The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label evil. Show all posts
Showing posts with label evil. Show all posts

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Are the Evil Gods Returning? Or is Evil is Inside us?


Benito Mussolini in 1922: is this the face of evil? Maybe, but Mussolini was not worshiping evil deities, he was not eating babies, he was not making human sacrifices. He wasn't even indulging in bouts of satanic laughter, as evil characters are supposed to do. There was nothing behind the mask. Mussolini was just a victim of his own propaganda.  

As a devoted reader of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, I have always found the idea of evil deities fascinating. The existence of supernatural entities that somehow control people's minds could explain a lot of things that otherwise would seem impossible to understand. But Lovecraft's horror stories are so over the top that they are not really scary. His evil Gods are comic book characters, clumsy creatures haunting dark and desolate places. Not even the mighty Cthulhu and his minions ever directly intervened in human political decisions. 

Yet, sometimes you have the sensation that something truly evil is moving in the world. Naomi Wolf expressed the idea most clearly in a recent post of hers.   

I could not explain the way the Western world simply switched from being based at least overtly on values of human rights and decency, to values of death, exclusion and hatred, overnight, en masse — without reference to some metaphysical evil that goes above and beyond fallible, blundering human agency. ...

What we have lived through since 2020 is so sophisticated, so massive, so evil, and executed in such inhumane unison, that it cannot be accounted for without venturing into metaphysics. Something else, something metaphysical, must have done that. And I speak as a devoted rationalist.

Lately, I've been thinking along similar lines. I even argued that worshiping the evil deity Baphomet could be a good idea for really nasty people who want to dominate the world. Overall, though, I think it is not the right explanation. No matter how inexplicable the rise of evil can look, it is still something that comes from inside us, not from the outside. Evil is us, eventually.

The recent release of the "Lockdown Files" in Britain supports this idea. These files contain the messages sent and received by Matt Hancock, the British Secretary of State for Health and Social Care during the lockdown period in Britain. In these messages, Hancock doesn't sound evil. He just writes as if he cared only about himself and his personal prestige. He wanted to "own the exit," and he didn't care about the British people, whom he evidently considered a band of morons. We were mistreated by dumb bureaucrats, not by the minions of evil deities.

Now, I have a stated policy that I call the "Grokking Strategy" that consists in listening to everyone and trusting no one. So, I am perfectly willing to consider the hypothesis that the Hancock files are a psyop designed to divert the public's attention away from the hidden forces that governed the reaction to the pandemic. On the whole, though, I think these files are genuine. They make sense, and they also match other examples of the same kind. For instance, we recently saw similar leaks of messages sent and received by the Italian equivalent of Hancock, Mr. Roberto Speranza, Minister of Health of the Italian government during the lockdown period. We can't swear on the authenticity of these leaked messages, but they fit with the personality of Mr. Speranza. Like Hancock, he was clearly trying to "own the exit." In late 2020, he published an autobiographical book designed to show how he had been valiantly fighting the virus and eventually had succeeded in squashing it. The book was quietly removed from the market when it turned out that the pandemic was not over. Now a printed copy is a rare collector's item.

Speranza and Hancock are just examples of the attitude of many people who reach the top. They are psychopaths, caring only about themselves, unable to feel anything for other people. They have zero or nearly zero empathy. Hannah Arendt describes this attitude for Adolf Eichmann, the German war criminal executed in 1962. 

What he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”

We find another example of this attitude with Benito Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943, and part of it up to 1945. For him, we have the equivalent of the leaked messages by Hancock and Speranza in the diary kept by his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who acted as foreign minister up to 1943. In a post of mine I described how the diary tells us of a man who had lost all contact with reality. Mussolini had no friends, just lackeys. He wasn't listening to anyone; he was giving orders. He was not asking questions; he had all the answers. He was not learning from his mistakes; they were always someone else's fault. Worst of all, he had no respect for the life of the people he was supposed to rule. Just as an example, during a cold wave in winter, he was rejoicing because "the weak die, and the race becomes stronger." In 1943, Mussolini ordered the execution of his son-in-law. He didn't care even about the members of his own family. 

Was Mussolini pursuing an evil plan of his own creation? No, he never had structured ideas or plans. You may have some hints of his thoughts from his 1911 novel: "The Lover of the Cardinal." About it. I wrote:

.... I was curious about the possibility of gathering some hints about Mussolini's personality. Maybe his dreams, his goals as a young man, his ideals, this kind of things. But there is nothing like that in the novel. The author comes out of it as shallow as his characters. Which I think is what Mussolini probably was. A shallow character, of modest culture, with no real ideals, and with just a few ideas, but confused. 

