#67: This Perfect Virus Exploits Our Weaknesses

“Frightened people. Give me a Dalek any day.”
– The 11th Doctor, in N7.03 “A Town Called Mercy”

2020 is the perfect year for getting an education on reality. We are learning a lot about human nature, different cultures, statistics, as well as biology these days. We should be thankful that things are finally revealed that were apparently unclear to some, mainly those with too optimistic a view on humanity.

This is the year that shows us how we really are. I wrote earlier about how this crisis has revealed to us certain lessons about politics and policy that we probably needed to hear. This is more personal.

We are learning that the virus knows us very well. It knows that we are relational people, and that while some of us, including yours truly, may be able to isolate themselves physically while embracing virtual connections, many if not most among us need physical connections and presence much more than I, personally, would ever have thought before. I am fine with distance; I like closeness too, but do not really need it urgently. Maybe it helps to be happily married to not need other people; but not everybody can ever be that lucky, I realize.

We are learning that we are not good at math, especially probabilities, statistics, exponential growth, etc. We are also not good with hedging risks, and respecting risks in the first place.

We are not patient. It is clear that the Coronavirus crisis will take quite some time still to be settled, if at all. We need to adjust our expectations, curb our desires, hopes, enthusiasms, and – for now, as much as possible, a determined focus on the survival of most of us, young and old.

We are not by nature bad people, but when scared, rationality can leave us quickly and our fear may overcompensate in strange ways. After many hours of trying to understand Covid Denialism in its many forms, I have come to believe that it is just another stress reaction to the crisis, fueled by the fear of losing normality.

I have known of people who passed away, seen people changing beyond recognition, people’s personalities changing, and not for the better. This is the time of friendships and relationships in general stuck in a deep and excruciating stress test that some may not survive, for a variety of reasons.

We are relational beings, and will need to find out how such relationships can survive. The virus is poisoning our social fabric and making us question our lives, our reality, even the existence of the virus itself. We are distracted, we are making mistakes, which is what the virus “wants”.

Easy does it. Be appreciative of the friends you do have. Take care of your relationships with others, cherish the people in your life, now more than ever. They may not listen now, but don’t close your heart. Disagreement on a specific issue should never undo personal attachment and commitment to each other as fellow travelers in this, as it now appears again, valley of darkness…

#66: Democracy Needs Well-Educated Citizens

Democracy is a participatory activity. While not everyone can (or should) run for office, being a good citizen extends to much more than engaging in the business of politics. It begins with embracing the dignity of being the sovereign – or, more clearly, part of the group that constitutes the sovereign – and recognizing that it comes with responsibilities.

The first responsibility is to that without which no society can function in the long run: a commitment to the truth. Without a shared truth, there can be no society. Without the recognition of facts and science, there can be no community. We cannot live in a world together in peace if we claim to be in the possession of different sets of facts.

A fact is something that is true without need for interpretation. To recognize facts is typically not that difficult. Something either happened or not, something is either true or false, something happens with a certain likelihood or not (which is more complicated to understand – probability is difficult to understand for human beings, it seems), some things can be predicted to occur given a certain set of parameters and trends (again, not that easy if it is not a linear growth), etc.

Then there are things that need interpretation, because they are not immediately clear because the facts are not yet completely known, or because some fields of science and knowledge production are focused not on recognizing facts, but on recognizing human psychology, behavior and culture. Even then you need not despair, because also for these “fuzzy” sciences there are methods.

What holds true for all of science and knowledge production and fact-gathering: None of this can happen in a vacuum, and without substantial education. If the overwhelming majority of researchers agree on a set of facts and/or interpretations, it is probably more likely to be true or not. Truth, of course, can be evolving, based on our collective knowledge about the object for which a certain truth is claimed. Criticism is important, but it needs to be grounded in truth, not mere rejection of authority. Experts exist for a reason: In a complex world, none of us can be experts in everything, and we all need to trust others to provide reliable information for all.

John Dewey already pointed to the necessary connection between democracy and education. Immanuel Kant showed that without internalizing reason and morality, there can be no democracy, as we all are participants in this society. Without education – and behavior grounded in facts, science, and morality – there can be no democracy. We cannot take democracy for granted, but so many of us seemingly are doing just that.

