Seeing Anew in 2020

As we in the U.S. end the second week of a national emergency due to the imperative of stopping the spread of COVID-19, the virus seems to have been checked in China, but here, we now have more cases than occurred in China, a nation with roughly four times our population and, globally, all of us now confront the emergence of the virus in poor countries without funds and facilities to respond in depth to the spread of the infection.

A time of difficulty and crisis brings on uncertainty, fear and missteps in our lives. Having to carry within us such psycho-social burdens can tempt us to sink, to lose hope and self-confidence. And we can let those burdens complicate our relationships with family, friends and co-workers. Or …

Or, as it is too easily said, we can rise above our personal anxieties and our concerns for the economy, politics or when stock markets will recover or our gainful employment will return. Crisis is an opportunity for becoming better as people – to make a good difference and find redemptive value in our being here.

Our colleague John Dalla Costa, now retired in Italy, has written a very sound and helpful comment on our time of troubles which you can read below.

John has written some of the best books I have read on ethics and business. He lived in Canada until he and his wife moved to Italy.

I think you will take heart in reading his reflections.

John Dalla Costa
Founding Director – The Centre for Ethical Orientation
Sansepolcro (AR) Italy

That Was Then:

Three months ago – when few had heard of COVID-19 – many of us were attempting to assign significance to the past decade as the new one approached. While the economy had prospered for some and markets were buoyant, the ten or so years then ending were in many ways still unravelling the harsh costs of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Inequality became much more pronounced. Work became much more precarious. And social institutions – including the church, election procedures and the Boy Scouts – lost incalculable amounts of social capital via scandal.

If the metrics used by economists showed a decade of growth, the actual social prosperity was paper-thin. Indeed, the fissures papered-over by the market figures were already producing destabilizing populism and protectionism in our biggest and wealthiest democracies. In 1988, the German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas observed that the “rationality crisis” produced by an economic meltdown invariably leads to a “legitimation crisis” for the public. In other words, when markets fail, suspicion boomerangs, undermining public confidence in its larger political and social institutions.

This suspicion becomes that much more toxic – as happened – when the recovery privileges the status quo; when those in positions of responsibility are exempted from accountability, leaving those largely powerless and most impacted by the crisis to fend for themselves. For several decades, we have watched public trust erode, always favouring the expedient over the necessary, seeking gratification and growth regardless of costs. That neglect of the public trust to satisfy self-interest has made our social immune system that much more fragile.

The global pandemic is now imposing its harsh measures on a world that mistrusts basic facts and that has lost faith in its experts, moral leaders and public institutions. Governments and policy makers had embraced globalization as a competitive necessity, but, as we’ve seen with the numerous failures to make good on climate change initiatives, there has been little to no investment in capacities for cooperation. Having created global structures for extracting personal advantage, we are now in the existentially disadvantaged position of having to deal with a viral threat which none of us can diffuse alone.

The View from Here and Now:

When the year began, (my wife) Lucinda and I told friends, with whom we were exchanging new years greetings, that our hope and prayer would be for us all to realize clear vision. The metaphor of 2020 from optometry has both practical and spiritual dimensions for us. Orthodox icons and Renaissance paintings of Jesus often depicted his eyes with a slightly different cast, intending to signify an ability to see both the temporal and the eternal. Most religions and all our traditions of wisdom teach this dynamic-seeing – looking at both the short-term and the long-term; recognizing what is needed to thrive practically, while recognizing what is needed to fuel the dreams, hopes and higher aspirations that are core to our being human.

In only a few weeks, 2020 has brought into focus many things that we preferred not to see or were too busy to glimpse. One is that we cannot escape our creaturely vulnerability. Another is that we are intimately interconnected. There are no walls or laws that can prevent us from breathing the same air or drinking the same water. For the sake of efficiency, we have created just-in-time supply chains and for the sake of cost-cutting, we have built just-in-time health systems, both of which have no capacity for the emergency we now face. And while our economy is now dammed by fear, the institutions we once relied on for solutions remain divisive or marginalized – therefore without credibility.

In only a few weeks, 2020 has also clarified many of the qualities we will need to go forward together. Rather than according preferential option to shareholder value, we must learn – as leaders, executives, managers and teachers – to develop and nurture the capacities to share. As researchers have long shown, trust is never simply an outcome from consistency or competence. It also requires demonstration of care – proof of character, which means being willing to sacrifice one’s self for the sake of principle.

