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Well, if I would give a short summary of my book, it would be something like most people are pretty decent, but power corrupts. And I think that's also a pretty good description of what's happening in the US right now and.
Welcome to deconstruct it, I'm Maggie Hassan. Are you feeling down, depressed about the state of the world, the state of the human race? Maybe today's show will raise your spirits, give a boost to your optimistic side?
It seems to me like we're in an extraordinary moment, full of hope. And the authoritarian response on the right seems like the last gasp of breath of a dying ideology.
That's my guest today, the Dutch historian, journalist and bestselling author Rutger Bregman. He's got a big new book out called Humankind that's making waves over. It's pretty simple, yet pretty radical idea. Human beings, he says, based on mountains of research, a good people, we're not all selfish bastards. So on deconstructing today, a truly important discussion. Are we deep down fundamentally decent? And if so, what does that mean for our politics and our political ideologies in 2020?
Human beings are pretty awful, right?
That's what we've been told for years. That's what the state of our crazy, war torn world seems to often suggest. Plus, we grew up reading novels like William Golding's Lord of the Flies, where we saw young kids turn into violent savages once they're removed from a rules based civilized society. We grew up reading political philosophy from the likes of Thomas Hobbes, who said that without strong government keeping us all in check, our lives would be nasty, brutish and short.
When we read social psychology from the likes of Philip Zimbardo, whose infamous Stanford prison experiment showed ordinary students in a mock prison setting suddenly becoming OK with torturing their fellow students. We were told by biologists and anthropologists about Viniar theory, which says All of our human morals and ethics are merely a cultural overlay, a thin veneer, hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature, ready to fall apart at a moment's notice in a moment of crisis or war or natural disaster, where we humans turn on each other like animals.
And of course, in terms of our politics, conservatives on the right made it very clear that the only way to order and organize our society was around free markets.
The profit motive, every man for himself because they effectively argued human beings are motivated mainly by our material desires, by our greed, by our selfishness. In fact, you could say conservatism itself is based on a pretty negative and pessimistic view of human nature. Conservatives say you can't build a socialist utopia, a left wing heaven on earth.
You can't shoot for the progressive stars because human beings aren't built for that. We're not built for cooperation or mutual trust. We're not generous altruists. We're selfish individualists. But the Dutch intellectual journalist and historian Rutger Bregman takes a hammer to that rather cynical view of the world, to that particular view of human beings. In his new book, Humankind A Hopeful History, he tells us at the very start of the book that he's on a mission to uncover a radical idea, one that has been, quote, erased from the annals of world history.
You could even call it, he says, a new view of humankind. And what is it that human beings at their core are, quote, friendly, peaceful and healthy? That, quote, Most people deep down are pretty decent. In the words of one reviewer, Rutger is intent on demolishing what he sees as the big lie, that human beings are fundamentally evil and self-interested and that our normal civilized behavior is a veneer that tends to collapse under pressure.
In fact, Rutger even argues that we were better off during our nomadic times before what we now call civilization came along before agriculture and the domestication of animals. Civilization has become synonymous with peace and progress and wilderness with war in decline, he writes in the book. In reality, for most of human existence, it was the other way around.
Rutka wants us to feel a little less cynical, a little less jaded about humanity based on his own deep research and study. He now has faith in humankind. I mean, the subtitle of his book, released in the midst of a Pandemic, is a hopeful history.
So if he's right about humankind and I hope he is, though I'm not 100 percent sure he is. I hope yes. What does this all mean for our politics, for our society, for the left in 2020? And how does this view of human nature fit with some of the huge, almost unprecedented political and social developments we've seen so far this year, the global pandemic and the lockdown's mass unemployment, the anti-racism protests, the ongoing debate over refugees and borders.
Today, I'll ask the author himself, lefty historian and public intellectual Rutger Bregman. You may have heard of Rutka from his best selling first book, Utopia for Realist's, in which he made the case for, among other things, a universal basic income UBI. Or more likely, you may have first heard of him last January when he went viral online after. Calling out the global ruling class themselves, the one percenters to their faces at where else, the World Economic Forum in Davos.
This is my first time at Davos. And and I find it quite a bewildering experience, to be honest. I mean, fifteen hundred private jets flown in here to hear Sir David Attenborough speak about how we're wrecking the planet. And I mean, I hear people talk in the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency. But then, I mean, almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance. Right.
And of the rich just not paying their fair share.
I mean, it feels like I met a firefighters conference and no one's allowed to speak about water. I mean, this is not rocket science. I mean, we can talk for a very long time about all these stupid philanthropy schemes. We can evade Bono once more. Come on. We got to be talking about Texas. That's Texas, Texas, Texas. All the rest is bullshit, in my opinion.
