America: Lost Child of the Enlightenment


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July 06, 2014 00:31 EDT

Ideas of the Enlightenment that led to the creation of America have been set aside for celebrities, cheerleaders and consumerism.

Every year, I write something for the Fourth of July, the day the United States of America celebrates its independence. Last year, my article that delved into inequality, education and liberty upset the mother of a friend because birthdays and anniversaries are not moments when you say anything critical. It seems this is the second year running when I might disappoint her.

As I was driving my car, I heard on the radio that 288,000 jobs were created in June, bringing the unemployment rate down to 6.1%. This is the lowest figure since September 2008. President Barack Obama talked about how “the economy has built momentum.” This is great news for a Fourth of July weekend that marked the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the US national anthem. One could use Robert Browning’s words, “God’s in His Heaven — All’s right with the world!” However, something does not quite feel right.

The Founding Fathers

Sitting in sunny California, I cannot help but muse on the motley group of men who banded together to fight for independence from the mightiest empire in history. In 1776, the British dominated the planet. More importantly, a large number of Americans were in favor of British rule. The hotheads who decided to create a new nation had to fight not only the British, but also their fellow countrymen. In the midst of “Made in China” fireworks, most people forget that the American Revolution of the 1770s was more of a civil war than the 1861-65 conflict. The latter pitted the north against the south, while the former saw neighbors fight each other and sometimes even family members. Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son, William Franklin, remained a loyalist till his death, and relations between father and son broke down irrevocably.

So what drove the Founding Fathers like Franklin, who risked death to strike out against the British Empire? Simply put, they were fired up by the ideas of the Enlightenment, an era when European intellectuals prized reason over tradition. Logic and evidence, science and knowledge were valued. There was a great desire to change a society dominated by old privilege. In an era of kings, the ideas that “all men are created equal,” that they have “certain unalienable Rights,” that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed” were radical. The intellectual firepower of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry and others, along with George Washington’s common sense and judgment, fueled the revolution, created the constitution and forged the DNA of a grand and glorious country.

Yes, there are warts in the story. Washington, Jefferson and many others of the South owned slaves. Washington made the British return liberated slaves when they lost at Yorktown. Native Americans were decimated and later confined to soulless reservations. Still, for all their faults, Americans of that era questioned fundamentals, shook the ground beneath their feet, and engaged in the pursuit of what they deemed to be a nobler society.

Copyright © Doo Lee. All Rights Reserved

Copyright © Doo Lee. All Rights Reserved

Fox, Cheerleaders and Facebook

A few days ago, I spoke to a retired American diplomat who had a most distinguished career. He spoke about how the America of his childhood put great emphasis on education. The idea of public education that Jefferson pioneered in Virginia was implemented throughout the country. Robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie won legitimacy through investing in public libraries that one can find, even in small American towns today.

In a land of immigrants, education was the way to both self-improvement and getting ahead. Abraham Lincoln, a largely self-educated man, was a classic example of this tradition. Richard Feynman, the son of Jewish immigrants, went to a public school in New York that set him up for a glorious career in physics and a Nobel prize.

Today, America is more about status than substance. Anti-intellectualism has become rife with the likes of Fox News peddling opinion as fact. Their rivals such as CNN are not much better. They rely on the seductive good looks of Anderson Cooper to attract viewers. Each time I come back to America after time abroad I am struck by two things. First, Americans watch an awful lot of TV. Second, cheerleaders jump around a hell of a lot before big men engage in the modern equivalent of gladiatorial contests on television.

On July 1, I was invited to have dinner at Twitter. I sat with MIT graduates who were doing new things with technologies that are too complex for my limited brain. Yet they didn’t know that India just had a historic election. One of them didn’t know anything about ISIS, the Islamist organization that has been sweeping through Iraq. The last time I spoke at Harvard, I was shocked by the fact that none of the undergraduates had heard of the Balfour Declaration. After the lecture, half of them hit their phones to check updates on Facebook. They were carrying iPhones and wearing Brooks Brothers. Consumerism begins early in America and students seem to know more about brands than about the wider world.

Today, America is more about status than substance. Anti-intellectualism has become rife with the likes of Fox News peddling opinion as fact. Their rivals such as CNN are not much better. They rely on the seductive good looks of Anderson Cooper to attract viewers. 

It wasn’t always this way. People like Franklin and Jefferson were citizens of the world. Today, the best and brightest of America are notoriously insular, distracted all too easily by social media, and have skills but often lack an education.

So, What Next?

Adam Smith, the godfather of the free market system, was of the view that public education is essential to create active and engaged citizens and a decent society. He was a product of the Enlightenment and, though Americans love paying him lip service, his ideas have been forgotten. America no longer prizes public education. In fact, it faces an educational crisis of monumental proportions. Schools focus on test scores, not learning. Universities have become watering holes on the path to well-paid jobs. A culture that lacks questioning and curiosity has developed, which is reflected in the media fixation with sports and celebrities.

Americans have checked out at a time when we are experiencing an inflection point in history. New tensions are bubbling a hundred years after the start of World War I. The global economic system is still in crisis. Income and wealth inequalities are increasing to frighteningly high levels. Even within the US, few jobs pay well. At the same time, a single visit to the emergency room at a hospital can cost over $4,000. Yet there are few conversations going on about fundamental issues such as education, economy and health care in the land of the free and the home of the brave. An era that demands critical inquiry and deep thinking is marked by superficiality and noise.

On this Fourth of July weekend, I am convinced that America needs an intellectual reawakening. This is the land of deeply thoughtful giants who crafted a great constitution. Economically, America is making a comeback of sorts. Manufacturing and exports have rebounded since the financial crisis. America is enjoying a cheap energy bonanza thanks to shale gas discoveries. Socially, a country that began as Albion’s Seed has become a multiracial society with an African American president.

What America lacks, however, is civic engagement. It needs a politics that is informed by ideas and a society that engages with the great issues of our era. For America to become what it set out to be, it has to work hard on becoming smart again.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Gary Yim /

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