to conserve or even resurrect a fallen order, but to impose darkness on the land.
To give some substance to these musings, let’s briefly examine two figures of the Enlightenment who are in stark contrast to the shouting rabble and their beloved leaders in the recent meetings: Immanuel Kant and Adam Smith.
Kant wrote a late essay called "What is Enlightenment?" that summarized some of his views. For Kant, enlightenment meant throwing off the self-imposed shackles of leaders and having the courage to use your own reason to make decisions. The motto is sapere aude, or "dare to know." Enlightened people educate themselves, use their reason, and challenge irrational authority. They are not looking to be lead. The unenlightened desire to be led. They want people to tell them what to believe about important issues–about God, religion, ethics, politics. The unenlightened take on faith, for example, the literal truths of religious texts because they have been told to do so and have rarely had more faith in their own capacity for reason than in the word of another. This is not to say the unenlightened are stupid, though sometimes they are. This is merely to say they are unreasonable. Many of them wouldn’t object to this at all. Recall Tertullian’s famous defense of his Christian belief: Credo quia absurdum est–I believe because it is absurd. De Maistre and other figures of counter-Enlightenment were no different. For them, reason is not a primary value.
In the current debates, as in so many others in the country, we see this playing out. We see people who want to be led, who take their marching orders from radio and television entertainers like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, or from others hidden inside various advocacy groups. They don’t reason, they don’t dare to know. They certainly don’t balk at the irrational and foolish. They’re encouraged to become part of a mob and they do it in an attempt to forestall any rational debate by any side in the discussion. I heard one woman interviewed on the radio who claimed that she opposed a public health plan because she didn’t want her health care decisions made by "some bureaucrat." Regardless of one’s position in this debate, this response–no doubt fed to her by someone leading her on–is absurd. If she has health insurance now, who does she think is making decisions about her coverage but some bureaucrat, and, what’s more, a bureaucrat with an eye on the profit margin of her insurance company rather than the needs of her health. An enlightened person would say, oppose or defend whatever you wish, but at least have intelligent reasons for doing so.
It’s a more curious contrast with Adam Smith, a mainstay of the Scottish Enlightenment and one of the most misunderstood writers of contemporary times. In this country, Adam Smith has the reputation of being an absolutely laissez-faire economist, totally dedicated to the "invisible hand," opposed to government, a friend of the capitalist class and an implied enemy of those who find themselves losers in a perfectly free market. Both right and left have this illusion of Smith. Rich financiers in the Reagan years supposedly sported ties with Adam Smith’s image, thinking he was one of their kind. Leftists are seldom any better. I once had a strange interaction with a fellow library school student, a socialist of sorts with an M.A. in history, who saw me reading The Wealth of Nations. The student refused to read Smith "because he was a capitalist," thus demonstrating his own lack of enlightenment. He’d been told all he needed to know by some professor or pundit, and relinquished faith in his own power to educate himself and make reasonable judgments based on his own knowledge.
Adam Smith was a defender of what he called the "system of natural liberty," and he did indeed describe and defend the division of labor and free trade that undeniably builds wealth in nations. However, he was not necessarily a friend of the capitalist or an opponent of government, as anyone who has ever bothered to read Smith would know. Does this quote from the Wealth of Nations surprise you?
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.
Does this sound like a friend of the rapacious capitalist? What else are lobbyists and business interest groups but conspiracies against the public? Cabals dedicated to their own interest at the expense of the common good? Or this argument against mercantilism:
Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer. The maxim is so perfectly self-evident that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it. But in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and commerce.
How many of our laws, regulations, and subsidies are truly dedicated to protection of the individual and unorganized consumers, and how many to the protection of organized business interests, i.e., the producers? Whose interests are at stake in the current debate, and whose interests are getting the most attention in the media–the consumers of health care or the producers of it? What would Adam Smith the consumer advocate have to say about the shenanigans of the insurance industry?
Despite my commentary on the health care debate here, it’s not health care or the debate as such that interests me so much as the mob tactics associated with it. We have right wing pundits and entertainers calling President Obama a Nazi while encouraging the sort of mob politics the Nazis themselves used to such great effect. In this case, the end of enlightenment is the rise of the ochlocracy, or "rule of the mob." We’ve had people who might otherwise be intelligent and productive citizens showing up at meetings shouting so that others might not be heard. They’ve been acting like Yahoos, another creation of an eighteenth-century writer. In Gulliver’s travel to the land of the Houyhnhnms he encounters creatures he takes to be humans by their appearance, but finds after watching them they’re little more than bestial savages. Watching roused rabble scream and shout affirms Jonathan Swift’s belief that humans aren’t rational animals, but only animals capable of reason.
This disturbs me as a human and as a citizen, but also professionally. American reactionaries, wherever they have power, try to defund education and any other public good. They would rather send a harmless pot-smoker to prison than a smart poor person to college. With no responsible voices on the political right speaking out against the disruptive mobs, does this mean they support the rise of ochlocracy?
There are mobs of every political stripe, as history has shown, but I’m more concerned professionally by right-wing than left-wing mobs. Left-wing mobs have a tendency to destroy commercial property (as in the WTO protests in Seattle a decade ago) or else just appropriate it (as with most left-wing revolutions). I don’t have any commercial property, and am unlikely to acquire any, so that doesn’t affect me as directly. Right-wing mobs have a tendency to attack institutions of education rather than of commerce. They don’t like book-learning, but they do like book-burning.
The Right has been working hard for a couple of decades to reduce the funding of higher education, and thus make it more difficult for poor, or even the middle class, to afford college. This is insidious destruction of a society of educated and thus often critical citizens. With the active encouragement of people to join mobs and shout down opponents, and the lack of right-winge opposition to demagogic voices, how big a leap is it to imagine mobs being encouraged not just to shout down politicians they don’t like, but to start burning books and such at public rallies? If the reactionary leaders don’t like reasoned debate, how long before they direct the mobs against the the institutions most dedicated to reason and debate–our colleges and universities?
Does this seem far-fetched? Perhaps. On the other hand, one right-wing entertainer with millions of followers is ignorant or stupid enough to compare those who believe in equal rights with women to Nazis. It’s not like we aren’t living amidst millions of loud, ignorant bigots. I see no difference in principle in demagogues encouraging their followers to disrupt peaceful meetings and encouraging them to besiege libraries or disrupt the activities of teaching and learning at institutions of higher education. Both involve resistance to enlightenment, the denial of reason, and the embrace of dark, unruly passions.