The Former Italian Fascist Who Teamed Up With a Franco-Era Spanish Diplomat to Save Thousands of Jews During WWII

Giorgio Perlasca (pictured left, some time before his death in 1992) was an Italian businessman and ex-fascist who cleverly used international law and bold impersonations to save thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

Perlasca was once a committed fascist who had fought for Italy in its brutal war against Ethiopia, as well as for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. By the start of the Second World War, however, he had grown disillusioned with fascism, especially following Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany and the implementation of Italian racial laws in 1938.

While serving as an Italian delegate in Hungary (another Nazi ally), his country had surrendered to the Allies, forcing citizens to choose between remaining loyal to the fascists or joining the Allied cause; at great personal risk, Perlasca chose the latter, and he was subsequently arrested by Hungarian authorities.

Using a medical pass that allowed him to travel in the country, he fled to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest, where he requested political status. Fortunately, his service to the victorious Spanish Nationalists endeared them to his request, and he was subsequently given protection, since Spain was neutral. Perlasca then took full advantage of his diplomatic cover to save people of a completely different faith and nationality.

Lucky for him, Angel Sanz Briz (pictured right, in 1969) was stationed there with the same idea in mind.

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Human Rights Day And Our Movement Across the Moral Arc

Today is Human Rights Day, which commemorates the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first document of its kind to enshrine a global standard of moral principles and norms for all humanity. It is predicated on the simple but important notion set forth in Article One: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Continue reading

Twenty Charts of Things to Be Grateful For

For the myriad of problems we face as a species, we have made incredible strides over the last two centuries, especially since the mid-twentieth century, shortly after the world nearly destroyed itself in the second global conflict in less than thirty years.

Contrary to what we see on the news, there are ample data proving how far we have come in the hundreds of thousands of years in which we’ve existed (and in which the vast majority of the estimated 106 billion people who have ever lived on Earth suffered untold misery, fear, ignorance, and hardship).

Here are twenty charts, courtesy of OurWorldInData.org, that should make us grateful for living in this remarkably progressive, free, peaceful, and prosperous period of human existence.

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Global poverty, maternal and child mortality, global hunger, battle deaths, and child labor are just some of the negative socioeconomic problems that have declined swiftly and significantly.

Meanwhile, literacy, formal education, women’s rights, economic growth, and life expectancy have increased exponentially. The developing world — where the vast majority of humans live — has seen the fastest and greatest gains.

To be sure, these gains by no means diminish the very real problems we must still resolve; far too many people remain poor, hungry, diseased, oppressed, and exploited. Yet, remarkably, it is far fewer people — both proportionally and in absolute numbers — than ever before in our history.

While we no doubt still have a ways to go, let us be thankful for our species’ boundless capacity to keep preserving despite our faults and challenges. Imagine how much more progress we will see in our (ever increasing) lifetimes if we just stay the course.

The Hermit Life of Modern China

The challenges of modernity — in terms of alienation, empty consumerism, and over-stimulation — are becoming a universal problem (which, in fairness, is in some sense a good thing, since it means more parts of the world are industrializing and being lifted out of poverty and deprivation). Few nations are struggling with these issues more than China, which has been thrown into modernity at remarkable speed, thrusting hundreds of millions of citizens into the bittersweet life of material abundance.

An eleven-minute documentary, Summoning the Recluse, by Beijing-based filmmaker Ellen Xu, follows several young, middle-class Chinese who are embracing  meditation, spiritual quests and monastic asceticism in an effort to find peace and meaning in a difficult and more complex world. They are tapping into a millennia of rich spiritual, philosophical, and lifestyle traditions — such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism — that have long sought to address these issues. Their relevance today speaks volumes about the inherent struggle of the human condition.

I can’t embed the video here, so click here to view it. I felt more peaceful just watching it. Plus, I’m reminded of how much amazing Chinese philosophy and thought I need to brush up on.

Credit: Aeon

How Hobbies Bring Meaning to Our Lives

One of the ways I cope with the vagaries of life, from mundane, day-to-day stressors to major events and tragedies, is to focus on one of several life projects that I have cultivated over the years: reading, gardening, aquaculture, and, of course, blogging. These and other activities give me something to look forward to each morning, and serve as a form of therapy, allowing me to suspend all other worries and focus on something as simple yet gratifying as completing a chapter in my favorite book, or watching my plants bear fruit.

Over at QuartzAlex Preston explores the philosophy of hobbies and why they are integral to personal identity and quality of life. Continue reading

Liberty v. Security?

