The Heroic White Helmets of Syria

Amid one of the most brutal conflicts and humanitarian crises of the 21st century, a small but powerful force for good has emerged against all odds to do what it can to help. These are the White Helmets of Syria, a volunteer group that offers well-needed emergency services to the millions across the nation who are continually slaughtered and maimed in the nearly four-year conflict.

More from Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times:

There are more than 2,200 volunteers in the White Helmets, mostly men but a growing number of women as well. The White Helmets are unpaid and unarmed, and they risk their lives to save others. More than 80 have been killed in the line of duty, the group says, largely because Syrian military aircraft often return for a “double-tap” — dropping bombs on the rescuers.

Wearing simple white construction helmets as feeble protection from those “double-tap” bombings, the White Helmets are strictly humanitarian. They even have rescued some of the officers of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad who are bombing them.

Since the White Helmets began in 2013, its members have saved more than 12,500 lives by its count.

A reputation for nonpolitical humanitarianism has allowed the White Helmets to work across lines of rival militias, including the Islamic State. In a land short of heroes and long on violence, many rally round the White Helmets. Syria may be notorious today for cruelty and suffering, but these men and women are a reminder of the human capacity for courage, strength and resilience.

I had the supreme honor of donating to this group last winter, but I wish I could do more. They are always in need of funding, so give what you can or spread the word. Their website is here.

Two Tragic Blows To Freedom Of Conscience

Over the past weekend, two prominent figures in activism and politics were killed.

On February 26, Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American engineer, writer, columnist, and secular activist, was hacked to death by extremist Islamists while he and his wife were riding home from a book fair in the country’s capital, Dhaka (his spouse survived).

Roy founded and wrote for Mukto-Mona, an Internet community for freethinkers, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent. He was a prominent advocate of free expression in Bangladesh and human rights, coordinating international protests against government censorship and imprisonment of bloggers. He had long received death threats for his taboo works.

The following day, Boris Nemtsov, one of the few major opposition leaders and critics of the Putin administration, was shot in the back by unknown assassins while walking on a bridge near the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow.

A physicist with a storied political career since the tumultuous 1990s, at the time of his death, Nemtsov was working to organize a rally against Russian involvement in the war in Ukraine and the country’s financial crisis. He was working with Russian journalist Kseniya Sobchak on a report proving the presence of Russian military in eastern Ukraine.

A long-time organizer of protests against the government, Nemtsov came into conflict with the government several times over issues of corruption, human rights violations, and policy abuses. In the weeks before his death, he expressed fear that Putin would have him killed, yet continued with plans to hold the rally. His last tweet called for Russia’s divided opposition to unite for an anti-war march.

101 Great Zen Sayings and Proverbs

You do not have to subscribe to Zen Buddhism, or indeed be religious, to appreciate the wisdom of these sayings (many of which are not, in any case, explicitly spiritual or Buddhist in origin or application). I know quotes can seem trite and vacuous, but a lot of these are worth reflecting on.

My personal favorite is the following by B. D. Schiers (whom I oddly cannot find much information on).

If you want to change the world, start with the next person who comes to you in need.

This goes back to one of the first lessons I ever learned on the path to better moral living: that no good deed is too small, and that change on any level, even just the way we treat a stranger on the street, can be the start of a better world in the aggregate.

While the bigger picture is of course important and should not be overlooked, but you have to start somewhere, so why not during the routine interactions and moral decisions we encounter every day?

Feel free to share your favorite quotes from this list and what you take away from them — or offer your own if not mentioned.

Hat tip to Buddaimonia.com for the list.

Happy Languages

It seems that most humans are inclined towards pessimism and negativity: look at how we enrapt by the awful occurrences we encounter day to day (from gossip to car accidents), or how sordid and scandalous news spreads like wildfire (especially when compared to more positive developments, which are more likely to get no reporting in the first place).

But a recent study suggests that contrary to popular belief, or indeed to our frequent reactions to negativity, our fundamental means of communication is rife with a “universal positivity bias”. As The Atlantic reports:

This bias was first posited in 1969, when a pair of psychologists wrote a paper called “The Pollyanna Hypothesis,” named for the fictional orphan girlwith a propensity to look on the bright side. The original study had high school boys, who belonged to different cultures and spoke different languages, do word association tasks, and then ranked whether the pairs were positive or negative. More often, they were positive.

