Advanced science, Astrophysics, International, Technical

Black Holes and the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics

2020 Physics Nobel Prize winners

Three scientists have been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics. They are the British mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, German astrophysicist Reinhard Genzel, and American astronomer Andrea Ghez.

Penrose, a professor at Oxford University, is recognised for his research on black holes carried out in the 1960s. According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Penrose has been honoured “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of [Albert Einstein’s] general theory of relativity.” Professors Genzel of Max Planck Institute and Ghez of the University of California in Los Angeles were awarded the prize “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object” in a region called Sagittarius A*, located at the centre of our galaxy, The Milky Way.

The criteria for awarding Nobel Prize in Physics are defined in specific terms. Alfred Nobel’s Will stipulates that the prize should be awarded “to the person who made the most important discovery or invention in the field of physics.” The crucial words in the Will are “discovery” and “invention.” It is arguable whether developing a theory can be considered a discovery per se, but it is certainly not an invention in the sense that we normally associate an invention with. That is why the prize is seldom given to theoretical physicists, unless their theory is testable or verifiable.

When theorists won the prize by themselves, for example John Bardeen, Leon Cooper and Robert Schrieffer for their theory of superconductivity, it was for a major theoretical formulation of an existing phenomenon, and thus can be considered as part of the “discovery” of that phenomenon. And theoretical physicists Peter Higgs and François Englert were awarded the Nobel Prize after the particle—Higgs Boson—predicted by their theory to complement the Standard Model of the Universe was experimentally detected.

While the awards to Genzel and Ghez are incontrovertible because they fit Nobel’s criteria quite nicely, Penrose is a rather unusual choice in that his award is not for a discovery. It is for using ingenious mathematical methods to reveal the implications of Einstein’s tour de force—the intimidatingly difficult-to-comprehend Theory of General Relativity.

However, long before Penrose’s prize-winning work on black holes, German physicist Karl Schwarzschild provided the proof of their existence just less than two months after Einstein published the general relativity equations in 1915. By solving the equations exactly, he identified a radius, known as the Schwarzschild radius that defines the horizon or boundary of a voracious gravitational sinkhole—a single point of zero volume and infinite density.

If a massive object could be compressed to fit within the Schwarzschild radius, which is three kilometres per solar mass, no known force could stop it from collapsing into the sinkhole. Today, we call this sinkhole a black hole. His work formed the basis for later studies of black holes, showing that the concentration of matter in a black hole is so great that no light could escape its staggering gravitational pulls, but rather follow a trajectory curving back towards the black hole, thereby making it unobservable.

Lest we forget, Einstein did not win the Nobel Prize for his revolutionary work on general relativity or special relativity. The Nobel Committee decided against them on grounds that the relativity theories were abstract and unproven, although observational proof of general relativity was provided in 1919 by the Cambridge astrophysicist Arthur Eddington. He famously measured the deflection of starlight passing near the Sun during a total solar eclipse. The deflection, known as gravitational lensing, resulted from warping of space, as predicted by general relativity. Instead, Einstein received the deferred 1921 prize in 1922 for his 1905 quantum interpretation of the photoelectric effect because it can be attributed to the discovery of the effect—emission of electrons from metal surfaces under certain illuminations—by the German physicist Heinrich Rudolph Hertz in 1887.

Despite his fame and impact on theoretical physics, Nobel Prize eluded the brilliant physicist, mathematician and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, even though there is a general consensus that he has done more than anyone else since Einstein to deepen our knowledge about the cosmos. As noted by Penrose, a Nobel Prize for Hawking would have been “well-deserved” yet was possibly held back by the committee’s desire to honour observable, rather than theoretical scientific studies that are difficult, or almost impossible, to verify experimentally. Penrose’s work, albeit monumental and worthy of the Nobel Prize, cannot also be experimentally verified because of the very nature of the topics. So why relax requirements for work which are mostly theorems, some hypothesised in collaboration with Hawking?

Penrose is not the first scientist to predict the existence of black holes. The idea of black holes dates back even before Schwarzschild, to 1783, when an English cleric and amateur scientist named John Michell and more than a decade later French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace used a thought experiment to explain that light would not leave the surface of a very massive star if the gravitation was sufficiently large. Michell called them “dark stars.”

In 1930, during a long voyage to London, 19-year-old Indian astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar showed via calculations that when a massive star runs out of fuel, it would blow itself apart in a spectacularly violent explosion into a black hole. He received the Nobel Prize in 1983, not for his work on black holes, but for “studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars.”

