Story of the Red Bear


The Story of the Red Bear

Many years ago, at a flea market on the parking lot of a seedy pizzeria next to the highway, my daughter (let’s call her Thalia)  found and fell in love with a little bear dressed like Santa Claus.  She called it Rotbär, red bear, and pronounced it hohtbär (with long dark “O” as in home), because her mouth was still learning those harder, guttural letters. It became her one and only faithful companion, support, savior, friend.

A few months later, disaster struck. On a cold November night, Rotbär got lost somewhere in Basel.  Exactly how is anyone’s guess. We searched for it high and low, made calls, returned to each location we might have been. To no avail. Thalia’s gentle heart, at three and a half years of age, had experienced its first great tragedy, and she was inconsolable. And my heart reached out and tried to pick up the pieces of hers and patch them together.

All is real in childhood.

“Rotbär has certainly gone on vacation for a while,” I told her, explaining, with as much empiricism in my voice as possible, that even bears like to take a break. Winter was on its way, dark, cold, and austere, and he had surely caught a southbound train, to Ticino, to Italy, Spain, later Africa… He wanted to see the world, he would be back, just be patient. In our minds, mine adult and hers basking in the great universe where fantasy reigns, this was all possible and perfectly logical.

It worked. For a while at least. The world is a big place. I had a map in my mind, and it all made perfect sense. I hoped she would slowly  find a new creature to love, or be distracted by the weekly steps a child’s soul makes, but that is not Thalia. Every now and then, she would burst out in tears and say, “Hohtbär is surely, surely lost forever, why would he want to leave?”

This went on for two-and-a-half years, or thereabouts. She did not forget the little bear dressed like Santa Claus. In the meantime, she even pronounced him “rrrotbär,” rolling the “R”s properly.  “He probably found a wonderful place to live for a while,” I told her, “and I am sure he is happy, he must be,” I spoke with genuine sincerity driven by my own emotion.

This worked, too. At least for another while.

But soon after, one quiet night, my usual lucubration was interrupted by a plaintive cry: “Papa, I wonder where Rotbär is right now, I am sure he was stolen by pirates,” and the tears flowed and flowed and flowed, and I felt my own welling up. And so, the story of the traveling red Santa Bear expanded, my imagination driven by the need to console this child. The journey became decorated with touches of real life, train rides, plane trips, seasickness on ships, and joyrides in cars, visits to poor children in faraway lands, who really needed to be comforted by the Miracle Bear, because they had so, so little, and we had so, so much. And Thalia’s little-giant heart of gold, overflowing with a sense of justice, felt this was right and Rotbär was doing fine. So, it worked. For another while. Say a month or two, maximum.

But miracles do happen when we love. And so, one day, I was happy to report that Rotbär had finally phoned me. From England, of all places. It came as a surprise, of course and raised hopes I could not dash.

He told me — so I reported — that he had decided to come back home because he missed Thalia. She was excited. “Really???” Yes, really, I answered, and mentioned in passing that he had probably changed a bit, just like she had changed in all those years. She had become bigger, her language was now almost perfect, and he had been traveling, after all, and had lived rough occasionally. But apparently he still had those clothes on. “He told me he would send a postcard from Hamburg,” I dropped, casually, at the table one day.

I knew other key parts of Rotbär that had “changed,” but I could not tell her. In fact, I will take this secret with me to the next world.

Lo and behold, a few days later a picture came in an envelope – today we’d say a selfie – addressed in heavy, cumbersome letters: A little bear in a Santa suit, looking cocky indeed, and, oddly, sitting on a chair just like the one in our living room. He was obviously somewhere where people also did sporadic shopping at a Swedish furniture outlet. I placed the picture on the kitchen table. At mealtimes, Thalia would look at that bear, and could hardly believe it. Rotbär was really, really coming home. And it must be that bear, she vaguely remembered. He was in Hamburg (“Is that far?”), he is in Hanover (“Is that far?”), he is in Düsseldorf (“Is that far?”), he is taking a ship down the Rhein to Karlsruhe (“Is that far?”), which flowed just a few miles from where we lived. We scrutinized the map of Germany. Once she even asked if he was in Alsace, across the border. “No,” I replied earnestly, “The train line from Hamburg comes through Freiburg, not Alsace…

You have to be realistic, right?

Then came her sixth birthday, on a bright July day. She was having seven friends over. The heat was excruciating. In the afternoon, just as the party was setting off for a treasure hunt (accompanied by our flesh-and-bone cat), after the cake-eating ceremony, heavy storm clouds suddenly stacked up in the sky, menacingly. But they only broke to the north and east of the district, causing floods and all manner of havoc. We just got the dark clouds and wind and a few drops of rain. So, the children could play outside for a while and dip in the inflatable pool and scream.

Thalia was in seventh heaven.  Especially since there was one prodigal guest at the festivities.

This is what had happened earlier in the day:
She had woken up to a festively decorated apartment, with garlands strung from the beams and pink vinyl cloth on a table decked out with fairy cups and princess plates. Suddenly, at 8:20 a.m., the doorbell rang perfunctorily. She ran down the stairs, imagining some present or some well-wishers to be there. On the table in front of the entrance door sat none other than Rotbär, back after so, so many adventures. Exactly, the same as on the postcard. Except in his backpack were some gummi bears. Well, what do bears snack on while traveling?

What a miracle day. It was twelve long hours of fun and games and cake …

Sun was setting, the guests all went home. The day turned to a dusky evening.  Before going to bed, Thalia’s front tooth, which had been very wiggly, finally came out. The tooth fairy would be along as soon as everyone was asleep to round off this magical,  oh-so-magical day. Thalia went to bed, undressed Rotbär, because it is still quite hot out, she pointed out.

Cooler night hours make work easier in summer. I sat down at my desk. And then, after some time of silence, her voice, with those familiar dissonant notes of distress, tore through the now quiet flat. “Papa!” I rise from my desk and amble to her room. “The guests,” – she really called her friends guests – “they said that someone brought Rotbär, he didn’t come by himself.” It’s night now, and the time when our inner voices are often loudest, tiny doubts become raging wolverines eating up our sleep.

Somehow, I had expected this. Or rather, I feared this. The crushing comments of children raised in convenient empiricism…. Like those fragile, pearly little teeth giving way to more stable eating tools, her childhood was ebbing, and with it a power that can truly move mountains. The dreams, the fantasies, were ceding to reason and logic. She knew it. She was proud of those new teeth. Her friends all had Halloween pumpkin smiles already and boasted about it among themselves.

What can we do? We want our children to grow into free and bright individuals. And we want them to keep that secret power of childhood at the same time.

I told her simply they had no idea what they were talking about, and maybe they, too, wanted a magical bear as a friend.

She tearfully, desperately, explained that she had really liked being five years old, and did not want to be six. She couldn’t explain why, but having to go to school suddenly seemed too daunting. “Five is a good age!” she threw at me. I could feel the gate to the Garden if Eden was opening. But we chatted about age, about being six, and fifty-three, and how old grandpa is (seventy-seven) and about why Joni, our neighbor in Hungary, died two years ago at around eighty.

Child that she was, Thalia had few filters. She listened with each cell to what life was telling her and it became experience.  In a few years, no time really, she would be a different person, I knew that. What lesson was there here? Should one obey the harsh laws of 2+2 = 4 and nothing more? Was this a manipulative charade I was playing with her? Would the disappointment be even greater later on? Or was I simply trying to nurture happiness?

I believe in authentic emotion, in sadness, and anger, and joy. We avoid pain, but our wounds are where the light enters, said Rumi. There is so much to say for feeling and expressing our deepest selves. The mind debates the heart, but all its victories are Pyrrhic, because the heart is stronger and will rebel, slip out of the cage of reason, and set fires if it must. Our emotions, and hence our imagination, are what make us whole and real and able to truly communicate in the end.  Her feelings, I suddenly realized, had nothing to do with a little bear in a Santa suit.

“You always knew Rotbär was coming back, didn’t you?” I asked.
“You believed he would? Truly, in your heart?”
“Because you really love Rotbär, right?”
“Well, your friends were not here this morning when the doorbell rang, so they don’t know. He’s here, and that is because you believed it would happen.” This I say in a voice of conviction.
“Yes, and he came back to be with me.”
“Of course,” I answer,” what more do you need to know? Good night, sleep tight…”
“… and don’t let the bedbugs bite” she finishes off.

She fell asleep in minutes, clutching Rotbär. Her dream was still intact, she had all the time in the world to do the growing up bit. She knew a lot anyway, even how to move chess pieces on a board, so I was not worried.

I watched her body breathing quietly, and I keep thinking that it’s true, she actually willed that Rotbär back in some way. She never deviated from the faith in what I, her father, kept telling her.  But it was her faith, her energy, her focus on the dream that did it. The bear was traveling and traveling and enjoying himself and having so many adventures, and she was with him.

This is the genuine power that children have. It’s so unbelievably pure, so surgically precise and in some ways devastating. In the dark room, it took my breath away and released tears of wonder and longing: to be suddenly bathed in this electrifying power of dreams, to feel free of the narrow protective armor needed to survive the daily grind with its inevitable skirmishes,  to just, for a moment, feel the immensity of imagination and the full force of its impact.   She breathed life into any object. This is true strength.   This must be protected and nurtured  at all cost. Not only in our children, but in our own child that we once were.

