The Vector of Time

I had thought of writing a few words about the recent demise of the Queen, but have been saved the trouble by the excellent words of my virtual friend, Bruno, the Swiss-Canadian Sage of Gibsons, (a seaside village on the southwestern coast of Canada), who currently has been mired in the monarchical manifestations on a small island off the west coast of Europe, so here is his latest post, followed by my personal comment:

Changing of the Guard
“The queen is dead. Long live the king. That about sums up this week in England. I happened to be in London at an Indian restaurant when the news of the Queen’s passing flashed on my phone. But life goes on. It’s been a trying week for the British. New prime minister, their Queen dying and a new King who has been waiting in the wings all his life. Flags are lowered in mourning, then raised in celebration during the proclamation, then lowered again. Churches and Cathedrals only open for mourners which is fine with me. I’m not a big fan of those massive monuments to celestial hubris, although their architecture and sheer size is impressive, considering they were built 800 to a thousand years ago with no machinery but thousands of labourers.

You would have thought that Charles would get some grief-time for his mom but no; there are procedures and protocols to be observed. The theater of royalty, preferably with as much pageantry and absurdity as possible. Brits like their history to come as costume drama.’ as John Crace from the Guardian dryly observed. Does anybody really want to see Charles’ face on a coin or a pound note or even on the Canadian currency? Hard to imagine.

The new king is more than just a pretty face. He actually made a landmark speech on saving the environment in 1970, just 21 years old, in Cardiff. He also founded Duchy Originals, a natural food company in 1990, at the time thought to be a folly but today it’s the most popular organic food brand in England. Together with the fortune of his estimated royal inheritance of over 20 billion, King Charles III is instantly one of the richest men on earth.

Yesterday’s meticulous choregraphed procession from Westminster Abbey to Windsor Castle was a performance only the British can put on. The ancient uniforms, the pipers, the furry hats and the lockstep soldiers made for grand TV and a million people lined the parade route. I’m glad we were in Cornwall, away from the somber spectacle. I think what people mourn more than the passing of their monarch is the end of an epoch, the closing of a window on the recent past that started in the fifties with rock’n’roll and spanned the whole life of Elizabeth II through the murder of the Kennedys, Vietnam, the sixties and the Beatles, the seventies and punk, the eighties and AIDS, the nineties with Columbine, Waco and the Balkan war and then the new millennial. From dial phones to smart phones, from Libraries to Siri, the Queen was always there. From Eisenhower to Biden, from Churchill to Boris. Always.

During her 70-year reign ordinary people lived like kings. We ate like dukes and lords, travelled the planet in luxury and lived in houses with plumbing and automated systems. We communicated across the globe in an instant and indulged in freedoms and excesses like no generation before us. We had it all, as the song goes but what comes now?

Since the Brits decided to go it alone thanks to a bunch of petty squabbling politicians who disregarded the consequences of an ignorant decision made by an uninformed electorate, the country has been under some duress and I don’t think Liz Truss is the answer. Cutting taxes for the rich and capping energy prices might endear her to the better offs’ but will do little to help the average family but she should do better than the clown she replaced. Liz’s timing is unfortunate since her first ten days as prime minister had to be spent in mourning.

None of all this seemed to impact us visitors as we travelled from town to town, along narrow, tunnel like roads, from pub to restaurant, walking along the wind and rain beaten dramatic and treeless Cornish coast, populated by sheep and stony hamlets and tourist seaside towns. England was never known for its culinary excellence but they have come a long way since fish and chips, mushy peas and bangers and mash. You can still get a good pint of beer anywhere but trendy gourmet restaurants have replaced the fish and chips shops.

Today’s denizens of these British Isles face old and new hardships. Life once again seems very tenuous, living from paycheck to paycheck, not knowing what the near future will bring, never mind the far future. Carry on, stiff upper lip, eyes on the horizon. There are heroic attempts to paint a better, sustainable future for humans like the Eden Project near St. Austell but much of it is wishful thinking and drops on the hot stone of planet earth. The pastoral landscapes and the quaint towns seem timeless and the rocky shores and cliffs falling into the Atlantic will surely endure another million years. Time, after all is infinite.”

