That was the topic of a panel I recently led with National Geographic explorer/Harvard anthropologist Wade Davis, trauma specialist Dr. Gabor Maté and Dutch-Indonesian activist Indra Adnan (more on how that turned out in a moment!).
The hope was, in these times of trouble, where cries to #burnitalldown are rising from all sides of the political spectrum, to explore if there's something in this Enlightenment experiment worth saving, or if the whole project has been tainted and doomed from the start.
Because fierce critiques of Western Civilization are absolutely having a moment, from articles like this in the New Yorker, detailing Britain's atrocious treatment of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and how they used that experience to fine tune their brutal tactics in Northern Ireland.
To Chinese kids on social media chanting bai lan which means "Let it rot!"
To Bill McKibben, that paragon of Protestant environmental liberal conscientiousness having a serious rethink about the whole American project in his just released The Flag, The Cross and the Station Wagon.
You could almost think of this broader debate as a cage match between Steven Pinker (a staunch defender of Modernity, for all its faults) and the 1619 Project (a fierce indictment of America's original sin of slavery and genocide).
And who "wins" matters here, because as the Second Law of Thermodynamics reminds us, it's way easier to break stuff than make stuff. Putting Humpty (or civil society) together again, is much harder after you've bumped him off the ledge he was teetering upon.
When you think about it, there's a ton of interesting experiments that we've conducted over the past half a millennium that we've simply grown up with, and assumed were either immutable laws of nature, or the pinnacle of evolution.
There are plenty of others.
But with each of these fairly novel and potentially valuable innovations, we've had false starts, unintended outcomes, broken promises and irreconcilable differences. And that's widening cracks in the foundations of the American Experiment, and much of Western liberalism.
Many of these notions are under direct attack right now. From the blood and soil Alt-right ethno-nationalists, there's a rejection of universal human rights. If you don't carry the same genes, defend the same fatherland, and worship the same gods, you don't get the same dignities. Basically, look after our own, and the Global South can rot. (See also any Great Reset/anti-Davos memes as a potential stalking horse for this rejection of global coordination).
Gerrymandering, vote restricting Republicans have been increasingly quick to remind everyone lately "we don't live in a democracy, we live in a republic!" (In an era of “Great Replacements” it's the thin end of a wedge justifying minority rule and electoral college shenanigans).
Social Justice advocates have been abandoning equality of access (i.e. non-discriminatory opportunity) for equity of outcomes (active redistribution and representation based on demography and restorative/reparative justice).
And never mind reparations for slavery or BIPOC representation on corporate boards and college admissions. It's gonna go inter-generational too. As millennials and GenZ rise as a voting block, expect all sorts of tax laws and loopholes pitched and enjoyed by Boomers (like super favorable capital gains and home ownership breaks, Medicare etc) to get reversed as the generations boxed out of all that wealth creation insist on claiming their share of the pie.
These aren't small movements. And they have massive implications. Not just in the next two or four years, but in the decades to come.
So the question remains––are these Enlightenment values good ideas, imperfectly executed, and we should take this 7th inning stretch of the last two years to dust them off and rehabilitate the lot?
Were they empty promises masking a far darker and less noble project of empire and inequity?
Well, that, at least, was the setup to that panel discussion that day...
But I barely got to tee it up. Less than two minutes into our introduction Gabor grabbed the mic.
What followed was a 20 minute harangue on centuries of conquest, colonization, black ops government projects, and all manner of harm, from Spanish conquest of indigenous tribes, to the Belgian Congo, to CIA backed Guatemalan death squads to Canadian boarding schools for indigenous children. And after each example, Gabor then grilled the audience, "Do you know how many people died? WHY DON'T YOU KNOW??? Because, a "liberal education" hid all of these atrocities from you to promote the lie of Western superiority!"
(And for those of you confused by how the gentle doe-eyed ayahuasca and trauma advocate Gabor Mate could do such a thing, rest assured, he's got a salty side too ;)
Now, Wade wasn't having it, and began to shift visibly in his seat, muttering under his breath. Although both of them live within an hour of Vancouver, this panel was the first time they'd actually met in person, and genial sparks were flying.
"I hear what you are saying Gabor, but some of the facts simply don't play out. Genghis Kahn murdered millions, Attila the Hun, Stalin, Mao...the list of human atrocities is endless and spans across time, space and cultures, it's not the sole province of the colonial West," said Wade, channeling his inner anthropology professor. "And, your claims about the Canadian boarding schools, simply aren't true. We haven't exhumed any of the bodies, and simply don't know the extent of the tragedy."
But Gabor wasn't having any of it right back. He doubled down on his critique, which sounded increasingly like an undergrad who'd just binged Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, and had returned to lambaste his bourgeoise parents over the holidays.
And that's when it hit me. We were live-debating the Pre-Tragic, Tragic, Post Tragic dialogue. Just upside down and backwards!
The reason Gabor had jumped in, and taken issue with the whole premise of the panel, was because he had assumed that what was about to happen was a pre-tragic justification, a propping back up of "'Merica, Love It or Leave It" sentiment.
Instead, he insisted that we acknowledge the Tragic parts of the Western Legacy. The slavery and genocide and wars of empire, and all of the bare knuckles power games going on under the hood of apple pie patriotism.
But Wade was holding an even more intimate knowledge of the clash of civilizations and its brutal costs. He's spent half a century living with indigenous peoples from the Amazon to the Andes and from the Himalayas to the Serengeti. He knows cultural and actual genocide. Up close and repeatedly. (Check my all time favorite TED talk of his on the collapse of ethnodiversity worldwide).
Wade was holding the pole of the Post-Tragic, that ultimately there's a reason for deep hope. “Pessimism is an indulgence," he reminded Gabor. "Despair an insult to the imagination.”
But interestingly, it was neither of these Canadian Bull Mooses hooking horns, that delivered us to redemption. It was Indra, patiently waiting her moment, amidst the pyrotechnics.
"You know," she said, I am the product of all of the things you've been talking about Gabor, I am of mixed race, of colonizer and colonized Dutch and Indonesian, and in my family history is all of the grief and suffering you're insisting we acknowledge."
"And...I am here. We are here. This conversation, these relationships is how we lead ourselves forward. It's the way into the future that interests me most, not re-litigating all the sins of our ancestors." (I am paraphrasing, she was more eloquent).
You could feel the audience relax, and settle into something that felt deeply true, and provisionally hopeful. Gabor was right, the last thing we need is a retreat back into Jolly Hockey Sticks Pre-Tragic mythmaking about Western Civ.
It has, and always will be an imperfect, contradictory mixed bag.
But, as Wade insisted, nobody ever promised us a rose garden. And even the briefest surveys of human culture reveals a constant churning violence we've never really escaped. When discussing the Yanomami tribe in the Amazon, he noted that all the men died young from spear fights. But then one guy lived until he was in his sixties, which the other men deemed suspicious, so they speared him for growing too old! #dontfearthereaper
And Indra was perhaps the rightest of all. Can we sit in the deep acknowledgment of the pain of the past, while finding the simple courage and clarity to live into the future we want?
As another wise woman, Dolly Parton once said, "ain't no saint without a past, ain't no sinner without a future!"
May our road ahead give us a shot at redeeming them both
PS. And curious as to your own takes on the premise of that panel––do you think there are crucial elements of the Enlightenment experiment we should fight to preserve, or are you leaning towards the #burnitalldown camp? Why? Where do you find your hope for the future?
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