#26: Coronavirus is a Thief

The Coronavirus is a thief. It is stealing our time, our lives, our present, and attaching an unnerving question mark unto our future.

Wherever you stand on the question of lockdown or not, or on how to live with the virus, we all share the same predicament, even if to different degrees.

This is what stands behind the criticism of the lockdown as well: The fear that our life, even if we save it as bare life, will lack the meaning and the promise it had before the virus arrived. Whatever time we lost, at school, at work, with friends and relatives, cannot be recovered. If you missed falling in love because you did not get to meet that special someone, that will remain missed. Precious moments have already been lost, precious opportunities disappeared, many people’s lives’ work destroyed. Most crucially, thousands of lives have been lost, and are still being lost.

We have learned to hope that life is different now in modern, even post-modern times (whatever that means). We have adjusted, at least in the more affluent countries, to a safety and predictability of life that was – and in many cases still is – the domain only of the most privileged.

Now we are learning, or rather re-learning, the old truth: That the veneer of civilization is very thin. Nature is always stronger. Life (and death) are not abstractions, but concreteness. Loss is permanent, and everywhere.

We need to re-learn to process loss. We also need to rediscover what really provides meaning in life.

#25: Legitimate and Illegitimate Arguments Regarding the Coronavirus Shutdown

1. My financial situation / my business / my employees / my family / my sanity / my health is suffering. I need and want to work.

Short Response: Legitimate.

Longer Response: We are citizens, not subjects, and our concerns are legitimate. As long as you and your workplace follow official medical guidance, this should be made possible.

2. I will still support all possible hygienic and distancing measures, as medically required to curb the infection.

Short Response: Legitimate.

Longer Response: The virus is real, the dead are real, and the better we fight it, the better we avoid more health problems and more economic damage. Public health and economy are interrelated. If we feel safe, we will agree to participate in the economy. If we feel unsafe, we will not agree to it – we may be forced to, but that undermines both public safety and trust.

3. I can work from home, and I should be able to continue to do so.

Short Response: Probably Legitimate.

Longer Response: We have a chance here to revisit outdated models of demonstrating physical presence when working. Remote work, if possible and desired by the employee, saves on commuting costs, time, and can increase safety. We should use that opportunity as it presents itself.

4. Be cautious about indoors, but let people be outside. Open the parks, and let people sit outside at restaurants.

Short Response: Probably Legitimate.

Longer Response: This agrees with the science. However, maintain distances, beware of slipstreams, and ideally, also wear a mask outdoors. Definitely wear a mask indoors. Also be careful about central air systems.

5. I am afraid. If other people want out, let them. But let me stay home.

Short Response: Probably Legitimate.

Longer Response: This is still a largely unknown virus, with no good medication to ameliorate symptoms, high contagiousness, and a possible second wave coming. Caution is legitimate, and no one can deny your feelings. But please don’t panic, we will solve this. It is serious, but it is not the Black Death.

6. Let’s all stay home.

Short Response: Probably Illegitimate.

Longer Response: Unless everyone has a perfect home, all the food and supplies and energy needed, a perfect family situation, no other health issues, all the money they need, etc., someone will have to be out there. Not all jobs can’t be done remotely.

7. I have only responsibility for myself. You cannot tell me what to do.

Short Response: Illegitimate.

Longer Response: The golden rule is a cornerstone to all human societies for a good reason. We cannot live in complete isolation, we always depend on others, so we need to act accordingly. Surely, hygienic measures have to be democratically legitimized, and have to make scientific sense, and you can demand that. But if they are, you should follow them.

8. I cannot spread the virus, as I do not feel sick.

Short Response: Probably Illegitimate.

Longer Response: You cannot be certain of that. It has been proven that you can spread the disease while not (yet) showing symptoms.

9. I am not part of the risk group. I want to live as I used to, no matter the consequences.

Short Response: Probably Illegitimate.

Longer Response: This virus has still unknown consequences even for those who survive it. Better be safe.

10. Scientists and politicians said something else before. How can we trust their judgement now?

Short Response: Illegitimate.

