I started this week’s call with an update on a fish story I told a few weeks ago about the lone koi fish I had in my garden pond, the sole survivor of a holocaust perpetrated earlier in the spring by migrating blue herons. He was hiding under a rock, traumatized I assumed, and not eating long past the end of his winter dormancy.

I considered leaving him to his own devices. “Eat or don’t eat,” I thought, absolving myself of responsibility. “If he dies,” I reminded myself, “the pond will be a lot easier to take care of.”

But instead I decided to go to the fish store and buy five new koi. When I introduced them to the pond my original fish immediately (I’m talking within three seconds) swam out from under his rock and began schooling with them. Today, six weeks later, they are a happy fish family, swimming, eating, mating, playing in the waterfall and in general living the koi dream.

How God kills fish.

How God kills fish.

What spurred my decision to add new fish was research I had posted a few days earlier by fish biologist Culum Brown revealing how fish are intelligent, social, emotional beings on par with many mammals.

Fast forward to this week, when two of my favorite bloggers, Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish and Ezra Klein of VOX, published an extended interview with Professor Brown. In it he talked about the reality of commercial fishing in our oceans, and the suffering it causes the fish…

Every major commercial agricultural system has some ethical laws, except for fish. Nobody’s ever asked the questions: “What does a fish want? What does a fish need?”

I think, ultimately, the revolution will come. But it’ll be slow, because the implications are huge. For example, I can’t think of a way to possibly catch fish from the open ocean in a massive commercial way to meet demand that would be anyway near our standards for ethics if we think of them like other animals. Currently, you go out, you catch a bunch of fish, you crush most of them to death in a net, you trawl them up from the bottom of the sea – which causes barotrauma for most of them – you dump them on a deck, half suffocate to death, the ones you don’t want get thrown overboard and die anyway, and the ones you keep go on ice, just to preserve the flesh for market reasons.

How do you do that in a way that has the fish’s interests involved to any degree? You can’t. So it’s not surprising that there is some fierce opposition to this idea. It would mean a massive change in the way we do things.

It also means a massive change in my (and perhaps your) delusion that if we’re eating fish we’re contributing less to the suffering of our animal brethren.


Hungary's Viktor Orban has signed an agreement with Vladimir Putin.

Hungary’s Viktor Orban (left) has signed an agreement with Vladimir Putin.










For my main story this week I note a new meme arising among political thinkers: the idea of the modern yet non-liberal state. Two of my favorite columnists, Fareed Zakaria of the Washington Post, and David Brooks of the New York Times, both wrote on this topic this week. Both were spurred by a remarkable speech given by the president of Hungary, Viktor Orban, who as he begins his second term in office gives voice to the idea of a non-Western, non-liberal yet modernized country.

As David Brooks wrote in his Monday column “The Battle of Regimes”:

On July 26 … Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary gave a morbidly fascinating speech in which he argued that liberal capitalism’s day is done. The 2008 financial crisis revealed that decentralized liberal democracy leads to inequality, oligarchy, corruption and moral decline. When individuals are given maximum freedom, the strong end up stepping on the weak.

The future, he continued, belongs to illiberal regimes like China’s and Singapore’s — autocratic systems that put the interests of the community ahead of individual freedom; regimes that are organized for broad growth, not inequality.

Orban’s speech comes at a time when democracy is suffering a crisis of morale. Only 31 percent of Americans are “very satisfied” with their country’s direction, according to a 2013 Pew survey. Autocratic regimes — which feature populist economics, traditional social values, concentrated authority and hyped-up nationalism — are feeling confident and on the rise. Eighty-five percent of Chinese are very satisfied with their country’s course, according to the Pew survey.

Fareed Zakaria commented on Orban’s speech in his column titled “The Rise of Putinism”:

The crucial elements of Putinism are nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism and government domination of the media. They are all, in some way or another, different from and hostile to, modern Western values of individual rights, tolerance, cosmopolitanism and internationalism. It would be a mistake to believe that Putin’s ideology created his popularity — he was popular before — but it sustains his popularity.

Orban has followed in Putin’s footsteps, eroding judicial independence, limiting individual rights, speaking in nationalist terms about ethnic Hungarians and muzzling the press.

So Putinism is pre-modern in its interior quadrants, stressing conformity over freedom and collective identity over individual rights. But note that nobody is advocating going back to a world that is pre-modern in the exterior quadrants. The new autocrats are not agrarian Luddites. On the contrary, their goal is to create organized, industrialized, information-rich, modern economies. Viktor Orban makes this clear in his speech:

…While breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West and keeping ourselves independent from them, we are trying to find the form of community organisation, the new Hungarian state, which is capable of making our community competitive in the great global race for decades to come.

There is an intelligence to this thinking. The simple fact is that the great majority of people worldwide are pre-modern in their interiors, in their thinking and ways of relating. They are prone to romantic myths of ethnic superiority, strong-man saviors and great battles against an evil “other”. They are confused by pluralism, repelled by sexual liberation and turned off by the counter-culture aesthetic that inevitably arises with modernity and postmodernity. This is true of traditionalist people in every country; yet some countries have higher proportions of people with pre-modern interiors (Russia and China versus the countries of Western Europe, for instance) and thus their developmental centers of gravity are lower.

Leaders who can harness pre-modern impulses are very powerful and popular in their own societies. Today Vladimir Putin’s approval rating, at 80%, is double that of Barack Obama’s. When conditions are favorable, as they have been in both Russia and China for the last twenty years, and huge swaths of population are moving out of poverty into decent modern conditions (in housing, employment, education, medicine, and if not full human rights then at least a relaxation of the police state), then people are content and able to experience interior development at a healthy, sustainable rate.

When conditions are unfavorable, however, the new autocrats will ratchet down to appeal to the more ethnocentric and xenophobic impulses of the population’s premodern worldview, which is organized around finding and defeating an enemy, whether it is the enemy abroad (the West is plotting against us) or the enemy among us (homosexuals are corrupting our youth with degenerate values).

The evolutionary question is can the new autocrats contain and metabolize these pre-modern impulses – within their people and within themselves – in a way that moves their countries forward to a mature interior modernity, without falling into the bad old grooves of isolationism and militarism. Russia under Putin is flirting with the latter with his misadventures in Ukraine. And China, though more rooted in economic internationalism, also shows some signs of the same with its military buildup and territorial assertions over islands in the South China sea.

One thing is clear: the more a culture develops in its interiors the more open, prosperous and peaceful it becomes. What is less clear is how liberalism and democracy play into that process. We used to think democracy led to development, but one of the great lessons of the 21st century so far is that democracy can come too soon: witness the Maliki government in Iraq and Hamas in Gaza, both democratically elected. Now we realize that the trajectory is probably the other way around: development leads to democracy. The ground in-between is the territory being charted by our unlovable new breed of autocrats.