Are there limits to Tolerance?

Today was a sunny morning, so instead of reading the BBC News of the day on my iPad while breakfasting in the kitchen, I got the paper version of the International Herald Tribune and Le Monde and went to a nearby café. The IHT quickly revealed itself much the same as any daily online BBC News, only on paper. So after folding it as a handy swat for the pesky wasps plaguing central Europe in general and my table in particular, I turned to Le Monde.

Germans have a good reason for rebelling against the NSA, one idées article read, and went on to make a couple of points particularly apt for these days of burqa bans and trending civic disobedience on the digital interstate highway. Drawing on the lessons from the former undemocratic German republic, the author notes that just as the Stasi had no manpower or systems to analyze the mounds of information it efficiently collected from all and sundry, neither has the NSA the ability or imagination to deal with all it stores about the common citizenry.

Not to worry then about having your average anonymous life being stored live on some archive somewhere? Not so.

Mass surveillance is the darling weapon par excellence of regimes and autocratic brutes bent on busting democracy and other such lofty idealistic fluff-ware to smithereens; and its sugar candy motto, “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”, is what keeps the wheels of totalitarianism oily. The problem with mass surveillance?…  Oh, things like, living in a state of fearing thy neighbor, thy fathers, thy sons (note that I am not saying thy mothers who lack the testosterone needed to understand the virtues of war and 10 eyes for an eye). Or, so long, democracy. Or, bye-bye, entire non-aligning swathes of populations.

From an eternal perspective, there is nothing in life to fear, only to understand, said Marie Curie. Thing is, I don’t have an eternal life, but a rather limited one. And I have kids with equally limited lives, give or take a couple of years’ shortage or extension of average life spans. And humans thrive in diversity, not uniformity. Standardize the human race and we die. Mishmash everyone’s biology and what wipes one can wipe us all. Mishmash everyone’s morals and ethics and what you got is, at best, a publicly funded Geriatric Ward. At worst, it’d be a matter of time until the agreeable stability of universal chaos would wipe us (humans) all.

Polish born Marie Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize and did seminal work on radioactivity (a term she also coined.) Her papers remain radioactive: radium-226, the most common isotope of radium, has a half life of 1601 years. She died on the day of my birth, July 4.

Polish born Marie Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize and did seminal work on radioactivity (a term she also coined.) Her papers remain radioactive: radium-226, the most common isotope of radium, has a half life of 1601 years. She died on the day of my birthday, July 4.

For now, we know that private Manning got a lifetime in jail, and so would Assange and Snowden if only one could get their feet on US soil. Thanks to a Brazilian guy connected to a reporter working on the Snowden story, we just learned that the UK has a sinister thing that could happen to anyone called Schedule 7 that hit the headlines a tad too clumsily close to the US admitting to the existence of Area 51. We should probably check if countries that we’ve so far regarded as benevolently democratic bonanzas have something like that before booking our next transcontinental holidays. For now, we know that countries one learned to love when growing up, the USA and the UK, are inching ominously closer to the dystopic America fantasized in Super Sad True Love Story.

For now we know about another charming country, France, banning scarves covering women’s hair in its entirety, plus a host of pundits clamoring about the irrationality of a law based on pure fear that in reality affects a nano-who-cares-per-cent of the French population. Maybe the French ought to be a bit careful about laws about scarves. It’s after all the country that gave us Hermés, and with their low to mid range cost exports on a free fall, one would think it a good idea to protect their still thriving luxury exports, such as the larger Hermés scarves big enough to cover the normal-sized hair of foreign women with access to enormously sized wallets.

Hermés considerations aside, I find the law over the top but by no means something that only affects an infinitesimal percent of the population. Au contraire: it affects every woman and girl in the country and beyond. It happened to Iran, it could happen to you.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis wearing a Hermes Astrologie scarf in the sixties.

Jackie Kennedy Onassis wearing a Hermes Astrologie scarf in the sixties.

