#49: Nature Demands Humility

It’s as if nature has decided to teach humanity a lesson. Coronavirus and Climate Change are real dangers, but maybe too abstract to most.

There is nothing like the power of wildfires to teach us little arrogant apes who’s boss. As wildfires all across the Western United States are leading to mass evacuations, red and orange skies, and air too toxic to breathe with or without a mask (at least now we have them in supply!), humanity seems much smaller in reality than in our fantasy.

We should learn from that. Nature always wins. Be prepared. Be kind. And respect that which you cannot control.

#45: Benefit of the Doubt

It is probably human nature to be tribalistic, to be focused on supporting “your” side or team. This can sometimes limit our ability to cooperate with the “other” side. It also creates a false dichotomy, in which we can think only about two sides to any issue, even though there may be more.

One way to overcome this dangerous divide is to remind ourselves that even if we disagree with someone else, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Division works by painting an extreme difference, between only two choices, one absolutely correct and the other absolutely wrong; and additionally, painting those believing in the first choice as good, and the other as bad or even evil.

Trying to understand someone we do not agree with does not need to endanger our moral compass. It may question our own facts and assumptions – but that is a necessary process. The believe in an either-or, in the dichotomy of good versus evil is in itself the very problem plaguing our society. People are not all good. People are not all bad.

We need to fight against actions that create avoidable suffering, but we need to give people the benefit of the doubt even in those cases where we think that they may be causing harm. People’s motivations can be complex. They may actually mean to do the right thing, even if it ends up being the wrong thing. The saying that “the path to hell is paved with good intention” is quite applicable here: in too many cases, people may feel locked into a path that they may feel they have to take, even if it is wrong, even if they know it is wrong. Moral dilemmas are nothing new in human history, and all our literature and culture is full of such stories. Oedipus does everything to avoid killing his father, and yet ends up doing so. Utopian communities have always aimed at building a better world, and always ended up building hell on Earth. People know they need to communicate with each other to fight climate change, but they also need to use the very technology that is contributing to the destruction of our habitat.

If we give people the benefit of the doubt, if we truly listen to the other side, we display strength, not weakness. It is true strength to veer out of your bubble, to try to learn and understand what is alien to us; it is also true strength to change one’s mind if something convinces you that you have been wrong in the past. The longer we live, the more we will find where we have been wrong in the past. This happens all the time, and as much as we – hopefully – give ourselves room for growth, we should give it to others. Not without reason is judgement reserved to the Eternal in all religions.

#37: Coronavirus, the Amfortas Wound?

In Wagner’s Parsifal, king Amfortas, who guards the grail, has a wound that does not heal. It has been inflicted by the (evil) sorcerer Klingsor who has used the king’s own spear against him. The grail may help, but there are difficulties.

Is this maybe a good metaphor for the Coronavirus? The virus has appeared first in China, which is something that can happen in any country, but then the Communist government denied, falsified and manipulated information (Klingsor, check) – which is something that should not happen (Again, my critique here aims at the government, not the people).

Then, of course, almost every single country (with the exception of maybe Taiwan, but in all cases, time will tell) found ingenious ways to handle the outbreak in ways it should not have. The wound, though initially inflicted from outside, had now an own component, we have afflicted ourselves by lacking preparation, equipment, procedures, imperfect implementation of protective measures, and finally, lack of discipline, and of course, plain old stupidity and hubris (which all humans can do very well, no matter where they are from).

Now, that we are timidly trying to return back to some sort of life, the virus seems to be an expert at exploiting the slightest weakness we will show in opening back up. Each opening seems to provoke a rise in cases, and even hospitalizations, then we’ll have to lock up again, to open again, etc.

Is this our future till the vaccine? Is this an Amfortas wound that will not heal till the holy grail, the vaccine, will succeed? I hope not, because Parsifal – pace Wagner – is thinly veiled Christian eschatological allegory, but it is thus about hope and faith, not science. We cannot will the vaccine into being. We need to protect ourselves and each other. We will need to somehow start living with this nightmare.

But maybe hope is not a bad strategy: without hope that the wound will eventually heal, we would not get the energy to get over it. Thus let us hope, and try, just try, to focus on the better angels of our nature. We are all, the entire planet, in this together.

#27: What is Peace?

Peace is not just the absence of war, it is not just the absence of violence, it is not just the absence of strife, it is not passivity.

