Tuesday March 28, 2017

March 28, 2017 full episode transcript

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The Current Transcript for March 28, 2017

Host: Kelly Crowe

STORIES FROM THIS EPISODE

Listen to the full episode

Prologue

[Music: Theme]

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INTERVIEWER: “It is better to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep”, that’s a famous Mussolini quote, you retweeted it.

DONALD TRUMP: What difference does it make? Whether it's Mussolini or somebody else, it's certainly a very interesting quote.

KELLY CROWE: That's Donald Trump defending a tweet quoting Mussolini. Why one historian believes there are disturbing parallels between a Trump presidency and Europe in the 1930s. While another says comparing Trump to dictators like Hitler could be dangerous. That discussion in an hour.

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I don't think I'd like to have that taken out of my control. I think making those decisions is an important part of what makes you a person.

KC: If there was a pill that could boost your moral behaviour, would you take it? The morality pill. It's not ready yet but scientists are working on it. We examine the burgeoning science of morality. And finally, are we giving up the war on nukes?

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BARACK OBAMA: So today I state clearly and with conviction, America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.

[Sound: audience cheers]

KC: Back in 2009, Barack Obama promised to work towards a nuclear weapons free world. But this week, as the United Nations holds talks aimed at doing exactly that, the US didn't show up. Neither did Canada. We begin this morning examining why. I'm Kelly Crowe sitting in for Anna Maria Tremonti and this is The Current.

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Canada's absence from UN nuclear weapon ban negotiations unacceptable, says advocate

Guests: Cesar Jaramillo, David Welch

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We wanted to stand here basically just to have our voices heard. Suddenly the General Assembly wants to have a hearing to ban nuclear weapons. As a mom, as a daughter, there is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons. But we have to be realistic. Is there anyone that believes that North Korea would agree to a ban on nuclear weapons? So what you would see is the General Assembly would go through in good faith trying to do something, but North Korea would be the one cheering and the people we represent would be the ones at risk. We can't honestly say that we can protect our people by allowing the bad actors to have them and those of us that are good trying to keep peace and safety not to have them.

KELLY CROWE: That is Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations. And with that, you might say that this week's UN conference on the elimination of nuclear weapons was over before it began. It's not just the US taking a pass on this week's conference. Britain and France are among some 40 nation states that won't be there, and that includes Canada. The question now is whether the dream of a nuke free world is still alive, at a time when it may be more important than ever. Cesar Jaramillo is the Executive Director of Project Ploughshares. He's in New York to attend the negotiations as a civil society representative. And we've reached him there. Hello.

CESAR JARAMILLO: Hello Kelly. Thanks for having me.

KC: Well thank you for being here. How significant is this conference?

CESAR JARAMILLO: You know it's actually very hard to overstate the significance. This is a historic conference. I mean, it's not a matter of opinion but a matter of fact to say that it is unprecedented. I mean, this is perhaps the most significant development in the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation realm in decades. I mean--

KC: So--

CESAR JARAMILLO: For the first, go ahead.

KC: I was just going to say, so how's it going so far?

CESAR JARAMILLO: Well, there is that sense in the room yesterday in the plenary room, there is that sense of history in the making. I mean, you can feel the majority of the international community increasingly empowered, emboldened about what they're doing to further stigmatize nuclear weapons. And I might add, despite the reluctance and intransigence of those states that have boycotted the negotiations, largely at the request of the United States.

KC: So what do you think of Canada's decision not to attend?

CESAR JARAMILLO: It's sad. I mean, it's disappointing. I think there's a general sense that this submission to the US request or demand, however you see it, it's really positioning the Canadian government and others that boycotted the conference on the wrong side of history and humanity. It’s again not a matter of opinion but one of arithmetic to say that they are in a minority, that's a minority position that is out of sync with the prevailing sentiment right now in the international community, that these negotiations are not only necessary but indeed long overdue.

KC: Well we did invite Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland to speak to us about the decision not to go, she was not available for an interview today. But her spokesperson sent a statement that says in part, “Canada strongly supports efforts towards nuclear disarmament. Canada is actively pursuing inclusive nuclear disarmament initiatives. However, the negotiation of a nuclear weapons ban without the participation of states that possess nuclear weapons is certain to be ineffective and will not eliminate any nuclear weapons. If anything, it may make disarmament more difficult.” What do you make of that? Could taking part in these negotiations make disarmament more difficult?

CESAR JARAMILLO: No, I mean, that sentiment, it's really an enumeration of flawed arguments and that do not stand scrutiny. And I'm happy to address a couple of them. I mean, first of all, a recurring point, this notion that the talks are divisive or that the process has failed to reach consensus, I mean it’s completely specious. I mean, these are the same states that are blocking consensus, are criticizing the process for its lack of consensus. They say it is not universal because they prevent it from being universal. So it is a dead end logic that they are insisting there. I mean, the process to be sure has not excluded Canada or any other of the states that are not here in New York. They have excluded themselves despite repeated requests, calls, almost at the urging of the international community and they are the ones that are resisting having a presence here. So that is--

KC: Do you know why? Why was there pressure for them to essentially boycott this meeting?

CESAR JARAMILLO: Well, basically because I think it's a testament to the potential impact of this treaty. I mean, they feel that their reliance on nuclear weapons is being challenged and that is precisely what this process intends to achieve. So it is, I think, it's a sign of its effectiveness. I mean, one of the most recurring, again, recurring arguments from them is that international security conditions today are not ideal for nuclear disarmament. But that is really an impossibly tall order. I can tell your listeners right now, neither Crimea nor Syria nor North Korea or Kashmir, India and Pakistan are the last crisis, you know, going forward that are going to involve nuclear weapons states in one way or another. So nuclear disarmament negotiations must be started, implemented and finalized under international security conditions that are going to be predictably less than perfect.

KC: Now earlier we heard the US Ambassador to the United Nations say they don't think these negotiations are realistic. So what does it mean for a treaty if the nuclear weapon states like the United States aren't there?

CESAR JARAMILLO: Well, it's still going to address a fundamental legal anomaly under the international law. I will remind you that every other category of weapons of mass destruction has been explicitly prohibited under international law. You have a chemical weapons convention, you have a biological weapons convention, you have the landmines treaty, etc. But nuclear weapons, remarkably the most destructive of them all, have not been explicitly prohibited under international law. So this process will hopefully lead to a situation where that void is filled, with or without the participation of nuclear weapons states. And this will in turn further stigmatize the weapons and further, you know, strengthen the case for their elimination. No one here is under the illusion that a treaty alone is tantamount to elimination. But everyone is convinced, including again the majority of the world's nations, that this is a necessary step, a necessary measure that will be required for maintaining a world without nuclear weapons.

