Dangerous Speech & a 2nd U.S. Civil War

“But there’s no place in politics for violence — to threaten or carry out violence — and that’s where everybody has to take a stand. Whether it’s your supporters or somebody else’s…Sometimes it’s easy to call out the other side, but you’ve got to call out your own side, too, and I think that’s something where they could definitely pick up the pace.” Steve Scalise, Republican (Louisiana) and a recovered victim of a politically motivated shooting

Albuquerque police detain members of the New Mexico Civil Guard, an armed civilian group, following the shooting of a man during a protest over a statue of Spanish conqueror Juan de Oñate on June 15, 2020 (photo by Adolphe Pierre-Louis)

 

Let’s start with the good news. We are not currently in a civil war in the United States.

Over the past few years, pundits and editorialists have wondered whether this country might be heading toward a civil war, on the verge of one, or even already in one. Others have written that, yes, we’re currently in a civil war, but only in a non-violent, metaphorical sense (in other words, not a war at all).

In 2017, the Los Angeles Times referred to such stories as “bait-and-switch” because they compare political polarization to war and because they juxtapose clashes between white supremacists and left-wing demonstrators as indicative of where the country is overall. Two years ago, Vox referred to this genre as “clickbait” and “apocalypse punditry.” Steven Greenhut recently wrote that such talk of civil war is too blithe and over-the-top, and people aren’t giving the topic the seriousness it deserves.

It is true that talk of civil war is often overdone. According to the Uppsala University Department of Peace and Conflict Research (UUDPCR), a war is defined as having “at least 1,000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year.” By that definition, the U.S. is clearly not in a war. However, we may be in a situation akin to a low-intensity conflict. The UUDPCR defines conflict as “at least 25 but less than 1000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year in one of the conflict’s dyads.” Last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) “Heat Map” of political violence, there were 46 incidents involving extremist murders, terrorist plots or attacks, or extremist shootouts with police. Altogether 54 people were killed in these incidents, which crosses the 25-death threshold. Tragically, 23 of these victims were killed in one horrific incident, the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas by a white supremacist who was intent on killing Hispanic people.

There are usually limits to using rigid definitions for something as complex as conflict and war. First, the cutoffs of 25 deaths and 1,000 deaths are arbitrary. The same number of deaths would be more impactful in a smaller country than in a larger one, so perhaps a rate of death might be more appropriate than a simple tally. Also, according to UUDPCR standards, such attacks in the US may not apply toward “conflict” because most were carried out by lone actors, not by formally or even informally organized groups. In addition, several U.S. incidents in the ADL Heat Map involved individual extremists who were involved in domestic incidents or robberies which may not have been politically motivated. Taking these caveats into account, the U.S. may not meet the criteria for being in a “conflict” either.

Continue reading

16 Reasons We Should Have Another Civil War in the U.S.

Over a year ago, I wrote an essay:Red States versus Blue States: Who Would Win a Civil War in the U.S?” It didn’t get many views. This is a small, personal blog. Sometimes things I write here get shared on social media and are read more, but for the most part that doesn’t happen.

Something interesting happened with this one. It was fairly dormant for a year, then in late May 2020 (coinciding with the George Floyd protests) people started to read it again. As far as I can tell, most of these views have been in the US. And most have been organic, with people finding it individually via search engines, not via social media. I don’t know their motivations for searching for something like this. It could be curiosity, maybe fear. And some people may be enthusiastic for the prospect of a civil war and a chance to kill people they dislike. Some already have killed people. Maybe the people in the pro-war group are on to something, so I started thinking of some reasons that another civil war in the US might be worth considering.  

(Updated graph. The October 2020 stats are projected)

16. You Like Wasting Spending Money

Wars are notoriously expensive and a great way of dumping any excess cash you have. For example, the first (only?) Civil War in the U.S. cost an estimated $23 billion and $68 billion for the Confederacy and Union, respectively, in 2019 dollars. That may sound like a pretty good way to spend a lot of money very quickly, but the news gets better because modern wars are even costlier. The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University calculated that the U.S. federal price-tag for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria was close to $6 trillion. Granted, a civil war in the US has the advantage of not having to travel very far, which would reduce transportation costs (you could have a front-row seat from your own home!). Still, modern weaponry would be much costlier than days of yore.

