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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corona, or, Nothing Important Is Happening Today

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

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

We are not much better now.

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

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

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

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

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

But this is a lesson for the future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dialectical Thinking

Too many times I am confronted with one-dimensional thinking. And it is easy to understand why. It is simply comforting to stay within the bubble which makes you comfortable, which is en vogue today, which you just need to subscribe to without much resistance. Mainstream means that you can join such mainstream movement without worrying about popular appeal, because you will automatically have that appeal. If your state beliefs easily conform with the spirit of the times, you will not risk anything, but you will also not learn anything, and you will not teach others anything either.

Fringe movements are outside the mainstream and provide a surprising counterpoint to thinking that not everyone will share, alas the fringe. Of course, fringe is risky, and sometimes more than just borderline dangerous. It is transgressive, it is radical, it is inappropriate, improper, sometimes indeed outrightly wrong. But it forces you to learn, as it teaches you an important lesson: Do not just accept things as they are, think the impossible.

Now ideally, both fringe and mainstream are in a equilibrium. Stability and instability, yin and yang, etc. If no idea ever has a time to settle, if nothing is allowed to be stable, instability has no meaning itself. Some ideas move from fringe to mainstream because they deserve to do so, because they prove worthwhile, because they enhance life. Some ideas stay in the mainstream forever, for the same reason. Some ideas remain forever in the fringe because they have proven destructive without ever enhancing life. But that does not mean that the mere thinking about such ideas should be forbidden.

Thinking has to be dialectical. There should not be prohibitions of thought. Such thinking also has to happen within yourself. The old image of an angel talking into one ear and a devil into the other demonstrates this very well: Only if you subject yourself to diametrically opposed ideas, or different aspects of ideas, or even more than just two different possibilities of thinking, only then can real learning occur. When Marx calls for a “ruthless criticism of everything existing” (in Marx to Ruge), this is an excellent suggestion, especially if it is meant to state that everything deserves a critical rethinking, everything deserves critique, and that even critique deserves critique, et cetera.

Action can only be fruitful if all possible avenues, and all possible consequences, are taken into consideration. Too frequently people hide behind good intentions, or claim that the opposing side has bad intentions. But intentions matter only in the confessional. In real life, in real politics, consequences matter, results matter. The assumedly best of intentions can lead to the worst of consequences, and even the assumedly worst of people can do the right kind of thing. Everything else is just fairy-tale thinking.

AT THE HOUR OF THE WOLF

Corvallis, October 13th, 2019 – January 12th, 2020 – P#725

come, all doubts and questions come now
at the hour of the wolf
at the time of sleepless terrors
logic drifting into dreams so shallow
that some thinking still remains
yet all reason here is lost

failures fill this time of torments
symbols chase around in madness
and the mind, this strangest fellow,
cannot see a forward way:
goes astray, and fear takes over:
how I wish for sleep’s own brother

doors appear that cannot open
writing will escape my view
as I try to scribble something
I’m aware it is for naught:
dreams too lucid to be soothing
for a monster lurks inside

come now though, I did invite you
just by needing rest and sleep
my foolish need to stay alive
invites this torture evermore:
insomnia’s too nice a word
for this here spectacle at hand

and as I drift and drift now further
all that’s hidden gets revealed
(quidquid latet, apparebit):
yes, this is a requiem
yes, this is the day of wrath
where fear beats logic every night

and when I lay me down to sleep
I’d hope the Lord my soul to keep:
but holds dominion here at night
quite something else that broke my soul:
so should I die before I wake
I don’t know who my soul will take.

http://www.philjohn.com/poems/pjkp_24_4.html#h30

We’re Headed in the Wrong Direction: Retirement Policy

I know things cost money. I am not a pie-in-the-sky socialist. I am very much aware that money has to be earned, economies need to grow, and benefits do not grow on trees. I grew up in East Germany under Socialism/Communism, and I do not want that back, under no circumstances.

There are some things though that are starting to worry me on a systems-wide level, and one of those issues is retirement.

It used to be that retirement meant that you would have money to spend. Maybe I remember wrongly, but I distinctly remember Western European and American senior citizens travelling around the world with apparently no care in the world, spending money on their kids and grandkids, building inheritances and nest eggs. Surely, this was a middle and upper class phenomenon, and poverty in old age has always been real in many cases. But it surely seems that whatever leisure and luxuries the past may have held, there will certainly be less of that in the future.

Already now, senior citizens frequently work in retail professions to make some extra money on the side, probably because their retirement benefits are not making ends meet. But this is just the beginning, and my Generation (Gen X) already seems to know that we’ll probably not have much to live for, and Generations Y (Millennials) to Z (does that mean the last?) probably don’t even want to know what will happen.

Again, I know that retirement and pension funds cost money, but this is cutting money at the wrong end.

In the “good old days”, old age meant “good luck” – if you were not incredibly rich or important, you would suffer. Older people doing well is an achievement of the late 19th and the 20th century.

Older people doing well means they can spend money on future generations, that they will spend money, period. Not investing in them is a deeply counter-productive thing to do, as it damages the entire fabric of inter-generational support. Typically, we hear the narrative that the working younger people support the older generations in retirement. Sure, tax-wise that seems not wrong. But the reverse is even more important: Inter-generational wealth and stability can only exist if parents and grandparents can actually support their offspring, and build wealth over time, and even babysit.

The trajectory we seem to be following throughout most if not all Western countries is pernicious and destructive, and needs to change. I certainly hope it does.

Star Trek Discovery: Mea Culpa

I have sinned, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I disliked Star Trek Discovery when it came out. Somehow it seemed too different, both in style and tonality resembling more the newer Battlestar Galactica and others. To me, Star Trek was always a stage play, with better funding than the original Doctor Who, of course, but barely. I disliked the movies because they were too cinematic, and cherished the TV shows for being minimalist.

