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Emptiness and consciousness: Still unseen limits of American politics

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“Conscious of his emptiness, a man tries to make a faith for himself in the political realm. In vain.”-Karl Jaspers, “Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time” (1952)

Nowadays, in the midst of near-perpetual scandal, both Democrats and Republicans are variously criticized for failing to fix a beleaguered country. But America’s core problems are not remediable in politics. By itself, no American government no president, no congress, no promised barrage of “transformative” legislation, no purported investigations can halt the corrosive withering of heart, body, mind and spirit that most deeply imperils these United States.

Indeed, no matter how well intentioned, informed, or generously bipartisan, no proposed rescue program can ever do more than tinker ineffectually at the outer margins of what really matters.

It is plausible, of course, to expect certain auspicious increments of progress from particular statutes and institutions, but nothing that could meaningfully drown out the lamentations of our lonely American “crowd.” Driven almost single-mindedly by considerations of taxation, commerce, and consumption, our system of governance has managed to produce a sorely bitter amalgam of plutocracy and mob rule. Unsurprisingly, our hoped-for national rescue must now lie elsewhere, that is, suitably far beyond the always-secondary spheres of government, law and economics.

“The crowd,” warned Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” Within our current American crowd (Freud would have called it a “horde,” Nietzsche a “herd,” and Jung, a “mass”), loudly proclaimed differences remain essentially beside the point. This is because no purposeful national renewal, let alone a renewed “greatness,” can ever originate from politics. Whether Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative, political behavior is merely what the philosophers and the social scientists would both call a “reflection.”

Unwittingly, perhaps, every society ultimately mirrors the sum total of its constituent human “souls.” These individual souls, seeking some form or another of apt “redemption,” can never be healed by any postures of shallow imitativeness, mass taste, or empty slogans. Before there is any genuine mending of America, there must first take place a proper transformation of its citizenry.

Our pertinent problems here are patently stark, but they are not unfathomable. In fact, it’s not really all that complicated. Briefly put, we Americans timorously inhabit a society so numbingly craven and so openly false that even our visceral melancholy has become contrived.

There is no call here for prescriptions to be offered sotto voce. For societies huddling uneasily at the edges of history and America is quintessentially just such a society emptiness is not whispered or complicated. Always, it radiates in both directions, continuously, from individual to collective, and vice versa.

There is still more necessary detail. Wallowing in the dim twilight of a near-desperate conformance, we the people display infinite forbearance for surface thinking and demeaning amusements. With its so many misdirected resentments, our people still generally hide from the most basic and indispensable affirmations of personal intellect. Now, unambiguously, America actively cultivates a collective posture of anti-reason.

This is an unphilosophical spirit which knows nothing of any real importance, and much more ominously wants to know nothing of any significance.

In time, it becomes a profoundly lethal spirit.

Incontestably, it is today the principal animating ethos of American politics.

Who reads serious books these days? Let us be candid. Virtually none of our national leaders could answer “yes” to this question, and their acknowledged incapacity usually turns out to be a tangible political asset. In other words, most Americans generally loathe any hint or obligation of an intellectual life, and many prefer that their elected political representatives share openly in this conspicuous hatred.

There is more. Although many Americans remain seemingly content with  still-latent hopes or expectations for personal wealth, even the richest among us may actually be deprived. To be sure, while grimly resigned to a dreary future of suffocating banalities and unsatisfying work, even the most “well-off” Americans may lurch thoughtlessly from one personal forfeiture to the next, convinced that erudition creates a needless burden, and that cultivated rancor offers a commendable substitute.

Ironically, certain basic truths in America remain entirely unhidden. Expressed as genre, the “life of the mind” in our distracted country has become a discernibly thin text, one best categorized under a heading of “fiction.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s earlier advice that we Americans should seek “plain living and high thinking” has already been fully reversed, or “turned on its head.” Unassailably, even our best universities are quickly becoming little more than expensive training schools, starkly (and sometimes proudly) bereft of any tangible “higher learning.”