Fear is understandable, but what few leaders understand is that the only effective antidote to such fear is generosity. On the day that President Trump unilaterally closed the U.S. borders to travelers from the E.U., a cargo plane from China landed in Torino, Italy with 2,300 cartons of much needed surgical masks. People here in Italy still remember the Marshall Plan and many could not but note that on the day in which the country that taught nations to hope turned inwards, an ancient trading partner gave proof and substance to its commitment to a new silk road. All to say that decisions we make in the heat of this emergency will undoubtably have consequences for decades.

In Italy, we are now entering our third week of ever-more restrictive quarantine. Most of us had been observing self-isolation – or cancellations of work and other activities – for several weeks before that. The crisis has by no means peaked, let alone passed. So, in addition to their understandable worries, people are also experiencing the paradox of growing fatigue with growing grief. An already fragile and uncertain reality is becoming more indeterminate and precarious.

Remembering. What’s Needed and What’s Possible:

In all that’s happened, there are also everyday signs of resilience. Because Italian society still has memory of the war, there is a sense that what comes next will not be so much recovery as rebuilding. The post-World War II social compact has long expired. Globalization here has taken its toll on the middle and working classes. With the devastation now unfolding, there is a sense that business-as-usual and politics-as-usual are not up to the historic task ahead.

The government has already committed to a vast rebuild of the healthcare system. Here, as elsewhere, there is growing discussion regarding universal basic income, aid for small businesses and commitments to cultural institutions. Being so exposed and vulnerable, people are heeding these words with both skepticism and a recall of long-held values. The sense I get is of a growing desire, if not impatience for the radical change to develop what is possible together.

Now into 2020, it is important to remember that in two years, this country will mark one hundred years since Mussolini came to power. Fascism was created in Italy to sweep aside the political and economic powers, which had left the country in taters after the great sacrifices of World War I and after the tragic trauma of the Spanish Flu. Our challenge now – here and elsewhere – is to not allow fear to so fester as to create the conditions for tyranny.

From history and from this moment, we can discern several lessons.

First, before changing our policies, we need to change our imaginations. In his newly issued teaching-document on the social, environmental and justice issues facing the nations of the Amazon, Pope Francis introduced a methodology based on four dreams. Rather than analyze and recommend, he first sought to dare thinking in terms of what is most liberating, dignifying and unifying for people and their children. What is our dream?

Secondly, we are witnessing the now threatening gap between our expertise for globalized commerce and our ethics for global responsibility. The coronavirus is a litmus test for our ability to cooperate everywhere on everything, so as to build the shared structures for dealing effectively with shared problems. What are the values we hold or need for what is happening and what is next?

Thirdly, for all of us, but especially for our leaders, the qualities that will earn trust – and that history will judge – require modelling the highest forms of generosity and self-sacrifice. The question to ask is not “what did you do?” but rather, “how did you change?”

Finally, this is a moment when we can demand that our technologies and social media mature into a force for good. Corporations, as well as individuals, need to shed adolescent likes and avoid simplistic blaming. Our time and attention are precious and so need to focus on learning how to collaborate and dialogue. Being so vulnerable together beckons each of us to conjure and respect the solidarity that we will need to rebuild our lives. What ideas or habits do we need to give-up to make space for real transformation?

Ready-made answers are not going to work for the hard questions we’ve not yet asked. For now, most of us need to adjust to doing nothing. The gift in this imposed pause is that we can – if we choose to do it – reflect in depth about the new world that is now in our hands to imagine and create.

(The text in visual above reads: “While all the EU states are retaining surgical masks for themselves as Italy runs out, China has sent to Torino an Air China flight with 2,300 boxes of masks. [On each box] is written” We are waves on the same sea, leaves on the same tree, flowers in the same garden.”

Below the Chinese text in red on each box, the Italian message reads: “We are with you. Forza Italia! (which is the slogan fans use to cheer the national soccer team).

A Sound Japanese Concept for Living in These Times of Isolation

I was sorting through office files two days ago and found a copy of the paper by Mr. Ryuzaburo Kaku, former CEO of Canon Inc., on his ethical concept of kyosei. Kyosei was applied in the creation of our Principles for Business, along with the concepts of human dignity from Catholic Social Teachings and stewardship from the Protestant tradition.

Literally, Kyosei translates into English as “symbiosis,” how living organisms can find well-being through dependency on others – a living together. Kaku-san took this biological concept and applied it to companies as living organisms in social and economic ecosystems. He pointed out that companies are dependent on their stakeholders – customers for cash and employees for products and services – and reciprocally, such stakeholders have a “stake” in the success of the company.

Kyosei, thus, becomes an ethic for living well – we prosper in relationships where we contribute to the good of others and they contribute to our good.

While our current circumstances of self-quarantining, social-distancing, restrictions on travel and lockdowns of cities are isolating us as never before, this is also a moment to apply the ethic of Kyosei.

