Why Foreign Elections Matter to Americans

It’s strange for a lot of us insular Americans to realize, let alone accept, that our fates are determined by politicians, voters, and institutions beyond our borders. (Hell, we barely have enough influence over our own political and economic circumstances, but that’s a different story.)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an obvious example: Now the specter of nuclear war haunts the world again, to say nothing of the impact on everything from gas to food prices (more so in other countries than in the U.S.). COVID-19 is another dramatic example, and it also reflects the equally difficult issue of being at the mercy of natural forces we often barely think about, let alone prepare for.

A lesser known but consequential example is Brazil, whose 210 million people influence (in the broadest terms) the fate of the Amazon rainforest—which is not only innately valuable for its unique nature but is one of the key ecological regions whose collapse could accelerate climate change and be calamitous for the rest of humanity.

Tomorrow, Brazilian voters will head to the polls to cast ballots in the first round of the country’s highly anticipated presidential election. (In Brazil, federal elections are held the first Sunday of October to maximize accessibility, and a presidential candidate must receive more than half the popular vote to win; otherwise, the top two recipients of votes go on to a second round on the last Sunday of October.)

The two frontrunners are left-wing former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose administration was clouded by allegations of corruption, and right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, who has threatened to reject the outcome of the election if it does not go his way. Not unlike the United States, Brazil is a big, diverse, complex, and federalized republic that ranks as one of the world’s largest democracies, with over 156 million registered voters.

Likewise, Brazilians are increasingly polarized and yearn for a leader who will put the country on the right path—with many remaining cynical about whether either candidate has the vision, discipline, or even political influence to get that done.

Of course, Brazil is far from the only example: There’s a good reason why the rest of the world takes such an interest in our domestic politics, compared to the other way around. Who we elect, what policies we support, how we manage our massively influential economy, etc., have tremendous implications for the rest of humanity (not least because we can literally invade or nuke another nation). We may not like it, but the world is too big and complicated for even one powerful country to make a difference, and there’s a lot that’s beyond our control.

The Great Liberator of D.C.

More belated photos of D.C.’s international character: A memorial to Venezuelan revolutionary Simon Bolivar, located near the National Mall just behind the headquarters of the Organization of American States (OAS), an international organization comprised of most of the Western Hemisphere. It is reportedly the world’s largest equestrian statue of Bolivar and was gifted to the U.S. by Venezuela in 1955.

Considered one of history’s most consequential figures, Bolivar is known as “The Liberator” for his lightning-fast campaign to free much of Latin America from Spanish rule in the early 19th century. He is considered the founder of at least five South American countries—including his native Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Panama—of which all but Bolivia were initially one nation called the Republic of Colombia, or Gran Colombia, which he founded and ruled as its first president.

The creation of Gran Colombia, which John Quincy Adams described as one of the world’s most powerful countries, inspired revolutions elsewhere in Latin America. Having established some of history’s first (official) republics—including abolishing slavery in deference to his Haitian allies—Bolivar is seen as a natural contemporary of America’s Founders, with whom he shared a similar influence from Enlightenment ideals like individual liberty and popular sovereignty (and whose revolution, along with that of France, he admired). But Bolivar was just as flawed as his fellow revolutionaries and was especially cynical about whether democracy could take hold in Latin America; he believed the legacy of Spanish authoritarianism, as opposed to the more liberal constitutional monarchy of Britain, left far less fertile soil for American- or French-style republicanism. Yet as in those countries, Bolivar’s ideals and aspirations would outlive him and the short-lived republican governments he helped create.

The history of the statue is almost as interesting as the man himself: In 1955, the Senate authorized the acceptance and placement of a gift from the Venezuelan government. The eight-ton was designed by Felix W. de Weldon, who sculpted the famous statue depicting the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima.  The original dedication ceremony was scheduled for May 22, 1958, with Vice President Nixon scheduled to preside, but a coup in Venezuela earlier that year delayed the ceremony.

