For quite a while now we in the West have been operating under certain cultural assumptions about what it means to be human: that human beings are driven by a rational “pursuit of happiness,” that they choose — again, rationally — what is best for them and what contributes to their well-being, both individual and collective. Thanks in part to this Enlightenment heritage, we’ve come to assume that history is a progression toward more inclusion, mutual understanding and respect, tolerance and acceptance and that bigotry, xenophobia, intolerance and racism are doomed to disappear as a matter of “historical necessity.” For history, Hegel has taught us (and we’ve rarely challenged this teacher), is nothing but the gradual unfolding of rationality in the world.
These assumptions are reflected in the way mainstream philosophy has come to construct the human subject. What defines us is primarily our capacity for rational thinking; we always use our reason to make decisions, to relate to the others and the world around us, to conduct our lives. Granted, we still have our emotions, we are capable of feelings and passions, but somehow, in our pursuit of the philosophical project, these aspects of our makeup are given a back seat. They are not really what we are; we are fundamentally “rational agents.”
This presumption has its benefits. For the economic and social behavior of such agents can be predicted — indeed, it can be shaped, stimulated, even engineered. Not only is it possible to know that rational agents will buy a product, but thanks to certain marketing devices they will be compelled to do so. If modern capitalism is to be considered successful, it’s because, at its core, it relies heavily on a hyper-rationalistic understanding of the human subject.
And yet what if this is all wrong and we’ve been caught in a blind spot? What if reason is not the driving force of human history and, just as often, we act irrationally, out of resentment, anger, spite, frustration, envy, even out of self-destructive impulse? What if there is even such a thing as the pursuit of unhappiness? Or, in the underground man’s own words, “What if it so happens that on occasion man’s profit not only may but precisely must consist in sometimes wishing what is bad for himself”? What if we in fact take delight in destruction? “I’m certain that man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos,” proclaims Dostoevsky’s hero in one of his more philosophical moments.
In reality, the hyper-rationalism we inhabit and embrace relies on an extreme simplification of what we really are. It is more a caricature than an actual description. And philosophy should have known better: From Diogenes of Sinope and Augustine to Pascal, from Dostoevsky, Schopenhauer and Leopardi to Nietzsche, Mishima and Cioran, there has been a long tradition of philosophizing on the human abyss. If man is a complex animal, mankind is an even more complicated beast, with many layers and regions, one more irrational than the next.
Freedom of worship is on the decline in many countries
A new report quantifies religious persecution by both governments and individuals
NEARLY 2,000 years ago today, according to the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified for “subverting” the people of Judea. Even after two millennia, humanity has still not managed to eliminate religious persecution. In fact, one index published on April 11th suggests that freedom of worship is actually declining.
Pew, a think-tank, evaluates obstacles to the observance of religion in two dimensions, based on the text of countries’ constitutions and on reports by governments and human-rights groups. It measures laws and policies that limit religious beliefs in a government-restrictions index, and violence and other intimidation from the public at large in a social-hostilities index. The overall level of restrictions on religion is surprisingly elevated: the study finds it “high” or “very high” in fully one-quarter of the 198 nations assessed. Moreover, the situation appears to be getting worse: both the government and social indicators show that religious freedom deteriorated in 2015—the latest year for which data are available—for the first time in three years.
State restrictions on freedom of worship are concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa, the origin of the Abrahamic faiths. In that region, 95% of governments engage in harassment and the use of force against religious groups, with Egypt’s policies the sternest of all. However, European countries, including some of the continent’s secular liberal democracies, can be intolerant as well. Pew found more than 200 cases of government constraints on religious groups not only in Russia, which forbids some forms of public religious practice, but also in France, which maintains a ban on face-coverings in public spaces.
The increase in the social-hostilities index largely reflects rises in mob violence. In India the government counted 561 incidents of religiously motivated physical conflict during the first ten months of 2015, which resulted in 90 deaths and 1,688 injuries. Although such incidents are far less frequent in Europe, they are becoming more prevalent. Pew listed 17 mob-violence incidents on the continent in 2015, up from nine the year before. That figure is sadly likely to have risen again last year.
Markets worry more about political turmoil than encroaching autocracy
The response to Turkey’s referendum result is the latest example
THE VICTORY of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, in a referendum on April 16th is seen by many observers as a worrying step on the road to autocracy. The vote handed Mr Erdogan far-reaching new powers. But the Turkish lira, stockmarket and government bonds all gained ground as the results came in.
It was a reminder that the relationship between markets and democracy is not rock-solid. Like an errant husband, investors may proclaim their fidelity to democracy but are not averse to seeing someone else on the side.
In Turkey, investors may have feared turmoil if Mr Erdogan’s proposal had been defeated. It is an old, but fairly reliable, cliché that investors dislike uncertainty. And the early years of Mr Erdogan’s rule saw rapid economic growth; since he took office, the Istanbul market has gained 760% (see chart).
