Saturday, June 1, 2019

From Atheist to Anti-theist

Though I’ve been an atheist for a while, and have several books on the subject, they haven’t been pressing in terms of things I’ve felt compelled to read. As Richard Dawkins said in one of his TED talks, his words for me, as someone who has already rejected the fantasy of religion, is like preaching to the choir. But the other day I was watching various debates and presentations by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and I stumbled upon a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland from 2013 that included Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicist and cosmologist—sort of the Canadian Neil deGrasse Tyson—and suddenly a whole lot of things that I had known of and understood in isolation suddenly came together in a way I had never considered before. The first thing that struck me in his comments was something that I have known for a long time to be true: “When you base your beliefs and actions on myths that are incorrect, you’re inevitably going to take irrational actions.” That is not only obvious but extremely bothersome for me, especially when it takes place in the kind of interconnected world we live in now. It’s also at the heart of one of my favorite essays of all time, John Erskine’s “The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent” from 1914. Taking irrational actions in today’s world is not only going to have a negative effect on the people making them, but a negative effect on the rest of us as well—we only have to look at the utter disaster that the White House has become to see that—and therefore we have an obligation to the rest of mankind not to remain ignorant.

But then, the thing that hit me like a thunderbolt is when Krauss said, “I don’t define myself as an atheist. I define myself as an anti-theist.” He had taken that stance from Christopher Hitchens and so he didn’t go on to explore the distinction in quite the way I would have liked, but it nevertheless caused a bunch of things that I had heard and read in recent years come into sharper focus. The way I see things now, it’s not enough to simply say that one doesn’t believe in the fantasy of religious mythology; you also have to say, in the most vehement way possible, that others are wrong for believing it. As Krauss went on to point out, “The doctrines of religion are outdated, and that’s for good reason. They were created by Iron Age peasants who didn’t even know the earth orbited the sun. So the wisdom in those books is not wisdom at all.” And yet people everywhere on the planet are acting on that very lack of wisdom in the mistaken belief that it is somehow divine in origin—without a shred of evidence to support that claim. Going back even further than Erskine, Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” And religion is the most frightful ignorance of all. One of the many proofs of the absence of wisdom that their holy book supposedly provides them, is the lack of any kind of rational argument as to why anyone should believe in an imaginary deity, and why anything that religion purports to provide can’t be obtained infinitely better through reason and intellect.

In atheist circles this is a given. There are simply no valid arguments for a belief in mythology over rationality. What is so dangerous, however, is the inability of believers to understand that their arguments not only fail to persuade, they are invalid to begin with. But rather than using their intellect to extricate themselves from a world of ignorance and blind obedience, they instead retrench and become even more convinced of their own righteousness. As Richard Dawkins explains, “Dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature.” One particular circular argument, that because people have believed in Christian mythology for two thousand years then it must be true, isn’t an argument at all. People no doubt believed the earth was flat, or that the sun revolved around the earth, for tens of thousands of years and yet both of those ideas have been demonstrated to be patently false—just like religious mythology. The fact that people believed in all of those things doesn’t prove the legitimacy of the ideas, but more accurately represents a flaw in human genetics and socialization, as Krauss also relates.

          Religion has pervaded all of human society throughout all of human history. There’s clearly something
          ingrained, either in an evolutionary sense or a neurophysiological sense, in the need to believe in
          something bigger than ourselves. And to deny that is to deny the evidence of reality. But just because
          we all share that doesn’t mean it’s true. It just means that we have an ingrained need to believe that.
          So I think the recognition that religious belief is universal is really important to understand if you want
          to understand human beings. Xenophobia is ingrained in biological systems, in and out systems, us
          versus you. All of these things have a sound evolutionary basis, but if we want to be a human society
          and work together, we have to understand that basis so we can move beyond it.

Unfortunately, religion tends to solidify the “us versus you” mentality to a frightening degree. Rather than moving beyond it, the idea is actually the very foundation of all three Judeo-Christian religions that dominate the world today. And this is the area of thought where Krauss’s science based observations sort of end and Sam Harris’s slightly more philosophical arguments begin. For Harris, this intractability on the part of religion is what proves it to be a menace to human society. “While all faiths have been touched, here and there,” he states in his book, The End of Faith, “by the spirit of ecumenicalism, the central tenet of every religious tradition is that all others are mere repositories of error or, at best, dangerously incomplete. Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed . . . We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man.” One of the many ironies associated with religious belief, is the apparent sacredness of life when it is in the womb, and yet the complete denigration of that life when it begins thinking for itself—especially when it thinks something different. The certainty of a life beyond this one leads religious followers of all kinds to perform utterly barbaric acts in the name of their god. But that only makes sense, as Harris relates: “Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one.” This is the primary argument that Christopher Hitchens had with the Muslim world, and one that is still valid. Richard Dawkins went on record in 2015 as saying “Islam is one of the great evils of the world today.”

This assertion is demonstrably true, and without going anywhere near something as definitive as the 9/11 attacks. Their treatment of women, children, homosexuals, other ethnicities and other religions is positively medieval—because it is. The Islamic religion hasn’t changed its core system of beliefs since its beginning over a thousand years ago. It would be the same thing as if Christians and Jews today still practiced stoning and slavery and ritual sacrifice. And yet Dawkins also understands the consequences of attempting to expose believers to the ignorance of religious dogma and their blind adherence to it, as he related in a 2016 discussion with Krauss in Vancouver. “I don’t think we want to go around telling people they’re idiots, not in so many words. But so many people will think you’re saying that if you criticize what they believe, because it’s as if their beliefs are part of them.” A similar idea came up at another discussion Krauss had with Noam Chomsky in 2015, he brought up Chomsky’s argument that intellectuals in society have an obligation to that society to expose lies and tell the truth. In the context of Chomsky’s career as a political activist, this imperative is usually confined to that sphere of life. So Krauss went ahead and asked him the natural question. “If you go back to your argument about the responsibility of intellectuals—which is to expose lies—is it not, therefore, our responsibility to expose religious lies?” Chomsky took the pragmatic view, one that relies solely on a person’s actions: if a person’s religion causes them to do bad things, then the lie of their religion must be exposed. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, this kind of tolerance no longer works, and in fact, is actually one of the most insidious aspects of our society today. This is the point of both Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith, as well as Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Harris makes the necessary distinction between religious moderates and extremists, but where the danger from extremists is obvious the concurrent danger of toleration has been completely ignored. “Religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of another. [But] the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.” The main problem is that the very idea of religion is antithetical to religious pluralism. “As long as a Christian believes that only his baptized brethren will be saved on the Day of Judgment, he cannot possibly ‘respect’ the beliefs of others, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked by these very ideas and await their adherents even now.” Christopher Hitchens, in his book, enumerated the various ways in which religious toleration has turned back on its proponents, none more absurd than the following:

          Empty-headed multiculturalism . . . ensur[ed] the distribution of cheap and mass-produced Saudi
          editions of the Koran, for use in America’s prison system. These Wahhabi texts went even further
          than the original in recommending holy war against all Christians and Jews and secularists. To ob-
          serve all this was to witness a kind of cultural suicide: an ‘assisted suicide’ at which believers and
          unbelievers were both prepared to officiate.

Even Christian apologist Chris Hedges, in a 2010 lecture in Toronto promoting his book Death of the Liberal Class, was prophetic in the way that he articulated the idea that, beyond the obvious reality that the Muslim religion is a danger to society from without, toleration for Christianity no matter what form it takes is the biggest danger from within.

          One of the great failings of the church is that, with the rise of the Christian right—which I look at
          as a mass movement, not a religious movement, a group of Christian heretics, people who have
          acculturated the worst aspects of capitalism, imperialism, greed, chauvinism, and racism into the
          Christian religion-—the liberal church remained silent and said nothing . . . In the process they
          have surrendered their moral authority. They have nothing left to say to us.

It’s clear that this way of thinking comes from the very American idea that in limiting someone else’s freedom, we can inadvertently wind up limiting our own. But the problem in using this idea to support religious toleration is that the result winds up being exactly the opposite. In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris makes the attempt to convey this idea directly to the bulk of the religiously deceived in this country. “It is my hope . . . that [the Christian right] will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faiths.” Harris also points out that religious tolerance leads quite naturally to the dangerous belief that all religions are equal, when they’re clearly not. In a lecture about The End of Faith from 2005, Harris goes on to say that, “Religious moderation prevents us from even noticing the differences among our religions. Under cover of this respect, we are now powerless to say the very harsh and necessary things about religious extremism that we need to say because it is taboo, [because] you have to respect faith. [And yet] by no stretch of the imagination can you argue that the core principal of Islam is non-violence.” The reality is, even though you can argue that the core principal of Christianity is non-violence, the history of Christianity is filled with senseless bloodshed. And as we in the United States know from personal experience, the violence propagated by Islam is just as great. “We are at war,” says Harris, “with Islamic fundamentalism.”

