#94: What Is Political Extremism Today?

We are conditioned to think in political categories of “right” versus “left”, with an underappreciated center in between. This model has become deeply entrenched in political thinking, no matter how simplistic it actually is.

Politically, “left” and “right” derive from seating arrangements of pro- versus anti-monarchist forces in the National Assembly during the French Revolution, but the principle, of course, goes deeper.

First, this understanding of power is based on thinking in a strict dichotomy, in a way of thinking believing in either-or propositions, in adversarial style, in a simplistic for-and-against way of conceptualizing every single issue, or even a worldview.

Second, it typically includes gradations, especially in systems that have more than two political parties (or rather, whose election system is not based on winner-takes all, which seems to cause the two-party system – CGP Grey has some great videos explaining voting systems). The more diversified the parties become, the more there may an entire panoply of parties. Some parties may be directly in the center, others center-left, others center-right, others moderate left or right, others extreme left or right, whatever “right” or “left” may mean at the time. Traditionally, “right” suggests establishment, “left” suggest reform or revolution.

(Fun fact: whoever you consider to be a “sinister force” in politics depends on your knowledge of Italian: “La sinistra” is the left. But if you think of old clips of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show depicting Dick Cheney as Darth Vader, the music may have sounded sinister, but the implication certainly was not that Cheney was a leftie. But I digress.)

Third, we now have a problem on the extremes. There are both right-wing and left-wing versions of extremism that are no friends of democracy and its values and institutions. Some models – for instance the “horseshoe theory” – point to similarities amongst both extremisms. There may still be something that separates them (it’s not a closed circle in that model), but they look rather similar.

Is that even a helpful distinction? There were moments in recent history where surprising thought alliances appeared. Agreement with or resistance to allowing stem cell research was and is still an issue finding support along strange ideological lines (Greens + Conservatives), but they deviate when it comes to the issue of abortion (Conservatives). Globalization critique used to be left-wing and has now also found equivalents on the right, albeit sometimes with a different tone. Support of Israel used to be a stalwart issue on the left, and now finds it, at least rhetorically, on the right, though not in the outright Nazi parties, I would assume (though once you find out about Jewish Neonazis, you have seen everything).

Personally, I have never found the left-right paradigm useful. It is too simplistic, and I am not much in favor of party loyalty. You support who you support based on issues and personnel, but even that is dicey as party programs oftentimes don’t mean much. But my voting record has always been mixed, and so it shall be. I prefer to be flexible, depending on what I see on the table (or rather, on the ballot).

Politics is a game played by politicians, and to assume them to follow clear philosophical principles which sustain their ideology is a bit of a stretch, in my view. A good politician does what works, and chooses the respective ideology as they see fit. A bad one makes reality bend to their ideological blinders and either doesn’t get anything done at all, or won’t succeed in the long-run. A strict reality-orientation though will eventually banish all ideology, and so it should be. That does not mean that ideology is useless, but if it is at the point of becoming dogma, it needs to be seriously questioned.

But especially with regards to new developments during the Coronavirus crisis, we can see that anti-democratic extremism arises from a new background that might formerly have been described as “left” or “right”. Things are becoming confusing very fast, and I would suggest that rather to use tired old labels, to stick to the actual issues.

I have thus began to work on a tentative list of extremist thought that still uses coded language but appeals to extremist and anti-democratic thought. There is certainly no assumption of completeness, but it may be helpful to shed some light on some of these here.

Versions of the following key statements always occur on the extreme fringes, especially now in parties catering to Covid Deniers or the New Right:

  1. Insistence on Freedom as an absolute value: All democratic parties value freedom, but it is not the only value in a democratic society, nor is it always easy to define. My own freedom has limits if it severely limits the freedom of others, for instance.

  2. Insistence on Sovereignty as something absolute: A democratic country recognizes that its people are the sovereign, and they send representatives into political office. Government actions thus always have to align with popular will, which is in turn measured through elections and other democratic processes. The sovereignty of a country is thus an extension of the sovereignty of its citizens. It is in the interest of the citizens to exert this sovereignty in a way that benefits the people as a whole. Given constant change, the concept of the sovereignty of a country needs to adapt. If it is to the benefit of the country to enhance free trade and cooperation with other countries, traditional concepts of sovereignty (closed borders, own currency, own military) may actually limit the sovereignty of its citizens.

