Published On: Mon, Jul 2nd, 2018

Mass Society, Presidential Emptiness And America’s “Soul”

it is especially urgent that we fully recognize the Trump presidency as not merely another unwelcome addendum to a long-simmering national self delusion, but also (and more importantly) as the most distressingly visible symptom of a far deeper national pathology.

In essence, what we see on the morning news is never more than reflection. Now, this secondary perception highlights a bitterly rancorous American president who responds with vitriol to comedic television parodies, but not to a seriously-threatening Russian president. Until we become willing to look more closely behind the news – that is, at authentic causes, rather than mere symptoms – the United States will likely continue on its Trump-accelerated decline. Already, this many-sided declension points toward a cleverly-managed and protracted subordination of the United States by a still-rival superpower. If not thoughtfully reversed, it could further portend an eventual spasm of grievous harms issuing from a cheerfully-nuclearizing North Korea.

By Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton),

Special to Jewish Business News

 

“We are the hollow men,

We are the stuffed men”

T S Eliot, The Hollow Men (1925)

Once upon a time, long before T.S. Eliot’s oft-quoted poetic metaphor, Ralph Waldo Emerson called upon Americans to embrace “plain living and high thinking.” For the most part, this altogether sensible nineteenth-century call for enhanced personal and social equilibrium went unheeded. Today, in the openly incoherent and bitterly rancorous “Trump Era,” there is no longer any pretense of balance.

For the most part (let us be candid), there is nary a scintilla of genuine intellectual life anywhere in these United States.

It gets even more demeaning, Now, “high thinking” is routinely treated as a caustic epithet, and not as a plausibly welcome bit of advice. Although such far-reaching subordination of “mind” was not caused by Mr. Trump, it remains an integral and valued component of his corrosive leadership. From the start, this president’s loyal supporters have been proudly indifferent to relevant evidence in any form, and have taken endlessly visible comfort from his unhidden loathing of anything too truthful or mindful.

In essence, the picture is as clear as it is bleak. For the most part, Americans back further and further away from any understandable analytic obligations, whether personal or collective. Locked into a persistently regressive trajectory, a retrograde movement descending from authentic insight to caricatural bombast, the nation’s cumulative ambitions are steadily being reduced to childish credos, empty witticisms, and a perpetually raw commerce.

Such “rawness” doesn’t preclude egregious policy error, as the president’s conspicuously foolish stance on tariffs now undermines our commercial interests and our ideals at the same time.

So many pertinent questions must arise. To begin, how can any competent American president willfully ignore the belligerent nuclear threats of an adversarial Russian president, and then simultaneously display such deficient understanding of US and global markets? Even in the widespread absence of any pervasive “high thinking” in the United States, is it not already obvious that one superpower president may be the witting pawn of the other? Soon, it is likely that President Trump will unilaterally acknowledge the legitimacy of Russian aggression against Crimea, an acknowledgment that would represent, prima facie, a rejection of all authoritative international law.

At what point, we must surely inquire, do Americans candidly confirm that in any strict comparisons with current geopolitical reality, The Manchurian Candidate film scenario could be no more menacing than a 1950s Disney movie?

When, finally, shall we accept that what we witness unraveling today could represent a vastly more dangerous presidency than even the worst and most sensationalized fictional catastrophe?

Above all, what are the core origins of our ongoing national decline and fall? What exactly has gone wrong? How, precisely, have we allowed a once-still-promising nation to slide uncontrollably toward prospectively unparalleled national misfortune?

How do we finally learn to look behind the news?

We dare not speak of “tragedy” rather than “catastrophe” or “misfortune,” because the former demands a victim (either individual or collective) who suffers undeservedly. There is, of course, nothing undeserved about where America now allows itself be led. Not only is the expanding Trump horror self-inflicted by the voters, it is actually becoming more generally welcome even as it continues to worsen.

True tragedy is always ennobling. But there is absolutely nothing conceivably noble about our steady and protracted national decline. It is shamelessly self-imposed.

Ultimately, in these uniquely crucial matters, we may have less to learn from Aristotle (Poetics) than from 20th century psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Accordingly, it is time to understand that every society represents the sum total of its individual souls seeking some sort of redemption. To be sure, this is never a properly scientific assessment – after all, there can never be any tangible referent for a human “soul” – but sometimes, important answers may inconveniently lie outside of mainstream scientific investigations.[1]

These improbable sorts of answers must also be sought.

Let’s be up-to-date. Not only the “emperor,” but also those watching the American “parade,” are more-or-less “naked.” In President Trump’s deeply fractionated American republic, we the people – still more-or-less frantic for a chance to “fit in” – inhabit a rapidly descending “hollow land” of unending submission, crass consumption, dreary profanity, and immutably shallow pleasures. Bored by the ceaseless banality of daily life, and beaten down by the grinding struggle to somehow remain hopeful amid ever-widening polarities of wealth and poverty, we Americans now grasp anxiously for almost any available lifeline of distraction.

