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New-fashioned Values

Aktualisiert: 21. März 2020

After a quite self-important post yesterday, I thought I would spend today on a more casual note and write about my drawing process and complain about how slow I am at drawing, include some self-deprecating humor, etc.

But then I saw someone's Insta story. And this insufferably self-important blog post was born. I apologize in advance.

But I saw someone's Insta story that basically regurgitated what this instagrammer had seen elsewhere and found worthy of repackaging for her followers. And a single phrase mixed in amongst those 10 or so slides that made up the story threw me into such a tizzy that now I am going to extensively delve into why we need more critical self-reflection.

The story started off well enough, enthusiastically announcing that Venice's waters are teeming with dolphins again (as if this information were not already viral across social media) and linking this event to a burgeoning "silver-lining" interpretation of the Coronavirus.* In a nutshell: "it's really not all that bad because humanity needs this wake-up call! It's not all bad, look how good it is for the environment!" Fair enough.

I am fully supportive of measures to improve how humankind treats the environment and agree that there may in fact be some positive side-effects to the economic standstill caused by the outbreak. I literally worked for Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (the Greens) in Bundestag. These are my politics. But I am too much of a Schwarzmaler (pessimist) to get enthusiastic about this "bonus" when I consider the statistics that suggest that 1 in 6 people over the age of 70 will die if they get infected. What's great for the Venetian dolphins might end up killing my grandparents (one from the illness, the other from emotional devastation).

This silver-lining interpretation, however, isn't my main problem with the story. I understand the impulse to see the good in the bad. It's a way to cope and mentally reassert a sense of control over a situation that one really doesn't actually have any control over. Let the people have their comfy feels.

No, what really got me is how the "this is good for the environment" insta-story turned into a "this is a chance for us to..." insta-story and proceeded to list tons of unreflected optimistic rubbish that burns my jaded soul. I simply cannot suffer this kind of simplistic optimism coupled with I-know-better-than-you-let-me-tell-you lecture. According to the story, covid-19 opens up great opportunities such as getting to sing together, helping each other out, reestablishing feelings of community (Gemeinschaftsgefühl), and "allowing children in China to see the blue sky for the first time".

I'm not even touching the racist one.

No, the one line that I'm surprisingly most frustrated by comes up later: that this "crisis" might just offer the "chance" to "bring children into contact with long-forgotten values" ("die Kinder mit längst vergessenen Werten in Kontakt bringt"). Okay. Long-forgotten values. Which ones then?

Those values where it's great to take children out of school where these values apparently are not present? Those values that value it when women stay at home all day cooking three meals and taking care of the children? Indeed those sorts of values could actually be paired relatively well with the naive environmental sentiment that the story opened with, if one were to take Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "retour à la nature!" as a philosophical basis and his Émile as an example for women's roles as caretakers to men and children.

Perhaps that sounds flippant, but it should. Whose long-forgotten values are implied? How can one not feel compelled to define such a loaded term? Especially in the German context. Do you know where else communal singing in nature was treated like a great value for children? How about the Hitler Youth. I'm sure we'll all feel great feelings of community when we dance through the Heide singing die schöne Müllerin. Unless you're a Jew. Or a Turk. Or Black. Or a child in China...

My God. With Germany's not-so-distant history regarding violent racism - or rather continuing problems with violent racism - one might want to double check that those "long-forgotten values" do not resemble those of the Hitler Youth.

But perhaps these are values from prior to the NSDAP? Since our (still living) grandparents have memories extending into the 40s and 50s, these "long-forgotten values" cannot really include anything more recent. Otherwise they're not "long-forgotten". So... which ones? Weimar was a hot mess, so it would be hard for me to imagine any coherent value system attributable to interwar Germany. Perhaps then Wilhelmine Germany where the educated elite was similarly concerned that society was falling into decay and welcomed sacrifice in the name of renewal? Perhaps something along the lines of the sentiment expressed by the historian and writer Ricarda Huch?

"Von den Deutschen glaube ich, daß sie, wenn es nötig ist, bereit sind, ihre schönen Dome zu opfern, wie sie jetzt Leben und Glück opfern. Europa ist reich genug, um es sich mehr als eine Kathedrale kosten lassen zu dürfen, wenn nur aus den Trümmern eine gereinigte, verjüngte Menschheit aufersteht."+

"About the Germans I believe that they, if it is necessary, are prepared to sacrifice their cathedrals as they now sacrifice life and happiness. Europe is wealthy enough to withstain the cost of more than a cathedral if it means that a purified, invigorated humanity emerges."+

Are we to value a mindset that rationalizes tremendous and avoidable sacrifices as being worth it if we - humanity - can be reborn from the trauma? Are we to wish for self-destruction because we have become high on the naive hopes of a better world on the other side of crisis? I would rather say that these are "long-forgotten values" with good reason.

Allow me to contextualize Huch's quote. It was from 1914 in support of the First World War. A war that spiraled out of diplomatic control but perhaps could have been avoided if not for the naïveté of jingoistic chauvinists across Europe, and especially in Germany. A war in which millions of people died in motley terrible ways. A war that paved the road for an unstable Germany that gave rise to Adolf Hitler. I don't mean to sound deterministic (or bring up Hitler again), but rather wish to make the point that only seeing the silver-lining and wishing for some specific positive outcome in a potentially devastating scenario is unbelievably foolish. The very worst and previously inconceivable outcome is also likely.

But hurrah for the [Sardinian*] dolphins and the singing!

As I said, I am jaded, miserly even. But in my defense, I'm not just here to complain. I propose that we replace the term "long-forgotten values" with "new-fashioned values".

Though covid-19 may push a great many of us into the precariat, we cannot give into atavistic modes of thought. If we want to teach "the children" or ourselves anything, it should be that we've never had the answers. Humanity has been screwing over the world and itself for centuries. We cannot look to the past for solutions even though we may indeed look to the past to make sense of our present. (See yesterday's post.) For the future we don't need values long-forgotten but values newly forged and constantly reforged from the lessons of our failings and, yes, successes too.

And maybe these values do include some singing and community feels, but most of all we need to value somber self-reflection that weighs the good and the bad without taking refuge in fantasies of some long-forgotten past that never existed or, even worse, some future utopia.

I do not mean to give the kind of "I-know-better-than-you-let-me-tell-you lecture" that I abhor. I rather wish to emphasize that the core of the "new-fashioned values" for which I am advocating is quite simply: critical self-refection.

I don't have the answers I need right now. You probably don't have the answers you need. Most likely none of us do. But each of us needs to consider what we can do individually that is good for our globalized and highly interdependent world. And that will be very different for each of us.

And yet, as a first step together toward greater self-reflection, I kindly ask that you join me as we critically reflect on what we regurgitate on social media.

*And as we should all be prepared for when dealing with viral "news", they weren't even Venetian dolphins. That this silver-lining lecture wasn't even based on substance only frustrates me more, although none of it is surprising... ( [21.03.2020]

+Huch, Ricarda. Gesammelte Werke. Ed. Wilhelm Emrich and Bernd Balzer. Köln: Kiepenhauern und Wisch, 1966. Page 845. (Translation my own)

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