Things Should Not Return to Normal

Spain—the country closed down two weeks ago—Friday, March 13, to be exact. As an uninvited ‘guest,’ the Coronavirus invites all kinds of (perhaps premature) reflections. For instance, are European countries moving in a totalitarian direction?

They are not, I would claim, and for two reasons: Europeans would never allow it, and more importantly, democracies deal with threats like the Coronavirus better.

Although many European citizens are experiencing and will experience various limitations on their individual freedom—you can get a fine for strolling around without a justifiable purpose—democracy is not only about freedom, but also about duty and responsibility. Acting responsibly requires each one of us to be conscious about what we do and why we do it.

The core of democracy is that it teaches us that we should not be concerned only for ourselves. Rather, we are in this together. I have a responsibility not only for my own health, but also for the health of other citizens. In other words, I am responsible for the others’ well-being, as they are for mine.

As a consequence, I find it meaningful to limit my freedom of movement, minimize (physical) social contact and so forth, because I might become a risk for other, more vulnerable citizens.

***

Freedom and responsibility hang together. Our responsibility is the string that ties us together and what actually makes us free. Norms are meaningful—not because they are universal or come from a fictional god; on the contrary, norms are social artifacts made and remade by human beings.

The Danish philosopher K. E. Løgstrup said in The Ethical Demand (1956) that ‘trust is fundamental.’ Each person holds a part of the other’s life in his or her—hopefully clean—hands, and vice versa. By laying oneself open to the others, we accept our shared vulnerability. The ethical demand or obligation doesn’t refer to specific transcendental moral categories, only this basic trust.

“Human life could hardly exist if it were otherwise.” For example, I trust that it is not just my wife, our three children and me who are staying home. I trust that other families are doing the same. Any epidemic or pandemic exposes how well a society acts in a responsible and trustworthy manner. Do we care about one another, or just about our own opportunistic interests?

Trust and responsibility are the exact opposite of egoism. I might go out for a run because I—statistically—am not at risk. I might empty the supermarket, and thereby neglect other citizens’ well-being.

It appears as if trust and responsibility are threatened by the coronavirus. In contrast, I would claim that these fundamental qualities were already threatened by capitalism. Yet, the Coronavirus might reactivate our civic spirit. I see this virus as an invitation to reflect more deeply about our lives.

I think we’d like to remember at least three things. First, the huge amount of inventive and creative ways in which we share our loss and fear. For example, when we reach out to our fellow human beings through singing, clapping and helping. The amount of generosity in Spain (and elsewhere) is touching. Second, we are in this together. Third, we can only prevail if we trust each other.

Trust is what actually brings us together, much more than holding hands. Trust reaches further than our hugs. Trust reaches out to the future. If trust is fundamental, it is because it doesn’t distinguish between the lives worth preserving and those regarded as not worth preserving—at least not beforehand.

Trust, of course, can be broken, but only because it was already there to begin with. Trust, as I see it, is related to the kind of thinking about being interconnected that can be found in mindfulness and ecological thinking. For instance, if I neglect or ignore another person, I also neglect or ignore myself. None of us can exist alone.

***

I believe that the virus will make us remember that we can’t survive without trust and compassion, because we’re all interconnected. We depend on each other. This interdependency is what distinguishes totalitarian regimes from democracies.

Saying this is not the same as giving democratic governments carte blanche. In any democratic society, citizens must critically monitor the actions taken by the government. It’s part of the deal.

In today’s rigid, populistic world of identity politics, we rarely focus on healing the wounds between races, genders and sexual orientations. On the contrary, we often fertilize these, to create enmity and rigid group loyalty. Similarly, sometimes the precautions and arrangements made by politicians can create more panic than calm.

Still, I would contend that the panic is not so much related to the temporary limitations of our individual freedom as it is to how openly and honestly the politicians communicate. It’s obvious that some politicians are corrupted by money and power; they think in terms of voters and elections. Yet, others actually do think. To think is to care for matters beyond our own interests.

Therefore, the best solution is, of course, not a dictatorship but citizenship. In a trusted democracy, when a politician asks citizens to act responsibly (to activate their public spirit), they wash their hands, limit public transportation, keep their distance or stay at home for weeks, as my family does now in Spain (until April 11, as the situation is right now).

