America and the Age of Unreason


America and the Age of Unreason

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Thomas Paine, the 18th-century British-American philosopher created a mini-revolution with the publication of his seminal work, The Age of Reason. American citizens were particularly influenced by the “Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology” since it broke fresh ground by espousing the cause of free thinkers and rejecting dogmas, miracles, and the absolute power of the church over citizens.

A hundred and forty-five years later, French philosopher-author Jean Paul Sartre injected Paine’s underlying ideas of freedom into his 20th-century classic novel, also titled The Age of Reason. On the surface, the edgy plot follows a philosopher over three days as he tries to gather money to pay for his mistress’s abortion, but the subtext is an exploration of the human psyche. The eventual takeaway is that freedom is the ultimate aim that one must constantly struggle for.

The Age of Reason was what once ruled over the world’s greatest democracy, which once led the way in teaching us capitalism, individual liberty, democratic ideals, and rule of law. But present-day America, the America that is erecting walls and throwing bans at the world, is living in what can only be labelled the Age of Unreason.

Imagine a world where a nation of individuals with an annual per capita income of $35,000+ is feeling threatened by individuals from countries that have not yet touched even $3,500. This is a country with the lowest decadal unemployment rate of under 5 per cent and yet it is filled with clamour about loss of jobs to migrants. This is also the time of immense, never-before-witnessed prosperity for America: A GDP of $18 trillion and a GDP per capita of $54,629. Yet, as poll after poll shows that the economy’s gains are only captured by the already wealthy – not by migrants. So is America any less great if three to four per cent of its working population is affected by jobs shifting to lower-cost manufacturing destinations or a million hi-tech migrants joining the economy?

Consider the facts: From 2009 to 2014, one million Mexicans and their families (including US-born children) left the country for Mexico. US census data for the same period shows an estimated 8,70,000 Mexican nationals left Mexico to come to the US, a number smaller than the flow of families from the US to Mexico. Which means that the net migration from Mexico to the US is actually negative for most parts of the last decade. Where exactly is this Mexican immigration problem that has made the country vote for a leader on the promise of a wall?

The fear that has gripped America is a nameless, faceless creature that has no basis in logic or fact. Out of the countries shortlisted for a ban on travellers; neither Iraqi, Syrian, Iranian citizens, nor people from Libya, Sudan, Yemen, or Somalia have been found guilty of any terrorist activity on US soil. But the country voted in a man who promised to take on the Muslim world and he is doing just that during his first week in office.  This nameless, faceless fear… the fear of the outsider, seems to have won.

The sum of all these imagined fears has been peddled successfully by a shrewd man to an ignorant constituency.

This fear of the outsider extends even to those who are insiders. As black killings by (chiefly white) policemen continue unabated, the discussion on race has hit strange depths in America. A scathing piece describing the neutralising of Martin Luther King’s legacy in the Guardian, put it, “…certain white Americans believe that you can have a discussion about race that is post-racial; that black people do not necessarily need to be centred in the struggle for black people’s equality.” This is how “Black Lives Matter” turns into “All Lives Matter”. This is how the most privileged demographic in the world appropriates a movement for racial equality to somehow be about them.

This fear is possible explained by a Vox report that stated that minorities would become the majority by 2050, and would constitute more than 50 per cent of the population. The report spoke about the psychological effects of such news and its role in affecting voter behaviour. “The threat of demographic change – and the loss of status that comes with it – provokes a broad sense of wanting to hunker down,” said the report.

The sum of all these imagined fears has been peddled successfully by a shrewd man to an ignorant constituency. This surely, is a classic sign of the Age of Unreason. How can in this day of information and media overload, such simple facts be overlooked in favour of parochial, anecdotal symbolism? How else can the half-baked diagnosis and suggested cures that are even more village bumpkin-ish, come to pass?

Somewhere along the line, the moral perversion of what’s right or wrong has been lost in this brave new “post-truth” world. Unnecessary ideological differences are invented and then fanned; what is lost is the responsibility to the future. How else would these anti-immigrant misadventures that can screw the economy in the longer term come to pass? To undo the relatively strong economy that Obama has left behind will take more than at least one presidential term, but it’s enough time then for Trump to achieve his agenda.

In the short term, Trump’s America seems to be providing an antidote to this debilitating fear. The long term is someone else’s problem.