Yet, a whole nation followed this man into doing whatever he thought was to be done. Let's skip the many disastrous strategic mistakes he made, and let's just focus on one that was pure evil: the persecution of the Italian Jews. It started in the mid-1930s, and it was a crescendo of harassment and mistreatment. The "racial laws" were enacted in 1938, and the Jews saw themselves fired from their jobs, forbidden to work, and, in many cases, forced to exile. Jews could not be administrators or doorkeepers of houses inhabited by Aryans, dealers in valuables, photographers, sellers of books, children's items, playing cards, and stationery. Jews were also forbidden to be licensed as amateur fishermen, to publish mortuary announcements, to include their names in telephone directories, to own and sell radios, and to join sports or recreational societies. They were forbidden to play chess in chess clubs. Even the Italian "Science" was compact in condemning Jews as an inferior race based on what was presented as a certain and undisputable set of data. See in the image the front cover of a 1938 Italian magazine: it is self-explanatory ("La difesa della razza" means "the defense of the race").

Now, picture yourself in Italy in the 1930s. Why this avalanche of hate against a group of Italian citizens? Many of them had fought for Italy during the Great War, and many were intellectuals, professionals, industrialists, and active elements of the Italian economy. They were indistinguishable from the "normal" Italians, except for their religious beliefs, But even that was not the point, because even those Jews who had converted to Christianity were targeted by the racial laws. You were just subjected to a wave of hate against Jews that pervaded the media of the time: mainly radio and the press.

Who exactly was masterminding this campaign? Obviously, it was created and controlled by members of the Fascist party or by government officials (the two things had mostly merged into a single entity in the 1930s). And, of course, once the story started, there were people or groups of people who directly benefitted from the persecution. Non-Jews took over the positions left free by Jews. For instance, university professors seem to have been more than happy to see their Jewish colleagues fired. At least, no non-Jewish professors protested against the mistreatment of their Jewish colleagues. Others profited from the confiscation of Jews' goods and property. Then, the military industry had everything to gain from a wave of hate that was clearly leading to war. But the surprising point is how the hate percolated through all sectors of society when most Italians had nothing to gain from the persecution. Mussolini himself had no obvious interest in taking an anti-semitic stance. He had taken over the Italian Government in 1922 without the need to demonize Jews, and in 1938 he was safe and secure in his position after the success of the Ethiopian campaign (*). I would surmise that he was a victim of his own propaganda.

Wouldn't you think that some evil deities were at work in causing this disaster? But the Italian Fascists were not the minions of an evil cult. And we don't have evidence that Mussolini himself was a puppet of supernatural entities or of human lobbies. The British secret services may have pushed him to make some of his many strategic mistakes, but there is no evidence that they had a role in the anti-semitic campaign. Evil didn't originate from Mussolini, nor from evil deities behind him. It was generated by ordinary people, just like you and me, who fell into the trap of propaganda. It is easy: you know that the road to Hell is smooth and easy. 

I think there the persecution of Jews in Italy is one of the best examples in history of the phenomenon that Mattias Desmet calls "Mass Formation." It was a self-reinforcing phenomenon: the Italian press started telling people that Jews were evil, people were believing what they were told, and that led the press to step up their accusations, convincing people even more.  And that went on, unchecked: a spiral of evil growing on itself. Soon, nobody, not even the Catholic Church, dared to say a word to defend their fellow Italian citizens so unfairly discriminated against. All the self-reinforcing phenomena tend to grow rapidly, even exponentially. And that was what happened with the anti-semitic campaign in Italy. It grew to the point when concentration camps started being built for the Jews, then these camps became extermination camps. Fortunately, the whole thing crashed with the defeat of Italy in WWII before it could reach the level of the parallel German extermination program. It was a perfect example of a Seneca Cliff -- even evil is subjected to slow growth and fast collapse. 

During the past three years, the whole world has been walking along a dangerous and slippery road toward Hell. In Italy, the Covid policies didn't arrive at the creation of concentration camps, but we got very close to that. They were actually created in Australia. Then, miraculously, something happened that defused the whole thing. Now the story seems to be over, and most people just want to forget about that, just like Italians want to forget the mistreatment that their grandparents and great-grandparents inflicted on Jews. But the elements that created these waves of hate are all in place, and we are all subjected to being affected by a propaganda campaign designed to demonize someone. Who will be the next victims?

(*) I have an idea about what could have been going on in Mussolini's head. It goes like this. First, there is no evidence that Mussolini had anti-semitic ideas for most of his political career. He never wrote anything about Jews, and even in his 1911 novel, the Cardinal's lover, there is no trace of anti-semitism. Mussolini even had a Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti (1880-1961), an intellectual, artist, and writer, from when they met in Milano in 1911. But, in 1933, Mussolini took a younger woman as mistress, unceremoniously dumping the older Sarfatti. From then on, Mussolini started to encourage anti-semitism, becoming a rabid anti-semite himself. Was the whole idea of persecuting the Jews a result of Mussolini's personal dislike of his former Jewish lover? Who can say? If a butterfly can start a hurricane by flapping its wings, some of the mass murders of WWII might have started from a bedroom quarrel. But we will never know. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Decline of Science: Why we Need a new Paradigm for the Third Millennium

I am not saying that all science is corrupt, but if images like the one above exist, it means that there is a serious problem of corruption in science. And note that it comes from "Scientific American" -- not exactly your average tabloid! It may well be that Science is going the way many historical belief systems went: abandoned because they were not consistent with the needs of their times. And, as in ancient times, the decline of a system of beliefs starts with the corruption of its main supporters -- in this case, scientists.


