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Archive for the category “Society”

The Sellout by Paul Beatty: A Review

Shortly after Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Booker Prize was awarded to fellow American Paul Beatty for his novel The Sellout. It seems Americans are having a moment in the world of literary prestige, maybe to counterbalance the current political nadir. Dylan was the first American to win the Nobel in 23 years, and Beatty is the first American ever to win the Booker Prize, the pre-eminent prize in Anglophone letters. Originally the Booker Prize had been limited to British writers, then eventually to English language writers from the larger British commonwealth, now to any writer in English. I have read a few handfuls of the past winners and candidates, and I can say that Paul Beatty’s win is well-deserved and ranks among the best of them.

The Sellout is a satire on race in America. It is not only one of the funniest and most intelligent books I have read about race in America (a relatively limited number for me), but one of the funniest and most intelligent books I have read, period. The novel is told by a Black urban farmer with the surname Me in a fictional South-Central Los Angeles slum called Dickens. This impoverished locality, “the murder capital of the world”, was an embarrassment to L.A. and the U.S.A. and was disincorporated by the authorities. One of the central plans of Me is to reconstitute and delineate his hometown of Dickens. He also begins to slyly reinstitute segregation, first on his girlfriend’s bus, then in shops, the library, and the school. After this gambit, crime plummeted and student test results skyrocketed.

The main character was raised and home-schooled only by his father, a prominent psychologist and intellectual who made his son’s life into one long racial sociological experiment. The farm they inhabit takes on Garden of Eden-like qualities, with an impossibly wide-range of exotic fruits that are well-known around town, and delicious enough to make rival gang members put away their Glocks to lick up watermelon juice. One of the members of the local donut shop intellectual club is a Black media impresario named Foy Cheshire, who steals Me’s father’s best ideas to get rich, and calls the main character “the Sellout” for most of the book.

The funniest and most controversial character by far is an aged television actor named Hominy Jenkins, who played a minor role in the old Little Rascals TV series of the 1920-40s. Hominy rejoices at all signs of overt racism, and happily enlists himself as the Sellout’s lazy and unwanted slave. The eventual discovery of this relationship and the resegregation scheme puts the main character behind bars, and eventually in front of the Supreme Court.

There are numerous mentions of real-life African-Americans, often unnamed for legal reasons, throughout the novel, including Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Dave Chappelle. The novel makes use of the author’s detailed knowledge of Los Angeles, as well as Black pop culture, intellectual culture, language, film and TV, and literature. The plot is very engaging from the first page to the last, as well as being chock-full of new ideas in almost every paragraph. The author never seems to run out of interesting and funny new formulations about race and life in America. It is a very difficult book written with frankness and irreverence, not worried about upsetting any sacred cow or offending overly sensitive readers.  It appears at a time when just such blunt discussions of race are needed.

One instance of how biting the book can often be is this passage about all of the miserable cities of the world that rejected Dickens as a potential sister city. The last of these is the Lost City of White Male Privilege:

“The Lost City of White Male Privilege, a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males). Others state categorically that the walls of the locale have been irreparably breached by hip-hop and Roberto Bolano’s prose. That the popularity of the spicy tuna roll and a black American president were to white male domination what the smallpox blankets were to Native American existence. Those inclined to believe in free will and the free market argue that the Lost City of White Male Privilege was responsible for its own demise, that the constant stream of contradictory religious and secular edicts from on high confused the highly impressionable white male. Reduced him to a state of such severe social and psychic anxiety that he stopped fucking. Stopped voting. Stopped reading. And, most important, stopped thinking that he was the end-all, be-all, or at least knew enough to pretend not to be so in public. But in any case, it became impossible to walk the streets of the Lost City of White Male Privilege, feeding your ego by reciting mythological truisms like “We built this country!” when all around you brown men were constantly hammering and nailing, cooking world-class French meals, and repairing your cars.”

In the final anecdote in the novel the main character tells about a long-ago visit to a local comedy club featuring open mic night for black comedians. Halfway through, a white couple walks in and begins joining in the laughter. The comedian confronts the white couple and asks them to leave. “This is our thing,” he says. The main character then expresses regret that he did not stand up for the couple’s right to be there. It’s a serious end to a powerful, nuanced, and funny book. As all satire, it punches up at an entrenched system of power–racism and bigotry, in this case. Most of the blows landed. In “post-racial” America, though, it will take a lot more people punching to topple the system in question. And a lot more people reading and writing and engaging in open dialogue with each other, and defending each other’s rights to live and laugh freely.

On Racism and Other Bigotries

(Published originally August 2013 at Wrath-Bearing Tree)

Racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, tribalism, nationalism, parochialism, xenophobia, jingoism, bigotry, intolerance, hatred. These are the topics to be discussed presently. I was inspired to write this after reading a short essay by Sartre called “Portrait of an Antisemite,” and realizing that all forms of bigotry are connected and share the same pathologies and deficiencies. Firstly, the bigot appeals to emotional and passionate arguments rather than reason. The bigot is happy to confound rational interlocutors by means of either worn-out cliche, invented evidence in his favor, or, in the last case, hysterics. The bigot prefers intimidation and bullying, and uses these tools to bring his opponent down to his level. He does not accept the authority of logical consistency, and if he uses any form of logical argument at all, it is an obviously flawed one that he hopes will go unchallenged. Therefore, the bigot is typically (but not always) anti-intellectual. He reacts to challenges by resorting to hysterical or violent rhetoric, or, in the best case, merely dismissing the challenger as “one of them”.

Secondly, the bigot lives in a world that is constantly defined by “us versus them” and other types of Manichean struggle. His world must be a simple one in which he is on the side of “Good,” and there is always something else which threatens his own well-being, which is “Evil” or “the Other.” His world is defined negatively, by what he is not or what he is against, rather than positively, what he is for. Therefore, the bigot is often (but not always) politically conservative, and when changes happen in the world he tends to become a reactionary.

Thirdly, the bigot only exists in a specific social context. He is never alone in his beliefs. His attitude itself is always the product of social indoctrination, and often validates the bigot’s special sense of belonging in his community. Sartre writes: “Antisemitism is distinguished, like all the manifestations of an irrational collective soul tending to create a conservative and esoteric France. It seems to all these feather-brains that by repeating at will that the Jew injures the country, they are performing one of those initiation rites which allows them to feel themselves a part of the centers of warmth and social energy; in this sense anti-Semitism has retained something of the human sacrifice.”

The impulse to bigotry almost certainly stems from a vestige of the human tribal instinct which has survived in the development of our species. Everyone who was not a member of our immediate family or tribe was potentially, and most likely, an enemy to be avoided or killed. We are no longer in need of this ancient urge, however, and its survival attests to the strength of the instinct. The more prominent place in our modern lives of reason, science, and historical knowledge also dictates that there is no excuse for those intolerant masses of people who cling to beliefs that have long outlived any usefulness they might have once had in pre-history.

