Enlightenment and Reason Made America What It Is

Michael Ignatieff, formerly of the Kennedy School of Government at (surprise, surprise) Harvard, writes, ‘[Thomas] Jefferson airily assumed that [American] democracy would be carried on the wings of enlightenment, reason and science. No one argues that now.’

Oh, really?

Where would American democracy and freedom be without enlightenment, reason and science? The American experiment grew out of the philosophical belief that man has a unique form of survival: The use of his mind, through reasoning, thinking and self-responsible effort. In order for mankind to survive and flourish, this capacity for reason has to be respected and kept free.

A government exists to preserve that right for all individuals. A society does well only if it’s left free, because when a society is left free, the best and brightest are able to think and, therefore, create, experiment, discover and produce. We all benefit from their ability, their ingenuity—and their freedom.

None of this happens in social systems that fail. Communism crashed and burned. Hitler’s fascism self destructed. Quasi-socialist welfare states in Western Europe have floundered, as have our own Medicare and Social Security systems. Tiny, unimportant little dictatorships throughout the third world led to widespread fear and, at best, treading water on the part of the citizens. No great discoveries, such as electricity, antibiotics or the Internet came out of lands where liberty is denied. Nor will they ever come out of the wild-eyed fundamentalist Islamic regimes in places like Iran. There is a reason for all this.

If today’s Westernized world isn’t doing as well as it is because of reason, enlightenment, and science, then what exactly is keeping it going? The Internet is a combination of technical science and innovative business. It’s an entirely new and thriving sector of our economy. The continuing improvements in medical technology, coming primarily out of the United States, are the product of scientific endeavor combined with corporate marketing. The crippling regulations of ObamaCare might change all that, but up to now America has led the way in medical science.

Whether government dollars go into the development of such technologies or not, it’s science, reason, and, at the core, man’s capacity for thinking that make these discoveries possible. In places like Iran, they pray, ululate, and generate nothing but terrorism and group madness. Why? Because all rational thinking has shut down in favor of fundamentalist double-talk. Contrast that with the United States, where we produce. Why? Because thinking, reason, and science are allowed to flourish and dominate. Because, contrary to what people like Rick Santorum claim, the pursuit of happiness is paramount, not allegiance to mystical superstitions.

If someone, somewhere, at some time, didn’t think and innovate, we wouldn’t enjoy things like life-saving surgery, jet rides across the continent, quiet drives in our SUVs, endless entertainment and educational programming on television and the computer; the list goes on and on. Our idiot ‘leaders’ keep telling us to be grateful to God or the government. What about gratitude towards reason, the best of the human spirit and those who embody it?

Contrast the United States, as we’ve known it, with another country currently in the headlines a great deal: let’s say’Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a culture that for decades was run by the whims of brutal dictators. Today, that society is a combination of religious fanaticism, terrorist infiltration and tribalist small-mindedness mixed in with the attempts of the American military to establish some sort of stability. There’s not a lot of reason, enlightenment or science—or capitalism—in Afghanistan right now.

Nor are there a whole lot of these things in many other countries, either. Take Africa, for instance—not merely a country, but a tragically impoverished continent that no amount of foreign aid seems able to change in any fundamental way. Why is this? Because, at the core, the dominant trends in a society are either reason, enlightenment, science and enterprise—or they are not.

In the United States, those still are the dominant trends, the very things Thomas Jefferson championed all those years ago. We can spurn them today, as the Kennedy School of Government does, but we all still benefit from them just the same. If Africans, Iraqis, Iranians, North Koreans, and Central/South Americans had their own Thomas Jeffersons—or if they even listened to our Thomas Jefferson—they’d be in a lot better shape.

Would you rather live in the United States than in Africa, Afghanistan, or anywhere else in the ‘third world?’ If so, then don’t you think that the values Thomas Jefferson championed are the very things that make it all possible?

And if Jefferson’s values of reason, enlightenment and science aren’t the cause, exactly what is?

Michael Ignatieff asks, in the title of his article, ‘Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom is Theirs to Spread?’ This sets the context for his mockery of Thomas Jefferson, and is a question designed with the express psychological purpose of creating guilt and humility in the reader. ‘Who am I to think that my way of life in the United States is better, safer, more pleasurable and more fulfilling than in any other nation on earth?’

Well, isn’t it?

(Please note, dear reader, that Mr. Ignatieff chooses to be safely and comfortably ensconced in not-so-third world settings such as Oxford, England; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Toronto, Canada–NOT Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, Africa, Iran or any other country he purports to defend.)

I feel no such guilt or self-doubt, because I have an answer to Ignatieff’s snide question: Freedom is made possible by reason, science and enlightenment. The United States, especially at its inception, and to a great extent into the present day, respects these values more than any other society in human history. This gives us the right to proudly spread our ideas throughout the world, because they are, in fact, the right ideas.

Reference: ‘Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom is Theirs to Spread?’ by Michael Ignatieff, writing in The New York Times Magazine, 6/26/05.