Once, long ago – 2002, to be precise – I remembering heading down to Alloway in Ayrshire to see an outdoor promenade show called Fall From Light. It was created by Angus Farquhar’s astonishing NVA company, now sadly closed following a Creative Scotland decision last year; and its inspiration was Burns’s great comic narrative poem Tam O’Shanter, which the show framed as a founding text of the age of enlightenment, a blast of wit, intelligence and common sense against the forces of ancient superstition and drunken delusion.
The point of the show, though, was to hint that that age of reason might now be coming to an end; that a civilisation that had come to believe in nothing was once again at risk of falling prey to lies, myths and superstitions dreamed up to keep us in our places. And I thought of that show this week, as Donald Trump began his campaign of bluster and obfuscation following his decision to withdraw the small but vital American military presence in northern Syria, which had – until a few days ago – prevented Turkey from moving in and taking control of the area. Northern Syria remains a key area for Kurdish fighters, who have so far proved by far the most effective forces in defeating the terror regime of Islamic State on the ground – perhaps because, for historic reasons, they actually believe in ideas like democracy, equality and freedom, not least for women.
Yet Turkey – a nation with an appalling record of intolerance and abuse towards its Kurdish minority – has for long been itching to get into the area and finish off the Kurdish forces, which it frames as “terrorists”. And now, in a phone call with the increasingly authoritarian Turkish leader President Erdogan, Trump has apparently given the green light for Turkey to do exactly that; causing an uproar across the whole US political spectrum, and raising profound questions – following his notorious phone chat with President Zelensky of Ukraine, itself followed in short order by another green light, this time to Vladimir Putin, to consolidate his hold on war-torn eastern Ukraine – not only about his habit of conducting or inventing policy via phone chats and Twitter, but also about the values, or lack of them, that underpin those policies.
Trump invokes Normandy beaches
For recent events only confirm the anti-enlightenment pattern of Trump’s presidency so far; notably, in this case, his visceral attraction to authoritarian leaders like Putin and Erdogan, and his contempt for multilateral organisations like Nato and the EU that proceed by negotiation and compromise. For if the enlightenment was based, in part, on an age of growing literacy, and rising levels of education among the general population, then the politics of Trump – and of the growing global network of right-wing thugs in office – seem to be based on a series of deliberate illiteracies, each one more dangerous than the last.
There is, for example, the rank historical illiteracy betrayed by Trump this week, when he excused his betrayal of the Kurds by asking where they were on the beaches of Normandy, in 1944; a comment which, among other things, ignores the fact that Kurdish troops actually did fight on the Allied side. There is the illiteracy about gender politics that turns this new wave of reaction into an old boys’ game, full of ageing men who claim the right to indulge in foul locker-room talk about women, as well as to exercise unlimited, intrusive legislative power over their bodies.
There is the carefully cultivated political illiteracy of a movement that allows the power of capital to become ever more global and transnational, while peddling 19th century myths of ‘national sovereignty’ to gullible sections of the public.
And there is, of course, the deep, denialist environmental illiteracy that fuels much of their seething repressive energy; the fury against those pointing out the bare facts about what we have done to our global environment, and the likely consequences, that finds expression in tirades of abuse directed by wealthy middle-aged men against a 16-year-old Swedish girl who decided to take the path of reason, and actually do something about the climate emergency we face.
So faced with these many forms of endarkenment, what can we do? Unlike Burns, we are not emerging from a pre-modern age of mass illiteracy and profound religious authoritarianism; and we have to face the truth that the 21st century leaders who embrace this kind of politics, and the millions who follow them, have actually chosen this path, against more enlightened alternatives that, in most Western countries, still remain freely available. It seems clear, with hindsight, that the current political crisis has its roots in the increasing success of global transnational capital, over the last 30 years, in buying up the main actors in Western liberal democracy, and discrediting that system in the eyes of millions by gradually destroying its power to improve the lives of the majority.
Yet if human history tells us one thing clearly, it is that we are unlikely to find a way out of this crisis that does not involve a return to a form of those values – reinvented perhaps, and no longer mis-identified as “Western”, but based on the same universal and enduring principles of equality, respect for persons, the rule of law, and the hearing of all voices in making major collective decisions. In the making of creative and progressive societies, capable of living at peace with themselves and others, nothing else will do. And if the battle to destroy a post-war world-order based on those principles is being won in the minds of people who have been persuaded to see them as useless, then it’s also in the minds of voters that those losses will have to be reversed, inch by inch, mile by mile; until we return to a more robust form of liberal democracy that knows how to prevent billionaires from buying up its political processes, and how to treat its people as human beings and equal citizens, rather than as mindless consumers and occasional voters, ripe for exploitation by a wealthy elite that increasingly seems as heartless and joyless as it is morally bankrupt.