An authoritarian government can provide certainty, at least in the short term. When Mussolini took power in Italy in 1922, the country’s equity market returned 29% that year and its government bonds 18%, according to Mike Staunton of the London Business School. Hitler’s accession in 1933 saw German shares return 14% and bonds 15%. Admittedly, Wall Street did even better that year under Franklin Roosevelt but still—even then, Hitler was clearly a dangerous extremist.
Between 1935 and 1975, Will and Ariel Durant published a series of volumes that together were known as “The Story of Civilization.” They basically told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations, from the Egyptians, through Athens, Magna Carta, the Age of Faith, the Renaissance and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The series was phenomenally successful, selling over two million copies.
That series encapsulated the Western civilization narrative that people, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world and in time. This narrative was confidently progressive. There were certain great figures, like Socrates, Erasmus, Montesquieu and Rousseau, who helped fitfully propel the nations to higher reaches of the humanistic ideal.
This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals.
Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression
It’s amazing what far-reaching effects this has had. It is as if a prevailing wind, which powered all the ships at sea, had suddenly ceased to blow. Now various scattered enemies of those Western values have emerged, and there is apparently nobody to defend them.
The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did.
Over the past few years especially, we have entered the age of strong men. We are leaving the age of Obama, Cameron and Merkel and entering the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.
Some possible precipitating factors are already in place. How the West reacts to them will determine the world’s future, says Rachel Nuwer.
The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society – democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more – would begin to teeter. Our world would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group. Should we find no way to get the wheels back in motion, we’d eventually face total societal collapse.
Such collapses have occurred many times in human history, and no civilisation, no matter how seemingly great, is immune to the vulnerabilities that may lead a society to its end. Regardless of how well things are going in the present moment, the situation can always change. Putting aside species-ending events like an asteroid strike, nuclear winter or deadly pandemic, history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse. What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path – but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?
As the government extends its six-month-old state of emergency, few Ethiopians wish to return to the disorder and protests of 2014. The economy is growing at 7% a year; many say that emergency rule may not be so bad. Yet hundreds have been “re-educated” in military camps. The regime views the country as a fragile house of cards. So an old model persists: development now, democracy later, writes our Ethiopia correspondent
The election reveals astonishing changes in the political landscape
The politics of values can be exciting. Values stir up emotions in ways that technocratic issues never do. But it can also be dangerous. The example of American politics over the past few decades is depressing. The culture wars have divided the country into tribes that won’t speak to each other. It has made it much more difficult—and sometimes impossible—to address pressing issues such as the Budget. And it has led to a decline in the quality of political life: the Republican Party’s enthusiasm for using cultural issues to recruit downscale voters has led inexorably to Donald Trump, a president who thrives on dividing the country and indulging in cheap demagoguery. Britain is taking its first steps down a dangerous path.
Are you feeling radical? Do you think that the status quo is fundamentally broken and we have to start thinking about radical change? If so, I’d like to go back a century so that we might learn how radicalism is done.
The years around 1917 were a great period of radical ferment. Folks at The New Republic magazine were championing progressivism, which would transform how the economy is regulated and how democracy works. At The Masses, left-wing activists were fomenting a global socialist revolution. Outside the White House radical suffragists were protesting for the right to vote and creating modern feminism.
People in those days had one thing we have in abundance: an urge to rebel against the current reality — in their case against the brutalities of industrialization, the rigidities of Victorianism, the stale formulas of academic thinking.
There’s just something worrisome every time we find ourselves replacing politics of democracy with the politics of scandal. In democracy, the issues count, and you try to win by persuasion. You recognize that your opponents are legitimate, that they will always be there and that some form of compromise is inevitable.
In the politics of scandal, at least since Watergate, you don’t have to engage in persuasion or even talk about issues. Political victories are won when you destroy your political opponents by catching them in some wrongdoing. You get seduced by the delightful possibility that your opponent will be eliminated. Politics is simply about moral superiority and personal destruction.
The politics of scandal is delightful for cable news. It’s hard to build ratings arguing about health insurance legislation. But it’s easy to build ratings if you are a glorified Court TV, if each whiff of scandal smoke generates hours of “Breaking News” intensity and a deluge of speculation from good-looking former prosecutors.
The politics is great for those forces responsible for the lawyerization of American life. It takes power out of the hands of voters and elected officials and puts power in the hands of prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The politics of scandal drives a wedge through society. Political elites get swept up in the scandals. Most voters don’t really care.
So when I got home, I called my teacher and friend Dov Seidman, author of the book “How” and C.E.O. of LRN, which helps companies and leaders build ethical cultures, and asked him what he thought was happening to us.
