It will seem strange to see a column of mine in The Jewish Press about Woodrow Wilson, but there was very considerable “Jewish wisdom” in this Presbyterian former American president. Wilson first came to my attention in 1967, when I entered Princeton as a graduate student. He had been, after all, a Princeton Professor of Politics, and also a Princeton President before entering the White House.
We Americans still seek to bring democracy and enlightenment to the more benighted nations, but we ourselves inhabit a despairingly frenetic and deeply unhappy society, characterized by obvious falsehoods, beset by glaring inequalities, and suffocated by an expanding blanket of inauthenticity. Woodrow Wilson had actually foreseen our present unenviable circumstances, and had even offered some very sound advice in his own time. Acknowledging that every sham must have a patina, Wilson had also accepted a sincere personal obligation to reject self-promotion, and to embrace “high-thinking.”
Again, oddly enough, we may discover some related “Jewish insights” from the Swiss psychologist, Carl G. Jung. In essence, as we learn from Jung, every civilization is the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption. By any reasonable secular measure, however, we Americans remain substantially distant from any such coming-together. Rather, driven by shallow optimism and empty ritual, we now understand completely that genuineness is usually a social and professional liability, and that ritualistic imitation is the undisputed key to worldly success.
In his 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Wilson saw an America that was already becoming the natural enemy of excellence. Almost stripped bare of those rare, noble and quixotic souls who will not stoop to prevailing corruption and venality, this nation, he reasoned, had to be liberated from mimicry and contrivance, displaying an individualization without extravagance that is both real and unpretentious.
But how? “By what means is this self-liberation to be affected,” he asked. “Is it open to us to choose to be genuine?”
Wilson’s critical dialectic has gone unheeded. For the most part, we Americans have entered into a Faustian bargain in which “things” are exchanged for silence. Whether we are confronted with extravagant claims for breakfast cereal or for political candidates, a carefully engineered public manipulation is simply taken as given. Small wonder, then, that “truth” today is manufactured on television, and that the manufacturers themselves have become the high priests of our true state religion. For most Americans, this one true faith – a shameless worship of consumption and commodities – is just the latest and most promising form of idolatry.
To create the conditions of a really decent and purposeful civilization, conditions wherein an individual American could dare to decide for him or herself what is right and what is wrong, we will first have to transform ourselves. Otherwise, our entire society will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more hideous even than the death of an individual person.
This dreadful collective fate is not really far off. Referring to the great Massachusetts lawyer and statesman of his time, Thoreau once said: “Webster never goes behind government, and so cannot speak with authority about it.” Our current leaders, by their persistent embrace of the narrowly pragmatic, have all-too-often revealed a smallness of spirit, and a striking paucity of intellect. Both now drive America in all the wrong directions.
Woodrow Wilson would have understood. Even amid the eternal babble of politics, he had recognized that America could become a proud and powerful nation, one with a serious and capable president, only when Americans had first learned to be genuine themselves. It follows that as long as we remain captivated by the dreadful clichés and squalid satisfactions of mass society, we will continue to discover both our leaders and our commentators only amid the accumulating rubble of serious thought.
More than ever before, we Americans now inhabit a land of far-reaching meaninglessness – a conspicuous wasteland of surface glitter, smug comforts, sham conventionality and wholly irrational dreams. It is a land of shriveling self-esteem, where personal loneliness must be drowned in oceans of alcohol; where ordinary citizens can’t afford to keep their own teeth, let alone prosper; where the authoritative arbiters of individual value are canonized in shopping malls, and where each man or woman must willingly trade a withering private soul for presumed opportunities in the interpenetrating worlds of money, machines and war.
Within this screaming wasteland, all vital rapport with genuine feelings has already been lost. For us, who may somehow still believe in the “American Dream,” Woodrow Wilson’s helpful wisdom is not only rejected. It is loathed.
Some will surely say, however, that America is basically a happy society, or at least a society of enormous potential. But where, then, are the audible sounds of such happiness? Are they to be found among the minions of throwaway children who increasingly litter the streets of our cities and towns? Or are they discoverable among the millions of others who can now find safety, stability and reassurance only in mountains of drugs? We still try, of course, to legislate away demand. But, we should have learned by now, happiness, unlike war, cannot just be declared.
The sounds of “happiness” in America are generally the canned reverberations of a rehearsed gaiety, of a genuinely false communion, of shrill, dried voices pleading for attention. At the same time, virtually all of our public entertainments are mean-spirited, voyeuristic or just plain obscene. At its core, this smugly triumphant reign of societal vulgarity flows from a fearful collection of non-persons, a disintegrating society that may call itself a community, but is actually decayed, anti-intellectual (even the so-called universities) and broadly self-destructive.
Where, exactly, is our long-celebrated American potential for improvement? Can it be found anywhere on Wall Street, where the surviving investment concerns still render no real service to product innovation, production, automation or even basic human improvement? Can it be found in Washington, where legions of public servants have created a revolving door relationship with corporations, banks and lobbyists, and where even the least dishonest officials are nonetheless infantile, ridiculous or plainly embarrassing? Shall we look for comfort to the carefully crafted but manifestly fraudulent images of the movies and television, and also to abundant Styrofoam boxes of life-shortening fast food, both of which now make this country insufferable for the still-remaining people of taste?
To be sure, our bloated American civilization has created an immense momentum, and also a vast clamor of “fitting in,” but it is an unsatisfying movement. Most certainly, it is not the momentum of any genuine human progress. Instead, this breathless civilization imposes upon all of us the exhausting rhythm of a machine. Literally broken apart by work, responsibility, crowding and shouting, we Americans slavishly surrender to the delirium. The inevitable end of all this cacophony, as Woodrow Wilson was able to foresee, is to prevent us from remembering who we are, and what we might still have become.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law. Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, he first encountered the writings of Woodrow Wilson as a Princeton graduate student.