Dragos Simandan, April 22, 2021

In our 9th edition of REBALANCE talks, we had the pleasure of interviewing human geographer and philosopher, Dragos Simandan. He spoke about the left and right wing responses to the rise of authoritarian governments, the impact of neoliberal ideologies, and intergenerational, hidden costs of the pandemic. Simandan went on to speak about the changing use and perception of distance within the field of Geography and discussed his paper, Demonic Geographies, which appeals for a vision of the world which is less human centered. To conclude his talk, he spoke about the ability to predict future conditions and concluded by providing potential decisions we will face in the future and the role of “surprise” in wisdom. As we conclude our first round of REBALANCE talks, Simandan sheds light on key values that underlie our current mobility cultures.

To begin, Dragos Simandan spoke about COVID-19 and important themes that have been exposed or exaggerated due to the pandemic. In his response to a question posed about the pandemic he said, “the most worrying trend is within the academic left,”and “too many people in the academic left have failed to criticize the response to the pandemic on authoritarian grounds, in terms of ideology.” He explained that the left has a legacy of favoring freedom, citing the slogan from the French Revolution,“liberté, égalité, fraternité,” or liberty, equality, fraternity. For Sindaman, all three values are necessary and the goal is to strike a balance between them. He said,“when you push a value to an extreme it becomes a vice.” So, why does Sindaman believe this is happening? He argued,“right wing circles have appropriated, have stolen, this preoccupation with freedom with civil rights, with human rights.” Sindaman explained that people who are demanding rights or defending civil rights are considered Trump supporters or part of the extreme right. In a way, for Sindaman, human/civil rights have been misconstrued as an issue of the right wing. He also blames mainstream media for creating narratives around anti-lockdown protests whereby protestors are portrayed white supremacits, Trump supporters, conspiracy-theorists, and/or extreme right wingers. Sindaman rejects this narrative by arguing that this narrative is, “simply not true,” and protestors also include “many people on the left who are upset with authoritarian management of pandemic.” He ends by saying that one’s need to not be seen as a right winger has led many people on the left to abandon a preoccupation with freedom and “gift the value of freedom and civil rights to the right wing in the long-run…the intellectual legacy of the pandemic.” “Freedom, liberty, civil rights, are too important a matter to be gifted to the right wingers.”

Sindaman went on to speak about the pandemic and the inequalities revealed across many different axes of social difference. He said, “ If you look at the various axes of social difference involved in the politics of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, lockdowns, closing businesses, closing schools, I think in general you can detect winners and losers across different axis of social distance.” He explained that along the axes of age, it is clear that elderly people are prioritized over other generations for receiving the vaccine. He explained that the disease disproportionately affects elderly people and the harm of the elderly is immediate and visible; increased hospitalization, overcrowding in the ICU, death, and suffering. It is a moral and public health decision to try to save the elderly. However, Sindaman emphasized that decision making based on the axes of age lacks intergenerational equity.  Sindaman asked, “What about the harm we are causing to the younger generations because they do not get a fair chance of reducing illiteracy, at getting proper education?” He asked us to reflect on how much the younger generation is damaged by poor schooling because they have to learn virtually and all of the factors that amplify social difference. He went on to say, “the problem with the harm to the younger generations is that it is going to be delayed…we know that lockdowns amplify illiteracy, we know that illiteracy leads to long-term poverty, and we know that poverty leads long-term to reduced longevity, to worse health, to less well-being over the life-course but these dynamics happen over decades.” He explained that it is very important we analyze, “whether it is right for one generation to be sacrificed at the expense of another generation, whether it is right for one generation to be the sacrificial lamb in order to protect another generation.” Of course it is important to protect the elderly, however, is this at the expense of the younger generation? He again emphasized that the problem when talking about intergenerational equity is that the result will be delayed.

Carlo Caduff speaks about both of these issues in his article, What went wrong: Corona and the World after the Full Stop. Caduff  writes about social policies affecting people different along axes of social difference explaining that lockdowns created:

An image of a united nation confronting a total threat that required everyone’s sacrifice. This image relied on a false assumption of equality…putting everybody under confinement and treating everybody the same – obscured the reality that lockdowns mean different things to different people…both the virus and the lockdown disproportionately affected those who were already vulnerable along lines of age, class, and race.

These are important questions to ask as we continue to endure policies made in light of the pandemic.

Along the lines of delayed costs made by policy decisions, Simandan went on to talk about the hidden costs of public health decisions. He explained that there are certain factors that are difficult to analyze in a traditional cost-benefit analysis. He said, “Lots of people complain about masks because they prevent normal human relationships, but that’s a hidden cost, how do you go about quantifying the cost to good quality human relationships coming from the fact that people are masked…that they treat each other as a vector of disease…that when they see one another they prefer to jump into traffic and get hit by a car then cross the street on the same sidewalk as another person?” Simandan warned that these are the hidden costs of practicing mask mandates and social distancing and asserted that even though something may be difficult to quantify doesn’t make it any less important.

