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Frenzy, Females and Freedom of Expression part 1 of 3

AriseCItizens

 Part 1 of 3 in a series – Frenzy 

 

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The ferocious attack on Charlie Hebdo was symptomatic of much more than it is commonly recognized. The ongoing depredations of Boko Haram in Nigeria are even more indicative of a raging global derangement.  These brutal and dreadful actions are conspicuous examples of a ferocious reactionary war waged against the true foundations of the modern world order. While too many do not know it, all citizens of top tier nations live in a global culture that is rooted in the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason in Europe.

 

    Before the Enlightenment made its profound impact superstition and sophistry ran rampant. There was little thought to governing, but a veritable fixation on ruling. The cunning exploited the credulous to open their path to dominion. Monarchs and Theocrats variously colluded and competed for supremacy and most people were subjects rather than citizens. Gradually and imperfectly the champions of reason and naturalism pushed the clouds of ignorance away and drove the minions of might from power. 

 

    In the interval known as the Enlightenment, rationality became the predominant practice and liberty, equality, and unity became primary aspirational ideals. People became citizens and progress became the normal expectation. Constitutional governance spread first in the United States, then in France and finally in England and much of the world-spanning British Empire. This did not create a world free of problems, injustices, or threats by any means, but it allowed for a significantly different approach in response to many of longstanding flaws and failures. 

 

     While the political and economic systems in much of the world diverged farther from their traditional predecessors, the institutions, ideologies, and roles which flourished in the traditional settings did not vanish. They had been deprived of hegemony, not eradicated. The Enlightenment began in the middle of the 17th century and extended through the 18th. The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries progressively undermined the ancient geocentric conception of the cosmos, and, along with it, the entire set of traditional perspectives that had constrained and guided philosophical thinking, social mores and personal conduct. The dramatic successes of the scientific approach in explaining the natural world and devising and deploying “a relatively small number of elegant mathematical formulae” promoted philosophy, including the natural sciences, from the handmaiden of theology, to an independent and rival power able to challenge the old and conceive and commend the new. In both theory and practice, on the basis of its own principles and processes, philosophy often called natural philosophy in regard to what we now usually call science, illuminated a world hitherto cloaked in shadows and drowning incredulity. “D’Alembert, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment, characterizes his eighteenth century, in the midst of it, as “the century of philosophy par excellence”, because of the tremendous intellectual progress of the age, the advance of the sciences, and the enthusiasm for that progress.”  Furthermore, the characteristic expectation of the Enlightenment is that philosophy (in this broad sense) would dramatically improve human life and substantially resolve almost any problem. Rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism were the prevailing perspectives and processes of the Enlightenment for studying and understanding reality.

 

The principal accomplishments of the Enlightenment, however, were in the political realm. The period featured three revolutions: the English, the American, and the French from 1688 to 1799. “We owe to this period the basic model of government founded upon the consent of the governed; the articulation of the political ideals of freedom and equality and the theory of their institutional realization; the articulation of a list of basic individual human rights to be respected and realized by any legitimate political system; the articulation and promotion of toleration of religious diversity as a virtue to be respected in a well ordered society; the conception of the basic political powers as organized in a system of checks and balances; and other now-familiar features of western democracies.” Despite the success of Enlightenment political philosophy, however, it did not utterly vanquish the traditional institutions, creeds, and interests it so tellingly critiqued and so largely deposed. Therein lays the source of the threat rising in the 21st century.

 

Enlightenment political writings, built on rationalist naturalism, opposed superstition, argued for toleration and advocated the subordination of religion to the state, and favored qualified democracy. What we today call liberalism is perhaps the most characteristic political philosophy of the Enlightenment, and philosophers beginning with Spinoza are its originators. To the extent that the Enlightenment ideals succeeded civil society and civil authorities became the more powerful than ecclesiastical authorities – politics became more influential than religion.