For decades, the concept of black holes was no more than a mathematical aberration. They are well-nigh impossible to detect because light, one of our cosmic messengers, cannot escape from black holes. Hence, there is a total information blackout. How do we then infer about their existence? As the physics of black holes developed through the years, physicists realised that indirect routes were available. Consequently, our current understanding of black holes is built on inference drawn from data collected by X-ray, optical and radio telescopes.

Indeed, their existence was eventually confirmed in 1971 when astronomers detected a hint of radio wave emissions coming from an object in the constellation Cygnus. The emissions were later interpreted as the fingerprint of the black hole Cygnus X-1. Since then, numerous black holes, including supermassive ones, have been detected in our galaxy and elsewhere in the Universe.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious

Donald Trump’s Negative qualities

An anonymous writer from England wrote this magnificent piece to an American friend stating why Britain despises Donald Trump’s qualities (?) – all negative, highly embarrassing and despicable. He wrote:

A few things spring to my (British writer’s) mind.

Trump lacks most of the qualities which the British traditionally esteem. For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So, for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp focus.

Plus, we like a good laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever. I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it is a fact. He does not even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty. Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers. And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It is all surface.

Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront. Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.

And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood. Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist.

Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that. He is not even a spoiled rich-boy or a greedy fat-cat. He is more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.

That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.

There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So, the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:

  • Americans are supposed to be nicer than us and mostly are
  • You don’t need a particularly keen eye to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss.

After all, it is impossible to read a simple tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal; even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.

God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty or nastiness so stupid.

He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W Bush look smart.

In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clump of hair and scream in agony:

‘My God .. what  .. have .. I .. created?’

If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be a box office hit.

–           Compiled and edited by Dr A Rahman.

Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

Flawed Democratic Practices in America

America never shied away from shouting about its democratic virtues throughout the whole world ever since the 2nd World War. Since then it attained the status of a ‘superpower’ in the world arena. The combination of these two is a vicious cocktail of authoritarianism which no country can dare to ignore and, in fact, had to grudgingly follow.  

Let us look at the democratic status of America. American democratic practices are sharply on focus now throughout the whole world. In just about two weeks’ time, America is going to exercise its so-called ‘democratic rights’ in the local and federal elections. The most important of which is the election of the US president through the electoral college.

The election of the president through electoral college is a very convoluted and dysfunctional process in the so-called democratic system. In this process, the voters only choose their candidates (president and vice president) on the ballot paper, but their votes only go to support the candidates they choose. The voters’ choices on the ballot papers help to form the electoral college – a body of 538 electors from all 50 states and Washington DC – and this electoral college will, in turn, select the president and vice president of the country for the next four years. When a presidential candidate with the associated vice president gets 270 votes in the electoral college, he is declared as the winner.

The number of electors from a state in the electoral college is allocated as one elector for each member in the US House of Representatives (which has a total of 435 seats) from that state and on the number of Senators (2 from each state). The additional 3 electors come from the Washington DC. The number of House of Representative seats in a state is not allocated strictly on the basis of one-man (or woman)-one-vote system. It is on one-man-one-vote basis if only white population is considered. Back in the days (late 18th century) when American constitution was drafted, black slaves were not eligible to vote and hence they were not counted.

But then complications crept in. In the southern states, there were few white men owning large number of slaves. If only whites were counted for federal representation, then they would be very weak at federal levels, and at the same time they did not want slaves to be at par with the white masters. So, a compromise was reached that a slave would be regarded as equal to 60% of the white person! On that basis, population was estimated and House of Representative seats were allocated.

Subsequently when Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in 1865, the system and the status of blacks (no longer slaves) remained unchanged. In the south a large population (with low number of whites) has a smaller representation in federal level than in other white states. This status quo helps both the major parties in the US. The Republicans and white supremacists feel satisfied that they have authority higher than the blacks; whereas Democrats feel that any untoward issue on race would divide the nation and may cause termination of funds from white fund holders to the Democratic party.

It may be noted that American elections are nothing but painful display of mud-slinging, deceitful advertisements, billboards, party meetings, election propaganda etc all requiring millions and billions of dollars. Saturated advertisements, brain-washing, direct and indirect handouts to interest groups etc are rampant, which badly corrupt and may even destroy the very semblance of democracy. Multi-millionaires and billionaires find elections as their playground to extract their self-interests and covert promises from candidates. National Rifles Associations (NRA), pharmaceutical companies, petrochemical industry, tobacco industry, building industry, media and banking industry all have their strong lobbies dragging candidates to their swamps. If that is regarded as democracy, then mafia groups can be called human rights groups!