Significantly, the so-called “Trump University” was never an entirely unique or singularly egregious manipulation of traditional intellectual standards. Rather, its plainly grotesque model of “education” was presaged by some of our long-standing and more genuinely authentic universities. In fact, it is not uncommon today for even the most elite educational institutions to cheerfully exchange academic legitimacy for promises of cash on the barrelhead.

Despite increasingly widespread calls for “diversity,” our national landscape is largely homogeneous on certain core matters of a deeper significance. Wherever one looks, we the people are no longer motivated by much of any enduring human value. Generally, for example, we don’t look for equanimity or balance as a healing counterpoint to distressingly frenetic lives. Instead, we search constantly and vainly for expanding opportunities to buy into an unsatisfying life of narrow imitation, one dedicated to assorted empty pleasures and easily-available chemical diversions.

To wit, tens of millions of our more-or-less exhausted citizens now consume enough alcohol and drugs to suffocate any still-lingering wisdom and to drown out whole oceans of sacred poetry.

Still, not everything is obvious. There are some distinctly consequential intellectual nuances to our dilemma. Accordingly, it is possible for we the people to be lonely in the world, or lonely for the world. Somehow, however, our leveling mass culture has managed to produce both kinds of loneliness.

Looking ahead, before a more noble and generous America can be born from any such bifurcated loneliness, we will first have to learn to look diligently beneath the news.

For the moment, whatever is being decided in politics, we Americans will be carried forth not by any identifiable nobility of “high thinking and plain living,” but instead by sorrowful eruptions of private fear and collective agitation. At times, we the people may wish to slow down a bit and smell the roses, but our increasingly battered and battering country will likely still impose upon us the hideously merciless rhythms of a grinding and unstoppable machine. Among other things, the expected end of all this breathless delirium could keep us from remembering who we once were, and, even more importantly, who we once might have become.

If politics can never save us, where then shall we turn? What, if anything, can be done to escape the pendulum of our own mad national clockwork? We routinely pay lip service to the high ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution, but almost no one truly cares about these musty old documents. Invoked only for effect or ostentation, the legal and philosophical foundations of the United States have already become the insignificant province of a tiny and grievously irrelevant minority.

It didn’t always have to be this way. In fact, we Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, we possessed a commendably unique potential to nurture individuals to become more than just cogs in a compliant machine. Emerson, after all, had described us optimistically as a people guided  by industry and “self-reliance.”

Now, however, our true motivators lie more obviously in “fitting in,” in anger, in greed, in fear, and in a perpetual trembling.

In spite of an insistently proud claim to “rugged individualism,” we Americans are shaped most decisively by the mass. As visible manifestations, our fragmented and inelegant society positively bristles with annoying jingles, coarse hucksterism, infantile allusions, and telltale equivocations. Surely, we must soon inquire: Isn’t there anything more to this noisy and suffocating country than an illiterate politics, raw commerce and hideously cheap entertainments?

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” said the poet Walt Whitman, but today the American Self is under steady assault by a vast and rancorous mediocrity, and also by a literally epidemic gluttony.

In the end, credulity remains America’s worst enemy. Our still willing inclination to believe that personal and societal redemption can somehow lie in politics describes a potentially fatal disorder. To be sure, many critical social and economic issues do need to be addressed further by our government, but so too must our deeper problems be solved at the “molecular” or exquisitely personal human level.

In the end, this is the only level of any real change and transformation, a level that is not a mere reflection.

Always, in such matters, history deserves a cherished pride of place. A threatened civilization too often compromises with its underlying afflictions. To restore us, as a nation, to long-term health and real potential, we the people must first learn to look usefully beyond a perpetually futile faith in politics.

It is only when such a gainful swerve of consciousness can become a fully irreversible gesture only when we finally choose to acknowledge the critically vital correlations between individual human growth, intellectual examination and societal harmony that we Americans can reasonably hope to mend an otherwise “empty” nation.

