#98: The Populist Attack on Democracy During the Pandemic

When the pandemic hit the world, it unleashed more than just a deadly virus. It has put us all in a crucible. Nature has been testing our ability to be political animals, forcing our societies and our politics to make impossible decisions. Who shall we protect? Am I my fellow citizen’s keeper? How much economic and social pain can we tolerate while defending us against a virus? If this spiky microorganism could speak, it might very well want to quote Shelley’s Ozymandias and say “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”

Desperation is political dynamite. It has the ability to creep into every crevice of society, poison minds and souls, and even to tear everything asunder. There is a reason politics seems at a loss sometimes. We are still racing through the night, the outlines of the path becoming clearer only to threaten to be obscured again. We have been playing this deadly game for over a year now, and it is not over till it is over.

The only guidance system we have is science. It is an imperfect system, but it is the only one that works. Its imperfection lies in the availability of data which influences the analysis of the problem and the creation of solutions. Science yields tentative answers, which eventually may form a theory, but everything is always under revision depending on new facts. This is a politician’s nightmare, and it is not intuitive for how human beings think. There is a reason that the systematic pursuit of science is an invention in itself that took millennia to take hold. Yet the fight against superstition and anti-science is never won, and it has become more difficult during the pandemic.

Science works in the collective mode, not in the heroic narrative of the lone voice in the wilderness. For there to be a situation in which established scientific view is so solidly mistaken, during a global emergency, is peculiar. As Carl Sagan has frequently said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The scientific consensus, based on the available data, is clear: the pandemic is real, the threat is real, and the approved vaccines work safely. The extraordinary position here is not the denier perspective, but the scientific consensus.

Yet it is the heroic mode, the tale of the hero fighting against the forces of darkness, that appears most seductive to human beings. There seem to be only a small number of medical, legal or scientific experts (typically in fields other than virology or epidemiology) that disagree with the established view about these matters. They have taken on the mantle of the hero that can fight against the medical crisis by denying its existence and by pointing to a wholly different threat.

We all have seen that our personal relationships have been put under tremendous stress. One of my closest friends has become a Covid denier. They have always been more interested in esotericism, astrology and popular psychology than in science or academic thinking. Their children and they themselves suffered from the lockdown, and this suffering led them down the path laid out to them by the algorithm of popular social media platforms.

There is an element of real pain here that is exploited by these platforms. People indeed feel crushed both by the pandemic and the measures taken to curb it. We are irrational beings much more than we would care to admit. Fear of the virus may lead to denying its existence. Lack of understanding of science may lead people to be suspicious of experts changing their minds when facts change. overall. Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were famous for dismissing experts and won elections on this very bias. We can all see politicians being frequently helpless in the face of the pandemic. People need someone to tell them that it will all be ok. If desperate enough, people will turn to false prophets. History is full of such stories, and it should teach us humility. Our system has indeed failed all those who now are moving to turn away from it, it has failed them in matters of education, civic engagement, and the recognition of everyone’s individual dignity. We are figuratively throwing people to the wolves, and down the rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole is electronic nowadays, and it is powerful. The alternative world view unfolding to the initiated speaks of a pandemic planned in a global cooperation of politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and the typical cast of allegedly diabolical characters. The sinister purpose remains unclear but overall follows the well-worn paths of typical antisemitic conspiracy lore. The more you enter this world, the more you are inundated by it, and the more you connect to the similarly initiated few that are the only ones able to see the light and to prepare for a post-“plandemic” future. The pandemic, of course, does not exist as the established media want us to believe, but instead there is talk that a “Great Reset” is on the way to allegedly subjugate all of humanity.

At first I was confused about this. What could possibly be the motivation behind the denial of the existence or threat level of the pandemic, or the safety of the vaccines?

The answer is emerging more and more. The Coronavirus Pandemic is used by populists to attack democracy itself.

We see some of this happening currently in the United States. With the Republican party and the conservative movement in disarray, there are some voices echoing conspiratorial notes. Outside the United States, the picture becomes more clear. In Germany, for instance, a new alliance between discontented voters who would formerly identify with the established parties either of the left, center or the right, now are coalescing into the New Right. Leading players of the so-called “Querdenker” movement (“critical” or “lateral” thinkers) ally themselves with sovereign citizens, with esoterically or anthroposophically influenced groups, with old and new authoritarians.

