To Statue or not to Statue?

Everyone’s attention is to various extent attracted by the recent events linked to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests going on around the world. A significant part of the demonstrations has involved the tearing down of several confederate statues in the US, and slavery-linked statues in other countries. The symbolic value of destroying statues is enormous and its impact has important cultural implications that go beyond the moment of the protest. For all those who have an interest in history, from amateur historians to students and professional researchers, this aspect of the protest is incredibly appealing. It is therefore necessary to analyse this phenomenon objectively and this is my attempt at offering my perspective. I must clarify that I am definitely more acquainted with Ancient Mediterranean history than with modern and contemporary history. Nevertheless, what is at issue here is our perception of historical events and figures.

A statue is never just a statue. A statue is not just its subject, the person that it represents, but also the people who commissioned it, the artist who made it, and most importantly its purpose. The intent is usually a celebratory one – a statue is there to celebrate someone. The initial question is should we celebrate that slavery-linked historical figure? The only reasonable answer is no. No country, especially those with an imperialist past like the UK, France, and Spain, should have statues of slave traders. Moreover, we need to bear in mind that in order to tear down a statue, that statue must be first put up. And here we come to the real question concerning our perception and manipulation of history. What is rewriting history?

The main accusation against those who want to remove controversial statues is that they want to rewrite history, as they fail to contextualise. From this perspective, removing a statue represents an example of ignorance and an act of vandalism. In some cases, the removal of a statue is seen as outrageous, an offence to the nation’s glorious past. It suffices to read the headlines of newspapers and online news websites. Whereas CNN states These controversial statues have been removed following protests over George Floyd’s death, Fox News writes Vandals target historic monuments amid George Floyd protests. Yet, what we need to understand is why statues of slavery-linked historical figures were erected in the first place. Indeed, this has much more to do with the way we understand history, the way we teach it and we learn it.

We do not need to worry about the removal of controversial statues (maybe they would be much more useful in a museum with notes explaining what disgraceful deeds these figures accomplished, including the good ones, if any. Or maybe not, museums are not storerooms.). It is much more concerning to see that an outdated, inadequate, partial view of history is still alive within certain circles and in part of public opinion. This tendency comes from afar, from 19th century Romanticism. In that period, history-writing was heavily influenced and Romantic nationalism had a largely negative effect on it. Each nation tended to produce its own version of history, based on myths such as racial coherence and continuity as well as the antiquity and purity of peoples. History was seen as the spirit itself of the nation. Moreover, in England, Thomas Carlyle lavished uncritical praise on strong leaders who were depicted as flawless heroes. This last element is still very influential in our times.

It is extremely important to consider this when dealing with figures (and statues of figures) like Winston Churchill. The example I am making is not random. The famous statue of the former PM towering on Parliament Square has been defaced by anti-racist demonstrators. Then, far-right protesters claimed they were in the city to protect monuments and clashed with the police. The “heroification” of historical figures is the real danger in this case. Churchill was a flesh-and-bone man who made good and bad decisions. Had he not stood up to Hitler’s war in Europe, many of us today would be living in a different world. However, no one can deny that he contributed to many atrocities like the famine in the Bengal province of British India. Moreover, he “exhibited a romanticised view of the British Empire” (Jenkins 2001: 22) and he adhered to a form of imperialism that posited racial superiority according to which “by conquering and dominating other peoples, the British were also elevating and protecting them” (Addison 1980: 32).

Similar considerations apply to all figures in history, from Pericles to Ronald Reagan. In this respect, I would like to remind the reader of the Roman biographer Suetonius who in his Lives of the Caesars included both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ deeds for each emperor. I do not want to go into details about this, but the structure of his biographies highlights that the world, and indeed history, is not divided into goodies and baddies. Suetonius acknowledged that some of Nero’s acts deserved ‘no criticism, some even (being) praiseworthy,’ before listing all the wicked deeds that the notorious emperor accomplished (whether or not the anecdotes are true or even likely, they tell us a lot about Roman culture and the sensibility of the Roman upper-classes). No man is just good or just bad. Individuals are complex and we cannot draw a line, exclude those we do not like, and make heroes out of those we like.

All those who take history seriously know that ‘Romantic’ trends can be dangerous inasmuch as they produce a distorted historical narrative that lends itself to the worst propagandistic intents. For instance, fascist propaganda in Italy tried to place the totalitarian regime and its imperialistic ambitions in continuity with the Roman Empire which centuries before had ruled over the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, myths such as racial coherence are evoked still today and not just in Italy. There are people who cannot accept the complexity of ethnic diversity around the Roman territories. Think about the criticism that the BBC cartoon about life in Roman Britain received for including a high-ranking black soldier in a typically ‘Romano-British’ family. Cambridge classicist and TV presenter Mary Beard pointed out that the cartoon was ‘indeed pretty accurate’ and suffered a disgusting barrage of abuse on social media.