Longer Response: When available information and available resources change, suggested solutions have to change as well. This is normal.

11. I do not like the current government, so I am against everything they do.

Short Response: Illegitimate.

Longer Response: People can legitimately argue which government they like or not. But elections matter, and disagreements are normal.

12. There is a conspiracy. There is no Coronavirus / Bill Gates did it / Q knows / Reptiles / Aliens / Nazis / Communists / Foreigners / Old People / Globalists / Nationalists / Jews / Elites / Businesses / x Needs to be Blamed.

Short Response: Probably Illegitimate

Longer Response: This stands so much against established opinion that the burden of proof is on you. We know the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China (which does NOT legitimate xenophobic attacks against people of Chinese origin). We can legitimately complain and blame governments and organizations that have been and continue to be complicit in misinformation about the virus, and this needs to be cleared up. There is no reason to discriminate against groups of people unconnected to these decisionmakers. Pursuing outlandish theories is not helpful, and displays of xenophobia, racism and antisemitism are intolerable.

We all realize this is an untenable situation, but if the governments in competing or even enemy countries all react similarly to this, does this not show that the virus is serious? Does not the imperfect reaction to the virus shown by EVERY SINGLE COUNTRY in the world (maybe except Taiwan) demonstrate that there cannot be a conspiracy?

Be reasonable, and we will listen to you. Pursue unreasonable theories, and we will not take you seriously. Quid pro quo.

#24: Conspiracy Thinking is Not Critical Thinking

This seems to be the age of conspiracy theories. What is a conspiracy theory? It is the belief that specific, if not all, major problems in the world are caused by a conspiracy of powerful people that secretly pull the strings behind your back. A select few have allegedly seen through this scheme, and are now desperately trying to enlighten the world about the truth they have just uncovered. It is, if you want to say it in post-modern terms, the grand narrative of all grand narratives. The one tale to explain it all.

If you listen to people believing such theories, they will all tell you that they are critical thinkers, thinking for themselves, researching the truth, for themselves, coming to uncomfortable conclusions that set them up against the rest of the world that is still falling prey to the conspirators.

On a certain level, this does seem like a familiar description of critical thinking. Has not every revolutionary been someone who has stood up against the world, against established opinion? Is not the basis of all social criticism the assumption that, to quote Marx in his 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, while philosophers have explained the world, the point is to change it? Does he not call for a ruthless criticism of everything existing, as in his letter to Ruge? Does not Kant call to dare to think on your own – Sapere aude? Are there not enough calls in philosophy, media criticism, and activism to question the order of things?

The key aspect of criticism here, though, is that criticism never ends, it never stands still, it never stops. It is not a tool to unveil some big conspiracy, to find the big answers for all or at least for major problems – it is an ongoing practice, a state of mind, something that should be immanent, meaning embedded into our ways of thinking, and into our structures. This is the definition of science, where every step may lead somewhere new, but never somewhere finite. There is always something new around the corner if you keep looking.

This is what makes true criticism, true science, so frustrating for many if not most people, apparently. In order to live, we seek stability, but in order to advance, we need change. If scientific answers keep changing depending on new data and new theoretic insights, that leaves many people displeased, especially if the expectation towards science is that it provides answers, that it provides closure. A scientific answer is always temporary.

What is even more frustrating, even religion does not provide closure here. That may seem to be a perplexing statement. Is not religion about finite answers, about eternal truths, about stability in your life? Not quite. Yes, religion talks about eternal truths – but they are only available for eternals themselves. The key definition of the divine is that it is not accessible to us mortals. God (or divinity) is that which is always greater than our understanding; greater even than our possible understanding. This is not an “god of the gaps” argument, it is the one consistent definition of the divine throughout all religious schools of thought. God is the sublime which dwarves us, which overshadows us, which we can never reach, but should always strive towards; it is the eternal truth, and the purpose of religion – quite like science – is to reach that truth while expecting human fallibility and imperfection. Every religion contains the tension between the struggle for meaning in life, the promise that meaning is out there, and the strongest of all caveats that we will never understand it in our physical lifetime, but that we need to keep trying, and we need to keep failing, and that this is ok – for if we were to understand this, we would be like God. Our religious knowledge is only temporary.