Of all the types of bigotry, anti-Semitism is one of the oldest in existence and most infamous. Its history can be dated specifically to the first two centuries of Christianity, and its roots derive completely from religious intolerance, though it has acquired over the centuries a racial aspect due to the fact that Jews did not often mingle with Gentiles and thus kept their Semitic physical features. [Note on the word “Semitic”: it derives from a root word that originally only described a broad group of languages that were based around Mesopotamia and the Arabia peninsula. Though “Semitic” is commonly used to refer only to Jews, or speakers of Hebrew, it could properly be used for anyone who speaks Arabic, Aramaic, Maltese, or diverse ancient languages such as Phoenician and Akkadian.]

The Gospels of the New Testament became gradually more anti-Jewish as they were written. Mark, the first to be written around roughly 65 CE (over 30 years after the crucifixion), took no especial notice of the role of the High Priests of the Temple, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, or any other Jewish agents as complicit in the death of Jesus (except Judas, of course); it was a Roman-led affair. By the time we get to John, written around 100 CE, the local bands of new Christians had begun to spread, and to win ever more converts among the Gentiles as well. The new religion needed to separate itself as a faith from its monotheistic progenitor, and placing blame on the Jews for the death of Jesus was an easy solution. After John, we see the earliest of the Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr and Tertullian, place emphasis on the guilt of the Jewish people as a whole for their crime of deicide. Ironically, Tertullian, who was an anti-Semite and celebrated the eternal hellfire awaiting all non-Christians, also wrote tracts arguing for religious freedom for Christians, who were being persecuted sporadically around the empire. From there, it is a long 2000-year history of intolerance towards Jews in European societies leading ultimately to the Holocaust.

Racism is the belief that a difference in the amount of the pigment melanin in his skin makes a person of particular hue incomparably superior to those with a slightly higher or lower amount of the pigment. Europeans and their descendants, having first achieved dominance over the rest of the world due (mostly) to fortunate geography that led to the strategic and ruthless deployment of guns, germs, and steel (Jared Diamond has written a book by this title that explains convincingly the long series of causes and effects that led to Europeans dominating the world through colonial expansion and empire–I previously reviewed the book here), are the biggest abusers of the bogus “racial superiority theory” which roughly states that some “races” (namely, Europeans) are superior to others (the rest of the world, and especially other humans with darker skin) because they (Europeans) have stronger militaries. Never mind the fact that these militaries were developed over the centuries through a vicious cycle of escalating warfare amongst themselves,  to which all other indigenous peoples would have rightly been unprepared and shocked upon finding themselves on the receiving end of European barbarity during the Age of Discovery. Because of this rather arbitrary course of history, we most often witness humans with white-ish skin tone being racist against other humans with darker skin tones. I must emphasize that the mental disease of racism can be found in all societies, but that it is especially common and despicable when used by those wielding power (Europeans and their descendants for the last 500 years) against those who are relatively powerless (Third World countries, and the poor and minorities in all countries).

Italy, the country in which I live, recently elected a new government; one of the appointed ministers of the majority Democratic party is Cecile Kyenga, a woman of African origins, having immigrated to Italy at a young age from Congo. She received an education in Italy, lived her life in Italy, and is obviously Italian for all practical purposes; she now serves as the Minister of Immigration, a post which would seem to fit her skills quite well. If you ask a racist, however, the only pertinent issue is her inferiority and otherness due to the higher level of melanin in her skin. Members of the Italian Parliament from the far-right Northern League party felt that it was appropriate, during a recent speech of the Immigration Minister, to throw bananas at her and yell “Go back to Africa!”.  Another senior member of Parliament from the Northern League party publicly and shamelessly called Kyenga an orangutan. These were elected members of Parliament, and racists, who were elected by other racists to support their bigoted beliefs and to try to stop the immigration of people with more pigmented skin.

Closer to home for me is the case of Barack Obama. The election and re-election of America’s first black president (half-black, but no one seems to care about that distinction) would have naturally made us assume that racism was waning. In some ways it was true (we elected a “black” president!) but in other ways it revealed exactly to what extent racism is alive and well. The election of Obama seems to have deeply offended racist bigots around America (I cannot imagine why). For years they had quietly been forced underground and could not openly express their racist beliefs in mixed company, but they always knew they were right since people like them — people with white-ish colored skin — were in charge of things. They muttered about the injustice of affirmative action, and howled whenever a darker skinned person was accepted for a job or in a university when there was at least one person with lighter skin who was rejected. They knew that there was something inherently superior about their relative lack of melanin. So you can imagine the shock when Obama was elected.

Obama represents, for the racist, the Great Other–a person who is so far removed from the familiar and correct world that the racist inhabits that he might as well be an alien. Never mind that he is just a moderate, centrist Democrat with a great family and biography who is almost totally inoffensive as a person. Never mind the fact that the people who oppose him as if he were the second coming of Vladimir Lenin in America are basically opposing a guy who would have been a moderate Republican a couple decades ago. I have visited America three times since Obama was elected, and one of those times I visited the dentist. This dentist was previously unknown to me, and I went to him on the recommendation of my family due to his low prices. He and his two assistants were very friendly and loquacious elderly people with deep Southern drawls (one might even say Southern charm). When it came time for the final inspection of my teeth, the dentist, while I was unable to talk or reply due to the metal tool jammed in my mouth, proceeded to tell me in confidence that Obama was secretly a Muslim, and that of this fact he (the dentist) had never been so sure of anything in all his life. Charming.

Though they are rarely empowered to openly state their racism (progress!), the bigot can easily transfer the reasons for his distrust of Obama from one thing to another. He will not say, in company, that the amount of pigment in the president’s skin makes him evil, but that is what they mean when they accuse him of being un-American, socialist, fascist, Marxist, Kenyan, and talk about “taking their country back”. Back from whom? Since white people exploited black people for slave labor in the building of America, after completing the genocide of the original darker skinned native people, to the racist this is the proper relationship for all time. In America, the strongest form of racism appears as white supremacy, which was used to control the huge African slave population of the South for centuries, as well as to ensure that the lower classes of poor and disenfranchised whites never sided with the slaves against the rich upper classes.

One final note about racism and politics in America: the Southern strategy. This was a cynical strategy formulated by Republican party operatives in the time of Richard Nixon to exploit and wield the racism of the South to create a wedge between white voters and black voters, and to ultimately win elections. The strategy was used quite effectively by Ronald Reagan, who mocked black recipients of welfare aid and casually let the white racist voter know that he will not allow black people to take advantage of the system to get ahead any longer. The Republican party continues to use the strategy today, kicking and screaming and becoming less and less coherent in their indiscriminate use of intolerance for political gain. The two elections of Obama, and the changing demographics of America, has basically doomed to failure the Southern strategy (though not racism itself). Another strategy will doubtless be formulated to pit people of different skin tones against each other, and distract them from those who truly exploit them.

