Sunday, September 22, 2019


What would an extraterrestrial travel guide say about our planet?

Of course, the lists below are riddled by assumptions about what extraterrestrials visitors would be like. My main assumptions are that they are more or less human and that they have lived for many thousands of years in peace. I also assume that beings who can travel through space are technologically advanced and have known age-long stability and are rather mental and calm than emotional and impulsive.

I am submitting a list of five main attractions, five experiences to avoid and five reasons for a a negative travel advice to visit this planet at all. All for the benefit of extraterrestrial visitors. Let us start with the last list.

  1. A nuclear world war
  2. A pandemic
  3. Worldwide famine
  4. Mass killings; extermination and concentration camps
  5. Worldwide exploitation and slaughter of animals

Only Number 5 is actual right now. For visitors it is probably not frightening (unless they seem like animals to us), but disgusting, horrifying. It could be the main reason not to visit us. Don't go there!

  1. International wars
  2. Civil wars and religious wars; widespread violence; torture chambers
  3. Corrupt regimes (risky for tourists!)
  4. Sexual exploitation of children
  5. Sexual exploitation of adults

These first three are about risks, the last two mainly about disgust.

  1. Nature, esp. oceans and waterfalls; variety of climate, flora and fauna
  2. Variety in peoples and cultures
  3. Performance artists: dancers, acrobats, etc.
  4. Musicians
  5. Romance (??)

My guess is that this planet is more varied and richer than most. And wetter. And that vitality plays a much stronger role than in societies technologically so advanced that physical and emotional challenges probably are minimal. Our more vital bodies may have a particular attractiveness. (Or maybe considered gross.)And differences between male and female may be here more outspoken.

You might have alternative lists. Please share!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Good Government: A Perennial Need

A well-governed state is a country in which people are safe, prosperous and free. A country where people want to live.
An ill-governed state is a country where most people are poor, a country where many are at risk, a country in which people are stuck. It usually is an authoritarian state, where critical people refrain from expressing their opinions.
A failed state is a country where the economy is in shambles, a country without an effective government, a country in which people are subject to arbitrary authority and unforeseeable violence, a country where people flee from. There is lack of government, or rather many local and competing governments. Often a repressive or incompetent government has been overthrown by popular revolt.
Imprudent government and incompetent government in the end lead to rebellion and civil war. The worst evil is an endless civil war with no clear winner in sight. An evil that may be further compounded by racial or religious conflicts. Think of states like Somalia, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Think also of Venezuela, a state if not failed, at least imploding, decaying.

So our fundamental political challenges are:
Maintain well-governed states in shape. That effort never stops and is less certain than it has long been the fashion to believe. Plurality easily leads to majority and majority may lead to repression.
Introduce plurality in monopolistic states: difficult and risky.
Restore failed states: almost impossible. It requires competent benevolent dictatorship. That is rare. And it ultimately digs its own grave as it dulls civic society. The only alternative is the suspension of national sovereignty. Since the disrepute of protectorates under the League of Nations that hasn't been tried anymore.

Whatever the kind of government, leaders matter. Leaders of states are not just figureheads, even in democracies. After assassinations, important domestic and foreign policy changes do happen. Who is leading makes a difference.

One of the most successful states ever was Rome. It was successful for many centuries. Even its downfall took centuries. How came? What where the secrets of its success? In modern parlance: what were its critical success factors? We have an extensive analysis of those in The Discourses of Machiavelli, an analysis still relevant today.

Machiavelli writes that the two fundamental success factors in life, certainly in public life, are virtu and fortuna, quality and good-luck.
He sees as the critical competences for a well-ordered, a 'virtuous' republic, in order of importance, prudence, discipline and justice.

