Ovi Magazine has published a thought-provoking and, to be honest, remarkably annoying three-part article written by Emanuel L Paparella titled "Levinas' Challenge to the Modern European Identity" (link spotted on Nosemonkey / Europhobia).
Paparella starts off by writing about the importance of Humanism, especially Levinas's humanist philosophy, for "the emergence of a renewed European identity", an event which he for some reason considers to be desirable. He writes that "talk of a 'democratic deficit'" in the European Union has been caused by "confusion in the area of cultural identity" due to a battle between Renaissance Humanism and Enlightenment Rationalism. (He uses phrases like "the modern European identity", "the emergence of a renewed European cultural identity", and "the authentic cultural identity of Europe" without ever really explaining what the bloody hell they're supposed mean.)
Now, I always thought the talk of a democratic deficit was caused by things like the splintered European media markets which don't report on EU politics nearly as much as on national politics, EU citizens not paying much attention to EU politics even when the media reports on it, and the design of EU institutions. Perhaps those things were caused by the conflict between Humanism and Rationalism in some manner I don't quite understand, but I'd like the author to spell out his case.
As the argument progressed, I got the feeling that the point lurking in the background is that Europeans just need some religion in their lives. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm right. According to Paparella, "an extreme, unbalanced rationality devoid of imagination, feelings, senses and spirit, unconcerned with the ethical dimensions of life, is the equivalent to a refusal to be human, to allowing oneself to become a monster." From the context I gather that this observation is supposed to have something to do with Nazism, but the Nazis had loads of imagination and extremely strong feelings about a great many things. When I think of cool and rational thinkers, Hitler doesn't come readily to mind.
In the third part the link between the Holocaust and rationalism is made explicitly, when Paparella summarizes Berel Lang's argument in Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide:
His conclusion is that there are two important aspects of the Enlightenment that formed the intellectual heritage, which needed to be in place, for genocide to occur in the heart of civilized Europe: namely, the universalization of rational ideals, and the redefinition of the individual human being in terms of its possessing or not such a universal rationality. The genocide, Lang argues, was aimed at those groups who stuck to their own ancient pre-Enlightenment sources of particularistic identity, considered 'irrational.'That strikes me as a spectacularly misguided conclusion. Nazism was founded in a pre-Enlightenment source of particularistic identity, namely the "Aryan" blood running in German veins. Sources of particularist identity don't get much more pre-Enlightement than that sort of tribalism writ large. The problem with Nazis wasn't that they considered rational ideals universal and hated the idea of anyone having a particularistic identity (like, say, being German). The problem was that they were murderous racists.
But suppose for a moment that the Nazis did hate the Jews because they thought the Jews didn't accept universal rationality. Does that mean that we shouldn't accept universal rationality? The Nazis also hated the Jews because they thought the Jews were greedy and untrustworthy. Should we therefore consider greed and untrustworthiness to be positive traits?
This powerful essay leads many cultural anthropologists comparing civilizations, to begin to wonder: which, in the final analysis, is more obscurantist: religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, or a so called 'enlightened' era throwing out the window the baby with the bathwater and arrogantly refusing any suggestion that it ought to enlighten itself, and not with its own light?Religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, of course. Duh.
I'm not sure what specific outside source of light Paparella envisions here, but it's worth noting that religion has a damned poor record in the field of preventing mass slaughter. 1930s Germany was a predominantly Christian nation, but that didn't inoculate Germans to Nazism. The Bible contains appalling scenes in which the Israelites at the behest of God wipe out opposing tribes. Further examples aren't difficult to find.