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An irrational take on U.S. irrationalism

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/4/2014 (1191 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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In American politics, he insists, the rule of reason has been replaced by a widespread irrationalism.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 (1711-1776) 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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Updated on Saturday, April 19, 2014 at 8:41 AM CDT: Adjusts formatting.

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