  3. Insistence on Patriotism as identical to nationalism: Healthy patriotism is a positionality towards your own country in which you see yourself in service to the benefit of all its people, to its wellbeing, to its future. Like sovereignty, this may well include honoring international and supranational treaties, cooperation and connections. Patriotism should always be a positive position (supporting your own country and its allies) and not define itself in the negative (against other countries).

  4. Insistence on a static National Identity: National identity is complex, historically grown, and always changing. Multiculturalism is the historical norm; mono-ethnic states almost always the result of ethnic cleansing or forced assimilation. Immigration is a constant historical presence, and while it is always important to integrate immigrants successfully into your society, this integration needs to be limited to the adherence of laws and common standards, and cannot mean the rejection of all cultural traditions (as long as they are not in conflict with sensible laws of the new country).

  5. The claim to represent the true majority, the “base” or the “forgotten people:”
    There are no citizens “first class” or “second class.” The insinuation that some of the people in the country are not really representative of it and must be silenced in favor of an assumed “silent majority” has always been an excuse used by dictatorships to shut out undesired populations.

  6. The elites are all corrupt: Corruption is a mainstay of all societies, sadly, and it needs to be fought. But the insinuation that all so-called elites would be corrupt is a typical strawman argument typically used to delegitimize all democratically elected officials of a country, as well to discredit teachers, professors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and whoever else may have enjoyed higher education. It also is used to dismiss any possible legitimacy to the claim personal wealth or influence. This is another typical tactic of demagogues.

  7. There are secret powers directing our fates: In a highly networked world, it is completely normal that ideas flow from person to person, from country to country. The almost infinite interplay of institutions and people from around the globe is what constitutes civilization and society itself. Some of these influences are transparent, some are not. This is normal. Conspiracies typically do not work out, and if they do so, only on a small scale. People talk, have divergent interests, and governments change. Nothing will stay secret forever. It is virtually impossible that in a global context, there could be organizations of people thinking in complete lockstep. The insinuation that there could be secret powers that control our politics is simply ridiculous. It is another strategy to delegitimize democratic governments.

  8. These secret powers form a hidden international network: This accusation has been used to demonize populations that due to their diasporic spread and their minority status – frequently a result of discrimination – can be found in many countries and had to struggle to adapt to the majority culture while still maintaining traces of their own. This accusation is a core component of Anti-Semitism, but also of any xenophobia against immigrant groups, and has been leveled against Jews, Muslims and Catholics (under the assumption that religious beliefs systematically would pit them against their countries of immigration), or any sizable ethnic minority.

  9. You cannot speak freely anymore, there is an official dictate of opinion (“Meinungsdiktatur” in German): Free speech is a core component of any democratic society. It must be seen as absolute. Without it, democracy cannot survive. However, speech always means counter-speech, and if you want to participate in the national discourse, you will also need to appreciate critique and debate. Should that critique be too excessive and endanger your employment or even your life, that is of course something that cannot be tolerated in society. This point mixes legitimate critique of cancel culture with a naïve and illegitimate expectation to be allowed to say whatever you like without critical counter-speech. This point is also frequently mentioned to insinuate that we are living in a dictatorship in which drastic speech codes are enforced. Sometimes this critique is also used in order to defend speech that some might consider deliberately insulting, demeaning and hateful.

  10. You cannot trust the established media / the press is lying / all news we don’t like are fake news:
    If you have built your world view on believing that the world is controlled by powerful forces outside democratic control, then the purveyors of information that are trusted by the established system cannot be trusted. What is typically agreed upon as real becomes fake, what is believed to be reliable becomes suspicious, and the media that transport that which everyone else believes to be true needs to be seen as fake. It is no coincidence that the primary vehicle for disinformation and alternative reality in the United States is called “Infowars.” Facts need to be countered with alternative facts, truth becomes lies, and journalists are seen as the enemy. Fear of an Orwellian system leads to the creation of an Orwellian counter-reality in which doubt is celebrated as patriotic only if it criticizes the other side, never your own.

  11. Reality itself is not what you think it is. We know better and can educate (red-pill) you about the truth.
    You basically believe in The Matrix, and need to see the truth. Only we can tell you. This is Brainwashing 101.

From there, it is all down the rabbit hole. To be continued.

