The Waning of The Enlightenment

Over the last four centuries Western Societies have evolved to more liberal and more inclusive democracies.

Democracy was famously defined in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address as:

……government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Notwithstanding the fact that Lincoln seems to have plagiarised the words of American Unitary minister and abolitionist, Theodore Parker, it was still a nice definition of the prime goal of the Enlightenment. Mostly our progress has come from working on those little prepositions “by” and “for”. Initially those involved in governing were a very select minority, but in most democracies in the last century universal suffrage ensured by far the majority of citizens of adult age and of sound mind could cast a vote. And of course as a consequence, as voting became universal, governments were forced to pay attention to the needs of all voters.

But towards the end of the twentieth century it started to become obvious that certain elite groups of professionals were beginning to seek to curtail the democratic rights of the average citizen. These well-educated elites purported to know what was best for us and in insidious ways began to curtail our democratic options.

One obvious example is in the field of education. Although elected governments are responsible for funding schools they have little say over what is taught in the classroom. Curriculums are prepared by educational specialists and textbooks are written by academics and often tainted by their progressive ideals. A young relative of mine was enrolled in a teaching degree at our local university. She told me that before even beginning to be taught about how to teach she had to endure hours of lectures on diversity. And as far as Universities are concerned we have seen their recent reluctance to teach the fundamentals of Western Civilisation which is the very basis of our democracy.

In his little book The New Authoritarianism, Salvatore Babones, Associate Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney writes:

[The traditional forms of sovereignty have been joined by another,] the sovereignty of experts. The sovereignty of experts is a natural outgrowth of the construction of individual liberties as rights instead of freedoms.

The liberal experts who tend to inform much of government policy and public debate are immune from the democratic process and often despise it.

Of course politicians take advantage of the sovereignty of experts in many ways.

Firstly, many of our politicians lack conviction. Consequently there are many areas where they are loath to make decisions, particularly when a decision one way or another will upset a politically influential minority. In such circumstances they are inclined to refer the decision to the experts to enable them to politically distance themselves from the outcomes.

Secondly, politicians can pick and choose the experts whom they refer to in order to give some semblance of legitimacy to decisions they have already taken. The recent case of the Queensland Government referring Adani’s plan to preserve the black throat finch to an expert in endangered species who is already on record of opposing coal mining is illustrative of such a tactic.

Thirdly, the experts often run their own political agendas in supporting progressive causes. The Bureau of Meteorology is a case in point which has twice in recent years revised historical temperature data to be more supportive of the global warming thesis.

And now of course with the consent of the Labour Party and the encouragement of Kerryn Phelps and the Greens, we have the frightening notion of activist doctors supplanting the elected government in determining our refugee policy.

Unfortunately, many of these “experts” are insulated from public opinion. Judges have tenure and can’t easily be removed. Federal Court judges can serve until they are seventy years old. Academics are also awarded tenure whereupon it is most difficult to remove them as well. None of these people are beholden to the electorate which is supposed to ensure their independence. Experts mostly only have to answer to other experts and consequentially they are self-referential authorities often devoted to supporting liberal ideologies.

In Britain the results of the referendum to leave the European Union surprised the experts. Some of them argued that this was too complex a decision to leave in the hands of the common folk and consequently putting it to a referendum was a logical error.

The same sorts of sentiments were expressed in the USA at the last presidential election. Hillary Clinton described those who shied away from the ideals promoted by the Democrats, which largely reflected the liberal philosophies of the expert class, as “the deplorables”. Unfortunately for Clinton there were enough “deplorables” who, feeling they were being disenfranchised by the expert class, flocked to Donald Trump thus depriving her of the Presidency. (This is not an endorsement of Donald Trump but merely a comment that it is inevitable that ordinary people will sooner or later want to assert their rights and react to the undemocratic rise of the experts.)

In Australia, we are suffering from a similar reaction which has resulted in the resurgence of One Nation and other minority parties who take populist positions undermining the capacity of the majority parties to pursue their mandates.

In a recent article, former Labor Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner observed:

The political class is overwhelmingly dominated by people with a university education, but the majority of the voting population do not have a university education and do not see themselves reflected in the political system.

It is understandable that many such voters would be sceptical of experts and the government’s use of them. It is not surprising that these people feel themselves excluded from the political process.

Babones writes:

…….there has been in the West a slow but comprehensive historical evolution from the broad consensus that governments derive their legitimacy via democratic mandates to an emerging view that governments derive their legitimacy by governing in ways that have been endorsed by expert authorities.

The growth of democracy under the Enlightenment was characterised by ensuring the essential freedoms of citizens. But in the late twentieth century that was overtaken by various movements to ensure people’s rights. It heralded the development of identity politics which championed the rights of minorities, often without much thought about how that might affect the rights and freedoms of the majority.

It is a paradoxical, but nevertheless true observation, that every right we establish for whatever minority, no matter how deserving, curtails someone else’s freedom.