Simandan went on to talk about the effect neoliberal ideology has had on the pandemic. Simandan began by explaining that for him, neoliberalism is “an important flavor that is coloring the manifestation of capitalism in the last few decades.” He went on to say that we must clearly understand how neoliberal policies made in the past decades are to blame for what we are seeing in the current pandemic. He explained, “Normally we should think of our hospitals as saving us…but because of the neoliberal underfunding of health…because we have systematically and dramatically underfunded public health in multiple countries…we have very limited hospitalization capacity, limited ICU capacity, shortage of doctors and nurses.” Simandan explained that not only have neoliberal policies underfunded hospitals and the welfare state but also, “ironically, the very ideology that is responsible for bringing us in the current pandemic crisis is also the ideology that pits us against one another.” This is a key point for Simandan, because he said when cases rise, we blame the people who don’t wear masks and who don’t practice social distancing rather than unmasking an underfunded health care system. He explained that blaming one another shifts the focus away from blaming the system, in this way he believes that neoliberal policies underfund the social welfare state as well as “sew the social divide,” that we increasingly see within society. We think, “That guy is an asshole because he refuses to wear a mask.” Carlo Caduff speaks about the underfunding of health care systems and makes an interesting point by asserting, “…the pandemic has and will continue to brutally expose policy failures and structural health care system deficits….hospital systems in Italy, Spain, and France were on the brink of collapse even before the virus arrived.” Simandan went on to say, “new generations don’t even realize that neoliberal ideology is the air they breathe.”

Within the field of geography, Dragos Simandan focuses on philosophical and human geography and spoke about his concepts of distance and spoke about his paper, Demonic Geographies.

He explained that the first (and only) law of geography is that of distance which states that things that are closer to each other are more related to each other than things that are further away. Simandan explains that this law has since been disproven for various reasons (i.e. telecommunication, reduction in cost of transportation, global economic networks and the internet), however, he explained that it is not only an objective, quantifiable concept but a multi-dimensional concept with four interrelated dimensions. These dimensions include: spatial distance, temporal distance: (distant future, distant past), social/relational distance: degree of perceived relatedness to other people (spouse vs. distant relative) and also hypothetical distance, the concept of distant possibilities. He went on to explain that social distancing, for example, is a form of distance which is “ridden with ideological messaging.” He went on to say that public health fails to quantify the hidden costs of social distancing thinking of each other as a vector of disease or biological weapon and that this is the worst time in history for social distancing as we already have an increased polarization in society.

Simandan went on to speak about his paper, Demonic Geographies. He explains that the paper is about how, in Western culture, we believe in an array of myths such as, “illusion of conscious free will,” “the mind is separate from the brain,” “we have a soul, and therefore a soulmate/ after we die our soul goes to heaven,” “the existence of a stable coherent self.” He stated that this is not grounded in scientific evidence and argued that human geography should be practiced without these “problematic” embedded myths. He explains that minds being separate from brains and souls separated from bodies requires a lot of immaterial, unmeasurable beliefs. He stated that as humans we have historically had humans on a pedestal, above the animal kingdom and above nature. His goal is to burst this bubble and take the human species off the pedestal. For Sindaman, this shift in ideological reasoning is necessary because for example, “sustainable development and reducing Co2 emissions are only surface level, technocentric measures. If you really want to go in depth, to fight the global environmental crisis, we need to look at the underlying philosophical assumptions, the ethical assumptions that guide the way in which we think of ourselves in relationship to nature.” He goes on to say that, “we have thought of nature as a resource we were given by god to do whatever we want with it…we think that we are better than nature.” This way of thinking leads us to treat nature in a destructive way. Sindaman argued that,“we are not apart from nature, we are apart OF nature…we are not separate from it.” And lastly, he stated,“The ontological assumptions you make about how the world is, end up shaping your ethical and political choices.”

To conclude the conversation, Dragos Simandan was asked about his visions for the future. He began by saying that in general, we are really bad at predicting both the nearby and distant future. He explained that planners or policy makers generally forget to take into account the delays in the social system, technological innovation, and social change. He did, however, say that while virtual work may seem to be changning due to the pandemic, humans have a primitive need to be around each other and he does not believe virtual modes of interaction will replace normal human physical interaction. He concluded by quoting famous futurist and writer, Alvin Toffler. Simandan explained, “when you try to predict the future, remember that whether the future will turn food or bad depends on the values of the person making the predictions, the people who live in the future that you are predicting will be other people, newer generations have a different hierarchy of values than you have.” He went on to say that perhaps future generations will value health and security over freedom and the idea of an authoritarian government may seem more attractive to them than it is to him now. He believes there is an obsessive preoccupation with safety and health and less about liberty and civil liberties. Sindaman explains then, that perhaps a more authoritarian government may be “heaven on earth.” if they want big government to keep them healthy and safe, if that is the dominating value of the future.

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Dragos Simandan is a Professor at Brock University. He develops an original approach in geography where he revisits fundamental concepts of the discipline – place, space, distance – with a critical view and the addition of elements from psychology and social sciences.

Learn more about Dragos Simandan

Watch the full interview below