#101: The Mask Does not just Protect You but Others as Well

If you are vaccinated against Covid-19, you may be safer now from serious illness and death, with the caveat that virus mutations may still bring some uncertainty. Many vaccines seem mostly safe and effective, and adverse reactions are statistically not relevant, as far as we know now.

But for many, vaccination does not seem to be an option. There can be a variety of reasons, and even though it would be desirable that eventually, everyone gets vaccinated, it simply won’t happen. We cannot demand it of everyone, apparently, and we cannot – and should not – mark people with signs that they are vaccinated or not.

This means, even if you are (probably) safe, others around you may not be.

What has been true about mask wearing from the beginning is that they do not just protect you yourself, but others around you also. That means until there is herd immunity, the scientific thing to do, the kind thing to do, is to keep wearing the mask everywhere where distance cannot be maintained, and where we cannot be certain that everyone around us is vaccinated.

Thus if you see me out in public in the near future, I will still be wearing a mask, whether formally required or not. It’s not just about me. It’s about others as well.

#99: Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism

Zionism is the understanding that Israel is the historical home of the Jewish people. This is not a belief, this is not ideology, it is the truth. Just because there are also non-Jewish people living in the area does not change the fact. Jews are indigenous to the area, and have every right to have established a state therein after the occupation by the Ottoman and British empires ended.

The foundation of Israel was legitimized by the United Nations. The so-called occupation of Palestinian territory is the reaction to decades of partially Nazi-inspired antisemitic campaigns, terrorism, and outright war against the Jewish state, and against the very idea of a Jewish state.

At the same time, Hamas is unequivocally clear that their aim is the elimination of what they call the “Zionist entity.” There is no desire for peace till Israel and its Israeli inhabitants are eradicated. Hamas says it in their charter, it says it through their actions. Jewish lives, according to Hamas and other Palestinian terror organizations, do not matter.

But it is even worse. To Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and their allies, Palestinian lives do not matter either. Gaza is not occupied. It is well-funded. Hamas has used the funding to support their mission of destruction of Israel. Gaza could be a rich and functioning society, but it is Hamas who is holding it back. Hamas – and Fatah – are actively sabotaging democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to a peaceful and prosperous existence for their own citizens. They are not interested in democracy or in human rights. They say so, and they act accordingly.

The only friend of Palestinian people is Israel. It has a functioning democracy, and Jews and non-Jews alike can live in peace and are equal citizens. This is not what is happening wherever the enemies of Israel are in power.

The Zionist vision is not an exclusive vision. It is the vision of a peaceful and democratic homeland not just for Jews but also for Arabs, Christians and others. To be antizionist means to be antidemocratic, to be a-historical and to sell out to terrorists and the enemies of democracy.

There used to be a time when it was perfectly well understood on the political left that Zionism means just that. Israel was, rightfully so, seen as the shining example to the region that liberal democracy was possible after centuries of autocratic government. That a people that have been demonized and persecuted throughout all of history deserve to have a home. It was also understood that the biggest critics of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians actually are Israelis themselves.

Peace cannot come if the antisemitic, antidemocratic and pro-violence narrative of Hamas and others gets to win the day.

If the political left starts sounding like their alleged National Socialist enemies, then there will be hell to pay. Without a supportive left that does not even for a second support the continued existence of Israel, there cannot be any legitimate criticism of settlement policies either. Without a supportive left, it will be the conservatives and the proponents of the security state who will rule the day.

I have said it before, but it needs to keep saying: If you want to support a Palestinian cause for sovereignty, you need to support Israel. If you want to support liberal democracy, you need to support the democratic forces in Palestine and Israel, and not the warmongers.

The left needs to wake up from its delusion that Anti-Zionism somehow is different from Anti-Semitism. It isn’t. Such a confusion of epic proportions destroyed the ambitions of the Labor Party in Britain, and it will destroy the ambitions of the Democrats in the United States as well. Nothing good can come of siding with an aggressor, and the aggressor is Hamas and its supporters. What is best for Israel is also best for Palestine. It is time that this is understood again amongst those claiming to support truth, justice and liberalism.

