“Our Only Hope Is Antisemitism”

J. Robert Oppenheimer says that, in Christopher Nolan’s movie.

Context: the Nazis had a head start on the atomic bomb. They should and would have won the race, if they hadn’t killed or kicked out their best and brightest.

We now know exactly what price-tag Hitler’s hatred carried for the researchers who were allowed to keep serving the Führer: Academic productivity of an average German physicist sank by 13 percent during the war. The equivalent number for chemists: 16,5 percent.

(These numbers are from Dashun Wang and Albert-László Barabási’s book The Science of Science)

Meanwhile in America, Oppenheimer (who was himself a non-observant Jew) could never have been successful without the help of such brilliant minds as Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Hans Bethe; all of whom were refugees from Europe.

Then after the war, America caught the anti-communism fever, and turned on its own.

Oppenheimer got publicly humiliated for past political sins.

His colleague David Bohm—one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century—was forced to leave the country.

In the shadow of such high profile cases, the destruction of countless careers went unreported.

In this grainy old footage Oppenheimer says that not even Einstein would have been allowed to enter the country under the post-war regime. The interview seems to have been recorded shortly before the communist hunters went after Oppenheimer himself.

What causes this type of psycho-political autoimmune disorder?

It seems to express some deeply rooted and utterly dysfunctional human instinct to invent enemies out of thin air.

The nazis couldn’t resist the urge to separate themselves from non-Arian elements, just as the post-war US establishment couldn’t resist witch-hunting communists.

It’s very hard to understand this particular blend of human craziness; the compulsive instinct to splinter off a part of one’s own community. To curse and kill those poor souls who no longer belong to ‘us’, so that ‘we’ can feel purified.

Is it that we’re so afraid of finding monsters if we dare to introspect, that we opt instead to externalise and destroy?

Jeanette Winterson is thinking along those lines when she’s analysing our present day collective anxiety in the face of artificial intelligence:

“AGI as the potential enemy ‘out there’, where humans like their enemies to be – ‘the other’ – is more exciting, in many ways more manageable, psychologically, than the fact of us humans as the real threat, unable to turn the AI we are developing to uses that benefit all of humanity. We’re all to blame – the US, China, Russia, the UK; we’re all missing the point that we are, collectively, not the victim but the aggressor. It’s not that the tool is turning on us – we turn the tool on ourselves.”

12 Bytes; How artificial intelligence will change the way we live and love | Jeanette Winterson