Making America Great Again

The Trumpet blows loud and almost always off-key. But what he tells us is that his business acumen will once again make America great. In saying this I am put in mind of a recent article in Yahoo Finance  titled “Why Donald Trump is a Lousy Executive” that points out the probable lack of success of a presidential Donald The Trumpet — based on his obvious personality disorders:

Awful executives also tend to think that they have all the answers — to all the questions. CEO Wolfgang Schmitt drove Rubbermaid into a ditch during the 1990s. A former colleague remembered that under Schmitt, “the joke went, ‘Wolf knows everything about everything.’” Not surprisingly, know-it-all executives suffer because they fail to consider other points of view that might have merit. In fact, no one is always right, yet lousy executives act as if they are. In this regard, Trump’s impression of his own judgment and intelligence is telling. As he tweeted in May 2013: “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.” In September 2015, he made a similar statement on “The Tonight Show,” telling host Jimmy Fallon, “I think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.” [Italics added]

In any event, his claim to restore America to its former greatness rests on the assumption that America is not great any more and that given his presidency he will have the power to effect radical change. He will do this apparently by turning over rocks that reveal bigotry, misogyny, racism, hatred, and intolerance; this will restore those years of greatness. But, we might ask, when were those years?

Perhaps he means the nation just after the adoption of the Constitution. But we had no army or navy and were terribly vulnerable to attacks by France, Spain, or Britain — which we discovered when we went up against the British in the war of 1812 , a time when president Thomas Jefferson reluctantly realized that we did need a navy and an army if we were to become a world power. But there wasn’t much of a nation at that time and there certainly wasn’t wide-spread prosperity (which, I suspect, is what the Trumpet means by “great”).

Could he be talking about the 1920’s when the Hoover campaign promised a “chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard”? But this was a time when, despite the general prosperity of the country at large, there was also wide-spread suffering and unemployment among farmers, laborers, and minorities. Indeed, there were those who saw a depression alongside the highest standard of living the world had ever known.

Or, will the Trumpet make America great again by returning it to the days of Eisenhower, a post-war economy that gave us widespread materialism and the promise of never having to put off until tomorrow what we can own today — thanks to the charge card? This was an era of moderate wealth within the middle class. Recently the gap has grown between the wealthy and the very poor and the middle class has all but disappeared, so it is hard to see how prosperity in the country at large can be restored when it is the middle class that must have the buying power necessary to turn the tide. I don’t recall the Trumpet pledging to restore the middle classes to their former strength by such things as, say, raising the minimum wage. But, then, I don’t listen to him any more; he might have made such a pledge. He would if he thought it would advance his personal agenda.

Perhaps the Trumpet means to return to the high level of prosperity during the Bill Clinton years when  unemployment dropped by 3.9%, the labor force grew by 2.8 million folks who had previously been unemployed under the Reagan Administration during which the 1% began to dodge the tax man and the rest of us waited for the money to “trickle down.” Or, when, under Clinton, the G.D.P. growth was at 3.8%, inflation was stable, and median wages grew from $661.00 a week to $700.00 a week. But, the Trumpet can’t be referring to those years, because they were years under a Democratic president and the Republican camp refuses to admit that Clinton restored an economy that had been crippled by his predecessor.

So, in the end, it is not clear what era the Trumpet is referring to. Which was the age we shall return to in achieving our greatness once again? He is certainly correct in saying that the tarnish has worn off the eagle, given the present state of the nation in the eyes of the rest of the world. But it is not clear how this man proposes to restore a greatness that is hard to define, much less quantify — especially since his preeminence in the political race has already driven much of the world community even farther away from America. He is long on generalities and half-truths — not to mention blatant falsehoods. So it is hard to see what he has in mind and how he thinks he can pull it off, given that he will not be a dictator, but simply the executor of the will of a corrupt and, I dare say uncooperative, Congress.

But none of the Trumpet faithful seems to be interested in these considerations. It’s not clear what they ARE interested in. Or what they hear when he speaks. Or what is going on between their ears, if anything.

 

 

Defending The Eggheads

In 1952 the right-wing novelist and essayist Louis Bromfield wrote the following barb regarding the intellectual, who was increasingly referred to as an “egghead.”

Egghead: A person of spurious intellectual pretensions, often a professor or the protegé of a professor. Fundamentally superficial. Over-emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem. Supercilious and surfeited with conceit and contempt for the experience of more sound and able men. Essentially confused in thought and immersed in a mixture of sentimentality and violent evangelism. A doctrinaire supporter of Middle-European socialism as opposed to Greco-French-American ideas of democracy and liberalism. Subject to the old-fashioned philosophical morality of Nietzsche which frequently leads him into jail or disgrace. A self-conscious prig, so given to examining all sides of a question that he becomes thoroughly addled while remaining always in the same spot. An anemic bleeding heart.”

To add to the mix, president Eisenhower later added “by the way, I heard a definition of an intellectual that I thought was very interesting: a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows.” And so, led by the likes of Joe McCarthy, the war against those who use their minds and choose their words carefully began. And despite McCarthy’s dwindling popularity, the cry was swiftly taken up by hordes of more practical and down-to-earth folks who have always had a distrust of poets, artists, dreamers, and those reputed to live in ivory towers.

