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Globalization and climate change. AI and VR. Fuckface Von Clownstick and the Flat Earthers. The world is changing so fast that we can't get a grip on how we got here, let alone where we're headed. This is your weekly podcast for a world in flux. Join Ben Charland to peel back the headlines and ask, what are the forces, people and ideas that shape the human story today? Have things always been this nuts, or are they getting crazier by the day? Just what on Earth is going on?

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Blog for Episode 1: Story

May 4, 2018

On this podcast we get to the bottom of what’s happening in Canada and around the world. We try to peel back the headlines and have a peek at what’s going on underneath. Whether we’re watching another day of chaos unfold in the White House, or we’re reading about those leaders, local and global, who are working hard and often thanklessly to make our world a better place, the same questions remain. What are the forces, ideas and characters that shape the human story today? What on Earth is going on?

First, let me tell you what on earth this show is all about.

Whether it’s Donald Trump in the United States or Doug Ford right here in Canada; the gradual but seemingly inevitable rise of artificial intelligence, or the downfall of Blockbuster Video; the crisis of liberal democracy in the digital “post-truth” age, or the meaning behind really expensive avocados. On this program I want to ask what on Earth is going on, as well as the implicit question that lurks behind it: why? Why now? What has led us, or driven us, to this apparently critical juncture? What are the forces, ideas and people that shape the human story today? Where are they rooted in our cultures, in our minds, in our genes, in our history? How did we get here and where are we going? I sincerely hope that on this program, no question is out of the question. 

It sounds like that pretty much encapsulates, well, everything. I guess it does. So, do you think I’m ambitious? Naïve? Or just plain nuts? Maybe all three, but I think if we’re going to try to comprehend the crazy modern world, we need a little bit of crazy on our side. The other thing we’re going to need is humility. I admit that I don’t know the answers to these questions. And this is the spirit with which I want to infuse this show, and what I ask of you. I don’t know what on earth is going on, but I want to try to find out. Maybe I’ll fail. Maybe you’ll be no better off having listened to me and my guests for an hour a week. But maybe something will click, and we’ll be a little wiser for it, a little calmer in the face of what appears to be absolute chaos and mockery and gloom and doom in the public discourse – maybe you’ll be a little happier to have engaged in the story.

Let me explain what I mean by that. Have you ever read a really good book, and you needed to stop on every other page, or every page, sometimes every sentence, just to think about what the author just said? To process what that phrase or that concept or that insight means for your understanding of the world. As you take a moment away from the pages, you can feel your sense of the world shift.

These little moments can be addictive, and it’s probably a bit simplistic of me to rate books by the frequency of such twists. After all, we read to find wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. And maybe it makes me a dilettante to hoard the little slices of wisdom at risk of losing the bigger picture. But sometimes I can’t help myself – I feel, with all those bitty shifts of paradigm and perspective, like the world is getting somewhat easier to digest. Somewhat friendlier to comprehension. Somewhat clearer to the inquisitive mind. Until, that is, it becomes cloudy and murky all over again.

But it is these illuminating moments that I want to seek out on this show. To mine in conversation, to pick out from good writing, to salvage from experience. This is my ideal. I hope the only time you want to turn the volume down is when you have to stop and think about what was said.

So, which is it? Ambitious, naïve, or just plain nuts? Yes, definitely all three. 

There is one more thing I wanted to talk about before we go down the rabbit hole of what on earth is going on, and that’s a way to frame our conversations. You may have heard of a couple of books by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, from a few years ago, and the more recently translated Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. I’m not going to have enough time to do either book enough credit, but both of them were not just page-turners for me – they also offered plenty of chances to see the world in a different way. Instead, I’ll pull out two key ideas. One, from Sapiens, is the notion that what made human beings exceptional 70,000 years ago, long before the Agricultural Revolution, was something called the Cognitive Revolution. This is the historical event that kickstarted human history itself.

When the human brain developed to a certain point, humans became capable of cooperating beyond the band. Larger societies could be formed because the brains of the humans who formed them were now capable of sharing mythologies, belief systems, even ideologies – humans suddenly acquired an imagination and, more importantly, a collective imagination. In the Cognitive Revolution, people became capable of identifying with a group that was impossible to comprehend without imagination. Let me make this a little more straightforward: let’s say you’re a Canadian. You are part of a group of 35 million people, and you have a stake in the success of that group. You share a bond – sure, if you’re backpacking through Nepal and see someone with a maple leaf stitched to their bag, you are likely to say hello. But more to the point, you identify with 35 million people you haven’t met. Moreover, when you read the news, it will say that Canada signed a free trade agreement, or Canada has a law against tax evasion. But what is Canada? Who are Canadians? No matter how much we churn through words to explain the concept, we can’t help but acknowledge that the concept of Canada is imaginary, not actual. So is tax evasion, and taxes for that matter, and money, and banks, and companies, and pretty much everything we encounter from day to day. We operate from sunrise to sunset under some pretty complex assumptions, and therefore trust that electricity will run through wires and water through pipes, that the credit card will tap on the machine to make my food purchase, that there will be food to purchase, that people will usually obey the law, and so on and so forth. Humans are capable of building massive superstructures of the imagination, and this revolution in the brain is responsible for the entirety of civilization.

