A Scholar of Shakespeare Sees Perils and Possibilities in the Bard’s Plays, and His Own Experience

Hamlet Is a Suicide Text—It’s Time to Teach It Like One | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

English artist Henrietta Rae’s 1890 homage to Ophelia. Courtesy of Public Domain.

by JEFFREY R. WILSON | SEPTEMBER 28, 2020 (zocalopublicsquare.org)

I once tried to commit suicide. Twenty years later, it’s still hard to talk about. I didn’t want to die. Self-esteem issues, depression, alcoholism. I was signaling, in an unhealthy way, that I was in pain and needed help. A better way would have been to call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). It was the age of Nirvana. Depression and suicide were in the air in U.S. teen culture. A close friend had moved away from our small Midwestern town. Beforehand, he started acting out. A few times he lost it, had some public meltdowns. Yelling. Crying. It rattled us all. High drama. Huge audience. I didn’t consciously recognize that his performances garnered him massive attention, and I might do the same, but it was classic modeling behavior.

Suicide contagion is the term social scientists use to describe exposure to suicide or suicidal thoughts resulting in an increase of suicidal behavior. While media coverage has recently heightened concern about the phenomenon, it has been observed for centuries. One term for suicide contagion is the Werther Effect, named after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a Romantic German novel about a lovesick young artist who takes his own life. An international bestseller partly based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the book’s fame led to a rise in young people imitating Werther’s suicide, dressing in his trademark outfit or holding Goethe’s book for their fateful act.

Suicide contagion is a special case of the general phenomenon of social modeling or social learning, where humans follow examples more than rules. The initial exposure can come either directly (someone you know dies by suicide) or indirectly (media reports on suicide). Sometimes suicide is glamorized through its association with a successful, attractive, larger-than-life celebrity, like Robin Williams, Kate Spade, or Anthony Bourdain. Such exposure, especially with an emphasis on the cause and manner of death, makes suicide real, creating new ideas about suicide or triggering pre-existing thoughts, modifying a person’s understanding of typical social behavior, making it seem like an acceptable method of responding to stress, and loosening the restraint we usually exercise with harmful acts.

Once suicide is in the air, it can spread, disease-like. There might be an incubation period of days or weeks. There can be an outbreak or epidemic, a cluster of suicide-related behavior, especially for people with pre-existing vulnerabilities like mental illness, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have access to good health care and receive help resisting the epidemic. Others are failed by poor oversight in institutions responsible for monitoring behavior.

The power of suicide contagion, and my experience with it, is one reason I hesitate to assign Hamlet, a play so obsessed with suicide that it’s hard to believe it’s one of the most commonly assigned texts in American high schools. It’s a bit shocking that the most famous speech in the most famous play by the most famous English-language playwright is about suicide—“To be, or not to be”—and we’re fine with that. With schools sending home warnings about suicide triggers like 13 Reasons Why and the “Momo Challenge,” Hamlet’s place in the curriculum merits scrutiny. Then there’s Romeo and JulietJulius Caesar, and Othello—all frequent high school texts that involve suicide—plus less common texts like Titus AndronicusAntony and Cleopatra, and The Rape of Lucrece. And that’s just Shakespeare. Why do we give these works so happily to our children?

“I am not talking about healthy people reading Romeo and Juliet,” epidemiologist Madelyn Gould, a leading expert on suicide contagion, explained in a 2001 workshop on the subject. But what are the odds that every young adult in a classroom of 25 is mentally healthy? In a lecture hall of 300? I’ll admit that I’ve never felt triggered by Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. But I never read a play by Shakespeare until I was a senior in college and five years sober (to be sure, I was assigned to read many before then). I’m pretty shaken now by the thought of me at age 16 reading, “To be, or not to be.”

Suicide contagion evokes a classic debate in literary theory tinged with the rhetoric of infection. The Greek writer Gorgias thought language could be so powerful as to exert a drug-like control over an audience’s actions: Who could blame Helen of Troy, he asked, when Paris’s seductive words were so strong? That’s one reason Plato banished literature from his ideal state—“poetry deforms its audience’s minds, unless they have the antidote”—and one reason some sought to outlaw theater in Shakespeare’s England. According to the first anti-theatrical work published in England, John Northbrooke’s A Treatise against Idlenes, Idle Pastimes, and Playes (1577), “Satan hath not a more speedy way and fitter school to work and teach his desire, to bring men and women into his snare of concupiscence and filthy lusts of wicked whoredom, than those places and plays, and theaters are.” In the language of epidemiology, Northbrooke concludes, “Beware of such contagiousness.”

Responding to charges that literature is “the nurse of abuse, infecting us with many pestilent desires,” the most famous work of literary theory from Shakespeare’s time, Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry, acknowledged the force of literary contagion: “Poesie [can] infect the fancy with unworthy objects.” But, Sidney continued, “whatsoever being abused, doth most harm, being rightly used … doth most good.” If literature can create suicide contagion, it can also, “being rightly used,” dispel it. That shifts the ethical burden from the text to the teachers and critics who discuss it.