That the Muslim community has no consensus about the interpretation of women’s dress code as told in the Quran, or that pro-burqa wifes, mothers, sons and daughters need their freedom of interpretation of religious dress codes respected – this is all beside the point. The point is, everything only exists within limits, the limits of what is best for the survival of the (human) species. Everything: including Tolerance. To tolerate everything is to dissolve the diversity that is best for human evolution. Westerners are not about to accept whatever tribe last came out of whatever jungle remains after decades of logging and deforestation, to come live among us in the near-buff. It’s all very well for the Annual Pride Parade, or for secluded nudist spots along mile-long stretches of Catholic country beachfront that every devout soul knows precisely where they are (but never been). Not so for genuine pure shamelessness about the naked body.

As a Western woman, I am ok with head scarves, which is where I draw the line. I find women in burqa as difficult to behold as ladies in burqa would find nip-tucked grandmas baring it all at Club 55. I try to respect the customs of places I visit, cover shoulders and knees, wear or discard shoes, but  have no interest in setting a foot in countries where non-observance of burqa or niqab code is punishable by law. It’s my way of showing respect for something I could never understand any more than the burqa police could understand the point of an annual Pride Parade on their streets. Respecting oneself and others needs boundaries.

And yet, and yet. Having said all this, I must also add something else that will entirely undo my point that for the benefit of the human species, tolerance must have limits. How the Monty Python People would have put it, “And Now for Something Completely Different”:

Tolerance is not to accept the range of all that we understand from a little bit to a lot. Tolerance like that is very comfortable, and not really tolerance, but a convincing simulation of tolerance. Like the model home in a brand new housing development.

Tolerance is to accept what we can’t understand at all. And that can’t possibly dissolve the diversity that is best for human evolution.

A bientot.



The Human Kamikaze Bomb from the Point of View of a Long Lived Crocodile

When I read or watch the news headlines, there are moments when I imagine a sleepy croc eyeballing a nearby human and bothering about as much as you would noticing a small cabbage white butterfly doing its antics in a spot of predictable garden. The croc would consider making a big effort to move and go gulp that guy, but he is not that hungry, so it doesn’t make sense to go lust after this morsel of lesser evolutionary bite. Better conserve energy and snooze.


I watch the news, and get this visceral sense that mankind can come up with all sorts of advances to optimize longevity and good health, or make up for the unfortunate lack of an exoskeleton that appears to be an extremely important factor in the longer haul of evolutionary history. But none of it will matter, because the bomb within tic-tacking its countdown to the 00:00:00 hour of human extinction is as intimate as our physicality, but completely different:

It’s our quest for a valuable identity in a meaningful life.

This noble human quest is our ticking self-destruction mechanism – as in, I don’t know your book of scripture, but mine tells me that I can kill you if you threaten what is meaningful to me and my own, so I will. Your book of scripture or bill of rights or whatchamacallit in your part of the world doesn’t o.k. that? Not my problem. You don’t offend me, I won’t shoot you. You offend me, I can shoot you. I offend you and you can’t shoot me?… That’s your book, not mine.  

So, come a shooting impasse, of which a digitized and globalized world has ample opportunity for, heads will roll, and news headlines daily tell us they do, all the time, anywhere. Some feel they’re rallying for purposeful justice, and thou may kill. Others  feel their hands tied by thou shall not kill.  I grew up in a small Western country where freedom of expression was out of the question during my childhood and preteen years. My parents, however, held freedom of expression sacred, first secretly, and then openly after the regime exhaled its last breadth.  By now, they’ve come full circle and reverted back to the good old safe times when you got arrested in PJs in the middle of the night for ventilating non-sanctioned opinions  – but the people who lorded over your country came from your country and spoke your language. They could be evil, but it was our evil, not a foreigner holding us in handcuffs. And righteously so, I may add! Consequently, I believe in tolerance, freedom of expression, and integrity, and hear my aging parents gloss over Salazar and Angela Merkel in the same sentence,  at the expense of the higher ethos of their prime adulthood.

