By Louis René Bere,
special to Jewish Business News
“To penetrate and dissipate the clouds of darkness, the general mind must be strengthened by education.”
“I love the poorly educated.”
Donald J. Trump
There is little real mystery here. US President Donald J. Trump is the predictable result of a society that literally loathes independent thought. Though there are significant exceptions to this generalized indictment – that is, certain still-discoverable oases of a more genuinely serious American intellectual life – these exceptions hold tangibly little sway over American public opinion and administration policy.
During his 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump proudly declared: “I love the poorly educated.” This strange and seemingly senseless remark, however, was not merely an off-the-cuff or seat-of-the pants observation. Rather, it was offered in duly expedient affirmation of a destructive political kinship, one nurturing then-developing bonds with a determinedly willing political “base.”
But where does such a conspicuous loathing of intellect and learning locate its contemporary historical roots? This is not a difficult question. “Intellect rots the mind,” warned Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels at the Nuremberg rallies in 1935. The hideous sentiments expressed here are more than just superficially similar.
They are conceptually identical and mutually reinforcing.
Still, this need not suggest that the Trump administration is in any way genocidal, only that both dissembling regimes drew/draw their most “primal” nurturance from a common ideological font.
Poisonous to both reason and rationality, such prospectively lethal sentiments are witnessed most dramatically today at Trump “rallies.” These rallies are openly incoherent gatherings of the faithful, scream-fests, replete with distressingly ritualistic phrases chanted (always) in markedly loud and atavistic chorus.
There is more. Today, in the glaringly anti-intellectual “Trump Era,” there is no longer any governing pretense of either mind or integrity. Now, both learning and dignity are clearly out of political fashion. For this president, who plainly learned a great deal from Joseph Goebbels, mind is a conspicuous liability.
Looking behind the news is every American’s first obligation of citizenship. Only there, in what is not immediately obvious, we may discover the immutably core truths of democratic political life. After all, now, even the tiniest hint of scientific or “high thinking” is treated by US President Donald Trump as an affront. Above all, it is taken to represent an unseemly sign of private citizen reasoning or thinking.
Could anything else be more fittingly subject to mass-based spasms of public loathing, of “patriotic” American hatreds?
This corrosive subordination of intellect to unreason is by no means an original “contribution” of Donald Trump (American society has never been an example of obeisance to learning or enlightened considerations of “mind”), but it remains an unambiguous signature of this persistently defiling American presidency.
In principle, at least for sensible and still-thinking Americans, there should be little residual opacity about what is happening. Most obviously, this country backs further and further away from any merit-based standards of policy assessment. Now locked fixedly into a regressive trajectory of political and cultural decline, America’s cumulative ambitions are continuously being reduced to shallow rally credos and to correspondingly empty witticisms.
“I love the poorly educated” said candidate Trump, back in 2016.
Pertinent policy examples abound. It can hardly come as a surprise that virtually all Americans are already victims of this president’s once-vaunted “trade wars.” Ironically, the principal long-term beneficiaries of this Trump-induced incoherence will be Russia and China. The only derivative question should be this: Why is such plainly injurious presidential irrationality still acceptable to millions of rhythmically chanting citizens?
What can they possibly be thinking?
Always, science must begin with tangible questions. These core questions cannot be overlooked or ignored. Americans, it follows, must much more sincerely inquire: “How can a US president so willfully ignore and accept his Russian counterpart as his puppet master?” Even in the wholesale absence of “high thinking” within the Trump White House, it should be unambiguous that one superpower president has become the all-too-witting marionette of the other.
At what point do Americans candidly acknowledge that in any measured comparisons with geopolitical reality, the current US presidency is effectively The Manchurian Candidate on steroids?
There are still more serious questions. As a nation, when shall we finally agree to bear truthful witness on Constitutional governance? Can there be any doubt that there is much more to these founding principles than the Second Amendment? Surely this country must ultimately be about much more than just the right to bear arms and kill small animals.
Is it not already obvious, patently, that what we now witness from moment to moment represents a more perilous American declension than even the most sensationalized fictional catastrophes?
Cultural context remains vital, even determinative. Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency did not arise ex nihilo, in a vacuum. What exactly has gone wrong with American “high thinking?” How, more precisely, have we managed to allow a once-still-promising and steadily-rising nation to slide uncontrollably toward collective national misfortune?
In the inherently unsteady nuclear age, such misfortune could sometime include irreversibly catastrophic human wars. With such dreaded inclusion, we the people might even need to witness a wholly unprecedented fusion. This would be an explosive alloy of banality and apocalypse.
It’s not a pleasing fusion.
Before answering such queries – and properly serious replies must take special account of expanding nuclear proliferation – the genre we select must be exquisitely precise. In this connection, whenever we speak of Donald Trump we dare not speak of authentic “tragedy.” “True” tragedy, unlike common buffoonery or self-induced misfortune, is ennobling. Always.
From Aristotle to Shakespeare, true tragedy has demanded a victim, whether individual or societal, one who suffers undeservedly.
This demand has not been met today.