To those who fear that tearing down a few statues of controversial figures during the anti-racist demonstrations represents a threat to our historical heritage, I say that they need not worry. The preservation of historical memory can only benefit from an objective reanalysis of certain events and figures. This is the only way to recover nuances and details that have been lost and increase our general knowledge of history.

Addison, Paul (1980). “The Political Beliefs of Winston Churchill”. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 30: 23–47.

Jenkins, Roy (2001). Churchill. London: Macmillan Press

See also Mary Beard’s TLS blog post “Statue Wars

The Real Killer

Climate change was the most debated topic in 2019. It was amazing to see how so many people were being made aware of this issue of paramount importance in such a short time span. Especially among the younger generations, protests for climate justice had become a mass phenomenon. #FridaysForFuture put together more than 13,000,000 people from 7,500 cities in all continents. One could really feel that something, finally, was going to happen – politics could not ignore so many people, if not for ethical reasons, at least for the sake of consensus at the next elections. No doubt, these were the first steps towards a greener planet.

Then came the Coronavirus.

Among the many negative aspects that the current situation brought about, there was a positive aspect, perhaps the only one. I was delighted to see the effects that lockdown measures taken by governments worldwide had on the quality of our air and waters. It did look as though the planet had finally rebelled against our poisonous behaviour, our destructive presence. I have gathered some examples.

The image below shows Nitrogen Dioxide density change in China due to Coronavirus.

File:Nitrogen dioxide Density Change In China Due To Coronavirus.png
Credits: Wikimedia Commons

In Venice, canals run clear and even dolphins appear in the waterways!

Venice canals run clear, dolphins appear in Italy's waterways amid ...
Credits: Classic FM

How beautiful! And it took so little to actually free the natural world from the harmful effects of our toxic emissions. We just needed to stay at home for a while to start saving our planet. Of course, it is fundamental to resume our social and economic lives – people need their jobs and their ‘normality.’ However, we cannot ignore the lesson that our planet is teaching us in such a drastic way. We cannot neglect this aspect of the Covid-19 pandemic for the sake of money. It is time to develop a new model of economic growth that seriously considers the effects that our activities have on our planet. It’s now or never.

A study published by the University of Helsinki in April 2009 predicted how many people would die annually in Europe from damages caused by air pollution in 2020. The introduction states: “The first building block of this research is the pioneer work performed by the Clean Air for Europe (CAFE) and WHO. These works provide estimates for emissions of several air pollutants and the related premature deaths in Europe, showing that there is some 350 000 such deaths annually” (Lehmijoki & Rovenskaya 2009). The figure is frightening: 350,000 people may die prematurely because of toxic emissions. Similar estimates are provided by other reliable sources. According to the EU environment agency, Air pollution causes more than 400,000 annual premature deaths in the 27-member European Union and the UK.

So far, the Coronavirus has killed fewer people worldwide (265,356 on May 7th). Do you want to know how many people die prematurely every year around the world? Well, a research carried out by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry estimates that 8.8 million people die annually because of air pollution. The article, published on March 3rd 2020, states that “around 5.5 million a year are avoidable, and the majority of polluted air comes from the use of fossil fuels.” In comparison, tobacco, alcohol, and other diseases are less harmful. According to this research, 7.2m premature deaths are caused by tobacco, 1m by HIV/AIDS, 600,000 by malaria. We live in a world where on average smoking a cigarette is less dangerous than going for a walk in an urban centre.

And what are governments doing in this historic moment? Nothing at all. I haven’t heard of any substantial change that is going to be implemented in the light of this. Please correct me if I am wrong. We have a chance to help the world heal, just like the last weeks have shown us, and we are wasting it. As lockdown measures are being eased in some countries, not only are we back on track to pollute the world, but we risk inflicting even more damage. We are invited to wear face masks and plastic gloves to protect ourselves and others. Look at what happens after using such devices:

Discarded coronavirus masks clutter Hong Kong's beaches, trails ...
Credit: Reuters

The masks are made of polypropylene, a type of plastic, and are not going to break down quickly. This is what Gary Stokes, founder of the environmental group Oceans Asia, said to Reuters. The masks were found on Hong Kong’s beaches. According to the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy needs around 1 billion face masks every month. This estimate is applicable to any other European country of comparable size, including the UK, Germany, and France. Face masks cannot be reused or recycled. How are we going to limit the impact of the disposal of such materials? Someone may reply that we can’t worry about this as these devices will help us fight the virus and are indispensable at the moment. The reality is that we can’t make exceptions. We are given a chance to solve problems linked to pollution, emissions, and plastic waste and we can’t just respond with more waste, more emissions, and more pollution. We have given up our freedom in order to stop the spread of the virus, why can’t we give anything up to save our planet and our own lives? The real health crisis we face today is not caused by the Coronavirus, but by the environmental damages we ourselves caused.

