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October 10, 2018 8:20 am

‘America First’ Undermines American Ideals — and Our Humanity

avatar by Louis René Beres

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US President Trump receives a football from Russian President Putin as they hold a joint news conference. Photo: REUTERS/Grigory Dukor.

While stunningly counter-intuitive, the critical gap between technical intelligence and human empathy is more insidious than ever before. In response, one fundamental question should spring immediately to mind: What has created such a strange and wholly injurious state of affairs — where have we gone wrong, not merely as citizens of one country or another, but much more broadly, as key elements of a far wider and integrated human community?

This is not a narrowly academic question posed solely for the philosophers. Rather, it represents the single most pressing practical question. Until we venture a reply, any proposed solutions to war, terror, and genocide will remain intolerably partial, intellectually limited, and resoundingly temporary.

Whether we should care to admit it or not, Americans are immutably part of a much larger human family. Significantly, this imperiled global community continues to accept, without any evident humiliation or embarrassment, the painfully fragile veneer of presumed social coexistence. But we must learn to admit that behind this veneer lurks a dreadful and inconsolable barbarism.

We must candidly inquire: How has an entire species, one so deeply scarred from its start, managed to scandalize even its own blistering creation? Is it “simply” that we are all potential murderers of those who might live beside us? Looking at history, and also at current world affairs, we will acknowledge that this is not a naive or foolish question.

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Not at all.

Wittingly or unwittingly, and in all-too-many different cultures and geographies, the human corpse remains a more-or-less sacred object of veneration, sometimes even one of ritualistic worship. Perversely, especially with spreading weapons of mass destruction, whole nations of corpses could soon become the “fashion.” After all, following even a small nuclear war, cemeteries the size of entire cities would be needed to bury the dead.

Yet again, the silence of “good people” is vital to all that would madden and torment us. These good people, these eternal “bystanders” — both here and in other countries — remain determinedly “uninvolved.”

Naturally, there will always be impassioned reactions to the latest human exterminations in Africa or Asia or Europe or the Middle East, but here in Donald Trump‘s America and amidst our own seemingly advanced “America First” ethos, audible sighs of suffering elsewhere have yet to become seriously bothersome.

For certain, they never quite rise to the level where they might annoyingly interfere with golf.

Whatever our predilections for self-delusion, really big questions must rise to the fore. How much treasure, how much science, how much labor and planning, how many centuries have we humans already ransacked to allow a plausibly unstoppable carnival of chemical, biological, or nuclear harms?

Frightened by the irrepressible specter of one’s own personal death, and also by the often desperate need to “belong” — to be a recognizable member in good standing of a particular state, a faith, a race, or a tribe — how long can we continue to seek personal succor or national security within the lethal illusions of “me first” or “everyone for himself”?

I don’t know the precise answer (nor does anyone else), but I do know that it is surely not a comfortingly long time. I also know that we cannot remain forever unmindful that these seminal queries represent the most vitally important questions before us today.

It follows that finding correct answers will be indispensable to solving all of our overlapping survival, security, and economic challenges.

History is not merely for adornment. It must always have its proper and respected place. In this connection, French philosophers of the 18th century Age of Reason wrote of a siècle des lumieres — a century of light. But the early twenty-first century is still mired in a conspicuously bruising and restrictive darkness.

In principle, at least, this forbidding pall can be loosened or changed, but only if we first learn the core differences in human affairs between cause and effect. We must learn to base our national and international remedies on conquering the real disease, the truly causal pathology, not just the evident symptoms.

For Americans in particular and for our misguided species in general, the barbarians are not primarily outside the gates. We must, therefore, learn to look much more closely within.

The increasingly corrosive human inclination to reject necessary empathy in favor of narrowly technical kinds of intelligence and “progress” — an inclination now most patently apparent in these bewildered United States — is to miss the most important point of all. We are all irreversibly interdependent: Absolutely all individual and collective human futures are irremediably and profoundly interconnected.

Accordingly, unless we can finally begin to value the open secrets of coexistence more seriously than those of casually distracting technologies, there will be no tolerable human future at all.

To those proud “pragmatists” who might disagree on certain supposed grounds of “practicality,” it would be best for them to consider the broadly insightful (and prophetic) words of Frederico Fellini: “Ultimately,” said the imaginative Italian filmmaker, “the visionary is the only realist.”

Dr. Louis René Beres, Ph.D. Princeton, is emeritus professor of international law at Purdue University. He is the author of 12 books and several hundred articles dealing with nuclear strategy and nuclear war. His newest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018). This article was originally published by The Hill.

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