The coercive power of government should be limited in scope. Thus, Locke stresses again and again in the “Letters on Toleration” that the sphere or scope of government enforcement of law must be severely limited. This conception of the limited role of government was fundamental to an understanding of Locke’s liberalism and to the liberal tradition that developed in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. (p. 76)
A lot of people are selling Enlightenment these days. After the Brexit vote and the election of President Trump, David Brooks published a paean to the “Enlightenment project,” declaring it under attack and calling on readers to “rise up” and save it. Commentary magazine sent me a letter asking for a donation to provide readers “with the enlightenment we all so desperately crave.” And now there’s Steven Pinker’s impressive new book, “Enlightenment Now,” which may be the definitive statement of the neo-Enlightenment movement that is fighting the tide of nationalist thinking in America, Britain and beyond.
Do we all crave enlightenment? I don’t. I like and respect Mr. Pinker, Mr. Brooks and others in their camp. But Enlightenment philosophy didn’t achieve a fraction of the good they claim, and it has done much harm.
Boosters of the Enlightenment make an attractive case. Science, medicine, free political institutions, the market economy—these things have dramatically improved our lives. They are all, Mr. Pinker writes, the result of “a process set in motion by the Enlightenment in the late 18th century,” when philosophers “replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking.” Mr. Brooks concurs, assuring his readers that “the Enlightenment project gave us the modern world.” So give thanks for “thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant who argued that people should stop deferring blindly to authority” and instead “think things through from the ground up.”
As Mr. Pinker sums it up: “Progress is a gift of the ideals of the Enlightenment, and will continue to the extent that we rededicate ourselves to those ideals.”
Very little of this is true. Consider the claim that the U.S. Constitution was a product of Enlightenment thought, derived by throwing out the political traditions of the past and applying unfettered human reason. Disproving this idea requires only reading earlier writers on the English constitution. The widely circulated 15th-century treatise “In Praise of the Laws of England,” written by the jurist John Fortescue, clearly explains due process and the theory now called “checks and balances.” The English constitution, Fortescue wrote, establishes personal liberty and economic prosperity by shielding the individual and his property from the government. The protections that appear in the U.S. Bill of Rights were mostly set down in the 1600s by those drafting England’s constitutional documents—men such as John Selden, Edward Hyde and Matthew Hale. …
Read the whole thing. (Non-paywall article here.)
While I can’t speak to the Royal Society or Boyle, I think it’s wrong to categorize Newton as a “politically and religiously conservative figure.” He was actually some kind of heterodox unitarian Christian of the Arian variety and like his friend John Locke had to be careful with the way in which he publicly articulated his views. Indeed, Newton, even more so than Locke leaves us with a record of private heterodox sentiments that could have gotten him in serious trouble with the then “politically and religiously conservative” figures in Great Britain who could enforce their orthodoxy with teeth provided by the state.
But John Locke gets categorized by Hazony as one of the “dark” Enlighteners. For instance:
One such myth was Locke’s claim that the state was founded on a contract among free and equal individuals—a theory the Enlightenment’s critics understood to be both historically false and dangerous. While the theory did relatively little harm in tradition-bound Britain, it led to catastrophe in Europe. Imported into France by Rousseau, it quickly pulled down the monarchy and the state, producing a series of failed constitutions, the Reign of Terror and finally the Napoleonic Wars—all in the name of infallible and universal reason. Millions died as Napoleon’s armies sought to destroy and rebuild every government in Europe in accordance with the one correct political theory allowed by Enlightenment philosophy. …
The vast majority of scholars who have studied the religious and political positions of both Locke and Newton would agree it makes no sense to categorize them so differently. Either both were “Enlightenment” during the same time and place in Great Britain or neither were. Both were self proclaimed “Christians”; both privately and secretly held heterodox positions; both cautiously articulated novel ideas in politics, science and theology attempting to give a veneer of respectability to the ideas they publicly posited; both were suspected of secret heterodoxy by the orthodox forces of “religious correctness” then in power.
America was very influenced by more moderate strains of Enlightenment, those Scottish “common sense” figures that Hazony doesn’t want to categorize as Enlightenment. But America was also influenced by what Hazony categorizes as bad or “dark” Enlightenment. …
Source analysis toolbox: an ongoing work-in-progress.