Noam Chomsky, at least, seems to understand that you can’t separate a person’s beliefs from the person themselves. But that is not the case for moderate Christians who plead for religious toleration in the mistaken belief that religion itself is good while only individuals are to blame for their bad actions. Nothing is more emblematic of this faulty logic than Ben Affleck’s pathetic appearance on Bill Maher. Affleck was nearly apoplectic at the suggestion that Islam is a bad religion, for the simple fact that there are “good Muslims.” What he completely failed to understand, however, is that the very phrase “bad religion” is itself redundant. Nothing good can come from people shutting down their minds and refusing to think, and then acting on that ignorance. One of the best rhetorical devices for exposing erroneous thinking is to take a person’s belief—in this case that only the actions of individuals should be considered, not the belief system behind it that causes their actions—and apply it to another situation. Take a family who has a sick child, suffering in torment. But instead of taking the child to the doctor or a hospital, they pray over the child until it finally succumbs to something that could have been cured with modern medicine. Would Affleck think that’s a good thing? I doubt it. Further, would he really believe that it is only those isolated parents who are to blame, or is the real culprit the Christian Science indoctrination that led them to falsely believe that prayer alone could cure their child? Just last year Matt Dillahunty had a terrific take on the death of Billy Graham that demonstrates this very point. “When Billy Graham died the other day I wasn’t glad that he was dead because he was an enemy, I was happy that he was no longer alive to poison minds, because what he believes is the enemy.”

The problem isn’t with people in the first place, and never has been, which seems to be a major sticking point for Affleck and others like him that they can’t seem to get past. The real problem lies in a belief system based on magical thinking and supernatural superstition that forces people to suspend intelligent thought. The people themselves aren’t bad, but their beliefs are no matter how they behave, and Affleck was unable to make that distinction. This is another point that Lawrence Krauss made at the economic forum. “I agree with you completely, that you can’t condemn a whole population because of some individual. But the difference is, there are no rule makers in science.” At this point Krauss heads in another direction, but in his book The Greatest Story Every Told—So Far, he completes the thought in a more succinct way. “In science the very word sacred is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass.” But this is not the case in religion, in which words and ideas are said to be above reproach, above questioning, and to be taken on faith as absolutely true. And the only reason this seems to work is because for so many people their indoctrination begins well before the age of reason. How ironic in our society that children are not assumed to be intellectually capable of consenting to sex until they are eighteen, and yet from the time they are born they are brainwashed into believing in the fantasy of religion. As Dawkins says in The God Delusion, “I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear the phrase such as ‘Catholic child’ or ‘Muslim child’ . . . children are too young to know where they stand on such issues, just as they are too young to know where they stand on economics or politics.”

And this leads, quite naturally, to the inability of people who have been indoctrinated as children to think as adults, Christians who think and believe in things that are for the most part indistinguishable from their Islamic brethren. Again, Sam Harris weighs in:

          Another problem with religious moderation is that it is intellectually bankrupt. It really represents a
          fundamentally unprincipled use of reason. I’ve got news for you. I’ve read the books, and God is
          not a moderate. These books really are engines of fundamentalism; they are engines of intolerance;
          [they] laid the foundations for the Inquisition. This is not an accident. We have this idea that the fact
          that we were burning heretics alive for five centuries in Europe represented some kind of departure,
          a civilizational departure into psychopathology. It didn’t. It is perfectly reasonable to do this, if you
          believe the books.

This way of thinking, of course, is in direct opposition to scientific inquiry. “The problem with faith,” Harris continues, “is that it’s conversation stopper. You hear religious people say things like, ‘There’s nothing you can say that will change my mind.’ Just imagine that said in medicine. Only a willingness to take on and consider new evidence and new argument guarantees that this human collaboration is open ended,” rather than ending in war and death. In a 2012 discussion with Richard Dawkins in Australia, Lawrence Krauss had this to say about the vast difference between the kind of close-minded lack of thinking exhibited by religious adherents, and the scientific experience. “Science changes what we mean by words, and it changes what we mean because we actually learn about the Universe. We actually make progress in science, unlike theology. That’s because we can be wrong, and we can learn.” A year later in Switzerland Krauss gave a more specific example of what it really means to learn. “What scientists hope for, and what science does for us, and what I hope every student and every person experiences once in their life, is to have something they deeply believe in, that’s at the heart of their being, and without it they wouldn’t feel they’re human, proved to be wrong. It happens to me every day as a scientist and that opens your mind.” As author Aron Ra says in his book Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism, “I would rather spend my life learning than pretending to be learned.”

This actually happened to me the other day, and Lawrence Krauss was absolutely right: it has been one of the most exhilarating things I have ever experienced in my life. It wasn’t even something that I was particularly attached to, and yet it was still intellectually overwhelming. Science historian James Burke called one of his programs The Day The Universe Changed because of the way scientific discovery completely rearranges the way we see and understand the universe. And that’s just about the way I felt after listening to Richard Carrier discuss the historical reasons for making the claim that Jesus Christ never really existed. This was a bombshell for me. Despite the crazy claims and fictional stories rife in the New Testament, I never doubted for a moment that Jesus was a real man who lived in the first century and after his death was the center of a religious mythology that was gradually built up around him. And Carrier apparently felt the same way. “For a long time I thought this was a crackpot theory, that Jesus didn’t exist. The whole Jesus myth idea was nonsense and I thought I could easily refute it.” It turns out that upon closer examination Carrier became convinced—as I have—that the supposedly historical Jesus was actually a myth, one of dozens of mystery cults that operated in the Eastern Mediterranean at the time. This particular one mixed Judaic elements with a mythical Hellenic sky god who was killed and resurrected, then Euhemerized later and subsequently written about as if he were an actual man.

Of course Carrier’s research doesn’t “prove” anything, but that’s not the point. Just like the hard sciences, the goal isn’t to prove what’s true but to disprove what is false and then study the remainder. And Carrier’s latest book, On the Historicity of Jesus, spends seven hundred pages doing exactly that. What is left, then, is historical research that is convincing on its face. More compelling even than the lack of an obvious historical Jesus, is the abundance of similar mystery cults at the time as well as resurrection myths that predate Christianity and seem to explain quite convincingly the origins of the modern Jesus cult. Though Carrier is scrupulous in refusing to make a definitive statement that the historical Jesus never existed, it’s clear what his research demonstrates. He had previously debunked the Gospels and most of the New Testament, and add to that the fact that the title of his forthcoming book is Jesus from Outer Space, and it seems fairly clear where he stands on the subject. It was such an astounding revelation for me, especially in the way that it tends to put Christianity on a more even basis with other religious mythology. The Christian Jesus as a sky god who does battle with Satan in outer space, now seems every bit as crazy as Mormonism or Scientology . . . because it is. It has only been a massively successful PR campaign over the last two thousand years that has made it seem even slightly more rational . . . but it’s not.

In a previous post I wrote “If history has shown us anything, it is that the problems of today are ones that cannot be solved by religion, Christian or otherwise, and anyone who believes differently has bought into an even bigger fairy tale than the Bible.” While “faith” and a belief in magic and supernatural deities may have sustained man and served some kind of purpose centuries ago, it has clearly become a hindrance to modern society and needs to be stopped. Comedian Jim Jefferies has a terrific analogy to illustrate the problem—and from which I removed the profanity.

          If you’re religious, I’m sure some of you might be very nice, but you are slowing us down. We’re
          trying to move forward and you’re in the way, I’m sorry. Now, imagine that the world is a train track
          and society’s a train going forward. Now in this train we have the people in the engine room, running
          the show, and they’re the scientists. These are people inventing medicines for you to live longer and
          finding alternative fuel sources, and engineers making machines run more efficiently. Whether you
          like it or not, scientists are primarily atheists and they’re all in the front carriage dragging us along.
          Now in the second carriage we have the wishy-washy agnostics. They’re all standing around going,
          “Who knows?” Then there’s this last carriage that’s fifty times bigger than the first two carriages
          combined, with the rest of the human race dancing and going, “Man on a cloud, man on a cloud.”
          And there are so many of them that the train is hardly moving. And the people in the engine room
          are like this [looking down at the coupling], “If I just pull this peg here . . . Do you know how fast we’d
          be moving?”

