Brazil’s Difficult Gamble With the Amazon

With most of the world’s largest rainforest located within its borders, Brazil is center stage in global debates and efforts regarding environmental preservation. As an in-depth and visually stimulating NPR photo essay shows Continue reading

Reflections on a Global Community

For most of human history, the average person rarely knew, let alone cared, about what happened beyond his or her little community of mostly interrelated people. Now, something can happen halfway across the world, to strangers of a completely foreign culture and society, and we feel emotionally and politically invested. We mourn, express solidarity, debate, and otherwise get involved in matters that by all accounts should not concern us.

It is easy to take for granted that we live in a global community, in which our social, economic, and even personal lives are impacted by the fate of total strangers thousands of miles away. But this is actually a radically new development in our species’s history, after millennia of living in small tribes, bands, and city-states. (Indeed, civilizations only emerged three to four thousand years ago, whereas modern humans have existed for at least a quarter of a million years.)

Doubtless, we are far from forming a truly cohesive and universal identity — too many things still separates us and undermine our ability to empathize, including our biology (e.g., our minds evolved to prioritize genetic kin — those who look and seem more similar — and can develop only a limited number of deep social connections).

But given the novelty of this globalized world, I am confident that with time, such limitations can be transcended. Just as the city or country — now totally common and accepted social units — was once an alien concept for thousands of years, so too can something as crazy as a global community, in the psychological if not political sense, be a reality.

Día de Muertos

Observed annually from October 31 to November 2, the Día de Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) is one of Mexico’s oldest and most iconic national holidays. People come together to pray for and remember those who have died, supporting the dearly departed through private altars called ofrendas and offerings of calaveras (a.k.a. sugar skulls), marigolds (known as the flower of the dead for its use in traditional funerary ceremonies), candles, incense, favorite foods and beverages, and other gifts. Visitors will often congregate around the graves of loved ones, depositing these items and even celebrating in their company.

The Day of the Dead is reflective of Mexico’s unique fusion of European and Indigenous culture, particularly the Aztec and Catholic faiths. Like most societies around the world, Mesoamericans had been honoring their deceased ancestors for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century; however, the modern holiday is traced back to the Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen of Mictlan, the underworld. The Aztecs were fascinated with death and the transition between the physical and spiritual worlds, and this endured long after the Spanish conquered the region and introduced Christianity.

Originally celebrated in the summer, the holiday — like so many other pre-Christian observances — was syncretized to fall on All Saints’ Day, which commemorates deceased Catholic saints (and itself coincides with a Celtic holiday about the dead called Samhain). Many Mexicans, knowingly or not, continue to combine the symbols and rituals of both cultures in their Day of the Dead celebrations. The holiday was previously only celebrated in the south, where most indigenous and mestizo people live; it only became a truly national holiday in the 1960s, when the Mexican government officially promoted it as a unifying cultural tradition. The holiday is even promoted in schools, making it a firm part of Mexican identity both domestically and abroad (where it is now increasingly celebrated). The U.N. classifies it as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity“.

If anyone is wondering why the Day of the Dead actually spans three days: October 31 is when children make an altar to invite the angelitos — spirits of dead children — to come back for a visit (it is thus sometimes called the “Day of the Innocents” or “Day of the Little Angels”); November 1 honors the adult spirits, while November 2 is when families go to the cemetery to decorate the graves and tombs of their relatives.

To see photos of celebrations around the world, click here.

The Power of Stoic Indifference

The truth is, indifference really is a power, selectively applied, and living in such a way is not only eminently possible, with a conscious adoption of certain attitudes, but facilitates a freer, more expansive, more adventurous mode of living. Joy and grief are still there, along with all the other emotions, but they are tempered – and, in their temperance, they are less tyrannical.

— Lary Wallace, “Why Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever“, Aeon

If you want to better your understanding of one of the world’s most enduring and influential philosophies, then read the rest of the article here. It dispels the myth that Stoicism is an apathetic and dispassionate mindset, and unveils the versatility of the Stoic approach to almost every circumstance. Even slaves and prisoners of war have been counted among its adherents and promoters.

