Manipulation feeding off from emotional pain – A perfect storm

I am waking up after a sufficiently long sleep. I had felt exhaustion yesterday evening and fell asleep early. Keeping my eyes closed, and ignoring my cat making it clear he wants me to get up, to feed him, and to let him out of the campervan for his morning patrol, I am focusing for a few minutes on dreaming up positive pictures of this new day.

I am getting up, making my first coffee, feeding my cat, and not the other way round. Looking at the blue sky presiding over a cold April morning, I am not seeing the beauty of the lake, but struggle with what is going on in my head. I try to turn around the worry and the burden which is created by thinking about very simple things I have to do. Very simple things have become stressful when thinking about that I have to do them. I always knew this feeling, but it has become a prevalent stressor one year into the pandemic. Which gets me into the past, mourning everything my head is telling me that I have lost it. Worrying about the upcoming little things in my future again, I am loosing, once more, my ability to enjoy the present. Enjoying solitude, or suffering from loneliness? I have the choice, and more often than not, I fail to manage moving on a more enjoyable path for the day. Or I manage at the beginning, and fail all of a sudden throughout the day due to a small event, or just when daylight is waning.

I am attempting to disrupt my morning routine, which usually includes reading global news first. I have learned that reading these, mostly bad, news first thing over a coffee just fuels my being upset, being worried, feeling helpless and angry.

Instead, I am focusing on a voicemail which I received from a friend. My friend apologises for not having reacted earlier on previous mails from me. She explains the crippling inertia and depression which she is running through in this pandemic situation. I know her from before. She used to be so vibrant. Everything she describes about her struggle for today and the next days, I can perfectly relate to. I experience the same.

I could go on with stories of so many of my friends and family struggling with the same experience. With the ordeal of my ex-wife who single-parents our children 6.500 km from me, in a country equally affected by never-ending shutdowns, almost erratic closing of schools, and strict lockdown rules. I could describe in detail our worries about the depressive effects which the lockdown has on our teenage children, and our worrying about it, and how we wonderfully cooperate in coping with it. I could write about my single-parenting friend with three young children here in Berlin. I guess I would just describe individual stories which we all experience in countless variations right now.

We feel trapped, we feel helpless. We feel angry, and we suffer from our energy being sucked out of our lifes. We feel despair, because everything feels like a burden, simple tasks become more and more difficult. We daydream, we need rest after some work way earlier than we used to. A mental task, some office work, the need for a break comes after an hour, or sometimes after a few minutes. My friend in Berlin got help from a wonderful friend for a few days, taking care of her children. The time she had on her own, it felt like heaven. When the kids came back, the positive energy of this break lasted a few hours, only. Do people without small children really appreciate the effects of a protracted absence of Kitas, kindergardens, and schools being open?

I am attempting to describe the effects of depression, however, there are way more qualified writers than I am. But what I see is both an endemic increase of depression and, at the same time, a drastic increase of numbers of people who do not even realise that what they suffer from is a sustained series of depression attacks. This collective increase is a consequence of the protracted measures which we have imposed on ourselves in order to stay healthy and safe during a pandemic hitting us on an unprecendented scale.

But here is what I know about depression: At its core, it is a deep-seated and profound form of emotional pain. I also know that, like other unpleasant emotions, this pain easily separates itself from the triggering events and develops a life of its own, if experienced for too long. The trigger may vanish at some point, but the negative emotion stays. This is how anxieties develop, or phobias. Enough triggering events, and they are meant to stay even after the situation has long disappeared. It is the same with depression attacks. Because the point I want to make in this blog is a very different one, I stay away from explaining the neurophysiological reasons for this.

So, firstly, I state that increasing numbers of people in our societies are currently suffering from lasting emotional pain. Which creates a strong longing to make it disappear. May be through painkillers of various types, including meds, including drugs, including alcohol. But whether we sedate, or not, the pain stays, and it is a very deep pain. What happens if I have a headache and it doesn’t vanish after taking Ibuprofene? I feel helpless, I feel angry, I may double down on the painkiller, but I also try to understand why I have this pain. If the Doctor can not explain the pain, and make it go away, I may begin to distrust the Doctor.


We are facing anger, helplessness, feelings of being trapped, profound absence of a past which appears to be gone, on a societal scale. There is no discussion these days which I have which will not focus on Covid, or at least at some point invariably touch the issue. More often than not, this leads to an angry ramble.

We feel trapped because we are. Not only the unending cold weather is keeping us in our houses. We are strongly advised to stay in. We are advised to do home office. We face the protracted shutdown of any place where we used to mingle, whether the coffee shop, whether the shopping mall, whether any recreational place. We are living in areas where we face curfews, or we are being prevented from going to places just for touristic or any other recreational reasons. When I compare Berlin with Belgrade, just as an example, life is very different in Berlin. Much more shut down, like in other places in Europe. And yet, even in more permissive places, we all feel the effects of being prevented from engaging in what our brains need: Human contact, not over Zoom, but real contact.

We all know this, I am just stating it here to make my argument. We all feel that we began fighting this pandemic by hoping, and being told, that this will be over soon. But until now, it never was getting anywhere close to being over. I remember times last November when we faced yet another lockdown, hoping to re-open in January. And we did not, or only temporarily and in a very limited manner, re-open. We face a seemingless never-ending oscillation between hope and despair.

I suspect this is an issue seriously re-wiring our brains, to an extent unknown to many of us. Like, will I ever feel comfortable again when people come close to me in a crowded situation, whether on the bus, or in a crowded pedestrians zone? I crave proximity, and I fear it at the same time. I fear being surrounded by an invisible enemy. Again, I am making this argument for a purpose, not digging into the emerging scientific findings about how it affects us in all our societies. I have, for example, written on the impact of the pandemic and how we handle it, on domestic violence and on violence against women. What I want to express here is that fear, and anger, and helplessness, and the wish to make this going away, they have taken a deep root.

So, if there is an invisible enemy which I can not fight, I will feel threatened by anything happening close to me, getting me out of my comfort zone. My neighbor can make me angry, a tourist can, a foreigner can. Here is a strong vector fueling nationalism, through the fear created by anything alien to me.


At the same time, in our attempts to find a way through this, I feel from my conversations with a great many friends that we are establishing a narrative which justifies our own subtle non-compliance. Like many, I feel the temptation to not comply, in the security of my own private space. Where, as I said, the protracted cold weather plays a role because we are forced to stay in our houses. Where we all try to find ways to balance physical health with mental health. Mental health requires contact to other human beings. As we begin to rationalize this, I suspect that we may begin to move away from super-spreader-events to a mass of hidden mini-spreader-events.

My friend in the U.S. said, a few months ago, that in a situation where there is a choice only to either prioritize physical health or mental health, this friend will choose mental health, simply for survival purposes, thus meaning meeting people. We all want that. The conundrum sits with that it is not only about our own mental health, but about the physical health of other people, at the same time. If I prioritize my own health, I have to mitigate the many connections to vulnerable people which connect the people who I meet, with others. Mini-spreader-events carry the same viral potential, therefore, as super-spreader-events do, but they stay invisible. We have no guidance on how to mitigate, nor tool to assist, we are sitting with our own devices having to navigate through this huge responsibility. We are being told not to meet with more than a limited number of people in the “safety” of our homes, but how do we do this? The number of friends of mine who recently mention that they are going on a date, or, let me suspect, several dates, who knows the numbers? What about the absolute necessity of teenagers to hug each other?


So far, my argument expresses my suspicion that, the longer the fight against the pandemic lasts, the more we are being driven into “underground defiance”. If that is true, then the virus is being spread despite all public containment attempts. In a totalitarian regime, this may lead to even intruding into private space for controlling compliance. In democratic societies, it may simply lead to that all measures remain ineffective.

Here, the vaccination dilemma comes into play: The longer the vaccination campaign is being slowed down by insufficient supplies, resistance, doubts, administrative problems, and else, the longer the virus will thrive and prosper, unseen, at a too large scale. And the longer this happens, the more likely new mutations, and our inability to catch up with updated vaccines. We seem to be at a critical juncture of a whack-a-mole game, where we may get exhausted at an unknown point in the future.

If then, like today, some countries appear to be more successful with vaccination campaigns than others, and if, like we can see, these countries begin to release restrictions, the emotional impact on those who still live under lockdowns, will add exponentially to anger and helplessness. They will feel greed, and the wish to keep things for themselves, too. Another vector leading into nationalism.


Finally, in order to present my argument, a last story, from yesterday:

Another friend consulted me, by attaching a video to his mail. A video spreading through social media, one of uncounted similar types floating around. A well-dressed very attractive female presenter, propped up against a professional studio background, exhaling all visible criteria aiming at making her appearance credible and professional, spread a gargantuan conspiracy theory. That the virus does not exist. That the vaccines are evil. That all this is proven. That it is all about a global cabale of people subjugating their populations. The usual allegations, in this case against Bill Gates, were part of the blend.

