The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Worried fake news spells our doom? Humanity has always lived with it.

Placeholder while article actions load

Moises Naim is a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be” and “Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy.”

In the 1930s, the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci sat in an Italian prison for his opposition to the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini and contemplated the rapid change and enormous uncertainty sweeping Europe. People were bewildered and governments were unable to contain the rapidly spreading turmoil. “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” Gramsci wrote in a prison notebook. “In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Inevitably, the morbid symptoms not only appeared but fed the cataclysmic political and cultural forces that smashed the old continent.

Something similar is going on now, although a cataclysmic end is not inevitable. What’s clear is that we are living through a similar interregnum in which old certitudes are no longer reliable, new ones haven’t yet arisen and morbid symptoms are popping up everywhere.

A wish to understand this moment and its possible dire consequences has unleashed a flood of articles and books — some by superstar authors. One of the literary giants is Yuval Noah Harari, a 42-year-old history professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who gained global acclaim with “Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind,” first published in Hebrew for the Israeli market in 2011. Three years later, its English edition sold more than 1 million copies, and the book is now available in 45 languages. His success continued in 2015 with the Hebrew edition of “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” followed by the American edition in 2017. In “Homo Deus,” Harari predicts the end of the world as we know it, caused by the collapse of democracy and the free market and the replacement of humans by sophisticated new technologies. If “Sapiens” explores the deep past and “Homo Deus” looks to the distant future, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” probes the present. “In this book I want to zoom in the here and now,” Harari writes. “My focus is on current affairs and on the immediate future of human societies.” “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” is based on Harari’s previously published essays and op-ed columns as well as on his talks. “This book was written in conversation with the public,” he explains. “Many of the chapters were composed in response to questions I was asked by readers, journalists, and colleagues.”

One of Harari’s hallmarks is the immense ambition of his intellectual enterprises and this effort is no exception. As he explains, “My agenda here is global. I look at the major forces that shape societies all over the world and that are likely to influence the future of our planet as a whole.”

The result is a mixed bag. A profusion of platitudes, well-known vignettes, stock phrases and clichés coexists with the brilliant observations that distinguish Harari’s writings. Here he offers his opinions about war (his original specialty as a historian) and the meaning of life (and Disney’s “The Lion King”), humility (“You are not the center of the world”), God (in six pages), civilization (there is no clash of civilizations because there is only one), terrorism (governments should fight it with good intelligence and clandestine action against the financial networks that feed it, and the news media should avoid hysteria and the public should avoid panicking), education (“Change is the only constant”), nationalism (“Global problems need global answers”), ignorance (“You know less that you think”) and so on for a dozen other thorny and interesting subjects.

Alongside some of the bromides he relies on to dispatch major problems, Harari also offers an abundance of fascinating interpretations and comments. In his provocative discussion of fake news, for example, he acknowledges that it is a serious problem but argues that humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. “Homo Sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions,” he writes. “For millennia, much of what passed for ‘news’ and ‘facts’ in human social networks were stories about miracles, angels, demons, and witches with bold reporters giving live coverage from the deepest pits of the underworld. . . . When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion.”

Religion and politics have always depended on fake news because myths and propaganda are powerful tools to unite and control people. “By bringing people together, religious creeds make large-scale human cooperation possible,” Harari explains. “They inspire people to build hospitals, schools, and bridges in addition to armies and prisons. Adam and Eve never existed, but Chartres Cathedral is still beautiful. Much of the bible may be fictional, but it can still bring joy to billions  . . . just like other great works of fiction, such as “Don Quixote,” “War and Peace” and the Harry Potter books.” Fake news and propaganda have long been part of the tool kit of populist politicians and dictators who know, as Nazi propaganda maestro Joseph Goebbels allegedly observed: “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”

In another of his provocations, Harari anticipates the rise of what he calls a “useless class” of millions of workers who lose their jobs to machines as automation spreads. But Harari warns that we must not complacently expect that an equivalent number of new jobs will be created to replace the lost ones. He cautions that “the potential social and political disruptions are so alarming that even if the probability of systemic mass unemployment is low, we should take it very seriously.” In his judgment, it will become necessary, if not inevitable, for governments to step in and support the useless class with various forms of public aid, including a guaranteed income to cover basic needs.

Harari points out, however, that providing a basic income is not enough. Tending to the mental health of millions also will be necessary and will require the creation of meaningful pursuits for those with little to do. Harari identifies the ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Israel as a successful example of how to live a contented life in a post-work world. About 50 percent of them never work and “dedicate their lives to studying holy scriptures and performing religious rituals. They and their families don’t starve partly because the wives often work and partly because the government provides them with generous subsidies and free services, making sure that they don’t lack the basic necessities of life.” Harari is aware of the many shortcomings of this example but highlighting it vividly illustrates the extreme measures a society should be prepared to undertake to respond to what he views as a major and imminent threat.

“21 Lessons for the 21st Century” is a defective book and probably the weakest of Harari’s oeuvre. Yet, it is a testament to his brilliance that this book has much to engage the curious mind.

By Yuval Noah Harari

Spiegel & Grau. 372 pp. $28