The 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention called for coordination across multiple sectors and settings, including schools. It identifies teachers as key gatekeepers, able to refer at-risk people to specialists. Gatekeeper training can improve knowledge about suicide, attitudes toward it, and strategies for recognizing and intervening in cases. And suicide prevention training in schools significantly reduces suicide ideation and attempts in students. Yet teachers, most of whom have directly encountered at least one suicidal student, often receive little or no suicide prevention training, and feel unequipped to recognize and respond to students at risk.

That’s why guidebooks, such as David Schonfeld and Marcia Quackenbush’s The Grieving Student: A Teacher’s Guide, have been published. Education researchers, notably Kristine E. Pytash, have suggested that teachers should themselves read young adult literature involving suicide, and ask how they will respond to crises. In 2017, English Journal, the National Council of Teachers of English’s journal for junior and senior high school educators, published an issue on Death in the English Classroom. In 2018, the education scholars Michelle M. Falter and Steven T. Bickmore edited two companion collections, When Loss Gets Personal: Discussing Death through Literature in the Secondary ELA Classroom and Moving Beyond Personal Loss to Societal Grieving: Discussing Death’s Social Impact through Literature in the Secondary ELA Classroom. As they wrote, “Talking about death head on, rather than tangentially, in the English classroom isn’t easy to do, but it is important.”

English teachers are rarely qualified to provide counseling to suicidal students. But teachers can use suicide texts like Hamlet to better perform the mental health monitoring they are already asked to do.

Suicide contagion is especially associated with adolescence because, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “In the morn and liquid dew of youth, / Contagious blastments are most imminent.” Teens are “contagious” because their actions exert great influence on one another. Shakespeare invented the word “blastments” from the earlier blasting, “withering or shriveling up caused by atmospheric, electric, or unseen agency.” Blastments are dangerous because they are forceful yet ephemeral, and unavoidable in youth (“most imminent”). The same is true of the circulation of the idea of suicide in society today, making parents everywhere jittery, especially at night when, to quote Hamlet, “hell itself breaks out / Contagion to this world.”The power of suicide contagion, and my experience with it, is one reason I hesitate to assign Hamlet, a play so obsessed with suicide that it’s hard to believe it’s one of the most commonly assigned texts in American high schools.

One way Shakespeare conveyed suicide contagion was to fill Hamlet’s suicidal thoughts with water and plant imagery that reappears in his girlfriend Ophelia’s death by suicide. The first line of Hamlet’s first soliloquy points forward to the last moments of Ophelia’s life: “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.” The soliloquy is filled with “tears,” which water the “unweeded garden” that Hamlet compares his country to. Water imagery rushes back into Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be,” which flails in his “sea of troubles” and barrels toward suicide until “currents turn awry.”

But Shakespeare represented suicide contagion even more directly. As in society today, suicide is contagious in Hamlet, at least in the example of Ophelia, the one death by suicide in the play: She only becomes suicidal after hearing Hamlet talk about his own suicidal thoughts in “To be, or not to be.”

It’s easy to forget that Ophelia is onstage during this famous soliloquy, and can hear what Hamlet is saying. Her father, Polonius, and King Claudius are using her to spy on him. They call Hamlet to a room where she is walking about, as if by accident, then hide to observe the interaction between Hamlet and Ophelia. That’s the set-up for “To be, or not to be.”

What happens if we hear that soliloquy from Ophelia’s perspective? She’s a young woman in a man’s world. Whip-smart, confident, courteous, caring, kind, a little deferential. Pretty. She’s in love with Hamlet, or thinks she is, or was, but isn’t anymore. It didn’t end well. Now he’s being an asshole. She’s been dismissed, degraded, domineered, and abused by all the men in her life: her father, Polonius; her brother, Laertes; and her lover, Hamlet. Her mother isn’t around. The queen, a surrogate mom, is cagey with her. Ophelia doesn’t seem to have any friends; or at least doesn’t have an author even remotely interested in exploring her personal life. She’s doing her best to stay afloat. But it’s frustrating. Her father cares more about his job and the national news than her. Her brother, whom she was close with, went off to college. Her ex is playing manipulative mind games. She doesn’t have anyone to talk to. And no one to turn to. The authorities—in this case, Shakespeare—aren’t interested in hearing what she has to say. She’s alone, yet has to perform the monotony of daily responsibilities. The weight is heavy. She’s trying.

So imagine Ophelia hearing Hamlet—“To be or not to be—that is the question”—and what she might be thinking: Never thought of that. Suicide. A new option. Ending it all. Hamlet’s thinking about it, though Lord knows he’s got plenty going for him. Rich, powerful, male. What about my sea of troubles? God, don’t even think about it. But it’s too late. Can’t unthink suicide as a possibility. It burrows in your mind.

Surprisingly, Hamlet and Ophelia don’t appear onstage together until immediately after “To be, or not to be.” That first contact is a moment of contagion. “I’ll give you this plague,” he says to her. Hamlet is sick, and it’s contagious—his mental illness spreads to others.