The professionalism made me sick and angry. Because the flawless design of this presentation requires a deeper intellectual effort in order to pierce through the fog of manipulative rhethoric. Which is something which many people will not invest into. It took me two efforts in order to find a way demonstrating to my friend why these are incredibly well-crafted lies.

My friend almost apologised, because I had begun to ramble myself. He explained that this video was sent to his aunt who is hospitalised. He told me that in his circle of friends he hears entirely confusing advice about vaccinations, including hearing from a medical doctor in his circle that one should avoid the vaccination at all costs. He just told me another story about how deeply confused all of us are. In asking me he was trying to find guidance within a field which left him scared.

So it depends on who is giving you advise in such a situation. And I believe that more often than not the advise being given is half-baked, or uninformed, or even coming from people with a desire to manipulate.

This morning, I read a German news article about the German intelligence organisations watching extreme right-wing political movements and also noting new forms of extremism coming up. New forms of extremism connected to protests against Corona-measures. The key sentence in this news piece: The intent of some in this movement, and in right-wing political parties, to sow doubt in the confidence into the free democratic order which forms the value-base of our constitution.

That is my argument: That the helplessness, anger, fear, and facing the protracted, seemingly never-ending, nature of the crisis, is being used for increasing the base of those who just doubt the value-base which we have nurtured for more than seventy years. Automatically, by increasing the base of people willing to listen to the pied piper (Der Rattenfaenger von Hameln, for my German friends), one increases the number of people willing to vote for the pied piper.

For me, this sounds like a perfect storm.

To Serve and To Protect

Yesterday my friend shared a story from the Washington Post with me. Under the headline “Kentucky Senate votes to criminalize insulting police in way that could cause ‘violent response’“, the digital edition of the newspaper reported on March 12 on a bill which passed the State Senate.

I quote from the article:

The bill, passed two days before the anniversary of the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor, would make it a misdemeanor to taunt or challenge an officer with words or gestures “that would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response from the perspective of a reasonable and prudent person.” Conviction would be punishable by up to 90 days in jail and fines of up to $250.

State Sen. Danny Carroll (R), who sponsored the bill, said it would enable officers to arrest someone inflaming them before the encounter turns violent. The provision is meant to apply to comments that are “obviously designed to elicit a response from the officer — something to push them to making a mistake, pushing them to violence,” he said, although courts would have the final say in interpreting the rule.

“You don’t have a right to accost a police officer,” Carroll said.”


Apart from the mindblowing detail of the bill itself (I looked up the link above), think about it: In Kentucky it will constitute a crime if I use words or gestures towards a police officer which, in the interpretation of this or another officer, could be deemed provocative, to the extent that my words or gesture may lead to a “tendency for a violent response” by that police offficer.

As my friend wrote: “It implies cops have no self-control and are inherently violent. If I was a cop, I would be livid.”

It turns any people-centered policing understanding upside down. Don’t touch that cop. Don’t even look into his or her face. Keep your head down. Keep your hands down. Respond politely with “Yes Sir”. Do what you’re told, it is the law. Anything else may lead to that the copmachine is turning violent. Or that the cop now can arrest you beforehand, in order to avoid becoming violent.

This is escalative “enforcement of the law”-attitude at its worst. It leads to that “enforcement” is nothing else than exerting control. No need for consensus, no need for explanation, no need for communication. Why communicate, why listen, why explain? It is enough to arrest anybody standing in the way of law enforcement officers.

Don’t call this policing, please. You may call it controlling. Policing is based on consent, and applying force is the last resort.

Never stop reminding

Every now and then I browse through the folder with draft blog articles. At times, I am just jotting down a link about something that caught my attention when I was reading it. On other occasions, a thought crosses my mind and I am writing it down. And at some point, something materializes from it as a real piece of writing. It is a creative process and the direction into which my writing takes me is not a straigthforward path.


The title of this blog entry came first, and I archived links on stories which did upset me at the time of reading a few weeks ago:

https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/asien/afghanistan-gefaengnisse-folter-101.html: A heartbreaking article published by German news provider “Tagesschau” on torture in Afghan prisons.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-56021205: BBC reporting about the first phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping, in which Joe Biden is raising the issue of human rights abuses in China, including the detention of more than a million Uighurs in what China calls “re-education programs”.

There are so many more. Looking into each and every corner of the World, serious concerns can be brought up here in a list of articles which would be long, longer, never ending. Nobody is able to keep track, neither being able to notice them all, nor being able to speak out on them all. But does it mean to give up?

Thoughts about this made me chosing the title “Never stop reminding”, not least because part of the strategy of human rights abusers, of autocrats, dictatorial governments, corporate enterprises confronted with criticism, or any individual accused of abusive behavioir is to sit it out, to wait, to see the story disappear.

Like individual conscience requires to constantly register what is wrong, or right, or justified, the same is true on a societal level. And just leaving it to others, or to media, or watchdogs, it amounts to becoming complicit, first through looking away, then through inaction.


After I wrote the second blog entry on violence against women, “An upsetting update – Violence against Women“, a friend sent me an article from the German newspaper “TAZ”: “Die Feigheit der Maenner” or “The Cowardice of Men”. The OpEd by Waltraud Schwab states that men who are integer and sensible to gender issues, but remain silent, become complicit with perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence.

Inaction can take many forms, like, looking away or pretending to not being aware. Inaction of this type can happen whilst the same individual will take a decisive position against sexual violence and abuse in meetings. I have witnessed it often: Managers coming back from meeting their superiors, passing the message about gender equality policy down the chain of command, and then, in the hallways, you will hear them talking under their breath. And others, who notice this schizophrenic attitude, remaining silent. Or, as the TAZ notes: Becoming complicit.


Of course it is not easy to speak up. It may be uncomfortable. It may create alienation. It may lead to being labeled self-righteous, dogmatic, fundamentalist, zealous, or naively idealistic. It is not easy to find the right balance in this. Once an individual is labeled this way, ostracising him or her serves the silent majority, and the perpetrators. But, what is the result of remaining silent? Pretty much the same outcome, in terms of serving those who abuse.

So, as always, it is a matter of balance. Yet, the healthiness of a society can also be measured by whether, and to which extent, this society keeps a living register of things considered to be wrong, unethical, fundamentally harmful for individuals and communities, or outright criminal. Such a living register is comprised of formal elements like public institutions of governance, or institutions which should be constitutionally protected in their independence, such as media, and the set of registers also requires maximum involvement of civil society.

But nothing of that can take away the responsibility of an individual to be actively part of it.


Does it make sense? Or is it just self-righteous rambling? Well, that is very much depending on the attitude with which the above is being judged. And at the end, I rather like to be looked at as rambling than being looked at as someone who contributes to the silence of the lambs.


Therefore, here two more news from today:

https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/eu-sanktionen-117.html: The European Union is imposing sanctions on China because of human rights violations related to the Uighurs.

And a masterpiece of investigative journalism uncovering the hydra of organized crime circumventing sanctions against North Korea, supplying the Dictator’s regime with oil.


Enjoy your Monday! My next article will be more focused again. Except, if it will not: https://zdfheute-stories-scroll.zdf.de/corona_psyche/index.html is a brilliant piece in German, about how the ongoing pandemic-lockdown has neurophysiological impact on the brain, including fatigue, inability to remember, or to focus.

An upsetting update – Violence against Women

Three days ago I published a post “Violence against women is endemic in every country and culture“. In it, I expressed my worries about an ongoing erosion of achievements including in the domain of protecting women, children, or any gender and sexual identification. I did refer to profound calls from the World Health Organisation, and I put male supremacy and misogyny into a larger context in which I also quoted two German publications. Within our current global resurging of nationalist and fascist tendencies I spoke about the connection between “manhood” and nationalist archetypes of “heroism” on the one side and the restoration of a “national gender order” on the other side, meaning men first, women second, and labeling anything else as deviant, weak, or sick.

That was three days ago.

Yesterday, I woke up to BBC News and then, later to news from Balkan Insight on Turkey’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Violence Treaty, or so-called “Istanbul Convention” of the Council of Europe, to which Turkey had become a signatory ten years ago. BBC published an article “Domestic violence: Turkey pulls out of Istanbul convention“. Turkey pulled out of an international accord designed to protect women, seeking to prevent, prosecute and eliminate domestic violence.

It appears the Turkish President gave in to Turkish conservatives arguing that “its principles of gender equality and non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation undermine family values and promote homosexuality.”


There you go. I was as stunned as many in the World. This time, in difference to the “manhood”-aspects of male misogyny in a right-wing-nationalist context, the argument was offered by conservatives in Turkey which clearly also point into the religious/cultural dimension of misogyny and shameful attitude making women second class citizens, at best.

But what completely got under my skin was that a country is withdrawing from a convention protecting women, seeking to prevent, prosecute and eliminate domestic violence, with the argument that the spirit of that convention undermines family values and promotes homosexuality.

