Corona thoughts – On n’a pas que de l’amour



From business closures and frustrated dreams to the deaths of dear ones, and general loss of trust in institutions, what will be the emotional impact of COVID-19?


I grew up listening to a French rock band called ‘Rita Mitsouko’. They were quirky punks, with funky clothes and philosophical lyrics. One of their songs accompanied my teenage years. It went: ‘On n’a pas que de l’amour, ça non, on n’a pas que de l’amour à vendre, ah ouais, y a de la haine.’ For non French speakers out there, the translation goes something like ‘we don’t have only love, oh no, we don’t have only love for sale, oh yes, there is hatred’. Later in the song (still in translation), it goes ‘hatred needs to spread as well, of yes, without brakes… we have to put it somewhere after all’.

That song came up in one of my feeds during a phase of deep lockdown, and triggered reflection. I holds some wisdom in its lyrics (wow, I grew up on good music, haha).


I’ve been working in start-up and innovative environments for about eight years now. In my experience, those tend to be toxically optimistic. Founders look ahead, and have little capacity to process ‘the dark stuff’. Meditators invite to focus on the positive. Others would rather negativity stay away from the workplace, thank you very much.

Over the years, I have accumulated quite a bit of negative feelings, which positive psychology certainly doesn’t help me deal with. So, I had to figure out how to handle my own shadows, and all the weight of darkness I took on by proxy.


As part of lockdown 2.0, I tried a little personal project: learn to rest and relax. Part of it, involved a return to meditation. One of the tracks I listened to, ‘deep healing’, invited me to breathe in negative feelings, then breathe them out. This way, they would no longer saturate my body. The process worked for me, but as I let those negative feelings out, I couldn’t help wondering. Where did they go? Who would look after them?


I found one rather sinister answer. The founder of 8Chan was born with brittle bone disease, and grew up accumulating resentment. He created a space for hatred to grow. If all hatred goes to the same place, it ends up concentrated, and explodes arbitrarily. Service providers have reacted, blocking the site – but it just popped up back elsewhere.


All the negative emotions triggered by the pandemic and government response, where will they go? Our world is saturated. Positivity, technological development, new ideas, none of this is enough. The dark side encroaches.

One proposal is to look for more space, by flying off to Mars, reducing the global population, or expanding the built and digital environments. But can we get out of our predicament simply by creating more storage space for emotional junk? And is there a risk that we just create vulnerable points, ready to explode?

I wonder though, is there an alternative? Could we create an ecological model for hatred management – one where we learn to digest it, decompose it, recycle what we can – and safely lock away whatever hard nugget remains?


If you’re curious – here is a link to the song!

On root causes

Most of my work has to do with wicked problems. As the name indicates, like evil itself, those never disappear altogether, but can only ever be contained, or at best eliminated locally. Technically, wicked problems involve a large number of factor, all interconnected, so that chains of cause and effect are difficult to track. Effective interventions are always difficult to find, never perfect, rarely straightforward.

Enter the pandemic. In 2017, I was working with the Global Challenges Foundation, preparing a short introduction to global catastrophic risk. Pandemics featured in the booklet, alongside nuclear winter and supervolcanoes. To people around me, this all sounded like sci-fi. No more today, as I was reflecting with Phil the other day.

Pandemics – as all other global catastrophic risks – are wicked problems on steroids. Factors include urban congestion, encroachment over wild areas, global interconnectedness, compromised immunity, poverty, misinformation, mistrust in institutions, you name it. Except when one strikes and unleashes, it doubles as a chaotic problem for local and national governments. Underlining the shortcomings of our governance systems.

Chaotic problems, unlike wicked ones, present themselves locally, and take the form of extreme urgency. Any reaction is typically better than none. There is no time for robust analysis and full understanding. Both types of problems often go hand in hand. Climate change is complex, the 2019 Australian bushfires were chaotic. Pandemics are complex, the 2021 Delta variant outbreak in Melbourne is chaotic.

The curfew brought a deep sense of rage, and killed my spirit for a while. As the first wave of emotion passed, I took time to reflect further, and realised, I feel profound frustration at yet another governance failure. We let a wicked problem run its course until it manifested as local chaos, then addressed it with appropriate anti-chaos measure – blanket authoritarian bans. I am frustrated by a reactive government that addresses symptoms instead of causes, and aims to pass off short-term compliance as civic virtue.

