anti-intellectual and proud of it
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Emeritus Professor of Political Science
and International Law (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).
the throne sits on mud,
mud sits on the throne.
Even now, polls suggest
that about 40 percent of Americans regard Donald Trump as a
suitable president. In essence, this preference has little to
do with job performance and must be explained by the nature
of the wider society from which this president was drawn.
the most part, Americans have forsaken every once-residual aspect
of an authentic intellectual life. This near total abandonment
of a national ‘life of the mind’ was not fashioned
in a cultural vacuum. Rather, it was fostered by an unrelenting
barrage of crude and voyeuristic entertainments, most of which
now center on sex, sadism, torture, murder and dreary profanity.
this is not the time to expect a visit from Plato's ‘philosopher-king.’
essence, the incumbent US president is not familiar with the
country’s history and does not understand that it deserves
its proper pride of place. Few Americans consider that the country's
Founding Fathers, in supporting the right to bear arms, imagined
automatic weapons. Even fewer know that the early Republic was
the indisputable religious heir of John Calvin, and the philosophical
descendant of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. For that matter,
only a small number have ever even heard of John Calvin, John
Locke or Thomas Hobbes.
In the end, fundamentally basic cultural and educational disfigurements
shape presidential selections. Many of this country’s
cumulative political ambitions remain bound up with embarrassing
simplifications and, accordingly, with stupefying clichés.
The appearance of Willie Robertson, a TV star from the reality
TV show Duck Dynasty, as a principal speaker before
the Republican National Convention was consistent with Trump's
own proud personal aversion to intellect and learning. No one
seemed to have any trouble with the convention's shameless juxtaposition.
full horror of the Trump presidency begins with the intellectually
unambitious American individual, with the flawed citizen ‘microcosm.’
Significantly, the electorate can never rise any higher than
the amalgamated capacities of its separate members. "When
the throne sits on mud," observed philosopher Friedrich
Nietzsche, "mud sits on the throne."
every democracy represents the sum total of its constituent
‘souls.’ In the deeply fractionated American republic,
however, We the people – more and more desperate
for a seemingly last chance to fit in and get respect –
inhabit a vast wasteland of irretrievably lost human opportunity.
Within this largely desiccated society of cheap and abysmal
entertainments, Americans have indeed become the "hollow
men," chained to a lifetime of more or less exhausting
and meaningless work.
demeaning fate is often as true for the very rich as for the
very poor. Unsurprisingly, for both extremes of wealth and poverty,
many American citizens increasingly seek solace by drowning
themselves in vast oceans of both alcohol and drugs. Still,
even the great seas are not limitless solvents.
essence, "we the people" now cheerlessly embrace the
full range of cultural and intellectual declension. Willingly,
we go down in the blithering Trump era without even a murmur
of palpable resistance or visible courage. Above all, too many
continue to think aggressively against history, bombastically,
somehow strangely pleased that few adults care to read or learn
anything important. Too many Americans are remotely concerned
that Donald Trump never reads. As for the president himself,
he is unashamed, even proud of this disposition to eschew books.
condemn this attitude. Intellectual endeavours have little cash
value and hardly pay.
a significant extent, the presidential debility reflects a society
that rejects Emersonian individualism in every conceivable form
or nuance. "I belong, therefore I am." This is not
what René Descartes had in mind back in the 17th century,
when the philosopher had urged greater private thought and,
as essential corollary, greater doubt. Without demurring, this
sad credo positively shrieks that social acceptance is equivalent
to one's own physical survival, and that even the most ostentatiously
pretended pleasures of inclusion are worth pursuing.
this crowd-centered American society proceeds imitatively, at
the lowest possible common denominator. This is fertile ground
for a president whose principal commitments are not to reason,
intellect or logic, but instead to rancour, blame and systematic
too many young people, learning has become an inconvenient but
mandated commodity. And commodities, like the next batch of
mass-produced college graduates, exist for one purpose –
to be suitably processed. For Trump and supporters this represents
not an embarrassment or liability, but rather the optimal definition
of an American democracy.
Though confronting genuine threats of war, illness, impoverishment
and terror, millions of Americans still prefer to amuse themselves
to death, resorting to various forms of morbid excitement, voyeuristic
reality shows, inedible or openly injurious foods, and the distracting
repetitions of a persistently-vacuous political discourse. Not
a day goes without some premonitory sign of impending catastrophe.
Still, the numbed country continues to impose upon its exhausted
and manipulated people a shamelessly open devaluation of challenging
thought and a continuously breakneck pace of unrelieved work
and emotional submission.
even if the nation somehow manages to avoid nuclear war and
nuclear terrorism – an avoidance not to be taken for granted
in the unraveling Trump era – 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 treasures, may no longer lie forgotten. Then, perhaps,
we may finally understand the circumstances that could send
the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare,
Freud and Kafka to join the works of forgotten poets, were neither
unique nor transient.
an 1897 essay titled "On Being Human," Woodrow Wilson
inquired about the authenticity of America: "Is it even
open to us to choose to be genuine?" The former president,
then a professor at Princeton, answered "yes," but
only if citizens refused to stoop and join the injurious and
synthetic "herds" of mass society. “Let us remind
ourselves that to be human is, for one thing, to speak and act
with a certain note of genuineness, a quality mixed of spontaneity
and intelligence,” he wrote, adding that this is especially
essential during times of shifting standards. “The art
of being human begins with the practice of being genuine, and
following standards of conduct which the world has tested.”
Wilson had already understood, our entire society would be left
bloodless, a skeleton, as incapable as the rusty demise of broken
Trump presidency is merely the most debilitating symptom of
a much deeper pathology. The nation’s underlying disease
is a far-reaching unwillingness to think seriously. Left unchallenged
at this rudimentary level, such reluctance could quickly transform
into the finely-lacquered corpse of a once promising American
luck, the Trump presidency will end without catastrophic nuclear
war, but even that happy ending would represent little more
than a temporary reprieve.
citizens begin to work much harder at changing their society's
stunningly deep indifference to intellect and reason, they will
recurrently face the dreadful kinds of metamorphoses that Danish
philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously termed a "sickness
unto death." The real work for Americans must not begin
with politics directly – as all politics are epiphenomenal
– but with a distinctly more resolute ‘fixing’
of our individual selves.