Pestilence and Rebirth: Affirming Life in a Time of “Plague”

Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law, Purdue University

By Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law, Purdue University

October 30, 2020

“At the beginning of the pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric….It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth – in other words – to silence.” -Albert Camus, The Plague

There exists no lingering basis for any reasonable doubt. Americans especially but not exclusively are now “in the thick of a calamity.” Unless we act determinedly on behalf of truth – in other words, on behalf of  Logic, Reason and Thought-  we will have to harden ourselves “to silence.

It’s not a bewildering obligation. On the one hand, we have a long-validated logic of scientific discovery. On the other hand, we have the perpetually demeaning obfuscations of shallow rhetoric and political contrivance.

There is more. The choices have now become existential. How could there still remain any plausible dilemma of personal decision? How could there presently emerge even a scintilla of preference for pestilence over rebirth, for death over life?

Meaningful answers are imperative. The best way to answer meaningfully may be in the first person narrative voice. This is, after all, a singularly personal assessment of where we have been, where we are going and where we should be going. By intent, this assessment lacks all of the more usual gravitas of policy prescription and substantive detail. By design, it seeks “to use ideas as a map.”

Here, in short, “cartography” will link to time, not to space.

Looking in the Mirror

Once each year, on my birthday, I look closely in the mirror, more closely than on ordinary days. And each year I grow more apprehensive, of the unavoidable ebbing of life, of the lingering loneliness that has encroached with the death of others close to me, of the gnawing obligation as a husband, father, and grandfather to stay alive myself and of the palpable knowledge that there is nothing I can ever really do to meet this obligation.

Let us begin at the beginning. In the final analysis, we humans are all fundamentally the same. Whatever the colorful and differentiating nuances of nationality, religion and culture, and whatever else we may have achieved as distinctive individuals, we are all creatures of biology. Irremediably.

Though a clear source of anxiety or angst, this plain fact also has inconspicuous benefits. One such benefit of our organic commonality is a conspicuously expanded  opportunity for empathy, human interconnectedness and war avoidance.

Since my last (75th) birthday, far too-many events have continued to reveal, with exquisite clarity, the delicate veneer of  “civilization.”]  Wherever one looks on this imperiled planet, it’s all pretty much the same story. Day to day, we witness, endlessly, a recurring saga of human indifference, triumph, harm, pain, poverty, wealth  and suffering. Recalling William Golding’s shipwrecked schoolboys in Lord of the Flies, we can readily infer that behind this fragile veneer lurks occasional heroism and also an insistently primal barbarism.  Remembering, on balance, the distressing “civilizational” litany of wars, terror attacks, genocides – and now, America’s wanton presidential disregard for medical science – Dostoyevsky’s dark view of society becomes difficult to deny.

Let us be candid. By any reasonable historical and scientific measures,  we humans all too often scandalize our very creation. From the standpoints of justice, law and civilizational progress, therefore, a  simple query cannot  be avoided: Could matters possibly get any worse?

All too often, in the case of exploding Covid19 deaths in the United States, evident wrongdoings do not rise to de jure thresholds of a pertinent crime, but the de facto results of national mismanagement are still manifestly negative. More precisely, in a great many “plague”-related fatalities, these results have effectively been murderous and perhaps even genocidal.          

How shall it all end?  As a long-retired university professor, I am obliged to be analytic.  Human beings, after all, have lived for about eight hundred lifetimes, most of which have been spent in caves.  It should come as no surprise that for most of the almost eight billion people now on earth,  hunger, poverty, violence, and cruelty are an utterly “natural” state of affairs. Moreover, in an unfathomable irony, a huge portion of humankind’s precious but dwindling resources remain earmarked for harms; that is, for still-expanding forms of plutocracy, exploitation and ecstatic celebrations of collective ignorance.

Grotesque, prima facie, these celebrations have been an essential part of US President Donald J,. Trump’s chanting political rallies, ritualistic gatherings that display the same loathing of intellect exhibited earlier at Nuremberg by Joseph Goebbels. “Intellect rots the brain,” shrieked the Third Reich Minister of Propaganda in 1934 and1935. “I love the poorly educated,” volunteered presidential candidate Donald J. Trump back in 2016. The basic authoritarian sentiments here have much in common.

The Crowd is Untruth

“The crowd is untruth,” summed up Danish 1philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th century. Similarly succinct prescience can be discovered in Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd,” Sigmund Freud’s “horde,” and Carl G. Jung’s “mass.” In essence, these terms all mean the very same thing.

Even now, but most notably in the Trump-defiled United States, science yields to certain genuinely monstrous daily deceptions;  imaginary enemies are more-or-less continuously being contrived by the “crowd.” Accordingly, certain core questions should no longer be casually sidestepped or politely avoided. To wit: How much treasure, how much science, how much human labor and planning. how many centuries of learning will  now be ransacked in order to prevent  or undermine American democracy, racial justice and international peace? Will Americans continue to seek national security through a delusionary “balance-of-power” paradigm, an imagined symmetry that has never ever worked since its most formal inception back in the seventeenth century.