Sexism, on the other hand, is the belief that a human animal of one sex is inherently, or innately, superior to one of the other sex. While there are surely some scattered examples of women who hate or look down on men as inferior, it is obvious to all that the real issue is male chauvinism, or misogyny (from the Greek “hater of women”). This is the belief that humans of the male persuasion, who are genetically predisposed to produce more of the hormone testosterone and so become physical larger and stronger, are therefore superior, more intelligent, and more fit for power than women. You see, to the sexist bigot, bigger size means both bigger intelligence and bigger right to rule the human world. It is hard to say which is more prevalent between racism and sexism, but sexism is probably more tolerated and more bound up in the structure of all except the most progressive societies. This has been the story ever since the rise of modern human civilizations around 10,000 years ago, when agriculture led to new cities, new kings, and new war gods (who overthrew the old mother goddesses). Is there any reason a women should not get paid the same amount of money as a man for doing the exact same job for the exact same amount of time? Rationally speaking, no. But to the chauvinist a woman can never be as good as a man in anything (except raising children, of course), and so she should not deserve equal pay or equal rights.

Back to Italy, my country of residence, we can see some of the worst examples of structural misogyny in the developed world, as well as some reasons to have hope for improvement. The man who has led Italy for the largest part of the last two decades, Silvio Berlusconi, is both the richest man in Italy and the owner of a media empire. He surely has one of the most openly disrespectful attitudes towards women of any “leader” in the developed nations. He appointed female porn stars to cabinet positions, and has very effectively employed Italy’s long-standing culture of chauvinism and machismo for his own purposes. Though he still controls the country’s right-wing party, he was finally convicted in one of the dozen lawsuits against him (this one not for underage prostitution but for tax fraud) and will not serve again as prime minister. On the flip side, a recent election has just made the new Italian parliament the youngest ever (average age 47) and the highest female representation ever (31% — for comparison, after the recent US elections Congress now has its own highest female representation ever at “only” 18%). This part is too easy: elect more women, and things will improve!

It is no secret that religions have played a huge part in maintaining and justifying institutional sexism. We shudder to imagine the sad lot of most women born into most majority-Muslim countries. Not being able to drive, not being able to leave the house without a male relative, and husbands being legally protected against beating and raping their wives are three common features. It is difficult to even imagine a road towards political empowerment at this point, but we can hope for an quick improvement in basic education and human rights at the very least. Christianity has also celebrated the submission of wives to their husbands, and the second-class status of women in general. Thus, many Christian women have accepted their lot with resignation for millenia because it was written in the Good Book. Fortunately, the Enlightenment and the advent of secular politics in the Christian countries has led to the gradual enfranchisement and empowerment of women. We can already imagine the potential sexist resurgence that will accompany the first female American president (much like the resurgent racism after Obama), but let us hope in any case for more women in positions of power.

Changing to another form of bigotry, homophobia is when a person hates human beings who love other human beings who happen to share the same genitalia. The homophobe is filled with fear, hate, and typically suppressed homosexuality. Religions, once again, have told people that homosexuality demands a death sentence, and there are probably not a small number of homophobes who would like to enforce such a legal code (and still do today in certain Third World countries such as Uganda and Russia). In Leviticus, there is a long list of verses specifically outlawing sex with mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, sisters and brothers in law, mothers and fathers in law, sons and daughters in law, mothers and daughters or granddaughters at the same time, women having their period, and animals, in addition to those proscribing men lying with other men (the preceding verse also warns against child sacrifice); those other things tend to get ignored and forgotten. That would require too much logical consistency for the bigot. Even so, I do not recall any of the words of Jesus condemning homosexuals — he hung out with 12 unmarried dudes! –, or for that matter women (he hung out with prostitutes!), dark-skinned people (he was a dark-skinned person!), or Jews (he was a Jew!). He did say, however, that all of the laws of the Old Testament were valid, so we should assume that he was anti-incest, anti-child sacrifice, and anti-gay. Homosexuality is a trait that can be found in at least 1000 other animal species, including all the primates (such as chimpanzees, monkeys, and humans), many other mammals, birds, and even fish. It is a product of evolution, just like higher or lower amounts of melanin or testosterone. And despite the bigoted homophobe, love always trumps hate.

Finally, let’s talk about nationalism. This is the peculiar belief that the particular section of the earth’s crust on which you are born is superior to every other piece of earth, and thus it demands your lifelong loyalty. This idea is appealing to large numbers of ignorant and easily manipulated humans who, as we have seen, often need little excuse for emotional prejudice against anyone other than those who look like them or were born in close proximity to their section of earth. This idea has had great utility for governments since the advent of the modern nation states in state-sanctioned homicide and theft against people born on more distant pieces of earth. Never mind the fact that national borders are highly artificial and arbitrary, and are often the result of accidents of history if not intentional theft. Also never mind the fact that the place where you are born is completely random and outside of your control, and that the only thing we can ever control is our own actions. Those would be facts based on reason and reflection, which are things not to be found in the bigot’s arsenal.

It is no wonder that nationalism has been expertly and cynically whipped up by political leaders since the beginning of civilization, but especially since the rise of the modern industrial nation states in the last few centuries. At the outbreak of World War One, Germany and England enthusiastically asserted their mutual superiority and hatred towards each other, despite each being the biggest trading partner with the other prior to the war, and despite being the most developed scientific nations in the world. Dr. Samuel Johnson famously said: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” While we cannot be sure exactly what he meant, we can guess that it has something to do with the ease with which a malicious intent can be excused by an appeal to Patriotism. Presumably, love of one’s country, but not love of anyone else. It is not common in which we find even the most ardent patriot who evinces love even towards all the people of his country.

So now, what do we do about racism and other forms of bigotry? First, we always keep in mind that there are no different races, but only one human race. Race is a social, rather than a biological construct. Biologically, the genetic diversity between the human species is a tiny fraction of a percent of our genetic code, and the genes that determine pigmentation are even still a smaller fraction of that fraction. According to the United Nations, there is no distinction between the terms racial discrimination and ethnic discrimination, and superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere. Similarly, there is no human nature, but only human behavior. We are all free to make our own choices in how to act, but there is no excuse for acting badly towards others.

Next, we need to keep in mind that there is no paradox of tolerance, and tolerance of intolerance is, in fact, intolerance. If we create a system based on rules and reasons, and someone acts outside of those rules and reasons, then that person is outside the system. Our society is what we make it, and to protect tolerance we must not support intolerance. Every act of intolerance or bigotry is, however minor it may seem, ultimately an emotional injunction to hatred and violence. As Sartre writes: “Antisemitism is not in the category of thoughts protected by the right to freedom of opinion.” This could be applied to the other forms of bigotry as well. He writes later: “The Jew is only a pretext: elsewhere it will be the Negro, the yellow race; the Jew’s existence simply allows the antisemite to nip his anxieties in the bud by persuading himself that his place has always been cut out in the world, that it was waiting for him and that by virtue of tradition he has the right to occupy it. Antisemitism, in a word, is fear of man’s fate. The antisemite is the man who wants to be pitiless stone, furious torrent, devastating lightning: in short, everything but a man.”

Equally, the bigot is someone who falls short of reaching full humanity by excluding other humans. What is needed is a sense of solidarity, for our shared planet, our shared lives, and our shared fate. What we need is a love of humanity as a whole. That is the only way to live, and the only way to live together.

