Happy Birthday to the United Nations

Happy 75th birthday to the United Nations, a deeply flawed and troubled organization that is nonetheless more indispensable than ever—and has accomplished a lot more than most people think.

It was on this day in 1945 that fifty countries ratified the UN Charter, which established the organization along with the framework of the international system. An audacious and idealistic document, it articulated a commitment to uphold the human rights and wellbeing of all citizens, addressing “economic, social, health, and related problems”, and “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. The organization now counts nearly four times as many members, at 193.

The United Nations Charter at 75: Between Force and Self-Defense ...

Of course, we Americans know full well how hard it is to get even this one country to work together—imagine close to 200 countries spanning eight billion people and a multitude of languages, religions, cultures, types of governments, and levels of development. The UN is only as effective as its members allow it to be, and its failures and limitations are a reflection of our own as a species.

Moreover, it is worth considering the context of its emergence: A war that had killed over 60 million people (three percent of all humans at the time), after a millennia of endless conflict where violence was the norm and enslavement, rape, looting, and other things we now call war crimes (courtesy of the UN) were just the way of things. For most of our quarter of a million years of existence, we rarely knew about, much less cared, for anyone outside our immediate tribe or band. Human rights and civil liberties were alien concepts that would not have made sense to anyone. The vast majority of people lived in grinding poverty, oppression, fear, and ignorance.

From the ashes of the worst conflict in history emerges an organization trying to cultivate peace, progress, and unity among our species—not just out of idealism, but also based on the sober realism that some problems are too big for any one nation to handle. Needless to say, it has failed in its lofty aspirations time and again, as most of us know all too well—but that’s to be expected given just how bold of an undertaking it is. And for all the failures, there are plenty of successes we take for granted.

Eisenhower, far from a bleeding-heart globalist, once said that the UN “represents man’s best organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield”. If nothing else, the organization has served as an outlet for frustrations and rivalries that would otherwise manifest on the battlefield. The constant grandstanding between the U.S. and Russia may be frustrating—and has often led to devastating deadlock during crises—but imagine the alternative course of action without an international platform? Iran and Saudi Arabia were on the verge of war some months ago, but instead to the UN to make their cases and take diplomatic shots at each other instead. It likely no coincidence that despite so many close calls, the UN-centered world has seen an unprecedented decline in the large scale interstate wars that were once so common (though this is not to make light of the numerous proxy and civil wars that have continued to exact a heavy toll).

Given that most Americans do not even know how their own government works, it stands to reason that few know the workings and complexities of the international system, either.

Few people know that it was the UN Secretary-General, U Thant of Burma, who played a key role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis; JFK admitted in private that “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt” — though Thant is scarcely known today.

Many of us take for granted the modern amenities and benefits, let alone realize their origin in the UN. The ability to mail and ship things globally; to access goods and products from around the world; and to travel anywhere with relative ease are all due to UN organizations, treaties, or conferences that established uniform standards and rules for airlines, companies, and governments. Heck, even seat belts became widespread through deliberate UN policy.

Few know the work of UNICEF, one of the oldest UN organization, which in 2018 alone helped care for 27 million babies born in places with high infant and maternal mortality; treated four million children in 73 countries for severe acute malnutrition;\and provided over 65 million children with vaccines against common killers like diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (half the world’s children get their vaccine through UNICEF). Over the last thirty years, it has saved over 90 million children.

The much maligned WHO helped eradicate smallpox, which once killed millions annually throughout history, and is on the verge of eradicating polio as well. It has helped most people with HIV/AIDS get access to treatment, and is currently working on making insulin more available, too. With respect to the recent pandemic, it also used its diplomacy to get China to finally open itself to an international team of scientists—which included two Americans. It recently helped stem the second largest Ebola outbreak in Congo, to little fanfare.

Research Roundup: 38th anniversary of smallpox eradication, the ...

