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Mattias Desmet: How Mass Media Propaganda Fuels and Intensifies Mass Formation Psychosis

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“Hannah Arendt warned us … we will witness the emergence of a new totalitarianism which is not led by gang leaders such as Stalin or Hitler, but by dull bureaucrats and technocrats.”

Mattias Desmet is a professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University in Belgium and author of “The Psychology of Totalitarianism.” He is one of the world’s leading experts on the concept of mass formation.

“People were all in the grip of this corona narrative … and they didn’t see anymore that the measures would ruin their lives, the health of their children, the wealth of their children, the future of their children,” Desmet says.

What are the root causes of the new technocratic totalitarianism that Desmet sees in society today, how is it fueled by mass media propaganda, and what is the way out?

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Jan Jekielek:

Mattias Desmet, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Mattias Desmet:

Thank you for inviting me on.

Mr. Jekielek:

We’re doing a follow up here on our initial interview on your book, “The Psychology of Totalitarianism.” I’ve been telling people, and not just in one interview, that this is one of the most important books I’ve read in the last few years. Right now in America we’re in the midst of a massive narrative shift around COVID.

The CDC has now basically issued new guidance. The CDC guidance, among other things, effectively recommends treating vaccinated and unvaccinated people in the same way. The second part is that natural immunity is something that should be considered real, whereas in the past it was largely ignored. How is the broader society going to perceive COVID, its potential harms, and all the realities around it? In the context of mass formation, which is your specialty, are we expecting to see any changes in society?

Mr. Desmet:

Maybe. I like this quote from Niels Bohr who said, “Predicting is always difficult, and definitely if it’s about the future.” I don’t know. Maybe we will see a shift. That’s possible, or maybe the Corona narrative could lose its grip on society.

But at the same time, I would be surprised if the underlying ideology would lose its grip. On the one hand, you have the narratives that circulate in society, and that seize control of the masses, But more fundamental than these narratives are the ideologies. What we have seen during the last few decades is the emergence of a technocratic ideology. 

It is the belief that the problems of society and the objects of fear and of anxiety in a society, such as terrorism or climate change should be controlled. It believes we should fight these objects of anxiety by controlling them in a technological way. It’s as if the only answer to anxiety in our society is more control. I would be surprised if that stopped very soon. The current tendency in society that is moving democracy towards technocracy won’t stop immediately.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let’s have some definitions here. What is technocracy? Dr. Aaron Kheriaty talks about an emerging bio-security state. When you talk about technocracy in The Psychology of Totalitarianism, I see that you both are actually talking about the same thing.

Mr. Desmet:

Yes, indeed.

Mr. Jekielek:

Please explain it to me more deeply. What is technocracy?

Mr. Desmet:

Technically speaking, a technocracy is a system led by technical experts, and not by democratically elected politicians. With a democracy, we believe that democratically elected people should lead society, and that they should do so based on certain principles which they think are important for a humane living together. In a technocratic system, people believe that rational understanding should be the cornerstone of society, and that society should be led by the people who have a lot of rational knowledge about certain things.

For instance, if there is a pandemic, society should be led by people who have a technical knowledge about viruses. If there is an economic crisis, choices shouldn’t be made by democratically elected politicians, but by people who have a technical, rational knowledge about the economy. So that’s the essence of a technocratic system. 

It is based on the belief that rational understanding and technical, rational knowledge should be the basis of a humane living together, which is actually the ultimate consequence of the entire tradition of the Enlightenment, which emerged in the beginning of the 16th century. With the emergence of the modern sciences, we started to believe more and more that the entire universe and reality itself can be understood in a rational way.

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If there’s anything that would tell us that this rule by technical experts is an absolute terrible idea, wouldn’t it be the last two or three years?

Mr. Desmet:

Yes, I agree. The last two or three years show how irrational so-called rational experts can be. We really need to think about rationality and what rationality is, and the fact that the experts claim that it represents science. But the strange thing is that on one hand, you can see science as an accumulation of rational knowledge, but you can also see science as an epistemological practice, which shows us that rationality is very limited, and that most parts of reality cannot be understood in a rational way.

