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What muted the traditional cultures of vicious racism and patriarchal misogyny for a time in the U.S.A. and much of Europe was the prestige and promise of intellectual culture. This was a legacy from world history, just as the racism and misogyny were, but there were special contributions from European history that establish it still as the exception in the history of the progress of ideas. The American colonies always had to compete against the senior societies in Europe which were eager to emphasize their vast superiority and authority. However, the continent that the colonizers had stolen was fertile, a treasure trove of resources, so with slave labour the colonies became rich and able to emulate and compete for leadership in the cultural achievements of the senior societies. The mutating of rigid European class culture on the new ground of the colonies, along with political institutions conceived in the intellectual fervour for social liberation underlying the great revolution in France 1789-99, helped enable a greater range of personal expression and commercial venturing in the USA. Universities in the USA advanced scholarly culture in all areas, especially engineering (drawing comparison to the Roman development of the cultural legacy from ancient Greece). By 1939 on the eve of World War II the American view of Europe can be seen in the classic movie from that year, The Wizard of Oz. Europe was Munchkin-land inhabited by little people in Medieval costumes, incapable of freeing themselves from the domination of fairy-tale witches and wizards. The child Dorothy in her healthy American innocence towers over the Munchkins, bound as they are by hereditary hierarchies and traditional folkways.

After World War II, somewhat democratic institutions provided a basis for European countries toward the Atlantic coast, and the USA, to claim moral superiority. This began after WW I during which occurred the Communist Revolution in Russia and the rise of National Socialism in Germany during the 1920’s and 30’s. The claim to moral authority of the west rested on the contrast with fascist dictatorships and authoritarian communist regimes in the east. However, it wasn’t just political institutions that made European culture remarkable. It was the depth and complexity of intellectual culture which, of course, included science, and science became so ascendant that it is easy to assume that science was the main feature, but it wasn’t. Deeper than science was a sense of a western project of social and cultural progress expressing a spirit of personal autonomy, a cultural movement that had blossomed profoundly in the Enlightenment as well as in earlier manifestations such as the protestant reformation, and constituted the decisive contrast with authoritarian societies. As well as conceiving dramatic upgrades in the dignity of human nature, the spirit of science and the spirit of protestantism were both rejections of authority even when it claimed to express divine sovereignty. Science had to reject the very forceful authority of the Church in describing nature, astronomy, for example, and protestantism (justification by faith) confronted both religious and political authorities in claiming personal autonomy in the teeth of decrees made by high officials and councils of the Church. In public debate with Church authorities, Martin Luther was continually confronted with the question of how his individual wisdom could match the accumulated store from the whole history of the Church. Luther could well have quoted Socrates: “I know only that I know nothing.” It is a claim of the inherent dignity and power of individual innocence from mere existence as personality/ humanity. In this conception, inseparable from the culture of thinking philosophically, the individual person is an autonomous point and arc of creative agency with inherent power to re-conceptualize experience, and, as such, inherently greater than the cultural imprint of any collective identity, any human hive mind. This claim applies universally. The intellectual, scribal, culture of Europe, with the tradition of philosophy at the core, pioneered this experience of enlargement of the individual self in sharp contrast to other cultural conceptions, such as that of feudal Christendom. This is the inner attraction and variably successful accomplishment of liberal education in the western tradition. However, hive minds of vicious imperialist racism and patriarchal misogyny from feudal Christendom have not gone away, and remain active in many ways to subvert the project of universal autonomy. They are springs of anti-intellectualism and their resurgent influence has discredited the moral authority once claimed by western institutions. Considering history, though, the past is not the future.

Copyright © 2020 Sandy MacDonald.