Sunday, September 10, 2023

Paranoid Nationalism: The Ugly and Power-Mad Cousin

Nationalism is born. It exists in the longing and striving for freedom, historically in battle against distant oppressors. In today's Ukraine. It becomes a force with promises of community, independence  and security. But it has an ugly cousin: paranoid nationalism.

The concepts "Paranoid nationalism" and "the ugly cousin" are taken from the market liberal magazine The Economist, which in September fires a broadside against the growing nationalist movement.

This "cousin" that the newspaper writes about has no particular color on the ideology, neither his own nor that of those he designates as enemies. They can be red or blue, or just dark skinned.

Some examples:

In China, Xi Jinping paints regime critics as evil agents of Western imperialism. Putin claims that Ukraine is a puppet that plays on the strings of NATO, controlled by a Nazi clique that wants to destroy Russia. India's leaders warn against Muslims. Claims to be waging a "love jihad" to seduce young female virgins of Hindu origin. Tunisia's president paints a black African plot that threatens the country's Arabs.

In Sweden, nationalists call political opponents socialists and traitors with reference to the large immigration. The leader, Jimmie Åkesson, claims that all other parties "stand for an overriding ideology with the stated goal of breaking our nation".

The Economist describes how the paranoid nationalism use fears to gain power. Fear of the unknown, the strange people, the unfamiliar ideas. Fear of poverty, starving people, climate change, violence.

Fear of threats to ordinary life with gasoline and diesel-powered cars, as it seems in Sweden. 

Nationalist leaders exploit the fears. They whip up mistrust and hatred to benefit themselves and their cronies. In the pursuit of power, they fight the global order and supranational institutions with the same poisonous mixture of exaggerations and lies.

Leading EU lawyer Michael Dougan at the University of Liverpool claims that the "Brexit" leading-up to the 2016 referendum was "one of the most dishonest campaigns this country has ever seen."

The ugly cousins' intention is to deceive their followers. Once in power, they throw new wood into the nationalist fire to distract the people. Abuse is covered up by evoke demons that steal the spotlight.

Daniel Ortega, President of Nicaragua. He returns to power in 2006, takes control of the media and summons his old enemy the United States as a demon. He labels political opponents as "agents of the Yankee empire" while behind the scene he positions the family in the corridors of power. When mass protests break out in 2018, he calls the protesters vampires and locks them up. Earlier this year, a Jesuit order was branded a "centre of terrorism" and banned. It's been there ever since Nicaragua wasn't even a country.

While the people are preoccupied with the demons, nationalist leaders take the opportunity to rob their own country. Like Ortega, they capture the state by distributing positions of power to cronies, family or relatives. Like Jacob Zuma in South Africa, they corrupt state-owned companies and put money in their own pockets. Cronies of Putin, the oligarchs, become billionaires.

The more nationalistic they are, the more corrupt they tend to be, writes The Economist. The tool, paranoid nationalism, is used to dismantle the checks and balances that watch over the country's governance and democracy: free press, independent judiciary, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society forces and political opposition.

The cousins don't say: By directing the administration's commissioners, I want to block my political opponents.

They say: The commissioners are traitors!

They do not admit that they want to push back NGOs to avoid scrutiny.

They instead single them out as agents of the globalists, enemies of the nation, and impose absurd controls or simply ban them.

They do not close the media, but they put pressure on critical journalists and publicists. In the perfected state, they control or own the media companies.

According to an estimate by The Economist's analysis panel, at least 50 countries have reduced the space for civil society in recent years.

One example is Tunisian President Kais Saied. Before he started blaming black people for his country's problems, he was unpopular. The management of the economy was heavily criticised. Now he has brought Tunisians with him against the small minority of blacks. At the same time, Saied has eroded the judiciary and closed down the anti-corruption commission, according to the Economist. 

With weak institutions, the abuses of the nationalist leaders are facilitated. The despots in Nicaragua, Iran or Zimbabwe are certainly less limited than the leaders in, for example, Hungary or Israel. But in all these countries (and many more) those in power have invented or exaggerated threats to the nation. The threats are used as a pretext to weaken the courts, the press or the opposition and give room for a corrupt administration.

In Sweden, as in other European countries, the EU is portrayed as a threat to the nation's independence and Islam to its very existence.

Authoritarian forces are on the rise after being pushed back after the end of the Cold War, when democracy spread. Country after country then introduced free elections and limited executive power. The space for politicians hunger for power and plunder was reduced. But in the general disillusionment after the 2007-09 financial crisis, they saw the opportunity to regain ground. Paranoid nationalism provided the space and tools to dismantle irritating checks and balances: the democratic institutions.

