The Journal’s Beginning

[Peer Zumbansen] First entry: Wednesday, April 1 (no joke), 2020

Just listened to this podcast on In Tune Radio App, coming from RRB Kultur. I found it very well done, it was short and, thus, manageable, i.e. doable, and it was very effective in highlighting one or two things of importance with each “entry”. The trick, it seems, of the diary is that you don’t justify your choice of what you want to include or exclude. It just happens, and, tomorrow, it’s yesterday’s news. I sent it out to most of my German-speaking friends and students, and to my older kids. Was sad not to send it to PG, who will join the project, if it ever gets off the ground, but likely and for a wider, transnational audience, we will write in English.

Ecco.

When teaching yesterday online, I started the class by inviting the students to reflect on what might be part of the backdrop against which the current crisis is unfolding – the return of what I tweeted today under the hashtags of #newnationalism and #afterglobalization. They appeared unaware of and unfamiliar with the discourse as such, but had heard of some political developments in terms of shifts to the right, but it didn’t really affect them, I had the impression.

I raised the issue of backdrop because I thought I could get them to think about the value, I suppose, which might reveal itself now on the level of the nation-state, when we think of the difference in governmental responses to the pandemic around the world. This moment seems to remind us of how crucial it is to think about the conditions #beforecorona in terms of how state apparatuses have been evolving over the past 20 or so neoliberal years. Of course, work along those lines is already in full speed.

A couple of students then suggested we should speak about ways to “sue China” for spreading the virus, for lying, etc etc”. When I carefully (holding my breath, and pinching myself – they couldn’t see that on Zoom), asked them what, perhaps 2, 5 years from now, we might think of as “lessons learned” from that, two of the students suggested that it would likely make very clear, that “China wants to take over the US” and that China wants to be the ruler of the world.

Pause.

Class still running.

I then asked them whether we could (or, should?) also think of such a litigation as a distraction from what might be more important things at the moment – such as a more in-depth analysis of what this crisis is and how it can be that it affects people so differently in different places, and what that could tell us about the conditions that have evolved before the crisis hit. I mentioned that, following the news in different jurisdictions with which I (everyone) spend a lot of time every day now, I think a lot these days about the “how did this get this bad this fast”, but also how this question somehow is comparatively less appropriate in places where the public health infrastructures seem to be in a different state. That also made me think of the various publications regarding a New Deal for public health in the US, which have come out these last few days, following a publication by Amy Kapczyinski and Greg Gonsalvez in Boston Review and now in Democracy Now. It is striking, and encouraging, that this happens amidst all the noise and disorientation. It is important to “make that moment last” (thank you, Moloko), to not let such important interventions become just a glimpse of what a serious critique could look like, come and gone at twitter speed.

It is a comfort to me these days to follow news in other places where the discussion about life under the pandemic is reasoned, informed, open and transparent, where the government reminds its people about its commitment never to lie to them and never to do anything behind closed doors. It makes the contrast to places where governments lie and lie and lie, and where the news have to fight so hard against this broadcast of nonsense, ever more stark.

Never let a serious crisis go to waste. Right? This crisis is only beginning. The crisis reveals the often hidden, more often swept-off-the-table and silenced calamities of the neoliberal destruction of the welfare state, and – if we survive – might be a pivotal moment to dig into what made this crisis and how it might offer opportunities to take hard looks at the conditions that have been created and that were allowed to come into place.

In class, we turned our discussion – still lingering around the idea of suing a country allegedly ‘responsible’ for the crisis – to the reflection about what we could say “we learned” from making Russia the “evil empire” or from killing Sadam and “liberating” Iraq. I asked them, whether the world was now in a better place, or whether what these tragic times, then and the present, might show us wasn’t, above all, that we have to try harder to understand the actual complexity of the situations we have before us. That got them contemplative. A start.

I then told them a little about the history of “litigating the Holocaust” and how that created and continues to create a wealth of research into the conditions that made the Holocaust the catastrophe it became. I told them also about the important contributions that human rights scholars and feminist legal scholars have been making by pointing to the “root causes” of human rights violations in the context of human rights programs in law & development and post-conflict/transitional justice projects. I finally asked them to think, for a moment, about the discussions around ‘litigating Katrina’ and the scope of mainstream “disaster law”, which focuses on the aftermath and actual ‘responses’ to a catastrophe. I pointed them to Naomi Klein and asked them whether they had ever thought about the conditions that made Katrina affect some populations in New Orleans so much harder than others, and what the role of law is in the creation of these conditions.

The discussion took a new turn after this, as the pro-litigation students seemed quite affected by these perspectives on how to think about a / the crisis. There were several interventions that spoke to the connections between the “before” and “after” and about how a crisis such as this one, despite its devastating costs on lives, can (and, must?) function as a crucial eye-opener on what is the law, the state, the regulatory framework and what is the political discussion around them.

We then had a short break and moved on to the second part of the class, a discussion of “non-binding norms”, where we spoke about the Ruggie Principles and the Bangladesh Accord. This discussion turned out to render visible another layer of taking a critical legal perspective on what law supposedly “is” and what “it is not” and how important it is to study the forms and functions of law in context, spatially and historically. 

Today, this all came back to me after listening to the already mentioned podcast on German radio (accessed via the for me magical Tune In phone app) in the form of a Covid-19 diary, a series of short daily entries about life during the (only just unfolding) pandemic. It was exceptionally well done, full of insightful, “picked up” impressions about what was going on, from the debate about a “mandatory masks” regulation, phone apps that collect data about human movement and exposure to the virus, the threat of a surveillance state in place after the virus, the landmark “Ermächtigungsgesetz” vote in the Hungarian parliament and the production of millions of masks by a small company in Southern Germany. Then, the diary, now turned fictional, included one last entry from a time in the future, where people have become accustomed to have their health (and other) data collected and stored, inter alia, in “their chip”, where after several more virus emergencies had hit, public emergency measures such as lock-downs and lock-ins had been met with lesser public protest and that, in effect, the government now had close to 80% public approval and people seemed overall quite happy…

Time just flies now. As as the time is now, “let’s make this moment last”. Because living through this “time takes too much time”, and it appears to me how valuable it might be to have an open, transnational diary that collects our impressions of the lives we live now. But, it might also be the platform for an anatomy of the crisis, its before, its now and how we might be able to shape the after.

Peer Zumbansen | Los Angeles | April 1, 2020

Published by pzumbansen

law professor.

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