John's rather broad take on the Enlightenment makes me think of Pope Francis, and Pope Emeritus Benedict. Pope Francis' recent trip to America has been a huge success. From the very first, Francis' style has won over nearly everyone. You cannot find a better example of this than the way in which Francis laughed in obvious delight when he saw a baby dressed as the Pope in Philadelphia.
Poor misunderstood Benedict never had this kind of press. Partly, this is due to very real personality differences between the two men. But it is also due to the way in which portraying each man in a certain way fit the narrative. Inconvenient acts or statements by either man tend to fall down the memory hole. For example, who now remembers when Pope Benedict installed solar panels on the Vatican, or when he praised environmental values and criticized capitalism in an encyclical? Contrariwise, who remembers when Cardinal Archbishop Bergoglio compared a bill before the Argentine Senate regarding gay marriage to a work of the Father of Lies?
Activists on each side remember these things, but the general public neither knows nor cares. Yet, each man in his own way is working on the same project of human betterment, often doing and saying things that are indistinguishable. In fact, their differences only make sense in a certain shared context, that of the Enlightenment. As John said:
Left and Right, Progressive and Traditional, Liberal and Conservative, all these are oppositions that began with the Enlightenment and are meaningful only within it.
This shared set of assumptions is precisely what unites Francis and Benedict. Each man naturally appeals to slightly different strains of thought within the Enlightenment, but neither would be comprehensible without its shared set of assumptions. Eventually, modernity will come to an end, and something fresh and new will take its place. In time, that new point of view will make it difficult to distinguish exactly why Francis was popular in a way that Benedict never was [although in truth, Benedict was pretty popular, despite his press].
The World United
No less a person than Jane Fonda is now on record with the fear that "the entire world" will unite against the United States in the wake of the Iraq War. That would be good material for a humor column, but people who should know better have had thoughts along the same lines. Indeed, some of these thoughts substitute "hope" for "fear."
Consider the column by Matthew Parris in the London Times: It's Time We All Signed up for the Rest of the World Team. Though he does not touch on the merits of the Iraq War, he does go on at some length about American hubris and the need for the United Kingdom to return to the eastern side of the Atlantic. The gist of the argument is this:
"[T]hose nations that do not choose to take Washington's whip are going to need to coordinate their positions and keep in touch. The balance of power needs rebalancing. For want of a better term, I shall call the grouping of which Russia, Germany and France now form a putative core, the Rest of the World."
I don't want to beat a horse that was born dead, but I must point out that what we have here is a proposal for an Anarchist Union. If the world were capable of uniting, the US would not have had to conduct the Iraq War almost alone. (Giving due regard to the substantial contributions of the UK, Australia, and the other Coalition members, the war would not have happened if the US had not wanted it to happen.) Without rehashing the whole issue, it seems to me that any serious international system would have taken care of Iraq, and North Korea, long before now, even for human rights issues alone. War would probably not have been necessary; such a system would be able to impose sanctions that mean something. Such a system would also require a redefinition of sovereignty even more radical than that implicit in the European Union. The most uppity American acts would be far less irksome.
Whether or not the US was right about Iraq, the US acted precisely because the Rest of the World did not act. The institutions that purport to represent The Rest of the World worked to make collective action incoherent. Toothless Security Council resolutions, phony inspections, a porous sanctions regime that the "core of the Rest of the World" wanted dismantled anyway: the UN did nothing, and took 12 years to do it. The US believed that, finally, something real had to be done. Now we are asked to suppose that a new League of Nations will be formed to ensure that nothing is ever done again. I would not bet on it.
* * *
Let us count the quagmires. Soon after 911, there was the Afghanistan Quagmire. Then there was the Diplomatic Quagmire. Then there was the Desert Stalingrad Quagmire. We are in the waning hours of the Looters' Quagmire. Presently, we will be hip-deep in the Iraqi Internal Politics Quagmire. If we have learned nothing else in the past two years, we have learned that wetlands are drainable.
* * *
There is a critique of the Iraq War which goes far beyond issues of mere power and legitimacy. People who think that no use of force is legitimate without a UN stamp are still playing in the same intellectual ballpark as the neoconservatives. The dispute is really about how the goals of the Enlightenment can be best achieved; the proponents of the Rest of the World say merely that America is the wrong agent, implementing the wrong policies.
This is far from the only way to look at the question. One could also argue that America is the finest flower and avatar of the Enlightenment, and its activities in the world promote the Enlightenment most perfectly. According to a a Dr. John Rao, writing in Seattle Catholic, that is precisely what damns the Iraq War:
Orthodox Catholicism is what it says it is, and fails only in so far as people do not live up to its message. We are now witnessing the complete victory of a message that has never been what it says that it is, and becomes even more of a lie when people do live up to its potential for evil...These are not failures to live up to American Pluralist conceptions. This is what the American Regime, one of several socio-political by-products of revolutionary Enlightenment concepts, inevitably encourages.
As I have argued previously, the Enlightenment is a bit above our likes and dislikes. Everything that came after it was tinged by it: Left and Right were created at the same time in the 18th century. This is also true of Orthodox Catholicism in the 21st century. John Paul II is a man of the Enlightenment. He is comfortable with the fact, because he understands that there is more than one Enlightenment. The modern era is fragmented, but it is not essentially anti-religious or antinomian. Moreover, its program of human betterment can be considered nothing other than a Christian project, even if sometimes carried out in other terms.
At any rate, this is what the Enlightenment has meant in America. Michael Novak's essay in the April First Things, The Faith of the Founding, puts some welcome daylight between the actual "American Regime" and the recent jaundiced assessments of the whole Whig Tradition as an exercise in wiley anti-theism. All of this is not to suggest that the Enlightenment inaugurated the millennium, or that the United States is the Lord's anointed. What I am saying is that the Enlightenment is what we have. America is what we have. Any great good that is to be done in the current era will involve these two.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly