A journey to freedom. The life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

Like millions of other people, I was startled by with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to which I responded by trying to read about Islam in particular and religion in general. In my quests for answers I tried to read what the experts had to say on both subjects, and to listen to their debates in YouTube.  I was already a convert to atheism or anti-theism in 2006, the year when Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett published Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In addition to these, I read other books, and listened to many debates on the subjects of religion and Islam on YouTube. I was particular fond of listening to Christopher Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011), the award-winning British social critic and notorious atheist who died prematurely to esophageal cancer. He praised a unique book published in criticizing the misogyny and the cruelties committed under the sanction of the Koran, the ‘holy book’ of Islam, published in 2006, by  a young black woman called Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Although I read more than most people I am by no means a book worm. When in January 2019 I ran across a brilliant lecture by the British historian Niall Ferguson (1964 -) in YouTube, I immediately decide to buy his book The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook, published by Penguin in2018. Because I learned in one of his YouTube interviews that he was married Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I decided to buy her book Infidel, published by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, in 2007. I bought both The Square and the Tower and Infidel in digital edition, and I read them both during a holiday to Seattle in January 2019.

Below is a short biography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali (born Ayaan Hirsi Magan) that I found at the end of Infidel, in which she describes herlife in Africa, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands.

“Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia, was raised as a Muslim, and spent her childhood in Africa and Saudi Arabia. In 1992, Hirsi Ali came to the Netherlands as a refugee, escaping a forced marriage to a distant cousin she had never met. She learned Dutch and worked as an interpreter in abortion clinics and shelters for battered women. After earning her college degree in political science, she worked for the [Dutch] Labour Party. She denounced Islam after the September 11 terrorist attacks and now fights for the rights of Muslim women in Europe, the enlightenment of Islam, and security in the West.”

Hirsi Ali’s biography is instructing and captivating. Narrated in an honest, straight forward style, it provides a window to cultures that most of us know very little about and at the same time reveals the development of the writer herself, leaded by her inquisitive mind. Alongside her life’s timeline, the reader can perceive the development of her understanding of her culture and the Islamic religion. It is remarkable how she evolves from being a devout and uncritical Muslim to a critic of the Koranic fanaticism that holds back the Muslim world.

At a very young age, she begins to question the domination of males over females in Islamic societies. As she comes of age, she starts to question other things such as the way it sanctions atrocities and violations of human rights such as forced marriages and marriages of underage girls, honour crimes, and many other hard held prejudices such as the notion of purity and the practice of excising parts of the feminine genitalia, in the West known as female genital mutilation (FGM). Two things in this book that cannot be overemphasized are Hirsi Ali’s first hand account of Islamic culture and the remarkable way in which the author adapted to the West. Although she could have opted for a quiet personal life, she chose to put her own life at danger in order to campaign for the mental emancipation of all Western Muslins.

In addition to Infidel Hirsi Ali has published  Atheïstic Manifest (in Dutch; 1995), The Caged Virgin: A Muslim’s Woman’s Cry for Reason (2004), Heretic: Why Islam needs a reformation now (2008), Nomad: A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations (2010), and Heretic (2015). Hirsi Ali’s books have been translated to various European Languages, which is congruous with her objective of helping the Muslims of the West to free themselves from the many shackles associated with the Koranic fanaticism that holds back the Muslim world.

PS. Hirsi Ali’s campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM) has been successful. In 1st February 2019, a 37-year-old woman from Uganda who allowed her 3 year old daughter to be subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) was convicted for this crime. The mutilation took place on 28 August 2017. The mother dialed 999 stated that the girl was bleeding, and the victim had to undergo emergence surgery. Police were alerted the following day, after the surgeon  found evidence of deliberate excisions with the use of a scalpel. The girl later stated that she was held down and cut.

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Why it is important to understand our cognitive bias

Joaquina (Jo) Pires-O’Brien

Man has a number of defining traits that are present in every human society, irrespective of their level of advancement. These defining traits, which are referred to as ‘universals’, is what define or characterize human nature. Perhaps the two most important universals of man are the ability to think rationally and the proclivity to form societies.

Certain universals are conducive to populism and are easily manipulated by populists. An example of that is cognitive bias, a systematic error that often results from our brain’s attempt to simplify the way we process information. As I stressed in a previous post (Why populism is die-hard), populism is a two-sided coin, with the head of a demagogue in one side and the wreath of direct democracy on the other. Direct democracy is a totalistic and repressive regime, for it lacks the system of checks and balances that is necessary for a fair system of governance. The antidote to populism must me sought in education, especially in the knowledge of history and human nature.

