the disappearance of the
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue
University. He is author of many books and articles dealing
with international politics. His columns have appeared in the
New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem
Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press).
Plato’s Republic, a canonic centerpiece of all
Western thought, we first read of the philosopher king, a visionary
leader who would impressively combine deep learning with effective
governance. Today, almost 2400 years later, such leadership
is nowhere to be found, either in Washington, or in any other
major world capital. Here in the United States, we seemingly
remain content with criteria of presidential selection that
emphasizes anything but cultivated insights or real wisdom.
To the contrary, and despite an endless litany of past failures,
we still measure our candidates according to their abundantly
vague promises and embarrassingly empty witticisms.
‘Plato problem’ exists in all spheres of American
electoral politics, not only at the level of the presidency.
Stubbornly, we the people are willing to reduce all serious
political judgments to a crass assortment of numbing clichés
and visceral ideologies.
story is told of an admiring friend who charms a young mother,
“My, that’s a beautiful baby you have there.”
The mother replies, “Oh, that’s nothing -- you should
see his photograph.” In this obviously weird colloquy
lies a sorely bitter truth.
in all politics, we Americans are presented not with authentic
individuals, but with choreographed reproductions. Inevitably,
to our chagrin, we discover that these carefully touched up
images disguise a multitude of virulent pathologies. In a stunning,
if unwitting, misunderstanding of Plato’s thought, which
explicitly emphasizes the core reality of ideas, most Americans
now fully accept this very odd substitution of image for reality.
even in politics, fame can be concocted or synthetic. Typically,
in politics, it matters little if a particular candidate has
any notably intrinsic worth or genuine promise. What really
counts, over time, is simply that the public will be impressed
by this aspirant because he or she is suitably recognizable.
Again and again, in a plainly perverse tribute to the corollary
power of the image-makers, even the most blatant nincompoop
has been transformed into a viable candidate.
American politics, no one any longer expects what Ralph Waldo
Emerson had once called “high thinking.” Rather,
the celebrity politician draws huge audiences (and donors) although
very few would ever expect to hear anything of substance. In
our national politics of veneered truths, whenever a candidate’s
spoken words seethe with vacant allusions and blatant equivocations,
the crowd nods approvingly and leaps with satisfaction.
is comforting enough for these audiences to bask in the warmth
of someone ‘famous.’ In the absurd theatre of American
politics, the key protagonists continue to play their stock
parts with contrived zeal and ambition, but also without any
true capacity. As for the chorus, we have rehearsed our lines
just as well, but we now utter them viscerally, as if by rote.
Understandably, our exuberant shouts of approbation lack credibility.
After all, they have been reduced to ritual incantations.
historian Daniel J. Boorstin once wrote knowingly of the celebrity,
of the person or product that is known for well knownness. Offered
as a commodity, the object of celebrity triumphs only because
the pervasive alchemy of public relations. It matters not at
all that a public figure may be manifestly without intellect,
courage or integrity. This deficiency is literally of no consequence.
of our national heroes were once created by commendable achievement.
Today, the successful politician is fashioned by a system that
is refractory to all wisdom, a system that is sustained by banality,
empty chatter and half knowledge. Now, at a time when leadership
incapability could pave the way to bioterrorism, dirty bombs,
or even outright nuclear attack, our relentless transformations
of politics into amusement has become far more than a mere matter
of foolishness or bad taste.
will we learn to look behind the news, to acknowledge that our
fragile political world has been constructed upon ashes? The
answer: Not until we learn to take ourselves seriously as persons;
not until we begin to read and think with sincerity; not until
we stop amusing ourselves to death; not until we seek rapport
with genuine feeling; and not until we rediscover the dignified
grace of real learning.
Americans, there can never be any primary salvation for us in
politics. Largely because of our disfigured criteria of selection,
the American president and other elected high officials, Democrat
or Republican, can never be expected to lead. This will change
only after core personal meanings in America are finally detached
from frenetic marketing, and after we recognize that we are
held captive within a demeaning world of manufactured promises
and empty appearances. Hopefully, of course, it will change
before such time, as H.L. Mencken once observed, when a distinctly
higher authority, “tired of the farce at last, obliterates
the entire race with one great, final blast of fire, mustard
gas and streptococci.”
“philosopher king” may not be a practicable standard
for American electoral politics, but it surely can’t hurt
to keep such a potentially enviable measure somewhere in mind.
At a minimum, such a recollection could remind us of how far
we have already strayed.