And then, of course, there was my own personal favorite clip of him that also went viral on Tucker Carlson Fox News show, where he called out Coalson to his face. And after Colson, the coward refused to air the interview on his show, Rutka released a covert recording of it online. And it was awesome.
I mean, you're probably not going to air this, but I went to Davos to speak truth to power, and I'm doing exactly the same thing right now. You might not like it, but you're a millionaire funded by billionaires. And that's the reason why you're not talking about these issues.
What I am talking about, yeah, only now, come on, you jumped the bandwagon, you're all like, oh, I'm against a globalist lead, blah, blah, blah. It's not very convincing, to be honest.
What are you got yourself in a tiny brain and I hope this gets picked up. You're a moron. I tried to give you a hearing.
You can't handle the criticism, can you? So that's my guest today.
He's the author of the new book Humankind A Hopeful History. And he joins me now from his home in the Netherlands. Rutka, thanks for coming on.
Deconstructed. Thanks for having me. Catastrophe's bring out the best in people.
You write in your new book, Humankind A Hopeful History. You say, quote, I know of no other sociological finding that's backed by so much solid evidence that so blithely ignored. Do you believe the current coronavirus catastrophe has brought out the best in people? Because a lot of people, especially in 2020, would say otherwise?
Well, I mean, there are a couple of examples here and there of people I don't know, hoarding toilet paper. And we can count on the press to give a lot of attention to that.
But if you zoom out just a little bit, I think we can clearly see that, you know, there's been this explosion of cooperation, billions of people around the globe, you know, quite radically changing their lifestyles and abiding by the the procedures and rules of the health authorities. That's the real headline here.
You said recently in an interview with the BBC that we humans, we're not fundamentally good, but we are fundamentally decent. What's the difference?
The difference is that sort of being good is sort of yeah, it's really a moral judgment. And sometimes the right thing, the moral thing to do is to be unfriendly and to be nasty. You know, we see this in the whole history of progress. You look at the history of feminism or anti-racism, and so often progress starts with people who are willing to go against the status quo and who are willing to be a little bit unfriendly. And in that way, they're actually going sometimes against their nature as well.
Because what evolutionary anthropology tells us these days is that we human beings, we have evolved to be friendly and to work together for millennia, was actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids and so had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. It's deeply embedded in our evolutionary history that also at times of crisis, but also just generally in life. We prefer to work together and be friendly most of the time.
You mention Human Nature. Your book is a fascinating discussion of all of the latest science and research on human nature. But you also delve back into good old philosophy, talk about this clash between Rousseau and Hobbes, the two famous philosophers of the Enlightenment, which you hang a lot of the book on that clash there, very different views of human nature and how humans interact with one another.
So let's start with Thomas Hobbes, the British philosopher who argued that in the state of nature, as they called it back then, when we were still nomadic hunter gatherers, that we lived these lives that were nasty, brutish and short, and there was some kind of war of all against all going on back then.
That was this theory, never.
So may the complete opposite argument. He said that, no, when we were when we were a nomadic hunter gatherers, we lived these lives that were pretty good, actually.
But then we invented civilization and, you know, everything went downhill from then on.
So I think that a lot of. How do you say that? A lot depends on who was right. Rousseau is sort of the father of revolution of the left. You could you could even say and Hobbs's is the father of what they call political realism, of saying, you know what, we just need people in power to make sure that people don't kill each other because deep down, we're all savages.
And you reject the Hobbesian view. You reject the Viniar theory of human morality, which is associated with hobs, which says that our goodness is just a thin veneer, which covers up a pretty selfish, brutish nature underneath, which is ready to come out at a moment's notice. Is that how you started the book?
Did you start with that position that you know what this is about, or were you kind of Hobbesian and switched to Rousseau and if I can call it that?
Yeah, I think the latter. You know, I I used to have a much more cynical view of human nature. I used to believe in Viniar theory. I had, you know, read Lord of the Flies.
I had read about what happened on Easter Island where this civilization killed itself.
I had read about the Stanford prison experiment in which, you know, pacifist hippie students very quickly turned into savage monsters. So, yeah, I had to change my mind on quite a lot of things while writing this book.
So I do want to touch on those examples you mentioned in a moment. But just sticking with the Hobs, Rousso, why do we have to pick a side? Why can't we say that human beings are complicated? We have a brutal, selfish, cynical side and we have an altruistic, cooperative side. I mean, if you look at the recent mass protests against racism and violence, that's how good side those protests you could argue. And then you look at the racism and violence that provoked those protests.
That's our bad side.
Well, if I would give a short summary of my book, it would be something like most people. Pretty decent, but power corrupts, and I think that's also a pretty good description of what's happening in the US right now. I mean, millions of peaceful protesters very courageously, you know, going on the streets every day and showing this extraordinary self-control and then the savage violence from the leviathan, you know, from the from the from those at the top and the police and the army, you name it, it's actually the complete opposite of what Thomas Hobbs argued.