Their demands are clear: sweep away the old system, which includes all politicians, all established media, all scientists and all academics and all their supporters. Establish a new, allegedly truly democratic movement and govern through the direct will of the people determined by the assumed wisdom of crowds. Trust the natural healing powers of the human body, and let nature run its course. Reject “globalists” – a smear word created to distort the legitimate critique of neoliberal globalization and turn it into an antisemitically tinged libel of the United Nations, free-traders and multinationalists – and bring back the nation state. Seek alliance with Russia, as Putin has taken his country down that path already.

This sounds very familiar. It has a name, only its clothes are slightly recycled. If we let it fester, if we do not find clear answers, the national socialist movement is already growing, hiding behind – as it used to – a romantic fixation with nature, with esotericism, with anti-science and populist authoritarianism claiming to be democratic.

Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Coronavirus will eventually be defeated, managed, return to memory, with the possibility of return. The political virus that we deemed to have overcome is still lingering. As Berthold Brecht has said, “the womb is fertile still from whence this crawled.”

#94: What Is Political Extremism Today?

We are conditioned to think in political categories of “right” versus “left”, with an underappreciated center in between. This model has become deeply entrenched in political thinking, no matter how simplistic it actually is.

Politically, “left” and “right” derive from seating arrangements of pro- versus anti-monarchist forces in the National Assembly during the French Revolution, but the principle, of course, goes deeper.

First, this understanding of power is based on thinking in a strict dichotomy, in a way of thinking believing in either-or propositions, in adversarial style, in a simplistic for-and-against way of conceptualizing every single issue, or even a worldview.

Second, it typically includes gradations, especially in systems that have more than two political parties (or rather, whose election system is not based on winner-takes all, which seems to cause the two-party system – CGP Grey has some great videos explaining voting systems). The more diversified the parties become, the more there may an entire panoply of parties. Some parties may be directly in the center, others center-left, others center-right, others moderate left or right, others extreme left or right, whatever “right” or “left” may mean at the time. Traditionally, “right” suggests establishment, “left” suggest reform or revolution.

(Fun fact: whoever you consider to be a “sinister force” in politics depends on your knowledge of Italian: “La sinistra” is the left. But if you think of old clips of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show depicting Dick Cheney as Darth Vader, the music may have sounded sinister, but the implication certainly was not that Cheney was a leftie. But I digress.)

Third, we now have a problem on the extremes. There are both right-wing and left-wing versions of extremism that are no friends of democracy and its values and institutions. Some models – for instance the “horseshoe theory” – point to similarities amongst both extremisms. There may still be something that separates them (it’s not a closed circle in that model), but they look rather similar.

Is that even a helpful distinction? There were moments in recent history where surprising thought alliances appeared. Agreement with or resistance to allowing stem cell research was and is still an issue finding support along strange ideological lines (Greens + Conservatives), but they deviate when it comes to the issue of abortion (Conservatives). Globalization critique used to be left-wing and has now also found equivalents on the right, albeit sometimes with a different tone. Support of Israel used to be a stalwart issue on the left, and now finds it, at least rhetorically, on the right, though not in the outright Nazi parties, I would assume (though once you find out about Jewish Neonazis, you have seen everything).

Personally, I have never found the left-right paradigm useful. It is too simplistic, and I am not much in favor of party loyalty. You support who you support based on issues and personnel, but even that is dicey as party programs oftentimes don’t mean much. But my voting record has always been mixed, and so it shall be. I prefer to be flexible, depending on what I see on the table (or rather, on the ballot).

Politics is a game played by politicians, and to assume them to follow clear philosophical principles which sustain their ideology is a bit of a stretch, in my view. A good politician does what works, and chooses the respective ideology as they see fit. A bad one makes reality bend to their ideological blinders and either doesn’t get anything done at all, or won’t succeed in the long-run. A strict reality-orientation though will eventually banish all ideology, and so it should be. That does not mean that ideology is useless, but if it is at the point of becoming dogma, it needs to be seriously questioned.

But especially with regards to new developments during the Coronavirus crisis, we can see that anti-democratic extremism arises from a new background that might formerly have been described as “left” or “right”. Things are becoming confusing very fast, and I would suggest that rather to use tired old labels, to stick to the actual issues.

I have thus began to work on a tentative list of extremist thought that still uses coded language but appeals to extremist and anti-democratic thought. There is certainly no assumption of completeness, but it may be helpful to shed some light on some of these here.

