Blog Posts

#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.

#84: Panicking Is Not a Good Strategy

Certainly, the Coronavirus crisis is serious. By now, we are dealing with various pathogens, some more virulent and more dangerous than before. We are not sure to which the vaccines will work, and we will have to be careful.

Nevertheless, when leaders such as the current CDC director Dr. Walensky warn of “impending doom” and talk about how scared they are personally, this is not helpful. It is understandable to want to validate the feeling that many of us have daily, but is this a good strategy? Similarly, Dr. Fauci warned of a “darkest winter” last year.

These warnings may well be warranted, and statements about the seriousness of the virus are necessary. But communicating fear plays into the hands of those who already claim that this entire crisis is nothing more than human-made histrionics. “I am not afraid,” they say when they reject masks, distancing, isolating at home, and vaccinations, claiming that the others – those who communicate their fear – are weak and timid and distort the situation for their alleged political purposes.

We do not need to be afraid, we do not need to feel doom. We do, however, have to be cautious, careful, vigilant and do everything we can to defeat the spread of the viruses. We know what tools to use to minimize spread, and all of us who are able to use them should do so. We all can wear functioning masks. Most of us can maintain physical distance also. Many of us can work remotely, or work in workplaces that allow some distancing. By doing what we can do, we are protecting those whose choices are more limited. Additionally, the vaccines work, but they are not a cure-all without all the other measures.

Fear is very personal, and maybe it is good if leaders admit to it. But it never communicates well. “Concern,” sure. “Impending doom,” this just invites unwanted criticism just as this one right here. Fear can also paralyze and lead us to make mistakes. As I said before, we need logic right now, not panic.

We can beat this, but we need to do our part and stay the course.

#83: The Purpose of History, or, We Need to Explain Democracy Better

Francis Fukuyama has been much ridiculed for allegedly claiming that we had reached the “end of history” in the 1990s after the victory of democracy over socialism. His argument, however, was more complex, and consisted rather in an update of Hegel’s analysis of the consequences of the dual victory of Napoleonic France (and its proclaimed democratic ideas) over both the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. Hegel’s definition of history – put very simply – is the process throughout time by which the ideal political system is discovered. The “end of history”– again, very simplified – thus happened in 1806 in above mentioned victories.

Napoleon’s aim was the restoration of the Roman Republic under a French banner, utilizing the rallying cry of “liberté, egalité, fraternité” – liberty, equality, fraternity – for his success. He did end the institution of serfdom (a version of slavery widespread in Europe) wherever he triumphed. As he did not triumph in Russia, serfdom there ended later. In the end, Napoleon succumbed to the seduction of empire and cannot be understood as the bringer of democracy; but the ideas his armies transported were successful enough to scare the sclerotic Prussian state into reform. Already, democracy had taken root in the American colonies, just as British Parliament had become more important than the king. The signs of the times were clear: the old ways – or rather, the monarchic ways – were done. The very old ways – Roman Republicanism – were the way of the future.

This is what “the end of history” means: From now on, any government that does not draw their legitimacy from the people as the sovereign, will be seen as illegitimate and is doomed to fail eventually. This is the reason that even the worst dictatorship on the planet calls itself either a republic or democratic. Already in Hegel’s times, it was clear that the victory of democracy was merely rhetorical. Democracy in France did not succeed until 1871, and Prussia would not become democratic overnight, but it would take till 1918 for the first German democracy to come into being.

Communist-Socialist states called themselves “people’s republics”, National Socialism claimed to bring about true democracy, and some monarchs or autocrats routinely see themselves as the vehicle through which the people somehow rule. The terms “democracy” or “republic” are regularly used to hide non-democratic systems.

This is done frequently by the means of a major conceit: “Democracy” is reduced to the mere act of holding elections. This is a deliberate distortion aimed at limiting the threshold for respectability. Any dictator can hold elections; but the trick lies in how you set up the democratic field, what candidates you allow, how you count, and what count you publish.

Democracy is more than that. Elections do matter, but are meaningless without the reliable, equal and incorruptible rule of law. The rights of the individual are paramount to any democracy, and underlie the demand for human rights. Civil liberties, including absolute free speech, freedom of religion, and the absolute freedom of the press are paramount. Connected to that are property rights, and free enterprise (which does not exclude regulation ensuring a free and fair functioning of the market). Corruption has to be minimized. Minorities need to be protected, specifically political minorities. Democracy does not work if the winners in an election can punish the losers with abandon. There needs to be a separation of powers and a form of checks and balances. Changing the constitution should be difficult. Representative democracy will be necessary for any state larger than a single town. Federalism and strengthening local governments will help to undercut the danger of democratic deficits originating from representative democracy (republicanism).

