#59: Why Really Big Conspiracies Cannot Exist

We all may believe somehow that there are some bigger forces pulling the strings of society. We all know that money matters in politics. We all know that powerful people somehow are connected with each other. We all know that strangely, if you ask the question “cui bono” or “who benefits,” you will always get some answer that confirms that something sinister has been going on all along. We all know that there are people who have more information than we, and that those who control information, control the world. We all know.

But we know also other things. We know that powerful people are only powerful because they rely on others to help them. We know that if you need big things to be done, you will rely on many people to work for you or help you. We also know that power does not last for long, that people – especially powerful people – are always in competition with each other, and that the slightest weakness shown will find someone else filling the gap. We know that people like to talk, even if they have been paid to be quiet. We know that some things eventually will get out.

The bigger the conspiracy, the more complicated it will be to make it work. Even small conspiracies regularly fail and are discovered, just because people are people. Why would it work on the large scale?

Is Coronavirus a real threat? Certainly so. Every country in the world has had to deal with it, every country has their own experts, their own agenda, their own politicians who would like to stay in office, their own people that they do not want to see dead or hurt, their own economy that they need to function – because it is in their interest for the world to function, and not for it not to function. Exceptions are terrorists that exist not in order to function but to create dysfunction. But a state, even one as mischievous as Communist China, seeks self-preservation.

Let’s take China as an example. My criticism is of the government and the governing ideology, not of the people of China, or of Chinese culture and values. Everytime I criticize a country I criticize the government. Covid-19 was first unleashed in China. Whether or not it was accidentally released by a lab is immaterial. What is important is that the Chinese government first lied about it, spread their lies to the WHO and any country that would listen, and impeded efforts to find out the truth, and still is. We still do not know the official number of Covid-related deaths in China, but it will be so many that the complete lockdown of Wuhan was deemed necessary. Now, Communist China is a country that has perfected the machinery for coercion, surveillance, even on an international scale. Yet they still were not able to contain information completely, eventually, and we will find out the rest. We know enough to know that whatever China did, whatever they tried to hide, equates probably that which allowed Chernobyl to happen. The Chinese government knows this and is very nervous about its future – and it should be. Once the incompetence and mendacity and outright cruelty of such a dictatorship is exposed for all to see, it will try to exert strength even more, but the mask of civility has cracked even more, and the truth will come out. The big conspiracy – to hide the truth – has failed where it matters most: that the fact that there was a conspiracy itself is now known.

Nazi Germany was not able to hide the Holocaust. The Soviet Union was not able to hide Chernobyl. Democracies aren’t even trying hard enough to hide whatever may need hiding. Surely, there are official secrets that will need to be protected. But that is different from a vast conspiracy of a magnitude that was hidden from public view.

The theory of the day is that Covid-19 is not really as bad as people think. Allegedly, the tests are wrong, infections are measured incorrectly, people who are dying do not do so allegedly because of Covid but with Covid also present. Nevertheless, we are shutting down societies due to some nefarious plans made by virologists, Bill Gates, and some world governments, again allegedly. The purpose, not sure. It holds no water. How would you coordinate thousands of scientists from different countries (some of which are direct competitors, even in trade wars or real wars with each other), which politician would deliberately crash their economy – which would endanger their reign and their power and their reelection, and what has Bill Gates done wrong at all (other than having released subpar versions of windows pre-XP (which was in 2001)? Because really, Vista was great overall, 7 was perfect, and 10 is not perfect, but almost there)?

Granted, there may be some conspiracies out there that could be hiding something real. That depends on how many UFO documentaries you have watched. But even in this case, some information has been released, and there the conspiracy seems to be not about what “they” know, but about the fact that “they,” in fact, do not know as much as people think “they” would know. Personally, that is even scarier to me…

But overall, the logistics it would take to pull off a grand conspiracy is mind-boggling. 300 years faked in the Middle Ages, as Heribert Illig alleges? Does not work. Germany not an independent country with no peace treaty? No, the 2+4 treaties eventually fixed the problem, and occupation has ended. “The Jews” have been secretly running the world? Constant pogroms, the Holocaust, anti-Israel propaganda and activism make that difficult to believe. The Lizard People are in control? You mean, the Silurians from Doctor Who? Q Anon? Q Who? Atlantis is real? Is the Stargate too?

My alien overlords are telling me that if I don’t shut up, Q will visit me from the Q continuum, and he will send me to Atlantis immediately with a snap of his finger, unless Captain Picard can intervene in time.

#58: Question Everything; But Also Yourself

It is important to not take everything for granted. The dangers of authoritarianism are always real, and simple answers to complex questions should never satisfy the curious mind. There is a reason dictatorships always want to limit free speech and even thinking itself, and any attempts at limiting free thought and free expression need to be countered.

The biggest advances in human thought and endeavors have been made by those who were willing to question the status, quo, to think outside the box, to deviate from dogma. The institutionalization of this questioning is called science. Sure, science has an orthodoxy, but it encourages questioning the very orthodoxy it allegedly protects. It is not perfect, but its methodology encourages and is built on curiosity. Still, sometimes it needs outside thinkers to make advances, and that has routinely happened.

