EXCLUSIVE: Yuval Noah Harari: “Democracies need to defend themselves. Not everything is permissible in the name of free speech.”
Peter Sterančák, Michal Micovčin / June 26, 2019
( 7 min read )
Israeli professor Yuval Noah Harari visited Budapest on 8 May 2019, to give a lecture entitled “The Bright Side of Nationalism” at the Central European University. The day after, we met him at the press conference of his Hungarian publisher at Société Budapest. Along with representatives from Hungarian national media, we were the only Slovak media present at the press conference. Due to Prof. Harari’s tight schedule we did not get a full interview, but we did manage to ask him a question about the difference between nationalism and fascism in relation to the current political situation in Slovakia and the world. You can find his answer to this question at the conclusion of this article, and for those readers that are not that familiar with Prof. Harari yet, we also include a short biography as a footnote to this text.
The following quotes from Prof. Harari are taken from his lecture in Budapest. You can watch the full video of the lecture on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jz7hsqsObU).
There is a growing wave of nationalism sweeping through Europe today. However, while many reject any form of nationalism whatsoever, as a reaction to it, Prof. Harari suggests that there is a positive side to nationalism which we should preserve. During his lecture he mentions that, “it is a dangerous mistake to imagine that without nationalism we would all be living in some kind of liberal paradise. Much more likely we would be living in tribal chaos in which nobody cares about anyone except his or her immediate friends or family, and in which it is impossible to build large-scale systems of healthcare, education and security.” This way of thinking about nationalism today is somehow different from what many people on the liberal side of the debate think, who perhaps see nationalism as a pathology we need to get rid of. Harari’s position is also very different from the views of many people on the far-right spectrum of the debate, where many people think of nationalism as being exclusively related to traditional religious values and the promotion of protectionism, reducing national identity to a very narrow definition that fits their own political agenda.
According to Harari, however, even a healthy democracy is unable to function without some level of nationalism. “Most conflicts [today] are within nations,which indicates that the right kind of nationalism is actually quite weak. There is no lack of xenophobia in the world, hating strangers, hating foreigners, that’s for sure. But nationalism is not about hating foreigners. Nationalism is about loving your compatriots. Currently there is a global shortage of such love. There is a shortage of such love also in Europe.” Harari points to the examples of countries like Iraq, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen, where “internal hatred and weak national sentiments have led to the complete disintegration of the state and to murderous civil wars. In countries like the United States, weakening national sentiments have led to growing rifts within society and to a winner-takes-all mentality.” Harari sees the current high levels of polarization in the United States not as a symptom of growing nationalism but that, on the contrary, “Americans hate the fellow citizens far more than they hate or fear the Chinese, Russians, or the Mexicans.”
Harari, however, does not shy away from the problems created by the ‘wrong’ kind of nationalism either. He says that many political leaders today exploit the current climate of polarized societies. Those leaders, according to Harari, do the exact opposite of healthy nationalism. “Instead of strengthening national unity, they widen the rifts within the society by using inflammatory language and divisive politics. And by depicting anybody who opposes them not as a right rival but rather as a dangerous traitor.” Many people that read Harari’s books enjoy his ability to simplify complex academic language for a non-academic audience. This is certainly true of his efforts to illustrate the world’s current problems by using simple metaphors that non-academic readers can relate to. Comparing nations to human bodies, Harari says that when populist nationalist leaders “see a wound in the national body, they don’t put a healing medicine on it. Rather they take their finger and start poking inside the wound to try deliberately to enlarge it and reopen it.” Rather than simply rejecting any form of nationalism, Harari instead suggests that we should realize both its importance and its fragility. Both sides of the debate have legitimate views.