Small wonder, then, that the cavernous Opiate Crisis is already deep enough to drown whole oceans of a once-sacred poetry.

Largely because of the expressly crude and ineffectual stewardship of our current American president, both the nation and the wider planetary system of nation-states are becoming increasingly imperiled. Where, however, shall we seek any still-lingering public apprehensions for collective survival and human improvement? Where, indeed, can we discover any mutually reinforcing visions of social cooperation and personal growth?

To begin, a more primary query needs to surface: “Have we simply forgotten that the world is fundamentally a system, and that US prosperity is inevitably linked to the calculable well-being of other societies?

Very foolishly, at least until now, we have unceremoniously ignored the great Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s most relevant warning: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature. No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”

Of course, we have also ignored essentially everything else of any prospectively real importance.

Just look around at Mr. Trump’s America. Here, among other notable disaffections, we the people are no longer fundamentally shaped by any generalized feelings of reverence or compassion, or by even the tiniest hints of some meaningfully complex thought. Instead, our preferred preoccupation lies with a carefully- orchestrated hysteria of tantalizing indulgence in other people’s private sufferings. In German, there is even a special word for this grave pathology of the human spirit.

Straightforwardly, the Germans call this schadenfreude, or taking exquisite pleasure in the misfortunes of others.

For the most part, this voyeuristic frenzy is juxtaposed against the comforting myth of an American superiority, now artfully called “America First.” It is routinely sustained by a ritualistic national immersion in shopping for gaudy “communications” gadgets, and by an unceasing barrage of versified drivel that is sanitized as “marketing.” Significantly, it’s not just bad food, guns and underarm deodorant that are so corrosively advertised. It is also our candidates for high political office, especially the most craven and poorly educated.

“I love the poorly educated,” intoned Donald Trump as a candidate. This was likely not an offhanded or ineffectual remark. On the contrary, candidate Trump knew that in a nation that generally loathes serious thought, this would be a plainly gainful observation.

Education is a large part of the problem. Unsurprisingly, even in our best colleges and universities, there is now far greater interest in studying “business management” than history, government, literature, music or philosophy. And why not? In this country, true learning generally doesn’t “pay.” In this country, teacher eligibility for food stamps is anything but scandalous.

In this country, the American president prefers a teacher with a gun to a teacher with something to say.

What else must we Americans continuously endure, amid the steadily breathless rhythms of trivialized education, circus-like conformance and self-imposed littleness? More than anything else, we the people have already embraced an expansively-corrupted and directionless national society, one that offers very little in the way of any deep satisfactions or reverential fulfillment. Is it even still possible to escape from such a uniformly predatory embrace? It’s not an idle query.

Certain serious explanations are still worth seeking. In the openly disjointed Trump Era, we Americans are fervently encouraged to think aggressively against science and against history. Often, too, although widely unacknowledged, even the most affluent US citizens inhabit the very loneliest of American crowds. It is small wonder, too, that so many millions cling desperately to their smart phones and “personal devices.” Filled with an ever-deepening horror of sometime having to find themselves alone, these virtually connected millions are relentlessly determined to claim and reclaim membership in the amorphous and responsibility-dissolving public mass.

And it’s only getting worse.

“I belong, therefore I am.” This is not what philosopher René Descartes had in mind when, back in the 17th century, he famously urged greater thought and doubt. This is also, inherently, a very sad credo. Unhesitatingly, it screams the vaguely pathetic cry that social acceptance and related affections are roughly equivalent to physical survival, and that even the sorely pretended pleasures of inclusion are desperately worth pursuing.

There is more. A push-button metaphysics of “apps” now reigns supreme in America. The immense attraction of smart phones and corresponding social networks stems in part from our barren society’s machine-like existence. Within this robotic universe, every hint of human passion must inevitably be directed away from caring human emotions, and then along distinctly uniform and pitifully vicarious pathways.

Unsurprisingly, although international law obliges the United States to actively oppose all crimes of genocide and related crimes against humanity – and despite the fact that this international law is an established part of the municipal law of the United States[2] – the American president remains conspicuously silent on grievous war crimes committed by Syria’s murderous dictator (and sustained by his

Russian patron) and on egregious human rights violations committed by his newly-favored dictatorial partner in Pyongyang.

Do we dare question Mr. Vladimir Putin, and his curious hold over Mr. Trump?

Can it possibly be any more plausible than that the former “owns” the latter?

Can we reasonably ignore that President Trump’s now unprecedented crimes against immigrant families take place at the very same time that he chooses to ignore egregious crimes against humanity in North Korea?

We may still argue, quite correctly, and in the midst of grossly “distracted” US governance, that human beings are the creators of their machines, and not their servants. Yet, there exists today an implicit and simultaneously grotesque reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate and potentially lethal pantomime between the users and the used. For the most part, our adrenalized American society is now making a machine out of both Man and Woman.