The 1987 Montreal conference convened by the UN Environment Programme helped lead to an international treaty that has successfully repaired the ozone layer.

The World Food Programme provides food and assistance to 86.7 million people in 83 countries, keeping them from the brink of starvation. The Food and Agriculture Organization has helped eradicate rinderpest, a deadly livestock disease that is only the second one in history (besides smallpox) to be eradicated. It also maintains the world’s largest and most comprehensive statistical database on food and agriculture.

The UN Population Fund helps an average of two million women a month with their pregnancies, which could be deadly in most countries.

The UN regularly monitors elections in about fifty countries, which not only ensures a free and fair political process but has prevented numerous civil wars and conflicts.

All these achievements no doubt come with caveats, and do not undo the very real and tragic failings, from Rwanda to the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. But 75 years is not a long time to undo 250,000 years of tribalism and disunity. As one UN chief put it, “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”. And considering that the average American pays less than two dollars a year to cover the U.S.’ regular budget dues to the UN, I think it is a work in progress worth supporting and improving upon.

Whataboutism and Geopolitics

As China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey hypocritically but accurately call out the United States. for its various social and political dysfunctions—usually as a snide counterpoint to whenever we do the same to them—I am reminded of the old Soviet Cold War strategy of “whatboutism“.

In 1947, when William Averell Harriman, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, mentioned “Soviet imperialism” in a speech in Seattle, the official Soviet publication Pravda wasted no time in punching back. To paraphrase its response: “American warmongers want to drop bombs on the Soviet Union because they don’t like its social order, but the Soviet people, though they consider U.S. laws on race to be insulting to human dignity, “do not intend on that account to turn modern weapons against Mississippi or Georgia.”

In short, you want to bomb us for human rights abuses, but by your standard we could just as well do the same to you.

This exchange is indicative of a rhetorical strategy in international relations known as whataboutism, which Olga Kazan explains in the Atlantic “occurs when officials implicated in wrongdoing whip out a counter-example of a similar abuse from the accusing country, with the goal of undermining the legitimacy of the criticism itself. (In Latin, this fallacious rhetorical defense is called tu quoque, or “you, too.”)

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Courtesy of the Altlantic: A cartoon from a 1967 issue of Pravda depicts racial tensions in U.S. cities. Under the Statue of Liberty, armed troops are marching with labels reading, “Newark, Detroit and Milwaukee,” the sites of riots. A caption underneath read, “Shame of America” 

This strategy is also encapsulated by the Soviet / Russian catchphrase, “And you are lynching blacks!” This stems from an old Russian political joke about a dispute between an American and Russian. After receiving criticism of his country because of the deadly 1903 anti-Jewish Kishinev pogrom, the Russian Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav von Plehve pointed out “The Russian peasants were driven to frenzy. Excited by race and religious hatred, and under the influence of alcohol, they were worse than the people of the Southern States of America when they lynch [blacks]”.

Unsurprisingly, the Soviet government continued deflecting from their own sins by highlighting America’s, and we gave them plenty to work with:

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“This guy has an honest, open face”
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To this day, similar strategies are used by America’s rivals to undermine our position while strengthening their own. China went so far as to attack our own bumbled response to COVID-19 (through LEGO blocks no less).

Of course, hypocrisy is not unique to the United States, nor any society for that matter; the “great powers” of the world have always had their skeletons, which are all too easy to expose and criticize given the presumptions that come with being a leader (real or perceived). But pronouncing yourself the greatest country in the world and blustering through every international effort or organization makes your pedestal all the higher to be thrown from.

Happy Juneteenth!

Once celebrated largely in Texas, this once-obscure holiday now has renewed national importance. While it did not mark an end to slavery—that wouldn’t come until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December of that year—it has grown into a broader commemoration concerning slavery, freedom, and civil rights.

On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger landed on Galveston Island with more than 2,000 Union troops. He stood at the Headquarters District of Texas in Galveston and read “General Order No. 3”:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.

