Monday, November 23, 2020

Time for a new Witch Hunt? The pandemic could change more things than you would have expected.

Witch burning in Germany in 1550 (image source) Could these times be returning? We can't really say, but history tends to go in cycles and some recent trends are at least worrisome. 

Which historical period saw the largest number of witch hunts? If you answered "the Middle Ages," you were wrong. Surprised? Don't we all know that the Middle Ages, were the "Dark Ages," a time of barbarism and superstition, surely it was at that time that witches were hunted and burned. Who didn't see the "Burn the Witch" clip by the Monthy Python? It takes place in a typical Middle Age-ish setting.  

But, no. Burning witches is NOT a Middle Ages thing. Look at the data. Trials and executions for witchcraft picked up well after that the Middle Ages were officially over, at some moment around the end of the 15th century. 

At the highest moment of this homicidal frenzy, about 2500 people per year were burned in Europe for a total estimated as about 50,000-100,000. Not a very large number in comparison to the population of the time, but a significant number, nevertheless. Why did that happen? Why were Europeans obsessed with killing people, mostly poor women, who were doing little or no harm to anyone? And who were these witches, anyhow? There is a long story to tell here, so let's try to condense the main points of it.

The idea of evil women using poisons and magical spells to kill people is very ancient and it appears in many human cultures. The first report on this subject that has numbers in it comes from the Roman historian Titus Livius (59 BC - 17 AD) who tells us about two episodes of witch-hunting that took place in 331 BC and 180 BC. In both cases, a spate of executions (perhaps a few thousand) occurred after that a mysterious and deadly sickness had swept the land. Most of the executed people were women, accused of having poisoned the population.

Apart from Livius' report, witches (sometimes termed striga‎e in Latin) exist in the literature of Roman times mainly as fictional creatures. But we do read of evil women poisoning people in the real world. One such case is that of Munatia Plancina, a noblewoman accused of having poisoned Germanicus, a popular general, at the time of Emperor Tiberius. Plancina could have been sentenced to death for veneficium, but she committed suicide before her trial. 

So, it seems that in Roman times, women were not normally the target of mass extermination, but they could be punished as evil murderers. And, indeed, there is no lack of vilification against women in the Roman literature. Just as an example, Seneca (sometimes said to be a wise man) is reported to have written that "When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil." 

Maybe it was not Seneca's fault if he lived perhaps in the most male-oriented society in history. But I think the Romans had noted something well known to us: that the number of children a woman has is inversely proportional to her degree of instruction. There follows that, in order to have their legions, the Romans had to do all the things that today we associate with a "natalist" policy: keeping women at home in a subordinate position. As long as they kept at their role, they were left more or less in peace. Otherwise, they could be harshly punished.

Things changed when the Roman Empire collapsed (and, incidentally, the last Roman emperor who truly ruled the Western Empire was a woman, Galla Placidia). It was the turbulent time that led to Christianity to take over -- a religion that claimed that all men and women were equally sons and daughters of God. Of course, the practical application of Christianity was often far away from the ideals it claimed to uphold, but it was a change that was necessary at the time. And it was clear to the early Christians that there didn't exist such a thing as "witchcraft." Not that some ignorant women couldn't be deluded about being able to make a pact with the devil, but they were to be educated, not punished.

With this change, the voice of women started being heard. And what a voice! Think of Perpetua of Carthage and her diary ("Passio"), written maybe during the early 3rd century. If you read it, be careful, because it is powerful stuff,  not for the faint-hearted. It took time, but as centuries went by, the voice of women was more and more heard: strong, clear, moving. Just think of figures such as Hildegard Von Bingen (1098 - 1179), intellectual and mystic at the same time, she would have been impossible even to imagine in Roman times. Or think of Heloise, (1100-1164) and of her passionate letters to her lover, Abelard. Or Marguerite Porete (1250/1260 – 1310), the Beguine mystic author of "The Mirror of Simple Souls." (try to read it, if you have time, it is fantastically outlandish, eerie, and moving). And many more. 

And then, something changed, again. With the end of the first millennium, Europe went through a crisis of overgrowth. With wars, there came famines, the first was in 1315. It preceded the Black Death that was to arrive in 1346 and that would continue for centuries in intermittent waves. It was a painful transformation that would turn Europe from a backward peninsula of Eurasia into a forge of empires.

Europe was not just fighting external wars, but also internal ones against perceived internal enemies. Here, we need to digress briefly to consider the relationship between heresy and witchcraft. The two are often seen as being almost the same, but it is not so. Both had elements of challenge against the mainstream religious views, but witches were mostly poor women trafficking with healing herbs. Heretics, instead, were often intellectuals of some repute. They were also connected to political movements that challenged the powers of their times -- it was a completely different story. 

During the early Middle Ages, matters of faith were supposed to be solved by discussions, that was the reason for the ecumenical councils of the Christian churches. It was only when the political situation in Europe deteriorated that the Inquisition of the Catholic Church was established in 1250. Despite the harshness of the judicial system that was starting to appear, heretics were normally given a chance to recant and abandon their "errors." In this way, they could avoid the harshest forms of punishment. Remarkably, many of them refused, including Marguerite Porete who was burned at the stake in 1310. Galileo Galilei was not so brave when he was tried for heresy in 1633. He saved himself by abandoning his "false belief" that the Earth was turning around the Sun.