 

Philosophers of the Enlightenment confronted the problem of ethics “on a secular, broadly naturalistic basis for the first time since the rise of Christianity eclipsed the great classical ethical systems.” Whatever good and evil were, Enlightenment theorists sought to discern and describe them in regard to this life and this world, not an afterlife and a supernatural realm. This effort also took root among the general populace to greater and lesser extents in different places. The prevailing attitude was that human reason could figure out what ethical behavior required and establish workable guidelines for all people. The combination of political and ethical theories developed during the Enlightenment pushed religious creeds and religiously based conflict off the center stage of human society.

 

 During the time since the Enlightenment ended, its legacy has slowly but unevenly advanced the ideals throughout the developed world. For much of the globe, however, there is at best a veneer of Enlightenment idealism. What we are seeing now is regression in the strongholds of the Enlightenment that concurrently opens the gates for attacks from the more benighted areas of the world. Thus, our civilization is imperiled from both without and within.  

 

The shortfalls and failings of the original Enlightenment movement provided both means and opportunities for the proponents of sophistry and superstition to launch counterattacks. In the parts of the globe conquered by the West, local populations were left to their own devices and virtual theocracies pulsated just under the surface waiting for the waning of Western dominance. Inside nations such as France, England, and America, other purveyors of sophistry and superstition waged a struggle for power against the champions of skepticism, empiricism and rationalism. In both situations, the quest of the counterattacking forces was neither knowledge, nor truth, nor understanding, but power. As political theorist, Corey Robin observes, conservatism from the 17th century to today is based on the principle, “that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others.” Robin argues that rather than being about liberty, limited government, resistance to change, or public virtue, conservatism is a “mode of counterrevolutionary practice” to preserve hierarchy and power.” While those who wage this “counterrevolutionary practice” style themselves as conservative, they are actually reactionary.

 

From their perspective, evidence, learning, knowledge, logic, and truth are all incidental and unnecessary. They believe some people should be saddled and bridled while others are booted and spurred. Their only concerns are gaining, wielding, expanding, and retaining power. They do not see all people as free and equal human beings. They see some as elect, in variously defined ways, and all others as nothing other than serfs and cannon fodder.


The struggle that never ends, but merely ebbs and flows is between those who lust to rule and those who strive to govern. While both often use the term government, they mean diametrically opposed things and wish to put the state to dramatically different ends. The reactionaries seek to use government as a weapon to protect the privileges, status, and dominance of those they believe deserve to rule. The revolutionaries seek to use government as a means to redress the injustices and inequalities in society and afford to every citizen civil rights, civil liberties, and equal protection through due process of law. The reactionaries believe might makes right and the revolutionaries believe in government through the consent of the governed.

 

In the second decade of the 21st century neither the revolutionaries nor the reactionaries are in unchallenged control. All human beings now live in a world shaped by the ideals of the revolutionaries although these ideals have been only imperfectly realized. A substantial proportion of humankind, however, either believes in or is compelled by those who believe in a starkly different set of ideals. The reactionary proportion of humanity now wages overt and covert battle against our contemporary civilization.

 

         The violent attacks unsurprisingly attract the overwhelming bulk of media attention. But these attacks have forced their way back into humanity’s experience because of steady erosion in the rationalism and civility that formed the foundation of our technological and scientific society. As Timothy Ferris states in The Science of Liberty, “Democratic governance and individual rights did not emerge from some amorphous “brew of humanistic and scientific thinking,” he argues, but were “sparked” by science itself — the crucial “innovative ingredient” that “continues to foster political freedom today.” It was this mindset so characteristic of the Enlightenment that enabled people to improve their material situations and their political institutions.

 

       Now, however, in the nations where the Enlightenment arose and flourished, sophistry, superstition, and reaction are virulent. Anything near a complete victory has not been achieved and the purveyors of irrationality, credulity, fanaticism and authoritarianism are openly hawking their wares and plying their trade. These harbingers of a New Dark Age are the political officials and candidates who treat their feelings as the best guide to public policy and who pit citizens against one another based on ethnic, religious, or other distinctions.