An added bonus is the opportunity costs of war. Eisenhower knew that money poured into war cannot be spent on frivolous things like education, health, science, food, housing, roads, etc. Who needs those things, anyway?

 

15. You Have an Affinity for Apocalyptic Scenery

If you like the scenery in sci-fi movies like “The Terminator” or “The Book of Eli,” then you can make that fantasy come to life by starting an actual war. Art and reality really can mirror each other.

14. You Don’t Like Thinking Too Much

Adrienne Rich once wrote that “War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political.” If there are people you don’t like because their values seem to be all cockeyed, weird, or deviant, it can be hard to think of solutions to bridging those gaps. So maybe it’s better to not try. Just skip all that mental effort at compromise and go straight to the only logical conclusion – some people need to be wiped out. Maybe a lot of people. History shows that people never change anyway, which is why Samurai warriors, Vikings, and the Spanish Inquisition still exist, most people still believe the earth is the center of the universe, and stone tools are all the rage. And, once people are enemies, they stay that way forever. Reconciliation is a fantasy, which is why most Americans started speaking French after the Revolutionary War, just to spite the British.

13. … But You Do Like Taking Chances

If you’ve ever placed a bet on a Super Bowl or World Series, you probably know there are few guarantees in sports. Predicting the future is not easy. And that’s for sports, where the rules of engagement fall within a confined range, with referees to ensure that everyone is playing fair. The rules in war often go out the window, adding an exciting air of unpredictability. Who knows what will happen?!?! As Clausewitz once wrote: “although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.” Betting on unpredictable, low-stake sports is one thing. How much more fascinating it would be to bet on our lives and homes? What an adventure!  

12. Environmental Destruction Doesn’t Bother You

We can’t afford to worry about trivial things like the environment during periods of war. Speed is of the essence, and we can’t delay by taking out all chemical and radioactive contamination from weaponry. For example, naval and aerial bombardment of the island of Vieques left marine vegetation high in concentrations of things like lead, copper, nickel, and cobalt (Massol-Deyá et al. 2005). And that wasn’t even during an emergency. That was just target practice.

Sometimes these things can last quite a while. Long after the Battle of Verdun in WW1, the surrounding area (known as Place-à-Gaz) is still contaminated with lead, arsenic, copper, and mercury as a result of massive artillery shelling and later disposal of ordnance (Thouin et al. 2016). Some plant species still have a hard time growing there, a century later. And in Laos, massive aerial bombardment has left parts of the country contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO), 47 years after they were dropped. Up to 20,000 people have been injured or killed after the war ended, and 1600 km2 of the country still cannot be farmed. But fear not. Laos is a small country. We can farm in Alaska when the war is over.

11. You Think Food is Overrated

“Scorched earth” campaigns in war have existed for millennia, leading to food insecurity, even famine. Some people got pretty upset when toilet paper and meat were hard to find early in the coronavirus pandemic. That’s nothing. Wait until people run out of chocolate, pasta, and coffee. In the meantime, we can sustain ourselves on rage.

10. You Don’t Mind Murder and Atrocity

The WW1 veteran Harry Patch once said that “war is organised murder, and nothing else.” If your conscience is intact, then you may need to work on that. You could be at risk for some emotional devastation at taking another human being’s life, something known as “moral injuries.” If you’ve somehow convinced yourself that the people you hate are not really fully human, then you may not have much to worry about. But beware. There have been cases of people who at first convinced themselves that their killings were justified. Some of them, like Anwar Congo below, can build up a pretty sturdy mental wall to keep out any thoughts that might contradict the view of themselves as heroic, only to have that entire edifice come crashing down years later when they accidentally dredged up their buried humanity.

In the 2012 documentary, “The Act of Killing,” Anwar Congo re-enacted a scene of people he had killed years earlier in Indonesia. Though he was considered a hero by many for killing enemies of the state (mostly people suspected of being communists), his illusions were later shattered when he became aware of the emotions that his victims likely felt before they were executed.

