Irrational Populism

Irrational Populism
By Wade Lee Hudson

Intuitions provide insight, but “gut feelings” can lead to irrational dogmatism if they aren’t subjected to scientific logic and deliberative thinking. Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide our Politics concludes that the rising global populist threat calls for “an overarching theory beyond the idea that all elites and outsiders are bad and the people are good.” offers such a theory. Its aim is to counter scapegoating, demonizing, and counter-productive, misplaced anger.

Our primary problem is not the elite. Our primary problem is not how our economy and government are structured. Those problems are symptoms. Our primary problem is the System—our domination-based social system that weaves together all of our major institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals, who reinforce the System with selfish daily actions.

Enchanted America, by J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood, documents how “Intuitionists” are gaining ground against “Rationalists.” They write:

The Intuitionist/Rationalist split is not like other political divisions in the United States. Intuitionism poses an existential threat to democracy. It is neither benign nor temperate. It bristles against open inquiry, is intolerant of opposition, and chafes at the pluralism and compromise modern democracy requires. It is prone to conspiracy theory, drawn to simple generalizations, and quick to vilify the other.

Intuitionists reflect an “absence of conscious purposeful thought [and] rely on their internal feelings.” They just “know” that some things are right. One form of Intuitionism is “magical thinking,” which contradicts ideas “that are validated by testing and observation.”

Rationalists, on the other hand, “utilize abstract theories, philosophical deductions, and observable facts.” They view problems “in a dispassionate manner, seeking pragmatic, technical solutions.”

To read more, click here.


“Decades before Hegel, Diberot showed that the master-servant relationship is mutually constituted, which means that it incorporates within itself the means of its own destruction in favor of equality.”

from “The Man Who Questioned Everything,” By Lynn Hunt, The New York Review of Books, March 7, 2019

Transform the System Dialog: An Invitation

People often talk about “the system,” but there’s little agreement about what it is or how we should change it. The Transform the System Dialog is based on the belief that broad agreement on these issues could lead to greater unity and more effective activism.

To join the dialog, answer these questions, or comment on others’ answers:

  1. What is “the system”? (150 words max)
  2. How should we transform it? (150 words max)
  3. Why should we transform it? (150 words max)
  4. What I am doing to help transform it? (150 words max).

To offer answers, reply to this email or click here. To comment on others’ answers, review them individually and use the form at the bottom of each submission. To see the list of submissions, click here.

Answers and comments are posted at the end of each submission

Every two weeks participants will be invited to comment on Dialog reports. I’ll compile those reports, facilitate the process, and occasionally share my own thoughts.

Possible future steps include face-to-face conversations, video calls, and electronic communications.

After receiving feedback, those who offer answers will be free to revise their answers—-or submit new answers. Selected submissions may later be included in a Transform the System Reader.

This dialog is open to everyone in any country who wants to relieve suffering and promote fairness. A list of participants will be maintained here.

Your interest is appreciated. Please send this invitation to others.


Wade Lee Hudson

How Narendra Modi Seduced India With Envy and Hate

The New York Times

How Narendra Modi Seduced India With Envy and Hate
The prime minister has won re-election on a tide of violence, fake news and resentment.

By Pankaj Mishra

May 23, 2019

Before dawn on Feb. 26, Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister of India, ordered an aerial attack on the country’s nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan. There were thick clouds that morning over the border. But Mr. Modi claimed earlier this month, during his successful campaign for re-election, that he had overruled advisers who worried about them. He is ignorant of science, he admitted, but nevertheless trusted his “raw wisdom,” which told him that the cloud cover would prevent Pakistani radar from detecting Indian fighter jets.

Over five years of Mr. Modi’s rule, India has suffered variously from his raw wisdom, most gratuitously in November 2016, when his government abruptly withdrew nearly 90 percent of currency notes from circulation. From devastating the Indian economy to risking nuclear Armageddon in South Asia, Mr. Modi has confirmed that the leader of the world’s largest democracy is dangerously incompetent. During this spring’s campaign, he also clarified that he is an unreconstructed ethnic-religious supremacist, with fear and loathing as his main political means.

India under Mr. Modi’s rule has been marked by continuous explosions of violence in both virtual and real worlds. As pro-Modi television anchors hunted for “anti-nationals” and troll armies rampaged through social media, threatening women with rape, lynch mobs slaughtered Muslims and low-caste Hindus. Hindu supremacists have captured or infiltrated institutions from the military and the judiciary to the news media and universities, while dissenting scholars and journalists have found themselves exposed to the risk of assassination and arbitrary detention. Stridently advancing bogus claims that ancient Hindus invented genetic engineering and airplanes, Mr. Modi and his Hindu nationalist supporters seemed to plunge an entire country into a moronic inferno. Last month the Indian army’s official twitter account excitedly broadcast its discovery of the Yeti’s footprints.

