#63: Doubt and Faith in Religion

(Before starting this, I would like to remind you, dear reader, of my other writings on religion – specifically, my longer poems “Faith No More” and “Pietà“, which contain some criticism of religion. My relationship with religion is complicated, and my understanding of it maybe a bit unorthodox.)

The core of every respectable religion is faith, but it is a faith that is deeply informed by doubt. Both belong together. Faith has no meaning without doubt: For you do not need faith if you have no doubt, because you would have conviction. Doubt without faith is just hopeless, and this is not the idea of religion.

Conviction may seem a religious position, but it actually should not be. If you are convinced, then you forget that deus semper maior, God is always greater, the Eternal is always beyond our understanding. I may have faith in God, but I cannot know God, that would be blasphemy. God is always defined as that which is beyond humanity, beyond the world, beyond that which we can understand. To claim to know the will of God is lunacy; we may claim to know the communicated way of God, but the will or mind of God is beyond us. “Thou shalt make no graven images of the Eternal/Divine/God” is the safety valve of religion against fundamentalism and wrong conviction.

This makes religion much more similar to science than most people seem to be aware of. In science as well, the larger picture, the complete truth, is hidden as well. All our human knowledge is tentative, and nature is always bigger than us.

Humility is thus at the core of every religion, as a result of doubt (in my faculties) and hope (in the Eternal) that our life is not senseless. We know in a position of somebody who does not know – which is Socrates’ demand “oîda ouk eidōs (οἶδα οὐκ εἰδώς)” – “I know as someone who does not know” – I know in a way of humility, as if I knew nothing, and only then can I really know. I know in a way of skepticism, so that I am critical of everything, but most of all myself, and only then can I find the truth.

Religion does not really give answers, it gives us a question, or better, it puts us in the position to be the one who always questions, who always searches for the truth, will never find the final truth, but will always have hope to one day come closer, and that the result of our search – which we cannot see as mortal beings – will be worthwhile. We may or may not see it after our life on Earth concludes, but that is not really the point either. The point is to live life in such a way that we are always oriented towards the Eternal, towards the Promise, with Faith, but also in doubt which gives us humility.

Religion is thus not a dogma, it is not irrational, it is not some stories about events that seem unbelievable. It is a path, a way, kairos (καιρός), dharma (धर्मः), dao (道), the red road (Čhaŋkú Lúta).

Such an understanding of religion shows the rationality of it, the inclusivity, the global interconnectedness of religion. It prevents you from succumbing on a wrong path that would otherwise lead you astray, that inoculates you against fundamentalism, cults and conspiracy theories, and yes, against those things claimed to be religious that do not align with the principles of humility, doubt, faith and hope.

#62: Democracy is a Consensus-Creation Machine

There may be many purposes for democracy, but there is only one that really means something, and which is the sine qua non of democracy: Consensus creation.

Without consensus, we have nothing. All the adversity unleashed by campaigning, all the (sometimes mock-)animosity between members of different political factions or parties needs to eventually come down to one thing: consensus.

We need to work together, and democracy, ideally, can make this happen if it is structured in such a way that consensus is inevitable. It will be annoying, but productive, and the only real way to make decisions stick. Compromise for consensus’ sake is a real sign of strength, because, to quote former Chancellor Kohl, “what’s important is that which emerges in the end.” Results matter, and you get lasting results only with a compromise.

You get to compromise through humility, which is nothing else than the realization that you yourself could be wrong. Democracy means that you need to realize that the people may be smarter than you are. Once you get over your own ego, you’re ready to truly accept democracy as the only system creating lasting, sustainable change through consensus.

#61: We All Need to Appreciate Each Other

It is so easy to get caught up in why we all cannot get along. History is a constant source of grievances, both legitimate and illegitimate and everything in between, and we could find all sorts of reasons for having us convinced that we cannot, should not, must not – and how dare you to! – get along with those people that we must not, should not, cannot, and ought not even dare to get along – for whatever reason we can find right now. Reasons will come and go, the kind of people we are supposed to hate will come and go, but hate always stays, somehow. It is not always called hate (who wants to be admitting to being a “hater”?), and we are all able to make up fancy words and reasons for succumbing to hate, rejection or hate-fueled indifference.

For all the myriad reasons to hate, there is but one reason to do the opposite: love. We are all the same. We are all in it together. We are all related, somehow, and all our worries are rather similar. We all want to belong. We all want to be recognized for who we are. We all want to be proud of something we or even our culture or group or nation or ancestors did, while recognizing all the wrongs committed as well. We just want to be seen as what we all aspire to: the best possible version of ourselves.

Life is short, really short, unbelievably short. Cherish the times you have with loved ones, for they will not be forever. Cherish the moments of happiness, for they will not be forever. Cherish the days that you can actually be doing something good, for they will not be forever. Cherish when you were able to learn something new, and when you were able to teach something new. All this can go away in an instant.

We know, we all know, and now especially: this is a time of global catastrophe, of global loss, of global grieving: this will hopefully teach us one thing: humility. We have not been very humble recently, especially those of us living in the areas of the world where life is relatively easy, where there is basic safety, availability of food and housing, stability in government, the absence of war, and some protection from the incessant ups and downs and other vagaries of life. Some of us have become arrogant, have built our golden calf and have venerated it thoroughly, and we have become it ourselves, the object of our self-adoration, visible in our selfies. We need to make less pictures of ourselves but of others, and we need to make them in our hearts. We are all in this. Covid, Climate Change, and democracy under duress.

We need to assume that we will survive, and we must appreciate each other. If this is not the moment to learn the lesson that we are all one, then I don’t know when that would be. We must appreciate, we must love each other, radically, globally, always. We are the same, we feel the same, we bleed the same, we die the same.