The house is quiet. I walk back to my desk. Time to get back to work.


Note: I published this story a while ago on an old blog. It is personal, and because the Internet is what it is, and I wished to protect my  daughter from exposure to harassment for being a brilliant, well-balanced, dreamy individual, I took it down and replaced it with this. The Internet, for all its benefits, has since been conquered by data-mining feudal lords. It has invaded our erstwhile private spaces and co-opted and stolen our ability to dialogue, our epistemic stability, our focus on important things, our peace of mind, and, worse, the final frontier: our time. This story took placejust before that time).

Not so fast-ing

The city I live in, Geneva, has many strange aspects. In some ways it’s a city like no other.  It is very small, but likes to see itself as very big. Somewhat like that image of a little Pussycat looking at self in the mirror and seeing a lion with a great mane. It is incredibly bourgeois, but loves to feel revolutionary. It calls itself the city of peace, and it is, if you consider a passive aggressive disposition as peaceful.

No surprise then, that it has its own share of special days that no one else in Switzerland celebrates (OK, the others have their own days off)… I’ve already written about the Escalade,  which celebrated Geneva’s defense against the Savoyards, who had attacked the city just before Christmas (Gregorian calendar) in 1602. Because protestants  refused Christmas (yes, the original “war against Christmas”folk were the same denomination worried to bits about  a non-existent war on Christmas in the USA).

Today, Thursday September 9, we have another day called the Jeûne Genevois, a day of fasting. What makes it strange is that it comes right after the-post vacation rush back to work and school. It always feels a bit like driving off in a speedboat and forgetting to untie it from the dock. Suddenly you are faced with a free day, plus the following Friday, because this holiday is scheduled for the second Thursday in September.

For school kids and teachers, the Friday is NOT a free day. So the four-day weekend, while tempting, will merely remain a painful longing. A temptation to overcome and  teach us to steel ourselves for greater temptations.

What’s the origin of this holiday? Basically, fasting is quite a common sport and tends to come from religion, as I have written before. It is mostly  done as a form of cleansing and atonement. In Europe, fasting was often ordained after major catastrophes, like plagues. (Chatty aside: This is rather amusing since today a small but vociferous section of the population complains bitterly about any measures taken to slow the spread of our current plague, the coronavirus, and is willing to invent and spread all sorts of extraordinary and often contradictory tidbits of fake information to support their claims. In the good old days, one could just blame the Jews and burn up their ghettos, including inhabitants… And not surprisingly, the covid-deniers have developed a strain of anti-Semitism, notably in France with the “Qui” question, Germany with a vegan cook turned demagogue and a far right wing reveling in denial, and in the USA with the Q lunacy …. plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose).

The Massacre of St. Bartholomew (Aug 1572) is thought to have started the fasting tradition in Geneva.

Anyway… Switzerland did establish a confederate fasting day in 1794 during the French Revolution, and reaffirmed it in 1832, but it fell on a Sunday. Geneva decided to go its own way (passive aggressively) and just to be complicated made it the Thursday following the first Sunday in September.

But Wikipedia tells us that the Genevan fast goes back to the night of Saint Bartholomew and the terrible massacre of Protestant families that began in Paris in 1572. It’s not entirely true. there is evidence that the originator of this day off was in fact Jean Calvin himself. No doubt, however, the Protestants here we’re very upset at the horrifying news from Paris back in 1572.  and because it’s Geneva, this particular fasting involves nothing less than eating tarte au pruneaux…. a delicious plum tart.  Those plums are ripe at this point, and this might help understand why Protestants were always considered good in business.  If you can sell plum tarts for a day of fasting, you can sell refrigerators to the Inuit, and SUV’s to people living in a tiny city.

What remains of the fasting process: Plum tarts…

Few in Geneva know why this day is one of fasting. Even fewer care, I suspect. But the tart remains, after all, the motto of the city is Post tenebras lux. After the darkness, luxury… or is it light? Same thing, perhaps.

I rest my case.

Easter Meditation

Easter doesn’t end with the egg-search on Sunday. It goes on for at least another week, and so it should, otherwise, why bother? Here some stuff that has been going through my mind for several years. Now it’s on “paper,” I can let go a bit. Have fun and tell me what you think.

It’s no surprise that the Guardian gatekeepers should have chosen Easter Monday to publish an article about the drip-drip-drip decline of religion in the USA (‘Allergic reaction to US religious right’ fueling decline of religion, experts say, April 5, 2021). The high holidays are a perfect time to draw attention to what one might call a “crisis of faith” brought about by a society that is increasingly secular and unwilling to believe in space-based teapots. To quote Bertrand Russell, who is the progenitor of that wonderful analogy: “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.”

The article, however, does not dwell on any deep epistemological issues, like critical rationalism, empiricism, and the like. Rather, it points to the drift in the USA towards Christian nationalism and bigotry in religious communities as the source of the “allergy” to religion amongst younger generations.

A sentiment that is becoming quite widespread.

Nor does it really mention the glaring contradictions between the leaders preaching water, but drinking wine, living in million-dollar mansions and flying around in private jets from one gaudy show of some stooge being cured of a fake illness or condition, to a revival filled with shouts and shrieks rapped in tongues.

Above all, their embarrassing support of Trump was a gamble, and a bad one. “They are experiencing their loss of prominence in American culture as an unacceptable attack on their beliefs,” says Alison Gill, vice-president for legal and policy at American Atheists, “and this is driving much of the efforts we are seeing to cling on to power, undermine democracy, and fight for ‘religious freedom’ protections that apply only to them.”

It could be called a form of communal reactance. As evidence mounts that would contradict or certain orthodox beliefs (shibboleths) or traditions, a part of the community will inevitably double down and become fundamentalist,  even fanatical. While striving for greater  spirituality, they are in fact becoming classically materialist, since every word in the  Good Book is to be considered true as written, scholars and interpreters be damned.

A different look

For years, now, Christian leaders of many denominations have branded  secular humanists, atheists, drugs, Democrats, Communists, liberals, sex and rock ‘n’ roll, and other phantasms as the culprits in their dwindling flocks. They rarely examine their own role in the matter. They have a convenient  scapegoat for that, a fellow named Satan, whose origins were brilliantly explored by theologian Elaine Pagels (The Origins of Satan). Any attempts at modernizing the religion are met with a sturdy wall of resistance. Hans Küng, who died on April 6, suggested, among other things, ending celibacy for the priesthood. He was prohibited from teaching! A few years ago, the German Bishops’ Conference also proposed letting women be ordained (please!), and that was ignored. Meanwhile, the church is hemorrhaging cash due to sex scandals involving priests and their superiors.

The famous fig leaf…. covers more than just sexual organs.

Crises, be they of faith, or in one’s marriage, or when deciding what to wear to a party, are usually a sign that something needs changing. And people with questions about their lives will seek guidance. But one thing is certain, young and old don’t want to be yelled at all the time and threatened with eternal hell. Life is stressful enough as is, what with our daily duty to maintain the economic well-being of the collective. People want their religion to make sense in their daily lives today. Not two thousand  years ago.  It would therefore behoove churches to adapt their messaging and attitude to The People, if they want to survive, and not try to convince the people to follow their theology.  This was concisely expressed in a recent interview in  Die Zeit  with a young, Catholic, queer theology student, Chiara Battaglia, who suggests that young people are naturally losing interest in the church (Catholic in this case). “We are so varied in how we are designing our lives, we can make up a patchwork of the best from all religions, we are experiencing spirituality without a church.”

Yet, the solution is simple. The first step for the church (and I am speaking for the Catholic church, but not only), would be to embrace the changes in our society and get back its overarching spiritual message, one shared by most religions, rather than cling to some old, orthodox, materialistic concepts that were always rooted in the maintenance of power. Because the spirituality is still homeopathically present, notably in such rituals as Christmas and Easter.

Search for meaning
Besides economic activity, these holidays offer us a moment of respite in a frenetic social environment. Secondly, we tend to need rituals, because they give both the physical and metaphysical structure to our lives, be that daily, weekly, or annually.

All the better if the ritual in question has a deeper meaning. Like Easter. It comes at after forty days of fasting, for forty days plus six Sundays at the end of winter and beginning of spring. This was a smart idea at one time, since food reserves in our climes could otherwise run out. In our day and age, in the West, our worries are often too much (rather than too little) consumption of unhealthy stuff, be it nicotine or other drugs. But it can also be other bad habits, like doomscrolling, the constant ingestion of divisive, polarizing, and strictly absurd content from the Internet. Even cat videos.

Nothing like the desert to spawn new thoughts and visions. And to reveal our shadow.

And so we want change. The idea of making a conscious, daily effort to enact that change is encouraged and sustained by fasting and by having a mentor. The ideal mentor during Lent is none other than Jesus Christ who went into the desert after being baptized (he saw the light) by John. There, he was surrounded by wild beasts and thrice got tempted by the Devil himself.