The belief in having gained some grand, even final insight is the core of conspiracy thinking, of misunderstood science, and misunderstood religion. A true scientist, just as a true religious believer, knows that doubt (in your own ability to finally understand everything) and faith (in the need for the search for truth, and the belief in the existence of truth) belong together. The true attitude characteristic of both science and religion is humility. Everything else is pretension.

Conspiracy theories do not function like this. They misapply critical thought and apply magical thinking. They see truth in patterns that they create themselves, they see devils at work, and their guiding question is always “cui bono” – who benefits, which leads to witch hunts, scapegoating, and a magical belief in potions, false prophets, and false promises to let the initiates see the truth, finally.

This is not critical thinking, but the opposite: the uncritical acceptance of a final truth. Science and religion believe that “the truth is out there,” but they know that we will never know the complete picture and will have to have faith in the procedures that lead us on the right path (which is why, on The X-Files, Mulder is lost without Scully, and vice versa). Conspiracists believe they know the final truth, stop criticizing it once they believe they have gained it, and need everybody to believe the same. This is not criticism, it is humbug.

#23: We Need to Take the Virus Seriously

Surly, by now we feel we have a handle on the Coronavirus, don’t we? Think again.

This is still a virus that is largely unknown:

  • We don’t know the full consequences of getting sick.
  • We don’t know who really is being affected (statistically, the old, but there are severe outliers).
  • We don’t quite know how it spreads. Many buildings have central air, which may spread droplets. Surfaces are still probably a source of infection, depending on viral load.
  • The reason we tell people to follow hygiene rules is that many people don’t.
  • Most death counts are low-balled in all countries.
  • We don’t know whether there will be immunity, and if so, how long it will last.
  • We don’t know when it will be back – there will likely be further waves.
  • We still have no proven treatments for ameliorating the disease – what there is, will need to be proven on a larger scale.
  • Any vaccine development will take some time, and then vaccine production will take a while also, and not everyone will want to get vaccinated immediately.
  • People are not always respecting the social distancing rules or the mask wearing guidances.

Sure, we will need to reopen the economy somehow. No serious person will deny that. But we will keep needing social distancing, probably wear masks, make sure not to be in crowded rooms, and be hygienic.

And stop with the conspiracy theories. The only conspiracy here was committed by the People’s Republic of China, and we will have to learn our lessons from that.

#22: There Are No “Alternative” News Sources

The dissatisfaction with “established” news sources is real. There has been a worrying trend in media towards heavy editorializing, partisan bias, and selective reporting. All this is happening in newspapers and television news, also online.

But the answer to that problem is not to gravitate to “alternative” news sources which would see all these problems compounded at a much higher degree.

The answer to problematic media is to diversify your media intake, but also to make sure not to select even less reliable news sources. Either something is news or it is not. There is no “alternative” news, just as there are not “alternative” facts. There can be different interpretations of the same news and facts, just as much as media can have selection bias.

Ideally, selection bias can be overcome by indeed looking at news from different angles, and by maintaining all-out skepticism. Selection bias is nothing new, and has been a regrettable feature of newspapers for ever. You know that if you gravitate to a more liberal agenda, then the New York Times and the Washington Post are for you; and if you are on the more conservative side, it’s the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. Same with television, and with internet news.

Most problematic, however, are state media run by dictatorships. Russia Today, Ruptly, Sputnik, Al Jazeera, the Global Times, etc., may sometimes indeed carry legitimate stories, but they will not criticize the regimes in their own countries, and try to spread biased Soviet-style disinformation about the West. Regrettably, some of these sources of “news” are becoming more popular amongst Western youth who prefer critical reporting about their own countries – which is ok, but you will need to keep this in perspective. Soviet-style sedition campaigns work by eroding trust in Western democracy and making dictatorships sound more appealing in contrast.

