Is Enlightenment Missing in our DNA?
The whirlpool of change that gripped most of Europe post Renaissance created a violent eddy which threw off sundry minions to the wilderness of the American colonies. Groups unable or unwilling to live within increasingly more religiously intolerant, more dogmatic cultures, opted instead for transport to the wilds.
Legions of these dispossessed martyrs to their beliefs found succor and peril among the various indigenous tribes in the new world. From the English Separatist Church pilgrims in New England; the Calvinist Huguenots all along the coast, Quakers and Amish through the middle colonies, plus scattered Puritans, Lutherans etc.,it goes on.
A legacy of intolerance came across the sea with most of these groups aping the very experiences they were fleeing. Witch hunts in 1650 were echoed again in 1950 with more of the same intent; routing out of dissent and apostasy. America became a fertile arena for bizarre sects featuring plural marriage, celibacy, co-opted psychoanalysis or witnessing and proselytizing. Many communities flourished, for the most part briefly, during outbursts of religious fervor called ‘awakenings’ or in times like the 1960s, of social strife. Today eight out of ten Americans still say they believe in angels.
Americans began to think seriously with Ralph Waldo Emerson in the nineteenth century but we gave it up and the meme died young. Since that era fifteen or sixteen decades of philosophical dark ages have been endured. Generations of charismatics, behaviorists, pragmatists and tinkers with serious thought have appeared and faded out. Jung and Freud sailed here together a hundred years ago with bad news for us yokels about the Nation’s soul and sailed away with even more misgivings. Jung waxed at length about the ‘American Complex’ that defied proscription. It defies still.
One notable achievement of the early twentieth century emanating from that holy of holies, the great state of New Jersey, pious Princeton to be precise, was fundamentalism. Spawned in Princeton Theological Seminary to confront Darwinism and liberal Protestantism, it winged the globe in mere decades and then stooped low to become a universal blight. The toll in ruined lives and families, population displacement and deaths resulting humbles the worst of the dark ages.
Centuries of science and enlightenment are now at risk of demotion. In the view of such a stalwart thinker as Noam Chomsky,” We must bear in mind that the US is a very fundamentalist society, perhaps more than any other society in the world – even more fundamentalist than Saudi Arabia or the Taliban. That’s very surprising.”
Creationism and Biblical literalism have swept the Nation and threaten public education. Theme parks and museums vie with the secular establishment and revisit older orthodoxies long since considered passe. Never have our mores allowed us very far past the Jeffersonian quest for happiness; never indeed, to pleasure as an sanctioned goal. Much of modern life seems to require a laughtrack for prompting and a music soundtrack for authenticity.
What is not surprising in light of history is our conduct in the world since arriving at a position of prominence. Nothing in the past had prepared the Nation to act in an enlightened, humanistic manor when dreams of empire, wealth or power were at issue. We consistently treat the rest of humanity as chattel, inferiors or subject to our strategic whims.
America has long since become a debtor nation and except for our favored currency position would be treated with contempt by others. Several of these others, most of whom are more solvent by far, have had enough of our privilege being thrust upon them. Plans are afoot to rival the US dollar in large portions of the globe. If we lose our fiscal advantage the consequences will be dire and immediate.
Nothing less than an almost total reversal of our positions and attitudes is necessary to recover even an iota of the good stuff of which we are potentially capable. We must recognize the critical need for a Renaissance in America. The historical Renaissance that swept Europe was a plea to credit this life with meaning and pleasure and forsake deferring so much to a possible life beyond. The most radical, and possibly most difficult, start to a new paradigm for America would be equal partnership between men and women. Anything less is no Renaissance for us.