Rebuilding an Enlightened World: Folklorizing America

Rebuilding an Enlightened World: Folklorizing America

by Bill Ivey


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253029690
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/01/2018
Pages: 194
Sales rank: 418,639
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Bill Ivey is Senior Policy Fellow at Americans for the Arts and Trustee of the Center for American Progress. He was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in the Clinton-Gore administration, and was Team Leader in the Obama presidential transition. Ivey is Past-President of the American Folklore Society, serving that group as Senior Advisor for China. He is author of Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights and Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy.

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Senators and Congressmen smiled; Michelle Obama hugged George W. Bush. On a sunny Saturday morning in late September 2016, President Barack Obama addressed a distinguished audience gathered near the northern end of the Capitol Mall, under the shadow of a looming, bronze-glass-and-steel structure, Washington's new National Museum of African American History and Culture: an important event, the culmination of a decades-long process dedicated to planning and funding an institution documenting and honoring black Americans — their bondage, struggle; their achievements in business, government, the arts. The occasion held special meaning for our first African-American chief executive, and the dependably eloquent Obama reminded his audience of congressional leaders, major donors, and former presidents that our newest Smithsonian museum tells a "story of suffering and delight, one of fear, but also of hope, of wandering in the wilderness, and then seeing, out on the horizon, a glimmer of the Promised Land."

The museum is a reminder of the struggle to "reaffirm the promise of our democracy," a reminder that "all of us are created equal." Although a "clear-eyed" story of black America "can make us uncomfortable," it is "because of that discomfort that we learn, and grow, and harness our collective power to make this nation more perfect." Today "does not prove that America's perfect. But it does validate the ideas of our founding. For this country born of change, this country born of revolution, this country of 'we, the people,' this country can get better."

President Obama was quoting and paraphrasing key elements of America's democratic heritage. The argument was pure Enlightenment, invoking principles of equality, participatory government, human rights, individual achievement, and progress that sparked the American experiment more than two centuries ago. The Enlightenment — a period of intense philosophical and political innovation that began in the late eighteenth century — provided the intellectual underpinnings of democracy; it has remained a subject of fascination for public intellectuals. Writers like Steven Pinker and Gregg Easterbrook celebrate the Enlightenment and the positive impact of science and rational thought on material well-being for millions around the world. But the Enlightenment has been both lodestar and corral, offering ideas and language that inspire while at the same time setting hard boundaries limiting our social, political, and cultural imagination.

The president celebrated America's capacity to wrest "triumph from tragedy," through our ability to "remake ourselves again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals." But this notion — that despite centuries of enslavement, decades of prejudice and extra-judicial police killings, the enlightened American ideal had achieved a long-anticipated embrace with the African-American community — was open to challenge.

The handsome new museum memorialized a shallowly hidden truth: the people it celebrated had crafted their potent culture with virtually no help from enlightened power. In truth, even as President Obama celebrated a visible marker of human progress, venerable ideals of equality, social justice, participatory government were at risk throughout the world. From the Middle East to Asia, and in France and Germany, principles assumed to be permanent were under threat. And in the United States, police encounters with our black citizens gave ample evidence that the dream of human rights, equality before the law, government by consent had been realized for the few, not the many.

What was the Enlightenment; what is enlightenment? The term denotes two things: First, the Enlightenment was a specific historical period during which human rights came to play a new and defining role in government and society. Political historian John Robertson offers this compact and straightforward definition: "A distinct intellectual movement of the eighteenth century, dedicated to the better understanding, and thence the practical advancement, of the human condition on this earth." Second, the Enlightenment introduced language and ideas that became commonplace in Western politics, justifying and inspiring political action, diplomacy, and inevitably, war. Robertson's deceptively simple sentence is the iceberg-tip of a more elaborate philosophical whole — an intellectual framework that honors science and rational thought, advances concern for the wellbeing of all mankind. Enlightenment assertions were painted in broad strokes — individual rights, democratic government, equality — life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.

Enlightenment celebrates the individual, believes in the power of reason, honors scientific truth — and this is important — believes that a heavenly destination is not enough — society and government should be rightly judged by the quality of life afforded citizens here on earth. Enlightenment principles were famously memorialized in Thomas Jefferson's assertions that "all men are created equal," endowed with "inalienable rights," and that governments derive "powers from the consent of the governed." As historian Vincenzo Ferrone explained, enlightened thinkers envisioned "a society without slaves, that was cosmopolitan, egalitarian, and founded on justice, the rule of law, and the rights of man." And Enlightenment ideals required neither demonstration nor proof — they were, as the lawyers say, a priori, or, in Jefferson's phrase, self-evident. As writer Pankaj Mishra put it, the Enlightenment introduced "the earth-shattering idea that human beings could use their own reason to fundamentally reshape their circumstances." Enlightenment's broad assertions, memorialized in our Declaration of Independence, attained a permanent foundational role in discussions of the American experience, in the American Dream, and in worldwide efforts to improve the lot of the masses. They leaven the language of every US president.

