Yascha Mounk is a Harvard University political scientist and author of the memoir Stranger in My Own Country and the just-published The People versus Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Daniel K. Inouye Institute event titled “Is the Public Destroying Democracy?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles. He spoke in the green room about what he likes and doesn’t like about Stoicism, what he got and didn’t get out of the German educational system, and which instruments he doesn’t play.
What were you like as a kid?
I was enthusiastic.
Enthusiastic about what?
Anything, everything. Just sort of like a puppy, I think.
Were you bookish?
I read a good bit. I wouldn’t say that I was bookish. I played a lot of soccer, badly. I sort of did a lot of different things.
Was there a teacher or professor who especially influenced you?
Not really, in part because I moved a lot as a kid, so I was never in the same place for too long. But I do remember fondly one music teacher, who oddly turned up to a reading that I did about a month ago. She was like one of two or three teachers I remember, and she said, “I’m sure you don’t remember me, I taught you music.” And I was like, “Oh, I remember who you are!” So it was cute.
Was she was teaching you an instrument?
No. My mom was a musician and her friends would always ask when I was growing up, “What instruments do you play?” with a subtle but distinct emphasis on the “s.” And the answer is none. I tried playing the piano a little bit as a kid and didn’t enjoy it that much. I tried to learn saxophone a little bit when I was older. And that I enjoyed, but I didn’t really have enough time to be serious about it.
What do you do to unwind?
Dinner with friends—just good food and good conversation.
If you could time-travel to any period—you don’t have to stay there, you don’t have to be implicated in it, past or future—which would you choose?
How about 2021?
That was too easy.
Why can’t it be 2021?
It can be! What would be your second choice?
Is there any past period that interests you, that you’d want to witness?
I think people idealize the past. I think many past periods were actually, in many ways, worse than the present—except, perhaps, two years ago. You really want an answer? How about the Italian city-states in the Middle Ages, or Florence and Venice in 1500? It was an incredible moment of intellectual excitement and ferment and learning; a really interesting political system; very intense, interesting people--fascinating characters.
You’re a product of the German, British, and U.S. educational systems. Was there one that was more compatible than the others for you?
There’s one that was less compatible, which was the German one. I got different things out of the British and American ones, I would say. The German one was based on learning facts rather than on trying to make arguments or see connections. And so it felt very rote. It felt like there was a right answer and your job was to find it, rather than sort of a process of intellectual exploration.
You talk at the end of your book, The People versus Democracy, about how finding love made you re-evaluate the philosophy of Stoicism. Have you found a new philosophy?
Well, in the book itself I emphasize that I think there are certain things wrong with Stoicism. Stoicism offers an important insight, which is that we need to consider some things non-negotiable, and I think our need to stand up for our political system should be one of those, and we should be willing to take risks in order to do that, and we shouldn’t think, “Should I do this, should I do that?” We should just do what we think is right without being drawn into that kind of moral debate. But at the same time I think Stoicism tries to push people to not care about other people, and not care about their fellow citizens, not care about people and their lives. And that, to me, seems like a pretty impoverished version of what life would be like.