Man’s ability to think rationally, and to remember and learn new things, comes from some 100 billion neurons located mainly on the cerebral cortex of the brain, which together with the spinal cord makes our ‘central nervous system’. Man`s large cerebral cortex evolved in parallel with the more ancient nervous system that all animal have, which is referred to as ‘peripheral nervous system’. While the cerebral cortex is responsible for man’s cognitive functions, the peripheral nervous system, which consists of 12 pairs of cranial nerves and 31 pairs of spinal nerves,  is responsible for our motor control as well as for our senses such as smell, taste, vision and hearing.

The fact that man’s actions are guided either by the central or the peripheral nervous system caught the attention of two eminent Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman (1934 -) and Amos Tversky (1937-1996) at the last quarter of the 20th century. They demonstrated that the peripheral nervous system is responsible for man’s fast thinking, while the central nervous system is responsible for man’s slow thinking, referring to these two systems as System 1 and System 2. They also slowed that System 1 is often unconscious, and that System 2 is always conscious. Kahneman and Tversky spent many decades studying the System 1 and System 2 of thinking, even after Tversky left the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where they both taught, and moved to Stanford University in 1978. Kahneman was able to spend many sabbaticals as a visiting professor in various universities in the United States. After Tversky’s death in 1996, at age 59, Kahneman carried on with their research, and in 2002 he received the Nobel Prize in economics (shared with Vernon L. Smith), for his contribution to the field of behavioural economics. Kahneman’s  2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which became a best seller, explains to the general public the research that he and Tversky carried out. Here is how Kahneman explains man’s two systems of thinking:

System 1 “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” (20).

System 2 ”allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentrations” (21).

As Kahneman stresses in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it is unwise to accept without question the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, as well as our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, for our brain is prone to cognitive bias, the tendency to favour information that conforms to one’s existing beliefs and to discount evidence that does not conform.

The research of Kahneman and Tversky is also relevant to political science, where it can explains why voters do not always chose the best candidate. Populists know that people are normally thrilled in hearing something that confirms what they believe. Cognitive bias is a universal trait in man. It is an important reason why populists get away with their dishonest tactics. The intelligent way to fight populism is by educating voters not only about history but also about human nature, especially the pitfalls of cognitive bias.

PostScript. As psychologists have shown, our cognitive biases are pitfalls of error and bad judgement. Here are some of the most important types of cognitive biases:

  • Confirmation Bias: This is favouring information that conforms to your existing beliefs and discounting evidence that does not conform.
  • Availability Heuristic: This is placing greater value on information that comes to your mind quickly. You give greater credence to this information and tend to overestimate the probability and likelihood of similar things happening in the future.
  • Halo Effect: Your overall impression of a person influences how you feel and think about his or her character. This especially applies to physical attractiveness influencing how you rate their other qualities.
  • Self-Serving Bias: This is the tendency to blame external forces when bad things happen and give yourself credit when good things happen. When you win a poker hand it is due to your skill at reading the other players and knowing the odds, while when you lose it is due to getting dealt a poor hand.
  • Attentional Bias: This is the tendency to pay attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others. When making a decision on which car to buy, you may pay attention to the look and feel of the exterior and interior, but ignore the safety record and gas mileage.
  • Actor-Observer Bias: This is the tendency to attribute your own actions to external causes while attributing other people’s behaviours to internal causes. You attribute your high cholesterol level to genetics while you consider others to have a high level due to poor diet and lack of exercise.
  • Functional Fixedness: This is the tendency to see objects as only working in a particular way. If you don’t have a hammer, you never consider that a big wrench can also be used to drive a nail into the wall. You may think you don’t need thumbtacks because you have no corkboard on which to tack things, but not consider their other uses. This could extend to people’s functions, such as not realizing a personal assistant has skills to be in a leadership role.
  • Anchoring Bias: This is the tendency to rely too heavily on the very first piece of information you learn. If you learn the average price for a car is a certain value, you will think any amount below that is a good deal, perhaps not searching for better deals. You can use this bias to set the expectations of others by putting the first information on the table for consideration.
  • Misinformation Effect: This is the tendency for post-event information to interfere with the memory of the original event. It is easy to have your memory influenced by what you hear about the event from others. Knowledge of this effect has led to a mistrust of eyewitness information.
  • False Consensus Effect: This is the tendency to overestimate how much other people agree with you.
  • Optimism Bias: This bias leads you to believe that you are less likely to suffer from misfortune and more likely to attain success than your peers.

