Identity: the hysteria of both the left and the right

Identity has become a contentious topic on both sides of the political and social divide in Western societies. Much of the contention arises from completely irrational, hysterical straw-manning of the other side's positions and intentions, giving rise to a situation in which both sides are, by and large, fighting self-invented ghosts. And although there surely are a few toxic people on both sides, who truly take extreme and unacceptable positions, they are just that: a few individuals who aren't representative of any significant social group.

In this essay, I'll try to address the topic of identity in a way that, to me, seems to be balanced and informed by calm reason, as opposed to hysterical emotions and prejudices. In the process of doing so, I'll deliberately give voice to both sides of the divide, alternately, so to illustrate how I think both incur in irrational straw-manning. I believe doing this is important, because our societies are eating themselves alive due to the bellicose psychological energy constantly mobilised by straw-manning. We are dehumanising one another, in a process that poses more danger to Western societies than even the deranged barking of that loser called Vladimir Putin. This essay is my personal attempt to contribute something to resolving this dangerous and unnecessary internal conflict.

The key tenet of the Western social value-system is this: you are entitled to be who you are, love who you love, and live the way you want to live, as long as you don't interfere with my right to be and do the same. This is the Golden Rule of Western social life. Admittedly, there are nuanced situations in which this rule doesn't lead to immediate and unambiguous solutions to social conflicts, but it goes much farther than those indulging in hysterical straw-manning believe it to go.

Take the question of LGBTIQ+ rights, for instance: even Christian fundamentalists will grant that God has given people free will, otherwise the concept of 'sin' would have no meaning. In other words, God—although He could—did not make it impossible for us to sin. There is thus a very important sense, even under fundamentalist Christianity, in which we have been given the freedom to sin by the Divinity Itself. Therefore, if being an LGBTIQ+ person is a sin, who are we to take away their freedom to sin, given that God Himself didn't? Even under the premises of fundamentalist Christianity, the Golden Rule of Western societies still applies: LGBTIQ+ people must have the right to be who they are, love who they love, and live as they wish to live, as long as they don't interfere with the freedom of others to be and do the same.

However, the right often straw-mans the issue to ludicrous extents, insofar as they think that LGBTIQ+ rights—which, frankly, are just human rights—infringe on the personal liberties of non-LGBTIQ+ people. Take the following fragment of a comment recently posted on this blog (which I, of course, deleted), referring to LGBTIQ+ rights as "the rights of sexual deviants to force us to jump through whatever hoops their sick minds can come up" with. The vast, vast majority of LGBTIQ+ people don't want to force anybody to do anything, let alone jump through hoops; they just want the basic human right to be who they are and love who they love. It is a completely hysterical straw-man to portray them as essentially fascists. It dehumanises a vast, vast majority of decent, good people who stand to contribute perhaps disproportionate amounts of creativity and valiance to our culture. And that there may be some truly toxic people among them, who do constitute a danger to society, isn't surprising either: toxicity is a general human potential present in all social groups, and thus it stands to reason that the LGBTIQ+ community will also have their statistical fair share. That only makes them as human as the rest of us. To portray them—the oppressed—as oppressors borders on the criminal.

Which is not to say that hysteria doesn't plague the pro-LGBTIQ+ left also. In the well-justified drive to protect the basic human rights of all members of our society, some overlook very concrete, practical and important issues, such as how well-meaning laws can be abused.

In my country, a new law is being debated in parliament this week. It is meant to protect the right of transgender people to be treated for who they truly are from within: all Dutch citizens may soon be allowed to change the sex assignment in their identity cards, as well as all official registration records, simply by going to the city hall and saying whether they identify as male or female. No sex reassignment surgery is required; no psychiatric evaluation is required; no hormonal treatment is required; the person doesn't even need to dress according to the chosen sex. I—facial hair and all—would be able go to the city hall and change all my records to 'female,' if I so wished.

Before I point out the problems with this, let me first acknowledge the most important thing: for the vast majority of people who would use this potential new law, the law would be a good and fair thing. Non-transgender people don't need sex reassignment surgery, hormone treatment or psychiatric evaluations to have their registration records reflect who they are from within; why should it be different for transgender people? In an ideal world, I would support this law. That I might feel confused and uncomfortable about what pronoun to use when talking to a transgender person is my problem, not theirs.

But we don't live in an ideal world. As discussed above, transgender people are a normal demographic in any society (even those that pretend it doesn't exist). And any demographic has its statistical share of toxic, dangerous individuals; as humans, transgender people are no exception. In this context, the problem of a law that allows sex assignment to be changed based purely on subjective feeling—important as the latter is—is that it conflates gender with sex, thereby rendering objective identification more difficult. And that does infringe the Golden Rule, in that it can affect all of us, not just transgender people.

To make my point clear, I will exaggerate: imagine that the law allowed me to change not only my sex, but other identification parameters related to my biology, such as age and height. Both age and height also have inner, subjective counterparts that may not agree with biological externalities: some small people feel tall (I bet Volodymyr Zelenskyy is one of them), some old people feel young, and so on. How they feel is very important, and I, for one, am perfectly willing to treat them for how they feel from within, not their outer biology. But if every small person who feels tall, and every old person who feels young, could legally change their records to reflect their subjective age and height, we would have a serious social problem, in that the records would become meaningless for being disconnected from recognisable outer appearances.

Imagine that a crime were committed and the criminal were described by witnesses as a small old man. Imagine also that the actual criminal had legally changed their official records to say that they are, in fact, a tall young girl. How would police find the culprit? Yes, this is an exaggerated and implausible hypothetical, but it does illustrate the problem of conflating subjective inner reality with objective, biological, recognisable outer characteristics.

Problems can still occur even if we take the exaggeration out of the picture. Once one's sex is legally changed, everything has to legally unfold consistently with that. So all government statistics pertaining to, say, heart disease prevalence in males and females, would be skewed; and so would insurance costs based on such statistics. And since the sex change is legally binding, public bathrooms in Dutch swimming pools, gyms, clubs, etc., may soon have biologically male individuals, who didn't undergo hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery, showering naked next to my naked female partner. I don't think that's a good idea. Insofar as my partner is directly affected by this, allowing it does violate the Golden Rule. I could go further and discuss how similar situations could bring children under risk from pedophiles, who could cynically regard this law as a fantastic opportunity to do harm under the cover of the fair sex. But I am sure you understand the point already.

A well-meaning attempt to cater to the rights of all of us becomes a problem the moment it overlooks the practicalities and implications of its implementation. It gives those who were already opposed to transgender rights, due to hysterical straw-manning, a legitimate reason to become entrenched in their position. It feeds polarisation. The person who wrote that deleted comment on this blog would now gain some legitimacy in stating that transgender people "force us to jump through hoops." Everybody looses with this, particularly transgender people. Even the best intentions can constitute a form of hysteria when they careen out of control, ignoring reason and level-headed judgment. And it's difficult to absolve the left of this offence.

Unfortunately, the situation is yet more nuanced and complicated than it may appear from the above. What our culture needs to do is to disassociate gender from sex. The former is a psychological inner fact, while the latter is a biological outer fact. But such a disassociation will take decades, even generations, to fully happen. In the meantime, honest and good transgender people will effectively be discriminated against, for the sex assignment in their documents will still be taken, by the culture, as their gender. Is this fair? Clearly not. What is clear is that the problem is a very difficult one, and that hysteria and straw-manning only make the situation even more difficult than it already is by nature.

Gender identity is not the only identity issue that is plagued by hysteria and straw-manning. Another one is cultural identity. Peculiarly, the left and the right swap roles here: as I've just discussed, while insisting on their own cultural identity, the right denies the LGBTIQ+ community their right to gender identity. However, not to be outdone, while the left goes out of its way to defend LGBTIQ+ and immigrant identity, it seems to completely disregardeven actively attack—our own cultural identity. Here is a comment recently published on my Facebook page, in the context of a discussion about the European Union: "National identities have no future." Really?

