Sunday, 9 February 2020

The pursuit of happiness: the Trump in us

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Last summer, I read the article Why science needs the humanities to solve climate change. Watching a number of democratically elected authoritarian leaders attacking, as usual, the humanities, this article reminded us of why they're doing it:

“Scholars in the humanities interpret human history, literature and imagery to figure out how people make sense of their world. Humanists challenge others to consider what makes a good life, and pose uncomfortable questions – for example, ‘Good for whom?’ and ‘At whose expense?’”.

The authors – Steven D. Allison, a Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Earth System Science and Tyrus Miller, the Dean of the School of Humanities, both from the University of California – affirmed that “Cultural scholars and philosophers can inject ethical principles into policymaking” and that “Humanists can also help decision makers see how history and culture affect policy options.

They can truly do that. But are decision makers interested?

Assisting at the aggravation and the emboldening of the Trump phenomenon – its lack of humanism, its arrogance allied to proud ignorance, its contempt for criticism and the pursuit of truth – my mind keeps moving further from that one man, to his party. A large group of elected citizens, with a majority in the Senate, who keep justifying the unjustifiable, endorsing relativism, normalising barbarism or… remain silent. In the most recent episode, the impeachment trial, only one Republican senator voted to condemn the US President for abuse of power; only four Republican senators tried to convince the President not to fire officials who testified before the Congress. In the trial, one of the President’s lawyers, respected constitutionalist Alan Dershowitz, argued that “every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest” and that “if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

Once again, the humanities ring the alarm and draw revealing parallels. In the article This is how ancient Rome’s republic died – a classicist sees troubling parallels at Trump’s impeachment trial, Associate Professor of Classics Timothy Joseph reminds us the notion that a president’s personal position is inseparable from that of the nation itself is similar to the notion that took hold during the ascendancy of the man known as Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. “This inability to separate the personal interests of a leader from the interests of the country he or she leads has powerful echoes in ancient Rome. There, no formal change from a republican system to an autocratic system ever occurred. Rather, there was an erosion of the republican institutions, a steady creep over decades of authoritarian decision-making, and the consolidation of power within one individual – all with the name ‘Republic’ preserved.”

Thus, further from the responsibilities of the authoritarian leader, what troubles me the most is the role of the entourage and individual responsibility. In our flawed democracies, we are surrounded by all sorts of small dictators who, once gaining some power, of any sort, aim at dictating what may be discussed and in what terms, as well as at silencing healthy debate and, especially, criticism of their actions. But they are not alone in this, they couldn’t do it alone. They are surrounded by people eager to support the authoritarianism they baptise as “conviction” or “vision”, freely compromising their intellectual honesty at the service of a “worthy cause” (the Humanists would ask ‘Worthy for whom?’ and ‘At whose expense?’).  

A colleague recently shared on Facebook an extract from “Sobre as escolhas” (On Choices) by Agostinho da Silva: “(…) if we are all too well prepared to claim freedom for ourselves, we seem to be less willing to claim freedom for others or to grant them the freedom that is in our power; if we knew the machine of the world better, perhaps we would discover that much tyranny establishes itself outside of us, as if it were the projection or as being really the projection of the autocratic lines that we have inside us: first we oppress, then we become oppressed; deep down, we almost always complain about the dictators that we ourselves are to others."

According to Aristotle, the true politician is the one that can make people better human beings. But each one of us is (can be; should be) a politician, and not only those few that seat in the parliament. We are all true politicians by being true life companions, true lovers, true parents, true colleagues, true teachers, true judges, true doctors, true policemen, true journalists… This is also the truth that we should expect of, recognise and strive to support in others. Things don’t happen despite us, but because of us. Let´s help each other be the best we can.

Aristotle also said that perfect happiness lies in the activation of the highest part of the human soul, the logic. Shouldn’t we try to be happy? How high a price are we willing to pay for compromising our intellectual honesty? And what for?

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