Richard Poynder: It?s an interesting interview. I have a following-on question for you, Stevan, if you feel like answering it: Much has been made of the likely impact that Brexit will have on science/the UK and European research communities, but what if any impact do you think it could have on the crisis facing liberal democracy?
Hi Richard. This is going to sound apocalyptic (and I certainly hope I?m wrong):
I think the British exit from the EU, including all the circumstances and factors that led to it, is one of the most tragic symptoms of the crisis in liberal democracy. As such, it is both cause and effect.
The three worst features of the 20th century were war, racism and poverty. The remedy for poverty was meant to be socialism (communism in Russia and China and social democracy in the West). The remedy for racism was meant to be multiculturalism (immigration, integration, tolerance). And the remedy for war was meant to be increasing world federalism (the UN and the EU).
But the cold war and the nuclear threat kept nations in a state of tension and consumed vast resources. The eventual economic (and moral) collapse of the Soviet Union seems to have had an effect rather like removing a diseased prostate but thereby disrupting a pro-tem equilibrium and precipitating kidney failure.
I think the wrong ?objective? conclusion was drawn from the collapse of the Soviet Union (?the socialist experiment has proved to be a failure?). As a result ?trickle-down? capitalism has been triumphantly lionized while liberalism and striving for social equity have been equally triumphantly stigmatized.
Meanwhile, two kinds of technology have developed at a stunning rate: destructive weapons and online media. One could not expect much good to come from the former, but great expectations were pinned on the latter (including open access). Yet one of the effects of both new technologies has been to ?empower? (literally) the worst sides of human nature: the divisive and destructive tendencies toward intolerance, bigotry, fanaticism, paranoia and aggression.
And these unleashed human tendencies have quickly found their way to the fatal weakness of democracy itself: The people decide what they want, but their wants are shaped by populism, and unreflective appeals to their basest inclinations. In this it is not surprising that the unreconstructed self-aggrandizing bigotry and xenophobia of petty, primitive countries (like my birthplace, Hungary) have ?flowered? with the introduction of democracy in eastern Europe and the middle east. It had been festering there, lying in wait, all along.
But one would have thought that the mature democracies would serve as a civilizing bulwark against that. Yet no, Brexit has shown that the same primitive, sinister, shameful inclinations are alive and well in the United Kingdom (and Trump is rallying them in the US too).
No, freedom-of-information and open access did not serve as an antidote, as hoped. Disinformation profited more from the power of open media than the truth did. And the proliferation of destructive weapons is only beginning to be exploited by the genetic and cultural heirs of our most barbaric roots.
Perhaps both democracy and liberalism were always doomed; perhaps it was just a matter of time before the law of large numbers, the regression on the mean, would bring out the meanest in us.
All one can do is hope that there is an epidemiological ebb and flow also underlying all this, and that illiberalism will run its course, and kindness, decency, humaneness will again become ?popular.?
I (as you know) remain an unreconstructed social democrat. Ironically echoing the NRA motto in the US, I don?t believe that socialism failed; I think we failed ? to implement it properly. No one can hope for justice in an unjust society, where a few have vastly more than they need at the expense of the many who just scrape by.
I don?t know how to fix that, but I suspect that the solution, if there is one, is still an informational one. (It used to be called ?education.?) Alongside the basest tendencies of the human genome there are, I believe, humane ones too, at least in the majority if not all people. The hope had been that liberal democracy would ensure that a decent majority prevails, one that enacts laws that protect everyone from the worse sides of our nature (greed, intolerance, aggression).
And (as you also know), I plan to focus my remaining years on what I hesitate to call a ?microcosm? of it all ? because in fact there is nothing ?micro” about it: If the Holocaust was humanity?s greatest crime against humanity, the Eternal Treblinka we inflict on victims unfortunate enough not to be our conspecifics are humanity?s greatest crime tout court.
So I am trying to mobilize the second technology ? open media ? to open people?s hearts. We have outlawed slavery, rape, violence and murder against human beings, but we all collaborate in them when practiced against species other than our own. Until the humane majority outlaws it all, our basest inclinations will keep being expressed and exercised against our own kind too.
You will of course see this as an obsessive focus on my own ?narrow? issue, far removed from Brexit and the crisis of liberal democracy. If so, I?d rather go down trying to liberate the most savagely exploited and long-suffering of our victims than reserve liberalism for the victors.