When democracy works, politicians don’t have to create new laws, but through honest and thoughtful communication, they can awaken civic spirit.

The civic spirit is not about rights, but about duty, and the silent demands that tie us together. Duty and obligation not only come before rights, they also encourage us to think and act consciously, evaluating whether we need to do a certain thing that may be within our rights.

Do I really need to fulfill my right to mingle, right now, when social contact ought to be minimized? Of course not. This is also why things should not return to ‘normal,’ because many things were abnormal before the Coronavirus: neoliberal greed, resource scarcity, climate destruction, stress, anxiety…

It’s not about our rights, but our shared obligations. Rights tend to reduce everything to a question of being for or against. Life is not that stubbornly simple. No one is for the Coronavirus. In the same vein, no one is for avoiding their grandparents; it is just a necessary and responsible choice.

Civic spirit stresses that the value of our lives is related to what we leave behind—thoughts, behaviours and gestures that enable future citizens to live and act freely.

The Coronavirus puts all of us in a difficult situation. It tests our attitude towards others, and our trust in their maturity and ability to act responsibly. The Coronavirus is not only a catastrophe; it is also an opportunity for us to see ourselves, to relate to the world with more kindness and compassion, and to change our capitalistic forms of life.

The better we act together, the sooner we can start kissing, hugging and drinking together again—like real democratic citizens.

– 26. March 2020

This essay was first publish in The Mindful Word

Catching life

Recently, I bought a boxset with the Television series Twin Peaks and David Lynch’s book Catching the Big Fish

“Ideas are like fish”, Lynch writes. “If you want a little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.” It is well-known that Lynch uses transcendental meditation to go deeper. Everything there is, comes from the deepest level, he says, which modern physics call the Unified Field.  “The more your consciousness—your awareness—is expanded, the deeper you go towards this source, and the bigger the fish you can catch.”

Reading this little book while watching Twin Peaks was illuminating. For example, the series opens with the log women speaking and telling us what it’s all about, she ends up saying: “Laura is the one.” 

She, Laura Palmer, is the Unified Field. Everything that happens in Twin Peaks, is related to her: Laura Palmer. 

The whole series is drawing a map of a complex totality as a way of gradually going deeper and deeper. For example, in later episodes, the log women speaks about dreams and ideas. The FBI special agent Dale Coper often gets his ideas, or clear up a misunderstanding, in his dreams, perhaps as an illustration of the “hidden” potential that lies deep within – something unconscious, something still unknown, waiting to actualized.

I recall seeing the series when I lived in small town (some years younger than the young bunch of main characters, some of which I found both cool and very attractive back then). Twin Peaks caught my attention like no other series had before (and not like anyone else had until I saw the first season of True Detective). 

Lynch, reminds me of the Danish poet and film instructor Jørgen Leth, who I once wrote a book about. (I encountered Leth’s poems and films more or less at the same time, I saw Twin Peaks). Leth is also semi-inspired by a humble philosophy where you’re open for whatever happens; you take it, whatever it is, and use it as good as you can. In continuation of Leth (and later with the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño), I’ve tried to develop a poetic and attentive philosophy, where the senses are all active

Both Lynch and Leth mention how certain coincidences that happened at their filmset later were integrated into their films, making them better. They both believe that time should be allowed to unfold as it unfolds. Time is not a passive medium within which acts are placed; rather, time is immanent “within” action, when opening for or making another possible future actual. They both believe that everything is connected.

I emphasize that everything is connected or interconnectivity, recalling the Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Næss who once said something like: if I destroy another life, I also destroy myself to some degree. Why? Because relations compose who I am, who we are. Relating this idea to a small community like Twin Peaks, then the life of each one of the characters is not sustainable without the others, and vice versa. The death of Laura Palmer is, therefore, not only a tragedy for her and her closest relations; rather, it’s an attack on the social bonds that holds this community together. 

Perhaps Twin Peaks can be seen as how fragile or vulnerable these social bonds are when we focus on money, power, greed and hate, and how these bonds can be strengthen through friendships, honesty, trust … stressing something like an equal value of all lives. For example, special agent Dale Coper listens to all citizens with equal care and interest, even those we (the viewers) might look at with skepticisms. He is a fairly good person.