The least we can do for each other is to stop the bullshit and the hate, even the ignorance; question the true privilege of not having to know anything about anyone else: because appreciation and recognition should be the least that we not only owe to each other, but would also be able to deliver.

So, there’s that. Today, an erratic sermon – why not. We should all write sermons once in a while, letting the reflection on the Eternal inspire us for our all too mortal lives.

#60: How We Know that the New Coronavirus Is a Real Threat

There are all kinds of stories out there claiming that the threat posed by the New Coronavirus (Covid19 / SARS-CoV-2) would not be real, and that everything is a big global conspiracy for some typically unspecified sinister purpose. Allegedly, the tests are said to be meaningless, and even if there was a threat, it would be marginal, comparable to a seasonal flu. Third, even if there was a threat, it would be dangerous only to the elderly and those that are already vulnerable, and that this would just be one of the normal risks of life, and that we cannot risk the fates of young people for the sake of protecting those allegedly close to death anyway.

How to answer this? If you try to argue with such positions, you may not get far with calling them conspiracy theorists, (Cov-)idiots, or any other insult that you may think helpful. It’s not helpful. In my experience, such positions exists due to an actual and serious concern about the present dangers of lockdowns, about the lives of children, the fate of our economy, the fates of elderly suffering and dying in silence in hospitals, rehab facilities, hospices and retirement homes, and the isolation enforced on grandparents from their children and grandchildren. Additionally, there are perceived threats to the freedoms of speech, of assembly, of protest, etc. All these concerns are real. They are not trivial, they need answers and not ridicule.

The reason that people may have to frame their concerns in conspiratorial ways may well be that these concerns are not taken seriously, not even in part, and that scientists and politicians are horrible at explaining the reasons for the preventative measures taken.

Let me say that first, I am not a medical doctor, I have no degrees or experience in virology, epidemiology, or public health when it comes to matters of disease prevention. I am an interdisciplinary cultural/social/political theorist and historian, with a specialization in humanistic gerontology (or age studies). This is important. Everybody should know their limits. I can tell you something about how people have historically and presently thought and conceptualized their lives, how societies function, how people have been thinking about politics, and how all this may have influenced also how we think about matters of health, life, death and the beyond. I am concerned, for instance, about how people think and feel about aging and old age, and not about the biology of aging.

If I were to say anything medically about Covid19, I would have to research information online. I can do that, but – despite all my academic training in the disciplines mentioned above – I am not trained to evaluate medical information. If I were to research this data on my own, I would certainly display all the symptoms of a first-year medical student: everything would be so overwhelming that I would basically believe everything, and probably display symptoms. There is a reason that medical practitioners and researchers study for many, many, many years, and have to conduct guided research on their own and/or practice medicine for yet many, many more years before finally being able to be considered fully trained. Science may be accessible to anyone, but it requires all this training for a reason. It is complicated, oftentimes counter-intuitive, and laborious.

Furthermore, when it comes to new or unsettled science, you will always find scientists who disagree with the majority opinion; there may even not be a majority opinion at all. This can be even more confounding to a lay audience, and to evaluate frontier science should be left to the experts, and the safest bet is to trust the majority opinion, especially if it comes from researchers and practitioners from around the globe. Yes, the Chinese government initially withheld necessary information, and this was relevant in the initial phases of the pandemic. But by now, we – that is, the experts, but also all of us if we have been paying attention to the news – we all know much more, and we do not anymore rely on the Chinese dictatorship to tell us what’s going on. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) by now seems to have learnt from their mistakes. If experts from countries with governments that seriously do not agree on anything else can agree on Covid19, that agreement should not be underestimated. No matter who you ask, experts from the EU, the US, from Israel, from Canada, from Mexico, from Russia, from China, from Iran, from Saudi Arabia, from India, from Pakistan, from Australia, from Nigeria, from South Africa, from wherever you could possibly think of, if all of them agree, then we should listen intently.

Thus, 1., as laid out before, a global conspiracy is really not likely to happen. The Bill and Melinda Gates has been very much interested at fighting at diseases around the globe, and have frequently warned about the dangers of a coming pandemic. The likelihood of that happening has been, and continues to be, extremely high. After H1N1, SARS-1, MERS, yet another virus transmitted through the respiratory tract was likely to emerge, and any betting person would have assumed it could be a Coronavirus. There is nothing sinister about preparations such as the Pandemic 201 scenario conducted just last year. Also, Covid19 will not be the last Coronavirus to haunt us. We keep bothering nature, and nature will bother us back.

2., the tests are not perfect, but they have been shown to be a good predictor, and I would seriously follow medical and scientific advice. Not a single country benefits from rising infection numbers, from hospitals overburdened, from people dying prematurely. There have been very clear numbers about Covid19 actually killing people, or about hastening mortality – which is the same thing. If a person would have lived longer without a Covid19 infection, then the virus contributed to their death, case closed. Any speculation on the order whether a person died “with” or “from” Covid19 is irrelevant sophistry.

3., masks work, distance works, and airing out works. Independent experts have shown so. Yes, it seems that older people are more at risk. Some of them die close to their life expectancy at birth. But that is a misleading value. If the “life expectancy at birth” is 80, that means that a baby born now will have a chance to live till 80, statistically. But there is a different value also. If a person is currently 80, they still have 10-15 more years life expectancy at 80. If they are 90, they could actually grow to be over 100. This may sound confusing, but again, it is for the experts to decide. Now, who is to decide which life has value or not? Are we seriously considering senicide, the killing (or “letting die”) of the elderly? We are speaking actually of people older than 50 or 60. These are people who still fulfill many social functions, and they also, by the way, have a right to live their life.

