It’s kind of a first in-first out thing. The United States of America was the first political product of the Age of Reason. In the 1780s, for the first time in human history, not just a state but a whole imperial system was constructed by human beings based on liberal Enlightenment rationalism.
I’m a big fan of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who helped to give us the intellectual equipment to understand the earth-shaking nature of that event. Today, it is remembered as the birth of modern democracy and of the most powerful nation the world it has ever known; but it was so much more. It was an epistemic revolution. Foucault uses the term “episteme” to refer to something beyond mere epistemology or politics, to the “knowledge-power regime” by which a civilization is organized. The American Revolution didn’t just help to usher a new kind of person in to being, in the sense of creating an enfranchised citizenry; it was the first society to start mass-producing people like us, people who had a different way of knowing the world and, hence, related to one another differently.
Of course, the seeds of this new knowledge-power regime had been sowed and tilled for a long time, even before Galileo proclaimed that the church should stick to pronouncing on how to go to heaven and not “how the heavens go,” before the Lateran Council of 1215 made confession a sacrament. But for a way of knowing to truly succeed, to shape a whole consciousness, it must achieve a critical social mass; different kinds of consciousness about truth or about power do not cohabit well in a society. While people might seriously disagree on whom should be hit, dynamically stable societies generally agree on who has the right to do the hitting; similarly, while people might seriously disagree about what the facts are, there is generally pretty broad agreement about how to test what is and is not true. And it was in the United States and France at the end of the eighteenth century that this consciousness achieved an unprecedented critical mass, from which could be built a new epistemic hegemony.
Today, despite instability caused by a global rightward political drift, the persistence of pseudoscientific racism as a legitimate political movement and occasional setbacks in confederating Europe, there is no sign of France, America’s partner in the late eighteenth-century epistemic shift, abandoning the Age of Reason. But across the Atlantic, there is every sign that the American people have grown restless and decided to blaze fresh epistemic trails. Americans are quitting the Enlightenment episteme in record numbers every year and joining what I term “the Age of Authenticity.”
There are other names for it. Stephen Colbert calls it “truthiness;” David Frum calls it the “conservative… alternative knowledge system.” Colbert came first and closest to describing it not as falsehood but as “truth that comes from your gut.” This is not about people being stupid or people being liars; it is something far more profound and serious than that. A growing minority, likely soon to be a majority, of Americans are developing a different consciousness about how to determine what is and is not true and society, from the family to national political institutions, is changing to adapt to this new reality.
To understand the Age of Authenticity, I think it is necessary to understand why it is dawning in America and not in France. America’s Age of Authenticity arises from specific past events and peculiar characteristics of US society.
As the first Age of Reason state, the United States was not just a place where many Enlightenment ideas were tested but where they were sorted-out, as the consciousness of the nation’s founders attempted to come to grips with the radical individualism that the Age entailed. Many suffered from a failure of imagination in conceiving of how truly atomized their future citizenry would be. A one-person militia? A one-person church congregation? These ideas were unimaginable to the men who drafted the nation’s constitution and its early amendments. And so it is that the canonical documents on which Americans base their understandings of rights still have one foot in the previous episteme. Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues constantly confused small, consensual groups (like church congregations), sub-jurisdictions (likes states and counties) and individuals as they tried to puzzle out what kinds of governance structures would work for the new kind of person they were in the process of becoming. This wasn’t because these men were an iota less brilliant or radical as they are remembered as being; it was because the episteme in which they had grown up located the boundary between self and other, consent and coercion, church and state, in radically different places or did not even consistently comprehend, never mind admit, such distinctions.
As a result, reading America’s canonical documents and the debates surrounding them gives one a sense of the uncanny, of touching something inextricable from the Age of Reason yet not fully of it. America’s insistence on canonizing not just the documents but the discourse has produced a people never fully seated in the episteme they inaugurated, a people with a propensity to misunderstand how the self is bounded in the modern world. The first amendment conflates states and persons; the second, groups and persons. Foundational to any episteme is the constitution of the self and Americans, the more they focus on their canonical documents, remain unsure where they stop and others start.
The persistence of America’s founding documents is, itself, a problem. Why do the French not have a similar backward-looking ambivalence to their founding documents? Because they tear up their constitution and rewrite it every few generations. What is sacred in France is not the constitution but the Cartesian tabula rasa on which the latest iteration is placed. Americans, on the other hand, have made their constitution sacred for very good historical reasons.
The Early Republic, as Jeffersonian and Jacksonian America is termed, was a society that performed an unprecedented demographic feat. It managed to increase its population and literacy rate while its population density fell, something that almost never happens. The power of smallpox and other European diseases was such that the vast Great Lakes and Mississippi basins the US inherited from France functioned as a kind of vacuum, sucking American society west faster than its fragile institutions could handle. Abandoned farms and fields, not just of Native Americans but other religious and linguistic minorities, emptied by war, disease and fear of violent Anglo-American colonists pulled people West at an incredible rate.
Yet at the same time, Americans taught themselves to read, thanks to a small range of publications delivered at great danger and expense by a valiant, volunteer army or armies. As a people who had been inspired to rise up by texts like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, it was not enough for Americans to trust others to read to them. The Age of Reason demanded an informed, literate citizenry; all it needed was something to read. And this is where the American Bible Society, the American Tract Society, Andrew Jackson’s Democrats and hundreds of travelling Methodist preachers came in. These men distributed pamphlets, tracts and sometimes whole Bibles to incipient village after village struggling to build a schoolhouse and put a dozen kids in it. Outside funding determined what people read in the early generations of the American Midwest.
Often it was hard to tell publications apart; they usually featured, with only intermittent attribution, key clauses and phrases proof-texted from the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bible. It is not so much that this approach instilled in American Christians a profound respect for the Bible; it instilled in Americans a belief the importance of canonical texts and a sense that the nation was founded upon three main canonical documents, of which the Bible was only one. Furthermore, Americans were taught to read based on the common sense theories of language of their producers: that all reasonable people will interpret an important document identically once presented with it because language has clear, obvious and unambiguous meanings. This, I would suggest, helps to account for Americans’ continued resort to their nation’s canonical documents, not just as legal documents but as the country’s most important works of moral and political philosophy.
It also helps to explain the ongoing institutional power of churches and political parties in the United States in shaping people’s core thoughts. Churches were instrumental in creating literate, civil societies in most of Europe and the Western Hemisphere but, outside of the US, literacy and social infrastructure were created by established churches, inextricable from the state. In most countries, the reach of churches into the everyday life of citizens declined sharply with disestablishment. The “church” that was encountered in Western Europe and Latin America, following the expulsion of the Jesuits, was essentially an arm of the state. And when governments began choosing the deliver education unmediated by an established church, churches, themselves, receded from people’s lives.
Not so in the United States. The churches that filled homes with pamphlets and tracts were not financed by the government but by congregations half a continent away. The Democratic Party, similarly, financed its booze-ups, picnics, parades and pamphlets with the donations of its members and with the government kickbacks that the “spoils system” delivered. Civil society and literacy were not just created but sustained by churches and political parties based on mass mobilization.
Of course, these things have been features of American culture for nearly two hundred years, during most of which time, the US was a model society of the Age of Reason. But due to more recent events, these peculiar American attributes have attained a new relevance and helped to create the unique environment necessary for the Age of Authenticity to arise.