It was the fall of 1955 and, for me, all seemed right with the world. I was living in Ansonia, a small Connecticut town, where the most dramatic event of the year was the annual high school football game against archrival and neighbor, Derby. Dwight Eisenhower was president, the Yankees were in the World Series and the beloved Mrs. Crowley was my third-grade teacher. Life was good, until it wasn’t.
That fall, a boy named William transferred to our class. He was substantially larger and appeared older than all of us, although that could have been my imagination. What really set him apart from us was the fact that he was an absolute bully. From the day he set foot in the class, the boys’ bathroom was a place I dared not enter. It was his supposed headquarters where he extorted money (a dime a day) as well as inappropriate physical contact from some of the other boys in the class. I think he felt sorry for me because other than the one time he wrote obscenities on my hand in ink, he left me alone.
William eventually transferred out of my school. The effect of his bullying on my psyche remained for years, although its true significance didn’t come into focus until I was in the eighth grade English and required to read William Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies.” It was only then that I understood the critical importance of the protections that our societal institutions afford us against the brute and cruel force of an unrestrained bully.
In “The Lord of the Flies,” upper-class British boys get stranded on an uninhabited island. In order to survive, they organize and attempt to mirror the adult organizations to which they were accustomed. Their objectives, like those of our institutions, were to serve the common good, protect equality, and support the well-being of everyone. Unfortunately, the wilder boys eventually break off and acquire power. Gradually, the young men divest themselves of the trappings of civilization and are reduced to murderous savages. Removed from the structure and mechanisms of human society, the boys devolve into their base animal selves.
The themes of William Golding’s novel have clear roots in the writings of Charles Darwin. In his breathtaking work, “The Descent of Man,” Darwin had asserted that first and foremost, we are animals. Just as Copernicus had removed the Earth from the center of the universe, so, too, Charles Darwin had now suggested that we are creatures of survival and creative adaptation. An unfortunate byproduct of his work was the emergence of “social Darwinism,” which wholeheartedly endorsed a “survival of the fittest” scenario. Darwin himself disavowed their theories and never used that term in any of his writings.
A more recent development that can be traced to Darwinian theories is reality television. Its objective is to create a world away from contemporary society and see how people react. So, in shows like “Survivor” and “American Gladiator,” the audience gets to observe how people adapt to their environment. Will they join together to promote the common good or will their claws come out? In each of these shows, there exists a component of survival of the fittest where the winner advances and the loser is removed from the population.
An additional Darwinian principle of creative adaptation is illustrated by yet more reality shows where contestants are critiqued by judges on their ability to creatively adapt to what they are provided with. Those who create something new, who demonstrate an ability to use materials and ingredients in a fresh and exciting way are praised while the others are vanquished. “American Idol,” “Project Runway,” “Chopped” and “Top Chef” are just a few of the shows that embrace this particular Darwinian principle.
In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin made it clear that the evolution of the human species is not always destined to proceed on a positive trajectory. Yes, we will change and adapt to our environment but such adaptation, as it was in “The Lord of the Flies,” is not necessarily enlightened. Unlike Aristotle, Darwin did not presume that things would always get better, just different.
One could question whether what we are seeing on our national stage is a permanent Darwinian adaptation or a temporary detour from our longstanding values. As Time magazine recently pointed out, “For the first 240 years of U.S. history, at least, our most revered chief executives reliably articulated a set of high-minded, humanist values that bound together a diverse nation by naming what we aspired to: democracy, humanity, equality. The enlightenment ideals Thomas Jefferson etched into the Declaration of Independence were given voice by presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama… with each passing month, he (President Trump) is testing anew just how far from our founding humanism his ‘America first’ policies can take us. And over the past two months on our southern border, we have seen the result.”
President Trump’s actions are reminiscent of the savages in “The Lord of the Flies” and my former classmate, William. He is a bully through and through. Whether attacking our allies, praising murderous dictators, promoting hate at his rallies or with vicious tweets, he has done nothing but severely divide our country. In a revealing look into his soul, he asked that the words “just” and “democratic” be removed from the list of qualities we seek beyond our borders. Although he didn’t get his wish, the president’s request alone tells us all we need to know about the man.
President Trump’s attack on institutions whose sole purpose is to provide comfort and protection for our citizens is as alarming as it is disheartening. For example, he now plans on severely cutting the S.N.A.P. programs, which 42 million Americans rely on for life-sustaining food. His actions reflect the same callous disregard for mankind that Herbert Spencer demonstrated while advocating his “survival of the fittest” philosophy in his famous book “The Conditions.”
As a democratic society, we must decide whether we will return our country to the humanistic values that sustained us for almost two and a half centuries or allow it to slide into the abyss of hate, divisiveness, and mean-spiritedness that President Trump and his people espouse. The choice is ours.