30
Jan 14

Syria: Choosing a Side

The Syrian Revolution has been making headlines since 2011, growing increasingly complex and unstable as the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies wage war against a variety of rebel groups, including some linked to terrorist organizations.  Wary of being drawn into another conflict in the Middle East, the U.S. administration has offered selective support to rebels free from the influence of extremists while working toward a diplomatic solution with the Assad government.  However, with international peace talks finally under way, this policy of technical neutrality has changed.

Congress recently made American aid to Syrian rebels official.  Although this means relatively little on the ground considering that the United States has been providing the rebels some form of aid, beginning with monetary support and growing to shipments of small arms, for many months now.  However, it is a decision with significant diplomatic meaning, one that has already upset Assad and his compatriots.

Much as Congress had not technically acknowledged U.S. aid to Syrian freedom fighters before this week, the Assad regime has avoided recognizing its opponents as rebels.  Although Syria is clearly in the midst of a revolution, its leaders maintain that their opponents are terrorists, fighting against the will of the nation rather than for it.  The recognition of and commitment to continued assistance for the rebels is, therefore, about much more than providing weapons.  Congress has, in essence, recognized the legitimacy of the rebels.

Although Russia has been openly supporting the Assad regime, providing money, weapons, and political assistance, the Syrian government views this as an entirely different arrangement.  From their perspective, it is an allegiance between two governments like any other.  By aligning the United States with Syrian rebels, Congress took official action that symbolically elevates the rebellion, showing that it carries the same status as an official government.  This broadens the divide between the United States, which is working to establish a transitional government that would bring an end to Assad’s rule, and the Syrian leadership that refuses to acknowledge that it is truly at war.

Despite the potential for diplomatic backlash, this is a step that the United States needed to take and timed extremely well.  First and foremost, it makes the American position on Syria inescapably clear.  As delegates for the Syrian government attending the current peace talks remain unwilling to budge, the U.S. has responded by digging into its position as well.  Congress has demonstrated that the establishment of a transitional government (which is supposed to be the entire purpose of the talks) is not up for debate.

The act could potentially lead Syria to reconsider its current position on aid as well.  Assad is fighting a war of attrition against his own people; unable to escape from blockaded cities, many innocent civilians are now suffering from malnutrition and related ailments.  Nevertheless, Assad’s representatives have repeatedly denied the United Nations’ request that humanitarian aid be allowed to reach the suffering.  The American decision is a way around the government’s obstinance; if it will deny its people basic necessities, the U.S. will provide that and then some.

Hopefully, the Syrian government will attempt to bargain, finally allowing humanitarian aid missions in exchange for a limit on military assistance to the opposition.  But even if they reject the chance to act diplomatically, aid will still be delivered to the rebels.  The U.S. stance falls short of backing Syrian leaders into a corner, but it will get the job done either politically or practically.

Furthermore, political backlash may not be the worst outcome.  Assad’s delegates have refused to compromise or even discuss the most pressing issues on the table at the peace conference.  Their counterparts representing the revolutionaries, however, have demonstrated much more professional and diplomatic behavior.  It is an ironic and slightly unexpected situation, but it has lent credibility to the rebellion.  Should the representatives from the Syrian government become outraged or begin making accusations, shifting the talks further from the topic of a transitional government, it will only further hurt their case.

The situation in Syria and the conference currently in session are highly intricate in terms of politics, with a large number of stakeholders contributing to their progress.  It is impossible to accurately speculate about the impact of any decision, but from almost any angle it is largely certain that official recognition of U.S. aid to the rebellion will only serve to strengthen the American position.


30
Jan 14

Lantern Festivals

Across many regions and cultures, light holds a symbolic meaning, often serving as an image of life or hope.  As a result, it holds a significant place in a large number and variety of global traditions.  This is the case in many regions of Asia, where certain celebrations and commemorations are accompanied by the soft glow of paper lanterns and the sudden eruption of fireworks.

Taiwan

Lanterns and pyrotechnics are the main attractions of an annual Taiwanese celebration that is orchestrated between two districts, Pingxi and Yanshui.  Although the festival originated from ancient traditions, it was only made official at the end of the twentieth century.  Fortunately, however, this allowed for the Taiwanese people and their government to pool resources for the event, resulting in more ambitious projects and spectacular displays.

In Pingxi, elaborate lanterns up to ten feet tall are displayed throughout the streets.  Lanterns originally served a practical purpose, signalling that the town was secure.  Today, many are used to represent figures from popular culture as well as ancient folklore.  The most prominent lanterns often represent astrological signs, as the festival corresponds to the end of the lunar year on the Chinese calendar.

[http://www.travelvivi.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Pingxi-Lantern-Festival.jpg]

Pingxi is also filled with innumerable handheld lanterns during the festival, carried by residents and tourists who inscribe their wishes on them.  These are released in large number to be carried into the sky, further contributing to the spectacle.

[http://indulgy.net/h5/LE/i8/17170042298837456H6kWVEytc.jpg]

In contrast to the peaceful scene in Pingxi, the Yanshui district recognizes the ending of a lunar year with a relatively unreserved tradition.  A pyre of fireworks is lit at the start of the evening and burns for hours (long into the following morning), creating a spectacular show.  The practice stems from similar displays, often put on outside of temples, that were meant to protect the district from evil.  Like the lanterns in Pingxi, the fireworks display in Yanshui not only draws visitors, but preserves important aspects of Taiwanese folklore and culture.

taiwan travel tainan yanshui beehive firewokrs festival

[http://www.mandarintaiwan.com/]

Japan

Another well-known lantern festival is observed annually (although at varying times in different regions) by the people of Japan.  Known as the Bon or Obon festival, it is a both a somber and joyful time as the Japanese honor their deceased relatives and spend time with their living families.

