The traditionally revered Western Canon of literature and art has been replaced by emphases on so-called “sports,” quantitative institutional “rankings,” and “Dancing with the Stars.” Apart from their pervasive drunkenness and generally tasteless entertainments, our once-sacred spaces of “higher education” have mainly become a pipeline for filling nonsensical and deeply unsatisfying jobs.
For most of our young people, learning has become a stunningly inconvenient commodity, nothing more. At the same time, as everyone already understands, commodities exist for only one purpose. They are there, like the newly minted college graduates themselves, to be bought and sold.
Though faced with genuine threats of war, illness, impoverishment and terror, millions of Americans still choose to amuse themselves to death with assorted forms of morbid excitement, grossly inedible foods, and the inane repetitions of an illiterate political discourse. Not a day goes by that we don’t notice some premonitory sign of impending catastrophe. Yet our anesthetized country continues to impose upon its exhausted and manipulated people an open devaluation of genuine thought, and a breakneck pace of unrelieved and unrewarded work.
It is small wonder that “No Vacancy” signs now hang securely outside our psychiatric hospitals, childcare centers, and prisons.
Soon, even if we should somehow manage to avoid nuclear war, further economic dislocation and mega-terrorism, the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then, the phantoms of great ships of state, once laden with silver and gold, may no longer lie forgotten. Perhaps instead we will finally understand that the circumstances which once sent the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud and Kafka to join the disintegrating works of forgotten poets were neither unique nor transient.
In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired coyly about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This president answered “yes,” but only if we first refused to stoop to join the injurious and synthetic “herds” of mass society. Otherwise, Wilson had already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless – a skeleton, dead also with that rusty corrosion of broken machinery, more hideous even than the inevitable decompositions of an individual person.
In all societies, individual souls are fundamentally important. There can be a better American Soul, but not until we first acknowledge a prior obligation to shun the unsustainable seductions of public scandals, crowd culture, shallow thinking, organized mediocrity, and a manifestly predatory politics of emptiness.
Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of political science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.