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Posts Tagged ‘nationalism

“Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule”*…

 

nationalism

 

Over the course of a decade, the male chimps in one group systematically killed every neighboring male, kidnapped the surviving females, and expanded their territory. Similar attacks occur in chimp populations elsewhere; a 2014 study found that chimps are about 30 times as likely to kill a chimp from a neighboring group as to kill one of their own. On average, eight males gang up on the victim.

If such is the violent reality of life as an ape, is it at all surprising that humans, who share more than 98 percent of their DNA with chimps, also divide the world into “us” and “them” and go to war over these categories? Reductive comparisons are, of course, dangerous; humans share just as much of their DNA with bonobos, among whom such brutal behavior is unheard of. And although humans kill not just over access to a valley but also over abstractions such as ideology, religion, and economic power, they are unrivaled in their ability to change their behavior. (The Swedes spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe; today they are, well, the Swedes.) Still, humankind’s best and worst moments arise from a system that incorporates everything from the previous second’s neuronal activity to the last million years of evolution (along with a complex set of social factors). To understand the dynamics of human group identity, including the resurgence of nationalism—that potentially most destructive form of in-group bias—requires grasping the biological and cognitive underpinnings that shape them…

Robert Sapolsky on the biology of “us and them”: “This is your brain on nationalism.”

* Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

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As we muse on membership, we might send elegantly-composed birthday greetings to Ludovico Ariosto; he was born on this date in 1474.  An Italian poet, he is best remembered for his epic Orlando Furioso; a continuation of Matteo Maria Boiardo‘s Orlando Innamorato, it describes the adventures of Charlemagne, Orlando (the Christian knight subsequently known as Roland), and the Franks as they battle against the Saracens.

Ariosto’s epic was hugely influential on later European literature (including English poets Spencer, Shakespeare, and Byron).  And while the work had a “patriotic” (and, at least overtly, Christian) cast, Ariosto coined the term “humanism” (in Italian, umanesimo), helping pave the way for Renaissance Humanism.

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Ariosto, detail of votive painting Madonna with saints Joseph, John, Catherine, Louis of Toulouse and Lodovico Ariosto by Vincenzo Catena,

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Written by LW

September 8, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Change threatens, and its possibility creates frightened, angry people*…

 

Brexit

 

Ferdinand Mount has for years been a voice of the Tory establishment; he was described thusly by the (conservative) Telegraph:

Ferdinand Mount is a baronet who prefers not to use his title, a former nanny to the children of American millionaires who later headed Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street Policy Unit, the most scrupulously intelligent man ever to be appointed as an editor by Rupert Murdoch, the nephew of Anthony Powell, and himself the author of a sequence of novels, ‘A Chronicle of Modern Twilight’, cherished by all those who like their fiction to be amusing, elegant and expletive-free.

So his thoughts on Brexit and the political situation in Britain are especially tangy:

Yes, this is a right-wing coup. It is duplicitous or self-deceiving to pretend that British politics is still proceeding more or less as normal. We are told that it is ‘hysterical’ to argue that Boris Johnson’s regime is in any way comparable to the nationalist dictatorships of yesterday or today. If this is a temptation, I shall happily succumb to it as a patriotic duty. By every standard of measurement, the Conservative Party has been transformed into Britain’s own BJP. ‘Optimism with a hint of menace’ was how the Sunday Times approvingly described Johnson’s first days in power – pretty much the way you might describe the first hundred days of Narendra Modi, or Donald Trump, or Benito Mussolini. Yes, he has come to power by strictly constitutional means. So did they all. It is how they govern when they get there that counts.

First, there was the brutality of the cabinet cull. Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives pales by comparison, as do Margaret Thatcher’s most far-reaching reshuffles. Both Supermac and Thatcher took care to include up and coming ministers from all wings of the party. Johnson has included only yes-people, or placemen who have vowed omertà in advance. His rhetoric has already assumed a strongman strut. He tears up prepared speeches in favour of sunlit-uplands rants peppered with sentimental appeals to ‘the will of the people’. Implicit in this waffle is a barely concealed contempt for the judiciary and for Parliament. In his two spells in the Commons, Johnson has never bothered to shine, or indeed even to turn up much. His most significant promotion was that of Dominic Raab as foreign secretary, the only man to have issued a veiled threat to prorogue Parliament to get his gang’s way.

We are already beginning to take for granted Johnson’s abusive tone towards international institutions and foreign leaders, except those like Donald Trump who talk the same mixture of bluster and treacle. At home, we are promised more mega-bridges and bonanza buses, the sorts of project with which dictators always like to dazzle the plebs. Here, the author of Boris Island Airport and the garden bridge is at least staying true to form.