“What we’re experiencing is an assault on the very foundations of our society and democracy — the twin pillars of truth and trust,” Seidman responded. “What makes us Americans is that we signed up to have a relationship with ideals that are greater than us and with truths that we agreed were so self-evident they would be the foundation of our shared journey toward a more perfect union — and of respectful disagreement along the way. We also agreed that the source of legitimate authority to govern would come from ‘We the people.’”
But when there is no “we” anymore, because “we” no longer share basic truths, Seidman argued, “then there is no legitimate authority and no unifying basis for our continued association.”
We’ve had breakdowns in truth and trust before in our history, but this feels particularly dangerous because it is being exacerbated by technology and Trump.
The Problem With Participatory Democracy Is the Participants
Americans who live in relative comfort are emotionally invested in politics, especially after the election, but in a degraded form of politics that caters to the voyeurism of news junkies and the short attention spans of slacktivists. They are engaging in a phenomenon I call “political hobbyism.” They desperately want to do something, but not something that is boring, demanding or slow.
Political hobbyists want easy ways to register their feelings. Democrats in particular embrace tools like Resistbot that offer instantly gratifying participation. Beyond the current political climate, Democrats, more than Republicans, believe in mass participation as a core value and also believe it empowers their side.
But cheap participation reflects a troubling infirmity in how partisans of both parties engage in politics. In fact, it is not because of gerrymandering, Citizens United, cable news or any of the other common scapegoats that our system is broken, but because of us: ordinary people who are doing politics the wrong way.
Why so many African presidents are ditching term limits
They calculate that the costs of doing so are low
TODAY, August 4th, Rwanda’s president of 17 years, Paul Kagame (pictured), will be re-elected for a third term (the result is not in question). This concludes a process that began in 2015 when his party, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, proposed a constitutional amendment to allow Mr Kagame to outstay the two-term limit. In neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo the president, Joseph Kabila, has long been mulling a similar ruse. He should have left office last December. In nearby Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza announced in 2015 that he would stand for a controversial third term as president. A plan to amend or ditch term limits entirely is expected to be announced this autumn. And tomorrow, August 5th, Mauritanians will vote in a constitutional referendum that critics see as paving the way for a third term, too. If they succeed, these presidents will join the ranks of the 13 African heads of state who have successfully rolled back term limits. Why are they doing this?
Term limits became common in Africa with the wave of democratisation that swept the continent in the 1990s. Most countries included them in their constitutions after pressure from America and African democracy activists. Today there is widespread support for them. Afrobarometer, a polling firm, found that about three-quarters of people in 34 African countries said that presidential mandates should be restricted to two terms. Rwanda is an exception: nearly 4m Rwandans signed a “spontaneous” petition to let Mr Kagame stay on, and only ten people openly opposed it. But Mr Kagame rules his country through fear. In other countries, such as Burkina Faso in 2014, street protests forced the then president, Blaise Compaoré, to backtrack and flee the country. In 2015 Mr Kabila’s neighbour across the river in Congo-Brazzaville, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, successfully won a referendum allowing a third term—but provoked violent unrest in the process. Burundi has been in bloody turmoil ever since Mr Nkurunziza’s declared his third-term intentions.
Donald Trump is not the answer to this nation’s problems, so the great questions of the moment are: If not Trump, what? What does the reaction to Trump look like?
For some people, the warriors of the populist right must be replaced by warriors of the populist left. For these people, Trump has revealed an ugly authoritarian tendency in American society that has to be fought with relentless fervor and moral clarity.
For others, it’s Trump’s warrior mentality itself that must be replaced. Warriors on one side inevitably call forth warriors on the other, and that just means more culture war, more barbarism, more dishonesty and more dysfunction.
The people in this camp we will call moderates. Like most of you, I dislike the word moderate. It is too milquetoast. But I’ve been inspired by Aurelian Craiutu’s great book “Faces of Moderation” to stick with this word, at least until a better one comes along.
Moderates do not see politics as warfare. Instead, national politics is a voyage with a fractious fleet. Wisdom is finding the right formation of ships for each specific circumstance so the whole assembly can ride the waves forward for another day. Moderation is not an ideology; it’s a way of coping with the complexity of the world. Moderates tend to embrace certain ideas:
It is impossible to demonstrate the value of programs in democracy, governance and human rights on a dollar-and-cents basis. But when we drill down to the details for programs of international assistance intended to strengthen democratic governance around the world, my research demonstrates that many standard interventions do work: for example, quota policies increasing the number of women in elected office; training that improves the skills of local electoral officials; and constitutional and legal reforms.
Some risky investments may not pay off. Some countries — like Venezuela, Poland and Hungary — have clearly moved toward autocracy in recent years.
In the longer term, however, as Freedom House, an American watchdog organization, demonstrates, there have been widespread gains worldwide. Progress is often incremental and rarely featured in newspaper headlines — but it happens all the time. Advancing democracy and human rights helps to generate the underlying conditions most favorable to peace and stability, ensure the delivery of public services, and build allies and friends. It is also, quite simply, the right thing for America to do.