Yet the Victorian Premier, and the Chief Medical Officer, are following the terms of their mandate. Letting the local outbreak go wild, in the present state of affairs, will cause more harm than harsh measures. Imposing a curfew is in itself pointless, but easing enforcement and strengthening the signal will increase short-term compliance, and the chances that Victoria manages this one outbreak. Their mandate is Victorian welfare, and most likely, given the outbreak, the chosen course of action is optimal.

Except, this is a game where everyone loses in the end. Because the signals sent, and the structures put in place, are affecting our local capacity to tackle wicked problems in the long run. Financial resources are running low – and with greater immediate pressure when things open again, who will take the time to sit and analyse long-term wicked problems, let alone work on them. And right now, we’re all affected in some ways – brain fog and a spectrum of mental health issues – limiting our capacity to do the tough long-term work. So, here goes another month with limited progress, in Melbourne, on global wicked issues. Which, meanwhile, evolve and grow.

Worst, probably, following an official rhetoric that blames individuals for non-compliance, we’re collectively shifting the burden of causality, not on inadequate governance systems, but individual morality. Which will neither help us address future pandemics, nor climate change, nor geopolitical breakdowns, and the wave of suffering that is likely to follow.

And this is not a cause for rage, but sadness and fear.

Corona thoughts – On mourning


A few weeks ago, I took many things for granted. That I could go out in the morning and sit in a café for hours, to work or read a book. That I could take a train to Brighton, or Williamstown, and walk along the beach. That I could have spicy Sichuan food, or beer and chips, or a pizza for dinner. Or invite as many friends over as I wanted, for no reason.

I reacted to Covid-19 in three phases. First came smugness, with a touch of denial. I’ve worked in global catastrophic risk for years, this is a mild crisis, why the panic? Then came anger and sadness. The government is taking away my freedom, who made those decisions, on what basis? Finally, I experienced calm acceptance. Things have changed, life continues, though different in its daily form.


A few years ago, I took many things for granted. That there would be fish in the sea forever, and polar bears, and coral reefs. That, forty years from now, Miami, Mumbai and Guangzhou would be dry land, and I could go visit, if I wanted to. That I could live in blissful ignorance of peak oil, rainforest destruction, and the structure of electric grids. That I could focus on writing or teaching, then expect a peaceful retirement as new generations continued.

That world is gone,  but I have not yet found a sense of calm acceptance.


On January 9, 2019, I saw this photograph in my Facebook Feed.

The facial expression of this man, and with the caption underneath, made me pause. We have associated success with economic growth, and let our happiness depend on it. Whoever attached their identity to this paradigm will experience loss when considering climate change and its impact, including on the shrinking economy. We do not like to experience loss. Hence, denial.

The middle-aged white man faces the prospect of deep sadness: for we were probably closest to living a perfect life, and so, our dreams might have been crushed most. This comes with enormous emotional burden. Yet how ill-equipped are we to deal with this sadness.

I learned about this phenomenon during a cross-cultural training session: women typically fare better in difficult situations than men. A simple reason to this: most men in leadership positions have never encountered genuine hardships or setbacks. Sure, they worked hard, and didn’t get to their position without efforts and focus. But if they made it, it’s because they passed every obstacle. Success defines their sense of identity

Not so women, used to countless micro-aggressions, endless exposure to unconscious bias. Women do no better than their male counterparts in difficult cross-cultural situations. But setbacks are part of their identity. So, when a negotiation collapses, when hostile behavior starts out of nowhere, when everything falls apart, they can step back, reflect, and try again. Not so male leaders: whatever behaviour has led them to success, they continue. When it stops working, they don’t know what to do. Some experience complete breakdown.

The new ‘white man’s burden’ is this unexpressed sadness. That the world we inherited, the world that we continued building, is dead. That whatever behaviour has led to success up until now no longer works. That we’re at risk of complete breakdown. That we’re stuck in denial.

My hope for Covid-19 is, it is shrinking the economy. It is forcing us to stop and pause. It is causing sadness and suffering. And so, there is hope that it will accelerate the mourning process we need.