(Taken from a psychology site)

Jo Pires-O`Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a magazine for the Iberian culture.

Why populism is die-hard

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

People who can influence others can also turn this ability into power. Like so many things in society, the exercise of influencing others can be carried out in an honest or dishonest way. The honest way to influence others is by telling the truth and allowing our interlocutor to make their own conclusions. The dishonest way is by not telling the truth and by appealing to feelings under the skin rather than to reason. Populist politicians are characterized by their dishonest tactics of reinforcing people’s bias. We can think of populism as a two-sided coin, with the head of a demagogue in one side and the wreath of direct democracy on the other. Direct democracy is potentially totalitarian and repressive for it lacks the system of checks and balances that is necessary for a fair system of governance.

Populist politicians have been around as long as the polity itself. In ancient Greece they were called demagogues (δημαγωγός or dimagogós). The demagogues of history are today’s populist leaders, and populism is a new name for demagoguery. The existence of a large vocabulary to describe populists is an evidence that they have been around for a long time. Here are some synonyms of populist: demagogue, rabble-rouser (agitador de ralé), agitator, troublemaker, instigator, firebrand, revolutionary, insurgent, etc. There is also a rich vocabulary to describe the unfortunate who fall under the spell of populists: commoners, crowd, mob, gang, herd, masses, pack, pack, riffraff, rabble, etc.

One would be wrong to presume that it is easy to combat populism. Both populism and the quick and emotional thinking that makes people vulnerable to it are intrinsic to human nature. When Aristotle stated that ‘man’ was the ‘thought bearer animal’ (ζῶον λόγον ἔχον, animal rationale), in Nicomachean Ethics I.13, he did not mean that human beings were rational all the time, but simply that man had rationality while the other species of animals didn’t. Aristotle actually described man as the ‘social animal’ (ζῶον πολιτικόν), where he emphasized society-building as a central trait of human nature.

The great biologist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) named the human species Homo sapiens based on man’s capacity to think rationally. However, man’s ability to reason is often unused. In everyday situations, people’s action comes from emotional reflexes rather than by the use of reason. Trusting one’s instinct more than one’s rationality is one of the idiosyncrasies of human nature. It is also the reason why people are seduced by the sweet talk of populist politicians. This realization suggests that ignorance about human nature is a big hurdle in the fight against populism.

The ongoing crisis in Venezuela is a textbook example of what can happen when we chose a leader by instinct rather than by a careful analysis of character. It all started in 1998 when Venezuelans elected Hugo Chávez (1954-2013), a charismatic military leftist, and a master populist. It is true that Venezuela’s economy prospered during his first years in office, but that was due to a period of global economic boom, and not due to Chávez’s good governance.  What really happened was that Chavez’ socialist policies, all funded by high oil prices and unchecked borrowing, weakened the resiliency of Venezuela’s economy. After the global recession of 2009, the economy of Venezuela began to falter. In March 2013, when Chávez died of cancer before the end of his fourth term, he was succeeded by Nicolas Maduro (1962 -), who Chávez himself had handpicked as a successor. Venezuela’s economy was already in dire straights when Maduro took office, but Maduro’s decision to carry on Chávez’s policies gave it its final blow.

As Bertrand Russell once said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”. Chávez and his successor Maduro were under educated and overconfident. Neither of them had the minimum qualifications to administer a state. Chávez revealed how little he knew about the history of his own country when he changed Venezuela’s name to ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’. He was the worse kind of ignorant, the kind who is ignorant of his own ignorance. The historical research on Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) reveals that he was a dubious character and that his military brilliance was highly exaggerated. Chávez gave another display of his ignorance during an interview with a foreign journalist, when he said that he didn’t think the United States landed on the moon and didn’t believe in the existence of Osama bin Laden. As for Maduro, his subservience to Chávez is the greatest evidence of his limited intellect. Another evidence of Maduro’s ignorance was his lack of judgment during his first presidential campaign, when he told the Venezuelans that the spirit of his ‘father’ Chávez had visited him in the form of a bird and invoked ancient tribal curses on his political enemies.

