Lamed-Vav and the Danger of Donald
Whatever else Donald Trump might believe, the state of our American union is deeply intertwined with the state of our world. There is no getting around this very intimate nexus. Ultimately, despite this president’s starkly limiting personal convictions, our fate as Americans will depend upon a much wider identification as citizens of an integrated planet.
Without such a willing identification, this country will be left behind, not only in tangible economic matters (already, an evident consequence of Mr. Trump’s trade wars), but also in terms of its most basically-needed capacities for long-term security.
“America First” misfires on absolutely all cylinders. It portends not only more-or-less irremediable fiscal losses, but also this nation’s fundamental incapacity to protect itself from assorted catastrophic wars. From the mid-17teenth century to the present moment — that is, during the continuously corrosive historical periods dating back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 — the adversarial “state system” has failed to produce either peace or justice. Again and again, realpolitik, or power politics, has repeatedly (and bitterly) proven its own insubstantiality.
America is not immune from such intimate connections of countries around the world. This fearful conclusion about global peace and justice has remained as pertinent for all the world system’s “great powers” as for its most disadvantaged members.
In the beginning, President Trump’s “everyone for himself” view of the world had already been revealed by his earlier (and his second) national security adviser, H.R. McMaster.
Expressed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on June 3, 2017, General McMaster soberly declared: “President Trump has a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a `global community,’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” For emphasis, he had added gratuitously: “Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”
Now, Mr. Trump has yet another national security adviser and secretary of state, but this crudely “realistic” view of the world remains proudly and conspicuously unmodified.
Real history, this president has persistently failed to observe, is merely the sum total of individual “souls” seeking some form or other of “redemption.” Corresponding expressions of the human search for security and status in groups can easily be detected in the variously self-centric ideals of sovereignty and self-determination.
Lamentably, the “self” in these basic legal principles refers exclusively to entire peoples, to states preparing not for any manageable coexistence, but rather for inevitable conflict.
All too frequently, the unsurprising result is a measureless orgy of mass killing that is conveniently sanitized as “international relations” or “power politics.”
Now divided into thousands of hostile tribes, almost 200 of which are properly called states, we human beings often find it very easy to slay “others,” especially in war. Empathy, on this self-destroying planet, is reserved almost exclusively for those living within our own tribe, whether based upon geography, nationality, ideology, or religious faith.
It follows that any purposeful expansion of empathy to include outsiders is a necessary condition of authentic global progress, and that without such an expansion our species would remain ruthlessly dedicated to (and victimized by) virtually every manner of mega-violence.
But how, accordingly, shall we proceed? What should be done in our particular American union to encourage needed empathy, and also to foster aptly caring feelings between tribes? Reciprocally, how can we improve the state of our world so as to ensure a more viable and prosperous fate for our own specifically American union?
We humans, after all, are designed with particular boundaries of allowable feeling. Were it otherwise, a more extended range of compassion toward others could quickly bring about a total emotional collapse. Humankind must therefore confront a very strange and self-contradictory understanding: A widening circle of human compassion is both indispensable to civilizational survival, and an inevitable source of unbearable private anguish.
Truth, sometimes, emerges only through paradox.
According to ancient Jewish tradition, one that certain Talmudists trace back to the time of Isaiah, the world rests upon 36 just men, the Lamed-Vav tzaddikim.
There are many meanings to this ancient tradition, but one meaning is very special to these American and world concerns. A whole world of just men (and women) is impossible. This is because ordinary individuals simply cannot bear the boundless torments of others beyond a narrow circle of kin. It is for them, the legend continues, that God has created the Lamed-Vav.
According to one description, “Based in part on the story of Abraham and his conversation with the Lord about the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 18, the Lamed Vovniks are those who, by virtue of their compassion for others and the prayers they offer, cause the Lord to answer, ‘I will spare all the place for their sakes’ (Genesis 18:26).”
Again, empathy on a more grand scale, however necessary in principle, is at the same time an unavoidable prescription for despair.
What next? What is to be done? How shall our intersecting nations now deal with a requirement for global civilization that is simultaneously essential and unbearable? Fully aware that empathy for the many is a pre-condition of decent world union, what can create such feeling without producing, as an expected corollary, intolerable emotional pain?
The answer can never be found in ordinary political speeches or programs, especially where they would likely express the harshly retrograde sentiments of “America First.” It can lie only in a thoroughly resolute detachment of individuals from their lethally competitive tribes and from similar claims of other predatory “selves.”
Recalling the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a more perfect union — both national and international — must stem ultimately from a determined replacement of “civilization” with “planetization.” This replacement would be premised upon an inextinguishable global solidarity or “oneness,” and make individual human beings, not their competitive nation-states, the primary referents of palpable reform.
This replacement, in turn, will depend upon prior affirmations of Self, upon a steadily expanding acceptance of the uniformly global sacredness of all individuals. To wit, American policies cannot continue to disregard the essential human rights of vast segments of its own citizens and those who live in other countries. In more narrowly legal terms, this human rights imperative is not just a matter of volitional cooperation; it reflects an integral requirement of a US domestic law that already incorporates certain binding norms of international law.
For the doubters of “incorporation,” they can begin by looking into Article 6 of the US Constitution, the “Supremacy Clause,” which expressly mandates such vital adaptations of authoritative treaty law.
President Trump should quickly understand that the state of our domestic union can never be any better than the state of our wider world. To act pragmatically upon this core understanding, he must first go far beyond his conspicuously belligerent orientation to world politics (an orientation that the logicians would call fallacious) and then finally acknowledge that our personal and collective fates are inextricably intertwined.
“America First” is a colossal mistake, sorely disadvantaging the United States along with a growing number of other nations. In essence, the state of our American union should never be fashioned apart from the much broader and more durable considerations of planetary survival. Naturally, this seemingly fanciful conclusion will be widely dismissed as too utopian or “unrealistic.”
Still, in all such potentially existential matters, it would be best to recall film director Federico Fellini’s appropriately wide-ranging observation: “In the end, the visionary is the only realist.” In reality, this does not mean that the visionary should have altogether free reign in determining correct reformist strategies, but it does suggest that the very worst strategy for America and the world would be to have us all continue on the present and time-dishonored course.
By its abundantly incoherent claims, “America First” is not only “false and against nature,” but it is also a fetid breeding ground for expanding crimes of war and crimes against humanity.
Louis René Beres (Ph.D. Princeton 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. His twelfth and latest book is “Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy” http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/surviving-amid-chaos-israels-nuclear-strategy. Professor Beres publishes in such places as Yale Global Online; Oxford University Press Blog; The Atlantic; The National Interest; US News & World Report; The Hill; Harvard National Security International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); BESA (Israel); JURIST; Israel Defense; The New York Times and The Daily Princetonian.