Many years ago, like many serious-minded teenagers just starting college, I became fascinated with the Enlightenment, the great philosophical and political movement of the 17th and 18th centuries.
What attracted me was its philosophers’ absolute certainty about the power of the human mind to overcome the obstacles that nature and human nature set before us. All that was required was the rigorous application of Reason — it was often capitalized just so — and discarding the benighted superstitions that had long deluded us.
Science was our guide, and with it we would create a new world, free from the shackles of the past. All eyes were on the future; the past was of little consequence.
Progress was the watchword: moral and material progress were as inevitable as morning and night.
Wow! Just the thing for any teenager convinced he is God’s gift to man, ready for and equal to all challenges, and out to Save The World.
What undid the Enlightenment was its misbegotten child, the French Revolution. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Enlightenment was discredited. But bad ideas die hard, and the Enlightenment contained enough good that it has died especially hard.
Along the way it sired a string of leftist children including socialism, Marxism, Nazism, fascism and American Progressivism, each of which shares its unquenchable faith in the power of intellect and reason, wariness or disdain for custom, culture and religion (the benighted superstitions), an arrogant conviction of moral superiority, and a fatal misunderstanding of human nature.
It’s this last one that concerns me here. Leftists of all stripes believe that human nature is very flexible and readily changeable. Conservatives of all stripes scoff at this, on the grounds that history demonstrates that human nature is essentially fixed; change comes hard, if at all.
Here is where things get confusing. The civil rights movement was unquestionably a creature of the left, built on a belief in the dignity and freedom of all of God’s children, and the right of all to participate in society and share its bounty. It was believed that the undeniable morality of its positions would, with proper education and legal enforcement, lead eventually to a color-blind society in which people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently put it.
So how is it that the entire American left (or so it seems), and in particular many so-called civil rights leaders, have convinced themselves that white people are all irredeemable racists, incapable of changing their hateful ways? In other words, that human nature makes white people racist, and that there is no fixing it?
The most recent manifestation has been the hysteria over the Trayvon Martin killing, with the usual suspects claiming the poor kid was profiled and hunted down by a (mostly) white vigilante because he was black.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, no one who has looked deeply into the case (the local and state police, prosecutors and courts, the FBI, a few journalists) has found a shred of evidence that Zimmerman is a racist, or that Martin’s race had anything to do with what all agree is a tragedy. Of course, that has made no difference.
Black blood has been spilled, and white blood will be spilled in retribution. Watch out, black boys, because the white boys are out to get you. Hispanics, too. They’re all a bunch of racists, always have been, always will be, so just look out for yourself.
All of these things have been said on national television and in national publications since the Zimmerman verdict was announced.
This all seems so — unliberal. So contrary to every leftist principle, such a betrayal of the Enlightenment and the high aspirations of the great men who led America to the civil rights triumphs of the 1960s.
The cynic in me wants to chuckle and say, well, who’s the racist now? The political philosopher in me wants to point out that here is further confirmation of the conservative understanding that human nature doesn’t change and can sometimes be very perverse.
The human in me just wants to cry. To say, we are better than this. How can it be that the new tribalism into which the left has led us looks so much like the old tribalism that we earnestly tried to leave behind?
I wish I had a good answer for that question, but I don’t. It will take someone much wiser to supply it, and to show us a way out of our predicament.
Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is president and general manager of Accurate Machine Products Corp. in Johnson City.