The arts, as well, thrives on newness, on deviating from known patterns, on surprising new ways of interrogating human existence. Wherever the arts and the sciences are thriving, society will be healthy, and the very act of questioning everything that exists is welcome as a necessity.

If you question everything though, you also need to question yourself. There will be many situations in your life during which you may see yourself as the only one that knows the answer, or that there are only a very few that think like you, and that the majority of society is set against you. These moments can happen. I grew up in a brutal dictatorship, and I know how that feels. But you learn that oppression can be overcome, even if it takes forever. You also learn that, despite all the efforts of a dictatorship not to have you express yourself, you are not alone. Most people who live under an oppressive system know that, and they will find little ways of resisting and pretending to conform. Even in the worst of societies, be it Nazism, Communism, religious extremism, or any other totalitarian attempt to control the way you think and feel, even in those systems, you will know that even the oppressors know that this is wrong.

If you do not live in such a system, but you still believe that you do, this is a tough spot to be in. You will feel that everyone is against you. Your allies seem to be fewer than you think. Your friends and family will seemingly be against you. You are the only one to see the truth, and you see only a tiny proportion of society willing to share your point of view. You can still be right in your suspicions. But you will need to question yourself. Nobody is an expert in everything, and if you feel especially vulnerable, your judgement may not be leading you down the right path all the time.

Question yourself. Sometimes, you are headed in the right direction while everybody is heading the other way. That can surely happen. But there is also the possibility that everyone is heading in the right way, and you just took a wrong turn and are driving on the wrong lane against traffic. There is such a thing as paranoia, and to quote Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” but sometimes, our drive to question everything can make us become unable to trust that when almost everyone around you disagrees with you, you might not be the rebel, but you might actually be wrong. Recognizing that is the truly revolutionary act. We all can be wrong sometimes. Only the truly free thinkers can recognize that about themselves.

Only if we truly think freely, and truly question everything, will we be able to communicate nuances, problems that others are not recognizing or unwilling to discuss. Things are never black and white, they are always shades of grey. Just because one problem may dominate society does not mean that that problem does not need to be addressed in nuanced ways, neither have all other problems gone away. Staying in conversation with others means that your voice will get heard on the issues you care about. Setting yourself against everyone means that eventually, you will be ignored even when it matters the most. If you follow Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, it is not about questioning everything at all: it is about loving everything, and caring deeply enough to affect positive change.

It is important to not take everything for granted. The dangers of authoritarianism are always real, and simple answers to complex questions should never satisfy the curious mind. There is a reason dictatorships always want to limit free speech and even thinking itself, and any attempts at limiting free thought and free expression need to be countered.

The biggest advances in human thought and endeavors have been made by those who were willing to question the status, quo, to think outside the box, to deviate from dogma. The institutionalization of this questioning is called science. Sure, science has an orthodoxy, but it encourages questioning the very orthodoxy it allegedly protects. It is not perfect, but its methodology encourages and is built on curiosity. Still, sometimes it needs outside thinkers to make advances, and that has routinely happened.

The arts, as well, thrives on newness, on deviating from known patterns, on surprising new ways of interrogating human existence. Wherever the arts and the sciences are thriving, society will be healthy, and the very act of questioning everything that exists is welcome as a necessity.

If you question everything though, you also need to question yourself. There will be many situations in your life during which you may see yourself as the only one that knows the answer, or that there are only a very few that think like you, and that the majority of society is set against you. These moments can happen. I grew up in a brutal dictatorship, and I know how that feels. But you learn that oppression can be overcome, even if it takes forever. You also learn that, despite all the efforts of a dictatorship not to have you express yourself, you are not alone. Most people who live under an oppressive system know that, and they will find little ways of resisting and pretending to conform. Even in the worst of societies, be it Nazism, Communism, religious extremism, or any other totalitarian attempt to control the way you think and feel, even in those systems, you will know that even the oppressors know that this is wrong.

If you do not live in such a system, but you still believe that you do, this is a tough spot to be in. You will feel that everyone is against you. Your allies seem to be fewer than you think. Your friends and family will seemingly be against you. You are the only one to see the truth, and you see only a tiny proportion of society willing to share your point of view. You can still be right in your suspicions. But you will need to question yourself. Nobody is an expert in everything, and if you feel especially vulnerable, your judgement may not be leading you down the right path all the time.

Question yourself. Sometimes, you are headed in the right direction while everybody is heading the other way. That can surely happen. But there is also the possibility that everyone is heading in the right way, and you just took a wrong turn and are driving on the wrong lane against traffic. There is such a thing as paranoia, and to quote Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” but sometimes, our drive to question everything can make us become unable to trust that when almost everyone around you disagrees with you, you might not be the rebel, but you might actually be wrong. Recognizing that is the truly revolutionary act. We all can be wrong sometimes. Only the truly free thinkers can recognize that about themselves.