#93: Don’t Picture This: The Trouble With Selfies

My phone’s front camera is probably very confused. It has been severely underused. The back camera is not very happy either, but it gets used occasionally when I have forgotten to take my regular camera with me and need to take a picture. Very rarely does the front camera get to make a video call, but I prefer to use a real computer for that.

I don’t even really know what a “filter” is on the phone or one of these photo apps, or why I should be using it. That’s what Photoshop is for, isn’t it? Of course, I know, and I mockingly pretend not to know. Somehow. But somehow, I also don’t know.

It’s not that I don’t take any pictures ever. I’m a pathological picture taker, and I have spent quite some time thinking about Susan Sontag’s book On Photography, which successfully and disturbingly analyzes said pathology. Ideally, this reading is combined with Plato’s discussion of the power of writing as well as his metaphor of the cave, Walter Benjamin’s article “The Work of Art in the Time of Mechanical Reproduction,” Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and Neil Postman’s Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Combining the insights gained from this tour de force of media theory, it becomes clear that it is too simplistic to cling to the idea that technology would be basically neutral, would just be tool, and that it would depend on how to use it. Technology is far more than that. Its influence on our lives is thoroughly transformative. It lets us believe that it does our bidding while in fact we yield to its influence and needs just as much. We do have some control over how to use it, but even its availability changes the very ways we can think about it.

Do I need to know something by heart, or is it just enough to look it up? Do I focus on experiencing something in real life, or do I focus on recording it, transforming it from a continuum of active being to a frozen moment in time, a mere snapshot, something that will serve as a substitution for reality? What does this kind of technological reductivism do to the world thus captured, what does it do to what we think about this world and the living beings contained therein? What does it do to people if they are mainly understood through their media representations? What does it do to their notions of self if those representations are created by themselves even?

Whoever sat pretty for Leonardo when he created the Mona Lisa may rest safely in their grave shrugging off whatever Leonardo may have seen in them and showed of them in his famous painting. But what does this do to the person conducting a self-portrait? We know that Vincent van Gogh probably did not gain in personal happiness through his painting of self-portraits. He represented himself as himself. If you subscribe to the idea that Leonardo actually may have painted himself as a woman, as Lillian Schwartz suggests (and which sounds actually fascinating and has some level of plausibility), then Leonardo perfectly understood that any visual representation is always an interpretation. Certainly, Van Gogh knew that also.

Artists understand that even if you depict yourself or represent yourself, you are never being authentic: There is always something else happening. The self on the page, or in the picture, always has to be seen as a lyrical I. The “me, myself and I” that you see in self-reflective and self-portraying art is never the real self. It is a deliberately chosen perspective, a snapshot at a specific time, a setting in a particular scene, an inauthentic moment posing as authentic for a very clear artistic and dramatic purpose.

Reality cannot be captured, it can only be represented. Umberto Eco illustrates this in his short story ridiculing the creating a map of the empire in a 1:1 scale. The map would completely cover and crush the reality beneath it, as it would take over the entire space of the empire itself. Similarly, if we rely on nothing but representations of reality in order to understand it, we will limit ourselves to understanding the representations rather than reality itself. Granted, sadly, we need media and representations to even be able to conceive of reality. Our perception itself mediates the world around us. We are always sitting in Plato’s cave, we can never access reality as such. But we can understand that our tools of perception and the media we use to facilitate our perception in turn influence that perception also.

As Susan Sontag describes it, “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” This acquisition, this pictorial conquest, this obsessive need to claim some form of ownership of the world by possessing it through images eventually destroys our relation to the world. We substitute experience with representation, concreteness with abstraction, the world with pictures of the world, the self with pictures of the self.

This act of substitution, of representation, certainly affects how we see reality. The self, specifically if it is mainly communicated through pictures, will eventually conform to the pictures. As with many things, this is probably not a problem unless done to excess, but it can still fundamentally change how we see ourselves.

There is a reason – probably more psychological than religious – that some cultures have looked with suspicion at photographing people, or at depicting an image of divinity. That which can get captured, depicted, and represented so easily will lose its mystique, its transcendental qualities or – following Benjamin – its aura. Something happens once we fixate our selves through pictures. It happens both for others and for ourselves. But how do you represent yourself without losing some sense of self? Especially if this is a constant exercise in the performance of the self?

