The collapse of the Berlin Wall, which Germany will commemorate next month with an illuminated display of white balloons where the concrete barrier once stood, was one of the most extraordinary events of the 20th century. Not only was it a crucial factor in the eventual shriveling of communism in Europe, it was also a demonstration of what peaceful protest could accomplish in the face of an oppressive government.
But before it fell, the wall did something that most people never think of: It created a massive laboratory for studying human society.
Imagine this: If you were a researcher trying to determine how a political system affects people’s values, beliefs, and behavior, you would ideally want to take two identical populations, separate them for a generation or two, and subject them each to two totally different kinds of government. Then you’d want to measure the results, the same way a medical researcher might give two sets of patients two different pills and then track their progress….
The insights that have piled up since the fall of the wall make it clear how long a single political event can continue to have social and economic effects on the people who lived through it. The marks it left are still being uncovered and measured, more than half a century after the architects of the wall unwittingly made it possible.
Persephone mosaic, found inside a 2,300-year-old tomb near the ancient site of Amphipolis in northern Greece (via National Geographic)
There certainly was an important lesson in the nature of democratic politics to be learnt from the Scottish referendum, but it is not the one that so many people – for whom the false memory of nostalgia seemed to set in almost instantly – are talking about.
No, the great triumph lay not in the quality of public debate (which was often breathtakingly dishonest) or the extent of popular participation (which was frequently ugly and demeaning). The key to the real source of democratic freedom was in the result: what became clear was the sacred function of that late historical reform to the electoral system, the secret ballot.
As it turned out, virtually all of the polling in recent weeks had been wrong. In the end, the vote wasn’t very close: it was a clear and decisive No. Whatever poll respondents had said – or been afraid to say – about their intentions because they felt coerced or intimidated by the aggressive tactics of the other camp, when it came to it, they were free to do as they pleased.
This is a salutary lesson in the limits of militant political activism: you can bully people in the street, shout them down at public meetings and dissuade them forcibly from displaying posters or banners you don’t like. You can, with the help of your friends and comrades, create what seems to you, inside the bubble of mutual congratulation, to be an unstoppable momentum.
But making people afraid to voice contrary opinions just reinforces the delusion into which political tribes so easily fall when they are waging war. And, even more dangerously, it leaves them utterly out of touch with the slow-burning resentment they are creating in the opponents they are so determined to crush. The inviolable privacy of the polling booth puts paid to all that: the ordinary citizen, who may well have had his anger and resolve strengthened under fire, gets his revenge.
… The illiberal, intolerant, hateful (in the literal sense of the word) belligerence that is the very opposite of what modern democracy is supposed to be about has come well and truly out into the open.
The techniques of coordinated political manipulation in which Marxist agitators were so expert – the packing of meetings, the intimidation of the silent majority at public gatherings, the shutting down of argument and the repetition of “big lies”– cannot be dismissed as a trivial aberration. It is too easy to mutter: “Just a handful of hotheads”. This is the serious business of full-time militancy, and it is going to come into play at every major public forum where real power is in the balance if the legitimate leadership on all sides is not supremely vigilant.
There are no words for the horror of Rotherham.
More than 1,400 young girls have been raped and brutally exploited in the northern England town of roughly 250,000 over the past 16 years, while nearly everyone in authority did all he or she could to look the other way.
An independent investigation released last week says: “It is hard to describe the appalling nature of the abuse that child victims suffered. They were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated.”
In other words, the local government tolerated sexual violence on a vast scale. Why? In part, because the criminals who committed these sickening acts were Muslims from the local Pakistani community, and noticing their depravity was considered insensitive at best, racist at worst.
The British home secretary says “institutionalized political correctness” contributed to the abandonment of hundreds of girls to their tormentors. Imagine something out of the nightmarish world of Stieg Larsson, brought to life and abetted by the muddle-headed cowardice of people who fear the disapproval of the diversity police.
In Rotherham, multiculturalism triumphed over not just feminism, but over the law, over basic human decency, and over civilization itself.
On July 13, Bernard Abouaf, a French Jewish journalist, posted on his Facebook wall: “I just passed through one of the truest moments in my life.” A bit earlier, he had been an eyewitness to a pogrom attempt.