Apart from such blatant abuse of democratic rights using money, there are structural inadequacies in the system. The constitution says that all men are created equal. It should also hasten to add that the exception is that blacks are only 60% equal to whites. The constitution also says, in God we trust. What happens to those who do not believe in God, or believe in other or rival form of God? Are they going to be excluded from the state? Also, by brazen submission to so-called God, America is encouraging religiosity and creationism. America is the only advanced country where over 60% of the population believe that God created the universe and evolution is just a myth or a lie!

Setting aside American intellectual deficiency among the general public, America has serious democratic deficiency. The electoral college had produced over the 244 years of its history five presidents who lost the majority popular votes nationwide but won the presidency – John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by as many as three million, but still won the presidential election by collecting 304 electoral votes.

One may ask, what is the problem with the electoral college? The answer is systemic. A candidate may win some states by a large majority and lose large number of states by a whisker. Even when a candidate loses the popular vote in a state by a small number of votes, the whole of the electoral college votes go to the winning candidate. Thus, there is a mechanism whereby a candidate can bag electoral college votes winning each state by a whisker by this system of ‘winner takes it all’.

If the Proportional Representation (PR) system would have applied in the election of each state, then the electors would represent the popular votes in that state. When all the electors from all the states are collected for the presidential candidates, then there would be no disparity between the electoral votes and popular votes. The system would work perfectly well. The electoral college had been changed three times in the past via Constitutional amendment – but it would require broad majorities in Congress. It may be noted that since World War II, the electoral college, as it stands, had almost always opposed by the majority of the American people.

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Cultural, Economic, Environmental, Human Rights, International, Political, Technical

America at the cliff edge

Why the fate of the American Republic – and the world – could depend on what happens on November 3, 2020.

The survival of the American Republic is at cliff edge now, given the perspective of 244 years of American history. There was the close election of 1800 between Aaron Burr—an unprincipled fellow with dictatorial impulses who was in many ways the Donald Trump of his day—and Thomas Jefferson. The 1860 contest in which Abraham Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas, with the Civil War looming. Or the 1932 election during the Great Depression, the stakes of which were so consequential that when Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was warned he might be known as the worst president in U.S. history, if his recovery program failed, FDR reportedly replied, “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.”

An extraordinary consensus exists among historians, political scientists, diplomats, national security officials, and other experts that the stakes of the U.S. presidential election between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden this November rise to these portentous historical standards. Indeed, the stakes may go well beyond that, considering the central place the United States holds today in the global system—in a way it did not as a much younger nation in 1800, 1860, or even 1932.

Some suggest that Trump and the malign forces he has summoned up have already done so much damage to the institutions of U.S. democracy—especially his failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and his open encouragement of racial violence and national division—that his re-election in November could damage forever the 244-year-old American experiment of a republic of laws. After a first term in which Trump has openly defied Congress and the courts, twisted foreign policy to serve his political interests, dismissed electoral norms, and turned a terrified Republican Party into his poodle, his return to power would, in effect, legitimize the gutting of the institutions of law and what remains of the founders’ checks and balances. Re-election would vindicate his view that as president he can, as Trump himself said, “do whatever I want.” It would all but destroy the American conceit that the United States is a different kind of democracy, leaving the country as just another abject discard on the ash heap of failed republics going back to ancient Rome and Greece.

The concern is shared by many Republicans—former senior officials who worked for previous Republican administrations stretching back to Ronald Reagan, including several who worked for Trump himself. Some have openly warned that a second Trump term represents an existential threat to American democracy.

“This is a kind of fulcrum moment,” said Edward J. Watts, a University of California, San Diego historian and the author of Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny. “If Trump is re-elected, then I think the norms and restraints of American democracy disappear completely,” in ways that echo what went awry in past republics. Even if Biden wins, Watts added, U.S. recovery will be a long time coming.

“There’s no question in my mind that it’s the most important election in American history. The stakes are just enormous,” said Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University political scientist, former diplomat, and the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World. “One term is bad enough, but if Trump is re-elected, Americans and people around the world would no longer be able to say the American electorate made a mistake. Instead it would be an affirmation this is the direction Americans want to go.”

Kupchan said the reason this contest is more consequential than those critical elections in 1800 and 1860 is that “the United States was not the most powerful country in the world during those times.

