Noam Chomsky has compared the treatment by the mainstream intelligentsia and the media of two of the greatest minds of the 20th century. One of them was Albert Einstein and the other was Bertrand Russell. The crux of the comparison is that while Einstein has become one of the best known figures in the world, a historical celebrity (like Napoleon or Gandhi), an icon of icons, Bertrand Russell has been relegated to the background, to the extent that except those who study philosophy professionally or those who are a certain kind of nerds, most people have not even heard his name, or if they have, they don’t know who he was or what he did. The comparison, in my opinion is completely valid, and so is the reason provided by Chomsky for this state of affairs. The reason is pretty simple. Whereas Einstein, liberal, pacifist, anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons as he was, he was still within the limits of tolerable eccentricity, tolerable for the Establishment that views the pacifism of some scientists and artists like him as mere eccentricity, provided they don’t go beyond a limit.
Bertrand Russell, although he started off in public political life as an imperialist and although he was an aristocrat to begin with, not only went beyond the limits of signing a pacifist and anti-nuclear manifesto with Einstein, he became an active anti-Establishment figure, continuously writing about all the ills of the society, including those of capitalism and the Western civilization, even of Christianity. He went beyond just writing into real political activism.
Given this background, I would have found it hard to believe that anyone, that is, anyone apparently sane and reasonable, would actually have anything bad to say about Einstein, I mean leaving aside the possible charge of sexism that could be levelled against almost everyone from those times and when it is levelled by a person of the 21st century against someone from the first half of the 20th century, it usually signifies nothing except a holier-than-thou attitude on the part of the person who makes such a charge, because had that person been in the shoes of the one he is charging, he would possibly have done worse on this count.
It was for this reason that I was puzzled and astonished by a comment that I read recently about Einstein. The comment appeared on YouTube about a video titled, “Albert Einstein – How I See the World”. This is the comment, which was made by someone nicknamed GrantGreen791:
“This seems more like “How I Ripped on the Germans as a Jew”…this was less informative and more annoying.”
You can seen this comment in two ways: About Einstein or about the video.
Whichever way I tried to look at it, however, I found it hard to understand what it meant. Let’s try to look at it both the ways.
If the comment is about Einstein…
As almost everyone knows, Einstein published his most important three papers while working as a Patent clerk in Germany. And he was a Jew, of course. And he was living in Germany at the time when the Nazis were coming to, and then had already come, to power. So how did he ‘rip off the Germans’? Was it because he was “from a young age, a rebellious thinker”? Was it because “he instinctively hated the German school system, calling the schools barracks and teachers lieutenant” and that “at home he was more stimulated by free exchange of ideas” and was reading various kinds of books, including those on philosophy? Or was it because “before he was of the military age, finding the military posturing of the Germans ridiculous, he obtained a paper for three marks that rescinded his German citizenship” and was stateless at 17 years of age, “a young man without a country”? And that he completed his secondary education in Switzerland? Does it have something to do with the fact that he was born in a small German town called Ulm to assimilated German parents, but for most of his life he was more of a cultural than a practicing Jew? Or may be it had something do with the fact that he gave up practicing Jewish rituals and strived towards an ethical code by which man should live and he effectively bad mouthed what is now the dominant religion, namely Neoliberal Capitalism usually manifested in Free Market Fundamentalism? I say usually, because sometimes the liberal elements in the Establishment try to reign in the (‘conservative’) fundamentalists, so that the system can save itself from self-destruction so that the liberals can save themselves.
By the way, some of his admirers also bad mouthed men like Napoleon, who are “the makers of empires” and whose “hands are stained with human blood”. And remember that I am focusing mainly on the contents of this video, because the comment is about the video, even if it is also about Einstein. The first part of the puzzle is whether it is only about the video or also about Einstein himself?
Could it be because, based on his work, he got a position in a German university and that he used the occasions intended to honour him to voice his distrust of militarism and that he was in favour of people not joining the armies of whatever nation and also signed a manifesto with Gandhi against obligatory military service and went on to suggest that if even two percent of the people of every country refused to join the army, there could be no armies?