But we might note that Eisenhower’s definition might well include Bromfield who uses way too many words and doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about.   After all, it’s not at all clear how those dry intellectuals can at the same time be “over-emotional and feminine” (whatever that might mean). Further, socialism cannot easily be set in opposition to democracy since they are not of a kind: one is an economic system and the other a political one. There are highly successful countries that blend in interesting ways both socialism and democracy. Moreover, Bromfield might even fit his own description of an egghead, since he is “supercilious and surfeited with conceit and contempt for the experience of more sound and able men.” But, we leave these enticing thoughts because there are larger issues here.

To begin with, Bromfield does make a couple of good points. For one, intellectuals do tend to look at every side of complex issues and it often renders them ineffectual. Accurate or not, the common image of the intellectual is the philosopher Thales who reportedly fell into a hole while gazing at the stars! However, we might recall that Plato’s notion that philosophers should be kings was dismissed out of hand by that other egghead, Aristotle, who preferred a person of “practical wisdom,” which meant a person with good common sense. Neither, however, would have approved of a political leader who rushes blindly into action before he or she has fully accessed the consequences of that action — like, say, engaging in war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Thus, if the alternative to the egghead is the “real world” person of a practical mien who jumps at conclusions and rushes headlong into disaster, then one would think the intellectual approach is to be preferred. Or, perhaps, there is a third option: careful deliberation followed by determination to follow the agreed-upon course of action. Indeed, this is the sort of thing James Madison envisioned when he wrote the Constitution. (Now, there’s an egghead if there ever was one!!) This was supposed to be the strength of a Democracy. We were to be a nation that took its time to do things right, examining both sides of complex issues and reaching a consensus when possible.  We were supposed to deliberate and use our minds; in order to make sure we could do that, an educated citizenry was the keystone. Both Madison and his close friend (and another egghead) Thomas Jefferson agreed about that.

But the anti-intellectual ethos that permeates this culture today has lent its considerable weight to the attack on the public schools and the notion that education will lead this country into a brighter tomorrow has been lost in the concern over more practical matters: like job training and the economy. To be sure, Bromfield is right that intellectuals can be a pain in the ass. But one would hope that in this complex world of ours we would willingly take time to listen to a person who knows what he or she is talking about rather than mindlessly follow the person who shoots off his mouth and rushes blindly into situations filled with hidden dangers.

Whom To Trust?

The truth is something different from the habitual lazy combinations begotten by our wishes. (George Eliot)

One of the major curiosities in this most curious age in which we live is the undue adulation the young receive at the hands of their elders. In fact, one might say the young now command center stage in this drama we call contemporary living, as their elders are ignored and shunted off to stage left, despite the fact that they spend countless hours trying to pretend they are young themselves. The young can do no wrong and we listen at doors for the latest piece of wisdom they might let slip from their lips. They are charming, lovely, beautiful — untainted by the stains of a corrupt world. If families are talking over the dinner table and the young speak up silence immediately ensues in order to allow them to say their piece, though as they grow older they withdraw, become sullen and disinclined to speak at all.  The notion that the kids are simply being rude has gone the way of the dinosaur. In any event, it never occurs to anyone that when they speak what the kids have to say may not be worth listening to and their withdrawal from the adult world is nothing more than a sign of their budding narcissism. But there it is: the result of the youth rebellion.

Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, insists that it started in the 1960s when groups like the S.D.S. led the attack on the “establishment” in general and the universities in particular, giving birth to the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Richard Hofstadter would insist, I dare to say, that it started a decade earlier during the McCarthy hearings, or, perhaps, when Dwight Eisenhower was running against Adlai Stevenson and suddenly Americans began to distrust the “eggheads” like Stevenson. The youth movement, he might say, is simply the logical development of the anti-intellectual movement that began in the 1950s and which has since been fostered by growing numbers of people in this commodified culture who have never trusted those impractical types who live in “ivory towers.” In any event, as a culture we have come to distrust the elderly (especially those who can think and speak coherently) and instead we check our gut feelings and listen to the young as the sources of what we like to call “truth.” The result has been a general lowering of the culture to the level of what I have called the “new barbarism.” The attack on the universities has resulted in grade inflation and the dumbing down of the curriculum in the schools, and the distrust of those over thirty has resulted in the mindless rejection of all in authority, including parents and teachers, and the almost total dismissal of the notion of expertise which, we are told, is “elitist.” To be sure, the teachers and parents have been party to the retreat as they have shown little courage and practically no confidence in themselves in the face of this assault. But, face it, some are in a better position to know than others and the odds are that those who have lived longer and studied complex issues carefully probably know a thing or two. Perhaps it is time to invent a new slogan: “Don’t trust anyone under thirty.” Or so says Mark Bauerlein and this sentiment, if not those same words, is echoed in the writing of another contemporary student of America’s current cultural malaise.