Everybody knows that populists are charmers. What only a few people know, is that below the seductive pull of a charmer is a narcissist skilled in reflecting people’s beliefs to create a deep rapport and an intense connection. A populist’s goal is to further his power by enhancing his presence and influence. The recipe for achieving this objective hasn’t changed in millennia. First the populist leader picks the largest segment of a population – invariable the downtrodden and least educated. The populist addresses people in their own dialect, a tactic to pass as one of them, and while doing that, he promises a lot and exaggerate his prowess. But the populist’s discourse is not a piece of his mind. He simply regurgitates to people what people already believe, generating an emotional thrill that will lure the support of people.

The ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’ is a recent example of what happens when a country falls under the spell of a populist leader. History has countless other examples. The Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana once said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Such is the recalcitrance of populism that the knowledge of history is not enough to stop people from falling under the spell of populists. The intelligent way to fight populism is by transforming individuals through education, so that they will be less likely to fall prey of populists. Education is a journey of discovery about the world and about ourselves. History has valuable lessons about the world, but to gain knowledge about ourselves we should study human nature.  There are traits in human nature that are present in every human society, which is why they are called ‘universals’. One such universal is cognitive bias. As stated earlier, reinforcing people’s bias is part of the strategy of populists to entice followers. Our cognitive bias weakens our ability to think rationally. Once we recognize this, we will be able to take the necessary precautions not to be drawn by the amazing magnetism of populists.

Please check my next posting: Why it is important to understand our cognitive bias.

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If you read Portuguese, click here to read my posting on the history of Latin American independence, where I discuss Simon Bolivar and the other liberators.

Jo Pires-O`Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a magazine for the Iberian culture.

Brazilian identity and politics

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

The building of a Brazilian national identity began with the country’s independence from Portugal in 1822. Since then, it has taken different forms that accompanied the evolution of Brazilian society throughout history. Among the various scholars who described the Brazilian national identity, Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) is the most outstanding. Although he was only 33 years old when he published Casa grande e senzala (The Masters and the Slaves) , this book remains unsurpassed as a comprehensive and penetrating analysis of Brazilian society, based on history, geography, literature, folklore, and art. The thesis Freyre developed in this book is that the Brazilian society was shaped around the sugar cane industry, where the Portuguese colonizers and the Brazilians – peasants, native Indians and black slaves –, maintained a peaceful relationship, and as a result of which the Brazilian society emerged as a nation of mixed-blood population that evaded the scourge of racism.
Freyre was well acquainted with the two major literary movements of the twenty century in Brazil, “Modernism”, which took off in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and ‘Regionalism’, which was based in the Brazilian Northeast. He wrote:

These two movements will probably stand as the most significant in revolutionizing the letters and the life of Brazil in the direction of intellectual or cultural spontaneity, creativeness, and self-confidence set against the tradition of colonial subordination to Europe or the United States.

About the Modernist movement, Freyre cites the writer Mario de Andrade (1893-1945), who had expressed regret that the movement “did not go far enough in developing its social implications”. This note by Freyre is a testimony of his genius with which he distilled the essence of the Brazilian society. However, there are plenty of social implications in the character Macunaíma that Andrade introduced in an eponymous novel that appeared in 1928.

Macunaíma: the proverbial Brazilian scoundrel
Most critics recognizes Macunaíma, a character created by Mario de Andrade , as the proverbial Brazilian scoundrel. Macunaíma is the son of a native Indian woman, born black, with an adult body but a child’s mind, which would explain some of his vices. He is hyper-sexualised, lazy, glutton, and as if that wasn’t enough , a megalomaniac who believed he could manipulate monsters and deities and control the universe. Read more

Jo Pires-O`Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, the magazine for the Iberian culture.

The tragedies of Brazil

Jo Pires-O`Brien

The systemic corruption involving the State and the private sector since 2003 is a tragedy whose consequences will haunt Brazilians for years to come. This tragedy is linked to others, like the colonized complex, a Brazilian neuroticism characterized by that blaming everything bad or wrong in Brazil on the Portuguese colonization. The very existence of  Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato) shows a change in mentality from a fixed mind-set of blaming others to an ethics of responsibility. Because of these two polarized views, Brazilian society is fighting a war of ideas, and the resulting lack of dialogue is a tragedy that could turn Brazil into a failing state.

