Irish Refuse & The Golden Rule

“It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”Irish Proverb

 

The Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny gave some remarks at the White House for Saint Patrick’s Day. Among his comments was a nod to the difficult history of Irish immigration abroad to countries including (but not exclusive to) the United States. You can find video of his speech here.

Enda Kenny (skip to 6 mins, 34 seconds):

“Ireland came to America, because deprived of liberty, opportunity, safety and even food itself, we believed. Four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and became Americans.”

To some observers, this is a reminder of global current events, where refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere are seeking sanctuary. In addition, an estimated 20 million people are on the verge of famine in four countries:  Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeastern Nigeria. Some of this is due to drought, but the primary reason stems from conflict, which blocks access to food, water, and other essential supplies and medicine, as well as a lack of action from other nations.

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Should Cambodia Pay War Debts to the United States?

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the U.S. is seeking $500 million in repayment from Cambodia for a Vietnam War-era loan, primarily in the form of excess maize. According to the SMH:

The debt started out as a US$274 million loan mostly for food supplies to the then US-backed Lon Nol government but has almost doubled over the years as Cambodia refused to enter into a re-payment program.

As the article also pointed out, many people across the political spectrum are outraged by the request, given the role the U.S. played in bombing Cambodia. According to Yale historian Ben Kiernan, from 1965-73 U.S. planes dropped nearly 2.8 million tons of bombs over the eastern part of the country. This was part of a larger war meant to deny communist troops and supplies from North Vietnam from reaching the South via Laos and Cambodia.

Although casualty estimates from war are notoriously difficult, U.S. bombing was estimated to have killed 50,000 to perhaps hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, many of them civilians. Furthermore, historians such as Kiernan have argued that without the bombing, the Khmer Rouge might not have grown as much as it did, with people radicalized against U.S. brutality and into the arms of the K.R. Their rise to power, of course, led to more atrocities and genocide only a few years later. 

Given all of that, it seems preposterous, or at least tone-deaf, for the U.S. to request repayment. And it’s not just Cambodians who think so. Also noted in the SMH article was a quote from James Pringle, a former Reuters bureau chief in Ho Chi Minh City, who was near Cambodia during the war: 

“Cambodia does not owe a brass farthing to the US for help in destroying its people, its wild animals, its rice fields and forest cover.”

 

U.S. bombing of Cambodia from 1965-1973 (by Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan). Source.

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Extraordinary Cases of Compassion and Forgiveness: The Secular and Divine

As a kid, I went to Catholic school for several years. In addition to our lessons in traditional educational subjects of reading, science, math, history, and social studies, we also got regular lessons in Church teachings. Although I consider myself atheist or agnostic today, I distinctly remember that some of the religious lessons – particularly some of the parables of the New Testament – simply “felt” good.

In particular, I remember that the parable of the good Samaritan said something to me – try to help others in need, even if there is risk, and even if they are somehow different from you. Likewise, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (at least to me) emphasized the importance of being humble. The parable of the prodigal son contained themes of contrition, mercy, and reconciliation.

When we read those lessons – in class or in Church – they often came with a pleasant physical sensation. At the time, I interpreted that feeling as evidence that the parables were divinely inspired. After all, other stories didn’t give me the same emotional response (though at that age, I didn’t have many examples to compare). Of course, now I interpret things differently. The biological anthropologist in me would say that the pleasurable sensation is part of a human neurobiology that promotes pro-social behavior. This, in turn, reinforces the rewards that we gain from being connected to others.

Does that sound too cold? “Oh, you materialist!”  I hope it doesn’t. Whether the sentiments are divinely inspired or a part of an evolved emotional response, the effect is the same – they help maintain our connections, which we absolutely need. No human being is an island. Instead, we are obligatorily social primates. And, regardless of whether we take a religious or secular perspective, the effect is the same. We are still left with the angel and devil on either shoulder, whether we interpret that literally or figuratively. We all make our choices that are based on a combination of character, the information at our disposal, and our surrounding circumstances.  