A salient characteristic of the left's ethos is the pretence that we are born in a kind of vacuum, without a past, without a history, without traditions, merely as fully mouldable creatures—tabula rasa—which somehow pop out of nowhere, as if by magic. Not only is this factually untrue, it raises the question: Why? Why try to deny the obvious fact that we do have a history, a past, ancestors, traditions, roots, all of which give context and meaning to our lives? It is our roots and traditions that allow us to understand our role in the development of human civilisation (in the Hegelian sense), provide us with contextual references, and anchor us in a form of temporal transcendence that seems to be entirely lost in the left. What makes the left insist on gender identity on the one hand while, strangely, denying cultural identity on the other? Why this flagrant inconsistency?

I think the answer is not maliciousness—in my experience, very little human nonsense is malicious—but a fear that cultural identity may be misused to curtail the rights of minorities, such as the LGBTIQ+ community, ethnic groups and immigrants. After all, it is also a fact that some of what we inherit from the past is toxic, obnoxious, dangerous and even criminal. For instance, insofar as racism is a cultural inheritance in some parts of the world, it isn't an acceptable one.

But to recognise that we must revise some of our inheritance—for, after all, we do learn a thing or two over time—doesn't entail or imply that we have to get rid of all of it. Doing so cuts the anchors that keep us rooted in meaning and significance; it imbues life with the "unbearable lightness of being" that Milan Kundera wrote about: a ghostly weightlessness that renders life insignificant and pointless, like a fallen leaf in the wind; a situation we desperately seek to alleviate through addictive patterns of consumerist behaviour (this, in turn, may be a clue to why the liberal media seems to foment uprootedness).

Even in the European Project, national identity—as long as not driven to nationalist extremes—is what gives colour and life to Europe. Entities can only meaningfully contribute to a collective project when they bring something of their own—their particular character—to that project. So national identity is not only not antithetical to Europe, but in fact crucial to the success of the European Project. Europe is a rainbow only when each country brings its own colour to it. Otherwise, we would turn the glorious cultural richness of Europe into a drab, uniform, unremarkable and ultimately lifeless sea of grey. How dull. How undesirable.

love Europe, with all my heart. Born a son of European emigrants in a far away tropical land, I never took it for granted. But what I love most about Europe is precisely its cultural diversity. Going from country to country, experiencing the various local traditions, festivals, values, foods, music, etc., is beyond enriching to me. I want Austria to remain Austria; Italy to remain Italy; Germany to remain Germany; Denmark and Portugal to remain Denmark and Portugal; and, above all, The Netherlands to remain The Netherlands. Otherwise, I would feel literally robbed of something very dear to me.

Although there are many things I don't like about my biology—such as my pale skin and big head—I delight in knowing that Iberian and Northern European colours flow through me, and are culturally reflected in my active presence in the world. Surely enough, out of all the national diversity that constitutes the European nations, we can still distill what is common to all of us Europeans. But as this commonality is the glue that binds the European Project together, so what distinguishes us from one another are its colours.

As long as not driven to nationalist extremes, cultural identity is no threat to anyone or anything. On the contrary: it is the lifeblood of civilised humanity; it's our anchor, our root, our life-giving context, our compass. To acknowledge and nurture our roots precisely reduces the threat we may pose to minorities and guests among us, for when a culture feels strong in its roots and traditions, it doesn't perceive other cultures in its midst as threatening.

Moreover, as a child of immigrants born in a distant land, I know one thing very well: immigrants hold on to, and nurture, their own cultural identity more than those who stay behind in their original countries (I can still fondly remember a cousin of mine sweating buckets while dressed in a full Scandinavian Santa Claus suit, in a 42-degree Celsius December 24th evening in Rio de Janeiro's tropical summer). So why shouldn't the host culture also hold on to, and nurture, its own cultural inheritance? Why should we drift away from our roots and references, into the sterile vacuum of no-identity, like a fallen leaf in the wind, just to see our insecurities increase as a result, to the point that we begin to regard our guests as threats?

Instead of thinking through the issues of identity in a rational, clear-headed way, both the left and the right now fall prey to Hallucinated Implications Creep and replace reality with straw-men. We give our worst prejudices free rein and not only marginalise, but also dehumanise one another. Our societies fill up with imagined ghosts and enemies, projections of our own hysteria onto other human beings just like us. And as a result, we forget the Golden Rule that holds the fabric of Western societies together. What a tragedy. What an immense existential risk.

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Putin is not the biggest threat: A critical juncture for the West


As the Kremlin takes the major step of national mobilisation to fight a war of aggression against a nascent Western democracy, and once again repeats nuclear threats against the West as a whole, it would seem that our values and way of life are under threat from an outside actor. And sure enough, we are threatened. But the biggest threat we face at this perilous and delicate historical juncture is not external. Vladimir Putin is a mouse in comparison to what threatens our way of life from within, ostensibly in the name of our very Western values.

Before I begin elaborating on what I have to say, it is important that you understand what I mean by 'the West': despite the name, it's not a geographical location or even an ethnicity, but a system of fundamental values and way of life. For historical and bio-evolutionary reasons, these values and way of life still correlate with particular geographies and ethnicities, but to me this is entirely circumstantial. For instance, one of the most unambiguously Western voices in the media today is Fareed Zakaria. And a disproportionate number of those who threaten the Western way of life today are caucasians born in the Western hemisphere. So no, to be Western is not an ethnicity or a domicile; it is to espouse a system of fundamental values and a way of life.

But what way of life? What fundamental values? It is almost inevitably unfair and inaccurate to summarise the answer to these questions in a simple statement. Yet, with that in mind, I will try: to be Western is to hold the uniqueness of individual expression in the highest regard. For us, people are not mere numbers, anonymous drones or cogs in a sociopolitical machine; people are unique individuals who must be allowed to express themselves in their own way, for each and everyone has something unique and valuable to contribute. And by 'expression' I mean much more than just freedom of speech, although the latter is entailed by it as well: individual expression is about being in the world in our own unique ways. This individual expression is as much embodied in speech as it is in art, philosophy, science, profession, hobbies, relationships, and behaviour in general. Westerners hold as sacred our right to be who we are, and to live life in our own unique ways—as determined by our muses, daimons, souls, or whatever you want to call it—as long as doing so does not infringe on the rights of other individuals to do the same.

Notice that this high regard for individual expression has two corollaries: individual liberty and social tolerance. To be able to express ourselves in our own unique ways we must have the freedom, enshrined in laws and institutions, to do so. And because others have the same right to express their unique selves as we do, it is incumbent on all of us to tolerate the choices of others (again, as long as they don't infringe on our own liberties).

As such, the fundamental value of individual expression, when shared in a society, implies tolerance for another's tastes, preferences, dispositions, and so forth. For to argue against another's right to self-expression is to argue against one's own right. This way, one overarching, shared value unfolds into a fertile field for the growth of a variety of divergent peculiarities. I may be a heterosexual man disposed to philosophy and science, who enjoys baroque music, but my freedom to express myself in these ways implies tolerance to, say, a homosexual woman who does art for a living and likes to listen to heavy metal (as long as her freedom to be herself does not infringe on my freedom to be myself). This is how the Western way of life works. We celebrate and encourage our differences, for in their complementarities lies our collective strength, and in their variety lies our richness. The sum-total of our innate natural drives—of what our muses, daimons, souls, inspirations, aspirations, etc., lead us to do in life—produces our culture, our economy, our science, our technology, our art, and everything that makes us a significant force in the world.

Arguably, no country in the world is fully Western, just as no country is fully non-Western. Even the two major nations today that seem to embody the very antithesis of Western values—Russia and China—do grant limited individual freedoms to their citizens. What I am trying to get across is a matter of degree, not of black-and-white pigeonholing.

