Key Points from Book: How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them

by Barbara F. Walter

When Saddam Hussein was captured, researchers who study democratization didn’t celebrate. We knew that democratization, especially rapid democratization in a deeply divided country, could be highly destabilizing. In fact, the more radical and rapid the change, the more destabilizing it was likely to be. The United States and the United Kingdom thought they were delivering freedom to a welcoming population. Instead, they were about to deliver the perfect conditions for civil war.

Civil wars rose alongside democracies. In 1870, almost no countries were experiencing civil war, but by 1992, there were over fifty. Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were fighting one another in a fracturing Yugoslavia. Islamist rebel groups were turning on their government in Algeria. Leaders in Somalia and the Congo suddenly faced multiple armed groups challenging their rule, as did the governments in Georgia and Tajikistan. Soon the Hutus and the Tutsis would be slaughtering each other in Rwanda and Burundi. By the early nineties, the number of civil wars around the world had reached its highest point in modern history. That is, at least until now. In 2019, we reached a new peak. It turns out that one of the best predictors of whether a country will experience a civil war is whether it is moving toward or away from democracy. Yes, democracy. Countries almost never go from full autocracy to full democracy without a rocky transition in between. Attempts by leaders to democratize frequently include significant backsliding or stagnation in a pseudo-autocratic middle zone. And even if citizens succeed in gaining full democracy, their governments don’t always stay there. Would-be despots can whittle away rights and freedoms, and concentrate power, causing democracies to decline. Hungary became a full democracy in 1990 before Prime Minister Viktor Orbán slowly and methodically nudged it back toward dictatorship. It is in this middle zone that most civil wars occur. Experts call countries in this middle zone “anocracies”—they are neither full autocracies nor democracies but something in between. Ted Robert Gurr, a professor at Northwestern, coined the term in 1974 after collecting data on the democratic and autocratic traits of governments around the world. Prior to that, he and his team had debated what to call these hybrid regimes, sometimes using the term “transitional” before settling on “anocracy.” Citizens receive some elements of democratic rule—perhaps full voting rights—but they also live under leaders with extensive authoritarian powers and few checks and balances.

To everyone’s surprise, they found that the best predictor of instability was not, as they might have guessed, income inequality or poverty. It was a nation’s polity index score, with the anocracy zone being the place of greatest danger. Anocracies, particularly those with more democratic than autocratic features—what the task force called “partial democracies”—were twice as likely as autocracies to experience political instability or civil war, and three times as likely as democracies.

A government that is democratizing is weak compared to the regime before it—politically, institutionally, and militarily. Unlike autocrats, leaders in an anocracy are often not powerful enough or ruthless enough to quell dissent and ensure loyalty. The government is also frequently disorganized and riddled with internal divisions, struggling to deliver basic services or even security. Opposition leaders, or even those within a president’s own party, may challenge or resist the pace of reform, while new leaders must quickly earn the trust of citizens, fellow politicians, or army generals. In the chaos of transition, these leaders often fail.

A primary reason for revolt is that democratic transitions create new winners and losers: In the shift away from autocracy, formerly disenfranchised citizens come into new power, while those who once held privileges find themselves losing influence. Because the new government in an anocracy is often fragile, and the rule of law is still developing, the losers—former elites, opposition leaders, citizens who once enjoyed advantages—are not sure the administration will be fair, or that they will be protected. This can create genuine anxieties about the future: The losers may not be convinced of a leader’s commitment to democracy; they may feel their own needs and rights are at stake.

A painful reality of democratization is that the faster and bolder the reform efforts, the greater the chance of civil war. Rapid regime change—a six-point or more fluctuation in a country’s polity index score—almost always precedes instability, and civil wars are more likely to break out in the first two years after reform is attempted.

Democratic countries that veer into anocracy do so not because their leaders are untested and weak, like those who are scrambling to organize in the wake of a dictator, but rather because elected leaders—many of whom are quite popular—start to ignore the guardrails that protect their democracies. These include constraints on a president, checks and balances among government branches, a free press that demands accountability, and fair and open political competition. Would-be autocrats such as Orbán, Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin, or Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro put their political goals ahead of the needs of a healthy democracy, gaining support by exploiting citizen fears—over jobs, over immigration, over security. They persuade citizens that democracy as it has existed will lead to more corruption, more lies, and greater bungling of economic and social policy. They decry political leaders’ compromises as ineffective, and the government as a failure. They understand that if they can persuade citizens that “strong leadership” and “law and order” are necessary, citizens will voluntarily vote them into office. People will often sacrifice freedom if they believe it will make them more secure. Then, once in power, these leaders plunge their countries into anocracy by exploiting weaknesses in the constitution, electoral system, and judiciary. Because they typically use legal methods—partisan appointments, executive orders, parliamentary votes—they are able to consolidate power in ways that other politicians are unable, or unwilling, to stop. This increasing autocratization puts countries at higher risk of civil war.

For a decaying democracy, the risk of civil war increases almost the moment it becomes less democratic. As a democracy drops down the polity index scale—a result of fewer executive restraints, weaker rule of law, diminished voting rights—its risk for armed conflict steadily increases. This risk peaks when it hits a score of between +1 to −1—the point when citizens face the prospect of real autocracy. The chance of civil war then sharply drops if the country weathers this moment by becoming even more authoritarian, or changes course and begins to rebuild its democracy.

starting in the mid-twentieth century, more and more civil wars were fought by different ethnic and religious groups, rather than political groups, each looking to gain dominance over the other. In the first five years after World War II, 53 percent of civil wars were fought between ethnic factions, according to a dataset compiled by James Fearon and David Laitin, two civil war experts at Stanford University. Since the end of the Cold War, as many as 75 percent of civil wars have been fought by these types of factions. Think of the many wars that have made headlines in the past several decades: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Myanmar, Lebanon, Sri Lanka. All were fought between groups divided along ethnic or religious lines, and oftentimes both.

Countries that factionalize have political parties based on ethnic, religious, or racial identity rather than ideology, and these parties then seek to rule at the exclusion and expense of others.

Two variables—anocracy and factionalism—predicted better than anything else where civil wars were likely to break out.

Political parties begin to coalesce around ethnic, racial, or religious identity, rather than a particular set of policies—as Hutus and Tutsis did in Rwanda, for example, or as many political parties did in Ethiopia. It is a crafty way for leaders to cement both their following and their future. Identity-based parties make it impossible for voters to switch sides; there is nowhere for them to go if their political identity is tied to their ethnic or religious identity.

ETHNIC NATIONALISM, and its expression through factions, doesn’t take hold in a country on its own. For a society to fracture along identity lines, you need mouthpieces—people who are willing to make discriminatory appeals and pursue discriminatory policies in the name of a particular group. They are usually people who are seeking political office or trying to stay in office. They provoke and harness feelings of fear as a way to lock in the constituencies that will support their scramble for power. Experts have a term for these individuals: ethnic entrepreneurs. The term was first used in the 1990s to explain figures such as Milošević and Tudjman, but it’s a phenomenon that has since occurred many times over, in all parts of the world. These instigators of war are often at high risk of losing power or have recently lost it. Seeing no other routes to securing their futures—because, perhaps, they are ex-Communists—they cynically exploit divisions to try to reassert control. They foster identity-based nationalism to sow violence and chaos, using a strategy scholars call “gambling for resurrection”—an aggressive effort to provoke massive change, even against the odds.

People were especially likely to fight if they had once held power and saw it slipping away. Political scientists refer to this phenomenon as “downgrading,” and while there are many variations on the theme, it is a reliable way to predict—in countries prone to civil war—who will initiate the violence.