Author’s note: This essay first appeared in The Daily Princetonian, Princeton University, where the author was educated. Republished under his permission.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Americas

In Praise of the Lioness of Law: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her Jurisprudence

Punsara Amarasinghe

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image credit: Wikipedia

The death of the US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg has created an abyss in the court for the liberal voice where justice Ginsburg was seen as the linchpin of the liberal block of the Supreme Court at a time when that block was shrinking. Especially late judge had vociferously advocated for women ‘rights, environmental issues and often came up with unique dissents in delivering her judgements which were propelled by her jurisprudence which embodied the solemn ideal in American legal system “Equal Protection under the Law “. She was on a quest to defend the delicate balance between honoring the timelessness of American Constitution and recognizing the depth of its enduring principles in new centuries and under new circumstances.

She grew up in an era where men held the helm in every aspect of social life and especially the legal profession was utterly dominated by men. Recalling her legal studies at Harvard law school in the 50’s judge Ginsburg had stated later how she was once asked by the Dean of Harvard law school to justify her position as a law student that otherwise would have gone to a man. Yet she had the spunk to overcome all the obstacles stood on her way and excelled as a scholar becoming the first female member of the Harvard Law Review.

In tracing her legal career that it becomes a salient fact, Judge Ginsburg marked her name in American legal history even decades before she joined the bench. While at the American Civil Liberties Union in the early seventies she made an upheaval in American in legal system in famous Supreme Court Case Reed Vs Reed. In Reed Vs Reed the brief drafted by Ginsburg provided an astute analysis on the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause. Ginsburg’s brief changed the aged long practice existed in the State of Idaho on favoring men over women in estate battles by paving the path for a discourse on gender equality rights in the USA.

Judge Ginsburg’s appointment to the Supreme Court in 1994 during Clinton administration marked the dawn of new jurisprudential chapter in the US Supreme Court. Two terms later, in the United States v. Virginia (VMI), Justice Ginsburg applied her lucid perspective to a sharply disputed constitutional claim. The United States challenged Virginia’s practice of admitting only men to its prestigious military college, the Virginia Military Institute. Writing for six Justices, Ginsburg held this policy unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. In reaching this result, Ginsburg adroitly cut away potentially confounding issues about women’s participation in the military or the advantages of single-sex education.

Her robust activism in securing gender equality often attracted the admirations of the feminist scholars and activists, but it should be noted that her contribution was not only confined to the protection of gender equality. She was a robust critique of racial dissemination which still pervades in American society and she frequently pointed out how racial discrimination has marred the constitutional protections guaranteed to every citizen. Especially in the case of Gratz Vs Bollitnger, she stressed on the commitment that the state ought to fulfil by eliminating the racial biases existing employment and education. Moreover, disabled citizens. In Olmstead v. Zimring, she held that “unjustified institutional isolation of persons with disabilities is a form of discrimination” violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.45 She elaborated a two-fold concept of discrimination, noting that unneeded institutionalization both “perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life”.

In remembering the mortal departure of this prudent judge that one cannot forget her keenness in incorporating international law into her judgements regardless of the disinclination shown by conservative judges like Antony Scalia. Going beyond the mere textualism approach to the law, Ginsburg’s jurisprudence was much more akin to using international law to make substantive decisions. For instance, in her concurring verdict in Grutter Vs Bollinger, Justice Ginsburg relied upon international human rights law, and in particular upon two United Nations conventions, to support her conclusions.

Indeed, the demise of Ruth Ginsburg is a major blow for the liberalists in the USA, especially in an era where liberalist values are at stake under the fervent rise of populist waves propounded by Donald Trump. Especially late judge had been one of the harsh critics of Trump even before ascendency to the Oval office. The void created by the demise of judge Ginsburg might change the role the US Supreme Court if the successor to her position would take a more conservative approach and it will fortify the conservative bloc in the US Supreme Court. Trump has already placed Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and the third pick would more deeply entrench the conservative views in the US Supreme Court, which would inevitably undermine the progressive policies taken during Obama’s administration towards issues such as the environment. The political storm appeared after the death of the late judge has already created a tense situation in US politics as president Trump is determined to appoint a judge to fill before the presidential election in November.

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The Politics of (In)security in Mexico: Between Narcissism and Political Failure

Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza

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Image credit: Wikimedia

Security cannot be that easily separated from the political realm. The need for security is the prime reason why people come together to collectively form a state. Providing security is, therefore, one of the most basic functions of the state as a political and collective entity.