Only if we truly think freely, and truly question everything, will we be able to communicate nuances, problems that others are not recognizing or unwilling to discuss. Things are never black and white, they are always shades of grey. Just because one problem may dominate society does not mean that that problem does not need to be addressed in nuanced ways, neither have all other problems gone away. Staying in conversation with others means that your voice will get heard on the issues you care about. Setting yourself against everyone means that eventually, you will be ignored even when it matters the most. If you follow Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, it is not about questioning everything at all: it is about loving everything, and caring deeply enough to affect positive change.

#57: What Is Science?

We are living in a world where people expect easy answers, quick soundbites, witty tweets, and individualistic, even solipsistic and narcissistic approaches to the big questions of life. It is your feelings that matter, not those of most people; it is your thoughts, not those of others; it is your desires and needs, not those of others; and it is your world view that counts, not those of others. There is legitimacy in this, of course, as a corrective to totalitarian approaches to human existence, and to conformity, mass culture, and to the every overbearing and overeducated academic trying to lecture you about what to think and do.

But there are things in this world that are real, that are not bowing to our wishes, and that are not depending on anyone’s point of view. We may be able to interpret the world differently, but the world still exists. Reality is real. How do we know? It’s called evidence. It can be proven by different people from different backgrounds and perspectives, using different methodologies, all arriving at the same result. No matter how you look at the sun, you cannot deny that it is a gas giant powered by nuclear fusion, heavy enough to exert enough gravity to have all the planets and dwarf planets and comets and asteroids and whatnot perambulate around it in their respective orbits, Earth being one of them. We can measure the distance from us to the sun. We may measure it in miles or meters or astronomical units or light years or parsecs, but it is always the same distance. We may paint the sun with a smile and rays, but that’s just artistic license. We may believe we can appease the sun by praying to a Sun god, but the astronomical object does not care. No matter what we puny humans think, the sun exists with or without us. We can even send a probe up to the sun and receive data for as long as the probe is still functioning. It is not a figment of our imagination, not up to discussion whether it exists, we have evidence, it is there. Science is about evidence.

We know about the sun from our own visual observation, but that might be misleading. Our eyes and brain are well able to conspire against us, so that is not enough. We need a second opinion, maybe a third, or an nth. Science is about collaboration. No single scientist represents all of science. Single scientists can and do disagree regularly with the majority, and in some rare cases they have managed to change the outlook of science to the former minority view. But this “paradigm shift” is a rare event, and it is oftentimes misunderstood.

Einstein has not overturned Newton. The theory of relativity answers questions about typically big objects at insane speeds, all of that not applying to life on Earth, where Newton and Leibniz still rule. Quantum theory, conversely, looks at ridiculously small objects. In important ways, Relativity and Quantum mechanics have indeed modified Newton, but only by helping us realize that Newton’s mechanics are just a special case scenario, which is still nevertheless valid. Maybe one way to explain this is to use three tools for seeing. If I use a microscope, I see very small things very well. If I use a telescope, I see very big things very well. If I just use my in-built eyesight, I see my normal surroundings very well (with or without the aid of glasses). For each special case, we need a different tool, but that does not mean the world has changed; our understanding of it has grown and re-contextualized things, but if objects fell to Earth with an acceleration of g=9.81 m/s² (approximately), they will still do so once we know of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Relativity now may tell us if the object, rather than falling down, sped up to almost light speed, the object would experience time differently. This effect is measurable if you take two atomic clocks, one on the ground and one on a plane, or one on a plane going east, the other on the plane going west. The clocks will not be in sync after their travel. But that’s not quite everyday experience, and for most of us, Newton still stands as normal. If we all lived on spaceships traveling close to the speed of light, Newton would be the special case for a special circumstance, but still be valid there. Scientific revolutions typically do not turn over everything, but they expand our knowledge and methodologies in exciting ways.

If you use science to predict something, you need an experiment, which will lead to some conclusions that will help you advance your hypothesis. Conversely, you can also say how you could predict that your experiment could fail by laying out how you could falsify your thesis. Your hypothesis is that the Earth revolves around the sun. How could this stand up to falsification? By not standing up to the evidence. I am not a physicist (although I some time ago tried to be), so I will no pretend to know the answer, but I know that physics can tell us very clearly how we know that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way round.

Finally, science is not a cult of the initiated. As pointed out by the great Neil DeGrasse Tyson, anybody can learn it. It is not an elitist institution. You can learn math, you can learn physics, geography, astronomy, and figure it our yourself. There is no secret scientific cabal, there is just a group of people doing science together, making sure to find out how to agree and disagree with each other in order to move scientific knowledge further.

If there was a new disease striking our planet, scientists would be working hard to figure out what it is, how to deal with it, and how to stop it from harming us all. They would be doing this as a community of people that will always try to falsify their work, to disagree with colleagues – respectfully – and agree eventually and form a consensus opinion once the evidence is overwhelming, hypotheses have been proven and a theory – which is the general consensus assumption of how a specific thing works – can be formed.

It is true that there can be hundreds of scientists on one side, and a single scientist on the other, and the lone truth seeker wins the argument. Ironically, scientists would be happy about such an occurrence, as frequently pointed out by Richard Dawkins, because it would advance knowledge and science. There is no “alternative” science, there is no “outlaw” science, there is just science.