Mindless consumerism is joyful. I like to go to cafes, I like to take a train to the beach, eat spicy Sichuan Food or beer and chips or pizza, and invite friends over for drinks and dinner. This was the attraction of Australia: good weather, wealth and a relaxed lifestyle.

In a chapter of Crowd and Power, Elias Canetti talks about the various forms that human groups can take. He describes what he calls ‘multiplication packs’: groups geared towards production, agricultural collectives amassing corn, wheat, rice, and rejoicing in the harvest. He describes, also, different types of group: what he calls the ‘funeral pack’. They come together to lament the passing of a fellow human – and in that shared sense of extreme loss, find a sense of unity.

We have organized our societies around economic growth: multiplication of resources. Maybe, we need to shift this, and bring back the tragic sense of funeral packs. Have an Easter moment of collective loss, in which we can find a new basis for unity.


It’s a cool morning of June 2019. I’m sitting at a long table underneath a metal awning in the highlands of Bali. I have joined a ‘creative retreat’ organised by my friends of the School of Slow Media. I just spent the night sleeping in a freezing tent, with two sweaters and a coat. I am having breakfast now, and my friend Ai is sitting next to me.

I tell Ai about a figure I encountered during my spiritual exercises: Joseph of Arimathea. When Christ dies on the cross, as Peter hides and Mary laments, Joseph goes to Pontius Pilate, asking for permission to take down the body of Jesus, and give him burial. Joseph is a practical man. The savior is dead, now there is a body on a cross, and that body must be moved, embalmed, buried. There are concrete steps to take: buy the myrrh and frankincense, buy the shroud, find the tomb, get an authorization from Pilate, find someone to take down the body, embalm it, shroud it, place it in the tomb, close the tomb. Joseph of Arimathea is at the centre of Easter, the shadow figure of Holy Saturday. Not the lamentation of death, not the joyful hope of the empty tomb, but the down-to-earth, pragmatic efforts of burial.

‘I identify with Joseph’, I told Ai, ‘and I think, I’d like to think more about him. I think our times need this figure.’ Then Ai draws a diagram on a napkin, and starts explaining to me: ‘in a paradigm shift, composting work is necessary. Something dies, something emerges. And part of what needs to happen is, elements of the previous paradigm must be broken down, so they can be used in the new.’ We talk for a while about composting, recycling, beetles. And mourning.

Mourning is a process of decomposition. Things used to go together: a face, a voice, an emotion, an organization, a house, a relationship. Dreams, hopes, projections. No more – we must undo those associations. In the same way, when a certain system falls apart – like the civilization we built on a mistaken belief that there would be cheap energy forever, and a stable climate – we must take it apart, so that its elements are available again, to build something new.


Last year, when a new government was elected in Australia, whose leader denied climate change, I experienced a deep sense of anger and sadness. The mourning process was starting.

I tried sharing an invitation, to come together in mourning: mourning for the world that was, for a world where we could imagine a stable climate, and calmly project ourselves into the future, without fear of apocalypse. What I was proposing was not a plan, not a solution: just a moment of collection, to welcome and share the sense of sadness, embrace the mourning process, in the hope that we could come out the other end, with calm presence, and build something new. Bury the dreams of the past, so that new dreams can come.


The Gospel doesn’t tell us what happens to Joseph of Arimathea, beyond his contribution to the Easter mystery. Tradition, however, offers a story. Joseph held a cup that received the blood of Christ on the cross. After placing Jesus in the tomb, Joseph leaves Jerusalem. He travels North, all the way to the distant Isle of Britain, where he lived and died in peace, hiding his treasure with him. Yet to future generations, pragmatic Joseph bequeathed a dream, the Quest for the Holy Grail: a promise of eternal life, an inspiration to virtue, the leaven of a new fellowship.

Corona thoughts – On failure


There are many different ways to fail. We may set out with a goal in mind, but never reach that goal. Or we may never take the first step. We might even, and this is probably the most painful failure, reach our initial goal, and realise when we get there that it was not what we wanted.

The Greeks knew that you cannot judge a person’s life before it comes to an end. This is particularly true for our failures. We live in the present, and only know the consequences of our actions retrospectively. For that very reason, we do not experience all failure the same way.

Type 1: we know what we’re after, we’re trying to get there, the world resists, it is difficult, and the more we progress, the more tired we get, the more inadequate we feel. This is salient, sharply painful.

