The case against nihilism

Every generation believes that their own times are harder than any in the past and that inaction is somehow the best path forward.

I.

There is no better place to start this discussion than Charles Dickens’s famous novel ‘A tale of two cities’ which begins with these fascinating words: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’

If you were given that sentence out of context, with no idea who Dickens was, you would be forgiven for thinking it was written in the 21st century, perhaps even during the coronavirus pandemic. Note especially the final clauses: ‘…some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received … in the superlative degree of comparison only.’ In our era of rising far right groups, where everyone seems to be against everyone else and we only ever speak in terms of the best or the worst or the most treacherous or the most anti-national, this sentence captures the spirits of our current leaders more eloquently than any other; and to think that it was written in 1859.

The fact is, however, that our troubles today are no greater than humanity’s troubles at any other point in history and we have ample peer-reviewed statistics to back this up. Fewer people live in extreme poverty today than at any other time in history; we have fewer people today who go to bed hungry than at any other time in the past; the average person today has more leisure time than they would have had had they lived at some time in the past; our life expectancy is higher than ever before; death at childbirth is rarer than ever before; we have eradicated so many diseases that newer generations cannot even name several of them; people smoke half as often today as they did in the 1950s; theft and murder rates have dropped, making our streets safer for our children today than even when you and I were born; schooling and literacy are higher than ever before; and there are more democratic countries today than there have ever been in the past.

One can go on and on with examples, but the point is simple: we look at the present through a microscope, noticing every bit of it, every moment and every nuance; and we look at the past as a vivid painting on a vast canvas in all its beauty. Our view is inherently skewed in favour of the long past; rather than understand that today will be to tomorrow what yesterday is to today, our basest instincts drive us instead to pessimism, picturing a bleaker world than ever before, picturing downfall, loss and hopelessness. And this leads us, as it always has, to the questionable coping mechanism we know as nihilism: the idea that our lives are fleeting, and that we will all die in no time, and that everything is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, so nothing really matters and we might as well shut up, subscribe to inaction and let the world—and its ideas that care not a tuppence for us—simply ride on.

On the contrary, things do matter. Ideas do matter. And it is precisely because someone somewhere in the past cared enough to do something about it that we happen to be in a better world today than the one in which any of our ancestors lived.

II.

If one slips out of Nietzsche’s grip in the context of holding the state accountable one inevitably falls into the arms of Camus. Peaceful, positive action against the state is not only our right but our duty. In subscribing to inaction fuelled by the thought that ‘such is how things are’ subscribers of nihilist inaction forget that Nietzsche, whose ideas these were, also said this: ‘I will have all antisemites shot.’ That is quite an action.

One issue that often sends people scurrying back to Nietzsche is the belief that any form of dissent is necessarily bloody—either literally or figuratively—and the idea that we live in a world run by algorithms hell bent on monetising disagreement only serves to further this argument. Look closely, however, and it becomes clear that these ideas stem from tunnel vision. Should one look beyond the most obvious culprits—social media, tech moguls and faceless algorithms—it becomes clear that the fast shrining room for debate today is actually a cultural issue that was prevalent long before technology pervaded our lives.

In his 1987 bestseller The closing of the American mind the philosopher Allan Bloom argues against a 1960s decision to remove the so-called ‘great books’ from academic syllabi. He eerily compares it to 1930s Germany. He then talks about how discouraging ideas has led to shrinking room for disagreement because every idea is considered equal to every other eliminating any potential debate at all. To simply sit back and let things be what they are—such is how things are—is to accept everything; and to accept everything is nihilistic. Bloom proceeds to make a passionate case for questioning things around us and for disagreement and debate grounded in reason and made elegant by a peaceful tension between complex ideas born out of reading and learning, especially the humanities.

Two things might strike us about this book: first, the idea that we have no room to debate has more to do with the fabric of our society than a handful of websites that make up less than a tenth of the internet; and second, the argument might seem quite relevant to today, when our assault on the humanities in universities has continued and a call for accepting ideas different from our own is loud and seemingly omnipresent. But at this point some context is due: Bloom’s book was a staunchly conservative one, making a conservative argument in an especially liberal era.

Today, the tables seem to have turned and the most dangerous thing we can do is subscribe to inaction because ‘such is how things are’. An equally dangerous thing would be to assume that a general consensus cannot be formed because all ideas are equally valid. This is abjectly untrue; with debate—open, peaceful, constructive, well-informed, decent debate—some ideas will give way to others, some ideas will triumph. To believe that all ideas are equal and that a consensus need not be reached is to signal that we are taking things personally. People most certainly are equal, their ideas need not be so. And this becomes immediately apparent when we stop taking ideas personally; and if we did stop taking ideas personally, we open ourselves to a good discussion and disagreement and the argument that all ideas are equal breaks down.