Now, why I think this is important is because our view of human nature tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And throughout history, a more cynical view of who we are has been used by those in power to legitimize their power. Because if people cannot trust each other, if they're really deep down just savages, then we need the army and the police and the kings and the generals.
And, you know, we need hierarchy.
But if people are well, maybe not angels, but on average, pretty decent, at least most of us, then maybe we can move to a very different kind of society that is much more egalitarian and genuinely democratic.
It's interesting you talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy because you see that in the language of the right where Donald Trump came to power warning. But, you know, society is about to fall apart. The foreigners are coming to kill you, that I alone can fix it. America is in college.
Yeah, it's the classic law and order argument. You know, again, it goes back all the way to Thomas Hobbs like you need us because you can't trust each other because there will be some kind of war of all against all if I do not interfere right now.
So you wrote this book in which you say, actually, the evidence suggests we can trust each other. You talk about our species being homo, puppy friendly, cooperative, decent. That's our superpower. You say that's what allowed us to survive Homo sapiens, where the Neanderthals and others couldn't you even suggest we were better off, happier, less violent back then in the prehistoric the pre civilizational period? How do you know that? I know you're good at research.
There's a lot of footnotes at this book and you don't have a time machine, do you? Go back and see for yourself? No.
And I must admit that this is partly speculative.
We've got a lot of evidence from anthropology and from archaeology.
So what you can do is to look at excavations of skeletons and see, you know, if there are any signs of violence. It turns out that there's hardly any evidence for war in prehistory. You can also look at cave paintings. You know, if there really was a war of all against all going on twenty, thirty thousand years ago, you would expect that at some point, you know, some Picasso from the Stone Age would have made a nice, you know, Guernica of that.
Right. A sort of depiction of this war of all against thought. We haven't found it.
But then after we became civilized or civilized, I should say, when we settle down and we became farmers, invented agriculture, then suddenly you do see a lot of these cave paintings.
So that that is some evidence. What you can also do is study nomadic hunter gatherers who lived in the 19th century or the 20th century.
And you know that we have ethnographic field reports about and then there are obviously huge cultural differences between different nomadic hunter gatherer tribes around the globe.
But there are also striking similarities.
If you look at the political systems of of these kind of societies, turns out that they're quite egalitarian.
Humbleness is really a prerequisite.
You could argue that there are almost Proteau feminists. You know, there's this interesting equality between the sexes as well. And that makes sense because actually more equal societies where people just have more friends and more social connections, they also display more social learning. They learn more from each other so they get more inventions.
And I think that this is what made the difference in the for for us as a species. But you're not saying you want to kind of unwind the clock, don't want to go back. You're not saying that Hunter-Gatherer societies are superior societies to the ones we have today?
No, I'm not saying that. I mean, we can't go back. That's that's the first thing.
I mean, I'd be crushed with a bow and arrow.
Well, if you would have the theoretical, you would have to choose between living a life as a nomadic hunter gatherer or a life in civilization. Then I would advise you to choose the life of a nomadic and to gatherer, because if you look at the whole history of civilization, then the last ten thousand years, 99 percent of that was horrible, absolutely horrible.
You know, up until the year 1800. The vast majority of people was a slave. You know, bonder to some kind of powerful man was usually a man. Obviously, we have made extraordinary progress. I mean, Steven Pinker is right about that in the past couple of decades. We are richer, we are healthier. We are wealthier than ever, even though there's still a lot to be done.
But then the question is, how sustainable is it really? Maybe we're dancing on top of a volcano.
Maybe this is just a very small bit of our history.
Once climate change and the whole show, people like Steven Pinker, of course, say, you know, we've never had it so good things are getting better and better, etc. Violence has been in decline for long stretches of time.
And today we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species existence.
But you've been a critic of here's why I mostly disagree with his take on our life in prehistory. So I think for his ideology, I mean, someone like him would always denied to be ideological.
They always say, oh, I'm just I'm just looking at the facts. I think we should be very suspicious of those people because usually they're the most ideological of all.
So what he wants to paint is some picture of our history that is like the march of progress with some ups and downs. But, you know, generally things get better all the time, right? We invent things like writing in the wheel and we start to live in states. And then the Enlightenment, obviously, which was the greatest thing ever. And now there's nothing guaranteed. He'll never say that.
You know, he won't be present us with a sort of biggish version of history. But he does want to paint sort of this gradual line that goes up. If you look at the latest evidence that we have actually from history, archaeology and anthropology, you know, you get to see this very different shape. What you actually see is that for 95 percent of our history, we're live those nomadic and gatherers. And these lives were relatively good, you know, working weeks of about 20, 30 hours, relatively peaceful.
No evidence for war, relatively egalitarian as well.
