#28: Violent Protest Does Not Work

That which is just is not always clearly defined. It depends on societal norms and philosophies, may be contingent on historical circumstances, and is always a compromise of the day. What we consider just may change throughout history, and may also change depending on perspective. Sometimes, what is justice today could be the complete opposite of what was considered justice yesterday. Occasionally, there cannot be agreement on justice at all.

But there are some things that we can justly consider constant. Versions of the Golden Rule can be found in all societies, at all times. Murder is typically considered wrong, so are theft, robbery, rape, adultery, the willful killing of civilians, excessive uses of violence without measure, as well as lying and dishonoring of parents (basically, whatever you find in the 10 Commandments that is not specifically religious). The list of historically and universally agreed-upon unacceptable behavior is, shockingly, not very long.

Some of the things we consider unjust today like slavery, child and elder abuse, sexual violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, nepotism and corruption, religious discrimination, genocide and many other things have once been – or can still be, in some areas – found to be justified, even though they violate contemporary democratic understandings of justice. The universal standard of human rights was agreed upon globally in the wake of the Holocaust, but even this standard is questioned occasionally.

What we consider just is thus an outcome of social and political developments. In democratic societies, the exercise of justice is a sine qua non, something we cannot do without. What we think of as just is the outcome of a complex consensus-building over many years, even centuries. This means that there is a standard of justice that is typically getting more – as some people would say – “evolved” over time. Typically, whatever is considered acceptable behavior, will become more and more refined, and will involve more and more people. A democratic republic can only exist if an overwhelming majority, unassailable by electoral whim, supports the underlying assumptions about justice.

A cornerstone of democratic society is civility – which is just a fancy Latin word for citizen-like behavior. A citizen is not a subject, but the smallest part of the people, which are also the sovereign. A citizen should thus follow the Kantian moral imperative by modelling ideal democratic and civic behavior every single day. As democracy is based upon consensus-building by citizens, non-violence is implied as the standard operating principle of citizens and institutions. Exceptions are institutions that the citizens agree upon, and which are allowed to exercise limited violence, such as the police and any other policing entities. But these entities are always subject to civilian, i.e. citizen control, even the military.

Civil, non-violent protest is one of the other cornerstones of democratic societies. There are good reasons to protest against injustice, and this fight is never over. But such protests need to follow the principle of “Civil Disobedience,” as laid out by Thoreau in his eponymous essay.

Every single protest movement that followed Thoreau’s insights has a chance to succeed. This pertains to Gandhi’s movement against the British colonizers, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King and others (both Gandhi and King followed Thoreau), the Solidarity movement in Poland and the peaceful revolutions against communism, including the protests against the Chinese tyranny on Tiananmen Square. What all these movements have in common is their moral unassailability; this is what made them successful. Tyrants hate such protests, because truly peaceful protests maintain the moral high ground and will eventually shape the understanding of what is justice, and what is injustice.

The demand for protest movements to remain peaceful, and to self-police against violent agitators, is a demand based not just on morality but especially on whether you want to be successful. Many things in our world are not the way they should be. Any movement that wants to make the world better, more equitable, more just, and more peaceful, needs to model these goals by its own actions.

That which is just is not always clearly defined. It depends on societal norms and philosophies, may be contingent on historical circumstances, and is always a compromise of the day. What we consider just may change throughout history, and may also change depending on perspective. Sometimes, what is justice today could be the complete opposite of what was considered justice yesterday. Occasionally, there cannot be agreement on justice at all.

But there are some things that we can justly consider constant. Versions of the Golden Rule can be found in all societies, at all times. Murder is typically considered wrong, so are theft, robbery, rape, adultery, the willful killing of civilians, excessive uses of violence without measure, as well as lying and dishonoring of parents (basically, whatever you find in the 10 Commandments that is not specifically religious). The list of historically and universally agreed-upon unacceptable behavior is, shockingly, not very long.

Some of the things we consider unjust today like slavery, child and elder abuse, sexual violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, nepotism and corruption, religious discrimination, genocide and many other things have once been – or can still be, in some areas – found to be justified, even though they violate contemporary democratic understandings of justice. The universal standard of human rights was agreed upon globally in the wake of the Holocaust, but even this standard is questioned occasionally.

