The age of Enlightenment seems to be over.
An excellent British author Francis Wheen has written a humorous yet very serious book on how enlightenment has lost out to what he calls ?mumbo jumbo among most people.
In his book ?How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World A Short History of Modern Delutions? He demonstrates how widespread this is. Comparing the presidents back 200 years ago with the ones running in the election of 2000 he notes:
?In the American presidential election of 1800, John Adams stood against his old friend Thomas Jefferson, also happened to be a contest between two men who were, at the time, the president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the president of the American Philosophical Society. The historian Henry May described this as `a coincidence very unlikely ever to be repeated in American politics', and his prediction looks increasingly solid. Exactly two centuries later, the main contenders for the presidency were George W. Bush, a genial chump, and Al Gore, a moderately intelligent liar and influence-peddler ? a choice summarized by one British newspaper as `Dumbo vs. Pinocchio'.
The contrast between 1800 and 2000 went further than mere intellectual power and integrity. Adams and Jefferson, though flawed and complex characters, were both major figures of the American Enlightenment who believed that what the Europeans had merely imagined was being realized and fulfilled in the New World. Many of the European philosophers of the late eighteenth century thought so too: to the Marquis de Condorcet, America was of all nations `the most enlightened, the freest and the least burdened by prejudices'; Diderot saw it as `offering all the inhabitants of Europe an asylum against fanaticism and tyranny'. Tom Paine described the cause of America as `the cause of all mankind', since political or clerical aristocracies would hold no sway in a state founded on secular reason and equal opportunity. Two hundred years later, the candidates Gore and Bush were respectively the son of a president and the son of a senator. (The one serious and substantial contender, Ralph Nader, was excluded from the televised debates and largely ignored by the mainstream media, perhaps for fear that he might show up his rivals as a couple of bozos. Liberal Democrats warned potential Nader supporters that unless they voted for Gore as `the lesser of two evils' they would be responsible for letting Bush into the Oval Office, a counsel of despair and desperation likened by the columnist Alexander Cockburn to `a man on a raft facing the decision of whether to drink seawater or his own urine'.)?
How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, page 106-7.
In America the ?ground? seem to be more ?fertile? then ever before regarding sheer superstition and incredible stupidity.:
?But loopiness is not confined to senior common rooms. In their assault on reason, the post-modernists had far more allies than perhaps even they had realised. A Gallup poll in June 1993 found that only 11 per cent of Americans accepted the standard secular account of evolution, that `human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process'; 35 per cent thought that humans evolved over millions of years, but with divine guidance; and 47 per cent maintained that `God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so' ? the creation story as told in the Book of Genesis. Other polls at about the same time discovered that 49 per cent of Americans believed in demonic possession, 36 per cent in telepathy and 25 per cent in astrology; and that no fewer than 68 per cent approved of creationism being taught in biology classes. By then, however, few of creationism's advocates actually used the word any more. `Religious America is awakening,' President Reagan had announced jubilantly in 1980, shortly before the states of Arkansas and Louisiana passed Bills obliging public schools to teach creationism in science lessons. But the laws were struck down by the Supreme Court, which ruled that because creationism was indeed a religious belief it could not be added to the biology curriculum without infringing the constitutional ban on promoting religion, and thereafter the fundamentalists adopted a more scientific-sounding phraseology ? `abrupt appearance theory', `intelligent-design theory' ? to disguise the fact that their only textbook was the Old Testament.? How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, page 103-4.
That the nation is heading from bad to worse there can be no doubt, look at this:
?During his presidential campaign of 2000, George W. Bush often attacked the relativism that `liberals' had inflicted on America ? the idea that nothing was right or wrong, true or false. Yet only a few months earlier, when Christian fanatics on the Kansas board of education voted to remove evolution from the state's science curriculum, Bush paraded his own relativism by arguing that creationism should be taught along-side evolution since `the jury is still out' and `children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started'. Some theories, as George Orwell might have said, are more different than others. `Science is about fact,' a Kansas newspaper, the Topeka Capital journal, editorialised. `But it's also about hypotheses; and creationism is as good a hypothesis as any for how the universe began.' To judge by the news-paper's letters page, many readers agreed. `I am writing in response to the poor souls out there who believe that the state board of education has taken education back to the Dark Ages,' one wrote. `I say it's about time! . . . Take my children back to the Dark Ages, where truth was taught and they received the education they deserved.' No wonder some wags wondered if the Kansas board had decided to solve the Y2K problem by turning the clock back to Y1K. `In one pan of the scales,' Salman Rushdie wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail, `we now have General Relativity, the Hubble Telescope and all the imperfect but painstakingly accumulated learning of the human race, and, in the other, the Book of Genesis. In Kansas, the scales balance.' And not only in Kansas. Even Al Gore, who had acquired a reputation as the `Mr Science' of the Clinton administration, seemed reluctant to disturb this bogus equilibrium. A few months earlier one of his chief policy advisers had told the Boston Globe that `the Democratic party is going to take God back this time', and on hearing the news from Kansas the candidate said that although he personally favoured the teaching of evolution, `localities should be free to teach creationism as well'.