 

       As cases in point, consider three contentious topics in American politics today. Climate change, trickle-down economics, and health reform are all major policy disputes where facts actually do not seem to matter for one side of the controversy; for the self-styled conservative pundits, preachers, and politicians unshakable dogma reigns, across the board. In Kansas, supply-side economics was heavily implemented and it failed spectacularly. Nonetheless, the magical belief in the efficacy of tax cuts as a form of economic stimulus persists. Good news on health reform keeps coming in. It remains even more favorable than its supporters expected. The number of Americans without insurance is dropping fast, even as the growth in health care costs moderates and reactionaries continue to be as relentlessly opposed to it as they ever were. The particular issues are not as significant as the fundamentally flawed approach this sizable faction of politically Americans uses to assess them.

 

      Joseph Heath, in Enlightenment 2.0, says “conservatives have become enamored of the idea that politics is ultimately not about plans and policies, it’s about gut feelings and values. Elections are decided by appealing to people’s hearts, not their heads.” This approach is often described as “common sense conservatism.”  It elevated intuition over rational thinking, gut feeling over deliberation, and belief over knowledge. The profound problem, however, when reason and evidence are abandoned in favor cleverness and sentiment is  that there is no way to actually discern which side of a controversy is correct, which claim is true, what program is sound. This means issues are resolved through trickery or skullduggery rather than agreement based on good faith discussion and authentic understanding.  

 

       The proponents, protectors, and friends of Enlightenment ideals became complacent. They stopped striving to achieve their ideals more and more fully. Consequently, they inadvertently put millions of people at risk of disaffection, and left these same millions vulnerable to inducements from the champions of a new Dark Age. The people who attacked Charlie Hebdo and the miscreants of Boko Haram along with the fanatics of ISIS exemplify the blatantly violent Dark Agers! Neoconfederates in America and crypto-fascist parties and politicians elsewhere exemplify the genteel specimens of this horde. This creates a genuine danger to us all. If we continue to ignore these corrosive practices, civilization may deteriorate beyond our power to sustain it. For as Joseph Heath observes,  “Just as it is easier to get the toothpaste out of the tube than it is to get it back in again, it is much easier to undermine the rationality of public discourse than it is to restore it.”

 

      Despite the dramatic difference in their behaviors both the brutal and the beguiling variants of the Dark Agers are treacherous. For either variety, the ideals of the Enlightenment are seen as those of infidels, subversives, and adversaries. What must be understood is the beguiling Dark Agers pave the way for the rise and rampage of the brutal Dark Agers by muting the alarms and reducing the sentinels all along the watch tower. We must sound the alarm and mount the barricades far more than our own well-being and futures are at stake. 

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Frenzy, Females and Freedom of Expression part 1 of 3, 10.0 out of 10 based on 2 ratings
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  • John Loverti

    This essay provides a superb historical explanation of the current world political situation. Great job Larry!

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    • Larry Conley

      Thank you, John. That is what I was attempting. It truly means a lot that you think I hit the mark.

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  • jennifer kiley

    To read how the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason brought about a sensibility whereby people could become their own masters. Class still existed but the mind was recognized. In the present day that seems to have been forgotten. Reasoning rationally and resolving the issues of the world in a civilized manner appears to be slipping away and we are reverting back to the days of barbarism.

    A Great Piece. Onto part 2 next. All should study what you write. It shows a clarity and would bring about an understanding of where we came from and where we are and where we are headed. It doesn’t look good in reality. I hope change and a new Enlightenment and Age of Reason awakens this planet once again. Jennifer

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    • Larry Conley

      Jennifer,

      Your insight and thoughtful commentary are truly treasured by me. The Enlightenment and Age of Reason accomplished much, but as we both know, much remains and the victories were not final. With whatever time I have left and however I can, I will be championing the renewal of these movements and the drive to finish what our eighteenth century predecessors began.

      Thanks again,

      Larry

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