#98: The Populist Attack on Democracy During the Pandemic

When the pandemic hit the world, it unleashed more than just a deadly virus. It has put us all in a crucible. Nature has been testing our ability to be political animals, forcing our societies and our politics to make impossible decisions. Who shall we protect? Am I my fellow citizen’s keeper? How much economic and social pain can we tolerate while defending us against a virus? If this spiky microorganism could speak, it might very well want to quote Shelley’s Ozymandias and say “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”

Desperation is political dynamite. It has the ability to creep into every crevice of society, poison minds and souls, and even to tear everything asunder. There is a reason politics seems at a loss sometimes. We are still racing through the night, the outlines of the path becoming clearer only to threaten to be obscured again. We have been playing this deadly game for over a year now, and it is not over till it is over.

The only guidance system we have is science. It is an imperfect system, but it is the only one that works. Its imperfection lies in the availability of data which influences the analysis of the problem and the creation of solutions. Science yields tentative answers, which eventually may form a theory, but everything is always under revision depending on new facts. This is a politician’s nightmare, and it is not intuitive for how human beings think. There is a reason that the systematic pursuit of science is an invention in itself that took millennia to take hold. Yet the fight against superstition and anti-science is never won, and it has become more difficult during the pandemic.

Science works in the collective mode, not in the heroic narrative of the lone voice in the wilderness. For there to be a situation in which established scientific view is so solidly mistaken, during a global emergency, is peculiar. As Carl Sagan has frequently said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The scientific consensus, based on the available data, is clear: the pandemic is real, the threat is real, and the approved vaccines work safely. The extraordinary position here is not the denier perspective, but the scientific consensus.

Yet it is the heroic mode, the tale of the hero fighting against the forces of darkness, that appears most seductive to human beings. There seem to be only a small number of medical, legal or scientific experts (typically in fields other than virology or epidemiology) that disagree with the established view about these matters. They have taken on the mantle of the hero that can fight against the medical crisis by denying its existence and by pointing to a wholly different threat.

We all have seen that our personal relationships have been put under tremendous stress. One of my closest friends has become a Covid denier. They have always been more interested in esotericism, astrology and popular psychology than in science or academic thinking. Their children and they themselves suffered from the lockdown, and this suffering led them down the path laid out to them by the algorithm of popular social media platforms.

There is an element of real pain here that is exploited by these platforms. People indeed feel crushed both by the pandemic and the measures taken to curb it. We are irrational beings much more than we would care to admit. Fear of the virus may lead to denying its existence. Lack of understanding of science may lead people to be suspicious of experts changing their minds when facts change. overall. Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were famous for dismissing experts and won elections on this very bias. We can all see politicians being frequently helpless in the face of the pandemic. People need someone to tell them that it will all be ok. If desperate enough, people will turn to false prophets. History is full of such stories, and it should teach us humility. Our system has indeed failed all those who now are moving to turn away from it, it has failed them in matters of education, civic engagement, and the recognition of everyone’s individual dignity. We are figuratively throwing people to the wolves, and down the rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole is electronic nowadays, and it is powerful. The alternative world view unfolding to the initiated speaks of a pandemic planned in a global cooperation of politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and the typical cast of allegedly diabolical characters. The sinister purpose remains unclear but overall follows the well-worn paths of typical antisemitic conspiracy lore. The more you enter this world, the more you are inundated by it, and the more you connect to the similarly initiated few that are the only ones able to see the light and to prepare for a post-“plandemic” future. The pandemic, of course, does not exist as the established media want us to believe, but instead there is talk that a “Great Reset” is on the way to allegedly subjugate all of humanity.

At first I was confused about this. What could possibly be the motivation behind the denial of the existence or threat level of the pandemic, or the safety of the vaccines?

The answer is emerging more and more. The Coronavirus Pandemic is used by populists to attack democracy itself.