Arguably, in an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, it even now seems plausible that we have somehow been created in the image of the machine.

Mustn’t we then ask, at least those residually few Americans who might determinedly remain active thinkers and doubters, “What sort of redemption is this?”

There is more. For the moment, we Americans remain grinning but still hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and suffocating mass. Very proudly, and relentlessly disclaiming any interior life, we proceed very tentatively, and in almost every existential sphere, at the lowest possible intellectual common denominators.

Expressed in more palpable terms, our air, rail and land travel is generally insufferable, especially when compared to other western democracies Our universities, institutions in which I have lived exclusively for more than the past half century, are generally bereft of anything that might hint at any serious learning. Above all, they have become submissive adjuncts to the larger corporate and entrepreneurial worlds, dedicated more than anything else to wealth accumulation and institutional self-promotion.

And the trend continues to worsen, in the exaggeratedly anti-intellectual Trump Era.

There is more pertinent detail. All across the beleaguered land, our once traditionally revered Western Canon of literature and art has been replaced by unhidden and “practical” emphases on job preparation, loyalty-building sports and quantitative rankings. Even apart from their increasingly pervasive drunkenness and broadly tasteless entertainments, the once-sacred spaces of “higher education” have become something wholly unrelated to learning. Most visibly, they have morphed into a ready-made vocational pipeline to mostly nonsensical and unsatisfying jobs.

For most of our young people, learning has become an inconvenient and extraneous commodity, nothing more. At the same time, as everyone already understands, commodities exist for one overriding purpose. They are there, like the newly minted college graduates themselves, to be casually bought and sold in the marketplace. In general, of course, these proud university graduates are interested exclusively in salary, benefits, and presumptively suitable measures of societal deference. At best, therefore, even our most talented new physicians, lawyers and accountants are well-trained in their respective professions, but remain at the same time more-or-less uneducated.

There is still more. Though faced with plainly genuine threats of war, illness, impoverishment and terror, millions of Americans still choose to amuse themselves to death with assorted forms of morbid excitement, public scandal, inedible foods, and the inane repetitions of an illiterate political discourse. Not a day goes by that we don’t notice some premonitory sign of impending catastrophe. Still, our progressively anesthetized country continues to impose upon its exhausted and manipulated people an open devaluation of genuine thought, and, correspondingly, a breakneck pace of unrelieved and meaningless work.

Small wonder that “No Vacancy” signs now hang securely outside our psychiatric hospitals, childcare centers, and prisons.

Soon, even if we should somehow manage to avoid nuclear war and nuclear terrorism under the unsuitable and corrupted Trump leadership, the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then, the phantoms of previously-great ships of state, once conspicuously laden with heaps of silver and gold, will no longer lie forgotten. Instead, we will finally understand that the circumstances that once sent the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud and Kafka to join disintegrating works of utterly forgotten poets were neither unique nor transient.

In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired coyly about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This president (a president who both read and wrote serious books) had answered “yes,” but only if we first refused to stoop to join the injurious and synthetic “herds” of mass society. Otherwise, Wilson had already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead also with that rusty corrosion of broken machinery, more hideous even than the inevitable decompositions of each individual person.

In all societies, as Emerson himself had understood, the care of individual souls is ultimately most important. There can be a better American Soul, but not until we first affirm a prior obligation to shun the unsustainable and inter-penetrating seductions of mass culture, rank imitation, shallow thinking, organized mediocrity, and what amounts to a manifestly predatory politics of emptiness. In this connection, it is especially urgent that we fully recognize the Trump presidency as not merely another unwelcome addendum to a long-simmering national self delusion, but also (and more importantly) as the most distressingly visible symptom of a far deeper national pathology.

“This is the dead land, This is cactus land….,” intones T.S. Eliot in The Hollow Men. Here, as the seeing poet already understood, the still-living must reluctantly plan to “receive the supplication of a dead man’s hand.” For the United States, there do exist certain more promising sources of entreaty, but these would require prior acceptance of just how far we have already fallen.

Special to Jewish Business News

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

***
[1] Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought of “soul” (in German, Seele) as the very essence of a human being. Neither Freud nor Jung ever provides a precise definition of the term, but clearly it was not intended by either in any ordinary religious sense. For both, it was a still-recognizable and critical seat of both mind and passions in this life. Interesting, too, in the present context, is that Freud explained his already-predicted decline of America by various express references to “soul.” Freud was plainly disgusted by any civilization so apparently unmoved by considerations of true “consciousness” (e.g., awareness of intellect and literature), and even thought that the crude American commitment to perpetually shallow optimism and material accomplishment at any cost would occasion sweeping psychological misery. Per the following brief discussion of America’s rampant Opiate Crisis, he was most assuredly prophetic.

[2] In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)). Moreover, the specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

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