what do we do now?
LARGER LESSONS FROM THE PANDEMIC
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). This essay first appeared in www.moderndiplomacy.eu
enemy is the unphilosophical spirit
which knows nothing
and wants to know nothing of truth.
Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1971)
survive and prosper after Covid-19 – a pandemic with pertinent
political as well as biological origins – will require
both courage and reason. There is nothing new or insightful
about such a prescription; nonetheless, it is well worth reiterating.
After all, despite its apparent obviousness, useful recommendations
for seeking integrity and rationality in public affairs are
is hardly a contestable proposition.
is more. In these starkly vital security matters, at least one
thing is certain. Before this two-part requirement can actually
be met, more will be needed than perpetually transient changes
in American politics. Though still generally unacknowledged,
the political sphere of human change is always epiphenomenal,
in the United States and everywhere else. Always, it offers
only an imperfect reflection of what lies far more meaningfully
matters most in all such dauntingly complex circumstances is
an underlying willingness to seek what is best for the entire
polity and its corresponding society.
the United State this rudimentary lesson has never been learned.
Now, yet again, we seek some sort of idealized “change”
in the upcoming presidential election. But sans a courageous
and thinking electorate, this latest search will represent just
another visceral exercise in misunderstanding and futility.
And all this despite a now primary obligation to rid the United
States of a grimly corrosive and starkly injurious president.
lessons are plain. Left unmet, the conjoined obligations of
courage and intellect could signal not only extended disease
pandemics, but also nuclear terrorism and/or nuclear war. Like
any genuinely terminal disease, the only “cure”
for such unprecedented political violence must lie in prevention.
grievously destructive prospects of terror-violence and war
are not in any way inconceivable. Nor are they necessarily mutually
exclusive, of each other or of any ongoing disease pandemic.
In an absolutely worst case scenario, these sorts of extreme
human aggressions would intersect with assorted biological aggressions
and economic crises, perhaps to the point of becoming synergistic.
By definition, in that hard-to-face kind of interaction, the
“whole” of any insidious effects would exceed the
arithmetic sum of its myriad “parts.”
is even more here to consider. Still lacking both courage and
intellectual commitment or mind, we the people of the United
States ought not express surprise or incredulity at the sheer
breadth of our collective failures, staggering by any measure,
whether past, present or future. Over too many years, the casually
seductive requirements of wealth and “success” were
allowed to become the presumptive foundation of America’s
economy and society. Although seemingly plausible pillars of
national reassurance, these requirements have turned out to
be very high-cost delusions.
essence, over these many years, American well-being and “democracy”
have sprung from a self-defeating posture of engineered consumption.
In this wrongheaded derivation, our core marching instructions
have remained clear: “You are what you buy.” It
follows from such persistent misdirection that the country’s
ever-growing political scandals and failures are the predictable
product of a society where anti-intellectual (Jaspers’
“anti-reason”) and unheroic lives are actively encouraged
and even taken for granted. More insidiously, these dreadfully
unambitious lives are measured not by any rational criteria
of mind and spirit, but dolefully, mechanically, absent commendable
purpose and without “collective will.”
There is more. What most meaningfully animates American politics
today is not a valid interest in progress, but rather a steadily-escalating
fear of personal defeat and private insignificance. Though most
readily apparent at the presidential level, such insignificance
can also be experienced collectively, by an entire nation. Either
way, its precise locus of origin concerns certain deeply-felt
human anxieties about not being valued; that is, about not being
“wanted at all.”
For any national rescue to become serious, unblemished candour
must first prevail. Now, ground down by the hammering babble
of pundits and politicos, we the people are only rarely motivated
by any elements of insight or courage. To wit, we are just now
learning to understand that our badly injured Constitution
is subject to dissembling increments of abrogation by an evidently
impaired head of state who “loves the poorly educated,”
who proudly reads nothing at all, and who yearns openly not
to serve his country, but to expand its fractionation and be
gratifyingly served by its suffocating citizens.
brief, this president openly abhors genuinely challenging thought
and wants desperately to be an emperor. For the United States,
it is a lethal and unforgivable combination.
is more. To understand the full horrors of both the Corona virus
and Trump presidency declensions, we must first look soberly
behind the news. Accordingly, in these United States, a willing-to-think
individual is now little more than a quaint artifact of some
previously-lived or previously-imagined history. At present,
more refractory than ever to courage, intellect and learning,
our American mass society displays no decipherable intentions
of ever taking itself seriously.
