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American Democracy and “The Barbarism of Specialisation”

Jose Ortega y' Gasset
Prof. Louis René Beres

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“The specialist ‘knows’ very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest.”-Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (1930)

It has been almost one hundred years since Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset  published The Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas, 1930). A prescient indictment of anti-Reason, and an immediate forerunner of modern classical works by German scholars Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers,[1] Ortega was most plainly concerned about Europe’s growing fragmentation of learning. Witnessing a world rapidly abandoning the traditional goal of  broadly-educated or “whole” human beings, he worried about a future in which there would be more capable scientists than ever before, but where these scientists were otherwise unexceptional and without any wider embrace of erudition.

                These observations were seminal. Among other things, the prophetic philosopher foresaw “educated” societies in which even the proud holders of impressive university degrees were “conscientiously ignorant” of everything outside their own vocational bailiwicks. In essence, Ortega had anticipated the present-day United States. Here, even in an oft-vaunted “advanced society,” the most exquisitely trained physicians, lawyers, accountants and engineers generally reason at the same limiting level of analysis as technicians, carpenters or lightly schooled office workers.

               In large part, this is because “professional” education in the United States has effectively superseded everything that does not ostentatiously focus on making money. The adverb here is vital in this description, because the overriding lure of wealth in America remains the presumed admiration it can elicit from others. As we ought already to have learned from Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759): “The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world….At the thought of this, his heart seems to swell and dilate itself within him, and he is fonder of his wealth, upon this account, than for all the other advantages it procures him.”[2]

               Almost by definition, any American concerns for intellectual or historical issues per se have become extraneous. This does not mean, however, that our strenuous national efforts at improving professional education  have been successful  or productive. On the contrary, as we witness the multiple daily technical failures of American democracy – e.g. the all-too evident incapacity of our ballot calculating technologies to keep abreast of shifting vote-counting modalities – this beleaguered polity is failing on multiple fronts.

               For many reasons, many of them overlapping, this has been a lamentable retrogression. Above all, it has impaired this country’s capacity to sustain an enviable or even minimally credible democracy. Though Thomas Jefferson had already understood that proper human governance requires a purposeful acquaintance with historical and sociological learning, Americans now inhabit a country where the president can say unashamedly, “I love the poorly educated.” Significantly, this perverse preference of Donald J. Trump did not emerge ex nihilo, out of nothing.

               It is a portentous but credible echo of Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels: “Intellect rots the brain.”[3]

               Ortega y’Gasset had a specific name for this generally defiling intellectual deformation. More exactly, he called it “The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation.”[4] Earlier, and in somewhat similar fashion, Friedrich  Nietzsche wrote about the “educated philistine.”[5] Both Ortega and Nietzsche recognized the irony that a society could become progressively better educated in various sub-fields of human knowledge and yet, simultaneously, become less and less cultured, less and less truly civilized.[6] In this regard, the German philosopher placed appropriate conceptual blame on what he preferred to call the “herd.”[7] For his part, the kindred Spanish thinker cast his particular indictment on the “mass.”

               Whatever the terminological differences, both sets of ideas were centered on the same basic critique; that is, that individuals had been casting aside the necessary obligation to think for themselves, and had, thereby, surrendered indispensable analytic judgments to “crowds.”[8]

               Today, both ideas can shed some useful light on American democracy, a system of governance under increasing assault by US President Donald J. Trump.        To the extent that American education has become rampantly vocational – that is, oriented toward more and more “pragmatic” kinds of specialization – the wisdom of Ortega y’Gasset and others is worth probing with ever-increasing care. Moreover, the corrosively “barbarous” impact of  specialization foreseen earlier by philosophers is now magnified by the injurious effects of worldwide disease pandemic. 

