Louis René Beres, special to Jewish Business News
Whatever happens in the next presidential election, America’s most deeply urgent problems can never be fixed by politics. In essence, noAmerican government, Democrat or Republican – even an eccentric one that might function honestly, smoothly and intelligently – could ever halt the corrosive declensions of national mind and spirit. Candidly, to believe anything else would be an admission of absurdly wishful thinking.
Such absurd convictions would confuse the symptoms of a rapidly metastasizing “disease” for more genuine and underlying causes.
An unavoidable question now arises. How shall we recognize the core causes of our collective national “pathology” more clearly and usefully?This represents an utterly primal query, and one too-long delayed in the asking.
Still, here is a preliminary and at least tentative response. Seeing requires distance. We already know that history may occasionally allow us certain tangible increments of political progress – for example, assorted tempting bits of distracting legislation or judicial decision – but such measures can never offer us anything more than reassuring masquerade.
More particularly, they can merely patch over much wider and consequential gulfs of intellectual error and misunderstanding.
Significantly, these stopgap measures can never effectively annul the more binding “statutes” of mass suggestion and anti-reason, deviations that the 20th-century German philosopher Karl Jaspers presciently called “the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”
There is more, more for us to ponder. Somehow, driven by single-mindedly crude considerations of taxation, selling, and consumption, our once-celebrated system of American governance has now managed to bind itself fixedly to the lowest common denominators of human rule-making. Paradoxically, and in virtually every sector of public life, unhidden plutocracies manage to coexist with insistent mob rule and insidious mass taste. This is not the first time that such a grievously toxic coexistence has surfaced in these United States, but it is the only occasion we have had to witness a starkly tangible fusion of barbarian temperament with high-technology weapons.
“Life is a selection,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson back in 1846, “nothing more.” Appropriately, our national redemption must now be “selected” elsewhere, outside the madding crowd, high above the immense clamor for quick “solutions,” far beyond the vast rhythmic repetitions of crude commerce and even farther beyond the mutually-destructive spheres of government and politics. Today, America’s shrinking but still-thinking publics must be suitably forewarned about their country’s all-too-conspicuous drift away from reason, and away from science.
Today, when any reputation for intellect (deserved or undeserved) must confer harsh political or social disadvantage, even the tiniest hint of literary acquaintance or serious learning should expect to be stigmatized.
Multiple ironies abound. Lamentably, this portentous result exists even in universities, which are already as much of a witting adjunct to narrowly corporate and commercial interests as they are residual oases of independent thought.
There is more. Judging from present trajectories of American social orientation, those few Americans who would still dare think beyond ordinary hopes of personal wealth and accumulation can expect to be marginalized, casually cast aside as the living magma or detritus of a dying “class.” Hideously, in at least some plausible cases, these unfortunate people will emerge as the fossilized remains of a now-petrified aristocracy.
To believe anything different would reveal an almost ludicrous conceit.
Whether one is a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, the differences, both real and presumed, are effectively beside the point. At a frightful historical moment when random shootings in elementary schools and churches have grown commonplace, no hints of any authentic national renewal can really be expected from Washington. Ultimately, as Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung often remarked, every society is the confusingly sum total of its individual souls in search of some sort of “redemption.”
There is more. These souls, as we Americans have yet to learn, can never be mended by rapidly decaying institutions, especially by those specific societal infrastructures that are fabricated upon a stubbornly demeaning hucksterism or defended by a relentless barrage of empty witticisms. Altogether removed now, from these banal and standardized codes of expression, is any once-remaining reverence for human empathy, compassion or grace. Today, an American president (with or without any fierce domestic resistance) can very comfortably find himself in greater sympathy with openly homicidal dictators from Russia, Syria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia or the Philippines than with his own suffering fellow citizens.
It’s not a pretty picture. After all, it makes little presidential sense to accommodate one’s stance with genocide, and then seek solace or compensation via self-righteous denunciations of the victims.
