Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A few years ago, I wrote a short essay expressing hope that the world could unite around existential threats (supervolcanos, climate change, even hostile extraterrestrials, etc.). Perhaps in the face of such threats, I hoped, the world could be shocked out of the social divisions and behavioral patterns we’d grown so accustomed to and rediscover our shared humanity. Though I listed a few reasons why things are not so simple.

In that light, I’ve been disappointed so far how (some) people are reacting to coronavirus. There have been reports of anti-Asian racist incidents in several countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and France. As one Chinese-American man, Vincent Pan, put it, we have to “fight two viruses” now: COVID-19 and bigotry. 

Racism isn’t the only social division that coronavirus has driven a wedge into. Yesterday it was reported that one of the attendees at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Maryland tested positive for the virus. Two prominent Republicans, Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Paul Gosar, may have been exposed and were “self-quarantining.” Disappointingly, the response to the news on social media fell into the predictable partisan trenches that have been dug into the social fabric of the country over the past few decades.

For example, I saw some people expressing schadenfreude that some Republicans might be affected, perhaps as a form of comeuppance or karma because several of them had dismissed the pandemic as overblown, fear-mongering, or even a “hoax” being exploited to hurt the President politically. And, Donald Trump, Jr. accused Democrats of hoping that the virus would kill millions of Americans solely to hurt his father politically. He later defended those comments, saying he was “entitled to speak with hyperbole.”

There is something seriously wrong here. Unfortunately, some people are not rising to the occasion or listening to “the better angels of their nature.” This is particularly pernicious when those people have big platforms to disseminate irresponsible ideas.

Maybe we could re-frame our approach. We should remember that a virus doesn’t care at all about your ethnicity or your political ideology. Actually, it doesn’t care about anything. It is merely an insentient genetic program that acts to replicate and thrive in a host. And every single person alive fits that description. We shouldn’t wish it on anyone for both basic decency, but also for selfish reasons — the more it spreads, the higher the risk that you or someone you love will contract it, with potentially severe consequences.

Maybe this is a chance to shock ourselves out of the stupid, paralyzing cycle of bigotry and hyper-partisanship that we’ve inherited. Someone once wrote (possibly A.D. Williams, but I cannot find an original source) “Imagine what 7 billion humans could accomplish if we loved and respected one another.” I don’t know if we all have to love and respect each other, but it is indisputable that hatred and division are counter-productive and wasteful. Time, energy, and resources are all finite, and too much of those precious things are being wasted rather than applied toward solving actual human problems. So, here is an opportunity. Coronavirus is an equal-opportunity virus that could affect any of us. There is no vaccine. Whether you are rich or poor, Chinese, American, Italian, or Iranian, you — and everyone you love — are all vulnerable. 

There is at least some good news, I think. I’ve written about this before, but the fact that human beings are obligatorily social primates says something good about us. Our ancestors have been group living for about 50 million years or so. And, if you’re going to live in — and depend on — a group, then it makes sense that evolution would have equipped us to care about the other social primates around us, even non-kin. It’s been said that disasters have a tendency to bring out the best in people. Maybe, maybe not. Doctors and nurses in Iran have shown compassion for their coronavirus patients by dancing for them to lift their spirits. One doctor in China took an elderly patient who had been isolated for a month to get a CT scan in another building. They stayed outside a bit longer to see the sunset.

In the U.S., one newspaper reminded us that “we’re only as safe as our most vulnerable neighbors.” People without enough income to take sick time from work are not only vulnerable themselves, but could potentially transmit the virus to others. In other words, it is in our self-interest to care about others’ well-being, not only for its own sake, but because our lives are all interconnected. We may sometimes feel separate, and that we can live out our lives in seclusion, surviving off stockpiled supplies of canned foods and toilet paper. But coronavirus reminds even the most self-reliant of us how much we need others for our basic necessities. It might be more fruitful if we remembered as if our fates were all intertwined. 

An 87-year-old COVID-19 patient and his doctor, Liu Kai, watch the sunset on their way back from a CT scan at Renmin Hospital in Hubei province. (GAN JUNCHAO / CHINA DAILY) Source

 

 

A Return to the Christmas Truce

It’s that time of year, so I’m sharing this old post that I wrote on the Christmas Truce, one of the first essays on this site to take off. Looking it over, there are a few things I might have written differently; some people have told me I got some of the historical details wrong. But it wasn’t meant as a historical piece. Rather, it was about human behavior related to cooperation and conflict, and finding commonality through empathy and through the realization that cooperation, or at least restraint, is preferable to mutual punishment. After all this time, there is still some hope in there. Read more…  

Trench warfare, WWI 

 

Cooperation and Conflict: Lessons from Cetaceans

False killer whales, interacting with bottlenose dolphins off the New Zealand coast

A few years ago, I wrote an essay against the idea that nature was always nasty (see: “Nature, Not Always “Red in Tooth and Claw”). I think the whole essay pivoted on one important quote from the primatologist Frans deWaal, who explained why it is misguided to focus solely on the colder, cruel side of evolution. He wrote:

“The error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel and pitiless creatures. But nature’s pressure cooker does not work that way. It favors organisms that survive and reproduce, pure and simple. How they accomplish this is left open” (2009: 58).

