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As election season nears, we once again find ourselves in the hot zone of political rhetoric and cable-news hysterics. Many of you will remember the congressman (I’ve omitted names in this article in order to avoid the invidiousness that is most political commentary) who used a brief speech on the House floor to describe GOP health care plans as wanting Americans to “die quickly”. Or a representative who told her constituents that her opponent wanted to tax “your corndog and your deep-fried bacon” (fact checked as untrue). Or the governor who accused a member of Congress of “sticking the taxpayer with her $100,000 bar tab for alcohol on the military jets that she’s flying.” Perhaps the titanic among this flotilla of foolishness was Sarah Palin’s: “Seniors and the disabled will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care.”
Clearly, political posturing and pandering isn’t partisan (excuse the election-season sloganeering). In looking at it, I’ve been struck by how the language often affects the trope of early dystopian fiction to make us feel smaller, more vulnerable and irritable. It’s also striking how, frankly, high school a lot of it is — the inflation of the rhetoric and the conflation of terms to the point where they’re insensible — and what that says about how the public is regarded. For a bracing perspective on the sophomoric quality of our political dialogue, I would ask you to look back 200 years to a seminal essay on political theory which throws a glaring light on the state of our political debate.
In his piece of elegant reasoning, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant, a serious contender for greatest philosopher of all time and one of the brightest minds who ever lived, had a pithy way of describing enlightenment as “a human being’s emancipation from its self-incurred immaturity.” So why self-incurred? Because, when it’s not due to a lack of smarts, looking to someone else or to the talking points of a political party for your cues is “a lack of resolve and courage to make use of one’s intellect without the direction of another.” So, in Kant’s estimation, laziness and fear are why we choose to be immature. “If I have a book that reasons for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who determines my diet for me, etc., then I need not make any effort myself”. I would add MSNBC, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher and the army of pundits who make a living as rhetorical grenade throwers to this list.
“It appears they’re even taking secret foreign money to influence our elections.”
“With my opponent as mayor, our murder rate has risen over 45 percent.”
“The new legislation cuts $500 billion from Medicare,” which allegedly “threatens our ability to keep our doctors.”
Know that every one of these statements was featured in a political ad and each one is false. According to Kant, the second strategy for maintaining an immature population is fear mongering of two kinds. First of all, there’s the fear of thinking for yourself. “The guardians who have kindly (note Kant’s ironic tone here) assumed supervisory responsibility have ensured that the largest part of humanity understands progress towards maturity to be not only arduous but dangerous.” The second strategy is making you fearful of all the vagaries of the big, bad world out there. “After they have made their domesticated animals dumb and carefully prevented their tame creatures from daring to take a single step without the walker to which they have been harnessed, then they show the danger that threatens them, should they walk alone,” Kant said.
Kant’s answer to the immature society is a complicated one- to him, citizens needs to act according to an essential dichotomy between their active, public role of enlightenment agents who question institutions and practices, and their passive, civic role of citizens who accept those same institutions and practices in order to do their jobs and keep things functioning (“argue but obey” was his mantra). If the public can straddle these two imperatives, Kant believes, then we can maintain a civil society and still foster enlightenment. We can question whether this would work in practice (i.e., he doesn’t allow for civil disobedience, or conscientious objection, etc.) but what’s moving about Kant is that the call to enlightenment is no less than “treating the human being in accordance with his dignity.” Let’s think about this next time we read a political screed about how bad the other side is. As adults, we have labored to actualize ourselves, to feed our families and to be treated seriously. In this election season, have we been accorded our dignity as intelligent, mature citizens or are we being regarded as immature children?