But in Germany, the video says, everything pointed to armies and war and that with his supreme belief in the dignity and life of the individual, he was terrified by the mass psychology of Fascism. There were threats on his life, which he didn’t take seriously, but he did take Nazism seriously. And a group of anti-semitic physicists dismissed his theory as an erroneous Jewish theory. Two thousand books were burnt outside the Upper House in Berlin, and among those were his books. He was no longer an illustrious German genius, but a communist, and anti-German. A Jew.
One could go on, but then, of course, he left Germany and settled in the US. (The video also mentions that the retreat that he had built outside the city in Germany was taken over by Nazis when he was on a trip abroad and he could never come back). As the Holocaust started, he wrote against it and and he wrote numerous letters sponsoring those fleeing from the Nazi onslaught for refuge in the US. Later on, he wrote a letter to the US president, suggesting that the power of the atom could be used to build a bomb more powerful than any existing bomb and that it might be better for the US to build it before the Germans did, that is, the Nazis did. He later (after the bombs were dropped on Japanese cities) said that he could burn his fingers for writing this letter.
Just to point out one possibly relevant fact. The second (larger) part of the video has hardly anything to do with Germany.
So how did he ‘rip off’ the Germans (as a Jew or otherwise)? Frankly speaking, I can’t find even a crazy reason for saying that. But let’s consider the other possibility.
If the comment is about video…
So if the comment is not about Einstein, which is very likely, then it must be about the video. In the sense that the video presents the Einstein story in such a way that it appears that Einstein ripped off the Germans as a Jew. It is easy to concede that the commenter (or should I say commentator?) may not have anything against Einstein (or Jews), but even if you make that concession, the problem still remains the same. The video, as far as I can see, presents the story quite accurately and with moderation and so on, I mean, I cannot see what is wrong with the video on this point, and more specifically, how does it suggest that Einstein ripped off the Germans as a Jew.
However, if you stop looking for reasons in Einstein’s story or in the video and fast forward to 21st century, a very plausible explanation emerges. After all, the comment has been made by a person living in the 21st century, near the end of the year 2012. The person is quite likely to view this (real life) story from the first part of the 20th century through the prism of the not so early days of the 21st century. There is nothing unusual about this, is there?
But why bother about the comment at all? First, because it poses a very interesting question that could shed some light on the a certain way of thinking. Second, it is not one of those abusive comments, in fact, it has been expressed quite eloquently, if somewhat cryptically. Third, anonymous comments by people on the Internet are often very good sources of information and insight because they are free from the burden of political correctness that makes, say, a basically sexist and racist person to adopt a ‘post-sexist’ and ‘post-racist’ terminology and pretend happily he is not a sexist or racist and that, say, he doesn’t like Charles Dickens because Dickens was a sexist and possibly a racist too. This is like a time-travelling moral trick played on human minds by history.
The Conceit of Development
Considering that the matter involves no less than Nazism and the Holocaust, it is remarkable that it is hard to guess whether the person who made the comment is an anti-Semite or a right wing nut, that is, in the usual sense. You could be excused for drawing the conclusion from the comment (based on the video) that the ripping off in this case involved denying the Nazis the pleasure of gassing the Great Jewish Scientist or at least of sending him to a concentration camp. That he escaped from their clutches. Considering that he was already an international celebrity, it is unlikely that even the Nazis would have tried to do that. It would be more accurate to say that they probably ‘encouraged’ him to leave in their own way. But the commenter seems sympathetic to Einstein. He, in fact, complains that the video is not ‘informative’, whatever he means by that.
So who is the commenter? I mean, not which individual, but to what society or ideology does he belong, i.e., where is he coming from?
At least two things are clear. One, that he is a votary of neoliberal capitalism, and two, that he is from a ‘developed’ country. Perhaps from Israel. Who knows?