Prudence, or sound judgment and practical wisdom, is the ultimate quality. The main source of prudence is education. People who are well-educated (not the same as having been to school) appreciate prudent leaders.
Discipline is practical morality, embodied in law enforcement. The main source of discipline is, according to Machiavelli, religion, a religious mindset. Discipline is needed to make the necessary tough decisions in the face of crime, corruption, unrest, famine or war. Discipline is needed when sacrifices must be made.
The main aspect of what Machiavelli considers justice is a culture of equality before the law—Roman citizenship.
Every society has many differences in interests and in views. The most fundamental difference is between the few—rich and influential— and the many—poor and menial. In Rome, those were called the patricians and the plebeians. Today we may talk about the elite and the ordinary people. Aristocracy gives power to the first group, democracy to the second. In Rome, the patricians made for a long time sure that no one among them could grasp permanent power. Halfway, they allowed the rest of the people to have its own representation and power base. Of course, slaves were excluded, though some became citizens.

The opposite of 'virtue' is vice. What does Machiavelli see as the cardinal political sin? Corruption. Imprudence, indulgence and injustice are the three chief vices that corrupt a republic. Wide-spread greed ticks all three boxes.
The main breeding ground of injustice is inequality. Think of the many forms of discrimination, stereotyping, elitism. Without a common identity, differences easily become divisive. Pluralism is the hallmark of a well-ordered society. We may be all different, but we share being human. We are all people. The deepest political sin is to label and treat others as not fully human: as Jews, as blacks, as women, as backward, as scum, as alien. Or as profiteers on one side and loafers at the other side.

A well-ordered republic accepts, but manages its differences in interests and views. It institutes countervailing powers.
Even majorities need a countervailing power. "The winner takes all", especially with short-term views, is an unwise solution. Majorities should never suppress minorities. Successful democracies are inclusive, not exclusive, plural not singular. Inclusive societies are more stable—and more prosperous.
Authoritarian majority rule is as vulnerable as minority rule. It grows into dictatorship and suppression and so in injustice.
Rome handled the main conflict, between the rich and the poor, the patriciate and the plebs, explicitly in the tension between the senate with its consuls, and the tribunes of the plebs. Democracy was neither unleashed nor suppressed. The rich and powerful had to be as much disciplined as the poor and powerless. They had to obey the laws as well. Machiavelli gives strong historical examples of Roman discipline.
The separation of powers by Montesquieu: legislation, administration and judiciary, is another classical example of countervailing powers. Independent judges are the last defense in a democracy in which the differences between legislation and the administration have become blurred—or where the differences between public service and private companies have become blurred.
Countervailing powers prune all-too powerful players, either business monopolies or political monopolies. Paul Collier: "At the core of all successful societies are procedures for blocking the advancement of bad men." And in our enlightened age, bad women as well.
Wherever plurality is curtailed, society is stifling itself. Without countervailing powers, corruption spreads. Corruption is always and everywhere the mortal enemy of good government.

We need political competence: prudence, discipline and justice. If we have prudence and justice, we need law enforcement against corruption. But without prudence and without justice, law enforcement itself becomes the strong arm of corruption.
Good government doesn't bring heaven on earth, but is forever taking steps in the right direction. Lately, examples of the opposite direction abound.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Turning the tables: How revolutions do choke on themselves

What do the anti-smoke lobby, women’s lib, socialism and black emancipation have in common? That enlightenment largely is the new darkness.
They are all movements to righten glaring injustice by continuing the problem they want to solve. Turning the tables is just turning the tables. George Orwell ends Animal Farm with: The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

What is the case for female emancipation? Thousands of years of oppression. What better case is there? What stronger case is there? Still, emancipation is largely more of the same, just turned inside out.
Oppression of women is based on the idea that women are a different kind, that to know that someone is a woman is telling a thing or two. Even when there are true statistical difference, you can’t judge individuals on that. ‘Women are more emotional than men.’  Let’s assume that we know what we mean by that and that the difference is statistically significant, still there will be millions and millions of women being more businesslike than millions and millions of men. If being or not being emotional would be a meaningful difference, let’s say for a particular job, the fact that a particular candidate is male or female is highly irrelevant. Or should be. Unless we pick blindly - what only people do who are grossly incompetent and grossly indifferent.