The space is created by suspicion. If a leader can create a climate of such deep suspicion that loyalty comes before truth, then every critic can be branded a traitor, writes the Economist. In countries that have endured colonial rule – or US involvement, like many in Latin America – there is an audience ready to receive the messages.

Critics are trying to make their voices heard in the noise. In Twilight of Democracy, award-winning journalist Anne Applebaum describes how authoritarian forces are dismantling democratic institutions, including in Hungary and Poland.

The Austrian political scientist Natascha Strobl analyses in the book Radicalised Conservatism the movement of established parties in the political landscape. Using, among others, the Austrian Sebastian Kurz and Donald Trump as examples, Strobl shows how conservative forces copy right-wing radical language and the nationalists' relationship to media and truth. The political normal is displaced in the pursuit of power.

Paranoid nationalism is not going away. Leaders learn from each other. They are freer now. The Economist believes that the West has lost faith in its program to spread democracy and good governance.

But if ordinary people could only see through the lies behind paranoid nationalism, they would realize how wrong it is, the newspaper writes with the Chinese population in mind, but that probably applies to all countries where paranoid nationalism is on the rise.

The text is partly a translation and interpretation of an editorial in The Economist, from which parts of the country data are taken. The article is available here

Right-wing Nationalism on the Rise

Europe: Number of seats for right-wing nationalist parties with social conservatism and opposition to immigration as common positions, 2022-09-26. Source: Statista.

     Democracy in decline


Sunday, November 6, 2022

Aristotle's Travels through History | Chapters & Sources

1. Babylon: Good but not Enough

Briefly about the birth of astronomy in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece. 

Lecture by Johan Kärnfelt at Humanisten, Gothenburg University 2022.

Ofer Gal, 2021: The Origins of Modern Science, Chapter 3: The Birth of Astronomy.

The image is probably from a popular science magazine, Flamarionne from 1888.

Aristotle 350 BC On Heavens.

2 Macedonia: Orphan in Royal Company

Aristotle and his father Nikomachus leave Stagira in northeast Greece for the Macedonian capital Pella.

J J O'Connor, E F Robertson, 1999.

School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland.

3. Athens: Plato Was Not There

Aristotle arrives in Athens that recovers after the defeat against Sparta. Briefly on locations in ancient Athens.

Ofer Gal, 2021. The Origins of Modern Science.

Alf Henriksson: Antiken historier 1958: (Environmental descriptions and political situation in Athens.)

Svante Nordin 2017, Filosofins historia.

4. Plato on the Death of Socrates

About Plato. Travels, wars and disappointments. Reason's for Plato's school Academia. 

J J O'Connor, E F Robertson: 1999:

Alf Henriksson, 1958: Antiken historier. (Details of the trial against Socrates and his defense speech and death.)


Notes about sources

I have taken the liberty of using imagination to fill in less important details: such as Aristotle traveled with his father in a ship from Stagira to Pella, that he played with the son of the Macedonian King (historians find i likely that they got to know each other though). I don't know if he came in the company of a slave to Athens, but it is not a bold guess since it was natural for aristocrats to have many slaves. Years, major events, quotes and descriptions of the lives and activities of the various people are taken from the sources above (which of course also contains a lot of assumptions due to time distance and insufficient original sources).

Aristotle's travel through history. Part 4. Plato on the death of Socrates


Athens 367 BC: Writing about Aristotle without mentioning Plato is difficult. Maybe impossible. And with Plato comes Socrates into the picture.

Plato is not only well-educated and rich. He is also a powerful and experienced soldier with awards for bravery. A man of the world with connections among kings and businessmen. It is an impressive person that the 17-year-old Aristotle meets.

He is certainly not satisfied, however. The 40 year older man is rather disillusioned after many setbacks. After the defeat in the war against the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, he ventured into politics, at the age of 23. He joined the 30 tyrants, those who threw out democracy and took over the state. The maternal uncle and Socrates' good friend Charmides was one of the leaders. But it did not turn out as Plato had expected. He quickly had enough of the tyrants' brutal methods and retreated.

New hope was lit when the tyrants' rule was overthrown a few years later and democracy was reintroduced. But although commerce and trade were running well again, it became clear that Athens' heyday was over. Democracy was probably not the best solution, which he had certainly heard before. Plato's aristocratic family had never had much faith in democracy.