Native speakers of a country’s official language enjoy a huge economic advantage over citizens whose language is not recognized by the state. Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain from 1939 to 1975, understood this. One of the ways Franco consolidated power was to elevate Castilian over other languages, declaring it Spain’s only official tongue. He then banned citizens from speaking Basque, Catalan, Galician, or any other language in public. Newborns were not allowed to be given regional names, and dialects were no longer allowed to be taught in school or used to conduct business. Language, it turns out, is strongly tied to the identity of a nation, and it determines whose culture ultimately dominates. One of the main fears of ethnic Russians in the Donbas region of Ukraine was that the new nationalist government would make Ukrainian the official language of the state to the exclusion of Russian. It’s hard to compete for well-paying jobs if you don’t speak the language. Controlling access to education, especially higher education, is another way to elevate one ethnic group over another. The same is true of access to civil service jobs, which are some of the most steady and lucrative positions in a country. When people face the loss of such privileges, they can become deeply aggrieved and motivated to resist.

Citizens in poor countries were much more likely to fight than citizens in rich countries. But when scholars took into account measures of good governance—including citizen participation, the competitiveness of elections, and constraints on the power of the executive—economic variables became much less important. Income inequality, which many considered a red flag for war, proved to be the opposite. As James Fearon wrote in a 2010 report for the World Bank, “Not only is there no apparent positive correlation between income inequality and conflict, but if anything, across countries, those with more equal income distributions have been marginally more conflict prone.”

If a country was already at risk of civil war, natural disasters tended to make things worse. In a world where drought, wildfire, hurricanes, and heat waves will be more frequent and more intense—driving greater migration—the downgraded will have even more reasons to rise up.

Scholars know where civil wars tend to break out and who tends to start them: downgraded groups in anocracies dominated by ethnic factions. But what triggers them? What finally tips a country into conflict? Citizens can absorb a lot of pain. They will accept years of discrimination and poverty and remain quiet, enduring the ache of slow decline. What they can’t take is the loss of hope. It’s when a group looks into the future and sees nothing but additional pain that they start to see violence as their only path to progress.

It’s the failure of protests that eliminates hope and incentivizes violence. That’s when citizens finally see that their belief in the system has been misplaced. In Israel, Palestinians engaged in nonviolent protests for years—participating in mass demonstrations, work stoppages, strikes, and boycotts—but made no progress in negotiations with the government. The result? “People exploded,” said Radwan Abu Ayyash, a Palestinian journalist. This helps explain why violence tends to escalate in the aftermath of failed protests. Protests are a last-ditch effort to fix the system—the Hail Mary pass for optimists seeking peaceful change—before the extremists take over.

Early militants, of course, know that civilian deaths at the hands of the government can tip conflicts into all-out war; they see the opportunity in a harsh government response and plan accordingly. Hamas has stored weapons in schools, mosques, and residential neighborhoods, goading the Israeli military to bomb them. Carlos Marighella, a Brazilian Marxist revolutionary, urged fellow militants to target government forces in order to provoke a violent reaction. He believed that if the government intensified its repression against Brazilians, arresting innocent people and making life in the city unbearable, citizens would turn against it. In Northern Ireland, Tommy Gorman, a member of the IRA, recalled that the British Army and government, with their harsh tactics, “were our best recruiting agents.” And in Spain, the violent separatist group ETA was not particularly popular with Basque citizens until President Franco allowed the Germans, during World War II, to viciously bomb Basque villages. According to one expert on the Basques, “Nothing radicalizes a people faster than the unleashing of undisciplined security forces on its towns and villages.” That’s why civil wars appear to explode after governments decide to play hardball. Extremists have already embraced militancy. What changes is that average citizens now decide that it’s in their interest to do so as well.

leaders were less inclined to negotiate—and more likely to fight—in nations with multiple potential separatist groups. If a leader believed that granting independence to one group would lead others to make their own demands—setting off a secessionist chain reaction—then fighting would help deter future challenges. Indonesia’s harsh response to East Timor’s declaration of independence, which killed an estimated 25 percent of East Timor’s population, was made in part to dissuade the country’s many other ethnic groups from demanding independence as well.

What America’s eighteenth-century leaders couldn’t have predicted was that the factionalization they feared would be rooted not in class but in ethnic identity. That’s because in 1789, at least at the federal level, all American voters were white (and all of them were men). Today, the best predictor of how Americans will vote is their race. Two-thirds or more of Black, Latino, and Asian Americans consistently vote for Democrats, while roughly 60 percent of white Americans vote for Republicans. That represents a dramatic shift from the middle part of the last century, when the ethnic minority vote was split roughly between the two parties, and most white working-class Americans tended to vote Democratic. In fact, as late as 2007—the year before Barack Obama was elected president—whites were just as likely (51 percent) to be Democrats as they were Republicans. Today, 90 percent of the Republican Party is white.

Working-class whites had been hailed as the backbone of America, their ways and values memorialized in Norman Rockwell paintings. And now, it seemed, the government was abandoning them. Global trade agreements were signed that benefited coastal elites and city dwellers at their expense. Immigration continued, and allowances were made for illegal immigrants. To whites experiencing real economic and social decline, the U.S. government was like the Indian government that encouraged Bengalis to migrate to Assam, the Indonesian government that encouraged Javanese to migrate to West Papua, or the Sri Lankan government that had encouraged the Sinhalese to migrate to Tamil regions. White Americans were seeing young people from countries like India and China—whose first language wasn’t English, whose religion was not Christianity—get lucrative tech jobs and live an American dream that no longer existed for them.

Members of AWD were among those who participated in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, yelling “You will not replace us!” as they marched with torches. Soon after the rally, the hashtag #ReadSiege spread like wildfire on Twitter. Some in the group found Charlottesville—and the subsequent arrests, deplatforming, and bad press—to be disheartening, proof that Mason had been right all along: They would not be successful if they stayed within the bounds of the law. As one former AWD member later told investigative journalist A. C. Thompson (who made the ProPublica documentary), Charlottesville sparked the group’s shift toward violence, because members felt their efforts had been ineffectual. “Huge rallies don’t work,” he explained. “All that happens is people get arrested, people lose jobs, and you get put on some FBI watch list.” The answer, he continued, was to go underground, and to pursue a form of cell-style terrorism known as “leaderless resistance.” The term “leaderless resistance” originated in the 1950s with a former CIA officer named Ulius Amoss, who was analyzing ways to protect CIA-supported resistance cells in Eastern Europe. The concept was picked up by Louis Beam, a soldier in the Vietnam War who, after returning to the United States, became a Ku Klux Klan member. In 1983, Beam published an essay advocating leaderless resistance as the best way for white nationalists to continue their struggle against the far more powerful U.S. government. Beam believed that the movement could survive only if it became decentralized.

Extremist groups also tend to wield greater psychological power by offering greater recompense: Honor, martyr status, and glory in the afterlife, and an extreme ideology weeds out those who are less committed to a cause, reducing the problem of poor performance, side switching, or betrayal. We have not yet seen the outbidding strategy take hold in the United States, but it’s easy to imagine it as right-wing groups proliferate. What ISIS did in Iraq and Syria provides a blueprint: The group invested heavily in internet propaganda, advertising its military strength and publicizing both the brutal acts it was willing to commit and the public services it was willing to provide to local populations. When it entered a town, it quickly targeted leaders of the opposition. If this was to occur in the United States, you would see one extreme group, such as Atomwaffen, escalating to ever-more brutal acts of violence, to prove that it was stronger, more capable, and more dedicated to the cause than other groups. A final terror strategy is “spoiling.” Terrorists wield this tactic when they fear that more moderate groups—those that would put aside violence in exchange for, say, concessions from the government on immigration—will compromise and subvert the larger goal of establishing a new ethno-state. This strategy usually comes into play when relations between more moderate insurgent groups and the government are improving, and a peace agreement seems imminent. Terrorists know that most citizens will not support ongoing violence once a deal is in place. When Iranian radicals kidnapped fifty-two Americans in Tehran in 1979, it wasn’t because relations between the United States and Iran were worsening, but because there were signs of rapprochement: Three days earlier, Mehdi Bazargan, Iran’s relatively moderate prime minister, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the U.S. national security adviser, had appeared in a photograph together shaking hands. The radicals knew that reconciliation between the two countries would be disastrous for them, so they did whatever they could to prevent it. Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, and talks between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, have also been “spoiled” in this way.

