'If Liberalism Wants to Save Itself, It Needs to Contemplate Suicide'

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A labourer works on hanging up a Likud election campaign banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his party candidates, in Jerusalem. March 28, 2019
A labourer works on hanging up a Likud election campaign banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his party candidates, in Jerusalem. March 28, 2019Credit: \ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Oded Carmeli
Oded Carmeli
Oded Carmeli
Oded Carmeli

“At the university, people say I’m stuck in adolescence,” says Uriel Abulof, laughing. “Young people read existentialist literature, play Pink Floyd on the guitar, and then they grow up and move on. But I’m still there, and talking about the meaning of life. There’s a famous paper by [the American philosopher] Thomas Nagel called, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ That’s precisely the riddle that occupies my mind – but not about bats. I want to understand what it’s like to be human, and I don’t understand why that is not the central question the social sciences ask.”

Meet Uriel Abulof, 45, born and raised in Jerusalem. After earning his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. at the Hebrew University, where he studied international affairs and Middle East studies, he did a postdoc at Princeton. He’s currently a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s School of Political Science, and a fellow of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He teaches such conventional courses as an introduction to international relations, the Arab Spring and ethnic conflicts. But one course Abulof offers has made him a web phenomenon: “HOPE: Human Odyssey to Political Existentialism.”

Like the introductory course on world history that Yuval Noah Harari taught at Hebrew University, which formed the basis for his international bestseller “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Abulof’s “HOPE” started off as a classroom course five years ago. Last year, Princeton decided to put it online, free and available to all, in one of the elite university’s most expansive productions, while Tel Aviv University added Hebrew and Arabic captions to the course.

With thousands of learners from over 100 countries, Abulof’s online course ranks first among online courses in political science and philosophy, and second in social sciences and the humanities, according to Class Central. The online magazine which ranks such courses according to user feedback, rated “HOPE” the top course among thousands of online sources that were developed in 2018.

Uriel Abulof at the Tel Aviv Port.Credit: Moti Milrod

What accounts for the success of Abulof’s course? Perhaps it’s the fact that, in contrast to the evolutionary psychology trend in the social sciences, “HOPE” doesn’t ask how humans resemble animals, or how we can explain seemingly complex human behaviors through simple evolution. On the contrary: In 44 short lectures replete with images from the plastic arts, music, television and cinema, Abulof asks what is distinctively human about human beings – and how politics can elevate, or suppress, the human experience. And he does it by means of a philosophy that has long since disappeared from humanities faculties: existentialism.

“The greatest shortcoming of the course is also its greatest advantage: It doesn’t fall into any niche,” Abulof observes, during a meeting over ice cream near the Tel Aviv Port. “You want to study programming? Look for a course in Python [programming language]. Interested in psychology? There’s Psych 101. It’s hard to imagine, though, how the average surfer would come across my course. What’s he supposed to search for – ‘existentialism’? That was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s. But to me, existentialism is only a means to achieve a goal. Existentialism isn’t like liberalism or socialism. It’s not another self-sanctifying ‘ism,’ another theory that hoists the flag and says, ‘Follow me.’”

It’s the non-flag flag, with the battle cry “Don’t follow anyone.”

Abulof: “Exactly. That’s why many existentialists avoided the label. Albert Camus explicitly denied being an existentialist. Because at the heart of existentialism is the idea that man is unique and that human singularity lies in freedom, in choice. You can take the idea of freedom wherever you like, to literature and philosophy, but but also to society and politics. Which is exactly what I am trying to do.”

So you sit in the cafeteria at TAU and everyone says, “There’s that nudnicky teenager with his ‘God is dead.’”

“People look at me and ask: ‘What that’s you’re doing? Making a connection between Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ and politics? Seriously? Forget that nonsense and come run regressions [statistical models for estimating variables]. Because, in political science, and in the social sciences in general, they’re trying desperately to imitate the natural sciences. But the point is that the research object here is completely different: It’s the human being. Think about the principal models in the social sciences. There is homo biologicus, the person who is impelled by evolution; homo economicus, the person who acts according to material, cost-benefit considerations; homo sociologicus, the social being; and there is homo psychologicus, the person guided by emotions.