During the presidential election campaigns of 2018 the Brazilian society became polarized between the right and the left. This polarization is a symptom of a problem even more serious, the country’s social fragmentation caused by the proliferation of identity politics groups. My two essays published in this edition cover these topics. The first essay deals with the Brazilian identity and the description of the Brazilian mind-set. The second essay covers the polarization of Brazilian society, the prolonged hegemony of the left and the emergence of the right. Both papers point out the problem of the lack of dialogue, without which Brazil will not be able to repair its fractures, find its way, and move on to better times.

As if the above tragedies were not enough, Brazil suffered another gigantic tragedy in the fire of the National Museum, in Rio de Janeiro, which occurred on the night of the 3rd of September,  2018. Founded in 1818 by D. João VI, Brazil’s National Museum housed more than 20 million items, including historical documents, botanical, zoological and mineralogical collections, ancient Greek and Roman artefacts, the largest Egyptian collection in Latin America and the oldest human fossil discovered in the present Brazilian territory, named ‘Luzia’. In the aftermath of the fire, Alexandre Garcia, a 78 years old journalist and political broadcaster, recorded a scathing lamentation of this tragedy, whose transcription is made available in this edition of PortVitoria.  Also provided is an in-depth account of the tragedy of the loss of the National Museum in the article by João José Fermi.

Reflecting on the tragedies of  Brazil reminded me of some English idiomatic phrases linked to good administration, such as ‘Not on my watch’  and ‘The buck stops here’, and the result is an English lesson written in the form of an article, which I hope some readers of PortVitoria will find useful.

The only review in this issue is of Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018). Peterson is a Canadian psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto who gained notoriety in Canada in 2017 for his opposition to an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act (Bill C-16) adding ‘gender identity or expression’ to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination, arguing that it would interfere with the right of free speech. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life appeared in January 2018 and in just a few weeks became a bestseller in all Anglophone countries. The Portuguese edition appeared later in May, and the book appears to be selling well in Brazil. Peterson attributes the success of his book to the fact that it filled a much needed void in the market, but it is obvious that his internet presence, in e-videos and podcasts, also played a substantial role. I confess that I became a fan of Peterson after watching a couple of his YouTube videos, having bought his book afterwards. Peterson’s ideas describe many of the problems that affect Western civilization and I am certain that they can help Brazilians sort out their cognitive dissonance.

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

January 2019

Post Scriptum. Following the publication of this editorial, I read in La Nacion of a video recording of Brazil’s National Museum created under Google’s Arts & Culture programme. I encourage you to visit the Google site: ‘Inside Brazil’s Museu Nacional. Rediscover the collection before the fire in 2018’. Thank you Google!

 Note. The above is the current editorial of PortVitoria, a cultural magazine for Portuguese and Spanish speakers.

1968 in a nutshell

Jo Pires-O`Brien

The year 1968 was supposed to herald a revolution against the establishment. Like all revolutions, 1968 had a noble objective, which was to instill a freer and fairer society. With hindsight, 1968 has been downgraded from a revolution to a series of revolts against patriarchy, social repression, capitalism and ordinary ways of life labeled ‘bourgeois’, as well as against imperialism and the Vietnam War. However, it left devastating consequences of society, as if it had been a revolution.

Ideological threads and mind-set

1968 was the pinnacle of the revolts of the 1960s. Its ideology had various intertwined threads that included Romanticism, Existentialism, Marxism, Old Left, New Left and Postmodernism, as well as a specific mind-set against wars and a fixation with the authentic life.

Romanticism or Romantic Movement was a 19th century revolt against the classical restraint in the arts and the rigors of science, with origins in the 17th and the 18th centuries, especially in religion. The quintessential 19th century romantic was Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), the disseminator of the idea of the Volksgeist or ‘the people’s spirit’, a compelling notion that every nation has a natural culture which results from the inner necessity for meaning.

Existentialism or the philosophy of existence, is also a product of he 19th century, and revolves around the anxiety of being and the search for the essence of being. Its main founder was Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who dwelt on the historical process of the self. Other articulators of Existentialism are: Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980).

Marxism refers to the socialist theory of Karl Marx (1818-1883), which was built over the tripartite dialectics of the philosophy of history of the German philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831): thesis, antithesis and synthesis. In Marx’s socialist theory, the thesis is bourgeois society, which originated out of the disintegrating feudal regime; the antithesis is the proletariat, which originated through the development of modern industry, was cast off from modern society through specialization and debasement, and who must eventually turn against it; and the synthesis is the communist society which will result from the conflict between the working class and the owning and employing classes, namely the harmonization of all the interests of mankind after the working class takes over the industrial plants.