Most countries that were able to avoid a second civil war shared an ability to strengthen the quality of their governance. They doubled down on democracy and moved up the polity scale. Mozambique did this after its civil war ended in 1992, when the country moved from one-party rule to multiparty elections. In the wake of a conflict that ended in 2003, Liberia increased institutional restraints on presidential power and pushed for more judicial independence. Countries that created more transparent and participatory political environments and limited the power of their executive branch were less susceptible to repeat episodes of violence.

Free elections are the central mechanism of accountability in a democracy, but unlike many other countries, America lacks an independent and centralized election management system. According to the political scientist Pippa Norris, an elections expert and the founding director of Harvard University’s Electoral Integrity Project, almost every new democracy going through a transition sets up a central independent election management system to protect the integrity of elections. This helps to build trust in the electoral process. Uruguay, Costa Rica, and South Korea all did this when they created their democracies. Large federal democracies such as Australia, Canada, India, and Nigeria have also managed their elections this way. Canada’s election system is run by Elections Canada, and all voters follow the same procedures no matter where they live. An independent and centralized election management system establishes a standard procedure for designing and printing ballots and tabulating votes accurately and securely, untainted by partisan politics. It can handle legal disputes without the involvement of politicized courts. In a 2019 report, the Electoral Integrity Project examined countries’ electoral laws and processes and found that the quality of U.S. elections from 2012 to 2018 was “lower than any other long-established democracies and affluent societies.” The United States received the same score as Mexico and Panama, and a much lower score than Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Chile. This is the reason why it is easier to spread claims about voter fraud in the United States, and why Americans are more likely to question the results.

To fulfill the promise of a truly multiethnic democracy, the nation must navigate deep peril. We need to shore up our democracy, stay out of the anocracy zone, and rein in social media, which will help reduce factionalism. This will give us a chance to avoid a second civil war.

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Key Points from Book: Wanting – The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life

WANTING: THE POWER OF MIMETIC DESIRE IN EVERYDAY LIFE

by Luke Burgis

Girard discovered that most of what we desire is mimetic (mi-met-ik) or imitative, not intrinsic. Humans learn—through imitation—to want the same things other people want, just as they learn how to speak the same language and play by the same cultural rules. Imitation plays a far more pervasive role in our society than anyone had ever openly acknowledged.

It means learning something new about your own past that explains how your identity has been shaped and why certain people and things have exerted more influence over you than others. It means coming to grips with a force that permeates human relationships—relationships which you are, at this moment, involved in. You can never be a neutral observer of mimetic desire.

An unbelieved truth is often more dangerous than a lie. The lie in this case is the idea that I want things entirely on my own, uninfluenced by others, that I’m the sovereign king of deciding what is wantable and what is not. The truth is that my desires are derivative, mediated by others, and that I’m part of an ecology of desire that is bigger than I can fully understand. By embracing the lie of my independent desires, I deceive only myself. But by rejecting the truth, I deny the consequences that my desires have for other people and theirs for me. It turns out the things we want matter far more than we know.

He uncovered something perplexing, something which seemed to be present in nearly all of the most compelling novels ever written: characters in these novels rely on other characters to show them what is worth wanting. They don’t spontaneously desire anything. Instead, their desires are formed by interacting with other characters who alter their goals and their behavior—most of all, their desires. Girard’s discovery was like the Newtonian revolution in physics, in which the forces governing the movement of objects can only be understood in a relational context. Desire, like gravity, does not reside autonomously in any one thing or person. It lives in the space between them.

The characters in the great novels are so realistic because they want things the way that we do—not spontaneously, not out of an inner chamber of authentic desire, not randomly, but through the imitation of someone else: their secret model.

Desire, as Girard used the word, does not mean the drive for food or sex or shelter or security. Those things are better called needs—they’re hardwired into our bodies. Biological needs don’t rely on imitation. If I’m dying of thirst in the desert, I don’t need anyone to show me that water is desirable. But after meeting our basic needs as creatures, we enter into the human universe of desire. And knowing what to want is much harder than knowing what to need.

Gravity causes people to fall physically to the ground. Mimetic desire causes people to fall in or out of love, or debt, or friendships, or business partnerships. Or it may subject them to the degrading slavery of being merely a product of their milieu.

Girard opening the very first session of his class Literature, Myth, and Prophecy with these words: “Human beings fight not because they are different, but because they are the same, and in their attempts to distinguish themselves have made themselves into enemy twins, human doubles in reciprocal violence.”

The biblical story of Cain and Abel is about Cain killing his brother, Abel, after his ritual sacrifice pleased God less than Abel’s. They both wanted the same thing—to win favor with God—which brought them into direct conflict with each other. In Girard’s view, the root of most violence is mimetic desire.

Thiel left the corporate world and co-founded Confinity with Max Levchin in 1998. He began to use his knowledge of mimetic theory to help him manage both the business and his life. When competitive rivalries flared up within his company, he gave each employee clearly defined and independent tasks so they didn’t compete with one another for the same responsibilities. This is important in a start-up environment where roles are often fluid. A company in which people are evaluated based on clear performance objectives—not their performance relative to one another—minimizes mimetic rivalries.

Models of desire are what make Facebook such a potent drug. Before Facebook, a person’s models came from a small set of people: friends, family, work, magazines, and maybe TV. After Facebook, everyone in the world is a potential model.

When a person’s identity becomes completely tied to a mimetic model, they can never truly escape that model because doing so would mean destroying their own reason for being.

The more that people are forced to be the same—the more pressure they feel to think and feel and want the same things—the more intensely they fight to differentiate themselves. And this is dangerous. Many cultures have had a myth in which twins commit violence against each other. There are at least five separate stories of sibling rivalry in the book of Genesis alone: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers. Stories of sibling rivalry are universal because they’re true—the more people are alike, the more likely they are to feel threatened. While technology is bringing the world closer together (Facebook’s stated mission), it is bringing our desires closer together and amplifying conflict. We are free to resist, but the mimetic forces are accelerating so quickly that we are close to becoming shackled.

In the days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, hijacker Mohammed Atta and his companions were carousing in south Florida bars and binge-playing video games. “Who asks about the souls of these men?” wondered Girard in his last book, Battling to the End.14 The Manichean division of the world into “evil” and “not evil” people never satisfied him. He saw the dynamics of mimetic rivalry at work in the rise of terrorism and class conflict. People don’t fight because they want different things; they fight because mimetic desire causes them to want the same things. The terrorists would not have been driven to destroy symbols of the West’s wealth and culture if, at some deep level, they had not secretly desired some of the same things. That’s why the Florida bars and video game–playing are an important piece of the puzzle. The mysterium iniquitatis (the mystery of evil) remains just that: mysterious. But mimetic theory reveals something important about it. The more people fight, the more they come to resemble each other. We should choose our enemies wisely, because we become like them.