Finally on February 27, 1959, President Eisenhower dedicated the 36-foot bronze statue as a symbol of the U.S. and Venezuela striving “to live and work together.” The dedication came two weeks after Romulo Betancourt was elected President on February 13, 1959, ending a decade of dictatorship in Venezuela. (Betancourt would be known as the founder of Venezuelan democracy, making him an appropriate figure to preside over a ceremony dedicated to the country’s less-than-democratic founder.)

The Old City of Sana’a

Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, has been continuously inhabited for over 2,500 years, with its densely populated old city characterized by unique architecture bearing geometric patterns. It has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986, due not only to its aesthetic beauty, but the resourceful use of local materials and clever urban planning: The multistory buildings reflect efforts to house a large community within a tightly defended fortress without compromising space, hygiene, and recreation. The city abounds with green spaces, public baths, and markets; despite Yemen’s grinding poverty, homeownership is fairly high.

Like much of northern Yemen, Sanna has faced thousands of air strikes from a Saudi-led coalition that intervened in the country’s civil war in 2015 after the Iran-aligned Houthi group ousted the internationally recognised government the previous year; the war has killed tens of thousands and brought Yemen to the brink of famine.

This past April, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire that has suspended air, sea, and land attacks, allowed desperately needed imports into Houthi-controlled seaports, and has reopened Sanaa airport. The truce is the first comprehensive agreement in the war and has actually held up fairly well — allowing citizens to rebuild their exceptional cultural and historical legacy.

Reuters reported on local efforts to fix their broken and dispirited city:

An Ancient Greek Yearbook

You’re looking at an ancient Greek yearbook, which was rediscovered earlier this month after over 130 years in storage at a Scottish museum.

It lists the names of 31 graduates from the ephebate, a year of military and civic training undertaken around age 18 to prepare for life as adults. It ends with “of Caesar”, referring to emperor Claudius, the fourth ruler of the Roman Empire (41-54), indicating they graduated during his reign. (Greece had been under Roman rule for over a century, though its traditions—like the ephebate—remained largely unchanged.)

Among the names clearly visible on the marble are Atlas, Dionysos, Theogas, Elis, Zopyros Tryphon, Antypas, and Apollonios; many have never been seen before, and some are nicknames, such as Theogas for Theogenes and Dionysas for Dionysodoros. Using shortened names was unusual, and likely indicates that the graduates had a sense of camaraderie; the full class was probably about 100 men, and the use of nicknames—along with terms like “co-ephebes”, or “co-cadets”—indicates that this inscription was made by classmates who had become friends and wanted to remember each other.

According to Dr. Peter Liddel, professor of Greek history and epigraphy at the University of Manchester, who managed the discovery, this is also the earliest evidence of noncitizens taking part in the ephebate in this period—suggesting a greater level of social and cultural integration in the empire than previously thought.

“This is a really interesting inscription”, says Dr. Liddel, “partly because it’s new but also because it gives us new names and a bit of insight into the sort of access or accessibility of this institution which is often associated with elite citizens.”

It is unknown where the list was displayed, but it could have been somewhere public, such as a community space or gymnasium where the young men trained.

Dr. Liddel said: “It was made to create a sense of camaraderie and comradeship among this group of people who had been through a rigorous training program together and felt like they were part of a cohort.”

“It’s the ancient equivalent of a graduate school yearbook,” he reveals, “although this is one which is created by a number of individuals who wanted to feel like they had come together as friends.”

“It’s the ancient equivalent of a graduate school yearbook,” he reveals, “although this is one which is created by a number of individuals who wanted to feel like they had come together as friends.”

Another example of ancient peoples being more familiar and relatable than we would think!

Sources: Greek Reporter, NPR

A Sense of Survivor’s Guilt

It always feels weird to share my thoughts, news, and even silly memes about life-shattering events happening worldwide. Folks who are alive and real as me or my loved ones are suffering to a degree I literally can’t imagine, simply because I won the birth lottery. I have the luxury of casually discussing and debating the cold hard historical and geopolitical facts behind events that kill, or have killed, millions. It is a weird feeling.