Then we settled down and we became farmers. And that was just a huge, huge disaster. Our health deteriorated. We got so many infectious diseases like measles and the plague and covid-19, which is also a disease of civilization because we live too close to our animals, which is a modern phenomenon. Wars broke out.
We invented hierarchy patriarchy, which is also quite recent phenomenon. So, yes, you get to see this very different shape of our history.
Again, we've made a lot of progress, especially, I think, since the end of the Second World War.
But this is all very, very recent news suggest it could be tentative, too.
Well, I mean, this this book is a hopeful history, so it's about the possibility of change. You know, my previous book was called Utopia for Realists, in which I argue that we also always should have some, you know, something on the horizon because every milestone of civilisation was once a utopia fantasy and the slavery, democracy, you name it. So we always need to have something to work towards. But that's no guarantee.
You do a lot of evidence based and very well researched debunking of some conventional wisdom and common tropes in the book, which I have to say is partly what makes it so fascinating and entertaining. For example, you take aim at Lord of the Flies, the famous 1954 novel by William Golding, which many of us were forced to read and absorb in school. I was never a fan. That is a book which has a very Hobbesian view of human nature.
A bunch of British school kids get stranded on an island. They turn into violent, hateful savages. They turn on each other in their, quote unquote, natural state. You say that's not based on any real world examples. And you even found a real world case of six Tongon boys who were stranded for real on an island in the South Pacific for over a year back in 1965. And you say they didn't end up like the Lord of the Flies fictional kids?
Yeah. And if this would be a fictional story, people would say, oh, that is so unrealistic, that would never happen. This is so sentimental. This paints this naive rucho young picture of what kids are like.
But turns out that, yeah, this is what really happened. The real Lord of the Flies is a story of friendship, of hope and of resilience. These six kids managed to survive for 15 months until they were found by an Australian captain named Peter Warner. And yeah, they state the best of friends, but they didn't turn on each other on the island.
They didn't fight or kill each other. No, not at all. Not at all. So they managed to get a. Fire started after three months. They never let it go out. They worked in teams of two to to be on the lookout to to cook to to tend to the garden. Sometimes they ended up in fights. I mean, this is what happens with with humans.
But what they did is one would go to one side of the island and the other would go to the other side of the island, cool off a little bit, come back and say sorry. And that's how they kept cooperating for 15 months. I managed to track down two of them and I'm now actually in contact with all of them after the story was published. And they're still friends today, you know, 50 years later. And they also became friends with this Australian captain.
So it's as I said, it's a very sentimental and realistic story. But, yeah, it really happens.
Whereas whereas the Lord of the Flies story, which you say there's no evidence for, that's the one we've been imbibed with since childhood and that we all know and the we all assumed to be the case.
And your book is saying that assumption is built on very weak real world foundations. Just on the kids issue.
In your book, you also describe an experiment run by Yale's Infant Cognition Center, or Baby Lab, which looks at tribalism in babies. And you point out that the researchers put a puppet in front of the kids, two puppets, one mean, one selfish and a puppet show, one mean and selfish, one generous and kind. And the infants had a preference for the good puppet.
But then then what happened in terms of the table and talk about the tribalism involved in that experiment.
Yeah. So then when they let the kids choose between, what is it, graham crackers and another piece of food, and they would also show the preference of the puppet, then suddenly people would choose the puppet that had the same food preference even when that was nasty.
And that sort of shows the capacity we have for your side. Yeah. For groupthink and for ingroup outward behavior.
It doesn't then undermine part of your thesis because you're saying at the very beginning they were good and they picked the good, the good puppet even as babies, but then they allowed their tribalism to take over.
Well, what I've tried to give in my book is a is a quite paradoxical view of human nature. So on the one hand, we've evolved to be friendly and where the most cooperative species in the animal kingdom, you could even argue that. But on the other hand, this friendliness is quite often exactly the problem. So often we do the most horrible things in the name of comradeship and of loyalty. It's very often that sort of these qualities that we tend to regard as good are implicated in our in our worst behaviour.
Yeah, a lot of people don't realize much of the scholarship on, for example, quote unquote jihadist terrorist groups focuses on the fact that a lot of guys join because they want solidarity with their friends, peer pressure. They want to look out for their communities or their friends.
And that's not about condoning, but it's about understanding.
So in my book, I've got a chapter about, you know, more effective ways to designed a whole criminal justice system and also to do counter-terrorism. Now, my own country, I'm from the Netherlands, has an interesting tradition here of counter-terrorism that we call the Dutch approach. So what does the Dutch approach entail?
Well, it means that you don't talk about terrorism. You only talk about sort of criminal behavior or violent political activism.