Back in the World Economic Forum in 2013, Lawrence Krauss came up with a more pointed analogy when another panelist attempted to argue about the “importance” of religion: "The question isn’t, 'Is religion important?' because that’s an obvious thing. Religion is obviously important. So are nuclear weapons. The question is, 'Is religion outmoded, and are nuclear weapons outmoded, and would the world be a better place without them?' And the answer to both those is, yes. Neither of them, in the modern world, serve a productive purpose." Krauss inadvertently connects two things here that are much more serious than simply the lack of a productive purpose, because when religious people act on their ignorance with righteous indignation bad things result, especially if they involve nuclear weapons. The greatest physical threat to our society today is the possibility of a religious terrorist—of any stripe—who manages to obtain and set off a nuclear device. And it doesn’t even have to be a terrorist. Stephen King presented another scenario back in 1978 in his novel The Dead Zone when a psychotic Christian politician—redundant, I know—makes his way to the White House and starts World War Three. Ultimately it is the contempt for life on Earth—the only life that we can be sure we have—by those who believe in a divine afterlife, that is the most corrosive force in the world today. As Christopher Hitchens explains, “Something I find repulsive about monotheistic messianic religion is that a large part of it clearly wants us all to die. It wants this world to come to an end . . . we will be with Jesus, and the rest of you can go straight to hell.” Finally, Hitchens expresses the real goal of anti-theism. “This belief in a supreme and unalterable tyranny is the oldest enemy of our species, the oldest enemy of our intellectual freedom and our moral autonomy, and must be met and must be challenged and must be overthrown.”

That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because atheism is not enough, as religious toleration has allowed religious extremism to grow and threaten our very way of life. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because religion is defined by its hatred and intolerance for the other, and has completely undermined and sabotaged the efforts toward peaceful coexistence and cooperation in the world. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because those who believe in the fantasy of an afterlife don’t care if they kill us all, and are actively working to achieve that end. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because in our modern world there is too much at stake to allow those who believe in myth and lies to control the lives of the rest of us. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because allowing irrationality to flourish unchecked is not conducive to a healthy society. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because a book written by people who had almost no scientific knowledge has absolutely no relevance to our lives today. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because totalistic belief systems shut down the willingness and ability of people to learn and grow. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because the uncritical belief and acceptance of lies like creationism threaten the very existence of life on this planet. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because the future of our world is going to depend on children who are being lied to and indoctrinated into an anti-intellectual belief system that will render them incapable of solving problems by discovering solutions that will be essential to their survival. That is why I’m an anti-theist. Because people who believe in the fantasy of religious mythology deserve a better life and need to be awakened from their intellectual stupor. That is why I’m an anti-theist.

Monday, March 19, 2018

White Makes Right: Racism in America

Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs
by David Ikard

Twenty years ago I read a terrific novel by Fredrick Barton called With Extreme Prejudice. It was a mystery set in New Orleans in which the central murder was racially motivated. One of the things that mystified me at the time was how the white protagonist’s efforts to demonstrate his lack of racial prejudice only made his black friend and co-worker angrier with him. Though it was explained at the end of the novel, that feeling of confusion as I read the book always stayed with me. Ten years ago when I was with my wife and two young boys at Disneyland, we were in a long line waiting to get into Pirates of the Caribbean. Next to us was a black family with a small girl who couldn’t have been more than two years old. She did something incredibly cute--I can’t remember now what it was--but I remember looking up at her father and smiling with parental recognition at what she had done. Instead of a knowing return of my smile, however, he simply glared at me and turned away. I remember being incredibly angry about the incident, and it had nothing to do with his behavior. I was angry that we still lived in a country where he had every right to be angry with a white man he didn’t even know. Though I didn’t fully understand either incident at the time, I knew instinctively that racial prejudice in this country was very real. What I understand now, is that it may be as bad as it ever was.

There have been three major phases of racial discrimination against blacks in the United States. The first begins with the settling of this country in the seventeenth century and runs right up to the Civil War. During that phase black slavery was openly practiced, protected by the Constitution, and rationalized as an economic necessity in the southern states. The second phase begins after the Civil War and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, with the end of Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow laws in the South. Legalized segregation, voting disenfranchisement, and the turning of a blind eye toward lynching lasted another hundred years until the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. The third and most insidious phase is the one we live in now, in which white supremacy has finally gone mainstream, resulting in a backlash against civil rights, equal status under the law, equal opportunity, the promulgation of the myths of white fear and white fragility, and specious accusations of reverse racism against blacks. What Vanderbilt University professor David Ikard does so well in his new book, Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs, is to show that while those first two phases may be over, their effects can still be felt today in the white blindness this country operates within. “It is rare indeed--even in this day and time--to get most whites to acknowledge that racism still exists or, for that matter, that slavery, segregation, and racial terrorism of the past are responsible in large part for the problems that plague Black America in the twenty-first century” (Ikard 15).

I purchased this book while doing research for my own book on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, but I was utterly unprepared for what I found in the pages of what I assumed would be a straightforward literary analysis. What emerges from Ikard’s treatise is a philosophy of white supremacy that has informed this country’s thinking since its inception, a way of look at the world through white power and privilege that seems no different in 2018 than it was in 1618. As his starting point, Ikard uses the works of James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time) and Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark) to identify and define the nature of white supremacist thinking in America—and it’s important to note that this is not a phrase that refers to radical, fringe elements like the KKK, but regular Americans who don’t even think of themselves as racist. “Whites often genuinely do not see the consequences of their oppression or privilege because they have conditioned themselves not to see them” (Ikard 14). He then builds upon their ideas to show how this unconscious belief system has informed notions of white identity and, far more tragically, black identity for centuries. This way of understanding the world is not a new one, but has roots in many more areas of cultural life in the United States, in which default assumptions of normalcy include Christianity, patriarchy, and capitalism.

Though Ikard mentions all three of these in passing, he doesn’t go into depth about similar modes of thought control in other areas of American life as a way of explaining the incredible longevity and tenacious hold that racism still has in this country. My recent exploration of the writers of the Frankfurt School has opened my eyes to a world of propaganda and manipulation that disguises itself as cultural identity, but actually has as its only goal the indoctrination of people to a particular way of thinking and behaving that aids and abets the ruling powers who benefit from the control over laborers, women, and minorities that comes when they internalize these false beliefs. Max Horkheimer, one of the critical theorists from the Frankfurt School, wrote about the challenge faced by those who would attempt to make society better, when faced with a nation of people who have been taught, and internalized, that the status quo--whether White, Christian, Patriarchal, or Capitalist--is normal and good, and that anything else must therefore be bad. Though Horkheimer was writing about capitalism, the concept itself is applicable to any of the societal assumptions that American culture operates within.

          Because a bad society transacts man’s business although it does it badly, the person that endangers
          its survival also acts directly against mankind; [mankind’s] friend appears as its enemy. In reality, the
          bad cannot be disentangled from the good, and therefore the fight against what is outdated also
          appears as the fight against what is necessary . . . [This results in the] absolute readiness to loyally
          adopt all significant values of the ruling class, to hate and libel the person who commits his life to the
          improvement of conditions . . . Every thought, every show of sympathy, every relationship, every minor
          or major act against the ruling class involves the risk of personal disadvantage . . . People who want
          to get somewhere must early acquire beliefs which enable them to have a good conscience as they
          do what reality demands . . . The system affects everything, down to the most delicate tendrils of the
          individual’s soul. It has placed a premium on vileness. (Horkheimer 29-31)

Because of this, ideas like cut throat competition, male chauvinism, religious superiority, American exceptionalism --and racism--are the norm in this country, and to go against those ideas is, in a perverted way, to be anti-American. In Ikard’s words, “Critical engagements with our nation’s troubled and troubling past are treated as unpatriotic, socially disruptive, and bordering on treason” (Ikard 19). Thus these ideas are absorbed and normalized in our society through the media, education, and business to the point where the vast majority of citizens don’t even realize their thoughts are not their own, and yet have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they defend those thoughts as if they were.

Ikard opens the book with an introduction in which he relates the story of being accosted by a fellow professor at a book signing who, in the guise of mistakenly trying to correct the author about the rap group NWA, used the word “nigger” loudly and freely, much to the shock not only of most of those within earshot but to the author himself. He relates the incident as an example of what Robin DeAngelo calls “white fragility,” a negative reaction by whites to the suggestion that their unconscious behaviors constitute a substantial and continuing assault on black citizenship in America. “My sense is that, at bottom, he was actually upset with the audacity of my claim that even the most progressive (middle- and upper-class) white liberals have a deep and abiding investment in certain aspects of white supremacy and, by extension, institutionalized racial inequality” (Ikard 3). The offending professor is also an example of Brit Bennett’s “Good White People,” whites who are not only unaware of how their unconscious beliefs perpetuate white supremacy, but are also unable to comprehend how their “ostensible gestures of white goodwill and good intentions reproduce white supremacy in the expectation of, if not demand for, black gratitude” (4). The basis for this behavior is the way in which blacks are perceived in the culture, “the unuttered racial mindset that blacks are prone to criminal and pathological behavior” (5). Rather than apologize, the professor insisted on reciting his anti-racist credentials to Ikard, even going so far as to continue his demand for recognition by sending Ikard an email later. This, then, explains the wide disparity in the experiences of the fictional characters in Fredrick Barton’s novel, which Ikard summarizes rather neatly: “Whites are simply defending their right to remain socially, culturally, and economically dominant; blacks and people of color are defending their very humanity” (8).