Versions of the following key statements always occur on the extreme fringes, especially now in parties catering to Covid Deniers or the New Right:

  1. Insistence on Freedom as an absolute value: All democratic parties value freedom, but it is not the only value in a democratic society, nor is it always easy to define. My own freedom has limits if it severely limits the freedom of others, for instance.

  2. Insistence on Sovereignty as something absolute: A democratic country recognizes that its people are the sovereign, and they send representatives into political office. Government actions thus always have to align with popular will, which is in turn measured through elections and other democratic processes. The sovereignty of a country is thus an extension of the sovereignty of its citizens. It is in the interest of the citizens to exert this sovereignty in a way that benefits the people as a whole. Given constant change, the concept of the sovereignty of a country needs to adapt. If it is to the benefit of the country to enhance free trade and cooperation with other countries, traditional concepts of sovereignty (closed borders, own currency, own military) may actually limit the sovereignty of its citizens.

  3. Insistence on Patriotism as identical to nationalism: Healthy patriotism is a positionality towards your own country in which you see yourself in service to the benefit of all its people, to its wellbeing, to its future. Like sovereignty, this may well include honoring international and supranational treaties, cooperation and connections. Patriotism should always be a positive position (supporting your own country and its allies) and not define itself in the negative (against other countries).

  4. Insistence on a static National Identity: National identity is complex, historically grown, and always changing. Multiculturalism is the historical norm; mono-ethnic states almost always the result of ethnic cleansing or forced assimilation. Immigration is a constant historical presence, and while it is always important to integrate immigrants successfully into your society, this integration needs to be limited to the adherence of laws and common standards, and cannot mean the rejection of all cultural traditions (as long as they are not in conflict with sensible laws of the new country).

  5. The claim to represent the true majority, the “base” or the “forgotten people:”
    There are no citizens “first class” or “second class.” The insinuation that some of the people in the country are not really representative of it and must be silenced in favor of an assumed “silent majority” has always been an excuse used by dictatorships to shut out undesired populations.

  6. The elites are all corrupt: Corruption is a mainstay of all societies, sadly, and it needs to be fought. But the insinuation that all so-called elites would be corrupt is a typical strawman argument typically used to delegitimize all democratically elected officials of a country, as well to discredit teachers, professors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and whoever else may have enjoyed higher education. It also is used to dismiss any possible legitimacy to the claim personal wealth or influence. This is another typical tactic of demagogues.

  7. There are secret powers directing our fates: In a highly networked world, it is completely normal that ideas flow from person to person, from country to country. The almost infinite interplay of institutions and people from around the globe is what constitutes civilization and society itself. Some of these influences are transparent, some are not. This is normal. Conspiracies typically do not work out, and if they do so, only on a small scale. People talk, have divergent interests, and governments change. Nothing will stay secret forever. It is virtually impossible that in a global context, there could be organizations of people thinking in complete lockstep. The insinuation that there could be secret powers that control our politics is simply ridiculous. It is another strategy to delegitimize democratic governments.

  8. These secret powers form a hidden international network: This accusation has been used to demonize populations that due to their diasporic spread and their minority status – frequently a result of discrimination – can be found in many countries and had to struggle to adapt to the majority culture while still maintaining traces of their own. This accusation is a core component of Anti-Semitism, but also of any xenophobia against immigrant groups, and has been leveled against Jews, Muslims and Catholics (under the assumption that religious beliefs systematically would pit them against their countries of immigration), or any sizable ethnic minority.

  9. You cannot speak freely anymore, there is an official dictate of opinion (“Meinungsdiktatur” in German): Free speech is a core component of any democratic society. It must be seen as absolute. Without it, democracy cannot survive. However, speech always means counter-speech, and if you want to participate in the national discourse, you will also need to appreciate critique and debate. Should that critique be too excessive and endanger your employment or even your life, that is of course something that cannot be tolerated in society. This point mixes legitimate critique of cancel culture with a naïve and illegitimate expectation to be allowed to say whatever you like without critical counter-speech. This point is also frequently mentioned to insinuate that we are living in a dictatorship in which drastic speech codes are enforced. Sometimes this critique is also used in order to defend speech that some might consider deliberately insulting, demeaning and hateful.