Bruno Huber

Say no more. Not sure about time as infinite though, depends on which direction you are facing doesn’t it? Is the idea of “Big Bang” meaningful? I think I’ll have another beer…
September 20, 2022

Li Shiu Tong

Li Shiu Tong (1907 – 1993) was a Chinese medical student who became secretary, companion, collaborator and life partner of German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Li attended Hirschfeld’s lecture on sexual variations in Shanghai during his world tour in 1931-32, and the 24 year old student resolved to make his career in the discipline of sexology. Li’s hope was to accompany Hirschfeld back to Berlin and train in this field.

Hirschfeld had founded his “Scientific Humanitarian Institute” to promote removal of repressive legislation criminalizing same-sex behaviour between males. A physician, he had been appalled by suicides among his patients that were attributed to this law, and his world tour was to document the ubiquity of homoeroticism and normalize it scientifically. In doing this he antedated Kinsey by half a century, and their documented findings are roughly consistent with one another.

Li joined Hirschfeld in China and continued with him as secretary, collecting data across China, Philippines, Southeast Asia, India, and eventually back to Europe — though not to Germany, because of the fall of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of Hitler’s Third Reich. The Nazis trashed Hirschfeld’s Institute and publicly burnt all the books from the library. Hirschfeld remained in exile in France until his death in 1935, and asked Li to continue his work documenting homoeroticism worldwide.

Li continued on but didn’t publish, and after his death in 1993 at St. Paul’s Hospital*, Vancouver, Canada, his papers were initially lost but finally recovered. Li’s writings were recently elaborated and discussed in Racism and the Making of Gay Rights (2022, Univ. of Toronto Press) by Laurie Marhoefer, a newly revealed account of a link between Hirschfeld and the changes throughout the XX century in the understanding of human same-sex desire.

Marhoefer’s book is a scholarly goldmine of information about the lives of Hirschfeld and Li, with some 200 pages of explicit text and critical discussion of how racism and homophobia historically coloured the science and lives of both sexologists, followed by another 90 pages of notes and references. Included also is a chapter devoted to women, photographs, and three maps of the world tour of Hirschfeld and Li. The book merits inclusion on the shelf of all with an interest in human sexual and racial diversity.
September 19, 2022

*At the time of Li’s death at St. Paul’s Hospital I was the consultant in psychiatry with the AIDS Clinical Care Team of physicians, and had assessed about 800 hospitalized patients with HIV over the preceding decade. To my knowledge I never saw Li on referral, and have no idea of his final diagnosis.

C’est la vie

The warmongering USA with its hubristic pretentions to be the “free” world’s leader, beholden to its military/industrial complex, clearly provoked “wicked” Putin to invade “innocent” Ukraine.

Now of course all ignore the growing global climate warming elephant in the room, while American war profiteers smile and enrich themselves, the USA inciting its lapdog NATO members (and would-be members like Finland & Sweden) to tighten the noose around Russia, in a proxy war fought by others, with weapons gleefully sold by their makers, and paid for by Americans. .

China waits, while polar ice melts, sea levels rise, forests burn, and atmospheric heating plunges ahead, as we all sicken and die, blaming each other.

But the underlying problem lies beyond blaming nationalism or human greed in general: war is a consequence of the universal biological struggle for all living organisms to exist and compete with each other for stellar radiation, in forming separate entities that can reproduce themselves, a process known as “life”.

This appears to be the fundamental connection between astronomy and biology. If you feel the need to blame someone or something for this unpleasant state of affairs, blame our parents — Mother Nature and Father Time.

C’est la vie.

September 17, 2022

Endings

The minor prophet and misanthropic sage of Haxby in North Yorkshire moans about the “necrophilac nationalism” displayed by the mourning millions in the sordid spectacle of farewell to their late monarch Elizabeth II, but should be reminded that the formal panoply of the loss of their royal personage is a symbol of an imaginary “green and pleasant land”, long lost, paved over by the acquisitive greed of the heirs to the industrial revolution, and now decaying “terminal zones”, in the words of a new book of that title by Gareth E. Rees.

This concept of a quasi lost Eden that never existed is characteristic of the human propensity for wishful thinking that can be traced back to ancient Hebrew myth, and it persists as a convenient excuse explaining the damage done to the natural world by our doomed species.

A dystopic world awaits Charles III, bequeathed to him not by his royal lineage, but by those parents of us all, Mother Nature and Father Time

The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is an appropriate metaphor of death, famine, war and disease, once thought awaiting us in the future, but which now are displayed daily before our eyes, and the pageantry of a royal funeral distracts our attention from the reality of what is happening around us.

But this ending is not imaginary, like the title of a monarch, and the loss is not one of the vanity of an empty title, but of life itself, something worthy of being mourned.

