The Last Hero

Russian Veteran (James Hill)

The Last Hero, Gorky Park, Moscow, May 9, 2007. Credit: James Hill.

The Atlantic adapted Hill’s account of this shot (and others) from his new book, Somewhere Between War and Peace, which chronicles the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer’s work across the world.

Of the hundreds of Russian World War II veterans I have photographed, Yuri Stepanovich Zaguskin remains for me the most charming.

Members of the public traditionally give flowers to the veterans, in gratitude for their valor and sacrifice, and Zaguskin, resplendent in his naval officer’s uniform, had already collected a sizable bouquet by the time he entered the park. I asked him to stand in front of the white backdrop I had set up, and since I needed a minute to change my film, he asked if there was time for a smoke.

When I had reloaded the camera, he was still puffing away. I took just one frame before he noticed that I was pointing the camera at him, whereupon he stubbed out the cigarette and returned his attention to the shoot. I finished the whole film, but that first image, in which he was looking off, lost in his thoughts, was far richer than the others. It was not a naval officer in front of me but an old matinée idol, caught unawares on the set.

I cannot get enough of how much personality there is in this photo. I wager that this man has no doubt lived an interesting life, even beyond his highly decorated service during history’s largest conflict.

Africa Rising

When one thinks of Africa, prosperity and progress rarely come to mind. In the minds of most Westerners especially, the name conjures up chronic instability, strife, poverty, and (more so lately) disease. But the people of Africa — incredibly diverse and culturally rich — are nothing if not resilient, and they have endured these widespread (though often exaggerated) hardships with remarkable tenacity and perseverance.

The end result is a broadly improved outlook for this fast-growing continent’s future, whose vast potential already being realized, according to a special report by The Economist:

War, famine and dictators have become rarer. People still struggle to make ends meet, just as they do in China and India. They don’t always have enough to eat, they may lack education, they despair at daily injustices and some want to emigrate. But most Africans no longer fear a violent or premature end and can hope to see their children do well. That applies across much of the continent, including the sub-Saharan part, the main focus of this report.

African statistics are often unreliable, but broadly the numbers suggest that human development in sub-Saharan Africa has made huge leaps. Secondary-school enrollment grew by 48% between 2000 and 2008 after many states expanded their education programmes and scrapped school fees. Over the past decade malaria deaths in some of the worst-affected countries have declined by 30% and HIV infections by up to 74%. Life expectancy across Africa has increased by about 10% and child mortality rates in most countries have been falling steeply.

A booming economy has made a big difference. Over the past ten years real income per person has increased by more than 30%, whereas in the previous 20 years it shrank by nearly 10%. Africa is the world’s fastest-growing continent just now. Over the next decade its GDP is expected to rise by an average of 6% a year, not least thanks to foreign direct investment. FDI has gone from $15 billion in 2002 to $37 billion in 2006 and $46 billion in 2012.

Many goods and services that used to be scarce, including telephones, are now widely available. Africa has three mobile phones for every four people, the same as India. By 2017 nearly 30% of households are expected to have a television set, an almost fivefold increase over ten years. Nigeria produces more movies than America does. Film-makers, novelists, designers, musicians and artists thrive in a new climate of hope. Opinion polls show that almost two-thirds of Africans think this year will be better than last, double the European rate.

Indeed, while all eyes are (nonetheless justifiably) on China and India, Africa has clearly become another rising force in the global economy, especially as its population is far younger and faster-growing than most parts of the world (which, while currently problematic in light of strained resources, might bode well for the long-term if its potential is harnessed).

Of course, Africa is not a monolithic place by any stretch: on every level, from politics to culture, it is the most diverse geographic area on the planet, by some estimates more than the rest of the world combined. As such, it is not surprising that different countries or regions on the continent are going in varying directions, in equally varying degrees. But the overall trend seems encouraging, if the following maps are any indication:

Africa Rising

Africa Politics

In recognition of how many readers may be skeptical of such a rosy few of Africa’s prospects, The Economist had set out to verify these data with a physical tour of the continent, perhaps the longest ever undertaken by a journalist (at least by my recollection).