In this spirit, the important thing to realise is that, in order to properly uphold the fundamental value of individual expression, Western societies must ensure that government is never driven by individual agendas. This may sound contradictory at first, but it surely isn't: when government becomes about one or a few individuals, who then enforce their peculiar dispositions and views on the entire population, liberty and tolerance die; the vibrant colours of individual expression disappear into a dull and grey background of artificial conformity, without the life-force of nature to propel them. The governments of Western societies must, instead, be driven by institutions and the rule of law, which channel and harmonise our distinct individual drives.

And this is why nations like Russia and China, in which one individual becomes the perennial face and driver of government, above institutions and the rule of law, are by and large incompatible with Western values and ways of life. This doesn't necessarily mean that they are a threat to us: it would be supremely arrogant to think that Western values should rule the entire world. Different peoples are entitled to their own value systems; to inherit and shape their own cultures and ways of life, just as we are entitled to ours. But when a sovereign people that chose the Western path—as Ukraine explicitly and overwhelmingly did in 2013 and 2014—is cowardly assaulted by a foreign power, then that foreign power does become a threat to all of us, Westerners.

Yet, neither Russia nor China are the greatest threats to Western values today. That dishonour goes to those among us who, through to the very freedoms granted to them by Western political systems, seek to undermine our values. Those among us who admire and pander to foreign dictators, who seek to emulate the slick, sanitised veneer of authoritarian regimes, who misuse our open political systems for personal gain, who see themselves as being above institutions and the rule of law: those are the true enemies within. Their approach to public service is acid to the Western way of life. They must not be tolerated, for—as philosopher Karl Popper once observed—the one thing that tolerant societies must never tolerate is intolerance itself.

Ironically, these demagogues claim to want to protect our Western values: think of how the extreme right—embodied in e.g. Marie le Pen in France, the Trump/MAGA movement in the USA, and the Hungarian regime of Victor Orbán—leverage precisely their people's anxieties about threats to their traditions and way of life. Yet, the extreme right's attitudes and actions embody the very antithesis of the values they claim to protect: cults of personality taking precedence over institutions and the rule of law; disregard for the personal liberties and rights of minorities; adopting lies as a matter-of-course way of government (which is precisely what the Russian and Chinese governments do); disregard for objectivity, facts, reason, evidence and coherent argumentation; and so on. How can the West be protected by a psychopathological Trump, who idolises a criminal Putin, and even a deranged Kim? Who repeatedly lies through his teeth without a shimmer of shame? Who uses the (often legitimate) grievances of his base solely to advance his own egomaniacal personal agenda? How can European ways of life be safeguarded by those who want to acquiesce to Russian expansionism? How can the West be protected by elements who regard facts, science, tolerance and thoughtfulness as weaknesses, and who argue by puerile, reason-free, knee-jerk emotionality? These elements are the greatest threats to the West, for—unlike Putin or Xi—they pray on us from within, disguised as one of us.

But I am an equal-opportunities critic, and so I don't give the so-called 'left' (I use scare quotes here because it is ludicrous to think that everything in politics can be pigeonholed in one of only two categories) a free pass either. For we must try to understand how demagogues in our midst, who constitute the biggest threat to Western values today, have come to gather support precisely from those who are anxious about losing their Western way of life. How on Earth could this happen?

I won't pretend to know the full answer to this question, but I will risk a partial hypothesis: when the legitimate grievances and anxieties of a large segment of the population are systematically dismissed, and even pooh-poohed, by urban elites, people are left with no psychologically tenable alternative but to lend their support to anti-elite demagogues (who, ironically, are often themselves members of the urban elite). This seems to be particularly the case in the USA, where so-called 'liberals' seem to be quick to dismiss and alienate what I will describe as traditional, heartland mentality. The deplorable views of a very few (they are always there, aren't they?) motivate quick and utterly irresponsible generalisations, reflected in the labelling of almost half the country as 'deplorable.' Is this a Western attitude? Does this reflect social tolerance? Reason? Thoughtfulness? Respect for individual expression?

I live in a country where almost half the land is under sea level. These so-called 'polders' are kept dry by the continuous running of pumps—originally powered by windmills—and various other water defences, which are erected and maintained by the collective effort of the population. As such, the Netherlands is a nation where a failure to respect your neighbour's views and reach some form of consensus would swiftly lead to the literal loss of half the country. If we start fighting each other and fail to cooperate, the pumps stop running and we get more than just our feet wet. Western values here are a matter of life and death; literally.

Yet, isn't this also the case across Western societies today? Flooding is just one of many ways a country can be lost. If respect for individual differences isn't achievable, what is the way forward for, say, the USA? Another civil war? Secession? The Russian and Chinese governments would love it, wouldn't they? How do you think they would react to an opportunity like that? Nonetheless, the mere attempt to understand the other side in one's own society seems to be seen today as weakness, even a betrayal of the cause! This is perilous, for it can quickly make the pumps stop running.

We tend to screw things up by going too far in our well-meaning attempts to correct the ills of our time. History is bursting full of examples. For instance, Martin Luther correctly diagnosed the many ills of the Catholic Church of his time and tried to fix them. But soon enough protestantism went so far as to reduce religious service to some form of legal audience. Even priests started dressing like judges. And when the Catholic Church reacted to it and tried to revitalise religion in the form of the counter reformation, we got the Inquisition. How adorable.

Similarly, we go too far in recognising the ills of our society when this recognition leads to generalisations, alienation, and even hate. There is nothing shameful about trying to understand where the other side is coming from. There is nothing treacherous about engaging in dialogue. Maybe new vistas will open, to the surprise of all parties involved. For even the urban literati may have something to learn from rooted heartland mentality. After all, we are never born in a vacuum, without a past and a historical context, without traditions and ancestors, without a relationship with the land under our feet. Realising this for the first time, after years indulging in the superficiality, uprootedness and lack of teleological context of so-called 'liberal' thinking, can be a sobering and very healthy experience.

Let me try to make my point more concrete with a couple of very polemical examples. Like many urbanites, having pondered the question of abortion for a while, I've come to the conclusion that, on final balance, women must have the right to choose. If abortion ultimately proves to be a sin, then it is their responsibility whether to commit the sin, not lawmakers'; for sovereignty over our own bodies must be the red line. However, I do not dismiss the question lightly as a slam dunk, as some of my urbanite peers do; no, an embryo is a life. The day we take lightly the decision to end a life is the day of our doom as a civilised society. The pro-life movement, even if ultimately wrong, is not baseless or deserving of unexamined contempt. Recognising it as such is a precondition to a sane dialogue under the values of a truly Western society.

Immigration is another polemical example. As an urban literati, I am keenly aware of the tremendous boost in value and injection of vitality that our societies and economies stand to gain from motivated, law-abiding, hard-working immigrants. I am also keenly aware of the population bomb that will soon explode under the feet of our affluent Western societies, for the simple reason that—for decades now—we haven't been making enough babies to continue to live as before. As our population ages, we will run out of younger people to nurse us in hospitals when we get sick, deliver our groceries, maintain our houses, and so on. Technology hasn't yet advanced enough for us to replace people with machines for everything that matters. And so I understand the opportunity former German Chancellor Angela Merkel spotted in 2015, when suddenly a million young and healthy Syrians, many of whom well educated, showed up at the gates of Germany (alongside Japan, Germany stands to suffer the most from its coming population implosion). It must have felt like Christmas.

Yet, I was there during that fateful new-year's-eve in 2015, when the behaviour of young male immigrants towards German women scandalised German society. Hence, I take seriously a real, concrete problem that 'liberals' often dismiss, underestimate or overlook: cultural compatibility.

Societies evolve their mechanisms based on the characteristics of the prevailing local culture. In northern Europe—the culture I am most familiar with—social mechanisms are largely based on very high social trust. In Denmark, for instance, it's usual for farmers to build wooden huts next to the nearest road, and then load them with farm produce. They hang a little board showing the prices and place a little cash box on a counter, so people can come and pick up what they need, leaving the proper amount of money behind. The huts are not manned: the whole thing is based on the trust that nobody will steal the money or the produce, and everybody will pay the proper amount.