The Old Left and the New Left are both based on the socialist doctrine of Karl Marx (1818-1883), although the New Left incorporated the contributions of other socialists such as the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937).

The Old Left’s main objective was to support the workers’ revolution which Marx had prophesised; its adepts consisted mainly of pro-soviet communists, revisionist socialists, Trotskyists, Maoists, anarchists, etc. The New Left was a new take on the Marxist thought, where Marx’s revolutionary paradigm is replaced by a passive resistance of the establishment, which included accepting the bureaucratic routines as a means to the occupation of institutions. The movement of greatest significance to the New Left was the Frankfurt School[1], which in 1933 was transferred to Columbia University in New York. This link of Columbia with the Frankfurt School is significant, for Columbia became the American epicenter of 1968.

Postmodernism, whose main fathers are Michael Foucault (1926-1984), Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998), Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), and Richard Rorty (1931-2007), consists basically of a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies, as well as a reaction against modernity and the denial of progress. According with the postmodern doctrine, there is no such thing as ‘objective knowledge’ or ‘scientific knowledge’, or even ‘ the best morality’, for everything is opinion, and each type of opinion is as good as another.

The intellectuals who inspired 1968

Like other all uprisings in history, 1968 had its intellectual stirrers. The most prominent intellectuals of 1968 came from France and Germany, the two most prominent ones being Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979). What singled out Sartre and Marcuse was their connection with the university students and with the public at large who were anxious with the uncertainties of the Cold War. One could also argue that the reason of the strong connection was that the writings of both Sartre and Marcuse resonated well with the dominant mind-set of the time. Sartre popularized his own version of Existentialism, which included the notion that communism represented the people’s wish and offered an authentic way of life, as opposed to the inauthentic way of life found in capitalism. Marcuse popularized a kind of socialism that did not require wars, and which could be achieved by encroaching and occupying the established institutions. He also inculcated in the population the notion of free love.

Sartre

Sartre disseminated a kind of Existentialism in which meaning and authenticity could be bound in communism. In 1960, he did a tour of Latin America, accompanied by his partner, the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), who was also a towering figure among the French intellectuals. The couple visited Cuba, where they were received by Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara, then his Finance Minister. In Brazil, where he was received by the writer Jorge Amado (a former militant of the Brazilian Communist Party; 1912-2001), Sartre spoke at various universities, and one of his interpreters was the young Fernando Henrique Cardoso (born in 1931), a future president of Brazil. In 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, which he turned down on the grounds that it was a Western institution and that his acceptance of it could be perceived as taking a side in the present East and West conflict.

Sartre’s take on Existentialism was focused on the notion of shame, or the way others saw him, to which he had no control; it is from this reflection that he came up with the phrase “hell is other people”. Sartre’s understanding of liberty was particularly unique, and to him the path to liberty was more important than liberty itself. Thus, when the French protesters took to the streets and the French police responded with force, Sartre preached a counter-violence to the violence of the police. Although Sartre’s books were highly regarded by the generation associated with 1968, he was mistaken regarding communism and the Soviet regime. His personal life was not exemplary, as revealed in his biographies.

Marcuse

Marcuse taught at the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, which was re-established in Columbia University, New York, after its closure by the Nazis in 1933. At that time, he fled to Geneva and from there to the United States, along with his colleagues Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) and Theodor Adorno (1903-1969). During World War II he served as an intelligence officer and in the 1950s, when the Frankfurt Institute moved back to Europe, Marcuse chose to stay in the United States and to naturalize as an American citizen. In 1955, he published Eros and Civilization, where he combined Freud and Marx to create a doctrine of sexual and political liberation at the same time, where he introduced the slogan “Make Love, Not War” at the center of the 1960s revolts. Marcuse became a celebrity at age 66, with his 1962 book One-Dimensional Man, where the word ‘unidimensional’ in the title refers to the flattening of discourse, imagination, culture and politics in society. In it, Marcuse suggested a break away from the current system in order to make way for an alternative ‘two-dimensional existence’. Both Eros and Civilization and One-Dimensional Man helped to promote the New Left with the student population. took Marcuse’s thoughts regarding creating an emancipated society without a socialist revolution are summarized in An Essay on Liberation, published in 1969, considered a snapshot of the revolutionary utopianism in the 1960s.