Inevitably, Africa’s rise is being hyped. Boosters proclaim an “African century” and talk of “the China of tomorrow” or “a new India”. Sceptics retort that Africa has seen false dawns before. They fear that foreign investors will exploit locals and that the continent will be “not lifted but looted”. They also worry that many officials are corrupt, and that those who are straight often lack expertise, putting them at a disadvantage in negotiations with investors.

So who is right? To find out, your correspondent traveled overland across the continent from Dakar to Cape Town (see map), taking in regional centres such as Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg as well as plenty of bush and desert. Each part of the trip focused on one of the big themes with which the continent is grappling—political violence, governance, economic development—as outlined in the articles that follow.

The journey covered some 15,800 miles (25,400km) on rivers, railways and roads, almost all of them paved and open for business. Not once was your correspondent asked for a bribe along the way, though a few drivers may have given small gratuities to policemen. The trip took 112 days, and on all but nine of them e-mail by smartphone was available. It was rarely dangerous or difficult. Borders were easily crossed and visas could be had for a few dollars on the spot or within a day in the nearest capital. By contrast, in 2001, when Paul Theroux researched his epic travel book, “Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town”, he was shot at, forced into detours and subjected to endless discomforts.

Doubtless, I will be keeping track of the coming articles based on this continental tour. I strongly welcome a more nuanced and firsthand account of Africa beyond the usual stereotypes of decay, underdevelopment, and misery. While we should not make light of the many humanitarian issues that still bedevil that region (among many others), nor get carried away into thinking that prosperity is destiny, it is vital to see that progress is possible and Africa is more than just its negative stereotypes.

Poppy Field

My thoughts and reflections related to Veterans Day, and on war in general, have not changed much since the last time I shared them. This year’s post will not be any less somber, however: as the one hundredth anniversary of the end of history’s first (but sadly not last) “Great War”, the commemorations are especially solemn and reflective.

To mark this grim centenary of the First World War, an independent project called Poppy Field was launched to visualize just how devastating this conflict was — a reminder we sadly never need enough of, given how many other horrific conflicts have transpired since the “war to end all wars”.

Using the opportunity to highlight the brutality and tragedy of war as a whole, the project moves beyond WWI to show every conflict that has every occurred in the 20th century onward, from the lesser-known civil conflicts of Colombia and the Philippines, to the present strife in Syria, Ukraine, and the Central African Republic (notice how most of these wars tend to occur within states rather than between them).

The infographic is as beautiful as it is informative, creatively displaying the length, fatality, and location of each recorded war through the use of stylized poppies (the flower became a symbol of commemoration because it was among the first plants to emerge from Europe’s devastated battlefields after WWI, with its blood-red color and resilient yet delicate nature evoking war).

screenshot-poppyfield.org 2014-11-11 13-00-35

There are several patterns to note here. As mentioned before, most wars have become “internal” in nature — usually fought between governments and rebels, among different ethnic or religious groups, or between breakaway regions and a central power; tellingly, these types of conflicts are especially common in post-colonial Africa and Asia, a legacy of ancient grievances combined with the arbitrary borders that ignored such histories and diversities imposed by European powers.

It also seems that wars have become more frequent since the mid-20th century, although comparatively less deadly than the two great wars that dominated the earlier half (and that for most people serve as a common point of comparison, despite their anomalous nature in terms of scale). Modern wars also appear to last much longer, often drawing out into what are known as “low intensity” or “fourth-generation ” conflicts, in which the lines are blurred between civilians and combatants, and fighting is conducted in such a scope as to become normalized.

In any case, war’s every changing nature in terms of tactics and characteristics does little to change the awful human cost. Looking at these beautiful poppies and the data attached to each of them, it is easy to forget that they represents millions of full, individual lives snuffed out just this past 114 years alone. Especially from this physical and psychological distance.

A Worthy Lesson to Start Each Day With

While cleaning up my room, I stumbled upon this beautiful scroll; I think I had purchased it years ago from some Tibetan Buddhists that had visited my university. It seems like a great way to prime every day, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof, since it is an easy lesson to forget. I should hang it somewhere more visible.