“It’s all correct, it’s all part of our repertoire. But all these models are shared by us and animals, or by us and machines, or both. So what makes homo sapiens different? Never mind superior, simply different. Shouldn’t we study human beings as such? Is the human condition is off the radar? Is there really no homo telos, the person who is looking for meaning? That drives me crazy.”

Because empirical research relies on a large number of variables, it will always be less human than the individual. The scientific uproots the human. But for humanity, we have poetry and theater and sunrise hikes. Why turn to political science?

“Let’s say that man is searching for meaning, after all. Let’s say he thinks he has freedom, has choice – even if he is totally mistaken, even if it’s an illusion, false consciousness – this is what he thinks, this is what he feels and this is a significant part of his experience. Shouldn’t we study his experience? A researcher in the social sciences, the human sciences, should also investigate what is unique about human beings. The next question, of course, is how to go about that. And then the opposition arises: Why do it in political science, of all fields? Let’s leave it to art. Let the artists explore human nature in their works, and then I can simply study art. But the challenge doesn’t end art and culture. Do we truly lack the ability to study human phenomenology, the lived experience, within a political framework? Take the Arab Spring. In 2011, a Tunisian greengrocer named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. Why did he do that?”

Because he received a fine.

“A fine and apparently he was also slapped or spat on, it’s not clear. But something in his basic dignity was affronted. And what did he do? He committed suicide. The social sciences sprang out of Emile Durkheim’s research on suicide as a social phenomenon, but Bouazizi’s suicide is overlooked. Even though, for a long time now, people have been killing themselves more often than they are killed by others – in murders and wars combined – suicide continues to be dismissed as [being caused by] mental illness. But I see suicide as one of the clearest expressions of humanity: It is our choice to live or to die. Bouazizi decided to die, and he didn’t do it at home, he didn’t hang himself from the light fixture, he self-immolated across from the city hall, and rendered the act political.

File photo: Manoubiyeh Bouazizi, the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi holds a picture of him, in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, March 8, 2011.Credit: AP Photo/Giorgos Moutafis

“So, the personal experience twangs a social chord. People see him burning and something is sparked within them, so to speak. They saw their reflection in Bouazizi’s flames. He didn’t tell them something they didn’t know about the country, he didn’t write a political manifesto. He held up a mirror and asked, ‘Is this a man?’ And people took to the streets to redeem their sense of dignity. The West calls the upheaval in Tunisia the ‘Jasmine Revolution’; the Tunisians themselves call it a ‘Revolution of Dignity.’”

And all this can’t be understood with the conventional tools of the social sciences?

“Apparently not. Before the Arab Spring, the conventional wisdom in Middle East studies was that nothing was moving. The situation was called ‘authoritarian durability.’ The authoritarian regimes had succeeded in entrenching themselves, and nothing could touch them any longer. The aim of research was to try to decipher their ability to survive, but the survival itself was hardly in question. And then the Arab Spring arrives, the scientist awakes, sees the greengrocer in flames, and asks, ‘Okay, what do I do now? The story is interesting, but where do I factor in the regression here? Where do I insert numbers?’ After all, what is our test for science? We still follow in the footsteps of Karl Popper, who said that a scientific argument must be refutable. And I’m there. It’s an excellent criterion. Other researchers really need to be capable of refuting my arguments. But let’s go one step further and ask ourselves: What is the phenomenological meaning of refutability? Because, if we conduct a phenomenological study, there also has to be phenomenological refutation, which social scientists will flee from, as from fire.”

Excuse my ignorance, but what is “phenomenological refutation”?