Type 2: we know what we’re after, we’re watching TV, we’re in the armchair, we’re doing something else, we’re getting capital first, getting the kids through schools first, learning the skills first, we’ll get to it later. This is pleasant, quite – there is more time, and the goal hasn’t moved. This is deceptively comfortable.

Type 3: we’re moving ahead, making progress, advancing. The world is with us, and so, surely, we made the right choice, we picked a winner. We smile and the world smiles with us. We know what we want, and we’re getting it. Unless we were to pause and reflect – but probably we don’t: instead, we continue the smoothie regime and daily mindfulness to remain in flow. This is uplifting, exhilarating, healthy.


Over the years, there is one mystery that has remained with me: how people often fail to share the right information, and enough of it, spontaneously.

I jotted down this anecdote from a while back, and found it when going through my papers the other day. I was travelling through China then, and a friend was going to pick me up at Tianjin station. ‘There’s a nice café called Cafe Bene, wait for me there and I’ll come get you’. Since no more information came, I expected this to be sufficient. As it happens, when I came out of the Beijing train, I realized that Tianjin station has two main exits, with a maze of metro tunnels and underground squares. There is no map prominently saying ‘Café Bene’. My Chinese was not quite sufficient to Baidu things. I looked, I walked, I asked around, lugging my 20+ kilos of luggage. Then I gave up, settled in a KFC, and sent my friend a photograph, letting him come find me. Then I wrote an angry note on my computer, waiting for him.

The feelings of anger have waned since, but it remains a mystery, to this day, why he would not think of giving me more information. My friend is neither stupid nor uncaring, yet to me, on this occasion, failed in his attempt at hospitality, through lack of communicative foresight.

As an educator, this is something I understand keenly. The first thing I learned, in my first month of teaching, is that I should not expect my students to understand something just because I explained it to them. Over twenty years of teaching, this is one thing I learned: people will struggle to grasp new concepts, new knowledge is difficult to share. As an educator, I take it as my role and responsibility for others to learn and understand. Whenever a message is not received, it is always my fault: I should have been clearer.

Still, I fail, and often. It is difficult to determine the shape of another person’s ignorance or incomprehension. Knowledge is salient, and we can build on what is there. Ignorance is a desert full of quicksands – dry, with an ever-present risk of drowning. We forget this, all the time. Relationships die for this reason. This, in fact, may be one of the largest sources of waste in our world: that no matter how good our intentions may be, we failed to measure the depths of others’ ignorance, and failed for this reason.

The same, of course, applies to our own ignorance. ‘You don’t know what you don’t know’, as the saying goes. And so, we beat ourselves up for all our missteps: how could I be so dumb as not to foresee the consequences?


I was speaking to my friend and colleague Kyran the other day. We’re trying to build a green energy retail startup, with a view to decarbonize our electricity grid. It is difficult. Early moments are delicate. And as we try to build up everything from scratch, scrambling for funds in the midst of a pandemic, I have a keen sense of failure. The goal is very clear – reduce greenhouse gas emissions, focus on energy, work on the structures of the grid, do this through an energy retail startup rather than political action. We’re clearly on the path – how far exactly is unsure. The world is in the way.

Therefore, I tremble, hesitate, experience doubts and frustration. Not always, but often. There are the good days, the narrative comes together, interest from an investor, new potential partnerships. There are the bad days: everything blurs, no traction, and a great sense of solitude. I look around, and wonder: am I doing it all wrong? I’m generally competent, and this is incredibly difficult: how come it is so hard?

I shake myself up: it’s hard because it’s hard. But is this sense of struggle a definite sign I’m on the right path? It might also not be. Or I may be simply too weak to succeed: not wise enough, not strong enough. The world may be stronger than me. And if that was the case, could I say that I bravely died trying? Or that I foolishly took on more than I could handle? In the midst of it, there is no way to know. This is what I find most difficult, right now.


Easter is the holiest festival of Christianity. It is full of paradoxes. For now, one resonates with me. If we truly believe that Jesus is the son of God, then he could easily step down from the cross, or send for hosts of angels to save him. Yet he doesn’t. Why?

