One of my concerns about the Trump era is that it signals a wave of anti-intellectualism on the right, a collapse in concern for basic ideas. It has also triggered something of an anti-intellectual response on the left, because Trump is the bogeyman who justifies blind, frenetic “resistance” in place of thoughtful criticism and reasoned debate.
But now we’re finally getting some compensation for this, because the latest controversy among the pundit class is a debate over the ideals and legacy of the 18th-Century intellectual and philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. Maybe it is precisely the anti-intellectualism of today’s politics, the futility of debates over the normal issues of public policy, that is driving people back to the really big and fundamental questions.
I have already responded to some conservative critiques of the Enlightenment. Now here comes a critique of the Enlightenment from the left, and it is exactly what you were probably expecting: another excuse to call everyone racist.
Slate’s Jamelle Bouie declared recently that “racism is an Enlightenment idea, whose foundations were laid by key thinkers like Locke and Kant.” This was about a month ago, but in light of more recent discussion, The Federalist‘s Ben Domenech dug it up and offered a good dissection of why this notion is ridiculous. There’s a lot of worthwhile material here, but it boils down to Solzhenitsyn’s point that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, either—but right through every human heart.”
Bouie has responded to defend his original claim, though you may notice that he has suddenly narrowed it down a good deal.
To say that “race” and “racism” are products of the Enlightenment is not to say that humans never held slaves or otherwise classified each other prior to the 18th century. Recent scholarship shows how proto- and early forms of modern race thinking (you could call them racialism) existed in medieval Europe, with near-modern forms taking shape in the 15th and 16th centuries. In Spain, for example, we see the turn from anti-Judaism to anti-Semitism, where Jewish ancestry itself was grounds for suspicion, versus Jewish practice. And as historian George Fredrickson notes in Racism: A Short History, “the prejudice and discrimination directed at the Irish on one side of Europe and certain Slavic peoples on the other foreshadowed the dichotomy between civilization and savagery that would characterize imperial expansion beyond the European continent.” One can find nascent forms of all of these ideas in antiquity—indeed, early modern thinkers drew from all of these sources to build our notion of race.
But it took the scientific thought of the Enlightenment to create an enduring racial taxonomy and the “color-coded, white-over-black” ideology with which we are familiar. This project, undertaken by the leading thinkers of the time, involved “the setting aside of the metaphysical and theological scheme of things for a more logical description and classification that ordered humankind in terms of physiological and mental criteria based on observable ‘facts’ and tested evidence.”
So it’s not that racial prejudice and theories of racial difference didn’t exist before, it’s just that they weren’t expressed in scientific terminology. They were never expressed as a biological “taxonomy,” as Bouie keeps telling us. In other news, the invention of Esperanto has led, I have no doubt, to the expression of racist sentiments in Esperanto. In a scientific age, all sorts of ideas were recast in scientific terminology. That does not make the rise of science a cause of racism or make racism essential to scientific thinking.
Surprisingly, Bouie didn’t quite go that direction. I guess we’re all still supposed to freaking love science. He does still try to pin racism on the Enlightenment, but on its political theories, instead.
Bouie’s approach reminds me a lot of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates. He likes to dump a giant load of facts and research on top of your head to make it look like he’s really got the goods and everybody else is ignorant. But when you sort through it all, you find that none of this evidence really supports his central claim.
Bouie does an excellent job of demonstrating that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant was a racist who believed in the inherent inferiority of black people. I’m not sure how much this proves, though, because Kant came late in the Enlightenment, and I would argue that rather than being a representative of Enlightenment ideals, he was the guy who did the most to undermine them. (In the preface of his most important work, the Critique of Pure Reason, he famously declared that he found it necessary to “deny reason in order to make room for faith.”)
But the part about Kant is just a set-up to move on to John Locke, making you think he’s going to have an equally good case there. He doesn’t.
Bouie makes a big deal about the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which a young Locke helped draft in 1669, twenty years before he wrote his well-known political works. This early constitution helped solidify the legal structure of slavery, which had arrived with the colony’s inception some decades earlier. But Locke was not yet famous and did not dictate the provisions of that constitution from his own pure brain; he was working at the behest of the colony’s proprietors. Moreover, under the influence of its sponsors in the Stuart monarchy—which Locke would later help overthrow—this constitution also allowed the creation of titles of nobility and provided a legal basis for serfdom, feudal institutions that are the exact opposite of what Locke would advocate in his major works. So either this constitution did not reflect Locke’s own views, or his views changed radically by the time he produced his mature work.
Bouie also pumps up the fact that Locke’s treatises on government talked about the American Indians, and then he gives us this doozy of reasoning: “For Locke, ‘God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit and for the greatest conveniences of life they could get from it, he can’t have meant it always to remain common and uncultivated.’ In the context of English settlement, it’s an argument for theft” of Indian land.