The signs were obvious. In the south, the Spartans, black soup slurping with militarised brains, had proved stronger in battle. In the north, war drums were heard from the increasingly strong kingdom of Macedonia. No, Athens' political life of lies and excesses did not impress. The only wise man was probably the man who claimed to know nothing, Socrates.

He could never get over Socrates' fate, which Aristotle eventually wrote about. Plato was less than 28 when the death sentence was handed down. The city council claimed that Socrates had corrupted the youth and was therefore to blame for the loss of Athen's greatness. 

According to Plato, the truth had indeed come from Socrates himself during the defence speech. Certainly it was so, that Socrates with sharp questions and biting irony had provoked the council members, exposed their ignorance. He made them unresponsive and stupid.

When the sentence came, he refused to plead for his life. He also declined a friend's offer to help him escape from custody. Instead, he asked them to send his wife and children home. They wouldn't have to witness the end.

He had emptied the goblet of hemlock with his own hands. He had laid down on his back, waiting for the paralysis that had already started in his feet and was now spreading upwards. The friends burst into tears and Plato comforted them. He was old, seventy one. He said that death was nothing dangerous but more to be considered a dreamless sleep. Wasn't it good to sleep without being bothered by dreams?

Plato could not let it go. Miserable, he set off. First to Egypt and then to Italy where he made the acquaintance of disciples of Pythagoras. A Greek mathematician who had lived in Croton in Southern Italy in the 5th century BC.

The Pythagoreans fascinated him. Their religious faith, rationality - numerological mysticism and mathematical precision made an impression. They carried the idea that reality could be described with numbers, which suddenly seemed self-evident for Plato. The goal of scientific thinking – reality, must be expressible in mathematical terms—the most precise and definite kind of thinking of which we are capable. 

Plato was also convinced by the Pythagoreans' belief that the earth was spherical - that the entire cosmos was spherical with celestial bodies and stars in Pythagorean orbits. Exact, infallible. Mathematical.

Astronomy was certainly nothing new to the well-educated Plato. As a young man, he had studied under Cratylos, who in turn had been a student of Heracleitus, known for a cosmology based on fire being the basic material of the universe. Now he had new ideas to deal with.

After the trip, at the age of 32, he once again went to war, the Corinthian. It was there that he received awards for bravery. It was also during the war that he began writing down his ideas in dialogues, starring Socrates; the ever-questioning and the revealer of ignorance.

He probably also worked with the idea of starting the Academy in order to produce a more capable generation of political leaders, a philosophical elite with the knowledge that contemporary leaders obviously lacked.

But more important to this story is that, inspired by the Pythagoreans, he began to form his image of the cosmos, which he would eventually pass on to the knowledge-hungry Aristotle.

To be continued


Saturday, October 15, 2022

Aristotle through history. Part 3. Plato was not there


Athens. 367 BC. There is little information about Aristotle's upbringing, but apparently the guardian Proxenus is so impressed by Aristotle's talent that he sends him to Greece's most prestigious school, the Academy of Athens.                                        
                                                                                                                                       Chapters &

The situation in Athens is quite calm at the moment. The disastrous defeat against Sparta is still etched in the memory of the elders. However, when the 17-year-old Aristotle arrives in the ship from Pella the city is run by a new generation. Democracy is restored for the free men, born in Athens. 

The city-state will never regain its military power but still there is no city in the known world that can match Athens in the fields of philosophy and science. It attracts philosophers, artists, and businessmen from the coasts of the Mediterranean and Black Sea, where Greek colonies are spreading. Twenty thousand foreigners, Metics, live in the city. Aristotle is just one of many who come to Athens with dreams.

As a Metic, Aristoteles is not allowed to own real estate. We have to assume that he rents a residence with decent space for him and probably an accompanying slave that takes care of the household. 

It's an amazing city. With the surrounding countryside and the slaves included, it resides two hundred thousand people. Thirty thousand are men with the right to vote. 

The central area of the city's public life, the Agora, is located in the district of Keramaikos northwest of the Acropolis. It is a large area where, as the name suggests, ceramics are fabricated, shipped from Piraeus to trade in the Mediterranean.

The square has two covered colonnades, decorated with mythological images. Next to it is the city hall, the Prytaneion: an open and round building with an altar to the goddess of the household hearth, Hestia, whose fire must never go out.

