Authoritarianism and its antidote

Honourable_Bertrand_Russell

After so many headlines about the men who  want to turn the world into kindling and warm their hands over the flames (in just this morning’s New York Times: Donnorhea in the US; Orban in Hungary; Bannon all over the map, and most recently Bolsonaro in Brazil)  it’s a relief to stumble on a summary of Bertrand Russell’s views, and to be reminded how deeply he understood both authoritarianism and the essential tools for fighting it.

Russell’s point is simple enough. We are much better off knowing what’s really going on in the world than being fundamentally wrong about it. But it’s very, very hard to know what’s really going on in the world, partly because we constantly face a hundred temptations to think we know more than we do. And the comforting decision to accept authority – which invariably has its own agenda – is the most disastrous such temptation in politics for exactly the same reason it would be disastrous in science.

“We all have a tendency to think that the world must conform to our prejudices. The opposite view involves some effort of thought, and most people would die sooner than think—in fact, they do so.”

Science is imperfect, but it has deep institutional mechanisms for rooting out and exposing the false. Liberalism, in the broadest sense of that term, is – also imperfectly – scientific-skepticism-in-politics.

Supposedly someone once interviewed Russell and noted that there was a Bible on his shelf. “Ah yes,” he said, “but I keep it next to Voltaire. Poison and antidote.” Living as we do in (yet another) age seduced by the appeal of thugs – oh, how we are warmed by their solicitude; oh, how they are warmed by our angry, deluded fealty! – Russell himself may be the antidote we need to reach for.