As you can see, this is all much more complicated, but it is complicated for a reason. Dictatorships and dictatorial movements – even if the couch themselves in the language of democracy – have nothing but disdain for any of that. Sham elections and party-line courts guarantee that true democracy does not endanger the rule of autocrats or oligarchs.

Right now, it seems that democracy is under attack by a variety of forces. Some dictatorships have seemingly had successes in good governance and modernization. That is certainly not impossible in the short run, but problems will accumulate in the longue durée.

The argument for democracy, in the end, is about practicality: It is the only system that works for everyone over time. It is the only system that can self-correct and increase liberty, equality, and the values of shared humanity for all. It is also the only system that will be at peace with systems like itself. Functioning democracies do not wage war against each other – it has never happened in history. Wherever democracy succeeded, peace followed, and social peace and justice have been allowed to progress. History may not be over, but the path, the destination, the telos (meaning purposeful end) is clear.

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Clearly, this is a more complicated topic, and I will follow up on this in more detail in further posts. As they say, “stay tuned.”

#82: Only Logic Will Help Us Out of the Pandemic

At Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Oregon

These are not the easiest of times. We are still in the middle of a global pandemic, which is worsening in its impact due to various mutations of the virus that keep questioning the viability of our vaccines. Many people are suffering due to the disease, directly or indirectly, and all of our lives are in turmoil.

It is easy in such moments to despair. Frankly, it is difficult to maintain sanity and retain focus even for those of us who have been able to keep surviving, albeit in a reduced fashion. The psychological toll is nevertheless real, and the seduction to just ignore all caution and act as if we could return to normal is completely understandable.

That’s why it is important, maybe, to remind ourselves that this reality is actually, indeed, our reality, for very concrete reasons. Logic may help us here.

  1. The pandemic is real. For whatever reason, it spread out of China, whose government was not forthcoming for months about the cause and specific design of the virus. (To be clear: The blame lies with the government, not with the people of China, who are just innocent victims of a cruel regime. The hatred for people of Asian or specifically Chinese descent is wrong – as is all hatred. But anger at the government is justified).
  2. The virus spreads through droplets (which can be controlled with masks, maintaining distance, cleaning of surfaces) and aerosols (which can be controlled with even better masks, even greater distance, cleaning of surfaces, avoidance of indoor meetings, frequent and efficient changes of air in rooms if you have to be indoors). Some viral variants are more prolific than others.
  3. The virus enters through the respiratory system, but its effects are on the entire biology of the body. Some of its effects are probably debilitating for a long time, in both adults and children.
  4. The virus can be transmitted by symptomatic and asymptomatic persons.
  5. The virus can be deadly for everyone, but most likely for older people and those with serious medical conditions which may or may not be known to those affected.
  6. The infection spreads exponentially, not lineally, if given enough room.
  7. The effects of the viral infection become clear only after a certain passage of time. From infection to symptoms to potential hospitalization to potential death, it takes several weeks. Current infection data will map onto deaths with a significant time delay. We will have to act now in anticipation of something that may or may not happen in a few weeks. This has proved to be a major challenge, as people keep questioning the lethality of the virus.
  8. Vaccination needs to happen as fast as possible. Without it, viral spread continues and new mutated variants can evolve that may evade the protections given by the vaccine.
  9. All our various hygienic and lockdown countermeasures are in place BECAUSE OF EVERYTHING BEFORE. We cannot pretend that this is not real, even though we are suffering the consequences of both the pandemic and our reactions to it. We need to constantly adapt our reactions to the situation, be more vigilant that we’d like to be, and remain in a state of lockdown and protectiveness till this is over for everyone, globally.
  10. If we ignore safety and just pretend it is not happening, the pandemic will still spread, people will still get sick, will die, and the number of mutated variants will increase to eventually counteract even our vaccines. This must not be allowed to happen. For this, we need to think logically, long-term, and need to have patience – and governments need to help their people to maintain that patience by supporting their existence.

This is our moment as a global community, our make-or-break moment. We need to fight this together, or else there may not be much that needs saving at the end of this depressing period in human history. Let’s prove we can rise to the occasion as one world.