Another example: until about 20 years ago, Dutch train stations had no gates. You could enter the station from the street, proceed to a platform and then board a train, with nobody checking if you have a ticket. Even during the train trip itself, only very seldom would a conductor ask to see your ticket. And if you didn't have one (because, of course, you just forgot to buy one, or you didn't have time to do it before the train's departure), they would charge you just twice the normal amount for one.

Predictably, changes in the prevailing culture, partly caused by immigration, have led to a new prevailing calculus: it's more economical to never buy a ticket, and pay twice the price in the rare occasions you would be asked for one. And thus, today, Dutch train stations are filled with electronic gates, surveillance and ticket checks.

People used to a traditional culture of social trust profoundly resent these changes. They are robbed of the feeling they previously had, that they live among people they can trust and count on, even if they don't know them personally; and that they are themselves trusted. An impersonal and alienating ethos of suspicion, isolation and antagonism takes over. It violates one's core values, traditions, ancestral ways of life in a manner that hits one hard and deep, for it robs one of social cohesion and coziness. It makes one feel like an alien in one's own country.

The 'liberal' urban literati are often blind to these psychological facts. Liberalisation by the defacement of culture and traditions is hard on heartland people—damn, it's hard on me—and understandably so. We ignore their grievances at our own peril, for a demagogue like Trump will know exactly how to appeal to, and manipulate, precisely those grievances.

Snob elitism, contempt for heartland mentality and tradition, generalisation and alienation, are every bit as antithetical to Western values—to the respect we owe to other people's liberties and peculiarities—as Trumpism and the criminalisation of abortion. The day we collectively realise this, is the day we will cut the lifeline of demagogues like Trump, le Pen, Orbán, and countless others. And as bonus, it will also be the day the Putin's and Xi's of this world will understand that they can't win.

For liberty is not only more vibrant, it is stronger than authoritarianism, as Ukraine is now demonstrating to anyone who cares to watch. It is a geopolitical myth to think of China's or Russia's governing and economic systems as, in any sense whatsoever, stronger than those of 'messy' democracies. China, in fact, has an incredibly fragile economy dependent on massive imports of oil, food and know-how; all of which, in turn, depend on the West (yes, even China's oil imports depend directly on the USA's ability to secure shipping lanes from the middle east to Shanghai and Beijing). Russia, in turn, makes essentially nothing; they have so little economically-relevant know-how that we can dismiss it altogether. All they can do is extract stuff from their ground, most of which (i.e. gas) is shipped through pipelines (made by Germans), for they don't even have the required infrastructure to liquefy gas. All of Russia's cutting-edge wonder weapons, supersonic missiles and the like, depend on imports of Western technology: integrated circuits, software, electronic systems, machinery, etc. And so do China's (even though to a lesser extent). China's and Russia's economic output rests, through the links of globalisation, on the hard-earned products of Western creativity enabled by freedom.

Our noisy external rivals are paper tigers, for authoritarianism can never hope to match the strength of a free society's sum-total of individual creativity and drive. They are not the real threats. The real ones are within, internal parasites of the strength nurtured by liberty. Luckily for us, the way to neutralise this threat is to double-down on our values: respect for individual expression and tolerance for the dispositions of others. Should we do this through the mighty tool we call a 'vote,' our way of life will survive.

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Hallucinated Implications Creep (HIC): A bane of our time

 


Let me invite you to a thought experiment that you can conduct in the privacy of your own mind. Carefully observe your own inner reaction to the following statement of mine, which truthfully reflects my opinion on the matter: 

Donald Trump is a pathologically narcissistic, dangerously manipulative, clinically psychopathic and conspicuously unintelligent individual whose sole priority is himself, and who has no scruples about lying through his teeth so to deceive and use millions of people for the sole sake of his own personal agenda.

I've chosen my words so to deliberately evoke a strong emotional response in you. Now that you are aware of my opinion, you can conduct the thought experiment—whose results only you will ever know—by checking which of the statements below you now think apply to me:

  1. Bernardo would have voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
  2. Bernardo is a liberal/lefty/democrat.
  3. Bernardo likes Joe Biden.
  4. Bernardo doesn't espouse conservative values.
  5. Bernardo is a manipulative elitist.
Make a mental note of how many of the 5 statements above you are inclined to think are applicable to me, because of my opinion about Trump. Now let's try another sincere opinion of mine:

Consuming red meat regularly is something that we, at an individual level, should stop doing for our collective sake.

Don't overanalyse it, just check which of the following statements you feel apply to me, given my sincere opinion above:

  1. Bernardo is ignorant of the nutritional value of red meat.
  2. Bernardo doesn't understand that meat consumption is entirely natural for predatory primates such as ourselves.
  3. Bernardo is too romantic and naive about animal suffering, for nature is ruthless anyway.
  4. Bernardo is trying to take away my personal right to choose my own diet and life style.
  5. Bernardo is not sympathetic to the economic needs of animal farmers.
You, of course, know where I am going with this, given the title of this essay. Therefore, you are more-than-likely analysing all this with much more attention than usual, so to find whatever trap I might be laying for you. That's fine, but keep in mind that, under normal circumstances, you would be judging my opinions much more spontaneously and unthinkingly than in the context of this essay, and that is what I am trying to get at.

In this spirit, here is another sincere opinion of mine:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is unjustified, criminal and completely unacceptable. It should be opposed economically, politically and militarily by the West.

Now, what do you think applies to me, given my opinion above?

  1. Bernardo doesn't understand that NATO's eastwards expansion was provocative towards Russia.
  2. Bernardo is ignorant of the plight of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Donbas and Crimea.
  3. Bernardo is a hypocrite, for Western powers have carried out criminal military interventions in other countries.
  4. Bernardo is a hypocrite, for the West supports authoritarian regimes in the middle east.
  5. Bernardo wants World War 3 and nuclear apocalypse.
Now go back and look more carefully at each of these three opinions of mine. This time, avoid the emotional knee-jerk reaction and analyse objectively what follows from my opinions and what doesn't; what I did say and what I didn't. If you do it carefully, you will see that none of the five seeming implications listed below each opinion is actually entailed or implied by the respective opinion. If you think any of them is, you are suffering from what I shall call 'Hallucinated Implications Creep,' or HIC, a very common bane of these troubled times.

Let us now review all this together, starting from my third opinion expressed above: it is perfectly coherent to both agree that NATO's expansion was a needlessly provocative step and believe that such a provocation doesn't justify—not even remotely—the barbaric invasion of another country. It is perfectly coherent to both think that the Ukrainian government has neglected the needs and rights of its Russian-speaking citizens—which it probably did—and believe that a barbaric invasion that indiscriminately kills and maims all Ukrainians, Russian-speaking and otherwise, is not the way to address the issue. To acknowledge that the West is guilty of criminal military actions does not mean that it is OK for Russia to do so now, let alone at a much greater scale; two wrongs don't make a right. The regretful Western support for totalitarian regimes elsewhere in the world doesn't mean that the West should overlook Russia's ravaging of another country in Europe; compounding a problem doesn't solve it. And finally, it doesn't follow from any of the above that I want a nuclear apocalypse; I just think that we shouldn't surrender to criminal totalitarian regimes such as Russia's because of a remote risk of wider confrontation. Otherwise, we might as well hand over everything we have to North Korea tomorrow. If the risk of nuclear confrontation justifies cowardly surrender, where does the surrendering then stop?

Notice that the key error here has to do with creating false dichotomies.

Now let's shift our attention to my perceived need for dramatically reducing our consumption of red meat. It doesn't occur to many—perhaps not to you either—that such an opinion may be motivated by, and based on, reasons other than the ones you would ordinarily expect. As a matter of fact, my key motivation for urging a reduction of red meat consumption has to do with the extremely inefficient, wasteful use of resources—think of land, energy, water, etc—required by intensive, industrial-scale red meat production (on a side note, only intensive red meat production can satisfy current demand levels, let alone the expected future demand as countries in Asia become more affluent). With the same resources, much more food—calories, proteins, vitamins—can be produced with much less detrimental environmental impact, feeding a lot more people more affordably. To mention only one example, red meat production is driving the destruction of the amazon, both directly—i.e. land clearances for pasture—and indirectly—i.e. land area used for the production of animal feed. As such, my opinion has little to do with the health value of red meat, the naturalness of predation, your personal dietary rights, etc. You may just have projected all that on me, but if so, that was your own hallucination, not anything I said.