Last Friday, the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) laughed during his daily morning press briefings over a national newspaper headline about 45 massacres during his presidency. This attitude summarises in a macabre way his approach to insecurity: it is not his top priority. This is not the first time that AMLO has showed some serious and deeply disturbing lack of empathy for victims of crimes. Before taking office, he knew that insecurity was one of Mexico’s biggest challenges, and he has come to realise that curbing it down will not be as simple as he predicted during his presidential campaign.

Since the start of the War on Drugs in 2006, Mexico has sunk into a deep and ever-growing spiral of violence and vigilantism as a result of the erosion of the capacity of the state to provide safety to citizens. Vigilantism is when citizens decide to take the law into their own hands in order to fill the vacuum left by the state, or to pursue their own very particular interests. Guerrero, Michoacán, Morelos, Tabasco, Tamaulipas and Veracruz have over 50 vigilante organisations that pose substantial danger to the power of the state.

Vigilantism is not the only factor exacerbating the security crisis in Mexico: since 2006, young people have also started to join drug cartels and other criminal organisations. There are important sectors of the population who feel that the state has failed to represent them. They also feel betrayed because the state has not been able to provide them with the necessary means to better themselves. These frustrations make them vulnerable to the indoctrination of organised crime gangs who promise to give them some sort of ideological direction and solution to their problems.

As a result, it is not enough to carry out a kingpin arrest strategy and to preach on the moral duties we have as citizens as well as on human dignity. People need to be given enough means to find alternative livelihoods that are attractive enough to take them out of organised crime, Mexico can draw some important lessons from Sierra Leone who successfully demobilised and resettled ex-combatants after the armed conflict. Vigilantism, recruitment by organised crime, and insecurity have also flourished because of a lack of deterrence. The judicial system is weak and highly ineffective. A large proportion of the population does not trust the police, or the institutions in charge of the rule of law.

A long-term strategy requires linking security with politics. It needs to address not only the consequences but also the roots of unemployment and deep inequality. However, doing so requires decisive actions to root out widespread and vicious corruption. Corruption allows concentration of wealth and also prevents people from being held accountable. This perpetuates the circle of insecurity. Mexico has been slowly moving towards a borderline failed state. The current government is starting to lose legitimacy and the fragility of the state is further perpetuated by the undemocratic, and predatory governance of the current administration.

Creating a safer Mexico requires a strong, coherent, and stable leadership, AMLO’s administration is far from it. His popularity has consistently fallen as a result of his ineffective policies to tackle the pandemic, worsening insecurity, and the economic crisis. Mexico has reached over 72,000 Covid-19 deaths; during his initial 20 months as incumbent president, there has been 53,628 murders, among them 1800 children or teenagers, and 5888 women (11 women killed per day) This criminality rate is double than what it was during the same period in the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012); and 55% higher than with the last president, Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018). Mexico is also experiencing its worst economic recession in 90 years.

Insecurity remains as the issue of most concern among Mexicans, seeing the president laughing about it, can only fill citizens with yet more despair and lack of trusts in the government and its institutions. AMLO’s catastrophic performance is not surprising, though. Much of his failures and shortcomings can be explained by both ideology and a narcissistic personality. Having someone with both of those traits ruling a country under normal, peaceful times is already dangerous enough, add an economic crisis and a pandemic to the mix and the result is utter chaos.

AMLO embodies the prototypical narcissist: he has a grandiose self-image; an inflated ego; a constant need for admiration; and intolerance to criticism. He, like many other narcissists, thinks about himself too much and too often, making him incapable of considering the wellbeing of other and unable to pursue the public interest. He has a scapegoat ready to blame for his failures and mistakes: previous administrations, conservatives, neoliberalism, academics, writers, intellectuals, reporters, scientists, you name it, the list is long and keeps getting longer.

AMLO keeps contradicting himself and he does not realise it. He has been claiming for months that the pandemic is under control: it is not. He declares Mexico is ready to face the pandemic and we have enough tests and medical equipment: we do not. He says Mexico is on its way to economic recovery: it is not. He states corruption is a thing of the past: it is not. He says Mexico is now safer than ever before: it is not. When told the opposite he shrugs criticism off and laughs, the behaviour of a typical narcissist.