The Relative Merits of Human Stupidity

The great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once wrote: “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”

There is a philosophical debate started by the Utilitarian John Stuart Mill over whether ‘tis better to be a human dissatisfied or a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. The original argument regards how we can measure happiness, but I think it says something about intelligence as well. The human is more intelligent than the pig and Socrates is more intelligent than the fool. But how much does human intelligence really matter compared to other traits?

Biologically, humans developed specific types of intelligences in order to survive against predators on the savanna. These include increasingly complex communication that eventually developed into the only language ability in the animal kingdom; it also involves managing complex social interaction among groups of up to 100 or so individuals, a sort of cunning ability to manipulate objects to make tools (the root of “technology”), and a long-term memory that could instantly recall faces, paths, hundreds of plant and animal characteristics, and stories. These are still our most common varieties of intelligence, and probably not much more developed today than when they first appeared in our genetic ancestors a million years ago or so. There is even an argument that various “primitive” humans, neanderthals and the like, would have probably used, on average, more of their brains and more skills than the average modern Homo couch-potato.

You may have noticed that there are certain types of intelligence not on the above list. Higher-order thinking skills like critical thinking, abstract reasoning, long-term hypothetical planning, understanding philosophical issues, especially in the areas of ethics and politics. That is not to say that these things do not exist in humans–obviously they do–but that they evolved much later in our history and are not as important for our immediate survival. Basically, our technological and social intelligence is much stronger than our critical and abstract intelligence.

Two of the strongest instincts in humans are selfishness and tribalism. These help guarantee the survival of any given individual, and collectively ensure the safety and protection of one group against its enemies and rivals for limited natural resources (land, water, food). This has alway been true and is the main reason why humans became the dominant species. It also shows why there is always conflict between human individuals and societies, and probably always will be.

Tribalism is a strong primitive urge that takes many forms in our modern parlance: racism, nationalism, white supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, and political partisanship. These features are usually collocated, and coalesce around a vague fear or hatred of “the other”. In the Roman and Byzantine empires, chariot racing was the most popular spectator sport, along with gladiatorial combat. It was also a way for the otherwise disenfranchised citizens to show some level of political partisanship. The Blues and the Greens were the most popular factions in Constantinople, which for centuries maintained a violent hatred of each other whose rivalry almost overthrew the empire at one point. Today in America most people strongly identify with one of two rival political factions, and maintain their support for their faction almost to the death, without thinking about actual policy or consequences. This conflict is in danger of overthrowing the American empire, and taking the world down with it.

It is clear that a majority of the human race relies more upon the primitive (earlier evolved) forms of intelligence than the more complex and more difficult ones. This is very understandable, since it is easier and more natural. In the end, it really is easier to be a pig or a fool. Instant gratification and laziness come more easily than nuance and hard choices. The burden of abstract intelligence is too much for all but a select few would-be Socrates’. With growing education and economic prosperity in our modern world, there are many more intellectuals–people, per Asimov, who use knowledge and complex intelligence at least as much as the basic survival instincts–than there have ever been. I count this as a great virtue of our age, since it should be clear to my readers that I come down firmly on the side of intellectualism, for its own sake and for the sake of our continued species-wide development and future survival. I consider myself a reasonably well-read, well-travelled, tolerant sort of person–a political “liberal” as these things are labelled today.

Like Montaigne, I find pleasure in knowledge, and like Orwell, find ignorance a danger to society. The fact is, as I readily admit, that people like me who trust facts, history, science, and objective knowledge over instinctual tribalism are still an absolute minority among humans. Many of the people on the opposite side of the equation have perfectly understandable reasons for being selfish and ignorant–it’s in our genes and it’s difficult to overcome such a strong primitive instinct. This majority, therefore, does not like being preached at by people like me who wield knowledge like a sword. They call us “elites” and blame all their problems either on us, or on people outside the tribe they identify with (which usually means people with different skin tones, accents, or religions). They also rail against things like “political correctness” in the public discourse, which they feel limits their ability to freely speak about their bigotry. I will abandon political correctness for the moment, and call these people what they are–stupid.

Human beings, as a whole, have always been too stupid to really survive indefinitely. Alien archaeologists one million years from now–the type often imagined by Asimov–might very well stumble upon evidence of an advanced civilization on Earth that killed itself off while at the height of its powers, along with most of the other life forms it shared the planet with. They will come up with various hypotheses for this, but they will lack the knowledge to ever really know what happened. We the living know what happened. We have access to knowledge about the series of minor people and events that played a role in bringing about the slow demise of our societies and ecosystems. These names and events will be washed away in polluted, acidic oceans, or frozen in nuclear winters, and be lost forever. We were too stupid to use the power we had amassed in our hands. Maybe things would have been different if the elephants, or dolphins, or pigs, had developed complex intelligence faster than the monkeys. Things may have been better, or possibly worse. We will never know, and now the time of the monkeys will gradually burn itself out.

E.O. Wilson on Biology as Politics, Culture, and Human Nature

where-do-we-come-from-what-are-weOne of the most illustrious living scientists, E.O. Wilson, is still active and writing great books well into his ninth decade. In this article I will review two of his most recent works, The Social Conquest of Earth (2012) and The Meaning of Human Existence (2014).

Wilson, a biologist considered to be the world’s foremost expert on ants and sociobiology, is a gifted writer who explains difficult concepts for non-expert readers. My interests have always lain mostly within the humanities–history, literature, and philosophy above all–but reading these two books has opened my eyes in a couple ways. Firstly, that biology strongly determines many of the things often considered as separate and non-overlapping fields of study–history, politics, and the arts, for example. Secondly, that the fields of science and the humanities really would be best served by combining their forces and engaging in joint dialogue and research. I will attempt to explain these in greater detail.

The Social Conquest of Earth is the story of how the most successful and dominant organisms in Earth’s history are the ones that developed eusociality–namely, the social insects of termites, bees, wasps, and especially ants on one hand, and human beings on the other. Eusociality is the term for the systematic cooperation between a large number of organisms in a given species for the benefit of the group over the benefit of individuals. Out of hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary history and the rise and fall of as many different species, this trait of social cooperation has only arisen 20 times as far as experts can tell (mostly species of the aforementioned insects, along with two varieties of shrimp, and two species of naked mole rats that are the only other eusocial mammals besides humans). Wilson spends the rest of the book explaining why it was so rare, why human beings in particular are so unique, and how this relates to the rest of the world’s history.

“The origin of eusociality has been rare in the history of life because group selection must be exceptionally powerful to relax the grip of individual selection. Only then can it modify the conservative effect of individual selection and introduce highly cooperative behavior into the physiology and behavior of the group members.” This is the key point of why social cooperation is so rare, leading to what Wilson calls the iron rule of genetic social evolution: “It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.” This is true for all the relevant species, but especially for humans as we will see.

E.O. Wilson (1929- )

E.O. Wilson (1929- )

So how did such a trait evolve in the first place? Wilson lists three reasons: “One solid principle drawn from this analysis of the hymenopterans [the ants], and other insects as well, is that all of the species that have attained eusociality, as I have stressed, live in fortified nest sites. A second principle, less well established but probably nonetheless universal, is that the protection is against enemies, namely predators, parasites, and competitors. A final principle is that, all other things being equal, even a little society does better than a solitary individual belonging to closely related species both in longevity and in extracting resources from the area around a fixed nest of any kind.”