               Without doubt, this unwelcome magnification will need to be countered if American democracy is able merely to survive.[9]

               But analysis should begin at the beginning. Inter alia, it is a discomfiting beginning. Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly fragmented and rancorous that even their most sincere melancholy is seemingly contrived. Wallowing in the mutually-reinforcing twilights of submission and conformance, We the people have strayed dangerously far from any meaningful standards of serious learning. In consequence, though still a nation with extraordinary scientific, medical and commercial successes, the American public is often ill-equipped to judge candidates for  high political office.[10]

               As we have seen, utterly ill-equipped.

               Surveying ever-mounting damages of the Trump presidency,[11] some of which are synergistic or “force multiplying,” could anything be more apparent?

                The grievously baneful selection of Donald J. Trump in 2016 was anything but a cultural aberration.  It was, rather, the plausible outcome of an electorate relentlessly driven and even defined by “mass.” Without any real or compelling reasons, voting Americans freely abandoned the once-residual elements of Jeffersonian good citizenship.

               Together with the unceasing connivance of assorted criminals, charlatans and fools, many of them occupants of the present US Government’s most senior positions, a lonely American mass now bears core responsibility for allowing the demise of a once- enviable democratic ethos. To expect any sudden improvements to emerge from among this homogenized mass (e.g., by continuously making the citizens more particularly aware of this president’s manifold derelictions) would be to  overestimate its inclinations.  Though truth is always exculpatory, there are times when it yields to various forms of self-delusion.

               “What the mass once learned to believe without reasons,” queries Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “who could ever overthrow with reasons?”

               There will be a heavy price to pay for America’s still-expanding ascendancy of mass. Any society so willing to abjure its rudimentary obligations toward dignified learning – toward what American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson had once called “high thinking” – is one that should never reasonably expect to survive.[12]

                There is more. Treating formal education as a narrowly instrumental obligation (“one should get better educated in order to get a better paying job”), Americans now more easily accept flagrantly empty witticisms as profundities (“We will build a beautiful wall;” “Barbed wire can be beautiful;” “The moon is part of Mars;”  “Testing for corona virus only increases disease;” “Just one percent of Covid19 victims have symptoms,” etc., etc), and consult genuinely challenging ideas only rarely.

               Always, the dire result of anti-Reason is more-or-less predictable; that is, a finely trained work force that manages to get a particular “job” done, but displays (simultaneously) nary a hint of  worthwhile learning, commendable human understanding or simple compassion. Concerning this last absence, empathy is not directly related to the “barbarisms of specialization,” but it does generally exhibit some tangible nurturance from literature, art and/or “culture.” Incontestably, the Trump White House is not “only” indifferent to basic human rights and public welfare,[13] it quite literally elevates personal animus to highest possible significations.

               This is especially marked where such animus is most thoroughly pedestrian.

               Intentionally mispronouncing the Democrat vice-presidential candidate’s first name is a small but glaring example of Donald Trump’s selected level of competitive political discourse. By its very nature, of course, this demeaning level is better suited to a first-grade elementary school classroom.

               There are even much wider ramifications of gratuitous rancor. When transposed to the vital arena of international relations, this president’s elevation of belligerent nationalism has a long and persistently unsuccessful history as Realpolitik or power politics.[14] Thinking himself clever, Donald Trump champions “America First” (the phrase resonates with those, like the president himself, who have no knowledge of history),but fails to realize that this peculiarly shameful resurrection of “Deutschland uber alles” can lead only to massive defeat and unparalleled despair.

               “I loathe, therefore I am,” could well become Donald J. Trump’s “revised” version  of  René Descartes “Cogito.”[15] Following Descartes, Sigmund Freud had understood that all human beings could somehow be motivated toward creating a “spontaneous sympathy of souls,” but America’s Donald Trump has quite expansively reversed this objective. Reinforced by the rampant vocationalism of this country’s education system, Trump has consistently urged citizens to turn against one another, and for no dignified, defensible or science-based reasons. In absolutely all cases, these grotesque urgings have had no meritorious or higher purpose.

               Instead, they remain utterly and viciously contrived.