Scientific knowledge is not fixed. The basics will stand, probably, but at the margins, where there are new puzzles, new information, new discoveries, things are always in flux. Asking a scientist why they changed their mind would be like asking a driver why – rather than keep driving straight – they followed the road when it turned into a curve. You follow the evidence, develop your hypotheses, either prove or falsify them, reevaluate your hypotheses and theories, and move on till it works, and it does work: E pur si muove.

#56: Disentangling Race and Ethnicity

Human beings are tribal. As described poignantly by Aristotle, we are animals that form political units, societies, towns, or in the Greek understanding, poleis. We are political animals in the sense that we are animals creating political structures – polis is the political aspect of the city, not the physical one (which would be (ástu). When forming societies, we are groupish, we connect with those we think of as related. This is primarily family first, typically extended family. All human societies do that. Family is primal, and relatives are central to original societies.

This is where Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society is dead wrong. He seriously misunderstood indigenous societies, and falsely understood them as relics of the past rather than living, modern societies. He underestimated the importance of family and relatedness, what Vine Deloria jr. calls an indigenous “theory of relativity.” If the foundation is wrong, then what follows is flawed as well, specifically Rousseauvian fantasies about “primitive peoples” and Friedrich Engels’s ideas about the origin of family and private property. Both authors can, of course, be forgiven, as they wrote in the 19th century and based their conclusions on much less data than available now. But in the meantime, we have been able to understand that family is not an epiphenomenon, but rather the original basis for all societies (see Jared Diamond’s Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs and Steel, and Charles C. Mann’s 1491 for more up-to-date and very readable descriptions of early societies as well as of indigenous civilizations).

The centrality of relatives, and thus of genetics, is contained in original conceptions of human societies. The idea of descendancy can be found in traditional stories from most if not all cultures. Groups are formed around cores of similarity, of belonging, whether truly genetic or through association. This is where our idea of ethnicity comes from.

Ethnicity is the concept that a group of people is more similar to each other by being in clear relation to each other mainly genetically. Just as a tribe is typically an extended family, an ethnic group is the assumedly supersized version of that. But “genetically” here – and this is where it becomes more complicated – is not really meant only biologically, but more in the sense of “being related to each other.” Typically, it is a combined package of having lived in a shared homeland (thus somehow a notion of autochthonous or even indigenous existence), speaking a language that directly originates from its related historical antecedents, having the same religion or a version thereof, having a shared historical experience, and demonstrating close cultural similarity in practices, values, beliefs, etc. Importantly also, ethnicities also demarcate territories against other rival ethnicities.

So much in theory. Now, if you applied a wide angle on Europe, most Europeans could be understood as related to the Germani. Germanic tribes conquered and succeeded Western Rome and founded the early states that would grow into the nation states we know today. Italy was conquered by the Ostrogoths and Langobards, Gaul by the Franks, England by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, and later also by the Danes and Normans, Spain by the Visigoths, Suebi (and the Iranian Alans), and Vandals (alas “[V]andalusia”) North Africa by Vandals (see Peter Heather’s books, especially The Fall of the Roman Empire and Empires and Barbarians). Charlemagne was clearly a Frank, meaning a German, and functions as the founder of both France and the Holy (Roman) (German) Empire.

(But if you ran around Europe today, especially after two brutal German-led World Wars, calling the Spanish, French, British, Italians and Americans (via immigration) all versions of Germans, you would get into trouble, especially with the “British” Royal family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha- Battenberg/Mountbatton, or more obscurely, Windsor – a family that has taken great pains to not be seen as German.)

Ethnicity may finally be a cultural construction, but it is constructed specifically on the idea of lineage and descendancy, specifically as regards a combination of rough family resemblance, territorial continuity, shared linguistic and cultural roots and practices.

This is what eventually led to the concept of the nation, as described by Benedict Anderson as an Imagined Community, namely that “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of a nation, which is conceived of as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history” (p. 26).

Thus you are typically seen as a German if your ancestors lived in Germany, you speak German, and occasionally participate in German-specific cultural practices. Recent or current immigrants and their descendants sadly oftentimes still experience a lack of belonging and identification as truly German by the majority because of this understanding of ethnicity (and nationality), but it is my belief that this will slowly fade as it has faded with all other immigrants in the past, like the Huguenots and the many Germans of originally Slavonic backgrounds.

“Ethnos” is typically translated as “natio” – and ethnicity and nationality are frequently seen as similar, but they are not the same. Ethnicity, contrary to the nation state, has no defined boundaries on the map, may predate, survive, or even transcend the nation state. There have been Germans before there ever was a Germany (1871), there have been Kurds without ever having a nation state (unless you count Saladin’s realm as Kurdish), and there are many Americans which – in addition to their American citizenship – claim a specific ethnic identity in addition to their American-ness.

There is thus a sense that while ethnicity surely is also culturally constructed, it is more primal than more political notions of nationality.

So what about race? As noted before, race does not exist as a meaningful biological category, or a category of genetic descent – it is mostly if not merely cultural. As I phrased it, race is not real, but racism is: Other than ethnicity (which is self-identified), racial identity in the sense it is used in America is ascribed by the outside. “Race” is something attributed primarily to you, not by yourself. You may choose eventually to buy into the racialist way of thinking, but that may happen more as an act of resigned acceptance of the way things are, rather than the way things should or could be.