It has become something of a cliche that liberty and security are at inherent odds with each other, and that strengthening one necessarily requires weakening the other. Most citizens of a democracy would ostensibly prefer less security in favor of more liberty — better to die free than to live as a slave, etc. But it is more complicated than that, because clearly one needs security — be it from war, civil unrest, or even natural disasters — to allow the conditions for democracy to emerge and function.

It is no coincidence that democracy historically, and to this day, takes roots in places that are stable and mostly free from existential threats. The United Kingdom, whose liberal and constrained parliamentary monarchy formed the basis of the United States’ owns democratic ideals, was an island nation that had not been successfully threatened or invaded since the early 12th century. The U.S. enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, an entire hemisphere without any remotely hostile, let alone viable, competitor, and has two big oceans to buffer it from the rest of the world. Both countries had the fortune of being able to experiment with freer forms of government without needing to rely on iron rule to protect them. Continue reading

How Altruism and Cooperation Help Us Survive

Evolution by natural selection is blamed for promoting ruthless competition as a way to succeed in life — hence concepts such as “survival of the fittest” and “Social Darwinism”, which are seen as rooted in evolutionary theory but, are in fact perversions and misunderstandings of it. Take it from the man who formulated the theory of evolution:

The conclusion that cooperative groups will flourish at the expense of more selfish ones, and that as a result moral instincts will gradually evolve, was at the heart of [Charles Darwin’s] evolutionary writings. In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin wrote about loving and cooperative behaviours in dogs, elephants, baboons, pelicans, and other species. He thought that sympathetic and cooperative tribes and groups would flourish in comparison with communities made up of more selfish individuals, and that natural selection would thus favour cooperation.

Another tendency that Darwin shares with more recent scientists is his willingness to leap from the world of natural selection to the language of morality. Writing of the evolution of human cooperation, Darwin predicted that “looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.”

The idea that evolution makes selfishness and immorality pivotal to survival is not only factually wrong, but a key reason why so many people — particularly the religious — are so reluctant to accept it as true. But mounting scientific evidence has verified Darwin’s early observations that prosocial behaviors are vital to our species’ flourishing: Continue reading

Four Examples of Philosophy Making a Difference

Philosophy has something of a bad rap. While associated with high mindedness and culture, it popularly perceived as an armchair discipline with very little real-world application. (Nevermind the research showing how surprisingly lucrative a philosophy degree can be.) But philosophy has more to give us than interesting thought experiments to chew on, or intellectual credibility among our peers. Even as we speak, it is being utilized in some very potent ways, as philosophy professor Patricia Illingworth highlights in a HuffPo piece.

Today innovative work in philosophy combines philosophical analysis and rigor, with organizational acumen and leadership. Much of this innovation is taking place in applied ethics. Typically, applied ethics involves identifying and analyzing social problems; sometimes it also proposes means for solving those problems in an ideal world. It rarely creates mechanisms capable of solving problems in the real world.

Personally, applied ethics is the part of philosophy that matters most to me, given how very relevant it is in a world beset with so many problems yet also so many potential solutions. Why humanity still struggles with hunger, poverty, war, and exploitation despite unprecedented abundance and freedom (by historical standards) must necessarily lead us to consider reflecting upon, and tweaking, our own moral and ethical foundations.

That said, here are some of the ways philosophers are seeking to improve the world by applying philosophical principles and discoveries:

  • Lisa Fuller helps Médecins Sans Frontières (a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) ground its missions and goals “on the basis of sound moral principles”, as informed by field research and the voices of those it has served. She helped refine the group’s values, such as organizational independence, solidarity, and integrity, and fleshed them out more transparently so as to improve moral and decision making, as well as set the bar for other humanitarian organizations.
  • Thomas Pogge’s Health Impact Fund (HIF) addresses one of the most glaring yet little discussed injustices in the world: why so many sick and poor people are deprived of medicines for often treatable diseases. The HIF incentivizes research on neglected diseases by rewarding research and development funds to pharmaceutical firms that demonstrate quantifiable good health outcomes. This model is already being tested in Mumbai, India with regards to tuberculosis.
  • The Life You Can Save organization, founded by Peter Singer, encourages people of all incomes to give more money to charity, and to do so in a way that will have the greatest impact. Through extensive and rigorous research, it highlights the best charities for donors to consider, and even offers a public forum through which people can pledge — and be accountable to — a certain promised amount. The group’s efforts have spawned the “effective altruism” movement, which emphasizes evidence and reason as guides towards high-impact giving.
  • In the book Blood Oil, (which is on my reading list), Leif Wenar makes the case that the “purchasing practices of affluent countries, guided by the rule of might makes right” leads to untold human suffering in resource-rich countries. He advocates two solutions: the Clean Trade Act, which would make it it illegal to purchase oil from mis-governed nations; and the Clean Hands Trust, in which countries that purchase oil from exploitative regimes are subject to taxes that are then used to fund trusts in the interests of citizens of resource-cursed countries.