And what you do is you try to approach kids that seem to radicalize with kindness and friendliness. And now that takes real courage because it goes against your intuition. But it turns out that these approaches are way more effective. So back in the 70s, when there was a lot of left wing violence and it completely things went completely out of hand in Germany and in Italy, where there are many Foxygen in the big Atheros in the Netherlands, something very different happened.
And many of the terrorists later complained that, you know, it just wasn't it just wasn't fun to be a terrorist in the Netherlands because, you know, yeah, it was like the authorities were too soft.
Yes. Something else you take aim at, you debunk in the book is the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, which I remember having to study back in university. This is the famous social psychology study in which college students were picked to become either prisoners or guards in a simulation.
They were led to a simulated prison block consisting of three small cells, a narrow hallway and a closet designed for a solitary confinement.
This would be the entire world for two weeks, and the ones who became prison guards instinctively embraced pretty brutal, sadistic, authoritarian personalities.
Some of the guys were brutally, and many of the guys who were not will help us to do anything about it. And they allowed it to go on. I really thought that I was incapable of this kind of behavior.
So part of me I hadn't really noticed before and that experiment was supposed to show how we're all capable of becoming basically tyrants in the right circumstances. You say that's not true, that it was a bit of a bogus experiment.
Yeah, it's one of the most famous experience in psychology, though. Still today, millions of students around the globe hear about the Stanford prison experiment that supposedly show, you know, that there's shows that there's a Nazi just below the surface in each and every one of us. Quite recently, a French sociologist called Dibala Texas published a book. And Frank. That certainly has not been translated, and the book is called A History of a Lie, and that's basically what we're talking about here.
We now know based on archival evidence, you know, because the archives have opened up, is that Philip Zimbardo, one of the most famous living psychologists today, specifically instructed his students to be as sadistic as possible, you know, to to behave in a nasty and brutal way.
He put his finger on the scale. Yeah, exactly.
There are many of these students said that they didn't want to do it. They didn't want to do it because they said that's not who I am.
Then Zimbardo said, you got to do this because I need these results.
Then we can go to the press and say, look, prisons are horrible environments. We need to reform the whole thing.
That was actually a movement in the 60s where people said, you know, we got to abolish prisons totally.
And the terrible irony of this movement, which Zimbardo was was part of that as well, is that it was then later used by conservatives to say, oh, well, if if prisons, you know, don't work at all, if rehabilitation is not an option, then, you know, let's just throw people in prison and throw away the key. Right. Let's just lock people up for life, because then that's the only option. It's a history full of dark ironies.
But, yeah, the Stanford prison experiment is is I think it can only be described as a hoax. And it's very sad that this has been taught to students for for 50 years.
But the other experiment has taught the students very famous experiments of Stanley Milgram experiment where, you know, students were asked to exercise authority over others via electric shocks, not, you know, imaginary electric shocks that they were supposed to administer.
The results are disturbing and raise the possibility that human nature cannot be counted on to insulate men from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act, and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.
You weren't able to do that one, though, are you? Well, not totally. Now it's a problematic experiment as well. The archives have opened up again, and we now know that many of the subjects didn't believe the situation was real. And we also know that the people who went all the way to get 450 volts shocks. Yeah, that the chance that they would do that was higher if they didn't believe the whole thing was real. But then again, you're right.
I mean, maybe it was not 65 percent, as Milgram initially reported. Maybe it was the real number is 50 percent or 40 or 30, but it's still way too high.
It's still a very dark and sinister experiment that shows that indeed friendly people can do this.
But I do think the experiment needs to be reinterpreted. So Milgram made the argument that people sort of became sort of robots, that they just blindly followed orders, just as many Germans said after the war. You know, I was just following orders. But I think what really happened in that experience was something different. It was it was about joining. It was about followership. It was about people wanting to help the scientists.
And, yes, sort of feeling part of of of his group, which is not a comfortable message.
It's not a comfortable message at all. We talked earlier about, you know, how so often we do the most horrible things in the name of loyalty and friendship. And I think that's also how we should interpret this experiment.
But you're not denying, are you, that, you know, people talk very casually sometimes, you know, human beings have a dark side. Your book and your research hasn't led you to the conclusion that we don't have a dark side.
No, of course not. I mean, this is one of the ironies about writing a book about humankind's incorporation is that you have to go on for hundreds of pages about the dark pages in our history and all the atrocities. How do you explain ethnic cleansing? How do you explain the Holocaust and wars, et cetera, et cetera?
The psychology of violence is really interesting here. Violence is quite difficult for most people. I mean, eating food is easy. And we I mean, everyone understands that that that is nice and we need that in order to survive. Same is true for sex. I mean, if we stop having sex, you know, species will go extinct. But with violence is different.
Often we pay a high psychological price. Soldiers go to war, they kill an enemy and they come back with PTSD. So that suggests to me that even though we're capable of it, especially with technological means, you know, if we manage to increase the distance with the enemy, for example, or with with conditioning or brainwashing, there are a lot of procedures that are used in the American or in the military and also actually with police officers. I mean, many American police officers have been brainwashed basically to be violent, but that's not how they were born.