What we consider just is thus an outcome of social and political developments. In democratic societies, the exercise of justice is a sine qua non, something we cannot do without. What we think of as just is the outcome of a complex consensus-building over many years, even centuries. This means that there is a standard of justice that is typically getting more – as some people would say – “evolved” over time. Typically, whatever is considered acceptable behavior, will become more and more refined, and will involve more and more people. A democratic republic can only exist if an overwhelming majority, unassailable by electoral whim, supports the underlying assumptions about justice.

A cornerstone of democratic society is civility – which is just a fancy Latin word for citizen-like behavior. A citizen is not a subject, but the smallest part of the people, which are also the sovereign. A citizen should thus follow the Kantian moral imperative by modelling ideal democratic and civic behavior every single day. As democracy is based upon consensus-building by citizens, non-violence is implied as the standard operating principle of citizens and institutions. Exceptions are institutions that the citizens agree upon, and which are allowed to exercise limited violence, such as the police and any other policing entities. But these entities are always subject to civilian, i.e. citizen control, even the military.

Civil, non-violent protest is one of the other cornerstones of democratic societies. There are good reasons to protest against injustice, and this fight is never over. But such protests need to follow the principle of “Civil Disobedience,” as laid out by Thoreau in his eponymous essay.

Every single protest movement that followed Thoreau’s insights has a chance to succeed. This pertains to Gandhi’s movement against the British colonizers, the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King and others (both Gandhi and King followed Thoreau), the Solidarity movement in Poland and the peaceful revolutions against communism, including the protests against the Chinese tyranny on Tiananmen Square. What all these movements have in common is their moral unassailability; this is what made them successful. Tyrants hate such protests, because truly peaceful protests maintain the moral high ground and will eventually shape the understanding of what is justice, and what is injustice.

The demand for protest movements to remain peaceful, and to self-police against violent agitators, is a demand based not just on morality but especially on whether you want to be successful. Many things in our world are not the way they should be. Any movement that wants to make the world better, more equitable, more just, and more peaceful, needs to model these goals by its own actions.

#25: Legitimate and Illegitimate Arguments Regarding the Coronavirus Shutdown

1. My financial situation / my business / my employees / my family / my sanity / my health is suffering. I need and want to work.

Short Response: Legitimate.

Longer Response: We are citizens, not subjects, and our concerns are legitimate. As long as you and your workplace follow official medical guidance, this should be made possible.

2. I will still support all possible hygienic and distancing measures, as medically required to curb the infection.

Short Response: Legitimate.

Longer Response: The virus is real, the dead are real, and the better we fight it, the better we avoid more health problems and more economic damage. Public health and economy are interrelated. If we feel safe, we will agree to participate in the economy. If we feel unsafe, we will not agree to it – we may be forced to, but that undermines both public safety and trust.

3. I can work from home, and I should be able to continue to do so.

Short Response: Probably Legitimate.

Longer Response: We have a chance here to revisit outdated models of demonstrating physical presence when working. Remote work, if possible and desired by the employee, saves on commuting costs, time, and can increase safety. We should use that opportunity as it presents itself.

4. Be cautious about indoors, but let people be outside. Open the parks, and let people sit outside at restaurants.

Short Response: Probably Legitimate.

Longer Response: This agrees with the science. However, maintain distances, beware of slipstreams, and ideally, also wear a mask outdoors. Definitely wear a mask indoors. Also be careful about central air systems.

5. I am afraid. If other people want out, let them. But let me stay home.

Short Response: Probably Legitimate.

Longer Response: This is still a largely unknown virus, with no good medication to ameliorate symptoms, high contagiousness, and a possible second wave coming. Caution is legitimate, and no one can deny your feelings. But please don’t panic, we will solve this. It is serious, but it is not the Black Death.

6. Let’s all stay home.

Short Response: Probably Illegitimate.

Longer Response: Unless everyone has a perfect home, all the food and supplies and energy needed, a perfect family situation, no other health issues, all the money they need, etc., someone will have to be out there. Not all jobs can’t be done remotely.

7. I have only responsibility for myself. You cannot tell me what to do.

Short Response: Illegitimate.

Longer Response: The golden rule is a cornerstone to all human societies for a good reason. We cannot live in complete isolation, we always depend on others, so we need to act accordingly. Surely, hygienic measures have to be democratically legitimized, and have to make scientific sense, and you can demand that. But if they are, you should follow them.

8. I cannot spread the virus, as I do not feel sick.

Short Response: Probably Illegitimate.

