Want to Save the World? Adopt the ‘1689 Project’
We’ve been hearing a lot about the “1619 Project,” and hearing also (somewhat less) about the “1776 Project.” But what the world really needs is a “1689 Project.”
The year 1689 was the key one in the birth of the Enlightenment – a marvelously successful approach to science, politics, reasoned thought, and human relations that seems dangerously at risk of ending in today’s angry and increasingly irrational world.
In 1687, Isaac Newton published his “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” exemplifying the evolution of science toward a system of rational laws tied to empirical observations and welcoming skeptical thought and free inquiry.
In 1689, the same sensibility entered the political realm, with England’s Glorious Revolution. King James II was bloodlessly overthrown and replaced by William and Mary, consistent with John Locke’s hot new idea – the “social contract” – whereby the sovereign serves the people, instead of people serving the sovereign.
An English Bill of Rights was signed in 1689, laying down a rough blueprint for what would become America’s future Bill of Rights, often using similar phrases: freedom of speech, the right to bear arms (here, chiefly for the Protestants who had been denied the right of arms for defense under the Catholic James II), protections against “cruel and unusual punishments,” and more. The king and queen foreswore the power of arbitrary taxation.
Locke’s own writings described “life, liberty and the pursuit of property,” which the American Framers adapted to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The spirit of John Milton’s “Areopagitica” was still intellectually fresh; Milton argued against the book-burning and censorship that had marked the Spanish Inquisition.
Of course, the times were still primitive by today’s standards: Rights were often reserved more for Parliament vs. the king, or for Protestants against Catholics. The slave trade was not outlawed in the British Empire until the early 1800s. Still, the defining principles of the Enlightenment had been laid down. They include:
-Respect for the individual
-Respect for rationality and objective truth
-Government subordinated to the people; checks and balances on government power
-Acceptance of skepticism and debate as the path towards truth
-An underlying optimism in the ability of mankind to make progress through open intellectual inquiry, effort, and discipline.
And who could be against such principles?
Why, these days, seemingly everyone.
The New York Times was against the Enlightenment when it explicitly rejected dispassionate, objective reporting of facts in the name of a higher passion against Donald Trump. The Portland protesters were against the Enlightenment when, night after night, they tore into that city, as were the Jan. 6 protesters when they tore into the Capitol. Those who paid for, spread, promoted, and profited from a dossier of false Russian-collusion attacks were, too. So was Big Tech’s social media when it censored the Hunter Biden story ahead of the election, and when it censors political speakers at will, potentially forever.
And so have been many others. The anonymous sources and “highly placed intelligence officials” who gave years of undeserved credibility to false claims and censorship. The political prosecutors who bring troops of heavily armed SWAT team officers and military vehicles to arrest a nonviolent old man in his house, as CNN films it all. The identity politicians who destroy the vision of Martin Luther King by judging all people only by the color of their skin, and never by the content of their character. The colleges designed to support free inquiry that now treat free inquiry as a form of physical assault. Those visionaries who know with absolute certainty that they are absolutely right, and that anyone who opposes them is evil for asking for evidence. Foreign governments that meet their opponents with burlap bags over the head, or chainsaws, or polonium-210 on the edge of a drinking glass.
President Biden has said repeatedly that he wants to “restore the light.” But you can’t restore the light without the Enlightenment.
Whether our new president is for the Enlightenment or not will become clear in many ways, large and small. Does he protect the filibuster as a check and balance on government power? Does he end political trials? Does he champion free speech on the Internet and in academia? Does he allow children to go to the school where they can receive the best education? Does he classify people by their individual actions, rather than by racial identities? Does he agree that the people begin with all of society’s wealth and freedom and grant some to the government, or does he think government decides how much wealth and freedom people “really need” or “deserve to have”? Does he send soldiers to die in unwise missions such as the Iraq War?
The “1689 Project” – featuring Locke, Newton, Adam Smith, Jefferson, Hamilton, Lincoln – has led to the advance of civilization for billions of people around the globe. We must protect this “light,” or we will lose everything.