The contagion of suicide is first registered, symbolically, at the end of this scene, with Ophelia’s first soliloquy. As the Shakespearean vessel for suicidal thoughts, the soliloquy marks Ophelia’s entrance to the realm of Hamlet’s melancholy. The plant imagery of Hamlet’s “unweeded garden” is echoed in Ophelia’s description of him as the “rose of the fair state.” The wind imagery of “contagious blastments” imminent in “youth” is echoed in Ophelia’s lament for “blown youth, / Blasted with ecstasy.” Just as this scene flows from Hamlet’s soliloquy to his dialog with Ophelia to her soliloquy, suicidal thoughts follow a path in Hamlet discoverable through contact tracing.

Ophelia is the epicenter of plant imagery in the second half of the play, handing out flowers to the king’s court as she sings songs about death. That’s a warning sign. She doesn’t talk about wanting to die, or look for ways to kill herself, or say she’s a burden to others. Not all suicides display all warning signs. But she’s feeling helpless and hopeless. She’s anxious, agitated, reckless, displaying extreme mood swings. “I will not speak with her,” says Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, trying to avoid an awkward situation.

The first thing today’s experts on suicide say: Don’t leave a vulnerable person alone. Claudius gets it. He orders Hamlet’s friend Horatio to follow Ophelia. But clearly someone was negligent. How else did she get out on a tree branch over the brook? Don’t leave the person alone, yes, but also have the vigilance to uphold that commitment amidst the day-to-day grind of time.

As Marlena Tronicke argues in one of the few readings of suicide in Hamlet that centers Ophelia, her act of drowning herself is a reclamation of agency in a misogynistic world that has stripped her of autonomy. That line of thought must be cautious, however, not to romanticize suicide as a valiant response to injustice. How can we think creatively about different ways Ophelia’s story could have gone, about different ways our stories could go when we feel the world is too much?

There is some ambiguity as to whether Ophelia’s death is a suicide. It reminds me of when they found my uncle’s body, and we didn’t know if it was suicide or not. Shakespeare’s gravediggers say Ophelia can’t have a Christian burial because “her death was doubtful.” Yet Gertrude’s famous narrative of Ophelia’s death makes it sound like an accident.

Reporting on suicide can create contagion. Media guidelines—not putting suicide on the front page, shrinking the size of the headline, not describing the details of the death, not sensationalizing the suicide, including suicide crisis hotline numbers, showing examples of successful help-seeking—mitigate suicide contagion. Contrasting this conscientious approach with the Werther Effect, researchers have dubbed it the Papageno Effect, after a character in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute who is suicidal until three boys offer suggestions for better ways to deal with his stress.

In this context, Gertrude’s famous speech, in which she dramatically narrates Ophelia’s death, is very problematic. One of its memorable features is the repetition of “drowned”: The water imagery established in Hamlet’s “too too solid flesh” soliloquy is recalled. Gertrude details the “brook” that Ophelia drowned in, and its “glassy stream.” The plant imagery returns in the “willow” that grows over the brook, with its “hoary leaves.” Ophelia climbed out on its “pendant boughs” to hang her “crowned weeds” recalling Hamlet’s “unweeded garden.” With this imagery, Shakespeare is asking us to remember Hamlet’s earlier suicidal thoughts when we hear of Ophelia’s end.

An “envious sliver” on the willow snapped, and down fell Ophelia and her “weedy trophies” into the “weeping brook,” nature personified with suicidal emotions. Gertrude’s sentimentalized Ophelia floats on the water “mermaid-like” for a moment, “like a creature native and endued / Unto that element.” But that moment of oneness with nature is belied by the “muddy death” that follows.

How Gertrude knows all this is unclear. If she saw it, why didn’t she try to save Ophelia? If she only heard about it later, why is her account so flowery? If the latter, Gertrude looks very much like a journalist who gathers facts second- or third-hand and embellishes them with narrative gusto.

Reality is less flowery. The day after my suicide attempt, my parents took me to a psychiatrist. I kicked and screamed. Things got worse before they got better. It was a long road to recovery, but I figured out how to ask for help. I learned how to use the medical system. Became a writer. Met my wife. Had some kids. Shakespeare scholar. College professor. Life is good.

After a crisis, it’s awkward. No one wants to talk about it. No one knows what to do. How are people going to respond? There’s even a sense of re-contagion at Ophelia’s funeral. Her despondent brother, Laertes, expresses suicidal thoughts, jumping in her grave, telling the gravediggers to “pile your dust upon the quick and dead.” Hamlet also becomes manic, vowing to Laertes that he, too, would willingly die for Ophelia: “Be buried quick with her and so will I.”

As with Ophelia earlier, Claudius tells Gertrude to “set some watch over your son.” Hamlet soon develops a fatalism that feels resigned to death: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends.” His murder by duel isn’t suicide, but that tragedy causes contagion in his friend Horatio, who tries to drink from the poisoned cup. Hamlet intervenes, an important moment of containment of suicide’s spread: “Give me the cup.”