I have to admit that I still get that inspirational feeling whenever I read about extraordinary acts of compassion, forgiveness, or simply someone who’s made an effort to seek out another’s humanity. I’ve collected them for a while. After a few accumulate, I feel the need to share them. Below are a few fairly recent examples, followed by a more comprehensive list. Collectively, they all give me hope, as they span the range of humanity – secular and religious – from many societies.

The mother of Abdolah Hosseinzadeh removes the noose from around the neck of her son’s killer, sparing his life, April 15, 2014. Image via Arash Khamooshi.

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Testosterone Rex & “Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous”

Two friends and colleagues of mine, Barbara King and Meredith Reiches, separately notified me that the “Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous” series from this site was cited (positively) in Cordelia Fine’s new book “Testosterone Rex: Myths  of Sex, Science, and Society.” I’ve not yet seen the book, though I will have to soon.

Barbara was kind enough to take a photo of the relevant passage and send it to me. It looks like Fine cited Part 1 of the series, and I will have to see where it fits in the context of the book (not to mention learning from Fine’s other insights as well). In any case, I’m grateful — for friends who keep an eye out for me, and that Fine thought the series was worth something. 

cordelia-fine

For those who are interested, and don’t want to read the entire (Blank)-ogamous series, a summary can be found here.

Also, this is a publisher-produced video and synopsis of Cordelia Fine’s new book.

AP Story: The Return of Sudden Death in Nepali Workers

nepal

A young wife in Nepal cries as she leans on the coffin of her 26 year-old husband, a migrant worker who died in his sleep in Qatar. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha) Source.

In December, an AP reporter named Martha Mendoza called me to ask about a blogpost I’d written about a phenomenon called SUDS (Sudden Unexplained Death During Sleep) that occurred in Southeast Asian refugees. Apparently, the story was published in December, but I didn’t know it until a Nepali official in Saudi Arabia contacted me about it, as he was concerned about young migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States who were dying in fairly high numbers there.

I originally wrote “Killer Ghosts & Broken Hearts: The Mystery of Sudden Unexplained Death in Sleep in Asian Men” way back in 2010, and it’s been one of the more widely read posts on this site. I think the reason for that is because it’s hard to find accessible information on SUDS, and because there are still many people in Asia who are worried about it (particularly, it seems, in the Philippines). 

My interests in the topic started simply from having Hmong, Lao, and Khmer friends in college who told me they had been attacked by ghosts at nighttime. By the time I got to graduate school, I ended up looking at the culture and biology of this in Andrea Wiley’s class on Medical Anthropology, and whether it was connected to SUDS. I almost pursued the topic for my dissertation, but was advised that it would probably be a dead-end because there weren’t as many fatal cases by that time. 

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Nature Wants to Play With You

[I’m writing this on a snow day, stuck indoors, in between episodes of work and playing with my kids].

A few years ago, Ed Yong started a tongue-in-cheek blog titled Nature Wants to Eat YouPlaying off that idea, I wrote a blogpost citing several examples of altruistic behavior in various animal species, adding that “sometimes, nature may even want to hug you.” The point was that nature isn’t all bad. Nature isn’t nasty or nice; it’s indifferent. Out of that indifference, life has even evolved to allow some species to engage in play. Maybe, nature wants to play with you.

I quoted the primatologist Frans deWaal, who explained why it is problematic to focus solely on the colder, cruel side of evolution:

“The error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel and pitiless creatures. But nature’s pressure cooker does not work that way. It favors organisms that survive and reproduce, pure and simple. How they accomplish this is left open”  (2009: 58).      

An evolutionary perspective properly emphasizes the importance of survival and reproduction. However,  not every moment is filled with life-and-death-and-mating situations. For long-living species like ourselves, there is a lot of time to spend responding to life’s challenges, before, during, and after making it to the age of reproduction. All of those moments surely count for something, and they’re probably better spent when they are pleasurable, when we can find meaning and happiness, and when our relationships with those around us are cooperative rather than antagonistic. Somewhere in that calculus, nature has allowed several species to engage in play.

Example A. Goats playing on a metal sheet (source).

goats

University of Colorado Professor emeritus Marc Beckoff wrote that one of the reasons that play might exists among other species is that it’s exploratory, to help them prepare for future environmental challenges:  

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