With this, let us return to Nietzsche. The German philosopher famously argues for amor fati, to love life and not want to change it. At this point bridging this with nihilism might seem natural to the point of being simplistic. But look no further than Camus to see how one might practise amor fati without necessarily giving to things because ‘such is how things are’ or even sitting idly by because no consensus may be reached since all ideas are equal:

The sum total of every possibility does not amount to liberty… Chaos is also a form of servitude. Freedom exists only in a world where what is possible is defined at the same time as what is not possible. Without law there is no freedom.

Camus’s idea of rebellion, of taking action, of debating, of disagreeing, inherits the sacred ideas of freedom, peace and individuality and does so explicitly without going the way of Ayn Rand’s ego. For Camus decent rebellion comes not from self-interest but an interest in the common good. ‘An act of rebellion is not, essentially, an egoistic act,’ says Camus, pointing out that, ‘The rebel … demands respect for himself, of course, but only in so far as he identifies himself with a natural community.’

That is the distinction between ideas, making ideas our identity, and fighting for an idea because it shapes society—the ‘natural community’ if you will—in which we live. Disagreement, rather than inaction and sitting back because ‘such is how things are’, speaks of our fundamental values that need to be defended. Camus, yet again, said it best: ‘Rebellion, though apparently negative, since it creates nothing, is profoundly positive in that it reveals the part of man which must always be defended.’

III.

If the apparent lack of control stems from a uniquely modern problem like algorithms, it becomes important to realise that algorithms feed on either human instruction or human behaviour. In either case, we still hold the reins. My own social media feeds are not nearly as caustic as those I see others complaining about, which is because, one, I curate whom I follow and have clear reasons why I follow them; two, I do not read the news on social media, a seemingly innocent act that does a lot to give power the algorithm to learn about one’s stances on issues and then create an echo chamber.

Hidden behind an electronic facade, people find it easy and inconsequential to argue on such platforms; the solution is not to shun debate and sit back and let things run to ruin, rather it is to participate in sound debates (which should be easy if you do not make those ideas your identity), encourage reading, and preferably take the discussion elsewhere, such as to newspapers, an evening at the pub and so on.

Hidden behind an electronic facade, people are also more gullible to the mistaken belief that they are in fact making a difference. Virtue signalling is all the rage today because social media makes it easy to appear like one is making a difference even if they are not. This deepens the divide: as one side becomes pickier about things the other reacts furiously, pushing themselves further away from the idea than needed. The chasm widens and deepens, and the reason is crystal clear: everyone is busy enforcing their ideas instead of talking about or debating them first—or even considering if others might perhaps follow their arguments given some discussion in the first place. As a result, nobody ever reaches amicable resolutions and brutal friction abounds between polar opposites that need never have come to be.

In my own experience I have made much less progress trying to discuss ideas or show someone factually correct information while exchanging words on the web; offline, in an ‘old school’ tête-a-tête, things have been remarkably different. Sometimes, people just need to be in one another’s company to work up the patience to see things more reasonably. And to claim that algorithms have stolen power from users would be a defeatist attitude—one can blame a tool only so much—especially when you are still the one choosing to unquestioningly accept whatever an algorithm chooses to feed you.

In a lecture three years ago the Pulitzer-winning conservative journalist Bret Stephens had this to say about the nature of ideas and disagreement—

Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.

These quarrels are never personal. Nor are they particularly political, at least in the ordinary sense of politics. Sometimes they take place over the distance of decades, even centuries.

Most importantly, they are never based on a misunderstanding. On the contrary, the disagreements arise from perfect comprehension; from having chewed over the ideas of your intellectual opponent so thoroughly that you can properly spit them out.

In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well. You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely. You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate empathically with his line of reasoning. And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.

The attentive reader may have noticed I have been picking conservative figures to make my points on openness, debate and disagreement; this was done intentionally so as not to leave room for doubts that I might be writing from inside a liberal echo chamber. Parenthetically, that modern-day hardline conservatives seem not to be following their own past words is something amusing to me; it is also an observation best left for another essay.

There are people on all sides with understanding and decency, and people without. The ideas that are at odds, however, do not represent these people; ideas are their own entities and confronting them is of utmost importance lest we soon find ourselves in a miserable society where amor fati far from being an approach to life becomes our only means of survival.

Nihilism feeds itself. Embracing inaction creates a world in which inaction becomes the sole means of survival and we leap closer to Rand’s Anthem-esque world. Embracing nihilism creates a world where chaining ourselves to nihilism becomes essential for existence. By all means sit back and take things lightly, especially take yourselves lightly; but ideas are not to be taken lightly. Not everyone has to agree on an idea, but once everyone agrees that all ideas can be debated openly and decently, there is no way society can escape a consensus.