What does that mean for our future? Does a lack of education, a lack of willingness to do the hard work of being a citizen, the lack of willingness to take care of each other, does all this point to the inevitable impossibility of maintaining democracy? Are we really willing to succumb to the alternative?

#65: Sine Ira et Studio: The Strength of Dispassionate Criticism

It is easy to get caught up in the issues of the day. There is always some grave injustice somewhere, always some issues that endanger human life, other life on earth, even the planet herself. It is easy, and very compelling, to translate the emotions we all have about deeply important issues into a language reflecting this emotionality. How else could we speak about it? How could we possibly stay calm in the face of a hurricane threatening the very existence of some or all of us?

There has been the old suggestion to approach such issues without ire and agitation – sine ira et studio. This does not mean that emotionality, agitation, ire even would not be justified; on the contrary. But we need to ask us: What are we trying to achieve? Are we aiming for an end to injustice? Are we trying to convert people to our cause? Are we asking people to change their mind?

Human beings – most animals probably – are prideful. Any criticism that aims to be heard would be wise to be adapted to such a situation. There would not be such a saying if it were easy; it is not. But it works, it is effective, it allows for the respective other to abandon their position eventually with honor. If you respect other people – in spite of their positions – you allow them to respect you in turn, and this opens the path to a necessary conversation and honest exchange in which justice can finally prevail. Convincing others is a skill, it takes time, patience, respect, empathy, even love.

Love towards those that you perceive to have wronged you is an outrageous demand, of course. Socrates was killed for it, so were Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King jr, and so many others. We need to accept who people are, help them accept themselves in their truth, and help them see the consequences of their actions. As it also says, hate the sin, not the sinner. If we believe in social justice, this includes the belief – necessarily so – that each and every human being is precious – whether perpetrator, victim, or neutral party – because life itself is precious and deserves to be treated with dignity.

Ire and rage are easy, studious agitation comes naturally; neither creates sustainable peace. Only if we move beyond feeling righteous in our moral crusade will we be able to see that to change hearts and minds, we need to recognize that even our opponent in a specific matter has both a heart and a mind, no matter how we may resist that notion. The more dispassionate our stance can be (in spite of our emotions within) the better we will face whatever is out there. Stoicism – whether you know it through Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Star Trek‘s Spock – is not an instruction to not have feelings. It is an instruction to utilize your feelings in a manner that they will not stand in the way of solving the problems you need to solve. Sine ira et studio.

#64: The Illusion of Brexit

Brexit is not possible. That is, Brexit in any meaningful sense of the word. Whatever meaning may have hidden in the idiotic phrases and jingoism of “Brexit Means Brexit”, behind empty cries for sovereignty, taking the country “back” to wherever, whatever the original intention: A complete and clean break with the EU is simply not possible without seriously bad compromises.

Let us remember. The promise of those promoting Brexit – the exit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union – was that finally, the UK would be outside the influence of the allegedly ever-more meddling EU, and able to trade globally, use the money they would have sent to the EU for the National Health Service instead, and finally “take back control” over their national fate.

Let us also remember: Brexit started as a dare and was never something that was seriously presumed to happen. Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to play the old game that the UK has always played in the EU – be part of it but not too much – and used the threat of a Brexit vote as a scare tactic to demand concessions from the continent, reminding everyone that British EU membership was not a matter of deep political and historical conviction, but that it came about due to pressures from the United States, the ignoble end of the Empire, and the cost of not being part of the single market. It was a business deal.

To be fair, to most other European members of the EU, it is a business deal as well – but there are also historical, cultural, geographical and other ties that make the European project necessary. The EU exists, after all, as a correction to the rampaging nationalism that ended up in the ethnic cleansing and genocides committed in two World Wars. The containment of Germany as the main perpetrator of these crimes could and can only happen if the historical fallacy of borders alongside clean ethnic or national lines was corrected.

