A Response to COVID-19

With the COVID-19 pandemic currently looming large in all our lives, it’s difficult to maintain focus on our normal workloads. In addition to practicing social distancing, observing quarantines, and sanitizing relentlessly, all extremely important responsibilities during this health crisis, we need to remain vigilant about the viral disinformation and pseudo-science that routinely infects social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The lives of our friends and family members may very well depend on it.

That’s why the following quote from Alfred Nobel has been on my mind lately: “To spread knowledge is to spread well-being. I mean general well-being, not individual prosperity, and with the arrival of such well-being, the greater part of the evil we have inherited from the dark ages will disappear. The advances in scientific research and its ever-expanding fields of interest arouse a hope in us that pernicious microbes, both those of the soul and body, will gradually be eradicated and that the only war humanity will wage in the future will be the war against these microbes.”

 (Note: The quote originally appeared in an early Nobel biography written by Henrik Schück, one of the first chairpersons of the Nobel Foundation’s Board of Directors. I have taken the liberty of adding the word “pernicious” to describe microbes in this translation, as the current English definition of “microbes” is broader and more neutral than the original application of the term.) 

French scientist Louis Pasteur, whose work in the 1800s validated the “germ theory” of disease by demonstrating the link between microbes and contagion

Nobel’s words resonate not only because of his enduring faith in science, but also because of his unique understanding of the dangerous gap that often exists between public and private interests. In nearly every endeavor, Nobel trusted science to provide a clear and rational solution to a specific problem. He valued facts and data over opinion and conjecture. His letters contain frequent diatribes against those who challenged his idealism, including politicians, lawyers, “quack” doctors, and even his closest, profit-minded business associates. Our often scattershot responses to the COVID-19 epidemic today would have appalled him, I’m sure. Would they have surprised him? Possibly, but mostly because he believed that, by now, humanity would have outgrown any lingering distrust of science. 

Such a distrust, which has grown epidemic in its own right here in the United States, represents one of the more sickening “microbes…of the soul” that Nobel mentions above. People with little or no knowledge of medicine and epidemiology spread untested rumors and proven fallacies about COVID-19, and for what purpose? Most often private interests. Some seek to address the growing psychological dissonance around their personal political affiliations; others hope to be applauded for performing public acts of altruism, however indirect or ill-conceived. The most selfish of all hope to make a quick profit or protect their existing investments from contagion.

Early plague doctors, outfitted in heavy coats and hats, filtered air through a beak-like prostheses to prevent exposure to the so-called “miasma” of disease.

“We do not yet know.” Throughout my reading about both Nobel’s life and the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve found these five simple and truthful words repeated by some of the most intelligent and compassionate people in history. They are humbling, true, and yet they have inspired explorers to venture into uncharted territories just as much as they have guided scientists toward examining previously inexplicable mysteries. Success was never guaranteed. In fact, as Nobel well knew, repeated failure would often precede the most significant discoveries. Some might have called this optimism. Nobel, whose melancholic nature leaned more toward pessimism, preferred to call it idealism. 

As Nobel said, “to spread knowledge is to spread well-being.” Diseases that once ravaged entire populations have been tamed and vanquished by scientific break-throughs, some of which provide the foundation for our current understanding of COVID-19. To accept and promote that knowledge is to reduce the global impact of the virus and save lives. To spread ignorance is to facilitate unwarranted fear and delusion. In too many instances, such disinformation leads to death.

Without scientific understanding, it was easy to envision disease as a specter from beyond against which the traditional weapons of war were powerless.

In these challenging times especially, the world needs to leave behind, once and for all, “the evil we have inherited from the dark ages,” including all the debunked snake-oil remedies and hero-worship mythologies that adulated military leaders over the medical professionals who continue to work so tirelessly to save lives and maintain the health of our civil societies. This is why Nobel chose to establish his prizes in the fields of science and pacifism. Therein lay his best hopes for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Therein, too, lies our strongest hope for the twenty-first.

Introducing the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize

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Nino Kalandarishvili holds up the inaugural Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize alongside Salome Adamia and Petra Keppler.

This spring, Nino Kalandarishvili became the first recipient of the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize in Zugdidi, Georgia. The ceremony took place on the grounds of the Dadiani Palace, where Ekaterina Dadiani, the last Princess of Mingrelia, welcomed Bertha and her husband Artur immediately following their elopement from Vienna, Austria. Shunned by Artur’s disapproving parents, the Suttners would remain in Georgia for nine years. Forced to move from place to place, they relied on teaching and writing to avoid falling into abject poverty, a challenging contrast from their aristocratic backgrounds. 

While in the Caucasus region, Bertha and Artur witnessed growing tensions and conflicts between local residents, visiting expatriates, and the warring Turks and Russians. It’s entirely likely that the seeds of Bertha’s groundbreaking novel Lay Down Your Arms! first germinated in Georgian soil. With that in mind, Zugdidi provides a fitting venue for honoring peacemakers in our own time.