The essence of discrimination is lack of discrimination, is to think in abstract generalities instead of concrete individuals. Likewise, many women really think that men are a different kind of people.
Does having different physical equipment mean different qualities and different preferences? Again: statistically yes - at least in many respects and not at all in many more. But individually not at all.
If being a muslim gives ten times more probability to be a suicide bomber (I am making this up), still 99,999% percent of Muslims aren’t. The evil is in generalizing in judging individuals.
The way many women talk about men is just turning the tables, historically understandable, to say the very least, but simply continuing thinking in stereotypes. Also, many black people think about white people as if they were a different kind.
There may be real differences in skin color, in gender, in money, in religion, in culture, in sexual preference, in age. But seeing individual people in such categories is not very helpful.
Black people who see white people as racist are racist. Women who see men as bigoted are bigoted. Non-smokers who see smokers as dumb and evil are dumb and evil. Poor people who see rich people as bastards, are bastards.
When revolutionaries win, they usually treat others like they have been treated. When tyranny is toppled, injustice trades places. Whoever runs Russia becomes a czar, whoever ends on top in Egypt becomes a pharaoh.

And now we have modern, enlightened people who embrace diversity and celebrate gays, bisexuals and transgenders, celebrate everyone who used to be considered outlandish, exotic, handicapped or weird. They are inclusive of outsiders and they celebrate their own broad-mindedness and open-mindedness.
The only people they reject and even despise are the narrow-minded, the petty-minded, the bigoted, the nationalists, the populists, the racists, the backward. The people that voted for Trump. The despicables.
 White is the new black. The tables have been turned. And sometimes the compliment is returned again: the backlash.
Progressives despise conservatives; conservatives despise progressives.

Any social or political movement that downgrades the unwanted, the despicables, that has contempt in its diet, is a social ill. Contempt is the great poison, humiliation is the great evil.
So, if we would eradicate these tendencies in ourselves, we would solve the problem. Without these unwanted, primitive judgments we would be clear-headed, objective, neutral. Yes, but probably also tasteless, robot-like, autistic.
So, if there is a solution, there is only a partial one.

In individual cases, we should be aware of our tendency to generalize and look through our own filters. When I was 19, I boarded a bus in Amsterdam-West with six or seven black man in it and felt somewhat threatened. I was shocked by my own discrimination. Why was this? Was I a bigot myself?
Coming back to it several times in the next month, I suddenly found the explanation: I couldn’t read their faces, they looked all the same to me. But once you are in Surinam, where black people are in the majority, this apparent sameness dissolves in a few days and you see and sense the individual differences like at home.
When I first landed in Tokyo, I saw a mass of Japanese that all looked the same - though I noticed the difference between young and old and between male and female. After a week or so, I saw them like I see Dutch people: in their individual differences. Some businesslike, some artistic; some expressive, some reserved.
My guess is that when you would be among a tribe or among a rather isolated rural area anywhere in the world, it may take you a few days or a few weeks extra to sense the individual differences.

Prejudice is natural. When we hear that some stranger at a party has been just released from years in prison or in a mental institution, that strongly influences the way we see that person. That is unavoidable. Bur we should see our first impressions as a starting point, not an end point.
We look differently to obviously very poor people and to obviously very rich people. Especially when our own financial position is not too bad, but vulnerable.
We look differently to very famous people. And fame rubs off—a little. “Yesterday I bumped into Brad Pitt! And he smiled at me!”
We walk with prejudice and we meet prejudice. Some of us meet a lot of it.
There is painfully little we can do about that. But we can do something about our own prejudice: consider our first impressions simply as our first impressions.

If we would like to improve society, naturally we dislike those who are opposed to these improvements. We want to overcome their objections, their resistance. We see our opponents as backwards—or as arrogant. We want change, if necessary: revolution. But revolutions most of the time end in chaos—or in more of the same: upturned tables that are indistinguishable from the old ones. Sometimes marginally better, sometimes clearly worse.
What remains is to study and understand how really successful improvements have come about, how some new countries really have taken off, how some revolutions really have been beneficial. There is reason for optimism, but at least as much reason for pessimism.
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Beware of pigheaded do-gooders. Don’t be one yourself.

(Disclaimer: This writer declares that he has nothing against doing good—and nothing against pigs. He even doesn’t eat them.)