The real hero of Stoicism, most Stoics agree, is the Greek philosopher Epictetus.

He’d been a slave, which gives his words a credibility that the other Stoics, for all the hardships they endured, can’t quite match. He spoke to his pupils, who later wrote down his words. These are the only words we know today as Epictetus’, consisting of two short works, the Enchiridion and the Discourses, along with some fragments. Among those whom Epictetus taught directly is Marcus Aurelius (another Stoic philosopher who did not necessarily expect to be read; his Meditations were written expressly for private benefit, as a kind of self-instruction).

Among those Epictetus has taught indirectly is a whole cast of the distinguished, in all fields of endeavour. One of these is the late U.S. Navy Admiral James Stockdale. A prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years during that conflict, he endured broken bones, starvation, solitary confinement, and all other manner of torture. His psychological companion through it all were the teachings of Epictetus, with which he had familiarised himself after graduating from college and joining the Navy, studying philosophy at Stanford University on the side. He kept those teachings close by in Vietnam, never letting them leave his mind even when things were at their most dire. Especially then. He knew what they were about, those lessons, and he came to know their application much better than anyone should have to.

Of course, you do not have to be a POW or human chattel to appreciate the merits of Stoicism. No matter your lifestyle or circumstances, the Stoic response is applicable. Difficult to maintain, yes, but nonetheless beneficial and life affirming.  Continue reading

The Plight of Native Americans

Generations of plague, genocide, and oppression continue to take their toll on America’s indigenous people. The subsequent marginalization has made them the most victimized group when it comes to encounters with law enforcement. As The New York Times reports:

American Indians are more likely than any other racial group to be killed by the police, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which studied police killings from 1999 to 2011 (the rate was determined as a percentage of total population). But apart from media outlets like Indian Country Today, almost no attention is paid to this pattern of violence against already devastated peoples.

When it comes to American Indians, mainstream America suffers from willful blindness. Of all the episodes of police violence listed above, only the killings of Mr. Williams and Mr. Goodblanket received significant news coverage outside Indian circles, the latter only in an article for by the Oglala Lakota journalist and activist Simon Moya-Smith. The Williams shooting, which was the subject of public outcry, was covered by a major local news site, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, as well as by The New York Times.

The lack of public outcry towards this problem, and indeed towards pretty much all the issues affecting American Indians, has much to do with their low population and consequent lack of presence. Continue reading

Young People Aren’t Partying Like They Used To

Like many people in my early college years, I enjoyed the quintessential house party experience. But as I approach my early thirties, I find my interest in these big social events waning. Indeed, I am not alone in this: an ever fewer number of my peers are bothering to host parties, opting for limited and low-key social gatherings and hang outs. The few parties I manage to show up to typically end up with a shortfall in attendance, and those who do arrive come late, leave early, or both.

Now there is nothing wrong with this trend, especially insofar as it involves folks like myself who are getting older and therefore busier and more tired. But it is interesting to consider what other forces may be at work here, as the New York Times does with its piece on “The Death of the Party”.

First, the statistics:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average number of hours per day 15- to 24-year-olds spent attending or hosting social events on weekends or holidays — the times they are most likely to go to parties — declined sharply from 2003 to 2014 to nine minutes from 15. (That may not seem like much, but consider that this is the average of all those who fit the demographic.) The percentage who participated in these activities dropped to 4.1 from 7.1 over the same span.

Their tame night lives began in high school. According to a nationwide annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, the time high school seniors devoted to partying has slid dramatically over the decades. Except for a few years, the number of homebodies who never attended parties as high school seniors has steadily increased, to 41.3 percent in 2014 from 11.6 percent in 1987, and it’s accelerated in the new millennium, more than doubling since 2001. Over a third of Gen X high schoolers fought for their right to party at the tail end of the Reagan administration, spending more than six hours per week at gatherings; just 10.7 percent of the most recent Obama-era high school seniors did.