KC: Now why right now? What international tensions have you most concerned at this moment?

CESAR JARAMILLO: Well, there's two primary elements. One is just a general sense of impatience over the nuclear weapon states’ reluctance to actually make progress on disarmament. It's been more than 70 years since Hiroshima. It's been more than 45 years since the entry into force of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It's been more than a quarter of a century since the end of the Cold War, and they still call concrete nuclear disarmament efforts premature. So that's just lost all credibility that it is premature. But perhaps the most notable change in recent years is that there has been a renewed focus on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, on the catastrophic humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and on the possibility to provide effective emergency relief. And so in this context for example, Hiroshima survivors have gained increased prominence and they've brought a human dimension to this struggle to ban nuclear weapons.

KC: But is there something going on in the world right now that makes this especially urgent in your view?

CESAR JARAMILLO: Well there are tensions right now involving nuclear weapons states including, you know, the potential for escalation between the US and Russia, which together hold more than 14,000 nuclear warheads, many more powerful than Hiroshima. There’s tensions involving China with the South China Sea. There’s tensions involving North Korea. So again, I mean, while they use these instances as examples of why it is the timing is not right, you know, the rest of the international community uses the exact same international, you know, sources of tension to say listen, we need to take nuclear weapons out of the equation because there is a real possibility of escalation and there is no doubt about the potential catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons. But beyond this is not just a matter of wishful thinking. Nuclear weapon states are obligated under Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is again from 1970, to conduct negotiations in good faith and to bring them to a conclusion. And the international community, just in the past 46 odd years, has not seen that good faith. On the contrary, every single state is now investing billions of dollars to modernize their nuclear arsenals and thereby extend their shelf life and push the abolition goalpost even further. So that is utterly inconsistent with their obligation to disarm under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

KC: OK. Well, thank you very much Cesar Jaramillo. Cesar Jaramillo is the Executive Director of Project Ploughshares. He's in New York attending the UN nuclear treaty talks as a civil society representative.

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REX TILLERSON: Let me be very clear. The policy of strategic patience has ended. We're exploring a new range of diplomatic, security, and economic measures. All options are on the table. North Korea must understand that the only path to a secure economically prosperous future is to abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction.

KC: That was US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ratcheting up the tension with North Korea earlier this month. And it's behind that increasingly tense background that this week's UN talks are unfolding. My next guest says that easing tensions between North Korea and the US is no easy task, especially given the personalities of the two countries’ current leaders. David Welch is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and chair of Global Security at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. He joins me now in our Toronto studio. Hello.

DAVID WELCH: Good to be with you Kelly.

KC: Thank you for being here. So how significant are the nuclear disarmament negotiations underway at the United Nations right now?

DAVID WELCH: Well first of all, let me give a shout out to say Cesar and his people at Project Ploughshares for the good work they've been doing for a very long time, raising consciousness about the problem of nuclear weapons and keeping the moral pressure on nuclear armed countries to eventually disarm. He is absolutely right when he says that most of the countries that have nuclear weapons today are already by treaty committed to negotiating in good faith to get rid of them. But the conference that's going on in New York now will be judged a success or a failure depending upon what you expect to get out of it. If the expectation is that there will be a ban with legal teeth and that it will result in the rapid disarmament of nuclear weapons, everybody's going to be disappointed. That's simply not going to happen. If the marker of success is keeping the moral pressure up and keeping the public aware that this is a long term problem that needs to be addressed, it will almost certainly be a success because it's in the headlines, people are talking about it.

KC: So how do you see the global nuclear threat right now?

DAVID WELCH: It's very significant and it's bothersome to me that people don't seem to worry about it much. I'm old enough to remember the days of the Cold War, when people myself included, would awake at night sometimes with nightmares about mushroom clouds. And there was a visceral sense that the world could end at any moment. The total level of strategic nuclear weaponry in the world now is lower than the Cold War, but it's not that much lower. And the Russians and the Americans both have arsenals big enough effectively to destroy civilization.

KC: So are you having nightmares again?

DAVID WELCH: I'm nervous. And I wish people were more aware of the fact that we have not solved the nuclear problem.

KC: Now, one of the biggest threats is posed by North Korea and its leader Kim Jong Un. You spend a lot of time focusing on how the personalities of individual leaders can affect their decision making. So how do you see Kim Jong Un's personality affecting his nuclear calculations?

DAVID WELCH: I find Kim Jong Un very disturbing person. And let me back up a bit and contextualize this by saying I come from a field, academic international relations, that suffers from economics envy. And so it works on the assumption that all leaders are basically rational actors and that states make decisions in accordance with the national interest, basically constrained by structural considerations such as the balance of power or sometimes institutions or norms. My field doesn't take individuals very seriously. And from the work I've done over the years on actual crisis decision making, I think that's a terrible mistake. Now, some leaders are very status quo oriented. They don't want war, they are eager to avoid it, they do what they can to avoid it. Fortunately we had leaders like that in Moscow and Washington in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy and Khrushchev stumbled into a crisis that neither one actually wanted, but once they found themselves in it they had the presence of mind and they were motivated to get out of that crisis gingerly. The problem with Kim Jong Un is that it's not obvious to me that he's a status quo leader. He exhibits a number of fairly classic decision making pathologies, which to my mind call into question the rationality of his decision making. And what's particularly worrisome about somebody like Kim, who has absolute unfettered power in North Korea, is that we know now as a result of neurochemistry, that leaders who are effectively worshipped and enjoy unfettered power for long periods of time become addicted to dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure centre of the brain. And in high concentrations over time, dopamine actually erodes your decision making capacity, it has a physical effect on the prefrontal cortex of the human brain. And so people who enjoy unfettered power and an underlying sense of megalomania, over time begin to think that they can do no wrong, they begin to think that they're invulnerable. And what worries me most about Kim is at some point he may believe that his nuclear weapons give him an ironclad trump against resistance when he attempts to fulfill his god like grandfather's lifelong dream, which was to reunite Korea forcibly.

KC: Now what do you think about the leader he could be facing off against, US President Donald Trump?

DAVID WELCH: Right. So Donald Trump is a totally different style of leader. And this is where my field is completely wrong in thinking that you can more or less substitute leaders at will. So Kim Jong Un, I think, is a megalomaniac in training. Donald Trump is a narcissist and he has classic symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. Now, the American Psychological Association does not want to diagnose him remotely, it's against their code of ethics. I do know something about personality disorders and it's ironic to me that the main diagnostic tool is a questionnaire that Trump would almost certainly lie about. It's much easier to get accurate information about people's personality by watching them and by seeing what they say than by giving them a quiz that they're not going to answer truthfully. So he's a classical narcissist, and basically everything Trump does is designed to gratify his own particular psychological needs, which are basically insecurity driven needs. And what we are seeing as a result of that is Trump is conducting policy and conducting himself as president inadvertently in a way that is eroding America's leadership role, hastening American economic and strategic decline. And he has a fierce temper, takes things personally, and what worries me is that combination of Kim Jong Un starting to take risks on the Korean peninsula and Trump taking this personally and reacting by tweet will also react by not thinking through the costs of some of the options at his disposal.