               In the bitterly fractionated Trump-era United States, an authentic American individualhas become little more than a charming artifact.  Among other things, the nation’s societal “mass,”  more refractory than ever to intellect and learning, still displays no discernible intentions of ever taking itself seriously. To the contrary, an embittered American ‘mass” now marches in deferential lockstep, foolishly, without thought, toward even-greater patterns of imitation, unhappiness and starkly belligerent incivility.

               All things considered, the American future is not hard to fathom. More than likely, whatever might be decided in upcoming politics and elections, Americans will continue to be carried forth not by any commendable nobilities of principle or purpose, but by steady eruptions of personal and collective agitation, by endlessly inane presidential repetitions and by the perpetually demeaning primacy of a duly “sanctified” public ignorance.  At times, perhaps, We the people may still be able to slow down a bit and “smell the roses,”  but this is doubtful.

               Plainly, our visibly compromised and degraded country now imposes upon its increasingly exhausted people the breathless rhythms of a vast and omnivorous machine.

               This machine has no objective other than to keep struggling without spawning any sudden breakdowns or prematurely inconvenient deaths.

               Much as many might wish to deny it, the plausible end of this self-destroying machinery will be to prevent Americans from remembering who they are now and (far more importantly) who they might once still have become. At another reasonable level of concern, Americans remain threatened by nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, especially now, during the incoherent Trump-era. Significantly, although there exists a vast literature on law-based strategies of nuclear war avoidance, there is little parallel jurisprudential effort directed toward the prevention of nuclear terrorism.[16]

               In fact, presidential banalities aside, this is no longer a “nation of laws.” It is a nation of ad hoc, narrowly visceral response.

               There is more.  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, and beyond any serious contestation, we are stymied by collective paralysis, capitulation and a starkly Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.”

                Surely, as all must eventually acknowledge, there is more to this chanting country than Fuehrer-driven rallies, tsunamis of hyper-adrenalized commerce or gargantuan waves of abundantly cheap entertainments: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” rhapsodized the 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 seemingly final assault by a 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.[17]

               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 at the level of microcosm, as a matter for individuals.

               In the end, American politics – like politics everywhere – 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 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.”

                Even in an authentic democracy, only a few can ever hope to redeem themselves and the wider American nation, but these self-effacing souls will generally remain silent, hidden in more-or-less “deep cover,” often even from themselves. In a democracy where education is oriented toward narrowly vocational forms of career preparation, an orientation toward “barbaric specialization,” these residual few can expect to be suffocated by the many. Unsurprisingly, such asphyxiation, in absolutely any of its conceivable particularities, would be a bad way to “die.”[18]

               Donald J. Trump did not emerge on the political scene ex nihilo, out of nothing. His incoherent and disjointed presidency is the direct result of a society that has wittingly and barbarously abandoned all serious thought. When such a society no longer asks the “big philosophical questions” – for example, “What is the “good” in government and politics”? or “How do I lead a good life as person and citizen”? or “How can I best nurture the well-being of other human beings”? – the lamentable outcome is inevitable. It is an  outcome that we are currently living through in the United States, and one that might sometime have to be “died through.”

               Going forward, what we ought to fear most of all is precisely this continuously self-defiling outcome, not a particular electoral result. To be certain, at this point, nothing could be more urgently important for the United States than to rid itself of the intersecting pathologies of Covid19 and Donald Trump, diseases that are mutually reinforcing and potentially synergistic, but even such victories would only be transient. More fundamentally, recalling philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset’s timeless warning about the “barbarism of specialisation,” this country must resurrect an earlier ethos of education in which learning benefits the whole human being, not just a work-related “corner of the universe.”

               Also vital is the obligation to acknowledge the fundamental interrelatedness of all peoples and the binding universality of international law.[19]

               To survive, both as a nation and as individuals, Americans need to become educated not merely as well-trained cogs in the vast industrial machine, but as empathetic and caring citizens. “Everyone is the other, and no one is just himself,” cautions Martin  Heidegger in Being and Time (1932), but this elementary lesson once discoverable in myriad sacred texts is not easily operationalized.  Indeed, it is in this single monumental failure of “operationalization” that human civilization has most conspicuously failed though the ages. To wit, in Trump-era American democracy, the president’s core message is not about the co-responsibility of every human being for his or her fellows, but about “winners,” “losers,” and a presumptively preeminent citizen obligation to “Make America Great.”