We see some of this happening currently in the United States. With the Republican party and the conservative movement in disarray, there are some voices echoing conspiratorial notes. Outside the United States, the picture becomes more clear. In Germany, for instance, a new alliance between discontented voters who would formerly identify with the established parties either of the left, center or the right, now are coalescing into the New Right. Leading players of the so-called “Querdenker” movement (“critical” or “lateral” thinkers) ally themselves with sovereign citizens, with esoterically or anthroposophically influenced groups, with old and new authoritarians.

Their demands are clear: sweep away the old system, which includes all politicians, all established media, all scientists and all academics and all their supporters. Establish a new, allegedly truly democratic movement and govern through the direct will of the people determined by the assumed wisdom of crowds. Trust the natural healing powers of the human body, and let nature run its course. Reject “globalists” – a smear word created to distort the legitimate critique of neoliberal globalization and turn it into an antisemitically tinged libel of the United Nations, free-traders and multinationalists – and bring back the nation state. Seek alliance with Russia, as Putin has taken his country down that path already.

This sounds very familiar. It has a name, only its clothes are slightly recycled. If we let it fester, if we do not find clear answers, the national socialist movement is already growing, hiding behind – as it used to – a romantic fixation with nature, with esotericism, with anti-science and populist authoritarianism claiming to be democratic.

Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Coronavirus will eventually be defeated, managed, return to memory, with the possibility of return. The political virus that we deemed to have overcome is still lingering. As Berthold Brecht has said, “the womb is fertile still from whence this crawled.”

#97: Are We Prepared for Extraterrestrial Life?

As we are seeing more official confirmations of sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects, we may need to consider the possible impact of what such revelations may eventually mean.

At this point, all we are being told is that the origin of these objects is allegedly unknown. We are seeing videos that were formerly classified, and we get to hear from witnesses who may well sound believable and official. Something seems to be out there that we have not been told about before.

In all likelihood, these objects may well have a terrestrial origin. Some rather earthly power may be in possession of highly advanced technology, and they are either showing off their skills or being observed when testing their vehicles. It all may also be a very elaborate hoax or optical illusion. It may well be birds photographed very cleverly. It may just as well be very agile weather balloons…

If these are of terrestrial origin, the would be human-made. The technology is astounding. The flight patterns seem to indicate that the G-Forces operating on them are so extreme that either somebody has invented inertial dampeners (to borrow a Star Trek term) or they are operated remotely or by some form of robots. In all cases, that is quite some flying. Some sightings from decades ago may have been of early models of current technology. Maybe what we are seeing are test flights of secret technology. The origin would probably be American, Chinese, Russian, or an alliance of nations. That may be unsettling enough, but at least within familiar territory.

We may well find out that all the alleged revelations are just a clever publicity scheme to demonstrate the technological superiority of whatever nation has developed them. I personally think that this is the most likely scenario.

Nevertheless, I also believe that we should also consider the implications of an extraterrestrial origin, or even a combination of extraterrestrial and human technology. I may have watched too much Stargate: SG-1 / Atlantis / Universe or The X-Files to entertain such a notion. It could also be that such shows were meant to prepare us to think the previously impossible. Admittedly, Norad has a door labeled “Stargate Command” – even though it is just a broom closet.

But are we really so unimaginative to admit to us the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial life? Certainly, we now know that evolution is a powerful force throughout the universe, that there are more planets or moons or asteroids that could possibly support life than we had even thought possible before. Life may just be something that is extraordinarily ordinary in our universe.

Would such a universe look like Star Trek, where alien and human life somehow evolved in a similar timeframe? Had Earth been able to develop spaceflight earlier, we would have been in a completely different situation for instance. Our own history shows fits and spurs, and with things just having been a little bit different, we may have been on the moon thousands of years ago – or dinosaurs could have done it millions of years ago.