Look in the mirror.
This is really the most important thing when analyzing a source for credibility or bias: knowing your own beliefs and your own possible biases. It’s always tempting to accept something uncritically because it fits what we think we already know.
Premises / logic / values.
Know what you differ on: what you believe is a fact, or what consequences follow from it, or whether something is good or bad.
The spam filter.
All of us have a mental filter that works like the spam filter in your e-mail program: it examines input and tries to weed out stuff that appears irrelevant, false, or that just wastes your time. It’s what makes you tune out crazy people. And we need that filter – our mind couldn’t function without it. But the filter is not perfect, and every so often we have to re-calibrate it (just as we need to check our spam folder every so often) to make sure we’re not missing something important. Every once in a while, even the person we thought was crazy might have something important to say.
We have a natural tendency to want to believe things that are flattering to ourselves. For example, I may be tempted to hold a belief because it makes me feel more virtuous or more intelligent, rather than because it is supported by the evidence.
“I believe in peace.” “I believe in justice.” “I believe in freedom.” “I believe in security.” And so on. These are all perfectly fine things to believe in, but real life often requires us to make trade-offs. Very often the person who disagrees with you believes in the same good things you believe in, but assesses the trade-offs differently.
This is our natural tendency to believe things that fit our world-view. I find it helpful to divide between “things I think I know” and “things I know I know”. Only verified factual information – things I KNOW that I know – is useful for evaluating the truth or falsity of a new claim.
What kind of overall picture, or “narrative”, is the source trying to present?
Before you can determine whether an event is significant or unusual (for example, a crime wave), you need to know what the normal state of affairs is (for example, the average crime rate).
Question sensational reports.
There’s a military saying that “nothing is as good or as bad as first reported”. Sensational reports do just what the name says – they appeal to our sensations (of fear, hope, disgust, arousal, etc.) and can short-circuit our critical thinking. News stories with especially lurid details should be treated with skepticism.
Do all the pieces fit together in a way that makes sense?
Does the report agree with verified facts – things I know I know?
Dialog and dissent.
Does the source welcome opposing views and seek to respond to them?
Awareness of objections.
Does the source attempt to anticipate and refute objections?
By nuance I mean the recognition that a thing can be true in general and still admit of exceptions. For example, it may be true that tall people are generally better basketball players, but it can also be true that some short people may be outstanding players.
There are many mistakes in basic reasoning that can lead us to wrong conclusions.
Red herrings / straw men.
A straw man is an argument that can be easily overcome, but that nobody on the other side actually made; you can “refute” this kind of argument to try to make it look like you refuted your opponent’s argument, but you didn’t actually respond to the claim they were making. A red herring is any kind of argument that is irrelevant to the main issue, and distracts you from it.
If I ask, “Why is Smith so evil?” I am not questioning whether he is evil, and the form of my question does not allow you to question the assumption “Smith is evil” either. Similarly, if I say “Jones, who was responsible for the disastrous Program X …”, I am closing off any question as to whether Program X was a disaster, or whether Jones was responsible for it. These are examples of framing a question or a statement so as to avoid debating certain things that you don’t want to debate – assumptions that you don’t want to examine.
Snarl / purr words.
Some words have negative connotations (snarl words) or positive ones (purr words). Using them can be a way to appeal to people’s emotions instead of arguing by reason.
“Many experts believe …” Stop! How many is “many”? A majority? Half? Two or three? A claim involving numbers needs to give you specifics, or it tells you nothing.
Misquoting another party is, literally, the oldest trick in the Book – going all the way back to the Serpent in Genesis. It is also easy to selectively or misleadingly quote somebody, to give a false impression of what they said. My rule is, “go by what the person said, not what somebody else SAID they said.”
Black propaganda – rhetorical false flag.
This is a particularly nasty trick: creating outrageous or shocking arguments and making them appear to be coming from your opponent, to discredit the opponent.
Discrediting by association – “57 Communists”.
