A Single Word Brings Down the Enlightenment

Remember the Enlightenment? That magical point in time when reason began its ascendency and magic retreated to the realm of entertainment? That shift in thinking when people began to question authority and think for themselves? That era when Thomas Paine wrote the books that set the stage for our Declaration of Independence? So many fine words and thoughts.

Women, who stood to gain the most, were not the prime movers and shakers during this era, but they were aware of and promoted this thinking. Mary Wollstonecraft, for example. Women continued to venture out and speak up. It seemed to take forever, but we stood our ground, gained the right to vote, the right to pursue education and careers, the right to marry or not, have children or not. 

And now? Could one woman speak one word that brings it all to an end? It could happen if the other team seizes the word – almost like an intercepted pass in a football game – and charges toward their goal. A single word, but such a gift to the other team. 

The word? Deplorables

Was it meant to describe the masses, or rather their manipulators who trained them to focus blame on the other? Any “other” would do. But so good were the manipulators that the masses soon believed that elites had lumped them all into a basket of deplorables. I believe that the earth shifted on its axis at that moment. It was the moment that I began to fear for the future. 

The basket of deplorables shifted the momentum of the 2016 election. Yes, Clinton was facing headwinds throughout, but she was never able to crawl out from under that basket. It was used by opponents again and again to prove that she had no interest in helping displaced workers or their stricken communities. Enough voters began to believe that a populist billionaire who decried globalism and praised a racist form of nationalism would serve their interests better than a brainy woman who had advocated for people-focused policies for decades, served as First Lady, senator, and Secretary of State. It has worked out well for the billionaires.

Could this word actually bring about the end of the enlightenment? Perhaps. It’s the perfect word to sow division and spur populist uprisings. “Elites think you’re deplorable! They send jobs offshore, destroy communities, bring in cheap labor, prop up Wall Street. Vote them out!”

While keeping the deplorables stirred up, let cronies repeal any regulations or policies based on science, throw monkey wrenches into the mechanisms of democracy, and lock in place judges with no concern about voter suppression. Keep chanting “Build That Wall,” “Fake News,” and soon a new cohort of corrupt oligarchs will have replaced the evil elites. People who conveniently misunderstood the deplorable reference will still be on the bottom of the heap, public servants with expertise will be out of work, and alliances will be shattered.

Translate “deplorables” into French, German, Italian, Greek, Spanish, and you could give the European populists a boost. After leaving the White House, Steve Bannon, who is too smart to be ignored, took his wrecking ball to Europe. He knew the continent was already primed for revolt with an influx of unassimilated immigrants. It was easy enough to stir emotions, rail against elites, fault the bureaucrats in Brussels, and stoke nationalist fever. 

“Let them call you racists, xenophobes, nativists, homophobes, misogynists – wear it as a badge of honour!”* he urged supporters of Marine Le Pen in France. To bolster his efforts to “empower the people” and cripple governments, he dreams of his own cryptocurrency to be named for the Deplorables.

Crippling the American government and ripping apart the EU wouldn’t, in and of itself, bring about the end of the Enlightenment. Except. A certain Russian leader who is always ready to take advantage of any discord in the West, a leader who is no fan of democracy in any form, a czar without the title, lurks off the eastern border. He’s no fan of science or reason; knows nothing of policies that could help level playing fields; cares nothing for people who can’t help him. He could end the Enlightenment. Enabling oligarchs to replace governments “of the people” would effectively end our fragile constitutional balancing act. 

Oddly enough, women who’ve been inspired by the West are taking off their hijabs and asserting themselves in other ways. Ukrainians elected a new government that is determined to tackle corruption. Authoritarian leaders are being challenged elsewhere. People are in the streets from the Middle East to South America to Hong Kong. Can we save the Enlightenment in the West? Is the Enlightenment growing in the hearts of people around the world? Are you an optimist?

*The Guardian June 6, 2018