And that's I think that's important to keep in mind.
Let's talk about the Holocaust. You mentioned a couple of times, I'm sure, when you sat down to start writing this book, this book that says how fundamentally decent we are, you must have thought to yourself, I'm going to have to deal with the Holocaust.
How do you deal with it in the book? How does it fit with your thesis? The Nazis, the Holocaust, industrialized mass killing. Well, I mean, I obviously can't pretend that sort of you can explain the Holocaust, I mean, library sort of books have been written about it.
I do criticize the standard explanation that we often hear, which is how do you explain the Holocaust? Well, there's just a Nazi below the surface. And this is was also the message of the Stanford prison experiment in the Milgram experiments.
And I think that those explanations trivialized actually what was going on. We need a much more complicated, layered explanation.
So if you look at soldiers of the wear marked, for example, why was this the most effective fighting force in all of history? Well, it had a lot to do with comradeship. We now know there've been a lot of interviews of prisoners of war in the last two years of the war and turns out that many of them were not fighting because there were fanatical Nazis, but because they didn't want to let their friends down. Now, obviously, that explanation doesn't work for camp guards or for fanatical SS ideologues.
Right. We need something or the entire leadership of the country. Yeah, exactly. So there we need something different that has.
Well, I think you really need to look at the whole history of Nazi Germany where evil was normalized. I mean I mean, that's I guess the most important point that I try to make in the book is that it just takes years and years and years before a society becomes so lost and so poisoned that something like this happens. And that's important to keep in mind.
What about what about the other famous or infamous genocide of the last hundred years, the Rwandan genocide that happened in a matter of weeks and months?
Oh, I think that often in the West, we have a very simplistic view of the Rwandan genocide. We many Western commentators have tried to paint this as, oh, these Africans suddenly became savages.
And, you know, that's that's really not what it was in many ways. It's a you know, it's a it's a it's been a modern genocide with many similar mechanisms that we also see in the build up to the Holocaust, where modern mass propaganda was was used, where the process of dehumanization have been going on for years and years and years. And then, yes, the the unthinkable became possible, which is again, I mean, it's a very dark truth about who we are as a species.
And there's no I've never heard of a penguin that says, oh, let's lock up another group of other people and exterminate them all. So I'm not you know, in many ways, I think this book is not a comfortable book. No.
And there's and there's no easy answers to some of this stuff. I mean, but let me just take some of your kind of very strong statements. You say in the book, Precisely when bombs fall from the sky or dykes break, the best things come out in humans. That's a quite sweeping statement.
A lot of people would look at something like 9/11 and say, OK, 9/11. After 9/11, the worst things came out.
Illegal invasions, torture, rendition, surveillance, demonization of Muslims, all backed by an American public that was bent on revenge.
The polling shows most Americans signed up for all of that. They even reelected George W. Bush three years later.
Yeah, yeah. And you wonder sometimes, could it have been different? Because the first initial response that I'm talking about in the book was so different. You know, we've got eyewitness accounts of people who were going down the stairs of the burning twin towers and literally saying to each other, no, you go first, now you go first. You go for this extraordinary decency, even in such, you know, such a scary situation. Now we all know what happened after that and how this crisis was abused.
And we got to illegal wars and massive surveillance of citizens by the government. But maybe there's a different possibility.
One of my favorite books about this has been written by Rebecca Solnit, the the American writer who published the book, A Paradise Built in Hell, where she also talks about the extraordinary evidence we have from sociology about what happens after natural disasters. And she goes into the case study of Katrina.
You know, 2005, the press was full of stories about looting and plundering and violence. But what exactly happened was an explosion of altruism and cooperation.
But elites just look at us and they look in the mirror and they think that, oh, other people are just as selfish as we are. And then they send in the military and they send in the police. No, I understand that.
But just sticking with 9/11, I understand your point about going another way. And, you know, the Iranians came out with a candlelight vigil after 9/11. There was a moment there for some, you know, reconciliation between those two countries. All of that was missed because unfortunately, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were in charge. But the fact is, Americans did get behind those horrific policies that I mentioned. They didn't take the path that you mentioned could have been taken.
And surely that undermined some of the thesis of your book.
Well, I think it's the connection, again, with on the one hand, you have the corruption of power and on the other hand, you have this tribal behavior from sort of ordinary people who could, in fact, be decent.
I think this is sort of very toxic combination that you so often see play out in history. There are ways to. To try and get around this, though, there's a very old theory in psychology that's got the contact hypothesis is very different. A simple idea is just that if you put people in contact, they find it much harder to hate each other. I've got one chapter in the book about, you know, the something that many people have heard about, you know, the Christmas truce in 1914 during in the midst of the First World War, when when soldiers stopped fighting.