Longer Response: You cannot be certain of that. It has been proven that you can spread the disease while not (yet) showing symptoms.

9. I am not part of the risk group. I want to live as I used to, no matter the consequences.

Short Response: Probably Illegitimate.

Longer Response: This virus has still unknown consequences even for those who survive it. Better be safe.

10. Scientists and politicians said something else before. How can we trust their judgement now?

Short Response: Illegitimate.

Longer Response: When available information and available resources change, suggested solutions have to change as well. This is normal.

11. I do not like the current government, so I am against everything they do.

Short Response: Illegitimate.

Longer Response: People can legitimately argue which government they like or not. But elections matter, and disagreements are normal.

12. There is a conspiracy. There is no Coronavirus / Bill Gates did it / Q knows / Reptiles / Aliens / Nazis / Communists / Foreigners / Old People / Globalists / Nationalists / Jews / Elites / Businesses / x Needs to be Blamed.

Short Response: Probably Illegitimate

Longer Response: This stands so much against established opinion that the burden of proof is on you. We know the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China (which does NOT legitimate xenophobic attacks against people of Chinese origin). We can legitimately complain and blame governments and organizations that have been and continue to be complicit in misinformation about the virus, and this needs to be cleared up. There is no reason to discriminate against groups of people unconnected to these decisionmakers. Pursuing outlandish theories is not helpful, and displays of xenophobia, racism and antisemitism are intolerable.

We all realize this is an untenable situation, but if the governments in competing or even enemy countries all react similarly to this, does this not show that the virus is serious? Does not the imperfect reaction to the virus shown by EVERY SINGLE COUNTRY in the world (maybe except Taiwan) demonstrate that there cannot be a conspiracy?

Be reasonable, and we will listen to you. Pursue unreasonable theories, and we will not take you seriously. Quid pro quo.

#23: We Need to Take the Virus Seriously

Surly, by now we feel we have a handle on the Coronavirus, don’t we? Think again.

This is still a virus that is largely unknown:

  • We don’t know the full consequences of getting sick.
  • We don’t know who really is being affected (statistically, the old, but there are severe outliers).
  • We don’t quite know how it spreads. Many buildings have central air, which may spread droplets. Surfaces are still probably a source of infection, depending on viral load.
  • The reason we tell people to follow hygiene rules is that many people don’t.
  • Most death counts are low-balled in all countries.
  • We don’t know whether there will be immunity, and if so, how long it will last.
  • We don’t know when it will be back – there will likely be further waves.
  • We still have no proven treatments for ameliorating the disease – what there is, will need to be proven on a larger scale.
  • Any vaccine development will take some time, and then vaccine production will take a while also, and not everyone will want to get vaccinated immediately.
  • People are not always respecting the social distancing rules or the mask wearing guidances.

Sure, we will need to reopen the economy somehow. No serious person will deny that. But we will keep needing social distancing, probably wear masks, make sure not to be in crowded rooms, and be hygienic.

And stop with the conspiracy theories. The only conspiracy here was committed by the People’s Republic of China, and we will have to learn our lessons from that.

#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.

#16: Coronavirus and Democracy

We all make mistakes. It is a strength of open societies is that those mistakes will eventually all be ruthlessly and painstakingly revealed, so that we can effectively correct our course and improve our response to crises. This openness, while revealing all the uncomfortable messiness, may seem like doing open-heart surgery with cameras rolling. But that is not a bad thing. It is the only thing that can eventually reinforce societal trust and the consent of the governed.

The purpose of Democracy is not just to change the leaders by democratic vote. It is the best way human societies have discovered that allows such consent to be created time and again without creating the upheaval that a change of leadership regularly creates in non-democratic societies.

With regards to Coronavirus, there appears no single country that has not made a series of mistakes. Typically, there has been denial – it can’t possibly get here. Then, there’s been hand-wringing about what to do, and quite legitimately so. The current voluntary economic restrictions are painful, and have to be weighed against the consequences of the virus. Some governments and leaders have tried to be both hopeful and admonishing. Still today, no single country’s approach really seems to align well with the others, even if it comes down to counting and attributing cause of death (Did someone die because of CoViD19, or with CoViD19 in in addition to other conditions? How do you measure the specific impact of the virus?). It would certainly have helped to have global guidance on that, but I guess this is what happens.

