My Belated Memorial Day Reflections

The silence spreads. I talk and must talk. So I speak to him and say to him: “Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony — forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother, just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up — take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”
-Protagonist Paul Bäumer, in WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front

I hope everyone had a good and safe Memorial Day. Most importantly, I hope everyone was able to reflect, even mildly, on the purpose and history of this commemoration.

War is such a terrifying thing. That sounds like such an obvious statement, but we tend to expression such a sentiment in a perfunctory fashion, rarely giving it deeper thought or – more difficultly for most people – putting ourselves in the position of it’s combatants and victims.. The entire idea of war, especially in our largely peaceful society, is fortunately quite beyond us.

As a soldier you’ve effectively signed up to become a living weapon, an instrument to both political elites and the public. You’re relied upon to protect the people, as well as serve the interests of a narrow political and economic class. Minus a few exceptional cases, you’re forced to kill strangers who you otherwise wouldn’t have had to until you (and them) were commanded to do so.

In a world where comfort and self-interest is as exalted as ever, the soldier has volunteered to put all that aside in the name of a society that dares not put itself in his or her position.How many people in our generation would dare make such a sacrifice – and I mean seriously so, not just hypothetically – if it were asked of them? We don’t even realize that most of our generation is living in one of the most peaceful eras in our long and bloody history (despite what confirmation bias and the ubiquitous media may suggest, there is far less conflict out there than we imagine, especially in terms of length and prevalence).  For most human,  war and violence were an intractable part of reality.  In the grand scheme of it all, we represent an abnormal and very lucky minority of people who see and experience far less violence than any of our ancestors.

Granted, horrific conflicts continue to persist, worsening in some areas than ever before. I have no intention of downplaying the considerable amount of suffering that wars, past and present, continue to wreak on a significant proportion of the population (around 1.5 billion people are said to be regularly affected by war and conflict, according to some reports). But, believe it or not, their scale and scope don’t come close to what was once rather average. It goes to show what a long way we’ve come so that even today’s ghastly conflicts pale in their scope and incidence compared to those in the past.

I think what’s most disturbing about war is that no one ever seems to want it, yet it continues occur anyway.  Almost every side of every war claims to be against the idea, as if war was some third party that has manipulated us into fighting. Almost all countries maintain armies to protect themselves from one another, even though every nation claims only to seek it’s own defense (the threat of “irregular” military forces, such as terrorists and rebels, have changed up this formulation to give everyone some acceptable bogeyman as justification). Of course, we can never really trust anyone and everyone, and this is something even individuals can attest to. But I still find it to be a strange phenomenon.

Are we naturally warmongering? It is the same minority of psychopathic, self-interested, or just plain bad people that are ruining it for the rest of us peaceful folks? Is conflict a human imperative, an impulse that courses through each of us as naturally as living and breathing? Is war truly the result of misunderstanding and desperation or is it something that will continued to inexplicably burden us even as we “civilize” and develop? Humans are, after all, the only living things capable of war. In a cruel irony, some have made the argument that intelligence and higher brain functions actually breed and facilitate warring inclinations.  Only intelligent beings could construct the sort ideological, philosophical, political, and religious elements that predicate all conflicts. Only intelligent beings could have the wants and the desires to drive them to conflict with one another in order satiate their existential needs. Is war truly a human disease then, a result of a perverse coupling of our primal heritage with a higher perception of self?

The answer would seem to be unfolding before us within our lifetimes: as the world becomes more globalized and unified than ever before, war has indeed declined, and the question of whether interconnectedness could reduce – maybe even eradicate – wide-scale conflict becomes deliberated. The usual tensions and divisions remain, as do the means to shed more blood than ever. But conflict has largely abated, and the majority people, even those living in destitution and social instability, remains untouched by mass conflict and violence.

