Connect with us

Americas

Politics as Reflection: Even in an Election Year, Real Change Must Come From “Below”

Published

on

“What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another, of seeking justification always on the same plane?”-Samuel Beckett, Endgame

Again and again, in vain, Americans seek progress in politics.  But as really ought to have been learned at this point, ritualistic elections can never save the United States. Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, no president or congress can ever halt the corrosive withering of heart, body and mind that now so plainly afflicts the beleaguered nation.

 Here are some pertinent details. No matter how well intentioned and capable, whether Democrat or Republican,  a  US president’s proposed “rescue program” can only tinker at the edges of what is important. Naturally, there can always be various recognizable increments of apparent progress, but nothing that could overcome America’s growing indifference to meaningful education. If truth be candidly told, the glaring detachment of America’s current president from even a modicum of historical or scientific knowledge accrues to his political benefit.

Ironically, this detachment represents anything but a political liability.

Rather, it is a resounding political plus.

Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosophers, “I believe because it is absurd.”  Today, in the United States and elsewhere, revealed ignorance has  become a tangible political asset. There is nothing intentionally “cute” or obnoxious about offering such a distressing observation about politics and “mind.”  

It is simply correct.

We should begin at the beginning. Every human society represents the sum total of individual souls seeking some form or other of “redemption.”[1] Ultimately, these searching souls must be mended “at the source,” that is, at the crucially core levels of individual human learning and personal transformation.

These souls can never be  “saved”  by narrowly self-serving institutions of any government or politics.

Never.

It’s not complicated. Like certain others, Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly false that even their most sincere melancholy is wanton and contrived. Wallowing in the mutually-reinforcing twilights of submission and conformance, the people have strayed far from any ordinary expectations of serious learning.

In essence, without any real or compelling reasons, Americans have freely abandoned the once-residual elements of Jeffersonian good citizenship.

In consequence, together with the unceasing connivance of charlatans and fools, a lonely American crowd now hides without shame from even its most accurate kinds of reflection.

There will be a price to pay. Any society so clearly willing to abjure its obligations toward dignified learning – toward what American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once called “high thinking” – is one that should never reasonably expect to endure. What else ought we to expect from a society that elects a president who reads nothing, absolutely nothing at all, and who then affirms with wholly undiminished pride: “I love the poorly educated?”[2]

Today, in the United States, the evidence of abject surrender to “mass” (the term embraced by the great Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset and Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung);  to “herd” (the word favored by German/Swiss philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud[3]); or “crowd” (the choice of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) is everywhere to be detected. Resigned, at best, to an orchestrated future of dreary work and civilizational mediocrity, Americans too often lurch foolishly from one forfeiture to the next. Now, the people  remain oddly content to wage rancorous culture wars between ideological groupings.

At the same time, treating all formal education as a narrowly instrumental obligation (“one should get better educated in order to get a better paying job”), Americans very easily accept flagrantly empty witticisms as profundities (“We will build a beautiful wall;” “Barbed wire can be beautiful;” “The moon is part of Mars;” etc.), and then consult challenging ideas only rarely.

Always, the dire result is more-or-less predictable; that is, a finely trained work force that manages to get the particular job done, but displays (simultaneously) nary a hint of  learning, compassion or worthwhile human understanding.

One never hears of any literary, artistic or cultural presence in the Trump White House, unless we should be willing to count the president’s rapper meeting with Kanye West or the humiliating appearance of Duck Dynasty as main “speaker” at Trump’s 2016 Republican Convention .

Credo quia absurdum.  Every sham can have a reinforcing patina. This president who has never even glanced at the US Constitution, might well be re-elected. How shall this glaring contradiction be explained?

Whatever the answer, The American people should never express surprise at the breadth and depth of their present and still-impending national failures. Within the currently celebrated hierarchy of collective American  values, we may conclude, and without any hesitation, “You are what you buy.” Plausibly, without ever-more frenzied buying (aka the “retail sector”), our stock markets (together with all others) could soon find themselves in irreversible peril.

What this means, inter alia, is that American economic progress is contingent upon a ceaseless American willingness to subordinate what is truly important to whatever can readily be purchased.

There is more. In the bitterly fractionated United States, an authentic American individualis now little more than a charming artifact.  Among other things, the nation’s societal “mass,”  more refractory than ever to intellect and learning, still has no discernible intentions of taking itself seriously. To the contrary, an embittered American ‘mass” or “herd” or “crowd” now marches in deferential lockstep, foolishly, toward even-greater patterns of imitation, unhappiness and starkly belligerent incivility.

Incontestably, for Americans, searching self-examinations are fully in order. Already, it is possible for We the people to be lonely in the world or lonely for the world, and – regrettably – an anti-intellectual American mindset has simultaneously spawned both remorseless forms of  lamentation. On the plus side, there is an ascertainable antidote. Before it can be “applied,” however, and before a more harmonized nation can be detached from any such bifurcated loneliness, there will first have to be an “awakening.” The pertinent message of this call to consciousness would be as follows:  A society constructed upon willfully anti-intellectual foundations must inevitably be built upon sand.

Nothing more.

