Totalitarianism is not always operated by diktat. It can be insinuated by suggestion and replication. Dissent does not have to be banned if it is countered by orchestrated mass promo rallies and hypnotizing oratory. Despotic establishments do not need to turn Hitlerian; all they need to do is to let the Reich chemistry work. Self-regulation and self-censorship will click in. Then any dissident who wants to retain his intellectual liberty will find himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution.
Modern history abounds with violence fueled by apocalyptic myths, not always explicitly religious in nature. The aim of the Jacobin terror in revolutionary France was the creation of a modern state. If the violent suppression of the peasant revolt in the Vendée is included, the casualties ran into the hundreds of thousands. The myths that possessed these anarchists in their campaigns of assassination were secular myths of social transformation. Lenin avowedly followed the Jacobin example when he used the Cheka to create a modern state in Russia. One of the factors that distinguished Nazism and fascism from conventional tyrannies was the belief that a new society could be fashioned by the systematic use of terror. Violent jihadism has more in common with these modern totalitarian movements than is commonly supposed.
When a language seems especially telegraphic (that is, requiring less to be actually said to put a sentence together), it is usually because enough adults learnt it at a certain stage in its history that, given the difficulty of learning a new language after childhood, it became a kind of stripped-down “schoolroom” version of itself. Because all languages, are, to some extent, busier than they need to be, this streamlining leaves the language thoroughly complex and nuanced, just lighter on the bric-a-brac that so many languages pant under. For example, Indonesian, one of the most economical languages in the world, is a first language to only one in four of its speakers; the language has been used for many centuries as a lingua franca in a vast region, imposed on speakers of several hundred languages. This means that while other languages can be like overgrown lawns, Indonesian’s grammar has been regularly mowed, such that especially the colloquial forms are tidier.
Nineteenth-century liberals recognized that democracy comes in various forms, and dreaded the version advocated by Rousseau, in which an inspired lawgiver interprets and implements the will of the people. Nowadays such fears are dismissed as elitist. But the old-fashioned liberals grasped a vital truth: popular government has no necessary connection with the freedom of individuals or minorities. Of course, liberals today will say this can be remedied by installing the rule of constitutional rights. Such systems are fragile, however, and count for nothing when large sections of society are indifferent or actively hostile to liberal values. Where this is the case, democracy means not much more than the tyranny of the majority.
Cheapness and its cinematic markers, such as hand-held camera work and low or high-contrast light, aren’t themselves guarantors of a tone of artistic authenticity. In fact, they’re often misused by filmmakers short of inspiration as badges of sincerity that take the place of actual artistry. The theatrical realism of many older, ostensibly classic movies have dated terribly and reflect the very exclusions and compromises of the system that produced them. Only the ingenious exertions and inventions of a slender minority of great filmmakers could circumvent and override them. Yet, critics fetishize the styles of studio-era movies and take them for an enduring and immutable aesthetic standard – as if, with an appreciation of Shakespeare came a comparable fixation on lesser Elizabethans and a disdain for latter-day dramatists for not writing in iambic pentameter.
A recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has shown that high-level mathematical reasoning rests on a set of brain areas that do not overlap with the classical left-hemisphere regions involved in verbal semantics. Instead, all domains of mathematics tested (algebra, analysis, geometry, and topology) recruit a bilateral network, of prefrontal, parietal, and inferior temporal regions, which is also activated when mathematicians or non-mathematicians recognize and manipulate numbers mentally. These results suggest that high-level mathematical thinking makes minimal use of language areas and instead recruits circuits initially involved in space and number. This result may explain why knowledge of number and space, during early childhood, predicts mathematical achievement.
Since the Holocaust is an axial event of modern history, its misunderstanding turns our minds in the wrong direction. When the Holocaust is blamed on the modern state, the weakening of state authority appears salutary. On the political right, the erosion of state power by international capitalism seems natural; on the political left, rudderless revolutions portray themselves as virtuous. In the 21st century, anarchical protest movements join in a friendly tussle with global oligarchy, in which neither side can be hurt since both see the real enemy as the state. Both the left and the right tend to fear order rather than its destruction or absence.
Journalism may never have been as public-spirited an enterprise as editors and writers liked to think it was. Yet the myth mattered. It pushed journalism to challenge power; it made journalists loath to bend to the whims of their audience; it provided a crucial sense of detachment. The new generation of media giants that dominates journalism today has no patience for the old ethos of detachment. It’s not that these companies don’t have aspirations toward journalistic greatness. BuzzFeed, Vice, and the Huffington Post invest in excellent reporting and employ first-rate journalists—and they have produced some of the most memorable pieces of investigative journalism in this century. But in the pursuit of audience, they have allowed the endless feedback loop of the web to shape their editorial sensibility and determine their editorial investments.
Much has rightly been made of the problem of political polarisation, but not nearly as much has been said about the problem of political homogenisation. Both are toxic to public discourse. While the former makes for awkward conversations at the family dinner table, the latter buries difficult conversations. Where agreement is sought without a decent discussion, opinion corridors form, limiting the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse. Where all views are not heard in appropriate discussion, the only alternative is inappropriate discussion. And populist rhetoric cuts through this muffled discussion culture like a hot knife through butter, as the pent-up need to be heard surfaces.
Though they do not involve burning dirty fossil fuels, hydropower projects are not emissions free. Often, large dams flood vast vegetated areas. As a result, the vegetation rots under water. Eventually, this leads to the release of methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times as potent as carbon dioxide. In some cases, large dams can result in even more lifetime greenhouse gas emissions than equivalent conventional sources. And this does not even include the emissions resulting from the construction of such dams – cement and equipment-heavy projects that usually take several years to build.
An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge. This clutter is an unfortunate by-product of one of our greatest strengths as a species. We are unbridled pattern recognizers and profligate theorizers. Often, our theories are good enough to get us through the day, or at least to an age when we can procreate. But our genius for creative storytelling, combined with our inability to detect our own ignorance, can sometimes lead to situations that are embarrassing, unfortunate, or downright dangerous—especially in a technologically advanced, complex democratic society that occasionally invests mistaken popular beliefs with immense destructive power (See: crisis, financial; war, Iraq).
The most momentous development of our era, precisely, is the waning of the nation state: its inability to withstand countervailing 21st-century forces, and its calamitous loss of influence over human circumstance. National political authority is in decline, and, since we do not know any other sort, it feels like the end of the world. This is why a strange brand of apocalyptic nationalism is so widely in vogue. The current appeal of machismo as political style, the wall-building and xenophobia, the mythology and race theory, the fantastical promises of national restoration – these are not cures, but symptoms of what is slowly revealing itself to all: nation states everywhere are in an advanced state of political and moral decay from which they cannot individually extricate themselves.
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