Seeing Twin Peaks and reading this little simple book brought me back to my own youth—perhaps not as something deeper (not sure I agree with Lynch’s vertical metaphor)—but as an expanding of my consciousness, reconnecting with these basic social bonds of love, care and friendships. Catching moments of life.

In a way, re-watching Twin Peaks made me recall how ethics is generous. It gives or shares without asking for anything because it passes on what cannot be owned: love, friendship or social bonds.  

Isn’t philosophy’s first virtue to be humble as in curious, open, available?  

Where Does the Wind Come From?

“Where does the wind come from?” my son asked. I wetted my finger and stuck it in the air. A mild and gentle breeze cooled one side of it. “That side,” I said, pointing nowhere. “OK,” he said.

Afterward, I thought about the problem that arose from the question, “Where does the wind come from?” The wind doesn’t really blow from one mouth. Even rivers don’t have just the one mouth. Rivers are constructed by their surroundings: the mountains, the rain, nearby lakes, and the ocean, to name but a few. There is no origin. Similarly, the wind comes from everywhere and nowhere. 

Perhaps everything comes from there: from nowhere.

Read the rest of the essay in Sky Island Journal

Compassion – Toward an Ethics of Mindfulness

This work is guided by two hypotheses with one overall objective of establishing an ethics of mindfulness . The first hypothesis is the concept of moral motivator or in- tentional moral. Both Western philosophy and mindfulness operate with an intention influenced by their moral beliefs. The second hypothesis is the relationship between moral reasoning and wisdom. That is, our reasoning is affected by our moral belief . To combine those two theses, I introduce the concept compassion from mindfulness and the ethics based on the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Hereby, I suggest that by practicing mindfulness, one can develop his or her capacity for compassion, but also – this practice – is a «way of life» that can help protect the planet: an ethical practice.

Read the entire paper here: Compassion – Toward an Ethics of Mindfulness.

“Compassion – Toward an Ethics of Mindfulness” is published in the journal Mindfulness & Compassion, vol. 3, issue 1.

We’re All Accountable

… From my essay on sexism, morality, identity politics, and compassion:

“I remember Rebecca Solnit saying something about men being the problem—not all men, but men. And she’s almost right. Because men, as philosopher Simone de Beauvoir said about women, aren’t born men; they become men. Weinstein didn’t come into this world as a sick misogynist. He, like all those like him, was formed by the culture in which he was brought up.

Luckily, I think, I spent a lot of time with my mother and my sister. Yet, many small boys spend time with their mothers, and less time with their fathers … or, at least, they used to. Does this mean that even women—some mothers—are favouring their sons? Encouraging them to see themselves as better than girls? Telling their daughters to passively obey?”

Read the entire essay here.

What is happening in Catalonia?

The Spanish novelist Eduardo Mendoza has won many literary prices, including the Franz Kafka Prize, in 2015, and the Premio Cervantes, in 2016. Recently, he published a short essay entitled Que está pasando en Catalunya (What is happening in Catalonia).

Like many others, he wants to understand what is happening in the Spanish region of Catalonia, especially, as he notes, because of the “ignorance” and “prejudices” that affect many people’s images of Catalonia and Spain.

It is a mistake to reduce the Catalan nationalist and separatist movement solely to origins in the Spanish Civil War, Mendoza says. Franco’s dictatorial regime is gone. Since the late 1970s, Spain has undergone a difficult, but also impressive, democratic transition. Many of those today who refer to “Franco’s ghost” never lived under his regime; if they had, they would probably be more cautious when using terms such as “Francoism,” “fascism,” and “dictatorships” so carelessly. At the very least, they would be cautious out of respect for all those who suffered and died during that time.

It is true, however, that Catalonia, like the rest of Spain, suffered during the Franco years. Furthermore, the Catalans suffered with respect to their language, and many Catalans wanted to separate themselves from Franco (as did many other Spaniards). “No one doubts the antipathy of the Franco regime towards the Catalan language,” Mendoza writes. And yet, not all Catalans were against Franco. He continues, “we should forget that a good part of the young (and not so young) Catalans volunteered for the Falangist movement.”

