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Still Asking the Wrong Questions: A Perilous American Error

Portrait of Jefferson in his late 50s

Prof. Louis René Beres

“The enemy is the unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.”-Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952)

How did America get to this fragile place?

Often, history deserves pride of place. For Americans, much remains to be learned from the rise of European Nazism in the 1930s. German Philosopher Karl Jaspers captures the essence of such prospective learning in his classic work, Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time (1952): No nation can ever fix its core problems in the realm of politics.

               There is more. Taken by themselves, no election outcomes, however well-intentioned or reliable, can compensate for a pervasively “unphilosophical spirit.”

               Supporting evidence abounds. Even now, Americans generally fail to look meaningfully behind the news. What matters most is not whether Donald Trump will run again (he won’t), but identifying the retrograde forces that created such a dissembling presidency in the first place. This is not “just” a question of narrow historical interest. It must now be asked systematically and dialectically to avoid a second and more lethal American retreat into anti-Reason.

               Donald J. Trump, though conspicuously law-ignoring and anti-science, was never America’s underlying problem. This “original” problem has always been something less tangible. It is  a society and polity willing to abandon intellect and justice for imaginations of conspiracy and patriotism. Now, to prepare capably for an otherwise portentous future, Americans must look more closely at the broader society from which this president was drawn.

                Ultimately, as we must learn, the problem is not that the “average American” knows too little about matters of national consequence. It is that he or she wants to know very little. Until Americans can finally escape from such a limiting lack of vision, another Donald Trump (e.g. Ted Cruz; Ron DeSantis; Josh Hawley) will be pacing in “the wings.”

               There is more. Americans generally exhibit expectations of human rationality, an always-problematic expectation that is bound to disappoint. After all, the “true world,” as we may learn from Albert Camus and certain other classical thinkers (e.g., Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kierkegaard and Freud) is not predictably rational, and disorienting divergences between expectation and reality can often produce outcomes “worse” than simple irrationality.

               They can produce “the absurd.”

               In Albert Camus’ deft clarification (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942 (Fr.): “The absurd is born of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” Human need is effectively immutable. But human silence, an expression of absurdity, is a matter of volition.

A nation celebrating “common sense” over erudition

Elucidating explanations are inter-related. Americans have typically valued a “practical” education. It was not by mere happenstance that Donald J. Trump rose to power in a country so openly proud of its sweeping historical and cultural illiteracy.  The fact that this president never read anything himself – literallynever, ever – was not generally taken as a liability. On the contrary, even today, mass publics in the United States reserve few intellectual expectations for America’s national leaders. Still worse, obvious intellectual debility is often enviable.

               Prima facie, it is taken as a presidential asset.

               Though grotesque and cumulatively lethal, the assertion is indisputable.

               Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               Next time, the “silence of the world” may not be “unreasonable.”

                Once upon a time, when some still-calculable number of Americans sought to consider mind-challenging books and annoyingly complex ideas (these two activities are “force multiplying” and gainfully reciprocal), Ralph Waldo Emerson urged his fellow citizens to embrace “plain living and high thinking.” Today, this earlier philosophic plea for personal and social equilibrium (one trait shapes the other) has been too-casually cast aside. We ought also to be forewarned that any such sensible plea would be widely ridiculed.

               Under the aegis of former US President Donald Trump, legions of citizens saw no problem with suffering an anti-education president. In part, such ominous indifference to intellect and science could be traced to this country’s unrelieved barrage of crude and voyeuristic distractions, many of which currently center on sadism, torture and mass murder. Matters were not helped by Trump’s continuously open encouragements of corrosive public discourse, encouragements laced with incoherent argument, baseless rancor and a very dreary profanity.

                Finally, it’s time for candor. Very early in his defiling presidency, Donald J. Trump promised, at one of his Goebbels-style “rallies,” to protect a nonexistent Article of the US Constitution. But even then, his unhidden historical ignorance was glossed over as minor or unimportant.  Nonetheless, it did represent another humiliating symptom of a wider and more insidious national “pathology.”

               The key question surfaces. What was this collective “disease,” one as virulent as Covid19? Above all, it was a presidential “victory” for “mass man.” “What the mob once learned to believe without reasons,” queries Friedrich Nietzsche in the Fourth Part of Zarathustra, “who could overthrow that with reasons?”