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Promotional materials for the prize include an image of the Dadiani Palace in Zugdidi.

Initiated by the Georgian youth group Trust for Peace, the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize received international support from Zugdidi’s municipal government, the Austrian Embassy in Tblisi, the Bertha von Suttner Peace Institute of the Netherlands, the Women’s Network for Peace of Germany, and the youth welfare group Act for Transformation, also of Germany.

In her role as chair of the Institute for the Study of Nationalism and Conflicts (http://isnc.ge/), Nino Kalandarishvili has been actively promoting civil dialogue and mediation among numerous communities, both within and beyond national borders. Her bridge-building work brings her into constant contact with politicians and refugees, diplomats and activists. The inaugural Peace Prize recognizes the many ways in which her inspirational personality and professional perseverance contribute toward the success of her efforts toward conflict resolution. She personifies the stated goals of the Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize: “to honor the contribution of activists participating in peacemaking activities, to promote peaceful attitudes in society, and to engage young people in the process of building international trust and cooperation.” 

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The 2019 Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize

To learn more about the annual Bertha von Suttner Peace Prize and its sponsors, you can click on the links above as well as those listed on the “Resources” page.

The Path Toward Peace

 

ADNBogotabigThe recipient(s) of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize will soon be announced (October 7), and this week’s news offered strong support for the negotiators who have solidified the Colombian peace treaty, which, if it stands, would mark the end to a war that has lasted nearly half a century. In addition, as Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker noted in a recent co-authored op-ed piece, the western hemisphere will have reached a more far-reaching milestone: “Today, there are no military governments in the Americas. No countries are fighting one another. And no governments are battling major insurgencies.”

This historic moment barely registered in the lists of most-shared news stories. Instead, countless doom-and-gloom fears and anxieties continued to dominate social media from nearly every point on the political sphere. Some of my most well-intentioned pacifist friends continue to bemoan the “fact” that our world is more violent and war-torn than ever before.

51t3xTY8DQLIn fact, the “facts” don’t support such pessimism and cynicism.

As Steven Pinker pointed out in his well-researched book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, “Violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Rather than recognize and build on this moment of hope and optimism, many have sought to rebut his claims and focus attention on recent horrific instances of terrorism or the loudest voices of hatred, contempt, and intolerance in our society. Some have also attempted to redefine the word “violence” to include a broader range of complaints and offenses that can justify their own dire perspectives.

I won’t take up those arguments here or attempt an explanation of why they persist in our culture despite evidence to the contrary. Truth be told, I struggle with these same issues every day in my own dark-leaning psyche. Regardless, I won’t allow the lure of negativity to detract from the hopes of a fully peaceful South America, especially not in this end-of-summer moment while the positive glow of the Rio Olympics still shines from Brazil.

I will, however, argue that we need to make such stories of peace more popular and share them more widely when they occur. To explain why, I offer this short yet inspirational excerpt from Pinker’s book: “Peace first became a popular sensation with the publication of two bestsellers. In 1889 the Austrian novelist Bertha von Suttner published a work of fiction called Die Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!), a first-person account of the gruesomeness of war. And in 1909 the British journalist Norman Angell published a pamphlet called Europe’s Optical Illusion, later expanded as The Great Illusion, which argued that war was economically futile.”die-waffen-nieder-072396855

I had never heard about Bertha von Suttner upon reading this, but I was greatly intrigued, and so I began doing some research into her life and works. Every book opens another, and this certainly held true here: Pinker’s book led me to seek out and open Suttner’s book, which led me to open up biographies of Alfred Nobel, which led me to begin writing my own historical novel, Peace at Last. This project seemed the most viable path to employ my own talents and interests in the hopes of promoting and perpetuating global peace.

Such a stance doesn’t come without its detractors, and the voices of yesteryear still echo too loudly today. As Pinker wrote, “For all its literary popularity, the antiwar movement seemed too idealistic at the time to be taken seriously by the political mainstream. Suttner was called ‘a gentle perfume of absurdity,’ and her German Peace Society ‘a comical sewing bee composed of sentimental aunts of both sexes.’ Angells’ friends told him to ‘avoid that stuff or you’ll be classed with cranks and faddists, with devotees of Higher Thought who go about in sandals and long beards, and live on nuts.’”1200x630bf

Nay-saying and name-calling is nothing new. The pessimists continue to challenge the idealists; those who seek to profit from war continue to rail against those who continue to point out the proven and vastly greater economic benefits of peace. Luckily for all of us, the trend over time continues toward peace. The news from South America this week supports that momentum, and so we should all celebrate the Colombians’ efforts and work with them toward preserving our newly war-free western hemisphere.