Carole Owens: A historian's-eye view from the next century

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STOCKBRIDGE — There is not much solace in watching the news as it unfolds. Regardless of where you stand, for or against the president, the news is disturbing. Lovers of history know that eventually we get it right. When the ideologues are just a memory and heat is replaced by light, then truth is uncovered, a solution is found and justice is done. It might not happen in a single lifetime but over the sweep of history, the ship of state is righted.

So, if this column were written a hundred years from today, what would it say? Would the news be of a paradigmatic shift or a course maintained? What moments and decisions would be considered pivotal? We can only guess.

Perhaps Donald Trump would be relegated to a footnote. Our future selves might find other elements of the story more important. For example, was the Constitution under attack? Did it survive? Did respect for the truth survive? Or was acceptance of myth and lies the final death rattle of the Age of Reason?

The Age of Reason, alternately called the Enlightenment, was born and reared in the "long century" — roughly 1675 to 1815. The Age of Reason intended to erase the board, change the subject and open all eyes and ears. Intellect was lauded. Facts were the starting point for all understanding. All people were trusted equally to know and learn by book or experience. The important pursuits were rational questioning and progress through dialog. Truth extrapolated from facts was absolutely necessary and the search for truth highly regarded. Truth was discoverable by any and all, not merely the property of the powerful or handed down from on high. Trump asking followers to disregard all other sources and believe only him would earn a mention 100 years from now as a signal of the end of the Age of Reason.

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Rational change through reasonable thought was the path to a better life for all. Dialogue of differing opinions was rooted in mutually accepted facts. Enlightenment was intended as the death of superstition. The wide-spread popularity of conspiracy theories in our time would be reported by future historians as undermining reason.

Reason was respected over passion. Even the music in the Age of Reason, however emotional, was rationally resolved at the end of the measure or the movement. According to Emanuel Kant, reason, not passion nor power, makes possible "the liberation of man." Regardless of who was cheering or who was cheered — "Yes we can" or "Lock her up" — the chanting mob might be noted as the enemy of reason.

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Of all the documents produced in the Enlightenment, the Constitution of the United States of America was the most highly praised. The most exceptional things about the Constitution were the signatures at the end. The risk the signers took, the clarity and commitment they felt, were exceptional. The document itself was elegant in its simplicity, clear in its intent and the way to achieve it. The signers experienced life in an autocracy and they learned from it: No one can be above the law and no one part of the government can achieve ascendancy over the other. The three parts — separate and equal — must balance one another. Absolute power in any one leads to tyranny.

Leaving the Continental Congress, a man asked Benjamin Franklin what the new country was. Franklin responded, "A republic, if you can keep it."

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A future column might focus on the period November 2019 to November 2020 as the period that told the tale: did we keep it? The column about this period would read like a mystery story. The clues compiled and the unfolding story would identify the moves and the men and women that made the difference and caused the outcome as the question hovered: Could we keep it? There are people among us today as brave as the signers and as clear that we must serve and defend the Constitution; must place the republic over personal gain or even personal safety.

Regardless of our diversity, we had in common lessons from the Enlightenment. We had a common language and common principles. The basics of our education were rooted in the Age of Reason. We learned alike, accepted basic facts and foundational theories. A future historian could note the moment when we diverged even in the way we thought. When one group said they could not understand how the other supported this person or that position, they meant it literally. It was not Democrat vs. Republican. It felt as if it were rational vs. irrational.

The president during this period was called the Disrupter-in-Chief. What he was disrupting were basic values, core learning, the American ethos. In sitting down to write about us in a hundred years, that historian will know the answer to the most important question: did the republic survive Trump? We can only guess.

A writer and historian, Carole Owens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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