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Opening of the Fifth Seal” by El Greco.

Pretty much every civilization had some sort of creation myth. For the Ancient Greeks, Hesiod was the one who codified these primordial legends into a fixed narrative poem, called Theogony: it was Chaos that gave birth to the gods and the world itself. For the Vikings it was the corpse of the giant Ymir. For the Chinese, it was a more philosophical concept, which initially did not even involve deities at all.

It follows that most civilizations, and the religions which sprung from them or were adopted by them, have their respective eschatological myths. Ragnarök, Apocalypsis, the Last Day, whatever the name and the specifics, most religions have put an expiration date on humankind. Sometimes, a new cycle will begin, the meek or pious will inherit the Earth. In other cases, the aftermath is more vague.

Regardless, most people throughout history believed that their world would end sometime. Some of them had even come to believe that it would happen in their lifetime. Evidently, the doomsday prophets have so far been proven wrong. However this time it’s science, not religion, which places an expiration date on the world as we know it.

For the first time in human history, the signs of the end times are actually scientifically verifiable. And it’s not some vague prophecy that will come true at an unspecified time in the future. We now have a timetable.

Of course, there were always scientific scenarios for the end of the world. Supervolcanoes, massive solar flares, giant meteorites, geomagnetic reversal, you name it. These phenomena are all distinct possibilities. Most of them could cause from widespread disruption to an actual mass extinction event, ending most life on the planet. We even know with absolute certainty that at some point our Sun will turn into a red giant and either swallow Earth or burn it to a crisp. But that’s some five billion years in the future. By then, we might be long gone. Again, according to science, mammals have an average life expectancy of about 1.000.000 years, although some species have persisted for ten times as long. Unsurprisingly, the last four centuries have been much more lethal for mammalian (among other) species than the average. We are not only mostly responsible for that, but we could also be next in line.

You see, mass extinction events are not stories that some prophet penned, centuries ago, claiming to have divine inspiration. These are actual events which are recorded in the fossil record, and so far there have been five of them. All but the last one were caused to some extent by natural climate change. And all of these events not only predated us, but lasted more than our entire existence on the planet. Being natural phenomena, their timescale was measured in the millions of years. So, we know how the mechanism works. What we didn’t know until about half a century ago was just how fragile the climate balance is and how our rampant growth was already disrupting it. And now the consequences of this disruption have become more than just a set of predictions. They can be seen with the naked eye.

For many, the pandemic seems like a dress rehearsal for the Apocalypse. Not because the virus is so lethal that it could kill all humans. We have survived far worse than SARS-CoV-2. But this crisis has proven that our lifestyle and the supply chain which supports it, are much more fragile than we ever realized. Make no mistake, though: this kind of shock was not experienced for the first time by humans.

Many civilizations at the height of their power have suddenly vanished. We used to call these downfalls, such as the Bronze Age collapse, great mysteries. Then, closer studies of the Mayan empire decline, the Khmer empire collapse, and others pointed to climate change, overpopulation, resource depletion, social unrest, and warfare, being a common end result of all the previous factors, as the main culprits. In most cases, these civilizations were thriving just before their catastrophic downfalls. A sudden climatic shift, coupled with overpopulation seemed to have been, more often than not, the key factors which started a domino effect. In very simple terms, we could boil this down to “too many people, not enough food”.

Does this sound familiar? Perhaps the best analogy to our current situation would be the Bronze Age collapse, since this saw the almost simultaneous decline of several, perhaps as many as eight, different civilizations which were closely connected due to trade. It was perhaps a singular time in ancient history where so many different empires and city-states coexisted in relative peace and the short distances between them allowed them to develop a close interdependence. It’s the closest equivalent one could find to our modern globalized world.

How many countries can claim to be self-sufficient today? What would happen if a climate shift was not limited to a specific geographical region, even a wide one such as the Eastern Mediterranean, but it spanned the entire globe? What if we dealt with a climate crisis, featuring the most violent phenomena experienced by humans ever, happening at regular intervals? What we now call “100-year” or even “1000-year” floods or droughts could happen every two or three years in the very near future. They already are happening. Farmers and workers who, in previous decades, were able to work outside with little problem are now developing serious health issues due to dehydration. Some areas, including agricultural “breadbaskets”, are gradually becoming deserts. Others will flood. Sea levels will keep on rising for decades, eventually defeating our costly (and ultimately doomed) efforts to stop the tide and save vital coastal cities, most of whom are key trading ports. The disruption of ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream could cause Northern Europe and parts of North America to enter a localized Ice Age, while much of the rest of the planet boils.

All this sounds bad, but the actual problem is that these climate shocks will not just cause damage locally. The resulting disruption will cause overlapping domino effects with unpredictable results. Some of these will be less so: for example, in areas where water usage is a long-standing geopolitical problem between two or more countries, a long drought could very well trigger a full-blown war. You can replace oil with other forms of energy. But can you live without water?

And the real kicker is this: even without climate change we already knew we were in trouble due to over-consumption and overpopulation. Scientists have been warning us for decades about it. They were called “alarmists”, “doomsayers”, “pessimists”. Their predictions, however, proved to be correct. The same happened with the proponents of climate “change”, a political term which we now know to be woefully inadequate to describe what is, in truth, a climate crisis.

Put resource depletion and climate crisis together and the result of the equation is the perfect storm.