It is easy to feel powerless in the face of these global tragedies, which are so far removed from us both politically and geographically—after all, we could barely stop our own government from its deadly adventurism abroad, much less autocrats around the world like Putin. All I can do is laugh, learn, and spread the word, I suppose.

So, to some extent, I think it’s a coping mechanism: Many times, I find myself being weighed down by the state of the world or my society. All of a sudden, the reality of the human condition will seize me, and I’ll start to feel bad about both the suffering itself and my powerless to do anything about it.

Yet, years of consuming so much history and news has left me with some level cognitive dissonance towards the pain and suffering that are the norm for the vast majority of humans who ever lived. I read about wars, genocides, and brave but doomed rebellions—past and present—with detachment: I know these things happened—and continue to happen—to real people, but it feels more like I am reading a story rather than events that happened to people like me.

What was very real to the soldiers sent off to die for their leaders’ wars, and for the civilians caught in the middle, is just interesting bedtime reading or a quick and easy social media post. It’s all in some sense unreal, whether it’s acute crises like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine (to name just a few), or banal day-to-day tragedies like thousands of kids dying from a first-world inconvenience like diarrhea.

To some extent this can’t be helped: Psychological phenomena like “psychic numbing” and the “identifiable victim effect” make us more inclined to care about people who look like us, are related to us, or form part of a small community. This makes sense given that we’ve been tens of thousands of years living in small, interrelated clans, on which we depended to survive.

By contrast, feeling an emotional connection and moral obligation to an ever-larger, more diverse set of strangers—from tribe to city to country and now the world—happened gradually over just the last few centuries (and accelerated only two hundred years ago), which is a blip in our 200,000-year history.

The idea that I should feel sad for millions of Americans I know thing about—let alone Yemenis, Afghans, Ukrainians, etc.—would have been alien not that long ago. Who are these people to me? Why should their suffering matter? It’s a mark of progress in our species that more and more people take into account the wellbeing of total strangers they will never meet or know (though we clearly still have a long way to go).

I think feeling disconnected from a world of billions of strangers remains a reasonable survival mechanism: Imagine what it would be like to truly feel the pain and sadness of billions of people as saliently as we do our own or our loved ones. How would we function in the face of nonstop exposure to human suffering and tragedy, which has never been more frequent, tangible, and personal, thanks to social media, smartphones, and widespread Internet access? (And to think the world is actually less violent than at any point in human history—imagine social media in the Middle Ages or World War II?

Over two centuries ago, Adam Smith posed an illustrative example of this phenomenon: If someone in his native Britain learned that a world away, millions of Chinese died from an earthquake, their response would be something like, “Wow, that’s awful” and then go about their day; if that same person learned their pinky was going to be amputated, it would haunt them for the rest of the day and well after.

Smith’s point is more salient than ever. Throughout any given day, I’ll get news notifications about all sorts of horrible things happening around the world, and I’ll recognize it for what it is—tragic and awful—but immediately move on with my life, and even laugh at the funny meme or text message that follows. It speaks to my sheer good luck that I am that small fraction of humanity for which this level of suffering is merely a meme, notification, or interesting historical reading.

I guess all we can do is try and make more and more people be as lucky as we are to not know starvation, war, abject poverty, and oppression. I don’t know how we do that; but expanding our circle of moral concern and compassion is definitely a start.

The Center of Our Galaxy

You’re looking at the first image of the object at the heart of our galaxy, Sagittarius A—pronounced “Sagittarius A-Star”, and abbreviated Sgr A—courtesy of over 300 researchers from more than 80 institutions across the world.

The image was produced by a global research team called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, using observations from a worldwide network of radio telescopes, some of which are among the most powerful scientific instruments ever built.

The global scale of the project reflects massive ambition: The nature of what laid at the heart of our galaxy was uncertain, though a black hole was widely suspected.

Mustering humanity’s best and brightest astronomers, and its most potent tools, we now know for certain it is a supermassive black hole, the largest type of its class.