Yet in the election that began last month, voters chose overwhelmingly to prolong this nightmare. The sources of Mr. Modi’s impregnable charisma seem more mysterious when you consider that he failed completely to realize his central promises of the 2014 election: jobs and national security. He presided over an enormous rise in unemployment and a spike in militancy in India-ruled Kashmir. His much-sensationalized punitive assault on Pakistan in February damaged nothing more than a few trees across the border, while killing seven Indian civilians in an instance of friendly fire.

Modi has infused India’s public sphere with a riotously popular loathing of the country’s old urban elites.
Mr. Modi did indeed benefit electorally this time from his garishly advertised schemes to provide toilets, bank accounts, cheap loans, housing, electricity and cooking-gas cylinders to some of the poorest Indians. Lavish donations from India’s biggest companies allowed his party to outspend all others on its re-election campaign. A corporate-owned media fervently built up Mr. Modi as India’s savior, and opposition parties are right to suggest that the Election Commission, once one of India’s few unimpeachable bodies, was also shamelessly partisan.

None of these factors, however, can explain the spell Modi has cast on an overwhelmingly young Indian population. “Now and then,” Lionel Trilling once wrote, “it is possible to observe the moral life in process of revising itself.” Mr. Modi has created that process in India by drastically refashioning, with the help of technology, how many Indians see themselves and their world, and by infusing India’s public sphere with a riotously popular loathing of the country’s old urban elites.

Rived by caste as well as class divisions, and dominated in Bollywood as well as politics by dynasties, India is a grotesquely unequal society. Its constitution, and much political rhetoric, upholds the notion that all individuals are equal and possess the same right to education and job opportunities; but the everyday experience of most Indians testify to appalling violations of this principle. A great majority of Indians, forced to inhabit the vast gap between a glossy democratic ideal and a squalid undemocratic reality, have long stored up deep feelings of injury, weakness, inferiority, degradation, inadequacy and envy; these stem from defeats or humiliation suffered at the hands of those of higher status than themselves in a rigid hierarchy.

I both witnessed and experienced these explosive tensions in the late 1980s, when I was a student at a dead-end provincial university, one of many there confronting a near-impossible task: not only sustained academic excellence, but also a wrenching cultural and psychological makeover in the image of the self-assured, English-speaking metropolitan. One common object of our ressentiment — an impotent mix of envy and hatred — was Rajiv Gandhi, the deceased father of main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, whom Mr. Modi indecorously but cunningly chose to denounce in his election campaign. An airline pilot who became prime minister largely because his mother and grandfather had held the same post, and who allegedly received kickbacks from a Swedish arms manufacturer into Swiss bank accounts, Mr. Gandhi appeared to perfectly embody a pseudo-socialist elite that claimed to supervise post-colonial India’s attempt to catch up with the modern West but that in reality single-mindedly pursued its own interests.

There seemed no possibility of dialogue with a metropolitan ruling class of such Godlike aloofness, which had cruelly stranded us in history while itself moving serenely toward convergence with the prosperous West. This sense of abandonment became more wounding as India began in the 1990s to embrace global capitalism together with a quasi-American ethic of individualism amid a colossal population shift from rural to urban areas. Satellite television and the internet spawned previously inconceivable fantasies of private wealth and consumption, even as inequality, corruption and nepotism grew and India’s social hierarchies appeared as entrenched as ever.

No politician, however, sought to exploit the long dormant rage against India’s self-perpetuating post-colonial rulers, or to channel the boiling frustration over blocked social mobility, until Mr. Modi emerged from political disgrace in the early 2010s with his rhetoric of meritocracy and lusty assaults on hereditary privilege.

India’s former Anglophone establishment and Western governments had stigmatized Mr. Modi for his suspected role — ranging from malign indifference to complicity and direct supervision — in the murder of hundreds of Muslims in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. But Mr. Modi, backed by some of India’s richest people, managed to return to the political mainstream, and, ahead of the 2014 election, he mesmerized aspiring Indians with a flamboyant narrative about his hardscrabble past, and their glorious future. From the beginning, he was careful to present himself to his primary audience of stragglers as one of them: a self-made individual who had to overcome hurdles thrown in his way by an arrogant and venal elite that indulged treasonous Muslims while pouring contempt on salt-of-the-earth Hindus like himself. Boasting of his 56-inch chest, he promised to transform India into an international superpower and to reinsert Hindus into the grand march of history.