“Basically, we stayed out of other people’s hair then. That’s not the case today, when you have a country this big that has so profoundly lost its way. We are entering an unforgiving period in history. The balance of power is changing. During the era of post-Cold War unipolarity, the system was more forgiving. Even during the Cold War, when the U.S. made a mistake here and there, like Vietnam, it didn’t knock the world off kilter. But at a moment when the West has lost its material preponderance [to China and Asia] at the same time as it’s begun to stumble politically, that’s a double whammy of historic proportions.”

Indeed, because the United States occupies such a central place in stabilizing the global system, the election of 2020 could be compared to other important global realignments that transformed the fates of previous great powers, empires, and diplomatic constructs of international stability.

“Internationally, it is a world-historical moment—America’s role in the world, and the organization of the global system, is also on the ballot,” said John Ikenberry of Princeton University, the author of A World Safe for Democracy, a book chronicling two centuries of liberal internationalism. “If Trump wins, the whole post war liberal order continues to unravel, and democratic and other allies of the U.S., who are hedging and hoping that the U.S. will return to playing a ‘system role,’ will start making other plans.”

Harvard University’s Joseph Nye, also one of the leading political scientists and diplomats of his day, agrees. In an interview, Nye quoted a leading diplomat from an allied European nation as telling him recently: “We can hold our breath for four years. Eight years is too much.”

According to former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, if Trump is re-elected or manages to seize power by contesting the election—he is already accusing Democrats of fraud and in late September refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power—it would be tantamount to a formal divorce from Europe and the West. It would mean that “the way Americans view themselves has become completely alien to what used to be the European view of America.” For four years, Trump has derided long-standing European allies and recently, in a fit of pique, announced he was withdrawing thousands of U.S. troops from Germany. The U.S. government’s inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic has only solidified this sense of alienation and frank disgust, Daalder said.

(In August, a special report from FP Analytics ranked the United States 31st out of 36 countries for its response to the coronavirus pandemic, coming in below Brazil, Ethiopia, India, and Russia. The report found that the United States ranked so poorly because of the Federal Government’s inability to mount an appropriate scientific response; inadequate emergency health care spending; insufficient testing and hospital beds; and limited debt relief.)

So abysmal has been the country’s performance under Trump that the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote in April that for the first time the United States is provoking pity from the rest of the world, which sent disaster relief to Washington rather than the other way around.

“What happened during COVID-19 represents the pinnacle to this disgust,” Daalder said. “The COVID response shows so clearly the deep problems with the American system—with our health care infrastructure, the income inequality and racial problems that persist. America has become something to be looked down at.”

The best hope, many pundits and scholars say, is that Trump is soundly defeated in November and accepts that outcome, even though he has suggested he won’t. Eventually he comes to be seen by the world—and by history—as a strange aberration, a one-of-a-kind oddity whose jingoism, narcissism, and incompetence are unlikely to come along again, whether in a Republican or Democratic president. The United States then re-joins the global system—with its usual blend of nativist reluctance and exceptional arrogance, yes, but on a more moderate (or, to be precise, adult) level than during the Trump era.

Under this scenario, a newly inaugurated President Biden, who is a deeply experienced internationalist committed to U.S. alliances, and his multicultural vice president, Kamala Harris, act swiftly to restore U.S. prestige by reversing Trump’s worst failures on COVID-19, political polarization, the economy, global stability, and climate change, as Biden has promised to do. Pointing out that Trump has failed to replace the many international agreements he has torn up, Biden would immediately rejoin and work to shore up the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris agreement on climate change, which he helped champion as Barack Obama’s vice president (and which the United States is scheduled to complete its withdrawal from on Nov. 4, one day after the election). Going by his campaign promises, he will try to revive the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that Trump has discarded and begin talks to extend the Obama-era New START nuclear reduction pact (which would expire only a few weeks into his term, though even now Trump is seeking to blow it up).

Biden would also likely seek to restore something like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the most comprehensive trade deal in history (which has been kept breathing in reduced form by Japan, the United States’ closest ally in Asia, since Trump pulled out of that accord as well). Because the TPP was designed to exclude and pressure Beijing into accepting fair-and-open trade norms, Biden could thereby do far more than Trump has done to confront a rising China and continue to co-opt it into the global system. Meanwhile a paralyzed and polarized Congress—so traumatized by Trumpian divisions, investigations, and impeachment for the past four years—starts working more effectively again (especially if Democrats win the Senate as well as the House, ending the legislative stalemate).