Black people who heard the news erupted in what Gibbs calls “a moment of indescribable joy.”

Celebrations of Juneteenth — which combines the word June with Nineteenth — began in 1866, a year and a day after Granger’s announcement.

Black men, women and children dressed in their finest attire and gathered to sing spirituals, pray, play baseball and eat. Often the menus included fried chicken, cornbread, greens and handmade strawberry soda.

“The red color of the soda symbolized blood shed during slavery,” Gibbs said.

There would be special invitations for the oldest freed men and women to recount the horrors of slavery and the sweetness of freedom.

“This was partying with purpose — not only for the people to join the celebration but to learn directly from the past,” Gibbs said.

Another powerful ingredient in early Juneteenth celebrations was that the early festivities took place on land owned by black people.

“There was an extra sense of pride,” Gibbs said. “It was a matter of racial pride and uplift to show even in the face of searing racial hatred, ‘We are property owners.’ It showed progress.

Appropriately enough, the original General Order No. 3 was recently rediscovered in the U.S. National Archives, after researchers there were spurred by the recent protests to find it.

A growing number of people are calling for Juneteenth to be a national holiday, as it marks the first major step towards ending the source of human bondage and bringing our society closer to its constitutional ideals.

The New Yorker has a particularly good explanation about why this local holiday is of national relevance:

The Emancipation Proclamation itself had been hedged to balance Northern interests and to incentivize Southern states with at least the possibility of retaining slavery if they rejoined the Union: the order freed only those people enslaved in areas of the country that were rebelling against the federal government. But Texas was in rebellion, and its black population did qualify for freedom on January 1, 1863, when the proclamation took effect. Texas ignored the proclamation, as did the ten other Confederate states. This all indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the significance of Juneteenth. The fact that slaveholders extracted thirty additional months of uncompensated labor from people who had been bought, sold, and worked to exhaustion, like livestock, throughout their lives is cause for mourning, not celebration. In honoring that moment, we should recognize a moral at the heart of that day in Galveston and in the entirety of American life: there is a vast chasm between the concept of freedom inscribed on paper and the reality of freedom in our lives.

In that regard, Juneteenth exists as a counterpoint to the Fourth of July; the latter heralds the arrival of American ideals, the former stresses just how hard it has been to live up to them. This failure was not exclusive to the South. Northern states generally abolished slavery in the decades after the American Revolution, but many slaveholders there, rather than free the people they held in bondage, sold them to traders in the South, or moved to states where the institution was still legal. The black men, women, and children who heard Granger’s pronouncement a hundred and fifty-five years ago in Galveston were not slaves; they were a barometer of American democracy.

There’s a paradox inherent in the fact that emancipation is celebrated primarily among African-Americans, and that the celebration is rooted in a perception of slavery as something that happened to black people, rather than something that the country committed. The paradox rests on the presumption that the arrival of freedom should be greeted with gratitude, instead of with self-reflection about what allowed it to be deprived in the first place. Emancipation is a marker of progress for white Americans, not black ones.

The Appeal 18 June

On this day in 1940, French army officer and future president Charles de Gaulle made his “Appeal of 18 June“, where he urged the French to join his army overseas or continue resisting the Nazis at home.

De Gaulle had just arrived in London after the Fall of France. He had a distinguished war record and had long advocated for France to adopt the sort of tactics and weaponry that, ironically, allowed Germany to prevail. He personally led an armored division during the Battle of France, achieving one of the country’s few victories in the month-long fight.

For his efforts, de Gaulle was quickly promoted to Brigadier General and named Under-Secretary of State for National Defence and War. After the French prime minister resigned, Marshal Philippe Pétain, a hero of World War I, became the new Prime Minister, pledging to surrender to Nazi Germany. De Gaulle staunchly opposed any such action and facing imminent arrest, fled France on June 17th; other leading politicians were arrested before they could leave to North Africa to continue the war.

