Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Bullet not dodged


I thought I should post an email that I wrote yesterday morning, expressing my despair before the election, when I thought we might “dodge the bullet” of Trumpism, but still held out little hope for a political system that put us in front of the gun in the first place:

There was an excellent book on the history of financial crashes and panics that appeared a decade or so ago under the title “This Time is Different” — the point being that the key ingredient for financial chaos is a concerted effort not to learn from the past. After a crash people are cautious and determined not to be fooled again. But there are powerful forces that stand to profit from convincing them to abandon their caution, and always plenty of intellectuals ready to package the craziness in convincing words and theories. Yes, in the old days you needed to limit your debt. But now — with the advent of the railroad/global capital/monetarism/internet/time travel — only a loser holds to those outdated constraints.

What is true of finance is also true of xenophobia and militarism. You convince yourself that the new threats are completely different than the old ones. That was what I found most frightening after 9/11, more than the physical threat: It was obvious that there were many serious people who were elated. At last we have reason to throw off the boring shopkeeper morality and constraints of bourgeois diplomacy. There’s nothing more dangerous than a lazy person. Hitler was famously lazy, and so is Trump. People who claim to have found a shortcut to wealth and a shortcut to glory can be incredibly seductive. Hillary Clinton promises a long hard slog, and I find that very reassuring.
That’s probably why I feel most comfortable in Germany. There is no people that come closer to having absorbed the lesson of the danger of demagoguery

The British and the Americans learned the opposite lesson from the twentieth century: We are immune to fascism, so we can do whatever we want. It’s political antinomianism. The GDR is a better object lesson in this respect than the much more often cited Third Reich: A country that has defined itself so fundamentally as the opposite of fascism, so sure in its moral purpose, that it feels no constraints in its tawdry actions.

Hopefully we’ll dodge today’s bullet, and can go on with the slow constitutional collapse of the US and the gradual descent of Europe into suspicion and bigotry.

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