“Headpieces filled with straw . . . ,” is the way
poet T S Eliot would have characterized present-day American
society. He would have observed, further, an embittered American
herd marching insistently backward, cheerlessly, too often incoherent,
and in dutiful but pitiful lockstep toward ever-greater levels
of serious illness and unhappiness.
next for the imperiled American Republic? We the people may
wish to slow down and smell the roses, but our self-battering
country now imposes upon its exhausted people the breathless
rhythm of some vast machine. Before Covid-19, we witnessed,
each day, an endless line of trains, planes and automobiles,
transporting weary Americans to yet another robotic workday,
a day too-often bereft of any pleasure or reward , possibly
even of any hope itself. Now the economy has been largely shut
down, perhaps irremediably, and we the people are even forced
to yearn for prior levels of hopelessness. The ironies here
are staggering, and sorely discomfiting.
it possibly get any worse than this?
now, we the people have lacked any dignifying sources of national
cohesion except for celebrity sex scandals, local sports team
loyalties and the comforting but self-perpetuating brotherhoods
of war. As for the more than seven million people stacked cheek
to jowl in our medieval prisons, increasingly infected by the
Corona virus, two-thirds of those released will return promptly
or slowly to crime and mayhem. At the same time, the most senior
and recognizable white collar criminals – essentially,
those who have transformed personal cowardice into a religion
– look forward to Trump presidential pardons.
can do so with real confidence.
quia absurdum. “I believe because it is absurd,”
said the ancient philosophers. Why?
we Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different.
Once we displayed unique potential to nurture individuals to
become more than just a “crowd.” Then, Ralph Waldo
Emerson had described us as a people animated by industry and
self-reliance, not paralysis, fear and trembling. Friedrich
Nietzsche would have urged that Americans “learn to live
upon mountains” (that is, to become willfully thinking
individuals), but today an entire nation remains grudgingly
content with the very tiniest of elevations. In Zarathustra,
Nietzsche warned civilizations never to seek a “higher
man” in the” market place,” but that is precisely
where America discovered master-of-ceremonies Donald J. Trump.
was, after all, seemingly very rich. How then could he possibly
not be both smart and virtuous? As Reb Tevye famously remarks
in Fiddler on the Roof, “If you’re rich
they think you really know.”
the true enemy faced by the United States is still 'We the People.'
Accordingly, as we may learn from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra:
“The worst enemy you can encounter will always be you,
yourself; you will lie in wait for yourself in caves and woods.”
And so we remain today, poised fixedly against ourselves and
our survival, in the midst of an unprecedented biological crisis
nurtured by multiple US presidential policy forfeitures.
line? In spite of our proudly clichéd claim to “rugged
individualism,” we Americans are shaped by harshly demeaning
patterns of cowardly conformance. Literally amusing ourselves
to death with illiterate and cheap entertainments, our endangered
society fairly bristles with annoying jingles, insistent hucksterism,
crass allusions and telltale equivocations. Surely, we ought
finally inquire: Isn’t there more to this suffering country
than abjured learning, endless imitation and expansively crude
commerce? However we might choose to answer, the actual options
are plainly and increasingly limited.
is more. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,”
observed the poet Walt Whitman, but today the American Selfis
generally created by stupefying kinds of “education,”
by far-reaching patterns of tastelessness and by a pervasive
culture of unceasing rancour and gratuitous obscenity.
fact, only a rare 'few' can ever redeem courage and intellect
in America, and these quiet souls typically remain hidden, even
from themselves. You will not see them engaged in frenetic and
agitated self-advertisement, whether to maintain control over
a deeply-corrupted White House or to capture it for themselves
in the next election. To be sure, our necessary redemption as
a people can never be found among the crowd, or mass, or herd
or horde. There is a correct way to fix our fractionating country,
but not while we the people insistently inhabit pre-packaged
ideologies of anti-thinkers, that is, by rote, without mind
and without integrity.
Going forward, inter alia, we must insist upon expanding
the sovereignty of a newly courageous and virtuous citizenry.
In this immense task, very basic changes will first be needed
at the individual human level. Following the German Romantic
poet Novalis’ idea that to become a human being is essentially
an art (“Mensch werden ist eine Kinst“),
the Swiss-German author/philosopher Hermann Hesse reminds us
that every society is a reflection of unique individuals. In
this important regard, Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung goes
even further, claiming, in The Undiscovered Self (1957),
that every society represents “the sum total of individual
souls seeking redemption.”
Looking to both history and logic, it would be easy to conclude
that this monumental task of intellectual and moral reconstruction
lies beyond our normal human capacities. Nonetheless, to accede
to such a relentlessly fatalistic conclusion would be tantamount
to collective surrender. But this would be unconscionable. Far
better for the citizens of a sorely imperilled United States
to grasp for any residual sources of national and international
unity, and exploit this universal font for national and international
of course, this universal and unifying source for an indispensable
coming-together is the worldwide Corona virus and its palpably
unspeakable harms. Sometimes, out of a commonly-faced horror,
humankind can turn tragedy into gain, and build something unique,
welcoming and durable. This is potentially just such an ironic
but promising transformative moment, but only if it is first
duly recognized and suitably exploited.