Ancient civilizations and religions were rife with apocalyptic prophecies. Humanity’s sins would cause the ire of god(s), which were sure to answer with fire, blood and brimstone. People in the past were uncertain when this cataclysmic punishment would come, but now we know. It’s not blind faith, but concrete scientific facts which foretell our future. Our ancestors didn’t have this luxury. For most of them drought, famine, flood, disease and war came without warning, seemingly as divine retribution. They had to come up with the reason after the fact. They sacrificed animals (or even humans) or prayed, in vain, to stop the catastrophe. In the end, being utterly unprepared for these “acts of god”, their mighty cities became empty ruins. With the passage of centuries, these ruins would excite and mystify the civilizations who succeeded them. Who were these people and how could those with the knowledge and skill to construct such massive cities just simply vanish?

It took millennia for our science to discover how the delicate balance which allows life to thrive on our planet works. And even when some of that knowledge and the grim conclusions it led to, were known for decades, economic interests stopped them from getting the publicity they deserved, until nearly too late. We have wasted too much time.

But now the massive heatwaves, megastorms, droughts, floods and megafires have become impossible to ignore. Extreme weather coupled with a pandemic, which was going to come sooner or later, truly makes it seem like we have entered the first stages of the End Times.

Unlike those hapless, dead civilizations which never saw their end coming, we know exactly which sins have caused our woes and what the endgame will be.

We literally know how to cancel the Apocalypse.

What are we going to do about it?

Story was first published on Medium

“Summer 2030″, digital art by Garrett Frickey

That phrase, attributed to the Buddha, was probably never said by him. But I find it extremely pertinent, especially now, with humanity having just crossed into the third decade of the 21st century and, somehow, still having failed to really learn from the past.

I remember, growing up in the ’80s, everything seemed hopeful. Being a kid is certainly a part of this, but it felt like we were moving forward. There were setbacks, of course. I vividly remember Challenger going up in flames and the invisible threat of Chernobyl. There was still the fear of an all-out nuclear war between the USA and the USSR, but by the end of the decade it seemed like the Cold War was finally ending. The world was uniting. The major ecological threat of the time was the ozone layer hole and we proved that we could solve these big problems when we united and sought solutions. Of course, there was already talk of global warming, but we knew that we would solve this too. It was just a matter of time.

Sadly, we were wrong. On both counts, as it seems. Following the record-breaking small and brief hole over the Antarctic of 2019, 2020 saw the widest and deepest ozone hole on record. Of course, we had other, more pressing issues to worry about, so few outside of the scientific community noticed. Our concerted efforts to replace ozone-depleting chemicals didn’t fail, but in our rush to declare ourselves victorious, we risk believing that the fight is over.

If our battle against the ozone layer hole was not as successful as we thought it was, how much less likely are we to succeed with promptly replacing something which has been the main driving force behind the industrial progress of the last 200 years?

And yet succeed we must.

We have just over ten years to tackle the climate crisis according to the UN. Or, rather, we did back in 2019. It’s 2021 now and 2020 would be the last year in which we could afford to increase our global greenhouse gas emissions. Well, the silver lining of the pandemic was that transportation on a global level was limited, so hopefully emissions would have decreased, right?

Well, no.

They did at first, but then by the end of the year they were back, stronger than ever. I don’t know how to put this more mildly: our boat is sinking and we’re throwing water overboard using a spoon. A teaspoon, at that.

The trouble is, you think we have time.

This overconfidence on the part of our political and financial leadership stems from the fact that technology is advancing rapidly. Surely, some new technology in the emerging carbon capture and storage field will solve all of our problems. It might. But we don’t know when and, worst of all, we can’t say how fast this “deus ex machina” some of us are counting on will be ready for action. Science and technology just don’t work that way. For example, new advances in physics have opened a window into what we thought unthinkable just a few years ago: the possibility of faster-than-light travel. It’s theoretically possible, some scientists claim. When? In a few centuries. Maybe.

Obviously, this is a radical technology with immense challenges. However, all new technologies take time to implement, improve upon and develop to their maximum potential. And anywhere along the line we might encounter serious setbacks or unforeseen complications which could render something which looks great on paper completely unworkable. The biggest running joke for those who follow technology closely is that nuclear fusion is always “20 years away”. Fusion will indeed solve all of our energy problems. When? In a few decades. Maybe.

In other words, semi-magical thinking will not solve our problem. Not this one. It’s simply too big and the consequences of failure are simply too terrible to ignore. The bottom line: rising sea levels and changing climate patterns can and will render big parts of the globe uninhabitable by humans. Scientists believe it will happen by the end of the century. However, it seems that the planet is warming faster than we thought. Regardless of when it happens, if we continue on our present course, the consequences will be catastrophic.

Cities will sink. Land will become unfarmable. Precious water supplies will be compromised. People will lose their homes to floods, uncontrollable fires and megastorms. They will freeze, starve, drown or be cooked alive in heatwaves.

No, not “they”. We.

You see, the single greatest challenge facing mankind in its entire history on this lovely, blue planet is not pandemics. It’s not the climate crisis either. It’s the fact that we need to turn “I” into “we”. “Them” into “us”. This is not some faraway problem which will make us sad for a moment, before we turn our attention to the latest celebrity scandal or superhero flick. This concerns us all. Even if we consider the place where we live to be “safe”, we should realize that there is no such thing as “safe” anymore. Even if it actually is for now, millions upon millions of people will lose their homes. Massive waves of immigration will be inevitable. Our chains of supply and demand will be disrupted. Production of goods will suffer. Food production will suffer. Water will become a precious commodity. Things which we take for granted will once again prove not to be so.