There is not the “one news source” that explains everything. This is when we enter the realm of conspiracy theories and “alternative” news. The internet may make illegitimate content seem legitimate very easily, but again, diversification is the key here. Despite all the problems with established media, there is no alternative to solid and competitive journalism, everything else is just someone’s private opinion.

#21: Media: Don’t Tell People What To Think

Journalism is one of the most important activities in any country. Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Speech, both are cornerstones for any successful society, not just for democracies.

Without a free press and free speech, no society will survive successfully for long. Dictatorships that disallow one or both those crucial components of public and civic life will fail eventually because they close themselves off to the truth, and get eventually stuck in a restrictive worldview that will not succeed to map reality correctly. If a country fails to listen to all sides, to praise and criticism, to all factions, to all possible opinions, it will also fail as a country.

Similarly, If a country’s citizens fail to listen to all sides, to praise and criticism, to all factions, to all possible opinions, they will fail as citizens, as human beings, and they will also fail their country.

The function of the press is as follows, at least from my perspective, I am no trained journalist:

  1. Gather and publish information that informs on an important issue.
  2. Deepen a discussion of that issue, and add analysis and disinterested evaluation to it, to draw reliable knowledge out from the information.
  3. Make a judgement on what happened, based on the information, and your knowledge of the wider context, and try to make that judgement in the best non-partisan way, sine ira et studio, without anger or passion, so that evaluation can happen without unnecessarily falling into a partisan camp.
  4. Give people the facts, but do not tell them how to evaluate it. You may say, “in my opinion, this is x”, but do not assume everyone should draw the same conclusions. Let people come to their own conclusions – if you have laid out your case successfully, they may just as well agree with you. If they don’t, they always have the right to exercise their own freedom of thought. People have a right to disagree without being demonized.
  5. Do not use primitive click-bait ways to draw people in with an incomplete headline, using the hook-line-and-sinker approach all too common now. “You wouldn’t believe what I found in my driveway today, Click here (and here, and here, and here, and watch the ad here, and – what was this about again?)” – anyway.

News MUST be neutral. Commentary MUST be fair. There are no sides, only truth is the side of the journalist, and truth is always neutral. Ad hominem attacks against specific people ignore the complexity of political life. Don’t think you can easily label a person you don’t like or agree with in a way that such a label puts that person – rightly or wrongly – into the anathema corner of human discourse. Things are too simplified more and more, people’s assumed identities determine whether they matter or not, and dissent suddenly has to be partisan.

This is nuts. Don’t tell me what to think. Don’t pretend you can read other people’s minds. Don’t demonize the side you like. Don’t even tell me which side you like! I should not need to care!

You telling me what I should think in order to be a decent human being (according to you!) is precisely how socialist and fascist dictatorships talk to there people. Right-think, Wrong-think, Doublethink, etc.

The Media, if it behaves like that, is a problem. They need to fix this by themselves, and we all need to realize that we, the people, need to hold the Media as much accountable as the other important aspects of our democracy.

The key words here are truth and credibility. But the truth has many sides, and it belongs to neither party, nor group, nor identity, nor belief system. A journalist will run a story even if it is unpopular and goes against network or newspaper editorial opinion. A journalist will not just placate to the base, and hope they’ll support them when the power structures change. A journalist is equally liked and disliked by all, but respected for reliable information, the unvarnished truth, and contributing to the knowledge of all.

We have a long way to go still, it seems.

#20: Exiled

I grew up in former East Germany, lived through the 1989 Revolution, saw the fall of the wall, transitioned to life in West, or rather, United Germany, fell in love, moved to the US, enjoying a freedom I never thought I would ever be able to enjoy pre-1989.

My transatlantic life was based on the assumption that I would always be able to be present on both continents, keep doing work on both continents, travel, visit family and friends. This very liberating mobility was a dream come true.

Enter Coronavirus. We saw it coming in December, where it was some “mysterious” pneumonia in Wuhan, PRC. I still traveled over Christmas, back and forth. Then, in January, it became clear something serious was happening, and by February, international travel was becoming increasingly not kosher, and by early March, we entered a new reality.