Gore thus maintained the ignoble tradition of politicians from Tennessee ? the same state which made itself the laughing stock of the civilised world in 1925 by prosecuting a young high-school teacher, John Scopes, for teaching Darwinian theory in biology class.? How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, page 104-5
Wheen shows how this all harken back to the Scopes trial:
?The great reporter H. L. Mencken, in one of his many lacerating despatches from the Scopes trial, suggested that Tennessee hillbillies `are not more stupid than the city proletariat; they are only less informed'. Why, then, were even the most intelligent Tennesseans so reluctant to assist the cause of enlightenment by repudiating the antediluvian nonsense taught in local schools and endorsed by local nabobs? `I suspect that politics is what keeps them silent and makes their state ridiculous. Most of them seem to be candidates for office, and a candidate for office, if he would get the votes of fundamentalists, must bawl for Genesis before he begins to bawl for anything else.' The `typical Tennessee politician' was a man such as the then governor, Austin Peay, who sought to exploit the Scopes trial for his own political advantage before it had even begun. `The local papers print a telegram that he has sent to Attorney-General A. T. Stewart whooping for prayer,' Mencken reported. `In the North a governor who indulged in such monkey shines would be rebuked for trying to influence the conduct of a case in court. And he would be derided as a cheap mountebank. But not here.'
Al Gore, who might best be characterised as an expensive mountebank, was another great whooper for prayer. As vice-president, he had on his desk a placard with the toe-curling motto `WWJD' ? What Would Jesus Do? Apparently he never pondered a more pertinent question: what would the founding fathers think?? How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, page 105-6.
Another really striking contrast between the presidential candidates in 1800 and 2000 was also quite clear:
?One could appear to prove the point by marking further distinctions between the presidential candidates of 1800 and 2000. Jefferson commissioned for his library a composite portrait of Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton, the English prophets of Enlightenment, hailing them as `the three greatest men who ever lived, without any exception'. In his book Earth in the Balance, Al Gore described the same Francis Bacon as the greatest villain who ever lived: `Bacon's moral confusion ? the confusion at the heart of much modern science ? came from his assumption, echoing Plato, that human intellect could safely analyse and understand the natural world without reference to any moral principles defining our relationship and duties to both God and God's creation.' Jefferson advised his nephew to `question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must approve the homage of reason rather than of blindfolded fear'; both Al Gore and George W. Bush, however, proudly proclaimed their blindfolded allegiance as born-again evangelical protestants. (At a hustings in December 1999, Republican hopefuls were asked `what political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with and why?' Whereas Steve Forbes spoke of the enduring significance of John Locke, Bush replied simply: `Christ, because he changed my heart.')? How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, page 108.
Looking at other American presidents notes significant differences in thinking and attitude:
?A more general respect for the secular, liberal humanism of the founding fathers ? and for the spirit of scientific inquiry embodied by Benjamin Franklin, extravagantly depicted by the French Enlightenment philosopher Turgot as a liberating hero who `seized fire from the heavens and the sceptre from the tyrant's hand' - endured far beyond the lifetime of Thomas Jefferson. `Thank heaven I sat at the feet of Darwin and Huxley,' Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1918, explaining how he became a naturalist. Woodrow Wilson, asked in 1922 for his thoughts on evolution, replied that `of course like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised.' Only three years later, they were propelled on to every front page by the Scopes trial.? How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, page 108-9.
All I can say is that Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson would probably be quite shocked had they seen the spectacle of the two latest candidates competing about being the most devoted to old superstition. It doesn?t bode well for the good old US of A. Anyway, get Wheen?s book and read it, read it and weep, because sheer stupidity rules the world today.
Commenting on how the enlightenment of the Fathers of the Republic was foundering under the mumbo jumbo of modern politics, H. L. Mencken wrote in 1922:
The Fathers of the Republic, I am convinced, had a great deal more prevision than even their most romantic worshipers give them credit for. They not only sought to create a governmental machine that would be safe from attack without; they also sought to create one that would be safe from attack within. They invented very ingenious devices for holding the mob in check, for protecting the national polity against its transient and illogical rages, for securing the determination of all the larger matters of state to a concealed but none the less real aristocracy. Nothing could have been further from the intent of Washington, Hamilton and even Jefferson than that the official doctrines of the nation, in the year 1922, should be identical with the nonsense heard in the chautauqua, from the evangelical pulpit, and on the stump.
Today there is no longer any question of statesmanship, in any real sense, in our politics. The only way to success in American public life lies in flattering and kowtowing to the mob. The result is that only two sorts of men stand any chance whatever of getting into actual control of affairs - first glorified mob-men who genuinely believe what the mob believes, and secondly, shrewd fellows who are willing to make any sacrifice of conviction and self-respect in order to hold their jobs.
Interesting that he came to the same conclusion so long ago. What is "the chautauqua", by the way?
Thanks, this book requires an unscheduled trip to Amazon.com.
