“I Have No Enemies: My final Statement” by Liu Xiaobo

I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested, and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me, and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies. Although there is no way I can accept your monitoring, arrests, indictments, and verdicts, I respect your professions and your integrity, including those of the two prosecutors, Zhang Rongge and Pan Xueqing, who are now bringing charges against me on behalf of the prosecution. During interrogation on December 3, I could sense your respect and your good faith.

Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress towards freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.

It is precisely because of such convictions and personal experience that I firmly believe that China’s political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme. I also hope that this sort of progress can be reflected in this trial as I await the impartial ruling of the collegial bench – a ruling that will withstand the test of history.

If I may be permitted to say so, the most fortunate experience of these past twenty years has been the selfless love I have received from my wife, Liu Xia. She could not be present as an observer in court today, but I still want to say to you, my dear, that I firmly believe your love for me will remain the same as it has always been. Throughout all these years that I have lived without freedom, our love was full of bitterness imposed by outside circumstances, but as I savour its aftertaste, it remains boundless. I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart. Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness, and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning.

There is nothing criminal in anything I have done. if charges are brought against me because of this, I have no complaints.

Written by imprisoned Chinese human rights dissident Liu Xiaobo, prior to being sentenced to jail (for the fourth time) for “subversion of the state.” He wasn’t able to read it at his trial, as intended, but it would be read a year later on his behalf at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony that rightly honored him. He is currently serving out his latest prison sentence, slated to end in 2020.

Frankly, I don’t know how a man that has endured such suffering could remain so committed to love and tolerance, and could maintain such quiet dignity despite in the face of so many attempts to destroy it. Since my political coming-of-age back in high school, I’ve marveled at the remarkable courage, integrity, and virtue that characterizes so many of my fellow humans, even against such cynical and traumatic odds. I’ve read so many stories of once average people facing up some of the most oppressive and cruel regimes in human history – the best of human nature versus the worst; the most virtuous versus the most despicable – and I always ask myself one thing: what’s it like?

What’s it like to risk your dignity, freedom, and life? What’s it like to stand up against such insurmountable odds,  often alone? Most importantly, what would I do in their position?

Would I be brave enough to face down the most dangerous and vile elements of the human race?

Would I practice what I preach – in terms of liberty, human rights, political freedom – if these things were illegal and doing so could lead to horrible consequences?

Would I maintain my optimism and faith in humanity?

Do I have it in me to stand by my morals and beliefs?

Thanks to people like Liu Xiaobo, I’ll probably never know – I’ll never have to face such dilemmas.

Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann at the podium, reading "I Have No Enemies" during the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, in which Xiaobo was the recipient. His absence is symbolized by an empty chair on the stage

Religion and Morality I

Too many people base their morality on shallow and ultimately unsound reasons: a fear of hell, a desire to get into heaven, and parochial obedience to God. They do not represent true goodness. Good and ethical conduct should stem from empathy, compassion, and rational sincerity – it should be done for it’s own sake, not out of primal instincts such as fear, self-preservation, or obedience to a higher power.

But alas, that is where many theists, particularly of the Abrahamic religions,  seem to ultimately derive their moral compass.  It’s all rather clear cut – if you don’t do what God says or approves of, you go to hell; if you follow what is “right” as commanded by God (or interpreted by you, your choice, or the Bible) than you earn the reward of heaven. It’s basically a celestial stick and carrot, and is akin to the sort of moralizing paternalism that guides the actions of children (who are self-evidently lacking in reason and are in their formative years of ethical and moral development).

Of course, this isn’t to say that all theists prescribe to such a disturbingly selfish notion of morality. On the contrary, I’m fortunate that most of the religious people I’ve encountered are far removed from such a basis in conduct, if only because they’re also far removed from the dogmatic and fundamentalist notions of God that justify it. Most Christians, particularly in my younger demographic, seem to take a more liberal view of God, one which downplays the concepts of heaven and hell.