It is a time to recognize and be grateful for our dependence on others, either right now or by recalling our circumstances before the emergency when it was easier to overlook those who contributed to our success and happiness.

It is also a time to look out for others and be of help and good cheer to them.

Kaku-san’s paper can be read here.

Sixth Podcast on COVID-19 and Our Lives

Today’s podcast is a conversation with Jean Rognetta, a colleague from France.

Jean is the Editor at Large of Forbes France and directs EuropeEntrepreneur. He is the Founder and President of the primary French think tank on the financing of independent businesses, PMEfinance and its Europe Entrepreneurs clubs. He is a former General Delegate of CroissancePlus, an entrepreneurs group in Paris. Jean started his career in journalism in 1997 with Vivendi as the Editor of the professional letters, Jour. From 2000 to 2016, he wrote for Les Echos and Capital Finance, respectively France’s leading financial daily and private equity newsletter. An early observer and analyst of the digital revolution, he has written or co-authored several books, most recently La République des Réseaux (Fayard).

Jean comments on the advantages of one country learning immediately from the successes and failures of other countries in their efforts to contain the new coronavirus. He sees the virus having reached its peak in Italy, about to reach its peak in France and then in the U.K. a week or so after that.

From his perspective, Jean sees the Anglo-Saxon cultures of the U.K. and the U.S. more aligned with social Darwinism and so more tolerant of inequality of impacts than European cultures.

I hope you will have a moment to watch and consider his reflections.

Michael Wright proposed that, after this crisis, we will need to shape the internet and its socializing to provide corridors of intellectual and emotional safety for people to encourage the flourishing of trust.

Alan Fine’s Generous Book Offer

Our colleague Alan Fine is making digital copies of his book, A Familiar Place: The Path Forward, available for no cost until March 26th.

Alan has written me saying he is doing this “to help people get perspective during this critical time and hopefully to start an important broader dialogue on life meaning, leadership, constructive societal engagement and positive political, economic and social change.”

Alan teaches at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

His book can be found on Amazon here.

Fifth Podcast on COVID-19 and Our Lives

On today’s podcast, we hosted imam Asad Zaman, Director of the Minnesota Chapter of the Muslim American Society and imam of the Masjid At-Taqwa mosque in St. Paul, Minnesota. Imam Asad the other year told me about the covenants the Prophet Muhammad made with Christian communities to respect and protect them. As a result, we’re undertaking a study project to learn more about these covenants and their application in our time.

Our discussion today stood its ground on the conclusion that finding possibilities for betterment in adversity is stimulated by our faith conviction about who we are in relationship with others.

Reflections from Prof. Abdullah al-Ahsan

It is Sunday in Minnesota. Our fellow, Professor Abdullah al-Ahsan, who has tutored me in Qur’anic guidance the past 14 years, has just sent me these reflections putting the current global “affliction” in perspective:

“The current situation is definitely very grave and demands serious thinking. Will it change the course of history?

While contemplating, I encountered this article.

Is the current situation going to be like that of the Black Death in the 14th century? Are we encountering a sort of wrath of God, as some scriptures suggest happened in history?

Last October, I visited the biblical city Ephesus: nobody lives in the ancient city center any more, but some historians and archaeologists are now trying to “reconstruct” the city. It was a flourishing city of three hundred thousand people that existed almost from the 11th century BCE to 7th century CE. Several earthquakes in the 6th and 7th centuries CE destroyed the city completely.

As a student of comparative civilizations, I have been trying to make sense of the Ephesus legacy. I don’t think I have succeeded yet in understanding a pattern of history.

Coronavirus poses a new challenge to me: is it a divine punishment for human civilization today?

Was the Mongol devastation which was followed by Black Death in the 13th century a divine punishment? I have received many messages, mostly from Muslim colleagues, raising questions: the Uighur is asking “how does it feel living under fear?” The Kashmiri is asking “how does it feel living under lock-down?” The Palestinian is asking “how does it feel to live under travel restrictions?” The Syrian is asking “how does it feel being kicked out of your homeland?” The Rohingya has lost his voice completely.

We talk about creating trust. How can we create the trust we need globally when we don’t treat all human beings as human?

I don’t know whether I should raise these questions or not: they are so political!

There is, of course, a silver lining for every crisis. We know in history the 14th century was followed by the humanist movement. Will this coronavirus lead to any such understanding for our future?

We are already witnessing many positive developments: families are together, parents are spending time with children and we are eating healthy, homemade food. A letter from Wuhan that has gone viral says “Air is getting fresher, the haze is gone, the sky is getting bluer, the sun is getting brighter, family lives are getting warmer, harmonized, cordial, hearts have become more and more calm.” CNN has reported that fish have become visible in clearer water in canals in Venice.

