#46: We Need to Move Beyond the Left/Right Paradigm

There have been plenty of attempts to redefine the Left/Right paradigm that still seems to reign supreme in most people’s minds, especially in journalism.

Originally established in the French National Assembly in 1789, it divided parliamentarians between those in support of the French Revolution on the left, and the supporters of the Establishment on the right. It is a seating arrangement from more than 230 years ago. It makes sense to simplify matters when it comes to seating, as you have to place people in a room, and where one person sits, nobody else can sit. This was my first lesson as an altar boy, and it makes sense when it comes to such matters.

But aren’t political ideas more complicated than seating plans?

If you generalize the seating, it becomes immediately clear that it is a very situational problem. If the division is between disruption/revolution on the one side, and conserving/establishment, depending on the political party, what is “left” and what is “right” cannot be considered stable. If the establishment follows Socialist ideas, are supporters of Socialism suddenly right-wingers? If both Socialists/Communists and National Socialists on one side stood against Social Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals on the other in the Weimar Republic, are those in favor of disruption all on the “left”, and those in favor of democracy all on the “right”?

Is everybody who is not on the side of the Socialists on the “right”? Social Democrats have suffered for decades under being labeled failed revolutionaries – and sometimes seem to surrender to the stereotypes themselves rather than to defend their moderation in defense of democracy against disruptive radicalism. Similarly, what do Conservatives who defend democracy have in common with Fascists and National Socialists? This simply makes no sense.

We currently see a vivid demonstration of the outright idiocy of such labels:

  • Those “resisting” Coronavirus prevention measures fall visibly into a variety of political camps. Recent demonstrations in Berlin illustrated that clearly: Alternatives, Hippies, LGBTQ advocates, concerned democracy defenders, so-called sovereign citizens, as well as outright Neo-Nazis joined in a happy commingling. In the US, social protests of any spectrum seem to merely pay lip service (if at all) to protective regulations.
  • Putin has shown support for both right-wing and left-wing extremist parties in the recent decades. He is seen as an inspiration for both.
  • China’s communist leadership is cow-towed by everybody expecting political and economic favor, notwithstanding its civil rights abuses.
  • Antisemitism has flourished on both the “left” and the “right” recently under the label of “criticizing Israel”, a very transparent attempt to single out the Jewish state as the alleged source of all evil in the world (this becomes clear by being a sin of omission: the same “critics” remain silent on China, Turkey, Russia, or any other state (every single one!) that has ever incorporated territory originally not their own).

There are countless more examples, and there air several attempts at solving the classification problem by thinking in quadrants rather than two sides only (typically, by drawing an axis of totalitarianism vs. libertarianism, and another of individualism vs. groupishness).

It is disappointing to see the old and outdated paradigm still abound. Either we are not learning anything, or old ideas simply die hard…

#41: Corona Funk

Bigfoot Sighting near Lyons, Oregon

I’m not necessarily a believer in sharing emotions. I consider it emotional blackmail, overwhelming others with my own private feelings, not allowing others a space for critique (for how do you critique someone’s emotions? It would be rude), and also, it really is nobody’s business how I feel. Emotions can be turned into art, that’s what poetry, photography, music, etc. are for.

But I do have to admit, this s-u-c-k-s on some levels. Believe me, I am perfectly happy at home. Love it. I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to make a nice home. Some aren’t, and that sucks even more, I understand, I know people whose situation is not ideal at all. Nevertheless, I love being home, but as a choice, not something forced upon me.

The virus situation is real, it is like a bungee ride, you think it’s over, and once you think that, it’s back. If that sounds ridiculous, it may be because I’ve never enjoyed a bungee jump, but also, because it sadly is true. This virus is a tricky one, fools you into being harmless, and then it can gut entire families and communities. Everyone’s trying to either adapt, prepare, or deny, rebel, resist, but whatever venue we choose to air our emotions, I think we all – all human beings, and maybe even some cats, on this entire planet, we all are raging into the night, some more inside than outside, but the rage is there.

We are used to being in control of things. Some more than others, of course, but still – we have gotten used to being able, in principle, to control nature, to a fault. Now we have to give in. It’s embarrassing, infuriating, debilitating, humbling, depressing. Wait for climate change to get worse, and practice your feelings already. You can also hope against hope, which is fine as well.

But let’s just admit it, we probably are all in a Corona Funk. It’s ok. This is not normal. Let’s focus on survival, and let’s do what we can to help this be over soon. For crying out loud…

#37: Coronavirus, the Amfortas Wound?

