“Have the courage to use your own reason — that is the motto of the enlightenment.”
— German philosopher Immanuel Kant, 1785
Since the days of The Enlightenment, we have increasingly lost our ability to reason with open minds and open hearts. We have forgotten our humanity and the need to care for one another. For far, far too long, we have been inundated by the stale political rhetoric of the elite. They have created a world based on greed, corruption, and oppression.
This worldwide pandemic and the social and political upheaval that has followed affords us a chance for real social change and intellectual growth. Most average lives have been disrupted by this chaos. So many are taking more time to reflect and understand that the call for more social and economic justice is becoming obvious. We find ourselves in a moment of history that may lead to a New Enlightenment.
Yet the voices of the elitists and their dupes continue to pester us.
“The pandemic is a hoax.”
“Racism and inequality really do not matter.”
“Let’s just get back to normal.”
“Let’s open up the schools,”
“The frail and old should be willing to die for the economy.”
“Making money is all that matters.”
In these uncertain times, such simple yet ignorant views call to us, promising us a safe way home. Like siren songs, they entice us. The songs we sing soothe away sorrow. The songs we sing will bring you peace.
We are like members of Odysseus’ crew in Homer’s “The Odyssey.” We too are on a long, chaotic voyage looking for home. We are tempted by the sirens as they pretend to be our saviors. They hope to confuse us and cast us back onto the rocks of injustice.
We cannot allow this to happen. Unlike Odysseus’ crew, we cannot stuff our ears full of wax. We must listen to the sirens and dismiss their songs for the greed-based rhetoric they represent. By understanding their individualistic nonsense, we will be guided by a community-based common sense that will change the world for the better.
The elite want to open the economy as soon as possible to restore their control. They want us busy and not reflecting and caring for others but caught up in the rat race of injustice that they created. Indeed, the allure of “bread and circuses” has weakened in our world. Without the distractions of overwork, entertainment, and eating out at restaurants, institutional racism and economic injustice has been laid bare. People as a whole sense the need for social change.
But how do we gain lasting positive social change? Replacing racist statues, flags, sports team names, and other symbols of oppression is a way overdue first step. Deeper structural reform in government and police policies need to follow. But even more fundamentally, economic reforms like a higher minimum wage, single-payer universal health care, and equity in housing and ownership are also necessary. For all of this to occur, a more dramatic shift in the thinking of the average person is necessary. Each of us must be brave and free enough to use our own courage for the sake of all of us. We need to envision a world not based upon greed and oppression but based upon love and compassion. What the world needs now is a “New Enlightenment.”
Dave Berger of Plymouth, Minnesota, is a retired sociology professor at Inver Hills Community College. He wrote this for the News Tribune.