#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.

#30: What Is Racism?

Racism is not just a mild disliking or misunderstanding of someone else because of some superficial difference. Someone may dislike people from group x, but still not wish the worst to them. Racism should be understood in a more substantial way.

First, racism believes in the idea of race holding a significant enough meaning to divide people against one another. Biologically, this is nonsense, and has been accepted as nonsense for more than a century. There is no science of “race”, only pseudoscience. Every human being on the planet has virtually the same DNA, and difference between members of so-called “races” are typically greater than those between different “races.” Among all human populations, skills and abilities are distributed similarly.

Furthermore, the pseudo-scientific interpretation of biology – or rather pseudo-genetics, namely eugenics – which abhors mixing between races, is built on the fallacy that purity is better than mixing (wrong: intermixing creates stronger and more resilient populations, while incestuous patterns with a focus on purity only lead to well-told jokes about the declining state of nobility…). Just as pure one-species forests are more prone to serious damage when disease hits, while mixed forests are much more resilient, so do human societies and countries do best when infusions of genes, ideas and experiences from other cultures can enrich one’s own.

Racism is firstly the belief that “race” is real in a (pseudo-)biological sense, and that its (pseudo-)biological sense automatically leads to a hierarchy between those who are seen as more and others who are seen as less advanced than others. Now we have arrived at the incorrect understanding of evolution. No race is more (or less) evolved than the other.

But if there was the belief in a critical difference between “race” A and “race” B, there was automatically the belief that one race was inferior to the other, which was then used up in unspeakable ways.

Racism is a strategy of domination, subjugation, and the denial of humanity of the victims. The assumed gain is the so-called “eugenic” purification of the main society, which would then remain allegedly unimpeded by so-called “lesser peoples”.

This racism, which is foundational to most societies, is foundational for America as well. It believes in putting people in their place. This was the system America followed for several years till the Civil War in 1861, then it created a revised version of the system by which slavery is illegal, but racism still structured society. Only after World War II, after Black soldiers worked with White soldiers as brothers, the newly found brothers in arms would find a place to return to a home which made them drink from separate water fountains. The outrage over this praxis led to the Civil Rights Movement, and onward to today.

One of the ways to see how racism is not natural is the monikers used to describe people. No so-called “white” person has a literally white skin – it’s piglet pink. The only way to get a light-skinned person look white is white powder and white wigs – which was indeed done in Early Modernity when modern slavery was created, but it was a marker mainly of upper class and function in European societies. From the beginning, “race” and class need to be seen as intertwined. Maybe caste would be a better term.

No person is black either. The black-white dichotomy is purely ideological, following a Manichean pattern of opposing sides, the dark and the light; white being a sign of purity, of beauty, black being a sign of the opposite (Ironically, in antiquity, white was the color of sadness and death). Native Americans were described as red probably because of face paint, Asians are yellow probably because of the colors of Buddhist robes, curry, etc. None of this makes sense biologically, only culturally, ideologically.

We need to overcome this way of thinking. And yet, such a notion is probably too utopian. Human beings seem to be very much needing to distinguish between peoples and put them into different categories. If it’s not skin color, it will be something else. Skin color was just a facile way during the colonial period of distinguishing between Europeans on the one side, and indigenous peoples and imported slaves from Africa on the other. We are still with the effects of that; it’s a complex history, based on a simple unethical decision to decide whose lives matter more than others.

#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.