               In this Trumpian context, “greatness” assumes a crudely Darwinian or zero-sum condition, and not one wherein each individual favors harmonious cooperation over an endlessly belligerent competition.[20]

               How shall we finally change all this, or, recalling Plato’s wisdom in The Republic, how shall we  “learn to make the souls of the citizens better?”[21] This is not a question that we can answer with any pertinent detail before the upcoming US presidential election. But it is still a question that we ought to put before the imperiled American polity soon, and sometime before it is too late.[22]

               American democracy faces multiple hazards, including Ortega y’ Gasset’s “barbarism of specialisation.” To be rescued in time, each hazard will have to be tackled carefully, by itself and also in coordinated tandem with all other identifiable perils. Overall, the task will be daunting and overwhelming, but the alternative is simply no longer tolerable or sustainable.

               Donald Trump’s removal from office is a sine qua non for all applicable remedies, but even such an needed step would target only a catastrophic symptom of America’s national “pathology.” By itself, saving the United States from Donald Trump would surely be indispensable, but it would leave unchanged the country’s still most deeply underlying “disease.” In  the end,[23] because Americans will need to bring a less “specialized” form of learning to their citizenship responsibilities, the nation will quickly have to figure out practical ways of restoring educational “wholeness.”

               Can this sort of rational calculation be expected? Maybe not. Perhaps, like the timeless message of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, this warning has “come too soon.” If that turns out to be the case, there may simply be no “later.”


[1] See especially Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (Sein und Zeit;1953) and Karl Jaspers’ Reason and Anti-Reason in  our Time (1952). “Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Jaspers, “or a beginning?” The answer will depend, in large part, on what Heidegger has to say about the Jungian or Freudian “mass.” In Being and Time (1953), the philosopher laments what he calls, in German, das Mann, or “The They.”  Drawing fruitfully upon earlier core insights of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jung and Freud, Heidegger’s “The They” represents the ever-present and interchangeable herdcrowd, horde or mass. Each such conglomerate exhibits “untruth” (the term actually favored by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard)  because it can encourage the “barbarism of specialisation” and suffocate broadly humanistic kinds of learning.

[2]Smith published Theory seventeen years before his vastly more famous and oft-cited Wealth of Nations (1776).

[3]See, on commonalities between Third Reich and Trump-era American democracy, by Louis René Beres at Jurist:  https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/louis-beres-america-rise-and-fall/

[4] Chapter 12 of The Revolt of the Masses (1930) is expressly titled “The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation.'”

[5]Here, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined an aptly specific term, one he hoped could eventually become universal. This  German word was Bildungsphilister. When expressed in its most lucid and coherent English translation, it means “educated Philistine.” Bildungsphilister is a term that could shed useful light upon Donald Trump’s ongoing support from among America’s presumptively well-educated and well-to-do.

[6] On this irony, Kierkegaard says it best in The Sickness Unto Death (1849): “Devoid of imagination, as the Philistine always is, he lives in a certain trivial province of experience, as to how things go, what is possible, what usually occurs….Philistinism thinks it is in control of possibility….it carries possibility around like a prisoner in the cage of the probable, and shows it off.”

[7]Sigmund Freud introduced his own particular version of Nietzsche’s “herd,” which was “horde.” Interestingly, Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. He most strenuously objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to this country’s “shallow optimism” and also its corollary commitment to the crudest forms of materialism. America, thought Freud, was grievously “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.

[8] In  essence, the “crowd” was Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s equivalent of Nietzsche’s “herd” and Ortega’s “mass.”