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De Gaulle’s appeal is widely considered to have been the start of the French Resistance, which played a significant role in facilitating the invasion of Normandy, providing intelligence and aide to the Allies (including downed pilots), and sabotaging the German war machine. His speech likely inspired the French sentiment, “France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war”.

The speech is well worth a read in its entirety:

The leaders who, for many years, have been at the head of the French armies have formed a government. This government, alleging the defeat of our armies, has made contact with the enemy in order to stop the fighting. It is true, we were, we are, overwhelmed by the mechanical, ground and air forces of the enemy. Infinitely more than their number, it is the tanks, the aeroplanes, the tactics of the Germans which are causing us to retreat. It was the tanks, the aeroplanes, the tactics of the Germans that surprised our leaders to the point of bringing them to where they are today.

But has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!

Believe me, I who am speaking to you with full knowledge of the facts, and who tell you that nothing is lost for France. The same means that overcame us can bring us victory one day. For France is not alone! She is not alone! She is not alone! She has a vast Empire behind her. She can align with the British Empire that holds the sea and continues the fight. She can, like England, use without limit the immense industry of the United States.

This war is not limited to the unfortunate territory of our country. This war is not over as a result of the Battle of France. This war is a world war. All the mistakes, all the delays, all the suffering, do not alter the fact that there are, in the world, all the means necessary to crush our enemies one day. Vanquished today by mechanical force, in the future we will be able to overcome by a superior mechanical force. The fate of the world depends on it.

I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who might end up here, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the specialised workers of the armament industries who are located in British territory or who might end up here, to put themselves in contact with me.

Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished. Tomorrow, as today, I will speak on the radio from London.

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The Three Arrows

The Three Arrows is the symbol of the Social Democratic Party of Germany during its resistance to Nazism in the 1930s. It reflected the party’s opposition to totalitarianism in all forms, namely reactionary conservatism (represented by monarchism), fascism, and communism.

Below is an official election poster from the 1932 parliamentary election urging voters to choose the SDP. Its slogan, “Against Papen, Hitler, Thälmann”, would prove prescient: Papen was an aristocratic nationalist who helped bring Hitler to power, and became an ally and official of the Nazi regime; Thälmann was committed Stalinist and head of the German Communist Party, which since 1928 was largely controlled and funded by the Soviet Union.

Of course, we all know how this election ultimately turned out: Though the Nazi Party lost 34 seats, it nonetheless remained a major force in government, eventually seizing power just months later. (By the time the next elections took place in March 1933, there was already widespread repression and vote-rigging).

But even after the Nazis consolidated power and began openly terrorizing their opponents, the SDP and its allies did not give up. The party joined with liberals, unionists, and other anti-fascist and anti-communist groups to form the Iron Front, a militant organization that brought the fight to the increasingly violent paramilitary groups of the Nazi and Communist parties. The Three Arrows remained a symbol of this movement and was often worn as an armband; it typically accompanied the slogan, “neither Stalin’s slaves nor Hitler’s henchmen”.

For its part, the SDP was the only party to vote against the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave Hitler the dictatorial powers that allowed the Nazis to secure control over the country. The party was thereafter banned, and along with communists and other leftists, saw many of its members imprisoned or killed. After the war, it was reestablished in West Germany, but forced to merge with the ruling Communist Party of East Germany. It remains one of Germany’s major parties.

Echoes of the Roman Empire

The more you read about the history and politics of Rome, the more you realize that America follows the Roman example far more closely than just architecture and Latin terminology; even the word “senate” roughly translates from Latin to “council of elders” — an apt description of the generation gap between those with political power and everyone else (though to both the Greeks and the Romans, this was not a bad thing; age signified experience after all).

Read some of the descriptions of Rome’s political system by historians like Adrian Goldsworthy and Richard Miles with today’s America in mind.