In the new PNAS study, researchers analyzed texts from Google Books, Twitter, the New York Times, a Google Web Crawl, subtitles from movies and TV shows, and music lyrics. They measured how frequently words were used in each language (English, German, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, and Indonesian), and had native speakers rate how negative or positive they felt upon hearing those words.

In every language, on every platform, the median happiness score was higher than five—five being a totally neutral word—as seen in the chart below. The yellow is the “above-neutral” portion, and the blue is the “below-neutral.”

Below is the aforementioned chart. In total, over 100,000 words spanning ten languages were examined.

Given that these languages cover a large proportion of the world’s population (especially when you count non-native speakers), it is safe to say that most humans communicate in a language that leans towards positivity. Moreover, there are some nuances between languages:

Spanish and Portuguese were the most happy, in this study. For some languages, it really depended what kind of text the researchers were looking at—in English, music lyrics were significantly less positive than books, the New York Times, or even Twitter.

So all the languages studied tended to use happy words more often, but overall, languages also contained more happy than unhappy words. The researchers also measured “average word happiness” and found it to be high, regardless of how frequently those words were used in the text. So even lesser-used words were more often positive than negative.

As someone who is not a scientist, let alone linguist, I am not sure what to make of these results or their implications. The responses to the article seem skeptical or at least neutral, with one commentator pointing out something that also came to my mind:

The study does not cover words used in everyday interpersonal speech by everyday people, only the mere existence of the word types and writing, which is done by professional and political individuals to show off in one way or another. Maybe the study proves language bias accurately, but not the bias of language users in everyday life.

I would be curious to know how positive languages are when used in an everyday, colloquial context among average people. Were such a study possible, it would yield more comprehensive results. But given the recentness of this study, perhaps we can expect that in the future. For now, I am inclined to agree with the article’s conclusion:

“Words, which are the atoms of human language, present an emotional spectrum with a universal, self-similar positive bias,” the researchers write. While individual texts—books, songs, tweets—may skew negative, all in all, it looks like language is a positive tool.

What are your thoughts on this?

The Dutch Enjoy The Best Diet

The Netherlands tops just about every metric of national performance, from civil liberties and average income, to quality of life and even happiness. So perhaps it is no surprise that even its access to plentiful, nutritional food is among the highest in the world too, according to a recent report by Oxfam, an international humanitarian organization based in the U.K.

The study was compiled in fall 2013 and drew on data from the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Foundation, the International Labour Organization, and other groups. The score is based on the sum of several factors, ranging from food prices to the rate of malnutrition and diet-based diseases; Oxfam cautions that the conclusion is not comprehensive of any one nation, but is a general ranking (e.g. regional disparities can exist within countries).

To quote The Guardian

The Netherlands [has] created a good market that enables people to get enough to eat. Prices are relatively low and stable and the type of food people are eating is balanced,” Deborah Hardoon, a senior researcher at Oxfam who compiled the results, said in an interview.

“They’ve got the fundamentals right and in a way that is better than most other countries all over the world.”

Oxfam ranked the nations on the availability, quality and affordability of food and dietary health. It also looked at the percentage of underweight children, food diversity and access to clean water, as well as negative health outcomes such as obesity and diabetes.

European countries dominated the top of the ranking but Australia squeezed into the top 12, tying with Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Luxembourg at No. 8.

Low food prices and low levels of diabetes played a major role in the Netherlands’ high ranking. Such a good diet is partly why the Dutch are among the longest-lived people on Earth, as well as some of the tallest on average.

France and Switzerland were runners up, while the U.K. landed in 13th place and the United States and Japan tied for 21st. Although America ranked high in the affordability and quality of food, its rating was pulled down by the high levels of obesity and diabetes; Japan fared poorly mostly on the relatively high price of food.

In last place was Chad, which often ranks in the bottom five of most reports on human development and prosperity. The African nation scored particularly bad for the cost of food and the number of underweight children — 34 percent. Only the West African countries of Guinea and the Gambia did worse in food prices, both falling at the lower end of the ranking.

Most of the bottom 30 countries in the Oxfam report were in Africa, followed by South Asian countries like Laos (112), Bangladesh (102), Pakistan (97) and India (97); in terms of nutrition and underweight children, Burundi (119), Yemen (121), Madagascar (122) and India have the worst rankings.

