One of the books I’ve been reading this summer is Zeev Sternhell’s The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (Yale 2010), and this morning the opening paragraph of chapter 6 (pg. 274) really jumped out at me:
The antirationalist form of modernity, as we have seen throughout this book, stressed all that divides and isolates people, all that is specific to them and unique about them, and opposed all that could unite them. This second modernity also marked the birth of nationalist ideology, and the true founding father of this ideology was [German philosopher and theologian Johann Gottfried] Herder. His direct influence continued to be felt even in the mid-twentieth century. A reading of Herder also raises the great question posed by the two centuries since the French Revolution, which still in our own day remains one of extreme actuality: Is a liberal nationalism conceivable? Can it now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, become a historical reality? We shall see that the idea of a nation of citizens conceived as a political and not as an ethnic body did not survive the first years of the French Revolution. This political and judicial view of the nation was nipped in the bud by the Herderian revolt against the Enlightenment. It was the Herderian vision of a cultural, ethnic, and linguistic community that was to become the ideal of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, not that of a community of individuals united by reason, their interests, and the defense of their rights.
Now, why did this paragraph jump out at me? Because it strikingly outlines the American political scene today: the Tea Partiers are (unbeknownst to themselves) Herderites and Barack Obama is an Enlightenment liberal. The Tea Partiers see America as a “cultural, ethnic, and linguistic community” (that is, Christian, white, and English-speaking), and Barack Obama represents those who see America as a political—not a religious or blood and soil—body, and this body is united by:
- common security and economic interests; and
- a commitment to universal human reason and rights.
Thus, when you think about it, the Enlightenment v. the Anti-Enlightenment is exactly where contemporary American politics most spectacularly and emotionally divides itself:
- Shall we allow a mosque to be built near the Twin Towers site?
- Shall we teach evolution in the science classroom?
- Shall gays be allowed to marry?
- Should Obama dismantle the Cheneyite torture regime at Gitmo?
- Should we crack down on illegal immigration?
- Should English be the official language of the United States?
- Should judicial “activism” ever override “We the people”?
- Is it a triumph of the American vision that a black man rose to the presidency—or is it a symptom of its distortion?
In each of these questions (and one could add many more) there is a conflict of vision over what America is (Enlightenment based v. Anti-Enlightenment based). The American right, however, is not a monolith; it has its Enlightenment-based wing; that is, its pro-free trade, pro-capitalism, libertarian wing based in the ideas of Locke and Mill. But its Herderite-wing is what most animates the base of the Republican party. And it is Herderite politics, we should remember, that brought Germany to the blood and soil nationalist calamity of Adolf Hitler. For the sake of our country, let’s hope that our contemporary Herderites don’t overwhelm the Enlightenment-based politics of liberals and libertarians, for it is the liberals and the libertarians—and not the Tea Party Herderites—who most reflect what is good about America.
Here’s a bit more on Herder from Zeev Sternhell’s book (from pgs. 78 and 79):
Voltaire and Rousseau . . . were . . . Herder’s great enemies. With Another Philosophy of History (1774), another modernity was born and the Christian, antirationalist, and antiuniversalist reaction to the Enlightenment asserted itself for the second time (the first time was with [Giambattista] Vico, who was then unknown). . . . In the pamphlet of 1774, biblical reminiscences and allusions and direct quotations from the Bible abound, the general tone is sermonlike, the style is often apocalyptic, and the apostrophe ‘My brethren’ recurs many times throughout the text. . . . Max Rouche was not wrong in saying that Another Philosophy of History may be regarded as the Apocalypse according to Herder . . . From now on Herder was going to work for a rehabilitation of the Middle Ages and of the historical periods and cultures whose value was disputed by the anti-Christian Enlightenment.