For it does come across from his comment that he views Germany as a developed country and he views Jews as not being developed (then), or at least not belonging to a developed country (then). And by extension, he does not consider the Jewish Germans as Germans. That alone, in an earlier time could have qualified him as an anti-Semite and a possible Nazi (remember the 1946 Orson Welles film, The Stranger, in which a fugitive Nazi residing in a US small town gives himself away by making a remark about Karl Marx not being a German but a Jew?). But it would not do so in our times. Jews have their own country and it is Israel. Everyone has their own country and they should stay where they belong. The Superpowers can roam anywhere they want, though. And take anything they want. We will come back to this later.
Was Germany under the Nazis (or before the Nazis) a developed country? It seems debatable to me, to say the least. But if the commenter thinks so, it could be another time-travelling trick played on human mind by history, this time an economic one.
Before the Nazis, there was a ‘civilized’ world and an ‘uncivilized’ world. A world of superior races and a world of inferior races. Sometime after the Nazis, and still in our times, there is a ‘developed’ world and there is a ‘developing’ world. We have a world of competent people and a world of less competent people. The politically correct terminology has become ubiquitous. It is an essential part of our life now. It serves to cover many an inconvenient facts. Glaring facts. Horrific facts.
In particular, consider the word ‘developed’. What does it mean? What makes a country developed? The word is used very heavily in all kinds of contexts, but no one ever spells out what it actually means. However, if you listen to those using it, you could derive the intended meaning. In fact, you can derive two meanings. One of them seems to appear at a more conscious level and is constantly (and implicitly) thrown around on the mainstream media, in the ‘intellectual’ circles and even on the streets and in houses. This meaning of the word implies that a developed country (or a region) is a country with some of the following characteristics. High GDP. Widespread industrialisation. Infrastructure. The reserves in the banks. The number (and models) of cars on the roads. Certain human rights for the population, but this one is optional and is becoming more and more disposable. In general, the word implies a high level of consumption. If the meaning was explicitly stated, it would fit this sense quite well.
But there is another meaning, which was the dominant meaning at one time and which is still there, but which is not acknowledged, because acknowledging it would go against the basic tenets of Market Fundamentalism. This meaning has to do with the standard of living in the concerned country. If you leave it there, this meaning does not contradict the first meaning. More cars, bigger infrastructure does indicate a better standard of living, doesn’t it? The catch is in the qualification. The idea that a better standard of living means development has to be qualified by adding that the standard of living extends to all in that country. Or, at least, that there is a high minimal level of the standard of living that is accessible to almost everyone in the country, regardless of anything else. Only when, and where, this happens, we can say that the country is a developed country. In more specific terms: What is the number of poor people in the country? What is the minimum wage? What is the per capita food consumption (not the per capita fossil fuel consumption)? Is there a social security system? Is there a health care system?
I am, of course, side-stepping the issues of climate change and other costs of development here.
It was from the latter part of the second half of the 20th century (no secret) that the meaning of being developed, the meaning accepted by the Establishment and its supporters, changed from the second to the first. What made the developed countries of today ‘developed’ was the welfare state that made it possible for most of the population of these countries to reach a decent standard of living, even if there were still some who were living extremely affluent lives. The welfare state was not created through the goodwill of the Establishment, of course. It was created because innumerable people struggled for their rights and for a better world. Their struggles again and again reached such levels that the Establishment could not keep denying those rights without putting itself in danger of being overthrown completely. There were the examples of Russia and China, among others. Once it was done, however, the Establishment took credit for granting it, which is nothing to be surprised at, as it is almost a law of nature.
But since the Establishment had not granted it willingly, it set about dismantling the welfare state as soon as it could. Reagan and Thatcher are just two names in this context. The meaning of development had to change for this dismantling to take place. That is why development now means what it does and inclusion is not part of the project, though it is very much a part of the politically correct language.
But how did this development, I mean real development, i.e., development in the second sense, somewhat inclusive sense, come about?