With time, heresy started to overlap with witchcraft as a crime. And note that witches couldn't just repudiate their false beliefs in order to escape the fire: they were supposed to had committed heinous crimes for which they had to be punished, even though they might have repented. Joan of Arc (1412–1431) was burned at the stake after having being accused of several crimes, including both heresy and witchcraft. A strong push in the direction of punishing witches in the same way as heretics came with the publication in Germany of the book by Kramer and Spengler "Malleus Maleficarum" (The Hammer of Witches) (1486) A horrible libel that reproposed the misogynistic views of women that had been typical of ancient Rome, it was the crack that caused the dam to collapse

So, for at least a couple of centuries, women in Europe could be accused of witchcraft and burned. And many of them were. Of course, nobody wanted to exterminate women, they just killed a sufficient number of them to give the example to the others, so that they would stay in their place. It is difficult to assess how well that worked, but surely witch hunts were an important element of their times. That's clear by the large number of the pictures we have of people being burned at the stake, but also for the resilience of the concept. The term is still popular with us, nowadays, and we use it to describe the persecution of people for their belief on superstitious or ideological grounds. 

It was only in later times that women started to regain a voice in the Western society. The industrial revolution made women useful as workers, and that generated the need for a certain degree of instruction for them (it was also discovered that women made excellent snipers). It was a gradual process, and don't forget that it was only in 1920 that the right to vote was granted to women in the US. But, in time, we arrived at the current situation where "gender equality" has become the rule. 

But now? Don't forget how witch burning is often associated with plagues and stress for society. Of stress we have aplenty and, about plagues, we are experiencing one right now. So, could we see a new age of witch-hunting in the West? I mean not just in figurative terms, but with people -- especially women -- actually executed?

Of course, we tend to think that we are way too enlightened for burning witches, nowadays. But things change fast. The reaction to the current pandemics is taking various forms, one is the typical attitude toward natural disasters: looking for a scapegoat. In this case, the scapegoat is taking a form different from the typical scapegoats of earlier times. Whereas witches were supposed to have actively caused plagues, nowadays the anger is directed against the "Covid deniers," not just the people who deny the existence of the virus (they are rare, but they exist), but often toward those who simply doubt the mainstream view of the remedies for the pandemic, lockdowns and the like,

So far, "deniers" are considered more or less in the same way as heretics during the Middle Ages. They are supposed to be gently pushed to abandon their false opinions and, of course, they are prevented from diffusing them. In some cases, deniers are considered somewhat deranged or actually insane. (the image below refers to "Covid Deniers" from this article)

But, in the future, could we see the same evolution that we saw with the end of the Middle Ages, that is a move toward actively punishing deniers? Could very well be. The last spate of witch-hunting, the one that took place in the 1950s in the US against supposed Communists, didn't have specific anti-feminism connotations. But things are changing and there are clear elements of backlash against women in the West. Could it be that women would be accused again of plotting dark and dire things against humankind? And maybe burned at the stake?

We can't say: the future is, as always, impossible to predict. But never forget that the future always takes you by surprise.

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Pandemic in China: a Governance Lesson to the West


China:  Oct 1st, 2020, celebrations of the national day. From this and other pictures, it is clear that the Chinese are not too much worried about getting close together, even without wearing face masks (source)


The text below is the translation of a post I published in Italian on the Facebook site "Pills of Optimism" on Oct 26th. There are still many things we have to understand about how China managed to control the COVID-19 epidemic. But one thing is certain: it was controlled and it is still under control. 

In China, stopping the infection required little more than a regional lockdown that interested a small fraction of the Chinese territory: the Hubei province, about 4% of the total population of China. Coupled with aggressive tracking and isolating, it was enough to get rid of the virus. There have been no COVID-related deaths in China since March 2020. The Chinese economic machine is in motion, people move, travel, shop, walk around, often without face masks. In short, life is normal. And it has been normal during the past six months, at least.

In comparison, the epidemic in the West has been so badly mismanaged that one feels like crying of rage. A threat that never was overwhelming was magnified to the point that it risks destroying the very fabric of the Western economic machine. How could it happen?

Within some limits, the collapse of the Western economy was unavoidable for reasons related to the decline of the availability of natural resources. But that it happened so fast is bewildering. So surprising that some people maintain that it was a conspiracy against the West concocted by China or even a plot by the evil Western elite to get rid of their useless Untermenschen

Maybe, but it is more likely that, simply, the West lost control of its governance system that went on by itself like an individual immune system that suddenly attacks its host

What can we learn from this story? Mainly, that we can't afford to be dominated by the waves of self-reinforcing hysteria that go through the media and the social networks. How can we manage that? Well, good question. Imitating China would mean giving most of the power to the Communist party, and that doesn't sound so viable, nowadays, in the West. But, seriously, we must rethink our governance system, otherwise the next serious crisis will truly destroy us. (supposing that we survive the current one)


China: the epidemic is over. How did they manage that?

Di Ugo Bardi, University of Florence, Italy (1) - 26 Oct 2020 

(translation slightly readapted for an international readership).

💊💊💊 From the data arriving from China, it seems that things are going very well with the COVID epidemic. In China, as well as in all of East Asia, mortality was much lower than in Europe and no deaths have been reported since March. There are still many things to clarify in this story, but China can teach us that it is possible to stop the spread of the virus without harming the economy. 💊💊💊