A significant part of the book deals with detailed descriptions of ant (and termite and bee) colonies and how they developed socially, which is Wilson’s particular specialty (at one point he mentions nonchalantly how he discovered and named 442 new species of ant). More interesting is how he compares and contrasts these social insects with humans, and describes the evolutionary process by which humans became a uniquely transcendent species. (For another interesting take on what happens when the planet’s two most successful species go head to head, see the classic short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants”, which I remember reading in high school English class).

Wilson describes the development of Homo sapiens as a maze, ultimately random, with each subsequent mutation bringing us closer to our modern form and capabilities. The first necessary adaptation was existence on the land so that fire could be harnessed (this is why highly intelligent dolphins and whales will never develop civilizations). The second necessary adaptation was large body size which allowed for bigger brains and advanced reasoning and culture (this excludes all eusocial insects). The third necessary adaption was the use of grasping hands with soft spatulate fingers that could hold and manipulate objects (this eliminates all large land animals besides the apes). The next necessary step was a dietary shift to a large amount of meat, a much more efficient source of protein that led to both larger brains and more social communities (this also excluded all other apes who are either vegetarian or, like chimpanzees, get only a small fraction of their calories from meat [additional note: I have often written of my vegetarianism and how good it is for people, animals, and the environment; I do not see any disconnect, however, between our ancestors’ adoption of meat into their diet for extra caloric and social development in a very limited world, and our current need to cut down grossly or eliminate meat consumption from our diets for the good of ourselves and life on our planet]). “About a million years ago the controlled use of fire followed, a unique homonid achievement.” This was likely because early human ancestors found cooked meat from animals burned in forest fires, and began to bring the fire with them. “Cooking became a universal human trait. With the sharing of cooked meals came a universal means of social bonding…along with fireside campsites came division of labor.” This maze seems very logical and easy to trace in hindsight, and from here it is relatively easy to trace the rest of human social development.

Wilson comes to some similar conclusions as another biologist Yuval Noah Harari, whose Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind I reviewed here. For instance, he says “The origin of modern humanity was a stroke of luck–good for our species for a while, bad for most of the rest of life forever.” He spends a lot of time describing how human culture developed to favor group cooperation over individual interests, and how this has affected our history, culture, and even psychology. “An unavoidable and perpetual war exists between honor, virtue, and duty, the products of group selection, on one side, and selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy, the products of individual selection, on the other side.” In fact, he comments at length on the tribal instincts of our species which lead to the worst part of our nature, yet has been ingrained in our cultural development over thousands of generations of evolution. “The elementary drive to form and take deep pleasure from in-group membership easily translates at a higher level into tribalism. People are prone to ethnocentrism. It is an uncomfortable fact that even when given a guilt-free choice, individuals prefer the company of others of the same race, nation, clan, and religion…Once a group has been split off and sufficiently dehumanized, any brutality can be justified, at any level, and at any size of the victimized group up to and including race and nation.” What a history of human war and social conflict this sociobiological fact entails.

books0415woodardA portion of the book is spent on laying out the case for the theory of group selection versus the theory of kin selection, which had been the most popular one for four decades. The latter, discussed by Charles Darwin, formally theorized in 1964 by W.D. Hamilton, and popularized by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 The Selfish Gene, states that kinship is the dominant criteria for genetic reproduction. Wilson references a new mathematical model and a variety of examples to show why group selection is actually the more likely reality. Altruism, for example, never fit well in the kin selection model, but it is the basis for Wilson’s theory. Dawkins, a renowned polemicist, did not take lightly to the dismissal of his preferred theory, and it led to quite the biological war of words in the press (here is a summary). I am not equipped to weigh in on what is still a controversial issue in evolutionary biology, but Wilson makes his case very convincingly.

Another fascinating aspect of the book that warrants mentioning is its discussion of how human cultural development differs from other animals. Somewhat surprisingly, Wilson says that we did not invent culture. Our common ancestor with chimpanzees did millions of years ago. “Most researchers agree that the concept of culture should be applied to animals and humans alike, in order to stress its continuity from one to the other and notwithstanding the immensely greater complexity of human behavior.” Accordingly, he mentions how dolphins and whales have culture, shown by their imitative social interactions. He reminds us again, though, why such intelligent creatures did not progress as far as humans in social evolution: “Unlike primates, they have no nests or campsites. They have flippers for forelimbs. And in their watery realm, controlled fire is forever denied.” Culture is especially dependent on long-term memory, a trait which humans possess far above all other animals. Our enlarged brains have made us into storytellers and planners, able to imagine past and future scenarios, invent fictions (a point also highlighted in Harari’s book Sapiens), and delay immediate desires in favor of delayed pleasures.

The Social Conquest of Earth explores a number of other engaging topics, but in the name of brevity I will conclude my synopsis here (in this New York Times “The Stone” article, Wilson also gives a nice summary of his ideas). I think one of the most important points of the book is the connection between biological development and what we usually think of as humanistic studies. I, for one, will be rethinking much of what I thought I knew about political and ethical philosophy. If we simply trust facts coming from scientific research, we will not need to construct theoretical hypotheses about how human societies developed and invented laws–those of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Rousseau, for example. Likewise with thorny questions of morality–if we consider that we are social animals who evolved successfully to work together, but that we still maintain the older individualistic impulses that go against the group, it helps to understand why humans behave the way the do. Perhaps Nietzsche was right, but not in the way he intended. We need not use the terms good and evil to characterize human actions–we can assess them as altruistic or selfish. Wilson comments: “Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature.”

9780871401007_custom-daa875ec0938392ef121288e44a4ce0719f16eef-s400-c85The Meaning of Human Existence is a slimmer volume with a more multidisciplinary approach, but no less ambitious than its predecessor as the title implies. In it, Wilson rehashes some of the same information as before, such as another extended case for group selection theory over kin selection (prompted no doubt by the controversy it stirred up two years earlier). For the most part, though, Wilson attempts to give a brief but comprehensive version of human history and development, and how we can advance as a species by uniting scientific and humanistic studies, and overall being better stewards of our immense, godlike power over the planet.

Here are some interesting quotes in my opinion that give some flavor of what the book is about:

“The function of anthropocentricity—fascination about ourselves—is the sharpening of social intelligence, a skill in which human beings are the geniuses among all Earth’s species. It arose dramatically in concert with the evolution of the cerebral cortex during the origin of Homo sapiens from the African australopith prehumans. Gossip, celebrity worship, biographies, novels, war stories, and sports are the stuff of modern culture because a state of intense, even obsessive concentration on others has always enhanced survival of individuals and groups. We are devoted to stories because that is how the mind works—a never-ending wandering through past scenarios and through alternative scenarios of the future.”