How can we still fail to understand that though the metaphor of equilibrium is both captivating and reassuring (older Americans can think here of the Vietnam War “dominos” rationale),  this prescribed arrangement for managing global power is merely a formula for despair?

Frightened by the distressingly visible face of personal mortality, how much longer, one must wonder, can we pretend that zero-sum definitions of conflict represent a realistic path to immortality? In this connection, “immortality” is literally the correct term. The ultimate expectation of every “sacred” instance of war, terrorism and genocide is, after all, “power over death.”

I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. But I do want to know why we have progressed so little as a species and as a nation – at least from the critical standpoints of empathy and coexistence –  and what have I still  to gain from pushing on personally.

Very little has changed. In world politics, the corpse has always been in fashion. Today, a mere score of years after the close of a century that can best be called an Age of Atrocity, whole nations of corpses could quickly become the rage.  Indeed, with the dreadful confluence of plague, war and inequality, it is already happening.

What happens next?

Bob Dylan once sang, “the executioner’s face is well-hidden.”  As for the proverbial “good people,” their predictably ritual silence remains vital to all that would madden and torment. Here in the United States, millions of docile citizens continue to abide a president who defiles virtually everything for which his country allegedly stands, who egregiously violates both national and international law, and who proudly reads or reasons not at all.

What sort of Republic is this?

Nothing Really Changes

Plus ca change…..Nothing primal really changes.  The dinosaurs ruled this once beautiful planet for millions of years, far longer than the brief tenure of our own despoiling species. Long gone, they have left us only their crushed bones as mementoes.

And what artifacts shall we leave behind?

Have we no historical memory?  Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage and Rome, ground to dust, and burned into oblivion.  Is this what it’s ultimately all for?  Do we remain alive only to become captives of an habitually corrupted knowledge and a deservedly terminal despair?

Hope should remain; of this, I am certain. But today, calls for rebirth must sing softly, muted, and even in a dolorous  undertone.  Now, finally, we must learn to understand that the visible Earth is made of ashes and that ashes can signify some things that are momentous. Through the obscure depths of history, we must struggle valiantly to make out the phantoms of great ships of state, and then to learn that the disasters that had sent them down were altogether our affair.

There is more. We must continue to study history, but not in the “normal” atmosphere of contrived heroism and pretended national greatness.  Let candor replace gibberish. America is not “great again.” To grasp the true lessons of history, and therefore of long life, we must come to fully despise such a sullied way of looking at the world.  The worst barbarians, I already know, are not outside the gates. As it was in ancient Rome, many are sequestered  deep within the city, often as exemplars of wealth, privilege and good fortune. These barbarians include not only the hidden and sinister fomenters of large scale international violence, but also visible legions of ordinary citizens, those abundantly “good people” who nonetheless freely revile any too-demanding theory of scientific discovery.

“The mass man,” we learn from 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, “has  no use for reason. He learns only in his own flesh.” This person could also be called a “Herd Man” (Nietzsche); “Crowd Man” (Kierkegaard); or “Horde Man” (Freud). All are similarly characterized by the willful abandonment of independent thought.

There is more in this vein. Donald J. Trump’s America has become grotesquely proud of its extravagant  illiteracy. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s earlier call for “high thinking” and “plain living” has even become a full-blown caricature. Even before the pandemic, before the current “plague,” our major universities, once secure bastions of some residual American intellectual life, became little more than sycophantic adjuncts to the lifeless corporate world.

But it is in science, literature and above-all metaphysics, and not in narrowly crafted vocational preparation, that any true university must define its raison d’être.

In the end, the problem I have felt so acutely, the problem of identifying meaning and security on an endangered planet, is a problem I can never solve personally.  Yet, I do want to go on, to hang on by my fingernails if necessary, to feel, to learn, to help, to love, to grasp life, amid all of its routine flirtations with lifelessness, in order, simply, to be.  An individual, I reason, like a nation, should not be forced to die indefinitely; even at twilight, worn and almost defeated, and on planets about to rendezvous with unimaginably new forms of disease, war, terrorism and  genocide, life must be affirmed.  

That’s why, when I looked so closely on my last birthday, the mirror reflected not only consciousness, fear and trembling, but also identity, will and determination.

Next year, even if it is once again “in the thick of a calamity,” I plan to look again.

Featured photo caption: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog – oil painting by German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich

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Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on security issues and counterterrorism. Born in Zürich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he is the author of  twelve major books dealing with war, terrorism and international law. Dr. Beres’ other writings can be found, among other places,  in The  New York Times; The Atlantic; US News and World Report; Yale Global Online; JURISTThe National Interest; World Politics (Princeton); Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard); The Bulletin of the Atomic ScientistsModern Diplomacy; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); Horasis (Switzerland) and Oxford University Press.