Apr 14

Calcio Fiorentino

Football (or soccer) is one of the world’s most popular pastimes; professional leagues have extensive, devoted, and extremely passionate followings.  The sport is believed to be the descendant of a variety of ancient ball games, particularly those enjoyed by the Romans and Greeks.  Although nearly all of these versions eventually died out and gave way to the current form of football, one precursor to the modern game has survived.

Originating in the sixteenth century, the game is now referred to as calcio storico (historic football) or calcio fiorentino (after Florence, the city where it is still played).  While the roots of modern football are evident in calcio storico (primarily as players use their feet to maneuver the ball toward the opposing team’s goal), there are also stark contrasts between the modern and historic games.  Storico matches often appear more similar to rugby than football, as players can also use their hands to manipulate the ball and are permitted to be exceptionally violent.


Calcio storico allows the use of a wide range of strikes against opponents.  Throwing of punches, elbows, and headbutts are all legal according to official rules, as is choking an opponent.  Its combative style requires a unique type of athleticism from its players.  During the 1500s, the game became notorious beyond Italy for its violent nature.  The French king Henry III, who attended a match while on a diplomatic visit to Venice, is said to have remarked that storico was “…too small to be a real war and too cruel to be a game.”


Like many other predecessors to football, calcio storico eventually lost popularity and support.  It largely fell from practice during the 1600s.  Fortunately, however, cultural and historic interest (as well as a desire to distinguish Italian sport from that of its neighbors) brought about its revival in 1930.  A limited number of games are played annually in Florence, with four teams representing each quarter of the city.  As with many traditions in Italy, the final match corresponds with a religious holiday, and is held on the feast of the patron of Florence, San Giovanni (St. John).

Rules established in the sixteenth century remain in use today; calcio storico is still as brutal a sport as it first was.  Fifty-minute matches are played on sand fields, with long, narrow goals at each end.  Teams consist of twenty-seven men, and matches require a total of seven officials.  Traditional uniforms (namely pants in the sixteenth-century style) are used by the teams from each quarter, which are designated by a color (red, blue, green, or white).


The rebirth of calcio storico has preserved a unique aspect of Italian history and culture.  Its annual matches bring the Renaissance back to life each year, and just as modern football is linked to this sixteenth-century ancestor, storico has its roots in the ancient Roman game of harpastum.  Although the immediate attention of locals and visitors at the yearly matches is always on sport, calcio storico calls to mind a rich history and the importance of its preservation.


Apr 14

Diplomatic Recognition

Officially, Taliban control of Afghanistan ended in 2001.  The movement, which had brutally enforced its interpretation of Sharia law for half of a decade, was overthrown by the American invasion and replaced by a democratic government led by Hamid Karzai.  Unfortunately, the official change of power did not entirely alter the reality in Afghanistan.  The Taliban remains in control of a number of the nation’s more remote sectors, and continues to pose a threat to the stability of the new government, particularly as it prepares for a new leader to take office.

Recognizing that the Taliban still wields power, Karzai and U.S. leaders have made attempts to deal with its leaders diplomatically, holding formal talks with Taliban representatives on several occasions.  Holding peace conferences would be a natural approach for most leaders facing a hostile government, but the Taliban is not a legitimate governing body (and was hardly recognized as one while it was still the leading Afghan power from 1996 to 2001); therein lies the problem.

On one hand, the United States can hardly ignore the reality that the Taliban still retains control in many areas.  Progress can only be made by accepting and confronting the actual situation.  However, dealing with the Taliban as if they are a legitimate governing body has unwanted implications.  It grants the group official recognition and elevates its status despite the fact that it no longer has any authority to govern.

This balancing act led to a considerable amount of political strife when the Taliban recently opened an office in Qatar.  The administrative building was accepted by the United States as a necessity to facilitate ongoing negotiations and talks with Taliban representatives; nevertheless, many remained wary of granting the group diplomatic recognition.  Their concerns proved valid as the Taliban quickly began to overstep, using the building to display the flag and name under which it had ruled over Afghanistan.  Naturally, Afghan leaders and many others were outraged.  The chance of any peaceful resolutions emerging from the new Taliban office quickly dimmed, and the building has since been indefinitely closed.

The Qatari incident illustrated how easily something as simple as recognition could escalate the diplomatic situation with the Taliban, especially as the group is almost certain to attempt to leverage as much power as possible out of any opportunity that it can seize.  Unfortunately, the closing of the only permanent means of maintaining political discourse with the Taliban has proved how difficult it is to conduct negotiations with a body that has no official offices or delegates.  There is no clear solution to the problem; the U.S. must essentially choose between partially validating the Taliban’s claims to power in hopes of progress or being unable to conduct effective negotiations with the group and having almost no diplomatic interaction with Taliban representatives.