Most scientists started from a rationalist view of the world. They believed that everything could be understood in rational terms, but the strange thing is that almost all seminal scientists concluded the same thing. I will quote René Thom, one of the most famous mathematicians of the 20th century, who literally said, “The part of reality that can be understood in the rational way is very limited. And the rest of reality can only be understood by it by empathically resonating with it.” 

If you try to reduce life to the rational component, you will destroy the essence of life. That’s why a society which believes that its cornerstone is rational understanding, in the end, is always extremely destructive, and in the end becomes even more radically irrational.

That’s a strange thing. It’s a paradox. If you follow rational understanding, you must be humble and honest enough to admit that at a certain moment, there will be a limit to your rational understanding. Your rational mind will never be able to grasp the essence of the phenomenon that you are studying. You can lapse into complete radical, absurd irrationality. I believe that’s what we have been witnessing in the Corona crisis, for instance.

For everyone who was not really hypnotized, and could take a bit of distance on the narratives of those experts who claimed to represent rationality and science, it was clear that it was utter irrationality. The measures were fundamentally and intrinsically irrational, and absurd in many respects. 

For instance, it was clear from the beginning that lockdowns and other Corona measures probably would claim more victims than the virus would claim if no measures were taken at all. There were many scientists who warned us of that, and many institutions who warned us of that. But in a strange way, society didn’t want to see it.

Mr. Jekielek:

To your point, there’s a recent interview in the Spectator with Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK, one of the top positions in the government. He basically says in this interview that the consequences of lockdowns were not something that were seriously considered. This is a fascinating admission.

He also talks about the overuse of fear, which is something that was also exposed by the UK journalist, Laura Dodsworth. Almost everyone assumed that there would be a more balanced view of the pandemic. According to Rishi Sunak, the consequences of the policy just weren’t considered.

Mr. Desmet:

No.

Mr. Jekielek:

And that would normally be basic public health policy.

Mr. Desmet:

There was never a proper cost-benefit analysis. The collateral damage was never included in the models. In Great Britain, the House of Commons questioned the scientists who constructed the models and asked them, “Why didn’t you include collateral damage in your models?” They just said, “Well, because we are virologists. It’s not our task, and it’s not our expertise to calculate the collateral damage of these lockdown measures.” And so that’s the absurd reality, I believe.

Mr. Jekielek:

Weren’t there other people in the system who were supposed to look at these models? But they didn’t look either.

Mr. Desmet:

They also didn’t look.

Mr. Jekielek:

Right.

Mr. Desmet:

From the beginning of the crisis, there were many papers that tried to warn society that there would be a lot of collateral damage, but they never made it to the mainstream media, and they never caught the attention of society. We all were in the grip of this narrative that we should prevent victims being claimed by the virus at all costs. We were so blind, and so focused on the victims that might be claimed by the virus, that we just didn’t see any further than that. Most of us that didn’t see that the measures themselves also claimed a lot of victims.

Mr. Jekielek:

You describe this monomaniacal focus on the virus. You argue that this whole view was because of people coming into the grips of a mass formation, so maybe this is the time to recap and explain this. Let’s use Coronavirus as an example. What is this mass formation, for those who aren’t familiar with the concept?

Mr. Desmet:

Yes. On the one hand, you have some people or institutions who wanted us to focus on the virus. But on the other hand, it was strange how that worked. The entire society was looking at the virus and didn’t see that there was so much collateral damage. From the beginning, I noticed that this was absurd. In a strange way, people only could feel empathy for the victims of the coronavirus, and they couldn’t feel empathy for the people who suffered from the collateral damage of the measures.

That’s when I started to develop and articulate my theory on mass formation. Indeed, mass formation is a kind of group formation that emerges when society is in a very specific condition. I’ve explained that in many other interviews, so I won’t explain it in detail now.

In a nutshell, these conditions are that many people feel socially isolated, and many people suffer from a lack of meaning-making. There have to be high levels of so-called free floating anxiety, frustration, and aggression. That means anxiety, frustration, and aggression that is not associated with a certain mental representation. So, it is a type of anxiety, frustration, aggression where people don’t know what they are anxious, frustrated, and aggressive about. If a population has this specific condition, it is extremely sensitive to mass formation.

