There's a front page diary up, Hannibal ad portas, in which Mark Summer argues that:
There is a clash of civilizations going on, and it has nothing to do with the Burlington Coat Factory Community Center. It's more fundamental than Christian vs. Muslim. It's reason vs. fear. Civilization vs. anarchy.
That clash is happening right here in America.
Mark is right, and his diary makes many very telling points. But I think the conflict goes deeper than he describes, and has been going for far longer than the recent takeover of the Republican party. It goes back to the Age of Enlightenment, when reason began to overrule faith.
The Enlightenment is a philosophical movement primarily of the XVII and XVIII centuries, beginning (unintentionally) with René Descartes' Discourse on Method (1637). It quickly became a political philosophy promoted by Locke, Hume, Hobbes and others. It had two major impacts on the West:
- It established the supremacy of reason over faith, and
- It provided the fundamental principles of the American system of government.
The Founding Fathers were well-read in the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Jefferson's "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is right out of Locke (though Locke used "property"); the Constitution not only stakes its authority on the People rather than God, it ensures that religion - faith - has no special role in the national discourse, and that the making of law and policy is to be achieved through reasoned debate.
This has never sat well with those who, for personal or professional reasons, would rather govern on the basis of faith rather than submit their ideas to the cold light of reason.
This isn't new. The election of 1800 still stands as one of the most vituperative in our history (though it's getting a lot of competition these days) as ministers thundered from their pulpits that Thomas Jefferson was an atheist who had sold his soul to the devil in return for delivering America to hell.
So this is where I differ from Mark. To me, the clash is not so much between reason and fear as it is between reason and faith. Fear is a tool, almost a necessary one, but it is not the true challenger in this conflict.
And by "faith" I do not necessarily mean religious faith. I mean any adherence to a system that depends on an a priori conception of the world, whose adherents suspect or fear or even know that it will not withstand close examination.
For example, the current controversy over California's Prop 8 denying gays and lesbians the right to marry is motivated only partly by religious scruples. Issues of human sexuality are complex, and as we've seen many times, opponents of gay rights are often revealed to be troubled by their own sexuality, and try to avoid dealing with it by forbidding gay sex to everyone. Religion is not the source; it is the tool. When forced to submit their view of the world to reasoned examination, they saw their arguments crumble - as it seems they knew would happen:
During closing arguments, proponents again focused on the contention that "responsible procreation is really at the heart of society’s interest in regulating marriage." Tr 3038:7-8. When asked to identify the evidence at trial that supported this contention, proponents’ counsel replied, "you don’t have to have evidence of this point." Tr 3037:25-3040:4. Perry v Schwartznegger, decision (PDF) [Emphasis added]
That one bolded sentence is the sum and substance of the debate between reason and faith: Reason demands evidence; faith says evidence is irrelevant.
A similar mentality is at work in the current election: Republicans are deliberately offering few if any specifics on their proposals, and often hiding their plans altogether, because they know those ideas are contradicted by the evidence and will not withstand a reasoned examination. Those few GOP candidates who have not learned this, principally Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, are finding their numbers drop as voters become aware of their platform.
Evolution is a myth. Global warming is a hoax. Obama is a Muslim. Health care reform proponents want to kill grandma. Liberals are traitors who want to sell out the country. Corporations will act for the public good if they are left alone to work for their private good. No government above the county level is legitimate. The United States knows what is best for the world, is never wrong, and should never apologize.
Each of the above (and there are many more examples) is an article of faith cherished by some segment of the country, though only a couple of them can be fairly said to have religious origins. (I put it that way because religion has been used in many cases to justify these beliefs.) And none of them can stand when subjected to investigation by reason.
But the supremacy of reason is the foundation principle of our system of government: Elections in which competing ideas battle for the vote; debates in Congress which expect, and generally require, some semblance of reason in order to succeed; examination by an independent judiciary trained in the use of reason and required to explain their reasons in writing.
All of this is under assault in the 2010 elections because all of this is a challenge to faith, whether religious, political, social, prejudicial, superstitious, economic, or national. Mark is correct in calling this election critical - but only partly because it is a test of the appeal of reason against the appeal of fear. It is the appeal to unreasoned faith that is at risk in a fair election, and the adherents of faith fear that risk. So fear both drives their attacks, and becomes a tool for attack.
But underneath it all is, as Al Gore described it, The Assault on Reason.