Buried in a deeper layer of our psychology is the person or thing that caused us to want something in the first place. Desire requires models—people who endow things with value for us merely because they want the things. Models transfigure objects before our eyes. You walk into a consignment store with a friend and see racks filled with hundreds of shirts. Nothing jumps out at you. But the moment your friend becomes enamored with one specific shirt, it’s no longer a shirt on a rack. It’s the shirt that your friend Molly chose—the Molly who, by the way, is an assistant costume designer on major films. The moment she starts ogling the shirt, she sets it apart. It’s a different shirt than it was five seconds ago, before she started wanting it. “O hell! to choose love by another’s eyes!” says Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s hell to know we have chosen anything by another’s eyes. But we do it all the time: we choose brands, schools, and dishes at a restaurant by them.

The Bible contains a story about the Romantic Lie at the dawn of humanity. Eve originally had no desire to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree—until the serpent modeled it. The serpent suggested a desire. That’s what models do. Suddenly, a fruit that had not aroused any particular desire became the most desirable fruit in the universe. Instantaneously. The fruit appeared irresistible because—and only after—it was modeled as a forbidden good.

sometimes even from a glance of the eyes. We do the same thing. Meltzoff explains: “A mother looks at something. A baby takes that as a signal that the mother desires the object, or is at least paying attention to it because it must be important. The baby looks at the mother’s face, then at the object. She tries to understand the relationship between her mother and the object.” It’s not long before a baby can follow not just her mother’s eyes but even the intentions behind her actions.

Desire is our primordial concern. Long before people can articulate why they want something, they start wanting it. The motivational speaker Simon Sinek advises organizations and people to “start with why” (the title of one of his books), finding and communicating one’s purpose before anything else. But that is usually a post hoc rationalization of whatever it is we already wanted. Desire is the better place to start.

This natural and healthy concern in children about what other people want seems to morph in adulthood into an unhealthy concern about what other people want. It grows into mimesis. Adults do expertly what babies do clumsily. After all, each of us is a highly developed baby. Rather than learning what other people want so that we can help them get it, we secretly compete with them to possess it.

We’re so sensitive to imitation that we notice the slightest deviance from what we could call acceptable imitation. If we receive a response to an email or text that doesn’t sufficiently tone-match, we can go into a mini-crisis (Does she not like me? Does he think he’s superior to me? Did I do something wrong?). Communication practically runs on mimesis. In a study published in 2008 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, sixty-two students were assigned to negotiate with other students. Those who mirrored others’ posture and speech reached a settlement 67 percent of the time, while those who didn’t reached a settlement 12.5 percent of the time.13

He gave the illusion of autonomy—because that’s how people think desire works. Models are most powerful when they are hidden. If you want to make someone passionate about something, they have to believe the desire is their own.

It was as if her lack of desire for him affected the strength of his desire for her. What’s more, the interest that other men showed in her affected him. They were modeling her desirability to him. Through her withdrawal from him, she was modeling it, too. “I suddenly realized that she was both object and mediator for me—some kind of model,” Girard remembered. People don’t only model the desire for third parties or objects; they can also model the desire for themselves. Playing hard to get is a tried-and-true method to drive people crazy, but few ever ask why. Mimetic desire provides a clue. We are fascinated with models because they show us something worth wanting that is just beyond our reach—including their affection.

Or consider a sophomore in high school who posts a selfie to Instagram. She’s beaming next to her new boyfriend at a sushi restaurant. Immediately, her ex—who broke up with her only a few weeks ago, confident in his decision, and whom she hasn’t heard from since—starts texting her, confessing his love. “You don’t know what you want,” she tells him. “Make up your mind!” She’s right: he didn’t know what he wanted until he saw her with another guy—a senior, his older brother’s age, who is going to the University of North Carolina on a basketball scholarship. Her renewed desirability has nothing to do with how she looks in her Instagram photo; it’s a product of her being wanted by another man—and not just any man, but one who possesses all of the characteristics that her ex-boyfriend would like to have.

Elite colleges don’t keep their admissions rates low because they have to; they keep them low to protect the value of their brands.

The pride that makes a person believe they are unaffected by or inoculated against biases, weaknesses, or mimesis blinds them to their complicity in the game. If a news organization can convince its viewers that its programming is neutral, it disables their defense mechanisms. Big Tech companies do something similar. They present their technology as agnostic—as just a “platform.” And that’s true, so long as we evaluate it in a materialistic way, as bits and bytes. Yet, on a human level, social media companies have built engines of desire.

Desire is not a function of data. It’s a function of other people’s desires. What stock market analysts referred to as “mass psychosis” was not so psychotic after all. It was the phenomenon of mimetic desire that Girard had discovered more than fifty years earlier. In both bubbles and crashes, models are multiplied. Desire spreads at a speed so great we can’t wrap out rational brains around it. We might consider taking a different, more human, perspective. “Conformity is a powerful force that can counteract gravity for longer than skeptics expect,” writes Wall Street Journal finance columnist Jason Zweig. “Bubbles are neither rational nor irrational; they are profoundly human, and they will always be with us.”

We are generally fascinated with people who have a different relationship to desire, real or perceived. When people don’t seem to care what other people want or don’t want the same things, they seem otherworldly. They appear less affected by mimesis—anti-mimetic, even. And that’s fascinating, because most of us aren’t.

It’s as if everyone is saying, “Imitate me—but not too much,” because while everyone’s flattered by imitation, being copied too closely feels threatening.

That’s because rivalry is a function of proximity. When people are separated from us by enough time, space, money, or status, there is no way to compete seriously with them for the same opportunities. We don’t view models in Celebristan as threatening because they probably don’t care enough about us to adopt our desires as their own. There is another world, though, where most of us live the majority of our lives. We’ll call it Freshmanistan. People are in close contact and unspoken rivalry is common. Tiny differences are amplified. Models who live in Freshmanistan occupy the same social space as their imitators. We’re easily affected by what other people in Freshmanistan say or do or desire. It’s like being in our freshman year of high school, having to jostle for position and differentiate ourselves from a bunch of other people who are in the same situation. Competition is not only possible, it is the norm. And the similarity between the people competing makes the competition peculiar.

Girard believed that all true desire—the post-instinctual kind—is metaphysical. People are always in search of something that goes beyond the material world. If someone falls under the influence of a model who mediates the desire for a handbag, it’s not the handbag they are after. It’s the imagined newness of being they think it will bring. “Desire is not of this world,” Girard has said, “… it is in order to penetrate into another world that one desires, it is in order to be initiated into a radically foreign existence.”

Reflexivity in markets is partly what leads to market crashes and bubbles. Investors perceive there might be a crash, so they behave in a way that precipitates the crash.

People worry about what other people will think before they say something—which affects what they say. In other words, our perception of reality changes reality by altering the way we might otherwise act. This leads to a self-fulfilling circularity. This principle affects public and personal discourse. The German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann coined the term “spiral of silence” in 1974 to refer to a phenomenon that we see often today: people’s willingness to speak freely depends upon their unconscious perceptions of how popular their opinions are. People who believe their opinions are not shared by anyone else are more likely to remain quiet; their silence itself increases the impression that no one else thinks as they do; this increases their feelings of isolation and artificially inflates the confidence of those with the majority opinion.

Why do all hipsters look alike, and why does nobody identify themselves as one? The answer is mirrored imitation. Mirrors distort reality. They flip the sides on which things appear: your right hand appears on the left side in the mirror, and your left hand appears as if it’s on the right side. The mirror image is, in some sense, an image of opposites. Mirrored imitation, then, is imitation that does the opposite of whatever a rival does. It is reflexive to a rival by doing something different from what the rival models. When mimetic rivals are caught in a double bind, obsessed with each other, they go to any length to differentiate themselves. Their rival is a model for what not to desire. For a hipster, the rival is popular culture—he eschews anything popular and embraces what he believes to be eclectic, but he does so according to new models. According to Girard, “the effort to leave the beaten paths forces everyone into the same ditch.”