About one hundred Muslim thugs had gathered in front of the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue in Central Paris, a few blocks away from Place de la Bastille (Bastille Circle), and threatened to storm it. Two to three hundred worshipers, who had gathered for a pro-Israel religious service, were locked inside. There were five police officers to protect them–and two dozen Jewish youths trained in martial arts who were members of the Jewish community sponsored Security Organization or of the more militant Jewish Defense League.
For Abouaf, whose family is of Tunisian Jewish descent, the whole scene looked like a reenactment of the storming and torching of the Great Synagogue in Tunis during the Six-Day War in 1967: a traumatic event that accelerated the flight of Tunisian Jews to France or to Israel.
“What I have seen today,” he remarked, “is Arab hatred against Jews. Pure hatred. Right in the middle of Paris. Don’t try to ‘explain’ or ‘understand’, it was hatred, period.”
… Similar incidents occurred all over Greater Paris and France at about the same time. The morning before–that is to say, on the Sabbath–a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a synagogue at Aulnay-sous-Bois, a Parisian suburb. At Asnieres, another suburb, the police said a Muslim mob of 300 gathered in front of the synagogue and shouted anti-Israel slogans for about half an hour. Smaller group of Muslim mobsters attempted to get into the Belleville synagogue, in northeastern Paris, and into the Tournelles synagogue, in the Marais district.
No less horrid were the many pro-Palestinian rallies, in Paris, Marseilles, Lille, Bordeaux, and other cities, complete with Palestinian and ISIS flags and proudly displayed fake Fajr rockets. The demonstrators–almost all of them of North African or Subsaharan African origin–shouted explicitly anti-Semitic slogans, notably “Itbah al-Yahud!” (Slaughter the Jews, in Arabic.)
The Chilean sea bass is not the type of fish you find on the menu at Red Lobster or Long John Silver’s. Instead, you’re more likely to choose it out of a lineup that includes filet mignon and lobster risotto — and to pay top dollar for its buttery, melt in your mouth flavor.
Given its name, which conjures up exotic notions of South American fisherman carefully acquiring this prized fish off the coast of Chile, the price may seem appropriate. But only a minority of Chilean sea bass come from the coast of Chile. Many fish sold under the name hail from arctic regions. Moreover, the fish isn’t even a type of bass; it’s a cod. Until 1977, the name Chilean sea bass didn’t exist and few people ate the fish before the 1990s. Prior to that, scientists knew the fish by the less mouth-watering name of Patagonian or Antarctic toothfish.
In short, the Chilean sea bass is a pure marketing invention — and a wildly successful one. Far from unique, the story of the Chilean sea bass represents something of a formula in today’s climate of overfishing: choose a previously ignored fish, give it a more appealing name, and market it. With a little luck, a fish once tossed back as bycatch will become part of trendy $50 dinners.
In 1969, Playboy published a long, freewheeling interview with Marshall McLuhan in which the media theorist and sixties icon sketched a portrait of the future that was at once seductive and repellent. Noting the ability of digital computers to analyze data and communicate messages, he predicted that the machines eventually would be deployed to fine-tune society’s workings. “The computer can be used to direct a network of global thermostats to pattern life in ways that will optimize human awareness,” he said. “Already, it’s technologically feasible to employ the computer to program societies in beneficial ways.” He acknowledged that such centralized control raised the specter of “brainwashing, or far worse,” but he stressed that “the programming of societies could actually be conducted quite constructively and humanistically.”
The interview appeared when computers were used mainly for arcane scientific and industrial number-crunching. To most readers at the time, McLuhan’s words must have sounded far-fetched, if not nutty. Now they seem prophetic. With smartphones ubiquitous, Facebook inescapable, and wearable computers like Google Glass emerging, society is gaining a digital sensing system. People’s location and behavior are being tracked as they go through their days, and the resulting information is being transmitted instantaneously to vast server farms. Once we write the algorithms needed to parse all that “big data,” many sociologists and statisticians believe, we’ll be rewarded with a much deeper understanding of what makes society tick….
Deciphering people’s behavior is only the first step. What really excites Pentland is the prospect of using digital media and related tools to change people’s behavior, to motivate groups and individuals to act in more productive and responsible ways. If people react predictably to social influences, then governments and businesses can use computers to develop and deliver carefully tailored incentives, such as messages of praise or small cash payments, to “tune” the flows of influence in a group and thereby modify the habits of its members. Beyond improving the efficiency of transit and health-care systems, Pentland suggests, group-based incentive programs can make communities more harmonious and creative. “Our main insight,” he reports, “is that by targeting [an] individual’s peers, peer pressure can amplify the desired effect of a reward on the target individual.” Computers become, as McLuhan envisioned, civic thermostats. They not only register society’s state but bring it into line with some prescribed ideal. Both the tracking and the maintenance of the social order are automated….