Since 2014, Mr. Modi’s near-novelistic ability to create irresistible fictions has been steadily enhanced by India’s troll-dominated social media as well as cravenly sycophantic newspapers and television channels. India’s online population doubled in the five years of Mr. Modi’s rule. With cheap smartphones in the hands of the poorest of Indians, a large part of the world’s population was exposed to fake news on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp. Indeed, Mr. Modi received one of his biggest electoral boosts from false accounts claiming that his airstrikes exterminated hundreds of Pakistanis, and that he frightened Pakistan into returning the Indian pilot it had captured.

Mr. Modi is preternaturally alert to the fact that the smartphone’s screen is pulling hundreds of millions of Indians, who have barely emerged from illiteracy, into a wonderland of fantasy and myth. An early adopter of Twitter, like Donald Trump, he performs unceasingly for the camera, often dressed in outlandish costumes. After decades of Western-educated and emotionally constricted Indian leaders, Mr. Modi uninhibitedly participates — whether speaking tearfully of his poverty-stricken past or boasting of his bromance with Barack Obama — in digital media’s quasi-egalitarian culture of exhibitionism.

India has witnessed a savage assault on not just democratic institutions and rational discourse but also ordinary human decency.
Posing last weekend as a saffron-robed monk in a cave at a Hindu pilgrimage site, Mr. Modi provoked much mockery among India’s English-speaking intelligentsia. But to many Indians who felt scorned and marginalized by a westernized establishment, an unabashedly Hindu politician with thickly-accented English has appeared, as the novelist Aatish Taseer claimed in 2014, “a rare instance of India trusting to herself, throwing up one of her own, one who did not have the blessings of the West at all.”

He was certainly fortunate to have in Rahul Gandhi a live mascot of India’s defunct dynastic politics and insolvent ideological centrism. However, contrary to what many neoliberal commentators in India and the West hoped for, Mr. Modi is far from alchemizing the passions of left-behind Indians into spectacular economic growth. Rather, he has opened up what Friedrich Nietzsche, speaking of the “men of ressentiment,” called “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts.”

Mr. Modi’s appointed task in India is the same as that of many far-right demagogues: to titillate a fearful and angry population with the scapegoating of minorities, refugees, leftists, liberals and others while accelerating predatory forms of capitalism. He may have failed to create job opportunities for disadvantaged Indians. But he has sanctioned them, with his own vengeful contempt for English-speaking elites, to raucously talk back to, and shout down, the already privileged. In lieu of any liberation from injustice, he has emancipated the darkest of emotions; he has licensed his supporters to explicitly hate a range of people from perfidious Pakistanis and Indian Muslims to their “anti-national” Indian appeasers.

As Mr. Modi allowed long-simmering ressentiment to erupt volcanically, India witnessed a savage assault on not just democratic institutions and rational discourse but also ordinary human decency. The India that Mr. Modi has made was never more accurately summed up than both in the demonstrations last year, led by women, and the justifications offered by politicians, police officials and lawyers in support of eight Hindu men accused of raping and murdering an eight-year-old Muslim girl.

Intoxicating voters with the seductive passion of vengeance, and grandiose fantasies of power and domination, Mr. Modi has deftly escaped public scrutiny of his record of raw wisdom — one that would have ruined any other politician. Back in 2014, the Hindu supremacist pioneered the politics of enmity that corrodes many democracies today. This week, he triumphantly reaped one of the biggest electoral harvests of the post-truth age, giving us more reason to fear the future.

Pankaj Mishra is the author, most recently, of “Age of Anger: A History of the Present.”

A Shallow, Leftist Critique of “The Coddling of the American Mind”

By Wade Lee Hudson

Google’s top result for reviews of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is Moira Weigel’s scathing criticism published by The Guardian. Numerous well-credentialed pundits lauded the essay for having “eviscerated” and “systematically demolished” the book.

But Weigel’s review illustrates the problem Lukianoff and Haidt document: leftists often violate liberal principles. Many conservatives also violate their own principles. Condescending authoritarianism across the political spectrum sows division.

Until activists stop being so defensive and learn to be more self-critical, they’ll continue to undermine massive popular action. Prospects for establishing compassionate policies supported by super-majorities of the American people will fade.     