The argument implies that protecting women against violence goes against family values.

I am speechless.

Others were not. I was at least happy enough to see, when reading Balkan Insight, that protesters took the street in Istanbul. I can only hope they are being joined by many. Of course, with all necessary pandemic-related precautions. But the first demonstration on that matter here in Belgrade, or in Berlin: Count me in.

Like in my previous article, my concern goes beyond the already horrible reality on the plight of women and other vulnerable groups. My concern relates to the erosion of values that I have expressed in many blog articles. It appears to be a process in slow motion, which makes it difficult to see. And after the change towards a new U.S. President just in January this year, people might even believe that we are back on track restoring the old values which we believe in.

Which will remain to be seen. It may be the case for the next two years, or after the next mid-term-elections, for a full four-year-speriod, and I do pray for that the return to a cultivated political discourse promotion values including human rights, democracy, and a rule of law, will last. But nobody can say whether this will be the case, or the reocurrence of the old political culture will just have been an interlude.

I see erosion, and this being an example for erosion in the neighborhood of the European Union. Some people wrote me yesterday and indicated that with this, any discussion about an integration of Turkey into the EU should be closed for the moment. But I would want to make the point that the erosion of values is also happening INSIDE the European Union. Of course, people will look at countries such as Hungary, or Poland.

That is why I do point towards countries within the core of the EU, such as Germany or France. Let us not be hypocritical and let us not fly blind through wishful thinking and denial. The seeds of erosion are everywhere at this moment.

We are not safe from these developments, whereever we live. But whereever we live, we can continue to contribute to a humble display of the values which we believe in. I fear that, as always, antagonisation will just ride us deeper into that mud, will get us closer to a very slippery slope. Once we have reached that, the erosion of things will speed up.

We have it in our own hands, for the sake of our children.

Y.A.C.D. – Yet Another Covid Day

07:04 AM: Getting up, preparing the first coffee, focusing on mindful awareness as my go-to-tool helping my mind from immediately entering the worry cycle.

07:25 AM: My first defeat on the resolve drinking less coffee. Attempting to slow down my eternal morning routine: Sipping coffee, browsing through the daily reprieve of online news.

08:17 AM: Planning my morning, I am thinking of getting myself a haircut today before having a shower. Since 13 months now I am cutting my hair myself.


The above is what I wrote yesterday morning. Then, no more writing happened. We all experience this fatigue. Waking up, I begin my day with a small exercise in mindfulness, focusing on things I am grateful for. I manage to gain some energy for a few hours, get myself into some productivity in my home office, needing a few meditation breaks in order to replenish my motivational energy. At around lunchtime, I feel that the morning has passed way too quick, and following through with my plan to do an exercise ends up as a struggle: Sometimes I succeed getting myself on my bike, sometimes I am just able to make myself going for a walk in the nearby park. When I come back, I feel tired. A nap either allows me to get a little more energy for working away again, way less than I had hoped for. Sometimes I get lost in reading news. Sometimes I get lost in some small IT projects that I like to dabble with. And around 4pm, my mind and body anticipate the upcoming winter darkness, fatigue is joined by exhaustion, melancholy, winter depression. Way too early I loose focus, and the wish to go to bed early, well known by many during the winter period, it becomes stronger. So I engage in communication via Zoom, WhatsApp, or iMessage with loved ones, try to stay away from worrying thoughts, sometimes successfully, more often not. Around 8pm the sadness anomaly disappears and is replaced by normal evening fatigue. Usually I fall asleep soundly, sometimes too late after a Netflix or Youtube binge, and the next day I hit the “Repeat-Button”.


Then there are those events which make me feel helpless and upset. Like, that getting a PCR-test was an exercise in surviving the Balkan version of an administrative nightmare stressing me out. That I did not get the PCR-test back in time (my bad, I banked on faster test results). That I had to reschedule my flight to Berlin by one week, needing a second PCR-test. Each test here is more expensive than the entire flight for myself and my cat! Now I have to pay twice, upon arrival in Berlin I am obliged to self-quarantine, after five days I can shorten the isolation period by half if, guess what, I present another negative PCR-test. Then I will be able to expose myself to the harsh lockdown scenario in Germany. When I plan to travel back here to the Balkans, guess what, I will have to do another PCR-test. Today I am reading on the German discussion how to soften some restrictions, as infection figures and infection deaths continue to decline: Some are discussing that a visit to a hairdresser may require to present a negative PCR-test, no older than 48 hours. Oh man, I will continue to cut my own hair for yet another year. Have I told the story how the administrative systems in some Federal States in Germany allowed sex workers to take up their jobs again during the relief period after the first lockdown in summer 2020? Clients had to sign in upon entering the premises, disinfect their hands dutifully, wear a surgical facemask at all times, and then engage in getting the rest of the body fully touching another persons body as part of the transaction. When I read it, I reckoned that wearing a facemask may even be helpful in setting up some positive emotional tension between the people engaging with each other.

There will be many stories how we handle the crisis that will sound funny and weird long after.

These are personal observations dealing with a helplessness which is hitting everyone, and many people suffer much harder from it than I do. They can’t travel. They can’t get their kids to kita or school. They can’t get household help. They have to work from home, with their kids around, and relationship stress often adds to anxiety. Fear of unemployment or business failure comes on top of it. We all know it: Since one year we pile anger on helplessness and throw copious amounts of fear on top. Silently or loudly we want to rage, or we do. I wrote about domestic violence in another blog entry. And my favorite prayer, the serenity prayer, becomes a staple for those who try to stay sane: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change…

We are called upon exercising extraordinary serenity, to an extent unheard of for many of us. Many of us have no skills for that. Whenever we fail, the result is depression and emotional pain. Since it is lasting so long now, I am sure the depression and pain has already begun to decouple from the triggering events and situations: Depression may become the new normal, staying with us for a long time even after we may have successfully passed through this crisis.

Of special note for me, as a parent in a long-distance family situation: I see my teenage children struggling with deprivation from contacts to their peers when they need this most: At a time when they begin to unfold their wings, when parents can become a nuisance and time with peers provides opportunity to find the own identity, the pandemic deprives teenagers from needs of being in close contact with others. And when I see them having the opportunity to meet, whether in Serbia, in Germany, or in Canada, I see them doing what they need most: Touching and hugging, flirting and kissing, holding hands, sitting on each others laps. If we prevent them from this, long enough, I fear we create significant damage. I’m not saying we should not uphold restrictions making life safe for all of us, as good as we can. I’m not saying I have an alternative solution. I am saying that we are globally locked into a most challenging discourse about what we can do to mitigate the consequences of our preventative actions.

Others have, unfortunately, plenty of wisdom on offer: Those, for example, who engage in conspiracy theories and deny facts, existence of threats, establishing fake narratives of threats including some which I had barely heard of a few years ago, and which now have become mainstream for millions. Such as, that the Democrats in the U.S.A. are cannibals and secret members of networks exploiting children for sexual abuse. Mindblowingly extreme, and just one example for a full set of speculative and maliciously manipulative narratives. Conspiracy theories have been thriving since mankind exists, but the extent to which they have taken roots lately is, in my view, unheard of. Millions and millions of people increasingly believe in a version of how to explain the world that has nothing to do with reality at all. And they all vote.


It is common experience that extreme developments always exist on a soil which is allowing them to grow. And often, the real threat sits with the abnormities and shifts in polarization that characterise the so-called “more normal”, or the less extreme. Or, to put it into the opposite statement: Where there is growing extremism, there also is a growing shift in mainstream opinions, beliefs, and attitudes. The extreme ends of opinions and viewpoints can not exist in isolation, mainstream and extremism are interdependent. The more we are able to maintain an educated and moderate mainstream discourse, and the more we are able to motivate our fellow human beings to participate in it, the less we see extremism, in quantity and quality. And, again, turning the sentence into its opposite: The more we fail in maintaining a culture of a civil discourse, the more we fail to live our human values, and see our public representatives getting away with obvious selfishness, carelessness, and bullying, the more the mainstream system enters into an existential crisis. And it is this disillusion of many, festering under the skin of “normalcy” within the mainstream, which allows extreme views to grow, and which allows extremism and populism. First it happens in the dark, then it steps out into bright visibility. Soon enough, we hear again the perennial question: “How could this happen?”

This becomes especially relevant during the current yearlong and global Covid-pandemic.


I am following this train of thoughts which can give the impression of a personal rambling, simply because I am looking for a writing style which reflects my being personally affected on deepest levels. There is simply no way to have a discourse about what happens to us these days without acknowledging that we are all driven by deep-seated anxiety, fear, the feeling of helplessness, and anger. No discussion on what we are experiencing and what we can do can stay on a truly dispassionate academic level. Those who try will be disconnected.

