Since the Age of Enlightenment we Europeans and our cousins the Americans have been inflicted with the notion that ours is the best of all possible lifestyles, the true path to happiness. The burden ever since, has been how to persuade others to agree. Being convinced that our way of doing things is the summit of historical progress, and the only way of ensuring the protection of individual freedom and security while enjoying economic growth, we feel impelled to replicate our system among other peoples. While methods vary from soft persuasion to the use of hard force, the question is not should we interfere, but when and how should we intervene in order to destroy cultures that permit or sanctify objectionable behaviours.
To hear some tell the story, the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, with its star French cast led by Montesquieu and Voltaire, gave the world the gifts of democracy, equality and human rights. There is some truth to this, but let’s not forget that Montesquieu and Voltaire (don't get me wrong, I love those guys) were both monarchists and opposed to democracy. The first real application of Enlightenment thought was the foundation of the United States of America and the articulation of the idea that all men are created equal and should be free to pursue happiness. But it was a revolution that was, in the words of Simon Schama, “first and foremost, mobilized to protect slavery”. Its chief ideologue, Thomas Jefferson, was an intellectual steeped in European Enlightenment values. Nevertheless, Jefferson was a reluctant slave owner and racial segregationist, though the latter didn’t stop him from having sex with female slaves and thereby fathering numerous children - slaves one and all.
The ultimate Enlightenment Project was the USSR – an experiment based on the progressive idea that a few tough but enlightened social engineers could manipulate citizen’s minds and produce the ultimate democracy where private property, the state and all other such evils would evaporate and a happy citizenry would dwell eternally in a utopia of sharing. As John Gray has put it: “Marxism is only a radical version of the Enlightenment belief in progress”. The residue of this failed experiment lives on today in the cynical governments of North Korea, Vietnam and China, though none, so far, has produced a happy citizenry. The failed experiment caused about 100,000,000 deaths, though some still say it should be given a second chance.
The newest chapter of the Enlightenment Project began to unfold in 2003 when the USA and UK, along with the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (remember them?) invaded Iraq. The reason given for the invasion was the invisible Weapons of Mass Destruction, though this turned out to be a Weapon of Mass Deception. Only very determined victims of self inflicted double-think failed to notice that the only countries involved who actually possess weapons of mass destruction are the USA and UK, as well as their main Middle Eastern ally. I recently read in the British conservative monthly Standpoint, that the war in Iraq has been won by the west: did I miss something? Did they find the WMDs after all?
The main legacy of the 18th century Enlightenment today is the concept of unlimited progress through the application of science and reason: all of history is the history of the struggle between, on the one hand, the forces of progress and reason, and, on the other hand, the forces of reaction and irrationality. Enlightenment thought assumes that progress will lead to happiness and those who oppose change are destined for the rubbish bin of history. This view, powerfully articulated by Hegel and Marx in the 19th century, has been described by Isaiah Berlin in “The Pursuit of the Ideal” as “The drama would have a happy ending… Men would no longer be victims of nature or their irrational societies: reason would triumph”.
When states that have undergone the Enlightenment, that is, states where the citizens are no longer victims of nature or irrational societies, decide to project their power and overwhelm rogue states where the unhappy subjects are victims of nature or the irrational whims of religion or dictatorship, this can be described in a progressive manner as “regime change”, “democratization”, “nation building” and a list of other reasonable sounding euphemisms. The result of this, we are lead to believe, will be friendly Middle Eastern citizenries of happy and reasonable folks dressed in jeans and t-shirts, willing to share their oil and become chummy with Israel while they guzzle their Starbucks and anesthetize themselves with shopping and the newest downloaded Hollywood blockbuster. After all, at the root of Enlightenment thought is the belief that deep down inside, despite our superficial differences, we are all the same, and we all want the same thing – which turns out to be, for want of a better description, the American way of life. Those who deny this must be fanatical. The Enlightenment means progress, modernization and globalization. Insurgents who oppose this must be reactionary, anti-modernist and irrational – in other words, fundamentalist. Today’s Enlightenment warriors, operating out of ‘think-tanks’ in the US East Coast, have happily discovered that the USSR got it wrong by equating the Enlightenment Project with equality, and that progress means a war against closed minds (those who oppose our democratic values) and against closed markets (those who refuse to buy our subsidized products), especially the latter. Ultimately, progress means an iPhone in one hand, a Starbucks in the other.
Starbucks in Dubai
In classrooms all over the western world we still teach our children that the European Enlightenment brought nothing but goodness into the world. Consequently, those who oppose it today must be opposed to goodness. Yet the Enlightenment of the 18th century, with its myth of human perfectibility, led to the Imperialism of the 19th (bringing progress and civilization to our less fortunate, that is, non-European, coloured cousins). The European reaction against the Enlightenment stress on the equality of all humans saw the birth of modern racist theories in 19th century France. The 20th century saw a battle between the disciples of Enlightenment in their communist incarnation, against the anti-Enlightenment converts of racial inequality, embodied most profoundly in Nazism. But a longer, more low level, but also more protracted, war was fought out between two factions of the Enlightenment Project throughout the 20th century and in all regions of the world, eventually led by the USSR on one side with the USA leading the other.
The first decade of our present century continues to be fought out within the discourse laid out by the Enlightenment, particularly in Iraq, where people are still being killed by the dozens, and Afghanistan, whose Taliban are regarded almost unanimously in the west as evil, despite the fact that the Afghani Taliban have never committed an act of violence against a westerner outside of Afghanistan; meanwhile our armies kill thousands of Afghani civilians in their own country. Clean-shaven men in suits appear at press conferences in front of TV cameras and selected, obedient journalists: they are the voices of reason and progress. Their soldiers are patriotic and ethical and when they kill they do so reluctantly and selectively. When the innocent are killed by their cluster bombs it is regrettable but accidental. Meanwhile, bearded men in robes and turbans appear in caves or shoddy rooms before hand-held video cameras and speak to the Internet: they are medieval and mad. Their combatants are fanatical and brutal and when they murder they do so indiscriminately. It is always the innocent who they target. One group represents reason and progress, the other fundamentalism and reaction. Luckily the forces of reason have a far bigger military budget. Such is the discourse created by the Enlightenment Project and such is the blindness that we inflict, or allow to be inflicted, upon ourselves.