A few years ago, I was working from Hub Melbourne, a co-working space for socially minded innovators. At some stage, I proposed organizing a ‘failure night’: inviting people to share where they failed, and reflect on it. This took the form of a dinner, ten people around a table. The first started, ‘well, in retrospect, my failure led to success.’ And all, in turn, proceeded with the same narrative: there was no such thing as failure, just a reframe.

It was too fast, I thought – with a touch of anger. Why can you not simply state: ‘I was trying to do that, and I failed.’ For we do have goals, and we try to reach them, and sometimes, we don’t get there. It comes with sadness, and a sense of loss. Failure involves emotional labour, mourning, and acceptance.

Then – but only then – can it lead to new knowledge. Jesus on the cross reveals something about the world: and there is comfort in that. Not simply that things won’t always get your way, but that you should treat success in the world with indifference.

Our intelligence has a comic quality. it solves problems, it knows how to twirl and manipulate appearances. It hustles, and gets its way. Joy comes with it. This is the reframe that says: my failure was a success, because I learned from it, and now I think of it as a success. But it has a limit: it is a means to an end, it will not reveal what matters. It is, therefore, lowlier that our tragic capacity to firmly decide: this is what I want, and I will hold on, even in the face of certain death. Comedy triumphs, tragedy fails. Comedy teaches how to get what you want, but only tragedy – might – reveal what you want.

And no matter how late, no matter how close, is it not better to clearly see the object of your deepest desire, rather than joyfully twirl among a series of ghosts and mirrors?


The COVID-19 crisis presents a great challenge to the utilitarian thinker. What should we try and achieve? What does success look like, what is failure? Whether it’s about avoiding death or protecting human well-being: that is not where the problem is, I don’t think so. Rather, it’s a time horizon issue. Should we focus on saving lives – or human well-being – considering only next week, next month, next year, or looking further still into the future?

Major decisions are taken, in a state of urgency, with flow on consequences that we cannot foresee. We do not even know for sure how to determine whether any measure is ‘successful’: we have not really taken the time to get together, and decide what success would look like. Nor is there a forum for us to do that, really.

Is anything working, or failing? We simply don’t know: we stumble in the dark. And yet, still we judge.

Corona thoughts – on fake alternatives

A repeated trope, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, at least in the Australian media that I read, has been the presumed tension between ‘saving lives and saving the economy’. We should never trust a journalist to promote clear thinking by default. Even less a politician. This quite illustrates the fact. For is there really such an alternative, or is this framing just another symptom of panic mode, the abandonment of reason or – for the more cynical – deliberate collective manipulation?

The more you look, the less it makes sense. For isn’t ‘the economy’ the set of coordinated activities we engage in, daily, weekly, yearly, for food, shelter, and the goods and services we need and enjoy? And don’t ‘lives’ depend on this, in the short and long-term? Let’s not even talk about the global supply chains involved in face-masks, ventilators and hospital beds. A futurist friend circulated a short post a few days ago, looking at second order consequences in California. Fewer migrant workers are going out to the fields, fewer crops are planted – and so we may look forward to September scarcity. Repeat this a few times, and that’s a global food shortage. That’s the economy, and it kills. Mainly the poor – from direct starvation, or a weakened immune system through malnourishment, before we can hope to find a vaccine.

Should we then, rather, see tension between saving lives now or in the future? If we take into consideration second, third, fourth order consequences and beyond, certainly. For who knows what those will be. Food shortages, quite probably. With it, crime and violence. And I wonder, what about other killers closer to places of protected abundance that I inhabit? Increased mortality and morbidity across the population? Suicide rates among young people who see their lifetime dreams crushed? Owners of collapsed businesses? Women abused by a partner driven over the edge by the loss of job, money, and a sense of identity? Decreased level of care for the elderly? But of course, urgency focuses the brain, and we forget about those consequences.

Or is it just a matter of urgency? Today, we learn that the British Prime Minister was admitted in intensive care. Covid-19 is a new virus, it has not yet learned much about our systems of class prejudice. It attacks indiscriminately, though not quite: young people have died, but older people suffer disproportionately. The restrictions on civil liberty that a majority of the planet are now experiencing will have, as their primary consequence – not exclusive, but primary – saving the lives of older citizens, irrespective of class. This is a global feat of intergenerational solidarity. That’s ‘saving lives’.