Actually, Locke was undoubtedly writing this with a much closer eye on an English context: the enclosure movement. From the 15th to the 19th century, lands that had been held in common under medieval customs were being fenced in and deeded as the property of specific farmers. This helped fuel rapid improvements in agriculture and demonstrated a lot of truths about the value of private ownership, and Locke’s views on common ownership and cultivation have to be viewed primarily as a justification for private property in a domestic British context. I don’t know if Bouie is unaware of this context, or if he just can’t muster much interest in anything that isn’t attributable to racism.
At any rate, philosophical musings about the role of the commons versus private property are of wide and general application and don’t make Locke responsible for the Trail of Tears. But Bouie sure tries to make it sound like that, reminding us that John C. Calhoun, the Senate’s great defender of the slave states, cited Locke. Calhoun also cited James Madison, the Constitution, the Bible, and who knows what else. Does that make all of these things about racism and slavery? This sort of thinking leads Bouie into some real howlers, like pointing to Locke’s influence on Thomas Jefferson, “for whom racial slavery and native expropriation were compatible with natural rights and representative government.” Jefferson rather famously agonized over the conflict between slavery and natural rights. When he trembled for his country in fear of God’s justice, he was talking about slavery. He may not have been able to do much to end it, pushing the issue off for the next generation, but to assert that he was untroubled by slavery assumes a certain degree of ignorance or credulity on the part of Bouie’s audience.
All of this is thin gruel, but from this mass of bald assertions and insinuations, Bouie arrives where he wanted to go.
For modern-day philosopher Charles Mills, this joint march of liberalism and white supremacy—whether Locke’s social contract or Kant’s moral theory—supports the notion of an implicit “racial contract” undergirding the Enlightenment project. “[T]he Racial Contract establishes a racial polity, a racial state, and a racial juridical system, where the status of whites and nonwhites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom. And the purpose of this state…is specifically to maintain and reproduce this racial order, securing the privileges and advantages of the full white citizens and maintaining the subordination of nonwhites.”
That’s a big jump to make: that racism and slavery coexisted with the Enlightenment and found support among some of its intellectuals—to the idea that the Enlightenment is really all about maintaining white supremacy. Bouie quotes this idea approvingly, but he never offers us the evidence that would be required to support so great a claim. In effect, he proves a lot of misdemeanors, then goes straight for the felony conviction.
He also hints at where he’s ultimately going with this: “political liberalism”—not the political left per se, but advocacy of freedom—”is still too compatible with” racism and white supremacy. In other words: people who disagree with me on basic political ideas are quasi-crypto-racists.
After offering this sweeping indictment of the Enlightenment, Bouie tries to walk it back by saying that confronting the Enlightenment’s “ugly heritage” of racism is a way to “take its values seriously,” as if that is something he is interested in doing. But I’m afraid he’s only fooling himself.
His whole essay is a demonstration of a particular strain of anti-Enlightenment thought, the kind of attack on the Enlightenment most influential on the left. This attack has its roots in Marxism, and while Communism, like racism, has often been dressed up in the scientific language of the Enlightenment, its heart is an anti-reason, anti-Enlightenment attitude: that ideas and logic and reason don’t really matter.
Marx stated this in terms of the “base” and the “superstructure.” The “base” is the real reality of human life, a brute struggle for physical dominance and exploitation. By contrast, ideas, culture, morality, and religion are an ephemeral “superstructure” that merely serves the needs of that base. “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” The function of ideas is merely to legitimate, after the fact, an underlying relationship of power over economic resources.
This “critical” approach borrowed from Marx has since been broadened to include not just economics, but “race, class, and gender.” (In our current moment of hyper-racialized politics, race seems to be taking precedence over the other two.) This expanded Marxist approach is the basis for “postmodernism” and has become dominant and all-pervasive among the political and cultural left.
It is only through this lens that you can look at the fertile flux of profound ideas in the Enlightenment and see only a “racial contract” whose purpose is to “maintain the subordination of nonwhites.” Race is the base, and all of the flowery posturing about reason, science, universality, inalienable rights, the consent of the governed, the cultivation of the commons—all of that is a flimsy superstructure that exists only to make the base of racial oppression look good.
This outlook also explains why no one on the right is surprised when someone like Jamelle Bouie suddenly announces that something we’re in favor of is just an excuse for racism. This is the everyday reality of arguing with the contemporary left. You can’t possibly have genuine doubts about the science of global warming; you must be in the pay of Big Oil. You can’t possibly care about the intellectual necessity of free speech; you just want to preserve the dominance of white males. You can’t possibly be convinced by free-market economics; you are just panicked by “status anxiety” and threatened by people who don’t look like you.
This kind of condescension and reflexive invocation of racism is not just a bad habit or some kind of competitive sport, though it sometimes seems like it. This is a central ideological impulse. It is also profoundly anti-Enlightenment, teaching us not to take rationality seriously and instead to seek out the hidden demons behind every idea.
The real Enlightenment “project,” if you want to use that word, was to embrace the power of reason to improve human life. The postmodern quasi-Marxism of “race, class, and gender” attacks that aspiration at its root by trying to make us deaf to reason and persuasion. This is one of the reasons we need to defend and reclaim the legacy of the Enlightenment.