“What we call human nature is the whole of our emotions and the preparedness in learning over which those emotions preside. Some writers have tried to deconstruct human nature into nonexistence. But it is real, tangible, and a process that exists in the structures of the brain. Decades of research have discovered that human nature is not the genes that prescribe the emotions and learning preparedness. It is not the cultural universals, which are its ultimate product. Human nature is the ensemble of hereditary regularities in mental development that bias cultural evolution in one direction as opposed to others and thus connect genes to culture in the brain of every person.”

“It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.”

Both books are highly recommended reading for anyone interested in life’s big questions, which should be everyone. In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson opened with a discussion of Paul Gauguin’s masterpiece, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”, and what led the painter to create such a work. Gauguin lived an interesting life, giving up everything in a quest for truth and beauty (as portrayed in William Somerset Maugham’s great roman à clef, The Moon and Sixpence). The painting reveals the questions which are still central to religion, philosophy, and science; these questions may perhaps never be solved, but Wilson overall gives as good a try as anyone at some likely answers. He ends on a positive, if quixotic, note that if humanity can harness its power for good, we can conquer our gods and demons: “So, now I will confess my own blind faith. Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one. We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay.”

Are We Still Charlie Hebdo?: The Growing Dissonance between Extremism and Free Speech

The pen is mightier than the sword, and love is stronger than hate.

The pen is mightier than the sword, and love is stronger than hate.

(Article originally published on The Wrath-Bearing Tree)

I started preparing this essay a month or two ago to collect my thoughts about the after effects of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and how the limits of free speech are being tested as extremism and intolerance increase in Europe and America. Now, the latest attacks in Paris on November 13th have made me reevaluate my original thoughts and given them new urgency, but have not substantially changed my views. The key issues I will discuss are the nature of Daesh, the refugee crisis, climate change, media hypocrisy, right-wing extremism, and free speech. These are complicated issues, obviously, with many interwoven factors at play, and I will do my best to make sense of the situation as I see it.

Let’s begin with a brief look at what Daesh is (one thing I have learned from philosophy is that linguistic terminology matters; I don’t like the term ISIS because it was chosen by them and it disparages the ancient Egyptian goddess and Roman cult figure Isis; the term used by the French government and Secretary of State John Kerry is “Daesh”, which is more useful because it delegitimizes the group and they hate it). From what I can gather, the purpose of this self-declared Islamic Caliphate is to gain and hold as much territory as possible in order to establish a haven for what they consider pure Islam, all while making incessant war against neighbors and non-Muslims until their awaited apocalypse. For brevity’s sake, an apocalyptic death cult that happens to follow the words of the Koran literally. This long article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood does a good job explaining the rationale behind the erstwhile Caliphate. One of the conclusions is that, despite how it looks from Western eyes, Daesh is a very reasonable and consistent group of people; it just happens that their reasons and consistency spring from a bloody and black-and-white ideology deriving from 7th century Arabia. Up to now, Daesh has seemed content to wage war only in its own neighborhood of Syria and Iraq. Unlike al-Qaeda (which was responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack), Daesh is not primarily a terrorist organization but an actual government, however illegitimate and doomed to failure. (It is also highly relevant that the two groups have long been feuding for the soul of Islamic jihad, and are in no way allied). The attacks in Paris could have two possible interpretations: Daesh is branching out to international terrorism for the first time, either out of desperation after recent setbacks or to further their apocalyptic aims; or, the attacks were claimed by Daesh only after the fact, and were actually carried out by desperate European-based sympathizers who were unable to reach Syria themselves. As far as its origins, it is not too hard to trace the rise of extremism wherever violence and instability holds sway. Four years of a bloody civil war in Syria, combined with over a decade of bloody war in Iraq, created the perfect conditions for an organization such as Daesh to thrive. One of the lessons of history is that, in spite of some rare exceptions, periods of violence and revolution do not suddenly end in peaceful and stable governments.

If we are to attach blame to the creation of Daesh, it must be said that the US and its allies bear no small part of it. First and foremost for the illegal and disastrously managed war in Iraq, but more indirectly from the decades of unquestioned alliance and support for Saudi Arabia, a country which has almost single-handedly allowed the extreme Wahhabi sect to spread and produce jihad across the Middle East and the World (the US has an extremely long history of supporting authoritarian regimes in the name of business; Saudi Arabia is different from many of the historical examples in that the support continues today with virtually zero public backlash). There is enough blame to go around, however; do not think that I absolve the dictators and mullahs and imams who have themselves actually done the most killing (it is almost too obvious, but I don’t want to come under the familiar charge of being anti-American just because I point out the facts). The Saudi royal family, the Iranian Ayatollah and Revolutionary Guards, Israel and its increasingly hardline and rightward skew, the Palestinians who resort to violence and terrorism, Russia, and Britain and France and the greedy and racist colony legacy they created all play a part in brewing up the toxic sludge that represents the modern Middle East.

One group that does not bear any responsibility whatsoever for the Paris attacks or the existence of Daesh are refugees. Syria had a population of around 22 million before the war, and nearly half of these have been dislocated by force or desperation. At least four million have found shelter abroad, mostly in refugee camps in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. There are another three million refugees from Iraq trying to escape Daesh (figures here). The refugees seeking shelter from wanton violence and destruction of homes are not themselves terrorists trying to kill Westerners. As we will see, the big political winners from terrorism, besides the terrorists themselves, are the far-right political parties that wallow in and cater to extremism and xenophobia of any kind. This includes the French National Front, which will probably see yet another surge of support for its anti-immigration and Islamophobic platform. Every country in Europe and the Americas has a political party of this sort, which have generally grown both more popular and mainstream as the wars and and subsequent refugee crisis have grown in inverse proportion to economic stability: UKIP in the UK, Lega Nord in Italy, the Republicans in the US,  Dutch Freedom Party in the Netherlands, Pegida in Germany, Golden Dawn in Greece, True Finns in Finland, Jobbik in Hungary (which has been instrumental in physically stopping the largest numbers of refugees into the EU), and several others all follow the same rancorous script. Though these parties are comparatively small in some cases, they have an outsized voice and influence on the public and political discourse, which they help to poison. They must be denounced loudly and immediately as soon as they use hatred fear, and intolerance of other races and religions to further their selfish political and economic ends. It is encouraging to see, now almost a week after the latest Paris attacks, that there has in fact been such a large pushback against extremism. It must continue unabated, however.

On a deep level, if Europe and America want to ameliorate both the immediate and long-term situation in the Middle East, one of the two best things they can do is to accept many more refugees (as in, all of them). Countries like Germany and Sweden are acting responsibly and charitably in the refugee crisis. Every other country leaves something to be desired after setting extremely low thresholds for asylum applications and doing as much as possible to discourage refugees (and immigrants in general). It is not only the only moral and humanist solution to such a tragedy, but the best way to economic and political security. After all, no country benefits by having a failed state and terrorist breeding ground on its doorstep. In addition, Europe and the US should do much more to provide assistance to internally displaced refugees in Syria and Iraq, and create safe zones. Whatever is being done is not even remotely enough. It goes without saying that if the Middle East is ever to emerge from its miasma of retributive violence into something vaguely resembling the more modern liberal democracies that most of you (readers) enjoy, it will need a strong and educated middle-class. Not only does this generally not exist now, but every month of war, destruction, and privation over a huge swathe of this territory is preventing entire future generations from the possibility of ever attaining a peaceful and prosperous life. This is very important and typically gets lost in the fog of war and apathy.