If you read the "Decameron," written by Giovanni Boccaccio in 1370, you will notice the slandering of the Christian Church as a pervasive thread. At that time, it seems that it was an obvious fact that priests, monks, nuns, and the like were corrupt people who had abandoned their ideals to fall into various sins: avarice, gluttony, blasphemy, carnal lust, and more.  

Boccaccio's book would not have been possible a few centuries before, when the Christian Church still enjoyed enormous prestige. But something had changed in the European society that was gradually making the Church obsolete. It was unavoidable: ideas, just like empires, are cyclical, they grow, peak, and then decline. Christianity had been born during the late Roman Empire when the European society had no use for the warlike ideals of ancient paganism. Christianity took over and created a system of beliefs that was compatible with a society with no imperial ambitions. But, with the waning of the Middle Ages, Europe became rich again and the Church started to be seen as an obstacle to economic and military expansion. Boccaccio was the voice of a new mercantile class that saw money as an instrument of growth and that didn't want to be ruled by a priestly class that preached poverty and self-punishment. 

It would take more than a century after Boccaccio before things came to a head when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg in 1517. After Luther, another turning point arrived some 30 years later with the so-called "Controversy of Valladolid," a debate that took place in 1550 and 1551 in the city of Valladolid, in Spain. It was about the status of the Native Americans. For most of us, what we remember about this story is a grotesquely deformed narrative of solemn Spanish inquisitors debating on whether the Native Americans had souls or not and that the conclusion was that they didn't. That gave a free hand to the conquistadores to kill and enslave the natives at will. 

The reality was much different. Below, you'll find a hugely interesting post by Paul Jorion that tells the true story: the result of the Valladolid debate was a victory for the rights of the natives. But, as you might expect, the voice of the Church was mostly ignored while the debate was turned into anti-Spanish propaganda by those who were actually exterminating the Native Americans: the British and North European colonists. The Catholic Church received such a blow from this campaign that it never completely recovered from it.

An unexpected result of the Valladolid debate was a return of Paganism in art. (I tell this story in my blog, "Chimeras"). During the debate, one of the discussants, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, tried to justify the enslaving of Native Americans by arguing that the Pagan society of classical times was not inferior to the modern one. And that, since in those times slavery was commonly practiced, then it could be practiced by good Christians, as well. 

Sepulveda's point was not accepted in Valladolid, but it seemed to resonate with the European views of the time. Paganism used to be considered the very essence of evil during the Middle Ages, but it became fashionable. You see that especially during the 19th century, when a cultured European person could not avoid having in his library at least one "breviary of mythology" that listed and described ancient Pagan deities. Thomas Bullfinch's "Mythology" (first published in 1855) was especially popular in the English speaking world. 

Bullfinch's paganism was mostly a game for intellectuals and it never trickled down to ordinary people in the form of an organized cult. But the European belief system evolved into something that had no rules preventing the ruthless exploitation of natural resources, be they minerals, living creatures, or people who could be branded as "savages." This new system was supposed to avoid a repetition of the Valladolid controversy. It was called "science." 

The transition took some time and it is still partly ongoing, but Science clearly won the battle, relegating Christianity to a set of superstitions good only for old women and peasants. Instead, science was the right belief system for the Imperial Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries. It emphasized competition, survival of the fittest, economic growth, and wealth for those who could catch the right opportunities. This attitude probably peaked in mid 20th century with dreams about the human "conquest of space" to restart the saga of the conquest of the New World. 

Alas, not all dreams can be turned into reality. By the second half of the 20th century, it was becoming clear that economic expansion was destroying the very resources that had made it possible. At the same time, pollution in the form of climate change was leading the whole planetary ecosystem to collapse. Humankind was, again, facing the need for a paradigm shift and, as usual, not everyone agreed on what was to be done. 

A modern equivalent of Luther's 95 theses was the report titled "The Limits to Growth," published in 1972. The report noted the depletion of natural resources and the effect of pollution; two factors that, together with the increasing human population, were leading humankind to a major collapse for some moment in the mid 21st century. The report strongly argued in favor of stopping economic growth and stabilizing the human population before it was too late. 

The result was a debate in some respects similar to that of Valladolid, in the 16th century. The human memesphere split into two factions: one that wanted to keep the expansion going, the other stating that it was time to stop. 