But what I also believe is that we have to be as precise in this discourse as we can possibly be. I will end this with an example, but before that I want to make one point:

The Covid-19-pandemic is often compared with the last global pandemic of our times, the Spanish Flu. Which happened in the 1920’s. It is safe to say that those times were very different. Unlike then, the Covid-19-pandemic is happening in the age of globalisation. Of course, the Spanish Flu impacted globally. But the means of interconnection and transportation were very different 100 years ago. And so were the means of global policy connection and communication: News and discussions required time for communication and collaboration. Because everything was less connected, collaboration was more local than global. Networks have become instantaneous these days. Global economic systems are interconnected unlike ever before during mankind’s history. News travel in seconds, decisions require to be taken in much shorter periods of time, since they impact on all others in a global context.

So, here is my point:


Mainly, our systems of governance are based on the concept of Nation States. Over time, some supranational systems of governance have emerged and Nation States have delegated various instruments into regional, or in the case of the United Nations, global hands. Yet, Nation States are the powerhouses of policy, delegation of action was arduous, and always precarious when it comes to internal and external security matters. At times, I have witnessed a corporate will to increase the role of supranational organisations, such as the European Union, and at other times, I have seen, like now, a trend back to nationalism.

Yet, no Nation State of today is able to exist without the deep and instantaneous global interdependency that is the result of irreversible globalisation. So, when Covid-19 struck, Nation States had to make most rapid decisions, because their neighbors did. In a race to look left and right, policymakers struggled to come up with responses that made at least some sense within their own jurisdictions, taking into account that nobody can make isolated decisions. We all know about the struggle to base these policy decisions on hard scientific facts.

What I observe is that we had no time for long discussions. We had to do things. So, for example, in Germany, we did things unheard of in the history of post-war Germany: We imposed restrictions on basic human and citizen’s rights to an extent locking down an entire country, in no time at all. We shut down the economy, and we made people stay at home, even limiting, by regulation, whether and how many contacts outside of their respective core family these citizens were allowed to have. We let old people die in hospitals without allowing relatives to visit them. All that not only in Germany, but globally.

However, the justification with which we do this, it requires, at least in States and societies observing a rule of law, that the restrictions are based on lawful decisions. It is my impression that the velocity and the scale on which we had to do this did not allow the instruments of the rule of law to follow at the same speed. So we acknowledged that we may face times when the courts of justice will finally catch up with administrative and legal decisions being made, judging whether these were lawful, or whether laws were compliant with the basic rules of the respective constitution which all of our modern Nation States have.

Nothing of that has been relevant in the perception of the majority of citizens. What we all have seen and perceived was that, with a snap, our freedom was seriously curbed, many would say that their freeedom was taken away. Whether we live in Germany, or anywhere else, we have seen that the same happened, sometimes more, and sometimes less harsh, everywhere. We have seen governments and administrations limiting our freedom within days, only to reopen, and then, when the pandemic hit again, close down again, within days. We all have felt that we are at the mercy of “our politicians”, as the simplified language would go.

A few days ago, I watched a livestream discussion between a representative of the German Ethics Commission and a journalist. The representative of the Ethics Commission explained why they believe we need to continue upholding a lockdown whilst initial decline in new cases can be registered. And twice, the journalist asked: “When will we be given our individual human rights back?” He meant the constitutional and universal human right of liberty and freedom to move. Truly, the journalist asked this question with best intentions.

Yet, the question is fundamentally wrong: Within the German constitutional system, individual human and citizens rights are inalienable, they are explicitly meant to be defense rights against the State. They can not be taken away in their entirety. They can be restricted, as long as their core substance continues to exist, which includes that restrictions are temporary, and that any restriction must be based on a common law that is subject to scrutiny by parliamentarian and judicial mechanisms. Administrative by-laws and normative decisions affecting constitutional rights without authorizing laws are unlawful.

And this is just Germany. Other States have different constitutional setups. But in contemporary understanding of the Western World, all these different setups preserve values which are believed to be universal, such as through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and all these national setups do follow an understanding of a rule of law.

Covid-19, however, requires global preventative countermeasures with serious impact on human rights being implemented irrespective whether the local political system of governance follows democratic values, or is based on, say, the rule of authoritarians, or systems exerting governance without accepting human rights and the rule of law in the same understanding as we believe in. And globally, citizens see that, notwithstanding how their governance is set up, their liberties are massively taken away.

This allows for the impression that we all are subject to decisions by rulers. I’d like to think that in a democratic system those who exercise authority do this because the electorate has delegated the duty of decisionmaking for the common welfare and good to elected representatives. Thus, we need to be precise, because global countermeasures against the Covid-19 pandemic affect the credibility of all systems of governance. We may be in a situation where different systems of governance begin to compete demonstrating that some are more fit to react in crises like these than others. This can add to the credibility crisis of democracy as a system of governance.

Ending on a positive note, with the Biden Administration in the U.S. engaging in cooperative values that had been abandoned for four years, we may have a chance to rebuild strength and credibility in systems of democratic governance based upon human rights and the rule of law. It comes with a huge task: We must be able to continue and become better in explaining why restrictive measures are necessary. We must hold ourselves accountable to a precise discourse, one in which we have zero-tolerance for an erosion of an understanding that all human rights are equal and that there is no individual human right which may be more important than another one. The right to liberty and freedom is equal to any other right, and we must carefully balance any restriction of it.

Reassurance or Concern?

This morning I’m waking up in my campervan (the best means of coping with the Covid-19-pandemic in isolation) in a quiet street in Berlin, wrapping my mind around the last things to do before heading back to Serbia by the end of this week. With my first morning coffee I am fueling up on caffeine, reading the news. Again, an article in the New York Times stands out: “Trump’s Call Leaves Allies Fearful for American Democracy”.

The hopefully outgoing incumbent of the Office of The President of The United States is still able to reach new levels of reckless destructive and manipulative action. It should not surprise anyone after four years, but raise the alarm bells on what may still be waiting for us: We should have learned by now that the mindset of this person does simply not know the notion of stopping to escalate until he has won. That is why I say “hopefully outgoing”. I will wait for January 20 events unfolding, and there is no doubt on my mind that notwithstanding whether he leaves the White House voluntarily or not, he will continue to assert he is the rightful President of the United States. We will hear this for the next four years.

The current cycle of news revolves around a long phone call which he had placed to the Secretary of State of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, last Saturday. You can read the full transcript of the leaked content of this call here. On behalf of many articles, I am quoting 5NBCDFW: “President Donald Trump pressured Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find” enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s win in the state’s presidential election, repeatedly citing disproven claims of fraud and raising the prospect of a “criminal offense” if officials did not change the vote count, according to a recording of the conversation.

The phone call caused national and international uproar, and this is what the New York Times article is about. But between the phone call and this uproar, another thing happened: Ashton Carter, Dick Cheney, William Cohen, Mark Esper, Robert Gates, Chuck Hagel, James Mattis, Leon Panetta, William Perry and Donald Rumsfeld are the 10 living former U.S. secretaries of defense. January 03, 2021, they jointly published an OpEd in the Washington Post. In this OpEd, all ten, including two who have served under Donald Trump, warn: Involving the military in election disputes would cross into dangerous territory.”

Wow.

Have ten distinguished officials, highly decorated Generals, career diplomats and politicians, gone lunatic? Have ten former Secretaries of Defence, responsible for the undoubtedly most powerful military force of this world, both Democrats and Republicans, lost their minds? When I wrote to my former partner the other day that Hell’s Gates are still open, she agreed but said “Don’t become morbid”. Of course I try not to. Have ten highly trained people with access to the most privileged secrets of the Western Hemisphere become morbid and did they collectively loose their marbles? Of course not, this question is purely rhetorical.

Let me quote the man himself, Donald Trump, during an electoral rally yesterday, January 04, in the U.S. State of Georgia. Both he and President-elect Joe Biden had come to Georgia supporting the run-off elections deciding between Democratic and Republican contestants for the U.S. Senate. Trump used his rally appearance mostly for airing his own grievances. And he said: “They’re not going to take this White House. We’re going to fight like hell, I’ll tell you right now.” During the past four years, he always made no secret about what he was about to do.

Whatever happens January 20, I join those who fear the long-term damage that is applied to democratic principles, and the rule of law. 74 million Republican voters are being made to believe that a rightful win was robbed from them. With literally no piece of evidence, and with numerous cases thrown out of courts in the U.S. because of that fundamental lack of evidence, with numerous re-counts and audits, the current President and his supporters still amplify a message that this all is not true, that there allegedly is overwhelming evidence for a massive attack of sinister Democratic forces against the rightful will of the people. 74 million good American minds kept in captivity.

This is where Jean-Marie Guehenno, the President of the International Crisis Group ICG comes in. Guehenno is a distinguished former United Nations Undersecretary of the Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO, now known as Department for Peace Operations DPO). I adore him, and I know his trustworthiness on a deep professional and personal level: He was my highest boss during two tours of duty with the United Nations between 2000 and 2004. He interviewed me for the job as UN Police Commissioner in the UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK. I personally introduced him and his boss, the late former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, into policing developments in the northern parts of Kosovo. And I briefed him about the situation in Kosovo a few days before those terrible days in March 2004. Later, I would see him again in my capacity as an official of the European Union, and I would not forget his legacy when I came back to the U.N. as the UN Police Adviser, between 2013 and 2017.

