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.

The World’s Improving Economic Prospects

Positive news about the trajectory of the world is hard to find these days. From climate change to inequality to the rise of political authoritarianism, it seems that humanity is backsliding in just about every area of progress — what a way to kick off the 21st century and all its alleged promises.

Our World In Data is a web-based initiative that provides infographics about changing trends in a wide variety of subjects, from living standards to economics. Operating out of the Institute of New Economic Thinking at Oxford University, it is a reliable source for those wishing to document how humanity has changed over the course of decades, centuries, or millennia.

Fortunately, the data collected by OWID clearly show that for all the grim circumstances our species faces, we have broadly made vast improvements in socioeconomic prosperity, especially by historical standards. Compare GDP per capita — which serves as a rough, if imperfect, approximation of average living standards — in year one C.E. to 2008.

GDP per capita in 1 C.E. (Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking)

GDP per capita in 2008 (Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking)

You don’t have to go too far back to see how much progress there has been. Even over the last two centuries, there has been a marked and unprecedented improvement in the economic circumstances of most humans.

Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking

Moreover, while much of the world remains very poor (albeit far less so than two centuries ago), it is largely these impoverished nations that are leading the way in economic growth and development, thereby progressively lifting more of their people from poverty.

Our World In Data / Institute of New Economic Thinking

To be sure, none of this means that we should be complacent: these advancements are both tenuous and far short of what is needed to ensure a better life for all (indeed, the website concludes with this warning as well). However, it is still important to recognize how much we have achieved: incomes are growing across the world, poverty is rapidly declining, and the world’s poorest nations to continue to chalk up the highest rate of growth.

Granted, much of this progress is being felt unevenly; a lot of fast-growing countries are seeing their newfound wealth concentrated in relatively few hands, or invested inefficiently, if at all. Plenty of developed nations are lagging behind, too, with stagnating incomes and growing inequality. But all these challenges and shortcomings aside, we should be encouraged by how far we have come, and recognize the incredible potential for improvement of the human condition.

To see more data about the changes in socioeconomic development, click here. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts.

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 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

The Origin of the Zombie

The now ubiquitous and popular concept of the zombie (first spelled “zombi”) originated in the fusion of African folklore with the particularly brutal form of slavery practiced in French-ruled Haiti (then called Saint-Domingue). The precise genesis of the concept is unknown, but as one could imagine, its emergence is a long and painful story.

The life of a Haitian slave was one of never-ending fear and suffering. Hunger, extreme overwork, and cruelty were everyday occurrences. Slaves did not eat enough to have children, and those few who were born usually died. The sheer labor intensity required to cultivate and produce sugar – one of the most profitable commodities in the 17th and 18th centuries – required literally working people to death. In the cold logic of plantation masters, the breeding of slaves was a waste of resources: it was better and more cost-effective to work them to death and just bring in more from Africa.

[Note that this is why people of African descent living in former Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies – from Louisiana and Haiti to Cuba and Brazil – have generally retained more of their African heritage, in the forms of Creole, Voodoo, Santeria, and so on. Unlike in the English colonies, where deaths rates were comparatively lower and birth rates higher, new Africans kept being brought in to replenish the labor force. Thus, by the time these colonies became independent, there were enough African-born individuals who retained some form of their language, folklore, religion, and so on.]

Given the constant agony of slave life, many slaves sought solace in the idea of going back to their homeland, which they called lan guinée – literally “Guinea” or “West Africa”. It says a lot that in Haitian Creole, this phrase is now synonymous with heaven, since the only conceivable way out of slavery was death. Though African slaves feared death like anyone else, they also wished for it. Suicide was common, as it not only offered an escape, but served as the sole means of asserting freedom – to take back control over the body your master owned and exploited. It was also the only way the slave could defy their master, through deprivation of their labor, without punishment.

[Slaves generally committed suicide through homemade poisons, and this handiness with toxins made some plantation masters fearful of being targeted in this covert manner. The cultural trope of the African or Voodoo witch doctor may have stemmed in large part from this concern.]

This is where the zombie mythos emerges. In traditional Vodou belief, the zombie is a dead person who cannot go to lan guinée. Rather, the zombie is fated to remain mindless and without control – a slave for eternity. To get to the final resting place of Africa, you needed to be transported by Baron Samedi, a loa, or spirit, of the dead. Among his roles is to dig a person’s grave and welcome him to the other side. But if for some reason one has offended Baron, the god will not allow that person to reach guinea upon death, thus leaving them behind as a zombie (which in some variations can be controlled by someone else, such as a bokor, akin to a witch or sorcerer).

Needless to say, becoming a zombie was a slave’s worst nightmare: it meant that the only path to liberation was gone, and you would continue to be enslaved. It is believed that Africans developed this concept to instill hope: keep being a good and pious person, and avoid offending Baron and other spirits, and soon you would be free. However, many slave drivers also exploited this fear, invoking it to keep slaves motivated and to discourage them from acting out or committing suicide.