Another narrative

The Christian calendar ends this period with the holy week, which, according to Arnold Bittlinger, a theologian and Jungian psychologist (Das Geheimnis der Christlichen Feste) leans heavily on the Roman celebration of weekdays, not a bad idea when trying to graft one theology onto another. It begins with Palm Sunday and the triumphant entry into Jerusalem of the “Conscious I,” the visible world with all its hidden phoniness. It is followed by Holy Monday (lundi -> luna -> moon), in which the unconscious is at work to reveal the truth known to the soul: Jesus withers the fig tree, whose leaves were always used to hide sinful stuff (Genesis 3,7). He also clears the temple of the money changers to restore its spiritual value. In other words, that what the fasting churned up can now be uncovered, and it will inevitably force a conflict, which comes the following day. On Tuesday, the day of Mars for the Romans (Mars, god of visible conflict), Jesus “locks horns with his opponents,” writes Bittlinger. “He destroys his relationship with all representatives of the Jewish people and religion … he delivers a violent end-of-times speech.”

Profound change can mean putting paid to all those who were part of your entourage, to old habits. It must be done with some “violence,” meaning: it must be spoken. The two aspects of Mercury, generosity and pettiness/dishonesty, are observed on Wednesday (mercredi), when the apostles – spurred by Judas – complain about the precious spikenard ointment poured on Jesus’ head. On the day of Jupiter, the god of abundance, Thursday, Jesus gets together with his apostles, and on Friday, we have the day of Venus, goddess of love and, Bittlinger points out, of the cycle of death and rebirth, for she is the evening star when the moon is waxing, and as the morning star when the moon is waning. Death is the essence of change, and while we are in a process, we will feel lonely (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”). And at some point, you will have to let go and simply trust: Into your hands I commit my spirit!”

Jesus, our higher or true self, and the twelve apostles, our quotidian self: part of a single organism.

Finally, we have the day of Saturn, the “Guardian of the Threshold,” the symbol of limitations and constraints, real and in our minds, or conscious and unconscious, such as a cave, where Jesus is placed after death. Saturn, the Roman version of Kronos, also represents hard, persistent work that will bring just rewards. Namely a new beginning, resurrection.

Most of us can relate to this process, even to some of its joys and tribulations. We want change, yet we fear it. The stories told of Jesus can help us objectify the process and make it more understandable. The cycle of life and death, or of creation and transformation, is explained by creating a grand story around it (Brahman, Vishnu, Shiva). It is true in the macro as well as in the micro.

Of course, one could be ultra-scientific about change and set forth the minutiae of molecular structures, the sparking neurons, the flapping dendrites and fascinating quantum leaps in our brains. But at times, a good yarn manages to paint a bigger picture in a more exciting manner, and in a way that everyone can understand more viscerally.

Something to think about

One more point needs elucidating. As in a dream, all the figures are in atomized parts of a single figure. Jesus, an androgynous figure, is the “higher self,” the one who knows the roadmap to the future, while his apostles do not. They are living and working in the three-dimensional world, but they must learn to trust their “crazy friend.” So what is Judas doing there, and why did Jesus love him in particular, knowing he would betray him? Because often

Rehabilitating Judas, the “infamous” apostle. We despise that part of us that will force the process, and yet we need it.

the changes in our lives, be they experienced as positive or negative, are actually brought about by an action we took, or did not take. Without Judas, Jesus would have remained just another soap-box hero. With Judas, he finds his greater calling, his divine self, his peace of mind.

And by the way…. Remember the three temptations of Christ in the desert…. That devil is a part of us. We make the choices. At least most of them.


Holy week and resurrection are not the end of the story. Easter week follows and has Jesus wandering around a bit and testing his new enlightened self. How natural! Isn’t that what we all do, when we have managed to transform something in our lives, when we have come through the crisis? A victory lap to test our new self?

Hanging on to tradition for dear life, i.e., fundamentalism, is a natural response to some change, but perhaps not the right one. The fire and brimstone and the endless harping on about sex, sexuality and snakes and the devil simply does not make much sense anymore in the age of advanced medicine, condoms, psychology, freedom of speech, books, the Internet’s freewheeling culture of criticism. Maybe it’s time to make religion a personal story again. Self-development has become a veritable industry that taps into many different health-related fields. If it has such success, it’s because in a disjointed, hectic world, with its myriad distractions and bullshit jobs, there’s a clear need to “find oneself.” It would be a shame to waste such terrific stories like that of Easter by pretending they are based on some real, three-dimensional, historic reality for which there is very little evidence, if any at all. These stories are universal, they are instructive, they are exciting, and they often explain and encourage our inner processes and help us become better humans.

God (or my higher power), grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference
R. Neihbuhr.



Lockdown in the rear-view mirror

We’ve become used to economic crises, since they are endemic to our system. And some of us might remember the oil crises of the ‘70s (from which we learned very little) and the brown-outs and black-outs, and the rocketing fuel costs. But the past year delivered a crisis several generations of westerners simply haven’t experienced. Here’s a brief look back at the first months and my experience with remote teaching.

In Switzerland, the state of emergency triggering the lockdown was announced on Friday, March 13. It had been expected. A few weeks earlier, the first cases of covid-19 had appeared in Switzerland (in Ticino), so the Federal Council gradually prohibited  gatherings of more than 1,000 people, then 100, then less. That put paid to the big trade fairs, like the Salon de l’Auto in Geneva, Baselworld (watches and jewelry) and traditional events like the Fat Tuesday revelry in Basel. It was obvious that schools would have to shut down as well. Two weeks prior, in my school, we had discussed the skiing week and whether it would be possible. Some thought, yes. The thought fizzled. Hope still remained for the school outing at the end of the year… Then the axe fell.

As a substitute teacher now with long-term contract, I was in charge of a class of eighteen teenagers in their last year before entering the equivalent of high school. At first, they were thrilled not to have to go to school. Some were a little worried about their grades, which they hoped to improve in the third term that had just started. Some were already eying a professional path and were worried about it being in jeopardy. My co-main-teacher and I had a special duties towards them: Throughout the school year, we were asked to prepare them for the working life, showing them the many possibilities of achieving their dream or, if at all possible, finding that dream.

Leaving the schoolhouse on that Friday had a mystical feeling to it. There was no drama, no suggestive music, no worries. Just a deafening silence. The airport, which is about 500 yards from the school as the crow flies, had fallen silent, and the air had a whiff of spring unadulterated by the usual scent of burning kerosene.

The empty classroom, March 16, 2020.

The following Monday morning, my co-teacher and I got the class together on WhatsApp for a little chat about how we would proceed. Our orders were to use the Gmail platform, which features “classrooms,” a meeting app, email, etc… But my colleague, far younger than I and a scientist, knew about gaming. SHe had the brilliant idea of setting up a server on the Discord platform, which is not only quite easy to use, but was also familiar to many of our students. That afternoon, I went to school for the last time to gather the books the students had left behind not thinking that the lockdown would happen, and to pick up our class plant.

Last year I wrote about this moment, which some suggested was like a vacation. “A vacation is planned, implemented, executed. It comes with “vacation stress,” the unwritten edict that says: “Thou shalt relax and be nice to everyone and not think of work.” Sheltering-in-place, on the other hand, is like having been on a demented carousel one moment, and being yanked off and cast into limbo the next.”

Revving up

From the start, we felt it was important for the kids to see the positive aspects of the situation. I sent around a few paragraphs explaining how the work environment of the future was demanding more independence from employees anyway (a concept called Work 4.0 that I had had to write about for a company, you can read about it here). The lockdown, I pointed out, would be excellent training in self-motivation, in getting things done, communicating properly, staying “with the team,” as it were. This is what freelancers do every day, anyway (see box below).

This little pep-talk, which I repeated several times during the lockdown, had an effect on some. One boy later recalled how hard it was to work for ten minutes in silence, without the noise of the class in the background (these were very chatty kids). They were given enough work to do for half a day. They received the work in one-week batches and could do the work  whenever they pleased, though as a teacher of English and German, I often asked them to be strict about doing a bit every day. Several learned to communicate their questions or problems in a timely fashion and to actually space out  out their work so as to make it doable, rather than wait for the last minute. Some, of course, disappeared and even calls to the parents couldn’t get them to their desks.

For a generation that has grown up with computers and online, their actual skills in this area were often sorely lacking. They could get pics onto Instagram within seconds, but the computer as a tool was in many cases beyond their abilities. It was time to learn by doing, which is probably the best way.

Back and forth

One key to our online teaching was communication. My colleague and I decided to have regular meetings on the platform. Meet (the app) was not a favorite, mostly, we suspected, because they valued their privacy and were probably sitting in bed in their PJs most of the day. So on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we had a conference call at 11.30 a.m. to listen to their questions and problems. Otherwise, they were free to contact us, and we would respond fairly quickly. At all hours, I might add. I remember one evening helping a student with her French reading, a chapter of a book she did not quite understand. So we worked on it together for nearly an hour. Several did their homework after 10 p.m., which is too late.  One morning early – 4:15 a.m., I am an early riser – I found two students chatting away online and had to convince them to get to bed.