The evolution of the debate has seen the enlargement of the split between the two factions. The supporters of science brand their opponents as "catastrophists" and argue that all the problems created by science could be solved by more science. The idea is that we need science to develop new sources of energy, and substitute dwindling natural resources with new, more abundant, ones (in a moment of peculiar hubris, this idea was called "the principle of infinite substitutability"). The other side started using the term "scientism" to emphasize the ideological character that science was taking. The catastrophists keep calling for a managed retreat from the overexploitation of natural resources.

So far, scientism has maintained the upper hand in the debate, but the worsening of the worldwide situation has led its supporters to take a rigid position that reminds that of the inquisition of the Catholic Church. It is "Technopopulism" an unholy alliance of scientists and politicians. They seem to operate on the assumption that what science says cannot be discussed because it is science, and that science is whatever they decide it is. Debates are not allowed anymore, opponents are branded as "deniers," while doubts are considered heresy. Fortunately, the technopopulists don't have the power to burn their opponents at the stake (not yet).

But times are changing fast. Much faster than they were changing at the time of the controversy of Valladolid. So, the technopopulists are spreading the seed of their own destruction. Forced into an ideological straitjacket, science is suffering badly: scientists are human beings and they are not invulnerable to corruption. And corruption is spreading rapidly, especially in those areas where science is in strict contact with profitable markets: medicine, chemicals, cosmetics, food, energy, and others. In addition, science suffers from cronyism, elitism, inability to innovate, lack of standards, self-referencing, and more. We are seeing an enormous problem with scientific reports based on falsified data or on experiments never done. We arrived to the point that it has been claimed that "It is time to assume that health research is fraudulent until proven otherwise"

Clearly, we can't keep going in this way, but since very little or nothing is done to stop the trend, the result can only be that the public is losing trust in science, at least the way science is understood today. It is possible that in the future science will go through a defamation campaign similar to the one that turned the Catholic faith into a heap of superstitions. Science will likely be accused to have been the major force involved in the destruction of Earth's ecosystem and scientists will be accused of having operated exactly with that purpose. Some of them actually did, but the many who tried to oppose the destruction will be forgotten or their work misunderstood. Their attempts to redress the situation will be used as an act of accusation against science, just as the mistreatment of the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists was used as an indictment against the Christian religion.

So, what will replace science? For the time being, Christianity has been completely blown out of the holy water by the technopopulist offensive. Most Christians are still wondering about what hit them. They haven't recognized how they are being pushed into irrelevance by not reacting against the beliefs that scientism is imposing on them. But, in a non-remote future, we might see an evolution parallel to the shift that occurred during the 16th century. At that time, Paganism resurfaced as an alternative to Christianity. Now, Christianity may resurface as an alternative to science. Alexander Dugin is a good example of this return to older views. 

But things always change and never return the same. Christianity absorbed and reworked many Pagan beliefs, just like science absorbed many Christian ways of doing things, with, for instance, universities acting very much like Christian monasteries. So, whatever will replace science, will maintain much of the science of old, except that it will be reframed in forms more suitable for the new views of the world. And some sections of science -- perhaps most of it -- will be flatly branded as "evil," just like the ancient Gods were rebranded as demons and monsters. 

Then, the great cycle will restart, and we'll see where it takes us. Maybe it will be a new form of Christianity, maybe a new form of Paganism, a Gaian cult of some kind. The beauty of the future is that nobody can force it to be what they want it to be. 

See also "The Roots of the Great European shift from Christian to Pagan Figurative Art Subjects"

The Valladolid Controversy

by Paul Jorion June 23, 2021 (translation by UB)

The "quarrel" or "controversy" of Valladolid (1550-1551) will find its place in the panorama of anthropology that I am writing at the moment. Since this is a subject that I am new to and where I cannot avail myself of any expertise, please be kind enough to point out to me any factual errors I make. Thank you in advance!

In 1550 and 1551 there took place in the city of Valladolid in Spain what would go down in history as the "quarrel" or "controversy" named after this city in the province of Castile and Leon. What was it? It dealt with the Christian European civilization behaving like an unscrupulous invader on a continent of which it knew nothing, within populations of which it was until then unaware of the very existence, which it then discovered in real-time as it grew on the territories of the New World, and the devastation that accompanied this advance.

What all this meant was to define how the winners would now treat the vanquished and that would be the question posed in a great debate that would span a period of two years and in which two champions of Spanish thought of that time would face off against each other. Great intellectual and ethical problems had to be solved in the scholastic tradition still of a disputatio, in front of the enlightened public of what we would call today a commission, which would decide at the end of the debate which of the two speakers was right. There were mostly Church people there.