  10. You cannot trust the established media / the press is lying / all news we don’t like are fake news:
    If you have built your world view on believing that the world is controlled by powerful forces outside democratic control, then the purveyors of information that are trusted by the established system cannot be trusted. What is typically agreed upon as real becomes fake, what is believed to be reliable becomes suspicious, and the media that transport that which everyone else believes to be true needs to be seen as fake. It is no coincidence that the primary vehicle for disinformation and alternative reality in the United States is called “Infowars.” Facts need to be countered with alternative facts, truth becomes lies, and journalists are seen as the enemy. Fear of an Orwellian system leads to the creation of an Orwellian counter-reality in which doubt is celebrated as patriotic only if it criticizes the other side, never your own.

  11. Reality itself is not what you think it is. We know better and can educate (red-pill) you about the truth.
    You basically believe in The Matrix, and need to see the truth. Only we can tell you. This is Brainwashing 101.

From there, it is all down the rabbit hole. To be continued.

#74: On the Difference Between Scientific and Mythological Thinking

Plato already talked about the difference between logos and mythos. Put very simply, the first, λόγος, stands for truth, reason, and science, whereas the second, μῦθος, stands for story, narrative, and mythology. Both can describe approaches to learning and truth, but they differ critically in how they function and of use they can be to society.

Mythological thinking is focused on beginnings, on genealogies, on staying within a system. In order to understand a story, you need to follow it from the beginning. If you enter it later, you will need to backtrack and figure out what happened before. Mythologies lay building block upon building block, and the building itself always aims for completion. Stories, as Aristotle reminded us, have a beginning that is not arbitrary, and an ending that conclusively ends the story and that brings to a close what was started in the beginning. The final goal, the telos (τέλος), beings to fruition what was laid out in the beginning. If we pay attention throughout the narrative, we may figure out the final goal, the endgame, the purpose of events. Everything has a deeper meaning, nothing happens by accident, signs and portents are everywhere to be found, and the truth can be revealed by those with special knowledge and insight that know how to interpret the flow of events.

In a way, mythological thinking appears to be core to human nature. We are natural storytellers. All human cultures have stories explaining their origins, their culture, their unique identity. Narrativity is what drives societies through their respective cultures. Narratives give us our sense of self, our sense of hierarchies, of destiny, of past and future, of meaning – for better or worse. They are deeply connected to language, and individual words have deep meanings steeped in history, power relations and ways of thinking.

Individual thinkers, philosophers and artists, have an enormous influence on mythologies.

Mythologies can tolerate variance. Any attempt at systematizing mythological narratives will need to make exceptions for multiple versions. Some core tenets of such a narrative may remain constant, but surrounding factors will change, irrespective of the mode of narration. Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies may each center around a specific pantheon, but some details may vary from narrator to narrator, from time period to time period. Gods will have many names, or many bynames signifying different origins or interpretations. Stories about the gods will vary depending on the author, the specific culture, time period, etc. Mythologies can evolve over time, and emphasize different core elements even transcending specific mythological or religious narratives. The myth of the “Great Goddess”, for instance, sees its main deity in different religious contexts, whether it talks about Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Demeter, or Mary, for instance. The demigod Hero who saves the world after undergoing a variety of self-sacrificing trials can be called Prometheus, Hercules, Odysseus, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But behind this variation stands a clear anthropological truth. Religion cannot be disproven because it is not about facts but about deeply held anthropological / psychological / theological / mythological meaning. What we think about reality is deeply influenced by our narratives.

Scientific thinking is different. Beginnings matter in different ways than in narratives. Science does not care about narratives. It does not care what Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Archimedes, Richard Dawkins or even Neil DeGrasse Tyson my think. While there is Norse mythology according to Icelandic or German traditions, to Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, Wagner or Tolkien, science is the same everywhere. It matters not one iota whether Einstein discovered Special and General Relativity, somebody else would have eventually – or not. Science describes reality, and reality does not care about narratives. You may need narrative power to explain science (and none do it better than the likes of Dawkins and Tyson), but again, science does not care. It is true regardless.

Whether we know how the universe truly began may or may not inform important technologies derived from our scientific knowledge about the beginning, but knowledge about its beginning is immaterial to our contemporary reality. The so-called laws of science are mere descriptions of reality. Planck did not disprove Einstein, who did not disprove Newton (as it is frequently said). Quantum physics describes a different lens on the same reality as Einsteinian relativity or Newtonian mechanics. Relativity is an important consideration when discussing very fast objects, but for our day-to-day lives, Newton does just fine. No matter how fast humans move on Earth, we will never even approach the speed of light, and time dilation does not matter to us. And unless we look at very small particles, we need not contend with quantum physics. Whether space has 3 dimensions or 4 or more does not change our day-to-day lives.