There are valid arguments on both sides; however, it is likely more advantageous (albeit somewhat inconvenient) for the United States to avoid granting further recognition to the Taliban.  As events in Qatar showed, attempts to be diplomatic with the Taliban will not dissuade them from attempting to seize power.  If the Afghan government is weakened (a valid concern with a presidential transition in the near future), the Taliban will not hesitate to reestablish control.  Therefore, the United States must focus on establishing and maintaining solid relationships with Afghanistan’s new leaders, hopefully allowing for continued involvement of American military support.  Attempting to negotiate with the Taliban would likely harm relations with the Afghan government; ultimately, a strong alliance with the nation’s legitimate leaders is more valuable than a chance to converse with its enemies.

Treating the Taliban diplomatically could also set a dangerous precedent for foreign relations.  While it was once a governing body, it is now very similar to the terrorist organizations that have taken control of remote regions in Pakistan and other countries.  If the United States begins to treat the Taliban as a legitimate group, it may find itself having to negotiate with other organizations that claim to be governing bodies as well.  This situation would be difficult to handle under current circumstances, but could be made even worse should a group such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (known for violence and extremism) gain control of a city or region.  If the U.S. deals diplomatically with the Taliban, it would likely be expected to take the same approach to any other group claiming governance.  The potential harm of such a situation far outweighs any small gains that may or may not be made by holding talks with the Taliban; therefore, diplomatic recognition should be reserved for legitimate governments alone.


McKirdy, Euan. “Who’s Running? The Candidates Vying to Be Afghanistan’s next President.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 06 Apr. 2014. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/world/asia/afghan-elections-candidate-profiles/index.html?hpt=wo_c1>.

Apr 14

Wife Carrying

Sonkajärvi, Finland

Most cultures recognize and celebrate the importance of marriage in a number of largely similar practices.  The long-standing customs of celebrating anniversaries and holidays designated for doting on spouses are traditions shared by many nations.  However, an extremely unique way for married couples to celebrate their unions was created by the Finns as recently as 1992.  It combines wedlock with a healthy dose of competition and plenty of beer.

Wife carrying (eukonkanto in Finnish) is strictly a couples’ sport.  Partners traverse a series of three obstacles over a 253.5 meter course; the distance seems to have been arbitrarily chosen.  Two of the obstacles are dry (often log barriers, bales of hay, or fences) while the third is wet (and consists of meter-deep water).  The track itself, originally composed of rock and now (for the purpose of safety) made of sand, further increases the difficulty of traversing the course.


The annual competition and many of its rules are certainly bizarre, perhaps a reflection of their largely undefined origins.  There are several theories about what inspired the first wife carrying competition; the most popular involves an infamous thief of the nineteenth century.  Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen and his fellow bandits lived in the forests of Finland, emerging from the trees and raiding villages for supplies and, according to legend, wives.  This may be why competition rules do not require that male competitors carry their own wives; it is permissible to compete with a neighbor’s wife or one “[found] further afield” if desired.

While the sport appears most demanding of the men carrying their wives, it is equally difficult for female competitors.  A wife can be carried in any fashion, which has led to some unique approaches.  The most notable is the Estonian carry, named for the nationality of the competitors who first successfully employed it.  It requires the wife to hang upside down from her partner’s shoulders, a position that takes as much strength and endurance as the carriers’ task.  Furthermore, being carried over obstacles does not always go smoothly; competition rules require that wives wear helmets because of the frequency of drops and falls.


Two teams run the course at a time, making each heat of the competition more competitive in nature.  Couples are truly racing against the clock however, with the winning team determined simply by the time taken to complete the course.  Dropping one’s wife incurs a fifteen second penalty, a rule created to ensure that technique remains an important element of competing.  The Finland competition typically draws thirty to forty entrant couples each year, with many spectators drawn by the prospect of entertainment and abundance of beer.

The brewed beverage is a staple of the Wife Carrying competition, perhaps a toast to the drink of choice of the thieves who inspired its creation.  First prize, awarded to the fastest couple, is the wife’s weight in beer.  This makes competing an even more challenging balancing act for the wives (forgive the pun); they must be light to gain speed but as heavy as possible if they want to maximize the benefit of a victory.  Regardless of the outcome, however, all in attendance find good times and beer readily available.


Apr 14

Unit Seven: Issue Brief Draft

This issue brief addresses the issue of overcrowding in the federal prison system.  I am still in the process of revising and constructing the infographics, as well as finalizing the notes.