               Friedrich Nietzsche already understood. He had reflected (also in Zarathustra) that “When the throne sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne.” Disregarding the millions who “with reasons” still refused to renounce his glaringly debased presidency, Trump never argued that American history should warrant serious study. Unsurprisingly, such study could have helped undo the lethal sovereignty of “mass man.”

               Ironies abound. How many Americans who energetically champion “gun rights” today have ever paused to consider that the Founding Fathers never expected modern automatic weapons? How many adrenalized “patriots” can sincerely believe that the Founders would have wanted 350 million privately-held weapons with rapid-fire capabilities, including many in the hands of citizens living in varying stages of derangement?

               There is more. Could any argument for “Second Amendment Rights” be more plainly disingenuous than those putting unimaginable sentiments into the mouths of 18th century revolutionaries? Perhaps there is one. In the last year of his administration, Trump asserted at a Goebbels-style “rally” that, during the American Revolution, Washington ‘s army “took control of all national airports.” This was by the same president who had earlier urged use of American nuclear weapons against hurricanes.

               Credo quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd.”

               What do Americans really know about their country’s cultural and intellectual beginnings? How many current citizens realize that their eighteenth-century Republic was the direct religious heir of John Calvin and a lineal philosophical descendant of both John Locke and Thomas Hobbes? How many can appreciate that the fearful Hobbesian “state of nature” in Leviathan – a “state of war” or “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes) – was deemed insufferable by the philosopher because therein “…the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.”

               How man have even heard of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke?

               Hobbes strongly cautioned against any social order that might (wittingly or unwittingly) create this “dreadful equality.” After all, following any such creation, “…the life of man (would necessarily be) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

               Ominously, for President Trump, going back to “nature,” both nationally and internationally, could represent only a positive or welcome development. More exactly, in his disjointed Realpolitik view of the world, “might makes right” could have become a core part of “making America great again.”  

Becoming a “crowd.”

               This is not the first time in modern history that a “crowd” has loved to chant in belligerent chorus. For one worrisome example, we need only recall the ritual chants of Joseph Goebbels heard at the Nuremberg Rallies before the War. What Goebbels did instruct, with a shrill and perverse genius – a lesson seemingly well learned by Donald Trump – is that the bigger the lie, the more believable it can become.

               “Cobid19 will disappear by itself.” “Injections of household disinfectant should be considered as therapy.” At first, such phrases don’t seem to make any sense, but if a leader chants often enough against “crooked” opponents and “fixed” elections, fewer will expect to see any “crookedness” on the chanting side.

               Such “logic” makes no evident sense. It is contrary to every recognizable standard of correct reasoning.  Still, to the end, it continued to work well for former President Donald Trump.

               “Intellect rots the brain,” warned Goebbels.

               “I love the poorly educated,” intoned Donald Trump.

               Not much difference here. As malignant planners of very precisely calculated deceptions, both screamers were “on the same page.”

               During his tenure, Mr. Trump, with nary a hint of any painstaking analysis, blithely encouraged additional countries to acquire their own nuclear weapons (e.g., Japan and South Korea). At a minimum, the former president’s misconceived encouragement had been spawned by his unawareness that possession of nuclear weapons does not automatically create credible deterrence. In the language of nuclear strategic theory – a language with which this author has been quite intimate for over fifty years in Washington, Geneva and Jerusalem – the relevant fallacy has a suggestive name.

               It is called the “porcupine theory.”

               Here, violators of strategic logic falsely equate nuclear weapons states with porcupines, assuming that because porcupines (presumably) leave each other alone in the forest, so too would nuclear weapon states steer clear of each other in world politics. One problem with such metaphoric thinking concerns prospects of inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. Another concerns an always-present risk of decisional irrationality.

The problem of simplifications

               In the end, America’s presidential selections are too often shaped by primal disfigurements. Many of this country’s cumulative political ambitions remain integrally bound up with embarrassing simplifications and stupefying clichés. The elaborately welcomed appearance of Duck Dynasty as principal “speaker” before Mr. Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention already represented the reductio ad absurdum of a declining civilization.

               Yet, it was not generally criticized.

               Why not? Because it was fully consistent – without causing tangible electoral disadvantage – with Donald Trump’s terminally proud aversion to refinement, syntax, intellect, law, and learning in any conceivable form. At deeper levels,  it was expressive of America’s more general celebration of low-level and degrading public entertainments. For this former president, there was more instructional value in Roseanne than in Shakespeare.