It’s the end of the world (as we know it)

There is a tune for everything in life. Literally. Anything you can think about, you can find a song that plays along really well. Half of the world is quarantined due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Myself included. The radio, of course, knows it and plays the the most appropriate song it can find: R.E.M.’s It’s the end of the world. But is it really the end of the world as we know it? Just like, last Christmas, Losing my religion prompted my reflection on atheism, this time I have had plenty of time to think about the situation we are in.

This time, however, I want to focus on one aspect in particular. As most countries are planning on easing some of the restrictions imposed in the last weeks, people are going to adapt to a new reality. Some people, possibly most of us, are disappointed about the situation. At the beginning of this emergency, we were asked to stay at home ‘for some weeks,’ ‘to flatten the curve,’ to avoid overloading hospitals. It seemed as if it was going to be just a brief interruption before resuming our normal lives. Governments claim they have been following scientific advice all along. But who has illuded us – politics or science?

I can’t quite work out how we got to this point. It is evident, nevertheless, that the omnipotent modern, technological world has been forced to slow down because of an invisible submicroscopic infectious agent, i.e. a virus. Perhaps, after all, we weren’t quite omnipotent yet. This is certainly a good lesson we should learn and it would help us re-think human relationship with nature and with our planet. If I were a Christian, I would thank God for including this in his supreme Design, for giving us the time to save Earth and save ourselves. As I said, however, I am not going to talk about religion but science, not philosophy but politics.

Politics is carrying the heaviest burden in this historical moment. Politicians have to make decisions – no one else, in fact – and be held accountable for these. Every time a politician says that their political moves in this context are based upon scientific advice, we must be very careful. Is science to blame if things go wrong? Is science responsible for political decisions? I believe that we are running the risk of undermining the work of scientists and offering an easy solution to politicians who have taken controversial resolutions. Remember when scientists said that we needed the herd immunity to put an end to this crisis. Well, that is still true whether we reach it through a vaccination campaign or because 66% of us get ill and hopefully recover. The lockdown measures were meant to limit the damages caused by the first epidemic wave – we hope it is also the last – not to defeat coronavirus once and for all. The illusion that this would be over in some weeks was not created by science, but by politics.

I am not a scientist and I do not claim any expertise. My perspective is that of a regular citizen who, inevitably, wonders about the future. Recently, I have heard many opinions about scientists and science, and about scientists in power. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been praised for her scientific background – most of us have seen the video of the press conference in which she explains the scientific problem with overconfidence in lifting the lockdown. Someone would say we need more scientists in the governments. However, this blend of science and politics is not working particularly well, for specialists and for citizens.

“As a scientist, I hope I never again hear the phrase ‘based on the best science and evidence’ spoken by a politician,” Prof Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian. “This phrase has become basically meaningless and used to explain anything and everything.” I add that this phrase risks becoming dangerous for politics, for science, and for culture in general. At the moment we are justifying restrictions on our personal freedom on the basis of scientific claims. I am in no way trying to say that this is wrong or shouldn’t be so. Lockdown is really proving effective in most countries. Nevertheless, politicians are using science to motivate their (legitimate, in this case) decision. But the regular citizen cannot avoid thinking that this may happen again in the future. What are politicians going to implement ‘based on the best science and evidence’? Moreover, science is always developing and evidence can be contrastive and not conclusive. This is absolutely normal! Science is not dogmatic.

For this reason, political decisions should rely not just on scientific advice (which may change and develop), but on many other factors, which involve social, financial, and cultural reasons (which may change and develop, but no one expects them to be set in stone). This is why the claim that we need more scientists in politics is not necessarily true. A good politician – whatever their studies – has to be responsible for their decisions, considering all the factors involved equally, with an open mind and an eye towards the future. Moreover, I hope that the current situation will not be another opportunity to undermine non-scientific studies and fields, claiming that more scientists around will save the world from future pandemics!

As far as I am concerned, I happened to study the Antonine Plague whilst the coronavirus was spreading around the globe. The Antonine Plague was an epidemic event that happened between 165 and 180 AD during the reign of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. I do not want to get into details – the extent of the Antonine Plague is debated, some scholars argue that it killed one third of the population of the Roman Empire (total 60 million), some scholars instead argue for a less destructive impact. What struck me is that the Plague went on for about 15 years and came in waves. Since the beginning, I have had the feeling that the situation we are living will not end soon and will perhaps hit more than once. I am not trying to say that I saw what other people could not see. I am trying to make the point that all knowledge (both scientific and non-scientific) can be helpful in assessing a given situation without creating dangerous illusions.