To take a relatively trivial example if a political party chooses to mandate quotas for women, indigenous people or any such identity group, it automatically curtails the democratic options for its members. They have immediately been constrained in their democratic decision making with respect to the selection of candidates for election.

Thus, unfortunately, policies that were well-intentioned attempts to cement the rights of minorities, have inevitably impacted the freedoms of us all, and in particular our freedom of speech. It is now taboo to acknowledge intergroup differences in interests, abilities, cultural values, or family structures that might produce socioeconomic disparities.

Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, to the chagrin of feminists, for example points out that the so-called gender pay gap between men and women can be substantially explained by the different vocational interests of the two sexes. The feminists would much rather point to this as another form of female victimisation.

Or take a contemporary Australian issue – indigenous incarceration. The indigenous activists maintain that this is indicative of racial bias. Now if we were to do a study of indigenous and non-indigenous populations and found they had the same rates of school attendance, employment, parental care, drug and alcohol dependence and incidence of domestic violence, then we might legitimately agree that racism was a major factor in indigenous incarceration. But unfortunately that is not the case.

But there are other, more insidious, attacks on our democracy.

It would be argued by those of us that hold the tenets of Western civilisation dear, that one of the principal benefits of The Enlightenment was its conviction that the interests of society were advanced by rational debate. In recent decades, instead of embracing rational debate, many of our citizens have been actively trying to thwart it.

Unfortunately the institutions where we would most want to see the contest of ideas exhibited, our universities, are the very institutions that seem most inclined to prevent such contests. Many universities seem to be doing their best to shield students from being confronted with ideas that are contrary to the left/progressive viewpoints that seem now to permeate these institutions of higher education. Those trying to put such opposing views are prevented from speaking or if they do speak are shouted down and subject to violence and intimidation.

Heather Mac Donald in her seminal work, The Diversity Delusion, tellingly writes:

…….the contemporary university’s paramount mission: assigning guilt and innocence within the ruthlessly competitive hierarchy of victimhood.

In 2015 Harvard University with twenty six other colleges under the auspices of the Association of American Universities conducted a sexual assault survey of university students. As Mac Donald reports:

[It} declared 16% of Harvard female seniors had experienced non-consensual sexual penetration during their time at college, and nearly 40% had experienced non-consensual sexual contact.

As a result of this survey feminists concluded that campus rape was rampant.

Mac Donald forensically dissects the survey and its conclusions demonstrating that it is a most unprofessional piece of research which has drawn erroneous conclusions. (Her abovementioned book outlines all of this in some detail.) Consequentially she has attempted to appear on campuses refuting what she has come to call “The Campus Rape Myth” but has been prevented from doing so by those who wish to maintain this edifice of victimhood.

Australian sex therapist, Bettina Arndt, has been treated similarly in Australia.

Or take the case of Jordan Peterson (referred to above), who was pilloried because he refused to obey his university’s edict that he must refer to members of the LGBTQI community with artificially constructed pronouns. Peterson complained that this was an infringement on his right to free speech. Whilst he has now published a best-selling book, 12 Rules for Life and is now an internationally renowned speaker, he is still banned from some university campuses because of his stand against confected victimhood.

The root cause of this assault on our freedom of speech in universities and other places is the notion that human beings are defined by their skin colour, gender, sexual preferences, nationality and religion. Our children are being taught that the undisputed advances in Western culture came as a result of discrimination based on those characteristics and that progress came by subjugating such minorities and elevating the privilege of heterosexual white males. And as a result Western society is inherently bigoted and inimical to these oppressed minorities. The irony of this nonsensical interpretation of history is that many people have rejected traditional concepts of human ambition to subscribe to the easy, but deluded, notion of seeking victimhood.

The Morrison Government is so concerned about the curtailment of free speech by left wing activists in our universities that it has commissioned retired High Court chief justice, Robert French, to develop a framework on free speech for implementation in our universities and practical options for managing areas of conflict.

Mac Donald writes:

Universities should be the place where students encounter the greatest works of mankind and learn to understand what makes them touchstone of human experience. History should convey the hard work it took over centuries to carve stability and prosperity out of violence, tyranny and corruption. Instead victim ideology encourages ignorant young adults to hate the monuments of Western civilisation without bothering even to study them.

So it has come to this. We are indulging students who lack any depth of understanding of our history and the underpinnings of our democracy. We allow them, with the encouragement of their universities, to avoid being challenged by rational debate. They hide behind the artefacts of hate speech, victimhood, safe spaces, trigger warnings and so on to avoid their poorly developed intellects being challenged.

And the dominance of identity politics allows us to be affronted and offended by the things that divide us, rather than being uplifted by the things that unite us.

The great achievements of Western society that built on the learnings of The Enlightenment are now under threat because there are now so many fragile identities that can’t afford to confront the real lessons of history.