This mass formation usually starts with a narrative that is being distributed through the mass media indicating an object of anxiety, and at the same time provides a strategy to deal with that object of anxiety. What happens then? All this free-floating anxiety in the population suddenly connects to this object of anxiety provided in the narrative. There is a strange willingness to participate in the strategy to deal with the object of anxiety. 

Psychologically speaking, the reason is clear. If people are anxious and they don’t know what they are anxious about, they feel completely out of control. They will be happy to direct their anxiety onto the object of anxiety provided by an authority through the mass media, just because it gives them a sense of control.

They have the feeling that they now know why they are anxious, and that they can control their anxiety by participating in the strategy for dealing with the object of anxiety, for instance, like having lockdowns to deal with the virus. At the same time, because so many people participate in the strategy to deal with the object of anxiety, because so many people fight the same heroic, collective battle, people feel connected again. The root cause of the mass formation, which was always the loneliness and disconnectedness that existed before the mass formation started, seems to be solved. People seem to feel connected again. I say, “seem,” because they are not really connected again.

In a mass formation, each individual connects separately to a collective ideal, but they don’t connect to each other. On the contrary, in a mass formation, the social bonds between the individuals deteriorate even more. All the solidarity, all the psychological energy, all the love, you could say, between individuals is extracted from the individual social bonds, and injected into the bonds between the individuals and the collective. 

In the end, that’s the reason why mass formations always lead to a certain paranoid atmosphere, in which everyone snitches on everyone, and in which everyone reports everyone to the state. It is because people feel no solidarity with each other anymore, but they feel a lot of solidarity towards the collective ideal.

So, in a nutshell, that is mass formation. Once all this anxiety, frustration, and aggression is attached to this object of anxiety—in this case the virus—provided in the narrative told by the mass media, all the attention is focused on that one object, on that one point. People are literally hypnotized.

Technically speaking, it’s exactly the same. Mass formation is exactly the same as mass hypnosis. It’s a focusing of the attention on one aspect of reality to such an extent that the rest of reality seems to disappear, and people no longer seem to be aware of the rest of reality. That’s a mass formation.

If you look at hypnosis, then you see how incredibly strong this mechanism can be. A simple hypnotic procedure is sufficient to make someone so insensitive to pain, because he’s focused so much on one thing, that a surgeon can cut through his skin, his flesh, and even straight through his breastbone to perform an open-heart operation. 

That shows the power of this focusing of attention. And that explains why people who are all in the grip of this Corona-narrative couldn’t see that these measures would ruin their lives, the health of their children, the wealth of their children, and the future of their children.

Mr. Jekielek:

Your theory of mass formation makes perfect sense here. You are a Professor of Psychology at the University of Ghent, and you have been studying this type of phenomena for quite some time, and developed this theory. I was hoping to understand some of the building blocks of past work in the field of psychology that allowed you to reach this point. We’re not going to do a comprehensive thing, but perhaps you could give us an overview.

Mr. Desmet:

If you want to understand the psychology of a human being, the first thing you must understand is that human mental functioning is almost completely dependent on the use of language. Human beings distinguish themselves from animals because they use language. Animals use sign systems to communicate. When they exchange signs, certain postures, certain expressions, certain cries, and certain sounds, it’s always clear to the animal what the sign means. 

A human being doesn’t use signs. It uses words. It uses language. And a word does not refer to just one thing. A word may refer to many things. If you want to know what a word means, you need another word that explains that word, and that other word needs to be explained again. In this way, you never reach the point where you are absolutely sure.

What distinguishes a human being from an animal is that a human being, throughout its entire existence from birth until death, is constantly confronted with uncertainty. We constantly think about the meaning of our life. Does the other love us? What will happen after we die? And so on.

Our mental functioning constantly circles around something that fundamentally escapes our understanding. That’s typical for a human being. You will never see an animal sitting on a riverbank thinking about the meaning of its existence, or whether or not it is loved by other animals. No. Only a human being is confronted with this existential, fundamental uncertainty. 

On one hand, this uncertainty is something that provokes a lot of anxiety. We constantly want to know what we mean to someone else. We constantly would like to know what will happen tomorrow. We constantly would like to know if the choices that we make today will be the right ones for the future. That’s one side of the coin. Uncertainty leads to anxiety.