Even if we assume that the privacy issues can be resolved, the idea of what Pentland calls a “data-driven society” remains problematic. Social physics is a variation on the theory of behavioralism that found favor in McLuhan’s day, and it suffers from the same limitations that doomed its predecessor. Defining social relations as a pattern of stimulus and response makes the math easier, but it ignores the deep, structural sources of social ills. Pentland may be right that our behavior is determined largely by social norms and the influences of our peers, but what he fails to see is that those norms and influences are themselves shaped by history, politics, and economics, not to mention power and prejudice…. Politics is messy because society is messy, not the other way around…. What big data can’t account for is what’s most unpredictable, and most interesting, about us.
Earlier this year, a column by a Harvard undergraduate named Sandra Y. L. Korn briefly achieved escape velocity from the Ivy League bubble, thanks to its daring view of how universities should approach academic freedom.
Korn proposed that such freedom was dated and destructive, and that a doctrine of “academic justice” should prevail instead. No more, she wrote, should Harvard permit its faculty to engage in “research promoting or justifying oppression” or produce work tainted by “racism, sexism, and heterosexism.” Instead, academic culture should conform to left-wing ideas of the good, beautiful and true, and decline as a matter of principle “to put up with research that counters our goals.”
No higher-up at Harvard endorsed her argument, of course. But its honesty of purpose made an instructive contrast to the institutional statements put out in the immediate aftermath of two recent controversies — the resignation of the Mozilla Foundation’s C.E.O., Brendan Eich, and the withdrawal, by Brandeis University, of the honorary degree it had promised to the human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
In both cases, Mozilla and Brandeis, there was a striking difference between the clarity of what had actually happened and the evasiveness of the official responses to the events. Eich stepped down rather than recant his past support for the view that one man and one woman makes a marriage; Hirsi Ali’s invitation was withdrawn because of her sweeping criticisms of Islamic culture. But neither the phrase “marriage” nor the word “Islam” appeared in the initial statements Mozilla and Brandeis released…..
What both cases illustrate, with their fuzzy rhetoric masking ideological pressure, is a serious moral defect at the heart of elite culture in America.
The defect, crucially, is not this culture’s bias against social conservatives, or its discomfort with stinging attacks on non-Western religions. Rather, it’s the refusal to admit — to others, and to itself — that these biases fundamentally trump the commitment to “free expression” or “diversity” affirmed in mission statements and news releases.
This refusal, this self-deception, means that we have far too many powerful communities (corporate, academic, journalistic) that are simultaneously dogmatic and dishonest about it — that promise diversity but only as the left defines it, that fill their ranks with ideologues and then claim to stand athwart bias and misinformation, that speak the language of pluralism while presiding over communities that resemble the beau ideal of Sandra Y. L. Korn.
“ [O]f course Mozilla has the right to purge a CEO because of his incorrect political views. Of course Eich was not stripped of his First Amendment rights. I’d fight till my last breath for Mozilla to retain that right. What I’m concerned with is the substantive reason for purging him. When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line. This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance. If a socially conservative private entity fired someone because they discovered he had donated against Prop 8, how would you feel? It’s staggering to me that a minority long persecuted for holding unpopular views can now turn around and persecute others for the exact same reason. If we cannot live and work alongside people with whom we deeply disagree, we are finished as a liberal society. ”
Andrew Sullivan, who I rarely agree with these days, but definitely do on this point.
In 1798, Thomas Malthus famously predicted that inexorable population growth would eventually surpass our planet’s ability to sustain humanity, leading to widespread famine, disease, and privation. He was wrong then, and he’s still wrong now, though there is no shortage of latter-day Malthus acolytes. Yesterday the New York Times wondered, “Might Thomas Malthus be vindicated in the end?” as it covered a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)…
[T]he Gray Lady gives the Reverend Malthus entirely too much credit—and humanity too little—when she says that “Malthus’s prediction was based on an eminently sensible premise: that the earth’s carrying capacity has a limit.” But this limit is not fixed; it’s elastic. And recent data suggest that this carrying capacity is not strictly a function of natural confines, but rather is dependent on humanity’s ability to innovate.
