Louis René Beres
WEST LAFAYETTE, INDIANA: For the moment, the dominant threat to the United States is unambiguously biological. A successful response to COVID-19 requires collective courage as well as science and suitable intellectual foundations.
Before meeting this coequal but less tangible and quantifiable requirement, much more is needed than transient changes in American politics. This is because the political sphere is epiphenomenal, a mere reflection of what lies more meaningfully below. What matters most in such matters is the underlying human willingness to seek what is best for an entire polity rather than some zero-sum search for the narrow benefit of calculable private interests.
The United States has yet to learn this core lesson. Once again, voters seek “change” and “progress” in a presidential election, yet without a courageous, thinking electorate, this quadrennial exercise is, at best, largely beside the point. The obligation to rid the United States of a corrosive and dangerous president, especially amid the paralyzing coronavirus outbreak, has become overriding.
At the same time, primary changes are required at the individual human level. German philosopher Karl Jaspers presciently warned in 1952’s Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time: “Conscious of his emptiness, a man tries to make a faith for himself in the political realm. In vain.” For now, Americans inhabit a society so numbingly false and rancorous, that even the nation’s pre-virus melancholy lacked credibility. Many have long shown infinite forbearance for imitation and falsehood, but little patience for the imperative challenges of cooperation and coexistence.
Indeed, with pitifully inadequate resentments, lonely masses hide from the country’s most debilitating characteristic – widespread preference for believing overthinking and a corresponding unwillingness to display rudimentary intellectual courage. Ironically, this kind of courage should be far less of a barrier than physical courage; after all, it asks only for citizens to resist a pervasive unphilosophical American spirit, one that routinely disregards truth and more significantly wants to know nothing of truth. Such an unphilosophical spirit among the opponents of reason gives currency to everything that is inimical and alien to truth, and as Jaspers noted, one that serves to magnify all “perversions of truth.”
A recent example of this deforming spirit is the US president’s continuing reference to COVID-19 as “the China virus.” Donald Trump’s obsequious supporters gleefully accept this gratuitous, inane defamation of a major world power and Asian people in general. Derivatively, for the vice president, the attorney general, the secretaries of the state and treasury, and others, cowardice has become a “normal” way of life. For those who still stand shamelessly by a flagrantly naked emperor, cowardice has produced incalculable social and medical harms. With the COVID-19 pandemic, these egregious harms could prove to be unprecedented.
Lacking courage and intellectual commitment, many Americans should not express surprise at the staggering breadth of their collective failures. Over many years, the seductive requirements of wealth and “success” had become the presumptive foundation of America’s economy and society, pillars that displaced any residual underpinnings of decency or truth.
Over the years, American well-being and “democracy” have sprung from a predictably self-defeating posture of engineered consumption. It follows that the nation’s current political scandals are largely the product of a society where anti-intellectual and unheroic lives are measured not by any rational accretions of mind and spirit, but dolefully, mechanically, without palpable satisfaction in “coffee spoons,” as famously described by T.S. Eliot.
Escalating fears of personal failure and insignificance motivate American politics, and the entire nation may also experience such insignificance collectively. Either way, the concerns suggest deeply felt human anxieties about not being valued or wanted, as W.H. Auden wrote in “The Age of Anxiety”: “It is getting late; shall we ever be asked for? Are we simply not wanted at all?”
Still, candor must prevail. Ground down by the hammering babble of pundits and politicos, modern Americans are rarely motivated by energetic insight or courage. To wit, they are just coming to understand how their injured constitution is subjected to dissembling increments of abrogation by the head of state. Trump claims he “loves the poorly educated,” echoing a sentiment expressed by the Third Reich’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels in 1935 – ““Intellect rots the brain.” Trump yearns not to serve his country, but to be served and lauded by the citizens.
In the United States, individuals willing to think are generally relics of an imagined history. Here, mass society displays no decipherable intentions of taking itself seriously. An embittered American herd – “Headpieces filled with straw,” poet Eliot would have noted – marches insistently backward, cheerlessly, often incoherent, in a dutiful, pitiful lockstep toward ever greater levels of unhappiness, addiction and alienation.
Until now, Americans lacked genuine sources of national cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, sports loyalties and once comforting brotherhoods of war. More than 7 million people are confined in US prisons, the world’s largest per-capita rate. Two-thirds of those released return to crime and mayhem. At the same time, the most senior and recognizable white-collar criminals, those who have made personal cowardice into a de-facto religion, look forward to presidential pardons.
Credo quia absurdum, “I believe because it is absurd,” said the ancient philosophers. Oddly, Americans inhabit the one society that could have been hopeful, thriving and just. The country once had the potential to nurture individuals to become more than just a spineless crowd. Ralph Waldo Emerson described Americans as a people animated by industry and self-reliance, not by paralysis, fear and trembling. The bottom line: Despite a proudly clichéd claim to “rugged individualism,” Americans are typically shaped by demeaning patterns of visceral conformance. Literally amusing themselves to death, an endangered society bristles with annoying jingles, insistent hucksterism, crass allusions and telltale equivocations. Surely, some must inquire, Isn’t there more to this suffering country than abjured learning, endless imitation and expansively crude commerce? “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” the poet Walt Whitman wrote, but the modern American self is formed by stupefying “education,” far-reaching patterns of cultural tastelessness and a stunningly pervasive display of rancor and obscenity.
Only a rare “few” can redeem courage and intellect in society, as suggested by Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’ Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses. These quiet souls typically remain hidden, even from themselves, eschewing frenetic self-advertisement, whether to maintain control over a corrupted White House or capture it for themselves in the next election. To be sure, redemption cannot be found among the crowd, mass, herd or horde. There is a way to fix the fractionating country, but not by those who inhabit pre-packaged ideologies of anti-thinkers, by rote, without mind or integrity.
We might yearn to identify singular individuals of both intellect and courage, yet there is another essential question: How can Americans understand that such identifications are literally indispensable to survival?
In the end, courage means an assertion of self against the mass and represents a genuinely sacred obligation for all democratic society. By such a critical assertion, each person affirms, inter alia, that he or she is first and foremost an individual, one willing to stand against the mass, whatever the expected personal risks involved.
Today’s Trump supporters think of themselves as the ones with true courage, but this is because they confuse the president’s disjointed rancor with insight, his persistent reliance upon non-sequitur with intellect. Courage does mean a determined willingness to stand against the mass, but only when accompanied by authentic prior commitment to science and evidence-based assessment.
Going forward, citizens who seek a transformation must insist upon expanding the sovereignty of a newly courageous and virtuous citizenry, combining wisdom and morality in the tradition of Plato. In this immense task, basic changes are needed at the individual human level. German philosopher Hermann Hesse reminds that every society essentially reflects its individuals. Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung goes further in The Undiscovered Self, claiming that every society represents “the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.”
At the heart of any such redemption is an individual human being, favoring thinking over believing and courage over conformance. In such circumstances, just one man or woman of courage could constitute a “majority,” a sentiment attributed to Thomas Jefferson. To rescue an imperiled nation, that would be a promising start.
Louis René Beres, emeritus professor of International Law at Purdue, was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971. A frequent contributor to YaleGlobal Online, he is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. HIs 12th and latest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016); 2nd ed., 2018. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II.
This article was first published in Yale Global