As we become more interdependent, communicate better, exchange more ideas and cultural perspectives, and rely on one another’s societies for economic prosperity and indeed survival, could war become a thing of the past, as much out of inconvenience as out of mutual understanding? Did not two of the most horrific wars in modern times, World War I and II, occur after periods of protectionism and isolationism that bred hatred, distrust, and nationalism? But then again, that begs the question: as the economic crisis  and the inequities of globalization threaten more rounds of  insularism, protectionist sentiments, and nationalism, are we teetering once more to wider scale war?Whatever the guess might be, let us shift away from speculation of the unknown future and take what we know from the past.

Thousands of American soldiers died where few others would dare, joining the millions more around the world and throughout history. These people rendered themselves statistics and nameless figures so that we can live in the comfortable times that we do. We have the luxury of enjoying Memorial Day for BBQs and relaxation because of their ultimate sacrifice. I myself spent the weekend just hanging around like it was any other three-day break. It goes to show what a long way we’ve come when wars and their horrific toll could be so easily relegated to the past.


A Rare Look at Human Progress

It’s painfully uncommon to receive any good news regarding the prospects of humanity and the future of the world. On the contrary, most of what crops out of media reports and scientific research seems to validate our increasingly intuitive pessimism concerning the profoundly troubling and unprecedentedly difficult times ahead of us. As an (albeit cautious) optimist, I cannot accept such a grim narrative so readily, not when the human race has come so far in terms of poverty alleviation, disease eradication, technological development, and other accomplishments that have made our lives – broadly speaking – better.

So I was quite pleased to find the work of another scientist who shares my inclination towards emphasizing the sadly understated achievements that humanity has made. Like me, Hans Rosling is someone who is well aware of the horrific misery and suffering that sill befalls most people in the world (indeed, unlike myself, he’s actually gained first hand experience through working in some of the most destitute and blighted parts of the world); but like me – and I hope many of you – he nonetheless can appreciate the immense progress that has been made in improving the human condition at a level never before achieved in our history. Best of all, he has scientific evidence, as opposed to woolly feel-good thinking, to prove it.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the world is best as it could be, or that we should be content and complacent with where currently are. Tremendous amounts of people are still living in terrible conditions, and this study doesn’t necessarily address how certain political, ideological, and religious factors also play a role in stagnating human development and well-being (although it’s interesting to note how many people living authoritarian, dogmatic, and otherwise “backward” parts of the world are still nonetheless living better than they did before, albeit relatively speaking and compared to a very low base).

The point of the study is to simply highlight something I’ve been at pains to convey to most of my (understandably) cautious peers: that in spite of all the vices, social ills, and existential threats that remain a great stain on our existence, we’re improving and developing at a rate and level that is as unprecedented as the problems we still face. Progress is not linear or unambiguous; we can stagnate in some ways and thrive in others. Ultimately, we have the potential to go both ways: to destroy ourselves and our planet, or to continue to grow and move forward. We’re at a point in time like no other with respect to prospects that can be disastrous or transcendently progressive. However grim the state of the world is, and could very well be (especially with respect to sustainability and the environment), we mustn’t ignore how far we’ve come.

To me, it not only reveals our potential for improvement, but most importantly it validates us as a species. Maybe we’re not so primal, primitive, and selfish as we believe. The more we improve the lot of ourselves, our fellow humans, and the world we live in, the more we can overcome the negative aspects of our nature that are so disproportionately focused upon.

The White Rose Movement

Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.

– Sophie Scholl, leader of the White Rose

They were known as the White Rose Movement, and they were the courageous yet often forgotten resistors of one of history’s most evil regimes: Nazi Germany. They were a collection of university students and their professor who were disgusted by the rise of fascism in Germany and the apparent complacency of their people. They were determined to sacrifice their lives in the name of justice and morality, and to do so nonviolently and intellectually. Continue reading

A Brief Comment on the Gay Marriage Debate

It’s remarkable how much time, money, and energy is wasted obsessing over the ultimately trivial “problem” of gay marriage. With all the daunting problems we face in this country, we’re spending millions of dollars and investing all our efforts in a vitriolic campaign to deprive a minority from a right that the government has no constitutional prerogative to take a moral position on.