Sadly, every crisis means that the entire world is a collection of different laboratories independently having to solve a problem, with some collaboration. It would have been helpful if China had been honest and transparent, and if the WHO had been less independent in its judgements. Taiwan knows well what to think of them both. That does not mean we don’t need global coordination either, but it needs to be improved.

Once this crisis is becoming more manageable, it will be the open society approach that will prove to be the only one to tackle such problems in the future. Both democracy and science thrive on open confrontation, on honesty, on transparency. They also thrive on convincing people to opt into the right approach, out of their own capacity for reason, rather than on forcing them to comply. If people are not given the choice to do their part to help, but are forcibly locked indoors, or held against their will in horrible conditions, they will rightfully rebel. But if they are convinced, by reason and science, to do what needs to be done to solve this problem affecting us all, they may just do the right thing quite on their own. Democracy believes in citizens, not subjects, it believes in treating people as grown-ups, not children. It is by far the more sustainable approach. At least I hope it is; I don’t think I would like to live in a world where this would not be so. Wash your hands.

#11: Authoritarian Governments Must Lie, and Democracies are Grown-Up Systems

Allegedly, Russia has no Coronavirus, but a rise in pneumonia cases. You certainly know what means. We know China lied about the outbreak, and it is safe to assume they will continue to lie, and they certainly are making sure no journalist is telling the truth. Iran and China try to pin the outbreak to the US, a blatant lie. As to what’s happening in North Korea is anybody’s guess.

Authoritarian regimes have to lie about these things, it’s in their nature. This is because there can be only one argument for authoritarianism, and it is as old as Plato: it allegedly works better than the rule of the people. It’s a simple deal. The state, through its leader(s), says that it knows what is best for you, and that they listen to the people (overtly and, well, covertly) and then channel their thoughts into their decision-making. L’état, c’est moi – I am the state, as Louis XIV is quoted so famously.

But this is not how human beings work. We are not perfect. This is not how life works either. Something always gets in the way of perfection. Nobody, probably, wants a global virus outbreak to happen, at least no sane human being. The planet and all the other life forms on it might want to cull the human herd, but human beings typically want to preserve themselves, and an uncontrollable outbreak of an unknown pathogen is low on the list of deviousness designed by diabolical human minds for their warfare. The typical Bond movie villain does not exist. Even Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State”) has warned its assassins not to travel to Europe for fear of contagion. Extremists might be mad, but not that mad. China may have researched the virus in its Wuhan lab, but it probably did not engineer it. The regime may be mad, but not that mad.

It’s called a mistake, and mistakes happen. Now it depends on how you handle it. If you are an authoritarian regime, you must seem all-competent and almighty in order to convince your hapless subjects to continue to tolerate their evil grasp. As soon as that grasp seems less competent and less mighty, a revolution might occur, and it will occur much more quickly than you might think. Dictatorships are systems on the edge, and they can turn instantaneously. I know, I grew up in one. One day, Mr. and Mrs. Honecker seem on top of the world. The next day, the evil couple is on the run. One day, Mr. and Mrs. Ceaușescu are praising the victory of socialism, and the next day they are lying dead in a ditch. One day the Soviet Union is the scary evil empire (no sarcasm intended), the next day it is on the path to becoming a pitiful petro-state with delusions of grandeur. One day you are the much-celebrated stereotypical “Oriental” despot written about so adoringly in your own orientalist romance novel, the other you’re dragged out from an Earthen hole by American troops. One day you are running the African Union, the next day you are gunned down by protestors in the street like an animal. A dictator must have all the power, because the alternative is extremely punitive. All or nothing, whatever the cost.

This is not strength, it is weakness masquerading as strength. If you feel the need to pose with naked upper body on horseback like a dime novel James Bond, you are not demonstrating real strength; but you are demonstrating that as ridiculous as you may look, no one better laugh at you, for you’ll be out to get them. When otherwise comical things are becoming serious, this is where the authoritarian spirit lives.

Now, contrast this with the West. For all the authoritarian-ish posing that you may see in someone like a Macron, a Trump, even at times a Merkel, this is always a pathos that can easily be decried as pathetic by a functioning press. Western-style democracy is a cacophony of voices, a shrill spectacle of different interest groups in a tug-of-war, of upper and lower chambers of parliament screaming or grandstanding at each other, of judges deciding against judges, of hapless leaders, angry protesters, angry commentators, angry commentators angry at other angry commentators, etc. It’s a spectacle, every single day.