Some people are uncomfortable with restrictions like masks and distancing posed upon children or younger people, assuming their risk of dying would be less. We don’t quite know whether this risk may actually climb, as it did during the Spanish Flu, and we also are seeing severe consequences to infection with Covid19, including neurological damage, and possibly permanent impairment of functions of several organs. This disease is new, and from all we know, very serious. It is much worse than the flu (which can be deadly also, but less so). And if it comes to preexisting conditions that may affect whether you survive or not, whether you recover with still much damage or not; we all have such conditions probably, whether we know it or not.

The discomfort or psychological damage of people is serious; but long-term illness or even death are worse. If in order to protect those that need protecting we all need to limit our normal activities, than this is what we will have to do. We have to do that smartly and with as much consideration for all of us as possible, but if we are to survive this as human beings, wearing masks and distancing and airing out are really not too much to ask.

We know that the threat is real because the majority of scientists and experts agrees. Should that agreement break down completely, we can reconsider. But for now, this is real, and we need to act accordingly.

#59: Why Really Big Conspiracies Cannot Exist

We all may believe somehow that there are some bigger forces pulling the strings of society. We all know that money matters in politics. We all know that powerful people somehow are connected with each other. We all know that strangely, if you ask the question “cui bono” or “who benefits,” you will always get some answer that confirms that something sinister has been going on all along. We all know that there are people who have more information than we, and that those who control information, control the world. We all know.

But we know also other things. We know that powerful people are only powerful because they rely on others to help them. We know that if you need big things to be done, you will rely on many people to work for you or help you. We also know that power does not last for long, that people – especially powerful people – are always in competition with each other, and that the slightest weakness shown will find someone else filling the gap. We know that people like to talk, even if they have been paid to be quiet. We know that some things eventually will get out.

The bigger the conspiracy, the more complicated it will be to make it work. Even small conspiracies regularly fail and are discovered, just because people are people. Why would it work on the large scale?

Is Coronavirus a real threat? Certainly so. Every country in the world has had to deal with it, every country has their own experts, their own agenda, their own politicians who would like to stay in office, their own people that they do not want to see dead or hurt, their own economy that they need to function – because it is in their interest for the world to function, and not for it not to function. Exceptions are terrorists that exist not in order to function but to create dysfunction. But a state, even one as mischievous as Communist China, seeks self-preservation.

Let’s take China as an example. My criticism is of the government and the governing ideology, not of the people of China, or of Chinese culture and values. Everytime I criticize a country I criticize the government. Covid-19 was first unleashed in China. Whether or not it was accidentally released by a lab is immaterial. What is important is that the Chinese government first lied about it, spread their lies to the WHO and any country that would listen, and impeded efforts to find out the truth, and still is. We still do not know the official number of Covid-related deaths in China, but it will be so many that the complete lockdown of Wuhan was deemed necessary. Now, Communist China is a country that has perfected the machinery for coercion, surveillance, even on an international scale. Yet they still were not able to contain information completely, eventually, and we will find out the rest. We know enough to know that whatever China did, whatever they tried to hide, equates probably that which allowed Chernobyl to happen. The Chinese government knows this and is very nervous about its future – and it should be. Once the incompetence and mendacity and outright cruelty of such a dictatorship is exposed for all to see, it will try to exert strength even more, but the mask of civility has cracked even more, and the truth will come out. The big conspiracy – to hide the truth – has failed where it matters most: that the fact that there was a conspiracy itself is now known.

Nazi Germany was not able to hide the Holocaust. The Soviet Union was not able to hide Chernobyl. Democracies aren’t even trying hard enough to hide whatever may need hiding. Surely, there are official secrets that will need to be protected. But that is different from a vast conspiracy of a magnitude that was hidden from public view.

The theory of the day is that Covid-19 is not really as bad as people think. Allegedly, the tests are wrong, infections are measured incorrectly, people who are dying do not do so allegedly because of Covid but with Covid also present. Nevertheless, we are shutting down societies due to some nefarious plans made by virologists, Bill Gates, and some world governments, again allegedly. The purpose, not sure. It holds no water. How would you coordinate thousands of scientists from different countries (some of which are direct competitors, even in trade wars or real wars with each other), which politician would deliberately crash their economy – which would endanger their reign and their power and their reelection, and what has Bill Gates done wrong at all (other than having released subpar versions of windows pre-XP (which was in 2001)? Because really, Vista was great overall, 7 was perfect, and 10 is not perfect, but almost there)?

Granted, there may be some conspiracies out there that could be hiding something real. That depends on how many UFO documentaries you have watched. But even in this case, some information has been released, and there the conspiracy seems to be not about what “they” know, but about the fact that “they,” in fact, do not know as much as people think “they” would know. Personally, that is even scarier to me…

But overall, the logistics it would take to pull off a grand conspiracy is mind-boggling. 300 years faked in the Middle Ages, as Heribert Illig alleges? Does not work. Germany not an independent country with no peace treaty? No, the 2+4 treaties eventually fixed the problem, and occupation has ended. “The Jews” have been secretly running the world? Constant pogroms, the Holocaust, anti-Israel propaganda and activism make that difficult to believe. The Lizard People are in control? You mean, the Silurians from Doctor Who? Q Anon? Q Who? Atlantis is real? Is the Stargate too?

My alien overlords are telling me that if I don’t shut up, Q will visit me from the Q continuum, and he will send me to Atlantis immediately with a snap of his finger, unless Captain Picard can intervene in time.

#58: Question Everything; But Also Yourself

It is important to not take everything for granted. The dangers of authoritarianism are always real, and simple answers to complex questions should never satisfy the curious mind. There is a reason dictatorships always want to limit free speech and even thinking itself, and any attempts at limiting free thought and free expression need to be countered.