The Romans valued military service above all else. It was seen as both a noble obligation of citizenship and as a way to drum up glory and thus political support. Over time, Roman politicians began to stress their personal military service — or at least their support of the military — to get elected. Political factions increasingly supported military conquests as a way to get popular approval, distract the masses with the glory of triumph, or to prove they’ve got the chops to govern.

Ironically, this deification of the military — for which the U.S. is unique among established democracies — would contribute to Rome’s downfall, as one general or soldier after another would seize power against venal politicians by capitalizing on their popularity following a victory or distinguished war record (only to of course become venal politicians themselves).

Roman high office was notoriously and openly cliquish. Only the same handful of wealthy, intermarried families had a shot at power. The Romans believed that merit and achievement passed on from generation to generation, prompting politicians to emphasize the accomplishment or one past or distant relative or another (which was easy to do since they all intermarried and could thus point to -someone- to do the trick). This had the obvious effect of creating political dynasties that made it very hard for so called “new men” to enter into politics, or at least the highest offices. Eventually, when the republic and later the empire crumbled under the weight of incompetent and corrupt politicians, these new men — now emphasizing their nonpolitical nature and success in business or the military — capitalized on the public’s disgust with established politicians, only to become part of the problem in the end.

Politics in Rome was highly personal, given the aforementioned dominance of families. Politicians openly curried favor with certain families for support, and both sides expected something in return. For this reason, Rome did not have political parties per se; there was little in the way of established policy or consistently ideology, as politicians just went with whatever would advance their interests or those of their allies or clients. Alliances shifted constantly; everyone invoked public service and the need to serve the public, but it was an open secret that politics was just a means to an end of power, wealth, and glory. Again, none of this was unusual; the Romans openly tried to work within this system to their own ends.

During emergencies, most commonly war, the Romans suspended politics as usual and appointed a “temporary” solution in the form of the “dictatorship”, a Latin term the describes a single individual’s ability to take control — i.e. “dictate” — policy for the good of the republic. Though the office typically lasted just six months, the famous case of Julius Cesar, who was alleged to have sought permanent dictator status, shows the age-old problem of balancing liberty and security.

Even Roman culture mirrored our own: The Romans stressed the material wealth, prosperity, and relative freedom that came with becoming a Roman citizen. They advertised to citizens and foreigners alike the sophisticated baths, restaurants (possibly a Roman invention), and other amenities unique to Roman life. They even developed a sophisticated credit system, not unlike today’s credit cards, to allow average people to ostensibly benefit.

Comparing America to the Roman Republic and Empire is a cliche among political scientists — but clearly for good reason I think.

The Arab Queen Who Took on the Roman Empire

I’ve recently become fascinated with the ancient historical figure of Zenobia, a third century Arab queen who is the only woman to almost rule the Roman Empire.

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An idealized portrayal titled Queen Zenobia’s Last Look upon Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888)

Zenobia came to power as regent to her ten year old son, who inherited the throne of Palmyra, an ancient Mesopotamian city that was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the ancient world. (You may recall it was targeted by ISIS for destruction, which led to literally millennia of history being lost.)

By the time it came under Roman control in the first century, Palmyra was already a prosperous and cosmopolitan city, mostly Arab but with large minorities of Greeks, Armeans, and other ethnic groups. Multiple languages were spoken, a variety of faiths were tolerated, and there was even a Greco-Roman style senate that ran various civil affairs. Its incredible wealth and beauty—including cutting edge urban planning and numerous monuments and public works—earned it the moniker “pearl of the desert”. Situated at the crossroads between the Roman Mediterranean and the Western Asia, its caravans went across Europe, Africa, and even the Silk Road, making it a huge asset to Rome—and allowing its rulers uniquely significant autonomy under Roman imperial rule.

In fact, by the time Zenobia became the de facto queen of Palmyra in 267, the desert city-state had essentially become an allied power rather than a province; not only did it bring commercial goods and revenue, but it offered protection against unruly Arab tribes and eastern rivals, most of all the old nemesis, the Persians. Hence when the Roman Empire began to unravel during its “Crisis of the Third Century”, Zenobia apparently saw an opportunity for her people to attain well deserved greatness.