Nevertheless, there are many theists that do ground their actions in this perverse notion of morality, with disquieting implications for society. What does it say about our race when so many of us feel a need to be intimidated into doing good things? Why do we need God to determine what is right and just? And why should heaven be an incentive? Why have an incentive at all? Ultimately, my concern is that people raised under such notions will ultimately fail in developing a true  ethical and moral foundation. Instead of learning the value of doing good things for their own sake, or out of a more tangible sense of empathy, they’ll come to see good deeds as nothing more than a way to make God happy and ensure their place in eternal happiness. Does that sound like a sincere basis for goodness? Is bribing or threatening you to do a good thing make it genuine on your part?

What I find even more disturbing is how many theists seem perfectly content with all this. They see no problem with basing their morality on these “incentives” and in fact see it as simply the way things are (which I interpret as a euphemism for having personal reservations about something but ultimately getting over it because, well, that’s just what God intended, so end of story). I’m reminded of the story of Abraham, and how the patriarch of the great monotheistic faiths was willing to murder his own son just because God commanded it. Obviously, we all know that God had no intention of letting Abraham kill his son – it all just a test of his faith. But he certainly didn’t know this. Despite his reservations, Abraham was going to go through with this disturbing act, believing full well that it was the right thing to do because God said so.

So what does this say about the nature of morality in Christianity and the other “Abrahamic” faiths? Is it just what God decides? What if God were to hypothetically command a follower to go on a killing spree? Would he or she do it, since God is the source and final authority on such things? Christians retort that God would never do such a thing, and that his very existence embodies what is good and right. But that misses the point: what if they were placed in Abraham’s place, not knowing it were a test? What would they do then?

There is more I wanted to write on this subject, and I was hoping move the topic along to  Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro dilemma. But I think I’ll leave that for another post, as it is getting late. I look forward to any replies, particularly from theists.

A Turning Point in Libya – and the UN?

As of a few days ago, the situation in Libya was starting to seem hopeless. The uprising appeared to be losing it’s momentum ,as Qaddafi’s forces successfully held back the rebel’s efforts to dislodge the bloodthirsty dictator; they even began taking back cities that had fallen under the control of the “Libyan Republic,” also known as the Interim Transitional National Council. Several cities were facing protracted and confusing conflicts, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to determine who was winning where, and what exactly was going on.

Furthermore, as the recent events in Japan shifted the world’s attention away from the Arab uprisings, it seemed the wily Libyan autocrat (and for that matter his Bahraini counterparts) would exploit the opportunity to crush the rebels once and for all. Sitting on billions of dollars of cash, and hunkered down in his fortified headquarters,  Qaddafi had the means to keep the fight going for as long as it’d take. However tenacious and courageous the rebels may be, they would be no match for his resources, especially given his willingness to massacre entire towns in order to pacify them.

All the while, the world was contemplating the typical questions that arise in the face of such a crisis: what do we do? What should we do, if anything? How would we do it? I saw my fair share of diverse perspectives. In the non-interventionist camp was all or some of the following: that this was an internal matter, best left for the Libyans to resolve; that intervention would deligitimize their grassroots efforts; that the US should not, by principle, play the role of global police; and that any involvement would risk civilian lives and muddle us in yet another controversial and expensive Mideast quagmire.

On the other hand, many argued that the international community had an obligation to intervene, due to humanitarian concerns. Qaddafi was brutalizing his own people with mercenaries and his personal security force; the Libyan rebels began their efforts peacefully, and were only fighting to protect themselves and remove their murderous tyrant after four decades of abuse. Most interesting was the argument that the Western powers, after coddling other autocratic regimes in the region, and failing to take a meaningful stand during the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, had to atone and do what was right to help the people.

Then there was the argument concerning how to get involved. Almost no one wanted foreign boots on the ground. Rather, the prevailing idea was the enforcement of a no-fly zone, by which foreign air forces would prevent Qaddafi’s planes and gunships from attacking civilians, while also neutralizing his air defenses. This would essentially be “intervention lite” – supporting the rebels and making their efforts easier, while not taking a central role. A similar idea called for arming the rebels directly, though that didn’t seem to get much stock.