The episode goes by rather quickly, and though Ikard doesn’t take the time to spell it out in his introduction, it seems to me to be the real thesis of the book. Whites have been the dominant racial group in the United States for the past four hundred years. Very little--if anything--that happens to blacks has an impact on the lives of white Americans. The relative comfort from which they view the racial struggles in this country are light years away from the day to day experiences of blacks, who find themselves fighting battles on seemingly every front, from being defined as the other--as opposed to the white appropriation of normalcy--to ongoing insensitivity in nearly every aspect of society, marginalization in education and employment, negative portrayals in the media, and a white majority who seems to have no interest in defending obvious abuses that range from racial profiling to overrepresented incarceration to murder. Whites—quite literally—have no idea what the black experience in America is like. Max Horkheimer had something to say about that as well:

          Our privileged position, our capacity for experiencing the suffering of all living beings within ourselves
          does not mean that we can truly become one with them and certainly not that we can free anyone by
          that act of identification. We can make the life of individuals easier, we can deduce some practical
          consequences from empirical insight. But we are still surrounded by a sea of darkness which cannot
          be illuminated by language. (Horkheimer 31)

This is what I see as real white blindness. Acknowledging that whites know absolutely nothing about the suffering that blacks have experienced seems to be the first step toward meaningful change--much more meaningful, certainly, than pretending to empathize with or understand what whites cannot possibly know. But instead the opposite happens, an example of which is one of the most misguided attempts at addressing white ignorance ever put on film. White Man’s Burden, starring Harry Belafonte and John Travolta, was intended to provide a vicarious experience for whites by reversing their role in society. Belafonte is now the rich member of the dominant black class, while Travolta is an example of the oppressed white minority. Instead of allowing whites to see what they are doing to blacks, however, all the film does is to perpetuate racial stereotypes: blacks are cruel and heartless while whites are good hearted and put upon. Even with the roles reversed, whites are still the good guys and blacks the bad. The term “epic fail” was never more appropriate in describing a work of art than it is with this film. In this context it’s no wonder that white sympathy and assurances of understanding are cause for black anger rather than gratitude, as the very real plight of blacks in this country is “not going to matter one way or another in terms of exploding white supremacist ideology or institutional dominance” (Ikard 132).

In his first chapter Ikard contrasts the two versions of the slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup, which presents a challenge to any analysis right up front because of the unclear nature of the authorship. While the story was Northrup’s, it was actually written by white attorney David Wilson. The result is a curious disconnect between portions of the narrative which attempt to expose the inhumanity of slavery, while at the same time seemingly making a moral distinction between slave owners, going so far as to call one of them, “a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession” (Ikard 22). This is one of the earliest examples of what Ikard calls “the low bar of black expectation” (12). Because the white terrorism against blacks was so horrific in the past, whites see any concession toward blacks as something that should be gratefully acknowledged. But problems arise, in the form of perpetuation of this behavior, when blacks willingly engage in it along with whites.

          The metaphoric bar of black expectation of humane treatment from whites was often set very low,
          meaning that blacks experienced white common decency . . . as laudable and even heroic. This
          calculus of low expectations, gratitude, and indebtedness made blacks who pushed for true racial
          equality seem radical and dangerous to whites and to a significant number of blacks. (12)

These historically low expectations for white behavior toward blacks are an example of Ikard’s first trope, the lovable racist, in which as long as token recognition of blacks by whites is seen as something that blacks should be grateful for, otherwise racist ideologies and behaviors by whites should be ignored. “A lovable racist is a white character who is rendered in such a way that it encourages the reader or viewer to see his/her racism or inhumanity toward backs or people of color as a minor, if not justifiable, character flaw” (24). The end result of this tacit acceptance of white racism is that anyone who challenges the status quo—black or white—appears to be operating outside the accepted mode of societal behavior and is therefore to be feared.

Ikard goes on to show how this trope makes no sense on its face. Despite Solomon’s contention--via Wilson’s authorship--that “Were all men such as he [the good slave master], Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness,” the mere idea that slavery of any kind is acceptable is absurd (Ikard 22). Thus Ikard partially titles this chapter, “Good Slave Masters Don’t Exist.” The author then compares the dubious nature of Solomon’s narrative with the more demonstratively anti-slavery narrative of Frederick Douglass, and finally goes on to illuminate the significant changes that were made to the narrative when it was produced as the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. What screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen were able to do, according to Ikard, is take the isolated narrative of Solomon and the uncomfortable issue of who is responsible for his lauding of the “good slave master,” and include “the critical perspectives of other enslaved blacks” in order to provide a “space therein to interrogate the problems of lovable racist thinking” by both Solomon and the viewer (27). Solomon’s defense of the kindly slave owner Ford in the narrative is indicative of what Ikard calls “battered slave syndrome,” in which the slave, like the battered wife the term is derived from, exhibits “the conditioned belief, borne of fear and violent verbal and physical assault, that you cannot escape the abusive relationship; that compromising with your abuser on his terms, and with the misguided belief that things will get better over time, is the best way to manage the relationship” (27). Using other slaves in the film, primarily black women, to essentially call out Solomon’s timid reaction to his captivity, provides what Ikard calls a “corrective intervention” to the white supremacist thinking that defends slavery as an institution and the continued belief in white supremacy in American society that has evolved from that defense.

Ikard’s second chapter is a fascinating exploration of the way in which ideas of white supremacy are passed on to children, and the attempt to disguise that indoctrination with the myth of “white innocence.” The idea here is that the complete disavowal of the way in which children absorb societal norms and understand their place in society gives whites a way of rationalizing their own internalized negative beliefs about people of color. “The extant myth of white innocence functions on many levels to obscure the systemic ways in which white privilege and power are passed down from one generation to the next” (Ikard 48). By linking whiteness to innocence, what whites are able to do is define whiteness as normal. In this way whiteness is the default setting, so to speak, for one’s existence in American society. Referencing tragedies like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or the school shooting in Newtown, and contrasting public reaction to aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Ikard says, “What this means in terms of lived experience of race is that whites’ problems are American problems and people of color’s problems are people of color’s problems” (51). When victims are primarily—or assumed to be—white, as in the 9/11 attacks, societal discourse tends to center on how to protect future victims. When victims are primarily black, however, discourse tends to devolve into back complicity in their own suffering.

          If the shooter in Sandy Hook were a black or a person of color, then the entire political focus point
          would change. Rather than addressing the possible motives for the shooting, including mental health
          issues and violent video games, the focus would be on the supposed criminality and violence of black
          men and politicians would be calling for heightened surveillance of and profiling of black men. (55)

From here Ikard goes on to show how the idea of white innocence has bee able to adjust to the changing cultural landscape as the country has moved through its phases of racial prejudice. “As we know, ideologies of power are not easily dismantled. When they face serious social, cultural, or economic challenges, as was the case with white supremacist ideology during the Civil Rights Movement, they adjust like a chameleon to the new environment” (57). The author uses the example of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to demonstrate the way in which her abolitionist sentiments were tempered by a reliance on the trope of the “magical negro,” which actually served to reinforce white supremacist thinking about blacks within a call for an end to the practice of slavery but not its underlying ideology. “In order to make . . . Uncle Tom redemptive within her white liberal paternalistic framework, Stowe had to make him pathologically selfless and tether his redemption to white paternalistic Christian sponsorship, protection, and logic” (58). In this way the character of Tom has to fit into the expectation of black gratitude in order not to be seen as an outlier, undeserving of white intervention. Thus, as Ikard demonstrates, “The key point here is that white redemption, not racial equality, is the driving motivation behind the novel” (59). In modern entertainment terms, “updated versions of these myths in pathologically self-sacrificial, caring, and loving sidekicks, lucky charms, maids, secretaries, butlers, and mascots operate to obscure the lingering and tenacious legacy of white supremacist slavery” (61).