In this dreary and profane play directed by President Donald Trump, we Americans are not properly tragic figures. Surely we are not just the passive victims of a disjointed and contrived presidency effectively forced upon us in 2016. As long as we refuse to speak out at less delicate levels of truth-telling – and this refusal means much more than just showing up to vote in 2020 – we will deserve our consequent losses.
Richly deserve them.
In the nuclear age, it now bears repeating, such losses could be irremediable.
Even immediately, they would likely be unendurable.
Surely, at that late point we would not represent the tragic victims of some unstoppable national decline. Instead, we would reveal the pathetic “spillover” of a palpable and once-still preventable melodrama.
At that humiliating point, our best-defining genre will have become parody or pathos.
In all likelihood, that finally expressed American genre would represent a dreadful and hideous farce.
There is more. Amid all these consequential “theatrical” matters, we may have less to learn from Aristotle or Shakespeare than from the 20th century psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Even a cursory glance at the two seminal thinkers from Vienna and Zurich should remind us of the ever-present dangers posed by “horde” or “mass.”
Both Freud and Jung were strongly influenced by the Danish Existentialist thinker Soren Kierkegaard (who personally preferred the term “crowd” to “horde” or “mass”) and by German-Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Without guile, Nietzsche spoke woefully of the “herd.”
Whatever term we might decide to favor, one key point remains unassailable: When an entire nation and society abandon the most basic obligations of critical thinking and “reason” (this cautionary observation about “reason” should bring us also to the German post-War philosopher, Karl Jaspers), we can expect incremental deformity and eventual tyranny. Nietzsche, in his masterpiece Zarathustra, was more specific. “Do not seek the higher-man in the marketplace,” the prophet had warned presciently.
Translated into more prosaic terms of our current American presidential dilemma, this ought to remind us that mundane skill sets acquired in the worlds of real-estate bargaining and casino gambling do not “carry over” to high-politics and diplomacy.
Or as one might say back home in Indiana, “Not hardly!”
Now, in essence, American national leadership desperately requires some markedly serious figures of historical literacy and tangible erudition, not some crudely half-educated marketers of “deals.”
In America, snake oil can still be sold under various different markings.
But it’s still just snake oil.
In the end, every society represents the sum total of its individual souls seeking some sort or other of “redemption.” This search is never properly scientific – after all, there can be no discernible or tangible referent for a human “soul” – but important answers may still occasionally lie outside mainstream scientific investigations.
These sorts of “eccentric” answers ought not necessarily be disregarded.
At times, at least, they should be consciously sought and carefully studied.
Not only the blustering American “emperor,” but also those still awed by his mind-stifling “parade,” are shamelessly “naked.” In President Donald Trump’s deeply fractionated American republic, we the people cheerlessly inhabit a stultifying “hollow land” of unending submission, crass consumption, dreary profanity and immutably shallow pleasures. Bored by the suffocating banalities of daily life and beaten down by the grinding struggle to stay hopeful amid ever-widening polarities of wealth and poverty, our weary US citizens now grasp anxiously for any available lifelines of distraction.
In 2016, this presumed lifeline was a false prophet of American “greatness.”
In 2016, legions of Americans unaccustomed to reading anything of consequence were easily taken in by a mountain of cheap red hats and starkly inane slogans.
For Donald Trump, cynical simplifications represented his planned path to electoral victory.
“Intellect rots the mind” said Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1935.
“I love the poorly educated” said US Presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016.
Such things considered, it is small wonder that the cavernous Opiate Crisis is already deep enough to drown entire libraries of a once-sacred poetry.
Small wonder, too, that in a nation of so much institutionalized pain and private desperation there exists a pervasively growing cry for “anesthesia.”
In part, because of the indifferent and ineffectual stewardship of America’s current president, both this singular nation and the wider planetary system of which it is a part are at significant risk. Where, then, shall we meaningfully seek any still-lingering public demands for human improvement and collective survival? Where might we still discover any usefully reinforcing visions of social cooperation and personal growth?
In principle, at least, thoughtful concepts are de rigeur. Misdirected by the incessantly hollow claims of “American Exceptionalism” and “America First,” we have somehow managed to forget that world politics is a system. It follows, among other things, that US prosperity is perpetually linked to the calculable well-being of other states and other societies.
It’s not terribly complicated. In brief, this is an historical moment where one simplifying gastronomic metaphor can actually make sense: In essence, we are all in the “soup” together.
There is more. Until now, we have unceremoniously ignored the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s clear warning from The Phenomenon of Man: “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.”
We have also ignored almost everything else of commendably real intellectual importance. Should there remain any sincere doubts about this indictment, one need only look at the current state of American higher education – in many ways, now just another obvious expression of Nietzsche’s (Zarathustra’s) “marketplace.”
In Donald Trump’s America, we the people are no longer shaped by any suitably generalized feelings of reverence or compassion, or, as has already been amply demonstrated, by even the tiniest hints of plausibly complex thought. Now, our preferred preoccupation, shamelessly unhidden, lies with a closely- orchestrated hysteria of indulgence in other people’s private lives and (with even greater and more visceral enthusiasm) their corollary sufferings. In German, there is a specially-designated word for this lethal pathology of the human spirit.