On the other hand, at the same time, this uncertainty is also the root of our existence. Without uncertainty, we wouldn’t really exist as a human being. It’s exactly because nobody ultimately knows how we should live our lives. We have the inalienable right to live our lives in our own way, and to create our own way of existing.

In a mass formation, people deal with uncertainty by just accepting everything the group believes in. They all believe in the same dogmatic ideals, and in the same narratives that shouldn’t be questioned. This always leads to a radical intolerance of dissenting voices.

That is also typical of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is a kind of state system, a kind of ideology in which the fundamental uncertainty of life is unilaterally interpreted in a negative way as something that should be avoided. The totalitarian leaders will tell you what to do, with absolute certainty. They will give you a total explanation of life. They will impose their ideology in black and white, in such a way that there is no space for the population to make its own choices. 

That’s totalitarianism. It’s a desperate attempt to erase uncertainty from human existence, and to impose one shared certainty and a one-state certainty to every individual life. Everyone should behave in the same way. Everyone should dress in the same way. Everyone should live in the same type of housing, and so on. It is a system in which one answer is imposed on the population. There is one answer for all the fundamental questions in life.

Mr. Jekielek:

You were describing totalitarianism earlier, and I thought of the Nazi regime and of various communist regimes in the past. We’re not living in a totalitarian society today. But you’re saying that we are, somehow.

Mr. Desmet:

Of course, if we talk about totalitarianism, we always think about communism and Nazism as the first totalitarian systems that emerged in history, at the beginning of a 20th century. What you are dealing with now is not a communist or a fascist totalitarianism. It is the emergence of a technocratic totalitarianism and authoritarianism, which nobody feels is totalitarianism. 

In 1951, Hannah Arendt warned us that we had seen fascist totalitarianism, and communist totalitarianism, and then she said, “Very soon, we will witness the emergence of a new totalitarianism, which is not led by gang leaders like Stalin and Hitler, but by dull bureaucrats and technocrats.” And that’s what is about to happen right now.

Democratic rights are quickly disappearing now. Look at how a certain ideology is imposed on society, and how a certain ideologically colored narrative is fanatically believed in by certain part of the population, or at least that the population behaves as if the narrative is true. The population will accept our civil rights being suspended because of this narrative. 

We are heading for a new totalitarianism. To what extent this totalitarianism will succeed in destroying everyone who doesn’t want to go along with it will depend on the actions of those people who are not in the grip of this new totalitarianism and this new mass formation.

Actually, that’s why I wrote my book. Because if we really understand the psychological mechanisms at work, and if we make the right psychological analysis, we will also see very clearly what we should do, and what we shouldn’t do. We will understand what to do if we want to keep a certain small path open for people to walk, the people that refuse to go along with this new technocratic ideology that is now emerging.

Mr. Jekielek:

What is the role of mass media in this whole process?

Mr. Desmet:

The role of mass media is huge. In my book, I focused on mass formation itself. But I’m about to write a second book on indoctrination propaganda as it has emerged since the French Revolution. I talk about the emergence of the rationalist-fueled man, something I also call the mechanist-fueled man, who believes we can entirely understand the universe with our rational human mind.

This belief has had a huge impact on the population. It created the psychological conditions that made the population vulnerable to mass formation. That is clear. With the emergence of this rationalist-fueled man in the world, we’ve seen the slow increase of loneliness and disconnectedness in society, and the increase of the power of the masses.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let me comment here. I don’t want to push us in a different direction, but many people would have good arguments about the dramatically increased life expectancy in our current society. It gave people personal freedoms. There’s many great things that it created. We have the freest society in the history of the world. There’s a lot of people who celebrating its greatness. And frankly, with the pandemic, people were completely shocked at how quickly all the rights that people enjoyed could suddenly disappear with a snap of a finger.

Mr. Desmet:

Yes, I understand. Rationality is a good thing. And of course, it was fruitful to a certain extent.

Mr. Jekielek:

Yes.

Mr. Desmet:

But the point is, at a certain moment, we should also recognize the limits of rationality, and understand that it cannot be the basis and the cornerstone of humane living together. Only ethical principles, and only the principles of humanity can be the basis of a society in which people can live a life worthy of a human being. That’s my opinion.

