The End of the Age of Reason?
The United States, Russia, the Islamic State and the new irrational world.
- The world order today is crumbling under an extraordinary rebellion against reason.
- The global collapse in rationality has brought the fringe to the forefront in US politics.
- Russia’s deep irrationality clouds people’s ability to see Putin for an emperor with no clothes.
- Is the fractious, nationalist world order’s postwar relative stability coming to an end?
Do we live in an era of an extraordinary rebellion against ratio, or Reason? This fundamental concept is what our civilization, technological and scientific progress and economic prosperity have been rooted since the Age of Enlightenment.
The drift toward the irrational is happening most starkly in the Muslim world. Taking the Quran for unquestioning guidance, radical Islamists are rejecting education and destroying historic and cultural monuments. They do not recognize in principle the sanctity of human life, which is the foundation of any civilized society.
The irrational virus even sweeps the United States
Curiously, reason is also being rejected in the United States. It has been, for some time, the global leader in science and technology and the cultural capital of the modern world. Nevertheless, the Republican presidential campaign currently offers a study in the irrational.
None of the sizable Republican field accepts the scientific evidence of climate change and the human impact on climate.
None is prepared to believe that there is a direct connection between the broadest possible interpretation of the Second Amendment and the number of gun deaths and mass shootings in America by deranged individuals.
Whether or not these politicians themselves are irrational – or are merely doing the bidding of their Big Oil and gun manufacturing paymasters – is open to question. The irrational response to them on the part of the U.S. electorate, on the other hand, is beyond doubt.
Russia’s reality rejection
Then there is Russia. Some people have even suggested that its President Vladimir Putin has gone mad. He is certainly living in an alternative reality and has become unpredictable.
However, Putin is an interesting case. On the one hand, he is the last of the Great Power imperialists.
Having started with expressing regret about the demise of the Soviet Union, he graduated to direct military actions in order to gather at least some chunks of the old Russian Empire.
But Putin is also a prophet of the irrational. He is going about it not as a modern mainstream politician, rationally calculating his steps and linking cause and effect. He acts first and thinks later – if at all.
Such was his annexation of Crimea, regardless of the costly logistical hurdles to maintaining it as an annex to Russia. Such, too, was his subsequent aggression in Donbass. He also acted in the same manner when he imposed anti-Western counter-sanctions.
Even stranger than his irrational acts is the fact that they meet with instant, unconditional approval of the Russian people. Russians are willing to tolerate a major decline of their living standards, poor quality of food and consumer goods, lack of modern medical care and inability to travel abroad.
Hail, conquering hero
Nations may be prepared to endure hardships at home when they are under attack. What is amazing is about the situation in Russia is that the country is not under attack and all of these privations are entirely self-imposed.
The strangest thing is that they see the helpless foundering of their leader as brilliant strategy. They regard Putin, who is plundering and squandering their country’s wealth and destroying its institutions, as a great patriot of Russia.
This reconstructed tsar is like the emperor who had no clothes: The adoring crowd sees their sovereign wearing splendid vestments, while a boy sees he is actually naked.
Soviet success, Soviet failure
It is ironic that Russians have all of a sudden joined Islamists and radical right wing Americans in leading the world from reason.
In a way, it’s a revenge of history. The Bolsheviks proposed to remodel the natural order along highly rational lines, and to replace messy nature with orderly human mind.
Instead, they created a bloody mess and had to resort to a pack of lies for 70 years to cover up their failures. It is perhaps to be expected that Russia now wants to go the irrational route.
History’s broad kaleidoscope
Perhaps this backlash against reason and assault on our civilization will play itself out. History is always cyclical, after all. But it is not evenly paced in its transformation and there may be another phase before the rationality returns.
If a kaleidoscope is rotated slowly, the arrangement of colored pieces in its chamber may not change for a long time, with only minor adjustments as a few individual pieces are dislodged.
But then a critical point is reached, the existing design is scrambled and a new pattern appears in its place.
There may be a darker future ahead, and it may come suddenly. In 1914, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip pulled at an ultranationalist corner of Europe and the entire world order tumbled.
The adepts of irrationality may do something similar some time soon.
Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from a version that originally appeared in the Kyiv Post.