The black and white divide in current political debates are perhaps the main problem of why, instead of resolving existential problems that we face as a civilization, we lose ourselves in fighting the other side of the argument without acknowledging their legitimate concerns. Harari offers the example of immigration. “I think it would be wrong to force mass immigration on an unwilling population. Immigration is a long and difficult process, and to succeed, you need the support of the local population. On the other hand, it would be equally wrong to destroy the democratic system in order to allegedly protect the purity of the country from immigrants.” So, how to resolve the problem of nationalism? Can someone be a good nationalist and globalist, at the same time? Harari suggests that yes, we can be both globalists and nationalists. There are three major existential threats we, as a civilization, face, according to Harari. These are climate change, nuclear war and technological disruption. To tackle these global problems, we cannot allow ourselves to retreat into an unhealthy form of nationalism and seek answers in the past. We need to take a global perspective. According to Harari, we need to facilitate trust between nations, and we need better global cooperation. We can be both nationalists and globalists, because we can allow ourselves to be loyal to our family and friends, or the nation and to the human race as such.
When nationalism is taken to the extreme it often results in fascism. For Harari, the difference between the two is that nationalism only tells us that my nation is unique and that I have special obligations towards it. On the other hand, when nationalism escalates into fascism, it tells me that my nation is supreme and that I have exclusive obligations towards it. It tells me that the only important loyalty is exclusively to my nation. It ignores the need to enlarge my circle of empathy toward people outside of my nation. Harari offers a fitting example of the Football World Cup, where nations compete among each other yet, they all agree on rules on which football, as a game, is based. To conclude, we do not need to choose between nationalism and globalism.
However, when does nationalism escalate into fascism? This was my question to Prof. Harari during his press conference in Budapest. Here is his full response, exclusively for Il Ponte:
Peter Sterančák: “Hello, we are from Il Ponte, the student journal of the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts. In your lecture yesterday you talked about the difference between nationalism and fascism, and about the line between them. You said that we should not fall into binary thinking and call every nationalist automatically a fascist. So, my question is, we have a semi-open fascist party in Slovakia called “People’s Party Our Slovakia” (Marián Kotleba – ĽSNS), which is, according to recent polls, the second most popular party and whose popularity is still growing. There was a recent case where the Slovak Supreme Court was about to decide whether to dismantle it or not. In the end, they did not. So, what should democracies do about extreme or even fascist groups and parties? What should be done? Should we ban those parties? Should we not, in the name of freedom of speech?”
Yuval Noah Harari: “Well, if there is a line, which again I am not familiar with this particular example, so I don’t know whether it applies to it, but there is certainly a line when democracies need to defend themselves. Not everything is permissible in the name of free speech. And then again, there is a huge debate exactly about where this line should pass, but say a party which openly not only spreads hatred but also openly calls for, let’s say, genocide, for the elimination of a particular group. It should not be allowed to run for election even if a lot of people support it. So, this is one side of the equation. There are lines where democracies need to defend themselves. The other side is that you need to deal with the underlying concerns why people are supporting these kinds of parties. Just by banning the party, even if you succeed, it does not resolve the underlying issues. So, it should be kind of a two-pronged treatment, banning the most extreme cases, but being very careful to understand and to find better answers, better solutions to the underlying concerns that drive people in that direction. Humankind normally just doesn't go about murdering entire populations. They have other things to do before they go to murder somebody. But the problem is that they have some concern and it is being hijacked and diverted in that direction; they are led to believe that “You have this trauma, or you are unemployed and it is because of these people. If you kill all these people, you will have a job”. So, on the other hand, do not allow such a party to freely act, but deal with the underlying issues of unemployment and make people realize there are easier and better ways to deal with unemployment than genocide.”
Professor Yuval Noah Harari is the bestselling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow; and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. His first two books have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide, and have been translated to nearly 50 languages. Born in Haifa, Israel, in 1976, Harari received his PhD from the University of Oxford in 2002, and is currently a lecturer at the Department of History of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is currently touring the world to promote his latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, giving speeches at some of the most prestigious universities and giving countless interviews to a broad range of global media on topics that are explored in his books. Il Ponte is proud to join the likes of the Guardian, Financial Times, Nature magazine and the Wall Street Journal on this list. For more information about Prof. Harari, visit his webpage: https://www.ynharari.com