The erosion of the soul in the era of stupidity

In President Obama’s recent online commencement speech, he criticized President Trump. Hearing this, I wondered immediately what false and hostile tweets Trump would send in retaliation. I woke the morning after this bemusing to the expected tweets. One tweet was simply the words “100% correct”  to a retweet of a post that: “Obama was the most corrupt president in the history of the US.” Another was “The Obama Administration is turning out to be one of the most corrupt and incompetent in U.S. history. Remember, he and Sleepy Joe are the reasons I am in the White House!!!” Trump’s claims about Obama’s corruption are ridiculous, but they play to a racism that has served him in the past. A further of Trump’s tweets of the morning was “A CNN Faker,” which he added to a retweet: “Mask-police CNN reporter @Kaitlancollins caught removing hers at presser, as soon as she thought she cameras were off.”

Unfortunately, as baseless as Trump’s quotes about Obama are, we can expect those who took Trump’s birtherism seriously to also take these ideas seriously. It’s race baiting, pure and simple. But it works for a significant portion of the Trump base. Regarding his statements about Kaitlan Collins, we might well wonder why Trump would find the criticism worthwhile at all. After all, isn’t it a good thing to get people to wear masks when our epidemiologists have indicated that doing so can help save lives? Evidently not. Apparently the attempt to keep people safe isn’t primarily what Trump is aiming at. Instead, he seems more concerned with his re-election chances and thus is trying to fan the flames of a cultural war and enthuse that part of his base that thinks the virus is not to be taken very seriously—many of the same people incidentally who thought birtherism was to be taken seriously and think that Obamagate is to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, this concisely described incident points to how right a recent Boston Globe editorial by Michael A. Cohen is: we are living in an “era of stupidity”—the stupidity fueled by Trump and kept aflame by those who repeat his lies and conspiracy theories and go along with his deflections. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Day in and day out, if we follow the news we’ll see Trump make one ridiculous statement followed by another. And if we wait just a bit we’ll see plenty of his supporters repeating and defending his ideas. They’ll post about them on face book or organize a demonstration to protest the wearing of masks that help to save people’s lives, or in a face-to-face discussion they’ll defend statements about windmill cancer or raking leaves in the forest or the need to try out disinfectants or sham meds to counter the Coronavirus. Now we can listen for a few days, weeks or months to defenses of another self-serving and ridiculous lie meant to deflect from Trump’s own corruption—Obamagate.

The thing is there are really important things we could be spending our time thinking about—ideas, for example, that could help us better understand the pandemic, or that could bring us to better understand social life or the natural world around us. We could busy ourselves with ideas that edify the human mind, that might improve ourselves and others around us. But today in America (everyday, to be sure, that Trump continues as president) those of us who want to follow current affairs will be busying ourselves with mental rot that is an insult to human mind and to human decency.

We are in part formed by the ideas we are exposed to. Since Antiquity, philosophies of personal cultivation have thus emphasized the importance of exposing ourselves to ideas that expand our minds and that edify us in some way. Philosophers have traditionally advocated the search for truth. But a serious problem under Trump’s political leadership, and especially with a Republican senate largely supportive of him, is that in the US anyone who follows current political dialogue is continually flooded with lies and ideas that have precisely the opposite to an edifying effect. Day after day we are confronted with a banal leader who is more concerned with his own ego than with human lives, more concerned with appearances than truth. We are confronted with lies to a degree unique to many of us. The result on our minds is all but good. The ideas that the president regularly espouses are more like those we would traditionally find in the National Enquirer or on AM fringe radio. Frankly, the ideas are often more than a little nutty; and we’d all be better off not listening to this kind of thing.  Worse still, such distortions are being offered up at the same time that changes are being made to the governmental institutions that set a new basis for our understanding of the world and our moral compass. The best leaders, as many thinkers since Confucius have recognized, inspire the moral sentiment of a people. Sprinkling that with a little Neo-Hegelianism, we can also see them helping to form a social reality that can facilitate better thinking and strengthening bonds of social solidarity and decency. The worst do the opposite. Trump unfortunately does the worst. And as a result, in general we are slowly all left a little bit worse off.

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