September 16, 2022

Immortality: The Misanthrope’s Nightmare

Seated upon a rock on a mountaintop in Argentina one mild midwinter day in 1955 when I was but one-and-twenty, it abruptly occurred to me that I was mortal! Not that I had ever specifically thought otherwise before then, but nevertheless this may have been the first time I gave it any serious consideration. At that young age (if healthy) we usually think of our lives extending into a seemingly limitless future, unless unfortunately being caught up in a war, or succumbing to some fatal illness. Realization and acceptance of one’s own mortality eventually sinks in as we further mature, but realizing life goals such as having a loving partner and starting a family or a profession tend to blot out the perception of the inevitability of eventual death in the young person.

Belief in an afterlife may mute concern up to a point for some, and others may seek to evade death technologically, described in The Price of Immortality: The Race to Live Forever by Peter Ward. Reviewed by Cambridge historian and journalist Theo Zenou in the August 2022 Literary Review, this book is described as a “well-rounded introduction to a fascinating and increasingly important topic”. The author cheerfully reveals “the cast of — for the most part — charlatans, oddballs, and zealots, who are obsessed with the idea of cancelling their tête-à-têtes with the Grim Reaper.”

Cryogenic freezing has been tried by some as a ploy for athanasia (deathlessness) until a solution for eternal life has been found, and then presumably thawed to resume living where they left off.

Bizarre examples are described, like a realtor who calls himself the “Officiator” of the Florida based “Church of Perpetual Life”, and an eccentric Englishman Aubrey de Grey, who, believing that senescence can be prevented, founded a society to develop the means to do so, soliciting donations from many tabloid readers. He came to a bad end when accused of calling upon sexual services to donors as analogous to spying on Nazis by counterintelligence agents.

The Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari is said to have speculated about the possibility of individual immortality, and the concept of a merged identity in a “hive” arrangement has appeared in dystopic fiction, as in Paul Kingsnorth’s recent novel Alexandria.

One wonders if a confirmed misanthrope might be appalled by the prospect of eternal life among other humans. Personally, being neither a misanthrope nor a philanthrope, I distinguish between the process of dying and the state of being dead. Regarding the forme,r I would hope to be reasonably stoic about the situation, and as painless and comfortable as possible, but not so suddenly as to inconvenience other people by just dropping dead abruptly in public while queuing for a bus.

With regard to the condition of not-being, as I approach my tenth decade in two months, I am trying to be a good atheistic Epicurean about simple nonexistence: “Death should be nothing to you, being but the rearrangement of the atoms that constitute your body.”

Meanwhile I continue to think and write about other more important issues, like the future of my descendants and the rest of humanity, in an increasingly challenging world that is becoming ever more unstable as a consequence of our own actions.
September 15, 2022

World Suicide Prevention Day

“World Suicide Prevention Day was established in 2003 by the International Association for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO). The 10th of September each year focuses attention on the issue, reduces stigma and raises awareness among organizations, government, and the public, giving a singular message that suicide can be prevented.”

There have been however suicides for which one may question the appropriateness of the claim of universal prevention being invariably a Good Thing. Adolf Hitler shooting himself as the Red Army neared the bunker where he spent his last days comes to mind, but also the propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels who first saw to poisoning his family, convinced that life without Hitler was not worth living. Heinrich Himmler of the SS and Hermann Goering were other Nazi bigwigs who chose to kill themselves instead of waiting to be executed.

Suicide may be imposed by an authority also as was the case with Socrates and Seneca in the ancient western world.

Suicidal ideation or attempts in our society are usually viewed as symptomatic of depressive illness, and referral to psychiatry is the rule for many general practitioners, but this is not often possible. Psychiatrists can attempt to treat depression with medication and psychotherapy and no doubt are sometimes successful, but it is only the failures that can be definitely identified. Families, friends, and colleagues often ask themselves what they could have done to prevent the loss, and this too is the experience of psychiatrists like myself, when faced with a referred patient with depression and the attempt to treat is unsuccessful.

As global heating progresses and civilization crumbles it is likely that the incidence of suicide will increase as the hope for a better future fades.

I’m an admirer or friend-of-Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), the New York poet, critic, and satirist. Though she died from myocardial infarction, she earlier had mocked death with wit about suicide in her doggerel poem Resumé:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
More seriously, according to WHO around 700,000 people die from suicide annually, leaving much grief and unhappiness in their wake, and it makes sense to try to reduce this loss where possible. While self destruction may eliminate all personal problems for an individual, it is also a selfish and unkind action affecting others.
September 10, 2022

Amok

Two men in rural Canada with knives engaged in a bloody killing spree this weekend. Why?