Question is, what happens after, and will the survivors reciprocate? Can we expect an equal feat of global solidarity towards the young and generations to come, where wealthy boomers refuse franking credits and other tax relief to fund better welfare systems, and divest their allocated nest egg from cruise-ships towards poverty relief, tropical diseases and renewable energy? Or more, can we hope for a radical reshaping of ‘the economy’, around fundamental principles of solidarity, beyond the borders of the nation state, with police backing if need be? Is this the slight hum of fear we can discern, then, in political and media discourse, under the fake alternative ‘saving lives vs the economy’ – that maybe, just maybe, saving lives may change the narrative, and the status quo? So that the only just consequence of saving lives today, is a complete overhaul of ‘the economy’ as we know it? And anything else may lead to a global uprising?

Corona thoughts – uncertainty

Last year, I joined some sort of day-long leadership retreat. First stop: the St Kilda botanical gardens. After an initial yoga session and nut-heavy breakfast, we formed a circle, and were invited to write about our ‘biggest fear for the future’. After four years working on global catastrophic risk, this is a question I had been reflecting on quite a bit. I realised then that I no longer feared the material collapse of civilisation itself, nor the deaths of billions, nor resource exhaustion. Writing about ecosystem collapse and asteroid impacts is a good vaccine against that. No, but my fear had gone deeper: what I was afraid of, was the moral and spiritual consequences of civilisation collapse.

The fear remains, amplifies even, as the pandemic sweeps across the planet. Oh, by global catastrophic risks standards, Covid-19 is a gentle caress – for it is highly unlikely that more than 2-3% of humanity will die, most likely far fewer people. That’s an order of magnitude smaller than the risks I have grown used to considering. But ethical and moral consequences – yes, I am concerned about.

For one, will we maintain a rational approach to solidarity, or fall for the national fallacy? A friend of mine was circulating a photograph of starving children on Facebook, a reminder that famine is a far greater killer than Covid-19 – but as older white people suffer far less from it, the media pays less attention. Will we, then, continue giving to charities assisting the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet? Will we direct our sanitary efforts where they might have the most impact, and save the most lives? Or as borders close, will we forget about the wider world, and let our concern extend no further than the limits of the state we live in?

Beyond this, I wonder – what do the current patterns of action and spending tell us about our priorities, and what will be the future consequences? Because we were able to – willing to – put the nation on hold to protect our health system and, with it, some of the weakest among us (disproportionately, that is the older part of the population), will we learn that we can demonstrate such solidarity, and will we rally with similar enthusiasm for the sake of the young and  generations yet to be born, ensuring we protect our environment and their future? Or is our current collective behaviour, rallying as one to primarily save the lives of the older among us – not a form of generous solidarity, but another, deeper manifestation of short-termism? For now, we simply do not know.

Corona thoughts – Consistency

Whenever working on a project with others, my biggest source of frustration has always been that silly game where people give themselves a fake deadline on purpose. ‘This must be done by the 20th’ meaning ‘by the 23st, or ‘by the 27th’ or who knows when. What I find more precisely irritating is the self-evident statements that often accompany late delivery, ‘well of course, the deadline was never realistic, it was just a way to get myself going.’ I find this inconsistent relationship to time and language not only confusing and frustrating, but also dangerous. Because it erodes trust – or predictability – and therefore increases the cognitive burden of getting anything done: attention needed to get the task done, and attention needed to figure out what is real and what is a  just a motivational decoy.

The same applies, I believe, to current self-isolation measures. When Australia first imposed a rule on gatherings, with a strict limit of two people, I was outraged. Surely, my partner and I meeting a friend in the park, sitting at a distance, or inviting them over for dinner, will not cause Corona-doomsday. But then I listened more, and started understanding things differently. It wasn’t about us. From one account, 99 of 400 people who were supposed to strictly quarantine had been found by the police out of home. From another account, people were planning to continue with their home-party plans, only maybe reduce the frequency, or the number of guests. From yet another account, the same self-evident statement came out directly: ‘Of course it’s excessive, but if you say 500, or 100, people don’t listen, so you have to be strict, and maybe people will start to do something.’ 