Bon, which has been practiced for hundreds of years, was named after a monk whose legend inspired the tradition.  The story holds that, with Buddha’s aid, the monk was able to bring peace and comfort to his mother’s spirit in the afterlife.  He also realized the full extent of her love and sacrifice for him, and came to appreciate her even more.  Following his example, the Bon festival typically revolves around the well-being of lost ancestors.  Families reunite and spend time cleaning the graves of the deceased, praying for their spirits, and generally honoring their lives.

[http://sociorocketnewsen.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/021.jpg?w=580&h=387]

Communal activities also take place throughout the festival.  Most notable is the Bon dance, a traditional performance meant to welcome and celebrate spirits of the dead.  The festival concludes with paper lanterns, representing the visiting spirits that are to depart once more.  Families place the lanterns on the river to be carried away, symbolizing the peaceful return to the afterlife that they wish their ancestors.  Bon serves to preserve tradition and recognize the contributions of the deceased while bringing families and communities together.  Fireworks and other celebrations often follow the conclusion of this socially important practice.

[http://www.1440blog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/obon-festival-japan.jpg]

Many similar festivals take place throughout Asia at different parts of the year, each keeping history alive in its own way and promoting solidarity.  Furthermore, the practices have been carried across the globe by immigrants and expatriates, giving new life to age-old traditions.


22
Jan 14

Final Topics (Passion and Civic Issues Blogs)

I have decided to continue using my Passion Blog topic from the Fall semester: Cultures and Customs.  It gives me the opportunity to delve into some lesser-known traditions from around the world, and I have a hard time thinking of anything else that would keep my interest for another ten weeks.

For the Civic Issues Blog I will be examining U.S. Foreign Policy and Diplomacy.  Recently, there seem to be a lot of issues related to how problems being are handled, many of which are interrelated.  The Syrian Peace Conference being held in Switzerland, for instance, has fueled long-standing conflicts between several Western nations and Iran.  I hope to gain more insight into how complex issues are intertwined and the intricacies of modern-day diplomacy.


22
Jan 14

This I Believe Draft

As children, many of us feared the dark.  We feared what was unknown, what might be waiting just beyond the limits of our vision, and we feared the isolation that darkness often brought.  We grow out of this fear of the dark, of course, but perhaps not our fear of the unknown.

Our generation is constantly occupied.  At first only a side-effect, it has grown into a crippling condition.  Technology made us faster, more productive versions of ourselves, but we have become excessively dependent on it.  Now, even when we have accomplished all that we must, we feel the need to be engaged by some other task.  We find any possible means to fill what little downtime we have, drowning out the silence with speakers and earbuds.  We have become so unaccustomed to quiet and calm that we now fear it as we once did the dark; we fear the unknown horrors that it might hold.

But I believe that quiet is a necessity, one that should be cherished rather than endured.  Just as the dark lends itself to rest and recovery after the long light of day, quiet is what allows us to process, analyze, and ultimately understand all of the noise.  Each day, we are bombarded by an exorbitant number of stimuli, all screaming for our attention.  If we never allow ourselves a moment without having to take in new information, it becomes impossible to reflect on anything that we have taken in.  Without quiet, a wealth of knowledge simply remains an incomprehensible mess, and is ultimately forgotten.

This notion may seem abstract, it may even seem to defy convention, but it is supported by the law of diminishing returns.  It has been proven that for each additional unit of time spent studying a given topic, successful learning begins to decrease.  At a certain point, new information is no longer the answer to understanding something.  Only contemplating what has already been learned can lead to pronounced increases in comprehension; for this, quiet is paramount.

And just as quiet nurtures new understanding, it also brings forth new ideas.  Consider Sir Isaac Newton, the infamous Englishman who first developed the concept of gravity.  He worked tirelessly on numerous experiments to support his hypothesis.  Nevertheless, Newton became aware of gravitation as he was simply strolling through an orchard, his mind unoccupied and undisturbed.

We often have similar, albeit less profound, experiences.  Most of what I’m including in this podcast was thought of in the shower, or while walking between classes.  Obviously sitting in silence is not the solution to every problem, and it would be far from productive, but we could all benefit from making the effort to free ourselves from distractions, whether it be by setting time aside to clear our minds or simply leaving our headphones at home once in awhile.  It may seem inconvenient, but quiet can be unexpectedly powerful, and should not be underestimated.


16
Jan 14

Second Semester Concepts

For my “This I Believe” Podcast, I am considering writing/speaking about the importance of quiet.  Our present society seems so enamored with distractions (made constantly available by technology) that we seldom take time to unplug; however, in an increasingly busy world we need undisturbed time for clear thought more than ever.  Similarly, I have considered discussing the necessity of focus.  Studies have shown that multitasking is essentially an impossible feat, yet we continue to try juggling an ever-larger number of tasks.

In regards to my Passion Blog, I intend to continue writing on the topic that I used last semester.  Learning about unique customs from around the world was an interesting process, and although I have tried to come up with another subject, I cannot think of any that I would be able to easily sustain for ten weeks.

There are a lot of possibilities for the Civic Issues Blog, and it will obviously depend on the category that I am assigned.  However, I am particularly interested in foreign policy and issues of diplomacy, especially as many situations abroad (Iran’s nuclear program, the pending security agreement with Afghanistan, etc.) grow increasingly delicate.  Environmental issues are also very interesting, especially domestically.  From the BP oil spill to the more recent Freedom Industries water contamination, the balance between industry and environmental safety has become a large concern for the majority of Americans.

 


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