But I do think there’s such a thing as private ownership in the public interest, and of fiduciary duties not only to shareholders but also to citizens. Journalism is not just any other business, like trucking or food services. Nations can have lousy food and exemplary government, as Great Britain demonstrated for most of the last century. They can also have great food and lousy government, as France has always demonstrated.
But no country can have good government, or a healthy public square, without high-quality journalism — journalism that can distinguish a fact from a belief and again from an opinion; that understands that the purpose of opinion isn’t to depart from facts but to use them as a bridge to a larger idea called “truth”; and that appreciates that truth is a large enough destination that, like Manhattan, it can be reached by many bridges of radically different designs. In other words, journalism that is grounded in facts while abounding in disagreements.
I believe it is still possible — and all the more necessary — for journalism to perform these functions, especially as the other institutions that were meant to do so have fallen short. But that requires proprietors and publishers who understand that their role ought not to be to push a party line, or be a slave to Google hits and Facebook ads, or provide a titillating kind of news entertainment, or help out a president or prime minister who they favor or who’s in trouble.
Their role is to clarify the terms of debate by championing aggressive and objective news reporting, and improve the quality of debate with commentary that opens minds and challenges assumptions rather than merely confirming them.
Democracy Can Plant the Seeds of Its Own Destruction
Will President Trump’s assault on the norms underpinning constitutional democracy permanently alter American political life?
On a daily basis, Trump tests the willingness of the public to accept a president who lies as a matter of routine. So far, Trump has persuaded a large swath of America to swallow what he feeds them.
Asked whether the media makes up stories about Trump, nearly half the population of the United States, 46 percent, now says yes, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted Oct. 12-16. This compares to 37 percent who say that the media does not fabricate material about the president. While Republicans and Democrats diverge in the directions you would expect, a plurality of independents, 44 percent, says that the media produces false stories; 31 percent say the media is accurate.
Trump has flourished at a time when trust in basic institutions — organized religion, banks, medical services, Congress, the media, government, you name it — has eroded. His presidency is a product of this erosion, but it is also proving to be an accelerant of the process.
Eight days after Trump was elected, Clare Malone, a senior political writer for the website FiveThirtyEight, put it this way:
Trump did not so much conjure a dark view of America’s direction as tap into reserves that have lain deep and been sporadically voiced.
Or, as Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk write in the July 2016 issue of the Journal of Democracy:
Even as democracy has come to be the only form of government widely viewed as legitimate, it has lost the trust of many citizens who no longer believe that democracy can deliver on their most pressing needs and preferences.
President Trump is roughly the same age as Socrates when he died (70) and is just as stubborn. There ends any resemblance between the American president and the Athenian gadfly.
Socrates lived his life as an endless examination of what is good and true and right, seeking neither office nor wealth; Mr. Trump is a know-it-all demagogue who treats the highest office as his right. Socrates served his city as a soldier in war when called upon; Mr. Trump played the system — avoiding military service, exploiting legal loopholes and connections, amassing riches. Socrates said he pursued knowledge because he knew nothing, and that people had to learn from experts, not follow the crowd. Mr. Trump proclaims himself the best at everything and gives the crowd what it wants, in order to make it his. He belittles experts, even his own country’s foreign service. “I’m the only one that matters,” he declares.
In arguing for his life before a jury of 501 of his fellow citizens, Socrates rejected the charges of corrupting Athens’s youth and of creating new gods. But he refused to make a plea for exile, saying that rather than punish him the city should reward him for asking questions. When the death sentence was handed down, he accepted his fate calmly. He had chosen to live in Athens and this meant that he would respect its laws even when they worked against him, he said.
The United States president calls his country’s judiciary “a laughingstock.” He rails against any check on his authority, disagreeing with investigations into his associates, demanding the prosecution of political rivals. His lack of interest in the Constitution that he is sworn to uphold is breathtaking.
Socrates’ rational arguments should have easily refuted the charges against him, but to him this was secondary to the fact that he had been tried and sentenced according to the law. The process did not allow for an appeal.
“Both in war and in courts and everywhere else, one must obey the commands of one’s city and country, or persuade it as to the nature of justice,” Socrates tells his friend Crito, in a dialogue written by Plato, another of his friends and pupils. The law, Socrates argues, provides two alternatives: Citizens can either use persuasion to change it, or they must do as it says.
There was a striking moment in the focus group that consultant Frank Luntz recently held with a group of Roy Moore supporters in Alabama. One of the voters said that the women who are accusing Moore of harassment are being paid to do so. Luntz asked the group how many people thought the women are being paid. A bunch of hands shot up and voices called out that all of the women are being paid.