Of course, this strategy has it’s own flaws and criticism, and it’s effectiveness is debated. It’s previous uses – during the Bosnian War and in Iraq to protect the Kurds from Saddam during the 1990s – were mixed at best in terms of effectiveness. Many have pointed out that most of the fighting in Libya is occurring between ground forces, and relying on aerial assaults would be incomplete and ineffective in a largely urban conflict. Indeed, while many Libyans – and indeed Arabs throughout the region – had specifically asked for a no-fly zone, a good number also seemed uncertain or downright opposed to the idea.

In any case, all this debate seemed ultimately trivial – every humanitarian crisis spurs analysis, deliberation, and all sorts of journalistic and academic commentary. But rarely does any of it amount to any sort of meaningful policy or action. The powers that be, as well as most of their constituents, fail to seriously take action. There is a long and historic precedence for this, from Rwanda and Somalia, to the situation in Darfur.

Thankfully, this time was different.

The International Community Takes a Stand

In any unusually bold move, the United Nations Security Council approved of a resolution on March 18th calling for the enforcement of a no-fly zone and mandating that international military forces could defend embattled civilians by force (albeit only through aerial and naval means). None of the 15 members voted against the measure, although a few abstained (unsurprisingly Russia and China were among those not to support the measure, though they were widely expected to outright veto the measure rather than back down). It’s always been difficult to get international consensus on anything, let alone something as touchy as foreign intervention. This made the UN’s prompt and practically unanimous decision all the more surprising, especially considering it’s track record. While I obviously would’ve preferred such action to have been taken some weeks ago, I’m still quite pleased that it happened at all.

Following this declaration, several western powers – the US, UK, France, and Canada – commenced with their respective military operations (Operation Odyssey Dawn, Operation Ellamy, Operation Harmattan, and Operation MOBILE). France in particular has been taking a leading role in the crisis; not only was it the first to recognize the Libyan Republic as the legitimate government of the people, but it was among the first to initiate military operations and – as of my writing –  the first to take down several of Qaddafi’s forces. Nearly a dozen other mostly European countries are either directly contributing or otherwise lending their support, with several others expression their intentions to do so.

The effectiveness of all this is still too soon to determine. It’s been verified that several of Qaddafi’s assaults have been held back or thwarted, and so far there are no confirmed civilian deaths (which was a major concern).  Just recently, it was a reported that one of the dictator’s command centers was destroyed, though he remained defiant and continued to claim that he would “fight to the death.” In fact, his forces remain in control of a town near the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, despite supposedly declaring a ceasefire following the passage of the resolution. It looks like the multinational force will be in it for the long-haul, which raises concerns as to the long-term objectives of this conflict. Will Qaddafi concede defeat, or will international forces wind down in response to a protracted conflict? What comes after his fall? What do the foreign powers do then – guide the rebels and help build a new government, or back off and let them take it from there?

My Personal Take on the Subject

I’ve been musing about all these questions myself. As an international relations major, conflict – particularly with respect to humanitarian intervention – is a central topic of concern. There are all sorts of ethical and practical concerns to keep in mind, an no decision, policy, or solution is perfect or entirely acceptable.

Personally, I support intervention in Libya and currently support actions being undertaken by the UN-mandated task force. In my opinion, international involvement is warranted in the face of overwhelming human rights abuses. I understand that in practice, this is a very difficult endeavor: there are dozens of countries in which human rights are regularly abused, and to be involved in all of them militarily would be a costly and unfeasible affair. In an ideal world, we’d have the willingness to apply all of our well-equipped and idle troops to humanitarian missions. But in reality, such commitments are generally beyond what both politicians and the public would find acceptable (hence the emphasis on seeking – or creating – “strategic” or “national security” interests whenever such calls for intervention arises).

But with all that said, Libya’s situation merited particular attention: it began as a peaceful protest and escalated into a war due to Qaddafi’s own viscous predations.  After four decades of human rights abuses, as well as a long history of exporting his brutality, Qaddafi deserves to be taken out, especially now that he is weaker than ever. In any case, our level of involvement is rather small in terms of costs and risks. Supporting these courageous rebels is the least we can do given our own indifference towards – and at times tacit approval of – autocrats in the region.