The pandemic, which illustrated this very point, was just a test run. What will follow in the next years and decades will dwarf all this so much, that people will look back at this weird, difficult time with wistfulness and think ”boy, I hope we could go back to considering COVID-19 to be a problem”.

It’s not a joke. It’s not an exaggeration. It is already happening. With each year new temperature and precipitation records are broken. Storms and typhoons keep getting larger and more frequent. Floods, wildfires and droughts of increasing severity are already destroying people’s livelihoods and claiming lives. Natural disasters which were unheard of in many parts of the world are rapidly becoming the new reality. We will get to a point that such disasters will be so frequent and brutal that there will be no time to properly restore damaged infrastructure. Insurance companies will stop covering “natural disasters”, because it will no longer be viable to do so. Our standard of living will deteriorate across the board.

The worst of it is that we are unable to predict how fast these changes will be. Already, some areas of the planet seem to be warming faster than expected. The seas even more so. We don’t know what the tipping point is. And by the time we find out, it will be too late.

Today, we are living in the hottest conditions in our history as a species. Should we push our luck even further? Is it worth it?

Imagine that we are sitting round a poker table. We’ve just sat a few minutes ago, actually, and we barely know the other players. However, we’re on a roll and we keep raising the stakes. So far, we’ve been lucky, and we’re riding the wave. But eventually our luck will run out. The stakes now are too high: our very home. We don’t really know how our opponents will react. But, you see, unlike a conventional, high-stakes poker player who can find a smaller place, rent or crash at a friend’s, we have no other option. There isn’t anywhere else to live. If our home becomes unlivable, we will just die. Obviously, it’s not worth it. It’s time to cash in on our meteoric progress and go sustainable. Not in 2050. As fast as we possibly can. Faster than that, even.

If we don’t, not all of us will die at once, of course. Nor will it be fast. Over a span of decades massive waves of climate immigration, which will dwarf anything we have ever seen, will put additional stress to our steadily dwindling food supply and our shrinking economies, which will already be suffering under the consequences of the runaway climate crisis. Migration and dwindling resources will combine to cause ever increasing political upheaval. Demagogues and fascists will take advantage of this, as they’ve always have done historically. The signs are already here.

This combination of factors will hit harder than we can imagine. Does this seem like fearmongering to you? Then think about how our reality today seemed unthinkable just two short years ago. Would you have believed anyone if they told you then how we’d be living today? I wouldn’t either.

The inevitable pressures put on us by those without as well as increasingly frequent natural disasters will put our entire civilization in danger of collapse. History has repeatedly taught us this lesson: when a civilization overextends itself, its population grows uncontrollably and it places its own habitat under stress, any serious environmental challenge can have dire, often fatal consequences. And what are we doing about all this?

At this very moment, the planet’s superpowers are considering how best to update their nuclear arsenals, instead of how best to invest in protecting our shared home. Update and modernize, not decommission and repurpose. It seems like the ’80s again, only less hopeful, as instead of coming together, we seem to be moving further apart every day. Moving back instead of forward seems to me absurd, was a great line from one of my favourite songs of that time. We should know better by now.

And yet, we are arming ourselves against each other, rather than focusing and investing on our collective survival. Apparently, we still think that our worst enemies are “the others”, instead of ourselves. Instead of realizing that on this, our only home, we live or we die, together.

That’s not to say that we can’t change.

The trouble is, we think we have time.

Story can also be found on Medium.

 

 

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For those not familiar with ancient Greek mythology Scylla and Charybdis were mythical monsters said to inhabit the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and Italy. They are mainly known by their appearance in Homer’s Odyssey: Odysseus ordered his crew to avoid the one, thus coming closer to the other. The reason behind this was simple: Charybdis was some kind of underwater monstrosity, which sucked and regurgitated the sea, thus creating a deadly whirlpool. A wooden vessel was highly improbable to survive this ordeal and choosing Charybdis would most likely mean the end for him and all his men.

Scylla, on the other hand, was the “devil you know” or, at the very least, the devil which you can see. She was a multi-headed beast, usually described as some very unpleasant combination of woman and dog, among other things. By all accounts, she was the lesser evil.

This might sound somewhat familiar. In the coming elections, the citizens of the US are faced with a similar choice: Mrs. Hillary Clinton versus Mr. Donald Trump. By now, anyone who is mostly sane is doing their best to steer voters away from Mr. Trump and into the warm embrace of Mrs. Clinton. This includes celebrities, actors, comedians, even news outlets which have never before endorsed any candidate.

Rarely has an election attracted so much attention in the media worldwide. But the situation is far from ideal. In fact, somehow this election managed to match the two most unpopular presidential nominees in American history.

This is not something to be dismissed lightly as “a sign of the times”. If we are to understand “the times” we must try to understand how we came to this uncomfortable position. “Uncomfortable” is not even the proper word here. “Improbable” is far closer to the truth. To return to our mythological analogy, Odysseus was trying to get back home to Ithaca (western Greek island) from Troy (present day Turkey). What the hell was he doing in the Strait of Messina, anyway?

One would think that at a time when people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with politics in general and politicians in particular, both US parties would attempt to find the most likable candidates available and not the exact opposite.

This leaves us with three possible explanations:

a) either the people who are responsible for these decisions are absolutely incapable or

b) the selection of the candidates in question was a conscious, planned decision or

c) none of the two parties wishes to win the election

I will leave you to decide which of these three explanations makes any sense at all. But it is useful to consider the words of Franklin Roosevelt:

In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.