When one of the two parties to a rivalry renounces the rivalry, it defuses the other party’s desire. In a mimetic rivalry, objects take on value because the rival wants them. If the rival suddenly stops wanting something, so do we.

We imitate not for the sake of imitation itself but for the sake of differentiating ourselves—to try to forge an identity relative to other people.

Mimetic desire tends to move in one of two cycles. Cycle 1 is the negative cycle, in which mimetic desire leads to rivalry and conflict. This cycle runs on the false belief that other people have something that we don’t have and that there isn’t room for fulfillment of both their desires and ours. It comes from a mindset of scarcity, of fear, of anger. Cycle 2 is the positive cycle in which mimetic desire unites people in a shared desire for some common good. It comes from a mindset of abundance and mutual giving. This type of cycle transforms the world. People want something that they couldn’t imagine wanting before—and they help others go further, too.

Giro’s business flywheel, according to Collins, worked like this: “Invent great products; get elite athletes to use them; inspire Weekend Warriors to mimic their heroes; attract mainstream customers; and build brand power as more and more athletes use the products. But then, to maintain the ‘cool’ factor, set high prices and channel profits back into creating the next generation of great products that elite athletes want to use.”

Aristotle invented the word “entelechy” to refer to a thing that has its own principle of development within it, a vital force that propels it forward to become fully what it is.

C. S. Lewis called this invisible system the inner ring. It means that no matter where a person is in life, no matter how wealthy or popular a person is, there is always a desire to be on the inside of a certain ring and a terror of being left on the outside of it. “This desire [to be in the inner ring] is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action,” Lewis said. “It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement.… As long as you are governed by that desire, you will never get what you want.”27 Zappos dismantled any visible signs of an outer ring. They forgot about the inner one. Hierarchical Values Tony’s project to make downtown Las Vegas an entrepreneurial hub and happy community was a noble one, in principle. Its downfall was an impoverished view of human nature. CEOs, teachers, policymakers, and others responsible for shaping an environment should understand how decisions affect people’s desires. As a city planner needs to consider the effect of parks and murals and bike paths on everything from traffic to crime, so a good leader needs to consider the impact of their decisions on human ecology—the web of relationships that affect human life and development. No aspect of human ecology is more overlooked than mimetic desire. Early on at one of my companies, I made the mistake of forming a way-too-serious flag football team that competed in a city league, not realizing that it divided our young start-up into factions. Having fun and freely associating outside of work was not a problem. The problem was that I, the CEO, was the one who organized and led the effort. At that stage of our company (there were only about ten of us), the idea and organization needed to come from someone other than me for it not to feel like a top-down imposition of cultural expectations. My football fanaticism inflamed a few rivalries and bent desires toward small-spirited goals rather than great ones.

A hierarchy of values is an antidote to mimetic conformity. If all values are treated as equal, then the one that wins out—especially at a time of crisis—is the one that is most mimetic.

Girard saw a close connection between mimetic desire and violence. “People everywhere today are exposed to a contagion of violence that perpetuates cycles of vengeance,” he said in his book The One by Whom Scandal Comes. “These interlocking episodes resemble each other, quite obviously, because they all imitate each other.”2 How do these cycles of vengeance start? Mimetic desire. “More and more, it seems to me,” wrote Girard in the same book, “modern individualism assumes the form of a desperate denial of the fact that, through mimetic desire, each of us seeks to impose his will upon his fellow man, whom he professes to love but more often despises.”3 These small, interpersonal conflicts are a microcosm of the instability that threatens the entire world. And before the world: our families, cities, institutions.

The word pharmakós is related to the English word “pharmacy.” In ancient Greece, the pharmakós was someone initially seen as a poison to the community. The people believed that they had to destroy or expel this person to protect themselves. The elimination of the pharmakós was the remedy to the problem. In this sense, the pharmakós was both the poison and the cure.

In real life, scapegoats are usually singled out due to some combination of the following: they have extreme personalities or neurodiversity (such as autism) or physical abnormalities that make them noticeable; they’re on the margins of society in terms of status or markets (they are outside the system, like the Amish or people who have chosen to live off the grid); they’re considered deviants in some way (their behavior falls outside societal norms, whether related to lifestyle, sexuality, or style of communication); they’re unable to fight back (this applies even to rulers or kings—when it is all against one, even the most powerful person is impotent); or they appear as if by magic without society knowing where they came from or how they got there, which makes them easy to blame as the cause of social unrest (climate change activist Greta Thunberg’s arrival in New York to speak at the United Nations on a zero-carbon yacht marks her as a potential scapegoat). All scapegoats have the power to unite people and defuse mimetic conflict. A scapegoat doesn’t have traditional power; a scapegoat has unifying power. A prisoner on death row possesses power that not even the state governor has. For a family or community in crisis, it can seem like only the death of that prisoner will bring them the kind of healing they seek. The prisoner, then, possesses a quasi-supernatural quality that no one else can stand in for. Only he can heal.

“A scapegoat remains effective as long as we believe in its guilt,” wrote Girard in his final book, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre. “Having a scapegoat means not knowing that we have one.”

As mentioned earlier, one of Jenny Holzer’s billboards in Times Square pleaded: “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT.” It drew attention because it was a sign of contradiction. Through its stark contrast with its surroundings, Holzer’s art drew communal attention to its message. And through it, people were drawn toward a more honest examination of themselves. The message led not to rivalry and blame and violence but to self-reflection and maybe even transformation. Consumer culture did not have to have the last word.

Some trends in goal setting: don’t make goals vague, grandiose, or trivial; make sure they’re SMART (specific, measurable, assignable, relevant, and time-based)2; make them FAST (another acronym: frequent, ambitious, specific, and transparent)3; have good OKRs (objectives and key results)4; put them in writing; share them with others for accountability. Goal setting has become very complicated. If someone tried to take all the latest tactics into account, it would be a wonder if they managed to set any goals at all.

The ultimate way to test desires—especially major life choices such as whether to marry someone or whether to quit your job and start a company—is to practice this same exercise but to do it while imagining yourself on your deathbed. Which choice leaves you more consoled? Which choice causes you more agitation? Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, noted, “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” The deathbed is where unfulfilling desires are exposed. Transport yourself there now rather than waiting until later, when it might be too late.

The term “sour grapes” was popularized in one of Aesop’s fables. A fox sees a beautiful cluster of ripe grapes hanging from a high branch. The grapes look ready to burst with juice. His mouth begins watering. He tries to jump up and grab them, but he falls short. He tries again and again, but the grapes are always just out of reach. Finally, he sits down and concludes that the grapes must be sour and aren’t worth the effort anyway. He walks away scornfully. By calling the grapes “sour,” the fox invented a narrative in his mind to ease the pain of loss. If you accept this notion uncritically, then you might believe that one can’t legitimately despise rich people without first being rich, or scorn Ivy League schools without having gained admission to one, or reject the desire for three Michelin stars without first having earned them. To do so would be self-deception, resentment, weakness. Don’t believe that a person has to buy into and play a mimetic game and win before they can opt out of it with a clear conscience. If you decline an invitation to be on the reality TV show The Bachelor, rejecting it as a silly charade, does that mean that it’s sour grapes? Could you only criticize the show after you’ve won? Of course not. “Don’t knock it till you try it” is a sophomoric argument. Girard recognized that resentment is real—and that it happens primarily in the world of internal mediation (Freshmanistan), when we are inside a system of desire without social or critical distance from it.15 But only the worst kind of cynic believes that every renunciation necessarily has something to do with resentment.