The American future is not hard to fathom. More than likely, whatever might be decided in politics and elections, Americans will continue to be carried forth not by any commendable nobilities of principle or purpose, but instead, by a steady eruption of personal and collective agitation, by endlessly inane candidate repetitions and by the perpetually demeaning primacy of extended public ignorance.  At times, perhaps, We the people may be able to slow down a bit and “smell the roses,”  but their visibly compromised and degraded country now imposes upon its exhausted people the breathless rhythms of a vast and struggling machine.

Much as many might eagerly wish to deny it, the plausible end of this delirium will be to further prevent Americans from remembering who they are and (far more importantly) who they might once still have become.

 What can be done to escape the menacing pendulum of America’s own mad clockwork?  Conveniently, though the country continues to pay lip service to the high ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution  ( no one seriously presumes that the American president has taken even a few minutes to read through these musty old documents), these lofty principles are invoked only for ostentation. For the most part,  Americans now lack any more genuine sources of national cohesion than celebrity sex scandals,  sports team loyalties and the always comforting distractions of war, terrorism and genocide.[4]

Sadly, Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, we harbored a preciously unique potential to nurture individuals, that is, to encourage Americans to become more than a smugly inert mass,  herd or crowd. Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson (also fellow Transcendentalists Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau) described us optimistically as a people animated by industry and “self-reliance.” Now, however, beyond any serious contestation, we are stymied by collective paralysis, capitulation and a starkly Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.”

 Surely, all must eventually acknowledge, there is more to this chanting country than viscerally-driven rallies, tsunamis of hyper-adrenalized commerce or gargantuan waves of abundantly cheap entertainments: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” rhapsodized the American poet Walt Whitman, but today, the American Selfhas devolved into a delicately thin shadow of true national potential. Distressingly, this Self has already become a twisting reflection of a prior authenticity.  Now it is under final assault by far-reaching  societal tastelessness and by a literally epidemic gluttony.

Regarding this expressly gastronomic debility, it’s not that we Americans have become more and more hungry, but rather that we have lost any once residual appetites for real life.

In the end, credulity is America’s worst enemy. The stubborn inclination to believe that wider social and personal redemption must lie somewhere in politics remains a potentially fatal disorder. To be fair, various social and economic issues do need to be coherently addressed by America’s political representatives, but so too must the nation’s deeper problems first be solved as a matter for individuals.

Should Americans continue to live within a hypnotizing cycle of blatantly false expectations, and thereby celebrate the vague and atrophied impulses of a primeval mass instinct, the sole remaining national ambition will be to stay alive. Surely America must be capable of sustaining substantially higher ambitions.

In the end, American politics – like politics everywhere [5]– must remain a second-order activity, a faint reflection of what is truly important. For now, it continues to thrive upon a vast personal emptiness, on an infirmity that is the always-defiling reciprocal of any genuine personal fulfillment. “Conscious of his emptiness,” warns the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in his modern classic Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “man (human) tries to make a faith for himself (or herself) in the political realm. In Vain.”

 Only a rare few can ever redeem themselves and the American nation, but these quiet and self-effacing souls will generally remain hidden, more-or-less in “deep cover,” perhaps even from themselves. Still, America’s imperative redemption as a nation and as a people will never be found among those who chant meaningless gibberish in ritualized political chorus. We shouldn’t seek more fevered political “rallies” in America; we need a population that can take learning[6] and thinking seriously.[7]

A declining civilization compromises with its most threatening afflictions, sometimes shamelessly. To restore the United States to long-term health and “high thinking” – an Emersonian task so daunting that it could sometime become a pretext for society-wide convulsions  – Americans must look beyond their perpetually futile faith in politics. Only when such an indispensable swerve of consciousness can become an impressively conspicuous or even universal gesture – that is, when Americans finally seek their “justifications” on a different plane – can the people hope to heal a splintering and nearly-broken land.


[1] This insightful metaphor is drawn from the writings of Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung.

[2] In a markedly similar vein, warned Joseph Goebbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda: “Intellect rots the brain.”

[3] Sometimes, however, Sigmund Freud used his own version of Nietzsche’s “herd,” which was “horde.” Significantly, perhaps, Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. In essence, he most objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to that country’s “shallow optimism” and its corollary commitment to a crude form of materialism. America, thought Freud, was very evidently “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.

[4] In terms of international law, which remains an integral part of US law, such sources represent, inter alia, a violation of this timeless jurisprudential axiom: “Rights cannot derive from wrongs,” or  Ex injuria jus non oritur. For properly jurisprudential sources of authoritative “incorporation” into US law, see: See especially The Paquete Habana, 175 U.S. 677, 678-79 (1900); The Lola, 175 U.S. 677, 700 (1900); and Tel Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir, 1984).

[5] Nothing in this essay is meant to suggest that the pertinent national failings are in  any way uniquely American. To the contrary, the problem being discussed is presumptively worldwide or “generic.”

[6] See, by this writer, at The Daily Princetonian: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/06/a-core-challenge-of-higher-education

[7] This brings to mind Bertrand Russell’s keen observation in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than anything else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death.”

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.

Continue Reading
Comments

Americas

Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

Published

on

The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

Continue Reading

Americas

Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

Published

on

Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

Continue Reading

Americas

Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

Published

on

When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Trending