But British exceptionalism was about to have its day, and Brexit was it. Before the vote happened, in 2014, Scotland had its referendum on whether to stay in the UK – based on the assumption that the UK would stay in the EU. Scottish voters dutifully obliged, and were betrayed later by a referendum that should never have happened; after all, there had been a referendum before in 1975 when entering the EC, and subsequent treaty negotiations happened with the people’s support through the representative democracy. The 2016 referendum was a political ploy, and Cameron – who agitate against Europe before claiming to argue in favor of membership – is ultimately responsible. The referendum, after all, was non-binding, but Parliament decided to act on it anyway.

Theresa May knew Brexit was not possible and did what she could to prevent the greatest of damage. Labor, under Jeremy Corbyn – always living in the shadow of accusations of antisemitism and extreme left-wing radicalism – was no help either. It fell to the Boris Johnson, an assumedly well-educated politician who enjoys playing the clown, and who seems to enjoy games with the highest of stakes.

According to Johnson, Brexit means to take back control. But to what degree is that even possible?

Firstly, let us look at the Irish border problem. Ireland is in the EU, Northern Ireland in the UK. Without Brexit, the border had become meaningless. Membership in the EU is a key component to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. If the rules in all three parts (Republic of Ireland (A), Northern Ireland (B), United Kingdom (C)) are the same, then we could simplify this as A=B=C. The Irish border problem is solved if A=B (rules in Ireland the same as in Northern Ireland). UK unity is maintained if B=C (rules in Northern Ireland same as in Great Britain). Brexit means that B changes, and that cannot anymore equal A. If Northern Ireland cannot comply by single market rules anymore, then there needs to be a border regime on the island – or Northern Ireland complies with rest of the island. Johnson has categorically denied any distance between the UK and Northern Ireland. It’s an equation that will prove to be impossible to solve.

There either is or is not a single market, and any fudge solution will not work. Ireland will become the English-speaking voice in the EU, and will immediately be receiving support from the United States. England keeps forgetting that it is not really the “mother country” to the US that it thinks it is. Amongst Euro-Americans, 14% identify with Germany, 10% with Ireland, 7% with England, 5% with Italy, 3% with Poland. Joe Biden is Irish-Catholic. The Supreme Court is largely Catholic-Jewish by now. England is fading in American cultural memory. If Brexit Britain wants to retain its special relationship with the US, that may work within NATO and the Five Eyes, but economically, the EU (meaning, Ireland) will be a more important partner for American business interests.

Secondly, as mentioned before, Scotland agreed to be part of the UK only because of EU membership. Contrary to the Ireland case, there might actually be a cultural desire to indeed have a border between Scotland and England emerge. If Brexit happens finally, Scotland can leave the union and apply to become a member of the EU as an independent state. This is categorically different from the Catalan case (which is often brought up as a scare tactic), and more in line with the Czechoslovakian case. Czechoslovakia split up into Czechia and Slovakia before applying for EU membership. Catalonia seeks independence from an existing EU member, and to – assumedly – stay with the EU as an independent member state. This is a completely different scenario than the Scottish case. Scotland is forced out of the EU by an act of Parliament (remember, the referendum was non-binding originally till its decision was accepted by Parliament), and it only seeks to maintain the status quo vis-à-vis Europe.

Thirdly, the dreaded promises. The NHS will not be receiving the money that used to be going to the EU; that promise (which probably was key to the success of the referendum) was canned already. Support for regions like Cornwall and the North will now rely on Westminster, not Europe. In global trade, the weight of the UK outside the EU will be significantly smaller, and its negotiating power reduced. The empire is gone, and outside England, Australia and New Zealand, memories of the empire are not necessarily positive.

In the end, Brexit will mean reliance on the EU without the possibility to shape EU policy. It will mean being at the mercy of rising global powers, of Ireland, and the US. It will mean the threat of secession not just of Scotland, Northern Ireland, but maybe even Wales and Cornwall. Maybe there is a solution here. If Brexit has to happen, England leaves and the rest stays. Maybe India will offer Britain membership in its union as a crown colony?

Let us come to our senses. The time for nationalism is over. We’re all interconnected, for worse, but also for better. Whatever will come out of Brexit will not be the magic solution to all the problems for which the UK government has successfully blamed the EU. Britain is not leaving the continent geographically. It remains where it is. Joining the EU was the logical choice in the past, and it will still be there once Brexit has been revealed for what it really is: an illusion of the outdated concept of national control in a global world.

#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.