Time to Read Voltaire? Is Sarah Palin’s Rise Signalling the Coming of an American Middle Ages?

John McCain’s wrecklessness in not vetting VP-pick Sarah Palin adequately, combined with her inexperience, her fundamentalism, and her populist ability to move people to resentment against urban dwelling intellectuals and elites, makes one wonder if her nomination signals an entrenched period of right-wing reaction and irrationalism even worse than the Bush era.

In other words, is the proper analogy for America today something akin to Weimar Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, in which illiberal, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian modes of thinking became ever more evident and strident in public life?

In 1932 a liberal observer of Germany, Ludwig Bauer, wrote an interesting essay titled, “The Middle Ages, 1932.”

In that essay, Bauer lamented Europe’s direction away from the Enlightenment tradition, and nineteenth century reason and individualism, and toward what he termed a new Middle Ages. Here is how the essay opened (from The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, University of California Press, 1995, p.384):

The train of development is racing at a speed that can only be experienced, and therefore not imagined, straight into a new Middle Ages. The whole of humanity has booked a round-trip ticket. The nineteenth century is being tossed on the rubbish heap; Mussolini has discovered the eighteenth century [the Age of the Enlightenment] to have been the dumbest of them all. And now the German Mussolini substitute, with all his haughty and anti-intellectual professors, has taken up the Italian’s abusive lead. . . .

Whether Hitlerism or fascism, whether paramilitary organizations or Action Francaise thugs, all of them turn away from the clarity of understanding to mysticism and self-idolization. The meaning of existence is no longer happiness and freedom of the individual but a massing together in race, class, and state. Thus develops that species that loves to stand in rank and file, that finds happiness only in mass faith. Disdainfully, it casts the glorious achievements of the Enlightenment aside; Voltaire never lived. From the confusions of a humanity fleeing from itself was born this generation, which has no use for human dignity, freedom of thought, and tolerance; and what the best have heroically conquered over centuries appears to it indifferent or harmful. They take over dogmas—one must, one should—until one is finally no longer allowed to think; everything has already been determined, and whoever denies, doubts, or opposes it is a rebel or a heretic. Such narrowness and dullness is typically medieval, and—in that the Enlightenment is being trampled underfoot, dismissed as a mere mistake—it is only logical that the Middle Ages, with all its strictness, its base, dogged exclusiveness, would be proclaimed as a lost paradise.

Bauer’s essay concludes with an appeal, in an age of anti-intellectualism, to rediscover Voltaire:

The air smells of dullness and stupidity. It is time to read Voltaire. It is time, even more so, to live Voltaire.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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