The biggest advances in human thought and endeavors have been made by those who were willing to question the status, quo, to think outside the box, to deviate from dogma. The institutionalization of this questioning is called science. Sure, science has an orthodoxy, but it encourages questioning the very orthodoxy it allegedly protects. It is not perfect, but its methodology encourages and is built on curiosity. Still, sometimes it needs outside thinkers to make advances, and that has routinely happened.

The arts, as well, thrives on newness, on deviating from known patterns, on surprising new ways of interrogating human existence. Wherever the arts and the sciences are thriving, society will be healthy, and the very act of questioning everything that exists is welcome as a necessity.

If you question everything though, you also need to question yourself. There will be many situations in your life during which you may see yourself as the only one that knows the answer, or that there are only a very few that think like you, and that the majority of society is set against you. These moments can happen. I grew up in a brutal dictatorship, and I know how that feels. But you learn that oppression can be overcome, even if it takes forever. You also learn that, despite all the efforts of a dictatorship not to have you express yourself, you are not alone. Most people who live under an oppressive system know that, and they will find little ways of resisting and pretending to conform. Even in the worst of societies, be it Nazism, Communism, religious extremism, or any other totalitarian attempt to control the way you think and feel, even in those systems, you will know that even the oppressors know that this is wrong.

If you do not live in such a system, but you still believe that you do, this is a tough spot to be in. You will feel that everyone is against you. Your allies seem to be fewer than you think. Your friends and family will seemingly be against you. You are the only one to see the truth, and you see only a tiny proportion of society willing to share your point of view. You can still be right in your suspicions. But you will need to question yourself. Nobody is an expert in everything, and if you feel especially vulnerable, your judgement may not be leading you down the right path all the time.

Question yourself. Sometimes, you are headed in the right direction while everybody is heading the other way. That can surely happen. But there is also the possibility that everyone is heading in the right way, and you just took a wrong turn and are driving on the wrong lane against traffic. There is such a thing as paranoia, and to quote Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” but sometimes, our drive to question everything can make us become unable to trust that when almost everyone around you disagrees with you, you might not be the rebel, but you might actually be wrong. Recognizing that is the truly revolutionary act. We all can be wrong sometimes. Only the truly free thinkers can recognize that about themselves.

Only if we truly think freely, and truly question everything, will we be able to communicate nuances, problems that others are not recognizing or unwilling to discuss. Things are never black and white, they are always shades of grey. Just because one problem may dominate society does not mean that that problem does not need to be addressed in nuanced ways, neither have all other problems gone away. Staying in conversation with others means that your voice will get heard on the issues you care about. Setting yourself against everyone means that eventually, you will be ignored even when it matters the most. If you follow Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, it is not about questioning everything at all: it is about loving everything, and caring deeply enough to affect positive change.

It is important to not take everything for granted. The dangers of authoritarianism are always real, and simple answers to complex questions should never satisfy the curious mind. There is a reason dictatorships always want to limit free speech and even thinking itself, and any attempts at limiting free thought and free expression need to be countered.

The biggest advances in human thought and endeavors have been made by those who were willing to question the status, quo, to think outside the box, to deviate from dogma. The institutionalization of this questioning is called science. Sure, science has an orthodoxy, but it encourages questioning the very orthodoxy it allegedly protects. It is not perfect, but its methodology encourages and is built on curiosity. Still, sometimes it needs outside thinkers to make advances, and that has routinely happened.

The arts, as well, thrives on newness, on deviating from known patterns, on surprising new ways of interrogating human existence. Wherever the arts and the sciences are thriving, society will be healthy, and the very act of questioning everything that exists is welcome as a necessity.

If you question everything though, you also need to question yourself. There will be many situations in your life during which you may see yourself as the only one that knows the answer, or that there are only a very few that think like you, and that the majority of society is set against you. These moments can happen. I grew up in a brutal dictatorship, and I know how that feels. But you learn that oppression can be overcome, even if it takes forever. You also learn that, despite all the efforts of a dictatorship not to have you express yourself, you are not alone. Most people who live under an oppressive system know that, and they will find little ways of resisting and pretending to conform. Even in the worst of societies, be it Nazism, Communism, religious extremism, or any other totalitarian attempt to control the way you think and feel, even in those systems, you will know that even the oppressors know that this is wrong.

If you do not live in such a system, but you still believe that you do, this is a tough spot to be in. You will feel that everyone is against you. Your allies seem to be fewer than you think. Your friends and family will seemingly be against you. You are the only one to see the truth, and you see only a tiny proportion of society willing to share your point of view. You can still be right in your suspicions. But you will need to question yourself. Nobody is an expert in everything, and if you feel especially vulnerable, your judgement may not be leading you down the right path all the time.

Question yourself. Sometimes, you are headed in the right direction while everybody is heading the other way. That can surely happen. But there is also the possibility that everyone is heading in the right way, and you just took a wrong turn and are driving on the wrong lane against traffic. There is such a thing as paranoia, and to quote Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” but sometimes, our drive to question everything can make us become unable to trust that when almost everyone around you disagrees with you, you might not be the rebel, but you might actually be wrong. Recognizing that is the truly revolutionary act. We all can be wrong sometimes. Only the truly free thinkers can recognize that about themselves.

Only if we truly think freely, and truly question everything, will we be able to communicate nuances, problems that others are not recognizing or unwilling to discuss. Things are never black and white, they are always shades of grey. Just because one problem may dominate society does not mean that that problem does not need to be addressed in nuanced ways, neither have all other problems gone away. Staying in conversation with others means that your voice will get heard on the issues you care about. Setting yourself against everyone means that eventually, you will be ignored even when it matters the most. If you follow Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, it is not about questioning everything at all: it is about loving everything, and caring deeply enough to affect positive change.

#57: What Is Science?