So my observation is not merely anecdotal: young people are in fact partying less than previous generations. But this is happening even among people half my age, e.g. in their prime for social gatherings and extroversion. What accounts for this? Naturally, the initial culprits involve technology — namely the Internet, social media, and smartphones — which together have influenced the way we interact and socialize. Continue reading

The First Resistor to Colonialism in the New World

Hatuey was a native Taíno chief from the island of Hispaniola (modern Haiti and Dominican Republic) who became the first major fighter against colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. He led a group of natives to resist the invading Spaniards in the early 16th century. After his island was conquered, he set out to Cuba with a group of 400 people to warn the indigenous people of the coming invasion; the following speech was attributed to him:

Here [a basket of gold and jewels] is the God the Spaniards worship. For these they fight and kill; for these they persecute us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea…They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters. Incapable of matching us in valor, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break…

Hatuey’s message was not heeded, and few joined him to fight, partly because warfare was an alien concept among Caribbean natives (as Columbus himself had observed). The chief thus resorted to guerrilla tactics with a handful of his men. At first managing to confine the Spaniards at their fort at Baracoa, the colonials redoubled their efforts and eventually captured him.

In 1512, Hatuey was tied to a stake and burned alive at Yara. Before he was burned, a priest asked him if he would accept Jesus and go to heaven, after which the following exchange was recorded:

[Hatuey], thinking a little, asked the religious man if Spaniards went to heaven. The religious man answered yes…The chief then said without further thought that he did not want to go there, but to hell, so as not to be where [the Spaniards were], and where he would not see such cruel people.

Though it is disputed precisely what Hatuey said in these two anecdotes, his status as one of the first major resistors of colonialism remains undisputed. He is celebrated by some Cubans as their first national hero, and is often regarded as such throughout the Caribbean.

Read more about him here.

Continue reading

Propaganda is at the Heart of Democracy

Democracy might be the least bad form of government there is, but that only means that it is no less vulnerable to certain weaknesses than the alternatives. Take for example propaganda, typically viewed as the staple of totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Though it is utilized across all political cultures, it is perhaps most pernicious in democratic forms of governance, ironically enough because of the principles of freedom enshrined in such societies.

As Quartz explains:

Democracy is susceptible to propaganda … because liberty protects free speech and so propagandistic statements can’t be banned. But, as [Jason] Stanley writes in his book How Propaganda Works, humans have “characteristic rational weaknesses and are susceptible to flattery and manipulation”, and so are vulnerable to spin. This is not a recent discovery: As Stanley notes, Aristotle recognized that demagogic propaganda posed the biggest threat to democracy.

Stanley argues that there are two kinds of propaganda. The most obvious kind, typically present in times of emergency such as war, uses fear mongering and nationalism to garner support through appeals to emotion.

But there’s also a more subtle form of propaganda, which Stanley defines as when an affront to a certain ideal is presented as though it’s an embodiment of that very ideal. For example:

“How do you defend bigotry against gays? You can’t just stand up and say, ‘We hate gays’, so you evoke religious liberty. Package anything in liberty and you’ve got yourself a deal”, he tells Quartz. As this uses the ideal of liberty to curtail another’s liberty, it meets Stanley’s description of this kind of propaganda.

I plan on reading Stanley’s book at one point, as it seems to offer a new and perhaps controversial way to look at propaganda. Many Americans tend to imagine propaganda to be a lot more overt and old fashioned than it really is — vitriolic radio broadcasts, colorful posters, organized rallies adorned with party paraphernalia. But more often than not, especially in a 21st century inundated with stimuli and signaling at all directions, propaganda can seep into our consciousness in the most subtle and seemingly mundane ways. One need only frame an idea a certain way, and communicate with a degree of pizazz, for it to seem substantive and true.

What are your thoughts?

Why Japanese Kids Go Out in Public Alone

The very thought of allowing one’s children to wander far from home is an anathema to most American parents (at least in urban areas). But the average Japanese doesn’t bat an eyelash at the sight of a child as young as nine riding the train or running errands, even in a sprawling megacity like Tokyo.