Looking for answers is perhaps a cut above the practice a few millennia ago of individual blaming, and stoning the miscreants to death outside the village walls.

As busloads of emergency social workers and psychologists descend upon the community to comfort and support survivors, academic departments of criminology across the land consider factors responsible for the outrage and call for better mental health facilities, educational reforms, and economic aid to depressed areas, while citizens demand more political will to improve living conditions in marginal communities.

 All commendable efforts no doubt, but this type of incident is not such an unusual event, only that it took place in a normally more subdued location, and that the weapons employed were not guns as in the USA.

The biological substrate for this behaviour however lies between the ears of the perps, and is common to all members of our accursed species, usually concealed beneath a mere veneer of “civilized” behaviour, yet at times facilitated by organized groups as in “special military operations”, commonly known as wars.

When done spontaneously, the Canadian misanthropic sage of Haxby in far-off North Yorkshire succinctly commented in one word:  “amok”.

Another North Yorkshireman, Captain James Cook, first described running amok among Malay tribesmen in 1770. His statue was recently pulled down and thrown into the harbour in Victoria, British Columbia, by enraged mobs protesting colonialism, fittingly, in his own words, running amok.

Given the pervading social conditions worldwide, and with increasing frustrations associated with the consequences of global warming, one wonders why there is not more running amok. Visions of the future are not promising.

September 5, 2022

Literary Greenwashing

A Pipeline Runs Through It: The Story of Oil from Ancient Times to the First World War by Keith Fisher. The author, a journalist and researcher on corporate and environmental issues, clearly describes the long mutual history of oil and humans.

Historian Barnaby Crowcroft, writing in the August 2022 Literary Review, gives the author credit for his factual account of the commercialization and political role of the discovery and extraction of this non-renewable hydrocarbon resource, and admits that it has been responsible for a multitude of social and environmental negative consequences.

Particularly disagreeable though, is the reviewer mocking the book and its author as displaying “something of the anti-humanism of modern-day apocalyptic environmentalism.”

 Although Crowcroft does not deny the progression of global warming associated with industrialization from the burning of hydrocarbons, he reminds us of many positive features like providing electric power to “impoverished communities in Scandinavia” (?) and worldwide increase in living standards, presumably ignoring desertification, melting of icecaps and glaciers, massive movements by climate migrants, etc. “Unprecedented gains in personal freedom” are claimed to result from hydrocarbon burning, echoing advertising campaigns by Big Oil.

Another review in the same issue invites us to rethink the forecasted climate migration. British environmental journalist Gaia Vince, in Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval, appears to minimize the speed of climate change we are experiencing, and cites instances of relocation of populations that have been successfully accomplished in small societies. Cherry-picking counterexamples seems unconvincing in the face of scientific climatology.

Reviewer Paul Morland, a recognized authority on demography, observes that large numbers of climate migrants into temperate countries would require unlikely changes in immigration laws, in the face of nativist and nationalist political realities. He asserts that there are many factors, “including politics, economics, technology and above all demography, determining whether there are great population movements between now and the end of the century…climate change is unlikely to be among them.”

Debates no doubt will reverberate in the pages of literary journals and other media, but demographers are not climate scientists. Atmospheric heating will continue inevitably, and portions of the world now with teeming billions of humans will become unsupportable to human life, who must either leave, or stay and die where they live.

Greenwashing promotes false hope, for the possibility of peaceful universal adjustment to the coming new bleak reality seems unlikely. Conflicts will certainly arise, and there will be great suffering.

September 5, 2022

The Visions of Professor McGuire

Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide is a terrific 167 page lucid summary of the origin, development, and consequences of global warming. It merits the close reading of those seeking an understanding of the science of climatology and how it relates to humanity in the XXI century.
Author Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at University College London. His brief foreword observes “There is little doubt that our climate is changing for the worse far quicker than predicted by earlier models.” Hothouse Earth is not a call but a shout to arms, by a climatology scientist in the battle to retard global heating.

The foreword, ten chapters, and afterward review the harsh realities of the climate catastrophe affecting the earth’s atmosphere, surface, and oceans that we have created since the industrial revolution in the late XVIII century, by burning fossil fuels and doubling the carbon content of the atmosphere. The situation now upon us continues to progress towards the planetary surface becoming inhospitable to human life and civilization.