Do you remember when, in January, the Chinese (or those who looked like Chinese) were insulted in the street in Italy by people who believed they were spreading the plague? Things have changed quite a bit and today it is the Chinese who believe that we Italians are the plague spreaders. In China, there have been no deaths from COVID-19 since about mid-March. As for positive cases, there have been only occasional outbreaks of a few dozen cases, almost all of them imported (2). The Chinese economy has restarted to move and is now running at full capacity. 
From what we can read in the international media and from what colleagues who live and work in China tell me, the country is completely open. All commercial and industrial activities are in operation. The shops and restaurants are open and there are no restrictions on internal travel. Wearing face masks is optional and many people don't wear them. From the photos that come from China, we see that people do not pay much attention to the gatherings of people without masks. (below, celebrations of the National Day in Wuhan, Oct 1st)
Of course, the authorities are still on their guard and they intervene as soon as small outbreaks emerge. For example, the authorities of the city of Qingdao recently discovered an outbreak that, according to the international media, may be related to a batch of imported frozen cod on which someone would have observed viruses still whole. True or not, hard to say, but in any case, the local government is committed to testing all the 9 million inhabitants of the city! (3). 
But, overall, it is clear that in China and elsewhere in Asia the epidemic is under control without the need for a lockdown or other harsh measures of containment. Not only does the epidemic seem to have disappeared in China. It also created very little damage, at least according to the government data. The total number of victims is reported to have been about 4,600 out of almost one and a half billion people. That means 3 deaths per million against about 600 in Italy and other Western countries. Even if we only consider the European regions where the virus has hit the hardest, we find that the province of Hubei still did better. (4) 
How is such a thing possible? We often read on social media and on the media that the Chinese cheated us and that they are continuing to cheat us. Since China is a dictatorship, it is said, it follows that everything the Chinese government tells us is false by definition - including the fact that the epidemic is gone. Could it be that people are still dying of the COVID in China, but the government doesn't tell us?
Governments are not known to be reliable sources of information. We saw in a previous post how at least one European country, Belarus, may have partially falsified the data on the epidemic (5). As for China, there are previous cases of falsified data. For example, an analysis of fisheries data arriving from China in the 1990s indicated obvious falsifications to hide the depletion of stocks (6), (7)). But an epidemic is a far more serious and more extensive business than a fraud in a specific commercial sector. It would also be very difficult for the Chinese government to hide it if there was one in progress. 
So, if we want to believe that the Chinese are telling us lies about the epidemic we must bring some evidence on this. Remaining with the example of the fishery data, one of the reasons that led to mistrust the validity of the Chinese data were the anomalies that were noticed when comparing with data from other similar regions. Can we find any such anomaly for the pandemic? Apparently not: the data on the spread of COVID-19 in China are comparable to data from other neighboring Asian countries which, in general, have had minimal or no mortality. 
For example, Taiwan did even better than mainland China with a total of 7 deaths per 23 million inhabitants (less than one death per million). Other countries did a little worse but still remained at very low mortality levels. Singapore reports 5 deaths per million, Hong Kong 13. Neighboring Japan also suffered only 13 deaths per million. Then, both Mongolia and Macao even report zero deaths. Sure, one might say that Mongolia doesn't count because it's a country of camel drivers living in tents in the middle of the desert. But, of course, that's not the case. The capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator, is a metropolis with over one million inhabitants. Macau, then, is a city of 700,000 inhabitants with a very high population density, perhaps the highest in the world. And the epidemic went through both Ulan Bator and Macau without leaving a single victim! It is hardly credible that all these governments have agreed to hide an ongoing epidemic from the rest of the world. 
But why are things so much better in Asia than here? Did the Chinese have used particularly effective containment measures? In some ways, this year's Chinese lockdown may have been more drastic than the Western one, but it didn't last longer than in Europe. It is not even possible to say that it was more timely if, as the Chinese themselves say, the virus was already circulating in December. The lockdown was established in Wuhan only on January 23 and a few days later for the entire province of Hubei.
In terms of "social distancing," we all know that in Asia there is a tendency to avoid physical contact between people. But it is also true that if you have ever taken the subway in an eastern city (for example in Tokyo (8)) you will have a very specific idea of ​​the meaning of the expression "squeezed like sardines". If you never had this experience, take a look at this link to an impressive video of the Beijing metro (9). Eastern metropolises are extremely crowded and, under certain conditions, it is simply impossible to avoid physical contact.
Could it be then that the trick was in contact tracking and isolating? From what we can read, it seems that Asian countries have been very aggressive in tracking and isolating people who have been in contact with people affected by the virus (10). This is an interesting explanation, but tracking and isolating was done in Europe, too. Maybe we haven't done it well enough? It is possible, but we have no quantitative comparisons that can tell us if this is the only explanation for the whole story. 
There is also another possible interpretation that has nothing to do with what governments have done or not done. It may be that the Chinese have been exposed to the virus for longer than we in the West and therefore approached herd immunity first. You probably heard of Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who first noticed cases of abnormal pneumonia in December and who later died of contracting the infection himself. Initially, he was not believed, but today he is considered a hero in China. 
Li had begun to sound the alarm towards the end of December 2019, but nothing prevents us from thinking that the virus had already existed in China for some time, perhaps even in slightly different forms from the one that then hit Europe. It was just that those affected were diagnosed as normal cases of pneumonia. Is it possible that the Chinese population had been exposed to the virus long before the declaration of the emergency? There is a fact that could give us a strong indication in this regard: excess mortality. If the epidemic already existed in November-December 2019, or even earlier, we should see an abnormally high mortality in China, compared to the average for that period. 
Good idea, but with a problem: nowhere on the Web we can find data on the additional mortality in China during the COVID pandemic. Note that this does not mean that the Chinese government is hiding anything from us. Hardly any government in the world disseminates these data in an easily accessible form. Europe is an exception with a database on excess mortality called "Euromomo" managed by a network headed by WHO, but there is no such thing for East Asia. So, for the moment, the idea of ​​an early start of the epidemic in China remains a hypothesis.
There are other factors we could look at but this virus has accustomed us to the fact that predictions and interpretations always turn out to be wrong. Even in a recent article in Nature (11), the authors frankly said that "we are not yet able to provide a generalized explanation for the observed quantitative mortality differences between countries". Thus, we must content ourselves with saying that the epidemic has done much less damage in Asia than it did for us for some reason that, at the moment, we cannot identify with certainty. 
But let's stick with what we know, which is that at the moment things are going very well in China and in the whole East Asia, just while the West is experiencing a "second wave." At least, we can conclude that we are not facing an invincible enemy. It is possible to beat the Sars-Cov-2 without necessarily having to destroy the economy with prolonged and generalized lockdowns. Of course, we are in a very difficult moment here, in Europe, but there is no reason to think that we will have to continue living in terror for centuries to come. 
 The author thanks Chandran Nair for his comments on the situation in China. 