“Race,” in the current understanding, is an outcome of two historical developments. First, the colonization of America and other areas of the world happened by selfishly and wrongly justifying that the original inhabitants were of inferior character and thus could not own the land, and the doctrine of discovery was presumed to grant Europeans the right to earn the land. “Race” thus has a colonizing function. Second, the early modern slave trade, conducted by Arab, African and European slavers, was tied into the colonization framework and transported African slaves to the Americas, with the justification that they were “racially” different or inferior. This also changed the nature of slavery, and created an inter-generational race-based system of discrimination with no or hardly any possibility for manumission. Religion was abused sometimes to justify these deeds, but it only found excuses for a merely practical business deal. “Race” was invented as a convenient tool to pretend-explain the exploitation of (1) whoever needed to be exploited and (2) who would not in principle be easily integrated into White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture.

As shown by Theodore Allen in The Invention of the White Race, and by David Hollinger in Postethnic America, the idea of race also bore out the idea of whiteness. Basically, whoever was not seen as fit to be fully American (on the entire continent) was considered non-white. Race has never been just about skin color, but about a combination of national origin, ethnicity, religion, skin color, other physical features, culture, and sometimes class. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and German immigrants were – at various times – not considered “white.”

This betrays the idea of “whiteness” as an ideological position, just as the idea of “nonwhite.” It’s the old grammatical distinction between “unmarked” (neutral, white) and “marked” (different, non-white). The Spanish “casta” system goes into more detail (and establishes an intricate race- and descendancy-based caste system) which may have some relevance in the United States as well, although not overtly. “White” skin is not white, it is piglet pink, and “black” skin is not black, but a shade of brown. American Indian / Native American populations are not “red” either, neither are Asians “yellow” (but Buddhist robes are; which may have been the inspiration). This shows race as a merely ideological disposition, and it may also point to the practice of elites in Renaissance times powdering their faces white, and wearing white wigs, that may have given the inspiration for the color “white” in the first place.

One euphemism for “white” is “Caucasian,” which typically describes populations within the ancient Indo-European ethnic group, speaking Indo-European languages. But Indo-European speakers from Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are typically not recognized as Caucasian. Here is where ethnicity and “race” are in direct conflict: All European populations (with the exception of Basques and Saami) – this includes Germanic-, Romance-, Slavic-, Romani-, Greek-, Baltic-, Celtic- and related speakers – are related, genetically, culturally and linguistically, with populations in the Asian countries mentioned above, and some more. Do they all count as white?

“Race” makes no sense, other than to describe it as a category of exploitation; as I have said, “race” is not real, but racism is.

Ethnicity may be complex, can also be shifting, can be transferred, can be genetic and cultural, or both, and is not easy to grasp sometimes either, but it can easily be mixed – dual- or multi-ethnic affiliations are possible (just as I, myself, would now identify with East German, American, and some other origins as well). It may not be perfect, but it is certainly real, and maps with the living experience of cultures all over the world, past or present, and certainly, future.

Maybe “race” can be transformed, eventually, into an ethnicity, which could reframe it from a term of horrible discrimination to a term of pride. In some ways, this seems to be happening. It certainly would help if we could finally stop using terminology typically associated with Nazis and slavers.

–««»»–

Now comes the point where I can use the title of this web log as a deus ex machina: This was an “erratic attempt”, and it does not have to tell the whole story. I am aware that this could become much more complicated, but it’s a blog, not a book. More to come if needed. Let me know if you want me to touch on a specific topic or aspect via e-mail.

#55: It’s The Uncertainty That Makes Us Worry

Endless nightmares. An obsessive news intake. Stocking up on masks, cleaning materials, emergency groceries, wipes, toilet paper, paper towels, whatnot. Do I have a mask? Have I forgotten it? Dreaming of forgetting a mask? Agitatedly yelling at the news?

These are not normal times. I personally grew up in East Germany; shortage of goods in “super”markets was normal, politicians all lied, freedom was a fiction. But East Germany is over. In the West, supermarkets are supposed to be fully stocked, politicians may be hyperbolic but their truth can be checked, and freedom is the goal of society.

No wonder we are feeling weird, especially in the West. Our social contract, especially our consumer-society contract, is in question. Will we see shortages? Will we see unrest? Will we have enough protection? Will we ever be back to normal?

Suggestion: Youtube has a selection of videos of cats purring. Or whatever gets you in the mood to relax.

There is every reason to feel weird nowadays. Accept it. We are all in it, to different degrees, but basically, we are. Let’s use this time to appreciate what still does give us stability. Hold on tight, but at a distance, and wear your mask.

This too shall pass.

#54: The Dictator as False Messiah: A Belated Review of Game Of Thrones Season 8

I.

This is very belated, spoiler-filled review.

The reaction to the conclusion of season 8 of Game of Thrones has typically not been kind. In a nutshell, it runs like this: “All the buildup. All the pathos. All the scheming. And it ends like this. Why?”