Enlightenment was the intellectual invention of eighteenth-century civilization, the product of a small group of elite, educated, secular-minded men insulated within the literate, wealthy, internationalized upper crust in England, the United States, and a few European countries. Accelerated by technology — the printing press played a critical role in the spread of Enlightenment argument — the ambitions of an expanding cohort of urban sophisticates fueled intellectual inquiry in Europe, England, and America. Their shared vision linked a new secularism with confidence in reason and science into a set of universal principles grounded in a vision of human progress and perfectibility. The Enlightenment morphed to enlightenment — the intellectual legacy of a distinct period of history was distilled and memorialized as a permanent state of mind unique to the West.

Though on its face respectful of religious authority, enlightenment encouraged critiques of church intolerance and clerical pretension; an approach that was ultimately subversive. Assumed triumphant, reason made religious observance optional, arguing convincingly that a good, secular society offered the real possibility of human betterment — here on earth rather than in an afterlife; now rather than in some promised, magical future — no intervention by priest or pastor required. Enlightenment offered moral and intellectual autonomy — the ability of individuals to do good and think big thoughts independent of clergy and royalty. Truths could now be thought through, becoming both more expansive than religious edicts and more analytical than mere observations. Wise human beings could reason their way to universal principles of human interaction and government, and these could be enacted for the benefit of all. As Mishra puts it, absent religion, the world would now be subject to a "quasi-religious belief in continual progress"— progress realized through the efforts of "the self-affirming autonomous individual who, condemned to be free, continually opens up new possibilities of human mastery and empowerment."

The Enlightenment promised that beneath earthly manifestations of difference, there exists a fundamental unity that might enable mankind to negotiate difference, misunderstanding, motives. As Ferrone notes, from the time of the Enlightenment forward, "man and his faculties were at the origin of all knowledge." But man-at-the-center was understood in two distinct ways: as a subject to be engaged by hard, rational science and as an object of sentimental, nostalgic curiosity — Voltaire versus Rousseau. These two sides of the Enlightenment coin — the rational and romantic — lived cheek-by-jowl in late eighteenth-century thought. When interest in the expressive lives of everyday people stirred in the nineteenth century, it was no surprise that curiosity about "the folk" mixed scientific investigation with sentimental enthusiasm for the virtues of premodern rural life. The distinction remains a feature of folklore studies today.

By the late nineteenth century, the rhetoric of enlightened policy had not only captivated a generation of intellectuals but had rationalized both the American revolt and the French revolution. As everyone knows, it was the United States that placed Enlightenment ideals at the heart of the nation's founding documents. Having thus memorialzed its faith in individual achievement and commitment to Enlightenment principles, the United States can make a legitimate claim to standing as the "Enlightenment nation." We still talk about ourselves using Enlightenment language. Columnist Paul Krugman recently restated our familiar defining trope: "What makes America America is that it is built around an idea: the idea that all men are created equal, and are entitled to basic human rights." When Barack Obama affirms "the promise of our democracy," he is exercising the legitimate US claim to its enlightened inheritance.

For more than two centuries, the handshake between enlightened thinkers and everyday people produced an inspiring but mostly rhetorical commitment to social justice, human rights, civility in the conduct of nations, citizen participation in government. As we have seen, this Enlightenment consensus has framed human aspiration. It is honored in founding documents and the language of government around the world, institutionalized in the United Nations, UNESCO, the World Bank, the Clinton and Gates foundations. The Enlightenment consensus promised the benefits of science, holding out the hope that well-imagined secular societies could offer a workable version of heaven on earth for all.