If Darwin made a mistake, that does not unravel the theory of evolution. Einstein underestimated the importance of quantum physics, but that does not take away from quantum physics. Newton did not think about objects traveling close to the speed of light affecting their passage of time, but that does not disprove his theory of gravity. Why? Because science is based on observable reality, on repeatable experiments and observations, on falsifiability, and on a community of free-thinking scholars all eager to compete with each other in the discovery of scientific principles underlying reality.

In mythological thinking, beginnings matter and individual thinkers can make a big difference. In scientific thinking, the latest and newest findings matter, and individual scientists – as accomplished and justifiably famous as they may be – do not matter with respect to their discoveries.

We see this difference being played out right now in the times of Coronavirus. Those believing that it is all a big conspiracy will point out that early in 2020, some scientists said masks do not make a difference, and the conspiracists will assume that this was somehow an original truth and what scientists say now (that masks matter) is a lie. But science only analyzes the data. We learned that the virus spreads in ways that indeed make mask wearing necessary to protect yourself and others. (We also were able to make more masks in the meantime and do not have to ration them for hospital workers as we had to in early 2020).

In science, the majority opinion matters because it is based on the competitive attempts of all scientists to discover reality. In science, of a specific hypothesis or even theory is disproven, science benefits even more – and scientists will applaud this, bruised egos aside. There cannot be “renegade scientists” – because all scientists are, in a sense, renegades already. “Scientific consensus” means that the burden of evidence supporting a hypothesis or theory is so great that the likelihood of it being wrong is low; but should there be evidence overturning a specific way of thinking, it will be welcome, and will be invited with great interest as it serves the larger interest, the search for truth.

In the end, the great seeker of compromise, Stephen J. Gould, spoke of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria. Science and religion (or mythology) seek different answers, both, ideally, speaking to our human quest for meaning. But when it comes to confronting a real-world problem, whether it is a pandemic or climate change, I prefer to listen to the majority of scientists over singular renegade voices focusing on narratives and conspiracy mythologies.

Mythos may be good for the soul, but logos ensures our survival.

#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.

#25: Legitimate and Illegitimate Arguments Regarding the Coronavirus Shutdown

In the current situation, we are all stressed, jobs are on the line, pay is lessened, the economy in danger, health concerns abound, and isolation and modification of normal human behaviors are driving us all further and further down a path where, maybe, madness lies. Thus I thought it might be helpful to meditate on some 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.

#24: Conspiracy Thinking is Not Critical Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#23: We Need to Take the Virus Seriously

Surely, 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, and our handling of the situation is certainly not perfect, and needs to follow ever-evolving guidelines:

  • 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.

#22: There Are No “Alternative” News Sources

The dissatisfaction with “established” news sources is real. There has been a worrying trend in media towards heavy editorializing, partisan bias, and selective reporting. All this is happening in newspapers and television news, also online.

But the answer to that problem is not to gravitate to “alternative” news sources which would see all these problems compounded at a much higher degree.

The answer to problematic media is to diversify your media intake, but also to make sure not to select even less reliable news sources. Either something is news or it is not. There is no “alternative” news, just as there are not “alternative” facts. There can be different interpretations of the same news and facts, just as much as media can have selection bias.

Ideally, selection bias can be overcome by indeed looking at news from different angles, and by maintaining all-out skepticism. Selection bias is nothing new, and has been a regrettable feature of newspapers for ever. You know that if you gravitate to a more liberal agenda, then the New York Times and the Washington Post are for you; and if you are on the more conservative side, it’s the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. Same with television, and with internet news.

Most problematic, however, are state media run by dictatorships. Russia Today, Ruptly, Sputnik, Al Jazeera, the Global Times, etc., may sometimes indeed carry legitimate stories, but they will not criticize the regimes in their own countries, and try to spread biased Soviet-style disinformation about the West. Regrettably, some of these sources of “news” are becoming more popular amongst Western youth who prefer critical reporting about their own countries – which is ok, but you will need to keep this in perspective. Soviet-style sedition campaigns work by eroding trust in Western democracy and making dictatorships sound more appealing in contrast.

There is not the “one news source” that explains everything. This is when we enter the realm of conspiracy theories and “alternative” news. The internet may make illegitimate content seem legitimate very easily, but again, diversification is the key here. Despite all the problems with established media, there is no alternative to solid and competitive journalism, everything else is just someone’s private opinion.