On stage, there were two thinkers solemnly defending one and the other, opposing points of view. They clashed at the level of ideas by mobilizing all the art of dialectics: an art that intended to convince, specific to the discourses held in ancient Greece on an agora. To defend one point of view, Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490-1573) who in a nutshell considers the inhabitants of the New World to be cruel Savages and that the question was, essentially, how to save them from themselves. And, to defend the opposing point of view, the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), who affirms that the Amerindians are, like the Europeans, human beings, whose differences should not be exaggerated with them, and that it is a question of integrating peacefully into a Christian society by conviction rather than by force.

The brutal conquest of Mexico took place from 1519 to 1521, and the equally bloody conquest of Peru from 1528 to 1532. We are now in 1550, almost twenty years after this latter date. The situation, from the point of view of the Spaniards, is that they have won: a huge empire of New Spain has been conquered by secular Spain. It is a victory, even if internal quarrels continue, on the one hand between the colonized, as at the time of the conquest, which their incessant dissensions had fostered, and on the other hand between the colonizers themselves, manifested by a litany of palace revolutions and assassinations of conquistadors between them, and that in Peru as in Mexico.

But the time has come for Charles V (1500-1558), “Emperor of the Romans”, to take a break. We must think about how to treat these conquered populations, decimated in equal parts by battles and massacres, and by the ravages of smallpox and measles, against which the local populations were helpless, having no immunity to these diseases hitherto absent from the continent. It is considered today that Mexico had some 25 million inhabitants on the eve of the first landing of the Spaniards in 1498. In 1568, the population was estimated at no more than 3 million and, it is believed that in 1620 there were only a million and a half Mexicans left.

The phase still to come would no longer be that of Mexico or Peru, whose conquest was completed and where colonization was then carried out well, but that of Paraguay, which would begin in 1585, thirty-five years later. Charles V, an enlightened sovereign, just like his rival François I, his contemporary: two kings who reflect, who are not only warriors, who ask themselves questions about history, knowing that they are major players. They share a conception of the world enlightened by the same religion: Catholicism. The reign of Charles V will end a few years later: in 1555. It will then be his son Philippe who will become sovereign of Spain and the Netherlands. Later, in 1580, he will also be King of Portugal. Charles V demands that any new conquest be interrupted as long as Las Casas and Sepulveda exchange their arguments on the question of the status to be recognized for the indigenous populations of the New World.

Charles V had not, however, remained indifferent to these questions until then: already in 1526, 24 years before the Valladolid controversy, he had issued a decree prohibiting the slavery of Amerindians throughout the territory, and in 1542, he had promulgated new laws which proclaimed the natural freedom of the Amerindians and obliged to release those who had been reduced to slavery: freedom of work, freedom of residence and free ownership of property, punishing, in principle, those who were would be violent and aggressive towards Native Americans.

Paul III was Pope from 1534 to 1549. In 1537, thirteen years before the start of the Valladolid controversy, in the papal bull Sublimis Deus and in the letter Veritas Ipsa, he had officially condemned, in the name of the Catholic Church, the slavery of Native Americans. The declaration was “universal”, that is to say that it was applicable wherever the Christian world could still discover populations which were unknown to it on the surface of the globe: it was said in Sublimis Deus: “… and of all peoples which may later be discovered by Christians ”. And in both documents, so in Veritas Ipsa also: “Indians and other peoples are real human beings”.

When the quarrel began, Julius III had just succeeded Paul III: he was enthroned on February 22, 1550. The general principle, for Charles V, is that of alignment with Church policy.

In the "quarrel" or "controversy" of Valladolid, one of the moments of solemn reflection of humanity on itself, it is not the Church, but the Kingdom of Spain, which summons religious authorities, experts, to try to answer the question "What can be done so that the conquests still to come in the New World are done with justice and in security of conscience?".

It is heartbreaking that the tv film “La controverse de Valladolid” (1992), by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe, with Jean-Pierre Marielle in the role of Las Casas and Jean-Louis Trintignant in that of Sepulveda, as well as the novel by Jean- Claude Carrière, from whom he was inspired, took such liberties with historical truth that it was affirmed that the central question in the quarrel was to determine whether the Amerindians had a soul. No: this question had been settled by the Church without public debate thirteen years earlier. Sublimis Deus affirms that their property and their freedom must be respected, and further specifies "even if they remain outside the faith of Jesus Christ", that is to say, that the same attitude must be maintained even if they are rebellious to conversion. It is written in the Veritas Ipsa bull that Native Americans are to be "invited to the said faith of Christ by the preaching of the word of God and by the example of a righteous life." In 1537: thirteen years before the commission met.