If we are where we are today as a species—whether in our brilliance, our ruthlessness, our helpfulness, our carelessness, our resourcefulness or our heartlessness—it is because we reached a consensus on nearly every disagreement that crept into our society.

Stop reading the news

Get ready for crisp and convincing arguments for an extreme solution to a real problem—our obsession with the news.

‘To my wife, Sabine,’ starts the dedication on Rolf Dobelli’s short book, ‘who stopped reading the news long before I did. And to our twins, Numa and Avi, who thankfully are still too young for all that.’ These two sentences paint a picture of the sort of life the author wants us all to live: freed from the presence of the daily news in our lives, with no exceptions. In the end, promises Mr Dobelli, we will lead a happier, calmer and wiser life. ‘Digitalisation,’ he says, ‘has turned the news from a harmless form of entertainment into a weapon of mass destruction, and it’s aimed straight at our mental health.’

If the argument made by this book, right in its title, seem extreme, you are correct. The entire book is as sharp as the title is and does not hesitate for a moment from telling you what you need to do right now: stop reading the news. There are no methods catalogued here to help you slowly get away from it all; Mr Dobelli’s approach is to make the choice and quit cold turkey. In fact, he claims, that is the only way. And you will start to notice its effects sooner than you might expect.

News, Inc.

It goes without saying that the core argument of this book is that you stop reading the news; but a bit of clarification is due: the arguments being made are not against awareness but against obsessing over the daily news. And the entire book may be divided into two approaches: in the first Mr Dobelli talks about why giving up the news is important and what one can hope to gain by it, drawing from his own experience and suggesting a couple of techniques on the way (which again come down to quitting cold turkey); in the second he talks about the inherent problems with news itself while addressing one of the biggest arguments for the news to exist—in a democracy, people must be the decision makers and for that the people must be well-informed.

Rarely do I vouch for such an extreme idea but there is a lot of sense in Mr Dobelli’s arguments. He recommends, for example, that reading longer, more carefully researched articles about an event is better than reading the daily news, and I agree: for my own part I have found weekly publications to be more meaningful in the long run than daily newspapers when it comes to understanding the nuances (and there are many) of any event. A particularly interesting thought from his childhood that he quotes in this book goes thusly—

Something wasn’t right. It baffled me that the newspaper arrived in the same thickness and format every single day … If something happened on an uneventful day it would be treated as important and given centre stage, even if on a busy day it would have been treated as unimportant.

That encapsulates the trouble with the news today. Reading this sentence reminded me of the BBC’s famous broadcast on 18 April 1930 which was simply ‘There is no news’ followed by 15 minutes of a piano song. On the one hand it feels like we can only ever fantasise about such slow news days today, but on the other, as Mr Dobelli rightly points out, less impactful news on slow news days today too would be highlighted like it has a great impact on society. Today, news corporations work like everyday must have a headline and they give stories an inflated importance to satisfy this self-imposed rule.

This all points to the nature of the news today: it is a corporation like any other and monitors—and even manufactures—its output to keep itself afloat. Mr Dobelli explains this quite well pointing out that—

…anything that might pique readers’ interest and boost sales was considered newsworthy by the publishers, regardless of whether it was actually important. This fundamental fraud—the new being sold as the relevant—has persisted to this day.

There are some arguments that this book makes, such as this one, that are immediately sensible, yet there are others (which I will address soon) which makes a lot less sense—a trait that is to be expected in a book this extreme.

A lot of hard hitting

In the title of each chapter Mr Dobelli captures its essence, so I will restrict myself to naming those which I particularly liked, using them to also clarify what arguments the author makes within.

For basic arguments, the news, says Mr Dobelli, is irrelevant; it gets risk assessment all wrong (as we saw with slow news days above); it obscures the big picture (where the author quotes a book of ‘Join the dots’ puzzles and compares news to the dots, which make no sense unless we add context by drawing lines in-between; see also the quote below).

He takes it further with some hard hitters that anyone who knows the news well enough also knows is true, although we might not always want to admit it: the news reinforces hindsight bias; it gives us the illusion of empathy (think, the now-fashionable cancel culture); it destroys our peace of mind; it produces fake fame and, perhaps most scandalous, it encourages terrorism.

That the news is uninterested in a full picture is described succinctly in the following sentence: ‘News corporations and consumers both fall prey to the same mistake, confusing the presentation of facts with insight into the functional context of the world.’ If you thought this is unintentional, Mr Dobelli clarifies it immediately: ‘…the few journalists who do understand the “engine room” and are capable of writing about it aren’t given the space to do so.’

If my not quoting all chapter titles makes you wonder if I do not back them, you would be right, at least in assuming that I do not back them entirely. Some examples include the claim that the news keeps the ‘opinion volcano bubbling’ (that is a reactionary choice we make), that it makes us passive (again, that is our response to it) etc. My disagreements with this book, however, are dwarfed by my agreements with it.