Cornel West co-authored a positive blurb for The Coddling of the American Mind. On, 287 customers gave it a composite rating of 4.7 out of 5. Most critics have praised it. In his The New York Times review of the book (which focuses on elite universities) Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote:

If we are going to beat back the regressive populism, mendacity and hyperpolarization in which we are currently mired, we are going to need an educated citizenry fluent in a wise and universal liberalism. This liberalism will neither play down nor fetishize identity grievances, but look instead for a common and generous language to build on who we are more broadly, and to conceive more boldly what we might be able to accomplish in concert…. And so we will need citizens who are able to find ways to move on…, without letting their discomfort traumatize or consume them. If the American university is not the space to cultivate this strong and supple liberalism, then we are in deep and lasting trouble. [emphasis added]

In Inside Higher Ed, John Warner reports, Lukianoff and Haidt

argue that children suffer under a culture of “safetyism” where parents endeavor to protect their offspring from harm, and in doing so, prevent them from developing the necessary skills of resiliency. They believe this plays a factor in some of the campus speech disputes as students are acculturated to fearing anything that may prove challenging and react accordingly.

Lukianoff told Warner, “We [society at large] have unwittingly taught a generation of students the mental habits of anxious, depressed, polarized people, and we need to rethink how we do everything from parenting in K-12, through, of course, higher education.”

Lukianoff and Haidt argue that well-intentioned adults teach three falsehoods:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us vs. Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.  

These messages help explain many controversies about speech on campus, as well as the recent increase in emotional distress among young people. These difficulties are especially prominent among middle and upper class students at elite colleges. Lukianoff and Haidt recommend to students that they do not:

  • Try to avoid everything that “feels unsafe.”
  • Always trust your initial feelings.
  • Assume the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality.

From this perspective, they examine recent events that have helped fuel Donald Trump’s campaign against political correctness. Those incidents include efforts to protect “fragile” students from “micro-aggressions” and “mini-traumas” by suppressing free expression.

These attacks are often based on confused “concept creep.” Aggression requires intent. If you did not intend to hurt me, your actions weren’t aggressive. Micro-aggression, therefore, as commonly used, is a contradiction in terms. Traumas by definition are severe and extremely stressful, but now the term is used loosely to refer to routine events. There’s more than a kernel of truth to the charge that some “social justice warriors” are overly sensitive “snowflakes.” When people are offended, rather than hurling ad hominem labels based on mind reading, they can communicate their feelings more constructively.

These issues are not easy to resolve. The Coddling of the American Mind could have considered more fully the overall social context. But the book is a helpful contribution that deserves more understanding than Weigel offers in her dismissive, poorly reasoned review.

In “The Idioms of Non-Argument: What happens when reviewers spend more time focusing on the motives of authors than the merits of their claims?”, The Atlantic convincingly challenges The Guardian’s review. In that piece, Conor Friedersdorf argues:

The balance of the review is scathingly negative not in its arguments—a few pop up along the way, some concerning peripheral matters—but in its ad hominem attacks and other rhetoric disguised as argument as though its mere trappings confer heft…. What unfolds over the body of the review isn’t quite a character assassination of the authors so much as a series of premeditated assaults.

Weigel claims Lukianoff and Haidt target “identity politics and intersectionality,” aim to “rescue students from…identity politics,” and “argue that intersectionality theory divides people into good and bad”—even though “the scholars they quote do not use this moral language; those scholars talk about privilege and power.”

That account is amazingly inaccurate, In fact, Lukianoff and Haidt write:

Intersectionality is a theory based on several insights that we believe are valid and useful: power matters, members of groups sometimes act cruelly or unjustly to preserve their power, and people who are members of multiple identity groups can face various forms of disadvantage in ways that are often invisible to others.

Our purpose here is not to critique the theory itself. It is, rather, to explore the effects that certain interpretations of intersectionality may now be having on college campuses.

And in their conclusion, they call for a “better identity politics.”

Weigel’s simplistic distortions of Lukianoff and Haidt’s stance on intersectionality and identity politics indicates the poor quality of the entire review. Its irrationally is revealed by her frequents reliance on ad hominem arguments, such as:

  • Perhaps they merely resist change that might undermine them.
  • Perhaps, [they wrote the book] because an article that they published in The Atlantic went viral.
  • These pundits, like the white suburban Dad in the horror film Get Out, would have voted for Barack Obama a third time.
  • For all their self-conscious reasonableness, and their promises that [Cognitive Behavior Therapy] can master negative emotion, Lukianoff and Haidt often seem slightly hurt.
  • Bad is how these men feel when someone suggests they have had it relatively easy.
  • As this new left-liberalism gains strength, a growing number of white men who hold power in historically liberal institutions seem to be breaking right.
  • Right-liberal pundits also, implicitly, expressed frustration at how web platforms were breaking up their monopoly on discourse.

Rather than engage the ideas straight up, Weigel resorts to many of the counter-productive modes of thought that Lukianoff and Haidt critique incisively, such as mind reading, labeling, blaming, and inability to disconfirm. Unfortunately, as reflected in the popularity of her review, that approach is widespread on the left, which demonstrates the urgent need for close attention to The Coddling of the American Mind.