Peace is the active practice of a state of mind that is at peace, that seeks peace, that acts in peace. That excludes violence both in action as in words. For that to happen, it needs peace at heart, it needs compassion, it needs humility, it needs grace.

Peace is not easy; it is the hardest thing to ever achieve and maintain. It requires strength, perseverance, and constancy. A peaceful person does not give in to negativity, does not yield to temptations of aggression, does not diminish others, even if they are wrong.

Peace can only be the goal if it is the path. That does not imply pacifism, but it means that even if you have to fight an enemy, you should do it with the goal of peace in mind. Any enemy of today will have to become a friend as soon as possible. We should never make reconciliation nor forgiveness impossible, but see them as the path out of the conflict. Every war is a war with ourselves, as we are all one. If we reject that unity, we have already lost; and once inner peace is lost, outer peace cannot be gained.

Gandhi knew that, King knew that, Thoreau knew that. Black Elk knew it, according to John Neihardt: “know the power that is peace”1.

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1 Black Elk, John G. Neihardt, Raymond J. DeMallie. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, the Premier Edition. SUNY Press, Oct 16, 2008. 27.

#24: Conspiracy Thinking is Not Critical Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#18: What’s Left: Communism, Socialism, Progressivism, Social Democracy, and the Value of Dissent

There seems to be a notion out there that there are different stages of being left-wing or progressive. This goes back, of course, to Hegelian ideas about the Spirit of History, the End of History, and stages of development, which, in some way, were given a materialist spin by Marxism.

Anybody who believes that somehow, “as a society”, “as a people”, “as humanity”, we are moving in some direction through time, following the laws of History (with a capital H), is somehow believing in a “progressive” vision of society, in the sense that we are “moving along” an imaginary arrow of time leading somewhere. If you believe that eventually we will get flying cars, that we will colonize space, that humanity will somehow “evolve” through this process, and that this process is inevitable and that we should help it along, this is what it means to be a progressive, probably. History (with a capital H) is not just the more or less understandable accumulation of events that have happened, but it is a force that can be studied, whose laws can be understood, and the lessons of such study can be applied to our lives and our political vision. This is what “Historical Materialism” means, in a nutshell.

One opposing vision – and there can be many – would be that we are rather ambling along in an un-Historical way through our somewhat chaotic, unpredictable lives, hoping to make sense of things, but living in the humility that every society that ever existed has eventually crumbled, every state fallen, every human being eventually died, and humanity always living under the condition of being an imperfect approximation of larger goals, but never truly being able to live up to it, because of what is called the human condition. The lesson here would be to live your life as much as you can in a moral fashion, to improve the lives not just of yourself but also of others around you, to realize that nobody is perfect and that nobody should be blamed for that, but also, that such realization should not crush you down, but should enable you to pursue realistic goals, to live with hope and with the confidence that no matter what roadblocks life will have for you, you are doing everything you can, and this is just what life is all about. I would call this an agnostic view, maybe even mildly conservative, and it certainly is not seductive, even though probably more realistic.

Even less comforting would be fatalism, or complete acceptance of the order of things, although that could be liberating in the sense that the realization of your eventual complete inability to live forever saves you from even the semblance of false hope.

Yet people seem to need a positive vision, they need hope, they need something to cling to in order to go on. They need comfort, they need something to distract them from those parts of life that are not uplifting. Religion might be a solution, but true religion (true in the sense of not offering false promises or too simplistic answers), or rather theology, is more complex than typically desired, and that which could be called folk-religion may provide some hope, but it oftentimes falters under pressure. The classical question of Theodicy, “how could God let that happen,” does not really have theological substance. If “God is always greater” than our understanding, such a question is pointless, and it does not fit very well with higher-order religious systems. “God wills it” – if not applied to justifying horrendous human activity – is probably the best theological equivalent of Murphy’s Law. While probably true, it is surely neither uplifting, nor attractive.