Breaking news

All that said, there is an important disagreement I have with this book that I would want to single out given the current times (for future readers: this review was written at the height of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic). Says Mr Dobelli, ‘You can safely assume that the more “breaking” the news, the less it actually matters to you’. While this is true in general, it is not at the moment—or at least was not in the second quarter of 2020—when reportage of the COVID-19 pandemic not only forced governments to act but also gave people a sense of what to do and how to respond to the pandemic. It also gave people strength knowing that the whole world was going through this together and that success stories were popping up every now and then like beacons of hope. Without the news, the pandemic would undoubtedly have been handled worse.

The reason I said that this statement would have been true in general, ironically, is apparent when you look at how reporting evolved over the course of the same pandemic: the news has once again embraced its sensationalist tone, given voice to the imporance of the economy over healthcare and generally made a lot of noise that—unlike the pandemic response—has not given rise to enough actionable recommendations at a solution.

On a similar vein, the media in the first half of 2020 helped positively to spread awareness of racial bias in the US (and no doubt in other countries) but really what came of it? Hong Kong was all but sold to China; the news destroyed our peace of mind, as Mr Dobelli puts it, and it made us feel empathetic, which made us feel like we were contributing in some way; but we were really doing nothing but consuming the news while simply feeling active, which is why one piece of news passed on and another came in its place and the world went on as it always has.

This book is a quick read, being more the length of a novelette than that of a novel, and is worth everyone’s time because in some way it will change how you consume the news. It may serve its intended purpose and make you quit altogether; it may make you pause and reconsider the methods you employ to consume the news; or, as in my case, it may at least make you a more responsible consumer of the news. Whatever the outcome, you will find that your time was better spent reading this book than today’s newspaper.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the need of the hour

As we inch dangerously close to a third world war it would help to look back to history for some lessons on how to correct our course.

Of late every news cycle seems to give a clearer indication than the last that we are inching closer to a Third World War. The signs are revealing themselves slowly and subtly which is probably why they are going unnoticed. The trouble almost always stems from the use of national borders as a tool for identity rather than governance. The cause of any war is often unwontedly personal and the coming war—if there will, in fact, be one—will have roots that are no different.

This is unfortunate because it means we failed to learn from our previous mistakes. ‘Those who forget the past’, as Jorge Santayana said, ‘are condemned to repeat it’. In German this is known as vergangenheitsbewältigung, the process of analysing and debating a troublesome past while accepting it and living with it in the present. The pith of the idea is geared towards keeping a country’s past in mind while learning from it to ensure a better future. Although coined with the holocaust in mind this is something every country needs to adopt—they have all had a dark past at some point—but most are too lazy to pick their battles these days and blind enough to consistently miss the forest for the trees.

I.

The tilt towards subtlety began with the Cold War that ended about two decades ago. There was a fifty-year gap between the first two World Wars and almost none between the Second World War and the Cold War. It started and ended like any other headline in the news: on Christmas 1991 Russia was formed, which meant the old Soviet blocks disintegrated. While the war ended for the rest of the world this situation had parallels with Germany’s plight at the end of the WWI, a set of events that would spur Hitler to start WWII. Vladimir Putin finds himself in the same place today: he likely believes the Cold War ended disadvantageously for Russia.

The height of peace following the Cold War have been the many attempts at calming the Middle East. Little has come of it. What is starting now is a mad game of poker under a rain of cards. There is utter confusion and chaos dressed by some as clarity and others as interference. There is no third party left to pass a fair judgement. And the last thing our world needs is a bunch of paranoid leaders rushing to fortify their borders while preaching against the one thread keeping us from destroying ourselves: a global world that has slowly come to feel local.

It is when you identify with someone on the other half of the globe that you think twice about fighting them. When you are far too worried about your own country’s safety you corner yourself into thinking you are being attacked. You lose sense of perspective, you sow fear, you create an empty need to fend off enemies that do not exist, all while you make new enemies in the process.

The cancerous grip of nationalism has pushed some countries towards democratically electing dictators. A faux sense of national threat stemming from personal insecurity—itself stemming from a lack of understanding of how the world and society work—and a pointless sense of national pride due in large part to peer pressure have caused people to (sometimes unintentionally) echo a diplomatic war cry, to fear what they do not understand, and to suppress beliefs at odds with their own. These moves are often cloaked as patriotism but are not: being a patriot does not require one to denounce or oppose other countries; but the fact that such myopic thinking is dressed as patriotism does wonders to bring—and keep—authoritarian leaders in power.

Does every generation have to live through a war to be weary of its ugliness?