But there is a more important conclusion to draw from the study than the Netherlands’ impressive performance (which can nonetheless serve as a case study). Quoting The Guardian once more:

Oxfam said the latest figures show 840 million people go hungry every day, despite there being enough food for the hungry. It called for changes in the way food is produced and distributed around the world.

The causes of hunger, it added, include a lack of investment in infrastructure in developing nations and in small-scale agriculture, security, prohibitive trading agreements, biofuel targets that divert crops from food to fuel and the impact of climate change.

Research suggests that climate change could raise the number of people at risk of hunger by 20 to 50 percent by 2050, according to the group.

“This index quite clearly indicates that despite the fact of there being enough food in the world we are still not able to feed everybody in all the countries around the world,” said Hardoon.

“If we had a more equal distribution of wealth and resources, and particularly food, this wouldn’t be a problem,” she added.

It is a moral tragedy that hundreds of millions of people are scarred by hunger and malnutrition despite there being more than enough food to go around (such that an estimated one-third is wasted around the world, especially in the U.S., U.K., and other developed countries).

Good on the Dutch and other developed-world societies for mostly resolving all-too familiar human problem — now to apply their strategies and approaches on a global scale.

Reflecting On The Killing Of Three Muslim Students

I rarely post about current events or news stories, but I have a rare bit of time and this even merits attention and reflection.

Last night, three Muslim students — Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — were shot dead at a housing complex near University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The perpetrator was Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who handed himself over to the police afterward. News is still unfolding as of this post, and the motive remains unclear, though some reports claim cite a dispute over parking — of all things to kill lover.

The natural question that comes to mind (or that should) is whether this incident was motivated by anti-Islam bigotry. This would certainly fit the pattern of post-9/11 attacks and harassment towards Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim (namely Sikhs). Opposition to Islam, ranging from criticism of the religion to out-and-out bigotry, have definitely seen an uptick in recent months following high-profile incidents involving Islamic extremists, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the barbarism of Boko Haram and IS.

Given the present lack of information, it is difficult to determine why Hicks killed these people, although some sources have pointed out his open condemnation and mockery of organized religion on social media, as well as his association with atheist groups (albeit mainstream ones like Atheist for Equality that, to my knowledge, do not advocate violence or discrimination against religion people).

Ultimately, whether or not the perpetrator’s dislike of religion played a role in his decision to escalate a dispute into a murderous assault, it remains true that his atheism did not prevent him from such an immoral crime.

This tragic incident reaffirms why I much prefer the label of secular humanist over just plain atheist, precisely because mere disbelief in a deity or the supernatural says nothing about one’s morality or character. Atheism denotes what you do not have — religious beliefs — but not what you have chosen to replace said beliefs or ethical foundations with. Hence why atheists run the gamut from humanists like Albert Einstein to monsters like Joseph Stalin.

It goes without saying that a humanist framework is one that precludes violence against other humans, regardless of their beliefs, religious or otherwise. Of course people will always harm and kill one another regardless of whatever authority or precept they alleged to follow or associate with, whether it is secular or religious in nature. But this fact of human nature, whereby bad actions are caused by all sorts of other factors outside professed belief, does not preclude the creation of a comprehensive and authoritative moral and ethical framework.

Moreover, it is worth pointing out the distinction between being critical of religion as an idea and institution — all while still recognizing the humanity of its adherents — and hating religiously identifying people on such a visceral and hateful level as the perpetrator allegedly did. I myself am highly critical of religion as a whole, but I certainly do not view religious people as this faceless Other without personality, hopes, dreams, feelings, and humanity. Atheist or not, there is a difference between disliking or criticizing beliefs and ideas and taking the next step to hate or kill those innocents who hold such beliefs without harm to anyone else.

That said, it is important to remind fellow atheists to be careful to distinguish themselves (and their atheist leaders) as religious skeptics from religious bigots who incite such attacks or (in thankfully rare cases) directly perpetrates them. I am not trying to make this tragedy about me or the atheist movement, but highlighting the inherent dangers of proclaiming moral superiority by virtue of casting off religion while ignoring that one can still be a bad person, morally or behaviorally, regardless of what one believes.