The Cost of Overcrowding


In light of the recent economic recession, the United States government has repeatedly made sweeping efforts to curb unnecessary spending and increase efficiency.  Numerous programs have been cut or restructured in attempts to reduce their cost to the American taxpayer.  Nevertheless, one exorbitantly expensive federal program has remained largely unaltered in recent years, despite the possibility of considerable savings.  This is the federal prison system, already plagued by overcrowding and burdened by increasing demands on its limited capacity.

-infographic: expenditures

The potential savings from the nearly $7 billion spent in federal prisons each year are too promising to ignore.  Reducing overcrowding would free existing government funds and thereby lighten the burden on American taxpayers.  To achieve this, policy makers have only two options at present: undertake the costly expansion or construction of facilities and thereby create the need for a greater number of trained staff members, or begin working to counteract the inflation of prison populations.  In the long term, only the latter of these is truly viable.  A variety of plausible solutions to the problem of overcrowding have been proposed, however, these proposals must be explored sooner rather than later.  The government cannot wait for another economic crisis to focus on frugality, especially in an instance with such broad opportunities for savings.  Acting to cut costs now will continue to aid the recovering economy and ensure economic stability in the future.

The Consequences of Overcrowding

The thought of inmates having to share cells and surrender other comforts because of the swelling populations in federal prisons is of little concern to most Americans.  Few members of the general public worry about the living conditions of the thousands of convicted criminals serving their sentences.  However, overcrowding can have an extensive impact on the operation of a prison, negatively affecting both inmates and staff in a variety of ways.  The inefficiencies that arise from the overcrowding problem amplify its cost to the government and, consequently, the taxpayer.

-infographic (cost of housing inmate vs. average household income)

Although they do serve to protect the public from criminals, U.S. prisons are intended to serve primarily as correctional facilities in the majority of cases, reforming those inmates who will eventually be released and rejoin the public.  For these individuals, maintaining an environment that can foster reform and facilitate their progress is paramount to the correctional aspect of the federal prison system.  Unfortunately, overcrowding often serves to undermine this goal.  In order to hold populations that exceed their capacities, prisons have been forced to sacrifice many of the elements vital to the psychological process of reform that inmates undergo.

The most significant effect of overcrowding on individual inmates is the increased demand on limited resources.  With prison budgets already stretched thin, only the bare minimum is allocated to address rising populations.  This means that the availability of inmate programs, particularly opportunities for rehabilitation and education, is seldom increased to meet the demands of a larger population.  These programs best prepare inmates for life after their release, and limited access has increased the likelihood that former convicts will be without the necessary guidance or skills to avoid returning to lives of crime.  Consequently, the number of repeat offenders has increased, thus perpetuating the overcrowding problem and leading to more costs for the American taxpayer.

Overcrowding can also have more subtle effects on prisoners.  Just as the availability of certain programs is often restricted by population growth, access to other resources is also limited.  Everything from library books to something as simple as space in the facility must be shared between a greater number of individuals; in many cases, this leads to psychological stress and anxiety.  Such stress can have a variety of adverse effects on inmates; the most troubling, however, is the prospect of it leading to agitation and thereby acts of violence.  Prisoners being held in facilities that are beyond their capacities find themselves in much closer proximity to other inmates at all times of the day; this increases the number of possible victims should a violent encounter occur, forcing inmates to be extremely cautious and staff members to be particularly vigilant.  Furthermore, overcrowding requires that many inmates share cells, and an alarming number of prisoners report that they live in fear of their cellmate.  Therefore, they feel threatened not only during meals and recreation among the general population, but also when they should be able to rest in relative safety.  This other face of the stress issue, that experienced by potential victims, is not only equally detrimental to the psychological process of reform, but also poses just as much threat of violence should an inmate act out of desperation or fear.

The many drawbacks of overcrowding for inmates are, of course, only one side of the issue.  The staff members who oversee and run the U.S. federal prisons on a day-to-day basis are also harmed by increasing populations.  The mounting responsibilities of operating beyond capacity seldom come with reinforcements or added compensation; the increased workload is left to the same number of employees earning the same wages.  Unfortunately, this demanding workload also entails a considerable amount of danger.  Increasingly outnumbered prison staffs must continue to maintain order and security using protocols inadequately designed for their current circumstances.  The increased job demands and threats to personal safety can lead to stress and fatigue among prison employees, which greatly increases the chance of a critical mistake being made.

Infographic: staff to prisoner ratio

One can plainly see that the intertwined psychological and physical impacts of prison overcrowding, both on inmates and staff members, are part of a cycle.  Rising stresses contribute to more problems, which in turn fuel stress; all the while their initial source, swelling populations, continues to grow unhindered.  This detrimental cycle cannot be broken under current procedures.  Of the existing options, augmenting facilities and staffs or eliminating the problem of overcrowding, only the latter is both affordable and viable in the long term.

