Monuments to Dignity

“War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political. That a war can be represented as helping a people to ‘feel good’ about themselves, or their country, is a measure of that failure.” Adrienne Rich

 

Last month, anthropologist Hugh Gusterson wrote a thought-provoking essay on Sapiens titled “Reconsidering How We Honor Those Lost to War.” In it, he compares the ways that some war monuments in Germany focus largely on the victims of war, rather than glorifying combatants. These include the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial. Gusterson wrote:

“Whether you like the design or not (and opinion is divided), located in the heart of Berlin, just a block from the Brandenburg Gate, it is a very public proclamation of Germany’s declared responsibility and remorse for the Nazi Holocaust.”

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.  (Source)

 

Statues and monuments are all over the news these days, including the debates over possibly removing Confederate statues across the southern U.S. (and to a lesser extent in other regions). Statues and other public memorials have the power to influence the way we think about what is valued by the state, and perhaps what its citizens should value in turn. The fact that statues and monuments are semi-permanent means that sculptors, and the people who commission them, can impact minds for generations.

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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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Primates and the Day of Atonement

“As far as possible without surrender/  be on good terms with all persons.”

– Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

 

Our kids were home on Wednesday last week, as our school district observed Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. I’m not a theologian and can’t claim to have anything beyond a superficial understanding of Yom Kippur, but as we walked past the local synagogue in our neighborhood, surrounded by parked cars, I speculated about how and why such a tradition might have arisen.

From my understanding, Yom Kippur is primarily concerned with seeking forgiveness from God for any transgressions accrued in the last year. However, I was more curious about another related aspect of the holiday, which is that – prior to the day itself – people are also encouraged to seek forgiveness from others they have harmed.

I can see parallels here to my own Roman Catholic childhood and the sacrament of Penance. Of course, as a boy I was just doing what the adults told me to do, going through the motions – perfunctorily confessing to a priest about fighting with my siblings. But I never contemplated why something like Penance might exist, aside from the obvious one of avoiding Hell (that fear seems a lifetime ago).

Most religious traditions and societies probably have concepts like forgiveness, reconciliation, and atonement built into them to some degree. These likely have deep roots, and we can even find some of the basic building blocks of these among other species of primates. Most primate species are highly social, group-living animals, which has a list of pros and cons. The benefits of being social include having more eyes and ears to detect predators, the ‘selfish herd’ idea (less chance for me to be eaten), defense (against conspecifics for territory, against predators), more models of adult behavior (socialization), easier to find mates and food, and (in some species) reaping the benefits of specialized division of labor.  

However, all things in biology have tradeoffs. If you’re going to live in a group, chances are next to nil that there will not be at least some internal conflict. It’s certainly not all-conflict-all-the-time, but the degree of internal conflict depends on circumstances. Two individuals may want similar things most of the time, but they cannot maintain perfectly overlapping interests indefinitely.

Among baboons, social life is rife with conflict as individuals vie for status. In an interview with Robert Sapolsky, he described the impact social stress can have on baboon life, while drawing a comparison to humans:

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The Dignity and Future of the People of Laos

Today, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos. It’s kind a big deal. So far, I think he’s hit all the right notes, pledging a substantial increase in funds to help clear unexploded ordnance dropped by U.S. planes decades ago during the Second Indochina War. Whereas the U.S. had given about $100 million over the last 20 years to help clear some of the bombing, this will now be increased to $90 million over the next three. The effects of these bombs have lingered for too long, causing about 20,000 casualties since the war officially ended, so it is good to see Obama take this seriously. (And, by the way, the New York Times has just published a story on how this increase in funds is almost entirely due to the amazing Channapha Khamvongsa. She has worked on this for a long time, and she is to be admired).

Others have observed that because Obama was too young to have served in the military during the Vietnam War, he has a fresher perspective and can therefore act as a generational page-turner. Perhaps that is sometimes necessary in order to rise above the past, as people often become entrenched in their views. The old guard phases out, and new blood enters the picture. In fact, Obama declared that his visit marked a new era in U.S.- Lao relations, based on mutual respect and “a shared desire to heal the wounds of the past.”

I’ve given this some thought. When I was younger, whenever I read a story about some tragedy — a car accident, a war, a terrorist attack, refugees forcibly displaced from their homes, a victim of sexual violence, etc. — I don’t think I quite understood the magnitude of how long that type of emotional pain could endure. Those things don’t just clear up overnight. They can persist well beyond the actual offense, even for decades. Because we are such a social species, intensely connected to others and highly attuned to the thoughts and emotions of the people around us, it seems that one of the key ingredients to healing is to hear that others recognize and respect our pain.

I think Obama recognized this. If I were a poor Laotian farmer whose fields were contaminated with leftover bombs, I would probably put more weight on the $90 million than on any speech or anything Obama might say. Yet, symbolic gestures can also go a long way. Obama’s statement that he recognized and had high hopes for “the dignity and the future of the people of Laos” is a potentially powerful one. At least I think so. Let’s see what happens during the next few days of his visit there.

“The Single Most Important Function of Marriage”

It might not be what you think. From Stephanie Coontz’ book Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (p. 31): 

“Probably the single most important function of marriage through most of history, although it is almost completely eclipsed today, was its role in establishing cooperative relationships between families and communities.” 

A few pages later, she adds that marriage has historically fulfilled a variety of functions in different societies, so much so that it’s hard to pin down exactly what marriage is. These functions also occur in different combinations, which could alternatively be performed by other institutions. The exception, according to Coontz, is not reproduction or even love, but the extended ties created through in-laws. Here is the whole quote:

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