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 always-comforting myth of American superiority. In the end, this particular myth, more than any other, is apt to produce further declension and despair. This is the case even when an American president chooses to physically wrap himself around the flag, a recent Trump embrace of rare and visually defiling repugnance.
“I belong, therefore I am.” This is not what philosopher René Descartes had in mind when, back in the 17th century, he had urged greater thought and expanding doubt. It is also a very sad credo. Unhesitatingly, it loudly shrieks that social acceptance is equivalent to physical survival, and that even the most sorely pretended pleasures of inclusion are inevitably worth pursuing.
There is much more. A push-button metaphysics of “apps” now reigns supreme in America. This immense attraction of smart phones and corresponding social networks stems in large part from our barren society’s machine-like existence. Within this increasingly robotic universe, every hint of human passion must be shunted away from any caring human emotions, and then re-directed along certain uniform and vicariously satisfying pathways.
Jurisprudentially, although international law obliges the United States to oppose all crimes of genocide and related crimes against humanity – and despite the fact that this binding international law is an established part of the municipal law of the United States – America’s president remains irremediably silent on war crimes committed by both America’s allies and its adversaries. These terms of relationship must be bound together because it has become substantially unclear in Trump’s inverted universe exactly who is friend and who is foe. When Trump says of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un “We’re in love,” the rest of us are in real trouble.
We may still argue, and quite correctly, that human beings are the creators of their machines, not their servants. Yet, there exists today an implicit and hideous reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate and potentially murderous pantomime between the users and the used. Openly, our adrenalized American society is rapidly making a machine out of Man and Woman.
In an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, it now seems plausible that we have been created in the image not of God, but of the machine.
Mustn’t we now ask, at least those residually few Americans who would courageously remain determined thinkers and doubters, “What sort of redemption is this?”
For the moment, we Americans remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and stultifying mass. By relentlessly disclaiming any dint of interior life, we are able to proceed with our lives, very tentatively, of course, and – in absolutely every existential sphere – at the lowest possible common denominator.
Expressed in more palpable terms, our air, rail and land travel is too often 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 ever hint at serious learning. For the most part, they have obligingly become submissive adjuncts to the larger corporate and entrepreneurial worlds.
Now, they are dedicated more than anything else to private wealth accumulation and institutional self-promotion. In America, let us be candid: “You are what you buy.” Or in a grotesque inversion of Descartes, “I don’t think, therefore I am.”
In the blatantly anti-intellectual Trump Era, this already intolerable trend merely continues to worsen.
There is still more pertinent detail to consider. Across the beleaguered land, our once traditionally revered Western Canon of literature and art has largely been replaced by unhidden and more “practical” emphases on job preparation, loyalty-building sports, and “branding”(quantitative rankings.) Apart from their unhappy drunkenness and broadly tasteless entertainments, the once-sacred spaces of “higher education” have managed to become something wholly unrelated to learning. Most visibly, though rarely acknowledged, our universities have morphed into a vocational pipeline to nonsensical and unsatisfying jobs.
Sometimes, as in the case of onetime “Trump University,” they are incapable of meeting even these embarrassingly minimal expectations.
Again, it is time for candor. For most of America’s young people, learning has become an inconvenient and burdensome commodity, nothing more. At the same time, as virtually everyone already understands, commodities exist for only one overriding purpose. They exist, like the newly minted college graduates themselves, to be bought and sold.
Beware, warns Zarathustra, of ever seeking virtue or quality at the marketplace. This is a place only for buying and selling, a venue for “deals.”
Though faced with 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 (remember Schadenfreude), inedible foods, and the stunningly 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 bewildered and drug-numbed country continues to impose upon its exhausted and manipulated people a devaluation of challenging thought and a breakneck pace of unrelieved and unrewarding work.
Small wonder that “No Vacancy” signs now hang securely outside our psychiatric hospitals, childcare centers and ready-to-burst prisons.
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 had asked. This president (a president who actually read and wrote serious books) answered “yes,” but only if we would first refuse to join the misleading “herds” of mass society. Otherwise, President Wilson already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty corrosion of broken machinery, more disabling than even the unsightly decompositions of an individual person.
In all societies, Emerson had understood, the care of individual “souls” is the most urgent responsibility. Conceivably, there could sometime emerge a better “American Soul,” but not until we could first agree to shun the variously inter-penetrating seductions of mass culture – that is, (1) rank imitation; (2) shallow thinking; (3) organized mediocrity; and (4) a manifestly predatory politics of ethnicity, race and class.
Any such far-reaching rejection will not be easy to accomplish. To begin, recalling Thomas Jefferson, “the general mind must be strengthened by education.” Inter alia, this means a systematized pattern of learning that includes a self-evident commitment to basic truths, and not just another futile round of “branding,” self-aggrandizement and professional advancement.
For the United States, such truths cannot be ascertained or sustained by various transient “deals.” What is required, instead, is a re-birth and corollary celebration of critical thinking in America. We need a president whose government is not based upon support of the poorly educated, but upon those who would remain willing to think serious and capable analytic thoughts.
Only then, with Thomas Jefferson as mentor, could we effectively “penetrate and dissipate the clouds of darkness.”
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