Public Citizen ~ Larry Barnett

Larry Barnett Larry Barnett lives in Sonoma where he was elected to three terms on the City Council and served twice as Mayor. A thirty-three-year resident, he currently serves as Chair of Sonoma's Planning Commission. He has been married for 48 years, has two daughters and three grandchildren.

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Encountering Counter-Enlightenment

Posted on July 8, 2024 by Larry Barnett


The cultural and political forces at play in America right now, the permissive left and the repressive right, present two sides of a centuries-long struggle within western culture: Enlightenment vs. Counter-Enlightenment.

When we speak of The Enlightenment, we are invoking the philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe when ideas about universality, freedom and human progress stimulated major cultural change and eventually revolution that spread to the thirteen colonies of America and led to the creation of the United States.

Spurred by the scientific advances of the 16th and 17th centuries, the improvement of human society in the west became a mission, leading Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith, David Hume and Immanuel Kant to promote social transformation, harnessing the light of reason to efforts like the Encyclopedia project. In their eyes there appeared no limit to human progress using reason, a starkly humanistic departure from strict religious doctrines of the time. As powerful as it was, however, Enlightenment thought and its aggressive use of reason stimulated equally aggressive Counter-Enlightenment movements, and this conflict continues.

Rationality vs. irrationality is one way to envision this conflict, the irresistible force of reason meeting the immovable object of emotion. Emotional attachment to culture, regional identity, and religion – the mythologies of blood, soil, and spirit – forms a backdrop to the imperatives of reason-based change and has stimulated wars, ethnic cleansing, and genocide on both sides of the Atlantic. France and Germany, home to many notable Enlightenment thinkers, were at each other’s throats repeatedly until the end of WW2. In America, the Civil War between North and South typified an Enlightenment/Counter-Enlightenment split that continues today in arguments about Federal vs. State rights.

This is not to say that the light of reason was always used in enlightened ways; far from it. Colonial powers used reason to justify their actions as they relentlessly sought to “civilize savages,” or if not, annihilate them. The United States government availed itself of precisely the same rationalizations in its treatment of the continent’s indigenous populations. Plantation owners in the American south used pseudo-scientific rationales in their attempts to explain why enslaving black people was perfectly reasonable and appropriate. Reason can be used in both rational and irrational ways, ways that enlighten and ways that benighten.

Currently, both the United States and the European Union are culturally and politically splintering over ideology. The Enlightenment ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality are running headlong into Counter-Enlightenment sentiment’s opposition to immigration, abortion, women’s reproductive rights, and fluid gender identity – all movements of emancipation. Enlightenment ideas are now viewed by the far right as a threatening ideological Trojan Horse of globalism, prompting reactionary Counter-Enlightenment movements such as Viktor Orban’s illiberal democracy in Hungary and The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 to systematically dismantle the federal government’s regulatory “deep state.”

Some cultures have never accepted Enlightenment ideas. In such places authoritarian and totalitarian regimes have prospered; there is no need for a Counter-Enlightenment movement because Enlightenment thought never gained a solid foothold.

The revolutionary movements in the western world were emancipatory, about replacing monarchy with democracy, increasing individual liberty and equal opportunity. Enlightenment ideas still wield revolutionary potential for cultural transformation but are increasingly, often violently, challenged.

The centuries-long Enlightenment momentum towards emancipation continues, but it’s worth noting that the sorry companion of Counter-Enlightenment is Counter-Revolution, i.e. moving backwards. Take heed.



One thought on “Encountering Counter-Enlightenment

  1. I see the culture conflict as two different stages of human evolution, co-existing in the same space, but living in different time zones. The reactionaries are not a force of nature that we are doomed to endure until the sun goes dark. They can be culturally,politically, and socially ostracized and marginalized. They are not the future. They may prevent the future from arising, left unchecked by a credible counter-force.

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