KC: So just shifting to yet another nuclear power, Russia. How do you view the personality of President Vladimir Putin and how does it play into this formula?

DAVID WELCH: So Putin is much more standard authoritarian leader. He's clever like a fox. He obviously enjoys his role as leader of Russia but he's not an idiot and he's not particularly a risk taker. He takes risks around the margins and only when he's pretty sure he can actually get away with it.

KC: So just, how do you think all of this adds up then? Sort of what is the, how would you summarize the situation?

DAVID WELCH: Summarizing situation that Putin basically can control Trump. Doesn't have to worry about Trump much. Nobody can control Kim Jong Un. And if there's some crisis on the Korean peninsula, we could have a perfect storm of personalities both in Pyongyang and Washington reacting badly.

KC: So on that unpleasant note, [chuckles] we will leave it there. Thank you David Welch. David Welch is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and chair of Global Security at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. He's in our Toronto studio. And of course, the discussions at the UN this week are extra poignant to anyone who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the US and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war. Here's a bit of President John F. Kennedy addressing Americans on the night of October 22nd, 1962, in what's been called the most frightening speech by an American president ever.

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This secret swift extraordinary buildup of communist missiles in an area well known to have a special and historical relationship to the United States and the nations of the Western Hemisphere, in violation of Soviet assurances, and in defiance of American and hemispheric policy. This sudden clandestine decision to station strategic weapons for the first time outside of Soviet soil is a deliberately provocative and unjustified change in the status quo, which cannot be accepted by this country. If our courage and our commitments are ever to be trusted again.

KC: John F. Kennedy from 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

[Music: Extro]

KC: The CBC News is next. Then, imagine a pill that could make you a better person, a more moral person. Would you pop one? Would you prescribe it? Who would you prescribe it to? We're talking morality pills after the news. I'm Kelly Crowe and you're listening to The Current.

Back To Top »

Is it ethical to swallow a morality pill?

Guests: Dan Jones, Neil Levy, Kerry Bowman

KELLY CROWE: Hello, I'm Kelly Crowe and you're listening to The Current.

[Music: Theme]

KC: Still ahead, I'll be joined by a historian of the 20th century, who says the lessons of tyranny are all too relevant today. And if you're wondering where Anna Maria Tremonti is today, she's in Ottawa for The Current’s next public forum on missing and murdered Indigenous women. You can watch a live stream of that event on The Current’s Facebook page. It gets underway at 7:00 PM Eastern tonight. Just head to facebook.com/CBCTheCurrent and you can see it and hear it all live. And the forum will air here on the show next Tuesday. But coming right up, the ethics of morality pills.

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VOICE 1: What if you could take a pill that would make you more moral? Would you take it?

VOICE 2: I don't need to. I think I’m moral enough.

VOICE 1: Would you want to take it?

VOICE 3: I wouldn't.

VOICE 1: Why not?

VOICE 3: Because morality is not just biology. And there is no tablet that can make you moral without affecting your psychic. So that would probably be one of those mind control things. I wouldn't do it.

VOICE 1: Does it sound freaky?

VOICE 3: Super freaky.

VOICE 4: [laughs] I think that would be damaging for me, I'm already a nice person. So if you’re too nice, you know, you're thinking less about yourself and more about others, I would think, I'd like to give that pill to some people I know. [laughs]

KC: Some people on the streets of Halifax reacting to the idea of a morality pill. Thanks to the CBC's Mary-Catherine McIntosh for posing the question there. And believe it or not, it may not be a hypothetical question for much longer. Because in recent years, scientists have been noticing some interesting side effects associated with commonly used drugs. Side effects like empathy, self-control, and increased trust, even an improvement in attitudes towards people of other races. And these observations have sparked a discussion about whether it's possible to prescribe something to make us more moral. Now of course, that leads us down a complicated path. Dan Jones is a freelance science journalist who has been watching this debate unfold. He is in Brighton in the United Kingdom. Hello.

DAN JONES: Hi.

KC: So what is a morality pill exactly?

DAN JONES: So a morality pill is a chemical compound that you can take which will affect the chemistry in your brain so as to change your social and moral attitudes and behaviour.

KC: So are we close to having such a thing?

DAN JONES: We're more than close, they already exist. There are a number of drugs that are used for common conditions like depression and Parkinson's disease that do have these effect, that when given to healthy volunteers will change moral behaviour. So they’re with us.

KC: What sort of moral changes are they actually seeing?

DAN JONES: They change specific aspects of moral behaviour. And the best way to see the kind of effects they have is to look in bit more detail at the experiments that have uncovered these effects. So for the past couple of decades, research in morality, the psychology and neuroscience of morality has been exploding and people have been working out what goes on in the brain when we mull over moral dilemmas. And it's a natural step to look at what brain chemistry underlies moral thinking and how tinkering with that chemistry could affect moral cognition. And luckily there are these drugs out there that already have these effects, that change levels of chemicals like serotonin in the brain or dopamine and other important chemicals that regulate our behaviour. So for instance, people are given the chance to earn money by giving electric shocks to another person or giving them to themselves. And people, although they generally don't like harming people, will earn money by delivering electric shocks to other people. But they're less willing to do so, they’ll forfeit the money if they've been given a single dose of a citalopram before making the choice about how many shocks someone else should receive.

KC: What would be the next step here? I mean, are they trying to isolate these particular mechanisms to make them sort of more sensitive to manipulation?

DAN JONES: Well actually, I mean, in most cases the use of these drugs is actually just a tool to probe the system. So the scientists are generally more interested in understanding how the serotonin system regulates social and moral behaviour. And citalopram just a very useful drug to do that with. But in the future, it may be possible to develop more specific chemical agents that target different aspects of the serotonin system or other systems like oxytocin or dopamine and so on.

KC: Now why are we talking about this now? Is it just because we seem to have the tools or is there something else going on?

DAN JONES: One of the major themes of contemporary sort of moral psychology moral neuroscience is that we're very far from being moral saints. Our moral behaviour is often self-serving and parochial. We prioritize our self over others, we put the welfare of members of our in group, you know, whether that's our nation or ethnic group or religious community, we put their interests above the interests of out group members. And--

KC: You also list a series of problems that are plausibly solvable like climate change, poverty, preventable disease, that maybe we need to prompt as a population to move on this stuff.