That moment captures the radicalism of the current moment — the loss of faith in institutions, the tendency to see corrupt conspiracies, the desire for total change, the belief that sometimes you’ve got to hire the biggest jerk available to get that change, and you’ve got to be willing to ignore facts to justify it.
That attitude is evident on the pro-Trump right, but also on the left. The woke activists, the angry Sanders socialists and social justice warriors are just as certain that the system is rigged, that rulers are corrupt and that the temple has to be torn down. The moderate left is being decimated across Europe and that will probably happen here.
We’re living in an age of radicalism.
But today’s radicalism is unusual. First, we have radical anger without radical policies.
Stylistically and culturally, Trumpian populism screams “blow it up” and “drain the swamp.” But Donald Trump’s actual policies are run-of-the-mill corporatist. The left-wing radicals talk a lot against the systems of oppression and an institutionalized injustice. But they are nothing like the radicals of the 1930s or the 1960s.
Today’s radicals do not want to upend the meritocracy, which is creating a caste system of inherited inequality. They don’t want to stop technical innovation, which is displacing millions of workers. They don’t have plans to reverse individualism, which atomizes society and destroys community. A $15 minimum wage may be left wing, but it’s not Marxist-Leninism.
Second, today’s radicalism is more about identity than social problems.
Both the Trumpian populists and the social justice warriors are more intent on denouncing the people they hate than on addressing the concrete problems before them. Consider the angry commentary you hear during a given day. How much of it is addressing a problem we face, and how much of it is denouncing people we dislike?
Third, today’s radicalism assumes that war is the inherent state of things.
The key influence here is Saul Alinsky. His 1971 book, “Rules for Radicals,” has always been popular on the left and recently it has become fashionable with the Tea Party and the alt-right. One of his first big assertions is that life is warfare. It is inevitably a battle between the people and the elites, the haves and the have-nots, or, as his heirs would add, between the whites and the blacks, the Republicans and the Democrats, Islam and the West. If you’re not willing to treat life as an endless war you’re a cuck.
Fourth, there is the low view of human nature.
Today’s radicals conduct themselves on the presumption that since life is battle, moral decency is mostly a hypocritical fraud. To get anything done the radical has to commit evil acts for good causes. “The ethics of means and ends is that in war the end justifies almost any means,” Alinsky writes. “Ethical standards must be elastic to stretch with the times,” he adds.
“Ethics are determined by whether one is losing or winning.” That sentence could have been uttered by Donald Trump, but it was really written by Saul Alinsky.
What can we conclude about the radicals?
Well, they are wrong that our institutions are fundamentally corrupt. Most of our actual social and economic problems are the bad byproducts of fundamentally good trends.
Technological innovation has created wonders but displaced millions of workers. The meritocracy has unleashed talent but widened inequality. Immigration has made America more dynamic but weakened national cohesion. Globalization has lifted billions out of poverty but pummeled the working classes in advanced nations.
What’s needed is reform of our core institutions to address the bad byproducts, not fundamental dismantling.
That sort of renewal means doing the opposite of everything the left/right radicals do. It means believing that life can be more like a conversation than a war if you open by starting a conversation. It means collectively focusing on problems and not divisively destroying people. It means believing that love is a genuine force in human affairs and that you can be effective by appealing to the better angels of human nature.
Today’s radicalism is fundamentally spiritual, even if it’s played out in the political sphere. It’s driven by the radicals’ need for more secure identity, to gain respect and dignity, to give life a sense of purpose and meaning.
The radicals are looking for meaning and purpose in the wrong way and in the wrong place, and they’re destroying our political world in the process. But you’ve got to give them one thing: They are way ahead of the rest of us. They are organized, self-confident, aggressive and driving history. The rest of us are dispersed, confused and in retreat.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Communism fell with it. Liberal democracy seemed triumphant. Democracies sprouted in Central Europe. Apartheid fell in South Africa. The Oslo process seemed to herald peace in the Middle East.
Then it all went bad. Tribalism and authoritarianism are now on the march while the number of democracies declines. Far worse has been the degradation of democracies, especially in our own country. The Congress barely functions. We have a president who ignores facts and violates basic decency. On college campuses, according to a Brookings/UCLA survey, 50 percent of students believe that “offensive” speech should be shouted down and 20 percent believe it should be violently crushed.
In short, we used to have a certain framework of decency within which we held our debates, and somehow we’ve lost our framework. We took our liberal democratic values for granted for so long, we’ve forgotten how to defend them. We have become democrats by habit and no longer defend our system with a fervent faith.
So over the next few months I’m going to use this column, from time to time, to go back to first principles, to go over the canon of liberal democracy — the thinkers who explained our system and why it is great.
I’m going to start with Thomas Mann’s “The Coming Victory of Democracy.” Mann, possibly the greatest novelist of his era, fled the Nazis and came to America. In 1938, he gave a series of lectures against fascism, Communism and the America Firsters.