In this way the Magical Negro is directly related to the Lovable Racist. Granting specialness to certain blacks who adhere to white expectations, and then showing their gratitude on screen or in the pages of a novel, serves to reinforce the idea that it is only through white largess that blacks earn their way into a modified version of citizenship. “The idea of indebtedness to whites derives from the thinking that whites must ‘accept’ blacks into US society and make the grand sacrifice of tolerating their integration in white schools and other previously segregated spaces . . . which, of course, drives willful white blindness [and] radically informs black notions of self-determinism and agency” (15). At the same time, however, the magical negro is unable to escape from the very debilitating definitions imposed on him by the white majority. Ikard makes this clear by examining Stephen King’s The Green Mile. Though the character of John Coffey is eventually turned into a Christ figure, he is at first understood by all the whites in the film to be a child murderer and rapist—an assumption that is never questioned because of his blackness. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the film is not about the humanity of the black character--who “is a modern-day version of Uncle Tom with the temperament and IQ if a very tame ten-year-old”--but instead is about the redemption of the jailer Paul (62). Despite whatever redeeming qualities John might have, including complete innocence of the crime, the black man remains in jail the entire film and is ultimately executed. “It purports on a surface level to expose white racism as vile. But in reality the racist idea that black men in general are criminals and prone to violence is never seriously under scrutiny” (64). In the end, the message of the film is ultimately that Paul is to be forgiven for his racist assumptions about John, thus reinforcing his position as a lovable racist, forgiven yet again, by the magical negro.

What I found most enlightening in Ikard’s book was his discussion of distraction as a means of oppressing blacks. This is something that I have been extremely familiar with in the context of capitalism’s indoctrination of consumers. By providing all sorts of distractions, from cell phones and social media, to video games, sports and entertainment, citizen-consumers are continuously kept from examining their lives and the true nature of their place in society. Ikard’s distraction, however, is more along the lines of changing definitions in order to redirect the argument in a completely different direction. One of these distractions is a perversion of one of our most sacred legal precepts, innocent until proven guilty. In practice, however, the media typically portrays black victims in the most unflattering light possible, which in real terms renders them guilty until proven innocent. “This pattern of perpetually placing blacks in this defensive posture is immensely advantageous to the dominant white supremacist power structure as it allows whites to blame imagined black pathologies for black social and economic struggles without having to contend with their white privilege, pathological racist behavior or the white supremacist power structure that licenses black social degradation and death” (70). By constantly having to prove their innocence, or refute white victim blaming, blacks are never able to get out from under the argument and focus attention on the real cause of inequity: white oppression. Ikard also goes on to cite Derrick Bell in an argument that is a variation on Richard Hofstadter’s “pseudo-conservative” from the mid nineteen-fifties. Rather than giving ordinary citizens a true path to success, and as a way to keep them mindlessly working for corporate interests, the controlling elite has instead given them a common enemy in the form of people of color. “Instead of providing the masses with access to real wealth and power, they provided them with embodied wealth in the form of control and dominance over blacks” (74). Ultimately, as Ikard shows, this is simply a variation on property rights concerning blacks that goes back to the days of slavery.

Making the situation even more untenable is white reaction to calls for examination of white complicity in continued black disenfranchisement in the form of intentional misunderstanding. “It places the onus on blacks to prove to whites what they already know to be true and have a significant socio-economic stake in not knowing or acknowledging--namely, that blacks are human beings whose basic rights to freedom have been ruthlessly trampled on by whites for economic, social and cultural gain” (76). But the biggest distraction of all comes in the form of white admonishment for any act by blacks that seeks to make headway in seeking redress for four hundred years of oppression and abuse that can only be defined as white terrorism. From so-called black “rebellion” in the days of slavery, to marches and protests in the Jim Crow era, to movements like Black Lives Matter, white response has always been to see these acts through the lens of black sabotage of their own cause. Ikard cites James Baldwin as identifying “the white habit of perpetually blaming blacks for the consequences of long-standing patterns of white oppression and then claiming ignorance and innocence when their destructive tactics breed civil unrest and protest like Civil Rights and Black Power movements” (78). The result of this distraction trap, as Ikard puts it, is “treating violent black responses to white violence as the source of the racial conflict . . . [exposing] the audacity of the chief historical white perpetrators of looting and violence against black humanity to proclaim that they are somehow victims when blacks retaliate in self-defense or protest against such white assaults” (77).

The overt way in which white society has co-opted black cultural achievement in areas like music and sports is fairly well known. What is far less understood is the way in which the dominant white culture has absorbed successful black resistance and rendered it impotent by folding it back into the larger white supremacist historical narrative. This has certainly happened with Martin Luther King, Jr., but also with figures like Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. “Radical black human rights movements and black leaders who inspired them become deradicalized to the point of gross historical distortion. Their laudable stories of resistance, organizing, strategizing, and outwitting their white oppressors in pursuit of racial equality and social justice are transformed . . . into feel-good narratives about the American Dream, white redemption, and American exceptionalism” (10). In the fourth chapter of the book Ikard examines more closely the Magical Negro trope, in which the motivations of black leaders and heroes to resist white oppression is turned instead into proof of white magnanimity, and used to further rationalize continued white dominance. In this way white culture is able to turn someone like Dr. King who, at the time, “was tagged as a kind of terrorist threat to the United States,” into a what can be seen by whites as a “good black” today (131). Unfortunately, propaganda itself makes no distinction between races, and blacks are equally susceptible to its false messages as whites. “Because what we experience as real is inextricably tethered to what we have been conditioned and policed to experience as real, it is often an uphill battle to get even oppressed people to see how white supremacist apparatuses . . . have altered their perceptions of self-determination, personal accountability, meritocracy, institutional racism, and reality itself” (95-96).

Interestingly, white messiahs get very little attention in Ikard’s book, perhaps because they are so closely related to the lovable racist. The examples he gives are Clint Eastwood’s racist character from Gran Torino who, in the end, sacrifices himself for the Hmong teenagers who live next door, but in doing so vilifies the gang members who have tormented them, “because the film treats the gangbangers as heartless thugs, ignoring not only their humanity but also the white supremacist capitalism that has decimated their community” (25). The other white messiah that Ikard singles out is Bill Clinton, and by association Hillary. Despite Clinton’s affinity for blacks and black voters, his record on drugs and incarceration prove his policies to be every bit as deleterious to black self-determination as the culture at large. Again, this is another example of someone whose claims of black advocacy are only successful in comparison with the more extreme hatred of blacks professed by those on the political right. “Culturally speaking, white-messiah figures like Clinton are able to leverage blacks’ historically low expectation of just white treatment to appear heroic in their empathy toward black concerns . . . In reality his welfare reform and crime policies have had a devastating impact on black communities” (15-16). Likewise Ikard sees Hillary Clinton’s pivot on Black Lives Matter--from initially declaring that “all lives matter” to supporting the cause when running against a blatant racist--as motivated by “social pressure and political expediency” rather than a genuine “change of heart” (16).

While Ikard deals briefly with the interconnection of capitalism and racism, his final chapter brings religion, specifically Christianity, into the mix as well. He returns to the idea of the indoctrination of children, this time using the imagery of Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, both religious icons despite their seeming differences. Tellingly, Ikard also associates the two figures with other elements of American cultural mythology, as well as illuminating their use in social propaganda. “Because being white is still synonymous culturally with being ‘normal,’ the cultural programming of our children vis-à-vis whitewashed superheroes, myths, and religious figures typically flies under the radar of concern . . . What’s more, the majority of villains and antichrist figures tend to be of a darker hue . . . Even black folks internalize these messages (oftentimes despite ourselves) because we have been conditioned to see them as universal and morally transcendent” (112-113). And just as with Critical Theory, Ikard accurately assesses the role that the media and entertainment play as the tool of the oligarchical elite in controlling the cultural messages that have become an intrinsic part of the American experience for all citizens. “If we take seriously the intensity and insidiousness of the white supremacist messaging that is rendered through fairy tales, mythologies, cartoons, and even religion in the United States, it should become clear that we cannot rid our society of racial inequality if we cannot rid ourselves of the cultural mediums that reproduce and substantiate it . . . There is nothing random or innocent about this whitewashing phenomenon. Santa Claus and the Judeo-Christian messiah figure Jesus are constructed as white for specific political and ideological purposes” (125).

Again, this is all part of a white supremacist ideology in which, counterintuitively, the white majority has a vested interest in promoting racial tension. Some critics argue, and Ikard references, that the whole idea of racial difference is merely a construct that continues to reinforce white appropriation of normalcy compared to that of any people of color.

          Americans and Westerners in general conceptualize brown Middle Eastern terrorists as heartless
          religious fanatical monsters who prey on the weak—a conceptualization that conspicuously ignores
          how Christianity and white supremacy has been employed for centuries in the United States to exploit,
          dominate, enslave, and murder generations of people of color, especially people of African descent” (131).