So, Jean-Marie is one towering giant in the realm of peace&security who I place personal trust into. In the NYT article which I read this morning, Guehenno is quoted with a sentence on his Twitter-account (@JGuehenno) “Should we be reassured on U.S. democracy when 10 former defense secretaries warn against use of the military to dispute election results, or terrified that they believe taking a public stance has become necessary?”

Exactly.

Social Media Manipulation – An Example

So, here is a little story: STRATCOM is the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence. Recently, they re-ran a test of “the ability of social media companies to identify and remove manipulation”. The result is published, the report can be viewed and downloaded here. It is titled “Social Media Manipulation 2020”.

What did they do, in a nutshell? The researchers used thirty-nine authentic posts on FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Tic Toc. As far as I see from related news, for this they cooperated with two U.S. politicians, one a Republican, the other one a Democrat. The German news about it can be found on the German tech-news-site HEISE. Using these thirty-nine posts on social media, STRATCOM bought fake engagement on these posts from three specialised Russian service providers. Providers like these offer manipulated engagement with existing posts, for example. I guess they also offer much more, but this is just an example in which authentic posts of legitimate and appropriate information content were used, since this is NATO. The researchers paid the ridiculously small amount of 300 Euro to these Russian providers.

What did they get in return? 1150 comments, 9690 likes, 323202 views, and 3726 shares! Meaning plain and simple: I can create content on social media, with good, questionable or malicious intentions, and instead of hoping that I will attract many comments, likes, and views on my own, I can buy fake ones. Comments, likes and views increase the “digital weight” of the post. The more of this “digital value”, the more likely other people will look on these pieces of information or disinformation, and the more likely also these posts will be ranked higher by Internet search engines, such as Google. Finally, I can also buy distribution, through shares, of these artificially boosted posts. The more “oomph” I have in getting these informations pieces out into the right target groups, the more I increase chances of further distribution. And I pay very little money for it.

So, let me use a hypothetical example, but one which is commonly being used for manipulation purposes: I create a story with specific target groups in mind. Examples are countless. Like fake news stories which were designed for target groups of color in the U.S. in 2016. They were designed to raise doubt within these groups that a contender, in that case the democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, would be really interested in matters of grave concern for those communities of color. The unauthentic or fake pieces of news were designed to reduce the willingness of people in these target groups to participate in the elections. Many of us, I guess and hope, know about this form of manipulation. It also happened 2020, and it is fair to say that both domestic actors and foreign forces all over the world use this tactic in order to influence the outcome of an electoral process. It happens everywhere, it is commonplace. And it is manipulation at least, and more often violating law in many jurisdictions. But what it chiefly does: It contributes to burning credibility of truth to ashes. It leads to so much confusion about which information I can trust, and which not, that people may give up, or they just decide to only believe what their “friends” say.

By the way, coming to think of it: When sites like FaceBook (I don’t remember who came up with it first) began to abuse the term “friend” for the process of clicking a button asking somebody to “be my friend” and the invited party just accepting this request, I had a revolting feeling in my stomach. It lasts until today and is one of the reasons why I only engage minimally on social media. The notion of reducing the term “friend” to a digital connection with no real deeper meaning feels like the strike of an evil genius to me. It leads to the craving of having as many friends as possible, it is part of the addictive design of social media sites. It hollows out any real understanding of what friendship means. Terms like “friend” and “follower” are almost equal in their meaning. I need these digital friends for status and validation. Having friends has become an online currency. It is like a material possession, not an internal value which gives me the comfort of a deeper emotional, intellectual and spiritual connection to another person in whose well-being I take an interest. It adds to real-world-isolation because it strips the notion of having friends from what the term means in real social life. May be that is for a deeper reflection in another blog article. But ultimately, this manipulation can be used in order to get people into a network of “friends” for purposes of influencing them, depriving them from other sources of information, making them pawns in a game they do not understand, but crave to be part of. Emotions like the wish to belong mix with emotions such as fear, and anger, fake information is being used as a narrative giving them a feeling of meaning.

Back to the STRATCOM report: The first remarkable fact in the results of this research for me was the price for this form of manipulation. 300 Euro is so cheap that this service can be used as a mass tool, whenever this suits own devious interests. 

Secondly, this is a shadowy grey and a criminal market. The methodology can be used by State actors with sophisticated technology and staff at hand. Or money, just hiding traces and buying a service from some groups like the above. Likewise, non-State actors can use it for political purposes, for ideological purposes, for religious purposes, or as a marketing tool. Which is a hint towards how wide the scope of potential manipulation is. The targets are you and I, and we may, very often, not ever know that we were manipulated. So, this is a profound ethical issue with consequences for whether, and how, we want to regulate it, how we want to deal with it.

Thirdly, STRATCOM re-ran the test because they did it before. They did that because the industry promised they would get better at identifying manipulation like this, better at identifying fake, or robot, accounts. Better at curbing influence. The conclusions of the report state that “platforms continue to vary in their ability to counter manipulation of their services”. Read the details, I’m not going to rank services here myself. But there are platforms where manipulation requires a small effort and where costs are one thenth of what is to be invested on other platforms.

Fourthly, the report makes it clear that these actors are not a few, they are an industry. One chapter is titled “The Social Media Manipulation Industry”. With market rules which survived efforts to fight this industry. Quoting the report: “Social media manipulation remains widely available, cheap, and efficient, and continues to be used by antagonists and spoilers seeking to influence elections, polarise public opinion, sidetrack legitimate political discussions, and manipulate commercial interests online.” 

Fifthly, the report states that this industry prospered during 2020. I finish with quoting the three core insights which the researchers came up with:

  1. “The scale of the industry is immense. The infrastructure for developing and maintaining social media manipulation software, generating ficticious accounts, and providing mobile proxies is vast. We have identified hundreds of providers. Several have many employees and generate significant revenues. It is clear that the problem of inauthentic activity is extensive and growing.
  2. During the past year the manipulation industry had become increasingly global and interconnected. A European service provider will likely depend on Russian manipulation software and infrastructure providers who, in turn, will use contractors from Asia for much of the manual labour required. Social media is now a global industry with global implications.
  3. The openness of this industry is striking. Rather than lurking a shadowy underworld, it is an easily accessible marketplace that most web users can reach with little effort through any search engine. In fact, manipulation service providers still advertise openly on major social media platforms and search engines.” 

What do do? Of course, we have a regulation debate. Part of the findings relate to that social media promised earlier to root out this phenomenon, but that they have not become good at it. To me it feels like the contrary, may be because of unwillingness, sloppiness, or the sheer size of the problem. Or any combination of these three. However, regulation always leads to an escalation, or attempts to evade, if the business model generates revenue. Which it clearly does.

My take is to focus on education. I am not a young nerd. I am a nerd in my early sixties. This world rapidly changes, and often I don’t like the course. But disengagement is, I feel, not an option. It is about giving people the knowledge and skills to make their own informed decisions. That is a core principle of open societies based on democratic rules. Truth matters, so we need to know about how truth is demolished in the digital invisible world of the Internet. We need to be able to learn, staying curious about learning, engaging in meaningful discussions, empower people to better identify manipulation when it occurs, giving them the skillset needed for quality decisions for their own lives.

When I talk to my youngest children about how much of their personal information is sucked from their smartphones, iPads, and computers without their knowledge, I am often presented with a sense of “why bother, I don’t feel it, I don’t feel harmed, or hurting”. May be we need to find ways how to reinforce the understanding as to which extent the digital and the real world are interconnected. People seem to discriminate between these two worlds. 

Education is more relevant than regulation. Which motivated me writing this article. Hope you enjoyed reading it.

2020 – Closing Thoughts – Looking Ahead

I don’t recall any other year comparable to 2020. If I go back in my memory, at the time of events even years like 1989 appear to have felt less intense with regards to the global revolutionary impact. But that’s just me comparing on a very subjective level. In any case, the changes, the tectonic shifts that we have witnessed in 2020 are beyond anything that we might have imagined. And there is one experience from events such as those unfolding in 1989 which will be true for 2000, too: In many ways I only understood the local, regional, and global consequences of the end of the Cold War only gradually, throughout many subsequent years. Like when I analysed the development of peacekeeping since its beginning in 1946. You can read about it here. When I analysed facts and figures related to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, a new dimension of my understanding of how deeply 1989 had influenced global development opened up. I’m not saying I wasn’t aware of it before. Neither that analysing aspects of peacekeeping completed my understanding of what happened in 1989. It just opened my eyes about the complexity of the impact of that year. Studying it as comprehensive as possible takes a lifetime of historians, sociologists, political analysists, and so on. And on Peacekeeping, 2020 had a huge impact, whilst the entire topic itself literally went on the backburner of public perception. As always, when things get us out of our comfort zone into fear, we tend to neglect, or forget, those who really suffer.