Around the second week, I was contacted by a journalist from the Swiss Radio and Television, who wanted to know what was special about the lockdown, what experience people were having that was brand new. As an incurable optimist, I figured she would be interested to know something about the experience of teachers. And so I described how we, the adults, their teachers, had suddenly entered the world where they spent a lot of time. It was a great moment to share their experience, and to give them a bit of guidance in the utility and dangers of the Internet. It bred a sense of familiarity, too, because we were no longer physically present and applying the usual disciplinary methods. They would bicker and joke around just as they did in class, and occasionally we had to remind them that we were still their teachers. It revealed how vulnerable they could become when not seeing who is communicating with them. A physical voice can be very different from the words on a page.

The airport fell silent as well, a blessing for our noses and ears, and lungs, probably, as well

It was probably not a very interesting observation, because the journo was audibly checking messages on the other end and waiting desperately for me to finish my three or four descriptive sentences. I don’t think she even got my name right. That’s perhaps one of the problems with news media, they do need the spectacular to attract attention, and the subtle gets kicked to the curb.


This regimen lasted nearly two months. The kids would struggle a bit with the IT, somehow get the work back to me for corrections. We did one or two classes online with Meet to get some oral work done. Few showed up for these confabs. It was a bit of a struggle, but, in time, a number of the kids started getting a groove. Some even benefited from the occasional one-on-one classes. The bickering (my class had a few high-level bickerers), while irritating, suggested that they were still engaged with each other, and always offered opportunities for learning social manners.

We returned to school in half-classes on May 11. There were to be no exams, the final grades would be those at the end of the second term. The feedback on the nearly two months of online schooling was mixed. Most students in my class were happy to be back in physical contact with their friends. Even seeing their old teach seemed agreeable. The familiarity continued in the classroom, but as an adult and a teacher you have to keep a certain distance. We are not pals, we are not family. Many felt, too, that testing for grades was stressful and somewhat spoiled the fun of learning.  We discussed this issue, and I had to agree with them, but the problem remained in how to evaluate the kids. The idea of no grading is good, but it does need some preparation. The emphasis is on self-responsibility. What do you do with students who are simply different, whose experience has turned them against any organized society?

Soon, we were back at exploring the curriculum, but without the prize and coercion of grades. This held for another month or so. Then, the promise of summer, the balmy air, the brilliant colors, the the glimmering of freedom till September pried their teenage souls from the classroom, the reading, the maths, the grammar, the constraints. It was time to let them go. My colleague and I organized a picknick after the official end of school. Eleven came.

Those I have seen since are doing well.

In the end, the students who already worked well in class, were also the ones who managed the online learning as well. A few did go AWOL. The parents might have helped, but they, too, were probably too taxed by the situation, though some failed to give their children the proper aural space to work in (in one case, I heard a dad speaking loudly into his phone, while his child was trying to read).

The pandemic is over a year old, now, and people are getting sick of it, while many are still getting sick from it.  But the virus doesn’t care whether or not you’re sick of its presence. This too shall pass, as they say, so me must deal with it. Young people are having a hard time with the lockdown. But hand-wringing, moaning or spouting ridiculous conspiracy theories is not particularly helpful. It behooves us adults to remain stable, supportive, encouraging. Remember the film La vita e bella? Roberto Benigni guides his young son through the trials and tribulations of a concentration camp as if it were a game? That may be where we should all be. In all crises, adults must remain adults, and that does not mean being a pill. It means maintaining your humor, your optimism, your reason. Moaning and groaning about the lockdown and cursing at things you cannot change is not adult. To quote Seneca: “Man is affected not by events but by the view he takes of them.”

The Box: (I wrote about this last year already : “First injunction, therefore, is to rein in time, set up a rhythm, and stick to it. Your health depends on good sleep, some exercise, and attention to nutrition. Excellence is habit, to paraphrase Aristotle, and it does apply to surviving confinements of all sorts. Chatty aside: I hear so many people, even friends, complaining about being at home in front of the computer, not seeing anyone during the lockdown… I’d like to say: Now you know what it feels like, welcome to my world!).

Fer Cryin’ Out Loud!

It’s time to come back to reality. Fear and loathing and ridiculous conspiracy theories that have no proof are not how we’ll meet the challenges facing our democratic societies. These will only lead to (more) dissension, illness, death and ultimately war, which, depressingly enough, is one of the most logical reality checks for a society gone haywire.

The last time a Republican president left office after losing to a Democrat, the economy was shedding 750,000 jobs a month, and American soldiers (and Iraqi civilians!!) were dying in a war in Iraq launched using a totally fictitious casum belli, and in Afghanistan. Collectively, we should have learned then what history has been teaching us repeatedly (oh, but “don’t care much about history…” as the song goes): Beware the demagogue…

The Republicans in particular should have learned as well. Fiction and reality don’t mix. In their struggle to generate enthusiasm in the midst of the crashing economy and save the election in 2008, they tapped the Know-Nothing, nativist , lunatic fringe as represented by Sarah Palin. The electorate, thankfully, went for Obama and Biden, a good ticket for a country in the grips of a major financial meltdown. In 2012, Romney did not stand a chance, the economy was in good shape, and the country was well led, essentially, even though today, the revisionists have 20/20 blindsight.

Fast forward 12 years—-A Republican president is leaving office again after losing to a Democrat. But now, he’s a card-carrying member of the lunatic fringe, a kind of Joe McCarthy, screaming at and about hallucinations, a Sarah Palin on steroids, but with a difference: He’s a practiced con man, one of those synthetic TV personalities a failed businessman, a crude and boisterous dandy, who has learned to bluster and flatter and somehow exude a sense of power while not actually doing anything. His entire presidency has been marked by a scorched earth policy. And it has had a terrible impact even beyond US borders, where more and more people have been jumping on the anti-science, post-truth (“my truth is good enough”), anti-Enlightenment bandwagon.

Back to the USA: Trump has a fawning base that he despises, because he is, at heart, a terrible snob, and they seem to have the same make up. He’s jealous of people who are simply better than him, be that a skinny Black president, or scientists, experts, or artists, or the many people who put aside their ego, don a uniform, and go do service for a cause or their country or for their community. But he has gotten a taste for ultimate power, thanks to millions of enablers, including the GOP, who have one and all abdicated all sense of decency, all honesty.

Kenneth Copeland, one of the many multimillionaire religious frauds who support Trump. Here he is “blowing the virus” away…

In the process, he has forged a sick alliance with religious groups, extremist militias, and conspiracy theorists who are often just on his coattails as a way to get money out of very gullible people. He is, and was always, incompetent, he had no plans, he just improvised badly, depending on his moods and what his twitter feed or some extreme right-wing pundit channel churned up. His rhetorical method was transparent: Generate a lot of outrage by lying or simply saying rude things. He does this to cover up more outrage, to cover up more outrage. And ultimately to disguise the fact that his time in the White House has been one long game of golf and watching TV on the taxpayer’s dime.

Trump has exhausted everyone, because the news media, pro and con, became addicted to his antics. He drove wedges into society, and has thus so confused his base, that many are driven to repeat verbatim his most obnoxious and absurd claims, or the claims of the outlets that support him. Their nefarious influence is even felt in Europe, a continent that has always contributed to the advance of thought, and where people tend to be more critical. Too many people I know are falling for transparent conspiracy tales and marching along with neo-Fascists. Backing out of this system will be tough.

The worst part is this: Donald J. Trump has as the full backing of the Republican Party and a cult of millions of followers that refuses to take a serious reality check, because they have willfully let themselves be brainwashed and indoctrinated by agitprop on social media and broadcasts by certain news organizations.

Only now, we have massive unemployment again, and we have shed upward of 270,000 American lives —not jobs, lives— human beings, who died suffocated or from massive septic shock. They are the real victims, not the navel-gazer in the White House. They were thrown under the pandemic bus, discarded by a venal, boring man, a con man, and his nodding and bobbing administration of yes-sayers.

Mismanagement would have been better option, because at least it allows for a course correction. What Trump did — and by extension all those who refused to contradict him — is criminally negligent. And the Republicans have gone along with it and dragged the base into the hecatomb with it.
There lies the problem, and why the “base” cannot seem to relinquish its murdering guru and his repulsive family.

I understand when people are upset that their candidate has lost an election. Happens to everyone…. But this? This total callousness on the part of ordinary citizens? This rejoicing in the death of their fellow human beings? Do these people remember the eight hearings about Benghazi and the ballistic rantings emitted by Fox News when Obama wore a tan suit? Do you remember the name Terry Schiavo, 12 years in a coma, shrunken brain, and the oh-so-religious GOP going haywire when she was taken off life support?

270,000 Americans dead, the number growing daily, hospitals doing triage to see who can be saved, and mealy-mouthed Republican governors like Ms. Noem standing like a hare in the headlights, not mandating masks, because she is terrified of what a fifth-rate con man and lame-duck cult leader in the White House will say to his base, and how that base will react … Shameless cowardice. And when at war, cowardice leads to death.

I even get the satisfaction at triggering librul tears. It was fun for a while, I’m sure. (As an adult, I think that is pretty infantile, sort of sand-box gloating. In fact, when voting, I actually seek the candidate that is offering policy and unity, and concrete solutions, not just bluster)… The hyarhyarhyars must stop. The tears you are seeing are those of families grieving for their members who died, they are those of the exhausted medical personnel, they are not and never were “librul tears.”