But even in this scenario it’s hard to imagine that things go back to the way they were pre-Trump. Biden, for example, will find it difficult to simply resurrect the INF Treaty and TPP, in part because he must accommodate the powerful progressive wing in his own party, which rejects untrammelled free trade pacts and over commitment to a U.S. military presence overseas. Biden has already said he would not simply re-join the TPP as it existed, for example, but would seek to renegotiate it to include “strong rules of origin” requiring more manufacturing in the United States and has also said, before entering any new international trade deal, he would focus on a Trump-like $400 billion “Buy America” initiative to boost domestic product. Support for the World Trade Organization, which was initiated by Democrats under President Bill Clinton, is fast waning inside the party as well, amid Trump’s accusations that China has unfairly abused its rules to rob middle-class Americans of their jobs. And Biden, like Trump, has been seeking to pare down the United States’ role overseas for years; even as Obama’s vice president, he argued vociferously against a U.S. buildup in Afghanistan and negotiated an accelerated withdrawal from Iraq.

Indeed, perhaps the greater threat is that the stakes of this election are not quite as momentous as optimists hope—and that Trump, even if he loses power, proves to be less an aberration and more a symptom of a country that is no longer functioning well, whether as a republic or a global stabilizer, and can’t be fully trusted again.

After all, Trump’s neo-isolationism didn’t spring from nowhere; it had a lot of popular support and still does. In his new book, Kupchan argues that America’s embrace of internationalism is more an aberration than the norm in U.S. history—and he says that even for the prospective president Biden and subsequent U.S. leaders, “it’s not going to be back to the old foreign policy. We’re not going back to the institutionalized, treaty-based system that emerged after World War II. The votes in the Senate won’t be there.” To that point, a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released in September shows an unprecedented breakdown in the old consensus in support of Washington’s role, demonstrating the “Trumpification” of the Republican Party, in Daalder’s words.

Perhaps the greatest fear among U.S. allies is that the American republic may simply be caught up in an inevitable cycle of history by which great powers grow complacent and decadent and eventually collapse or wither away. Prominent realist thinkers such as John Mearsheimer have long argued that American-style liberal internationalism contains the seeds of its own destruction – excessive ambition and overreach. “Liberalism has an activist mentality woven into its core,” Mearsheimer has written. “The belief that all humans have a set of inalienable rights, that protecting these rights should override other [domestic] concerns, creates a powerful incentive for liberal states to intervene” abroad.

In recent decades, both Republican and Democratic presidents gave in to this impulse to differing degrees—from Vietnam to Bosnia to Iraq. And in 2016, Trump realized, as his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton did not, that many Americans had grown weary of being global caretakers when so much was going awry at home, especially the decimation of the middle class under the aegis of rapid globalization. Biden is unlikely to make the same mistake.

Thus, in the perverse way Trump has been channelling the deepest of U.S. traditions and the fears of America’s founders, who were always worried about overreach in foreign conflict and constantly warned against its self-destructive effects, including the rise of demagogues like Trump. Most famously, John Quincy Adams said in 1821 that America must not go “in search of monsters to destroy” abroad; to do so, Adams said, would corrupt the very character of the nation: “The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.” In the spring of 2016, a senior Trump campaign advisor said that Trump’s first major foreign-policy speech—in which he declared that “the world must know we do not go abroad in search of enemies”—was intended as a conscious echo of Adams and a rebuke to his predecessors and their reckless interventions in Iraq and Libya.

(A modified version of the FP article by Michael Hirsh on September 25, 2020)

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

Human nature and Democracy

Human nature and democracy may, on the face of it, seem insular disjointed narrative of isolated views and ideas, but digging deep one can find intrinsic umbilical cord between the two. Human nature profoundly affects the thoughts and actions and the democratic process offers the outward expression of those thoughts and actions. Thus, these two strands are inherently, if not intricately, linked.

Human beings are fundamentally and intrinsically dangerous and coercive animals always looking out for attaining advantageous positions. They intuitively take selfish and hideous steps in order to achieve evolutionary advantage, particularly when it is perceived that they can get away with their selfish partisan actions.  

The economist Thomas Sowell contends that there are two visions of human nature: (i) The utopian vision, which claims people as naturally good and virtuous. They do virtuous things for the benefit of the community and country unless propelled to do otherwise, and (ii) The tragic vision which shows people as inherently flawed and vile.

This tragic vision in human nature comes from inherent selfishness and mendacity with the purpose to attain advantage. Exclusive personal interests override collective interests. In fact, quite often, collective interests may be viewed as counter to individual interests of a selfish individual, as any competitor in the collective pool may benefit from the collective aggrandisement and thereby jeopardising the relative advantage of the selfish individual. This is, to a large extent, part of the evolutionary drive. Thus, it can be said that science supports this tragic vision.