If we are going to promote a skeptical view of religion, and opposition to its more harmful affects (both institutional and ideological), than we must do so alongside the propagation of a humanist ethic. By all means, critique religion and seek to minimize its harm, as I certainly do, but also recognize and fight the harms of non-religious origin, and more importantly see the humanity of the billions of fellow humans who, like it or not, hold religious views of some form or another.

All that said, I do not mean to read into this senseless act the larger issue of bigotry, lack of empathy, and the like; while likely factors, the details once again remain unknown for certain. It is also certainly not my intention to exploit a tragedy as an opportunity to get on a soap box for my own purposes and movement.

Rather, I am just tired of seeing people kill each other in such wanton manners for one reason or another: ideological, religious, anti-religious, opportunistic, etc. While I know this horror is a fact of human existence (at least for the foreseeable future — I cling to a kernel of utopianism), that does not mean that I want to be indifferent to the large psychological, social, and ideological factors underpinning so much of the killing and harming that goes on everyday somewhere in the world.

Given what little help I can lend to these unfortunate victims, the very least I can do — and in fact, feel obligated to do — is use the opportunity to reflect upon my own moral foundations and those of my fellow humans, both secular and non-religious. Maybe it is my way of trying to make sense of the senseless, or trying to derive meaning from sheer tragedy, but it is all I can do. I like to think that if enough of us continuous reflect on why we do the awful things we do, and what we can do about it, such barbarous acts will become more rare if not extinct.

One can still dream. In the meantime, my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones. From what reports show, these young people were not only bright and talented, but socially conscious and humanitarian. By all accounts, they were, in other words, what humanists should aspire to be.

The Stutthof Diaries Collection — A Worthy Kickstarter Project

Whether you are a lover of history, a World War II buff, or enjoy unique and powerful literature, you will have an interest in helping me support the Stutthof Diaries Collection on Kickstarter. Its aims are as valuable as they are captivating:

The Stutthof Diaries Collection are actual diaries and interviews with Norwegian police imprisoned during the Nazi occupation of Norway. The Nazi leadership, under Reichskommissar Joseph Terboven, became intolerant of the Norwegian police and set out to determine the disloyal element in the police and therefore a security threat. That opportunity came with the arrest of Oslo Police Chief Gunnar Eilifsen, for refusing to arrest several young girls who did not show up for mandatory labor. Terboven demanded Eilifsen’s execution and on the morning of August 16th, 1943 Eilifsen was executed for insubordination. He had the opportunity to neither contact his family or a defense lawyer. On the same morning of August 16, police all over Norway were arrested and forced to declare their loyalty to the Nazi Regime. Failure to do so would result in imprisonment or execution. Hundreds of police refused to declare their loyalty. My father was one of them. He was deported, along with 270 other police men, to a concentration camp in northern Poland called Stutthof. There the police kept personal diaries of their experience hidden from their captors. The Stutthof Diaries Collections are diaries, memoirs and interviews collected over the last dozen years which are a treasure trove and describing how personal sacrifice can triumph over purposeless greed and violence.

As of this post, the project is just six days away from its funding deadline, and so far it has sadly garnered only a fraction of the money it needs ($2,181 out of $15,000). I have seen many projects reach their goal despite the most unlikely circumstances, so while it is a tall order, it can be done.

If this endeavor interests you, give what you can or spread the word. These valuable but largely unknown perspectives need to be known. Thankfully, the creator has expressed the intention to publish these diaries one way or another in 2015, but either way he can certainly use the help. Learn more by visiting the official Facebook page here.

The Countries Most Threatened By Climate Change

It goes without saying that climate change will have a severe impact on humanity. But some areas will be harder hit than others, and the countries most likely to be heavily impacted are also the least equipped to handle the subsequent social, economic, and political consequences.

Indeed, as the following infographics show, nearly all the world’s wealthiest nations will get by relatively unscathed (at least initially), while the greatest burden will fall on those states that are already strained by poverty, underdevelopment, environmental degradation, and political instability — factors that will exacerbate, and be exacerbated by, the effects of climate change.

Bussiness Insider notes some important details to keep in mind:

While the maps provide a great zoomed-out perspective of what’s going to happen globally as the earth warms, there are a few caveats to keep in mind when checking it out:

First, these maps are based on country rankings, not comprehensive evaluations of each country. In other words, the best-ranked countries are only as great as they seem compared to the countries that are performing less well.