None of this is to say that either nationalism or patriotism is a bad thing inherently. Humans are generally an emotionally weak species and need something bigger than their individual self to hold on to: on a personal level there is religion (although it does not always stay personal, unfortunately), on a social level there are clubs and communities, on a national level is a grouped identity built around one’s own country. The trouble is our interpretation of it and how we often take it to the extreme.

Besides subtlety the inklings of a Third World War can be found in indirect combat. Look at Syria for example: although the US is not fighting either Russia or China they are arming and supporting rebels against the Assad regime which is backed by Russia and whose troops are trained by the Chinese. On the ground this is a state-issue between Mr Assad’s men and a large group of rebels and has nothing to do with other countries; globally this is an ideological conflict with Russia and China on one side and the West on the other.

Had this conflict been resolved through talks or debate—like any other conflict of ideas—we would have had nothing to worry about. However, both countries decided to take another route and arm factions making this all but a new Cold War. This time round, it will be a Cold War without ideologies or reason which is all the more reason to fear it. Moreover the same pattern repeats in nearby Iran with its Shiite community drawing support from Russia to go against the Saudi-led Sunni community backed by the US.

There is no telling when a conflict kindled by ideology will slip into an abyss where destroying the enemy, not objectively defending a belief, takes centre stage; and the ideology will itself eventually be spurned.

II.

The boldest moves yet have also come from Russia and China: the former started the first European war of the 21st century (the so-called Russo–Georgian war of 2008) and later took hold of Crimea; the latter has almost disdainfully been staking claim over islands around the mainland by repeatedly redrawing maps. These may all seem churlish but they are clear signs of an impending war. Most unspoken disagreements between two persons will erupt into ugly fights if the persons meet each other often enough. Here on Earth there is nowhere to run away to from either Russia or China so an all-out war seems like a much more realistic possibility than one would hope.

Speaking of European wars, the first two World Wars were just that, wars centred around Europe. The next war will not follow suit. Blocs that dissolved thanks to a global epiphany following the end of the second World War are now rebuilding themselves. Countries are picking sides and aggressive, authoritarian leaders are catalysing the process. Even a glimpse of a positive relationship with North Korea can be unreliable what with the dictator visiting China soon after the Chinese premier set himself up for a lifetime at the country’s helm.

The presence of diplomats across the globe as a result of the Vienna Convention during the Cold War was what stitched the most under-valued net that has held global peace steady for decades now. The most subtle spark of a Third World War of late has been the expulsion of hundreds of diplomats from Russia. The fault is not Russia’s this time, however; the West played right into Mr Putin’s hands by sending back his diplomats and he replied in kind. The overall effect is that without the presence of diplomats countries have little motivation to keep themselves in check and will quickly sink into the grips of secrecy and espionage.

Hardly anybody can tell who lit a fire in the dark. But once the fire has been lit putting it out becomes priority, not identifying the person who caused it. We are well past that point. The fire is lit; it is a dim but it flames on while we ignore it and hope that it goes away. We try to point fingers at each other trying to determine who lit the fire as though he alone can stop it.

Does every generation have to live through a war to be weary of its ugliness?

Any war that will come will not only start before we know it but also spiral wildly out of control taking us far from our current, mostly peaceful situation. But in the midst of all this America’s own role in maintaining world peace thus far cannot be dismissed: its image and economic support—and perhaps respect to some extent—had brought a lot of smaller democratic countries under its lead. This is being corroded slowly by Donald Trump and his White House, shifting the power to Europe which, unlike the US, is a more massive potpourri of cultures, traditions, beliefs and languages. It is hard to imagine a Europe that would accept a clear leader; they will characteristically set up a multinational senate for decision-making. However, there is yet a chance that the burden may fall on Germany, the country that gave us vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Dialogue is key but it is easier said than done. The suffering will be subtle and will go unnoticed; getting world leaders to talk about it will therefore naturally be harder. Starting wars will remain as easy as it ever has been—perhaps it will get easier. Ending wars will be infinitely harder. A war that nobody realises is underway is dangerous, but a war that is clearly strategised but never acknowledged by anyone involved is the most dangerous of all.

There is still a positive side to all this: we have, as a civilisation, been in this situation before. All we have to do then is look back and accept the situation and learn from our mistakes. The downside is that we have rarely proven to be good at retrospection.

A drive through China–Lanka

While China pours money into Sri Lanka, India chooses to keep mum.

‘Are you tourists?’ the tuk-tuk driver asked us. We were walking northwards on Colombo’s oceanside boulevard, Marine Drive, looking at red mechanical cranes in the harbour on our left and a skyscraper under construction on our right. The whole scene was not unlike Mumbai, a seaside metropolitan town in India, which, like Colombo, is on the country’s east coast, has a seaside boulevard called ‘Marine Drive’, has a bustling harbour, and is lined by skyscrapers. A tourist walking in Mumbai, like us in Colombo, would probably also find a rickshaw driver who stops to ask if they need help getting around town. Given this striking similarity and the common history, culture and ideologies the two countries share it might seem like Indians visiting Sri Lanka can easily forget they are in a different country. Yet around every street corner lies a constant reminder that someone else is in town: the Chinese.