AMLO, alike narcissists, due to his inability to face criticism, has never cared about surrounding himself by the best and brightest. He chose a bunch of flunkies as members of his cabinet who try to please and not humiliate their leader. A further trait of narcissistic personalities is that they love conflict and division as this keeps them under control. The more destabilisation and antagonism, the better. AMLO since the start of his presidency has been setting states against states for resources and for pandemic responses, instead of coordinating a national response. He is also vindictive: playing favourites with those governors who follow him and punishing those that oppose him.

Deep down, narcissistic leaders are weak. AMLO is genuinely afraid to lead. He simply cannot bring himself to make decisions that are solely his. This is why he has relied on public referendums and consultations to cancel projects or advance legislation. He will not take any responsibility if something goes wrong: It was not him who decided, it was the people, blame them. He inherited a broken system that cannot be fixed during his term, blame the previous administrations, not him.

AMLO is a prime example of a textbook narcissist, unfortunately he is not the only one: Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Recep Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte are only a few more examples of what seems to be a normalised behaviour in contemporary politics. Every aspect of AMLO’s and other leaders presidencies have been heavily marked by their psychopathology. Narcissism, however, does not allow proper and realistic self-assessment, self-criticism, and self-appreciation therefore such leaders will simply ignore the red flags in their administration and have no clue how despicably and disgracefully they will be remembered.

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Minor Successes And The Coronavirus Disaster: Is Trump A Dead Duck?

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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That reminder from the Bible, ‘He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone’ may give us pause — but not journalists who by all appearances assume exemption.  And the stones certainly bruise.

Evidence for the bruises lies in the latest poll numbers.  Overall, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump 50 to 43 percent, a margin that has continued to increase since January.  It is also considerably wider than the few points lead Hillary Clinton had over Trump four years ago.  It gets worse for Trump. 

In the industrial states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Trump in 2016 won by razor thin margins, he is losing by over 4 percent.  Also key to his victory was Wisconsin where, despite his success in getting dairy products into Canada, he is behind by a substantial 7 percent.  Key states Ohio and Florida are also going for the Democrats.

Trump was not doing so badly until the coronavirus struck and during the course of his news conferences he displayed an uncaring persona larded with incompetence.  Dr. Anthony Fauci, the man he fired for correcting Trumpian exaggerations became a hero and Trump the bully.

If that bullying nature won him small rewards with allies, he hit an impasse with China and Iran … while bringing the two closer to each other.  Then there is the border wall, a sore point for our southern neighbor Mexico.  President Lopez Obrador made sure the subject never came up at the July meeting with Trump,   Thus Mexico is not paying for it so far and will not be in the foreseeable future.

The United Arab Emirates, a conglomeration of what used to be the Trucial States under British hegemony. have agreed to formalize its already fairly close relations with Israel.  In return, Israel has postponed plans to annex the West Bank.  Whether or not it is in Israel’s long term interest to do so is a debatable question because it provides much more powerful ammunition to its critics who already accuse it of becoming an apartheid regime.  However, it had become Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sop to the right wing who will have to wait.  Of course, the reality is that Israel is already the de facto ruler.

If Mr. Trump was crowing about the agreement signed on September 15, although it is akin to someone signing an agreement with Puerto Rico while the United States remains aloof.  As a postscript, the little island of Bahrain also signed a peace deal with Israel.  Bahrain has had its own problems in that a Sunni sheikh rules a Shia populace.  When the Shia had had enough, Saudi and UAE troops were used to end the rebellion.  Bahrain is thus indebted to the UAE.

How many among voters will know the real value of these historic (according to Trump) deals particularly when he starts twittering his accomplishments as the election nears?

There things stand.  As they say, there is nothing worse than peaking too early.  Bettors are still favoring Trump with their money.  The longer anyone has been in politics the more there is to mine, and for an opponent to use to his/her advantage.  Time it seems is on Trump’s side.  

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