In this time of sleep-depriving uncertainty, I find myself constantly searching for a Magic Bullet Theory: One Explanation To Rule Them All. I keep combing the wide, hysterical internet for some equation that boils down this seemingly game-changing moment to the fewest, truest variables.
What is the deepest, simplest explanation of what the hell is really going on here?
The more rational part of me, of course, knows that the historical factors that led to this moment are many and varied. But I keep searching nonetheless. It’s probably a stupid “boy” thing - like the emails my high school friends and I have been cranking out for decades about The Reason LeBron Can Never Surpass Jordan, etc.
It was the search for that one unifying idea that led me to write a post a few weeks ago about capitalism > morality: the “core value” that I suggested to be America’s founding charter, and guiding principle. I argued that c > m was the simplest explanation of both America’s greatest accomplishments and ghastliest human rights failings.
My good friend Rick Zednik suggested a tweak of c > m. He sees America’s guiding principle as self-interest > collective interest, an idea that I find deeply intriguing, and perhaps even truer than c >m.
And now, just this past week, I came upon a new, fascinating unifying theory: a broader, global take. This is an idea that unites the rise of Trumpism with the spectre of ISIS, the reign of the Iranian mullahs, and, most notably, the Bond villain who seems poised to be the primary author of our planet’s dominant storyline for a generation or more, Vladimir Putin.
You probably know the name Garry Kasparov because of his legendary chess career. One of the game’s greatest all-time champions, he is nonetheless most famous for his 1997 loss to IBM’s Deep Blue. This moment marked the first loss by a chess grandmaster to a tool of artificial intelligence, a turning point that may one day be known as the “moon landing” moment in the rise of synthetic sentience. But I digress.
Since retiring from chess, Kasparov has become a full-time human rights activist, and a fearless, ferocious critic of Putin. Kasparov has written extensively about the existential threat Putin poses to the free world. The events of 2016 have thrust Kasparov and his mission to the world’s center stage.
Last week, Kasparov spoke at length with the brilliant writer and intellectual Sam Harris, who has written several modern classics of nonfiction (“The End Of Faith” may be his most famous book). Harris hosts a must-subscribe podcast called “Waking Up.”
Harris’s entire conversation with Kasparov is revelatory, terrifying, and well worth your 90 minutes. But pursuant to my “grand unifying theory” introduction to this post, I’ve transcribed the most relevant passage here:
KASPAROV: One of the fundamental differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is that we believe in the uniqueness of human life. One person dead is a tragedy. But for people like Putin, hundreds of thousands dead is just a demonstration of strength. It’s just statistics, that prove they are on a winning streak by spreading their influence.
We have to realize that despite all the differences between different political groups and activists in the free world, we are still united by values that makes us very different from the other side of the world, [to which] I could apply the word “evil.” Who really threaten our way of life, and the very foundation of a free society.
Value of human life is one of the things that bring together Putin, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Iranian mullahs. They may look different. But at the end of the day, they believe in something that is not modern. Something that pushes us back to the past. And for the people who are saying “Oh, unlike the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia is no longer an existential threat to the free world because it doesn’t have the same ideology,” my response is probably you’re right.
But the Soviet project, though it was condemned by history, and marred by repressions, bloodshed, and devaluation of human life…it was still a project about the future. Now, it was a futuristic project based on wrong assumptions about human nature - that’s why it failed. But it was still about the future.
While today we’re dealing with threats that all are looking for ideal society in a distant past. So, Putin looks for 19th-century imperial politics, Iranian mullahs for medieval religious inquisition, and ISIS of course goes back to the early caliphate.
It’s all about something that has no connection to modernity. That’s why today we can see things as the fight between modernity and archaic forces. And somehow, even the last US elections were about a desperate attempt to look for an ideal model of the past.
The core of Kasparov’s unifying theory is fear.
Fear is the value that connects Kasparov’s theory to Zednik’s concept of self-interest vs collective interest. A man is driven to value his own self-interest over the interests of others because his fear for his own well-being exceeds his confidence.
The most important value that binds together Putin, Trump and Adolf Hitler is their fear. They are men who are, in their innermost heart of hearts, afraid of who they really are.
This month, we bid a wrenching good-bye to President Barack Hussein Obama, a man who, at his core, is unafraid. He was raised by a loving mother, he loves himself and the people around him, and he projects his love upon strangers: to all people around the world. He genuinely believes in the inherent goodness of others. His love, acceptance, and tolerance, for himself and others, will define his greatness for generations. And perhaps explain his shortcomings as well.
But regardless of his failings, there can be no doubt that Obama was a man whose confidence allowed him to embrace the uncertainties inherent to an evolving, modern world. He knew, as no other President in my lifetime knew, that the bleeding edge of the modern world was deeply uncertain: indeed, unknowable. But Obama embraced that uncertainty. And he projected into that mysterious void his own self-love and confidence: the content of his character. In spite of the imminent-seeming rollbacks of his policies, the imprint of his character has and will continue to influence millions of people around the world. He has himself bent the moral arc of the universe towards justice, irreversibly.
That he is being replaced in the White House by a man who is in his heart of hearts terrified of who he is, who on an hourly basis lashes out with that fear, spitting it at whatever random forces happen to trespass the strange, bedraggled landscape of his consciousness...this is the reason we all feel like we are clutching to the railing of a ship at roiling sea, heaving up and down, back and forth, not knowing if the worst is ahead of us or behind, clueless about just how serious this storm can be. Because we know that fear is bottomless. For every war and calamity in history, for every holocaust and genocide, fear has been the gasoline.
In the age of Vladimir Putin, we have never been more in need of courage. And we have never had a President more fundamentally afraid.
They didn't vote for Donald Trump because they were uneducated and he fooled them. They voted for Donald Trump because they identified with him so deeply. Because he is just as scared as they are.
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