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).