Recently, an American congressman, Steve King, tweeted, “Assimilation has become a dirty word to the multiculturalist Left. Assimilation, not diversity, is our American strength.” We witness similar debates in Pakistan, particularly in the context of refugees, tribal groups and religious interpretations. We must recognise, however, that assimilation seeks to preserve the hegemony of those in power. It calls on people to give up their cultural specificities and adopt the social, cultural and linguistic mores of society’s elite and ruling classes.
In contrast, pluralism acknowledges diversity as a given. It assumes that categories of social difference such as gender, ethnicity, race, nationality, religious interpretations, etc, are crucial mechanisms in and through which social groups organise themselves. In the process, however, hierarchies are produced where particular groups are perceived as being superior to others. This frequently occurs when negative characteristics are naturalised to a particular group. In the context of Western societies, for instance, Muslim men are naturalised as violent — a stereotype that legitimises extensive surveillance and policing of Muslims. In patriarchal contexts, it is often assumed that women are intellectually inferior to men, a supposition that leads to the subordination of women in public as well as private spaces.
Diversity, Inclusion, Pluralism - something to celebrate in the holidays
“Diversity starts with a good cup of coffee, a good cup of tea and a conversation”. Last month, significant conversations took place on this important topic across Canada. Ottawa hosted the inaugural Global Pluralism awards which celebrate the “remarkable achievements of individuals, organizations and governments tackling the challenge of living peacefully and productively with diversity”. Is that what pluralism is? At a recent visit to the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa (which I highly recommend, by the way), our tour guide described pluralism as "an act of choice to engage with diversity in a positive way". The three winners of the Global Pluralism award certainly did choose this path. Their choice to engage with diversity in a positive way ranged from fighting for over 20 years to bring peace to a community in Colombia, to mediating and brokering peace in multiple ethnic conflicts throughout Africa, to protecting the rights of asylum seekers held in offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea. These winners, from Columbia, Kenya and Australia respectively together with other winners who received honorable mentions inspire us to ask ourselves every day “What choice can I make today to engage with diversity in a positive way?”Take a read, when you have a moment, at these exceptional individuals’ contributions to society at http://award.pluralism.ca/2017-recipients/
What’s the Cure for Ailing Nations? More Kings and Queens, Monarchists Say
OXFORD, England — From the comfort of his country estate in Oxford, a distant relative of the Russian literary giant Tolstoy says he has the perfect solution for what ails the United States.
America, he declares, needs a monarchy.
In fact, Count Nikolai Tolstoy says, more kings, queens and all the frippery that royalty brings would be not just a salve for a superpower in political turmoil, but also a stabilizing force for the world at large.
“I love the monarchy,” Count Tolstoy, 82, said as he sat in his lush garden behind an expansive stone house. “Most people think the monarchy is just decorative and filled with splendor and personalities. They do not appreciate the important ideological reasons for a monarchy.”
The count is not the only voice advocating rule by royalty. An author and a conservative politician who holds dual British and Russian citizenship, he leads the International Monarchist League and is part of a loose confederation of monarchists scattered across the globe, including in the United States.
Their core arguments: Countries with monarchies are better off because royal families act as a unifying force and a powerful symbol; monarchies rise above politics; and nations with royalty are generally richer and more stable.
The article below is about the consequences of adopting extreme and uncompromising policies in matters of governance of societies.
Everyone Is Going All the Way
Can anything stop this epidemic of going all the way? Yes: Mother Nature, human nature and markets. They’ll all push back when no one else will.
How so? Well, look at Gaza. Due largely to Hamas’s malevolence and incompetence, but also some Israeli restrictions, Gaza has limited hours of electricity each day. Result: Gaza’s already inadequate sewage plants are often offline, and waste goes untreated straight into the Mediterranean.
Then the prevailing current washes Gaza’s poop north, where it clogs Israel’s big desalination plant in Ashkelon — which provides 15 percent of Israel’s drinking water, explains EcoPeace Middle East, the environmental NGO. In both 2016 and 2017, the Ashkelon plant had to close to clean Gaza’s crud out of its filters. It’s Mother Nature’s way of reminding both that if they try to go all the way, if they shun a healthy interdependence, she’ll poison them both.
Iran’s military boss, Qasem Suleimani, thinks he’s a big man on campus. His proxies control four Arab capitals. All bow down. But then out of nowhere Iranians back home start protesting against Suleimani’s overreach; they’re tired of seeing their money spent on Gaza and Syria — not on Iranians. And, just as suddenly, the biggest internet meme in Iran becomes an Iranian woman ripping off her veil and holding it up on the end of a stick.
And if you don’t think markets have a way of curing excesses, you didn’t read the top story in The Times.
So to all of you going all the way, I say: Watch out for the market, Mother Nature and human nature. Because, noted Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi, the first two are “uncontrollable and the other is irrepressible.”