Areas for Improvement

In order to effectively and efficiently address the issue of overcrowding in federal prisons, the source of the problem must be clearly identified.  In reality, there are a number of interrelated factors contributing to the growing populations of inmates throughout the United States.  While it could be argued that inadequate facilities with limited capacities are the issue, expansion of the prison system not only promises to increase both short and long-term costs, but fails to offer any solution to the continued growth of inmate populations.  Therefore, those factors directly contributing to this growth should be examined with priority over the physical limitations of the existing prison system.


Judicial Problems

The problem begins shortly after a felon is convicted, arising at the point of sentencing.  In varying efforts to ensure that the judicial system was impartial and unbiased, strict policies were set regarding the sentencing process.  Unfortunately, many of these policies have had unforeseen and undesired effects that now contribute to overcrowding.  For instance, minimum sentences were set for some criminal acts, leaving judges no leeway regardless of extenuating circumstances.  This means that even those criminals a judge may deem no longer a threat to the community must still serve at least the minimum period of time prescribed to his or her crime, leaving some convicts in prisons much longer than they would be if judges were permitted to exercise their discretion in terms of sentencing.

Similarly, the institution of harsher penalties for certain crimes and the elevation of some crimes to higher felony classes have led to longer sentences for inmates in cases that would have seen them out of the prison system considerably earlier in the past.  Furthermore, the possibility of having a sentence shortened as a reward for good behavior has also been eliminated to a certain extent for many inmates.  Just as some crimes now carry longer sentences under new laws, many also incur a minimum time to be served by the convicted.  This concept was implemented to ensure “truth in sentencing,” but it has cemented the effect of longer sentences on overcrowding by reducing the number of inmates eligible for early release.

The number of former inmates returning to prisons also contributes to unnecessary population growth.  No argument can be made against repeat offenders, particularly those who show flagrant disregard for the law, receiving more severe sentences for successive violations of the law.  Nevertheless, many of those returning to prisons are re-incarcerated as the result of minor infractions.  Just as the penalties for violating certain laws have become more severe in recent decades, so have those for violating parole.  Unfortunately, a slight breach of parole terms is now more likely to send a former inmate back to prison, once again preventing prisons from escaping the problem of overcrowding.

Social Problems

Factors contributing to rising populations in prisons also exist outside of the judicial system.  Several social elements also play a significant, albeit less direct, role in the issue.  It is a sad reality that those facing poverty are more likely to turn to crime.  Recent economic hardships can therefore account for a percentage of prison population growth.  Unfortunately, however, even as the economy shows improvement, a large number of Americans continue to live in poverty, their situations made inescapable by cuts to welfare and aid programs.  Similar cuts to rehabilitation programs also contribute to prison overcrowding, as unavailability of affordable treatment options increases the likelihood of conviction for those suffering from addiction to illegal substances.  Unfortunately, the impoverished are also more likely to use and become dependent on these substances.

Poverty also plays a role in the judicial system, despite efforts to make it less biased.  Defendants without financial means often cannot afford to post bail, and therefore await their trials in prison, unnecessarily contributing to the already overgrown population.  They are also more likely to depend on a court-appointed public defender, many of whom are burdened by massive caseloads and therefore cannot provide thorough and dedicated service to each client.  This makes the likelihood of conviction, and consequently the population of the prison system, increase.

Although the presence of multiple contributing factors, especially some that seem largely insurmountable, may make resolving the overcrowding issue appear to have little chance of success, it provides an advantage for policy makers.  Because many of the roots of overcrowding are independent of one another, they allow for multiple approaches to be taken at the same time without risk of overall failure should one be unsuccessful.  Simultaneously undertaking more than one solution would expedite the resolution process, providing more immediate relief to the overburdened prison system and its staffs.

Potential Solutions

It has been widely accepted that expansion will not resolve the problem of overcrowded prisons in the long run; therefore, a broad range of potential solutions addressing the contributing factors previously discussed have been proposed.  First and foremost, the minimum sentences attached to many crimes should be reduced.  While their implementation has likely led to more uniform sentencing, it has not necessarily ensured more just sentencing.  Judges should be granted more discretion so that sentences can be considered on a case-by-case basis.  Where appropriate, the possibility of early release should also be made available to inmates who exhibit good conduct, regardless of the length of their original sentence.

Efforts should also be made to reduce the number of inmates who return to prison after their release.  While parole violations should not be taken lightly, they should not immediately lead to re-incarceration either.  The parole process should focus on reform and utilize other, more constructive penalties, such as community service, for first-time violators.  Support and rehabilitation programs must also be supported to aid the post-release reformation process.  Finally, the government should focus on reducing the circumstances that lead to crime.  A portion of the money saved from restoring federal prisons to their operating capacities should be allocated for welfare and aid programs or other prevention programs.  Available funds should also be used to augment the existing education programs offered to federal prisoners, decreasing the likelihood that they will commit another offense out of necessity.