9. You Think Civilians Are Fair Game in War

Speaking of murder… Many people think of war primarily as a competition between two military forces. History buffs often discuss the tactics and strategies of past wars, and the decisions made by leaders. Sometimes they’ll talk about the fallen soldiers and officers who were killed and maimed. Deaths of combatants are to be expected in war. After all, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, or even tens of millions of eggs. However, statistics show that civilians are not just occasional “collateral damage” in war, due to an accidental misfire. Rather, civilians often comprise the majority of casualties, ranging between 40% in the case of Bosnia to 90% in the case of Cambodia and Rwanda (Roberts 2010).

8. You Like Traveling and Moving Around a Lot

People have a tendency to move around a lot during war, and they get to see many new places. In fact, 1% of the world’s population (about 80 million people) was displaced by the end of 2019. Being displaced is sort of like a vacation only without money, food, freedom, or the ability to really do many things that are traditionally considered “fun.” Instead of seeing beautiful scenery or new cities, people tend to end up in camps. Some of these camps are huge tent cities, with the chance to meet new neighbors living right next to you. It’s kind of like a summer camp, only you can’t really leave when you want. So let that be a fair warning: sometimes these camps are final destinations, your ability to travel after that may be severely curtailed with authorities keeping an eye on you, indefinitely in some cases. But, hey, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. Some lucky Americans will really get to travel by being resettled in other countries (maybe; we haven’t been very open to accepting refugees lately, so it’s not clear how open other nations might be toward us).

7. You’re OK with Trading Mental Health for “Character”

As everyone knows, suffering builds character. For the fortunate people who survive the war, they can expect to have a lot of character-building experiences, and these can last for the rest of their lives. In a review of refugee populations, Bogic et al 2015 found that rates of depression, PTSD, and anxiety were as high as 80 to 88% in some groups, years after resettling in other countries. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” become a little more difficult under conditions of war, but if you’re one of the lucky few people to get there, I bet the payoff would be pretty sweet.

6. You Want Your Children to Be Shorter and Developmentally Delayed

With food shortages, unclean water, increased infection, and psychological stress, kids who grow up under war conditions tend to be malnourished and shorter, sometimes by a huge amount. This is a very consistent pattern, and these effects are usually permanent since you can’t get those years of growth back. That’s fine. Although height seems to be correlated with earning potential in adulthood, shorter kids (and adults) can save money by living in smaller homes and driving smaller cars. See? It all evens out.

Countries where studies show child growth has been negatively affected by war. This is probably an incomplete list, however (studies came from I review I did last year; Clarkin 2019).

5. Sexual Violence Doesn’t Bother You That Much

If the idea of a civil war sounds exciting to you, the prospect of being a victim of sexual violence may not have crossed your mind. Yet, history shows that this is fairly common across wars once social controls have weakened or as a deliberate method of terrorizing a population. In a review, it was found that victims of sexual violence often experience pregnancy, traumatic genital injuries, fistulae, sexual dysfunction, STDs, anxiety, PTSD, depression, social rejection, and spousal abandonment (Ba and Bhopal, 2017). This may not affect you directly, but maybe the people you hate. I’m sure everyone you know and love will be fine. Only other people are victims.

4. You Think Trust Is for Losers

Pierluigi Conzo and Francesco Salustri found that European who were exposed to World War 2 before age 6 had lower levels of trust in adulthood. In their review of background literature, the authors noted that trust is considered almost like a social “lubricant” in helping a society run more efficiently; it is an important factor in economic development, the quality of institutions, and subjective well-being. Once it is lost, it takes a long time to rebuild trust and survivors can view each other with suspicion for decades.

On the other hand, if people had been less trusting before WW2, they would have been better prepared for the coming chaos. Think about it.

3. We Don’t Need No Education

War-affected children often don’t have access to a lot of basic things that we take for granted, including school.  In 2017, 61% of refugee children attended primary school, compared to 92% of children globally. Those numbers dropped to 23% and 84%, respectively, for secondary school. Education is great and all, but no one will really have time for it after the war because the survivors will be too busy doing other important things, like clearing rubble.