One is the relentless product of chemistry, biology and physics; one is the balance between greed and fear; and the third is the eternal human quest for freedom and dignity. In the end, they’ll shape the future more than any leader or party who tries going all the way.
By now we all understand that America is in the grip of political tribalism. We lament and condemn this phenomenon even as we voraciously engage in it. But by fixating on the symptoms, we remain blind to the root causes. America is being ravaged by predictable, destructive political dynamics that follow from the combination of democracy and a market-dominant minority.
Most Americans assume that democracy and free markets go hand in hand, naturally working together to generate prosperity and freedom. For the United States, this has largely been true. But by their very nature, markets and democracy coexist in deep tension.
Capitalism creates a small number of very wealthy people, while democracy potentially empowers a poor majority resentful of that wealth. In the wrong conditions, that tension can set in motion intensely destructive politics. All over the world, one circumstance in particular has invariably had this effect: the presence of a market-dominant minority — a minority group, perceived by the rest of the population as outsiders, who control vastly disproportionate amounts of a nation’s wealth.
How a demagogue resembles a typhoon, and why it matters to the future of the republic
The politician stands before a roaring crowd, or dominates a TV debate, or fires up his already ardent followers with storms of tweets. Is he a populist or a demagogue? The terms are often treated as interchangeable, although populist has today become far more widely used. A look at the origins of the two words, though, shows the importance of distinguishing between them, especially now in the era of Donald Trump. What the political thinkers of the past feared about demagogy has become the most pressing question in American political life: Is our president another of the populists who come and go through American history, or is he a demagogue and hence a clear and present danger to the Republic? The distinction between the two words is best understood by going back to classical antiquity.
But the spirit of democracy was hardly limited to the idea that the will of the people is expressed through free and fair elections. That rulers should not be encouraged to outstay their welcomes and that their power must always be constrained played an instrumental role in the modern understanding of liberal democracy as well.
But this consensus, forged over centuries, is now being called into question.
Today some of the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries, democracies and non-democracies alike, are fashioning themselves as modern-day emperors. They are concentrating power in their own hands with no plans to leave office in their lifetime. In their view it does not matter whether a country is a democracy or an autocracy; what matters is the quality of its leader. And they have a lot of support: At a time when mistrust of politicians is high, many people see strongman leaders as preferable to a corrupt political establishment.
No example of this trend is clearer or more significant than the vote this week by China’s National People’s Congress to abolish presidential term limits. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this move signals the end of democracy’s hegemony as the world’s political ideal.
The article below is about why experience and knowledge matter in politics and governance of societies...
Cynthia Nixon and the Degradation of Experience
You wouldn’t want to be operated on by a physician with only a few surgeries under his or her belt, and the assurance that this doctor brought a fresh perspective to anesthesia and incisions wouldn’t thrill you.
You would choose a pilot who had flown 999 flights over one with nine, and you would want your child’s teacher to be practiced with pupils, not merely a vessel of great enthusiasm.
So why the romance with candidates who have never done a stitch of government work before?
Donald Trump cashed in on it. The fevered speculation surrounding Oprah Winfrey after her Golden Globes speech sprang from it. And Cynthia Nixon’s bid for governor of New York depends on it.
On Monday, Nixon, a brilliant actress best known for the HBO series “Sex and the City,” stepped forward to challenge the incumbent, Andrew Cuomo, in this year’s Democratic primary. Her announcement took the form of a video about her biography and her values. Missing from those two slickly produced minutes was even a syllable about her experience, and that’s no accident. Little on her résumé is directly relevant to the big, difficult job that she nonetheless wants.
Liberals complain a lot these days about how little regard many conservatives have for expertise, and that’s not only a fair point, it’s a vital one. In medicine, in social sciences, in economics and in so much else, rigorous training and painstakingly earned knowledge matter. They’re not badges of elitism. They’re proof of seriousness.
Shouldn’t experience count in politics, too? And doesn’t excitement about Winfrey for president or Nixon for governor have some relationship to disdain for professors who peddle inconvenient truths? Both responses elevate what’s ideologically and emotionally pleasing over what makes the most sense. Both degrade the importance of experience.
I know that politics isn’t brain surgery (though Ben Carson clearly knows that even better). I also know that much of what’s going on with Winfrey and Nixon — and what went on with Trump — is about the lazy deference to celebrities in these fame-mad times.
Madeleine Albright’s guide to fascism, past and present
Dismissive of hyperbole, the former secretary of state is still nervy about Donald Trump
She describes a graduate seminar with Georgetown students in her sitting room, “lasagne-leaking paper plates on their laps” as she challenges them to define fascism. She reminds the class that fascism wears different ideological guises, sometimes calling for a dictatorship of the proletariat or higher pensions for the old, at others seizing power in the name of a race, a religion or national rebirth. In a useful passage, she defines a fascist as someone who claims to speak for a nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use all means, including violence: “A fascist will likely be a tyrant, but a tyrant need not be a fascist.” One litmus test involves who is trusted with guns. Many kings or dictators fear the masses, and create corps of bodyguards to shield them, she notes. Fascists seek to have the mob on their side.