This is a little more subtle than the rhetorical false flag. This is the practice of making known false statements, which can be easily disproved, that appear to come from your opponent. The goal is to damage your opponent’s credibility – or more accurately, to damage the credibility of a CLAIM made by your opponent. A real-life example was the case of ‘National Report’ – the granddaddy of fake-news sites – which created all kinds of hoax stories designed to fool conservatives; the conservatives then would be made to look gullible when the stories were shown to be false. (See the “fifty-seven Communists” scene in the film ‘The Manchurian Candidate’.)
Bias of intermediaries.
More subtle than the ‘straw man’ is the practice of pretending to present a neutral forum for debate, but deliberately choosing a more articulate, stronger debater for one side and a weaker debater for the other.
What are the source’s financial interests?
I think this one is a no-brainer, but a person who owns a lot of stock in XYZ Corporation is going to have an incentive to promote pro-XYZ legislation and contracts. In the case of the MSM, we all know that “bad news sells”.
Debts and favors.
Is the source looking for a payoff down the road? If I go on record saying nice things about Candidate A, maybe I am hoping to get appointed to a nice comfy job if A wins the election.
The medium is the message.
News stories go through news networks, broadcast networks, and publishers. Books go through publishing houses. In other words, somebody has to provide the materials for the message to be communicated. Somewhere, a network executive makes decisions about what gets on the air and what doesn’t. Somewhere, an editor or publisher decides what gets printed and what doesn’t. So if you’re reading a book you have to think about not only the author’s background and point of view, but also the publisher’s orientation: for example, they might publish mostly liberal books or mostly conservative books. Knowing something about the background of a publisher or a broadcast network can help give you an idea of what to expect.
What are the source’s own experiences? How might those experiences be relevant, and how might they affect the source’s perceptions?
First-hand knowledge of any issue is always helpful; on the other hand, a person might have had an experience that was atypical or unrepresentative. A soldier on the front lines is going to have a very vivid, detailed, and specific recollection of a battle. The general in a command bunker may not see the battle up close, but he will have information on the “big picture” of troop strengths, enemy positions, strategic decisions, and other things that the soldier will not know, and may not be allowed to know. The soldier’s memory may be distorted by trauma, confusion, fear, or shame (of a real or imagined failiing on the battlefield); the general may ignore or suppress key information, perhaps with his career in mind. Both perspectives are valuable, both have their limitations.
There are basic psychological factors that operate in all of us to one degree or another. Resistance to change is one. There is a need for approval of others; there is also a need for a sense of autonomy and a belief that we determine our own destiny. And of course we all like to be thought knowledgeable, which is why we are often tempted to speak more than we actually know.
The human voice.
By this I mean an intangible quality that may include a distinctive personality, awareness of ambivalence, self-analysis and self-criticism. This one is not a matter of rigorous logic but of gut instinct: something tells you that the person sounds real or fake.
Hard to win a debate, easy to lose one.
When you’re debating an issue, it is very difficult to “win” in the sense that your opponent throws up their hands and says “Oh, you were right and I was wrong.” Or even to definitively convince an audience that your position is the correct one. However, it is very very easy to LOSE a debate, simply by saying or doing something that brings discredit to yourself and your cause: getting your facts wrong, making a basic logic error, or losing your cool and cursing or attacking your opponent. Sometimes the most important part of debating is knowing when to stop.
What strikes me most is the contrast between this and the Internet era before social media, before Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube swallowed up everything. I’m talking about the 2000s, the great era of the blogs. Do you remember what that blog era was like? It felt like liberation.
The era of blogging offered the promise of a decentralized media. Anybody could publish and comment on the news and find an audience. Guys writing in their pajamas could take down Dan Rather. We were bypassing the old media gatekeepers. And we had control over it! We posted on our own sites. We had good discussions in our own comment fields, which we moderated. I had and still have an extensive e-mail list of readers who are interested in my work, most of which I built up in that period, before everybody moved onto social media.
But then Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube came along and killed the blogs. …
So we get shadowbanning, arbitrary Twitter suspensions, and Twitter throttling the traffic of people they don’t like and controlling what articles you can tweet links to. We traded the old mainstream media gatekeepers for new, worse, less publicly accountable gatekeepers in Silicon Valley—a new breed of pinch-nosed Puritans with pink hair, piercings, and tattoos, who will shut us down if we don’t use the right pronouns. …
The role of social media as the new ideological gatekeepers is just part, although the leading part, of our overall dissatisfaction with their product. There is the damage they are doing to the attention spans and social lives of teens who are growing up on them. There is the phenomenon of the Twitter mob and the way social media is responsible for gamifying moral outrage, where readers score points and level up by getting people fired, often based on nothing more than rumors and mass hysteria.