Thursday, November 12, 2020

Hunger in Italy? It is Coming Faster than Expected


 A malnourished Dutch girl during the "hongerwinter" of 1945. It was the last famine recorded in Western Europe -- but for how long?

Olga Milanese, Italian lawyer living in Salerno, not far from Naples, wrote the post below as a comment in a Facebook group. I thought it was interesting enough to be reproduced here, and I do that with her kind permission. It seems that things are really collapsing in Italy. In a certain way, it was unavoidable, but it is amazing that it is happening so fast. The Covid crisis never was impossible to manage with a reasonable effort, but the Italian government bungled almost every aspect of the crisis, overreacting to it, using it as an excuse to terrorize people, while being totally ineffective at upgrading the health care system in such a way to handle the situation. In the process, the government managed to destroy the sources of income of the poor and of the most vulnerable sections of the Italian society -- and with that wrecking the whole economic system. Now, things are getting worse every day. Eventually it will end, I figure, but not before we reach the bottom, and it may be a hard landing.


By Olga Milanese

Can I say something a little strong? Then I'll really shut up, disappear and no longer speak, because I consider it useless by now. I understand all positions, really. Already in June I felt that the situation had not changed, that, at least in my opinion, the same mistakes continued to be made in the sanitary districts. (having visited some of them several times), that the health care units were absolutely unprepared, as were the general practitioners. 

Nothing, absolutely nothing has been done, not even by those same doctors who, first and foremost, should have denounced openly and without hesitation the disgusting inactivity of the government already  before the summer not in the autumn crisis, those same doctors who today invoke the lockdown!!!

I invite them to come to suburban homes, to popular buildings, for God's sake, to the lower reaches of the city to see with their own eyes the misery that exists there!!! From the group that deals with helping the families who lost their jobs in my city, yesterday I had a young mother, whose husband, a pizza chef, was left without work, with two small children, a 3-year-old male and a 6-year-old girl, two gaunt creatures, like their mother, fragile, almost invisible, who lacked EVERYTHING, everything !!! From food, to soap for washing, to detergent for clothes. They are not the first and they will not be the last. 

I'm a drop in an advancing ocean. I really invite these doctors and all those who invoke general closures or even just the stop of work to come to these places and look them in the eyes of these children, these parents deprived of dignity, smile, desire to live, without feeling shame and disgust for that. that we are becoming. Sorry for the outburst, but these situations exist, they are one step away from the doors of our house. Is there a valid reason to ignore them without falling into inhumanity ??? 

Do you choose to do something for them too or do they have to die forgotten by God, in the name of medicine and science? For me only the first way makes sense. In my view, there are no alternatives to humanity! And there is no fear of openly denouncing those measures that have reduced those children to hunger! This kind of appeals above, as I see it, must be condemned straight away, no hesitations!


Olga Milanese is a civil lawyer. She mainly deals with aspects related to the protection of rights in business, family, and in relation to medical and professional responsibility, as well as the issue of the protection of human rights





Original in Italian

Posso dire una cosa un po' forte? Poi veramente mi taccio, sparisco e non parlo più, perché lo ritengo ultroneo ormai. Io comprendo tutte le posizioni, veramente. Da giugno avvertivo che la situazione non era cambiata, che, almeno dalle mie parti, si continuavano a fare gli stessi errori nei P.S.(essendoci andata più volte), che le Asl erano assolutamente impreparate, così come i medici di base. Nulla, assolutamente nulla è stato fatto, neanche da quegli stessi medici che, in primis, avrebbero dovuto denunciare apertamente e senza remore il disgustoso inattivismo del governo da prima dell'estate non nella crisi autunnale, quegli stessi medici che oggi invocano il lockdown!!! Io li invito a venire nelle case di periferie, nei palazzi popolari, santo Dio, nei bassi della città a vedere con i propri occhi la miseria che c'è!!! Tramite il gruppo che si occupa di aiutare tutte le famiglie che hanno perso il lavoro nella mia città, ieri a me è toccata una giovane madre, il cui marito, pizzaiolo, è rimasto senza lavoro, con due bambini piccoli, un maschio di 3 anni e una bambina di 6 anni, due creature smunte, come la madre, fragili, quasi invisibili, a cui mancava TUTTO, tutto!!! Dal cibo, al sapone per lavarsi, al detersivo per i panni. Non sono i primi e non saranno gli ultimi. Sono una goccia in un oceano che avanza. Io veramente invito questi medici e chiunque invochi chiusure generalizzate o anche solo lo stop del lavoro a venire in questi posti e guardarli negli occhi questi bambini, questi genitori privati della dignità, del sorriso, della voglia di vivere, senza provare vergogna e ribrezzo per quello che stiamo diventando. Scusate lo sfogo, ma queste situazioni esostono, sono ad un passo dalle porte di casa nostra. Esiste un motivo valido per ignorarli senza scadere nella disumanità??? Si sceglie di far qualcosa anche per loro o devono morire dimenticati da Dio, in nome della medicina e della scienza? Per me ha senso solo la prima strada. Non esistono, nella mia visione, alternative all'umanità! E non esiste la paura di denunciare apertamente quelle misure che hanno ridotto quei bambini alla fame! Questo genere di appelli qui sopra, per come la vedo io, vanno condannati in tronco, senza se e senza ma!