From there I pointed out several of examples of cooperation and altruism in nature, mostly among primates, but also in other mammal species. I would like to add another one that I learned from the BBC’s Blue Planet II: the relationship between false killer whales  (Pseudorca crassidens) and bottlenose dolphins (genus Tursiops). As the inimitable David Attenborough narrates in the clip below, pods from the two species were seen meeting near the New Zealand coast, and the audience is led to expect hostilities or predation… “But then, something truly extraordinary happens.”

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Sixteen Anti-War Songs

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” — UNESCO

 

I made a list of sixteen anti-war songs that have meant something to me for a while, including a few lyrics from each and then a brief description. It would be too cumbersome to include all of the lyrics, or to make a comprehensive list, though you can find one here. Most are in English, so this will be limited in scope. I guess the songs are sort of “ranked,” but it’s not meant to be scientific; it’s just a list from which I find some meaning. Originally I sought to create a top ten list; however, it just kept growing.

Perhaps you have your own list, and it’s likely different than mine. We probably have different tastes, and that’s OK. I’m not going to fight anyone over anti-war songs. Maybe this list will do some a tiny bit of good, at a time when divisions appear to be growing.

 

 

16. Radiohead – “Harry Patch: In memory of” (2009)

Give your leaders each a gun and then let them
Fight it out themselves

 

This is Radiohead’s tribute to Harry Patch, the World War 1 veteran who died at age 111 in 2009. Patch once said that “War is organised murder and nothing else….politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder.”

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We’re all earthlings

“Looking at the Earth (from space) for the first time, … you realize that hey, we live on a planet. We’re all earthlings. The only border that matters is that thin blue line of atmosphere that blankets us all.”

– astronaut Nicole Stott

 

At a period when polarization and nationalism seem to be increasing around the world, I feel the need to keep pushing for a more inclusive view of humanity. I heard Nicole Stott on the radio this morning, and thought I’d pass along her quote. Also, see:

“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” – Carl Sagan

 

Red States versus Blue States: Who Would Win a Civil War in the U.S?

Summary: Nobody will win. It would be catastrophic, as is true of nearly all wars.

 

“Nearly every government that goes to war underestimates its duration, neglects to tally all the costs, and overestimates the political objectives that can be accomplished by the use of brute force.”   

– The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs (source)

 

Last week congressman Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, created yet another controversy by posting an image on social media that asked whether red states or blue states would win in a second U.S. civil war (the clear implication is that the red states would). Understandably, King received a lot of criticism for this, for contributing to a political ecosphere that is already steeped in heated rhetoric, in which real political violence has been on the increase. King has since deleted the image, but he is not alone. With anxieties and polarization growing, talk of a possible second civil war in the U.S. is still relatively rare, but I can’t recall another period in my lifetime where I’ve heard it with such regularity. Even Stanford’s Niall Ferguson has written about this.

Others have opined on King’s glibly pondering civil war as a sitting member of Congress, the fact that he overlooked the fact that his own state is “blue” in the image, his transphobia, or his timing (the post came just a day after a white supremacist killed 50 people in New Zealand mosques). I’d like to focus on the idea of “winning” a civil war.

First, a step back. The way that we initially frame a question has a big impact on our thinking. As the linguist George Lakoff wrote around the time of the First Gulf War, “metaphors can kill.” To frame war solely in terms of winning and losing (ex. an image of two boxers) does a great disservice to what actually happens during wars. Lakoff continued: “It is important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real and in a war, they could afflict tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of real human beings, whether Iraqi, Kuwaiti, or American.” Certainly, the same suffering would apply to a civil war in the U.S.

In a similar vein, the former war correspondent Chris Hedges wrote in his book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” that we should distinguish between “mythic war” and “sensory war.” Mythic war is deceptively seductive, offering people the chance to participate in some great noble cause, though people’s justifications may vary (to defeat evil, for freedom, for party, for God, for country, for one’s ethnic group, to avenge past wrongs, etc.). Mythic war’s perennial appeal resides in its apparent opportunity to help people find meaning by contributing to something potentially historic and bigger than themselves, particularly for the marginalized and for those who have struggle to find meaning in their lives. For these reasons, Hedges wrote, war can be an “addictive narcotic.”  

By contrast, sensory war refers to the on-the-ground experiences, the fear, the atrocities, the “blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoners and innocents,” ultimately revealing that – quoting Harry Patch – war is “organized murder and nothing else.”

 

Historical Lessons: How Destructive Would a Civil War Be?

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Thinking of Nebraska in a Blue State

Like always, I’ve been following all of the good and bad stuff in the news. Under the latter category, I’ve been thinking of the people in Nebraska who were affected by the “bomb cyclone” that hit there a few days ago. There’s a lot of bad in many places around the world, but I’m focusing on Nebraska right now because it’s been called a “historic” and “monster” storm, creating both devastating floods and a blizzard that have displaced an unknown number of people.

I do have another motive for highlighting Nebraska, and that is because it is known as one of the reddest of the “red” states in the U.S. By comparison, I live and teach in one of the most consistently “blue” areas of the country (and I guess I am personally more blue than red). But note that in reality, most states are purple. Anyway, this is a bit personal, but today I donated to one organization with the specific intent to help people in Nebraska.

I’ve never been to Nebraska, and off the top of my head I can only think of one person I’ve ever met from there. I’m not wealthy, and it wasn’t a lot of money. Nor am I looking for praise. Rather, I was just hoping that if I made this public, someone somewhere, maybe Nebraska, might see this as a tiny symbol of good will from a blue area of the country at a time when this country is so polarized.

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