A Portrait of Ebola Survivors

Amid all the fear, panic, and misinformation regarding the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it is easy to overlook the human element, especially insofar as the main victims have been abjectly poor and marginalized (from well before the disease emerged).

But thankfully one Pulitzer Price-winning photographer, James Moore, is determined to tell the stories of those who have endured one of the most horrific and deadly diseases. His highlights from a trip to Liberia, one of the epicenters of the outbreak, are featured at National Geographic here.

As you would imagine, each story is powerful and nuanced, combining the obvious joy of survival (and subsequent immunity to the disease) with lingering sorrow and uncertainty. They highlight the sheer randomness and cruelty of life, in the way some survived when others died despite not discernible difference in circumstance or changes between them. The following story I have excerpted especially stood out for me:

Like several other Ebola survivors, Lassana Jabeteh, 36, now works in the high-risk ward at the Doctors Without Borders Ebola Treatment Center in Paynesville. Jabeteh used to be a taxi driver; he thinks he caught Ebola while transporting a sick policeman who vomited in his car. Like many people who contract the virus, he was trying to help someone else with the disease, which Moore calls “one of the many cruelties of Ebola.”

Thankfully, Liberia at least seems to be recovering, although its equally impoverished and unfortunate neighbor Sierra Leone seems to be getting worse. It is remarkable what tremendous suffering these people (and so many more around the world) senseless endure. I am glad to be seeing a glimmer of hope in some of these resilient stories.

Map: Gay Rights Around The World

Gay rights have come a long way globally: it was only a little over fifty years ago that many developed countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, and the U.K., still had laws criminalizing homosexual acts (even if they were de facto overlooked). Sadly, humanity still has a long way to go, as shown in the following map from The Economist.

Gay Rights Around the World

I recommend reading the article from which I pulled this map, as it does a good job exploring the current state of gays rights around the world, and why anti-gay sentiments and laws remain so stubbornly prevalent in some parts of the world. As expected, the factors are multidimensional and complex:

An enemy within can be handy for all sorts of leaders, and often more or less any old enemy will do. Some leaders’ anti-gay language has a conspiratorial tone that feels borrowed from the anti-Semitic diatribes of another time: gay people are portrayed as in thrall to alien values and particularly dangerous to children. Recent developments in the West also create exotic targets against which divisive leaders can define themselves without taking on any particularly powerful enemy at home. Nigeria’s law would surely not have taken its current form had gay marriage not made such remarkable advances in Europe and America.

None of this would work if there were not deep wells of homophobia to draw on. Over 95 percent of Ugandans and Nigerians disapprove of homosexuality. Four-fifths of Russians say that they have no gay acquaintances (though many may be wrong to say so). Such numbers say little about the intensity of anti-gay feeling in each country. They are certainly not evidence of a clamour for legislative attacks on homosexuals; activists often point out that gay people in places like Nigeria were able to lead relatively untroubled, if intensely private, lives before they became political targets. But the feelings they represent offer an opportunity for politicians seeking a quick populist win.

Some argue that the colonial provenance of anti-gay laws, in Africa and elsewhere, shows that these feelings have little genuine cultural basis. Imperial British authorities were certainly not slow to impose such laws on the lands they occupied, and they were often imported directly from home; in several former British colonies such provisions are numbered 377 in the legal code, indicating their common source.

Such sentiments seem comparable to the historic basis of antisemitism in Europe: Jews were a convenient and sufficiently alien enemy on which to unload all sorts of blame and societal frustration. Pogroms targeting Jews (and other “foreign” populations like Romanies) were often directly instigated or facilitated by expedient political leaders seeking to vent public discontent towards another source. But as with antisemitism, there is more to anti-gay attitudes than opportunism mixed ignorance:

A more contemporary and pernicious Western influence is that of conservative American evangelists who export their anti-gay message to places where it may meet more receptive ears, along with money that makes it all the more attractive. In Uganda’s case, they appear directly to have influenced the drafting of legislation.

Whether domestic or imported, religion matters. A survey of 39 countries by the Pew Research Centre last year found a strong correlation between a country’s tolerance for homosexuality and its religiosity. African and Middle Eastern nations are the least tolerant; in several Muslim countries homosexuality is a capital crime. Russia, a relatively godless place, is an exception to the rule.

