We humans know more truths than any species on earth. Yet we also believe the most falsehoods.
Many people believe that truth conveys power. If some leaders, religions or ideologies misrepresent reality, they will eventually lose to more clearsighted rivals. Hence sticking with the truth is the best strategy for gaining power. Unfortunately, this is just a comforting myth. In fact, truth and power have a far more complicated relationship, because in human society, power means two very different things.
On the one hand, power means having the ability to manipulate objective realities: to hunt animals, to construct bridges, to cure diseases, to build atom bombs. This kind of power is closely tied to truth. If you believe a false physical theory, you won’t be able to build an atom bomb.
On the other hand, power also means having the ability to manipulate human beliefs, thereby getting lots of people to cooperate effectively. Building atom bombs requires not just a good understanding of physics, but also the coordinated labor of millions of humans. Planet Earth was conquered by Homo sapiens rather than by chimpanzees or elephants, because we are the only mammals that can cooperate in very large numbers. And large-scale cooperation depends on believing common stories. But these stories need not be true. You can unite millions of people by making them believe in completely fictional stories about God, about race or about economics.
The dual nature of power and truth results in the curious fact that we humans know many more truths than any other animal, but we also believe in much more nonsense. We are both the smartest and the most gullible inhabitants of planet Earth. Rabbits don’t know that E=MC² , that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old and that DNA is made of cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine. On the other hand, rabbits don’t believe in the mythological fantasies and ideological absurdities that have mesmerized countless humans for thousands of years. No rabbit would have been willing to crash an airplane into the World Trade Center in the hope of being rewarded with 72 virgin rabbits in the afterlife... (continues)
Don’t Let Nationalists Speak for the Nation
The 2020 candidates who seek to oust Drumpf must defend liberal democracy against illiberalism at home and abroad.
By Jill Lepore
Every political campaign involves a choice between elevating political discourse and degrading it. The 2016 election brought a pornographic film star into prime time and made “pussy” front-page news. How it could get any worse in 2020 is difficult to imagine. But the problem isn’t the word “pussy” and the pornification of politics, however demeaning; the problem is the word “nationalism” and the abandonment of liberalism.
“I’m a nationalist, O.K.?” President Drumpf said at a rally in Houstonlast year. “Use that word.”
Please do not use that word. But please do use the word “nation” — the nation of the Gettysburg Address, “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” — and please do use the word “liberalism,” which is what Lincoln meant by that proposition.
Candidates who swat at Mr. Drumpf’s tweets like so many black flies will only find themselves eaten alive. But anyone running in 2020 who is willing to ignore the flies has an opportunity to speak with clarity and purpose about what’s at stake: the liberal nation-state itself.
The United States is a nation founded on a deeply moral commitment to human dignity. All of us are equal: We are equal as citizens and we are equal under the law. Notwithstanding the agony and hypocrisy of the nation’s past and the cruelty and pettiness of its present, these truths endure, in the form of liberalism. Liberalism is not a species of partisanship. Liberalism is the belief that people are good and should be free and that people organize governments in order to guarantee that freedom. That guarantee includes protecting a habitable planet... (continues)