Should we see self-photography as an art form? For some, it certainly is; for others, the definition of art would probably have to be stretched a bit. But art certainly can be an escape clause here: it requires though – as illustrated above – a conscious act of deliberate self-distancing from the image of the self as performance.

Yet the context of such pictures of the self certainly matters also, whether we should see them as more artistic self-portraits or what is commonly described with the less high-brow term as selfies. As soon as a selfie is posted on social media, the battle for audience reactions begins. How many people like my picture? How many don’t? How many are seeing it? Is the picture being noticed? At what point though do these questions into something more personal? How many people like or dislike or notice me? Am I, as a person, liked, or is it the representation that is liked? Should my self – if a specific representation is liked – conform to the representation? Should I myself become the image I have put out there as an allegedly authentic image of myself (or of my self)?

Maybe this is the key: if the pretension of authenticity is taken at face value, selfies may well turn from being a possible work of art to an act of introspection through outside judgement, and become an exercise not of play but of masochism (or its psychological twin, narcissism). We know that social media itself should probably be better described as anti-social: They all too frequently are an exercise themselves, and not in sociality but in sadism. Artists all throughout time have suffered from bad reviews, and have tortured themselves through their art. Maybe we should thus see the selfie as the revenge of the self-portrait: May the same level of scorn be heaped on John or Jane Q. Public now as it was heaped on artists throughout the ages.

But that is certainly not something to be endorsed. Personally, I am staying out of the selfie game. There are plenty of ways to indulge in self-loathing; I certainly don’t need to document this in pictures on a regular basis.

#92: The Impact of Brexit on Trade

There is no question that Brexit will impact trade between the European Union and the United Kingdom negatively. This is not something that needs to be answered in the concrete. A simple history lesson will survive.

The European integration process that began after World War II led to the European Union and its component institutions, among them the Free Market, the Schengen Agreement, the Euro currency and common policies on economic, atomic, judicial, foreign and security policy.

The purpose of this integration process was to intensify cooperation and trade in Europe to make any future war between the member states very difficult if not impossible, but most of all, unnecessary. Every single border in Europe is the outcome of warfare and strife. Most currently existing European nation states have seen territorial changes in history, and many are recent creations of the 19th or 20th century.

It stands to reason that in order for there to be trade, there needs to be peace, and in order for there to be peace, that which has divided Europe – the quest over territory and dominion in Europe – needs to be removed as an obstacle. As the question of national sovereignty is tied to the question of territory, any attempt to secure peace and prosperity (which includes trade) needs to limit national sovereignty. Put differently, peace can be made if trade replaces war.

To facilitate trade, many barriers to trading were eliminated by the European integration process. That does not mean that trade did not exist prior to the European Economic Communities, but it was more difficult. Eventually the UK joined the EEC in order to facilitate trade.

If the UK leaves, it must mean that the barriers and obstacles to trade that were limited or removed by the EU will reappear. This is not because of European ill will, it is simple logic: European Integration means the removal of barriers, and if you undo that process, the barriers will reappear.

What does “barrier” mean in the context of trade? Typically, it means costs and time – through paperwork, tariffs, regulations, et cetera – basically all the boring stuff the European Union takes care of.

Thus it is not a matter of whether Brexit will hurt trade, but how much.

Does that mean that it will hurt peace? Hopefully not. Ask around in Northern Ireland. Blame those in the UK that for decades have pushed anti-EU misinformation, set up a non-binding (!) referendum, made a political decision to accept its imperfect conclusion on a strict 50-50 line, and ignored all advice to ameliorate the situation. But don’t blame the EU. Their message has always been clear: You may leave, but the price to pay will be higher than the UK’s already discounted membership rate.

There is a reason that Norway and Switzerland pay into the EU budget. They should really be members, but that is up to their populations. If being a quasi-member who has most obligations but no say-so is an attractive state of affairs, so be it.

If the UK ends up paying into EU budget as well to alleviate Brexit pains (or rejoin as a member), it will have achieved the most paradoxical result: similar monetary contributions with an even greater loss of sovereignty due to lack of true membership.

There are no words to describe this scenario that do not involve any real or implied insults. I’ll leave it there.