I have recently read The Godless Constitution (Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore), Battle for God (Karen Armstrong) and started Free Minds. I'm getting the historical picture that explains what is wrong with America. Basically, IT NEVER WAS WHAT THE WORLD THOUGHT IT TO BE. I'm very disillusioned to arrive at this conclusion but here is why:
It was partly founded by religious fanatics seeking freedom of religion. We are the rejected religious fanatics of England and Europe. Don't forget the difference in pilgrims and Puritans. The colonies were all established as "Christian" commonwealths. Then we had the misfortune of going through two Christian "Awakenings" the same century we won freedom as a nation. The mainstream of this country has always been extremely Christian, protestant at that, even intolerant of Catholics until the mid 1800's.
Meanwhile in the 1700's, being more of a republic than a true democracy, the leadership was highly educated and secular. They were children of the Enlightenment. According to Karen Armstrong the leaders only played nice with religious leaders in the late 1700's so as to get the support of the common people in fighting the revolution against Britton. Most of the founding fathers were deist but spoke fervently about God and Freedom to unite the people. Then after gaining freedom, they were able, with great difficulty, to get the first federal constitution ratified that left God and Religion completely out of the process. This is NOT what the majority of the people wanted but the state representatives who ratified the constitution, mostly educated and rational, saw the wisdom in separating church and state with no "test of religion" requirements for state and federal positions.
So time and circumstances contributed to the first godless Constitution, but the people did not change. In fact it appears, as in the book you quote above, that the United States has fallen far behind Europe as far as being a truly secular state. It just sickens me.
Thanks for the great excerpts. And Belmonts, good to hear from you.
Fascinating subject, Norm, and good contributions from Belmont and Jst2Laws.
Noam Chomsky theorizes the reason behind America's reliogisity being at the level of 3rd-world countries as opposed to other industrialized countries. He posits that it's due to not being given much of a meaningful political role in the 2-party system. And, since people have no real say in their government, they turn to religion (for one) to fill the need.
As far as Norm's references to the book, it seems to fit with America being really run by corporations, not politics. Thomas Dewey said long ago: "Politics is the shadow corporations cast on the land."
So it appears, norm.
kowtowing to the mob
By definition, that is democracy. It is interesting that, after the death of the czar of russia, democracy was a short transition to stalinist totalitarianism, a dark, dark age.
Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful answers. Wheen has some gerat quotes from Menken in his book.
There are also some pretty hard hitting quotes about the late President R. Reagan's use of astrologers.
Just read this
"columnist Alexander Cockburn, a tireless critic of Ronald Reagan, declined to make a fuss this time. `The image of two women, one of them peering into a crystal ball, guiding the policies of the United States, is irresistible in prompting coarse calumnies both on the termagant Nancy and on her pliant husband's abdication of executive responsibility,' he wrote in the Nation. `But reflection should excite a more kindly analysis. For most of human history, leaders burdened with at least as many cares as Ronald Reagan have sought counsel from planets or entrails, and who now chastises the Emperor Augustus for his naivete?' Besides, why should any-one be astonished to learn that in his credulity, as in much else, Reagan was a fair representative of mainstream America? `The United States retains, unusually for an advanced industrial society, about the same per capita level of religious superstition as Bangladesh. What one of Jimmy Carter's aides once referred to as the "abracadabra vote" is ample ... [Reagan] has been nurtured in the same rich loam of folk ignorance, historical figment and paranormal intellectual constructs as millions of his fellow citizens.' Astrology was entirely conson¬ant with Reaganism and the twinkling penumbra of its faith in the `free market' ? an equally imaginary cosmic dispensation whose methods and purposes were beyond human under-standing or challenge."
Pretty interesting observations that really explains a lot.
47 per cent maintained that `God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so' ? the creation story as told in the Book of Genesis.
This, and the rest of it, makes it clear why the WTS finds such fertile ground for converts, despite the fact their dogma makes no intellectual sense.
I briefly read over the article and it sounds interesting. When I have a few minutes will read it over. I just wanted to comment that on a whole, the average intellectuality has deteriorated over the last 50 years. We as a society are more enthralled and concerned by WWF wrestling, or what is happening on a reality TV show than what we can do to better humankind. Unfortunately this is what the new generation of school age children are being exposed to. Could it be a deliberate schema by those that are in control of the money in order to control people better? Myself outside of watching some of the non commercial channels, I very seldom turn on the major US network channels.
Yes, a deliberate scheme. This is ordered chaos, not random at all. To watch a teenager attempt to manipulate four products' prices on paper when the power goes out at a 7-11 can be torture. Expedience has replaced the thinking process.
Maybe the prophets of postmodernity were right after all?
Globalization paradoxically tolls the knell of global systems, institutions and theories. Any individual or micro-collective shortcut to a world vision is in principle equal to any other: the astrologer's, the fundamentalist preacher's or the college professor's. There is no central validation authority anymore. Intersubjectivity replaces objectivity (that's how the Internet works). The death of truth is the second death of God (under the disguise of the scientist's "universal observer").
Although it presently suits the interests of big monetary powers, I'm not so sure even they can survive it in the long run: they might be too big to survive. Time will tell.
My Bible conditioning reminds me of Matthew 18 (about the replacement of objectivity with intersubjectivity):
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.(Interestingly the Thomas parallels (48, 106) do not put God or Jesus into the picture...)