This tiny virus has turned my transatlantic life into an unintended exile. How quickly, life can change, and distances that used to be traversable become impossible to overcome.

Life has gotten smaller, the world has become something much more abstract, less concrete, unreachable. I am sitting in my house, my home away from home, but my original home is out of reach.

I’m doing well otherwise, and I am well aware there are worst fates. But the feeling that you cannot just drive or walk or even fly to go over there is numbing.

Corona takes the crown for reducing this beautiful world to a cruel memory and abstraction. There are now advertisements on television saying that it is ok to be depressed. Really? Street signs, for when I do get out to just look around, from the care, tell me to go home. I understand that there is a new virus out there, that we understand too little, and that far too many people have died already, and more will be dying. We are afraid for a very good reason, and need to be cautious. Certainly.

I can do this. I grew up not being allowed to travel to the “West”, to other continents. This exile may well be temporary, but my time, and that of friends and family is not endless. This is a cruel virus. Make it stop. Certainly, I am not alone in this wish.

This sucks.

#19: “Believe all Women”

Here we go again. A leading public figure is accused of untoward behavior towards a woman, but it seems politically expedient by some to not look into that behavior too closely for obviously political considerations. Where the rallying cry used to be “Believe all Women”, this call seems muted now, somehow less relevant.

Now, in principle, there is the presumption of innocence. Should we always believe the accuser? Should we always automatically prejudge the accused as guilty? Of course not. But there’s a caveat.

“Believe all women” surely does not mean to believe against evidence. It means, however, to believe that survivors of sexual assault typically do not speak about it all too easily, on the contrary. Most survivors stay silent. “Believe all women” is addressed to a society still deeply plagued by so-called “traditional” role models.

I am a biological male. I am not a woman. I cannot speak for women. My role as a man, as uncomfortable as that may well be for someone who does not condone sexual assault, is to listen very closely and compassionately to accusers. I have friends who are survivors. Most people do. I would venture to guess that everyone knows someone who is a survivor of sexual violence, and if you do not know, assume this is the case. Sexual violence is frighteningly common, and astonishingly frequently tolerated by both men and other women. Far too many women find excuses for their husbands, should the husbands commit assault on other women. Ever more men do well contribute to a societal discourse of openly or secretly objectifying women.

“Sexual violence” is not sexual, it is violence, pure and simple. Sex should be an act of love, of passion, of mutuality and consensuality. Sexual offenses are predatory behavior, and survivors are typically not believed.

“Believe all women” means to give the accuser the initial benefit of the doubt, and yes, it may well mean that the burden of proof could very well be reversed. Let’s call it a critical presumption of innocence.

Surely, false accusations do happen, and it is a severe disservice to victims that this is the case. However, these seem to be in the minority. We have seen high-profile cases in the past that certainly ruined some people’s lives, but typically, they were not quite innocent.

Sexuality is confusing, love is confusing, and if you are young, your life may be much more under the control of hormones than you would like. But this is different from predatory behavior, from behavior that takes women for granted, that only sees in them a means for gratification. Typically, such offenders have a pattern of unwelcome approaches or advances, and the more powerful the accused, the more critical we should be.

“Believe all women” means that in any such case, a rigorous examination should be welcomed by all parties. If the accused is innocent, then he and his allies should enthusiastically endorse such an investigation. After all, what is there to hide?

Don’t mistake this for an endorsement of so-called witch-hunts (“witch” is gender-neutral). Surely, there is the danger than an innocent person could be dragged through the mud and be victimized. We need to be aware of that, and proceed carefully and diligently. But being “presumed innocent” only means not to come to a final judgement before evidence is presented and both parties can be heard. We need to have due process, and “believe all women” is simply a call to never callously and self-interestedly throw out such an accusation without such a process. That’s all.

And above all, respect the accuser, because the likelihood she is telling the truth is typically high. This is why Joe Biden was part of the movement to push Title IX reform, which basically means to “believe all women.” As he would say, “come on, man!”