In response to concerns about long-term prospects, I personally  believe that once Qaddafi is dislodged – which I think is very likely if we keep the fight going – we should leave it to the would-be rebel government to take the reigns of it’s own destiny. Libyan society is very divided, and the rebels include a slew of diverse ideological persuasions. But ultimately, they all agree that the status quo is unacceptable, suggesting that any replacement of Qaddafi is unlikely to be as autocratic and genocidal. In any case, that’s for the Libyans themselves to sort out. As with most things, I’m taking a balanced approach:  we should help the rebels insofar as we facilitate their victory and protect them from the inevitable massacre that would follow Qaddafi’s victory. But following such a victory, it’s up to Libyans themselves to take charge, with the US and other powers at best providing technical, diplomatic, and economic assistance to facilitate their transition.

Of course, I have no delusions about the nature of this intervention. I know there are cold and hard strategic reasons for international involvement; Libya’s conflict was contributing to a spike in the price of oil, for example. I also know that such a no-fly zone is no guarantee of anything, and could very well fail, perhaps taking innocent civilians down with it (collateral damage is a sad fact of any conflict, especially when it involves the use of missiles and planes in an urban setting full of irregulars).

But I also know that no human action is one-sided. I doubt all the diplomats and leaders behind this operation were in it strictly for strategic or economic reasons. I’m sure many of them followed the same logic we all do: balancing self-interest and self-preservation with altruism and sincere ethical conduct. No action is entirely self-less, but few are entirely selfish either.

Which leads me to my next subtopic.

A Watershed for the UN and  for Humanitarian Involvement?

The actions of the UN and the international community are almost unprecedented by the rather low standards of humanitarian intervention. None of my sources, much less myself,  saw this resolution coming. Even fewer believed the war averse Europe and war weary America would actually contribute as much as they have to the effort. I’m very tempted to get romantic and excited about the prospects of this becoming the first of many such resolutions calling for international contributions to defending human rights.

Alas, I must always balance my idealism with my realism. For the most part, I’m cautiously optimistic. As I noted earlier, geostrategic interests with respect to the oil supply certainly had a part to play. But I also think that the world has seen the signs: the Arab world is slowly but surely challenging the status quo of autocracy and disenfranchisement, and the powers that be don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. In a globalized and increasingly interconnected world, we can no longer afford to ignore the crises in nations halfway around the world. As other countries rise in military, economic, and political power, I expect to see the emergence of more multinational efforts such as this one.

Then again, the fact that the major developing powers – Brazil, India, and China – failed to back this resolution, bodes ill for the notion of a multi-polar world.  So has the UN’s failure in other parts of the world, where only mostly poorer nations have shown an interest in getting involved in Peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and other such endeavors.  Ultimately, all we can do is wait and see: as protests continue in Yemen, Bahrain, and now Syria, the UN and it’s major contributers will be challenged to act if things escalate. Even if it fails to be as bold as it was with Libya, I can be pleased that something was done.

In a world rife with injustice and apathy, I’ll take what I can get in terms of humanitarian gains. I’ll hope for the best, just like millions of people do everyday.

The Events in Japan and the Epicurean Paradox

Epicurus and his paradox

This post might be a bit disjointed for some of my readers, as I’ll be combining my assessment of a current event with a philosophical question that I believe is contextually relevant. But I believe that many events in the world can and should be looked at not only analytically, but philosophically. Almost everything that happen to humanity, be it the work of man or of nature, bears some sort of ethical, existential,  or philosophical significance that must be taken into account and understood.

The tsunami that stuck the Northeast coast of Japan was brutal, which is to expected from an earthquake that has broken many records, including being the fourth strongest since 1900, and the strongest known one in Japanese history (needless to say, it is a good thing such a quake didn’t strike the mainland). As expected, the devastation has been immense.  Entire towns have literally been wiped out, and it is believed that upwards of ten thousand people may have been killed, and hundreds of thousands remain homeless and without basic amenities. Japan’s elderly population has borne much of the brunt of this catastrophe, as they make up most of the population of the rural areas that were affected.  They could not outrun the waves, and their age makes them particularly vulnerable to the injury and dearth of supplies that usually affect survivors of such disasters. Many of them are even recalling the horrors of the air raids in World War II.