Somehow, we are faced with a choice between a) an obscene man who rarely, if ever, speaks the truth, who changes his position on key issues in a matter of hours, if not minutes, a misogynistic, racist, all-round obnoxious person, who is not even really successful as a businessman, and b) a politician whose most valued quality is actually not being Trump. Oh, wait, she is also a woman.

Needless to say that these two traits are shared by about 50% of the Earth’s population. Of course, this number drastically drops if you take into account that a candidate must also be a US citizen of legal age, leaving a pool of just about 101 million people. Minus Sarah Palin.

It could be argued that Mrs. Clinton has a long career in politics, but isn’t it this same career that caused her to become so unpopular in the first place? On the other hand, Mr. Trump has no prior experience whatsoever as a holder of a public office, and yet this did nothing to stop him from becoming a nominee.

The Bush family refuses to support him. Many prominent Republican senators actually endorse Mrs. Clinton for President. There is even an official Republicans for Clinton website/movement out there.

Let us turn the argument on its head. Suppose you were hell-bent to get Hillary Clinton elected in 2016. Could there be a more ideal opponent than Donald Trump? One that would allow her to showcase all her advantages, while making her flaws seem insignificant? Anyone worse than Trump would simply be unable to win the primaries.

Consider that for all his outrageous statements and a disastrous first presidential election debate, the polls are still more or less even. How could Mrs. Clinton possibly dream to compete with anyone better?

We should not lay the blame solely on the unpopularity of the former First Lady and Secretary of State. There are other factors at work here, which I will attempt to tackle in a separate post. But the fact remains.

Donald is literally Hillary’s trump card.

How did we get to this? Even more disheartening is the realization that this surreal political landscape is not limited to the US. The “lesser evil” scenario is playing out with alarming frequency in an increasing number of countries, including Greece, where every government seems a bit worse than the one which preceded it.

This is realpolitik, you might say. This is, more or less, how the world works. You might even quote Otto von Bismarck:

Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.

This is true. But mark the difference between “next best” and “lesser evil”. It is not a matter of perspective, half-full versus half-empty. It is a difference between something good, even if slightly good, and something evil, even if somewhat evil.

And the real question is, how not-so-evil might one be considered when compared to Mr. Trump? How low are we prepared to lower the bar when going against extremists, racists, religious bigots or fascists?

And when does it stop making any real difference?

 

Intermission #23

 

I will stop
I will stop at nothing
Say the right things
When electioneering
I trust I can rely on your vote

When I go forwards, you go backwards
And somewhere we will meet
When I go forwards, you go backwards
And somewhere we will meet
Ha, ha, ha

Riot shields
Voodoo economics
It’s life, it’s life
It’s just business
Cattle prods and the I.M.F.
I trust I can rely on your vote

When I go forwards, you go backwards
And somewhere we will meet
When I go forwards, you go backwards
And somewhere we will meet

Nuclear Chess

“It’s a proxy war by happenstance,” says Jeff White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy about the situation in Syria. As if there ever was a pre-arranged proxy war.

This was a chess game for two, and had been so for almost half a century. Pawns were being traded between them, but the kings were hiding safely behind their wall of nuclear missiles. Neither would risk open conflict, especially after the crisis of 1962. And the entire world is thankful for that. Except for the countries which played the part of the chessboard in these seven decades.

The game is always played in turns. One side intervenes, directly or indirectly, in the affairs of another country. The other side responds accordingly. As long as no more than one side is directly involved, it’s a proxy war and as a friend points out, World War III has already happened, silently, in battlefields all over the world: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq and so on. The casualty count of the Cold War rivals, or might even surpass, that of the two formally declared World Wars.

Most do not know that immediately following the end of World War II, Churchill had formulated a plan for an Allied attack on the Soviet Union. Thankfully, the rest of the Allies were not keen to continue the bloodshed. The world was divided, the war went on, but in small doses and with various degrees and forms of engagement. And finally, with the collapse of the USSR we thought that the threat of total war was behind us.

Until now, that the Cold War seems to be rekindled. But you can only play with fire so much before you risk getting burned. Even by proxy.

What Mr. White means is that when the CIA initiated the programme to train and equip the rebels to destabilize Assad, they did not expect that Russia would be directly involved. Is he naive or does he think that the rest of us are? The West is systematically undermining Russia’s allies: first Ukraine and now Syria. Putin was slow or reluctant to act the first time and he could not save the regime in Ukraine. He is obviously not going to let this happen again. Should he let his penultimate ally in the Middle East fall? Would the US do that in his shoes?

Assad is a despot, no doubt about it. But so are the Saudis, which are in the habit of crucifying and beheading dissidents. Not terrorists or armed rebels, mind you. Just bloggers. Never mind that, Cameron was all too happy to vote Saudi Arabia for the UN Human Rights Council in exchange for their vote.

What we now have is, essentially, an admission that the US and Russia are fighting another proxy war, even if by “happenstance”. Even worse, this “happenstance” is going to continue happening, since the US apparently does not intend to stem the flow of equipment to the “Syrian rebels”, a blanket term that covers also mercenaries, terrorists, and US-trained and armed Arabs from most countries in the region. Continued support of the US to the rebels means, at this point, that the war in Syria will cease to be a coincidental proxy war and will become an intentional one.

But what the US fails to realize or purposefully ignores is that the game is no longer played by two. There are many players crowding the board now, controlling different pieces: rebel forces, Assad’s regime, the abortive child of US policy in the Middle East (ISIS), Iran, Israel (which has been itching to attack Iran for years), Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Kurds, Hezbollah, the US (and allies), Russia and even China. This is no longer a game of chess. It is more like children playing with matches in a gunpowder magazine.

