Sometimes it seems as if there is a universal radio station, some worldwide broadcast working in polyglot fashion to influence the minds of the world’s population. (Well, the part of the population that has written language and is generally aware of other parts of the planet, that is.) Lately, this Zeitgeist has been harsh, bullying, xenophobic, and nativist. Witness the election of Donald Trump and the concurrent rise of autocratic ideologies across the world, from Putin to Marine Le Pen to Xi Jinping. What we’re seeing is the sanctification of bullying and the denigration of education, with science serving as the public whipping boy.
It’s amusing to look back on the way terminologies were used to denote new and progressive thinking in the 20th Century: just think of the Social Sciences. Political Science, Economics, and such. It was as if there were laws of politics out there to be found; laws of behaviors and of monetary policy. All one needed was enough education, and the answers would be found, leading to universal human happiness.
One might think such a reliance on education and science to be quaint or idiosyncratic. A person who is out of work is rarely interested in anything beyond the immediate answer to his or her own employment dilemma; no political scientist ever came up with a hard and fast Law such as might exist in Newtonian physics. But science is always more concerned with the process than in the destination. It was this reliance on science and education that made a hopeful world, a co-operative and welcoming world.
How utterly different things are now.
China thinks only of China’s welfare; Putin’s concern is Russia, period; Alternative für Deutschland cares only about Germany; Trump wouldn’t care if the rest of the world disappeared, except that he’d like to turn the Great Wall of China into a glitzy, banal hotel.
The Zeitgeist has already gone past the first step in this denial of the modern by creating national leaders who puff up the pride of native-born individuals, as if everyone were superior to the rest of the world because of where they happened to have been born. American Exceptionalism is ridiculed in Russia, but Russians have a very similar set of beliefs about Mother Russia. The rejection of immigration and multiculturalism is inevitably a means of strengthening the nativist love of place. We see this rejection all over the world, with only a few notable exceptions such as Canada and Sweden. The Zeitgeist will reach those places, too, in time.
The future is not bright. State-sanctioned bullying is never profitable. My hope is that Donald Trump self-destructs, taking his entire wing of the party along with him into the abyss of Lethean forgetfulness. Maybe the world can learn a lesson from us. Maybe the hunger for tribal behavior and vindictiveness will leave the United States exhausted, bloodied, and incapable of partaking of more. Then, perhaps, we might educate ourselves out of the darkness. Until then, keep your mind open, your books at hand, and your love of this entire planet — not just your little piece of it — preciously intact.