And all of a sudden I saw that all along the German trenches all coming up, sort Christmas trees. And they started singing Christmas carols, sang Silent Night.
And it's really interesting, actually, is that the people who hated the Germans the most, they were the people who at home reading the newspapers and the journalists and the editors, but the actual soldiers in the trenches, they often find it hard to keep on, find it hard to keep on fighting because, you know, they were so close to the enemy that very often you would have these outbreaks of peace.
And that was very hard to control for for the generals and the officers.
You're on the left of the political spectrum and you've written a book. You're you're conservative, critics might say, which conveniently affirms your own politics, your own ideology. After all, conservatives say we humans are fundamentally flawed. We're selfish, individualistic people while it's people on the left, socialists, for example, who have utopian ideas about collective action and solidarity between human beings. What would you say to people say? Well, let's just you know, it's affirms your own biases?
Well, it's a book that for me has in many ways been a reckoning with my own ideas. I used to believe in the Stanford prison experiment. I used to believe in the cynical story of Easter Island. You know how this civilization built itself. I, I used to believe in venire theory so that there has to say something.
And I also think that very often on the left, you also find this in a bit more paternalistic view of people that we have to help them to make the right decisions.
While ah, I think that in the end what I'm advocating is a more anarchistic view of of who we are as a species, that most people are quite decent, but power corrupts. The problem with anarchists, though, is that they're not very good at building institutions and that's where really we need to do better by definition.
Yeah, you said in a recent you said in a recent interview with my former colleague George eatin' over at the New Statesman magazine in the UK, that you believe the Overton Window, the range of policies deemed acceptable to the voters is moving left. You said, and I quote, It's a wonderful time to be a social Democrat. And yet just a few months ago, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party were heavily defeated in the UK election. Just a few weeks ago here in the US, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were both rejected by Democratic primary voters.
Hmm. And then the standard response here is obviously what Sanders said himself as well, is that he won the battle of ideas. Now, that may sound like a bit of a weak response, but I mean, if you zoom out, it's really true.
It's really it's you can clearly see it. If you just look at the climate plans of Joe Biden, who is I totally agree with people is a boring moderate. And there are many problems with it with his platform. But his climate plans are more ambitious than Bernie Sanders climate plans of 2016.
And if you look at how the window has shifted when it comes to taxing the rich, you know, people are it's true that actually Biden is relatively radical.
If you look at the at the history of Democratic candidates in in the US. And the same is true, I think, for the UK is the actual spending of the conservatives on social services in the past couple of years has been closer to the UK or the Labour Manifesto of 2017 than to the plans of the Conservatives themselves.
And yet and yet these left wing parties and candidates frustratingly keep losing.
Yeah, but maybe that's I mean, it would be nice. I totally agree with you to win an election for once and maybe I think people on the left also have to become better at building coalitions. I've just had this really great book by Helen Lewis.
It's The History of Feminism, another former colleague of mine. Well, there you go. It's the history of feminism in Great Britain. And she talks about the women's right to vote and the whole campaign for that.
It's so interesting because what they managed to do is built this huge coalition of working class women and aristocrats.
And then they reached a compromise in what is it now 18, 19, 18, just past your right to vote for women, only women over 30 who have property. And then 10 years later, they got the whole thing. So that teaches us something.
If you want progress and sometimes you need to do things that you don't like.
And I think this is sometimes a bit of a problem among the lefties that we like to stay in our corner of the Internet and be retweeted by people who already agree with us.
But that's not how you actually change the world. That is a problem across the political spectrum. By the way, Helen Lewis's book is called A Difficult Women A History of Feminism in a Fight, if you want to check that out. We're running out of time, but I do have to bring up a major issue, because when when I came across your book and the thesis of your book, even before I started reading it, the first thing that jumped to my mind as a counterpoint was not Nazi Germany or the Stanford Prison experiment or whatever it is.
The number one thing that jumped into my mind was immigration. And I think about human decency and cooperation and sticking up for other people. And then I look at the record of the West. In recent years, as refugee numbers has ballooned around the world, Syria imploded. We didn't see people across Europe or North America opening their arms to refugees, to immigrants. We saw the exact opposite. We thought the scapegoating of those people, the demonization of those people.
We saw voters elect Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Viktor Orban, almost even elected Wilders in your country, Marine Le Pen in France. How does the backlash against immigration fit with your thesis about our basic decency? Because I so want to believe in your thesis. And then I look at the immigration debate and I just want to. Tamara?
Well, let me say one thing about my own country, because I've seen the reports about guilt. Well, they're supposedly becoming the leader of this country. Well, he got like, I don't know, 15 or 20 percent of the vote at Max and he'll never get more. Actually, 80 percent of the country strongly dislikes him. And what we've also seen here is that for every refugee that came in, there were two or three volunteers who wanted to help.