[9] The most ominous synergies of “barbarism” would link pandemic effects with growing risks of a nuclear war. On irrational nuclear decision-making by this author, see Louis René Beres, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: https://thebulletin.org/2016/08/what-if-you-dont-trust-the-judgment-of-the-president-whose-finger-is-over-the-nuclear-button/ See also, by Professor Beres,  https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/nuclear-decision-making/ (Pentagon). For authoritative early accounts by Professor Beres of nuclear war expected effects, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018). https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy

[10] At a minimum, in this regard, the US public ought to be reminded of the explicit warning in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Do not ever seek the higher man at the market place.” (Moreover, it would not be unfair to Nietzsche’s core meaning here to expand “higher man” to mean “higher person.”).

[11] Most egregious, in any assessment of these damages, is this president’s wilful subordination of national interest to his own presumed private interests. In this regard, one may suitably recall Sophocles’ cautionary speech of Creon in Antigone: “I hold despicable, and always have….anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[12] Still the best treatments of America’s long-term disinterest in anything intellectual are Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964); and Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1959).

[13] See, by Louis René Beres: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/04/the-trump-presidency-a-breathtaking-assault-on-law-justice-and-security/

[14] The classic statement of Realpolitik or power politics in western  philosophy is the comment of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic : “Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” (See Plato, The Republic, 29, Benjamin Jowett, tr., World Publishing Company, 1946.) See also: Cicero’s oft-quoted query: “For what can be done against force without force?,” Marcus Tullus Cicero, Cicero’s Letters to his Friends, 78  (D.R. Shackleton Baily tr., Scholars Press, 1988).

[15] “I think, therefore I am,” says René Descartes, in his Discourse on Method (1637). Reciprocally, in his modern classic essay on “Existentialism,” Jean-Paul Sartre observes that “…outside the Cartesian cogito, all views are only probable.”

[16] See, by Professor Louis René Beres: https://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1410&context=gjicl

[17] An apt literary reference for this condition of “lost appetite” is Franz Kafka’s story, The Hunger Artist.

[18] In more expressly concrete terms, average American life-expectancy, unenviable for several decades, has now fallen behind most of the advanced industrial world. While Trump boasts of a wall to keep out Mexicans and assorted “others,” more and more Americans are trying to cross in the other direction.

[19] Apropos of this universality, international law is generally part of the law of the United States. These legal systems are always interpenetrating. Declared Mr. Justice Gray, in delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)). The specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

[20] Here it could be helpful to recall the words of French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature.”

[21] Long after Plato, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought of “soul” (in German, Seele) as the very essence of a human being. Neither Freud nor Jung ever provides a precise definition of the term, but clearly it was not intended by either in any ordinary religious sense. For both, it was a still-recognizable and critical seat of both mind and passions in this life. Interesting, too, in the present context, is that Freud explained his already-predicted decline of America by various express references to “soul.” Freud was plainly disgusted by any civilization so apparently unmoved by considerations of true “consciousness” (e.g., awareness of intellect and literature), and even thought that the crude American commitment to perpetually shallow optimism and to material accomplishment at any cost would occasion sweeping psychological misery.

[22] “Sometimes,” says Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “the worst does happen.”

[23] “In the end,” says Goethe, “we are always creatures of our own making.”

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

Presidential Evil And American Good: Can They Coexist?

Prof. Louis René Beres

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Niccolò Machiavelli

If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice.-Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History

When Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr posited the tragic choice of evil for the sake of good – a choice inherent in both the “human condition” and the anarchic state of nations – he was not focused on differences within a specific national government. Today, however, in the dissembling United States, a similarly tragic choice confronts America’s citizens in particular. Here the apparent choice is bold and straightforward:

               Shall Americans support an evil president in the greater interest of some wider political good?

               Though plausible in principle, no such dilemma actually exists. In  current US political circumstances, there is no supportable argument that Donald Trump’s disjointed and seat-of-the-pants policies, either foreign or domestic, can bestow any verifiable net benefits. To the main point, by allowing a willfully corrosive president to act in its name, the United States has defiled American national interests and  global human interests simultaneously.