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The need for an enlightened populism

Where democracy ends, fascism begins. So we should stop forerunners in their tracks. Populism is the main forerunner.
There are always different interests and different views that need to be balanced. What makes democracy work is not the rule of the majority, but the the recognition and acceptance of plurality. Even economically, inclusive societies do better than exclusive ones. In a democracy it is never the winner takes all. 

Many people have been getting a more open-minded view of cultural and national and religious differences. We consider that modern, liberal, enlightened. We may even glorify differences and we overly respect those groups that have been treated or are treated disrespectfully. That makes us feel we belong to the right kind of people.

But other people, tired of economic, political and religious tensions between different groups in a country long for a less diverse society. One dominant religion, one dominant culture, one dominant tribe. They may remember fondly the past. But the past has never been that nice. The French revolutionaries around 1790, who almost invented nationalism, were shocked to discover that more than 80% of the French didn't consider themselves French and even didn't speak French, at least not what the people in Paris considered to be French. Today, the Parisian people consider the small-town and the rural French as the true French, la France profonde, not yet urban and international. Assumptions, the world is full 0f them. And the more brittle our assumptions, the more we seem to believe in them.

Obsession with the past is a recipe for stagnation and exasperation. Any type of obsession: both glorifying the past and blaming the past. If it wasn't for colonialism and slavery, black people would still live in peace in Africa, without artificial, 'unnatural' borders. But only the most uncrossable borders are natural. Borders are never simple and always are shifting and permeable. That is what border areas should be.

The injustices of the past father the slippery monster of grievances. Rightful grievances should be met. But here is a snag. Two snags actually. Unfortunately, both are huge.
One snag is that grievances often are fostered. They feed indignation and so identity. Such grievances can never be met. It's never enough. People may have become addicted to the poison of grievance. Grievances start with facts, but they may grow into mental infections. We can bend over backwards and the grievances still may stay. How many excuses and compensations were needed to resolve old wrongs, like true Germans having to live outside Germany?
The other snag is even more pernicious. Modern, liberal people who are inclusive, open-minded, internationalist, look with disdain to more traditional, exclusive and nationalist people, consider them backward bigots—and so exclude them. Inclusive people exclude exclusive people.
That's the rub. A progressive, developing, modernizing democracy creates its own nemesis.

We should accept and embrace differences; we should especially accept and embrace everyone who historically was excluded. And so we exclude the ones that are not modern, not international, not inclusive. They are the losers, the 'deplorables.'  They hopefully will dissolve and die out while enlightenment advances.
So they despise, even hate, the people of goodwill, the know-it-alls, the yups, the expats, the graduated, the well-to-do, the well-employed, the modern: the … (expletives deleted) elite.

This frustration becomes pot-boiling when from the outside a new proletariat comes in: hard-working people willing to do odd-jobs, work for a pittance—and usually bringing a few new loafers alongside. Insiders who are stagnant look badly at outsiders who are on the way up.

And then come people who offer a way out. Populist politicians sell a double hamburger of a lie. They promise back to the good old days. Well, they weren't that good at all— and you can't go back to them.
As Carl Rogers once remarked, nobody is shouting out load to large crowds that the sun will rise again tomorrow. The more unfounded the message, the more the volume is turned up. Who needs arguments?

Populism is the bastard child of progress and progressivism: an unrecognized offspring. But one: this bastard has a power, no matter how backward or even ugly you may think it is: numbers. And two: people susceptible to populism are real people with real lives under real conditions. Whatever we may think of their thoughts, they have them for a reason. For a couple of reasons, usually.

Reactionary nationalism is dangerous, but people are nationalist for a reason. Understanding the reasons, even acknowledging those reasons is necessary. There is no other way to get your reasons for modernity and internationalism acknowledged with them. Why would people listen to people who don't listen to them?

Populist voters  deserve better leaders than the ones they have got. Or not? Anyway, we all would be better off by better populist leaders. Less unreliable, less egocentric, less crazy.
Where can we find a better alternative? Social-democrats would be the best bet, at least in Europe, but they seem to have forgotten their raison d'ĂȘtre. To take care of common people with simple interests and simple outlooks is not very sexy for politicians. And they have been bowing to the prevailing winds of neo-liberalists and neoconservatives who sincerely think they own the place. Well, they don't. At least not anywhere near to the extent they are assuming that.