If You’re Not Scared About Fascism in the U.S., You Should Be
When fascism starts to feel normal, we’re all in trouble.
While calling President Trump a fascist may seem like an exaggeration, it might not be that far from the truth. Should we be worried? Jason Stanley has spent the past decade studying fascism, from Mussolini to Duterte. In this video op-ed, he argues that yes, we should be worried: If Americans are not vigilant, fascism could become a new reality in the United States.
The concept of free speech has many fans. The practice of it has fewer
These students’ hearts are in the right place. Wanting to shield others from offence is a laudable thing. As informal norms, politeness and civility are virtuous. But when being offensive becomes illegal, officials have to police a feeling. Since offence is subjective, the power to police can quickly become vast and arbitrary. And when people in free countries argue for restrictions on speech, authoritarian regimes find it easier to impose constraints. Sometimes this too is for ostensibly laudable reasons—to restrict and punish “hate speech”, for instance, or maintain harmony in a multiconfessional country. But all too often, governments that give themselves this power use it to protect themselves. Russia sentenced a blogger to five years’ imprisonment for promoting “extremism” after he questioned its meddling in Ukraine.
Nicola Gatta, the mayor of Candela in southeastern Italy (population 2,700), is desperate to reverse two decades of population decline and literally keep his town on the map. If you accept his invitation to move there, he will pay you about $2,300.
It’s probably no coincidence that mayors in small Italian towns are making such offers at about the same time as a populist coalition is on the verge of taking over Italy’s government.
The last time that populism — what we broadly define as political movements that ostensibly set the interests of “ordinary people” against elites as well as an “other” — swept across Europe and the United States was marked by the same combination of slow economic and fertility growth that today prevails in advanced industrialized countries in the West and Asia.
Economies have recently picked up some steam, but not before nearly a decade of sluggish economic growth — and, in most of the world, declining fertility rates. The United States is no exception: The fertility rate among Americans has hit a 30-year low.
The shift from global population growth toward population decline is emerging as one of the least appreciated forces that is, along with urbanization and digital disruption, upending the political and economic status quo.
In the world’s largest cities, where populations are densely concentrated and growing, economies are generally thriving and cosmopolitanism is embraced. Where populations are sparse or shrinking, usually in rural places and small cities, economies are often stagnant, and populism sells.
One of the two pillars of the West is in jeopardy.
We need the U.S. and the E.U. — joined by the other Group of 20 nations — to play a similar role today. The change in the pace of change in the climate, globalization and technology has thrown up a whole set of new challenges very fast — extreme weather, cybercrime, crypto-currencies, social networks, deepfake technologies, self-driving vehicles, artificial intelligence, biological design tools and questions of how to distinguish among refugees, economic migrants and asylum seekers. These can be managed only through global cooperation and new rules.
If the community of democracies fractures, and we return to a more 19th- and 20th-century great power competition, who will write the new rules for the 21st century? Who will help Libya or the struggling countries of sub-Saharan Africa create governance and nurture their human capital to escape disorder, so their people don’t feel the need to emigrate to survive or thrive. Russia? China? I don’t think so. There will be a global leadership vacuum, a free-for-all, with terrible consequences.
It will be hard enough dealing with these issues with a community of democracies leading the way again, but it will be impossible to do so if Trump, Bannon and Putin, and their fellow travelers, succeed in breaking it up. So sorry to ruin your breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If we want saner politics, we need to start building better foundations from the playground up.
Before he died, Senator John McCain wrote a loving farewell statement to his fellow citizens of “the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” Senator McCain also described our democracy as “325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals.” How can that many individuals bind themselves together to create a great nation? What special skills do we need to develop to compensate for our lack of shared ancestry?
When Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in 1831, he concluded that one secret of our success was our ability to solve problems collectively and cooperatively. He praised our mastery of the “art of association,” which was crucial, he believed, for a self-governing people.
In recent years, however, we have become less artful, particularly about crossing party lines. It’s not just Congress that has lost the ability to cooperate. As partisan hostility has increased, Americans report feeling fear and loathing toward people on the other side and have become increasingly less willing to date or marry someone of a different party. Some restaurants won’t serve customers who work for — or even just support — the other team or its policies. Support for democracy itself is in decline.
What can we do to reverse these trends? Is there some way to teach today’s children the art of association, even when today’s adults are poor models? There is. It’s free, it’s fun and it confers so many benefits that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently urged Americans to give far more of it to their children. It’s called play — and it matters not only for the health of our children but also for the health of our democracy.
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