Indeed, the error here has to do with assuming certain motivations or justifications for my opinion. In other words, the error is attributing to me something I did not say.

Now on to Trump. My opinion about his character is an opinion about, well, his character; not a global statement of general political positions or sympathies. As a matter of fact, I am largely a conservative, in the sense that I live my life rooted in certain traditions, have a strong sense of historical continuity and context, a relationship with the very land under my feet, have respect—even a feeling of responsibility—towards my ancestors, and a profound appreciation for a truly religious life. I have a deep anti-elitist mentality—which is rather obvious in both my work and interviews—and generally do not sympathise at all with Hillary Clinton. Were I an American citizen, I would have nullified my vote in 2016, as a protest against what I perceive as a profoundly dysfunctional two-party system.

The error here is trying to bin every political opinion in one of only two baskets. So if I am against Trump, I can only be pro Biden, right? If I detest Trump, I can only be a liberal and not a conservative, right? And so on: everything is either black or white—or rather, blue or red. This is, of course, silly. Indeed, it is entirely arbitrary and extraordinarily implausible to imagine that society is so simple as to allow for a binary classification of every position.

Hallucinated Implications Creep (HIC) is characterised by false dichotomies, unjustified assumptions, projections, implausibly simplistic categorisations, failures to recognise what was said and, perhaps even more importantly, what was not said. It renders us blind to every nuance and subtlety, thereby being literally stupefying.

The projections and hallucinations underpinning HIC spread like a web of false inferences and unjustified conclusions, creeping through the entire social dialogue like a virus. Indeed, it has come to characterise what passes for the present social dialogue. It causes us to talk past one another, fail to see what is being said, fail to understand what is and isn't entailed or implied by what is said, and generally make a mess of everything. It makes us argue against mere hallucinations—ghosts, fantasies—like deranged zealots, seeing enemies everywhere. It renders it impossible to find consensus.

HIC is a cognitive plague that social media has amplified to a level never before seen. And it may be our demise.

PS: You probably noticed that I've switched to British spelling. It's just that I have a newly-developed aversion for the letter 'Z' and what it has come to represent in 2022.
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Dear Russians: An open letter


Dear Russians, 

On this day of remembrance, I want to share some thoughts with you as someone who has always not only respected and admired you as a people and a culture, but also loved you. Russia has been an enormous part of my life since I was 23 years-old. I know you more intimately than most of my peers in the West. You are very dear to me, and very close to my heart.

There is little doubt in my mind, as a Westerner, that NATO's expansion towards the borders of your country, over the past couple of decades, has been unnecessary—given the examples of Sweden and Finland, who are safe, prosperous countries without being members of NATO—and could legitimately be construed as geopolitical provocation; I did not support such expansion. I also acknowledge that there was a case to be made about the basic rights and interests of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine not having been safeguarded enough—perhaps even criminally ignored—by the Ukrainian government. Finally, I do not blame you, as a people, for the downing of an airliner, a few years ago, in which I've personally lost a friend and colleague, alongside his entire family and dozens of other compatriots. Even in my professional life, I've attempted to bring you and the West closer together, for it is my firm conviction that we share common values and are members of the same family. I dream of a time when Russia will be a member of the European Union, not as its ruler, but as an equal partner. For, again, there is much, much more that unites us than what divides us.

None of the above, however, justifies invading a sovereign country, systematically bombing their civilian neighborhoods and infrastructure as a deliberate war strategy (namely, depopulation), raping their women as a matter of course, promoting falsehoods about their government's actions and motivations that encourage (war) crimes, and using the lives of Russian soldiers as expendable cannon fodder. Whatever provocations you have suffered at the hands of NATO and the West, you must keep in mind that NATO did not invade you, bombed you, or committed any factual act of aggression towards you. It is not legitimate to answer potential, abstract threats with actual, concrete violence; let alone atrocities. Your government is criminal not only in its intentions, but in its acts on the ground. Unlike your government's paranoia about the West, there is no question about the worst it—i.e. your government—could do; for it has done it already. And no, manipulated as we in the West may also be by our media, we know enough with sufficient certainty about what is going on, because biased as our media is, it is not fully controlled by the state, as yours is.

Let me be frank: your leader is a paranoid psychopath who controls and manipulates you through holding a monopoly of your media and systematically assassinating his critics. To protect his power—and therefore himself, for a dictator's only way to physically survive is to remain in power—your leader uses your lives and the lives of your sons on the battle field as currency. He is not acting out of your interests, but out of his own, as well as his paranoid, pathological geopolitical abstractions. Regrettably, as far as actions on the ground are concerned, you are now the Nazi state you so abhor. And none of this serves you; on the contrary. As I write this, a dear loved one of mine cannot get cancer treatment in Russia because of the criminal mess your government has started.

The West, by the very greedy character of its capitalist system, has no interest in destroying you; it has never had. Cynical as this may sound, the West wants you as a vibrant, prosperous, healthy market for its products. Ironically, it is precisely the shadowy side of the 21st-century West that prevents it from being a committed mortal foe of any country. Even aggressive, expansionist enemies of Western democracies, such as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, have been quickly helped into becoming rich, prosperous countries by their conquerors shortly after being defeated. You must recognize the unambiguous truth of this fact.

You must also recognize another undeniable fact: the Western world has expanded because its new members have chosen to be part of it. No member of the European Union or NATO has been forced to join. Their joining has, invariably, been the result of an open social debate and, directly or indirectly, of a popular vote. And many of the newest NATO members have had very good historical motivations for joining, for they have been victims of Russian expansionism and oppression not so long ago. Think of the Prague Spring, the invasion of Finland in 1939, the oppression of the Baltic states, and so on. Unlike the West, the Russian sphere of influence has grown not because of voluntary support from the countries in it, but because of the use of (the threat of) force by Russia. Your government's friends in Belarus and Kazakstan are themselves dictators who have a leash tied around the necks of their people. There is no equivalence between the West and your expansionist past, despite the self-serving rhetoric of your government.

Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, many in the West have gone out of their way to embrace you, despite your government's history. Germany, for instance, ignoring constant protests by the USA, has believed for thirty years that engaging with you as a friend was the way forward. Many of the citizens of the Western world, myself included, have always played down the threats some believed your government posed to our way of life. But your government has now proven the hawks right and I wrong; it has now made clear that it, indeed, is capable of the unthinkable.

Your government has proven that Russia does pose a very real, physical, present danger to us. It has singlehandedly created the very reality it claims to have wanted to prevent: the invasion of Ukraine has revitalized NATO, given it an obvious reason to exist and expand, given Sweden and Finland reasons to abandon decades of neutrality, Germany reason to dramatically increase their military spending and abandon their pacifist policies, and the whole of Europe reason to gravitate more towards the USA and away from you, after years of the opposite process having taken place. It has also solidified, beyond anything anyone thought possible, the national character of Ukraine as a state, culture and people distinct from you. None of this is happening because of paranoid speculations or geopolitical abstractions; it is happening because of the concrete acts of your government and military in Ukraine. Your government is doing all this, not our leaders; the latter were powerless to do any of this up until the 24th of February of 2022, and would still be powerless to do so now, had your government not embraced barbarity in our shared continent. The speed and success of your government in shooting Russia in the foot is nothing short of fantastic.