Outside the city wall there are sport grounds and military training camps, and there, in a beautiful tree-fenced place, is the goal of his journey: the Academia that Plato founded twenty years earlier. Plato named it after the demigod Akademos and it's not just any school. It educates would-be philosophers, which in those days equates to scientists, and according to Plato, those best suited to rule and control a state. 

It takes some time before Aristotle gets to meet the teacher since Plato is in Syracuse in Sicily to teach the tyrant Dionysios and his court about his radical political ideas. But when Plato finally returns, according to rumours sold as a slave by the furious tyrant, a twenty-year association begins between Plato and Aristotle, who will increasingly challenge the master's ideas with unyielding reason.

Next chapter

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Aristotle through history. Part 1: Babylon. Good but not enough

It’s late afternoon and I’m skiing through the Southforest in the direction of the Midforest mountain, when the darkness suddenly falls down from the sky. Fear creeps in and I stop in a forest glade. It is not becoming completely dark. Up there the stars sparkle and the moon is full and her pale glow is filtered between the trees, glimmering in the snow.

Chapters & Sources

Aristotle stories in Swedish

The place is magical and I’m a statue with thick wooled socks sticking up from clumsy boots, wide wooden skis, bamboo poles with leather rod straps, looking at the uncountable stars. I stand perfectly still until the sweat on my back goes cold, as does my wrist in the gap between the knitted woolen gloves and the jacket sleeve. I haven't the faintest idea how it all goes together, those sparkling fireworks in the sky. I probably believe in God.

So, of course humans and animals have stared for millions of years without even trying to understand what is going on up there. A crackling mystery. The sun rises every morning, the moon goes through its phases. The sun goes down, the stars come out. They blink and that's natural. Are they telling us something? People believe in gods.

There is not much time to investigate the natural phenomena when everyone is busy hunting and looking for food, but civilisations begin to take hold, in North Africa and the Middle East, mainly on the banks of the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris. The Fertile Crescent. 

The farmers follow the changes of the seasons and improve the methods. A lot goes by itself. Sheep tell when they need food. Cows when to be milked. Hens lay eggs, regardless of the positions of the stars. The wheat shows when to harvest, and the surpluses make the lords of the farmers richer and ideas grow. Large projects, dam construction, canals. The greater ideas, the more need of planning.

No, it is not enough. Following the seasons like the farmers is not enough. Rituals begin to form in the worship of the gods and eventually their representatives on the earth, with symbols, great temples in dreams longing to be materialised. Thousands of people must be coordinated. All this requires planning, advanced leadership and coordinating meetings. The days and the hours must be counted more precisely and the eyes go up to the gods in the sky. Can they arrange it?

Appointed observers start to record the regularity of the sky on papyrus and clay tablets. It’s good but still not enough. The rulers also want to know what the gods have to say. With the naked eye, the rulers can see that stars sometimes come very close to each other. They stand in conjunction. What are they talking about? What are their plans? Sometimes they stand opposite each other, in opposition. Maybe in an argument.

A new kind of professionals enters, freed from labor on the river beds: the astrologers. For hundreds of years, they will carefully record the positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars. Day after day.

Most concerned are the Babylonians. They develop algorithms that make it possible to predict recurring phenomena, such as solar eclipses. The predictions are used in planning, to await star constellations that are particularly favourable for war. Unlike the Egypts they don’t have a single ruler, but many that are ready to fight to get larger shares of the affluence along the river beds and canals.

The measurements are made with the eye and simple wooden tools that make it possible to read angles between celestial bodies, and with the horizon as a reference point. It will take thousands of years until the first telescopes appear, but the measurements stand up well over time.

So, when the Greeks appear in our history books in 650 BC, they have a lot of material to work with. Egyptians and Babylonians provide them with mathematics, geometry and algorithms, which make it possible to predict the timing of celestial events. It’s an invaluable treasure: hundreds of years of observations and a reliable storage media in the form of the clay tablets.

It is not enough, however. The Greek natural philosophers bring in a new and crucial element: curiosity. It is not enough to passively regard celestial phenomena as the work of the gods. They want to understand how everything is connected, how nature works, and will ponder this for hundreds of years.

Several hundreds years later, Aristotle sends a thank you to both the Egyptian and Babylonian astronomers in his essay "On the Heavens”, which he writes in 350 BC. They have given him the data he needs to make a theoretical model of the cosmos, how it works. It is fundamentally flawed but will stand for more than 2,500 years.

