13 October 2018

What We're Reading

By Walter Isaacson

There are so many dimensions to Einstein’s mind that any statement about it is by definition insufficient. After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of him, I think I will try making some statements anyway. Einstein was a magisterial rejection of common sense. Sir Isaac Newton took the world as it was and provided a rigorous framework for understanding it. Einstein did not reject the world that Newton and the rest of us know; he simply said that that world was surrounded by realities that violate our notions of the obvious. He discovered a set of truths, hidden from view, that was at once brilliant and frightening. Imagine being told one day that what you know about time – that it is fixed, moving at the same rate and in the same direction – is false. That time has a duration and even a direction. Imagine looking at your alarm clock and thinking it is an avatar of another dimension of reality, one that can be compressed and stretched by motion and gravitation and all the other forces that exist within the dimension we thought was fixed and familiar. It’s frightening. What other uncanny strangeness shapes our existence without our knowledge?

For me, this isn’t so much about physics, about which I know very little. It’s about recognizing how much the universe can defy common sense. The same could be said of the political realm. Our understanding of the political world is an understanding of ourselves. Our common sense should be sufficient. Yet so often it isn’t. Our common sense told us that Germany was part of Europe, and Europe was the heart of civilization. But lurking beneath the surface of Germany was the uncanny reality that Hitler inhabited.

In German, the word for the uncanny is “unheimliche.” The uncanny was the world in which the ordinary becomes uncertain. Sigmund Freud, who wrote a book on the subject, said this was the foundation of insanity. Einstein proved it was real, and not only did he keep his wits, he introduced all of us to a new kind of sanity, one in which two particles, separated by great distances, will still behave precisely as the other one does, linked in an invisible and spooky embrace.

To me the connection to geopolitics is at once obvious and obscure. I know the world is not as it appears. I can sense the tension between the visible and the uncanny, yet I cannot possibly do what Einstein did. Einstein was extraordinarily brilliant, but his legacy is more than just his brilliance. It is his will to see the uncanny and his strength to be undeterred by it. The latter is, I think, the key to his genius. Others would have fled screaming, as reasonable people would do in contemplating Hitler. Einstein had the fortitude to confront what would be horrible to others, and claim it as his own.

George Friedman, founder and chairman 

By Christopher Hitchens

I often wonder what Christopher Hitchens would make of the world today. Were he alive, what would he say about the nuclear crisis in North Korea, a country he referred to as “a nation of racist dwarfs”? What would his commentary be on the Islamic State, a group that practices the exact Islamic fundamentalism he believed was the 21st-century equivalent of Nazi Germany? The 2016 U.S. presidential election? 

He thought Bill Clinton was a liar and criminal, and he didn’t think Hillary Clinton was much better. He thought Donald Trump was “a ludicrous figure, but at least he’s lived it up a bit in the real world and at least he’s worked out how to cover 90 per cent of his skull with 30 per cent of his hair.” But Hitchens died in 2011, at the age of 62, and though his time was cut short by cancer, no one can accuse Hitchens of having wasted a moment of his life or having failed to maximize his considerable intellectual gifts.

I am not alone, I think, in wondering as much. Hitchens remains a controversial figure, beloved and hated by many. Most intellectuals whose views cannot be easily summarized are. He was a Marxist turned neoconservative, an Englishman turned American, and a passionate “antitheist.” (He disliked the term “atheist” because it failed to capture his abhorrence of religion, which he regarded as the totalitarian impulse made holy.) I confess that I have always been a fan of Hitchens – because he always said what he thought, because he taught me something new, even when I disagreed with him, and because he used words I’d never encountered elsewhere. In picking up this collection of essays, I’ve learned that what I appreciate most about Hitchens is his contempt for ignorance. To debate fiercely, to make mistakes, to change one’s mind – all these are forgivable. What’s unforgivable is to bury one’s head in the sand and to refuse to take in – with appropriate doses of irony, compassion and alcohol – the world around us.

Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis 

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