Relating to that event, Japan’s prime minister has called it the most difficult time in Japan’s history since the end of that war, and various estimates of damages rage from $14.5 billion to over $100 billion, all at a time when the Japanese economy has been stagnating and the government struggling with public debt larger than the country’s collective GDP.  Needless to say, this crisis could very well affect Japan for years to come.

There has also been much attention focused on the fate of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which has been damaged by the tsunami and is experiencing a series of explosions as the authorities try to avert a meltdown. As typical of news reports following disasters, there are many unknowns and misconceptions muddling up the facts. From what I’ve gathered as of the time of this post, the chances of a nuclear meltdown is minimal, though the Japanese authorities admit that some of the individual reactors within the plant may have already experienced meltdowns.

There is also much concern about radioactive contamination, with levels of radiation higher in the surrounding Chiba prefecture being 10 times the normal limit. It is even higher than normal in Tokyo, 155 miles to the south,  not yet high enough level to cause any health problems there. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated in response to this “disaster within a disaster.” Many are viewing this development as a validation of the idea of weaning off of nuclear power, and closing down most of all plants.  Others, however, are taking a more apologetic view.

In any case, I feel that the Japanese, given their advanced technology and communitarian values, would be better suited to handle this situation than most other nations. Indeed, it so far seems that a lot more people would’ve died had it not been for it’s better preparedness and advanced early warning system. Japan’s long and tragic history of geological disasters has given it  a lot of experience with the matter.  I can only hope that it does indeed amount to something, given the unprecedented difficulty of this catastrophe.

But now I must shift to my second topic in this post. As with every major disaster that befalls humanity, an inevitable thought in most people’s minds is: what role, if any, did the divine play in all this? It’s typical, almost reflexive, for people to speak of praying for those affected, or asking God for mercy. Less benignly, many people will try to link such occurrences to an act of God, as punishment for some sort of mortal transgression perpetrated by either those affected, or by humanity as a whole. Of course, I understand that not all religious people think this way. In fact, I am fortunate for not personally knowing anyone who holds such a disturbing and demented notion, not least because of how utterly irrational it is: a loving, benevolent God striking down his own children as a lesson for their misbehavior? It’s wrong on too many levels to fit in this one post.

However, there is a different sort of response that many others, myself included, that these sort of events elicit: where exactly is God in all this? Why would he let this happen? What does he think about these tragedies? It’s something I’ve heard both theists and secularists ponder alike. It’s an age-old theodicy problem that nonetheless continues to haunt humanity to this day. How does the problem of evil fit with the notion of a transcendent, benevolent, and omnipotent God? I suppose my reflection is best summed up in a paraphrase of the Greek philosopher Epicurus’s riddle:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Another variation of this, also attributed to Epicurus, goes like this:

“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

For the sake of accuracy, note that this sort of trilemma was raised by many of the ancient Greek skeptics, and may have been falsely attributed specifically to Epicurus by Lactantius, an early Christian theologian. In any case, he has long been most associated with this statement, and many philosophers have since posed similar paradoxes, with many more trying to address it. I’ve read my fair share of counter-arguments and “solutions,” but none have thus far been satisfying. I would share them here myself, but I have little time to do so at the moment (I’ll likely update this post later, if anything).

So instead, I pose this question to you dear reader. Give me your take on this ancient theodicy problem.

The Ship of Theseus

I thought I would pause from making long posts in favor of presenting something more concise but hopefully no less thought provoking. In fact, I am considering interjecting brief philosophical questions in-between my longer notes concerning social and political issues;  I may even create a series of scenarios centered around a particular ethical theme.  Doing so will not only diversity my material, but allow me to update my blog without having to expend time and energy into essay-like submissions (let’s face it, do you guys really want to read several pages of my ramblings every other day!?)

Anyway, on to the topic in question.