In a curious case of construction, Ikard saves his most powerful argument for the end of the book, in a coda that is not only highly personal, but chilling in its implications. By far the most disturbing aspect of continued white supremacist indoctrination is the devaluation of the lives of people of color. Ikard references the terrorist killings in a black church in South Carolina by Dylan Roof. While whites clearly define attacks against other whites as terrorism, they refuse to do so when the victims are black. Attacks on white school children, now too numerous to list, are seen as hate crimes by mentally ill white perpetrators. Black children dying everyday in in urban neighborhoods, on the other hand, are virtually ignored, even though their numbers are far greater than the more highly publicized massacres. But even that cannot compare with the tragedy that is the blatant killing of black citizens by white police officers. The ubiquitous number of murders of innocent and unarmed blacks by police--especially considering that nearly all of the white police officers wind up being exonerated--is no less than the modern day equivalent of lynching.

In a word, the book is brilliant. Ikard resists the temptation to give in to deconstructionist fantasies that are hardly relevant. Instead, his literary examples are well drawn, and his references to other analyses by the likes of Baldwin and Morrison are equally well chosen. If there’s a criticism it is that he doesn’t take enough time to explain the context in which his literary arguments are being made. He criticizes white authors and filmmakers for their white blindness in terms of the myths they perpetuate, but he isn’t necessarily blaming them. Their white blindness simply reflects their own indoctrination and the identification of that unconscious racism is finally the point, by allowing the reader see the ways that white supremacist thinking has always been part of America’s cultural landscape. While he rightly criticizes them by pointing out what they could have done instead, I have the sense that he isn’t blaming them for what they should have done. At least I hope that’s the case--although it may be my own white blindness that makes me think that. I also take exception with Ikard’s blanket condemnation of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, as I’m not sure he fully understands that Huck is anything but redeemed at the end of the novel and Twain indicts society fairly decisively in the form of Tom. But these are minor quibbles in an impressive work overall.

As Horkheimer said, it’s impossible for whites to know the suffering that they have put blacks through in this country, as mere language is not enough to convey what it’s like, for example, for black parents to have to give “the talk” to their children. That said, however, it’s not to difficult to take their word for it, especially considering the mountain of empirical evidence that is available. At the same time, language cannot be overlooked as a means to continue to apply pressure to a system that has built in resistance to change. “As exasperating as it may be at times to speak out on racism and white supremacy, it is crucial that anti-racist scholars within and beyond black spaces do so wherever and whenever we encounter it.” By going beyond mere literary analysis, David Ikard has masterfully demonstrated how racial tropes in literature not only reflect but inform a way of thinking in this country that significantly devalues the lives of people of color. Lovable Racists, Magical Negroes, and White Messiahs should not just be on the bookshelf of every home in this country, it should be in the hands of every person in America so that they can begin to see how their unconscious behaviors negatively affect those around them, as well as their moral obligation to do something proactive about those behaviors.

Friday, November 3, 2017

A Revolution of the Mind (2010)

by Jonathan Israel

I was initially intrigued by A Revolution of the Mind because of Jonathan Israel’s thesis, that while the idea of revolutionary change that began in the Enlightenment has waned—after producing not only the American Revolution but subsequent revolutions in France and, a century later, in Russia—the actual ideals of Radical Enlightenment have become far more pervasive internationally than most people realize. The problem is, that isn’t his thesis at all. Israel is an authority on the Enlightenment, having written a number of books on the subject, this one based on a series of lectures given at Oxford in 2008. Unfortunately, the book is a challenge to read. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the scholarship. In fact, Israel’s command of the thinkers of the period and their ideas is impressive. What seems to be lacking is a coherent narrative, with similar ideas and expressions scattered throughout the book rather than dealt with individually and for a specific purpose. It’s still compelling reading, but repeated elucidation of the same ideas—sometimes by the same writers—feels redundant at times. The other negative is that many of his sentences are tortuous in execution and take some real work to tease out their true meaning. In re-reading them they appear much clearer, but in many instances they can hardly be said to flow. Ultimately the book seems to be less about the influence of the Enlightenment on later centuries and more about the differences between the two competing factions of thought at the time. And that, it turns out, is an incredibly important idea that has been virtually ignored by historians, and what makes the book itself so important in retrospect.

Israel makes a distinction right away between the moderate ideas of the Enlightenment period in history, which tended to advocate slow and gradual change over time, and what he calls Radical Enlightenment, “an originally clandestine movement of ideas, almost entirely hidden from public view during its earliest phase (the late seventeenth century).

          Radical Enlightenment is a set of basic principles that can be summed up concisely as: democracy;
          racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression and the
          press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separa-
          tion of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promo-
          ting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing
          control of the legislative process. It’s chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights,
          and status. (vii-viii)

All of this hardly seems radical today, but that is just Israel’s point. While in one sense the history of the United States can be viewed as a long, slow, steady decline from the ratifying of the Constitution in 1789, with religion, racism, sexism, intolerance for free speech, intrusion into personal lifestyle all trying to claw their way back to prominence in American political life—and with some success—there are still a majority of people in this country who hold dear those ideals that were promoted over three hundred years ago with only one thought in mind: to make people’s lives better. Surprisingly, according to Israel, “the history of this process—the gradual advance of the ideas underpinning democratic Enlightenment in the modern era—remains very little studied or known. Indeed, there exists scarcely any historical accounts that analyze and narrate the story of the origins and rise of modern equality, democracy, individual liberty, and freedom of thought in their intellectual, social, and political context” (ix).

Israel’s goals are ambitious and laudable. The unconscious nature of Western ideals means that they are vulnerable to being undermined by “long-dormant monarchical, aristocratic, and religious ideologies, privileged oligarchies and elites,” as well as “various Counter-Enlightenment popular movements that so resolutely and vehemently combat egalitarian and democratic values” around the world—and that includes the United States. (x-xi) “The risk,” he claims, “in considering our core values as purely abstract concepts,” is that they “remain only weakly embedded in education, the media, and in many people’s minds.” The paradox, here, in terms of American culture, is that an abstract idea of what the United States is was necessary for the cohesion of a population that had little else to bind it. This became especially crucial as immigration, expansion, and the Civil War threatened to destroy the tenuous bonds that existed between citizens of widely differing backgrounds. Authors Patrick J. Deneen and Joseph Romance make this clear in their book, Democracy’s Literature:

          Because of the continental expanse of the American system, such identification with the whole
          increasingly required a philosophic frame of mind. Devotion was not to “land” or place as such,
          but to the idea of America. We were a people devoted to a proposition, according to Lincoln, not
          to a particular piece of land in which generations of our ancestors were buried. America presented
          a unique challenge: how to cultivate a generalized philosophic disposition in the citizenry of such a
          sprawling and “abstract” nation . . . America was faced with a challenge—seemingly insurmountable—
          of making philosophy sufficiently accessible and broad yet sufficiently profound to forge a democratic
          seemingly insurmountable—citizenry on a mass scale. (Deneen 3).

For Israel, those necessarily abstract notions of America tend to lose their meaning in isolation, and for citizens to truly appreciate the kind of egalitarian principles that this country was founded on it requires that “Not only scholars but the general reading, debating, and voting public need some awareness of the tremendous difficulty, struggle, and cost involved in propagating our core ideas” (x, xii). In terms of the specific importance of this understanding for Americans, Israel makes clear what have been the two most dangerous enemies of freedom in this country for the last fifty years: anti-intellectualism and the capitalist oligarchy.

          Who can doubt that ignorance and credulity, identified by the eighteenth-century radical enlighteners
          as the prime cause of human degradation and oppression, remain still the foremost foes of democracy,
          equality, and personal freedom; or that an informal aristocracy, like that which arose in America,
          eventually nurturing vast inequality of wealth, can endanger equality and individual liberty as much as
          any formal nobility based on lineage, rank, and legally anchored privilege? (xii)

The book proper starts, rightly, with the great minds of the late seventeenth century, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Bayle, chief among them Spinoza. What Israel stresses is the theoretical nature of their thought, and the immense challenges that lay ahead of them for implementing the kinds of change they believed possible in order to make life better for all of humanity. Their pessimism, however, was borne out of a sense of the practical rather than the possible. “The notion, still widespread today,” says Israel, “that Enlightenment thinkers nurtured a naïve belief in man’s perfectability seems to be a complete myth conjured up by early twentieth-century scholars, unsympathetic to its claims” (3). Writers like Voltaire, Kant, Turgot and Hume, while expressing the Enlightenment belief in the ability of the mind to ennoble humanity, did not embrace the kind of egalitarianism that Israel is talking about. This, of course, is in direct opposition to someone like Thomas Paine, who advocated for nothing less than the wholesale reformation of European society. Many of the moderate thinkers simply couldn’t see what Paine did, from his vantage point of the successful American Revolution. For them, it was all well and good that the British in North America had thrown off their colonial yoke from three thousand miles away, but historically monarchical Europe was a different world. And the French Revolution only seemed to prove their point. Again, practical considerations tended to limit the scope of imagination in mainstream Enlightened thought. While Paine advocated something on the order of early suggestions during the Space Race—namely landing a man on the moon and worrying about how to get him back later—many thinkers of the day were not willing to take that kind of risk to achieve their aims. Hume, reflecting the views of many, “urged extreme caution—though admittedly not outright conservatism—when evaluating plans for the future depending on any ‘derangement in the only scenes with which we are acquainted’” (15).

