Steven Pinker’s most recent book, Enlightenment Now, reminds us that the modern world we live in is a combination of material progress, secularism, and a devotion to the truth. If we’re fortunate enough to live in safety and freedom from want, it’s because some philsophers and political dissidents in Scotland, England, France, and America in the 1700s decided to think in a new way, and because those inspired by them were willing to fight for their beliefs.
There is a direct line from Mary Wollstonecraft, Adam Smith, David Hume, Voltaire, and Rousseau to the economic systems that put breakfast on our tables every morning and keep those of us, like me, who are either sexual, racial, or religious minorities, safe from harm. You don’t get safety, material progress, secularism, and a devotion to the truth piecemeal. They are a package deal.
Which is why I felt anger and dismay at reading the editorial in the Washington Post over the weekend, penned by the fiancé of the murdered journalist Jamal Khasoggi. She rightly says that the U.S. should be leading the charge to find and bring his killers to light. Khashoggi matters because he commanded moral authority by telling the truth. Before round about 1750, speaking the truth of one’s direct experience and beliefs wasn’t really a force that had real power in society. And it seems that round about 2020, it won’t be again. A free press was enshrined by the enlightenment thinkers who founded America because access to information, freedom of expression, and a search for the truth had to be available to every citizen in a democracy. The founding fathers even put the equivalent of billions of dollars into subsidizing the circulation of newspapers–all newspapers–not just ones that had specific ideologies. And two and a half centuries later, a free press is still an essential part of the enlightenment project. To let it come to harm, either in America or abroad, is to undermine what America stands for.
I’ve written here that Trump’s response is different only in style from that of previous U.S. administrations. Even if that may be so, the murder of a symbol of all the West stands for demands a braver response than Trump, a self-styled defender of Western Civilization, has so far given. At this moment, style may matter more than substance.
I don’t have a good answer for how to handle this situation. We are entwined with the Saudis. We prop up their monarchy, they provide us with energy and key alliances, specifically against Iran. They are also a hotbed of terrorism and the country most responsible for 9/11. Yet some bold and better response to Khashoggi’s murder must be found. In a democracy, moral choices by our rulers matter, because they either strengthen the principles of honesty and public trust which our government depends on as surely as it depends on money and might, or they weaken them.
What we need now is resolute moral leadership and a new way forward. I don’t think we’re going to get either.