I get it, though. It’s a sunk-cost problem. In for a penny, in for a pound…. The gambler’s dilemma: When on a losing streak, when do you stop? When has the cost gotten too high? When have you mortgaged everything, your conscience, your feelings, your capacity for rational thought, yes, even your swift exit from the game of mass-murdering your fellow citizens?
But the murder is real. The failed economy is real. The total degrading of our nation is real. Forget the problems you have with intellectuals, college kids, the woke crowd, the non-existent Hollywood or other elites, or TV and Cable News, with their endless parades of talking heads and fake “debates” aimed at either creating outrage or false equivalencies.

It’s time to leave this disgraceful period as the tail-end of a failed economic and political system and start a conversation based on reality and facts. The first being: Trump lost and refuses to leave the White house, i.e., he wants a dictatorship. Where is that revolutionary spirit of the T-Party? I thought the Bostonians back then were rejecting the king. Time to do it again, especially such a lousy monarch.

That time is now.

Did RGB die in the nick of time?

The coming confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett is something of a double-edged sword for both parties. It’s being done at a time when the US, and even the planet, are exhausted by Trump’s grand guignol show, the pandemic, collapsed economy, Mother Nature going ballistic, people running around with absurd conspiracy theories in their heads, in short, end times feeling. It is, however, a battle, and as such should be a lesson in self-discipline and focus, especially for the Democrats.

Honor her memory by being focused, calm, collected.

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while a shock to so many – and a  source of despair –  has in fact opened a large window of opportunity for the Democrats.  

Over the past eight months or so, Trump and his Republican enablers have literally gotten away with what is tantamount to negligent homicide. Over 200,000 Americans (at last count) have been carelessly thrown under the pandemic bus, and continue to be, all for the sake of a re-election campaign. Thanks to a total lack of leadership, too, the US economy has crashed, the country is exhausted and on the brink of serious violence, and there seems to be no end in sight to this carnage (which Trump promised right at the start).

The way things worked out…

If Obama been nearly this cruel and dishonest, he would have been frog-marched out of the White House well before any election, of course. But Trump is the anti-Obama, he is protected by his party and by vociferous base that nods and lock-steps docilely behind him with each of his vile and undignified attacks on the opposition, on decency, on intelligence, on truth.

And if the Democrats are not careful, he will get away with it in November and then he’ll feel even more empowered to trash the Constitution, after which all bets are open.

How does he get away with it? Backtracking briefly: During the 2016 campaign, it looked as if DJT would lose easily. Every norm he could find was broken, and yet…. He won, squeezing out a few votes in key states where the Clinton campaign had, irresponsibly, failed to read the political tea leaves*. Already back then, it was obvious that the Trump playbook was to stoke the outrage machine till all the valves blew out and a large part of the electorate could barely tell truth from lie from alternative fact. It was a fairly transparent strategy, a classic for any con man: blue smoke and mirrors.

Ask Trump about his platform, and he would just say anything, the more outrageous the better (the “fake news” was a terrific Big Lie). And then the talking heads would be out there filling up hours and hours of airtime with useless deconstructions of his absurdities. Before the cock crowed on a new day, this gesticulator-in-chief and his majordomos were preparing  a new salvo of absurdities so the next round of chattering could start.

So he got away with one-liners, while Hilary Clinton was “boringly” reciting a litany of good ideas. Who do you think got the TV spotlight?

Yacking is cheaper than reporting on real stuff.

The surrogates were in on the game, embarrassing themselves daily with the most egregious transformations of reality into weird reconstructions of the same reality. They excused the boss, they screamed, they ignored, they obfuscated, they pretended that pussy-grabbing was just boys-being-boys, and thus acceptable, even if you had been saved by Jesus, they smiled coyly, they pretended they hadn’t heard, they pounded their chests, they invoked God, they yelled “Bill Clinton,” they said “both sides do it,” but for the Democrats it’s worse…

Here is the most absurd aspect of this little scenario: In reporting every “outrageous” statement, including all the “You are fake news” expectoration, the media was indeed producing fake news. How many times have I emailed anchors and journalists asking them why they didn’t just send a  reporter with an iPhone to Speaker’s Corner? It would be more instructive and less repetitive. Trump’s twaddle could be reported after the weather as faits divers, along with cats giving massages to Labradors.

So why does Trump still have so much support in spite of the massive death toll and the crashed economy? Because he never stopped using the same process, and the media, partly for economic reasons I suspect**, has continued to play the game. Every book detailing his outrageous stuff…. is merely red meat for the base and keeps him in the spotlight. Nothing touches him. His base, absurdly, loves it. The country is burning down, and they are bringing the cans of gasoline.

Bear with me:

The late-night comedians were thrilled. And still are, because the material, as one said (was it Colbert?) writes itself. One of Trump’s latest attention-getters was to, once again, suggest he may not leave office. The fact that this might cause a lot of violence regardless of the outcome of the election (I’ll write about this at another time) doesn’t bother him. Occupying about 80 % of the airwaves and Internet tubes is the point. Even Bill Maher keeps amplifying this point. He admits himself that he may even have given Trump that line …

The result: Biden and Harris can’t get a word in edgewise. I’ve pointed this out for years. But maybe if a real prof says it, it will sink in? This morning, Smerconish from CNN let Michael Sandel, Professor of Government, say it:

“We shouldn’t take his bait and become entangled in a fever-pitch outrage at every new outrageous thing he says. Trump is not a dictator, he plays one on television. And we should not play along as his supporting cast. We should focus instead on his failures to help the working people who elected him in the first place (…) and on the Democrats’ alternative.”

So what does this have to do with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that frail judge who had her finger in the dyke holding back the torrent of authoritarianism…?

The way to mating the king is by a careful and lethal attack. If your position is good, you can even sacrifice the queen to get the job done.

Her death, and the pending confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett  is a golden  opportunity, so close to the election, to break this hammerlock Trump has on the communication channels. Barrett (ACB) is unassailable. She has outstanding conservative credentials, even if you don’t like the idea that she belongs to a strange religious sect. She does her work, has seven kids, is apparently happily married… She has Saturday Evening Post appeal, and whether you like it or not, she’ll play more or less in Peoria. What she is doing cavorting with the likes of Trump now is irrelevant, because we should know that Trump is merely a Trojan Horse for the GOP power grab. They, Trump and most of the GOP, hate each other, because they depend on each other, and one will try to get rid of the other soon.

Play to win
When your forces are too weak to win a battle, draw the opponent to a place where you feel more comfortable. The Battle of Sakarya River in late August 1921 is a good example (for history buffs), where the weaker Turkish forces drew the Greeks, with feints and spoiler work, into difficult terrain, and forced them to capitulate.  Trying to tear ACB down will lose the election for the Democrats and could jeopardize the Senate flip. It will give more fuel to the GOP, which still can’t get over the ripping of Bork and then Kavanaugh. It may not even be necessary. She may turn out to be a conservative but fair judge. Who knows. After all, she got to where she is because RGB cleared the way…

The confirmation hearings, however, will be an ideal platform to respectfully tell the candidate that the GOP flipped and lied and trying to ram her through is not really a respecting her own dignity, and they feel that is not  a proper way to handle the Supreme Court and above all the American People. They must express willingness to look at the candidacy after the election, and the Democrats might really like to confirm her, but it simply would not be fair, as the judge herself said!

There are too many issues at stake that could seriously impact the country in the future, notably the ACA, Roe v Wade, and whether Trump would like, as he says, to dispense with elections altogether. Also, does the country accept the 200k-plus dead as a human sacrifice to the re-election of Donald Trump. In short, they have to make this not about her, and it should not be, but about Trump.

Respectfully, and regretfully, they must say, they simply feel that the process is rushed but the GOP should have waited.  She will get pushed through, the Democrats must congratulate her warmly and ask that she respect the will of the majority of Americans who voted AGAINST Trump. No histrionics. And that should apply to the peanut gallery. Histrionics and cosplaying will dissolve the small lead the Democrats seem to have. Restore dignity. Don’t play the GOP game. Show the American People and the planet at large, which has lost some faith in  democracy, that there is a real alternative, a mature, fair and respectful leadership to be expected from the Democrats, as opposed to the ridiculous games played by the likes of Ted Cruz. That’s my take. I used a few hours writing this, so if you want to help me pay bills…. Feel free.


* I’ve had long and acrimonious debates about her “deplorable” comment, pointing out that it was a profound mistake. I’ll come back to this some other time, if merely to clear up the record: it has to do with the self-victimization of many Trump voters and their deep feeling of being ignored and inferiority artificially enhanced by their news media and, to an extent, funny but slick late-night comedians.  

** It’s expensive to send TV teams around the world  to report on other things, and a lot cheaper to have Trump just deliver the stuff for free, get the same old talking heads together, and fill up the airwaves. So obviously American TV audiences are not very well informed about the world at large. On the other hand, it’s a lot cheaper to have a stringer do it on paper/radio, by the way, or even a social medium. So if you want to do something revolutionary: Subscribe to a good newspaper. And read it slowly.

