If this U.S. is to survive Trump, and not sink further into a morass of fascist horrors, it can only succeed if there is a deliberate, intentional recourse to reshaping our popular culture in the image of the core values that defined this noble experiment in democracy from the beginning.
Democracy’s lifeblood is virtue. Virtue was the Renaissance concept that preceded the Enlightenment. The dictionary calls it a “moral excellence whose characteristics are valued as promoting collective and individual greatness.”
In short, it not only embodies all the things that Trump is not, but what his core modus operandi prevails against. His is an identity rooted in the repudiation of virtue, in its denigration and defilement. Society normally calls this the personality of the thug, of the bully, of one who has no regard for anything but his self-interest. In our culture today, these traits have become the markers of success. This week’s expose of a national network of college admission fraud is a testimony to this: corrupting the morals of their children in the name of getting them ahead.
It has been heartening to see the rising up of women and their allies to take up the responsibility for our democracy by becoming politically active and running for public office. But the ability of this impulse to transform our culture sufficiently to prevent another Trump-like person from ever reaching high public office again requires two things.
First, it needs the development of a fuller appreciation of the implications of both virtue and its opposite for our culture. Second, the implications of this need to permeate the entire culture, from the sorriest sitcoms on TV to our noblest artistic contributions in cinema, literature, music, theater, philosophical discourse and even sports.
It was the cultivation of a Renaissance cultural notion of virtue that gave rise to the elevation of the power of the human mind to acquire knowledge and embrace science, leading into the Enlightenment of the 18th century, and the revolution that produced the United States of America. It was science, it was reason, that prospered in a world where the potential of every single human being was valued that caused the American revolution and the noble experiment in democracy that the U.S. Constitution represents. It was the opposite of the kinds of fear-mongering superstitious religion that powerful enemies of democracy spread to thwart it.
But unfortunately, as author Adam Gopnik pointed out in his review of two new books about Denis Diderot and the Enlightenment in this week’s New Yorker, entitled “Diderot Dicta, How a Pornographer, Polemicist, and Prisoner Become the Age of Reason’s Greatest Impresario,” the progressive influences of the Enlightenment have “become the villain of many a postmodern seminar” in this era.
It was under the guise of postmodernism that the core values of our democracy, including of virtue, have come under such heavy fire in the last 50 years in America. “Postmodernism” has blamed the Enlightenment “for racism, colonialism, and most of the really bad isms” and the formation of “a scientific hierarchy of humanity that justified imperialism…the triumph of science (being) merely and excuse for more orderly forms of social subjugation,” Gopnik wrote.
While some have sought to right injustices using the philosophical tools of “postmodern” thought, those with no such motives have taken its repudiation of virtue, morality and love in favor of the alleged primacy of cynical power and pleasure to assault cornerstone values of democracy. This is the force that was promoted by the ruling elites to blunt the influence of the civil rights gains of the 1960s.
While some gains have continued, extending the legal concept of equality, for example, an insidious force against them has also been growing under the guise of postmodernism, empowering irrationality and immorality in religion, politics and popular culture. Thus Trump.
Countering this recently have been the two books that Gopnik reviewed, as well as the “Enlightenment Now” volume published last year by Harvard professor Steven Pinker and the massive contributions of Princeton professor Jonathan Israel in his works, “Democratic Enlightenment,” “Radical Enlightenment” and more.