DAN JONES: Sure. Well that's one of the other problems of our moral psychology that’s become clear over recent years. Our morality is often very insensitive to numbers. So people get will more distressed and feel more moral concern about a single child trapped down a well than by, you know, hundreds of thousands or millions of starving people in a distant land. Our brains aren’t particularly well equipped to think about these kind of abstract moral issues, especially when they extend across space and times. When we're thinking about the fate of the planet in the future our moral thinking isn't that helpful. So the recent explosion of research into moral psychology has really highlighted the limits of our moral thinking in addressing these grand global moral challenges. As you mentioned include things like poverty, you know, death and preventable disease, and climate change. That's part of the motivation for thinking that we need to enhance our moral sense. And then that, you know, it's just in recent years that people have started to look at how these chemical agents can achieve that to some degree.

KC: So just finally Dan, how would we take these pills? Would they be prescribed by doctors? Would they be in the drinking water?

DAN JONES: Well that's a big question. One for the ethicists to discuss, I think. Yeah, that's a big question. Should it be voluntary on a sort of individual basis you choose to buy these pills or not, much like people who choose to take cognitive enhancers, you know, or beta blockers to cope with the anxiety of an exam or public performance of some sort. Or yeah, or should they be put into the water like fluoride or put into cereal like vitamins. There's a big moral question, those are very deep moral questions because morality is so central to our sense of personal identity that playing around with it is going to raise a lot of questions and create a lot of anxiety, I imagine.

KC: Well, we'll talk to the ethicist about these questions in a moment Dan, thank you very much for joining me.

DAN JONES: Thank you.

KC: Dan Jones is a freelance science writer. He was in Brighton, England. Using technology to boost our morality, whether it be pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering or something else entirely is an intriguing idea. It's one that Julian Savulescu has thought a great deal about. He's the Director of the Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University.

SOUNDCLIP

Just as technology is starting to enhance our ability to learn, it might be able to enhance the acquisition of moral skills such as empathy. We’re not destined to destroy ourselves. Political, social, and legal reform are very important to changing our destiny. But so too might be changing our very nature. I believe that we have an urgent moral imperative, not to employ any of these at this point, but to investigate the possibility that we can not only change the world but change ourselves.

KC: We have two scientists standing by to debate the promise and peril of morality pills. But before the experts weigh in, let's listen to more from the streets of Halifax, where people have been answering the CBC's Mary Catherine-McIntosh’s question on whether they would take a morality pill.

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VOICE 1: I don't think I'd like to have that taken out of my control. I think making those decisions is an important part of what makes you a person.

VOICE 2: And who's morality? [laughs] Right? Yeah, it kind of asks a whole bunch of other questions doesn’t it?

VOICE 3: Like what?

VOICE 2: Well, someone might say being moral means you marry one person and then you stay with them for the rest of your life no matter what, and somebody else might say well no that doesn't matter, you know. So morality is not sort of a one size fits all anymore. To me it always stops, the line always stops at hurting other people or, you know, other creatures. That's kind of the line that's a tough one, you know. But then again, you know, I eat meat so, you know, it's a tough one.

KC: A tough one indeed. And it's one my next two guests have been grappling with. Neil Levy is Director of Research at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics. He joins us from Oxford, United Kingdom. And Kerry Bowman is a bioethicist from the University of Toronto, who teaches the ethics of emerging medical technologies. He's with me in Toronto. Hello to both of you.

KERRY BOWMAN: Good morning.

NEIL LEVY: Hi.

KC: Neil Levy, how much research has been done on the use of medicine for behavioural purposes like improving morality or decision making?

NEIL LEVY: It's a relatively new field, but there are people pursuing it quite effectively. There are people, labs pursuing oxytocin as a moral enhancer. This is basic research, trying to understand what the effects are. These are not trials aimed at producing morality drugs, just that understanding the science.

KC: So what promise or potential do you think is here?

NEIL LEVY: Well, everything has costs. All the enhancers that we've been able to study so far have costs in terms of other functions. There are no morality pills on the horizon that are just going to make people better across the entire spectrum. Morality is too complex for such a pill to exist.

KC: So what do you think the scenarios are for this kind of prescription to be useful? What specific situations could you imagine this would be used?

NEIL LEVY: Where it could be useful is when you know reflectively that you're going to go into a situation in which you won't make decisions that right now you think are of the kind you should make. So for example, Dan Jones mentioned how we're not sensitive to numbers. You may think that I should be sensitive to numbers in a particular circumstance, and I'm going to take a pharmaceutical that’ll make me sensitive to numbers. It would have to be a very circumscribed situation where somebody which for a limited time and for a specific task choose to enhance themselves.

KC: Now, are you are you excited by all of this?

NEIL LEVY: It's exciting. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. The research is showing small effects, relatively small attacks. It's worth saying that small effects at an individual level can add up to large effects at a population level.

KC: Now, Kerry Bowman, do you think there are any circumstances where a morality modification is necessary?

KERRY BOWMAN: Yeah, you know, and I've been thinking a lot about this and reading a lot about it, and I'm just wondering how this could possibly play out in real life, shall we say. You know, I teach this and I teach by cases and I also, I’m an ethicist that works in a hospital, I'm a clinical ethicist. And what you see with an ethical dilemma is often polarization and division. So let's imagine, this is now essentially a thought experiment, we had a profound ethical dilemma and in fact we had moral enhancements bio, you know, bio enhancement of morality. What would that look like? Does that mean we're going to be more divided? And which will deepen? If we look at an issue like as we know in Canada, we now have physician assisted dying, euthanasia. Let's, again, a thought experiment, let's imagine we morally enhance the population of Canada, would that mean we would celebrate this or we'd want to rethink the legislation? You see these are open questions and the complexity of moral evaluation is very very deep.

KC: What do you think about just the idea of it? I mean, should we even be thinking along these lines.

KERRY BOWMAN: From a point of view of, you know, human freedom and thought, it's a very difficult difficult concept. Because if you look at what occurs when a person has moral intuition, moral feelings, what they do with the moral intuition and the moral feelings and the space between that and moral action, meaning the decision that is made, that’s a very deep and powerful human experience. And anything that would interfere with that, I think a lot of people would want to push back on because that's essentially the beauty of being human and the depth of being human.

KC: So you may have a moral reaction, but what you actually do about it might be different and so--

KERRY BOWMAN: Absolutely.

KC: And so taking the pill might interfere with this.