The question of the soul of the Amerindians was of course raised in Valladolid, but in no way to try to resolve it: on this level, it was a closed issue. In reality, it had been resolved in fact by the Spanish invaders: it would have been possible to summon young men and women of mixed race in their twenties to Valladolid, including Martin, son of Ernan Cortés and Doña Marina, “La Malinche,” living proof that the human species had recognized itself as “one and indivisible” in the field and that the question of whether these people, whom their mother could accompany if necessary, dressed in Spanish fashion, and most often militants of Christianity in their actions and in their words, had a soul, would have been an entirely abstract and ridiculous question, the problem having been solved by the facts: in the interbreeding which immediately took place, in this reality that men and women have recognized themselves sufficiently similar not only to mate and immediately procreate, but to sanctify their marriage, in a sumptuous way for the richest, according to the rites of the Church. Circumstances, it should be noted, were the opposite of what would be observed in North America, then in the case of almost all Protestant settlers - with the exception of Quebec - from the end of the 16th century.

The meetings in Valladolid will be held twice over a month, in 1550 and then in 1551, but most of the texts available to us are not transcripts of the debates: they are correspondence between the parties involved: Juan Gines de Sepulveda, Bartolomé de Las Casas, and the members of the commission.

Las Casas had first been himself an encomendero, a slave settler: he managed plantations where Native American slaves were initially employed found, plantations in which, reacting to the Church's commands to give back their freedom to the natives enslaved, that he ceased to exploit, with others: blacks imported from Africa. There will be a great regret in his life, he will talk about that later. Most of the encomenderos were not as attentive as Las Casas to instructions from the mother country or the Vatican. Already in 1511, in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Antonio de Montesinos, who exercised a decisive influence on Las Casas, refused the sacraments and threatened with excommunication those among them whom he considered unworthy. Here is his famous sermon:

"I am the voice of the One who cries in the desert of this island and that is why you must listen to me attentively This voice is the newest you have ever heard, the harshest and the most tough. This voice tells you that you are all in a state of mortal sin; in sin you live and die because of the cruelty and tyranny with which you overwhelm this innocent race.
Tell me, what right and what justice authorize you to keep the Indians in such dreadful servitude? In the name of what authority have you waged such hateful wars against those peoples who lived in their lands in a gentle and peaceful way, where a considerable number of them were destroyed by you and died in yet another way? never seen as it is so atrocious? How do you keep them oppressed and overwhelmed, without giving them food, without treating them in their illnesses which come from excessive work with which you overwhelm them and from which they die? To put it more accurately, you kill them to get a little more gold every day.
And what care do you take to instruct them in our religion so that they know God our Creator, so that they are baptized, that they hear Mass, that they observe Sundays and other obligations?
Are they not men? Are they not human beings? Must you not love them as yourselves?
Be certain that by doing so, you cannot save yourself any more than the Moors and Turks who refuse faith in Jesus Christ. "

Las Casas' reflections led him to give up this role of planter and he took a step back for several years. Charles V then offered him access to vast lands in Venezuela on which he could implement the policy he now advocated towards the Amerindians: no longer the use of force, but the power of conviction and conversion by example. Las Casas is a thomist. Following the line drawn by Thomas Aquinas, he reads in human society a given of nature. It is not a question of cultural heritage, that is to say of the fruit of the deliberations of men, but of a gift from God, so that all societies are of equal dignity and a society of Pagans. is no less legitimate than a society of Christians and it is wrong to attempt to convert its members by force. The propagation of the faith must be done in an evangelical way, namely by virtue of example.

Facing Las Casas, there stands Sepulveda, an Aristotelian philosopher who finds in the texts of his mentor, not a justification for slavery, absent in fact from the texts of the Stagirite, but the description and the explanation found there of the slave society of ancient Greece, represented as a functional set of institutions: a legitimate model of human society. Sepulveda considers slavery, obedience to orders, to be the proper status of a people who, left to themselves, commit, as we can see, nameless abominations. Sepulveda finds argument in the atrocities committed, in particular the uninterrupted practice of human sacrifice, for which the populations brutally enslaved by the dominant society of the moment constitute an inexhaustible source of victims, but also their anthropophagy, as well as their practice of incest. in the European sense of the term: fraternal and sororal incest within the framework of princely families in Mexico, "incestuous promiscuity" if you will, in the pooling of women among brothers, a difficulty that the Jesuits later encountered in the case of the Guaranis of Paraguay, which they will resolve by banning the “longhouse”, the collective dwelling of siblings.

Las Casas responds to Sepulveda by stressing that the Spanish civilization is no less brutal: "We do not find in the customs of the Indians of greater cruelty than that which we ourselves had in the civilizations of the old world." Very diplomatically, he draws his examples from the past and says "formerly." "In the past, we manifested a similar cruelty", highlighting for example the gladiatorial fights of ancient Rome. He also draws his argument from the monumental architecture of the Aztecs as proof of their civilization.