Sometimes you have to save a suicidal person from themselves. You might feel like it’s not your place. But in crisis moments it’s your responsibility. “Absent thee from felicity awhile,” Hamlet says in seeking to convince Horatio not to kill himself, “And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story.”

The play leaves us, therefore, with Horatio as the author of the Hamlet legend, and with Horatio’s narrative of suicidal thoughts, suicide contagion, and suicide prevention as one method of resistance to the pull of despair. All suicidal people have a story to tell. Storytelling, Shakespeare suggests, is one strategy of coping with intense pressure.

Properly framed, Hamlet could be an introduction to the idea of suicide contagion, generating a self-consciousness that might counteract the danger of the phenomenon. When you know what suicide contagion is and how it works, you’re less likely to succumb to it, or perpetuate it. And Hamlet provides, in the final example of Horatio, an example of successful resistance to suicide contagion.

Yet, if hearing Hamlet talk about suicide planted the seed in Ophelia’s mind, could the same happen with Hamlet in our classrooms? Could the text be damaging to someone who has a pre-existing vulnerability?

Some months ago, I was going to invite my teenage niece to a performance of Romeo and Juliet, but decided against it. One of her friends had recently died by suicide. It shook the whole community. Parents were hyper-vigilant about the possibility of contagion. Better not to take any risks with Romeo and Juliet, I thought. It might be an opportunity for a healthy conversation, but I had absolutely no confidence that it would be a positive experience for her. The uncertainty froze me. I went to the play alone.

The production was old-fashioned. Tights and ruffs. In the opening acts, the highlight was the sword fighting. I wouldn’t realize its full significance until later. Romeo’s guttural yell—eyes closed, fists clenched in frustration—before killing Tybalt showed someone with what we now call an anger management problem. Lord Capulet’s possessive anger toward his daughter cut deep. Another angry expression of frustration in the form of misogynistic violence. The contagion of suicide seeped through Acts IV and V. It hit hard. It’s easy to forget—when we hear Taylor Swift’s “Love Song” popping, “Marry me, Juliet, you’ll never have to be alone”—that this is a play about two kids killing themselves. I don’t even want to think about it. It’s brutal. Easier to pretend we’re all fine.

Romeo’s yell again; he kills Paris. He can’t control himself. It’s only now that I recognize the thesis of this production: The hyper-masculinity of this culture, symbolized by those magnificent sword fights, leads to violence and suicide as appealing forms of emotional problem-solving: “These violent delights have violent ends.” I didn’t fully appreciate that line until tonight, though we see it every day—the pain and suffering that some days falls like rain. Our children trying their best to navigate the world we’ve made. Sometimes they fail. It’s devastating when they do. We’ll try to do better. But we won’t be whole again.

We’ll never get rid of suicide. Or Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. These texts are going to be assigned, and suicides are going to happen and be reported on. And you can’t simply cut the theme of suicide from these texts. Hamlet without suicide isn’t Hamlet.

But you can adopt media guidelines. You can pick your points of emphasis. Maybe a 10th-grade classroom doesn’t need a close reading of Gertrude’s speech about Ophelia’s death. Emphasizing the location and manner of death can create contagion, as can visual representations of the location. Experts would advise using visuals from Ophelia’s life, or the logo of the suicide prevention hotline, rather than John Everett Millais’s famous 1852 painting of Ophelia. Avoid saying suicide is senseless or happens “without warning.” Include up-to-date local and national resources to promote help-seeking behavior. Invite a mental health expert into the class to speak about suicide prevention. Encourage a high schooler’s parents to read Hamlet with their child. Perhaps they’ll have conversations they otherwise wouldn’t.

You can cover the warning signs in Ophelia’s case. You can emphasize that, today, Ophelia’s mental health issues are very much treatable because of a massive health care system that didn’t exist in her Denmark. You can use Hamlet to carry, Trojan Horse-style, information to students about the causes of suicide, treatment options, and recent research on rates and advances in prevention. And, just as psychotherapy can help vulnerable individuals learn to recognize their thought patterns and adjust behavior when suicidal thoughts arise, Hamlet can be used to train students to recognize warning signs and respond effectively.

Some culture warriors will feel this is “snowflake” ShakespeareWhen I was in school, we didn’t tiptoe around suicide. Some students will likewise feel such a careful approach to suicide in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet is unnecessary. It doesn’t apply to them. Hopefully, that is the clear majority. For such students, discussion of Shakespearean suicides can expose them to strategies for recognizing warning signs in others and responding to crises. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health’s five steps for suicide prevention can be adapted for teaching suicide texts like Hamlet:

1. Ask: It’s a difficult question, especially in a classroom, but when teaching Hamlet, ask students to come speak with you, and to speak with others, if they are having suicidal thoughts. Research suggests that asking about suicide does not increase suicidal thoughts. Ophelia didn’t really have anyone to talk to.

2. Keep Them Safe: When teaching Hamlet, send a note home to parents, and ask any students who may be vulnerable to reduce access to lethal items or places. Ophelia shouldn’t be climbing trees over the brook. Don’t let Horatio have the cup.