               Apropos of proper logic, one presumptive conclusion is unambiguous: There is notragic” choice involved here (the choice identified above by Realpolitiker[1] Reinhold Niebuhr),  just an obvious and overriding imperative to rid both nation and planet of Trump-era toxicity. Prima facie, in this case at least, presidential evil and American good are mutually exclusive.

               There is more. With each passing day, weary Americans must face several stark and ironic contradictions. At an historical  moment when uplifting numbers of good people are making great personal sacrifices to help others (e.g., medical communities working against Covid19;  firefighters in the west; hurricane search-and-rescue personnel in the south, etc.), a US president acts wittingly to undermine his own country’s safety and security. This behavior includes a continuously incomprehensible stance of support for Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who it would appear can wish no harms upon the United States.[2]

               While according to any reasonable criteria of intellectual assessment these cumulative Trump behaviors are injurious and inexcusable,[3] millions of US citizens still maintain that his plainly deranged presidency represents a calculable “net positive.”

               What does this really mean? By definition, even now, these Trump-supporting Americans believe that manifest presidential evil can be compatible with national welfare and national progress. Somehow, in this case, they believe that such once-unimaginable evil can also be good. Credo quia absurdum, said the ancient philosophers, “I believe because it is absurd.”

               How can all this be helpfullyexplained? Conceptually, it would be best to begin at the beginning. The contradiction we are so painfully witnessing with this stumbling White House administration is not uniquely American. Already, back in the sixteenth-century, philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli observed famously,  “A man who wishes to  make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good.”

               Machiavelli need not always be clarifying or relevant. There is nothing here to suggest that this classic argument from The Prince would in any way support Donald J. Trump’s foreign and/or domestic policies. This president’s particular descents into wrongdoing and dereliction are not an expression of any gainful policy “realism.” Rather, they are singularly lamentable expressions of wantonly gratuitous harms.

               In an unsteady age when the risks of a nuclear war[4] could coincide with expanding biological destructions – that is, with the devastating microbial assaults of a Corona-Virus “plague”[5] – such harms can have no conceivable justifications.

               None at all.

               There is more. Context is important. All humans, wherever they may live, must bear persistent witness to the distressingly thin veneers of  “civilization.” Recalling William Golding’s marooned boys in Lord of the Flies, we must repeatedly discover, beneath any delicate varnish of supposed coexistence, a lascivious human inclination to brutalize  certain “others.”

               However informally it may be calculated, this primal inclination is “normally” judged agreeable and cost-effective.

                Science and technology notwithstanding, empathy and compassion remain in calculably short supply on planet earth. Accordingly, substantial fractions of humankind remain slouched in a perpetually bruising darkness, hoping not to create promising new forms of human civilization, but to “better” inflict myriad varieties of unspeakable slaughter. During the debilitating “Trump Years,” years of steadily-expanding presidential evil, the United States has made an egregious choice.

               Knowingly, it has placed itself directly within such nefariously cascading “darkness.”

               As “analysts,” Americans should now be more policy-specific. In Donald Trump’s United States, there is always some blatantly self-serving presidential explanation for human rights abuse. To wit, we are instructed, the latest victims are despicable, “illegal” or, in some ways at least, not fully human. Always, they are “others,”  mere others. And as we are repeatedly informed by the president’s reliably obsequious minions, this particular victim population is not at all like us. It is deserving of necessary “punishment.”

               Credo quia absurdum.  “I believe because it is absurd.” It is a very old story. The struggle between “Us and Them” is very plainly generic, not US-specific. If we are “good,” they are not. Period. Such grimly bifurcated reasoning is especially perverse and ironic today, during a pandemic crisis when the common biological “oneness” of the human species couldn’t possibly be more obvious

               In high tragedy, as originally performed back in fifth-century BC Athens, humans were routinely presented as inherently flawed guests in a divinely-created universe. This ancient presentation, though presently “modified” with assorted  regional and religious nuances, remains difficult to dispute. After all, following even a “small” nuclear war –  a plausible event, at least in the currently downward trajectory of world affairs – cemeteries the size of whole cities could be needed to bury the uncountable dead.