We are living in a world where people expect easy answers, quick soundbites, witty tweets, and individualistic, even solipsistic and narcissistic approaches to the big questions of life. It is your feelings that matter, not those of most people; it is your thoughts, not those of others; it is your desires and needs, not those of others; and it is your world view that counts, not those of others. There is legitimacy in this, of course, as a corrective to totalitarian approaches to human existence, and to conformity, mass culture, and to the every overbearing and overeducated academic trying to lecture you about what to think and do.

But there are things in this world that are real, that are not bowing to our wishes, and that are not depending on anyone’s point of view. We may be able to interpret the world differently, but the world still exists. Reality is real. How do we know? It’s called evidence. It can be proven by different people from different backgrounds and perspectives, using different methodologies, all arriving at the same result. No matter how you look at the sun, you cannot deny that it is a gas giant powered by nuclear fusion, heavy enough to exert enough gravity to have all the planets and dwarf planets and comets and asteroids and whatnot perambulate around it in their respective orbits, Earth being one of them. We can measure the distance from us to the sun. We may measure it in miles or meters or astronomical units or light years or parsecs, but it is always the same distance. We may paint the sun with a smile and rays, but that’s just artistic license. We may believe we can appease the sun by praying to a Sun god, but the astronomical object does not care. No matter what we puny humans think, the sun exists with or without us. We can even send a probe up to the sun and receive data for as long as the probe is still functioning. It is not a figment of our imagination, not up to discussion whether it exists, we have evidence, it is there. Science is about evidence.

We know about the sun from our own visual observation, but that might be misleading. Our eyes and brain are well able to conspire against us, so that is not enough. We need a second opinion, maybe a third, or an nth. Science is about collaboration. No single scientist represents all of science. Single scientists can and do disagree regularly with the majority, and in some rare cases they have managed to change the outlook of science to the former minority view. But this “paradigm shift” is a rare event, and it is oftentimes misunderstood.

Einstein has not overturned Newton. The theory of relativity answers questions about typically big objects at insane speeds, all of that not applying to life on Earth, where Newton and Leibniz still rule. Quantum theory, conversely, looks at ridiculously small objects. In important ways, Relativity and Quantum mechanics have indeed modified Newton, but only by helping us realize that Newton’s mechanics are just a special case scenario, which is still nevertheless valid. Maybe one way to explain this is to use three tools for seeing. If I use a microscope, I see very small things very well. If I use a telescope, I see very big things very well. If I just use my in-built eyesight, I see my normal surroundings very well (with or without the aid of glasses). For each special case, we need a different tool, but that does not mean the world has changed; our understanding of it has grown and re-contextualized things, but if objects fell to Earth with an acceleration of g=9.81 m/s² (approximately), they will still do so once we know of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Relativity now may tell us if the object, rather than falling down, sped up to almost light speed, the object would experience time differently. This effect is measurable if you take two atomic clocks, one on the ground and one on a plane, or one on a plane going east, the other on the plane going west. The clocks will not be in sync after their travel. But that’s not quite everyday experience, and for most of us, Newton still stands as normal. If we all lived on spaceships traveling close to the speed of light, Newton would be the special case for a special circumstance, but still be valid there. Scientific revolutions typically do not turn over everything, but they expand our knowledge and methodologies in exciting ways.

If you use science to predict something, you need an experiment, which will lead to some conclusions that will help you advance your hypothesis. Conversely, you can also say how you could predict that your experiment could fail by laying out how you could falsify your thesis. Your hypothesis is that the Earth revolves around the sun. How could this stand up to falsification? By not standing up to the evidence. I am not a physicist (although I some time ago tried to be), so I will no pretend to know the answer, but I know that physics can tell us very clearly how we know that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way round.

Finally, science is not a cult of the initiated. As pointed out by the great Neil DeGrasse Tyson, anybody can learn it. It is not an elitist institution. You can learn math, you can learn physics, geography, astronomy, and figure it our yourself. There is no secret scientific cabal, there is just a group of people doing science together, making sure to find out how to agree and disagree with each other in order to move scientific knowledge further.

If there was a new disease striking our planet, scientists would be working hard to figure out what it is, how to deal with it, and how to stop it from harming us all. They would be doing this as a community of people that will always try to falsify their work, to disagree with colleagues – respectfully – and agree eventually and form a consensus opinion once the evidence is overwhelming, hypotheses have been proven and a theory – which is the general consensus assumption of how a specific thing works – can be formed.

It is true that there can be hundreds of scientists on one side, and a single scientist on the other, and the lone truth seeker wins the argument. Ironically, scientists would be happy about such an occurrence, as frequently pointed out by Richard Dawkins, because it would advance knowledge and science. There is no “alternative” science, there is no “outlaw” science, there is just science.

Scientific knowledge is not fixed. The basics will stand, probably, but at the margins, where there are new puzzles, new information, new discoveries, things are always in flux. Asking a scientist why they changed their mind would be like asking a driver why – rather than keep driving straight – they followed the road when it turned into a curve. You follow the evidence, develop your hypotheses, either prove or falsify them, reevaluate your hypotheses and theories, and move on till it works, and it does work: E pur si muove.

#56: Disentangling Race and Ethnicity

Human beings are tribal. As described poignantly by Aristotle, we are animals that form political units, societies, towns, or in the Greek understanding, poleis. We are political animals in the sense that we are animals creating political structures – polis is the political aspect of the city, not the physical one (which would be (ástu). When forming societies, we are groupish, we connect with those we think of as related. This is primarily family first, typically extended family. All human societies do that. Family is primal, and relatives are central to original societies.