This was actually a problem. We had too many volunteers. And, you know, I remember our conversation with my sister I had at the time who was angry that, I mean, she had signed up to be a volunteer and people, you know, from the city, it said, you know, you can't do anything anymore because we got too many people already or who want to help.
Now, this is these are the sort of what I would call the banality of the good. It's what especially the news doesn't really focus on, because the news is mostly about, I think, the nastiness about the negative. Yes. I'm not saying that doesn't exist, but it is important.
I agree with you on the news. And I know you're very critical of the news. And you're right about the media industry and the way we consume news as a drug makes us pessimistic, cynical, you know, brings our worst qualities. And the point you made earlier about self-fulfilling prophecy or great points about the media, share them totally.
But we can't deny the fact that there is this growing far right, quote unquote, populist, I hate that word, nativist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant wave across the West. And then you come out with this book saying, we're actually really decent people. And I'm like, well, the wave of politicians being elected doesn't seem to support that.
No, but then at the same time, you have these millions of protesters across the US in 50 states. And I know it seems to me like we're in an extraordinary moment, full of hope. And it seems to me that, you know, many of these. And I know the strongmen and the authoritarian response on the right, and I know it seems like how do you see that last gasp of breath for some of these people of a dying ideology?
Death rattle. Yeah, I hope you're right. I pray to God that you're right. I know you're not a believer.
Maybe it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy if we actually believe it. That's right.
Well, maybe we'll have to maybe we'll have to get you back on the show in November to talk about how you are right to be hopeful in this moment. And before we finish, we're out of time. But I do. I wanted so much more to discuss with you. I recommend listeners read the book because there's so many fascinating anecdotes, studies, interesting, provocative points that you make. But just on on a on a separate subject, I do want to ask you one last question.
You became very famous last year when you went to Davos and took on the quote unquote, elites in Davos to their faces. I played a clip earlier in the show of you doing that. And then, of course, you then went on Fox News on Tucker Carlson show, which went viral, where you challenged him on his own kind of biases, an awful output and kind of apologising for billionaires. Let me just ask you this.
When you went on Tucker's show, did you go planning to do that or did that just happen in the spur of the moment?
I wanted to ask you that for a year now, but it was pretty well, it's it's been a bit of both.
So it was two a.m. it was the middle of the night in Amsterdam. And I had forgotten about the interview, to be honest, because I was moving to a different place.
And then that Monday I realized, OK, I still have this Tucker Carlson interview, what am I going to say?
And I arrived at the studio and there was just one producer, as I said, as the middle of the night. And I joked to him that, you know, it was going to do this interview and that there were probably not going to air it because, I don't know, I was in the mood of telling him the truth. And I asked him, the producer asked, can you report the thing? Because then I have something nice to say.
You know, next Friday when I'm going to drink beers, a couple of colleagues and I got the government video to show them and he said that he couldn't do it. You know, it didn't have the equipment there to do it. So I just went to the interview expecting that, I don't know, nothing would happen.
I just would have a nice anecdote and that they would never air it. And then we had this bizarre conversation where he really exploded.
And to be honest, I thought it was hilarious. I thought it was absolutely hilarious that he completely lost it.
And then then the interview was over and this guy came in the studio and he said, you know, I've got the whole thing on my iPhone.
I couldn't risk, you know, recording it.
And then he airdropped it to me on my phone. And I immediately tried to post it on Twitter, but it didn't work.
You know, my Internet wasn't working. So we went downstairs and had a couple of beers. And I guess at that point, I still didn't really realize what had happened.
And then the next morning I woke up and watched the video again.
I was like, holy shit, this is a hand grenade. And and then we consulted, I don't know, three or four lawyers before who we had the guts to actually publish it. So that's how it happened.
Well, it was definitely fun to watch, and I'm glad someone kind of stuck it to Tucker Carlson, the faux populist and nationalist of all time. Rutger Bregman, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Congratulations on the book. Carry on being thought-Provoking.
Thanks, man. Thanks for having me.
That was Rutger Bregman, the Dutch historian and journalist and author of the new book Humankind A Hopeful History. I'm hopeful after listening to him speak, he sure does make a passionate, thought provoking, well argued case. And what's so important, I think, is that progressives use such arguments, used books like his to fight for a better future, to imagine a better world and not get lost in cynicism or despair, especially at a time like now.
But that's our show. Deconstructive is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer, Zach Young. The show was mixed by Brian Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept editor in chief. And I'm Maggie Hassan. You can follow me on Twitter at Mediaa Hassan. If you haven't already, please do subscribe to the shows. You can hear it every week. Go to the intercept dot com forward slash deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast Platform of Choice, iPhone, Android, whatever.
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