All the known facts and figures are displayed once again, but unkept promises, lies and inertia by world leaders and politicians, have led to nothing significant being done. McGuire writes, “Our climate is being destroyed by unadulterated, free-market capitalism — an ideology that simply cannot be sustained on a small planet with limited resources.”

In the spirit of French psychiatrist and political philosopher Franz Fanon, who argued the necessary role of violence by activists in conducting decolonization struggles, McGuire cites the book How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire (2021) by Andreas Malm, along with a few other books and a list of online resources supporting the need for action, not more promises to meet targets that are never kept.

The final chapter of Hothouse Earth concludes with two visions of the year 2100 — one of a paralyzed metropolis mostly deserted by humans, in a world of lethal heat and humidity; the other of a city with canopies of trees, pollution free air, no cars but good public transport powered by non-fossil fuel burning, a city hot in the summer, but bearable.

The second scenario may not be impossible, but the first will likely be the one our descendants will experience, unless we begin to seriously cut back on carbon emissions, “Not in ten years’ time, or even five, but now. Today.”

The less agreeable first vision would appear to be more likely, judging from human history of folly and inborn irrationality, unless both possibilities are excluded by nuclear warfare, wiping the species of homo “sapiens” off the arid radioactive crust of our ruined planet.
August 30, 2022

Enabling

The democratic Weimar Republic of Germany was established after the First World War following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. It limped along for over a decade, but parliament was beset by internecine poisonous conflict between the left wing Communists and the right wing National Socialists (Nazis). Political fighting leading to rioting in the streets made life miserable for most Germans, already suffering in the great economic depression in the early 1930s, and general elections in late 1932 failed to result in a majority party able to form a stable government, though a plurality of about a third was won by the Nazis.

Civic disorder persisted, and the aged president Paul von Hindenburg signed a constitutional amendment on March 23, 1933 known as The Enabling Act of 1933, giving dictatorial power to the Nazi Chancellor, an anti-Semitic demagogue named Adolf Hitler, thus ending the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the Third Reich with its totalitarian horrors. We know how that turned out.

Replicating the pattern set by Julius Caesar at the end of the unstable Roman Republic, and that of Napoleon Bonaparte after the terror of the French Revolution, the German developments during this transitional period reflect the anacyclic view described by the Greek historian Polybius (c. 200 – c. 118 BCE).

It should come as no surprise that a similar pattern of events now appears to be unfolding in many currently democratic states worldwide. In the USA, the Republican Party has been captured by antidemocratic politicians beholden to lies believed by their deplorable and unthinking followers, promoted by social media, and supported by religious bigots.

The failed Washington putsch of January 6, 2021 resembles the earlier Munich putsch of November 8-9, 1923, which solved nothing. Xenophobic hatred of mostly non-white migrants is playing the same role today as did anti-Semitism a century earlier. The demagogue Trump is like a neo-Hitler, and commands a similar percentage of voters in the US now as did the Nazis in Germany in 1932.

Dissatisfaction caused by economic distress and attempts by government to contain a viral pandemic, compounded by frustration with climate collapse from global heating is leading to demands for some kind of political change. The ingredients are there, and the question today is when some kind of “Enabling Act” will be invoked to transfer constitutional power to the president without the consent of the legislature. So far the military has resisted any attempt of constitutional circumvention, but it remains to be seen how long that lasts.

The US journalist and fascist sympathizer H. L. Mencken commented wryly in the 1930s that when fascism comes to America, it would not be called fascism, but “Americanism”. Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again!” indeed mimics Hitler’s “Deutschland Erwache!” (Germany, Awake!).

In the words of the supposed traditional Chinese curse, these days we are indeed living in “interesting times.”

I don’t make any recommendations, only note that the situation in the US today is similar to the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany in 1932. and that both are examples of the theory of Polybius about cyclic changes in government.

The US generals opposed a Trump putsch this time, but the fundamental issue is not resolved. The future is uncertain, that’s why I say the times are “interesting”.

I have no faith in people either young or old, and intelligence is no guarantee of respect for truth and reason. After all, Joseph Goebbels was a Ph.D. 

The lure of money and power is a human failing, not just German or American.

It is this that St. Paul called “the root of all evil”, and likewise Immanuel Kant, “the crooked timber of humanity”.

All I can recommend is to try to be kind to others.

Say no more.

August 27, 2022