This is where Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society is dead wrong. He seriously misunderstood indigenous societies, and falsely understood them as relics of the past rather than living, modern societies. He underestimated the importance of family and relatedness, what Vine Deloria jr. calls an indigenous “theory of relativity.” If the foundation is wrong, then what follows is flawed as well, specifically Rousseauvian fantasies about “primitive peoples” and Friedrich Engels’s ideas about the origin of family and private property. Both authors can, of course, be forgiven, as they wrote in the 19th century and based their conclusions on much less data than available now. But in the meantime, we have been able to understand that family is not an epiphenomenon, but rather the original basis for all societies (see Jared Diamond’s Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs and Steel, and Charles C. Mann’s 1491 for more up-to-date and very readable descriptions of early societies as well as of indigenous civilizations).

The centrality of relatives, and thus of genetics, is contained in original conceptions of human societies. The idea of descendancy can be found in traditional stories from most if not all cultures. Groups are formed around cores of similarity, of belonging, whether truly genetic or through association. This is where our idea of ethnicity comes from.

Ethnicity is the concept that a group of people is more similar to each other by being in clear relation to each other mainly genetically. Just as a tribe is typically an extended family, an ethnic group is the assumedly supersized version of that. But “genetically” here – and this is where it becomes more complicated – is not really meant only biologically, but more in the sense of “being related to each other.” Typically, it is a combined package of having lived in a shared homeland (thus somehow a notion of autochthonous or even indigenous existence), speaking a language that directly originates from its related historical antecedents, having the same religion or a version thereof, having a shared historical experience, and demonstrating close cultural similarity in practices, values, beliefs, etc. Importantly also, ethnicities also demarcate territories against other rival ethnicities.

So much in theory. Now, if you applied a wide angle on Europe, most Europeans could be understood as related to the Germani. Germanic tribes conquered and succeeded Western Rome and founded the early states that would grow into the nation states we know today. Italy was conquered by the Ostrogoths and Langobards, Gaul by the Franks, England by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, and later also by the Danes and Normans, Spain by the Visigoths, Suebi (and the Iranian Alans), and Vandals (alas “[V]andalusia”) North Africa by Vandals (see Peter Heather’s books, especially The Fall of the Roman Empire and Empires and Barbarians). Charlemagne was clearly a Frank, meaning a German, and functions as the founder of both France and the Holy (Roman) (German) Empire.

(But if you ran around Europe today, especially after two brutal German-led World Wars, calling the Spanish, French, British, Italians and Americans (via immigration) all versions of Germans, you would get into trouble, especially with the “British” Royal family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha- Battenberg/Mountbatton, or more obscurely, Windsor – a family that has taken great pains to not be seen as German.)

Ethnicity may finally be a cultural construction, but it is constructed specifically on the idea of lineage and descendancy, specifically as regards a combination of rough family resemblance, territorial continuity, shared linguistic and cultural roots and practices.

This is what eventually led to the concept of the nation, as described by Benedict Anderson as an Imagined Community, namely that “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of a nation, which is conceived of as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history” (p. 26).

Thus you are typically seen as a German if your ancestors lived in Germany, you speak German, and occasionally participate in German-specific cultural practices. Recent or current immigrants and their descendants sadly oftentimes still experience a lack of belonging and identification as truly German by the majority because of this understanding of ethnicity (and nationality), but it is my belief that this will slowly fade as it has faded with all other immigrants in the past, like the Huguenots and the many Germans of originally Slavonic backgrounds.

“Ethnos” is typically translated as “natio” – and ethnicity and nationality are frequently seen as similar, but they are not the same. Ethnicity, contrary to the nation state, has no defined boundaries on the map, may predate, survive, or even transcend the nation state. There have been Germans before there ever was a Germany (1871), there have been Kurds without ever having a nation state (unless you count Saladin’s realm as Kurdish), and there are many Americans which – in addition to their American citizenship – claim a specific ethnic identity in addition to their American-ness.

There is thus a sense that while ethnicity surely is also culturally constructed, it is more primal than more political notions of nationality.

So what about race? As noted before, race does not exist as a meaningful biological category, or a category of genetic descent – it is mostly if not merely cultural. As I phrased it, race is not real, but racism is: Other than ethnicity (which is self-identified), racial identity in the sense it is used in America is ascribed by the outside. “Race” is something attributed primarily to you, not by yourself. You may choose eventually to buy into the racialist way of thinking, but that may happen more as an act of resigned acceptance of the way things are, rather than the way things should or could be.

“Race,” in the current understanding, is an outcome of two historical developments. First, the colonization of America and other areas of the world happened by selfishly and wrongly justifying that the original inhabitants were of inferior character and thus could not own the land, and the doctrine of discovery was presumed to grant Europeans the right to earn the land. “Race” thus has a colonizing function. Second, the early modern slave trade, conducted by Arab, African and European slavers, was tied into the colonization framework and transported African slaves to the Americas, with the justification that they were “racially” different or inferior. This also changed the nature of slavery, and created an inter-generational race-based system of discrimination with no or hardly any possibility for manumission. Religion was abused sometimes to justify these deeds, but it only found excuses for a merely practical business deal. “Race” was invented as a convenient tool to pretend-explain the exploitation of (1) whoever needed to be exploited and (2) who would not in principle be easily integrated into White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture.

As shown by Theodore Allen in The Invention of the White Race, and by David Hollinger in Postethnic America, the idea of race also bore out the idea of whiteness. Basically, whoever was not seen as fit to be fully American (on the entire continent) was considered non-white. Race has never been just about skin color, but about a combination of national origin, ethnicity, religion, skin color, other physical features, culture, and sometimes class. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and German immigrants were – at various times – not considered “white.”

