USA turning its back on Enlightenment -- The New Normal
The new normal
Despite the exponential increases in public education and access to
information in the past century, the quality of political debate in
the United States, Britain and Australia, appears to have become
increasingly unsophisticated. This is appealing to the lowest common
denominator of understanding, in sharp contrast to the subtle and
nuanced words used by Abraham Lincoln nearly 150 years ago.
On 27 February 1860, Lincoln delivered a very complex speech about
slavery and its political implications at the Cooper Union in New York
City. It was his first speech in New York and its impact was dramatic.
He concluded with the words, which may seem anachronistic now, 'Let us
have faith that right makes might...' Four New York newspapers
published the full text, all 7500 words, and it was reprinted in
hundreds of different formats. The speech rapidly transformed Lincoln
from being merely a Mid-Western 'favourite son' to a national figure,
and was a major factor in securing him the Republican nomination for
President in May.
In 1860 the technology was primitive but the ideas in Lincoln's speech
were profound and sophisticated. In the year 2000 the technology was
sophisticated but the ideas uttered by the Presidential candidates
Bush and Gore were primitive and over simplified: it would be easier
to imagine a mantra, such as 'We have made America stronger", being
repeated a hundred times rather than to have a complex argument
presented once. George W. Bush's central theme was essentially an
inversion of Lincoln's: "Might makes us right. If we can do it, we
On 21 October 2001, Vice- President Dick Cheney, in justifying use of
Executive power to restrict civil liberties, limit access to courts,
restrict debate and cripple Freedom of Information legislation told
The Washington Post: 'Many of the steps we have now been forced to
take will become permanent in American life, part of a new normalcy
that reflects an understanding of the world as it is'.
In the United States, writers are now adopting, and some promoting,
the term the 'new normal. In this view, the 'old normal', where
decisions might have been based on evidence, analysis, reason and
judgment, using techniques refined by the Enlightenment of the 18th
century, had come to an end on September 11. The 'new normal' depends
on instant decisions based on 'gut', 'instinct' and 'faith'.
Increasingly, policies have to be 'faith based'.
On 17 September 2006, the Google search engine listed 614,000,000
citations of the 'new normal', but the term has had virtually no
currency or recognition outside the United States.
Under the 'new normal' a belief that Iraq had weapons of mass
destruction was enough to justify invasion and the priority was for
immediate action, not for understanding or judgement. Control of
Iraq's huge oil reserves, which would have been a completely rational
(but not morally uplifting) reason for invasion, was never mentioned.
If Iraq had been the world's greatest producer of broccoli, Saddam,
for all his hideous cruelty, would not have been disturbed.
Under the 'old normal' before September 11, 2001, I assumed that our
side, the democracies, never began wars (although, as in Vietnam, they
were prepared to intervene in existing colonial struggles), even where
our opponents were brutal and corrupt and when a pre-emptive strike
might have been to our strategic advantage. This assumption no longer
applies, and the moral basis for action is now displaced by sheer
opportunism adventurism. Torture is now routinely justified instead of
being outlawed. The arguments 'We only torture in a good cause' and
'If they can do it, so can we...' should have been dismissed out of
hand, but were not. We should have asked: 'How are torturers
recruited? Self-selection? Going with the flow? Does the Eichmann
defence of 'superior orders' apply?'
Albert Camus wrote: 'Man's greatness lies in his decision to be
stronger than his condition. And if his condition is unjust, he has
only one way of overcoming it, which is to be just himself'.
Barry Jones former Australian Labor politician
his book: A Thinking Reed ISBN 1 74114 387 X
more info: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17489