An ir­ra­tional take on U.S. ir­ra­tional­ism

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Graeme Voyer

THE En­light­en­ment was an in­tel­lec­tual move­ment in 18th-century Europe whose ideas pro­vided the foun­da­tion of mod­ern lib­eral democ­ra­cies. In par­tic­u­lar, En­light­en­ment thinkers stressed the pri­macy of rea­son, con­ceived as an in­tel­lec­tual style that chal­lenged tra­di­tion, author­ity and in­tu­ition. How­ever, Univer­sity of Toronto philoso­pher Joseph Heath be­lieves that the En­light­en­ment project has stalled. In Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, he in­sists, the rule of rea­son has been re­placed by a wide­spread ir­ra­tional­ism. He blames both the left and the right for “the cur­rent cli­mate of ir­ra­tional­ism in the po­lit­i­cal sphere.” Al­though he ar­tic­u­lates some in­sight­ful cri­tiques of the left, he’s a man of the left and thus is more in­clined to fault the right. Heath is con­cerned with un­der­stand­ing rea­son in or­der to de­velop strate­gies for restor­ing a more ra­tio­nal pub­lic dis­course. Un­for­tu­nately, his book is a prod­uct of the very ir­ra­tional­ism that it de­cries. In­deed, Heath so rad­i­cally mis­con­strues Amer­i­can pol­i­tics that the ef­fect is al­most sur­real. For ex­am­ple, he writes that “Democrats in the United States are used to get­ting thrashed by the Repub­li­cans,” later, de­scrib­ing the Democrats as “hap­less.” But who won the last two pres­i­den­tial elec­tions? And the na­tion’s de­mo­graph­ics make it likely that the Democrats will con­tinue to win. Heath’s ar­gu­ment is so mis­guided that it’s dif­fi­cult to know where to start in re­fut­ing it. Per­haps the best ap­proach within the com­pass of a brief re­view is to de­lin­eate some of his more bla­tant fac­tual er­rors. Heath says that the in­au­gu­ra­tion of for­mer U.S. pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan was in 1980. No, it was in 1981. Scot­tish philoso­pher David Hume (17111776) would be be­mused to learn that he was, ac­cord­ing to Heath, “the fa­ther of mod­ern sen­ti­men­tal­ism.” In fact, there was lit­tle sen­ti­men­tal about Hume; the his­to­rian Henry Thomas Buckle once de­scribed Hume’s prose as “pol­ished as mar­ble, but cold as mar­ble too.” Heath says that the En­light­en­ment’s con­cept of rea­son was “in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic” and marked by “a lack of at­ten­tion to what was go­ing on in the in­di­vid­ual’s en­vi­ron­ment, both phys­i­cal and so­cial.” In fact, En­light­en­ment thinkers em­pha­sized con­trol of the en­vi­ron­ment for the mould­ing of ra­tio­nal in­di­vid­u­als. Heath is most egre­gious when dis­cussing the mass me­dia. He writes that “the cre­ation of straight-up pro­pa­ganda net­works like Fox News in Amer­ica has done enor­mous dam­age to the qual­ity of demo­cratic dis­course in that coun­try.” He doesn’t have a word to say about left-wing pro­pa­ganda net­works, which are ar­guably far more ubiq­ui­tous and in­sid­i­ous in North Amer­ica than Fox News. In­deed, be­fore Fox, the lib­eral left en­joyed a near-mo­nop­oly on the pre­sen­ta­tion of news. Now, with Fox, the other side is be­ing heard, and crit­ics like Heath are out­raged. Heath does make some ex­cel­lent points about the short­com­ings of the orig­i­nal En­light­en­ment, es­pe­cially its ex­ag­ger­ated ra­tio­nal­ism, which led to to­tal­i­tar­ian pol­i­tics. Ad­di­tion­ally, he ex­pounds a co­gent cri­tique of the post­mod­ernist left and its hos­til­ity to sci­ence. But Heath’s fac­tual er­rors and ten­den­tious ac­count of the me­dia make this book a du­bi­ous ex­er­cise.

Graeme Voyer is a Win­nipeg writer.

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