“It means that if I write about Tunisian society, those who can refute my thesis must also include the Tunisians themselves, from out of their own experience. And if I write ‘The Mortality and Morality of Nations’ [a 2015 book by Abulof], about the existential fears of Israeli society, from my point of view, the best refutation of my arguments will be for an Israeli – any Israeli – to read it and say: ‘What is this nonsense? What are you talking about? What existential fears? Who’s afraid of anything here?’ That is phenomenological refutation. For me to put forward a research thesis – and for a taxi driver to refute it. After all, my thesis is concerned with the taxi driver.”

But people lie all the time. To themselves. To others. The individual is the last one who one should ask about his situation. You study happiness – look at Israel’s happiness index.

“Israel is ranked 13th in the world [according to the UN World Happiness Report for 2019]. It’s insane. I wanted to understand what’s going on here. Am I really part of the ‘melancholy industry,’ as Bibi claims? That I’m a sourpuss and that [really] everything is coming up roses?

File photo: People march in the Ashdod Pride Parade in 2018.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“I’ve tried to understand it using research tools. The happiness formula is very simple: what you have divided by what you want. It’s logical and it also works, but not in the Israeli case. The lifespan in Israel is truly fantastic. But in terms of some other parameters, we are pretty much in the middle, and in numerous parameters – such as education, transportation, air pollution and leisure time – we’re at the bottom of the OECD list. And then we move to the emotional plane, and Israelis testify about themselves that they are among the angriest, most embittered and, yes, also the loneliest.

“So, Israeli happiness is beyond all these parameters. It is not the result of a weighting of all the components. Why? How can it be that the Israelis report overflowing happiness but on an everyday basis they are miserable? It’s here that we move from psychology, sociology, economics and so on, to existentialism.”

Please help us get there.

“Israelis are happy partly because they are afraid. That sounds a little strange, because on the face of it, fear shouldn’t advance happiness. But we have to distinguish between fear and anxiety. If I were to draw a gun now and aim it at your temple, you would obviously not be especially happy. But prolonged anxiety can generate happiness. And that’s not only a manipulation by Benjamin Netanyahu. People here are not marionettes. Israelis understand that although things could be somewhat better, at the same time they could be a lot, lot, lot worse. It’s not just that I could lose my job; it could be a catastrophe, a second Holocaust around the corner. So the happiness formula – what I have, divided by what I want – changes. I want more, yes, but I also very much appreciate what I already have, I am happy with my lot. That is exactly the Jean-Paul Sartre quotation about the Nazi occupation, which I cite in my course.”

The Sartre quote referred to by Abulof appeared in The Atlantic in 1944, immediately after the Allied liberation of France. Titled “Paris Alive,” the article opens with the apparently paradoxical and definitely provocative statement, “Never were we freer than under the German occupation.”

To understand both that assertion and Abulof’s political approach, it’s necessary to grasp the distinction he draws between liberty and freedom. Liberty is control, answering the question of who controls what; freedom, in contrast, is choice. Liberty is external; it depends on frameworks such as the state, whereas freedom is internal – a human essence that cannot be subjugated. In Sartre’s words, “Man is condemned to be free.” But for the most part, we flee from our freedom, we operate in the world without reflecting and without questioning, without understanding that every moment in life invites choice. Yet Sartre says that it was of all people the Nazis who bestowed on every act of ours, every word, vast meaning: To resist? To remain silent? Life in occupied Paris was a grand and fateful moral adventure. It had meaning.

But liberals didn’t understand Sartre’s declaration, just as they didn’t understand earlier why good and enlightened Germans were voting for Hitler – and, with due respect to the difference, why, even though most Israelis, Europeans and Americans espouse a liberal approach, they vote time after time for right-wing populists, as Israelis did this week.

“If liberalism wants to save itself, it needs to contemplate suicide,” Abulof says. “It sounds as though I am pushing myself into a provocation, but I am perfectly serious. People talk about the crisis of liberalism, scholars study the erosion of democracy, and populism, Brexit and Donald Trump, and that whole discourse runs within the liberal sphere. Even those who force the issue somewhat, such as Gadi Taub or Jordan Peterson, offer us a critique of liberalism from within liberalism.