On a similar impact level like 1989, I also do not forget 2001, with its September 11th. The same tectonic shifting is true here.

And it will be true for 2020. Yet, we feel the impact in ways very much different to those events 36 years ago, and may be also compared to 19 years ago, except those who suffered from the terror attack directly in New York City. 2020, the foundations of what we have become used to, they are shattered in their core on a global level. The measures implemented to fight the pandemic, the lockdowns, the social distancing, the constant news about ups and downs in the fight, hope, despair, the experience of depression and helplessness, it creates one huge yarnball of fear in our stomachs all over the world. The dimension of change in private lives, economics, and societies, they are endless. I guess “Home Office” is the topic which comes to most minds in high-tech countries. But that is just for starters.

Of course, the pandemic and its impact does not stand on its own. The crisis of democracy which we see continuing to unfold in menacing ways, it adds to confusion, polarization, and fear. But still, this is just the surface of the entire development. The crisis response that we could witness with all its faults and all its successes cannot be looked at in isolation. The pandemic has an impact on everything else which is ongoing. Which at times gives space to discussions such as: Would we have done the same under different circumstances, when it comes to fighting Covid-19? And this is tricky, because I do not want to contribute to any speculation that the crisis response has been used as a pretext for something that has been motivated differently, perhaps mischieveously. This is a pathway quickly leading into the most horrible type of discourse where people begin to de-legitimize any crisis response and also attempt to minimize the threat that is stemming from this global pandemic. A taxi-driver in Belgrade who brought me to the airport told me: “Covid is a machination of the pharma-industry. It has been created as a myth in order to sell vaccines. Wait for it, in April Covid is gone.” The insanity of this simple circular logic is almost ridiculous, but how do regular people feel when historians, sociologists, politicians, epidemiologists, and all else, struggle with giving an answer on something which is only beginning to be understood, whilst the explosive and utterly pervasive impact of it affects the lives of billions of people in life-threatening ways? How to mentally deal with explaining circumstances when you are loosing your job because an economy is melting down? Add the conspiracy-theorists, the fearmongers, the deniers, the liars, whatever. It just increases the desire of many people to find an explanation and to re-direct their fear.

A surgical analysis of what happened as the crisis unfolded will require years. As history is not an exact science, the conclusions will be expressed in untold and diverse, certainly at times contradicting assessments. We will see heated discussions for decades to come.

But what is it what we can see right now? It is very clear that the Covid pandemic did not happen as an isolated crisis but it did unfold at a time when other tectonic tensions were there, or materializing, at the same time. The development has become so interdependent that effects of various crises had a chaotic and hardly predictable impact on other crises. It is all a huge, a gigantic mess. Which reinforces fear. Nobody understands. The wish to blame someone, or something, it is a consequence of rage and fear towards something invisible. People feeling the pain from depression and helplessnes, they want to “smash”, but what?

Some other crises unfolding before and throughout 2020 that have not gone away, and which require more attention than we may have been able to give to them, are:

The Covid pandemic has not just made global warming going away. It has superseded any discussion about it, and it has helped radical deniers of global warming to get away with chopping off previous achievements on environmental protection.

The crisis of legitimacy of the Western system of peace and security, which is in existence since more than 75 years, it has been building up for quite some time, was becoming scarily visible and menacing from 2016 onwards, and further unfolded during the same time when we were hit by the pandemic. Even more: The requirements necessary fighting a pandemic, and even the assessment of the dangers stemming from Covid-19, that all was taken hostage in ways still numbing my mind. The casualties of instrumentalising a pandemic for political fights, including ripping down institutions, they are real. At the time of this writing the United States is going through an unprecendetend challenge of the electoral system, with protagonists of this attack entirely neglecting the pandemic. I don’t want to speculate about numbers, but saying that many thousands, or tens of thousands of people could have been rescued, it is a given. Who will hold those accountable who have, with a clear and insane mind, done that, whilst they swore an oath to protect their citizens, rather than themselves, their riches, their families, and servile friends?

The global economic competition like between China and the United States, or Europe, was in existence before the pandemic. Economic consequences of the pandemic are affecting individual citizens, households, communities, societies. How do we cooperate in a world with limited resources, in which 2020 witnessed an impact which could be partially mitigated in rich countries, but not at all in poor countries? What does the pandemic mean in terms of fueling selfishness of economy? How did the economies send shockwaves into governing the pandemic, and how did the pandemic influence global competition? What will we see in 2021 and beyond? In essence, all these questions create uncertainty and fear. Which create selfishness.

The migration crisis was there, and has not gone away. Not only because of the global warming, or previoulsy existing instability and war. The shockwaves of the pandemic do add. Attempts to curb illegal migration, efforts to influence migration by means of supporting capacity development and economic and security perspectives for populations in threatened regions or on entire continents, it was there before. But how will this play out as we move on through the pandemic and it’s consequences? Will we continue with helping, or have we become used to locking down things, because we are experiencing this even by ourselves. Will this be used for building visible or invisible walls?

Autocratic governments controlling the population were in existence before and it did not stop because of the Covid pandemic. How will selfishness, fueled by the fearmongers of nationalism and xenophobia, influence policy on jointness, with some nations perhaps continuing to be willing to share, and others not? Will we be able to find strength for an new attempt to act collectively, instead of dividing and putting “My Country First”? Which, by the way, is a perfect example for lying straight into the faces of people, because in reality all these actors mean “Me First”.

I sometimes feel like the pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Obviously the Covid pandemic created interdependent effects in other major lines of global or regional political and societal development. Tectonic shifts happen only after a long building up of tension between tectonic plates which is mostly not seen and measurable only by using sophisticated technology. But the event triggering the cascade of effects that we feel in a gigantic earthquake, it can be comparatively small. A rupture in a small area can stand on its own when there is no build-up of larger tension. But beware: The tension may be there. In that case, hell is breaking loose once the weakest part of the chain is breaking and the chain reaction of events is unfolding in explosive succession. That is also how I look at the pandemic. It set off something way larger, and perhaps way more catastrophic.

Amongst many effects that came as a consequence of Covid-crisis-management I am also looking at two:

(1) The reoccurrence of borders in the European Union and the erosion of something that could be considered a core achievement inside the European Union, meaning the so-called Schengen Space. Millions of travellers in Europe have witnessed something that was always part of contingency planning in case of crisis management: The temporary re-instating of border control inside the Schengen Area. I believe it was never anticipated to happen on the scale as it did in spring 2020. When finally road travel under severe restrictions was possible again, I traveled devoid highways from South-East-Europe to Germany, with border control and temporary police checkpoints becoming semi-permanent. We all remember the eerily absence of the noise of aircrafts. For people like me, travel is the only way connecting me with my friends and family all over the world. Others felt it during holidays, some behaved, others didn’t. But once we got through the first lockdown and had to handle the first wave of anger about the possibility of new lockdowns springing up again, we also got used to it. So, with this Christmas bringing new lockdown measures, what will be the future of an interconnected world where the border-free Schengen Zone once was a hallmark achievement of the European Union? I am not sure the situation will go back to something called a “status quo ante“, the status like it was before. People who are critical to the vast arranging of border checks are already using an argument that the crisis has been used to erode achievements long held in the EU, and taking rights away, in order to control more. These opinions are inevitable, and may be at this moment is is hard to tell who is right and who is wrong. But it will require a sustained effort of political representatives, civil society, and all of us ourselves, to participate in this discourse. The silence of the lambs always has led to catastrophes, and more recently we saw this in well-established democracies who considered themselves to be the bedrock of the modern Western world.

(2) Connected to it is the velocity with which Covid crisis response mechanisms also severely affected individual rights of freedom of movement or freedom of expression of opinion and freedom to demonstrate. Even more, we are facing a holiday season where States regulate how many people from different households can meet inside their homes. I would, frankly, never had imagined that I am facing a situation where my brothers and I have to think about how to organise Christmas, because if the three of us including a few children and partners meet, we will exceed the permissible number of people gathering in one large house. These restrictions are new and subject to learning and regulation by legislators, but also by the courts. We have seen courts already doing what they have to do: Correcting measures of the executive, where excessive. Because we don’t have blueprints. We make mistakes, having the best intentions, but we make many. So it is a normal procedure that courts will contribute to acceptable application of law. At the same time, law is evolving as well. And like in the first example, the steering democratic discourse will require a sustained effort of political representatives, civil society, and all of us, ourselves. A discourse ensuring that the rule of law prevails.