After an hour’s walk a drive around town in a tuk-tuk seemed like a good idea so we got in. Our driver had a keen sense of the goings on around town and a perspective of the political landscape only a local could have. And he, like so many others, despised the unmissable Chinese influence in his town. ‘That harbour is half Chinese’, said our driver. It was his way of pointing out that most of the harbour, including its famous breakwater stretching over half-a-kilometre into the ocean, was built by the Chinese company China Merchants Holdings (International) Co., Ltd. But this harbour is only one among several examples of how China has wormed its way into the Sri Lankan economy on various levels. ‘That building’, continued our driver, pointing to the half-built skyscraper, ‘is going to be the Shangri-La’. The China-based Shangri-La Asia increased its investments in Sri Lanka recently as they began their $800 million project to construct the 500 room hotel, with 40 serviced flats, on economically promising real estate by the Colombo port. Like Hong Kong was leased from China by what Mr Xi calls ‘the meddling West’, this piece of real estate too has been leased to China for 99 years.

As we drove around town we noticed there was hardly a road that did not house a Chinese business. There are spas to restaurants to supermarkets, all built as though they existed in China, with name boards only in Chinese, selling only Chinese products, and with restaurants carrying menus selling Chinese dishes made of pork, beef and duck – dishes most locals have not the faintest idea about. But that is exactly the point: these Chinese businesses were never set up to cater to the locals; they were set up to make Sri Lanka feel like home to the Chinese people being flown into the country to work on projects funded, built and maintained by the Chinese. ‘And they don’t speak a word of English’, our driver said. There are even casinos here that several Chinese frequent – after all they cannot find many casinos back home.

Local discomfort with Chinese presence in the country, which was only dormant until recently, has grown visible over the last few years despite the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena coming to power over two years ago on promises to curb Chinese dominance over the country. What Mr Sirisena and his people learnt was that isolating a debt-ridden country from China was easier said than done. According to the American Enterprise Institute Chinese investment in Sri Lanka since 2005 is nearly $15 billion; half of that was made during the last three years. Mr Sirisena’s own government signed a $1.1 billion deal earlier this year giving up most of the strategic Indian Ocean port of Hambantota to the Chinese for 99 years. Also at Hambantota is the Shangri-La company with a sprawling 145 acres of prime beachfront real estate and 300 rooms, possibly awaiting more Chinese guests.

Our driver stops and points to the pavement on our left: two Chinese construction workers in blue overalls walk past us. China prefers to import its own workers. This does the local economy no good, but several Sri Lankans think they know why: the locals work fewer hours a day than their Chinese counterparts flown into the island nation. The Chinese supposedly work from seven in the morning to nine at night; this is a tough schedule in a country where most offices run from nine in the morning till three in the afternoon. Most locals are either unable or reluctant to work any longer in the unforgiving heat.

Newer Chinese restauranteurs are bolder, but restaurants rarely stand out anywhere in the world.

As part of its Old World building exercise, China has also promptly connected its two investments (at Colombo and Hambantota) with a wide, beautiful highway that is in stark contrast to other, mostly unkempt, roads in the country. Real estate and commerce are China’s main interests – for now anyway. As Peter Dutton, the director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, points out, ‘Both in theory and in practice, military power follows commercial interest’. Despite Sri Lanka’s insistence that all harbour activities must be approved by their government, the fact remains that the Colombo and Hambantota ports can potentially serve as strategic naval bases for China should it ever get into an altercation with India.

Commercially successful Chinatowns have begun popping up all over Sri Lanka in locales where the country has its investments. This makes Sri Lanka itself a perfect investment for China: it sets up shop and sends in Chinese labourers and other expats – who, our driver insists, are largely just Chinese tourists coming on tourist visas for three months, then flying back home to renew their visas so they can return to Sri Lanka again. (As we would later find out this is something most locals suspect.) With this isolated bubble of Chinese economy running within Sri Lanka’s own crumbling economy, nearly all Chinese investments are assured to send returns back to the motherland. It is no surprise then that supposedly ‘visiting’ Chinese make little to no effort to mingle with the local population; after all, Sri Lanka is literally their home away from home and the locals do not factor into the equation.