When the Davids win

I’m waiting for Hollywood to pick up this story:

For the past years, R. T. Custer (no one knows his real name except his parents, I think) has been battling Swatch Group. Some reporters in the watch biz have been watching the story with some trepidation, but few have been vocal for reasons that need a look elsewhere:

The details you can find here. In short: Vortic, a little outfit in Colorado founded by Custer, has been upcycling old pocket watches. He collected the discarded movements whose cases had been sent to the smelter.

Tyler Wolfe and R. T. Custer…. On the ball (and the Elgin, Hamilton, Illinois and other Good Ole Names in American watchmaking)

His intentions and business model have been clear as a bell since day one. One of the names appearing on these ancient dials is “Hamilton,” a brand that is now a part of the Swatch Group stable, a huge conglomerate of watch brands and other enterprises worth over $36 billion…

David and Goliath is not the right comparison. It’s more like drop vs. ocean. Five years ago, Hamilton thought it could squash the little non-competitor by suing for trademark infringement. Custer fought back. Now, the saga that brought him at times to the depths of despair, when he thought he’d have to fold his brilliant little business of making “museums for the wrist,” is over, thanks to the Southern District of New York. Federal Judge Alison Nathan validated the business model of recycling (upcycling) antique watches and hence any antique product, whether it bears an old brand name or not.

Needless to say, Custer and his partners and employees are happy. Not only has their watch business been a success, but it now became a test case for others who might be thinking of similar businesses with, maybe, other discarded objects.

I p

Masks: Reason and Reactance

Are you getting tired of the circus around wearing masks? The demonstrations that some say had 500,000 people, others 20,000? The sick comparisons that say “mask = yellow star?”The professors and doctors coming on with smug faces and saying: “It was all wrong, it’s just the flu, the dead are not dead”? Don’t be tired. Democracy is the child of philosophers, it was never really accepted, it’s complicated and needs a lot of attention.

Face masks, something dentists use, doctors use, surgeons use, even construction workers use, and people who ride bikes in cities could/should use because of pollution, have become a huge bone of contention that a lot of people are gnawing on. There are many reasons for this, but two main lines stick out. One: Scientists can’t quite agree on clear recommendations, not because masks don’t protect, but for reasons having more to do with human behavior and the complexity of confronting the coronavirus and the diversity of masks and how people use them (that was the recent Dutch issue). Many, as scientists are wont do, have tweaked their views with the spread of the virus and the evolution of society’s response. This doesn’t mean they are confused…

Secondly, there is the behavior of some leaders, notably the fellow pretending to be the president of the USA, who made an issue of it early on, mainly because the virus highlighted his utter incompetence in leadership, and it threatened to consume the time he needed for golf, tweeting, and watching television. He had to find something to distract and deflect from his failure and recent impeachment, so he blurted out a few stupidities about bleach (probably a reference to Miracle Mineral Supplement, a poisonous disinfectant  being sold as a cure-all for everything from cancer to autism), UV lights, miracle cures, summer killing the virus, and Democrat hoaxes. The media spent weeks being outraged, and on cue his cultish followers started yelling liberty, unpacking their guns, cosplaying patriots fighting the neo-red coats, threatening health care professionals, in a nutshell, an embarrassing spectacle for an industrialized nation. Thus, the virus spread, and infantile chaos  replaced reason.

Out of the woodwork crawled the conspiracy theorists, and with them the disgruntled doctors with axes to grind against their more successful colleagues – who are part of the conspiracy, along with “the media.” The professors of recondite institutes hopped on board, too, and because it’s such a great occasion to be heard and revered by the data spreaders of social media, the anti-vaxxers unpacked their  axes, of course, and the climate change deniers, holocaust deniers, Q-Anoners, Reichburgers, “populists” (that’s the other word for you-know-what), the Gateway Pundit, gun-toters, Tea-Party apostles, evangelicals, in short, all the usual suspects. A circus that should have been painted by Breughel.

(Update May 2021: Two articles on masks here and here with thanks to Sharon Presley for the two links)

Suddenly we have a kind of war about nothing, one of those terrific distractions that seem to expose a society bored stiff and pampered by comfort and cheap consumer goods, a “Societé du Spectacle,” to conjure Guy Debord, one that has nothing  more serious to think about, like the actual value of liberty (hint: liberty is deeper than being asked to wear a face mask, nor is it equivalent to traffic lights, condoms, seat belts, air bags, helmets, and saying hello when you meet someone).

How are we to get along if every time there’s a collective challenge or problem that needs all of us to concentrate and work together, the political majordomos seize the occasion and set up an army of drama kings and queens with fallacious arguments and oddball theories. Imagine all those whirring servers chewing up energy just to keep all that hot air, arguments, YT-clips and gaslight moving!

Maybe it comes from too much television. Too much info. Boredom. The lure of “interesting” if wobbly facts. A false dialectic. Deep-seated fears of a new-ish situation. Or, as I often suspect, plain egotism and what psychologists call reactance: An almost irrational/immature reaction to being told what to do, even if it is perfectly reasonable. Which is then experienced as an infringement on personal liberty, a deep aggression on the individual, an attack on Grundrechte, basic rights, the Constitution, Magna Carta, the freedom of speech.

Marchers against the mask…. right-wing extremists have gotten involved…

All it’s about is trying to prevent the spread of a deadly virus. And since the situation is quite new, new data demands a new approach. It’s not about basic rights and human rights. It’s more like putting a traffic light at a dangerous intersection.

This sounds very one-sided, and it is, because bothsiderism happens to be an intellectual plague that has invaded the media and it’s doing no one any good. It equates flimflam with the real thing. It’s time to put the church back into the village, as the Germans say : In a democracy*, we have the blessing of rights. Switch off Facebook and the TV, read some material on feudal or autocratic societies by some decent authors, and you’ll immediately see what is meant by rights. But there’s the companion to that: duties or obligations. My liberty is limited by the liberty of others and of the collective, and that means I have to sometimes accept 60%, or even less of the rights-cake. If that means that by “spontaneity” is being infringed upon, then so be it. If I have to urinate, I look for toilet, I don’t just do it where I am standing. Ethics demand that we ask ourselves: What if everyone did this, what would the world look like (I think that idea was propounded by Kant, but let’s not get too serious).

Rights and obligations maintain a balance between the individual and the collective. Otherwise our society would become an ochlocracy. A rule by mob. Where silo-dwelling groups, believing that they have the right to do X, Y, or Z (like the gun owners in the USA, by the way), theatrically proclaim it, do it, and get into everyone else’s hair. This can have dire consequences, even murder. Imagine if everyone did it with the anti-mask and anti-confinement actions… You don’t have to imagine it. Look at the USA. 185,000 deaths (updated) and climbing. Brazil the same, where the evangelical boss ignored the threat completely.

That’s why I posted the quote by Mathieu Ricard from his book Altruism on my Facebook page:

Individualism mistakes the freedom to do what you please and real freedom, which consists in being master of yourself. (…) Spontaneity is a valuable quality as long as it is not actually mental agitation. To be free inside means first and foremost liberating yourself from the dictatorship of egocentrism and the negative sentiments that go along with it.

Here’s the deal: Many friends of mine complain about having to wear a mask. That’s a luxury. The same friends pass around the shrill screeds of anti-maskers and usually in the same breath anti-vaxers, another great luxury, since the same people tend to live in nations with outstanding medical infrastructure, excellent doctors, with health insurance, a phone number that will get you an ambulance in ten minutes, and where vaccination programs have led to herd immunity already, so you are free not to get vaccinated. That’s not the case in many developing nations, where crowded conditions, lack of medical care, and poverty (often due to our unquenchable thirst for cheap consumer products that have to be manufactured for $3 a day) make diseases deadly. I often mention diphtheria in Yemen and polio in Afghanistan, but there are others.

I don’t have the luxury either. I work. Every day. About 140%, because I do my work as a drifting journalist and copywriter, and as a teacher. The latter means I am in a small classroom (about 45 square meters), with twenty-three teenagers, who tend to chatter a lot (aerosols). I have to speak loudly (aerosols). Some kids might have asthma (risk), or diabetes (risk), or it’s their parents. Or their grandparents, who take care of them, because the parents are working. We are dealing with a highly infectious disease (if you think Covid-19 is a hoax, please protect yourself with tin foil). I might carry the virus without knowing it. Or it’s one of the kids who brought it in. I might transfer it home without knowing it. I do know that a mask can help however. Because I read a lot about it. And because three dentists  told me. And other medical personnel, like my doctor. Especially if social distancing is not possible. That’s all. It makes me a covidiot, a sheep, and some other choice terms, but too bad.

My classroom is a two-thirds of this and the tables are closer togteher

And by the way: Even before the pandemic, I sent sick kids home. Because I didn’t want a classroom of sick kids to delay the course. Maybe this time we can even reduce the impact of the other flu. Who knows.