You had this rationalist view of man and the world that created certain specific psychological conditions in society and in the population which made it more vulnerable for mass formation. At the same time, it also created a new elite which believed that it should no longer lead society based on truth speech, as the leaders of society had believed before French Revolution and the emergence of modern democracy. The new elite believes that society should be led based on indoctrination propaganda, and that’s extremely important to know.

Mr. Jekielek:

Let me qualify one thing. You just mentioned truth speech. You said that society had previously been led based on truth speech. Please explain what that means, exactly. And what is indoctrination propaganda?

Mr. Desmet:

Truth speech is difficult to define. The ancient Greeks distinguish between four kinds of truth speech. They distinguish between prophecy, something they called techne, something they called wisdom, and something they called parrhesia, which is like bold, courageous speech in a public space.

But truth speech always has to do with sharing what you really believe in with someone else. You could contrast that to rhetoric, in which you try to convince the other of something you really don’t believe in yourself. That’s also the case with indoctrination propaganda. Indoctrination propaganda is a kind of speech in which you try to convince the population of something that you ultimately don’t believe in yourself.

What is extremely interesting, if you read the work of the founding fathers of modern propaganda, people such as Littman, Trotter, and Bernays, then you clearly see that in the beginning of the 20th century these people had a feeling that our modern democratic system had stumbled upon a problem. 

And I agree with them, actually. They said, “Democratically elected politicians are not true leaders. They are followers.” They do not lead the masses like the ancient leaders did. They have to follow the masses. They must find out what the masses want, and then give them what they want. Because if they don’t give them what they want, they won’t be re-elected. So they said, “Wow, political leaders are actually followers.”

Bernays, for instance, expresses his belief in a very clear way. He said, “If we don’t want to fall prey to the irrationality and the destructive tendencies in the masses, we will have to mislead them. We will have to constantly manipulate them. Only a secret government that manipulates the masses from behind the screens can control the masses in such a way that we do not fall prey to their intrinsic irrationality, and their intrinsic destructive tendencies.”

Of course, what Bernays seems to have forgotten was that someone who tries to manipulate the masses and tries to lead the masses, usually falls prey to the masses. He, himself, was hypnotized by the masses. That was exactly what happened to Bernays. He started his propaganda with good intentions, but very soon you could see how he started to use his propaganda to topple over democratically elected governments, such as Venezuela. In the beginning, Bernays started from the belief that the manipulation of the masses was necessary. But after a while, he definitely used it for other purposes.

From the beginning of the 19th century onwards, Napoleon was the first one who established a propaganda unit. From the first World War onwards, we’ve seen the emergence of impressive propaganda machinery in the Western world, where the population was constantly manipulated without them knowing it. In the beginning of a 21st century, this propaganda apparatus has been developed to an extent that nobody could have expected.

Mr. Jekielek:

I find this incredibly troubling and difficult to deal with. One example that we are faced with would be the Russia-Ukraine War and trying to understand what is happening there. Because a key part of warfare is propaganda and the information warfare. There is incredible information warfare being waged by the West, by the U.S., by Ukraine, and by Russia. During all this, we’re trying to make sense out of what is actually happening on the ground. It’s very difficult.

Another thing is Dr. Fauci recently announced that he’s retiring by the end of the year. It appears that he was telling us certain things, because he wanted to elicit a particular behavioral response. So again, what you’re describing explains this mentality.

Mr. Desmet:

Yes. And in a certain way, the use of indoctrination in propaganda can be seen as the ultimate consequence, or the ultimate application of the rationalist ideology. First, scientists try to understand nature. They try to rationally understand it, and then they manipulate it. After a while, psychologists started to study the behavior of the masses. Psychologists such as Gustave Le Bon, wrote this wonderful book, “The Psychology of the Crowd.” People such as a Bernays, Littman, and Trotter followed his thought, and used this rational understanding of the masses to manipulate the masses.

Mr. Jekielek:

Are we going to be in these wars of propaganda and indoctrination forever? Most of us are just caught in the middle of it and are trying to understand what’s going on.