The idea of Catalonia revolting against Spain is wrong, because this assumption is based on the naïve generalization of claiming that all Spanish or Catalan people are identical. Spain, as a country, suffered under Franco, just as some Catalans followed Franco freely.

Luckily – and I say this ironically – for the contemporary Catalan separatist, “the habit of adapting history to fit contemporary conviction is a distinctive Catalan identity,” Mendoza says.

Anyone with a little knowledge of what has happened in Catalonia will know that facts are treated with creative elegance that places the separatist within the post-truth, alternative facts, or fake news era. Illustratively, Mendoza draws a comparison between France and Catalonia. While France had a glorious past, one to which we can look for compassion, the Catalans never had one. Thus, “to hide what they considered shameful, the imagination and artistic talent of Catalans has been dedicated to inventing a past that the society would have loved to have.”

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the complexity of the separatist lie is by referring to Sartre’s concept of “bad faith,” a way of using freedom to deny ourselves the freedom we actually have. This is a strategic way in which some Catalans take away their own responsibility to choose by saying that they have no choice. As a consequence, the independence movement has created a culture of victimization where it is easier to blame Spain than to take responsibility for themselves. For example, blaming the centralization of power in Madrid. Interestingly, Mendoza writes, “if there is place where you can speak about savagely centralism it’s in Catalonia. Barcelona has always scorned the second ranked cities …”

Mendoza describes the Catalans as shy and a group whose thinking is not used to getting very far. “They are practical thinkers, but theory and abstraction bores them.” Perhaps, for this reason, some seem to speak of democracy and freedom that, at most, resembles Orwell’s Newspeak. As Mendoza has written elsewhere, if you can freely demonstrate in the street and participate in the Spanish government, then there is, indeed, democracy. However, if you do not wish to accept that democracy is a long and tiring process, then you simply need to organize an illegal election insisting that it is legal.

To begin with, “the participation of Catalans in the Spanish government was encouraged … during the years after the transition.” Unfortunately, with Jordi Pujol, who served as President of the Catalan Generalitat (i.e. the Catalan government) from 1980 to 2003, a systematic plan towards independence was in place: it was found in schools, the media (Mendoza mentions how the Catalan media outlets TV3 and Catalunya Radio moved from being neutral to “separatist organs”), the local government, and via less involvement in the Spanish government. All activities were aimed at creating a Spanish enemy by altering facts. Then came the financial crisis in 2008, which – as is many other places such as in Madrid, Athens, Lisbon – hit the younger generations, and created a healthy and global anticapitalistic movement that, unfortunately, quickly turned into a nationalistic protectionism.

Using his trademark easy-going style, Mendoza writes that, regardless of the mythical stories that Spain and Madrid is stealing, ”you live better in Barcelona than in Madrid.” The morale is: Life is hard, for all, not just the Catalans.

Towards the end of Mendoza’s pedagogical essay, he concludes that there is “no practice which can justify the desire for independence from Spain,” before adding, “Spain is not a bad country. It could be better.” This is true, but so can Denmark, where I am from, and all other countries. Democracy is, after all, a dynamic process.

Mendoza succeeds in killing a few myths, but whether these efforts are enough to make people less ignorant, only time will tell. Nevertheless, it is good to see that more and more Spanish and Catalan intellectuals are participating in uncovering the political theater, where politicians (most notably Puigdemont & co) play with the Catalan people’s emotions by selling certain beliefs, irrespectively whether these beliefs are true or false.

So, when Mendoza writes that there is “no practice which can justify the desire for independence from Spain,” then he emphasizes that the emotions and beliefs behind the separatist are unreasonable and unjustified, despite how some Catalans feel. Therefore, it is healthy, as Mendoza says, to question our ideas, to explain things to each other, and to eliminate prejudice, ignorance, and incomprehension.

Mendoza shows that sometimes thinking is painful. For example, Puigdemont & co use “freedom” and “democracy” as tranquilizing slogans, yet if we pay attention, it’s obvious that their use refer to a superficial understanding (if not simply a nationalistic misunderstanding). At most these slogans are sleeping pills that hinders an open and honest examination of a challenging conflict, an examination that requires empathy and compassion. Elsewhere, I ‘ve argued that compassion is needed in Catalonia, not as something artificial, but as something that arises naturally in complex and tense situations.

