Book Review: Enlightenment 2.0

National Post, April 25, 2014

Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity To Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives
By Joseph Heath

HarperCollins Publishers

417 pp; $29.99

On Easter Sunday, 1929, about a dozen female socialites marched along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, ostentatiously smoking cigarettes. Their mission: to fight the stigma against public smoking for women. According to The New York Times, the women insisted that they weren’t holding mere cigarettes but “torches of freedom.”

The march was choreographed by Vienna-born PR pioneer Edward Bernays, then on retainer with the American Tobacco Company. The story is vintage Bernays: a quintessential example of his knack for manipulating public opinion with evocative images and phrases. Bernays had learned from his uncle, Sigmund Freud, that people were basically irrational, driven by instincts. The enterprising nephew unabashedly exploited this insight, appealing to emotions and not intellect whether he was selling Ivory Soap or Calvin Coolidge. The approach revolutionized consumer culture.

Bernays influenced political communication, too. He was dismayed to learn that his 1923 book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, was in Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels’ bookcase. Still, in another context, Bernays would likely have approved of Goebbels’ claim, that “in the long run basic results in influencing public opinion will be achieved only by the man who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form, despite the objections of the intellectuals.” Both men knew well: The public opinion battlefield is the heart, not the head.

The perspective is grimly resonant. Too many contemporary politicians, from George W. Bush to Rob Ford, owe their careers to the tactical use of appealing metaphors (see: “gravy train”; “enhanced interrogation”) and flat-out lies. In the contemporary political landscape, truthiness — Stephen Colbert’s word for things that feel true — consistently trumps truth. In this landscape, 200,000 people gathered at DC’s National Mall to advocate not for change, but for sanity.

It is this sad, stupid world that University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath addresses in his new book, Enlightenment 2.0. Heath, whose previous books, Filthy Lucre and The Rebel Sell, debunked economic and consumerist fallacies, argues for a reinstatement of rationality in social and political discourse. He takes Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity as a launching pad — “the first time, perhaps since the French Revolution, that reason had become the object of large-scale political mobilization in the West.”

In proposing a second Enlightenment, Heath draws on the lessons of history — and reams of social scientific research — for insight. The first Enlightenment, Heath writes, was premised on a flawed understanding of reason. Back then, reason was understood as a powerful, innate capacity — “a divine spark.” Unencumbered by history and its institutions, reasonable individuals could construct a new, rational society predicated on liberty, equality and brotherhood.

Except that rationality didn’t turn out to be quite so potent. For one, it’s not innate; homo sapiens’ predecessors survived on instinct. Rationality is a relatively new human trick. “Our primate brains aren’t designed for rational thought,” writes Heath. Thinking rationally is “profoundly unnatural.”

It’s also arduous, which is why we feel exhausted after using our brains intensely — and why we avoid thinking rationally when possible, relying instead on mental shortcuts and patchwork solutions. Thanks to this “cognitive miserliness” — and a laundry list of biases and deficiencies — humans tend to make atrocious judgments.

It’s not all bad, however; rationality has prevailed often enough, allowing us to build impressive things, like Google Glass, and civilization. But it’s been a slow, cumulative process, with every epoch relying on established social and political institutions. This was the other flaw of Enlightenment 1.0: It conceived of rationality as “entirely individualistic.” In fact, rationality is “decentralized and dispersed”; historic institutions may seem irrational, but they often possess hidden wisdom. Citing Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, Heath writes, “People may not be able to say what this reason is … but you need to understand what it is before you start fiddling with things, much less breaking them down.”

At least, 19th-century rationalists did not have to deal with Edward Bernays. “Absent conscious guidance,” Heath writes, “cultural evolution will produce an environment that is more hostile to human rationality.” Commercial and political culture are engaged in a relentless assault on reason, aimed at selling us stuff we don’t need, and politicians we shouldn’t support. To wit: the Conservatives’ 2006 pledge to cut GST, “contrary to the advice of almost every economist and tax expert in the country.” Facts be damned: GST was unpopular and visible; cutting it would convey clearly: Conservatives cut taxes.

Grimmer yet is the tale of Mitt Romney’s 2012 election night. Sane people knew Obama was a shoo-in; Romney, meanwhile, was chugging GOP Kool-Aid and studying his campaign’s media-ready, partisan polls. The documentary, Mitt, captures the poignant, awkward moment, deep into election night, when a shell-shocked Romney asks: “So, what do you think you say in a concession speech?”

When the purveyors of truthiness believe their own propaganda, it’s time for change. For Heath, change means “slow politics” — a socio-political ethos that emphasizes rational reflection and analysis. Just as a successful dieter avoids stocking his pantry with chips, knowing that reason might later succumb to impulse, Heath’s rational society constructs a “designer environment” to facilitate good decision-making. What that environment looks like, however, is left to the reader’s primate imagination. Heath’s few suggestions range from mundane (mandatory voting!) to facile (one-minute minimums on televised political sound bites!).

For readers seeking sanity, if not pure rationality, chapter 10, “Fighting Fire with Fire,” will resonate. Heath recounts Pierre Trudeau’s campaign against Quebecois nationalism. Trudeau advocated for “reason before passion” but he successfully used archetypal propaganda — flags, films, anthems — to make federalism more emotionally resonant. Heath disavows Trudeau’s successes: They “can mislead the friends of reason into thinking that with enough attention to human psychology, anything can be effectively packaged and sold.” What’s more, Heath says, the approach “ratifies the current climate of irrationalism in the political sphere, making it look like a feature of the human condition, instead of a pathological state of affairs.” Isn’t it a bit of both?

Fortunately, excepting Toronto, the most pathologically irrational politicians are fringe. Reason recently won the day in Quebec, and in the States, the Republican Party — brimming with birthers and their ilk — is in shambles. Conspicuously absent from Enlightenment 2.0 is mention of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, when he inspired a nation to overcome one of its great, irrational prejudices. Sure, the campaign relied on powerful-but-empty slogans about hope and change. Rationality may not have triumphed unambiguously, but sanity certainly did. And you know what? It felt good.

Read the story at NationalPost.com.