4 Replies to “The Waning of The Enlightenment”

  1. Hi Ted, I am heading off to catch a flight, but wanted to comment on your piece. Thank you.

    And now with the Pell verdict and imprisonment yesterday, (justified if appeal ultimately finds the charge to be true.) the horrible braying of people outside the courts (almost like the colosseum of ancient Roman times.) The “gotcha” mentality of the press – now using this event to link to key Liberal party people in the lead-up to the election.

    Such ugliness in the world these days in just about every aspect of society. Where will this evolution take us? And when? Some days…………..”stop the world, I wanna get off!”


    1. Well as you know, Barbara, I am not religious in a conventional sense and if Pell has offended it is right and proper that he should be held to account. But you are correct insofar as he has had a relentless press contingent working against him and railing against the inherent conservatism of the Catholic Church. But I must confess if I am to be fair I have criticised the unthinking obedience of fundamentalist Islamists to the teachings of the Prophet that are no longer applicable to a modern society. Catholicism with its dependance on guilt to shame its adherents into conforming to its outdated dogma is also at fault here. But the obvious glee of the progressives at Pell’s downfall is not edifying in the least. I suspect the desire of the left to take down an icon of conservatism would always have made Pell a popular target and have impeded his opportunity for justice.

      But as for stopping the world and getting off, I am just more determined to call the travesties as I see them and have faith that humanity will eventually prevail!

  2. Ted, While I agree with a few of your points, you are making some huge generalisations:
    (a) You criticise the move from elected parliamentarians to “experts”. If a new power station were to be built I would expect the government to consult an “expert” such as Ted Scott who knows a fair bit about them. If a hospital were to be built I would want the medical “experts” to have a big say in its design. “Experts” have a valuable role in society and your generalisations are unjustified. Maybe you need to be more nuanced about what kind of experts you are talking about.
    (b) As a corollary, you then criticise politicians who “are loath to make decisions . . and . . are inclined to refer the decision to the experts to enable them to politically distance themselves from the outcomes.” If that is the case, the solution is in the hands of the electorate who should toss that member out and vote for someone else instead. That’s democracy.
    (c) Near the start you state: “The Bureau of Meteorology is a case in point which has twice in recent years revised historical temperature data to be more supportive of the global warming thesis.” It is true that these adjustments were made. However what evidence do you have that you could draw such a conclusion about their motives. If you don’t have any, then I regard this inference as quite insulting to the integrity of the scientists at the BOM.
    (d) You seem to have a bee in your bonnet about “the Left”. Blaming “the left” for taking down Pell is misguided. What about the victims (real ones – not confected) of the Catholic Church – and there are thousands of them. Spare a thought for them, and whether they are left, right, or whatever, is irrelevant. They have been battling for decades someone to take notice. As for “obvious glee of the progressives at Pell’s downfall”: On the Drum last week, commentator David Marr said in a very measured and sombre tone that it was a very sad day for everyone involved. There was no glee from him, and he is very much on the Left.
    (e) Your piece in “And another Thing” about Cate MacGregor on Q&A demonstrates that you harbour an unjustified bias against the ABC. You are not as bad as The Australian newspaper, but you seem to be heading that way.
    Ian Herbert

    1. Ian, thank you for your usual considered and, might I say, predictable response.

      Firstly I am no fan of Cardinal Pell, nor of the Catholic Church. As I wrote I have often criticised Islam for not reforming and taking a proper place in modern society. The Catholic Church is no better in that respect, except that they don’t advocate murder for the sin of apostasy – and I guess that has to count for something! But I suspect because of the anti-catholic media bias he was always going to struggle to get a fair hearing.

      We seem unlikely to ever agree about the inherent bias of the ABC. But I just try to describe the world as I see it and accept your right to disagree. And whilst you might be affronted by my opinions i have no great desire to change your mind.

      But you have made one criticism that I believe is justified. I am in my older age inclined to be somewhat lazy and generalise more than I should. I could probably have better explained my concern about the abdication of Governments to experts. It is probably more a concern about the selective use of experts. I gave you some examples in my essay, but here is another one.

      The Morrison Government is currently canvassing the states for support to set up a Royal Commission into the issues of the care of the aged. Now the Commonwealth and the Staes have huge bureaucracies full of doctors,psychologists, gerontologists and whatever. You would have thought that they had the expertise to detremine what needs to be done to properly care for our aged.

      But whatever way you look at it, it is unlikely that aged care can be improved without increasing the staff in aged care facilities. And if we increase the staff in aged care facilities that will increase substantially the already high cost of aged care. Now if the government were to make that decision off their own bat they would likely arouse the opprobrium of the aged population which is quite considerable. But if the Royal Commission makes such a finding the Government can hide behind the finding of “independant” experts and reduce the political reaction to increased costs of aged care.

      I know we will often disagree Ian, but I nevertheless appreciate your responses.

      PLease give my regards to Cathy.


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