The example I have made makes us think about the distorted idea that we have of science. Somehow, most people were brought to think that science could offer immediate and quick solutions to most problems. Science will indeed offer a solution to this crisis, a vaccine. And we are lucky, because the Romans could not hope for a vaccine. But this may require time. Perhaps we are still astounded by the quick development of personal technology in the last decade. Every year we get several new models of smartphones, computers, TVs, videogames, and new versions of apps with improved features. It seems as though every bug can be fixed in a few hours. If the old version doesn’t work, there is a new one available. However, technology and science are not necessarily the same thing – or even better – commercialised technology is not science.

Politics is also trying to implement the use of technology in our fight against coronavirus. Some countries are designing apps to trace people’s movements and contacts to help contain the spread of the virus. Obvious concerns regard our privacy and the vast amount of data gathered through this means. Are they going to justify it on the basis of scientific advice? Is this enough for us not to request reassurances about these technological implementations? We do not want political elections to be manipulated through the obscure usage of data made available to the highest bidder.

What is the role of science and what is the role of politics then? The role of science is to keep doing research to find a vaccine, trying to avoid politics and business as much as possible. Scientists who argue on TV risk causing damage to their own work, just like politicians who do not want to be held accountable for their decisions in this historical moment. Scientific dissemination cannot be limited to social media and TV interviews. It is a difficult job and needs to be done carefully to avoid creating illusions. Indeed, these illusions help politicians create further illusions to cover up their responsibility. A sound democratic system cannot allow this. Has science failed us? Not at all. Has the illusion we had of science and scientific research broken apart? Yes, and for the better.

Where no one has gone before

I’ve always been a fan of the Star Trek franchise. I’ve watched with equal interest all the series since the earliest episodes featuring Captain Kirk wandering about the Galaxy and seducing alien ladies from unknown planets. Apart from J.J. Abrams’ three movies, we had to wait nearly 15 years from Star Trek Enterprise to see a new starship with a brand new crew bouncing (yeah, literally, given the spore drive) from planet to planet. And finally, 2020 has brought the legend back onto the screen: Star Trek Picard features Sir Patrick Stewart again in the role of the best Starfleet Captain ever (sorry Jim!).

I am not writing a review, we are only half-way through season one and I guess we have to wait till the end before judging the show. I will try to avoid spoilers though. Like Discovery, the style of the show is up to date. No more stand-alone episodes within a wider narrative arc. When last summer I found out that they were producing a new series with Jean-Luc Picard, I started binge-watching The Next Generation (once) again to be prepared. I must say that the contrast is striking but it is a testament to the passage of time and to the changing of our sensibility. Star Trek was revolutionary when it appeared for the first time in the 1960s. During the Cold War, the show featured a superbly diverse crew with a Russian pilot and a black woman in a senior position. It was not just about the warp speed, it was about us humans cooperating as equals in a world that had managed to put an end to all wars.

The optimistic spirit of Star Trek fitted the time. Next Gen was definitely more mature in its tones, just like its Captain. The key is the character of Data and his strive to become ‘more human.’ Humans are imagined to travel light-years away from Earth to find nothing else but themselves. You need to see something really alien in order to grasp the essence of your own nature. Whenever that nature risks being compromised, there is always someone who reminds you to remain true to your values. The image we have of all Starfleet Captains, and especially of Jean-Luc Picard, represents the embodiment of those values (and that’s why Discovery‘s Lorca is a bitter pill). The Captain of the flagship is the best that the Federation can offer. The best that humankind can offer. In the new series, Discovery and now Picard, we’re shown also the worst: rogue officers, corrupt departments, dangerous technology, secret death squads, clandestine operations.

Negative reviews – at least those I’ve read – lament that the original spirit of Star Trek has been lost in these new series. Some have noticed that even the lighting has changed: dark tones have replaced the bright colours of TOS and Next Gen. I don’t think this is random and – alas! – it matches the way we imagine our future. If fifty years ago the future appeared rosy and bright, now we are somehow disillusioned and this is reflected in the way we conceive science-fiction. Picard is disillusioned and disappointed. He has left Starfleet because it no longer represents the values he believes in. How many among us are disappointed in politics and its ability to tackle relevant issues? How many among us are ‘withdrawing’?

To be fair, the main quality of Star Trek was its being hopeful but not naif. Surely, I can empathise with those who believe that the new series have lost that very quality that made Star Trek so unique among science-fiction films and books. At the same time, however, it hasn’t lost its main purpose: exploration. Truth be told, we don’t see many strange new worlds, but we see many odd new aspects of the universe. This shift in tone and topic is beautifully encapsulated in Picard’s words ‘dreams are lovely, it’s the waking up I’m beginning to resent.’ This is what the new series is trying to tell us. But Picard, despite a fifteen-year-long pause, does not give up and faces reality as it is, imperfect. For if we want to find hope again and dream about a bright future, then we must hold on to our values and fight for them. One last time.