               Then, recalling the pre-nuclear imagery of poet T S Eliot, there could be no “lilacs breeding out of the dead land.” Then, there would be no discernible “good,” only variously decaying bearers of “evil.”

               Promptly, in far-flung parts of the world, both within and between individual nation-states, a “waste land” could become the new normal. Such “normalcy,” one substantially worse than even the new-normal of Covid19 life on earth, ought never become an intentionally sought-after expectation. For rational thinkers, this point hardly requires any present-moment clarifications.

               No sane person can be in favor of necropolis.

               “Art is a lie,” noted Pablo Picasso, “that lets us see the truth.” In this paradoxical description, theatrical tragedy can remind us that earthly spheres of order, justice and good remain severely compromised  by evil, and that  no amount of technology or science can ever compensate for our species’ multiple leadership transgressions. If, as in high tragedy, we humans should sometimes be punished in apparent excess of our specifically personal wrongdoings –  “Whom God wishes to destroy,”  warned the Greek tragedian, Euripides, “He first makes mad.” –  even this “unfair” fate could not declare us to be “innocent.”

               Not reasonably.

               There is more. Always, it is the gripping silence and self-inflicted fears of ordinary people that sustain the human world’s abundant madness. Often, these primal fears center on certain irrepressible expectations of personal death. But sometimes they can also rest on various corollary anxieties about personal exclusion. More than anything else, and for several markedly different yet intersecting reasons, we humans continue to seek the comfortingly calming warmth of  “mass.”

               It is the “mass man.” an elucidating and derivative construct of Spanish existentialist philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses,1930) who created US President Donald J. Trump. Stated differently, this American president, who promises to “Make America Great Again” is the openly evil product of American “mass.”[6] By itself, this collective does not intend to create evil, but intent is not at all determinative.

               It is quite enough that the mass prefers baseless opinion to documented fact and a willful anti-Reason to proper learning or tangible science.

               There is more. As a species, not just as Americans, there exists no compelling or defensible reason for us to fawn upon myriad past mistakes. Now, instead, with a view to achieving some still-plausible and verifiable progress, Americans must look back courageously. “How much treasure,” they must finally inquire, “how much science, how much labor and planning, how many vast oceans of sacred poetry, have we already ransacked, just to render our disparate human civilizations even more miserable and more imperiled?”

               I don’t know each pertinent answer. I do know, however, that our shallow and corrupted civilizational institutions, including America’s humiliating presidential elections, can never save us. This nation’s most revered universities,  perched deliberately above the distressingly mundane clamor of work, politics and family, remain unmindful of the world’s most urgently important intellectual questions.

               Thoroughly unmindful.

               Unassailably, though painfully indelicate to acknowledge, higher education in the  expansively deranged Trump-Era proceeds hand in hand with a ubiquitously crude and predatory commerce. In partial consequence, our colleges and universities shamelessly crush most residual reflexes of lingering student intellect or individuality. This crushing is not undertaken with any insidious intent – and the challenges to academic success during a pandemic are anything but minor –  but the US posture of anti-Reason is nonetheless destructive. Sorely destructive.

               In today’s Trump-defiled United States, American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s once venerable goal of a people that is “plain living and high thinking” is more than just forgotten. This once-lofty objective presently now lies very far beyond any identifiable popular interest or hint of public imagination. Why not? Living together with unhidden presidential evil, what else should we expect?

                The American university, a dutifully obliging adjunct of the wider corporate/political universe, now lies distant not only from human learning, but also from human survival. French philosophers of the eighteenth-century Age of  Reason had preferred to speak optimistically of a siècle des lumieres, a “century of light,” but today, the ivy-covered walls are inestimably fouled by a congealing darkness, by a suffocating pall of excruciating conformance, vulgar self-interest and even a peculiarly-fashionable loathing of anything detached from money.