That’s basically the criticism. Well, you can see it that way. You could also ask, well, let’s just accept this is what’s happening, and ask what it is meant to accomplish and say. Rather than to allow the frustration over the disappointment of one’s own expectations to govern one’s opinion about the show (i.e. How does that make us feel?), we might instead learn something from the experience (i.e. What might that possibly mean?).

We accept audience frustration in the short run – which drives the popularity for basically anything done by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, Interstellar, Tenet), the current master of surprise turns of narrative once M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village) lost favor. The gimmick of the unreliable narrative and of surprise turns of events seems to work well with audiences if it comes in the form of a movie-length experience. But if it comes in the final run of a 8-year television series, audiences that have fallen for the trick seem to be frustrated. The same happened with Lost and its absolutely brilliant (and apparently equally not understood) ending. Maybe there’s a lesson here. Limit surprise twists to movie or even television season size (like Dr. Who under Steven Moffat – but even he suffered from frustrated audiences).

Or, in short, people who loved Game of Thrones so much that they named their daughters Daenerys or Khaleesi probably were put off a bit by the ending, one would hope.

The spoiler for this review is as follows: It Makes Perfect Sense. In fact, the entire series can be read as a playbook that lets us understand how people fall for a genocidal dictator, how they end up supporting a violent revolution that in fact runs counter to their interest, and how nothing good can ever come out of supporting someone pretending to be a messiah that will solve all your problems.

II.

Daenerys “Danny” Targaryen sees herself as a liberator. She has been abused, she had to fight for survival, she rose to the top, became Khaleesi (basically, a female Khan), she is a sympathetic character overall, but she has always had a cruel streak. She brutally kills her brother (Season 1). She locks Xaro and Doreah in his own vault in Qarth to die (Season 2). She kills the slavers of Astapor (Season 3) and has the slavers of Mereen crucified (Season 4). She feeds a Daenerys a Meereen nobleman to her dragons (Season 5). She kills the Khals that threatened to abuse her (Season 6, and yes, that was sadly very satisfying). She kills the Randyll Tarly and his son (Season 7). She kills Varys (Season 8, now we’re finally suspicious). At every point, these are all signs for what’s to come.

Just because some of her victims are bad people, it is telling that Daenerys’ default answer is cruelty. The audience typically likes it because the show is pulling a Hannibal Lector – audiences tend to identify with the protagonist, especially if they are good lucking, charming, played by a great actor, or can claim to fight for the greater good. Her fight is not for justice, it is for revenge. She clearly delights in the violence, it is visible. Every season shows us a reminder of her character. She may have been a victim in the past, but she has become a perpetrator of violence and cruelty. And like every cruel person in history, she has willing accomplices unable or unwilling to stop her.

III.

Tyrion as Daenerys’ advisor basically plays the role many philosophers have played when trying to appease a brutal tyrant. As Plato fails Dion of Syracuse, Socrates with the Thirty Tyrants, Aristotle with Alexander, Cicero with Augustus, Machiavelli with Cesare Borgia, Thomas More with Henry VIII., Voltaire with Frederick II, Robespierre with the terror he himself helped unleash, Trotzky (no innocent either) with Stalin, and, arguably, Heidegger with Hitler, and Oliver Stone with Castro and Putin, the philosopher/artist typically cannot keep the brutal tyrant from being a brutal tyrant. They may delude themselves into blunting the blow, into convincing the inconvincible, into preventing the worst. In the end, they never do. In the end, they may soil their reputation by getting too close to power, and by enabling the tyrant and providing legitimacy to a reign of terror that they should have seen coming. Cicero and Thomas More finally stood up against tyranny and paid the price. Heidegger is still read, but with well-deserved disgust. The Faustian bargain hardly ever pays off.

On Game of Thrones, Tyrion’s fate – as likeable as he might be – should be much harsher. He should have seen what was happening, but he himself has gotten himself deeper into the dark shadows of questionable morality. When escaping King’s Landing, there was no need to kill his father Tywin, who is quite incapacitated at the moment, as he is sitting in his bathroom. Tywin may have been a bad father, but killing him – as emotionally pleasing this may have been for Tyrion – was unnecessary, and it led to the downfall of the city eventually. Always the ultimate narcissist, Tyrion shows his lack of morality. The years of being humiliated by his family finally lead him to his breaking point – or do they finally reveal his true, evil character? In order to seek personal vindication, he ushers in the destruction of the city that never loved him. Naturally, he will partner up with the other murderer in the show. Tyrion, too late, realizes he has been playing the Goebbels to Daenarys’ Hitler.

And Jon Snow, he indeed knows nothing. He is the idiotic Siegfried character, duped by Burgundians (by political power), having abandoned his Brünnhild (Ygritte), lusting after Gutrune / Kriemhild / Daenerys, manipulated somehow by Hagen (now there’s a reason for Tyrion as a dwarf!). Enough Wagner, but it’s certainly fun to cross-read these texts. Jon is hopelessly in love, being seduced by Daenerys, and once he realizes the difference between right and wrong, it is rather late. In his very original defense, he indeed did die, and was raised from the dead, so he might just as well be dead inside.

IV.

