American Democracy and “The Barbarism of Specialisation”

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Without any real or compelling reasons, voting Americans freely abandoned the once-residual elements of Jeffersonian good citizenship.

“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, 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In large part, this is because “professional” education in the United States has effectively superseded everything that does not ostentatiously focus on making money.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 founder of his wealth, upon this account than for all the other advantages it procures him.”

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.”

Ortega y’Gasset had a specific name for this generally defiling intellectual deformation. More exactly, he called it “The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation.” Earlier, and in somewhat similar fashion, Friedrich  Nietzsche wrote about the “educated philistine.” 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. In this regard, the German philosopher placed appropriate conceptual blame on what he preferred to call the “herd.” 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.”

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.

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.

As we have seen, utterly ill-equipped.

Surveying ever-mounting damages of the Trump presidency, 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.

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 coronavirus 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 workforce 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, 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. 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.” 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 individual has become a 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. On 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 beto 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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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?”  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.

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 a 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, 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.”

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

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