The Ship of Theseus is a paradox which raises the following question: if an object has had all it’s component parts replaced, is it still fundamentally the same object? What if a ship, after a long period of gradual refurbishing, eventually had all it’s parts replaced? Would it still be the same ship? This topic is pertinent to the concept of identity – what constitutes self, and how do we truly define an object?

There are many similar concepts and variations to this paradox.

Heraclitus was famously quoted as saying that  “upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.” Basically, you never step in the same river twice, as it is always different water.

Thomas Hobbes put an interesting spin on  the ship scenario as well: what if all the planks from one ship were taken, after being replaced, and used to construct another? Which ship, if any, is the “original?

The question becomes more complicated when you consider the fact the average age of a cell in the human body is less than ten years That means that we come to replace our entire cell structure several times throughout our lives. We are cellularly and biologically completely different. This extends all the way down to the molecular and atomic level too – in around seven years, the human body completely replaces all the atoms that comprise us.

It’s strange to imagine how much we change and transform throughout our lives, without even remotely noticing (besides the typical growth that occurs prior to adulthood). Physically, we become completely new beings every few years, yet we’d never realize it. That’d be difficult enough to fathom without considering what all this means about who we are and who we perceive ourselves to be.

The Death of David Kato and the Plight of LGBT People in Africa

I recently read the obituary of David Kato, a Ugandan gay rights activist who was murdered last month by a petty criminal. Not only was Kato brave enough to fight on behalf of LGBT rights in a horribly homophobic country (for which American evangelicals deserve some credit cultivating); but he had the courage to be openly gay himself, despite the considerable risks to his comfort and safety. Indeed, like nearly all of Uganda’s homosexuals (which are believed to number in the hundreds of thousands) Kato faced much persecution, not only from the usual religious authorities and elements of Ugandan society, but even from the political, legal, and media establishment.

In one chilling incident, a Ugandan tabloid known as Rolling Stone (no connection to the US-based publication), went so far as to list the country’s “top” 100 homosexuals, topped off with a bright banner that read “Hang Them” (Kato was among those listed). Most Ugandan police officers are known to harass and even beat homosexuals, at best behaving indifferently about their safety.

In fact, the Ugandan legal code, mostly a holdover from the British colonial era, actually goes so far as criminalize “homosexual acts” with an average of 14 years in prison. As if that weren’t enough,  Ugandan politicians have actually been mulling over a “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” since 2009, which would penalize “serial” homosexuals with the death penalty, and “homosexual acts” with life imprisonment.  Anyone found “helping, counselling, or encouraging another person to engage in a homosexual act” would receive seven years in prison.  As of this month, the bill still remains in discussion in parliament, amid domestic and international outcries. The actual document is linked here.

Needless to say, it’s not easy being a homosexual in a country where every institution seems to be out to get you. Most LGBT people have it hard enough even in relatively tolerant societies, given that almost every country has elements within it that remain publicly opposed to “alternative” sexualities” (to say nothing of the intrinsic disconnect most non-heterosexuals feel from most of the people around them).  So I can’t even begin to imagine what it feels like to be gay in a society where homophobia is ubiquitous, and one must actually fear for his or life and safety. Homosexuals have to choose between the discomfort  of living a lie, ever fearful of being found out; or the even greater discomfort of being open and having to regularly face the omnipresent disgust, suspicion, and outright hatred.

Sadly, Uganda is hardly alone in it’s pervasive hostility to LGBT. Africa as a whole remains one of the most difficult places in the world to be homosexual, whether “in the closet” or out. At least 38 out of 53 African countries criminalize homosexuality in some way. Following Uganda’s debate on the it’s anti-gay bill, neighboring Rwanda and Burundi, also heavily Christianized, have been discussing their own legislation criminalizing homosexuality. Even South Africa, which has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world and allows gay marriages, has disturbingly prevalent incidents of “corrective rape.”