If ever there was a strong possibility for World War III (IV, if you prefer) to happen since the Cuban missile crisis, this is it.

The most alarming fact is that the US defends its policy and intends to continue pursuing it. It insists that the flow of arms is controlled, and it even claims that the plan was to supply the rebels with enough weapons to force Assad to step down, but not for his regime to collapse. So, what is the cut-off point? 100 TOWs? 300? How many rockets stand between Assad’s abdication and his total collapse? How can the US guarantee that the rebels will actually stop fighting, even if Assad does promise to step down? And what if the “moderates” stop and the fanatics continue? How many times does it have to repeat this strategy before it is forced to admit that it never works as intended?

Even in cases where the undesirable regime is toppled in a controlled manner, the one that follows is never stable enough to function without support: Iraq and Afghanistan should have proven this point by now. However, Libya is a more likely example for the future of Syria and this scenario is, sadly, the optimistic one.

The pessimistic scenario is a large scale, global conflict that will plunge the Middle East and Europe in chaos. If push comes to shove, even the use of nuclear weapons is not out of the question and then the repercussions will be unthinkable. Is this purely a result of short-sighted politics? Is it part of some bigger plan? It doesn’t matter much. What matters is that humanity stands on the brink.

War is not a game. It is truly the last resort and by this time in our course as rational beings it should not even be an option at all. The consequences of a modern global conflict are too terrible to imagine. In fact, there is no real need for imagination, as there are plenty of books, films, simulations and videogames that have explored these scenarios. No ideology is worth this. No religion and certainly no economic or geopolitical agenda is worth placing the fate of our entire race in the balance. Not global unification, nor population control. Even putting all sense of compassion and humanity aside, the gamble is too big and the stakes way too high.

There is a better way.

Intermission #22

Ahmet Merabet Words cannot adequately express how shocked and sad I was when I read the news about the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo. I still can’t believe that Wolinski, whose irreverent strips graced the pages of the favourite comic magazines of my student years, lies dead together with 11 other people. Simply because he unwittingly became a sacrificed pawn in a dirty geopolitical game.

Make no mistake. Apart from the human tragedy caused by the senseless loss of life and talent, this attack is every bit as ripe for political exploitation as the attacks of 9/11 and the Boston marathon were. This time, however, the attack took place outside the US, thus presenting a golden opportunity or the US government to bring the stray sheep among its European allies back into the fold. With the spreading threat of Muslim terror strikes, it is easy to forget that the NSA spied on the leadership of the “trusted” US allies (and probably still does so).

Let us focus on the event of the attack for now. The show of support, both in France and abroad, was heartwarming, even if some were not entirely honest when expressing it. For example, the Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras and his extreme right wing sidekick, Adonis Georgiadis during recent speeches mentioned the need to enforce our borders with walls in order to stop Syrian refugees (and any illegal immigrants) from entering the country. They went so far as to tie the attack with the illegal immigrant issue in Greece, claiming that their political opponents, SYRIZA, want to open the borders to potential terrorists.

Never mind that the terrorist suspects were French citizens. Never mind that, if Charlie Hebdo had a Greek edition, Mr. Samaras, who claims to have an open line with God (and His support, no less) would be amongst the first to ban the sacrilegious magazine. In 21st century Greece, the owner of a Facebook page mocking an Orthodox monk (now a saint) and his alleged prophecies was recently sentenced to 10 months in prison for blasphemy. But otherwise we’re all Charlie Hebdo here, thank you.

The Prime Minister is trying to woo the voters of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party to gain a few precious percent points in view of the upcoming elections and he is playing the immigrant issue card by fanning the fear of Islam, since the majority of illegal immigrants in Greece come from Pakistan, Syria and other Muslim countries. To these people, all Muslims are filthy barbarians.

Let us talk, then, about another one of these filthy barbarians: his name was Ahmed Merabet. Ahmed was a police officer, amongst the first who responded to the call following the attack on Charlie Hebdo. That morning he had the misfortune to be patrolling the area together with a female colleague. Apparently, he somehow kept resisting the urge to force her to wear a burka and take the gun away from her. Shortly after arriving at the scene, he was shot to death by another filthy Muslim barbarian.

Somehow, the terrorist did not recognize the characteristic stench, which all Muslim barbarians share. Even the brown skin did not deter him. He just casually shot the already wounded Ahmed in the head.

Ahmed died defending one of the most fundamental (and challenging) democratic principles: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” It is the famous quote that Voltaire, also a resident of Paris, actually never said.

Life has an uncanny way to tear down the ideological sand castles, which we build so meticulously in our own minds. It casually blows away the lines, which we consider to be carved in stone. The arbitrary borders between what is “acceptable” and what is not. That separate “right” from “wrong”. The “good” Christian from the “evil” Muslim. Even the “progressive” atheist from the “obscurantist” advocate of religion.

The rhetoric of terror is already gaining momentum. The media are all hopping on the train, which is quickly running over any discordant voice. Who cares if Islamic religious organizations are condemning the attack? We all know that Islam calls on its faithful to butcher all infidels in the name of the Prophet, right? Their place in heaven is guaranteed if they sacrifice their lives fighting for Allah.

One has to wonder, then, why the 1.5 billion Muslims living on this planet have not yet taken up arms against us infidels, starting World War III in the process.