Malthusianism is one of the most persistent delusions out there. It fails to grasp that people don’t just add cost—they add creativity and ingenuity. Population Bomb adherents think of people as bacteria on a petri dish that only eat their food supply, reproduce, and die. But people don’t just consume; they create. That creativity can never be predicted or measured in advance, which is why many projections into the future look like Malthusian doom scenarios. But thanks to adaptability and creativity, the human race always finds another way to thrive.
We aren’t prepared to say that human creativity is infinite, but there aren’t many signs that we’ve yet glimpsed its limit…. Malthusianism is what you get when intellectuals lose touch with humanism, and forget just how creative and remarkable human beings are.
A truly free society is based on a vision of respect for people and what they value. In a truly free society, any business that disrespects its customers will fail, and deserves to do so. The same should be true of any government that disrespects its citizens. The central belief and fatal conceit of the current administration is that you are incapable of running your own life, but those in power are capable of running it for you. This is the essence of big government and collectivism.
More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson warned that this could happen. “The natural progress of things,” Jefferson wrote, “is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” He knew that no government could possibly run citizens’ lives for the better. The more government tries to control, the greater the disaster, as shown by the current health-care debacle. Collectivists (those who stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives) promise heaven but deliver hell. For them, the promised end justifies the means.
Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society—and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.
Rather than try to understand my vision for a free society or accurately report the facts about Koch Industries, our critics would have you believe we’re “un-American” and trying to “rig the system,” that we’re against “environmental protection” or eager to “end workplace safety standards.” These falsehoods remind me of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s observation, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
… Far from trying to rig the system, I have spent decades opposing cronyism and all political favors, including mandates, subsidies and protective tariffs—even when we benefit from them. I believe that cronyism is nothing more than welfare for the rich and powerful, and should be abolished….
Instead of fostering a system that enables people to help themselves, America is now saddled with a system that destroys value, raises costs, hinders innovation and relegates millions of citizens to a life of poverty, dependency and hopelessness. This is what happens when elected officials believe that people’s lives are better run by politicians and regulators than by the people themselves. Those in power fail to see that more government means less liberty, and liberty is the essence of what it means to be American. Love of liberty is the American ideal.
Fire Dragon festival in Macau. (by Chi Hung Cheung, 2014 Sony World Photography Awards; via In Focus)
The showstopper is a Viking warship whose surviving timbers are on display for the first time. One hundred twenty-one feet from prow to stern, the boat was capable of carrying 100 troops at speed. It was discovered by chance in 1996, about a lance throw from the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. “Warships of this kind are comparatively rare finds, and this is the largest known,” says Neil Price, a professor of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. “It serves as a symbol of the Viking raids, and also an indicator of the sophistication of the societies that launched them.”
Lithe, narrow longships, praised in sagas, allowed the Vikings to enter countries through rivers, and it’s this access that enabled them to make lightning attacks on unsuspecting coastal hamlets and plunder parts of three continents. With sailing ships and their capability to beat to windward, the whole world was brought within reach. No wonder British Museum director Neil MacGregor has said the exhibition’s centerpiece is an “11th-century weapon of mass destruction.”…
Vikings were a Germanic bunch made up of Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Gauls who, during the late eighth century, swept south across the Baltic Sea in search of land, slaves, gold and silver. They were pagans in a Christian Europe, replete with gruesome rituals. In their world, power and influence were tribal, and rule was sustained though clan, trade and military might.
In the Old Norse language, Viking may have meant “men of the bays”— sheltered coves were where they lay in ambush of merchant ships. Price likens them to 17th- and 18-century pirates—an idea that could radically change how we see the beginnings of the great raids, and how they reflect what was happening in Scandinavia at the time.
He argues the first brigands were communities in their own right. In time, the small parties of a few men and a couple of ships expanded into massive fleets of several hundred vessels and thousands of Vikings. “We do not really understand how this escalation took place,” says Price, “nor where these men actually came from in organizational or social terms.” In those days before nation states, Vikings lived in small regional clusters under petty kings and chieftains. “There is no sense that these were ‘national’ armies, so what were they?” Price asks. “And how did they operate for decades at a time in hostile territory?”