KERRY BOWMAN: Yeah, and I wonder with the, you know, the intervention, the medication, the pill, if in fact that would, you know, would that affect the moral intuition or would that affect the moral action? And I guess we don't know that yet.

NEIL LEVY: I'd like to just address something that Kerry said. Well without, you know, I basically agree with him because we were really not in a position to say what would be enhanced, what should be enhanced. And also, we don't have any morality pill available right now. We have just molecules that affect particular sets of behaviours. But just staying with the thought experiments, if such a pill were to become available, then what it will be doing is increasing capacities. And we have no problem with increasing our capacities in other ways. They don't interfere with our freedom in any way, is the case that we're able to create moral capacities across the board. What we should see is convergence not polarization.

KC: Neil Levy, I just wanted to ask you, is there some way we can increase our thinking capacity using a pill though? I mean, isn’t this talking about going beyond what sort of is naturally available and actually taking some external thing that would make us, you know, change our natural directions?

NEIL LEVY: I want to distinguish between newfangled neuroscientific developments and external ways of enhancing capacities. There are lots and lots of external ways of enhancing capacities. So for example, an obvious way to enhance people's capacities is teaching. You can teach them logic for example. Now, people don't have to worry about that at all, but that's a way of increasing people's capacities. Now, it's hard to see the in principal difference between that sort of way of enhancing people's capacities and enhancing them by giving them a drug.

KC: But don’t, aren’t we inherently nervous about things that we ingest?

NEIL LEVY: Well, you know, there are reasons to be suspicious because people may be trying to manipulate us and we know that the pharmaceutical companies don't always have our interests in mind. Well we know that they're more concerned with making money. So there are some reasons for skepticism. But we're ingesting chemicals all the time. Our food consisted chemicals, our water is a chemical, and these chemicals have effects on us, you know, our hormones for example are available environmentally and affect our behaviour and affect our cognition. Just because it's chemical, we shouldn't worry about it. We should worry about new chemicals, we should test them for safety before we start using them. But just in so far as it's a chemical we shouldn't be worried.

KC: Kerry Bowman, why do you think there is resistance to moral enhancement when we're comfortable with things like antidepressants, body enhancements for example, contact lenses, these kinds of things?

KERRY BOWMAN: Not everyone is comfortable with all of those things. But generally as a society we're much more comfortable than we have been. I think we perceive this as something much much deeper, something almost transcendent. And I'm not saying that's necessarily true per say that if we enhance this area we would move away from what it fundamentally means to be human. And that's kind of an open question. But I would say also, you know, as best I understand it I mean, neurotransmitters serve multiple purposes and I can't see how there would not be some risk with this. You know, the challenge is people with radically different perspectives from very similar educational, even socioeconomic backgrounds see the same dilemma before them in profoundly different ways. That's what I wonder about as well.

KC: I guess you're asking how can you guarantee--

KERRY BOWMAN: Yeah.

KC: The moral behaviour that will be outcome of taking the pill?

KERRY BOWMAN: The outcome and that we would pull together on this rather than deepen a division because we'd even be more in tune and more sensitive to what we already feel that would be, I don't know if amplified would be the right word, but something like that.

KC: Neil Levy, what do you say about that?

NEIL LEVY: So I think there has been a lot of convergence.

KC: Mhm.

NEIL LEVY: And I think enhancement has actually played a role in that convergence. The enhancements of for example, universal primary education, much better nutrition, which is an enhancement, availability of [unintelligible] and iodine in the diet, which is chemical enhancement, think these things have helped lead to convergence.

KC: What about people opting out? I mean, would there be pressure to take them? I mean, you know, you see pressure in terms of making moral decisions now, would the decision to take the morality pill become that kind of a polarizing decision?

KERRY BOWMAN: You would need clear consent. Because if we're talking here, are these morality pills are a way of reducing anti-social behaviour? And maybe we are talking a little bit about that, than the court system could come into play, just as sex offenders--

KC: You’d be forced to take it.

KERRY BOWMAN: Yeah. Just as sex offenders, I think in certain jurisdictions are, you know, have the option of taking things that would inhibit sex drive. So too could possibly this be an option. But I can’t--

KC: What about parents getting a call from the school saying--

KERRY BOWMAN: [crosstalk] That’s what I was thinking.

KC: I think you-- [chuckles]

KERRY BOWMAN: Yeah, we see behaviour that we interpret as anti-social or potentially anti-social and here's our recommendation. I also wouldn't say it's across the board because even if we went down this road, this would be for people in fairly sophisticated western societies that would have a level of enhancement most of the world wouldn't. And again, then you've got questions of justice and stratification emerging.

KC: Neil Levy, we heard Julian Savulescu say that there's a moral imperative to investigate technology of various kinds that could change our moral selves. Do you agree with that? That we have an obligation to explore this if it could make the world a better place?

NEIL LEVY: Julian's point is similar to the one that Kerry just made, which is that we face some new which are existential threats. We face threats to the existence of humanity, certainly to the existence of civilization. Julian thinks in the face of such threats, all possible responses should be explored. It's hard to disagree with that except to say that right now it looks like you get better bang for your buck, both in terms of cognitive enhancement and moral enhancement through more traditional means. Better nutrition, better education, exposure to other cultures, exposure perhaps to literature. These things seem to be more effective right now. I think we should be pursuing this kind of research in neuroscience, for example, but I wouldn't like to see it being done at the expense of these things, which we know work.

KC: Now, Kerry Bowman, if there was such a thing, if it comes to pass, what will we lose do you think?

KERRY BOWMAN: Well many would argue we would lose the depth of human experience. That, you know, we are who we are because of what we're born and, you know, if something is altering that or enhancing that, that the moral condition and the moral reasoning that many see as defining us as human would be lost. Having said that, I appreciate many of the arguments Neil has made about enhancement but I think, you know, what we sometimes call the yuck factor, unofficially in the world of ethics, meaning the public thinks yuck, is going to be extremely high with this for those reasons.

KC: Now, Neil Levy, just finally, what could we gain through such technology?

NEIL LEVY: It's not that I don't think there's such a thing as human nature, but I think that our nature as animals is to be creative and finding ways to enhance ourselves. I think that's the kind of animal we are. And I think that we will explore such roots of self-improvement because we have a drive towards such self-improvement.

KC: Fascinating discussion. Thanks for joining me.

NEIL LEVY: Thank you.

KERRY BOWMAN: Thanks.

KC: Neil Levy is the Director of Research at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics. He joined us from Oxford, United Kingdom. Kerry Bowman is with the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics. He was in our Toronto studio.