On the other hand, if Christians had taken the’ teachings of “love one another” and “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” to heart, then the world would be very different right now. On the contrary, once Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe, it carved a long and deep path of brutality in the name of the God of love and forgiveness, putting any Muslim Jihad to shame: Crusades, genocides, systematic enslavement of entire “pagan” populations, mass purging of “heretics” and witch hunts conducted by the Holy Inquisition, and more. All in the name of Jesus Christ.

These things belong in our dark past, you might say. And yet, it was a few years ago when Sarah Palin, once nominated for Vice President of the United States, claimed that the war on Iraq was “God’s will”. And this is not just about the US throwing its weight around. Even the Greek Prime Minister seems all too willing to do the “Christian” thing and close our borders to war refugees from Syria, going as far as to deny them medical care.

Mahatma Gandi once said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” But this goes even beyond the tenets of our religion. Denying medical care to anyone in need goes against the very idea of humanity and breaks conventions, which apply even in time of war.

Need I remind anyone that the Islamist rebels fighting against Assad’s totalitarian regime were funded and armed by western governments? Or that ISIL is a terrible monstrosity created by decades of destabilization in the Middle East courtesy of Western powers (and the USSR, back in the day)? The sole purpose behind all this has always been geopolitical interests and nothing more.

Or perhaps it’s just that these people are just filthy Muslim barbarians. Like Ahmed. Or Lassana Bathily who selflessly hid a dozen people in the basement fridge of the kosher shop, where the terrorists held hostages, and escaped in order to notify the police.

Perhaps it is not just Islam, but religions in general. Perhaps if we were to do away with them, everything would be right about the world. I am sorry to disappoint you, my dear atheist and agnostic friends, but this is not the case. Because people kill for money, power, religion, skin colour, ideologies, a flag, even a sports team scarf. While doing away with money would solve a great many problems in the world, we cannot ban everything. We certainly can’t simply ban religion. We need to change our perception of things instead. Theists and atheists alike.

If the progressive atheist thinkers of the world claim that everyone who believes in their “imaginary friend” is a potential terrorist, they are simply attacking people for their beliefs. Just like terrorists, but without the guns.

Actions count. Words count too, to a much lesser degree, and beliefs to a bare minimum. What must we do, really, to apply greater force than fanatic terrorists? How can we do it without becoming a source of terror ourselves? We might all claim to be Charlie, but what does that mean, in the end?

We need to ask these questions seriously and answer them, to ourselves. In the meantime, I’d rather state my support towards a man who lost his life while doing his duty, protecting people with whom he would most likely disagree. A man whose death was marginalized, because it is hard to accept that a Muslim police officer can protect Democracy, against his supposed beliefs and the attributes which we assign him.

I am Ahmed.

 

Intermission #21

European dissolution

June 6th marked the 70th anniversary of the famous D-Day of World War II. It was the largest seaborne military operation in history and it marked the beginning of the end for the Third Reich.

Despite all the grand celebrations, though, despite the speeches and the moving stories of the last remaining veterans, one need to go no further than the results of the recent European Parliament elections to realise that something is wrong.

We might honour history, but we fail to learn from it.

As troops and ships from Great Britain and the Commonwealth, USA and many other countries gained the beaches of Normandy, the Red Army was marching from the East. The frantic race to Berlin, a race not only to end the most destructive conflict in the history of mankind, but to gain the prestige and possible technological spoils from the conquest of the German capital, would end almost a year later.

The World War was replaced by a Cold War, lines were drawn, walls were erected, curtains were raised, nuclear weapons were constructed and mankind came closer to extinction than ever before.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were no more enemies to be afraid of. As the spectre of another global conflict started to dissolve, political power shifted away from governments and into the hands of banks and financial institutions.

The same ills that brought about the Great Depression of the 1930s now threaten us again with a new financial crisis the remedy for which, we are told, is to be found into austerity for people of low to average income, while banks increase their profits and golden boys give themselves huge bonuses and pat each other on the back.

At the same time, however, extreme right parties gain more voters every day.

What we ought to remember is that Hitler was not some random madman who suddenly seized power and hypnotized an entire nation into Nazism. Adolph Hitler was elected into power. It was a slow process, that took both the defeat of Germany in World War I and the toxic financial environment of the late ’20s and early ’30s to grow into fascism.

In the end, slowly but surely, it drove several peoples into the hands of fanatics. Leaders in other countries seemed to worry about the situation in Germany and Italy, but they did little more than watch, until Nazi tanks crossed their borders.

Today, neo-nazi, racist and nationalist parties are growing all over Europe. In France, the United Kingdom and Denmark, anti-immigration parties have won the elections with 25, 27 and 26.6 percent respectively. Meanwhile, in Greece the neo-nazi party of Golden Dawn came very close to double digits, even though several of its MPs (including the party’s leader) have been imprisoned facing trial for planning and participation in various crimes and racist assaults up to and including murder. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a European country where the popularity of the far-right parties was reduced. Even in the generally more prosperous Scandinavian region.

If we do not wish for history to repeat itself, we ought to do more than deliver empty speeches on national holidays. Fascism is not some monster hiding under our beds, nor some kind of disease that you might catch while riding the train to work.

In fact, it is an idea that is most likely to take root where there is no work, where there is social inequality, where democracy is weakened and manipulated. Like the Weimar Republic of the 1920s. Like our democracies, today.