Empathy is the ability to share in another person’s experience—but without imitating them (their speech, their beliefs, their actions, their feelings) and without identifying with them to the point that one’s own individuality and self-possession are lost. In this sense, empathy is anti-mimetic. Empathy could mean smiling and giving a cold bottle of water to people collecting signatures for a petition you would never sign—because it’s a sweltering day and you know what it’s like to be that hot, and you also know what it feels like to be that passionate about something you care about. It would not entail empty platitudes or white-lie niceties that we often say to people with whom we disagree; rather, it means finding a shared point of humanity through which to connect without sacrificing our integrity in the process. Empathy disrupts negative cycles of mimesis. A person who is able to empathize can enter into the experience of another person and share her thoughts and feelings without necessarily sharing her desires.

The distinction between thick and thin desires can’t easily be made based on feelings alone. Desires feel very strong when we’re young—to make a lot of money, date a person with certain physical attributes, or become famous. The feelings are often more intense the thinner a desire is. As we get older, many of our adolescent feelings of intense desire fade away. It’s not because we realize that some of the things we wanted are no longer attainable. It’s because we have more pattern recognition ability and so can recognize the kinds of desires that leave us unfulfilled. As a result, most people do learn to cultivate thicker desires as they age.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now … to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality. —Ursula K. Le Guin

“The goal of early childhood education should be to cultivate the child’s own desire to learn,” Montessori wrote in The Montessori Method. And elsewhere: “We must know how to call to the man which lies dormant within the soul of the child.”9 The desire to grow into mature adults—not the desire to earn A’s or win Little League games or get a sticker for good behavior—is each child’s primary and most important project, the thing each of them secretly cares most deeply about.

If truth is not confronted courageously, communicated effectively, and acted upon quickly, a company will never be able to adhere to reality and respond appropriately to it. The health of any human project that relies on the ability to adapt depends on the speed at which truth travels. That holds for a classroom, a family, and a country.

The passionate pursuit of truth is anti-mimetic because it strives to reach objective values, not mimetic values. Leaders who embrace and model the pursuit of truth—and who increase its speed within the organization—inoculate themselves from some of the more volatile movements of mimesis that masquerade as truth. Want a test? Try reading newspapers at least a week out of date. The mimetic fluff is easier to spot.

In Lean Startup lingo, the first version of a product is called a minimum viable product (or MVP). The MVP is “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”18 (In the language of desire, the MVP corresponds to the minimal viable desires of customers.) After the MVP, you engage in continuous learning and improvement. The Lean Startup methodology has benefits. It saves idealistic entrepreneurs from heartache. It prevents wasted time and money, gets products to market faster, and opens up emergent possibilities for growth. That’s all good to a certain extent. An entrepreneur who does not give people things they want won’t be in business for long. But the Lean Startup technique is a model of entrepreneurship fundamentally based on immanent desire. It’s politics by polling, in which a candidate does whatever the polls tell them to do. This is not leading, but following. Sometimes it’s plain cowardice.

Engineering desires in robots or in humans raises serious questions about humanity’s future. Historian Yuval Noah Harari ends his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind with these words: “But since we might soon be able to engineer our desires, too, the real question facing us is not ‘What do we want to become?,’ but ‘What do we want to want?’ Those who are not spooked by this question probably haven’t given it enough thought.” The question “What do we want to want?” is unsettling partly because, in a world of engineered desires, we have to wonder who is doing the engineering. But also because the question implies that

it’s possible to want to want something, yet not be capable of wanting it.

NYU Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway thinks that each of the Big Four tech companies taps into a deep-seated need in humanity.8 Google is like a deity that answers our questions (read: prayers); Facebook satisfies our need for love and belonging; Amazon fulfills the need for security, allowing us instantaneous access to goods in abundance (the company was there for us during COVID-19) to ensure our survival; and Apple appeals to our sex drive and the associated need for status, signaling one’s attractiveness as a mate by associating with a brand that is innovative, forward-thinking, and costly to own. In many ways, the Big Four tech companies are serving people’s needs better than churches do.9 They’re addressing desires better, too. The vast majority of people are not thinking about mere survival; they are trying to figure out what to want next and how they can get it. The Big Four tech companies supply answers to both.

There are two approaches that people commonly take to escape from Cycle 1. The first approach, engineering desire, is the approach of Silicon Valley, authoritarian governments, and the Cult of Experts. The first two use intelligence and data to centrally plan a system in which people want things that other people want them to want—things that benefit a certain group of people. This approach poses a serious threat to human agency. It also lacks respect for the capability of people to freely desire what is best for themselves and the people they love. The Cult of Experts, with their “Follow These Five Steps” approach to happiness, lacks respect for human complexity. The alternative is the transformation of desire. The engineering approach is like extractive industrial farming, which uses pesticides and tills the land with large machinery, then measures success by seasonal yield, shelf life, and uniformity. The transformation approach is like regenerative farming, which can transform a barren piece of land into rich soil according to the laws and dynamics of the ecosystem. In our case, the ecosystem is one of human ecology—and desire is its lifeblood.

Authoritarian regimes can only stay in existence so long as they can control what people want. We normally think of these regimes as controlling what people can and cannot do through laws, regulations, policing, and penalties. But their real victory comes not when they have authority over people’s actions; rather, their victory comes when they have authority over their desires. They don’t want to keep prisoners in cells; they want those prisoners to learn to love their cells. When there is no desire for change, their authority is complete. The purpose of a “reeducation” camp is not about relearning how to write or read or interpret history, or even how to think; it’s fundamentally about the reeducation of desire. Russian scholars Catriona Kelly and Vadim Volkov have pointed out in their essay “Directed Desires: Kul’turnost’ and Consumption” that the transition to Soviet Russia came about through what they call directed desires. There was a subtle campaign to direct people to want certain things and reject others. The idea of kulturnost, or culturedness in English, began to emerge. It was a right way to live based on shared Russian cultural values.

There are two different ways of thinking that correspond, respectively, to engineering desire and transforming it: calculating thought and meditative thought. I draw these distinctions loosely from the work of philosopher Martin Heidegger.27 Calculating thought is constantly searching, seeking, plotting how to reach an objective: to get from Point A to Point B, to beat the stock market, to get good grades, to win an argument. According to psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, it’s the dominant form of thought in our technological culture. It leads to the relentless pursuit of objectives—usually without having analyzed whether the objectives are worthy to begin with.

Meditative thought, on the other hand, is patient thought. It is not the same thing as meditation. Meditative thought is simply slow, nonproductive thought. It’s not reactionary. It’s the kind of thought that, upon hearing news or experiencing something surprising, doesn’t immediately look for solutions. Instead, it asks a series of questions that help the asker sink down further into the reality: What is this new situation? What is behind it? Meditative thought is patient enough to allow the truth to reveal itself.

“Desire is a contract that you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want,” he said.36 Ravikant is drawing on the perennial understanding of numerous spiritual traditions about the link between desire and suffering: desire is always for something we feel we lack, and it causes us to suffer.

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Lisbon Day 11: Flying Over Lisbon, Belem Tower, Jerónimos Monastery, Sunset at Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, Back to Montreal

We woke up quite early today, and despite the cloudy morning the temperature was already above 25 degree Celsius. The plan was for my girlfriend to do her morning run while I will be flying my drone from Praça do Comércio, a large open space near the water that is a perfect take-off and landing zone.

Lisbon’s Southeast Area from the Sky
Praça do Comércio from the Sky

There were not many people early in the morning and it seems that workers have yet to come to their office by 8am, unlike in North America. I recorded several footages and also took photographs of the city from above, which highlights the uniformity of its buildings’ rooftop. Most of the cafés and restaurants around the square were still close, but luckily there was a small café on the northeast corner that was open already (Martinho da Arcada). I waited for my girlfriend to finish her run and had a glass of orange juice and my usual café con leche.

