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

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The End of Smallpox

smallpox

Yesterday, December 9th, came and went like any other day. But on that day in 1979, one of the most groundbreaking endeavors in human history was accomplished: a group of eminent scientists commissioned by the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) certified the global eradication of smallpox, the only human disease thus far to have been completely eliminated from nature. The WHO officially confirmed and announced this momentous achievement a few moments later:

Having considered the development and results of the global program on smallpox eradication initiated by WHO in 1958 and intensified since 1967 … Declares solemnly that the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America.

Less than a decade before, the end of smallpox would have seemed the remotest possibility. As recently as 1967, the WHO had estimated that 15 million people contracted the disease, and that two million had died that year alone — the average number of annual deaths since the turn of the century. Continue reading

The Greek Prelate Who Stood Up to the Nazis and Saved Thousands

Archbishop Damaskinos of Greece

Wikimedia Commons

Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou was the leader of the Orthodox Church in Greece during the Second World War, credited with saving the lives of thousands of Greek Jews. His actions were characteristic of the Greek resistance, which was among the fiercest and most stubborn in Europe; indeed, the Greeks are credited with inflicting the first major loss to Axis forces, when they turned back a numerically superior Italian invasion, which ultimately required Germany to divert precious manpower to overpower them.

Although conquered, Greeks like Damaskinos continued to make life difficult for the occupiers. He frequently clashed with both the collaborationist government and Nazi officials, often against repeated threats to this life. In 1943, when the Germans began rounding up and deporting Greek Jews, Damaskinos officially protested in a manner unique in Europe: he published a letter condemning the Nazis and calling on his people to protect their Jewish neighbors. Part of it read:

In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion… Our holy religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’ and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences. Our common fate both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race…

Today we are… deeply concerned with the fate of 60,000 of our fellow citizens who are Jews… we have lived together in both slavery and freedom, and we have come to appreciate their feelings, their brotherly attitude, their economic activity, and most important, their indefectible patriotism…”

The local SS commander, Jürgen Stroop — a nasty character who would be executed for war crimes after the war — threatened to execute the Archbishop if he published the letter. Yet not only did Damaskinos proceed with publishing the letter, but he dared to reply sarcastically:

According to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, our prelates are hanged, not shot. Please respect our traditions!

This is in reference to past Greek Orthodox leaders and martyrs being lynched historically. Miraculously, Stroop never followed up on his threat, perhaps because he was intimidated by the man’s lack of fear, or knew of his influence and esteem among an already riotous populace.

In addition to this bold and high profile act of resistance, Damaskinos ordered churches to distribute Christian baptismal certificates to Jews fleeing the Nazis, thus saving thousands of Jews.

For these actions, Damaskinos is named among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Sources: RaoulWallenberg.net;  www.db.yadvashem.org

What the Origin of the Turkey’s Name Says About Globalization

Ever wonder why the plump bird that is so iconic of Thanksgiving is named after the country of Turkey? Well, the origins say a lot about the nature of globalization, which, for better and worse, arguably first began with the European Age of Exploration.

The turkey is one of several things making up the “Columbian Exchange” — the widespread transfer of plants, animals, technology, and people between the Americas and the “Old World” that began 15th century following Columbus’ arrival to the Western Hemisphere. Other examples of “New World” items include corn, tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, tobacco, and cotton. (The turkey was one of the few animals to go from New World to Old, as Europe, Africa, and Asia had more domesticated animals.) Continue reading

Time to End the Five-Day Work Week?

Most developed-world denizens take the five-day work week as a given. The very idea of questioning it would be as inconceivable as it is fanciful. (Indeed, in our work-obsessed culture, it would likely brand you a lazy bum by coworkers and superiors alike.)

But as Philip Sopher over at The Atlantic points out, even the seven-day length of the week is an arbitrary invention, let alone the far more recent notion that we should have five days to work and only two to rest.  Continue reading

The Cop Who Threw Himself at a Suicide Bomber

Afghanistan’s reputation as a lawless, war-torn place is perhaps surpassed only by its reputation for rampant corruption (which doubtless accounts for the intractability of many of its other problems). Yet millions of Afghans risk their lives everyday in the hopes of creating a better society for themselves and their children, and tens of thousands more have died toward that noble and seemingly distant end.

One of them was 25-year-old Afghan Police Lieutenant Sayed Basam Pacha. He was a hardworking and ambitious cop who despised corruption and the widespread distrust of the country’s security services. He even dreamed of being a high ranking police officer or government minister so as to do more good for his country. He ultimately gave his life in accordance with his noble and virtuous goals.  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 Eternal Treaty

The Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty, also known as the Eternal Treaty or the Silver Treaty, is the oldest known peace treaty signed between two sovereign nations, dating back to the 13th century B.C.E. (Left photo: Hittite version; Right photo: Egyptian version.)

The treaty followed over 200 years of fighting between the two empires, which culminated in the Battle of Kadesh, a massive engagement that involved anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 men. (It is also the most well-documented ancient battle.) Both sides sustained heavy casualties with no decisive strategic gain, and the conflict grinded on for another fifteen years without avail. Continue reading

Germany’s Uniquely Moral Army

The German military, the Bundeswehr  (“Federal Defence”) is officially forbidden to do anything other than defend the country (although there is some limited participation in humanitarian and NATO coalition missions, wherein they usually operate under incredibly strict rules of engagement).

But beyond this constraint — which in theory are is shared by many counterparts across the world that otherwise circumvent them — Germany’s armed forces are exceptional in one incredible way: it prohibits “unconditional obedience” and requires soldiers of any rank to disobey an order if it violates human rights or “denies human dignity”. German troops are trained in the practice of Innere Führung (roughly translatable to “inner guidance” or “inner leadership”) in which the final decision-making process should be the “conscience of each individual” as informed by historical, political, and ethical education provided by the military. Continue reading

How Global Inequality Undermines Global Democracy

Yet another massive leak of offshore banking documents has revealed the remarkable extent of the world’s “parallel economy”, in which a large and growing proportion of global wealth is secretly stashed away in a complex and opaque network of tax havens.

In addition to the obvious diversion of literally trillions of dollars of capital that could be better spent alleviating the needless suffering of billions (with plenty left over to spare), this development is arguably a threat to democratic governance the world over, as Matt Phillips at Vice argues. Continue reading