[Music: Huey Lewis and The News]

KC: Let us know what you think. Do we have a duty to improve ourselves through technology or does the prospect worry you? You can find us on our Facebook page on Twitter @TheCurrentCBC. Or email us through our website’s contact link at cbc.ca/thecurrent. Coming up next, shedding light on the present by studying some of the 20th century's darkest episodes. The lessons of tyranny after the break. I'm Kelly Crowe and you're listening to The Current.

KELLY CROWE: I'm Kelly Crowe and you're listening to The Current. Let's get to some of your responses now to a story we brought you yesterday. A snowstorm in Quebec that left roughly 300 cars stranded on a highway had the province talking about how the incident was handled. But a further storm developed after journalist and academic Andrew Potter wrote a story for Maclean's arguing the incident exposed Quebec's social malaise. Mr. Potter ended up resigning his position as Director of the Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University in the aftermath. And the story got the country talking about academic freedom, as well as who has the right to criticize Quebec. We spoke to three members of the media about this. And here is Journal de Montréal columnist Lise Ravary talking about her fellow Quebecers.

SOUNDCLIP

I think that we are a little thin skinned. It troubles me because it paints us as, you know, the perennial victims, and I dislike that. I mean, at some point we have to stand up and say OK, this is what you think? Now correct your facts but the rest is opinion, well, you're entitled to your opinion and we think you're wrong. And that's it. And then we can criticize each other, you know, till the cows come home.

KC: After our debate, you continued the discussion in letters and on social media. J James from Montreal wrote, “this segment does not increase my confidence on how ready Quebec is for a reality check.” Richard Chapman from Gaspereaux, Prince Edward Island, lived in Quebec for over four decades. He wrote, “it seems that it is fair game to attribute any misfortune that occurs in Quebec to cultural malaise or, put it more bluntly, to French culture. No one attributed Rob Ford's behaviour to an underlying lack of character in Canadians or to deficiencies in the culture of Ontario. Yet Canadian news media seem to delight in negative stories from Quebec and rarely mention the good.” Suzanne Langlois Mooney wrote, “as a Quebecois, not known for being a shrinking violet with my views, I am outraged to find yet another person interpreting my province and speaking out on my behalf.” Jodie Smith from Winnipeg wrote, “it seems to me that when Maclean’s called Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada, there was no one asking anyone to resign, no discussion in Parliament. We in Winnipeg just admitted we had work to do and took action to try to improve the problem.” And finally, on Twitter, Lucy El-Sherif writes, “so interesting hearing Quebecers getting a taste of their own medicine and not liking it. They want complexity, fair criticism mindful of French as a Canadian minority. Lovely. How about some of that for Quebec Muslims?” Keep your opinions coming. Let us know what you think. Tweet us @TheCurrentCBC, post on the story on Facebook or mail us by clicking on contact at cbc.ca/thecurrent.

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Yale historian shares lessons of 20th-century tyranny relevant today

Guests: Timothy Snyder, Thomas Weber

SOUNDCLIP

[Sound: stomping boots, marching band]

ADOLF HITLER: [German speaking language]

KELLY CROWE: Haunting sounds from the past century, when SS storm troopers pounded the street and a tyrant named Adolf Hitler roused the German people with nationalism and promises of greatness. Of course, it's been more than half a century since the likes of Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini ruled as tyrants in Europe, but in historical terms that's only yesterday. And to my next guest, the echoes of the era are only growing stronger today. Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. And he's drawing attention to the lessons learned in the past century, which he says America needs to be paying close attention to now. He just published a new book titled On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century. And we've reached Timothy Snyder in New Haven, Connecticut. Hello.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Hello. Very glad to talk to you.

KC: As you listen to that clip we just played, what would you like people to think about as they hear those sounds today?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Well, in the States at least, people break off quickly into two camps when we lead with Hitler. On the one side, there are the folks who would say you shouldn't make comparisons because it's not exactly the same. There are no boots pounding on pavements right now. And on the other hand, there are people who look for clear categories like fascism and to say well, both Trump and Hitler are fascists. What I'm urging in the book is something in between. For Americans to start by saying we made a big error when we forgot about history, because history gives us a sense of possibility, not just in the positive but mainly in the negative sense, that things can go very wrong, that things have gone wrong in times and places really not so distant from ourselves. Or to be more specific about it, that democratic republics in the history of the last 200 years usually fail. And so it behooves us when we're in a moment of great stress like we are now, to try to get some traction in history. Not because things are exactly alike but because history offers a wide range of examples of how democratic republics can fail and therefore can help us to position ourselves realistically. Not to say this is all new because it's not. But to be able to say aha, I see some resemblances and therefore I see some possibilities for action.

KC: Are you comparing President Trump to Adolf Hitler?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: The purpose of the book is not to provoke. The purpose of the book is to allow us to brace ourselves. As I say, the habitual danger that Americans put themselves in is they say well, you know, Trump doesn't wear a uniform or Trump is older or whatever it might be. And that for us, I'm sure you're much wiser up there, but that for us is an excuse not to think about history at all. And of course, history, whether it's the history of Mussolini, whether it's history of Hitler, or whether it's the history of communism, which is also a major theme of my book, offers us ways to figure out what might be dangerous about a leader. So for example—

KC: [interposing] So somehow this aversion to making the comparison is possibly preventing people from learning these lessons that you're talking about?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Oh, that's what, see this is the point. That's a general syndrome in the United States. I mean, we've always had a problem with this but especially since 1989, when the Cold War came to an end and we declared that history also came to an end. We allowed ourselves to confuse ourselves into thinking that our story is the story, and in our story the details of the past don't matter. Capitalism’s always going to lead to democracy and so on and so forth. And unfortunately, we've allowed ourselves to basically sleepwalk into the future. By making that move, we've actually summoned back the ghosts of the very past we thought we had dismissed. So yes, it's precisely in the effort to make comparisons that one finds differences and similarities.

KC: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the physical book itself. It's small. It could fit into someone's back pocket easily. It's almost like a field guide, it seems, to surviving the Trump years. You know, almost the little reference book that you might pull out and say OK, lesson, it’s a series of lessons. Lesson, you know, one or lesson three says here's what to do when you are confronted with fake news, that kind of thing. Is that what you intended?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: That's exactly what I intended. So I’m looking at the United States from the perspective of, first of all, what I know about the history of the 1920s, thirties and fourties. Secondly, as I've done that, my teachers, literally, but also the people I read, are people who experienced communism and fascism and national socialism. And I'm trying to draw from their examples. And then in the last few years, I’ve found that my young friends, sometimes my students, are people who have experienced reversals away from democratic republics in Eastern Europe today, be it Russia, be it Ukraine, be it Poland or Hungary. And from those young people and their experience and their sufferings, I'm also trying to learn. So what I'm trying to bring in a very condensed way to Americans is that experience that we haven't had. And yes, I'm trying to condense it into literally a handbook. Something you can carry in your pocket.