While many religious leaders and institutions have admirably stood against this growing wave of legally and religiously sanctioned homophobia, there is an obvious linkage between the proselytizing activities of Western Evangelical organizations and the entrenchment of homophobia in African society. In fact, the MP that sponsored the Ugandan bill, David Bahati, has ties to the American  conservative religious organization, The Family. Several religious workshops and conferences have been held in Uganda with the explicit aim of countering the “gay agenda” and teaching such things as “the gay movement is an evil institution’ whose goal is ‘to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity'” and how “to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys.”

One particularly noxious organization, known as Exodus International, officially aims to promote “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ”. Prominent American Evangelicals such as Steven Lively and Rick Warren have been credited with shaping public perception and even policy towards homosexuals in several countries. The situation is no better or different in predominately Muslim African nations as well.

As in all other civilizations, homosexuality has a long history in Africa, with evidence presumably going as far back as Ancient Egypt in 2400 BCE (Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum have been proposed to be the first recorded homosexual couple in history, though it is disputed). As I alluded to earlier, much of the entrenched negativity towards homosexuality originates in 18th century during European imperialism, in which British, French, and other colonial nations imposed legal codes intended to ban abnormal sexual behavior among local Africans. In addition the growth of Islam, and especially  Christianity as of late, has further reinforced negative perceptions towards gays, lesbians, and trans-gendered people.

Ironically, despite the fact that homophobia has a largely foreign origin, many Africans believe – and have been taught to believe – that homosexuality is a foreign import: un-Christian, un-Islamic, and un-African. Homosexuals are to Africans what Jews had long been to Medieval Europe: some sort of alien and dehumanizing force that is attributed to all the problems in a given society, in particular to moral decay and HIV/AIDS. Politicians are even known to channel the frustrations of their constituents onto homosexuals, blaming them for economic problems, crime, unemployment, and other ills. How homosexuals lead to such terrible things is never really explained or discussed in detail. Rather, it’s often treated as common knowledge, though for all intents and purposes it superstition.

Personally, I see this as an almost inevitable phase in Africa’s history. As with the Western world (and to a lesser degree other developed countries outside of it), African nations are enduring their coming of age with respect to facing the many ethical, social, and moral questions that all civilizations eventually do. African perceptions of homosexuals are often no different than that once held by European and North American societies, which have since endured their debates and culture wars and largely (though not entirely) gotten over the issue (at least to the degree of not sanctioning legal punishment for it).

Unfortunately, such social progression takes time, and it certainly took the West centuries to reach it’s point of tolerance, during which many lives were ruined and destroyed. It’s hard to suggest to the African LGBT community that they basically need to wait it out and do the best they can to counter the misinformation campaign. Interestingly, Africa remains a proxy for the greater culture war concerning homosexuality, with foreign organizations from both sides campaigning their respective views throughout the continent. It’s pretty much becoming the central battle ground LGBT rights.

But Africa is far from alone in it’s intolerance of homosexuals. Bigotry and social persecution of “abnormal” sexual orientation remains widespread throughout the world. LGBT individuals are perhaps among the most universally maligned, misunderstood, and hated demographics in human history. My only consolation is the thought that, like so many other once universally prevalent unethical positions (think slavery, the treatment of women, etc), such views towards homosexuals will be similarly marginalized. Sadly, like the examples I listed, this vice will never be completely eradicated. But we can only hope to eventually (mostly) leave behind this petty human obsession with something as ultimately harmless and personal as one’s sexual identity, and to continue our progress towards ethical and social attitudes that are founded on empathy, compassion, and reason.

The Defiant Optimist

The other day, someone asked me how I can be so optimistic and idealistic (I’ll humbly add naive at times too) in spite of all the terrible things I read and study about regularly. Indeed, it’s a question I get asked quite frequently, and it’s certainly not an unfair one. Conventional wisdom holds that the more someone knows, the more depressed they’re likely to be. Put another way, the more intelligent or informed you are, the more miserable you probably are too.

I’ll concede that there is some degree of truth to this axiom. There are indeed many unhappy and disquieting subjects out there, and one doesn’t even need to be especially scholarly in any way to be at least remotely aware of them. War, poverty, corruption, torture, genocide, injustice, disease,  and other miserable topics have been present throughout the entire span of our existence. Moreover, one can go even deeper and become intimately aware of  specific events and stories that are rife with examples of brutality, betrayal, dishonesty, immorality, and injustice, among many other unpleasant factors.

