Last night in Sweden: Trump is not alone in leveraging political pessimism and a dystopian worldview

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In a charming parable that many Indians hear in their childhood, the divine couple Shiva and Parvati settle a row over a heavenly fruit between their sons Ganesha and Kartikeya by telling them the first one to circle the world three times will get it. Kartikeya sets off instantly on his peacock and gets a head start in the race. The slow-moving Ganesha, the God of intelligence and wisdom, ponders over the challenge awhile. He then walks around his parents three times, and declares the job done; he has won.

The allegory establishes in an enchanting way the centrality of parents in our lives and our love for them. In a less obvious way, it also demonstrates that metaphorically, the world can be whatever we decide in our mind, in whatever way and form we see it. This has been celebrated in song and idiom. From "you are my world" to "this is my world", to the world being one's oyster or one's playground, to the world being in one's hands or in one's pocket, we have many didactic ways of reducing our eminent domain to suit our needs, our vision, or our agenda.

Politicians and leaders across the globe are constantly promising a better world, telling people how bleak their current situation is and how they will take them to a better place. President Donald Trump is not alone in painting a dismal, dystopian view of the planet, one wracked by violence, terrorism, hunger, pollution, lack of opportunity, ill health, disappearing wealth, etc. Across the globe, it is a politician's treasure trope.

But the reality is the world is a better place than most people believe it to be. Several major studies, based on empirical evidence and exacting data, show that the world has never been so good – better fed and clothed, better educated, freer, healthier, wealthier, and yes, more peaceful than at any time in history.
If it appears otherwise, embracing the Hobbesian thesis that the life of man, beset by "continuall feare and danger of violent death," is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short," it's because the human mind is genetically programmed to be pessimistic. Vast improvements in the human condition in the nearly 350 years since those words appeared in Leviathan have not registered among the Cassandras who form the majority. A tonsil-like brain part called amygdala has apparently been fine-tuned for human early warning functions, so we're hard wired to look out for negative signals, for danger.

Earlier this week, the US president went so far as to invoke this danger in distant Sweden, one of the healthier, wealthier, happier countries on the planet, referring apparently to a non-existent terror attack in the Scandinavian country, just as his associates had cited fictional terrorist incidents in the US to justify their demonisation of migrants and minorities. Called out on the fake news, he then explained he was referring to a broadcast on FoxNews concerning migrants and Sweden, and conflated it to insist that large scale immigration is not working out for Sweden, notwithstanding protests from the country's prime minister and other public intellectuals that they are doing just fine, thanks for the concern.

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