Slow down, you crazy child

Productivity seems to be all that matters. One could say that our times require us to be active and productive 24/7/365. In fact, it’s an old story. Already in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson argued that tropical climates encouraged laziness and relaxed attitudes, whereas the frequent variability in the weather of the middle and northern latitudes led to stronger work ethics. Environmental determinism was used to justify colonialism, racism, and even slavery. The ‘productive’ part of the world felt entitled to subdue, own, and exploit the ‘lazy’ part of the world.

This post is not about colonialism though. This post is about what ‘being productive’ means. We hear and repeat this phrase like a mantra and we evaluate our days according to how productive we have been. ‘Did I manage to get anything done?’, we often wonder. ‘I haven’t done enough!’, we often complain. The issue seems to be linked to the definition itself. Most of the time we define concepts in contrast to their opposite: what does full mean? It means not empty, and so on with other words. However, is it correct to say that ‘being productive’ means not being lazy? I don’t believe so. Moreover, although a lazy attitude to life may be detrimental, some lazy moments can help us regenerate.

Nevertheless, the quality of our productivity must be assessed against different parameters. I usually like to quote books, studies, and articles written by people who have researched the topic I’m dealing with. In this case, I don’t have any interesting suggestion to share. Not that they don’t exist, I simply haven’t found anything particularly meaningful. So I’ll try to derive a conclusion from a series of personal considerations. In order to come up with a new definition, first we need to identify the area to which the term is applicable. If we apply it to life as a whole, or worse, to ourselves as individuals, we risk making a huge mistake. Life and people can’t be evaluated like a machine or a factory. And, most importantly, one must not rate people in a productivity scale in which the least productive is the most worthless.

It seems healthier to circumscribe the idea of being productive to a more restricted portion of our life (I’ll come back to this in a moment). Second, we need to choose whether productive ought to have a quantitative or qualitative meaning. I often happen to hear that people encourage others to look at the qualitative aspect of their work: ‘how much did I enjoy it?’ rather than ‘how much did I get done?.’ However, I feel like we need to quantify our work, if not for practical reasons, at least to get a sense of how much we have progressed. Again, though, quantity should not be a cause of stress. The portion of our life that needs productivity should be as ‘small’ as possible. A single goal rather than a life-long project, like one’s career, might work better. I firmly believe that we have a much steadier grip on single things, rather than on life as a whole. The future is too unpredictable.

What I am trying to say is that the bigger picture will eventually work out. In this way, we increase our chances of success and minimise our risks of failure. From this perspective, productivity is better explained as the ability to give the right weight to things. Both to our moments of work and to our moments of recreation. For a moment, a day, even a whole week of non-work can be very productive. Apart from that goal that we aim to achieve, the rest of our life is awaiting out there. I am not going to list all the activities that one can enjoy, from reading to doing exercise, to buying healthy food or talking to a friend. In order to be productive, we must acknowledge that we need some time away from work and, most importantly, we must understand that time away from work does not mean being lazy.

Quite frankly, it is not just a personal matter. A healthy balance between work and the rest of life is as much a political and cultural issue as an individual challenge. Microsoft Japan ran an experiment last August: a four-day workweek, in which people were paid the same but enjoyed an extra day-off. The experiment was more than successful: the four-day workweek resulted in more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by a staggering 40%. Paradoxically, being productive 24/7 is unproductive.

Festive Atheism

Have you ever wondered what R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion sounds like on Christmas Day? It sounds great as always, at least to my ears. The song doesn’t really talk about religion though. “Losing my religion” is actually an old southern US expression for being at the end of one’s rope, and the moment when politeness gives way to anger. However, on Christmas Day it assumed the other meaning to me and prompted the following reflection. It’s just that kind of thought that caresses your mind for a moment and then it’s gone. Or at least it could have been so, but I have decided that it would have been a waste to let it go.

Christmas, after all, is still a religious thing, isn’t it? There must be something, apart from the consumerist delirium that leads us to join the race to the coolest present. To be fair, although I’m usually sceptical about these things, I must say that joining the consumerist race for a couple of weeks at the end of the year is not too harmful after all. I can allow some sort of ‘suspension of disbelief’ and embrace the irrational need to buy presents and absurd amounts of food. Yes, irrational, just like religions.

As a humanist, it makes perfect sense to me to have some public holidays during Christmas seasons. Historically, Europe has been celebrating something in the latter half of December. The Romans had a public festival on December 17th in honour of the god Saturn, which included a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving. Later on, this festival was simply replaced by Christmas. And the gift-giving practice was invented before consumerism (so yeah, it is actually okay to spend some money on presents). It is just a historical rationale for this long-standing tradition, for those who, like me, are not interested in its religious dimension. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Christmas is so successful, whether you believe or not.