The most prevalent answer in the developed world, and perhaps even the developing world, will be that the people of these countries (which became developed) were more competent. They were more productive. They were more innovative. They were more resourceful. It was through their ingenuity and their labour and their productivity that they developed their countries. The obvious implication is that all those countries which were not developed and are merely, and perennially, ‘developing’, did not have such competent, hard working, innovative people. Or if they had, they did not use their competence and their innovation and so on to develop themselves. In any case, they have themselves to blame. Even now, if they just follow the recipe given by the IMF and the World Bank, not to mention the WTO and NATO and NAFTA, they will reach the same level of development. That the empirical evidence overwhelmingly goes against this idea is a fact that is pushed under the carpet made of pretty looking and pleasant sounding words. The carpet is also (not-so-secretly) stuffed with weapons, including those of mass destruction.
So how did the developed countries became developed? The prevalent belief constitutes what can be called the Conceit of Development. This conceit is based on the denial of two central facts. One we have already hinted at, namely the struggles of innumerable people for their rights and for a better world. These people were usually crushed, and often crushed brutally. That is how much the Establishment fears real development. The denial of this fact allows the Establishment and its cronies to claim that their countries became developed solely through the efforts of the hard work and innovation of the more capable people of these countries, namely those with money and those who managed the money and those who managed the managing of money. Some credit is generously given to their hangers on. The trade unionists, the socialists, the anti-war activists and others of their kind had little (if anything) to do with the development. In fact, the development happened in spite of them. This is the internal conceit of development.
There is also an external conceit of development. And this is the one in which even those sections of the developed countries believe which are excluded from the current model of development and progress. For example, if you conduct a survey, you might find (I am sure you will find) that even the ‘proletariat’ of these countries, the working men and women of these countries, believe that they enjoy a better standard of living because they are more hard working and/or more competent than their counterparts in the developing countries. The dissident (capitalist) economist Ha-Joon Chang gives an illuminating example of this. There is a driver called Ram in India and there is driver called Sven in Sweden. Sven is paid 50 times what Ram is paid. Why should that be so? Is it conceivable that Sven is 50 times a better driver than Ram? If anything, Ram has to be more skilled to drive on Indian Roads. This is the external conceit of development.
This external part perhaps has an even longer and deeper history than the internal part. Ask that same question again. How did the developed countries become developed? Yes, there were struggles for rights and for better living conditions and against oppression and exploitation in general. But such struggles were there even in those countries which are merely developing. They keep on developing. There seems to be no end. And still they seem to get worse. That is, if you go by the second sense of the word, not the first. A country like India, for example, which has made a great leap in terms of the growth in GDP and the number of millionaires and billionaires, but is at the bottom in terms of Human Development Index and where 800 million (can you visualize that?) people live on less than half a dollar a day (is that comprehensible to you?).
This history of the kind of development we are talking about can be traced back to the start of the Industrial Revolution. How did that happen? Industry needs money. Where did it come from? The answers are simple and well documented, but they are not very palatable. Even before the Industrial Revolution came colonization. This meant that people from the now developed countries (which were not developed then) going to other countries which are developing now (but many of them were better off than the now developed countries in those days) and taking over those countries. That means literally taking them over. They went with the sword, not with peace, though they sometimes pretended the latter. They went with the biggest guns and gun-bearing ships the world had seen. Once they took over the countries, they destroyed the traditional industries in those countries. They plundered the wealth of those countries, natural or otherwise. They brought this wealth back to their own countries. From Philippines to Bolivia and from India to Arabia and elsewhere the same pattern was repeated. Africa, Asia and South America were plundered with brutality that is hard to imagine now, and is therefore easy to memory-repress and thereby forget. So was North America, but North America, once it had decimated the existing civilizations, became a branch of the British Empire and then an independent and even bigger empire itself. One could say that the two empires are still linked through Canada, apart from NATO.
Most of the funding for the Industrial Revolution in the West came from the looting and plundering of the colonized countries. It involved slavery and rampant racism and all the other bad things you can think of. In short, the developed countries of today became developed at least partly, it would be fair to say, to a large extent, through the exploitation of the countries that are now called developing countries.