This dichotomy of thought between radical and moderate Enlightenment thinking is actually plaguing us to this day, especially in the United States. As Israel points out, “all these were essentially either/or questions. Either history is infused by divine providence or it is not. Either one endorses a society of ranks or embraces equality, one approves representative democracy or opposes it . . . (18). The problem with the moderate Enlightenment is that it postulated “a balance between reason and tradition . . . broadly supporting the status quo” (19). Twentieth-century philosopher Max Horkheimer, in his book Eclipse of Reason, renamed these two elemental ways of thinking as “objective reason” and “subjective reason.”

          Objective reason aspires to replace traditional religion with methodical
          philosophical thought and insight to become a source of tradition all by itself . . .
          Subjective reason . . . is inclined to abandon the fight with religion by setting
          up two different brackets, one for science and philosophy, and one for
          institutionalized mythology, thus recognizing both of them. (Horkheimer 12)

Unfortunately the modern mind does not recognize both of them equally. Objective reason has not been a strong enough truth to dislodge mythology from the minds of religious believers; it has not been allowed to become a “source of tradition” but simply another stream of truth in the believer’s mind that, when faced with a choice between the two, will almost always take the path of irrationality, like atheists in foxholes who then pray for salvation. Israel makes it clear, however, that “it is essential to avoid simply equating the split with the difference between theists and atheists” (19). At the time the split was far more along political and philosophical lines, while today Horkheimer’s subjective rationalism does center primarily on religion. But in the eighteenth century there was also another way of thinking that was embodied by the “Counter-Enlightenment, a system of ideas that rejected both kinds of Enlightenment, insisting on the primacy of faith and tradition, not reason, as the chief guides in human existence” (34-35).

What makes the book so meaningful for today is that the United States seems to be dealing with exactly the same issues, all of which can be understood historically. The reason that the French Revolution takes such a prominent place in the revolutionary history of the period, rather than the earlier and successful American Revolution, is that the United States failed to abolish slavery, thus rendering it an incomplete revolution. The other failing of the American Revolution from the perspective of radical Enlightenment thinkers was the retention of an American aristocracy, again, another vestige of the past that continues to haunt the country to this day in the form of a capitalist oligarchy. In the words of French philosopher Denis Diderot, written shortly after the Declaration, he warned the colonists to “fear a too unequal division of wealth resulting in a small number of opulent citizens and a multitude of citizens living in misery, from which there arises the arrogance of the one and the abasement of the other” (45). One explanation for the failure of the American Revolution to fully exploit radical Enlightenment ideals is the relative stability and comfort enjoyed by the former British colonists. “European writers visiting America in the 1780s and 1790s . . . noted that practically everyone in the United States enjoyed at least a modicum of dignity and prosperity, as well as liberty, whereas most men and women in Europe eked out their lives in hardship and destitution” (51).

The great irony here is that many of the European poor, while their lives were arguably worse than Americans of the same station, were the least likely to advocate for a kind of radical change that might makes some meaningful difference in their lives, and instead supported a gradual approach that was far less likely to institute change in their lifetimes. They did this for the simple fact that moderate ideas carried with them the perception of the possible. In their minds, radical ideas were doomed to be quashed and ignored, while moderate ideas stood at least a chance of being implemented.

          It is worth noting that in Britain the bulk of the lower and middle orders of society proved entirely
          willing to unite under crown and Parliament in decrying radical activity and seditious writings.
          But this was because, behind the scenes, democratic and egalitarian ideas were gaining ground
          and a fierce defensiveness, even signs of desperation were taking hold of the ancien régime’s
          defenders. (35)

Barron d’Holbach refused to blame this timidity on the people, however, and put the responsibility where it belonged, on the nobility that had all but turned its backs on the people. “‘A morally blind politics,’ proclaimed d’Holbach, ‘guided by interests contrary to those of society does not allow men to become enlightened either about their own rights, or their true duties, or about the true ends of the association which it continually subverts’” (57-58). The answer to this problem—and others posed by a tyranny of the majority in a direct democracy, or the siren song of the tyrant himself—was representative democracy of the kind eventually adopted by the United States. On this point the radical thinkers were all in agreement.

Another interesting division between the two competing modes of though is the emphasis on the proper place of the individual in society. For the moderate thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others like him, the average man had no need for social interaction, and best performed his function in society as an individual. For the radicals, however, nothing could be further from the truth, and renouncing society, according to d’Holbach, was “wholly misconceived and immoral” (57). The radicals, it turns out, were correct in their assumptions, something author Tim Blanning points out in his book on the period, in emphasizing what he considers one of the major factors in the successes of the revolutionary period.

          Whatever their social complexion, all European states had to come to terms with the emergence of
          a new kind of cultural space—the public sphere . . . a forum in which previously isolated individuals
          could come together to exchange information, ideas and criticism. Whether communicating with
          each other at long range by subscribing to the same periodicals, or meeting face to face in a coffee-
          house or in one of the new voluntary associations, such as a reading club or Masonic lodge, the public
          acquired a collective weight far greater than the sum of its individual members. (Blanning xxiv)

In modern times the ability of the majority to communicate with each other has been obliterated by providing the citizenry with far more information than they can possibly be expected to sift through. As a result, people tend to communicate only with like-minded individuals, resulting in the same kind of isolation that people face in the early seventeenth-century.

Economic divisions are tackled next, as the more moderate thinkers advocated for unlimited free trade. While at first this seems a far left position—and it is even called liberal economic theory—one can see why the radicals disliked it. Those with money already, the nobility, the clergy, the landed classes, were able to use their wealth to invest and finance, and could afford to take losses once in a while. Those who had no accumulated wealth, then, were unable to participate fully in the nation’s economic life and were relegated to working for those with capital. It’s easy to see in this position a nascent Marxist theory in which working for wealthy business owners is simply another form of tyranny, this time economic, which was decidedly not in the best interests of the majority of people and in practice almost indistinguishable from current forms of noble privilege. Nevertheless, the radicals did not believe that this kind of future Marxist philosophy would be beneficial to workers either. “While championing egalitarianism, however, Diderot, Helvétius, and d’Holbach firmly disavowed any intention of leveling society or seeking to impose full economic equality, which, they appreciated, would inevitably establish a new form of tyranny” (96-97). Again, the radicals were prescient and one only has to look at the twentieth century attempts at Communism to see their greatest fears at work. Nevertheless, in criticizing the works of free-market economists like Smith and Turgot, “Diderot argues, no one has the right to sanction manipulation of price rises in grain while his fellows succumb to famine” (118). And yet this is precisely the situation that we are faced with today, another task left to this generation to complete.

The next chapter focuses on the ability of the state to make war, and the reality that it is the people who bear the brunt of the consequences, both as soldiers and civilians. But where moderates were able to make arguments that economics and social instability weren’t necessarily the fault of the nobility, the act of making war could be laid nowhere else but at the feet of the monarchy. More than in any other sphere this supports Israel’s assertion of enlightened thought as an either/or proposition. The only way to assure against the caprice and whim of the monarch for war . . . was to remove the monarch. “Moderate Enlightenment, then, and Rousseauism lacked any political strategy that could conceivably produce the kind of structural changes capable of transforming the existing order so as to diminish the likelihood of war” (129). The moderates used a tactic common today among the right wing, arguing that while war is an unfortunate occurrence it would be folly to disarm and fall prey to those who don’t, conveniently sidestepping the issue of who is ultimately to blame for pulling the trigger—pun intended. On one side is Adam Ferguson, asserting that war is “the will of Providence,” and that only in the prosecution of war “the virtues of human nature are its happiest, no less than they are so in reaping the fruits of peace.” For the radicals, though, this idea is as ridiculous as it sounds.