Thus we come back to how to craft a vision for society. Some Progressivist vision – i.e. the general idea that things will improve over time – can certainly prove attractive. It might thus also seem seductive to help History along and shape that vision politically. Why wait unnecessarily if we can already make things better for everyone? As Marx remarked in his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” So far, so understandable. But how? Marx himself – contrary to popular belief – did not have a concrete vision. He never finished Capital himself, and we should be careful about drawing too concrete conclusions from his incomplete thinking on this. But there is one point that Marx has been making consistently – and most clearly in his letter to Ruge – and it bears repeating time and time and time again, and deserves to be quoted in full. It begins as follows:

“everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. …”

Tough stuff. We do not know the future, so it is better now to rather than to “dogmatically anticipate the world” (i.e. to create some dogmatic utopian state), the new one will come about through criticism of the old. Criticism, or critique, is more than just liking or not liking an idea, but a critical interrogation (truly open-ended) of the powers that be (and – because of the rejection of dogmatism – of the powers that challenge the powers that be. Then follows one of the great Marxian pen-drop put-downs, that caustic and acerbic wit for which he is so well known. But let’s continue, let the past be the past, and what do we need now?

“… Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. …”

Maybe Hegel appeared in Marx’ mind and whispered something of consciousness and spirit, and we get Marx at his most Hegel-ish aloof moments where bold statements are pounding the argument. There is no proof here, only him saying that there is. But it sounds cool. What he probably means is that philosophers can no longer be content at warming their armchair only with presumably complex thoughts spouted at adoring apprentices, but have to apply themselves at matters relevant for the people, for society, to actually liberate people from Plato’s cave rather than to bedazzle them with their skill. Thus now:

“… But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” (Marx to Ruge)

Thus if we aim to create a better future, we need to be careful, and make sure that we stay skeptical. This sense of skepticism and critique is interwoven into all of Marx’ thought; it is practically his conditio sine qua non, the condition without which you cannot think about him. Ruthless skepticism means a skepticism even of skepticism. All power needs to be critiqued always. This position is more important than any other political idea Marx may have had; and it is the one impulse remaining throughout all of Marxist intellectual history. And Marx is, or should be, or is frequently declared to be, the cornerstone for the leftist movement itself. You could start with Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus, or with Jesus, or with Francis, or Acquinas, or many others, but Marx it is, typically.

Marx’s demand for criticism is a demand for intellectual freedom, and thus for democracy. Utopia ruins freedom, as it is by definition perfect, and the enemy of perfection is the enemy of, well, everyone who wants a utopian future. Marx wants to make things better, but he wants to keep thinking.

The enemy of thinking is dogma. Whenever dogma enters the equation, you enter the perversion of leftist thinking. The “left”, or in French “gauche”, or better, in Italian, “la sinistra”, gets its “sinister” reputation partially from the caustic personalities of a Karl Marx, a Richard Wagner, a George Orwell, a Lech Walesa, or a Christopher Hitchens, Umberto Eco, or Slavoy Žižek. This is as sinister as things should go.

Communism is dogma, it left-wing is utopianism of the worst and most oppressive kind. It is the utopian vision, and states who pursued it, called themselves Socialist (and aspired towards the Communist ideal). “Socialism” and “Communism” are thus the same thing, and “Democratic Socialism” is the term used by revamped Communist parties in former Soviet-style Socialist countries to delude people about what they really are. Socialism can never be democratic if it attaches itself to the idea of dogma, of utopia. You cannot modify socialism through democracy; socialism is a dogma, and dogmas are inherently anti-democratic, anti-criticism, and anti-thinking.

The only thinking alternative is Social Democracy, where democracy (which tends to align with capitalism, because free thinking and free markets go well together) is modified (or mollified) by social thought. Social Democracy is not a failed attempt at becoming socialist or communist. It’s the other way round. Dogmatism, whether it is socialist or communist (or national socialist!) is always a perversion of social democracy.

There is nothing wrong with being moderate, there is nothing wrong with being skeptical, there is nothing wrong with thinking. Any system that wants people to comply rather than to think on their own is not something a thinking person should want to pursue. As Kant said in “What is Enlightenment,” Sapere aude, dare to reason on your own. He was more polite than Marx, but Marx still asks us to think for ourselves, and to support others to do so as well. After all the sound and fury of Marxist discussions and arguments, this is what is, and should, be left.

#17: Coronavirus: This is the Apocalypse

Bear with me. The Greek word “apo-“ means “away from”, or “un”-, and “kaluptô” means to cover, hide, veil. “Apokalypsis” simply means Uncovering, Unveiling, bringing that which was once hidden into the light (alas the phrase in the Latin Requiem, “quidquid latet, apparebit”: whatever hidden, appear it will); to reveal something. Alas, the book of “Revelations” is about revealing something. “Apocalyptic” is something that reveals something, that may bring out a change, but that is not necessarily the end of the world, or something horrible; it’s just whatever may bring out the truth.