So, increasingly, is America, though in the opposite direction; it is more tolerant than its levels of religious belief would predict. The greatest exception along those lines is Brazil, where attitudes are broadly tolerant and, as in Argentina and parts of Mexico, gay marriage is now legal. Homophobic violence, though, remains a problem.

Thankfully, The Economist’s assessment ends on an encouraging note, one that I agree with:

In the end gay people in the developing world will probably win their rights as they did in the West. Civil-society organisations, enlightened political and judicial leadership, and the advance of the liberal idea that the state has no business regulating the harmless activities of adults will all play a role. Most powerful, though, is likely to be people’s discovery that they have perfectly decent gay friends, neighbours, even relatives. The most pernicious thing about institutionalised homophobia and legal repression is that they make this realisation so hard. Once the wall begins to crack, though, it can quickly come tumbling down.

It will no doubt take a lot of time, but I would like to think that like so many other human rights scourges, homophobia will come to an inevitable end, or at least be greatly minimized so as not to retain the broad support and acceptance that it does in many parts of the world. What are your thoughts?

Chart: Gender Equality Around the World

The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report determines disparities between men and women in areas like political empowerment, economic opportunity, health, and education. Scores are tallied between zero and one, with one signifying perfect equality (an impossible ranking thus far for even the most progressive countries, though thankfully no country ever ranks at zero). Here is a chart of some of the results courtesy of The Economist.

Out of 142 countries examined in 2014′s index, Iceland topped the list at 0.86, followed by the rest of the Scandinavian countries — Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden — taking the next four highest slots. This is perhaps not too surprising, given that these nations typically perform very well in just about every metric of human development, from poverty to social stability.

But plenty of developing countries have high gender equality as well; Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Rwanda each made it to the top ten despite being among the world’s poorest countries. This challenges the notion that economic and political development are the main factors bettering the lives of women (although such solutions certainly help of course).

Like most social and culture values, a lot of multidimensional influences are at work in determining the treatment and opportunity accorded towards women. Thankfully, many countries seem to be improving in this and other metrics of human development, but we still have a long way to go. What are your thoughts?

 

Giving to Charity Intelligently

There are so many causes worth supporting, and no shortage of charitable organizations to choose from to address them. But since money tends to be short and there are only so many groups to give to, it is important to know where you get the most bang for your buck.

If anyone needs help determining which charities they should support, check out CharityNavigator.com, which was founded to help improve the efficiency of charitable giving. To that end, it evaluates philanthropic organizations based on a range of criteria, such as financial efficiency, accountability, and transparency. It also provides a detailed profile on every nonprofit, including how much goes to overhead versus the cause, how much CEOs are paid, where donations come from, and the like.

Moreover, you can compare charities within particular fields (education, animal welfare, etc.), view a top ten list of the best (and worst) charities, see which organizations needs the most help (and which do not), and learn about the most recent trends and developments in the world of humanitarianism (for example, which organizations are involved in fighting Ebola in West Africa). You can even find vital tips on how to donate most effectively

Fortunately, my research suggests that Charity Navigator — which is also a nonprofit that could use some donations — is an independent and trustworthy source; crucially, it does not except donations or advertisement from any group it evaluates, and all of its own financials are public record and available on its website. Of course, you are free to leave any feedback regarding this or other charity watchers, so that we can all do a better job of doing good in the world.

The Haunting Paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński

This Halloween, I want to highlight the creepy and captivating works of Polish painter, photographer, and sculptor Zdzisław Beksiński (24 February 1929 – 21 February 2005). Describing his style as ‘Baroque’ or ‘Gothic’, the first and most well-known period of his work — from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s — consisted largely of surreal, post-apocalyptic environments and/or very detailed scenes of death, decay, and deformity.

Beksiński stated, “I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams”, and was known for his meticulous attention to detail. He claimed music, namely the classical genre, was his main source of inspiration, and that he was not influenced by literature, film, or other artists.