The Palmyrene Empire she founded spanned most of the Roman east, from central Turkey into western Iraq and down to Egypt (then one of the richest provinces of Rome). While she declared both herself and her son as emperors of all of Rome, she was never able to extend her rule past these territories, though her conquest of Egypt and managing to keep the Persian at bay (who had detected Roman weakness) had been impressive enough. Zenobia was definitely a product of her city: She spoke four languages, received a comprehensive education, and was steeped in the latest philosophy and science. Her reign was characterized by a policy of religious tolerance and intellectualism. While she worshipped a pantheon of Semitic gods, she was familiar with other faiths and cultures, and accommodated all religious groups, from the small but controversial cult known as Christianity, to the Jews who had long been in conflict with Rome. She invited scientists, philosophers, and other thinkers from all over the known world to her royal court, seeking to turn Palmyra into the next Athens.

While her empire barely lasted three years before it was subdued by Rome—her ultimate fate remaining unknown—Zenobia left a lasting legacy.

The Augustan History, a fourth-century Roman collection of biographies of emperors and usurpers lamented that “all shame is exhausted, for in the weakened state of the [Roman] commonwealth. . . a foreigner, Zenobia by name . . . proceeded to cast about her shoulders the imperial mantle [and ruled] longer than could be endured from one of the female sex.” She is also a point of pride to the people of Syria (where the Palmyrene kingdom was located) and remains a role model to women across the Arab world and beyond. Even Edward Gibbon, the famous seminal historian of the Roman world, remarked that few women in history were as influential as her.

The First Global Event

The novel coronavirus outbreak may be the first time in our species’s 250,000 year history that virtually everyone is being affected by the same event simultaneously. As Joshua Keating of Slate notes:

“Global event,” in this case, means a distinct occurrence that will be a significant life event for nearly every person on the planet. This is not to say that we’re all experiencing it the same way. Some become ill or lose loved ones; others lose jobs or livelihoods; for others, it’s merely a source of inconvenience or anxiety. And different countries and local governments are responding to the crisis in very different fashions, leading to wildly divergent outcomes for their citizens. But as the writer Anna Badkhen puts it, not since human beings first began spreading across the globe has a single event “affected everyone, on every continent, as instantly and intimately and acutely as the spread of coronavirus, uniting us as we fear and think and hope about the same thing.” It’s the truly global nature of the crisis that French President Emmanuel Macron was referring to when he called the coronavirus an “anthropological” shock.

This truth says as much about the era in which COVID-19 emerged as it does about the virus itself. It was only in the past 500 years that people in all regions of the Earth even became fully aware of one another and in the last 200 that they’ve been able to communicate more or less instantaneously. And it’s this very interconnectedness that allowed the virus to spread so rapidly across the globe. (The Black Death felt like the end of the world to many who experienced it, but more than a century before Columbus, entire continents of people were unaware of it.)

Previous events have had global impact in the past. Billions of lives have been affected by, say, the French Revolution, or 9/11. Contemporaneous writers have made cases for various events as the “shot heard round the world” or Ten Days That Shook the WorldBut these events were not experienced by the entire world at the same time—not even close.

Even the world wars, contrary to their description, did not impact the day to day lives of most people in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. By contrast, COVID-19 has forced virtually every country in the world to either implement life-changing lock-downs or to endure the impact of the subsequent economic slowdown. Previous pandemics, including the deadly 1918 “Spanish”, were either limited in their geographic spread or occured when the world lacked an international forum for coordination or communications. These things still felt very much localized.