For the number of people who identify as non-religious is ever increasing, especially among the young generations. People who manage to conceive a godless world, and not just a godless Christmas. According to a recent survey, ‘only’ 59% of the world’s population is religious.* That of atheists is not a lone club. Between 2005 and 2012 the number of non-religious people has been increasing in 25 out of the 38 countries surveyed. Also, the largest fluctuations are detected in the most developed countries, which offer universal healthcare and a high degree of social security. There are only three exceptions among such countries: the Netherlands, Finland, and Italy, where the amount of religious people has been growing in the same time period.

This data is carefully analysed in an article published on New Scientist by Graham Lawton, who writes that ‘one of the main motivations for abandoning god is that people increasingly don’t need the comfort that belief in god brings. Religion thrives on existential angst.’ The most interesting point that Lawton makes concerns the forms of atheism. Traditionally, atheism has been seen as the rational rejection of irrational religious beliefs. This may still be true among educated people, who have the opportunity to think about this kind of issues and decide accordingly. However, they are just a minority. Data reveals that a striking 71% of non-religious people in the US are ‘apatheists’.* They simply don’t think, or perhaps don’t even care about religion.

Although some ‘apatheists’ may genuinely not be attracted by religious belief, it doesn’t mean that they don’t develop any form of irrational belief. This trend may be at the basis of the popularity of irrational, and possibly harmful things like astrology, absurd stories about alien life, conspiracy theories, and pseudo-medicine (e.g., anti-vaccination activists). The problem may be that secularisation left quite a large gap. Rationalists and humanists certainly fill that gap with deep philosophical thinking. But it requires effort and, again, some degree of education. In the second century AD, a Latin grammarian, Aulus Gellius defined the concept of humanitas as ‘education and training in the liberal arts.’ It is especially true today, in rich countries, as the power of religion over the masses is not as powerful as it was. Far from being a banal claim, education is the real antidote to harmful beliefs.

Religion used to create a sense of community and led people to conceive themselves as part of a greater design. To some extent, it did so in a very positive way: it provided strength that people could rely upon during hard times. Religion may be on its way out, at least for now, but concepts like community and aim are still there. Positive energies can be driven in order to fill the ‘void’ opened by the wave of secularisation. I think that the great environmentalist movement in defence of our planet that boomed this year, 2019, offered an opportunity to build a sense of community among humans from all over the world. We are in this together and our aim is to avoid catastrophe. Unsurprisingly, the climate crisis in one of the most recurrent themes addressed by Pope Francis, perhaps the most influential religious leader, even among the atheists.

Nevertheless, religion could similarly act in a very negative way if, for instance, the sense of community was reinforced at the expense of outsiders. Religious persecutions are no news. The major worry is that a group, say, an entire nation that struggles to find a sense of community may resort to political leaders who seek to strengthen their position by spreading xenophobic thinking. It is simply appalling that elections have been won on the promise to build walls and deport immigrants. Again, it is not surprising that these very leaders claim to be religious people, and that their political agenda wants to defend the community against ‘foreign threats.’

Another Christmas is gone, but its ‘religious’ value has not abandoned us, believers and non-believers. And it urges us to conceive ourselves as part of something bigger and to build a healthy idea of community that leaves no one behind.

*Win-Gallup International Global Index of Religion and Atheism, 2012

*Label made up by psychologist Ara Norenzayan, University of British Columbia, Canada.

Long-lasting Achievements

It may just be an illusion, but today’s present is more precarious than ever. I say this could be an illusion since, after all, when has the present not been precarious? However, despite its frailty, the present is all we have: the past is gone and the future doesn’t exist. For this very reason, I firmly believe that aiming to live the present as if it were the most important moment in history does not constitute pure rhetoric. There is some philosophical if not even scientific grounding behind my claim. We have no power over the past, we can only influence the future, but we can certainly take action in the present.

We can take two approaches. We can be stuck in the present, or we can use it to make our future-present less precarious. Our societies are now facing some of the greatest challenges ever. Consider climate change; most if not all contemporary socio-political issues are linked to it, to different extents. I do not believe, even for a second, that this is too great a challenge for humankind to overcome. The tension between self-destruction and survival instinct is the engine of human history. Yet, eventually, people manage to work out some balance, however precarious and temporary.

But how do we find a balance? We must think imaginatively. Politicians, nowadays, seem to be always talking about deadlines: next week, next month, next year. And what about the next 20, 50, 100 years? It has become hard to conceive politics in the short term, let alone in the long term. This is especially true for the so-called Generation Z* who, according to The Economist, are more educated and poorer than their elder ones. This represents the fundamental problem. We live in a system where education does not guarantee a solid future. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that young people have no trust in the political class. Some give up on politics. Some, luckily, are able to explore creative solutions, despite the opposition of the older generations.

In an interview released to Truthout in October 2014, American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky said ‘If we succumb to despair we will help ensure that the worst will happen. And if we grasp the hopes that exist and work to make the best use of them, there might be a better world. Not much of a choice.’ This attitude should apply to all stages of life. But young people must go further than that. Not only should we grasp the hopes that already exist, but we should also create new sources of hope. We approach the world in the same way as we buy a new smartphone, to use it until the next model comes out. The future has no planned obsolescence, unless we cause it.