Thus, the idea of ignorance being bliss would seem a valid proposition. Obviously, the more we shelter ourselves from all this nastiness that pervades our existence, the better we’ll feel, comparatively speaking. After all, humans are naturally empathetic creatures – even the most hardened of us, barring any mental illness, will in some way be negatively affected by too much exposure to morbid and cynical issues (indeed, the hardhearted are often such because they’ve seen and known enough to become detached or even numb).

I myself have personally experienced periods of cynicism, misanthropy, and even long-term depression largely as a consequence of delving into these terrible facts of life. I’ve even had bouts of nihilism that admittedly still surface from time to time, albeit briefly. An underlying objective in one of my majors,  International Relations,  was understanding war and human conflict in general (in fact, the entire field was created mostly in response to the world wars, in an attempt to understand and prevent such things from happening again).  That naturally exposes us to the worst of human nature: our propensity for violence, bigotry, insecurity, greed, and power hunger.

Moreover, IR required us to learn about history and (obviously) the world as a whole. But human history is rife with war, tyranny, and moral degradation, which all tend stand out more than anything else; the world is full of countries beset by these same things and more. Working to make the world a peaceful place, or to provide humanitarian assistance to it’s populace, thus requires a deep and intimate understanding of some of the most disturbing elements of our existence. It seems like a perverse trade-off: if I want to help the world and combat what ails it, I must come to understand all the evils that contribute to human suffering. I must also develop empathy with the suffering, putting myself in the place of those who’ve experienced misery and pain on a level I could never remotely relate with – and would never want to.

In any case I’ve always been naturally drawn to these things. I chose to major in International Relations because I had an inclination towards learning about other countries, perspectives, and problems of the human condition. Perhaps I am just a morbid person deep down or something, who knows (why we are who are and why we do what we do merits a whole other discussion that I”ll save for another post).

But going back the question that started all this musing, I find the answer to be rather simple, if not intuitive: when one sees how much more horrible things are for many – if not most – people in the world, one comes to appreciate everything more. The rancid poverty and disease and oppression that befalls the bulk of the human race, as has been the case for our entire history, can be sickening to behold, but it makes for a macabre reminder for why I should count every blessing, not matter how small: a warm bed to sleep in, clean water to drink, electricity, even an indoor toilet – all these things are far more than what my average fellow human enjoys.

Furthermore, such a terrible realty can also be made to be a source of great inspiration. Among all that suffering there is always perseverance and progress. For all the evils of human nature that I am exposed to, there are also many admirable and enlightening traits, as people come together and harness their talent and sheer will to make it through the worst that life has to offer. I often find myself amazed at how some folks could pull through these unthinkable tragedies. I can’t help but wonder if I or others I know, in all our comfort, could ever muster such courage and fortitude in the face of such overwhelming and despairing obstacles.

Most importantly, I also realize that the world around us could crumble at any moment. With the future being so uncertain, and humanity beset by so many daunting struggles that challenge our very survival, we must make the most of every second we have on this Earth. Cherish the people, places, and things that we have and live life to the fullest. Obviously, I’m not suggesting we just ignore the world’s problems and live it up the best we can. We should always endeavor to do our part in fixing our society as best we can. But it wouldn’t hurt to stop wallowing in misery and realize just how good we have it.

Frankly, a part of my feels rather guilty for thinking this way. I feel wrong looking at the plight of poor and suffering people and subsequently deriving some sort of satisfaction with myself. It feels almost exploitive, but I can’t help it. The way I see it, I am making the most out of the negativity I am regularly exposed to. Rather than sulk or become miserable, I instead try to let it motivate me: to live a better life, make the most of what I have, and work to rectify the many problems society faces. Granted, such reasoning isn’t flawless, but it’s the most I can.

Besides, nothing was ever done without enthusiasm. No amount of misery, misanthropy, and cynicism is going to make my life – or the world as a whole – better. There’s no point in letting all this get to me when I have so much more to live for.