“But liberalism cannot justify its existence through liberalism – that’s circular reasoning. If we live, and enjoy liberty, to pursue happiness, then Bibi seems to give us the latter. People here can be happy and say, ‘Fine, so let things be authoritarian.’ If the liberal goal is happiness, there’s no reason not to give the job to the strongman. That’s why the Likud’s campaign is so effective: ‘Say thanks, because it could be terrible here.’ And yes, expressing gratitude – to the leader, to God, does make people happier. In fact, this is the easiest way to be happy: simply to be satisfied with what I already have.”

Then what are you suggesting? Because happiness sounds to me like a pretty good deal.

“A politics of freedom, politics that allows us to be human beings in the full sense of the world. Realizing that our authenticity is found not in an essentialist, unchanging core, which can only be reached by peeling away inner layers on a trek to Nepal – but rather in freedom, in choice, in creating the junctions along the way. I’ll give you a dangerous example: homosexuality. In theory, at least, the political camp that believes in choice – as in the pro-choice camp on the abortion question – is the liberal camp. The idea is that people have a choice about what to do with their body. But somehow, when it comes to sexual identities, they take one step back and say: ‘No, I don’t have a choice, it’s my homosexual genes that ordered me to do this.’ Why? Why do I need that line of defense?”

From fear. The gay person seizes the horns of the genes altar, because his choice isn’t legitimate in society.

“But there is the Gay Pride Parade. Pride in what? For coming out of the closet, for sure, and I applaud that, but then why defend it by turning to biology? If you really are proud, be proud of the choice you made, of your choice. Look, I am a heterosexual, probably because of both nature and nurture. Studies do show a certain correlation between genes and sexual proclivity. But why discard the element of choice instead of emphasizing it? That is precisely Erich Fromm’s ‘escape from freedom.’ Try to ask liberals that question and they will say that it’s an abomination: ‘It’s clear there is no choice, clear there’s no alternative – and you’re a homophobe just for raising the question.’”

Whereas people like Bezalel Smotrich [MK from Habayit Hayehudi] want to reeducate gays. They in fact believe that sexual identity is a choice.

“There’s a peculiar reversal here. The conservatives say: ‘There is an alternative and therefore you have to change.’ And the liberals, instead of responding, ‘We don’t want reeducation – this is what we chose and we’re fine with it,’ seek refuge behind the genes. If that’s what liberalism has to offer – genes or group identities that are permanent and constricting – then it really should shoot itself. ”

This could get you in trouble at at Princeton. Haaretz might well translate this interview into English.

“So far, so good. People know me, I’m an odd bird, but as long as I have wings… I said to my students that if they ever make rules against intellectual harassment, the way they have for sexual harassment, I’ll probably be sent home quickly.”

Then your days are numbered. In our era, the academic world is the last place where intellectual freedom exists.

“True freedom consists of four components: being conscious of a choice; reasoning your choice, to yourself and others; acting upon your choice, because it’s not enough to choose and then do nothing; and accepting responsibility for your actions. Regrettably, liberals have exchanged freedom for consent. In the universities today everything is consensual. For example, regarding the ethics of sexual relations, they don’t talk about choice but about consent. No decent person is in favor of sexual harassment, but when we talk about consent, we are a priori rendering the women in the equation passive. Is sex consented to? No, sex is a choice, or at least it should be.

Beyond this, many liberals falsely base consent on power, as if lacking money, status or whatever, quashes your capacity to give consent, let alone make a choice. But we always have a choice, and are never in complete control. Here again, liberalism forgets freedom. Non-liberal leaders, like Netanyahu do it purposefully. Bibi, in his famous 2015 election campaign clip, effectively said to his subjects: ‘You are infantile, small, weak. I am the Bibisitter, and without my supervision you are lost.’ But the liberals also do that. The liberals, too, find it difficult to give people the burden of freedom and to bear it themselves. I say: choose, reason, act and take responsibility, and then we will see if your choices were good. But don’t forgo your freedom in advance only because the choices might be bad.”

