A Special Christmas Post

Hey everyone,

I’ve had to make some changes in the program for Hummus For Thought due to the usual financial restrictions, but I’m happy to say that I’m still planning on having those long-form interviews on here eventually with an expected launch date in 2022. I will update when I know more on that front.

I’ll be sending you a separate post straight to your mail every once in a while in addition to the monthly newsletter, but I promise that it won’t be more than monthly as well. So at most you should expect two emails per month, but it’ll usually be just the one.

As it’s Christmas, I’ve been thinking about a portrait of Jesus Christ that I revisit every year. It is called The Christ of Maryknoll by Robert Lentz. This is what it looks like.

In a video posted on his YouTube channel, Lentz mentioned thinking of Matthew 25:40 – “And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me”. His image of Jesus the Immigrant or Jesus the Refugee is one I relate to, despite his context (Albuquerque) being on the surface so different than mine. It is how I feel when I write and think about the ones being left to drown by the European Union’s anti-refugees and anti-immigrant politics (relevant links: here, here, here), or the ones being scapegoated by Lebanon’s xenophobic rhetoric today.

I admit having difficulties with Christmas. To me it’s been associated with the world’s hypocrisy most blatantly demonstrated during the fall of Aleppo to the Assad regime, which happened around Christmas 2016. I was sitting at the dinner table with relatives and one of them, a prominent pro-Aoun/Hezbollah Lebanese politician – who I’ve already mentioned elsewhere but I don’t want to do so here – was celebrating Aleppo’s fall by showing another relative, who happens to have Alzheimer’s and didn’t really understand what was going on, photos of Assad’s soldiers in the ‘liberated’ city with a wide smile on his face.

As it happens, I had been glued to my phone that month, having spent the previous several weeks reporting on Aleppo as MENA editor for Global Voices and being in daily conversation with friends and colleagues there who were fearing the worst. I found myself in this extremely uncomfortable dissociative state where two people were getting very different narratives through similar devices. Did he not know what he was celebrating? Did he not care for the men and women, the young and the old, who were forced out of their homes?

These are the questions I should have asked, but didn’t. I did not want to deal with the older generation’s heartless and brainless attitude towards our world, attitudes that I see as being the reason why so many of us have ended up in various states of exile and forced migration. They choose to exile their own sons and daughters to avoid looking at the horrors they have inflicted upon the world. The conspiracy theories they have equipped themselves with to avoid thinking, the false conceptions of the world that are so deluded as to survive real world destruction, these were too much to deal with over apparently cheerful dinner conversations. I’m sure many of you in different contexts could relate to that feeling as well, even if you did not experience the horrors of war yourself.

So, not wishing to inflict emotional distress on a relative already dealing with Alzheimer’s, I excused myself and left the room instead of challenging him.

(By coincidence, as I was revisiting these words Israeli jets flew over Lebanon on their way to Syria, triggering an already-traumatized population. That’s ‘Christmas 2020’ for many people now.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the climate emergency lately. It was often impossible to think about it for too long as I would get quickly overwhelmed. With time, the ‘often’ turned to ‘sometimes’ and I no longer have the sort of panic attacks that came out of an existential fear, and which were so frequent as to essentially be paralyzing. I still feel the intense urgency of global warming, but I am able to ‘manage’ that feeling (a bit) better.

This is no doubt also related to a deep-seated desire to create a home filled with books and gardening, one where beauty is truly experienced as a long-term experience rather than merely a passing one. In this imagination I picture a child, maybe two, and my mind immediately ‘goes’ to the varying scenarios that we know are likely given our existing economic and political systems. I immediately start calculating: what would the world look like in 2045, when the eldest would likely be in their 20s? What about when their own children and grandchildren reach that age towards the end of the century?

This terrifying thought is one I constantly update myself to remember that it is not an exaggeration. After all, our world continues to act as if it’s an exaggeration. We may not say it out loud, but we certainly think it. It’s how we manage to go through our increasingly-uncertain daily lives. So there’s no judgment there on my part, at least not consciously.

But what remains is this sense of taking in a disproportionate amount of our world’s burden because worry, like wealth, is nowhere near fairly distributed. I say ‘taking in’ rather than ‘taking on’ because these observations are often kept to myself, or shared with a selected few, because sharing it to a larger audience on social media rarely yields satisfactory results. (This is why I’m writing to you here, so that at least you know I’m not sharing my thoughts while under the influence of manipulative algorithms.) This ‘taking in’ is what links me to like-minded people, as we seem to be naturally drawn to one another.

