Love it and Hate It

February 06, 2004


On Monday we will be talking about the Enlightenment. I suspect that I will open class by explaining to the kids that the enlightenment was a very good thing - an outpouring of reason, a movement against cruelty, a search for a rational society that respects rights and liberties - and that it was a terrible thing - largely because much Enlightenment thought was rationalization, not reason, justifying the way things were rather than working for human happiness.

In other words, I judge the enlightenment and find it both promising and lacking. I suspect that much of my gut anger at many of the enlightenment dudes comes because they could have done better. There is something more annoying about a promising project that falls short than there is about an idea that is just plain stupid or dangerous.

I was reminded of Matthew 7:1 as I thought about these opening remarks "Judge not lest ye be judged." Checking the text I find the second clause to that statement is perhaps more useful "For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."

In modern language, the problem with judging is not in making a decision about whether an action or a decision is good or bad, the problem comes if you make that decision on bad criteria. This makes sense - I had forgotten Matthew 7:2 but I have long interpreted Matthew 7:1 in that way. So when we study history we are constantly forming opinions, judgements, about historical actors and historical decisions. The challenge is to judge them on the correct terms. Just as Paul Finkelman argues in Jeffersonian Legacies that we can not measure Thomas Jefferson's decisions about slavery against late 20th-century norms but instead must look at the best practice of Jefferson's day, so too we must come up with reasonable criteria for all our historical judgements and all our policy judgements. Kantians would call it the categorical imperitive; New Testament folks would call it the golden rule; I explain it to the kids as being fair. And, as I also point out to the kids, the criteria you choose for your judgement will have as much to do with your decision as do the facts of the case.

One of the things I most dislike about the enlightenment is the extent to which many enlightenment thinkers felt it necessary to make up stories about their opponents in order to discredit them. The story about Columbus and the flat earth - enlightenment propaganda. The notion that religion and science must always be opposed - enlightenment propaganda. The concept of a "dark age" following the fall of Rome - enlightenment propaganda.

To be fair to the enlightenment dudes, many of these overstatements were created within the contexts of polemic, and polemics are generally aimed not at elucidating truth but at the total destruction of your enemy's position. I read polemics, both for work and as I follow contemporary politics, and I do not care for them. Let me give some contemporary examples and then I will go back to class prep.

Brad Delong has been spending the last week or so attacking the Bush budget, Bush economic policy, and the internal workings of the Bush White House. He eloquently explains exactly why it is that he refers to the Bush team as "those clowns." He does not care for their procedures, their policy, or their institutional honesty. However, as he makes his critiques, he is also fairly clear about the criteria he is using: he wants to see an honest broker, he wants to see policy decisions that look to the future, he wants the Treasury Department to maintain independence and not be the tool of White House speechwriters. I get the sense that he respects many of the people in the Bush administration, or rather that he respects what they have once done. His anger at them comes in part because they are trashing the work he did in the Clinton administration, and in part because they ought to know better.

In contrast, let me introduce a troll, one JadeGold, who has been posting on the Bill Hobb's blog, especially on a discussion about Bush's military service record. At one point in that discussion the topic turned to GWB's military aptitude tests. A poster claimed that GWB scored 25% on pilot aptitude, 50% on navigator aptitude, and 95% on officer aptitude. JadeGold responded with incredulity. How could GWB be good at anything? My response to the same numbers was that they match my preconcieved notion of GWB: he is not book smart; he is very people smart; he has the knack of appealing to and inspiring service people and this has made him an effective Commander in Chief.

The point to this contrast is not just that DeLong is a good guy and JadeGold is a stupid troll. It is a question of style. DeLong uses the norms of collegial controversy; he praises the person of their opponent while denigrating their policies. JadeGold refuses to believe anything good about someone they dislike. It is polemics, the same sort of scorched-earth polemics that led the enlightement dudes to make up stories about the past.

And so to write up a handout on Burke and Paine

Posted by Red Ted at February 6, 2004 11:05 AM | TrackBack