It's you who will pay the price for the barbarism and sabre-rattling of the Kremlin; and you already are. I live this reality in my little microcosm: I can't send money to pay for my niece's university education anymore, or to help pay for the cancer treatment of her grandfather. I, as a Western citizen, now take very seriously the threat of nuclear attack your government constantly suggests and implies. I care about my and my loved ones' lives here as much as I care about you. And for this reason, someone like me is now an ardent supporter of sanctions against you, ache as my heart does for the effects these sanctions have on you. For all of your advanced military hardware, your airplanes, your missiles, which are now trained at my backyard (quite literally, for I live just outside a major military air base), depend on Western technology, parts and the money the West spends buying your natural resources. Why would we continue to do this if what your government does with those resources is not only to threaten our lives, but to actually kill us, as is now happening in Ukraine? Nobody here is suicidal, despite our political idealism and occasional naiveness. Regrettably, therefore, the price for our security will be to strangle your economy into an unprecedented era of de-industrialization that will mean—whatever your government is claiming through its disinformation machine—great hardship and pain for almost all of you; and us too. What a tragedy this is. Yet, the responsibility lies squarely with a government that claims to act in your name.

Ultimately, you, too, carry responsibility for what your government does in your name, with the resources you generate as working citizens.

With love and sincerity,

Bernardo Kastrup

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Fake News and all, the West isn't Russia (or China)


There is a pernicious and false kind of equivalence I often hear some people try to establish: that democracies are no better than totalitarian regimes and their propaganda, for in the West, too, people are manipulated by the media through fake news and the like. These same people also often claim that journalism is dead and, therefore, social media and amateur citizen journalism are as legitimate a source of news as professional news channels.

In making these assertions, people start from true and concerning observations, but then proceed to insufficiently justified generalizations (the "Hasty Generalization Fallacy") and evidence cherry-picking (the "Texas Sharp Shooter Fallacy"). It is certainly true that Western professional media, in an effort to remain relevant (read economically viable) in the age of Facebook and Twitter, has often descended to tabloid level. A quick look at the likes of Chris Cillizza on CNN or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, to speak only of the American left, reveals a degree of puerility, superficially, over simplification, silliness and immaturity that almost offends. Matters are arguably worse in some channels of the American right, where any semblance of journalism has fallen into a sinkhole and conservatism has become equated with stupidity. And Europe doesn't escape unscathed from this nightmare either.

But none of this entails or implies that all journalism is now unreliable and manipulative in character. There is still good, professional, well-meaning journalism, and it remains one of the key cornerstones of democracy. There are many professionals out there risking their lives because their calling to chronicle what's happening in the world, as honestly as they possibly can, is irresistible. They give expression to a fundamental archetype of the human psyche, whose very existence ensures that there will always be reliable news sources.

I will not name what I consider to be reliable news sources here, since I believe that figuring this out is a matter of personal responsibility. After all, even to trust my own opinions on this matter you would have first to decide that I am a reliable source of opinions myself. But these reliable sources still do exist, even if you have to switch to different sources depending on specific circumstances. And the way to find them is to look at their track record, particularly at how they've reacted to their own mistakes in the past. Not all is lost.

Be that as it may, the most important point here is the following: in the West, we can choose our trusted news sources, for we have options; and we can criticize views and sources publicly, thereby participating actively in the cultural dialogue; we can debate and divulge our opinions. As a matter of fact, it is precisely these freedoms that impress upon us the very realization that our own media has largely gone awry; it is precisely these freedoms that have made our problem visible, recognizable, so something can be done about it.

If I were an American in the US in, say, 2020, I would have been able to say publicly that Donald Trump is a dangerous narcissistic psychopath, with a disastrous track record and an obviously low IQ, liable to destroying the country and the world with it; and I wouldn't have been arrested for saying this (I'd just have gotten a lot of flak on my social media timelines). But were I—a modestly well-known public figure—to say something like this about Xi, in China, in public, I'm not sure what would happen to me. Were I a Russian who states in public, on Red Square, that Russian actions in Ukraine are abhorrent and criminal, I would most certainly be arrested, for that is what the law calls for in Russia.

We cannot allow these enormous differences to be lost on us. There are no independent news sources in Russia and China; the government controls it all. Dissension and protest are punishable by law. There is very little freedom of expression. And that is precisely the reason why, at first sight, their news media may sound more professional and dignified: it is forbidden to bring the manipulation and charades—even the sheer stupidity—of their governments' actions into the open, in the interest of public debate.

What may at first look most unprofessional and disgusting in Western news media—the adolescent tone, the bias, the bile, the outrage, etc.—is part of what enables the checks and balances that give us alternatives and protects our individual dignity. We have many problems as a culture and a society, materialism being just one of them, but let us not allow these problems to prevent us from recognizing what we do get right. Our system is, by nature, one that brings its own problems quickly into the light of public debate. For this reason, it will always look bad when contrasted to the sanitized and glossy veneer of a Russia or a China. But unlike totalitarian regimes, ours is less prone to rotting from the inside, out of sight until it's too late to do anything about it.

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Evil abstraction: the psychology of totalitarianism


How do we begin to make sense of the mentality of a person, even an entire political regime, that equates complete annihilation with 'liberation'? How do we make sense of an attempt to save and protect a people by raping, torturing, massacring and utterly destroying this people? Are these claims to 'liberation' and 'protection' just cynical public relations messaging meant to mask good-old economic interests, or is the essence of the situation a lot more complex, involved and nuanced than that? And what do these claims reveal about totalitarianism as a form of government?

Many philosophers have had sympathies for, flirted with, or even flat-out subscribed to, totalitarian regimes. Nazi party member Martin Heidegger was just a particularly prominent and relatively recent example. This isn't too hard to understand: democracy is messy, slow to come to solutions, and equates the self-perceived intellectual elite with the masses when it comes to political power, for every vote counts the same. Many philosophers may see this as a kind of levelling at the bottom, which wastes human potential.

And here I must humbly make a confession; a confession mostly to myself, made in the form of a public acknowledgment: I, too, have had limited sympathies for certain forms of totalitarianism. If you continue to read this essay from this point on, please read it through to the end, otherwise you will be left with the impression that the point I am trying to make is the opposite of what I intend.

For 15 years I was married to a Russian originally from the Donbas (we've been divorced for a decade now, but are still friends and I still consider her family—some of whom are still in the Donbas—my family). As such, I've had the opportunity to share in the lives of a typical Russian family from the late 90s up until deep into the Putin era. And it is a fact that the lives of average Russians (except, of course, those in Chechnya) significantly improved in the first years of Putin's rule. He brought back a degree of stability, limited economic security and a healthy sense of pride in being Russian. Compared to the drunken Yeltsin years, those were welcome changes.

And so I was willing, for a long time, to overlook the obvious shortcomings of Putin's government: the cynical assassination of dozens of political opponents, growing corruption that increasingly reminded me of the plundering of Russian wealth by the original Yeltsin oligarchs, press censorship, etc.; all the hallmarks of totalitarianism. Perhaps because of its history—or so I reasoned in my own internal apologetics—Russian society needs a strong hand to be stable; maybe it's just part of the national character and psychology, and we shouldn't be arrogant to the point of thinking that our chosen form of government in the West should apply to everybody.

I've worked in the high-tech industry for well over two decades. During that time, I've had the opportunity to visit China repeatedly, and to work with Chinese both inside and outside China. Indeed, some of the Chinese I know are the smartest people I've ever met (you know who you are, if you are reading this). And it is undeniable that the lives of the average Chinese have improved markedly over the past two decades. Perhaps—I thought—a strong hand is what the Chinese culture and society, given their history, need to be stable and foment economic progress. For even though I am a philosopher, I am very keenly aware that philosophy is irrelevant if one doesn't have a roof over one's head, food on the plate, security for one's family, and healthcare. And many more Chinese have those things today than did in the late 1990s.

Then came COVID, which laid bare the shortcomings of consensus-seeking democracies: while China reacted promptly and took all necessary (and hard) measures, we, in the West, were initially paralysed by discord, marred in nonsensical conspiracy theories and entertaining hysterical fake news on social media; what a circus that was. That caused me to have doubts about the long-term viability of Western democracy: if the vote of a thoughtful and responsible citizen counts the same as those of hysterical idiots out to create havoc just for the heck of it (yes, these people exist), where are we going to end up? If fringe nonsense amasses popular support comparable to that of hard science, what are we to expect of our future?