#91: The Transatlantic Perspective Needs to be Global

Since the end of World War II, the transatlantic focus has been on the northern hemisphere. This is a result primarily influenced by three factors:

  • The inevitable realization that the defense of Europe against any aggressor can only be successful if North America, especially the United States, is included in any European security framework. Any attempt to imagine European defense independently of the US has failed so far.
  • The main problem in Europe is the containment of the European center. This means the maintenance of peace between Germany of France, the containment of Germany, but actually, since the defeat of Napoleon, the securing of a stable balance of power on the continent, for which it ideally needs an outside force not invested too heavily in either side of the equation.
  • The competition between, on the one hand, this Euro-American alliance by necessity, and on the other, another power block like the Soviet Union, Russia, China, or any other system contender. The Cold War has been the guarantor of NATO’s success, and currently, it is Putin’s Russia which, by ostentatiously questioning the strength and purpose of NATO is ironically strengthening its resolve.

If we widen the historical perspective though, two other major factors become visible:

  • The two World Wars in the Twentieth Century have been preceded by other conflicts of a global reach: The Crimean War (1853-1856), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). In all these cases, the global dimension of these wars is the result of European colonial empires.
  • The American influence grows in direct correlation with the decline of the power of European colonialism, which declines as result to fights amongst the European powers themselves. This is what some historians call the “European Civil War.”

But even this perspective is not wide enough. European geography determines its security concerns. It is not an island. It has always been at the center of waves of migration, of empires and states fighting for dominance. The only relative period of some form of peace, or rather, predictability, was the time of solidified Roman power that united the Mediterranean. Connected with the fall of Roman power in the West – despite all attempts of reconstituting imperial power by Germanic kingdoms – is the loss of Mediterranean unity, and with it, the loss of the connection between the three continents of Europe (both East and West), Africa and Asia. From the beginning of what we can call Europe – namely the fall of the Western part of the Roman Empire in 476 – till the end of World War II, there have been a succession of military attempts to dominate the continent, none successful for very long, and if so, only partial. If Europe is supposed to have a future, it must, again, see a future in unison with its neighbors. Such a demand translates to the transatlantic sphere for reasons of security and prosperity.

There is another dimension as well. Colonialism and imperialism, conducted mainly but not exclusively by nations located in the Europe and Mediterranean area, has put its inevitable mark upon the entire world. No continent has remained untouched by this. The end of colonialism proper has not necessarily left the world a better place. We need to confront and account for the history of what Paul Gilroy calls the Black Atlantic. The combined impact of the transatlantic slave trade and the destruction of indigenous cultures mainly, but not exclusively, in the Americas dictate a charge for nations that can trace their origin back to the European area. For centuries, it was European colonial powers that shaped the world, for better or worse. It would seem only logical that centuries of domination and profit need to be followed by centuries of partnership, cooperation, aid and alliance. Historical responsibility must translate into present and future accountability.

(also published on trasym.blog)

#90: In Defense of “Wokeness”

A great deal of scorn and dismay is currently heaped on a movement or way of thinking that describes itself as “being woke” or “wokeness.” The terminology itself may shift, especially when faced with an onslaught of ongoing critique or with attempts to use it for corporate purposes.

Certainly, it is easy to ridicule any attempt at creating a serious social movement of goodwill and progressiveness. Without a certain amount of naiveté, nobody surely would be able to believe that we, as a culture, would be able to change the world for the better. Any grand attempts at changing the way we treat each other in actions and speech, the way we conduct policy and business, and the way we understand and approach our reality must seem maddeningly simple-minded and shortsighted given the vast, cynical history of a world that has never been too kind to its inhabitants.

Any utopian design to build a better planet, any belief that “a better world is possible,” stands in the way of the collective and depressing experience of humankind.

I am not saying that every single suggestion, critique, or demand is something that is yet fully fleshed out. There is still work to do, and we need to recognize that. But there is substance here.

“Wokeness” is something that is serious. It is about the recognition that despite decades, centuries, millennia of human cultural, political, and social development, we are still not where we would like to be, where we would actually need to be to live up to the promises not of politics, but of life itself.

We are all human beings. We are all living beings. We are all living on this one planet, which is dwarfed by a Vast universe. This is it, and this is us. We are all connected by genetics, history, necessity, locality, for better or worse. There is only one human race. There is only one planet Earth, with all the life on it.