2. You’re OK with Chronic Diseases

Wars have a tendency to “get under the skin.” Researchers who study things like the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) idea have found that early adversity in life, including in war, can lead to long-term increased risks for chronic diseases like diabetes, schizophrenia, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity (Clarkin 2019). They can even affect your genes and possibly be passed down to the next generation. Some of these maladies can cut off years of your life, but they tend to be the years that are considered expendable anyway.

1. You Like Fairness and Sharing Power

Infighting in civil wars tend to leave countries weakened. How could it not? The good news is that in our compromised state, power abhors a vacuum, giving other countries a turn at being global leaders. I’m sure whichever nations step forward, they will be willing to give up the stage after they’ve had their turn.

 

References

Ba I, Bhopal RS. Physical, mental and social consequences in civilians who have experienced war-related sexual violence: a systematic review (1981–2014). Public Health. 2017 Jan 1;142:121-35.

Bogic M, Njoku A, Priebe S. Long-term mental health of war-refugees: a systematic literature review. BMC international health and human rights. 2015 Dec 1;15(1):29.

Clarkin PF. The Embodiment of War: Growth, Development, and Armed Conflict. Annual Review of Anthropology. 2019 Oct 21;48:423-42.

Massol-Deyá A, Pérez D, Pérez E, Berrios M, Diaz E. Trace elements analysis in forage samples from a US Navy bombing range (Vieques, Puerto Rico). Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 2005 2(2):263–66

Roberts A. Lives and Statistics: Are 90% of War Victims Civilians? Surviv. Glob. Polit. Strateg. 2010 52(3):115–36

Thouin H, Le Forestier L, Gautret P, Hube D, Laperche V, et al. Characterization and mobility of arsenic and heavy metals in soils polluted by the destruction of arsenic-containing shells from the Great War. Sci. Total Environ. 2016. 550:658–69

Ain’t it enough?

A friend shared this song by Old Crow Medicine Show with me years ago, and for some reason I am finding it relevant today. Maybe because it agrees with alife is beautiful” perspective, that we are all mortal beings on an ancient planet, even though – as James Baldwin wrote – we tend to imprison ourselves by denying our mortality and focusing on other things, most of which are human constructs. It also jibes with a cosmically connected primates theme, at a time when people don’t feel particularly connected.

This isn’t my typical genre of music, but I try to be open to different styles. If you like something, that’s all that counts, I guess. This one, to me, is beautiful. Anyway, if you haven’t heard it before I hope you enjoy it.

Lyrics

Show me a river, I’ll show you an ocean
I’ll show you a castle turn into sand
For we rise and we fall, and we crash on the coastlines
And only our love will last ’til the end


Fortune is fleeting, time is deceiving
Our bodies are weak and they turn into dust
Though following blindly, but love is like lightning
It strikes only one time, and ain’t it enough?


Ain’t it enough to live by the ways of the world
To be part of the picture, whatever it’s worth?
Throw your arms around each other and love one another
For it’s only one life that we’ve got and ain’t it enough?


Surely all people are made for each other
To join in together when the days turn to dust
So let the prison walls crumble, and the borders all tumble
There is a place for us all here and ain’t it enough?


Ain’t it enough to live by the ways of the world
To be part of the picture, whatever it’s worth?
Throw your arms around each other and love one another
For it’s only one life that we’ve got and ain’t it enough?

Late in the evening, feeling the wind blow

Talk through the treetops, warm in the sun
Lying beside you, watching the moon rise
If that’s all there is, babe, ain’t it enough?


Show me a river, I’ll show you an ocean
The stars just like diamonds all shining above
Where the heavens are beaming and all the world’s dreaming
Peace everlasting and ain’t it enough?


Ain’t it enough to live by the ways of the world
To be part of the picture, whatever its worth?
Throw your arms around each other and love one another
For it’s only one life that we’ve got and ain’t it enough?


Ain’t it enough?