The predominant notion among Sri Lankans is that the Chinese come in for money and cheap land. The visitors are often willing to pay whatever it takes to see their interests through. Nobody can tell just how much of a hold the Chinese have in Sri Lankan bureaucracy, but most locals believe that it is not unreasonable to claim that whatever China has done in the country so far can hardly be done without powerful men inside the government. The Chinese have allegedly been buying bureaucrats and politicians just like they have been buying real estate. Few pause to wonder whether these are blind, stereotypical claims against politicians or plausible ones, because regardless of how China does what it does its effects are visible and tangible.

The answer might lie in drawing comparisons with Chinese activities in certain other countries. Indeed doing so suggests there may, in fact, be another extremely likely reason for this: Sri Lanka owes China $8 billion, opening the door to China’s figurative purchase of the country and its interests. China is not new at this: they had similar leverage over Djibouti and they exploited it earlier this year, building a 750 km railroad for the country and celebrating it as a game changer for the socioeconomic landscape of northeastern Africa. Also on China’s mind are three ports and two airports here, making way for a future trans-Africa trade route connecting the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Djibouti had loans that drained out 60% of the country’s GDP and China stepped in as a saviour coming in with a diplomatically clever investment worth $4 billion. Sri Lanka, whose loans cost the country an eye-watering 90% of their annual revenue, is in no better a position than Djibouti. Hambantota was, in this sense, a characteristically Chinese investment.

The other reason why countries like Djibouti and Sri Lanka are a good target for China is their physical size: given that Sri Lanka has a population smaller than Beijing, China needs smaller investments (both in terms of monies and importing Chinese workers) to make a mark on the country. The same scale of investment in a larger, more prosperous country like India or France or Germany would simply go unnoticed and would hardly affect the host country in any way. To do that, China would have to gamble a lot more than just $8 billion. Now too, just as it has always been historically, smaller countries, unless they are unimaginably rich – à la Luxembourg – are more vulnerable to the economic, political and ideological nudges of richer, larger and more prosperous foreign interests.

‘And we’re soon going to be China–Lanka’, said our driver at the end of our trip across town. We laughed, but it was no joke. Getting out of the tuk-tuk, there was only one question on our minds: why is India not in this country? With all the common ground shared between our two countries, India and Sri Lanka need not go out of their way to find a reason for India to work with and in Sri Lanka. It is not that India has never tried (the country offered Sri Lanka $40 million in loans for development in 2016) rather that it has not tried hard enough (China loaned Sri Lanka $440 million that same year).

Of course monetary contributions are not the only way India can grow close to Sri Lanka; there are alternative approaches based on culture and military ties, but, firstly, Memoranda of Understanding, such as those which the two neighbours signed in April this year, are not a solution. Ironically, China is India’s best example to learn from: rather than encourage its enterprises to invest in existing markets, China has created a market in Sri Lanka for Chinese businesses who will promptly pay back their dues to their parent country.

Secondly, India has the habit of taking a notoriously weak stance on several issues, perhaps burdened by its historic, once valid, belief in non-alignment. China, by contrast, makes its voice heard on the international stage and, in turn, makes itself appear like a more reliable companion to smaller countries. Sri Lanka too, like Djibouti, experienced this when China stopped the UN Security Council from addressing the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), a brash decision that would end up costing the lives of nearly 20,000 civilians.

Thirdly, it is not Sri Lankan profligacy that has brought China into the picture, it is China’s own proactive approach to further its interests. India has been watching from the sidelines while China builds for itself a strong, future-proof position that, at its best, feeds off Sri Lanka’s economy like a parasite, and, at its worst, holds Sri Lanka’s economy to ransom.

In the end, it is just as much the meek responses (or sometimes the inaction) of India and the West that have let China grow unchecked. In both the cases of Djibouti and Sri Lanka, officials cited this as the only reason they turned to China for support. Sri Lanka’s All-Party Representative Committee Chairman Tissa Vitarana told U.S. officials, ‘We have the United States to thank for pushing us closer to China’. And, as Aboubaker Omar Hadi, the chairman of the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority, rightly said, ‘We approached the U.S. and they didn’t have the vision … The Chinese have vision’. But whom this vision benefits besides China is always worth questioning – and India hopefully responds before the country’s belts and roads encircle and suffocate India.

Patriotism is the cause of all wars. There is a certain selfishness that drives people to fight for their perceived sense of ownership. There is the idea that this is ‘my country’ and that is not; the idea that this is ‘my kind’ and that is not; the idea that this represents me and that does not, whether it is racial, gender-based or whatever else; the idea that something I believe in is ‘correct’ and what someone else believes in is not, etc. This is turning out to be a disease of magnificent proportions, but it is, thankfully, not yet incurable.