If the two points of view presented differ, and even if their positions are considered diametrically opposed, the two parties agree on the fact that the invaders not only have rights to exercise over the Amerindians but also duties towards them, and in particular, in the context of the time and the question to be answered, there is no dispute between them as to the duty to convert: this is the dimension strictly speaking "Catholic" from the very framework of the debate. Their difference lies in their respective recommendations of the methods to be used: peaceful colonization and exemplary life for Las Casas and, for Sepulveda, institutional colonization based on coercion, given the brutal features of the very culture of the pre-Columbian populations.

Let us remember: two extremely brutal contexts on both sides, to the point that Las Casas, at the end of his life, will write a small book devoted only to the atrocities committed by the conquistadors, a small book in which that propaganda will systematically exploit against Spain, by its rivals: the Netherlands, France and England, although this does not mean that these nations will not also be guilty of the same crimes in the territories that they will annex in their business colonial. Mutual surveillance therefore of European nations vis-à-vis possible abuses committed by others, from a diplomatic perspective of foreign policy.

The controversy officially ended in 1551 when Charles V, on the recommendations of the commission, formalized the position defended by Las Casas. It will therefore be by invoking the Gospels and by example, that conversion should continue and not at the point of the sword.

A victory which, however, will not immediately have enormous consequences on the ground, any more than the papal bulls had had before it. The encomenderos will respect only weakly the injunctions coming from the mother country. Wars between Native American tribes will continue despite the presence of missionaries and a small military contingent. The bandeirantes of Sao Paulo will organize raids, supplying the encomenderos with prisoners, who will be on the plantations, so many de facto slaves. Etc.

A year after the controversy was ended, in 1552, Las Casas undertook to write his "Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias", the very brief account of the destruction of the Indies, which will therefore be his testimony on the atrocities, on the atrocities, of the colonization of New Spain by the Spaniards.

When, from the end of the same century, missions are founded in Paraguay, called "Reductions", it will be in the exact line of the proposals of Las Casas.

It will be essentially Las Casas who will obtain, thanks to his vibrant plea in favor of the local populations, that the question of slavery is closed once and for all in Central and South America: there will be no indigenous slaves, Amerindians will be considered as full citizens and, as an unexpected consequence, since the Church has not pronounced on the question of knowing whether Africans could be enslaved or not, the Spanish and Portuguese authorities will consider that the decision in favor of the position of Las Casas opens suddenly the possibility of a systematic exploitation of the African populations to draw there the stock of slaves required by the plantations of the New World. It is Las Casas who will be in a way responsible for an acceleration of the slavery of Africans insofar as the authorities both civil and ecclesiastical, by discouraging the enslavement of the Amerindians, will indirectly encourage the planters to turn, as a replacement, towards the slave trade in African blacks, a situation in which Las Casas found himself at the time when he was encomendero. In his correspondence, at the end of his life, he was bitterly criticized for having indirectly been the cause of the aggravated enslavement of Africans.

The sincere concern of Bartolomé de Las Casas to spare the Amerindians, preserved them from the even more tragic fate of their brothers and sisters of North America within the framework of an essentially English colonization which, from the start, consisted of spoliation and genocide without any interbreeding.


Note: Paul Jorion describes Charles 5th as an "enlightened king." By all means, he was. If you can still see the city of Florence as it was during the Renaissance, if you can still admire the works of art of people such as Michelangelo and Benvenuto Cellini, it is because in 1530 Charles 5th ordered to treat the Florentines with clemency after that the Republican forces had been defeated and Florence taken by the Imperial Army. Honor to a king who deserved it.


Monday, May 10, 2021

Memes that Kill: Witch Burning and Other Extraordinary Popular Delusions

A modern interpretation of Anna Göldi, executed in 1782 for witchcraft in Glarus, Switzerland. She is said to have been the last witch killed in Europe, at least as the result of a formal trial. The story of the great witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries remains a mystery in many respects. What caused this folly to take hold of the minds of the Europeans? And what caused that folly to abate? It turns out that evil has a natural cycle of growth and decline. It is possible to accelerate the decline of a killer meme if good people get together in rejecting it.

In 1841, Charles MacKay published his "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of the Crowds." It was a milestone: the first study in the field that today we call memetics, a term coined by Richard Dawkins for how ideas ("memes") spread in the collective human consciousness. MacKay was perhaps the first to state publicly that the great witch hunts of the late 16th and early 17th centuries were a form of collective madness. Not even Voltaire (1694-1778) had touched on that subject, despite his criticism of all kinds of religious superstitions

As exterminations go, the war on witches was not the worst on record. In Europe, it caused about 50 thousand victims over a little more than a century. But it was so shockingly cruel in targeting mostly helpless women that it is remembered to this day as a form of collective madness. With us, the expression "witch hunt" is even proverbial. 

The extermination of the European witches generated plenty of studies in modern times, mostly concentrated on the causes of the phenomenon. Explanations are many but, in general, it is agreed that it was related to the stress generated by the Reformation and the associated wars. Apparently, torturing and killing women was a form of stress release. The human mind must have plenty of serious problems, evidently, but this much we know not just because of witch hunting.