To get a sense of its scale—however possible that is—Sgr A* is four million times more massive than the Sun, which is one million times bigger than Earth. The center of the galaxy is 27,000 lightyears away, with just one lightyear stretching close to 6 TRILLION miles.
So yeah, this was a hell of an achievement, and it took hundreds of people using purpose-built tools and supercomputers over the span of five years to confirm it.

Black holes have gravity so immense that not even light can escape—hence why images of them are so hard to capture. (As @voxdotcom put it, trying to get a photo of a quarter in Los Angeles from Washington, D.C.)

Hence, we cannot the black hole itself, but only the glowing gas and other material swirling around its massive gravitation; the stuff that falls into the black hole is unseen and basically erased from the observable universe.

This is a groundbreaking moment in our understanding of these mysterious, dark giants, which are thought to reside at the center of most galaxies. Indeed, the EHT is also responsible for the very first image of a black hole, M87*, at the center of the more distant Messier 87 galaxy over 53 million lightyears away.

Such incredible achievements are only possible with collaboration and curiosity that transcends political and cultural boundaries—something we need now more than ever.

Happy Anniversary to History’s Second Constitution

On this day in 1791, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe—adopted the first written national constitution in Europe, and only the second in the world, after the U.S. Constitution just two years earlier.

Like its counterpart across the Atlantic, Poland’s constitution—titled the Governance Act and known simply as the Constitution of 9 May 1791—was influenced by the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement that, among other things, pioneered concepts like civil liberty, individual rights, religious and political tolerance, and so on.

The first page of the original 1791 constitution.

Remarkably, despite the vast geographic distance between the two countries, Poland’s constitutional structure was markedly similar to that of America: There were three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—with checks and balances, a bicameral legislature, and a cabinet of ministers. The constitution declared that “all power in civil society [should be] derived from the will of the people” and defined the role of government as ensuring “the integrity of the states, civil liberty, and social order shall always remain in equilibrium. While Roman Catholicism was recognized as the “dominant faith”, freedom of religion was guaranteed—a remarkable proposition in a continent where people regularly killed each other for being the wrong Christian or simply holding the wrong doctrine.

The people of Poland-Lithuania were defined not as “subjects” of a king, but “citizens” with popular sovereignty—which included townspeople and peasants, who in most of Europe had no such recognition. The right to acquire property, hold public office, and join the nobility—whose powers and immunities were restricted—was extended to millions more people, including Jews (who almost everywhere else were denied anything akin to legal recognition, let alone political rights).

The new constitution even introduced a version habeas corpus—the core legal right that prevents abuse of power—known as Neminem captivabimus, summarized as “We shall not arrest anyone without a court verdict”.

The Constitution of 9 May 1791, an idealized portrayal of the constitution’s adoption, by Polish artist Jan Matejko. It was painted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of its adoption.

To be clear, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 had its limits, and its radicalism should not be overstated. The monarchy was still retained, with the king serving as head of the executive branch. Religious minorities such as Jews, as well the peasants who made up the vast majority of the population, still had few powers. While constrained, the nobility was not abolished as in the U.S. and later France, and in fact still retained many privileges.

But even in these areas, the Commonwealth went farther than almost any other country in the world at the time. The monarchy was not absolute: The king’s powers were constrained by the constitution and essentially shared with a council of ministers, who could overrule his decrees, forcing him to go to parliament. While peasants and Jews had few rights, they now had official protection from abuse—a step closer to recognizing their political rights, well beyond what was normal at the time. Eligible middle-class people could even join the ranks of nobility, a seemingly paradoxical form of progress that, again, was unusual for the time; nobles certainly couldn’t ride roughshod over commonfolk as they did elsewhere in Europe (which isn’t to say there weren’t abuses—this is still feudal Europe after all).

In any event, the Constitution of 9 May 1791 was a relatively bold and momentous step in the right direction, as evidenced by its rarity at the time—and sadly, by its short existence. In fewer than two years, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would be extinguished by the absolute monarchies of neighboring Prussia and Russia, which felt threatened by the constitution and the dangerous “revolutionary” ideas it introduced and could spread. Poland would cease to exist for well over another century, with its experiment never being fully tested—but also never dying off entirely, as the then-ongoing French Revolution and subsequent political reverberations would prove.