Digression on Climate Change: It is well-known that there will be a crucial international conference on climate change in Paris next month in which virtually every nation in the world will attempt to come to an agreement on how to combat the warming of the planet. The stakes were already high enough, considering the consequences of continued indifference in the face of climatic upheaval, but the terrorist attacks in Paris occurring less than a month before the conference raises the pressure even more. It has long been well-known and documented by scientists and historians that environmental issues like deforestation, drought, overpopulation, and resource scarcity heavily contribute to human conflict. Before the outbreak of a genocidal killing spree in Rwanda in 1992, for example, the population carrying capacity was at the absolute limit, meaning that way too many people were competing for not enough resources (Jared Diamond discusses this and related issues convincingly in his book Collapse, which I reviewed here). In Syria, it should be noted that there were four years of extreme drought which ruined farmers and forced more people into overcrowded cities, all prior to the peaceful uprising by restive Syrian citizens against a repressive and indifferent government. It was only after months of peaceful protests and brutal government suppression that the real civil war started, and we know well that peaceful moderates do not long survive in bloody civil wars. Thus, the conditions were ripe for the formation of a group like Daesh. Though climate change’s very existence is denied by Republicans in America, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders recently spoke for the growing number of people who not only accept the reality of the crisis, but see the direct link climate change has on political and military conflicts. Lest you still see this as just a liberal fantasy despite overwhelming evidence, the Pentagon and military leaders in America and NATO see climate change as an immediate risk to national security as well.

Voltaire said, or is supposed to have said, something along the lines of “Though I hate what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This can be seen as an early defense of the right of Freedom of Speech, later adopted in the new country of America as the First Amendment to the Constitution. Although it would appear to be an unlimited right, it has been challenged over the years and its limits have often been tested. Nowhere are the limits pushed and tested as much as in the face of intolerance and violence, or the mere threat of violence.

Let’s now take a trip back in time and revisit the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris of January 2015. Besides the murders themselves, an act of outrageous maliciousness, I was troubled by the reaction to the event by the media and the world at large. It need not be said that violence and murder are inexcusable under any circumstances; I say this anyway because it has been discussed around the edges of the event that because Charlie Hebdo mocked Islam and drew pictures of Mohammed, such a tragic outcome was somehow expected or even preordained. The mindset that produces such thought is one lacking in critical thinking skills, perspective, empathy, and intelligence. I can understand the series of causes and effects that can produce mass murderers, religiously motivated or otherwise. The killers were Muslim outsiders in a secular society that limited their economic possibilities, and often expressed prejudice against them, even by the government. They were also of Algerian descent, like a majority of France’s Muslims, which can only remind us of the lingering effects of the long and brutal Algerian war which ended only two generations ago. To understand broader context is not to excuse or even sympathize with violence of any kind. Most of the world’s peaceful Muslims will agree. Though they are often just as disenfranchised or economically limited as the killers, yet they do not curse the world and go on murderous sprees.

Another troubling thing about the media coverage and public outcry of the Charlie Hebdo murders is the total saturation of the news coverage itself and the unprecedented knee-jerk support for Charlie Hebdo by politicians who would condemn the magazine in their own country, and support for France by many of the same politicians who would never come close to supporting France’s culture of free speech. Thinking back to the worst massacres that we have witnessed in the last few years, there are several that stand out in my mind as even more appalling than Charlie Hebdo. One is the 2011 Norway massacre where a white right-wing Christian terrorist single-handedly killed 77 people and injured hundreds more in two separate attacks on the same day. Most of the victims were children and teens at a summer camp. Though this prompted an outpouring of sympathy and condemnation from around the world, there was not nearly as much as there was after the Charlie Hebdo killings, nor was there a show of solidarity in Oslo by world leaders and a viral slogan. Even more disturbing and tragic are the continued massacres and atrocities by the Nigerian jihad group Boko Haram (by far the deadliest terrorist group in the world), and specifically an attack only four days before the one on Charlie Hebdo in which thousands of people were reportedly murdered, with subsequent information saying that perhaps it was “only” a few hundred people instead (though no reporting has ever been able to confirm). This was an event mentioned in the world news, but quickly forgotten by most people even more quickly than they forget about the weekly school shootings in towns across America. A third incident which happened only three weeks before Charlie Hebdo was the massacre at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, by the Taliban which killed 145 people, 132 of which were young children. There are two possible reasons why Charlie Hebdo was a much bigger deal for people around the world, much more well-known and publicized in the media, and attracted much more sympathy than the other three massacres I mentioned which were all much more violent: Charlie Hebdo’s victims were white Europeans who were killed in the name of free speech by French-Algerian Muslims, which means that white and non-white people from all across the political spectrum had reason to be shocked and angered. In the Norway massacre the victims were also white Europeans, but the perpetrator was counter-intuitively (according to the narrative we are used to hearing from the media) a white European male as well, thus diminishing the duration and strength of the shock and public outcry, while the Boko Haram attack four days before Charlie Hebdo was already out of the news cycle by the time of the Paris attack, most obviously because even though the terrorists were also African jihadists, the victims were black Africans, thus diminishing the sympathy and interest by a large segment of the western media and population that now openly condemns racism but still engages in it; likewise with the Peshawar attack perpetrated by the infamous Taliban on schoolchildren. This troubling comparison tells me that to much of the media and large parts of western society black and brown lives matter less, and that white terrorists are written off as exceptions while Muslim terrorists are seen as a representation of the entire world population of Muslims. The way these type of events are shown in the media is both a cause and an effect of these biased opinions.

One more bit of hypocrisy is the fact that the Charlie Hebdo attack was clearly and unambiguously an act of terrorism in which 12 people were killed in Paris, but many more people are killed every week by the US government in drone strikes, which must feel like terrorism to the people who live in fear. We know that missiles are rained down on supposedly high-value targets in uninteresting and out-of-the-way places like Pakistan and Yemen without any due process or guarantee that innocent men, women, and children will not be killed (they may be a majority of the victims for all we know, though all males are officially classified as “military-aged males” and assumed to be guilty). A detailed report by The Guardian has concluded that US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen killed a total of 1147 people in hundreds of failed attempts to kill just 41 men. When a missile blows up houses and cars full of people and kills at least as many as the Charlie Hebdo attack, that seems like terrorism to me. And such violence is likely to create many more terrorists than were possibly killed in the original attacks (a fact conceded by former Air Force drone operators themselves), thus increasing the probability of more strikes such as the one on Charlie Hebdo in the future (and just as such attacks are likely to make more and more westerners see all Muslims as enemies or terrorists).

