Monday, January 10, 2005

BTW

I have a million things--at least three years worth? probably more, I think that's an unrealistic estimate--to write first, but I do think that my next academic book is going to be a cross-over kind of thing, short and smart and elegant (I hope, anyway) without a lot of footnotes, that addresses some of the questions raised by Garry Wills in the short piece called "The End of the Enlightenment?" that he published as an editorial in the NYT the day after the presidential election this fall. This is Wills: "The results bring to mind a visit the Dalai Lama made to Chicago not long ago. I was one of the people deputized to ask him questions on the stage at the Field Museum. He met with the interrogators beforehand and asked us to give him challenging questions, since he is too often greeted with deference or flattery. The only one I could think of was: 'If you could return to your country, what would you do to change it?' He said that he would disestablish his religion, since 'America is the proper model.' I later asked him if a pluralist society were possible without the Enlightenment. 'Ah,' he said. 'That's the problem.' He seemed to envy America its Enlightenment heritage. Which raises the question: Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation? America, the first real democracy in history, was a product of Enlightenment values - critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences. Though the founders differed on many things, they shared these values of what was then modernity. They addressed 'a candid world,' as they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, out of 'a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.' Respect for evidence seems not to pertain any more, when a poll taken just before the elections showed that 75 percent of Mr. Bush's supporters believe Iraq either worked closely with Al Qaeda or was directly involved in the attacks of 9/11. In his victory speech yesterday, President Bush indicated that he would 'reach out to the whole nation,' including those who voted for John Kerry. But even if he wanted to be more conciliatory now, the constituency to which he owes his victory is not a yielding one. He must give them what they want on things like judicial appointments. His helpers are also his keepers. The moral zealots will, I predict, give some cause for dismay even to nonfundamentalist Republicans. Jihads are scary things. It is not too early to start yearning back toward the Enlightenment."

This isn't what my book will be like, of course. (And I disagree with Wills's analysis, though I share some of his yearning for the Enlightement--sometimes to my own chagrin.) I want to write a book that will really explain what people mean now when they talk about the Enlightenment, what the political freight of the term might be in different contexts and how it came to be so ideologically loaded. (The critique of Enlightenment from the left--singling out the corrupt core of "universalist" values"--ended up colluding with the critique of Enlightenment from the right--its purported neglect of the religious in preference for the polemically secular--in ways that have had really awful consequences.) The project will make me read a lot of stuff I'll learn from, historians talking about the Enlightenment in France and Germany as well as things like the Federalist Papers that I've only really dipped into so far. Anyway, just a late-night meditation on future projects...

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