Trump, Suu Kyi, Modi and Kim Jong-un: populism bolstered by intellectual dilettantes.

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“Famine, plague and war will probably continue to claim millions of victims in the coming decades. Yet they are no longer unavoidable tragedies beyond the understanding and control of a helpless humanity” — Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

It has been said that of the last 3 millennia (3000+ years), humans have been entirely at peace for only 8% of recorded history.

There are several reasonably sensible reasons for this. Unfortunately, most are clouded with pernicious rhetoric sprout by a good mix of lay dabblers and intellectual dilettantes. The social media is rife with sentiments justified by pseudo-intellectuality driven in part by an increasing sense of existential threat as a result of diversity. Arguments usually ensue with people on one side accusing the other of not knowing the context from their point of view with the other side lashing out with clear examples of violence direct towards the innocent. At least in olden times, reasons to wage war were clearer. From Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan — war campaigns were waged to annex new territories and lay claim to whatever new riches come with it. Military strategies were centred on acquisition of land and consolidation of power. Religion and race played as much a part as culture and clothes; they certainly helped to rally people around a cause but were seldom part of wartime propaganda reminiscent of modern day conflicts.

The intellectual fodder for racial strife

The dawn of the 20th century was a turning point on how we frame violence and war for survival. Here, religion and race played a pivotal role. They were routinely used as pretexts for violence and expansion. Hitler’s rise to fame was based largely on notions of genetic superiority. The ‘Aryan’ race needs to reign supreme over all others because of their supposed intellectual and physical prowess. Even German intellectuals were highly influenced by (and influential for!) these divisive notions and worked on detailed justifications of why this is true. A hierarchy of nature based on racial biology was contrived. Against insurmountable caveats of rationality, they truly believed it. This led to all kinds of racially or religiously motivated malicious events; the Final Solution killed 2 out of every 3 Jews in Europe during World War II.

The recent incident at Charlottesville should have been condemned from both sides; however, the pro-white groups refused to even acknowledge the gravity of the event and instead resorted to drive home their emotional points of view — how their racially-defined culture is under attack from the influx of immigrants and increasing ‘threat’ posed by the ethnically diverse American workforce. Intellectuals from within the pro-White community lent credence and support to these sentiments providing the necessary pseudo-intellectual fodder they think will help take them seriously.


The displacement and indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of Rakhines can be viewed even from space, yet the arguments from the Burmese government has been one of contempt and denial for the Rakhine minority in full on DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender) mode. Just like German intellectuals, modern day prominent Burmese scholars remain silent on this issue and truly believe nothing is wrong in the Rakhine state despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some have even go as far to call the Rohingya minority as ‘influx viruses’.

The rise of Trump and Modi was inevitable with the increase sense of impending doom among the majority who believe, albeit from ignorance, the ‘extreme threat’ as a result of religious diversity, and the ethnic diaspora linked ultimately to change of asset ownership and survival as a result. North Korea’s increasing show of power is a battle signal to regional superpowers. From USA to India to North Korea, the real danger I believe lies in the ‘intellectual’ support offered from within these countries by scientists and researchers who truly believe Trump knows what he says or Modi will raise GDP or Kim Jong-un is a god.

I do not profess to know the ‘true’ reasons behind everything. This is an attempt to navigate the murky waters of deeply divisive issues from what I have learned with a willingness to acknowledge when I go wrong. As I write this piece, I am constantly thinking how to keep this simple. In fact, the simple reason for all these conflicts perpetuated by divisive populism is to first understand there are no simple reasons.

The human problem

We have an inherent tendency to dichotomise moral issues. Everything is either black or white. Acknowledging shades of greys in between can lead to cognitive dissonance — it’s not entirely comfortable to accept there are bad people rallying around a potentially good cause and good people who are just looking out for their own, even if it’s at the cost of being bad.

If we start the premise that all wars ever waged in the name of religion and race were less about religion and race and more about maximizing resources, we can make some sense of why the world is evolving the way it is. Stories of corrupt politicians to politically motivated violence against innocent people may come as surprising to many who never really faced resource-constraints in their lives — think well-off families in LMICs or those who grew up in developed countries. Our reality bubbles are greatly shaped by the environment we grow up in — we are biased by nature. And it’s ok. The line’s crossed when individuals who profess to be intellectuals lend support to a cause solely because it’s spearheaded by their community. Perhaps, advancing the non-sense agenda would somehow increase their chances of being acknowledged by their group or country or religion. They would cast aside their objective lens to evaluate emotional issues under the garb of objective intellectualism. This is where the truth becomes fuzzy, facts don’t align and despite all evidence to the contrary, we would defend the baseless notions to our dying breath because now this has become personal.

I am not even vaguely attempting to justify these acts or providing a moral cover grounded in science. This is rather an attempt to understand why violence happens and how they are justified by the melee of supposed intellectuals — as the first step to coming up with potential solutions. Violence is not exclusive among humans; animals, too, have a keen sense of what’s required for survival and resource acquisition. Humans are, however, endowed with a dual sense of reality, as Harari puts it. The objective reality of accruing resources for survival are mired with man-made realities of values, morals, and culture which can act as tools to either incite violence or foster group collaborations for long-term survival. Understanding this is, I believe, the first step towards having a more rational and intellectual conversation on the issue.

The so-called ‘post-truth’ era has posed a new set of challenges for intellectuals. Our aim should be to stand our ground with unwavering determination to understand and make sense, and if we can’t, acknowledge ignorance. There is no shame because nothing’s ever personal to an intellectual.

We will survive — or at least, some of us will, in this emerging trend of populism. The question is — at what cost?

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