               For millions of Trump’s fellow citizens, that demeaning preference was no cause for criticism.

                Among many others, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his generation of American Transcendentalists would have winced. Our earliest presidents, after all, were individuals of meaningful accomplishment and at least some original thought.

               In July 1776, over one short Philadelphia weekend of dreadful heat and no modern conveniences, a then-future American president composed more infinitely valuable prose than the country’s president with all modern conveniences could produce in several contiguous lifetimes. Thomas Jefferson did not arrive at his presidency with a well-honed expertise in casino gambling or financial manipulations but with an elevating background in agriculture, architecture, science and philosophy.

               “One must never seek the higher man,” warned philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in Zarathustra, “at the marketplace.” Years ago, it seems, America still stood for something more than buying, selling and an abundantly raw commerce. Years ago, America’s national debates did not center on killing and the right to arm oneself with military-style assault weapons. It may be that this country has never been ready to embrace Plato’s “Philosopher King,” but there were discernible times in America’s national past that its philosophical debates sounded more like a mind-expanding university seminar than a self-defense course on tactical weapons.

               Americans remember their earlier presidents not for their transient commercial successes in a frenetic marketplace of goods screaming to be bought or sold, but for their historically auspicious presence in a mind-focused marketplace of ideas. For these increasingly-enviable presidents, it was more important to build a leadership legacy upon wisdom and learning than to show off shallow symbols of personal wealth. Donald Trump did not create “conspicuous consumption,” but neither did his electoral defeat put an end to such patterns.

The wider background

                The full horror of the Trump presidency – a horror still cheerfully accepted as “progress” by millions – began with the intellectually unambitious American citizen, that is, with the insistently flawed “microcosm.” The American electorate can never rise any higher than the amalgamated capacities of its members. Now, by virtue of “synergy,” the whole of the American polity has become more despoiled than the aggregate sum of its “parts.”

                Ultimately, for better or for worse, every democracy must come to represent the sum total of its constituent “souls,” those still-hopeful citizens who would seek some sort or other of personal “redemption.” In today’s deeply fractionated American republic, however, We the people – more and more desperate for a seemingly last chance to “fit in” and/or “get ahead” –   inhabit a vast wasteland of lost human and intellectual opportunity. Within this desiccated society of cheap and abysmal entertainments, of political leaders without a scintilla of courage or any hint of integrity, millions of “hollow men” (and women) remain chained to exhausting cycles of unsatisfying work.

               Manifold ironies are wrapped together here. While generally unrecognized, this de facto servitude is sometimes felt by the very very rich as well as the very very poor. This reflects a paradoxical “artifact” of American privilege, one that is based upon entire lifetimes spent on empty personal goals and sterile forms of accumulation.

                Given what most Americans are familiar with in their own daily lives, the country’s most spirited national debates continue to be about guns and killing, and not about history, literature, music, art, philosophy, or beauty. Within this vast and predatory nether-world, huge segments of a nation’s unhappy population cheerlessly drown themselves in oceans of alcohol and drugs. Incrementally, this submersion, relentless and intractable, is becoming deep enough to swallow up entire centuries of national achievement and a once-sacred poetry.

               At its core, America’s “opiate addiction problem” is not about drugs per se. It is about rampant individual unhappiness and irremediable social despair. Now, moreover, the tangible residue of this problem can be found scattered as toxic litter over thousands of America’s beaches and playgrounds. In the end, this litter will instruct as the squalid symbol of a larger social disintegration, of a society that is now expansively complicit in its own unheroic demise.

                Small wonder that so many millions of Americans cling so desperately to their smart phones and related electronic devices. Filled with a deepening and ultimate horror of ever having to be left alone with themselves, these virtually connected millions are visibly frantic to claim some still-recognizable membership in the leveling public mass. Earlier, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had foreseen and understood this omnivorous mass, long before the “rise” of social media.

               “The crowd,” opined the prophetic 19th century thinker, “is untruth.”

               Later, in the twentieth century, and in a portentously similar insight, Spanish existentialist Jose Ortega y’Gasset foresaw the perilous consequences of “mass,” a term resembling Sigmund Freud’s “horde” and quite nearly identical to Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung’s “mass.”