These proposals are designed to improve upon existing systems with little or no need for initial investment.  Much can be achieved simply through revision of current practices; savings can then be utilized to further the impact of the reforms already made.  Ultimately, despite the daunting nature of the problem, judicial and related social reforms will lead to reduced prison populations and better allocation of the funds provided by the American taxpayer.

Mar 14


Southeast Asia

Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion (following Christianity and Islam).  However, as the result of foreign influences and other divisions, its practices and beliefs tend to vary slightly between geographic regions or social groups.  The most widely recognized Hindu traditions are often those with the most widely distributed or greatest number of adherents.  A combination of these two factors has likely led to the popularity of the Thaipusam festival celebrated throughout India and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Celebrated by the Tamil (an ancient populace that is now spread primarily across India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka), Thaipusam is often an opportunity to exhibit one’s religious devotion.  The festival celebrates the story of a battle between two groups of deities, the Suras and Asuras.  The former, having suffered multiple defeats, finally entreated the goddess Parvati (recognized as the source of victory for good over evil).  In assistance, she provided Murugan (her son and the god of war) with a powerful javelin so that he could help the Suras defeat their enemies.  The nature of this tradition, which recognizes the benevolence of Parvati, has led Thaipusam to also serve as a time to seek aid from or express gratitude to the gods.

The traditional practice on Thaipusam is to offer something to the gods in return for their aid.  The offerings are known as kavadi, and in their simplest form involve gifts such as pots of milk.  However, the term kavadi implies much more than a gift, it indicates a burden.  Hindus participating in the festival willingly undertake hardships as proof of their devotion.  This may mean the traditional practice of carrying one’s gift for the gods, usually upon the head, to the temple.  However, many choose to exhibit their faith in a more demanding and somewhat gruesome way.


Kavadi often take the form of body piercings, which can become extremely elaborate.  The simplest forms often involve a rod that extends through the tongue, preventing speech as its bearer proceeds to the temple.  The purpose of such piercings is to serve as a constant reminder of the gods, allowing for complete focus on devotion during the religious holiday.  For those seeking a greater challenge, complex structures of piercings are often created, with longer lances serving as symbols of the javelin given to Murugan according to Hindu tradition.  Even the lightest of burdens, however, demands a great deal from worshipers on Thaipusam; the journey to the temple often requires them to carry their kavadi for several kilometers.


An even more difficult journey awaits practitioners in Malaysia, home to an ancient temple at the Batu Caves.  Hindus bearing kavadi trek up to fifteen kilometers before reaching the religious site, where almost three hundred steps stand between them and the entrance to the caves.  Practitioners carry massive pots of milk and other offerings, often supported by the piercings characteristic of Thaipusam, for hours before they are able to present them to be offered at the temple.  The holiday, during which its observers willingly endure pain and suffering, stands as a rare and unique example of devotion.


Mar 14

Removing Russia from the G8

Russian President Vladimir Putin has always been somewhat unpredictable, seldom taking the course that other world leaders would deem only logical.  His recent decision to intervene in Crimea and ultimately annex the region therefore, considering the nature of moves that Putin has made in the past, should have come as no surprise.  Nevertheless, the brazen act was hard to fathom for many leaders who have come to expect their counterparts, however eccentric, to play within the bounds of certain rules.

Although Putin largely ignored early repercussions, including U.S. sanctions against his inner circle growing in number and severity, the annexation of Crimea is beginning to draw more serious diplomatic responses.  The most notable action, taken by the United States and her most powerful allies, was the ejection of Russia from the G8 (now referred to as the G7).

The G8, a group of industrial powers that met regularly to discuss the future of economic issues, does not technically have authority.  It is a subset of the nations that compromise the G20, the more inclusive group that seeks cooperation between nations on economic policies.  Therefore, exclusion from the G8 does not entirely prevent Russia from influencing the matters that it discusses; nevertheless, it will have a significant impact.

Most immediately, removing Russia from the G8 serves as a diplomatic way of protesting Putin’s recent actions.  Although it will not have immediate effects on the Russian economy, ejection from the G8 has importance in its symbolic meaning.  It illustrates that the remaining G7 nations (the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan) condemn the military-aided annexation of Crimea and will not support such a violation of the expectations for international conduct.  Furthermore, it distances Putin from other leaders and suggests (as his actions already have) that he should not be a representative in a group focused on cooperation between countries.