To cater to common people may seem not to be very sexy for politicians, but in the face of the inexorable dwindling of simple work, it is one of the deepest human and political challenges for the century that just began. The new proletariat is not necessarily poor and ill and dirty; it often has plenty of leisure and usually some money to spend on that. The options for wasting your life have grown considerably. Drugs have been diversifying from alcohol. The US is going the way of Russia: life expectancy is decreasing. Twenty years ago that would have been unthinkable.

Don't leave an enormous segment of the population to the Pied Pipers of populism. From populism may come fascism. From fascism dictatorship. From dictatorship the degrading and fragmentation of society or the horrors of war and civil war.
After coming thus far we shouldn't stop progress. We have to eye populists coolly and their constituencies warmly, at least with understanding. We have to understand their views.  We have to recognize their interests. And we have to communicate that understanding and that recognition in the most practical and down-to-earth way possible. If they don't listen to us, we should start listening to them.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The tragedy of populism

To understand the present rise of populism in Western democratic societies we need to understand five global trends, that have been slowly building up over two centuries and are accelerating:

  1. The ever expanding role of technology diminishes the need for simple work.
  2. More and more people concentrate in ever larger cities.
  3. The international mobility of people is still increasing.
  4. The international mobility of business and money is still increasing.
  5. Developing countries are finally catching up, including the giants China and India.

Urbanization and  internationalization create a network of megacities with growing interaction between them, while the integration with the rest of the countries they are in lags behind. Metropolises like London, Frankfurt, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo are increasingly part of one international network.

Less visible, but more fundamental: ever more people are unemployed. In the US only a quarter of all non-working adults are in the unemployment statistics. The others don’t try anymore. The dropouts from the workforce are an ever growing poor leisure class. With growing passivity goes growing drug abuse, including pain killers and antidepressants. Read for example 'Our miserable 21st century' by Nicholas N. Eberstadt in Commentary, Feb. 15, 2017 explaining why Trump shouldn't have been a surprise.

These work force dropouts are no longer necessary. Above they are supplanted by technology, sideways their work is supplanted by laborers in the developing countries, and at the bottom of the labor market they are supplanted by immigrants, either legal or illegal who are willing to do the work they feel is below them. The only economic function of the work force dropouts is consuming. There will be always simple and honorable jobs, but not in sufficient numbers.

UK farmers are worrying: who has to help with the harvest if Brexit becomes a reality? In Finland, the annual harvest of swamp berries is done by Vietnamese flown in. Till the Vietnamese can earn the same money in their own country. In the Netherlands the unemployed refuse to do menial jobs in horticulture, they stopped doing the heaviest work in factories already forty years ago. The difference between them and foreign people who are willing is simple: what for many immigrants is up, for them is down. And down is unpalatable when the general development is still up.

Those left behind in the this international and technological dynamic are not conservative, they are reactionary: progress is threatening, they want the conditions of yesterday to be restored.
They are the ones who elect the populists: unreliable and sometimes unsavory characters that can’t solve their problems. They will rather worsen them. The disappointed people will be in for more disappointment.
They will not see the dynamics in society, they will see conspiracies by the rich and the smart.  By the elite, a concept once more en vogue. (Excuse the elitist expression.)
Like with most problems, there is no solution without starting to acknowledge the problems and their underlying dynamics. Who should acknowledge and understand the problems? Primarily the well-employed and well-earning. Out of compassion; out of enlightened self-interest.

One of the few ideas around that will,  if not solve, at least lessen the problem is a simple basic income for everybody, no strings attached. The hard working will cry wolf, but populism and fascism are an immensely worse perspective. But what will that do to immigration?
The outflow of failed states is threatening the whole international system. This is already putting pressure on national sovereignty. That pressure will only increase. We are in for more multinational institutions, not less. But that is anathema to the populists. Catch 22?