But Russia's invasion of Ukraine has sobered me up and brought into sharp focus the fundamental difference between the admittedly semi-dysfunctional Western democracies and totalitarian regimes: the latter create an environment extraordinarily conducive to the replacement of human empathy and compassion with ego-inflated geopolitical abstraction; an environment liable to losing touch with human reality and, thereby, turning into an instrument of great suffering.

Some pundits say that Putin does what he does just so he can steal more money. I don't think this holds water. I think Putin, who is now turning 70, is in a desperate search for meaning in his life. He has bought into certain historical, sociological and geopolitical abstractions about Russianness, about the glory and role of the Russian Empire, fantasies about land powers like Russia—in contrast to maritime powers such as the UK—being the guarantors of family values and traditions. As someone deeply anchored in the so-called maritime powers (Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands are all maritime powers), I know from empirical experience that family and traditional values are as much a part of maritime cultures as they are of land powers. But as nonsensical a fantasy as this stuff may be, I do believe Putin has bought into it, so to place the meaning and purpose of his existence in a greater historical context. His desperate attempt to cement the meaning of his life before his personal death is as intrinsically human as it is dangerous, when it unfolds within a totalitarian context.

Under totalitarianism, the head of state begins to identify with the nation, including its historical past and its fantasized future. This is an exacerbated form of ego inflation that robs one of one's own humanity: after all, one is now a historical figure larger than life, an abstract immortal, something more akin to a slick marble statue than a mere human who must sit on the toilette bowl, every day, to do the stinky business of moist, warm biology.

The problem is that, if one loses one's anchor in humanity, one becomes a great danger to humanity. For human life is now expendable, a means to an end. The warm and moist character of life becomes insignificant before the abstract, slick, sanitized, mythological greatness of Mother Russia, its historical significance and role in the geopolitics of the planet.

This way, the state acquires a standalone ontological status that, in reality, it can't possibly have: after all, there is nothing to the state but the warm, moist, suffering lives of its citizens. There is nothing to the state but the lives of its citizens. Warm, moist, conscious human life is the only carrier of reality any state can ever have. But in the mind of an ego-inflated totalitarian ruler, the state becomes a thing unto itself, its people being merely its servants, means to an end. Not only that, the ruler becomes the very embodiment of the state, no longer a mere mortal. In this grandiose mythological narrative, the suffering of the people is an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice for the glory and transcendence of the state.

At this point, pure abstraction—groundless fantasy, story, made-up nonsense—replaces a faculty almost every person is born with: the ability to empathize with another human being, to feel compassion for people's suffering, to recognize the conscious inner lives of people as the only human reality that there can ever be. Totalitarian rulers lose their humanity—their humanness—and become an instrument for the destruction of the very thing they swore to defend: their own people, who are the nation. And so Putin, by annihilating Mariupol, has 'liberated' the Slavic nation: a fantasy of his pathological mind is liberated within the confines of his pathological mind, while the reality of human life is barbarized. In his mind, Putin is 'saving' an entirely abstract Ukraine by turning the real thing to rubble, raping its women, killing its children. Contact with reality—the reality of conscious suffering—is lost in the name of de-humanized, ego-inflated fantasies of grandeur. This is what evil is.

Indeed, many of us seem to have a very naive understanding of evil: we think evil is deliberate sadism, the felt delight of inflicting pain. This is not what real evil is, for sadism loses its appeal when the suffering of another becomes a statistic, as opposed to a very personal, very intimate experience one-on-one. Sadism doesn't thrive on large numbers, on industrial scales, but real evil does, for it is precisely the de-personalization entailed by large numbers that foments a departure from reality and into fantasized abstraction. The greatest evil-doers are precisely those who believe, sincerely, that they are the ones with the guts to do what is necessary for the greater (totally abstract) good, despite the costs. Hitler did. Stalin did. Putin undoubtedly does.

Make no mistake, it is now patently clear that Putin is evil. He is destroying not only the real Ukraine, but also the real Russia. He is bringing devastating, incomprehensible suffering into the only reality of any people, any state: the experienced reality of its individuals. For the sake of impersonal geopolitical abstractions, he has lost sight of the fact that individual experience is the only carrier of reality we can ever have.

Now, as dysfunctional and slow to act as democracies may be, they do not offer fertile ground for this extraordinarily dangerous form of madness. Democratic leaders are, by and large, not given the (psychological) chance to identify with the state. Whatever ego-inflation they may be predisposed to, the system's checks and balances... well, check and balance the leader's view of themselves. The rotation of power and the social scope of debate prevents the type of myopia and limited view of reality that leads autocratic rulers to take their mere opinions for 'The Truth.' The shadow we all carry inside gets less chance to dominate a democratic system.

The simple truth is almost cliché: unchecked power corrupts. Democracies are less conducive to this kind of moral corruption, for democratic leaders are constantly being confronted by the opposition, the press and the people. Inefficient as it may be, this factor alone renders democracy the form of government least prone to the catastrophic effects of grandiose geopolitical abstraction—that is, to real evil.

In hindsight, the ostensive inefficiency and dysfunction of democratic governments turns out not to be as bad as I originally thought: ultimately, the West did do what was necessary to curtail the pandemic, despite all the hysteria and nonsense. Who would have guessed, prior to 2020, that we could adapt our way of life so dramatically, and so quickly, to address the problem? Working productively from home became our normal modus operandi within mere weeks; not traveling didn't prevent us from doing business and carrying on with life; effective vaccines were developed, tested and deployed to entire populations within months; the wearing of face masks in public became very matter-of-fact in our culture within weeks. It is almost incredible that we could adapt so much so quickly, and to consider these enormous changes all pretty normal in almost no time at all. Prior to the pandemic, these adaptations would have seemed unthinkable. Yet, here we are, with the pandemic more or less under control, while Shanghai is in total lockdown. The dysfunction of democracies may be more superficial than I, and other philosophers before me, thought.

Don't get me wrong: I don't think the West should become some kind of police of the world, and impose our own preferred form of government on peoples with different values and history. The more distinct from ours the history and values of a culture or society are, the more unreliable are our value judgments about how they should live and organize themselves. But when a totalitarian regime gains ground in the midst of our own world, our own culture and value systems, I believe we have the moral and practical obligation to defend our way of life. In this context, the Western reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine is inappropriate only in the sense that it may be more restrained than it should have been. Once compassion is replaced with abstraction in a well-armed government, our way of life is threatened and we need to defend it, should we want to continue to live as we have thus far.

In Europe—if not everywhere—totalitarianism is a committal step towards evil. History has shown this again and again, and I feel embarrassed for having overlooked and relativized such a fact. While I admire the nonviolent approaches of a Gandhi or a Luther King, if they are coming to rape my partner, torture my cats, destroy my house and kill me, I will do whatever is necessary to defend myself, my loved ones, and my hard-earned property.

I am surprised when I see some of my readers concluding that such a forceful approach contradicts the oneness of a universal mind. Analytic idealism isn't romantic; in my mind, it isn't at all contradictory with the recognition that, although evil is intrinsic to nature and, as such, to universal consciousness itself, it is still not okay or tolerable; that humans have the moral obligation to pass value judgments and act accordingly, so to deter evil; and that sometimes only force stops it. You will never hear me say that, since the rapist, too, is an aspect of universal consciousness, we should in some sense—any sense at all—tolerate the rape; absolutely not.

My views here should not be taken for naïveté about geopolitics in the West. I am keenly aware that Western powers prop up, finance and protect totalitarian regimes across the world because of economic interests. I am keenly aware that Western militaries have treated some places in the world in ways comparable to how the Russian military is treating Ukraine today. And I am keenly aware that the country that passes for the greatest defender of democracy in the world today operates according to a political and economic system that, technically, doesn't even qualify as democratic. Our hypocrisy is far reaching and abominable.

