The Dawn of Everything – Have A-holes Always Been in Charge?

The dominant narrative of human social evolution tells how our ancestors advanced from hunter gatherer clans to larger settlements, made possible by agriculture, and on to cities and modern nation states. With this growth in scale and complexity, leaders, bureaucracies and standing armies became necessary to maintain order and ensure security. Moreover, this linear path to ‘modern society’ has enabled greater levels of wealth and wellbeing than our ancestors could ever have dreamed of. As a result, we are living today in the best of all possible worlds.

The Dawn of Everything questions this comforting narrative and tells a very different story. It tells of how we lived for most of our time on Earth without presidents, kings, and pharaohs. It tells how our ancestors were acutely aware of the dangers of authoritarianism and were able to design and maintain, for thousands of years, social structures to guard against it. And it asks what went wrong? How did we come to live in this ‘best of all possible worlds’ in which so many a-holes – the Trumps and Putins and Xis – are in charge?

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Book Review: A History of Masculinity, Ivan Jablonka

The job of the historian is to understand the history passing through us.

Ivan Jablonka

A History of Masculinity by French historian Ivan Jablonka joins the dots between the persistence of war, violent strongman leaders, the devaluation of care in modern societies, and the systemic discrimination against women and girls that still lies at the heart of the modern state.

The Narcissistic Hypermasculine State

Jablonka begins with the observation that masculine domination is one of the most universal and enduring features of human societies, and he traces this deep wound at the heart of human civilisation right back to the very advent of the State. From its origins millennia ago, the State has been predominantly the purview of male God-Kings, Emperors, Sultans, Presidents and Prime Ministers.

Up until the, historically recent, advent of democracy, male rulers relied largely on violence, and on all-male armies, to maintain their power. In this world of all-against-all, the most ruthless gained and managed to remain in power. This dynamic of violence and militarism, as Vladimir Putin’s barbaric assault on Ukraine tragically reminds us, remains at the core of global geopolitics, and favours men with a very specific psychology – namely the violent, the aggressive, the ruthlessly ambitious, the pathologically narcissistic, those without conscience.

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Why Calling Putin’s Actions in Ukraine “Genocide” Matters

“God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world.” Francis Bacon


Joe Biden and Immanuel Macron have disagreed on whether to call Putin’s war in Ukraine genocide- which is defined as the intent to destroy either in whole or on part a particular group of people. Biden has suggested that Russia’s actions are indeed genocide, saying “it sure seems that way to me.’ Macron, for his part, has cautioned against the use of the term. A number of arguments have been put forward against naming Putin’s actions as genocide. These arguments include the fear that such language could damage diplomatic efforts for a ceasefire and an eventual negotiated settlement; the danger of driving ruthless paranoid leader further into a corner by confirming Putin’s long held view that the West is intent on his removal from power; and the recognition that if genocide is acknowledged to be taking place, it morally obliges the US and NATO to do more to stop Putin’s barbarity, thus risking direct conflict with Russia.

While these arguments need to be taken seriously, the question remains – are Putin’s actions in Ukraine genocide? And if so, what does that tell us about Putin’s mindset?

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Vladimir Putin and the Sacred Ordinary

An exhibition in Dublin Castle to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, a few weeks before the beginning of Putin’s barbarism in Ukraine, documented one family’s sudden dislocation from normal life to unthinkable nightmare. The early photographs in the exhibition, of family gatherings, of trips to town, of meetings with friends, give way abruptly to pictures showing the public humiliation of old men and of children lining up for transport to their extermination. The exhibition’s curator, Oliver Sears, whose grandmother and mother lived through the horror, recounts a story told to him by survivor that happened during the first few days of the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Richard Urbanski was seventeen when the Nazi’s took over Warsaw. On his way home from school, he witnessed a flat bed truck parked next to a four-story apartment building, with German soldiers throwing Hasidic Jews, still alive and breathing, from the top floor windows onto the truck below.

The Nazi invasion was not simply occupation by an invading army. It was an abrupt elimination of the sacred ordinariness that had governed people’s lives until then – the sacred ordinariness of family life, of trips to town, of meetings with friends, the sacred ordinariness of love and respect for life.

So too with Putin’s barbarism in Ukraine. Once again, the entire mental landscape of the sacred ordinary has been shattered, just as brutally as the landscape of bombed out maternity hospitals, schools and apartment blocks that we see in the images coming out of Ukraine daily. As with Hitler, the psychopathology of one deeply disordered mind has torn asunder the fabric of values that gives life meaning.

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Understanding Putin’s Evil

With Putin’s barbaric unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, evil has been visited upon Europe on a scale, and at a level of threat, not seen since World War Two. Irish Prime Minster Michael Martin has called Putin an evil man, while Ukrainian President Zelensky has called on his fellow citizens to drive Putin’s evil out of their country.

Evil is a word that many people recoil from, with its metaphysical implications of demons and the Devil. But the reality of Putin’s evil is much more mundane. The source of his evil lies in the fact that Putin is an extremely damaged human being. That damage, which is variously called malignant narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder, or psychopathy, is manifest in one central aspect of his personality. Putin is incapable of normal human feeling. The damage that Putin suffered during his early childhood, when the essential capacities for relationships with, and empathy for, other human beings are usually formed, was such that he has been left bereft of any ability to see and relate to other people as people.

Putin’s mind, damaged beyond repair by severe abuse or neglect, has been frozen since childhood into a state devoid of empathy or love. Without these vital conduits for communication with the world of other people, and incapable of pursuing sustenance from the love and friendships that give life meaning, he has sought instead to force recognition and respect from others through terror, wealth and power.

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Humanity Requires a Radically New Story

  • Language (particularly metaphor and story) shapes how we see the world, and how we think and act.

If you think this is esoteric, think of the consequences of the language used to target particular groups of people – as parasites, as swarms, floods, and marauders, as pollutants – to see the real world consequences of the language and metaphors we use.

This new book Metaphor, Sustainability, Transformation is an exploration of how this is the case when it comes to the challenges of climate change and ecological and environmental destruction – an exploration of how metaphor and story matter.

  • In the discussions among the book’s authors, two things quickly became evident that formed the foundational ideas for the book.

First, it became evident that we all shared a belief that the series of crises we face

– not only climate change, but also the erosion of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism, increasing geopolitical tensions and the threat of war that accompanies them, socially destabilizing levels of inequality, and – as the pandemic has shown, a persistent gulf between the rich world and the majority world

– that these crises require a transformation not only in technology but also more fundamentally in how we think and act.

The second thing we as authors agreed on was that, because of this profound uncertainty, it is essential to have the insights from every discipline around the table. Conversations and connections across discipline are not option, they are the way we will create a future that is both workable and crucially ethical

“The book is based on a belief that metaphors and stories we currently use can lead us to act inappropriately and that an active reimagining of our language is needed. In this spirit, the book offers a wide range of metaphors to illustrate the possibilities for such a reimagining”.

Please listen here to the launch event where wonderful story teller Jo Blake joins some of the book’s authors to discuss how story can change how we think and act, and might even save us from ourselves.