A difficult road lies ahead – for all parties.

 

Against separatism

Fernando Savater’s Contra el separatismo is like a breathe of fresh air in a Catalonia marked by years of frustration, hate, manipulation, falsehood, and a scary nationalism.

Savater is a Spanish philosopher and prolific writer, who examines ethical issues. His writing usually covers topics in an existential way; for instance, he explored what makes a life worth living.

Recently, he published a small pamphlet, Contra el separatismo (Eng. Against Separatism). This was a collection of articles that he had published over the last few months in El Pais, La Cronica and La Republica. Most of the articles could probably be found on the Internet, so the necessity of a book is debatable. However, its errand is undoubtedly needed.

The objective of the book is to describe separatism in Catalonia, which is thought to be an increasingly problematic region in Spain since October.

Savater opened his pamphlet with an essay clarifying the difference between nationalism, which he considers to be a “collective narcissism,” and separatism. Nationalism can be either kind or pathologically aggressive. Normally, when we refer to nationalism, we don’t think of special national dishes or sports but something more sinister and dangerous. The Catalan separatists are nationalistic much in the same way that Albert Camus once described a German friend “as someone who loved his country too much.”

Still, Savater stresses that Catalonia is not simply an example of nationalism. It’s even worse. It’s separatism, which is characterized by a hatred towards anything Spanish. This must sound rather harsh for outsiders to hear. However, based on my own experiences while living almost ten years in Barcelona, I must admit that Savater is precise in his diagnosis. Hatred does exist. Some of it comes was frustration, lack of recognition, and some of it is, unfortunately, deliberately passed on from one generation to the next.

Let me emphasize that this hatred exists among the Catalan separatists, but not among all Catalans. Many Catalans view themselves as Spanish. However, the separatists have dominated the public dialogue due to the depth of their hatred. Luckily this seems to be changing as more and more people are able to see a more accurate picture of Catalonia. Additionally, more people are finding the courage to speak out against the separatists’ hateful rhetoric.

Savater writes, “Separatism is not a political opinion or a romantic dream, like nationalism; rather it’s a deliberate aggression, calculated and coordinated against the democratic institutions.” They only focus on their own needs. For example, the former Catalan president Puigdemont implies that he is speaking on behalf of all Catalans even though his viewpoints do not align with more than half of the Catalan population based on the results of the election. Furthermore, the Catalan separatists characterize themselves as victims of the Spanish state. For example, when the Spanish government criticized the Catalan schools in regards to indoctrination practices and the improper use of some teachers’ power over students, the Catalans school spoke about being violated. Rather than critically investigating and reflecting on whether wrongdoings really had taken place, they chose instead to play the victim. I would say that the Catalan separatists are known for a complete inability or an unwillingness to self-reflect.

Savater continues saying, “The devil is, etymologically, the separator, dia-bolum, the one who disconnect and destroys the established bonds. The task of the devil is anti-humanism par excellence, separate those who live together by obeying them to detest one another … painfully discord their hearts.” Again, I believe he is right when I reflect on my experiences. Everything has been reduced to either black or white over the last few months. This is especially true if you’re among the separatists, who often have no decorum when sharing their opinions. It is as if they can’t imagine that anyone would disagree with them.

Furthermore, Savater mentions that the Catalan separatists seem to excel in post-truth. For example, the fact of having an emotion depends on what the persons’s beliefs are, not whether these beliefs are true or false. Puigdemont excels in playing with emotional statements in order to establish and control certain beliefs by awaking certain emotions, for example, hate and mistrust. In the eyes of Aristoteles, Puigdemont is an irresponsible leader because he doesn’t care about the truth, only his political objective. Some other emotional claims made by the Catalan separatist are that they have compared themselves with Kosovo or Tibet, and have suggested that Puigdemont is a martyr like Nelson Mandela. Of course, this only shows their total ignorance and a lack of respect. Mandela fought heroically and inspired others to fight against a racist-regime. He fought to heal his country and to bring black and white people together. I assume that the separatists’ hatred blinds them to notice the clear differences between Puigdemont and Mandela. At times, living in Catalonia is like being part of an absurd theater.