Yet, the principles I have tried to outline above do not become invalid because of that hypocrisy. We may have a long way to go, but to progress we must have mature clarity about which path to take. Despite my past misgivings, it is clear to me, today, that the path to pursue is one of democracy, press freedom, open political debate, and the protection of individual freedoms and human rights. Totalitarianism, even when it starts well, invariably leads to catastrophe, with unfathomable costs not only for its own people, but its neighbors too.

My vote shall thus never go to anyone who, more or less like a past version of me, engages in apologetics towards totalitarianism, cosies up and schmoozes with autocratic rulers beyond the demands of diplomatic courtesy, offers admiring remarks to criminal governments, or betrays ambitions towards totalitarianism themselves. Alluring as the efficiency and speed of autocracies may be, they are a slippery slope towards geopolitical abstraction, ego inflation, the devaluing of human life, and therefore flat-out evil. And I shall never collaborate with, offer justifications for, or even tolerate, evil.
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Hossenfelder digs herself into a deeper hole


YouTubing physicist Sabine Hossenfelder has now replied to my criticism of her debate performance against me, published yesterday on this blog. Her reply can be found here. As you read it, try to keep in mind the context. Namely, in my criticism I focused on the following statement that Hossenfelder made during the debate: 


I argued that this was simply not true: in the papers she referred to as substantiation for her statement, hidden variables are not defined. This is important, for this false statement has set the ethos of the entire debate, and made me look like I was fatally uninformed about her output. I had just "looked at the wrong paper," poor silly me:


Never mind the fact that the very paper she is referring to in the clip above does not define tenable hidden variables; it's just a toy model, as discussed in my previous post.

Her reply now is, one would assume, meant to argue that her statement that she did define the hidden variables somewhere is, in fact, correct. Now go ahead and read her reply with this in mind, before I influence you with my commentary below.

Notice first that the first 14 paragraphs of her reply have absolutely nothing to do with the points in contention. They broaden the scope of the discussion not only beyond physics, but beyond anything of any technical relevance to the discussion. This is particularly peculiar since Hossenfelder had insisted, as a precondition for her participation in the debate, that the scope be limited to her superdeterministic views alone, and not encompass anything beyond, especially philosophy. I had to agree to that. But now she voluntarily broadens the scope way beyond my wildest dreams. One must wonder what motivated her to do so, instead of staying focused on the very specific issues in contention. Be that as it may, right now the roles seem to be inverted, for I am much more interested in staying very sharply focused on the issues in contention.

I leave it to you to interpret the 14 initial paragraphs of her reply and extract conclusions from them. I think what they reveal is clear enough (and interesting, too) to obviate further commentary from me.

Now, notice that in the rest of her reply, instead of trying to argue that, as per the video clip above, she did define the hidden variables, she tries instead to justify why she didn't. As such, her reply is a rather explicit admission that her categorical statement during the debate was indeed false: she did not specify the hidden variables in those earlier papers. I will quote the salient passages of her reply below just for an abundance of clarity; but basically the entire reply, after the weird initial paragraphs, is an admission. I use snapshots below to preclude any chance of misquoting her.





The above is pretty clear: she is justifying why she did not define the hidden variables; after all, it's a "waste of time" to do so and she is very busy. Be that as it may, this unambiguously confirms my criticism: Hossenfelder misrepresented her own work during the debate, in order to save face and try to make me look like someone fatally ignorant of her output. And as an aside, the reason why "there are too many ways [the hidden variables] could be [defined]" is that they are entirely arbitrary figments of the imagination, ungrounded in empirical observation, so anything goes.

Now a very strange passage:


Indeed she said that at a later passage of the debate, but that isn't the point. The point is that she is suggesting here that it was me who incorrectly said that she claimed to have defined the hidden variables; she has always maintained that she never did it! To this, I can only offer the following, once again:


I am not doing this just to gratuitously and repeatedly stick my finger in the wound; I'm not trying to do character assassination. But during the debate Hossenfelder attempted (and probably succeeded, in the eyes of many viewers) to make me look like an ignorant fool by flat-out misrepresenting her own output. I ought to defend myself against that overt suggestion, which I consider to have been rhetorical and dishonest, violating all basic debate ethics. Just consider the vibe in this segment again, and pretend that you don't know what you now know, having read my posts and, above all, her admission:


Now, if at this point you feel like ignoring this whole thing because it's becoming too personal and ugly, and not about content anymore, I urge you to stay the course, because it's integral to understanding what's going on in our culture. The problem is largely about trust and character. The accumulated human knowledge at our disposal today makes it impossible for any one person to know enough about everything of relevance without having to trust some authority figure. Therefore, we must trust someone, and choosing who to trust is critical.

What this ugly engagement shows is that it is entirely possible for someone who sincerely considers themselves honest to arbitrarily dismiss substantive points, deflect and mislead to a level that flirts with lying, just to save face and avoid being pinned down during a debate, thereby protecting their public image at the cost of someone else's. How many of Hossenfelder's YouTube subscribers have the knowledge of particle physics required to objectively and critically evaluate her countless bold claims? How many even want to do so, as opposed to taking her on her word, insofar as it confirms their own views and provides reassurance?

This is the cultural game today. If you want to really understand what's happening, an engagement like this one is quite revealing, even if ugly.

Now a slightly more technical point, for the sake of completeness, if you still have the energy to stay with me on this. The point of her reply where Hossenfelder suggests some possible definition of the hidden variables is this:


Of course, to just say that the hidden variables are "the degrees of freedom of the detector" is just a linguistic definition, and a very loose one at that, not a scientific one. For comparison, imagine a neuroscientist saying: "consciousness is the involuntary wiggling of the left big toe." This, too, is a linguistic definition, but not a scientific one. For scientific definitions entail characterizing the thing defined in a way that is explicit and coherent with the role the thing is supposed to play within a theory. In the case of consciousness, the neuroscientist would have to justify their definition by explicitly and coherently hypothesizing a link between left-big-toe-wiggling and the felt qualities of experience.

For instance, not that long ago the Higgs boson was just an imaginary theoretical entity: it had never been observed (well, actually it had been, but we didn't have enough statistics to claim a discovery). Nonetheless, imaginary as it was at the time, it was still scientifically defined: Peter Higgs had given us a fairly complete, explicit and coherent characterization of the Higgs boson, and its role within the standard model. We knew the energy ranges in which we expected to find it; we knew which particles it likely decayed into and why it did so; importantly, we also knew how it played its role within the standard model: namely, by accounting for inertia (i.e. making sense of why not everything is moving at the speed of light all the time) through its associated Higgs field. Now that was a scientific definition of an imaginary theoretical entity. Hossenfelder provides no such a thing; not even remotely (and no, her 'toy model' obviously doesn't count, because, as the first author of her own paper admits explicitly and as discussed in my previous post, that model is not applicable to... well, reality).

As a matter of fact, Hossenfelder seems to have acknowledged, during the tweet exchange between us upon the publication of her reply, that she adopts a merely linguistic understanding of what a 'definition' entails:


Of course, what Kermit the frog can do is an arbitrary, merely linguistic definition of the hidden variables, such as 'hidden variables are the blueness of the sky,' or something to that effect. But that is not what I could have possibly meant when I confronted her with her lack of theoretical definition; and Hossenfelder, of course, knows it. But just as she did in the debate, she is willing to use dismissiveness, deflection, dissimulated confusion and misleading statements, all for purely rhetorical purposes.

Anticipating a question that is probably coming, I will never say 'no' to a debate against a person whose positions I have taken the initiative to criticize harshly in public. So if Hossenfelder wants to debate again, I am game. That said, I don't think another debate would be any more productive than the first, or take this discussion any further; for I am now convinced, to my own satisfaction, that Hossenfelder does not engage according to what I consider to be the minimum level of intellectual honesty required to render the debate fruitful.
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