Prof. Yuval Noah Harari is a historian, philosopher and best-selling author. Following is the full transcript of the TED talk that he had presented recently. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.
Hello, everyone. It’s a bit funny, because I did write that humans will become digital, but I didn’t think it will happen so fast and that it will happen to me.
But here I am, as a digital avatar, and here you are, so let’s start. And let’s start with a question. How many fascists are there in the audience today? Well, it’s a bit difficult to say, because we’ve forgotten what fascism is. People now use the term “fascist” as a kind of general-purpose abuse. Or they confuse fascism with nationalism.
So let’s take a few minutes to clarify what fascism actually is, and how it is different from nationalism. The milder forms of nationalism have been among the most benevolent of human creations. Nations are communities of millions of strangers who don’t really know each other. For example, I don’t know the 8 million people who share my Israeli citizenship. But thanks to nationalism, we can all care about one another and cooperate effectively. This is very good.
Some people, like John Lennon, imagine that without nationalism, the world will be a peaceful paradise. But far more likely, without nationalism, we would have been living in tribal chaos. If you look today at the most prosperous and peaceful countries in the world, countries like Sweden and Switzerland and Japan, you will see that they have a very strong sense of nationalism. In contrast, countries that lack a strong sense of nationalism, like Congo and Somalia and Afghanistan, tend to be violent and poor.
So what is fascism, and how is it different from nationalism? Well, nationalism tells me that my nation is unique, and that I have special obligations towards my nation. Fascism, in contrast, tells me that my nation is supreme, and that I have exclusive obligations towards it. I don’t need to care about anybody or anything other than my nation. Usually, of course, people have many identities and loyalties to different groups. For example, I can be a good patriot, loyal to my country, and at the same time, be loyal to my family, my neighborhood, my profession, humankind as a whole, truth and beauty.
Of course, when I have different identities and loyalties, it sometimes creates conflicts and complications. But, well, who ever told you that life was easy? Life is complicated. Deal with it. Fascism is what happens when people try to ignore the complications and to make life too easy for themselves. Fascism denies all identities except the national identity and insists that I have obligations only towards my nation.
If my nation demands that I sacrifice my family, then I will sacrifice my family. If the nation demands that I kill millions of people, then I will kill millions of people. And if my nation demands that I betray truth and beauty, then I should betray truth and beauty. For example, how does a fascist evaluate art? How does a fascist decide whether a movie is a good movie or a bad movie? Well, it’s very, very, very simple. There is really just one yardstick: if the movie serves the interests of the nation, it’s a good movie; if the movie doesn’t serve the interests of the nation, it’s a bad movie. That’s it.
Ills of Fascism
Similarly, how does a fascist decide what to teach kids in school? Again, it’s very simple. There is just one yardstick: you teach the kids whatever serves the interests of the nation. The truth doesn’t matter at all. Now, the horrors of the Second World War and of the Holocaust remind us of the terrible consequences of this way of thinking.
But usually, when we talk about the ills of fascism, we do so in an ineffective way, because we tend to depict fascism as a hideous monster, without really explaining what was so seductive about it. It’s a bit like these Hollywood movies that depict the bad guys — Voldemort or Sauron or Darth Vader — as ugly and mean and cruel. They’re cruel even to their own supporters. When I see these movies, I never understand — why would anybody be tempted to follow a disgusting creep like Voldemort? The problem with evil is that in real life, evil doesn’t necessarily look ugly. It can look very beautiful. This is something that Christianity knew very well, which is why in Christian art, as opposed to Hollywood, Satan is usually depicted as a gorgeous hunk. This is why it’s so difficult to resist the temptations of Satan, and why it is also difficult to resist the temptations of fascism.
Fascism makes people see themselves as belonging to the most beautiful and most important thing in the world: the nation. And then people think, “Well, they taught us that fascism is ugly. But when I look in the mirror, I see something very beautiful, so I can’t be a fascist, right?” Wrong. That’s the problem with fascism.