Monday, November 9, 2020

The Mind of the Good Ruler: How Empathy Drives Governance

The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II (1797-1870) did something very peculiar for a ruler of a state: he left us a personal diary. It was a collection of handwritten notes that cover all the period of his rule as Grand Duke, up to when he was deposed in 1859. It was published in 1987. It is a fascinating document (unfortunately existing only in Italian, as far as I know) that allows us a rare chance of a glimpse of how the mind of a ruler works -- in this case a good ruler. 


Why are our leaders so bad? Maybe it is us who always choose the worst possible persons for the job? But are they bad at the start, or do they go bananas as things go on? It would be nice to be able to understand what goes on inside the head of leaders, but they are people notoriously capable of cheating just about anyone, including themselves. And the main tool of the cheater is to hide what he is thinking. 

Maybe we could know more if we could have the personal diary of some of those powerful figures, but they don't usually keep diaries. That's probably part of their habit of keeping hidden what they really think. But sometimes we do have documents that open a view for us inside the head of these people. I already discussed the case of Benito Mussolini on the basis of the diary kept by his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano. 

Mussolini was an almost paradigmatic bad leader and here I would try to contrast his approach to ruling with another figure of leader who, under many respects, was completely opposite: that of the Grand Duke Leopold II, who ruled Tuscany from 1824 to 1859. And he did something that very few rulers did: he left us a diary of his everyday life throughout all the period of his rule as Grand Duke of Tuscany!

It is a fascinating document that gives us an incredibly detailed view on the life of a person who was in charge of a state of nearly 2 million inhabitants. Of course, it is not the only document we have about Leopold's life. The story is complex and a matter of study for professional historians. What I can say, here, is that I did my best to digest the more than 500 pages of the diary and I'll try to pass to you my impression of the Grand Duke life and personality. And I think he was a good man who did his best. 

Of course, it is not that Leopold did everything right as Grand Duke. On the contrary, his rule could be defined as a failure since, eventually, he was deposed and forced to leave his beloved Tuscany. But note that when he left nobody in Tuscany would even remotely imagine to harm him, to say nothing about killing him and hanging him upside down, as it happened with a later ruler, Benito Mussolini. There is a poignant detail in the story: it is said that the Florentines lined up along the road of the carriage that carried the Grand Duke away and saluted him by taking their hats off and calling him "Babbo" ("Daddy"). In the picture, you see him represented as an old gentleman saying goodbye forever to his city and to his people. 

So, you see? People can recognize a good leader when they are blessed with one. And the basic characteristic of a good leader is that he cares for his people. In other words, it is a question of empathy. A good leader likes the people he leads. 

Contrast, again, with Mussolini as he appears in the notes of his son in law. The aging Duce clearly disliked his subjects, considering them little more than cannon fodder. And not just that, he rejoiced when he thought that Italians were dying of cold. So much that he imagined himself as having caused their death by ordering the reforesting of the Appennini mountains and, as a result, generating a colder climate. Not a joke: it is what Ciano reports and we have no reason to think it is not true. (incidentally, that makes Mussolini the first leader to use a "climate weapon," although he used it against his own people. But that's typical of petty dictators).

Compare with Leopold's kind attitude: it appears so often in the diary that you are forced to conclude that it was genuine, not a construct of state propaganda. The Grand Duke was no populist. He was a truly popular leader. He loved to speak to Tuscans, even with peasants, and to hear their opinions. And he was truly happy when they were happy. As an example, (p. 67 of the 1987 Sansoni edition) he reports how he met a 102 year old peasant who told him, "qui ci stava la fame, Pietro Leopoldo, suo nonno, fece tante cose, la cacciò, e non ci venne più" (here, there was hunger. Your grandfather, Pietro Leopoldo, did many things, chase it away, and now it is no more). 

Another example from the Grand Duke's notes. The straw hat industry had generated prosperity among the Tuscan people, so much that peasant girls who were skilled in making straw hats could "marry without the need of a dowry." ("una giovane che sapesse quel lavoro andava senza dote a marito") (p. 77). Leopold clearly likes that, and that's the more remarkable in an age when the straw hat industry was considered as something subversive as it had brought a certain degree of prosperity to the Tuscan peasants. It was the way he saw the world: he was primarily a family man who enjoyed his role of father so much that he extended it beyond his family, all the way to all Tuscans.

But it is not just a question of feelings: you can be well-intentioned, but also a bumbling idiot. But that wasn't the case of the Grand Duke. He was not just caring, but also a competent manager who personally took care of the everyday details of the government's work. Again, compare with the behavior of a bad leader: Benito Mussolini had locked himself inside a personal echo chamber in which he would hear and care about little more than his own grandiloquent proclaim. And he launched Italy into a disastrous war largely because he really had no idea of the real possibility of the Italian military forces. Think instead of Leopold II: it is clear from what he writes that he has a quantitative, even scientific, understanding of what the government is doing, often relying on the advice of scientists and experts.

Just as an example, in a note of 1851, Leopold describes how a combination of bad weather and pestilence caused a poor harvest and a diffuse famine. He says (p 414) that in some villages "le donne tenevan chiuse le finestre ai bambini per ingannarli perché credessero non venuto il giorno ancora e non domandassero pane." ("the women were keeping the windows shut for the children, in order to cheat them and convince them that the day had not come yet so that they would not ask for bread"). But this is not just a feeling, the Grand Duke is actively looking for ways to import grain to Tuscany, and when ships loaded with grain finally come, he rejoices while listing their numbers and the loads carried. As a final note, he praises not himself, but the Tuscan government for having stuck to a policy of free commerce that had encouraged the delivery of food to the population. He was a modest man not only in what he wrote but in everything he did.