What the Turkish Peace Talks Say About the New International System

As we speak, Turkey is hosting the latest round of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, the first face-to-face meeting between the two countries’ delegates in almost a month.

The results of the talks are tenuous and at best “cautiously optimistic”, according to the parties involved; negotiations having repeatedly fallen through since the war began, and Ukranian cities remain under siege, to say nothing of the horrific revelations of civilian massacres in Bucha.

Whatever the results of Turkey’s diplomatic efforts, the country’s key role speaks to its rising influence—and reflects a changing international order.

[Of] all these countries sitting on the fence and trying to mediate, Turkey has a unique profile and position. It is a NATO member, an organization for which Russia and previously the Soviet Union served as raison d’être or the foundational threat.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been increasingly castigating the Western-centric international system. But as a member of many Western institutions, Turkey is also a beneficiary, and in a sense, part of the geopolitical West.

Meanwhile, Turkey also has maritime borders with both Ukraine and Russia. Plus, Turkey is Russia’s largest trade partner in the Middle East and North Africa region. And it has competed and cooperated with Russia through conflict zones in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh in recent years.

Compared to other contenders for mediation, Turkey has the highest stakes in this conflict. The war is fundamentally changing the geopolitics and balance of power in the Black Sea region, and Turkey is a major Black Sea power.

Turkey will probably play a humanitarian role soon, too, as the number of refugees — already in the millions — rises. French President Emanuel Macron’s announcement that France, Turkey and Greece will undertake a joint evacuation mission in Mariupol is a harbinger of a humanitarian role that might become more salient in Erdogan’s policy down the road.

In spite of its policy of not provoking Russia, Turkey is simultaneously not pursuing a policy of equidistance. It sells armed drones to Ukraine, which are exacting significant losses on Russian targets, and has closed the Turkish straits to warships.

In addition to Russia dominating the Black Sea, it has a sizable Mediterranean presence where it is deeply involved in conflicts spots in Syria and Libya. Turkey’s sea closure will put pressure on Russian policy in these conflict zones if the war is prolonged.

This is probably why Turkey is first (and hopefully last) in line to host peace talks, ahead of other neutral countries like India, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. Like many so-called “middle” and regional powers, it knows how to leverage its unique geographic, cultural, and political position.

Geography and history play a key role in Turkey’s outsized influence on the world stage. The same goes for many other rising powers.

We live in an increasingly multipolar world, where even the great powers of the world—while still devastatingly powerful—are not quite as dominant as they once were. Setting aside the wildcard of nukes, even the most powerful nations struggle to influence ostensibly weaker partners, as we saw throughout history and into the Cold War.

It’s likely that the new international order will be one where lots of smaller countries—perhaps working in tandem—have a lot more say in a lot more areas, as economic and cultural influence start to diffuse. There is quite a bit of chaos in such a system—historically, it precipitated a lot of competition and wars, most notably the First World War—but it has the potential to address many global problems too big for even powerful nations to handle.

As always, there is a lot more to say, but so little time.

What are your thoughts?

The Ides of March Coin

The Ides of March coin, also known as the Denarius of Brutus or EID MAR, is a rare coin issued by the Roman Republic from 43 to 42 BC to celebrate the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BC.

One side features Marcus Junius Brutus, once a close friend of Cesar who, after becoming disillusioned with his autocratic behavior and polices, helped lead his assassination.

The other side depicts a pileus cap between two daggers. The pileus cap was a Roman symbol of freedom and was often worn by recently freed slaves (it is still used in the coat of arms of several republics and in revolutionary art and propaganda); the daggers, of course, represent the assassins’ weapons. At the bottom is EID MAR, short for Eidibus Martiis – “on the Ides of March” – the date Cesar was assassinated.

The coins were minted under the auspices of Brutus during the “Liberator’s Civil War” that followed Cesar’s death; they were likely intended as a form of propaganda, or to lend official legitimacy to the assassination, which was not supported by the majority of Romans, as the assassins had hoped.