But this is not weakness; this is true strength. Democracy is more than just the “rule of the people”, as that simplistic definition says. Sure, somehow that is important. But more than that, democracy is a grown-up system for consensus creation by listening to all voices, somehow finding a way to navigate through them, making a decision, criticizing that decision to the maximum extent, hoping for the best, and if it does not work out, at the next higher level you may change or veto things, and at the next election, you can throw the inept leaders out and try anew. Repeat.

We’ll make mistakes, we’ll certainly, certainly, certainly know about the makes, if not sooner than definitely later, and we’ll have to grow around our mistakes, but the system will not collapse, and the hapless leaders, if they have not been found guilty of a crime, can retire in peace and be brought out once and again as an example of an elder statesperson that survived this hellish circle of life and can tell the tale.

I’ll take a grown-up system any day over one that treats everyone like a child.

#10: Corona, or, Nothing Important Is Happening Today

There is this anecdote that on July 4th 1776, King George wrote into his Journal “Nothing is Happening Today.” These were the times without instant worldwide communications, and surely, he could not have known what had just happened in the American colonies. And as most such famous quotes go, it very probably is not true, just as most of these things aren’t. These historical “fake news” exist to show a person’s character, or rather, to reveal the lack of royal insight in this case.

It will be interesting what will remain of all of us for future generations. People like to ridicule how in the “Middle Ages” (whatever that means) believers would flock into churches to pray against the Black Death, and thus would unknowingly spread it, or that Native Americans would congregate in Sweat Lodges, only to unknowingly spread diseases as well. There are countless such examples from all human cultures throughout all of history, I would assume.

We are not much better now.

It’s quite depressing watching the news, but it’s also a strange social and political experiment, somehow. Each country, it seems, has found different ways to deal with the issue ineptly; if it weren’t so sad, it would be fascinating. Watching young people frolicking outside, either here or in Europe, is a strange sight to see. Fear can do many different things with the human psyche, I guess.

It is an outrageous assumption that human beings would have somehow evolved to be smarter now. We are now seeing the evidence to the contrary, once again.

The sinister regime in Communist China felt that their reputation was more important than the safety of the entire world. They lied, persecuted truth-tellers, refused to share information, and are responsible for what is happening today. They know, but in true Socialist-Communist fashion, the party is supposed to be smarter than reality. Reality, supposedly, can be bent to the social engineering of a hubristic utopian cult hell-bent on eradicating every trace of individuality in the name of the “perfect” state.

(Should anyone dare to misunderstand what I am saying, my criticism aims at the regime and all those supporting it, in thought, words, and actions; it is not aimed at the innocent people imprisoned, dominated and abused by a sadistic system run by sadistic people.)

What started in China, and was made worse by the Chinese government, has, of course, spread now to the entire world. In the Western World, reactions have been less than perfect, and the tragedy unfolding in Italy right now may hit other countries. We are not prepared for such a pandemic, but surely, we will survive it, and luckily, this is Corvid-19, which is clearly a dangerous respiratory virus, but it is certainly not the Black Death, Ebola, or whatever gifts nature may still have in store for us.

But this is a lesson for the future.

Globalization – always – has brought with it both immense riches and immense risks. It mortally wounded the Eastern Roman Empire, once the Black Death made it to the Mediterranean area. It killed off probably about 90% of the indigenous populations in the Americas, Australia, and other areas. Global Interconnectedness means also the global spread of diseases.

We need to learn from this. Health care systems and modern medicine need to be made to withstand whatever comes next. Every country needs to be able to make their own medicines. We cannot rely on rogue players for our own survival.

We are learning right now very unfortunate things. We are back, sadly, in Europe to each country being on their own. Maybe European Integration needs more coordination with regards to health care? In each federal system, be it Germany or the United States, we need more coordination between states.

But mostly, we need people to listen. This is dangerous. Follow instructions. This is how civilizations can end. You may believe you can shape reality in any way possible, but reality will laugh at you. Nature is stronger than us. Only together will we survive this.

But as usual, the response to all the admonitions, all the warnings, all the instructions, is a cynical, casual, superior snark of “nothing important is happening today.” Neil Postman was right that Aldous Huxley was right. We are choosing our own pleasure as the instrument of our suppression. This has happened before, and it will happen again.

Fear can produce the strangest reactions, and I guess denial is just human nature.