There is a lot more to be said about this document, but that would be out of place, here. Let me just explain how it was that such a good and caring ruler eventually failed and was ousted. That was the result of forces that were operating outside Tuscany. The Grand Duke, although caring and effective as a local ruler, never gives us a hint in his notes that he understood the power game that was going on in the world at that time. 

The "Great Game" as it was played in mid 19th century, involved the Empires of the time competing against each other (then as now). Italy was a weak player in the game, being a patchwork of statelets, That was well recognized by the Italian thinkers of the time, who clamored for a unification that would give to Italy a sufficient economic and military force to become a serious player at the world level. But things weren't simple, they never are. The neighboring French and Austrian empires had all the interest in keeping Italy divided, and eventually partitioning it among themselves. Conversely, the British didn't want the rival French and Austrian empires to expand in Italy and pushed for a unified Italy that would keep both at bay. 

Eventually, the British won the game by one of the greatest masterpieces of diplomacy of all time. In an incredible strategic mistake, the French ruler, Napoleon 3rd, was bamboozled into making war against the Austrians to help Piedmont to conquer Italy. That involved much work by the Countess of Castiglione, said to be the most beautiful woman of her times, while at the same time an agent of the Piedmontese government. But that's another story. The French and the Austrians defeated each other and Italy fell into the hands of the King of Piedmont.

In this game, the Grand Duke Leopold was in a no-win situation. He was from an Austrian family of aristocrats and he could do little but lean on the Austrian side. He tried his best to maintain a certain level of neutrality, but when the Austrians were defeated, he was automatically defeated, too. And he did what he had to do, leave his Tuscany, while maintaining his dignity. I think we can say he remained faithful to his duty as a leader even with this last action.

And that's the story of a good ruler who did his best. How was it that Leopold II was so much better than most of our modern rulers? It is, of course, difficult to extract general rules from a single example, but one thing we can say is that Leopold didn't just become a leader. He was trained as a leader from his early years. He spoke fluently both German and Italian, he studied art, literature, and law, gaining a certain recognition as a literate, author of essays on Italian poetry. He also was very much interested in science, and he studied agricultural technologies. In terms of the intellectual climate of the time, I think he was deeply affected by the "Enlightenment" atmosphere of his age. He may well have read the Book by Antonio Muratori titled "About the Public Happiness" (1749) where the author clearly states that the job of a leader is to ensure the happiness of his subjects. And that's what Leopold seems to have striven to do during all of his life. 

So, shouldn't we train our leaders a little better, instead of choosing them in the haphazard, inefficient, and unreliable rituals we call "elections"? Shouldn't we train them in showing a little more empathyProbably yes, but a proposal like this one is not likely to go very far, nowadays. 

When was it that we lost the idea that a good leader should be trained as such? Hard to say but, probably, it has to do with the rise of propaganda during the 20th century. Then, leaders learned that the way they appeared was way more important than the way they actually were. Whatever it was, we are stuck where we are. Bad leaders are the last thing we need, but we have plenty, and I don't need to name them.

As a sign of changing times, the good Grand Duke of Tuscany, was the object of a memory removal campaign after he was deposed in 1859. So, there is little left in his city, Florence, that directly reminds us of his presence. One exception is this votive tabernacle on the hills south of Florence. It escaped destruction probably because it doesn't mention the Grand Duke's name, but we know it was him who wanted it erected. On it, we can still read that it was placed there "by a Father and his two daughters in gratitude for having survived a carriage accident." That he didn't sign the dedication was typical of Leopold's personality: he was a modest man who didn't like to show off (just like our modern politicians, right?).


A comment by

The note below was not written for this post, but Dr. Hsi Yen sent it to me as a comment. Indeed, the memories of the Grand Duke of Tuscany transpire a certain aura of Confucianism, a sort of Tuscan version of the Tao Te Ching. And it is also true that the European thought of the 18th century was much influenced by Chinese philosophy. Too bad that there was no Great Wall to defend Tuscany from foreign barbarians!

My father’s beautiful calligraphy, Dr. Ernest Chu Yen. What he taught me about how we care for each other the Confucian way. I’m named after Chu Hsi, 12th century neoConfucian scholar which paved the way for more than 600 years of relative harmony in China before Western powers decided to try to carve up China like they did Africa.
When the Great Way prevailed, the world community was equally shared by all. The worthy and able were chosen as office-holders. Mutual confidence was fostered and good neighborliness cultivated. Therefore people did not regard as parents only their own parents, nor did they treat children only their own children. Provision was made for the aged till their death, the adult were given employment, and the young enabled to grow up. Old widows and widowers, the orphaned, the old and childless, as well as the sick and the disabled were all well taken care of. Men had their proper roles and women their homes. While they hated to see wealth lying about on the ground, they did not necessarily keep it for their own use. While they hated not to exert their effort, they did not necessarily devote it to their own ends. Thus evil schemings were repressed, and robbers, thieves and other lawless elements failed to arise, so that outer doors did not have to be shut. This was called the age of Great Harmony (Ta Tung)

Friday, November 6, 2020

In Praise of a Dying Empire: America, the Beautiful

When I was a young postdoc, I was staying with my wife in a small house in the suburbs of New York. We couldn't afford much in terms of furniture but, behind our bed, we had hung a big American flag. America gave me a job, a career, a language, a way of seeing the world, and much more. America the promise, America the land of the free, America the beautiful, America the wonderful. But is also true that, "For every nation is a specified term. When their time has come, then they will not remain behind an hour, nor will they precede it." Sūrat l-aʿrāf (The Heights), Verse (7:34).

