Book Review: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

book cover: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari was recommended to me by Nick of Fiction & Ideas after I wrote about Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny. This will be even less of a review than I usually do; more of a mental chewing over what I read.

The opening line was, “In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.” Okay, we’re starting off well.

The author then dives into the “liberal story” that has dominated recent history. However, he’s not talking liberal as in what’s considered politically left-wing, and certainly not the liberal that’s seen as being virtually synonymous with communist by some American conservatives. He’s talking about liberal as in liberty-focused, including free market. Perhaps he and Roy Richard Grinker could have a chat on capitalism and mental illness.

He writes that, in the 20th century, “the liberal story learned from communism to expand the circle of empathy and to value equality alongside liberty.” That meant a shift from caring about middle-class white men to caring about minorities. I don’t know enough about Marxism to comment on whether there’s a link there, but when I think of communism in practice, empathy doesn’t come to mind, and it seems like equality was only if you were equal “enough” to count.

One concept I found interesting was the liberal “set menu” he described, which involves freedoms on national and international levels in the areas of economic, political, and personal freedom. He added that those who are anti-liberal aren’t necessarily rejecting every piece; they’re rejecting the set menu. While I’m still not entirely clear who is liberal and who isn’t, it’s an interesting idea.

Then, he moves on to artificial intelligence, and how it will basically take over the world, including healthcare, leading to “the rise of a new useless class.” My reaction was that just because you (potentially) can doesn’t mean you should, but I don’t think he subscribes to that philosophy. He talks about how society might handle issues around this, including financially supporting the useless class. He asked if American voters also agree that their taxes should be sent to support unemployed people in places defined by President Trump as shithole countries. “If you believe that, you might just as well believe that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny will solve the problem.” Definitely no sugar-coating here, folks.

Then we move on to religion, which clearly the author doesn’t have much use for. He argues that religion has lost ground in recent times because it’s not good at healthcare or farming; it’s just good at coming up with explanations for things. Instead of health professionals or farmers who learn from what doesn’t work, religious leaders just come up with new excuses or justifications. “It is the long-honed expertise of religious scholars in reinterpreting texts that makes religion irrelevant. No matter which economic policy Khamenei chooses, he can always square it with the Quran.” He was equal opportunity anti-religion; I just happened to pick a quote about Islam.

The author observed that instead of blaming racism on biology, we now blame culture, as if that magically makes it okay. It reminds me of when my grandma used to say that she disliked everyone’s culture, so she was an equal opportunity racist.

The chapter War was delightfully subtitled Never Underestimate Human Stupidity. According to the author, “Human stupidity is one of the most important forces in history, yet we often tend to discount it.” Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

The author argues that, throughout history, every culture has thought they were special, but they were wrong. He then dives right into his own Jewish culture. “Personally, I am all too familiar with such crass egotism, because the Jews, my own people, also think that they are the most important thing in the world. Name any human achievement or invention, and they will quickly claim credit for it.”

I don’t know how accurate this is, and perhaps Luftmentsch can shed some light on this, but I enjoyed it:

“Yet mainstream Judaism solemnly maintains that the entire cosmos exists just so that Jewish rabbis can study their holy scriptures, and that if Jews cease this practice, the universe will come to an end. China, India, Australia, and even the distant galaxies will all be annihilated if the rabbis in Jerusalem and Brooklyn stop debating the Talmud. This is a central article of faith of Orthodox Jews, and anyone who dares doubt it is considered an ignorant fool.”

The author points out that, “We know exactly what [God] thinks about fashion, food, sex, and politics, and we invoke this angry man in the sky to justify a million regulations, decrees, and conflicts.” I find it fascinating how people will turn personal preferences, such as political candidates, into God’s preference. Consider the Christian Right nutters who decided that God was on Kyle Rittenhouse‘s side when he shot and killed two people with the assault rifle he wasn’t allowed to be carrying.

Chances are you’ll find at least something in the book offensive, no matter what your belief system happens to be. You’ll be offended, you’ll disagree, you’ll get annoyed, but above all, you will think.

You’ll also learn a lot, and probably make frequent trips to Wikipedia. One of the many things I learned from this book was that Fuzzy-Wuzzy was not, in fact, a bear who had no hair. Who knew?

Thanks to Nick for the recommendation; this was a very interesting, engaging read.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

20 thoughts on “Book Review: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century”

  1. Great review Ashley Leia. I thought you wrote a post a while back on your process for writing reviews. Am I I correct? I am looking for something on the process of writing book reviews. . And today, lo and behold… here is your beautiful review. Thank you.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! It certainly was interesting. The future predictions he had about biotech and AI were pretty wild and scary, but they sounded plausible to me. He’s written a couple of other books I’d like to check out, too.

    Also, I was really interested when he was talking about political systems, mainly communism, socialism, capitalism. I remember him saying something like, “What if a new system emerges in the 21st century?” What would that look like? Like some type of combination between feudalism and capitalism? haha.

    1. Yeah, definitely interesting to think about the direction that things might go in. I also had a hard time imagining what a non-feudalist/capitalism/communist/liberal system would look like.

  3. I haven’t read any Yuval Harari, although I catalogued a couple of them! I’d like to read Sapiens, his book on human evolution, but his more speculative books don’t really grab me.

    Re: liberal, I think he’s using the sense as in ‘liberal democracy,’ ideas originally proposed by liberals, but now widely accepted across the political spectrum in the West e.g. free speech, freedom of religion, universal suffrage etc.

    Marxism in theory is very much about equality i.e. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” It sounds like he’s talking about ‘welfare liberalism’ although I would say that that was learnt from moderate socialism/social democracy or just the experience of the Great Depression rather than from Communism. Although he’s Israeli, so maybe he’s just thinking about kibbutzim.

    Re: technological change and “useless classes,” I think technology change can create unemployment in certain industries, or certain areas that were focused on one obsolete technology (e.g. the decline of coal mining and steel-making communities in the UK as it moved to being a service economy), but I find the idea that technology will put almost everyone out of work to be a long-term fear (from the Industrial Revolution) that has never actually come about.

    Re: Jews: it’s true some Orthodox Jews think that. I think most would not put it that bluntly. I have met Jews who basically consider non-Jews (and non-Orthodox Jews) as irrelevant, but I don’t think that’s the only way of approaching the concept of Jewish chosenness. Certainly Maimonides (the greatest Jewish philosopher) said that everything in creation exists for its own purpose and nothing exists purely because of something else. I think Jews have a unique role in the world, but I think every other individual and every other culture has a unique role too and I don’t consider that to be heretical or to make me an ignorant fool.

    I would add that Jews constitute 0.2% of the world’s population, but 20% of Nobel Prize winners, so maybe some egotism is justified! 😉

    1. I agree regarding the useless classes. If nothing else, government would regulate to maintain a taxpayer base before automation took over.

      20% is pretty darn impressive!

  4. This sounds like a really interesting read. Liberalism is such a broad term, however the issue with it generally, is that it simply doesn’t work. Free markets only largely benefit a very tiny minority, leading increases in inequality.

    1. It’s sort of like communism; it might sound good in theory, but put it into practice and it goes off in a totally different direction. We need something that actually works when implemented.

  5. Well, this was the most interesting “review” we have read of yours. Maybe reacting to reads is an angle you can reuse because we really enjoyed it.

    We kept thinking from the title it was going to be about Century 21, the realty company that is going out of business 😂

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