I perceive a direct correlation between the complacent impulse that leads to semi-consciously setting artificial deadlines, and the present erosion of civil liberties. In the Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu proposes that we can recognise the nature of a political regime from their dominant emotional driver. Aristocracy relies on a sense of honour, tyranny works on fear, Republics depends on virtue. Freedom and discipline always walk hand in hand. Now, I wonder if an added element may account for this: that a Republic is more complex than a tyranny. Republican freedom entails a large amount of personal variation, hence greater variation and complexity. Without self-regulation through virtue, without a commitment to simple consistency, the system might edge towards chaos. Fear then steps in, and lays the ground for tyranny. In other words, freedom demands attention. And so, not so much staying home to protect the weak among us, but ensuring consistency between language and action is a gift of freedom to those who surround us.

Corona thoughts – on risk-taking and courage

When I attended the Asialink Leadership program in 2012, I had one important self-discovery: that I was able and willing to operate in very uncertain environments, with no clear short-term reward in sight. What, in career terms, is known as ‘taking risks’. And that it was not the norm.

It came as a surprise. I had been working almost exclusively for the public sector, this program was my first opportunity to spend significant time with ‘people in business’: I had always thought they were the bold ones, and I was meek. Not so: as it turned, they were extremely risk-averse, and their professional life was one of very limited freedom.

Later, I started evolving around start-up and innovation circles. Now, ‘risk appetite’ was hailed as an essential quality: fail often, fail fast, fail forward. I fit in better, but started experiencing myself as too cautious for my way to deal with risk. I would carefully consider options before moving forward, try and assess risk, and only then move ahead – often saying ‘this might go bad, but it might not: let’s do it’. I went against the grain. By default, risk taking came with denial. It seemed impossible to know the risks, acknowledge them, and still go ahead. As if courage would never manifest.

As Covid-19 strikes, our perception of risk might change very deeply.

I originally drafted this note when reading Naomi Klein’s This changes everything, where she follows intricacies of environmental damage and its ethical and political implications. In this field and context, risk-aversion becomes a desirable trait. It may be worth stopping the oil rig before we trigger disastrous chain reactions for an ecosystem – or the whole planet, even if we’re not entirely certain how big the risk is. Just as it is desirable to stop a pandemic early, and for that, know that things might go bad, quickly.

As these various messages about risk fritter in my mind, I have started to wonder if our common language is not confusing two different types of risk: the willingness to lose personal comfort and safety for personal gain, and the willingness to sacrifice the comfort and safety of others. Many entrepreneurs are willing to take personal risks – re-mortgaging their house to fund a new venture, or take on high levels of personal debt – but may neglect to consider how their decisions, if they fail, could harm others. While corporate actors, some of them, are willing to jeopardize the future of the planet to protect their own personal sense of safety. As for public servants, and politicians, they would rather avoid all risks, personal and common. But they face budget limits in how much risk prevention is possible – and often end up developing costly process to reduce the short-term risk of embarrassment, and leave themselves and us exposed to the more unlikely – yet more serious – devastating catastrophes that fall just outside of their remit.

And so, we might ask: is it wise to dig a well of debt, and curb our civil liberties, to tackle what is no longer a risk but a present emergency? Is it indeed serving our interests? Or should we rather, today, focus instead on preventing greater harm in a more distant future? But to do this, we must be willing to see the risk, and make a considered decision through courage and determination, not a rush of panic.

Corona thoughts – Der Hölle Rache

I have been experiencing a lot of anger lately, not a feeling I am too familiar with. Anger at incompetent leaders, who waited idly for months while the pandemic rose across the world, then in a last minute knee-jerk decided to strip us of our civil liberties. Anger at the moral police that looks for scapegoats, and blames young people gathering on the beach and in the park for public failure. Anger at the loss of so many joyful things that made up everyday life, for myself and so many others. Anger at the suffering of so many people around the globe, authoritarian responses, and our passive acceptance of those as a necessity. Anger, I know, is a necessary part of all mourning processes. As I went through notes and drafts, I came across a piece I started a few months ago, reflecting on The Magic Flute – a rambling meditation on performative anger. And thought it might somehow echo feelings others are experiencing at this time. 

When I was a child – maybe 6 or 7 years old – my parents had a record of Kiri Te Kanawa singing The Magic Flute. I remember a big orange disk on the cover – maybe representing the setting sun. I was fascinated by this record. It’s holiday time, and I’m staying with my aunt. I’m in the office behind the garage she used to run, and I’m singing the Queen of the Night’s big aria, Der Hölle Rache. I can still remember the feeling of those high notes (oh, tenor regret, no longer to get them out of my throat).