Social Momentum

Still thou are blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I cannot see,
I guess an’ fear!
(Robert Burns, “To a Mouse,” 1785)

This will be a short post. I was thinking of people’s perceptions of the present and the future, with all of the messiness in the US right now: the coronavirus pandemic and the inadequate government response, the BLM protests in the streets against racism and police brutality, the social divisions, the high unemployment rate, and the dual crises of climate change and species extinctions. Things don’t feel great right now.

Some people have tried to predict what the US will look like in the near future, ranging from dystopian hellscapes including the end of the country engulfed in food shortages, unchecked spread of COVID-19, and even civil war. Others have suggested there will be a return to normal with a new, less divisive, administration that will be more proactive in tackling the pandemic and stabilizing employment in an FDR-style presidency.

Predicting the future is not easy (though some, like Peter Turchin have tried). I was thinking that we perceive our current social environment similarly to how we perceive velocity in a car or plane. When a vehicle’s speed is constant, it becomes almost imperceptible to us since we are also going at the same speed along for the ride. In a commercial airplane at cruising speed, people walk freely through the aisle without noticing much. The same applies to the earth, which is rotating at over a thousand miles per hour (and so are we). It’s only when the vehicle slows, accelerates, or turns do we feel the shift.

I’d say that something similar happens in how we perceive other aspects of our environment. A 70°F day (21°C) may feel warm or cool depending on the season or what the temperature the previous day was. Anyway, here’s my point: the way the world feels right now depends on context and how we perceive not only our current position, but the change in direction and where we might be headed.

If yesterday we had just experienced a horrible period that was worse than this one, such as — oh I don’t know — the Bubonic plague, or maybe the Rwandan genocide, then today’s situation would feel pretty good. But perceptions are not always the best guide. As the first cases of coronavirus reached the US, most people reacted with trepidation, since it was new and the future seemed uncertain. Then people became attenuated to the situation over a few months, like the proverbial frogs being slowly boiled. Then almost every state eased their stay-at-home orders, even though the number of new cases per day is higher than when those lockdowns were initiated.

I suppose what I’m saying is to remember that as bad as things are right now, they could always get worse. Hopefully not. With foresight, planning, and effort, we can get momentum going in another direction.

Shortcomings of the Body Mass Index (BMI)

I have been meaning to write about this topic for a while, and now I have Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump to thank for spurring me to doing so. In case you missed it (or you’ve forgotten because the news moves so quickly), last week Pelosi said that she wished Trump would refrain from taking hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic against COVID-19, which he had been doing for more than a week. Pelosi’s comments revolved around the lack of scientific evidence of the drug’s efficacy, and that fact that it appears to be harmful. Her apparent concern was followed by some not very subtle backhanded comments, adding that Trump was at heightened risk for drug complications due to: “his age group and in his, shall we say, weight group – morbidly obese, they say. So, I think it’s not a good idea.”

Weight is a sensitive topic. Pelosi’s comments were seen by some as justified comeuppance, since Trump has an expansive history of insulting people, but they were more widely panned as fat-shaming. Still others, such as CNN Political reporter Chris Cillizza, wondered whether Trump really was in fact “morbidly obese” by looking at CDC guidelines on the body mass index (BMI).

There are certainly more important things going on in the world right now than worrying about weight or BMI. Still, there is some evidence that people in higher-income countries under lockdown are gaining weight – the so-called “quarantine 15” – while people in lower-income countries are at higher risk for famine. As someone who has used BMI in research, I’d like to focus on its uses and some of its shortcomings, as well as the potential stigmatizing effects of labeling people by BMI categories.

BMI is used by an array of health professionals – physicians, nutritionists, epidemiologists, humanitarian aid workers – as a screening tool for people who might be under- or over-weight, as a warning for potential health problems. One of the reasons BMI is so widely used is its simplicity. All you need are two measurements: height (in meters) and weight (in kilograms), which are then plugged into the formula kg/ m2. And, unlike other more direct ways of assessing body composition, such as skinfolds, dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry, or underwater weighing, BMI can be ascertained with just a scale and a stadiometer. This makes BMI a cheap method that requires minimal training. This also makes BMI a portable, field-friendly method for researchers (including biological anthropologists) working with people who live in a range of environments.