Given its brief and minimal use, the coin is considered one of the rarest in the world.

Fun fact: The Ides of March coin is a type of “denarius”, a nickel-sized silver coin that was standard Roman currency for about four centuries. It is the root for the word “money” in several Mediterranean countries, including Spain (dinero), Italy (denaro), Slovenia, (denar) and Portugal (dinheiro), and also survives in the Arabic word “dinar”, the name for the official currencies of several Arab countries, including Algeria, Tunisia, and Syria (all Mediterranean) and farther off places like Kuwait and Iraq.

The Smoking Snakes: Brazil in World War II

One of my latest Wikipedia projects concerns the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB in Portuguese), a military division of 25,000 men and women that fought with the Allies in World War II.

That’s right: Brazil was active and often decisive participant in humanity’s largest conflict. As early as 1941, the United States and Great Britain actively sought Brazil’s allegiance, owing to its vast resources and strategically location (the Battle of the Atlantic had already been raging for nearly two years, and the country’s coastline was the longest in the Western Hemisphere).

After agreeing to cut diplomatic ties with the Axis, host several major American bases—including the largest overseas airbase—and provide precious natural resources to the Allied cause, Hitler called for a “submarine blitz” against Brazil’s merchant vessels. The loss of three dozen ships and close to 2,000 lives led to Brazil’s formal declaration of war in August 1942.

Brazil thus became the only independent country outside the Western powers to fight in the Atlantic and European theaters. The FEB was deployed to the Italian Campaign, among the most grueling and difficult in the war. They were nicknamed the “Smoking Cobras”—and even had shoulder patches featuring a snake smoking a pipe—based on commenters skeptically noting that the world would more likely see snakes smoking than see Brazilian troops on the battlefield (akin the saying “when pigs fly”).

So, in characteristically Brazilian humor, those “unlikely” troops took that as their mantra. Lacking the resources of the major Allied powers, Brazilian troops were placed under U.S. command and equipped with American weapons and supplies. They mostly saw combat at the platoon level, providing a reprieve for the exhausted Allied soldiers that had already been fighting for months.

The FEB performed with distinction across Italy: they scored victories in over a dozen decisive battles, managing to capture over 20,500 enemy troops, including two generals and almost 900 officers. What the Brazilians lacked in training and experience they more than made up for in tenacity and enthusiasm—allegedly retreated only when they ran out of ammunition. Both allies and adversaries alike commented on their bravery and fighting prowess, with one German captain telling his Brazilian captors:

Frankly, you Brazilians are either crazy or very brave. I never saw anyone advance against machine-guns and well-defended positions with such disregard for life … You are devils.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s fledging air force punched well above its weight, successfully completed 445 missions and 2,550 individual sorties. Despite making up only 5% of the war’s air sorties, they managed to destroy 85% of Axis ammo dumps, 36% of Axis fuel depots, and 28% of Axis transportation infrastructure.

The Brazilian Navy actively participated in the Battle of the Atlantic, defending thousands of merchant marine convoys, engaging Axis naval forces at least 66 times, and taking out over a dozen subs. Aside from its military contribution, Brazil’s abundance of natural resources, from rubber to agricultural products, proved crucial to the Allied war machine. Brazilian forces were considered threatening enough for the Axis to target them with Portuguese propaganda leaflets and radio broadcasts urging them not to fight someone else’s war. It certainly did not help the Axis cause to fight troops that were racially integrated, which even the Allies did not do. (Notice the ethnic composition of the Brazilian units.) The U.S. also produced propaganda informing Americans of Brazil’s contributions. By the end of the war, Brazil had lost around 1,900 men, dozens of merchant vessels, three warships, and 22 fighter aircraft.

While Brazil’s involvement was hardly decisive, it served as an understandable point of pride for its people, who were proud to represent their country on the world stage. It also indicated the country’s growing global prominence, with many seeing Brazil as an up-and-coming power. The U.S. even wanted Brazil to maintain an occupation force in Europe, though its government became reluctant to get too involved overseas.