United States: An Obituary

by Richard Heinberg

The United States of America was problematic from the start. It was founded on genocide and slavery, and, while frequently congratulating itself on the rights and freedoms it granted its citizens, never managed to confront the demons in its past. The question would arise repeatedly, generation after generation: rights and freedoms for whom?
In short, we are living through the fall of a great power. With it will go a unique way of organizing the world. The symbolism of president Trump cowering in an underground bunker beneath the White House in late May couldn’t be plainer.

It is reasonable to ask whether the United States will continue to exist as a unified nation for much longer. The federal government has become so incompetent as to be increasingly irrelevant to the solution of many pressing problems—and a new face in the White House may not change the situation decisively. Out of necessity, states are exploring strategies of regionalism, as governors in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and the Northeast collaborate to respond to the pandemic
Read the complete post on Richard Heinberg's museletter.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Mind of the Evil Ruler: What Goes on inside the Heads of the People who Govern the World?

The damage that bad rulers can do to people and things is gigantic, especially considering that they command military apparatuses of immense power. But what goes on in their minds, exactly? Are some of them truly evil? Or just criminally incompetent? We'll probably never know for sure, but we have some hints for at least some of them. Here, I am exploring the case of Benito Mussolini, using the diary written by his son in law as a source of information.

There is a sentence attributed to Terry Pratchett that goes as, "the IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member divided by the number of mobsters." Actually, I think Robert Heinlein said something similar first (although I can't find that quote anymore). In any case, the idea that collective intelligence goes down with the number of the members of a group seems to have some logic in it, although it cannot be said to be scientifically proven.

If that's true, then we have a huge problem. How to manage states formed of tens or hundreds of millions, even billions, of people? A possible solution is to reduce the denominator of the formula to a single, absolute ruler who takes all the decisions. Indeed, it seems that human crowds, dumb as they may be, tend to think that all problems can be solved by someone who "will get things done." 

Unfortunately, the idea of giving all the power to a single big man doesn't seem to work so well. Another quote by Robert Heinlein says "A well run tyranny is almost as scarce as an efficient democracy." (confirmed). You may have read that Trump is a narcissist, Biden is affected by Alzheimer's, Putin by the Asperger syndrome, Hitler by bipolar disorder, and that Assad is evil just because he is. The list of mad or evil rulers is long, but what do we know about these people? In practice, very little because they live shielded by a barrier of lies in the form of propaganda and press releases. Even the people who know them well, relatives and close friends, may well be fooled by people who arrived at the top exactly by their capability of fooling everyone, perhaps even themselves.

Perhaps, if we could have a diary written by one of these madmen, say, Adolf Hitler, we could understand what made them him do the evil things they did. But the manuscript that was claimed to be Hitler's diary in 1983 was a hoax and no dictator of note ever left us a personal diary. It is perhaps a consequence of their personality. As I said, they tend to swindle everybody, including themselves, and a diary would be a weapon in the hands of their enemies.

But there are other possibility: the closest thing to a personal diary written by a dictator is a diary written by a close relative or a collaborator of a dictator. One such document is the diary kept by Galeazzo Ciano, foreign minister of the Mussolini government in Italy from 1937 to 1943. He was not only a close collaborator of the Duce but also a close relative since he had married his daughter. You can find the complete diary in Italian at this link.
So, what can we learn from this document? First, note that Ciano was not an intellectual, nor he had any professional expertise. He is best described as a high-rank playboy who had used the money and the prestige of his father, a war hero, to gain access to Mussolini's family and eventually to marry Mussolini's daughter. That, of course, opened up for him a bright career at the top and he was widely considered the most likely candidate to succeed the Duce as Italy's leader. During the period in which he was active as foreign minister, he often acted as the second-in-command in the government. 

Ciano wrote detailed notes of his everyday activities as foreign minister for the whole period of his appointment. Clearly, he was an insider and he knew things nobody else knew. Of course, we don't have to take these notes as completely truthful. Especially in the final pages we clearly detect an attempt by Ciano to distance himself from his illustrious father-in-law and his egregious blunders. Later on, he joined a coup against Mussolini but that sealed his downfall: he was tried and then shot for treason on orders of Mussolini himself. But, overall, it is probable that many details of the daily written document do reflect real events.
One thing we learn from Ciano's notes is how haphazardly Italy was run. A country of 45 million inhabitants was steered by people who seemed to carry on, day by day, the best they could without a specific direction. Mostly, the story sounds like a TV soap: the atmosphere in the high echelons of the government was a poisonous mix of gossip, treachery, and abject deference to the great boss. The name of the game was a simple sentence: "Mussolini is always right." Anyone could be demoted to a powerless position if he happened to displease the commander in chief. In 1939, that happened also to Achille Starace, a longtime associate of Mussolini and secretary of the Fascist party. 

Even the great boss, Mussolini, didn't seem to have a well defined plan. He generally thought that Italy should pursue a policy of territorial expansion and that that was necessary because Italy was a young nation that needed space for its growing population. That could obtained at the expense of the evil and decadent plutocracies that were England and France. And that was to result in the creation of an Italian Empire that would rival the old Roman Empire.

If that was the plan, it wasn't a good plan. Worse, it was never clear how exactly the new Roman Empire could be created. Mussolini, just like most politicians, couldn't reason quantitatively and had no interest nor trust in data. He trusted mainly his intuition and he never understood how badly unprepared were the Italian armed forces, nor how weak the Italian economy was in comparison to that of the powers of the time. Unfortunately for him, he was lucky enough that some of his initial military adventures were successful. And victories don't teach you anything.