3. Be There: When discussing Hamlet, listen to what students say about suicide, and acknowledge their feelings. Research suggests acknowledgement reduces rather than increases suicidal thoughts. Consider Hamlet acknowledging Horatio’s suicidal thoughts, then keeping him safe.

4. Help Them Connect: Give students of Hamlet the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and the Crisis Text Line: 741-741. Have them save these numbers in their phones. Help any vulnerable students connect with a trusted individual like a family member, friend, or mental health professional. Train them to help others who are vulnerable connect to suicide prevention resources.

5. Stay Connected: Stay in touch after a crisis. Research shows a follow-up from a trusted individual reduces the chance of suicide. Horatio was assigned to keep Ophelia safe, but didn’t stay connected. Take a moment to check in with students a few weeks after you’ve finished Hamlet.

If you are in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts, call 911. For support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.

JEFFREY R. WILSON is a faculty member in the Writing Program at Harvard University, where he teaches the “Why Shakespeare?” section of the university’s first-year writing course. He is the author of Shakespeare and Trump and Shakespeare and Game of Thrones. He can be found on Twitter at @DrJeffreyWilson.


For Nearly a Century, the Small European Nation Has Fused Monarchy and Direct Democracy Into a Government That Works

In Liechtenstein, Power to the People—And the Prince | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Vaduz Castle, overlooking the capital, is home to the Prince of Liechtenstein. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

by WILFRIED MARXER | SEPTEMBER 25, 2020 (zocalopublicsquare.org)

Liechtenstein, the nation of 38,500 in the heart of Europe, has for nearly a century deftly governed itself by combining two seemingly contradictory elements: direct democracy and monarchy. Rather than seeing monarchy and direct democracy as “either-or” options, the people of Liechtenstein have affirmed their belief that the two combined better serve the people.

Liechtenstein’s constitution of 1921 first established the principle that is still valid today: namely that the authority of the state is anchored in the Prince and the People. The demand was based on the growing democracy movement in Liechtenstein. With the new constitution of 1921, the tradition of the monarchy was continued, and at the same time, the power of the people was strengthened. Therefore, in the future and up to the present time, a consensus between the reigning prince and the people on relevant issues was necessary. This division of power has contributed to the stability of the political system and balanced political decisions.

The people gained significant rights in 1921. The prince could no longer unilaterally appoint the government, and he lost his three appointments to the then 15-member parliament (it now has 25 members). All members of parliament would be elected. Prior to 1921, the prince relied on foreign civil servants to run Liechtenstein. The new constitution, on contrary, mandated that government ministers be Liechtenstein citizens who were proposed by parliament and then appointed by the reigning prince.

Liechtenstein’s new direct democratic instruments included the popular initiative, which allowed the people to amend the constitution or laws by collecting signatures and putting their ideas to a vote. Another tool was the referendum against constitutional, legislative and financial decisions of parliament. Parliament also gained the power, on its own initiative, to submit decisions to the vote of the people. The people could also decide to dissolve parliament and thus trigger new elections.

The people of Liechtenstein have used these tools frequently. More than 100 popular votes have been held at the national level in the past century. And there has never been a restriction of these democratic rights. On the contrary, new rights have been added and the hurdles for using the tools have gradually been lowered. In 1992, the direct democratic instruments were expanded to permit the holding of a referendum on international treaties. The people were then able to vote on whether Liechtenstein could join the European Economic Area (EEA).In Liechtenstein, the widespread view is that anchoring state power both in the reigning prince and in the people is not to the disadvantage of either side, but rather to their mutual advantage.

Within the princely house, according to the family statute, succession is governed by the principle of male primogeniture, i.e. the eldest son of the reigning prince is the designated successor. Reigning Prince Hans-Adam II and the hereditary prince are among those who also use direct democracy. In 2003, they triggered a popular initiative to revise the constitution which met with clear approval at the ballot box. This already shows that the princely house and Prince Hans-Adam II cannot be committed to a purely passive role in politics.

Among other things, this constitutional revision of 2003 introduced new direct democratic procedures. Thus, the people can express their distrust of the reigning prince in a referendum, although it is then up to the male members of the princely house entitled to vote to decide whether any measures should be taken against the reigning prince. In extreme cases, he can be deposed. The people also have the right under the constitution to take an initiative to abolish the monarchy. If this were ever approved by a majority at the ballot box, parliament would be charged with drawing up a republican draft constitution. In the end, the people would decide whether the existing constitution should continue to be valid, or if the Republican constitution should be adopted, or an additional draft constitution submitted by the reigning prince.

However, as long as the existing constitution is in force, the reigning prince retains far-reaching powers, including the right to dismiss the Government. In everyday political life, the prince maintains the right to veto legal and financial decisions; laws and treaties cannot achieve full force without his consent. The strong position of the monarchy enjoys great support among the population, as it is seen as an important pillar of Liechtenstein’s success and stability.

