So, yeah: I officially wonder about the Enlightenment. Heresy, I know. A few folks are already upset from last time, and I reckon the internet flamethrowing will only increase as this series goes on. (By the time this "wait—was that my out-loud voice?"-style series ends [presuming it ever does end], there'll probably be something in it to outrage everyone).
Why wonder about the Enlightenment? Well, for one thing, the nations today which most boldly profess allegiance to, and at least ostensibly pursue, Enlightenment ideals, are precisely those in which Wokism has made the most gains.
How can that be? Don't Enlightenment ideals conflict with Wokist dogma?
They seem to, yes.
So how did we go from one thing to its opposite? That's the big question. A few possible answers spring to mind:
Possibility #1.) Nothing framed by mortal hands can last, no matter how great it is. Everything dies in the end. It's just what happens, and there's no way around it. No point wasting time trying to figure this out.
Possibility #2.) Saboteurs, foreign and domestic, have ruined everything. As Christ said in the Parable of the Tares, "an enemy hath done this".
Possibility #3.) Focusing just on America for a moment, there was something amiss in the original Enlightenment ideals, and the Lockean liberalism through which they found expression, which informed America's founding. Something in Enlightenment liberalism all but guarantees we—and maybe the West in general—were always going to wind up where we are now.
As for that first possibility, surely we can all accept that mortals can't create immortal objects and institutions. It's just that to dismiss any investigation into how we got here on grounds nothing lasts forever feels pretty silly. By that standard, no autopsies should ever be performed to find out how someone died, or whether they died needlessly or prematurely, since everyone's going to die in the end anyway. That doesn't make much sense.
So while Possibility #1 might be strictly true, I vote for setting it aside for right now.
As for Possibility #2, of course there have been saboteurs. How much damage has Joe Biden done to America in just nine months? That damage is as heartbreaking as it is infuriating and incalculable. It might actually be irreparable. This might be Humpty-Dumpty-level.
And of course, any adequate Enemies List would have to include hundreds of thousands of people, even millions. The politicians list would be long enough. What about all the academics? The media propagandists? The corporatistas? The social media censors? The intelligence agency sociopaths who tried to remove a duly-elected president by framing him? The Milley types among military brass? A huge number of people have wilfully, maliciously damaged American government and society—of late, particularly in the name of Wokism. Obviously, they're still succeeding.
But in a way, Answer #2 seems to beg the ultimate question of, "Why is Wokism so popular in the first place?" (a question we touched on a few months ago).
That leads us to Answer #3: the possibility that there is something within Enlightenment liberalism itself that all but guaranteed we were going to wind up here—that is, that all but guaranteed the eventual arrival and domination of Wokism as an official state ideology.
This is a difficult thing to consider, especially for conservatives. After all, to be a modern American conservative is to love America. To love America is to love its foundational precepts and goals. To love its foundational precepts and goals is to actually be an Enlightenment (or to say the same thing, a Lockean) liberal. To be an America-loving Enlightenment liberal is to be someone who wants America to return to its Lockean roots and stay there. And to be someone like that is to view with horror the possibility of a causal connection between the Enlightenment liberalism of the American founding and the Wokism now destroying America. In fact, such a discovery might be so painful, one might just reject the possibility out of hand.
But on the presumption we have unusually brave readers here at SteynOnline, I propose we start to wade into this and see what we find. After all, maybe we'll discover something to help us beat back the Wokist lunatics and get the country back on track, even if it takes twenty years.
I guess, before I go on, I should clarify my terms.
When I use the word "liberalism" in this context, I'm not referring to whatever the DNC is supporting right now. I'm using the word in its original, much broader sense—the sense in which liberalism denotes a political program rooted in conceptions of freedom; equality; human rights (a phrase essentially synonymous with "natural rights" and "inalienable rights"); natural law; individualism (including expansive individual autonomy and choice); self-government via representative democracy; optimism about the power of human reason; optimism about human nature and innate human goodness; a live-and-let-live ethos tolerating many different forms of behavior and belief; separation between the religious and political; expansive private property rights; expansive economic rights; antipathy toward institutionalized irrationalism and superstition; limited government focused primarily or even solely on securing individual rights; and, well, you get the picture. (It was in light of this original sense of the word "liberal" that Friedrich von Hayek once wrote an essay called "Why I Am Not a Conservative"). In any case, by this broad meaning of the word, both American liberals and conservatives—Dershowitz and Hannity, say—fall under the category heading of liberalism.
Now what is most striking to me in that list is that it all sounds great. It certainly sounds infinitely better than what is commonly described as the only alternative to Enlightenment liberalism—namely, a return to inbred drooling absolute monarchs, Torquemada frying infidels at the stake, witch trials, slavery, torture, peasants working fourteen hours a day in freezing mud, lice, disease, filth, darkness, lunatic superstitions about werewolves, changelings, and succubi, and a thousand other offputting things. I also want to make clear that when I say I wonder about the Enlightenment (or the liberalism it championed), I'm not saying I'm thinking of rejecting these things in toto. Something is generating Wokism, and I want to know what it is. I don't think just saying "evil" or "insanity" is an adequate explanation. Maybe there's some generally unnoticed dynamic at play in our foundational ideas causing this. So as we look, anything which passes scrutiny, we can keep. Anything which doesn't, we can consider attenuating, or surgically deleting. We don't necessarily have to throw any babies out with the bathwater. We just might have to throw away an old clump of hair and a bobby pin caught in the drain. So to speak. Maybe that would make all the difference. Anyway, that's where I'm coming from as I try to figure out the source of our present difficulties.
More next week.
Tal will continue the conversation here next week. Mark Steyn Club members can weigh in on this column in the comment section below, one of many perks of club membership, which you can check out here.