Despite the public narrative, I don’t think this should even be a partisan issue , but a common sense one. Do conservatives, claiming a libertarian view of government, want the state to tell people who they can marry? Do they not value the concept of liberty as it applies to all citizens? Even if you disagree with gay marriage, surely you could agree that it’s not your place – or especially that of the government – to use legislation to further a mostly religious and personal agenda that shouldn’t concern the state. I’m against all sorts of things I find immoral or otherwise disagreeable, but we can’t expect government to go beyond it’s mandate of public safety to enforce our opinions on these matters (it’d be completely unfeasible to do so anyway, given the diversity of beliefs on all sorts of issues).

This entire debate is a textbook example of why most of our founding fathers supported republicanism as opposed to direct democracy. They rightly feared the “tyranny of the majority” and it’s proclivity to overwhelm or even work directly against minority groups that are otherwise entitled to the same representation. We’ve seen this abuse play out throughout history, in various laws that disenfranchised Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, Hispanics, immigrants, and other minority groups. Why does it matter if someone does something disagreeable, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone? Why does it matter if their beliefs personally conflict with your own, provided that they don’t impose them upon you or constrain your freedoms with them? It’s thus unsurprising, but very telling, how gay marriage opponents try to produce all sorts of dubious evidence for the harmful nature of homosexual relationships, claiming that somehow it’ll negatively impact society to point of requiring an explicit legal ban for the good of the public.

Even if this were true, which a considerable body of empirical and scientific evidence reveals otherwise, so what? Wouldn’t these self-styled conservatives prefer that government refrain from babying the population with laws and regulations meant to defend it from everything and anything perceived as a social ill? Aren’t they the ones that – in most cases, rightly – leave things up to the individual to worry about? Fast food, violent video games, too much internet and television, rock music – these are all things variously claimed to be detrimental to societal, familial, and psychological well-being. Should the government really get involved in restricting all of them? If not, than why should gay marriage be such an expensive and obsessed-over exception? Can’t heterosexual couples and parents fend for themselves against all the terrible ramifications of gays marrying? Do they really need the state to step in on their behalf?

To paraphrase one of my favorite axioms; a free society is defined by the rights granted  to it’s minorities and dissidents, not it’s conforming masses. Our republic was designed with all Americans in mind. I cannot understand how anyone could justify all the resources we’ve invested in this ugly, distracting, and constitutionally-dubious campaign. I can only hope that in the future, this inflamed culture war could be looked back on with the same bewilderment and shame that Jim Crow and other such endeavors are seen with today.

I have more to say on the matter, but as always time is short, so I’ll save it for another post. I’ll leave you with an interesting and poignant video that gets to the crux of my point.

The End Times: Humanity’s Obsession With Oblivion

The entire ruse concerning the end of the world that transpired yesterday doesn’t deserve nearly as much attention as it has been receiving, and I know I’m guilty of perpetuating it. But while the subject is topical, I figure I might as well touch on something that I’ve been dwelling on for quite some time: our morbid fascination with death and destruction.

I know I’m not helping things by mentioning it myself, but I quickly tired of all this talk about the world ending. I didn’t think this prediction would be any different than the thousands more before it – and the many more that will likely be made since.  Humans across every culture have always been morbidly obsessed with the end of the world. Plus, the 89 year-old that “predicted” this said the same thing would happen in 1994 – with “99.9% certainty.” But that didn’t stop people from giving any attention to it, as we always do (albeit this time, mostly out of amusement and curiosity).

For those who don’t know, I too share a fascination with these topics as well, running all the way back to my pre-adolescence. I can’t pinpoint exactly when, where, or why I’ve always been intrigued by human mortality and the psychology of death; all I know is that it’s always been a topic of great interest to me (and no, I have no history of suicidal ideation or anything).

Moving beyond my personal musings, I sincerely believe that these things attract the interest, amusement, and contemplation of most human beings across all of time, place, faith, and society. As much as most of us scoffed and made fun of all that silliness about the rapture, I think most people do at some point genuinely dwell about the end of the world, be religiously or secularly. Our brief existence leaves us naturally fascinated with the end of many things: lives, empires, narratives, eras, and the entire universe. Everything comes to an end at some point, and that has been an inevitable – and often sobering – conclusion since humans first became self-aware.