Jose Luis, in an earlier message, has called for “common good.” Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has appealed for “working together.” Are world leaders ready for this?

This, of course, is not the end of the world, but my understanding of history and scriptures suggest that this is a warning for humanity. Could we appeal to world leaders, intellectuals and common people for collective thinking? Could we create an initiative for some soul-searching?”

Abdullah al-Ahsan
Professor of Political Science and International Relations
Istanbul Sehir University

CRT Podcast Update

First, I want to thank those of you who have watched our podcasts and those who have gotten back to me with helpful thoughts.

Secondly, we are reaching out more broadly for guidance and comments on the global confrontation with the coronavirus.

I note that a virus acts without discrimination based on gender, race, religion, ethnicity or age. From its perspective, it is value neutral, a perfect nihilism or, perhaps, an absolute inclusivity.

In this sense, the coronavirus unites all humanity in a common cause – to stop its transmission.

Earlier today, our podcast benefited from Michael Sheldrick, one of the founders of Global Citizen and now its Chief Policy and Government Relations Officer.

Over the last 10 years, Global Citizen has inspired program contributions of $48 billion dollars for poverty alleviation, with positive impacts on 800 million persons. We discussed how social capital in the form of a social movement – young people and artists – can enhance human capital to change financial outcomes for the world. Mobilization of citizens is what it is taking to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

On Monday, we have asked imam Asad Zaman to join us and on Tuesday, Jean Rognetta from Paris, who is the Editor of Forbes, France.

Reflections From Spain in a Time of Epidemic

I have reached out to our fellows asking for their thoughts and advice on the larger moral and practical aspects of the current unexpected and intrusive circumstances associated with the emergence and spread of the coronavirus.

From Spain, both Domingo Sugranyes Bickel and Professor Jose-Luis Fernandez-Fernandez have just sent me very thoughtful comments which I would like to share with you. Please see their contributions to all of us below.

Observations by Domingo Sugranyes Bickel
Former President, Fondazione Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice
Rome, Italy

In this country, as in many others, political polarization seemed like a blind alley, a cul-de-sac! An outside enemy – and, fortunately, not a human enemy – is changing the game. That could be positive.

The sheer complexity of practical problems posed by confinement opens the way for a wide variety of subjects in the media. Suddenly, attention is focused on an immense variety of things which normally work without nobody paying attention, in public administration, in business, in all kinds of services. This again is a positive effect: it reconciles us with complexity and compels us to avoid ideological simplification.

We used to complain about young people being like isolated, socially impoverished beings with their smart phone as their only centre of attention. We have grandchildren in Spain, Italy and Belgium, they are all actively involved now in virtual working groups for schoolwork or play. It is just a new channel for rich group initiatives.

I feel alarmed, not only for many lonely elderly people, but also for all those modern slaves – think about human trafficking, prostitution – which means thousands of people probably abandoned by their ‘customers’ and their bosses, due to confinement…

A Decalogue Concerning the Global Consequences of SARS-COV-2
Quick Thoughts from José-Luis Fernández-Fernández
Iberdrola Chair in Economics and Business Ethics, Universidad Pontificia Comillas
Madrid, Spain

This unprecedented situation brings some pointed realities to my mind:

We live in a really small, interconnected world.

Reality has kicked out from under us definitively a kind of fantasy of omnipotence that seems linked to our technological potency at the beginning of the 21st Century.

The axiological order of values appears again crystal clear: primum vivere, deinde philosophari…, i.e., first of all, live; afterwards, the rest follows: things and worries, business, economics, leisure… even philosophizing.

We should act all together in search of the common good, putting special emphasis in helping those who are in less advantaged situations.

We should try and take advantage of this unusual, dramatic situation. This “exceptionality” can serve us indeed as a general rehearsal for possible future scenarios, where we will confront compulsory struggle, for instance, against climate change or another type of global threat.

The destiny of humankind is something holistic: there can be no salvation in isolation.

We need to learn how to collaborate among races, peoples, religions and cultures; going much more beyond the economic order, to entering the real path towards fraternity and humanitarianism.

Reality always surprises us, going even further beyond our wildest fantasies, because tomorrow has not been written. We have to construct it with theoretical effort and goodwill, guided from practical wisdom.

We must recognize our freedom as the anthropological dimension that, together with conscience and will, converts us into moral subjects, able to act either according to the highest ethical standards or without any moral values.

Education in ethics and values should be compulsory, not only in formal training, but also in all sorts of cultural contexts that could be amplified by social networks.

The spiritual dimension of human life must be reinforced and cultivated within every religion, from respect for every humanitarianism, cultural tradition and context through good examples and best practices.