The type of socialism that Marcuse preached was a complete negation of the existing society and a rupture with previous history that would provide an alternative mode of free and happy existence with less work, more play, and the reduction of social repression. He used Marxist terminology to critique existing capitalist societies and insisted that socialist revolution was the most viable way to create an emancipated society. Marcuse was called an irresponsible hedonist by Erich Fromm (1900-1980)[2], the American social philosopher and psychoanalyst who was also a German refugee. Marcuse`s ingratitude to the country that received him as a refugee comes through in his writing, where he described the United States as ‘preponderantly evil’.

The early critics of the 1960s revolts: Aron and Habermas

Among the first critics of the 1960s revolts ,the two most significant figures were Raymond Aron (1905-1983) and Jürgen Habermas (1929). Both Aron and Habermas had been socialists when young and both studied socialism and Karl Marx in depth. Both continued to describe themselves as members of the Left even after they became its main critics, saw the masses as a means to totalitarianism, and believed that an extensive university reform could be the solution to the student’s unrest. Last by not least, they were both hated by the students.

In 1969 Aron published La Revolution Introuvable, translated in the following year as The Elusive Revolution, in which he referred to the events of May 1968, as a “psychodrama” in which “everyone involved imitated their great ancestors and unearthed revolutionary models enshrined in the collective unconscious” – a reference to the French Revolution of 1789 and the Reign of Terror that it created. The book received negative criticism in France and in the United States[3].

Habermas, who has published dozens of books and essays, is Germany’s most important living philosopher. Although he studied at the Frankfurt Institute, he moved away from its Marxist influence and created his own school of thought. His criticism of the students’ revolts of the 1960s is shown in some of his essays such as ‘The Movement in Germany’. In his 1962 book Strukturwandel der Öffenlicheit, which appeared in English only in 1989, as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, he criticised many of the theories at the centre of the students’ revolts. Habermas pointed out the special role of universities as platforms of the public sphere debate, and that the most radical students were taking away the possibility of discussion. He also recognised the new environmental movements that stemmed from the 1960s revolts.

The ‘us and them’ of 1968: A strategy of identity

The talking heads of 1968 created an ‘us and them’ social division, in which the ‘us’, or ‘the partakers of 1968’ were the good guys who intended to create a better world, while the ‘them’ were the bad guys, labeled ‘counter-revolutionaries’ or ‘reactionaries’. In fact, the ‘them’ reactionaries were a minority, and a better description of them is ‘the silent majority’, ordinary people who were too busy living their ordinary lives.

The underlying reason for the ‘us and them’ split between the engaged and the disengaged was to create a group identity that could serve the political objective of gaining power through the occupation of institutions. The 1968 mind-set gave group identity to the once rebel students, and from such group identity they gained power, at least inside academia. The greatest evidence for this is the Cultural Wars of the 1980s and 1990s in the United States. Although there are indications of similar academic conflicts in Europe and in many Latin American countries, there are no significant critical studies available on the subject.

When the British philosopher Roger Scruton wrote Thinkers of the New Left in 1985 he was ostracized by the academic establishment in Great Britain, who put pressure on Longman House, his publisher, to withdraw the books out of the bookstores. Realizing that he would not get another academic job in Britain, Scruton decided to get a new training as a barrister, and continued his academic career outside Britain. During this time, Scruton reworked the original manuscript and added sections to it, coming up with Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, which was published in 2015. Only then Scruton was taken seriously. Finally, at the age when most people retire, Scruton became a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham, and in 2016  was knighted by the Prince of Wales at an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, for services to Philosophy, Teaching and Public Education.

Social consequences of 1968

1968 is also referred to as ‘the long year’ because its spirit continued on. The revolts of 1968 intended to create a better society. However, in spite of its good intentions, 1968 had several unintended social consequences of stifling the debate in the public sphere and the increase in political populism, to the social fragmentation that resulted from multiculturalism minus interculturalism.

Populism refers to actions deliberately planned to attract the majority of people. Since the people are recognized as being sovereign in any democracy, populism appears to be a good thing. However, there is no single political will attributable to the people, and what a populist does is to trick people to believe otherwise. Populist political leaders are well-trained in the art of persuasion. One example that occurs frequently is that of a candidate who persuades the people that he deserves to be trusted because he is one of them, when ‘being one of them’ simply means that he does not have the right skills of statesmanship. In campaigns for office, the populist candidate is the one who uses dishonest means to earn the voter’s sympathy, who lumps individual voters into lots of convenience and tailors his discourse to each. Another sign of the populist candidate is the use of emotional language to manipulate feelings.