Lisbon’s Rooftop
Breakfast at Martinho da Arcada

My girlfriend finished her run half an hour after I sat, and since she was quite sweaty, we went back to the hotel so she can shower first. We then had a breakfast at Paul that is on Rua Augusta. Breakfast is our favorite time of the day. Few things are better than having a croissant and a cup of coffee on a patio while watching the world goes around.

Public Tram in Lisbon, Portugal

As this is our last day for the trip, we had few “must see” places left to visit. We took a slow walk to the pink street (Rua Nova do Carvalho) and also Rua De São Paulo to took some photographs of the iconic city tram. Unfortunately, the waiting line to ride the tram to the top of the street was quite long and after 15 minutes of waiting we gave up and opted instead to hike the same alley that the tram passes via staircase next to the building.

Rua De São Paulo in Lisbon, Portugal
Rua De São Paulo in Lisbon, Portugal

To save some time and energy, we took an Uber to go to Belem Tower and Jerónimos Monastery, both located 5.7 Km west from where we were – a solid 70-minute walking distance, according to Google. We did not get inside the Belem Tower due to the long line up, but instead sit on the staircase facing the ocean and listened to a local musician playing his violin, which was beautiful.

Belem Tower, Lisbon
Local Musician in Front of Belem Tower, Lisbon

The Jerónimos Monastery was erected in the early 1500s near the launch point of Vasco da Gama’s first journey, and its construction funded by a tax on the profits of the yearly Portuguese India Armadas. In 1880, da Gama’s remains were moved to new carved tombs in the nave of the monastery’s church, only a few meters away from the tombs of the kings Manuel I and John III, whom da Gama had served. It took us an hour to tour the complex, which we then proceeded to eat an ice cream at one of the cafés in Rua de Belém – where many souvenir shops are also located.

Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal
Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, Portugal

And after having disappointed by our dinner last night, our willingness to try new restaurants in Lisbon was diminished. On the other hand, I had been drooling over the grilled seafood we ate two days ago from Monte Mar in the Timeout market. This time, we sat on the counter table behind the restaurant rather than trying to find a seat on the crowded tables in the center of the market, and satisfied ourselves with platters of Mediterranean seafood.

Monte Mar in Lisbon’s Timeout Market

For the rest of the day, we wandered east to the section of the city we had not been. My girlfriend and I split halfway, as she still wanted to walk while I preferred to find a café and sit. At 7.30pm we met at a Starbucks near our hotel in Restauradores and went together to watch the sunset at Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, another open space area on top of the mountain that is perfect to enjoy the scenery of both the city and Tagus River.

Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, Lisbon
Sunset from Miradouro da Senhora do Monte

It was dark when we descended from the mountain and the road in the small alleys were dimly lit. Nevertheless, walking around the old town area of Lisbon after the sunset has its own charm. The cobblestone road, quiet street, and the city’s colorful walls transport us to an era when life was simpler and perhaps, better.

The Small Street of Lisbon at Dark

We were not in the mood to have our dinner in a restaurant and knowing that we have to wake up at 3am – in six more hours – we went instead to a McDonalds nearby our hotel and took away our dinner to eat at the hotel’s room.

The next morning, we departed to the airport and things go relatively smooth compared to our earlier flights. We were 5 hours early in the airport and among the first in line to check our baggage. However, we again found that the airlines staff were mostly new employees that had not used to processing a Canadian permanent resident card, which cost us an hour of waiting on the counter while a more experienced employee was being called in. Despite that, we still had time to claim our tax refund and got some of our tax money back. And that, was the end of our Spain and Portugal vacation!

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Lisbon Day 10: Old Lisbon, Museu Arqueológico do Carmo, Ceramics Shop, Telecabine Lisboa

Today we started the day at 8.30am and walked around the old town area of Lisbon. The sky is cloudy, and once we got out of our hotel door (Eden VIP Aparthotel), we could feel the slightly cold air on our skin. Our breakfast was at Manteigaria, an old pastry shop specializing in tarts filled with egg custard – a Portuguese classic – which was followed by my girlfriend and I hopping from one shop to another to hunt for souvenirs. Perhaps the most interesting shops we went to is a bedding stores selling customized pillow cover and blankets called Loja de Burel, where my girlfriend bought a red, textured pillow cover to match her green sofa back in Montreal.

Tarts at Manteigaria, Lisbon
Praça do Comércio, Lisbon
Praça do Município, Lisbon
Weaving Machine Inside Burel Factory, Lisbon

Going to the northern side of the old town area, we arrived at Museu Arqueológico do Carmo, a Gothic church that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755, now a roofless structure with a museum on one part of the building. For only €5, it is worth a quick visit. Inside the museum there are two mummified remains of children that link the Peruvian and Spanish culture, and also an audiovisual room where a brief movie related to the church is being played.

Museu Arqueológico do Carmo, Lisbon
Santa Justa Lift, Lisbon
Lisbon Cityscape from Santa Justa Lift
Magazine Store Near Elevador Castelo, Lisbon

Our next two destinations were ceramic shops near the Intendente metro station. The first one is called A Vida Portuguesa, housed in an old building with beautiful interior selling not only ceramics but also cooking ware, clothes, and other accessories. The second one called Cortiço & Netos, which sell only ceramic tiles (azulejos) with various motifs. We bough several pieces for saucers at home. Mind you that they are quite heavy and could rapidly increase your luggage weight.

Azulejos at Cortiço & Netos, Lisbon

In hindsight, we should have taken a taxi or at least metro to go from the old town area to the ceramic shops. It was only a 1.4 Km walk but the sun was especially bright and considering the souvenirs we bought, we had a 1-kilogram worth of goods in a shoulder bag we just bought earlier, hence our decision to order an Uber to go tour next destination, Telecabine Lisboa.

We did not know that the Telecabine station is located just next to the city’s oceanorium, which explains the reason we saw lots of elementary school kids in uniform around the area. Although the oceanorium is located under the ground floor, the restaurant and gift shops are open to public on the ground level, where we did a quick toilet stop and drank orange juices. We also passed Lisboa Casino that is located across the street from the oceanorium.

Lisbon’s Oceanorium
View from Telecabine Lisboa

The telecabine ride from the north to south station took only around five minutes and there are options for round-trip ticket too, in case you want to get back to where you departed from. The city view from the gondola was okay, but not amazing by any count. Given that our carry-on bag was becoming too heavy to lug around walking, we went back to our hotel before going out again to Bairro do Avillez, the restaurant we booked for dinner.

Bairro do Avillez is located near Museu Arqueológico do Carmo and the road leading to the restaurant is an uphill. Since we came from Restauradores metro direction, the fastest way for us to get there is to take the staircases of Calçada do Duque. There were few restaurants on the left side of the staircase on our way up that caught our eyes and had a good ambience for a dinner.

Calçada do Duque, Lisbon

At the end of the staircases on the top, there is a clothing store called ISTO that caught our attention. They are a made in Portugal clothing retailer that champions transparency in the pricing of their goods. I bought a nice green sweater from them and later learned its cost breakdown, which is an interesting business concept and may in the future be followed by large retailers globally as we become more conscious on the sustainability and transparency of the daily goods we consume.

ISTO Clothing, Lisbon

The interior and ambience of Barrio do Avillez deserves a thumbs up. The service was nothing short of excellent and we really like the bulhao pato clams we ordered for appetizer. The main meal, however, do not fit our palate. We had a shrimp acorda and cod with “exploding olives” that were served with a pot and resembles a soup rather than a main meal. The former is very salty, and we did not even finish the second. Note that we also paid double the average of our meal cost during the trip. In total, our dinner cost €130 for 2 appetizer, 2 main meals, and a chocolate cake.