 

Intermission #20

If you feel that your privacy is something worth protecting you owe it to yourself to visit EFF’s website and sign this petition:

TODAY, FEBRUARY 11TH, 2014 ISTHE DAY WE FIGHT BACK AGAINST MASS SURVEILLANCE

rocktur_roger_waters_the_wall

I had the good fortune to be able to afford a front row ticket to what I think was the most important rock concert I will ever attend. Many in Greece couldn’t, and the company responsible for the event shamelessly denied Roger Waters’ request that people be allowed to attend with a low price ticket of 18 Euros.

If you are unemployed, like 1.6 million Greeks (or more) are right now, even 18 Euros is not a trivial amount.

After watching The Wall again all these years later, I can safely say that today it is more relevant than ever, more relevant than all the works of all other modern rock groups put together, at least in a political sense. It is as if the unmistakable rise of totalitarianism in the world today is accompanied by the steady muting of voices who argue, the dulling of modern music’s edge, the lapse of the collective artistic conciousness into an iStore-induced coma.

I am not talking about anger. Rage Against the Machine did that very well 20 years ago, but what did it amount to, when all is said and done? More on this later.

Darkness. A few eerie notes are heard in the distance and then the bass shatters the silence. Every notes strikes your chest, as if from inside. Somehow, the sound feels like it reverberates from your heart. Light, music, singing, screaming. A plane crashes above in a shower of sparks as a father dies and a baby is born.

And thus begins the journey of Pink into life. All the major actors in his life, his over-protective mother who guides and comforts, his teacher who punishes and conditions, his girlfriend which betrays (and is betrayed), all help him build the Wall.

The Teacher (Photo by S.M.)

The Teacher (Photo by S.M.)

Eventually, he becomes a rock star. By that time, however, the Wall has alienated him from everyone and everything around him, making him comfortably numb. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll try to fill in the gaping holes in his life, to no avail. Pink becomes violent and delusional. Finally, he loses all contact with reality, imagining that he is a dictator with absolute power over his audience, shooting anyone whom he finds unworthy.

Delusions of Fascism

Riddled with guilt, he puts himself on trial, with all the key figures in his life acting as witnesses against him. He is reduced from a man to a fleshy, faceless doll, waiting pathetically in a corner for his inescapable condemnation.

The human puppet (Photo by O.N.G.)

But the judge does not sentence him to death. Instead, he orders him to tear down the Wall and he does so, finally freeing himself as an eerily happy music fades in the distance.

The basics of the story are unchanged and still, 34 years later, they are all too relevant, as education deteriorates, people turn away from meaningful relationships, governments turn away from democracy, religious and racial hatred flourishes and war continues to thrive. The story is not just about one man, but also about the way each individual Wall becomes another brick in a huge structure representing our entire society.

The Wall

Waters enriched the original vision of Pink Floyd with modern elements, as the Wall is “painted” with graffiti inspired by Apple’s iDolizing marketing. iNeed, iBelieve, iTeach, iKill. Cleverly placed amongst them is iResist with the image of a protester tossing a molotov. In the end, this kind of resistance is another marketed product, aimed at the (rightfully) frustrated people but offering nothing more than a justification of violent suppression by the government. Experience has shown that massive, peaceful demonstrations are much more effective than setting the instruments of a government on fire.

The writing on The Wall

Other lines of graffiti on the Wall were no less insightful. “Enjoy Capitalism” styled as the Coca-Cola logo. And “if at first you don’t succeed, call an airstrike”.

Another striking image, shocking in its simplicity and truth, is that of the endless line of bombers dropping symbols: the dollar sign, the hammer-and-sickle, the Christian cross, the crescent moon and star of Islam, the star of David, the Mercedes sign, the McDonald’s logo and that of Shell falling like bombs and covering everything in red. All of them symbols used and misused to separate people with walls of greed, bigotry, fanaticism and hollow ambition.

And, of course, the image of the hammers doing the duck march in oppressively perfect rows of red and black. Today, 31 years after their appearance in the iconic film by Alan Parker they are reminding us not of the past, but of the possible and very likely future.

Another new concept was that of the wall depicting victims of war, terrorism and state violence from WWI to the Gezi park protests. Famous politicians, well-known activists together with largely “unknown”, but named soldiers of every war in between, civilian casualties, rescuers from the 9/11 Ground Zero, amongst them a Greek soldier who died in the Albanian mountains in 1940.

The Wall of the fallen

The Wall of the fallen

One could be tempted to turn criticism against the work itself, with all its special effects and high tech sound and imagery, the last g(r)asp of an ageing rock star for a few more dollars. Or Euros, as it were. But the essence of the work remains, regardless of any intention, selfish or not, of one of its main creators. I was reminded of my student years, when I used to mock my left-wing colleagues, most of whom had the latest cell phones of the time, while I still didn’t have one (and didn’t want one). Their half-serious answer was that “they used the system to fight the system”.

Well, “comrades”, if I ever saw anyone using the system to speak up against it, that would be Roger Waters.

Intermission #19

The intro

Malala

The world is a boiling pot. In Turkey, Brazil and Egypt there are continued demonstrations despite the extreme police violence used to deter protesters. In Greece, anger is simmering beneath the relatively quiet surface.

If there was any doubt of this, the Greek justice system backing down in the face of the imminent death of hunger striker Kostas Sakkas should convince even the most skeptical observer that the Greek government fears a similar uprising. Do not think for a moment that the judges somehow realised their “mistake”, because they knew full well that they were breaking the law when they last extended Sakkas’ incarceration for another six months.