               There is a professionally favored euphemism here. It’s called “wealth maximization.” The language provides cover for a nation’s abject indifference to serious learning.

               None of this devaluation was initially created by the Trump “ascendancy,”[7] but it has been strongly reaffirmed in absolutely every respect by a starkly unworthy American president.[8]

               As an easily verifiable matter of human history, resisting evil has had little to do with human intelligence. More often than we may care to admit, such intelligence is conveniently manipulated to justify or enlarge certain “others'” most excruciating forms of  human suffering. Indeed, looking over the still-mounting wreckage of Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, we see the palpably grim results of such manipulation,  both domestically and in various other countries harmed by the dissembling American foreign policies.

               In some cases, these are harms of US omission or inaction, rather than of commission. A specific case in point would by Syria, where Trump’s immutable unwillingness to get on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin has already created societal disintegration and unspeakable torment.[9]

               The main theme or question before us allows only a single coherent response. There is no way that a “good” American society can be created or sustained by an “evil” American president. Period. Before the United States allows itself to become even more thoroughly lost to any still credible hopes for human improvement  and national survival, American citizens will have to build more purposefully upon this rudimentary wisdom. To be sure, we remain disturbingly far from understanding (let alone electing) Plato’s “Philosopher King,”[10] but now we are at least better advised to reject American presidential evil at absolutely all costs.

               Donald J. Trump does no evil for the sake of good. There is nothing “tragic” about his persistent across-the-board choice of evil              postures and policies. In essence, he makes these barbarous choices because he is authentically committed to evil for evil’s own sake.

               Left uncorrected, Trump will continue to bring to these deeply unhappy United States a self-inflicted future of national humiliation and determined anti-reason.

               No such future could ever “make America great again.”


[1] On Realpolitik or power politics, see, by this author, Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpoliitk: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington Books, 1984). See also his later book: Louis René Beres, America Outside the World: The Collapse of US Foreign Policy (Lexington Books, 1987).

[2] Incontestably, of course, Russia remains a significant nuclear threat to the United States. See, for example, by this author, Louis René Beres, at The War Room (US Department of Defense: Pentagon): https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/nuclear-decision-making/

[3] Journalist Bob Woodward called Trump’s efforts to conceal his knowledge of the virus from the public “one of the most tragic, outrageous acts by a sitting president in, maybe in history.”

[4] For early and informed assessments of nuclear war risks and consequences by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd. ed., 2018);   Louis René Beres,  Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1983);  Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: US Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington MA;  Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, ed.,  Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986). See also, by Professor Beres, at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: https://thebulletin.org/2016/08/what-if-you-dont-trust-the-judgment-of-the-president-whose-finger-is-over-the-nuclear-button/

[5] Such biological assaults have thus far been considered only as natural occurrences. Going forward, however, it is possible that pertinent pathogens could be weaponized, and that future instances of “plague” could emerge as a deliberate form of warfare and/or terrorism.

[6]Like Jose Ortega y’Gasset, the Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung spoke usefully of  “mass.” Earlier, Friedrich Nietzsche, had referenced this demeaning phenomenon as the “herd;” Sigmund Freud, as the “horde;” and Soren Kierkegaard, as the “crowd.”

[7] See,  by this author, at The Daily Princetonian, Louis René Beres: https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/06/a-core-challenge-of-higher-education

[8] See, by this author, at Yale Global Online, Louis René Beres: https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/trump-and-destruction-american-mind

[9] These are not just matters of moral responsibility. The United States is obligated by the international law of human rights to intervene on behalf of such cruelly victimized populations. These international legal obligations are also incorporated in the national law of the United States, per Article 6 of the US Constitution (the “Supremacy Clause”) and several major US Supreme Court decisions. In the precise words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).

[10] See, by this author, at Oxford University Press, Louis René Beres: https://blog.oup.com/2011/08/philosopher-king/

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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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Americas

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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