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.

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?

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 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?

An Ottoman Map of North America

As long-time readers know, I love maps, especially the vintage kind. There is something aesthetically pleasing about them, especially when the reflect an interesting snapshot of what their makers (and thus society at large) knew about the world at the time.

Courtesy of Slate is an interesting map that shows our part of the world from a perspective that is rarely given much acknowledgement: the once mighty Ottoman Empire, formerly at the center of global affairs, with dominance over major swathes of three continents.

'The Country of the English People' ('İngliz Cumhurunun Ülkesi'), an 1803 map of the U.S. by the Ottoman Empire. Various Native American tribes are also identified

“The Country of the English People” (‘İngliz Cumhurunun Ülkesi’), which depicts the United States in 1803. Neighboring Native American nations and tribes are also identified. Click to view a large, zoomable version.

As the Slate article points out, the Arabic-inspired script used for Turkish at the time works particularly well on maps, because it allows cartographers to label wide regions by elongating the lines connecting individual letters. I can definitely concur, especially given the artistry and aesthetic beauty of Arabic and Islamic calligraphy.

At the time this map was drawn, the Ottoman Empire was already well on its way to becoming the “sick man of Europe“, shrinking precipitously in territory and influence since its peak during the late 16th century. It was declining just as the U.S. was beginning to rise, though the Eternal State would endure for over another century before expiring after six centuries of existence.

Slate offers some more interesting historical background:

This appears to be the first Ottoman map of the United States, but Ottoman maps of North America have a much longer history. The first were the 16th-century nautical charts of the famous Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis. Some of the last, drawn before the new Turkish Republic switched to Latin script in 1928, show air routes spanning the continental U.S.

American relations with the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century were either commercial or missionary. American missionaries to the empire first tried to win Christian converts. But after meeting with little success, they turned to creating schools to spread the much more popular American gospel of English fluency and engineering excellence.

At times, the mercantile and missionary impulses came into conflict, such as when Greek Christians rebelled against the Ottoman sultan. Many Americans felt their government had a moral duty to stand with co-religionists against a Muslim despot. The U.S. government, however, felt a more pressing duty to stand with its merchants and sea captains, who’d been doing brisk business with the sultan. Supposedly, it was in recognition of U.S. support of the establishment that the empire later sided with the Union during America’s own civil war.

In addition to its scholarly significance, for sheer aesthetic reasons, I would love to have a map like this my room or study.

Congolese Gynecologist Wins Sakharov Prize

According to NPR, Dr. Denis Mukwege, a gynecological surgeon from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has won the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, in recognition of his work treating thousands of rape victims in his country.

I admit to having never heard of this amazing man prior to seeing this reported in Wikipedia’s news page today. Of course, that is not surprising given the humility that is often characteristic of these unsung heroes (not to mention the woeful lack of attention to the causes they serve).

As The New York Times reports:

Dr. Mukwege is known for his work in one of the most traumatized places in the world. In the hills above Bukavu, where for years there was little electricity or anesthetic, Dr. Mukwege has performed surgery on countless women, some a few steps away from death, who have reached his hospital.

At the same time, he has campaigned relentlessly to shine a spotlight on the plight of Congolese women, even after an assassination attempt two years ago.

“It’s not a women question; it’s a humanity question, and men have to take responsibility to end it,” Dr. Mukwege said in an interview last year. “It’s not an Africa problem. In Bosnia, Syria, Liberia, Colombia, you have the same thing.”

A winner of over a dozen other humanitarian awards, and long considered a potential candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, the 69-year-old Dr. Mukwege has dedicated his entire life to delivering these desperately needed services. The third of nine children, he pursued medicine in a desire to heal the many people that his minister father would pray for, working at first in a local rural hospital.

During his time there, he witnessed many women endure painful and often fatal complications from childbirth, due largely to the lack of qualified specialists. This inspired him to pursue the study of gynecology in France, which would come to be applied for another purpose: treating the horrific consequences of gang-rape that has been rampant in many parts of war-torn Congo for decades.

Dr. Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in his native town of Bukavu in 1999, just one year after the start of the Second Congo War, Africa’s deadliest conflict, and one in which the incidence of gang rape was systemic. Located near the heart of the conflict zone, the hospital was strained by increased demand for both general medical services and gynecological surgery; Dr. Mukwege remains the facility’s only gynecologist, and one of only two doctors in all of eastern Congo specializing in reconstructive surgery.

Over the past 16 years, the hospital has treated over 30,000 women, many of them repeat visitors; many patients arrive right after being gang-raped, “sometimes naked, usually bleeding and leaking urine and faeces from torn vaginas” according to Dr. Mukwege’s own horrific testimony. Due to the still-high demand for his service, he often performs up to 10 surgeries a day during his 18-hour shifts (though the war ended in 2003, lingering and related conflicts continue).

His diligent and desperately needed work would be more than enough, but he has also used his firsthand experience to bring attention to this crisis and call for an end to the rampant rape that persists, often to dehumanize victims and traumatize families. According to the BBC, he saw the award as an opportunity to show rape survivors that “they are not alone”.

That in itself is a valuable aim, but hopefully this prize will also bring attention to Panzi Hospital’s need for donations: initially built for 120 beds, it as now squeezed in 350, out of which more than half are devoted to survivors of sexual violence. With an average of 410 patients per month, the hospital is currently running at maximum capacity and lacks staff, supplies, and resources.

While Dr. Mukwege’s $63,600 prize money will go a long way, we should consider donating to the Panzi Foundation and the good work it has done to help restore thousands of lives — and hopefully many more that are needed until this scourge of violence  and terror is finally done with.

The doctor collects his well-deserved prize.

 

 

On Good Weather and the Good Life

I am taking a brief break from my usual (as of late) posts on economics, politics, and global affairs, to share a fairly unexpected life-affirming experience.

The other morning, I awoke gorgeously temperate weather, that rare perfect combination of cool breezes, clear skies, and bright sun. It was the perfect way to start a workday, especially as I had slept poorly the night before, and had to look forward to a grinding commute on the way to my increasingly busy job.

It reminded me of how important it is to be mindful of even the smallest pleasantries in our daily lives. Of all the things that help mitigate my anxiety and depression, I find that it is often the most seemingly mundane that help –comforts that I take for granted but am extremely fortunate to enjoy — companionship (on and offline), a warm bed, relaxing music, hot tea, good books, well enough mental and physical health.

This is hardly a new revelation, for either myself or most of those reading (heck, the Ancient Greeks, among others, made similar observations). But it is nonetheless easy to lose sight of without conscious effort, especially during the over-stimulating hustle and bustle of modern life. I need to make a habit of pausing whatever is bringing me down at the moment, whenever possible, and just think of the bigger picture.

I hope everyone reading this is having a fantastic day.