Barrio do Avillez, Lisbon

The sky was turning darker by the time we got out of the restaurant and we did not want to miss the sunset, so we went directly with an Uber to Miradouro de Santa Luzia, a popular sunset-watching park on the east side of Lisbon’s old town area. The place was a bit crowded, but people are moving from one spot to another that allows us to get a good spot for taking pictures. There was also a local artist entertaining the crowds with his guitar, singing a classic love songs. Lisbon is a lovely city indeed!

Sunset from Miradouro de Santa Luzia, Lisbon
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Lisbon Day 9: Going Around Lisbon, Museu Coleção Berardo, Sunset at Boca de Vento Elevator

Yesterday’s cross-country bus ride from Seville to Lisbon was a tiring journey, and we slept like a baby through the night. The sun is out by the time I opened the window curtain on our bedroom, which must be around 8am. Still in our pajamas, we went for a breakfast on the same restaurant we ate at the night before, on the second floor of our hotel (Arribas Sintra Hotel). We were seated on a table near the window facing the ocean, then proceeded to serve ourselves the American-style breakfast provided.

Breakfast at Arribas Sintra Hotel, Portugal

We plan neither to go for a swim on the beach nor at the hotel, and for us there were more interesting things to do in Lisbon than lying down on the beach, so we took an Uber at around 10am heading straight to our hotel in the city.

In Lisbon, we stayed at Eden VIP Aparthotel that is located centrally in Praça dos Restauradores, at the end of Avenue da Liberdade where all the branded stores are located. The exterior of the hotel looks fancy and new, but the interior is actually very old and looked unkempt. The lighting on the hallway is very poor and the furniture remind me of a hotel in third world country in the 1990s.

Lisbon Cityscape from our Room’s Window
Eden VIP Aparthotel, Lisbon

Half of the branded stores in Avenue da Liberdade was closed on Sunday, but we noted that the third-tier clothes brand such as Cos and Massimo Dutti are open. Compared to our experience at Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona, the shopping experience in Lisbon is less enthralling, probably due to its pedestrian walkaway being much smaller compared to in Barcelona and less crowds on the street.

Praça dos Restauradores, Lisbon

For lunch, we went to the first and original Timeout market – the same franchise we have in Montreal and other global cities – located on the waterfront. It was very crowded! There were endless choice of good-looking foods and we settled for a grilled seafood at a booth called Monte Mar – one with the longest line up among them. The wait for both the line up and the food was long, about 30 minutes in total, but the food doesn’t disappoint. Not since the last time I had grilled seafood back in Indonesia did I eat such perfectly cooked prawns and squids!

Timeout Market Lisboa
Grilled Seafood Mix at Monte Mar in Timeout Market Lisboa

The weather in Lisbon is much more pleasant than both in Barcelona and Seville. The temperature stays below 25 degree Celsius and being a coastal city means cold wind blows from time to time. The city is also more tourist friendly with most of the population speaking English well. All of these, plus the food and good infrastructure make the city very livable. 

After our lunch, we took an Uber to go to LX Factory, a chic complex housing locally-made goods shops, restaurants, and bars that is located 3 Km to the west from Timeout market. Although there were plenty of small goods that could be an interesting addition to our home, especially some cute cooking wares, we did not buy any given the complication of having to bring them on the flight.

Interior of a Bookstore in LX Factory, Lisbon

From LX Factory, we walked 1.9 Km further west alongside the Tagus River heading to MAAT, a museum that used to be a power station. It was a very pleasant walk. We watched boats sailing under the Ponte 25 de Abril, locals planting their fishing gear on the ground, and youngsters riding an electric scooter on the walkaway. There are public benches for people to sit throughout the walkaway and enjoy the view, where we sat and ate an ice cream from a vendor nearby.

Targus River, Lisbon
MAAT on the Waterfront, Lisbon

We did not get into MAAT but took a lot of pictures of the architecture. Visitors could go to the top of the building from the staircase on the back of it and have a higher angle to take photographs. From there, we walked further west then cross the street to go to Museu Coleção Berardo – a modern and contemporary art museum. The entrance fee at only €5 is relatively cheap, and there are several notable paintings from Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, and Piet Mondrian.

Tagus River from Inside MAAT
Mondrian’s at Museu Coleção Berardo

What is more interesting to me is that inside the museum there is a small but amazing park facing the water, located on the second floor of the complex. There, we could sit on the grass, or on the lounge chair available and just relax. A café is located on the corner where we could also buy some drinks. Definitely a place I will go for reading every week if I live here!

A Small Park Inside Museu Coleção Berardo

Next on our list is the Champalimaud Centre for the Uknown, a biomedical research foundation focused on developing treatment for neuroscience and oncology diseases that is housed under a modern architecture featuring an amphitheater facing the river on the back of the building. And the location of the building itself is a significant one. Quoted from the Architect Magazine:

Charles Correa, Hon. FAIA, was awestruck the first time he walked the site for the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal. Standing near the mouth of the Tagus River, within view of the Tower of Belém, built in the 16th century to fortify the city during the Age of Discovery, he felt that he was standing on hallowed ground.

“For me, this was a very special place,” he says. “How did Vasco da Gama and the other great navigators find the courage and imagination to sail down that bend, take that corner and plunge into the unknown ocean that lay beyond?” To Correa, principal of Charles Correa Associates of Mumbai, India, seafaring exploration seemed an extraordinarily apt metaphor for the scientific journeys that would soon be taking place at the Champalimaud Foundation’s new research center. João Silveira Botelho, one of the center’s directors, agrees. “That’s why we call it the Center for the Unknown, because, likewise, our discoveries are from the realm of the unknown,” Botelho says.

Correa’s design for the complex—a rare integration of research and clinical facilities (which are often considered separate disciplines) with aspirations to become an international leader in neuroscience and cancer research—taps the poetic dimensions of the site’s historic legacy.

Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal
Amphitheater in Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, Lisbon

It was near sunset time when we finished touring the complex and we wanted to watch the city of Lisbon from the other side of the river, so we took an Uber for €17 to Boca de Vento Elevator on the South of Tagus River, crossing Ponte 25 de Abril. To our surprise, the access to the site requires navigation through small alleys uphill that leads to a very secluded place where the elevator is located. At first, we thought we were lost.

The view from the top is simply beautiful. You could see boats sailing on the river, crisscrossing Tagus river with their white body and sail contrasting against the deep blue water. On our left was the Santuario de Cristo Rei and the Ponte 25 de Abril while on the right was red-colored rooftop with Tagus River on the background. The city of Lisbon does not seem too big from here, and the lack of high-rises makes it look rather flat. There, visitors could take the public (free) elevator going up and down the cliff, and the lower end of the elevator is where majority of the crowds were, picnicking while waiting for the sunset.

Tagus River from Boca de Vento Elevator
Santuario de Cristo Rei from Boca de Vento Elevator

After being satisfied with the photographs, we ordered another Uber – it is impossible to find taxi around – and went back to the city and ate at Pinoquio, a seafood specialty restaurant located just on the other side of the boulevard near our hotel. I had a seafood paella, which is quite different in style from the one we ate during our trip in Spain. One thing to note is that their portion is huge, with my paella alone could easily fill two empty stomachs. And there was also bread being served.

It had been a long day, and we walked more than our average of 20.000 steps despite taking few taxi and Uber. Luckily, it took less than 2 minutes to get back to our room and sleep.

Our Dinner at Pinoquio, Lisbon
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