In Wagner’s Parsifal, king Amfortas, who guards the grail, has a wound that does not heal. It has been inflicted by the (evil) sorcerer Klingsor who has used the king’s own spear against him. The grail may help, but there are difficulties.

Is this maybe a good metaphor for the Coronavirus? The virus has appeared first in China, which is something that can happen in any country, but then the Communist government denied, falsified and manipulated information (Klingsor, check) – which is something that should not happen (Again, my critique here aims at the government, not the people).

Then, of course, almost every single country (with the exception of maybe Taiwan, but in all cases, time will tell) found ingenious ways to handle the outbreak in ways it should not have. The wound, though initially inflicted from outside, had now an own component, we have afflicted ourselves by lacking preparation, equipment, procedures, imperfect implementation of protective measures, and finally, lack of discipline, and of course, plain old stupidity and hubris (which all humans can do very well, no matter where they are from).

Now, that we are timidly trying to return back to some sort of life, the virus seems to be an expert at exploiting the slightest weakness we will show in opening back up. Each opening seems to provoke a rise in cases, and even hospitalizations, then we’ll have to lock up again, to open again, etc.

Is this our future till the vaccine? Is this an Amfortas wound that will not heal till the holy grail, the vaccine, will succeed? I hope not, because Parsifal – pace Wagner – is thinly veiled Christian eschatological allegory, but it is thus about hope and faith, not science. We cannot will the vaccine into being. We need to protect ourselves and each other. We will need to somehow start living with this nightmare.

But maybe hope is not a bad strategy: without hope that the wound will eventually heal, we would not get the energy to get over it. Thus let us hope, and try, just try, to focus on the better angels of our nature. We are all, the entire planet, in this together.

#26: Coronavirus is a Thief

The Coronavirus is a thief. It is stealing our time, our lives, our present, and attaching an unnerving question mark unto our future.

Wherever you stand on the question of lockdown or not, or on how to live with the virus, we all share the same predicament, even if to different degrees.

This is what stands behind the criticism of the lockdown as well: The fear that our life, even if we save it as bare life, will lack the meaning and the promise it had before the virus arrived. Whatever time we lost, at school, at work, with friends and relatives, cannot be recovered. If you missed falling in love because you did not get to meet that special someone, that will remain missed. Precious moments have already been lost, precious opportunities disappeared, many people’s lives’ work destroyed. Most crucially, thousands of lives have been lost, and are still being lost.

We have learned to hope that life is different now in modern, even post-modern times (whatever that means). We have adjusted, at least in the more affluent countries, to a safety and predictability of life that was – and in many cases still is – the domain only of the most privileged.

Now we are learning, or rather re-learning, the old truth: That the veneer of civilization is very thin. Nature is always stronger. Life (and death) are not abstractions, but concreteness. Loss is permanent, and everywhere.

We need to re-learn to process loss. We also need to rediscover what really provides meaning in life.

#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.

#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

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.

#20: Exiled

I grew up in former East Germany, lived through the 1989 Revolution, saw the fall of the wall, transitioned to life in West, or rather, United Germany, fell in love, moved to the US, enjoying a freedom I never thought I would ever be able to enjoy pre-1989.

My transatlantic life was based on the assumption that I would always be able to be present on both continents, keep doing work on both continents, travel, visit family and friends. This very liberating mobility was a dream come true.

Enter Coronavirus. We saw it coming in December, where it was some “mysterious” pneumonia in Wuhan, PRC. I still traveled over Christmas, back and forth. Then, in January, it became clear something serious was happening, and by February, international travel was becoming increasingly not kosher, and by early March, we entered a new reality.

This tiny virus has turned my transatlantic life into an unintended exile. How quickly, life can change, and distances that used to be traversable become impossible to overcome.

Life has gotten smaller, the world has become something much more abstract, less concrete, unreachable. I am sitting in my house, my home away from home, but my original home is out of reach.

I’m doing well otherwise, and I am well aware there are worst fates. But the feeling that you cannot just drive or walk or even fly to go over there is numbing.

Corona takes the crown for reducing this beautiful world to a cruel memory and abstraction. There are now advertisements on television saying that it is ok to be depressed. Really? Street signs, for when I do get out to just look around, from the care, tell me to go home. I understand that there is a new virus out there, that we understand too little, and that far too many people have died already, and more will be dying. We are afraid for a very good reason, and need to be cautious. Certainly.

I can do this. I grew up not being allowed to travel to the “West”, to other continents. This exile may well be temporary, but my time, and that of friends and family is not endless. This is a cruel virus. Make it stop. Certainly, I am not alone in this wish.

This sucks.

#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.