What do you suggest liberals should do?

“I suggest that all liberals read George Orwell’s review of ‘Mein Kampf.’ Orwell grasped that liberalism offers a certain lifestyle, comfort, security – but people were choosing Hitler because they wanted something beyond that. And yes, sometimes they want to make terrible choices. Even to sacrifice themselves. They want a life of heroism and of beauty, of awe and of meaning, however destructive and murderous it might be. In order to cope with the forces of darkness we need to look hard at three existential questions: Why breathe, why breed, why bleed? What’s worth living and creating lives for, and, yes, also killing and dying for? Liberalism needs to ponder these questions, and seek true hope in human freedom.”

Is there hope that can be found in human freedom? Because people make awful choices. Both in elections and in daily life.

“People usually contrast hope and despair. But when we peel away a few layers, the real contra to hope is cynicism. A feeling of loss of purpose, of despair of humanity. To assume that everyone is always lying, that all people want is to accumulate more power, that the only thing that motivates them, or us, is basic selfishness. That is my greatest apprehension, of a terrible prophecy that will prove self-fulfilling. That we will kill the humanness and the kindness in humankind. People are afraid that machines will come to resemble human beings. I am afraid that people will resemble machines.

“Following the natural sciences, the social sciences also try to predict the future, to look for independent predictive variables. I find that abhorrent. There is no single independent variable in the whole of the social sciences, the sciences of humans. Everything here is dependent on something, and above all on our freedom. You can’t isolate anything human under laboratory conditions. And if one day we do succeed in realizing the scientific dream of the social sciences, or the commercial dream of certain technology firms, that will be the point at which we will have forgone hope, at which we bury humanity.”

Do you think they will succeed?

“No, no and no. Apropos Orwell, our situation resembles the end of ‘1984.’ Winston is groaning in the torture chambers of the Ministry of Love, but clings to something he calls the ‘spirit of Man.’ His torturer, O’Brien, asks him what he is talking about. He stands the half-dead Winston up in front of a mirror, wrenches a tooth from his mouth and says to him, ‘If you are human, that [i.e., the image in the mirror] is humanity.’ But throughout history, time after time, we have proven that, yes, there is something that can be defined as the human spirit, that a tooth can be wrenched from us, but freedom cannot.

“Many times we’ve failed, many times we can cluck our tongues afterward, and many times we learn a cynical lesson. But time after time, people return to true hope. Hillel the Elder said, ‘When I am only for myself, what am I?’ For who and what am I here? To ensure that things are nice for me? Then let’s close up shop and go home, because there’s no point to all this. I am not against people feeling good about themselves, but is that what it’s all about? You came here to feel secure? You’re living in order to huddle in a safe space? Then hook up to [Robert] Nozick’s ‘pleasure machine’ [a thought experiment that offers a choice between everyday reality and a blissful simulated reality]. Personally, if that’s all being human is, I’m jumping.”

Do you think about suicide a lot?

“There’s hardly a week in which I don’t think about suicide. That’s how I ensure that I am not losing eye contact with the horizon, with the deceptive strip there where land and sky meet, between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought.’ Because without that horizon, there really is no point to life.”

What if there is no such strip? What if it’s an optical illusion? What if there is no freedom, free choice, meaning?

“When I taught the seminar at Princeton, I had a student who took my arguments very hard. She went all the way back to the Big Bang in order to prove that from then to the present, everything is a matter of cause and effect. I said, Okay, let’s presume you’re right: There is no free choice, no purpose. But most people, sometimes, believe they are facing a choice, and seek a purpose. That is part of their life. Even if it’s an illusion, it’s meaningful for us, it’s the illusion that justifies our very existence. So instead of trying to cultivate this virtue, and see how far it can take us – we seek to crush it more and more. The passion for that crushing only proves how much true freedom threatens us. If it’s an illusion, it’s apparently a very dangerous illusion. Otherwise, we wouldn’t fight it so fiercely.”

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