Later, from about 16 till 20, I had a second round of obsession with The Magic Flute. It was the first opera CD that I bought, in a pre-gay phase of becoming an opera fan. I have returned to it lately. I become tired of the Portuguese Fado, smooth Chinese jazz and Brazilian Bossa Nova that make up most of my playlists. And again, the Queen of the Night arrested me.

My partner is obsessed with Haendel. I asked him once, why do you love it so much? ‘It’s all about women standing up alone on the stage, expressing their emotions, and everybody’s listening. I think it’s beautiful, and moving.’ This, I thought, is exactly what happens with the Queen of the Night: she sings in extreme anger, and everybody listens.

I sense a tension in The Magic Flute. The Queen is the villain, embodiment of dark forces, ignorant past, passion without reason, weakness that aspires to rule. Her aria mimics the passé form of the baroque, an artificial outburst of emotion, in sharp contrast with the more authentic, human, even ‘modern’ traits of other parts. And yet, she stands out at the core of the opera. The rest fades in memory, but Hölle Rache remains.

There is a lot to learn for us still from Mozart’s music. Superficially, the piece is about overcoming those passionate outbursts. A richer interpretation, however, would go differently. Anger is a necessary part of any mourning process. And so, as we transition into the new, we should anticipate anger, even accept and celebrate its presence. There is a Queen of the Night in all of us, suspiciously looking at any new development, and shouting out – save my values, my money, my world, from innovation. Kill those dangerous ideas, and come back to me. You must protect what I inherited, restore what I built.

Maybe Mozart, by showing the fascinating beauty of this anger, is inviting us to caution. Anger will come, and seduce you. So when you feel it rising, give room, resist not, but rejoice in its explosive beauty, for it is transformative.

And so, today, I will give room to this anger in me, not repress it, but listen, for it has something to tell me – and only by letting it flow can I hope to start imagining this period as the beginning of something different, and new. 

Corona thoughts – whose voices are being heard?

“In the digital era, whose voices are being heard?’ A few years ago, I posted a question on my Facebook wall, asking friends for advice on good historical writing about the Australian pre-federation period. One of the comments was from a cousin, who wrote – in French – ‘bon, tu arrêtes ton charabia, et tu parles français comme les gens civilisés’.

As a French migrant to Australia, the multilingual internet is a fact I remember every time I post on Twitter or Facebook. My friends and family do not speak English well. My Australian friends do not speak French.

It’s happened that I’ve read good articles in Le Monde or French blogs and wanted to share them, but they wouldn’t make sense to my Australia friends who do not speak French. And China – well, it’s a different beast yet. I have WeChat on my phone, and check Facebook on my computer. One device and platform per country. Sharing from one to the other is very unwieldy.

The internet offers a strange meeting of local and global. When Marco Polo Project was running its digital magazine, we had readers in over 1000 cities around the world. I have multiple blogs in multiple languages, and their audience is international. As Australia becomes increasingly multicultural and multilingual, how will we listen in to these non-English language conversations? How will we explore the new forms that evolve in certain countries?

Much of the internet is real time. A few years ago, I hosted a visitor to the Emerging Writers Festival. A literary reviewer from the UK, she had issues sleeping  in Australia – she felt obliged to take part in Twitter conversations, and listen in for urgent emails or calls for work on UK time. Others follow conversations in New York, 14 hours difference. Meanwhile, who knows what’s being discussed up north, in Japan, China, Korea, Indonesia.

In Covid-19 times, this becomes an issue. What do we know, us non-Chinese readers, about the Wuhan experience. And I’m not even talking of censorship, but direct testimonies of the people there, or medical reports, even research from China? What do we know of the deep conversations in Italy, Spain, South Korea, Japan? Only what correspondents will share, in English. How can we develop a deep, global sense of the present crisis, in a linguistically fragmented Internet?

There is no clear solution – and this piece isn’t offering one. Only that we probably need to reflect more on language, writing and ideas. Language is the medium of any writing – well, of any articulated thoughts – and if we do not go beyond English, we will remain unaware of our own enormous blindspots. In times like these, a terrible missed opportunity.