Now I felt I was seeing 10 lights where there should have been only four (and if you do not get this, you may not know as much about Star Trek than you think — just kidding. This kind of passive-aggressive fandom nerdiness is never helpful. But seriously, TNG 6.10-11 “Chain of Command I+II” should be required viewing).

Everything is urgent, flashy, you need subtitles, Klingons look different again, what the Data is a “spore drive”, and why are there holograms, and a holodeck, etc. Who are these people on the bridge that I never get to know really. — Eventually, I got it out of my system.

Star Trek fans can be the most unforgiving. But we’ll come around, hopefully, eventually. Discovery is great, and it may even had a better start than most other Star Trek shows in each of their own awkward first seasons.

Rewatching season one, this show clearly needs to live long and prosper (couldn’t help it).

Democracy Means Humility

What is democracy? Plenty of smart books have been written about this oftentimes confusing topic, and those who have the privilege of living in a democratic society should know what it means, kind of. We should know.

But sadly, it seems, there is an odd reaction to democracy happening, a backlash out of frustration, and an even odder envy about other forms of government that are maybe less “messy.” This strange dissatisfaction can be witnessed all around the political spectrum. Nothing in a conversation is as easy a crowd pleaser as a slightly cynical throwaway remark about “the politicians” or “politics nowadays.”

Newsflash, nobody in history has ever liked politicians or politics, least of all those involved in it, probably. It’s one of the givens of human existence. You just don’t hear it as frequently as today, and you certainly hear it less in non-democratic countries.

Similarly, you can easily make friends by frenetically agreeing with their more partisan political opinions, just as you can easily lose them by vehemently arguing the opposite. Human beings are tribal beings, whether we like it or not. Animals probably are too. Maybe even plants. Like likes like, and the one who throws (Greek: ballein) obstacles in your way against (dia-) you, is called a devil (dia-bolos) for a reason. That’s all quite understandable.

But if you believe in a democracy, you believe that the people should rule, not the elites, not nobility, not the warriors, not only men, not only white people, not only straight people, not only non-straight people, not only people of color, not only women, not only pacifists, not only the workers. Everyone. Most political injustice historically has happened because of the exclusion of whole swaths of people.

Movements for political justice have always focused on including more, not less people from politics. Everyone means everyone, even if you cannot stand them, cannot understand them, cannot understand how they think, do not even think that they are thinking.

Democracy means humility. It means the humility of living in the awareness that other people may very well know what they are doing, whether you understand it or not; and if they don’t know, they still have a right to participate; and if you think you know what you are doing yourself, you may not know it after all either. We are all fallible. We can be right on an issue today and wrong tomorrow and right again the day after tomorrow and so on. Realizing that sooner or later would save all of us from this strange partisan tribalism that seems to be growing day by day.

How We Win

We can only win – in the long run – by setting a better example. We cannot aim to play the game the enemy is playing, we cannot criticize or condemn criminal behavior and then behave the same way, or in a way that can be seen the same whether we like it or not. If we cannot – in the Kantian sense – make the way we live an example for others, then we cannot expect others to follow our lead.

Peace brings peace, war brings war. It’s not that easy, sadly, as sometimes the wrong peace can allow for war, and the right war can create peace. Nothing is quite easy. Pacifism is not always the answer.

Yet it is how we do things that matters. How war is declared, waged, and ended, that’s the key. How peace is waged matters just as much.

If we are seeing ourselves on the side of reason and truth and justice and the best possible way forward for all of humanity, then we need to live these standards in the ways we are doing what we do.

Only then can we keep the moral high ground. Only then can we win hearts and minds, ours and those of the former enemy. Needing an enemy is not civilized behavior.

post scriptum

I have written this after the assassination of an Iranian general who has, by all we know, been involved in fostering non-peaceful causes, to say it mildly. He surely was not an innocent person, and yet, are such executions by drone really what communicates the best course of action? Similarly, are threats of retaliation by an Iranian government that has already promoted terror and war in the region the response of a party that would similarly seek peace? The above written text should apply to all. Let’s see – who will seriously be able to commit to peace? Let us pray, probably.

Don’t Know What to Say

I have absolutely no clue what I am supposed to say. Maybe I should not be saying anything. But I am thinking something. I am thinking and feeling a lot of things during the day. Thus there could be something to say. Could, should, supposed to. Expectations – they are the real problem.

I live alternately in Germany and in Oregon, United States. I should be free to say what I want. I should not fear repercussion. Critique, fine, and everyone’s a critic. That’s how you grow, or learn to live with something or ignore it. Whatever.

I do not have outrageous opinions. But I believe in the value to weigh and test different and sometimes even opposed opinions. I have convictions, well, maybe one. The dignity of life is inviolable. Stolen right out of the German version of its constitution. Deliberate, willful denigration of others, let alone physical harm to them, is anathema, not good, not something I intend to do. Live and let live. But also, be aware intolerance and bigotry arising. But always seek the truth, no matter how difficult. And always be aware that you will be making mistakes.

I guess I have said something after all.

A Fresh Start

I’m trying something new again, again, again. The web site is a bit old (philjohn.com), and it had a diary section, but then technology changed, I got a blog, abandoned it, and now I am trying again.

This will be a place to share some observations and thoughts on politics, religion and culture, to test out some ideas, and to – in general – just get in the habit of writing again, as taught by Forrester:

I hope we’ll have some fun, some depth, but always a good and civil exchange here to mutually learn and better ourselves.

Yours,

Phil