Despite the grimness of his work, he saw them as humorous and even optimistic, though he also noted that even he did not know their meaning. In fact, he was uninterested in possible interpretations and subsequently refused to provide titles for any of his drawings or paintings, going so far to often avoid the openings of his own exhibitions.

Although shy and low-key, Beksiński was known to be a pleasant and gregarious person with a great sense of humor and keen love of conversation.

The Greatest Threat to the World?

There seems to be no shortage of candidates for greatest threat to the world (by which we usually mean humanity specifically) — climate change, world war, nuclear weapons, a pandemic, an asteroid, or maybe even a combination of these factors. As it turns out, however, where you live determines what you consider to be most dangerous to the rest of the world.

That is the conclusion of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, which asked 48,643 respondents in 44 countries what is the greatest danger to the global community (note, this took place before the breakout of Ebola but after events like the Syrian Civil War and the showdown between the West and Russia over Ukraine).

As Mic.com reports:

In the United States and Europe, income inequality came out on top. In the Middle East, religious and ethnic was considered the biggest threat. While Asia listed pollution and the environment, Latin America cited nuclear weapons, and Africa chose AIDS and other diseases.

Unsurprisingly, the concerns fell largely within geographic and regional boundaries. The United States and Europe are home to some of the largest and most advanced economies in the world, so it’s somewhat expected — if ironic — that they’re worried about income inequality. Asia is home to 17 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, and, as of 2012, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 70% of the world’s AIDS cases.

In other words, all of us appear to have an exceptionally narrow view of the world: We see the biggest threats to our region as the biggest threats to everyone else, too.

Here is a visual representation of that data, also courtesy of Mic.com:

Moreover, the perception that religious and ethnic hatred poses the greatest threat to the world has seen the most growth over the past seven years, no doubt due to numerous high-profile sectarian conflicts across the planet.

Courtesy of The Atlantic is a color-coded map of the world that better shows how these great threats are geographically and culturally spread out:

A few other observations of the data from The Atlantic piece:

  • Other than Japan, the countries that saw nuclear weapons as their biggest danger included Russia (29 percent), Ukraine (36 percent), Brazil (28 percent), and Turkey (34 percent).
  •  The U.K.’s greatest concern was religious and ethnic hatred (39 percent), putting it in the same group as India (25 percent), Israel (30 percent), the Palestinian territories (40 percent), Lebanon (58 percent), and Malaysia (32 percent).
  • People in France were equally divided on what they consider the biggest threat, with 32 percent saying inequality and the same percentage saying religious and ethnic hatred.
  • Likewise in Mexico, nuclear weapons and pollution were tied as most menacing, at 26 percent.

It is also important to point out that in many cases, no single fear was dominant: in the U.S. for example, inequality edged over religious and ethnic hatred and nuclear weapons by only a few points. And in almost every region, anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of respondents expressed fear towards nuclear weapons (which I feel can be taken to mean war among states where the use of nukes is most likely). The survey observed that in many places, “there is no clear consensus” as to what constitutes the greatest danger to humanity, as this graph of all countries shows:

These results are very telling: as the earlier excerpt noted, you can learn a lot about a country’s circumstances based on what its people fear the most. Reading backwards from the results, it makes sense that what nations find the most threatening is what they have been most imperiled by presently or historically.

It is also interesting to note how societies, like individuals, view the world through their own experiential prism: because we are obviously most impacted and familiar with what immediately effects us, it makes sense that we would project those experiences beyond our vicinity. Just as our own individual beliefs — be they religious, political, social, etc. — are colored by personal life experiences, so too do entire nations often apply their most familiar concerns and struggles to the world at large.

Of course, this varies by country as well as by the respondents who represent said country; in many cases, participants are more likely come from higher educational and socioeconomic backgrounds, and thus reflect their class views rather than that of their wider society. (Admittedly, I am not sure if that applies to this particular Pew survey, as the respondents were interviewed by phone or face-to-face, with no indication as to their background.)

For my part, I personally put the most weight behind climate change, especially as it can exacerbate a lot of existing issues over the long-term (clashes among ethnic/religious groups over strained resources, refugees fleeing crop failures and placing strain upon host countries, etc.). What are your thoughts and opinions regarding the world’s greatest threat?