It is no wonder that the concept of infinity has always held so much power over us. Most belief systems hold to some sort of transcendent eternity outside of the world we know and perceive. Even people without an established religion maintain some sort of vague concept of an afterlife or a spiritual realm. It seems natural for us to want to imagine that all the things that seem to end actually don’t, or that their ending doesn’t matter because a greater story bigger than everything else continues on forever. For much of our history, we lived short, brutal, and scary lives (as many of us continue to do today), so for the sake psychological adaptation we held to the idea that there was more going on than we realized, and that in the end, no matter how horrible our existence, a much better fate was waiting for us.

But I’m digressing somewhat. There’s more to our fascination with death than merely trying to downplay it with concepts of a transcendent existence and such. I think our collective enthrallment is almost intrinsic. As far as we know for certain, we’re the only living things that are truly self-aware about our own mortality (I understand this is disputed, but I don’t recall there being anything conclusive about other creatures truly grasping their demise in the philosophical way that we do; if there is, please share it with me). Because of this, we’re constantly living out our existence exposed to the fact that it is indeed finite, that ultimately everything we know and love will come to end and disappear in all but memory (and even then, some memories eventually die off along with those that hold them). Death is mysterious, powerful, and unstoppable. To paraphrase Plato, death consumes everything. It’s no wonder that the end of things, which we come to expect as a given, absorbs us so much: as much as we all tuck away this reality into the back of our minds, we can’t help but contemplate on it’s inevitability, and wonder when, why, how, and where it will come.

I think I’m beginning to ramble on a bit. I suppose my overall point is simply that we’re inherently morbid creatures. As long as we in this finite existence, powerless to turn back the decline and decay that claims everything at some point, we will always have some sort of attraction towards death, whether in the profound and existential way in which we discuss and debate our purpose, our end, or the concept of eternity; or in the amusing, light-hearted, but still entrapping attention we give to things like 2012 or the prediction of an octogenarian prophet.

There was more I wanted to say on the subject, but I’m afraid my time and energy are short. Expect me to get back to this very soon.

Purpose Through Adversity

It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order – and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order.

-Douglas Hostadter

Would our lives have any meaning if we were immortal or death didn’t exist? Would we even know what life is without knowing death first? Would we appreciate love if we never knew loneliness or value security if we never knew fear? Everything is effectively defined—and given significance—through its opposite and counterpart. If it wasn’t for the horrors of war, we would never appreciate the importance of peace. Poverty needs wealth, freedom needs oppression, and light needs darkness. These things, which are all opposed, are also mutually dependent on each other. This is the paradox in which things that are conflicting are also inextricably tied to one another.

How do you explain death without life with which to compare it to? Is not darkness merely the absence of light and wealth the absence of poverty? Without their opposing force, these concepts and beliefs would be worthless, indefinable, and incomplete. Without this system of disparate forces, we wouldn’t innovate, change, invent, adapt, create…these things, all the beauty and advancements we’re responsible for, are all bred through—and because of—conflict.

Through adversity we survive. Without a challenge, we stagnate and decay.

Life (and human existence in general) is nothing but constant struggle, a struggle that we need in order to define ourselves and give us purpose. If we didn’t have conflict, what would we have? What would drive us and occupy our time? Does not every story and narrative—fiction and fact alike—have a central conflict of sorts? It’s not merely something so metaphysical and grant: it could be as simple as wanting to graduate, getting a promotion, or losing weight…it could be as cosmic as good versus evil, chaos versus order, destruction versus creation.

In poorer countries, the concern is survival, modernization, increasing wealth and prosperity, and so on. In wealthier countries, where such problems are largely solved or marginalized (discounting a minority of people), the concern becomes more philosophical. We strive to maintain the standard of living and comfort we’ve reached, and struggle to resist the wearing down of our prosperous, affluent way of life as time passes. We also begin to develop a more existential dimension to our purpose: we start questioning the purpose of our lives, going through existential crises, engaging in ultimately petty pursuits. Devoid of any real conflict, we engage in subconsciously fabricating them. Or perhaps they were just always there, for we always need some obstacle or challenge of some kind. Even if we reach utopia, we would find our paradise somehow flawed and troublesome in and of itself (boredom would likely be the issue)…ambition and perseverance, this desire to always strive for something and overcome something else, is as much a human trait as inquisitiveness.