Multiculturalism refers to the doctrine of regarding every individual, and every culture in which individuals participate, as being equally valuable. Although apparently this is a good thing, the acceptance of certain cultural practices could infringe on the human rights of individuals, as exemplified by female genital mutilation (FGM) and the marriage of children.

Social fragmentation is also a growing phenomenon in Western democracies. In his book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Mark Lilla (born 1956) illustrates the problem in the United States, which can be inferred from the growing of identity politics, which refers to activisms based on a single unifying descriptor such as being a woman, black or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender), created to solve the problem of social or political exclusion. To Lilla, by keeping minorities separated from the mainstream society, identity politics does not help the minorities to gain political power through gaining more seats in local government. Although Lilla’s book concerns itself with the situation in the United States, identity politics is also common in Latin America.

The students revolution of 1968 was a mass movement, and, like all mass movements, it consisted of instigating leaders and malts of followeres (the hoi polloi). Although many of  the leaders of 1968 eventually understood the problems associated with idealizations of society, the malts of followers carried on dreaming about the ideal society and seeking social interventions of one kind of another. Examples of the latter are the armed groups of hard left-wingers in the African and Latin American bushes.

It has taken almost fifty years for 1968 to be properly understood. Sadly, too late to avoid its unintended social consequences.

References

Aron, Raymond. Thinking Politically: A Liberal in the Age of Ideology, New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Publishers, 1997.

Habermas, Jürgen (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge, Polity Press, 1992. Reprint of 2011.

Lilla, Mark. Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. New York, Harpers, 2017.

Marcuse, Herbert. An Essay on Liberation. Boston, Beacon Press, 1969.

Scruton, Roger (1985). Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. London, Bloomsbury, 2015.

[1] The Frankfurt School , a sociology movement inspired on Marxism also known as ‘Critical Theory’. The movement itself sprout from the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung), which was attached to the Goethe University in Frankfurt, after it was founded in 1923 by Felix Weil. Other names associated with the Frankfurt School are Friedrich Pollock, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, Leo Lowenthal, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin. After 1933, the Nazis forced its closure, and the Institute was moved to the United States where it found hospitality at Columbia University in New York City. After the War the Institute was re-established, and the most notorious member of this new generation was Jürgen Habermas, although he later abandoned both Marxism and Hegelianism.

[2] Here is a quote by Erich Fromm on the sexual liberation of the 1960s: “The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

[3] Aron found recognition late in his life, especially after the publication of his memoirs, one month before his death, on 17 October 1983.

Jo Pires-O`Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a magazine for the Iberian culture.

True education and democracy. Brazil ‘s 2018 elections

Joaquina (Jo) Pires-O’Brien

The recognition of greatness results from true education, according with the British thinker John Ruskin (1819-1900), who often used the expression ‘true king’ to denote the ‘truly noble man’, the individual who possesses all the traits necessary for good leadership.  According to him,

“The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things — not merely industrious, but to love industry — not merely learned, but to love knowledge — not merely pure, but to love purity — not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice.”

Good democracies need great leaders and voters who recognize greatness. These two conditions seem to be lacking in the present set of electoral candidates in Brazil. In Brazil, individuals who are known for their courage, culture and integrity  are not normally selected by political parties. If they were, what would be the chances that voters would recognize their good qualities?

Uneducated or under-educated voters tend not to appreciate a candidate with the right qualifications to be a statesman, preferring instead  the piddling candidate who identifies himself as a ‘man of the people’.  On the other hand, the truly educated voters don’t feel diminished by voting for someone whom they perceives as better than themselves.

In Brazil, the current apprehension regarding the outcome of the 2018 presidential election has one lesson for the political parties and another for the voters.  The lesson for the Brazilian political parties is that due to the current state of the political landscape, individuals who have the right qualities for political office tend to shy away from politics, and for that reason, they should be actively recruited. The lesson for the voters is that they should learn which are the desirable qualities in a statesman, so that they can make informed choices.

Ruskin’s concept of true education is still a distant dream for a country like Brazil. However, if the Brazilian voters do the right thing, and think hard before choosing their candidate, that will be a step in the right direction.


Jo Pires-O`Brien is the editor of PortVitoria, a magazine for the Iberian culture.