KC: [crosstalk] But you’ve got instructions. I mean, you definitely say like chapter two or lesson two is defend institutions. I mean, you've been very prescriptive in this book.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Yeah. Look, there come moments in history or in one's life or in the history of one's own country, one's own nation, one's own state where these sorts of things are justified. In United States, there are tens of millions of people who have the sense that something has gone profoundly wrong and are looking for one way or another to begin action. There are plenty of other ways to write a manual. It just so it happens that I know about Central Europe in the middle of the 20th century and that's the place from which I can draw the lessons. Yeah, the whole point of the book is that we go one through 20, more or less chronologically over the course of regime changes, from the easier lessons to the harder lessons. So that people can have a sense that even when they are shocked and even when day after day things happen that they don't expect, they can rely on history to give them a sense of what they should do.

KC: Now you say things like--

TIMOTHY SNYDER: So yes ,it’s a very normative book.

KC: Like lesson 12 is make eye contact, for example.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Things that in normal times wouldn't be political are political now. When you're in a moment of a regime change then everyday life becomes political. Not because people care what you feel, that's kind of our big illusion down here. But because people notice what you do. In the memoirs of Stalinism or of national socialism, there's very often that moment, that tender painful moment when people realize that their neighbours or their friends or their colleagues are now not making eye contacts, are now not making small talk, are now crossing the street to avoid contact. And that of course is morally crushing, but it also has political significance. In the United States today, we can't be sure exactly who feels left out, marginalized, threatened, but we can make sure that everyone feels affirmation day to day. That now has significance that it didn't before. And this is a much harder lesson than it seems actually. The way authoritarianism works is that it slowly day by day wears down these kinds of everyday interactions. And it takes a good amount of effort to make sure that you're actually including everybody in your everyday life.

KC: You also advise to listen for dangerous words. What did you mean by that?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: The dangerous words are things like extremism and terrorism. Extremism doesn't really mean anything but people who are aspiring to authoritarian rule use it over and over again. Terrorism is of course a real threat, but when an administration such as the Trump administration speaks obsessively about terrorism, they're usually preparing you not so much for the act of terror itself but for the thing which they plan to do afterwards. So when we obsess about terrorism, we're being softened up for a kind of Reichstag fire type situation. It is unfortunately all too possible that there will be a major terrorist attack on the territory of the United States in the next four years. The question then becomes how we react. Not only to the direct, and not above all to the direct terrorist threat, but to our own government. Because sadly we now have in power the kinds of people who I think very plausibly would use this as an occasion as Hitler did in 1933, as Vladimir Putin did more recently in Russia in 1999, use this sort of thing as an occasion to suspend the normal ways of doing political business, to suspend checks and balances, to suspend civil rights. In other words, a shock to the system, which is what a terrorist attack is becomes an occasion where people trade their real freedom for fake safety. It's a way, in other words, for leaders who come to power through perfectly legal channels to change the system once they are in power. A terrorist attack can lead to a kind of change in the pulse of politics, where the rhythm, the regularity is no longer the next election but our fear of the next attack. And once we enter into that state, we're willing to give away things, our rights, which we're not going to get back again. So those lessons are there because Americans have to understand that when that attack comes the crucial thing is for them to mobilize in favour of their own rights.

KC: Now, your very first lesson is do not obey in advance. So this is some of what you're talking about now?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Do not obey in advance is also a lot harder than it sounds. Because as social beings we adjust ourselves to the reality around us, the social reality around us. In this conversation, you're learning about me I’m learning about you, we're adjusting to one another. The radio format as a social situation that one has to adjust to. We do this all the time in our everyday life and it's almost always perfectly appropriate, even in politics it's often appropriate. But there come political moments which are so drastic where one has to stand back and say aha, this time I'm not going to adjust, this time I'm not going to drift. This time I have to take a step back and think for myself as an individual what should I be doing now? That--

KC: [interposing] Is this time upon us?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Oh yeah. No, we've been in this time since November. Of course it is. Of course it is. And it's extremely important for people just not to adjust. If you can simply not adjust, you make it much harder for people who wish to change the system to do so because most of the power of authoritarianism, especially at the beginning, is given voluntarily.

KC: Now, you have an editorial from 1933 in the book, an editorial in a German-Jewish newspaper. And that editorial argued that Hitler at the time would not deprive Jews of their rights and that German laws and institutions would protect them. How is this relevant for right now?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: It expresses a common sense. That's what Jews thought in early 1933. Most Jews thought that once Hitler won, had come to power, he would calm down, that most of what he said was rhetoric. And in the worst case, institutions, be they political institutions or just cultural norms, would constrain him. That's what most people think most of the time and sometimes those assumptions are just wrong. In particular, in the United States, we saw after November, the syndrome of people saying well yes, we have wonderful institutions. There are two problems with that. First of all, those institutions have not really been tested. We've been fortunate with our leadership at every moment of crisis until now. And now we're very unfortunate in our leadership. Secondly, the institutions only work in so far as people care about them and work actively within them and to support them. In other words, if you say institutions will protect us in the sense of I'm not going to do anything, that means that in the end the institutions will not protect you, in the end the institutions will be taken down one after the other.

KC: You also explore the use of paramilitaries in the past. You point out how President Trump uses a private security company to remove any dissent at his rallies. You cite his rallies as clear markers of authoritarian behaviour. We put together a montage of Trump rallies. Let's have a listen.

SOUNDCLIP

DONALD TRUMP: I love the old days, you know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher folks.

[Sound: crowd cheering]

DONALD TRUMP: Ah it’s true. I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell ya.

[sound: crowd cheering]

DONALD TRUMP: In the good old days, they'd rip him out of that seat so fast. But today everybody's politically correct. Our country's going to hell with being politically correct.

DONALD TRUMP: Get him out of here please, get him out. Are you from Mexico? Are you from Mexico? Are you from Mexico?

DONALD TRUMP: Get out of here. Get out. Out. Ah, this is amazing. So much fun. I love it. I love it. We having a good time? USA, USA, USA.

[Sound: crowd chanting USA]

KC: How is what we just listened to a warning sign of tyranny in your view?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: There are at least three things going on there that are very useful to remember. The first is the obvious exclusion of minorities, in this case minority opposition voices. When you can get people into the habit of thinking that politics is just about identifying the dissenting voice and then excluding it, you've already taken a fairly large step towards authoritarianism. And unfortunately Mr. Trump normalized that during his rallies. His rallies to which unfortunately most people paid too little attention while they were happening. The second thing which is very striking about the rallies is the way in which he would say the same things over and over and over again. We just had a small sample here. But he would adopt slogans and then repeat them until they came to feel like common sense. And the third thing I would point out, he mentions in the bits that you recorded, the good old days. What's striking to me about Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon and some of their associates is that for them the good old days are not the 1950s, for conservatives the good old days are the 1950s. But for Mr. Trump and Mr. Bannon, the good old days are clearly the 1930s. And that's a very different point of nostalgia.