At any rate: Here is the conclusion from a long article in the Telegraph explaining that the mask alone might not be perfect, because the problem is in the feeling of  safety that a mask can generate, which in turn means that people can forget to keep their distance. The article is fairly clear, and a lot less smug than some of the stuff floating around. Bottom line:

Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said: “A number of new studies and systematic reviews have persuaded most researchers and public health officials that they should be worn, including those who were skeptical a few months ago …  Growing evidence on potential airborne transmission of the virus adds to the case for face coverings.”  You don’t have to wear a mask at home. But if you’re in a train (which many of my anti-mask friends are not, in a shop, or in a crowded place, just do it. Even if you think it doesn’t look chic enough. You can take a selfie without it at some other time.

*Democracy…. what is it…. I have a few ideas about one branch, but it’s for later

Parallel Worlds (Part 3): The Followers and the Fighters

This is the last section on conspiracy theories (for the moment). It is written to bear witness to what I see as a genuine poison in discussions these days about matters political and social. More and more people dear to me are falling for these patently false narratives created to enhance the “owner.” And increasingly, they begin sounding like members of a cult, with a specific liturgy, tropes about “freedom,” constant self-victimization, and the arrogance to think that their narrative, unsupported and  made of whole cloth, is somehow of paramount importance for the world.

Why I take the time to write is a good question. It’s not to criticize my friends or acquaintances who decide to post this stuff. They are well-intentioned, often. Many seek self-improvement, self-knowledge, new-age solutions, but in our discussions, I sometimes notice a reluctance to be stringent. They are suspicious of authority, they question shibboleths, they want to find alternatives, they don’t want to be conventional. This is all good, when exploring a topic dialectically. But when you set up syllogisms full of weak or fallacious premises, the entire construct collapses in a sorry heap. That is not the result of a conspiracy, but rather shoddy data.

One of the almost laughable contradictions of many conspiracy theories, particularly noticeable in  the ones swirling around Covid 19, is that they keep saying that “they” (government, journalists, etc.) are trying to create fear in order to “fill in the blank.” The CT, of course, is in and of itself based on the idea of spreading fear. In fact, fear is a major emotional pillar holding up conspiracy theory, even if the creator or “CEO” of the CT pretends to be above it all. He/she must communicate the fear to the followers. “Whenever there’s an event, a global event or even a local event, that makes people feel that they have lost control over their lives or their future, that is when conspiracy theories emerge,” said psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, on 60 Minutes, Australia. He pointed out that CT, ironically,  offer some people comfort, a way to explain the randomness of life.

Fear and rationalism are not good friends

It’s sad to see your friends drift into these bizarre systems. Because passed a certain point, no amount of rational or empirical argumentation can help. The CT acts like a psychotropic drug of sorts and conspiratorial group think begins to kick in and it all starts smelling like a cult, in which people are bound together by a certain core beliefs. As one friend wrote: She understands what I am saying but just wants to believe. She wants to believe it. Let that sink in. And she feels good with this strange and provably false world view.

This reinforces the drug/cult analogy. Addicts do not like to be told to stop. They often go into a rather immature form of reactance and will continue cutting their nose to spite their face. The cigarette smoker will say “I like to smoke after meals,” without realizing that the non-smoker does not because of one difference: the addiction to nicotine, which informs our brain to like tobacco and will make it “taste good.” Furthermore, like the cult member, the conspiracy theory touters will sacrifice friends and family to the growing obsession with the CT. They will say and do anything — the most callous, disrespectful, absurd nonsense — to support their view. They will dig themselves ever deeper, send you more clips in the silo that the YouTube algorithm offers them. The tone of the conversation will get condescending, and then aggressive. I have seen this happen repeatedly.

For some, this might appear quaint, almost funny – though irritating after a while, as a few spouses of conspiracy theorists confessed to me – but for others it’s like watching a person become slightly psychotic and it is worrisome. I’ve seen people spew unadulterated bilge in public, and not even get corrected. On the contrary, when I do speak up, as I am wont to do,  the company shushes me, not the conspiracist. Facebook is a case in point. It’s public.

What drives people to embarrass themselves that way? (Because it is embarrassing to fall victim to transparent sophisms). It may be something banal: lots of time, no necessity to earn a living and boredom. Sometimes it’s merely reactance, that psychological switch that tells us to resist being told what to do. It could also be the thrill of being engaged in something apparently meaningful.  The conspiracist has made it to the barricades of humanity. So, the Follower is now part of the Epic Battle against a huge, ungraspable, lethal enemy, and plain logic and banal, provable facts are just too insipid to get the endorphins going.

When your cat channels the CIA

The rabbit hole

What you soon discover, is that arguing is, in fact pointless. You offer alternative views, you point out the errors (essentially to alleviate the fear you hear in the conspiracist’s language), you shed as much light as you can on the issue. In the end, you have to submit to certain facts you can learn in a 12-step program. Number one:  You are powerless in the face of a CT junkie. Two, you cannot change another person. As the Fighter against the nonsense, you must, at some point, admit defeat, and that admission will be your personal victory, the moment you stop enabling the other. You can offer your view – and suffer the consequences – and that’s it. The alcoholic, like the CT-junkie, has to hit rock bottom. A number of conspiracy theorists who got Covid-19 and almost died or lost relatives have related their experience. The illness brought them back to reality. But that is not something you wish on your friends, now, is it?

Parallel Worlds (part 2): The Makers and Shakers

My last post was a general explanation about why I feel it’s important to expose conspiracy theories for what they are: in short, dangerous bullshit (cf. Harry Frankfurt On Bullshit). Dangerous because they get people confused and they very often lead to violence. Here I explore what CT is, and what is the reason for promoting it. A note: This is merely a short intro… Books have been written about this subject. I can recommend Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (not directly about conspiracies, but the anti-expert idea is closely related) and Thomas Milan Konda’s Conspiracies of Conspiracies.

Short version:
1) Conspiracy theories have been around for ages. Some are fairly harmless, many have sparked mass killings, (check pogroms, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Rwandan massacres, various “ethnic cleansings” that we’ve seen since 1992, etc.).

2) What are they: Essentially a way of reorganizing facts and often adding new, mostly fake ones. The tonality is “whispered,” in case someone is listening. . They essentially state that any incident large or small is controlled by some evil forces or individuals who intend to (fill in the blank). Some of them go far, talk about lizard people, etc… You’re in crazy territory then. A young student, Abbie Richards drew a very concise chart worth viewing. What she does not mention, however, is that the lower theories are often “gateway drugs” leading to  psychosis territory. (More below).

3) These individuals promoting them like to pretend (or they really believe) they are at the forefront of an apocalyptic battle of good versus evil, usually one that cannot be won anyway, which is what makes CTs so durable: It’s about nothing real, it’s just a rearranging and creating of odd facts. The theorists also like to pretend they are victims of the Great Conspiracy: Ask yourself, WHY are they being taken down from social media or their material is not taken seriously by regular news media? They will say: It’s the evil bugaboo. But conspiracy theory has nothing to do with free speech. The reason most of them remain obscure, and should, is because of the gatekeepers (editors and the like), who check the material and see if it is relevant, true, verifiable, in any way significant or meaningful. The other reason is because they distract from real issues and are dangerous, even lethal. They can convince an unstable person to commit acts of violence, and in the current situation, they are slowing down the moment when the rest of the planet can get back to work again. 

4) The real personal motivation for generating these myths is usually recognition, money, and/or, power.

5) There is now some serious political motivation and impact: Most of the Covid-19 “anti-maskers,” “it’s just influenza,” “hydroxychloroquine,” “we should be like Sweden,” “It’s all a hoax,” etc., material on the Internet started or has been co-opted by so-called “populists,” a euphemism the media use to describe what are essentially neo-Fascists and anti-democratic forces.  In the USA, the highest bully pulpit is occupied by a fairly transparent con man who freely dispenses conspiracy theories and lies, which are then picked up by his media (Fox News, Sinclair, Breitbart, etc) and his apostles and spread around. And that has reached European shores, where people just go along with it (I’ll write about this in Part 3) without really knowing the origins of the stuff.

This has been amply documented by serious journalists, which is precisely why we have a president in the USA who has been ranting stupidly about “fake news,” and conspiracy theorists just repeat that message. Like sheep going baa baa. If you have been following the climate change “debate,” you will see parallels: 97% or so of the scientific community says: It’s real, it’s here, here is the evidence (Swiss friends, look at your glaciers). But suddenly, all attention is on the 3% that say it’s not the case. I asked Australian psychologist Stephen Lewandowsky about this phenomenon, here is his response:

“(M)ost of the dissenting climate scientists had terribly mediocre careers (at best) until they became climate deniers. And then all of a sudden, they appear on TV and testify in front of Congress and so on. The second thing is that most of those scientists have a long history of contrarianism in their field—science does tend to attract the occasional cantankerous individual who would not fit in anywhere else. But those are just anecdotal impressions rather than hard data, so I can’t be too certain except for the first three—money, ideology, notoriety.”

6) Watch out: Facebook and other social media are an easy and cheap way of spreading the deflection, because most people think” oh, this is interesting, maybe it’s true.” I would posit then, that a major factor in the spread of conspiracy theory is the fact that “clips” from YouTube are easy to absorb and difficult to deconstruct, i.e., to reference this McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Massage. It is just like the coronavirus, each reader/listener needs to use an intellectual mask to sort  out the  lies and the BS and the vapid arguments from what’s more or less real.

