WASHINGTON: Many US Presidents since John F. Kennedy have cited the Enlightenment as the foundation for America's constitutional system and the values which the United States and the larger West have promoted and defended since the late 18th century. But no American president until Barack Obama has had to report that the Enlightenment's fundamental values--described in his farewell speech on January 10, as "a faith in reason, and enterprise, the primacy of right over might ...the rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly and an independent press"--are under assault in the United States and around the world. Just weeks into the Trump administration such concerns have acquired an added urgency.
Until recently, it seemed Enlightenment values were ascendant. In the 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed and Western ideals of economic, political, religious freedom spread across the world. Between 1990 and 2015, global GDP increased by $51 trillion and incomes across the world rose by 136 percent. Millions of people were lifted out of poverty. And according to Freedom House, the world today still has more democracies in the world today than dictatorships.
But democracy and values of the Enlightenment are under siege. Islamic and other fanatics perpetrate merciless violence. Authoritarian governments and movements are on the rise. Racism, sexism, intolerance and anti-Semitism are "new normal" components of discourse. "Alternative facts," touted by Washington officials, replace logic and science-based evidence. Political gridlock weakens many of the world's democracies. Too many Europeans have abandoned their belief in the ideal of integration as an antidote to centuries of bloodshed.
President Donald Trump's inaugural address, 10 days after Obama's farewell, was infused with pessimism, nationalism and nostalgia for what historian Mark Lilla calls a "happy, well ordered state where people know their place, live in harmony and submit to tradition and their God," a society which supposedly existed before "the elites challenged this harmony.
The political promise so many saw in the rubble of the Berlin Wall and the potential of ever increasing global economic integration have faded
First, too many of citizens were excluded or left behind. The American families described in David Smick's book The Great Equalizer believe the system is "rigged" in favor of the large over the small. They see jobs lost to countries who do...