Arguably the defining characteristic of so-called “Western” civilization (and don’t flame me for that one; I know the complications embedded in concept, so bear with me) is the Enlightenment: that period of history where reason and science and the notion of natural rights came to play significant—if imperfect—roles in how society operated. Disease, for example, went from being seen as the product of unbalanced bodily “humours” to being understood as the product of germs. Explanations of natural occurrences changed from abstract assertions of logic to empirically-grounded evidence derived from replicable science. Political authority came to be seen as derived from the consent of the governed, all of whom were endowed with inalienable rights, rather than as the beneficence of a divine being to a monarch.
Again, I really don’t want to overplay this: the same Founding Fathers who applied Enlightenment concepts to the creation of the new United States used their reason to rationalize slavery, and reason and science combined to make both Auschwitz and nuclear weapons. Our continuing struggle to recognize the core humanity of others is at the heart of the on-going fight for the recognition of gender, racial, ethnic and LGBT rights in our societies. The Enlightenment didn’t solve everything for everybody all at once—or even now.
On the other hand, whatever the flaws inherent in our realization of Enlightenment ideals in social life, the fact of the Enlightenment shapes the kind of evidence and arguments that we accept as meaningful in our daily lives. Few if any of us would accept “sacrifice a goat” as a cure for cancer; fewer still would likely accept the notion of fixed social classes with differing rights and freedoms as the foundation of a just political order. We are creatures of the Enlightenment, with all of the attendant flaws and opportunities that fact embodies.
Which brings me to my topic: the fact that some significant percentage of the Republican Party seems to be anti-Enlightenment. That is, rather than appealing to reason or science or shared notions of natural rights to advance their cause, they are rejecting such notions out of hand. Take, for example, climate change: almost everyone thinks its happening, and most of the people who study it seriously are certain that it is in part the result of human activity. However, if this is true then it follows that humans ought to change their behaviors such that global climate change might be abated: it’s only reasonable. Of course, change is hard, and in particular the kinds of changes needed to alter the path of global climate change are both disruptive of a particular way of life (consumer capitalism resting on high use of relatively inexpensive fossil fuels) and expensive. So lots of people don’t want to do them. But rather than argue against global climate science in scientific terms—the usual language of “proof”—most Republican opponents of changing our behavior to reduce the negative effects of global climate change simply reject science as such. Rick Perry, for example, has asserted that the whole science of climate change is nothing more than a conspiracy by scientists to get government grants.
Think about that one for a second. Rather than assess the evidence, perhaps by reproducing the results of the experiments and other research done by climate scientists, Perry simply asserted the findings were corrupt. And not even scientifically corrupt—e.g., the result of faked data or bad research design. Nope: a vast, cross-national cabal of climate scientists has banded together in some kind of secret society to dupe governments into giving them money.
It’d be quite a trick … if it were even vaguely true.
Examples of anti-Enlightenment thinking abound within the Republican Party. (Not all Republicans, of course—but this election cycle the Enlightenment-rejectionists do seem particularly prominent). Evolution? Maybe it should be taught in science class, but only if the patently-unscientific “Creation Science” is taught along side it. Rights for LGBT persons? Of course not: they’re deviant, dangerous and wrong and should either be fixed or banished so they don’t infect the rest of us. Prayer in school? A must, for otherwise how else will we prove our love of God through the practice of one specific religion (ours) and thus prove our love of the Constitution that explicitly forbids the anointing of one religion as the official US religion?
As it happens, I believe that—eventually—reality will get in the way, and whatever some Republicans think about things like climate change, for example, the climate will change and we will have to adapt whether we wish to or not. The choice, then, is whether we prepare for the changes to come, or just react to them: change comes in either package. Likewise, I am comforted by the fact that there have been other eras in American history when we have been wrapped up in anti-Enlightenment fever, and we’ve managed to get through these periods as well. Accordingly, I think the Republicans are in long-term trouble: the rejection of reality can carry you for a short time, but eventually reality has a way of smacking you in the face.
The question is just how much damage the hit does to you.