In all of their defense, if such a defense should be justified, this is the story of a world gone mad. It is not easy to maintain your morality under such circumstances. But this is precisely when it counts. Morality in good times is meaningless if it is not challenged. Morality shows up when it matters most, when you have to decide in favor not of your own selfish survival or comfort, but in support of the greater good. It matters whether you give in to the seduction of a violent quick fix, or whether you seek the path that is complicated, painful, laborious, and time-intensive. Put differently, do you save yourself, or do you save your soul?

Difficult times are no excuse. This is not about surviving a concentration camp, or some other liminal experience, this is about the point where you choose to become a perpetrator to avoid being a victim. You may not have a choice when you are ordered to shoot somebody. But you can always aim to miss. Historical evidence shows that most soldiers in battles actually do everything that keeps them from killing. Ironically, Star Wars was right all along: Most stormtroopers fail to hit their target, and it may just be deliberately. Human beings tend to know what is right and what is wrong.

There has to be a caveat here: We ourselves cannot know how we would act in these circumstances. For good reason, we are talking about exceptional situations. It should not be ours to judge too facetiously, lest we be judged also. We all make mistakes, we are all fallible, we are all human. What I am talking about here are deliberate and coherent patterns of cruelty, displayed by the protagonists of a keystone television show. This is not about characters under momentary duress, this is about characters deliberately and knowingly committing or condoning violence. It’s the difference between self-defense and murder.

V.

The show has always been a historical allegory, initially seemingly about the Fall of Rome, but additionally now about World War II.

The gravity of history is unforgiving. Tragedy is when characters end up doing the wrong thing despite having tried everything to avoid doing it. No matter how much they may have wanted to change, they cannot change their nature. Jamie Lannister realizes this. Daenerys Targaryen realizes this. They give in, because that was always their destiny.

Daenerys has always been violent, but not just violent, but outright cruel, sadistic, indulgent in violence, almost a mirror image of Ramsay Bolton. We were warned time and again. She has always been nothing but a combined version of Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, all in one package. She is all dictators. She is all deluded violent revolutionaries. What brilliance to make her into an attractive young girl to allow the audience to fall for her. She has taken all the tragedy of her life and turned it not to wisdom, kindness or compassion, but into a weapon. Once she has the chance to release it, she does.

Like Ahab, she is mad in her pursuit to break the wheel. The wheel of history cannot be broken. This has always been the truth of the show. It had to be revealed eventually, and shockingly, and the audience had to be punished for believing otherwise.

The business of dictators is seduction, and Daenerys has certainly seduced us into (false) hope, just as the show and its producers have seduced us, almost soma-laden, into believing that the wheel of history can be broken, that violent and unprincipled psychopaths shalt lead the way to the revolution, and that everything will be all right.

No, it won’t. It never will be.

#53: What Is “Left”? A Very Erratic Attempt

Marx famously called for “a ruthless criticism of everything existing” (Marx to Ruge, 1843), in the Original:

“Ist die Construction der Zukunft und das fertig werden für alle Zeiten nicht unsere Sache; so ist desto gewisser, was wir gegenwärtig zu vollbringen haben, ich meine die rücksichtslose Kritik alles Bestehenden, rücksichtslos sowohl in dem Sinne, dass die Kritik sich nicht vor ihren Resultaten fürchtet und eben so wenig vor dem Conflikte mit den vorhandenen Mächten.”

and in English:

“If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”

There’s a reason it’s called the “left” – la sinistra, in Italian – the sinister side, not the “right” side, not the straight and narrow, but the other, the alternative, the deviant, creative, non-conforming, erratic, always critical, always critical of criticism, always irreverent part. Insults, hyperbole, aggressive argument (but no physical violence), joie de vivre, endless nights of spirited, no-holds-barred discussion, possibly lubricated with alcohol, THAT is what the left has always been. The chaos out of which a deconstructed order can grow. The cry of the wounded animal seeking healing.

This ruthlessness is an act of respect towards the other disputant. You treat the other person as the idealized version of themselves. You do not give false deference to somebody, you assume they can take it, not that they are weak (does that sound too Klingon? Marx would have loved Klingon blood wine and drink…)

No terms are agreed upon, nothing stands still, thinking never stands still, thinking always has multiple dimensions. There shalt be no orthodoxy. There shalt be no conformity. No collective. No agreement. No safe spaces intellectually, only physically.

Leftism is venal, is concrete, is bacchanalian, both generative and degenerate, both intellectually creative and destructive, but it is not crass – crass is crassism for its own sake. There is always a point to leftism: The destruction of dogma, the liberation of the individual mind, a ruthless and voracious education, and the utopian dedication to shaping a better future made up of a bunch of probably drunk belligerent intellectuals who like to lecture the “little people” on how best to join them, or at least to listen to them. But ideally, the more, the merrier.

Nobody excluded, no dogma, no thoughts forbidden, nothing too inconvenient, everything outright offensive, all language allowed, especially sarcasm, irony, fun, play, and deviance.

This is how the left as an intellectual movement can thrive.