          These wars, fought purely in the interests of monarchs, courtiers, aristocratic cliques, financiers,
          and merchants, they considered an inherent part of tyranny, an injustice abominably destructive
          and irrational caused directly by the system of authority, nobility and princely courts . . . in which
          many tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or maimed fighting all across the world for reasons
          few had the slightest inkling of, and which bore no relation to the true interests either of the population
          or of the soldiers and their families. (131)

The last hundred years of warfare by the United States certainly bear this out with “financiers, and merchants” the only ones who have benefitted, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and the citizen soldiers and their families doing all the suffering. The radicals were also prescient in proposing something like the United Nations, an international body of democratic republics that would be the ultimate arbiter in a world that had no more need for war. The flaw in the modern implementation of this idea is that not enough countries today are democratic republics.

Israel then moves on to deal with morality, the most obvious schism between moderate thinkers still in the thrall of church and king, and the radicals who believed that morality does not need to be imposed from without: “morality is a universal, purely secular system based on a conception of justice wholly separate from, indeed best cultivated without, the influence of any particular religion” (154-155). One of the most fascinating responses to this is by Rousseau who, while disagreeing with the radicals, could actually find no rational argument against them and could therefore only resort to an anti-intellectual rebuttal.

          He calls Diderot, d’Holbach and their disciples, “ardent missionaries of atheism,” so intolerant in
          practice that they were incapable of not losing patience with anyone thinking differently from them-
          selves. Rousseau again admits, though, that . . . he could find no adequate arguments in terms of
          reason with which to oppose their contentions. It was his heart, his feelings, he emphasizes, not
          reasoning, that told him they were wrong. (159)

In fact, the entire anti-intellectual stance of religion was one that was going to inevitably put moderates in conflict with the radicals, especially where morality was concerned. “Revealed religion, maintained the radical philosophes, fragments rather than consolidates society, undermining true morality by extolling credulity and ignorance and discouraging science” (165). Those who argued that religion was the only way to ensure moral behavior, however, were drawing on a terminally weak hand, for if it did, “we would surely not daily hear of assassination, rapine, and brigandage in Europe’s most devoutly religious lands, such as Spain and Italy” (168). Parallels today are numerous. Just one is that while enlightened countries like Great Britain and Australia have been able to legislate just laws that have reduced gun violence almost completely, we are stuck with a credulous and ignorant electorate that is willing to accept an astronomically absurd number of gun deaths every year in the most “advanced” country in the world.

Israel makes some space here to talk about the Scottish Enlightenment, which for me is easily the most important element of the book. It actually helped to make sense of something that had always been a source of confusion for me. In writing about the Scottish Enlightenment, which is usually held up for praise, especially by those writing about the American Revolution, Israel is more accurately able to place it “within its larger international context.” As “opponents of atheism and materialist ideas,” they decidedly fall into the moderate camp and, as such, are far less impressive in terms of their long-range thinking than the radicals. (177) More than that, however, is the way that these particular Enlightenment ideals have been embraced by the right in the United States, something that never seemed to make sense. But Israel puts it all into clear focus. “Precisely the social conservatism implicit in Scottish moral thought and its emphatic restricting of philosophical reason by means of faith and theology lay at the root of its immense appeal at the time (and subsequently)” (182). Suddenly the vehement embracing of the Enlightenment aspects of American Revolution by those on the right in U.S. politics makes sense—for the reason that it is not enlightened thinking they are celebrating at all. By citing the Christian thinkers from Scotland to the exclusion of the radical thinkers, the U.S. right continues to support the myth of America as a country founded on religion. It’s a tactic that was even used by counter-Enlightenment writers at the time. “A much-cultivated philosophical strategy of the anti-philosophes was to invoke the great Moderate Enlightenment thinkers” in order to discredit the radicals. “By highlighting in this manner the deep chasm between Radical Enlightenment and Deist mainstream while at the same time also sharply criticizing the later, Christian Moderate Enlightenment refined a powerful rhetoric effective for disparaging and discrediting all the philosophical authors it condemned” (174-175). Thus the religious right in this country can have it both ways, claiming to be enlightened by citing Scottish writers, and keeping their anti-intellectual religious beliefs at the same time. As a result, “Scottish moral sense and, most of all, Scottish Common Sense, were destined for a long and glorious career, remaining for decades highly influential in Germany and Scandinavia as well as Britain and North America” (182).

At the end of his lecture series on the founding of the United States, Daniel N. Robinson contrasted the thoughts of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine in their reactions to the French Revolution. The final chapter of Israel’s book seemed as if it was going to do something similar, with Voltaire representing the moderates, and Spinoza as the founding thinker for the radicals. But instead it really comes off as more of a rehash of what has gone on before. The idea actually makes for an intriguing missed opportunity, however. One of the online reviews of the book says that Israel takes a lot for granted in terms of the reader’s pre-existing knowledge. Had Israel put this chapter at the beginning of the book and spent some time outlining Spinoza’s influence on the radicals, as well as Voltaire’s desperate response, that might have been a good way to provide some crucial background for the reader. In the end, the primary notion that comes out of the book is that there were really two Enlightenments. The first was geared toward the nobility itself, and of course these moderate thinkers supported and justified the existence of the nobility and the church in order to further their own cause. The radicals, on the other hand, “had no other recourse but to turn philosophy into effective ideology and inundate the reading public with its new revolutionary awareness . . . Ultimately, their aim was to transform the political and social framework of modern life” (223). But by far Israel’s most forceful declaration is, however destitute and abused the French people were by the nobility, that fact alone was not enough to account for the revolution that followed. “Indeed, without referring to Radical Enlightenment nothing about the French Revolution makes the slightest sense or can even begin to be provisionally explained” (224). As a result, any history that fails to take into account the importance of the Radical Enlightenment writings—and Israel claims almost none of them do—is incomplete at best, and highly misleading at worst.

This is part of an overall problem with the historiography about this period, in which historians mistakenly attempt to look for the instances that brought about the French Revolution in the area of social change rather than in the area of thought, “some dramatic transformation of conditions, as their primary cause. This seems to be a fallacy . . .” (37). The reason for this becomes clear if one looks at a nearly contemporaneous example: the Industrial Revolution. In that instance the complete reshaping of economic life for the citizens in Great Britain brought about an attendant change of ideas that resulted in the formation of labor unions on up to more radical ideas like the Luddite movement. The revolutionary period of the late eighteenth century, however, was exactly the opposite. “The real structural shift before 1789 has been broadly missed because it was a ‘revolution of the mind’; an intellectual transformation, bringing with it a huge cultural shift” (37-38). Thus it was that the ideas preceded the action as “radical writers hoped that the American Revolution would not just continue internally but also accelerate the process of democratization in Europe, the West Indies, Spanish America and elsewhere” (47). This is a point that Israel would make clear early in the book:

          This does not mean that the whole emphasis should be placed on books and ideas. Rather, the
          interpretation proposed here envisages revolution as a complex interaction of thought and action
          emerging by stages at a particular moment in history. But while great revolutions are always fueled
          by pre-existing social grievances, to create genuine revolution these grievances must be articulated
          in new, forthright, and much broader terms than previously. (87)

To see a negative example of this effect, one only has to read Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains, to see how the anti-democratic right wing in this country has been attempting to manipulate themselves into complete power for the last fifty years.

It’s difficult to know how to assess Israel’s book. On the one hand there’s a strong sense of abbreviation in the chapters, part and parcel of its original inception as a series of lectures. But at the same time Israel’s other works on the era are gargantuan, in the neighborhood of eight hundred pages or so each. Given that, there’s probably something to be said for the introductory aspect of this book, though it would have been nice if his thesis were clearer in the beginning. What the book is really about is the largely unsung nature of the radical wing of the Enlightenment during the revolutionary era, one that turns out to be more highly influential than historians give it credit for. The big names of the era, Hume, Voltaire, and Locke, it turns out were rather timid and overcautious, while names that I had never really heard of before—as Paine tends to suck the oxygen out of the room in most histories—like Helvétius, Diderot and d’Holbach are given a considerable amount of credit, and deservedly so. The real success of Israel’s book is to place the radical Enlightenment thinkers in their rightful place in the context of the age, especially given some of what passes for scholarship about the era today. It’s easy to miss this because the moderates were the only ones who were able to implement some of their ideas, and so “it has often appeared that they represent the real Enlightenment, the sensible Enlightenment, the Enlightenment that counts . . . But, on closer examination, such an analysis hardly seems plausible” (120). This is the real importance of A Revolution of the Mind, discovering the true thinkers behind the Enlightenment, the true ideas that have gone into creating our own Democracy, and by doing so demonstrating how far we still have to go.