Let us finally be candid. We Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly false and so openly manipulated that even our paralyzing melancholy is contrived. Wallowing in the dim twilight of obligatory and ritualized social conformance, we the people display near-infinite forbearance for political demagoguery of the most brazenly venal sort. Unsurprisingly, our frenetic society now struggles, hour-by-hour, to discover some palpable leftovers of dignity and self-worth amid an endless profusion of personal and collective compromise.
In the once-new American democracy, 19th-century French visitor to America, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed ironically (1835), “…nothing is greater or more brilliant than commerce.” With its still pitifully misdirected resentments, our lonely American crowd continues to hide unashamedly from a very basic truth. This exculpatory truth is simple to clarify: Our substantial national progress in technical and scientific matters has failed to prevent a corollary surrender of “mind.” Even more critically, our unending cultural obsession with artifice, half-knowledge and easy answers augurs badly for even the most rudimentary forms of national survival.
Can we really expect to deal meaningfully with undiminished North Korean nuclearization by displaying nary a scintilla of any serious intellectual or historical awareness? Is there any reason to believe (based on both documented history and careful dialectic) that presidential threats to “totally destroy” North Korea will prove reliably persuasive to Pyongyang?
At the start of the original Cold War, (we are already in the midst of “Cold War II”), celebrated American Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer compared the two nuclear powers to “scorpions in a bottle.” What shall we do today, in a much more confusing world of multiplying “scorpions?” Will our society be able to supply the desperately needed measures of advanced dialectical thinking and imaginative strategic thought? Or, instead, will it provide just another demeaning batch of so-called entertainment “apps?”
Resigned, at best, to a predictably dreary future of suffocating repetition and humiliating work, most Americans lurch artlessly, fitfully, from one personal concession to the next. Even in the economic best of times, these scurrying masses quietly accept the clichéd syntax of reigning “entrepreneurs,” and, at the same time, childishly take sides in grimly purposeless “culture wars.” Coincidentally, treating education at every level as a purely instrumental opportunity for escape through wealth, these hollowed-out citizens consult popular literature only rarely and serious literature not at all.
Why should they? Erudition, after all, is taken everywhere in America as an evident sign of weakness. True learning, almost everyone understands, has no cash value. Besides, our infinitely illiterate movie and television entertainments regularly afford comfortingly infantile distraction Always, this distraction takes place with the pleasingly dull monotony of gratuitous bloodletting, readily decipherable plots and perplexingly hallucinatory dreams.
Expressed as a nostalgic genre, the “life of the mind in America” has become a useless and bitterly estranged bit of fiction. But there will be consequences. In the end, these audible lamentations could even become existential.
Exasperated, we the people should not need to express outrage at the sheer breathlessness of our failures. While some thoughtful Americans have looked the other way (shamelessly), American well-being and democracy have generally become more closely bound up with brashly engineered and grimly addictive patterns of hyper-consumption. In brief, an entire nation now believes in a basic national axiom, and one that warrants steady repetition, as if it were some sort of religious incantation: “You are what you buy.”
Today, our national mythology of “rugged individualism” notwithstanding, any once-authentic American individual has already been reduced to a quaint artifact. More refractory than ever to intellect and learning, our asphyxiating society, including this nation’s most vaunted universities, not only loathes genuine thought: it categorically refuses to be resuscitated. Before this potentially lethal debility can be challenged, our beleaguered country will first need to recognize and identify the truly underlying national “pathology.”
Without such recognition, there will be no adequate air to breathe, and asphyxiation will still represent a bad way to die.
In principle, at least, it is possible for we the people to be lonely in the world or lonely for the world. Somehow, however, our reigning mass culture has managed to produce and sustain both forms of such severe suffering. Before a more tolerable America could ever be born from any such bifurcated loneliness, a well-meaning societal “gravedigger” would first have to wield the forceps.