This matters because our species has only recently reached a level of consciousness and moral awareness that extends beyond the interrelated bands and tribes that were the norm for most of our quarter-of-a-million-year existence. Suddenly, we’re feeling for victims across the world, in places most of us have never been; learning from countries we otherwise never give much thought to (or in some cases can’t even find on a map); and enduring the same sorts of shocks to our routine as billions of other humans we pretty much forget exist. (Of course we know there are billions of other humans out there, but how often do we stop at any moment to consider how their lives our playing out at the same time as ours?)

As Keating notes, those of us with an internationalist bend are largely disappointed with the fractured and even divisive response by the world community. The notion that a bigger threat might finally unite humankind in a productive and cohesive response has yet to be proven. (Will it really take an alien invasion or robot uprising!?) I’m a tad bit more optimistic though: Though beleaguered and under siege, international institutions like the World Health Organization are still doing their thing; many countries and international organizations are coming together to pool their funds, resources, and knowledge to tackle this threat. As always, progress is never neat and linear.

However this global even hashes out, one thing is probably certain: Most people will pay more attention to what goes outside their respective countries.

Perhaps a more realistic expectations is that people may change how they view far away events—events like a mysterious virus cluster in Wuhan. Those of us who write about world news are used to making the case that people should care about events that happen in other countries and continents because it could eventually affect them—that political developments in Russia or a drought in Central America can very quickly become a major event in American life. Perhaps after the common experience we’ve all just shared, it will be a little easier to grasp the importance of faraway wars, revolutions, famines, and even “massively distributed” problems like climate change, feel a little more empathy for those directly affected by them, and have a little better sense of how they might soon affect us. For the first time ever, it feels like it’s literally true to say that international news is just news that hasn’t become local yet

While there have been no shortage of wars or diplomatic crises that should have roused us from our parochialism and insularity, maybe the first truly global even should do the trick.

What an Ancient Broken Femur Says About Civilization

There is an apocryphal story about the anthropologist Margaret Mead that has a timeless and universal message, though it’s relevant now than ever.

Years ago, she was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts.

But no. Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 years old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone had been broken and had healed.

Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.

Many thanks to my friend Arthur K Burditt for sharing this.

The Politics and Pragmatism of Progress

We might find the W.H.O.’s politics unseemly. At times they are certainly troubling, especially regarding Taiwan. (Though in fairness, most of the world, including the powerful U.S., has also officially shunted Taiwan in deference to China.)

But they are an inevitable, if not necessary, evil for an organization run by 194 countries full of rivalries, self-interests, and division. Its weaknesses very much reflect our own. International cooperation is not about singing kumbaya and getting along harmoniously; it is the sober and practical realization that, however divided the world is, there are problems bigger than any one country can handle (look at how the richest country in the world has struggled to contain this pandemic). That means making difficult, imperfect, and sometimes even maddening compromises.

It took working with a murderous bastard like Stalin to beat the Nazis in WWII, with the Soviets accounting for 80-90% of Axis losses at the cost of tens of millions of lives. (We also had to work with the bastard Nationalists and Maoists in China to accomplish the same feat against Japan, with the Chinese tying up most Japanese forces at similarly horrific costs.)

In the context of public health, this is nothing new. Even at the height of the Cold War, countries including the U.S. and the Soviet Union managed to set aside their differences and work through the W.H.O. to eradicate smallpox, a scourge of humanity that had killed hundreds of millions just in the 20th century.

With over 50 million cases and 2 million deaths annually, in 1958 Soviet virologist Viktor Zhdanov became the first to call on the W.H.O. to lead a global eradication effort. In 1966 Canadian-American epidemiologist Donald Henderson formed the U.S.-led Smallpox Eradication Unit to assist in this endeavor. A year later, the W.H.O. intensified global smallpox eradication with millions of dollars from around the world and a method developed by Czech epidemiologist Karel Raska. The Americans and Soviets provided most of the initial vaccine donations (no doubt, at least in part, to one up each other).

By 1980, the W.H.O. declared smallpox eradicated—the first human disease wiped off the face of the Earth, thanks to global cooperation.

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