Mr. Desmet:

At a certain point, this entire system will collapse. At a certain point, it will lose its power. At a certain point, people who believe in truth speech, the opposite of indoctrination propaganda and the cornerstone of human existence, will become more powerful. That’s what I believe. In the end, propaganda will lose its power.

Mr. Jekielek:

Please explain why. That could be a subject for a whole other episode of American Thought Leaders. How do we help people escape mass formation? Everything you are saying suggests you have to push some other propaganda at a mass scale to shift the object of anxiety, which sounds like another terrible thing.

I just did an interview with Konstantin Kisin of the Trigonometry Broadcast. There was a famous speech from Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 on the cult of personality and its consequences. This was a so-called secret speech, and it was about all the terrible things that Stalin had done.

Essentially, it was a truth-telling. I don’t know if it was all completely true, but it was an attempt to tell the truth about the horrors that Stalin had committed. The impact of this was that the people who had been involved in the gulag and torturing people started committing suicide.

These people realized that all the terrible things they had been doing to their fellow countrymen were not justified. They realized that the guy who they had been doing it for was an evil murderer. Is this the way to escape mass formation? Is that what happened there?

Mr. Desmet:

In a mass formation, people are in the grip of a narrative, and a kind of propaganda and indoctrination, at least the mass formations of the last two centuries. The mass formations of ancient times were very often just physical masses of people, and were not masses who were in the grip of propaganda indoctrination.

Now, with the emergence of the mass media, the mass formation can last for a long time. Because people can be constantly re-infused by the same propaganda and the same narratives. That is what can keep them in a mass formation for a very long time. The contemporary masses, or so-called lonely masses, are masses which do not physically gather. They are masses in which all the individuals that constitute the mass are sitting in their homes, isolated from each other. But they are all injected with the same narratives, the same images, and the same myths. That constantly keeps them in the mass formation.

If you ask what you can do about mass formation, the remedy for mass formation is always the same. It is to speak out. We have to speak out. The people who are not in the grip of the mass formation must speak out. If we speak out, the mass formation will be constantly disturbed. That’s what I say time, and time, and time again. The most important thing is to speak out.

In a mass formation, everyone is in the grip of the voice of someone else, of the leaders, of the people who create the propaganda. If you want to disturb the mass formation, then you must speak out. That is where truth speech starts. Truth speech is this fourth type of truth speech, which the ancient Greeks called the parrhesia. It means a kind of bold, courageous speech practiced by individuals who refuse to go along with the narrative of the group, a narrative that is dominant in society. Rather, they follow their own feeling of what is sincere and honest, and they articulate the words that seems truthful words to them.

This is exactly the kind of truth speech that is the only remedy, and the only answer to mass formation. It will cause the mass affirmation to not become so deep that it arrives at the end stage. The end stage is when the masses start to commit atrocities towards the people who will not go along with them, as if it were their ethical duty to do so. That’s so typical for the end stage of mass formation. That can be prevented if the people who are not in a grip of the mass formation have the courage to speak out. They must live up to the first and foremost ethical duty every human being has, namely the duty to articulate your truth with words that are sincere and honest.

Mr. Jekielek:

So, tell the truth, as much as you can. Figure out, as best you can, what the truth is. Speak it boldly. You are giving new inspiration to truth-seeking journalists, as we speak. Any final thoughts, as we finish up?

Mr. Desmet:

Yes. We should not be too convinced that we are the only ones who know the truth about something. The truth has more to do with if you believe that something is true to the best of your own understanding, then you must articulate it. You also must be aware that maybe what you believe is not entirely true, or that maybe it could be wrong. But that doesn’t matter. If at a certain moment, to the best of your own understanding, if you believe that something is right, then you must articulate it, and you must have the courage to speak out in a public space.

You must do it in a quiet way, and not try to convince other people, because that usually doesn’t work. It’s very difficult to convince someone who is in the grip of a mass formation. And in general, it’s very difficult to convince other people. We shouldn’t try to do that. We should claim the inalienable right that every human being has to speak out, to say what they think, and to express their own opinions.

Mr. Jekielek:

Mattias Desmet, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show again.

Mr. Desmet:

Thank you, Jan. Thank you for inviting me. It was a pleasure to be here.

Mr. Jekielek:

Thank you all for joining Mattias Desmet and I on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.

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