We have tried countless ways of being mean to each other, to be downright sadistic, hateful, evil, uncaring, unthinking, indifferent; in thoughts and in actions. Do we want to continue down this path or not?

We are all imperfect beings, we are all fallible, none of us is perfect, but don’t we want to aspire to becoming better, to become more perfect – while still remaining humble?

Are we all not in this together? Do we not need to recognize each other as our relatives? After Cain kills Abel, he asks, Am I my brother’s keeper? It is the clearest accusation ever in one of our earliest texts: Yes, we are our brother’s, our sister’s, our father’s, mother’s, friend’s, or stranger’s relative, and yes, their fate is connected to ours. We have a responsibility to wake up from the lull of indifference, from the coldness of monetized relations, from divisions by class, race, gender, age, or others, and to wake up to not just the possibility, but the necessity to see our world anew, as a place for everybody, including ourselves.

This is what “wokeness” means: the unapologetic desire and audacity to care about each other, and the political will to create a society that is more kind, that knows truth, knows justice, values life and dignity and can be hopeful again that human beings actually have the capacity to grow and transcend our imperfections and past and current sins.

All the details, all the oversimplifications, imperfectly thought-through solutions, provocations both necessary and unnecessary – all of which needing well-meaning and substantial criticism –, all these, however, pale in comparison to the actual desire for a better world, which – naively or not – may indeed bring us hope, and eventually, a better world, filled not with indifference and hate but with compassion and all-encompassing love.

So say we all?

#89: Tragedy is the Nature of Life, and That is OK

In the classical tragedy, the hero fights against fate. The ending is already clear, and nothing the hero does, will change the outcome. Tragedy arises from this positionality. Caught between the now and the inevitable then, resistance is necessary but futile. Resistance is the resistance against death, the fight to stay alive against all odds, to stay moral in a world of immorality. All choices that have to be made only pertain to the interim between one’s own life and one’s own death. Nothing that is left behind either punishes or rewards us ourselves – even though we know deep down that we don’t know, and that is even more tragic – or we can just give up. This is our freedom. We know that it ends, that it all ends, our lives, the lives of our friends and family, our country, our civilizations, our planet, our sun, our universe. Everything dies.

This tragic truth however is not bad news. It just is. It is up to us to fill our lives with what we want. Is that a license to do evil? Maybe religion was invented for a reason, maybe we need the notion of an immortal soul that could be damaged by our choices in life. I don’t know. none of us knows. But whether or soul is mortal or immortal, whether we call it our soul or our psyche, whether we call it eschatology or psychology, suffering is suffering, and joy is joy. We either cause happiness or pain, and if we cause it in others, we know, deep down, we will cause it in ourselves. It is not difficult, and we all know that.

Do I choose to cause happiness or pain today? Certainly, sometimes we do have to make difficult choices. Sometimes temporary pain is necessary to gain greater joy. Different perspectives need to be navigated, compromises need to be made, negotiations need to happen, and we surely don’t benefit from simplistic certainty about what is right and what is wrong. This is the other tragedy of life:  We all make mistakes, there are no absolutes except the certainties of our fallibility and eventual death.

But again, this too needs to be embraced as liberating. Realizing the inevitable is the only way to psychologically manage our tragic situation, and to see the dark, maybe even divine comedy behind it all. Either this cosmic joke is on us, or we realize that we can laugh about ourselves, so that in the end we can say that we have understood our suffering and turned it into something worth living with, and even worth living for.

#88: Nature is the Best Meditation

I have never known how to meditate in the way that is typically depicted in all kinds of media today. I am not able to sit down comfortably in some cross-legged position or alleged “easy pose,” listening to my breath and somehow clear my head. Not possible.

But there are other forms of meditation. Bruckner’s 8th Symphony in Celibidache’s rendering, clocking in at an hour and forty minutes, is a sublime experience of otherworldliness, so is watching Koyaanisqatsi and immersing yourself in it, or Visitors. But these may be strange tastes.