How could it possibly be realistic that our existence coincides with that of spacefaring aliens? We could assume that in the Vastness of the universe, due to a quasi infinite diversity in infinite combinations even a low probability of the coexistence of life at a similar stage of development means that it is possible – all it takes out of the 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way, one thousand million has planets supporting life, and out of these, one million has had intelligent life, and of those about 100 have life at the same technological stage. These numbers (except the first) are completely fictitious, but illustrate the evolutionary principle. A more scientific approach is delivered by the Drake equation and similar estimates.

All we know is that we don’t know much about this, but from what we know, our ignorance can be limited and the very possibility of extraterrestrial life needs to be taken into consideration.

The other question is whether we will be able to meet them. Our own technological knowledge certainly – or at least as far as we know publicly – for now precludes us from seeking them out on our own. If there is extraterrestrial life though, it is very likely that if it is technologically possible to traverse large distances, the aforementioned evolutionary principles almost dictate that there may very well be someone out there that could indeed reach us.

Can we speculate on their intentions? Assuming they are somehow like life on Earth, we should perhaps be a bit apprehensive. If they are somehow like us human beings, our apprehension should be on alert. We cannot be naïve in assuming that technological development is directly proportional to moral or ethical development. Our own history has certainly not always shown that. Warnings about contact with aliens are a staple of science fiction. The War of the Worlds was successful for a reason, it spoke to rather realistic fears. Some scientists have warned against seeking out extraterrestrial life, especially Stephen Hawking: “Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.”

Such pessimism might be correct. For all we know, an invasion fleet is well on its way after some scouting ships have done their job already. We can always imagine the worst possible scenario. We probably need to, and need to prepare for such an eventuality.

Nevertheless, I would dare to be a bit more optimistic, for two reasons. If UFOs are evidence of the presence of extraterrestrials observing us, they have been doing quite some observing for quite some while. If that is what is happening, it seems to be of scientific interest. A cautious opening and declassifying of materials by US authorities also does not really speak to knowledge of impending doom.

Yet even if we are at a moment in time that could lead to peaceful first contact, the ramifications for human societies would be immense. Are we prepared for such an expansion of our worldview? Are we prepared to extend our abilities to be welcoming to others also to beings that may be more different from us than each other? We have proven time and again that xenophobia is a constant in human societies. We are seeing such behavior again increased during the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Just imagine what extraterrestrials would know about us already. They will have watched our movies, our television stations, seen our news, learned about our history and our politics. Have we really become more peaceful after World War II? Steven Pinker maintains that this is the case, but some disagree, especially more recently. As much as I would like to agree with Pinker, as much as I would like to be hopeful, as a historian, I am cautious in my judgement.

There may well be a reason that extraterrestrials could be watching us. If they are, it stands to reason that they would just as well remain cautious about contacting us. They might certainly be right in their apprehension.

Maybe the question needs to be reframed. Rather than to only ask whether we are prepared for extraterrestrial life, we should wonder, is extraterrestrial life prepared for us?

See also: my earlier reflections on the matter, 23 years ago

#96: We Need Neutral News Media

After four years of news reporting that seemed more animated than ever, the change in the U.S. presidency carried one hope: a change of tone that would make it a bit easier to go through the our day-to-day lives. Sure, the pandemic still rages, but is politics not something now that has gotten much more palatable?

Think again. In fairness, the craziness that is American news predated Trump; in fact, he was able to plug in to an existing culture of media dysfunction.

What I mean by dysfunction consists of several elements:

  • The amplification of conflict by restyling news as a courtroom. Typically, there are advocates for two sides, and two sides only, and both have to be depicted as somehow equally believable, no matter which alleged position is more true than the other, or not true at all.
  • The opinion bias in ANY news source – in whatever news medium – is hurting the news. Some are worse than others, but all have some bias. It is good if you know the bias and you can discern any possible distortion due to your being educated about these issues, but how do you know? And why should we accept this? Can’t we have a clear and neutral agreement on what is news, and can’t we have balanced commentary sections that are true to the issues, not true to the division?
  • News-only channels are a problem in themselves. The over-hyped news cycle in its relentlessness is contributing to an already out-of-control entertainmentification of news. Additionally, for any 24-hour-news channel, there is frighteningly little news actually being reported. It’s a big planet. But the provinciality of all-day news channels is puzzling. The problem becomes even more confusing when comparing, for instance, CNN International with CNN USA. The former seems to be an actual news station, the latter – allegedly suited to its domestic American audience – is fishing in much shallower waters. The increasing partisan focus has also hurt the channel. We already have FOX News and MSNBC for those on either side of the political aisle, why pick up bad habits when you obviously could be able to run a serious news station instead. Dumbing it down for your audience is not a good idea. You’ll always lose to the station that is already doing a more efficient job in that respect.
  • Within commentary, there needs to be critical distance to the issue. We need complex, competent people sharing their genuine analysis (not just opinion) on matters of importance with us. The denigration of experts as somehow being too much of an expert is a saddening phenomenon.
  • Partisan politics invade not just commentary but also the selection of news. The problem goes beyond one channel. One or two (or three, or four? who knows) may be more over-the-top partisan than others, but it is certainly a matter of degree. At this point, every single American News Channel – with the possible exception of PBS – deserves at least some scorn by an audience with a legitimate demand to be given that which is true and balanced in analysis. Is it any wonder that – given this failure – the feeling about news in the country seems to go in the direction of “a pox on both your houses”?
  • Money in news channels is a further bad idea. Corporate ties seem to influence what gets reported and how. If you look at which corporations own which channel or which paper, and then if you look what these corporations also do abroad, any  reporting about some foreign country in which the parent company of the news corporation may be heavily investing, will always have to be suspect to reporting bias.

There are alternatives. This post has focused on the American market, but the difference to other news markets can be striking. The British, French, German, Canadian, and Australian markets, for instance, have a strong presence of public broadcasting. Privatization may create opportunities for more diverse content, but when it comes to the news, its effect has not been a benign one. The profit motive is not easily compatible with the search for truth.

There is much more to say on the subject, but let’s leave it here for now, to be revisited later.

#95: For Israel, For Palestine, For Peace

Please let me preface this with a personal note: This is my current perspective on the matter. I may be biased, but I am always willing to learn. I have known people from both sides, and I know that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. The clearest bias that I am willing to defend, though, is a bias towards peace, cooperation, and shared humanity. Maybe we need to think more in the now than in interpretations of the past.

(I)

Israel has been the undeniable homeland of the Jewish people for millennia. Throughout its existence it has been the target of outside imperial aggressors. Over the centuries, the land has been occupied by a succession of forces, some more than others obsessed with the eradication of every last trace of Jewish life. The Persian, Macedonian, Roman and Byzantine empires, various Islamic caliphates and Crusader states, the Ottoman and finally the British Empire all laid claim to the territory. With the continued presence of antisemitic pogroms in Europe, and the weakening of the Ottoman occupation force, a return of the Jewish diaspora to the homeland became possible and led to the movement known as Zionism. Its mission became even more urgent during the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. The United Nations finally resolved in 1947 to create the state of Israel, and partition the area known as Palestine accordingly.

Since the re-establishment of the state of Israel as the Jewish homeland, the new (and old) state has faced constant aggression by other factions newly released from Ottoman rule. The Jerusalem Riots initiated by the Arab Higher Committee of 1947 led to a Civil War. Israel was finally officially founded in 1948. Immediately, against UN intentions, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq launched the Arab-Israeli War, with other states joining in. That effort failed. Jordan and Egypt annexed Palestinian and Israeli territories. As the result of the riots and the war, the majority of Palestinians who had remained in Israel left the land or were forced to leave, but some remained and became Israeli citizens. The circumstances of the escape or expulsion of the Palestinians are of some debate, but in the end, the non-Jewish population lost their home due to a mixture of voluntary relocation, pressure or outright force. Several Israeli leaders have always criticized this expulsion or, as it is also known, catastrophe, or naqba.