Categorizing People by BMI

A higher BMI is suggestive of higher body fat, which is a risk factor for various morbidities including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. For that reason, health organizations such as the CDC use rough categories to ascertain who might be at risk for elevated body fat (or adiposity). In adults, “absolute” cutoffs for categorizing adults are recommended:

  • Underweight – below 18.5 kg/m2
  • Normal or healthy – 18.5 to 24.9 kg/m2
  • Overweight – 25.0 to 29.9 kg/m2
  • Obese – 30 kg/m2 or higher
    • Class 1 Obesity – 30 to 34.9 kg/m
    • Class 2 Obesity – 35 to 39.9 kg/m
    • Class 3 Obesity – 40 kg/m2

If you know your height and weight, there are simple ways of finding your BMI if you don’t have a calculator handy, such as this site. Or, you may have seen a chart like this before.

Continue reading

For My Relatives Under Lockdown

“And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”

 

This is for my friends and relatives (that is, all of you) around the world who are trapped by a coronavirus lockdown, a siege, a refugee camp, a detention center (the Bay Area, Italy, Wuhan, France, Syria, Lesbos, Yemen, El Paso, Juárez). 

 

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A few years ago, I wrote a short essay expressing hope that the world could unite around existential threats (supervolcanos, climate change, even hostile extraterrestrials, etc.). Perhaps in the face of such threats, I hoped, the world could be shocked out of the social divisions and behavioral patterns we’d grown so accustomed to and rediscover our shared humanity. Though I listed a few reasons why things are not so simple.

In that light, I’ve been disappointed so far how (some) people are reacting to coronavirus. There have been reports of anti-Asian racist incidents in several countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and France. As one Chinese-American man, Vincent Pan, put it, we have to “fight two viruses” now: COVID-19 and bigotry. 

Racism isn’t the only social division that coronavirus has driven a wedge into. Yesterday it was reported that one of the attendees at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Maryland tested positive for the virus. Two prominent Republicans, Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Paul Gosar, may have been exposed and were “self-quarantining.” Disappointingly, the response to the news on social media fell into the predictable partisan trenches that have been dug into the social fabric of the country over the past few decades.

For example, I saw some people expressing schadenfreude that some Republicans might be affected, perhaps as a form of comeuppance or karma because several of them had dismissed the pandemic as overblown, fear-mongering, or even a “hoax” being exploited to hurt the President politically. And, Donald Trump, Jr. accused Democrats of hoping that the virus would kill millions of Americans solely to hurt his father politically. He later defended those comments, saying he was “entitled to speak with hyperbole.”

There is something seriously wrong here. Unfortunately, some people are not rising to the occasion or listening to “the better angels of their nature.” This is particularly pernicious when those people have big platforms to disseminate irresponsible ideas.

Maybe we could re-frame our approach. We should remember that a virus doesn’t care at all about your ethnicity or your political ideology. Actually, it doesn’t care about anything. It is merely an insentient genetic program that acts to replicate and thrive in a host. And every single person alive fits that description. We shouldn’t wish it on anyone for both basic decency, but also for selfish reasons — the more it spreads, the higher the risk that you or someone you love will contract it, with potentially severe consequences.

Maybe this is a chance to shock ourselves out of the stupid, paralyzing cycle of bigotry and hyper-partisanship that we’ve inherited. Someone once wrote (possibly A.D. Williams, but I cannot find an original source) “Imagine what 7 billion humans could accomplish if we loved and respected one another.” I don’t know if we all have to love and respect each other, but it is indisputable that hatred and division are counter-productive and wasteful. Time, energy, and resources are all finite, and too much of those precious things are being wasted rather than applied toward solving actual human problems. So, here is an opportunity. Coronavirus is an equal-opportunity virus that could affect any of us. There is no vaccine. Whether you are rich or poor, Chinese, American, Italian, or Iranian, you — and everyone you love — are all vulnerable. 

There is at least some good news, I think. I’ve written about this before, but the fact that human beings are obligatorily social primates says something good about us. Our ancestors have been group living for about 50 million years or so. And, if you’re going to live in — and depend on — a group, then it makes sense that evolution would have equipped us to care about the other social primates around us, even non-kin. It’s been said that disasters have a tendency to bring out the best in people. Maybe, maybe not. Doctors and nurses in Iran have shown compassion for their coronavirus patients by dancing for them to lift their spirits. One doctor in China took an elderly patient who had been isolated for a month to get a CT scan in another building. They stayed outside a bit longer to see the sunset.

In the U.S., one newspaper reminded us that “we’re only as safe as our most vulnerable neighbors.” People without enough income to take sick time from work are not only vulnerable themselves, but could potentially transmit the virus to others. In other words, it is in our self-interest to care about others’ well-being, not only for its own sake, but because our lives are all interconnected. We may sometimes feel separate, and that we can live out our lives in seclusion, surviving off stockpiled supplies of canned foods and toilet paper. But coronavirus reminds even the most self-reliant of us how much we need others for our basic necessities. It might be more fruitful if we remembered as if our fates were all intertwined. 

An 87-year-old COVID-19 patient and his doctor, Liu Kai, watch the sunset on their way back from a CT scan at Renmin Hospital in Hubei province. (GAN JUNCHAO / CHINA DAILY) Source

 

 

Book Plug: Hivemind

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. Sarah Rose Cavanagh published her book “Hivemind: The New Science of Tribalism in Our Divided World” last year. Sarah is a psychologist at Assumption College who studies human emotions and how these connect to well-being and learning. 

Her book is a joy to read, written in a fun and personable — but informative — style. She interviewed several academics and thinkers about their views on human sociality (disclaimer: I’m one of them), and she has some lessons on how to help make modern technology and social media work in our favor. For example: “Use social media for connection…. Dial down the outrage, dial up the empathy.”

Sarah has a good heart and a good head, and I think she’s put together a great book here that can help make the world a little bit better place. 

2020: To Our Braver, Bolder Selves

With the start of the new year, it’s usually a time for reviews and lists — accomplishments, things that went wrong, etc. etc. Last year was a slow one on this blog, and I didn’t publish much for a few reasons. For one, I felt I lost my audience, and my posts seemed not to go anywhere. Perhaps we’re over-saturated with the online world and this blog has lost its novelty. That’s OK. Nothing lasts forever. I still have some ideas, but I’ve written most of what I wanted to say. Well, the big things anyway.

The other reason, I think, is that I’ve become dismayed by the state of the world, and the U.S. in particular — the increasing frequency of climate disasters, the creeping authoritarianism, the growing political polarization, the disregard for truth, the uptick in right-wing extremism, the demonizing of immigrants, the damage done via the child separation policy, and the curtailing of refugees admitted (at a time when there are more displaced people in the world since World War 2). Anyway, this blog started to feel a bit futile in the big picture of a world that seems to be shedding compassion in favor of callousness, favoring insularity over connection.

Maybe that’s the wrong attitude. Last semester, I suggested an analogy to my class about velocity versus acceleration. When we’re traveling in a car at a constant speed, the movement is fairly imperceptible. It’s when there’s a change in speed or direction that motion becomes more noticeable to us. Applying that scenario, the current state of things would feel pretty good if, for example, we were just emerging from a war (at least in the U.S.). However, we seem to be accelerating in the wrong direction now. That shift doesn’t feel very good, but it’s important to hold the line and try to push the momentum back in the other direction. 

Continue reading

A Return to the Christmas Truce

It’s that time of year, so I’m sharing this old post that I wrote on the Christmas Truce, one of the first essays on this site to take off. Looking it over, there are a few things I might have written differently; some people have told me I got some of the historical details wrong. But it wasn’t meant as a historical piece. Rather, it was about human behavior related to cooperation and conflict, and finding commonality through empathy and through the realization that cooperation, or at least restraint, is preferable to mutual punishment. After all this time, there is still some hope in there. Read more…  

Trench warfare, WWI