In other words, the developed countries of today (including Germany) became developed by ‘ripping off’ (tearing apart, shredding to pieces and then pulverizing) the developing countries such as India and Congo and Bolivia and Indonesia and you name them.
My reading of the comment about the Einstein video is that there are some developed countries and there are some undeveloped countries. Sometimes people from the undeveloped countries go to the developed countries. For ‘better economic opportunities’, let us say. The developed countries have acquired their wealth through hard work and innovation and so on. Therefore these people from the the undeveloped countries should not take advantage of their rich hosts. They should not ‘rip off’ them. They should stay for some time. Not insist on any rights. And then they should leave when they are no longer needed. Setting aside the time-travelling historical tricks, this kind of view is based on the Conceit of Development and it inverts the historical reality.
The two strands of the Conceit of Development are weaved together with a third, namely, the Conceit of Individual Progress, aka Ayn Randism (actually, a corrupted version of even that): If you don’t progress in your life, it is your own fault. You are not competent enough. Those who get rich, or powerful, or succeed in any way, must be more competent. A form of this conceit has made its way even among the dissidents, and which seems to say that if you don’t succeed in your protest, it is your own fault.
The thread of the three strands is then used to spin a web of deceit.
So much for Globalization. Or, to be more accurate, so little for Globalization.
Of course, one glaring irony here is about the establishment and ‘development’ of Israel and at whose cost it has been achieved. But that is a digression.
By no means do I want to suggest that the people (and, even more, the leaders) of the developing countries bear no responsibility for the conditions of living in those countries. Give credit where credit is due, give blame where blame is due, but the greater part of the credit (or the blame) goes to the widely known (but less widely acknowledged) and heavily documented reality that I have outlined above. About the internal conceit and, more so, about the external conceit.
I spent the time writing all this about this tiny comment partly also because it lays bare to me the spirit or the thinking that is widely prevalent in the developed countries. It is so obscenely dominant that you just have to listen to Obama giving speeches about The Greatest Country in the World, as if all others are just so many dregs on the Planet. But that country has been great to Obama personally, so he does have some justification to say this.
And this spirit and this thinking is being put in force on the ground. It is not just something abstract and harmless. It is being implemented through what are euphemistically called ‘immigration reforms’. It is being implemented through Border Controls. It is being enforced through neighborhood watches and local commune-and-community networks and institutions in the developed countries. The Elites of the developing countries are complicit in this, by the way.
One of the dissident media websites that I regularly read is Open Democracy. It often publishes articles about how badly the asylum seekers in Britain and in other European countries are being treated. And one common comment against these articles is along the lines of “why should we take on the wreckage of the world, they are the responsibility of their own countries”.
It has been reported that the single biggest reason for Obama’s resounding victory this time was the support from the Latino community. And yet, just recently, the same Obama has overseen the deportation of more people than at any time in the US history, which is saying something, given that the US is almost entirely a country of immigrants. Most of these people were Latino. And still, the Latino community is likely to keep supporting Obama. Even more so now than in the past. Where else could they turn? It would not be out of place to mention here that a large fraction of the current US territory was stolen from Mexico in the first place. Or I should say in the second place, because in the first place all the territory was stolen from the Native Americans.
We live in times where the Establishment has perfected its dark arts and darker sciences to such an extent that the victims are not forced, but moved to voluntarily support the perpetrators and to seek refuge with them.
The Nazis were not smart enough. The Establishment has learnt some lessons from their downfall and from the downfall of others, like those in the former USSR.
Meanwhile, the resource transfer from the Global South to the Global North continues, albeit at a slower pace. The exploitation of the cheap labour of the South through sweatshops continues too. And what about intellectual property? It becomes intellectual only when it gets a stamp from the North. And it becomes property only if the North shares in some way in the ownership.
And the conceit grows louder and shriller. And border walls become thicker and thicker. And all this accelerated with the fall of, you know, the Berlin Wall.