This betrays the idea of “whiteness” as an ideological position, just as the idea of “nonwhite.” It’s the old grammatical distinction between “unmarked” (neutral, white) and “marked” (different, non-white). The Spanish “casta” system goes into more detail (and establishes an intricate race- and descendancy-based caste system) which may have some relevance in the United States as well, although not overtly. “White” skin is not white, it is piglet pink, and “black” skin is not black, but a shade of brown. American Indian / Native American populations are not “red” either, neither are Asians “yellow” (but Buddhist robes are; which may have been the inspiration). This shows race as a merely ideological disposition, and it may also point to the practice of elites in Renaissance times powdering their faces white, and wearing white wigs, that may have given the inspiration for the color “white” in the first place.

One euphemism for “white” is “Caucasian,” which typically describes populations within the ancient Indo-European ethnic group, speaking Indo-European languages. But Indo-European speakers from Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are typically not recognized as Caucasian. Here is where ethnicity and “race” are in direct conflict: All European populations (with the exception of Basques and Saami) – this includes Germanic-, Romance-, Slavic-, Romani-, Greek-, Baltic-, Celtic- and related speakers – are related, genetically, culturally and linguistically, with populations in the Asian countries mentioned above, and some more. Do they all count as white?

“Race” makes no sense, other than to describe it as a category of exploitation; as I have said, “race” is not real, but racism is.

Ethnicity may be complex, can also be shifting, can be transferred, can be genetic and cultural, or both, and is not easy to grasp sometimes either, but it can easily be mixed – dual- or multi-ethnic affiliations are possible (just as I, myself, would now identify with East German, American, and some other origins as well). It may not be perfect, but it is certainly real, and maps with the living experience of cultures all over the world, past or present, and certainly, future.

Maybe “race” can be transformed, eventually, into an ethnicity, which could reframe it from a term of horrible discrimination to a term of pride. In some ways, this seems to be happening. It certainly would help if we could finally stop using terminology typically associated with Nazis and slavers.

–««»»–

Now comes the point where I can use the title of this web log as a deus ex machina: This was an “erratic attempt”, and it does not have to tell the whole story. I am aware that this could become much more complicated, but it’s a blog, not a book. More to come if needed. Let me know if you want me to touch on a specific topic or aspect via e-mail.

#55: It’s The Uncertainty That Makes Us Worry

Endless nightmares. An obsessive news intake. Stocking up on masks, cleaning materials, emergency groceries, wipes, toilet paper, paper towels, whatnot. Do I have a mask? Have I forgotten it? Dreaming of forgetting a mask? Agitatedly yelling at the news?

These are not normal times. I personally grew up in East Germany; shortage of goods in “super”markets was normal, politicians all lied, freedom was a fiction. But East Germany is over. In the West, supermarkets are supposed to be fully stocked, politicians may be hyperbolic but their truth can be checked, and freedom is the goal of society.

No wonder we are feeling weird, especially in the West. Our social contract, especially our consumer-society contract, is in question. Will we see shortages? Will we see unrest? Will we have enough protection? Will we ever be back to normal?

Suggestion: Youtube has a selection of videos of cats purring. Or whatever gets you in the mood to relax.

There is every reason to feel weird nowadays. Accept it. We are all in it, to different degrees, but basically, we are. Let’s use this time to appreciate what still does give us stability. Hold on tight, but at a distance, and wear your mask.

This too shall pass.

#54: The Dictator as False Messiah: A Belated Review of Game Of Thrones Season 8

I.

This is very belated, spoiler-filled review.

The reaction to the conclusion of season 8 of Game of Thrones has typically not been kind. In a nutshell, it runs like this: “All the buildup. All the pathos. All the scheming. And it ends like this. Why?”

That’s basically the criticism. Well, you can see it that way. You could also ask, well, let’s just accept this is what’s happening, and ask what it is meant to accomplish and say. Rather than to allow the frustration over the disappointment of one’s own expectations to govern one’s opinion about the show (i.e. How does that make us feel?), we might instead learn something from the experience (i.e. What might that possibly mean?).

We accept audience frustration in the short run – which drives the popularity for basically anything done by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, Interstellar, Tenet), the current master of surprise turns of narrative once M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village) lost favor. The gimmick of the unreliable narrative and of surprise turns of events seems to work well with audiences if it comes in the form of a movie-length experience. But if it comes in the final run of a 8-year television series, audiences that have fallen for the trick seem to be frustrated. The same happened with Lost and its absolutely brilliant (and apparently equally not understood) ending. Maybe there’s a lesson here. Limit surprise twists to movie or even television season size (like Dr. Who under Steven Moffat – but even he suffered from frustrated audiences).

Or, in short, people who loved Game of Thrones so much that they named their daughters Daenerys or Khaleesi probably were put off a bit by the ending, one would hope.

The spoiler for this review is as follows: It Makes Perfect Sense. In fact, the entire series can be read as a playbook that lets us understand how people fall for a genocidal dictator, how they end up supporting a violent revolution that in fact runs counter to their interest, and how nothing good can ever come out of supporting someone pretending to be a messiah that will solve all your problems.

II.

Daenerys “Danny” Targaryen sees herself as a liberator. She has been abused, she had to fight for survival, she rose to the top, became Khaleesi (basically, a female Khan), she is a sympathetic character overall, but she has always had a cruel streak. She brutally kills her brother (Season 1). She locks Xaro and Doreah in his own vault in Qarth to die (Season 2). She kills the slavers of Astapor (Season 3) and has the slavers of Mereen crucified (Season 4). She feeds a Daenerys a Meereen nobleman to her dragons (Season 5). She kills the Khals that threatened to abuse her (Season 6, and yes, that was sadly very satisfying). She kills the Randyll Tarly and his son (Season 7). She kills Varys (Season 8, now we’re finally suspicious). At every point, these are all signs for what’s to come.

