It’s everyone’s favorite time of year again – Constitution Week. Along with yesterday’s Citizenship Day, two of the more obscure federally promulgated days of recognition make September a time to “to conduct ceremonies and programs that celebrate our Constitution and reaffirm our commitment as citizens.”

Paul Wong
Zac Peskowitz The Lower Frequencies

At our propitious moment in history, where the future contours of human civilization are about to be shaped for generations, the liberal-democratic framework, best symbolized by the Constitution, is the hope for a world free of major conflict. The possibility of creating this world is directly linked to the endurance of Enlightenment values, the possibility of which is rapidly vanishing. My skepticism about the laudable goal of securing an unyielding commitment to democracy is the result of the success of the Enlightenment’s opponents.

The most virulent assaults on the Enlightenment have historically been the domain of the radical Left. In his effort to build a more humane society, in his “Critique of Pure Tolerance” Herbert Marcuse argued that free speech was a tool of the empowered to suppress the exploited. To correct for this problem, Marcuse proposed a redistribution of political influence through banning the speech of certain groups and individuals. The intellectual descendants of Marcuse, prominent names like University Law Prof. Catherine MacKinnon still battling for their Marcusian dystopia and speech codes such as the one adopted by the University in 1988 before it was ruled unconstitutional, make up one of the more repugnant aspects of the modern academy.

A branch of American conservatism has recently attempted to suck more marrow from Enlightenment’s conception of freedom, morality and statecraft. The crusades of anti-modernist Leo Strauss against natural-right political philosophies have emerged as a persistent strand of thought in modern conservative circles. The late Allan Bloom and Nobel laureate Saul Bellow were two of the students who huddled around Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago and evangelized his philosophy on to the next generation of intellectuals. Two Bush appointees, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Leon Kass, chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics are direct disciples of Strauss. More importantly, major Republican initiatives like Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America have origins that extend back to Strauss.

To witness the implications of Strauss’ philosophy on the future of democracy, a simple comparison is in order. In his Sept. 11 address to the nation President Bush advanced an anti-Enlightenment understanding of morality. ‘Our deepest national conviction is that every life is precious, because every life is the gift of a Creator who intended us to live in liberty and equality” (emphasis added). Unlike the Enlightenment’s universally applicable principles of individual rights, this derivation of morality is dependent on a specific religious belief. If you don’t ascribe to the italicized explanatory clause, the rest of the sentence is meaningless.

For a contrasting Enlightenment view you need not go farther than the press release that accompanied the declaration of this year’s Constitution Week. “The Founders secured the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence by establishing a government that derives its power from the consent of the American people.” This view is open to a different set of challenges, but it is eminently defendable and it applies equally to all members of the human race regardless of personal belief. The ramifications of this comparison are legion. As the United States once again attempts to make the world safe for democracy, Bush’s reliance on the prototypical Straussian language of virtue constricts the scope of liberal democracy to those who share specific values.

As the drums of war are struck with increasing cadence and ferocity, we are left with the unsettling question of who is left to defend the gates of Enlightenment from its opponents? The United States is embarking on an enterprise that will have profound effects throughout the world. Whether it degenerates into a morass that fails to secure democracy or reaches a watershed moment in world history uniting the globe under a humane liberal framework will largely depend on this state’s internal disposition. The supporters of Enlightenment from its attackers on the Left and Right need to recommit themselves to its defense in earnest.

Zac Peskowitz can be reached at zpeskowi@umich.edu.

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