The easiest or best way is to just go out into nature. This does not have to be wilderness, but it has to be something that is out of your control, contains the unexpected, and requires you to just sit still and be mindful of your surroundings. David Attenborough is right – he typically is – about just being out there for 10 minutes in nature. Observe, marvel, and discover, like Thoreau famously said he did, and later philosophize like Emerson, maybe. Nature may be the big city, and you just sitting at an ideally open window, or in a park or near the street, watching the nature around you – people, pigeons, etc. Lose yourself in the now. Find not your own breathing, do not concentrate on yourself, but on your surroundings. Find the breath of the world, and discover your insignificance in it. This will do more to decenter yourself, to rethink your thoughts, and to – ideally – quite literally catch a fresh breath of air.

If you can be out in real nature, not our ghastly human-made habitats of concrete, steel and plastic (you can sense Emerson pushing me on here). Go out into the garden, maybe even the woods, the desert, the sea, or aim for the stars – and just be. Watch a bird fly, hear a fly buzz, when you don’t yet die, take in the smells and sounds and see that this all goes on without you, does not need you, does not require even your presence. You do not matter always. You are not all-important. You are just a guest, a visitor, and you have the freedom – as part of nature, even though we tend to deny that to ourselves – to also just be. Now that you are, what do you want to do with it? And so the healing, hopefully, can start.

Nothing fancy. All it needs is to be still for a moment, for at least 10 minutes, and to lose oneself in that which exists without us, in that which is always greater than us. The rest will follow.

#87: Stargate as Classical Science Fiction

The Pandemic has made me a bit nervous. As a consequence, I have felt it to be difficult to concentrate on any new form of entertainment, and have chosen – as I understand, like millions of other people – to revisit some older shows or formats that are still familiar. This has led me to re-appreciate and rethink some old favorites that may have faded over time in the mass of new material that has emerged since then.

When you think of science fiction shows or franchises, people will typically mention Star Trek and Star Wars. Sure, both shows take place in space, but one (Trek) is science fiction, the other is, well, complicated. What role does science actually play in the Star Wars universe? Or better, what is science fiction?

As there are as many definitions as there are consumers of science fiction, I would propose the following limited set of parameters as minimum requirements:

  1. Science: discussion of real and extrapolated scientific ideas
  2. Politics and Society: The discussion of political and social utopias or simply alternatives, as facilitated by the philosophical reflection about other cultures and worlds, which may point to the possibility of changes to our own culture.
  3. Ethics: The discussion of classical philosophical, ethical and psychological problems through the plot
  4. Mythology and Religion: an engagement with themes of a mythological nature, the building of new mythological narratives, the raising of questions about the nature of existence

This list is probably not perfect but may serve our needs here.

As to Star Wars, aside from some episode of Clone Wars or Rebels, I cannot remember any science-centered story, nor any protagonist that would be a serious scientist. Points 2-4 though are well represented. With Star Trek, all notes are typically hit, but in my opinion less so recently. Ever since the Kelvin-timeline movies and Discovery, Star Trek has been following the Star Wars path more closely. The science that remains (the spore drive) is treated almost like magic, and actual scientific discussion is rare.

This is where Stargate is different, in all its incarnations (SG-1, Atlantis, Universe). Stargate is even interdisciplinary: There are natural scientists (Dr. Carter, Dr. Lee, Dr. McKay, Dr. Zelenka, Dr. Rush, Dr. Volker), humanities and social science scholars (Dr. Jackson, Dr. Weir, Jonas Quinn), medical doctors (Dr. Fraiser, Dr. Lam, Dr. Beckett, Dr. Keller, Lt. Johanson), and several engineers, bureaucrats, diplomats, and specialists. Lead characters with a doctorate other than medicine are almost unheard of in the other bigger franchises (notable exceptions: Dr. Bishop on Fringe, Dr. Sato on Enterprise and Dr. Balthar in Battlestar Galactica – both though underused in their scientific functions. Spock and T’Pol don’t have human doctorates).

Besides personnel, Stargate episodes frequently and sometimes exhaustively discuss science (real or extrapolated). Science drives the plot, experiments are made, success or failure (sometimes catastrophic failure!) can occur, and even the real scientific community is brought in. Just as Dr. Stephen Hawking guest starred in Star Trek TNG, Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye guest star on Atlantis.

This is not a trivial observation. Scientific reasoning and thinking – in all possible disciplines – seems in short supply right now. It is one of the purposes of science fiction to actually communicate science. Without it, all the other elements mentioned can still exist, but it should be science that ties everything together. The highlighting of scientific thinking, the portrayal of scholars and scientists – granted, in fantastic scenarios, but still – is sorely needed in our world which so deeply relies on science.