When politics fails to provide space for new energies and new ideas, I resort to other fields. No wonder then if I believe that the best political manifestos about the future were written 2,000 years ago. The lines below were written by Ovid and Horace, two Latin poets, under Augustus, the first ‘Emperor’ of Rome. Augustus collected the shreds of the old republican system torn apart by decades of civil strife and radically transformed Roman politics and society. It was the dawn of a new regime.

I’ve raised a monument, more durable than bronze,
one higher than the Pyramids’ royal towers,
that no devouring rain, or fierce northerly gale,
has power to destroy: nor the immeasurable
succession of years, and the swift passage of time.

Horace, Odes 30.1-5

And now the work is done, that Jupiter’s anger, fire
or sword cannot erase, nor the gnawing tooth of time.

Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.871-2

Both Ovid and Horace are talking about their poetic endeavour, their own creation, their own soul. They conceived their poetry as eternal, something that would survive the fall of empires and entire civilisations. Yet, it was and it is just poetry. We cannot succeed if we do not approach the challenges ahead of us with the same spirit. Solutions cannot be temporary. It’s no meaningless speculation. The use we make of our present is not just a delightful topic for philosophical or literary disquisition. It is about human nature; it is about survival. From politics to poetry, from economy to science: what we do today can change tomorrow. Take action. Now.

* BBC describes the cohort as anyone born after about 1995. Business Insider defines Generation Z as those born between 1996 and 2010, as does Forbes who also uses 1996–2010.

[On The Think Of has been selected as one of the Top 100 UK Blogs according to Feedspot. Quite an achievement for a newly-created blog!]

‘A Prime Example of Orchestrated Stupidity’*

Most people do not have time to scrutinise society. To many, in fact, this may seem like a luxury that only a few people can afford. To many others, this may even seem like a useless activity. However, it’s something that we must do, if we want to be good citizens. This is more or less the assumption on which the world-famous economist and former Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis bases his ‘Talking to My Daughter: a Brief History of Capitalism.’ Varoufakis writes this in the epilogue of his book, in the hope that his daughter Xenia will have found his ‘lesson’ enjoyable and useful.

The book was first published in Greece in 2013; its English version was published only in 2017. It’s not hot off the press, but still terribly relevant. Varoufakis’ book offers a fascinating perspective on the world we live in. It deals with all the most important aspects and issues of contemporary society, which are basically linked to our economic system. Unsurprisingly. Since even our values somehow stem from the view of the world imposed on us by Capitalism.

I usually refrain from talking and writing about something I have little knowledge about. I only have a partial grasp of economics as a subject, let alone of all the mathematical models behind it. Yet, the economy is part of the world I live in and, as Varoufakis writes to his daughter, we can’t leave such an important aspect of our lives to the economists, the ‘priests’ of the market religion. In this post, however, I’m not going to write a book review; many competent people have already done that. I am going to tell you about my experience with this book. For every reader knows that each of us is the protagonist of their own story within the book they read.

Varoufakis starts from afar, going back in time to when agricultural societies developed in Mesopotamia. At some point, he discusses the role religion played in these societies. Religion legitimised the ruler who was in charge of the economic system, the supreme authority that guaranteed that money had value, that the debtors would pay the creditors and so on. Page 18. I ask myself ‘Does Democracy play the same role today?’. I mean politicians make decisions in regard to the economy. They are elected, so that’s why they are legitimised, aren’t they?

The answer to my question comes on page 192. But first, there are two things I have found in between and that I want to share with you. What I enjoy the most about Varoufakis’ book is that alongside the history of capitalism by Varoufakis-economist, you find the future of capitalism by Varoufakis-politician. I must say, I found his ideas brilliant, especially in regard to technology and to the environment. If he is right on what is going to happen if we believe in the future that the giant technology corporations insist they are bringing about, then we might end up in something like Altered Carbon. In that universe, only the wealthiest people benefit from the technology that makes them virtually immortal. The problem lies deep into the system that governs market societies such as ours. That dystopian future might become reality ‘if our society remains organized as it currently is, with a tiny minority owning the right to receive the profits generated by machines.’

A possible way out, Varoufakis maintains, is shared ownership. The idea itself will certainly cause some people a heart attack. Can you even imagine Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos (just to mention some) share a tiny proportion of the profits of their inventions with their employees? These people exert incredible influence on Governments. They manage to get away with paying low taxes, if any, which are used to build the very roads and railways that Amazon needs to deliver its products. Yet, Varoufakis identifies a possible solution.

This solution comes with the answer to the question I asked myself on page 18. This is extremely relevant, especially in regard to the climate crisis and the younger generations. Varoufakis wrote his book addressing his 15-year-old daughter before another 16-year-old girl from Sweden began her fight for our future. He argues that politics, nowadays and in the near future, will be characterised by the following opposition: ‘Democratize everything!’ vs ‘Commodify everything!’.