Additionally, the ranking looks only at the level of entire countries. All of the state-specific, region-specific, or city-specific data gets somewhat lost in this zoomed out perspective.

While many in the developed world, particularly the United States, remain unresponsive or slow to act (if not in open denial to the problem), humanity’s most vulnerable people — already suffering enough as it is — will bear the brunt of the consequence of inaction. It is worth pointing out that a large proportion of the world’s population lives in the “global south” where climate change will be worst, meaning the human toll will be of an appalling scale.

Of course, in our heavily globalized world, even the initially best-off countries will be negatively impacted eventually. World food supplies will be disrupted, tens of millions of refugees will flee starvation and social breakdown to wherever they can, and the possibility of international conflict over strained resources (or disfavored migration) will be more likely. So while some places may be relatively better off than others, all of us will be affected in some way or another: there is currently no way to escape our planet and its increasingly erratic climate.

While the precise sociopolitical effects are speculative (to varying degrees of likelihood), climate change itself is not. The evidence is mounting and the impact is already being felt and documented in both ecosystems and the world’s poorest countries (and even in the U.S., which recently endured record drought throughout most of the country). Ultimately, we will all suffer together, and the only way to do anything about it is to develop an appropriately global response. This is both an existential and moral issue.

The Suffering Refugees Who Can’t Go Home

What do you say to a mother with tears streaming down her face who says her daughter is in the hands of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and that she wishes she were there, too? Even if she had to be raped and tortured, she says, it would be better than not being with her daughter.

What do you say to the 13-year-old girl who describes the warehouses where she and the others lived and would be pulled out, three at a time, to be raped by the men? When her brother found out, he killed himself.

How can you speak when a woman your own age looks you in the eye and tells you that her whole family was killed in front of her, and that she now lives alone in a tent and has minimal food rations?

– Angelina Jolie, A New Level of Refugee SufferingNew York Times

That is just a taste of the awful conditions and circumstances faced by the millions of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing some of the most savage and chaotic conflict in generations — not including the millions more displaced within their respective countries, and the hundred of thousands killed, maimed, or missing.

There can be no doubt that the Syrian Civil War, and the subsequent emergence of IS from the chaos, is one of the greatest humanitarian and moral calamities in decades. It is hard to imagine that this horror is being played out in such a large scale in other crises across the world, from Central African Republic to Burma.

I have no idea how to even conceive of this suffering, let alone face it in person.

Jolie, who has a notable track record as a humanitarian, strikes me as sincere in her observations and humanism. One particular point that was salient to me as an International Relations major:

At stake are not only the lives of millions of people and the future of the Middle East, but also the credibility of the international system. What does it say about our commitment to human rights and accountability that we seem to tolerate crimes against humanity happening in Syria and Iraq on a daily basis?

When the United Nations refugee agency was created after World War II, it was intended to help people return to their homes after conflict. It wasn’t created to feed, year after year, people who may never go home, whose children will be born stateless, and whose countries may never see peace. But that is the situation today, with 51 million refugees, asylum-seekers or displaced people worldwide, more than at any time in the organization’s history.

There is little more to add: after seventy years, it appears little has changed with respect to the plight of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. While conflicts on the scale of the Second World War have thankfully been absent — and still unlikely, if not ruled out entirely — large international wars have given way to chronic civil strife in certain countries that extend suffering and crisis across generations. It is awful how familiar and intractable this problem remains. I hope that changes in my lifetime.

U.S. Must Not Forget The Dispossession of Natives

There are many reasons to favour a more inclusive history of the United States that places the dispossession of native peoples at its centre. Such a history erases the artificial distinctions that earlier generations drew to discount the presence of native peoples, does not privilege the rise of the nation-state, and better reflects the makeup of today’s US population, which will soon be majority non-white. Its themes also resonate with 21st century concerns, including state-sponsored social engineering, large-scale population displacement, environmental degradation, and global capitalism.

But perhaps the best reason is that it is more faithful to the past. I teach in the state of Georgia, where the legislature mandates that graduates of its public universities fulfill a US history requirement, a law born of the belief that an informed populace is essential to democracy. Good history makes for good citizens. A history that glosses over the conquest of the continent is partial, in both senses of the word. It misleads people about the past and misinforms their debates about the present. In charting a course for the future, Americans would do well to put the dispossession of native peoples back on the map.

– Claudio Saunt, The Invasion of America