Savater touches upon many things even though the text is short. He mentions how the Catalan separatists have tried to use the Catalan language as a racial marker. He points out how the education system usually is the first priority for every democracy. Of course, at this point, he could emphasize that the only reason why the Catalan school has been able to indoctrinate its students is because the Spanish government has neglected Catalan schools for so long. The problem, however, is not that the Catalans want to protect and cultivate their language and culture; rather when this care becomes exclusive and mean toward what is Spanish.

Apropos the educational system, then it is scary to meet young people in Catalonia who are not aware that the Spanish Civil War was a war where all of Spain was fighting Franco, not just the Catalans. Many young people in Catalonia are not aware that the last city to fall to Franco was Madrid, for example. It is also scary to witness the hatred towards Spain and everything Spanish, from language to football jerseys and even a refusal to travel around in Spain. I have met grown-ups who claim that all Spanish people are fascist. Parents don’t want their children to speak Spanish even though many other parents elsewhere would love their children to master two languages.

Savater also addresses the Catalan media. He argues that EITB, TV3, Catalunya Ràdio are manipulative and indoctrinating. Even the children programs on TV3 try to manipulate the children. How it is that parents accept this is beyond my imagination.

Savater lists seven reasons why separatism should be fought and prevented in the future:

  1. It’s antidemocratic.
  2. It’s reactionary in its beliefs in one land, one ethnic identity, and one language.
  3. It’s antisocial.
  4. It’s ruining the economy.
  5. It’s destabilizing
  6. It creates bitterness and frustrations.
  7. It creates dangerous precedents.

In a modern democracy, all citizens should be equal regardless of their birthplace, language, gender, skin color, their religion or philosophy. All of these qualities or characteristics are relevant to your personal biography, Savater says, but they should not give you extra influence as a citizen. In a democracy, all people have the same rights. In a democratic state, there are no Catalans, Spanish, or Danish people just like there are no white, black or Hispanic people. There are no homosexual or lesbians either. In the eyes of a democratic government, these identities are not relevant. People are all just people. Unless, of course, you’re a Catalan separatist.

Against separatism is an important pamphlet despite its short length. Mainly because the intellectuals in Spain, including the artists, have been neglecting or ignorant about the Catalan and Spanish problem for too long. The politicians could look toward Nelson Mandela as a role model and help to initiate the reconciliation process. Heal the country with compassion.

Also, I believe that artists can change how we see things, can help us to better understand differences. Art can open up our minds. It is their responsibility to shake our old habits and to assist in our growth. Nurture empathy and compassion. This is needed in Spain where the wounds from the civil war are still present. There is an explicit hatred existing among some, not all, Catalans towards the rest of Spain. Savater has illustrated that he has the knowledge and the courage to address this. I would embrace his pamphlet even for this reason alone.

With this publication, Savater has made it possible for me to focus on more gratifying issues than the exhausting political situation in Catalonia. For that I’m grateful.

Contra el separatismo

Compassion in Catalonia

Since 2008, I’ve lived in Barcelona, in Catalonia, Spain. My wife is from Barcelona. She’s both Catalan and Spanish, and so are our three children, who are also Danish. Still, to be honest, all of these national markers say nothing. Rather, they serve as a means of control. After all, we’re all human beings who far too often forget how we’re interconnected with and accountable to one another, because we focus too much on the colour of our passports.

Read the rest of the essay here.

True Detective

I have published the essay, True Detective: Pessimism, Buddhism or Philosophy?
The aim of this essay is to raise two questions. The first question is: How is pessimism related to Buddhism (and vice versa)? The second question is: What relation does an immanent philosophy have to pessimism and Buddhism, if any? Using True Detective, an American television crime drama, as my point of departure, first I will outline some of the likenesses between Buddhism and pessimism. At the same time, I will show how the conduct of one of the main characters in True Detective resembles the paths of Buddhism and pessimism, even though he is ethical in a strictly non-pessimistic and non-Buddhist fashion. Last, I will try to place these findings in perspective through the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s thoughts. Hereby, I hope to illustrate that joy, not suffering, is basic to human existence, and how human beings may overcome a spiritual pessimism.
Read more here.