KC: Now, you mentioned you started writing the book before the president was sworn in. So here's another clip. Then President-elect Donald Trump speaking on other noted dictators of our time.

SOUNDCLIP

DONALD TRUMP: If you look at North Korea, this guy, I mean, he's like a maniac. OK? And you've got to give him credit. How many young guys, he was like 26 or 25 when his father died, take over these tough generals and all of a sudden, you know, it's pretty amazing when you think of it. How does he do that? He goes in he takes over, he's the boss. It's incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one that one. I mean, this guy doesn't play games.

DONALD TRUMP: As far as Putin is concerned, I think Putin has been a very strong leader for Russia, he's been a lot stronger than our leader that I can tell you.

DONALD TRUMP: Saddam Hussein was a bad guy right? Really bad guy. But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good, they didn't read him the rights. They didn't talk. They were a terrorist, it was over.

DONALD TRUMP: We would be so much better off if Gaddafi were in charge right now.

KC: So what do you think as you hear those clips?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: The main thing I think is that we are listening to the sounds of regime change. If you are an American, let alone President politician, if you're simply an American citizen and you think that authoritarianism that is killing your critics, not reading people their rights, being quote unquote strong is the way to run a country, you're imagining a very different country from the one that we have now. You're imagining an authoritarian regime in which the leaders seem strong because he can do what he wants but in fact there's much less power and much less wealth in the society as a whole. You're idealizing, in the best case, a kind of kleptocratic authoritarian system like Russia but you may be thinking of something much worse. So those habits of speech of Mr. Trump and also his habits, for example, of speaking of the opposition or journalists as enemies of the people, those habits reveal a mental landscape in which there is a completely different system. So trying to prevent his ideal system from being realized is the thing which we have to be trying to do.

KC: OK. Well, Timothy Snyder, thank very much for talking with me.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: It's been my great pleasure. Thank you.

KC: Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He's the author of On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century. He was in New Haven, Connecticut. Comparisons between Donald Trump and tyrants like Hitler have been circulating since well before Mr. Trump was elected. But according to my next guest, those kinds of comparisons might be a distraction from the actual risk posed by the Trump administration. Thomas Weber is Chair in History and International Affairs and Director of the Centre for Global Security and Governance at the University of Aberdeen. We've reached him in his studio in Aberdeen, Scotland. Hello.

THOMAS WEBER: Hello. Thank you for having me.

KC: Thank you for being here. You listened to our last guest, I'm wondering what you think about these alarms about authoritarianism in America?

THOMAS WEBER: Well, I agree with about 80 to 90 per cent of what Timothy Snyder’s just been saying. I think he's absolutely right in that we should follow his 20 lessons. But what I would say is that the kind of behaviour that he described about the 1920s and 1930s is in terms of populist rhetoric or to something that we have seen in the 1870s and 1880s, and for that matter in Canada over the last five or ten years. And so the real question is is Trump more like a 1920s and 1930s leaders an 1880s leader or is he more like someone like Rob Ford or Stephen Harper?

KC: What do you think?

THOMAS WEBER: I would say that almost all signs point to him being a mixture of an 1880s populist. And what I mean with that is that after the collapse of the Viennese Stock Exchange in 1873, the world saw a worldwide depression not unlike the situation now after 2008, which saw at the time, the first emergence of communist parties and the first national socialist parties and populism in the United States. And on the other hand, I think we see both the kind of behaviour that Rob Ford displayed, even in terms of rhetoric. The stop the gravy train and Donald Trump’s drain the swamp are very similar in political styles. I think in political backgrounds in the personal backgrounds the two are very similar. But also the, I mean, what Michael Ignatieff described about Stephen Harper's years as a kind of change of politics of adversaries into politics of enemies. I think also exactly what we're seeing in the United States now. But where would I agree with Timothy Snyder is that we should still follow these 20 lessons, because even though the 1880s or Canada in the way it’s just described are better places than the 1920s. I still think they are not places we should get to and therefore we should really try to defend the fabric of democracy. And the most important reason why we should follow those kinds of rules is that the problem is we normally only know when it's too late whether we have ended up with another Rob Ford, with another 1880s leader or with anonymous Adolf Hitler. The problem is is that once these kinds of people are on the campaign trail, their rhetoric sounds very similar. And you normally only know when it's too late when the bad guys have come.

KC: Now, you’ve said that you think that the comparison between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler is a distraction. What do you mean by that?

THOMAS WEBER: I think first of all the problem is it's a distraction because it becomes a comparison, it becomes a discussion about the comparison rather than about substance. And people will then try to see well is Hitler really like Trump or is Trump really like Hitler? And when you come to the conclusion well no Trump is not like Hitler, then people will say well then everything is fine. And I would say that is a distraction from the real dangers that an unstable narcissist that I believe Donald Trump is with few core ideas is the most powerful man in the world and has no clear ideas about how the international system has to be ordered. So I think that is just as much of a danger. And the other danger is the crying wolf problem. If you just invoke Hitler too often, people won't listen anymore when those comparisons really do work. And I do think that we are experiencing at the moment the emergence of someone where the comparison really does work, which is Erdoğan’s Turkey. Erdoğan explicitly described Adolf Hitler's Germany as a positive example of how you can transform to a presidential system, which is of course precisely what he is doing at the moment. And I think we have also seen in recent months after the Putsch attempt in Turkey, the kind of Reichstag moment that Timothy Snyder mentioned. Namely that Erdoğan has been using the 1933 playbook to see how you can transform Turkey in ways not dissimilar to the 1930s.

KC: OK. Well, Thomas Weber, thank you very much for joining us.

THOMAS WEBER: Thank you so much for having me.

KC: Thomas Weber is Chair in History and International Affairs and Director of the Centre for Global Security and Governance at the University of Aberdeen. He was in Aberdeen, Scotland. That's today's edition of The Current. And remember, you can always take The Current with you to go on the CBC Radio app. It's free from the App Store or Google Play. And finally today, after our discussion about nuclear non-proliferation and the future of a nuclear free world, let's end on one of the many great pieces of music that came out of the 1980s with an anti-nuclear war message. From the German group Nena, this is their 1983 song 99 Luftballons. I'm Kelly Crowe, thanks for listening to The Current.

[Music: Nena]


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