Taken together, for me the two case-studies are examples for potential regression. Signature achievements being taken away, hopefully only temporarily. But it happens during a time where the Covid-pandemic, as I mapped out, does not stand on its own. It happens during a time of newly incensed nationalism, conservatism, renewed right-wing extremism, fascism on the rise, autocratic attacks on democracy and the rule of law intensifying. It comes at a time of effects that go beyond re-emergence of borders, and infringements on human rights which require rigid scrutiny. Motivations mingle: We see governments (like mine) attempting to act as responsible as possible with temporary restrictions. We see tendencies of xenophobia, attacks on minority rights, erosion of inalienable human and individual rights, and efforts to reverse hard-fought achievements in domains such as the right of women, or the rigths to which the LGBTQ-community is entitled. It is a wild mix of “retro” banding together, and I am certainly not saying they are motivated by the crisis coming with the pandemic, but all these developments fuel each other, and not to the best of humankind.

I can not help but feeling afraid. Whilst I fully appreciate the necessity to infringe on basic rights under extraordinary circumstances of threats, I also fear that we may have opened pandora’s box. The other day I had a coffee with a friend over a long (and socially-distanced) walk in the park. We were reflecting on the fatigue which we all sometimes feel. Like, “What difference do we make with our work and our passion?”. We both agreed that much of this fatigue comes from the depression which holds many people in their grip after now almost one full and grueling year of how individual life has been affected.

I have no other answer than that we need to continue. Human perception is always attracted by everything scary and negative. My experience is that, at the same time, we can also see, and focus on, how the best human attitudes have been shaped: Kindness, respect, nurturing relationships with different means, intensifying communication with loved ones, taking care the best way possible for lonely people. I’m not rambling at the end, I am just arguing that there is a need to focus on positive developments. Not only because it protects our mental health. More importantly because it truly makes a difference without which we would become silent lambs in the face of fear, anger, rage, and fearmongering. These four lead to isolation. There is no need for being isolated, or feeling so. I have had more contacts with friends and loved ones than I ever had before. Much of it, of course, with modern means of communication. But it has, very clearly, grounded me in a circle of people who I support, and who support me.

Merry Christmas!

Anger, Rage, Fear – The Change of How We Consume News

I’d like to quote Anne Applebaum from her book “Twilight of Democracy -The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism”, pages 110-114. At the end of this quotation you will find the same statement in relation to addictive manipulation by the likes of FaceBook, Google, and YouTube as I have been explaining in my blog article Add title – Start Writing. And just for the record, I wrote that blog entry before reading the below part in Anne Applebaum’s very insightful and readable book. Not because I’m claiming to be smart, but just to assure you I am not just copying and repeating something I have read. However, Anne Applebaum is smart. She is an American journalist and historian, not only with a distinguished history of publications, but with a very deep knowledge about European history and contemporary political and societal development. She spent vast stretches of her professional and private life in East- and West-Europe.

“In the more open societies of the West, we have become smug about our tolerance for conflicting points of view. But for much of our recent history, the actual range of those views was limited. Since 1945, the most important arguments have usually unfolded between the center right and the center left. As a result, the range of possible outcomes was narrow, especially in democracies like those in Scandinavia that were most inclined toward consensus. But even in the more raucious democracies, the field of battle was relatively well defined. In the United States, the strictures of the Cold War created bipartisan agreement around U.S. foreign policy. In many European countries, a commitment to the EU was a given. Most of all, the dominance of national television broadcasters – the BBC in Britain, the three networks in the United States – and broad-based newspapers that relied on broad-based advertising revenues meant that in most Western countries, most of the time, there was a single, national debate. Opinions diferred, but at least most people were arguing within agreed parameters.

That world has vanished. We now are living through a rapid shift in the way people transmit and receive political information – exactly the sort of communication revolution that has had profound political consequences in the past. All kinds of wonderful things flowed from the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century: mass literacy, the spread of reliable knowledge, the end of the Catholic Church’s monopoly on information. But those same things also contributed to new divisions, to polarization and political change. The new technology made it possible for ordinary people to read the Bible, a change that helped inspire the Protestant Reformation – and, in turn, many decades of bloody religious wars. Martyrs were hanged, churches and villages sacked in a furious, righteous maelstrom that subsided only with the Enlightenment and the broad acceptance of religious tolerance.

The end of religious conflict was the beginning of other kinds of conflicts, between secular ideologies and national groups. Some of these also intensified after another change in the nature of communication: The invention of radio at the end of the monopoly of the printed word. Hitler and Stalin were among the first political leaders to understand how powerful this new medium could be. Democratic governments struggled, at first, to find ways to counter the language of demagogues that now reached people inside their homes. Anticipating how divisive broadcasting might become, the United Kingdom in 1922 created the BBC, which was explicitly designed from the beginning to reach all parts of the country, not only to “inform, educate, entertain” but also to join people together, not in a single set of opinions but in a single national conversation, one that would make democratic debate possible. Different answers were found in the United States, we are journalists accepted a regulatory framework, libel  laws, licensing rules for radio and television. President Franklin Roosevelt created the fireside chat, the form of communication better suited to the new medium.

Our new communications revolution has been far more rapid than anything we know from the fifteenth century, or even the twentieth. After the printing press was invented, it took many centuries for Europeans to become literate; after radio was invented, newspapers did not collapse. By contrast, the rapid shift in advertising money to Internet companies has, within a decade, severely damaged the ability of both newspapers and broadcasters to collect and present information. Many, though not all, have stopped reporting news altogether; many, though not all, will eventually cease to exist. The most common business model, based on advertising to the general public, meant that they were forced to serve general public interest and forced to maintain at least a theoretical commitment to objectivity. They could be biased, bland, and boring, but they filtered egregious conspiracy theories out of the debate. They were beholden to courts and regulators. Their journalists conformed to formal and informal ethical codes.

Above all, the old newspapers and broadcasters created the possibility of a single national conversation. In many advanced democracies there is now no common debate, let alone a common narrative. People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts. At the same time, in an information sphere without authorities – political, cultural, moral – and no trusted sources, there is no easy way to distinguish between conspiracy theories and true stories. False, partisan, and often deliberately misleading narratives snow spread in digital wildfires, cascades of falsehood that move too fast for fact checkers to keep up. And even if they could, it no longer matters: a part of the public will never read or see fact-checking websites, and if they do they won’t believe them. Dominic Cummings’s Vote Leave campaign proved it was possible to lie, repeatedly, and to get away with it.

The issue is not merely one of false stories, incorrect facts, or even the election campaigns and spin doctors: the social media algorithms themselves encourage false perceptions of the world. People click on the news they want to hear; Facebook, YouTube, and Google then show them more of whatever it is that they already favor, whether it is a certain brand of soap or a particular form of politics. The algorithms radicalize those who use them too. If you click on perfectly legitimate anti-immigration YouTube sites, for example, these can lead you quickly, in just a few more clicks, to white nationalist sites and then to violent xenophobic sites. Because they have been designed to keep you online, the algorithms also favor emotions, especially anger and fear. And because the sites are addictive, they affect people in ways they don’t expect. Anger becomes a habit. Divisiveness becomes normal. Even with social media is not yet the primary news source for all Americans, it already helps shape how politicians and journalists interpret the world and portray it. Polarization has moved from the online world into reality.

The result is a hyper-partisanship that adds to the distrust of “normal” politics, “establishment” politicians, derided “experts”, and “mainstream” institutions – including courts, police, civil servants – and no wonder. As polarization increases, the employees of the state are invariably portrayed as having been “captured” by their opponents. It is not an accident that the Law and Justice Party in Poland, the Brexiteers in Britain, and the Trump administration in the United States have launched verbal assaults on civil servants and professional diplomats. It is not an accident that judges and courts and now the object of criticism, scrutiny, and anger in so many other places too. There can be no neutrality in a polarized world because there can be no nonpartisan or apolitical institutions.”

Part of my writing these days relates to the changes that have come with how our lifes are continuing to be transformed by social media. In this, the dense run-down from the 15th to the 20th and into the 21st century in the quotation above is brilliant. What becomes obvious to me (as we all establish our own interpretations of reality, I should only stay on my own side of the street) is to which extent the cohesion of a society and the underlying norms depend on some degree of “value-based order” in how news and opinion pieces are being narrated in that society. I would compare today’s technological development with some form of anarchy that is being usurped, exploited, and used for manipulation by individuals and groups with a deeply un-democratic attitude. The founding motto of the United Nations and the reasons for why it was created come to my mind: “Never Again”. History, once more, is repeating itself. But some things are profoundly new.

Also, again, the use of “algorithms” shows up. AI is, after all, a very complex and very specific form of an algorithm. It is a self-learning computer-based code that constantly changes itself within the framework of what it is directed to do: To turn input into a desired outcome. That outcome, at least for now, is defined by humans. I am still preparing something like a blog entry titled “AI For Dummies”.

However, speaking of those human engineers and their bosses who create and improve these forms of “social media”: As far as I know, they are also not only perfectly aware of but also purposefully using what we know about how to create addictive patterns of behavior. With addiction being something I do know a lot about. Because when I started to address my own compulsive self-harming behavior, I also began to dig deeper into the science of addiction. There are quite a few articles in my blog which carry that tag.