Not that Mussolini was a fool, not at all. As a young man, he had been a smart politician and a shrewd journalist. We have his diary during the time when he was in the trenches during WWI and there we find nothing of the warlike rhetoric of his later years. He always kept his head low: no question for him to jump out of the trench and lead a bayonet assault. In 1917, he was lightly wounded by the accidental explosion of an Italian cannon and that was the end of the war for him. It was also a stroke of luck: not only he could gain a reputation as a war hero, but he avoided to be caught in the rout of the Italian army after the disaster of the battle of Caporetto, a few months later. 

20 years later, we read in Ciano's diary how the smart politician had turned into a bumbling fool. Let me translate a few excerpts for you. 
Dec 19, 1937. The Duce said: "On my grave I want this epigraph: Here lies one of the most intelligent animals ever appeared on the face of the earth". The Duce is proud of his instinct which he considers, and has actually proved to be, infallible.
Sep 29-30 1938 (Criticizing Great Britain) "When animals are adored in a country to the point of making cemeteries, hospitals, homes for them; when bequests are made to parrots it is a sign that decadence is underway. Moreover, in addition to the many reasons, this also depends on the composition of the English people. 4 million more women. Four million sexually dissatisfied creatures, artificially creating a multitude of problems to arouse or artificially creating a multitude of problems to excite or appease their senses. Not being able to embrace a single man, they embrace humanity ".

June 3, 1939 "I" said the Duce "I am like a cat, cautious and prudent, but when I take a leap I am sure to land where I want.

Dec 24, 1940 – It's snowing. The Duce looks out of the window and is happy that it snows: "This snow and this cold are fine" he says "so the pipsqueaks die: and this mediocre Italian breed is improved. One of the main reasons why I wanted the reforestation of the Apennines it was to make Italy colder and snowier ".
You see what I mean, and there is much more in Ciano's diary. It is like dealing with an old man who has lost track with reality. Yet, as I wrote in a previous post, a post-mortem examination showed that Mussolini's brain was still functional during the last years of his rule. By all means, it was the normal brain of a normal person. What Mussolini's brain had lost was not neurons, but the capability of empathy: understanding and caring for your fellow human beings. 

Empathy requires a certain effort, it is a tool that needs to be sharpened every day. But just as you get fat if you don't exercise your body, you get dumb if you don't exercise your mind. What happened with Mussolini and the Italian government was a self-reinforcing loop. The people around Mussolini soon found that they could keep their position if they never disagreed with the boss. Mussolini, in turn, found that he could easily get rid of those who disagreed with him. And the result was that he was even more surrounded by yes-men who always agreed with him. Eventually, he found he didn't need empathy: he could just order people to do what he wanted. 

It was not just Mussolini's mind that had degraded for lack of exercise. It was the whole chain of command of the Italian government that had degraded in a way that reminds the sentence by Terry Pratchett about the collective intelligence of a group. By the 1930s, the process had led to situation that you could describe as "government by the whims of the boss."

It all became painful clear when, in 1940, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Greece in winter, across the Epirus mountains, with woefully insufficient and poorly equipped troops. We have the minutes of the government reunions that preceded the attack on Greece: it is clear it was the Duce alone who decided to attack and the date of the attack. Nobody dared to oppose his decision. On the contrary, generals competed with each other to state that it could be done easily. A classic effect of a group feedback. Disaster ensued, as it should have been expected. 

I think that the key to the whole story is last excerpt in Ciano's diary, when Mussolini rejoices at the thought of Italians freezing to death. This is not just incompetency or stupidity, it is one of the few moments in Ciano's diary where we see true evil appearing. You might want to picture in your head Mussolini standing near the window of his office, maybe close to a warm radiator, while he rubs his hands together and smiles in a Satanic smile like the character of a comic book. (you may add also the classic Satanic laughter that goes as Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!)

But an evil comic character is not a good description of what was happening. My impression is that, while losing empathy, Mussolini was also gradually losing the moral bonds that keep normal people from being truly evil. He had found that he could kill Italians only indirectly, for instance by planting trees in the mountains (at least he imagined that). But, at some point, he discovered that not only he could order to kill foreigners as he pleased, but that the more foreigners he caused to be killed, the more he became popular in Italy. So, he proceeded to expand this strategy until, unfortunately for him (and for many others), the idea backfired. Badly. After that a half million Italians had died because of Mussolini's mistakes, you know how he ended, hanged upside-down. Nobody should rejoice at the death of anyone, but it seems that the universe has ways to punish one's worst mistakes.

Mussolini's case is just one that's close enough to our times that we have abundant documentation about it. It is also sufficiently remote that we can discuss it from a reasonably objective viewpoint. The question is: why is it so easily for governments to be hijacked by evil/incompetent/dumb leaders? Unfortunately, that may occur much more often than we would like to think. Are some of our leaders rejoicing when large numbers of mere commoners die because of their actions, just as Mussolini did? I can't think of at least one example of one of our prominent politicians rejoicing at the violent death of the leader of a foreign country and you probably understand whom I mean. And what could be the effect on a president's mind of the capability of killing anyone, anywhere, by a drone strike without the need to provide a justification or fearing retaliation? Can you imagine that drone strikes are decided by people who rub their hands together while producing Satanic smiles? We won't know how evil these people really are until much after they are gone, if ever.

But already now we can find hints that not everything may be well in the minds of our leaders. The Guardian recently wrote that:

Today we learned Trump released his own video of his interview on “60 Minutes.” I chuckled when I read his description of his performance:“Watch [Stahl’s] constant interruptions [and] anger. Compare my full, flowing and ‘magnificently brilliant’ answers,” Trump tweeted along with the link to the interview.

Of course, you may call that harmless narcissism. Surely it is nothing like Mussolini's blabber. But, well, you know, sometimes you wonder.....



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)