This therefore requires communication, and the development of consensus, between the people or the elected representatives and the reigning prince. It is rare for the prince to refuse to sanction an act of the parliament or the voters. The only time the prince overruled the people after a referendum vote came in 1961, when they approved a hunting law the prince opposed. However, the prince can often get what he wants merely by threatening the veto. A refusal to sanction was announced in a referendum on the liberalization of abortion in 2011 and in a popular initiative to limit the prince’s veto right in 2012. Both proposals failed at the ballot box, however, and the veto was unnecessary.

The Liechtenstein political system has managed to combine, creatively, the contradictory elements of representative democracy, direct democracy, and monarchy. The veto power of the prince and the people—together with control mechanism based on the rule of law and the binding nature of treaties (such as the European Convention on Human Rights)—ensures broadly supported and balanced decisions. The Liechtenstein system has produced very high levels of acceptance of political decisions and a high degree of satisfaction with the political system itself, as numerous surveys show.

As a result, the monarchy itself, as only one part of the government, is generally held in high esteem. The country’s enormous economic upswing since the 1940s has helped reinforce the good feeling. In Liechtenstein, the widespread view is that anchoring state power both in the reigning prince and in the people is not to the disadvantage of either side, but rather to their mutual advantage.

WILFRIED MARXER is the head of research politics at the private Liechtenstein Institute in Bendern, Principality of Liechtenstein. He is the author of Direkte Demokratie in Liechtenstein.

Book: “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck”

Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck

Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck

by William Souder 

The first full-length biography of the Nobel laureate to appear in a quarter century, Mad at the World illuminates what has made the work of John Steinbeck an enduring part of the literary canon: his capacity for empathy. Pulitzer Prize finalist William Souder explores Steinbeck’s long apprenticeship as a writer struggling through the depths of the Great Depression, and his rise to greatness with masterpieces such as The Red PonyOf Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. Angered by the plight of the Dust Bowl migrants who were starving even as they toiled to harvest California’s limitless bounty, fascinated by the guileless decency of the downtrodden denizens of Cannery Row, and appalled by the country’s refusal to recognize the humanity common to all of its citizens, Steinbeck took a stand against social injustice—paradoxically given his inherent misanthropy—setting him apart from the writers of the so-called “lost generation.”

A man by turns quick-tempered, compassionate, and ultimately brilliant, Steinbeck could be a difficult person to like. Obsessed with privacy, he was mistrustful of people. Next to writing, his favorite things were drinking and womanizing and getting married, which he did three times. And while he claimed indifference about success, his mid-career books and movie deals made him a lot of money—which passed through his hands as quickly as it came in. And yet Steinbeck also took aim at the corrosiveness of power, the perils of income inequality, and the urgency of ecological collapse, all of which drive public debate to this day.

Steinbeck remains our great social realist novelist, the writer who gave the dispossessed and the disenfranchised a voice in American life and letters. Eloquent, nuanced, and deeply researched, Mad at the World captures the full measure of the man and his work.


Alain de Botton on Love

The School of Life The School of Life founder (and voice behind this channel) Alain de Botton lays out his ideas on love in the modern world – at a conference by Google held in London in May 2016 called Zeitgeist [many thanks to them for the film]. If you like our films take a look at our shop (we ship worldwide): http://www.theschooloflife.com/shop/m… Brought to you by Google/Zeitgeist #TheSchoolOfLife

Caption author (Portuguese (Portugal))

Gonçalo Cabrita

Caption author (Chinese (Taiwan))


Caption authors (Spanish (Latin America))

Daddy Issues

The School of Life We’re used to being rather mean about people who have ‘daddy issues’. We should be more careful and more kind. Daddy issues can lead to the worst kind of political situations – and need to be understood as psychological phenomena. If you like our films, take a look at our shop (we ship worldwide): https://goo.gl/UNk3XX Join our mailing list: http://bit.ly/2e0TQNJ Or visit us in person at our London HQ https://goo.gl/bOsHi6 FURTHER READING “To say that someone has ‘daddy issues’ is a somewhat rude and humiliating way of alluding to a very understandable longing: for a father who is strong and wise, who is judicious, kind, perhaps at points tough, but always fair – and ultimately, always on our side. It would be so understandable if we were to feel we wanted someone like this in our lives, especially at moments of confusion and chaos…” You can read more on this and other subjects on our blog, here: https://goo.gl/5vqJDQ MORE SCHOOL OF LIFE Our website has classes, articles and products to help you think and grow: https://goo.gl/2pQqZE Watch more films on SELF in our playlist: http://bit.ly/TSOLself You can submit translations and transcripts on all of our videos here: https://www.youtube.com/timedtext_cs_… Find out how more here: https://support.google.com/youtube/an… SOCIAL MEDIA Feel free to follow us at the links below: Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theschoolofl… Twitter: https://twitter.com/TheSchoolOfLife Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/theschoolof… CREDITS Produced in collaboration with: Sentio Space http://sentiospace.com/https://twitter.com/SentioSpace#TheSchoolOfLife