The Charlie Hebdo attack prompted the trendy show of solidarity “Je suis Charlie” by millions around the world, which is not a bad thing in itself, but I am afraid that much of the solidarity was a superficial and knee-jerk response to the tragedy, not one which examined the sources and possible solutions to the set of circumstances that led to this attack and could lead to more in the future. From my personal point of view as a long-time resident in Europe, people across Europe as a whole are somewhat more thoughtful about such tragedies than the American people as a whole were after 9-11, but the fact that we have witnessed wars and terrorism in the past 14 years since then has created for many people a perspective either more empathetic or more cynical. At the same time Europe is still in the midst of economic troubles which have helped fuel the rise of a slew of right-wing xenophobic and anti-Islamic parties in every country, a large number of Europeans are also seeing that the absolute protection of free speech and tolerance is the only way to peacefully maintain an increasingly multicultural and globalized society. The question of tolerance is one that has not always been correctly understood or handled by either political leaders or citizens. There are limits to both tolerance and free speech, though it is admittedly difficult to tease out these limits, especially when faced with real-world tragedies that prompt unthinking reactions.

Just as there was a media double standard during the Charlie Hebdo massacre, likewise for the November 13th Paris attacks. The scale is much greater in the latter case, with at least 136 deaths and hundreds more injured. But the reaction was similar in that Daesh itself conducted other attacks on civilians in other countries within 24 hours of the Paris attacks, but with little reporting by the media and little interest by the public. 26 people were killed in two suicide bombings perpetrated by Daesh in Baghdad, while 43 people were killed and hundreds wounded in two suicide bombings perpetrated by Daesh in Beirut. Neither of those have the high death toll of Paris, but does it matter? After all, as I have shown, “only” eight people were killed in Charlie Hebdo attack but that was a bigger news story by ten or hundredfold than greater massacres of the same time in other countries. Some of this is cultural, and the fact that Paris is a central city in Western civilization, and one that many Western people have visited and feel a connection to. But still, does that matter? I love Paris as much as anyone, as well as free speech, and I hate terrorism and any kind of violence, but that does not make me feel more rage and frustration in either the case of Charlie Hebdo or the November 13th attacks as the ones in Beirut, Peshawar, Nigeria, Baghdad, Oslo, or the weekly school shootings in America. My rage and frustration is the same, and comes from the same source, directed at the same cause. I do not think Islam is the root of the problem, nor do I think that closing borders and blocking asylum and aid for refugees is the solution. These are just two of the ways I have complete and fundamental difference of opinion with the intolerant bigots in our own countries (such as my very own Congressional Representative in South Carolina, a Republican named Jeff Duncan, who blamed refugees and Muslims for the attacks before the blood had even congealed on the streets of Paris, or every single Republican presidential candidate and most of the Republican state governors).

Let’s look at some more case studies in tolerance and intolerance. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel once declared the idea of multiculturalism in Germany to have failed. I do not know if she was just trying to appeal to her conservative voters, but such a statement is irresponsible and untrue. This idea that immigrants cannot be integrated into a society only feeds the xenophobic bigots who have now become quite vocal and strong in most European countries. The fact that the rise of these groups has coincided with economic recession and unemployment is in fact no coincidence. Blaming outsiders is an appealing message to certain types of people who feel economic strain and see a threat to their traditional way of life. That does not mean that it is the fault of the immigrants, who are almost always under much more economic strain than their detractors, but of the political and economic elite who create the conditions that the people will either succeed or fail in. Whatever she meant by citing the failure of multiculturalism, Merkel has at least proven to be a courageous leader in leading the way for European countries accepting refugees. It is still not enough.

On the other hand, the right-wing nationalist and xenophobic parties have been spreading hate and intolerance. They grow stronger when people become fearful of violence and terrorism. It is well-known that toxic public discourse and intolerant speech by political leaders directly leads to violence by their troubled followers. It happens time and time again that some misguided soul takes out murderous aggression on an innocent party that had been vilified by some right-wing hate-monger. This point cannot be stressed enough. One clear limit to free speech exists at the first instance of violence, the threat of violence, or even the mere hint of violence. This goes not just for physical violence but for anything that qualifies as unnecessarily extreme aggression, intimidation, emotional bullying, etc. There is a paradox of tolerance, which is that one must be intolerant of intolerance in order to maintain a civil and open society (I have previously discussed this paradox at greater length here).

Let me indulge in a thought experiment, and let us imagine a growing fringe political party that doubles as a hate group. One of their keys beliefs is that beards are evil and unwelcome in their country. While this is a ridiculous position to hold, it is merely an opinion that happens to be small-minded and wrong (my sense of morality tells me that opinions can sometimes be wrong just as facts can). An invisible line is crossed, however, when the anti-beard group’s legitimately free speech turns to calls for violence, retribution, or even economic and social sanctions for people with beards. This is intolerance that cannot be tolerated in an open society, since it operates outside the bounds of civility and freedom from fear and violence that are the foundation a free society is built upon. In other words, though I hate what the anti-beard group says, I will defend their right to say, but only insofar as it is exercised as one particular opinion and way of life but not as a call for violence and intolerance against others who do not hold that opinion or other varying attribute (such as religion, sex, sexuality, skin color, or facial hirsuteness).

I would further argue that a fully democratic nation whose voting citizens are composed almost wholly of illiterate idiots is always preferable to a nation ruled by the most benevolent dictator but where freedom of speech is limited. The limits of democracy are seen insofar as its demos, or people, take active and informed interest in the decisions of the nation. So in the former case, though the ignorance or indifference of a sufficiently high percentage of voting citizens in a democracy could easily lead down the road to fascist dictatorship, the fact that it was firstly and presently still democratic weighs conclusively in its favor. This shows the promise and the limitations of democracy: nothing is guaranteed except what the citizens enable; everything is possible; but it can still be corrupted by propaganda and the preying on of the basest human emotions of hate, greed, and intolerance.

In the years after 9-11 in America, the people made the mistake of allowing fear and the illusion of security eclipse their freedoms. There is still much work to do to dismantle the security and surveillance state that was erected during those years of democracy in its lowest ebb. Similarly in Europe, leaders feel pressure from the right-wing parties that scream for closed borders and a stop to immigration, and for added security measures that will sacrifice hard-won freedoms for an illusion of safety. It must not be. Just as free speech must be protected at all costs, Western countries must not give in to the fear that terrorists aim to create. As Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” That is still true in that our society remains fundamental strong, free, and open, and there is nothing that terrorists can do to change that other than make us fear them so much that we remake our society in their image, and waging more endless wars of their choosing.

Wise men are able to say things that echo long after they are gone, and it’s the same once again with Voltaire, one of my favorite Parisians, who said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” It was hard to miss the fact that one of the six Paris attacks was on a theatre on Voltaire Boulevard. Though this could be coincidental, it is not hard to imagine the attack planners targeting such a symbol of everything they hate: music and drama, philosophy, satire, reason, and enlightenment. The quote applies quite easily to the insanity that is Daesh, but let’s not hesitate to look at our own recent past. European civilization is easily the bloodiest in history, and that is why it is crucial for us to remember our own past in order to forge a new future.

Let me close with the words of another wise humanist and antiwar activist, Bertrand Russell, whose message to the future (which is the present for us) was the following: “The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple: I should say, love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way — and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

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