Next: Orphaned in Royal Company

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Aristotle through history. Part 2. Orphaned in Royal Company

Stagira. Around 380 BC. It is dawn and a man and a little boy are about to leave town. They are in the northern Greek city of Stagira on the east side of Chalkidiki peninsula. The man's name is Nicomachus, he is a doctor. The boy is Aristotle. They are in mourning, the wife and mother, Phaestis, has died. Nicomachus sees no point in staying in the little town. He is an ambitious doctor of rich birth who expects more from life.  

A ship is waiting. They sail south and then west, around the peninsulas of Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos which stick out like three fingers from Chalkidiki, and further on into the shallow gulf where Thessaloniki will later be founded and on to the new city of Pella. The ship docks at a new stone-paved harbor and the slaves unload the goods. They take the last bite on a four-wheeled cart, pulled by two horses and with their slaves walking close behind the load. 

Aristotle’s father is rich, owns properties and has financial options, but these are dangerous times with looming violence and war. The Corinthian War ended just a few years before Aristotle was born. Pella, which the Macedon king Amyntas III made the capital of the kingdom, has military protection and the plain south of the city is rich and fertile. It’s a city of the future.

The father buys a new house on the flatlands south of the Paiko mountain range, where the young capital is spreading out. It is not a society where people visit a doctor but rather the doctors who travelling around to their patients. Aristotle follows his father closely and learns medicine and healing arts. It happens in secrecy, as it should in Macedon, from father to son. 

Good doctors are probably not easy to find and Nicomachus quickly gains a reputation, since the royal court catches the eye of him. Maybe there were already contacts. Some kind of kinship between rich people. After a rather short time, he finds himself employed as the court doctor with direct access to the royal family. This is of importance to Aristotle, since he will meet the king’s son Philip who's in the same age.

Things look good for the boy but after only a few years Nicomachus dies. It's unclear how. Aristotle’s brother in law, Proxenus of Atarneus takes in the now orphaned boy and ensures that he is educated as befits an aristocrat. That is, in the greek language, rhetoric and poetry. Aristotle probably wades through the works of Hesiod and Homer. Maybe the great female poet Sappho. It takes place at the Macedonian court on the Acropolis hill or nearby in the extensive urban settlement on the plain south, where a regular street network spreads out.

And there, on the market square, maybe at the agora, around sanctuaries and elegant residential buildings with peristyle courtyards and rooms with floor mosaics, he gets to know Philip. The talented boys will both become famous and powerful – in completely different ways.

Next: Plato was not there


Walking Manhattan

New York. July, 2009. We stayed in an apartment at Upper East, just a few blocks from Central Park. My first visit without work and meetings. Soon I realised that my son knew more about the city than I. He told me about Lower East around Chinatown, and Ludlow Street where the artists and musicians hanged around. He had a friend there and our paths diverged. I was looking for a book. 

It rained that day but I didn't care and walked down to Battersea and back, looking for famous bookshops and antiquaries and learned that most of them don’t exist anymore. I was too late but found one at Upper East, on the third floor. The door was locked but the owner came walking up the stairs. He, a tall and broad middle-aged man in a suit, asked where I came from and what I was doing in town. I told him I was there with my 20-year-old son.

“You must be a good man”, he said. “I wouldn’t go anywhere with my son.”
“He smokes pot all nights and sleeps all days. He’s in the lost generation! I can’t stand him. Where are your son?”
"At Ludlow Street, I'd guess."
"You could tell him to stay there."
I told the man I was looking for an early print of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
“What? Are you insane? Still in the medieval time? You don’t walk around to find old books anymore!” He thought a while and said: “I will help you. Come on in.”

He locked up the door and invited me into the office. There were a lot of computers inside and two people working in front of computer screens. Old analog maps were hanging on the walls that were dark.
The man presented me loudly: “This good man comes from Sweden to look for books here. He is in deep trouble since he’s traveling with his 20-year-old son. Give him all help he needs!”

His employees, a young man and woman, started to search for the book. They scanned the whole world and printed out a list of all available early prints of Slaughterhouse-Five.

“This is the way to do it”, the man said. “The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers - ILAB is the place. Absolutely reliable, best prices and accurate quality information on each copy - and usually quick deliveries! Stop do this walking!”
He turned to the woman. “Help this good man out so he can take care of his son.”  
I walked on south, in the direction of Ludlow Street.


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Paranoid Nationalism: The Ugly and Power-Mad Cousin

Nationalism is born. It exists in the longing and striving for freedom, historically in battle against distant oppressors. In today's Uk...

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