The decision to remove Russia from future meetings also reinforces the recent approach that the Obama administration has been taking to many international issues, emphasizing long-term, diplomatic consequences over threats of immediate action or military intervention.  While the Russian government has downplayed exclusion by the G7, it has undoubtedly lost valuable opportunities to voice its stance on economic issues at a time when the ruble is already suffering.  Losing influence in economic matters will only further complicate the challenges that Russia is currently facing.

The G7 has left Russia’s reentry into the group on the table, although only by stopping short of explicitly denying that possibility.  In reality, Russia will likely remain alienated from many Western powers for the foreseeable future.  Trust has broken down on both sides of the relationship.  The United States and her allies have grown weary of Russia’s unpredictable actions and disregard for diplomacy, while Putin continues to reference past injustices that he feels the West has committed against Russia.

The Russian stance on relations with the West could lead to a significant drawback when it comes to the G7 suspending Russia.  Putin, a former KGB officer, is largely a product of the Cold War; he feels that his country was slighted by the West and, unfortunately, many Russians agree.  The G7 did not become the G8 (by including Russia) until as recently as 1998; although the Cold War had ended and the Soviet Union had become the Russian Federation, it was excluded from G7 negotiations for a number of years.  This is one of many Western actions that Russians have viewed as an insult, and the re-formation of the G7 reminds many of their anger over such issues.

In this way, Russia’s exclusion could stir feelings of nationalism and bitterness toward the West, helping to justify the the annexation of Crimea (which was separated from Russia when the Soviet Union was dissolved).  Nevertheless, American focus must remain on the long term.  Despite its possible downside, the diplomatic action taken against Russia remains highly preferable to a military response; it will simply require more time to be effective.  Eventually, Russia will recognize its need (particularly economically) to work with other nations.  The resentment that has recently boiled over will be overcome by necessity and present the opportunity for new, diplomatic relations to be formed.  Ultimately, the time required for exclusion from the G8 and other sanctions to take effect will be worthwhile, resulting in stronger and more stable relations with Russia in the future.


Acosta, Jim, and Victoria Eastwood. “U.S., Other Powers Kick Russia out of G8.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/24/politics/obama-europe-trip/>.

Mar 14

Festa de São João

Porto, Portugal

In many nations, culture and religion are closely linked.  Faith is so heavily intertwined with the history of some regions that it has become inseparable from their customs and celebrations.  This is especially common throughout Europe, where Catholicism has become a defining characteristic of many populations.

While some festivals originated from religious practices, many celebrations that were not religious in nature were adapted for the purposes of the Catholic church.  Popular customs were often linked to feast days celebrating the lives of saints and martyrs; this allowed for regional customs to continue unchanged while encouraging recognition of church holidays.  Spiritual leaders hoped that what were previously just annual parties would become religious events with a higher purpose and refined nature.  Although this was the case with many festivals, some remained largely unaltered despite being given a Catholic name.

The Portuguese city of Porto is home to a six-hundred year old street festival.  Festa de São João do Porto was named for Saint John in the 1800s, making it an official, citywide holiday.  Nevertheless, the traditions that predated the festival’s receipt of a new name continued to be practiced with little acknowledgement of their Catholic reinvention.  In fact, many of the city’s favorite practices related to the festival are of pagan rather than Christian origins.

The most notable custom of the day named for Saint John involves hitting others with hammers (made of soft materials to prevent injury) or soft plant stems such as leeks.  Ironically, striking another in this manner is a sign of affection or desire in Porto.  The tradition, which has no link to the holiday’s Catholic namesake, is believed to have descended from pagan customs.


Religious practices that are common to many celebrations of church holidays in Europe are still found in Porto during the festival.  Services are held and followed by traditional processions and parades, and religious icons are often erected outside of homes.  However, the dominant practices and largest attractions of Festa de São João remain secular.  The festival appears to be more of an annual party that happens to fall on Saint John’s feast day than an orchestrated day of devotion or prayer.

Indeed, little of the day seems to be truly planned.  Much of the celebration, although following the precedent of years past, is spontaneous and unscheduled.  Festivities begin in the afternoon of June 23, falling near the summer solstice as another result of early pagan influence.  Revelers take to the streets wielding plastic hammers; vendors set up stalls selling food and wine; a variety of performers entertain the crowds from makeshift stages across the city.  As evening falls, the crowds shift toward the district of Porto known for having the best bars and restaurants, enjoying more food and plentiful wine.  In keeping with the impromptu nature of the festival, firework displays occasionally light up the sky until the grand show takes place at midnight.


While some return home after the fireworks, the majority of Porto continues its party into the following morning.  Many make their way to the nearby beach, building bonfires and swimming in the sea until the sun rises.  Festa de São João has become one of Portugal’s most vibrant celebrations, but its mixed roots make it unique.  It is a celebration of nothing in particular, its nature to be determined by each participant.