Deeper explanations may be for another article, but there is a direct link between emotions such as fear, anger, rage, and addiction. Every practising health professional and every recovering trauma survivor will tell you about it, and every student beyond freshman status, in fields such as addiction medicine, neuroscience or related will happily explain the inner workings within the brain that sit behind this connection. Like for “AI 101”, “Neurophysiology of Addiction 101” is for later. But I will say that forms of addictive compulsive behavior go way beyond a discourse of commoners in a society, and the proportion of individuals in a society being affected by this is including a vast number of people who just simply do not even know.

My friend from Long Island, New York State, decided to quit watching Cable News and reading blogs on contemporary U.S. politics. Shortly after the networks called Joe Biden the winner of these elections, she realized to which extent her usually peaceful life had gotten into a turmoil of fear and anger. She continued to watch the onslaught which is still fueling the news of CNN and others. She could not bear it any longer, and when she stopped watching, she felt withdrawal. She felt the same void which I described when I temporarily went off YouTube, once I realized to which extent my evenings had become endless hours of watching videos that were presented to me in endless succession because I had watched only one of them. Most recently, I looked up a new mini-drone, and it happened again: My YouTube homepage is overboarding with videos from vloggers putting that little technological marvel through its paces. And the more I watched, the more I got offered.

Now, this is a mechanism in order to sell products. Such as cute drones. So, the longer I continue to watch, the more likely I will buy one, right? Thats what these sites intend to do: Sell me more stuff. Those algorithms, they don’t care about whether I watch a video about a drone, or about a conspiracy theory, or a hate-speech by a politician. They will just present more of those, mercilessly, because they are just bits of computer-code. But when it comes to conspiracy theories, or hate-speech, I get presented with hate, divisiveness, anger. The increasing polarization that I see in traditional networks, it adds. If I don’t fall victim to wrong memories, news presentations by CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, they also became more polarised, often angry, the longer the onslaught by authoritarian politicians and their increasingly louder sycophants became. But these social media sites operate by attempting to get more and more of my screen time. Meaning I have less and less time for news that, at least to some degree, attempt to follow rules of value-based journalism. So, even if I want (which many don’t), I see less and less curated news, and more and more unspecified information and, simply, propaganda.

May be you want to watch this one, on propaganda. Its horrible and disturbing. Like this one. Or this one. Or you look up the OpEd of the Editorial Board of the Washington Post on the entire thing. But don’t blame me when you’re getting angry. Rather, try not to. Because I wrote on an earlier occasion that once somebody has made you angry, he or she has won over you.

I wrote to my friend: “When I get too upset about things (though rightfully), my mind is bordering insanity. Turning this into a positive statement, we need to learn from it. It is not about neglecting news, but learning to consume healthily, and more importantly contribute with our experiences to explaining what needs to change.”

If we want to experience peace and love, we need to practice it.

The feature picture of this article has been taken from https://discover.hubpages.com/health/Anger-and-Traumatic-Brain-Injury

Happy Thanksgiving, America – Meanwhile, Over Here

Happy Thanksgiving, America. This year, you are celebrating one of your most sacrosanct holidays under the weirdest of possible circumstances. Millions of people traveling to re-unite with family in the midst of a pandemic descending into disaster. Desperate for a sense of normalcy, craving to celebrate traditional values of homecoming to family and being grateful, you gather on airports, get on planes, playing a game of denial in assuring yourselves that you won’t be the ones who are carrying or getting the virus. Because a significant portion of you will. Or you may be believing the virus is a hoax, or not as dangerous as science says it is.

But in this game of russian roulette you are not holding the gun to your own head, at least not only. In banking on that you will escape that round in the chamber, you include the most vulnerable in your families into this game. Your parents and others in your family have not only grown to old age. They may also carry pre-existing conditions. Experts like Dr Fauci warning in strongest terms. I find it absolutely horrible to think about the tragic scenes that will occur, a few weeks later. Will they be buried in the sea of statistics, will those who have fallen victim to this collective denial just become more anonymous numbers in this collective shrugging of shoulders? Since I have friends and family in America, and not only in Canada or over here, in Germany and in Europe, I do care personally.

Meanwhile, over here, my father is hospitalized again in Bavaria. He is at old age, his health is deteriorating rapidly. And he is alone. Last time I was able to visit was this summer, when he was in another hospital. It was after the most intense lockdown in spring and I could only visit him under the strongest possible precautions. Distance. Desinfection. Masks. Time limitation. No hugs. Contact tracing. Like a little while later, when I quarantined for two weeks in Toronto in October in order to see my children after ten months of deprivation. Until I was released from quarantine, my children would visit me on the porch for a few minutes per day. Distance. Desinfection. Masks. Time limitation. No hugs. Contact tracing. It was almost unbearable for them, but we made it and the hugs thereafter, when I was allowed to enter their “bubble”, they felt a thousand times sweeter.

Winter is coming and I think that with the current Covid-19-situation I won’t be able to visit my lonely and scared father in the hospital. Meanwhile, my kids are in another lockdown in Toronto again. Also here, in Germany, the collective mechanism formed from Federal and State governments decided to double down on measures restricting us. Both in intensity, and in duration. The measures imposed in November do yield some success, we seem to be able to reverse the trend, but we are intensifying protective measures in order to protect the vulnerable and to make it until we have soaked ourselves in vaccines, collectively. And again, meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends in America. Be mindful, and be careful, will you?

You are not alone with all the crazies defying anything even resembling a minimum degree of logic and reasonable behavior. We have ’em crazies over here as well. The craziness is global. The virus is global. The pre-existing conditions for this craziness are global. I know for a fact that this did not start with the virus, the craziness was happily blossoming long before. Yet, it is frightening to see mass demonstrations in my beloved Berlin or Leipzig or in other cities, with thousands of what could be considered to be moderate citizens, expressing their frustration and scare, and sure their discontent or disapproval with decisions being made by the governments. This, in itself, is not crazy. It is absolutely what we want to see in a living and prospering democracy. But societal mainstream appears to allow mixing themselves in the wildest ways imaginable with far-right and far-left extremists. Conspiracy theorists throwing themselves happily into the bunch. In late spring I saw the same thing happening in Belgrade, where I am spending significant time. People got angry when the government, after the elections, planned to reinforce limitations, fearing the advent of the second wave.

Demonstrations in Germany were getting out of control in fall, people not respecting decisions on distance and mask-wearing that would allow for their exercising the fundamental right to demonstrate, and the right to express their opinions. People showing up (on purpose, thoughtless, uneducated, malicious, or what?) carrying a badge on their upper arms, of yellow color, with the words “not vaccinated” on them. Clearly a reference to the way how Jews were forced to identify themselves before and during the Holocaust. It left the Federal Government’s Commissioner for fighting Anti-Semitism speechless and outraged (German link here).

This is a bit of a rambling blog entry, as you may have noticed. I struggle with collecting all my thoughts on what is happening these days. Because meanwhile, others engage in pardoning turkeys two days ago, leaving the media being ripe with speculations about who might benefit from a last-minute Presidential pardon in human life. And there it is, the pardoning did not stop with two turkeys, it was the prelude for pardoning Michael Flynn, just yesterday.

I am no stranger to self-centered thinking combined with denial. It leads to progressively distorted and then delusional perceptions. The ensuing action always isolates, harms oneself, and harms others. Understanding the impact of this goes way beyond my appreciation of my personal root causes (trauma) and consequences (masking pain, rather than acknowleding it) in my own life, which I began to address many years ago. I believe that self-centeredness plays an important role in many things we see unfolding. Two days ago, I noted to myself: “The core of anti-democratic sentiments is founded on [collective] selfishness.”

I will stop here, for the moment, with a few links (1), (2), (3), (4) in German which I collected over the past days. Because, believing this development is “elsewhere” would be hypocritical.

I always talk about that we have to share this World. I am just off a two-days video-conference addressing joint efforts of the six jurisdictions in the Western Balkans (in alphabetical order): Belgrade (Serbia), Podgorica (Montenegro), Pristina (Kosovo), Sarajevo (Bosnia & Hercegovina), Skopje (North-Macedonia), and Tirana (Albania). My country has, together with others, again put money to where the mouth is, and action to words. In a team effort, and a true spirit of partnership and assistance. The impact of the Covid-19-pandemic has affected everything, on levels of individual fate, in terms of operational work, strategic work, political work, and regional cooperation. But at the end it became clear: We all stayed safe because of adhering to principles allowing us to get through this situation. Despite the shortfalls coming from the use of electronic conferencing instead of real meetings, we have seen that we are able to stay together.

That is what I am grateful for. Happy Thanksgiving. Stay healthy, safe, and grateful. Do not allow division and selfishness drive us into further madness. The best form of communication is listening to each other.