As The Atlantic reports, this practice is deeply rooted in Japan’s culture.

What accounts for this unusual degree of independence? Not self-sufficiency, in fact, but “group reliance”, according to Dwayne Dixon, a cultural anthropologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Japanese youth. “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others”, he says.

This assumption is reinforced at school, where children take turns cleaning and serving lunch instead of relying on staff to perform such duties. This “distributes labor across various shoulders and rotates expectations, while also teaching everyone what it takes to clean a toilet, for instance”, Dixon says.

Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that children have pride of ownership and understand in a concrete way the consequences of making a mess, since they’ll have to clean it up themselves. This ethic extends to public space more broadly (one reason Japanese streets are generally so clean). A child out in public knows he can rely on the group to help in an emergency.

It makes sense when you think about it: in a society that values community spirit and teaches everyone to be responsible to each other, one can enjoy considerable safety. Not only is it unlikely that you will be victimized, but you can count on total strangers to look after you if something goes wrong.

Even the country’s infrastructure lends itself well to self-reliance.  Continue reading

Parenting German Style

Well, more specifically, Berlin-style. TIME offers a glimpse at how parents in the cosmopolitan capital of one of the world’s most progressive countries treat their children. I know there is no shortage of pieces exploring the wide variety of parenting styles in the world, but this one seems well worth considering.

Don’t push reading. Berlin’s kindergartens or “kitas” don’t emphasize academics. In fact, teachers and other parents discouraged me from teaching my children to read. I was told it was something special the kids learn together when they start grade school. Kindergarten was a time for play and social learning. But even in first grade, academics aren’t pushed very hard. Our grade school provides a half-day of instruction interrupted by two (two!) outdoor recesses. But don’t think this relaxed approach means a poor education: According to a 2012 assessment by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, German 15-year-olds perform well above the international average when it comes to reading, math and science while their more pressured American counterparts lag behind.

Encourage kids to play with fire. A note came home from school along with my excited second grader. They were doing a project on fire. Would I let her light candles and perform experiments with matches? Together we lit candles and burned things, safely. It was brilliant. Still, she was the only kid whose parent didn’t allow her to shoot off heavy duty fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

Let children go almost everywhere alone. Most grade school kids walk without their parents to school and around their neighborhoods. Some even take the subway alone. German parents are concerned about safety, of course, but they usually focus on traffic, not abductions.

The facts seem to be on the Germans’ side. Stranger abductions are extremely rare; there were only 115 a year in all of America, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice study. And walking around without parental supervision, or “independent mobility” as the researchers call it, is good for kids.

Party when school starts. One of my Berlin friends once told me that the three biggest life events are Einschulung (starting first grade), Jugendweihe (becoming a young adult) and getting married.

In Berlin, Einschulung is a huge celebration at the school—on a Saturday!—that includes getting a Zuckertute—a giant child-sized cone filled with everything from pencils to watches to candy. Then there’s another party afterwards with your family and friends. Einschulung is something children look forward to for years. It signals a major life change, and hopefully, an enthusiasm for learning.

Jugendweihe happens when a child turns 14. It involves a similar ceremony, party, and gifts, marking the next stage of growing up. With all the negativity heaped on adolescents, there’s something to be said for this way of celebrating young adulthood.

Take the kids outside everyday. According to a German saying “there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”. The value of outside time is promoted in the schools, hence the “garten” in Kindergarten. It’s also obvious on Berlin’s numerous playgrounds. No matter how cold and grey it gets, and in Berlin it gets pretty cold, parents still bundle their kids up and take them to the park, or send them out on their own.

So basically, Berliners cultivate a lot of freedom and independence in their children, while also allowing them to have a lot more unbridled fun in their youth; even their institutions and infrastructure are geared towards this approach. This seems to be the right way to raise a child, especially as it makes the most out of these relatively easy and innocent — and formative — years.

What are your thoughts?