After years of anti-Israel terrorist attacks, in 1967, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq attacked Israel, but after Six Days, Israel won and captured the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights. The so-called “Occupied Territories” were lost due to this attack. Terrorism continued, and in 1973, Egypt and Syria again attacked during Yom Kippur, and lost again.

Since then, the peace process has seen a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, and an uneasy peace between Israel and the Palestinians in the territories administered by Israel. The Jordan peace treaty followed in 1994. In 2000, Israel offered the return of Gaza and over 90% of the West Bank. Jerusalem was supposed to be the joint capital of both Israel and the Palestinian State. The offer was rejected by the Palestinian leadership. Nevertheless, in 2005, Israel granted independence to Gaza, hoping for the peaceful establishment of the core of a Palestinian state, and yet, Hamas has continued its campaign of terror to this day. The Palestinian people are not occupied primarily by Israel but by a leadership controlled by or allied with terrorist organizations whose solitary aim is the destruction of the Jewish homeland and its people.

Every other state on the planet has the right to exist. Yet somehow, it is seen as acceptable to problematize the very existence of Israel. “Zionism” means nothing else but the legitimate claim to the land of Israel as the Jewish homeland, and yet, it is seen as acceptable by an odd alliance of extremists on the far right and far left to approve of the label “antizionist.” When any other state in the world defends itself against aggressors and holds control over their territories, won after the attacker loses, this is seen as an acceptable victory, and yet with regards to Israel, it is called “occupation” and “settler colonialism.”

(II)

Nevertheless, the land is also home to the Palestinian populations. These dual claims are both legitimate, which complicates the fact. Who was where and when at which time in history is a question for the history books, but who is where now is a question for politics.

Certainly, Israel needs to find a way to work together with Palestinians who have lost their home, and who suffer daily from the terrorism unleashed or tolerated by their leadership. This terrorism is the cause for the Israeli security state and the deprivations imposed on innocent Palestinian civilians. If the terror stopped, peace would be possible, and what is called “occupation” could be shaped differently.

Criticism of specific policies of the State of Israel, and specific forms of settlement is always legitimate. But if the criticism is mounted at Israel in a way that treats it as essentially different from any other nation on the planet, then this is clearly anti-Semitic. Just as Anti-Zionism is just another code for Anti-Semitism, “criticism of Israel” is code for the denial of the legitimacy of the Jewish homeland.

Debates about territory are not helpful. Historically, every single state sits on the territory of someone else. Relitigating history typically leads to nothing but newer pain. We do need to put every conflict in perspective, and how we talk about it. For instance, do we call Turkey’s possession of territories gained after the genocide of Greeks and Armenians “occupied territories”? Do we call Tibet and Xinjiang province “occupied territories”? How about Crimea, South Tyrol, Northern Cyprus, Kashmir (by all sides), Northern Ireland, and the entirety of the Americas? Examples abound. What does that mean for the future of Israel and Palestine?

(III)

Consider the continent of Europe: Centuries, if not millennia of warfare have left no stone untouched. Every single border is drawn in blood. Yet the brilliant idea of European integration has brought peace: Focus on the economy, focus on the people, make borders matter less, and conflicts that were centuries or longer in the making will matter less and less.

Maybe the idea of a two-state solution has not been the right answer. Maybe a federal model with some form of shared leadership would work. I could dream of two states with a joint government, joint Israeli-Palestinian government departments, a collegialism enforced throughout institutions. But the solution has to be developed in Israel and Palestine itself.

Both belong together. Both represent the indigenous heritage of the area. They are intertwined, and both cannot tolerate much more pain.

One thing above all though: The solution has to be negotiated by the people on the ground. This is about how to make people see each other again as neighbors, as possible friends, as colleagues, as partners by fate and circumstance. Take the pressure out. Let foreign interests cede. Let truth speak, and let us hear both sides, but let us speak peace, salam, shalom.

#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.

#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?