To say that this year has been a difficult one is so obvious that you’re probably sighing while reading these words right now.

COVID-19 is still with us. Its origins is likely the result of humanity’s reckless and arrogant interference in the natural world, and its durability is definitely the result of short-term politics and economics. This virus exposed so much about our world. We know how to prevent its spread and the spread of potentially worse infectious diseases, but the gap between what we scientifically know and what we politically or economically ‘know’ remains wider than it should be by now. At almost every stage of this crisis almost anywhere – with a few notable exceptions such as Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand, Iceland and so on – there was a direct conflict between scientific experts and the authorities. In some cases, as in the USA, India and Brazil, scientific experts have even been pressured to make false or contradictory statements to counter the idiocy of the ruling party. The results there, as we are currently seeing, have been nothing short of catastrophic.

So here we are. I started this year thinking I was going to just get a 2nd shot at this PhD at the University of Zurich after my terrible experience of it at the University of Edinburgh. While waiting for my Swiss visa to come, I witnessed Lebanon’s October 2019 revolution. By the time I got that visa, January 2020, we were already aware that a pandemic was on its way. By February, when I moved to Switzerland, my partner and I were preparing ourselves for lock-downs. By March, the WHO had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and my attempts to ‘put things aside and focus’ on the PhD fell through.

To be clear, we’ve had it relatively good. Our home is cozy and we both have stable incomes which already makes us luckier than many. We also managed to get my dog from Lebanon here which has been amazing. And I’ve also been genuinely enjoying doing the Podcast (if you can support, please click here etc etc etc) as it pushes me to read a lot and avoid the kind of learned helplessness that I developed from growing up in Lebanon and then from being a migrant in Europe.

Despite everything that has happened this year – and they are too numerous to even list – I count myself as lucky, and this sense of critical gratitude helps me go through with life, which is what I wanted to leave you with on this Christmas day.

There are extraordinary efforts being made, right now, throughout the world by people from all walks of life making this world a better place. The challenges are great, some may even be insurmountable, but their attempts are why I’m still grateful.

Take care folks.

5 thoughts on “A Special Christmas Post

  1. In India the might of the ruling party- in terms of money and manpower- is so strong I wonder if it can ever be taken down. The first thing I did on Christmas day was try to correct yet another fake Whatsapp message that found its way into my family group chat but felt utterly miserable realising that millions of people have already seen it and believed it, like the countless other lies peddled by the BJP every day on social media and TV news. It filled me with a total and complete sense of powerlessness. As I read your passage I realised that I cannot tell anymore if the vicious hatred that brews in some of my most “educated” relatives is their own doing or if it was injected into them daily, for years, until it came naturally to them. Nevertheless, reading your article reminded me that while things are bad, things are much worse for others. While I hope for a miracle, I will keep them in mind.

    1. My understanding of Indian politics is still fairly moderate as it’s a complicated scene to wrap one’s head around, but I’ve been doing more reading on it in the past year or so, especially since last year’s protests. I’ve had guests on the previous podcast (it was called ‘Hummus For Thought’) to speak about it as well but I haven’t yet done so on The Fire These Times (here’s the previous link: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/hari-prasad-and-aman-madan-on-indias-anti-caa-nrc-protests/id1434537651)

      But your comment reminds me of how global these problems are, and I think the way network effects, siren servers, old school monopolies etc are functioning, in addition to the existing structures of authoritarianism, makes this problem both ‘clearer’ and extremely vague. The idea is that it’s getting difficult, as you wrote, to distinguish between outright propaganda and disinformation, and the result of incremental changes. That uncle who is a card-carrying Trump supporter versus that uncle who occasionally shares QAnon stuff. The line between these two is getting blurred anyway.

      I do genuinely believe that a part of the problem is that most of us just don’t understand how data works. I know that’s true of me, and it’s something I’ve been trying to tackle. I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s books lately as well as Cathy O’Neil’s book ‘weapons of math destruction’ which have been pretty informative. It will take a bit more time though as it can seem really counter-intuitive at times.

      Thank you for sharing your experience Niharika. The years ahead won’t be easy, to put it mildly, but there are real reasons to be optimistic, and I’m working on making them more likely to actually happen.

      Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays

  2. Keep stirring Joey. As Gerard Whinstanley said circa 1650 “Freedom is the man who turns the world upside down, and he therefore maketh many enemies.” And being the most radical voice of the English Revolution he knew what he was talking about.

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