It’s hard to escape this conclusion, even if it is an oversimplification. But the meaning I take from Harari’s point in the context of this show is that modern human life, which means civilized human life, operates on the basis of story. There is a common story that binds us, and even if there is no way any of us can know every part of the story, it doesn’t matter, because no single one of us is critical for the story to perpetuate. This is even more true in the digital age, when computers store the stories for us; so we don’t even need to remember it anymore, but simply live it.

Now, here’s an interesting turn in all of this: after the publication of Sapiens, Harari was asked a similar question to the one this show is asking: what on earth is going on? Populism, Donald Trump, Brexit, the digital revolution, etc. His answer? We’ve lost our story. People are rising up to reject the status quo because the story is broken. It’s an echo of one of the major points Barack Obama made at the end of his presidency, that one of the greatest threats to American prosperity was in fact the notion that people don’t agree on anything anymore. His concern went beyond the cliched hyper-polarization of American politics, to a core threat to democracy: because of social media, where our biases are reinforced and even the furthest fringe elements get an enhanced voice, nothing is just agreed-upon anymore. Even the idea that the Earth is round is under attack! This might seem silly, but to Obama it is dangerous. We all need to agree on something if we as a community are to mean anything.

So when I ask, what on earth is going on, I am asking about story. What is the story? Who are the characters in it, and what do they want, and where do they come from, and why are they doing what they’re doing now? What are the ideas and forces that animate these characters, even if said characters don’t know it? 

The other idea of Harari’s that I want to talk about is from his second book, Homo Deus. I’ll spend a little less time on this one. It’s simply that the dominant religion of our time is humanism – the simple act of worshiping the human, or humanity, and the belief that ethics and values are derived internally by each individual, rather than by an external source. This religion is so powerful that even other religions that co-exist with it are forced to pay homage, of a sort. The idea that Jesus lives in each person, and speaks through the conscience through each individual, is a relatively new one to Christianity, or at least, it is only recently predominant.

Many people are glad to think of humanism as the dominant religion, or at least ideology, in human civilization. After all, it is an improvement over those belief systems that negate the human experience, that prepare for the apocalypse or, going back a ways, call for animal and human sacrifice. But Harari argues that humanism is not some endpoint in human history, like Francis Fukuyama argued in 1989 – instead, it is replaceable as we change and evolve. Humanism is under threat by a new religion, what he calls dataism. The worshiping of data, and the seeking by humans of the power to achieve happiness, immortality and divinity. The rise of a general artificial intelligence, that could easily dominate us through our social media feeds and shopping recommendations, is perhaps the logical conclusion for such a belief system. There is no barrier for us to unlock these powers, beyond the knowledge and science and technology that we master more and more every day. But remember, Harari says, that the tradeoff of modernity is that we acquire great power but sacrifice meaning. Humanism has provided us meaning almost as a stop-gap measure with the fall of traditional religion. What meaning could there be in the data?

So why bring all of this up? I mentioned that I want to ask the question, what on Earth is going on, through the lens of story. This idea of humanism as religion being replaced by something we cannot yet understand is one way of looking at it – one way of apprehending this moment in our history and explaining what’s happening. And these are the kind of explanations that I’m looking for. They are ones that depend on the future and the past to give them coherence. They are frightening yet perhaps inevitable, surprising yet perhaps obvious. They are stories. 

The story I want to talk about today is something called populism. It’s an odd term you may have heard tossed around in politics, often with negative connotations. Typically, populism refers to people like Donald Trump and Doug Ford, or events such as the Brexit vote in the UK in 2016. But populism does not refer exclusively to right-wing political ideology. In fact, many have argued that populism is not really an ideology or a movement, but rather a strategy in politics, or even a symptom of a particular set of circumstances. You might remember the Occupy Wall Street movement back in 2011, which was a progressive, or left-wing, reaction to massive inequality, government bailouts and economic malaise. Protesters started out by taking over a park in Manhattan in the financial district, and similar protests sprung up in cities across the United States, Canada and Europe. The central slogan was “We are the 99%”, referring to the 1% of the richest people who not only seem to control the levers of political, institutional, economic and media power, but whose wealth is growing faster than anybody else.

The Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled out not long after it started, and it is now remembered as a historical oddity of the period; the ideological counterbalance to something that did last in the United States – the Tea Party, which was a supposedly grassroots rejection of Barack Obama’s presidency and what they saw as his socialist agenda. The Tea Party did not fizzle out, but arguably went on to conquer the Republican Party we know today. You might even be able to draw a direct line between the Tea Party protests and Donald Trump’s successful candidacy for president. 

I bring these two movements up, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, because they are iconically populist in nature. Each of them purported to be “the people” (the 99% or the “real” Americans), who are calling out a corrupt elite (the 1% or the coastal elites). They both call for more democracy, often more direct democracy, and for a change in government, perhaps even in regime. There is a strong moral flavour to a populist’s argument. Any barrier to the will of the people is right to be demolished. The problem with this perspective is rooted in liberal philosophy, from people like John Stuart Mill: we must protect against the tyranny of the majority. Fundamental minority rights – the liberties of the individual – must be protected, even if it goes against 51% of people. This is why constitutions are usually so hard to change, and why we subject governments and leaders to the rule of law. A critical and perhaps defining feature of liberal democracy (which is the norm in the western world today, however much it may be under attack) is the sanctity of the individual through the eyes of the law and the subservience of government, at least in principle, to the individual human being’s freedom – his or her life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Now, none of this is controversial, but it is being questioned and eroded by the forces at play today. The most obvious elephant in the room is Donald Trump, who has shown a complete disregard for the truth and the rule of law, and most importantly, for the basic norms and customs that underpin American democracy. And here’s where the idea of story comes up again, of those shared values and beliefs and mythologies. The reason democracy works is because we believe it works – because it normally works. A norm is something like not calling for your political opponent to be locked up. Or using small, petty language to insult other citizens. Or not mocking a disabled reporter. Or calling the media the “enemy of the people”. Or not firing the FBI director who is leading an investigation into your presidential campaign. Or equivocating on white supremacists. The more a norm is broken, the less it is a norm – the more our paradigm has shifted. The more a new story is being told.

The thing with populism is that many people want norms to be broken. It’s attractive for a leader to do things differently, to go against the grain. In fact, many people would argue, that’s the whole reason someone was elected – to upset the established order, to try something new, to recreate politics and hopefully produce different results. But of course, the inherent problem with populism is that is proposes easy solutions to complex problems, and once it achieves power the norms might be shattered and liberal democracy might be under threat, but it’s pretty hard to change the results. A fairly good example of this is the stridently populist regime in Venezuela, led by Nicolas Maduro following the death of Hugo Chavez. Both leaders have undertaken immense social, economic and political reforms – they have, unquestionably, tried to follow through on their promises to “the people” of Venezuela at the exclusion of that country’s elite. But the promises were far greater than anything they could deliver, and now the populist movement has become the new elite with a populist backlash of its own.

In Canada, we may see what happens when a modern populist comes to power. Doug Ford is heavily favoured to become the next premier of Ontario. Now, I have to make it clear that Doug Ford is not a perfect example of a populist in the modern context, in part because he is not taking a page out of the playbook we’re all used to – he is not attacking immigrants or immigration. In part, because the issue is a little beyond the scope of provincial politics; and in part, because of what my guest Dr. Keith Banting calls the “populist paradox” in Canada. Because the immigrant population in this country is large and concentrated in key electoral areas, has a high rate of seeking citizenship, and shows up to vote on par with other demographics, any right-wing leader wishing to attain power needs to appeal not only to his or her base, but to immigrants as well. This is a very powerful institutional check against the kind of nativist populism we are seeing with Donald Trump, Brexit and across Europe.

But Doug Ford is still following some other pages in the playbook. His campaign slogan is “for the people”, and he says that Kathleen Wynne’s government is the worst and most corrupt in Canadian history – a bold and somewhat idiotic statement, that still makes sense to people who hear it. It’s the story that matters, not the facts or assertions. And, not unlike Donald Trump, Ford has banged his fists on the table for the current government to be investigated. Now, of course, there may very well be corruption. But a norm of politics in a liberal democracy like Canada is that you campaign on ideas and policy and even personality, but you don’t criminalize the opposition. Even as different parties win different elections, the regime does not change. But a populist may very well want the regime to change. This is part of the danger. And, as we know in history, sometimes things happen and we don’t know it until we look back, and it’s just done. A fait accompli. If someone repeats a story often enough, we eventually realize that we have come to memorize it too, and maybe even believe it.