But, sadly, there will always come a point where the creative, destructive, demonic, dialectic energy is contained, harmonized, dogmaticized, in order to bring the troops in line. Manifestos are written, party ideologues take over, discussion is streamlined, the nonconformists swapped out for the conformists, and the character of the “Left” disappears.

The happy catholic spectacle of radical theology (for what else is theology than unhinged philosophy?) turns into the frown-faced and dour eliminationist puritanism that will never tolerate an inconvenient thought. Whatever this new censorious regime of right and wrong, new left and alt-right, of good and evil may be, it certainly should not be called “left,” and it is heading nowhere good.

Personally, I don’t much care for too much causticity in dialog, and Marx’ personality certainly was not very, well, conciliatory. Neither is the talking down to the “little people” helpful. We need to be respectful of each other, and be inclusive of everyone. But respect does not survive well in a puritan thought-control environment either. There needs to be a middle way.

#52: Crisis Fatigue

It is easy to get overwhelmed these times. For too long, “normal” has not existed, and if so, only as a “new normal.” This seems too much to handle at times, and it’s perfectly understandable.

We seem to be not very good at handling a crisis that endures for longer than a few weeks. The news cycle gets tired almost as quickly as we do – we tend to not hear about certain things any more as we adjust to a changed reality. Are there still fires in California? Yes. Is Coronavirus still wreaking havoc? Yes. Is the crisis in Syria still ongoing? Yes. Is the war in the Congo still ongoing? Yes. Is x still happening? Most likely, yes. Is it still on the news? Most likely not, unless something drastic has changed.

We adjust to things, but we are fatigued by it as well. That may work as a coping mechanism on the surface, but deep down, we kinda know. We keep it at bay by keeping it out of our daily concern. But that may mean we are letting our guard down.

The Coronavirus crisis could just as well be over if we all distanced, wore masks, practiced hygiene, stayed at home as much as possible, but adhered to all health guidance – mandated or just recommended – if we did go out to support the economy. Why is that so difficult? We are tired of it, for sure. But is that really a good excuse?

#51: The Politics of Division Cannot Work

Democracy means that every single citizen can participate in politics. This means voting, running for office, serving in office, contributing and shaping the political discourse, and educating each other about the needs of our various communities, stakeholders, interest groups, and about the world around us. This is a collaborative enterprise, it needs all of us, no exceptions. Democracy is not the democracy of a few, but of all those who – as citizens – constitute the sovereign of the country as it moves throughout time.

If all voices matter, this means that all voices should be considered in decision-making. This is the principle of every single democratic nation on the planet. The exact mechanism about how to go about that may differ from country to country, but the principle is still the same. As human beings are not perfect, we need rules and regulations that help us negotiate between our different and divergent interests.

People’s interests diverge because people’s lives are not the same. We are all different, thank heavens – and our diversity is a strength. This pertains not just to diversity of different socially constructed groups, but especially to a diversity of opinion. Depending on where we live, what our histories are, how and where we grew up, whether we have children or not, what kind of work we do, what our communities are, etc., we all have different perspectives, interests and needs that are legitimate from our own perspectives. We all want to be recognized for that, and for our individual perspectives to count and to matter in society at large.

That does not mean that all our wills be done, or even should be done. This is not how it works. Democracy means constant compromise, constant negotiation, constant attention to everybody’s needs. For that to happen, we need to respect each other’s interests, each other’s perspectives and interests. If we lose that respect, if we keep fostering division, if we respect and heed only the special interests of a select few, we all will lose, no matter how legitimate those interests may seem to some.

The Romans knew how to conquer an enemy: “divide et impera” – divide and conquer. Only united will we keep our democracy.

#50: The Value of the Musical Long Form

Music in the long form is seriously undervalued nowadays. Especially classical music – typical, but not exclusive domain of the long form – is distorted in public perception into something that is pleasing, calming, soothing, relaxing, inconsequential. Inoffensive snippets and soundbites of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach (and maybe a few others) are what most people get to identify with classical music.

This is caused by the victory of the “song” model of music, where music only exists as a roughly 2-5 minute snippet of melody, typically with voice, and ideally without any difficult melodic development, maybe in an A-B-A form. There is of course value to such music; but it should not be all there is.

Even genres like pop, rock, country, hip hop/rap, R&B etc. have suffered from this. Contrast albums (and their songs) from the 1960s through the early 2000s with what you typically get today. A song like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” – which did launch the music video business for real – could probably not find (and sustain) an audience today. Concept albums like Eminem’s second and third albums (The Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show) or Fluke’s Risotto and Puppy, or Moloko’s Statues (or even better, Live at Brixton) or Klaus Schulze’s Dig It need to be seen as coherent pieces of work, not just composed of single songs. The iTunes-i-fication has seriously endangered albums, the long form, and our attention span.

Music needs the long form. It needs the symphony, the music drama, the complete concept album. It needs pieces longer than 5 minutes, needs listeners able and willing to sit through a work of more than 30 minutes in concentration, without interruption, and let it work on them, in all their ambiguity, ups and downs, nuances, contradictions.

If you cannot have this, cannot have a serious interrogation of musical material, and the resulting emotional drama, there cannot be true catharsis. Maybe that’s what we are missing today.