This should not be given up for the sake of entertainment, or for the assumed expectations of the audience. Let’s hope that whenever the new Stargate series – which is reportedly in the planning stage – will finally hit the screens, that it will remember its original formula which has inspired so many young would-be scientists and scholars so far.

#86: Nature Is Stronger than Us: The Pandemic, not the Lockdown, Is the Problem

It appears that if you feel tired, exhausted, depressed, and have been doing so for months already, you are not alone. The entire world is out of balance. Nothing is normal anymore, no matter how much we may want to pretend it is.

Some people are blaming the lockdown for this feeling. We can’t do what we would normally be doing, and it is because decisions have been made and continue to be made time and again to close down parts of normal life and have us postpone living like we used to.

But this kind of reasoning looks at things backwards. No matter how we may want to rationalize it away, the real problem is the continued development of the pandemic. Will the vaccines work? Will we be patient enough to wait till we have enough immunity that there will not be anymore the pressing danger posed by the virus? Can we afford to be patient? At which point does it become unsustainable to wait for a better tomorrow?

Yet any attempt to reason ourselves out of this will fail. Lockdowns are in place because of deaths and serious conditions, which are a result of infections and occur in a time-delayed fashion. If we let infection numbers rise today, the consequences will be only become visible much later. We know that, and this is why infection rates are a good predictor for the future. Once they go down, the chances for variants to arise goes down, because only a virus that’s still out there can mutate.

This pandemic plays on our biggest weaknesses; socially, psychologically, fiscally. We are not built for this. A lot of what is happening may be counter-intuitive, but it is still real.

Maybe it helps to remind ourselves that we are not alone in feeling the impact of this, even though it hits some people harder than others. Is this a test then for our capacity to empathize and sympathize? Does this moment in time provide an opportunity, though ill-gotten, to revisit what we consider? Time will tell, but I doubt it.

You may believe in the capacity for people to change, yet history will prove you wrong all too frequently. Not to sound too fatalistically, but our societies function the way they do for a reason. Things may change occasionally, but they’ll always coalesce into a pattern over time. We will eventually forget this pandemic as we’ve forgotten all the ones before us, and we will probably be just as unprepared for the next one that is surely going to follow.

Epidemics and pandemics have killed entire civilizations, even though we do not want to see that either. We want to believe that it is our own agency that can both save and doom us; but all too frequently, it is just nature itself.

Maybe Jurassic Park holds the lesson here that we will need to keep hearing: “Nature finds a way.” For better or worse. No matter how much we try to self-evolve our way out of this, nature cannot be tricked, cannot be overcome, cannot be avoided. We ourselves may not be patient, yet nature is, always.

#85: Anti-Asian Hate and the Human Capacity for Divisiveness

Hatred against people who may be identified as “Asian” has come into the focus in the recent days. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon, but the attacks seem to have increased in the recent years.

This surely may be influenced by the role China’s government has played in enabling the pandemic. But we need to distinguish between a specific government and people who have no relation at all to this government. Does this mean we should no longer call out governments who are bad actors? Of course not. But at the same time, we need to affirm that such criticism is aimed at a specific institution and the people directly involved in it, but not at random individuals who are completely innocent in such acts.

It is depressing that this seems to need saying. Human beings are very prolific in finding scapegoats and discriminating against those they see as “other.” We need to fight against those demons inside each one of us, and governments need to actively work against enabling those who only seek excuses to lash out against their fellow human beings.

Even assumedly positive stereotypes are not helpful. They too contribute to the fetishization of so-called “others” as essentially different from our so-called “own.” The more we understand – and the more we do our part to contribute such understanding – that our similarities are greater than our differences, and that we are all more connected than we think, the more we can work against the notion that there are essential differences in humanity between people from other areas of the world.

The long list of abuses within, for instance, the United States against immigrants from Asian countries is something that needs to be brought to attention. Such abuses range from limitations on immigration, historical massacres against railroad workers, sexualization of Asian women, exoticizing and negative stereotyping, to the continued oversimplification of a culturally diverse continent which is contained in the very term “Asian.” Hopefully, we will all be able to learn from this yet another moment in the long history of the human capacity for ignorance, xenophobia and othering.