The economy benefits from our biosphere’s suffering. […] In economic terms, no matter how many trees burn, no matter how scorched the landscape gets. no matter how many animals meet a terrible fate in the flames, no exchange value is lost.

Talking to My Daughter, Yanis Varoufakis

If Governments are too much influenced by an almighty oligarchy, there is no way to escape the commodification of everything, of the air we breathe, of the sky we see, of the sea we swim in. Only the true democratization of economic processes can spare us from the madness of market societies. The answer to my question comes on page 192: the economists are the priests in charge of providing the system with the authority it needs. Democracy, unfortunately, is not the ‘religion’ that guarantees the workings of the system. We are brought to believe that we can influence the market, on the basis of the ‘law’ of supply and demand. However, in the democratic process, each vote has the same value and each of us has only one vote. Conversely, in the market, if you have more money it means you can ‘vote’ more, and if you ‘vote’ more, it means that your voice is louder.

That isn’t really democratic, is it? It seems almost paradoxical that capitalist societies are also democratic societies. I guess this is the greatest contradiction of our time.

*chapter 6 Haunted Machines

The Social Trap

A few days ago I’ve come across a captivating title: “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” by Jaron Lanier. I immediately got myself a copy. I’ve never used to spend a lot of time on social media, and I’ve always been sceptical about these platforms. I don’t have Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, and I use Facebook just to remind myself of birthdays, at least the few ones I care about. Maybe I am underestimating the potentialities of social media. Maybe I just don’t understand it.

Going back to the book, if the author were ever to read this article, he would be astonished to see that I’ve found his book quite comforting. Don’t get me wrong, the picture he describes is appalling. The implications that he highlights are terrifying. However, I’ve always believed that the problem was with the part of me that rejects consumer tech in all its forms. Hearing that social media is evil from one of the most celebrated pioneers of digital innovation made me feel much better.

Lanier argues that social media is making us sadder, angrier, less empathetic, more fearful, more isolated and more tribal. Someone may say “yeah, but social media has a positive side.” I don’t deny it. It’s the negative side that worries me, and that makes any positive sides simply not worth it. Lanier explains that the negative aspect of social media is the business plan behind it. He calls it BUMMER, an acronym for “Behaviours of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent.” More easily, this means that they make you do what they want and they sell your data to the highest bidder. In exchange, you get a free service.

I’m not going to describe how they’re doing this. Read Lanier’s book, if you really want to know. Most people are not aware of how much they are influenced by social media, and how much data they’re offering to Facebook, Google & Co. The only way out, according to Lanier, is to delete your accounts, until their providers get rid of that business plan. I haven’t done it. Yet. The author allows some exceptions though. LinkedIn, he writes, isn’t that bad because it doesn’t create an alternative – fictitious – reality. Also, if you use LinkedIn, you must have noticed that everything is sober and people are a lot nicer. The reason is that people want to give a good image of themselves, to attract potential job offers, for example.

I can’t object to any of the 10 Arguments. This book has been criticised for its rushed pace and lack of examples, but not for the validity of its argument (see here). To be sure, it is not the kind of essay that you would expect. However, do we really need examples? Aren’t Brexit, Trump’s election, Cambridge Analytica, Boris Johnson’s bots already well-known examples? The rushed pace made me ponder about the urgency of the message. It represents the desperate attempt of one of the creators of social media to save his creation when it’s not too late.

The BUMMER business is interwoven with a new religion that grants empathy to computer programs – calling them AI programs – as a way to avoid noticing that it is degrading the dignity, stature, and rights of real humans. […] The BUMMER experience is that you are just one lowly cell in the great superorganism of the BUMMER platform.

Jaron Lanier, “Ten Reasons For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”

Besides issues linked to politics, economics, philosophy, what really puzzles me is why is it so difficult to say no to this perverse mechanism? Why are we so addicted to it? People quit smoking but don’t delete their social media accounts. Unlike many of my peers, I’ve never experienced the emotion of making an Instagram story, I’ve never used a dating app. And yet I survive. We can do without much of the technology in our life. We don’t freak out if there’s no TV available, if we don’t own a car, or if the washing machine is broken. We may be annoyed, but we adapt. Why, instead, can we not live without social media? (Yes, when you forget your smartphone at home, it means you don’t have access to social media. You freak out and you know that it’s because of that).

Sorry to disappoint you, dear reader, but I don’t have an answer to that. Lanier would say that our behaviours were modified. I add that we must find a solution ourselves, because politics, let alone Facebook, Google & Co., surely don’t intend to find one at the moment. One of my favourite writers ever once wrote to a friend “I can’t say that I waste nothing, but I can say what I waste, why, and how.” For now, this is all I can do.