The Oppression of Other Lands

Color, Life Philosophy, Photography, travel

“Like anyone else, I have no death wish and I have no intention of letting them kill me. I can’t mention most of the countermeasures I take, but I will mention one: this book. If I’m killed, you will know who did it. When my enemies read this book, they will know that you know. So if you sympathize with this search for justice, or with Sergei’s tragic fate, please share this story with as many people as you can. That simple act will keep the spirit of Sergei Magnitsky alive and go further than any army of bodyguards in keeping me safe.” (from “Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice” by Bill Browder)

I recently finished Red Notice – an excellent story, well told, which I thought was going to be about economic battles between Russia and the West.  It covered those topics, but then it took a tragic and historically relevant turn with the death of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian attorney whose name was put on a law sanctioning Russian officials for torturing and killing him, or at least being complicit in his terrible treatment.

During the first six months of last year, when we were traveling around Southeast Asia, at some point I realized that every country we were going to had a repressive, if not totalitarian government, or – in the case of Fiji – was expected by locals to experience a military coup in the near future.  The fear of community espionage was alive in Vietnam; Cambodia’s opposition and media were being hounded by government thugs; the government was simply not discussed in Laos; Thailand seemed socially free, but was still politically oppressed; religion is a minefield in Indonesia and Malaysia; and Singapore’s repression is famous.

It wasn’t difficult to censor myself in order to stay out of trouble.  It merely meant following a few simple conversational rules: don’t criticize the government; complement everyone on how beautiful their country is or, if you can’t, at least praise the food, or the temples, or the friendliness of the people.  If you heard someone else complaining about something, distance yourself.  I didn’t want to end up in a foreign jail, trying to contact the American Consulate.

In retrospect, I’m a bit ashamed for following those rules, because by not voicing opposition, I was just reinforcing the public acceptance of brutal repression.  Without speaking up for concepts like the rule of law, one person one vote, and civil decency, wasn’t I implicitly supporting their opposite?  And by being a foreigner who seemed to love how things were going in foreign countries, wasn’t I, in effect, saying that the West supported, or at least didn’t oppose, these oppressive governments?

And upon returning to the United States, then the U.K., it was as if suddenly the air cleared.  When I thought about it afterward, the west is extremely rare, in history and in the world today, in terms of its openness to free speech, even if that is under attack by Western leaders.

So Browder’s book, describing the terrors of Russia today, and the criminal actions of its leaders, is extremely brave; it also made me remember how much I have to be thankful for, and how important it is for us to fight for civil and human rights.  And it seems that now, in America, the threat is partially from outside, but also internal.

2017 brought with it a lot of changes.  Many older people I know say it was one of the worst years in their memory, mostly due to Trump.  I don’t know about that; it was just new and different, and we’ll see where we end up.  I kind of feel like perhaps it’s like the economy: in the markets, if it’s a down year, that means that there were both a lot of buying opportunities and a lot of opportunities to start businesses.  Perhaps, politically, it’s the same; perhaps 2018 will see the reinvigoration of democratic forces, of free speech, of sanity and law and order.  Perhaps the people who stood up this year and said “We’ve had it” will be the political leaders of tomorrow; perhaps this is the beginning of a crucible that will forge a tougher generation, one that will meet the challenges of the future with strength and resolve.  Perhaps this will be the birth of new ideals, and vision, and light, and truth.

I hope so.  Because the alternative – of political repression, and universal self-censorship in order to avoid trouble – is a world I’ve been in, and not a place I want to live.

The view from the train

Color, Life Philosophy, Photography, travel

Because we’re human, there’s a tendency to think that our experience is somehow universal, or that we are, each of us, special in some way.

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Something about traveling that you soon realize: there are billions of people around the world who don’t know who you are, and don’t care.  They have their own lives, their own worlds, their own concerns, none of which involve you.

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We met one local in Southeast Asia who knew who Donald Trump was.  One.  It was an elderly Chinese man in a white suit and white shoes in a hotel lobby in Malaysia, and all he said about Donald Trump was: “Good businessman!”  Nobody else cared about Donald Trump.  The President of the United States of America doesn’t matter.  What your friends are doing on Facebook doesn’t matter.  The latest posts on Instagram don’t matter.  What does matter: water, food, shelter, clothes.  The heat on the back of their necks; the health of their banana trees; the stray dogs that keep breeding and threatening the chickens.  The rain on the roof, and the neighbours who keep shouting late at night.  Children, parents, friends, enemies.  That’s it.

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That was refreshing.

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It’s not even a case of, “One day, all of this will be gone and none of this will matter.”  We may not even have a reliable view of anything; who is to say that we can be objective about the world?  One day, the jungle will take over everything.

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What is here now is different than what was here a few moments ago.  Everything is changing.  Everything is impermanent.  We’re all on the train, the train is moving, and it will never stop.

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All photos taken from the slow train between Cochin and Kannur, Kerala, India.  

G8, G7, G6

black and white, Photography, travel, Uncategorized
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Time Out Market, Lisbon, Portugal

“In late 1973 or early 1974, Danny (Kahneman) gave a talk, which he would deliver more than once, and which he called ‘Cognitive Limitations and Public Decision Making.’  It was troubling to consider, he began, ‘an organism equipped with an affective and hormonal system not much different from that of the jungle rat being given the ability to destroy every living thing by pushing a few buttons.’ Given the work on human judgment that he and Amos (Tversky) had just finished, he found it further troubling to think that ‘crucial decisions are made, today as thousands of years ago, in terms of the intuitive guesses and preferences of a few men in positions of authority.’  The failure of decision makers to grapple with the inner workings of their own minds, and their desire to indulge their gut feelings, made it ‘quite likely that the fate of entire societies may be sealed by a series of avoidable mistakes committed by their leaders.'”  (from “The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World” by Michael Lewis)