Enlightenment didn't come with an instruction manual. The big, rational, inclusive dream floats like a constellation up high above real life; there were no specifics about how a lofty vision could be brought down to the everyday world of institutions, policies, process. It's one thing to imagine equality, quite another to figure out how to realize the dream. And, unfortunately, inspiring language is adaptable; over centuries we've been accepting of enlightened rhetoric attached to pretty much anything — the constitution of every authoritarian state is "democratic"; Ho Chi Minh quoted Jefferson in a 1945 address. And in the dream, everybody was said to have rights. But scratch beneath the surface and "mankind" turned out to be a pretty select "everybody" — no slaves, women, rural masses, dark-skinned peoples. And the achievement of an enlightened society would seem to require significant measures of tolerance, mutual respect, reciprocity — but those implementing values are strikingly absent from Enlightenment arguments. No surprise that critics have continually zeroed in on disconnects between enlightened language and grim reality — the cynical distance between vision and failed implementation. Reacting to the familiar American-character trope employed, in this case by Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, to keep violent, right-wing protests at a distance, "Hate and bigotry have no place in this country," opinion writer Lindy West wrote, "Really? Which America is that? Surely not the America that was stolen from indigenous peoples, that was built by slaves, that interned the Japanese, that has the highest maternal death rate in the developed world, ... that has had one black president, zero female presidents, zero Jewish or Muslim presidents.... There might be freedom and love and audacity in the weft of our national fabric, but hate and bigotry are in the warp."

So if the United States is the Enlightenment nation, what does that mean? Is it what we believe, or what we've done? America's founding documents offer a gauzy vision of a new social order; but a vision is not a program — eighteenth-century civilization told us what to believe, but not what to do. Once the French and American revolutions had forever disrupted the prerogatives of royalty and church, what was to be done; how would change be achieved?

* * *

Ferris, the central character in John Hughes's famous 1986 movie, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, dodges a test on European socialism, explaining, "Isms, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an ism, he should believe in himself." Bueller — the charming, risk-taking, instigating, authority-challenging rogue may well have been right. Enlightenment came without an instruction manual. The world needed explanations, objectives, programs, and it was the nineteenth-century world of isms that stitched Enlightenment ideas into banners of belief, understanding, organization. The Enlightenment does not come to us directly, but through an interpretive framework of a few key nineteenth-century isms that converted (sometimes perverted) the inclusive dream of eighteenth-century thinkers and dreamers into a set of broad explanations and action-oriented interventions.

The big three — Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism — are so deeply embedded in the recesses of Western thought that we can't see them as in any way conditional. The reflexive, almost automatic understandings we apply when confronting change and progress, human desire, the workings of society, the character of life itself, are anchored not in Enlightenment values, but in Enlightenment language interpreted and put in play by ideological intermediaries devoted to specific understandings, practices, outcomes. So when we observe the Enlightenment and its collapse, the failure is not in the original dream but in Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism (and a few additional isms) that converted Enlightenment principles into rules for engaging the world.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary declared ism its Word of the Year in 2015, but it was the nineteenth that could be called the "century of isms." Take a noun, attach ism, and you've got something more — a theory, doctrine, movement; an ideology justifying action; something to believe in; something to follow. Isms define religious faith (Mormonism), bundle public policies (protectionism), rally loyalties to a group or cause (feminism). Dozens and dozens of isms exist, but only five or six took up enlightened ideas of human rights, individual achievement, democratic government and made them operational.

This is what matters; this is what has collapsed. Although eighteenth-century moral arguments and lively debates fascinate, let's turn to the situation today: How have the real-world applications of Enlightenment language and ideals, filtered through various doctrines and movements, failed to secure anything resembling an equitable, stable world order, instead delivering multi-century misery, wars big and small, disruptive interventions in the lives of everyday people? How has enlightened language enabled and justified actions and interventions that subvert long-established values of the public, disrupting centuries-old communities, suppressing venerable ways of living? Ferris Bueller was right: "isms are not good." They offer fun-house-mirror distortions of the Enlightenment dream but today form the undiscussed, unchallenged intellectual frame of policy imaginings in the West. So when the brilliant French intellectual Michel Foucault set out to expose "the less commonly understood historical consequences of the power exercised by rationality and knowledge," he was attacking not the Enlightenment but its nineteenth-century ideological offspring — the century's isms.

Consider Darwin: Charles Darwin's brilliant research reached deep into Western society and resonates today. Evolution spawned a cornucopia of ideas that not only reconfigured our understanding of man's place in the world but advanced explanations of change, progress, competition, achievement that could be quickly reconfigured to explain the dynamics of history, society, government. Darwin's argument advanced a rational, secular view of the how and why of mankind, an idea of progress in which both biological and cultural standing was achieved through competition and struggle.


Excerpted from "Rebuilding An Enlightened World"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Bill Ivey.
Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 Enlightened 19

2 Identity 38

3 Understanding 61

4 Negotiation 77

5 Stories 99

6 Listening 115

Afterword: Beginning Again 2018 133

Acknowledgments 147

Notes 149

Works Referenced and Consulted 161

Index 175

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