Mar 14



Although the Gregorian calendar was widely adopted as the international standard to avoid confusion and eliminate the need for conversion, many cultural festivities still coincide with traditional seasons and astrological signs.  This is especially common with New Year’s celebrations; although the majority of nations formally recognize the beginning of a calendar year on the first of January, many rituals recognizing the new year follow older customs and therefore correspond with other Gregorian dates.

Such is the case with Songkran, the nation-wide New Year’s celebration of Thailand.  Because Thailand did not officially recognize January 1 as the first of the year until 1940, traditional celebrations (originally based on the position of the sun) still take precedence.  Now celebrated between the thirteenth and fifteenth of April, the Songkran festival is a unique tradition particularly because of when it is held.

Mid-April falls at the hottest time of year in Southeast Asia.  Consequently, Songkran typically arrives at the end of Thailand’s dry season and marks the highest temperatures of the year.  As a result, the festival has essentially become a large-scale water fight, with complete strangers dousing one another in the streets.  Most residents, who are given time off from work, and visitors spend the holiday carrying a bucket or a water gun, seizing any opportunity to soak passersby.


While throwing water serves as a friendly, and cooling, gesture in modern celebrations of Songkran, its association with the celebration holds more traditional roots.  In preparation for the new year, it is customary to thoroughly clean one’s home and property.  Public temples and statues of Buddha are also cleaned during Songkran, and an early tradition involved catching water that had been used to clean these religious monuments, then gently pouring it over elders as a sign of respect and blessing.  Younger generations began taking liberties with this practice, until throwing water became the hallmark of Songkran.  Similarly, wet chalk used by monks to write temporary blessings at religious sites is now smeared over strangers in the streets.


Although traditional practices remain, today’s celebrations of Songkran are much better known for revelry than religion.  Temple-goers are far outnumbered by those flocking to the streets and bars.  Beauty and talent pageants have become more popular attractions than statues of Buddha.  Nevertheless, important aspects of Songkran have been preserved.  Many people take the holiday to return to their hometowns, reuniting with family and friends to celebrate the coming year.  Reverence for elders is still highly valued.  Water can still be seen as a sign of cleansing and purification.  And most importantly, the holiday promotes solidarity, bringing complete strangers together in celebration.


This unity extends beyond Thailand, as several other nations in Southeast Asia celebrate Songkran as well (although each has its own name for the holiday).  Water festivals take place in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and parts of China and India.  Of course specific traditions and practices vary between nations, but the basic purpose and spirit of Songkran remain unchanged across borders.  Like any celebration of the new year, it is a time of jubilation and hope for the future.

Mar 14

Speaking Softly

In the complex world of diplomacy, governments are almost constantly switching between the use of incentives and threats as they try to gain foreign cooperation.  The United States, as an influential global power, has a stake in a broad range of interrelated issues and therefore must play this game extremely carefully.  Unfortunately, as of late, the U.S. approach to many issues has come under criticism from the American media and public.

Syria has presented an especially difficult situation.  When the Obama administration assured the Assad regime that use of chemical weapons in its ongoing conflict would result in harsh consequences, many assumed that the United States was threatening to intervene militarily.  However, such action would almost entirely undermine the administration’s recent efforts to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East.  Entering a new conflict just as American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have shifted to playing a support role would ensure more years of entanglement.

Therefore, when the Syrian government did launch a chemical attack, the administration chose to resolve the issue diplomatically.  Arrangements were made for the entirety of Syria’s chemical weapon stores to be transported from the country and destroyed.  While this move was likely more practical than a military response, which could not have ensured that chemical weapons would not fall into the wrong hands, many viewed it as taking a weak stance.  Delayed deadlines and other problems in exporting the weapons for destruction drew greater criticism.  The administration, however, stood by its decision.  Now, roughly one third of Syria’s chemical weapons have left the country and the rate of exportation has actually increased.

The issue of chemical weapons in Syria illustrated the effectiveness of a diplomatic approach.  Conflict was avoided and, ultimately, a more favorable outcome was the result.  Nevertheless, critics remain.  Many Americans either prefer or are simply used to the past use of direct intervention by the United States.  Making concessions often raises fears that America will appear to be weaker than in the past, trying to appease other nations out of necessity.  However, the reality is that America can act diplomatically because of its clout.

Theodore Roosevelt’s view on foreign policy is often quoted: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”  This is exactly what the Obama administration has been doing.  America’s capabilities, military or otherwise, are well-known.  There is no need to resort to threats in order to assert dominance; most nations recognize that the military option, last resort or not, is always on the table.  Therefore, it is often more advantageous for U.S. officials to take a less threatening approach.  It prevents formation of the idea that the United States is forcing foreign powers to take certain paths and often makes other governments more receptive or willing to bargain without the U.S. having to give up anything.