How To Be A Man

The School of Life The idea of manliness has grown indelibly associated with the idea of being cool. We’d be wiser to shift the masculine ideal towards a new idea: warmth. If you like our films, take a look at our shop (we ship worldwide): https://goo.gl/qyjS5u Join our mailing list: http://bit.ly/2e0TQNJ Or visit us in person at our London HQ https://goo.gl/2856fZ FURTHER READING “For approximately 80 years, the notion of what a man should be like has been heavily influenced by the idea of ‘cool’. The cool man doesn’t try too hard, you don’t see them floundering about in a panic – but they succeed anyway. They are physically confident, they can scale a mountain or saunter down a deserted street in the middle of the night; if they have to kill someone they will do it neatly with minimal fuss; they don’t worry, they are self-contained and sure of themselves; their trousers are always a perfect fit; they express themselves briefly – but their words are always to the point; they’re not meek in the face of authority; but they don’t crave power themselves: they are independent…” You can read more on this and other subjects on our blog, here: https://goo.gl/lwEWL7 MORE SCHOOL OF LIFE Our website has classes, articles and products to help you think and grow: https://goo.gl/pWzs6x Watch more films on SELF in our playlist: http://bit.ly/TSOLself You can submit translations and transcripts on all of our videos here: https://www.youtube.com/timedtext_cs_… Find out how more here: https://support.google.com/youtube/an… SOCIAL MEDIA Feel free to follow us at the links below: Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theschoolofl… Twitter: https://twitter.com/TheSchoolOfLife Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/theschoolof… CREDITS Produced in collaboration with: Peter Caires http://www.twitter.com/peterlikesthishttp://www.petercaires.com#TheSchoolOfLife

What Is an Emotionally-healthy Childhood?

The School of Life We know how many adult problems come down to issues from childhood – but what exactly is that wondrous, hugely desirable thing, an emotionally-healthy childhood? This film identifies the central themes of the sort of childhood that can leave us balanced, happy and sane. For gifts and more from The School of Life, visit our online shop: https://goo.gl/QU6qRz Join our mailing list: http://bit.ly/2e0TQNJ Our website has classes, articles and products to help you think and grow: https://goo.gl/D2EhsZ ogsuJi FURTHER READING “We can sometimes be so modest about our power to know what might be good for others or ourselves, we forget it might be possible to hazard a few generalisations about what constitutes an emotionally healthy childhood. It can’t be pure idiosyncracy or good luck; there are distinct themes and goals to identify. With a map of optimal development in mind, we could more clearly appreciate where dislocation begins, what we have to be grateful for and what there is to regret. At a collective level, we would have more of a sense of what we need to achieve to generate a more emotionally-privileged – and therefore slightly saner – world…” You can read more on this and other subjects on our blog, here: https://goo.gl/XdyKfT MORE SCHOOL OF LIFE Visit us in person at our London HQ: https://goo.gl/7xDuxQ Watch more films on SELF in our playlist: http://bit.ly/TSOLself You can submit translations and transcripts on all of our videos here: https://www.youtube.com/timedtext_cs_… Find out how more here: https://support.google.com/youtube/an… SOCIAL MEDIA Feel free to follow us at the links below: ogsuJi Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theschoolofl… Twitter: https://twitter.com/TheSchoolOfLife Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/theschoolof… CREDITS Produced in collaboration with:

Two big reasons S.F. has the lowest COVID death rate among major U.S. cities

Catherine Ho and Erin Allday Sep. 25, 2020 (SFChronicle.com)

Mayor London Breed emphasized the importance of wearing a mask and avoiding crowds at a press conference at Dolores Park in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 4, 2020.
1of6Mayor London Breed emphasized the importance of wearing a mask and avoiding crowds at a press conference at Dolores Park in San Francisco, Calif. on Sept. 4, 2020.Photo: Annika Hammerschlag / Special to the Chronicle
From left: Soheil Norouzi, Edward Sciaky and Tyler Pate hang out with Arlo the dog during the Labor Day weekend at Dolores Park, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in San Francisco, Calif.
2of6From left: Soheil Norouzi, Edward Sciaky and Tyler Pate hang out with Arlo the dog during the Labor Day weekend at Dolores Park, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in San Francisco, Calif.Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle
(L-r) Janice Smith helps London Gilbert, 5 put on her mask on Thursday, May 7, 2020 in San Francisco, California. The Community Resilience Caravans, which were organized through the city, canvassed neighborhoods throughout District 10 to encourage social distancing and hand out masks amid the coronavirus pandemic.
3of6(L-r) Janice Smith helps London Gilbert, 5 put on her mask on Thursday, May 7, 2020 in San Francisco, California. The Community Resilience Caravans, which were organized through the city, canvassed neighborhoods throughout District 10 to encourage social distancing and hand out masks amid the coronavirus pandemic.Photo: Gabrielle Lurie / The Chronicle

San Francisco, which found early success in crushing the pandemic curve, is a leader in another key coronavirus measure: It has the lowest COVID-19 death rate among major U.S. cities.

San Francisco has by far the lowest number of deaths per 100,000 people, and the lowest number of deaths as a percentage of confirmed cases, compared to Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C., Seattle and other large urban U.S. cities, according to figures compiled by Dr. Jim Marks, director of planning at the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s COVID Command Center and a doctor at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. The data was shared by UCSF infectious disease experts this month.

