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De-popularising populism

Jul 14,2019 - Last updated at Jul 14,2019

One of the best traditional Arab institutions was “Uqalaa Al Qawm” or the wisepeople of the community. This was an informal group of elders, renowned for their wisdom and integrity, whose advice was sought in mediating disputes and solving problems.

Naturally, Arabs were not unique in this. Almost every ancient culture had similar councils of sages. But this approach is evoked here because the world would do well to ask its wise people how to stop and reverse the global plummet into populism.

Wisdom is the opposite of populism. The two terms describe diametrically opposite understandings of how government works: Sages are compromise builders who mediate differences not widen them. They bring points of view closer, leading to a compromise that is below anyone’s maximum demands, but the best outcome given the reality of the situation. In a crisis, sages assuage the rage of agitated people and calm them down with doses of reason and moderation.

Such a process is too delicate, laborious and time-consuming for the populists. Populist leaders dismiss the deliberations of the sages as boring elitism.They prefer public rallies where they excite the public with histrionics that appeal to their passion and make them cheer long and loud. 

The populist leader’s rhetoric affects his crowds in the same way that their cheers affect him, which is like a narcotic drug with a short-lived high. The ecstasy of both fades quickly and everyone soon yearns for another, stronger fix, so populist leaders must forever fan the flames of the crowd’s passion.

To do this they create crises, focus the crowd’s attention on them and pose as the inspired hero who saved the situation when all others had failed to realise that a crisis existed, largely because none did.

In Europe, as late as 1989, Yugoslavs asserted quite convincingly that the old tensions between Serbs, Croats and Bosnians were long dead and buried. Two years later, Slobodan Miloševi persuaded Serbs that the Croats and Bosnians pretended for decades to be good friends, neighbours and even spouses of Serbs, when in fact they were vile enemies to be exterminated. The resultant bloodshed gave the world the term “ethnic cleansing”.

Today’s great populist liberators pick on different insidious enemies, such as Muslims in European countries, both naturalised citizens and asylum seekers, or else they pick on Latin American refugees desperate for a better life.

Of course, the ideal solution is not to surrender all the community’s affairs to a council of sages. It is not certain that wisdom alone can solve all our problems and besides, sages are human, hence susceptible to temptation, and corruptible. In no time whatsoever, society would find its affairs being managed according to the caprices of a symbolic but senile super-sage and the profit of his retinue.

The point, simply put, is that it would be a good idea to inject elements of wisdom and sobriety into the conduct of the world’s affairs, before the lunacy with which they are being conducted now becomes irreversible.  


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