In Defense of Liberalism

By David Frum

A review of:

The Moral Adventure of Liberalism
By Adam Gopnik
The New York Times

Witty, humane, learned, “A Thousand Small Sanities” is a book that some of its author’s many fans may be tempted to read too fast. Adam Gopnik wants to smite the authoritarian populists. He wants to assimilate and domesticate the illiberal left, to the maximum extent he can. But diverted by the book’s charm and erudition, readers may overlook its more challenging purposes.

With the authoritarian populists, Gopnik deals bluntly and brusquely: “This is not a special feature of one era or another. Strongman politics and boss-man rule, in simplest form, is the story of mankind.” In our time, he writes, boss-man rule looks simply squalid. “How paltry its avatars can seem and how ridiculous and trivial their guiding ideas so often are. It’s all half-witted tweets and Berlusconi-style clowning.”

No, what commands Gopnik’s attention is a challenge to his convictions more formidable and more intimate: the resurgence of the illiberal left from the post-Communist wreckage.

It’s an intimate challenge because Gopnik to some degree accepts the premises of the illiberal left, even as he mordantly doubts the outcome of its radical politics: “The basic American situation in which the right wing wants cultural victories and gets nothing but political ones; while the left wing wants political victories and gets only cultural ones. … The left manages to get sombreros banned from college parties while every federal court in the country is assigned a far-right-wing activist judge.”

Adam GopnikCreditBrigitte Lacombe

“A Thousand Small Sanities” is a product of the period that some wit has dubbed “the Great Awokening.” The Awokening is defined less by what it believes and more by what it dislikes — and those dislikes tend to converge upon that vituperated category, dead white men. The founders and heroes of the liberal tradition are indubitably very male, very white and, for the most part, very dead.

Gopnik does not write in their defense. To a great extent, he is almost as uncomfortable with these dead white giants as any intersectional critic. “I’ve tried not to write too much about the famous 17th- and 18th-century English philosophers who helped found the liberal credo, concentrating instead on liberal lives that offer a better guide to living liberal practice.”

You’ll find more here about Harriet Taylor and Frederick Douglass; Emma Goldman and Bayard Rustin; George Eliot and E. D. Morel (a journalist who helped bring to light the horrors of the Belgian Congo) than about Locke, Jefferson, Smith and Bentham — or even John Maynard Keynes and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This despite the fact that few of Gopnik’s featured characters would have been described in their time as “liberals.” Taylor, Douglass and the others are valuable to Gopnik precisely because they advanced causes that discomfited most of their contemporaries who did call themselves “liberals.” By assimilating what was once radical to his variety of liberalism, Gopnik hopes to prove to contemporary progressives that they can champion the woke causes of the 21st century without surrendering the liberal heritage of free speech, rule of law, scientific inquiry and individual conscience.


Like the Great Awakenings before it, the Great Awokening is a spiritual movement more than a political one. It offers redemption, not reform. It reckons not with adversaries, but with heretics. It rejects tolerance for precisely the reasons Gopnik himself offers in his description of dogmatic religion: If you think you have unique access to the truth, why wouldn’t you be intolerant of those who reject that truth?

Gopnik is alive to the intellectual deficiencies of wokeness. Wokeness knows arguments only from authority, because evidence is always subordinate to identity. In a striking formulation, Gopnik writes that “the idea that one should trace the source of an argument backward, to its origins, rather than play it forward to the evidence for its claims is the root doctrine of reaction.”

He is irritated by the moral pretensions of the illiberal left as well. “The romantic utopian visions, put in place, always fail and usually end in a horrific car crash. … The left treats the obvious and inarguable lessons of the 20th century about radical revolutions … as though they had never been learned and learned in the hardest of hard ways.”

And yet in the end, he can’t quite quit those visions either. “Reform is an ongoing process, rarely begun or completed by liberalism alone,” he concedes. He won’t say Yes, but he cannot quite say No.

In a short, elegant discussion of the conservative counterpoint to the liberal tradition, Gopnik invokes the thought of his fellow Montrealer, the philosopher Charles Taylor. “Taylor’s point is that to know who I really am is to know where I am — how I’m placed within a social context that I didn’t make and can’t control.”

Unillusioned as he is, Gopnik is placed within a social context in which events and circumstances have taught his kind of liberal to look right for threats and left for possibilities. If the time could ever arrive when it becomes necessary to overcome and reverse those ancient reflexes — that is an adventure of liberalism that may have to wait for the next installment of the serial.