History also supports tragic vision. This vision is the natural drive for dominance. The philosophers Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt advanced the tragic vision and rejected the implicit natural goodness of humanity. They tendered the view that humans are potentially evil. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated that those who fight monsters must be aware of becoming monsters themselves. The implication of this view is that in a society of monstrous humans, monstrosity tends to infect the surrounding and propagate itself, unless constrained by some contrary means.

The founding fathers of the USA held tragic vision and hence created checks and balances to constrain the political leaders’ worst impulses. Nothing is more flagrantly evident than the present state of affairs in the USA of the incumbent president, where racist xenophobic tendencies are blatantly exposed and weaponised.

Democracy is manipulated and molested due to vileness of human nature not only in the United States but also in the United Kingdom and many more countries in the world.  David Gauke, ex-Justice Secretary in the UK, said on 3 July 2019 in his Mansion House dinner speech, “A willingness by politicians to say what they think the public want to hear, and a willingness by large parts of the public to believe what they are told by populist politicians, has led to a deterioration in our public discourse”. He also said, “This has contributed to a growing distrust of our institutions – whether that be parliament, the civil service, the mainstream media or the judiciary.” This vile abuse of democratic process by selfish, manipulative, mendacious, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, bigoted politicians undermines and contaminates the whole of democracy. But these vile selfish politicians care very little about the collapse of democratic process as long as they can achieve political advantage for themselves.

The word ‘democracy’ originated from the Greek word ‘demokratis’ meaning the ‘rule of the many’. Plato, the Greek philosopher, detested democracy as it embodied the rule of the imbecile and ignorant deplorables over the educated and the knowledgeable. He upheld the view that democracy is the rule of mere opinion. Indeed, this opinion could quite often be ignorant or misinformed or misled by opportunistic populist politicians.

Contrary to the conventional ‘democratic principle’, Roman Republicanism advocated that everyone was not fit to vote to elect the government. It gave some very good reasons including stating that only those who participate actively in public life and affairs of the State are qualified to vote. This ruling was eminently more sensible than allowing everybody to express opinions on issues regardless of their knowledge or suitability or association. For example, a significant majority of the general public with very little or no knowledge of the role or functioning of the EU voted in the EU referendum on 23 June 2016 to leave and then on the following day more than one million people carried out Google search on what the abbreviation ‘EU’ stands for! Their expressed opinion against the EU the previous day was not based on knowledge or rational assessment, but on pure prejudice and bias. Car workers throughout Britain voted overwhelmingly to leave Europe, because they were unhappy with their working conditions (nothing to do with EU). The farmers in Wales and in large parts of England voted to leave on misinformation and false promises by Populist politicians. The general public were fed blatant lies that the NHS would get extra £350 million per week on leaving the EU and there were many more lies. All of these misinformation and blatant lies had fundamentally altered the knowledge base on which the public had voted and hence the outcome became screwed up.

The politicians, the people in power comprising industrialists, financiers and increasingly media barons and social network bosses manipulate the very essence of democracy for advantageous positions. Boris Johnson, the present British prime minister, in his first term prorogued parliament within few weeks of gaining prime minister position, not out of necessity but out of dubious advantage of denying any democratic opposition to his sectarian views and dogma. However, his action was found to be unlawful by the highest court of the land (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the Northern Ireland) and he had to recall the parliament. Subsequently, when he signed a Withdrawal Agreement (revised) with the EU, he called it a ‘oven ready’ and ‘excellent’ agreement and on the back of it, he won the election on 12 December 2019 with an overwhelming majority. But within ten months of signing that historic Withdrawal Agreement by himself, he is now preparing to defy this internationally binding agreement to achieve political advantage. Nothing can be more mendacious in human nature with its tragic vision than this.

The Greeks had a word called ‘parrhesiastes’ which identified an individual who used freedom to uphold moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy, who adopted frankness instead of persuasion and who chose truth instead of falsehood or silence. Unless parresia, the attribute of the parrhesiastes, dominates the contaminated so-called ‘democracy’ of today, the virtuous attributes of democracy are going to be abjectly negated.

Democracy cannot survive in ignorance, illiteracy or moral degeneracy. When honesty, integrity, morality and ethics are divorced and opportunism and bigotry make inroad, democracy takes leave and tragic view of human nature dominates. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”.

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.