Everything is in constant conflict with everything else. We live in a system—globally, naturally, and universally—that is in constant flux and change and chaos and disagreement. And it is this natural state of divergences and clashes that is so dynamic, so beautiful inspite of its absurdity.

Profiles of the Godless

Secular people are perhaps the most misunderstood, marginalized, and maligned demographic in the United States, if not most of the world. There are many pervasive myths and misconceptions about irreligious folks: that they are immoral and unethical; angst-ridden, depressed, and lonely; self-indulgent polemicists; and even mentally and emotionally unsound. As in most cases, these widely-held perceptions persists because of a simple lack of knowledge – most people just do not know much about the non-religious.

This misinformation, or lack thereof, is due to several factors: the very recent emergence of secular people and secular thought onto the public sphere;  a concerted effort by religious leaders to defame and – often literally – demonize the “Godless;” and mostly because there is simply very little dialogue or exchange of ideas between the faithless and faithful. While there are many articles, high-profile conferences, and TV specials raising religious and philosophical topics, I still get the impression that those engaged in these activities, either as the actors or the audience,  are in the minority. By and large, the majority of Americans – and indeed most humans – seem sincerely unaware of who the irreligious really are, what they believe, and why. I dare say they – and I should say we, given that I am secular as well – are practically dehumanized.

Thankfully, there are efforts to counter-act these entrenched misunderstandings. The Center For Inquiry, one of the few advocacy groups for secular interests and ideas, has published a very interesting and unprecedentedly detailed report on the non-religious: Profiles of the Godless. It sheds a lot of light on the specific demographic make-up of secularism, why the non-religious believe what they believe, and how they view themselves and the world. Though brief, I think it makes it’s point crisply and concisely, and at the very least opens the way for more studies and surveys.

As an agnostic, I’ve had to come to grips with many of the fallacies associated with myself and fellow secularists, and I’ve personally encountered some of the accusations I listed above. I want to be clear that the reason for my philosophical position is not to spite the religious, or be counter-cultural. It’s a sincere and genuine belief that I’ve reached after years of reflection, research, and soul-searching. There’s no telling what the future holds for me and my outlook on the universe, but I do know that I want to be understood and respected for as long as I adhere to these beliefs. My purpose in sharing this report, and my personal musings, is to dispel the thinly-veiled discrimination and outright condescension that we “Godless” people are often victims of.

I hope this will allow my religious friends to understand me and my co-secularists better, and allow my fellow irreligious associates to understand themselves and their often disjointed community. In the end, are not most of us aiming for the same goals at making a better life for ourselves and our children (if not our human race)? Are we not all driven by truth? Clearly, many people are sadly unmoved by either aim. But I’m quite certain anyone bothering to read up to this point is. And I hope it amounts to something.

The Empathic Civilization

Hello everyone. As per my habit lately, given my time constraints and a bit of writer’s block, I’ve decided to keep my post brief – by letting someone else do the talking.

This is part of a wonderful series by, which shares all sorts of informative videos on a number of  diverse topics:  society, technology, economics, progress, science, and so on. This particular video is by Jeremy Rifkin, an economist who focuses a lot on society and ethics.  The video in question validates a major underlying theme in my life philosophy: that empathy and interconnection is the foundation of human progress, and that it is only strengthening with time.

I hope you all enjoy. Expect me to share more videos like this, though I encourage you to check out the rest. They’re as thought-provoking as they are inspiring.

On Being Busy

Hello friends, I hope you’ve all been doing well.