This tactic was also evident during recent events in Ukraine.  As protests raged throughout the country, the U.S. refrained from direct involvement, moving to support the Ukrainian opposition indirectly through economic options.  This diplomatic approach prevented supporters of the Ukrainian government, specifically Russia, from having evidence to back their claims that Americans were interfering in Ukraine.  It also avoided the concern that always arises when considering military support for revolutionaries: weapons falling into the hands of extremists.

The diplomatic approach continued to work successfully after the protesters took control of their government.  When Russian forces moved into the Crimean region of Ukraine and asserted control over military bases, the U.S. again refrained from military involvement.  Instead, it threatened to levy sanctions against and freeze the assets of Russian officials responsible for the troop movements.  Furthermore, the Obama administration warned of the economic and trade consequences of such action, and made efforts to build European support.

Again, diplomacy was more successful than a military response would have been.  With the Russian currency suffering and the promise of more economic consequences, Russia began allowing Ukrainian military forces to return to their posts and loosening its grip in the Crimean region.  Although this situation is far from being entirely resolved, the events that have already transpired further support the American administration’s recent approach to such issues.

While military responses will undoubtedly be a necessity in the future, the recent efforts to avoid entering a conflict have proven a beneficial tactic.  The use of force should remain a last resort; in most cases, it is entirely effective as a deterrent alone.  Taking the political approach, although sometimes less popular, is ultimately the lowest risk way of pursuing American interests.


Baker, Peter. “Top Russians Face Sanctions by U.S. for Crimea Crisis.” The New York Times 4 Mar. 2014: A1+. Print.
Cumming-Bruce, Nick. “Syria Speeds Its Deliveries of Chemicals for Disposal.” The New York Times 5 Mar. 2014: A4. Print.
Gordon, Michael R. “Kerry Takes Offer of Aid to Ukraine and Pushes Back at Russian Claims.” The New York Times 5 Mar. 2014: A6. Print.

Mar 14

White Nights and Scarlet Sails

St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg, once the capital of Russia, was founded in the eighteenth century with the purpose of bridging the gap between the modern and rapidly evolving European nations to its west and the traditional culture of Russia that prevailed to its east.  Although no longer the capital, St. Petersburg still serves as a link between the modern and the traditional.  In an annual festival held between May and June, the city hosts stars renowned for both classical arts and popular music.

Known as The White Nights Festival, the roughly month-long event is a highly orchestrated arts festival of monumental proportions.  It is especially popular for its classical performances, including world-renowned orchestras, opera, and ballet.  Shows are put on twice each day for the duration of the festival, offering attendees a unique opportunity to see a variety of famous works and performers.


While classical arts are on display at the Mariinsky Theatre or Concert Hall, their modern counterparts are hosted in the city’s Palace Square.  This historic site, adjacent to buildings that once housed Russia’s leaders, is converted into an open-air venue for the White Nights Festival.  Popular artists from around the world are invited to perform, and previous festivals have hosted performers of a variety of styles and genres, ranging from Paul McCartney to Shakira.  The Palace Square Stage is another symbol of the two artistic worlds that the White Nights bring together, placing modern artists alongside the Alexander Column, a monument commemorating a very different period of Russia’s past.


The White Nights also include a number of less formal but equally popular events.  As the festivities grew, various districts throughout St. Petersburg began hosting their own carnivals.  In addition to general attractions and celebrations, many districts also emphasize the city’s history, specifically the period of the tsars that utilized St. Petersburg as their capital.  Actors in costume perform both traditional reenactments and artistic interpretations of historical events; similar events also take place on the Palace Square Stage between other events.  Amid the heavy traffic that the White Nights bring are horse-drawn carriages in the eighteenth-century style.  As the city recognizes and celebrates the best of modern artistry, it also gives visitors the opportunity to appreciate its culture and history.

Even after the White Nights Festival begins to wrap up for the year, events continue being held and performances are still given.  The festival season is not strictly defined; nevertheless, most consider it to end with one of the city’s favorite traditions: Scarlet Sails.  The practice evolved from a love story by Russian author Alexander Grin, which bears the same title as the now annual event that it inspired.  The Scarlet Sails have coincided with the end of the school year since the end of the Second World War, and have become a trademark of the White Nights.


The tradition involves ships equipped with vibrant scarlet sails navigating along St. Petersburg’s main waterways.  The display is accompanied by complex fireworks and pyrotechnics as well as the orchestral music and opera that draw many of the White Nights visitors.  It is yet another example of the city’s continuing role as a link between modernity and tradition.

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