Then there are the awful economics for actual producers of content. Social media companies are designed to profit off our free labor while they treat us like garbage. For example, I have 11,000 Twitter followers, but I don’t know who they are or have any independent way of contacting them. In effect, I have spent years building up a mailing list for Twitter, not myself. What kind of raw deal is that? …
On the same theme, here is one of my favorite old school bloggers, Cobb: Bring blogs back.
Everybody who thinks about it knows it to be true. Social media isn’t working the way we thought it would.
There are a lot of reasons. Some are simple and some are rather complex. But let’s look at the simplest reason and to my mind, one of the most important. You don’t own your own words. When you live on Facebook’s property, you don’t own your own words. They can be deleted by someone other than you. They can be banned by someone other than you. You can hardly even know what you said a year ago by searching for it. I don’t mean to suggest that Facebook alone is capable of this, but it is the 900 pound gorilla. The same things are true of Twitter and the comments sections of hundreds of new media outlets.
When it comes to participating in the debates that a free and open society require, these social media spaces do not facilitate. That is not why they exist. That is not their business model. They were not created to sustain collaborative thought, but to let everybody connect in social ways. They are not town halls so much as they are gas station bathrooms on the information superhighway. …
Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.
– Viktor E. Frankl, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’
One universal quality of identity is that it gives life a meaning beyond life itself. It offers a connection to the world beyond the self. … Whatever its form, identity offers a sense of life beyond the physical and material, beyond mere personal existence. It is this sense of a common world that stretches before and beyond the self, of belonging to something greater than the self, that gives strength not only to the community but to the individual as well.
– Natan Sharansky, ‘Defending Identity’
If you’ve spent a lot of time on a college campus recently, particularly one with a storied tradition of intellectual excellence, you may have felt, at some point, some subtle metaphysical blues: your friends are cool, your professors are interesting, but the fire you’d hoped would consume you—that flaming obsession with big ideas that have big consequences—just isn’t there.
Celeste Marcus felt it, too. She entered the University of Pennsylvania last year, and was soon, she said, happy to be introduced to diverse groups of people she’d never met before and challenged by divergent ways of looking at the world. “But I also wanted to be around people who were as passionate as I am about sharing ideas that really move them,” she said, “and that was much harder to find.”
It wasn’t that other students were shallow, she said, or hurried, or more interested in Kanye than in Kant. It’s just that people deeply committed to ideas are hard to find these days, even—one is tempted to say particularly—on the campuses on elite universities. Undeterred, Marcus sat down and did what serious and dedicated men and women had done when moved by the spirit for at least six hundred years: she wrote a manifesto. …
The result is Or.
Clara Collier (Yale) on Shylock: ‘It will go without saying that Shylock is a terrible role model. He is small-minded, embittered; his obsession for revenge is a hollow perversion of a healthy desire for justice. But his monomania bears unintentional traces of Judaism’s radical unromanticism. Our scriptures do not promise us radical moral transformation or teach us to focus on an eternal reward. Human perfectibility is a matter of theological speculation; the details of shechitah [kosher slaughter] are a subject of intense debate. …’
Celeste Marcus (U of Pennsylvania) on Deism and Torah: ‘What is the nafka mina, the practical difference, between a deist’s religion and a Jew’s? In either, one absorbs his own dependence on God’s goodness constantly. But for the Jew, this is an abstraction made concrete, and constantly put before him through the rituals in which he engages. …’
Avinoam Stillman (Columbia) on Emerson and Rav Kook: ‘Emerson and R. Kook envisioned an ideal future in which the light in all things will be perceptible in a way that is hidden today. But their utopian vision had practical applications in the cultural life of their societies, and stood as a bulwark against stultifying conformism or reactionary cowardice. Authenticity and insight mediate between national pride and tradition on the one hand, and universality and innovation on the other. …’
Read the rest and more at Or. They’re on WordPress, so you can follow them if you have an account.