Kostas Sakkas

If Sakkas, unlawfully imprisoned  for 31 months without being convicted, were to die, the backlash would be completely unpredictable. There are people in Greece from every corner of the political spectrum (except the extreme right, of course) who recognize that this case was never a matter of a single anarchist’s prosecution, but a violation of justice, one more link in a long chain of such violations in modern Greece.

The decision to defy death in the struggle to defend one’s rights and freedoms is the ultimate form of courage. Even more so when the one making the stand is just an adolescent girl. A girl making a stand against an entire society’s cultural perceptions.

Malala Yousafzai became a public figure before even the fateful event that almost cost her her life. In the tender age of 11 she was already blogging under a pseudonym on behalf of the BBC about life under the encroaching shadow of the Taliban.

She later actively campaigned for the right of women to receive an education and was honoured by the government of Pakistan and the international community for her efforts, becoming the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Last October she was shot in the head and neck in a targeted assassination attempt against her in a school bus full of children. Yesterday, fully recovered, she delivered a moving speech before the United Nations Youth Assembly. On the day of her 16th birthday, wearing a shawl once worn by the murdered Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto, the first female leader of a Muslim state.

Malala Yousafzai addresses United Nations Youth Assembly

Malala Yousafzai addresses United Nations Youth Assembly

It is difficult to imagine how a girl of 12 would even dare to openly speak out against oppression in a society which believes in the inferiority of women. It is even harder to fathom that she would find the strength to recover so fast after a near fatal assault, and yet speak of forgiveness.

How can one so young find so much courage?

There is another side to this story, of course. Malala is being used as a poster child by Western powers, spearheaded by Gordon Brown, to widen the growing rift between (developed) Christian and (developing) Muslim countries.

She is being used to showcase how “evil Muslims” oppress women to justify and escalate the War on Terror. Ironically, at the same time the ineffectual austerity measures used to combat the economic crisis, measures which are supported by the majority of Western governments, often have education and healthcare as prime targets.

Even worse the crisis, which shows no signs of improvement, fuels our own Western brand of extremism, in the form of racism and neo-nazism.

Yet Malala did not only speak of education; almost every mention of education was accompanied by the notion of peace. War and conflict are keeping children out of school. And the artificially perpetuated “War on Terror” is no exception. Malala spoke about Martin Luther King and Ghandhi, about non-violence, about togetherness and about forgiving even the Talib who shot her.

The Taliban are not the only ones who fear educated people. Most governments are not much different. Our own, modern, democratic governments, would rather strip education of anything not useful to employment and thus limit our ability to question them. Most states would prefer obedient drones to thinking citizens. Programmed, rather than truly educated.

There is much to be learned by the example of this teenage girl. The courage to stand up for one’s rights against fear and aggression, especially in a peaceful manner, cannot and should not be ignored. Even if greedy politicians would try to use her to justify their own agendas. But we do not need them. Not them, nor their wars.

“Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.”

Image

Woman makes a stand against a water cannon.

Some people confuse resistance with anarchy. They believe, or it suits them to believe, that anyone protesting on the street, or in a park is just “asking for trouble”. Even if they are doing it peacefully, by sitting on the grass, with music and books. But the exact form of a public protest is irrelevant.

Even when the purpose of a protest has nothing political about it. Such as when attempting to protect a large park in the middle of a bustling city, which is about to be turned into a mall. The 94th, if my information is accurate. But even the cause of a protest is not really the issue here.

What really matters is that the state is treating its own citizens as enemies. And it is not happening just in Turkey or Greece or Bulgaria or Spain or Sweden. It is fast becoming a global phenomenon. The difference is that police in Turkey are that much more brutal in suppressing protesters. They don’t need to use agents provocateurs, like the Greek police still do (on most occasions – the last time I was in a protest all it took for the tear gas rain to start was a few kids tossing fruit towards the Parliament).

I never thought I’d see more tear gas canisters being used at once than that February evening at Syntagma. Was I ever wrong.

Used tear gas cannisters

Used tear gas canisters

The reports coming in from Istanbul (or Constantinople, as we prefer to call it in Greece) are mostly unverified because of the media blackout on the protests. However, there are now reports from Reuters that tear gas canisters were fired directly on the crowd, resulting in a woman being severely injured. A couple of months ago Greek police fired gas canisters into a schoolyard, injuring a girl on the head and sending several into the infirmary.

There are reports of four dead protesters on Friday and the protests continue today, also spreading to other major cities in Turkey.

These things are not happening in dictatorships. These are supposed to be modern democratic states and yet police violence grows unchecked. But these events force us to consider where the boundaries of order-keeping lie and where civil liberties begin.

A state which suppresses its citizens when protesting peacefully, for whatever reason, can no longer be considered democratic. At the heart of democracy lies the will of the people and that cannot be expressed solely by elections every four years. And that is because being elected does not grant politicians the power to make any decision they want, without taking into consideration the well being of the people. Nor is the police justified in injuring or, worse, killing the very civilians it is supposed to protect.

Furthermore, these democratic “lapses” also bring to light our own responsibilities as citizens. States and governments, when left to their own devices, can and will pass laws which do not serve the interests of the people. It can be as simple as demolishing a large park or as complicated as bleeding the people dry for the sins of the banking and monetary system.

Unjust laws and policies must be resisted. Politicians catering to the interests of the financial elite must be resisted. Democracy has to be safeguarded and protected, and that duty lies with the citizens. There are very few states in the world which can function truly democratically without being “reminded” to do so by the people. The proof of this is everyday in the news, if and when it is allowed to appear.

Resistance in this context is not just a right, but an obligation of the people.

An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so.

-Mahatma Gandhi