We created borders, and we created nation states, which means it is up to us to return to them the meaning they seem to have lost. Our purpose in drawing borders to segregate geographical landmasses and the peoples within them was driven by the potential ease of governance. There is no doubt that governing a small hamlet is much easier than governing a large metropolitan area, for example. But this reasoning is lost on people who have now begun to look at it as a statement of ownership. It is true that the people in an area must be benefitted by it in various ways, but not such that it takes precedence over humanity; it should not translate into a right to treat others badly on any basis whatsoever. A border must remain an issue of governance, not of absolute right. And, further, it should not be synonymous with ownership. The earth belongs to everyone.

Idealistic as these statements may seem, the twisting of their definitions requires that certain things about them be made clear. The world is seeing a surge in extreme right-wing ideologies, the kind of setup that, over the past couple of decades, has made Russian voices mute. And that, unfortunately, promises to seep into America and Europe and result in the same, possibly ten years from now. It is hard to point out with certainty when it began, or even when it bubbled to the surface of serious news, but there is no doubt that it is manifesting itself in various forms around the world. Until recently, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was its poster boy; now, the American president-elect, Donald Trump, has joined him. Soon, the French far-right presidential hopeful, Marine Le Pen, who agrees with these two men with troubling ease on nearly all issues, hopes to complete the sordid triangle. She said as much herself: ‘There is a worldwide movement. A worldwide movement which rejects unchecked globalisation, destructive ultra-liberalism … the elimination of nation states, the disappearance of borders’.

It is of no consequence pondering now whether this statement was meant to help Mrs Le Pen ride on the same wave of populism that catapulted Brexit and President Trump into reality. What is clear, though, is that the elimination of nation states and the disappearance of borders for all purposes besides governance is exactly what we need today. And her potential election to presidency, while doing little for world peace (and quite a lot against it), will have no immediate ill-effect on France.

This is all not unlike the Brexit vote, which had no immediate effect on Britain, or Mr Trump’s win in the American election, which had no immediate impact on much of the country. And therein lies the problem. The way in which the coming populist, far-right dominance will affect civilised society, firstly, will be so gradual that nobody notices, and, secondly, will cleverly work by normalising extremes. The decades the world has worked, for example, to make racism a black mark on society rather than a part of it, will be undone. Being straight will become the norm and anything else will be socially blasphemous. Being like the majority will become the norm and trying to be an individual will become punishable. This should worry us. Looking at things as ‘us and them’ will become the norm and take away our most cherished treasure: humanity. There should never be an ‘us and them’, rather just ‘us’.


All of this will be accelerated by the social web. Facebook has, beyond all doubt, influenced the outcome of the American election. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, claimed that fake news was being spread around by supporters of both presidential candidates even in the face of overwhelming proof against it: right-leaning Facebook pages spewed out false content twice as often as left-leaning ones. But, like populism itself, fake news sells; it brings more viewers onto the site and increases engagement, which, in turn, drives money towards Facebook. None of this is giving Mr Zuckerberg and his company enough incentive to fight the fake news infestation on Facebook, as Ben Collins writes in a great rebuttal of Mr Zuckerburg’s statements in support of his multi-billion dollar company.

The social network’s CEO also recently said it was ‘a pretty crazy idea’ to think that fake news on Facebook influenced the election. It is, he claimed, ‘a very small amount of content’, and that people do not vote based on some fake news they see. Except, most people do not realise the news is fake at all; like an echo chamber, they see what is in complete agreement with their views and share it and more people share that and the fake story grows exponentially in popularity until everyone has read it and found hollow support for their own views rather than being properly informed about current events. Some of these fake news sources have hundreds of thousands of followers more than established, fact-checked news houses like The Washington Post or The New York Times, and some of these are being run by kids in Macedonia whose only interest is revenues from visits that juicy clickbait can win them. Some, like the one called American News, have millions of followers and a ‘verified’ badge given by a Facebook employee. The Daily Beast has an excellent rundown of all of this, with facts and figures to support, that more than show how much of an impact fake news on Facebook (and likely elsewhere on the web) may have had in any populist election.

This is a vicious circle. People hear about a populist move that further compresses their narrow-mindedness and they then share it, prompting algorithms to pulling up more such stories, fake or fact-checked. Between engagement-seeking social networks, polish-seeking individual egos, attention-seeking authoritarians and power-seeking presidential candidates masquerading as ‘one of the people’ despite being billionaires themselves, the biggest blow falls on society as a whole and on humanity in the long run. We can put up fences and lock ourselves into suffering or we can open our borders and better manage ourselves knowing that the only fuel that has helped us survive so long is our will to stand up for openness and compassion every time. Of course terror needs to be checked and criminals must be held accountable for their misdeeds, but there are far less savage ways to accomplish this than those which far-right leaders the world over have been advertising. And, so long as there exists a combination of the flawed idea of nation states and national borders, a misplaced sense of patriotism, and fake news floating around in echo chambers, the far-right will keep rising and society will keep slipping into the abyss.