San Francisco reported 9.7 deaths per 100,000 people — the lowest among 10 other major U.S. cities included in the analysis, which includes data as of Sept. 4. The city with the next next lowest rate is Seattle, with 32.5 deaths per 100,000 people. Los Angeles and New York City reported 57.1 and 281.3 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively.

San Francisco also has the lowest case fatality rate, defined as the percentage of confirmed cases that resulted in deaths, and is the only city included in the analysis whose fatality rate is less than 1%. The city’s case fatality rate is 0.87% — compared to the two other cities with the next lowest rates, Miami with 1.63% and Atlanta with 2.09%. New York has a 10.26% case fatality rate, by far the highest by among the cities included in the analysis.

9/ Finally, moving toward @MonicaGandhi9’s talk on Covid’s falling mortality rate, George (@ 18:00) showed fig below, which shows that SF not only has low case rate (though not as low as Seattle’s) but has had, by far, lowest rate of deaths/case (0.87%) of major U.S. cities. pic.twitter.com/IpVlUBCXaV— Bob Wachter (@Bob_Wachter) September 11, 2020

Local experts say San Francisco’s low death rate is likely because the city started sheltering in place earlier than most other major cities, which helped maintain a relatively low case count overall. San Francisco hospitals never came close to being overwhelmed the way hospitals in other cities did, which led to patients here getting more individualized care in intensive care units.

The low death rate is reflected across the Bay Area, according to Chronicle data analysis. All but one of the nine Bay Area counties report lower death rates than the state average of about 40 deaths per 100,000 residents. Marin County’s rate is 45 deaths per 100,000. The United States average is about 65 deaths per 100,000.

“We had the luxury of not being overwhelmed like New York City,” Dr. George Rutherford, an infectious disease expert, said during a UCSF virtual discussion on Thursday. “We had shelter-in-place substantially earlier, and we did a much better job keeping the overall morbidity, overall disease transmission rate down, which translated to fewer hospitalized patients, fewer ICU patients so we could do a better job of taking care of them.”

San Francisco also tests more people per capita than the other cities included in the analysis. The city is testing at a rate of 4.22 per 1,000 people — compared to Los Angeles’ 3.02 and New York’s 1.12. That would drive down the case fatality ratio, experts noted.

“San Franciscans have done their part with masking up, social distancing and getting tested,” Mayor London Breed said during the UCSF discussion.

Breed credited Dr. Grant Colfax, director of the Public Health Department, with alerting her early with data and projections showing that a surge in cases requiring hospitalizations could overwhelm the city’s hospital capacity. That led the city to go beyond just limiting large gatherings, and move toward shutting things down altogether.

“I really think our aggressive early action following the science and data was to act early,” Colfax said during the discussion. “We looked at the information and saw where things could potentially be headed … how quickly the virus could get out of control in our city.”

Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert with UC Berkeley, said historical trust and respect for public health across the Bay Area may have played a role in preventing spread of disease and, in turn, keeping the death toll relatively low.

“San Francisco, and the halo effect for the rest of the Bay Area, has a culture of looking at public health differently, or at least in a more rigorous fashion than the rest of the state and much of the rest of the country,” Swartzberg said. “I think we’ve really benefited from that culture, and that culture translated into making sure we had the ability to care for people.”

The case fatality rate — the number determined by dividing total deaths by confirmed cases — in the Bay Area and the rest of the country has dropped since March. According to a Chronicle analysis, the percent of confirmed cases that resulted in death fell from about 3.4% to 2.9% nationally from March to September. It dropped from 2.3% to 1.5% in the Bay Area in that time.

The case fatality rate is not a precise number and is dependent on a variety of fluid variables, but it’s a useful metric for looking at trends over time or across locations. It’s fallen recently likely due to several factors, including the same things that have kept San Francisco’s numbers so low. With fewer hospitals overrun with patients, individuals are getting better, more focused care, which in turn is saving lives.

But it’s more nuanced than that, infectious disease experts said. Widespread masking may also be driving down fatalities — one explanation is that face coverings lower the viral dose individuals are exposed to, so even if they get sick they are less likely to be seriously ill and die. Rutherford and Dr. Monica Gandhi, a colleague at UCSF, have led that research.

Another likely reason is that more young people are being infected now than were earlier in the pandemic. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released this week, 20-somethings had the highest incidence of infection of all age groups over the summer. Young people are less likely to die than older adults, and more of them being infected may be driving down the overall case fatality rate.

Increases in testing also are certainly pushing down case fatality rates, experts said.

But perhaps most important is that doctors and nurses have simply gotten much better at treating the disease, which after all was only introduced in humans about 10 months ago.

“I have confidence that we are getting better at this,” said Dr. Junaid Khan, director of cardiovascular services at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland. “Our treatment modalities are better, the hospital stays are down. The percent of people wearing masks in the Bay Area — we’re seeing an increase. I think people understand how serious it is now.”

Catherine Ho and Erin Allday are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: cho@sfchronicle.com eallday@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Cat_Ho @EAllday

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