Finally: What you can do about it: First, stop posting this stuff and saying “I don’t have an opinion, either way.” If you don’t feel competent to read a text, don’t promote it, it’s irresponsible. You are literally risking people’s lives from the safety of your keyboard. Also, the moment you post something, the algorithm will register you as having an opinion and will send you more of the same rubbish.  If you do feel like posting something you find interesting/different, then check it out carefully: What is the source? Did you Google it, and which sources came up first will tell you who is pushing it. Check out the fact checkers like Snopes, etc., they often do excellent work. And then check their work. Many conspiracy theories are built using syllogisms. Check each element. When you do that, listen to your intuition. Does it sound right? (This is what journos do).

Now you’ll start seeing why the satrap in the White House has tried to denigrate and minimize the hard work of real news gatherers. I’ve never been a “great journo” doing big things, but I did not get a press card because I believed in hobgoblins. Now you’ll also understand why there’s a job description called journalism.

Here’s the longer version:

Conspiracy theories have been around for ages.  Many are simply developed by individuals seeking to draw attention to some pet political/social topic, expose a bugaboo, frequently a non-existent one, or simply to boost an individuals need for self-importance and recognition. In politics, the conspiracy is a great way of attracting attention and demonizing the opponent, and in the religious field, one finds a great deal of  these stories, especially since religious leaders tend to self-victimize and self-stigmatize. It’s part of the charisma.  At any rate, CT can be fairly effective, depending on the audience.

So what is a conspiracy theory? Basically, it’s the idea that the world’s events, large and small, are in fact being controlled by invisible, all-powerful forces. Sometimes these are  organizations, sometimes they are individuals, but then they tend to be “untouchables,” like billionaires Bill Gates and George Soros, whose elevation to Dastardly Doyens of all that is evil is in fact nothing more than latent anti-Semitism, the financier having replaced the Rothschilds in the roster of Jewish evilissimas. The groups or organizations have often existed for real, like the Illuminati, Freemasons, the Jews, the Club of Rome, and so on, but their impact is nothing like what the conspiracist will describe. The Communists have been favorites in the USA since 1871, believe it or not, and a separate chapter should be devoted to them. Suffice to say, when you hear grown men who are supposed to be leaders call Democrats “Marxists,” you know they are merely string up archaic fears.  

I would encourage people to read Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style”  published in Harpers Magazine in November 1964, a time during which the impact of the McCarthy-driven red scare was dwindling. It pithily explains how the conspiracist actually works. Hofstadter uses the clinical term not because he considers CT a sign of proponents being “of unsound mind,” but because “(i)t is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant (…) Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric.

This is a crucial distinction to make. It’s not only the content of the CT, but the tonality. At its core, therefore, CT is the obvious backed by a spooky soundtrack.

In my view, there are at least three identifiable tiers to the CT, plus a few ancillary players, like the media. Tier 1 covers the owners of the information, the ones who launch  or really curate the conspiracy theory. “As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public,” wrote Hofstadter, “the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated.

Therein lies the danger. This is a fight that will need confrontation. And in a country like  the USA, where guns are a plenty,  who knows which neurons will suddenly start sparking and backfiring… In addition, the conspiracist will always intimate that he/she is a victim of sorts, and has been or will be attacked. One inspector from the Federal Criminal Office (the German FBI) I knew told me that one political cult I was researching used to call him up to tell him they’d been shot at, or attacked in some way. All nonsense, but he had had to investigate. Pete Evans, an Australian star chef and noisy conspiracist also kept suggesting in an interview that if he disappeared or died, it would not be an accident. An incredibly irresponsible thing to say, but conspiracy theorists are, if anything, irresponsible.  

The motivation

There are too many reasons to create these odd fables to list here. In recent times, though, becoming an Internet celebrity is one way to slake ones thirst for recognition and money. You have the notoriously callous Alex Jones, whose porcine grunting especially about the Sandy Hook “crisis actors” finally got him into well-deserved trouble he well deserved, or Glenn Beck, with his Vicks-induced theatrics and his chalkboard covered with phony connections. For these two, dumping their self-respect to make fools of themselves brought in the riches. Pete Evans, mentioned above, was also selling some $24,000 “light machine2 that was supposed to perform some miracle.

The Internet has boosted CT considerably, by offering very cheap platforms to spread the nonsense. Facebook and others, have become festering sewers of conspiracy theories, and the average user will spread the stuff without really thinking. This is irresponsible (as I mention above). But it’s also why Facebook and Twitter have come under attack.

The notorious Q-Anon conspiracy theory is particularly pernicious in this regard. Q is allegedly a clandestine source in the government explaining to the world how Trump is combating elites, the “deep state” (a typical “obvious thing” with spooky music in the background), child pornography; in other words, he is the Messiah. Indeed, the QAnoners use terms like “awakening” and are awaiting some grand moment when a bunch of Hollywood stars will be arrested for child pornography. This strange obsession is in and of itself unhealthy. Q cannot be seen or named, and is thus particularly thrilling for those who’ve fallen for the con. This irony, that an invisible person is spreading non-information, and people believe it (several spreaders are members of Congress or want to be) make Q the almost the perfect conspiracy theorist. My hunch? Look for a 400-pound guy in a basement, or the like (in the meantime he’s rich…there are so many suckers out there).


Ranters like Jones and Limbaugh and Hannity  and Savage and Kirk are dangerous, because they tend to fill their audiences with fear and loathing. They will not incite violence directly, but they will condone it, and the anger they generate can easily fuel violent acts. When you speak of a specific group with such hatred, violence must always be considered as a possibility. The far-right, Trump-boosting  Sinclair Broadcast Group finally pulled a 26-minute video called “Plandemic” by an anti-vaccination barker named Judy Mikovits that put Dr. Fauci at the center of a massive conspiracy theory (they are always huge!), which in turn drew death threats to the good doctor and his family. Really nice, right? CT is dangerous.

But pulling out late is actually just a brand-washing technique… the insemination has taken place and the story, boosted by the Internet’s steroids, then runs all by itself. No amount of debunking will work (pizzagate is still a thing among the QAnoners, in spite of a guy actually going there and shooting up the place only to find it didn’t even have a basement.  But the conspiracists can now ALSO say: “You see, they are trying to silence us!” It’s a perfect con game.

The plunderers

That’s when the second group of conspiracy theorists gets going and plunder the first. They are generally less noisy, so you must train your ear. I call them “Monday-morning quarterbackers,” mainly because the only reason they can comment and critique and invent is because they are safe, they will not really get their hands dirty. Take the Covid-19 conspiracies: Governments have already imposed measures that have “flattened the curve” and saved lives, so the conspiracist is not faced with a very dramatic situation. They can be smug about it and say: “Merkel should have done this differently. Look at Sweden.” Extrapolating from Sweden, Germany would have had about 50,000 deaths. Then the same people would be on television or YT channels saying: “The government ran a euthanasia problem, they should have imposed a lockdown…” See how it works?

Their discourse is easily recognizable, but sometimes they manage to sound so reasonable, you almost think they are legit. Take  the hydroxy clamor: It started with a little-known doctor in Marseilles… He suddenly says he has a miracle cure. It’s early in the pandemic, people are afraid. Hope blossoms. His name, as is to be expected, is uttered from pole to pole. He may legitimately think he has got the solution. But the medical field has rigorous  systems in place to test, and his “testing” didn’t pass muster. The testing system is to prevent accidents (like thalidomide) and points out that his study has serious flaws and the drug he’s using has unwanted side-effects… (The average vaccine takes over 10 years to get onto the market).

But Trump gets wind of it and uses his platform to promote it.  And then come the real plunderers, like Simone Gold, promoted by a far-right-wing group affiliated with the astroturfish Tea Party. She  makes a video (much better than writing the stuff down, which then has to be read and checked) that goes viral. By time the real fact checkers have pointed out the incredible flaws in it, the absolute nonsense, including the speech by some strange doctor in Texas, who believes in “demon sperm,” and the dangers of  believing her, the  video, like the coronavirus, has infected  millions.


I have spent a lot of time just skimming the surface of CTs and hopefully communicating how urgent it is put a stop to them. Unfortunately, they are now genuine money-makers, and that means they are driven by robust profit motives.

In our both-siderist  culture, it may appear unfair that I only listed the right-wingers. There is a reason for this. First, they are definitely the most dramatic and loudest ones. Second, they have now been integrated into the mainstream of conservative politics, which have drifted to the extreme right wing. Third, they have made it over to Europe, where, suddenly people of all stamp have started demonstrating against mask-wearing, the confinement, the government, etc. There’s a political will behind it. As I mentioned: The boy who cried wolf…. If you can train people  to not react to the  cry of wolf, when the wolf is there, you can’t get people to move. Think of climate change. Governments will have to act at some point. What will my anti-masker friends say: “Here’s a really interesting clip, a scientist no one has ever heard about says it’s just a way to achieve the New World Order. Actually, he says that driving SUVs and flying around the world millions of times a year is totally harmless.” And the person saying that will be the same boy who cried wolf.
I’m not saying conspiracy, but one fake conspiracy is a really good way to conceal a real one.

In part 3, I’ll briefly look at the Common Folk, those who carry the water for the conpiracists.

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