I refer to Charles Pierce who, in his best-selling book Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land of The Free, points out that this attack on authority and expertise — and those over thirty — has resulted in a lowering of intelligence (in a country where more people vote for the latest American Idol than they do the President of the United States), along with the reduction of all claims to simple matters of individual opinion, anyone’s opinion. And this in a nation based on Enlightenment ideas articulated and defended by the likes of John Jay, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.  We have devolved into a nation that has declared war on intelligence and reason, the cornerstones of the Enlightenment, and prefers instead the alleged certainty of gut feelings and the utterances of children. We have turned from books and hard evidence to the mindless drivel of reality shows and video games. Pierce defends three “Great Premises” that he is convinced sum up the attitude of Americans in our day to matters of fact and questions of ultimate truth:

(1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.

(2) Anything can be true if someone says it [often and] loudly enough.

(3) Fact is that which enough people believe.  (Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it).

I suppose the last parenthetical comment might be regarded as a corollary of the third premise. But the fact is that in this relativistic age we distrust those who are in a position to know, we wait for the latest poll to decide what is true, and we adulate the young while we ignore the fact that, lost as they are in the world of digital toys, they know very little indeed. As Pierce has shown so convincingly, we are all becoming idiots. We have lost the respect for that truth which we do not manufacture for ourselves, but which stands outside the self and requires an assiduous effort to grasp even in part — together with our conviction that some things are truly evil while others are truly good. All truth is now mere opinion and the moral high ground has been leveled. We ignore the beauty all around us along with the ugly truths about what we are doing to the planet while we indulge ourselves in the latest fashion and seek the liveliest pleasure, convinced that it is the good. And all the while we wait eagerly to see what pearls of wisdom might fall from the young who are busy playing with their digital toys.

What will come of all this remains to be seen, but we might be wise to recognize the fact that those under thirty are still wet behind the ears and don’t know diddly about much of anything of importance. Their elders don’t seem to know much either, but if we recall that the admission of our own ignorance (as Socrates so famously said) is the beginning of wisdom, then that may be the way the adults in this country might begin to resume their role as mentors and our distrust of authority and expertise might be put to rest while we acknowledge that the children know even less than we do, and the majority does not determine what is true or false.

Military Mystique

I recall seeing a photograph recently of President Obama sitting in a crowded room surrounded by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in all their regalia. There they were fully uniformed, chests ablaze with ribbons representing courage, valor and years of experience defending the country in all parts of the world. And there was the skinny little President in his white shirt and tie looking very much out-of-place — and intimidated. They were considering how to wage war.

The photo made me reflect on an incident from my distant past when I taught at a private school in Katonah, New York and one Saturday we took a group of the boys to West Point for a basketball game. We were all dressed in our best bib and tucker and feeling very good about ourselves — until we started walking around the grounds of the academy. There were the cadets, ramrod straight and neatly pressed (not a wrinkle anywhere to be seen), eyes straight ahead, faces stern and heroic. I started to think myself shabbily dressed, even a bit of a slob — anything but “heroic.” I felt that way walking around Annapolis during my four years of college in that city standing next to a Midshipman as he ordered items from a sales person or walking next to him down the street.

What to make of this? I wonder if part of the reason why the President and the Congress are unwilling to take on the military is reflected in the subtle psychological messages blended into these impressions I recall here? We have a reverence for the military in this country that borders on worship: these are all our “heroes.” These feelings are reinforced every time a sports team hits the field, and our TVs remind us constantly how much we owe these heroes.  If one were to utter a criticism of any one of them it would be regarded as sacrilege. In fact, we have become a nation of military pageants and military presence. Ever since Viet Nam, it seems, the military is held up to us as a model of human achievement. I suspect it is by design. There are parades, fly overs, flags unfurled, uniforms galore, and the air filled with the strains of the National Anthem. It fills us with pride and a sense of awe and privilege. But it is also dangerous, it seems to me.

We need to beware of what I would call the “lure of the military mystique,” the sense that what these people say and do is always right, that they are the paradigm of all human excellence. I dare say that the politicians in this country are intimidated and awed by the presence in the room of a large man in uniform with ribbons agleam on his chest who has a “request” that simply cannot be ignored. It seems a bit of a stretch, but perhaps this is a small part of what Eisenhower was warning us about: some of the power of the military is assuredly wrapped up in the mystique and awe we all experience in the presence of men and women who represent courage, valor, and integrity. Who can say “no” to people like this?

As I say, it is a stretch, but one wonders why an ultra-conservative like Paul Ryan who is intent on slashing every social program in sight and leaving us all without a safety net in our old age would, at the same time (as Chair of the House Budget Committee), recommend increasing the military budget? Indeed, it is one of the oddities of this age that the Republicans generally who want to cut and slash the Federal budget refuse to consider any serious examination of the “defense” budget — much less cuts. And this in face of the fact that we spend 6 to 7 times as much on the military as China and more than the next 20 largest military spenders combined. In fact, this country spends over 40% of the total amount spent on the military in the entire world! Does it ultimately come down to a psychological trick that none of us is aware of: an inability to say “no” to those who are used to giving orders? I wonder.

In the meantime, while we mull this over, the military continues to amass power and spread its influence throughout the world as we continue to spend more on “defense” than any nation in the world and people go to sleep hungry and homeless in a country of vast wealth.