               Whether one speaks of a “crowd,” “horde,” or mass,” the selected noun can speak volumes about how a non-reading and non- writing former president remains able to claim the enthusiastic support of millions. While seeking such support, there was never any compelling reason for Mr. Trump to bother reconciling his so-called policies with any verifiable facts. In this pernicious presidency, hypocrisy was always unhidden and undisguised.

               At the end of his criminalized presidency, Donald J. Trump called openly for armed insurrection against the United States. Nonetheless, rather than generate a reaction of nation-wide horror and disbelief, this once-incomprehensible call elicited far-reaching exclamations of support. When these many millions of Americans stood proudly against the US Constitution and against the rule of law – allegedly as “patriots”- the extant political system provided no viable mechanisms of remediation. Though flagrantly beyond the pale, such destabilizing citizen behavior is sometime apt to be repeated or even accelerated, especially as long as a major US political party (the party of President Donald Trump) chooses to remain a witting “co-conspirator.”

Looking ahead: “a world in stupor lies”

                For the moment, at least, Americans remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and airless “crowd” or “herd” or “mass.”  Disclaiming any residual interior life, “We the People” proceed tentatively, and in almost every palpable sphere, at the lowest common denominator. Expressed in more easily grasped terms, even America’s vaunted “freedom” is becoming a contrivance.

                The simplifying American context offers a regrettable but ubiquitous solvent, a caustic solution dissolving almost everything of intellectual or analytic consequence. In education, the once revered Western Canon of literature, art and music has been replaced by more generalized emphases on “branding.” Already, apart from their pervasive drunkenness and enthusiastically tasteless entertainments, the once-sacred spaces of higher education have been transformed into a steadily rusting pipeline to ritualistic jobs and utterly numbing vocations.

               Soon, even if we should somehow manage to avoid nuclear war and nuclear terrorism – an avoidance not to be taken for granted –  the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then, the phantoms of great ships of state, once laden with silver and gold, may no longer lie forgotten. Then, perhaps, we will finally understand that the circumstances that could send the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud and Kafka to join the disintegrating works of forgotten poets were neither unique nor transient.

.              In all societies, as Emerson and the other American Transcendentalists also recognized, the scrupulous care of each individual”soul” is what is most important. There can be a “better”American soul, and also an improved American politics,but not until we are first able to acknowledge a more starkly prior obligation. This obligation references a national responsibility to overcome the always-staggering barriers of a Kierkegaardian “crowd” culture, and to embrace once again the liberating imperatives of Emersonian “high thinking.”

               In the end, the Donald Trump presidency was “merely” the most debilitating symptom of a much deeper American pathology, one that has yet to be conquered. In the United States, the most genuinely underlying disease remains a sweeping national unwillingness to think seriously. Left unchallenged, such reluctance could eventually transform the floundering nation into the lacquered corpse of a once-promising American Civilization.

                The ill-founded Trump presidency did notend with a catastrophic nuclear war, but even that “happy ending” represents just a temporary reprieve. Accordingly, unless citizens begin to work much harder at halting American society’s steep indifference to intellect, reason and law, they will have to face precisely the ominous kinds of metamorphoses Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously termed a “sickness unto death.” For those Americans who can still understand more than the empty witticisms stitched into red baseball caps, the truest work should begin not with politics directly (all politics are ultimately just reflection, or “epiphenomenal”), but with a deliberate and purposeful fixing of private “selves.”

               The American democracy, as we may yet learn from Thomas Jefferson, was never expected to flourish without an informed citizenry. Once this unassailable reasoning is properly understood and accepted, a still-imperiled nation could better guard itself against another grievously unfit president. The next time we are faced with an aspiring American dictatorship of empty slogans and tawdry deeds, a barbarous insurrection might quickly become more significantly destructive.

               Could there possibly be any more important sort of national awareness? Evidence abounds that millions of Americans remain comfortably submerged in a common and recalcitrant unconsciousness, a stultifying paralysis that may make plausible every kind of authoritarian rule. To suitably combat this expressly an-democratic and anti-American inclination, responsible citizens will need to do much more than simply prepare to vote. The “enemy,” as foreseen by philosopher Karl Jaspers, is never merely a particular political leader, however malignant and dishonest.

                America’s true enemy is a pervasively “unphilosophical spirit,” one that desperately “wants to know nothing of truth.” There is no imaginable path to coexistence with such a primal adversary. We can’t live with such a perilous spirit indefinitely. To assume anything else means we are still asking the wrong questions.

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

This article was first published in Modern Diplomacy

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