What still puzzles some people is that so many old-fashioned Tories should have fallen for such a seedy, treacherous chancer. In fact, I think Johnson has succeeded because of his amorality, not despite it. The transgressive sayer of the unsayable breaks through the carapace of conventional politics with a mixture of humour and vituperation, slang and high-flown rhodomontade. Clowning is part of the act for the leader who wants to reach beyond good and evil in the fashion Nietzsche recommended. A cartoon Superman? Yes, but they all are. See Charlie Chaplin, passim.

How long will he last – five weeks, five years? I have no idea. All I can say is what I see. And it is not a pretty sight. Our new skipper has consistently admitted that he would love to be prime minister ‘if the ball came loose from the back of the scrum’. But that isn’t what happened. He collapsed the scrum, deliberately and repeatedly, and we are all now sprawling in the mud.

From The London Review of Books‘ “How Bad Can It Get– Reflections on the State We’re In.”

Pair with this argument– rooted in the work of psychologist Karen Stenner, described in 2005 book The Authoritarian Dynamic by (a libertarian, not a Democrat, and certainly not a progressive) arguing that it’s “authoritarian fear of difference” that best explains the intolerance, often manifesting as nationalism, sweeping the Republican Party: “What Ails the Right Isn’t (Just) Racism.”  (And, on a similar note, this.)

{Photo above: source]

* “Change threatens, and its possibility creates frightened, angry people. They are found in their purest essence on the extreme right, but in all of us there is some fear of process, of change.”
Carl R. Rogers

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As we brace for more bluster, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) began construction of the Berlin Wall, a guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989.

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View from the West Berlin side of graffiti art on the Wall in 1986

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Written by LW

August 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Authoritarian populism can be seen as a pushback of elements of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking—against the Enlightenment institutions that were designed to circumvent them”*…

 

Populists

 

We live in the age of charismatic elected would-be despots. His — it is almost always a “he” — are the politics of fear and rage. It takes a certain sort of personality to be a master of such politics. In the right — that is, the wrong — circumstances, such leaders emerge naturally. That is not surprising after a violent revolution. What is far more so is that such leaders have been emerging in well-established democracies.

We now see elected “strongmen” — actual and would-be — everywhere. Leading examples are Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Donald Trump in the US. These leaders differ in degrees of sophistication. The countries in which they operate also differ. Some are economically developed, while others are not. Some are longstanding democracies; others, again, are not.

Yet these men are all characters in a story powerfully told by the independent US watchdog Freedom House. Freedom in the World 2019, published in February, reported a 13th consecutive year of decline in the global health of democracy. This decline occurred in all regions of the world, notably in the democracies that emerged after the cold war. Above all, it occurred in western democracies, with the US — the most influential upholder of democratic values — leading the way…

People want to believe a powerful and charismatic leader is on their side in an unjust world.  The estimable Martin Wolf unpacks the mechanism of “strong man” rule: “The age of the elected despot is here.”

For a different angle on the phenomenon the Wolf unpacks, one that speaks directly to Steven’s Pinker’s quote in the title of this post, see “Dialectics of Enlightenment.”

*”A very different threat to human progress is a political movement that seeks to undermine its Enlightenment foundations.

The second decade of the 21st century has seen the rise of a counter-Enlightenment movement called populism, more accurately, authoritarian populism. Populism calls for the direct sovereignty of a country’s “people” (usually an ethnic group, sometimes a class), embodied in a strong leader who directly channels their authentic virtue and experience.

Authoritarian populism can be seen as a pushback of elements of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking—against the Enlightenment institutions that were designed to circumvent them. By focusing on the tribe rather than the individual, it has no place for the protection of minority rights or the promotion of human welfare worldwide. By failing to acknowledge that hard-won knowledge is the key to societal improvement, it denigrates “elites” and “experts” and downplays the marketplace of ideas, including freedom of speech, diversity of opinion, and the fact-checking of self-serving claims. By valorizing a strong leader, populism overlooks the limitations in human nature, and disdains the rule-governed institutions and constitutional checks that constrain the power of flawed human actors.

Populism comes in left-wing and right-wing varieties, which share a folk theory of economics as zero-sum competition: between economic classes in the case of the left, between nations or ethnic groups in the case of the right. Problems are seen not as challenges that are inevitable in an indifferent universe but as the malevolent designs of insidious elites, minorities, or foreigners. As for progress, forget about it: populism looks backward to an age in which the nation was ethnically homogeneous, orthodox cultural and religious values prevailed, and economies were powered by farming and manufacturing, which produced tangible goods for local consumption and for export.”

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Consider also:

“Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.”

– Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”, New York Review of Books (June 22, 1995)

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As we think for ourselves, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that Joseph Goebbels died.  One of Adolf Hitler’s closest and most devoted associates, Goebbels was a student of the shaping of public opinion; he served as Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.  He was  a gifted public speaker, who was particularly adept at using the relatively new media of radio and film for propaganda purposes, emphasizing antisemitism, attacks on the Christian churches, and (after the start of World War II) the boosting of public morale.

Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945. In accordance with his will, Goebbels succeeded him as Chancellor of Germany, serving one day in this post.  The following day, Goebbels and his wife committed suicide, after poisoning their six children with cyanide.

220px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1968-101-20A,_Joseph_Goebbels source

 

Written by LW

May 1, 2019 at 1:01 am

“No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark”*…

 

migrants

Migrants disembark from Royal Navy Ship HMS Enterprise in Catania, Italy, 23 October 2016

 

As the world’s ranks swell, population shifts have emerged as a major global challenge with potentially catastrophic implications. Endless debates over immigration rights have failed to produce the faintest hint of an acceptable solution. So perhaps an alternative approach would be to factor in an underlying basic law of chemistry. At the risk of gross oversimplification, what if we saw the flow of populations as the human equivalent of osmosis?

In high-school chemistry we learned that, in a container of water divided into two halves by a semipermeable membrane, uneven concentrations of salt resulted in movement of water from the more dilute side to the side of greater concentration. The greater the discrepancy in solute concentration, be it a salt molecule or a complex plasma protein, the greater the force to equalise the concentrations.

Now imagine the world as a giant vat subdivided into a number of smaller containers (nations) separated from each other by semipermeable membranes (borders). Instead of salt, provide each container with differing amounts of food, shelter and essential services. In this scenario, population flow from nation to nation will be a direct function of the degree of difference of goods, opportunities and hope.

This shift of populations isn’t just an ethical or metaphysical dilemma to be resolved at the level of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. It isn’t about the right to own land and enforce borders, or the relative worth of individuals versus groups. Instead, the pressures driving immigration should be seen as natural and unavoidable – like chemical reactions; from that perspective, a reduction in the gradients would be the only possible long-term solution…

Arguments for the rights of nations to control their borders are a huge step in the wrong direction. We need to take a hard look at the disruptive dynamics of inequality. If this simple fact of chemistry (that lesser flows to greater) can’t penetrate the predominantly impermeable minds of policymakers, welcome to a world of escalating chaos.

Robert A. Burton considers climate change, economic inequality, political imbalances and other “reasons to move,” as he suggests a more productive way to think about one of this era’s most pressing challenges, one that can be mitigated and made more humane, if not avoided: “Like the chemical process of osmosis, migration is unstoppable.”

* Warsan Shire

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As we focus on reducing the gradients, we might recall that it was on this date in 1925 that the Butler Act, prohibiting the teaching of evolution in Tennessee classrooms, became law… paving the way for the Scopes “Monkey” Trial.

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Anti-Evolution League at the Scopes Trial, 1925

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Written by LW

March 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Patriotism is supporting your country all of the time, and your government when it deserves it”*…

 

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Patriotism raises questions of the sort philosophers characteristically discuss: How is patriotism to be defined? How is it related to similar attitudes, such as nationalism? What is its moral standing: is it morally valuable or perhaps even mandatory, or is it rather a stance we should avoid? Yet until a few decades ago, philosophers used to show next to no interest in the subject. The article on patriotism in the Historical Dictionary of Philosophy, reviewing the use of the term from the 16th century to our own times, gives numerous references, but they are mostly to authors who were not philosophers. Moreover, of the few well known philosophers cited, only one, J. G. Fichte, gave the subject more than a passing reference – and most of what Fichte had to say actually pertains to nationalism, rather than patriotism (see Busch and Dierse 1989).

This changed in the 1980s. The change was due, in part, to the revival of communitarianism, which came in response to the individualistic, liberal political and moral philosophy epitomized by John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (1971); but it was also due to the resurgence of nationalism in several parts of the world…

On this day of national celebration, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Patriotism (a little wonky, but eminently worthy of reading in full).

For other important (and more vernacular) takes: W. Kamau Bell, ESPN’s Scoop Jackson… and “Big patriotism is poisoning America,” the article from which the image above was sourced.

* Mark Twain

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As we astutely allocate allegiance, we might recall that it was on this date in 1855 that Walt Whitman anonymously self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass (it carried his picture but not his name). Whitman employed a new verse form, one with which he had been experimenting, revolutionary at the time– one free of a regular rhythm or rhyme scheme, that has come to be known as “free verse.”  The content of Leaves of Grass was every bit as revolutionary, celebrating the human body and the common man.  Whitman spent the rest of his life revising and enlarging Leaves of Grass; the ninth edition appeared in 1892, the year of his death.

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Walt Whitman, age 35, frontispiece to Leaves of Grass. Steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison

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Written by LW

July 4, 2018 at 1:01 am

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