Dialogues: Democracy’s Enemies; Yuval Noah Harari

Two items today are responses to earlier articles or reviews, about the enemies of democracy, and about Yuval Noah Harari. And then my responses to them.

The New York Times ran a long front page feature article on October 23rd called Their America Is Vanishing. Like Trump, They Insist They Were Cheated., which I highlighted in my post on October 25th.

There are plenty of critics on the right of the The New York Times for being too woke, for being an instrument of the establishment (what they call the deep state now, apparently), and so on. So it’s worth noting once in a while the criticisms the progressive left have of NYT. Mostly that it’s too cautious, too concerned with “both sides-ism,” while the left perceives the enemies of democracy much more plainly.

AlterNet, John Stoehr, 25 Oct 2022: Opinion | The face of liberal democracy’s enemy is white.

The Times is virtuosic not only for its ability to bring us news from around the world, but for its ability to talk about the politics of white power without mentioning “white,” “power,” “politics,” “the” or “of” in any combination – or those benefitting from its built-in advantages.

In the absence of a vocabulary that might otherwise accurately characterize the political landscape that we inhabit, it invented a value-free vernacular to do two things: avoid talking about the white people who are most afraid of losing their built-in advantages to the rise of liberal democracy; and two, avoid talking about, to any serious degree, the real consequences of what they will do to protect them.

He mentions the NYT piece and its title without linking it, oddly. Then,

The content of the piece is familiar. White people feel anxiety about changes to the American national character. Those changes are rooted in demographics, economics, religion and culture. But the details of the story, which I’m not bothering to recount, are not important compared to its broad contours, which are this: white people don’t like change so they’re voting for the Republicans.

Which has been my broad conclusion about articles like this for some time. The writer here, John Stoehr, quotes some items from the article and then goes on: “The face of liberal democracy’s enemy is white.” And he quotes Perry Bacon, of the Washington Post:

Because white people are likely to be the majority of voters for at least two more decades, America is in trouble. Across the country, GOP officials are banning books from public libraries, making it harder for non-Republicans to vote, stripping away Black political power, aggressively gerrymandering, censoring teachers and professors and, most important, denying the results of legitimate elections. The majority of America’s white voters are enabling and encouraging the GOP’s radical, antidemocratic turn by continuing to back the party in elections.

Following a couple more examples, Stoehr concludes,

It’s here that we get to the real meat of the issue – the real reason white people are prepared to abandon liberal democracy in order to protect their precious privileges built into our political system.

It’s not that they love their country. It’s not that they love the Constitution. Their opposition to liberal democracy, and all that it costs them politically, does not rest on positive principle.

It rests on laziness.

Most white people don’t want to compete.

They don’t want to compete for jobs, for resources or for political representation in a republican government of, by and for the people. They would rather use their already existing advantages to get out of working harder in the public square, the marketplace of ideas or a truly fair and level political economy. The Republicans are saying, in effect, vote for us. We’ll save you the effort of competing with people who are putting twice the effort into participating in a democracy.

Too extreme? Perhaps. But there’s a kernel of truth here. I’ve noted before the observation by others that the immigrants who reach our border must have extreme reasons for making the journey by foot over hundreds or thousands of miles to reach what they see as the promised land. While the obese Southerners with MAGA hats who complain about them mostly, judging from their demeanour and education, have no such ambition, except to complain about those with more ambition than them. WWJD?


Second. Yuval Noah Harari’s books, beginning with Sapiens (my review), have been wildly popular. I admire them for their 10,000 foot view of human history and the potential human future. (As opposed to the view of history as lists of dates and kings and battles, as I mentioned in my previous post where I quoted Bertrand Russell.) But there have always been scientists who look down on “science popularizers,” those who write books directed at the public, whether those writers are scientists themselves or not. And who will try to undermine such popularizers by, among other ways, nit-picking their work.

Here’s Jerry Coyne commenting on a critique in Current Affairs by one Darshana Narayanan, a “neuroscientist and journalist,” who thinks Harari’s books are “full of howlers and misinformation.” Coyne (who is a real scientist) responds to her critiques of Harari, and then points out some problems with her own criticism.

Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution Is True, 26 Oct 2022: A critique of Yuval Harari’s popular-science writing.

Coyne begins with the valuable observation than nearly all popular-science books are *not* “fact checked,” in the way certain academic publishers, and scrupulous publications, are thought to do (an example is The New Yorker, which is said to have not just proofreaders but actual fact checkers to verify the claims of any nonfiction article that they run). It’s up to author of books like Harari’s, or Coyne’s own, to ensure the book is factually accurate.

But the main point here is the criticism that Narayanan makes. Coyne sorts them into trivial errors, middling errors, and serious errors. And then goes on to note her own errors. Here’s an example of what he sees as a serious error.

She quotes Harari on languages and then takes the statement apart:

Next, take the issue of language. Harari claims that “[many] animals, including all ape and monkey species, have vocal languages.”

Anybody who knows how human speech differs from that of other species will recognize the qualitative difference between human symbolic language and the non-symbolic lanaguage of other species, as does Narayanan:

Yet, in spite of all their similarities to humans, monkeys cannot be said to have a “language.” Language is a rule-bound symbolic system in which symbols (words, sentences, images, etc.) refer to people, places, events, and relations in the world—but also evoke and reference other symbols within the same system (e.g., words defining other words). The alarm calls of monkeys, and the songs of birds and whales, can transmit information; but we—as German philosopher Ernst Cassirer has said—live in “a new dimension of reality” made possible by the acquisition of a symbolic system.

Scientists may have competing theories on how language came to be, but everyone—from linguists like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, to experts on primate communication like Michael Tomasello and Asif Ghazanfar—is in agreement that, although precursors can be found in other animals, language is unique to humans.

‘Tis true.

OK, point taken. Harari is over-simplifying. Coyne goes on to identify Narayanan’s own errors. OK, OK….

I think Narayanan is getting lost in minutia and losing the big picture. She is nit-picking. (Is she jealous?)

The big picture is that Harari has written a broad overview of human history, from the beginning of the universe (on the first page) until today, from a 10,000 foot level. He’s providing a big picture for people who’ve likely never studied history, or evolution or cosmology, and boiling that all down into an appealing summary. He’s a hero, not a villain.

Narayanan is nit-picking at the 1000 foot view. Or even the 5,000 foot view, in a couple specific examples. But the impact of Harari’s books has been to give a wide readership the 10,000 foot view of “big history,” where most of them had nothing at all, except vague memories of religious myths.

I have my own quibbles with Harari — his penchant for dividing broad issues into triads; his identification of “humanism” as just another religion — but there is far more positive about his books than anything negative, given these examples.

And this is why I dismiss the criticism by “real” scientists of the science “popularizers.” Asimov, Sagan, Wilson, Pinker. They are the ones trying to bring about the consilience of scientific knowledge with cultural and humanist knowledge. They are doing, have done, good.

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