Dickinson College Alum Hosts Clarke Forum

Lianna Brown ’22, News Editor

On Monday, March 2, Tom Brier ’14 spoke to a small audience of students, faculty and community members about his book, While Reason Slept, which explores the history of national politics, from the beginning to present-day politics. He then offered a solution for recapturing our Founding Fathers’ path to a rational republic.

Brier studied philosophy while at Dickinson College and explained that this education inspired him to think about United States history through a philosophical lens. “This book, for me, was very spontaneous […] I didn’t set out to write a book,” Brier said.

First, Brier explained the title of the book, which originates from Winston Churchill’s book While England Slept. He explained that in his book, Churchill was sounding the alarm and warning the public of the threat the Nazis posed to humanity. Brier compared Churchill’s warning to how the American public may be going down a disastrous path without realizing it before it is too late. 

Brier then walked the audience through a very brief summary of United States history, beginning with the start of national politics that came from our founding fathers to today’s politics. Throughout his talk, Brier emphasized the ideals of democracy, education and the problems with advertising and propaganda. 

Brier compared the philosophies of Edward Bernays and Dale Carnegie, whom he believes both transformed America from a country of citizens into a country of consumers. Brier explained that Bernays’ creation of modern propaganda led to the demise of rational thinking. Brier furthered that Bernays’ book convinced Americans that individual choice and material accumulation were more important than communal equality and the pursuit of knowledge. Next, he explained that Carnegie’s book detailed how to become contributing members of society and the economy, but Brieremphasized that Carnegie made no effort to talk about the common good. Brier then combined Bernays’ and Carnegie’s influence, and called it “bernagie,” as he explained that this group is comprised of advertisers and consumers who are unable to identify deception and think critically about complex subjects. “We aren’t really a country of citizens anymore, we’re a country of consumers,” Brier said. 

Brier argued that by degrading into a nation of consumers, we have lost the essence of democracy. Brier explained that to solve the predicament of being a nation of consumers, we must relearn political science to understand the underlying construction of government. “As a nation, we believe that good government, once established, lasts forever, which is not true,” Brier said. He then questioned, “If we were to create a constitution by scratch, who would we be influenced by?” He explained that thinkers of the past were influenced by the writings of philosophers John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Montesquieu, but today, we may be influenced by Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, among others.

Throughout his talk, Brier emphasized the importance of educating in the foundation of democracy. He discussed how, despite the trying times of the early republic, most of the country was literate. Having a good education in a democracy is essential, as you need to be educated to govern yourself, Brier explained. 

After discussing education in the early republic, emphasizing the necessity of good education for a democracy, Brier continued in his recollection of United States history. Brier noted Andrew Jackson’s presidency as the first “turning point” in American history. Until Jackson’s presidency, democracy rested on an educated citizenry, but Jackson launched a crusade to upend the political system, he made the ideals of self-interest and being a “self-made man,” the ideal. Jackson was anti-intellectual, and it was effective at deemphasizing education. Brier argued that at this point in time, the founders’ dream of civic-minded, learned citizens remained a dream.

Next, Brier discussed the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, which emphasized civic duty. Brier explained that Roosevelt did not understand the “American appetite for profit and luxury.” For the first time in American history, the prospect of colossal wealth was available to the masses and, “luxury would start to corrupt the soul.” Brier continued, and explained that in the early 1900s, consumerism took hold and became the dominant ideology of the American public. Making money in the United States became the ultimate goal of the American businessman, and they would do “anything to do so,” Brier said. 

Brier emphasized the influence of propaganda on United States history and ideology of the nation multiple times through the talk. Specifically, he discussed how President Bill Clinton continuously installed polling booths throughout the country and changed his views based on polling questions of the times. Brier continued, discussing the extreme power that propaganda holds. It manipulated public opinion with the end goal already in place, making people believe that they are acting in their own interest, when they are really acting against it. 

Throughout his talk, Brier emphasized the idea of democracy, and at the end, he gave ways to ‘fix’ democracy and America. He said that democracy can be fixed since it is already in the system, we just need to be aware that “advertising is propaganda, we have long been blind to the power of propaganda, most politicians are beholden to private interests and private power has increased.” Brier explained that the old model of democracy is personal ambition at all costs, and the new model cannot be the same. 

“Brier was an eloquent speaker, but I was not impressed. As a student of history and a woman of color, I felt that the events and people Brier chose to discuss offered a white-washed and unbalanced view of the history of America, reflective of Brier’s privilege and the general tendency to pander to a ‘great white man’ narrative of American history, especially when it comes to the Founding Fathers. The general lack of inclusion on behalf of women and people of color in the American historical narrative actually perpetuates the marginalization Brier later condemned in the talk and the Q&A,” said Mia Romano ’22.