(Was reading Facebook – yes, yes, DUMB! – wherein some poor soul was celebrating her enlightenment, and how she now knew The Way Things Are. I was thus inspired…)
Nothing quite matches the thrill, the comfort and sense of complete superiority that comes in that moment when one realizes that one has shed the chains of false consciousness, escaped the narrow perspective of class (however defined) and reached a higher plain of Enlightenment. We know we have freed ourselves from the tentacles of mindless conformity when we find ourselves in total agreement with our college professors and our neighbors in Berkeley and San Francisco: we share the same ill-defined goals, the same largely fictional political heroes, and, most important, we hold the same people and the ideas we ascribe to them in utter contempt.
Of course, except among ourselves, we would be unlikely to put it quite so baldly. Among the unenlightened, who by the very fact that they don’t agree with us have demonstrated an impenetrable ignorance and fundamental irrationality which makes them irredeemably evil, we don’t waste time trying to explain our positions. Mostly, we merely explain to them what it is they really believe – largely for our own catharsis, since there’s virtually no chance such vile creatures can ever be made to see the truth. As to listening to what the unenlightened have to say, well, what could be more absurd! Whatever fantasy world they may have constructed for themselves in which they tell themselves stories about human nature, basic math, toleration that falls short of complete adoration and personal responsibility even in a world of structural evil, we know that they act solely out of bigotry, racism and hatred. Because we, after all, are more enlightened than they are.
All well and good, as far as it goes. But here is something that might perhaps send a chill down your spine: what if there is a higher level of enlightenment beyond that which you have achieved? What if one were to see the world as clearly as you and your favorite sociology professors do, yet find that it is possible to see even that exalted level of enlightenment as falling short, somehow, of an even greater state of clarity?
I am here to break the bad news: I am more enlightened than you.
Yes, I have read Marx. And Hegel. And Freud.(1) You have no doubt had pre-digested bits of that revered trinity spoon-fed to you by academics with agendas, so it’s really not surprising that you’ve gotten a somewhat distorted idea of what they’re up to. Even if you’d read them instead of read about them, you, not being nearly as enlightened as I am, lack the context under which these thinkers can be actually understood. I’ve read hundreds of *other* books, too, the ones that provide the context within which Marx, Hegel and Freud can be understood. Because I am more enlightened than you.
It’s true that I have read only a smattering of Marx’s innumerable spawn – the feminists, the political theorists, the gender studies people, the critical analyzers and so on. Pointing that out is like saying I’ve only done a tiny fraction of all possible arithmetic problems. I know how to do the math. I know what species the answers will be. Because, let me remind you, I am more enlightened than you.
Being more enlightened, I can of course understand the appeal of the Hegelian, Marxist and Freudian ideas that permeate what passes for thought among you less enlightened people. Wouldn’t it be nice if all that was required to achieve heaven on earth is for enough people to get on the right side of History? As an aside, an exercise in thinking, try to get clear in your mind what ‘the right side of History’ means. Hint: being more enlightened than you, I can see that it is both a shibboleth (you can look that word up later) and an order to do as you are told, couched in an otherwise meaningless collection of words.
Further, wouldn’t it be nice if our personal happiness depended largely on not suppressing our sexual desires? If we just did what we wanted to do, to or with whomever or whatever we wanted to do it, why, we would be right as rain! Being more enlightened and also a healthy human being, I can again understand how this idea would appeal to the less enlightened. But, because I am more enlightened than you, I can also see that, in practice, this approach involves treating everyone else as primarily a means (or hinderance) to our own self-fulfillment. If you were as enlightened as I am, you’d see that no amount of talking around this issue will make it go away: my rights correspond to somebody else’s duty. What if I’m unhappy because, oh, I don’t know, a younger Cheryl Tiegs-equivalent never consented to have a wild, passionate fling with me? How do I solve that? More important, how does the world solve that for me? How does it work out, once we’re all on the right side of History, that Cheryl realizes – or is made to realize – her duty to jump in the sack with me? And these, my made-up fantasies, are way, way on the tame end of the gamut – I would not be excited by, for example, Cheryl’s corpse – but there are people who would be. How do we decide whose fantasies are rights and whose are not?
Oh, sure, being much less enlightened than me, you can unleash a snowstorm of counterarguments. Like a snowstorm, all those arguments will do is blind one to where one is standing. Once the snow settles, and clarity resumes, you’re stuck. If you were as enlightened as I am, you’d see it.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all government and economic problems could be solved by putting all political and economic decisions in the hands of enlightened people, who would be fair and honest and good? Like Uncle Bernie! What a nice man! He would never be mean!
You poor, unenlightened child. If you were as enlightened as I am, you’d realize, first, that the sort of people who find this idea attractive are precisely the people who are not nearly as enlightened as I am. If people as enlightened as I am were, somehow, put in power, all we’d do is restore the rule of law, tighten up election rules, return the election of senators and the appointment of electoral college members to the state legislatures, abolish the Department of Education and a bunch of other make-work programs, and raise the voting age to at least 25. Then we’d call a general election – and step down. Being much less enlightened than I am, this is not what you think you want.
Second, if you were as enlightened as I am, you’d see that it takes a whole lot of raw power to take things away from people – their freedom to buy or sell what they want, their money, their stuff, their politics. We enlightened people, being much more enlightened than you, call that level of power ‘totalitarianism’. That kind of power attracts a certain type of person, and it isn’t the idealized Uncle Bernie. And before you launch into the ritualized ‘European Socialism!’ incantations, know that we enlightened people notice things like the direction of traffic: there are lots more Swedes in America than Americans in Sweden. This hasn’t changed in 200 years. The phenomenon – people flowing from socialist states to free market democracies – gets more extreme the more perfectly socialism is implemented. Perfectly socialist states such as Cuba and East Germany had people willing to risk death to get out.
I could go on, but you’d need to be much more enlightened than you are now to get anything out of it. Go read a book, preferably one written at least a couple hundred years ago. Try to be skeptical of the ideas you love, not just those you hate. And call your mother.
- And Fichte (you’ve never heard of him – that’s part of the problem, sweetheart.)