So when I encounter a demonstration fueled by that movie The Innocence of Muslims downtown the European city where I currently live,  I recoil in something hard to digest whole: a mix of fear of the mob, loathing of xenophobia, and that mother of all greater evil, deep-rooted anger. Anger at seeing the streets occupied by savvy terrorists: opportunists presenting violence as just retaliation for such poor cinematic quality that only those eager to pick low hanging forbidden fruits would bother watching. Anger watching the disproportionate quantity of police in place for a crowd too small to make the local news.  Clearly, terrorizing the common passer-by population with the magnitude of police muscle is worth a tactical “cease and desist” intent.

The Execution of Christ, a piece of world quality art  (not amateur motion picture garbage), comes to mind: a life size sculpture installation of Jesus in front of a firing squad of Chairman Maos. Unsurprisingly, in China this piece is art-non-gratta. But more to the point, Catholics aren’t raging against the Chinese because two Chinese artists produced this. No Catholic is murdering any Chinese ambassador because of it. The Pope and Her Majesty are not encouraging holy wars. What’s this fundamentalist pseudo-Muslim rage all about? Who’s feeding the fire?

"The Execution of Christ" by The Gao Brothers, 2009. The pose mimics the painting "The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico" by Edouard Manet, 1867.

“The Execution of Christ” by The Gao Brothers, 2009. The pose mimics the painting “The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico” by Edouard Manet, 1867. Maximilian, a member of the Austrian Hapsburgs, had been installed in power in Mexico by Napoleon III of France to recover unpaid debts. The mission failed.

Reading about the Taliban who shot in the head up close a 14 year old girl who’d been writing a blog since 11 – really, Malala Yousafzai is right up there with Anne Frank – makes me wish being a sniper who happened in the neighborhood and shot the hooligans dead on the spot. And doing it again, and again – oh, the satisfaction of the rumor beginning to make the rounds of the encrypted terrorist underground! The glee imagining the insidious fear infiltrating the ranks, I dunno how it happens man, but it does, you shoot or rape a female, you die. The sweet balm of revenge envisaging partisans mobilizing and educating women to take it upon themselves to rid society of people who shoot girls in the face. Once upon a time it was up to women to claim the right to vote. In our time, it’s up to women to rid themselves – and their daughters, and their good husbands and fathers forced to choose between dead literate daughters or a living illiterate ones – of men who maim and kill women.

And then I get that croc-eyeing-butterfly-human moment.

It’s a world of many kinds of people. Some believe that tolerance is good. Others don’t. Some think freedom of expression is good. Others don’t. Some believe integrity is the opposite of hypocrisy.  Others don’t. Some believe that to kill someone because of a badly produced demeaning video is a just purpose. Others don’t. Some believe they must kill a young girl who writes what she observes and feels. Others don’t. Some feel they must shoot the shooters, but don’t. Others do.

We are not here for the long haul, and we can’t help it.

It’s who we are.

On Grain: Pumping for the Kill

[Grain:] a rich source of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, oils, and protein. The staple diet in developing nations in the form of  rice, wheat, millet, or maize. Which is why the cheaper E10 biofuel comes at a sky-high high cost: driving up the price of grain, and killing people unable to afford the higher prices, or too malnourished to wait for charity, probably from the very hands that dealt the higher crops prices. In Germany, icon and hotbed of potently masculine car making, some government officials demand the fuel to be banned; while philosophical France next door, the first EU country to introduce E10 in 2009, is currently “considering  to reconsider” expanding the use of bio-fuel. The two countries account for a big, fat lion’s share of the total European bio-fuel consumption, which has doubled since 2006 despite lots of good legislative intentions to curb the appetite for killer bio-fuel. But good news loom on the horizon: despite increases in consumption,  the trend is for Europe to decline its share in the global bio-fuel killer trend, as other regions will increase their consumption a great deal more than Europe. The Worst Biofuel Baddy crown will be worn somewhere else – guess where?