In any case, it happened, and we should be happy that it didn't last more than it did. But this generates another question: what made the hunt cease? It is a fundamental point: if we could understand what makes people stop believing in killer memes, we might stop them earlier. 

But few of the studies examining the war on witches make a specific effort to understand why the hunting ceased. The general idea seems to be that when the conditions that caused the hunt disappeared, things returned to their normal state. Sometimes, it is also proposed that the enlightenment movement put an end to the killings. Lesson and Ross (1) proposed in 2018 that:

"The seventeenth century, however, was the time of the scientific revolution, whose effects may have eventually eroded popular belief in witchcraft, eroding popular demand for witchcraft prosecutions along with it until witch trials could finally be easily abandoned by religious producers. "

Not to disparage a study that's excellent in many respects, but this interpretation seems to me completely wrong. The death penalty for people found guilty of poisoning or harming others had the aspect of a rational response of society to a threat that, at the time, looked real and documented. During the 16th and 17th centuries, science had little to say about whether or not it was possible to poison people using herbal concoctions or other methods.

As Chuck Pezeshky says, "truth is the reliable and valid representation of information that allows shared coordination of action inside a social network." In some cases, this social representation coincides with the scientific views of the matter, but that is not the rule and it is not even common. 

Finding witches and killing them was not just a job for inquisitors. The book by Trevor-Roper "The European Witch-Craze" (1991) tells us how widespread was the belief, and how intensely it was believed that killing witches was a social duty for everyone, to be done for the good of everyone else. A leader who didn't engage in witch hunting was seen as a bad leader. In some regions, expressing doubts on the idea that killing witches was a good thing could be dangerous. 

If truth is a social concept, then we need to understand witch hunting in a social context, in the form of the entities that we call memes. What makes memes live and die? Charles MacKay gives us an interesting hint when he says, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” As I said, MacKay was a great innovator and this sentence, in itself, is a correct statement of how memes propagate. They behave exactly like physical pathogens in an epidemic: you are infected by others but you recover by yourself. 

Indeed memetic infections can be described by the same equations used in epidemiology, as we showed in a 2018 paper together with my colleagues Perissi and Falsini. Epidemics are the result of internal feedbacks that, in turn, are the result of the networked structure of the system. This internal structure generates typical "bell shaped" cycles. Witchcraft trials are probably the first historical case of a memetic cycle for which we have quantitative data (from Leeson and Ross, 2018 (1)).

The model tells us that the diffusion of the memetic epidemic is a collective phenomenon due to people being infected by others. Conversely, the epidemic declines because people become "immune" to the meme. The concept of "herd immunity" holds not just for physical epidemics, but also for virtual ones. It is what makes society eventually resistant to these killer memes. So, the first step to fight one of these memes is to reject them individually.

There is an even more fundamental point about the decline of killer memes here, well expressed by Trevor-Roper:

Third rank intellectuals and officials started saying that the craze was unjust and irrational. And what they said was taken for granted. Then came the intelligentsia, showing that what it said for two centuries was wrong because of some minor detail in the interpretation of the scriptures. And that was the end of the process.

This statement marks a difference between physical and memetic epidemics. A physical epidemic doesn't care too much about human hierarchies: a king may die of the plague just like any commoner. But, in a social network, the propagation of memes is affected by the hierarchical structure: people tend to trust authorities more than other sources of information. Trevor-Roper hit a profound truth with his statement: witch hunting declined because ordinary people ("third rank intellectuals and officials") started realizing that the meme was evil and that they (or their wives, sisters, or mothers) risked being burned at the stake. And they stopped believing in the official truth as spoken by the leaders.

So, it seems that if we want to stop evil memes, we have to do that starting from the bottom. We can't put too much hope in laws, tribunals, treaties, and lofty principles: they are all under the elites' control and can be bent, transmogrified, or ignored. The leaders, typically, have an interest in maintaining alive memes that are profitable for them. But the memetic war is fought at all levels of the social network. People may be dazed for a while by the "Shock and Awe" treatment they receive from above, but in the long run, they understand. We cannot expect to be able to stop evil all of a sudden but an evil meme cannot last for long when good people get together to fight it. If history is a guide, evil is surprisingly fragile.

An meiner Wand hängt ein japanisches Holzwerk
Maske eines bösen Dämons, bemalt mit Goldlack.
Mitfühlend sehe ich
Die geschwollenen Stirnadern, andeutend
Wie anstrengend es ist, böse zu sein.

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving,
The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer.
Sympathetically I observe
The swollen veins of the forehead, indicating
What a strain it is to be evil.

 Bertolt Brecht 


1. Peter T. Leeson, Jacob W. Russ The Economic Journal, Volume 128, Issue 613, 1 August 2018, Pages 2066–2105,