(Just imagine me, sitting through the countless times some horror show or movie saw some heroes facing the “Apocalypse”, which would be some weird end of the world scenario, while I was figuratively hitting my head thinking, “this is not what apocalypse means.”)

Anyhow.

No, as far as I can tell, CoViD19 is not bringing about the end of the world. It is bringing death and destruction, but it is revealing something else: We need to change the way we have been doing things. This is the apocalypse we have to understand. We are seeing that our trajectory is all wrong at the moment. Let’s make a list:

  • Global interconnectedness has always been the best route for pandemics to spread. We need to be smart about those connections. At least clean the planes, and filter pathogens out of the air. That should not be too much to ask.
  • If something bad happens, everyone needs to know, politics be damned. Whether this thing came out of a lab accident or a wet market in Wuhan, PRC, we all need to know immediately. Full transparency, full access, no shenanigans. Same with Chernobyl or any other mess back then, same with anything else in the future.
  • We cannot just make stuff in one place globally. This right now means China, but it would also be wrong if everything was made in the US or in Europe. A global system needs redundancies, backups, multiplications, simple as that. Any place on Earth could be hit by a catastrophe, and we should never have an over-reliance on one place only. This is stupidity of the highest order.
  • We need to think globally, whether we like it or not. Does not mean we cannot have or national or regional or individual identities, but we are living in close communion with the world already, and we need to take that into account, the good and the bad. Behave already.
  • The West cannot shy away from believing in individual rights, democracy, rule of law, equality, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, right to privacy, the inviolability of life, checks and balances, etc. Don’t let a legitimate crisis lead to an illegitimate destruction of rights fought for over centuries of human history across the globe. These are not just Western rights, they are human rights, and governance standards for good reasons. Dictatorships don’t work in the long run. The Roman Republic knew this: in a crisis, you can appoint a dictator till the end of the crisis, maximum for one year, then things go back to normal. Whether or not that worked in Rome, we can learn from this piece of wisdom.
  • We will have to do what we can to defeat a pandemic with science and discipline, and once that works, we cannot whine “it wasn’t so bad, look!” when the reason for our success were the measures taken.

You get the gist. This is what an apocalypse should be: a wake-up call to get us through the current mess, and prevent the next one which will – just as in any good science fiction or horror show – inevitably appear and be bigger and badder than the last one.

We’ve been warned. No excuses.

#15: Happiness

I have struggled all my life with some form of sense of mortality and the definite sense of an ending. That is, I guess, due to a Catholic upbringing, in which the theme of death is permeating everything, albeit counterpointed with resurrection. I have not always been able to reap the benefit of an unwavering faith that G-d will take care of me just as I wish; because I do not want to presume to know what G-d might want, or to even dare ask G-d to intercede on my behalf. (I use the Jewish spelling of G-d to indicate that we cannot know what “God” actually is).

Life thus consists in hope, but not certainty, that things may well turn out well, but also in the awareness of the struggle that things do not just magically fall into place.

There is also the medieval “Wheel of Fortune” idea, so popularized by the Carmina Burana, which tells the tale that our lives will be favored by the fates some days, and other days not, and that high and low, rich and poor, will suffer from Fortune’s wheel. Breaking the wheel – the utopian notion that was Daenerys’ hope in Game of Thrones – is impossible:

However, hope may lie in realizing and feasting on the punctuated moments of happiness. Akhnaten did have a good little run, as depicted in Philip Glass’ Opera. At the height of his power, he invents monotheism (pace Freud, S. (1939). Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays), and enjoys his triumphant moments as the founder of a revised Egyptian religion, whose traces will probably survive as one of its followers, Moses, carries it with him when fleeing oppression in Egypt.

Yet joy does not last, and as Akhnaten’s realm falls, his happiness comes to an end. But it was real – in the years that he indeed was the new founder of his religion:

Just because the past is difficult, the future unseen, and the present stuck in the uncomfortable middle, this should not prevent us from enjoying the happiness we can make in the meantime. It is hard, excruciatingly hard, but possible, every day, to carve out a moment of transcendence, of divinity, of spirituality, of utter joy, of ecstasy, and of shameless undiluted humanity. Whatever darkness may have befallen you today, cast it out for a few moments, and remember, this is your life, and you control your reaction to it, so that, in the end, with hope, you can have peace.

I guess this was a very strangely Catholic post. Oh well. It’s Easter, why not have some hope!