Though it originates in the folklore of Haitian Vodou (which itself is a descendent and variation of the original African religion of Vodou), contrary to popular belief, zombies are not part of any formal religious practice.

Moreover, the idea of reanimating corpses or wandering souls is fairly common in mythologies and religions around the world. But the zombie concept that has become popularized in the West seems to stem mostly from Haitian and Louisianian Vodou (which in the former’s case was to the transmitted to the U.S. through our occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century).

Source: New York Times

The Art of Bus Stops

The Soviet regime might have been repressive and stultifying in a lot of areas, but one place where it exercised a considerable amount of boldness and innovation is public infrastructure — including the humble bus stop.

Source: Foreign Policy / Christopher Herwig

Source: Foreign Policy / Christopher Herwig

The photos were taken by Canadian photographer Christopher Herwig, who has spent over a decade travelling through most of the former Soviet Union to document these neglected architectural marvels. You can see a larger version of each photo by clicking here.

With their unusual colors, shapes, and themes, these otherwise functional structures look more like art installments than bus stops. As Foreign Policy explains:

The Soviet Union ascribed an outsized importance to public transportation. Buses, trains, and metro lines were a sign of progress; they were also a powerful symbol of connection and unity, as the Politburo worked to build a communist society throughout 15 ethnically diverse republics that covered a landmass stretching from the Baltic Sea to the shores of the Pacific. Perhaps the most famous legacy of this Soviet fixation on transport is the Moscow Metro system, with its glittering chandeliers and its elaborate murals depicting scenes of proletariat glory. But Moscow was dressed up in order to be shown off — to serve as a demonstration of socialist power and might for visiting foreign dignitaries. Most citizens lived outside the capital, and for them, buses were the predominant means of transportation, accounting for nearly 44 percent of traffic throughout the country by the mid-1980s. What makes the extravagant, eye-catching nature of the common Soviet roadside bus stop all the more surprising is that these were often tucked away in hidden corners of the empire, far from the eyes of foreigners.

Soviet architecture is best known for its overpowering conformity and functionality: The term conjures up images of rows of low-slung buildings and mass-produced apartment blocks. These bus stops, however, were an unlikely outlet for creative expression. Local artists were given unprecedented freedom to experiment with design, color, and material. Many of the designs were commissioned at the local level, which allowed for artists and architects to reflect the character and history of their individual republics. What came about was thousands of unique creations, covering a range of shapes and sizes.

Artists still worked within the confines of Soviet art, employing communist imagery of peasants in wheat fields and relying on austere, minimalist structures. But the more flamboyant bus stops reimagined this aesthetic, twisting standard outlines and incorporating local elements into their design. For instance, a bus stop modeled after the Silk Road-era Arystan Bab mausoleum in Aralsk, Kazakhstan sports a minaret and crescent moon, while one in the Black Sea coastal town of Gagra takes the shape of a breaking wave, decorated with purple mosaic tiles.

These are just some of the amazing examples from Herwig’s collection. You can find more in his newly published “Soviet Bus Stops“.

You Think Today’s Politics Are Bad?

Amid the understandable growing public disgust with the nasty and petty behavior of our public servants, the Baltimore Sun helpfully reminds us that politics really hasn’t changed all that much — if anything, it is a lot tamer.

Consider our first contested presidential election, in 1800, which pit two of our most famous statesmen — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — against each other. It’s tempting to envisage them as wig-clad philosopher-kings, deliberating high-minded ideas in a calm and reasoned campaign.

It’s also false. Jefferson’s supporters said that Adams had secretly plotted to have one of his sons marry King George III’s daughter, to bring America back under the British crown. But if Jefferson were elected, Adams’ camp charged, the young nation would descend into anarchy and violence.

“Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced,” one anti-Jefferson newspaper predicted, “the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

Another editorialist painted an even bleaker picture of life under a Jefferson administration. “Look at your homes, your parents, your wives, and your children,” he warned. “Are you prepared to see your dwellings in flames, hoary hairs bathed in blood, female chastity violated, or children writhing on the pike?”

To think that Adams, one of the most vociferous patriots of the American Revolution, being accused of selling out the country to the British? It must be hard to imagine our enlightened and gentlemanly founders resorting to such crude and provocative language. To be sure, much of this was being directed by supporters rather than the candidates themselves, but neither of the men seemed to have done much to reign in on such inflamed passions. Politics is politics, even for otherwise seemingly intelligent people.  Continue reading

Is The Constitution What’s Wrong With America?

The Atlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum makes the provocative case that what ails the United States’ political system is the very document it is founded upon. Put another way, the problem with America today is not that it has deviated from the Constitution, but on the contrary, its politicians and citizens remain too true and reverential to it.

This is idea is drawn from The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding, a 2014 book written by Harvard political theorist Eric Nelson. The argument begins by tracing the roots and sentiments of the American Revolution to Britain’s own historical debate about executive versus legislative power. It is a long excerpt, but it is well worth reading, since this is an often-overlooked context and influence for the Patriots.  Continue reading