Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A plague on both your houses?

I'd really like to stop talking about the Enlightenment. I've got this piece about the relevance of theatre that will hopefully cause a real shit storm but every time I try to get out, they pull me back in. I guess I am lucky... my academic research is all about (at the moment) how dramaturgy is an expression of Enlightenment thought, through the medium of theatrical critique. And the Enlightenment has become a battle-ground between the progressive left and the religious right. I go onto YouTube to distract myself with some sarcastic responses to Blackpool Grime Media, and I get stuff like this recommended.

The real magic of YouTube is when both sides don't know what they are talking about. Penny Nance and Cenk Uygur have fixed ideas about what the Enlightenment was, and their only commonality is a lack of depth in their thought. 

Nance is advocating a day of prayer, and rejects the possibility of a 'day of reason' as a companion event. Uygur calls her unamerican for her critique of the Enlightenment, which she blames for the holocaust.

Uygur makes a spirited defence of the Enlightenment, pointing out that it advanced scientific research (correctly: the thinkers of the Enlightenment were inspired by the scientific method, especially through the discoveries of Newton). Unfortunately, he seems to think that the Enlightenment came before the scientific revolution, when it is usually seen as earlier, encouraged by Francis Bacon's assertion of method and observation. 

It's fair to say that the Enlightenment did encourage an already dynamic scientific investigation: but it consolidated rather than generated scientific advances. It's a small correction for Uygur, but crucial when he is trying to dispute Nance's chronological chain of causation.

Nance's belief that the Enlightenment led to the holocaust isn't as random as Uygur tries to claim: it's the subtext to the argument put forward by Adorno and Horkheimer in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. Given that Uygur is often accused of being a 'cultural Marxist', it is surprising that he doesn't seem to be aware of the Ur-Text of cultural Marxism. Of course, the phrase is slung about by his opponents, and often has a nasty antisemitic subtext, suggesting that it's more a dog-whistle than a serious analysis of anyone's political position. 

Nevertheless, Nance is a surprising advocate of a position first suggested by Marxist atheists. It undermines her religious intentions - Dialect does not encourage a return to Christian values, and even includes Martin Luther in the list of 'rationalist' activists who caused the Enlightenment. Rather than address the scholars who have taken up this claim seriously, Uygur goes for the 'low-hanging fruit', a woman on Fox News banging on about religious morality. 

Uygur correctly counters that the USA itself is a product of the Enlightenment - the good example he doesn't give is that Jefferson, one of the founder fathers, hung out with the philosophes in Paris, had a special copy of the Bible with all the miracles crossed out and subscribed to the deism that was big with chaps like Voltaire (who caught it from Newton). His description of the USA's disestablishment of religion in the constitution, however, is partisan: far from being a complete freedom from religion, it was a necessary decision in a country that was full of religious sects. 

There's a superb discussion of it in the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund's compilation (which I shall dig out and cite later). While Nance might be against freedom from religion (she does see it as leading to moral relativism, which leads to state sanctioned slaughter), her claims aren't against the freedom of religion that the constitution was written to protect.

The irritating thing is that Uygur picks up on the incoherence of Nance's argument and then counters with an argument that is equally incoherent. He's trying to win an argument by appealing to the opinion of his viewers rather than discover the common ground in the debate and suggesting a compromise. 

I might agree that he is right to defend secular rationality and, yes, I want to live in a world that offers me a longer life and better health, but he fails to back up his opinion with... reason. I know complexity is hard to handle on YouTube, but he is just throwing together half-understood histories and ideas to befuddle his opponent. 

It seems unfair to hammer Uygur when Nance is equally culpable of nonsense - and she started it. But her arguments have been taken down so many times (moral relativism is less dangerous than absolutism, yep) that a supposed champion of reason ought to be using it. 

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