Just because some of her victims are bad people, it is telling that Daenerys’ default answer is cruelty. The audience typically likes it because the show is pulling a Hannibal Lector – audiences tend to identify with the protagonist, especially if they are good lucking, charming, played by a great actor, or can claim to fight for the greater good. Her fight is not for justice, it is for revenge. She clearly delights in the violence, it is visible. Every season shows us a reminder of her character. She may have been a victim in the past, but she has become a perpetrator of violence and cruelty. And like every cruel person in history, she has willing accomplices unable or unwilling to stop her.

III.

Tyrion as Daenerys’ advisor basically plays the role many philosophers have played when trying to appease a brutal tyrant. As Plato fails Dion of Syracuse, Socrates with the Thirty Tyrants, Aristotle with Alexander, Cicero with Augustus, Machiavelli with Cesare Borgia, Thomas More with Henry VIII., Voltaire with Frederick II, Robespierre with the terror he himself helped unleash, Trotzky (no innocent either) with Stalin, and, arguably, Heidegger with Hitler, and Oliver Stone with Castro and Putin, the philosopher/artist typically cannot keep the brutal tyrant from being a brutal tyrant. They may delude themselves into blunting the blow, into convincing the inconvincible, into preventing the worst. In the end, they never do. In the end, they may soil their reputation by getting too close to power, and by enabling the tyrant and providing legitimacy to a reign of terror that they should have seen coming. Cicero and Thomas More finally stood up against tyranny and paid the price. Heidegger is still read, but with well-deserved disgust. The Faustian bargain hardly ever pays off.

On Game of Thrones, Tyrion’s fate – as likeable as he might be – should be much harsher. He should have seen what was happening, but he himself has gotten himself deeper into the dark shadows of questionable morality. When escaping King’s Landing, there was no need to kill his father Tywin, who is quite incapacitated at the moment, as he is sitting in his bathroom. Tywin may have been a bad father, but killing him – as emotionally pleasing this may have been for Tyrion – was unnecessary, and it led to the downfall of the city eventually. Always the ultimate narcissist, Tyrion shows his lack of morality. The years of being humiliated by his family finally lead him to his breaking point – or do they finally reveal his true, evil character? In order to seek personal vindication, he ushers in the destruction of the city that never loved him. Naturally, he will partner up with the other murderer in the show. Tyrion, too late, realizes he has been playing the Goebbels to Daenarys’ Hitler.

And Jon Snow, he indeed knows nothing. He is the idiotic Siegfried character, duped by Burgundians (by political power), having abandoned his Brünnhild (Ygritte), lusting after Gutrune / Kriemhild / Daenerys, manipulated somehow by Hagen (now there’s a reason for Tyrion as a dwarf!). Enough Wagner, but it’s certainly fun to cross-read these texts. Jon is hopelessly in love, being seduced by Daenerys, and once he realizes the difference between right and wrong, it is rather late. In his very original defense, he indeed did die, and was raised from the dead, so he might just as well be dead inside.

IV.

In all of their defense, if such a defense should be justified, this is the story of a world gone mad. It is not easy to maintain your morality under such circumstances. But this is precisely when it counts. Morality in good times is meaningless if it is not challenged. Morality shows up when it matters most, when you have to decide in favor not of your own selfish survival or comfort, but in support of the greater good. It matters whether you give in to the seduction of a violent quick fix, or whether you seek the path that is complicated, painful, laborious, and time-intensive. Put differently, do you save yourself, or do you save your soul?

Difficult times are no excuse. This is not about surviving a concentration camp, or some other liminal experience, this is about the point where you choose to become a perpetrator to avoid being a victim. You may not have a choice when you are ordered to shoot somebody. But you can always aim to miss. Historical evidence shows that most soldiers in battles actually do everything that keeps them from killing. Ironically, Star Wars was right all along: Most stormtroopers fail to hit their target, and it may just be deliberately. Human beings tend to know what is right and what is wrong.

There has to be a caveat here: We ourselves cannot know how we would act in these circumstances. For good reason, we are talking about exceptional situations. It should not be ours to judge too facetiously, lest we be judged also. We all make mistakes, we are all fallible, we are all human. What I am talking about here are deliberate and coherent patterns of cruelty, displayed by the protagonists of a keystone television show. This is not about characters under momentary duress, this is about characters deliberately and knowingly committing or condoning violence. It’s the difference between self-defense and murder.

V.

The show has always been a historical allegory, initially seemingly about the Fall of Rome, but additionally now about World War II.

The gravity of history is unforgiving. Tragedy is when characters end up doing the wrong thing despite having tried everything to avoid doing it. No matter how much they may have wanted to change, they cannot change their nature. Jamie Lannister realizes this. Daenerys Targaryen realizes this. They give in, because that was always their destiny.

Daenerys has always been violent, but not just violent, but outright cruel, sadistic, indulgent in violence, almost a mirror image of Ramsay Bolton. We were warned time and again. She has always been nothing but a combined version of Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, all in one package. She is all dictators. She is all deluded violent revolutionaries. What brilliance to make her into an attractive young girl to allow the audience to fall for her. She has taken all the tragedy of her life and turned it not to wisdom, kindness or compassion, but into a weapon. Once she has the chance to release it, she does.

Like Ahab, she is mad in her pursuit to break the wheel. The wheel of history cannot be broken. This has always been the truth of the show. It had to be revealed eventually, and shockingly, and the audience had to be punished for believing otherwise.

The business of dictators is seduction, and Daenerys has certainly seduced us into (false) hope, just as the show and its producers have seduced us, almost soma-laden, into believing that the wheel of history can be broken, that violent and unprincipled psychopaths shalt lead the way to the revolution, and that everything will be all right.

No, it won’t. It never will be.