Election decided centuries ago

Election decided centuries ago November 19, 2016

 Sioux Falls (SD) Argus Leader, Op-Ed    

     The election of racist, misogynist, reading-averse Donald J. Trump as the United States’ 45th president was actually assured centuries ago when Western educators stopped teaching classical philosophy as essential.

     It happened after the European Enlightenment’s once-bright promise dimmed and philosophy’s educational imperative waned, marooning the revolutionary intellectual innovations of ancient Greek sages in utilitarian science, where they flourished spectacularly, but as philosophy’s rational glories were purged from other realms of human thought.

     Science, fortunately, evolved into the crown jewel of modernity, so that’s good. But what was lost when philosophy’s skeptical, rigorously questioning ethos was barred from humanistic considerations—mainly because Christian leaders found it so threatening to the faith’s wholly imaginary enterprise—has had tragic, expansive consequences. Chief among these, most particularly in America today (as well as centuries prior), is that our school children and, thus, our later adult selves (all of us, in other words), never learn to appropriately apply logic and reason, simply and defensibly, to every question. That is what classical philosophy is really all about, not the dense, impenetrable intellectual riddles most people seem to assume the discipline entails. Philosophy, in short, teaches us how to think robustly, with clarity, fairness and a deep reverence for truth and material reality.

     So, in effect, for the 240 years so far in the American experiment—for which the jury is still out, it’s important to note—we have pointedly chosen to not teach ourselves how to think rationally by withholding it from children. This is a big problem, considering that selfless, rational thinking is not an intuitive, instinctual skill for most people. Self-interest and knee-jerk bias are the far more common, and risky, denominators of human thought.

     Which brings us to our proudly non-reading next president—and, more to the point, his “uneducated” supporters. To anyone with working eyes, ears and even a modest commitment to reason, the Trump campaign was profoundly and manifestly untruthful, far more than his opponent’s. Virtually every policy pronouncement and claim he put forth was unsubstantiated and irrational, from the quixotic “wall” he purports to build on the Mexican border, to so-called “criminal” activities of Hillary Clinton, to the idea that “Nobody respects women more than I do.” Nonsense all. And widely dismissed. Yet these fantasies were the hugely popular core of his campaign. Why? Because Donald Trump and his core of mostly white, poorly educated men don’t care or perhaps even know about rationality; they care about jacking up their rage and resentment toward “others” in society—the “establishment elites” and “liberals,” et al—whose policies and disregard have purportedly caused their jobs to disappear along with their prospects and self-regard. Certainly, globalization has had a disproportionate negative affect on this segment of the population, and the governing elite bear some of the blame for not adequately addressing it.

     But the white, blue-collar men who aggressively support Trump also need to look to themselves as possible sources of their own sufferings, as philosophy’s rational rules require, and to weigh as well the enormous existential risk to our democracy and the general well-being of all Americans clearly posed by a demagogue like Mr. Trump. They should consider whether it was not in their interest to forgo higher education or avoid retraining for jobs to compensate for the effect of globalization on their lives, as many haven’t, or refuse to relocate to where jobs exist in a steadily improving economy with a currently low unemployment rate. As rational beings, they must also factor-in easily anticipated effects—potentially tragic—of their fervent devotion to a candidate who has enthusiastically and unapologetically promoted racism, religious intolerance, torture, assault and denigration of women, brutal authoritarianism around the world, white supremacy, violence and hate, not to mention cavalier disrespect for the nation’s fundamental democratic laws, rules and values.

     Clearly, though, Trump’s spectacular trouncing of his opponent, fueled significantly by his enormous base of marginally educated, philosophy-challenged, enraged white men clearly indicates his voters were not thinking rationally about the potential risks posed by their candidate’s dangerous tendencies and the high improbability President Trump would be able to do what he says or even had been truthful. This is how a philosophical deficit operates. It turns us into feeling rather than thinking animals. And that’s when error and tragedy are born. Sadly, philosophy is not taught in U.S. schools until college today, but considering that our fundamental characters and deep beliefs are largely formed very early in childhood, when rational training would likely have most effect, college is probably far too late to change how we think.

     So, congratulations, we’ve elected a uniquely dangerous demagogue to the presidency, and unless we choose to start seriously teaching our young children rational philosophy, we are bound to keep doing it.


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