Whatever is ultimately decided in politics, we Americans will be carried forth not by any commendable nobilities of Emersonian “high thinking and plain living,” but by a sorrowful eruption of collective agitation. True, we the people may eventually wish to slow down a bit and smell the proverbial roses, but our battered nation will continue to impose upon its stammering population the merciless bellows of a vast and omnivorous machine. In a lesson yet unlearned by both Democrats and Republicans, the outcome of all this delirium will prevent us from remembering who we once were, and, even more importantly, who we might once still have become.
Time is merciless. The past, as Beckett observes in his analysis of Proust, “…is irremediably a part of us, heavy and dangerous.” What, then, if anything, can be done by this drowning country to escape the pendulum of its own mad clockwork?
There are informed answers. We pay lip service to the high ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution, but almost no one meaningfully cares about these musty old documents. Invoked only for ostentation, the legal and philosophical foundations of the United States have already become the lost province of a tiny handful of people. For the most part, we Americans now lack any true sources of national cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, distracting sports team loyalties and the always comforting brotherhood of routinely senseless wars.
There must be something more commendable to this disintegrating society than a shrieking commerce combined with intellectual somnolence. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” said the poet Walt Whitman, but today the American Self is under steady assault by seemingly irresistible expectations to “fit in.”
Reciprocally, we are beleaguered, too, by an epidemic gluttony. As the famous lyrics scream agonizingly, “We can’t get no satisfaction.” In truth, Americans are more and more literally obese not because they are genuinely hungry for food, but because they have lost any remaining appetite for real life.
In the end, credulity may become America’s worst enemy. Our curiously unhesitating inclination to believe that both personal and societal redemption must lie in pedestrian politics represents a markedly grave disorder. To be sure, critical social and economic issues do need to be addressed by our government, but so too must our much deeper problems be solved at the “molecular” level of individual persons.
Only a rare few can ever hope to redeem America as a resilient nation, but these quiet and self-effacing souls must remain solemnly detached and well-hidden, usually, even from themselves. Our dual-tier redemption, as singular persons and as an entire people, can never be discovered among thecrowd, least of all, among the masses’ most easily recognizable leaders in politics and government. There are legitimate ways to fix our broken country, but not while we the people continue to inhabit our convictions mindlessly, cravenly, without scholarship, rather like a blindly voracious worm boring in the fruit.
Accordingly, our first task, to employ a recurrent medical metaphor, must be to diagnose the underlying pathology. By definition, any incorrect diagnoses will produce only incorrect remedies. Anything less than genuinely precise understanding will allow our most latent apprehensions to rise unopposed, to the surface, and then to shatter at the very slightest impact, freeing our most worrisome societal defects to expand exponentially within stubbornly fragile interstices.
In the end, a diseased civilization will always compromise with its worst afflictions. To restore us, as a civilization, to long-term health and prosperity – a task so daunting that it has now become a pretext for convulsions – we the people will need to look beyond a persistently futile faith in politics. It is only when such a necessary glance of consciousness can become a focused and irreversible gesture – that is, only when we can fully restore a central and well-deserved faith in ourselves as thinking individuals and not as docile members of a crowd or herd – that we may finally entertain authentic hopes of redeeming a dissembling nation.
In Zarathustra, Nietzsche warns, “Do not seek the higher man in the marketplace.” As a nation, in 2016, we chose to disregard this basic warning in selecting a president. Looking ahead, however, we ought not make this singularly dangerous mistake again. Such an indispensable avoidance cannot be implemented ex nihilo, without a prior societal swerve toward enviable intellect and independent thought. It follows that to achieve any necessary redemption beyond politics, we Americans will first have to restore healthy true regard for thinking, reading, and learning.
Only in the aftermath of such a sorely needed restoration could we expect to select a proper president, one who would actually warrant collective deference and ungrudging legitimate respect.
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 (Princeton); 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.
His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear