Apr 29th 2019

Bringing Light to the Darkness

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute

Daily, we are inundated by a numbing and dizzying array of outrageous horrors and painful tragedies occurring both here at home and abroad. There are reports of: families torn apart by war, domestic strife, or callous authorities; innocent lives taken by cruel acts of terror or brutally insensitive governmental action; and the freedoms of individuals and groups denied by repressive regimes or discriminatory policies. 

With so much accumulated pain and suffering, it often becomes difficult to sustain the confidence that good will triumph over evil and the hope in a better tomorrow. At the times when I'm feeling overwhelmed by what appears to be the mountains of evil that confront our humanity, I turn to a simple insight I gleaned from my favorite theologian/philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin. 

Teilhard would suggest it's not that there's more evil in today's world, it's that we are more aware of the evil that exists. And it is precisely because we are more conscious, that we are more capable of responding to the suffering and acting to ameliorate the conditions that have produced it. 

A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.  

Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 

Seeing our ever-expanding response to evil gives us hope and inspires us to do more. The bottom line is that despite all that is wrong in today's world, humanity is, in fact, in a better place today than ever before in history. A few examples: 

We read commentaries suggesting that the instability, terror, and wars raging across the Arab World are unprecedented, with Western analysts suggesting that it's all the result of the endemic brutality or dysfunctionality of Arab culture or society. In response, I ask these "scholars" to recall that in a short 30-year period of European history, nations on that continent fought two wars that produced the horrific slaughter of more than 50,000,000 souls. Added to this were the tens of millions of Arabs, Africans, and Asians who, during that same time frame, were victims of Europe's oppressive and violent colonial rule. 

Most of those tens of millions died without provoking any questioning – then or now – of what was wrong with European society or Christian culture. While innocent Armenians, Ukrainians, Indians, and Algerians cruelly lost their lives, their tragedies were not recognized until decades later. 

Today, on the other hand, we organize protests in defense of the Rohingya Muslims, the people of Darfur or East Timor or Gaza, or the Yazidis and Christians in Iraq. We have international NGOs waging campaigns for justice for oppressed peoples on the other side of the world, mobilizing protests on behalf of victims of torture, or raising billions of dollars to house those displaced by war or to rescue victims of natural disasters or famine.      
 
Looking to my own country, just a little over five decades ago, millions of African Americans lived under a repressive discriminatory regime that denied them basic human rights and justice. And during World War II, over one hundred thousand Japanese American citizens lost their businesses, property, and their freedom as they were placed in concentration camps for the duration of the war. 

Today, African Americans, although still plagued by economic and social inequities and still victims of official violence at the hands of authorities, have made significant advances because powerful movements organized by their own visionary leaders and supported by other people of conscience, rose up to demand justice and press for change. And while many feared that in the post-9/11 period that Arab and Muslims in America might suffer the same fate as the Japanese Americans, a coalition of dozens of civil rights, religious, and ethnic communities – led by Japanese Americans – mobilized to defend them. The same coalition came together, almost spontaneously, and packed US airports to welcome Muslims to America after President Trump announced his now infamous "Muslim Ban." 

The lessons are clear. The world has changed – for the better. Evil still exists, but awareness of evil and the will and capacity to resist it now enables us to a difference.       

It is in this context that I note that my organization, the Arab American Institute (AAI), will, this week, host our annual Khalil Gibran "Spirit of Humanity' Awards Dinner. We use this event to honor those individuals and groups who have helped increase our collective awareness of the world's suffering and have, in ways big and small, worked to alleviate that pain. 

This year's honorees include: the BBC's Lyse Doucet, whose reporting has brought home the personal stories of those whose lives have been devastated by war; Mayor Gus Newport, who for 50 years has been in the forefront of efforts to fight for racial, economic, political, and environmental justice; RAICES, an organization devoted to supporting families torn apart by the cruel family separation policy imposed by immigration authorities; Miriam Zayed, a Chicago community activist, whose life taught us the simple truth that those who are true leaders are those who are devoted to the service of others; and Emel Mathlouthi, the Tunisian singer, whose marvelous talent has given voice to the cry for freedom and the pain of refugees. 

Those whom we honor have helped to bring light into the darkness and give us not just the hope of a better tomorrow but the confidence that we are on the path to making that hope real.  

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More Essays

May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”
Apr 1st 2020
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government fresco, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.
Mar 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "The coronavirus crisis has forced us to look at our behaviour in a way that we’re not used to. We are being asked to act in the collective good rather than our individual preservation and interest. Even for those of us with the best of intentions, this is not so easy."
Mar 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "In March 2020, my sister Nancy and I did something that, as scholars, we had never done before: we wrote about ourselves, comparing our own experiences receiving cancer care on either side of the Atlantic. As we recently reported in the BMJ, much of our experience is similar. As twins, we both have the same form of cancer. Both of us received excellent treatment in well-established university teaching hospitals. Both of us are now in remission. But there is a glaring difference. Nancy lives in the US, covered under a good private healthcare scheme. I live in the UK, covered by the NHS."
Mar 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "In philosophy, individualism is closely linked with the concept of freedom. As soon as restrictive measures were imposed in Italy, many people felt that their freedom was threatened and started to assert their individuality in various ways. Some disagreed with the necessity of cancelling group gatherings and organised unofficial ones themselves. Others continued to go out and live as they always did. We often assume that freedom is to do as we choose, and that is contrasted with being told what to do. As long as I am doing what the government tells me, I am not free. I am going out, not because I want to, but because that shows I am free. But there is another route to freedom..........."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. The brain is normally protected from circulating molecules by a blood-brain barrier. But under repeated stress, this barrier becomes leaky and circulating inflammatory proteins can get into the brain. The brain’s hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory, and is particularly vulnerable to such insults. Studies in humans have shown that inflammation can adversely affect brain systems linked to motivation and mental agility. There is also evidence of chronic stress effects on hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). High, prolonged levels of cortisol have been associated with mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus. It can also cause many physical problems, including irregular menstrual cycles."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s important to do things that make you happy or content as you are doing them – and doing them for yourself. Research has found that picking recovery activities you find personally satisfying and meaningful is more likely to help you feel recovered by the next morning."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACTS: "A recent study of nearly 3,000 physicists found that a scientist’s most highly cited publication had an equal probability of being published at any point within the sequence of papers the scientist published.........Creativity is not the prerogative of the young, but can occur at any stage in the life cycle...........there is not a single kind of creativity, but that in virtually every intellectual discipline there are two different types of creativity, each associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over the life cycle. The bold leaps of fearless and iconoclastic young conceptual innovators are one important form of creativity. Archetypal conceptual innovators include Einstein, Picasso.......very different type of creativity, in which important new discoveries emerge gradually and incrementally from the extended explorations of older experimental innovators.......The single year from with Paul Cézanne’s work is most frequently illustrated in textbooks of art history is 1906 – the last year of his life, when he was 67."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "As our global population is projected to live longer than ever before, it’s important that we find ways of helping people live healthier for longer. Exercise and diet are often cited as the best ways of maintaining good health well into our twilight years. But recently, research has also started to look at the role our gut – specifically our microbiome – plays in how we age."
Feb 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "In an increasingly polarised political landscape, we see differing political views challenged, not through debate and discussion, but through tribal behaviour. We often consider the groups that we belong to as worthy of empathy, respect and tolerance – but not others. What’s more, recent research has identified that we reward our leaders for being naysayers – negating, refuting or criticising others – rather than empowering them."