These are just some of the appreciable ways in which philosophy is being applied. They may not all prove effective or viable, but the point is to expand the limits of what we think we know in terms of evidence, reason, and ethics so as to continually improve the world and the human condition. The more analyze, debate, and reflect upon the state of the world and how we can better it, the closer we come to a fairer, more just, and more prosperous global society.

What are your thoughts?

 

An Ancient Philosophical Concept Gets Some Scientific Backing

The concept of consciousness — broadly speaking, the state of being aware of one’s self and the external world — is so complicated that a clear, universal definition is difficult to pin down. Indeed, the consensus within neuroscience seems to be that we will likely never have a solid, totally provable theory of consciousness — though one idea does come close, and it validates an observation made over two millennial ago.

As Quartz reports:

In 2008, neuroscientist Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Sleep and Consciousness put forward his “integrated information theory,” which is currently accepted as one of the most compelling explanations about what consciousness is.

One of the central claims of the theory is that, for consciousness to exist, it must have “cause-effect” power on itself.

Neurologist Melanie Boly, a resident at UW’s School of Medicine and Public Health who has worked with Tononi, explains that for anything to exist, it must be able to have an effect; it must be able to make some small difference to something else.

“Consciousness exists for itself and by itself”, says Boly. “Thus it should have cause and effect on itself”.

Boly is currently working with other researchers to develop a mathematical framework to test the predictions of integrated information theory.

The neurologist goes on to note that this promising theory they are working on testing follows a stream of conjectures going back at least to Plato, the famous fourth century B.C.E. philosopher. As he wrote in the dialog Sophist in 360 B.C.E.

“My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.”

So if integrated information theory remains the most credible explanation for consciousness, as many neuroscientists believe is the case, we will have yet another example of pre-scientific philosophical conjecture managing to get at the fundamental nature of humanity and the metaphysical. Very interesting stuff, to say the least.

Roger Ebert On Kindness And Death

The iconic film critic, who died in 2013, redirected his talented writing from film to public reflections on his own mortality. His thoughts are relevant to any one of us who has ever contemplated the inevitability of our demise and how we come to terms with it, especially within a secular worldview (as Ebert himself prescribed to).

The following excerpt from his book, “Life Itself: A Memoir”, courtesy of Salonreads as an ode to the humanist approach to life and death.

“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

One of these days I will encounter what Henry James called on his deathbed “the distinguished thing”. I will not be conscious of the moment of passing. In this life I have already been declared dead. It wasn’t so bad. After the first ruptured artery, the doctors thought I was finished. My wife, Chaz, said she sensed that I was still alive and was communicating to her that I wasn’t finished yet. She said our hearts were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn’t be discovered. She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I am, alive.

Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally — not symbolically, figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call and that she sensed my heartbeat. I believe she did it in the real, physical world I have described, the one that I share with my wristwatch. I see no reason why such communication could not take place. I’m not talking about telepathy, psychic phenomenon or a miracle. The only miracle is that she was there when it happened, as she was for many long days and nights. I’m talking about her standing there and knowing something. Haven’t many of us experienced that? Come on, haven’t you? What goes on happens at a level not accessible to scientists, theologians, mystics, physicists, philosophers or psychiatrists. It’s a human kind of a thing.

Zen Pencils has an excellent and touching comic told through Ebert’s words on kindness. It is well worth giving a look.

Needless to say, as a self-identifying secular humanist, I subscribe to wholeheartedly to the idea that a contemplative, ethical life is the one most worth living. Regardless of one’s theological or metaphysical views about the nature of our universe and our place in it, trying to make the world a better place in any way is a relevant and life-affirming cause. It fills us and others with hope, meaning, and happiness, and allows us to face the prospect of death with greater courage — a life well lived makes death less scary, for we can die knowing that we did the most with our finite time on Earth.

What are your thoughts?