Chances are, you’re all busy like I am. It seems everyone is busy nowadays. We’re all caught up with work, school, family, or an assortment of other miscellaneous activities that somehow manage to take up our time. Our free days, speaking for myself at least, are just there to allow us to play catch-up with what we couldn’t do before – assuming you’re not so burned out that you don’t sleep or vegetate the day away (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

My only solace in being so occupied is that almost everyone else I seem to know can relate. We’re all in this toiling together, hence why Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of communication have become so ubiquitous – they allow us to cling to our social lives and maintain a semblance of relationship with our loved ones. They also act as a substitute for the time consuming process of actually hanging out. I for one like social networking – up to a certain point – if only because it is so practical; like it or not, it’s  necessary evil – but that’s a topic for another day.

In any case, I’ve been musing about what all this business and overwork means for our generation, now and in the future. If you think about it, the overwhelming majority of humanity has always had to spend it’s life working to survive. As long as we live in a civilization, we must be expected to work. That is the cost of material success and security.

And that is why we need to do one of two things: either adapt to the realities of a life spent working and being busy, or find some way to live comfortably without having to work so hard. In other words, we either accept that being busy is worth whatever the benefits are, or decide to forgo the hard work, and thus the material benefits, and live a life of more time but less luxury. Of course, I’m over simplifying the discussion: after all, many people sadly have no choice – they must work to live and live to work. Furthermore, it all comes down to our values system: some people don’t mind being broke if it means more time for other things, while other people don’t mind being busy if it means they can afford certain things that make them happy.

I for one don’t see a problem with either option, as I often alternate based on what suits my mood. During the summer, I didn’t work as much, so it freed up time to read, catch up with friends, and such. Now, I’m busting my butt with work and school, both for my family and for the hope that it’ll pay off with a good career by the time I graduate.

Honestly, I don’t mind being so busy. Call me old-fashioned, but it makes me feel productive and accomplished. There is something admirable about applying your mind, body, and soul to something and being rewarded for it. Of course, I could just be romanticizing the whole notion of business just to adjust, but I genuinely don’t feel that way. It helps that my parents gave my siblings and I so much through their thankless hard work. They fulfilled the American dream so to speak, getting a nice big house and a comfortable middle-class life. Perhaps that rubbed off on me?

In any case, I’m honestly not sure where I’m going with any of this. I suppose I just wanted to get some thoughts off my mind. It sometimes scares me to think about how much long myself and all my friends will go on like this. Are we always going to be too busy to do the things we want? Are we going to spend the rest of our lives working, especially for our families, like many of our parents did?

Or maybe the issue isn’t business at all. Maybe we just think we’re busy simply because there is so much out there to distract us.

The Brief Origins of Cinco De Mayo

I thought I’d take a break from politics, social issues, and other haughty topics and go for something a little more fun – and still educational!

Cinco De Mayo is actually a very important celebration, beyond essentially serving as a Mexican version of St. Patrick’s Day! 😛 It commemortates Mexico’s unlikely and surprising defeat of invading French forces in the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862.

Yes, France actually invaded Mexico, and even occupied it for a few years. This was partly in response to the Mexican President’s refusal to pay interest to it’s foreign debt, and partly to fulfill the imperial ambitions of Napoleon III. In any case, France had been one of the premiment powers of the time, and the fact that a country as poor as Mexico was able to mount such a resounding victory at Puebla became cause for celebration, even to this day. Mexican forces had been underequiped and numbered only half of their French opponents (about 4,000 versus 8,000).

In any case, the French did actually go on to win the war, and occupied Mexico until around 1867, when Maximillian I, who had been installed by the French as a monarch, was overthrown and executed by Mexican revolutionaries. So despite losing the bigger battle, Mexico remained proud that it was able to hold it’s own and eventually win it’s freedom.

Interestingly, Cinco De Mayo is not a big holiday in Mexico itself (except in the Puebla region where the battle was fought) and is actually more popular in the US, where is is often mistaken as Mexico’s independence day (which, by the way, is actually on September 16th). Apparently, the holiday began in California during the course of the French invasion as a form of protest. From then on, it seems to have clearly caught on, evolving into a celebration of Mexican heritage and culture (again, Mexico’s version of St. Patrick’s Day :P).

In any case, hope you all have a happy – AND SAFE! – Cinco De Mayo.