AMERICA’S SACRED HUCKSTER IDEOLOGY

I suppose most Americans subscribe to the belief that every new technology serves to expand or enhance their free will and therefore their freedom—at best a questionable assumption. But the eighteenth-century liberal humanism its proponents called “free and catholick” contained a covert hubris, Perry Miller argues in his biography of Jonathan Edwards: by implying that man’s sin had “upset or thrown out of line the order God had established in creation (wherefore “whatever is, is demonstrably not right!”), . . . they said by an even clearer implication, which in our day has swelled to a chorus, that a man of trained intelligence can command his own will.” By denigrating God’s will, these preachers hoped to augment man’s. That brand of instrumentalism we know as utilitarianism, which came to dominate the nineteenth century, had its origin in eighteenth-century Scottish “moral sense” theorist Frances Hutcheson’s “standard of correct opinion”: “that Action is best, which procures the greatest Happiness for the greatest Number; and that, the worst, which in like manner, occasions Misery.” This was, as Miller says, “a formula that was destined to lead an active life in the next two hundred years.” However we choose to understand utilitarianism, whether that of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, the pragmatism of William James or technocratic educator John Dewey, once we ask ourselves whether this “formula” or creed actually succeeded in maximizing happiness or reducing misery, we find a stark realization glaring back at us in bold neon letters: unless we smuggle into our opinions and arguments additional and frankly untenable assumptions about Benevolence and Progress to offset the preponderance of evidence only faintly represented in names like Chattel Slavery, the Great War, World War II, Auschwitz, Korea, Vietnam, COINTELPRO, Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria, Gaza, and Yemen, we must concede with Perry Miller that “after Darwin and Einstein, we have been forced to realize that the confidence of the Enlightenment was premature,” which in and of itself is a both a confirmation and vindication of Calvinism’s essential view of reality. Benevolence and Progress are but the ideologically motivated assumptions of a nineteenth-century optimism of a nation and a people mesmerized by the technological achievements of electricity and steam, “in the midst of one of the most extravagant booms ever opened to human avarice,” in “a tumultuous, brutal, ruthless marketplace” that was America in the Age of Romantic Revivalism. Twentieth-Century America merely extended the life of that Ideology.


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